2/23/2014 Sermon – Straight Talk #4: “Working It Out – Again!”

Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  In this series called “Straight Talk,” God has been saying some blunt things to us, and the scriptures have been speaking for themselves.

“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God…” (Micah 6:8)

“…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)

“…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.”  (Matthew 5:23-24)

God has a vision – and an expectation – that God’s people will be somehow different from “normal” human beings, and that their presence in the world will make a positive difference for other people.  Thank God we don’t do this alone.  When you have faith, God living in you makes it possible.   Jesus has high expectations when it comes to forgiveness, and you’ll hear it once again in this passage from Matthew:

Matthew 5:38-48.  ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

For most of us, unless you have no computer or television, the news from outside the United States has been hard to escape; the Olympics have been getting a lot of attention over the last couple of weeks.    The thrill of victory, the agony… (of defeat – an old ABC introduction to Olympic programming).  It’s a kind of a nice diversion.  

Then, mixed with the news about how many medals the United States teams have won and stories about judging controversies, we get first-hand reports about violence in the Ukraine, Somalia, and Syria.  The civil war in Syria and thousands of people have died.  Such a contrast, this expression of healthy competition and mindless bloodshed.

About 2,000 years ago, the news coverage was different, but the situation was basically the same.  The original Olympics were happening every few years in Greece, and on the evening news, if it were possible, you’d see images of violence.

A mannequin outside of a clothing store in Nablus, Palestine, which was heavily damaged by Israeli tanks in 2002. Photo - CN (March, 2011)
A mannequin outside of a clothing store in Nablus, Palestine, which was heavily damaged by Israeli tanks in 2002. Photo – CN (March, 2011)

It was south of Syria, just over the border in Palestine that Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people who knew all about violence, saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44).  Probably one of the most well-known scriptures in the Bible – because it is so hard to do.  I wonder how many people have read that passage and thought, “Well, I guess I just can’t be a good Christian.”  And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus says, “Be perfect.”  Be perfect.

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the people who first heard those words.

Site of the ancient town of Capernaum, the area where Jesus (traditionally) gave the Sermon on the Mount, fed 5,000, etc.  CN - 2011.
Site of the ancient town of Capernaum, the area where Jesus (traditionally) gave the Sermon on the Mount, fed 5,000, etc. CN – 2011.

Jesus is in Galilee, being followed by huge crowds who have come from many miles around, even from other countries (see 4:24-25).  They are mostly are mostly Jewish, but many are not, and they have at least one thing in common:  They are coming, they are gathering, because they wanted to be healed from something and they’ve heard Jesus can make that happen.  This is also the place where Jesus gave an evening meal to 5,000 people.  So, they’ve left work and the daily routine of life and walked a long walk to be healed.  Or get something to eat.

To put yourself in that crowd, maybe it would help to think of that one thing that needs healing in your life – how far would you drive to have it fixed, immediately, by Jesus?  What are you hungry for?

CenturionOne other thing everyone in this crowd has in common is the Romans – an occupying army that keeps everybody under control with brutal force (usually with the help of upper class folks with money).  This crowd is defenseless and poor.  They have no power and not much meaningful control over their lives.  That would be the Romans over on that other hilltop, the guys with the helmets and the swords.  They don’t like crowds, because crowds can breed a kind of contagious hatred.  Violence. Jesus might be pointing at them as he is yelling to the crowd, “Love your enemies!”

Can you hear them grumbling?  Unhappy?  I walked all this way to be healed, and I have to listen to this?

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:44)

Jesus said “love your enemies” because God does, and you are God’s family.  God would like to have a relationship with your enemies, and you might be getting in the way.  “Be perfect – (not perfect in yourself or for yourself, but) as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word perfect in that verse should really be translated as “complete, or “whole.”

When you see the enemy as God sees them, as an object of love, just like you, then you become a complete person.  Perfect!  If you want to be healed, love your enemies.

And then to illustrate what he said, one of the first things Jesus did next was heal the servant of a Roman centurion and give the centurion high marks for his faith (8:5-13).

The love Jesus wants from us is less about warm, fuzzy greeting cards than about our willingness to walk in other peoples’ shoes.

