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We Are the Disciples sermon series – Christians only, but not the only Christians

We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
Christians Only, but Not the Only Christians
Nov. 12, 2017

Today, we’re continuing our sermon series on learning more about who we are as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is a challenge, even for life-long Disciples. We often define ourselves by who we’re not, rather than by affirming who we are. We’re using some of our foundational statements to help name and claim our identity. So far, we’ve talked about “unity is our polar star,” “no creed but Christ,” and “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Today’s phrase is “Christians only but not the only Christians.” In linguistics this is known as an antithesis: a statement that sets two opposites against each other. For example, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is an antithesis. So is, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And so is the sentence, “A church committee is a body that keeps minutes and wastes hours.” That one hit a little too close to home.

So, today’s phrase, “Christians only but not the only Christians” holds in tension what it means to be a Christian and how we are to think of ourselves in relation to others. Although I couldn’t find a true origin for this phrase, the conventional wisdom says it goes back to the early 1800s, as Disciples were trying to figure out what they believed and how that jived or didn’t jive with what other Christians believed. In other words, how do we claim our distinct identity over and against other Christians around us, and yet not be over and against the other Christians around us?

That challenge hasn’t gotten any easier in the last two hundred years, has it? In fact, it’s gotten exponentially more difficult for two reasons: first, churches have continued to split, with each new group believing that they have it right and everyone else has it wrong. I don’t know of any new denomination that began with the premise that they could be wrong. The whole reason they split off was because those other people were straying from the true faith. There are roughly 39,000 denominations in the world today. So, either 38,999 of those are wrong and one is right, or none of us have a monopoly on the truth.

The other challenge to claiming our distinct identity is that we are so much more aware of other ways of believing. That’s what has led to so many denominations, because different people interpret and live out their faith differently. The Baptists are linked to a certain form of baptism, the Lutherans were founded by Martin Luther, the Presbyterians are governed by a presbytery, the Quakers…like oatmeal. I read that on Wikipedia, so it must be true.

But this diversity of beliefs doesn’t stop with Christianity. Think about this: there used to be only two religious symbols available for the headstones of deceased soldiers: the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David. Now, there are 39 different religious symbols offered. With so many other ways of having faith, what does it mean today to be Christians only, but not the only believers?

Let’s start with the first part: “Christians only.” This one ties directly into the statement about “no creed by Christ.” What this means is that, first and foremost, we call ourselves followers of Christ. The sole object of our worship is God as shown to us through Jesus. One of our founders, Alexander Campbell, wrote, “Who is a Christian? Everyone that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the son of God, repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to the measure of knowledge of his will.”

Well, dang. Based on that definition, I’m not a very good Christian. How about you? I’m guilty of doubting Jesus’ identity, of not repenting of my sins, of disobeying Christ’s teaching. I wish this statement had said, “We are bad Christians only, but not the only bad Christians.” So, this part of the statement is a work in progress for me, and maybe for you, too.

What makes it even more challenging is that what it means to be a Christian in our world today has been seriously polluted since Campbell gave his definition. What makes a person a Christian today? Going to church? Giving an offering? Wearing a cross necklace? Saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays?” It’s hard to say. The label “Christian” has been co-opted by our culture and by some of the more boisterous mouthpieces who claim to speak for Christians. I’ve often found myself wanting to say, “I’m a Christian, but not one of THOSE kinds of Christians.” So maybe this statement should be updated to say, “We are followers of Christ only.” Still doesn’t mean we’ll get it right, but at least it clarifies who we are called to be.

The second half of this statement is most fascinating: “not the only Christians,” which I am amending to “not the only believers.” This makes sense, since unity was one of the driving forces that led to the creation of our denomination in the first place. We recognize that, while we are followers of Christ, we don’t have all the answers, and there are others out there who believe differently than us, but that are just as faithful as we are. I appreciate the humility in this statement. As a writer once said, “Always entertain the possibility that you may be mistaken.” Boy, how different would our world be if we lived by that mantra?

There would be some of our brothers and sisters who would balk at the inclusivity of this statement. Some churches feel confident that they’ve got it right, and everyone else needs to get on board with them. This was explained to me very well by one author, who said, “The tensions between our conflicted religions arise not from our differences, but from one thing we all hold in common: an oppositional religious identity.” In other words, I am who I am because I’m over and against who you are.

The beauty of “not the only believers” is the space it creates in our faith for the diversity of others. Think of this statement as a circle. “followers of Christ only” is the center point of the circle, the anchor that holds us in place. “Not the only believers” is the perimeter of the circle, and the space in between is where we invite into our lives those who believe differently about God, or who believe differently about their understanding of God.

So…how big is your circle? Who’s inside? Who’s outside? That’s a tough question, right? We don’t want to let so many people into our circle that we lose sight of our center point. A lot of people have that fear. If we start saying that legitimate people of faith include Muslims and Hindus and…gasp!…Methodists, then we’re going to lose our anchor, because our faith will be threatened by these other ways of knowing God. If you don’t believe like me, you’re a threat to me. Is that a legitimate fear?

Well, let’s ask an expert, shall we? Several times in the Bible, Jesus lifted up people as examples of faith who were NOT the Jewish religious leaders of the day. In fact, they were even Jewish. In one example, Jesus praises a Roman centurion, who probably worshipped the Roman gods, saying, “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.” In another example, Jesus praises a Samaritan woman. In another, he speaks highly of a Roman publican and a Gentile. Jesus drew a pretty big circle, and yet his center point of God was never threatened. If Jesus recognized the legitimacy of the faith of these non-Jewish believers, we’d do well to extend the same grace to non-Christian believers.

Theologian Paul Knitter puts it this way: “The religious communities of the world can and must form a ‘community of communities’ – a community in which each tradition will preserve its identity and at the same time deepen and broaden that identity through learning from, appealing to, and working with other communities.” That’s a move from saying, “I am who I am because I’m not you” to saying, “I am who I am because of you.”

The call of this statement is really two-fold. We are called to witness with confidence to our understanding of the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and we are called to experience solidarity – with-ness – with people of other denominations and faiths, worshipping with each other, honoring each other’s beliefs, and working together toward a common good. Witness and with-ness.

Far from detracting from our faith, I think this actually honors the spirit of faith that God imbued in each of us in the first place. From the very start, having faith was an invitation to believe God was at work in the wider world, beyond the parameters of denominations and human-drawn lines of divisions between believers. After all, I bet every single one of us could name a non-Christian who, through the way they live and love and serve, are more Christ-like than a lot of Christians we know! I believe the best hope for our world today – and don’t we need hope? – is to move away from dogma and right belief – what’s called orthodoxy – toward an integration of diverse religious expressions that manifest themselves in helping and serving each other – what’s called orthopraxy.

This doesn’t mean we have to give up Jesus. Quite the contrary. To celebrate the other expressions of God in this world – through other denominations and other faiths – is honoring Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, not separated by our differences, but drawn together by the common belief that we are all children of our Creator God. This isn’t watered-down Christianity; it’s a way of belief that fits the diverse world in which we live.

