11/27/2016 Sermon – The Right Heart #3: “Moving On”

suitcaseLast week, we were looking at Thanksgiving expectations: the traditional food (depending on your ethnic background!), a lot of the traditional people, etc.  Everybody has their own kind of “normal,” but I think that for most part, we find a lot of comfort in having these moments that give us a kind of an anchor when so much of life seems to be changing.  There are these times when we remember mostly good things, right?  And Thanksgiving is a trigger for some of those memories.

 Did you have a good Thanksgiving holiday?  Do any Black Friday shopping?  Did anybody travel?   Do you go to family or do they come to you?  For a lot of people, travel is part of the Thanksgiving experience.  Kathy and I have almost always traveled somewhere for Thanksgiving.

Travel is part of the tradition.  Why did the first European settlers celebrate Thanksgiving in the first place?  Because they were thankful, obviously.  They were thankful for having survived a difficult sea voyage in the fall and a hard winter after they got to New England.  Not the best time to travel by boat, especially to New England.

I know that there was a sequence of events that made them travel when they did, but it wasn’t a good idea.  Half died and it was a miracle that anybody lived through that experience.  Native Americans had a lot to do with them having anything to be thankful about.

Thanksgiving is probably the most traveled holiday in our culture.  And it’s Biblical!  In the ancient Hebrew scriptures, people spent a lot of their lives traveling.  In fact, in some ways you could say that they got into trouble when they stayed in one place too long.  Could it be that while traveling, moving from one place to another, that you need to rely on God more?  The seasons of Advent and Lent are about traveling (to Bethlehem and Jerusalem). Let’s think about traveling.

The theme for this series is, “The Right Heart.”  We find that right place with God when we recognize that we are spiritually helpless without Jesus, and allow God to give him to us.  Spiritually, we stop wandering and begin to come home.  He is the destination.

But the story of salvation began many years before his time.  The reading for today comes at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy.  You could say that for the Hebrew people, this is the end of the beginning.  They have come to the Promised Land.

This story is about the death of Moses.  It happens just as the Hebrew people are at the end of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness (or desert), and they are just about to enter the Promised Land.  After 40 years, it’s mostly a new generation of people who have arrived with Moses.  The new people are about to enter a new life.  They are being given the gift of a future.

Deuteronomy 34.  Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ 5Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. 6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.7Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated. 8The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Just a quick recap:  Moses was adopted by the family of the Pharaoh – the king of Egypt – and lived the good life.  He grew up as an upper class Egyptian until he found out who he was – the son of Hebrew slaves.  Then he killed a man who was abusing those Hebrew slaves and was exiled from Egypt.  He was about forty when that happened.

So, in his prime years, Moses had a career change.  Instead of being a prince, he was exiled and began tending sheep and raising a family.  We don’t hear much detail about Moses during this middle part of his life.  It wasn’t until he was around 80 years old that God called Moses to rescue the Hebrew people back in Egypt.   Good thing he didn’t retire, because the most important events of the life of Moses happened in the last third of his life.

Moses takes the Hebrew people on a 40-year hike, and at the end of the journey, with victory literally in sight, God takes Moses to a mountain for a view of the Promised Land, and tells Moses… he isn’t going to be going there with everybody else.

Is this fair?  After 40 years of thinking about it, 40 years of walking toward it, he isn’t going.  Why didn’t God let Moses go into the Promised Land just for a few days, or hours, or minutes? just so that he could say he’d been there?  Doesn’t that seem unfair?  After all that Moses had done, it seems like he got right to the goal line and was taken out of the game.  But what’s happening here is “consequences:” Moses “broke faith” with God at one point when they were wandering in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 32:48ff), and this is the consequence for him.  And I believe God had a bigger plan.

There’s a traditional spot where Moses stood to see the Promised Land.  It’s called Mt. Nebo and that’s the view.  Moses might have been standing on that spot and he may have been looking at those rocky hills.

But this wasn’t the only thing God was showing Moses.  God was giving Moses a vision.  God showed Moses all the Promised Land, “all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea.”  And there’s no way you can see all that from Mt. Nebo.

God was showing Moses the future. I’ve been to that place and I can tell you that the Promised Land looks pretty bleak and disappointing from up there, but God was showing Moses something way beyond these rocky hills.  God’s gift to Moses was the knowledge that the people he had been leading would have a future.  He had done what God asked him to do.  He had been the hero God used to save Israel, but in their new world, the people would have to re-learn how to rely on God instead of him.  The people of God are always re-learning that they need to put their complete trust in God – and nobody else.

