Sunday, May 15, 2011

New beginnings...

Living a life is sort of like writing a novel, except you don't get to make revisions. Which is why you occasionally see a life such as mine, marked by a series of new beginnings. The journey is a meandering one, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

It has been two months since I last preached at First Christian. And surprisingly, I am doing OK. A door has closed. And now I am keeping an eye peeled -- heck, I've got both eyes peeled -- to see what new doors open.

Every day is a precious surprise.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

God and lawn care

I plan to keep the following tale in mind the next time one of my neighbors gives me the hairy eyeball -- just because I'm letting the dandelions grow a bit in my front yard. It's God's take on lawn care, as received via email just now from my friend, Rudy:

GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.

St. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers 'weeds' and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But, it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It's sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -- sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Sir.

These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It's a natural cycle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough! I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: 'Dumb and Dumber,' Lord. It's a story about....

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Heaven -- not a "where" or a "what," but a "who"

What is a school, if not its teachers and students? The building that bears the name of "school" is secondary.

What is a church, if not a congregation of men, women and children with God in their midst? Tear down the steeple and burn the sanctuary to the ground, and the Church will endure.

What is the New Jerusalem, if not the Church triumphant? Physically, it will be the most beautiful place in this or any other universe, but it is heaven because the Church is there – and because God lives there.

Heaven is the ultimate expression of God’s Church. That is the New Jerusalem. And my local church – this congregation of people that dates back to 1835 – is one building block in the New Jerusalem.

What we're doing is important, eh?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Resurrection is in the air

Here's a column I wrote for the Augusta Chronicle. It ran on Saturday, April 3 -- the day before Easter Sunday:

A few mornings ago, I looked out a rear window of my house and spotted a squirrel leaping from tree to tree, staging a solo trapeze act. He was celebrating, flying from limb to limb as though something truly exciting were happening in his little squirrel life.

Next door, my neighbor's dogwoods are blooming. On the ground in my backyard, cardinals and mockingbirds are hopping around. Clearly, nature is proclaiming a season of resurrection -- of rebirth.

My Jewish friends were celebrating Passover this past week, with plenty of good food, fellowship and laughter. One friend, who is male and doesn't normally cook, is still talking about the soup he prepared for Monday evening's Seder -- and about the brave souls who were willing to try it.

Around the world, small groups of family and friends sat together and retold the beautiful Passover story -- of how the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivered his people out of bondage in Egypt. At its heart, it is a resurrection story.

It is no accident that Passover and Easter fall at about the same time. Christian Scripture records that Jesus visited Jerusalem during the final week of his life to celebrate Passover with his friends. While he was there, he ran afoul of the local Chamber of Commerce and the preacher's guild, and they arranged to have him killed.

Further, Christians believe that after Jesus' execution on the Friday afternoon during Passover week, he was raised from the dead early the following Sunday morning.

As a Christian pastor, I hope you believe the story. If you do not, then let us come together where we are able. Let us focus on the one clear and undeniable thing on which we can agree: We are in a season of resurrection, you and I. To see it, all you need to do is look out your window.

Let us come to a table together and celebrate it, each in our own way.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The visitor in the corner

One of my favorite people told me about a small drama that occurred near the back of our church while we were celebrating communion this past Sunday morning.

A sort of rough-looking visitor got excited as the little cups full of burgundy-colored juice came his way. "Now, I like this church!" he exclaimed as he reached out for a drink. Alas, it turned out to be grape juice.

Someone with whom I shared the story suggested that we should have sent him down the street to the Catholics or the Lutherans -- where they serve real wine like what Jesus drank.

But our visitor came to our table. And though he might not have gotten what he wanted or expected, he got what he needed. I'm hoping he comes back next Sunday.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Come to the Water: a sermon based on Isaiah 55:1-9

I delivered this sermon on Sunday morning, March 7, 2010 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Augusta, Ga.

Scripture Reading

Isa 55:1 “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Isa 55:2 Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Isa 55:3 Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.
Isa 55:4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples.
Isa 55:5 Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.”
Isa 55:6 Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.
Isa 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
Isa 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.
Isa 55:9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.


A friend dropped by the church this past week to drop off some stuff for the yard sale. We chatted for a few minutes about the odds and ends that were slowly accumulating in the fellowship hall. And it happened to be lunchtime, so I invited my friend out for a bite to eat.

