Sunday, August 25, 2013

Set Free

Preached at Prescott American Baptist Church
August 25, 2013
Luke 13:10-17

He was teaching. It was the Sabbath day in the synagogue and Jesus was teaching. No word is recorded about what he was teaching before the bent woman entered the synagogue and got his attention. I have had teachers—so have you—who really teach, really live out and model fully the lesson they are trying to pass along to the students.

She entered the synagogue without any expectation that today will be a different Sabbath day than any of the others she has lived. Bent over and looking down, she is accustomed to studying the ankles and feet of her neighbors and friends. Bones are so unforgiving. Once they curl and knot up with arthritis, they pull us toward the ground. She had been looking down for eighteen years. It wasn’t something she expected to change. She went to the synagogue for Sabbath worship because it was her habit, her tradition. Strong inside her like bones,  her tradition of  regular worship was the central architecture of her life. She had been entering that synagogue with a crippling spirit for eighteen years and this Sabbath day seemed like all the others. 

She couldn’t see Jesus, unless his feet fell under her face and into her gaze. She didn’t have to see him. He saw her. And the teacher saw his chance to teach the lesson in an unforgettable way.

She didn’t ask for healing, didn’t request a miracle. She didn’t write out a list of her needs. She didn’t have to say what she needed. Jesus could see for himself that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, had been bent and bound for a long time and she needed a chance to see the faces of her neighbors and friends. She needed to be set free. 

This woman, who gets set free but is never given a name of her own, becomes a living testimony as she straightens up and immediately begins to praise God. She is a testimony to the freedom that God can give and does give to any of us since all of us know what it is to be robbed of life’s fullness and freedom. All of us have been bent toward the ground by one burden or another. 

This week, on Wednesday, we will recognize the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It was a march for civil rights, a march for jobs, a march for equal opportunity, a march for freedom. August 28, 1963. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to mobilize all of us in this country against the burden of racism, a burden that continues to bend us and twist us and keep us from living freely and fully. We don’t even know how to have a decent conversation about racism. 

Dr. King had a written speech in front of him as he stood before 250,000 people. He was struggling with it, some sentences too awkward to be eloquent. And it was the voice of Mahalia Jackson he heard. “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” she urged. And so he left the manuscript and soared freely into a speech that we remember, a speech that inspires us still, after fifty years. A dream. That we might all be free and recognized for our character rather than for the color of our skin. 

Michele Norris , an NPR journalist, created a project she calls “The Race Card Project.” She was curious about people’s individual experiences with race. She sent out postcards and challenged people to write about their experiences with race – telling about it in only 6 words.  Some of the responses:

“She volunteered to sit by me.” 

Drinking from the wrong fountain: Colored.” 

“My great great grandfather owned slaves.” 

“A terrible, unnecessary barrier against love.”

Norris reports that the postcards tell six word tales of heartache, regret, violence, guilt, anger and defeat. The post card stories speak to personal encounters, small unpredictable moments that leave a big impression. 

Fifty years ago a quarter million people stood before the Lincoln Memorial and dreamed of a day when race would no longer define us, twist us, limit us and and bend us over as a nation.
Those who work to maintain the status quo have a job to do. Their voices are loud and the volume makes their voice sound like power and authority. “We do not have a racial problem in this country. We are living in a post racial world. Stop your whining. Get on with being free.”

Yet the President of our nation said recently after the Trayvon Martin verdict: “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. And there are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.” 

Racism continues to bend us over and bind us so that we cannot straighten up and move forward toward the dream. It keeps us from seeing each other, really seeing each other, face to face.

Jesus touches the woman and she stands straight up. Immediately she began to praise God. Her praise and her worship became something new, something far more than dutiful or obligatory. Her praise and her worship were part of the miracle after she was set free from her bent bone stance. This one woman, healed and set free, has sent ripples of connections, understanding and hope through the ages. We know the longing to be touched, straightened up and set free. 

“Tell them about the dream, Martin.” 

