Thursday, December 8, 2005

Sermon for December 4, 2005

Keeping the Fire Alive
1 Thessalonians 5:16‑24

It’s that time of year again – time to fight about public religious displays. We will start to see mangers, flanked by toy soldiers, with Santa on the rooftop to worship the baby Jesus by the light of the Hanukkah candles. Perhaps Tthe holy infant will be wrapped in kente cloth to celebrate Kwanzaa. When it comes to religion in the public square, there are only two options: Get rid or all public religious displays, or include everyone’s. What we end up with is a hodge-podge of symbols that try to include everyone’s beliefs. I don’t find these displays very inspiring. I like to be mindful that not everyone celebrates Christmas like I do. But, what we get is a holiday buffet full of bland offerings and lukewarm sentiment.

Sometimes our faith gets that way -- bland, and runny, and so generalized that it stands for nothing. Some people want more. Last week I pulled questions out of the brown bag, and we briefly talked about the qualities of growing faith. I want to talk about that question in more depth this morning. How can we keep our Christian faith vibrant and real when we are tempted on every side to water our beliefs down and adhere to some sort of cornmeal mush religion ‑ a runny version of the faith that might not tastes plain and won’t upset your stomach? How do you keep the Spirit alive when you don’t feel God's presence? How do you stay spiritually vital when the bottom drops out and you feel like giving up? The Apostle Paul gives some advice to us in today’s reading.

Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Prophecy was a widespread practice in the early church. Paul saw prophecy as an inspired utterance, verbally delivered to a gathered group of people. Because of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements, we tend to think of prophesy as some special power to predict the future either for ourselves individually or for the world at large. I remember a book that caused some panic in Christian circles a number of years ago. Edgar Whisenant, a NASA engineer, wrote, 88 Reasons Why Christ Is Coming In 1988. I was sure an angry Jesus was returning to earth, and I was in big trouble. When ’88 went by and nobody told Jesus that he was supposed to come and judge the world, Whisenant published 89 Reasons Why Christ Is Coming In 1989. Paul did not have this kind of prophecy in mind. Prophecy is declaring the mind of God in the power of the Spirit. Since God completely revealed himself in Scripture, prophecy has to do with speaking forth the mind of God from Scripture.

One way you can keep yourself spiritually alive is to constantly put yourself in places where you are able to hear what God has to say to you -- not only going to church, but taking time to read and discuss Scripture and listening to the Holy Spirit. Let me just ask you, what messages are listening to? In what ways are you hearing, and reading, and being regularly spoken to by God’s Word? Paul encourages us to put ourselves in those situations. Do not despise them, for there you gain wisdom from God.

Then Paul gives a warning. Once you put yourself in situations where you are being spoken to by God, test what you hear. Anyone can stand up and say in a holy sounding voice, “This is the word of the Lord.” It’s your job to make sure that preachers and prophets are in line with Scripture. People on every side are telling us what God wants us to do, but there is so much that is counterfeit. So test what is said. Compare it to your knowledge of Scripture and the character of Jesus Christ. Hold on to the good and reject the bad.

Be Joyful. Paul mentions another quality of spiritually vibrant people: be joyful always. Many of us can name people who are wretched grumps. Those same miserable people go to church, sing hymns, and pray, hoping that God will somehow give them an infusion of joy to make it through another day. They are looking for some kind of heavenly transfusion that will bypass the misery of their daily lives and give them joy. God promises to transform misery, not to bypass it. Sometimes God does give us an infusion of joy to offset a bitter situation. But usually, God brings joy, by taking the ordinary moments and making them holy. Joy is not found in singing a certain type of music or getting in with the right group of people. Joy is found in following Jesus. When the power that is in Jesus reaches into our work and play, our happy times and our sorrows, and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourning.

I told this story last week. Bear with me as I tell it again – the good ones bear repeating. A pastor named Jack Hinton was leading worship at a leper colony on the island of Tobago, when a woman who had been facing away from the pulpit turned around. It was the most hideous face Jack had ever seen. The woman’s nose and ears were entirely gone. As she lifted a fingerless hand in the air and asked, “Can we sing “Count Your Many Blessings?’ ” Later, a team member said, “I guess you'll never be able to sing that song again.” Jack replied “Yes I will, but I'll never sing it the same way.” Have you counted your blessings? Have you seen how Jesus wants to touch you, and transform you? Can you count your blessings, even when life is wasting you away? Be joyful always.

Pray continually. Next, Paul says pray continually. There once was a shepherd who lived in the French Alps. Because of careless deforestation, the mountains were barren. Former villages were deserted because their springs and brooks ran dry. In 1913, while mountain climbing, a traveler came to the shepherd’s hut, where he was invited to spend the night. After dinner, the traveler watched the shepherd sort through a pile of acorns, discarding those that were cracked or undersized. When the shepherd counted out 100 perfect acorns, he stopped for the night and went to bed. The 55‑year‑old shepherd had been planting trees on the wild hillsides for over three years. He planted 100,000 trees, 20,000 of which had sprouted. Of those, he expected half to be eaten by rodents or to die due the elements. The other half was expected to live. After WWI, the traveler returned to the mountainside and discovered incredible rehabilitation. There was now a forest. Water flowed in once empty brooks. Willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, and flowers were birthed. The traveler returned again after WWII. Twenty miles from the lines, the shepherd continued his work, ignoring the war of 1939 just as he had ignored the war of 1914. The reformation of the land continued. Whole regions glowed with health and prosperity. The traveler wrote, “On the site of the ruins ... now stand neat farms. The old streams, fed by rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Little by little, the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains have settled here, bringing youth, motion, and the spirit of adventure." Praying continuously is like planting those acorn trees in a barren land. Those who pray are like spiritual reforesters, digging holes in the wasteland and planting seeds of life. Through these seeds, the barrenness of life is transformed into a rich harvest, and life‑giving water is brought to parched souls. Paul knows that if we have the faith and persistence to pray constantly ‑ to pray without ceasing, the world will be changed and we will be protected from spiritual dryness.

Give thanks in all circumstances. Paul also encourages us to give thanks in all circumstances. Mother Theresa told this story at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994.

One evening we went out, and we picked up four people from the street. One of them was in a most terrible condition. I told the sisters, “You take care of the other three; I will take care of the one who looks the worst.” So, I did for her all that my love could do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand as she said two words only: “Thank you.” Then she died. I could not help but examine my conscience before her. What would I say if I were in her place? My answer was very simple. I would have tried to draw, a little attention to myself. I would have said, “I am hungry. I am dying. I am in pain,” or something. But she gave me much more; she gave me her grateful life, and she died with a smile on her face.

We, too have something to be grateful for. Thankfulness is a response to joy. We have a God who loves us enough to send us a Savior. We are nurtured by God and given a place in God’s family. Our old identities pass away as God transforms us into new creations. We give thanks always, because no gift will ever be as good as what God has already given. In good and bad, in health or disease, in times of plenty and times of scarcity, we give thanks to God. It is our quiet response to the daily trials that come our way. Just imagine what could happen in our lives during Christmas if we did away with running ourselves ragged and instead took time to count our many blessings and give thanks.

Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. This is where the apostle leaves us; with the hope of our coming Lord Jesus, and the resources to stay strong and live in a new and different way in this day and age. May God himself, the God of peace, make you holy through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sermon for November 13, 2005

Out of Egypt: Deliverance
Exodus 14:15-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58

For me, one of the most powerful prayers in all of Scripture has no words, no vocal sounds. It’s actually nothing more than the sound of a footstep. The prayer is the amen of action – our inspired response to an encounter with God.

We hear it in the reading from Exodus. The text before us fairly bursts with descriptive power. The Angel of Death has slain all the firstborn children. You can almost hear the Egyptian parents, even Pharaoh and his family, howling in grief over their lost children. The race against time begins. Moses and his lieutenants jostle the people “This is it! Let’s go! Let’ go! Faster!” They have one night the escape the vise of slavery that held them for almost four hundred years -- one night to escape a prison so familiar that it had become like home to them. It was now or never. Everybody knew that by tomorrow Pharaoh would change his mind. Tomorrow Pharaoh would come to his senses and realize what he had done. Tomorrow would be too late. Tonight was the night. You can almost see the people running breathlessly, grabbing whatever they can, without even glancing backwards.

They dash to the sea. They can’t take the highway to the Promised Land. It’s faster to take the road, but they have to get past six, heavily armed Egyptian outposts. The road was built to withstand the pounding of Egyptian chariots. No – they can’t take the road. They will be run down like animals. Their only hope of survival is in the wilderness of Sinai, and to get there means going through the sea. After a night of running in the dark, thousands of Israelites come to an abrupt halt. The end is right in front of them. The dust of Pharaoh’s chariots is behind them. Terrified, they cling to the banks while Moses urges them on. “Come on! Into the water! Into the water! God will lead the way!” The helpless people stand before Moses, cowering in terror. Finally, with the sound of the Egyptians coming closer and closer, God speaks to Moses -- three Hebrew words: “Mah Tizak Alai. Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to walk forward.”

