Monday, October 27, 2008

Sermon: What Love Takes


Matthew 22:34-40 - And when the Pharisees heard that he’d silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together at the same place. And one from among them, a lawyer, put him to the test and asked him, "Teacher, which commandment is greatest in the law?" And he began to say to him, "‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘you shall the neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets."

**********

I think I may have mentioned this sometime in the past, you know, in another sermon; one of things that Debbie and I are trying to teach Maggie is that it’s really important to be loving and kind to people, to all people. Now those are the exact words we use: loving and kind. And although sometimes it seems as though we’re fighting an uphill battle, we hope that’s we’re making some progress, you know, impact, because I honestly believe her life will be a whole lot better if she truly is loving and kind to as many people as she can.

And you know, I think Jesus would probably agree, because that sure seems to be his point in that little passage we just read from Matthew, you know, when he told that less than sincere lawyer (imagine that, a lawyer having questionable motives), when he told him, "‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘you shall the neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets."

Of course this isn’t a surprise; we’d kind of expect that from Christ. I mean, if anybody here believes that Jesus doesn’t want us to love God and others, please talk to me after the service. I have plenty of time, the Colts don’t play until tomorrow night. No, I think we’d all agree that love is pretty important, at least it was for our savior.

But you know, it’s interesting, often we kind of leave it there. I mean, we just sort of throw out the word "love," you know, that we should really be loving people, but that’s about as far as it goes. And even though we may say it with sincerity, even passion, generally we don’t really explain what love means or how we supposed to show it.

And you know, I think that’s a real shame, because I’ll tell you, all this love business can be pretty confusing, especially considering the fact that in America, most people associate love with either your typical Mother’s Day card or one of those direct to cable movies that they show on Cinemax sometime after midnight, at least that’s what I’ve heard. You see, for most people, love is either a warm and fuzzy feeling or something I don’t want Maggie to think about until she’s around twenty-eight and finished medical school. That’s love in our world, and so how could a person not be confused and maybe even frustrated when he’s told to love God and others?

And I’ll tell you, it’s for that very reason that we’re going to spend a little time this morning talking about love, but not in either a Precious Moments or a Desperate Housewives kind of way. Instead, we’re going to take seriously what Christ said in this passage and look at the kind of love he was talking about and then we’re going to consider just how we might be more loving to both our God and our neighbors. In other words, for the next ten minutes or so, we going to talk about exactly what love takes, something that I think can make an enormous difference in how we treat others as well as how we feel about ourselves.

And you know, even though we as a society may be a little sketchy about what it is, I think what it takes to be truly loving is actually pretty straightforward and easy to apply. As a matter of fact, I believe love takes four very definite things, and let me briefly share with you what they are.

You see, first, if we really want to be loving, I think it takes some real desire on our part. But let me be clear, I’m not drifting back to Cinemax. No, to love God and our neighbors, we’ve got to want to do it; not just talk about it, but actually to show it. And you know, I think that’s exactly what Jesus was challenging not only that lawyer and the Pharisees he palled around with, but also his disciples then and now to do. I’ll tell you, I think it’s virtually impossible to show anything close to love if loving God and others isn’t a priority in our lives.

But to do that, well, we’re probably going to have to change some of our attitudes and perspectives. For example, we may have to get away from this idea that love is just something you feel and if you don’t feel it, you really don’t have to show it; you know what I’m talking about. It’s kind of like a kid looking at a plate of vegetables: in her mind, she may honest believe that if she doesn’t like broccoli she shouldn’t have to eat it. And you know, that’s the way a lot of Christians seem to think. If we don’t feel love for folks we consider the "undeserving poor," if we don’t feel love for people in other countries, if we don’t feel love toward men and women we don’t like, you know, if it’s not emotionally genuine, then somehow we’re free from having to show it. Man, if we ever want to demonstrate the kind of love Christ is talking about in this passage, we’ve got to leave this attitude behind.

And something else we may need to leave in the dust is the idea that words are just a good as actions,something else we often do in our society. I mean, if I say I care, if I say I feel your pain, and if I look sincere, than I really don’t have to do anything about it. I’ll tell you, there’s a reason they say words are cheap. No, if we do what Jesus is calling us to do, we need make loving something we really want to do. You see, I think love takes desire. That’s one.

And second, it also takes insight; it takes some understanding and wisdom. In other words, not only do we need the desire to show love, we also need to know how to do it and how to do it right. And you know, trying to figure that out, well, it just may take a little time on our part. I mean, if I want to love God with my whole heart and with my whole soul and my whole mind, if this is something I really want to do, I may have to go beyond just the stuff I’ve done in the past. You see, I might have to open God’s word so that I can find out what God really wants me do to.
Man, I might have to do that, because if I don’t, I may waste my life doing surfacy things that I think are right on the mark and completely miss that, speaking through the prophet Amos, the Lord said, "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offering of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody or you harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." You see, that’s what God wants.