Moses stood on the mountain and saw all this land that God was giving to the people. I also think it’s possible that God did not want the people to think that Moses was the only person that could lead them.  And by taking Moses out of the picture the way God did, the people also remembered that Moses was human.  They were reminded of a time when Moses lacked faith, a time when he should (and could) have been faithful, but wasn’t. Moses was a great man, a hero.  But human.  Like so many Bible heroes, Moses was a normal guy who said yes.

And now, people, it’s time to move on, to move on into that vision of the Promised Land.  Move on into the future.  People, trust in the God who brought you this far.  Without God, you have no future.  The people of God are always moving into the Promised Land, always into something new, always into a future that requires them to change and start a new chapter.  It’s a little scary.  Maybe very scary.

I’m talking about this because all churches are facing a future that requires believers to go into new places that we haven’t been to before.

We are turning a page in our life together as a church.  No, we are turning a chapter.  We might even be writing a whole new book as God’s people.  We are not the same as we were 50 years ago or 25 years ago or even 5 years ago, and we will be different in times to come.

The pastors and the leaders change.  The one constant in our lives is the faithfulness of God, without whom we are just a nice group of people meeting in a nice brick building.  God is asking us to take a step toward the Promised Land, toward a future.  It’s time for new year’s resolutions early!

What new tradition do you want to have for yourself in the new future?  What new things could we do to fulfill the purpose God has for us?  Let’s pray for more vision.  Do you have a sense that God is taking you personally to a new place spiritually?  In what way?

Moses was 120 years old when God gave him his vision.  His age could be a legendary part of the story, something that may not be literally true, but the point is that he was very old when God showed him the Promised Land.  In our culture, at that age, he would have been retired for about half his life.

What’s the church’s retirement age?  I guess we don’t have one, and that’s a good thing.  We need people with vision and visions, young and old, and people who will have enough faith in God to go to new places.  Our church has had a wonderful history.  If we continue to give ourselves to God, if we continue to make our worship of God the center of our life together, we will have the kind of future only God can create.  And it’s exciting.

Prayer

Help us see, God, and give us a vision.  Lead us to new places in our relationship with you.  Help us get over the obstacles that keep us from being what we could be.  Bring us through the rivers that stand between us and our Promised Land.  Help us change.  Teach us the patience we need as we grow.  Forgive our impatience with you and each other.  We praise you for the future you give us through Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

11/20/2016 Sermon – The Right Heart #2: “Remembering”

“Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell (1943)
“Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell (1943)

If I ask what Thanksgiving looks like for you, your mind might get stuck on the Norman Rockwell painting called “Freedom from Want.”  Grandma and Grandpa are serving the turkey, and everybody is celebrating.  This is such a famous painting (like da Vinci’s Last Supper), everybody gets the idea that Thanksgiving should look this way.

When I was growing up, as much as I can remember, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ house, which was about three blocks away (most of my immediate family lived within about 3 blocks of each other).  That’s where the turkey was.  I would say that it was very typical, if that painting is a reference point for typical.  But as I’ve gotten older, I know that there are many versions of typical or normal.  My memories of a typical Thanksgiving changed when my grandfather died.  Then we shifted to Kathy’s parents for many years.  Now, it seems that our son has taken on Thanksgiving duties and we go to his house.  His kids will think this is normal, or typical.  There are all kinds of normal.  Turkey isn’t even required!

Do you have memories of Thanksgiving?  Do you have thankful types of memories?  It might seem like an odd question, but there’s always the chance that something will get in the way of creating a good memory.  Is there a holiday tradition that doesn’t happen for you anymore?  It stopped or changed for some reason?

Sometimes the tradition has to happen in a new place.  Sometimes there are new people.  That changes the dynamic, right?

