Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to be

Scripture Lessons: Leviticus 19: 1-2 and 9-18 and Matthew 5: 38-48 Sermon Title: How to be Preached on 2/19/17 Valentine’s Day was this past Tuesday, but I know that not everyone loves Valentine’s Day. In fact, I can think of two distinct groups who don’t like Valentine’s Day very much at all: those who wish they had a Valentine but don’t, and husbands. It’s true. Not many husbands like Valentine’s Day. I know that Valentine’s Day is a hard day for many people who have a good reason not to like it, but Valentine’s Day is a hard day for many husbands who don’t have a very good reason. I’ve heard it said a million times by a complaining husband, that Valentine’s Day is a conspiracy invented by the greeting card and candy companies, but the reality is that Valentine’s Day came about because of a Christian saint who lived in the Roman Empire. According to tradition, St. Valentine of Terni was arrested for preaching the Gospel during the reign of Emperor Claudius. During his imprisonment, it was reported that this saint slipped notes of encouragement to the other prisoners. These notes would have been the first valentines. But aside from these historic roots, which may not even be true, I want to defend Valentine’s Day against her critics because all relationships require certain action, whether that action makes sense to you or not. For me, when it came to love, to some degree that’s how it’s always been. I was in 5th grade and a girl named Katherine asked me to couple skate with her at the Sparkles Skating rink…holding hands. Doing so did not appear rational – the point of skating up until that point had been to skate as fast as possible, but you can’t skate very fast holding hands, though I did it anyway because when you do things for love it doesn’t have to make sense. Think of friendship in the same way – not everything you do for your friends makes much sense but you do it anyway. Every Thursday I wake up at 4:30 AM to run four miles with a group of friends. Does it make any sense to me to wake up at 4:30 in the morning? Absolutely not, but if you’re only willing to do things that make sense to you then you may end up with only you to spend time with. That’s why I think Valentine’s Day is important. It’s because you must show people who you love that you love them, and you do so by doing things that you wouldn’t normally do. So, while one might ask: “What logic is there in spending good money on roses that will wilt and die in a matter of days?” While one might ask: “Does it make sense to spend good money on shiny jewelry when she already has a box full of shiny jewelry?” Or “what sense is there in going out to eat when there’s plenty of food in the pantry,” I say, it doesn’t have to make sense to you because Valentine’s Day isn’t about you, it’s about her. Back to friendship, which operates by similar rules: We’ve now been away from Atlanta for 6 years and the friends who I still have there are those who I talk to on the phone, and I don’t like talking on the phone particularly, but I like these friends and so I do it. I am convinced that when it comes to love, we must try. All relationships require certain action whether that action makes sense or not, and it’s no different when it comes to our relationship with God. We read these Scripture Lessons for today and there are a million reasons not to take either of them seriously – for the advice here may seem illogical or idealistic. In fact, men and women alike, Bible scholars even, have for generations boldly proclaimed that doing what Jesus is telling us to do just doesn’t make any sense. Think about it – ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.’ Do not resist an evildoer? Do not resist an evildoer? And just when you think it can’t get any more illogical Jesus goes and says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Now let’s just let these words sink in for a moment. And, let’s be bold enough to admit, without fear of judgement or condemnation, that this could be the most counter cultural claim that Jesus makes to us, and I say counter cultural because our culture says again and again – “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, shoot him before he has the chance to do it again.” We live in a culture of self-defense, and you can tell that we, as a culture, admire those who can stand up and fight because we haven’t just watched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies, the people of California elected him their 38th governor. Now let me be clear – I love people who are in to guns. In fact, on one occasion back in Georgia a Mr. Charlie Black told me that if anyone ever came into the church to shoot me I need not worry for he would get him first – and when he said this I have to admit that I had rarely, in my entire life, felt so loved. But here’s the thing about what Jesus is saying: he’s making a claim that we, as a culture, rarely, if ever, put into practice. My claim this morning is that we don’t put such a principle into practice, because like Valentine’s Day to a husband, non-violence to our culture just doesn’t make much since. And “turn the other cheek” isn’t the only one. Let’s just go through the list: -If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well – if a lawyer ever told me to do that I’d go find another lawyer. Then there’s - If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile – which is another challenge, for in the time of Jesus, a Roman legionnaire might well force you to walk a mile just as a police officer today might demand your proof of insurance, and just think of what you want to do when an officer makes this small request – or worse, when he really abuses his power. Then there’s -Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you – but if you do this in Atlanta, Georgia or Nashville, Tennessee you’ll be taken for everything you’ve got. I read these commands of Jesus considering what we do and conclude that it must be that these sayings of Jesus just don’t make sense, or why else won’t we do them? And yet, does that matter? Does it matter if Jesus calls us to do something that to us doesn’t make much sense? Doesn’t love call us to do all kinds of things that don’t seem to make sense? When I drive past a cemetery I see flowers. And for what? Can flowers be enjoyed by the dead? Can she smell them? Can he see them? I don’t know exactly, but more importantly, I don’t believe we should be so rational as to ask, for when it comes to love it doesn’t have to make sense. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.” A rationally minded person might ask: Why? For what? Does it make any sense? Think about this world – think about this soul standing up here – think about you, think about your neighbor, think about what you see on the news and who you see in the mirror – do we deserve the love of God and can we ever? No. And yet God loves us still. Does that make any sense? Can you explain it? Does it sound safe or logical or rational? Hardly, but love doesn’t have to be. That’s why love is different from reason or common sense – it’s love. So, why should we do as Jesus commands? Why should we turn the other cheek rather than fill the ones who do us harm with lead? We must do such things out of love. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Why? Because that’s how God loves and if you want to be children of your Father in heaven who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good you will do the same – you will love even if it doesn’t make sense. We read the same in our First Scripture Lesson from the book of Leviticus – when you reap the harvest, you shall not reap to the edges – for you leave that for the poor. -you shall not steal or deal falsely -don’t lie or profane the Lord’s name. -don’t defraud your neighbor or keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. -care for those with disabilities, judge without partiality, don’t slander or profit from the blood of your neighbor. -Don’t hate either – Why? Because “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Doing these things might not always make sense, but they don’t have to. All relationships require certain action, whether that action makes sense to you or not, and to be a child of God – you have to do them. To quote our friend and resident of our parking lot, Mr. Melvin Taylor, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.” And what Jesus is saying in Matthew and what we read in Leviticus is no different – talk is cheap – and we can say “I love you” again and again just as we can say “I believe” again and again, but what will we do? What do our actions say? Mahatma Gandhi has been on my mind as I read this Second Scripture Lesson, for as much as anyone else in history his actions embodied Jesus’ teaching of turn the other cheek. In standing up to the British he epitomized the non-violence and love for enemy that Jesus preached, but interestingly, he was not a Christian. With his mouth, he confessed faith in Hinduism but with his actions he preached our Gospel, while on the other hand, with their mouths, the British preached Jesus Christ, but with their guns and their oppression, whose truth did they proclaim? Doing these things – these principles of radical love that Scripture calls us to - it might not always make sense, but they don’t have to. All relationships require certain action, whether that action makes sense to you or not. That’s true for marriage. That’s true for friendship. And to be a child of God – that’s true as well – you have to do something. So, what will you do?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Exceeding Scribes and Pharisees

Scripture Lesson: Isaiah 58: 1-12 and Matthew 5: 13-20 Sermon Title: Exceeding Scribes and Pharisees Preached on 2/5/17 I heard a good Presbyterian joke this week: During a Presbyterian worship service a man began to be moved by the Spirit. Out loud he said "Amen!" So, the Presbyterians around him were a little disturbed. Then louder he said, "Hallelujah!" A few more people were becoming disturbed. Louder still he shouted "Praise Jesus!" An usher moved quickly down the aisle. He bent over and whispered to the man, "Sir! Control yourself!" The man exclaimed, "I can't help it. I got religion!!!" To which the usher responded, "Well you didn't get it here!" I like that joke, because I love being Presbyterian. Growing up, the only thing I wanted to be besides Indiana Jones or a professional baseball player, was a Presbyterian minister, but we’re an acquired taste. And for us Presbyterians as well as every other Christian denomination, that last phrase of our Second Scripture Lesson for this morning is a challenging one. Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, when I read this passage, it’s easy to be critical of scribes and Pharisees, but knowing the Presbyterian Church as we do, we can’t read this passage without also being a little critical of Presbyterians because as much as we’re different, we have a lot in common with those Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Here’s what we know about the religious landscape of Jesus’ day – among the Jews, the Pharisees were the largest “denomination” you might say. They were Jews, but they were different from the Sadducees or Zealots just as Presbyterians are different from Baptists or Episcopalians. By the way, did you hear about the Presbyterian who got a raise and had to become Episcopalian? But back to my point – the Sadducees interpreted Scripture differently than the Pharisees. Those Sadducees didn’t believe that there would be life after death, and they were labeled as collaborators and assimilators because they were quick to compromise with the occupying political power of Rome. The Zealots were the opposite – they were busy destroying bridges and attacking the Roman Legion from their bases in the hills around Jerusalem. They did not not want to compromise with Rome at all, but were aggressively resistant and working towards Israelite independence. Now, the Pharisees were in the middle of the two – they believed rebellion was pointless, but they were also too pious to compromise with infidels, so most Pharisees directed their congregations towards the dedicated religious study and observance while living peacefully if regrettably under Roman rule. And what does that mean – the Pharisees taught people to observe the Laws of Moses without making too big of a fuss. They knew that