Posts Tagged ‘Georgia Tech’

Sermon 11-12-17: “Being Thankful in a World of Evil”

November 15, 2017

Last week, in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, more than a few tweets called into question the effectiveness of prayer. What good is prayer when these kinds of massacres become routine? After all, the victims were already praying when they were shot. What good is faith if God doesn’t seem to intervene? This sermon is, I hope, a Christian response to these kinds of questions.

Sermon Text: Philippians 2:1-11

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Last Sunday, around the time that we were gathered here at 11:00 for worship, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gathered at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman, armed with a Ruger military style rifle, walked into the church and fired his weapon. Within minutes, 26 of our brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 5 to 72, including eight children, were dead. Another child, by the way, named Carlin Brite Holcombe, hadn’t yet been born when he and his mother, Crystal Holcombe, were killed.

They were not so different from us… Small town, like Hampton. In church worshiping, singing hymns. Praying. The pastor of the church and some of his family happened to be out of town that day. A guest preacher was filling in. This guest preacher and his family died. But one of the poignant details that stood out to me was this: the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter—who didn’t go out of town with her father—chose to go to church. Because, after all, that’s what Christians do on Sundays; that’s what her mother and father raised her to do; that’s what she wanted to do; because she loved Jesus, and people who love Jesus go to worship on Sunday. So that’s where she was when she was killed.

A day or two after the shooting, we Americans were arguing, as we always do in the wake of these tragedies, about gun control on the one hand and second amendment rights on the other—and I promise I have no interest in discussing these questions. But it was in this political context that Michael McKean, a talented actor and comedian whom I admire, tweeted a controversial message. He was apparently disappointed that so many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for the victims of Sutherland Springs—while taking no further action. So he tweeted, “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.”

They had the prayers shot right out of them. A lot of people found these words insensitive, to say the least. He later retracted it, saying he didn’t at all mean to attack people’s faith. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 01-15-17: “To Fulfill All Righteousness”

January 19, 2017

matthew_graphic

Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel are puzzling: What does Jesus mean when he says that it’s proper for John to baptize him in order to “fulfill all righteousness”? In this sermon, I explore that question and show how these words and actions of Jesus point to the Cross.

Sermon Text: Matthew 3:13-17

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

On Saturdays in the fall, when I go to Georgia Tech football games in midtown Atlanta, there are sometimes people on the corner of North Avenue and Techwood Drive. They have P.A. systems and microphones. They have an urgent message that they want passersby to hear! And their message, in so many words, is “Repent… or else.” I confess these people make me feel uncomfortable. When I see them, I want to cross to the other side of the street. I want to get away from them as quickly as possible. I want them to go away. They’re spoiling my fun, after all. I don’t want to think about my sins, or God’s holiness, or God’s wrath, or my need to repent and turn to Jesus in order to avoid hell. After all, I’m just trying to enjoy a college football game! This is the deep South, after all. Let’s not mix one religion with another! Sunday is for one kind of church, but Saturday is for another kind!

Look, we may quibble with the in-your-face method of evangelism that these people use. But give them credit: At least they understand what’s at stake. They understand that unless or until people do repent and turn to Jesus, and believe in him, and entrust their lives to him, they will face an eternity separated from God in hell.

Do we understand what’s at stake?

Over the course of his life, John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, rode 250,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons because he understood what was at stake—because of his firm conviction that people risked being eternally lost unless they repented and believed in Jesus.[1]

The ministry of the apostle Paul was fueled by this same conviction: In Acts 20, Paul is preaching a farewell sermon to some people that he knows and loves—the elders at the church in Ephesus, a church he started and where he ministered for three years. And he says something very interesting: He says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”[2]

Innocent of the blood of all. What does he mean by that? He means that as a pastor, as a preacher, as a missionary, as a leader in the church, Paul can leave that place knowing that he’s done everything he could do, that he’s told as many people as he could tell, that he’s taken every opportunity to share with his community the full gospel of Jesus Christ. So that if they die—and face God’s judgment, God’s wrath, and hell because of their sins—their blood won’t be on Paul’s hands. Because he’s done all that he can do save them. Read the rest of this entry »

Did the magi really visit the Holy Family?

December 15, 2016

I said in an earlier sermon that Matthew and Luke wouldn’t have included a potentially embarrassing story of a virgin birth (or, more accurately, virginal conception) unless they also believed it was historically credible. (In Luke’s case, at least, he likely got the story from Mary herself.)

So it is with the magi of Matthew 2:1-12. To say that neither ancient Jews nor Christians held these practitioners of astrology and magic in high regard is an understatement. That Matthew includes them in his birth narrative anyway lends credence to their historicity.

I’m writing this, by the way, not for my own edification, but for anyone who went to mainline Protestant seminary, as I did, whose professors taught them, as some of mine did, that Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 are strictly “legendary.”

