Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sermon for February 12, 2006

For all you who are snowed in, here is the sermon I would have preached today.

Returning Our Gifts
1 Corinthians 12:1-11

As we are now well into the New Year, has the excitement and thrill of the Christmas season come to an end for you? Have you taken down your Christmas tree yet? Are your children and grandchildren already bored with their new Christmas gifts ? Our joy in material things is not a lasting joy. Once the newness wears off we tend to push our gifts aside and find something else that captures our attention. So why not re-gift them? "Tacky," you say? I have no qualms about re-gifting when done properly. As experts now say, re-gifting is a recipe for public humiliation and long-held grudges when done arelessly. Done with finesse and tact, re-gifting can be a happy experience for all But there are some rules:

1. Don’t tell the gift recipient that their present is a re-gift!
2. Please, at least change the old wrapping paper.
3. Only re-gift new items. Onceyou use something, it’s a hand-me-down. Nobody wants your hand-me-downs for abirthday gift.
4. Don’t re-gift to the person who gave it to you in the first place.
5. Don’t EVER re-gift the following items: candles, soap, random books, mysterious CDs (unless your brother wants the hip-hop version of “Man of La Mancha”), obscure software, cheesy jewelry, scarves (do we not all own a scarf?), fruitcake, pens, cologne, boxed sets of extinct bath products (Jean Nate? No, no, no), videos or DVDs obviously acquired on a street corner, socks and any appliances or electronic gear the giftee would be puzzled to receive because they probably just got rid of it (including hot-air popcorn poppers and anything with a cassette deck in it).
6. Don’t give partially-used gift cards
7. Don’t give products from defunct companies. Nobody wants your Enron Celebrity Golf Tournament T-shirt.
This morning we’re going to think about some other special gifts God has given us. They are gifts that we can enjoy and re-gift all at the same time. The Bible refers to them as spiritual gifts. In today's Scripture reading, Paul refers to them as “manifestations of the Spirit” (12:7). The Holy Spirit has given us special abilities to enable us to be a blessing and a help to others. Paul gives some examples this passage: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and prophesying. Nobody in the church is merely average. God’s Spirit is in us to provide us with gifts, talents, and abilities to serve Him.

Talking about spiritual gifts makes some people nervous. There are two sticky attitudes that I’ve noticed in my conversations with people.

One attitude is that some people see the spiritual gifts and special talents of others and become envious. We say, “Wow, look at what God is doing through that person. I wish I could do that.” When we feel this way, it’s like we are that man in the cartoon who has taken his gift-- perfectly chosen and given in love-- and tried to return it for something better.

Another attitude is heard in those who say, “I’m just not a very gifted person. I’m just an ordinary Christian, not a gifted one.”

I think the church in Corinth had similar feelings about the gifts of God.

The passage we read comes from a letter to a divided community. Some of the Christians in Corinth felt very pround of themselves because they knew that they were doing things. Some were teaching people the gospel of Jesus Christ, others were having visions of what God wants and were able to share these visions with the community. Others were healers and teachers and workers of miracles;. As a result of these activities, people’s lives were being changed and the results were dramatic.

Other people in the church at Corinth felt very unimportant. They had a gnawing sense that what they were doing for God didn’t matter very much - that somehow, it wasn’t as good as what others were doing. To make matters worse, people around them gave greater glory and encouragement to those who were doing more “spiritual” things. It was like how some today feel that because they only have a 10th-grade education that they are not as good as those who have gone to a university -- or how some who cook and clean at home do not feel as needed or as important as those who have a career outside the home. With all those different feelings about who was important and who was less important, the unity of their church vanished. The church in Corinth began to have troubles, it divided into factions. While this went on, those who believed themselves to be inferior simply tried to survive, and to hope against hope that they mattered to someone somewhere. People left the church in Corinth and others refused to come. Those who remained were unhappy and less and less effective in showing the love of Christ to the world. What was true of Corinth is true in many places, not only in churches, but in every kind of group known to humankind. We see the same problems in in AA groups and self help agencies, in the PTA and in service clubs, in factories and in schools, and even in homes. There are all kinds of sad places where we don’t feel cared for, respected, or needed.

