I absolutely love this time of year. I love the cooler temperatures, and the beautiful Fall colors. I love the fact that football is being played with fervor and passion by kids and adults. I love the foods that we eat in the Fall. I love to cook spicy dishes and eat anything that suggests that it’s Fall.
One thing that doesn’t get me excited about Fall is what happens every other year. I’m speaking of the election cycle, and all the nastiness associated with it. I had forgotten what it is like to live in a media market that crosses state lines. Here, we have to sit through radio and television ads that attack candidates both in Virginia and in Tennessee.
So, I’ve learned that both candidates for Senate in Tennessee are lying, good-for-nothin’s that should get off the stage. I’ve learned that candidates to represent us Virginians in the House of Representatives are crooks, thieves, and one even accuses the other of spreading cow manure.
Our President is traveling around the country calling everybody names, while our last President is traveling around the country pointing out that our present President might be dishonest. Fox News says CNN is biased. CNN says Fox News is not really news at all. MSNBC shares its insights with all three of its viewers, and the major networks have lost the respect of much of the country.
Don’t you miss the good old days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil fought like cats and dogs and still respected each other? When Republicans and Democrats alike pushed Richard Nixon out the door, together? When Senators actually debated issues instead of grandstanding for the cameras? Our politics have just become too coarse.
Here’s my promise to you: I’ll keep my politics to myself, since I love both Democrats and Republicans. I’ll still respect you, even if we disagree politically. I’ll be an adult. The world needs some of those right now.
On November 7, we’ll awaken to a new day. The political ads will be finished. Everybody will pretend to kiss and make up. Then, I fear that nothing much will change. So, I think perhaps the song we sing might be a good prayer to offer:
Let there be peace on Earth,
And let it begin with me.
I’m Dale Gilbert, and I approved this message. What we do here matters.
The story I share with you today is purely fictional. The fact that it sounds a lot like a real incident should be ignored. The fact that it sounds like Dale and Angela Gilbert should also be ignored.
A husband and wife recently went to a gathering where parking was at a premium. While the husband was pulling into the parking lot, his wife’s phone rang. She answered it, and it was her sister calling her. Since the husband was thinking ahead about exiting the event, he chose to back the car into a parking space, so that when the event was over, he could pull forward and be a bit ahead in the line to get out. Since his wife was on the phone, she paid no attention to what her husband was doing. Now, I know this couple well, and I know that the husband rarely backs his car into a parking space, because that husband isn’t really good at backing his car into a parking space.
The phone conversation finally ended, and the couple went into the event and had a good time. On the way to the car, the husband had to remind the wife where their car was parked because she had been on the phone with her sister. The husband pointed to the car and told his wife to get in. The wife informed the husband that this was not his car. She reminded him that he never backs his car into a parking place, so this couldn’t possibly be his car. The husband told the wife, “It’s OK. We’ll just take this car.” The wife couldn’t believe that the husband was able to open someone else’s car. It was only after seeing inside the car that the wife realized that this was, in fact, her husband’s car. She asked, “Who backed this car into the parking space for you?” “I did,” replied the husband. “No, really, how did this care get backed into the space?” It took some convincing, but the husband finally convinced his wife that while she was concentrating on the phone call, he had backed the car into the space. The wife, who knows full well that her husband can’t back a car into a parking space, was both surprised and impressed.
What the wife didn’t realize was that the husband’s car is equipped with a back-up camera. She didn’t realize that with this extra help, her husband has become pretty good at backing into spaces.
We all need a little help sometimes, don’t we? And then there are times that we need more help than we think we can ever find. Today, we come to the Lord’s Table. More than once, I’ve found help there. May we find the help we need today.
See you at the Table. What we do here matters.
Can you quote the Virginia traffic law governing traffic signs and signals, and how they are to be obeyed? I know I can’t. Can you quote the law regarding lane changes on multi-lane highways? You can’t? Neither can I. For the most part, we can’t quote the traffic rules that governed our trips to church this morning. We had to learn the rules when we were teenagers so we could pass the driver’s test, and we’ve had to learn the rule changes as we’ve continued to drive, but most of us can’t quote the rules.
It’s because we don’t have to. While most of us can’t quote a single traffic law, we know right and wrong when we see it. That generally means when we see something that doesn’t look right or feel right, our guts tell us that something is wrong. It doesn’t take a law degree to know when traffic laws are being violated. We know it because it simply doesn’t look or feel right.
Today’s scripture teaches us that some things look right, and some things don’t. We know when good fruit is being produced. On the other hand, when our “religion” produces division and conflict, it doesn’t look right or feel right. James tells us that when we are following “the wisdom from above,” our actions are “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” When we see that, we know the Spirit is at work within us.
We’ll talk about this in worship today. What we do here matters.
