7/30/2017 Sermon: ” Jesus the Healer”

Since the earliest times of the church, followers of Christ have been given the ministry of healing.  Sometimes, this has taken place in miraculous ways, in public places, at times when God’s purpose was to bring many to faith.

Most often, the healing ministry of the church is shown in the care we give each other, and in the encouragement we give each other as we walk life’s path together, knowing that our God walks with us.  Many of these moments are private, known only to a few, or only to ourselves.

There are many kinds of healing – physical (illness, injury), emotional (trauma of an inner struggle), relational (hurtful disconnect with someone else), and spiritual (a separation from God).  All of us have needed healing of one kind or another in our lives.  And through the church, God sends the Holy Spirit to be present in that moment, whatever it may be for you.

This will be a different kind of a sermon.  There will be a time to hear the Word and think about the Word.  There will be time for prayer, spoken and silent.  There will be music.  And there will be an invitation, for those who wish it, to come forward to let the leadership pray with you and for you.  No matter where you are in the room, or on your journey, or in your life, God’s deepest desire is to make you whole.

Mark 1:29  As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Mark 1:40  A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  41  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”  42  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44  saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

A Search for Healing.  There are many ways to find healing and many, many ways to spend money on healing.  On the Internet you find places that sell healing stones, healing crystals, healing herbs.  You’d find topics like Reiki and Tao healing (healing practices from Asia), celestial healing, faith healing, natural healing, spiritual healing, sexual healing, and healing humor.  At the top of the computer screen, after a search for the word “healing,” the book seller Amazon will sell you books on healing.  And my screen invites me to “find products and comparison shop for healing” in 3,500 different places on the Internet.

Healthcare has been a major national issue for many years.  Physicians have many miraculous ways to cure us, and it’s all very expensive.

There probably isn’t a person in this room that hasn’t prayed for healing at one time or another – for yourself or someone else.  During most of our worship services, we’ll pray for families who are overcoming a loss, those who have been hospitalized, people who are dealing with injury or illness.  Pastors know that if a list like that were to be truly accurate, we would be saying a lot of names each week.  I look across the room and I see wonderful people who have had a close relationship with pain.  And God knows.

In the presence of God, we talk about those who are ill.  Talking about those who are ill in church may seem like a natural thing to you, or, you may have wondered how healing (and illness) has a place here.  The first hospitals were started as annexes to monasteries and church buildings.  Medical facilities began to separate around 200 years ago, but healing is still a spiritual thing for many of us.  You know that your most spiritual moments come when you need healing.  It’s a moment when many people know they need God.

The concern for healing – and the search for healing has been with us since God created us.  From the moment we begin to breathe, we have a survival instinct that craves healing.  As I say these words, you know someone who needs healing right now.  That someone may be you.

So many people have come into a deeper relationship with God because of something in their life that needed healing.  If this is the method God has used in your life to get closer to you, you know that this is not an easy path to walk; it’s not for the faint of heart.  When we think of healing, we think of miracles, and God is in that business.  If you became closer to God because of an illness, you may or may not have thought of it this way, but it was a miracle, whether you were cured or not.

So, what does healing mean for Christians?  What does it mean for people who come into contact with Jesus?  What does it mean for you?  What needs healing in your life?  I want to encourage you to let God be a partner in your healing.  The healing you experience may not be the healing you ask for or expect.  The healing you experience as a Christian is not about you and it’s not about me; it’s about God.  It’s about a deeper relationship with the God who loves you and has a deep desire to save you. I invite you now to listen to the words of this song (Healer):

Call to Confession.  Healing begins with faith and faith begins with prayer.  To bear one another’s burdens in prayer is a holy privilege.  God needs believers to show a willingness to be a vessel for God’s power, a willingness to be used by God.  And so, in silence, we need to offer our confessions to God so that we can be cleansed of anything that might disrupt our ability to pray for ourselves or others.

In confessing, we name those sins which separate and distort our relationship with God and each other: sins of pride, self-love, and resentment; sins of hatred, bitterness, and jealousy.  Let us name also our connection with humanity’s sins: sins of poverty, war, hunger, injustice, neglect, and discrimination.  We confess the ways we harm each other.  In silence, we confess our sins.

[Silence]

Leader.  If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  You are forgiven.

