Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sermon: Surprises - God and Bad

Matthew 25:31-46 - And when the son of man might come in his glory and all the angels with him, then he’ll sit upon his glorious throne. And he’ll gather together before him all the nations, and he’ll separate them from one another just like the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And the sheep will stand on his right and the goats on his left. The king will say to those on his right, "Come, those who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom which was prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a foreigner and you brought me together with yourselves. I was naked and you put clothes on me. I was sick and you visited me. I was a prisoner and you came to me." Then those on the right will answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and fed you or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a foreigner and brought you together with ourselves or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?" And the king will answer and say to them, "Amen, I say to you, in as much as you did it for one of these who are the least of my brothers, you did it for me."

Then he will also say to those on the left, "Go from me, those who have been cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you didn’t give me something to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me something to drink. I was a foreigner and you didn’t bring me together with yourselves. I was naked and you didn’t clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you didn’t visit me." Then they will also answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a foreigner or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t serve you?" Then he will answer them, saying, "Amen, I say to you, in as much as you didn’t do it for one of these who are the least of these, neither did you do it for me." And they will go away into eternal punishment, but those on the right into eternal life.
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I think we’d all agree that a surprise can either be good or bad. And with Christmas coming up, I think that little fact becomes all the more important. For example, when I was teaching school, before one of the lessons (and I don’t remember which), I asked my kids to write down the five best and the five worse gifts they’d ever received. And I remember, to the first one, I got all kinds of different answers: some of them materialist, you know, like a car or an x-box, you know something like that; and some of them sentimental, like a grandparent coming to visit or for some of them, a parent getting their parole; or my favorite, the out-and-out "suck ups." "Mr. Rudiger, having you as a teacher is the best gift of all." Talk about your extra credit. Anyway, those were some of the good surprises. And the bad, well, "nothing" was the most popular answer, but then I’d also get a lot of socks, and clothes like their grandparents thought they should be wearing or any amount of money under five dollars. The good and the bad; and when I asked them to compare their feelings, good always came out on top hands down.

And you know, why shouldn’t it? I mean, who in their right mind wants an unpleasant surprise at Christmas or any other time for that matter? And you know, that’s exactly what we’re looking at in this passage, aren’t we? Here we have the imagine of the Son of Man, the king, in other words, Jesus Christ coming back in his glory, with everybody in front of him, and man we’re talking about billions and billions of people, and right there, he’s going to separate the sheep from the goats, in other words, those who will inherit, not earn but rather be given the good stuff from those who won’t.

And when he starts describing the good guys, you know, those on his right side, they’re surprised, aren’t they? My gosh, they will say, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and fed you or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a foreigner and brought you together with ourselves or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?" I’m telling you, when they heard the king say, "Come, those who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom which was prepared for you from the foundation of the world," I think they were totally unaware that they were are as righteous as they actually were; talk about your pleasant surprises.

But you know, so were the goats. They were surprised too, weren’t they? In fact, I’ve got a gut feeling that they were probably scratching their little goat heads with their hoofs as they trotted off to "...the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels," because, you see, they’d done everything they’d been told they needed to do; my goodness, Jesus was their Lord, that’s what they called him. And what’s more, they’d kept score. Man, they made a list and checked it twice; therefore, they knew every single person they’d helped and every one they’d turned away, and guess what, Jesus wasn’t one of them. And so imagine their surprise as they went away into eternal punishment.

Now, that’s not the kind of surprise I want, what about you? Man, when I’m before the king, I want to be pleasantly surprised. And I’ll tell you, for that reason, I think it’s pretty important to spend a little time talking about how we decrease the possibility of the bad and increase the likelihood of the good. And you know, I think that’s possible, the minute we decide to do three things that can give us a lot more assurance that our surprise on judgement day will be more like getting Mr. Rudiger as our history teacher than in finding out that the parole didn’t go through, not that the two were all that different. And let me briefly share with you what they are.

You see, first, if we want to avoid the bad kind of surprise on Judgement Day, I think we have got to stop relying on the world to set our values and our perspectives. And I’ll tell you, that applies to Christians like everyone else. My gosh, the world tells us that we’re in charge, and so we assume that we can do anything we want to this planet without any regard to any of the other creatures God created, just so long as it benefits us, right? And the world tells us that what you want is more important than what your neighbor needs, and so around here we focus most of our attention on internal concerns, complaining about hymns and schedules and structures and completely ignore the fact that not only do people on both sides of the stained glass have genuine physical and emotional needs, not only are they being trapped by addictions and crushed by abuse, there’s a world out there that desperately needs to hear the good news of grace and forgiveness and hope, and not a lot of complaining and griping and grumbling. And they need to hear it in a language that touches their lives and experiences. And the world tells us that our words are as important as our work, and so we start believing that promises are the same as progress and that good intentions are the same as good deeds and that faith is measured by how loud we cry "lord, lord" rather than in how willing we are to do the father’s will. Man, these are things we believe, but not because they’re true, rather because that’s what the Kingdom of the World believes, a reality that, as this passage reminds us, will pass away, right along with the false and empty security it offers. You see, to avoid an unpleasant surprise at the end, this is something we need to recognize.

