Friday, September 30, 2011

Here's Looking at You

This week I was daydreaming about the wonderful city of Florence. Not the one in South Carolina. Florence, Italy, is a gem of a city, with so many interesting facets. It is the home of Renaissance art.

One afternoon while in Florence I enjoyed visiting the Galleria degli Uffizi, a huge museum with an overwhelming collection of magnificent Renaissance art. One piece by Jacopo Pontormo pictured at left shows the risen Lord breaking bread with the disciples in Emmaus. It is titled, “Supper at Emmaus.” You can see the eye of God painted above Christ’s head, which art historians say was a later addition. I have no clue why someone would change this masterpiece, but there it is.

The symbol of the eye of God is an interesting one. The eye symbolizes the omniscience and omnipresence of God, who watches over all things. It is also associated with the Trinity (hence the triangle shape around the eye).

I wonder if the artist who doctored the painting with the eye of God was depicting a belief unique to the Christian faith? It’s hard to comprehend the paradox of a God who is beyond our comprehension and full knowledge, and yet came to us in Jesus Christ and is with us even now through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I like the thought that God keeps his eye on us, just as he does the sparrow. I take comfort in thinking that he can’t take his eyes off of us, because he loves us so much. Hope to see you this Sunday as we break bread together with our brothers and sisters around the world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Take a Hike

My days are probably a lot like yours in many ways—I sit at a desk, reading and responding to emails and phone calls. Sometimes I have meetings with staff and church members. I put out the most urgent of the fires that flare up, and let others just burn to a crisp. Where you might prepare a report I’m working on a sermon. Where you meet around the water cooler I have counseling sessions. Where you might call on a client I go visit the hospitals. Much of my time is driven by deadlines, holy interruptions, and my inbox. I’m sure you can relate.

Yes, there’s a “dailyness” to most of our days. Sometimes, in our routines we can forget the reasons why we’re doing what we do. So yesterday afternoon around two o’clock I broke away from the desk and decided to take a walk across our church campus.  I had heard the construction team was starting to install the roof trusses on the Sardis House, and wanted to see for myself. Catherine and Jessica were in their offices nearby, so I invited them to join me. We grabbed our keys and headed down the hall.

When we got down to Richard’s office we found Richard, Jason, and Alice, who were unpacking and testing out a set of drums that Richard has ordered for Collide, a Bible study and jam session program that he and Catherine have cooked up for the middle schoolers on Wednesday nights. I don’t know if you can picture Alice Johnson beating time on a drum, but let me tell you, she’s got rhythm.

Before you know it, there were six of us heading out the door of the administration building. I felt like a papa duck leading my gaggle of ducklings. We saw Eleanor Beaugher, who I must say, looked a little startled to have this parade of church staff approaching her on the walkway by the Sanctuary. We caught up to Renda walking to her office, and she got swept up in the procession too. Somewhere along the line, almost out of nowhere, Jane joined the parade.

want to see pictures of the Sardis House
being built? Click here.
So then there were eight of us, all headed through the Education Hall and out the back door, just in time to see a giant crane lifting one of the massive wooden trusses into position.
It’s amazing to see this structure rise up where before there was just grass and some trees. I can’t wait for the not too distant day when you will be able to walk inside this new building and we’ll all be able to expand our ministry to our homeless neighbors, to clients of the Presbyterian Samaritan Counseling Center, and to our own families.

Our little parade headed back to the office. We were right at the cloister garden when we saw a ladder leaning against a wall, and high above our heads, a figure scaling the side of the bell tower.

here's George with his climbing gear.
Of course we had to investigate—wouldn’t you do the same? It was George Riggsbee, all geared up with a climbing harness and carabiners and carrying a high powered blower. Apparently every so often he does this—climbs up what looks like at least 75 feet, scaling hand over hand to the top of the bell tower using first his ladder and then the rebar posts embedded in the walls of the tower (don’t worry, George is an experienced climber and is using proper safety gear). He goes up there with his blower and sometimes a shop vac to dislodge all the flakes of iron rust that accumulate, and eventually fall on top of the head and shoulders of the usher ringing the bell on Sunday mornings. George said that one time his shop vac was so heavy with the accumulated iron flakes that he had to have help to lift it into his truck afterward.

