10/26/2014 Sermon: So Easy It’s Hard #4 – “Getting the Message”

Prayer before lunch. Zimbabwe, 2009 – CN.

This morning we have an invitation to be connected to the awesome power of God; an invitation to let it transform our lives.  I believe that is why we meet like this: not so much to keep good habits, or get a better handle on morality, or even stay in touch with friends; we’re here to be connected to God, to let God change everyday life outside of this building.

Jesus is in a debate with some religious leaders who have been trying to trick him with questions about religion.  “Teacher, which is the most important commandment?”  The rabbis of Jesus’ day counted 613 commands in the law — 248 positive commands, which corresponded to the number of parts of the body, and 365 negative commands, which corresponded to the days of the year. According to these folks, if he picks one as most important, then he makes the other commandments less important, which is a problem.  But Jesus makes the choice to stand above this religious discussion and ask the question not being asked:  “What’s the point of it all?”  Let’s listen to the whole exchange:

Matthew 22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand,   until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”?
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Just make that last part a little clearer, if Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah is God,  then this person (Jesus) standing in front of these religious leaders should be a focus of love and not debate.

Let’s take a step back and look at who we are wand what we do.  What’s the point of it all?  Why are we here?  I would say relationship.  Relationship defined by love.  Love of God.  Love of people.

YSOP food distributionThere is actually a story in scripture about some followers of Jesus who found a way to live this out.  Listen to how love of God translates into love of people:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-37)

That described a church that lived in Jerusalem for a little while after the resurrection of Jesus.  When you hear that story, I wonder if you can picture it.  Would you like to have been a part of that church?  Why?

Personally, I would have loved to hear the apostles give testimony to the resurrection of Jesus with “great power.”  Do you need to have “great grace” come upon you?  I know I do.  That comes from loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Grace is defined as undeserved forgiveness. And this was “great grace.”  A major sense of forgiveness.  Do you need that?  What flowed out of that great grace was everyone having their basic needs met.  “Not a needy person among them.”

It occurs to me that if we need guidelines for church, you just heard them.  Love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  Give testimony to the resurrection of Jesus.  As we experience great, amazing grace, we will feel compelled to make sure that there isn’t a needy person among us.

Maybe it’s a little simplistic, but the laws of Jesus had more to do with the things we should do instead of the things we shouldn’t do.

But Jesus was quoting Jewish law when he answered the question.  He was quoting part of the “shema.” (6:8)  Faithful Jews say this every day:

 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Young Jewish man near the "Western Wall" in the old city of Jerusalem, tying a phylactery to his arm.  CN - 2011
Young Jewish man near the “Western Wall” in the old city of Jerusalem, tying a phylactery to his arm. CN – 2011

In Old Jerusalem near the Temple Mount, praying at the Western Wall, you’ll see Jewish men, young and old wearing phylacteries with this passage inside, literally following the scripture: “bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.”

The straps leave a mark that reminds them of those words throughout the day.  Maybe you’re looking at that and thinking, “Okay; that’s interesting.  I wouldn’t do that.”  I do see lots of people wearing scripture quotes on t-shirts, though.  The point of that scripture is to be so in-tune with God on the inside that God’s word can be seen on the outside.  So, exactly how do those words get inside any of us ?

I regularly hear people say to me, “You know, I just can’t get into organized religion.”  The first thing I think is, “So, you prefer disorganized religion.”  I really do know what they mean.  It’s totally ironic that we get together for what many of us think is an exercise of religion to talk about the most important thing God has to say, which has nothing to do with religion!

Clapping Hands - lens flareIt’s so simple it’s hard: Love God.  Be in relationship with God; be as close to God as you possibly can. Each of us has a different way to live that out, but I would say that it begins with simple surrender.  With arms open, “God I love you, I am yours.”

I have heard people say, well, I do the neighbor loving thing (good deeds) more than the God-loving thing.  Just to be clear, loving neighbors springs out of loving God first; it isn’t a substitute.