And second, as soon as we decide to stop relying on the values of the world, I believe we really need to start listening to what Jesus taught. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than learning what the Bible actually says. You know, about a month ago, I read a book that was recommended to me entitled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know –And Doesn't, by a guy name Stephen Prothero, and his point is that although American claim to be more religious than ever, most simply don’t know much about religions, even their own. And this is a particular problem for Christians. Most simply have no idea what the Bible teaches. I mean, it kind makes asking the question, What would Jesus do, sort of ridiculous, when you don’t really know who he was and is or what he did and taught. But that can change if we’re willing to take reading and studying the Bible seriously.

But more than that, we also got to be willing to think about it. I had a minister friend of mine tell me once that you could find some kind of scripture to support almost anything you want to do, if you look hard enough. And you know, based on some of the crazy ideas people have told me they got from the Bible, I tend to agree. I’ll be straight with you, I don’t care how many verses ripped out of context a person throws out to you, if it just plain sounds stupid and wrong, it probably is. Think before you buy.

And you know, when we do, when we’re listening to the word of God, I’m telling you, we’re going to hear a whole different set of values, like how loving God and neighbor comes before loving self, and how the first will be last and the last first, and how blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart, those who mourn and who hunger for righteousness, the peacemakers and the merciful. My goodness, he even said the meek will inherit the earth. You see, these are Kingdom of Heaven values, something we’re going to know if we listen.

And finally, we can be confident that we’re be on the road to a real pleasant surprise the minute we decide to follow the example of the one who’s words we going to know. I mean, just like he reached out to the suffering, to the poor and oppressed, so can we. And just like he communicated hope to the hopeless and love to those who’d known only hate and exclusion, so can we. And just like he literally gave of himself to change the lives of men and women who were absolutely lost, brothers and sisters, working together, so can we. I’m telling you, we can live lives in line with the kingdom, we can feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. We can welcome into this place the outsider and clothe the naked. And we can sure visit the sick and go to the prisoner. In fact, we can set this as our focus as a congregation and as individual Christians.

And if we do, we’ll become so involved in actually serving God that helping folks will become almost second nature to us and that sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will become something that just flows from us and that the Spirit of God will just radiate all around us whether we’re trying or not. In fact, this can become so much a part of our nature that our left hand really won’t know what our right hand is doing. For us, being and doing good will become who we are.

And I’ll tell you, when that happens, and I believe it will, when we’re help everyone without even thinking about it much less keeping score, then it really will be a surprise when we hear the king say to us "Come, those who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom which was prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

And that’s a good thing, because even if you’re the kind of person who loves surprises, I think we’d all prefer the pleasant over the unpleasant, you know, the good rather than the bad. And I thinks that’s particularly true when you’re talking about Judgement Day, because let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for surprises after that. And for that reason, I think it’s important that right now, we make the decision to stop letting the world set our values and to listen to what Jesus has to say and to follow his example as we live our lives. And although I don’t believe this will earn us a piece of the Kingdom, remember Jesus says it’s an inheritance and not a wage, doing this will shape how we live in the present and face the surprises of the future, both the good and the bad.

Monday, November 24, 2008

New Project Receives Donation


Several local limited video lottery business owners contributed donations Thursday for a new local program called Project Christmas Smile.

Nicole Drobish accepted $1,000 in funds on behalf of Project Christmas Smile.

Project Christmas Smile is a brand new initiative designed to provide 22 local children in need with a traditional Christmas, said Drobish.

"Cove Presbyterian Church is committed to provide community outreach to children and their families who are experiencing hard times and knows that a traditional Christmas may not be a possibility," she said.

According to Drobish, this year Project Christmas Smile intends to relieve the financial stress for some local area families.

"The children will participate in a Christmas party that will provide them with kid-friendly activities, an opportunity to have a home-cooked meal with their family, and Christmas presents they are wishing Santa will bring them," stated Drobish.

(Dickson can be contacted at adickson@weirtondailytimes.com)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Two Local Firefighters Receive Promotions


Two members of the Weirton Fire Department, Bob Hinchee and Drew Coates, received promotions Thursday morning at the Weirton City Building. Mayor Mark Harris thanked everyone for coming to the event to honor the two men in the company of friends and family.
Hinchee was the first to be sworn in, receiving the rank of captain. Fire Chief Dave Lashhorn congratulated Hinchee on receiving the promotion after 30 years of combined volunteer and hired service to the City of Weirton.