Oh, the damnable nonsense that I learned during those years! It’s not for nothing that I can’t find my diploma from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, whereas my two from the Georgia Institute of Technology are prized possessions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for the experience of Candler—God used it, mercifully to make me a better person—but it’s like being grateful in retrospect for a flood or fire or some other disaster.

Regardless, as the late R.T. France wrote in his commentary:

Many uses of magos, especially in a Jewish or Christian context, are clearly pejorative, notably of the “false prophet” Bar-Jesus in Acts 13:6, 8. Not every mention of magi necessarily refers to what we now call “magic,” but it was a grey area from which Jews and Christians preferred to keep their distance. It is therefore remarkable to find Matthew introducing magi into his story without any sign of disapproval. However widely respected the magi may have been in Mesopotamia and more widely in the Greek and Roman world, their title was not one which a careful Christian would willingly introduce without warrant into his account of the origins of his faith. The most satisfactory explanation for their presence in Matthew’s narrative is that this was an element which he had received in his tradition and (probably because the role of the star required them to be identified as such) did not feel at liberty to disguise.[†]

1. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 66-7.

Sermon 09-11-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 4: Our Prayers”

September 22, 2016

keeping-the-promise-sermon-series

The apostles faced a problem in Acts 6: One faction in the church was grumbling that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of money and food. What were the apostles going to do about it?

As I say in this sermon, this kind of grumbling is a sin. It goes against Jesus’ own words about forgiveness and reconciliation. But the grumbling—alongside the logistical problem which gave rise to it—wasn’t the biggest threat the church was facing in this crisis: the biggest threat was that the apostles would be distracted from their main calling, the ministry of God’s word and prayer.

Does our church reflect this same priority and why does it matter? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7

Just last weekend, my beloved Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech played football in Ireland against Boston College. There was an article about the game in the Irish Times. The author pointed out that American football is growing in popularity in Ireland, although it pales in popularity to something called Gaelic football—not to mention in comparison to that sport that the rest of the world calls football, which is soccer to us. One challenge that many people outside of North America have to overcome in order to enjoy American football, according to the author of the article, is that there are “many stoppages” in the game. Isn’t that funny? There are many stoppages. The reporter marveled at the rock-star status that these student athletes enjoy in the public, as well as the huge salaries that these college coaches receive. He also wondered why so many people were passionately interested in a school’s football team when they didn’t themselves attend that school. But I especially liked this part:

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

The fans’ intensity became clear early on when I was warned that Georgia Tech must always be referred to with the ‘Tech’ part included and never simply as ‘Georgia’ – that being the name of their fiercest rivals University of Georgia. Apparently it’s something akin to referring to Manchester United as Manchester City.

My point is, while we have much in common with the Irish; while we speak the same language; while many Americans—including players on both teams—are descended from the Irish, there is much that separates us culturally.

A similar dynamic is going on in today’s scripture. In verse 1, we’re told that a “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews.” Who are these two groups? Like the Irish and Irish-Americans, they are two groups that had much in common: The Hellenists and Hebrews shared the same ethnicity. They were ethnically Jewish. They both went to synagogues and worshiped in the Temple. And now they both had become members of the same church; they were both followers of Jesus Christ. Read the rest of this entry »

If you receive a Christmas gift, please don’t “pay it forward”

December 22, 2015

tech_gift

In sermons and blog posts, I’ve been emphasizing the “free-ness” of God’s gift of saving grace, especially in the face of our built-in resistance to receiving a gift. This Facebook post from a local Atlanta TV station is a case in point.

One-hundred fifty students at the Georgia Institute of Technology (my beloved alma mater) raised money to give a campus security guard a Christmas gift of $1,600. A smartphone video shows the man’s reaction.

Nothing to complain about here, except please notice the headline: “Ga Tech Security Guard Brought to Tears after Students Pay it Forward.”

First, inasmuch as “paying it forward” has any meaning, it means exactly opposite what the headline implies. Taken literally, they would only be “paying forward” $1,600 to this security guard if they had received an amount equal to $1,600 from someone else in their past. “Because Mark helped me once when I needed it, I’m going to now help Steve because he needs it.”

Even if the security guard had given these students an in-kind contribution worth $1,600—through service over and above the salary that Georgia Tech pays him—their giving him this gift isn’t “paying it forward.” It’s paying it back. And if they’re paying it back, then they’re not giving the security guard a gift at all. These students are saying, “Merry Christmas. Now we’re even.”

How depressing!

Put in these terms, it’s not nearly as heart-warming a Christmas message as Fox 5 News wanted to communicate, is it?

Is it selfish to complain? Only if it’s also selfish to be happy

December 15, 2014
My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory, over Clemson.

My son Townshend and I enjoyed this recent Georgia Tech victory over Clemson.

I’m almost embarrassed to say how happy I was a couple of weeks ago when my beloved alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, defeated its in-state SEC rival to win the Governor’s Cup. I say I’m almost embarrassed because of course it’s unwise to let a group of 18-22 year-olds affect my happiness to such a great extent. So the voice of reason within said, “Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.” And we have done it before, although our current losing streak had been five years.