Mark 2:1-13  And when [Jesus] returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.  2  And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. 3  And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. 4  And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. 5  And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  

6  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7  “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8  And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? 9  Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10  But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – 11  “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.”  12  And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Most of the time we pray in worship, we pray as a group.  Most of the time, I direct the prayer; I tell you what to say.  In a moment you will have an opportunity to pray for your personal needs with the worship leadership and I will invite you to come forward for that.  We will each have a small container of scented oil, with which we touch your hand.  This anointing is an ancient sign of special blessing from God.

Prayer

You are the God who heals.  You are the God who forgives unconditionally. You are the God who loves us beyond what we can know.  You are the God who defeats all our enemies and anoints us for your purposes. We thank you for oil, used by prophets and apostles as a sign of your grace and favor.  Send your Holy Spirit on us and fill us; let this oil be the touch of health that comes from you through Jesus.  Amen.

All those who wish to be anointed for healing or wholeness may come forward.  You may come for yourself, or you may come as a channel of God’s healing power for someone else.  The need for healing may involve something physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual.  You may come seeking wholeness, a new relationship with God.

Prayer

God, for those in physical distress, for those in physical pain, we pray.  We lift them up to you.  Some of us are battling disease and injury. Maybe not even our closest friends know how really serious it is, but you know.  Some of us live with pain like an old friend.  We want you to take the hurt away; but if it must be, give us the perseverance and grace to handle it with patience and the power to keep from taking it out on those around us.  Heal us, God.

Some of us outwardly are the picture of health, we put up a good front, but inside our heart of hearts where you know us best, something is wrong, something that keeps us from experiencing the full life you want for us. It might come from an old tragedy, maybe a recent heartbreak, maybe it’s conflict in our family, maybe it’s loneliness, maybe it’s a nagging doubt about ourselves. A habit, an attitude.  Touch us, Lord. Heal our memories; free us from the past.  Free us from our emotional pain.  Free us from that part of ourselves that keeps us in slavery.  Heal us.

Others of us are thinking of those closest to us. Often there is very little we can do directly, even though we might gladly change places with that person if we could. Be near to those we are praying for in our hearts, be with them in the loneliness of their struggle, help them battle their pain, lift their spirits, restore their joy.

God, I want to be closer to you. I confess my need for you.  And the sin in my life that has kept me from you.  I thank you for sending Jesus to die on the cross for me.  I thank you that he lives for me.  I believe in him.  Now fill me with your Spirit.  And use me to make a difference… through the love of Christ.

Closing:  Luke 9:1, 6  Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.  They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

7/23/2017 Sermon: “Jesus on the Mountain”

White Mountains, New Hampshire. CN – 2000.

Have you got a mountain-top story?  I’m sure you know that you don’t have to be on a mountaintop to have a mountaintop story.

Jesus had a habit of going to mountains.  He mostly went to get away to pray.  It was his private place.  But sometimes he took his closest followers.

This story is about a mountaintop experience with Jesus.  One thing you need to keep in mind is that just before Jesus leads this retreat, he has told his disciples that he will soon be killed and then rise from the dead.  Yikes.  Now he needs to help them understand who he is.

Mark 9:2-9.  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

CN – 2000.

There is something awesome about being in a high place:  the top of the Empire State Building, in a chairlift at a ski slope, or in a cable car going to the top of a mountain somewhere.  Do you ever see bumper-stickers that say “This car climbed Mt. Washington”? That photo in the bulletin – left – is what we saw at 11,000 feet in the Alps. Driving a small rental car, we had made a wrong turn and missed the tunnel under the mountain to Italy.  I had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel the entire way up!  And down!

At the top, we pull out our cameras and try to capture the memory, but isn’t it true that our photos can never really record what we saw?  It was just too amazing.  Most of the time, we’re glad we went up there.  The trip to the top gave us a new way to see things.

Jesus had a habit of doing mountain trips.  Usually, it’s to get away to pray, to be alone, to be quiet. On the mountain, there’s fewer distractions.  When I hear people say that they are going to the mountains, I know that’s what they’re after.  The sound of the wind in the trees, the sounds of nature, less cell phone service.  A kind of spiritual reset.  A place to listen and breathe – it even smells different.  Jesus went to the mountains to be alone with his Father.  Of course, he’s showing us a good thing to do.  Your own mountain retreat can be in the next room, but there’s probably better places, right?

This morning, Jesus says, “See that mountain?  We’re going up there.  I have something to show you.”

The Transfiguration by Raphael. 1516-20.