It is humbling to realize that, while I’m busy in my own little world, the mission of our Sardis family is happening all around in ways that are sometimes big and explosive, and sometimes quiet and easy to miss. In a simple walk across our campus, on any day of the week, everywhere you look you practically trip over members at work being the hands and feet of Christ.

It’s easy to spot huge trusses being lifted by a giant crane. It’s another thing to spot a guy 75 feet up in the bell tower. So often we miss all the little things that make Sardis such a special place. Even now as I write this, there’s probably someone, maybe it’s you, who is quietly making a difference in this place we all love. God bless you, and thank you, to all you Sardis saints.

No pressure George, but I hope the bell works on Sunday!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

the MUST READ book of the summer

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last September, only a minority of PC (USA) laity reported reading the Bible on their own during the prior week. White mainline Protestants surveyed got an average of 15.8 correct answers out of 32 that were asked to test Biblical knowledge. (Want to take the test? Click here).

So this summer I will be reading through the Bible by way of 50 key passages. Will you join me? If you start June 1 and read a passage a day you'll get through the entire list by the time I return from sabbatical...twice! You can even get a message with the day's scripture delivered daily right to your inbox: click here to sign up.  

Even though I will be physically away from the church, I like to think we'll stay connected as we journey through the Bible together.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stay Tuned...

Thanks for all the feedback on the blog. A new Sardis website will be launched soon after Easter; based on your responses I will resume the blog once the site is up!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?

We’re coming to to the end of the Ten Commandments preaching series. Dr. Kort is out of the office for the first part of this week, seeing his new grandchildren, so I figured in his absence I'd drop in a post to ask you all for some feedback.

I think Dr. Kort has enjoyed writing this blog more than he thought he would. I hope you enjoyed reading what he had to say. So, we need to figure out where the Tom Kort blog goes from here. Can you help? Tell us what, if anything, you would like Dr. Kort to write about. Is there anyone else on staff you want to hear from? Let us know your thoughts using the polls at right, or leave a comment here or at Facebook.

Thanks for reading!
Jessica (Dr. Kort's assistant)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Preacher and His Pinot Noir

You may have read in the paper recently that, for the first time ever, overall U.S. wine sales have topped those of the wine-loving French. Walk through the vast display of bottles at your local Harris Teeter and you will be able to see why. Even in North Carolina there are over 100 wineries. I  have only ever toured one winery, Shelton Vineyard, which is located in the Yadkin Valley near Mt. Airy.   It is the largest family-owned winery in the state. I don’t remember much about the tour except that it was clear my taste buds aren’t all that trained. I could hardly tell the difference between a merlot and a chardonnay, except one was red and the other white.  But I did detect the taste variance between wine stored in oak barrels and metal barrels. Trying desperately to show I had some knowledge of wine, I asked the tour guide if they grow grapes for Pinot Noir. He said they tried, but the grapes were so delicate and sensitive to growing conditions  that the effort wasn’t cost effective. I nodded sagely and said, “just like they said in the movie Sideways.”   He stared at me like I had already been sipping the good stuff.

No one knows for certain when they first smashed a grape into wine. Some say the earliest firm evidence of wine’s presence is in Iran, and has been dated from between 5400 to 5000 B.C. In fact, Egyptians from this time left behind records about wine making.

Most in the medical profession will tell  you that red wine is good for you. The Bible even says “ take a little wine for the sake of  your stomach and your frequent ailments.” ( I Timothy 5:23 ) This is of course just one of many references to wine in the Bible.

