7/20/2014 Sermon – “Growing Season #4: What Are You Planting?”

Matthew 13:24 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?”28He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”29But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

wheat36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’37He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears* listen!

The Wheat Fields.  We’re continuing the series “Growing Season,” and as we all know, if you have ever tried to grow a plant for some good purpose, trouble isn’t far away.  Assuming that you’re using good soil, there’s the right amount of sun and water, your crop has a good chance – if bugs and animals don’t get to it.  They love it when your garden flourishes.  And then there are weeds.  If the conditions are good for your flowers or tomatoes, they are good for weeds.  Maybe you’re making the spiritual connection in your mind, and that’s what Jesus intended with these little stories called parables.  Someone has thrown some seeds of weeds among the good crop and he wants us to learn from that.  Let’s think about weeds.

There was a weed that grew near our house in Connecticut that was a kind of organic wonder of the world.  Many years ago, I was told, some farmers around that part of the state began planting a distant relative of bamboo next to their outhouses.   Its formal name is Japanese Knotweed, but it was also called “Kiss-Me-Over-the-Fence.”  It’s a perennial that can grow 9 or 10 feet high during the summer and hides those things you don’t want to see.  It will grow over your fences.  Maybe it will try to kiss you.

Japanese knotweed
Japanese knotweed

It grows thickly and by mid-summer it’s hard to walk through, unless you have a machete!  It also spreads uncontrollably.  It slowly conquered about an acre of a field behind our house and we were told that the only way to get rid of was to put down black plastic for two years.  The roots are so deep that the usual weed-killers have no effect.  These weeds don’t really hurt anything until they get close to your house.  Better mow the lawn every week next to the Kiss-Me-Over-the-Fence – if you took a vacation from yard-work for a couple of months in the summer, by the time you got back to it, you wouldn’t be able to see out of your first floor windows.

If you don’t try to control it at all, it will literally take over your house.  It can grow in concrete and asphalt.  Banks in England may not give you a mortgage for your house if your neighbor’s yard has Japanese knotweed growing in it.

It can grow through walls, and since it’s root system is so deep and extensive, some houses have to be torn down to get rid of it.  In some places, it’s that serious.  I know that it’s in Pennsylvania, but I can’t say that I’ve seen it.  Maybe you’ve got Japanese knotweed in your back yard and you know what I’m talking about.  Or maybe you want to check out that thick patch of tall foliage that wasn’t there last year!

The irony of it is that this plant can actually be eaten.  It apparently tastes something like rhubarb, which may not be appealing to some of you, but I like rhubarb.  But it really can’t be grown for profit because it would take over the world.

We learned that you don’t get rid of this weed. It’s almost impossible.  But you can control it.Is there a spiritual lesson in that weed?  To get rid of it, you have to destroy almost everything it touches.  But if you pay attention, you can control it.  Many problems in the Christian life are like that.  Some problems in the church are like that.  A total “cure” would kill the patient.

IMG_0034In the parable, Jesus was talking about weeds that grow in – and with – wheat, which is a bigger problem.  These weeds affect the food supply.  I can see him sitting on the hillside by the Sea of Galilee, waving his arm toward a field.  The weed Jesus is talking about is a plant called darnel, which looks exactly like wheat while it’s growing.  You can’t tell the difference until both the wheat and the darnel are grown and by then, their root systems are intertwined.  There is literally nothing you can do about this weed until the harvest.  Then you can tell them apart.

He says he’s talking about the “kingdom of heaven,” which he also sometimes calls the kingdom of God, which is the community of faith, the “wheat-field” of those who believe. In those first days of the church, in that place, the believers gathered around you were mostly Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah.  You do believe Jesus is the Messiah, yes?  Awesome!  But now there are these non-Jewish people joining us, who have no respect for our ancient traditions. It’s a mess.  The church was a mess from the beginning!