Just before Hinchee was sworn in, Councilman Fred Marsh spoke. Marsh gave a history of his friendship with Hinchee, as well as their service together as junior firefighters.

"The city is proud of you, the fire chief's proud of you, the mayor's proud of you, and the citizens are proud of you," said Marsh. Harris swore in the lieutenant and announced his promotion to captain.

Hinchee thanked his family for their support throughout his career. He stated he had always been interested in becoming a firefighter since he was a young man.
"It's been a good career, gone by fast and I want to maintain what I've been doing throughout my career. Safety to my crew and the public we protect. Thank you," said Hinchee.

Firefighter/EMT Drew Coates then took his oath, being named a lieutenant. Lashhorn said Coates was one of the most dedicated men on the job and he was very proud to see him promoted. "He's never not answered the call of duty," said Lashhorn.
Marsh stated that Coates has overcome obstacles and announced his greatest accomplishment to the city and its people was the Christmas Day fire on Kanawha Street resulting in the saving of a life.

Coates thanked his wife, two sons, mother, mother-in-law, and his brother who flew in from California for their support over the years. Coates dedicated 10 years of volunteer service and 10 years service to the City of Weirton.

"In my 20 years of service, I give 110 percent and when I put that red hat on Sunday for my first shift, I will continue to pledge my service," said Coates.
Angelina Dickson, Weirton Daily Times

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sermon: How Faith Can Conquer Fear

Matthew 25:14-30 - For it is like a man who is going away from home, and he calls his own slaves and gives to them his property. And to one he gives five talents and to one two and to one one, to each according to his own ability, and he left. Immediately 1the one who had received five talents went and worked with them and gained another five. In the same way, the one with two gained another two. But the one who received one, he went and dug a hole in the ground and hid the money of his lord.

And after a long time, the lord came to those slaves and settled accounts with them. And the one who received the five talents came and brought another five talents saying, "Lord, five talents you gave me. Behold, another five talents I gained." And his lord began to say to him, "Well done, good and faithful slave. Over a little you were faithful. Over a lot I will appoint you. Come into the joy of your lord." And the one with two talents also came and said, "Lord, two talents you gave. Behold, another two talents I gained." His lord began to say to him, "Well done, good and faithful slave. Over a little you were faithful. Over a lot I will appoint you. Come into the joy of your lord." And the one who had one talent came and said, "Lord, I knew you, that you were a hard man, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering together from where you didn’t scatter. And because I was afraid, I went and buried your talent in the ground. Behold, you have what is your’s." And his lord answered and said to him, "Evil and lazy slave. Didn’t you know that I reap where I don’t sow and gather together from where I don’t scatter? Now you should have given my money to the bankers, and when I came, I could have received what was mine with interest. Now take from him the talent and give it to the one who has ten talents. For those who have, much will be given and he will have more than enough. But to those who don’t have, even what he has will be taken from him. And the useless slave, throw him in the outer darkness. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth."

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You know, I really love the cover of the bulletin this morning, and not just because it reminds me of the reaction I used to get in high school when I’d ask a girl out for a date. No, it’s kind of reminder of the sort of world we face now-a-days. And I’ll tell you, that fact really hit home the other night, when, at about three o’clock, I started hearing Maggie make these kind of distressing noises. And after a couple of minutes, she just yelled out "Mama," you know, like she had a bad dream and was scared. Well, of course, I did what any good father would do. I pretended to be asleep until Debbie woke up
and went to see what was wrong. I mean, she was calling for "mama," right?

Anyway, the next morning, Debbie asked if I’d heard Maggie last night, and of course, I kind of shrugged. And then she said something like, "Well, she was making all this noise and you know talking in her sleep. And then she called out, ‘mama.’ I’m surprised you didn’t hear it?" I shrugged again. "And when I came in the room, she was crying. And when I asked why, she said that she’d dreamed that a werewolf was chasing her and she was afraid."

Now that’s what happened, and you know, looking back on it, although I can certainly sympathize with her, I mean, being chased by a werewolf is no walk in the park, still, I’m not sure she really knows what real fear is. I mean, she didn’t see the value of her retirement fund go down by a third in the last few months. And she doesn’t have to think about some teenage boy picking up her only daughter to go on a date. And I’ll tell you, she sure doesn’t have to figure out how she’s going to send that werewolf to college in about twelve years. Now, brothers and sisters, that’s fear.

