For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
-Romans 12:4-5

Monday, November 11, 2013

Submission - Let's Go There

Ephesians  5:8-21

            Vandy and I are currently reading a book together called “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans.  Rachel took a year and examined different aspects of what some American evangelical Christians would describe as being the biblical ideal for women.  She decided to do this because she realized all the mixed messages she was getting about what a Christian woman should be and do.  For example, her church taught that women should not have authority over a man so women should not preach from the pulpit because this was a violation of Paul’s instructions to Timothy in 1 Tim. 2:12.  But her church would consider conservative Mennonite women to be legalistic for covering their heads even though Paul says in I Cor. 11:5 that that should also be practiced in the church.  So Rachel wanted to gain understanding into why some things were emphasized as essential to church practice and others were not.  It’s a very thought provoking book.
            It raises some interesting questions about why there are certain things in the Bible that we don’t follow today and why there are things in the Bible that seem contradictory.  We can see some of this contradiction in Ephesians.  There is this beautiful description of the Church as the Body of Christ, where there is no division because Christ has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility and brought peace between God and humanity and between Jew and Gentile.  There are no insiders and outsiders in the Body of Christ, for “through Christ we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”  So there are no foreigners and aliens but all are fellow citizens and members of God’s household (2:14-20).  In chapter 4 Paul exhorts his readers to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace because there is one Body and one Spirit and we’ve all received one baptism and have one Lord.  Yet in this unity, there is also diversity as God has gifted the members of the Body with different gifts and abilities.  These are given for the good of all that the entire body might grow and mature and reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God and become mature.  (chapter 4).  So he’s teaching that we all have a place in the Body of Christ, we all are necessary to it, we all have gifts that are needed and useful to the Body and we are all growing together, supporting each other, towards maturity in the faith. 
            In the passage we read this morning, Paul is encouraging his listeners to live faithfully as children of the light, doing those things that please the Lord, not having anything to do with those things that are of the dark because they aren’t in the dark anymore.  They are now in the light.  He means don’t practice those things that are contrary to the kingdom of God anymore.  In chapter 4 and into chapter 5 he had listed some of those things such as harboring bitterness, rage and anger, slandering others, fighting with others, stealing, lying, being greedy, impure or immoral.  These are not the things that bring glory and honor to God so make sure such things as these are not a part of your life, is what he is saying. 
            In Eph. 5:15 Paul tells the reader to be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.  …Understand what the Lord’s will is…be filled with the Spirit.”  He’s saying we are to devote ourselves daily to seeking the Lord’s will, to be living in the power of the Holy Spirit.  If we are going to avoid the evil around us in the world, we need God’s help.  Only He can truly give us the power to overcome evil, both the evil that exists in our own sin nature and the evil that lurks in the world and would love nothing better than to destroy God’s people. 
            I made a commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ when I was 16 years old.  Since that time I’ve experienced how easy it is to fall prey to evil.  You think you’re doing good and suddenly something sets your temper off.  Or you start questioning someone’s motives and thinking bad about them.  Or you find yourself in a situation of need and you’re tempted to do something about it that you know is against God’s laws.  We are all fallible and it takes staying connected to God’s Spirit and to God’s people to keep on track and continue to grow.  This is what Paul is encouraging the Ephesians to do.  He tells them to speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, to encourage each other and instruct each other with scripture.  To worship God and give thanks.  These things help us remember what God has done and is doing.  Thankfulness helps us to keep from falling into despair as we remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness and love.  It’s all good stuff.
            But then in 5:22 Paul tells wives that they are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the body.  Suddenly we are no longer in the context of relationships of equality and mutuality in the Body of Christ, where we are all supporting one another and encouraging one another as we grow together, but are in a context of hierarchy with the wife being told to take a subordinate position to her husband.  As we go on into chapter 6 Paul continues in this vein telling children to obey their parents in the Lord and to honor them and telling slaves to obey their masters with respect, fear and sincerity of heart, just as they would obey Christ.  Here we can see very clear divisions in relationships in contrast to Paul’s earlier writings that we are all members of one household, no longer foreigners and aliens divided from one another, but fellow citizens together, members of one body.  It’s confusing.  It seems like 2 different messages. 
            In the Church today, the confusion continues.  Some churches, like the one Rachel Held Evans grew up in, hold to the view that women submit to men and therefore cannot lead in the church.  Other churches say that this teaching doesn’t apply to women in the church, that it is a teaching for husbands and wives and as long as a husband allows it, a woman can lead in the church.  Others would say leadership in the church is about who God is gifting and calling and that could be a man or a woman and whoever God is gifting and calling should be allowed to lead or teach or whatever.  Paul really doesn’t help us gain any clarity into how this should be applied because in this book and in Colossians, he has these instructions for submission in the household.  Yet in his other writings he affirms women leaders in the church, including mentioning a woman named Junia whom he said was outstanding among the apostles (Rom. 16:7).  And he writes in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  There doesn’t seem to be any indication of hierarchy of relationships in that verse. 
