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Together in Faith

No matter how desperate things get, God is always at work.

As we delve deeper into our lesson from the prophet Isaiah, let’s first set the historical stage. Starting back 150 years, in 824 B.C., the Assyrian Empire spread from modern-day Turkey eastward through Syria and Iraq, all the way into Western Iran. By the time we reach today’s lesson, they have been on a course of rapid expansion, moving westward into Egypt and southward into the Arabian Peninsula. The mighty Assyrian Empire, under the rule of King Sennacherib, now encompasses much of the region, with the exception of Judah.

The Assyrian army has laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, and is calling for the citizens to surrender peacefully. They know that, if they do, their fate will be like that of so many others who have fallen to Assyria: carried off and repopulated into other parts of the Assyrian Empire. King Hezekiah is brought so low and so fearful that he sends his advisors to the prophet Isaiah for a word from God.

The situation is, in a word, desperate. And yet, Isaiah remains calm in the eye of the storm. What it must be like to have that kind of peace when the world is raging all around you…

Have you ever felt that kind of desperation? Have you ever been in the midst of a situation that feels utterly hopeless, unsure where to turn? Our faith is supposed to be one that provides hope. After all, our story culminates with a crucified Messiah rising from the dead. No matter how desperate the world seems, we are supposed to be a people of hope, a people of faith, a people of promise, right?

When Elizabeth and I moved to Atlanta a little over nine years ago, we did not own a TV. We made the decision not to purchase one, either. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve got subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon prime. I watch mind-numbing shows on Hulu and sift through cat videos on YouTube.

But there is a difference between doing this and having an infinite number of channels right in my living room. I notice it when I’m out – the car is in the shop, I’m early for my flight, the restaurant has been wallpapered in televisions – and I’ll catch myself sucked into the 24-hour news cycle. Even when it’s on mute, there’s the persistent scroll at the bottom. And no matter what channel it is, suddenly my worldview darkens. My pulse rate quickens. My heart climbs into my throat. And I’m convinced that the end is nigh.

It’s not that I don’t follow the news otherwise. I will listen to current events on the radio. I will catch up with podcasts or read articles online from various sources. But when I am face-to-face with the breathless, relentless pace of CNN/Fox/MSNBC, I find myself feeling like the little kingdom of Judah, besieged by a hostile army ready to storm the gates.

There is plenty in our world to give cause for concern. The two wars our nation set out upon at the turn of the century seem to have made for little lasting change in those regions. While we have at least scaled back our military deployment, we have now embarked on a new conflict. Climate change has gotten to the point that the Pentagon is making plans for the political and military conflict that will come as a result of the chaos; meanwhile, we have no energy policy that recognizes we are living on borrowed time. We are now fifty years on from Dr. King’s dream, and in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, race continues to be our society’s primary lens through which we continue to see the world.

To say that things are “desperate” may be underselling it a bit. Assyria is at the gates demanding our surrender. And Isaiah…remains as cool as a cucumber. “Don’t worry,” he says. “God will take care of all of that. Assyria will leave, and Sennacherib will die as he lived: by the sword.”

And this, indeed, is what happens. Assyria retreats. Sennacherib ends up getting murdered by his two sons. And little Judah remains independent for another century or so. No matter how desperate things might get, God is always at work.

As a pastor, I find myself invited into intimate moments with many at times when things seem most desperate. You have honored me by welcoming me into those moments of birth and death and everything in between. And what I have learned about us as a community in those moments is that I am rarely the only person in this congregation to connect with you, to be with you or reach out to you and let you know that we are together in this faith thing.

On this Stewardship Dedication Sunday, when we ask members and friends of our church family to make financial commitments and commitments of time and gifts for the coming year, this is the thing I want to share with you today. Among the many things that our commitments do is make it possible for me – not just me, of course, though I can speak most authoritatively about myself – to bring this reminder of God’s abiding presence into even the most desperate of times.

What has been remarkable about all of this for me is not only the intimate moments into which members of Oglethorpe Presbyterian have invited me. In some ways, you expect those, even though you never quite get over the power of those moments. The surprise has come when I have been invited into those moments in the community that stretches far beyond our doors. When a beloved student at Oglethorpe University died in a terrible accident a few years ago, we opened our doors to the community for prayer and support. When a young man at Chamblee High School tragically killed himself, I was invited to lead a prayer vigil, and many of you came out in support. Through personal connections, you have invited me to connect with those whom you love who are hurting. And because of the fact that I wear this robe and can represent this congregation, others have reached out to me at times when they are hurting, too.

This past Spring, I got a call from the Brookhaven Chief of Police. Our paths had crossed at various community gatherings, and had talked about their desire to set up a chaplaincy program. They had been called to a house where a grown son had gone to check on his mom, only to find her unresponsive on the floor. He called 911. The police came, but there was nothing to be done except to call for a chaplain. That’s where I came in.

I spent the better part of two hours with this man, as family members arrived and took in the reality of what had happened. We prayed together and worked through the details of what to do next. And I did all of this…because of you and the faith we share, a faith that reminds us that no matter how desperate things might get, God is always at work.

You see, that’s the thing about our faith, about our lesson from Scripture this morning. It’s not the empty promises of a “happily ever after” fairy tale. In fact, Judah may remain safe for the time being, but soon, the kings that follow forget about God and God’s faithfulness. In a few generations, Babylon comes calling, levels the Temple, and takes the people into exile. And even then, in the most utterly desperate of times, despite the faithlessness of the people and their leaders, God is still at work!