DSC_7861The love Jesus wants is that willingness, with the help of God, to get our minds off of ourselves, in our relationships, in our life together, and in our worship.  Off of ourselves and on to others.  If you are prone to being offended and reactionary, ask God to help you overcome that addiction.  The love of God sets people free, it breaks down barriers.  It brings a new outlook on life.  It heals relationships, gives us the ability to let it go.  It brings people together.  Faith in Jesus gives his followers the power to do these things.  The love of God is dangerous, because it disrupts a world that loves to hate.

The problem with us is that we can have enemies and be enemies at the same time.  You might need to stop for a moment, and think on how you might have, or have had, an enemy.  I think that might go beyond petty disagreements to some form of warfare.  Now, God never said don’t protect yourself from danger, but have you let it go yet?  Is it possible that there is someone in your life who needs a break from you?  Remember, last week Jesus said, “…leave your gift (for God) at the altar and go, be reconciled.  (5:24) It’s not just about another person; your relationship with God depends on this.

If we love our enemies will everybody be happy?  Will life be peaceful?  Probably not.  But you will be more complete.

As you think about the life of Jesus, remember he had a habit of ignoring tradition; breaking the rules; upsetting certain people.  He didn’t come to make people happy.  Jesus came to make them whole.

Prejudices and habits are hard to break, even when we know that the change is for our own good sometimes.  We are used to our prisons, we feel secure in our prisons, but Jesus keeps offering the key that unlocks doors: the strength to love.

Our potential for hatred never goes away.  It’s long been known that hate crimes increase during a recession, and we’ve seen it just this week in the news (some young college guys put a noose around the neck of a statue in Mississippi). When we have a crisis in our lives, financial or otherwise, we need a scapegoat -someone to blame.  Hatred can be addictive.

In 1992, Time Magazine (February 17, 1992; pp.  14-16) ran a story about the relationship of two men from Lincoln, Nebraska: Larry Trapp and Michael Weisser.  When they met, Larry was the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Klu Klux Klan and a member of the American Nazi Party.  Michael was the cantor in a local synagogue.  Larry hated Michael.  Larry’s job was to hate and spread hatred.

Larry harassed and threatened Michael.  He made phone calls, he sent hate mail, and Michael was pretty frightened.  He knew who was doing these things, but there was no way to prove it.  There was nothing he could do… but talk to Larry.  So Michael called Larry.  At first he reached only an answering machine, so he would leave messages.  “Larry, you’d better think about all this hatred you’re doing, that you’re involved with, because you’re going to have to deal with God one day and it’s not going to be easy.”  Although Michael was angry, he tried not to express anger on the phone.  He kept leaving messages.

One day, in the middle of one of Michael’s messages, Larry Trapp picked up the phone.  “What do you want?  You’re harassing me!”

Now Michael knew that Larry was in a wheelchair and had a hard time getting around, so he asked him if maybe he needed a ride to the grocery store.  Suddenly, the anger went out of Larry’s voice and he said, “No, I’ve got that taken care of, but thanks for asking.”

Larry and Michael never actually met until sometime later when Larry called Michael to say, “I want to get out of this and I don’t know how.”

Michael and his wife went to Larry’s house.  They brought dinner and a peace offering: a silver ring.  When Michael touched his hand, Larry burst into tears.

Larry already had silver rings, one on each hand, both with swastikas.  He took them off and gave them to the Weissers. “Take these rings.  They symbolize hatred and evil, and I want them out of my life.”  And he put the Weissers’ ring on his finger.

What a feeling that is; being able to take your hatred, your sin, identify it with an object, and then bury that object or give it away.  This is what the cross of Jesus is: the place where sin is nailed; where it dies with Jesus.  Ultimately, the greatest healing miracle Jesus does is to remove the burden of sin from a crowd of people -people like you and me -and bury it in a tomb in Jerusalem.  Then we are free to love.  Sure, we fall sometimes, but we get back up and keep going.  In the kingdom of God, quitting is worse than falling.

Our faith in the living Jesus conquers hatred and sets us free -in our families, our church, our community, our country, and our world.  It begins within each of us.  It begins with faith in the one who sets us free.

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. 

For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


2/16/2014 Sermon – Straight Talk #3: “Working It Out”

Vertical rainbowToday is the 3rd in the series we’ve been calling “Straight Talk.”  God, just tell me what you need me to know.  Be blunt.  Tell me straight.  Don’t beat around the bush.

