Don’t Tell Me How to Live – 2016/08/21

Psalm 71:1-6
Luke 13:10-17
Jeremiah 4:1-10

     Sometimes, I listen to this book on tape (yes, it’s actually on a tape, and yes, my car is old enough to have a tape player). It’s a humor book about American history called Don’t Know Much About History. It’s actually a pretty good work by a historian named Kenneth Davis. The book is 30 years old now and sorely outdated, but nonetheless is a pretty good refresher on American history.
     Anyway, whenever I listen to this book, I get to this one part that just makes my blood boil, because the author himself obviously doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his own statement. It’s in a part discussing the Civil War. The author claims that, as much as the economic factors and racism inherent in the slave economy of the south was another reason that Southerners just didn’t want to give up on slavery: “Southerners just didn’t want to be told how to live their lives,” Davis offers.
     Every time I hear him say it, I go a little bit nuts. Can you see why? Do you see what’s wrong with that sentence? Think about it again. They didn’t want to give up slavery because they didn’t want to be told how to live their lives. Well I’ve got a question for those Southerners in the 1860s: how do you think your slaves feel?!
     Hearing that section makes me SO angry, because it shows one fundamental part of human existence that makes sense and is good, and reveals another that is one of the ugliest sides of humanity. Yes, it’s only human to not want to be told how to live. We believe in freedom; we believe in our own intelligence and the ability to make our own decisions. These are good and positive things. They are some of the founding principles of America. In fact, they are founding principles of America that are basically lifted whole-cloth out of Presbyterianism, believe it or not. There’s a clause in the Presbyerian Book of Order, the document that governs how Presbyterian churches in this country operate, and it’s called the “conscience clause.” It states that ““God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” In other words, people are free to believe what they feel God has convinced them of! So I don’t have any problem with wanting to be free.
     No, no. The shadow side of what’s revealed here is that, while we want the freedom to do what we want, to believe as we want, to think what we want – we do not want others to have that same right. What that passage in Don’t Know Much About History reveals is that, while Southerners were happy to wave the banner of freedom, they were more than happy to withhold that banner from others. While they didn’t want anyone telling them what to do – well, they were more than happy to tell others what to do.
     This, unfortunately, is not a flaw limited to slave owners, a group of people that’s easy to vilify. Unfortunately, I bet if you pay attention to the conversations of people around you this week, you will hear some variation of this expressed many times over – at least once a day, if you spend a lot of time around other people. And we all give in to this kind of thinking. Of course, the fact that we all do it, doesn’t make it right.
     But this is something we need to keep in mind while reading our passage this morning from Luke. Before we dive in too much further, though, let’s talk about the background of this passage. In this story, we start with Jesus, teaching on the Sabbath in a synagogue. Before we go any further, let’s clarify a couple of terms. First, let’s talk about Sabbath. The Sabbath, of course, was the day of rest. The rules for Jews as to what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath are very strict (and to some of you, who were raised in a little different time, they might sound downright familiar). In a strict Jewish home, you can’t drive a car on the Sabbath (that’s why, in very conservative Jewish communities, all the Jews must live walking distance from the synagogue); you can’t turn on the oven or a light switch. You can open doors, you can walk, you can eat. But you can’t play games or sports, you can’t even turn on the television set (which, by the way, leads some families to turn on their TV the day before and just leave it on, which is maybe cheating, but also pretty clever). The point is to rest. The main thing you can do, though, is go to worship. You honor God by resting from your labor, and you honor God through worship. Those are your main duties.
     The other thing we should be clear on is what a synagogue is, since that’s where Jesus was teaching. Remember that, in Judaism 2000 years ago, there was one Temple in Jerusalem, where people went to make their sacrifices to God. But there were many synagogues, which are more like churches. They’re places where a rabbi (which means “teacher”) would instruct people.
     So basically, Jesus is the guest preacher at a church one week. And in the middle of the service, appears a woman who hadn’t been able to stand up straight for 18 years. Right there in the middle of the service, Jesus heals her, and she’s able to stand up straight. She (and the other people there, as the end of our reading tells us) begin praising God – but we all would, right? That would be pretty great to see.
     Except, there’s one person who isn’t so happy. He’s the leader of this particular synagogue, starts directly undermining Jesus. He starts saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” We can kind of see his point, right? The whole point of the Sabbath is to give it over to God, not to work. So he’s just trying to make sure that God is honored, right?
     Well, sure, we could make that argument. But much like the argument in the book that I mentioned earlier, to be completely on the side of this leader of the synagogue would be to ignore part of the story.
     Jesus points out that these very people to whom he’s preaching would, of course, on this day of rest when basically nothing is allowed, untie their animals and lead them to water. Of course, you’re not allowed to work your animals, but you can keep them alive. The sacredness of life is more valuable than resting, the logic of the Sabbath goes.
     Now, this leader of the synagogue is incensed because – let’s face it – this woman was not in a life-or-death situation. She was going to be fine. She’d been fine for 18 years. What’s one more day going to be?
     But Jesus points out that cattle and donkeys would actually be fine, too. Animals can go one day without water. But we give it to them anyway, because it’s the humane thing to do. If even animals are afforded that amount of dignity, why wouldn’t this woman, someone who shares this man’s ancestry as a Jew (so, basically, his distant cousin) deserve as much dignity as a donkey?
     And, as Jesus points out, isn’t the Sabbath really, on some level, the best day to free this woman from bondage? If the whole point of the Sabbath is to give glory to God, what’s more glorifying to God than a miracle of healing? It inspired praise in the whole gathered congregation, after all!
     See, when it comes down to it, the problem this synagogue leader had was that he wanted God to work exactly as he expected God to work. He wanted to be in charge. He wanted to be free to untie his animals on the Sabbath, but he didn’t want Jesus to be free to do this healing. Basically, this guy did what we all do, in that he was a hypocrite. He wanted the freedom to do what he wanted and needed, but wanted to control what others – including God, in this case – did.
     The biggest lesson here is, I think, that we can’t dictate what God will do or how God will work. God constantly defies our expectations. When God chose Abraham and Sarah, a hundred-year-old husband and wife, to have the children that would be the people we see in the Bible, it was out of the ordinary. When God called Moses, a murderer with a stutter, to lead the people out of slavery, I don’t think anyone saw that coming. When God chose David, a shepherd boy and youngest of his brothers, to be King over all Israel, it was not the choice others would have made. And of course, when God made the very savior of the world a little boy born to a poor family in a cattle stall, it was, to say the least, unexpected. God is always surprising us by asking us to do more than we’ve asked or imagined; God is always surprising us by asking us to sing a new song and make a joyful noise, even when we have to do so defiantly against the pain and evil of this world. God is always surprising us by asking us to do something we see as utterly out of God’s character, or even our own, but that is ultimately going to be for God’s glory.
     We need to have the courage to avoid being hypocrites. God is going to do things, great things, and things that we don’t expect. I remember a pastor of mine talking about declining church enrollment, and talking about it as a great thing. Gone are the days when you go to church because it’s a social club, he said – now church could be about people who are serious about Jesus. And what if that’s what God is doing? What if God is tired of a version of Christianity where all people care about is whether or not the person behind the counter at Target says “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays?” What if God is asking us, not to live in the trappings of a Christian world where we show the Christianity we expect, but rather the service to Christ that God is asking of us?
     Let’s be the Jesus-followers who are ready for whatever God is saying. Let’s be those people who see healing on the Sabbath and embrace it for what it is, not those who stand around and complain that it doesn’t match our expectation of God’s work in the world. Let’s be ready for the radical transformation of the world by a savior who came back from the pit of the grave. That’s the God we serve – the Jesus who upsets expectations, and who stretches us and makes us better, if we truly let him into our hearts. Amen.