But maybe the second thing Jesus says is the harder part.  He says the “second” commandment is like the first. Think about that.  How is it like it?  Could it be that loving your neighbor is also loving the presence of God?  Can you see God in other people and love them too?  Could it be that in order to do either one of those things, love God and love others, you have to put yourself aside (and your opinions and attitudes, fears and distrust, hatred and grudges) ?  And how hard is that?

To peel it back just a little more, Jesus assumed that we would love ourselves.  I have a feeling that for many of us, that’s the root of the problem.  It really is difficult to love others when you don’t love yourself.  Do you love yourself?  Do you need to have someone tell you how valuable you are?  If you get nothing else out of church, you should get that.  That should be a rule: every person here is required to hear from someone else how they are loved and valued – and then repeat it back!  Love yourself!

Love God, love neighbors.  It’s more than affection, it’s more than tolerance.  This is not about religion; it’s about life.  Agape is the word.  English doesn’t really have a good translation for it.  It means pouring yourself into others.  Sacrifice.

It may be best to think about these commands in terms of their opposites.  I just read this story, which is so typical of childhood:

“When I was about five years old, I demanded my mother buy me a certain toy. She refused, explaining she didn’t have the money. I recall flying into a rage and screaming, “I hate you!” My mother was utterly unperturbed. She didn’t spank me and send me to my room, though that would have been understandable. She didn’t break into tears. She didn’t drag me to a therapist. She most certainly didn’t buy me the toy. She simply said, “Well I love you, and your hate can’t change my love.”  Philip Gulley/James Mulholland  http://www.nocckc.org/stillpoint_30.htm

One of the constant themes of the Star Wars movies is the Force.  Not that George Lucas is known as a spiritual leader, but those movies do leave you with some things to think about.  There is a dark side of the Force.  How does the dark side consume you?  You let hatred –expressed by anger – own you.

Did you hear the message this morning?  God is inviting you home.  Love the God who brought you here this morning.  Before you can follow those two commands of Jesus to love, let go of that grudge.  There is someone in your life that needs that from you. Let go of that the opinion that grew into an attitude.  Let your eyes see the ones – or the one – who need the sacrifice God is calling you to make.


O God, in our limited human way, we seek to love you with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength.  It is very hard, and we need your help.  We hear you call to us through the words of Jesus, and open ourselves to you.  Forgive these limitations; help us love you more.  And as we love you, change us.

Loving our neighbors as ourselves is not easy either, God.  We have a very limited idea of our own worth and potential.  It’s hard for us to love our neighbors, our families, our friends, our fellow members of the Body of Christ, when we don’t love ourselves very much.  So, recreate us, God.  Live through us, so that we see others – and ourselves – with your love.  Amen.

10/19/2014 Sermon: So Easy It’s Hard #3 – “God’s Logo”

100Matthew 22:15-22.  Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

A little humor… (I don’t recall where this story comes from).  There was a man who had worked all of his life and had saved all of his money. He loved money more than just about anything. Just before he died, he said to his wife, “Now listen. When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me. I want to take my money to the afterlife with me.” He made her promise with all her heart that when he died, she would put all of the money in the casket with him.

Well, he died. He was stretched out in the casket, his wife was sitting there in black, and her friend was sitting next to her. When they finished the ceremony, just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, “Wait just a minute!” She had a box with her, and she came over and put it in the casket.

Then the casket was locked down rolled it away. So her friend said, “I know you weren’t foolish enough to put all that money in there with your husband!”

She said, “Listen, I can’t go back on my word. I promised him that I was gonna put that money in that casket with him.”

“You mean to tell me you really put that money in the casket with him!?”

The wife said, “I sure did. I wrote him a check.”

GW croppedThe gospel story is all about the power of an image.  Even now, the image on money communicates. George Washington’s face isn’t just a reminder of who the first president was; it’s a logo for money and all that money means.  The emperor’s face on a coin was a logo for Roman power.  If you wanted to buy and sell in the Roman Empire, you needed to carry the image of the Roman Ceasar in your pocket.  The United Sates has power and influence like that.  There are many countries in the world that use the dollar alongside their own money.  The African country of Zimbabwe actually uses United States currency instead of its own.  It is a symbol that conveys an idea.  There is a guarantee of value.  This logo has power.