And you tell me, how in heaven’s name can I ever really show love for my neighbor if I assume that I already know what he needs and if I’m so busy talking about it that I never listen. My gosh, how can I love my neighbor if I never take the time to notice that he’s hungry or thirsty or that he feels lonely and lost or that what he actually needs is some help and some hope. Man, how can we be loving if we don’t know how. You see, I think love takes insight. And that’s two.

And third, if we’re serious about loving our God and our neighbors, it’s also going to take some strength on our part, because I’ll tell you, when you get right down to it, love takes a whole lot more effort and energy than never having to say you’re sorry or wishing the best for someone or saying you’ll pray for them. Unlike words, love certainly isn’t cheap. In fact, sometimes it costs an awful lot. For Christ, it cost his very life, didn’t it?

And for us, it may mean standing up to people and to values that ignore the will of God and that tell us that the only one you really need to love is yourself; we may need to take a stand even though that may put us at risk. And it may mean rolling up our sleeves and frankly getting our hands dirty; I’m talking about developing and supporting worship services that challenge people to do more than just sit in pews for one hour a week or maybe swinging a hammer and pushing a mop so that a neighbor can live in a descent home. And I’ll tell you, it may mean opening our wallets and putting our money where our faith is, believing that Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about when he said that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

You see, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no two ways about it; love is not for whimps. It just plain takes strength. And that’s number three.

And finally, in my opinion, love takes patience. It demands that we look beyond today so that we can see tomorrow. It requires us to accept that the love we show may be like planting an acorn, it may take a long time before you see a full, grown tree. In other words, we may have to wait to see the results of the love we show.

And I’ll tell you something, that may be a real challenge in a society where we expect immediate results. I mean, we live with microwave popcorn and instant grits; why not microwave faith and instant gratitude. But you know, that’s not how love works. As we approach God and dedicate a little more of our heart and our soul and our mind to him each day, slowly our relationship with him will grow and deepen. As we try to demonstrate to those around us the same kind of care and compassion that we would like to see ourselves, it may take a lifetime for us to see the results.

No, love isn’t like a gum ball machine: pop in a coin, turn the crank and get the gum. And if that’s what we expect, we’re going to be disappointed. But if we’re willing to be patient and to be loving not so that we can instantly get something back but rather because it’s the right thing to do, it’s the Christian thing to do; over time, not only will we see the world around us change slowly, we’ll grow into the men and women God created us to be. Love takes time; therefore, it takes patience.

Time will tell whether Maggie will become a person who’s loving and kind. I hope she does, but she still has a lot of growing and living to do. I reckon, we’ll have to wait and see. And for us, as we leave worship this morning, having heard Jesus say, "‘You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and your whole mind’ and ‘you shall the neighbor as yourself’ and knowing that love takes desire and insight, strength and patience, well, I guess time will tell for us too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Moving into November

Well, here we are. Next week, we'll enter November, and I can remember, as a kid, once you hit Halloween, it seemed like Thanksgiving and Christmas came before you knew it. And as a adult, I understand that's pretty accurate. Once we're into November, the time to Christmas seems like a blur. I mean, sometimes we feel so busy cooking, shopping and decorating that we just don't have time for anything else.

But as we wade through all this holiday stuff, let me encourage y'all to remember a couple of things that I believe are important. First, this time of year is particularly meaningful around the church, because it's a time when traditions are celebrated and established. That's certainly the case with me. As I look back, some of my most lasting memories of Ocean View Presbyterian Church, the congregation my family attended when I was a child, center around the couple of months before Christmas. I still get a little thrill when I see a Christmon tree and children in their annual Christmas paganent. These are memories I'll carry with me for my whole life, and I imagine that a lot of y'all can say the same thing. And for that reason, I think it's important to become as involved as possible during the months of November and December, not only sharing and the celebrating the memories we have but to pass them on to our children. I can assure you that they'll be talking about what they remember about how we moved toward Christmas here a Cove when they're fifty. And so first, let me challenge you to be involved.

And second, let me also encourage you to be loving, something that I'm going to discuss in the sermon on Sunday. Although we may talk and even agree to love both our God and our neighbors, I know there are times when we find it difficult to translate our words into actions. Of course, this may be particularly challenging this year, at least until the election is over. I'm not sure anyone could say that this campaign has been conducted in a "loving way." And maybe that's alright. It's secular politics when candidates are expected to do whatever it takes to win. Still, as Christians, I think we're held to a higher standard, one in which showing love for God and neighbor must be a higher priority than winning. During this time of year, we can sure be as loving as possible. And what it takes to do that will be our focus during the service Sunday.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sermon: What Makes a Christian Citizen



Matthew 22:15-22 - Then the Pharisees came and formed a plan how they might trap him in a word. And they sent to him their disciples with the Herodians saying, "Teacher, we know that you are true and the way of God in truth you teach, and you don’t show deference to anyone, for you don’t see the outward appearance of a person. Now tell us what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But Jesus knew of their wickedness and said, "Why do you put me to a test, hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the taxes." And they brought to him a denarius. And he said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?" They said to him, "Caesar." Then he said to them, "Now give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s." And those who heard were amazed, and they left him and went away.

