Flower Power

Grace to you, and peace, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I make my way into a hospital room, or an assisted living apartment, or a hospice bedside, and more and more frequently I find a vase filled with beautiful flowers. During these recently cold days, and in situations often filled with the chill of sickness or death, sitting in the midst of the room is this brightness. Inevitably someone will say something to the effect of, “The nicest person from the church came by and brought me these flowers and stayed and visited. It made my day. Aren’t they beautiful?”

They are beautiful, almost as beautiful as the folks who lovingly take apart the Sunday morning arrangements, rearrange them in smaller vases, and take them out to those who could not be a part of the worship, but who are very much a part of the community. There is such beauty in their service, motivated by a deep love for all God’s children and a desire to share some small part of the beauty of the worship experience with others. The flowers may only last a while, but the love and care that they represent, and the God whose glory is reflected in the beauty of the rose, is eternal. Thank you to those who faithfully create the stunning arrangements each week that lift our hearts to God, and thank you to those who come every Monday to spread the power and unity of that worship to other members of our community.

I thought of our flower ministry as I went out with two of our elders to share communion with some of our members who are not able to be in worship. I want to thank the entire session for taking seriously the responsibility of distributing communion both within and outside the sanctuary each month. As we share in breaking bread and pouring the cup, no matter the setting, we are giving witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and expressing the unity of the church across time and space. We are walking in the light of the coming Kingdom of heaven.

We have been living with the Sermon on the Mount in worship now for several weeks. I always come away from the encounter challenged by the words of Christ, who bids us to “be perfect (complete, whole), even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The context of this command is, of course, his admonition to love our enemies – but the larger context is the Sermon as a whole, where he invites us to see the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, which, even though it has not fully arrived, sheds its light in our time. We can live by its coming light even now. Even now, we can turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, love our enemies, and thus fulfill the intention of the law. When we do, we experience the wholeness (perfection) that is God’s gift.

I thought the canticle on Sunday captured this sense of the Sermon on the Mount perfectly, as the MAP 410 Choir (Grades 4-6) sang “Amazing Grace” while the Chancel and Chapel Adult Choirs sang “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.” This “Quod Libet” combines voices, tunes, and texts in a way that creates both dissonance and, hopefully out of the dissonance, a new sound and a new understanding. The Sermon on the Mount, I think it is safe to say, creates no small amount of dissonance, and yet for those who live by grace, it holds a transformative possibility for newness of life in community, and great hope for the world. Continued thanks go out to our extremely gifted singers, musicians, and leaders – from the bell peal and French horn prelude to the hymns and anthems, our worship is always rich feast for both ear and eye.

After dining on such rich fare, we are empowered by our encounter with the kingdom come in Jesus Christ to go out into the world, bearing gifts like flowers, bread and wine, a smile, a kind word, a prayer for healing, a hope for peace. We are able, as the communion liturgy says, to “go out into the world and be the Body of Christ.”

At 11:00, as Madelyn Grace Stivers blinked away baptismal waters and gazed out in infant wonder at the font, the crowd of children on the front row straining to see and remember, and a beaming congregation freshly awed at the miracle of God’s grace – her middle name seemed most appropriate. After all, it is our name as well.

Peace,
Pastor Chris

Toomer’s Corner and the Rule of Love

I suppose it cannot be a coincidence that the week I am planning a sermon on Matthew 5:38-48 I get an email from my brother Ryan – an Auburn fan currently living and teaching in Boston – with the heading, “Ahh, Bama.” Contained in the email was a link to an article about an Alabama fan who, in a fit of (probably drunken) rage after being defeated in the Iron Bowl, poisoned the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn. You would have to be from Alabama to fully appreciate the significance Auburn fans place on Toomer’s Corner and on the 130-year-old oak trees that are reverentially rolled with toilet paper every time Auburn wins a football game. It is as close to holy ground as you can get as an Auburn fan. Their football temple was defaced, a 21st century desolating sacrilege.

Well, the guy’s been caught. Turns out he called a sports talk radio show and announced he had poisoned the trees, capping it off with a hearty “Roll D*** Tide!” I promise I’m not making any of this up.

