First Presbyterian Church

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God Comes to Us

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I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 28

Have you ever experienced a life threatening crisis in your life and wondered if God would get to you in time to rescue you?  When I was seven, I was sitting on my grandpa’s dock as my brother waved a shovel back and forth in the water, attracting a curious cotton mouthed moccasin.  I knew it was a poisonous viper and told my brother to remove his shovel and stay still while I yelled for Grandpa.  As we waited for help, the snake’s mate climbed up the dock piling next to where I was standing.  I remember praying and seeing Grandpa running toward us with his gun.  Grandpa told us to close our eyes and stay still.  We heard two gun shots.  My World War I and World War II veteran sniper, marksman grandfather had shot the heads off  both snakes as they poised to strike. Grandpa proclaimed, “Thank God, you are both okay.

In our culture in which many have chosen to set aside God from their everyday activities, many are asking, “Will help come to save people in desperate need?” Isaiah says that we have a God who comes to us, who aids us and helps us in our desperation.  Six hundred years after Isaiah, John the Baptist stood on the banks of the Jordan River quoting Isaiah and said, “We have a God who comes to us, and I am the ‘voice in the wilderness’ to prepare the way of the Lord’s coming.” In prophetic tradition John says:

  1. We have a God who comes to us in creation, “Do you not know, have you not heard , were you not told long ago, have you not perceived ever since the world began that God sits eternal…He stretches out the skies like a curtain…Lift up your eyes to the heavens; consider who created it all, led out their host one by one and called them all by their names.Through his great might, his might and power, not one is missing” Isaiah 40:21, 22, 26.  By the word of God’s power, all is brought into being and sustained.  By faithfulness of the created world, by its order and pattern, seasons and cycles, seed-time and harvest, by the miracle of conception and birth, God is coming to us, sustaining and helping us.
  2. Isaiah saw the coming of God in the international political events of his time.The Babylonian Empire had conquered Judah and carried her inhabitants into exile.  After Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar died, Cyrus defeated the Medes and Lydians and pressed on to overwhelm Babylon.  As Cyrus rose to power, he became the one to set the captives free and allowed them to return to their established homeland, encouraging them to set up their own government, to reestablish their economy, to rebuild their temple and to revitalize their religion. God came to them in a world leader not of their nation or religion.  If God has come to us in history, will God come to us in our materialistically stuffed but spiritually starved culture?  Will God say to a despairing world, “I have not forsaken you, I will raise up new Cyruses, I will renew the power of my living Christ in the world, and I will not leave you alone?  Is God working among us in peace negotiations, in new treaties, in disarmament talks, in new and better trade agreements?  In this Advent season, could God be saying to us in Isaiah’s words:  You who bring Zion good news, up with you to the mountaintop; lift up your voice and shout, you who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift it up fearlessly; cry to the cities of Judah.  “Your God is here.”  God will tend the flocks like a shepherd and gather them together with his arm, carry them and lead them to water (Isaiah 40:9-11).  We have a God who comes to us in the movements and events of history, who takes us in our weaknesses and sweeps us along in overwhelming streams of love and spirit outside our power and control.  God makes God’s purpose known defeating despair.  God enters into and breaks up stuffy religion, weak commitment and anemic devotion.  God executes judgment on institutions that are more concerned with their own preservation than with the people they are supposed to serve.  Look for a God whose Spirit is brooding over the depths of human wretchedness, whose seeing eye points out the rape and waste of the earth, whose penetrating word cuts into corporations and professions, exposing deceit, uncovering deception, executing judgment and whose heart cries out for victims of injustice like young children who are being beheaded by evil men.  God has eyes to see what is happening in our time.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  We have a God who comes to us.
  3. We have a God who is a deliverer and leader.In Jesus, we see God coming to us in humility.  We anticipate majesty and discover a servant.  We look for royalty and find someone close to peasantry.  We hope for grandeur and experience grace.  We desire the power for vengeance and are forgiven.  We long for a world leader who would lead us to world domination, and we find a world leader who leads us to world service.  Expecting his leadership in a war to end all wars, we hear the call to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks–farming implements to be used productively to sustain life.  Craving a conqueror to crush the opposition, we find a mighty counselor, and an advocate for peace.  We are boldly called to love our enemies.  Wishing a victor to vanquish the foe, we discover a victim who suffers in behalf of the foe. Anticipating violence, we find powerful love.  Expecting brutal force on God’s behalf, we are wrapped in the arms of forgiveness, acceptance, and inclusion.

We have a God who comes to u in Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.  In Jesus, all our theories, philosophies and wonderings about God are grounded and given concrete reality.  In Jesus, the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  With Jesus, God is not an ethereal dream or esoteric vapor, but a God who came to earth to put his body where his convictions are.  Jesus put his life on the line in obedience to God and service to humankind.  The very life and light of God shines through Jesus, illuminating and revitalizing all who are willing to come near him. In this time of Advent we celebrate and announce that we have a God who comes to us through Jesus.  Is God coming to you?  Will you recognize God in yoru presence?

