I Am

I am currently involved in the Institue of Preaching, which is given through Duke Divinity School.  If you are in the Western North Carolina or Flordia Conference of the United Methodist Church, I highly recommend this program.  It is eye opening and has raised my quality of preaching.

During our last session, we were asked to think about where we have come from.  We looked at a poem, “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.  We took almost an hour to look deeply at our past and contemplate where we have come from.  We were then asked to write our own, “Where I’m From” poems.  Our pasts construct our current selves and I find great power, confidence, and the fingerprints of God’s grace when I look back at how far I have come.

I am the sweat-soaked middle-schooler
the garbler of Shakespeare
creator of giggles with my stumbles

I am fear, deep fear
a concrete tongue weighing heavy
in a shriveled mouthpiece

I am the shouter, “Bad spellers untie!”
my hand is stacked heavy and high
the call is buried, in the darkness, deep
but the coals are still red.

I am the product of Paul
Peter formed and Bruce forged
a story penned in pulpits
handprints left in Glencoe, Laboratory, and the Rougemont Charge

I am prayed over in the crypt
thriver of musty sanctuaries and dam exercises
the receiver of gracious, wrinkled smiles

I am a child, bowing before the Father
giving in, succumbing, tired of the fight
willing, finally, to go because of the one who sends.

I am a sweat, soaked preacher
bestower of laser beans of grace at the perfect 45 degrees
striving, always striving, towards transparency

I am a preacher
I am a preacher
an alien phrase to a 9th-grade mind

I am here, behind the pulpit
not for me but because I am called.

10 Inner Thoughts while Preaching

I am not sure about you but when I preach there are two things that are happening at once.  I am concentrating the physical act of speaking in front of people and trying to make sense but then there is the inner dialogue that is happening too.  I usually have a conversation with myself in my own brain while I am preaching.

I know I am not alone…at least I pray I’m not.  I feel confident that I am not.  Moving on.

I decided to make list of the ten common thoughts that go on in my head while preaching…please feel free to add your own in the comments.

  1. I hope they are looking at the Bible on their phones.
  2. Did I pronounce that right…oh well, just go with it and move on.
  3. Where was I?
  4. Am I saying “um” too much?
  5. Is it hot/cold in here?
  6. ________ is sleeping again.
  7. Is anyone hearing what I am saying?
  8. ________ is giving me good energy and eye sight, THANK YOU!
  9. We are going to run over…where can I trim a little on the fly?
  10. Was that the Holy Spirit talking right there?

Don’t Be Afraid…Christmas Eve Sermon

Don’t Be Afraid – Luke 2:1-14 – A Christmas Eve Sermon

It is here. It is right now. I can’t stand it. I have waited and worked and waited and finally it is here. It is Christmas Eve and this is one of my favorite times to preach. I love preaching Easter morning too…but tonight I love just as well. There is something so special and yet so simple about tonight that makes it so easy to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to people.

At the 4:30pm service at the Stable I told people they needed to simply let the world go away for a moment and simply be present here in this moment. I ask you all to do the same. We have already read the Christmas story out of Luke and heard the wonder prose of John about the Word making his home among us. What excites me so much about this service is how tangible God is in this moment. There is something about candlelight and the soft singing of Silent Night that makes my heart leap out of my chest and proclaim that God has come to earth.

We need this message as we wrap up another calendar year. 2015 has been hard. I have had to lift up prayers for too many people who have been killed in violent acts. My mind had to wrap around the fact that a gunman walked into a church in Charleston and killed 9. Another walked into two military recruiting center and shot 8 people, 5 of who died. In October we were witness to another person who walked on to a community college campus and killed 9 and injured another 9. 3 more people died and 9 others were injured in Colorado and a Planned Parenthood clinic while 14 died and 21 were injured this month while at work at a holiday party.  There was another shooting today, Christmas Eve, at Northlake Mall in North Charlotte.

All of these shootings made us feel unsafe because were is there safety? These shootings happened at church, at school, surrounded by military, at the doctors and at work. Many of us have looked at this year and we don’t know what to feel and where we can feel safe any more.

These were human atrocities but mother nature punched a wallop this year too. There was the earthquake in Nepal, which killed 2,100. An avalanche on Mt. Everest took the lives of 19. There was horrible flooding which killed many in Texas, Oklahoma and our brothers and sisters in South Carolina. This was a horrible year for wild fires in the west where drought has been ravaging that area for a long time. Then there was the super typhoon that struck the Pacific causing major landslides and brought in 50 inches of rain.

You have all these events and you add the acts of terror that have happened here in California and around the world many people simply want to run and hide. But where do we go? If we turn on the television we have presidential candidates who tell us we should be running scared. They tell the world is falling down around us and what we need most is their leadership. We see images on news feeds of these disasters and we run to see disaster movies like Andres because movies of horrible disasters on the big screen distract us from the real-life ones on the little screens at home.

We are told we are to live in a constant state of fear and we shouldn’t trust our neighbors or those seeking refuge because we don’t know who will want to kill us. We are pushed to retreat to hang around only those who we agree with or see the world as we do. We look for someone to blame and for scapegoats in order to feel better. We surround ourselves with things that make us feel more powerful and secure but are only tools of human.

All of this is happening out there, out there in the world and yet here we are, on Christmas Eve in this place. We are here away from the wet and odd weather outside in this dry and sacred space to celebrate the arrival of God’s son. But what does it all really mean when there is so much out there that tells us otherwise?