Some logos are controversial.  I wonder what you think of this one.  In the 1930’s, the original name of the Washington Redskins was “Boston Braves,” but it was changed to “Redskins” to avoid confusion with the Boston Braves baseball team; they even played games in Fenway Park.  The name changed to Redskins just before they moved to Washington. Even though the first coach of the football Boston Braves was a Native American, and there might be some historical logic to the situation, our culture has grown more sensitive to racially-driven names like this.

salem_gh10Around this time of year, as we get closer to Halloween, I always think about the logo of Salem, Massachusetts (we lived near there while I was in seminary).  Do you know that logo is?  A witch flying on a broom across the moon.  It brings in tourists and witch conventions.  There are little witch shops selling witch things.

You probably know why they would pick that image to represent the town.  The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 happened near there.  I suppose that in most people’s eyes, it’s just kind of light-hearted reminder of Halloween, but if you know the story, it is a little troubling that the town would pick a logo like that (it wasn’t really about “witchcraft”; fringe people were singled out for being different and murdered using that as an excuse).

We are flooded with logos.  We even have our own.  They are all around us, reminding us of “the brand.”  If I have a shirt with a “swoosh” on it, that logo represents Nike.  If I have a shirt with a little silhouette of somebody riding a horse and swinging a mallet, that logo represents Polo.  It also means that shirt probably doesn’t have a pocket.

A logo can communicate a lot.  If I gave you a week to come up with a personal logo, an image that would communicate you, I wonder what you’d make.

CoinTiberiusMatthew, Mark and Luke all have this story about Jesus debating with some religious leaders over taxes. It’s clear in all three stories that these people Jesus is talking to aren’t just asking him for an opinion. These are people who don’t like Jesus and they want the Romans to have an easy excuse to arrest Jesus.  So, this was a setup, and you have to imagine that there are some people standing at the edge of the crowd with weapons, ready to step in and take him away.

The thing they were talking about was a source of emotional argument.  Palestine was an occupied country, and the Jewish people were deeply divided over it. If you are the people of God, God’s chosen people, do you pay taxes to these pagan enemies?  These foreigners with the big army?  Many people probably didn’t mind paying taxes, because there were some benefits to having the Romans in control.  They built cities and a lot of people worked for the Romans.  The Romans brought jobs.  But rumor had it that had it that Jesus probably opposed giving taxes to the Romans (Cf. Luke 22:2.).

So you can see how Jesus loses however he answers this question – “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  (Matthew 22:17)  Jesus gets ready to answer.

And no matter what Jesus says next, he’s in trouble with somebody, and they are ready to grab him.  The Pharisees, the religious leaders, especially – they are the ones who asked – Is it lawful to give this tax, Jesus?  It’s really interesting that it’s one of them that has the Roman coin.  And now everyone is listening to every word Jesus says….

He says, Show me the money! (possibly knowing that 2,000 years later it would be a famous line in a Tom Cruise movie!)  Who’s image is that on the coin?  Oh, the emperor.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (v. 21)

The coin belongs to the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, to be specific.   But what was that other thing he said?  Give to God the things that are God’s?  What belongs to God?  What does God want?

Well, what does God want?  God wants you.  I guess that gives us the mental picture of Uncle Sam with the pointing finger, and maybe that’s not so bad.  God wants you.  God wants disciples.

Jesus told the first Christians to go to the nations and make disciples, (Matthew 28:19) which isn’t the same thing as making believers.  Believing is a good thing.  God loves it when people believe.  But what God is looking for is disciples.  God wants people who will follow.  People who will learn.  People who will serve the master with devotion.  God wants people who will give themselves.