For us, Christ is central to our understanding of who God is, and as followers of Christ, we are called to worship him – followers of Christ only – and then follow his example of hospitality, welcome, and love – not the only believers. It starts here, in this place. As one writer said, “Church is the place where you get to practice what it means to be human.” So, we come here to practice love, to practice grace, to practice generosity, to practice breaking bread together, so that we can go out there and live it out. We come here to witness so we can go out there to live out our “with-ness.”

We are followers of Christ only, called to worship only the one we call our Savior. That means not worshipping all the other things in our lives that demand our allegiance. And we are not the only believers, sharing this planet with so many others who live out their faith in distinctive, authentic ways. So many people these days want to emphasize differences, drawing lines of division and exclusion. How would our church, our denomination, our world be different if we practiced drawing circles?

 

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We Are the Disciples Sermon Series: #1 – Unity Is Our Polar Star

SCRIPTURE – John 17:20-26 – 20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[f] so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

SERMON
We Are the Disciples Sermon Series
#1 – Unity Is Our Polar Star
Oct. 22, 2017

One of the things that excited me about moving to Lexington eight years ago was returning to an area of the country where people knew the denomination I served. During my eight years of serving in a northern suburb of Chicago, I only met a handful of people who had ever heard of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). People would ask what I do for a living, I would tell them, there would be a long, awkward silence, and, if they were still around, they would ask, “So, what…um…flavor of church is that?” I would say we were part of a denomination called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), there would be another long, awkward pause, and they would ask, “That’s not a cult, is it?” I would assure them it wasn’t, and then invite them to our next goat sacrifice potluck. Actually, I’d give my 30-second elevator speech on who we are, which is really hard to do when most people who are Disciples don’t know who the Disciples are.

Understanding what it means to be a Disciple of Christ starts with tracing back to the roots of our denomination’s genesis. In this sermon series, we’re going to look at some of the statements which guided our founding fathers and use them as guideposts for understanding why we were created, who we were back then, and who we are today.

Today’s statement is, “Unity is our polar star,” which was a direct refutation of the state of the church in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Our denomination was the result of the combining of two different movements, one led by Thomas Campbell, and later his son Alexander, and the other by Barton Stone. Thomas Campbell started his ministry in Scotland, and he was dismayed by the level of fracture and division he experienced in his native Presbyterian church. At one point, there had been so many splits within that denomination that you could be a Seceder Burgher Presbyterian, a Seceder Anti-Burgher Presbyterian, an Anti-Seceder Burgher Presbyterian, or an Anti-Seceder Anti-Burgher Presbyterian. Then, there was a further split among New Lights and Old Lights, which I don’t think had anything to do with the kind of fluorescent bulbs they used in the sanctuary, but knowing how churches work, it wouldn’t surprise me. So Thomas Campbell ended up serving the Old-Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church. His business cards were printed on poster board.

Campbell came to America and ended up leaving the Presbyterian church because they were denying communion to people the elders deemed unfit to take it. Campbell was fervent in his effort to bring more unity to the church, because that what he believed Christ wanted when he prayed in John 17, “that they may all be one.” Thomas was joined by his son, Alexander, and while living in Pennsylvania, they started a movement called simply, “Christians,” because there should be no divisions within the body of Christ. In 1809, in his important “Declaration and Address” document, Campbell wrote that, “the church of Christ upon this earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.”

Meanwhile, down in Kentucky, another Presbyterian minister named Barton Stone was struggling with the same issue about the divisions in Christ’s church. Stone was so upset that he left the Presbyterian church, writing a “last will and testament” of his local group of churches, that said in part, “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the body of Christ at large.” He formed a group with the biblical name “the Disciples,” with following Jesus being the only requirement for membership.

So you have the Christians in Pennsylvania and the Disciples in Kentucky, and both groups shared similar beliefs about the importance of unity. So they liked each other on Facebook and exchanged a few text messages – I’m a bit fuzzy on this part of the history – and decided they should join their movement together. Unity! So in 1832, on Main Street in Lexington, Ky., “Raccoon” John Smith of the Christians and Barton Stone of the Disciples shook hands and shared communion, uniting these two movements. Stone said that day, “let the unity of Christians be our polar star.”

Well, unity sounds great on paper but is hard to live out among human beings who have actual opinions, which the movement found out very early on as they tried to settle on a name. Christians or Disciples? Both sides made their arguments with neither side willing to budge. Hence, we are the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Where there is not consensus, let there be compromise.

The irony of having unity as our polar star has plagued us in our history. When our group was created in 1832, it was in direct opposition to the growing denominationalism that was splintering the church. In 1968, we gave into the reality that if it walks like a denomination and quacks like a denomination, it’s a denomination. In that year, we stopped calling ourselves a brotherhood and acknowledged that we had become the very thing we were created to oppose.

If that’s not proof enough that biblical unity is difficult, this denomination which has unity as its polar star has suffered two splits in its history. One split created the Churches of Christ Acapella, and the other created the independent Christian churches. Unity may be our polar star, but we haven’t done such a good job of following it.

That’s the paradox of unity: the more committed you are to it, the harder it is to live out. When we decided to call ourselves a denomination in 1968, in a sense we were admitting that the true unity of Christ’s people is not an achievable goal. We will never be one, as Jesus had prayed. Instead, our focused shifted from trying to unite with others to working with others to do Christ’s work. We Disciples have an organization called the Council on Christian Unity, whose goal it is to forge partnerships with other denominations and other faiths to witness to God’s love and grace in this world.

It feels like unity shouldn’t be this hard. Aren’t we all on the same team? Don’t we work for the same boss? And yet, not only has the body of Christ divided into thousands of denominations, but churches split and congregation members are at odds over all sorts of political, social, and theological issues. That’s why I think Jesus prayed for unity, because he knew how hard it would be for us to achieve. So, how are we doing? Is Crestwood united, as Jesus prayed that we would be one?

Well, that depends on what you mean by “united.” On our American currency, you’ll find the phrase “E plurabus unum.” You know what that means, right? “Out of many, one.” We are made one by virtue of being citizens of this great country. Doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. Doesn’t mean we have to like each other. Our oneness is not up to us; it simply is, by virtue of where our citizenship resides.

The same is true of our unity as believers in Christ. Unity is not an achievement to strive for; it’s a gift we’ve already been given. We can’t gain unity, but we can choose to live like it doesn’t exist, letting ourselves be divided by things that are inconsequential compared to the love of God that unites us. But we have already been given the gift of unity through our faith in Christ. Doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. Doesn’t mean we have to like each other. Our oneness is not up to us; it simply is, by virtue of where our spiritual citizenship resides. Through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are “Eplurabis unum.” Out of many, one.

Here at Crestwood, we are one in the midst of our differing beliefs and ways we live out our faith.  Unity is a shared witness, not an intellectual agreement. I know a church here in Lexington that requires all its members and anyone who uses its building to sign a document stating they adhere to certain beliefs and teachings. But I didn’t hear Jesus say that unity is based on believing the right things. Instead, he said that we are one as believers because he and God are one. We are united by God’s love for us, not our ability to check all the right boxes on our spiritual inventory.