This the final painting of the artist Raphael: the Transfiguration of Jesus; it’s the way he saw the story you just heard.  He painted it in Rome 500 years ago, working just around the corner from Michelangelo, who had finished the Sistine Chapel a few years before.  Raphael was 37 years old – and not far from death. In fact, he died before he finished this painting.  This is a little Bible study on canvas!

Everything in the picture is drawn to Jesus.  It’s all about him. That’s Peter, James, and John collapsed on the ground covering their eyes. It’s all too much to take in.  They are terrified.  This isn’t a calm, peaceful mountaintop experience.  Just above them are Moses, holding the tablets of the law (left), and Elijah holding his book of prophecy (right).  The words of the Old Testament are fulfilling themselves in Jesus.  Scripture all leads to him.  This is God.

But down at the bottom of the painting, at the bottom of the mountain, there is chaos.  Raphael has shown the next part of the gospel story. While Jesus is up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John, his other followers are trying to heal a young boy from his epileptic seizures, and it isn’t going well.  When Jesus gets down the mountain, the boy’s father begs him to help.

Mark 9:14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’17Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’

The father is desperate, the boy is reaching out to Jesus.  Reaching. There is nothing else he can do, except reach out to Jesus.   Nobody else on the ground is looking in the right direction.  And while Jesus is up on the mountain, they wait.  The face of this child looks suspiciously like Raphael.  Raphael is not far from his own end.  Jesus, get down here and touch me!  Enough transfiguring already!  God help me!

The scene may not have looked like this at all, of course.  I wonder if you can imagine how this played out, how it all happened.  I wonder if you might have had your own moment of waiting for Jesus to come, waiting in a crowd of dark chaos.  Jesus, get down here and touch me!

In desperation, the father said to Jesus,

Mark 9:23-24 …if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us. 23Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24Immediately the father of the child cried out, 

‘I believe; help my unbelief!’

Have you ever said those words?  I sure have.  And my mind goes to times when I needed God to pick me up and find a way forward.

Up on the mountain, in a thunderous voice, God speaks.  In circumstances we can’t control, God speaks: This is my beloved son – listen to him.  Listen to him.  In a quiet voice, in the middle of chaos, Jesus speaks:  demon, come out of that boy (and the demon leaves).  In the presence of Jesus, evil runs away.  God gives us stories like this – and experiences like these – to get our attention and help us realize who is in control, just in case we think we are.  And to help us know whom to rely on.

It was awesome being up there with Jesus. Invigorating.  But there was a purpose to this climb up the mountain.  When Jesus comes down, there is a cross, a tomb and a resurrection in the path ahead.  The mountaintop moment was about giving hope – there is awful, painful stuff down this road, but in the end, God wins.  Jesus lives and brings life to you and me when we believe.  Day by day, we are renewed.  And down in the valley, there is work to be done; people need to be healed, people need to be encouraged, people need to know Jesus.

After a long, really hard climb, at the top of the mountain where things seem really unsafe, and there is chaos down below, God is showing all of us that there is more.  And that God is in control.  Have faith – in Jesus, God is with you.

Each of us has mountains we are climbing.  Each of us is facing situations that have us scared out of our wits.  It’s different for every person in this room.  How do we survive this climb?  We follow.  We stick with each other. We stay focused on the one leading us – and listen to him.

Prayer

O God, show us your glory. In all the dark, difficult places of our lives, show us your glory. Help us see you walking beside us, giving us comfort in our struggles, encouraging us in our sadness. Take us to the mountaintop, help us to see. With you beside us, we can face evil and injustice with courage. With you walking ahead of us, we are able to walk with confidence. Show us your glory, ….in our sickness and pain, ….in our grief and loss, ….in our confusion and loneliness,….in our temptation and weakness, you change us as we pray through the power of the risen Jesus.  Amen.

7/16/2017 Sermon: “I’ll Fly Away”

Chris & Kathy Nichols with EMazing Grace – Tony Stolzfus (far left), Emily Stolzfus and Grace Kensinger (right)

[This worship service happened at a local park, with a local bluegrass trio providing the music]

A little trivia.  Do you guys know why bluegrass music is called bluegrass?

Back in the 1940’s there was a guy from Kentucky, named Bill Monroe, who put together one of the first popular groups playing mountain music, or hillbilly music.  Being from Kentucky, he named the group the Bluegrass Boys.  People began to connect this type of music with that name.