**********

As I think everybody here this morning knows, in a little over two weeks, we’ll be involved in selecting the next president of the United States. And over the last couple of weeks, I’ve used the election and particularly the debates to sort of introduce the sermons: one dealing with the fact that thanks to Christ we have a sense of purpose and direction and hope and that’s good news and in the other one, you know the one last week, I talked about how, after we believe, we can relax, because we know God is in control and we can recognize God’s compassion and authority and then we can respond by loving our God and our neighbor.

Now, that’s what I’ve done over the last couple of weeks, but what we haven’t talked about is the election itself and in a broader sense, how our relationship with Jesus Christ can and should shape our political opinions and perspectives. Well, I’m going to rectify that little oversight this morning, because I’ll tell you, I think God has given a wonderful passage that can offer all kinds of insight into exactly what makes a good Christian citizen.

And you know, I think that’s really important to talk about, and not just because we’re in the middle of a presidential election. You see, from where I stand, I think there’s some real confusion about the relationship between Christianity and politics. I mean, on one hand, you’ve got plenty of people who say that if you’re a Christian, there’s only one possible position on a whole bunch of issues and only one possible candidate you can support. Of course, the issue and candidate change depending on the person. I’ll tell you, I know as many folks who would say that a genuine Christian has to be a pro-life, pro-capital punishment Republican as who believe that no real follower of Jesus Christ could drive a gas-guzzling SUV or support off-shore drilling. You see, on one end of the spectrum, there are plenty of folks who feel comfortable talking about THE CHRISTIAN POSITION on a whole bunch of issues.

On the other end, though, there are lot of folks who sure sound as though our faith should have nothing to do with how we vote or what we support. You know, it’s like faith is something you pull out one day a week, but when voting and talking about politics, it’ll only get it the way of the more important stuff you have to consider, you know, stuff like national security and the dynamics of the marketplace. Now that’s on the other end.

And you know, it seems to me that often we tend to bounce between those two extremes when we think about our citizenship, and I’ll tell you, I believe that’s a shame, especially in light of a passage like the one we have before us this morning, one that I think can offer some solid and practical insight into exactly what makes a good Christian citizen, something that I sure hope we’re all at least a little interested in knowing.

You see, based on these verses, I think there are three pretty clear characteristics of a Christian citizen and let me share with you what they are. First, I think a Christian citizen understands that his primary allegiance goes to God. In others words, God is number one; therefore, everything else is at best second. And I’ll tell you, that’s certainly something that’s pretty obvious in this passage. I mean, when Jesus took that coin and said to those fine, up-standing men who were trying to trap him, "...give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s," I think his point is crystal clear. My goodness, who bears the image of God? We do. Therefore, what are we ultimately called to give to God? Ourselves, right; our whole selves, and not just one of the cheaper cuts. You see, as a Christian, I really can’t say that just one aspect of my life comes from God; therefore, the rest belongs to me. No, everything we are and everything we have comes from and belongs to God; therefore, when we give we’re only returning to him that which is already his. You see, when you get right down to it, we’re just managers of all the gifts that God has given to us.

Therefore, when we’re looking at how we should be using all this stuff we have from him, shouldn’t we focused more on his will than on our wants? And as we stand in that voting booth, shouldn’t the Kingdom of Heaven and the values taught by Jesus Christ be more important to our decision-making than our national interests and the opinions of politicians and commentators who say things we already believe? I mean, brothers and sisters, if we’re really serious about returning to God that which belongs to God, shouldn’t we be spending at least as much time in his word so that we can really understand his will and his kingdom and his values, man, if this is important, shouldn’t we spend as much time reading the Bible as listening to CNN and Fox News? Isn’t that what "putting God first" means? Sure it does.

And I’ll tell you, I think it’s time we accepted that fact and decided to become instruments of God and of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit, allowing his love and grace and mercy to change not just our church and our lives, but also our communities and our nation and our world. But that can happen only when we understand that our primary allegiance belongs to God, the first characteristic of a Christian citizen.