Well, if we are already united through Christ, we’ve got some work to do to change people’s perspectives about what it means to be one with each other, and that change has to start with us. Joan Brown Campbell writes about unity, “The ‘many’ who must become ‘one’ speak different languages, come from different cultures, worship God in many different ways, and are separated geographically – yet are united by a communication system that gives us the play-by-play of war as it happens. We are united to mothers and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, to factory workers in China, and to the people answering our questions from the call centers in India.” If unity is still our polar star, and I believe it should be, then we have to acknowledge the human limits we have placed upon it. If unity were up to us, we’d only unite with people we like. The work of unity starts by admitting our unity has boundaries, and then having the courage to cross them, in Jesus’ name.

As impossible as it may seem to claim the unity we have been given by God, there is a way forward that we in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) can claim as our source of hope. It’s the table. The table is the place where we are welcomed, in all our glorious, messy diversity – to sit down and share a meal next to someone that we might never associate with otherwise. When we hold the tray for someone, we are uniting with them through God’s grace and generosity. But we’re not only uniting with them. Through the bread and the cup, we are united with all who profess belief – and all who aren’t sure what they believe. When we take communion, we proclaim once again that unity is our polar star, guiding us to seek and celebrate our commonalities in a world that highlights differences. Communion for us is, as one pastor said, “the world in a wafer.”

Sometimes this concept of unity seems unreachably far away. But Deitrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality in which we may participate.” Unity highlights the fact that, if we are going to make it, we have to acknowledge and celebrate the interdependence that binds us together as human beings. I am connected to you. You are connected to me. And we are connected to those around us, those like us and those not like us. If we forget that connection, then those not like us become Others, and the body of Christ once again fractures. To claim that “unity is our polar star” is not to claim we all have to be and believe and behave alike, but to say with confidence and compassion that we are the one body of Christ, bringing together our diverse gifts and voices and ways of believing for the purpose of glorifying God and making God’s will known. It seems like, in our world today, we have forgotten a very a simple fact. There is no “them”; there is only us. E plurabus unum. Thanks be to God.

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This Week’s Sermon – Do It Yourself

Philippians 4:4-9 – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about[f] these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Do It Yourself
Phil. 4:4-9
Oct. 15, 2017

Our garage has a loft in it. It’s a nice benefit to have, because it gives us a space to store all of our junk, instead of storing it in our basement. Actually, we have junk down there, too, but now we can have more junk and still fit both cars in the garage. Score! The only problem with our loft is that it’s about ten feet off the ground, and there’s no easy way to get to it.

So, I decided to build a wooden ladder for it. What qualifications do I have to undertake such a project, you ask? Well, let me share with you my extensive resume. I’ve been on several church mission trips, including one where I cut out a window space in the wall of a Habitat home. The construction supervisor was very impressed with my window-cutting skills, and said it would have been even better if I’d cut the window into the correct wall. I hope the family living there appreciates the extra natural light I provided for them.

Let’s see, what other qualifications do I have to build a ladder? (Pause) Yeah, that’s about it. But I did what any budding handyman does these days. I Googled it. It didn’t look too difficult, and I had the right tools, and I got to use my power saw. Vroom vroom! So, I bought some wood and some nails, made a few cuts, pounded some boards together, and…ta da! We now have a ladder to our loft. To this day, I am the only one in my house who will set foot on that ladder. Leigh will say, “Where are the Halloween decorations?” I’ll say, “They’re up in the loft.” She’ll pause and say, “Um…I’ll let you get those.”

There are a lot of things I’ve learned to do myself. Unclog a dishwasher. Tune up a lawnmower. Make toast. Hey, it’s a start! And each time I do something myself, I get encouraged to try more. Isn’t that what the big hardware stores want us to do? Think about their slogans: “Let’s Build Something Together.” “Never Stop Improving.” “You Can Do It. We Can Help.” “Who Needs All Ten Fingers?” I think that place went out of business.

Doing it yourself is in the DNA of our country, which was founded by a group of rugged individualists who only needed one finger to tell the king, “No thanks, we’ll do it ourselves.” And they did. They endured rugged terrain and harsh weather, they built houses and businesses and whole industries, the tackled unsolvable problems like interstate highways and air travel and get both peanut butter and chocolate into an ice cream. We Americans have a long history of being able to do it ourselves.

Which gets us in a lot of trouble, doesn’t it? Because there are some things we can’t do ourselves. And yet, we’re not good at admitting that. We think it shows weakness, that it makes us less than human. So, we trudge forward, thinking we can fix that broken relationship, thinking we know better than the doctors what will help our loved one, thinking if we just try hard enough we can pull ourselves out of that depression. Because isn’t it up to us to never stop improving? Isn’t that what gives us value as human beings?

Paul knew differently than this. Paul knew that life will throw some problems at us much thornier than building a ladder. Paul knew that sometimes we will face situations in which we can’t do it ourselves, and even Googling it won’t light a path forward for us. And, Paul also knew that when that happens, our typical response is to have anxiety about what’s going to happen, because it’s out of our control. “Let’s worry about something together.”

Paul tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord, always.” He isn’t writing this from some ivory tower or a library filled with fine leather-bound books and smelling of rich mahogany. He’s writing it from a Roman jail, probably not long before he was executed. So yeah, Paul knows a little something about worrying and life not going according to plan. And yet he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Paul then reminds the Philippians that the Lord is near. This probably means something different for us today than it did for them back then, and remind me how incredibly flexible the Bible is as a living document. The prevailing belief in Paul’s day was that Jesus was coming again at any moment to vanquish the Romans and usher in God’s kingdom on earth. Therefore, Paul didn’t have to worry about rotting away in jail because Jesus could drop in at any time. Why worry when the Lord is near?

Two thousand years later gives us a relaxed perspective on the Second Coming. That doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t coming again soon, but the thrill and urgency of that promise have worn off a bit. So, for us, “the Lord is near” is not a promise about what might happen, but about what has already happened. When the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Jesus Christ went from being a person to being a presence, a presence that surrounds us and infuses us and inspires us. Christ is with us everywhere we go, from down into the pit to up a homemade ladder and all the other scary places in between. Why worry when the Lord is near?

Whether we believe that or not is often reflected in our generosity. If we don’t believe the Lord is near, and that our own security and happiness is completely up to us, then we’ll hold on tightly to what we have for fear of losing it. But if we believe the Lord is near, that it’s not up to us, then we are free to release our grasp on the blessings we have so that they can be shared with others. As you think about your giving this morning, are you giving out of joy, trusting that the Lord is near?

Because of Christ’s presence, Paul reminds us, we aren’t called to do it ourselves when it comes to navigating the winding roads of life. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We have been promised by our Creator that we are not alone, and all we need to do is turn to God with our fears and our worries. And what happens when we do that? Paul says in the next verse, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Now that’s even a better answer than Googling it! When we don’t try to do it ourselves, but instead lean on God, our reward is peace. That doesn’t mean our problems are solved or our prayers are answered in the way we want them to be, but it does mean that we will find peace in the midst of our struggles. Can we live in peace in the midst of this crazy, conflicted life? We can do it, but only if God can help.

But we know us, so we know we will still get distracted by the challenges life throws at us. And we know we’ll still try to do things ourselves. And we certainly know we’ll get frustrated and angry and resentful toward God and toward each other. Just as we have the capacity within us for God’s peace, we also have the capacity for acts of great evil and destruction. And sometimes the difference between the two is determined by where we choose to focus.