And so, as our reading in Isaiah moved around from one part to the next, it ended with the promise that starts Isaiah’s prophecy: that the destruction and hopelessness and desperation of war will be replaced with growth and promise of hope and faith. It will happen. It is already happening, if we turn off the relentlessness for a moment and recognize that God has always been at work in unexpected, surprising, gracious, merciful, glorious ways. And our calling is to recognize these places and line ourselves up with God’s desires!

Friends, whatever the case, no matter how desperate the times may seem, no matter how besieged you might be, God is still there. God is still at work. And God still has much more to do with you, with us.

Amen.

Together in Newness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASometimes, the questions are clearer than the answers.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: there will be no math in today’s sermon. You all have put up with me talking fairly frankly about money a couple of times over the past few weeks, and so I will not be doing so today. Instead, as we continue moving toward Stewardship Dedication Sunday, I want to pull back to build a bigger picture of Stewardship – in other words, what it means to take care of the things and the people whom God has entrusted to us; what it means to welcome folks into our community and what it means to be a part of this particular community of faith.

And as we do that, let’s jump right in to the lesson we just read from the prophet Micah.

We don’t know much about Micah. Even his name is a question. It translates to, “Who is like the Lord?” and is about the clearest thing we know about the prophet.

We know that he came from humble origins, called from life as a shepherd, into the prophecy game. We also know roughly the time that he preached, largely during the reign of King Hezekiah. And we know what he preached about, which is where we find our way into the text.

Micah comes into his new profession as an outsider. He comes from a small town outside of Jerusalem, not Jerusalem itself. He has spent little, if any, time mingling with those who hold religious authority. He finds the idea that you would put ritual and religious observance above faithfulness and commitment to fairness both new and repellent. And he has seen what the building up of religious authority has done to those outside of its sway.

This hopefully gives some context to the words we read today, that it is not from the seat of power that God’s ruler will come, but rather from quiet little Bethlehem. And it is not with bigger and better burnt offerings that God is pleased, but with concepts like justice, mercy, humility.

Micah is within a strand of the Hebrew Bible that helps prepare the fertile soil in which Jesus’ message will take root. Born in backwater Bethlehem, preaching and teaching among society’s despised and rejected, Jesus seems to be just the kind of leader that Micah anticipated. For those who are steeped in the stories and lessons of the New Testament, the prophetic tradition rings extremely familiar. The authors of the gospels returned to the preaching of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, among others, to highlight the connection between their Christ and the faith out of which he sprang.

For a moment, though, let’s step back into Micah’s time: his preaching claims that God is more intimate with those on the margins of culture than with those in the halls of power. In a time when political rulers and theological scholars were entwined, this is quite the threatening notion. The very status quo is at stake. And that’s what is so striking: the same ones whose job was the maintenance of religious tradition are the same ones who saw fit to preserve the prophet’s words, ones which seem to cut to the very heart of their own authority.

In other words, within the community of faith, the true community of faith, there is always a healthy dose of honesty and self-awareness. The tradition has its place. No doubt about it. And so do those who question that tradition for the sake of faithfulness. The goal in all of this is truth. And that truth is beyond ours – a truth that, in fullness, can only belong to God.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it, the ever-elusive notion of truth? I’m sure that has always been the case, but in a world of sound bytes and spin the 24-hour news cycle, truth with a capital “T” seems always just beyond our grasp. And if we move beyond the current moment and reflect back on our lives, what each of us has known as true has changed and evolved with life experiences as we are exposed to new ideas, events, people.

This is not only true for us as individuals, but for us as a congregation. One of the things that I have come to appreciate about Presbyterians is our continual desire to ask questions and look beyond the face value of things. When we elect leaders within the congregation, we give them support and trust while also holding them accountable. When our denomination makes decisions, we do so through a deliberate process that always acknowledges we might be wrong – or, at the very least, we know we are not completely right. The way we often talk about it as being a “reformed church, always reforming.” We are not, by any stretch, perfect; and so we hope that our movement is a forward one, ever closer to God’s glory.

For years, the Presbyterian Church believed that women should not be in leadership. Then provision was made for women to serve as deacons; later, the office of elder was opened to women; and finally, a little over 50 years ago, women were ordained as pastors. The capital “T” truth as I see it is that, for many years, we neglected the gifts of ministry that women brought to the table. And the church was poorer for that. It is not that we are now dwelling in full richness, but we have made important strides.

There are many denominations, even Presbyterian ones, who do not agree. In a time when women are CEOs and heads of state, I admit that I don’t understand churches who continue to be led by men only. My hope is that they, too, will see they have kept God’s gifts from fully serving the Church.

But before we wrench our arms from their sockets patting ourselves on the back, let’s keep ourselves honest here: we don’t have it all figured out. We most likely won’t ever have it all figured out – at least, not in this lifetime. And if we are ever convinced of purity of our rightness, well…that’s the moment to beware of.

This, I believe, is a healthy tension. The knowledge that we won’t get it completely right should keep us properly humble. And yet, it should not paralyze us into inaction. Instead, we act, trusting God to make it right when we get it wrong.

That’s the community of faith, I believe, into which we are baptized. And when we welcome Hattie Pierce in baptism later on in our service, we do just that: we welcome her into this imperfect, grace-noted, hope-striving community. When she is here, we remind her that we are always made new, over and over again, in the presence of Christ. Baptism is a once in a lifetime event. And yet, every time we celebrate the sacrament, each of us is called to that renewal within our lives and relationships.