Hebrews, Part Two – 2016/08/14

Psalm 80:8-19
Luke 12:49-56
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Sermon:

     I’d like to begin by noting that this week’s sermon picks up with a lot of the themes of last week’s sermon. So if you missed last week’s, you can always go to our website, marionpresbyterian.com, and check the first part of the sermon out there.
     Do you know what an “establishing shot” is? It’s in a movie or a television show, when they show the exterior of a building or a doorway or something, to let you know where people are. The most famous one that comes to mind for me right now is that shot on Seinfeld of the restaurant, the exterior shot in Manhattan of a building that just says “RESTAURANT,” in great big capital letters. That’s a real place. But, of course, this is ultimately a bit of trickery. Movies and shows can get away with showing the outside of one building, but actually being in another. Of course, we all know that, but we understand the grammar of film, so we’ve come to understand that we have to live with certain clichés in order for a movie to make sense.
     We have those “establishing shots” in Scripture, too. As we look at the book of Hebrews, we see a book that takes all of the important stories of the Old Testament – stories that were powerful and meaningful in their own rights – and turns them into establishing shots.
     Last week’s reading was at the beginning of chapter 11, and this week’s at the end. Both of these readings have long lists of people who followed God and what they did. And in the verses between what we read last week and what we read this week? More of the same! This whole chapter is a list of some of the most significant events of the Old Testament.
     In last week’s sermon, I talked about the importance of stories – how they shape us, how they make us who we are. I talked about the ability we have to take stories inside ourselves, and live differently because of them. And I pointed out that the Old Testament stories that most of us learned as children are exactly that – the stories that should inhabit our lives, that we should turn to again and again. They are stories we should be able to see ourselves in, and they are stories that should help us understand how God is active in our lives today.
     But the book of Hebrews insists on specifically framing these stories in terms of the faith demonstrated by the characters in the stories, so Hebrews tells us that faith is significant. And so last week, I also pointed out that “faith,” here doesn’t just mean believing something to be true – faith means “trust.” Hebrews is about putting our trust in God.
So that’s pretty much what we talked about last week. But this week, we get into the point of the book of Hebrews a little bit more. This week, we pick up with why these stories are meant to inform us and our lives. There are some mighty good phrases in here, about the power of trust in God, and about God’s ability to do mighty things for us. Beginning in verse 33, some of the things people have done by faith are listed. Believers have, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
That all sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? The power of faith to give us all these good things is just the kind of story we like to hear. Since it’s Olympics time, I’m always reminded about how much we love to hear those stories about athletes who worked so hard, and then win gold. We love those stories because they teach the right lesson – work hard, become the best. Similarly, this story presented in verses 33-34 of Hebrews 11 is satisfying – have faith, good things come.
But of course we know that the people in the Olympics who DON’T win medals ALSO worked hard. And by the same token, we know that faith isn’t a guarantee that everything in our lives will be perfect. And Hebrews is not shy about telling us. Right after this list of the great things faith has won for people, we have this list, beginning in verse 35: “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release . . . . Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented . . . . They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” In other words, there were (and are) those who keep the faith, and yet don’t see that reward in this world.
Hebrews has an answer for that, and it’s that we’re not made perfect in this world, because we will all be perfected at once, in God’s world to come. And in telling us this, Hebrews points to Jesus, whom the book calls, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We’re reminded that these people who have come before us – the “great … cloud of witnesses” – is there to help us have guideposts, but that we’re ultimately after one thing, and that’s Jesus.
Jesus is the ultimate example of everything Hebrews talks about in this passage. Surely, he was a man of great faith; surely, he knew the stories of the faith and of God’s people; surely, his faith was rewarded; surely, he suffered, as well.
But in Jesus’ story, we see the fulfillment of ALL OTHER stories, too. Jesus’ story, by having all the elements of these other stories, is the culmination of them. They are all pointing and leading to his story. Similarly, for us as Christians, our own stories come from Jesus’ story.
His story reminds us that, no matter how dark our own story gets, God is always planning a resurrection. He reminds us that, wherever we are, even in the depths of the grave, we are not beyond God’s power.
Hebrews reminds us that we learn stories, but that our very lives are stories – stories of God’s power, grace, and love. We get to choose, every day, if those stories include God, or not. And it is our duty as Christians to seek out how God is working in our lives. But whether we do that or not, we are most of all fortunate to have Jesus. He goes before us, giving a story for us to model our own stories on. But he also comes along with us, dragging us back to God, and God to us, even in the pain of the cross or the depths of the grave. And for him and his presence, we can give thanks, today and always. Amen.

Hebrews, Part One – 2016/08/07

Psalm 50:1-8
Luke 12:32-40
Hebrews 11:1-16

Sermon:

     Just so everyone knows right off the bat, in case the bulletin didn’t clue you in, I’m spreading my sermon out over two weeks. We have really good readings from Hebrews each of the next two weeks, so I’m going to take the opportunity to talk about a couple of related but different things. So if you want the whole picture, you’ll just have to come back next week!
     Okay, so you probably noticed that the Olympics officially began on Friday night. I’m a huge sucker for the Olympics. I have basically nothing but good memories associated with watching them. We watch people fulfill lifelong dreams, being at the pinnacle of human achievement – plus I love track and field, and the Olympics is pretty much the only time anyone cares about track and field.
     And what does the TV do during the Olympics? It gives us a bio on every athlete. They tell us the sob story – this athlete lost a parent, this athlete is dealing with a disease, that athlete over there is the first competitor in their country’s history, that other athlete is trying to redeem a bad loss four years ago. It’s all so deliciously wonderful, and pretty much ensures that we have an emotional attachment to the winner.
     And why is that? Why do we get so attached to someone after “meeting” them for only 30 seconds? It’s because we, as human beings, crave stories. Stories are how we interpret and make sense of the world. And these next two weeks, we’re going to be talking about the book of Hebrews, which is a book all about stories.
     But before that, we’re going to need to talk about faith, and what it is to have faith – because that underlies everything that the book of Hebrews says.
     Faith is one of those words we talk about in church that I feel the need to explain, as it’s going to be very important to these two weeks’ worth of sermons. Faith is what you put your trust in. The theologian Paul Tillich says, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned” – in other words, that thing that you care about more than anything else is the thing you have trust in, and therefore the thing you have faith in. For most Americans in 2016, the thing we have faith in is probably the individual – ourselves. For others, it’s our country, for others it’s power, for others it’s money, and for a shockingly small number of people, that thing is actually God. This question of who or what we have faith in is the theme that runs throughout this book – so as I talk, continually think about what it means to trust, to have faith, to be concerned more about this one thing than anything else – because that’s what the book of Hebrews is assuming about its reader.
     The book of Hebrews was, for a lot of Christian history, considered one of Paul’s letters, or at least one of his sermons that turned into a letter. There’s no actual claim that Paul wrote it anywhere in the letter, so where that attribution comes from, I’m not sure. But nonetheless, Hebrews is grouped with Paul’s letters in the New Testament.
     Hebrews’ biggest claim to fame is in its name. Hebrews, as the name suggests, is clearly a book intended for a Jewish audience, familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. Remember that in the early days of Christianity, many of the people who were evangelized were non-Jews, which means they weren’t familiar with any stories from the Bible at all when they came to faith in Jesus. But this letter, in particular, is meant for people who were familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. The book of Hebrews uses the stories that its audience knows to make sense of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
     In the passage we read today, and throughout the book, there are specific references to those stories that we might call “Sunday school stories.” Those are the stories that we kind of assume that people just know growing up – stories about Noah and the ark, and Moses and the ten plagues; about Abraham and Sarah and their child in old age and about Joseph and his coat of many colors. These are the stories that the author relates to the life of Jesus, so that people can connect to them. So a substantial portion of the book of Hebrews is spent recapping those stories.
     So that leads me to a question: have you ever thought about why we learn those stories? I mean, it’s obvious that the Jewish people of the time would learn these stories – they were the only stories about God that they had. But why would Christians today need to know those stories, when Christians believe that Jesus is enough for all of us? Is it as a test, in case we get quizzed by God on entry to heaven? Is it so we see how powerful God is? Is it so we’re scared into obedience? NO! It’s about seeing God’s faithfulness to us, even in the lean times. Even when things are hard, we can see that God is working things for good – and that’s what FAITH is about! We trust in God, because we see that God is good to us. We learn about God’s goodness through the stories that we share – the stories that form the backbone of our lives.
     Don’t get me wrong – these stories have a lot more in common that we can take from them. There are traits all those stories share – the importance of kindness to one another, the willingness to give up the self for service to God, and another one that we so often leave out of our thoughts: seeing God as an active part of our lives. That last one might be most important of all, and another reason that it’s worth revisiting some of these old stories. They remind us that God is actively paying attention to what we do, and how we do it.
     One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 8, which is about this very thing. In a prayer to God, the Psalmist says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” In other words, even though we’re so small, God still cares about us. We often go about our lives as if God isn’t there, as if we are the final judges and arbiters of our lives – but God is there! We are cared for. And that’s what Hebrews is about – a God who loves us, cares for us, and is involved in our lives.
     Then, out of that love and care that God provides and that we see through old, old stories, we respond with faith. Remember again that faith is more than belief – faith is trust. Faith is trusting in God to be with us, even when things seem hard. Faith is about the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, still trusting that God would deliver them. Faith is about Daniel in the lion’s den, still trusting that God would rescue him. Faith is about a very old Abraham and Sarah, still trusting that God would bring them their promised child. Those stories are about more than some events that happened a long time ago, and those stories are certainly more important than the questions scholars ask about when and where and even whether they happened – those stories about whom we trust, and how we trust.
     Now I know that it’s a sore subject to talk about, because obviously things aren’t perfect for us, so it’s hard to sometimes see where God is, and how God watches us. But remember, God doesn’t promise a world without pain, and God doesn’t promise that we’ll always get whatever we want. Certainly, Jesus, the very Son of God, does suffer, and does have bad things happen. But what God promises us is to be there for us, no matter what; that whether the things we do go our way or not, we have a constant guide and friend.
     Our stories make us who we are. They inform us, they teach us, and they build us up. They shape us, form us, and help us to think about the world. The book of Hebrews is about embracing those stories. So let us go forth today, wrapped in faith, clothed in God’s love, and remembering and living the greatest story of all: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

You Can’t Take It with You – 2016/07/31

Psalm 107:1-9
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Sermon:

Sorry; no video this week!
     My grandma was a major pack-rat. I’m sure you all have pack-rats in your family… if you don’t, you can find your family’s pack-rat by looking in the mirror. Because it seems to me that every family has that one person who can’t get rid of anything.
     My grandma was born in the USSR in 1923, so, to some extent, I can’t really blame her. When you’re in one of the world’s poorest countries in one of that country’s worst circumstances, and then you move to prosperous, affluent America… well, you learn to not take anything for granted. And that’s a really, really good quality.
     Of course, we also live in a country where money is (relatively) abundant, and where there’s so much stuff that we could drown in it. And we all have that much stuff. The poorest of the poor in America have stuff they don’t need. It’s really incredible how many things we have.
     And if you have a pack-rat in the family, especially if you live with the pack-rat, you really get a sense of just how many things you have. If you’re never allowed to throw things away, you start to see just how much you accumulate. I don’t mean my grandma was a hoarder or anything – we threw away newspapers and stuff. But there was the sense that, if you spent money on something, you should keep it forever. Like I said, I’m sure that rose out of a being a little girl who didn’t have anything, so could really appreciate the many things she had in her new life.
     As I said, in American life, we have a lot of things. And that’s one of the things that becomes really interesting when we start to look at Jesus. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable realizations for many Christians today is that their Lord and Savior was a homeless person. Homeless people are often objects of derision in our society; yet, God chose to come to earth in human form as Jesus, who lived as exactly that.
     Does it ever make you wonder what Jesus thinks of the lives we lead? I mean, what did Jesus own? Sandals, a cloak or two, probably what he could pack in his bag… and that’s about it, right? Maybe he had some things stored up in his parents’ house… but if you’ve ever seen the kinds of houses people lived in 2000 years ago in Judea, there sure wasn’t a lot of extraneous room for stuff.
     So when someone comes to Jesus asking for helping convincing his brother to divide the family inheritance, Jesus is a little nonplussed, and answers a question (as he so often does) with a parable. Jesus tells a story of a rich man who, having good land, had more crops than he knew what to do with. So this rich man pulls down his barns and builds bigger ones. He then decides that he’s going to live off the profits in his old age, and enjoy his retirement.
     Of course, that very night, he dies. And Jesus says, “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
     One of the hardest challenges of being in the church, I think, is that the church relies on people’s money and their good will. But, of course, the Bible (and Jesus in particular) has a lot to say about how people should use their money. Of course, people don’t like being told how to use their money, which means they can always leave if they don’t like how the church is talking about their money… so the church can’t be too pushy, because then the people you’re relying on might just up and leave!
     Well, that’s a problem when we need to talk about what Jesus says. And what’s most important here isn’t that Jesus is against rich people (although there certainly seems to be an implication that maybe being rich isn’t that great). Rather, what Jesus is talking about is priorities.
     Jesus, at the end of the story, sets up a dichotomy wherein how we treat ourselves is directly contrasted with how we treat God. That’s the essential point of the passage. When this wealthy man is storing up his excess, he doesn’t think, “How does what I’m doing honor God?” Rather, he thinks, “What do I want and need for myself?” His plan doesn’t consider anyone but himself… and Jesus reminds us of that classic dictum, “You can’t take it with you.”
     At the end of the day, the man in the parable worked because he wanted stuff… and the “stuff” didn’t give him anything in return. What if, instead, he invested in the things that matter? What if he had given some of that food to the people who needed it? Perhaps he would’ve built relationships that would’ve made his days richer – not richer in goods, but richer in love.
     And that really gets to the essential point, doesn’t it? Because while the phrase “you can’t take it with you” does apply to the things we can buy with money, it doesn’t apply to the things that aren’t things at all, like love.
     We know that God’s love extends beyond the grave. Even in death, Jesus was not beyond God’s reach, and neither are we. The relationships we build, with God and with one another, are the things that last.
     When we go to Sioux Falls, how often do we think, “Will the way I spend my money glorify God?” How often do we think about how we spend our time, and whether or not that’s glorifying to God? It’s very, very hard to be a modern American and to put ourselves in Jesus’ sandals, or to imagine him in our shoes. But our faith asks us to seriously consider that question.
     So what if we go on a fast? What if each of us can decide to go on a fast from something – a time-drainer that isn’t glorifying to God, or a money-drainer that’s purely selfish? What if each one of us took the time to seriously look at what we have, and consider what Jesus might say to us about it? It’s a scary question that we don’t like to ask ourselves, because I don’t think we’d always like the answer we’d get. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to ask.
     God put us on this earth to be givers to one another; to help where help is needed. Sometimes, we do need things, and we can’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes, we’re in a position to give, and we can’t let ourselves be swayed by the temptations of this world into giving up on what God wants from us.
     Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy. It’s downright difficult, actually, and that’s because Jesus doesn’t just ask for simple things: he asks for devotion, for love, and for thoughtful consideration. Our culture asks for us to make mindless purchases, storing up things we can’t keep. Let us instead build barns that hold love, faith, hope, joy, and peace – those things we can share with all the world. Amen.

The Faith to Which We Were Baptized – 2016/07/17

Psalm 52
Luke 10:38-42
Colossians 1:15-29

Sermon

     Did you ever notice how certain towns lead people to do certain things? Like, I have a couple of friends who moved to New York or LA, and every single one of them wound up going into the entertainment industry (with varying degrees of success, mind you), whether that was their plan or not. It’s like the pull of those places were somehow stronger than their individual desires.
     This often happens with local cultures. Our cultures influence us to do things we might not otherwise have wanted to do. We are shaped by our circumstances. But that’s not something unique to today’s life. It was true in Paul’s day, as well.
     Collosae was a small town in modern-day Turkey. It was also home to a lot of “spiritual” religions – people seemed ready to experience the mystical there, and that led to a lot of different expressions of worship. There were a lot of cults that worshiped statues and animals, for example. There were also a lot of Jews there at the time, but they would’ve been less familiar with the lifestyle of Jews in Jerusalem, and more in tune with the wider Greek culture, and particularly the culture in Collosae.
     Just as Christians today express their faith differently in different places, there were issues with that in the ancient world, too. Most of the time, these minor variations are harmless. But sometimes, our wider culture can give us ideas that are particularly incongruous with our Christian beliefs. Paul’s letter to the Colossians deals with a lot of those themes.
     The wider, non-Christian culture around Colossae seems to have had a lot of unusual practices. For example, there were major emphases on specific religious practices: for example, dietary restrictions, observing specific holidays, and even engaging in self-harm, as well as worshiping of angels, among other things. It seems likely that Colossian Christians were led astray by some of these religious practices. However, Paul is writing to them to give them a different message.
     Instead of that wider view of how the world operates, with very specific procedures required for worship and being in God’s good favor, Paul presents us with the heart of the Good News: that Jesus Christ is enough! It’s not about worshiping in a specific way, it’s not about doing certain tasks. The way we’re connected to God has less to do with our actions, and more to do with putting our trust in the One who comes first.
     To illustrate this point, Paul quotes a hymn. Scholars have noticed that verses 15-20 are actually a sort of early Christian hymn to the greatness of Jesus, his connection to God, and his centrality in creation.
     These verses talk about the cosmic Christ – the one who was and is God incarnate, the one who comes to save. And they’re verses, not about what we do, but about who Christ is. These verses of an old, old hymn are a declaration of faith. Faith, as I’m sure many of you know, is not a word that means “belief,” but it’s more akin to “trust.” Faith is about you and what you put your trust in. Do you put your trust in things of this world, or do you put your trust in the all-sufficient Jesus, who comes to make us whole, heal us, and bring us back to God?
     When we enter the Christian family, we do so through Baptism. At our Baptisms, we make (or our parents or guardians make on our behalf) promises to be faithful to Jesus. In our times as Christian believers, we will express those beliefs differently; we will often fail to live up to the example set by Christ. Yet at the same time, we know that it is not our efforts, not our special things we do that win God’s favor – rather, it is the all-sufficient, all-surpassing grace and love of Jesus Christ that shows us God’s love.
     The same one who is the one in and for whom all things were created, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the church, the one in whom all things are held together – the one who, ultimately, died for us and for our salvation, and who was resurrected to show us God’s victory over sin and death and be the firstborn from the dead – he is the one in whom we trust, and he is the one to whom we look for salvation.
     In a few minutes, I will ask you to join me in a ceremony of Baptismal remembrance. I’ll invite you to come forward and be anointed with water and reminded of this faith into which you were baptized. This is the faith of the cosmic Christ, who is there for us. He is the one who urges us to become who God wants us to be, not because we must to earn God’s love, but rather because we have God’s love, and want to show the world how we have been changed.
     I’ll ask you to come down the center aisle and join me at the font, and we will recognize our shared faith, and renew our commitments to the one who committed himself to us. Let us be refreshed and renewed for service to Christ, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, so that we may be the people God is yearning for us to be – created, redeemed, and transformed. Amen.