A common tradition during this time of year is for many families to gather around the television and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. It is a wonderful special and I remember watching it with my sisters and parents every year. If you don’t remember the plot to this story, here is a good summary. Charlie Brown complains about the overwhelming materialism of this season and Lucy suggest that to recover the Christmas spirit he directs the Christmas play. Charlie Brown agrees and to help restore the proper spirit he brings an ugly and useless tree as decoration. It takes Linus to help everyone learn about the real reason we celebrate Christmas.

I love Linus’ speech at the end of this show and it warms my heart every time I see it. If you don’t remember Linus he is the one who carries the blue blanket everywhere. People try to get him to stop carrying this safety blanket around but they can’t seem to pry it out of his hands. There is actually a scene where Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog, tries to rip it out of Linus’ hand while they are ice skating. This turns into a massive disaster as Linus never lets go no matter how many other kids they pick up in the process.

When we think of Linus we think of that blanket and we recognize other people who carry around the same safety blankets in our lives. I had a Donald Duck I loved so much it almost fell apart. We cling to physical things but then we also cling to other safety blankets too. We cling to our pain and grief because it is what defines us. We cling to our fear because it makes us warm and fuzzy. This is all a shell we put up around ourselves because we are too scared of the reality if we actually let those safety blankets go.

Jason Soroski is a writer and musician and he wrote an interesting article that spoke to me this season. I knew where I wanted to go with this sermon tonight but Soroski’s article hit the nail on the head.  He points out something special about Linus and the end of this Christmas special. I am going to show you the clip and you see if you can spot it.

Did you see it? Did you see what happens. Linus drops his blanket. In the middle of him quoting the Christmas story from Luke, he drops his blanket. What is even more telling is that he drops it on a certain phrase. Watch it again because I know some of you don’t believe me.

Linus lets go of his blanket when he says, “And the angel of the Lord said to them, “Fear not.” In the movie there is a slight pause, Linus drops his blanket and then continues. This movie has been around for 50 years and I have seen it probably over a dozen times. I have never noticed this until this article pointed it out and there is no way that this was an accident. Shultz, the creator of the Peanuts, is a genius.

Now you might have noticed that he does pick up the blanket after he is done. And this is true for us. When we realize who God is and what his Son has done for us we drop the blanket but then life continues to happen and we pick it up again. But if you watch the rest of the show, as they rehab Charlie Brown’s messily little tree, Linus wraps his blanket around the tree to show it a little bit of love. In the dramatic ending, his friends all gather around say Charlie Brown was right, it was a nice tree. Then they sing Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Tonight, we gather around here today, with everything happening out there, today we get a true picture of reality. The reality we claim tonight is that Christ is born. Jesus Christ, God’s son, came to the world in order for us to be in God’s presence again. He humbled himself by putting on flesh and dwelling with us. He came to this world so we could understand and see what God’s love truly looks like.

So let us heed the message of the Christmas angel, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger….Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors.”

This is the first Christmas message and my prayer for you tonight is that you will feel this in your heart. May this message of hope, peace, joy and love be found in your heart because God put on flesh because he loves you. He humbled himself because he wants you to have the gift of salvation that is found in his Son, the one in the manger.

With a savior who is willing to come to this world as a helpless newborn in the middle of animals in a stable what do we have to truly fear? With a savior who goes from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross and bears our sins upon himself…what do we have to fear? With a love of God that tells us we are forgiven people and a God who defeats death for our sake…what do we have to fear?

The angel’s message is true. We have nothing to fear because we are loved by God who is willing to send his son to this world for our sake. The God who created the universe put on humanity’s limitations in order for us to have salvation. This God is always with us…even now…through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. With God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in our hearts and here in this place tonight…we don’t have anything to be fearful of.

May you feel this hope, peace, joy and love tonight and always…and all God’s people said…Amen.

