Friday, May 25, 2007

Sermon for May 20

The Limits of My Love
Luke 10:27-35 (Romans 7:14-25)

I would like to tell you something about me. It’s somewhat embarrassing, but I might as well be up front with you right from the beginning. It’s a sickness, really. And as much as I hate it, I can’t do anything to cure it. I begin to feel the pains of it about five minutes after I wake up – if it’s a good day. The malady affects me throughout the entire day. Occasionally it even bothers me in my sleep. Sometimes I barely notice it. At other times, I can ignore it. Most of the time, though, I just feel numb from it. It seems like the harder I try to fix it, the worse it becomes. Well . . . enough stalling. What you need to know about me is that I am a sinner.

I’m sharing this news because I have a wild hunch that I am not the only one suffering from this condition. In fact, I’m going to take a leap and guess that some of you here today might also be fellow sinners. It’s nothing we’re proud of – we’re not bragging about it. I just want you to be aware that there are some sinners sitting with you in your pews today. I don’t think they’ll hurt you or anything. In fact, most prefer just to keep their sins to themselves.

If you are a sinner like me, by the way, you are in good company. The Apostle Paul described our condition perfectly. He was one of us. He says that it all begins when we try to do good by following our interpretation of the Bible to the letter. We make a list of all the things we should and should not do so that God will be pleased with us. And then we begin our day checking the items off. “OK, God, today is a new day. I am not going to lie, and I’m not going to swear and drink – at least not too much. I’m going to eat well and exercise, and find some volunteer service to do. I’ll return my overdue library books, and I won’t yell at my kids when they drive me crazy. Today is the day I act like an angel.” Then what happens? I go to make breakfast and the kids start arguing, the dogs stand at the window and hysterically bark at something ridiculous like a blowing leaf; then my wife and I realize that we double-booked some events on the calendar and since we can’t be two places at once we nave to negotiate whose event is most important; and the overdue library books are lost. Welcome to the first 20 minutes of the day. This is the point where I do something I’ll regret later. So, I’ve decided to behave one way but then I do something completely different. I am resolved to do good and follow God, but I keep messing it up.

I think the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading might know what I’m talking about. If anyone knows what God expects, it is this man. In the days before printing presses, he’s one of the people who copies Scripture by hand. Unlike the general population at the time, he can read and write and he’s familiar with every detail of the Hebrew Scriptures. He’s a scholar and a teacher –an esteemed authority in the interpretation and application of the law.

One day this expert in religious law approaches Jesus – he’s actually trying to test Jesus. Scripture says he wants to justify himself. He wants Jesus to know that his knowledge about religious law is enough to make him acceptable to God.

So he says, “Jesus, what do you think I need to do to have eternal life?” Jesus says, “You are the expert in the law. You tell me.” The lawyer responds with a good answer. He quotes Scripture -- love God and love your neighbor. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that the Lawyer has a moment of insight here. Almost every Jew could summarize the law exactly as the lawyer has. You could have stopped anyone on the streets of Israel and asked the same exact question and you would have gotten the same answer. The Lawyer regurgitates information that he’s known since childhood, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a good answer. He should have shut up right there. But he doesn’t. He looks for a loophole. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, “OK, Jesus, I understand I’m supposed to care, but what are the limits of my caring?”

That sounds so much like me, sometimes! I want to know the minimal requirement. Tell me what the rules are, and I will make sure to meet all the requirements but nothing more. If I can’t meet the minimum standard, then I will try to redefine it in order to arrive at an even lower standard that is more achievable. For instance, God says to love the Lord with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength. I know I can’t love God perfectly, so I reinterpret the command to mean that I’ll love God to the best of my ability. God invites me to love my neighbor, but I know there are some people who really annoy me. So I reinterpret the command to mean that I love everybody, but I don’t have to like them. I can see what the law-expert is up to. He’s trying to define the limits of love. He wants to make a list of his neighbors so he can respect those people and ignore everyone else. He’s really asking Jesus, “Who can I serve, and who can I bypass? What’s the least I can do to still be considered a good person?”

Jesus knows something that religious experts don’t. Jesus knows the difference between heart religion and works religion. It’s the difference between faith based on being and faith based on doing. Works religion wants to put a box around what God expects of us. Works religion says, “God requires this much of me – no more and no less. If I do these things I’ve satisfied my obligation to God.” It’s concerned not with the needs of others but with meeting my quota of good deeds.

