September 29th, 2013

For the 200th anniversary of Emanuel Reformed Church, Thomasville, NC.

Hebrews 11:32-40

September 29, 2013

A humbling opportunity

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I cannot put into words what an honor and joy it is to share this day with you.  Thank you for giving me the privilege of preaching on the 200th anniversary celebration for Emanuel Reformed Church.  I love this. But it’s humbling, for many reasons.

It’s humbling to be here because it’s humbling anytime I have the opportunity to stand behind a sacred desk and attempt to speak for God.  I try never to take that privilege and responsibility for granted, and always to base my sermon on God’s Word.

It’s humbling because so many people at Emanuel have been and are so important to Linda and me.  We were so young and inexperienced, and you taught us the challenges and joys of being a pastor.  I learned first-hand what a pastor’s “honeymoon” is when, almost exactly a year after I came a man named Joe Edwards asked if we could talk.  He raked me over the coals about everything I was doing wrong.  He said I was trying to control who was on Consistory.  I said I hadn’t even met with the Nominating Committee.  He said, “Well, why not?  You should be more involved in these things!”  Joe died before I left Emanuel and after the funeral his son Doug gave me one of my most unusual compliments: “You’re a helluva pastor.”  Then Doug told me his Dad had mentioned that “little talk.”  I said, “Is that what he called it?”  Then Doug said his Dad had added, “I think he’s going to be OK.  He took that pretty well.”

But as a congregation you accepted us, loved us, and overlooked our failings.  You took the risk of hiring us fresh out of seminary.  I thought I had church figured out at the age of 30 when we came.  I did not!  You walked with us through many mistakes and much pride.  You also introduced us to the Reformed branch of the UCC and of the church – its history, its theology, its practices. You found so many ways to encourage us.  It means so much to a pastor and helps him do his job better.

Speaking of young, it’s humbling to that Dax Gordon is President of the Consistory.  I think Dax’s marriage to Nancy Young was our last wedding at Emanuel, and they were just kids.  But they are grown up and leading the church.  That’s very rewarding, and humbling.

It’s humbling because many of those who were important in our lives are now with the Lord.  In other words, life is short.  This week Linda and I will travel to Suffolk, VA, to celebrate my Dad’s 88th birthday.  He broke his hip and wrist recently, and it’s possible this will be Dad’s last birthday.  His Dad also died at 88.  I didn’t just turn 57.  I’m on a countdown with probably no more than 31 years to go!

It’s humbling to be here because 200 years is a long, long time.  I look at the 150th anniversary booklet for Emanuel, and realize the church was founded just after the War of 1812.  This part of North Carolina was primitive and pioneer and poor territory.  Some of the leaders in this church owned slaves, and believed God had blessed slavery.  There have been many ups and downs in the life of the church, and the historical booklet says this about the period after the Civil War:  “Spiritual death came in the wake of the war, the ‘political matters,’ and senility, and lowered morals – all these brought Emanuel very low for almost one full generation.”  Then, just as the church was recovering and growing, a fire on December 12, 1901 destroyed the building that had stood since 1814.  The people were crushed in spirit, but it was not the end of Emanuel.

And it’s humbling because, as significant as this church was to us, we realize we were here only five of your 200 years.  If you were to layer the history of Emanuel in an archaeological dig, our layer would hardly be noticeable.  It feels bigger to us.

So I’m humbled at being here today. I’ve been humbled often in the last couple of years, because I’m writing a book on humility.  It’s humbling even to try, because you have to put up with all the wise cracks:  “What’s the title of your book – Humility and How I Attained It?

What almost all these reasons for humility have in common is time.  Time is humbling.  As Dr. Seuss said, “How did it get so late so soon?”

The Hall of Patience

I’m going to return to the subject of your anniversary, because I want to give you some encouragement today.  I can look at the congregation and realize that in some ways, this anniversary comes during a time of struggle for you.  I want to bless you and your pastor with hope and a reason to keep going.

For your encouragement I want to open the Scriptures to Hebrews 11.  Right at the beginning of our reading, we find a reference to time in verse 32.  “I do not have time to tell you about Gideon, Barak….” and so on.  I know how this writer feels.  There’s so much more to be said than I have time to say.

This chapter of the Bible is one often referenced by believers when we think about the past.  Banks Peeler was Sunday morning preacher for Emanuel’s 150th anniversary, and he preached on Hebrews 11:1-13.

