Monday, February 17, 2014

Choose life

Matthew 5: 21-37, NT pages 4 and 5 You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is God’s footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. Sermon Our first scripture lesson is one of Moses’ last speeches to the people. He addresses them before they finally enter the Promised Land, and charges them saying, obey the commandments of the Lord your God, for by these commandments, “you will live.” But, if you turn away from them, you will die. There is life on the one side and death on the other, and the thing that makes the side with life so different from the side with death is that to choose life is to choose obedience to the commandments of God. And this is a hard one to swallow today, not because our culture isn’t interested in living – I would say that our entire culture is profoundly invested in feeling alive – however it is hard for our culture to believe that a fullness of life will be found in obedience to God’s commandments because it seems from my interpretation of the perspective of 21st century North America that life is most fully to be lived, not in bland obedience, but in radical and subversive acts of rebellion. That’s what some people would say anyway. Think of those unconventional activities that people will ask you about: You’ve never been sky-diving? You’ve never eaten sushi? You’ve never been to Europe? Well, you haven’t lived. No one ever reacts that way when asking about more conventional activities: like putting on a seat belt, picking out a brown suit, or going to Sunday School. I’ve never heard anyone say, “You haven’t looked both ways before crossing the street? Well you haven’t lived.” But Moses is convinced that life is to be found in obedience to God’s commandments, and Jesus, rather than disagree or present a new list of updated and revised commandments, repeats essentially the same message and presents an even more conservative law code for us to conform to. If you thought the laws of Leviticus were difficult and if you find it hard to believe that life can be found in their commands, consider Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment.” Or “you have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery.” “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all.” Jesus does not sand down the harsh words of Moses, he does not water them down to make them more palatable – no Jesus causes Moses’ words to be even more challenging, even more impossible, and still stands by the statement that in such commands we will find life. I find that hard to believe – because in these words I find condemnation. Certainly by these words, by having to read them before you, a responsibility that I have dreaded all week because of how challenging they are, I assure you that I know I am condemned by them having not fulfilled them by my words, my actions, and certainly not my thoughts. By these words my death, not my life, seems assured. By these words I know that I am a sinner and there can be no convincing anyone otherwise. By these words I stand before you condemned. But in condemnation – there is life. I assure you that while I will continue to strive to live up to the commandments of Moses and even the more challenging commandments of Jesus Christ, I will never measure up and I will always stand condemned – but you see – it is through a condemnation like that that life can be lived. For in confessing that you haven’t done it, then there is no more need to be defensive. In examining your behavior with honesty, then there is no more need to hide behind excuses. And there is no reason to do otherwise, for in Christ there is no more fear of condemnation for the Prince of Peace came not to condemn the world but to save it. You see – in him there is no need for self-righteousness, nor is there any need to fear those commandments or those words from scripture so strict and challenging that they may never be perfectly lived out. He does not demand obedience to the law so much as he demands a repentant heart ready to be made new by his grace and his overwhelming love. While the world will tell you to run away from shame and regret, convincing you that mistakes cannot be made right and that what has been done cannot be undone – I charge you to choose life and to believe that there is always the hope of making things right again. While the world will tell you that a failure is a blot on your reputation that cannot be recovered from and that what you can’t do you should avoid – I charge you to choose life and to try again for every day is a new opportunity to be successful and new. And while the world will tell you that sin is to be ashamed of, that you should minimize it and hide those sins of yours in the blackest shadow of your heart – I charge you to choose life and to know that in him all your sins can be washed away- if you will simply confess them you will be forgiven. Choose life today. Choose life always. Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

You are the light of the world

Matthew 5: 13-20, NT page 4 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 underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 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. 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. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Sermon This is an incredible day for our church. I am proud of our church staff for thinking of the idea, of our volunteers whose hard work with these children comes to fruition on a day like today. I am proud of our church’s parents who have made choir practice a priority on Wednesday night, and most of all, I am proud of the children of our church who know that leadership in a worship service is something to be taken seriously. One of the best stories I’ve heard from our church staff during the rehearsals that led us to this day had to do with choosing parts. Susie Baxter, our Director of Christian Education, or Marcy Lay, our Music Director, would ask the kids: “Who would like to lead the Call to Worship that begins the service?” Every hand would go up. “Who would like to lead the Prayer of Confession?” Again, every hand would go up. Franklin Walker raised his hand at some point in all of this to say, “Ms. Susie, I want to be the one who tells the story.” “The story?” Ms. Susie asked. “Like Pastor Joe does, when he stands behind the pulpit and tells everyone a story,” Franklin responded. I’m glad my Sunday sermon was described that way, and I’m even more excited that Franklin wanted to be the one to do it. I don’t imagine that any other group in our church would have been quite as excited about volunteering to preach the sermon. And that’s a reality. That while girls grow up to become young women, taking dance lessons while they grow, they may be incredible dancers willing to put their gift to work before hundreds at their dance recital every year, but then comes the Middle School dance in the middle school gym and all of a sudden all they can do is huddle in a group waiting for some self-conscious young man to invite them to dance. This is a reality – that sooner or later it feels like everyone is watching and judging everything that you do, so you stop dancing, you stop singing, you stop being so willing to tell your story, because you’ve learned that fitting in is better than standing out. Now that’s a dangerous idea indeed. Not simply because it will drive you crazy, but because God gave you your gifts so that you would use them, not so that you would hide them away. What good is your saltiness if you are more interested in looking and acting like everyone else than in adding your flavor to a bland and boring world? What good is your light if you are afraid to let it shine for fear of what everyone else will say? What good is your light if you hide it away to blend in to the darkness? Of course I know why you do it, because I do it too. When I was 9 or 10 years old, just old enough to worry about how I looked, my Mom tried to get me to wear some shorts that didn’t cover my knees. This was the 80’s, the decade of Jams, so not only were my shorts supposed to stretch down below my knees, but I wanted my shorts to cover up a birth mark that I didn’t want anyone to see. I refused to put on the shorts, and in fact, I refused to leave the house, because I was afraid that someone might notice this brown birth mark that made me different from the rest of human society. I didn’t want to stand out, and sometimes that is still the case even today. Last Thursday I was driving home from a Church Administrator’s conference, and I wanted to stop for dinner in Chattanooga, at a little Mexican restaurant that we always stop at when driving through Chattanooga. It was evening and dark out, so, not surprisingly, I turned off on the wrong exit and found myself in a rough looking part of town, but I was low on gas so I decided to stop at a gas station before turning around to find the restaurant. I knew it was a rough gas station because I could tell that there was a thick Plexiglas barrier between the cashier and the rest of the convenience store, so I decided to remain inconspicuous. I slipped out of the car, made my payment at the pump, and while the pump was filling up my tank I slipped back into the car and locked the door. A woman pulled up beside me, and it was one of those old Buicks with big heavy doors that creaked as she got out of the car. She walked into the convenience store and while she got back into her car to light a cigarette I heard the pump stop because my fuel tank was full. I opened the door, which of course, set off the car alarm. I leaned back into the car right in front of the woman whose lit cigarette was now dangling from her lips, and I heard her speak: “Young man, young man.” I turned around, disappointed that I’d blown my cover, and mentally preparing myself for any number of solicitations: “Yes mam.” “Young man,” she said, “You sure do have nice legs.” Then she drove away and I was left standing there thankful that I had been noticed. You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket,” but some of you do hide your gifts away choosing to fit in rather than stand out. Maybe you can sing, but the only ones who ever get to hear it are the tiles in the bathroom because the only place you’ll sing is in the shower. Maybe you can dance, but the fear of anyone seeing you dance fills you up with such anxiety that the very best you can do is sit and watch. Or maybe you have a voice, an opinion that needs to be heard, a truth that needs to be spoken, but the fear of what they might say keeps