Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Laurie's Sermon for October 19th 2008

The Voice of Promise
Exodus 33:12-23; 34:1-9

One time I received a card from a dear friend during a trying time in her life. It was a Winnie-the-Pooh card, but not the Disney variety. It was part of the ‘Classic Pooh’ collection, the kind with the drawings similar to the ones in Milne’s original books. Pooh and Piglet are walking in the woods, and it looks like it is dusk. The bear is leaning sideways to reach down to grasp Piglet’s paw and Piglet is having to reach way up high to hold on to Pooh. The caption on the card said the following:
“Yes Piglet?”
After a pause, Piglet responds, “Oh nothing, I just needed to be sure of you.”

There are various times in our lives when we need to ‘be sure of’ another’s presence. When we are lonely, when we are frighten, when we are facing an unknown future or maybe when trying to repair a broken relationship. There are times we need to know we are not alone, that someone is with us – even if they are doing nothing but simply being there, it is important to feel the presence of another. There are times we need to ‘be sure of’ God as well.

The happenings of this passage Jim and I read this morning are the result of Moses’ request for proof of God’s presence. As I mentioned earlier, Chapter 33 is mostly a record of Moses’ pleas for forgiveness and pleas for God’s presence. God is angry with his stiff-necked people and is ready to forsake them all and start over again with Moses’ descendents only. Moses does some smooth talking and God decides to not give up on the people and go with them as they continue their trek to the Promised Land. However, before the journey can begin, fences need to be mended and a right relationship restored and this begins with a new set of tablets containing the laws for how to live as a community with one another and with God.

In chapter 34, God has some instructions to Moses as to how to return to the mountain for this renewal of the covenant. He is to follow these exactly so that he may encounter God safely. God created the first stone tablets and wrote on them. This time, Moses has to make his own tablets and bring them up for God to write on. God then tells Moses the time and place he is to be as well as where all the people and herds are not to be. Verse 4 says that Moses follows all the directions and climbs up to meet God.

Just before receiving these instructions, at the end of the previous chapter, Moses asks what seems like an odd question that really sets the rest of Chapter 34’s renewal of the covenant in motion – he asks to see God’s glory. Moses has already been told back in chapter 3 that no one can see the face of God and live, but still he asks to experience a revelation of God, to experience the glory of God. The underlying desire here is that Moses is wanting to ‘be sure of’ God, to have proof that God’s presence can be seen or felt or heard.

Don’t we also have this desire at times, this need for reassurance that the clouds that may engulf our lives in doubt and fear also contain the presence of God? It is not that we always must see or hear something to believe it nor is it that our faith is lacking. Like Piglet, we just need to be sure of another being with us, to be sure of God.

This meeting with God is what is fascinating to me. God agrees to grant this request for proof, but God does so very carefully. God protects Moses by giving very specific instructions when God says: "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy… Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen." You can hear in this reading the inspiration for the first part of the hymn Rock of Ages – Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. No one can see Yahweh and live, so there is a cleft in the rock in which Moses is to be hidden and covered by God’s hand.

If we then skip over to verses 5-9 in the next chapter, this theme of God’s proclamation is continued. Moses is now on the mountain enclosed in the midst and literally the mist of God. The narration says the Lord descended in a cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the name ‘the Lord’. You may remember that in Exodus chapter 3, Moses asked God what the divine name was and God’s answer was not a proper noun, but a verb – “I AM - tell them I AM has sent you”. Here in verse 6 the same verb is used to proclaim the divine name. “The Lord, the Lord” is what most of our English translations use and what we heard this morning. However, what is found here is the exact form of the same Hebrew word as appeared in Chapter 3. This makes the disclosure that much more personal in its tone. Instead of “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious”, as if a third person is listing the attributes, the Hebrew text reads, “I AM, I AM a God merciful and gracious.” This hearing heightens the awareness that the reality of Yahweh’s presence is in Yahweh’s very being.

This double emphasis of the divine name has been described by some as saying not just I AM, I AM, but saying I AM and this is how I AM. I see this idea relating in essence, “Who I AM is how I AM in relationship with my people” because God then proceeds to list several characteristics of God’s essence. God’s very existence or being is relational in its nature. Emmanuel is God with us, Jesus Christ is, was, and will always be God with us. This self-disclosure can be seen as the highest utterance of revelation. To quote Walter Brueggemann’s take on this text, “No where before has anyone been privileged to hear directly a disclosure of what is most powerful and definitional for God’s own life.”

These characteristics or attributes are the explanation, the true revelation of the content of God’s name “I Am” and thus the fundamental nature of God’s being. God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast love, faithfulness, and God keeps this love for thousands of generations and forgives sins, but the consequences of sin cannot be wiped clear and will often affect several generations. John Calvin sees this as saying “There is only a moment in his anger, but life is in his favor.” Here, God is saying that though God does require judgment, God’s clemency can and will surpass any verdict or sentence of guilt.

There are two final thoughts I want to bring out this morning involving Moses’ response to this divine revelation of character. It says in verse 8 that Moses “quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped.” Moses’ immediate response is to worship. Think for a moment on this question – do we worship because we have had a proof of God’s presence in our experience, or do we have such an experience through our worship? I believe the answer to both is YES! These are interrelated.

Worship should be our immediate response when we have experienced the glory or goodness of God in some fashion in our lives, and too worship is often a place where we may encounter God in such a way. The danger comes when we take the two to extremes. If we only worship when we experience a cloud-filled revelation of God in our lives, I imagine very few of us would be worshipping very often. By the same token, if we feel that our Sunday worship should be a catalyst for experiencing a greatly moving revelation week in and week out, we are probably often disappointed.

You see worship is both a response and an experience, a giving of us to God and a receiving of God’s gift to us. Our God is a relational God and we are a relational people. Still, for most of us, the earth does not tremble and shake every Sunday morning and that should be OK. But if we will learn to listen closely throughout the entire week, we may discover there are a lot of little tremors that we often miss. And the only way to truly listen is one, to be quiet ourselves and two, to spend time in God’s presence.

This doesn’t mean we need an hour of prayer time, us talking and jabbering to God, each day. Doing that would be hard for most of us…I know I run out of things to say pretty quickly. We need to remember that if we are talking about strengthening a relationship, we cannot do all the talking, we need to spend a lot of time listening. Even taking 10 minutes, sitting still and quiet, imagining ourselves resting in God presence is a start to realizing that that Presence is always with us, wanting to be noticed, remembered and relished.

One final great morsel from this passage is in the last part of verse 9 when Moses asks Yahweh to go with the people, to forgive them, and then requests that Yahweh “take us for your inheritance.” Moses does not ask God for an inheritance, nor does he ask for possessions or wealth or comfort. Instead Moses asks to become a part of that which God possesses. The prophet here does not want the jeweled ring left in a will, he wants to be one of the jewels that becomes a living a dynamic part of God’s will, a permanent possession of God, by God. This is another way of insuring that God’s presence will remain with the people. Most treasured inheritances are not carelessly handled or forgotten; they are protected and kept safe and remembered – exactly how God looks upon us.