And second, I believe a Christian citizen also recognizes that he still owes something to the government. In other words, even though God is always first, that doesn’t change the fact that we have other responsibilities that are important. I mean, Jesus did say "Now give to Caesar what is Caesar’s," which sure sounds like we owe something to our communities and our nation.
And you know, that just makes sense, doesn’t it? Let’s face it, the United States has been pretty good to us, hasn’t it? I mean, even though I may complain about my taxes and the pot holes in the alley behind my house and even though I may even nod my head when I hear a politician say that the government isn’t the answer, it’s the problem, I feel pretty secure going to sleep at night even though I don’t keep a loaded gun under our pillow. And although I may be the exception, I know very few people who turn down social security or medicare payments. And personally, with all it flaws and faults, I’d rather live in the United States than any where else on earth. How about you?

I’ll tell you, as a citizen of this great country, I’ve had opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d have been born somewhere else; therefore, when push comes to shove, I really do owe my country something, don’t I? I mean, I certainly owe some of my money. My goodness, I know the income that I’ve been able to earn, in part, is because of the system and securities we enjoy. Let’s face it, if I were a preacher in Zimbabwe, where unemployment is 80%, I might have no income tax to pay, because I’d have no income.

But more than money, I think we owe our community some of our time and talent and our leaders our respect and prayers and our society our faith and hope. You see, even though he puts God first, a Christian citizen also recognizes that he still owes something to the government. And that’s number two.

And third, I believe a Christian citizen uses his political life as a way to communicate the love of God to others. In other words, he knows that his Christian witness isn’t just made in this building but also out there in the real world, because right or wrong, people are going to judge the truth and power of the gospel by what they hear and see coming from us. And you know, that makes sense. I mean, how many times have you heard Christians called hypocrites because they act so high and mighty, you know, moral and judgmental on Sunday morning but are just like everybody else on Monday afternoon. And you know something, often they’re right.

And I’ll tell you, that’s why I think it’s crucially important for us to be consistent in what we say politically and to ground what we believe in both the words and spirit of Scripture. I mean, give me a break, we just plain look ridiculous when we apply one standard to someone we like and something entirely different to a person we don’t. And I’ll tell you something else, it’s not good enough to find one or two verses that seem to support what I already believe, not if they violate Christ’s clear and unambiguous call to love both God and neighbor, something we’ll talk about next week. I’m telling you, our faith should shape what we say, because that’s what the people around us hear.

But more than just our words, how we act should also reflect what we believe. Call me crazy, but I honestly think that believers can discuss differences of opinion and policy in a way that’s calm and that shows respect. And I also think there’s no excuse for Christians ever to spread gossip and voice hatred. I mean, how will unbelievers view the gospel we claim to follow if we’re running around calling people who disagree with us names or worse, sit still and silent when some nut is suggesting that violence against them is somehow justified? You tell me, what kind of witness is that?

No, a Christian citizen sees all aspects of his life as proclamation, and he tries to share the good news of Jesus Christ through everything he does and says. And that’s number three.

In a little over two weeks the election will be over, and we’ll know whether John McCain or Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. And I’ll tell you, given the problems the winner will face, that fact might be both good news and bad news for him. And as we approach the day and then respond to the election, we’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate not only how we see ourselves as Americans but also as followers of Jesus Christ. And with that mind let me challenge you to do the three things we talked about this morning: to understand that our primary allegiance goes to God and to recognize that we still owe something to the government and to use our political life as a way to communicate the love of God to others. I mean, let’s all decide to do these three things because, when you get right down to it, isn’t that what makes a Christian citizen?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Vital Word


A monthly column for the church-at-large by The Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

This past month was full of adventure.

As many of you know, I traveled to the Cleveland Clinic last month for open-heart surgery to replace a part of my aorta. The surgery was successful and I am quickly recovering at home.

Let me first say thank you from the bottom of my new and improved heart. I received emails, letters, cards, and phone calls from people all across the church. They became an important lifeline to the world outside of the hospital. It was also a daily reminder that we are a connected church – through relationships and a love for Christ that transcends any of the current arguments.

I also want to thank the Presbytery of the Western Reserve. I received tender and grace-filled pastoral care that helped transform a place strange to Kathy and me into a home. The presbytery staff, local ministers, and two inquirers that were taking clinical pastoral education prayed with us and brought much comfort.

One of the things I found I could not do in a hospital is sleep. Thanks to our friends the Gideons, I was able to spend the time between having my vitals checked to reading God’s vitals. I was drawn over and over again to Philippians, my favorite among the epistles. In Phil. 1:6 we have this hope: "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ."

If you had told me two weeks ago that I would be sitting at my dining room table on a sunny day writing this column, I would have laughed – or more likely moaned. Yet, here I am. Some of you may think or feel at times that laughing or moaning at our Presbyterian plight is the right response. It may be on some days. However, the vital word from Philippians is that we need to be confident that God will finish this holy project – the project of you and me and 2.3 million other folk in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) giving visible witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Such a witness will transform this world.