you silent. That was the case with the Pharisees and the Scribes. They had plenty of thoughts about Rome which they shared with each other behind closed doors. They thought and they smoldered about Roman oppression, the unfair taxation, and the way they had to bow and compromise to avoid raising suspicion. Christ had his own opinions which he gave voice to: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Martin Luther King Jr. expanded on this same sentiment saying, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” ( When the Nazi’s invaded Poland and Austria, of course there were those who joined the sinister cause wholeheartedly, but there were others who could see evil for what it was but kept silent for fear of being noticed and labeled. Our middle schools are not so different. Neither are our high schools, our grocery stores, our churches, or our automotive plants. Evil exists, and it does not go unnoticed so much as it goes unopposed for the fear of speaking truth plagues our world. Watch our children then. Watch them sing because they are not afraid to sing. Listen to them speak truth as they are not so experienced as to fear possible outcomes, they are just bold enough to listen to their hearts. And hear them pray for a world not as it is but as it could be, if only the salt of the earth would stand up and be what it was created to be, if only the light of the world would burn brightly through your words and your actions. Do not forget that our Savior Christ chose to face the cross rather than be other than he was created to be. If you follow him know that while this world may reject you, the kingdom of heaven is yours. Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Then he began to speak

Matthew 5: 1-12, NT page 4 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Sermon Today is Groundhog Day, and there’s a fair amount of history behind this second or third tier holiday. The tradition has roots in the Roman Empire, as legions, occupying parts of Western Europe, spread the idea that if a hedgehog saw its shadow when it emerged from its hole on February 2nd there would be six more weeks of bad weather. As the tradition became popular, especially in Germany, it traveled over to Pennsylvania along with many German immigrants, and took strong root in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Since 1887 Groundhog Day has been celebrated there, and if Punxsutawney Phil comes out of his hole after a long winter sleep and sees his shadow later today, “it is six more weeks of bad weather; if it is a shadow-less day, spring is near”( In Georgia no one acknowledges the meteorological abilities of Phil, but of General Beauregard Lee of the Yellow River Game Ranch, a rival groundhog. But either way, this seems like a strange cultural phenomenon, to sit around and wait for an animal to tell you the weather – just don’t go saying that in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. There the age of modern meteorology is demoted – Al Roker has no credibility today in comparison to Punxsutawney Phil – and maybe that’s as it should be. It’s been said that, “the trouble with weather forecasting is that it's right too often for us to ignore it and wrong too often for us to rely on it” (Patrick Young), and certainly that’s what Atlanta was thinking last week. I was thankful not to be in Atlanta last week, as on Tuesday evening, after a full day’s work, hundreds, maybe thousands, of commuters abandoned their cars in the middle of the interstate to find a place to sleep in a restaurant, grocery store, or the home of a stranger who welcomed them in. It’s a hard thing to recover from an event like that one – and it’s no surprise that the citizens of Atlanta who so often complain about excessive preparation for a snow that usually never comes are now storming city hall, angry about a snow that did come, unannounced and without the proper response from city and county services. “They should have known that this snow was coming,” so many are saying, but how would they have known? It makes sense that we’d still gather around a groundhog’s hole for answers, as the weather is one aspect of our lives that is seemingly out of our control and that can still catch us by surprise. So today we wait for answers from Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day. But today isn’t just Groundhog Day. If you’ll notice in your bulletin it is also the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – and in this season of Epiphany we sit before Christ to listen and he began to speak: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth; blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed. I doubt that anyone who abandoned their car on Interstate 75 last week was considering themselves blessed, as often enough we know what Jesus has said and even what he has done, but not nearly enough do his words shape our thoughts and actions as they should. Instead our thoughts and actions are shaped by our mood, emotions, our limited outlook or the ways of our secular world who is telling us that today is Groundhog Day rather than the Christian world who is telling us that now is a season of Epiphany – a time for remembering that, kneeling beside the Christ Child were wise men from the East who journeyed many miles looking for