Monday, January 30, 2017

Sunday's Sermon – Keep a-Going: Easier Said than Done

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 29, in Two Ridges Presbyterian Church, Wintersville, Ohio. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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Image result for sermon on the mountMatthew 5:1-12

And when [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on to the mountain, and after he sat, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, because to them is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who are mourning, because they will be consoled.
Blessed are those who are gentle, because they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be satisfied.
Blessed are those who are merciful, because they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those who are pure of heart, because they will see God.
Blessed are those who are peacemakers, because they will be called the sons [and daughters] of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, because to them is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and say evil things against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, because your reward will be great in heaven. For thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Keep a-Going: Easier Said than Done

I’ve got a little poetry for y’all this morning. Now aren’t you glad you came?
“If you strike a thorn or rose,
Keep a-goin'!
If it hails or if it snows,
Keep a-goin'!
'Taint no use to sit an' whine
When the fish ain't on your line;
Bait your hook an' keep a-tryin'
–Keep a-goin'!
When the weather kills your crop,
Keep a-goin'!
Though 'tis work to reach the top,
Keep a-goin'!
S'pose you're out o' ev'ry dime,
Gittin' broke ain't any crime;
Tell the world you're feelin' prime
–Keep a-goin'!
When it looks like all is up,
Keep a-goin'!
Drain the sweetness from the cup,
Keep a-goin'!
See the wild birds on the wing,
Hear the bells that sweetly ring,
When you feel like surgin', sing
–Keep a-goin'!”

Image result for henry gibson poemsNow this is a poem written by a man named Frank Stanton, but made well-known if not famous by the comedian Henry Gibson, who’d stand up and recite it a timid voice. But regardless of who’s reading it, the meaning is about the same. No matter what happens in life we should pull up our socks, tighten our helmets and keep a-goin.

And although that sounds as good as all get out, and excellent advice for parents to tell their children, let’s face it, any way you cut it, it’s easier said then done. Come on, sometimes it’s hard to keep going. And even though I think that’s the case everywhere, with everyone, I believe it’s particularly difficult for Christians, both as individuals and communities. Let me explain.

I think most of us try to do what’s right, to help people when we can, to treat others with kindness and respect, to put them first even if that mean we’re second. And you know, I think for the most part, we make a sincere effort to follow the example of Christ and to serve God by serving others. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’re perfect or spiritually superior people, but I think by in large we do the best we can with what we’ve got, as brothers and sisters in Christ and as the church.

And yet sometimes, sometimes our efforts to do the will of God, you know, to do what’s right, well, what we do is met with a response that’s, let’s just say, a little less than what we might expect. I mean, sometimes our acts of kindness are ignored, overlooked, treated as though they weren’t worth  mentioning, and sometimes by the very people receiving them. And I’m not talking about “thank you’s,” but just a simple acknowledgment, would that be so hard? But no, we don’t even that. But of course, that’s better than the criticism or the mocking we sometimes do get. “I mean, what was she thinking, making me chili, and she knows I don’t like kidney beans. And then, showing up right in the middle of “The Young and the Restless”, can you believe that, the nerve of some people. And then she wanted to visit. I’m telling you, I guess some people got nothing better to do than to bother sick folks.” Oh yes, nothing makes a person feel like he’s doing something worthwhile like some good, old fashioned neglect and abuse. But it happens.

Image result for frustrated
And since is does, I’m telling you, there’s little wonder that sometimes we become downright discouraged, if not just plain mad. I mean, we end up feeling unappreciated and overlooked and used, and we resent it. And we end up thinking that maybe a lot of stuff we talk about in church is just that, a lot of stuff, and that the world really is right when it tells us that “good guys finish last” and that you better look after number one and of course, “do unto to others, before they can do it to you.” And you know, maybe that’s why there seems to be a lot of bitter people out there, men and women who’ve become cynical about helping anyone who’s different from them, brothers and sisters, who’ve gotten to the point where they’ve just thrown up their hands and said, “Never again. I mean, what’s the use.” Let’s get real, sometimes it difficult for us to continue doing the very things that we know in our heart of hearts Christians should be doing. Man, I can sure understand how we might be more willing to start building walls to protect ourselves  then to keep showing love to help others.

But you, it’s at those times, those times when we’ve tried as hard as we can and seem to have gotten paid back with nothing but disappointment, it’s right then we may need to open up our Bibles to this passage in Matthew, because I’m telling you, remembering the beatitudes can help us stay focused and faithful. In fact, if we let them, they just might be able to keep us a-going. And I’ll tell you why, I think that’s exactly what they did in Bible. I mean, just think about the situation in this passage. Jesus had gone up onto the mountain with his disciples, and he was about to begin his great Sermon on the Mount. In other words, in just a little bit, Christ was going to teach the disciple how to live their lives. He was going to tell them about life under the reign of God. He was going to give them a new set of rules for a Christian community.