So, we’ve got weeds growing in the church.  And those of us who are wheat, well, we don’t like it.  I heard this one not long ago:  “If Bill was a Christian, he wouldn’t have treated me the way he did last week.  Pastor, you really ought to do something about him.”  How many times have we each thought something like that?

We have a huge collection of weeds, an enormous variety.  I think each of us has a different perception of what a weed might be.  It’s a problem when you look at that plant growing next to you and your mind is telling you, “Hmmm, sure looks like a weed.  Must be a weed.”

I don’t know if I can trust you because the color of your skin or where you live or the kind of place you live in.  Whether you live in a shack in the Dominican Republic or a trailer in West Virginia – north or south of town.  This certainly says something about the type of person you are and whether we can share faith in Christ.  We certainly aren’t that shallow.

Are you liberal or conservative?  I’m concerned about whom you live with and what your sexual orientation might be.  Or how your marriage is doing.  Or whether you are married at all.  Or whether your kids act the way I think they should, or whether you have kids.  How you dress or the type of church music you listen to.  The way you pray.  What you believe about the Bible.  We really need to keep God’s wheat-field pure.

But the more we try to pull the weeds from this field, the more harm we do to ourselves.  Jesus is clear about this:  we have no business pulling weeds.  God is the only who can tell what the real weeds are.

Many folks have high standards for the church and if anybody should be pointing out issues of justice to deal with, it’s us.  It’s okay to have standards or ideals, unless we feel that they give us the right to condemn the people we should be loving.

I’ve heard it said that the church is like a hospital.  Whom do you see in a hospital?  You see sick people.  People with all sorts of needs and ailments.  In confirmation classes I’ll sometimes hear somebody say that it seems like the church is full of hypocrites and sinners.  And in a tactful way, I try to respond, “and that’s why we’re asking you to join.”

In fact, are those things I mentioned the real weeds?  The passage says that the weeds are “all causes of sin and evildoers.”  We might not be able to tell who the weeds are, but we can see their effects.  Weeds have more to do with bad relationships and the bad choices we make more than people themselves.  Opportunities for bad choices and behavior are always present no matter who is in the church.

The effect of these bad relationships and choices depends on the strength of our relationship to God and to each other – whether we trust God enough to talk with God about it together, and whether we trust each other enough to get through the hard choices together.

The best weed prevention for the church is trusting, honest relationships.  Communication with an open door to reconciliation.  It can make all the difference in your faith. Can you own up to your own short-comings and ask for forgiveness?  Can you let go of grudges and forgive?  Are you open to the relationships God wants you to have?  Are you open to healing?  Talking through your issues?  Can we trust God enough to let God do the weeding?

Jesus had no grand plan for getting rid of the weeds in that field of wheat. He doesn’t call the army of the faithful together; he didn’t give each of us a gallon of Round-up. He doesn’t give everybody a hoe.  There are no rules of engagement about marching into a field of wheat to root out the weeds. In fact, Jesus says that we should go about our business, which is… to be wheat, not weeds. We’re not called to be the farmer.  We are not God. Rooting up weeds is not part of our job description. We’d like to rain down hellfire and brimstone, but Jesus has other ideas. Wheat farmers say that at harvest the dry weeds will just blow right through the combine.  We don’t have to worry.

So, be the wheat. Grow in the row where you were planted. Grow tall and strong and crowd out the weeds.  Nurture the good in the midst of the evil. Don’t be a stalk of wheat in a field by yourself. Grow with the rest of the wheat.  If you do, you worry less about weeds. The farmer’s going to take care of the weeds.

God has a plan. We can trust the plan.

When we respond to God’s call to faith in Jesus, and begin trusting each other, things begin to change in our wheat-field.  Our world becomes a different place both in the way we see others and the way others see us.  We stop seeing others as weeds and start doing something about the weeds in ourselves.