This week we look at the 10th Commandment:  “Thou Shall Not Covet.”   We’ll explore this final commandment through the story in
I Kings 21, which is a tale of a plot to take a vineyard. It’s the intriguing tale of King  Ahab, who coveted the vineyard that belonged to his neighbor, Naboth. You’ll also meet Jezebel, Ahab’s queen. It’s a tale of murder, jealousy, and intrigue, like something out of one of those CSI series on television. The events in this chapter are all fueled by Ahab’s covetousness, and the ruin and destruction brought by it. 
By the way, I gave up wine for Lent. I'm looking forward to celebrating the glorious day of Easter, and then going home to a delicious dinner of Easter ham and a glass of Pinot. Am I coveting that glass of red? Hope not…hope I only covet the one thing that all of us really want. Come Sunday when I will share what that is.   See ya then.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Your Pants Are On Fire

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a way we could instantly tell if someone was telling the truth or trying to pass a lie by us.   According to Wikipedia (see how much I have grown in my technological savvy) "the idea that lying produces physical side-effects has long been claimed. In West Africa persons suspected of a crime were made to pass an ostrich’s egg to one another. If a person broke the egg, then he or she was considered guilty, based upon the idea that their nervousness was to blame. In ancient China the suspect held a handful of rice in his or her mouth during a prosecutor’s speech. Because salivation was believed to cease at times of emotion anxiety, the person was considered guilty if by the end of that speech the rice was dry.” All of this eventually led to the invention of the polygraph or lie detector.

When I was a child and we thought someone was not telling the truth,  we used to chant, "liar, liar, your pants are on fire, your nose is longer than a telephone wire.” Good thing that childish ditty doesn’t really happen, or we’d all have singed pants and a nose that would rival Pinocchio's. 

Some years ago Jim Carrey played the role of an attorney, Fletcher Reede, who often bent the truth to his advantage. That is until his eight-year-old son Max makes a wish as he blows out the candles on his birthday cake. His wish is that his dad could go one day without telling a lie.The whole movie spins around how difficult it is for Fletcher to go even one day telling the truth and nothing but the truth.   

Childish rhymes and slapstick comedy give way to more serious scenarios.  A new baseball season opens this week. At one time baseball great Barry Bonds was a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. Now it seems like he is destined for the hall of shame. Bond's mistress testified the other day at his perjury trial in U.S. District Court about his steroid use. She told the court, “I’m not a liar.” The court will have to sort out who is telling the truth and who is bearing false witness. Seems like these old Ten Commandments just won’t go away.

Sermon preview: As with all the other commandments we have examined so far in this series, there is another side to not bearing false witness, aside from the obvious. I'll delve into this other side of telling the truth this week, using the story of the time my friend almost drove off the side of I-77 while driving through the mountainous stretch near the North Carolina/Virginia line....all because of something he heard on the radio….me!   See you this week as we ask…"How Far Do My Words Travel?"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How Do You Like Them Apples?

I am always amazed at how many oft-repeated sayings people seem to think originated in the Bible. For instance, “God helps those who help themselves.”  Can’t find that in Bible, no matter how hard you look.  In fact, Lent reminds us that just the opposite of this statement is true: “While we were yet helpless…” is what the Bible really says; when we were helpless, he saved us.  
Then there is the classic version of the story of Adam and Eve and their chomping on a forbidden apple. That version is so ingrained in our culture that we assume it must have come right from the Good Book. But the Bible doesn’t say anything about an apple. It could have been a banana or kumquat,  for all the Bible tells us. It does make for a nice image though, one that persists in our culture in phrases like “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” Guess that is true, but still not in the Bible.  
So what do apples and pithy, overused platitudes have to do with the ten commandments? This week in the series we will examine the eighth commandment, “thou shall not steal.” Last week in worship I talked about the sex saturated society we inhabit, but we also live in a consumer driven culture.  James Moore reminds us, “Modern advertising, with all of its enticements, can create a strong desire for more and more things. And this desire can make us do strange things”.
He goes on to tell the following story (here is where the apples come in): All of us are like the little boy standing by the apple barrel in the country store. He kept looking at the apples and then looking away. Finally the grocer went over and said, ‘Son , are you trying to steal an apple?  No sir, replied the little boy.  I’m trying real hard not to!”  
The more you linger with the eighth commandment, the more you discover there are other things besides apples that you can steal. You can steal or rob a person of joy, a good day and even hope.  I wonder, is there something that no one can steal?  I think there is, I’ll tell you about it on Sunday.   In the meantime, remember; “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Sex and the Big Dance