It started with “How to Please God.”  (sermon on 2/2/2014)  That’s so easy it’s hard.  God has a deep desire for our wholeness, that we live fulfilled, complete lives.  Life to its fullest.  For that to happen, we need to get our minds off of ourselves and take a hard look at what gets our attention, a hard look at what we worship.  God’s priorities tend not to line up with ours very well.  We need comfort, convenience, and “stuff.”  God is much more interested in how we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”  (Micah 6:8)  God needs us to live with high regard for each other and with an obedient attitude toward the God who is saving us.

With our minds off of ourselves and with faith in Jesus Christ, God begins to live through us.  We turn up the lights, so to speak; we become the light of the world (sermon on 2/9/2014), we become like “a city on a hill.”  We make a positive, practical difference in the lives of other people.  Like bright light in a dark place, the good things coming from us are that obvious.  (Matthew 5:14)

Today, we’ve got more “Straight Talk.”  God will be blunt and the scriptures will speak for themselves.  The gospel reading from Matthew is a short part of the Sermon on the Mount – words of Jesus, organized like an instruction manual for the church, a kind of Christian “how-to” book. It’s in Matthew that he distills faith down to its simplest terms: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ …and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37)  Love God, love neighbor.  The practice of faith in God, loving God, has a tangible, visible result: more neighbors are loved.  The church is a proving ground for love; that’s the essence of our job description.  This reading from Matthew gives a little more instruction on loving the neighbor:

Matthew 5:21-26.  ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgement; 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. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,* and then come and offer your gift. 25Come 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. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

The justice you want to do, the kindness you want to offer, the humility that God needs is undone by a lack of forgiveness in the church.  The light of the world that we need to be is snuffed out by anger and a lack of forgiveness.  So that God can do what God needs to do to reach our world with the good news of Jesus, we work it out, whatever it is.

A few years later, we’ve got a case study on church relationships in Corinth, in Greece.  The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth to add footnotes to that instruction manual for the church.

Corinth was a gateway city, a major cosmopolitan city of its time in southeastern Europe, a kind of New York or LA, and there were many different types of people in the church.  Very rich and very poor, slaves and free people, young and old, men and women.  All sorts of ethnic and even religious backgrounds, but life-changing faith in Christ was the one thing they had in common.  Different people shared responsibility for leading the church, with different personalities, styles, gifts, and apparently each had their own following within the church.  When problems came up, people would gather around a leader (who actually may have been an un-willing participant), form groups, and the groups opposed each other. These are groups of groupies who have lost their focus on loving God and loving neighbor, lost their ability to grow spiritually.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9.  And so, brothers and sisters,* I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

DSCN06735 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

We are God’s field, God’s building.  The place where God grows things, the home that God builds, where God lives.  The place where faith is fertilized and spreads as we all grow spiritually together, the place where we invite others to share God’s home with us.

Thinking back to your childhood, can you remember that food you didn’t like when you were young, but you learned to enjoy when you were older?  Can you think of a particular way your tastes developed?

LobsterI remember how our two sons were repelled by the sight of boiled lobster.  I think it was up to the time when they were about 4 and 6.  It was just a few years later that one of them was brave enough to try a bite, and that meal suddenly became more expensive for our family.  Then when they were teenagers, we had an opportunity to travel, and it was in some faraway place that one of them tried escargot on a dare.  I think it was the combination of garlic and butter more than the snails that did it, and now we need to order escargot whenever we see it on a menu.God has an expectation that we grow spiritually, that our tastes will expand, that we won’t keep eating the same thing at the same time, week after week, month after month, and year after year. That we will try new things on the menu, that we will love God in new ways, love neighbors in new ways; that we will keep our minds and hearts open to the next best spiritual idea.  Paul said, “I fed you with milk, not solid food.”  And in Corinth, they are not growing up in Christ, they are not loving God and neighbors.  The proof of that is the “quarreling and jealousy” Paul sees going on among them.  If we argue amongst ourselves, it is impossible for us to love neighbors the way God needs us to love them.

When we believe in Christ, when we surrender to Christ, we start to change. It’s the Holy Spirit at work. We begin to see people and things the way God does.  We begin to care in a way we didn’t before.  We realize that we may never meet the high expectations of Jesus, and he is always raising the bar.  But the point Jesus was trying to make in that passage was that on our own, trying to live by a set of rules, instead of relying on the power of God is an invitation to failure.  The love of God that put Christ on the cross calls every Christian to put differences aside, and God gives the power to do that.  It’s faith in Christ that gives us the option of living a different way, and the ability.