Just a few words about Bluegrass…

The roots of bluegrass are mostly in the mountains of Appalachia where immigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland settled in the 1700’s.  They were very poor and living in the mountains was not easy; it’s still not easy for a lot of their descendants.  Hill farming, coal mining, hunting for food.  Hot summers, hard winters.  Back then the main instrument of this mountain music was the fiddle.  They danced jigs.

Bluegrass eventually began to include the influence of people who had been in slavery (the banjo was originally an African instrument).

This music, in its root form, was made to bring joy – in some small form – to people whose life was hard, whose needs were simple, and who knew they needed each other.  The music of daily life, played and sung on the front porch (or back porch!).  It wasn’t necessarily meant for church, but a lot of it was spiritual, meant to give assurance and hope that when this hard life is done, God has something much better for us.

Think about the words we’ve been singing…

Some glad morning, when this live is o’er, I’ll fly away.

Will the circle be unbroken (bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye)

There’s a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

When you sing these words, you already feel some of the comfort God wants to give you when you reach your final destination. Faith in Christ is the gateway.  And in a few minutes, we’ll look at how God’s Word gives hope to suffering people.

Do you ever look at the news and wonder, “Wow, how can life go on this way?”

Or maybe some things have happened that have you so discouraged that you’ve begun to wonder how you can go on.

These words are for you. You could say that this is a scripture for Bluegrass people!

Revelation 21:1-7. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

The Book of Revelation was written to give suffering people hope. It was written during the first years of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, where in some places, you could lose your life if you openly believed in Jesus Christ.

The main point of the Revelation is that no matter how bad things look, God has everything under control and will win in the end.  This means that if you are one of God’s family, you have victory through the things God does.  God will set things right, so keep your faith. God is already setting things right through the Holy Spirit, making us new, stronger, whole people because of our faith.

There are two things I believe God wants us to get out of that scripture: 1) trust in Christ and 2) don’t compromise your faith.

Because of the things you see and experience, you might be tempted to think that the end is near, but that’s not true.  For us, it’s the beginning that’s near.

21:1-2  ” Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband;”

For Christians, life with Christ is the new beginning.  We are the “holy city,” the “new Jerusalem.”  We are Christ’s bride.  That’s how close God wants to be with us – as close as a bride and groom.  It’s God who prepares us through the Spirit for this wedding; dressing us in wedding clothes, making us pure, healing us, making us whole.

It’s a common misconception for Christians to think that they have to make themselves good enough for God, but that’s not Christian.  It’s our faith in Christ that makes us clean. When God sees us, God sees the mark of Christ, God sees us in wedding clothes, and that’s enough.

21:3-4  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

The voice from the throne is the voice of Christ, saying something those early Christians must have had to hear over and over again: you are now the temple of the Holy Spirit; God lives in you.  God is so with you! Never again will you face life alone.  It may not feel like it now, but you have company in your suffering, and an awesome future with God lying just ahead.  You may not feel it all the time, but Someone is walking with you, Someone who knows all about suffering.

 When Revelation was written, the Roman Empire had begun to see Christianity as a movement that had to be stopped.  The Roman Emperor Domitian was proclaiming himself God and demanding to be worshiped.  He called himself “Savior” and “Lord.”  All over the empire, citizens were required to offer sacrifices.  The temptation to compromise was strong.  Hey, why not worship both?

Our culture wants us to worry about the future.  Have you ever added up how much you spend on insurance?  Health, car, home, life.  Why do we do we buy insurance?  In the end, it’s probably so that we don’t have to be dependent on other people.  Bluegrass people in the mountains had no insurance – except each other.

We are always being asked to compromise our faith.  There are always opportunities to worship some other god.  Money, grades, drinking, lifestyle; the list could go on and it will be something different for each of us.  We are always being asked to give up, to turn away from God somehow, to let these things own us.

Each of us has thought of a moment at home or at work or at school when we thought, “Hey, wait a minute – is this what God wants from me?”

These days, you say something to your world when you stand up in public and say that you are one of God’s people. Be careful.  Being a follower of Christ will cost something.  Sometimes the suffering happens because you did the right thing.

The voice says: trust the one on the throne. The one who was crucified, but still lives.  In the end, the future is his. Let him be Lord.  Let him be your Lord.  We should let him be our Lord together.  With him, our beginning is now.