That’s it. That’s the answer to their prayers. God says, “Go ahead – you take the first step.” The people are expecting God to respond to their prayers by acting on their behalf. They want God to take out Pharaoh and the army, or do something supernatural. And when it doesn’t happen, they complain. “Why did you bring us out here, Moses. We liked it better when we were slaves in Egypt. It would be better to be slaves rather than die in the desert. They cry out to the Lord and hear, “Mah Tizak Alai. Why do you cry out to me. You take the first step.” In that moment, the people respond to their own prayers for salvation. The sound of their first step into the water of the Sea of Reeds is the amen of action.

Sometimes, we think that a prayer is merely a verbal exercise. We offer God praise as an introduction to our wish list for the week: God, You are good God, You are great God, You are powerful You are awesome Now let’s talk about me for a little while … Think of the last time you offered a prayer. Did it inspire you to take action? Or, was it nothing more than a liturgical lottery ticket offered in the hope that maybe this time your number will come up. Maybe this time your prayer will be heard and merit Divine action.

You know what I think God says to us, sometimes? “Mah Tizak Alai, Why do you cry out to me? Go and respond to your own prayer, take a step into the unknown, take a risk and see what will happen.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that we take not leaps of faith, but rather leaps of action. The record of humankind is divided by those who sat like spectators waiting for their salvation to come from elsewhere, and those who had the faith and the courage to respond to God’s call with the sound of a single step. When we respond to our own prayers with the amen of action, it can change everything.

The situations that we face are no less grave than that of Moses and the Children of Israel standing at the shore of the sea with water on one side and the Egyptian army on the other. Who among us has not felt overwhelmed by the challenges that threaten to wash over us. They may be personal issues: matters of health, finance, or family. They may be more global concerns, hunger, war, natural disasters, or evil in the world. The only question is whether we can hear the answer to our prayers by taking the first step of action, with the faith and confidence that God will be at our side. Wondrous things can happen -- seas can split open -- when people are willing to take a step, to act as the amen to their own prayers.

This morning, as we celebrate 275 years of ministry in Trumbull, I like to think that our spiritual ancestors acted as the amen to their own prayers. Back in England in the 1600’s, every citizen of the kingdom was a member of the Church. A group of Christians gathered, believing that God called them out of the national church. They dreamed of transforming the church from within. They were called Puritans. They thought that if they practiced their disciplines faithfully, the government would bring about renewal. Some reformers were not content to wait. They were called Separatists. The kind of church they believed God wanted, they wanted immediately. They were willing to separate themselves from the state church and establish congregations of their own where they could worship freely. The first separatists made their way to the new world. They were the Pilgrims who eventually landed at Plymouth Rock. A few years later, the flood tide of English Puritans flowed toward America and became the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims and Puritans eventually united into what we now call congregational churches. Those Separatists knew the promises of Scripture, and they were ready to die to make their point. If Christ promised to be present to ordinary believers, then that was the kind of church they were determined to be. We are here today because some people acted as the amen to their prayers – they took the first step of action and changed the world.

I think we are ready for our own reformation. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church we can be what kind of church we should be. We are a vibrant family of faith that is beginning to dare to dream of new possibilities with God’s guidance.

Let’s dream of a church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go . . . a place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Let’s dream of a church where the real presence of the Holy Spirit is renewing and refreshing us. Let’s dream of a church that doesn’t have all the answers but asks the right questions–a church so deeply rooted in the gospel that it can’t be quenched by the rain-driven storms of life.

Let’s dream of a church where worship is joyful, exciting, and expectant, as well as reverent . . . a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted in this place. It’s a church that suffers when you are not here with us. It’s a church where people gather to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven.

Imagine a church that’s not afraid of change, but a church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join Him. It’s a church that calls forth men and women, parents and grandparents, single people, youth, and children who are equipped and sent out to revitalize our families and our community for Jesus Christ. Let’s work for a church where people have the tools to raise their families in a godly way. . . where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . .where we are all sent out to add value to the lives of other people. It’s a church where there are no status symbols, where the pastor works alongside the people so that we can all be the holy people of God together.

Let’s dream of a church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained

Dream, with me, of a church at brink of the sea. Behind us is a world that cares less and less about the institutional church. On the other side of the sea is deliverance. New life. A place where the sting of death is swallowed up in victory. On the other side, our divisions are healed and the church is made whole.

Today we stand on the shore, the waves of the sea lapping at our toes. And a voice is speaking. Can you hear it? The Voice says three words: “Mah Tizhak Alai, Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to walk forward.” Let us muster the same courage, the same faith and the same vision as did Moses’ generation and walk forward, as individuals and as a church. God walks at our side as we participate in our destiny. With God, we help to form the amen of action.

Sermon for November 6, 2005

Out of Egypt: Not I, Lord
Exodus 3:1-15

The search committee for a new pastor was having difficulty making a decision. One member of the committee, who was admittedly tired of the whole process, offered one last letter of introduction from a pastoral candidate. She read: "To the pastoral search committee: It is my understanding that you have a vacancy in your pulpit, and I would like to apply for the position. I can't say that I preach too well. In fact, I tend to stutter when I speak. I do have many different experiences I could share with you, since I am over 75 years old. I recently had an encounter with God and, despite my initial resistance to the idea, I heard a Voice which told me personally that I was the one to do the ministry for you. One never knows when God will appear right before your very eyes. As far as people skills go, I do tend to lose my temper every once in a while. I also tend to want things done my way, and can get violent if it's not taken care of right away. Once I even killed somebody. However, that's all behind me now. I intend on showing up there in a few weeks to lead you into a brighter future. Although I was reluctant at first to work with you, I still feel called to be with " The committee member glanced up at the rest of the group. "Well, what do you think? Can this person be our leader or not?" The rest of the committee looked horrified. Have an old, arrogant, temperamental, neurotic, ex-murderer as their pastor? Who exhibits such colossal nerve? And who are his references? Who was this guy, anyway? The committee member answered, “It's signed, ‘Moses.’”

When you read his dossier, Moses doesn’t seem like the best candidate to receive a call from God. The story reads like a celebrity murder trial from the National Enquirer. Can you imagine what it might sound like?
Cairo Egypt, 1446 BC. More Misery for MosesDependable sources confirm that the notorious Moses was spotted in the deserts of Midian last Friday. Moses has been camping out in the Midian wilderness for the last 50 years, since fleeing from the brutal murder of an Egyptian guard. Residents on the Egyptian/Midianite border still live in fear of another terrorist strike from Moses. The Egyptian F.B.I. Lists Moses as the 9th most wanted person, and they continue to offer a reward for any information leading to his arrest. Family members close to the murdered guard believe Moses is stockpiling weapons and gathering a band of warlords to overthrown the Pharaoh. Our anonymous sources testify that Moses keeps a low profile. Now married with children, he lives a relaxed pastoral life, tending sheep in the desert. Our journalists captured stunning footage of Moses, now an old man, walking barefoot around a flaming bush. Is the burning a bush a signal to begin his alleged strike on Egypt, or is Moses planning a bonfire marshmallow roast for his neighbors? Our National Enquirer experts think Moses is psychologically deranged. Check the National Enquirer for the latest, and most reliable information.

Most of us learned in Sunday School what the burning bush is really about. Moses is running an errand for his father-in-law. Herding sheep in the desert, he sees smoke in the distance. It turns out to be a burning bush. Moses says, "What's going on here? I can't believe this! Why doesn't the bush burn up?" If that’s not strange enough, the flaming foliage speaks. Moses instantly recognizes the voice of God.

And God says, “Moses, I have some good news, and I have some bad news. The Good News – is that I've taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I've heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I’m here to help them. I will pry them loose from the grip of Egypt.” Moses is surely delighted to know God’s plans. God hears the cry of the people—a cry for justice in their oppression. God promises to come and deliver them. God is not cold and distant. The good news is that the situation will be made right. Quite an agenda—even for God. And Moses must be excited. He may think, "When God gets all that done, maybe it will even be safe for me to go back to Egypt and settle in with the family once again."

But God’s not done. God continues, “Now for the bad news The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I've seen for myself how cruelly they're being treated by the Egyptians. It's time for you to go back, Moses. I'm sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the People of Israel, out of Egypt."