May God give you hope this day and this night.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sermon: After You Believe


Matthew 22:1-14 - And Jesus answered again and told a parable to them saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man, a king, who prepares a wedding banquet for his son. And he sends out his slaves and calls those who were invited to the wedding banquet, and they don’t want to come. Again, he sends out other slaves saying, ‘Say to those who were invited, "Behold, my mid-day meal I have prepared. My ox and my fat calves have been killed. And everything is ready. Come into the wedding banquet."’ But they took no notice and went away: one into his own field and one to his own business. And the rest seized his slaves and attacked them and put them to death. And the king was furious, and he sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘On one hand, the wedding banquet is ready, but on the other hand, those who have been invited are not worthy. Now go upon the roads out of town, and as many as you might find, call them into the wedding banquet.’ And those slaves went out upon the roads and gathered together everyone they found: evil and good. And the wedding banquet was filled with guests. And when the king went in and looked at the guests, he saw there a man who wasn’t dressed in wedding clothes. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how is it that you came in here without wedding clothes?’ And he was silent. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called but few are chosen."

**********
Well, another week, another debate, this time between the McCain and Obama. And is it just me, but did it seem as though neither seemed to grasp fully the financial situation facing the country or just how scared Americans are about the future? I mean, both are going to cut taxes, of course, and increase spending on projects they consider important, even though the national debt is over ten trillion dollars and has been increasing at a rate of over three billion dollars a day since September 2007. Given that, I guess it’s a shame that we didn’t follow the advice that Joseph gave to Pharaoh in the book of Genesis, because right now I wish we’d saved up during the good years so that now when we really need the money to deal with the credit crutch, our debt wouldn’t already be so high. Well isn’t hindsight is always 20/20? But you know, as I listen to the candidates, neither really talks about the sacrifices we might need to make to right the ship. But I guess that’s not what most Americans want to hear.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter what they say right now. What’s really important is what both the winner and loser are doing next year this time. I mean, words are cheap, actions aren’t. And we can only hope that whoever we elect will have the courage and the insight to confront and not just put off our problems and that the one who comes in second will put aside whatever disappointment and bitterness he might feel so that he can work with our new president for the good of all. For all the talk that goes on before the election, I think we’d all agree that what’s really most important is what happens after.

And I’ll tell you, I think the same thing applies to our Christian faith. I mean, although it’s all well and good to talk about how we might accept Christ as our Lord and Savior and claim his love and grace with faith, the rubber really hits the road after we believe, doesn’t it? To me that seems to be pretty much a no brainer, that how we live as believers is a whole lot more important than what we say to become Christians.

And so, with that in mind, I’m going to suggest three things that we might want to consider doing after we believe, three decisions that we might want to make as we try to figure out what it means to be a follower of Christ, three actions we can take that will not only strengthen our relationship with the one in whom we say that we believe but that might also lead others to believe as well. And I think all three of these suggestions come from the parable we just read. Let me explain.

You see, after we believe, I think it’s really important for us to relax a little bit. To me, that’s the first thing we need to do, and I recognize that might come as a surprise. I mean, that’s not the kind of suggestion ministers are supposed to make, right? I should be telling you to do more: to become more active and involved, to attend more services and studies, my gosh, certainly to give more time and money. Now that’s what I’m suppose to be saying, right?

But I’ll tell you, usually you don’t need to say that kind of thing to a new Christian. Man, they’re fired up about God and Christ and the Holy Spirit already, and they’re just busting to do something about it. And because of that, more often then not, they over commit. They join groups and maybe they become church officers and they certainly start telling all kinds of folks about Christ, even though what exactly it means to be a Christian is still a little foggy.

I’m telling you, they’re out to save the world, until they discover that some, not all but some members of the groups they joined are more interested in gossiping and gripping than in growing. Shocking, isn’t it. And they find that the inner workings of the church sometimes seem more political and social than spiritual. Hard to believe, right? And as they witness, as they share the truth, they encounter the same indifference, not hostility but lukewarm indifference they used to show.

And I’ll tell you, for that reason, before frustration and discouragement overwhelms enthusiasm, I think it’s really important for Christians to relax for a minute and to take the time grow a little bit rather than to start running around like their house is on fire.

I mean, relaxing can do us a lot of good, and you know, that’s possible because, as this passage reminds us, God is in charge. Now I know coming from me, that sounds like a broken record or a scratched CD, but my goodness gracious, it’s true. For example, just think about the parable. We live in a world full of all kinds of different people, some good and some not so good. And remember the guy in parable who comes to the wedding banquet in a t-shirt and flip-flops, well I think that reminds us that even some of the folks on the inside just aren’t with the program either. And yet in both cases God is in control; man, he’s the one who takes care of business, doesn’t he?

And you know, he can do the exact same thing with all the other stuff we can’t control. God will take care of a lot of the problems and frustrations we face, and he’ll do it whether we ask or not. Therefore, all the unfocused running around is just a waste of energy. You see, thanks to God, we’re able just to relax, and maybe pray that great prayer written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." After we believe, we can relax. That’s my first suggestion.