Wanting to Justify Ourselves – 2016/07/10

Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Sermon:

     One year, my high school football coaches put this huge emphasis on the idea of “no excuses.” It was a big deal – just about every practice, in most of the drills, in all of the scrimmages, if something went wrong, you were just supposed to put your head down, take responsibility, and do better next time.
     Now, my high school football team was a bad one, so there were a lot of things that didn’t go right. That meant a lot of chances for our coaches to remind us that there weren’t going to be any excuses. Now, one of the reasons I think were were a bad football team is that we were a heady bunch, more prone to thinking than to playing. We probably got as much enjoyment out of the philosophical discussions that arose out of this, “No Excuses” policy – we debated the difference between a “reason,” an “alibi,” a “justification,” and an “excuse.” Frankly, you can probably see why we weren’t very good – I don’t think good football teams probably spend too much of their time parsing their coaches’ words and having debates about their meaning.
     But nonetheless, those discussions we did have. We had those discussions because we were a bunch of nerdy kids who thought about those things, yes. But we had the discussions because we were also a bunch of kids who were looking to not be at fault. We were looking for the ways in which our actions were right, because sometimes circumstances beyond our control led us to do things that were… less than ideal. Someone else falls down in coverage; the safety runs up to help; the quarterback throws it over the safety’s head, to the guy he should’ve been covering. Safety’s fault – but if he had acted differently, a different play would’ve been made. There are tough calls on the football field, and even tougher ones in life; often, we’re just looking for someone to tell us that we made the right one.
     That’s what the legal expert in our passage today does. This story, perhaps the most important in all of the Bible, is critical to understanding Christianity, Christian action, and Christ. And it begins with a lawyer. A “lawyer” is what the text says, but it means someone who is an expert in Jewish law – a.k.a. a Bible scholar. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus throws the question back at him, asking what the Scriptures say. The legal expert answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
     “Correct,” Jesus tells him. And the story could end there, if it wanted to. The story could end there, because these two commands – love of God and love of neighbor – could not be plainer, even though they’re the most complex and difficult things of all. There’s no need for further clarification.
     And yet, the legal expert presses on, asking, “And who is my neighbor?” The text tells us that he asked this question, “wanting to justify himself.” He wanted the “a-ok” on everything he’d done in life. “You know, that time you were mean to one of those lepers begging by the Temple?” he wanted to hear Jesus say, “Well, that was fine, because only the people in your family and neighborhood count as your neighbor.” Or perhaps he wanted to hear this: “Only your fellow Jews count as neighbors, so don’t worry how you treat the Samaritans or Gentiles.” Maybe he wanted to hear that it was easy: “Your neighbor is the person who loves you. So only love those who love you, and you’re set forever.” Or perhaps, most selfishly of all, what this legal expert wanted to hear was this: “Oh, your neighbors? Those are the people you love already. So just go on loving those who love you, and you’ll be fine. But don’t worry about anyone else.”
     Instead, Jesus tells a story that we should all know. It’s a story of a man walking the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s a dangerous road, in the days of Jesus – a road filled with robbers and thieves, all looking to take unexpecting travelers by force and separate them from their money or goods. As this man goes walking down the road, he is, of course, attacked. The robbers are particularly cruel – they strip him of not only his goods, but his clothes. Even though they already have everything he brought, they beat him and leave him to die in the hot, desert sun, all alone and without mercy.
     Fortunately, as he lay there dying, a priest walked by. This priest was, of course, a righteous man. He worked in the Temple and helped people in their relationship with God. He arranged for sacrifices. He undoubtedly counseled many people, both those who liked him and those who didn’t, on the ways of the Lord. And when he sees the man lying by the side of the road, he crosses to the other side. He’s a good guy in the story, keep in mind. The assumption of Jesus’ listeners would be that the priest was a righteous man – and he probably was. Yet he did nothing for a man in dire need.
     Thankfully, though, he was not the only one to pass by! A Levite, someone descended from the house of Moses’ brother Aaron, came by next. Levites worked in and for the Temple. They were trusted religious authorities, who were responsible for the religious lives of the people. They weren’t the ones leading services, but they were responsible for the worshiping community’s well-being. If we were looking for an analogy in our own Presbyterian church, we could say that the first person to pass by was a pastor, while the second one was an elder – someone charged with helping our spiritual well-being. But, just like the priest before him, when he sees this man dying, he crosses to the other side of the road.
     Over time, some well-meaning people have looked to excuse the actions of the priest and the Levite, so that this story doesn’t get turned into a story about how bad Jewish people are.
     People will note (correctly, mind you) that it is illegal to touch a dead body, and that therefore the priest and the Levite were simply doing the right thing. The problem with that kind of thinking, though, is twofold: first, you are permitted (in fact commanded) to touch a dead body to help bury it – it’s a worse sin to leave a body unburied than it is to touch a corpse in Judaism; second, the man wasn’t dead yet. So that excuse doesn’t work, whether they believed him to be dead or not.
     The whole point of the story is that not just one, but two good people, respected people, people who were probably pillars of the community and probably morally excellent at other times in their lives – those people walk by. And then in comes the Samaritan.
     You can be forgiven if you thought “Samaritan” means “good guy.” It doesn’t. Samaritans were a group closely related to the Jews (if you want to know more, ask me sometime – you’ll get a really long answer). They lived in a slightly different place (in the north of modern Israel) and they worshiped slightly differently. But they did not get along. Today, when we see a “Good Samaritan” hospital or counseling center, we don’t think twice about it – but the truth is, the word “Good” is in the story for a reason. It’s called the “Good Samaritan” because Jesus’ early hearers didn’t expect a Samaritan to be a good guy – in fact, they expected the opposite. If anyone in the story was expected to move to the other side of the road, it would be this Samaritan, yet he is the one who helps.
     The Samaritan does some remarkable things – above and beyond the call of duty, I think it would be fair to say. He bandaged the man, cleaned his wounds, gave up his own ride to the man, took him to an inn, and paid for his medical care, then (since he had to pre-pay the inn), decided to come back and pay whatever expense was left over that hadn’t yet been paid.
