Sermons

May 1, 2016 — “Motivational Thinking Acts”, 4:32-5:2

Motivational Thinking Acts 4:32-5:2 Sunday, May 1, 2016 One of the much-loved writers and preachers in Methodist life today is a minister by the name of William Willimon. Some of you might well know that name. After all, he is a South Carolina native. Willimon was raised in Greenville, went to college at Wofford and actually began his career right here in Laurens County with his first congregation after seminary being located in Clinton. In his writings on the book of Acts and our passage in particular for today, Willimon remembers an occasion in church when he encountered a disgruntled member at a board meeting. The man asked, “Why are we always talking about money in the church? All we do is talk about money, giving and the budget. I wish we could get beyond this and talk about the spiritual things that are really important for the church.” In the midst of sharing this memory, Willimon is clear that in spite of this individual’s feelings, Luke, in both the gospel which bears his name and in Acts which he also wrote, makes our possessions and how we deal with them a key topic of conversation. Luke is clear that where our possessions are, our heart will often also be. And, Luke is equally clear that possessions are not necessarily a sign of God’s approval but instead can be the one of the most dangerous aspects of our lives if we fail to constantly be aware of the power that they possess over us. (William Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, pg. 52, John Knox, 1988) In the midst of Luke’s large collection of parables that deal with wealth and possessions in his gospel, there are also several stories in Acts that continue to probe this same issue. Perhaps one of the clearest and most straightforward is our text for today from the end of Acts chapter 4 and the beginning of Acts chapter 5 where Luke tells the story of two individuals – Barnabas and Annanias – and their decisions to make contributions to the early church. In essence, both Barnabas and Annanias take almost identical steps. They both sell pieces of land that they owned and the give the proceeds to the church. But, despite similar actions, the two men were apparently motivated by very different thoughts and idea. Barnabas, on the one hand, after selling his land, gave the full amount that the property had brought to the church as a donation. He apparently did so with little if any fanfare and simply out of a sense that this was what he was supposed to do. Ananias on the other hand, after selling his land, only appeared to give the entire proceeds to the church. He claimed that he was sharing all of his proceeds but in truth he only gave a portion of the amount he had received in the sale. Like Barnabas, Ananias made a contribution alright, but again it seems to have been motivated by very different thinking. In these two similar and yet contrasting stories, Luke highlights for all of us what I think are two very important and different ways that we often are motivated to approach the resources and possessions that God has entrusted to us. On the one hand, Luke reminds us that we often approach what we have out of either generosity or selfishness. We are either motivated to think about what we have primarily out of an attitude that says that our resources are to be freely shared with others or out of an attitude that says that while I...

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April 24, 2016 — “Easter Left – Overs: A Challenge”, Luke 24:44-49