Jesus says to the lawyer, “If you think you can get eternal life by fulfilling love’s minimum requirement, go for it. If you can keep the law perfectly then do it and you will live.” Then Jesus blows apart the lawyer’s narrow vision of love by telling a story of a traveler on the treacherous stretch of road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Stripped, clobbered, and left for dead, he is a random victim in a randomly violent world. Then, who comes along but a priest. If anyone could be expected to stop and help, it would be a priest. But wait. The priest is not only not coming over to help; he’s passing by on the other side of the road. No reason’s given. Some suggest that, as a priest, he feared being defiled by a corpse, but the truth is if a priest on a journey found a corpse, he had a duty to bury it. Perhaps it was fear. Those who beat the man in the ditch might be lying in wait to beat him as well. Perhaps it was simple revulsion. Have you ever come upon someone after a bloody accident? It’s ugly. Whatever the reason, he passed by on the other side. Some hero!

No matter. Here comes a “assistant” priest. Maybe he will come through with some help. The text says he came to the place and saw the bloodied Israelite, and he too passed by on the other side.

Enter character number three - a Samaritan. The GOOD Samaritan! Nowhere else in the Bible do we find the words “Good” and “Samaritan” next to each other. For the people who first heard this story, the phrase “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron - the only GOOD Samaritan would have been a DEAD Samaritan. No hero here. The hostility between Jews and Samaritans was hundreds of years old. Samaritans were seen as half-breeds who had perverted the Jewish race and profaned the true religion. The hatred toward Samaritans was so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan soil.

So, a Samaritan sees the Israelite, but instead of distancing himself, he comes closer. He’s moved with pity. The Samaritan bandages the man’s wounds. He brings the Israelite to an inn and makes sure that all of the expenses are paid in full. End of story. Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question about the limits of love with a fable and then he turns the question back to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” The concept of a GOOD Samaritan is so distasteful that the lawyer can’t bring himself to even speak the name.

And what does Jesus say? “Go, and do likewise.” Jesus calls him towards heart religion. It is different than works religion. In heart religion, entrance into the kingdom isn’t granted because of what we do and don’t do. In heart religion, a relationship with God is not claimed. God gives it to us. God exposes my inability, cleans me up, and gives a new chance to live the values of the Kingdom – not because of what I’ve done, but because of God’s love for me. I still make bad decisions, but I’m no longer bound to the brutal tyranny of trying to always do good in order to make God smile.

What have you been doing to justify yourself before God? What is it that might be keeping you from accepting the fact that God’s love for you and everyone else is flooding over us at this very moment? What is going on in your life that tempts you to want to limit your experience of God’s grace?
· Some people will justify their behavior by bargaining with God. How many times have we said, “God, if you only do this one thing for me, I promise to be a good person” -- as if God could be manipulated by a promise of good behavior that we will never be able to keep?
· Others will justify their behavior by counting the cost. We are afraid that when Jesus ups the ante, the new requirement will be too hard and too costly. So we decide to stick to our plan. We like to figure out in advance how much we have to give up – how much our mercy is going to cost. But real love isn’t planned out like a trip itinerary or a balanced budget. Real love isn’t downsized when the costs creep too high.

There’s another option. It’s the model of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan isn’t concerned with what is required or what is proper. The Good Samaritan isn’t thinking about meeting obligations. The Samaritan focuses on the injured person. And believe me, there are plenty of injured people around us – men and women with deep wounds and desperate needs; friends, acquaintances, and even enemies who suffer more than they let on. Jesus says that it would be better if there were more people who showed love without limits . . . if only there were more people who would think of the sufferer instead of the rules.

By the end of Jesus’ story, we learn something that is critically important to our faith journeys. The kingdom of God belongs to those who admit their weaknesses.
· It belongs to the sinners.
· To the small.
· To the broken and the imperfect.
· To the lost and the last.
· To those who have come to realize that all of our self-righteous behavior was really keeping us from loving God and loving our neighbor.
The kingdom is for those who, admitting their inability to make themselves right with God, have put their faith in Christ. It’s for those who wake up in the morning and know that we will mess it up, but who also appreciate new chances to practice unbridled, limitless love.