     And at the end of the story, Jesus asks who the neighbor is, and the legal expert replies, “The one who showed him mercy,” correctly pointing out that it is the undesirable Samaritan who is the true neighbor. When congregations hear this story today, even if they know the principles that underlie the story and understand it in theory, I don’t think they hear it the way Jesus’ followers would’ve heard it. So let me try again, in a way that might approximate the story.
     A man was lying beaten on the side of the road. A doctor saw him, but crossed to the other side. A nurse saw him, but crossed to the other side. And then a homeless man saw him, picked him up, paid his expenses, and made sure he was healed. Or how about this version:
     A man was lying beaten on the side of the road. A soldier saw him, but crossed to the other side. A judge saw him, but crossed to the other side. And then an illegal immigrant saw him, picked him up, paid his expenses, and made sure he was healed. That one may actually be the closest to how the original would’ve sounded to Jesus’ hearers. Or perhaps this version:
     A man was lying beaten on the side of the road. A pastor saw him, but crossed to the other side. A youth leader in the church saw him, but crossed to the other side. And then a Muslim saw him, picked him up, paid his expenses, and made sure he was healed.
     Those groups that are looked down on in our society are our neighbors, and we are their responsibility, and they are ours. Jesus is not telling a cutesy story that’s just about getting along with your next-door neighbor, or even about the person from town you’ve never liked. Jesus is talking about a radical acceptance of the people whom we view as being so different that we don’t even think about them.
     I have had many thoughts this week about people lying on the side of the road and dying. This week, I watched Alton Sterling and Philando Castille shot, and I watched the videos and saw them die. There are and have been greater calls for police accountability in those shootings. Certainly, we can’t have forces for law and order shooting people who aren’t committing violent crimes – we wouldn’t want to be shot for those things. But we often excuse those shootings and other events like them because the victims that we see look different than we do, and our preconceived notions of who those victims are get in the way of our understanding of the tragedy of police who aren’t bad people, and who are in fact good people, but who watched the man dying by the side of the road.
I’m 100% certain that this analogy made some – probably most, and maybe all of you uncomfortable. But remember that Jesus’ early hearers were uncomfortable with this story, too!!! This is not a story of comfort for the hearers. This is a story of compassion for the broken. Notice that Jesus didn’t say that the man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho was righteous – maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was a criminal! What do we know? But the story is not about him and what he’s done or what he hasn’t – it’s about not allowing the walls that we put up between ourselves and one another to get in the way of loving each other. It’s about caring for one another, in spite of our differences.
     The Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who lived during the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, is very famously quoted in a poem you’re undoubtedly familiar with:
          “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
          Because I was not a Socialist.
          Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
          Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
          Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
          Because I was not a Jew.
          Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
     We don’t live in Nazi Germany, obviously. But there’s a call to action here that’s inherent to the human condition: we must look out for one another, even when the “us” we’re looking at looks, or worships, or acts, or speaks, or behaves, or whatever, like someone who’s not one of “us.”
     And then, later in the week, we saw a very disturbed person decide to kill some police officers, perhaps as payback for feeling like the justice system did not bring people to justice. Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson were killed. And this is where we get to discuss the true nature of evil.
     Racism and racial prejudice are a supremely pernicious, insidious evil that run through the course of American culture. But even more pernicious, insidious, and evil is an idea that is a lie we’ve been fed our whole lives: the lie that violence is a solution to our problems. In a moment of weakness, we turn to violence for strength. We prize our own safety and security over just about everything else – when in fact the very call of the Gospel is to be willing to lose our lives.
     We worship a Savior who willingly gave up his life to save the world. He didn’t worry about the cost; he didn’t worry about the pain. Jesus was willing to walk into the lion’s den of utter human evil, and come what may. He was there to do the will of God, be it scary, or trying, or ultimately ending in death.
     We live in trying times, and it is our task as believers in Christ to follow his example, and he (through the legal expert in this story) names our first duty as devotion of the whole self to God. We do that through worship and recognition of God’s greatness. But we do it also through confession of our sins. And we must confess when we have allowed our prejudices, our personal dislikes, and our enmities to get in the way of what we’re supposed to do. Because our best way of showing our love of God is through our treatment of one another.
     Remember that in Christianity, it is not death that holds a final answer. The killing of one person, of a thousand people, does not end cycles of evil. What has the power to end evil is a willingness to stand up to it, the consequences be damned. This world does not belong to evil; this world belongs to God. The evils of racial hatred, of injustice, and the mistaken belief that violence holds the answer are the things that need to be killed – not our neighbors, our friends, and our fellow children of God.
     The cross is an open-ended question: the cross asks if the violence we perpetrate against one another, the violence that we believe will end the things that we don’t like, is the answer. And at the end of the day, that cross stands empty. Jesus could not be confined to it, because Jesus Christ is the answer. The cross is an open-ended question that God answers for us on Easter Sunday morning in the empty tomb.
     At the end of the day, in Jesus’ eyes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Samaritan or a Jew or a Gentile – he came equally for us all. That’s an easier truth to understand in principle than it is in fact. But in the story of the Good Samaritan, we see a life lived for God, and we must recognize that we, too, are called to that life. It’s a life of risk, of heavy cost, and of no expectation of reward. That doesn’t sound appealing – but then you remember that the Good Samaritan, if only for a moment, but in the absolute depth of human despair, was an angel; we are called to be that same angelic presence to one another.
     Although the world is indeed often a fearful place, remember the first words spoken by the angel to Mary on the announcement of Jesus’ birth: “Do not be afraid.” Beloved, we are held in the loving arms of the God of Life; the God who loves us all; the God who, in Christ, is willing to give up his life for the lives of us all, so that we might do the same for those we see beaten on the side of the road.
     So as you depart, depart in the knowledge of the love of God. Worship God with the loudest of voices, with the richest of prayers, and with actions that speak to a true understanding of Jesus own life. Amen.