My team for the tournament this year:
15th seed Long Island Blackbirds

    Even if you don’t know if a basketball is stuffed or inflated and even if you could not care less about the game James Naismith invented, everyone knows about March Madness.   Hope your team made the big dance hosted by the NCAA.   BYU made it, but they also made the news last week because of sex.   That’s right,  a player was kicked off the team when he acknowledged his transgression to BYU officials.  His transgression was having sex with his girlfriend.   The school has suspended him for the rest of the season.  Not sure what you make of all of that; some writers commend the school for their actions and some think the school has their head in the sand.   Who’s to say?   Apparently the NCAA, which lives and breathes endless rules like the Pharisees of long ago, doesn’t have a policy regarding premarital sex or adultery.   Not sure Moses would have been invited to sit on the NCAA Board of Directors.   

This week we uncover the meaning of the seventh commandment, “Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery.”   Some of the figures are staggering when it comes how many have had sex before marriage and how many spouses have broken this commandment.   Over my years in the ministry I have come to believe that this commandment is much more complex than having (or not having) sex.  

I kicked around a number of sermon titles this week.  I always like the ones that “get you off the bus” and want to come and hear the sermon.  So I first thought of “Forbidden Sex,” but when I told the person who sends my title into the Observer, she blushed and said, “Oh, dear.”   So I figured I needed to tone it down.  So then I liked the snappy and catchy one, “ Lust, Sex and Grace.”   But that too seemed a bit too racy to some.  I was running out of ideas and time, so finally in a cooperative spirit with Jason, Catherine, Jane and Jessica we came up with, “Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places.”   Oh, in case you are wondering, a basketball is inflated, not stuffed.  And here is something to chew on: I wonder how many teams would have enough players to field a team  if everyone fessed up?   Catherine says they wouldn’t have enough teams for a tournament!  Still blogging.  See you Sunday.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Murder in the Cathedral

I am running behind on my blogging this week.  Not sure anyone noticed other than Jessica Otto, my Executive Associate who kept saying,” where’s your blog for this week?”    So here we go, something I borrowed and paraphrase from Dr. Robert Holland in his series on the Ten Commandments.  Over eight hundred years ago when Henry the Second was King of England, Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury.   Most of the time, before becoming the Archbishop, Thomas supported the King even against the Pope.  But in his new role, Thomas and the King quarreled.  Thomas believed that rule of the church took priority over the King.  You can guess what the King thought of that idea.   Well, one thing led to another and the bickering grew hotter and more intense, that after only two years on the job in Canterbury, Thomas was forced to flee to France where he lived out his life as a monk.

Meanwhile, things grew worse in England as both King and Pope jockeyed for position.  Some six years later, Thomas was called back to England to set matters straight.   Needless to say, the King was not happy, in fact publicly cursed the Archbishop and hinted it might be  better if Thomas were out of the way.   King Henry is rumored to have roared, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?", but according to historian Simon Schama this is incorrect: he accepts the account of the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, who gives us "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"

13th century depiction of Becket's murder in the Cathedral.

Well, if you remember you history classes back in high school,  that is exactly what happened.   Right there in the Cathedral Thomas Becket was murdered.  I am told that if you go to Canterbury today  you can walk around the spot where the stain of his blood still lies.  

It’s a sad tale in so many ways….but what is sadder yet, we still kill people—and sometimes even still kill them in churches.  Sometimes murders are committed with weapons, and sometimes with words, or neglect, or indifference.  

This week’s commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill” is up.   I’ve titled my sermon, “Gangsters, Gunslingers and Christians”.   See you Sunday.  And as one of my old cronies named Cromie once said….”before entering the church, leave your gun and holster at the door.”   

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Do You Have a House or a Home?

Yesterday I read that last American survivor of WW I died.  And sadly, each day more than one thousand WW II veterans, tagged the Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, pass away.  

