Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Sermon for February 25, 2007

Doers of the Word
James 1:22-25; James 2:14-20

We can be gullible when we see advertisements for little gadgets and timesavers. You know what I mean – the electric waffle-boat makers, the inflatable massage chairs, the Flowbees and Garden Weasels and Clappers – things we never knew we needed until the cable shopping channels told us that we couldn’t live without them. In most cases, what happens to this stuff after we buy it? If it doesn’t break, we use our earwax camera/cleaner two or three times before it gets pushed into the back of a closet or the corner of the garage with the rest of the junk we couldn’t live without. Last week’s novelty is forgotten just in time for this week’s ads, with a new hoard of debris guaranteed to make our lives easier, richer, and more convenient. Sometimes we’re so busy looking ahead to what we don’t have, we don’t take the time to enjoy, or put to good use, what we already do have.

The same can be true of God’s word. Are we living an active life of faith with the resources we’ve been given, or do we wait to act and move, thinking that we don’t have enough faith or understanding to really make a difference? Many of us in the church sit on our hands, thinking to ourselves, “I need more knowledge. I need to know God is real. I need a sign. I need more. I can’t do anything with my faith until I have more assurance.”

The book of James is concerned with this issue – the danger of spending all of our time acquiring faith and knowledge without taking time to put them into practice. Let’s read what James has to say:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?

Our Protestant tradition has an old document called the Heidelberg Catechism, which says that there is only one way that we can get right with God. One way – only by true faith in Jesus Christ. It goes on to say that all we need to do is accept the gift of God, Christ himself, with a believing heart. Then James comes along and argues that faith is not enough. He tells us three times that faith without works is dead. Useless! (2:20) He says that a person is made right with God by what one does, not by faith alone (2:24). Is James going against the rest of the NT and the teachings of the church? Is he suggesting that what we do is more important than our faith in Christ? We need to understand two key words to understand where James is taking us: faith and deeds.

For James, there are two kinds of faith. The first kind is found in churches all over the world. It is professed by people who consider themselves Christians. They have an intellectual understanding of faith. They know the right things to say. They can give approved answers to life’s questions. They can even worship with real feeling. They problem is that their brand of faith stops there. Their faith consists of knowledge and advice. Their faith may be intellectually stimulating and emotionally fulfilling on a personal level. But, James says that having only religious head knowledge is dead faith.

The other kind of faith demonstrates itself in action. The person with this faith has head knowledge that Jesus Christ is the Savior. She has the assurance of a relationship with God through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. But, she’s not content with mere head knowledge. She finds ways to express her faith through loving actions. This is not dead faith. It’s an authentic faith that finds its expression in works of love.

James does not cancel out the rest of the NT. He’s actually completing it. Saving faith in Jesus Christ is the requirement to be right with God. But this kind of faith can’t stand on its own. It has to move toward expression. Good deeds and loving actions must follow.

To drive the point home, James offers the image of a mirror, as we heard in the first reading. James insists that we should not just hear or believe God’s word as is if it were an intellectual exercise. We are to put it into practice. He compares this to a man who looks at his face in the mirror. The man doesn’t just take a hasty glance. He looks at himself with careful observation and attentive scrutiny. He systematically studies his face and becomes thoroughly familiar with all of its features. Then, as the man turns from the mirror he immediately forgets what he looks like. Even though he studies his face, we can’t remember any of its features. James compares this man to the person who listens to scripture with great attention and at length. This person studies God’s word and understands what he hears. He knows what God expects. But as soon as he’s done studying, he forgets what he learned. The word of God has no impact on his daily life. The purpose of seeking truth is not to gain theoretical knowledge, but to live it out. The person who looks into God’s word with penetrating absorption and puts it into practice will be blessed.

James offers another image just as silly as the mirror. Imagine a couple in the church that is in dire need. They don’t have food or clothes. James over-exaggerates their condition by calling them naked – without proper food and clothing to make it through the day. They are desperate for physical help. So, a fellow church member comes by, sees the couple, and is obviously aware of their need. The church member says, “I wish you well, go in peace.” It’s as if the person walks by and says, “You poor people. I’ll pray for you. By the way, you should really get dressed and get yourself something to eat.” James asks, “What good is this? Faith without action is outrageous nonsense.”

Lukewarmness and indifference invalidate any claim to authentic faith. It is vital that we engage ourselves with the world and live our faith. How expressive is your faith? Does your belief in Jesus Christ and your awareness of God’s love make a difference in the lives of those around you? What a challenge for parents. Parents, your children wait to see your faith expressing itself in action. Remember this old phrase: Do as I say, not as I do? Children don’t need to our lifestyles contradict our words.

What a challenge to students. They know they cheapness of talk. They clearly see the hypocrisy of words that aren’t balked up by actions. They stand arm-in-arm with James who says, “Show me your faith.”

What a challenge for our friends who scrutinize our lives to see if pious words and religious knowledge is matched with live in action.