Advent can be like a divine checkup with the Great Physician, who wants to keep us in continuing good health.  Advent proposes repentance, a change of loyalties and habits, a new openness to God’s presence in our midst.  God comes to us when we open ourselves to receive his care.  Our God encourages us to rejoice, to give thanks in every situation because God is our Advocate–right there to guide and protect us.  We wait for Christ to come again to intervene on our behalf.

Philips Brooks, author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” wrote:  “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.  No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.”  God, come to us in Jesus this Advent season.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Standing There

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Mark 13:24-37

Remember back to the days of your youth when dates for Friday and/or Saturday nights were really important?  On those occasions when you were feeling unusually bold and adventuresome, you might have even agreed to go on a blind date.  You gave your phone number and waited for the call.  When you received the call from mister or miss “right”, you set a date, time and place for the “big date”.  As you waited, you hoped that your date would arrive on time at the designated place.  Were you ever left waiting…just standing there?  Stood up?  It is an awful feeling of abandonment.

I can imagine followers of Jesus waiting patiently for him to return as he promised.  They knew that the Son of Man would come back and that all had better keep alert and be prepared for his arrival.  Scripture tells us that there will be signs to announce Jesus’ coming:  neither the sun or moon will offer light, all normal conditions will be suspended, angels will be sent out to gather the “elect” or chosen ones and they will be gathered from every corner of the universe. Jesus said that we cannot know exactly when the Son of Man will burst on the scene, but that we can watch for the telltale signs of his approach.  I do not know how many of you have ever had a fig tree in your yard, but a friend of Nancy’s used to have one outside her back door.  In the spring it would begin to bud and send forth new shoots.  As summer approached, the figs began to appear–like clockwork, every year.  The closest I had ever come to a fig tree was to eat Fig Newtons! I was delighted to discover how tasty figs really are when I tried some. All the gardener has to do is to remove the dried up branches and leaves, cultivate the plant, water and maybe fertilize it. It only takes a little attentiveness and common sense.  We are all capable of standing prepared, waiting for God to appear.  No one is privy to the Father’s timetable.  Jesus’ key advice to us remains constant—“Watch!”  Expect the unexpected while you wait.

How much time do we get, exactly? Will we know when our time of watching and waiting has just about expired, or will it sneak up on us, surprising us from behind, like a “thief in the night?”  When we hear people talking about the “end of the world,” what do they mean?  Did you wish that your absent date would meet his/her waterloo for not showing up?

Jesus questions the assumptions that people can know anything about the timing of the world’s finish.  He stated that he did not even know.  No one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, only the Father.  While Jesus doubted those who answer questions about end times saying, “Here!” he seems to confirm those who say, “Near!” declaring flatly that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

It has been many generations since Jesus’ time.  Anyone who has waited for a missing date or at the train station for two thousand years for a train that has not arrived, may be reasonably certain that it is not coming, at least not in the way we imagined it.  The Bible describes a world very different from our own world today, a world in which God is in command, despite all appearances to the contrary.  It is a world in which the completion of God’s creation will become apparent in God’s own time.  The kingdom Jesus came to proclaim is near in spite of the powerlessness, the disillusionment we may feel with our governing authorities, with processes like filling the United States Cabinet, or with the ascendance of world powers at odds with our own. In spite of all the anxieties we experience close to home, when a pelting rainstorm with hail or a blizzard down the road cancels our travel plans, when we stand by as our newly licensed child drives into the distance on their own behind the wheel for the first time, when the lab report arrives and confirms that we have cancer, God is still Lord of the universe, still God of his own creation, and still near to his people.

Jesus reminds us that just when things seem lost and out of our control, that is when we know that God is truly near to us.  The Kingdom of God is near–close at hand.  This is not a threat, but a promise; not an added cause for anxiety, but as an assurance that the outcome of all we do is ultimately NOT up to us.

The Greeks had two words for time: chronos (from which we derive chronology), the counting up of one day, one year after another, holding a myriad of possibilities.  The end of chronos  is of little concern to the biblical writers who cared not so much how the world began or will wind up as why.  We must look for the meaning of time in its kairos, in its decisiveness and our response to opportunities to decide.  Paul said, “at the right time Jesus died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:16).  He did not mean at that particular hour on that particular day in a particular year.  He meant that God’s mysterious plan for who we are and what we may be had moved to the decisive point when “Word made flesh” also made sense.

Because of Jesus’ ministry, we are spiritual people, out of time, living over and above and beyond clock-bound time, and as such, we are near the Kingdom of God, eternal time.  Near but not yet here because we live in two worlds at once. We are not fully in the kingdom of heaven as yet.  We have a way to go but we know it is real, as real as the world we live in every day of our lives.  We know about deadlines, schedules and time frames.  We know that we are at home beyond time, in kingdom time, in the eternity for which Christ fits us.  Are we standing there waiting for a date with our redeemer or are we working to bring the Kingdom of God close to reality?  We are still standing there waiting for God to appear.  Advent is the time of waiting for Christ to come again..in our hearts or in the flesh.  We wait.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Guest Speaker

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November 23, 2014 Velda King from Eve’s Place came to speak about the

work being done by that organization.  Each year the Presbyterian Women (PW) of First Presbyterian Church of Peoria invite a speaker to come and address a need in the community.  The church supports Eve’s Place as one of its missions and we were pleased to have Velda come and explain to us how our money, clothing items and various household items are given to help victims of abuse get a new start in life.  The programs of Eve’s Place assist victims of abuse (both women and men) reshape their lives and break the cycle of abuse.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Ready or Not?

