Sunday, January 30, 2011

Holy Lists, Batman!

Psalm 15

Sermon Preached on January 30 in the Center Moreland Charge.

This past week, my son and I went grocery shopping. Over the years, Donna and I discovered a couple of truths about grocery shopping that I am trying to pass down, now—First of all, never go when you are hungry! You end up always buying more than you need, and you’ll also have more foods of the kind you really don’t want around the house. Kettle Cooked barbeque potato chips, you know, stuff like that.

The second lesson that Donna and I learned together is that it’s a better idea to shop with a list, and that you don’t deviate from it. It helps the budget, and keeps the pantry properly filled with the stuff you actually use.

It was a lesson lost this week, however, when I cleaned the car out of a number of scraps of paper, carried them into the grocery store to toss into the big trash can outside the front door. The grocery list was probably one of those scraps, because we did not have the list.

I tell you all this stuff about domestic practice and doctrine because it was a grocery list that I thought of when I read Psalm 15 this week. Interestingly, two other lectionary scriptures this week, the Hebrew Bible passage from the prophet Micah, and the Gospel passage, the first 12 verses of the Gospel of Matthew, are also lists!

In reading commentaries, there were other lists, mentioned as well, such as one in Jeremiah, verses 5-7 in the seventh chapter.

Many many lists. All of them are ways given by the authors to those whom hear them for the guidance of the people of God. Now, some would say that no lists are needed, that a declaration of faith in Christ is totally sufficient for salvation.

Perhaps. But if one has genuinely consciously declared a faith in Christ, and you have responded to the leading Grace that I spoke of last week, then one genuinely begins to want to live a more righteous life—not self-righteous, as if you know more than others; but a life of genuine righteousness, humility and grace. And it’s hard to find examples of a genuinely righteous, humble and graceful life, especially when it naturally doesn’t call attention to itself.

Thus the value of lists of righteous behavior in Scripture. Good thing God thought of this, eh?

Psalm 15 speaks of who may abide in God’s tent. The ones who get to “live a blameless life, do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” Thankfully, they get a little more specific, when they say that the ones who live on the Lord’s holy hill “do not slander with their tongue, do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach to their neighbors.” Now, that little bit makes more sense if you read it in the New International Version, where it says “who does his neighbor no wrong, and casts no slur on his fellowman”.

There are a couple of other things about lending money and standing by your word even when it’s going to hurt, as well.

The list Micah gives is much shorter, and is preceded by God reminding God’s people about all he’s given them, and asking for so little in return; not worship, not burnt offerings, not even “ten thousand rivers of oil.” But simply to do justice, love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God”. The commentary from the Jewish Study Bible goes even a step further and says that that last line should probably read “walk ‘wisely’ with your God.”

Humble, modest, wise, are all equated as similar, and positive in this passage.

Jeremiah, one of the lists that I was led to by commentators, is a more specific list, but still helpful. It is Jeremiah the prophet speaking to Israel at the time of the return of the Jews to Israel after having been released by the King of Persia. “if you mend your ways and your actions, if you execute between one man and another, if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent, and if you do not follow other Gods, even to your own hurt. . . I will let you dwell in the land I gave to your fathers.”

Are you starting to get the gist of how the various authors of the Bible, spread out over about 2000 years, have a similar idea of how we can be led to respond to the righteous impulse?

In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of certain values as more advantageous. Tell me if you have heard these positive attitudes named before-that the blessed are humble, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, are willing to be persecuted in order to live this kind of life, (which sounds a lot like being steadfast “to your own hurt”, a phrase that both Jeremiah and Psalm 15 use).

Now, as Christians, it is absolutely true that we do not believe we need to do such things in order to become justified by faith. When I say “justified”, Christian doctrine means that our sins have been lifted from us. But lists like these help us to respond in gratitude to the grace of God lifting away from us the mistakes we’ve made, and interestingly enough, they also end up helping us avoid them in the future.

So, to live a life of gratitude in response to the grace of God given to us freely throughout our life, we learn from Scripture that . . .
• humility,
• mercy,
• kindness to the stranger and the widow and the orphan (or really anyone whom society has placed at a disadvantage because of their race, religion, immigration status, weight, mental health, learning disability, or anything else),
• speaking kindly and without any malice or gossip about your friends and neighbors,
• seeking justice,
• peacemaking,
• the courage to live this kind of life “to your own hurt”

. . . is a pretty good list to start with.