Our faith helps us grow, helps us learn from mistakes and move on, to discover the new ways we need to be living together as believers, or stagnate where we are, caught up in the things that don’t matter, the temporary things Paul calls the things “of the flesh,” the things that distract us from the love of God that flows through us, one to the other in Christ’s church.  The more intentionally we love each other in the name of Christ, the more we can do for God, the more we can grow, and the more God stretches us spiritually.  The deeper we grow in relationship with God, the more we are stretched spiritually, the more neighbors are loved.

It’s a journey.  Point A to point B. It’s growth, it’s change.  Our tastes expand – or they don’t.  I wonder, what’s your personal growth plan? If you have been eating only spiritual scrambled eggs, what can you add to your spiritual omelet?  Is there a time and a place where you ask your hard questions?  What are you reading?  What is God calling you to do next?  What inner anxiety can you let go of for the sake of a relationship?  You realize, of course, that God never promised to get you to some safe place and keep you there.  As a church of Christ, what new things can we do next for the sake of the gospel and the mission of the church?  What can we do to broaden the invitation?  What new door can we open?  What new things can we try in order to reach a culture that is changing faster than we can comprehend?  But before you get to those questions, maybe you need to be asking, “Who needs to be forgiven?  Who needs more toleration from me?”

Doing new things can be a scary world for a 245-year-old church.  But the growth of our faith is less about us than about the others God wants to love through us: the strangers in the neighborhood, the friends we haven’t met yet.

Country road – Zimbabwe. CN – 2009

The Same Kind of Folks.  A farmer was working in a field when a stranger approached on the country road that bordered his farm.  The traveler asked, “What kind of people live in the next town?”

Without even looking up from his work, the farmer asked, “What kind of people lived in the town you just left?”

“Oh, they were horrible.”  The traveler began making hand gestures for emphasis.  “People were dishonest, selfish, and inconsiderate.  I couldn’t wait to leave!”

Now looking up, the farmer shook his head and said, “I’m sorry to say that’s probably what you’ll find in this town too.”

The stranger moaned and walked away.

Later that day, another stranger came walking down that same road.  When he saw the farmer, he called out, “What kind of people live in this next town?”

Without looking up, the farmer asked his own question: “What kind of people lived in the town you just left?”

The traveler said, “They were thoughtful, friendly, and kind. I hated to leave them.  They made me a better person.”

Now the farmer put down his hoe, extended his hand and smiled.  He said, “I’m pleased to say that is about how you’ll find the folks here.”

The traveler smiled back and then headed toward his new home.

May God help us all be the change we want to see in the world.


God, help us grow.  Help us grow closer to you and closer to each other.  Help us conquer the habits and attitudes that keep us from knowing you and your love for us; the habits and attitudes that keep us apart from each other.  Help us see all people as you see them, with a heart full of love.  Through your Spirit, calm our need for anger and make forgiveness instinctive.  Help us be the loving family you need us to be, for the sake of Jesus, and the world you love.   It’s in his name we pray.  Amen.

2/9/2014 Sermon: Straight Talk #2 – “Turning up the Lights”

DSCF0356Matthew 5:13-16.   ‘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.

14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In 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.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5.  When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Before we get too much further into February, what did the groundhog tell us about the weather last week?  Six more weeks of winter?  (mostly yes)  Crazy thing we Pennsylvanians talk about, but it did make for a good movie.

I imagine that many of you have seen “Groundhog Day,” one of my favorite movies.  Bill Murray plays a television weather man with a case of terminal pessimism; he has a lousy personality and people love to hate him.  He gets caught in a time warp, and has to live Groundhog Day over and over and over until he gets it right.  At first, he’s frustrated, then he realizes how fortunate he is to have more than one chance.  He gets a rush from doing good things for people.  He makes it his purpose to find out where people need help and then be there the second they get in trouble.  He doesn’t find peace until his mind is off of himself.

But that’s in the movies.  How many times have we wished that we could have a day to do over again?  But the reality is that we only get one chance at each day.  We can only try to make tomorrow better than today – for someone.   And the wonderful thing about being who we are is that there is nothing we do alone. 

It’s pretty simple.  Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” God sprinkles us around to make someone else’s life taste better, to preserve someone else’s life.  God puts us on the lampstand “so that we can give light to everyone in the house.”  He said, “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  There is some way in which all of us help light shine in this place.  The building is not the light; you are.  That is, the work of God the Holy Spirit shines through you as you have faith and find that thing God wants you to do to make someone else’s life better.