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Matthew 25:1-13

Remember as a little kid that you used to play hide and seek, generally just before dark?  You depended on the fact that you would be partially covered by shadows and hoped that you would get home “free,” and nobody would catch you!  I read a little piece this week: “Absolute knowledge I have none, but my aunt’s washer woman’s sister’s son heard a policeman on his beat say to a laborer on the street that he had a letter just last week written in finest classical Greek, from a Chinese coolie in Timbuktu who said the Negroes in Cuba knew of a man in a Texas town who got it straight from a circus clown, that a man in the Klondike heard the news from a gang of South American Jews, about somebody in Borneo who heard a man claim to know of a well-digger named Jake, whose mother-in-law will undertake to prove that her seventh husband’s sister’s niece had stated in a printed piece that she had a son who has a friend who knows when the world is going to end.”  Whew!  What a sentence.  Really, now, will the game end favorably and will the world as we know it come to an end anytime soon?  What if Jesus were to return today?  Would any of us be ready?

Today’s text in Matthew 25 is a parable that Jesus told about a group of women who ran out of oil for their lamps.  What can that possibly mean to us today?  The parable speaks of wedding preparations.  Any of you who have planned a wedding or attended one recently know that there are a lot of preparations that need to be tended to before the wedding takes place.

There were no streetlights in Jesus’ time and ten ladies were chosen to be light bearers, to hold their lamps to light the way/path to the wedding and party to follow.  It was an honor to be asked to perform such a task.  Bridesmaids today do not have to worry about such menial details.

Jonah was asked to take his lamp and put it in a dark place called Ninevah. Amos, a shepherd, was asked to leave his quiet rural life and to get involved in the tumultuous affairs of prophecy and politics.  Mary, a young teen was asked to give birth to a son.  Saul, a Jewish rabbi and tentmaker, was asked to take the gospel to Europe.  God is still involving people in his work.  God asks us to take our lights and to put them in dark places.  The preschool class loves to sing “This Little Light of Mine” when they come to chapel.

God does not usually ask us to do important work alone.  In the text, ten women were asked to provide light.  God’s work today is still a community project.  We are called together to be light to the world.  All ten ladies agreed to serve and they even showed up for their task.  All were dressed alike and all had oil for their lamps.  The bridegroom was late and all succumbed to sleep after the busyness of their preparations.  Five used their preparation time to get extra oil–just in case…five did not.  Noah did not wait for rain to start building the ark.  David did not fight Goliath as his first foe, but had practiced for years on animals that threatened his flock.  We each are given resources and time to prepare for our tasks.

In the church God provides us with Bibles and Bible study, fellowship, and prayers. God prepares us for future tasks as he teaches us patience, obedience, faith and steadfastness.

Does our busyness with life exhaust us so much that we do not get much out of our worship experiences?  We need to consider that if we come to church fifty times per year and learn one new fact about God each Sunday, we will learn fifty facts of God in one year and in ten years, it will be five hundred.  If you attend Sunday school or Bible study, that number can triple and ad up over the years. Isaiah said, the word of God is “Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10).  It is the grace of God to us who will be called upon to place lights in dark places.  We have resources from God–even oil enough and extra for our lamps.  It is time to prepare!

Travelling to the Holy Land, I learned that when someone tells you that a wedding will take place on Friday at 8pm, that means sometime between Friday at 8pm and Saturday or Sunday, or even Monday night.  Friday at 8 means “In the next few days…”

The parable reminds us that those who are prepared have extra oil and they are rewarded by going into the wedding feast to celebrate.  Those who are unprepared have the door slammed in their faces.  What if the five prepared ladies had shared their oil and all had run out before the bridegroom came? There are some things you cannot share.  You cannot share character or courage or inner peace with someone in a crisis.  There is no crash course in prayer that can make up for years of missed application.  Just as Noah did not wait for the rain to fall before building the ark, we cannot wait for a crisis to build our faith and friendships and prayer life.  When the moment of reckoning, the final judgment comes and the bridegroom, Jesus, shows up, either you are ready or not.  The day will  come but will we all be ready?  Will we have enough oil in our lamps and be invited to the great feast with Jesus at the head of the table?

Amen.

 

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Building a Wall Against Waters

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Joshua 3:7-17

People have been standing at the edge of waters for thousands of years, just wondering what to do when they have tough decisions to make.  Three years ago a massive tsunami crashed into northeast Japan, causing enormous damage and destruction.  The Japanese government is building the biggest anti-tsunami barrier in history.  Some have begun to call it the Great Wall of Japan, which will eventually span 230 miles at a cost of $8 billion .  Some fear the seventeen foot wall will ruin seaports and tourism.  People are standing at the water’s edge, wondering what to do.