Of course, I think we all know a little bit about this emotion. I mean, even if you haven’t been in hand-to-hand combat or had to deal with that jigsaw guy from Saw, there’s plenty of things of which we can be afraid, right? Now, they may not be the kind of things that cause us to look like the picture on the cover, but we’re still talking about fear. I mean, give me a break, the globe is warming, the ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising, and the rainforests are shrinking. And right here, the economy is tanking, unemployment is growing, moral standards are decaying, and my gosh, the Steelers are losing, to the Indianapolis Colts for crying out loud. And even in our personal lives, let’s face it, we’re taking a chance if we don’t nod when a friend makes some really offensive remark or if we talk about God with members of our family or if we let anything other than money and self-interest shape our values. What will people think? Now, for a lot us, that’s really scary. I’ll tell you, just because we’re not all screaming in the night doesn’t mean that we’re don’t know about fear.

What we may not understand is what fear can do to us, but we probably should. Let’s face it, I think we all know that when people are afraid, well, they can do some mighty crazy things. I mean, sometimes they’ll buy something they really don’t need because they’re afraid they won’t get another chance. Or they jump into some kind of commitment even though it’s a schedule buster, and they do that because they’re afraid that no one else will. In other words, sometimes fear causes us to make some incredibly rash and downright stupid decisions. But you know, more often than not, fear simply paralyzes us. I’m telling you, in the face of something that scares the socks off us, often we become kind of frozen you know, like a deer in the headlights. Not knowing what to do, we do nothing; not wanting to make the situation worse, we give "hoping for the best" a try; not wanting to take any kind of chance, we sit still and silent. And although we may offer a little prayer to God, odds are that we’re going to be pretty passive until we get an answer.

In fact, it’s kind of interesting, when you think about it, we end up acting a lot like that one slave in the parable we just read, you know, the one about the talents. And by the way, in ancient Palestine, a talent was a really large sum of money. I mean, it was about one hundred pounds of silver and was equal to the wages of an average day laborer for about fifteen years. I mean, from the moment he was given all that money, this guy was afraid wasn’t he, good night, that what he said. Man, he was afraid of his lord, a person whom he believed was "a hard man, reaping where [he] didn’t sow and gathering together from where [he] didn’t scatter." And he was afraid of blowing money that he believed didn’t belong to him, right. And so he did what: he buried it in a hole so that he could give it back just the way it had been given to him. He took no chances.

You see, just like it does to us, fear stopped him dead in his tracks. And as it turned out, well, that was a pretty stupid decision, because the lord didn’t see his inaction as reasonable caution but rather as laziness and evil. You see, because he let fear paralyze him, this slave was separated from the only possible source of hope and comfort. Man, he was locked out because he became the victim of his own fear.
But I’m telling you, right here and now, that doesn’t have to be the case with us. In fact, I’m absolutely convinced that we can actually conquer our fear, and we can do it through faith. And I’m talking about the kind of faith we see right here in this parable. Remember, this story isn’t about just one slave. There were two others, slaves who demonstrate two qualities that enabled them to move beyond whatever fear they may have felt. And believe me, those two qualities can be just as real for us as they were for them.

You see, first, just like them, we can conquer our fear by trusting that God really does love us, that he really cares about us, that he really wants the very best for us. You see, I think having faith that God loves us can help us overcome our fear. But let me be clear about this, I’m not saying that we should trust that God loves us when... or that God loves us if... or that God loves us but...; in other words, that God loves us when we’re loveable. I’m not saying that at all, because, I’ll tell you, if that’s what I believe, than I should be afraid, I should be afraid of making a mistake every single day of my life. My gosh, I’m dealing with the Lord and creator of the universe, and it’s all up to me. Man, I am a sinner in the hands of an angry God, a hard God, an unfeeling God who gives me exactly what I deserve. And so I become like a football team that’s playing not to lose, how does that usually work out?

No, like those two slaves who didn’t view their lord as a "hard man;" we can view our Lord as a kind and loving father, one who wants the very best for his children, for all his children, in fact one who loves us so much that he became human himself, so that he could not only experience the pain and isolation we sometimes know but also to give us all hope. You see, we can know that just like his tomb was empty, so will our’s. I’m telling you, the night is a little less dark and the room is a little less empty and even that werewolf is a little less threatening when we trust that the God who loves us is there too. You see, that’s one way faith can conquer fear.

And second, we can put fear behind us the minute we believe that the things we’ve been given are for us to use. And I’ll tell you, that may be the most clear and basic difference between the slaves. Remember, that third slave, the one who was frozen by his fear, the one who would be called lazy and evil, remember he said, "Lord, I knew you, that you were a hard man, reaping where you didn’t sow and gathering together from where you didn’t scatter. And because I was afraid, I went and buried your talent in the ground. Behold, you have what is your’s." You see, he never saw that talent as something that the lord had really given to him even though that’s exactly what Jesus said the lord did. In his mind, it wasn’t his to use, and so he didn’t.