There are plenty of things in this world that can drag us down into despair. Each week presents a new tragedy, a new natural disaster, another unspeakable act of evil. It’s overwhelming. It’s paralyzing. For those of us who like to do things ourselves, we feel completely helpless to do anything at all. What do you do when Las Vegas happens? When Puerto Rico happens? If we let it, it can consume us, distorting our view of this world and eclipsing the goodness and grace that still exists around us. We trust that the Lord is near, but sometimes he feels awfully far away.

So, knowing the human tendency to want to do something, Paul does gives us something to do.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Want to do it yourself? Start by making sure your mind is filled with these kinds of things. Paul’s not saying that if we think about these things, everything else will go away. He’s reminding us there’s more to this world than what we hear on the news or see on Facebook. The Lord is near. Therefore, we need to balance the darkness that clouds our minds with the light of Christ that shines through. We need to make sure we’re not losing sight of the goodness and grace around us.

I read several different translations of that list and want to share a few of them with you. Just listen to how these words of Paul are translated. One of the words Paul uses is “true.” That also translates as “honest” or “honorable.” But one translation says, “that which has the dignity of holiness upon it.” Some of our thoughts are worthy of being called “holy,” others aren’t. Are our thoughts characterized by things that have the dignity of holiness upon them?

Another word Paul uses is translated in our pew bibles as “pure.” I also found it rendered “attractive” or “winsome.” But here’s the one I liked the most: “that which calls forth love.” Do our thoughts call forth love? Or do they call forth something else?

The last one I want to point out is what our bibles call “worthy of praise.” This was also translated as “fair-spoken.” But what grabbed me was this: “things which are fit for God to hear.” Where is our attention focused these days? How are we responding to the hatred and fear around us? Are we matching evil with evil, hate with hate? Or do we dwell on things in our mind which are fit for God to hear?

Thinking about these things is not a one-time event that we accomplish or get right. It’s a process. Some days we’ll do better than others. Some days our thoughts will be pure, others not. Some days our thoughts will be admirable, others not. Some days our thoughts will have the dignity of holiness or will call forth love or will be fit for God to hear, others not. That’s why Paul says we are to put these things into practice. The word “practice” implies we have to do it over and over again in order to get better at it. That’s something God can’t do for us; we have to do it ourselves.

Let’s not forget that “Rejoice” is a scriptural command. Paul says it not once but twice, a command to find joy in the midst of this worrying thing called life. This is not a command to ignore the realities we face, but to see God at work in the midst of them, to find the things that are pure and true and beautiful in a world of impurity and falsehood and ugliness. And our hope is the more we practice, the closer we get to God’s peace. We may never fully get there in this life, but in this unstable world in which we live, isn’t the idea of God’s peace worth the effort? Let’s be honest, life is hard, and we can’t do this ourselves. Thankfully, we don’t have to. The Lord is near. May we think, may we love, may we give as if we believe that is true.

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Leading the Way

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:13-16 – 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

SERMON
Leading the Way
Matthew 5:13-16
October 1, 2017

Is the world a ruder place these days? It sure seems like it to me. When we lived in Chicago I thought the general rudeness I experienced was a consequence of cramming that many people in one geographical area and then dumping a ton of snow on them. But I’ve noticed a spike in rudeness even in the friendly town of Lexington over the years here. It must be the case all over the country, because the evidence backs it up. A recent telephone poll by the research group Public Agenda found that 79 percent of the people surveyed said that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem today. The pollers said the other 21 percent of callers hung up on them before they could even ask the question.

Some of this increased rudeness is intentional. You can see it in the way people treat service workers like servers and hotel staff. Some of it is even perpetrated by Christians. Friday I was driving on New Circle Road and I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said, “Honk if you love Jesus.” I was able to read it so well because the person driving had just cut in front of me without using their turn signal. I bet they think I really, really love Jesus.

But some of our rudeness is unintentional. We don’t mean to be rude, but our focus is in other places. As I was going into the drugstore this week, I held the door open for a lady who was chatting away on her cell phone. She didn’t make eye contact or acknowledge my act of chivalry. No big deal. But I watched as she made her way into the store, went up and down several aisles, picked up a few items, took them to the counter, paid for them, got her change and left the store – all while still talking on her cell phone. Was she intentionally disregarding the human beings around her? No, I don’t think so. Was her behavior rude? You bet.

I think this human behavior is exactly what Jesus was getting at when he told the crowd listening to him that they were salt and light. These passages come near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Jesus has just given the Beatitudes, a series of blessings for the world’s underdogs, and he’s about to launch into a reinterpretation the laws of Moses for this new era – “you’ve heard it said…but I say to you…”. But in between, he wants to remind the people listening that they have been put here on earth for a specific purpose, and he uses two very interesting metaphors to do it. As we kick off our Stewardship Campaign today, these metaphors can be instructive as we consider how we can lead the way in being God’s people in our world.

First, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.” In modern times, that phrase has come to mean someone who is decent, dependable, unpretentious, and uses their turn signal. While that’s an admirable way to be known, that’s not what Jesus meant. In Jesus’ time, salt had several important uses, and by calling his followers “salt,” Jesus was drawing on the meaning of those utilitarian functions.

First, salt was a purifier. We soak wounds in salt water because, while it burns, it also cleans and refines. The presence of salt has cleansing, purifying power. As salt, we are called to do the same. As one writer said, we are called to have an antiseptic influence on those around us. The word antiseptic literally means “against infection.” Something that is antiseptic is free of destructive or disease-causing bacteria. As salt, we are called not to be infected by the diseases around us – the diseases of greed, hatred, judgment. We are called to be the healing agent in the world around us. In a world of horn-honking and cell-phone-induced apathy and Twitter rants, we are called to be different.

Salt was also used as a preservative. When stored with food, it would prevent bacteria from causing the food to decay. Because there was no such thing as freezers or shrink wrap, salt was crucial to helping provide food for people over a long period of time. Similarly, we pledge our faith to a story that is 2000 years old. Not many things that are 2000 years old are still relevant today. And even this story could die off if we let it. So we are called to preserve it, not only by telling it each Sunday, but by living it each Monday. We are salt when our faith is active, alive, relevant, informing everything we do or say, preserving the living gospel that is each one of us. One of the things our monetary gifts accomplish is they ensure this story continues to be told.

The last use of salt that Jesus draws upon here is as a flavor additive. When added to food, salt draws out its natural flavors and enhances the dining experience. By calling us salt, Jesus is saying that our job is to enhance the living experience by drawing out the divine in the world around us, or as one writer said, “We are to serve as kingdom seasoning.” We bring out the God flavors wherever we go.

One important thing to note about salt as a seasoning: it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Have you ever been to a meal and heard someone say, “Wow, that’s some good salt! What brand of salt is this? I’ve never tasted something so…salty! We’ve got to get this salt recipe!” If salt is doing its job, no one notices it, but instead, notices the flavors it evokes. If we are doing our job, we are not drawing attention to ourselves, but to the love and mercy of God in us. As the salt of the earth, we are to purify, to preserve, and to provide flavor. How are we making God known around us? How are we using our gifts to draw out the God flavors in this world?