Years ago the people of Israel stood on the banks of the Jordan River, and like their ancestors on the edge of the Red Sea, they wondered how they might get across.  Moses was dead, so he could not lift his hand with his staff to part the waters.  God was with them and had promised their new leader, Joshua, that he would begin to exalt Joshua as the new leader and be with him, just as he had been with Moses.

Joshua, assured of God’s presence, instructed the Israelites to build a relationship, to “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God” (v.9).

1. Begin by listening, says Joshua.  Stand still and hear God’s words.  Fall into formation behind God, not march ahead of God.  This was demonstrated when the people set out from their tents following the priests, who bore the ark of the covenant, the symbol of the presence and power of the living God, moving ahead of the people.

We are challenged today to listen to God’s word and to follow where the living God leads us.  God wants to guide us on the path that is best for us, giving us words to maximize our health and happiness.  When Moses said to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” that meant that working seven days is not good for ourselves, our families, or our relationship with God.

The prophet Isaiah said to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow” (1:17).  We are to care for vulnerable people around us; that is at the heart of our faith.  Jesus said to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  In other words, destruction of rivals and opponents is unacceptable behavior for his disciples.  All of this is meant to help us, not to hurt us.  Keeping the Sabbath gives us time for rest and renewal. Caring for the poor makes our community a better place, and loving our enemies breaks the cycle of violence and revenge.  Draw near and hear the word of the Lord.

  1. Move forward one small step at a time.  Watch and wait for what God will do both for you and through you.  God’s help does not come in the form of 230 feet seawalls, rather in small acts of healing, protection and peace.  Think of the priests carrying the ark.  They just dipped their feet into the edge of the water, watching and waiting for God to act.  God’s response was to “move the waters into a heap and the people crossed over opposite Jericho” (v.6).  We dip our feet into water when we move forward one step at a time.  Martine Luther King said, “You don’t have to see the  whole staircase; just take the first step.”

In what ways are we asked to take the first step?  Maybe you have tension in a relationship with a friend or relative and need to pick up the phone to talk. Maybe a co-worker makes you uncomfortable and you could get to know them better over coffee.  Are their isolated individuals and families in your neighborhood?  God is leading you to pull people together–maybe a block party is in order.  If you take a step toward healing and peace, God will protect you.

  1. Keep your eyes on the future.  You cannot change the past, but you can be instrumental in building a future.  Just as the priests’ feet touched dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned and overflowed its banks, as before.  God’s wall against the water was not a permanent barrier; instead, it was a temporary seawall that allowed the Israelites to cross one time.  We are challenged to look to the future:

–if we are granted a physical healing, we give thanks and move forward, not expecting to face the illness again.

–if we receive the gift of forgiveness, we give thanks and move forward.  We do not beat ourselves up for our imperfections or allow ourselves to be consumed by regrets.

–if we receive a new job or a new opportunity, we give thanks and move forward.  We should not obsess over mistakes from the past or hold ourselves to an impossibly high standard.

God’s gifts are life-saving but transient.  They are like the flow of the Jordan River that stops for a moment and then returns.  Once you are on the other side safely, move forward into the land that God has promised you.  Do not be consumed by worry or regret.  When we face raging rivers, God throws up a wall. More often than not, God does this by reconfiguring the water itself, creating a change in the environment that enables us to escape whatever dangers we encounter.  God takes the circumstances that once seemed to impede our progress and reshapes those events in such a way that we are enabled to proceed–to move forward.  When the Israelites crossed the Jordan, the water was still there, but God had taken what seemed to be a barrier and turned it into a gateway–a door that allowed passing into the future God has designed for us all.

As we remember those who took steps to pave the way for our future, we know that they were led by God.  Our ancestors carved a way in the desert, diverted rivers with God’s help, and made the desert a productive place in which we live. Let us pray for all who have gone before us, led by God, to build a future that is now entrusted to us.  (Ask for names of loved ones who have passed away this year, and pray for those saints.)

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

God’s Party

Matthew 22:1-14

Looking at the most Jewish oriented of the gospels, we see a work traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples.  This text recounts the parable of the marriage feast similar to that in Luke 14:15-24, but Matthew 22:11-14 has no parallel in any of the other gospels.

The king is holding a wedding banquet in honor of his son.  As is the custom, he sends his servants to call those who have been invited to come to the feast that is ready.  But the guests hold the king’s invitation in low regard, which symbolizes Israel’s resistance to the first servants sent by the king, the Old Testament prophets.

The king then sends out “other” servants, representatives of “the way”–the early Christians.  They too, announce the arrival of the Great Banquet: “Behold!  I have made ready my dinner…come into the marriage feast. All is ready.” (salvation language or eschatology speaking of the kingdom of God having come into reality)  The son does not appear in this parable, because the son had been killed previously in the parable of the wicked tenants.  In this parable the son is alive. The story assumes that the son has been raised from the dead.  It is in his death and resurrection that “all is ready.”  This time, the invitees are called neglectful. They did not care about the king’s dinner.  One went to his farm, another went to his business.  Both went back to preserving and expanding their economic interests.

The “other servants” are seized, mistreated, and killed.  The king retaliates by sending soldiers who destroy the murderers and burn the city.  You do not get angry, start a war, and conquer a city all before the pot roast gets cold!