Let me leave you with a little story. An old Scotsman operated a little rowing boat for ferrying passengers about on the water. One day one of the passengers noticed that the man had carved on the blade of one oar the word ‘faith’ and on the other oar the word ‘works.’ Curious as to what this might mean, he asked for an explanation. The old man being a mature Christian, and eager to share his faith, seized this opening. Let me show you, he said. Immediately he discarded one oar and plied the one called “works” and they proceeded to move around in circles. Then he dropped that oar and applied the one called ‘faith’ and the boat went around in circles again – this time in the opposite direction. After this little demonstration, the old man picked up both the oars, faith and works, plying both oars together, and the boat sped quickly over the water. He explained to his passenger, “You see that is the way it is in the Christian life. Dead works without faith are useless, and faith without works is dead, getting you nowhere. But faith and works pulling together makes for safety, progress and blessing.”

People notice when our actions don’t back our beliefs. Our children, our family, our friends, they know when our deeds aren’t in harmony with the faith we proclaim. Deep inside, we know it, too. I want you to remember that tonight many people will go to bed lonely, alienated, isolated, broken, or hungry. They will be sick, sad, and crying out for something or someone to give them the hope that life can be better. Who will point the way to God’s tender love? James urges us to position ourselves in places where we can be the ones to preach our faith at all times, and to use words only when necessary.

What kind of faith do you have? Is it merely intellectual? Is it just warm and emotional? Does it propel you to loving action? My prayer is that we all can live a faith that cares for others with works that measure up to our words, or else, as James painfully reminds us, our faith is dead.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sermon for February 18, Transfiguration Sunday

Seeing Jesus
Luke 9:28-36

Have you ever heard of United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a “Mr. Nobody.” No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate “greats” mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience. Let’s set the stage. Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand. Congress decided to strike first. The Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president “deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.” The word immediately went out that his vote was “shaky.” Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to “come to his senses.” The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium. As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four “guilties” had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross’ vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?” Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” Then, the answer came -- unhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!” With that, the trial was over. Ross had given his very best. And what was he left with? Ross’ political career was in ruins. I can just imagine Ross in a private moment . . . tired, emotionally drained, slumped in a chair with hands cupped over his weary face. Ross was banished by his constituents. Physical attack awaited his family upon their return home. One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow...though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.”

Author Max Lucado tells relates the following scene: Four people snake up a mountain. The trip has been long. The hour is late. A level place on a hillside is reached, and they sit down. They’re tired. Their muscles hurt. The greyness of twilight settles over them like soft cloth. The quartet of pilgrims longs to sleep, but only three do. The fourth sits in the shadows, legs crossed. Face skyward. The stars wink at their Maker. Winds waft over the shoulders of their Designer, cooling his neck. He slips off his sandals and rubs his sore feet and reflects on the wildness of it all. A God with sore legs? Holiness with hunger? Divinity with thirst? A World-maker made weary by his world?

His thoughts drift homeward. Nazareth. How good it would be to be home again. The memories surface so easily. A sawdust-covered work bench. Friends stopping to talk. Dinner-table laughter. Wrestling with his brothers. But Nazareth would never be home again. They tried to kill him last time he was there. The people who watched him grow up squeezed stones intended for his body. Even his brothers and sisters considered him insane. They were ashamed to be known as his family. No, Nazareth would never be home again.
What about Galilee? The crowds listened in Galilee. There the people followed... as long as he said what they wanted to hear. He remembered the crowds as they turned away. He heard their jeering. He felt their rejection.

He thinks of Jerusalem. She offers no comfort. He knows what is waiting for him there. A foreboding pain stabs his wrists. He winces at the slicing of his brow. He sees the world around him growing darker. He shakes his head and breathes a staggered breath. His thoughts return to the present. He plucks a shoot of grass, puts it into his mouth, and sits in the shadow of his fear. He looks at his followers, as asleep as they are naive. They have no idea. He speaks of suffering; they think of conquering. He speaks of sacrifice; they think of celebration. They think they hear. They think they see. But they don’t. Part of him knew it would be like this. And part of him never knew it would be so bad. Part of him wonders, Would it be so bad to give up? He has given his best and what does he have? A ragged band of good-hearted followers who are destined to fall flat on promises they can’t keep. He puts his face into his cupped hands and prays. It’s all he knows to do.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it seeker? Was it so long ago that you were on a quest for the truth–like Columbus in search of a new world? But the ocean of questions was deep. The coastlines of perplexities were difficult to navigate. It was easier to say nothing than to ask why. So you stopped.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, dreamer? You wanted to badly change the world. Sure the mountain was high, but you were brave. Then winds came. Sharp rocks of reality cut your feet, breaking your stride . . . breaking your heart. And you found the role of the cynic was less costly than the role of the dreamer. So you sat down.

You need to know something. Jesus sat down, too.

Sure, there were moments that he stood tall. There were hours of splendor. The days came when the sick leaped for joy and the dead came to life. But the peaks of popularity were gorged by canyons of isolation.

And on this day, the crevasse is deep. His strength has reached a low point.
So he sits down and puts his bleary face into cupped hands and prays. It’s all he can do. And when his Father sees him, it’s all his Father can take.