There are a lot of little parts to this portion of scripture, but I do believe the common thread of relationships holds these parts together. This same thread can be seen woven throughout the entire book as well as the entire Bible. We speak today of being in relationship with God more than having God’s presence with us, but there really is no difference in the two as far as I can see. Our relationship with God makes us who we are and God’s revelation, both in Exodus as well as in Jesus Christ, is our experiencing how God has been, is, and will continue to be in relation to us. Thus, we respond to this knowledge with worship and the prayer to be maintained as one of God’s chosen possessions. We can be sure of God because we know not all, but at least something of how God is in relation to us. Let us lift our hearts up to the Lord in thanksgiving and praise because God’s voice is truly one of promise. Amen.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Laurie's Sermon for October 5th 2008

What Kind of Tenant are You?
Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46

The Gospel of Matthew has more of a “hell and damnation” streak in his theology than the other gospel writers of Mark, Luke and John, and this “hell and damnation” streak is found in many of the stories about Jesus that he tells. Today’s is no exception. Here we have another parable about a vineyard that, when we really consider its surrounding context and storyline in Matthew’s writing, also is better understood as an extended metaphor because there can be little doubt toward whom Jesus directs this story. He clearly bases it upon the Isaiah passage that those hearing would have known well, but as usual adds a new twist.

This is the 2nd of 3 parables that Jesus tells in the midst of a public confrontation with the scribes and the Pharisees. The broader context of the chapter is important. The chapter opens with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Palm Sunday, which no doubt perturbed the Jewish religious leaders. His next act is the cleansing of the temple where he causes a really big stink. Then, he leaves town for the night. The next day as he heads back into town, he gets hungry when he sees a fig tree, but it has no fruit at all, so he curses it and it withers. He then goes to the temple and has the audacity to allow the blind and the lame and children – all of who were not welcomed in that holy space because they were less than whole – to come to him so he can heal them. This gets the crowd’s attention and they see him as a prophet. The Pharisees and scribes challenge his authority, so he fires back with the trio of parables, all aimed in their direction. After these, each group of religious leaders will try to entangle Jesus in several debates. All of this leads to the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Just because the context may make this story seem to have a simple understanding, like any part of the Bible, it can also speak to us and/or condemn us today.

Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46 33 "Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants1 to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 41 They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "' The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;1 this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

As you have already heard, this passage was not just one of Jesus’ random teachings, it was deliberately directed at Jerusalem’s religious elite and comes in the midst of the deepening conflict between Jesus and his main detractors. With each move he makes starting with his entry into the city, the tensions increase, tempers rise and plots thicken. The intensity of this growing conflict cannot be underestimated and Matthew, as I mentioned, pulls no punches in his condemnation theology here. These tenants, these religious leaders, are not just lazy or kind of selfish, they are murderously wicked! As opposed to Isaiah’s version, the grapes, the common people, are not the problems, they seem to be producing as they should, or at least as well as can be expected based upon who is over-seeing their growth. Jesus openly accuses the religious leadership of killing off the prophets of old and even foretells his own pending demise when he tells of the rejection of the servants and the son. So, he says the landowner has no plans to plow the vines under again, instead the vineyard, the kingdom of God, will be taken away from the evil doers and given to someone else.

Now, there has been debate as to whether the “someone else” is the church as a whole or the new Christian leadership emerging. Jesus doesn’t seem to make this particularly clear and I think it is instructive for us to read both into the meaning. It is easy to see that the word ‘fruit’ is one of Matthew’s favorite ways to describe good works or doing God’s will. As every day, ordinary Christians, we each have a responsibility to produce fruits for the kingdom. These fruits are not what save us, they are instead the response we make to the knowledge and understand of the salvation already given to us in Christ. We must remember, we are not saved from anything, we have been saved for something important, for service to God. Those of us who are in positions of leadership of any kind I think have even more responsibility – that for our own produce as well as guiding the growth of others. With either case, our production is often better when we pool our resources and our labors and work together.

This is a good text for us to consider as we enter stewardship season, a time to take stock of all that we have been blessed with, not just as individuals but also as a congregation. The fall can be seen as more than just the start of school and the all important football season, but as the time of harvest, the time of thanksgiving. As a session, we will begin looking toward priorities and budgets for our particular part of the vineyard. We need prayerfully to do the same individually as we consider our commitment of time, talents and treasure in response to God’s abundance. This morning is also World Communion Sunday, a day set aside for us to not just remember that we are part of a much larger tapestry, but to celebrate the diversity in the body of Christ and realize the impact that our fruits make upon other and God’s full creation nearby and far abroad. So this morning, keep these two ideas – stewardship and world community – in your minds as we take a hard look at who we are right now, whose we are at all times and who we are called to become by our Lord.

You’ve heard the background, the context to this story’s original setting, but now let’s extend this allegory or metaphor to our day and time. The fruit of the vine can be seen as our life’s work, but it can also be seen as the essence of who we are more in line with Isaiah’s meaning. Is our fruit false; looking realistic, but being made of plastic and silk and not edible? Do we talk a good word, but fail to follow up and keep that word? Do we claim God’s grace, blessing and love, but fail to share this treasure with others? Is our fruit actually what God wants us to grow? We may have a bountiful harvest of red grapes, but what if it was really white grapes we were supposed to be growing?

While we do need to consider what type of fruit we are producing for God’s kingdom, what really needs to be examined is considering what kind of tenant we are. It is easy to look at those wicked tenants of Jesus’ day and not see any resemblance to ourselves…after all, who have we murdered lately? But it cannot be that easy, because Jesus taught that intent and inward desire were as dangerous as actions. Let’s think about it, why were these tenant so wicked, what was the underlying condition that cause their actions and reactions? I think we will find they are the same underlying conditions that often seduce us – the conditions of greed, power, pride and selfishness.

Those first tenants had become deluded about their own importance in the scheme of things and about to whom true ownership belonged. The reckoned they owned the religion of Abraham and Moses, not God. They controlled the temple, the law, the gate of fellowship, not God. They alone possessed true understanding and knowledge, not God. When messengers came to remind them who was in control, who they were accountable to, they couldn’t bear the thought that they were not in complete control. They didn’t want to lose their power over the people, their pride of being seen as elite and righteous. Thus, it was easier to get rid of the messengers than it was to look in the mirror and see the distorted image of God looking back.

We may not have physically killed any prophets, but have we mistreated any messengers of God? Have we been confronted by those who speak the truth in love and refused to even give an ear? Or, have we seen a perceived messenger coming toward us and ran to hide from or avoid the encounter? God doesn’t just send weirdo prophets that eat bugs and don’t bathe…God sends next door neighbors, little children, family members, strangers, even enemies and disputes. That conversation you have been dreading…that picture on the front page of the paper that haunts you…that message you fail to return…that stranger in need…that difficult customer you avoid…that mirror you steer clear of…that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach – any of these and all of these could be messengers or messages sent to remind us we are not in control, we are not the owners of this entire wide world or even our own little private world.

Knowing we don’t own this world doesn’t mean we are not still responsible for the care and upkeep of all of creation. God, in his grace and love, has given us everything we have. God wants us to be happy, to have full and joyful lives, enjoying the beauty and blessings with which he surrounds us. We just need to remember, these are gifts on loan. None of it is truly ours – everything belongs to God from our possessions to our churches, our talents, our faith, our programs and mission, our lives. What we do with the things we have received is our gift back to God.