It didn’t take Auburn officials long to test the soil around the trees and discover that they had received a lethal dose of poison and probably would not survive. And it took even less time to run down “Al from Dadeville,” and arrest him. Now he’s got a $50,000 bond and a mug shot. If I were him, I would not go back to Dadeville. In fact, I would consider leaving the state as quickly as possible. Already there are people phoning in threats against his person and his family. Again, not making it up.

Full disclosure – I am an Alabama fan through and through. But this is embarrassing, and sick, and really, really sad.

It also shines a light on the ways we – all of us – form unhealthy attachments. It is easy to laugh at the absurdity and tragedy of this story and forget that we too can become so attached to things like political parties, or ideologies, or other people, or various traditions that we lose perspective. A quick scan of the news reveals an entire society that feels as if it is divided into camps of much more consequence than the Tide versus the Tigers.

Into this arena comes a word that invites us beyond these attachments – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” It is an invitation to so radically alter our orientation in the world that we no longer claim our primary identity in these attachments, but instead locate our being in a God who calls us beyond retaliation into a world of peace and reconciliation.

The world needs such a witness from us because, seriously, I’m not making this stuff up.

Grace to You, and Peace

What happens when the Kingdom of Heaven draws near in Jesus Christ? This question framed our time together last Sunday, as we heard a text from Matthew where Jesus describes the contours of life in the age to come and invites his followers to live by its dawning light. We moved from there to the Table of the Lord, where we saw a sign of the Kingdom enacted in our own time as bread was broken and wine poured. “Whenever you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim the saving death of our risen Lord until he comes again.” These words were echoed by the beautiful choral piece, “In Remembrance of Me.” One of the lines from that anthem captured the spirit of the day perfectly – “In remembrance of me, pray for the time when God’s own will is done.”

Living together in community as a congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have so many opportunities to see the ways in which the Kingdom draws near as God’s own will is done. We explore God’s will and ways through engagement with the Scripture in Sunday school or in a variety of Bible studies; we experience the warmth and welcome of God’s grace through hospitality around a common meal on Wednesday nights; we share our bread and our lives with others through our various mission endeavors; we recognize God’s will and God’s call for all God’s children through ministries of education and nurture of children, youth, and adults of all ages. There is no shortage of ways to be encountered by God’s work both inside the walls of this church and out in the world. I give thanks to God daily for the blessing of working among you in discovering and living into God’s coming Kingdom.

Not long ago, I was talking with someone who is not a part of our church, but was asking about us. I was describing the congregation to him, when he suddenly stopped me and said, “Oh, are you part of THAT Presbyterian Church?”

I responded, “I’m not sure which one you are thinking of.”

He said, “You know, the one that’s always in the news. You guys have some interesting characters in that denomination.”

I could tell he had lost all interest in the church based on its denominational affiliation, so we quickly ended the conversation. But I was left with both a troubling, and a hopeful, thought. I was troubled that someone – based on nothing more than media images that can only scratch the surface of any church, much less an entire denomination – would write off a local congregation without at least seeing for himself.

I was also hopeful, though. I don’t know about you, but I am glad to be part of a church and a denomination that has some “interesting characters.” I think that one of the gifts of God to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is its diversity, a diversity that is displayed within our own congregation as well. It is a gift because it forces us to acknowledge that when it comes to things of God, no one of us has a corner on the whole truth, and we are stronger when we gather as one body, around one table, and share all the diverse gifts we bring.

It should have been pretty obvious after last Sunday that Jesus himself was quite a character – after all, he turned the common interpretation of the Jewish law on its head and dared his followers to follow him onto a path that would make them all look like odd characters.

But such is the nature of the Kingdom that draws near in him – its as if, to quote Mumford and Sons, we’ve all, “come out of [our] caves, walking on [our] hands, and see the world hanging upside down.”

Snow Fatigue

It didn’t take long for everyone to grow weary of the snow. In the south, the first snow is greeted as an almost sacred event, complete with Advent-like waiting, rituals (ice cube in the toilet, pajamas worn backwards, regional variations of snow songs and snow dances), meditative practices (sitting next to the phone or in front of the television, eyes closed, praying for a herald’s voice announcing the close of school), and, after long anticipation, the holy day itself, the first falling flakes sending everyone into praise.

I think we love it so much because it is, at least in these parts, a rare thing to behold. But this year familiarity has bred contempt. And I would say that most of us regard this latest blast of snow with a good deal of contempt. Schools have already been out for eight days this winter, bread and milk are once again leaving the grocery shelves, and southerners are displaying their complete inability to safely navigate the slippery roads. The snowflakes that only a couple of months ago brought squeals of joy now bring cries of protest.