Usually, this passage comes around on the calendar when churches are doing stewardship campaigns.  But the more I think about this story, the more I realize that it isn’t about money.  We’ve talked a lot over the last month about money, but God doesn’t just want our money.  God wants us.  God wants you and me.  We have this temptation to make God like us and because we want money, we think God wants money.  We think that God wants our money.  But God wants us.  God wants disciples.  God wants people who will follow and help God’s kingdom come and God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  God wants you and God wants me.  God wants to own and control all of who we are.  What do you give to the God who has everything?  Yourself.  And God really wants us.  Your giving might be different if you understand that you and your checkbook already belong to God.  Does God want the coin, or the person who’s holding it?

If you belong to God, how does God’s image get communicated to the people you live with or go to school with or work with?  How does it get communicated through the things you spend money on?  How does it get communicated through your lifestyle?  How does this community know our church?  The church with the nice building?  Or the church that’s making a difference in our town, in our world, and in our families?

There’s a story told about Thomas Jefferson that goes like this:  During his days as president, Thomas Jefferson and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback. They came to a river which had left its banks because of a recent downpour. The swollen river had washed the bridge away. Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents. The very real possibility of death threatened each rider, which caused a traveler who was not part of their group to step aside and watch.

After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, the stranger asked President Jefferson if he would ferry him across the river. The president agreed without hesitation. The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side.

As the stranger slid off the back of the saddle onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, “Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?”

The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him. “All I know,” he said, “is that on some of your faces was written the answer ‘No,’ and on some of them was the answer ‘Yes.’ His was a ‘Yes’ face.”

What is that logo of yours?  Together, we God’s logo.  We are God’s image.  You and I are God’s advertising.  We are God’s invitation to the community to come into the family.  And God needs a “yes” face from us.


O God, we give ourselves to you.  We know you want more than what’s in our pockets; you want us, each of us.  We give you the sin we have trouble getting a handle on.  We give our families to you.  We give our relationships with our friends to you.  We give our work to you.  We give our schools to you.

Through your Spirit, help us all be recognizable as members of your family; people who bear a striking resemblance to you and your son Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

10/12/2014 Sermon: So Easy It’s Hard #2 – “You’re Invited…”

Our "big fat" Greek wedding - June 22, 1975.
Our “big fat” Greek wedding, Rocky River, Ohio – June 22, 1975.

Matthew 22:1-14.  Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

The Wedding Invitation.  A few years ago, when we lived in Connecticut, I went to our mailbox and pulled out a short stack of letters.  The usual stuff, mostly junk mail.  I was sorting through it all and came to a square-ish, thick, ivory-colored envelope that looked like an invitation, a wedding invitation.  I didn’t have any wedding on my calendar at the time and we weren’t expecting any invitations from relatives, so I took a closer look.  The invitation was addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Oscar de la Renta.

Does that name sound familiar?  Oscar de la Renta is the famous fashion designer who makes exclusive clothing for stars and royalty.  He’s also got a line of perfume and a jewelry label.  He is originally from the Dominican Republic and first became well-known for designing clothing for Jackie Kennedy when she was First Lady.  Red carpet stuff.  And this envelope had his name on it.  It seems that he had the same address we did – two towns away, and this address had the wrong zip code.  Just one digit off (it’s official: the Post Office pays more attention to the zip code than the name of the town in an address!).

I didn’t open it up; I took the invitation back to the Post Office with “wrong address” scribbled across it.  But I gave brief thought to showing up at this event, this wedding, if that’s what it was, with a rented Ferrari, and showing our invitation at the door.  Somehow, I don’t think that would have worked.  But I was so curious to see what sort of wedding Mr. and Mrs. de la Renta would have been invited to.  I suspect they hang out with a different sort of crowd than we do and the fact that I don’t look enough like him might have been an issue.  Definitely not enough style!

Maybe the bride in this wedding would have been wearing one of his dresses, which you can find on eBay for $3-7,000 or so.  I imagine buying a wedding dress in one of his shops costs… more.  George Clooney’s bride, Amal Alamuddin, was wearing a de la Renta dress at their wedding last month.  She probably didn’t get it on eBay.

Today, the average wedding costs between $25-30,000, depending on what survey you read.  Maybe you’ve had some personal experience with this.  The wedding industry is huge in our culture.  And there is a lot of pressure to “do it right.” The venue, the clothing, the pictures, the checklist can be pages long.  You know this, of course.  The expectations have grown over the years and there are many princesses dreaming of their perfect day.  George and Amal’s wedding only cost $13M. To put it in the context of royalty, when Prince William and Kate Middleton were married, it cost $34M.