In our Christian lives, we need to be more than just anonymous church members, we need to make our faith public so that people will know whom it is we belong to, and that there is a God they can turn to.  We need to be useful to God and the people around us, like salt and light.

Salt and light; both of those things we take for granted because they’re so easy to get.  But how about the 1700’s, when this church first came together? I suppose somebody’s general store would carry salt, but probably not too many light bulbs, right?  People worked as long as there was daylight and used candles just to be functional at night.

During most of the years that we have had a church building on this spot (since the mid-late 1700’s), it had no electricity.  Nobody had electricity.

Ephrata Cloister windowCompared to those days, today, we are addicted to light.  We can’t get enough of it.  We all think of places with lots of lights like Los Vegas or Times Square, but I wonder what our great-grandparents would have thought if they knew that some places could be seen from space because of the light they produce.  I wonder what church members must have thought about the first electric lights in this building.  During the 1800’s, we would have had a big oil burning chandelier in the middle of the sanctuary, but it would have been used mostly at night, just so people could see to get around.

Do you realize how dark it is at night?  That may sound like a goofy question, but I think we might have forgotten.  Have you ever gone camping, or been in a place that’s a little far from civilization, in the middle of the night?  Scary, isn’t it?  We’re not used to the darkness.  What do you see?  First, pitch-black darkness, then stars.  Funny how we don’t notice stars until we’re in places with no street lights.

Oil Lap - 1st cent.But the night sky has been the same for a long time.  Here is a first century oil lamp (I hold it up).  I bought it in an antiquities shop in Jerusalem a few years ago.  People would put some olive oil in the middle of it and lit a wick at the spout.  It would sit on a stand somewhere in the room, or maybe hung like a planter.  It works the same as any other oil lamp, even the ones we all keep around in case the power goes out.  The amazing thing about this lamp is that for the most part, until about 100 years ago, the technology for having light in your house at night was the same as it was in the time of Jesus, and long before.  And we still need things like this when the power goes out.  It used to be a necessary tool for living at night.  Now it’s an emergency tool, especially when you don’t have a flashlight. 

Back in those days, anybody with a lamp at night was obvious.   If it’s under a basket, it’s not only a pointless waste of oil, it wrecks the basket (this is a two-gallon measuring basket Jesus is talking about).  So this is one of the other things we’re hearing Jesus say:  be obvious, like a city on a hill.  That’s where people built their cities for protection.  If you were building a city, it was the smart place to put it.  But this meant that they were obvious targets for enemies. 

That’s a negative way to think about a city on a hill, but on the other hand, that’s where you had the best chance of surviving enemies.  It’s a refuge, and it’s a safe place to be when trouble comes around.

salt shakerBut the first thing Jesus wants us to be is salt.  Have you ever eaten ethnic food that’s really salty?  In some places, and especially in Arab countries, salt is a symbol of loyalty and friendship.  You “eat of someone’s salt” to share in their hospitality.  Food that’s been preserved with salt is safe.

Dead Sea saltBut there’s a problem with the salt – the sodium chloride – that Jesus talks about.  In Palestine, the easy place to get salt is by the Dead Sea, which is so salty that the rocks on the shore have layers of salt stuck to them.  But that salt also has a lot of other stuff in it with the sodium chloride.  When the rain would wash the sodium chloride out of that “salt,” it was useless. In any case, Jesus says you need salt serving its purpose, not stored up somewhere.  Get out there and sprinkle yourselves around!

God gives us faith for a purpose.  We are not God’s people just so that we can say that we are God’s people.  We are not Christians just so that we can say that we are Christians.  We are not members of the church just so that we can say we are members of a church, so that we can have something to do at 8:30 or 10:45 on a Sunday morning.  If the church is the body of Christ on earth, and God trusts us with being ambassadors to the world and giving light to lost people, then we need something bolder than worship services to witness to the love of a Christ who was crucified and risen for us.

Jesus Christ Crucified.  We are here because of Christ.  This is a United Church of Christ.  As Paul says, “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  (v. 2:2)

This is not popular talk.  It is not impressive philosophy. It is not meant to draw crowds.  The first time you hear the message about Christ, the first time you really hear what’s being said to you, honestly, it’s hard to believe.  For many people, you may as well be asking them to believe in what the groundhog does on February 2.  Or the tooth fairy.  Or the Easter Bunny.  And this is the genius of God.  It is so simple it’s hard.