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of Brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day, even in the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

I have a dream today…”

Because we share the dream we are committed to the work—every day of the week. Because we share the faith we trust that one day our dreams will be reality. Because we have been touched and healed we know the joy of the bent woman. And that is why we gather here—to be part of the miracle working power of God’s presence among us. To meet the teacher, to learn and to be touched until we are all set free.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Running on Faith

Preached at Prescott American Baptist Church
August 18, 2013
Hebrews 11: 29-12:2

I have been thinking about and praying for Prescott this week. It is on my mind: this plan for you to engage in discernment and prayer, seeking God’s guidance for some decisions and possible future joint relationship with Shady Grove Presbyterian Church. 

Discernment involves honesty about your needs, challenges and fears. Congregational discernment includes feeling secure enough as a community to create safe space for all voices to be lifted and all concerns to be respectfully received. Discernment allows for silence, even God’s silent response. Discernment demands time and patience. 

I must say, from my point of view, this is a very exciting time for Prescott. I don’t think any one of you pretends to know where Prescott is going or what needs to be done. I suspect that each Prescott member has a heart for one direction or another, one decision over others. Yet you seem to be willing to come together, to pray, to open your hearts, to listen and accept that, in not really knowing the answer or the best way, you might discover a new way to be Prescott, a new way to live out your faith, a new way to be closer to the heart of God. 

In last week's sermon I focused on the reality of the Spirit alive and at work within and among us. I urged all of us to be less afraid and more courageous. This week I want to mention other realities like: paying a preacher, decreasing attendance at Sunday worship, constant struggle to meet the congregation’s budgetary requirements. Along with fear of being swallowed up by another (larger) congregation, fear of losing your identity as a people, fear of making a mistake and living with regret.

While we all acknowledge that the Spirit of God is within and among us--These  other realities also live in a very real way in the life of Prescott and it faith, its ministries, its history and its inheritance. 

One day this week I had reason to drive east on Walnut Grove, beyond the Germantown Parkway exit. I don’t remember ever doing that before, ever going that far east on Walnut Grove.  I was stunned by the number of huge churches I saw along the way. Covenant United Methodist Church is mammoth. Then there’s a gargantuan First Assembly of God that appears to include a school. Although I have heard about Hope Presbyterian for many years, my jaw dropped when I actually saw it for the first time! Life Church is huge and pristine. Then there’s a Christian school, Briarcrest Academy, which amazes me with its size. 

These big churches make smaller churches, like Prescott and so many others, wonder: Are we CHURCH in the same way that those huge faith communities are CHURCH? Have we failed the community in some way that we have not grown and grown over the years? Or have we somehow been so faithful to God’s call that we are small and surviving by divine design? 

Hebrews, the epistle where today’s lectionary text was found, is a challenge to interpret. Scholars cannot be sure who the author is. It is written to a community that the author saw as being in a perilous situation. He urges them to remain faithful, warning them against drifting away from regular worship and prayers or losing confidence in God’s promises. The letter of Hebrews is directed to a community of Christians who still identify with their Jewish heritage. They know the Old Testament or Torah. They are only becoming familiar with the Christian story.

There may be people here at Prescott who are only now becoming familiar with Prescott’s story of courage and faith:

In the 1950’s, Prescott’s membership peaked at 1700. Then in 1967, Prescott opened the doors of the church to people of all races, and although this was an example of Prescott’s pioneering faith in action, that act of inclusion diminished the size of the congregation substantially. When Dr. King came to Memphis in 1968 and was assassinated, Prescott was proud to be represented by its pastor, Rev. Bob Troutman, in the march through Memphis streets. In 1970, Prescott elected two women, Annette Bickers and Evelyn Stell, as deacons. This was newsworthy at the time.

In 1983, Prescott sponsored Tom Walsh and Jimmy Burkeen on a mission trip to the USSR and that became the foundation for the founding of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. That was the same year Prescott affiliated itself with the American Baptists. In 1984, Prescott ordained a woman to pastoral ministry, Dianne Housam-Abbott. In 1987, Prescott became the first Southern Baptist Church in Tennessee to call a female pastor, Nancy Sehested. Continuing its courageous and pioneering acts of good faith, Prescott voted in 1997, to give full membership rights and privileges to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. 

You know these things. Many of you here this morning have held Prescott at the center of your life and heart for most of your life. And if you did not personally live through these events, then you have chosen along the way to identify yourself with Prescott because you also long to be a courageous pioneer in the faith. 

