Friday, July 28, 2006

Sermon for July 23, 2006

The Secret Plan

Ephesians 2:1-22

In the 1920s, Harvey Penick bought a red spiral notebook and began jotting down observations about golf. He never showed the book to anyone until 1991, when he shared it with a local writer and asked if he thought it was worth publishing. The man read it and told him yes. The next day , Simon & Schuster agreed to an advance of $90,000. When the writer shared the news with Penick, the old man seemed troubled. With all his medical bills, he said, there was no way he could advance Simon & Schuster that much money. The writer had to explain that Penick would be the one to receive the $90,000. His first golf book, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, sold more than a million copies. His second book, And if You Play Golf, You’re My Friend, sold nearly three quarters of a million copies.

When people think about God’s love, they often have the same reaction as Penick did. We ask, “What must I do?” It’s a good question. What do we have to do to gain God’s special favor in our lives? What must we do to get God’s attention in times of need? What must we do to know for sure that we have eternal life with God?

The people in the Church in Ephesus must have struggled with similar questions. Let’s try to get into the culture of Paul’s audience. Ephesus was a seaport trade city with a population of about 300,000. It was a center of Greco-Roman culture. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, which was ranked as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The people in this city worshiped Greek gods and adhered to Greek culture. Early Christians like Paul traveled to Ephesus as missionaries and established churches. And because of their ministry, some Ephesian citizens turned from their gods put their faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ. This caused some problems. There were some Jewish Christians who demanded that these new converts must follow a certain set of rules in order to achieve favor with God. They required Gentile Christians to follow the Jewish law: Eat certain foods, wear certain clothes, be circumcised, then you will be a true Christian. There are some churches today who still act this way. They say, “Don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t lie and cheat, don’t wear immodest clothing, don’t drink coffee, don’t pierce your ears, women grow your hair long, and then you will be a real Christian.” Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Paul always had a problem with this kind of thinking. Even though he was a Jew, Paul realized that Jesus met people where they were, in the life-situations they were in. He knew that God’s love was showered upon all people through Christ, and it didn’t depend on who their parents were, what they looked like, how they dressed, what they ate, or where they were born.

I think that most of us have experienced this feeling that we must meet certain arbitrary standards to attain God’s love and feel good about ourselves. When we tell ourselves that we have to meet certain standards to please God and others, then we begin to live a rule-dominated life. Maybe you know someone like this. Perhaps you have experienced it yourself. Individuals caught in this trap continually focus their attention on their performance and their ability to follow a schedule. They become rigid perfectionists.

For example, I used to make daily lists of everything I needed to do to feel like my day was a success. I was always a little tense because I wanted to use every moment to effectively reach, my goals. When I couldn’t check off the entire list, I got angry. I struggled with wanting to do more, but sometimes my best didn’t seem like enough. My solution was to try harder, to make even better use of my time, to be even more regimented and to make more self-imposed rules. But my focus was misdirected. The focus of our life as Christians should be on Christ, not on a bunch of strict rules.

This is just my personal example of something I think many struggle with: the false belief that we must meet certain standards in order to please God and feel good about ourselves. Other people hold themselves to different ‘laws’. For example:

Some people are caught under the law of church attendance. They say to themselves, “If I attend every worship service, and work diligently in the church, then God will be pleased with me.”

Some are caught in the law of morality: “If I can just behave well enough I will be acceptable to God.”

Some people are captive to the law of perfectionism: “If only I can keep my house spotless, my family looking good, and my social life in order – if only I can keep tight charge over every area of my life, then God will smile upon me and I will be happy.”

The same theme rings true in each situation. We are trying to earn something by our own good works. We begin to think that our happiness, freedom, and salvation depend solely upon what we can do to make our lives better.

When we live our lives trying to earn God’s favor, we live with a constant fear of failure hanging over our heads. We yearn for rescue from the stifling situations of life, but never find freedom. As long as we live our lives according to our lists of self-imposed rules, we will not experience the salvation that has been offered to us in Jesus Christ. If we base our salvation on our ability to meet a set of standards, failure looms as our constant enemy.