But too often our biggest sin is the sin of forgetting. We are the stewards of riches which belong to the Lord of creation. Like anyone put in charge, as stewards, of what belongs to someone else, if we have it long enough, and especially if we have not often been called to account, we are easily tempted to imagine that we own it outright and that we can do as we please with it. [http://www.beswick.info/rclresources/27A9399OS.htm] Walter Brueggemann writes, ““Thou shall not covet" is economic policy. When you get into a safe place you will become greedy. Your stuff will make you forget that it is all a gift!” In this Gillespie County [Kimble County] vineyard we are pretty safe, we are fairly comfortable so we need to take stock of ourselves and ask…are we being forgetful? Has God tried to call us to an account, to collect the fruit of our labors, to remind us that we don’t own it all only to find that we have ignored the messengers? Have we moved our focus from service and caretaking to instead opt for a consumer attitude for everything in our lives, including our worshipping communities?

I think it is true that stewardship is less about possessions than possessiveness. Where we place our trust tells our true story and flavors the fruit we produce. In Galatians, Paul tells us that the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self control. These are fruits that have no real monetary value, but in terms of the credit card commercial each is “priceless”. Have you thought of these as gifts from God that we are called to return to God through showing them to each and every person we encounter…not just the people we like?

This leads to what Jesus called the Greatest Commandment and to what I believe is a true guide to understanding what kind of a tenant we are…love of God and love of neighbor. When these are our two main foci, self-interest, greed, pride, and power cannot even register on our radar screen, because they all involve the “me point of view”. Our point of view must always begin outside of ourselves. We cannot truly love God without loving our neighbor and I would extend that to also apply to loving God’s creation.

The choices we make, the actions and reactions we display all reflect the image of God that we carry within us. And there is no better place to take account of the image we project than this table set before us. We are not the owners of the table, we are not the gatekeepers or the policy makers or judges…we are the guests, invited to share in the life of Christ in a tangible way through bread and cup. And today, we share in this life with all those who profess Christ, who try to be good stewards and return their lives to God. The thing to remember is that none of us is perfect. We all fall short; we all stumble in our motives and actions. But here, we are beloved and we are forgiven, we are strengthened and we are renewed. Today, by remembering that we are but a tiny part of the whole body of Christ, we are encouraged to reach out across borders and barriers of race, culture, and nation and embrace our sisters and brothers in the faith through that Great Commandment. It is not easy, because it is costly.

So, exactly what does it cost us to come to this table as an honest steward, as a good tenant? It costs us losing our pride, our greed, our control, our judgment of others as we give ourselves back to God. What we do present to God uses the currency of love, humility, and compassion. God placed us as stewards of His precious vineyard and it cost the Father the life of his Son. When we are honest with ourselves…the price is no less for us. The question is, are we willing to pay in full? Amen.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jim's Sermon for September 28, 2008

James 5:13-20
The Prayer of Faith
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [1] 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. 19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

We live in uncertain times! Hurricanes bring wind and flood damage, trucks hit school buses, cell phones and iPods overheat and burn up in your pocket. Think of the all changes that we have seen in the last 30 years: The internet and cell phones have changed the way we send receive information, news about any event is received almost instantly. We don’t have to wait for the Monday morning paper to see the new top 25 rankings anymore. The political upheaval we have seen, like the fall of communism and the present resurgence of communism. We’ve seen “Bush-to-Clinton-to-Bush” and almost another Clinton. Medical developments right out of science fiction have been made in Stem cell research, and cloning. The economy is on a roller coaster ride. There’s nothing left to eat that’s safe, except liver and okra! Where do we hide or what should we do?

Some just say, “Just hang tough, get what you can, and be yourself. You’ll get by.” Some preachers say, “just send me $500, I’ll send you a prayer cloth, and soon you’ll be rich.” Some would say, “Here, have another drink and don’t worry about all that!” James tells us that the answers to many of life’s questions are found in prayer; specifically in faithful prayer. The book of James has practical instruction for us as individuals, and as a church body.

Have you heard the old story of the famous acrobat, who attracted a huge crowd to watch him walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. He nimbly and skillfully passed over the waters below, suspended by a thin line and, without a safety net!

“Bravo” yelled the crowd. The performer spoke to the onlookers, “How many believe I could do this carrying someone on my shoulders?” All hands shot up; “We believe, we believe.” “Who would like to be first?” The crowd went silent.

What does it look like when a church family is ready to pray with faith? Suffering, cheerful or sick; takes in just about all of it the bad times and the good. A dear friend once told me, “I never say amen because I always have so much to pray about.” Praying constantly involves being intentional. There must be something of a decision to organize your life around the things of God. There must be a readiness to respond to the leading of God. If not, you’re like that crowd that went silent. Without intentionally linking yourself to God through prayer, you will be lost and unanchored; like a leaf blown by the wind. Intentional prayer links us to God constantly, allowing His will to direct the outcome of things. It means that we relinquish control and put our trust in God. We all need to pray and experience the fullness of our relationship with God. We would be much the poorer to leave the development of our prayer life either to those times when we hit our thumbs with hammers, or when tragedy strikes. Though these times are times for prayer too, an ever deepening relationship with God demands a more sustained approach.

That’s hard, isn’t it? Actually, in the long run, it’s the easiest way, because it’s God’s way, and Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy, and that his burden is light. Constant prayer is not a burden it’s the joy of being close to the Lord.

Part of being in constant prayer is lifting others up to God. James writes, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him”. I believe that as a church we’ve got that one down. There was a cartoon where an elderly woman is standing at the church door talking to the pastor. Her remark, as she hands a thick manila folder to him, “My doctor copied my chart, complete with medicines and prognosis…just copy it into the prayer list, please.”

We pray for the sick constantly here. But, while we’re praying that our loved ones get better physically, we should not forget the other needs, emotional healing, spiritual healing, and relationships. James writes in verse 15 “and the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. We are to confess our faults and be repentant. To repent means, in a literal sense, to turn around. It means a complete change of attitude and a complete change of actions. That’s when we get real help when we repent and ask God to give us a clean slate and then we offer that clean slate back to Him, so He can write our new future.

Intercession and reconciliation are the ministries of the body of Christ. Abraham was the beginning of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. They were to intercede, bring God’s message to the world. The church is the “new Israel,” and our calling is the same; we are to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world. Intercession is standing in the gap for the lost, the sick, and the needy.

A farmer in Charlotte, NC in 1934 had spent a good deal of time battling a stubborn farm during the Great Depression. Raising a family was tough work then as it is now. The Depression had spread spiritual apathy in the city. But, when asked, the farmer lent out one of his pasture fields to some business leaders for a day of prayer.

A man named Vernon Patterson lead the prayer: “O Lord, raise up from Charlotte someone to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.”

Those businessmen erected a “tabernacle” of pine beams in the city. For the next eleven weeks an evangelist by the name of Mordecai Ham shattered the complacency of churchgoing Charlotte.

The farmer who lent his pasture for the original prayer meeting was named Franklin Graham. During the revival, Franklin’s young son, Billy, responded to Christ, and committed his life. These days we call him Dr. Graham. Only eternity will reveal how many souls were touched beginning with one farmer willing to let go of a field for a while, and one businessman willing to pray with faith.