Still, the next day at church I disappointed a few Tech fans who wanted me to gloat. But it’s not my style. Act like you’ve done it before, Brent.

Happiness from sports is a zero-sum game. One team’s happiness from winning always comes at the expense of the other team’s misery from losing. Since we Tech fans, unfortunately, are much smaller in number than University of Georgia fans, our team’s victory in this game inflicts a disproportionate amount of pain on our state. Not that I mind!

Predictably, this pain was reflected in my Facebook feed that afternoon. One clergy acquaintance posted that he was tempted to complain about so many things regarding his team’s performance and the coaching decisions but decided not to—which is probably for the best. But I gently disagreed with the reason he gave for not complaining: all the “real” suffering in the world, from ISIS’s campaign of terror against Christians to parents in his church who are grieving the death of a child.

I replied, “Yes, but by that standard what right do any of us ever have to complain about anything?” Football is trivial relative to the scale of suffering in the world—as are most things that occupy our time and give meaning to our lives. Yet, my clergy friend and I both spend money on our respective teams’ games and merchandise. Why do we do that when that same money could go to help relieve suffering in the world? Why do we even spend time watching football games when we could more productively spend that time working for justice in the world?

Do you see the problem with my friend’s logic?

If we can’t complain about “little things”—for the sake of what other people are dealing with—then we can’t complain, period. Because no matter what we’re going through on a particular day, there are always at least tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are going through something much worse.

Moreover, if we can’t complain about little things then, by all means, we can’t let ourselves be happy with little things, either! For example, how can we be happy with presents that we receive on Christmas Day when so many people around the world have nothing, or next to it? How is our happiness not selfish? How can any of us be happy until God finally balances the scales of justice in Final Judgment?

Obviously this is not a Christian disposition. For one thing, God’s Word is filled with righteous complaining and complainers. God seems O.K. with that, even as he also tells us repeatedly and emphatically to rejoice in all circumstances—no matter how favorable or unfavorable, how significant or insignificant.

God gives us gifts—even like football, which I’ve blogged and preached about before—and he wants us to enjoy them.

Sermon 03-16-14: “Faith and Works”

March 21, 2014

practically_perfect

Today’s scripture from James serves as a necessary antidote to the “easy-believism” that often afflicts popular Christian theology: “Jesus paid it all, and I don’t owe a dime!” While it’s certainly true that we’re saved by faith alone, saving faith will include good works. James isn’t pitting “faith” against “works,” as is popularly thought: he’s pitting living faith against dead faith. What kind of faith do you have?

Sermon Text: James 2:14-26

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was at Georgia Tech, there was a series of three physics classes that every engineering major had to take. The second of these was famously difficult. It was called electromagnetism, “E-mag” for short. E-mag was considered a weed-out course—a way of separating the men from the boys. And I know that sounds sexist, but I almost mean it literally. Because it is around the time you’re struggling in a class like E-mag when you begin to notice that there aren’t many girls in class with you, and there aren’t many girls on campus… And you wonder why you didn’t go to a school like UGA, where the odds are much more favorable—and where you don’t have to take classes like E-mag!

I said the class was called E-mag, but the class’s nickname was really “Re-mag,” because so many students flunked it the first time and had to repeat it. And if you were taking the class as “Three-mag,” you were really in trouble! Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-08-13: “Reel Christmas, Part 2: How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

December 14, 2013

grinch

Our gospel lesson today tells the story of a real-life Grinch named Zacchaeus, who, like the green creature in the holiday TV classic, steals from others before repenting and being transformed by love. Like the Grinch, our lives can also be transformed by love—God’s love, as demonstrated through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. We Christians have much to learn from the Whos as well. Outside the walls of our church we have “Grinches” who are awaiting their invitation to experience God’s life-changing love, grace, and mercy. Will we go out and invite them, or wait for them to come to us?

Click here to read or watch Part 1 of this sermon series on It’s a Wonderful Life.

Sermon Text: Luke 19:1-10

The following is my original sermon manuscript with videos inserted in the right places. Please note: the video below preceded the beginning of the sermon.

When I was a kid growing up, my father had two jobs related to trimming the Christmas tree. His main job was hauling it into the garage, sawing the bottom of the trunk off, and fitting it into the tree stand. But his other job was untangling the Christmas tree lights and testing the light bulbs. Remember the days when lights were wired in series, which meant that if just one bulb was out, the entire strand didn’t work. And you had to go bulb by bulb, testing. Untangling and testing. Untangling and testing. Dad hated that job! And he let us know how much he hated it by using some colorful language to describe it, believe me.

But Dad’s salty language didn’t bother us kids in the least. We knew that Christmas was on its way when Dad was cursing about the Christmas tree lights! Read the rest of this entry »

Cool new Facebook feature

August 13, 2011

… but also kind of depressing. It goes to prove that I am a person of great faith.

As we approach another season, “Go Jackets, anyway!”