Easter Left – Overs: A Challenge Luke 24:44-49 Sunday, April 24, 2016 In recent years, visitors to the gift shop at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota have encountered an interesting individual. His name is Donald Nick Clifford and he has often sat at his own table while accompanied by his wife Carolyn. Nick and Carolyn would greet visitors to the monument, answer questions about Mount Rushmore and sign copies of the book that they authored about this significant destination in the American West. But, there was something else that made Nick Clifford particularly special and an incredibly valuable part of the gift shop. At well over 90 years of age, he was the last surviving carver of the monument. The Nick Clifford story is an All-American one. When he was 18 years of age, Clifford was an excellent baseball player, and, the Mount Rushmore crew had a baseball team that played in a local Sunday afternoon league. The Rushmore Memorial Drillers, as they were called, needed a few more good players and Nick desperately wanted the chance to work on the mountain. So Nick became a member of the baseball team and received as a result the grander prize of getting to work on the monument. In turn, from 1938 to 1940, Clifford helped bring Mount Rushmore to life working primarily on the face on President Roosevelt. Since that time, equally amazing has been his dedication, for all of these years since, to keeping the story of the monument and its workers alive by serving as the last living witness to a profound moment in American history. (“Last Mount Rushmore Worker Remembers Monumental Task”, examiner.com, October 17, 2010) As Luke 24 comes to a close, Jesus is very specific with the disciples about what he wants them to do. He is preparing to return to God the father after his 33-year tenure on earth. He is leaving them and those who will follow them in charge of this work that he has been about primarily over the course of his three-year public ministry. As he does, he boils down their task to one basic responsibility. After reminding them once more of how his life, death and resurrection fit into God’s grand plan, Jesus says this in verse 48 – “you are witnesses of these things”. As a result, I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that if we want to also boil down who we are to be and what we are to do in light of the Easter event into one succinct idea then this verse, verse 48, is an excellent summery statement. We too “are to be witnesses to these things”. Just as Nick Clifford spent the bulk of his life bearing witness to what happened at Mount Rushmore, we are to spend our lives bearing witness to the Easter event through both being clear about what we believe happened on that fateful day and through sharing about our own real and personal encounters with this same living Christ. This is our job. This is our primary task and yet it is tremendously easy for us to forget to do it. Life is busy. Life is hectic. Life on a daily and weekly basis takes us all in a million different directions while constantly tempting us to make other things more important than they should be. Honestly, I am not sure that any of us will every completely fix this. To a large degree it simply is the human condition. And, yet, our challenge remains the same – to recognize that as...

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April 17, 2016 — “Easter Leftovers: Compassion”, Luke 24:36-42

Easter Leftovers: Compassion Luke 24:36-42 Sunday, April 17, 2016 Some of you will recognize the name Dr. Timothy Johnson. For many years Johnson, who is a graduate of Harvard, was the medical correspondent for ABC. He was a frequent contributor to 20/20, ABC Nightly News and the old ABC late evening news program called Nightline. What you may not know is that Johnson is also an ordained minister and before a career in medicine went to seminary. Part of his studies for ministry took place at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was a year that was both rewarding and challenging for him. It was challenging from the perspective that he felt like that he was regularly bumping up against issues and subjects in spirituality that called into question the faith of his childhood. As a result, the questions and uneasiness that were developing inside of him were taxing on both a physical and spiritual level. In the midst of his struggles, he met a man by the name of Granger Westberg who taught in both the Medical School and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago at the time. Beyond teaching, Dr. Westberg also functioned as a chaplain and he became a good friend to Johnson over the course of that challenging year. In writing about his old friend, Johnson remembered Dr. Westberg as someone with a “gentle presence, a kind smile and a soothing voice”. Westberg listened to Johnson, helped him to see his questions and concerns as normal and shepherded him through that tough year. It was the beginning of a friendship and a respect that would last for the rest of their lives. (Good Grief, Granger E. Westberg with forward by Timothy Johnson, Fortress Press, 2011, pages 7-8.) In essence what won Johnson over to Westberg’s friendship was the fact that in him, he discovered someone who was compassionate. Webster defines compassion as our ability to “show sympathy or concern for others” and Webster also says that the synonyms of compassion are our being “empathetic, understanding, caring, sensitive, warm and loving”. Simply stated this morning, what I want us to see is that one of the enduring qualities of Jesus that is visible in the gospels and reemphasized with a strong focus in the resurrection stories is that Jesus was and is compassionate towards you and I as his followers. More than almost anything else, the Easter story wants us to understand that the God revealed to us in Christ is a God of compassion. In 2016, as a church and as people of faith, I sometimes fear that we are loosing sight of this both for ourselves and for others. If I am confessional, I must admit that my preaching sometimes borders on the “thou shalt nots of faith” and on reminding us week after week of the high bar of expectation that God sets in front to us. I would say though that like many of you, I have been conditioned in this direction by the version of God that was offered to me in the church that I grew up in which was the First Baptist Church of a small southern town very similar to this one. God was a God to obey, there were high expectations of me as a follower, God was disappointed when I sinned, sin was serious business and it carried with it strong consequences. This is what I was taught, and, I still hardily and fully believe all of these things. But, God is also a God of compassion who empathizes with our mistakes, understands...

