Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – Us and Them

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 29, in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio and Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can also find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. 

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart... 

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

Us and Them

Of course, I think everybody here knows that tomorrow is Memorial Day. And even though, as I said in an essay I wrote on Friday and sent out to the people on Cove’s e-mailing list, it’s kind of drifted away from it’s original intent, I also think most of us know the reason for the day. I mean, I know some folks talk about the last Monday in May as the unofficial bringing of summer, with all that entails, while some others see it as kind of a blending of July Fourth and Veterans Day, and that’s exactly how it’s celebrated. Still, Memorial Day has a meaning and an importance that’s deeper and more significant than identifying the time to open the pool and break out the white shoes or to sing “God Bless America” and to recognize men and women who’ve served and are serving in the armed forces. I believe we have other days we can do all that kind of stuff. But Memorial Day is different, because it gives us the opportunity as a country to commemorate and to honor those who’ve given their lives in service to the United States. And for that reason, tomorrow would seem to be day for prayer and reflection rather than parties and rallies. I remember, when I was in my first church out in the little town of Fairview, on Memorial Day the whole community gathered in the local cemetery for a worship service. And frankly, that’s something I’ve missed in the nearly twenty-five since I left eastern Montana. Because, for what it’s worth, in my opinion, I think that’s what Memorial Day should be all about.

But you know, even if we’re able to shift our focus to those who died in conflict, sometimes I think we’re a little off about the reason they died. But before I say anything else, let me be clear, I’m not really talking about the Saving Private Ryan image, where guys are fighting and dying not for geopolitical ideas but rather for the guy standing next to them. Now that may be true, but having never been in combat, I really don’t know. But I’m not talking about that anyway, instead I’m talking about the reason we, as a country, became involved in the conflict in the first place. You see, even though we might say that they died for us, you know, so we could be free, more often than not, they actually died for others. I mean, the last time a war was waged by a foreign power in one of the united states was in 1846 when Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande into a disputed part of Texas, territory that both sides claimed. And even though national interests were always involved, excluding the American Civil War, every armed conflict since then, whether it was called a war, a police action or something else, they’ve all taken place somewhere else. 

Which meant our service men and women who died, they did two things. First, they went outside the United States, almost always overseas. Man, they went to Cuba and to the Philippines and to France. And they went to North Africa and to western Europe and to the South Pacific. And they went to Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They left their homes, and they went to where they were needed. That’s one thing they did. And second, in that foreign land, they sacrificed themselves for others. They gave their lives for people who spoke a different language and often worshiped a different god. Good night, they died for folks they didn’t even know. And even if we say they died for their country, the results of their sacrifice were first felt by people on the other side of the world. And I’ll tell you, I think that’s important for us to remember, especially tomorrow on Memorial Day. They went to where they were needed and sacrificed for others.

And you know, this focus on others, I think something very similar is going on in the passage we just read, and I’m talking about when Solomon dedicated the Temple. Now, I’ve got to admit, this is kind of surprising, because I think most of us see the Jews as a people with a pretty strong sense of who was on the inside and who wasn’t. I mean, even the word we translate “gentile” and that we use to indicate folks who weren’t Jewish, that word in Greek is ἐθνός and it can also be translated “nation.” You see, in the Bible, when the Jews talked about the Gentile, they were actually referring to the nations, all the nations. In other words, for them, there were Jews and then everyone else. And the Jews, not the Greeks or the Romans or the Egyptians, but the Jews and only the Jews were God’s people. Why? That’s simple, because they were Jews, dah. Now that’s how they saw themselves. 

And yet, in this passage, where a Jewish king was dedicating the Jewish Temple, Solomon talked not just about his own people, but also about foreigners. He said, “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” Now personally I find this amazing. 