Divisions in churches happen in many ways, but most often they arise because of how people are treated, how people act towards each other and think about each other, and not because of doctrine or belief. More churches have split up because of swelled heads, and pure thoughtlessness, than because of disputes about theology. It seems that the more we insist that what we are doing is the one and only right thing, and the best thing for everybody, the more likely we are to be wrong in how we actually treat one another. Likewise, the more we feel that we’re not as important as someone else--the more we put ourselves down or allow others to put us down--the our witness as a church is damaged. We end up confirming in the minds of others that there are degrees of value and worth in the church.

Wherever people and their gifts are measured against one another, there is pain and sorrow and anger, and the work of God is hampered. Think you are more special than you are, and kiss the work of healing goodbye. Think you are less important than you are, or that others are less important, and kiss the work of bringing wholeness to others goodbye. Who’s going to believe that God is real, and that faith in God makes a difference, a positive difference, when the people who worship God, are constantly criticizing others or criticizing themselves.

If the church is to work as God intended it to work, then the we, the people of the church must learn to develop a godly vision about ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Wherever people see each other as God sees them, the church works well. There may be disagreements, but there won’t be divisions. There may be arguments, but there won’t be resentment There won’t be envy, or pride, or self-abuse because of it. There will be love.

Our vision needs to be focused on what God wants us to see about ourselves and about others. We are called individually to faith in Jesus, but we are called into a community, a church, so that we might have all the blessings that God wants us to have, and so that we might be able to give all the blessings that God wants us to give. We are a people who are called to feed one another and support one another. We are a people who are called to witness to the world that God’s love is a transforming love. It is so transforming that it’s able to tear down all barriers, remove all walls, and unite people in faith. Paul wrote the Corinthians about these matters. He reminded them of who they were and of whose they were, of what they should be doing and who they should be doing it for, of where their abilities came from and where those abilities were meant to be applied.

Listen to verses 4 through 7 again. Paul writes: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works through all of them in all people . . . Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

One God, one Spirit, one Lord - and a variety of gifts, all meant to be used for one purpose - to bring salvation and wholeness to the world. When we have a grounded perspective on our spiritual gifts, we can be a united body that reaches out and ministers to the community.

The Church newsletter of the First Presbyterian Church of Cedartown, Georgia once published the following article:
We will never become a church that effectively reaches out to those who are
missing if we shoot our wounded and emphasize our minuses. Instead of becoming
fishers of people, as Christ calls us to be, we will be keepers of an
ever-shrinking aquarium. The next time you see geese heading south for the
winter flying in a “V” formation, you might be interested in knowing what
science has discovered about why they fly that way. It has been learned that as
each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately
following it. By flying in a “V” formation the whole flock adds at least 71%
greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. Christians who share a
common direction and a sense of community can get where they are traveling on
the thrust and uplift of one another. Whenever a goose falls out of formation,
it suddenly feels the draft and resistance of trying to go it alone and quickly
gets back into formation to take advantage of the uplifting power of the bird
immediately in front. If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in
formation with those who are headed the same way we are going. When the lead
goose gets tired, it rotates to the back of the formation and another goose
flies point. It pays to take turns doing hard jobs with people at church, or
with geese flying south. The geese honk from behind to encourage those up front
to keep up their speed. What do we say when we honk from behind... Finally, when
a goose gets sick, or is wounded and falls out of formation, two other geese
fall out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with
the wounded goose until it is able to fly again, and then they launch out on
their own or with another formation, to catch up with their original group. If
people knew we would stand by them like that in the church, they would push down
the walls to get in.
All we have to do in order to attract those who are missing is to use our gifts in ways that encourage one another in mutual support. We need to demonstrate to the world that we have as much sense as a goose. The seems little enough price to pay to win the lost and minister to one another.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Sermon for Sunday, February 5, 2006

Doing the Devils’ Dirty Work
Matthew 15:18-20; Titus: 3:1-8

Here is your morning test. Pretend I’m not your pastor. I’m really your hairdresser. I’ve always wanted to open a hair salon named Hair Like Matt’s. Imagine that you are at Hair Like Matt’s and I cut your hair, and when we’re done, your hair looks just like mine. Basically, you get a bad haircut. Really bad. You go home to wash your hair and restyle it. Your new hairstyle is bristly with long hairs sticking up where they shouldn’t, while shorter patches of hair dot your scalp. What do you do?
  • Shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, it will grow back.”
  • Go back and ask the hairdresser to fix it?
  • Find a new hairdresser and promise never to go to Hair Like Matt again?