At one time, I was never a big list guy. Donna was, and I used to mock her (gently) for reaching out for order. But as I have matured, I have realized that they have their uses, especially in the day to day chaos of a modern life. They are useful, and lists like these, guidance for how to live a graceful life in gratitude and response to the gifts God has given us in Jesus, become something more than useful.

They become Holy. They become the voice and guiding hand and heart of God.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Closer Walk With God

1 Cor. 1: 10-18

Preached in the Center Moreland Charge, January 23, 2011

“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you. . . “

Paul has stayed in touch with his congregation in Corinth, and is seeking to assist them in their continued life together.

Corinth is a town on one of the main trading roads of the Roman Empire, and there were probably many people who were worshipping with that congregation who weren’t born there, and didn’t come to Christ through the actions of the believers in that town. It would be like any church in a crossroads city, where a lot of trade and a lot of traffic come through. I heard a preacher once describe Corinth as a city a lot like San Francisco—many cultures, many beliefs, many practices, all living cheek by jowl on a small plot of land. And what is true of the city as a whole would certainly be true of the Christians who gathered there.

It might have been true that all of these people who are named, these evangelists, for lack of a better term; Apollos, Cephas, even Paul for a couple of them, had visited Corinth. Paul mentions, however, some who had claimed their faith by Christ alone, and so I’m inclined to believe that these people of Cephas, these people of Apollos, developed their beliefs and understandings apart from the town of Corinth. And when they meet in Corinth, there are disruptions and disagreements about how to practice the faith.

A mild illustration of this would be if we were to go visit a Presbyterian church, and while a lot of the organization of worship would be similar enough to our own not to be troubling, when you got to the Lord’s Prayer, there would be some uncertainty when you would say “trespasses”, as you were taught, and hear everyone else around you say “sins”.

Imagine that on a greater scale, and perhaps you might have a sense of the underlying tension in the Corinthian church.

Many of us here have come from other places, and at the same time, many of us have been here our whole lives. I can’t say that there has been a constant influx of different cultures or Christian practices on the magnitude of a city like San Francisco or Philadelphia, or even at the level of Wilkes Barre.

But Paul’s lesson here is that the differences are not important-how we understand salvation, whether it be how we were taught by the founder of our practice, John Wesley, or as taught by Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or St. Augustine, or whether we arrive at some sort of idiosyncratic understanding of our own by an unaided and unguided reading of Scripture, Paul’s lesson for us is to say that our differences not be divisions, and that our personal understandings not be understood as the singular and sole correct views.

This is a United Methodist church, and our doctrines are based on the teachings of the 18th century English priest John Wesley. The most important and distinctive part of these teachings is that we are in the grip of grace from the moment of our first breath, that there is a grace that accompanies us and gently impels us toward God. Wesley writes about it a lot in his sermons, but here is one line that is useful for our purpose here: “It is God that of his Good pleasure worketh in you both to will and to do.”

If we were to update that language from the 18th century, King-James-soaked language, it means this-it is wholly by God’s pleasure that he leads us both to act and to think. This would seem to be fine and clear for those that have found Christ and have been led to a decision for faith in Christ. But Wesley is clear in this additional point-God works his will in us long before we have even figured out who God is, and he is pulling us slowly towards Godself, the way that even a slow moving river can push a canoe.

Some would call the moment of decision that we declare our faith in Christ as the moment of our salvation. Wesley, and the doctrine of our practice, however, allows for there to be either one large dramatic decision, like Paul getting knocked off his horse and being rebuked by Jesus himself, or room for many small decisions, like a child attending summer camp and Sunday school, and being taught all along the way.

