“I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets." -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Give Thanks

Isaiah 12

This time ff year many, many, many families gather. Loved ones come from far and near to gather. People book airline flights, pack bags, and load up in cars. Friends and families gather in kitchens watching loved ones put the finishing touches on the sweet potato casserole, dressing, and green beans. Some of us may even gather on a cold Thanksgiving Day around a deep fryer as someone tends to the turkey…. this is after all Alabama. Regardless, we gather. When family has arrived, the table has been set; the food (oh the wonderful food) is placed on the table, each person sits down. Someone offers the blessing (if you are in my family it is the youngest child, I once lead everyone in a lovely rendition of Johnny Appleseed) and the feast begins. Along with this wonderful feast is the equally wonderful conversation.

For many families who are spread throughout our great nation, Thanksgiving might be the only time everyone gathers at the family table for a meal and conversation. In each home the conversation is different. For some it is a time to catch up, for others the conversation might center on the upcoming football game and speculation about Bowl games. If you are in my family, the talk will more than likely center on the Iron Bowl. However, for others the conversation might be a bit different.

This week a wonderful person in our church told me about her families yearly Thanksgiving dinner conversation. Each year she asks her children to share that for which they are most thankful. Each year they give her a bit of grief responding, “seriously mom, again this year… We do this every single year!” Eventually they like each year before, give in to her request. Each person around her table shares that for which they are most thankful. Each year her hear is warmed and she is always, always surprised at what they share.

Thankfulness is not something that is often our first response. Often, we have to be reminded to be thankful. To return thanks to God. On Veterans Day I went to Birmingham to spend the afternoon with one of my best friends that I had not seen in awhile. Amanda and I ate lunch at Chuey’s, a new restaurant at the Summit. As we sat down at the table, placing our napkins in our laps, I noticed that the sleeves that the silverware was in had prayers of them. Each of these prayer returned thanks for the food. There was a Catholic, a Jewish, and a Protestant prayer. These served as a reminder, to a society that is busy and consumed with their plans, to return thanks back to God.

The prophet, Isaiah in our scripture reading this morning reminds the nation of Israel to return thanks. As a divided people suffering through war and hardship, Isaiah’s words serve as a reminder. These are a people at war Syria, about to be conquered by the Assyrians, but Isaiah reminds them “Good things are yet to come.” They are about to be tossed into Babylonian exile. They will be strangers in a foreign land. The Temple, their symbol of God, will be destroyed. It seems like there is little if anything to be thankful for, yet Isaiah proclaims! “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD!” The Israelites do not need to fear because day of Thanksgiving is coming! The people of Israel do not need to fear because they will be reunited. They will be redeemed. They will have salvation. It will be like the time when King David was ruler over Israel. Things will be better. Good days are yet to come!

How often to we feel like these Israelites. Life confronts all of us with struggles. We face hardships in various forms. We worry about the wars that we send our military off to fight. We concern ourselves with our children. Families face challenges. The economy places a hardship on many individuals wondering if they will have a job this time next year. Last week we remember those that we have lost from this community of faith. We find ourselves worrying about what will happen next. What life will be like in a year? How our children will fair in school. Perhaps we often feel like the Israelites.

It seems like one thing after another confronts us with challenges both to our daily life and also our spiritual lives. We wonder if it will ever stop. But be assured, “Good things are yet to come!” Isaiah proclaims! “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD!”

I consider myself a novice runner… nothing like the marathon runner sitting behind me. Thursday evening I went for a run. Although my mind if often occupied with “can I make it to the next intersection, up the next hill, maybe I can make it to the house on the corner,” this evening was different. I began to pray. I started to thank God for all the good that was in my life. Like that family sitting around the table I began to list all the things for which I am thankful. To my surprise the list when on and on. When I began to list them I was surprised at what all came to mind…Steve, my family, my friends, this community of faith… then came the things that I did not expect. I am thankful for the way our denomination as affirmed my call to ministry. I thanked God for the family that raised the man I will marry in May. I thanked the Lord for those I have the opportunity to visit with on Tuesday afternoons. I thanked our Savior for our children and the way they always greet me with a smile on Wednesday evenings. Finally I thanked our Creator for the beautiful clear night sky, for God’s creation, and that I was able to enjoy it on such a cool evening. I was reminded of the words found in Isaiah, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD!”