But then think about the other two. When the same lord came, they didn’t talk about how they’d been handling something that didn’t belong to them. No instead, they both said the same thing, in the words of the first slave: "Lord, five talents you gave me. Behold, another five talents I gained." You see, they saw the talents as a gift, not a loan. And that freed those two slaves to use them, rather than to preserve them. And that’s exact what their lord wanted them to do.

And I’ll tell you, the same is true for us. You see, everything that we have is a gift of God, to be used in ways that show love for him and love for our neighbors. Man, we are called to bear fruit, and I’ll tell you, if that’s where we’re focused, not on the problems that can paralyze us, but rather on the almost unlimited potential for good we carry around all the time and the immeasurable opportunities for service that we can all see the minute we open our eyes and look, if this is what we decide to do, to respond to call of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit with energy and enthusiasm and confidence, not only will fear be shoved to the side, my gosh, we’ll be too busy doing the work of God to be afraid of what that bozo across the street thinks, not only will fear be history, we’ll be able to make an enormous difference in our world and in our community and in the lives of everyone we meet. When we believe what we have is a gift to be used, fear goes.

And you know, as soon as we accept this, I mean, as soon as we trust that God loves us with no "whens," "ifs" and "buts" and believe that the things we’ve been given are for us to use, fear and all that goes with it, and I’m talking about the confusion and paralysis will be replaced with two things we may not have felt before. You see, when we’re out there doing what God has called and equipped us to do, man, we’re going to feel peace, knowing that we really are his good and faithful servants, and we’re going to feel joy, and I’m talking about the kind of joy that comes from a growing relationship with God.

You see, I believe that can happen even though the world really hasn’t changed. You know, although we can always hope, I think that certain things in the world and in our economy and in our own lives will continue to be scary; just like children will probably continue to have nightmares around 3:00 in the morning. really don’t expect those things to change anytime soon. Still, how we face them, that my friends can change. Because right now, we can decide to follow the example of those first two slaves, you know the ones who heard their lord say, "Well done, good and faithful slave. Over a little you were faithful. Over a lot I will appoint you. Come into the joy of your lord," and we can trust in who God is and believe in what he’s given. And when we do, we’ll be changed, because I’m absolutely convinced that faith really does conquer fear.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Our Choir Salutes Veterans at Wyngate

The Wyngate Senior Living Community hosted "A Salute to Our Veterans" on Wednesday. Nancy Felton, activities director, organized the hour-long salute that included presentation of certificates, the Pledge of Allegiance led by Boy Scouts from Troop 36 and a choral serenade by the Cove Presbyterian Church choir under the direction of Janice Torrance. Service memorabilia from several different conflicts was on display. Fourteen veterans are living at Wyngate, in alphabetical order: Douglas Beatty, Robert DeFelice, Robert Degenkolb, Richard Hayman, George Hewitt, Ernest Kallay, Donald Martin, John McSherry, Harold Reynolds, John Spadafora, Paul Staley, James Waterhouse, Dorothy Wise and Alex Ulasiewicz. A refreshment time followed. -- Lynnellen Winkler, Weirton Daily Times

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sermon: Does Christ Know You?

Matthew 25:1-13 - "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young women, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. But five of them were foolish and five were sensible. For the foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t take with them extra oil. But the sensible ones took oil in flasks with their lamps. But when the bridegroom was delayed for a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, a shout came, ‘Behold the bridegroom. Come out to meet him.’ Then all those young women woke up and trimmed their lamps. But those who were foolish said to those who were sensible, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ But the sensible ones answered and said, ‘There will not be enough for us and you. Instead go to the merchant and buy some for yourselves.’ But while they were going away to buy some, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him into the banquet, and the door was shut. But later on the rest of the young women came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open [the door] for us.’ But he answered and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, I don’t know you.’ Now be prepared, because you don’t know the day nor the hour."

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Does Christ know you? Does Christ know us? Does Christ know me? Now those are some questions I don’t believe we usually ask ourselves. And maybe that’s because we really don’t want to think about the answer. I mean, personally, it’s a whole lot more comfortable asking "do I know Christ," because with that question,
well I’m in control, right?

My gosh, so long as I can say "Lord, Lord" the answer has got to be, "Yes, of course I know Christ. Daa. He’s Lord. And because I know him, the door has got to be open. If it’s not, well, Jesus is sort like a divine doorman, right; ready to open up and tip his hat the minute I knock, because, you see, I know him so well." Oh yes, it’s a whole lot safer if convince myself that it’s all up to me. My goodness, I don’t even want to image that when I meet him, the door could be closed and that I’ll be standing on the outside and hear Jesus say "I don’t know you."

You see, I’d much rather believe that he was just fooling around or messing with us when he said, earlier in this gospel that "not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’" No, he couldn’t have been serious, because let’s face it, "I don’t know you," there’s no way Jesus could possibly say that to me, to us, to you.