I came to the Christian faith in my early twenties in a moral crisis, realizing that I could not refrain from hurting people based solely on my own strength. On the spectrum of conversion stories, it was relatively sudden and dramatic. But If I were to say that that was the only way that someone could be saved, I would have completely discounted the faith journey of many people, including Donna, the woman I married, who was raised from infancy in the church, and came to know Christ through long acquaintance and friendship. She couldn’t ever tell a satisfying, dramatic story of her salvation. Was she any less of a Christian by not having had the dramatic coming to Christ story of salvation? Those of you who remember her, her compassion and her willingness to serve, would of course say no.
Her journey to faith was very different from my own, but it was no less valid for its difference. Our son’s story of Grace drawing him toward a relationship with Christ began a long time ago, and will have its own trajectory, and it will be equally as valid as either Donna’s or mine.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that they were to be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Let me suggest that that purpose is not to convert souls as if we have some McDonalds sign out front counting billions and billions served. Rather, let me suggest that we are to take Jesus’ own model in sharing the love of God-we are to say to the world, through our actions and our speech, “come and see”. We are to show God’s love, and invite those whom we meet into God’s presence in a gentle fashion, sometimes even amongst us here, and hopefully allow them to take away something that increases their faith, awakens their awareness. We are not to “score a point” with the souls of others, we are simply called to offer Christ to the world, and support each others’ journey toward a closer walk with God.

We are called always into a closer walk with God. How we got here, how we get there, is a story to be told that may be of value, but one soul’s story is never to be used as how all souls should walk.

How Long Do We Sing This Song?

Psalm 40:1-11
Matthew 9:9-13

Preached in the Center Moreland Charge, January 16, 2011

Some of you probably know by now that one of my favorite bands is U2. You may not know that I came to them very late, less than 10 years ago. When I was a campus minister in Texas, I had a group of students who were all friends and looking for a home. Most of them were musicians of a sort, and they played together a lot. Usually they would play in a way that turned to worship naturally. Listening to them from my office, I would hear a lot of the usual type of music, the praise choruses, the Rich Mullins repertoire. But there were some songs that didn’t fit-and I thought I’d heard them in decidedly non-worship settings, like school dances and MTV (back when they played music).

Sure enough, they were playing U2. and it was about that time there were a number of books that were dissecting the spiritual content of u2’s music.

Preachers sometimes are behind the trends, so I got a book or two to try to get into a place where I could be of spiritual help to them, and one actually had a Bible study based on U2’s music in the back. (I still have that book, if anyone would like to do that study.)

What ended up happening is that we did a series of worship services that were based on the music of U2, with one video being shown, and the band playing one live, and the message being inspired by the scripture that inspired the songs.

And I ended up being a fan.

One of the most overt scriptural references in U2’s music was a song that was pretty early in U2’s career, a song called “40”. And it was inspired by this morning’s Psalm.

I will wait patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry
He lifted me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay
I will sing, sing a new song,
I will sing, sing a new song,

He set my feet upon the rock, and made my footsteps firm
Many will see, many will see and fear
I will sing, sing this song
I will sing, sing this song

How Long, how long do we sing this song?

It’s a song of confidence in the presence and activity of the Lord, and echoes the song that first made U2 notable, a song about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, called “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. They both have the question “how Long to sing this song?” When will these troubles cease? How long must we sing and praise you, O Lord, I think they might be asking.

When you read deeper into the psalm, you get to the passage that caught my eye.
“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin you have not required.”

It starts a discussion, this passage. It’s clear for many of us why we come to church, but why do we do some of the things we do? Why do we do a doxology as the offering comes forward? Why do we either affirm our faith or confess our sins together? It seems clear why we read scripture, and why there is a sermon, or a message, but why this other stuff, especially since God does not require sacrifices and offerings?

Why do we praise God, who is omnipotent, who created us, and who knows our innermost hearts and minds? Why should we praise God when God knows if we’re lying as we stand here?

Well, I don’t think God does. But I do think we do.

I think we need to be reminded of the basics of our faith. I think we need to be reminded that we fall short of God’s intention for us. I think we need to be reminded that God is great, but he has given us a great charge, to be God’s people on earth. If we are not the evidence of God among our fellow human beings, then there will not be any evidence.

How Long do we sing this song? Our whole Lives.
How long do we sing of our Joy in God? Our whole lives.
How long to we raise lament, how long do we express our sadness and anger to God?

How long do we have a real, honest, troubling at times, loving always, relationship with God?

Our whole lives.