Today as we are gathered as the body of Christ, we are charged to pray for one another and for our world. We are not just Presbyterians; we are part of something larger. Karl Barth said “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” We are called to be world changers and to have the faith that through Christ things can be different. A life of prayer is not only our calling and duty, but it is the way to nurture our relationship with God, drawing us ever closer to Him. With God ruling our lives, all things will be possible for us and for our world.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Laurie's Sermon for September 21st 2008

Anger, Envy or Thankfulness

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Isaiah 55:6-9; Matthew 20:1-16

A few weeks ago, in a children’s sermon in Junction, Jim told the kids about Mignon’s new favorite reply when she doesn’t get what she wants. She puffs out her bottom lip, stomps her foot and exclaims…it’s not fair! Who among us has not had this reaction countless times in our life? It is seemingly a part of our make-up as humans that we should not only expect fairness or justice, but that we demand it…at least for ourselves. Occasionally, we may champion it for those we like or that we are kin to. But those whom we dislike, who have hurt our feelings or have ignited our ire, we relish the thought that they should get what they deserve and languish in their sorry predicaments!

I really believe the saying is true that the quality of your life is what you make of it. In other words, our attitudes and our reactions to both the good and the bad that comes to us is one small part of our existence that we can actually control to an extent. It is rather amazing to me that since we as humans want so badly to control so much of our lives, we fail to really work on the areas we do have more power over. Instead, we too often revert to a mob mentality; jump on whatever bandwagon is flying by and let the flow of the crowd dictate our thoughts, actions and reactions. And by and large, those actions and reactions tend to be tinged with an ever increasing level of anger and resentment, regardless of the situation. Read the news, watch almost anything on TV, check out reader responses to articles or blog posts online…I think our culture has just fallen in love with being angry, being resentful and confrontational.

In our scriptures today from Jonah and Matthew, we get two stories of people being angry with a seemingly good outcome. The problem is the outcome is better for others, thus making the players in these dramas downright mad. In both cases, the resentful parties are chastised a bit. The workers in the vineyard feel cheated with the wage they agreed upon that morning with the master when late comers are given the same amount. They show their displeasure and the owner asks, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Then, we hear God asking Jonah, “Is it well for you to be angry?” and Jonah replies like a spoiled little child, “Yes, angry enough to die!” He basically says, if these Ninevites don’t get what they deserve, I don’t even want to keep living.

We don’t know what happened to Jonah, the story closes with his pouting and God’s rhetorical question about God’s right to show mercy to who God chooses. Knowing what medical research tells us today, if Jonah wasn’t able to get over his anger, it very well may have killed him. There can be fatal physical consequences brought on by unchecked, unresolved anger including high blood pressure, heart problems, ulcers and the like. Thus, learning to pull in our anger, learning to live with an attitude of love and forgiveness is not only part of our calling as Christians, I think it is a part of how God designed our bodies and minds to be the healthiest and most productive.

Now anger in and of itself, is not sinful or bad. On the contrary, it is a marker, a way to tell that something in our life or attitude is out of kilter, not quite right. We actually need anger at times to bring ourselves to an awareness of that something that needs adjusting or fixing. So the actual initial feeling of anger is not wrong, it is what we do with that anger that makes the difference, that creates sin or frees us from sin. When we feel anger rising up, we need to honestly investigate it and not simply react. We need to consider if the problem is something from the outside affecting us or if the problem is actually coming from inside of us.

For example, if we see an innocent person being physically hurt or being taken advantage of for someone else’s gain and we become angry, then our anger can become to trigger to help right the wrong, to point out to authorities the misdeed and assist the victim. It doesn’t mean we should enact our own justice or judgment and beat the tar out of the offender, we still need to work within the systems our culture has in place or else work to change the systems if they need an overhaul. On the other hand, if our child comes home from school upset because the coach gave the starting position to a kid whose parents we don’t like and we feeling that anger rising…we need to be careful. Fairness and justice in school affairs, especially small towns, is always in the eye of the beholder. Is the coach really showing partiality or are we just feeling the kind of anger that comes from our inner selves being a mess, the anger that can be the ugliest and most ruinous to our lives of all – envy and jealousy? Envy has long been considered one of the 7 deadly sins and when we really look at its effects, we can understand why.

Granted, Jim and I have yet to face the trial and tribulations of inter and intra school competition, but as a high school coach for 7 years, I saw a lot. Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame and often for those who never got what they felt they deserved, then by golly, their kid is gonna have both shares or else! I was always blown away by the pettiness, the shallowness of so many parents. One day after practice while waiting for their kids to come out of the locker room, I overheard one parent say to another, “It doesn’t really matter if our team wins, as long as the right kids are starting and playing the most.” What was even more egregious was how the listener nodded with approval!

As I have gotten older and especially now that I have a child of my own, I have often wondered if my parents were really that exceptional, or if they just had the good sense to deal with some of their anger, disappointments, envies and jealousies in a much more controlled and productive manner? I know it is not that they never felt those emotions, but I am thankful that they didn’t allow their “inner messes” to in turn give me the idea that I was entitled or deserved more than I got. I feel fairly certain that there were times they wanted to go fight my battles or get revenge on someone who hurt me. My best guess that goes in line with their character is that they turned their hurts and disappointment over to God more often than they reacted to them. They taught me to be thankful for what I did have, to work harder if I wanted something more and that everything I had – especially talent and opportunity – were gifts from God. Through this learning I was blessed with a great foundation that has helped me deal with disappointments in my life. I think it also has helped me to avoid the pitfalls that non-tempered envy and jealousy can create.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t get jealous or that I am never envious. In the last three or four months, Jim has sent me at least 5 emails with links to articles about little kids getting a hole in one or someone firing two in the same round of golf. Yea, I’m jealous and I’m envious because I have never come closer than about 8-12 inches from a hole in one. Does it make me want to pout and ask God to die? Not really…sometimes I just never open the link to read the article when I see the heading. Jim even made a hole-in-one the other day when we were playing a round on a video game…my joy was not full with his experience. While these may be seemingly insignificant examples, I can say that I have struggle with more serious ones.

Before we finally got pregnant that first time early in 2005, I found myself having to work really hard to not be envious or jealous of couples with children. I wanted a child so badly. Every time that Jim and I did our Christmas Eve monologue about Mary and Joseph it would just cut me to the core. I will always remember, very vividly, in December of 2004 driving home from Harper’s community Christmas service. Jim had gone to Roosevelt that night while I traveled east. On the way home something made me snap and I broke down sobbing, screaming at God, pleading and begging. As I drove farther along through the tears and had allowed more and more pent up emotion to escape, I found my begging and pleading to be changing in tone. I found myself truly trying to give the whole situation to God, because I knew handling it my way was seriously hurting me mentally and emotionally. I begin asking not for the thing I wanted almost more than my life, but asking for the ability to deal with and handle whatever God had in store for us. By the time I made it home and pulled in the drive, my only request was that somehow God’s will would be made known to me sooner rather than later. When I walked in the door Jim was already home, but I never let on what I had been through on the drive home…he’s never heard that story until now.