It’s important to God that we remember, that we learn from memories.  The scripture reading from Deuteronomy isn’t just about being thankful; it’s about being thankful for memories, learning from memories

The Hebrew people have escaped slavery in Egypt and God is about to bring them into the Promised Land…

Deuteronomy 26:1-11.  When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Our Jewish friends have a long tradition of remembering.  That reading from Deuteronomy was about some instructions God gave the people of Israel to help them preserve some memories.   God says, “Don’t forget where you came from. You were slaves and now you’re not.  You were homeless and now I’m taking you home, taking you to your new home. The best way you can remember where you came from is to take care of the ones among you who are helpless and homeless, just as you were.”  Each of the families then bring an offering of the first fruits of their harvest, the best of the first, and give it to God, and they say, “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”  (Deuteronomy 26:10)  Why was that important to remember?  They could remember a time when they had no food, except for what God gave them (Exodus 16:10-20).  Especially for those who remembered the slavery, and how God saved them, that must have been a powerful experience.  Our spiritual history is all about being saved out of a terrible situation.  Our spiritual family has always been immigrants, headed for some new home.

How many of you have family bibles?  The one I’m holding came to this country on a ship from Norway before the Civil War.  Written in the middle are the birth-dates of my great-grandparents, their parents, and their parents, going back to the 1700’s.  Their names are in it, along with their birth and death dates.  1866-halderson-family-bible-pg-1

I’ve learned in the last few years that the part of Norway they came from was a difficult place.  Mountainous and rocky with terrible winters.  They came for a better life, the same as many of your families.  Kathy’s grandparents came from Greek islands for the same reasons.  Tourists go there now for vacations and others on rafts as refugees, but 100 years ago, people were trying to get away.

Thanksgiving is a good time to remember the moments in your life when you were delivered, or saved, or redeemed  It strikes me that the creed the Hebrew people used didn’t avoid the pain.  They had been homeless and then were used as slaves in Egypt.  Thousands suffered and died in Egypt, and in readings like this, they reminded themselves over and over again where and what they had come from.

A bible is a good storage place for more than just family names.  Here’s a suggestion: pick a bible that you think will last a long time and write down important events in your life, or in the life of your family.   Just make a quick note.  No detailed history.  Those events might be more important than the dates on which people were born or died.  Go back and read them every now and then.

There’s a difference between the way we write our family histories and the way the Hebrew people wrote theirs.  We prefer to remember only the good things.  But life is a balance between good and bad things and we learn from all of them if we remember.  The bad things don’t have to be like cement blocks around our ankles; they can be like the notes we write on the blank pages of our bibles that tell our story.  The future of our families can be different if we face what we were and what we are, good and bad.

At Thanksgiving time, we remember that God says, “Don’t forget where you came from. You were slaves and now you’re not.  You were homeless and now you’re home. The best way you can remember where you came from is to take care of the ones among you who are helpless and homeless, just as you were.”

Help me say the verse from Deuteronomy: “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”

The theme for this series is, “The Right Heart.”  We find that right place with God when we recognize that we are spiritually helpless without Jesus, and allow God to give him to us.  We stop wandering and begin to come home.

Some of us have been in Manheim, or the area, for a long time.  Maybe our parents lived here, or maybe our families go back many generations in this place.  In one way or another, though, we have all come from somewhere else. We owe our lives in one way or another to the grace of God, and the people God put along the way to give us a hand.  Now God gives us the resources and the ability to help others.

So, this Thanksgiving, we seriously praise God for the wonderful things God has done for us through family, church, and community.  But with the gift comes responsibility – and wonderful opportunities to serve God.  Some families put out an empty chair or a plate as a reminder that God is our guest and we are part of a bigger human family. This Thanksgiving, tell your own story with someone.  Give thanks for what God is doing.

Prayer

O God, help us remember where we came from and the path we walked to get here, the good and the bad.  Use these memories to change us and keep us growing.  We give our first fruits to you, Lord; the first and the best of ourselves we bring to you.  This Thanksgiving, help us remember all you’ve done for us in your son Jesus.  Because of him, we have a new home with you. You have saved us, redeemed us through him. We thank you for the new life you give us. In his name we pray, Amen.

11/13/2016 Sermon – The Right Heart #1: “Getting Ready for the Journey”

Do you remember Election Day? What a truly gut-wrenching week.  Would you agree?  We seem to be in this really strange place politically, ethically, morally.  And I suspect that if we projected our emotions on the sanctuary screens somehow, they might conflict.  But letting angst live in your mind (and heart) for a long period of time is not healthy.  Raise your hand if you were angry or worried this last week…. and want to stay that way for the next four years?

Once upon a time, I heard a UCC conference minister say, When you feel conflict coming on, even when you feel backed into a corner, make a conscious effort to turn up your love.  Maybe that gets expressed in your ability to listen and see another side.  Listen. Don’t react. I have to work on this all the time.