Last month, I invited us to reach out to those whom we know some but want to know more. The invitation was to go beyond our church community and to extend the possibility of friendship with someone we don’t know well, to find out what makes them tick. Several of you have shared your experiences with me about that, and I hope that more of you will do so.

Here’s what I learned: one time is not nearly enough to go deep. Learning what makes someone tick is unlikely to happen in one conversation. And yet, we are also more likely to grow in empathy when we meet someone face to face and hear their story, what shapes them, what moves them, what motivates and inspires them.

And that’s the point that Micah stirs up for me: tradition has its place. It is important. But by itself, it is insufficient. If the church ends up being an echo chamber for those who agree with us, then it has become like Jerusalem: interested in the status quo, maintaining its power and influence, even when its circles are ever-shrinking. If the church and its members are more like Micah, if we grow into prophets of the marketplace, engaged with a multitude of voices and experiences, then tradition is held in tension with faithfulness and the dynamic of an ever-changing world. God does not change. Instead, we grow in our understanding of God.

So my invitation to you is to continue those conversations. Nurture and grow those relationships. Always, always, break down the walls of your own private and public echo chambers. Open them up so that we collectively hear the voices of those who come from the outskirts, the villages, the margins. Keep it flowing so that our identities themselves become wrapped up in questions about God and God’s desires. After all, sometimes the questions are clearer than the answers.

We began today by talking about this mysterious figure named Micah: what we knew about him, what we could guess, and what we could learn. And since the prophet’s name translates as a question, there is no better way than to let his own question ring out: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God? What else, indeed, is there?

Justice. Mercy. Humility. Let these be our watchwords today and always.

Amen.

Together in Sharing

“It’s not so much what we have in this life that matters. It’s what we do with what we have. The alphabet is fine, but it’s what we do with it that matters the most: making words like ‘friend’ and ‘love’. That’s what really matters.”

The words of that great Presbyterian theologian Mr. Rogers: it’s not what we have, but what we do with what we have.

Many of you are aware that Mr. Rogers was, in fact, the Rev. Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister. And his particular ministry was his television program, his gift to the world, teaching young children that they are special “just the way they are”, which may be the best definition of unconditional love that ever existed.

These words about sharing follow in the echoes of many Biblical stories and texts, including our lesson this morning.

This story of Elisha and Naaman illustrates God’s expansive and ever-expanding love. Grace and healing cannot be confined by national boundaries or military front lines, by tribal barriers or religious practices. Instead, God’s surprise is one of outrageous, generous mercy.

In our lesson, the nation of Aram is a mighty one. They roughly cover the same territory as the area around modern-day Damascus. One of their great generals, Naaman, is afflicted with some terrible skin condition. It may or may not be leprosy as our translation related, but the point is that it is both unsightly and painful. Aram is at war with ancient Israel, and one of their raiding parties ends up capturing a young girl who then becomes a servant to the general’s wife.

However, there are times when God transforms something intended for ill into something gracious. Through the young Israelite girl, Naaman learns about a powerful prophet acrtoss the border who might hold the key to his healing.

Surprisingly, the Aramean king sends a diplomatic letter to the Israelite king asking for Naaman to meet with Elisha.

The Israelite king suspects trickery at work – a kind of Trojan Leper. But Elisha welcomes the general, the enemy of his people, as an opportunity to reveal God’s glory.

As Naaman approaches Elisha’s home, the whole story almost comes off the rails as Elisha sends out a servant rather than welcoming the general personally. Naaman is outraged, and his own national pride kicks in. That pitiful little Jordan River is nothing compared to our rivers back in Aram!

Then Naaman’s servants prevail on him to give it a shot. “Why not?” they reason. “He’s not asking a lot. It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?” He does, and is cleansed. To God be the final, ultimate glory!

Do we get what an unusual story this is? Much of the Hebrew Bible spends time convincing us of the rightness of the God of the Israelites. And it does so by recounting victory after victory after victory over enemy nations. And when Babylon defeats Israel and takes the people captive, the lesson still underscores the same idea: God was so fed up with Israel’s wandering ways that God decided to give Babylon the victory. God is God, ruling by might and power and victory.

Here, the story goes out of its way to illustrate God’s power not through military victory, but through sharing God’s healing power with a feared enemy.

How willing are we to share?

That’s the root message of Stewardship Season, isn’t it? That it’s not about what we have, but what we do with it? As a church, we can only exist to serve because of the fact that we, as a community, share. We pool our resources and serve the broader community through our sharing and giving and serving.

I have to admit that, though I grew up in church, it wasn’t until I was grown that this whole notion finally hit home to me. I have told the story many times before that I was of the school that would drop a few bucks in the plate when it passed. When Elizabeth and I made the decision to tithe, we did so as a mathematical formula: we added up our income, divided by ten, and gave that away.

We did this when we were graduate students living off of loans and working a series of part-time jobs. We did this when we were DINKs (that’s double income, no kids). We did it when we were missionaries overseas. We did it when we returned and became a one-income family with small children. We do it now with two full-time jobs and two school age children. And we try to instill the same practice in them.

While the percentage has remained roughly the same, the amount has fluctuated wildly through the years. The only thing that has remained constant is the intention and practice.