The king zeroed in on an inappropriately dressed guest.  The host must have supplied the wedding garments.  How could you expect people randomly gathered off the streets to have the proper clothes for a formal affair?  You do not leave for work in the morning with a tuxedo packed in your lunchbox on the off-chance that someone might drag you to a formal wedding party later in the day.

The wedding garment represents the death and resurrection of Jesus, the bridegroom.  The Great Banquet has been made possible by Jesus.  Anything other than the wedding garment of Christ’s death and resurrection is irrelevant. How can we relate this story to our lives?  Jesus put it to the chief priests and elders about God’s invitation to Israel to attend the wedding banquet of his Son.  They offered excuses and even executed God’s messengers.  God was trying to extend salvation to all–but some were– and are unwilling to accept–even today.

Let us look at God as the “Inviter.”  God is always inviting us to come to the water, come home, come to the banquet, come to an abundant life, come to eternal life, come to worship, come to God–be in relationship with God.  In the parable God was excited about the banquet–even prepared the fatted calf, aged the wine and elegantly set the tables.  God wants everyone to come to the feast to honor the Son and his bride.

What exactly is God inviting us to?  What is in the invitation?  God’s invitation is an invitation to service (Matthew 28:19), abundant life (John 10:10), worship (Psalm 100), eternal life (John 3:16), to enjoy Jesus’ presence (Revelation 3:20), to experience rest (Matthew 11:28), to pray (Philippians 4:6), and to turn to God in times of need (Jeremiah 33:3).

The “Invitees” are the people asked to the party, but maybe they do not like to dance (How about the “chicken dance” at weddings?).  Martin Marty talked about a priest who went to visit Mexico.  As each man approached the church, he opened the door for his wife or girlfriend and then gathered outside the church with the other men, who had done likewise.  They would smoke until their loved ones emerged.  The priest asked the men why they escorted the women to mass and then waited.  “You are Catholics, right?   Why don’t you go in?”  “We are not fanatics.”  Maybe that was the problem with those invited to the king’s banquet. They did not want to be considered fanatics.  Fanatic or not, the invitation goes to all in the realm.  Some reject the invitation, treating it casually.  Can’t you hear the king saying, “You are kidding, right?  What could be more important than an invitation to this event?”  As those who have been sent out to invite others to the wedding party, we need to understand that not all will welcome us–they do not want to be seen as fanatics.  Those who were invited from the streets may have been judged to be “unworthy.”  We need to remember that it is only by God’s grace and mercy that we are included amongst God’s guest list.

Invitees need to remember that they cannot come to the party dressed in their own clothes.  There is a “dress code.”  When we stand before God we need to be dressed in the garments of righteousness that do not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ himself. Paul reminds us that righteousness comes to us through faith in Christ.  The righteousness of God is based on faith (Philippians 3:9).

Let’s summarize:

  • God invites us in spite of our background.
  • God invites us without respect to our level of education.
  • God invites us without regard to our bank account.
  • God invites us without regard to our race, gender, or any other criteria.
  • God is building a future for us and a present time.
  • God invites us to a banquet, to be present in what God is doing.

We do not want to treat such an opportunity from God casually, indifferently or even with hostility.  We want to RSVP in the most rejoicing terms possible.  We want to say, “Yes, God, I accept your invitation.”

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Radical Honesty

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

When the text for the day includes the Ten Commandments, people have a tendency to think, “Oh boy, here it comes, expounding on ancient rules that are not applicable in our day and age.”  So…I have decided to talk about a touchy subject that does terrible damage to our relationship with God and neighbors:lying, most people lie for a variety of reasons/excuses.  A recent survey revealed that the truth is bent an average of 1.65 times per day.

We tell lubricating lies to keep the conversation moving, like “I am doing fine.” We tall logistical lies when we say, “I will be there soon.”  We tell charitable lies like , “Of course, that dress, bathing suit or pair of jeans does not make you look fat.”

Have you seen the GEICO commercial in which Abe Lincoln’s honesty is tested when Mary Todd Lincoln stands in front of him and asks, “Does this dress make my backside look big?”  Being honest, Abe answers truthfully and his wife stomps off in a huff.

A postal carrier appeared on The Price Is Right, raised her arms, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin–after she had filed for workers’ compensation, saying that she had been injured on the job and was unable to stand, reach and grasp as part of her job skills…skills that she demonstrated quite well on The Price Is Right.  The game show caught her in her lie, as did the pictures posted on Facebook showing her riding a zip line on a Carnival cruise.  She was indicted in federal court for worker’s compensation fraud and pleaded guilty.  We may not tell big lies that land us in court, but we are not always as truthful as Honest Abe in the GEICO advertisement.

Harris, a neuroscientist and prominent atheist, believes we should never lie, that we can radically simplify our lives and improve society by simply telling the truth.  “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  Even when we tell “white lies”, which we tell for the purpose of sparing people discomfort, these are the lies that most often tempt us because they seduce us into thinking that we are being good people when we tell them.  Adultery, financial fraud, government corruption– are all connected to a willingness to lie.

