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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Day 1805 - A Worried Man’s Blues

A sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN, November 19, 2017

(Thanks for the title  to Woody Guthrie, Carter Family, and especially to Pete Seeger whose lyrics adds a refrain of hope, “The train pulled out, sixteen coaches long, The one I love, she's on that train and gone, I looked down the track, as far as I could see, A Little bitty hand was a-wavin' back at me.”)

I am facing my own “Day of the Lord,” I have a terminal disease.  My disease is called being human. 
Job, suffering misery invoked by God and Satan, lamented that we are born into this world witha death sentence, the number of our days is set known only by God. God, the One who says, “I will come bringing it all to an end, gathering up everyone.”
Is he gathering us up for judgment, or for peace?
My end is sure to come and like most of you, a lot of questions worry my mind. Should Zephaniah’s prophesy frighten me that what I’ve done with my life in the past and the present determines what happens?
When I was a young man oblivious to danger, I was suspicious of anyone who tried to tell me what to do, and I was angry at a world that seemed so full of injustice and hypocrisy. I did what seemed right to me, sort of like the Hebrews in the time of Judges before there were any kings.
The book of Judges ends with a story of bloody conflict between one tribe of Israel and the other eleven that wasted up to 100,000 men and reflects badly on them all. It was an attempt to get justice for a wrong by members of the one tribe, but they made peace at the end giving away some captured virgins to the rebellious tribe. The closing words of Judges are, In those days there wasno king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
When I ignored most of the advice and rules for living because people seemed to twist them into a protective cocoon that excluded the hungry and the dirty downtrodden, or use them for political gain, did I lead someone astray?  Who knows who stumbled and strayed watching me decide what was good in my own eyes, not God’s eyes?
Was I so consumed with my comfortable living with my new Ph.D. and a satisfied mind that I worried more about me than people who lacked? Did politics, desire for renown among my associates, and satisfying my intellectual curiosity become my gods rather than the real God? Did I walk away from God, leaving the Lord like a groom leaving the bride standing at the alter to chase after a new beauty?
As our days pass with us racing towards the Day of the Lord, either at our death or his return, have we got a problem? Will we stand facing the judgment for all we did not do but could have done?
If we look for answers in the Bible we discover conflicting possibilities. The prophets seem uncertain whether this Day of the Lord is going to be a terrible thing or a blessing.  On the one hand, the prophets condemn us for the depth of depravity that humanity has sunk. “Love of the Lord” has turned into easy words with nothing to back them up. Amos and Zephaniah say the day of the Lord brings terrible judgment on us. Isaiah and Jeremiah give us similar predictions.
We can look around at this crazy world of 2017 and see for ourselves why such impending judgment might be justified. We try our best to walk a good path for our children but we send them off to school every day where they may face a day of bullying or malicious gossip, listening to friends with a crazy preoccupation with drugs. We see some young persons with little sense of right and wrong because they languish in homes with parents experimenting with all the powerful forces that their children act out in school and life.
Older people, a grandfather or grandmother, seem struggle with illnesses that bring them to face that terminal disease we call life. They struggle to hold what’s left of a family with little resources. Some seek to give a grandchild a life when parents abandon them, but are not able even to make enough to keep a roof over their heads. Others seem more interested in the support check they get each month for being a “guardian.” It seems so easy for the rest of us just to turn away and ignore the destitute circumstances.
It will keep you awake at night it you think about it too much.
But on the other hand, the prophets speak also of hope and grace, of release and freedom from the chains of misery and despair. After all the threats of destruction, God holds out his hand of goodness. He tells is we will be gathered under the arms of God as a hen shelters her chicks under the wing. We will see days of milk and honey spent glorifying the Lord as a part of that choir of an uncountable number of Angels whose song shakes the pillars of Heaven. God is good – All the time.
Do you remember the words from Joel that I read the young people last week? “ Do not fear, be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:21, 26-28)
And there are those comforting, if not also challenging words in Micah:
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Isaiah amplifies that message for all people: ” Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’… I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Jesus entered the world quoting Isaiah 61, proclaiming release of the captives, sight to the blind, the celebration of the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:14-21). To the dismay of many, Jesus did not pick up the sword to challenge the physical power of Rome over life and death. He did not seek to slay the evildoers of the world, or those who fall under the sway of evil. Jesus promised the fulfillment of the Lord’s kingdom when we hoped for an earthly King.
We looked for liberation and justice, giving us hope, saying if you have faith everything is possible. This is embodied in the answer Jesus gave to the worried father with the epileptic son pleaded for Jesus to heal his son. With faith, anything is possible! The father replied, “I believe, help my unbelief.”  Perhaps the key to the answer is that reply to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Did this father stumble upon the answer to our worry and uncertainty about the coming Day of the Lord?
Jesus took time to tell us say about the coming kingdom of heaven. We hear it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. He made every effort in these closing chapters of Matthew to tell us what that kingdom means.
The introduction to Chapter 25 of Matthew, (verse 1) explains that all the parables in the chapter that have heard the last few Sundays describe the kingdom of heaven, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this…”
The first parable we didn’t read last week warns bridesmaids to keep their lamps filled with oil and the wick trimmed as they await the groom for the wedding that signifies the kingdom of Heaven.
What does today’s parable of Jesus say? It is a parable about a master leaving on a business trip giving his slaves instructions. What a strange parable about the kingdom of heaven.
He leaves them with incredible sums of money. One gets five talents, the other three, the last one. A talent was about 6,000 day’s wages (~10 years labor), so he has left enough money for these three to live about 90 years. Each one has been given enough that with careful stewardship would last a lifetime. Surely Jesus must intend this to be a symbol of the invaluable spiritual gift of salvation? Those are rewards who have used the gift wisely, and two of them do well, greatly increasing the wealth of the kingdom. Their work must mean there effort to spread the good news for the Kingdom. But the third who was given the least was so afraid of the master’s reputation (Had he been reading Zephaniah?) that he didn’t risk any effort to contribute to the kingdom, he made no effort while he waited for his master’s return.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians helps us out.  Paul is interesting because he lived before the gospels were written. His understanding of grace and salvation came from the stories about Jesus that were circulating among believers, the accounts her heard from the disciples themselves, and from his revelation before God on the road to Damascus. What does he say?
Surely Paul is answering a question from the Thessalonians about the Day of the Lord. He says that he expects the Day of the Lord, but does not worry about it and even looks forward to it. He tells the Thessalonians they should not worry either. Why? Paul knows his faith and knows the continuing daily effort of the Thessalonians to live and grow their faith. In his first few verses he says, “You do not need to have anything written to you about the coming Day of the Lord, because you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” He assures the Thessalonians,God has destined us Christians not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” God is good.
I hope Paul’s words cause you to remember Aesop’s story of the ant and the grasshopper I told our young people last week. God has destined us for salvation, for the greatest reward. It is a reward far greater than those 15 talents - 150 years’ of wages. God is good.
But, are we the ants working to magnify our gifts for the present and future or grasshoppers frittering away our gifts while we sit and wait?
Whether it is the parable of the bridesmaids instructing them to keep their lamps filled with oil and wicks trimmed as they await the groom, or the slaves who were given money to invest for their master, the message is, you do not have to worry about staying awake or falling asleep when the Day comes if you are vigilant to work out your own faith by living a Christian life. In Philippians Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
As we enter Thanksgiving week, let us thank the Lord for our blessings. The greatest blessing is not having to worry about living, we have it. As you exercise your faith, building it up and not letting it weaken, remember the words of the Lord spoken by the prophet Joel, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I can assure you that grace is victorious over judgment for those who take their faith seriously.
 God is Good, all the time!