You are a community of followers of Jesus Christ, openly welcoming and accepting all people. In all things you remain open to the Holy Spirit. You are a pioneering and risk taking congregation, a small congregation with a large mission. 

I am simply reminding you of what you already know. You are not alone. You are together in the challenges you face and in the celebration of what you have done in the past.
 With God at your side and in your hearts you have made a difference in this city and the world. Your good will spreads all over the globe. That will continue. You will always be pioneers of the faith because you are motivated by the inheritance that is yours: the love of Christ, the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds you and the passion you have for including all God’s children in the good news of life everlasting. 

The author of Hebrews lists heroes of the faith. One was a prostitute. And another was Jephthah who made a vow to God. Jephthah kept the vow and his daughter lost her life.   Some pioneers of the faith were tortured, stoned, mocked and some were sawn in two—a gruesome and grizzly image. 

You know very well that being faithful does not guarantee purity of heart, peace, prosperity and good health. What it does guarantee is that you are not alone and that your ministries are not without meaning, purpose, and hope. This guarantee holds fast whether your congregation numbers in the thousands or is small enough to fit easily into the life and space of another congregation. 

You may have heard the story of John Stephen Akhwari, the marathon runner from Tanzania who finished last at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. No last-place finisher in a marathon ever finished quite so last. Injured along the way, he hobbled into the stadium with his leg bloodied and bandaged. It was more than an hour after the rest of the runners had completed the race. Only a few spectators were left in the stands when Akhwari finally crossed the finish line. When asked why he continued to run despite the pain, Akhwari replied, "My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me here to finish."

Why race if we are not in it for the trophy? The applause and acclaim? Why be a church if we’re not going to be the biggest and the most amazing congregation in town? Aren’t we running to be the winner of this race? 

The author of Hebrews urges us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us. On Wednesday evening you will gather to pray, to be together and to listen once again for God’s call on this courageous and pioneering congregation. You run your race on faith.

You are people willing to take risks, to do a new thing, willing to discover a new way to be closer to the heart of God. 


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Our Treasure

Preached at Prescott Baptist Church
August 11, 2013
Luke 12:32-40

Fear comes and goes. We’re all afraid of something; if not right now then later on today something will jump up and leave us feeling threatened. Fear comes with being alive and human. The embassies were shut down because of fear of terrorist attacks. More than sixty people were killed at the close of Ramadan in Iraq yesterday. I could go on but you can quickly come up with your own list of frightening events and facts. I feel afraid if I don’t hear from my daughter for more than a couple days.

“Do not be afraid, little flock…” I don’t think Jesus is asking us to be something other than human when he urges us not to be afraid. I think he is inviting us to be more of what it means to be human. 

In his book, The Powers That Be, Walter Wink begins by writing: “This book is unashamedly about things spiritual. It assumes that spiritual reality is at the heart of everything, from photons to supernovas, from a Little League baseball team to Boeing Aircraft. I see spirit—the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God—at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship.” Every human being—has the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God.

I believe that the Spirit of God directed my eye to see this book by Walter Wink on the shelf at the Memphis Theological library. I believe the Spirit knew it was the right time for me to have the opportunity to read this book. Does that kind of belief make me crazy? In some ways, yes, I am crazy. Crazy in the way the dominant world view sees reality.

On page 17 of Wink’s book he describes “The Materialistic Worldview” as a view of reality that recognizes matter as that which is ultimate. If we can see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it- then it is real. If reason can define and explain it- then it exists. This worldview excludes from reality The Kingdom of God, the very place where we live and find our faith and our courage.
What is real? What reality do we value? We, the resurrection people? Our faith tells us that even death has been conquered by love. Is that real for us, real in a way that sets us apart and helps us have courage when we are threatened?

My next door neighbor, Jeannie, had her laptop stolen a couple weeks ago. The laptop, one she uses for her work as a PR person, was in its place in her upstairs office at home. Before going to bed on a Monday night, Jeannie went out the front door to walk her dog to the corner and back. In the five minutes she was outside, someone came into her house, walked up the creaky stairs, picked up her laptop and its cord and exited through the back yard. The laptop alone was worth about $1200 and when you add the value of all the professional information, documents and pictures included in what Jeannie lost - the value is priceless. Her peace of mind was jeopardized as was ours. 

