My friend Billy Ricketts creates a ten-song list of his favorites each year. I got his list today and have been lost since I opened the email, lost in those riffs and lyrics. If David Crosby had anything new in the past year, he’s always on this list. This year, “Curved Air” is number four. Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles are number ten with their cover of “Stayin’ Alive.” Billy boasts eclectic tastes; his playlist is one of the first graces of every new year. I’m grateful for this token of friendship, this tie that binds.
My number one from Billy’s list is the new grass of Sarah Jaroz. She’s only twenty-six but has produced a lot of music, graced many stages, and scored millions of appearances in living rooms around the globe thanks to YouTube. Since I don't do Spotify and my sons are all out of the house, I'm increasingly and woefully out of touch with new music. Sarah’s songs have close to a million hits, and thirty from me just this morning.
Besides Sarah Jaroz, my musical highlights this year were few but significant.
I wrote a song about the plains. It came to me while stranded in an airport waiting for my connecting flight to a Chicago beset by thunderstorms. The flight remained grounded, but the song took wing and made, at least, wobbly flight as my homespun songs tend to do. I know not of what I sing, of course, singing about those vast plains. Not yet. Soon, however, I’ll live there in a town with a name almost as cool as Romance or Folly Beach called Champaign where spring comes slow, and messy weather blows cold, cold, cold. When I woke up today in my warm bed in South Carolina, it was 31-degrees below zero with wind chill in Champaign. Rachel and I can’t wait to get there, though we feel such a range of emotions to leave the Greenville area. I’m coming from a great congregation in St. Giles and going to a great congregation in First Presbyterian. May God bless the passage about which I can’t help but sing.
Mandolin Orange was a sweet musical spot last year. They sing about the South in which I’ve lived and about which I’ve read and written my whole life. Their song “Wild Fire” about race, civil war, and shameful strains in the modern South rings like a wake up bell or a battle cry. I hope it’s the former, but these are divisive times.
Another musical highlight was that I got to work with Mark Erelli. The circumstances couldn’t have been more unfortunate; Mark sang for an untimely funeral I conducted for a hero and friend at St. Giles named Skip Miller. I have long-loved Mark’s music from the day that Skip first gave me a CD he had burned of one of Mark’s early songs, “Northern Star.” Mark’s music shuffles through my CD player in my car. Sometimes I have to pull over and just watch the clouds go by.
Skip’s service marked the end of a summer of tremendous loss: my mom in June, Billy Strickland, and Skip Miller—all great saints at St. Giles. In August I got word that a seminary professor and friend, David Bartlett, had suffered a devastating stroke in Chicago in June. Most weeks, his wife powerfully chronicled his fragile ups and tragic downs on a Caring Bridge blog. On top of this, we packed, prayed, and sent our youngest for his freshman year at the University of South Carolina. Our big house felt big, empty, and quiet. But I could hear voices at night, voices of the people we had lost or were losing or who had graduated and gone. Each of these saints wove stories, which I can still hear in their own voice. And while none except John Mark were known for their singing, I heard high harmonies and saw flashes of their wide, happy smiles. But by summer’s end, I wasn’t waxing poetic, I was just sad.
With fall, I was numb. Churches looking for a pastor called for interviews. In October, David died at Yale. I wrote emails, sermons, letters of recommendation, and was trying late at night to write a novel about a woman who felt numb like me but for a world of different reasons. Sarah Jaroz's cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry" describe the teen years of my protagonist Maggie Henry as her family convulsed and ripped apart while her parents bitterly fought. When doves cry, indeed. A third of the first draft is written.
My son Benjamin’s concerts with jazz ensembles and choir at Furman University were great fun. These evenings approached the sublime. Guest artists brought their touring bands, music, and advice. Students showed off what they were learning, and they learned fast from year to year, concert to concert. It was like watching flowers bloom right before your eyes.
Not to be outdone, my son John Mark and the Men and Women’s Choruses at the University of South Carolina filled an old Columbia, SC, church with song one balmy November evening. Rachel and I sat closely together on the pew. The night was respite in a harried, hard fall.
Seeing music live always brings vitality, joy, and a certain kind of religious vision. I sometimes lament that I don’t get out much to catch live shows. My wife reminds me that every time you go to a church with a choir you get a live show. She’s right. Our choir, musical guests, and fill-ins at church play and sing their hearts out each week. I imagine God smiles ear to ear as they do. Trumpet, flute duets, harp, violin, voice. At the family service on Christmas Eve little Cohen played on our Steinway. We could hardly see him over the choir rail. It was lovely, really.