And yet, that’s exactly what those foolish young women heard as they were banging on the door, no doubt, expecting the bridegroom to welcome them into the wedding banquet with open arms. I mean, better late than never, right? Wrong. I’ll tell you, they did something that Jesus called foolish; therefore, they heard words that if we were in their place, I don’t think any of us would want to hear.

And what was they’re foolishness? Well, according to Christ, they were foolish because they just weren’t prepared for the bridegroom, and I’ll tell, if I think about it too much, I start to wonder if I’m any better prepared myself. I mean, if I met Christ today, would I be ready? Would my lamp be lite? In other words, have I done what God has called and equipped me to do? In fact, right now, am I doing "the will of my Father in heaven?"

Man, that’s a killer question, isn’t it; but when you get right down to it, one that shouldn’t be all that difficult to answer. I mean, my goodness, we all know what God wants us to do. It’s not rocket science; man, it’s right here in the book. What does God want? We talked about it a couple of weeks ago, "‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

This is how we’re called to live. Using the image Jesus himself used in the Sermon on the Mount, this is how we become the salt of the earth. This is how we become the light of the world. But you know, it’s kind of sad, sometimes that light seems pretty dim, doesn’t it? As a matter of fact, based on how we actually live, you know, how much focus we put on loving God and how we treat our neighbors, particularly those neighbors we either don’t like or really don’t want to know, sometimes it seems that our light has completely gone out, just like the lamps of those foolish young women burned out before the bridegroom came. And I’ll tell you, that’s why they ended up on the outside, why they weren’t prepared.

And I’ll tell you something else, I think the reason this happened to them and happens to us, well, it’s pretty much the same. You see, often living the Christian life and sharing the grace of Jesus Christ to others, in other words, often being a light in a gloomy world is really pretty low on our priority list. Of course that’s not what we say. I mean, give me a break, if you ask most Christians who’s most important to you, God is probably going to make the top five, right? But is that position reflected in how we spend our money? I’ll tell you, if I apply that standard to myself and my family, I’m embarrassed to admit that fast food and eating has actually got God beat. And is it reflected in how we use our time? Do you realize that coming to worship on Sunday represents .6%,
I’m talking less than 1% of our lives, and yet I still hear people talk about how coming here one hour a week is some kind of huge sacrifice and that every now and then you really need a break. Man, television has God blown away. And what about our talents, are we looking for chances to use them to glorify God or not?

You see, when you get right down to it, we really have been blessed with plenty of money and time and talents, we’ve just made a decision limit what we offer Christ so that we’re free to use them for other things, you know, things we want, right; sort of like those five foolish young women who decided to fill their lamps with just enough oil to keep them burning for a short while which would have been fine, if the bridegroom had come when they expected him, but of course he didn’t, because no one can know the day nor the hour, can they? Man, they weren’t prepared, even though back home before they left, just like the other five, they had oil to burn, so to speak. No, they just took the minimum amount and so their lamps burned out and that’s why they were foolish and that’s why they heard the bridegroom say, "I don’t know you."

But you know, that wasn’t the case with the other girls and I’ll tell you something right here and now, it doesn’t have to be the case with us either. You see, the ones Jesus called sensible, they were prepared for a long evening
and so they took along their flasks, filled with oil, oil they could’ve used for something else, but instead they dedicated it to the bridegroom. Unlike those foolish girls, they were prepared for him even though he was later than they expected.

And friends, we can do the same thing. I mean, we can actually do something that a lot of Christians only talk about; man, we can prioritize how we’re going to use all the stuff that God has either offered us directly or given us the ability and opportunity to earn and develop ourselves. I’m telling you, we can live as though God really is at or near the top of our list.
And that can certainly apply to how we use our money. This last week, most of y’all got stewardship cards. If you didn’t, let me know. Now I want you to use them as a way to dedicate yourself to God and to let him know how important he is to you. And if you want to let the church know about your promise, maybe to keep you accountable, I don’t know, turn them in next week. But if for some reason you don’t, still write in a number, because that represents, as I’ve said before, you putting your money where your faith is. I’m not going to lie to you; money is important to the church.

But I recognize that times are tough and given the rate increases I’ve been hearing about, may get tougher. And that’s why on that same card, there’s a space for you write how much time you’re willing to give. And more than that, there’s also a place to write down the talents you’re willing to offer. I’ll tell you, most of what this church does rests on people who’ve decided to give of themselves. And I believe God is glorified and the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed because of their efforts. My goodness, we’re going to elect new offers right after worship. If you’re not involved, now’s the time. Offer to the bridegroom some of the oil that God has given you.