Back in February of this year, I did something that has been instrumental for me and my faith pilgrimage. Since I was a child, I have always read the Bible on a daily basis. When I was a kid, it was a big deal for me to read through the Bible, and then to announce that I had completed reading it. I must have read it through twenty times before I reached adulthood. I was privileged to have parents who encouraged that behavior, and I was certainly encouraged to read the Bible by my church.
The last few years have found me not reading as passionately as I did in my youth, and I wanted to get back into reading the Bible in a disciplined fashion. So in February, I ordered me a good reading Bible (large print!) and I set myself a new goal. During the 40 days of Lent, I promised God that I would make reading the scriptures a priority, and that I would do whatever was necessary to read the Bible through during the days of Lent. I even disclosed this to other folks, so that they would help keep me on track. With God’s help, and the gentle prodding of a few people, I finished reading the Bible from cover-to-cover in a little over a month.
I cannot explain what happens to me when I spend time in the scriptures, but something significant happens. That’s why I’m about to finish another journey through the scriptures. I’m reminded that God did what God does, and I am reminded that we flesh and blood human beings can be used by God to do things we can’t normally do.
Today’s story is about Esther. The story is full of twists and turns, but in the end, a young woman was able to save her people by risking her life for her fellow Jews. It’s a story that reads like a good novel, but it is a story of faith. When we see Esther’s faith, we are inspired to do and be our best. Her story is but one of many that we read in the Bible. I get excited all over again every time I read it.
I hope you’ll spend time in the scriptures. It really does change us for the better.
Welcome to worship. What we do here matters.
Over twenty years ago, I stood up to preach and noticed an unfamiliar face sitting in the congregation. He appeared to be around 70 years old, and some of our folks seemed to recognize him. At the end of the service, one of our long-time members brought him to me and introduced us. He had grown up in our town, and his family had deep roots in the church. After college, he had moved north to a large city, and had put down roots there. However, he still considered our church to be his home, and the University across the street was his alma mater.
He wondered if he could see me the next day, and of course, I was happy to set a meeting time. He wanted to talk about our campus ministry. He had heard that we were having chapel services on campus, and he was really excited to know that his church was reaching out to his school. After a long conversation about the campus ministry, he asked me if we needed anything. I explained that we had just received a sizable grant from both the District and the Conference, and that for the time being, we were in good shape.
A few months later, we were dreaming bigger dreams. We wondered about enlarging our outreach and offering more ministry to the university community. What began to formulate was a vision of a campus chaplaincy, provided by the church and supported by the university.
The next time my out-of-town visitor stopped by, he asked again if I needed anything. At that point, I laid out the vision of an expanded campus ministry to him. He liked the vision. “How much do you need to fund this?” he asked.
“$100,000,” I said.
He didn’t flinch. He sat and thought for a moment, then said, “Let me get back to you on that.” A few days later, he showed up with a check. Not for $100,00, but still for a substantial sum. And every time I saw him, he brought more money with him.
When he died, he still had not given the full amount, but he had funded a ministry that, a generation later, still impacts college students for Christ. It turns out he knew he was dying, but he wanted to see that a ministry he loved would continue even after his death. He invested in the future of Christ’s Kingdom.
Today, we talk about Hannah. She, too, invested in the work of God. We’ll talk about this today.
What we do here matters.
On September 11, 2001, the Chattanooga District Clergy had their monthly meeting at 10 AM. I was one of the clergy members there for the meeting. Most of us had our radios on in our cars, and shortly before most of us arrived for the meeting, we were hearing news bulletins that hijacked airplanes had just crashed into the World Trade Center, and also at the Pentagon. We would hear shortly after that of another hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania. It was a day that most of us will never forget.
We pastors gathered around a small screen at Brainerd United Methodist Church, trying to make sense out of what had happened. There was fear in the room, and there was anger in the room. Only later would we fully realize the devastation that had taken place in the attack. So many deaths, and so many injuries, and for a long time, so many questions with few answers.
Suddenly, whatever we had planned to discuss that day paled in comparison to our need to be amongst our people during such a pivotal moment. There would be no regular clergy meeting that day. However, before we left and headed back to our churches, we observed Holy Communion. It served to calm my nerves before I went back to my congregation, where people filed into the church to pray, to strengthen each other, and just to talk.
Today, we observe Holy Communion together. I certainly pray that no disaster comes our way. But if it should, we come to a table, to receive grace and help in time of need. Here, we are reminded that our Savior was a real flesh-and-blood human being. He saw humanity at its worst, and still, He overcame.
See you at the Table. What we do here matters.
Our family of origin is the place where our personalities are formed, and where we are molded into the adults that we become. For instance, I was raised by a mother who instilled a love of music in me, and encouraged me to use my gifts. At the same time, I was raised by a father who was a pastor, and who loved to tell the story of Jesus. I learned from both of them.