Hebrews 11:1 begins, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  As the chapter unfolds, the writer goes on to recount stories of familiar names in the Bible – Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, as well as some surprising names like Rahab the prostitute and Samson the sex addict.  Each story begins with “By faith….” so Hebrews 11 is often referred to as the Bible’s “Hall of Faith.”

I think it should have a different name.  Hebrews 11 is not so much about the faith itself, but about the result of that faith.  The word “faith” is used in different ways.  This chapter is not about “saving faith” – putting your trust in Jesus Christ as your only comfort in life and in death, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it.  We know our only hope is in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

But Hebrews 11 is about a different aspect of faith.  It’s about faith in regard to the future.  It’s about faith that lets God be God.  It’s about faith that sees our brief moment in time in light of the eternity of God. One of my very first sermons at Emanuel 25 years ago was about God’s timelessness.  We took a roll of something – tape, toilet paper, I don’t remember – and stretched it out one side door and the other to represent infinity, then marked our moment as one dot.

When you see our now in light of God’s eternity, it’s humbling.  Hebrews 11 is about faith when you are waiting.

In my view, Hebrews 11 is not the Hall of Faith.  It’s the Hall of Patience.  When the chapter begins, remember, it says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for…” (emphasis added).  Faith is trusting God for what is not yet.

As the chapter comes to a close, the writer says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised” (39).

This puts the whole chapter into perspective.  These biblical heroes are not commended for their character.  We can find blots on their life stories without looking very hard.  Noah shamed himself in a drunken stupor.  Abraham lied and said his wife was his sister – twice!  Moses was a murderer.  David was an adulterer and a murderer.  In spite of their misbehaviors, they all made it into Hebrews 11.

Nor were these characters commended for their successes.  Sure, some of their exploits received honorable mention in the chapter – they “shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword” (33-34) and so on – but that’s not what they were commended for.  Some of them didn’t do anywhere near as much as other.  Abel just offered a simple sacrifice (4).  Enoch lived an ordinary life that “pleased God” (5).  They were commended for having faith in spite of the fact that they never received what was promised.

In other words, they died waiting.  The kind of faith this writer is talking about doesn’t need God to do something tangible and immediate.  This kind of faith will remain strong even if there are no results for that faith in my lifetime.  If I die penniless, grieving, broken, helpless, alone, but die trusting God – that’s faith. Faith is waiting.

I can wait

I told you that I am writing a book on humility.  How’s the book going?  Well, I’m waiting.  I don’t do “unfinished” well, and I don’t like being about two years into this process.  Waiting is also good for me.

One of the chapters in my book is about waiting. It is for that reason you have a bulletin insert with then-and-now pictures of our children.  By the way, one of the captions is wrong.  It says it was taken at our farewell reception.  After I printed it, I found in my file a newspaper clipping that identified that picture as being taken at our five-year anniversary, a few months before we left.  I thought no one would notice, but when I brought it home last night to show Linda, the first thing she said was, “That wasn’t our farewell reception.  That was our five-year anniversary!”  I’m amazed sometimes at what she remembers.

Let me tell you about our kids.  When we left Emanuel, we were in possibly the easiest phase of parenting.  The children were between 5 and 12 – out of diapers and sleeping through the night – but not yet into that phase called adolescence where an evil alien takes over their bodies. It gets tougher after that.  I’ll tell my Confirmation parents this Wednesday night that adolescence is the most vulnerable time of marriage.

In the chapter of my book on humility, I write about parenting kids through adolescence and young adulthood.  It’s the most humbling phase of parenting.  It’s humbling because you’re in a tug-of-war over control of their lives that you, as a parent, know you are going to lose.  They will eventually rip that rope right through your chafed and bleeding hands and be completely on their own.  You will have no control whatsoever.  Trying to find the balance of when to let go of how much rope is tough.  We’ve been through all that with our kids since we left you twenty years ago.

Our kids are now between 25 and 32 years old.  What is interesting about this phase of life is our kids seem to be experts on parenting even though they haven’t yet practiced their expertise on actual offspring of their own.  They just have all sorts of opinions on what we did and didn’t do right.  And so do I, as a matter of fact.