Luke writes, “And as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Jesus bursts inward with glory. For just a moment he is transfigured; a roaring radiance pours from him. For one brief, shining moment the burden of humanity is lifted. He is home again. Familiar sounds surround him. Those who understand welcome him. And the Father holds him. The One who felt weary is soon reminded: the weariness will soon pass. Now, on the mountain, preparing himself for the work of death, Moses and Elijah draw near: Moses the lawgiver whose grave no one knew; Elijah the prophet who side-stepped death in a fiery chariot. The One who faces death is reminded: the grave is powerless.

And then the Voice thunders. God inhabits a cloud that consumes the shadows. It transforms the mountain into a shining monument. And from the belly of the clouds the Father speaks: This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him. The One who had despaired is now affirmed. It’s as if God shouts, “It doesn’t matter what people think. What I think does. And I am proud.” By now Jesus is standing. By now the apostles are awake. For Peter, James, and John, the scene is bizarre: dazzling white clouds, a voice from the sky, living images from the past. But for Jesus, it is a view of home. A view into yesterday. A glimpse into tomorrow. And he heads down the mountain. You see, there is a boy who needs to be healed. There are disciples who need to understand. There is a cross waiting in Jerusalem.

If we look hard enough, we can see Jesus in faces all around us.

He is seen in a Senator who commits professional suicide for the sake of conscience.

He is in the couple seeking to pick up the pieces of the fractured relationship, looking for the strength to go on.

He is in cancer victim or the Alzheimer patient who feels the future is hopeless.

He is in a grieving widower asking why and looking for answers.

He is in the teen who thinks nobody understands or even cares who she really is.

If you look hard enough, he is even there in your own lonely, spots where no one else is invited to sit with you.

There are people all around us who are tired. Weary. Suffering other’s irrational reactions to their principles. Tempted to give up and looking for anything to help them just endure. Jesus was there, too.

This morning I invite all of us to travel up the mountain top with a weary Christ. If you do, a wonderful thing will happen. You will see Jesus for who he really is. And when we see Jesus for who he is, we are also able to see ourselves for who we really are. Jesus pulls each person from behind the masks we wear. The pure, transfiguring light of God exposes all. It revealed Jesus as God’s beloved Son. God’s light reveals your own need to be loved, your disappointment with yourself, your shame and frustration, your deepest fears, your isolation and emptiness. In the transfiguring light of God, there is nowhere to hide. All the masks are torn away. We stand stripped and vulnerable before our Lord and are told, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.” And we are asked to respond–to rub the sleep from our eyes and understand that this God, this man Jesus wants to fill us with His glory when we are lost and weary.

What an affirmation of God’s love for us! It is so easy and yet so hard to accept. God loves you. God loves you! He understands your weariness. He has felt your emptiness. Yes, God, in the person of Jesus Christ was tempted to give up. And from eternity the voice of God calls out to us. Are you listening?

He says:
Come, you who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

He says:
Give all your worries and cares to me, for I care about what happens to you.

The voice of God says:
This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to Him.

God loves you. Jesus calls you. The Spirit is ready to fill you. Are you listening?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sermon for February 11, 2007

I finally posted the last three sermons in the series on The Lord's Prayer. Sorry for the delay.

The Lord’s Prayer: Thine is the Kingdom
Luke 17:20-24

“We’ll be out until 10:30,” said Chad’s parents as their friends came by to pick them up for banquet. “While we’re gone, stay home and finish your history paper.”

“Can’t I use the car for just a little while?” asked Chad. He had gotten his driver’s license just last month. “Um, I need to borrow a book from Todd. I’ll only be gone a while.”

Absolutely not,” warned Chad’s father. “You have all the books you need for tonight. You stay home and work on that paper.” Chad really wanted to get together with his friends while his parents were gone. After all, his parents weren’t using the car, so why shouldn’t he be able to? It didn’t seem fair. He only wanted to be out for an hour or so. There would still be time to work on his history paper, he reasoned.

The phone rang. It was Todd. “Hey, come on over,” he said. “All the guys are here.” Chad decided that he could go to Todd’s and get back early enough so that his parents would never know. He just had to be sure to put some gas in the car so nothing would look suspicious. He could work fast on his history paper when he returned. On the way to Todd’s, however, he got a flat tire and he had never changed a tire before.
He got out the jack and the wrench and went to work. He went to the tire, and began to loosen the lug nuts. But all of the lug nuts on the wheel were stuck. He couldn’t get the tire off. He turned the wrench as hard as he could, but nothing moved. Chad finally gave up and walked to the nearest gas station. It was after ten o’clock when the gas station attendant finally put the hydraulic wrench on the lug nuts and removed the tire. Chad couldn’t believe it. Why couldn’t he get those lug nuts off? Why were they on there so tight? Life wasn’t fair! Now he was going to be put on restriction for the rest of his life! “Which way were you turning them?” asked the gas station attendant. Chad thought it was a stupid question. He knew how to unscrew a nut. You turn it counterclockwise. “Well,” said the attendant, “the threads on this side of the car are reversed. To get them off, you turn them clockwise.” Suddenly Chad felt like a fool.