And I still sing a few songs most every night after everyone has gone to bed. I pull out my guitar and play a few originals. Sometimes the dog comes in and gives me a listen. Mostly I’m alone, dusting for God’s fingerprints in the story that is my life.
* * *
Billy Rickett’s music list covers the bases. There’s an old hit from Toto on a remastered anniversary disc and other odd, artful contributions he loved in 2017.
I’m sure he’d agree with me that one of the greatest songs most of us hear every winter and we get to sing it once—if we’re lucky—on Christmas Eve is “Silent Night.” I got to sing it twice. The second time, at McCarter Presbyterian, it was the choral response to the benediction at their morning service of Lessons and Carols. It was the cold morning of New Year’s Eve and Rachel’s last Sunday service as the pastor of that neat, little church. I sat with Benjamin and John Mark on the second row and we belted it out.
At St. Giles a week before on Christmas Eve, “Silent Night” conferred another sort of benediction. Songs sound different at night. They sound different when night tingles with dark and winter and the verge of Christmas. Most churches, I guess, do it like we do. The organist gets us started singing, and by the middle of the song, the organ has become more sparse. By the final verse we are singing it on our own, all the voices soaring solo without the benefit of instrumental accompaniment. Sans organ, you hear the warbles and monotones, the delicate tenors and the heft of altos and basses. Meanwhile, the dark church fills with pricks of light as we pass the flame person-to-person from the Christ candle. That song lifted on the wings of a few hundred other voices, in a darkened room illumined only by candlelight, resonates like no other song at no other time, warm, melting candle wax gluing your fingers together, voices rising together, something pounding on the inside, something beckoning from the outside.
Christmas. The flicker of light in darkness. Transcendence.
The lyrics say it best, both as benediction and illumination for the path forward. If we sleep in heavenly peace, may we wake to walk in and work for peace. Even difficult years awaken to new beginnings. And wherever we go, God goes with us.
Happy New Year.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent/A Meditation by Matt Matthews
The nativity story according to Matthew’s gospel spends very little time at the Manger. Our epic tells have shown us the breadth and drama of the story, and notice how little time we spend kneeling in manger-hay.
In five scenes, Matthew gives us a picture of the intrigue before and the after that world-changing, lovely birth. If we were going to pitch the nativity as a soap opera, Matthew’s version of the story is the one we’d use.
Scene 1.) First we have Joseph. Matthew gives us the only real glimpse into the heart of Joseph. He discovers that Mary is pregnant and because he is righteous, thoughtful, and good, he makes plans to break up with her. She obviously is into another guy. After all, she’s pregnant. Rather than make a scene, he’ll break up with her quietly. There’s no need for drama. He’ll slip out of the scene under the radar.
Here—as with every verse of scriputure—we can learn something. Joseph’s reasoning makes sense. Joseph’s plan is pretty good. Joseph’s read of the situation seems accurate. And yet—and yet he has read the situation all wrong. We sometimes do exactly the same. We read the situation all wrong. Sometimes our God-given intuition is wildly inaccurate. Because Joseph doesn’t see the bigger picture, his reasoning is off. His plan is bad. Left up to his own devices, this story could end badly.
Thank God for sleep and for dreams and for the occasional restless night. God can use such nights to tune our vision, to wake us up to what’s important, to help us see what we’ve been missing all along.
Angels and visions come to the characters in this story FIVE times. This is the first instance: The angel comes to Joseph in sleep and sets him straight. Mary hasn’t been fooling around. Quite the opposite: God has especially chosen her. Her. His betrothed. And Joseph isn’t a third wheel; he’s an essential, vital part of the story. Mary and Jesus will need Joseph. Like all families, they’re going to need each other.
There’s a million lessons here, but here’s one: When we get a glimpse into how we fit into God’s story, we are given an opportunity to adjust our plans. That’s what Joseph does. He adjusts his plans in order to accommodate God’s holier, bigger, better plan.
Scene 2.) Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us about the wise men. They see the star and make inquiries. They go to Herod for directions. Surely Herod—the respected ruler of the province—would have his finger on the pulse of culture and religion. He’d know about the coming of the Messiah, and he’d be glad, of course, of the possibility that the messiah had finally come. We know Herod is a bad guy, but the wise men don’t.