One of the things that I have found most interesting in the past few weeks is our “Thanksgiving tree.” This is located just outside of Pratt Hall. The bulletin board next to the kitchen, if you have not noticed it, has a table next to it. On that table are leaves made out of construction paper for you to write and place on the bulletin board. We are encouraged to write those things for which we are thankful on the leaves. What a great idea Annette Brownell had when she placed those leaves next to the board and encouraged to list that for which we are thankful.

Last Wednesday, I noticed a group of children reading each leaf. They all noticed the wide variety of things that people in our church were thankful for during this season. Among those were: family, friends, pets, schools, spouses, our community, and our church. As “grown-ups” passed the tree they asked the adults if they had placed their thanksgivings on the tree. Many had, others that had not found themselves challenged by a very excited group of children. All that had not written something on a leaf responded to the children’s request by placing their thanksgivings on the “Thanksgiving tree.”

As the holiday season is fast approaching, we are already seeing signs of Christmas through advertisements in the newspaper and on our televisions. It seems like our secular world goes directly from Halloween costumes and candy to Christmas morning with no regard for Thanksgiving. Walking around Phipps Plaza, a large mall in Atlanta, a few weeks ago while I was in the area for a continuing education event, I was amazed literally dumbfounded that Christmas decorations were all ready decking the halls of the mall. Mid October, mind you. Where was Thanksgiving in the midst of all of this? Have we, as a society, forgotten to be thankful? Have we forgotten to “thank God from who all blessing flow?” It seems like we skip over the songs like “Come ye thankful people come” to “Santa Clause is coming to town.” Where are our grateful hearts?

Regardless of life’s challenges, we are called to be thankful. The words of Isaiah state is clearly “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD!” We are called to be thankful. Regardless of our circumstance there are many things in all of our lives for which we can return thanks.

We should approach Thanksgiving with the excitement of the children looking at our bulletin board. We should approach Thanksgiving with the eagerness of that mother who asks her children each and every year “What are you thankful for?” We should anticipate this time of togetherness with friends and family, this time of remembering how important each individual is in our lives, with the same wonder we approach Christmas. So, this week, as we prepare for the upcoming holiday, as you plan a menu, make plans for travel or clean your house for visitors, as you eagerly anticipate November 24th take a few moments and remember that for which you are most thankful. Remember your friends, your parents, and your children. Remember your child’s teachers, remember our city leaders, remember your communities of faith, remember the community of saints that formed and shaped you. Remember and give thanks. Give thanks to our Creator. Give thanks to our God “from whom all blessing flow.” Give thanks. Tell those for whom you are thankful that they have been such a blessing in your life. They need to know that you are thankful for the impact that they have had on your life. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD!”

The mother that always asks her children “for what are you most thankful” is amazed at their responses each year. She anticipates this Thanksgiving dinner conversation with great joy. Each year she gets a new glimpse at the lives of her children. They are not just thankful for the food before them, but they often respond that they are thankful that they have an opportunity to be in school, or that in this type of economy that they have a job. So, I ask you “for what are you most thankful?” “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD!”

Let us give thanks to God our Creator Redeemer and Sustainer- who is, who was, and who is to come.

The rest of the story

Luke 19:1-10

Our gospel lesson this morning is one that we are all familiar with. It is one that we were taught as children perhaps in Sunday school or in vacation bible school. My first memory of this story comes from a felt or flannel board in the pre-school Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church in Greenville, Alabama. I remember the tree that she placed on the black board and the little man that she placed in the tree. This felt board story was only reiterated by the song recited over and over and over again by so many children. We all know it… Zaccheaus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.

The song is familiar, the story is familiar. We all know what happens. He climbs in the tree. He wants to see Jesus. Jesus looks up. Jesus tells him to get out of the tree because he is hungry and plans on eating in Zaccheaus home. Remember. “I am going to your house today…” We know the story. Even our children know the story. If you have ever stepped foot into a church you have probably heard of this story.

We often forget “the rest of the story” that radio personality Paul Harvey often shares with this audience. So here is “the rest of the story.”

You see, Zaccheaus was not simply a “wee little man,” a person short in stature but he was also short on honesty. A tax collector, he made a fortune on exploiting other people. The manner that we complain about the IRS does not even compare to those in Jericho’s dislike of Zaccheaus. He was simply awful, and rich. Rich and awful and dishonest. Thank about the manner in which people shudder when the name Bernie Madoff is mentioned. That might be the way that people felt when Zaccheaus would walk through town. In her sermon about Zaccheaus, Episcopal priest Rev. Ellen Purdman commented about why we teach our children that Zaccheaus was a “wee little man and a wee little man was he.” She said, “Probably because teaching children “Zaccheaus was a bad little man and a bad little man was he” would not go over well in most Sunday School classes.

