The Narrow Gate

Welcome to the continuation of my blog, post-seminary. Ministry and evangelism have brought me back home to Chattanooga. I welcome your company on my journey.

The original blog, Down In Mississippi, shared stories from 2008 and 2009 of the hope and determination of people in the face of disaster wrought by the hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, of work done primarily by volunteers from churches across America and with financial support of many aid agencies and private donations and the Church. My Mississippi posts really ended with the post of August 16, 2009. Much work, especially for the neediest, remained undone after the denominational church pulled out. Such is the nature of institutions. The world still needs your hands for a hand up. I commend to you my seven stories, Down in Mississippi I -VII, at the bottom of this page and the blog posts. They describe an experience of grace.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Day 1868 - What Are You Looking For?

A sermon shared with youth and adults at First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN January 11, 2018. Note: In our worship we seek to present to our youth the message of how valuable they are to the future of the Church. I make an effort to share with our youth the introductory concept of the sermon since they are an essential part of worship.

Young Peoples Lesson  (read both scriptures)
What is in a name? Do you have a nickname? In the Bible, for sure, nicknames or new names usually mean something important has, or is about to happen to a person.
In our reading in Isaiah, Isaiah even gives God a name, : the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One.”
Do you remember Abraham? His original name was Abram that we think meant “high father.”  When God gave him a blessing, God changed Abram to Abraham because he is the “father of all nations.”
When a man called Jacob who feared that he was being chased down to be killed by his brother that he cheated out of his inheritance argued with God for a blessing, God finally relented and gave Jacob a blessing but changed his name to Israel which means “he argued/struggled with God,” a name surely befitting the nations of Israel and Judah.
Isaiah means something like “the Lord has saved all people.”
A man called John the Baptist calls “Jesus, the Lamb of God” because the lamb was a sign of God saving the Israelites in Egypt and Jesus is going to save us all, just as Isaiah said.
He called Jesus, the Son of God because …why??
He also called him the Messiah which means the anointed one or King. That is because Jesus is going to be Lord of All.
One of the disciples called him Rabbi which means teacher….why??
Today in our bible lesson we hear Jesus giving people new names.
When God gives people new names, it means something special has happened.
Jesus called Simon Peter, Cephas, that means rock because Jesus was going to make Peter the rock upon which he built his church. When you think about it, these “new names” fit with what I’ve been talking about the last few Sundays, our calling.
It is almost like Harry Potter being told he is not a kid who lives under the stairs but is a wizard and being invited to learn the skills that will make him a great wizard.
I want to challenge you to think what kind of name would Jesus give you because you have a special gift for the world.
It might be “Faithful” because you are here almost every Sunday. Maybe for it might be pensive, because you are always thinking about something deep and important.