God told Moses to tell the people of Israel, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  God is saying that people should not distort reality, especially in court!  The truth should not be twisted to serve our own interests, or to advance political agendas (the election season is here).  Propaganda should never be used to distort the truth.  Truth-telling supports the vitality of the entire community. Honesty should always be radical–in the sense of being at the center of our life together.

Harris says that lying is the intentional misleading of others when they expect honest communication.  All forms of lying, including “white lies” meant to spare the feelings of others are associated with less satisfying relationships. Simply put:  tell the truth!  If you really love the people around you, do not hide information that would help them to make changes and improve their lives.  Do not encourage them to keep walking in directions that will hurt or disappoint them.

Does that mean that a person is obligated to be truthful in every situation?  What if a known murderer is standing at your front door ( you have seen his picture on the “wanted” posters in the post office and at Wal-mart), looking for a child you are hiding in your house?  He asks you if you have seen the child, his intended victim.  Do you have to say, “Yes”?  Would it be wrong to say, “He just ran by and is headed down the street”?  It is tempting to lie to protect an innocent life, butwhy not say, “I would not tell you under any circumstances.  Take another step and I will dial 911.”  That is no lie!  It is important to testify accurately in court and it is so much easier to keep your story straight when you tell the truth.  A liar has to keep track of his lies and that can become a lot of work.  Think of the Jody Arias trial and all the confusing testimonies.

Truth is easy and lies are a lot of work.  Lying affects our relationships and makes it easy to violate most of the other Ten Commandments.  Lying can affect our relationship with God, because God wants to have an open and honest relationship with us.  The first four Commandments deal with our relationship with God and the last six help us to deal with each other.  Honesty is at the heart of our relationship with God, just as it is at the core of our connections to people around us.  Who was taught, “Honesty is the best policy?”

There is an old story about a minister walking down the street and he came upon a group of boys arguing.  They had surrounded a dog and the minister asked, “What are you doing with that dog?”  One boy said, “This is an old neighborhood stray and we all want him, but only one of us can take him home.  We have decided that whichever one of us can tell the biggest lie will get to keep the dog.”  The minister was taken aback and exclaimed, “You boys should not be having a lying contest.  Lying is a sin!  When I was your age, I never told a lie.” There was dead silence and the smallest boy gave a sigh and said, “All right, give him the dog.”

The command to love God in the Old Testament ( “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:5) is remarkably similar to the Great Commandment  of Jesus in the New Testament (“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” John 13:34), and can only hold up if we are willing to be honest with God and the people around us with whom we share our life together.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

A New Way to Follow Jesus

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Matthew 21:23-32

You sports fans will remember the great football coach of the 1960s, Vince Lombardi. He had a saying about giving up: “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” That sounds good at first, but if you think about it, history has proved that many winners have quit. Quitting is an essential part of following Christ into a deeper and more loving relationship with God.

Matthew tells us that Jesus left Nazareth (Matthew 13:57, “a prophet is without honor in his own house”), he quit and moved on and made his home in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, where he began his ministry. Simon Peter and Andrew quit fishing to follow Jesus and Saul quit breathing threats to commit murder against the disciples of the Lord, and became an ardent apostle (Greek=a person sent out).

Quitting has been going on for a long time. Abraham Lincoln quit being a general store owner to enter politics. Julia Child quit being a CIA intelligence officer and became a world famous cook. Harrison Ford quit being a professional carpenter when he was offered a part in a little “far-fetched” movie called “Star Wars.” “Grandma Moses” quit selling potato chips and began to paint at 80 years old. Clearly, quitter can sometimes win when they discover the benefit of giving up: an opportunity to start off in a new direction: making a new commitment.

In today’s parable of two sons, Jesus tells a story to the chief priests and the elders of the people. I can picture the synagogue where he probably spoke–not far from Peter’s house beside the Seas of Galilee. You can see Peter’s house from the synagogue. A man with a vineyard depended upon the assistance of his two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The son already had plans and responded, “I will not.” But he later changed his mind, quit what he was doing and went out to work in the vineyard. The father also went to the second son, made the same request, and the second son answered, “Sure!” He seems like a winner having given an enthusiastic response but he failed to go out and work in the vineyard.

Jesus asked, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” We ask ourselves, “Which is the real winner?” The chief priests and elders immediately responded, “The first!” They understood that the son who quit what he was doing to go out to work in the vineyard was the real winner. This sounds like a first century reality show. “Truly I tell you, ” says Jesus to the religious leaders, “tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” I will wager that statement was a blow to the pretentious, haughty leaders who snorted in derision at Jesus and puzzled over how those kind of people could be winners.

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him,” explains Jesus, “but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him” (v.32). These folks saw the truth in what John was saying and they discovered exactly what they needed to do. But the chief priests and elders did not change their minds and believe him. So…when do we know when it is time to give up?

Hint #1: You heart is not in it. A man talked about his son pursuing martial arts for a couple of years and had advanced rapidly. HIs father was disturbed when the son told him, “At some point I will get bored and quit.” The father predicted that he would still support his son because he believed that one of the most important life skills you can teach your child is to quit. If you are going to try something else, you have to be ready to quit whatever it is you are doing before that “something else” appears on the scene.