Today’s world can be a frustrating place to live in. Many people have a hard time finding happiness and fulfillment. They are like Chad, working in the wrong direction. Life doesn’t seem to get better. It only gets worse. As we’ve worked our way through the Lord’s Prayer this winter, we discovered that Jesus teaches Christians to live like a reverse thread – to believe and act the opposite of what the world teaches. The world says, “Take care of yourself,” but Jesus invites us to ask God for our daily bread. The powers of the world hold grudges and take revenge on enemies. Jesus teaches us to forgive others as God forgives us. The world entices to indulge ourselves and make ourselves happy, even at the expense of another’s happiness. Jesus tells us to pray for resistance to temptation. Today we examine the last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer. Listen to how Jesus goes against the common wisdom of his age and teaches followers to live like a reverse thread.

Luke 17:20-24
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the Kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see the day when the Son of Man returns, but you won’t see it. People will tell you, ‘Look, there is the Son of Man,’ or, ‘Here he is,’ but don’t go out and follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other, so it will be on the day when the Son of Man comes.

The Pharisees have a bad reputation. We always read about how they try to blame Jesus, or trip him up, or catch him preaching heresy so that they can kill him. Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the Pharisees, though – at least not without first examining ourselves. Like the Pharisees, we who live in these frustrating times also yearn to see a sign from God. Our troubled hearts want God to fill them with meaning. We need to see or hear or feel some evidence that God has not abandoned the world. We yearn to meet somebody – anybody – in whom we may find some trace of the presence of God. I picture the Pharisees with this same yearning as they ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God is coming. They must have ached for the Messiah to announce himself with a powerful and stunning miracle. The Pharisees are religious leaders who see their people defenseless and exposed to the brutal empires of the world. From their perspective, it seems as if God forgot them. The Messiah has not shown up as expected. They anticipate a mighty political warrior or general like King David of old who will come and wipe away all oppression. They wait for their Messiah to bring freedom and establish a new kingdom – a new order. So they ask Jesus, “Where is this Messiah? When will the kingdom of God come? Give us some facts. Tell us the details so we will know what to expect. We’re not going to stake our lives on something that’s not real. Jesus, our people are waiting and willing to follow if you will just give us something tangible to hold on to. Tell us, Jesus of Nazareth, where is your kingdom?”

Jesus responds with one of his unsatisfying and vague answers. “The kingdom of God doesn’t come by counting days on a calendar. You can’t say, ‘Look, there it is!’ The Kingdom of God is already among you.”

Like the Pharisees of old, we need to see God’s kingdom at work in this world. Especially in the church. There are people who go to church faithfully who only see Jesus as an historical figure – a moral decent person, even a role model. But they do not see signs of his presence among us. There are some in the church who see Jesus as person who know all about Jesus, but they know nothing about his desire to establish God’s Kingdom in our hearts. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is already among you.” The question is, how do we recognize his presence in our lives?

We begin to recognize God’s kingdom when we see the inside view. Have you ever walked around the outside of the church and tried to look inside through the stained glass windows? From the outside, you only see dull, muted colors. From the outside, you can’t tell if stained glass windows are pieces of junk or works of art. The moment you enter the sanctuary, the windows shine and the symbols are seen clearly. It’s the same way with knowing Christ. You can see him from the outside. You can know all about him. But you can’t see him clearly until you get a new perspective – an insider’s perspective. The true nature of Christ’s kingdom does come through research and analysis. We see it when we ask Jesus to let his kingdom form in our lives. The true nature of the kingdom can only be seen when we are in it.
We can’t get inside the kingdom until we obliterate the self-made boundaries that keep us out. You would think that everyone would want a life-transforming relationship with Jesus, but we’ve all heard excuses. Have you heard any of these before?
« The church is full of hypocrites and I don’t want to be with those people.
« Religion is a crutch for the weak – for those who afraid to face reality.
« I get serious about my faith later.
« I’ll have to think about it.
« It costs too much. I’ll have to give too much up.
« You can’t expect me to believe that stuff in the Bible actually happened.
« I’m not going to stake my life on something that’s not real
« Jesus, if you are real, prove yourself to me.

The Pharisees struggled with these same problems. They needed Jesus to speak to their struggles in pre-determined ways. They thought Jesus had it backwards. They waited for a Messiah to enter their world and act according to their rules. And then Jesus the Messiah, God Made Flesh, entered their world and said, “I’m not going to follow your rules and expectations. That’s not how God works. Come, be part of God’s kingdom, and I’ll teach you how to do it God’s way instead of your own.” Most of them could not handle it. They decided to turn against the One who came to bring them a new and transformed life in God’s kingdom.
I’m afraid the same is true for many of us. We say, “Jesus, prove yourself. Follow our rules and expectations. Do it my way or don’t do it at all.” Jesus says, “If you want to see God’s kingdom, you have to go against common sense, against your will and desires, and follow me.”
Friends, let’s not be so filled with ourselves that we think we can dictate the terms to God in a war of wills. Let’s not be the ones who expect God to only show up at the times and places that are convenient for us. Let’s open ourselves to the possibility that God wants to do something very different in our lives than what we expect. Let’s eliminate the word ‘should’ from our religious vocabulary. The Kingdom of God is in the hearts of those who can give up their expectations of what God should do or who God should be. The kingdom of God belongs to those who believe, and follow, and experience Christ for who he really is.