I’m not sure if any generation can be labeled the greatest, though we certainly understand the reasons why the WWII generation has received this label.  But some amazing things are happening all over the world today in places like Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, driven forward by a new generation of young people who have ideals and dreams and the technological savvy to stir the hearts and minds of their fellow countrymen and women.  Time magazine calls these young people “the Generation That’s Changing the World.”

So which generation is the greatest? It’s a toss of the coin.   Perhaps it all comes down to each generation “being faithful in their time.”   The Bible echoes the refrain, “the faithfulness of God endures for all generations,” which I think means that God plants a seed of greatness in every generation.

     Of course, each family has its own tree or genealogy.  None of us arrived here solo: from generation to generation, we all got here on the same bus which departed from the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve were the first mom and pop.   Sometimes things do not work out as planned, so unassuming Seth had to step up to keep bus rolling.  Every parent tries their very best.  Every parent knows happiness and heartache.  I have said it many times, there are no perfect families in the Bible.   Why even the holy family left Jesus behind one day!

So what does it mean today to honor your father and your mother?     This week Dr. Rodger Nishioka will continue our sermon series on the Ten Commandments.  This week’s commandment is Honor Thy Father and Mother.   Not a clue how he will spin his sermon, but I can assure you it will be a homiletical humdinger and give you some fodder for your own family.   You are in for a treat.

    In the meantime,   let me close with a story from the book, When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions by James Moore.  During World War II, a kindly older gentleman who lived in a hotel here in the United States became acquainted with a  young preschool girl, the daughter of a serviceman.  The man noticed the little girl playing daily in the hotel lobby.  It was the only place  she had to play, but she didn’t seem to mind.  In conversations with the little girl, he found out that because of the war, the serviceman and his family had moved time after time, from place to place, and now the hotel was their residence.

    One day as they were talking together, the man said to the little girl, “What a pity that you and your family don’t have a home.”   The little girl answered with deep wisdom, “Oh, we have a home.  We just don’t have a house to put it in!”  

Folks, in the words of Moore, being a Christian family “takes patience, commitment, energy, communication, trust faith – a lot of hard work.  Christian homes just don’t happen.  Christian families don’t just pop up out of nowhere.  They must be worked out, nurtured, developed, tended, cherished – and renewed each and every day.”

Seem to me that if you strive in that direction, if you transform a house into a home, you too are part of the greatest generation that can change the world.  And in so doing, you are also keeping the fifth commandment. We are honoring our fathers and mothers, and all the greatest generations before us, when we are faithful in our own time.

See you Sunday.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Not Today

   You have heard of a repeat or a rerun? Well, this story is a three-peat.   James W. Moore, in this little book, When All Else Fails…Read the Instructions, retells a story told by Cecil Myers in his book, Thunder on the Mountain.   Now I am about to retell it a third time to you. 
  A group of American explorers went to Africa where they hired local tribesmen to be their guides.  The first day they rushed through the jungle.  And on the second day they were up at dawn, ready to push forward.  And likewise on the third, fourth, fifth and sixth days.
     On the seventh day, the American explores were up early again, anxious to get started.  But they noticed that their guides were lying very quietly in their places.
   “Come on,” shouted the Americans, “we are in a hurry!”   But the lead guide replied quietly in his broken English, “We no go today.  We rest.  Let souls catch up with bodies.”
     This week we will look at the Fourth Commandment :  Remember  the Sabbath.   Or as the wise lead guide said, “Let souls catch up with bodies.”   Any chance your soul is trying to catch up with you?  
See you Sunday.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Buddy Rich, Ringo, Jason and Richard

    The entire staff is excited to welcome our new Director of Contemporary Music, Richard Ramsey.   Yesterday was a good day for Richard: his furniture, including his bed,  finally arrived from Indianapolis.  After spending the last few nights on an air mattress, the real thing was like manna from heaven. 