And he was a “bad little man.” One of the wealthiest men in his town, he had few if any friends. Having few friends can be a lonely place. Because of his chosen profession, Zaccheaus family had deserted him. So this “wee little man” was really alone, even though so many people surrounded him. Each day he would go about collected “what was due to Caesar” and taking a bit off the top. Telling people they owed more than they did, he would profit from the excess. What if they did not pay? Well obviously they were sent to prison like any person disloyal to the Roman government. Zaccheaus, a Jewish man, had that power. He had that power and used it frequently. He would send his own people to prison for not paying what he told them they owed. He was a “bad little man.”

Well in such tight knit communities word spreads quickly. People hear that Jesus is coming through Jericho so a crowd gathers. A crowd gathers to see this man who has been healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and even eating with sinners. Just a few days earlier Jesus had picked the tax collector over the Pharisee. Jesus had said that the tax collector was justified because of his humility, not simply the Pharisee because of his good works. This is unheard of for a rabbi to say this to a man like a tax collector, so a crowd gathers.

We all know how this works. Think back to the 1996 Olympic games. When Atlanta got the vote to host the Olympics the entire Southeastern United States cheered with excitement. Never mind that the Atlanta delegation told the Olympic committee that the average temperature for Georgia is 74 degrees…yeah maybe in November. But I digress. As the torch and flame made its way to Atlanta, it first went through Alabama. In Wetumpka, Alabama the torch traveled with different individuals running with it, to Jasmine Hill gardens and a crowd gathered. A large crowd. They wanted to see this piece of history. Individuals who had grown up in Elmore County wanted to be able to tell their grandchildren that they had see the Olympic flame. They had seen the same flame that had been in Los Angeles, Moscow, and Rome. And they knew the flame would continue to travel to places like Beijing, Toronto, and Rio de Janerio.

We know how crowds gather, and this one is no different. Word gets out and it spreads like wild fire, so people come. People come to see this man who heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and eats with sinner. “Eat with sinners,” Zaccheaus thinks, “Maybe he will pay attention to me, the worst of the worst.” So along with the crowd, the crowd that hates him, he gathers to see this man they call Jesus. Because he is a “wee little man” and because no one will let him get to the front of the crowd, he climbs a tree.

Perhaps this is where small children feel a kinship with this “bad little man.” I have rarely met a small child that does not enjoy climbing trees. In fact I have heard stories about how children from this congregation love to climb the well-worn limbs of the Magnolia tree in the side lawn of the church. As a child I loved to climb trees. My great grandmother lived on the main drag in Greenville Alabama. When I was growing up Fort Dale Road was considered a busy thoroughfare. In her large front yard I was not permitted to go past the magnolia tree. It is fortunate, for me that my parents permitted me to go up to the tree in her yard. I would have found myself in trouble much more often had this not been the case. The limbs of the tree reached to the ground and like any Magnolia tree they were great for climbing. My cousin, Virginia, and I would climb the tree each time we were at Mama Watsons’s house. Virginia would stop about half way up. I, on the other hand, would climb until I could see out of the trees canopy. All the while Virginia telling me I needed to come down. On one occasion my Aunt Rebecca walked out of the house to see Virginia on the lawn and me in the tree. She sternly, but without yelling, told me to “get out of that tree.” She said I was so high up it was not safe. I did as I was told but always waited until I would not get in trouble and climbed the tree as high as I could while no one was watching.

Jesus has a similar reaction to Zaccheaus. It did not matter that he was an adult and still climbing trees. It did not matter that he had joined in a crowd of individuals who hated him to see this man who associated with the likes of him. It did not matter that people pushed and shoved him out of the way so they could have a better view of the mane they called Jesus. What mattered is that he sought out the Messiah. He sought our Lord. He wanted to see Jesus. Just to just get a glimpse of him. He knew he was a “bad little man,” but maybe Jesus would be kind. Maybe he would smile at him and that would at least make this day of loneliness more bearable.