Main sermon
Do you ever envy those folks who always seem to know exactly what they are doing and why? I’m thinking about the people who seem to be on a mission and things always seem to work out for them.  And those other people who always seem to know what and how to say something.  They are never embarrassed, shy or nervous talking to someone, they always say the right thing.  It can leave you wondering if you are thinking or working hard enough.  
Most of us at one time or another wonder what are we supposed to do with our life.  We may fret over where we are going, whether we are going to leave a positive mark on the world.
We have watched friends or young family members approaching graduation from high school or college struggling to figure out the answer to that question.  Because we love them and worry about them We might even try to help them along to a solution by asking them the question, “What are you looking for?”
Who among us has ever been a little restless, uncertain or indecisive at some point in our life with the same question, “What am I looking for?” We call it the quest for self-actualization, it seems to be the mark of our age. People pay a lot of money for help with the answer when often it is already under the nose.
The revelation of Jesus by John the Baptist
Two questions preoccupy the listener to the gospel of John, “What am I looking for?” and “How do I talk or testify about my faith?”  
The first 18 verses, John’s epilogue, describe the shape of the whole Christian landscape.  The evangelist says the essence of Jesus is the Word that is the sound and signs of speaking.  We meet John the Baptist who is looking for and proclaiming the coming of the Light of the Messiah.  We know he was effective because the religious leaders of the Temple sent emissaries to him with the question, “Who are you?” They wondered is he a prophet, perhaps Elijah himself, or even the Messiah?  John the Baptist could have said, “Yes, I’m Elijah,” to bring more attention to him like some broadcast evangelists do today.
The temple leaders’ question, “Who are you?” (similar to the question Jesus asked, “What are you looking for?”) shows how easily people confuse the proclaimer with the one proclaimed.  John was in a difficult spot. The evangelist who wrote John’s Gospel goes out of the way to discourage thinking of John the Baptist in any role other than messenger of the coming Good News.  That might be why he omits any account of the baptism of Jesus.  The evangelist makes sure everyone hears this message from John the Baptist, “Someone greater than I is coming and I am not worthy even to untie his sandals.”
But, when Jesus does appear at the Jordan River (v29), John recognizes him.  When we dig into the actual Greek we realize John the Baptist speaks to the crowd in prophetic language of revelation, “Look! Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  I saw the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove. And the one who sent me to baptize (we know he means the Lord) told me the one on whom that dove rests brings the baptism of the Holy Spirit, this is the Son of God.”
The call for action
The next day, Jesus returns again, walking toward John by the Jordan River. John repeats his prophetic cry to two of his own disciples that are standing with him (v36), “Look!” Here is the lamb of God.” Does Jesus stop and embrace John, or acknowledge him?  No, he walks on, ignoring John. But John’s two disciples, Andrew and the unnamed (beloved?) disciple, follow Jesus who turns around and asks them, “What or who are you looking for?”
Let’s use our imagination here.  John the Baptist is standing with two of his more trusted or reliable disciples (they are the only ones mentioned). Jesus walks by and recruits them! The Baptist might naturally be a little miffed at Jesus for recruiting his disciples but we find out in 3:29-30, that John the Baptizer understands the situation with humility, “My joy has been fulfilled.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Ministry Begins
This exchange with John’s disciples describes the actual beginning of the ministry of Jesus in John’s gospel.  Let’s take it apart to see how it unfolds because it is a model for effective ministry. First, we hear John the Baptist proclaim the identity of Jesus to his disciples. Next, the listeners respond to Jesus by following him and he asked them the question, “What are you looking for?” How do they reply? “Where are you staying?” What is the response of Jesus but the same question? “Come and see.”
Right here is a short and sweet lesson on effective ministry. It consists of
(1) a proclamation, or testimony (it can be an act or words) that
(2) compels a response to follow and learn more.
We hear the question of Jesus, “What are you looking for?” and a response, “Where are you staying (or tell us more)?” Finally, we hear an invitation to “Come and see!”
This is the example of Christian vocation and attitude. There is no fire and brimstone preaching, no loud sermons, just the testimony of John the Baptist to his disciples about the Word. We can substitute “us” for John the Baptist and “our friends” for “disciples.” We testify about the Word to our friends and invite the interested ones to “come and see.”
What would you say are the most important things that happened in this ministry narrative? The first is a proclamation of the identity of Jesus, and the second is the invitation of hospitality to the people who responded to the proclamation. We cannot overlook a third thing of importance, the reaction by John the Baptist over the loss of his disciples. He did not object that Jesus was “stealing his disciples, nor did he try to “out-preach” Jesus to win them back, rather he adopted a humble attitude that acknowledged that he must diminish as Jesus increases in stature and his ministry increases.