Image result for sermon on the mountBut you know, before he started telling them what to do, he offered them the beatitudes. As though he knew what they were in store for, as though he knew that he was sending them out into a world that either would fight against them or just wouldn’t care, as though he knew that they would, from time to time, become discouraged and feel unappreciated and neglected and taken advantage of, he said to them:
“Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, because to them is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who are mourning, because they will be consoled. 
Blessed are those who are gentle, because they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be satisfied. 
Blessed are those who are merciful, because they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are those who are pure of heart, because they will see God. 
Blessed are those who are peacemakers, because they will be called the sons [and daughters] of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, because to them is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and say evil things against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, because your reward will be great in heaven. For thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

In other words, instead of starting the sermon by telling them what they should be doing, Jesus reminded his disciples of what God had already done. I mean, he reminded them that they were already blessed by God, and that their intentions were alright, and that in time, God was going to allow them to see change, that the day was coming when those disciples who lived the kind of life that Christ himself lived, man, they were going witness a new world and would become part of a new a reality.

And you know, this message is just as true for us as it was for them. I mean, as we talked about earlier, our situation is an awful like their’s. And because of that, I think it’s important for us to remember the beatitudes, to remember what they are and what they mean. That in these verses, we don’t have a list of shoulds or orders or commands, but rather a clear and definite statement that blessed are those who are humble enough to recognize their own spiritual poverty and therefore, put their trust in the giver not the gifts; man, they are already in the presence of God. That blessed are those who grieve the condition of the world and who turn away from violence and who want to see “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven;’ they will be there when the condition of that world changes and they will inherit this new world and they will see righteousness finally come out on top. That blessed are those who show mercy and who focus on God with an undivided heart and who work to bring peace to others; they will receive that same kind of mercy from God and they will see face to face the one on whom they focused their attention, and they will become a part of a new family, the sons and daughters of God. That blessed are those who suffer because they’ve had the guts to stand up for what’s right; like those who are humble as they look at themselves, they are already in God’s presence too. You see, like them almost 2,000 years ago, when we’re discouraged, we need to remember the beatitudes.

Because when we do, they’ll offer us the same thing they offered those disciples who sat in front of Jesus on that mountain and to that persecuted Christian community which first read Matthew’s gospel. You see, for them and for us, these words offer three things.

First, they offer encouragement, encouragement rooted in the blessings that God has already given to his people. You see, before we begin to live, before we begin to follow, and before we begin to serve, we can be encouraged by the fact that our lives are grounded in the one who has already given so much to us, and that we follow the one who’s blessings are secure and that we serve in response to what has already been given to us. And when our life and following and service seem to be met with indifference or hostility, we can also be encouraged by the fact that those blessings are not going away. That’s one.

But you know, second, not only do they offer encouragement, the beatitudes offer an affirmation. In a world where the rich are often seen as the superior and the powerful are constantly getting more power, and where arrogance and aggressiveness and ambition are viewed as virtues and are not only admired but rewarded, and where those who show mercy and who focus on God and not the world and who work for peace my gosh, they’re called weak and foolish and stupid, and where persecution and opposition and anything else that would make you unpopular are to be avoided at all cost, in this kind of world, it’s important for those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn and are gentle and desire righteousness, those who are merciful and pure of heart and peacemakers, and those who are willing to put up with opposition and mocking and even violence for what is right but not popular, man, it’s absolutely crucial that they hear that in spite of what the world says, God calls them blessed. That’s two.

And finally, these beatitudes give those who continue to try hope. And you know, that’s something pretty important for us to remember, because I think we all know that humility and grief, gentleness and righteousness, mercy and purity, peace and endurance, man, they’re never going be the ticket to health and wealth and happiness, not in this life time. But listen, the day is coming when God will set things straight, in a recreated world, with a system of values and standards of success that’s like a mirror image of our own, a place where the first will be the last, and those who lead will be the servants of all. You see, that’s exactly what the beatitudes offer us right here and right now.

Image result for sermon on the mount“If you strike a thorn or rose,
Keep a-goin'!
If it hails or if it snows,
Keep a-goin'!
'Taint no use to sit an' whine
When the fish ain't on your line;
Bait your hook an' keep a-tryin'
--Keep a-goin'!
Well, Mr. Stanton, that’s easier said than done, for people trying to make in the world, even for brothers and sisters in the church. Man, out there and in here, there’s plenty of reasons to become discouraged. But of course, in here, we have an advantage, because Christ has given us these beatitudes, a set of clear reminders of what God has done, a source of encouragement and affirmation and hope, and I’m talking about a strength that just might help us keep a-going.

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