Sermon for Sunday May 15

The Patience of a Great God
1 Timothy 1:12-18

Every day brings us an array of things that try our patience. Mom’s, you know what I’m talking about. You buy something that needs to be assembled and the instructions don’t make sense. You toss 16 socks into a clothes dryer and you get only 15 back. Junior Highers. How about all those people who annoy us? Pokey drivers in front of you when you are in a hurry. People who let their dogs bark all night. Or the person ahead of us in the 15-item express line at the supermarket who puts 19 items on the belt, chats with an incredibly slow checkout clerk, fishes for a checkbook only after everything has been rung up, and then wants to review the bill. Strangers try our patience in lots of little ways, but they’re no match for members of our own family. The prime cases of annoyance are domestic. “When two humans have lived together for a while,” says C. S. Lewis, “it usually happens that each has facial expressions and tones of voice that are almost unendurable to the other.” I think we understand. It’s not that your family member does anything wrong, exactly. It’s just that once in a while she lifts her eyebrows in a certain way that drives you nuts. It’s just that he whines even when he’s not complaining.

How about those people who do the same annoying thing over and over again. They know it bothers you. They might even ask your forgiveness. But they just keep making the same mistakes.

But wait a minute. That describes all of us, doesn’t it – doing the same things over and over and over again . . . making the same mistakes all the time. Do you ever wonder if God gets tired of us–if God ever loses patience? Here is God, patiently trying to correct our behavior and help us grow up into the people we were created to be – and here we are, going our own ways, doing our own things, messing up, asking forgiveness, and then repeating the same old sins. In my own life, I rarely need to invent new sins. I just keep repeating the same old sins. At times I feel clumsy and foolish and useless. And at times I convince myself that there’s no way God could possibly forgive me again for the same things for which I’ve already asked forgiveness -- that just doesn’t make sense. I mean, eventually God has got to lose patience with me and just go ahead and give me a good whack upside the head. Right?

The Apostle Paul says no -- that’s not the case. God has unlimited patience. And no matter how many times we blow it, if we seek God’s forgiveness, God promises to forgive us again, and again, and again -- it’s unlimited.

Now let’s be clear. I’m not saying that God doesn’t take our sin seriously. Sin is deadly serious. And I am not saying that God doesn’t have standards. God clearly calls us to live lives that conform to the values of the Kingdom. There are real consequences in our lives when we disobey the standards that God has set in place. Our sin matters to God and brings pain and brokenness to our lives. But our sins, no matter how often repeated, can never come between us and the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ -- because God has unlimited patience for you and for me.

Maybe you think your sin is too great for God to forgive. Paul certainly could have thought that. Listen to how he describes himself, a blasphemer, a persecutor -- a violent man. And then, just to make sure you understand just what a really lousy person he is, he calls himself the “worst of sinners.”

I bet you could come up with a list of sins in your own mind.
· You’ve let emotions like anger or selfishness or a judgmental spirit enter into your relationships.
· Or, you’re trapped in a cycle of addiction that you can’t seem to overcome and you feel like a failure.
· Or, you’re involved in a relationship that you know is destructive to you and your family.
· Or, you’ve taken some shortcuts at work or at home that you know aren’t ethical.
· Or, you’ve drifted away from God and you really don’t have a whole lot of desire to find your way back.

You’ve got your list, I have mine. Maybe you are thinking, “Worst of sinners? -- yeah, I know something about being the worst of sinners, and there is just no way God could possibly forgive the worst of sinners. There is no way God could ever forgive me for the things I’ve done.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say I “was” the worst of sinners. He says, “I AM” the worst of sinners, -- present tense. I am the worst of sinners, but here’s the good news -- that’s why Jesus Christ came into the world. Jesus Christ came to save sinners like Paul and sinners like you and sinners like me. And there is no sin that you or I could possibly commit that would be so great that it would exceed God’s unlimited patience and capacity to forgive.

There are some of us who have trouble with this idea of God’s unlimited patience because we think that God’s capacity to forgive is too small. And maybe we do that because we compare God’s capacity to offer forgiveness with our own ... and again, that’s just wrong thinking. God isn’t reluctant to forgive us -- God delights in forgiving us. God forgives all our sins, no matter how little and no matter how big.

Despite our mistakes, despite our pride and self-sufficiency, despite the times we turn away from God -- our sins aren’t too big for God to handle. God doesn’t put conditions on forgiveness. When we make the same mistakes over and over again, it doesn’t max out God’s patience.