As far as the teaching about slaves and masters goes, Paul, in his letter to Philemon, actually is advocating for freedom for the slave Onesimus.  He writes “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love…I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains…I am sending him back to you.  I would have liked to keep him with me…But I did not want to do anything without your consent…Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.  He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”  He’s clearly telling Philemon that the relationship of slave/master is no more and now they are brothers in the Lord.
So what are we to make of all this?  Let’s go back to Ephesians 5:21.  Before Paul gets into his instructions about husbands and wives he writes “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  That word submit is a military term meaning to arrange the troops in a military fashion under the command of a leader.  In non-military usage, it meant a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden.  So Paul is telling the believers at Ephesus to not be stubborn and insist on one’s own way all the time but rather work together, cooperate, assume responsibility for one another and carry each other’s burdens.  In this way, the church will work harmoniously and grow. 
But then he includes something called the household codes.  These were codes of behavior that were followed by households in Roman culture. They gave absolute authority to the male head of the household.  They prescribed how life would be lived in Roman culture by giving men total authority over their wives, children and slaves.  The difference is that Paul, in his instructions, commands the men to love their wives and treat them well, even as they love their own bodies and take care of them. They are not to exasperate their children but train them in the Lord, and they are to treat their slaves well, not threatening them.  The Roman household codes didn’t put any restrictions on men at all, while Paul does put restrictions on them.  But still this doesn’t seem to fit in with what Paul’s been advocating earlier about mutual relationships. 
To be honest, I don’t know why Paul includes this in his letter.  Greater minds than mine argue over Paul’s teachings about submission and can’t come to an agreement, so I don’t feel too bad. The best I can come up with is that he’s telling his Gentile readers who live in Roman culture that, if they are going to follow the Roman household codes, then it has to be transformed by the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  That means that men have a responsibility to their wives, children and slaves.  It doesn’t just go one way.  But I don’t think this is the ideal for the Body of Christ.  So I went further back to the creation account to see what God’s original intent was for human relationships.
When we go back to the creation account and read in Genesis 2 where God decides to make woman, we read that God says “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”  There was no suitable helper for Adam to be found among the animals.  So God caused him to fall asleep, took one of his ribs and made a woman from it and brought her to Adam.  When he saw her Adam said “ This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.’  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”   
Adam needed someone suitable to him, someone who corresponded to him, who literally “went in front of” him or matched him.  And this person was give help or aid or support.  So Adam needed something that Eve provided.  The idea is of two things of equal strength but different abilities that match and make a whole.  Now please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying.  I’m not saying a single person isn’t whole and you need a mate to be whole.  I’m saying in the original male/female relationship the dynamic was to be a team and part of what that particular team needed to do was be fruitful and multiply so, yes, they had to be one male and one female.
But to bring this idea back into the context of relationships within the Body of Christ and into the context of Christian households, I think this idea of relationships being like a team is very valid and fits with the model of the Body of Christ.  In a team, people work together and strengths and weaknesses are balanced out.  The focus isn’t on one person alone.  All work together to reach a common goal.  This is what Paul has been teaching all along in this letter to the Ephesians.  The goal is maturity in Christ and all are exhorted to work together, to use their gifts, to encourage one another, to speak to each other in psalms and hymns, to guard against those things that destroy unity.  The same goal is there in household relationships.  The relationship between spouses should be that of a team with the goal of both growing in maturity in Christ.  It’s not about one being lifted up higher than the other but rather about both respecting and honoring the other and both using their strengths for the good of the household.  In relationships between parents and children the goal is growth and maturity in Christ, not having the last word or putting pressure on our kids to succeed in one area or another.  What difference would it make in our relationships with our children if we were more intentional about talking about the strengths they bring to the family system and their value to the family, then we did talking about their weaknesses or areas where they need to improve? 
What really stands out to me in looking at these household codes in Ephesians is that relationships can’t be about power.  There is one Lord, one Father, one Savior, one Spirit and none of us are that one.  The issue of power has been settled.  We all live under the power and authority of Christ, whether we be male or female, child or adult, master or servant.  So the real issue of submission is to submit first to the authority and Lordship of Christ and then to one another.  Remember submission is defined as a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility and carrying a burden.  We cooperate with one another in our family relationships.  We assume responsibility for one another, looking out for one another, protecting one another.  We carry each other’s burdens, adding our strength where the other is weak.  And we allow others to carry our burdens as well. 
If we want strong families, strong friendships, strong churches, we need to have a good understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ and how this works in all these areas of relationship.  Last week at the women’s retreat we began a conversation about the strengths of women’s voices, the necessity of having our voices heard in the community of faith, in our homes, in our workplaces.  We talked about why our voices are silent and what it would take to have them heard again.  And we recognized the affirmation we have received from men and women in our lives.  We need to support and encourage each other as we grow together. 