Looking at Sin in the Mirror – A Sermon on Racism

2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Looking at Sin in the Mirror
06-28-15
My heart broke, my soul cried, my mouth fell open when I heard that 9 people were shot, in a church, during a Bible Study in Charleston, SC.  I was sitting in the living room when of the house we rented for Annual Conference when Alycia got notified on her phone that there was a shooting in Charleston and 9 people died.  I remember saying, “That is horrible,” but then I continued doing what I was doing.
This is going to be a very honest sermon and it is a tough sermon but it is needed.  I need to preach it and I feel people, you, need to hear it.  I continued to do what I was doing because it is all too common these days.  My first December as the minister here was marked by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  In the two years since there have been over 100 school shootings.  That is one shooting a week at either K-12 schools or higher education. We are surrounded by violence.  We are surrounded by hate and we don’t take notice anymore.
When Alycia shared with me that 9 people were shot in Charleston my heart took a millisecond to grieve but then I moved on, like I always do.  I have a feeling I was not alone in that moment.  However, then I learned more about it on Thursday.  I learned that a white 21-year-old, Dylann Roof, sat in on a Wednesday Night Bible Study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  There were 13 people at this Bible study, including the shooter.  During the Bible Study he started to disagree when they started discussing Scripture.  He soon took out a gun and when asked why he was attacking churchgoers, he said, “I have to do it.” 
He yelled racist statements the whole time as he shot 9 people and left only one person alive to tell the story.  Two others survived by playing dead.   All over the news we heard about the search for the suspect and we know his name, Dylann Roof, who stopped at an ATM in Charlotte and then was arrested in Shelby.  We know the shooter but do we know the victims?
I wanted read the names of those 9 who came to Church to learn more about God that day but then found themselves face to face with our Lord. 
·      Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) – she was a manager for the Charleston County Public Library System
·      Susie Jackson (87) – she was a devote church and choir member
·      Ethel Lee Lance (70) – the church custodian
·      Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) – a pastor who was also employed as a school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.
·      Clementa C. Pinckney (41) – church pastor and South Carolina State senator.  He was also getting his decorate at Wesley Theological Seminary.
·      Tywanza Sanders (26) – he was the nephew of Susie Jackson and when it was obvious that the shooting was going to start he dove in front of her.
·      Daniel Simmons (74) – a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church
·      Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) – a pastor, speech therapist and track coach
·      Myra Thompson (59) – Bible Study teacher
All of this came out as I sat in on the Plenary Sessions at Annual Conference.  We prayed and the bishop sent a letter on behalf of our conference to the AME’s bishop in that area.  Later the Bishops of the South Eastern Jurisdiction crafted a statement.  They said, “The College of Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church stands with our Methodist family at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, with our brother Bishop Richard Franklin Morris of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and with our colleague Bishop Jonathan Holston, of the South Carolina Conference.  We condemn this act of violence in the house of the Lord. We commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred. And we lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.  Please join us in acts of prayer, compassion and justice on behalf of our Pan-Methodist sisters and brothers.”
I know many pastor left Annual Conference early to return to preach to their congregation last Sunday and to speak about this tragic event.  I wrestled with that idea but I knew the work that Connie and Leslie put into their preparation.  I also knew the rarity of being able to worship with my family and have my kids next to me.  I also knew I didn’t have the words yet and I needed to worship first.
God laid a grip on my heart and I wrestled with what to preach today.  Should I stick with the lectionary or forget it and preach about what weighed heavy on my soul.  My soul won out.  The Holy Spirit, which has not let me rest yet, won out.  Today I feel we need to have a conversation about reconciling ourselves to God and to each other.  Today we need to follow the Bishops’ advice and commit our own work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred.  Today we need to “lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.”
If we look at the text in 2 Corinthians we see that the process of reconciliation is to understand that as we become followers of Jesus and let the love of Christ control us we will change.  We will no longer stay the same.  We will move beyond ourselves and into the likeness of Christ.  Original sin, Adam and Eve disobeying God, happened because humanity wanted to be like God.  In Jesus Christ, God shows us what it is like and how to become like God and now we aren’t interested anymore.  Yet, if I am to be a follower of Jesus then I have to give into the change God’s love and grace does for me and in me.  I have to change my ways because I am no longer the same.  This thought consumed me as I read articles and blog posts, while I listened to sermons and read scripture.  As I learned about the hate, the evil and the sin that occurred in Emmanuel AME Church, I knew that Christ’s love and grace is the answer…but how do we get there.
I can’t stand up here and call others out.  I cannot jump on the bandwagon to bash other people.  The only thing I can do today is to make a confession.  I confess that I thought we as a culture and me personally had moved past racism.  I saw what I thought were remnants of it in conversations I would have with people or the way others talked.  I chalked it up to an older generation or an outdated way of thinking.  I was born in Detroit, MI back when whites were only the slight majority at 55%.  Sure, when I moved to Charlotte in 3rdgrade the majority of my classmates in Elementary school were white but that was because we lived on the outskirts of town.  When I went to Ranson Middle School our demographic changed and there were more black students then in my elementary school.  At West Charlotte High School I was one of the minorities where only around 35% of the school was white.  I grew up in diverse schools so I thought we had moved past all of this racism simply because I was in close proximity to people of other races.
However, as I looked back at my life growing up this week I confess it wasn’t always the case.  My close friends were 99% white.  My Boy Scout Troop was 95% white.  My church was 99.9% white.  My schooling may have been diverse but outside Middle School and High School, I lived in white America.  Not only that but I realized that many of my friends were extremely racist.  In middle school we would tell each other racist jokes and say horrible things about getting out of school for Martin Luther King Day.  I look back at those moments and I am completely humbled by shame and grief.  This is not how God wants me to treat people.
I confess that in the culture I grew up in I was taught to see non-white people as different and to be scared of them.  I can’t place why or where.  This is not something my parents taught me on purpose.  This is not something that I remember having a lesson in or a special class on.  No, it is something that was ingrained in my white culture that told me to be more scared of a black man than a white man.  I am sure it is because of media and news coverage.  I am sure it is because of the movies and TV shows I watched.  I am sure it is because of the people I grew up with and the subconscious decisions I made along the way.  I confess though that still to this day I view people of other races differently.   This is not how God wants me to treat people.
I confess that I did not realize the level of racism that is ingrained in our history and culture of our church.  In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South because the south wanted to keep slaves.  After the Civil War and the freeing of slaves the church still remained split until 1939, 95 years later.  When this church was founded on September 21, 1902 it was named, Indian Trail Methodist Episcopal Church South.  We were part of a system that wanted to keep a race of people enslaved.  This fact is in our name itself.
When we look at where this tragic event in Charleston happened we also get a picture of our racist past.  Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded 199 years ago.  It is part of the AME denomination, which is one of the Pan-Methodist denominations.   The reason the AME denomination exists is because of acts of racism, segregation and discrimination.  In St. George’s church in Philadelphia Richard Allan was a slave who purchased his freedom and started the Free African Society.  He lead prayer meetings among black members of the church.  But the people of St. George’s didn’t like the movement.  They segregated the sanctuary and cast the black members to the gallery upstairs.  Finally after two black worshipers were pulled out of the church while they were praying, Allan had enough and started Mother Bethel Church and the eventual start of a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Both AME and the AMEZ denominations were born out of the discrimination and racism of the Methodist Church and movement here in America. 
I say this not to bash us on the head but for us to recognize that this is in our country and our culture’s past.  We have not escaped it and we can’t ignore it, like I did for much of my adult life.  To do so is a sin.  This week I recognized in myself how much racism has played a part in my upbringing, my culture and my country.  I wrestle with this fact and I hope you will too.
Yet there is good news.  It can stop with us.  Nelson Mendela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”  He is correct.  A child doesn’t see someone and focus on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic make up, they see another person.  We, as their parents, their church, their fellow citizens, teach them how to view that person.  Do we or will we teach them to hate, to judge or to love?
1 Corinthians 5:21, “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.”  God knows our human tendencies and our need for that saving Grace.  We are in desperate need because sin abounds in our world.  Sin is everywhere and we need to be reconciled to God and each other for it. 
The 3rd verse of the hymn, Just As I Am, we are about to sing sums it up wonderfully.  It says, “Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”  If we are going to actually move past our racist history, reconcile with one another and live as on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to come to Jesus.  We need to recognize the racism and the sin inside ourselves and say, “This stops with me.  I won’t pass it on to the next generation.” 
As I have grappled with how I see others that are different than me I always pause and say to myself, “How does God see this person?”  Does God see them as their race? Nationality? Sexuality? Language they speak? Political party they vote for? State they were born in?  No!  God sees them as one of his children; someone who has the image of God imbedded into their souls. 
May we reconcile ourselves to God and be given this sight as well.  May we move into the future not repeating the sins of the past.  May we reconcile ourselves to God in order to be the people of God to this world. 