And so Paul writes to Timothy:
I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1: 16)

And here is where the story comes home to you and to me. It’s as if Paul is saying:
If you don’t believe anything else, believe this: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof -- Public Sinner Number One. I never could have made it apart from the love and grace of Jesus. And now God shows me off -- as evidence of endless patience. I am an example for those who are right on the edge of trusting God forever.
And maybe that describes some of us here today. Maybe we are right on the edge of trusting Jesus Christ forever and all we need to do is receive the grace and forgiveness that He freely offers.

Some of us are sitting here today and we know that we really are the worst of sinners ... and maybe we believe our sins to be too big or God’s forgiveness too small -- and we’ve never received the unlimited gift of love He offers. God’s gift is ours. We only need to turn to God and accept it. I don’t know what you’ve brought here with you today -- what sins are on your list or on your mind and heart. But I do know this: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. And so let me invite you, as we close in prayer, to take a few moments of silence, and in those moments, I invite you to come to God -- to turn to Jesus Christ and lay all your failures and all your mistakes and all your sins before Him. God really does have unlimited patience. God delights in pouring out love and grace and forgiveness on the worst of sinners -- like you and like me.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sermon for April 6, 2007

What is Perfection?
Matthew 5:48; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

A few years ago, there was a full-page ad in USA Today sponsored by the sportswear company FILA. It featured NBA All-star, Grant Hill. There was a picture of Hill, and then it was surrounded by copy that stated: “This year Grant Hill led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals, led his team back into the playoffs, and led the league in triple doubles.” The ad continued by saying that Hill, “didn’t punch an official; didn’t demand a contract extension; didn’t dump his high school friends; listened to his mother; made his bed daily.” Moreover, he “promised to take shorter showers in an effort to conserve water; didn’t hurt a fly; chose paper over plastic; rewound tapes before returning them; put coins into other people’s parking meters.” In addition, Hill “kept his thermostat at 68; practiced what he preached; actually paid attention to the flight attendant’s instructions; donated a kidney; and vowed to do better next year.” According to this ad, Grant Hill was perfect

I suspect that, if we were totally honest, most of us would have to admit that we have a desire to look that good to others. We want people to think we’ve got our lives together—that we’re successful, that our kids are the best and our relationships ideal. We want others to think that we’re on top of our game, and that we would never make an error in judgment. If we were totally honest, many of us would have to admit that we have a driving desire to be perfect.

Perfection is defined in the dictionary as having no flaws or shortcomings; complete excellence. Kind of scary, isn’t it? Perfection is one of the most important characteristics of our culture. While we strive to make our lives look flawless, we also fall short of some sort of imaginary and unattainable standard. At one time, Martha Stewart might have been seen as the high priestess of perfection: one dare not let the mask slip, even in one’s home, where all is perfect, right down the last hand-stenciled napkin ring. Of course, now we know that even Martha Stewart can make mistakes. As hard as we might try to convince other people that we have the perfect life, something usually happens that trips us up.

Even so, many of us keep at it, and I think we do that because we’re searching for something. We want approval and love, and we get to the point of believing that the only way we can earn that love is by being perfect and never, ever, making a mistake or falling short. Rachel Remen, in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, talks about this very thing. In fact, she goes so far as to admit that she is a recovering perfectionist. Remen is a physician who was trained by her father in the art of being perfect long before she entered medical school. She wrote, “As a child, when I brought home a 98 on an exam, he invariably responded, ‘What happened to the other two points?” ’

I read a story about the National Spelling Bee contest where the best school-aged spellers come to compete. The article said that the organizers of the event have had to set up a “comfort room” for contestants after they misspell a word. There they can go to cry in private and vent their frustration on a punching bag, and it helps them cope with the feelings of shame and the sense of failure that come with having gotten one word wrong after having spelled hundreds of words correctly.

The truth is that expecting ourselves or others to be flawless can lead to a miserable existence. Sometimes we create incredible stress in our lives when we try so hard to prove that we’re perfect people. We live in constant fear of messing up or being humiliated or embarrassed when we fail or make a mistake. Striving to present the perfect picture can lead to deadly results. I read a story about Countess Marie of Coventry who reportedly died of lead poisoning from all the make-up she wore in an attempt to portray the perfect look.