Frightened. Of course she was frightened. The back door was wide open. Her partner, Phil, was upstairs! Was he hurt? Was someone hiding in the basement? We all tremble with Jeannie—hearing this story. We value our security, our peace of mind and the safety of our home. This is real for all of us. 

And yet, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms.” 

It’s hard for us to seriously entertain the notion of any of us selling our possessions: house, furniture, clothing and cars. Only then to turn around and hand out offerings to the poor, maybe even handing a ten to the man who holds Jeannie’s laptop. That notion doesn’t fit into our worldview because we have been educated and raised in a culture that trains us to see our possessions, our monthly income and all of its purchasing power, as having ultimate value, our treasure. We have come to believe that we have earned what we own. Earning and owning give us the illusion of security, being set apart from the threats of the world.

There was an interesting story in the news yesterday. Candy Stallings, the executive director for a Sexual Assault Service Center in San Bernardino, California was awakened in the night by a call from the police. The service center had been robbed and the thieves had come in through the roof. All of the computer towers and laptops were stolen. Ms Stallings got out of bed and went down to the center and did what needed to be done. Then she went back home to get an hour of sleep before another work day began. She was interrupted by another call from the police. There was something suspicious happening at the center. She got up and went out to meet the police again. This time she was stunned to see all of the laptops and towers returned with a note from the thieves: “We had no idea what we were taking. Here your stuff back. We hope that you guys can continue to make a difference in peoples live. God bless.”

We had no idea what we were taking. No idea. What a confession. What a universal confession of our limitations as finite creatures. We come out of the womb and our lungs fill with oxygen for the first time. We have no idea what oxygen is or how valuable it will be to us from that moment until the last moment we live in these human bodies. We had no idea and yet it was ours and remains freely available to us whether we acknowledge its value—or not. Free to people who live in mansions and free to people who live under the by-pass.
The San Bernardino thieves thought they valued the laptops and computers but they were surprised to learn that they valued the work done at the sexual assault center more than they valued the stolen goods and what those goods might bring to them in terms of cash on the street. There was a conversion experience that night. 

And that’s what Jesus was attempting to inspire on his way to Jerusalem as he talked with his disciples. A conversion experience that would transform the disciples’ world view, set them apart as people whose values and response to fear are different than that of the dominant culture.

Jesus says that God takes pleasure in giving the Kingdom to us. Then, to fully illustrate the reality he sees, he tells them about a master who comes home late at night and puts on an apron and serves the seated slaves.  

The Kingdom of God with all of its ultimate treasure doesn’t belong to us because we work hard and stay out of trouble. The Kingdom of God belongs to us because God takes pleasure in giving it to us. And that is where the disciples were headed as they walked along the road to Jerusalem. They were walking into a new way of understanding life, their possessions, their humanity and their God.

Phyllis Tickle, long time religion editor at Publishers Weekly and a prolific writer about all things churchy and Christian, says: “To be a people set apart we must have a deep understanding of what has set us apart and a daily practice that reminds us of who we are in this place apart. Our children must know the stories of our faith community and they must learn to value the daily practice and the stories.”

We are not expected to live without any fear. That would make us something other than human.  The challenge of our faith is to live as people who are alert for the presence and power of God in every breath we take. It’s a spiritual discipline. The stories of our faith teach us that we are not alone and that fear, even feeling our fear and honestly reflecting on its power in our lives, can be an opportunity to engage in a conversion experience--moving us closer to the God who takes pleasure in giving us The Kingdom. Moving us closer to that which we truly value.

We come together as church to recognize and claim the ultimate treasure of our faith, the steadfast love of God.  Here we realize that we are accepted, valued and loved. Here we are reminded that to exist is to be loved. We are not required to crawl through briars on our knees. We are not asked to give laptops away every Monday evening. We do not have to spend years in a monastery before God notices us. The love of God is our liberation, the open door that can transform our fear to faith.

Nobody can steal the pleasure God takes in giving you the Kingdom. You are safe. This is our treasure.