Generally, we move into adulthood with two agendas. Our first agenda is to do things the way our parents did things, and the way they taught us to behave. Our second agenda, however, is to react against those things we received from our family of origin that we didn’t like, and certainly have no intention of perpetuating.
How sad that for many of us, we never stop and analyze what we’re doing and where our lives are going. We learn bad habits from our childhood that become destructive ways of living when we get older. And we move headlong into self-destruction believing that the way we’re behaving is the right way to do things.
We’re talking about Jacob today. Jacob and his twin-brother Esau had a rocky and destructive relationship. Esau was his father’s favorite. Jacob was his mother’s favorite. They played out their sibling rivalry in ways that would confound the most skilled psychologists today. Jacob was a little smarter, a little faster, and a whole lot more devious than his brother. So it was easy for him to take advantage of Esau.
One day, however, Jacob learned that he had outsmarted his brother one too many times, and suddenly he had to leave everything familiar and run for his life. Talk about self-destructive! He made his brother angry enough to kill him.
There would be other deceptions, and other hasty exits. Then one night, in a private moment, it happened. Something bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter than Jacob wrestled with him. Jacob couldn’t talk his way out, wiggle his way out, or outsmart his opponent. He limped away, knowing that God had broken his will and injured his hip. Jacob finally learned that God was not to be defied, and that God was not interested in any of Jacob’s smooth talk. He named the place “Peniel,” which means “the face of God.” Once Jacob saw God, he was different. That’s when he got a new name.
Are you tired of fighting the ghosts and bad habits formed long ago? Are you tired of wrestling with yourself and wrestling with God? You don’t have to do it all on your own. And you can’t do it all on your own anyway. Jacob limped away. That’s the price of fighting too long.
We’ll talk about this more today.
What we do here matters.
Years ago, the phone rang late one Saturday night. The call was from the Police station. The person receiving the call was the Associate Pastor on my staff. They were holding her son, a college student, at the city jail, and they were willing to release him into the custody of his parents. Otherwise, he would be held until he could appear before the judge on Monday.
His charge: stealing pumpkins. It was Halloween, and his fraternity sent out its younger members to pull a fraternity prank. The boys were having a good time, stealing jack-o-lanterns off peoples’ porches, right up until they got caught by a police officer. Now, they were taken downtown and booked into the system. The poor preacher’s kid had never been in any trouble before, not even for a traffic ticket. Suddenly, he was thrust into a new, very different environment. He found himself in a holding cell with people he described as “real” criminals.
His mother was not happy, bailing out her son. She was not happy that she had been awakened and forced to retrieve her son from police custody. She was angry. Her son, trying to lighten the mood on the ride home said, “Mom, they put me in the cell with real criminals!”
Mom’s response: “You’re one of them now.”
The young man is now a father in his mid-thirties, has a good job, and hasn’t been back to jail. Seems as though what the police failed to do, his mother did quite well. She held up a mirror to him, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Today, we’re sitting in church with a bunch of real criminals, people who are guilty of violating God’s law. The reason I’m here? I’m one of them. And so are you. When we look in the mirror, we may not like what we see. There’s still time to change the reflection.
What we do here matters.
A call came in to the Church office one day. “This is Bill, from the Monday morning prayer group. This morning, we got ready to pour the coffee, and noticed that none of the mugs we bought for the kitchen was there.”
“How many mugs do you have?”
“We bought ten, and it seems like the number just kept dwindling. Now, we have none. Could you ask around and see what might have happened?”
The secretary assured him she would. She then came to me, since I have been known to drink a few cups of coffee at my desk. I looked around, and sure enough I had borrowed one of their mugs and had forgotten to take it back. That accounted for one, but where were the other nine?
Another staff member who kept a very messy office and work space caught wind of the investigation. He wanted to know what the mugs looked like. Armed with that information, he walked into his office, scooted some things around, and returned carrying the other nine missing mugs. He explained that he had misplaced the mugs, one at a time. They just kept piling up in his messy office until one day, he realized the error of his ways. He hadn’t set out to take nine mugs, but by the time he stopped to inventory his office, he realized that one mug at a time, he had taken nine mugs.
The case of the missing mugs was solved. But it leaves me to wonder if our lives become piled up with mistakes and errors because we never stop to take inventory of the ways we mess up. We want to do the right thing, but we can become very habitual about doing the wrong thing. When confronted with how wrong we’ve been, we’re surprised at what is left in our wake.
What do you see when you look behind you? Have you slowly compromised principles, or slowly let things clutter your life that shouldn’t be there? It’s time to take the mugs back to the kitchen, and get a fresh start!
What we do here matters.