1975 - Nichols, Chris & Kathy wedding reception
Our reception…

A Royal Wedding.  Jesus is telling a story, a parable, about a royal wedding; there’s an imaginary king organizing “the wedding of the century” for his son.  You have received an invitation to this royal wedding. We all have received the invitation.  In that story Jesus was telling, everybody is invited to the king’s wedding.  He says that this is what the kingdom of heaven if like: it’s a royal wedding banquet.  An enormous, lavish, expensive event that everybody is invited to.  The king has spared no expense.  This is the wedding banquet for the son of God the King.

The invitation is important.  We are being invited to rub shoulders with royalty.  How often does that happen?  Hardly ever!  Not only is it an opportunity for gathering with all the other subjects, we’ll all get really good food and probably have a lot of fun once the dancing starts.  It’s no ordinary invitation; it comes from the king, the one who oversees you – and protects you.

Not only does the king entertain us and feed us, it was the custom in Jesus time for the king to give all the guests the proper wedding clothes.  The king would rent your tux and buy your dress!  The dressing room is over there!  To get in, you give up what you’re wearing, the stuff that’s such a burden, the life-as-usual clothes you’ve been wearing, the nasty clothes you hide underneath, all of it, and let God clothe you.  God has your size.  Maybe you’ve heard, everybody, good and bad is invited. But no crashers allowed, like the guy at the end of the story. You have to let God clothe you.

Why would anybody in their right mind avoid this?  And that’s really the point of the story Jesus is telling.

God the king loves his people, loves them amazingly.  But the people Jesus is talking to are not especially interested in what Jesus is offering.  Their resistance to God the king is absurd.  Just before this wedding story, Matthew says,

“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”  (Matthew 21:45-46)

These are the folks who have their religion figured out, and there isn’t much room for the kind of God Jesus has been talking about, and no room for him.  It seems that the word “joy” is not in their vocabulary.  Blinded by traditions and rules, these are people who are so inwardly focused, they can’t see the crowd outside, the crowd that Jesus wants heal and touch: everybody, good and bad, no matter who they are, no matter who you are.  Come on in; here’s your Armani tux, here’s your de la Renta dress!  Here’s your seat!

Maybe you too have an image of God who is big on rules and expectations; maybe that’s what you’ve come to expect from the church.  If your God is a kind of heavenly policeman, that is the image Jesus wants to break.  What we do here is way more about faith and fellowship and fun than about religion and rules.  Jesus wants to set you free to enjoy God in a way you never have before!

A more recent wedding in our family…

God wants everybody at the party.  Everybody.  We are the servants of God who go out into the streets and gather anybody and everybody that we can find.  We want to invite them to be with us, to worship the King with us and to have fun.  God fills our hands with invitations and sends us out.

But here’s the thing about this invitation; it’s not just an invitation to a party.  It’s an invitation to fulfillment.  It’s an invitation to life.  It’s… (say these words with me…)

An invitation to rest…

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

An invitation to be part of the mystery…

“Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jeremiah 33:3)

An invitation to relationship…

“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

An invitation to a new kind of life…

 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.” (John 3:36)

An invitation to an abundant life…

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  (John 10:10)

An invitation to worship…

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.”  (Psalm 100:1)

An invitation to service…

“…the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:26)

God has so much to give us, and sends the invitation every day.  Day by day, inviting, waiting for the RSVP, waiting for the yes.  So easy, it’s hard.  Yes, God, I believe.  Jesus, I believe in you.  Let your life flow through me.

Now, let’s accept God’s call to invite everybody to the party.  Let’s think invitationally, about how we can include the community in all that we do, whether it’s a breakfast, or a turkey dinner, or a Celebration Dinner.  Most of all, let’s each say yes to him as we pray.