Thankfully, God has a solution. God gives us the promise of a secure future totally apart from our ability to perform. The life death and resurrection of Christ places is in right standing before God. As Paul puts it, “God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it”

Here’s what happened. God knows that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we can’t clean ourselves up and make ourselves right before him. So God said, “If you put your faith in my Son, I will make you righteous; that is, I will put you in a right relationship with me.” It’s not because of anything you do. It’s not because you look good. It’s not because you are sorry for past mistakes. God’s love is a free gift to you. Because of what Jesus did for us, we are pleasing to God in spite of our failures. When God looks at believers, God sees Christ in us. The point of God’s grace is this: we can never achieve perfection here on earth. We can never reach God by our own striving. Even our best efforts at self-righteousness are nothing to God. But, God loves us so much that he sent the Son to wipe away our sins and give us good standing before God.

This is God’s secret plan that has been in effect since the beginning of time. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. No more basing our worth on what we do and don’t do. No more divisions in the church based on who people are or where they come from. God has made us one by offering salvation to each and every person in the exact same way–by putting our faith in Christ, receiving God’s forgiveness, and accepting the free gift of his love.

The following essay was actually written by a student applying for admission to NYU in response to the question, “Are there any personal accomplishments or significant experiences you have had that helped define you as a person.” The author was accepted and is reportedly now attending college at NYU. The student wrote:

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees. I write award-winning operas. I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook 30-minute brownies in 20 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single -handedly defended a small village in the Amazon basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play a bluegrass cello. I was scouted by the Mets. I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics world wide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening, I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. When on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. I balance, I weave, I dodge, and my bills are all paid. I participate in full contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life, but forgot to write it down. I have performed open heart surgery and I have met with Elvis, But I have not yet gone to college.

This young man went to great lengths to convince the admissions department at NYU that he was good enough for their school. Are you among the many people who think you’re going to have to convince God that you’re good enough to get into heaven? Are you pushing yourself to accomplish as much as possible during your lifetime in order to prove to God that you’re worthy of eternal life?

God doesn’t pay attention to our resumes. Only one thing matters: Do you know Jesus Christ? You don’t have to worry about making yourself look good–Jesus has already done it for you. Paul says it best: we are God’s masterpiece. Do you understand that? Imagine God painting a picture. God concentrates on the canvas. Finally he steps back and gazes upon what he created. It’s a phenomenal work of art. To look at its beauty would take your breathe away. And it’s a picture of Christ living in you. You are God’s work of art. God loves you. God wants you. You are God’s masterpiece, and God won’t stop cherishing you. Have you come to a place in your walk with the Lord where you know you are deeply loved, fully pleasing, totally forgiven, accepted, and complete in Christ? If not, stop doing things to earn God’s love. You already have it. Just receive it, and live the new reality of God’s love, fully shown to us through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Sermon for July 9, 2006

Lovers or Liars?
1 John 4:11-21

An interesting lawsuit was been brought before the courts in New Mexico this past Summer. The family of Ben Martinez, who recently died at the age of 80, is suing Fr. Scott Mansfield and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The lawsuit claims that during the funeral for Mr. Martinez, Fr. Mansfield called him a been a lukewarm Catholic who had been living in sin and going to hell. Clearly, loudly and without hesitation, the priest allegedly said that the Lord vomited people like Ben out of his mouth to hell. The lawsuit also says Mansfield, while walking to the gravesite after the funeral, swore and said that he didn't care what the people of the town thought, that he had put the Martinez family in their place. The claim lists psychological pain, physical afflictions, anxiety, depression and humiliation allegedly suffered by Martinez’s family in the months after the funeral.

Although the case raises issues about freedom of religion and freedom of speech, I think there is a bigger question at stake in the Martinez case. It seems the family and the priest are at odds over the definition of a Christian. I’ve had people tell me that I’m not a good Christian. So let’s all ask ourselves this question today. What is a Christian?

Is a Christian the same as a churchgoer? Is a Christian someone who is a good person with strong moral fiber? Is a Christian someone who believes and confesses the right creeds, or a person who believes all of the correct things? Is a Christian someone who acts just like you do? Is a Christian a conservative Republican or a passionate liberal? Sometimes we hear that a real Christian is someone who makes a decision to accept Jesus – someone who is filled with joy and never has one’s faith shaken. Others say a real Christian is faithful to one’s denomination, as if Congregationalists are the only people who are not hell bound. What IS a Christian?