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Be Still – Part 3 – "Dealing with the Noise" (Be Still Sermon Series)

Be Still: Part III – Dealing with the Noise
1 Kings 19:9-13
09/22/13

After being still and celebrating 111 years of ministry in this place at Homecoming we come back to the third part of this sermon series.  Let’s do a quick wrap up of where we are in this series.  In the first sermon I talked about being still.  We have a lot of movement, chaos, stuff to do in life and it is important to find time to be still.  In Psalm 46:10, it says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  In our happiest times and in our hardest times in life we need to find time to be still so we can feel God in our midst.  We passed out some of these devotionals and you can still pick some up if you haven’t already.  The challenge was to find 10 minutes a day to be still with God for 28 days.  Then in week two we talked about the Knowing and No-ing.  If we want to really get to know God we have to be able to make him a priority.  We may have to learn to say no in order to say yes to build a deeper relationship with God.  But life can get in the way.  The demands of life can be too much and we need to remind ourselves and practice stepping back, like Jesus does, to find time to be still with God.

Today we are talking about dealing with the noise.  Life has lots of noise, pressure, fear, and angst.  Our struggle is finding time to be still when life seems to be in panic mode.  For inspiration we hear the story of Elijah.  Now you probably have heard of Elijah before.  He was one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history.  He did many miraculous things but he also never died.  Instead, when he found a predecessor in Elisha, a chariot of fire came between Elijah and Elisha and Elijah was taken up into heaven in a world wind.  In Malachi it is said that Elijah would return before the great day of the Lord.  This is why when John the Baptist and Jesus come on the scene people are wondering if they are actually Elijah who has come back.  Elijah is also one of the three people at Jesus’ transfiguration.  You had Jesus, Moses and Elijah that appeared to the three disciples, Peter, James and John. 

But today we are going to talk about Elijah running in fear.  When we meet him in 1 Kings 19:9 he is hiding in the wilderness from the Queen Jezebel.  Jezebel was not a fan of the prophets of God.  She had killed hundreds of them and Elijah was the only one left.  Elijah really makes her mad in chapter 18.  In that chapter Elijah comes out and challenges the prophets of Baal to a duel of some sort.  He comes up with test to see which God is better, Baal or the God of Israel.  Here are the rules of the challenge: they will each prepare an altar and slaughter a bull on it.  Usually they would light a fire and sacrifice these animals as burnt offerings to their gods but Elijah tells them that they should see which God provides the fire. 

There were 450 prophets of Baal verses Elijah in this showdown.  The prophets of Baal construct their altar, slaughter the bull, and start calling on Baal to send down fire.  They do this from morning to midday and nothing happens.  They start dancing around to provoke Baal but nothing happens.  At this point Elijah starts talking some smack.  He says, “Shout Louder!  Certainly he’s a god!  Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering (relieving himself), or traveling somewhere.  Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!”  Where is your God?  Using the bathroom?  On vacation?  Sleeping in?  The prophets then start shouting louder and cutting themselves with swords and knives to show their devotion to Baal.  The scripture says, “Their blood flowed all over them.”  What a scene.  What an image.  These prophets shouting, dancing, and running around covered in their own blood.  But Baal never comes.  Their turn is over.