Jesus then goes on to call us the light of the world, a light we have by virtue of being God’s children. He says since we have this light within us, the last thing we want to do is hide it. That highlights one of the dichotomies of this metaphor. Jesus warns about hiding a light under a basket, but if you do that, one of two things is going to happen: either the light gets extinguished, or the basket catches on fire. Neither are desirable results! A light can’t help but shine. It’s what a light is supposed to do. Jesus doesn’t say, “Try really hard to be the light of the world,” or “Here’s how you become the light of the world.” He says, “You are the light of the world.”

We lose the nuance in the English translation, but in the original Greek, the emphasis in this sentence isn’t on the word “light” or “world”; it’s on the word, “You.” Jesus isn’t whispering this like he’s sharing a secret. He’s shouting it like he’s making an announcement. “YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world.” He’s probably doing this because he’s speaking to a group of outsiders and outcasts who struggled to believe they had any value, much less the power to be salt and light.

“YOU are the light of the world.” You already have the gift you need to shine. It’s not a question of if you have it, but if you choose to use it. If we are to live the light that is within us, it should shine everywhere and in everything we do: in the way we treat the clerk at the counter, in the way we drive our cars, in the language we use, and in the way we spend and share our money. We should not only be Christian in the church, but also in the store, the schoolroom, the kitchen and even – gasp! – on the golf course, in Rupp Arena, and on Facebook. This Christian stuff is not always easy, is it?

And yet, even as we are called to let our lights shine so that others may see it, the end goal is not to draw people to us, because it’s not our light. No one kindles their own light. This light we bear is not ours; instead, it is a reflection of the Christ within us. We are not the source of the light, we are the windows through which the light is seen. Just as salt doesn’t draw attention to itself, so the light inside of us isn’t meant to be used as a spotlight shining on ourselves, but as a flashlight guiding the path to Jesus. “Let your light shine before others, so that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

“Before others.” Notice also that Jesus didn’t say, “You are the salt of the church” or “You are the light of the congregation.” The nouns he uses – “earth” and “world” – imply that our mission field extends as far as the east is from the west. There is no place we go, no place too remote or routine or secular, where we are not called to be salt and light.

Sure, there will be times when we don’t live up to this calling. There will be times when we’re feeling particularly unsalty or lightless. We may excuse our behavior by saying, “I was having a bad day when I said that. It was just a little thing.” But little things add up, don’t they? The little things we do and say add up to who we are. And if we strive to be salt and light in the little things, then we are prepared to be salt and light in the big things.

Today, we are asking you to begin contemplating what your pledge will be for 2018. Your monetary gifts are what make the ministries of this church possible. Your generosity allows us to be salt and light as we build homes for Habitat for Humanity, as we provide space for Alcoholics Anonymous and Parkinson’s support groups, as we educate our youngest and care for our oldest, and as we provide worship space for all. How will your pledge add seasoning to our ministries? How will the gift you give light the way for someone else to connect with God?

The point is that it doesn’t matter whether how strongly we believe or how faithful we are. You are salt and light. Whether you’re a life-long Christian, a seeker, an agnostic, a fence-sitter, a new believer…doesn’t matter. You are salt and light. The decision isn’t whether or not you want to be. The decision is what you’re going to do about it.

The next time you have a chance to help someone, will you be salt and light? The next time someone starts to tell an offensive story, will you be salt and light? The next time someone wrongs you and asks forgiveness, or even doesn’t ask for it, will you be salt and light? The next opportunity you have to bring out the Kingdom seasoning and reflect the love of Christ, will you be salt and light? Before you write that post, before you share that rumor, before you make that hand gesture, stop and remember…YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world. With our words, with our actions, with our pledges, let’s lead the way in being salt and light to others.

 

 

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Love in the 11th Hour

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 20:1-6 –  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

SERMON
Love in the 11th Hour
Matthew 20:1-16
September 24, 2017

 

“That’s not fair!” Have you ever heard that? Have you ever SAID that? It was a common refrain around our house after the birth of our second child, Molly. Once she came home from the hospital, it was clear that Molly was the center of attention. So, before too long, we started hearing, “That’s not fair! No one is paying attention to me! No one is playing with me! I can’t do whatever I want. It’s not fair!” Finally, my wife Leigh had to step in and say, “It’s OK, Kory, things will return to normal soon.”

I believe the refrain of, “That’s not fair!” is so familiar to us because we have an innate sense of right and wrong coded into our DNA. We inherently know when something isn’t fair, which is why this parable is so hard for us to deal with. We know what should happen, and yet the landowner does something so outlandish that we cry out with the first workers, “That’s not fair!”

Garrison Keiller warns preachers to avoid this text because it suggests that you could come to church after the sermon and still reap all the benefits. This parable is sandwiched in between two stories about fairness and privilege. In the first, Peter asks Jesus what his reward will be for giving up everything and following him. In the second, the mother of two of the disciples asks Jesus to give them the best seats when they get to heaven. In between, we get this parable about unequal workers, unfair pay, and Jesus saying, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

This truly is what one commentator called “the most un-American of parables”: a vineyard owner needs workers, so he goes down to the street corner where the day laborers hang out, selects a group of them to hire, and negotiates to pay them on denarius for a day’s work. These would have been the most dependable workers, the ones with a good reputation for doing their job well. He goes back several more times during the day and hires more workers, promising them a fair wage. Finally, with only one hour left in the day, he hires a few more workers to finish the task. Realize that the good workers aren’t the ones left at the end of the day. These stragglers were probably still around because they were unhireable – deadbeats, unreliable, disabled, lazy, different.

When it comes time to pay the workers at the end of the day, the owner starts with the last workers hired, giving them a denarius, a full day’s wage, for only an hour’s work. The workers who were hired first thing in the morning start salivating, because if the late-comers got a full day’s pay, imagine how much they will get! But when they open their envelope, they get a denarius, same as the others. “That’s not fair!”

A question to ask when reading a parable from Jesus is, “Who am I in this story?” We’re obviously not the vineyard owner, and I would guess none of us would identify with the late-comers. We are the early workers. We are the ones who show up, who get the job done, who put in our work and expect our reward. We come to church, we give what we can, we serve when time allows. We may have sown some wild oats in our lives, but for the most part, we are good, faithful Christians. We’re not the last workers hired.

That’s why our injustice alarm is blaring right now. We feel the pain of the early workers because we all know someone who sneaks in by the seat of their pants. The classic example is the death-bed confession, but don’t we see this all the time? When a lane is closed, instead of getting over promptly, we see the driver speed down the close laned and cut over at the last second. Unfair! The person who judges you because of how you look instead of who you are. Unfair! The scoundrel who lives a long life when a good person dies an early death. Unfair!

When I played Little League, I was a decent player. One year, I led the team in all of the statistical categories, including most gum chewed. So when it came time to honor the team MVP, I was pretty sure my name would be on the trophy. “And the award goes to…Jeffrey!” Huh? Jeffrey? He hardly could swing a bat, much less drive in a run. All Jeffrey did was sit on the bench, cheering on his teammates, helping the coach pick up the equipment, consoling the kid who struck out. After the ceremony, the coach took me aside and said, “You know, Kory, there’s more to being an MVP than hitting the ball.” But at the time, I wanted to scream at him, “That’s not fair!”

Life is unfair, and that’s what bothers us so much about this story. When we live such a capricious, unpredictable existence, when so much of life is not fair, we feel that God should be fair. Of all people, God should be dependable, predictable, honoring our sense of right and wrong. God should be the one authority we can count on to reward people for their efforts. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are NOT the same is not fair. We believe the first shall be first and the last shall be last. So why doesn’t God?