God, we are so grateful for the invitation to be part of your family, to receive the amazing gift of your salvation, to respond to your call to follow you. It is a privilege that you would think of us and reach out your hand that way.  We confess that far too often we act like ungrateful guests. We allow other priorities to crowd you out. We are addicted to busyness; we crowd you out and act like other things are so much more important than you.  We’ve got a bunch of other gods demanding our loyalty and attention, and without a thought, too often, we just give them what they want.  But we realize that we want the gift of life you are offering.  Help us, day by day, to give ourselves to you.  Through Jesus, bring us the peace we need.  Fill our empty-ness with huge joy, we pray in his name. Amen.

10/5/2014 Sermon: So Easy It’s Hard – “Strong Suggestions”

no skateboardingThere is actually an easy way to think about the Ten Commandments.  The first four are “vertical,” about our relationship with God.  The last six are about our relationship with each other, “horizontal” all summarized by Jesus when he said…

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  38  This is the great and first commandment. 39  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:37-39)

Many centuries before, as Moses was leading the Hebrew people toward their Promised Land…

Exodus 20:1-20. Then God spoke all these words:

2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before* me.

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation* of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.*

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid* and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ 20Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’

You are probably aware that as citizens of this town, this state, and this country, we have a lot of laws, and they are different from place to place.  States have been known to contradict each other (as if you didn’t know!).  Some of us have to live by neighborhood rules.  And we pay people to enforce those laws and rules.  These “strong suggestions” are all based on people willfully coming together to decide how they want to live – at least that’s how it’s supposed to work in this country.  But what laws are the most annoying to you?

speed limitSpeed limits?  I think speed limits are annoying – until I’m out riding my bike on a country road and hoping that the truck behind me won’t blow me away.

How about zoning? All those things that you can and can’t do in or around your house.  I knew a guy with a house in a historic district whose picket fence was limited to a certain area of his yard.  One year, for a few weeks, he went outside at night with a posthole digger and gradually moved it about 8 feet.

Here are a few interesting laws:

Alabama has a law against the exploitation of bears (2006).  Bear exploitation happens when a person knowingly “promotes, engages in, or is employed at a bear match,” if he or she receives money for bear wrestling and if he or she “sells, purchases, possesses or trains a bear for bear wrestling.”  It’s also illegal to surgically alter a bear for bear wrestling.

In Flint, Michigan, you can be arrested for wearing sagging pants (2008).  Wearing your pants inappropriately could lead to 93 days to a year’s worth of jail time, plus up to $500 in fines. Police can issue a warning if your underwear is slightly exposed, and they can charge you with disorderly conduct for exposing the backside parts of you that underwear is supposed to cover.

towedPennsylvania has interesting “blue laws” (things you can or can’t do on Sunday).  You can buy a car on any day of the week but Sunday.  The only game you can hunt on Sunday are coyotes, crows, opossum, striped skunks, and weasels.

It is against the law in Juneau, Alaska for animals to enter an establishment where food is sold; it’s also illegal for them to enter any barber shop or beauty salon.

In Washington State, “Every person who shall willfully expose himself to another, or any animal affected with any contagious or infectious disease, in any public place or thoroughfare, except upon his or its necessary removal in a manner not dangerous to the public health; and every person so affected who shall expose any other person thereto without his knowledge, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”  A very long way of saying, “Thou shalt not be sick in public.”  Please don’t come to work and infect everyone with whatever is making you ill.

This all came from a list of “strange state laws,” but that last one might not be so strange now with the worries many people have about the Ebola virus. (http://travel.usnews.com/features/7_Strange_State_Laws/)

The Ten Commandments seem basic enough.  Then after Moses received those laws on Mt. Sinai, you might be aware that more laws were added to the Hebrew legal code – hundreds more, actually.  Some of them became less than useful as time passed and culture changed.