You will enjoy getting to know Richard.  His smile lights up the room and is reflected in his upbeat, joyful music. Today, a gaggle of the staff  went into the sanctuary to discern how best to arrange the chancel area to accommodate both the needs of the early service and the late service.  We are excited about new possibilities for contemporary worship, and also value and treasure more traditional worship music, so we want to make sure we can serve the needs of both services. Jeff Weston was there, too, adding his invaluable expertise to the whole process of sound in the sanctuary.   He is a gem.   Those of you who attend the early service will see a few new twists and a new  placement of instruments, all of which is designed to  engage the entire congregation during our time of song and praise.   After lots of noisy exchange of ideas and moving the synthesizer, amplifiers, microphones, music stands, bell tables, guitars and drums, into several different configurations, we all felt good about our collective choreographing for this new arrangement.  

It was then that Richard said, “oh, I just remembered  that this week both of our usual percussionists, Vern and Michael,  will be out of town.   So unfortunately we won’t have any drums this week. “   At which point our own Buddy Rich (Jason Robbins) said, “ I play the drums.”    At first I didn’t believe Jason, but then he got out the sticks and dazzled us with his percussion skills that rival Ringo Starr. Who knew? Goes to show that you never know the talents hiding inside another person.  And you might even see another pastor singing with the choir this week: she will be easy to spot.  

All of the staff is so excited to welcome Richard in a special way on his first Sunday.  Isn’t it grand when we can be a part of a group that pitches in to encourage and support each other.

This spirit of cooperation will also flow as Richard, Jason and Catherine work together to energize our youth through music.  So a special word to all of our youth: Richard  is looking forward to meeting and getting to  know you and your hopes and dreams about music at Sardis. 

So be sure, whether you can sing like an angel or can’t carry a tune in bucket,  to welcome Richard in your own wonderful way.  Whatever your hidden gifts, you have a part in making Sardis a wonderful place to worship God! Richard will be introduced at both worship services this Sunday.  See you then.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's in a name?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously asked, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." I don't know how many roses were sold yesterday at premium prices to desperate husbands and boyfriends. I like to think I am more technologically advanced, so this year instead of roses I gave my love an Amazon gift card so she can buy books for her Kindle.   

Juliet's "what's in a name?" question argues that the essential "thingness" of an object or person is more significant than the label we give it. But is it? We humans use language and naming of objects as our way of making sense of the world. So a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but it wouldn't be a rose, the ultimate symbol of romance and love. A carnation might smell sweet too, and might be beautiful, but it's not a rose. We can look at a rose and see that it is a flower, with many petals growing in a clustered whorl pattern, with a thorny stem. But we don't truly know what a rose is unless we also add in its symbolic attributes--which have nothing to do with the physical aspects of the rose, and everything to do with it's name. Moreover, it's impossible for us to look at a rose and remove from our psyche what we know about it symbolically.

There are a lot of name changes in the Bible. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Saul becomes Paul. Names tell the world something about us, and tell us too something about ourselves. You can't separate signifier from signified.

Names are important. Is there anything worse than the feeling you have when you forget someone's name? Most couples I know have a system for handling these situations, whereby one person can give "the look" to the other, which is a signal for the second person to extend their hand and say, "I don't believe we've met, I'm ...." letting the forgetful one off the hook for making an introduction.

This week we take a peek at the Third Commandment....Thou shall not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain.... Not taking the Lord's name in vain goes beyond avoiding the language of a sailor whose words turn the air blue or make a rose wilt.  Hope to see you Sunday to explore this some more.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Idol Worship and the Super Bowl

As you may know, I am something of a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Last week, as the Superbowl approached, my excitement was spilling over in the church office. First, I brought in my “terrible towel.” Maybe you saw these yellow rally towels being whipped around in the stands during the big game? The Terrible Towel was created in 1975 by Myron Cope, THE radio broadcaster in Pittsburgh for Steelers games. The Towel has been taken to the peak of Mount Everest, and even into space on the International Space Station. Well, last week The Towel made its debut in the Sardis church office. I carefully arranged the towel, along with a can of Iron City beer bearing a photo of the 1980 Superbowl champ Steelers, in a place of honor on a credenza outside my office. Soon, offerings began to arrive—a calendar page with a Pittsburgh scene of the three rivers was added to the display. A copy of Sports Illustrated with Troy Polamalu on the cover.  A six-pack of Iron City that wasn’t over thirty years old. It was a thing of beauty.