Allow me a digression: The Byrd Theatre is Richmond is an old Movie-House-Style theater. Every year they show the classic movie The Sound of Music. Every time the baroness appears on the screen everyone in the theater hisses. The baroness is pretty. She supposedly is bringing happiness to the children’s widower father. What’s wrong with that? Everything about their relationship seems perfect. Except it’s not perfect, and we know it. She doesn’t like the children. She’s not good for the Captain. She doesn’t like to sing. She’s planning to send the kids away to a boarding school. She’s getting in the way with the truer love between the Captain and Maria. The baroness is bad news and every time she appears on the screen at the Byrd Theater the audience hisses and boos.
That’s what we want to do when Herod appears. The wise men think he’s fine. He’s not. They trust him. We don’t. They are interested in a relationship with Herod. We know better.
Jesus already has the deck stacked against him. Herod is out to get him. Great and grave efforts are being made to keep this good news under a basket. And the wise men don’t know that Jesus needs NOT their gifts of gold, frankenscence, and myrrh. Jesus needs their protection.
The wise men find the manger, and share their gifts. We are reminded that we have gifts to bring to the least of these, to the lowly, to those unfortunate at birth. We have gifts to give.
Wise men still seek Jesus. Small men still seek to extinguish the light of God’s love.
Scene 3.) The story speeds up. As the wise men have been warned in a dream to go home another way, thus avoiding Herod, Joseph is, likewise, warned to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. They make yet another refugee family running for their life. We like thinking of Jesus all meek and mild in the manger. And that’s fine. But like all babies, Jesus is growing up. And we don’t like the idea of Jesus and his family needing to take shelter in tent cities on the way across the border to the safety of Egypt. I hear people say all of the time, “Leave the politics out of religion.”
Tell that to Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus. The world’s most famous refugees.
Scene 4.) Herod (boo hiss) has hatched a plan. If he can’t find Jesus (to pay him homage, then to slit his throat), then he’ll have all the male children Jesus’ age killed. Killed. Murdered.
I, for one, would like to think such heinousness doesn’t exist any more. But just like the problem of refugees that hasn’t gone away, examples of terrible cruelty still exist. Think of Hitler and the Jews, and the blacks, and the gays, and the cripples. Think of the back-and-forth slaughter of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda in 1959, 1972, 1994. Think of poison gas in Alleppo in 2016.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus would like to leave out the politics—and the murder of the gospel story.
We are now miles away from the warm, tender manger. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are on the run. Their lives are at risk.
And this is the Messiah sent to save the world. LORD, have mercy.
Scene 5.) God sends an angel to Joseph in a dream to let him know that the coast is clear. The holy family can leave Egypt and head back home. Because Herod’s son is now in power, Joseph decides to take residence in Nazareth—some distance away from the powers that be.
The world so in need of a savior remains ready to slay that savior. And the story that is so sweet in Luke’s gospel and so theologically rich in John’s gospel is wrought with danger in Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew’s gospel paints the world as a place that reads like today’s headlines. It is into this world that Jesus was born—meek and mild, sweet little Jesus-boy. In Matthew’s gospel we are reminded of the wrong that the love of Christ is meant to make right. This is the world in which we live. This is the world we are invited to love.
Let us take our neighbor by the hand to the manger. Like the wise men, let us make our way to see the place where love was born.
And may God’s love kindle a flame.
To Members and Friends of
St. Giles Presbyterian Church
Dear Fellow Saints,
I am leaving St. Giles in order to accept God’s call to the First Presbyterian Church in Champaign, Illinois. Accepting this new call thrills me. Leaving you breaks my heart.
Words simply fail me in thanking your for these 13 years of shared service. Maybe the best thing I can do is invite you to imagine two pictures. The first is of my sons when we arrived here in August 2004. John Mark is a child, five years old, and ready to begin kindergarten. Benjamin, heading to second grade, still sucks his thumb. Joseph is stoically petrified to begin sixth grade and the harrowing adventure of middle school. Look at their faces: sheepish, smiling, expectant.
The next picture is recent. You see these fine, young men you helped raise. You loved them, taught them, challenged them, nurtured them, prayed for them, played with them, dreamed with them, and created a sanctuary for them in which to grow up to be the confident, gracious souls they are now. By the grace of God, you helped do this. How do I say thank you for that?
In both of these pictures, you see your own shining faces. My Mom is there. She’s holding a blackberry wine cake and beaming her shy smile. We are surrounded by a communion of saints, the living and the dead (see their faces?), and you, and me. It’s a crowd. It’s our church. Blest be the tie that binds.