As many of you know, we found out just a few weeks later in January that I was pregnant, but by late February I had miscarried. Even while we were both devastated by this turn of events, the outpouring of love we received from so many gave us strength and comfort. Jim will tell you, over-all I did handle it a little better than he did. I still had to fight times of anger, jealousy or envy, but I think what kept me grounded was recalling my conversation with God on that ride home. I may have lost that pregnancy, but because of it, I knew I was capable of getting pregnant. It wasn’t a guarantee that we would have a child, but I looked upon the experience as God’s answer to my prayer. It was a sign for me that my desire possibly was within the scope of God’s will and so in a strange way, I have always been very thankful for that painful event. Within seven months, I was pregnant again. Now, I just need to always remember that that little fireball screaming, “It’s not fair!” is that answer to my prayer!

In an article commenting on these scriptures, Luke Timothy Johnson describes his bouts with anger and envy as it pertains to the fairness or lack thereof in life. He writes, “What is God up to anyway? I work so hard and they seem to work so little. Why should they get as much or more than I? Ah, envy. Life lived under the curse of peripheral vision, a grudging heart, a small spirit. Socrates called envy "the ulcer of the soul" and I have heard it gnawing within me.” [http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=730] A gnawing, ulcer of the soul…for me that is a good description of what I experience when I my anger is caused by a grudging heart and a small spirit within me.

In Philippians, Paul is addressing a community that is divided by envy and rivalry. He writes in chapter 2:3-4 “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Rev. Johnson continues in reference to these verses, “…envy looks only to "my own interests," my own wage, my own "equality." Paul shows me, I think, what the prophet [Isaiah] has in mind about "seeking the Lord while he is near," for the interests of my neighbor are always near: But like the prophet and parable, [Paul] also reveals how far these thoughts are from being mine.” [Ibid.]

It is true that we are made in the image of God, but that image seems to be a roughly drafted likeness that we are to spend our entire lives working to clean up and make more congruent to the original. Our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, our ways are not God’s ways, our timing is not God’s timing, our desires are not God’s desires, our mercy and forgiveness is not God’s mercy and forgiveness. Until we learn to accept these concepts, we are going to find ourselves filled with anger and envy and jealousy. But it takes work and it takes help, because only God in Christ can transform our selfishness into thankfulness, our jealousy into joy for another. It not easy, nor is it readily seen as an acceptable task to most of our modern culture and world. Even churches and religious institutions struggle as they compare membership numbers, budget amounts, and the square footage of buildings and often wind up coveting what others have and what they think they lack. We tend to be obsession as a culture with comparisons, always needing to measure how we stack up to another.

God doesn’t make those comparisons or measurements and we should be oh so thankful for this. Instead of handing out blessings based solely upon what we have earned or deserved, God’s transaction is always in the denomination of grace. When we learn to accept that God’s grace is the rule and foundation for our lives, we may find that envy and jealousy simply make no sense because grace, by definition, is always unexpected, always undeserved, always amazing…otherwise it would not be grace. Thus, to our pettiness God’s answer is grace, to our work-a-holic righteousness God’s answer is grace, to our pride and arrogance, the answer is grace and to our longsuffering or heartbreaking pain, the answer is still grace. There is nothing that exists in our life that is completely ours…all belongs to the Creator of this world and what we have, we owe to grace. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jim's Sermon for September 14th 2008

Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

“How Many Times?”

Did you hear about the little boy who was saying his prayers. As he went down the list of his family, asking God to bless them, he omitted his brother’s name. His mother said to him, “Why didn’t you pray for Cliff?” He said, “I’m not going to ask God to bless Cliff because he hit me.” And his mother said, “Don’t you remember Jesus said to forgive your enemies?” But the little boy said, “That’s just the trouble. He’s not my enemy; he’s my brother!”

Perhaps many of us have the same difficulty, as did the Apostle Peter. He was faced with the problem of forgiving his brother. Peter and Andrew were brothers and had grown up together. I tend to feel that he actually has in view some offense of Andrew here. Perhaps Andrew habitually left the cap off the toothpaste tube; or he was always borrowing some favorite jacket of Peter’s, and wearing it without permission; or perhaps he refused to clean up his side of the room, or some other manifestation of brotherly evil.

The rabbis taught that you only needed to forgive someone three times at the most. The fourth time you could do whatever you liked. They even taught that God did this, based upon a text in the prophet Amos, in which Amos repeatedly uses the formula, “for three sins, yea, and for four” {cf, Amos 1:3, et al} God brings judgment upon such-and-such a city. So they taught that God himself never forgave more than three times. You can see from this that Peter feels he has gone to the limit when he doubled that, and added one for good measure.

There is humor in our Lord’s reply. There are many passages which we often misunderstand and take seriously, though Jesus is speaking humorously. I am sure there is a note of laughter in his reply to Peter here. If we would put it in modern parlance, what he says is, “Peter, would you believe four hundred and ninety times?” Jesus is saying, it is not a question of how often, or how many times should I forgive my brother. That is not really the question. The real question is, “Why should I forgive at all? When you see that you should forgive, then you will see, Peter, that there is no limit at all, that forgiveness is the kind of thing that ought to go on without limit.” He has only chosen this figure of 490 times as a play upon what Peter has said to him, but it really suggests an unlimited forgiveness. So, to answer that deeper question, “Why should I forgive my brother,” he tells the parable of the unforgiving steward.

The value of this parable lies in seeing that it is a picture of us. Jesus is holding up a mirror so that we can see ourselves. We are the servant who has been forgiven a vast and staggering amount of money, and God is the great king that has forgiven us. Ten thousand talents is an incredible amount. A talent was worth about a thousand dollars. Ten thousand talents is ten million dollars which, in those days, would be a king’s ransom. The entirely yearly income of a kingdom would hardly be that much.

When the settling of accounts came, this man was confronted with this vast debt and he could not pay it. The king ordered that justice be carried out and that the man, his wife and children, and all that he had be sold, as was possible in those days. Even then it would be far, far short of the amount of this debt. In desperation the man makes an impossible promise. He falls on his knees and says to the king, “Have patience, sir, and I will pay you everything.” Now he could never do that. If he worked all his lifetime, and his family also, he would never be able to pay ten million dollars. But in desperation he cries out, and the king’s heart is moved by the man’s impossible situation, and, out of pity toward him, he forgives him, at staggering cost to himself. It means, of course, that this king assumed the debt himself, allowing it to go unpaid and thus impoverishing his treasury. This is no trifling matter.

You see, the sum of our offenses against God through the years constitutes this kind of a debt, an absolutely impossible amount. Our rebellions, our selfish acts and thoughts, our willful choices, our lack of love toward one another, and the hurt we have caused others, our pride, our anger, our lusts, our bitterness, our hates, and our lies; all these add up through the years to a staggering debt we owe God and which we cannot pay. But then there comes the good news, the wonderful good news of the gospel. Our debt was wiped away. In one moment it was gone.

Jesus places, in direct contrast to this, another account which he says occurred immediately, as this man went out from his experience of being so unbelievably forgiven. “As he went out,” he met a man who owed him twenty dollars—that is the amount of a hundred denarii—and seizing him by the throat he said, “Pay me what you owe.” But when the second man says exactly the same words the first had said just a few moments before, “Have patience with me and I’ll pay you everything,” instead of forgiving him this paltry amount, he throws him into prison till he shall pay the full amount.