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April 10, 2016 — “Easter Leftovers: Clarity”, Luke 24:33-35

Easter Leftovers: Clarity Luke 24:33-35 Sunday, April 10, 2016 In 2016, studies say 80% of college students who graduate will do so while no longer pursuing the same major that they were focused on when they began their studies. In fact, according to the same studies, on average, students change majors at least three times from the beginning of college until graduation. This is particularly bad news for those of us who are parents. After all, this now anticipated changing of majors usually extends a student’s time on campus meaning that it will likely take them more than four years to finish their education. This is a particularly painful revelation in these same days when the average tuition cost is $9,000 for in-state students at a public college and $23,000 for students studying at out-of-state public universities. While I hate to be the bearer of bad news on this beautiful Sunday morning, the fact that most students stay in college longer than four years while struggling to choose just the right major illustrates something that most all of us are well aware of – many, many people struggle when it comes to figuring out exactly what it is that they want to or feel led to do with their lives. And, this is not true just of college students. It is equally true of people in their forties and fifties who wake up one day after twenty five years of pursuing the same career only to finally face up to the fact that that they are not content or happy in their work and that they are ready to try something else. Something else that they hope will bring them meaning, purpose and joy. Further, this sense of searching for meaning and trying to figure out why I am here is also common these days with those who have retired. They were for many years defined by their career, but now in retirement they have lots of time on their hands and while they love golf, traveling, keeping the grandkids and catching up on all of those books they had been meaning to read for the last 30 years, they still, at the same time wonder if they are not meant to pursue some deeper or higher calling that gives their lives – and here is that pesky word again – meaning. I share all of this because it seems to me that there is a good word in our text for today from Luke 24 for those of us trying to figure our lives and our purpose out. It is a word about a sense of clarity that these two Jesus followers whom we met last week developed in a flash and in light of the resurrection. And, I think it is a sense of clarity that was also arriving for the eleven disciples and for others among Jesus’ earliest followers. After all, if you look at these earliest followers as a group holistically in the immediate days and months following the Easter event, their lives changed dramatically. With Jesus as resurrected Lord they now had a sense of purpose, direction and vision that had not been theirs before. Think about these two disciples at the center of our text for today. As we discussed last week, we don’t know lots about them. One was named Cleopas and the other’s name is never given leading some to think this may have been simply a traveling companion and friend of Cleopas or either the spouse of Cleopas. We simply don’t know. But, what we do know is that they...

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April 3, 2016 — “Easter Leftovers: A Companion”, Luke 24:13-32

  Easter Leftovers: A Companion Luke 24:13-32 When some of us hear the term leftovers, it does not always conjure up heart felt or happy memories. Left-overs is our lot when we don’t have time to cook a meal that is fresh or when we are forced to eat a second time what we did not enjoy all that much the first time. In our minds, left-overs is a modern phenomenon that is the result of the invention of New Hampshire native Earl S. Tupper who gave us Tupperware in the 1940s or the advent of the Microwave in the 1970s. Yet, historians tell us that preserving food to be enjoyed a second and a third time goes all the way back to the very beginnings of civilization. There is one time of the year, however, when most of us don’t mind leftovers. In fact, it is an occasion when we may actually look forward to them. For most Southern families, holidays are feast days. Be it Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or a Fourth of July barbecue, most everyone in this sanctuary knows the experience of gathering around a family table or countertop overflowing with home cooked goodness to hold hands and say the blessing before collectively committing the sin of gluttony. Most of the time, there is more food there than any of us can eat in one setting. In turn, holidays are a prime time for left-overs. But in this regard, it is the chance not to suffer through but rather to enjoy again the bounty of these special days. The church invites us to do the same thing when it comes to both of our high Holy Days – Christmas and Easter. As you have heard me say before, for centuries, the church has invited the culture to see Christmas and Easter not as days but rather as seasons. Christmas is a season in the church that lasts for twelve days beginning with December 25th while Easter is a season that lasts for forty days beginning with Easter and going until Pentecost. The Easter season is built on the verse in Acts chapter 1 where in verse three we are told that Jesus appeared to his disciples for a period of 40 days. Several of the stories of these appearances of Jesus are offered in the gospels with a significant number coming in Luke’s gospel in chapter 24. Over the next four Sundays, we are going to look at these verses in Luke, which like Easter left-overs, offer us the chance to remember and revisit the themes of this season as a way for us to reaffirm them one more time before we walk away from the Easter Experience. The first of these themes comes in living color through our story for today affectionately called the Road to Emmaus. It is the story of two people who appear to have been believers who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion. One of them is identified by name as Cleopas and the other is never named leaving us to wonder if they were simply a good friend to Cleopas or perhaps Cleopas’ wife with this later option being the opinion of many. The story is set on Sunday afternoon as the two return home after having experienced the crucifixion and having followed strict sabbath rules. As you will remember, Jesus was crucified on a Friday with the next day, Saturday, being the Sabbath – the Jewish day of worship. In Judaism, there were strict rules for the Sabbath, which began at sundown on Friday and extended until sundown on Saturday....