Go to an Internet search engine, type in the words “true Christian”, and check out all the results. You won’t believe how many kooks are out there claiming to have the exact formula to test whether or not you are a real Christian. One site claims that a true Christian:
Does NOT worship on Sunday
Does NOT believe the doctrine of the Trinity
Is certain that he does NOT have an immortal soul
Is aware that Christmas is not Christ’s birthday and Easter is the ancient fertility goddess
Knows he will NOT ascend to heaven upon his death and most of all
Believes Christ will return soon as the King of Kings.
Another site that is more traditional claims that a true Christian will:
Desire to obey God and study the Bible. Real Christians will increasingly understand the Bible, admit they sin, sin less and less, love others, not love the world and have the fruits of the Spirit
The Athiest Foundation of Australia has a test to be able to spot a true Christian. They say that a true Christian is one who literally follows the words of Christ. So, true Christians will be able to:
Handle snakes, drink poison, and walk over scorpions. They must hate their families and also be hated by their families.True Christians Are Perfect. They can move mountains, and wither figs.
The site goes on to say
There are many different types of Christians, many sects and denominations. In their pride and arrogance they all claim to be true believers. But it is important to make sure that we have the real thing because Jesus said that there would be many fakers.
In [many Bible passages] Jesus tells us about false prophets, false Christians. When dealing with Christians ask them if they are 'true' Christians. If the answer is 'yes' then chuck them a [poisenous snake] and stick a few scorpions in their shoes
What these sites all have in common is that Christianity is defined by following a certain set of rules. First they pick and choose Scripture passages that they think are the most important. Once you fulfill a long list of unreasonable requirements, and you can know that you are (or someone else is) a Christian.

You might be surprised to find out that the word “Christian” appears only three times in the NT. And all references indicate that the word “Christian” was a term of ridicule, a slur placed upon Christ’s followers by their critics. For example:
We find the term in Acts 17:28 on the lips of King Agrippa, an unbelieving magistrate who asks Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?
It is also found in 1 Peter 4:16: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear the name.” Peter indicates that early believers in Christ suffered a great deal of persecution as Christians. In fact, for Peter, being a Christian and suffering are always linked together.
The third text that uses the word Christian appears in Acts 11:27 where we read that the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. Notice how the disciples don’t get a choice in the matter. They were called Christians by others–it was a term applied to them.

So, we learn that a Christian is a disciple, a follower of Christ, one who clings to the gospel. But, a Christian is one who is prepared to suffer for the sake of Christ, if necessary.

Let me say right here, this all makes me very uncomfortable – for two reasons:
1. I don’t like to suffer.
2. Suffering has nothing to do with the definition of a Christian that I was raised with. I was taught that a Christian is a person who tries his best to follow Jesus -- a good person who goes to church, and fellowships with other Christians.

But the use of the word “Christian” in the NT doesn’t say anything about doing things, nor does it mention being good. No, being Christian has to do with following the unpopular path of suffering and humiliation, all the while professing Jesus Christ as Lord of your life. I gotta’ tell you, this definition is not going to win friends. Church growth experts do not tell us that suffering and sacrifice bring in masses of new church members. We are told to build churches, add programs, use upbeat music, and provide off-street parking. But early Christians didn’t do any of that stuff, nor did they define their identity by it. They identified with the suffering Christ. Associating with Christians meant you were voluntarily allowing yourself to be a target of ridicule and persecution.

Why would anyone do this? Why would anyone willingly align him or herself with a message of meekness, and suffering? We can sum it up in one word: LOVE.

A Christian is defined by love. A Christian is a person who is in touch with the love of God, freely given to us through Christ. In his letters, John reminds us that God is already made known to us. “God showed how much he loved us by sending his only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.” John goes on. “This is real love. It is not that we loved God, but that he loved us . . .” (4:7-10). It’s not what you do or say or believe that makes God love you. God just loves you. God has singled you out for grace. God revals God’s self as the God for others – God the loving Giver.

But love like this calls for action. Such complete love calls us to align ourselves with God’s way of doing things. God, the loving Giver, asks us to love in return. I think this is the bare essence of being Christian. A Christian loves because he or she knows the love of God. John is not talking about love as an ideal , either. A real Christian puts love in action. It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God,’ and then throw your garbage in your neighbor’s lawn. John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don't love your neighbor. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you do see, whom you touch, with whom you live? It is also important for us to realize that true love hurts. This is where the suffering part comes in. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. It requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me if I bring injustice, instead of peace, to those around me.