Maybe you should go to ThePayback.com. We all know someone with a problem or someone who offends us, but were not always able to confront these people. ThePayback.com does the dirty work for you while keeping your identity a secret. For $3 you can send your hairdresser an anonymous letter that says:

Someone who really cares about you wants you to know that when people leave the
barbershop, they expect to look as they pictured in their minds before the
haircut. Sometimes that can be a hard standard to live up to, but if it is
a current style, it should not be too difficult for an average barber. Always
cut the customer’s hair in the style that they request.

If your hairdo causes small children to panic whenever you are near, then you can also send an edgier letter:

Dear barber,You need to get you eyes check by a licensed eye doctor because some
is terribly wrong with your hand-to-eye coordination. Perhaps you have the
shakes? I could have cut my own hair with a blindfold on and done a better
job than you.

I don’t recommend this approach, of course. I believe if you have something to say about someone, than you should have the guts to say it to his or her face. But, at some point, someone told us that direct confrontation might hurt another person’s feelings. Instead of being honest, it’s easier to talk about idiots behind their backs. Our ears usually itch to hear stories about another’s guilty secrets.

Of course, we know we shouldn’t tell stories about other people, especially fake ones. We’ve seen what happens to the elementary school boy when he’s labeled as slow, or to the high school girl who is rumored to be easy, or to the promotion chances of a co-worker who we’ve heard, on good account, is lazy or brainless. It hardly matters whether or not the stories are true. Like the flu, rumors spread by human-to-human contact.

About 12 years ago, I opened an impassioned letter asking me to boycott Procter and Gamble. The author of the chain letter (who by the way spelled Procter incorrectly) claimed that the President of Procter & Gamble appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and announced that “due to the openness of our society”, he was confessing his association with the church of Satan. He stated that a large portion of the profits from Procter & Gamble products suppoted the satanic church. The letter said, “Inform other Christians about this and STOP buying Proctor & Gamble products. Let’s show Proctor & Gamble that there are enough Christians to make a difference! We urge you to make copies of this and pass it on to as many people as possible. Liz Claiborne also professes to worship Satan and recently openly admitted on the Oprah Winfrey show that half of her profits go towards the church of Satan. This needs to stop!”

One of my life principles is to never support a Satanist. I sorted through all my household products, setting aside everything with a demonic Procter & Gamble logo. As I looked at my harvest of P & G items, I realized what an inconvenience my boycott would be. They make all my favorite products: Cascade, Joy, Comet, Spic &Span, Ivory, Mr. Clean, Bounty towels, Duncan Hines, Jif Peanut Butter, Crisco, Head & Shoulders, Scope, Crest, Downy, Bounce, Sunny Delight, and Pepto-Bismol.

I called P&G customer service and asked them about it. They sent me an enormous packet of letters from Archbishops, Billy Graham, and other Christian luminaries supporting P&G’s integrity. All of the talk shows have also denied this story, but it persists in petitions across the country. Is it a massive satanic plot on a gullible Christian culture, or a downright lie?

Did you hear about the kid who ate six bags of Pop Rocks at a party? In 1971, Life Cereal made a commercial in which a chubby-cheeked, freckle-faced, impossible-to-please little kid named Mikey devoured a heaping bowl of Life. A few years later, we heard rumors that Mikey had devoured a heaping bowl of death. At a party, the rumor goes, Mikey threw back six packs of Pop Rocks, and then chased them with an entire six-pack of Coca-Cola. The consequent explosion allegedly killed him in a flash. None of us doubted the story, and why should we? We heard rumors that Pop Rocks contained an drug that had once been declared illegal by the U.S. government. We trusted the facts of Mikey’s death to be true. To set the record straight, the manufacturer took out full-page ads in forty-five major publications, wrote over 50,000 letters to school principals around the country, and sent inventor of Pop Rocks on a national tour to demonstrate that Pop Rocks induced nothing more deadly than a mild burping sensation. The ruse didn’t work, and Pop Rocks were taken off the shelves briefly during the 1980s. Now listen to this little piece of coincidence that I discovered just this morning. And this is an original theory as far as I can tell. Before his death, Little Mickey was also pitching Skippy Peanut Butter, the brand that competes with and consistently undersells Jif. And Jif is made by - -- guess who -- the Satanists at Procter & Gamble. Is it all a colossal cover-up, or frivolous falsehood.