And so, Zaccheaus limbs up into the sycamore tree. It climbs above the people angry that he is even present at this event. He climbs high enough so that when Jesus walks by he can just catch a glimpse of him. And he does! He sees the Messiah! He sees this man they call Jesus! Jesus walks close to the tree. Zaccheaus can almost touch his clothes! Zaccheaus watches intently. Then Jesus looks up. He looks up and sees a strange little man in a tree. He looks up and smiles. Then without thinking twice says, “Zaccheaus! Get out of that tree! And Hurry! I am hungry!” Well, really according to Luke he says “Zaccheaus hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today!” But regardless, Jesus notices the “bad little man.” He notices the tax collector and despite his dishonesty, despite Zaccheaus’ sin, Christ offers love.

Saying you would eat with a tax collector, in fact the worst tax collector in the area was unheard of for a religious authority. Zaccheaus was unclean. He was a sinner, an unrepentant sinner. But regardless, Christ offered love. Christ beckoned him to come out of the tree. To get down because there was a conversation to be had. Christ needed Zaccheaus to know that he was not alone, to know that he was loved, and Christ needed the crowd to see that all were welcome to be part of the kingdom of God…even this bad little man.

Because of this extravagant show of love Zaccheaus heart is changed. When he gets out of the tree he knows there are things to be done. He knows that he had done horrible things to his community and so he repents. Our gospel says that Zaccheaus proclaims, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." And he had enough money to live up to this promise. So Christ offers him forgiveness. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house!”

The people in the crowd are astounded. They are amazed. They say among themselves, “Not only is this religious teacher, this rabbi, this Jesus speaking to Zaccheaus. Not only is he eating with him. But he is also forgiving him.”

When Zaccheaus gets out of the tree, he knows something has to change. He knows his life has to become different. He knows he must be redeemed; not only by the Messiahs but also by the community in which he lives. The community he has defrauded. So when he gets out of the tree his life becomes different. He becomes a follower of Jesus. He becomes a person who seeks Christ and he is incorporated back into the community.

And that, my friends, like Paul Harvey says “is the rest of the story.”

So what are you called to do? When Jesus tells you to get out of the tree what in your life has to change? What are you called to do? How are you called to be transformed for the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is among us, there are people in our community that are in great need and we are all called to do something. Maybe you are called to cook for our meals on wheels program. Maybe you are called to help with our children. Maybe you are called to travel to Nicquaraga and serve God’s children in South America. What are you called to do for the kingdom of God?

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

The Psalms, you see, are songs that expressed the emotions of the Hebrew people. The hard, burdened, and often-difficult life of God’s chosen people. These were songs often joyfully and occasionally woefully sung during worship. And like our ancestors in the faith, these are words that Christians have been sung for 2,000 years to praise the Almighty God. So we join with this great tradition this morning and remember the words of Psalm 91 that have brought comfort and peace to generation after generation. “Those who dwell in the shelter of the most high” are words that bring us assurance.

Imagine a dark room, full of men who have dedicated their lives to the Lord. Their one mission in life is to serve the church and the world. This group of Trapist monks in central Kentucky serves the world through prayer. They pray and worship eight times a day. Other than their vocal prayer and worship, they live a lift of silence, meditating on the Lords interaction with the world. In their monastery, there are a few rooms dedicated to talking, rarely are these used unless an outsiders comes with questions about their life of faith. When asked they share openly. . One even remarks, “we pray for those who do not know how to pray for themselves.” They pray for us. They pray for the world. Eight times a day they pray for you and for me.

I, personally, find it comforting that there is a group of individuals who have dedicated their lives to praying for me, even when I often forget to pray for myself. It find it comforting that in the unsure world in which we live, where war is a constant threat, financial markets are unsure, and faith in governments is wavering, there are people who pray. There are people who pray for the “arrow that flies by night,” be it a real arrow or an emptiness and loneliness that some feel in the dark and dim hours of the night. The prayers of these men comfort me like this Psalm comforts many of us.