A man was about to commit suicide by jumping from a high bridge, when a second man ran up to him shouting, ““Stop! Stop! Don’t do it!”
“But I have nothing to live for,” said the first man.
“Maybe I can help you,” said the second man. “Are you religious?”
“Yes, I am,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Are you a Christian, Jewish, or Muslem?”
“I’m Christian,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
“I’m a Protestant,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Charismatic, Reformed, or Baptist?”
“Reformed,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Presbyterian, or Congregationalist?”
“Congregationalist” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man excitedly. “UCC, 3-C, 4-C, or Independent”
“UCC” said the first man.
“UCC Then die, infidel heretic!”” And the second man pushed the first man off the bridge.

To categorize and stereotype each other is to hurt each other. When we spend our energy looking for what makes us different, instead of recognizing that God loves us all, we ignore God’s command to love each other as we have been loved by God. I find it interesting that the early church did not call one another “Christians”. They called one another brother and sister. A real Christian is not only a follower of Christ, but a spiritual brother or sister to others. A real Christian is one who strives to be like Jesus and embraces the Jesus in others. A real Christian is one who loves Jesus and also loves the Jesus in others – even if the person is different – even if the other person disgusts us, or hates us – even if the other person is an enemy. A real Christian is a loving-Giver, just as God has lovingly given to us. If we say we love God, and don’t love others, we are liars. Are you a lover or a liar?

Sermon for July 2, 2006

Come to Me

Song of Songs 2:8-13; Matthew 11:25-30

Tennessee Williams tells a story about Jacob Brodzky, a shy Russian Jew whose father owned a bookstore. The older Brodzky wanted his son to go to college. Jacob, on the other hand, desired nothing but to marry Lila, his childhood sweetheart -- a French girl as breezy, vital, and ambitious as he was quiet and retiring. A couple of months after Jacob went to college, his father fell ill and died. Jacob returned home, buried his father, and married his love. Then the couple moved into the apartment above the bookstore, and Jacob took it over. The life of books fit him perfectly, but it cramped her. She wanted more adventure. She eventually met a talent agent who praised her beautiful singing voice and enticed her to tour Europe with a vaudeville company. Jacob was devastated. At their parting, he reached into his pocket and handed her the key to the front door of the bookstore.

“You had better keep this,” he told her. “You will want it some day. Your love is not so much less than mine that you can get away from it. You will come back sometime, and I will be waiting.” She kissed him and left. To escape the pain he felt, Jacob withdrew deep into his bookstore and took to reading as someone else might take to drink. He spoke little, did little, and most times sat at the large desk near the rear of the shop, immersed in his books while he waited for his love to return.

Nearly 15 years after they parted she did return. But when Jacob rose from the reading desk he did not recognize the love of his life. “Do you want a book?” he asked. Lila was startled, but she gained possession of herself and replied, “I want a book, but I’ve forgotten the name of it.” Then she told him a story of childhood sweethearts. A story of a newly married couple who lived in an apartment above a bookstore. A story of a young, ambitious wife who left to seek a career, who enjoyed great success but could never relinquish the key her husband gave her when they parted. She told him the story she thought would bring him to himself. But Jacob’s face showed no recognition. Gradually she realized that he had lost touch with his heart’s desire, that he no longer knew the purpose of his waiting and grieving, that now all he remembered was the waiting and grieving itself. She cried out, “You remember it; you must remember it -- the story of Lila and Jacob?” After a long, bewildered pause, he said, “There is something familiar about the story, I think I have read it somewhere. It comes to me that it is something by Tolstoi.” Dropping the key, she fled the shop. Jacob returned to his desk, to his reading, unaware that the love he waited for had come and gone.

Tennessee Williams’s story reminds me how easy it is to miss love when it comes. Either something so distracts us or we have so completely lost who we are and what we care about that we cannot recognize our heart’s desire.

I want you to think about the person sitting to your right and your left. Think about the person who is sitting in front of you and behind you. Think about your family and your friends. Now think about the handful of people whom drive you crazy. I’m going to tell you something about them – each and every one of those people, you and me included, aches to be loved. In a world that seems plagued by an epidemic of emotional pain, it’s not surprising that we are a culture infatuated with love. Most people will go to great extremes to feel loved. Romantic fantasies . . . casual one-night-stands . . . we’ll spend billions of dollars on how-to-books, pills, make-up, and seductive clothes. But none of these seem to secure the kind of love that will fill the empty, lonely spot inside that waits for someone – anyone – to accept and passionately love the real me.