Elijah steps up and creates an altar and then digs a trench around it.  He sacrifices his bull and gets ready to pray to God to send fire.  Instead though he tells some people to get four jars of water and pour it on the altar.  They do and then he tells them to do it two more times.  There is so much water on the altar that it is dripping off it, all over the ground, and the water has filled up the trench he dug around it.  Elijah is making sure everyone knows how powerful Israel God, Yahweh, is.  If God sends down fire on this then there is no doubt who’s God is more powerful.

Elijah starts to pray and sure enough God sends down fire.  1 Kings 18:38 says, “Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust.  It even licked up the water in the trench!  That is the God of Israel!  That is the God we worship!  Ahab, the king of Israel, sees this and understands how powerful God is and Elijah takes the prophets of Baal and has them all killed.  Then he goes to the top of a mountain and through prayer and conversation with God he ends the 3 year drought by making it finally rain.  Elijah is on fire for God.  He is doing everything right.  He is showing the people there who God is.  In fact that is his name.  Elijah means “My God is Yahweh.”  He is living out his namesake. 

But then Jezebel hears what happened.  Her husband, Ahab the King, reports what Elijah has done, the fire from heaven and the killing of the prophets.  She is REALLY upset.  She sends a message to Elijah, “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”  What a great line.  Hollywood couldn’t write a better line.  “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”  I can just see Walter White using that line.  It scares Elijah and Elijah does what comes naturally to us all when faced with the reality of death.  He runs, he runs, and he runs some more.

When we find him in verse 9 he has been living in the wilderness for a while and being fed by angels every morning.  When he is refreshed he walks for 40 days and 40 nights until he gets to Mount Horeb, or as it is also known, Mt. Sinai, or God’s Mountain.  Remember what happened on this mountain?  God gave Moses the Law.  It is here that Moses and God talked, interacted and God.  In the midst of Elijah’s fear he runs to meet God.  He crawls into a cave and God comes to him and asks, “Why are you here, Elijah?”

Have you ever had any moment like that in your life?  You are scared to death about the next step.  You know a decision has to be made.  You know you are standing on one of those life moments and you know that after this moment life will never be the same.  Fear consumes you.  Your heart is beating so hard your hair feels like it is keeping time.  Elijah is having one of these moments and God asks him, “Why are you here?”

I never wanted to be a preacher.  I know I have mentioned this before but I attempted to be in ministry in about any other way except to preach every week.  I went to college thinking I would be a Christian Camp Director.  But after one semester I realize that wasn’t the case.  In seminary I did five field education placements, internships.  I did some in the local church but I really pushed myself to do some in chaplaincy, thinking that is where God may be calling me.  In my second year at Duke I worked with Partners in Caring which was a ministry with HIV/AIDS patients at Duke University Hospital and the surrounding counties.  I loved it but at the end of the semester I came to a realization. 

After each semester was over, after my last exam, I would always walk out of the Divinity School and into Duke Chapel.  If you have never been there you should.  It is an amazingly beautiful and enormous space.  You are surrounded by gorgeous stain glass windows and it reminds you how big God is.  I remember sitting there, in the quiet, being still, wrestling with the fact that I knew God wanted me to preach.  I knew after that internship with Partners in Caring that chaplaincy wasn’t my calling.  Directing a camp wasn’t my calling.  Youth and Children’s Ministry wasn’t my calling.  In my heart of hearts I knew what God wanted me to do and in that pew in Duke Chapel I finally agreed.  I had run in every direction I knew and it all kept leading me back to the same place. 

There is a story of another minister in our conference who ran from his calling most of his youth and adulthood.  He knew God was asking him to be a pastor.  Yet he got his education in something else.  He took a job making good money in something else besides ministry.  Then one day at a bar he was thinking over a glass of beer.  It was a revelation, life decision moment.  In his heart and soul he heard God ask him, “Why are you here?”  He had attempted to run but in the end he ran straight into God’s awaiting hands.

Maybe you are running today.  You are running from some trouble in your life.  Maybe you are running from a specific person.  Maybe you are simply running from doing what you know you should be doing.  Your heart and soul are screaming at you but you are trying to run to keep it quiet.  You surround yourself with all the noise in life, the running we all do in life to deafen that voice that calls out to us within ourselves.  Maybe you are running today.

Elijah was running.  He shows up at God’s mountain and God wonders why he is there.  He just proved that Yahweh was bigger than Baal.  He had just made it rain where it hadn’t in three years.  He was on the top of this game and then Jezebel threatens him and he runs.  Sometimes we see all the good we are doing and the difference we are making in the world and the one thing we focus on is the one bad thing someone says.  Now for Elijah Jezebel was a real threat.  She had killed all the other prophets of God and Elijah was the last one.  But if God would send fire and rain down from the sky, would he let Jezebel take him out?  How quickly our faith disappears when trouble hits.

As Elijah sits there in the presence of God, God tells him to prepare himself because he is coming by.  Elijah does and a very strong wind blows by but God is not in the wind.  Then an earthquake comes but God isn’t in the earthquake.  Then a fire rolls in but God is not in the fire.  As one commentary I read this week put it, “Earthquake, wind and fire are natural forces associated with God’s appearance on earth.  God is not found in any of these natural forces, however; they only precede God’s coming. 