That’s a rude shock! Just as Moses is about to sit back and watch God shift into high gear and free the Israelites, he hears a second message. God drafts Moses to go back to Egypt and do all the legwork. How inconsiderate of God! God’s not taking Moses’ personal problems seriously at all. He’s on the most wanted list, for goodness’ sake! Moses is supposed to go back to Egypt, with a price upon his head, put everything on the line, and help a powerless people escape from a very powerful Pharaoh? “Uh, no thanks, God. I mean, it was great of you to drop in and light things on fire and chat with me, and all. But, I’m somewhat busy here. I got a herd of sheep to take care of, and I wasn’t really planning on an Egyptian vacation right now. And I stutter. That’s right God. I can’t go eyeball-to-eyeball with Pharaoh, because I s-s-s-t-t-tutt-tt-er.”

No matter. God is not impressed by Moses’ lame attempts to avoid an unpleasant task. Moses doesn’t have much choice but to report for active duty. He has been able to flee from the long arm of the Egyptian law, but he knows he cannot flee from the even longer arm of God.

Moses’ story is also our story. When we learn about Moses, we are learning about ourselves. For example, we’re like Moses because we like promises but we hate demands.
· "You are going to become a C.E.O. in the corporation of your choice" (Great!) "But first, you have to be tops in your class getting an M.B.A." (Aw!)
· "You are going to be a very successful politician." (Great!) "But you’ll have to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week and lose your first three tries for public office." (Aw!)
· "You have the talents to do a great deal for world peace." (Great!) "If you are the least bit effective, people will call you a disloyal American.”(Aw!)
· "I call you to be my disciple." (Great!) "You may end up where I ended up, on a cross." (Aw!)
Who wants extra demands? It’s hard enough just to live a decent, ordinary life without heroics. Like Moses, we bargain with God: "How about if I just do the disciple bit on Sundays? I’ll work for peace, but I don’t have to stick my neck out do I? Who needs another martyr?" We like promises bit we don’t like demands.

There’s another reason we are like Moses. We don’t like demands that involve us in conflict. Religion is supposed to warm us and help us fulfill our human potential. We need lots of time alone, and minimal conflict. But it doesn’t work that way. Conflict seems to be the name of the game as far as God is concerned.

There will come a time in your life when you need to risk your personal security to do the right thing. A few weeks ago, I watched a hidden camera program. It showed two actors in a park, pretending to be a couple in a emotionally violent fight. The man was physically aggressive and verbally abusive. The woman was crying and struggling to get away. Most of the other people in the park noticed the fight and walked away. Afterwards, the people were invited to debrief the episode. Some were afraid to get involved. Others were paralyzed by fear. One or two were brave. They swallowed their fear, and stood up for the abused woman.

Have you ever seen a kid being mistreated, and you don’t know what to do, or how to get involved, or whether you will become the target of an angry parent? Ever seen a person receive the explosive rage of another, maybe at a meeting or a family gathering? Did anyone stand up to the bullying, or did they just sit there in uncomfortable silence? It might be easier to run back into a burning building than it is to stand up to an enraged bully. Christians form their lives around God’s call to justice. God takes a stand against cruelty, and hatred, and oppression. And at some point, God will call you to be like Moses in that situation, whether you like it or not. And you will be tempted to avoid conflict and to ignore the suffering you see around you.

Remember, when we go into the places of conflict we are not alone. God is there too. God joins us in trouble. When God hears the people’s cry, the message from the divine throne is not, "That’s to bad. I’ll get to it after my game of Mahjong.” No way! God says, "I'll come down and work with my people in the midst of the trouble." God is right where life is tough and ugly. We are not alone. We discover, whenever we are trying to work for justice, that God has, once again, gotten there before we did, and has been waiting, sometimes not too patiently, for us to show up and get into the struggle too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Sermon for October 30

The Lion’s Den
Daniel 6:1-28

Imagine you are invited to a dinner party. You’re dressed up. You smell nice. You’re planning on a fun evening. When you arrive, however, you realize the night is deceitfully different than you planned. None of your friends are there. Not only that, everyone around the dinner table hates you. Not only that, the sole reason for your invitation to this dinner is so that your rivals can tell you exactly what they think of you. Not only that, once you arrive, the doors are locked behind you. There is no escape. No defense. All you can do is sit and listen as others verbally attack you. At this dinner party, you are the main course of a meal celebrating your own demise! The guests want nothing better than to consume you by criticism or harassment.

With the holidays coming up, I know many people who dread family get-togethers. They are gearing up to endure unrelenting criticism around the Thanksgiving table. They go to visit family, get swarmed by critique, and have to defend every action – every decision.

The lions Daniel faced are perfect images of people who'd like nothing better than to consume you by criticism or harassment. How do you keep from being eaten alive by them?

The lion’s Daniel faced are also perfect pictures of our American culture -- a culture that is losing its patience with traditional Christianity. Most American’s claim they have a well-thought-out philosophy of life. Most of these same people also claim to be Christians. However, research shows that many adults live for the moment and have nothing more than a loose set of principles to which they cling. Sometimes these principles clash with each other. For example, a person might believe it’s important to love our neighbor, but also believes that a person has to look out for one’s own best interests. Another person might believe that God loves welcomes everyone. Except Muslims, gays, feminists, and unpatriotic Americans. Most Americans believe they are practicing Christian principles and beliefs, but they are really living out a spirituality focused upon living for the moment. We believe we deserve every possible good outcome without having to earn those outcomes.

Here are some of the most widely accepted values of Americans today:

  • Time is our single most precious commodity. Guard your time wisely, and protect your schedule.
  • Minimize long-term commitments.
  • Maintain your individuality and independence at all costs. No one else is going to serve your needs and interests but you.
  • Trust your feelings to guide you. Absolute principles place unrealistic limitations on you.
  • Don’t waste time doing things that don’t bring immediate rewards.
  • Character and self-esteem are only formed through achievement.
  • Have fun. Spend lot of money to make sure you will have fun.
  • Stay fit. Spend lot of money to make sure you will stay fit.

We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, how do it, or when it needs to be done. Placing parameters on people makes them rebel.[i]

What happens if you decide that your principles will be grounded on a reading of Scripture? What would you decide are important principles for Christians to live by. Here’s what I come up with:

  • We are mortal. While I like the idea of progress, being human means that we have limitations. At times, our wisdom is imperfect, and no matter how much we study, or what we invent, there will always be a few mysteries.
  • Christians believe in the supernatural. There is a God.
  • Christian worship together regularly.
  • Christians believe in a personal God, made known in Jesus Christ.
  • Christians live to please and obey God.
  • Christians believe that they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
  • Christians have an upward—looking faith, relying on God to guide us in making decisions.
  • Christians have an outward-looking faith, filled with compassion, generosity, and service to others.
  • A Christian’s faith influences a Christian’s behavior.

Think about how some of this is at odds with the messages of the culture. The culture tells us to trust our feelings. Christianity says trust God’s word. The culture says avoid long-term commitments. Christians say get yourself to worship and commit to a church family. The culture wants you to live for yourself and spend whatever it takes to protect your privacy and individuality. Christianity teaches that we find ourselves by losing ourselves – that we are better as a community than as are as individual followers. Maybe you can see how following the guidelines of faith will put you at odds with the world around you. If you live out your faith, people will think you’re strange. They will talk about you. They won’t understand what you're doing and why you make certain decisions.

The lions Daniel faced are perfect images of people who would like nothing better than to consume you by criticism or harassment. How do you keep from being eaten alive by them? How do we live as Christians in a world that is losing its patience with us? Let me offer a couple of suggestions.

Turn Down the Invitation to DinnerDaniel. refused to be consumed by others. How can we follow his example? The nature of our Christian faith makes us a tempting snack. Be tough. Not even lions like a meal that’s mostly muscle and backbone. Here’s an example. I hear it all the time: pastors complaining about sports on Sunday morning. We are losing our children to soccer and basketball practices. The coaches should schedule Sunday afternoons. Sunday morning is a sacred time for worship, not sports. Listen, the sports leagues are not going to close down on Sunday mornings. I don’t care how much you ask, beg, or boycott. We can no longer expect the culture is not going to accommodate the church. The sports leagues are not interested in making your life easier or soothing your conscience. Their job is to teach sports and organize teams. You need to make a choice. You need to set your priorities and live with the consequences. If Sunday morning worship is a priority, then you say no to Sunday soccer practice. It takes a lot of strength. And courage. We can take our stand against the world’s offerings by participating in the alternative. The lion’s don’t know what to do with people who refuse to be consumed.

Turn the Restaurant into a Spiritual Retreat. When dinner is served in the lion’s den, and you’re on the menu, remember Daniel and imitate his example. He didn’t try to fight back, change his convictions, or close the lions' mouths himself. When Daniel knew that his enemies were out to get him, what did he do?

Did he compromise? Did he go to the king and say, “Ok you caught me. But really, I wasn’t praying. It just looked like it. I was humming show tunes. Yes, that’s the ticket” ?