Look: I know it’s dicey business when the pastor starts talking about money. Whenever I do, I can always count on a few of you to let me know. It can be especially odd when the pastor starts talking about his own money. I’ll be honest with you: I’m OK with making us squirm from time to time. That’s part of what I’m supposed to do. And if we truly believe that God is in charge of all of this, that also means God is in charge of our money.

Above all, though, I mainly want to encourage each of you to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider what it is that you give. And if I only get one thing across to you today, let it be this: I want you to consider these two questions:

What do you give? What are you willing to share? And how is it that you go about making that decision?

If you can already answer these questions, that’s great. If not, then I would suggest you consider doing this before Stewardship Dedication Sunday on November 16. Calculate your income; calculate your charitable giving; and then figure out what percentage you are currently giving away.

We are together in our sharing.

When Elisha decides to share God’s healing power with Naaman, he does so despite his King’s assumption of treachery. It is not Elisha’s own glory he’s interested in; he doesn’t even leave the house. Nor is it the glory of Israel. No doubt he knows how the Jordan River compares to Aram’s own rivers. He invites Naaman into this healing because he knows that God’s power will be revealed.

But when Naaman is met not by the prophet but by one of his servants, he is furious. He has made this incredible effort to come all this way. He has stooped to cross into enemy territory. He deserves to be met by this Man of God. Instead, Elisha passes a note. “Do you want to be healed? Check one: yes; no.” Shouldn’t a man as great as Naaman be received with all of the greatness his status and standing require?

Friends: we share what we share not for our own sake. We don’t even share what we share for Oglethorpe Presbyterian’s sake. We share what we share for God’s sake. We know that God is generous. And our desire should be to become conduits of generosity, so that it flows from God, through us, and out into the world.

After all, it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it.

This past week I learned that several families who are members of other churches give to Oglethorpe Presbyterian financially, week in and week out. Some of them have historic connections to us; but others have a relatively tenuous relationship. And yet, they give.

I was particularly stunned when I learned that a couple of these families are members of Buckhead Church, where Andy Stanley preaches.

It turns out that, a while back, Andy had challenged his congregation to tithe – that is, to give a straight up 10% of their income away. And, he went on to say, don’t give it to Buckhead Church. Several of these families took this to heart. And knowing Oglethorpe, they decided to share that tithe through us.

I don’t want to go so far as to suggest that Buckhead is Naaman to our Elisha, or the other way around. I don’t think that’s the point here. Instead, this story underscores the message of generosity about as clearly as I can imagine: it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it. And it’s not as important where you give, but that you give, and do so intentionally.

Every year, we ask you to prayerfully consider your pledge. This year, I ask you to consider your pledge both prayerfully and thoughtfully.

Amen.

Together in Celebration

Life teems all around us. We just need to slow down enough to notice.

This is a truly odd story. In the first part of it, we find the newly minted King Solomon, heir to the legendary King David, asking God for wisdom. And in the second part, we see this wisdom in action as he adjudicates between two women arguing over a newborn baby. Everyone is in awe, and his fame carries on until today. And they lived happily ever after.

But wait a minute: there’s a lot to this story that requires a deeper look. Solomon ends up the heir to David’s kingdom after a lot of drama. One small item is that Solomon himself is the son of David and Bathsheba, whose own union was shrouded in scandal. And the united kingdoms he inherits of north and south, after his death, will be split in two by his heirs. When Solomon prays for more wisdom, he specifically prays for more wisdom to govern his people – but apparently not to parent his own.

And the situation that apparently highlights his brilliance is a troubling story. At the heart of it is tragedy: two women who are prostitutes come into conflict after one of the women tragically smothers her own baby in the middle of the night. Her grief leads her to attempted deception, a trick that doesn’t work for even a moment.

The case, then, of two prostitutes arguing over a baby, comes before the King. Apparently his wisdom in governing didn’t include delegation. His wisdom is to cleave the child in two, a decision that leads the two women to reveal the answer themselves. The mother would rather see the child live than be right; the other woman’s loss is such that not even the death of another woman’s child can stir her.

This story, meant to illustrate Solomon’s genius and the respect it brought him and all of ancient Israel, ends up being a story surrounded in pain and anguish and horror. Solomon’s ruling to chop the child in half may have been a bluff to reveal their true feelings, but it does end up predicting the painful dividing of a nation between Solomon’s sons. In other words, what is intended as a story to elevate Solomon and his wisdom is ultimately a story about the deeply flawed world he reigns. It’s a place that feels like it’s bathed in tragedy scouring for moments of celebration.

Does that sound any different from our world, really? A place bathed in tragedy in which we look for moments of celebration? I don’t know about you, but there are certainly times when it feels that way to me. The rise of religious extremism continues. Climate change accelerates. Meanwhile, our own nation, who might actually be capable of providing some leadership on critical issues, seems stuck in pointless partisanship.

But is it really true? Do we really live in a world of permanent bleakness where only momentary rays of sunshine break through? Or is there something about our perpetual brokenness that might lead us to believe that this is the case?

I want to lift up three moments from our lesson this morning that might point us in a different direction.

The first is the moment of Solomon’s humility. Our lesson begins with Solomon at the shrine at Gibeon. And when God asks him what he wants, Solomon could have requested anything. He could have asked for a kingdom greater than his father’s. He could have asked for the smiting of his enemies or riches beyond his wildest dreams. Instead, his wish is a selfless one: the ability to rule wisely. He wants to be a good king. He wants to help his people thrive by guiding them well.