Who is Jesus to you? In the context of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is the one who demonstrates the kingdom, the power, and the glory of God forever and ever. His is the power of love – demonstrated on the cross. His is a love that calls us to leave our failed expectations and disappointments behind as we come to Jesus Christ in faith. He is the one who holds us in love and promises to change our lives. That’s the real power of the Kingdom – that Jesus can take faithless, doubt-filled, sinful people, clean them up, and make their lives that is more Christ-like.

Christian author Brennan Manning tells the story of an old man who was dying of cancer. The man’s daughter asked the local priest to come and pray with her father. When the priest arrived, he found the man lying in bed with his head propped up on two pillows and an empty chair beside his bed. The priest assumed that the old man was waiting for his visit. “I guess you were expecting me,” The priest said.

“No, who are you?” the old man replied.

“I’m the new associate at your parish,” the priest answered. “When I saw the empty chair, I figured you knew I was going to show up.”

"Oh yeah, the chair," said the bedridden man. “Would you mind closing the door?” Puzzled, the priest shut the door. “I’ve never told anyone this, not even my daughter,” said the man. “But all of my life I have never known how to pray. At the Sunday Mass I used to hear the pastor talk about prayer, but it always went right over my head… I abandoned any attempt at prayer until one day about four years ago my best friend said to me, ‘Joe, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here’s what I suggest. Place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith see Jesus on the chair. Then just speak to him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.’ So, Father, I tried it and I’ve liked it so much that I do it a couple of hours every day. I’m careful, though. If my daughter saw me talking to an empty chair, she’d either have a nervous breakdown or send me off to the funny farm.”

The priest was deeply moved by the story and encouraged the old man to continue on the journey. Then he prayed with him, anointed him with oil, and returned to the rectory. Two nights later, the daughter called to tell the priest that her dad died that afternoon. The priest asked, “Did he seem to die in peace?”

“Yes, when I left the house around two o’clock, he called me over to his bedside, told me one of his corny jokes, and kissed me on the cheek. When I got back from the store an hour later, I found him dead. But there was something strange, Father. In fact, beyond strange—kind of weird. Apparently, just before Daddy died, he leaned over and rested his head on a chair beside the bed.”

Are you and Jesus so close that you can talk with him as you would with a friend? Do you know that he loves you passionately, and that he’s interested in you, and he wants to listen to everything you have to say? Can you lay your head on him, hear his heartbeat, and know that everything will be all right? That’s the kind of relationship Jesus wants to have with you. That’s the power and the glory of God’s kingdom at work – God’s transforming, intimate love made known to us in Jesus Christ.

If you don’t know the power and glory of God’s love in your life, it’s not too late. It involves forsaking your expectations of Jesus, turning away from the old ways of doing things, repenting of sin and asking God to forgive. If involves following Christ where he goes instead of commanding God to follow your lead. Believe, repent, and follow. When that happens in your life, these words will mean more than they ever did: Thine, O Lord, is the kingdom, and the power, and glory forever. Amen.”

Sermon for February 4, 2007

The Lord’s Prayer: Deliver Us From Evil
1 Corinthians 10:13; Matthew 4:1-11

The Granby Gorge was one of the most dangerous places in town when I grew up there. We all knew the stories about kids who dove into the gorge, broke their necks and never walked again – or unaware swimmers who jumped off the cliffs and got pulled into underground caves by the currents of the waterfall. I remembered the words of my father, who told me what he’d do to me if he ever caught me swimming at the Granby Gorge. Let’s just say it involved his foot connecting to my rear-end, followed by weeks of hard labor on our family woodpile.

So, you may wonder how it came to be that I was standing on the edge of a cliff at the Granby Gorge, toes curled over the edge of the rocks, hands in the air, ready to perform a record-breaking cannonball to the sheers of my high school friends. The temptation was just too great to resist. One jump could put me in the pantheon of gorge jumpers. I’d have friends and fame, and respect, and girls who liked to go out with risk-taking daredevils like me. Yes, I was about to have it all in one 30-foot jump. I took a deep breath and looked to the left. I loosened my neck as the teens below started to chant. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” I looked to the right, and did a quick double take. There, watching the spectacle from the road, was my father. Let’s just say, I never jumped the Granby Gorge that day, but I learned a lot about splitting and piling wood.