If given the choice between love and justice, which would you choose? There is a time for both, for sure, but if you had to choose, would you choose to exercise love or exercise justice? I would imagine most of us would choose love, especially with people we love. There are times when our children need justice – you don’t clean your room, you get grounded – but, in the big picture, love is more important than justice for us.

So why do we bristle when the vineyard owner makes the same choice? Notice that the first workers who grumble so loudly get exactly what they negotiated for at the beginning of the story. They didn’t get any less because the late workers got more. But the owner chose to express love to the late workers, even if they didn’t put in a full day’s work. By doing so, he levels the playing field; those who arrived last are equal to those who arrived first. As the owner says, isn’t that his right? Isn’t that God’s right, to love those we feel aren’t as deserving as us, those who haven’t always followed the rules, those who only come to church on Christmas and Easter, or not at all? And if so, what does that tell us about the relationship between love and justice in our own lives? Which should we emphasize, especially with the late-comers, the unhireables?

I was once in charge of a large Easter Egg hunt at a church. We’re talking hundreds of people and thousands of eggs. The event started at 2 p.m., and by about 2:45 p.m., every last egg had been claimed. A few minutes before 3 p.m., a mother and little girl showed up, the girl wearing a frilly dress and clutching her Easter basket, ready to find her eggs. They thought the event started at 3 p.m. As I started to explain this to the mom, I could see the little girl’s face begin to fall. Just then, one of the kids from our church came over to us and said, “Here, she can have some of my eggs.” A few more kids did the same, and before you knew it, the little girl’s basket was brimming with Easter eggs. Was that the fair thing to do? No.

In middle school, I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was preparing for the exam to be promoted to First Class. My form of preparation was to put the Boy Scout manual on my desk and hope that somehow the information magically transferred to my brain. My mother and step-father and I had just moved to Virginia, away from all my family back in Indiana. I was struggling with issues at home and at school, so I was terribly unprepared when it came time for me to demonstrate my knowledge of knots. The Scout Master asked for a double fisherman’s knot, and I twisted and turned the rope a few times, then handed him what I would call an unprepared scout’s knot. After the test, the scoutmaster called me in and asked me how things were going at home. “Not great,” I said. “Did you study for this test?” he asked. “No,” I said. “OK,” he said, “we’ll work on those knots together.” And he handed me my first-class badge. Was that the fair thing to do? No.

Our sense of outrage at the end of this story softens a bit when we remember that there are times we have been the ones that deserved justice but instead received grace. In fact, if we want to be really honest with ourselves, we are the late workers. We are the ones who have gotten so much more than we have deserved or earned. Because, you see, God set out the rules of what it means to live as God’s people. God spelled out very clearly what we are to do and not do in order to receive the blessing of being called children of God. And every single one of us has failed. Every single one of us has fallen short. And if God was truly a God of justice, then we all would suffer the consequences of our shortcomings, just as we deserve.

But our God is first and foremost a God of love, so rather than leave us to our fate, God sent Jesus Christ to us so that we would know just how much God loves us. God sent Jesus so that we would know that, no matter how short we fall, no matter how far we run away, God loves us, God cherishes us, and God wants nothing more to bless us beyond our imaginations. Is that the fair thing to do? No. Not at all. But God has done it anyway.

So, rather than identify with the injustice of the early workers, let’s put ourselves in the place of the late workers as we open up that envelope. Because how the final pay is received fully depends upon what each person believes they deserve. How do you think the late workers felt to see that they had been paid for a full day’s work, that they now have enough money to put food on the table for the family, to provide clothing and fill their prescriptions? Imagine their surprise, their delight at getting a gift they know they don’t deserve, they know they haven’t earned, and yet is theirs anyway because of the generosity of the owner. Do we take the gift of Christ for granted, or do we receive it with the same surprise and delight?

Let’s face it. We worship an unfair God. Sometimes that means that people we think aren’t worthy of God’s blessing will be blessed. That may not have been what we would have done, but thank God it’s not up to us, right? Because if it were, there’s someone out there that thinks WE aren’t deserving of a blessing. But God grace is not measured or counted; it’s simply poured out in abundance, it’s ours for the taking.

So what do we do with this abundance of grace? We share it, of course. Rather than exacting justice, we express love. Rather than honking our horn, we wave our hand. Rather than holding grudges, we remember kindnesses. Rather than expecting apologies, we say “I’m sorry” first. Paul says, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” Justice tallies all the ways someone is different – which means lower – than us; love says, “You are valued. You are accepted.”

There is a place for justice in our world, to be sure. Justice, when handled appropriately, can make things better. But only love can save us. Because we are the unhireables. We are the last workers. We are the ones who didn’t earn what we were given, and yet were given it anyway, in the form of a divine love crucified on a cross. God is not fair; God is loving. Thanks be to God.

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Love 101 Sermon Series – Who Do We Love

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 22:34-40 – When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

SERMON
Love 101 Sermon Series
Who Do We Love?
Matthew 22:34-40
September 10, 2017

We are continuing our sermon series today called “Love 101.” With all the nastiness in our world today, we need a refresher course on what it means to love one another, because it feels like we’ve forgotten. Technology and social media have made it easy for our dark sides to come to light, because we can share our most divisive, most hateful comments without fear of repercussion. In fact, I would say we’ve sometimes used our love of God as a reason to hate our neighbors, because they don’t love the same God we do, or don’t love God in the same way we do. But that’s not the kind of love the Bible calls us to have. So for this series, we’re focusing on what scriptures say about how we are called to love.

That call includes how we love our neighbors. Spiritual write Henri Nouwen said, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear and do harm.” Pretty spot-on, right? That was written in the 1970s, and in the subsequent 40 years, we haven’t gotten any better at loving our neighbor.

That’s ironic, because loving our neighbor is a fundamental part of having faith. Listen to these words: “Worship God and join none with Him in worship, and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbor who is near of kin, the neighbor who is a stranger, the companion by your side the wayfarer you meet.” Sounds a little like the passage from Matthew, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s from the Koran, the Islamic holy book. In fact, that book teaches that it is an offense to God if a person harms or annoys their neighbor. You can’t even annoy your neighbor? If that’s the case, I wouldn’t make a very good Muslim, and neither would my neighbors.

The Christian basis for the tenet of loving your neighbor comes from the passage we read today from Matthew 22. Jesus’ answer to the question about the greatest commandment is a well-known piece of scripture, one that is often memorized and recited. Just about everyone knows “Love God and love your neighbor.” But what most people don’t understand is just how controversial Jesus’ answer was in the context in which it was given. Let’s face it, if these commandments were easy ones, we all would be doing a much better job of following them. But we’re not, so there must be more to this.

This passage comes near the end of Matthew’s gospel. We’ve already had Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Since then, he’s overturned the tables in the temple, cursed a fig tree, had his authority questioned several times, and told a series of parables critiquing the religious elite. In other words, Jesus was NOT in a good mood. Starting in chapter 22, we have what’s called “the Temple Disputes,” a string of stories about the Jewish religious leaders trying to trap Jesus into violating the law and self-incriminating through blasphemy. After out-thinking the leaders on questions about to whom you should pay taxes and how marriage works in the afterlife, Jesus is hit with our question for today.