He lived, he died, he rose from the dead.  He is God.  Our believing this together is the core of our being.  When we believe this we open the doors of our lives to God, and God makes us who we are.  It’s because of our faith in Jesus that God helps us do the good things we do.

This is why every one of us needs to stop and ask, “Who is Jesus to me?  Do I believe what I’m hearing – strongly enough to tell God I believe?  Who else in my world needs hope?  Who else needs this good news?  God, what do you need me to do?”

These are the questions being asked publicly every Communion Sunday.  Stop for a moment – think back to the bread and the drink you just held in your hand last week.  God is asking you if you believe in Jesus – it starts with him; we believe in him, we internalize him.  And then faith moves outward through us.  Now God live in you and sends you on a mission.  It’s something different for everybody.  What do you say?

Jesus has a strong suggestion.  Say it with me:

 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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.  (Matthew 5:14-16)

You are the light of the world.

Lincoln's houseIn Springfield, Illinois stands the home of Abraham Lincoln.  A few years ago, there was a mother who took her young daughter to see the place and there was a faint glow in a few of the windows coming from the security lights.

And as they stood outside, the mother knelt down and told her little girl about the great man Abraham Lincoln was and the great contributions he had made to our country.

The little girl listened and as they turned to leave, she looked back at the house one more time and said to her mother, “But Mommy, when Mr. Lincoln left, he left the lights on!”

When Jesus left, he left the lights on.

May God say that of us:  the lights are on.

May people also say that of us – the lights are on.


O God, give us the faith of children.  Simple trust, with our lives in your hands.  Give us the strength to put away our pride when it comes to you.  Help us understand how much we need you.

This morning each of us, in a moment of silent prayer, responds to the message we have just heard, that you reach out to us through Jesus.  He is risen; he is God.  Our arms are open to you, Lord.  Our hearts are open.  We believe; help our unbelief.

Now give us places to go, people to see.  Help us shine in our dark world with the light of Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.


2/2/2014 Sermon – Straight Talk #1: “How to Please God”

sidewalkToday, we’re starting a series that I’m calling “Straight Talk.”  I remember, when I was young, having these imaginary conversations with God, that maybe weren’t so imaginary.  I remember walking home from school and saying a prayer that went something like this: “God, l really blew it today.  I’m sorry about that.  I wish I could do better.  While I’ve got you, could you just help me know what you want?  I don’t know if I can be the person you want me to be, but I’d rather not be the person I don’t want to be.  I need help with that.  Just tell me straight.  What can I do?”

I believe we all have an innate desire to please God. In these scriptures this morning, you will hear God speak to you…

Micah 6:6-8.  ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?   Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

01 Sea of Galilee
Capernaum, Sea of Galilee. CN – 2011

 As we read the next passage from the Gospel of Matthew, put yourself in the traditional place where Jesus spoke these words…

Matthew 5:1-12. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely* on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Here’s an interesting little exercise.  Think about the clothes you are wearing, the clothes, the jewelry, and the stuff you have in your pockets.  The coat you were wearing when you came in.  Add it up.  Have you ever inventoried your house?  Think about it as your mind goes from room to room.  I’ve tried from time to time, and I always give up before finishing.

George Carlin had a classic comedy routine on “stuff”:

closet for blogThat’s all I want, that’s all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? Everybody’s got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that’s your stuff, that’ll be his stuff over there. That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff.

That’s all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff.

And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that [junk] you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get … more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore.

Isn’t it amazing how much stuff we have?  I’ve known a few people who had house fires and lost most everything.  They had insurance, but insurance doesn’t really replace everything.  The effect an event like that has on you depends on how attached you are to your stuff.  Let’s give thought this morning to our relationship to things and what we worship.  We work hard at making ourselves comfy, and believe prosperity is a right.  But what do we really have?  There is an altar at the worship center of your life.  What’s there?  What do you worship?

What do people in our culture worship?  It isn’t necessarily material.  For students, it might be grades.  Or a sport.  I’ve known musicians who were obsessed with music (yes, it’s possible!) Get a little older and it might be work, or a house.  I’ve heard a kitchen counter called an altar of eating.  The place where you worship food and the making of food. 