Where is God found?  I love the phrasing in the Common English Bible.  It says in verse 12, “After the fire, there was a sound.  Thin. Quiet.”  That is where God was in the midst of the thin and quiet.  You see when life throws us earthquakes, fires, and winds we have this notion that we can do it on our own.  We think we have enough in us to make it through anything.  We can accomplish it all but in reality we can’t.  So we fight through the storms of life.  We put up with all the noise until finally we can’t do it any longer.  Then in our moment of stillness we hear the thin and quiet voice of God.

When we hear that voice we look up and realize we are surrounded by God’s grace, enveloped by his love and that all this running has lead us right to what we were running from.  God doesn’t ridicule us, shame us, or belittle our running.  God doesn’t mock us like Elijah did to the prophets of Baal.  God simply asks, like a tender-hearted father, “Why are you here?”

Take a moment in this holy place today to be still in front of God.  Take a moment to stop running and stop thinking you can do it all on your own.  Let’s stop this morning so the noise passes by and we can hear the thin, quiet voice of God.  “Why are you here today?”  “What are you here?”

[silence]

God is in the thin.  God is found in the quiet.

And all God’s people said.  Amen.

Be Still – Part 2 – "Knowing and No-ing" (Be Still Sermon Series)

Be Still – Part II
Mark 1:29-39
09-08-13

I am not sure if you all are up-to-date on the ins and outs of the ordination process of the United Methodist Church.  But here is a quick rundown.  All ordained clergy have to go through this process.  First they have to have both a Bachelor’s Degree and then a Masters of Divinity.  That right there is 7 years of schooling, four for the Bachelor’s and then three more for the Masters.  Once that is done you can go in front of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry for your Probationary Interviews.  A candidate has to write papers for three different committees; Call and Discipline Life (who they are and their calling into ministry); for Elders like me, Preaching; and Theology (what they know about God).  You have to write around 75-100 pages total for those papers and then sit through a 45 minute interview will each committee.  If you pass you are commissioned a Probationary Member of the Conference and serve three years before you can go up in front of the boards again; writing all papers and going through interviews again, to become Ordained.  The process can take 10 years if you go straight through.  For me it took 11.

My third year of Divinity School I was eligible to go up in front of the board for probationary status.  I wrote my papers, recorded some of my sermons, and prepared for interviews.  Fellow Divinity School students would gather and we would do mock interviews with one another.  We would help each other articulate our answers so we would feel prepared.  Since I went to Duke there were lots of people from this Conference going up at the same time.  My best friends were from the North Carolina Conference and the South Carolina Conference.  They went to their interviews before me and both of them passed.  They came home excited and we celebrated this milestone in their ministerial lives.

The day of my interviews came and I remember sitting in there petrified.  I was really nervous and scared.  I don’t remember a lot of my questions but I thought they went ok.  As I waited to hear about the results two people came and got me.  Two people were never good.  One person meant you passed, two people meant good cop, bad cop was about to be played.  One to share the bad news and the second one to console you as you curl up in the fetal position and weep.  Sure enough I didn’t pass.  I passed theology.  I passed preaching.  I didn’t pass Call and Discipline Life. 

I couldn’t articulate my calling well and they weren’t feeling that I was quite ready to be a pastor.  I walked out to my truck, I closed the door, and broke down.  I had passed theology.  I passed the test about what I knew.  I passed preaching.  I passed the part about what I would do.  I didn’t pass Call and Discipline Life.  I didn’t pass who I was.  I didn’t pass my calling into the ministry.  I felt deeply hurt because I knew I was called into ministry but I didn’t know why I couldn’t articulate it.  I didn’t know why I could not express that calling to the people on the committee.  In my tears the pain sunk in, deep into my soul.  My family, Alycia and her family were all waiting to hear the news.  I had to call them and tell them I didn’t pass.  All my friends from Seminary were waiting, waiting to celebrate like I celebrated for them.  I had to face them, broken, dejected, and utterly modified.  I was modified because I didn’t pass the part that was supposed to be the easiest, who I was.  I had even heard one that one of the people on the committee, a lay person, said that she wouldn’t want me as her minister. 

In this moment, it just stunk.  There are other words I used to describe this moment in my life but they are not appropriate for me to say from behind this pulpit. They gave me a spiritual director that I worked with over the next year.  I had to go in front of that committee again the following year and I passed that time.  I am here and I am ordained.  But to see this from way back there was impossible.

Looking back I can see what happened.  I can pin point exactly why I didn’t pass.  Here is what else was happening in my life at that moment.  In my third year of seminary I only had to take three classes a semester instead of four because I took a class over the summer.  So my class work load was a little lighter.  I was working part time at Heavenly Ham and was doing an internship in Rougemont, NC.  I was preaching every week in a three point charge about 45 minutes above Durham.  There was a three point charge up there and I would join the pastor of the charge for the 9:00 service and then I would go preach on of the 11 services and she would preach at the other church.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot preparing a sermon each week and preaching in front of tens of people. 

On top of all that I was also engaged to Alycia and we were busy planning our wedding for May 25, two weeks after I graduated from Duke.  Then about three months later we were moving to England for a year where I would be in charge of three churches just northeast of Manchester.  Then I also had all this work for commissioning to do.  I had a little bit on my plate.  Ok, I had a buffet load on my plate.  I was attempting to juggle about 12 balls at once. 