We’re told right away what is happening. A lawyer asks Jesus a question to test him. That’s not a condemnation of lawyers, but it does give you a sense of the prosecutorial spirit on the question. The lawyer calls Jesus “Teacher,” an attempt at mock reverence, then ask him which commandment in the law is the greatest. If I were to ask you how many commandments there were in the law, you’d probably guess 10, and for good reason. But the 10 we know are only the tip of the legal iceberg.

In the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, there are a total of 613 laws given by God to Moses to share with the Israelites. That breaks down to 248 things you should do and 365 things you shouldn’t do. The law was given so the Israelites would know exactly what God expected of them in order for them to live holy lives. Do this, don’t do that, and you will be holy people.

Six-hundred and thirteen commandments. So how could Jesus choose just one? It’s a trap. If he names one, then he invalidates the authority of the others. And if he says they are all important, he’ll have to explain why he’s already broken several of them, like not working on the Sabbath. So, Jesus does what he typically does in this situation: he doesn’t answer the question. The first part of the answer he gives is not a commandment. It is part of the Shema, a Jewish blessing from Deuteronomy that was read earlier. In that one sentence, Jesus sums up the whole of the law. The 613 commandments can be fulfilled by loving God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

If Jesus had just stopped there, the whole nature of our understanding of faith would be different. And, to be honest, a whole lot easier. If we only had to love God, but didn’t have to love our neighbor, I bet two things would happen: (1) more people would have faith, because it would be easier, and (2) we wouldn’t be here, because we would have annihilated the human race in the name of God a long time ago. Even with the command to love our neighbor, we’ve still destroyed a lot of lives in Jesus’ name.

In this passage, this point is where Jesus turns from religious to political. To be a person of faith, you have to follow the first commandment. You have to love God; that’s kind of the point of faith in the first place. But to be a person of faith, according to the law, you don’t have to follow the second one. In other words, based on the law, you can love God and not love your neighbor and still call yourself a believer.

Let’s take the 10 commandments. Do you have to love your neighbor to fulfill any of them? Can you not kill and still hate your neighbor? Can you not lie and still hate your neighbor? Can you honor your parents and not worship idols and keep the Sabbath and not covet your neighbor’s stuff and still hate your neighbor? Of course you can. You can follow all 613 commandments to the letter and still hate your neighbor.

That’s why what Jesus does here is so radical. After he gives the first commandment, which he calls the greatest, he then says, “And a second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” He doesn’t say, “And there’s a second one, which is also kind of important.” He doesn’t say, “After you do the first one, you should probably do the second one.” He says, “And a second is like the first,” which says to me that Jesus believed that loving your neighbor was equally as important as loving God.

Well now, that’s a whole different ball of wax. I’m fine not killing my neighbor and not stealing from my neighbor, but loving my neighbor? Have you met my neighbor? He uses his leaf blower at 7 a.m. and she doesn’t bring in her garbage cans on time and I think they voted for somebody different than me. Love God? Hey, I’m not perfect, but I can do that. But love my neighbor? Is Jesus serious here?

Because that isn’t already hard enough to do, let’s complicate this some more. You may remember that this issue of loving your neighbor has come up before with Jesus. In a passage from Luke, a lawyer tries to test Jesus – what is up with lawyers back then? – by asking him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, who stops to help a man who’s been robbed and beaten. What you may not realize is that Samaritans were the sworn enemy of the Jews back then. It would be like Jesus saying a Korean dictator or a Neo-Nazi stopped to help the man. Jesus asks the lawyer who the neighbor was in the story, and he answers, “The one who showed him mercy,” to which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

So, according to Jesus, not only are we supposed to love God, we’re also supposed to love our neighbor, and our neighbor is not defined as people who live near us or share our values or like or Facebook posts, but our neighbor is anyone with the capacity to show mercy to someone else. So you are my neighbor. And the family who lives next to me are my neighbors. But my neighbor is also the Muslim woman at the local hot chocolate place who asked me what I did for a living, then asked what I was preaching about on Sunday. And my neighbor is the atheist woman with whom I’m working on a project to help Lexington be a more compassionate city. And my neighbor is even that person I don’t know in the car behind me who lets me change lanes at the last second because I wasn’t paying attention, and waves back to me when I give a wave of thanks. That’s my neighbor. And I’m called to love them. And what about the people around me who don’t show mercy, but instead spew anger and vitriol? Well, I think we should try to love them, too, because the only alternative is not to love them, and that doesn’t seem to be working very well.

Not only does Jesus call me to love our neighbor, but I’m called to love them as I love myself. There’s a whole other sermon about the challenges of loving ourselves too much, or not loving ourselves enough, but we’ll save that one. Here’s what this means for me today: to love my neighbor as I love myself means that whatever perks and privileges I want for myself, I must also extend to my neighbor. Whatever rights I believe I deserve, I should make sure my neighbor has, as well. Whatever fundamental protections I believe I should have, from a roof over my head to access to healthcare to the ability to speak freely, I should work to ensure my neighbor has, as well. Under Jesus’ definition, there’s a world of people out there who are our neighbors, and who have so much less than we do. So, what are we going to do about it? Because, after all, by loving and serving them, we are loving and serving God.

If Jesus had only given the first commandment, it would have let a whole lot of us off the hook, and allowed us to piously proclaim our love for God while we treat one another badly. In Luke’s version of this passage, Jesus says about these two commandments, “Do these and you shall live.” Not “memorize these” or “recite these” or “think about these.’ He says, “Do these and you shall live.” And here’s the beauty of that command: if we all focus on loving our neighbors, then all of us will be loved, because we are all neighbors. Now, we all know that not everyone will do that. Some people will continue hating their Samaritan neighbor, the neighbor who they deem is not worthy of love. That’s all the more reason for us to love those who are being hated, to remind them that they are worthy of love. And – here’s real challenge – we still are called to love those who hate others, because to be honest, they probably hate others because they haven’t been loved enough. So, as I see it, the answer to all these problems is love. God knows there are a LOT of problems with this world, and we’ the cause of most of them. They can be paralyzing at times. Where do you even start to make a difference? How about we start here: Love God and love your neighbor. If we can focus on doing those two things, I have a feeling that will be enough.

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Love 101 Sermon Series – Why Do We Love?

SCRIPTURE – John 3:1-17 – Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

SERMON

Love 101 Sermon Series
Why Do We Love
John 3:1-17
Sept. 3, 2017
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

My guess is you don’t know who Rollen Stewart is. But I bet you would recognize him when you saw him. Not if he was just walking down the street, though. You’d have to see him in his most famous setting: usually right behind the goal posts at a football game, or behind the catcher at a baseball game. Rockin’ Rollen always stood out for two reasons: his rainbow wig, and the sign he displayed. You’re watching the game, they flash the score, and you see, “Bears 14, Packers 10, John 3:16.”

Rollen Stewart made it his personal crusade to spread the word of God by showing his John 3:16 sign at every sporting event he could attend. And what better way to share the good news than with that passage? It’s arguably the most famous one in the Bible, and has developed a cultural reputation as the gospel in miniature. I had an unbelieving friend who told me that he memorized John 3:16 just so he could impress girls at parties. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant by “love thy neighbor.” But it does show the influence and popularity of John 3:16 as the ultimate Christian slogan: “For God so loved the world…” Unfortunately, even though this passage is famous for telling us why we should love, it’s been famously misused to in a way that is anything but loving.