We tend to think of powerful people as people interested in power and not much else. Whether or not that’s the case, here is a man bucking that trend. When presented with an infinite possibility of wishes, Solomon desires nothing more than serving his people wisely.

How are we like Solomon? We may not feel powerful, but the truth is that most of us have more power than we recognize. By virtue of where we were born, or the income we earn, or the very fact that we live in a relatively stable and prosperous society in which we even have a voice, we have power.

What do we do with that power? What are our deepest desires? It seems like a fair question to ask in the midst of Stewardship season, when we as a church consider prayerfully how each of us shares what it is that God has blessed us with.

This summer, in the midst of the ALS challenge, where people were asking friends to dump buckets of ice over their heads or donate money toward ALS research, I overheard a conversation that would have been funny if it hadn’t been so depressing. Two people were walking along, complaining about how a mutual friend had challenged them. One of them was absolutely repulsed: “Why would I want to do that? I’m not going to donate money. I spend my money on myself!”

How do we fare? Do we do with it the very thing we say we despise in the powerful, keeping it all to ourselves? Or do we have the wisdom to seek counsel? Do we use these resources to make the world a better place by sharing it with others?

For Solomon, in the midst of unrivaled power, there is humility. And that alone is reason to celebrate.

The second moment to lift up is the moment that the two women appear before Solomon. Whatever it was that led these women into a life of prostitution, we know that they would not be worthy of much consideration in their own society. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, prostitutes are lumped in with lepers and tax collectors as those to be disregarded – the very people with whom Jesus decided to spend the bulk of his time. But even in Solomon’s time, there is this glimpse of radical inclusion. A king hears the pleas of two people on the margins – if even that close – of society. And rather than dismissing them, he reasons out a way to determine some semblance of righteousness and justice.

How do we rate? Do we have the same mind when it comes to applying God’s sense of compassion? Do we embody the things we say we believe, that all of humanity is created in the image of God? That Christ’s ministry was on behalf of a whole world beloved of God, and unconditionally so? Do we put conditions on those whom we will treat with respect or treat as human? Or do we deal fairly with others, even if they don’t or won’t deal fairly with us?

For Solomon, even on the throne of glory, there is equality. And that, again, is reason to celebrate.

And the third moment is the moment of surprise as truth wins out in the end. The whole court scene plays out like a bizarre ancient world reenactment of an episode of Judge Judy. Unfortunately for Solomon, DNA testing is still a few generations away, and so he must figure out how to rule wisely without the benefit of scientific advances. What he does, ultimately, is find a way to get to the underlying motivations at work. The method he uses, as first, appears quite barbaric. Once the reactions of the two women come to the surface, though, it turns out that he knew what he was doing all along. He had just found a dramatic way to get below the surface and to the deeper truth that was already there.

How deep do we go? Do we keep our observations superficial, or do we welcome that deeper wisdom that leads to deeper truth? When we talk about the importance of Stewardship as a community, the superficial approach is to see a budget and then raise funds to pay for that budget. I hope what we do, though, is dig beneath that surface so that what we talk about and pray about and work toward is a magnetic culture of generosity, where we are excited to share our resources. If it’s out of obligation, then I’m not sure we’re doing it right. If it’s borne out of desire, then we might just be getting somewhere. It’s when we share because we don’t know any other way to be that we are truly getting to the deeper possibilities of generosity at work.

For Solomon, true wisdom meant a surprising ability to get below the surface so that truth would rise to the top. And that, too, is reason to celebrate.

There is always far more to celebrate than we might otherwise notice. All it takes is for us to look a little more carefully, to pay closer attention, to listen more lightly and move more intentionally. When we do that, we will be surprised that we didn’t see it before. It’s like sitting down in a bare patch of grass. It’s not until you’ve been there a while that you begin to see how life teems all around you.

May God give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to know.

Amen.

Together in Guidance

Who tells you the truth?

Today’s lesson is about the importance of truth tellers. King David is at the peak of his powers. He is expanding the Israelite kingdom with each and every battle. And at his side is Nathan, his trusted prophet and adviser, who is confronting him with a reality he has blissfully compartmentalized.

One of David’s greatest warriors is Uriah. Uriah is not an Israelite, but a Hittite. And yet, he has thrown his lot in with King David. He is out in the battlefield when David spies Uriah’s wife Bathsheba and is immediately, lustfully taken with her. In Uriah’s absence, they have an affair, in which Bathsheba becomes pregnant.

That’s the moment when David elevates the deceit to new levels: he calls Uriah home and urges him to, um, “spend quality time in his wife’s company”. That way, Uriah will think that the child is his. But unlike David, Uriah is a man of integrity. He refuses to enjoy the, um, “comforts of home” while his soldiers suffer in the field. After several tries, David then changes tactics: he sends Uriah back to the front lines carrying his own death sentence. The army is to charge; as soon as Uriah does, though, the rest of the army is to fall back. Uriah is killed in battle.

Nathan sees all of this transpire and confronts David. From the lesson, we don’t have any idea if Nathan was eager to do this or was quaking in his sandals. What we do know is that Nathan masterfully allows David to condemn himself with the parable of the rich and powerful man stealing all the poor man has. David loses himself in the story, becoming outraged at this tale of injustice. “This man deserves to die for what he did,” David shouts. “Not only does he need to repay the man, but repay him several times over. There’s no two ways about it: what this man did was flat out wrong!”