Have you ever been a victim of Gossip? If you have ever had lies spread about you, then you know how devastating it can be. The tricky thing about gossip is that it is often spread with what appears to be good intentions. A story about a neighbor is told to protect others from making the same mistake. A tale about a troublesome child is spread to keep other children in line. It’s not gossip. We are just sharing our concerns. A Christian woman who suffers with depression writes online about how gossip affected her:

“Some people I thought were my friends were trading rumors about me. When I
confronted one of them, she said it was because they were ‘concerned’ about me.
They were so concerned that they couldn’t pick up the phone or write a letter,
drop round to see me or send E-mail. They were more concerned with spreading
what they thought were my guilty secrets. Never mind that their ‘news’ was bad
guesses showing the situation in the worst possible light, or that their guesses
were completely wrong. Never mind that none of these people had even seen me in
several weeks. They were 'concerned.’”

With concerned friends like these, who needs enemies?

Speaking of enemies, as Christians, our enemy is evil, represented not by Procter and Gamble, but by death, and the devil. In fact, one of the names given to the devil in the NT is diabolos. Diabolos literally means “the slanderer”. The devil is the representation of the one who spreads false accusations and slanderous words about others. The devil is the original gossiper. If we are spreading gossip and smearing the name of others, we are doing the devil’s dirty work.

Gossip reveals more a bout the heart of the gossiper than the one gossiped about. When you wag your tongue about someone else, your words defile you, not the other. Listen again to what Jesus says: Evil words come from an evil heart and defile the person who says them. When our words are doing the devil’s dirty work, it means that our hearts are not in line with God’s. In fact, God is on the side of the victim of gossip. Jesus says, “Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.”

There is an old saying: There isn’t much to be seen in a little town, but what you hear makes up for it. We hear a lot in our little town, don’t we? In fact, one of the reasons I want us to think about gossip is because it has the power to destroy our church. People have left this church because of the power of gossip. And I think it could be different. I think we can make some basic commitments to each other that we are going to do God’s work instead of the devil’s.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul is writing to a missionary working on the island of Crete. Paul gives Titus some advice on how to guide a new church. One of the things he tells Titus is that to win over the Cretans, the church will have to demonstrate new life in Christ. Paul writes, “Titus, remind the church that at one time, you acted like pagans, but now you are different because of Jesus Christ. Let your actions show the kindness and love of Christ. Do good. Slander no one. Be peaceful and considerate and show true humility.

Spiritual growth can happen in our church if we learn when to keep our mouths shut. Dietrich Bonhöffer, the German Christian martyr of WWII, believed we minister to one another by considering our words before we speak them. In his book, Life Together he writes, “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words . . . He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body.”

When we hold our tongues and control our gossip about other people, then we come to discover that everyone has a place in the community - strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted and ungifted. We begin to see that our differences are not incentives for judging and condemning each other. Our differences give us reasons to rejoice in one another and serve one another. Each member of the community is made in the image of Christ, and each person has a place at our Table.

Yiddish folklore tells a tale of man who told a lot of malicious lies about the local rabbi that. Eventually overcome by remorse, the liar begged the rabbi to forgive him. “Rabbi, tell me how I can make amends,” he begged. The rabbi sighed, “Take two pillows, go to the public square and there cut the pillows open. Wave them in the air. Then come back.” The rumormonger quickly went home, got two pillows and a knife, ran to the square, cut the pillows open, waved them in the air and raced back to the rabbi’s chambers. “I did just what you said, Rabbi!” The rabbi smiled. “Now, to realize how much harm is done by gossip, go back to the square... and collect all your feathers.”

Or, as Will Rogers put it, “Live so that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.”

We can bless others through truth-telling, instead of cursing them through storytelling. We can speak directly to others instead of speaking to others about them. It’s the golden rule at the heart of Christian ethics. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard a person say, “You know, I wish someone would trash talk me around town today. I wish someone would call me a crook, or a liar or a weirdo behind my back because confrontation makes me uncomfortable.”

Are we doing the devil’s dirty work, or blessing others in Christ’s name? Are we liars or lovers?
God’s loving givers, or the devil’s diabolical drones? Whose side will we be on?





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