But before I go any further, let me also say that I’m not asking you to give blindly to the church; that’s not what I’m talking about. No, I want you to look at how the money is spent around here, and I’ll promise, we’ll give you the ability to do that. And I want you to look at the programs we offer. In other words, I want you to look at the ministry of Cove Presbyterian Church carefully and critically. And if the gospel is not being proclaimed from this pulpit and taught in studies, and if we’re not trying to share the love of Jesus within this congregation, and if we’re not taking seriously Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations, then I want to hear about it. And after you tell me, if you don’t think your concerns are being taken seriously, I don’t want you to give one more dime to this church or volunteer one more minute or offer one more talent. We don’t deserve it. Help the leaders of this church be sensible too.

And if you do, my goodness if we’re working together, ready to give back to God some of what he’s already given us, I think we’re going to be just like those sensible young women who’s light continued to burn, I’m talking about the ones who were ready when it was their time to meet the bridegroom. You see, as we work together, as we pool our time and our talents and our money, and as we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, we’re going to be living witnesses of Jesus Christ. We’re going to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world. We going to be that city on the hill, offering a message of power and of grace and of hope to a hope starved world.

And as individual believers, we’re going to grow in our relationship with the father and with the son and with the Holy Spirit, because that light which we’re going to carry, something that can penetrate the deepest and most profound darkness, that light will also cut through those things that put barriers between us and God, and I’m talking about things like pride and intolerance and jealousy. Just like it can change others, it’s going to change us too, whether we like it or not.

You see, like those sensible young women, we’re not only going to carry but we’re going to be filled with light as we enter with the bridegroom into the wedding banquet. And with them, we’ll be able to claim the hope and joy that comes from knowing that we were prepared and that our light did shine. And I’ll tell you, there’s something else we’ll know, in fact, something that we can start knowing right now. You see, the more we do the will of our father, the more sure we’ll be that the answer has always been "yes" to the question, does Christ know you?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Sermon: A Humble Nation Under God

Matthew 23:1-12 - Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "Upon the seat of Moses the scribes and Pharisees sit. Now all that they might say to you, do and observe. But their works, don’t do. For they say and don’t do. They bind with heavy burdens, and they lay them upon the shoulders of people. But they themselves won’t lift their finger to move them. And many of their works they do are done to be noticed by people. For they make wide the small cases containing Scripture passages that they wear on their arms, and they make long their tassels. And they love the seat of honor at banquets and the first seat in the synagogues and to be greeted in the marketplace and to be called by people ‘Rabbi.’

"But you yourselves don’t be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers. And don’t call anyone ‘Father’ upon the earth, for you have one father, who is in heaven. Neither be called ‘Master,’ because you have one master, Christ. But the great among you will be your servant. And whoever will exalt himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

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Well, in three days the election will be over. And I’m just curious, how many of y’all will be glad? Nope, by Wednesday, the fat lady will be singing, and either John McCain or Barrack Obama will be the next president. And you know, I just hope that both the winners and losers accept but don’t go crazy over the results; you know, I hope they don’t take it as sort of a license to kill or a reason to fight.

I mean, unless the winner wins by some kind of landslide, on one hand, I sure hope that he doesn’t start talking about mandates and that his supporters don’t feel as though they can arrogantly run rough shod over everyone else. On the other hand, though, I also hope the one who comes in second and his supporters don’t let their disappointment turn to anger and then hatred and finally to a decision that the new president should be knocked down before he’s even taken the oath of office. We’ve seen that before.

In other words, I literally pray that both sides move away from the idea that they are some how the center of the universe and that their ideas and desires and opinions are, by their nature, right. I really hope this doesn’t happen, because frankly, I don’t see how we’ll ever solve the real problems we face as a society if we don’t work together.

But to be honest with y’all, I’m not all that optimistic about this happening, especially considering the nature of the campaign we’ve just endured, but more than that, a perspective that’s almost become ingrained in American culture, including the church, and I’m talking about an almost radical focus on self, on what I want, on what’s in it for me. For example, just think about how we view taxes. We’re ten trillion dollars in debt. Now this didn’t happen overnight, and eventually, like all bills, it’s got to be paid, and to do it we have to increase revenue and decrease spending. But of course, nobody thinks his taxes should go up, right? In fact, personally, I think my taxes should drop, and that’s O.K., because when you get right down to it, it’s the guy on the other side of town, well, he should be the one paying more now or maybe we can pass it on to next generation who’ll have to pay more later, right? And programs, I want the government to cut every single program with either an ax or a scalpel, it doesn’t matter, I’m talking about every program that doesn’t benefit me. Problems solved. Or so I think.