That, says Jesus, is what we do when we refuse to forgive each other even the most insulting and injurious offenses. No matter how bad it may appear to us, no matter how hurt we are by what someone has done to us, in comparison to what God has forgiven us, it is like comparing twenty dollars to ten million dollars of debt. And these two events are occurring simultaneously in our lives, in immediate context, just as Jesus said.

There is not one of us here who doesn’t sin. As Christians we are forgiven but we are not perfect. Not a day goes by but that we do not stand in desperate need of the forgiveness of God. Again and again God forgives us. And yet, when someone offends us, how quickly we revert to the basis of justice and start demanding, “Pay me what you owe.” “I demand an apology.” “Let me have what’s coming to me.” “Treat me like I deserve.” How many times have we uttered such words?

In the rest of the story our Lord reveals why Christians must practice forgiveness. We have to forgive people because anything less is hypocritical. We cannot demand justice from others because when we don’t stand on that ground ourselves. As the king said, “You wicked servant! Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” This is what Jesus is saying to us. We must forgive one another because we have already been forgiven.

Jesus says that, when we refuse to do this, when we hold a grudge, or are difficult or bitter and refuse to settle an issue, then we are doing exactly what this unrighteous steward does here. In the very moment of our own forgiveness we are demanding justice, when we ourselves cannot and do not stand on that level.

What Jesus is saying is that forgiveness is possible because we have been forgiven. Because this vast and staggering debt against us has been wiped out by the grace of God, we have the capability to forgive. Our inner attitude is changed, and there is an acceptance of the person, and an understanding and sympathy extended that permits an honest look at the problem, and opens the door for help.

This parable expands what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. He says there, “If you forgive not others their trespasses neither will my Father forgive yours,” {cf, Matt 6:15 RSV}. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to those who have already been forgiven by God. It is addressed to those in whom the Spirit of God lives and therefore God knows they have the ability and capacity to forgive. But if they will not exercise it, if they insist upon going back to the ground of justice with others, well, then, that is the way God will handle them. If we insist on justice, we will be given justice ourselves.

When we read this story, our first reaction is probably to ask, how could someone who has been forgiven so much be unwilling to forgive someone who owes him so little? The sad truth is that it happens all the time. When we consider our own unworthiness in the sight of God and the forgiveness we have received, how is it that we still sometimes manage to be unforgiving to other people? There are certainly affronts that are difficult to forgive, but too often we get hung up on petty grievances. "Lucy spread a nasty rumor about me!" "Sam sucked up to the boss and stole my promotion!" "That stranger cut me off in traffic!" The key to forgiving others is an increasing appreciation of God's forgiveness of our own sins. Can’t we forgive twenty dollars’ worth of injury, when we have been forgiven ten million? That’s always our situation. We can change by coming to a fuller awareness of the holiness of God, perhaps through contemplation or meditation. 1 John 3:1 expresses well the sentiment that I'm talking about: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God!" As the wonder of our adoption into God's family grows, our ability to forgive others will increase accordingly.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Laurie's Sermon for September 7th 2008

The Debt We Owe

Ps 119:33-40
Rom 13:7-10
Matt 18:12-20

I have always enjoyed puzzles, whether they are jigsaw, crossword, numerical or logic, I enjoy puzzles. Finding a way to fit together separate distinct pieces, which on their own may or may not make sense, but when combined create a new picture, idea, or solution is a challenge. I enjoy finding new meanings and looking at ordinary things in new ways. As one works with puzzles, there are wonderful “Ah-ha moments” that happen along the journey, times when something clicks and you see there is a bigger picture waiting to be discovered within the smallest of parts.

For me, in many ways, the Bible is like a puzzle in the best sense. It is made up of thousands of pieces of different sizes – verses, chapters, books – that really rely on each other to create the whole picture of God’s Word. Now we all have our favorite pieces – verses that on their own speak to us, have a color and a beauty that makes sense to us just as they are by themselves. Then there are other pieces that are not as appealing, pieces that on their own are rather ugly and hard to understand, that are disturbing or that really make us uncomfortable. I think it is interesting that the more we study and the more we work at piecing together God’s Word in our hearts and our minds, the bigger and bigger the picture is that can be formed. When we add surrounding pieces to our favorites or to the ones we’d rather avoid, it can and really should alter their flavor, their appearance and our understandings, sometimes drastically. What can confront us one day may comfort us the next and vice versa.

This morning’s Gospel is a puzzle piece that I didn’t care much for when I begin my studying last week and it still disturbs me in some ways. When I read it through the first two or three times, I thought - I don’t want any part of that! The original lection for today was just verses 15-20 and it sounded harsh and judgmental – a seeming call for a quick way to get rid of whomever we consider to be problem people. Some of the surface ideas here scare me to death and make me want to really squirm. Whenever a scripture makes me feel like this, I know I’ve come across something that I really need to pay attention to. If I approach it with the right frame of mind, it can become a challenge, a puzzle to work on with a solution that can speak a new word to me for the place I am in at that time.

So as I started trying to unravel the mystery of these puzzle pieces, I did what I was taught in seminary…look at the immediate context for clues and the wider context for more clues. Well, I find this whole 18th chapter kind of disjointed and over-the-top, especially if it is broken up into its little pieces. A quick run-down of the pieces: there is the offering of a child as the ultimate vision of who is the greatest in the kingdom. Talk of the “little ones” and how they should be protected. But, Jesus doesn’t stop with this sweet little picture. He continues with a surprisingly grotesque series of pictures of failure in this area of personal responsibility by saying that if one hurts of these little ones, then they’d be better off drowning in the sea or plucking an eye out or cutting off a hand. This is followed by the persistent sacrifice of a shepherd to find what is lost which leads into our verses today about conflict management and seemingly excommunication procedures within the church. Within this Jesus uses a racial slur and a stereotype, calling the unrepentant to be looked upon as Gentiles and tax collectors within the same breath as God’s blessing earthly decisions and Jesus’ promise to be with us when we gather in his name. Then, finally we have the call for unlimited forgiveness that rounds out the discourse. It is really very dizzying, to me, trying to fit these pieces together in a coherent form.

Here is where I think the most important piece must be held up and used to link all the others together. I told you earlier that this chapter starts with a question from the disciples that really sets the tone, and that the rest of it is Jesus’ response or answer to the question. That great menagerie of images and hyperbole that follows is Jesus’ reaction to a question that must have confounded him. After all the time together, after an entire ministry that focused on the least, the outsider, the disdained, and after countless examples of turning cultural expectations upside down and inside out, the disciples are still trying to get ahead of one another, still trying to justify their positioning, still focused on themselves and their own egos. “Who is the greatest?” they ask.

So, Jesus begins with a simple, straightforward answer: The greatest are the least, the “little ones”. He pulls a child to him to illustrate, not only someone who is least in the eyes of the society and culture, but one who is least in physical stature, in maturity, and maybe even in faith. “Little ones”, are not just children to Jesus as we know from his other teachings and actions, a “little one” is anyone who is the outsider, the overlooked and the unseen. That paints a pleasant and comforting picture, this piece I like. But of course, Jesus doesn’t leave well-enough alone. He stretches out his answer by including a fierce warning to those of us who may consider ourselves as “big people”, as insiders and mature followers in the faith. If we claim that role, then we better not step on any little ones on our way up, we better not cause them to stumble, to be hurt, to be cast further aside. When we hold power over another, we are accountable for how we use or misuse that power, whether it aids our own selfish ambitions or whether it is used to lift up those with no power at all, which in turns gives glory to God.