Hint #2: You cannot see the path forward. When Jesus comes into the temple, the officials approach him and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? Jesus senses they are trying to trap him and he answers their question with a question: (It was like dealing with kids, you have to be one step ahead of them all the time!) “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The priests and elders argued amongst themselves and they deduced that they were trapped, so they answered, “We do not know.” They needed to rethink their direction and to consider the truth of what Jesus was teaching. Instead of changing their course (The Road Not Taken”), they remained stuck on the path they were on, one that lead them to plot the death of Jesus. Deadlock.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear; though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same, and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Jesus refuses to answer their questions because they do not answer his questions about authority. They have to quit what they are doing in order to discover that Jesus does have authority–authority to teach, to heal and even to forgive sins.

Hint #3: You have been avoiding what God wants you to do. The first son in the parable declines his father’s request to work in the vineyard, but he dropped his resistance, changed his mind and went out to work in the vineyard. We face the same challenge and do not always receive completely clear guidance about how to work in God’s vineyard. Christians have struggled throughout history to discern what God wants them to do. Some of the best techniques come from Ignatius Loyola.

1.)Clarify the goal of your life to have a loving relationship with God. Each choice should move us closer to God: start a business, go back to school, get married, change jobs. Follow Christ into a deeper and more loving relationship with God.

2.)tackle the complexities of decision making. Figure out how to avoid God and how to begin working in God’s vineyard. List the pros and cons of activities, ask friends what they think, and pray and see if God give you greater clarity about your choice. Sometimes we live in restlessness as God pushes us in a new direction and sometimes we feel a sense of peace, only to discover our serenity is laziness in disguise. Ignatius wants us to continue examining our decisions and to make choices that increase the feelings of faith, hope and love within ourselves.

Hint #4: We are in a position to change our lives for the better. If we feel that we are avoiding what God want us to do, we need to stop what we are doing, clarify our goals and define what it means to have a loving relationship with God.

What changes do we need to make to start using our time and talents as workers in God’s vineyard? We need to listen to the movement of God’s Spirit within us and make choices that will increase our faith, hope and love.

By quitting and travelling “The Road Not Taken” we might, in fact, be winners. It is a win-win when we choose to follow Jesus and move into a closer relationship with God. Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Message Delivered on September 21, 2014 – Matthew 20:1-16

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By Elder John Guy

This morning we read from Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1 through 16, in which we learned about generosity, and whether or not we all suffer from the human frailty of jealousy and a lack of appreciation of our blessings. When I first began working at the Maricopa County Sherriff’s office ten years ago, I was one of a bunch of new-hires, who had been selected after the sherriff’s office decided to upgrade their staff. We were all college educated with specific majors that would relate to our jobs at the sheriff’s office, and when we were hired we were paid commensurate with our education and training. Unfortunately, the veterans who worked in this office and had been there five to ten years, did not have college degrees as a whole, and when we were hired we were paid the same amount of money as those employees who had worked five or more years. Needless to say, we were shunned for about the first three months until the county caught up with the pay inequities and adjusted their pay, so that again, they were making more than—or at least—the same as we were. Now, it was not our fault that we had more education but in the end, we suffered because we were being paid the same as they were—and they had been there much longer than we had.

This is exactly like the parable in Matthew and it illustrates that although we can be generous, we also are always looking at our neighbor’s new car or house and wondering why we were not blessed at the same level.

I drive down Grand Avenue in my car with my air-conditioning on and it is a car that is fully paid for and extremely efficient. I will pass a person, usually one of color, wearing raggedy clothes, pushing a shopping cart and carrying all of their earthly possessions on them. And every time I see a person like that I wonder how I would feel had I been born into that station. Because, in reality, I was born into a family who loved me and proviced me the very best in education and career opportunities, and so I was able to sit in a nice car with the air-conditioning running while that poor, unfortunate soul was pushing a shopping cart across Grand Avenue. It made me think how blessed I am with thematerial things that have been provided to me by God, and the lack of those very same things that were provided to the man pushing a shopping cart. Although I am blessed, how often do I then take those blessings and pass them along to someone less fortunate? As Matthew says in the text, “So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.” And the meaning is that although you may have many of God’s blessings, it does not necessarily put you at the front of the line when it comes time to pass between the Pearly Gates. Always remember the man on the cross next to Jesus—the common thief—who was received into heaven as quickly as someone who would have been faithful for years. Because in the end, God does not separate those who come to him at the very last, from those who have come to him from birth. Be generous without fault and keep those who do not have the abundant blessings that you have in your prayers and your deeds.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Message Delivered on September 14, 2014 – Romans 14:1-12

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One of my favorite billboard ads is the cow climbing the ladder to erect a sign, “Eat more chik-in.” Of course, it is an ad to draw people away from burger joints like McDonalds, Burger King, Jack-in-the-Box, and others. I suppose we can think of that competition as a “food fight.” Food fights are nothing new. The apostle Paul stepped into the midst of one as he was writing his letter to the Roman Christians. Instead of a battle between those who preferred chicken to beef, the fight was about judging people. The battle lines were drawn when Paul wrote, “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only veggies” (v.2). I had overlooked a vegan preference that existed many years ago. Those were fighting words in the first century and remain so today.