Now, before I say anything else, let me be clear, I think this attitude, this perspective is typical and understandable. In fact, I would be a pretty irresponsible father and American and Christian if I didn’t want the best for my family and my country and my faith. No, I think we all will and should look after ourselves and our families. And let’s face, regardless of what I say, we’re probably going to do it anyway. It’s like the joke about two guys running away from a grizzly bear. All of a sudden, one of the guys stops right there in the woods. He removes his hiking boots and puts on a pair of tennis shoes that he’s taken out of his back pack. And his buddy stops and says to him, "Are you crazy? Don’t you realize that bear is going to get us?" And as he gets up, the guy says, "Sure I do. But what you don’t realize is that I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you." That’s putting yourself first, a pretty natural thing to do.

But you know, it’s when we take it too far and start to assume that what we believe is right because we believe it and what we want is right because we want it, that’s when we run into problems. You see, whether you’re talking about a country or a church or a person, if taken too far, this attitude has got to lead to some pretty bad stuff. I mean, how can it not lead to immorality and hypocrisy, you know, when I have no moral standard above what I believe, and I can always justify saying one thing and then doing something else because that’s what I want to do? And what about callousness and insensitivity to the needs to others, if whatever I think is right, what are you when you disagree with me or how am I going to treat you when you’re doing something I believe is wrong? And pretentious and showy, good night nurse, it’s high time others recognized just how right I am. Now, I think this kind of stuff just kind of flows when I believe the world revolves around me.

But you know, when this happens, I really become no better than those self-absorbed Pharisees about whom Jesus spoke, you know the ones I’m talking about, folks who "...say and don’t do," leaders who "bind with heavy burdens, and they lay them upon the shoulders of people but [who] won’t lift their finger to move them," those fine, up-standing citizens whom you can spot in a heart-beat because "many of their works they do are done to be noticed by people." You see, when we act like immoral hypocrites and when we’re calloused and insensitive, pretentious and showy we’re no better than those religious leaders who’s pride and out-right arrogance would eventually lead them to nail their messiah to a cross.

And you know, Jesus must have known that, I’m telling you, he must have known that even his followers could be drawn into this kind of distorted thinking and that’s why he stressed a radical and an intentional kind of humility. I mean, think about what he said. First, he told them to consider their relationship with God and to be careful about their language, you know, the words they used, man, even to watch the titles that they accepted because even things that sound innocent can reflect the attitude that I’m a whole lot smarter and more important than I actually am. And then, second, he gave them a principle to guide their relationships with others, you know, that "the great among you will be your servant. And whoever will exalt himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Now that’s exactly the kind of attitude Jesus challenged his disciples to accept.

And I’ll tell you, I think it would be a pretty good idea if we applied those words to ourselves as well. I mean, starting right now, we can be clear, at least in our own minds, exactly where we stand in relationship with God, that in spite of a cultural that encourages us to believe that we’re number one, in spite of a society that seems to reward pride and arrogance, in spite of the warm and fuzzy feelings we get believing that no one should be able to tell us anything we don’t want to hear, in spite of all that garbage, right now we can accept the fact that we have one real teacher and one genuine Father and one true Master, and brothers and sisters, it ain’t you and it ain’t me. But more than that, we can also accept that true greatness, greatness in the sight of God, in other words, the only greatness that should really count for a Christian is not measured by how much stuff we have or how much power we weld. No, "the great among you will be your servant." Man, what a radical thought.

But that’s what Jesus said. And I’ll tell you, I believe this idea, this radical and intentional humility can provide a source of hope for us as a nation and as a church and as individual followers of Jesus Christ. I mean, think about it. As soon as I stop being the center of my universe, suddenly I can be more honest with myself and others; my goodness, I can actually recognize that I make mistakes and that I may be wrong, I can admit that because I know that I’m loved by God even when I’m a little less than right and I’ll tell you what, there’s no reason to say one thing and do another, because I really won’t have anything to hide. But more than that, with this humility in my back pocket, I’ll also become more sensitive and responsive, ready to do what my master calls me to do, you know things like feeding the hungry and give water to the thirsty, and ready to roll up my sleeves and to open my wallet and to claim the greatness and exaltation God himself offers. And finally, once I’m truly humble, than I can become truly modest. Man, I don’t have to brag or show-off, because I know the one who’s number one in my life, someone who’s even more important than Debbie or Maggie or even Peyton Manning is watching. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do. And I’ll tell you, this kind of humility can change the world.

And it’s for that reason, as we close the book on this election, I pray that not only the winners and losers, but that we all listen to these words and claim this new attitude. I mean, just imagine the nation and the community and the church we would have if people are more honest with one another and themselves, if they are more sensitive and responsive to the needs of others and if they are more modest in how they met those needs. And imagine what it would mean if, after the joy and disappointment fades a little, imagine what it would mean if all our leaders, Democrats and Republicans and Independents, rejected self-centered arrogance and decided to put God first and sought to serve all the people. Now that would be real change. In fact, that just might put us on the road to becoming what I think we were called to be: truly, a humble nation under God.