How about the TV?  Your computer?  Your smartphone?  I lost mine for an hour or so yesterday.  I was worried more than I should have been. Of course, there are destructive things you can worship – that’s an easy list.

In order to hear what God has to say, in order to listen to God, you must come to a place where you can separate your mind, and your focus, from the nonessential things that demand your attention.  If you are distracted, you can’t hear what God has to say.  We each need that moment when we are listening.  This is the most basic form of prayer there is: “God, I am listening.”

God’s Stuff.  The prophet Micah lived at a time of prosperity in Judah (southern Palestine). Life was fairly stable.  The kings who ruled Judah during his lifetime managed to stay on the throne for long periods of time.  But the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrians at the time Micah was writing.  That was a very short distance away.  So, Micah turns to the leaders of Judah and says, essentially, if you don’t listen to God, if you don’t obey God, the same thing is going to happen to you.  It’s a political statement as much as a religious statement.

The people don’t like what Micah has to say, so they listen to other prophets who aren’t nearly so negative.  (2:6)  Micah!  Judah will never fall, so don’t talk like it will.  Things are good, so keep those ideas to yourself!  It upsets people when you talk like that.  But Micah says that God sees things differently.  God is going to make his case public.

So, later in the book, God actually sues the people and calls the mountains and the hills as witnesses.  The people are ignoring God, living false lives, robbing each other to get more stuff and God says, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!  (6:3)

God is not happy and the people respond by offering God some sacrifices.  Okay, God, here.  Here’s some of our stuff.  Will that make you happy?

“Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”  (6:7) 

That last one was a bit over the top.  Some of the cultures of that time actually sacrificed children to their gods.  But you get the idea – give something to God to make God leave us alone!  We’ve all done bargaining prayers with God.  God, I’ll give you this, if you give me that.  And I’m imagining God’s reaction.  A rolling of the eyes.  A heavy sigh.  Maybe God kicks doors and punches walls.

“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  (6:8) 

Among the things you have, what do you really have?  You have life, you have relationships.  You have God.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say that if you have faith, God has you.  If God doesn’t have you, something else has you, and ultimately, if the thing that has you is not God, it will let you down.  It might even hurt you.

We’re all looking for fulfillment.  She is truly blessed.  He is blessed.  Can you picture that person?  Is it you?  Do you feel blessed?

The Greek word Jesus uses in the Beatitudes (makarios) actually means more than blessed; it means  having contentment to the point of being beyond the cares of this world.  In Jesus’ time, it meant being super-rich, and that might have been how you heard it just now.  But the blessed ones Jesus is talking about are the ones who have the thinnest layer of stuff between them and God, the ones who realize how much they need God, the ones who realize that God is not just an accessory to a “complete” life.

God is looking for a completely different attitude toward living.  The people of God’s have a different mindset than the world they might live in.

The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus puts it, is a counter-culture where the blessed ones are the poor in spirit – the discouraged; they are those who are mourning – people who have lost someone or something important; the thirsting – the ones who need more of God; the meek – the ones who are willing to help someone else be first; the pure – the ones who work at doing the right thing; and the peacemakers – the ones who share God’s deep desire for reconciliation.   What do they all have in common?   They all understand their deep need for God.  They depend on God.

These are people who are blessed because they let God be God, and they have allowed God to flow through them.  They understand that they belong to God, and so does all their stuff.  This changes how they live life and how they see the world around them. The people are blessed when they realize that God has them, and because God has them, they have each other.

In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, verse 3 says,

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope; with less of you, there is more of God and God’s rule.”

A friend of mine once told me that the three most important words they ever said were, “God help me.”  Paul the Apostle said, in Christ, whenever we are weak, it’s then we are strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)

So we look at ourselves and evaluate what we see.  What do we really have?  What are the things that are getting in the way of our relationships with God?  What will it take to make our spiritual lives stronger?  What will it take to make our relationships stronger with each other?  What will it take for our church to make a stronger impact on our town, on our world?  When we know the answers to those questions, then we have to make decisions that take courage.  With less of us and more of God, that’s when we truly begin to make a difference through the love of Christ.


God, help us understand more deeply the gift of life you give us, and the opportunities we all have to make the most of it.  Give us wisdom in our values – to understand and see the things that last and the things that are temporary, and the vision to avoid holding on to things that don’t exist at all.

Flow through us.  Help us teach our children to value the things that are truly important.  Most of all, help us teach them to love you and follow you.  Amen.