 Prayer

We thank you, God, for the summer sun, for cool water to swim in, for the fun of family and friends spending time together. We thank you for these summer days, which remind us that you are the creator and keeper of all good things. But God, we know that you want to create in us more than a pleasant day; we know that you have given each of us a dream, a purpose that you are ready to unleash in us if we will allow you to do it.   Help us walk toward your future.

Give us the courage to dream your dream; give us the boldness to claim your vision; give us the strength to carry out your purpose in our lives. Help us clear away the weeds that keep us from being the people you intended us to be.  Help us each surrender to your will.  Amen.

7/13/2014 Sermon: Growing Season #2 – “What Are You Planting?”

The Sower - Van Gogh, 1888.
The Sower – Van Gogh, 1888.

Matthew 13. That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears* listen!’

18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.* 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Just to be clear, what is the Word?  Here is a strong hint:

 He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39)

A little story…  There was a farmer who raised watermelons. He was disturbed by some local kids who would sneak into his watermelon patch at night and eat watermelons. After some careful thought he came up with a clever idea that he thought would scare the kids away for sure. So he made up the sign and posted it in the field. The next day the kids show up and they see this sign: “Warning!! One of the watermelons in this field has been injected with cyanide.”

So the kids run off, make up their own sign and post it next to the sign that the farmer made. The farmer comes by and when he looks over the field he notices that no watermelons are missing but now there is a new sign next to his which reads: “Now there are two”.

I have a memory of my grandfather trying to grow watermelons.  Now, my grandfather could grow just about anything in his garden.  He grew up on a farm, had a degree in agriculture from the University of Wisconsin, and was an extension agent during WW1 (it was his job to give you the answers to your farming problems).  His garden was always the envy of everyone in town.  But he couldn’t grow watermelons.

I don’t know what the problem was.  It might have had something to do with the soil, or maybe the length of the growing season, or the inconsistent rainfall in northern Ohio.  I remember trying a slice of watermelon at his house one afternoon and it was not good.  Not very pink and not sweet.  But I don’t think there was any cyanide in it.

The irony is that he was such a careful farmer.  Not like the farmer, or the sower, in the parable Jesus tells in the gospel reading.  You know, Jesus told his parables to get attention and make a point.  His parables had a twist, like a joke or satire.  But because of the transitions of times and cultures, the punchlines are usually lost on us when we read or hear these stories.  That story about the sower, it’s supposed to be funny, or at least make you smile, or make you say, “What?”.  The stories Jesus tells aren’t always what you think they are.

To give you a clear idea of what Jesus is talking about in this parable, let’s visit Palestine. These photos were all taken in northern Palestine when I was on a hiking tour in 2011, walking in back-country places Jesus – and the people in that crowd on the hillside – would have known (Alternative Tourism Group).  Listen! A sower went out to sow…

Seeds 14And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

Notice anything strange about that picture?  That’s a huge cactus plant at the upper right edge of the path!  I don’t know if those were there in Jesus, time.  Maybe that would have played a part in the story.

Seeds 2 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

In Palestine, there are a lot of rocks, and the farther south you go, the more rocks there are, and the more difficult is to grow anything. Even in the north, around the places where Jesus mostly lived, there is a time when it is hot and the sun scorches everything.  Farmers know that there is a time grow things.  Miss it, and your plants won’t do so well.

Seeds 37Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  The thorns seem to be where the rocks are.  Thorns do well around rocks.

 

Mat 13 Good soil8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

Does that not look like it could be somewhere in Lancaster County (PA)?  Green crops and rich soil.  Maybe not what you picture when you think of a typical place in the Middle East.  That’s the kind of place Jesus knew in the area where he lived.  He walked on a path, he saw rocks and thorns, and the farmers he knew were all about planting in good soil.

Most of us get stuck in the soil of that story, or the lack of soil.  We’re thinking to ourselves, oh God, I hope I’m not the seed on the path, or the seed on the rocks, or the seed stuck in the weeds.  God, make me that seed in the good soil.  God, I want to be the good seed!