And second, we can also recognize two very important qualities of God, attributes that can have a huge impact on how we live our lives. And you know what; they’re the same ones that shown by the king in the parable.

You see, after we believe, we can recognize and accept God’s goodness and grace. I mean, like that king, God has prepared a wedding banquet for his son and we hold invitations. And even when we hesitate because we don’t want to come and as a result show disrespect to the king himself, he’s still patient with us, gathering into his hall all kinds of folks and doing what was the custom of the day: giving them all the clothes that’s appropriate for a wedding. Let me explain. As the host, the king would have provided the right kind of dress for his guests, which means that the guy who was not wearing wedding clothes had made the decision not to put on what had already been provided. I’m telling you, our’s is certainly a God of goodness and grace and generosity. That’s one thing I think we need to recognize.

But two, I believe we also need to recognize that God has authority, authority over his party and his guests. You see, just so we don’t get the idea that he’s this soft and squishy God who’s so good and gracious that people can wall all over him, we need to get a whiff of those burning cities and hear the sound of weeping and teeth gnashing.

You see, somehow the God’s goodness and authority temper one another. And I’ll tell you, that’s important for us to know, because whenever we either feel really discouraged because we think that God could never love the likes of me on one hand, or on the other hand, feel tempted to blow off something we owe to God because we don’t want to do it, it’s at those times that we need to remember that God has both goodness and authority. This is something we need to recognize, the second suggestion from this passage.

And third, after we believe, I mean, after we’ve relaxed a little bit and recognized who God is, brothers and sisters, we need to respond, respond to God’s call, respond by doing the things we’re supposed to be doing. I mean, give me a break, even though God has prepared a wedding feast in honor of his son and he’s issued the invitations and sent his slaves to remind us to come, it’s still up to us to get up and go, even if we have other things we’d rather be doing. And I’ll tell you, even if we accept the invitation and because of that God provides us the right kind of clothes for the banquet, an outfit that shows that we really do respect the host and honor the occasion, it’s still up to us to take off our everyday, grubby stuff, you know, clothes that we put on when we don’t care about anyone or anything beyond our own personal comfort. I guess you could say, we can respond by demonstrating that we really do love God with our whole heart and mind and soul.

But you know, I think we should also respond by loving our neighbors as ourselves. And although we can do that in a lot of ways, I’m including doing all kinds of things to address the physical and emotional and spiritual needs all around us, we can also show our love by doing what those slaves did in the passage we just read, and now I’m talking about invited all kinds of people, both the good and the bad to the party. And right along with that, together we can work as hard as we can to make sure this place really is like a wedding banquet. You see, inviting people to come here ain’t worth a bucket of spit if, when they get here, they don’t see the joy and enthusiasm found in Jesus Christ. But I’ll tell you, if people are fired up about the gospel and they’re lives are changing and they feel that Monday is better because they worshiped on Sunday, my gosh, inviting folks will just come natural. And I’ll guarantee, people will come and stay. In that way we can respond, the last suggestion I see in this passage.

Just like with the next president, our Christian faith will be judged by God and by others not by what we say when we accept Christ but rather by how we live later. And for that reason, I think it’s a good idea to take seriously this passage and first, to relax, trusting that God is in control, and second, to recognize God’s goodness and authority, and third to respond by loving him and others. You see, in my book, these are some pretty good suggestions, especially after you believe.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Setting a Trend

The next month is going to be important for our country. With the recent economic troubles and the continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan , the decision we make in November may be the most important in a generation. The men and women for whom we vote will shape the future for our children and their children. Therefore, we need to do the best job we can to determine the ones who will most effectively lead our nation.

Of course, as citizens, we have certain responsibilities as we approach this election. I mean, we have a responsibility to be informed, which means more than just listening to opinions that we share. And we have a responsibility to stick to the truth and not be blown to and fro by whatever the rumor is floating around the internet. And we have the responsibility to keep the discussion polite and respectful, focusing on issues rather than personal attacks. You see, as Americans, I think it’s important to look carefully at the world around us and then determine which candidates will best move us into the future. Now, this is our duty as citizens.

But as Christians, we have some added responsibilities. You see, as we approach the election, we have a responsibility not only to understand the position of the candidates but also to consider how they might advance God’s kingdom on earth. Now, this isn’t as easy as a lot of people seem to think, especially when you remember that Christ spent more time talking about money than personal morality. You see, I believe serious and dedicated Christians can make different interpretations and come to different conclusions when reading scripture. And that’s why it’s so important to talk about the election from the perspective of faith, in an atmosphere that’s open and constructive. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking "What would Jesus do;" just so long as we dig into the Bible to find the answer and when we reach a conclusion, not assume that it’s the only possible Christian position. And it might also be worth our while to look at the work a candidate has done and not just the words he or she uses. As James reminds us in his letter, "faith without works is dead." It’s like a friend of mine told me once, that whenever he goes into a business that has a sign, "This is a Christian company," he always puts his hand on his wallet. For him, actions show faith and values far better than words. As Christian citizens, it’s important claim our faith, study the word, and then allow God’s truth to shape our choices.