answers and found what they were looking for in a manger bed. Years later people gathered around him again, and when he saw the crowds he went up a mountain, sat down, and gave his disciples a new teaching for determining the unknown. These teachings don’t focus on what lies outside of your control – there is nothing in there about telling the weather or ensuring that winter will be shorter rather than longer. There is nothing in these words that give you superhuman strength to shape the will of our country or our world. There is nothing in these beatitudes about them – no – this teaching is all about you and what you can do to weather a lifetime of uncertainty, tragedy, and victimization. When your spirit is poor – when your determination has been beaten out of you and you are ready to give up – when you are absolutely sure that you do not have the strength to do anything else and you throw up your arms in frustration – then – in that moment – consider yourself blessed, because yours is the kingdom of heaven. When you know exactly what you have lost and the world doesn’t make any sense without him in it. When just the thought of tears flowing from your eyes makes you panic because it seems like if you start to cry you will never be able to stop. When sadness is your food day and night – when a broken spirit is yours – when emptiness fills your home rather than laughter – consider yourself blessed – for comfort is on its way for those who mourn. And when you show mercy, but wonder if maybe you shouldn’t have been merciful. When you show mercy only to be taken advantage of, only to be left feeling weak; when you show mercy to someone who you learn doesn’t deserve your mercy, remember that you don’t deserve mercy either and yet you will receive it, for “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.” It’s all such a strange teaching in our world where the future is entirely uncertain – but in these Beatitudes you will receive an epiphany – a new and unexpected understanding – that in fact while there is more than enough in this world that you don’t have any control over, you do have complete control over your outlook. And that’s an important thing to remember – because your outlook governs more than you might think – your outlook determines how you see the world and too often your outlook is the deciding factor in whether or not you will see God at work in it. My outlook has been clouded, but on Tuesday morning the most incredible thing happened in our living room. We were having breakfast and all of a sudden we were joined by a mockingbird. I imagine it flew down the chimney; however it got in the house it landed on our mantle to take inventory of its surroundings, and immediately it began working towards its escape by trying to push through our dining room window. I grabbed a thick plastic bag and caught the bird, and I was able to hold it there for a second, hoping that I’d be able to hold the bird long enough to give everyone a good look at it, but it too quickly slipped out of my hands and flew out the back door fueled by either fear or resilience. It doesn’t matter which I suppose. What matters is that the bird didn’t lie down somewhere in the house to wonder why it all happened – that her day should be disrupted by a trip down a chimney that she probably wouldn’t ever emerge from. She could have started giving up right then – after all – plenty of people do. Having hit a patch of bad luck or sadness, plenty of people start dying right then and there – but there is another option. In the movie Shawshank Redemption the two main characters epitomize each of our options. On the one hand is Red, a man who has learned to survive in the prison for he is a man who knows how to get things for his fellow inmates - things like cigarettes and magazines – the thick prison walls permeable to seemingly everything but himself. And on the other hand is Andy – a man falsely accused of murdering his wife and her lover, who has spent years tunneling through those same prison walls that confine them both. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” Andy says to his friend Red, and its words like these that we all need to hear when life takes a turn that it wasn’t supposed to take. The temptation is there and it’s just as real now as ever, to let the suffering and the heartache define you – to grow used to living behind sadness as though it were your own personal prison walls – to accept persecution and let it cage you in – but do not forget how to fly and do not forget how to live. For when you hunger and thirst for righteousness in an unrighteous world you are preparing yourself for the kingdom of heaven. When you keep your heart pure among this broken and sinful generation you will be ready when the change comes and you will see God. When you work for peace in an age of war, when you stand up for justice despite the persecution that would keep you silent, when you are reviled and slandered – do not live as though everything has been turned upside down – rejoice - for you are working towards turning things right. There is more certainty available then you have been led to believe – it all rests in the hands of Christ Jesus our Lord. Rejoice then – for despite the setbacks, toils, trials, and pain, yours is the kingdom of heaven. Amen.