I tend to go off half-cocked sometimes, so it wasn’t until we were actually in the rear parking lot on the way to the Sunshine Bakery that I thought to check my wallet. I peered inside, and there lay precisely four one-dollar bills. Well, the Sunshine Bakery is an inexpensive place to eat – but it’s not THAT inexpensive.

The situation was complicated by the fact that I’d left my checkbook – with my debit card inside – at home. So, I confessed to my friend what had happened. She reassured me that everything was OK. “Hey, Charlie. I’ve got a 20-dollar bill and a debit card. It’s all good!”

So, I was forgiven for being financially challenged – and we shared a pleasant meal together. It wasn’t until later – when I sat down to consider today’s scripture – that it dawned on me that I had lived out the metaphor that you see in the first few verses of today’s scripture.

Do you, as a congregation, seek to worship Yahweh? You want to celebrate your relationship with the living God? Well, then – come to the feast.

If you’re thirsty, come! You don’t have any money? Well – you couldn’t afford it, even if you did have money. You’re still invited. You’ll have all of the wine you can handle, and the milk will flow freely – and it won’t cost you a dime! It’s already paid for!

Jesus Christ paid for it, and the debt was stamped paid-in-full on the first Easter Sunday morning.

Of course, the prophet Isaiah was writing sometime before Jesus’ earthly ministry – a little over 700 years before, in fact.

Isaiah is writing about the end of a coming period of exile for the Jewish people. In 586 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II will enter Jerusalem. He will pillage the city and destroy King Solomon’s temple. And a sizable portion of the population of Judah will be forcibly uprooted and moved to other parts of the Babylonian empire.

But political tides ebb and flow – and things change. And in time, the Persians will overthrow the Babylonians. And a little less than 50 years after Nebuchadnezzar’s troops destroyed Jerusalem, the Persians will permit the return of the Jews from exile. They resettle the city. And in time – despite rather fierce opposition from their neighbors – they will rebuild the city’s walls and build a new temple.

So, in its original context, this entire section of Isaiah is a long celebration of God’s coming work through the Persian ruler, Darius, to restore Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile. The Jewish people will be forced to leave. But they will return, and they will seek (with God’s help) to rebuild Jerusalem.

You find the complete story in the Book of Ezra, chapters 3-6. It describes how the returned exiles will seek to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, although their neighbors oppose the project. How, although an earlier king, Cyrus of Persia, had given his OK, the neighbors will seek to intimidate those who would rebuild the temple. They’ll even bribe public officials to stop the project for awhile.

But finally, Darius will become king of Persia. And after some back-and-forth, he’ll even offer to pay for the project, funding it with a portion of the tribute that Persia is receiving from the region in which Judea is located.

"Whatever is needed – young bulls, rams, or sheep for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine or oil, as the priests in Jerusalem require – let that be given to them day by day without fail. I, Darius, decree it!"

So, in the second year of Darius’ reign, they will resume work on the new temple. And after four years of steady working, they will finish it – and worship God there.

Well, Darius is no Jew, not by a long shot. And the first Christian won’t show up for another several hundred years. But God will use Darius, this ruler of the Persians who will provide much that will enable Jerusalem to be reborn.

But you know, as tens of thousands of Jews continue to return from exile, they will need more than building supplies and food. Indeed, those things are inconsequential compared to the most important thing they need. For the restoration of their great city will not happen unless they first connect with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the living God on whom all depends.

The people of Jerusalem are left looking within themselves for the faith, the vision, and the spiritual connectedness with God to match this opportunity which God has provided. They can rebuild their city now. But without God, it won’t happen.

So, in the eighth century BC, God lets the Jewish people know that there will come a time of exile. And that after the exile, he will invite them into a new relationship with him. Come, he says. Come, all you who are thirsty. Come to the waters. You who have no money – come, buy, and eat! Come, there is plenty of wine and milk – and it costs nothing. Come into relationship with me, and your spirit will no longer be thirsty.

Yes, you have a city that is just waiting for you to come and rebuild it. But more importantly – more essentially – the God of your fathers invites you into a new relationship. You have endured a long period of exile – a period of penance for the sins of your fathers. It was not unlike a 50-year-long period of Lent. But the exile is over now. Come to the water and drink. Come, quench your thirst at the fountain that never runs dry.

It’s a beautiful Old Testament story. But you and I are New Testament people. So, what does it say to us?

Well, several hundred years after Isaiah, there will come a day when Jesus has been walking all morning. It’s getting toward lunchtime. And he comes to a town in Samaria – hated Samaria – to a well that the patriarch, Jacob, had had dug many hundreds of years earlier.