The Sower with Setting Sun - Van Gogh,
The Sower with Setting Sun – Van Gogh.

You might forget about the sower, and he’s what makes this story funny.  Think about it.  Can you picture the sower?  A man or a woman walking along with a bag of seed slung over their shoulder, tossing the seeds around.  Maybe you’ve done that, or something like it.  Well, when you go out to plant your garden, or sow seeds, do you just throw them around anywhere?  No, you put them, where you think they’ll have the best chance to grow.  You carefully put them where they should be.  You meticulously place them in their furrow or hill of dirt.  All responsible farmers do that.  There isn’t an endless supply of seeds.  Especially in ancient times, seeds were like gold.  In fact, in their own way, seeds were worth more than gold.  The seeds determine whether you will eat next winter.  The seeds are your future.

But this farmer tosses them around.  Throws them this way, throws them that way.  Maybe he or she needs glasses.  Can’t see the path, can’t see the rocks.  Can’t see the edge of the field where the weeds are.  The farmers listening to this story think it’s a little humorous.  No, they think it’s funny.  Kind of silly.

This sower is blindly tossing around the seeds of “the Word.”  Throwing the seeds this way, that way, maybe with a little wind-up.  Maybe over his or her shoulder.  Maybe walking backwards.

That Word that the sower is tossing around is the good news about Christ – that believing in him and his resurrection will bring new life.  That Word would be that God loves you and cares very much about how we live.  That Word would be that God gives each of us and all of us the power to peace and justice to our world.  That connection with God will change your life.  Loving God and loving neighbor will transform you.

But it’s just a seed.  Some faith seeds grow and some don’t.  This is what Jesus is explaining to his people and what Matthew is trying to get across to the early church.  In this parable, Jesus is trying to explain to the first believers how and why it is that not everybody believes.  That’s one of the first thoughts that come to a new believer.  This is great!  God is doing amazing things in my life.  Why doesn’t everybody do this?  Good question.

The short answer is – Don’t worry about it.  Let God take care of those seeds.  We have no control over the faith of others.  We like to think we do, but we don’t.  We just don’t.  The seeds of faith randomly fall wherever they fall and God spreads them everywhere.  Many of the seeds that grow fall in a good environment for growing.  They get the right spiritual nourishment.  Some don’t.  What the story does imply, though, is that we have some control over the quality of our own soil.  If you want your seed of faith to grow, stay away from the rocks, stay out of the weeds, and don’t go laying around on the path.

Each of us in this room has a different reality to contend with. And we each have choices to make.  God planted the seeds, and gives us the gift of choice.  It’s up to each of us help our own seed grow, to water and fertilize it.

But, you should know that if you are a believer, God has hired you as a sower.  Your job is to sow. You are a partner with God; you are the caretaker of God’s garden.  God can use each of us in the life of someone else, to sow the seed of faith, maybe to nourish their faith.  There is someone in your life with a growing seed of faith, and God needs your help to make that seed grow.

DSC_4977Have you ever noticed a plant growing where it’s not supposed to?  Like a seedling the gutter of a house, or a tree in the side of a cliff?  Behind our house, there is this tulip that comes up every year in the same spot, in the middle of a bunch of weeds.  You never know where faith will take root.  You never know who is listening to what you say, watching what you do.  God can plant that seed anywhere God wants to.  God will take care of it. Your job is to help God sow the seeds.

In our town in Ohio, there was a big building down by the railroad tracks called The Farmer’s Exchange.  Anything you needed for growing things, from lawn grass to fields of corn to feed for your animals, that’s where you could get it.  So, I can picture God in some overalls walking into retail department there, at the Farmer’s exchange and saying, “Need some seed corn.”

Once we get home and we all get out of the pickup truck, we take turns hauling bags of corn to the edge of the field that God plowed the day before.  God turns to us and says, “Well kids, those seeds aren’t going to plant themselves!”