You see, in his words, Solomon was saying two things that really challenged his people to shift how they saw themselves and others. I mean, first, he was telling them to be faithful, to trust that not only was God free from their assumptions and opinions, but that he was actively exercising his freedom by doing things beyond the limits of their expectations. Man, he was moving within the nations, and he was leading foreigners to himself and to his Temple. That’s one. And second, because of that, the people needed to be open, and I’m talking about open to men and women who spoke in different languages and who came from different backgrounds and who had worshiped radically different gods. You see, when they started to come so that they could pray “...toward this house,” his house, his people, the Jews needed to be ready to follow Solomon’s example and actually pray for the stranger, according to the passage, that God “...do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.” And the reason: so that those guys from Greece or Rome or Egypt would know that the glory of God extends beyond a race or a language or a place. Man, it encompasses the entire world. You see, just like those service men and women we remember tomorrow went to and sacrificed for others, when he dedicated God’s Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon told the people to do something very similar, to be faithful with respect to God and to be open to the foreigner, to the stranger, to other.

And I’ll tell you, I think both these situations offer a fantastic lesson for all of us here this morning. I mean, let’s get real, often as a country we act a lot like those ancient Jews. Sometimes I think we sound as though there are Americans and then everybody else, you know, the ἐθνόι, the nations, the gentiles. And often we carry that same view inside our faith. We get the idea that Christianity is really about us; it’s about our thoughts and values and opinions, even our prejudices. And then we assume that the church is really for us; it’s for people who like what we like and who want to worship the way we worship and who want to serve God in the way we think God should be served. And if they don’t, then they’re probably not going to feel comfortable with us until they do. Am I right? I’ll tell you, I think it’s really easy for this idea to creep into the Christian faith and take root within the church and the hearts of believers.

But, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t have to. Instead, we can choose to follow the examples of those men and women who died fighting in foreign lands and the words of King Solomon when he challenged his people to change the way they saw the foreigner. And let me tell you exactly what I’m talking about. 

Like those who died in places that we can’t even pronounce, we can also do two things. I mean, we can certainly decide that we’re going to go out to where the people actually are, because it’s out there where the needs actually exist. But I recognize that’s not as easy as it sounds. For example, one of the reasons telling people to invite their non-Christian friends to church generally doesn’t work is that most Christians really don’t have a lot of non-Christian friends. Christians tend to hang with other Christians; that’s just the way it is. And even though it would be great if we could all step away from our comfort zones and make all kinds of new friends, we’re probably not going to do it. But I’ll tell you, there are other ways we can show people out in the world who we are and what we believe, things as simple as walking away when a conversation has crossed the line into an area that makes us uncomfortable or having a Bible that we actually read sitting on our desk at work. And I haven’t even mentioned all the stuff we can do through Facebook and Twitter and other forms of social media. Man, we can even help and support those who feel called to reach out. Going out, like our service people, that’s one thing we can do. 

And like them, we can also be willing to sacrifice ourselves for their sakes, for the sake of others. Now I acknowledge that we’ll probably not going to be willing to die for them, although Jesus did say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But even if we’re not going to lay down our lives, we can give some of our time to folks who are feel isolated and alone. And we can offer some of our talent to someone who’s struggling to do something we just happen to do really well. And frankly, we can contribute some of our money to our congregation so it can do what God has called it to do right here in Weirton, West Virginia. You see, just like those service people who didn’t come home, as Christians, we can go to where we’re needed and we can sacrifice for others. 

And to show that we’ve really heard what Solomon said, we can also decide to respond to the two challenges he laid out. For example, we can sure be faithful as we look toward God, trusting that the Psalmist was absolutely right when he said, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” Or as Paul wrote to the Romans, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” You see, right now, we can believe that God is doing things that we’ll never understand and doing it through people we often ignore and overlook. In spite of what we think, we can be faithful to God; that’s one. 

And then we can open ourselves to this new thing that God is doing. And we can prepare ourselves to welcome those whom God is right now leading to Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. And we can get ready to talk and to listen, to teach and to learn, but above all else to praise him together. And that’s two. I’m telling you, just like Solomon challenged his people, we can be both faithful and open.

And if we decide to take up this opportunity and challenge, wouldn’t tomorrow be a perfect day to start doing it? I mean, on this special, almost holy day, when we remember those who’ve died in conflict, we can claim their example by going out and sacrificing. And hearing the words of Solomon, we can trust in God and become open to his movement. And you know, if this is something we decide to do, as we live in a world where the walls between us and them are often immovable and insurmountable, within Christ’s Body, man, there’ll be only us. 

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