I was listening to psychologist Jonathan Haidt describe how the country can move toward healing.  He mentioned that one of the most used adjectives of the last year or so has been “disgust.”  He said that the antidote to disgust is love.  Then he said everybody should read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  I think I might do that. You watch Haidt’s Ted Talk here:

I’d also suggest the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John. After Jesus knows he’s been betrayed by Judas, he says to his closest disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  That love had to happen when things were at their worst.

The book of Isaiah was written for the Hebrew people who were living through major turmoil.  It’s safe to say that it was much worse than our situation.  They had been conquered by a superpower (Assyria), taken into exile by another superpower (Babylon).  Now, they are coming back home, and God wants them to have their priorities straight.

For the first part of this chapter, you have to know what fasting is.  Fasting is voluntarily going without food — or any other good gift from God that you regularly enjoy — for the sake of some spiritual purpose.

michelangelo-isaiahThat’s how Michelangelo painted Isaiah on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  For him, Isaiah is a young guy.  It’s kind of funny.  He’s got an angel/cherub sitting on his shoulder, who’s saying, Yo, God told me to tell you to tell the people… and Isaiah looks slightly annoyed, like he’s thinking about whether he he’s going to do this.  Isaiah speaks the words of God…..

Isaiah 58:1-12.  Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins. 
2 Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
   they delight to draw near to God. 
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers. 
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high. 
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord? 

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday. 
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail. 
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in. 

Ritual.  God is concerned about how the people use ritual, especially fasting.  What are some of the religious rituals we regularly use?  Don’t use these things like some kind of scorecard.  Here God, we did this favor for you.  Bless me.  Thanks.  God is way more concerned about the motives behind our faith practice.

3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’

So, God answers them,

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”

Your fasting, which is supposed to be bringing you close to me, obviously has no influence on your daily life.

People, if you were fasting, if you were getting close to me, this is what would happen: You would…

loose the bonds of injustice.   You would share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,

…..and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (v. 7)

Think about those words for a second.  Coming up to Thanksgiving, this might be a little pointed.  How many of us have family who don’t speak to each other?  Might there be a way to make amends?

The people do fasting to appease God – give God the sacrifice God wants so that God won’t bother them.  It’s to make themselves they’ve done the right thing but without doing anything different.  It’s about bargaining and trade-offs.  A little bit like the indulgences for sale in 16th century Europe.  As if we can say to God, “Here God, is a favor I do for you, so that so that you won’t punish me.”

I believe God loves heartfelt worship.  I really do.  But the product of worship is change in the community, a change in the way we treat people, a change in the way we care for each other and the community.

If we… (name your ritual), then…

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday. 

Prayer

God, we remember that life is short; so help us be open in our confession to you.  Give us the courage to confront the sins we have trouble confessing.  Help us be more aware of sins that might be hard for us to even know about.   And in all this, help us find a way to made amends for to those whom we have wronged. We think on the amazing love he showed for us all when he prayed, on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know what they do.” Through your Spirit, give us new life and a new direction. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

11/6/2016 Sermon: “Saints!”

Mark 12:28-34.  One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Ephesians 1:15-23.  I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

stained glassIs the election causing anxiety for anyone?  Once again, I think it might be a good reason to stay away from television network programming for a month or two, or three.  Seriously, it might not be good for kids to watch this stuff; stick with the Disney Channel.  I mean it.

It’s too bad; this is the great structure our constitution describes and I believe that there are people who are really good at navigating the world of government.  I’ve known wonderful people who step into that world, who know how to understand it and communicate it, and who clearly love it.  I think that there are people who are gifted at government, and I’m glad to have known some of them.  They love using the tool of government to help people.  You might have known some of those folks too.

But one of the things you have to do to win an election is make the other candidate look bad.  Even though they might all have some gifts for government, you get the idea that for each election contest, you only have a choice of bad choices.

Everybody running for office seems so completely flawed.  The presidential candidates would not be nominated for sainthood, right?

Now, the common idea for sainthood comes from the Catholic Church, but that tradition would say that their saints were human beings and flawed in some way.  They might not survive an election process with their sainthood intact.  This is All Saints Day (for us; it was actually Nov. 1), so let’s talk about saints.

20140826_131044Over the years, the Catholic Church has had over 10,000 saints. It’s hard to be sure, because many were local to towns or regions.  Many are legendary, they never actually existed (the Catholic Church has acknowledged that)

If you do a Google search for saints, this is mostly what comes up: the New Orleans Saints.  I don’t think this day was set aside to recognize them.  But some of the New Orleans Saints could be saints in the biblical Christian meaning of that word.