And that’s when Nathan drops the bomb: “You have condemned yourself! God has blessed you with riches and power beyond your wildest imagination. Have you forgotten that you were the youngest child of a shepherd in Bethlehem? And now, at the height of your power, in the palace God has built for you, you do evil. You said so yourself!”

With all of the authority that David commands, he is still subject to God’s word. And he is still capable of listening to the words of truth from the mouth of the prophet.

So: who tells you the truth?

This, to me, is a crucial question in the world we live in. It is the odd irony of the internet age that while the world is far smaller than ever before, we are able to silo ourselves off from others, condemning ourselves to isolation in echo chambers where all we hear are the voices of those who agree with us. We can even choose how we receive our news based on what it is that we want to believe. What we have lost is our ability to hear the unvarnished truth, especially when it’s hard for us to swallow.

So: who is it that tells you the truth?

Let me be clear: I’m less interested in who it is you tell the truth to. In some ways, that’s the easier task. What’s more difficult, and more needful, is to humble yourself to let others tell you where you have gone off track. In short, each of us needs a Nathan to keep us honest.

One of the reasons I am drawn to this idea of truth tellers is that I am struck a lot these days by the question of where the Church is headed. What we know is that what used to work doesn’t work any more. What we also know is that nobody knows what the answer is, what will cure our ill. The truth is that we can’t simply rely on “what we’ve always done” to keep the doors open. And for some of us, that’s a terrifying, even threatening, truth.

We don’t need to look much further than right here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian to recognize this. On the one hand, I see signs of God truly at work in our midst. We are a healthy church, one of the healthiest I’ve ever seen, in terms of ability to work through challenges and chart a course forward. There are a lot of dysfunctional congregations out there, and we are not one of them. I also see, time and time again, a leadership team that is willing to wrestle with difficult questions and think creatively. We are halfway through a successful Capital Campaign that has allowed us to deal with some of the more pressing issues in our facility.

Financially speaking, we ended 2013 with a surplus for the first time in years. We are almost on course for doing so in 2014, and are aiming for the same in 2015. We are in the middle of a new members’ class, the largest group we have had in a couple of years. And we continue to support a number of critical ministries outside of this building with our time, energy, and money.

At the same time, our attendance and membership numbers have been on the slow decline since last century. Depending on whose rule of thumb you follow, our Sanctuary can accommodate somewhere between 290 and 330 people, a capacity we have exceeded exactly once in the last fifteen years. That is, one Sunday out of 800. In fourteen of the last fifteen years, our average attendance has been less than 50% of capacity.

These are sobering statistics. What we are facing, my friends, is what churches across the nation are facing. And depending on your point of view, that is either welcome or distressing news. And what I know about Oglethorpe Presbyterian is what gives me hope. There are congregations who see realities like this and circle the wagons, clinging desperately to what once was, reminiscing in the glory days of decades gone by. I don’t think I have ever experienced that here.

And therein lies my hope for us, that God is still at work, that Christ is still in our midst. I am confident that this is not a time for despair, but a time for creativity. It is a time to be a part of the solution, not the problem. It is a time to see that we have an opportunity, a ministry here, one that the world needs.

Let me put it this way: think about the public face of Christianity today, and see if it matches up to the way I would describe us: We are a church where critical thinking and abiding faith go hand in hand. We are a church that doesn’t think it’s enough to say what we believe, but want to live that out as well. We are a church that thrives on transparency in our decision making, our financial management, in our joys and in our challenges. Is it just possible that we have been blessed with the distinctive and wondrous gifts of the Spirit that are God’s for the sharing? Is it conceivable that our ministry is a healthy antidote to the Americanized Christianity of 2014?

In short, we live in a time that calls us to be together in the guidance we seek from beyond ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I issued a challenge, one that I reiterate today. I invited each of us to reach out to someone we would like to get to know better, someone beyond this church community. The purpose is straightforward: to find out what makes them tick, what it is that moves them, what they find of value. I suggested that we each do this before the end of October. If you’re keeping score at home, you’ve got about two weeks left.

And the reason for this is simple. We, in the church, need relationships that are beyond these walls. We need to hear voices outside of our echo chambers. Because when we do, as a community, we begin to have a sense of what it is that matters to the world around us and where it is that we can connect with those deeper values.

In other words, we can see these voices as the truth tellers we seek. What is it that they desire? What are the barriers we unknowingly construct to keep them out? And where are those prophets, those modern-day Nathans, willing to confront us with the things to which we are otherwise blind?

My prayer today is that we would allow our eyes to be opened, to welcome the opening of our hearts, our lives, and ourselves. In doing so, may we become open to the truth of God’s creative possibilities, calling us more fully into who we might be!

Together in Openness

How fluent are you in the language of faith?

In today’s lesson, Joshua finds himself at the head of a people who have been through a great deal. In the course of forty years, they have gone from their enslavement in Egypt to victorious warriors about to inhabit land and begin the job of building a stable society. On the one hand, Joshua is leading a people who are marked by PTSD more than anything else. On the other hand, very few of the people Joshua leads are the ones who started the journey with Moses two generations before.

So as he gathers the people at Schechem, the northern city that will become the capital of Samaria, he relates the story of God’s amazing presence in their lives, reminding them that their whole inherited history is one of journey and wandering. He begins with Abraham, living in Ur of the Chaldeans, whom God brought through Canaan. Within a couple of generations, famine drove them into Egypt, and there they found themselves shackled. From there, Moses led them across the Red Sea and into the Transjordan desert. Joshua then reminds them of battles where God made them triumphant, until they have now crossed the Jordan River and stand in the valley between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim.