Cara, as a clinical counselor, reflects on her struggles in the teen years.  She was significantly overweight, but the issues were far more than just unhealthy eating habits.  She didn’t like who she was, and didn’t fit in.  She left high school a year early when the college of her dreams – or what she thought would be her dreams – told her they didn’t care if she finished high school.  She was in such a hurry to leave that scene where she didn’t fit in among the popular kids or the pretty kids or the athletic kids or the rebellious kids.  She told me not long ago, “I wish you had known how much pain I was in.”  Cara was our child who went toe to toe with her mother.  As Linda often says, “If I said it was black she said it was white.”  It was painful to watch, and I didn’t know how to handle it as a Dad.  But today, she’s a counselor helping other families deal with their pain.  She’s beautiful inside and out, and she is so worth the wait.

Jeni watched the conflict between her sister and her mother, and decided she would do just the opposite.  She stopped talking about much of anything personal at about age 13.  She just didn’t talk.  We felt the distance from her as well.  It lasted on through college, even to the point that she came very near engagement and marriage to someone we all agree now might have been a disaster – but we didn’t even know she was headed to marriage until she was right there on it.

We decided to step in – gently and lovingly – but it was a choice to intervene.  The decision would still be hers, but we would tell her our concerns.  How do you know when to do or say nothing, and when to act?  It’s not always easy, but one thing I have learned is to go against your nature.  If you tend to be impulsive, opening your mouth too often and saying things you regret, then wait longer.  If you tend to be passive, missing some key moments because you waited too long, then act more quickly than your instinct.

It was Phil who taught me the most about waiting.  He’s still teaching me.  When we left Emanuel in 1993, Phil was in a good place.  He had a close group of friends he really liked, and he was placed into a gifted and talented class for 6th grade at Brown Middle School, where the teachers gave the kids a lot of freedom.

We moved away before the school year was over, and in Catawba County 6th grade is still elementary, so Phil felt demoted academically and was placed in a room with a very strict, militarist teacher.  Even now, when he thinks about his sixth grade teacher, he shudders a little.  He was sick with the flu the weekend we moved, and missed the first week of his new school.  He lost all his close friends at a very critical age, and our new church at that time had hardly any middle schoolers.

More important than what was going on at school or even church was what was going on inside Phil.  He felt a sense of disconnect from his parents’ faith.  He desperately wanted God to be real, but God never felt that way for him.  He even admired his parents and his sisters, but just couldn’t connect.  He didn’t want to say anything, because as a pastor’s son he thought he was just supposed to get it – or that faith would become more real.  But it didn’t.

And so when Phil went off to university, he drifted away from God and church and even us for several years.  He didn’t tell us that science was replacing faith as the primary way he was looking at the world – but that’s what was happening.  He didn’t know how to bring it up to us.  So he didn’t.

One time during those years of distance between Phil and us as his parents, Phil asked me, “Do you pray for me?”  He wanted the answer to be “No.”  He was feeling if faith wasn’t as important to him as it is to us, we wouldn’t understand or accept him if he didn’t believe.  And if we were praying for him to change, it meant that we didn’t accept him for who he was.

Phil graduated with his Ph.D. and moved to Honolulu to work at the University of Hawaii.  If your son lives in Hawaii, you have to go, right?  We spent a marvelous two weeks out there in 2012, relaxing and enjoying each other.  When we got home, Phil wrote Linda and me an e-mail in which he said, in part,

Mom and dad, I want to tell you that something felt different with you guys during this trip – in a good way.  I don’t know if it’s the recent focus on humility or your exposure to people outside your comfort zone in the UCC, but I sensed a sort of relaxation in both of you.…It’s my perception that your faith and convictions used to function almost like a shield, as if your faith and beliefs, if strong enough, could serve to protect you (and us) from what is imperfect and impure and scary in the world.…I don’t feel like I knew you. I knew your faith. Now, however, I’m beginning to see your faith acting more as a lens or filter instead of a shield.  More comes in and more gets out…I see more you, and I feel like you see more me.  I like it, and I feel more comfortable with you.  I feel safer being myself.

As you can imagine, we wept as we read his words.  This led to further conversations about faith and prayer.  Prayer in the Bible is overwhelmingly not about getting God to fix something or come through for me.  It’s not about answers.  It’s about waiting.

Prayer as an act of faith about releasing a situation into God’s hands.  It’s about realizing that God doesn’t see time as we do.  He’s not tapping his fingers, needing immediate change for his happiness.

