Thursday, April 7, 2016

Another ironic episode from my totally ironic life

This year Holy Trinity is celebrating its 100th year of ministry. Our Anniversary Committee began meeting nearly three years ago to make plans. One of the things we did early on was establish a budget. We debated whether or not we would commission an anniversary anthem. When considering the pros and cons, we decided there were a lot of other things we wanted to spend our money on, so the idea of an anniversary anthem was nixed.

Late last fall, unbeknownst to me, an email was circulated among our choir members about having an anniversary anthem commissioned. When I caught wind of it, I was more than a little perturbed. We made the decision not to do this, and we hadn’t budgeted for it. Now a few people were taking it upon themselves to come up with the dollars to make it happen. Grrrrrr.

As part of our Anniversary Celebration, we decided to have a Centennial Campaign to give thanks by giving back. After years of capital campaigns at Holy Trinity that were always dedicated to gathering money for necessary repairs to our physical facility, we’re in a better place today -- we’re in a position to give to others, outside our congregation. We allocated where the money would go and invited our members to give. I was bound and determined that if we were going to ask for money for our anniversary, it would be to give the money away, not to spend it on ourselves. So, this little non-sanctioned funding project for an anthem was really getting under my skin. I did everything I could to put a kibosh on it. It wasn’t going to happen!

But they wouldn’t let it go.

The week of Christmas, with our anniversary year only a week away, I had a brilliant idea. What if someone (like me) wrote an anniversary hymn that we could sing on our anniversary Sundays? Wouldn’t that satisfy those who were clamoring for an anthem to be commissioned? So, on Christmas Eve, I was inspired to write a hymn text simply to put a stop to all this talk of an anniversary anthem. I decided to use the tune of “Shenandoah”, which has always been a favorite of mine. The words were inspired by our anniversary banners shown here. 

Beside a stream of living water
Stands a tree of God’s blest people,
Its roots run deep, from those before us.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding.

A hundred rings, a living hist’ry,
Some are thin from years of struggle,
Some circle wide from times of plenty.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding

The branches soar beyond the steeple,
Leaves as varied as its people;
So many gifts, and yet one Body.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding.

O tree of life, O tree of glory,
May our witness tell God’s story
For all who follow in the future.
By grace, it grows by grace, the love of God abounding.

I wasn’t sure how folks would receive the hymn, but on the Sunday in January when it made its debut, it was a resounding success. Mission accomplished. Now we could stop talking about that blasted anthem. 

Well, our big anniversary blow-out worship is on April 24, and you aren't going to believe what’s about to happen. After I wrote the hymn text, our Director of Music, Ron Ellis, contacted a friend of mine, who happens to be a wonderful composer of church music, Tom Keesecker. Behind my back, Tom was commissioned to write a choir anthem from the hymn text I had written for our anniversary. By the time I learned of it, what could I do? I realized that I’d lost this battle. So on our big Anniversary Sunday, the choir will be singing, “Beside a Stream of Living Water” – text: Nancy Kraft, arrangement: Tom Keesecker.

What can I say? I’m so humbled by this honor. And I’m glad that sometimes my people know better than to listen to me. What a gracious act of kindness from a faith community that has done nothing but love me for the past eleven years. Often despite my best efforts to thwart that love, it seems they just can’t help themselves.

And now, here’s the kicker. The anthem has a publisher—Choristers Guild. Isn’t that just perfect! I didn’t want us to have an anthem commissioned for our anniversary and I ended up writing it myself--without knowing I was writing it. And I’ll even be receiving royalties.

Just another ironic episode from my totally ironic life.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Walking Through Walls

Preached at Holy Trinity, Charlotte, on April 3, 2016. 

In this second week of Easter the disciples and Jesus have traded spaces. Even though a week has passed for us here at Holy Trinity, today’s gospel story also takes place on the day Jesus’ was resurrected.