So we see that our verses today are surrounded by the bigger picture of this whole chapter being a teachable moment for Jesus. This leads us to consider what is immediately surrounding our passage. The verses about the lost sheep come right before as we heard and just after today’s verses, next week’s lection, is Peter’s question about how many times do we have to forgive. Wow, the tone of the conflict resolution for me quite a bit when seen sandwiched between stories of relentless pursuit of one who strays and the call for unlimited forgiveness. Then, if we place these pieces upon and within the backdrop of Paul’s words about love from Romans and the Psalmists’ claiming to find true life within God’s law, this really alters the big picture even more for me.

So with all of that as background and preparation, we can look at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson and see it really is a set of instructions for how to bring reconciliation to people in conflict. This is probably what really makes me squirm because, for the most part, I do not like conflict. I think most people would admit to feeling the same. We were made for harmony and when lives get out of tune with one another, the resulting screech is hard to bear. Jesus understood this. And it seems his exaggerated response to Peter’s question about forgiveness following our verses shows that he knows we want forgiveness and reconciliation to have a quick and simple answer or resolution, although it never does. It takes time, effort, energy, humility and thus great risk to repair broken relationships. And as any rancher knows, mending fences is not something that is done only once, but it is a continuing part of daily life. So, too, is this true for us, for our communities and for the church. We need to not only be willing to mend our broken fences, but we need to look for weaknesses and try to do preventative maintenence before the gap ever is created.

I think one of the most radical parts of this text is to hear Jesus say that the mending begins not by the offender, but by the one who has been hurt. How often have we felt wronged by a person who has no idea they hurt us and how often have we not realized that we may have hurt someone else? No one likes to have failures and hurts pointed out and in our defensive society today there always seems to be a way to our excuse behavior or to not take responsibility for our actions. We are so great at the art of rationalization to the point that nothing is really our fault and those who cannot just deal with something bad are the real problem. That may be society’s view, but that is not God’s view and unfortunately, the church is mirroring our society more and more. So the idea of being accountable to one another, of pointing out when we have been or at least felt we have been wronged is lost in many churches and most communities today.

When one who is wounded stays secluded and silent, that wound cannot heal properly. It will fester and spread and if it doesn’t kill literally, it can kill spiritually. Jesus tells the disciples initiating reconciliation is not the responsibility of the offender…they may not even know they have committed an offense against someone. Rather, it is the responsibility of one who is hurt and if the wounded one allows the gap to widen and the relationship to become broken, then they are just as much at fault for the brokenness if not more so.

The key toward initiating repair, though, is not to air out our pains and hurts to everyone, but to privately go to other person, one-to-one. We are to go in love; go in humility, not with the goal of revenge or inflicting equal pain and not to belittle or to ostracize. Talk about counter-cultural. This is an example of Paul’s debt of love in action. Our pride may tell us we owe them a piece of our mind, that we own them the pain we have felt, but Paul says all we owe to one who has hurt us and to anyone else is simply love. This is not a warm, fuzzy emotion, this is a down and dirty, love-in-action treating of someone else the way we know God has treated us – with compassion and forgiveness. The passage for next week about the unforgiving servant illustrates this point.

If our one-to-one efforts fail, Jesus says to bring in some witnesses to help. Now, if our mindset is that of the disciples and we are trying to prove who is at fault and that we have the true power, then our witnesses will be our best friends who we have already triangulated into the situation and are on our side. I don’t think this is what Jesus means here. I think witness here could just as easily mean counsel, a neutral party that can help us sort through our tangled emotions and hurts and help both parties find a way toward reconciliation. If that fails, Jesus says the whole church should be brought into the discussion. Talk about a sticky-wicket full of the potential of misuse of power! When this verse and the ones following are lifted out of their context, they have been used as terrible weapons to self-righteously get rid of those who are different or difficult or disliked. Again, I don’t think that approach is what is meant, especially when we consider the other teachings of Jesus that surround these verses.

Reading further Jesus says that what is discerned as appropriate between parties on earth, God will bless those decisions in heaven. In other words, what happens in the church matters, what happens between members matters because when there is a rift, everyone feels the cold draft that follows. The church is to be called into the discussion, not to assign blame or take sides or be judgment, but to provide a larger network of support and love to all parties involved. Think about it, the church is in the business of reconciliation, of calling all to repentance. The church exists to help further Jesus’ reconciling the lost and the broken of the world directly to God. We do this part of our job description each week when we confess sin corporately and hear words of pardon. If we claim to accept that pardon while we still hold a grudge with someone across the aisle, we have not fully accept the pardon or the responsibility that comes with experiencing God’s grace.

This makes the harshness of the second half of verse 17 seem very out of place. I think Jesus words about someone who refuses any of the attempt toward reconciliation to be considered as a “gentile and a tax collector” is really a sharp and clever piece of irony that cuts two ways. If anyone other than Jesus speaks these words, then the powerful could rejoice – saying here is our way out, our way to rid ourselves of the “little people”, the ones we despise. Again, through the centuries people have done just this and failed to listen to who it is that speaks these words. We need to remember that the one who speaks these words is the one of whom it was said "Now the tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to him." And the people murmured against Jesus, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." Jesus came to seek out the outsider, he died for Gentiles and tax collectors and sinners like you and me. There must be more here.

Jesus, concludes his conversation about how to deal with those who have offended us by saying - "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Richard Fairchild writes in a sermon on this passage: “If we are going to be with Jesus - then we must be among the people he chose to be with - sinners, Gentiles, and tax collectors. We are not called to be among them as unrepentant sinners – nor are we called to be among the people he has called as judges – we are called to be among them as ones who owe nothing to anyone - but love.” [http://www.rockies.net/~spirit/sermons/a-or23sm.php]

I see this as a classic hook that Jesus uses many times, a double-edged sword that he gives us. Just as we think we have been given the easy way to cut through our problems, we realize we are cutting ourselves. Jesus spent his life and ministry focused upon the outsider, the other, the disliked and disenfranchised. To Matthew’s audience, Gentiles and tax collectors fit the same role that many today might give to Muslims and illegal immigrants. Jesus isn’t making this easier by including them into the conversation, he is adding an infinitely harder layer to our life. He seems to be saying that if our best, most heartfelt and loving efforts fail to repair a relationship, we are called to continually love and work to include the one who has strayed, just like the shepherd did. It doesn’t mean we forget or that we pretend we weren’t hurt, but according to Paul we still owe the offending party and everyone else we come across in our life, the debt of loving them as we love ourselves, of loving them as we know God loves us.

Rev. Fairchild concludes his message with the following: “If our efforts, and the efforts of the church fail to bring about change then we will do God's will and help bring healing if we remember what God has pleasure in - and treat those who have offended against us as we ourselves have been treated by God - with mercy and compassion. The rest is between God and them.” [Ibid.]