As we conclude this sermon series on the Body of Christ, I think it is important that we commit ourselves to living as the Body.  We need each other, we need the support we gain from one another.  We can’t let ourselves be divided in our congregation or in our homes.  Last week Pastor Leonard preached about standing together and he used the illustration of the Redwood trees, whose root systems are intertwined.  This is what helps to make them strong.  We as believers in Christ have to grow like that.  We have to draw close so that our root systems can intertwine and give us all strength.  This past Wednesday as we prayed together at noon prayer, one of the things I found myself praying for was that those in our congregation who feel like they are on the outside would be drawn in and feel welcomed and a part of this fellowship; that there would be no foreigners or strangers among us.  We are all one people in Jesus Christ and we want to commit ourselves to continue to grow in unity and in strength.

I’ll invite the worship team to come forward now and lead us in our closing worship song.  As we worship, let’s commit ourselves to continue to grow together, to do the hard work of maintaining healthy relationships both in the congregation and in our homes, and to open ourselves up to continue to welcome others into our circles of relationships, and to grow to maturity in Christ.  Let’s pray.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Body Speaks

The Body Speaks
10/20/13 OCMC
Eph. 4:1-6, 22-32

This sermon began with a demonstration.  I had two people join me and we were tied together at the wrist, one person's left arm tied to my right arm, one person's right arm tied to my left.  Then we tried to work together as one body.

            The bonds that tie us together as believers in Jesus Christ are spiritual bonds, not physical.  We are united in our belief in the One True God, in our faith and submission to the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior and our Lord, and in our baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ.  We follow the leading of one Spirit and we participate in the one Kingdom of God.  But we each have different parts to play.  We each have our own strengths and weaknesses, our own gifts, talents and passions.  And it takes each one of us doing our part under the direction of the One Lord for the Body of Christ to be effective in this world.  We don’t all do the same thing.  Last week Pastor Leonard preached about the different gifts that are part of the Body and he spoke about how, early in his tenure here at OCMC he prayed that God would send him people with different abilities and gifts and God said “You have all you need right here, right now.”  But he didn’t believe it.  You see Pastor Leonard, like the rest of us who were a part of OCMC at that time, wanted to get to the end result of seeing the Body mature and growing and functioning well.  We wanted to see the neighborhood transformed and wonderful things happening right then.  We had the raw ingredients among us but they needed to be put together and cook awhile before we could enjoy the meal.  And I would say, we’ve had a taste of what’s cooking but the meal is still in the oven.
            We are still growing.  People with gifts and abilities are still coming and joining with us.  Vision is still being developed.  We still have a lot of work to do and it does take all of us working together to keep the mission of this congregation going forward.  And Paul’s words to the Ephesians in chapter 4 give us some good instructions on how to go about growing and living and working together.  Beginning in verse 22, we are reminded that, as people who profess faith in Jesus Christ, we have entered into a new life.  Our former way of life is described here as being old and worn out.  It’s like a piece of clothing that we’ve worn forever and it’s ragged and dirty and threadbare and needs to be thrown out.  We can’t wear it any more.  We need to put off our old way of life because it’s been corrupted by evil, by desires for what is forbidden by God.  Instead we are to put on the new self which, rather than being corrupted, is actually patterned after God.  We are to be made new in the attitude of our minds.  We are to think differently, to have a change in world view.  We are to see through the eyes of God now, to think as He thinks, to view the world as He views it.  Our new self which is patterned after God or created to be like God, is fresh, unworn, unused.  It is a new self of righteousness and holiness and conforms to the truth that is found in Jesus Christ.
            Paul is using action words in this chapter.  He’s telling us to take specific action, to put off the old and put on the new so that our lives will conform to the pattern of the righteousness and holiness of God.  If our lives don’t look like Jesus, if they aren’t conforming to this pattern, it probably means we still have some old to take off and some new to put on.  I don’t know how many of you watch makeover shows on TV but what Paul is talking about is like a spiritual makeover.  If we think of a show like The Biggest Loser, where people are trying to lose a hundred pounds or more, it can help us understand what he’s talking about.  On the Biggest Loser, people have to stop doing things the old way and do things in a new way.  They have to stop eating the old way and eat in a new healthy way.  They have to stop being inactive and start exercising regularly.  They have to stop believing they can’t change and start believing they can.  Then, over the weeks, as they consistently stop the old and enact the new, change happens in their bodies and they lose weight.  At the end of the season, they look like new people.  The same thing happens to us spiritually as we renew our minds with the truth of God’s word, as we stop following old habits that are corrupted by evil, and as we begin doing those things that originate in righteousness and holiness, as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and rely on His strength and power, we become new creations and we end up looking like Jesus.  It’s hard work, just as it’s hard work to lose weight.  But that’s how it’s done.
            Paul says we are to put off falsehood, deception, lying and instead speak according to the truth.  We are to be free of pretense and deceit in our interactions with others.  If I had said to my helpers this morning that we were going to walk to the left and then I turned to the right, that’s lying and the result is confusion.  They won’t know which way to go and we won’t get anywhere.  That’s how it is in the Body of Christ.  We are bound together and we need to be truthful with each other so as not to cause confusion.  There is a way to speak truth though.
