Sermon for September 25th, 2022

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Hebrews 11:8-16

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, with Sarah’s involvement, he received power of procreation, even though he was too old, because he considered[g] him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better homeland, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Music & the Message: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash, Part 3

Every January, we do a sermon series called "Faith and Film" where we look at some popular movies from the previous year, and how they intersect with our Christian faith and belief. When we're in the midst of that series, someone always asks me, "How come you don't do any of the really religious movies that come out, like "Heaven is For Real" or "Noah's Ark" or "The Passion of Christ" or any of those? And the answer is that those movies are way too obvious--I want us to learn how to recognize our story, our Gospel story, in the "secular" movies--the films that seem on the surface to have absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, but underneath the surface have everything to do with Christianity.

With this, our first sermon series (hopefully of many more to come) on the Music and the Message--I wanted to take a slightly different approach (but really with the same purpose in the end). Some of you have asked me in the last two weeks, "How come you're talking about all these Johnny Cash songs that I've never heard of? When are you gonna do "Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues" and "The Man in Black?" Well, I have some disappointing news: Today is the last sermon in our series this year...and we aren't going to talk about any of those songs. Why? Because you already know them too well, and because they lend themselves to this popular (but mistaken) idea that Johnny Cash was just another outlaw-country-folk-music-rock-star, who sang about breaking the law, and being bad.

He did sing about those things, although I think his reason for singing them is greatly misunderstood. But when Patrick and I were putting together this sermon series, we wanted remind you of something you may have forgotten, or more likely something you never knew at all--we wanted to show you a side of Johnny Cash that today's media culture often tries to hide or gloss over: Johnny Cash was a man of deep and abiding Christian faith. He was a follower of Jesus. He wanted above all to be remembered as a gospel singer. Yes--He knew very well that he was a sinner... but he also knew that he was saved by God's grace. And so today's songs feature that quiet confidence that Johnny Cash had, in the path (or in the case of the next song, the railway, that leads us homeward to heaven.

The song we just heard used the metaphor of a train, traveling through life. The next song uses the image of a car (specifically a hearse). The song you'll hear during the offertory talks about a boat navigating troublesome waters. All three of the songs, with their transportation metaphors, echo our scripture passage from Hebrews. The author of Hebrews talks about Abraham and other biblical heroes setting out on a journey when God called them, each one leaving familiarity and comfort behind, and not knowing where their journey would ultimately lead. The passage goes on to talk about how we are all of us just strangers and foreigners in this world, passing through in search of a heavenly homeland.

The song we're about to hear (Will the Circle Be Unbroken) wasn't written by Johnny Cash--it's actually an old hymn--but it was made popular by the Carter family, and so when Johnny Cash married June Carter, they would often sing this song together. They made it their own, and since then it has become a country music anthem--often sung at funerals for country music legends (like Carter and Cash). The image of the unbroken circle goes back a long ways in Christianity. The circle represents God's perfection, God's never-ending love, and God's promise of eternity. It's why Christian couples exchange rings at a wedding ceremony. But the unbroken circle is also a reminder of what the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 8:38-39: That "neither death nor life... nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." In the words of the song, there's a better home waiting in the sky...

I really do think we saved the very best song for last. In a few minutes when we do the offertory, Patrick is going to sing "Troublesome Waters." In the months leading up to this series, it has become my favorite Johnny Cash song. It combines all of the themes we've talked about these past three weeks: When Johnny speaks of the troublesome waters "rocking my boat and wrecking my soul" it's a prayer of lament. When he says "I cried to my savior, have mercy on me" it's a prayer of confession. When he speaks of the touch of his saviors hand, gently reaching out--these words call to mind the gospel stories in the life of Jesus, who reached out to take Peter's hand and draw him into the boat. When Johnny speaks of trusting his Lord, and heaven's bright shore--he's speaking of the journey of faith we are all on together. And when he says that the troublesome waters "I'm fearing no more" he reminds us of the transformative power of faith, and the quiet confidence that Christ gives us in order to follow in his footsteps, on our way to heaven's bright shore.

But first, before we listen to this beautiful and thoughtful prayer...let's offer to God our own.