I think when we combine all these smaller pieces together, the bigger picture of this puzzling text comes into view in a surprising way at least to me. The whole chapter can be seen as a way of dealing with people whom we love but who may exasperate us. Deanna Langly, in an article in Christian Century, points out that Jesus doesn’t dismiss the disciples’ self-centered and self-righteous question. “He takes them seriously, listens carefully and then responds, not with a direct or literal answer, but with several teachings and with exaggeration. Jesus pushes the disciples to think, to listen and to be accountable to others for the power they hold. The exaggeration allows the disciples the opportunity to learn without being embarrassed and to listen without becoming defensive. Jesus points them back to the "children," the "little ones," "the one that went astray," "the one not listened to"”. I think the way she sums it up is the key for our understanding today. It is at least what I am carrying with me this week as I examine and reexamine the relationships in my life. Rev. Langly writes, “The kingdom of God is not concerned with "who’s the greatest," Jesus teaches; the kingdom of God is about using power to care for the least and most vulnerable.” [http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3263]

This passage is still troubling to me in many ways, especially because of all the ways it can be misused and misapplied, but I find I have gained in some understanding and clarity through my studies this week. Still, I know, there is more to learn and understand as I continue to work to piece this understanding together with new insights toward which God’s Spirit directs me. Still, the over-arching puzzle of scripture and the overwhelming puzzle of simply what it means to live as a Christian in this world, I don’t think these puzzles will ever be completely solved until the Kingdom comes in its fullness. In the meantime, we are called to keep working, and especially to keep loving with compassion and forgiveness. This is the debt we owe to our God and to our world. Amen.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jim's Sermon from Sunday August 31st

ESV Luke 5:1-11
1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch." 5 And Simon answered, "Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets." 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." 9 For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men." 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

“The Journey of Discipleship”

For Peter, it had been a very long shift. All night long, he had fished the waters of the Sea of Galilee, hoping for a substantial catch. It was his livelihood. He had worked throughout the cool night - the optimal time for fishing - in the most profitable portion of the lake, at the end of his shift: nothing.

You’ve probably had times like this in your work, no matter where you work; long hours, good instincts, no short-cuts, but also nothing to show for it. If so, you can appreciate how Peter must have felt.

Jesus said, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered and said, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing.” In other words I’m tired leave us alone. Here is a man whose life is fishing, and out of nowhere comes a stranger and He is telling them to try what years of experience is telling them is hopeless and fruitless. What Jesus is asking them to do boggles the mind. They had finished for the night and were already cleaning and repairing their nets and ready to get some much needed sleep. To listen to Jesus would have them undo all the preparation that was made for the next nights work.

Now how would we react if we were on a job that we had been experienced in for many years and some stranger comes and tries to tell us how to do our job. We could limit God’s possibilities because of our stubbornness. This is an example of trust and faith taking over from logic and experience, an example of being pushed beyond the temporal and into the spiritual.

We all receive direction from the Holy Spirit and there probably aren’t too many of us that haven’t ignored that advice at one time or another. These fishermen have probably followed the same routine all their lives. They learned their routine from their fathers and probably had all intentions of passing this trade on to their sons. What made the difference in this situation was the fact that there was faith in following Jesus’ command to go out and try again. This account goes on to tell of the surprising results. The catch was so great that it required another boat to bring in the fish and even with that other vessel they began to sink due to the magnitude of the abundance of fish. They listened to the command of Jesus and they were blessed beyond the capabilities of their mortal imagination.

What was the end result of this unexpected blessing? Are we to view this as the expected end result of our obedience? I’m afraid there are many who have equated serving and listening to Jesus with earthly gratification and rewards. The prosperity gospel preached by so many on TV is a good example. A person following this flawed theology would have stopped and sold the large catch and gone home happy. What happened instead? We read in verse 8, but when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" The result of witnessing this phenomenon, beyond human expectation showed Simon Peter the futility of dependence upon self. Here was Jesus, who was clearly beyond humanity and here is Simon Peter surveying the gulf that separates man from God. He realizes who is to be followed.

In the end the fishermen left everything and followed Jesus. They didn’t wait to sell their boats. They didn’t sell this awe-inspiring catch of fish. They didn’t gather their belongings and make sure that things were all going to pan out first. They left everything and followed Jesus.

Peter’s response to this miracle is the response of one who has come into the very presence of God. In contrast to our somewhat easy familiarity today with the sacred and the casual way we tend to seek and treat religious experience and the "presence" of God, Simon’s response was much closer to encounters with God seen throughout the Old Testament. The realization that one is in the presence of God calls for a response, not of happiness, but of fear and dread and reverence. Isaiah, when he encountered God in a significant way while worshipping in the Temple, responded by crying, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!" (Isa 6:5).

Jesus had confronted Peter with his own inadequacies in the very area that defined who he was as a person, his vocation. The distance between the power of the one who stood before him contrasted with his own inadequacies pushed Peter to self-examination and confession. Again, this picks up a recurring theme from the Old Testament. Moses confessed his impotence, especially his inability to speak well, as he stood before the burning bush (Ex 3:11-4:17, esp. 4:10). As God came to Solomon in a dream, he admitted that he was not wise enough to govern God’s people (1 King 3:7-9). And at God’s call Jeremiah recognized the inadequacy of his youth (Jer 1:6).

Peter was humbled here in the one area of life where he should be in control. "Go away from me Lord!" It is always easier to push away those who bring us face to face with ourselves than it is to face the truth of who we are. This reminds me of the reaction that the people of Nazareth had to Jesus and foreshadows not only the path of Jesus to the crucifixion but also of the persecution the disciples experience in Acts. Yet in this moment of truth, Peter is able to come face to face with himself and confess, "I am a sinful man." It is this confession that marks a turning point in Simon’s life, and becomes the definition of faithful response to Jesus.

Jesus responded, not with condemnation, but the assurance "Don’t be afraid" (v. 10). As Peter lay at Jesus’ feet, reduced to the humility of a child, Jesus responded with the grace and love of a parent reassuring a child who has lost all confidence in themselves that they still have value and worth. In that moment Jesus redefined who Peter was. He would no longer be the fisherman on the Sea of Galilee catching fish for a living, but he would now be living to fish for men. The event here was far more than a miracle of fish; it was nothing less than an encounter with God that forever changed who Peter and the other men in the boats would be. And it became symbolic of the mission of God’s people in the new world of the church. Their value and worth would no longer be defined by their own efforts and success at their vocation, but would be defined by the power of God at work in their lives and in carrying out God’s work in the world.

We can do God’s business in our daily lives. Martin Luther wrote, "The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship." Whatever you do in word or deed do it in the name of the Lord.

It’s when we realize our own sinfulness, and experience God’s grace, that we can begin our Christian vocation. This suggests that theologically, confession of sin should move us into Christian vocation. That means, our journey of discipleship does not end with our confession of sin and acceptance of grace, but that transformation begins our journey; discipleship is defined in terms of obedience, mission and service. Of course, that doesn’t just mean going to other countries as our friend John has recently done. It means that that our encounters with God lead us as servants to share the labor of the Kingdom of God so that the nets won’t break and the boats won’t sink. Finally, it is God who gives the catch of fish. But the vocation of Christians, anchored in that worshipful encounter with God, is to respond to God’s work by hauling in the catch. It’s our job to be where God calls us to be obediently following his directions.