            Paul goes on in verses 26 and 27 to talk about anger and he warns us not to let our anger lead to sin.  We need to stay on the path of uprightness and honor even if we are angry.  We need to seek to resolve things quickly, not letting conflicts or problems go on and on because they will just get worse.  We have a spiritual enemy who will take every opportunity to destroy us.  We should not give him any opportunity to act against us.  The word devil here means slanderer or accuser.  How many times when we are angry are we quick to believe the worst about the person we are angry with?  I know there are times I get angry with Vandy and I’ll find myself thinking all kinds of bad things about him and then I have to get on myself because I’ve given in to the accuser who is trying to destroy my relationship with my spouse.  Maybe you’re thinking, well you have a right to be angry and yes I do.  Paul isn’t telling us we don’t have the right to be angry.  But I don’t have the right to let my anger lead to accusations and slander and a tearing down of the relationship.  That’s the difference.  My anger can’t distort the truth.
            We are to speak truth to one another, truth that is not tainted by slander and accusations that come from the devil.  The truth needs to be spoken in love.  In verse 29, Paul tells us to not let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths but only what is helpful for building up and promoting growth in the other, according to their needs.  Truth may be hurtful at times, but it shouldn’t cause the other person harm.  If truth is spoken in love, it won’t seek to harm or do damage to the other person.  Instead it will seek to heal and to promote growth.  Unwholesome talk is anything that is corrupted by evil.  Paul uses the same language he uses in describing the old self.  Don’t talk in ways that are corrupt and lead to death.  We have to think about the words we use sometimes.  And not just the words themselves but how they are being said.  If anger, condescension, judgment and other such negative emotions come through our words, the message is probably not going to communicate love and promote growth and unity.  Instead it can cause hurt and division. 
            So again in verse 30 Paul tells us to get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling or arguing, slander and malice.  These things are not helpful.  They don’t help us grow.  Instead, if left to fester, they will divide and destroy relationships.  The Body of Christ exists in relationship as the members are joined together to the head, who is Christ, and to each other.  We have to get along.  My helpers and I this morning found out how hard it can be to try to do something without any anger or malice in the equation.  How much worse is it when we are dealing with all these negative emotions as well?
            The corruption of the old life must be put away.  We think of this most often in terms of our individual lives.  It’s not good for my own spiritual growth if I hold on to anger or malice or if I’m lying to people.  But it’s also not good for the Body of Christ.  Nothing we do as people is in a vacuum anymore once we become believers in Jesus Christ.  The health of my marriage has an effect on you just as the health of yours has an effect on me.  The health of your prayer life has an effect on me just as the health of mine has an effect on you.  We are joined together in the body of Christ.  If you aren’t growing spiritually, it can cause me problems too.  We don’t think of this though.  We tend to think our spiritual lives are our own business between us and God and don’t affect anyone else around us but that’s not good theology.  Why do you think Paul went to such lengths to give specific instructions for living in this letter?  Because we are bound together and what one does affects the whole.
            When my helpers and I were tied together, every move one of us made affected the others.  So it is in the body of Christ.  The bonds of faith join us together so that the movements of one affect the others.  In chapter 5 Paul goes on to write to the Ephesians that there should not be even a hint of sexual immorality among them.  Our culture tells us that our sex lives are private and what happens between 2 consensual adults has no effect on anyone.  Yet looking at our own society how much are we affected by the sexual mores of others?  We can’t listen to popular music, watch a movie or TV show, see an advertisement without being bombarded with someone’s sexual mores.  It has an effect.  And if sex is so private, why is it on every billboard in America?  And why does pornography even exist if sex is private?  Our culture is lying to us people.  But in the Body of Christ there is to be no deception and no corruption of the old way of life. 
            Neither is there to be greed.  Paul writes in 5:5 “For of this you can be sure:  No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and of God.”  Greed has no place in the Body.  Greed leads to all kinds of problems and it separates people from one another.  In chapter 4 Paul writes about the person who has been stealing and says he must do this no longer but instead is to do something useful with his hands.  Stealing is an unuseful use of one’s hands.  It’s dishonorable and unworthy of anyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord.  You might say that some people steal because they have no other means of getting what they need.  I’m not saying that isn’t so.  But in the Body of Christ there should be no reason for someone to need to steal.  There should be a generosity of spirit among us that those who have will provide for those who don’t have.  And all who are able to work and do something useful with their hands will do so, so that the needs of the community are met.  Yes, this is an ideal.  I know that. But we have to start moving in that direction and we won’t if we are greedy. 
            When Paul speaks of the person who steals doing something useful with their hands, he is talking about doing something excellent and honorable and distinguished.  To me this communicates work that a person can take pride in and that will reflect positively on the Body of Christ. No matter what type of work we do, whatever we produce should be our best effort.  We shouldn’t have a work ethic that slacks off.  You know I entitled this sermon “The Body Speaks” because Paul writes so much about language here, but he’s gotten into our sex lives, our finances, our work habits.  He’s just all up in our business here.  Because every part of our lives speaks.  It’s not just the words we use or how we say them, it’s all our habits, our lifestyle.  They all speak something to the world about the reality of Jesus Christ.  This is why he tells us to take off the old lifestyle, put away the old world view that is corrupted by evil and put on a new lifestyle, see through a new world view that is patterned after God. When we do that, we will begin to look like, sound like, act like Jesus.   What is it that we are communicating through our lives, as individuals and as a church community?