(I walked to the door to the emergency fire escape toward the front of the sanctuary and opened it.)  The work of the church is not in here.  It’s out there.  The church leadership is talking about how we can do a better job of connecting with our community, and bringing the Word to the people who live closest to us.  You’ll hear more about that in the next few months.

Well, the sower is still sowing.  And the garden needs tending.  Each of us should be praying, “God, plant your word in my heart.  Help me be strong in my faith. Show me how to sow more seeds of faith in the garden of your world. Help me bear fruit.”

Prayer

God, we’ve heard the call to go, to go out from here to plant your Word.  Help us love you with deeper faith, with stronger hearts, with stronger minds, with more strength.  Help us know our neighbors and love them, whether they live near us or across an ocean.  Teach us to create new community.  Give us opportunities to know brothers and sisters everywhere as neighbors of yours – and ours.  Amen.

7/6/2014 Sermon: Growing Season #1 – “Preparing the Ground – The Inner Conflict”

Mt. Joy fieldThe theme we’re using this month is “Growing Season.”  All around us, things are growing: flowers, fields, crops of all kinds.  I’m always amazed at how green it is in the northeastern United States compared to other places I’ve visited.  I always look forward to coming home to where the landscape is so green.  The people here, especially in Lancaster County (PA), pay special attention to how things grow, because they depend on what comes out of the ground.

Jesus would have been right at home here.  He was big on agriculture and used a lot of farming illustrations in his preaching, and beginning next week, we’re going to use some of his farming parables to help us know how to grow spiritually.  If you’d like to prepare, take a look at the 13th chapter of Matthew.

But this morning, we’re going to prepare the ground.  I’ve not planted a lot of gardens, but I know that nothing of value grows in a pot of ground that hasn’t been prepared properly.  To prepare the ground for the spiritual garden that God would like to grow, the Apostle Paul suggests that we hold a mirror up to ourselves and take a close look at what’s there.  To show us how, he does this for himself:

Romans 7:15-25a.  15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

8  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit* of life in Christ Jesus has set you* free from the law of sin and of death.

DSC_7605One of the newest words in the American English dictionary is “selfie.”  The photo you take of yourself, usually with a cell phone.  It’s the photo you take when you don’t want to ask someone to take a picture of you with your camera or your phone. A photo of yourself taken by yourself.

Sometimes, that’s the only option, but we are so not used to taking pictures like this that it seems kind of self-absorbed.  And if you do an internet search of “selfies,” you will see some really bad photography and people who seem to be self-absorbed.

But that’s missing the point.  And maybe that was just me revealing my age.  When you take this kind of photo, this kind of self-portrait, like all photography, it preserves a moment in time that you can return to.  And I say, take the selfie.  Come back to it later.  What year was it?  What was going on then? What happened right before the picture?  What happened right after?  You will never look like that again, or be in that kind of moment again.  Keep taking the selfies.  Watch how you change.

RembrandtThe world’s most famous artists have done this for centuries, usually looking into a mirror. When you’re doing a self-portrait, you’ve got one model who will show up when you need them.  Rembrandt (left) was famous for his self-portraits and they truly reveal what was going on with him in each part of his life.

van goghVincent Van Gogh (below)also did many, many self-portraits, and this one is especially revealing.  He had just been in an argument with another artist (Gaugin) and had sliced off his own ear.  Historians are pretty sure that he was very mentally ill at the time – undiagnosed and untreated.  A very tortured soul.  And there he is, taking a deep look at himself.

When cameras came along, selfies became much easier to make.  You didn’t have to be a painter to do a self-portrait.  Like them, all you needed was a mirror.

That passage from Romans was a self-portrait of Paul; he was holding a mirror up to himself.  He holds the mirror up to himself to encourage you to do the same thing.  Turn the camera around and take the picture.

Whenever I hear somebody say that the Bible is ancient reading that doesn’t really connect with life today, this is one of the passages I think of.