Did Daniel complain? “Did he go to King Darius and say, “These other guys made you pass a law because they are jealous of my work. I’m the victim here. I don’t serve to be a lion’s lunch”?

Did Daniel Plot or get even get even? Did he read a book on taming lions? The text says, He went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open...he knelt down...three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.

Daniel knew when he lived on his knees, he could rest in faith. How about you? How’s your prayer life?

You know what else? Sometimes God asks us to go into the lion’s den willingly. On December 29, 1976, shortly after 7 p.m., a train pulling out of Ashtabula, Ohio puffed its way across a trestle. Suddenly the passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. The trestle snapped and eleven rail cars plunged seventy feet down into a watery ravine. Even before the wooden cars slammed into the bottom, they were aflame, set afire by kerosene heaters. Of the 159 passengers in those cars, 92 were killed and most of the rest suffered serious injuries. Snuffed out by the wreck was a young couple whose bodies were never found. Their names were Philip and Lucy Bliss. Philip initially survived the wreck. But his wife was trapped in the wreckage. When a fire started he rushed back in to save her. They both died. Sometimes it works that way. Faith asks us to put ourselves in danger to help the one’s we love.
And Philip Bliss was a man of faith. If you don’t recognize the name, he was the most prominent hymn writer of his time. We still sing his songs today:
Sing them Over again to me, wonderful words of life
Brightly Beams our Father’s mercy
Let he lower light keep burning
Man of sorrows, what a name
The tune to “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Bliss wrote another old hymn. I wanted to it sing today. Dare to be a Daniel. I couldn’t find the music anywhere. Philip Bliss wrote the words in 1873, three years before he died
Standing by a purpose true,

Heeding God’s command,

Honor them, the faithful few!

All hail to Daniel’s band!

Dare to be a Daniel,

Dare to stand alone!

Dare to have a purpose firm!

Dare to make it known.

Daring to be like Daniel means being unshakeable in a world that will try to shake you up. It doesn’t mean we won’t face tough circumstances or we don’t be afraid of feel weak. It does mean that you can turn down a few invitations to be a lion’s dinner.


Face Your Enemies the Way Daniel Did by David Jeremiah
George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Waco: Word, 1998), 129-148.

Sermon for October 23

The Writing on the Wall
Daniel 5:1-12

I once had a friend who heard the voice of God. His name was Willie. Willie always made me a little nervous because the things God told him were not very pleasant. God told Willie a lot about judgment and death, plagues, and deadly diseases. No, Willie’s God was not a happy God, and Willie let us know it. For the most part, the messages he shared made me nervous for selfish reasons. I was afraid God was going to tell Willie some secret detail of my past, and I didn’t want to be around if the Lord was going to embarrass me in front of my friends, with Willie as God’s mouthpiece. Let’s just say I haven’t always been the angel I am today.

I had a similar experience once at the Church of Brotherly Love. Sister Bradley, the church’s ancient pastor, invited me out to one of her church’s revival. The speaker was a woman from Florida – a Prophet Lady. After preaching for an hour and a half, the Prophet Lady prayed, and God sent her messages about specific people who needed their lives fixed up. The Prophet Lady pointed to a man in the back and said, “You, over there in the red shirt. Jesus wants to free from your sinful ways.” The man in the red shirt walked forward. The Prophet Lady situated her hands on his head and prayed over him. Then the man in the red shirt fell to the ground, twitching like he was getting electroshocks. The Prophet Lady said, “That’s what happens when you get filled with the Holy Ghost.” Then she called up her next sinner to get the Holy Spirit whammy. That’s when I started praying. “Lord,” I said, “I know what I’ve done. You know what I’ve done. Let’s just keep it between you and me and not tell the Prophet Lady about it. OK?” The Prophet Lady’s voice interrupted my bargaining with God. “You, the young pastor over there.” I knew she was pointing at me. She said, “The Lord has a message for you.” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “God we had a deal here. Don’t make me go forward. I won’t know when to fall down and twitch.” Mercifully, I never had to go forward, and my notorious past was never exposed. She gave an encouraging message, and let me sit back down. God is good!

Do you ever wonder if God still speaks to His people? These days God speaks to us through billboards. Have you seen them? Black backgrounds with bold white letters quote God saying,
· Do you have any idea where you’re going? – God
· That “Love Thy Neighbor” thing... I meant it. – God
· What part of “Thou Shalt Not...” didn’t you understand? – God
· Don’t make me come down there! – God

And, in case you were worried, God has a direct hotline to President Bush. In a BBC series called, “Elusive Peace, Isreal and the Arabs,” The Prime Minister of Palestine says, “President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.” And by God I’m gonna do it.’“[1]

Does God speak to us today? We walk a fine line when trying to answer this question. If someone claims to directly hear the voice of God, we usually consider the person to be a fanatic or demented. The other side of the line is that we want to hear from God. In our age of competing spiritualities, we want to know that the God we worship is real and involved in our lives. We desire God to communicate His message of love directly to our hearts.

Does God speak to people? It happens in today’s reading from Daniel. It almost sounds like a Halloween story by Edgar Allen Poe. The Babylonian Empire is in decline, and the Emperor, on his way out of power, throws a wild party with free flowing booze and loose women. Feeling superior, King Belshazzar calls for the gold and silver chalices that were stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem. He wants to drink his wine from these holy artifacts. At that very moment, the fingers of a human hand appear and write on the lamp-illumined, whitewashed wall of the palace. When the king sees the disembodied hand writing away, he turns white as a ghost, scared out of his wits. His legs turn limp like spaghetti as he watches the hand in a paralyzed fear. No one understands the words: MENE, TEQEL, PERES.

He says, “I’ve seen the writing on the wall. Someone tell me what it means.” But the king’s magicians and fortune tellers are stupefied. The queen mother enters the hysteria and says, “Long live the king! Don’t be upset. Don’t sit around looking like ghosts. A man in your kingdom is full of the divine Holy Spirit. He can do anything--interpret dreams, solve mysteries, explain puzzles. His name is Daniel.”

So, they call Daniel in. The king asks him, “Are you the Daniel who was one of the Jewish exiles brought here from Judah? I’ve heard about you--that you’re full of the Holy Spirit, that you have a brilliant mind, that you are incredibly wise. I brought my wise men and enchanters in here to read this writing on the wall. They can’t figure it out--not a word, not a syllable. But I hear that you interpret dreams and solve mysteries. If you can read the writing and interpret it for me, you’ll be rich and famous with a purple robe, the great gold chain around your neck--and third-in-command in the kingdom.” Daniel answers the king, “You can keep your gifts, or give them to someone else. I will read the writing for you. God sent the hand that wrote on the wall, and this is what is written: MENE, TEQEL, and PERES. This is what the words mean: “They are references coins. Mene is a half dollar. It also means numbered. God has numbered the days of your rule and they don’t add up. Teqel is a penny, and it’s related to the word weighed. King Belshazzar, God weighed you on the scales and you’re not worth much more than a penny. Peres is worth two bits and is related to the word divided. It’s also related to the word Persia. Your kingdom has been divided up and handed over to the Medes and Persians.”

At that moment, the king knows God has spoken. Not the gods of gold, silver, and wood, but the God of Universe. God speaks through the prophet Daniel, and helps the King understand his encounter with God. In return, Belshazzar does what he promised. He robes Daniel in purple, drapes the great gold chain around his neck, and promotes him to third in charge. That same night Belshazzar, the Babylonian king, is murdered.

Does God speak to people? Listen to the book of Hebrews: Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. But now, in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. Jesus Christ is God’s Word to us. In Jesus, God expresses how he feels toward us. Some people would have you believe that we humans are rotten to the core without a shred of worth to God. These are lies. God would never come to us in Jesus Christ if he thought we were worthless. In fact, by sending Jesus Christ to live with us, God communicates a message of hope to us. We may be sinful, we make bad decisions with misguided motives, but God still loves us. Jesus Christ is God’s love letter to us. Remember for a moment the things that Jesus did while he lived on this earth. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. He comforted the grieving. Jesus was a friend to outcasts and sinners. God would never heal, feed, or comfort those whom he despises. God wouldn’t have bothered if he didn’t care. God would only show such care to those whom he loves with a passionate, all-consuming love. Jesus is God’s message to us that someone understands us. God became a human being to walk with us, to experience this world with us, and even to die with us.