            In Ephesians 5 beginning in the last part of verse 18 Paul says that we are “to be filled with the Spirit.  Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Thanksgiving, praise, joy, these are what we are to be communicating through our words and our actions.  Our lives should reflect the reality that we have been forgiven of our sins, cleansed from everything that is corrupted by evil.  We’ve been reconciled to God, accepted into His household as His own children.  We’ve been made new.  Our lives are moving in a new direction and we are now joined together in the Body of Christ.  We have hope.  We have the promise of eternal life.  We’ve been given the very Spirit of God to dwell within us as our source of life and strength.  Our lives should reflect and communicate this. We are not alone in this walk of faith.  We have the members of the Body of Christ around us, as well as the Holy Spirit within us, and we should be learning from each other, praying for each other, encouraging each other as all of us are in the process of taking off the old and putting on the new.
            I want to invite the worship team up now to lead us in our closing worship.  We can celebrate today because we are bound together in the bonds of faith with one Lord, One God, One Father who loves us and is working out His will in our lives.  And we can dedicate ourselves to continue to put off the old self that is worn out and useless to us, and with the help of the Holy Spirit to put on the new self which is patterned after God.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Soul Food
John 6:47-59
Luke 22:14-34

            When I was in school growing up, everyone bought lunch at school.  We had a cafeteria and the ladies would cook the meals so the food was pretty good.  They cooked just like they were cooking for their families at home.  I remember once in 4th grade, the cafeteria decided to have international foods week.  So every day we had a different type of food.  So one day we had spaghetti for Italian day and another day we had chicken chow mein for Chinese day.  But one day I didn’t know what to expect because the menu said we were having soul food.  When I was in 4th grade I didn’t know what soul food was and I was excited because I imagined it would be something very different and I was looking forward to trying it.  I remember taking my tray up to be served on soul food day and there was ham, collard greens, black eyed peas, and corn bread and I thought, “This is Sunday dinner at my Grandma’s house.  We just need some sweet potato pie.”  It was a little disappointing to find out I had been eating soul food my whole life and didn’t know it. 
            Today I want to talk about soul food.  Not the kind that my Grandma would make but the soul food that Jesus speaks about.  In John 6 Jesus makes the declaration that he is the bread from heaven and he gives life to the world.  In verses 55ff he makes this shocking statement that unless a person eats the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks his blood, they will have no life in them but whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood has eternal life.  Jesus is talking about real soul food, food that feeds the soul of a person and gives real life.  But it sounds really exotic and pretty far out there.  This is one of those Bible statements that is every bit as jarring for us to hear as it would have been for Jesus’ original listeners at the synagogue in Capernaum.
            What is Jesus talking about when he says we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood?  This is zombie movie stuff, not stuff you expect to hear in church.  People were so offended at what Jesus was saying that many of them turned away from following him.  But when Jesus asked his 12 disciples if they were going to turn away from him as well, Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Yes this is a saying that is hard to understand.  But like the 12, we need to hang in here with Jesus and find out just exactly what he’s talking about.  He has the words of eternal life, He’s the one who can feed our souls.  It’s important that we take the time to understand just what this soul food is.
            The idea of food and drink that feeds the soul, that gives eternal life didn’t start with Jesus.  It was something that goes back into the Old Testament.  In fact at the very beginning of the Bible we see in the Garden of Eden there was the tree of life.  When Adam and Eve sinned, God said that they must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life and live forever.  Their sin needed to be atoned for before they could be allowed to live forever.  The prophets speak of the source of living water which is God Himself.  Jeremiah 2:13 and 17:13 both speak of the people of Israel forsaking God who is the spring of living water.  Isaiah 25:6 speaks of a great banquet that God will prepare for all people, a feast with the best food and wine, an abundance of good things that give life and joy.  And in Isaiah 55 there is the invitation to the hungry and thirsty to come and get life giving drink and food from God, to hear the words of the Lord so that our souls will delight in the richest of food and drink, and that our souls may live. 
            In Luke 22 and in John 6 Jesus is speaking right in line with the teachings of the law and the prophets.  He’s not coming up with some new concept out of the blue but rather he’s expanding it and personifying it.  He’s saying that He Himself is the living water and the bread of life.  This is what was so hard for the people to understand.  You see we tend to think mainly of the physical.  So when I say soul food, some of you are having visions of fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, collard greens and ham, macaroni and cheese.  And that’s how the people of Jesus’ day thought.  At the beginning of John 6, Jesus had performed the miracle of feeding a crowd of 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  Then he left the people and went to Capernaum and the crowds came looking for him there.  When they got there Jesus told them, “You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”  They wanted more free bread and fish.  They were overlooking the fact that it was a miracle that they had gotten that food in the first place.  In fact they even ask Jesus in verse 30 what miraculous sign he would do to prove to them that he was from God.  He just did one people!  They couldn’t be satisfied because they were only focusing on the physical.  They only wanted physical food, not soul food.