He’s hot. He’s tired. Jesus, our Lord and Savior – entirely divine, yet entirely human – he’s hot and he’s tired. So he sits down to rest for a bit, and there is a woman at the well. And Jesus asks her for a drink of water. And they talk – this Jewish man and this Samaritan woman. The situation was slightly scandalous.

After a bit, Jesus lays it on the line. He says to the woman, “Everybody who drinks (the water from this well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The water is freely available. All it takes is that you put aside the ways of evil and turn to the Lord. Do that and accept God’s pardon – accept his grace, which is freely available.

There is hope. For you and I have this promise of a well that never runs dry. So, sweet sinners: confess and repent of your sins, for God’s pardon is freely available. Simply repent and seek a drink of water from a well that never runs dry.

I have told you before about Carson Stewart, a man who taught me how to grow tomatoes when I was a boy. And while he was teaching me about tomatoes, he talked to me about God.

I believe I’ve shared with you before Mr. Carson’s way of reading the 23rd Psalm. He would invite us to replace the first-person pronouns with our own names. In case you weren’t here the first time I did this, let me share it with you again this morning. In those places where I use my name, I invite you to use your own:

Ps 23:1 The LORD is Charlie’s shepherd, Charlie shall not be in want.
Ps 23:2 He makes Charlie lie down in green pastures, he leads Charlie beside quiet waters,
Ps 23:3 he restores Charlie’s soul. He guides Charlie in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Ps 23:4 Even though Charlie walks through the valley of the shadow of death, Charlie will fear no evil, for you are with Charlie; your rod and your staff, they comfort Charlie.
... And then it concludes:
Ps 23:6 Surely goodness and love will follow Charlie all the days of his life, and Charlie will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

It’s one of the main lessons of Lent. God loves ME – even a sinner like me. Can there be any doubt in your mind that he loves you, too? He offers you cool water this morning. Take it – and drink.

God’s grace flows like a cold, clear mountain stream. It refreshes you. It cleanses you. Just step into the water. Let it wash over you.

It’s been a long, hot day – and you’re tired. But that dry, parched place that you thought nobody would ever touch – he touches it. Your deepest wound – the hurt that’s so bad you never talk about it with anyone – God is already there. Open yourself to the relationship. He will heal you.

That place inside that’s so raw you don’t dare to let anybody see it – the place you barely admit to yourself is there – God stands ready to reach out and heal you. Go to him in prayer and seek healing this morning.

Do you love God? Well, you need to understand: he loves you even more. Before the beginning of time, he knew you. Before he created the world, he knew your name. Across the ages, he calls out to you.

Come. Drink of the water this morning.


Friday, February 26, 2010

A Sermon, delivered on Feb. 21, 2010

I delivered this sermon on Feb. 21, 2010 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Augusta, Ga. If I remember, I'll post more sermons as time and opportunity allow.

Exodus 34:29-35

Ex 34:29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD.
Ex 34:30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.
Ex 34:31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them.
Ex 34:32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai.
Ex 34:33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face.
Ex 34:34 But whenever he entered the LORD'S presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,
Ex 34:35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD.

So, I was working on my sermon Friday afternoon in my office up in the corner room above the fellowship hall. I was wrestling with this encounter that Moses had with God up on Mount Sinai, and the way it affected him. How he was confronted with the very presence of God, and it changed him in a way that people couldn’t help but notice.

I was wrestling with it mightily. I was in the throes of sermon making – and the doorbell rang at the back door. I was the only one in the building. And the doorbell rang – and I may have said something unpreacherly. I set my notepad down and trundled downstairs.

It takes a little while to make the trip along the catwalk and then down the stairs, on to the back door. The doorbell rang another time or two while I was making the journey – and I may have muttered another unpreacherly word or two while I was making my way.

I opened the door and there stood a young couple. It was cold, so I invited them inside. Alex is a soldier stationed at Fort Gordon, and Krystal is his fiancé. They had a marriage license in hand, and they were going from one church to the next throughout downtown, looking for someone who could marry them.

Apparently, all the other preachers had caught wind of the fact that a snowstorm was on the way, and had had the good sense to go home. So, they showed up finally at our back door – and found me.

I talked to them. Learned that they both had Christian backgrounds. He’d been raised Lutheran, and she had some experience in the Christian church. He didn’t know where the Army might take him, but he wanted Krystal to be his wife – and to have the benefits that the Army affords the spouses of soldiers.