Every Christian, every believer in Christ, can repeat these words as their own, at one time or another:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  (v . 15).  If I ask you to concentrate, it probably won’t take long for you to lock into a moment that’s described by those words.  It happened at home, in your car, at work, or in a relationship.  It reflected some unfortunate habit or piece of your lifestyle.

old selfieThose words were part of a long sermon that Paul wrote to the church in Rome.  Although some of us think of the church in Rome as the main springboard that launched the Christian faith, in the mid-first century, it was just a very large city with a very small group of believers, and the city happened to be the hub of the Roman Empire.  And Paul had never been there; he had never met these people.  He can’t give much personal criticism (like he does in some of his letters to other people), so he turns the spotlight on himself.  “I don’t understand my own actions.”

One of Paul’s main themes was “before and after.”  Once, you were not believers in the risen Christ, and now you are.  And now that you are, things have changed (and are changing) – not in the world necessarily, but in you.  You are moving from an old life into a new life.  You are becoming the kind of person God wants you to be.  When you first believed, God through the Holy Spirit came to be with you and in you.  And that Spirit is guiding you.  In your old life, you were on your own, but now you have God with you, and that is making a huge difference.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with being perfect (!).  Much has to do with perception.  Living life is an exercise that’s impossible to do “right.”  Church is impossible to do “right.”  The Christian life can be an impossible test.

I have often thought that the truest Christian life is one of continuous apology.  All of us drift away from the things we know God wants us to do.  Or we don’t do the things we know we should.  It’s called sin, and it causes this ache inside of us that only Christ can heal.  As individuals and as a church, we have this awareness that we are less than what we could be; that there is a standard we never quite meet, no matter how hard we try.

Sin is a condition of being at odds with God.  Everybody struggles with sin.  We are all constantly trying, with God’s help, to overcome sin.  The sins we commit are just symptoms of sin.  Did you catch that?  The sins we commit, the mistakes we make, are just symptoms of our condition – being at odds with God, separated from God, which is sin.

Jesus came to die on the cross to put the condition of sin to death, and to overcome the behavior of sin through the new life we live when we believe.  The Spirit of God does this in us through our faith.  We give ourselves to God, accept the sacrifice of Christ, and it frees God to start working in us to change us into the people we should be.

Before you start looking left and right and deciding whether your fellow church members or neighbors are the people they should be, you should remember that sin is a human condition.  We are all in this together.  We are the subjects of the self-portrait.  We are all a work in progress, and one of the reasons we gather as the church, as the people of God, is to help each other.  There is a little sign on each of us and all of us. “God at Work.”

 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

I wonder what the Romans were thinking when they first heard those words read to them.  Sitting in a church gathering, probably in someone’s home, probably a mix of people that included some sophisticates, aristocrats and maybe some in government.

Tonight, there will be a reading of a letter from Paul, the Apostle Paul, the preeminent teacher of the Christian way.  They settle in their seats.  They listen.  What did he just say?

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Did Paul just ruin his reputation when he said those words?  Maybe for somebody in the crowd.  But in those words he shows us all what to do with our sin and our short-comings: confess them… to God, and I would say, to another Christian. It’s in confession that you acknowledge your need for God and open the door so that God can work in your life.  It’s in confession that Jesus takes on the burden we carry.  It gives accountability and someone else to help carry the load.  It is the medicine of honesty.  It’s in confession that God starts to work on us.  Confession is the first step in a changed life.  Paul is modeling the cure for sin: confession. And confession is one of the hardest things for people to do; it’s a painful thing to admit fault or weakness.

The typical Protestant / Reformed Church way of doing faith doesn’t have a strong place for confession, which I think is one of our short-comings.  It’s a false defense mechanism that makes us keep our problem to ourselves.  If we don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away.  Or maybe it’s not real.

But we all need to find a way to acknowledge our short-comings and give them to God.  The primary obstacle to Christian growth is the pride that keeps us from confessing the sin and sins we all share.  As if nobody struggles with the things you struggle with.