            Now Jesus did meet the physical needs of people.  He healed many people, he raised the dead, he turned water into wine and multiplied food to feed thousands.  But he also consistently offered soul food.  He taught about the kingdom of God and called people to repent and turn to God.  He taught about the things that God requires of people and he corrected the religious leaders when they did things or taught things that kept people from freely coming to worship God.  Jesus knew people need soul food in addition to physical food.  Physical food is only going to satisfy us so long and then we get hungry and we have to eat again.  Physical food will spoil.  It won’t last forever.  It won’t stay fresh forever.  And if it does, we probably shouldn’t be eating it because it’s probably shot full of dangerous chemicals.  Physical food is temporary.
            Soul food, the food that Jesus offers, will satisfy forever.  In John 4 Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well and he tells her that he has living water.  He says “whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  To the crowd at Capernaum he says “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”  There is a food that doesn’t spoil and that never runs out and it satisfies forever.  It is food for the soul and it is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
            But still what does it mean to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man?  That still sounds ghoulish to us.  So let me try to illustrate this in a way that this congregation ought to be able to relate to very well.  I want to use the analogy of a pregnant woman.  Where does her baby get life from?  From her flesh and her blood.  Yes, the father contributes his DNA and gets the process started but it’s the mother’s flesh, the mother’s body, that protects the unborn baby and allows it to continue to grow and develop.  It’s her blood that provides oxygen and nutrients that allows that baby to live and grow.  If a baby is disconnected from its mother too early, it will die.  For 40 weeks, give or take, the mother nourishes the baby from her own flesh and blood.  Then after the baby is born, she continues to feed it from her own body, nursing it and providing it nutrients so it can continue to live and grow.  This, I think, is the picture Jesus is trying to give us when He says we must get our source of nourishment and life from His flesh and His blood.  In order for our souls to live, we must be connected to Him, receiving life-giving nourishment from Him.  The difference is that we never disconnect from Him, as the baby will eventually disconnect from its mother.  Children eventually learn to eat solid food and feed themselves and grow up to be able to provide their own food and we no longer have to feed them.  But we always need to feed from Jesus.  He is the never ending source of living bread and living water.
            This, I think, is why our practice of communion is so important.  It is a regular way of reminding ourselves that we get living bread and living water from Jesus.  As we take communion, we are re-enacting the Last Supper and remembering the words and actions of Jesus.  Luke records that at the last supper Jesus took the bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to his disciples telling them, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  He also took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.” 
I want us to think about that word “covenant” for a minute.  The Greek word that is translated covenant can also be translated as testament meaning legal agreement.  One way we use the word testament is in last will and testament, which is a valid translation of this Greek word.  I believe the primary meaning Jesus is using is to say that His blood seals a new and binding agreement with God, a new covenant based on God’s promises of forgiveness and cleansing from sin for all who call on His name.  But I think we can also gain great insight into the depth of this sacrifice, and what Jesus means by feeding on his flesh and blood, if we consider these words as Jesus’ last will and testament. 
A last will and testament is a legal document that spells out how a person wants to dispose of their possessions after their death.  Jesus had no possessions to pass on to anyone at his death.  He spent the last few years of his life on the road, traveling around teaching about the Kingdom of God and demonstrating it through his miracles.  If he had any personal possessions, they most likely were left with his family.  So at the Last Supper Jesus is handing on to his disciples the only thing he has left to give – his body and his blood.  This is what is going to be sacrificed for our sins.  In the Passover celebration, the Israelites sacrificed a lamb and ate it at their Passover meal.  At the original Passover in Egypt, the Israelites had to take the lambs blood and put it on their doorposts so their first born children would not be killed along with the first born of the Egyptians.  They had to eat the flesh of the animal that was sacrificed so they could live.   This again gives us some understanding into what Jesus is talking about.  Just as the Israelites had to feed on the sacrifice that spared their lives, so we have to feed on the sacrifice that spares our souls from eternal separation from God and eternal death. 
The bread and the cup that we have at communion are a representation of the bread and cup that Jesus gave His disciples and proclaimed that this was true food of the new covenant and that we are to partake of these in remembrance of Him.  This is soul food and it’s not comfort food.  Real soul food demands something of us.  It demands that we look at the things in our lives that are not right, the things that separate us from God.  When we look at the bread and the cup of communion and we remember the sacrifice behind it, it should make us uncomfortable.  Even at the Last Supper Luke records that Jesus had to confront the fact that one of his disciples was going to betray him.  Judas was sitting with him at the table, eating this meal with him, planning how he was going to betray Jesus.  And Jesus knew it. The other disciples broke out into an argument about which of them was considered the greatest.  Apparently it was one of their favorite things to argue about.  Jesus had to confront their pride and ambition and remind them that he served them, even washing their feet that very night. 
He had to confront the fact that he and his disciples had a spiritual enemy who wanted to destroy them.  He tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you Simon, that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” He went on to tell Simon Peter that he would end up denying that he even knew Jesus 3 times that very night.  But even in knowing that Peter was going to deny him, Jesus promised restoration – “when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  Jesus confronted some uncomfortable stuff but in that confrontation, he offered life.