Do we get it? Sometimes I think I see the handwriting on the wall. As I look at the church and the world around us, I see strange and mysterious signs. I see people who are desperate for spiritual truth, but they aren’t finding the answers they need in Christian churches. I see a country where ethnic diversity is here to stay, and where racial reconciliation is a national concern, but our churches are still segregated institutions. I see a church that is called to care for the least of all people and to be known by the quality of its love. Yet, poverty is prospering in America. At a time when Americans are devoted to seeking spiritual enlightenment, the church is having less and less impact on people’s perspectives and behavior. Where is the church? When did we start proposing tired and trite solutions to secondary problems instead of addressing the nagging anxieties and deep-seated fears of the people?[2]

Do you want to know something else? God is still speaking. God speaks when the people of the church live out God’s love wherever it’s needed. Last year, the UCC came up with a TV commercial as part of the “God Is Still Speaking” initiative. The church planned to run the spot on national television during the month of December. The three major networks refused to air it. They claimed that the ad was “too controversial.” If you haven’t seen it, the opening, scene features a couple of burly bouncers turning several people away from the door of a church, including African-Americans and a gay couple, while welcoming some attractive straight white families. A text then says, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” And a narrator adds, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
It was evidently so subversive, counter-cultural, and distasteful that it had to be kept from the airwaves. As an editorial cartoon in Friday’s Plain Dealer cleverly put it, “The United Church of Christ ad will not be seen at this time so we can bring you another male impotency ad.”[3]

God is still speaking – through the church. The world needs what churches like TCC have to offer . . . The affirmation that Jesus Christ died for everyone . . the declaration that all people belong . . . the conviction that for those who are hurt or excluded, this is home. God is still speaking, through Christ, through the church, and through you. May we listen, and may we boldly speak and live the word of God.

[2] George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church (Waco: Word, 1998), 2-5.
[3] Hamilton Coe Throckmorton, “

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sermon for October 16 -- Stewardship Sunday

The Price and Cost of Sacrifice
2 Samuel 24:18-24

“How much does it cost?” How many times have you asked that question? We are obsessed with the price of things. When we see a big house we ask, “How much does it cost?” When we see a luxury car, we say, “Look at the price tag on that!” A big part of shopping is the attempt to find the right price. Some of us will go through store circulars and drive for miles in order to save a few dollars on the price. Some stores even offer low-price guarantees. “If you find our item anywhere else for less, we will refund the difference.”

We don’t want to pay too much for something. We don’t want to pay too little, either. We like to think that a person who gets something for free gets the best value. But, that’s not usually the case. You can pay too little for something just as you can pay too much for it. I know someone who gets his room and board for free. Do you know what else? He’s homeless. His “free” room and board are provided by a homeless shelter. Are you envious? Of course not! I’m guessing you would not wait in line to receive that kind of free service. We feel pride in paying a fair price for the things we have. What we want out of life is not a handout, but a fair deal. We want to pay the right price.

The question this morning is, “What is the right price to pay for our Christian faith?” How much should we be willing to pay for the spiritual resources that help us find meaning? Listen closely to my question. I didn’t ask if we should pay for our faith. I asked, “How much?” I assume each of us will pay. The issue is: what is the right price?

Today’s reading from 2 Samuel gives us some guidance. Has your ego ever been so inflated that you made a poor decision? It happens in today’s story. God’s fumes with anger because David, once again, disobeys God. David calls for a census of the people. It seems innocent enough. However, the royal advisors know that the census results feed David’s ego. You can always be more proud of your mighty exploits if you have a firm number to back it up. The census also counts David how many eligible men to conscript into military service. If David drafts them, his army grows, and he can conquer more territory. The census is a bad idea. David knows it. He counts the people anyway. God’s anger burns against David. In an absolute monarchy, the only check and balance occurs when God corrects the king. God asks David to choose his punishment.

In our house, we play a game called “Would you rather . . .” We take turns asking another person a difficult question: would you rather be poor and popular or rich and hated? Would you rather eat worms or ants? God gives David a “would you rather” proposition: As a punishment, would you rather see your people suffer through famine, war, or plague? David chooses the plague, and then helplessly watches the agonizing death of 70,000 subjects. In heartache, David laments, “I alone have sinned. I alone have done wickedly, but these people, what have they done? Let your hands, O God, be against me.”

God tells David, “Go and make an altar to me. Make a sacrifice at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” The threshing floor is a place where grain kernels are separated and ground into flour. It’s is an image of abundance. While his people face scarcity and death, David travels to a house of plenty. Araunah, like a good citizen, offers the king his threshing floor, and everything that goes with it, for free.

If David had been a smart shopper, he would have said, “That’s a bargain I can’t pass up.” Instead, David says, “No, I don’t want it for free. I’ll buy these things from you . I’ll pay the right price. . . I will not offer burnt offerings to my God that have cost me nothing.” David knows if he makes a sacrifice that costs nothing, he cheapens his relationship with God. He pays the farmer 50 shekels of silver and God ends the plague. Later on, Araunah’s Threshing Floor will be the foundation for the Jerusalem Temple. The location of one costly offering will forever accept the sacrifices of worshippers.

One of the ironies of the Christian faith is that it’s completely free and it costs us everything. Christ offers salvation for free. We don’t pay an entry fee to get into the church. Nobody here ever sends a bill to church members.

But, once we get in the door and start worshipping God, we are asked to give something sacrificial to God, a gift that costs us something. We want to pay the right price. Every year, church members sit down and determine the right price for their offerings to God. We all know that we can’t run the church without money. The question is always, “How much?” Like David, every one of us asks, “How much is the right price for me this year? We can’t have it all for nothing. So, what is my worthy gift?”

Running the church comes with a price and a cost. The price is the bottom line of our budget. Right now, it’s about $260,000. The price pays for heat, electricity, snow removal, staff salaries and benefits, insurance, cleaning, outreach, and other day-to-day expenses of running the church. There is also a cost. Cost reflects an item’s value in alternative uses. When money is tight, we channel it funds to one area of he budget as a priority over another area. There’s only a limited amount of money to spend every year, and it can go to a number of alternative uses. When the money gets used in one area, then there is less of it to use somewhere else. So, we make decisions of how to allocate scarce resources to their most valued uses.

Time has a cost. When time is consumed in one activity, there is less to use somewhere else. The cost of our time is its value in its alternative uses. Discipleship also comes with a cost. We choose to direct spiritual commitment to alternative uses. There are tons of people and places dividing our attention and resources. Following Jesus means allocating spiritual focus on our relationship with God. As a result, someone else will not that portion of our focus. Cost is about sacrifice and obedience.

But, how much should we give? Where should we give? Some people answer, “Not much,” “Not all,” “Not here,” or “Just enough.” Such people have a small vision for the church. A small vision is not expensive.

Sometimes people have a vision that is too large for the resources available. Sometimes a cumbersome vision tempts us to build something unreasonable. The price is too high for the scarce resources that have alternative uses. I don’t think God wants us to do that. God wants us to have an appropriate vision for the church -- a vision that’s large enough to challenge the resources we have available.

It is sinful for a church to have such a small vision that it doesn’t cost much. Can you imagine a church saying, “Let’s do the absolute minimum so that it doesn’t really cost us much and we can save our resources”? Imagine if the church decided to cut down on expenses so that we could make it a bargain for the members. We could say, “This month we have enough money. We don’t want anybody to give to this church. But down at the Methodist church, they hired a new staff member and they have a new program for children, so we want all our members to give down there instead of here for this month.”

Do you think that would be what God would have this church to do? I don’t want to belong to a church that has such a small vision, and I hope you don’t. I am not campaigning for an unreasonably large vision, but I don’t want us to have a miniature vision that costs nothing. We need visions that reflect the right price for our church -- A vision that will challenge our church.

We always struggle with the right price. Many of you know that we started 2005 about $30,000 in the red for our church budget last year. We worked hard to reduce the deficit. Many people increased their pledges. We found some new renters. We ran fundraisers. Past and Present’s Shop profits help us out. We also received some very high, unexpected plumbing and insurance bills this past week. By the close of the year, we may run about a $10,00 deficit. We must not have the right vision and the right giving to reflect the cost of running the church. We also want to enlarge our vision for this year. We want to do more as a church, which means challenging our financial resources. I hope you will join me in helping our church to have the right kind of vision.

There are other aspects of stewardship. One is the commitment to prayer and worship. To be blunt, I want you here on Sunday mornings, participating in our life as a church. When you join the Rotary club and miss more than 10% of the time, they will kick you out. We have many members that miss more than 10%. We also have many members who decided, “Out of all of the alternative uses of my time on Sunday morning, I choose to worship God with my church family. I will not make offerings that cost nothing. I will not have a faith that costs me no time.”

Stewardship also involves service. The Church of the Savior in Washington DC requires every member to serve through local service organizations in their community. I wish that our church could have that kind of expectation of our members. True Christians are not self-centered, self-absorbed, and only concerned about “me, myself and I.” The basic nature of the Christian is to reach out and serve others. It means saying, “I don’t want a faith that costs nothing in terms of service.”