I’ve met people who live their lives believing that there is no one there for them. They think, “Nobody understands me. Nobody cares about my pain. No one cares if I live of die.” Even in marriages, it’s easy to feel that one’s spouse no longer understands. I read a story about a couple named Mark and Beth. When they were young, they fell in love. Their eyes sparkled and their steps were light. They felt that unique, special attraction for each other. They got married, believing that they would forever supply each other with a permanent sense of self-worth. But, as time went on, Mark expected Beth to always be as loving and accepting and forgiving as she was when they were dating. Beth expected the same from Mark. They began to feel disillusioned, even betrayed by one another. As the years passed, affirmation was replaced by sarcasm and ridicule. They each expected unconditional love and acceptance from the other, and each failure to do so was another brick in the wall between them. Mark and Beth recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. Although they shared ten years together, they experienced very little real love. Unfortunately, not even marriage guarantees that our need to be loved will be fulfilled.

So here we sit today, frustrated lovers, wanting to be understood but feeling alone. We want to love and be loved, but we feel incompetent, inadequate and insecure. Some of us try to compensate. Some will tell themselves. “If I can only do something to make myself more likeable or desirable . . . if only I can be successful . . . if only I can make myself more beautiful . . . if only I try harder or put more effort in . . . THEN all my problems will be solved.”

The truth is hard to accept. We will never be loved by doing more. We will not be loved if we stumble upon the correct formula of things to say, do and wear. Here’s the truth: you are already loved. Someone already who knows you and understands you. Someone already sees you– shortcomings and insecurities included – and still loves you. You are loved by God. God’s just nuts about you. God pursues you and calls out to you and God will do anything it takes to draw you into a love relationship. All God asks is for us to trust that real love can be life-changing and real. God wants us to throw off the bonds of insecurity and hear words of love: “Arise my beautiful one and come with me. See! Winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on earth, the season for singing has come. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.”

Like our human relationships, we think we have to do something to earn or deserve God’s love. Many people feel useless or worthless is we are not busy doing something. But God has already given his love to you as a gift. You don’t pay someone back for a gift. You just receive it – otherwise it’s not a gift anymore. There is no work of effort involved. God is passionately, intimately, breathlessly, fiercely, undeniable in love with you. God knows you. God understands you. God loves you and God wants you to arise and allow yourself to receive that love.

Here lies the beauty of the Gospel. You don’t need to carry around heavy burdens of doubt, or self-contempt-or inadequacy. Jesus says drop them and take the burden of love upon your shoulders insead. I think God says, “I have come to you. I sent my son in human likeness so that I may fully know you and you may fully know me. Now make good choices. Seek the highest love. Come to me and I will give you rest for your souls.” I believe right now Jesus looks at you and sees your pain. He knows the weight of your family problems. He knows what it’s like when you feel no good. Jesus understands loneliness and feeling like nobody really cares about or understands you. He experienced it all himself. And through that Jesus says, “Just leave it behind for a while. All your striving to find love and acceptance is just a distraction. They are detours which lead you farther away from God’s love.” Jesus says, “I’ll carry all those burdens and distractions for you. That’s how much I love you. Arise my beautiful one, come with me . . .”

In his book Mortal Lessons physician Richard Selzer describes a scene in a hospital room after he had performed surgery on a young woman’s face:

I stand by the bed where the young woman lies -- her face, postoperative -- her mouth twisted in palsy -- clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight -- isolated from me -- private. Who are they? I ask myself -- he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously. The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” “She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers -- to show her that their kiss still works.

Regardless of the scars you bear from the ravages of life, no matter how you feel about yourself at any given time, God loves you. God kissed us by giving us Jesus – by allowing his body to be twisted on a cross to show us that God’s love still works. No matter what, you are beautiful to God and he will never stop loving you.

God will never force a relationship on you that you don’t want. But I think we want it. I encourage you to find a space where you can be alone with God. I want you to sit quietly and allow the Holy Spirit to confirm this message to you. Allow God to speak his love to you in inward stillness. Come to God saying, “O God, lover of my soul, I am yours. I belong to you and you love me as I am.” And as you listen, may the kiss of the Spirit touch you as you hear the voice of a God who is totally in love with you: Arise my beautiful one and come with me. See! Winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on earth, the season for singing has come. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...