Prayer  

God, we thank you that we never face our challenges alone.  Fill us with yourself.  Give us wisdom to face the real challenges of our lives.  Take away our worry and anxiety.  Give us the inner peace we crave in the name of the one who holds our past and our future in his hands.

7/9/2017 Sermon: “I Was Hungry”

On behalf of St. Paul’s, I’m very proud that the Mission Team chose to go to the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi.  You may have heard me mention that this was where I had my first mission trip experience as a youth pastor in the 1980’s.  I’ve been back to the northern Gulf Coast area several more times for mission work, to Biloxi and New Orleans.  The most memorable trip was a few months after Hurricane Katrina (2006). I’ve never seen destruction like that before or since.  So many people affected, so much need.

New Orleans. CN – 2015.

Experiences like these give visual reality to the words of Jesus when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food…”  And of course, the hungry may be next door.  And there are so many other needs.  He wants us to pay attention to the ones whom he calls “the least of these.”  This morning, I’d like to explore what Jesus was thinking about when he said those words in the 25th chapter of Matthew.

Jesus tells three stories – parables – and wants us to think about them through this filter: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” (v. 1)  He is the king.  What is he the king of?  A kingdom. What is the kingdom? Believers.  You and me.  The gathering, the community of people who believe.  The church.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like:

First, Jesus gives a story about bridesmaids being ready, with lamps lit, to greet the wedding party.  Half of them were ready and half had made a really strange decision to not be ready.  Jesus was saying that his church is sometimes like that.  We take the risk of not doing anything and hope that’s okay.

The next story is about three servants who were each given a different amount of money to invest on behalf of their master.  Two took a chance on bankers and made money for their boss, and the third buried that cash in a hole.  The master was not happy with the hole-digger who chose to do nothing.

Our reading for today is the climax. If you’ve been looking at the pew Bible, you see that the sub-heading over this section reads “The Judgment of the Nations.”  The Judgment.  A legal term that for the thing that happens at the end of a trial -the final decision.

Jesus says these words right before he goes to Jerusalem to be crucified.  In this gospel, after this, he is done telling stories.  So, these might be some of the most important words that Matthew thought Jesus had to say.

Palestinian shepherd – West Bank. CN – 2011.

Matthew 25:31-46.  ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”

41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 44Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” 45Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ 

Whoa.  How about that last part?  Harsh, right? Sometimes Jesus needs to use some harsh language to get our attention.  I wonder if you were able to catch the things that this story had in common with the two before it.  First, God is happy with some folks, unhappy with others, and they are all in the kingdom of heaven together. And then, once again, the difference between these two is that they either do what God needs them to do, or they do… nothing.

God has spiritually created us to make a positive difference in someone else’s life.  We either do that when there is an opportunity, or we don’t.

The church is blessed by being a blessing to the community.  Or it’s not, and God cares very much about that.

The “least of these” are not people who are unknown. To Jesus, they are “the least of these who are members of my family.”  The goats know who they are; they are in the family with us.  They are close by.  We should be very concerned about global needs, but the goats are ignoring people they probably know.

So, we have a choice to make.  God needs to change the world and needs us to take a chance.

It starts on a personal level.  Do you believe in the living, resurrected Jesus?  If you’ve given yourself to him in a moment of heartfelt prayer, you opened the door to a new kind of life and the Holy Spirit of God started working change in you.  You began a lifetime of transformation from the inside out.  The presence of God has locked into you.  You are saved, that is, your salvation has begun.

But even after “opening the door,” after that first rush, it’s still possible to say, “Thanks, God; I only wanted enough change to make me feel warm inside; not enough to make it obvious on the outside.”  I kinda don’t want this faith thing to be too inconvenient and I especially don’t want my friends to think I’m a nut (side note: your friends will probably love you for your faith).

We are disobedient to God when we choose to be safe and do nothing.

Truth be told, in one way or another, we are sheep and goats at the same time and we drift back and forth between the two.  And God waits patiently for us to take a chance and decide what to do about the needs we see around us.

Let’s unpack the sheep and the goats just a little more.  It’s kind of unfortunate that these animals get picked on, since neither one is especially intelligent.  They both need a shepherd.  The sheep and goats were both part of groups, herds; it’s possible for one to do something that they all will eventually do.  None of them seem to recognize the king who is disguised as a shepherd. They both ask, Lord, when did we see you hungry?

New Orleans. CN – 2015

The point of the story is whether the herd or flock belonging to Jesus will show real, practical care to others, or do nothing.