And as we’re entering that voting booth, I think it’s important to do two things. First, I think it’s crucial that we pray, but not so that our "guy" wins. Rather, as men and women who believe that the Holy Spirit is with us always, it’s appropriate and right to ask God to help us focus our attention and to lead us toward the persons who will best do his work. And after we pray, second, I think we need to trust, to trust that God is not only present with us but also with others. Yesterday, I was in a waiting room and a woman sitting next to me was reading a magazine that featured the presidential election. And she got to a page on which both Barack Obama and John McCain were pictured, and she said, "God help us." Now, I’m not sure which one she had in mind, and I don’t know whether she was saying a little prayer or voicing a lot of frustration. When I heard it, I did something really bold, at least for me. I said, "He will." She didn’t respond. I think it’s important to trust that God not only hears us when we pray, but that he’s with us when we vote.

And finally, after the election, I think we need to make the decision right now to support the one elected. Of course, we’re not all going to be happy with the result, and we may not agree with some of the things he believes. Still, he will be the President of the United States by the voice of the people, and the office deserves our respect. You see, as Christians, I think it’s important for us to set the right example for others. Now this may mean not passing on gossip that’s false and destructive. It may also mean not mocking our leaders or encouraging others to do the same. Whoever is elected should have the chance to do what God has put him in the position to do, and just like Paul told the Romans to "obey the emperor," we need to give our new president support and respect as he enters his office. And he should also receive our prayers.

Next month we’ll elect the men and women who will lead our nation into the future, and given the problems we face, this won’t be an easy job. Therefore, as Christians, let’s go above and beyond the responsibilities we have as citizens. As we consider our choice, our vote and then our response to the election, let’s be an example of Christian faith, compassion and hope. And who knows, it just might start a trend.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Sermon: Finally, Some Good News


Matthew 21:33-46: "Listen to another parable. A person who was the master of a house planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug in it a wine-press and built a tower, and he let it out to farmers. And he went away on a journey. But when the time for the fruit was near, he sent his slaves to the farmers to take his fruits. And after the farmers took his servants, one they beat and another they killed and another they killed by throwing stones on him. Again, he sent other slaves who were more in number than the first, and they did the same thing to them. But finally, he sent his own son to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the farmers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘He is the heir. Come on! Let’s kill him, and let’s take possession of his inheritance.’ And after they took him, they threw him out of the vineyard, and they killed him. Now when the lord of the vineyard might come, what will he do to those farmers?" They said to him, "He will bring those bad people to a bad end, and the vineyard, he will give to other farmers, who will give to him the fruit in its time."


Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the writings,
A stone that the builders rejected,
this has become the cornerstone.
And this has happened through the Lord,
and is wonderful in our sight?
Because of this, I say to you that the Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to nations who produce its fruits. And the one who falls upon this stone will be smashed to pieces. On whoever it might fall, they will be crushed to powder."


And when the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parable, they knew that he was talking about them. And though they wanted to arrest him, they were afraid of the crowds since they considered him to be a prophet.


**********


Let me ask y’all a question: is there anybody other than me who’s sick and tired of bad news? I mean, good night nurse, it seems that no matter where I look, there’s bad news. For example, I watched the vice presidential debate on Thursday. And let’s see, they talked about what: the melt-down in our economy, our dependence on foreign oil, global warming, the mortgage crisis, the availability of health insurance, and of course, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the fact that Osama ben Laden is still on the loose. Now do you hear any good news in there? Well, evidently neither Biden nor Palin did. I mean, didn’t they ask us, Americans to believe that either Obama or McCain was one who would bring real change as we move into the future? In other words, we’ve got to select the one who’s going to change things most, because the present is not so hot. Wasn’t that their point? It’s fascinating, both parties seem to be saying that right now we’re facing some pretty bad times as a nation; therefore, we need to change.


And around this congregation, my goodness gracious, we had two members die within twenty-four hours, and that doesn’t include two other families with ties to our church who are also dealing with the same kind of loss. Now, tell me that’s not bad news.


And in each of our lives, man, sometimes it seems like we’ve reached our bad news limit. Speaking for myself, I’m worried about the retirement account I set up through AIG and whether the money I’ve saved for literally thirty years and is now earmarked to send Maggie to college, I’m worried about whether that’s going to be here next month much less in twelve years.