This Psalm 91 reminds us of God’s constant presence. God will not leave us nor forsake us and the words to this ancient prayer remind us of God’s existence in our lives. We are people who “dwell in the shelter of the Most High.” All too often we have forgotten about God’s shelter and have relied on our own wit and strength for protection. Many of you have heard stories about my experience living in the Bahamas and serving five churches on Eleuthrea Island. A few summers ago I was granted the opportunity to live in a very rural part of the Bahamas through a program at Emory. I packed my bags, boarded a plane to Nassau, then boarded a six passenger plane to Eleuthera. I did not know what to expect. I arrived at my one room cinder block home. The doors to my home did not lock, coming from Atlanta this was quite unusual and a bit scary. As I learned more and more about the community, I realized that a 20 something female minister with no spouse was not the norm…imagine that. On my arrival, no one knew who I was or what I was there to do. I would frequently get “cat calls,” from men in the area making me even more uncomfortable and nervous. After my first Sunday of leading worship, the whistles and remarks ceased. I began to feel more comfortable. That was, until, one specific day. It was a normal day when I woke up. I visited some of the homebound individuals in the community. I worked on my sermon around lunch. I met some of the children in the playground and visited with them in the afternoon. Around 4:00 I decided to go for a run. I had to drive to the neighboring town to lead a bible study that evening and thought this would be a great way to clear my head. I started my run down the frequently traveled road. When I got to my turn around point, I turned and continued on my way. As a approached a few houses I noticed a group of men sitting in the yard. Lets just say they had started their evening activities a bit early and as I ran in front of the house they began to yell at me. Then follow me. I kept running occasionally looking back just to see them still behind me, following me to my home. I went to a friend’s house and her husband told them to leave, or he would call the police. Eventually I went back to my home, placing all the furniture in front of the doors I found myself in scared, alone, and in a foreign country.

As evening fell, the arrow that flies by night started to terrify me. “What if they know where I live,” I thought. “What if the come to find me.” I panicked, called my mother, e-mailed my friends, made plans to have actual locks placed on the doors and then when none of that gave me peace, I finally began to pray. Why is it that during time of unrest, God is often a last resort? One in every four U.S. homes has a home security alarm. Each and every evening the news tells us how unsafe our world is becoming. Even our local news is covered with stories of homicides, burglaries, and car wrecks… here in the River Region. A few weeks ago I was visiting a member of our church at her retirement home and she was remarking about how much the world has changed during her 90 years of life. It seems that fear is all around us. But even though, we still try to find peace and rest on our own. We install more locks, more security systems, and we talk about the way that life is changing. Often prayer is our last resort. We fail to remember that we live in the shelter of the Most High. We forget that our refuge is God the Almighty. We do not recall the manner that God covers us, protects us, and shields us. But even when we forget the manner that God protects us, when we fail to remember the manner that God loves us, God continues to comfort us and give us peace.

During the times in our life when we feel most alone, we can be assured that God is with us. The arrow is not so troublesome, and that we do live in the shelter of the Most High. God is our refuge. God is our fortress. God is our strength. God does not leave us.

God says to us, the children of the Almighty, “Those who love me, I will deliver.” Our Lord’s promises are sure and we are reminded of them when our God says, “When they call to me, I will answer them.”
 We are assured of God’s continual presence with us, and our Lord says “I will be with them in trouble.”
 We can be assured that we are loved when our Lord proclaims, “I will rescue them and honor them. 
With long life I will satisfy them, and show , my salvation.” Psalms 91 is a song written to remind the Hebrew people of God’s steadfast love. It was written to remind the Hebrew people that in places where there seems to be no peace, no safety, no security…God is a refuge. God is a fountain of strength.

God is WITH all of us. Even in times when the arrow seems to be pressing, God is with us. Even in places where there is darkness, God is with us. In even the deepest night, even the most frightening time, even the most terrifying moments, God is with us. God is always with all of us. We do not need to fear because God has covered us. God is with us.

At 3:15 in the morning in a small monastery in central Kentucky a bell tolls, awakening the brothers to a time of prayer. Sleepily they meander to the small sanctuary in the modest building that they call home. They begin to pray. They pray for the world while we sleep. One monk remarks that this is the time when people are most vulnerable. Deep in the middle of the night while the world sleeps they pray for the resting world. They pray that the arrow will not fly, they pray that the pestilence will remain far away. Deep in the night’s cool dark air almost anything can happen, so they pray. They recite the words to Psalm 91.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,* 
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ 
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, 
and under his wings you will find refuge; 
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, 
or the arrow that flies by day, 
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday. Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name. 
When they call to me, I will answer them;
 I will be with them in trouble,
 I will rescue them and honour them. 
With long life I will satisfy them,
 and show them my salvation.

This is their calling, they pray for the world. The worlds to this Psalm remind them, they remind all of us that God protects us; that God is with us. They pray for safety, they pray for God’s presence. They pray. This is their calling. This is our calling.