Can you imagine an announcement being made in worship before the beginning of an all-church potluck luncheon, “When you enter the Fellowship Hall, those who are strong in faith will put their meat and potato dishes to the left while those who are weak in faith will put their vegetarian dishes to the right?” Thank God, that would not happen here! It could have the potential for a food fight unlike any of those seen in the elementary school or high school cafeterias. Instead of throwing food, people would pick up their dishes and promptly head out, feeling I am not welcome here. What kind of hospitality is shown in this place? Hrr-umph! Off they would go and I would be right behind them.

With Paul, he did not really take a stand on whether a person should eat meat. He would no doubt consider himself strong in faith and able to eat anything. So…his personal conviction is that there are no food restrictions in the Kingdom of God. But his point to the Romans is: meat eaters should withhold judgment toward those who are vegetarians and vegans should welcome carnivores. “Those who eat must not form opinions about those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat.” Do not argue about how to slice the roast or dice the cucumbers.

We live in a world in which people are challenging each other all the time: pro-gun vs. no gun, liberals vs. conservatives, Fox News vs. MSNBC, Cardinals vs. Steelers or Diamondbacks vs. Mariners. Our polarized nation/state is full of groups constantly criticizing each other. Into a similarly divided Roman church, Paul wrote, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. “Focus on welcoming, instead of judging.” Put your energy into connecting instead of quarreling, leading to driving people away. My dad used to tell me that a church is a hospital for sinners and we are all sinners, having fallen short–we all need God in our lives and ought to be willing to share God’s love and forgiveness. Why should we do this? Because God has done it, that’s why! “For God has welcomed them” (v.3). End of story. It sounds simple on paper, but in reality, it is so hard.

Our challenge as Christians is to discern how we can live in a community of faith with those who are different from ourselves, even those we consider to be “weak in faith.” For starters: 1. Make a conscientious decision to let Jesus be the judge. “Who are we to pass judgment on servants of another?” asks Paul. In the first century servants were judged by their personal lords and masters, not by other servants. Let Jesus take care of passing judgment. This is tough for us because we like to respond when someone hits us with an opinion that we find objectionable. It’s hard to hold our tongues when a fellow Christian makes a claim that seems so wrong to us theologically, ethically, biblically and/or spiritually. 2. Paul reminds us that we will all stand or fall before Jesus, as he is in charge. Every Christian will be upheld in the resurrection by the power of their relationship with Jesus their Lord. “We don’t live to ourselves, nor die to ourselves. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

Christians rightfully have opinions but when they encounter those in the faith of a divergent point of view, they/we must be very careful before we characterize them as immature in their faith or even outside the family of God. God wants there to be a certain amount of diversity within the faith community. The overarching narrative of the Bible is a story of ever-increasing inclusiveness, beginning with the marriage of Boaz of Bethlehem to a Moabite woman named Ruth–a foreigner who ends up being the great-grandma to Kind David, of the house and lineage of David, the family line of Jesus. It continues with God’s call for cultural barriers to fall and for people of all nations and tribes (nationalities) to be part of a “house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56). This movement accelerates when Jesus begins his loving and gracious ministry to tax collectors, and sinners, and when Paul takes the gospel to the Gentiles. How dare they break the hospitality rules and traditions of their families?

Paul is concerned that all people can be at peace with their own personal understanding. Neither eating or abstaining is a superior practice for Christians, because both can be done “in honor of the Lord” (v.6). A diversity of perspectives and practices can be embraced by the Christian faith, as long as everything brings honor to Jesus Christ. The Larger Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief and highest end of man? Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Nancy had a friend who had a tie throwing pastor. We had an occasion to attend a Wednesday night prayer meeting and I sat at the sound mixer with the young man. I asked him why the pastor did that? How did such an action show glory to God? The congregation even presented the pastor with a plaque to the “best tie throwing pastor ever” and wrapped the plaque with a new tie…in a bow. The young man was very uncomfortable with the activity I had witnessed and asked if he could come to church with us some Sunday. He came and saw no “tie throwing.” He asked questions throughout the service of worship and I answered them. He said that worship finally made sense to him: prayers, scripture, sermon, hymns — all shared to glorify God as described in Acts 2.

Paul tells us , “Think about how your own acts of judgment will look on the Day of Judgment.” Jesus said, “You will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Jesus is telling us that we will receive exactly what we offer others in terms of judgment and condemnation. The way to prepare for Judgment Day is to treat others exactly like you want to be treated, replacing condemnation with forgiveness. Where have we heard that before? (The Golden Rule–Matthew 7:12).

We need to focus on welcoming others, showing Christian hospitality. All of our words and actions should be done “in honor of the Lord,” and should strengthen our relationship with Christ. In the end, our goal is to build a community that fits the vision of the Book of Revelation, in which there is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9). Our goal is to be thankful that we belong to Jesus, the Lamb of God. There will be no controversy over food, only worship of the one who is the Lord of the dead and the living, liberals and conservatives, strong and weak. Our incompatibilities and objections will be replaced by praise. Jesus is hospitable to all and welcomes them with open arms. As the body of Christ, we are to do the same.

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon