Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Matthew 6: 1-6 and 16-21, NT pages 5 and 6 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Sermon I am thankful to be a preacher. I believe I’ve told you that before, but I want you to know today that I am thankful that my vocation deals mainly with reading Scripture, though on days like today and weeks like this week I am reminded that while I often think it is my duty to read and come to understand the Bible, truly it is the Bible that is reading and understanding me. Studying Matthew’s Gospel means that I know some about Jesus and the Disciples as they are uniquely presented here, but today I am more impressed by how well this passage of Scripture understands me and my temptations, my struggles; I thought it might be the other way around but it’s not. I know that to be the case because here in the Gospel of Matthew is presented a very real human predicament. The Theologians will call it Idolatry, putting something or someone who is not God in the place of God, but to put it more simply is just to say this: Scripture knows your motivation, Scripture understands why you do what you do, understanding you quite possibly better than you understand yourself. We think simply about our actions, our piety, our religious practice – but here Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is urging all of us to better examine our motivations, and our motivations are worth dealing with, because it’s not just what we do that matters, but also why we do what we do. Alms giving, prayer, and fasting – these are the three practices we should all dedicate ourselves to for the 40 Days of Lent – but it’s not enough to dedicate yourself to these practices. Be wary of why you are dedicated and who you are seeking to impress, for if we act out of obedience to impress someone besides God than have we not put someone else in God’s place? Christ warns us against such idolatry: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” And, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father” in heaven. Beware of devoting your time, your energy, your attention to “the others.” Now that is a good word for this preacher and I don’t mind telling you why. Every time I stand behind this pulpit I am wary of how I am being perceived. I haven’t changed much from when I was 7 years old, afraid to wear shorts even in the summer because of a brown birthmark on my knee – what will they think? What will people say? But who does the preacher preach for? Who does the choir sing for? For whom does the organist play? If we wait for applause we have violated the purpose of our assembly, because there are many here tonight in the congregation, but in the words of the great Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, there is only one in the audience – we are all here that our worship might be pleasing to God. We muddle this up however, and when we do we make a mockery out of something sacred. If we give to be congratulated for our kindness, if we pray so that people will see us and admire us, if we fast to be impressive, what have we done? We have shown God that we care most of all about what other people think. Now that’s not so strange in 21st Century America. If anything, that’s as normal as it gets. Everyone I know worries about what people are thinking, how many people like the picture they put up on Instagram and how many friends they have on Facebook. Bullying is a problem in schools because all students want the approval of their peers and to withhold approval can prove tragic – but the Gospel of Matthew is preaching a new word to all of us: be careful about whose opinion matters to you, for when you worry most of all about what the others think, have you not put them in the place of God? It’s time we all did a little rearranging. So think about school. There the teacher gives the test, and though the students test her patience, is it not that we are all the students and life is the only test that matters? It was Shakespeare who said that all the world’s a stage And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. And maybe he is right – there are seven acts and some of you are in the early part of this play, others of you further along. This sentiment is not so far from Ash Wednesday when we are all marked with the cross and charged to “remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return,” for we are all moving towards the final scene “that ends this strange eventful history,” but if all the world’s a stage, who is watching? Whose applause are you working for? If it is your neighbor’s be careful, because once you have something impressive know that he’ll soon enough have something better. If it is your boss be even more careful, because the only thing she can give you is more money – and how much is that next raise worth and how much is it going to cost you? If it is your boyfriend be worried about a relationship that always takes and never gives – if it is a friend whose approval you are always working for than question if it’s really friendship at all. And if it doesn’t matter who, if you are one of those people who suffer from the same illness that I suffer from – if it doesn’t matter who it is at all, you still want their approval and find yourself working for it – then you above all are to be pitied because the others are a fickle people. They won’t ever stop asking for more – they’ll just take as long as you’re willing to give. They’ll love you one day and hate you the next. They’ll applaud you one second then boo you off the stage, so be careful, and above all, stop trying so hard, because they are not your Father in Heaven, they are not worthy of your devotion, and the more you seek their approval the farther you slip towards Idolatry. Where there is Idolatry there is death – but to all who worship the true God, there is abundant life. “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Seek his reward, seek his approval, and you will find the keys to everlasting life. Amen.