These are the things we are to remember as we prepare to take communion today.  This is soul food.  It is necessary that we listen to and respond to the words of Jesus.  It is necessary that we spend time in His presence in prayer and in service.  It is necessary that we take what He offers us, that we take it into ourselves and make it a part of us, that we may live.  It’s not always comfortable but it does give real life.

            As we prepare ourselves to take communion today, let us take the time to examine our own lives to see what’s there that Jesus needs to confront.  We are told that we should examine ourselves in preparation for taking communion so that we do not take it in an unworthy manner, meaning we confess any known sin in our lives and ask for forgiveness.  When we do, we are forgiven and as we take communion, we can remember not our sins, but Jesus who gave Himself so we could have life.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Soul Care of Children

      The first story that came to my mind in thinking about Jesus as a child and his interactions with children and what we can learn from that, is from Luke chapter 2.  This is on page 945 in the pew bibles.  Here we have the story of Jesus’ birth and the shepherds coming to visit him as a newborn, after the angel had announced his birth to them.  Then, when he was still an infant, his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.  It was Jewish law that every firstborn male would be set apart to God and the parents would bring the baby along with a sacrifice, and dedicate the child to God.  This is where we get our practice of child dedication from and some of you will be doing this in a couple of weeks.  Our understanding of this practice is a little different.  We don’t bring animals or birds to sacrifice when we do a dedication.  And actually our understanding is more that we are dedicating ourselves as parents and as a congregation to raise this child to be a disciple of Jesus, rather than dedicating the child.  We parents, and we congregation members, are making a vow to each other and to God to model and teach the Christian faith to our children, to provide an atmosphere where they can learn and to encourage and pray for them, so that they will make their own decision to live as disciples of Jesus.  And we believe God honors these vows and works with us in drawing our children’s hearts towards Him and giving them the gift of faith.
            Then in verses 41-52, we have the story of 12 year old Jesus who is going to the Temple with his parents for the Passover celebration.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for Passover every year.  They were a family who took their religious duties seriously.  Mary and Joseph modeled their faith for their children.  We parents are vital to our children’s faith development.  They need to see us putting our own faith in action in order to believe.  In fact researchers have identified parents as the most significant factor in a child’s faith development.  When children see their parents modeling a life of faith, and hear their parent’s faith stories, it has more of an impact on them than anything else – more than the influence of their peers, of other people at church, of youth workers, of teachers, of pastors, of service or missions experiences or sending them to Christian school instead of public.  Outside of the Holy Spirit, parents are the number one influence in a child’s faith development.
            Jesus’ parents took their role in faith development seriously and they brought their 12 year old son with them to the Passover celebration.  But lest we feel bad that perhaps we as parents don’t live up to the model of Mary and Joseph, the story goes on to say that when they left Jerusalem to go back home, they neglected to bring Jesus with them!  For anyone who has ever been less than the perfect parent, this story gives some comfort.  No matter how short we may fall with our own children, we’ve never lost the son of God!  But all of us can sympathize with Mary and Joseph when they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them.  They thought he was with some others in the group they were traveling with and when they discovered he wasn’t, they immediately turned around and went back to Jerusalem.  They searched for 3 days.  Can you imagine the panic they must have felt?  They finally found him at the Temple.  He had been there the whole time, hanging out with the teachers, asking them questions and talking with them.  Luke tells us that everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers to the teachers.  When his parents asked him why he had worried them so he said “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house, or be about my Father’s business?” 
            Even as a 12 year old, Jesus knew his purpose.  He knew he was  supposed to be at the Temple, going about His Father’s business.  Our children are capable of great understanding of faith issues.  They are capable of being about the Father’s business and we do them a disservice if we don’t include them in that business.  This summer, we had prayer walking in the neighborhood every other week.  In planning for this we debated as to whether we should have childcare at the church during that time.  But after discussing it we decided that it would be good for families to do prayer walking together.  Remember it’s important that our kids learn from us how to do this faith stuff.  So we included the kids in prayer walking.  I went out for one of the prayer walks into Oxford Village with Quinn, Lani and Carmela.  When it came time to pray, Lani and Carmela, who have both grown up in this congregation, blew me away with the insight and passion with which they prayed.  As we walked, they talked about the different people from the Village they knew through summer camp experiences or through church activities and they prayed with real insight and wisdom for the community.  A few weeks later Ron Sider went out with Jaron Tinsley and I think Jacob Prunes and maybe someone else on a prayer walk further down Langdon Street as you go towards the Boulevard.  When he came back, he said he too was so impressed with how these young boys were able to pray for the neighborhood with insight and faith.  It’s important that we remember that our kids, no matter how young, are capable of understanding and being about the Father’s business and I hope we will continue to find ways to have our children involved with us in ministry.  I tried to include  a sense of that involvement in the video we just saw.