The beauty of our faith is that when you do this with another Christian, you let God have a partner in the change taking place in your life.  The people in Alcoholics Anonymous understand this, and that’s the power of the program, but it can apply to any sin.  God doesn’t want us to be alone in this fight.  One of the most basic truths about the church is that we are a 12-step group for sinners.  Hi.  I’m Chris, and I’m a sinner.  If you can’t say that, you’ve missed the point, and we’ll pray that you get over your denial.

We each have this inner knowledge that our lives are less than perfect, and we each have this deep desire to get back into the garden with God.  But I think a lot of us get caught in the compost pile outside the wall of the garden.  We feel like we’re caught in a cycle, and we just won’t make it.

After a while, the negative attitudes and behavior might actually become something we defend together, like racism, or sexism or homophobia.

Dominican Republic.  CN - 2013.
Dominican Republic. CN – 2013.

This is called corporate sin, by the way.  It’s the evil we do as a culture, together.  A lot of us don’t get this, but on 4th of July weekend, it’s appropriate to remember that for our country, it took a war – and a half-million deaths – to overcome the sin of slavery.

Within each of us and all of us, it takes a miracle – a major teaching from God to break that cycle, but miracles happen.  And Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (Romans 7:24-25)

If we’re going to be a chapter of “Sinners Anonymous,” we should follow the example of A.A. in telling our own stories, and in reflecting on where we went wrong and how we can do better. We can share with each other the secrets of where we find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying, and how the forgiveness and guidance and new life of Jesus Christ help us to face another day with confidence.

The best work of the church happens when we acknowledge our weaknesses and share our struggles.  Stop pretending that everything is “great” all the time.  If you share your problem, you will probably find that somebody else has walked the same path you’re on.

One of the great absurdities, for every human being, is the mystery of why we do the things we don’t want to do, and why we don’t do the things we should do.  The remedy is Christ, and the correction to the problem is faith in him.  For the cure to be effective, this is something we do together.

Preparing the field of our souls, our hearts, our lives, is something we do together.  Give the burden to God as we pray.  God is going to be doing extraordinary things with you and with me, and with us.

Prayer

God, help us see ourselves for who we really are: people who need you.  Shine a spotlight on those areas of our lives that need attention; those burdens we carry that you would love to have.  Give us the courage to give them up.  Through your Spirit, give us the strength and courage to be honest with ourselves, as individuals and a congregation, to remove the obstacles that keep us from being the people we should be.  Help us all be tools of your peace and justice in a world that craves your presence.  We ask in the name of Jesus, with whom our sin has died, and who lives to give us life. Amen.

A brief thought: Consider the lilies…

DSC_0177Do you pay attention to the colors of summer?  I know you do; they are all around us and are hard to miss.  You probably have favorite summer flowers and while I can’t say that I do, I know we’ve got a bumper crop of lilies at our house. As far as I know, their only purpose is to bring color into our lives, and I’m grateful for that.

Wildflowers on a hillside in Palestine.  CN - 2011
Wildflowers on a hillside in Palestine. CN – 2011

One day, looking out over a hillside of flowers, Jesus said to his people,”And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  (Matthew 6:28-29)  You should read that whole chapter. What he really wanted to talk about was worry.  I’ve never heard of any major crisis being caused by a lack of clothing, so the issue must have been cultural.  Even in his time, there must have been fashion police.

And I am caught by the colors, the message of brightly colored flowers.  God is so creative, so aggressively colorful.  God will not only take care of us, God make us into something to behold.  We simply need to make choices that reflect God’s will – to live boldly as the city on the hill (Matthew 5:14), fulfilling our purpose as God’s people.  As we make choices to move forward, God will hold us.  Look at those lilies.

Flowers next to the Sea of Galilee, near the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  CN - 2011.
Flowers next to the Sea of Galilee, near the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). CN – 2011.