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Mark 1: 29-39, NT page 35 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Sermon Some say that Simon’s mother-in-law is the first deacon, the first known officer in Christ’s church, because here in the Gospel of Mark after the fever left her, “she began to serve” the congregation assembled in her house. That is what church officer’s do. Our church has deacons and elders. Their names are listed in your bulletin on the back. The deacons are charged with caring for those members of our church who aren’t able to get here on Sunday mornings, and on days like today when we celebrate communion together, the deacons arrange that communion be brought to them. Elders do the same. And in this sanctuary it is the elders who serve you the communion bread and bring you the cup. Tomorrow night they’ll meet to discuss issues that face our congregation. They’ll vote tomorrow night on whether or not to pursue a new youth director, they also ensure that the grass gets cut and the budget makes sense, and I’ll bet that few of them knew how involved their work was going to be at the church when they were first asked to serve on the Session. I knew a Presbyterian Elder once, who told me that on the night he received a phone call asking him to serve as a church officer, he was so honored he couldn’t help but say yes. Then at the church service when he was installed he was moved to tears when all the past elders laid hands on him in front of the whole congregation, but then when he stood up and wiped his eyes a man handed him a toilet brush and said, “Congratulations. Now get to work.” “[Jesus] came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Can you believe that? It’s hard to believe, but what we expect to happen in the Gospel of Mark isn’t usually what happens. The woman raised from the dead immediately gets sent to the kitchen – and not only that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus isn’t the person we expect him to be either. He cured many who were sick after healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Cast out many demons, but “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” It might not sound strange to hear that Jesus prayed. Of course he prayed. We could go into the nursery right now and every child there would be able to tell you that Jesus prayed – but here’s where our passage gets strange. While he was off praying “Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”” Maybe you can imagine this happening. You didn’t know everyone was looking for you, but they were, and you didn’t know you were supposed to be someplace, but they were all expecting you to be, not off praying by yourself but healing their infirmities. Isn’t that what Jesus is supposed to do? Most people think so, and most people who busy themselves trying to be like Jesus listen out for people who need them and go rush right over to help. In my first year of ministry that’s what I did because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. People would ask me to do things and I would do my best. Folks would invite me to go places and I would. And it’s probably true to say that everyone expects something just a little bit different out of their preacher, so not knowing what kind of preacher I was I’d just do my best to be the kind of preacher that each person expected me to be. After a few months of this my side started to itch. Then this rash developed and it didn’t go away so I went to see the doctor who looked it over and right away told me that I had a case of hives, and no question it was caused by stress. “Now you’re a preacher aren’t you Joe,” the doctor asked. “Yes I am I responded.” “Well, you need to do something to calm yourself down. Have you ever heard of prayer?” Now you ought to pray. You know that already I’m sure, because people have been telling you to do it your whole life, but how many will abandon that little time of prayer when the phone rings or the baby cries or someone else needs you? Here’s the thing about Jesus. He taught his disciples how to pray but he also showed them how – go off by yourself, and don’t wait until everything else is finished because it never will be. Don’t wait until all the poor people are provided for because you’ll always have the poor with you. If you wait until everyone who needs you is satisfied you’ll never be satisfied yourself – so go and pray. But the crowd is asking the disciples where he is, and that’s the thing about a crowd – our culture is telling you to draw a crowd, then satisfy them, but Jesus is always trying to escape. I told you he was different. He heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law then asks her for something to eat. He draws a crowd, heals a few, then escapes off by himself. And when the disciples finally find him to heal the ones who remain unhealed he answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Here’s the thing about Jesus. He healed a lot of people, but there were so many more who were left waiting. He made a lot of people happy, but there were a whole lot more who wanted to kill him. And he was wholly God, the incarnate one who could walk on water, but he didn’t come here to teach us how to play a harp and float in the clouds with the angels – he came here to teach us how to be human. Some of you have been trying to do everything and have done none of it well. Maybe others have been trying to avoid everything and haven’t really lived. Then there are some who have been busy doing so many things, but none of those things are really very important in the grand scheme of things – so pay attention to what Jesus has to teach us here this morning – he saved Simon’s mother-in-law for the same reason he saved you – so you could get busy living. He disappointed his disciples to teach you that you’re never going to be able to make everyone happy, so take care to wait on the Lord. Christ had a voice and a message. It was his purpose to proclaim that message to as many people as he could, and in order to accomplish this purpose he had to prioritize his life. Do not lose direction. Do not be swayed by the crowd. Do not surrender to the anxiety of the ones who hunt for you, because you were born, not to be busy, but to mount up with wings like eagles, to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint. Amen.