Today we continue our “Love 101” sermon series, in which we are relearning what it means to love each other with the love of God. It seems like our world today has lost the ability to do that, and instead defaults to criticism, conflict, and hate. We know that God is love, and God’s love is unconditional, and yet we humans have built walls and erected fences to determine who is and isn’t worthy of God’s love. We need a love re-boot.

John 3:16 is a great place to continue this remedial love lesson, because it answers the question, “Why should we love each other?” Simply put, we should love each other because God first loved us. Now, that may not seem like a big deal; after all, we’re pretty loveable, aren’t we? Well, most days. That’s not what is scandalous about this passage. Instead, it’s the extent to which God goes to show God’s love for everyone.

It starts with understanding what John means when he says, “God so loved the world.” We might hear that as a neutral term. Of course, God loves the world, God made it in the first place! The rocks and trees, the skies and seas, the peacocks and stink bugs. But the Greek word John uses for “world,” which is “kosmos,” is different than the word that is used for “earth.” When John speaks of the “kosmos,” it is not neutral. Listen to these words from one of John’s letters: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”

For John, the “world” was a decidedly negative thing, representing all that is separate from or even opposed to God. The “world” was filled with people who desired things of the flesh, who desired the riches of the world, who made everything a priority but their relationship with God. These are the people who owned slaves, who put their love of country above the well-being of others, who hoarded their money while others starved. Think of the kind of person you most despise right now. That’s what John means when he says, “the world.”

So you see how radical a statement it is for John to say, “For God so loved the world.” Loved? Not “tolerated” or “put up with”? Not “God so pitied the world” or “God so wanted to change the world”? Nope. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but will have eternal life. That’s good news, isn’t it?

Well, not for everyone. Not for those who don’t believe. This verse has been used in ways that make it bad news. It’s been used as a blunt-force instrument, pounded over the heads and hearts of non-believers. “Believe or perish!” You’re either in or you’re out, and if you’re out, then there’s good reason not to love you. This verse seems to draw a dividing line between those who believe and those who don’t. And can I just name for a second that one of the main reasons people don’t believe in Jesus isn’t because of Jesus, but because of how the people who claim to follow Jesus have acted in his name? It seems like if we really wanted to condemn, there’s plenty of reasons to do so all the way around.

Despite its misuse, there’s still good news here, but you can’t stop at John 3:16. You can’t have John 3:16 without John 3:17, because that second verse provides a much-needed corrective to the misuse of the first. It says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John says explicitly that Jesus is not about condemning those who don’t believe, and yet how much of the hatred and violence in our world is buttressed by the false dichotomy between believers and non-believers. Or, let try to be more accurate here, the false dichotomy between those who believe the way I do and those who don’t believe the way I do. But, we can’t forget, “God so loved the world.”

Let me unpack that. If a person claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then there is no justification in scripture for them to hate someone else. In fact, there’s ample evidence that they should go out of their way to love those who are different from them. Unfortunately, there are parts of scripture that can be used to justify hate, but when placed in the larger rubric of the Bible’s overall message, they don’t hold up. In the Bible, love wins. Period. And any attempt to believe or act otherwise is a false gospel.

And yet, we Christians still find reason to hate. For me, I hate people who hate, which kind of defeats the purpose and makes my point. I can easily find reasons to draw lines between me and those who believe differently than me. While I was on sabbatical last summer, I visited a number of different churches in the area. At one, the preacher spent a good part of the sermon railing against gays and lesbians, and then said, “There are even churches in our community who welcome them into worship.” And I swear he looked right at me. I can’t say in church what I was thinking at that moment. I wanted to remind this gentleman of John 3:17, that Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to save. But then God reminded me of John 3:16, that God so loved the world, even people who seek to exclude others from worship.

At the church I served in Chicago, we had a board meeting in which we were considering nesting an Asian new church start. For me, it was a no-brainer. A new church needs a place to worship and fellowship, we have space available, let’s do it. But several Board members were gun-shy because the last time they tried this, it didn’t go well. One person in particular catalogued all the things that went wrong, including, “And the food they made stunk up Fellowship Hall so much you could still smell it on Sunday morning.” And then, top it all off, he said, “I know it’s the Christian thing to do, but I don’t think we should do it.” I can’t say in church what I was thinking at that moment.  I’ve never screamed at a church board meeting – yet – but that’s about as close as I got. Have you ever known something was the Christian thing to do, but didn’t do it anyway, like loving someone you didn’t want to love? Yeah, me too. But “God so loved the world.”

I think the man in Chicago and Nicodemus had a lot in common. Nicodemus was a smart man, a Pharisee, a member of their ruling council. He was as religious as they come. But he was so stuck in his head that he had closed off his heart. Jesus tells him that to truly see the kingdom of God he has to be born again, and Nicodemus gets all literal, trying to imagine a second re-birth. Sometimes being smart can work against having faith, because in our attempt to rationalize or explain or make sense of something, we don’t leave much room for God’s spirit work. Our head tells us we don’t want Fellowship Hall to smell like spicy pad thai on Sunday morning, even if it’s the Christian thing to do. But that doesn’t leave much room for the radical, logic-defying love of God.

I think this is a challenge for us, because we’re pretty smart people. Our intellect plays an important role in our faith, but it’s not a substitute for loving as God calls us to love. Intellectual understanding is important, but that’s not what drives you to the bedside of a dying person. Rational explanations can be helpful, but they don’t spur you to stand up for the oppressed, to speak up for the poor and homeless, to show up when hatred is present. We don’t do those kinds of things out of knowledge or intellect; we do them out of love for each other as God’s children, because God so loved the world.

John’s statement that God so loved this world is not a theory about salvation. It’s a specific statement about the nature of the God we claim to follow, shown to us in Jesus Christ. God so loved the Samaritan woman. God so loved the paralyzed and the lepers. God so loves Asian congregations looking for a home. God so loves people who’ve been excluded from worship because of their skin color or sexual orientation. God so loves this world.

But that also means God loves other people, too. God loved the Egyptians who enslaved the Israelites. God loved the Pharisees who condemned Jesus to die. God loves the people who want to draw the lines of division, who want to say who’s in and who’s out, who march with torches or raise prices on medications or don’t like the smell of Asian food in their church. Because, as we’ve learned over and over again this week, when the rescue boat arrives at your flooded house to take you to safety, you don’t really care about the faith of the person driving, because you know they are there out of love.

“For God so loved the world.” That’s the only justification we should ever need to live our lives with love. That doesn’t mean we can be disappointed or discouraged or angry at the way other people act. I’m sure God feels those ways toward us from time to time. But the bottom line is love. We have to careful about not letting our heads get in the way, of not feeling so sure that what we believe is right that it creates a boundary between us and those different than us. The Bible translation The Message renders verse 17 this way: “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.”

Are we pointing an accusing finger? Or are we helping to put the world right again? That’s what Jesus came to do. That’s the work we are called to do. God so loved the world and calls us to do the same. After all, THAT is the Christian thing to do.

 

 

 

 

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