Reverends Alice Johnson and Jane Fobel must have seen that I was veering into dangerous territory when it comes to the second commandment: “you shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” On the Thursday morning before the Superbowl I arrived at work to see my idol desecrated. The shrine had been overturned, the towel now face down and covering the other totemic items. Perched on top was a grotesque rubber figurine of Jabba the Hut, which normally lives on a shelf in Rev. Johnson’s office.  Like King Josiah ordering the destruction of the idols for Baal in order that the people of Judah would return to God, Alice and Jane must have been trying to get me to turn away from my idolatry of all things Steelers.

At first, it can be hard to imagine that the second commandment has much relevance for us today. We might make light of it, as in my story about my Steelers shrine. Most of us live fairly secure in the knowledge that we haven’t made and/or worshiped any “graven images.” Yet perhaps as in no other historical age, in today’s world we are overwhelmed with images.  Magazines and newspapers know that they need to use fewer words and more pictures, preferably with color, if they are to hold a modern audiences’ attention. Practically every one of us carries a device for capturing images (a camera) in our cell phone. Computers, television, mobile devices, print publications, billboards, and more all assault us every day with images to aspire to, to desire…to worship?

So what’s wrong with these “graven images”? J. Ellsworth Kalas, in his study of the decalogue, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, examines this very question:
…why should the commandment be so specific about graven images? Why not a broader prohibition against all perceptions of God? If our graven images come from our thoughts, as of course they do, why doesn’t the commandment forbid thinking about God—or at the least, speculating about God?

I suspect that it is because physical images are so much more restrictive, so much more effective at shutting us in. Tell me about your friend, and my mind will begin drawing a picture of him, but show me your friend’s picture, and my mind has no farther to go.

God is a mystery, and we are told “you shall adore the mystery which is beyond comprehension.” Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth,” not in wood, or gold, or even golden rally towels. Reducing God to a manageable, “graven” object makes it easier for us to wrap our human minds around the mystery, even to believe that God is there to do things for us (like make our team win? No, I didn’t pray for that).

Whatever our graven images--be they football teams, super models, sports cars, designer shoes –our “worship” of these images keeps us from the true worship God.

Thank you to my "ghost editor" Jessica Otto for her contributions to this post. She is pulling me into the digital age!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kudos to our young people who kicked off our series on the Ten Commandments. Many of their words on the first commandment, "you shall have no other gods before me," are still echoing in my brain as I prepare to write a sermon on the second commandment. Their words, such as "many things can trump God," or "the first commandment seems so obvious, until you really stop to think about it." Or "I need God more than God needs me." Or the one that really took my breathe away, "come as you are, but don't stay that way." I scribbled notes all over my bulletin as they spoke. Each one in their own way reminded us that God needs to be the first priority in our lives.

This week we'll explore what it means to worship the one true God. If you have time, read the story of the golden calf in Exodus. It's the basis for our sermon this week. But don't worry, I won't be asking for your gold watches or earrings.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Before there was American Idol

This Sunday we will tackle the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol." The sermon title is "Before There Was American Idol." What things do we "make for ourselves" as idols today? Fame? money? Athletic prowess?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Why the Ten Commandments?

Has our society lost its way?  Are we losing ourselves in the pursuit of the wrong things in life? Are our children and youth confused about what is right and wrong?

From time to time it’s good to pause and check our moral compass, recalibrating and redirecting our path to the full and faithful life God wants us to lead.

In February, we will begin an eleven-week series on the Ten Commandments. Each week in worship, we will examine what these commandments can teach us today as we seek to live out our faith in an ever-changing world.

The Ten Commandments are some of the most lasting and timeless of God’s words for us, elegant in their simplicity and relevance for all ages. Jesus often quoted from the Ten Commandments. Theologians have returned again and again to the Ten Commandments, and each time find not only the familiar comfort of God’s guiding love, but also something new and fresh for each generation.