The truth is that forty years is a long time. Since few of them have lived the events Joshua describes, it’s likely that few of them have heard these stories, let alone know them. And so, Joshua lays it all out for them: in short, God has guided us along this amazing journey. We have picked up bits and pieces of other practices, rituals, gods along the way. It’s time to put them aside and focus on the God who has made all of this possible. In short, Joshua recognizes they have little fluency in the language of faith. It’s time they started to learn how to talk about God.

How fluent are we? How well do we know the language and stories of Scripture? How well are we able to describe our own personal experiences of God at work in our lives, guiding us through incredible journeys, giving us freedom and victory in the places we least expect it? Do we have the vocabulary? Or are we even open to learning in the first place?

My wife Elizabeth has family in Finland. One of their favorite jokes goes like this: What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

Whether or not that’s literally true, what is true is that most of us, regardless of nationality, learn languages because of necessity. If we suddenly found ourselves in a situation where English was not the international tongue, I’m pretty sure sales of Rosetta Stone would skyrocket.

I remember traveling through France in my twenties knowing no French whatsoever. I knew it would be a challenge to find my way around, and that I wasn’t going to be there long enough to learn functional French. I quickly learned that there were others ways to communicate.

At a train station, I approached the ticket window looking for timetables. I asked the man if he spoke English. Nope. Spanish? No. German? No. He then looked at me with a grin and said, “A little French.” We then found our way around the language barrier, thanks to pen, paper, and miming.

At the next station, I planned to do the same thing, and received the same answers: no English, no Spanish, no German, no grin. When I pulled out my notebook and started writing, the man was clearly frustrated because he thought he would get rid of me. Flustered, he then shouted in perfect English, “The next train to Paris is at 10:00!”

The reality is that it is a risk to cross those boundaries of language, culture, nationality, you name it. It takes an openness to try and, possibly, fail. It takes the willingness to be creative, to try again and again.

What language do we speak? And what language do we need to learn?

The truth is that while language is, in some ways, the most obvious barrier to communication, speaking the same tongue is not a guarantee that we will understand each other. One friend says to another “Got the keys”, to which the other replies, “OK”. It’s not until they’re locked out with no way to get back in that they realize she was asking about the keys, not telling.

Context is everything, and that’s something churches need to understand. We have a massive language barrier in our culture that has nothing to do with Spanish or Mandarin or Arabic or English or Hindi or Swahili. It has to do with the role that faith, that the church, plays in people’s lives. When we speak of God, when we talk about what church and community means, when we lift up the name of Christ, are we even speaking the same language as our neighbors?

Let’s put it this way: if you’re an English speaker living in a place where everyone speaks Portuguese, are you going to continue to speak English because it’s in their best interest, or are you going to learn Portuguese so you can communicate with them? Or to put it into an example from Christian history, are we going to be like the church of the 1300s, speaking Latin when no one else does?

You see, Presbyterians are inheritors of those folks who decided that praying, singing, reading Scripture in languages that people spoke was an important decision to make. It tore the church apart during the Reformation, but it also meant that the life of faith and the stories of Scripture immediately became accessible to whole communities of people who had been shut out before.

And here’s the amazing thing about that moment: it illuminated what was already so unique and important about Christianity in the first place! You see, Christianity has never been about the right language. The written Greek of the New Testament was, itself, already a linguistic mongrel of Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. It was almost immediately translated into other languages to make it understandable, which is how it ended up in Latin in the first place. And at the heart of it all was the fact that ours is an incarnational faith, one that knows God most intimately in Jesus, the very one who bridges what is inaccessible with what is accessible! If the church is going to remain faithful to that same Jesus, we need to question ourselves constantly as to whether we are putting up barriers, barriers that keep us in, barrier that keep others out.

A few weeks ago, I invited us to try an exercise. Some of you who have followed through have told me what an experience it was. I want to make that same invitation today, as a kind of exercise in openness and fluency. Some time before the end of October, I want you to invite one person to lunch or coffee or a walk, something that will give you a chance to get better acquainted, someone you know but have thought regularly, “I would love to get to know this person better.” The only caveat I would put is that it should not be someone within your church family.

What I want to encourage you to do is to get to know them better. Find out what makes them tick. Find out what matters to them, what is important to them. In short, learn the language of their values. If you’re willing, I would love to hear what you find out – about them, about yourself.

The goal, as I see it, is cultural fluency: learning the language of those who are just outside our door. Because when we do, we’ll stop speaking Latin. Instead, we’ll know, like Joshua, what it is that we need to be reminded of and what it is we have forgotten. As we stand in this place, it is a time to look back on where it is that God has brought us. It is also a time to look around us to remember where it is that we see the Spirit here and now.

And even more than all of this, it is a time to look forward. What we don’t know is what the future will bring. What we need are the tools, the language, to talk about God. And what we do know is that what is to come is known to Christ and Christ alone. And that should be the greatest news of all. After all, Christ is the one who will lead us and carry us forward into Christ’s future.

Are you ready?

Together in Love

What does it take to build our life together?