Sunday, February 1, 2015
Mark 1: 21-28, NT page 35 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Sermon There is a lot to love about Columbia, Tennessee – and while some of what is great about this place I’ve gotten used to, there are advantages to living in this community that I still can’t help but be thankful for. Let me give you two examples just from the past week. On Tuesday morning I walked to Muletown Coffee on the square to pick up three cups of coffee. Justin took my order, he prepared the coffee in cups with lids, I paid for the coffee, and then he apologized that there weren’t any carriers to put the coffee in to make it easier for me to transport all three cups back to the church. I told him not to worry about it, that I was excellent at balancing things; then I demonstrated by placing one cup on top of the other and walked out of the coffee shop to the sidewalk – two cups of coffee in one hand, one cup in the other. Apparently he wasn’t as impressed with my balancing skills as I was, because he followed me out the door, took two of the cups and walked with me all the way back to the church to make sure I didn’t end up with coffee spilled all over myself. Now that kind of thing doesn’t happen everywhere. Something else that doesn’t always happen, that not everyone is able to do and that I give thanks for almost daily is that on the days our daughter Cece goes to preschool she rides with me to the church. At 9:00 AM we run down the sidewalk together, then she pushes the button for the crosswalk and when traffic stops and it’s safe to go we hold hands to cross the street on our way to the First Methodist Church Preschool. Last week we were walking together and I told her that one of my favorite things in the world to do is to walk her to school. She looked up and told me, “Daddy, I love to walk you to school.” Now here’s the point – sometimes the lines that we draw between customer and coffee shop employee – between father and daughter – between gift giver and gift receiver – teacher and student – authority and subject – sometimes these lines blur and all of a sudden the one who thought he was walking his daughter to school becomes the one who is being walked to school by his daughter. That’s part of the danger with putting a title on a passage of Scripture. By putting on a title like the one give to our lesson: “The Man with an Unclean Spirit,” we run the risk of making an assumption about who is in charge here and what is about to happen. The title might set us up to hear about another instance of Jesus as is the great physician who heals a man in the synagogue, but is there not more going on in this passage than just that? “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”” If their synagogue was anything like our church than the line between who was teacher and who was student should have been easy enough to determine. The one standing behind the pulpit was supposed to be the one with all the answers, and if it wasn’t enough that on this particular morning some man no one has ever seen before enters the synagogue, not to listen but to teach – there’s an even more dramatic interruption when the man with an unclean spirit cries out before everyone to unsettle even Christ himself by asking, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Now who is the teacher and who is the student? Who is doing the walking and who is being walked? Who is the servant and who is being served? Is this man the recipient of Jesus’ favor, is he the one being healed, or is the more important aspect of this passage from the Gospel of Mark the way in which Jesus is identified as “the Holy One of God” by this unclean spirt who knows him better than the members of the synagogue, knows him better even than Christ knows himself. One morning I was sitting in front of my computer trying to write a sermon. It was a few years ago while I was serving Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church just outside Atlanta and the sermon was of particular importance. The church was closer than it should have been to closing her doors due to a severe budget deficit, and I was sitting there trying to figure out how to articulate what I felt – that the church couldn’t close, that it was too important, but I didn’t know how to say that because I’m not sure I really knew the answer myself. I was anxious, and time was running out, I needed the sermon to write itself but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to be interrupted but I was, because this was the year when the floods came to Middle Tennessee and there was a bridge out down the road from this church too; so two men came to the church, soaking wet. Their car was under water and they didn’t know what to do next. I stopped writing, and it just so happened that there were clothes that fit, there was even food to eat there at the church, so the men changed into dry clothes ate a little something, then they started making phone calls and soon we were putting the men in a taxi. They needed help, and they found that help at the church and when I realized that I finally had a sermon worth writing – but it was the interruption to my day, these two men who needed our help that defined our purpose and gave the church the clear reason why they couldn’t just close their doors. It’s strange that it took two men off the street to give that church meaning and purpose, but sometimes that’s how it goes for people, and even the one with authority gains a sense of his identity and purpose by listening to the people who interrupt him. First there was John the Baptist who called him the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then there was the voice who spoke from heaven as he was baptized by John in the Jordan saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From Scripture read and proclaimed he found his voice, but it is the voice of interruption, the unexpected voice of an evil spirit that tells him who he truly is. So it’s nice to hear what mama has to say about you. Yearbook day comes and you flip through the pages, read the notes that your friends have written about you. If it’s Christmas time you watch it’s a Wonderful Life and you imagine what the movie would be like if you were George Baily, when you go to funerals maybe you imagine what they’ll have to say about you when it’s your time. You can learn about yourself that way, but sometimes we do not know who we truly are until the daemon speaks. Evil is loose on the world, and hardship, trial, tragedy, and disappointment – it is our greatest challenges that teach us the most about who we are and what we’re capable of. It was after watching Pearl Harbor that my grandmother taught this lesson to my mother. We finished watching the movie, it wasn’t the good one, it was the one with Ben Affleck, but one of the scenes affected my mother. It was as the wounded sailors flooded the little clinic. One nurse was sent out there with a tube of lip stick. She was asked to mark those who had a chance of surviving with one sign, those who didn’t with another, so that the doctors would know who to spend their time on. My mother told us that she wouldn’t have been able to do it, that this nurse in the movie had some strength that she didn’t, but my grandmother looked at her and said, “Cathy, you’ve never been able to see how strong you really are. In a situation like that you would surprise yourself.” There are tests in life, and in the words of the great anthropologist Joseph Campbell, heroes and villains navigate the same deep water. What drowns one redeems the other. We all wander through life wondering if we’re strong enough, if we can do it, we wonder who we are and what we are here for. You may not find out how strong you truly are until you hear the voice of the one you don’t want to hear, but don’t forget that he teaches a lesson that you need to learn. That there is more strength in you than you realize. Listen to hardship and struggle. Listen to curses as well as blessings, and do not fail to hear the terror in his voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Because of who Christ is and who he is to you, the war is over. The battle is won. Claim your strength and do not be afraid. Amen.