We welcome the first snow and gladly receive its gifts. After that, the gifts begin to lose their luster until, by now, we see it as less gift and more curse.

But it remains true that if I go outside tonight and look out on this blanketed landscape, I will be greeted by a silent field of white, no less beautiful in the fourth iteration than the first. The time I can spend with my daughter, free of the constraints of the school day and the relentless march of assignments and projects, will be just as life-giving in February as it was in December. The joy of watching children bundled against the cold taking off down a hillside, screams of joy trailing behind them, is just as luminous today as on that first day.

The gifts are the same. The only thing that keeps me from receiving them with joy and thanksgiving is my own relentless need for the world to conform to the schedule I have set, for the times that belong to God to somehow correspond to the times as I conceive them.

Each day brings its own gifts, and not one day passes that does not contain within it blessings from Almighty God. The only thing that keeps me – keeps us – from seeing them, receiving them, and living into them, is my own ego, my own need to be sovereign.

As I type this, I am looking out the window of my study on another snowy landscape, and already I am worrying about the drive home, grousing about yet another Wednesday night cancellation of my all-important Bible study, angry that I’ll have to stop for bread and milk, and thinking about all the work I need to do tomorrow that may not get done if I can’t get back over here. And yet, somewhere deep within, another voice is vying for my attention, inviting me to step outside and see beyond the inconvenience, beyond the worry, beyond my ego – and receive the gift of the day, in all its glory.

I hope I can embrace the gift and receive the grace, to heed that voice this snowy night, and tomorrow, and all my days.

Time to get on the road to home – – gifts await. Who knows, maybe we’ll put our pajamas on backgrounds, place an ice cube in the toliet, listen for the herald announcing the closing of school, and dance the snow dance deep into the night.

Grace to You, and Peace

Grace to you, and peace, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Isaiah declares, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7). On Youth Sunday this past week we heard Ricky Cross, one of our young people, preach a word on this text that helped us think about some rather large questions in light of this prophetic proclamation. Beginning with his reflections on the ways he has experienced our congregation living out this “fast” in missions such as Habitat for Humanity, Katrina relief, and Room in the Inn, he admitted that engaging in these missions does bring to mind the question of why such things happen to people at all. From there, including reflections on his very personal struggle with this question, he affirmed the radical hopefulness of the prophet’s message and the community of faith that centers itself on this hope.

Coupled with this outstanding message were the gifts of all our youth in crafting and leading the liturgy, in words and music. From beginning to end, I was filled with joy at the thoughtful and prayerful engagement they displayed, and I came away grateful for such a talented and faith-filled group of young people. Their leadership is a sign among us of the Spirit’s work.

The theme of hope is encapsulated in the piece of music that served as the canticle for the day –
“Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise…”

Thank you to all the adults and youth who helped make this day possible. I hope each of us sensed the power of God to speak to us in the midst of brokenness and were lifted by the hope of Gospel, proclaimed with power by the youth of this church.

The Blake Lectures are coming up at First Presbyterian on March 6. Dr. Christine Yoder, Associate Professor of Old Testament Language, Literature, and Exegesis at Columbia Theological Seminary, will be the lecturer this year. She will preach at both morning services and will present lectures at 1:00 and 2:30 p.m. A lunch will be served at noon, and reservations are required and can be made by calling or emailing the church office. Dr. Yoder is an exceptional teacher and preacher. Please mark your calendars – members and friends of the church – and make plans to attend.

Not long ago, one of the children of the church gave me a full-color booklet that she wrote and illustrated herself entitled “Our God.” It is about twenty pages, and I think is a sign that the formative ministries happening here – so in evidence on Sunday morning among the youth – are ways God is, by the Spirit’s power, creating and sustaining disciples. In the booklet, the child writes:

“Some people don’t believe in God. I do. Hey, if you don’t believe in God, he still loves you. It’s fun to learn about God. If you want to teach about God, teach your friends, family, sisters, or brothers. God likes when you teach your friends and family about God. It makes God happy and it makes you feel good for making God happy.”

Making God happy, engaging in the fast God chooses, living the life of a disciple – thanks be to God for calling us to this wondrous life!