Not every temptation is so obvious. Not every failure is so embarrassing. But every temptation presents us with a decision about right and wrong and whom we will serve Not even Jesus was spared this choosing.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by going into the desert of Judea and fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. Have you ever fasted? After just 24 hours you get headaches, and feel lightheaded. You get a white coating on your tongue and your breath stinks. Your body goes into survival mode by lowering its metabolism and preserving energy, so you feel lethargic. After a few days, your mind can play tricks on you. You can experience severe pain and swelling. Now imagine how Jesus felt after 40 days. In this weakened physical and emotional state, Jesus faces the tempter who tries to lure Jesus away from his calling as God’s Son. “Jesus, if you’re so hungry, and you really are God’s Son, turn these rocks into bread and eat. Take care of yourself for God’s sake. Jesus, if you are really the Son of God, then lets go the Temple in Jerusalem and you can hurl yourself from the top. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And then you can gently float to the ground and the world will see what a miracle-worker you are. No, I’ve got it. Jesus, worship me, and I will make you more powerful than any other ruler in the world.” Jesus was tempted to satisfy himself rather than remain obedient to God. He was tempted to put God to the test, to see if God would do something spectacular to prove himself.. Jesus was tempted to trust the powers of the world rather than the promises of God. I think Jesus agonized over these temptations. The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are (Heb. 4:15). Jesus understands our struggles and temptations. He experienced them himself. That’s why we pray these words every week: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” This morning we are going to think about what temptation is and learn some practical ways to avoid it.

Temptation is anything that entices us to use a short-cut to reach a desirable goal. For instance: Let’s say you want a good grade in school. Good grades are desirable. They open doors. They bring scholarships. They make parents happy. Students have to work hard to get good grades. But, the easiest way to get good grades is to let someone else do the work for you. It’s easier to cheat. You get the rewards without having to do the work.

Let’s think about friendship and intimacy. Most people have to work hard at keeping their relationships alive. But, it is easier to use people than to invest in them. It’s easier to get everything you want from others without giving something back.

Maybe you want success and influence with others. Success and influence take time and commitment. But in our world, personal goals are all to often reached at any cost. People will sacrifice integrity, honesty, and even relationships to get what they think will bring some happiness. It is not easy to live a life of integrity. It’s tempting to take the short cut and manipulate others.

Of course, cheating is always wrong, adultery and sexual immorality is always sin, even if our culture romanticizes promiscuity. Betrayal of confidence is always heart-breaking. We will always be tempted to take the path of least resistance, to seek the short cut, to want the reward without giving the effort. The problem comes when we give in to our temptations. Remember, temptation is not a sin. Yielding to temptation is sin.

The power of evil wants to jeep is as far away from God as possible. The devil is not an imaginary foe with a red tail and pitchfork. The devil is not some harmless but gruff little person who sits on your shoulder and whispers bad things in your ear. Jesus’ battle against evil was quite real, and I believe that ours is as well. The tempter meets us every day. Any time we have a decision to make, any time we need to make a moral choice about what is right or wrong, good or bad, we will always think of a way to get ultimate benefits with little sacrifice. The temptation may sound positive. The tempter says, “Do it my way, and I’ll teach you something interesting, something pleasurable, something that will give you a glorious thrill, something that will help you live your life to the fullest.” The problem is that the tempter also lies to us. We are told how wonderful life will be, but we don’t remember that evil’s pleasures lead us away from God.

A Native American legend tells about a boy who felt ready to become a man. The tribal chief said, “To become a man you must first survive the high mountains for one week. If you survive, then you will be considered a man. So, the boy set out on his quest. Climbing the highest mountain, he noticed a rattlesnake lying in the snow. The boy was startled when the snake began to speak. “Please help me,” said the shivering snake. “I’m cold and lost. Pick me up and carry me to the valley where it is warm. If I stay here, I will surely die. They boy drew closer, because he knew this snake was deadly. “I know your kind,” said the boy. You will bite me when I pick you up.” The snake said, “I won’t bite you. I will be your friend if you carry me down the mountain, trust me.” The boy thought it over, and decided that a talking snake must be special. He picked up the snake and carried it down to the warm valley. As he placed the snake on the ground, the snake coiled up and struck the boy in the neck. They boy cried out with a scream, “You bit me. Now I’m going to die.” With a hiss, the snake slithered off into the grass and said, “I can’t help that. You knew exactly what I was when you picked me up.”

That’s the way sin is. It tempts us. It draws us in for a closer look. It tells us lies. It persuades us to go against our better judgment. We follow our impulses. We think that if we give into temptation just this once, there will be no consequences. That’s when the tempter is most deadly – when we think that sin can be a friend who has our best interests in mind.

So, how do we fight temptation? Our first scripture reading reminds us that God will always give us a way to withstand temptation. The best thing we can do is to look at how Jesus resisted the luring power of sin.

The first tool we have to ward off temptation is God’s word – the Bible. Each time Jesus is tempted, he quotes scripture as a way to remind himself of the truth. Jesus quotes Hebrew Scripture three different times to get the right perspective on the situation. God’s truth is always more powerful than the lies of the world. If you are presented with a choice between right or wrong and you’re tempted to take a short cut, then take a moment to reflect on God’s promises. You can’t remind yourself of God’s promises if you don’t know them. We need to study the Bible regularly to familiarize ourselves with who God is. We need to set time aside to learn God’s perspective. If you don’t get anything else out of this sermon, please, go home and find that Bible of yours or get an online translation, and set some time aside to explore who God and refresh yourself on God’s promises.