Some people are proud that their faith cost them nothing. Can you imagine someone saying: “I’m so happy that I go to that church, and I don’t give a dime. I’m a member of that church, and I don’t attend but 20% of the time. I’m a Christian, and I don’t serve anybody but me.”

“I give burnt offerings to God that cost me nothing.” Is that the kind of Christian you want to be? I don’t think so.

What is the price and cost of sacrifice? Steven King learned. During a commencement address, the author asked graduates what they will do with their money. He said:
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t know exactly how many millions of dollars. I’m still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I’m doing Ok . And a couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like a branch of a tree taken down by a thunderstorm. I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard? We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going out broke. Steve King? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? . . . Just the blink of an eye."

In what will we invest our lives? Will our lives be devoted to giving or only to taking?
What is the price and cost of sacrifice for you? Think about it as we form a vision of who we are, as a church, and what we can do with generous gifts.

Works Consulted:
Anders, Dr. Mickey. “How Much Does It Cost?"
The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove: IVP, 1998.
Sowell, Thomas. Basic Economics. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Stackhouse, Max L., Dennis McCann, Shirely Roels, and Preston Williams. On Moral Business, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Sermon for Oct. 2, 2005 -- World Communion Sunday

Crime and Punishment
Genesis 4:1-16

We have several children’s Bibles in our house. Today’s children’s Bibles are more exciting then they used to be. Engaging stories. Colorful cartoon pictures. It’s a good thing to introducing our little ones to the rhythms of Scripture. We hope the stories will fasten to them throughout their lives. My five-year-old’s Bible storybook takes complicated stories and reduces them to a half dozen simple sentences. Here’s what Genesis 4 is condensed to: Adam and Eve had two sons. Their names were Cain and Abel. Abel obeyed God, but Cain did not obey God. Cain was angry and killed Abel. This was wrong. Adam and Eve were very sad. God was sad, too.

We hope that some day our kids will move on from the simple stories of their children’s Bible to deeper understandings of the stories. It’s hope I have for all of us – that we grow to engage the Scriptures as critical thinkers. Often, our understanding of Bible stories is what we learned in Sunday school. We are adults who still carrying around the flannelgraph versions of the Bible. The version of the story I read to you a moment ago said flat out that “Cain did not obey God.” One of the higher-level children’s Bibles I have says that God didn’t like Cain from the beginning because “Cain was cold and proud and self-willed.” We hold on to those images even as adults. We assume that Cain came out of Eve’s womb as the spawn of Satan while Abel was born as Mamma’s Little Lamb. We remember how in Sunday School we were taught that this story was “The First Murder,” and we assume that Genesis 4 is in the Bible to teach us about the spread of sin.

Of course, there’s some to all of that, but it’s not the whole truth. Let’s go to the story and see if we can read it in a new way. It begins simply enough: Adam and Eve start a family. They have two sons. Cain, the big brother, grows into a farmer. Abel, the little brother, becomes a shepherd. We are told nothing else about Cain or Abel. They seem to be decent, hard-working sons. They are both religious people, so they honor God by giving offerings--a sacrifice specific to each man’s vocation. Each offers some of the product of his work. Cain brings some produce from his gardens and Abel brings some firstborn animals from his flocks.

For some reason, God like’s Abel’s sacrifice but not Cain’s. Why? Is Cain really proud and self-willed? Is God trying to rub it in Cain’s face that he’s the Bad Seed? Is God anti-vegetarian? Was there something wrong with Cain’s crops? Maybe God really does like the little brother best. Maybe the difference is that Cain kept back the best produce for himself while Abel willingly offered some of the very best. Maybe Cain’s devotion to God was lukewarm while Abel expressed enthusiastic piety.

For some reason, God likes Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. We are not told why. But since we don’t want God to come off as arbitrary, we try to figure out what was wrong with Cain’s offering. We don’t know why. Cain does, and it upsets him. He’s angry. And sad. And depressed. Why didn’t God like his worship? It’s not a bad question. Cain will soon be guilty of something rather horrible--so terrible as to make whatever was wrong with his sacrifice look trivial by comparison.

We have another assumption about the story. God didn’t like Cain. After the murder, God rejects Cain forever. I don’t see that in the text. God’s words to Cain aren’t harsh. God expresses concern for Cain’s well being. Whatever is wrong with Cain’s attitude, it is not so bad that Cain is helpless. God suggests that with some effort, Cain can wrestle temptation to the ground and become the master over it instead of the victim. Did Cain wonder about this at all? Did he try to wrestle with his frustrations and angers? We don’t know because the story wastes no time in hauling Abel out into the field where the deadly deed is done.

Did you notice that Abel never speaks? He never says a word. Abel doesn’t make a sound until his blood cries out from the ground. The only words of Abel are the cries of the innocent victim of violence and abuse. Abel’s cry pierces God’s ears. Cain can’t get away with the crime. God says to Cain, “Listen! Don’t you hear the blood crying out!?” Apparently he did not. Neither do we most of the time.

Crime goes on and on. So does its punishment. It’s like a farmer who sows poison into the soil of his fields. As Cain spills his brother’s blood onto the ground, now nothing will grow for him. Cain the farmer is literally up-rooted from the ground. He is a restless wanderer on the earth. He won’t be able to sink down roots anymore. He moves to the land of Nod, which is Hebrew for “wanderland.” He is punished with a living death. So Killer Cain begs God to please not let the same fate come to him!

You almost expect God to tell Cain, “Tough luck, buddy! You chose death and so now you need to face your own death.” God never says it. Humanity chooses death but God insists on life. God knows that the cycle of violence needs to be snapped. Cain will not suffer Abel’s fate. God marks Cain to show that God protects him. It’s bad enough that Abel’s blood screams in God’s ears. God can’t bear to hear Cain's blood shout out, too. God chooses life in the face of death.

Somehow, through it all, God loves Cain. Who knows why--he doesn’t seem terribly loveable. God saves Cain while Abel’s blood still screams. If we hold those two images in tension, we you are approaching the mystery of the gospel. Many children’s Bibles show a picture of Cain whomping Abel on the head with a rock or a stick. It’s terrible. But that is not the final image of Genesis 4. We are left with a pool of Abel’s blood, crying and screaming into God’s ear. It pains God to hear it and so he has his hands cupped over his ears. Yet at the same moment God is bending down and kissing Cain’s forehead, protecting Cain for life!

Screaming blood and kissing lips. Justified punishment and gracious salvation. Cain’s bloody hands and God’s mark of protection on Cain’s forehead. The images collide and bewilder. Why does God keep insisting on life? Why doesn’t the cry of Abel’s blood have the last word? Why? Because only God may have the last word, and that word is life.

Does all this talk about innocent blood remind you of someone else? How about Jesus? The blood of Jesus has something to say-- the shed blood of the innocent always speaks to us. Abel’s blood cried out to God with screams of horror and injustice. Christ’s’ blood cries out, too, and it shouts words of life. God didn’t let anyone shed Cain’s blood because cycles of violence and death must stop. Something needed to be done to restore God’s creation. That something is found in the sacrifice of God’s Son. Here is the final and ultimate innocent victim whose blood is shed unjustly. Jesus' blood does not scream, it sings; it does not cry, it croons; it does not darken into a pool of death but becomes a fountain of life.

Cain chose death and could never quite settle down again because of it. East of Eden there was only restlessness and wandering. Cain set us up for a whole history of restless wandering--the land of Nod has been most everywhere, it seems. Meanwhile, in all our restless search for answers and identity, the blood of the innocent keeps getting shed. The cries from the blood-soaked soil in lower Manhattan must send God reeling, but no less also the cries from the soils of Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and everywhere that people die as one group keeps trying to gain mastery over another.

Cain set our human race to wandering, unable to sink down roots into the soil we have sullied. Jesus grants us rest and a settled place to sink down roots into his love and grace. Cain brings us to Nod. Jesus brings us home. Abel’s blood speaks of death and injustice. Jesus' blood speaks life and grace.

As we come to communion, we remember the sacrifice of Christ. We come as those who are brought from death to life. As we come, let’s remember the times we have chosen death over life. Sadly, it happens too easily. But death doesn’t get the final word. Even when we choose death, we are loved and protected by God. God always chooses life over death.