Like our sons, our ministry together has flourished. We are a seven-day-a-week congregation. InDwellings, Thornwell, the French School, and the Eastside YMCA have become newly nested on our ample campus, collectively generating income and in all cases garnering sincere community good will. AA, scouting, CESA training and summer camp, and other long partnerships such as Interfaith Hospitality Network and neighborhood groups continue serving our community from our campus. Partnerships with Galilee Korean Presbyterian Church and Mattoon Presbyterian continue to deepen. All of this growth is due not to our formidable energies, but to the boundless grace of God. Again by the grace of God, we’ve done well financially over these years retiring a hefty mortgage and updating our long-neglected campus in two successful capital campaigns. Additionally, we support mission, and, recently, connected to two international missionaries, the Johnsons in Zambia and the Shannons in Ethiopia and soon Turkey. To the glory of God, St. Giles remains both sanctuary and launch pad.
I’ve loved serving by your side. Working and dreaming with you and our faithful staff has been nothing less than a means of profound grace. Rachel is concluding work with clients at Baptist Hospital Easley and A Sacred Space Counseling services at Disciples United Methodist Church; she’s also saying goodbye to the saints at McCarter Presbyterian Church where she’s served as pastor for two years. Our sons will continue their paths at Montreat, Furman, and USC. Ben and John Mark remain members of St. Giles. You have been our home.
By the time you get this letter, your Session will have been apprised of my new call. They—or a transition team—will seek answers to your most pressing questions, meet with the Committee on Ministry of Foothills Presbytery for guidance, and plan a goodbye celebration for after the holidays. Pray for my friend Rev. TJ Remaley as his duties may increase. If the way be clear, my last Sunday will be one of the first two Sundays in January.
In the meantime, the season of Advent is blessedly upon us. This is a season to focus upon the God who spanned the chasm between heaven and earth with the birth of Jesus in a lowly manger. At Advent, we remember that the light of God’s love always guides us, and God’s grace still abounds. We are in good hands. God is good.
This is a sermon about wholeness, and it begins with last week’s sermon about focus.
Jim Shiflett commented about last week’s sermon. That sermon was about focus, in which I suggested that disciples of Jesus ought to try to stay focused on Jesus. (Like a lot of Christian ideas, this is easier said than done.) At the men’s lunch the next afternoon, Jim agreed with the premise of my sermon but took it another step, and added that when we focus on Jesus we see the people Jesus saw. We see the red and yellow, black and white. The haves and the have-nots. Locals and come heres. And we try to love them like Jesus loved them. Our culture these days is less generous when it comes to loving neighbor. But love doesn’t come from culture; it comes from God, and the church is called to share it.
Remember the song Desperado made famous by the band the Eagles?
Desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
You been out ridin' fences for so long now
Oh, you're a hard one
I know that you got your reasons
These things that are pleasin' you
Can hurt you somehow . . .
In the prayer book there is a line from an old funeral prayer that touches me every time. This is the line: “As we are able to receive them, teach us the lessons of life that can be learned in death.”
One lesson, of course, is that human life has limits. We don’t live forever. There is a limit to what we can do. Our time together on this earth is finite.
I always wanted to sit in on a game of Dominos with Priscilla and her friends at Rolling Green. They played often. They play without a lot of talking. They focused. They snapped dominos down and snatched them up. They sometimes played without breathing. And when the round was over, they’d let out a collective laugh, their cheeks would bloom again like springtime roses, and their eyes would shine with delight.
A sermon from the pulpit of St. Giles Presbyterian Church
January 29, 2017, Matt Matthews
Micah is a minor prophet with a big message.
We call him minor only because his book is seven short chapters long (compared to Isaiah’s 66, and the heft of Ezekiel and Jeremiah), but there’s nothing minor about his message. Like all the prophets, Micah—the name means ‘Who is like Yahweh?’—aches with compassion for the dispossessed and poor, and he bristles with anger at Judean leaders for abusing their wealth and power.
Eighty-year-old David Bartlett, Sr, had gotten into another spat, again, with his 46-year-old son David Bartlett, Jr., about driving at night. The Junior said the Senior ought to stay off the roads after dark. The Senior said it was a quiet Christmas Eve, there’d be very little traffic, and, besides, the church was right down the road. The Senior wanted to know, What could that possibly hurt?
“Plenty,” said David Bartlett the Junior, “if you broadside a minivan.”
On Tuesday we vote for a new president.
On Monday evening at St. Peters across the street I will join you and others in the Pelham Road corridor of churches to pray for our country on the eve of election. St. Peters initiated this service because it’s always a good idea to pray for God’s guidance in our national life, and, particularly, because this election cycle has been so divisive.
This sermon title is a question.
(A sermon [!] preached on August 14th 2016.)
I Corinthians 12: 4-11 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...