I answered Phil’s e-mail and asked him if I could include this story in my book, in a chapter titled, “I can wait.”  Phil answered yes, but he also asked me another question.  “What are you waiting for?”  He said, “Spiritual patience..involves not only contentment while waiting but also contentment with waiting in vain.”

You know, I did a little Bible study after that and realized Phil had just taught me something I had never seen in Scripture.  If you do a search in the Bible, almost every time waiting in the context of prayer is not waiting for something specific.  It’s just waiting for God.  Or waiting on God.  “Wait for Lord,” Psalm 27:14 says.  “Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”  I’ll add some other examples to the end of this manuscript on my blog.

Here’s something else I’m seeing about humility in the Bible.  Humility is more about what you think than what you say or do.  In Philippians 2:5, Paul says, “Have this attitude in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added), who emptied himself of his privileges as God and sacrificed himself on the cross for us.  It’s the attitude Paul wants us to mimic – or at least that’s the starting point.  You never say – or rarely say – to a rebellious teenager or directionless young adult, “I can wait.”  But humility thinks it.  Humility might in the middle of a stern lecture or a painful discipline, but the mind of the humble person is at the same time committing that person or situation to the Lord and thinking, “I can wait.  What I see now is not the end of the story.  Because of the God factor, because time itself must be considered in light of his eternity, I can wait.”

Prayer is the ultimate act of humility.  Prayer is why waiting isn’t doing nothing.  Prayer is active and hopeful and definite.  It’s trusting that God sees a bigger picture.  

The long view is God’s view

In that chapter of my book titled “I can wait” I tell a short story about you and my time here.  It’s about a sermon I preached about a year into my time at Emanuel.  I can’t find the sermon but I know what it was about.  It was an apology sermon.  I remember someone told me they thought the sermon was leading up to a resignation.  It was a sermon in which I said, “I’m sorry” for ten things.  I don’t remember them all, but I remember one of them was that I was sorry I had expected you to grow spiritually by leaps and bounds when I myself had always grown by baby steps.

If I had it to do over again, I would be better at waiting – with my kids and with you.  The ability to wait comes with maturity.  I suppose it comes in part from having teenagers or parenting young adults.  What they are now is not what they will be.

And neither is this church.  This feels like a rough spot for you, with many reasons for discouragement.  And I know when churches struggle, their anxiety turns to anger and blame and frustration – people against pastor, pastor against people, people against other people.  This is a church full of humans, imperfect people in process.  It always has been and it always will be.  So we fight or leave and just sit and fume.  What we forget in those moments is the power of waiting.

Hebrews 11 teaches us that people of faith do not find their identity or meaning primarily in their character or their successes.  Emanuel’s written history includes lots of people who didn’t get it right – slaveholders, drunks, and tightwads.  There were pastors who led well and others who didn’t – but Emanuel isn’t still here 200 years later because of their character or successes.  Emanuel is still on this hill because of the faithfulness of God.

What I hope today will do is encourage you to take the long view, which is God’s view.  This church has been here 200 years, and it’s had at least one “very low” generation before now.  But God wasn’t through with Bowers Hill.  The larger Church of Jesus Christ – the universal Christian church – has had low moments that lasted much longer and were much deeper.  But Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  God will never be through with his church until Jesus comes back.

The writer of Hebrews closes this great “Hall of Patience” chapter with the reminder that “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they (the ones who never received the promise) be made perfect.”

Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.”  Today I want you to think of one person – maybe in your family or maybe in the church – whom you blame for your impatience.  That adolescent of yours who’s driving you crazy – God will finish his work.  That fellow church member who seems to stand in the way of everything you’re trying to get done – God is in charge of changing him or her.  That situation that defies answers – it’s not ultimately up to you to fix it.  It’s God’s world and he is not going to be pressed into urgency by our time frames.

God’s part is keeping his promises, changing his people, building his church, finishing the task.  Our part is waiting.  Amen.

Psalms on Waiting

Psalm 5:3
, In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Psalm 27:14, Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.

Psalm 33:20, We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.

Psalm 37:7, Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.

Psalm 38:15, Lord, I wait for you; you will answer, Lord my God.

Psalm 40:1, waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.

Psalm 119:84, How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors?

Psalm 119:166, wait for your salvation, Lord, and I follow your commands.

Psalm 130:5, wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.

Psalm 130:6, wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

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