This narrative is the prototype of effective ministry.  But I’ve left out the last step of ministry. After Andrew spent time and discovered who Jesus is, immediately he goes to his brother, Simon Peter, tells him, “We have found the Messiah,” and brings him to meet Jesus. Now, two thousand years after starting with Andrew and Simon, here we are with 3 billion or so Christians…
All started by a simple question, …“What are you looking for?” and someone running back to say, “We have found the Messiah.”
That ought to be the words on the tip of every Christians’ tongue if we believe our Christian vocation is to follow this model of ministry proclaiming the Good News and teaching those who hear to do the same. Our vocation is to proclaim the Good News, in word and deed.
Of course, the challenge we all face is not “What are you looking for?” but “How do I do it?” We face barriers. Some say, “I’m not comfortable ‘preaching’ or publically proclaiming my faith. I don’t know what to say.”
We get all tangled up in these words, “testimony” and “preaching.” We think testimony literally must be standing up and telling people how you came to understand your Christian faith.  But that idea of testimony as “oral preaching” has two pitfalls. The first trap comes when we believe giving the testimony is more important that having to talk about or live our experience with the gospel. This is my main complaint with our street preachers. The other pitfall is to think testimony always means giving a sermon or speech.
Isn’t the most powerful testimony no more than sharing one’s experiences of simply living one’s life with a Christian focus? This is why I regularly return to the lesson Jesus taught the temple lawyer who sought to entrap Jesus. When asked what is the greatest commandment Jesus responded, “To love the Lord with all your heart, mind soul and strength and the second is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jesus really acknowledged those two commandments define his and our vocation. When we live in conformity to them we are giving the world the most powerful testimony about the Good News. No fancy speech is necessary, just our acts of love.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, Jesus has a single message, “My life is a testimony to the glory of God and I invite you to live the same way that I do.” Christian life really is the best testimony of faith that we have.  When we walk out the front door of this sanctuary we carry a sign that says, “Look at me, I’m a Christian. I invite you to live the same way I do.”
It isn’t always easy at first. We are not perfect. We get mad and say hurtful things. We argue when we should forgive. We are hesitant to help someone we think might be freeloading. We value our own possessions and our status. No one likes to be embarrassed or humiliated or taken advantage of. We all do it. When we stumble we ask for forgiveness knowing that too is part of the actual act of proclaiming what we believe. Being a Christian is the hard work of practice, practice, practice remembering that a Christian is always in the testifying mode.
John the Evangelist tells us there is another part of ministry after testimony and following the first commandment. It is that second commandment: hospitality.
Hospitality has always been something special to Christians. Jesus was criticized for his hospitality. He entertained thieves, the physical and spiritual unclean, prostitutes, tax collectors and the like. In the first centuries hospitality practiced the way Jesus understood it set Christians apart.
In the Roman era, power was a great virtue. It was a virtue because you used hospitality to gain power through those you know.  Such hospitality is a strategy of discrimination. Only invite to your home those that you can curry favor and help you get power. You’ve heard the expression, “It is all in who you know.”
Christian hospitality mocked the idea of Roman hospitality. Christian hospitality is more challenging than testimony, it is the act of giving expecting no reward. Jesus said it is easiest to love your friends. We may not be as discriminating as Roman, but how many of us turn down an opportunity or contact to help us get something done?
Often, we rely on our contacts for the noblest of reasons and depth of compassion. That is what friendship is about. We find the child’s indiscriminant hospitality inside that second commandment to love others as we love our self, Children usually invite a new-found friend over to play at their house just to play. They usually don’t go through all the scheming and thinking about is this a good person to know or not, they simply invite someone over because the like them. We do need to teach our children to be careful with hospitality so they do not endanger themselves, but how carefully are we to restrain Christ’s hospitality as adults?
Many Christian writers say the modern church (though not First Presbyterian Church, Spring City!) is losing the habit of hospitality because we are too uncomfortable with the religious invitation, not to our Christian friends attending church somewhere else but to others. I’m thinking about people who have stopped attending church because it bored them or had their feelings hurt, who are alienated against the church because we have excluded them, who feel an emptiness and hunger and are looking at our smiling faces wondering, “Where are you going?”
        I challenge us all to let our life be real ministry - the testimony of our belief. Listen for people asking, “Where are you going?” You may not hear those words, but only an inquisitive conversation that gives the idea a person is interested. Keep those three words at the tip of your tongue so you can use them, “Come and see us at First Presbyterian Church!”  That is really what ministry and Christian vocation is all about.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Day 1868 - Are You Listening?

A sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN, Jan. 14, 2018

The last couple weeks, I’ve begun the sermon by sharing directly the idea of the sermon with our young people, hopefully making the sermon more interesting to you and everyone.
This week, I have a question for you, “What do you want to be?”  Why?
Now let’s share a story about how a young man called Samuel and his mother named Hannah discovered what he was to become:
Story of Hannah and Samuel
Hannah’s husband was a man named Elkanah.  In those days, it wasn't unusual for a man to have two wives and Hannah was one of two.  Hannah was not able to have children because the Lord had decided to prevent her from having children.  This made her life very sad.  Although her husband was very religious and always took both wives to worship, his other wife would give Hannah a very hard time because she had no children.
This went on for a long time and finally one day Hannah decided she was so sad she must go to go to the House of the Lord to pray. The priest Eli was sitting there on a seat while Hannah prayed.  Hannah was deeply upset, and prayed to the Lord all the while weeping bitterly.  She made a promise that if the Lord will look favorably upon her and gave her a son that she would dedicate his son to service of the Lord. Her son wouldn't drink any wine or anything was intoxicating and he would not shave as was the custom for priests.
Eli the priest saw her mouth moving as she was praying silently and decided because he heard no voice she must be drunk.  He confronted her, asking why she was so drunk in front of the temple and told her to put her wine away. Hannah said she was not drunk, but was a deeply troubled woman pouring her prayers to the Lord.  “I am openly speaking out about my grief and anxiety all this time over my lack of a son,” she said.
And so Eli realized the situation and told her to go in peace because the God of Israel will grant the petition/prayer that she made to him. She went home and was no longer sad, and in due time she had a son who she called Samuel.  Samuel in Hebrew means, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
When Samuel was old enough to go to the temple to be weaned she took in there and dedicated him to the service of the Lord.  She brought him to Eli and said to him, “I am the woman who was standing in her presence praying to the Lord for a son who has granted my wish.  I am here fulfilling my promise to the Lord that as long as my son lives, he belongs to the Lord.  She left him Samuel with Eli for the Lord.
And then we pick up the Old Testament reading for the sermon which is the story of how God called Samuel to his service.  We describe this as “Samuel’s call satory.” Here it is:
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
1   Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli (taking care of the Temple).  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  (explain a little history of Judges)
2   At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the Lord called, “Samuel!  Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But Eli said, “I did not call; lie down again.”  So he went and lay down. 6 The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10   Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 11 Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated(erased/forgiven) by sacrifice or offering forever.”
15   Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord.  Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.  16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then Eli said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
19   As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground (people listened to him). 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
This is how Samuel was called to be the great prophet who anointed Saul, the first king of Israel, and the second, King David.
End YP, start main
John 1:43-51
43   The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee.  He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
On one of my earliest days with you, after the worship service Mason came up to me and asked me a question.  He asked about God, I think he asked, “How did I know God existed?” (Do you remember, Mason? If so, what did you ask?)
His question struck me for a number of reasons.  First, I thought it was a very perceptive question from a young man.  And then as I thought about it as I prepared this sermon, it occurred to me that I he must've asked me, not out of curiosity but also perhaps because like Samuel he had been listening and God prompted the question to me as much as to Mason.  As I prepared this sermon it occurred to me that perhaps that is the appropriate question, "Was God speaking through Mason?" And that prompted my sermon title: “Are we listening?”
I am certain that many of us it one time or another wonder exactly what does God want to do with us, or maybe even is God out there?  It surely would be nice if God just took us by the shoulders and shook us gently and said, “Listen to me,  Go do this!” After all, that’s what happened to Samuel.
    That’s what happened to Paul on Road to Damascus. Acts 9:1-9
    That’s what happened to Moses. Exodus 3:7-12
    That’s what happened to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 1:4-10
    That’s what happened to Isaiah. Isaiah 6:1-13
    I could go on, Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Hosea
But it isn’t always that way…call of Nathanael
And Nathaniel's call because Jesus was walking along and told Nathanael he knew who he was.  When Jesus acknowledged him by name, Nathaniel believed who Jesus was. Even that was some kind of a divine act that required Nathanael’s attention to see.
Sometimes we may feel as a hand is on our shoulder or back and is slowly nudging us. You may push back, you might not even be fully aware, you might spend years doing something else and ignore that push for years until you start listening.
That’s pretty much what happened to me in Mississippi.  I found myself in a situation where I had a life with pretty much everything I wanted, and was faced with thousands of people who had lost everything and had nothing but hope, an unreasonable hope, or faith to hold onto. That experience turned out to be life changing for me.  I remember driving back to Chattanooga after a week of service unable to put that experience out of my mind even though I did not understand it.  I kept thinking, I knew, that something had happened to me that changed my life entirely.  That's why I am standing you before you today. I listened to my calling and in great fear and uncertainty I left everything behind and I responded. My life has never been better.
Probably that fear and uncertainty is what’s going to be the case for many of us.  It puts us in a somewhat scary situation, just like having that “on the road to Damascus experience.” But isn’t fear and uncertainty trying to get to a goal the norm?
It would be so easy for us and so simplify our lives to have that lightning bolt out of the blue slam on the ground in front of us in a low voice from heaven saying, "Henry, this is what I want you to do!"
Unfortunately, or fortunately, we seldom get a precise roadmap.  What happens is we do realize over time that a hand is on our shoulder nudging us in a new direction.  It might be a push that we unconsciously or intentionally resist.
But what is important for our congregation is to never stop listening for God.  We are growing this congregation.  I’d like to be prideful and say we, ourselves, are growing this congregation, but we aren’t, at least not directly. God is growing our congregation because many of us are listening to His call, a call from the Holy Spirit – “Come be a part of a congregation that is trying its best to walk in the world as Christ did, trying its best to spread the love and grace of the Lord, supporting each other and remembering the words Jesus spoke from Isaiah 61. Those words apply to us all:
1    The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
                  because the Lord has anointed me;
      he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
                  to bind up the brokenhearted,
      to proclaim liberty to the captives,
                  and release to the prisoners;
2    to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
                  and the day of vengeance of our God;
                  to comfort all who mourn;
3    to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
                  to give them a garland instead of ashes,
      the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
                  the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
      They will be called oaks of righteousness,
                  the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4    They shall build up the ancient ruins,
                  they shall raise up the former devastations;
      they shall repair the ruined cities,
                  the devastations of many generations.
8       For I the Lord love justice,
                  I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
      I will faithfully give them their recompense,
                  and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9    Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
                  and their offspring among the peoples;
      all who see them shall acknowledge
                  that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
                  my whole being shall exult in my God;
      for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
                  he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
      as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
                  and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

So, I close with my title, “Are you listening?”
We are all wealthy with the gifts of God.  We all have great gifts to share with the world, the wealth of our compassion, the wealth of our thanksgiving for being loved by our Creator so dearly that all our sins and transgressions are wiped away as if they never occurred, and faith that he will lead us by the Spirit. That is why we can say, “God is good, All the time.” If we are listening for his call, we will discover and do his will.