Chances are, if you’ve been a church member for a long time, you first became connected to the church because at the time, it was the thing to do.  My parents brought me.

Growing up, all of my friends belonged to a church somewhere in town. It was normal.  That kind of relationship to a church is not normal anymore. We can moan about the changing times, but it won’t change what’s happening to about 90% of churches in America.

But there is an answer.  It’s not all bad news.  Today, statistically, it’s been shown that most church visitors or seekers who come to our church these days walked in the door because they had a need, maybe in the midst of a crisis, and thought that maybe the church would be able to help.  The churches that care about those needs are the ones thriving.

You heard the answer in the words of Jesus today.  It’s a job description.  Jesus wants to know if we will accept the challenge.

New Orleans. CN – 2015.

We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the Gospel and Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshiping God and striving for trust, justice, and peace and to make a difference through the love of Christ. (Covenant of Membership, St. Paul’s UCC)

What did you think of as you said those words?  We might not be able to do much by ourselves, but we can accomplish a lot as God’s church together.  It takes a team.  Let’s look for more opportunities to do the things God needs us to do.

Prayer

O God, show us the hungry.  Show us the thirsty.  Show us those who need clothing.  Show us the strangers.  Show us the sick, and those who are who are in all sorts of prisons.  Take us out of our comfort zones – each and all of us together.  Give us the circumstances and the opportunities to serve you by serving them.  Help us learn to take chances for you, knowing that as we do your will as your people, you will never let us fall.  Amen.

7/2/2017 Sermon: “A Nation Within a Nation”

You probably know this quote from the Declaration of Independence….

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

Ideally, in a democracy, our government reflects how we want to live together, no matter where we are from, or what we look like, or how we want to express religion.  Unity of any kind begins with the way we live together.

For a few minutes, we’ll look at what God’s Word says about how believers relate to their government.  We are a nation within a nation.

Matthew 22.16-22.  16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Matthew, 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 him.  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 not really about the money.

It’s interesting that one of these Jewish religious folks has the Roman coin.  And now everyone is listening to every word Jesus says….

Whose 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.  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.

The Founders of our country gave us political freedom.  The 4th of July is a great time to remember the liberty and freedom we have as Christians. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were anxious to escape from the tyranny of the king of Great Britain, but our bondage today is to another master— the human sinfulness that keeps us apart from God and from each other.  When you believe in Christ, Christ sets you free.

In John 8, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (v. 34). Sin is that state of living apart from God under the control of some other master or ruler.

Sin traps us and gives a false sense of security.  For instance, gambling makes us want to gamble more, whether we win or lose. Drinking problems tend to get worse instead of better until we discover that we’re powerless over alcohol and need professional help. Cheating gets easier and easier until we get caught. And then we’re trapped.

But there is a way out.  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (vv. 31-32). Jesus calls himself the way, the truth and the life. When we follow him, we find freedom from the trap of those things that had us bound, we find freedom from sin and a new life.  “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36).

Each of us needs forgiveness. Each of us needs independence from slavery to the sinful side of ourselves.  The good news is that this is exactly the freedom we get when we give ourselves to Christ and follow him in faith.

Independence Day, July 4th, is also a good time to make a new commitment to the the pursuit of happiness — for ourselves and for everyone in our community.   I want to be happy, don’t you?

The full experience of happiness for Christians comes from being part of a community that’s committed to everyone’s well-being. Peter gives advice to the Christian community (the Christian nation living within the Roman nation) of his time: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:16-17).

We live as free people but Peter warns us about using our spiritual Declaration of Independence in Jesus as a permission slip to do evil. Putting what’s good for us ahead of what’s good for all just isn’t a Christian option. We are called to honor everyone, love the family of believers, fear God and honor who? The emperor.

So we live as a believing nation of Jesus within the government, within the nation, where we are. When things seem darkest, that’s when God needs us most. 

Prayer.  We live in a scary world, God. Our news is full of crime and violence; in many of our cities, people are afraid to step out of their homes after dark. Even within our homes, Lord, many find no peace.  Fear seems to surround us. But we come here, Lord, and we gather together because in you we find the source of peace that overcomes every fear.  We know that you are with us — your Spirit gives us the confidence we need to live.   We hold onto the promise that the one who rose from the grave can overcome any enemy we face if we give our lives and our hearts to him. We give ourselves and our future to you.   Amen.