Another strategy for avoiding temptation is prayer. Temptation tries to pull us away from God. When we pray, God draws us close. In prayer, God reminds us that we won’t be spared suffering, but God is by our side. We won’t be freed from the burdens of life, but God will help us carry them. We won’t be sparred from walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but God walks with us. In prayer, we are reminded that Jesus comes right down to the frontline trenches and joins us in the fight against the hostile powers of death, suffering, and sin.

Another tool in our arsenal against temptation is action. We are called not only to know God’s commandments, but also to obey them. Doing the will of God always triumphs over temptation. There are plenty of Christ-professing, Bible-carrying church going people who also lie, cheat, and have affairs. God calls us to make out lifestyles conform to our beliefs – to make our actions obedient to God’s will.

The one sure way to avoid temptation is to make the tough choice to not accept the prevailing wisdom of the world without careful reflection. We aren’t called to pleasure, but to obedience. We are not called to do whatever we feel like, whenever we want, to whomever we want. No, we are called to conform our consciences and our actions to God’s word. We aren’t called to take feverishly take care of ourselves. We are called to trust in God who supplies all of our needs.

“Leas us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” God will do it. God gives us everything we need to make it happen. May God draw us closer as we seek to do God’s will without taking short cuts.

Sermon for January 28, 2007

Forgive Us Our Debts
Matthew 18:21-35

Steven McDonald was a New York City Police Officer. On July 12, 1986, while patrolling in Central Park, McDonald stopped to question three teenagers. While questioning them, a fifteen-year-old took out a gun and shot me him the head and neck. Thanks to the quick action of his fellow police officers, McDonald was rushed to a hospital. The good news was that he survived. The bad news was that he would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life. McDonald was just married, and his twenty-three years old wife, Patti Ann, was three months pregnant. When they heard the news, Patti Ann began crying uncontrollably. McDonald says, “I cried too. I was locked in my body, unable to move or to reach out to her.”

A week after the shooting, the media asked to speak to my Patti Ann. Though still in shock, she bravely told everybody that she would trust God to do what was best for her family. McDonald spent the next eighteen months in the hospital. Patti Ann gave birth to their son. At his baptism, McDonald told everyone that he forgave the young teen that shot him. He wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in him -- the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. He needed to free himself so he could be free to love his wife and his child. Years later, McDonald wrote, “I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury. Before I was shot, I had not been very committed to my faith. The shooting changed that. I feel close to heaven today in a way I never knew before, and it makes me very happy. I know it may be hard to understand, but I would rather be like this and feel the way I do, than go on living like I was before. Months and years have come and gone and I’ve never regretted forgiving the [teen who shot me.]”

A year or two later, the assailant called the McDonalds from prison and apologized to the entire McDonald family. In 1995, the young man was released from prison. Three days later, he died in a motorcycle accident.

Think about how much courage it took Steven McDonald to forgive the person who attacked him and paralyzed him for life. Now think about the times you have felt insulted or hurt or overlooked by another person and you harbored anger and dislike in your heart. Think about the time that someone said something innocent but you took it as a personal attack. Think about the times when you feel that a certain detestable person intentionally stirs you to anger, or the times you’ve exploded irrationally at something minor and let the situation control you.

And then, every Sunday, we come to church and pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” If you are like me, you are good at praying the first part of the prayer. But when it comes to forgiving others just as God forgives us, that’s a completely different story. This morning we are going to look at forgiveness through the lens of one of Jesus’ parables. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21.

The Apostle Peter asks one of his famously reckless questions: “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times.” I have to give Peter some credit. Seven times is a lot. Have you ever had the opportunity to forgive a person seven times? If you offended me or I bailed you out of trouble three or four times, I doubt that I’d want to be anywhere near you. Even the Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that the limit on forgiveness was three times. Peter takes the Rabbi’s three times, doubles it, adds one for good measure, and suggests with eager satisfaction that it will be enough if he forgives seven times.

Jesus says, “Peter, you don’t have to forgive seven times.” I can imagine a satisfying smile beginning to stretch across Peter’s face. Perhaps there’s a split second of gratification gleaming in Peter’s eyes. And then Jesus says, “You need to forgive seventy times seven times,” or depending on some translations, “Seventy seven times.” Either way, it’s a lot! Christ’s answer is that there are no limits to forgiveness.

Lets give Peter a break. We all want to feel good about how good natured and forgiving we are. We also know that most of us have at least one person who knows every button to push to upset us. The mere sight of the person causes us to make up excuses to leave the same room. The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”

It always amazes me how unwilling we are to forgive others, especially after we know how willing God is to forgive us. I once read a quote from a biography of German poet Heinrich Heine that said, “Forgiveness was not Heine’s business or specialty.” Heine used to say, “My nature is the most peaceful in the world. All I ask is a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window, and a few trees beside my door. Then, if God wanted to make me completely happy, he would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees. I would forgive them of all the wrongs they have done to me -- forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged.” Humans tend to hold grudges. It’s hard to let go of the past.