Earlier in the day, Jesus had been sealed inside a tomb behind a stone that no person could move. Now, it was the disciples who were sealed inside a tomb. There in the upper room, the anxious disciples are shut tightly inside. The suspicious world is shut tightly outside. It’s like they have been hermetically sealed off from everything. Everything, including Jesus.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all have times when we do that, don’t we? We want to seal ourselves off from everyone and everything, maybe even God himself. We can do that when we’re hurt. When we’re afraid. When we dare not allow ourselves to hope. We lock ourselves up in our little tombs and there we sit. Safe, secure and protected from any intruders.

Most people tend to do that when things get tough. They seal themselves off from the rest of the world. Sometimes they do this physically. Sometimes mentally or spiritually.

As a pastor, one of the things that distresses me is how, when people need the church the most, they tend to distance themselves from it. When they’re filled with sorrow, fear, or despair, they don’t want to be around people of faith, as if the community of the faithful will just make them feel even more faithless. They seal themselves off and retreat to their tombs. 

But, you know, those times when we want to separate ourselves from the church are usually the times we most need to remain connected to it. None of us is a pillar of faith at all times. We’re all faith challenged from time to time. That’s why God puts us in community, so that at any given time, some of us have the faith that others of us need to carry us through.

The message of Easter is a message of hope. It’s a message for all of us living in our own individual tombs. Or maybe I should say, it’s a message for all of us dying in our own individual tombs. God’s message to us is this –
You can try to seal yourself off from me if you want, but you can’t keep me out. I will come after you. I will hunt you down. If need be, I’ll walk right through the wall you’re hiding behind.

Some of you know that I have struggled with clinical depression in the past. When I was lost in my own despair, what I wanted to do was seal myself away where no one can get to me. I wanted to stay in my own little world, and the last thing I wanted was to be around people who might have challenged my distorted view of reality.

I certainly didn’t want to be bothered by a God who would bring a message of hope in the midst of my hopelessness, who would tell me that I’m worth as much to him as the life of his own Son. I had no interest in hearing that.

There have been times in my life when I’ve hidden in the upper room with the disciples, behind a locked door, sealing myself off from the very one who would save me.

This week I was thinking about my two favorite Bible passages, and I realized why they mean so much to me. They’re both about the same thing. And they both relate to my faith experience. They’re a lot like this week’s text where Jesus walks through a wall to get to the ones he loves.

The first one is Psalm 139 –
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

And then the other one is from Paul’s letter to the Romans –
Who will separate us from the God’s love? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?
Paul’s answer? 
I am certain that there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Now, did you notice the similarity between my two favorite Bible passages? They’re both about how nothing can keep us away from God because nothing can keep God away from us.

It seems to be a theme for me in my life because God knows I’ve tried. I can definitely relate to those crazy disciples who thought that they could actually keep Jesus out by locking the door.

A passage from the Bible that I don’t connect with very well is the one where Jesus says that he stands at the door and knocks. I know there have been times in my life when he could knock until his knuckles bleed, I’m not about to open that door.

But the thing is, at those times, Jesus doesn’t bother knocking. He just appears. Sometimes in startling ways. Often through the people he sends into my life who seem to be oblivious to the walls I’m hiding behind. 

Over the past eleven years, many of you have walked through walls for me and you probably didn’t even know it. 

I know beyond a doubt that Jesus appears to us just as he did to the disciples. Whether we believe in the resurrection or not, the resurrected Christ appears to us. Whether we embrace the abundant new life or not, God gives it to us. Whether we welcome God into our lives or not, he’s with us, loving us every step of the way.

The disciples couldn’t lock him out even if they wanted to. Jesus appears. Defying closed doors, and locked hearts. He simply appears. A dead God is resurrected. A dead faith is re-created. A dead hope is born again. 

The good news of the gospel is clear. There’s more to the resurrection than the story of Jesus breaking out of a sealed tomb. The resurrection is also about Jesus breaking into our sealed tombs. Despite our best efforts to seal ourselves off from him, Jesus appears. When we least expect him, and when we most need him, Jesus appears.