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March 27, 2016 — “An Idle Tale”, Luke 24:1-12

An Idle Tale Luke 24:1-12 Easter Sunday One week from today the 2016 Major League Baseball Season will begin. At the same time, little league, high school and college baseball and softball teams have already been practicing and playing for more than a month. With the return of Spring and one of the great American pastimes, also comes a reminder of one of the greatest of American Myths. When most of us in this sanctuary were growing up, we were taught that Abner Doubleday, a veteran of the Civil War, invented the game of baseball. According to the story, back in 1839, Doubleday was at the helm of the first baseball game ever played in Cooperstown, New York. In fact, when a commission was established in 1905, to research the issue and make sure that baseball wasn’t really an Americanized version of a British game called Rounders, it was once again and forever established that Baseball was born in the USA and that indeed Abner Doubleday was the man to be thanked. And so it was that in honor of the game’s history and out of respect for Doubleday, the Baseball Hall of Fame was constructed in Cooperstown where that fateful first game took place. In order to commemorate Doubleday’s great accomplishment, the Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1939, exactly 100 years after Doubleday’s first game. They even built a small ballpark nearby and named it Doubleday Field to further emphasize the point. Unfortunately, there is one small problem with this wonderful piece of American History – it isn’t true. As far as we know, Abner Doubleday never visited Cooperstown in 1839 . Instead, he spent the year in the US Military Academy in West Point. Interestingly, Doubleday is only known to have mentioned baseball one time in his life. That was in a letter in 1871 when he was trying to find some baseball equipment. And, the primary witness for the Doubleday story who promoted him as the inventor of the game was actually only five years old at the time of the infamous and supposed first game. The evidence against Doubleday was so convincing that in 1953, the United States Congress actually officially recognized another man, by the name of Alexander Cartwright as the rightful inventor of Modern Baseball. In turn, it is Cartwright, not Doubleday, who is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, even though it is still located in Cooperstown where in all likelihood a game never took place! (wikipedia, “The Doubleday Myth”) Why do I begin this Easter Sunday morning by boring you with the origins of baseball? I do so because the 11 remaining disciples had a similar response to the women who first reported to them the empty tomb. The women offered the amazing story of an Empty Tomb as a fact – it was true – they had seen it with their own eyes. But according to the scriptures, for the disciples, the story appeared to be nothing more than “an idle tale”. Truth be told, I have little doubt that there are some of us who gather in this sanctuary on this Easter Sunday who wonder the same thing. We may not want to admit it, but, in our hearts we know that we are here because it is the cultural thing to do or because mom, dad or our grandparents made us come. We may not believe, but we are savvy enough to know that if we don’t put on our Sunday best and first come to church for a boring sermon, then there just...

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