In the Book of Leviticus there is a law against eating shellfish (or anything else without scales or fins).  This probably was not arbitrary – having lived in coastal Massachusetts, I can think of times of the year when it wasn’t a good idea to eat the shellfish and it was illegal to go clamming.  Eating shellfish during a “red tide” would make you sick. I scripture, as you may have been able to figure out in that Exodus passage, there were laws to protect slaves, but not to abolish slavery, though slavery was never thought of as a good thing.  So, there was always a core of law, and then other layers that changed with the times and situations the people were in.  Of course, eventually, Jesus gave a completely new perspective to much of the religious-legal code.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been watching Moses lead the Hebrew people out of slavery, and the giving of the law was part of their preparation for entering the Promised Land.  First, Moses had to be convinced to lead, and if you remember, God did not choose him for his leadership abilities.  His ability to lead the people was directly proportional to his willingness to obey God on faith, and then to rely on God.  Then the people had to be convinced to follow.  It was much easier to stay in slavery, so much easier to stay in the comfort zone of what they knew. They also had to learn to obey God on faith, and then to rely on God when the journey to the Promised Land became extremely difficult.

So, the Commandments came to the Hebrew people after they had been walking for a while.  You have to remember that the 10 Commandments were not something new for the Israelites. It’s not like Moses gave them the 10 Commandments and they said “Oh, wow! We were so confused! We’re so glad you told us these things.”   They are a common-sense summary of what they already knew about their relationship with God.

If you look at the commandments, and then look back at the beginning of the story in Genesis. It’s all there. I created you; I am your only God.  You don’t murder. You put away false gods. You don’t steal from your uncle. You don’t cheat. You don’t covet your neighbor’s flocks, and you don’t mess with your neighbor’s wife. Etc. They are the basic ingredients for relationship with God and each other.

The Commandments are actually a covenant, or an agreement with God.  Ever wonder why there are two tablets of stone?  We almost always think that it’s because there wasn’t enough room on one.  But some think it’s because it was like a treaty with God and all the commandments are on one tablet together, and there were two copies of the same list.  One copy goes into the ark (God’s copy), and the other goes out for display to the people.  It’s a demonstration to the people that God won’t be forgetting, and they won’t have any excuse for disobedience.  Treaties with kings were made this way.

Israel had the same problem we often have: It’s not that we don’t know better; it’s that we don’t behave better. We’ve heard the law; we don’t do the law. The giving of the 10 Commandments illustrated in a concrete way, a very real truth about human nature: We’re prone to ignore what is right, and to do what is wrong, and ultimately not good for us.

What Paul said to the Romans is true:

…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  (Romans 3:23)

 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15)

Which commandment do you have the hardest time with?  It’s hard, isn’t it?  We all fall short in some way.  James says…

You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.  (James 8:8-10)

HandsSo many people sit in church pews, or in the sanctuary of a forest, or the cathedral of a sunset on the beach asking, “God, what do you want?”  And in these verses, God speaks.  God speaks, and we have this rebellion going on, these distractions and an inner desire to want to go back to slavery.  We feel like asking, “Is there anybody else up there?”

It all seems like such bad news.  But we gather here because of good news.  Extreme good news.  There is a way back, a way out of trouble.

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)

Jesus gives himself for each one of us.  That’s your sin that died with him on the cross, and my sin.  It’s a new life you get when you believe that he lives.  It’s so easy it’s hard.  Living up to God’s standards on your own is an exercise in frustration.  God doesn’t take away the Commandments, but in Christ, gives us a new kind of power to live them out.

It’s not about the rules; it’s about the relationship God wants with us.  The deep love God has for us.  The love and care God wants us to share with each other.  God speaks and creates.  God still speaks and creates.  God is still speaking, making old things into new, changing lives.  Opening the doors to our hearts and our homes and our town. With Christ in us and leading us, we will become a culture of change.

God speaks hope and love and protection for us.   God says, “I made you. I love you. I know what will satisfy you and what will leave you longing.”  And through Jesus God says, “Come, follow me.”  We never walk alone.


Holy God, like all children, we need rules so that we can learn our boundaries. As a loving parent, you have given us rules — not to punish us — but to teach us. The commandments you give bring wholeness to our lives. When we keep your commandments, we honor you and everyone we live with. Help us to teach our children your laws of love and your ways. Guide and instruct us. For it is only with your help that we can stay on the right path. Amen.