We start our worship series journey at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses, at God’s command, has led the people out of slavery, through the plagues and the Red Sea, out into the wilderness, on their way to their promised freedom. And here, at the relative beginning of that journey, they pause at the foot of a mountain so that Moses can confer with God and receive further instructions.

When he returns, among the words he shares with the people are those in our lesson this morning, which are often referred to as the Ten Commandments. There is more to be said about these rules for living than time permits this morning, so let us keep this in mind: these commandments are meant to shape the life of a people. They are meant to guide a community learning to live together in love.

Whatever instincts they might have had toward building a society are long gone due to the ravages of slavery. And so, God takes special care to lead them by the hand into the land of promise as they build a new and promising life together.

Moments like these, these Sinai moments, are important ones in the life of faith. And over the next few weeks as we journey through this worship series, we will touch on several key ones in our Scriptures. These moments act as markers, reminders of what is at stake and what is expected of us. They act as guideposts, pointing out the path we have trod and reminding us of what it has taken to get us where we are.

At its best, our Stewardship Campaigns should act as such a moment, a time when we gather together at a crossroads, remembering what God has done for us already and envisioning what God has in store for us in the years to come.

I do not, for a moment, claim to be Moses. And while I have had profound experiences of God, I do not pretend to have had the mountaintop “written in stone” kind of experience we have heard this morning. Instead, I hope you hear my thoughts this morning as just that: thoughts from your pastor, steeped in prayer and reflection, as we celebrate our 65th Anniversary as a congregation and look forward to what God has in store.

Every year when we begin our Stewardship Campaign, I am reminded that here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian, we hold two important realities in tension. The first is that it takes money to do ministry. All you have to do is look around this Sanctuary to be reminded of that. We have lights, heat, a sound system. We buy paper and equipment to have bulletins every Sunday. Tim, Cheryl, and I are all on staff. You compensate us for our time and work. It takes money to do ministry. And the second reality is this: we give away everything we do. If we truly believe that grace is God’s free gift to us, how in the world could we turn around and charge for it? There are no membership dues, no entrance fees. And if there are, my conviction is that something has gone very wrong.

This is an unworkable economic model. And yet, we make it work. Or should I say, God makes it work. Every year, we ask you to make a prayerful financial commitment to the work of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. And every year, you do. And every year, it more or less works out.

There’s a lot more to the story than that, of course. We have leaders working very hard behind the scenes, keeping costs down, monitoring our books, and thinking through how we ask for your commitment. Your donations and gifts come in weekly, monthly, annually to keep us going. And we make our accounting as transparent as possible. It’s an open book, which we believe is the most faithful way to manage what God has given us.

It’s in that Spirit of openness that I want to spend a few moments looking at numbers. You will have many chances to see these over the course of the next few months, so consider this a first look. I’m hoping that some of you will find this helpful.

For 2015, Session is asking the congregation for a total of $255,000 in pledged giving. We have several sources of income, the largest other one being building usage, but congregational giving is the single largest source of income. The goal this year is to make our ask during Stewardship season only. The past two years we have done an additional mid-year ask in order to fill in the gap, and you all have responded generously. But I get the feeling that we’re all getting a little tired of doing that. So let’s put it all on the table here: $255,000 in pledge giving is what Session projects we will need in order to have enough income to pay all of our expenses in 2015.

If you want to break it down, there are a couple of different ways to do so. For example, we have 131 members on the roles. Per member, that total works out to about $1,950 for the year, or $37.50 per week. Membership is one way to look at this, but there are many who support Oglethorpe with time and energy and finances that are not officially members of the church.

If we break it down by worship attendance, we average about 90 people on a Sunday morning. That works out to $2,850 per person per year, or $55 per person per week. Of course, we have members who give but are unable to attend due to health or work.

One other way to look at it is by income. A few years ago, we surveyed the congregation and learned that our average household income is $117,452. With about seventy pledges coming in, that works out to about 3% of household income, or about $3,650 per pledging household per year, or $70 per week.

I thought he was going to preach today!

Look: the whole reason I share all of these numbers with you today is in hopes that it might be helpful to some of you. These are some of the figures that help paint the financial picture of what it takes to build our life together. None of this is prescriptive. Some of you are able to give above average, and others below. And, above all, I trust you to know what is possible in your own life. All I ask is that you make your consideration steeped in prayer.

The point in all of this is that we make our commitments not as a collection of individuals, but as a community of faith who share life together. Faith is meant to be a shared enterprise. That tends to fly in the face of what our culture teaches us about the centrality of self-reliance and independence. 77% of Americans consider themselves Christians. A third of those attend services less than twice a month. In other words, the number of Americans who self-identify as “Christian” without participating in any kind of church or faith community is staggering.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe for a moment that the Spirit is magically contained by the four walls of a church building, or that somehow Christ can only be present in the lives of those who are on the membership rolls, or that the most important thing to God is your attendance record. That said, what we know – from the stories of Scripture to the way our very bodies and brains are wired – is that the life of faith is meant to be shared together. It’s how we build our life together. It’s how we encourage one another, how we challenge one another, how we teach and learn from one another. It’s how we pool our resources, how we move out into the world, how we become Christ’s hands and feet.

It is, ultimately, how we become partners with God in building God’s beloved kingdom, making mercy and grace something tangible to the world around us! It is how we come together in love and share that love with one another and with the world around us.

We do not charge for God’s free gift of grace. Instead, my prayer today is that it would give us a charge, sending us forward from the foot of this mountain and on into that place of promise that awaits us.

Amen.

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