Romans would be living in Jerusalem for the foreseeable future, so put up with them, but don’t associate with them. The Pharisees urged the Jews to live in community with other Jews, to eat food that was Kosher and to read and study the Scriptures, but by no means should a Jew ever cause a fuss. So, they didn’t like Jesus much. Too many people followed him, and remember, one of them was a Zealot. And then people kept calling him Lord and Messiah – the Pharisees didn’t like Jews using that kind of language because it might upset the Romans who were suspicious of any leader who was a threat to their power and control. The Pharisees then – they kept quiet and they kept to themselves. Is there anything wrong with that? Another Presbyterian joke that I love: what do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and a Presbyterian? Someone who knocks on your door but doesn’t know what to say. Some of the things that we can say about Pharisees we could say about Presbyterians just as well – they kept to themselves, and some Presbyterians do as well – think about it – Presbyterians like to discuss big words like Predestination but you want to see a Presbyterian squirm start talking about Evangelism. Or worse – the great sin of any Presbyterian minister, the one that will just about mark him or her with a scarlet letter is, “He preaches politics from the pulpit.” Don’t do that – we don’t encourage that and neither did they. We also tend to like things nice and quiet – a good calm worship service where everyone sits quietly and listens, and we do to the extent that some people out on the street like to call us the frozen chosen. It’s true – we can be a far cry from what Jesus admonishes us to be just as they were, for Jesus calls us not to be decent or orderly, quiet or calm, but salt and light. By no means does he criticize the Pharisees for their observance of the Law saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” he likes how the Pharisees love the Law. What doesn’t he like – they’ve lost their saltiness. “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” I’ve been thinking all week about what he means by this, and I asked my barber, Rory Gant, what he thought, and he said, “It’s easy – food without salt is boring, and I sure have been to some boring churches.” You’ve been to the kind of church where you sit there and the most interesting thing going on is the second hand on your watch so you just sit there and watch the clock until it’s over. Mumble out a couple songs. Play tic-tac-toe while the preacher preaches. I heard a story once about a little boy whose Sunday School teacher asked, “do you know why we have to be quiet in the sanctuary children?” “So, we don’t wake the people who are sleeping,” a little boy answered. Salt – think about it – how salty are we? We don’t want to have too much salt – then we’d give people high blood pressure; but then if we don’t have enough we’re bland. I know that we have it. I see it in your eyes, I hear it in your voices, (especially in the voices of these children who just sang), on a daily basis I hear about your kindness and I’m a witness to your tremendous acts of charity, but can there be more? More life, more depth of flavor to our worship, so joy-filled and so un-Pharisee that when people see us on the sidewalk they say, “Those Presbyterians always have a smile on their face and a hop in their step – joy in their heart and a song on their lips. As Christians, we have no reason to fear death – and we can’t be afraid of really living either. By admonishing the crowd this way, telling them that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees he’s telling them that they must be righteous as they are but they must also do more – they can’t be so stogy or so exclusive while they do it – for we read in Scripture one of my favorite verses, “Jesus laughed.” But have you ever read that a Pharisee so much as cracked a smile? No, they were a stiff and dignified lot. Walking around in their fancy hats, praying on street corners, counting sins and coins spent for atonement. Kept to themselves mostly, and what good is that? What good is salt that only salts itself – for if salt is to do any good it must be out in the world bringing flavor to the earth. The Pharisees didn’t think about that, and at times, Presbyterians don’t either, so hear these often-quoted words from the Archbishop William Temple, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” Salt. Salt cannot sit in the shaker – salt must go on food just as Christians must be out in the world, not keeping the good news to themselves but preaching it through word and deed so that all might know the joy that lives in our own heart. And more than that, Jesus says, “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 a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to the house.” In the same way, you must let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. A sermon based on those words was first preached in this country in 1630 by Rev. Jonathan Winthrop still aboard the ship Arabella, addressing a group of Puritans preparing to settle into a new country. He challenged them to set an example of communal charity, affection, and unity to the world. Then he warned them, that if they failed to uphold their covenant to God, "we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.” The world is still watching us, both our church and our nation, and the real challenge that those Puritans faced is there now just as it has always been – will we live quiet, righteous lives, our will we live for the good of the world as our savior did? Will we shine a light of hope for all nations, or will we close our doors, suspend our charity, and push towards quiet insignificance? Will we nullify the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – or will the light of her torch burn so brightly that we are a light to all the nations? Our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees of old. We must live as salt and light – so I call on you now as I call on myself – let us live righteous lives, let us live righteous lives for the good of the world, and let them say of us and our church that we salted the streets of this community with our love. Amen.