Advice for the Road – 2016/07/03

Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-6
Luke 10:1-11

Sermon:

     Oh Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable unto you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
     We join today’s story from the Gospel of Luke at an important turning point. Jesus has just turned with his disciples, and headed for Jerusalem. Much like Dorothy and her friends heading down the Yellowbrick Road, or like Harry heading for the Forbidden Forest in book seven, or George Washington crossing the Delaware, we have the point in our story at which the person we’re following begins the journey to meet their fate.
     In Jesus’ case, this long walk to Jerusalem will be filled with miracles, with teachings, and with new relationships that bring people closer to God. But in the end, he heads to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified and die. And of course, the story will end in his resurrection and ascension into heaven. But until that time, we have this journey.
     In preparation for the journey, Jesus does some really interesting things. First of all, he sends out seventy believers ahead of him, to go be his “ambassadors,” as it were – meeting people in the towns where he intended to go, and making people ready to hear the Good News that Jesus himself would show to them. And as he sent them forth, he sent them with some good advice for how to act in the towns where they were to go.
     Now, normally, I don’t like sermons that just go point-by-point through a text, but it’s something I really felt like I should do with this particular text, because there’s so much rich stuff here, and I don’t know how else to do this. So you’ll see the Powerpoint behind me, and that will keep some of the words Jesus says up there, so that you can follow along.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
     This is an obvious one; there is a lot to do, but not a lot of people to do it. So we need to ask for God’s help in providing labor. Now, this seems like it’s a pretty straightforward thing, right? We need more bodies! But… well, I’ll say this: look at the next line.
See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
     “The laborers are few,” says Jesus, “So I’m sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” In other words, because there are so few laborers, we are called to do the work. And, by the way, it’s not going to be easy, because we’re called to go out and work with people who might be openly hostile to us.
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
     Don’t take a way to make money, don’t bring “stuff,” because this isn’t about “stuff.” and it’s not about small-talk, either, so don’t plan on being too friendly with the people you see on the side of the road.
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
     Begin with an offering of peace, and if no one’s there to return it to you, know that you do carry that peace with you everywhere.
Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.
     Eat what people put in front of you. Remember, these were Jews with strict dietary laws; yet, the countryside through which they traveled had a lot of non-Jews living there. And Jesus says, “Being a good guest is more important than your pride in following the law.”
Do not move about from house to house
     When you’re somewhere; be there. Do the job, and don’t be seduced by something shinier just because it comes along. Even though the place you are might not seem like the place you need to be sometimes, trust that God is calling you somewhere special to do something special.
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
     When you’re out doing God’s work, it’s not just about telling people about Jesus; it’s not just about doing the work of repairing people’s bodies. Our call as Christians is to the bodies, minds, and spirits of those around us. We should be willing to do, not only what heals one part of a person, but whatever we need to do to heal the whole person.
But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
     Finally, we come to the last point. That when people reject you and the message you bring, shake it off – literally. Don’t let the dust drag you down with it and keep you thinking of a place where things didn’t go well. Just remind people of the message and move on to the next place.
     Now, all of that sounds well-and-good. It’s important stuff, really. But how on earth is it applicable? We aren’t disciples, roaming the countryside in ancient Israel, looking to convert towns. How can this relate to our lives?
     Well, the answer I would give is that every single day, we perform missionary work. In every interaction with a person that we have, we are missionaries. We are bringing God to the people around us. When we greet people with anger, rudeness, or resentment, the very fact that we’re Christians means that we’re showing them an angry, rude, and resentful God.
     Not everyone is going to accept us, just as not everyone accepted those 70 people Jesus sent out ahead of him. But when we’re not accepted, we need to shake it off, move along to the next interaction, and continue to do our best to reflect the life of Jesus with our own lives, as well as to tell his story. Remember that you are an ambassador for God, so how you interact with others matters.
     Soon in the service, we will be confessing our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. (Incidentally, I love that we call it “confessing” our faith; it means we’re admitting it. It means we’re telling the truth to a world that isn’t always ready to hear it. But I digress.) Soon, we’re going to say the Apostles’ Creed, and as we do that, I’d like you to think of those, not as words we simply recite in church, but rather about words of belonging – words that express a faith that doesn’t just belong to you, but to billions of people around the world, and to even more who have come before.
     The faith that we admit to having is a faith that shows a God in final victory. It is a faith that acknowledges the truth of life – we are going to be hurt and bruised, put through trials and difficult times. But at the same time, it’s a faith that believes that, in the end and even in the most difficult of situations, hope springs eternal and God prevails! We live in God’s victory.
     The central event of our faith is the cross and empty tomb – a place beyond hope, and an unbelievable outpouring of joy as the impossible happens.
     At no point does the empty tomb mean a denial of the cross – the bad things still happen, and we still weep at the sad and gnash our teeth at the evil. But at the end of the day, we believe in Good News. We believe that Jesus Christ came for us, to reconcile us to God and to one another. And even when that seems impossible, we must remember that Jesus’ story is the one about hope right in the most impossible of situations.
     A faith that we share is a faith that is stronger than a belief in ourselves and the indomitability of the human spirit. It’s a faith stronger than a simple belief that God created the world. It’s a faith in the ultimate hope that, no matter how dire, God will work the things that have been evil into things that are good, or at least as good as they can be on this fallible earth.
     Beloved, that is the faith for which we are ambassadors. So be ready to share in it joyfully, and remember that your each and every action is a reflection of that faith. As you treat those who have less than you do, that’s a reflection of how you feel about your role as God’s ambassador; as you act around those you dislike or who dislike you, that is what you think of God. So life your faith, and go out renewed for service and life in Christ. Amen.

Fruit of the Spirit – 2016/06/26

Psalm 77:11-20
2 Kings 2:1-14
Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Sermon:

     I tend not to like to preach from Paul’s writings. There are a lot of pastors out there that prefer the cut-and-dried nature of the letters of the New Testament – plainspoken words about what is and what isn’t, what should be and what shouldn’t. For me (and this is probably the English major in me talking), it’s all about stories. Because stories show instead of telling; stories are easier to remember and stick with us better.
     Yet, at the same time, I spent a lot of college writing papers about stories. Papers, as you may guess, are boring. They just try to explain something that somebody else already told better. Heck, that’s a lot of what we do in sermon-writing, too – take things that are actually well-written, and turn them into something different! Nonetheless, though, that’s basically what Paul was doing in his letters – taking the stories of Jesus, and turning them into something a little easier to digest, which is what we hope to accomplish in sermons, too. So I must recognize that Paul is, in some way, “my people.” He’s trying the same stuff I’m trying – he’s just doing it a whole lot more memorably.
     At the end of the day, though, we’ve all heard sermons that stick with us. Even if they might not be as powerful as the original text, they can be beautiful.
     Similarly, while Paul’s writing will never, for me at least, compare to the actual stories of Jesus as presented in Scripture, they are still capable of being beautiful, powerful, and inspiring in their own way.
     Today’s passage from Galatians is certainly an example of that, in my opinion. It starts with a couple of those classic Christian chestnuts – the freedom we have in Christ, which is to be used for good and not for evil, and the call to love our neighbors. In today’s passage, these two ideas are related, because Paul is trying to call people to a Christian life, and sometimes, a Christian life is a really hard thing for people to understand.
     There’s a temptation to say, “Well, if all our sins are forgiven, can’t I just go ahead and sin away, doing whatever I want? I don’t have to follow any rules of behavior, right?” On the one hand, yes – our sins are forgiven. And by the same token, yes – there aren’t specific rules of behavior we have to follow. But that still doesn’t mean we get to do absolutely whatever we want, absolutely whenever we want to.
     Paul, instead, is showing us that God’s relationship to us is more like the relationship between a parent and child than between a general and his army. Let me to elaborate. The military is run with the expectation that something said is something done; insubordination will not be tolerated.
     But being a parent isn’t about an expecting absolute adherence to the rules. Rather, being a parent is more about shaping than instructing; more about teaching than about telling. As a parent, you can’t possibly prepare your child for every single situation they’re going to encounter in life and tell them how to act; our imaginations just aren’t big enough to figure that out. But what we do is set a foundation of things that are important, and let those principles guide our children throughout their lives.
     So what we’ve been given by our divine Parent is the life of Jesus. Obviously, Jesus couldn’t possibly have told every single follower how to face every single problem we would – there weren’t enough hours in his too-short life to tell us all that. But we do have his life as an example for us to follow.
     Jesus shows us how we’re supposed to live. So we, as Christians, have an exemplar. Maybe we don’t know exactly how Jesus would act in every situation – but we do have quite a few examples of how Jesus acts in other situations, and that’s what we’re supposed to follow. We’re not supposed to take our forgiveness for granted and do whatever we want. To do that would be to prove that we don’t “get it.” Those with a true relationship with Christ won’t take advantage of him; they will seek to be closer, which means more in-line with what Jesus said and did, rather than taking advantage.
     Forgiveness is freely given to us. But our calling in that forgiveness is to live a life of gratitude; and living a life of gratitude means that we’re supposed to be more than “takers.” Nobody likes it when people take things and aren’t willing to work hard for them. Similarly, we can’t be expected just to take the forgiveness without working hard to show our commitment to Christ as a “thank you” for his commitment to us. Surely, our good behavior will always pale in comparison to his saving grace, but we must do the best we can for him.
     So how do we do that? How do we live lives of gratitude, showing Jesus our love through our actions? Well, Paul guides us here. First, he mentions that we must become slaves to one another – serving each other rather than ourselves; taking care of others rather than indulging in our own desires. But that’s a common theme in Scripture, and I preach about those types of things a lot. But even love of neighbor grows out of a change in our own hearts and spirits.
     In today’s reading from Galatians, Paul tells us that we should be led by the Spirit, and if we are, we will demonstrate what he calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” These things are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I wanted to repeat those, because most of the time in my life that I’ve heard this text preached, it’s been about the things we shouldn’t do, rather than the things we should. So hearing this text, my mind goes to “don’t be bad,” instead of “actively be good.” Those are different things, and I think it’s important to talk about what we need to do, not just what we need to avoid.
     Living in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is not just a job to do – it’s not a mere task to accomplish, an item on a list to check-off. These things are habits to build – ways to live our lives. I would suggest that you listen to me read this list of things again. As I read, pick out the one that speaks to you. Which one weighs on your heart? Which one is God calling you to embrace more this week? If you need to, write it down and carry it with you this week. But whether you write it or not, choose something you’re going to work on, and figure out how God is calling you to work on it. Again, the fruit of the Spirit is this: love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; generosity; faithfulness; gentleness; self-control.
     When we do these things in Jesus’ name, we do them for him, and in his honor, which is our goal as Christians. And insodoing, we are bringing those around us closer to God through our good conduct. So let us go forth from this place in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, showing our love of God with how we live our lives. Amen.

Christian Unity – 2016/06/19

1 Peter 2:9-12

This sermon was delivered at the Marion school for the Marion Area Ministerial Association community service on reunion weekend, Sunday morning 6/19.

     It was very hard to determine what to preach for this event. I’ve been here in Marion three years this July, and, in that time, we in the Ministerial Association have not had one of these Reunion services. The last one was just a week-and-a-half before I moved here. So it’s been a while, and I’ve never been a part of one.
     Randy Maass and I sat down to plan some of the things we’d do today – Scriptures, hymns, etc. And as we were sitting there, we got really interested in the question of what we – all of us gathered here – have in common. We were raised in different ways and types of homes; we were born into different times; we may come from here, and we may have left; we may be transplants who came from somewhere else; we may have been here our whole lives; we worship differently, vote differently, dress differently, think differently, and have a world of things that make us completely unlike one another.
     And yet, there are things we have in common. There are things that we have together that brought us here this morning, or else we wouldn’t be here.
     First of all, there’s the obvious – we have this place in common. Marion means different things to different people. For some, it represents salvation from the pace of a world that continues to roll faster; for others, Marion is a prison, tucked away from the “real world.” For some, Marion is a place that represents days of childhood and youth, while for others it’s a place where they think of days as an adult. But nonetheless, though our times in this town with one another do not even overlap, we are all here today because this little town has formed us; and, in our own small ways, we have formed it. We have built it with the sweat of our brows, and it has shaped us like clay in the hands of a potter. We are different for this place, and it is different because of us. For that reason, we gather.
     When reading this passage in preparation for this message, when I ran across that section on “aliens and exiles,” I thought about how those are often two different things. I am an alien here; many of you here are exiles, coming home. But again, this place is what we share.
     Yet, there is a second thing we have in common, and that is our faith. Our faith, while it takes slightly different forms for each of us, it is something we have in common. And it is through that faith that we become one people, one body.
     “Once, you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once, you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy,” says Peter. You see, while we share this town in common, that’s not the only thing that binds us together; we were already a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” – simply through our collective faith in Christ.
     Yes, today, we are gathered here together because of our connection to a town. But if we were just here for that, we wouldn’t need to attend this service. Instead, this service is not just about town, but about the identity that shapes us even more than that – our identity as believers in Christ.
     This passage points out that the believers here would’ve been considered outsiders in the communities they were in, because they were living among non-believers. Perhaps we don’t feel that way – but I’m sure some of you do. You can’t simply assume your neighbor is a Christian in today’s world. But Peter calls us, not just to evangelize, not just to tell the Gospel – but to live it. We are called to conduct ourselves with honor and distinction, so that those around us will come to believe that the way of Christ is the way of life.
     We have been called, as Peter says, “out of darkness and into his marvelous light.” Let us allow this gathering this morning to be a chance for us to step up as a community. The offering we have taken today is a chance for the Ministerial Association to tell those in need that Marion is a community inflected by the love of Christ, reaching out to those in need through a shared sense of Christ’s calling. We are God’s people, and are encouraged to remember our own status as aliens and exiles – that, once, we (or our ancestors) were new to this land and had nothing. Now, when we see others in need, we are encouraged to offer the helping hand that we may or may not have received. But whether or not we received it, does not make it any less our responsibility to show the kind of Gospel-inspired living that proves to our neighbors that our lives have been transformed by Jesus Christ.
     On this day, we have a special and unique opportunity to gather here as a larger community, blessed by God and rejoicing in our common life and experiences. But more importantly than that, we can remember that our service this morning calls us to remember our deeper connection as believers, and our greater calling to witness to Christ’s love with our every word, breath, and deed. Let us go forth, truly experiencing and proclaiming this special love God has shown to us, and carrying out this task with joy. Amen.