"Hearing Abel, Raising Cain" by Scott Hoezee,

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sermon for September 25, 2005

Original Sin
Romans 3:20-26; Genesis 3:1-21

I couldn’t make this up if I tried. My mother calls her tax accountant. The accountant is excited. She says to my mother, “Oh I’m glad you called. Your sister is sitting right in front of me. So is your brother and your mother.” Strange coincidences happen all the time right. It’s really not that unusual. They all use the same accountant. Here’s what threw my mother off. My mother’s mother -- my grandmother -- has been dead for almost three years. We always called my grandmother Mom. I had to ask – how did Mom get to the accountant’s office? And of all the places for the spirit of the dead to visit, why would she choose the accountant’s office? It all started a few months ago when my uncle talked taxes with the accountant Mid sentence, she suddenly freezes, and then she starts to zone off and stare into the distance, and then her eyes roll back in her head. My uncle thinks she’s having a seizure, and when he goes to help, she snaps out of it and says that Mom, my dead grandmother, is in the room with them. She starts giving messages from beyond the grave. Visits from dead relatives have become a regular feature of tax appointments. My grandmother and grandfather have talked through the accountant, as well as other relatives. Apparently, they have good tax and business advice for the whole family. I think it’s a little weird. When I go to the accountant, I plan to talk about . . . well, taxes. I think this accountant is overstepping her professional boundaries a bit. It says even more about my family that they are willing to stay with this woman. The spiritual visitations freak them out. However, I think they like it at the same time. Plus, the woman is a wonder of an accountant.

I wonder if the accountant’s behavior is a blessing or a curse. Is her behavior helpful, or is it sinful? In fact, I can ask that about a lot of people’s behavior, including my own. In my relationships with people, do I bless them with my words and actions, or am I liability? How about our relationship with God. Were we created to be blessings, or do we carry the mark of original sin in us. Is it written into our genetic code that we will always say the wrong things, make the wrong decisions, and alienate ourselves from each other all before we even get out of bed in the morning?

The traditional way of thinking about sin comes from our understanding of what happened in the Garden of Eden. The snake tempts the woman, the woman tempts the man, the man and the woman eat the fruit, gain knowledge of good and evil, and the man, the woman and the snake are cursed by God. Not only that, their offspring is also cursed. Not only those, the consequences of their disobedience are passed on from generation to generation forever. This is the idea of original sin – what Calvin called hereditary depravity. Here’s our question for today: do we enter a torn and sinful world as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures, or do we enter the world as original blessings?

If I asked a group of kids what the first story in the Bible is, I bet many of them would say Adam and Eve. It’s not true. We learned last week, the Bible starts with the story of creation. God’s word does not begin with a story of temptation and failure. The Bible begins with blessing. Each day God creates something, and he calls it good. Listen to this poem by James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out of space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely –
I’ll make me a world…
After the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the seas, the green living things, the creatures of the air and land, “God looked on His world/ With all its living things, /And God said: I’m lonely still…
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,…
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay…
Then … blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
And it was not just good; it was exceedingly good.
We are created with such great possibilities…. fragile, radiant beings. How is it that we grow our souls within a culture that scares and scars so many because they are infected by the sin of original sin.

Most of us have heard about original sin plenty of times. If you grew up Catholic, it was ingrained in your faith. In Catholic teaching, the evidence of original sin is losing control. Any passion is a loss of control. Lovemaking is seen as a loss of control. How many Catholic kids and adults had to sit through scary lectures about the evils of their bodies and how they were all one slip away from burning in the fire of hell? The Catholic church declared God has no passion. God never loses control, and never has to repent. Unlike us, God is unchangeable, even to the point where the Father did not suffer on the cross with his son, Jesus. It’s called antipatripassionism. The New England Puritans were not much better. Today, the word puritanical means sternly moral – close-minded fundamentalists. In truth, they were really no different than other Reformers who ran away from the decadent culture of the day. No matter our tradition, we all hear about original sin. But rarely do we hear about original blessing. Get out your Bible sometime and scrutinize the texts. The doctrine of original sin is not found in any writings of the Old Testament. It is certainly not in chapters 1-3 of Genesis. Look closely at what the basis of humanity is again. It’s not the curse, but the blessing. Original blessing is the basis of all basic human trust and faith.

What if we took this idea of original blessing seriously? How would it work out, how would if affect the ways in which we look at ourselves and at each other? If we begin with the blessing of God’s creative energy and understand ourselves as originally blessed, rather than originally cursed, how much better we may feel about ourselves.
· Instead of being suspicious about our bodies, we would welcome our bodies and we would be gentle, instead of combative.
· Humility would no longer mean despising of one’s self. The word humility and human come from the same root – hummus. It actually means dirt. Humility literally means to befriend one’s earthiness.
· Instead of trying to control everything, we would be more ready to experience and celebrate the passions of life.
· Instead of our focus on eternal life after death, we would understand eternal life as beginning now. The longer I am in the ministry the less I am concerned with life after death and the more I am concerned with life after birth.
· Instead of regarding humans as sinners we would regard ourselves as people who can chose to create or destroy.

There’s another part of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” in Genesis. Instead of being called “The Fall”, it should be called “The Slide” because in the 3rd Chapter of Genesis Adam and Eve sort of slide, or segue into their condition of irresponsibility and dishonesty. The “original sin” is not so much a rebellion but rather laziness, passing the buck, blaming the snake, and not owning up to responsibility (This is sort of like all of the finger pointing that’s going on during the response to Hurricane Katrina, but that’s another sermon). In other words, we are originally blessed, but for some reason we can’t handle it. We were supposed to be the co-pilots – co-creators with God -- but we decided to reach over and take the controls away from the captain. Here was our downfall; our slide into hubris, a condition called, well, . . . sin.

But, is it original or is it learned? Ask any teacher about the saintliness of their children and they will be glad to testify to their uncanny ability to fight, hit, steal and hoard, as well as to their ability to learn, charm, love, and share. But ask Kindergarten teachers about children who are entering schools now. More and more children entering our school systems are morally challenged, that is their moral compass is dysfunctional. We are finding, regardless of socio-economic level, children who seem to have no conscience. How they got this way is a complex environment of causes, but in some way, by influence or lack of influence, by omission or commission these children learned … nothing. And who teaches them … nothing. Well, I guess the adults do. But who taught us? Our parents. Who taught them? You get the idea. The spooky thing about all of this is that the sins of the parents seem to stretch out several generations long after the parents are dead.

It seems that in the past 10,000 years we all learned something rather well, and it is not a reflection of our original blessing. As Paul reminds us, “All sinned and have fallen short of the glory [blessing] of God.” That is, despite living with a positive attitude about our originally blessed selves, we will have times when our ugliness will show through much to our embarrassment.
· We still look at other people who are different than us with fear. We judge others. We protect ourselves from “them.” We talk about “those people” but fail to think about how we function in the system.
· Instead of celebrating and being gentle to our bodies we are hard on them, working them long hours, depriving them of sleep, putting all kids of foreign substances in them and otherwise wearing them out before their time.
· Instead of emphasizing the healing of the whole people of God, the whole earth, we want our own personal salvation, our own piece of the economic pie and we want it now, even if two-thirds of the world must suffer to support our selfish standard of living.
· Our desire to experience ecstasy and the joy of sexuality turns on itself and we use the blessing of sexuality to sell cars, and boats, and facial creams, and of course, Viagra. I watched an interview with Barabara Streisand the other night. She was talking about her sexual modesty and how embarrassed she gets when she sees Cialis commercials on TV. Cialis is a competitor with Viagara. During the commercial break, what commercial do you think the network ran? Cialis! I don’t agree with Babs on most things, but some of those commercials make me blush, too. As we regard ourselves as persons with the freedom of choice, we choose a number of good things but so often we chose those things which destroy rather than create.

So which is true? Are we originally blessed or originally cursed? Let me wind us down with a story. Fred Craddock, a teacher and preacher, was driving through Tennessee some years ago. He stopped at a restaurant for a meal, and he was intrigued as one man went from table to table greeting everyone. When the man came to Craddock and learned he was a minister, the man insisted on telling a story. He said that he had been born in the mountains not far from where they sat. His mother was not married when he was born. In that time and culture, the mother and her son were scorned. The boy grew up feeling the love of his mother, but also the contempt of the townsfolk. He was known around town as the bastard kid, or the son of the whore. At recess, his classmates would exclude him, and he learned to keep to himself in order to avoid getting teased. At age 12 the boy took up going to church on his own. A new minister had come to the church near his house. The boy would slip into the back row just as the services began, and leave before it was over so that no one would ask him, “What’s a boy like you doing here.”

However, one Sunday he so wrapped up in the service that he forgot to slip out. Before he could quietly exit, he felt the big hand of the minister on his shoulder, light and gentle. The preacher looked at him and asked, “Who are you, son? Whose boy are you?” The boy’s heart sank, and perhaps his pain showed on his face. But then the preacher answered, “Wait a minute. I know who you are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. You are a child of God.” With those words, he patted him on the back and added, “That’s quite an inheritance. Go, and claim it” The boy was now an old man greeting people in a restaurant. He told Craddock, “That one statement literally changed my whole life.” The man’s name was Ben Hooper and he elected the governor of Tennessee -- twice.