What had happened in that interview was the manifestation of having too much on my plate.  By saying yes to so much, I didn’t have enough space, enough mind power, enough spirit to give it my all.  I couldn’t formulate sentences to express what I did to connect with God.  I completely forgot to tell them that my roommates and I would gather in the crypt in Duke Chapel to pray for each other every week.  I completely forgot to tell them how I felt 100% myself when I was doing ministry and no other place in life made me feel that whole.  I didn’t have the words because I was attempting to pull myself too thin.  Writing papers for class, writing sermons each week, working part time, planning a wedding (ok Alycia and her Step-mom did 90% of that) and planning on moving to another country.  It was all too much.

In the gospel of Mark we get this unique story of Jesus doing something I couldn’t do in 2001-2002, say no.  It is only the first chapter of Mark’s gospel and Jesus has already done a whole lot before we get to the 29thverse.  He came onto the scene and was baptized by John, taken out to the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days, came back and called the disciples, and three out some demons.  Now he finds himself in the house of Simon healing his mother-in-law.  After he does that the whole town shows up with their sick and demon possessed and he heals all of them.  I don’t know about you but that seems like a really busy couple of months right there. 

Then we get to verse 35; “early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”  Jesus knew exactly what he needed to do.  After giving so much of himself; lasting through the temptations; healing and casting out demons; Jesus needed to be alone with his father.  He needed some peace away from the hectic world.  He needed to be still even though the world kept demanding him to keep producing. 

The disciples are hunting around looking for him and then they finally find him and what do they say?  “Everyone’s looking for you!”  Where have you been?  There is work that has to be done!  We need you to heal the next hundred or so people that showed up this morning!  What is amazing is what Jesus does.  He does the opposite of what we think Jesus should do.  When we think of Jesus we think that he would say; “I know they are waiting for me, let us go and heal them all of their wounds.  Let us go and cast out the demons.  Let us make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear.”  But what does he say; verse 38; “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too.  That’s why I’ve come.”

His disciples are telling him about all these people that need him.  They are seeking out his care, his grace, his compassion and Jesus says, “There are a bunch of people over there?  Let’s go this way instead.”

What is simply amazing is why.  He goes the other way because he knows who he is and why he came to the earth.  He knows that he is the Son of God sent here to preach to the world.  Not just one place.  Not to only heal those who came from Simon’s mother-in-law’s town.  He came to heal the world and the people who existed before him and after him, all of humanity.  He knew his mission and he knew his purpose.


That is something that I am feel we as a church need to wrestle with.  One of the articles in the newsletter this month is requesting your help with creating our mission statement.  The Church Council wants your input on defining our purpose and our mission. Why are we here?  What is God calling us to do for Indian Trail and the world?  We need to be able to define that, speak it, remember it because it defines who we are and hones our ability to be church.  Jesus knew it.  Jesus understood it.  He didn’t get swallowed up in life because he found time to be still.  He escaped and went away to a quiet place to be still and talk with God.

How are you doing with your devotionals?  Is it easy to find time for God in your day?  It is only ten minutes, can you find the time?  Being still takes practice so I hope you will continue to do the work this month and if you did not pick up a devotional there are some more in the back on your way out.  Join in and walk this journey because we need time to be still and know who God is and understand or know who we are.


I wasn’t still enough in my third year of seminary.  I was on a bullet train and didn’t even realize it.  I knew I had a lot to do but I thought it was all possible.  That reality came crashing down, hard.  During the skit Leslie and everyone else did a great job depicting the stresses in life that can fill us up.  All of it seems necessary.  All of it is calling for our attention.  All of it demands 100% of who we are.  But when it piles up it can be too much.  We lose sight of who we are and why we are here.  We lose our purpose and our mission that God is calling us to do when we accept all the demands and stuff that life can through on us.

What I find exciting about this piece of scripture is that I am find assurance in knowing I can say no.  Jesus said no.  He saw all the people that gathered and he went the other way.  He knew what he was supposed to do and what he could get accomplished in what time he had.  He knew what was most important.  Even though those people needed to be healed he knew his task was bigger than that. 

I think many of us think that being Christian means we have to say yes to everything.  I mean what good Christian doesn’t say yes?  But every time we say yes to something we are saying no to something else.  Let me say that again so you can hear it and let it sink in; every time we say yes to something we are saying no to something else.  It is like the children’s sermon.  I know I can only juggle three balls at a time.  If someone tosses me a fourth I have to let it drop because I cannot handle it.  If I attempt they all will fall.  But if I put one down and pick the other ball up I can handle it. 

Maybe you desire something more out of life.  Maybe you want to make sure you are the best parent for your kids but life keeps getting in the way.  Maybe you have always felt God calling you to help in some way in our community, to reach out and tutor a child, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or something but you cannot find the time.  Maybe life feels like the skit and you are we being weighed down by all the demands in life and you can’t do any of it well because there is just too much. 

Maybe we should take note from Jesus and learn to say no.  By saying no to the things we need to say no to we can actually say yes to the things we truly desire to say yes to.  Life can eat you up and spit you out.  If you actually tried to do everything your kids school asks you to do, the church asks you to do, your kids ask you to do, your work asks you to do, your family asks you to do, your spouse asks you to do, and God asks you to do, you cannot do it all.  YOU CANNOT DO IT ALL!!!!  Jesus couldn’t so why do you think you can!