Let me tell you a story. There was once a man called Matthew, and he did a job that put him at odds with his birth culture, and placed him in a place in between them and the dominant alien Empire that ruled his land. He was generally ostracized from his native people, and I’d imagine even the family holidays were a little tense.

And yet, there was a man who came along one day, saw Matthew working at his tax booth, and said “Matthew, follow me”. He did, and at dinner, sitting with this man and his followers, he noticed that there were many other people he knew who were also at odds with their people sitting around the table too. The people who were “right with God” asked why this teacher, this rabbi, was sitting with such sinners, and the teacher replied that those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

Then he says this: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” And he tells the Pharisees, and probably everyone there, to go learn what that means.

Why do we sing this song? God does not desire our sacrifice, or our offerings. But we need to give of ourselves. We need to prove to ourselves how central our faith is to us. We need to confess our sins to be reminded we are sinners. We need to affirm our faith to be reminded what it is we believe.

What God does desire is mercy. What God does require of us is to be loving, human, grace filled people. All that we do as a church is to support this mission, to strengthen this message.

How long do we sing this song?

Our whole lives.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant

Matthew 25: 14-21
Preached on Jan. 9, 2011

Our story for today is one of the parables Jesus tell his disciples and others immediately before his arrest in Jerusalem-in a sense, this is one of the straws that break the camels’ back. He is teaching his disciples in this passage that if you have talents gifts and graces, you are best served as a servant (or a slave) of God if you bring those talents to good use. If you put your “talents” in the service of the Lord, you will “enter into the joy of your master”.

Interestingly, the word talent, which I took to mean that the slaves had been given an allegorical sum of money called a talent, was not so. It was the other way around. The word “talent” once meant a large sum of money; the New Interpreter's Bible commentary said it was 15 years’ worth of a days’ wage. And because this story was told so widely during the Middle Ages, "talent" only then, and because of this parable, became known as the gifts and graces you have been given by God. So what we think of as talents did once actually mean spending capital!

I think that it is probably wise to continue to think of them that way, and perhaps we should also think of them as the spending money that an eleven year old has in his pocket, “burning a hole”, as they say-we have to get it out of our pockets and spent, and circulating, as quickly and as often as possible!

This community, this church, this congregation, has been through some tough times in the last eighteen months. In standing with me and my family, you have stood to be hurt yourselves, and it has not stopped you from doing so. Many of you have certainly put those talents into circulation when needed; from cooking to cleaning, from taking on some of the administrative duties that I could not perform, to standing up here and providing a message to this congregation in my absence. Some of you even took a little bit of the inevitable heat that comes with serving in the role of preacher.

These folks are certainly not the whole list of people who have helped me, my family and this charge through this time. Mostly everyone has done something, even if it was to take on the first duty of a Christian, the duty of prayer. You have certainly spread your talents around like my son at Game Stop!

I do hope you are not expecting some great and deep theological insight today. My hope for this sermon is rather simpler. I want to be able to say to each of you that I am thankful for the grace and the help that I and my family have received over the past 18 months. I do not know what kind of pastor I will be after this experience, what kind of preacher I will grow into after this experience. I have been changed, and those changes are not over. I am still healing, and adjusting to what my new life means for me. I know I have been through a hard time, but I also know that I am not the only one-we all have had our tough days, our hard times. God has been with us through them all, and one of the best roles of a congregation is to provide the face, the hands, and the voice of God to those who are in need of it. And you all have been that for me, just as you have been for each other.

The talents that we have all been given, that burn holes in our pockets, are meant to be shared. They are meant to be put into the service of those who are around us. At the beginning of this year, I’d like us to take communion together in the spirit of offering our talents to each other as a congregation, and to re-offer them to God, the source of all that we have and are.

Instead of the Lord’s prayer being prayed at the appropriate moment in the Great Thanksgiving, I would like for us to pray it together at its' place the other three weeks of the month, at the end of the pastoral prayer. At its' place in the Great Thanksgiving, I’d like for us to pray the covenant prayer written by John Wesley. I’d like for us to pray this slowly and meditatively, thinking about how each part may apply to us.

May we all feel the heat of the talents that are burning holes in our pockets, this year, and may we spend those talents freely.

May these words have been God’s intention this day. Amen.

The Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.