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer appeared on the cover of a magazine with the caption “What Michele Pfeiffer Needs Is -- Absolutely Nothing!” It was later discovered by a reporter, however, that Michelle Pfeiffer did need something after all. She needed more than $1,500 worth of touch-up work on that cover photo. From the touch-up artist’s bill, here is a partial list of things that were done to make Michelle Pfeiffer look beautiful: Clean up complexion, soften eye lines, soften smile line, add color to lips, trim chin, remove neck lines, soften line under earlobe, add highlights to earrings, add blush to cheek, clean up neckline, remove stray hair, remove hair strands on dress, adjust color and add hair on top of head, add dress on side to create better line, add forehead, add dress on shoulder, soften neck muscle a bit, clean up and smooth dress folds under arm, and create one seam on image on right side. Total price: $1,525.00

Perfection is costly–even disastrous sometimes.

The way in which we interpret God’s Word doesn’t help our situation, either. What do we do with a passage when Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? When God gives the divine mandate for us to be perfect, isn’t that just adding to our neurotic quest to reach the unattainable grail of flawlessness? Are we called to be perfect, like God, but simultaneously damned to always fall short of the goal? Does God really expect us to never fall short of perfection? Or, is it possible that we have a skewed reading of this text?

In Matthew 5:48 the word translated “perfection” is the Greek word telios. It actually means “whole or complete.” That which is telios fully realizes the purpose for which it is designed. A person is perfect when he or she realizes the purpose for which we are created and sent into the world.

So, in fact, it is not as much a scary word as it is a scary translation. “Perfection” does not mean to set forth an impossible goal, or that which must be attained at any cost. We get our English word “perfection” from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. To be perfect, in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, to allow for the changes that bring us into maturity.

Perfection, as our culture defines it, is simply not a part of the human condition, and it’s not intended to be. Being human by its very nature means that we are imperfect flawed creatures. But that’s not a bad thing. I believe this is where The Apostle Paul can help us. Paul says that he does not boast about being perfect. He doesn’t brag about how great and wonderful and faultless he is. He brags about his weakness. In fact God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul embraces weakness so that the perfection of Jesus Christ might be known. Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul found the secret of real perfection–doing that for which we are created. Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to share our weakness with others. Christian perfection demands that we become fully ourselves as God would have us. We are far from Martha Stewart land. I think that Jesus and Paul are urging us to live as whole people—people of integrity.

Shel Silverstein, wrote a story entitled The Missing Piece. This is the story of a circle that was missing a piece—a large triangular wedge that was cut out of it. The circle wanted to be whole, with nothing missing, so it went around looking for its missing piece. Because it was incomplete, however, it could only roll very slowly as it moved through the world. As it rolled slowly along, it had a chance to admire the flowers and butterflies and sunshine and other miracles of nature. The circle found lots of pieces, but none of them fit. Then one day it found a piece that fit perfectly, and the circle was very happy. Now it was whole with nothing missing! It was a perfect circle, and it could roll very fast, too fast to talk to the butterflies or notice the flowers. When it realized how different the world was when it rolled through it so quickly, the circle stopped, left the missing piece by the side of the road, and rolled slowly away.

In some strange way, we are more whole when we are incomplete. We are strong when we are weak. We roll toward perfection only when we are imperfect. Wholeness comes about when we connect with our limitations -- realizing that we are not perfect, can’t be perfect, and don’t have to be perfect. I believe that’s what God is asking of us—to be whole, not perfect. Wholeness is a matter of accepting and integrating all of whom we are—our strengths as well as our limitations, our good side as well as our shadow side. It’s allowing ourselves to admit and acknowledge that is who we are. To be whole means coming before God with all our faults as well as our virtues, and knowing that we’re accepted and loved.

I really like a story about the master psychologist Carl Rogers put it this way: “I let myself know that I am enough. Not perfect. Perfect wouldn’t be enough. But that I am human, that is enough.” I think that’s the very same thing God would say to us. No masks, no pretenses needed. To be ourselves, to be human—that is enough. Wholeness begins when we can make our peace with the fact that we are imperfect people, and God loves us anyway.

· William Barclay, Matthew vol. 1 (176-178).
· Linda McCoy, “Mask of Perfection,” http://www.the 26 01.htm
· Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: a Vocabulary of Faith (55-57).

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 ...