We need to learn our purpose and our mission as individuals and as a church so we can know who we are and say no to the things that get in the way of that.  To do that we need time to pray, to be still, to push everything away in order to reprioritize and get in tune with what God says to us is most important of all.

May you find time to be still in order to know who you are, whose you are, and what you are supposed to be doing.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Be Still – Part 1 (Be Still Sermon Series)

Be Still – Part 1
Psalm 46
09-01-13

“The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is, on the contrary, born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else–we are the busiest people in the world.”[1]  It seems people are busier than they have ever been.  But are we busy because we fear we are wasting our lives?  Are we busy because we are filling it will meaningful, real, important things?  Or are we simply filling time and not living life?  As the quote goes, “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.”

We are programmed in our world to “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger.”[2]  There is a pace of this life that seems to be getting faster and faster.  Life has got its foot on the gas petal and has looked around to find no cops in sight.  Then put the hammer down and if you aren’t on board you are simply left behind.  That is until…

There are moments that slow down.  Moments that you can replay in you head over and over again.  It happened in regular speed but in that moment you were hyper aware and soaked up every inch of stimulus and placed in a special spot in your brain.  In the wee hours of the morning, after a long 8 hour ride home from Washington, DC, my Dad and I walked into our living room to find my mom in a chair.  It was not a good sign.  My heart sunk as the words came out of her mouth.  My grandmother, my Dad’s mom, had died.  I really don’t remember what my parents did but I know I simply kept walking into the dinning room, rested my head against a wall and cried.  In an instant I can be back in that moment, standing there and I can feel that wall *right there*. 

There is another moment when Alycia and I were driving back to Durham after having Thanksgiving in Ohio.  I was driving a back road I knew to get around some holiday traffic on I40 when all of a sudden WHAM!  A deer jumped out in front of my red Chevy S10 and before I could stop I had hit its hindquarters sending it’s head around the side of my truck until it hit my door.  It was the only deer I have ever killed.  It was over before I realized what happened by I can still take myself back to that road, the darkness and the sounds of flesh and metal meeting.

Then there was May 25, 2002, my wedding day.  The day that took over a year to plan for, the ceremony had put together with all our closest family and friends sitting there watching.  All I remember is making sure I didn’t faint as Alycia came down the aisle and then walking her back down.  What happened in between, even the kiss, I cannot recall as vividly as those other events.

Psalm 46 is my favorite Psalm, and in it holds my favorite verse, verse 10.  Be still and know that I am God.  I have found comfort and peace in that verse many times in my life.  There have been moments of decision making that I prayed and prayed about.  As I wrestled with them this verse would come to mind and I could feel God’s presence come into my soul and whisper “be still.”

There are moments in a busy life when you realize that you will not be able to do it all.  I cannot stand that feeling.  If I take on a task I want to do it to the best of my abilities and to the fullest.  I don’t want to leave it half done or not done at all.  If my name is attached to it I want to see it through.  But what I have learned in my ten years of ministry that there is always work to be done, always stuff that will not get done.  I may not like it but that is the reality of life.  Maybe you are like me in that respect.  Maybe you have remind yourself that you are not Superman or Superwoman.  You are not Super-mom or Super-dad and things will be left undone.

At the end of the day I will simply have to be still and know that God is God. 

Why Psalm 46 was written is a little unclear.  Not all scholars agree to the why question.  It looks like it could have been written to celebrate some of the military wins of King David.  Some scholars think it is an eschatological hymn.  Or a hymn talking about the end of times.  We can see some of those notions in here.  But what the Interpreters Bible Commentary suggests is that it is a New Year’s Festival psalm.  There is a prophetic style to it which directs us to reset our course at the beginning of the new year. 

How many times do we do this during our New Years resolutions?  This year will be different, “[God] makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.”  How many times do we start a new year hoping things will be different?  Three times in this psalm this phrase is repeated, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  This reminds us that God is with us and is our place of refuge and strength.  God is where we can hide our faces and feel safe in a troubled world.  God is the place where things can start to make sense when this busy world gets the best of us.  God is the place where we can go and truly celebrate the gifts of life when they happen.  But none of this can happen unless we are still.

I told you that I do not remember much of my wedding because I did not take a chance to soak it in.  I regret that.  Now when I do weddings I always take a moment, just 30 seconds, to have the bride and groom realize what moment they are having.  I ask them to look around and soak it up. My hope is that moment will soak into their memory and fill their hearts with joy.  My hope it is then that they can look back and see God in their midst, uniting them as one.  We do not have trouble with that when it comes to life’s struggles and pains.  Those memories take up space without our request. 

But the good times, the victories, the triumphs, the moments when the wars do stop, and peace does exists are few and far between in our busy world.  We need to learn and practice being still and recognizing God’s goodness when we are in the moment.  I hope you have felt that today as we reminiscence about our shared journey.

In all things, in all places, in all times we need to realize that God is God and give God the credit.  We need to remember that when our worlds come tumbling down, God is God.  When our lives seem like they cannot get any better, God is God.  When life is going by at a fast rate that we cannot pull one day apart from the next, God is God. 

[read Psalm 46 again]

And all God’s people said, Amen.

 


[1]Eric Hoffer, Bits & Pieces, May 1990, p. 1.
[2]Daft Punk song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”