And as I look out at y’all this morning, I know that you’re dealing with all kinds of stuff too, you know things like bad test results or family problems, maybe some kind of stress at work or school, something that hit either you or someone you know right between the eyes. I’ve got to tell you, sometimes I’d just like a break from bad news. How about you?


Well, brothers and sisters, I’m telling you, I’m glad y’all came, because not only do I hope you’re getting a little breather here this morning, but right now, I’m going to share with you some really good news, news that I believe can offer us a new and more positive perspective as we wade through the muck. And believe it or not, I think we can find it in the passage we just read, one that seems at first glance to have nothing to offer but more of the same, and I’m talking about more stress and more punishment and more out-and-out bad stuff.


But you know, it’s in these verses that I believe we can find some really good news that can literally change our lives if we take the time to listen and believe. Because, if we really listen to what God is telling us in this little story, I think we can find three pretty good reasons to believe that not only is the future going to be good but that the present isn’t all that bad either.


You see, if we believe what Christ told those fine, upstanding Jewish leaders in the passage we just read, the good news is that, right here and right now, we have direction, we have guidance, man, God has given us a way, a path right through the mess that may be cluttering our lives. That’s the first piece of good news. And I’ll tell you, it’s right in the parable that Jesus shared, you know, the one about those tenant farmers who not only refused to give the owner of the vineyard what they owed him but who abused, beat and killed the ones sent to remind them of their duty, including his own son. You know the ones I’m talking about, those bad people who will be brought to a bad end. You see, they’re almost perfect examples.


But I’ll tell you, it’s sort of like one of my wife’s favorite shows on television, What Not to Wear, when it comes to living as men and women whom God has called into his vineyard, we know we’re on the right track when we decide to do the exact opposite of those farmers in the story. I mean, instead of assuming that we somehow deserve the blessings and the grace and the love we’ve received and then standing up and demanding more, we can be thankful that God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy has given us this vineyard, this nation, this community, this church.


And instead of ignoring the folks whom God sent to tell us how he’d like us to live, and I’m talking about the people who wrote the Bible, we can actually take the time and make the effort to read and to study it. And if you don’t know how, come and talk to me after the service. You see, instead of living for ourselves without regard for the responsibilities we have to God, something that I think most of us would agree has gotten our society into trouble, we can decide to respond to our God by doing what he has called us to do, something that the prophets and ultimately Christ taught. What Would Jesus Do, I’m telling you it’s right here in this book. You see, this passage reminds us that we have direction, and I’ll tell you, that’s the first little bit of good news.


And second, God has also given us a purpose, a role to play, a reason to be, and again, it’s right here in these verses. You see, we’ve been called to do the exact same thing those farmers were expected to do. Just like them, we’ve been called to bear fruit. Man, that’s our purpose. That’s our purpose as individual Christians and that’s our purpose as a church, to bear fruit.


And what does that mean; well, it’s not rocket science. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee, and right there in front of God and everybody, he told them to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." In other words, right there he gave them their marching orders, their purpose as his body on earth.


And brothers and sisters, that’s our purpose as well: to share with other people what it means to follow Jesus Christ and by baptism, to offer them and their children a place in the church and through the classes we offer and the worship we share and lives we live, to demonstrate how we can follow our Lord. Man, that’s our purpose.


And I’ll tell you, if the church sees it’s mission as anything else, if all we care about is serving ourselves and keeping what we want, I’m not sure we’re any better then those tenant farmers. I mean, if we ignore or worse, get in the way of this focus, shame on us, and we deserve what we get. Bearing fruit, that’s our purpose, and that’s second bit of good news in these verses.


And third, not only has God given us direction and purpose, through him, we also have hope, hope that’s beyond our control and that’s grounded in something that’s as solid as the rock of Gibraltar. You know, regardless of what we think or want to believe, the vineyard still belongs to God, doesn’t it? He’s the one who made us his tenants, and he’s the one who’s provided everything we need to be successful in accomplishing our purpose. God is in control.


And although we may act like we’re the boss and that it all belongs to us, as I try to remind myself, especially when my head is outgrowing my hats, when push comes to shove, I’m just not as important as I think I am. God is in control, which means we don’t have to do it all. And this is something we can know the second we accept the "stone that the builders rejected" because I’ll tell you, that stone "has become the cornerstone." You see, the more we trust in God and lean on Jesus Christ, the stronger we’re going to be. Man, we’ll be built on rock, not sand; therefore, we’ll be able to look to the future and live in the present with confidence and with peace. We’ll have hope, and that’s good news too.


Now, I don’t think any of us can deny that there’s a lot of bad news out there. And you know, for that reason, it’s really easy for us to become discouraged and frustrated. But before we give into that temptation, I really think we need to take a look at this passage and to remember that we have direction and purpose and hope, all because God has called us to work in his vineyard. And for me, finally, that’s some genuine good news.