Let me explain – it’s possible that you need to embrace your inner sainthood!  I’m going to talk about how the Bible expresses sainthood and why that’s important.

According to scripture, you are saints.  You are Saint __________ .  You could wear that on a name badge. In scripture, there is no such thing as a dead saint.  In scripture, the only thing that makes a saint a saint is that they believe in Jesus and so are sanctified.  If the person sitting next to you is a believer, they are a saint.  Shake hands with a saint.  There are saints who have gone to be with Jesus permanently, and they are also alive. In the communion service we shared that meal “with fellow Christians everywhere, in all ages, and beyond the present age.”

We like to think of saints as remarkable people – heroes.  Mostly dead heroes.  You might be thinking that there is no way you will ever achieve status like those people.  But in scripture, the word “saint” simply means “sanctified.”  It always refers to believers in Jesus who are alive right now.

All they had to do is believe, and God sees them all equally, cleansed of their sin because of the sacrifice of Jesus.  God does not have a Hall of Fame for believers, as if some are better than others.  When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he talks about their “love towards all the saints,” (v. 15) and he means the love that’s being shared among everyone who believes. They’ll know we are Christians by our… love (John 13:35).  That’s what he means.  The living saints caring for each other.

And being a saint is awesome.  Faith is awesome.  Believing in Jesus is awesome.  God is this amazing power source.  Listen carefully to these words:

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. (Ephesians 1:19-19)

Let’s talk about the basics of sainthood for a moment.  At some point in the season for every team, no matter what the sport is, the coach needs to stand in front of the players and take them back to the beginning.  It’s said that coach Vince Lombardi would stand in front of the Green Bay Packers at the beginning of each season and say, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

1997-nichols-jamie-baseballThe baseball players in our house would come home from a practice and we’d ask “What did you do today?”  They’d say something like, “We ran bases.  Then we caught fly balls.  It was boring.”  But it was important.  If you don’t do those basic things well, the game becomes frustrating. For a lot of people, the Christian faith is bunch of rules and technical religion.  It’s too hard.  They miss “the riches of the glorious inheritance.”

A lot of people ask the question, “What are Christians supposed to do, anyway?”  It’s right there in Mark.  This is the third time we’ve heard these words, from different gospels…

“you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… [and] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

It’s basic.  You shall love.  God wants our love and wants us to care for other people.  To God, relationships are more important than religion. Very basic.  And that’s what makes a saint.

When I taught at a Catholic high school back in the 70’s, I knew a few kids who wanted to become priests or nuns because they felt that this was the way to get some control in their lives.  They thought that if you become a clergy-person, if you joined a religious order, you would have less risk of messing your life up; you would always have people around you reminding you of “the rules.”  I’ve known some Protestant clergy who started out the same way.  It doesn’t work.

For some folks, being a Christian is nothing more than being in the right place on Sunday morning.  For some it’s being nice and staying out of arguments, which is interesting, because Jesus argued with some people a lot.  I know it may be hard for some to hear, but being religious is not really what God is interested in.  Discipline is a good thing, and God can help with discipline (people in AA know this for a fact), but God wants a relationship first.  God wants your love.  As imperfect as it might be, all-out love for God is where the power of God starts.  It’s where the riches of the inheritance are.

So we are a group of people who share the power of faith expressed in how we love.  We are a garden for saints.  We grow saints, people who believe, people who care.  People who find ways to support believing and caring.

Your faith didn’t happen in a vacuum.  Think of someone from your own life, somebody who contributed to your faith, that you would nominate for sainthood.  Who are saints to you?  Why?  For me, it was three guys named John, Greg, and Larry.

Is there a Christian organization that made a huge difference in your faith? Was there a garden where you first began to grow?  How can we be that kind of garden in Manheim?  God, what do we need to do?  You show us… 

Prayer

You are the master craftsman; the ultimate reference work on love.  Through your Spirit, we come to you because you know how to make us complete.  Give us more faith. Teach us how to love with our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength.

Live in us and through us to reach the world with your love, and teach us about neighbors.  It’s hard to love them when we barely know who they are.  And our world gets so many mixed messages about what love is.  So through your Spirit, help us open our lives to those around us, and use us to communicate your message that there is a love which is real.  Amen.