Do we hurt others, live by our compromises, and forget some of the important things
Do we take what God created as good, and manipulate it for our own gain?
Of course we do.
Do we suffer the consequences of the other’s bad decisions.
Yes, we do.
Are we the bearers of hereditary depravity, cursed and rejected by God? All I can say is this, I know who we are. The family resemblance is unmistakable. We are the children of God. You bear the image of God. Our legacy, and our potential, is exceedingly good.

Works Consulted

“Original Sin or Original Blessing” by The Rev. Rod Frohman
“Original Sin” at Wikipedia.
“Puritans” at Wikepedia.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sermon for September 18, 2005

Hi All.

Because of vacations and general laziness, etc., I haven't posted for a while. I am back to posting my weeky sermons from TCC on this site. As always, let me know what you think.

Lessons from Creation
Genesis 1:1-2:4a; John 1:1-2

“It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside . . . watched TV “storm teams” warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday. But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party. The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in . . .As it reached 25 feet over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.”[i]

I just quoted an article written by National Geographic in October, 2004. Almost one year ago, the author forecast the consequences of Katrina with eerie precision. The article claimed that a year ago, The Federal Emergency Management Agency listed a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation. While we listen to politicians blame each other for the response, we sink under the dawning realization that some preventive steps were never taken to protect the city. One of the key reasons Katrina devastated New Orleans was the loss of coastal wetlands. Healthy wetlands provide a natural buffer against storm surges. But the Louisiana wetlands have been steadily disappearing for years. Some of the erosion is natural. Humans have had their hand in it, too. Deep offshore wells now account for nearly a third of all domestic oil production. For decades, geologists believed that the oil deposits were too deep for drilling to have any impact on the surface. But three years ago, a petroleum geologist noticed that the highest rates of wetland loss coincided with the period of peak oil and gas production in the 1970s and 80’s. The removal of millions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, caused a drop in subsurface pressure. Nearby underground faults slipped and the land above caved in. It’s like when you stick a straw in a soda and suck on it, everything goes down.

In the days after Katrina, politicians passed around blame for mismanagement like it was a game of hot potato. We heard little about our responsibility for the environmental factors. We no longer think of ourselves as intertwined with our environment. It’s as if we humans are no longer part of creation. We stride the earth as gods, and the ground beneath our feet lives only to serve. In the wake of Katrina, we face the same lesson once more: short-term advantages can be gained by exploiting the environment. But in the long term we pay for it. Just like you can spend three days drinking in New Orleans and it’ll be fun. Sooner or later you’re going to pay.

Many human beings misunderstand our true place in creation. We think the natural world is merely the place where we live. Creation is a commodity, and we are the consumers. In the process, we are alienated from the earth, and from each other, and also from God.

Creation implies relationship. When I read the creation epics in Genesis, I sense that God created us for relationship with God, and with all of creation. Relationships rupture when we treat the world around us as merchandise we can accumulate. Instead of relating to creation as a gift, we act as if the world around us exists solely for the satisfaction of our supposed needs.

Martin Buber was a philosopher and social activist. In 1923 he came out with a groundbreaking book called I and Thou. He talked about two different types of relationships. Some people have I-Thou or I-You relationships. An I-You relationship is a true dialogue. A person relates to another with mutuality, openness, and directness. There are also I-It relationships. In an I-It relationship, a person learns about another, and experiences another, but never enters into a relationship. I-It relationships are entirely objective. I have an I-It relationship with my doctor. We don’t get together and enter into one another’s profound hopes and fears. He doesn’t even know me. He looks me over and objectively compares my health to other males of my age.

Take the example of a tree. You see a tree in the middle of summer – a rigid green pillar in a flood of light. You can feel its movement and sense the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core. You can sense the sucking of the roots and the breathing of the leaves. You can name put the tree in a category– call it a maple, an oak, a birch. You can tell with some predictability how it will grow and when it will lose its leaves. But, up to this point the tree remains an object – an It. You have only experienced the tree.

But, it can also happen, when will and grace are joined, that as you contemplate the tree you are drawn into a relation, and tree ceases to be an It. All of the sudden you notice the unique features of this tree. It is not just a maple. It has original features that make it different from other maples. It’s still a maple. It still has a predictable form, color, and chemistry. But now, it’s as if you are confronting this maple as an individual. As the breeze tickles its branches, the leaves shake and the limbs sway, and all of the sudden this tree is dancing with you. You are in a relationship. And relation is reciprocity.[ii]

I’d think that we are I-It people with creation. We think that if we have enough objective knowledge and experience and science and can pour it all into new technology, then we will be saved. It’s a lie that we can manufacture our own health and happiness. Many of us are I-It people with our heads stuck in a synthetic world that is cheap and impotent. Our ability to enjoy one another, and the rest of creation is dammed up by greed, corruption, fractured relationships, boredom, and injustice. And so we find it easier to objectify and accumulate. But God’s creation will not be tamed. Leonard Bernstein reminds us of this in some words from his Mass:
You can lock up the bold men,
Go and lock up your bold men,
And hold men in tow.
You can stifle all adventure
For a century or so.
Smother hope before its risen.
Watch it wizen like a gourd.
But you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord.
No, you cannot imprison
The Word of the Lord.
Buber plays on the words of the creation story and writes, “In the beginning is the relation” (69). This is one lesson of creation. If we want to recover health and harmony, our broken relationships need healing. The process begins when we can see the image of God around us. I’m not talking about pantheism here. Pantheism is when you look at a rock and think, that rock is a god. So is that tree. So are you and I. Pantheism states that everything is God and God is everything. But, the lesson I’m learning from creation is to add one word to this formula: God is in everything, and everything is in God. That includes you and me. Creation reveals God to us and allows us to experience God’s presence.

I’m talking about I-You relationships with creation – transforming every experience into a unique connection. I-You relationships draw us closer to one another and to God. Nature’s abundance and beauty reveals God’s generosity and majesty. Creation’s healing, nourishing and life-giving properties reveal divine love.[iii]

God is in everything, and everything is in God. Isn’t this the message in the opening lines of John’s gospel? Jesus is God in the flesh – the eternal word of God wearing human skin and living among us. Jesus came to reveal a God who calls us into relationship. Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us. He experiences everything we do. He lives through pain, and hunger, and happiness, and temptation, and death. Jesus doesn’t relate to us just as human beings with DNA and predictable gene patterns. We are not called into a clinical relationship with Jesus. He doesn’t look at you and say, “A typical Christian of your spiritual age should be healthier,” as he rips off a prescription for more prayer and selfless giving. Jesus relates to you as an individual. He knows your pain. He knows your trials. He knows what excites you and what scares you. And he loves you.

The question is whether we can relate back to God. Remember what Buber said: Relation is reciprocity. If relating to another means give and take, then we have to give and not just take. A new relationship with God and creation means being vulnerable to God’s Word-- the ongoing, creative energy of God. Our spiritual task is to get out of the way enough so that we might be filled and renewed with God’s Word so that we can go about our work of healing, celebrating, and co-creating.[iv]

What I’m really talking about today is the power of love. I’m asking you to love creation and to love one another, and to love God. The love I’m talking about involves some risk. Think of a two people who fall in love. In a moment of passion, a guy says, “I love you.” And the girl says, “Wow, I love you too.” I see it in the movies all the time. The guy might mean it with all of his soul. But he is only into experiencing the moment: the rush of excitement. He says, “I Love you,” but he might really mean, “I love girls,” or “I love how I feel right now.” If that’s the case, then what he calls love is really using the woman as an object to fulfill his supposed needs at that moment. How many people do you know who have heard the words “I love you,” and then left the relationship feeling cheap and used? We might call it love, but it’s not a relationship.

Think of what happens with another couple when they say “I love you” to one another. They look, and listen, and touch one another, and they know that what they see, hear, and feel has been kissed by God. This is not just any person. This is not just MY wife, or MY husband, or MY lover. This person represents the image of God, and we are given to one another as a reminder to enjoy the gifts of God.

Sure, we can live in an orderly, detached reliable world. We can categorize people and judge them, and distance ourselves from “those people” who are always screwing things up.
We can suck the life out of those around us, and our earth, until we are bloated and satisfied while others are tossed aside like second-hand remnants after they’ve served their purpose. There is another way.

We can approach one another, and the world around us and realize that that we see, or touch is a single unique being, interconnected yet unique. This week I want you to look. Really look. And listen, and touch know that what you see, and hear, and feel, has been kissed by God.

[i] “Gone With the Water” by Joel Bourne in National Geographic,
[ii] from Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner, 1970), 56-58.
[iii] “The Call of Creation: God's Invitation and the Human Response,”
[iv] Some ideas in this sermon were freely lifted from Original Blessing by Matthew Fox (New York: Putnam, 1983).

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...