So, I printed out a copy of a wedding ceremony that I’d used before, and sort of adapted it on the fly. I put on my robe and stole – and Alex, Krystal and I made our way into the sanctuary, where the three of us conducted a wedding ceremony.

I told them that we usually charged $975 for the use of the facility – but that we’d waive that this time, as we had not even turned the heat on. We had witnesses of a sort. Krystal set up her cell phone on the communion table, recording video for her grandmother.

We finished the ceremony – and chatted. I filled out their marriage license and said a prayer – and sent them on their way. And I retreated again to my office to again ponder Moses, and the effects of his encounter with God up on Mount Sinai.

I was just getting into it – really starting to get focused on the reflected glory of God that was visible in Moses’ face – when the doorbell rang again. And I said something unpreacherly – and trundled along the catwalk and down the stairs. I opened the back door and there was my favorite street person, whose name is Eddie. And it was cold, so I invited him inside.

A few of you know Eddie. He always has a smile on his face, and he talks to everybody. And so he walked in and brought me up to date on how things are going in his life. Eddie has found a place to live – and is covering the rent with income from odd jobs. He’s looking for help with clothes – underwear, socks, and that sort of thing. If any of you would like to help, I have a list of his sizes in my office.
I gave Eddie a couple of the bagged lunches that we keep in the fellowship hall. And I wished him luck – and sent him on his way.

Shortly after Eddie left, the first flakes of snow began to fall. It was just a few at first. Then, they started really coming – big, fat flakes twirling their way down from the sky. I didn’t even make it back into my office. First, I stood on the catwalk in the fellowship hall, watching the snow fall. Then, it intensified.

Finally, I walked outside into the rear parking lot. And the flurries kept coming with no sign of letting up. The last time I’d seen anything like it, I was visiting friends in upstate New York. Anybody who happened to drive past our church at that moment might have been amused – or maybe a little startled – to see the preacher standing out in the middle of the rear parking lot with his arms outstretched, his face lifted to the sky, welcoming the snow.

The parking lot was empty except for me and my car. Everybody else whose cars would normally be there on a Friday afternoon had had the good sense to go home. But I wasn’t alone. God was there with me, dancing in the snow.

Sometimes, sweet people, I am slow to understand when God is talking to me. The truth is that I was blessed with three distinct encounters with God, all on a Friday afternoon.

When that young couple said their vows here in our sanctuary, God was here with us – as surely as he was with Moses on Mount Sinai. The three of us stood here, but a fourth person was also present. God stood here with us, too, and he blessed their union.

When Eddie visited, God was a partner to the conversation. The ministry of this church extends to all who come knocking at our back door. And when I shared with Eddie a couple of the bagged lunches that members of this church have so lovingly prepared, God blessed that act of ministry. And he was present – just as surely as he was on Mount Sinai.

And when the snow fell, God was present in that, too.
Ps 29:1 Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ps 29:2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.
Ps 29:3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.
Ps 29:4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic.
Ps 29:5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
Ps 29:6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox.
Ps 29:7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning.
Ps 29:8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
Ps 29:9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

You hear the voice of the Lord in the storm. And you feel the touch of God’s hand in the snow.

I was blessed with three direct encounters with God, all on a Friday afternoon. You cannot experience God that way and not be affected. The spirit of the Lord touches you when you least expect it, and it changes you.

Thursday evening when we held our monthly board meeting, some of us talked about the coming snow. I told several folks that I remembered being a boy and how excited I’d been when the snow came – excited in a way that only southerners, really, can appreciate. For us, snow is a rare and precious gift.

But I wasn’t excited about this week’s snow before it came. And that worried me. It made me think that maybe I’d lost some of my capacity for appreciating life’s joyous moments. That maybe I’d finally become a dull grownup.

My heart was not filled with anticipatory joy before Friday’s snow came. But then, I conducted an unexpected wedding. And I had a talk with Eddie. And the snow came – and in the twirling flakes, I felt God’s hand touching my face. And unexpectedly, I found myself standing in God’s parking lot, my hands lifted to the sky, crying “Glory!”

I don’t know that my face glowed with God’s reflected glory the way Moses’ did. But it changed me, the way only God’s holy spirit can change you.

God confronts you when you least expect it. He touches you through encounters with other people – or you hear his voice in the storm.

I invite you to remain open to encounters with God this morning. Listen for his voice. Wait for his touch. It will change you.