I can imagine what might happen if we appointed a committee of angry people to write the Lord’s prayer. It may have come out like this:
Call in the debts, O God. Avenge the sinner who ruined my life, O Lord. See the injustice and strike down the wrongdoer. You know the tormentors of our tortured world. Break them in pieces and cast them away. Get rid of that one competitor, the one associate, the one person who has shattered my life. And if it’s your will, use me as your instrument of revenge.
But, Jesus teaches no such thing. He refuses to be the representative of our natural instinct for payback. Instead, he teaches us to say: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. “I tell you to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times.”

To drive the point home, Jesus tells a parable about a king and his servant. The servant owes the king an amount nearing national debt -- 10,000 talents. Just to put it that into perspective, King Herod annual tax revenues were about 900 talents, so 10,000 talents would have been equal to the national revenue for more than eleven years. The desperate debtor asks to be released from his daunting debt, and the king forgives the financial obligation. The king just writes it off when the servant pleads for mercy. A debt is something that we owe and have not paid. When we fail to do what we should, God has every right to demand payment from us. We become debtors to God. But instead of punishment, God cancels our debt. God offers total forgiveness to all who come want it. We stand before God as debtors who deserve punishment. Through Christ, we are set free.

How do we respond to grace like this? We should fall on our faces in thanks. We should commit our lives to showing the same mercy to others and doing everything God wants us to do. Jesus knows that this is not always the case. He continues his parable by noting that the forgiven servant walks arrogantly away from the king. After being forgiven for a mind-boggling debt worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the foolish servant goes to one of his co-workers who owes him the equivalent of $16.00. The coworker pleads for mercy, but the servant will hear none of it and has him thrown into jail. The rest of the servants can’t believe what’s happened, so they tattle to the king. The result is not pretty.

A person must forgive in order to be forgiven. The one who can’t forgive a fellow human being, especially for a trifling offense, cannot expect to be forgiven the great debt we owe God.

What is your reaction to forgiveness? Is it grateful thanks or repeat offense? Do you forgive others, or continue to hold grudges? A devout Christian man named Chet has a whole lot of trouble offering total forgiveness. In 1991 his son was shot and slain during a robbery. So far as he knows, the killers have not sought his forgiveness. From what he knows of them, he doesn’t think it’s likely, either. So, he does not feel obliged to forgive them now. Chet says, “Don’t try to tell me I should feel guilty, because I have no intention at this point to forgive the animals . . . who viciously murdered my son. And anyone who disagrees has never walked in my shoes.”

John Plummer might tell you differently. If you’ve seen any pictures of the Vietnam War, you may remember the image of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl -- her clothes burned off by napalm as she flees an American-led assault on her village. She runs toward the camera, her mouth open wide in terror and pain.

For John Plummer, that picture is forever a part of him. He was the American chopper pilot responsible for raining fire on the village of Trang Bang. The next day when that picture hit the front pages, John Plummer was devastated by it. For 24 years he carried the image of that burned and terrified girl in his mind. Three marriages, two divorces, a severe drinking problem -- and then the TV newscast that night that showed that girl’s picture again - and then showed that woman today, now living in Toronto. That was the first time John Plummer even knew the girl who had haunted his conscience for so long still lived. He learned her name was Kim, now 33 years old. He watched and saw the thick white scars the splashing napalm had left on her neck and arm and back. He learned she had 17 operations but still lives with pain.

Not long before, John’s long struggle led him to surrender his life to God. He had become a Methodist minister. Now he wanted to face Kim. He got the opportunity at a Veterans Day observance at the Vietnam War Memorial. Kim was the speaker. When she finished, John Plummer fought his way through the crowd to try to reach her. When they met, no photographers were there to take the picture - but it was an unforgettable moment. John told Kim who he was . . . and she just opened her arms to him. He fell into her arms sobbing. All he could say was, “I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry.” And the woman, bearing the scars from what he had done, also saw the scars og John Plummer’s pain and sorrow. She held him, patted his back and said these words, “It’s all right. I forgive. I forgive.”

I wish it was easy to forgive like this. The truth is it’s easier to be like Chet -consumed with pain and searching for understanding. Forgiveness is supernatural. We just can’t seem to muster it up on our own power. Jesus can show us the way, because he knows the freedom of forgiving. He knew it on those last awful moments on the cross when he cried out, Father, forgive them . . .” Is there someone you need to forgive? Someone you’ve been avoiding? Is there an offense from the past . . . an insult . . . a cold-shoulder . . . perhaps a travesty that lingers on and needs to be pardoned? Forgive, the debt. Do it today. Because no matter what has happened, it’s nothing in comparison with the freedom God offers when we forgive other’s debts, just as God has forgiven ours.


David Leininger, “The Freedom of Forgiveness” ( 1/15/96), www., and William Barclay,

Matthew II (Louisville: WJKP, 1975), 193.

Fresh Illustrations for Preaching, 135.

John Story via Presbynet, “Jokes” #3543

Helmut Thielike, Our Heavenly Father (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 104.

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