            Jesus thought children were very important and that there was a lot we adults could learn from them.  In Mark 9:35 (page 932), Jesus was at a house in Capernaum and he called the 12 disciples to sit with him to teach them.  Earlier as they traveled to Capernaum, his disciples had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  So now Jesus tells them that if anyone wanted to be the first, he must be the servant of all.  Then he took a little child and placed the child among them.  I think by placing a small child in among his group of disciples, he was communicating that this child was also a disciple.  Then he took the child in his arms and told the disciples that whoever welcomed one of these little children in his name, welcomed him.  And whoever welcomes him, welcomes the one who sent him.  Then in verse 42 he tells them that it would be better to be drowned than to cause one of these little ones who believe in him to stumble.  Jesus was teaching his disciples an important lesson that greatness in God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of being the best or the first, but a matter of service and looking out for one another, encouraging each other in growing in our faith.  And he used a small child to teach this lesson.
            In another story in Matthew 19:13 (p. 908), we see that parents were bringing their children to Jesus so he could pray for them but his disciples were telling the parents not to bother Jesus with that.  But Jesus said “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  And he placed his hands on them and blessed them.  Jesus had been welcomed by the teachers in the Temple as a 12 year old boy.  He had been welcomed to ask questions and learn.  And he welcomed children to come to him.  He allowed their presence when he was teaching the 12.  Not only did he allow it but he included them in the teaching session, placing a small child among the disciples and holding the child in his arms, blessing the children that were brought to him and praying for them. 
            Over the last year we’ve included our children in the worship services.  They might tell Pastor Leonard and I that we could do a better job of making the sermons more interesting to them, I don’t know.  But one parent told me her child was listening to the sermons and said she liked being in service and found the sermons interesting, and she could understand them.  As the children have shown me their sanctuary art pictures, I’ve enjoyed seeing the detail they put into them and how they are able to express what they learn through their art.  Take the time to look at some of the pictures sometime because they capture some interesting aspects of the sermons.
            We’ve included the children in such things as Bible memory.  One of the things I’ve appreciated about Rich’s approach to the Bible memory is how he has found so many creative ways to do it and the kids really seem to love it.  I heard a story from this summer about Josiah Leaman working on the bible memory verses and he knows we are supposed to say our memory verse to someone else in the church and then we can put our paper up on the board.  He was learning his verses and was then helping his stuffed animal Ruff learn it as well and Ruff had to tell the verse to someone so he could get credit for learning it.  That’s disciple making in action!  Already Josiah is passing on what he himself is learning.  As we include our children, as we set them among us and let them learn, they will grow in their faith and will start passing it on to those around them.
            The last story I want to share from the Bible is from Matthew 21:14 (p. 910).  This took place in the week before Jesus was crucified.  He was at the Temple and, according to Matthew, it was after he had run the money changers out of the Temple.  The blind and lame came to Jesus and he healed them.  But the chief priests and teachers of the law got indignant, not only because of the wonderful things Jesus did, but also because the children were in the Temple courts shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” in reference to Jesus.  When the religious leaders confronted Jesus about what the children were saying he answered, “have you never read, ‘from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?”  Jesus accepted the praise of children.
            Jesus accepts the praise and prayers of our children.  It is precious to him.  When my daughter was little, we used to tell her when we came to church that we were going to Jesus’ house.  It seemed like a simple way to explain what church is and I think it helped to communicate a sense of belonging for her.  Just like she belonged and was welcomed at Grandma’s house or Nana’s house, so she belonged and was welcomed at Jesus’ house.  We wanted her to know that it is normal for her to join in the praise and prayer and learning and service that happens at Jesus’ house and not to feel like that was something for the adults but not really for her.  I can remember having that feeling some as a child and maybe some of you have also.  But Jesus acts as if it is perfectly normal and acceptable that the children would be shouting his praises in the Temple courts.  It’s what he expects.  And our children should feel it is normal and acceptable that they participate in all aspects of congregational life and learning and worship. 
            What do I hope we as a congregation take away from this Children’s Sunday service?  One, we are incredibly blessed that God has entrusted the souls of so many children into our care.  As parents, we’ve been blessed and we’ve been given a great responsibility to nurture faith in our children, to care for their souls.  We need to make sure we get this right.  We parents need to be seeking the wisdom, strength and grace of God to guide our children in faith because, outside of the Holy Spirit, we are the most important influence in helping them grow in faith.  So we parents need to be continually growing in our own faith if we are going to nurture faith in our kids.
            We as a congregation have to be committed to nurturing faith in the children who have been entrusted into our care.  We have to consciously work to make church a safe, welcoming, accepting place for them, a home where they belong.  We have to continue to include them in what we do as a congregation and we should be continuing to have conversations about how to do that.
 I was going through files on my computer this week and I came across a testimony that one of our youth wrote after the youth missions trip to Berlin last year.  In expressing what the trip meant to him he wrote, “It was not necessarily what happened while we were there. Rather, it was the fact that those adults within our community made it possible… The devotion and support we saw from the adults around us… If I had my way, everyone would experience it…What was really important to me was seeing the older generation reach down, grab the hands of the younger, and allow them to write another passage of their lives- one that will never be forgotten, and could never be replaced.”  I would hope that every child in this church experiences this same devotion and support from us.  The children of this congregation need to know that we believe in them, are praying for them, are available to them, and are willing to help them go further than we ourselves have gone. 
       Many of you are working directly with our children and youth in the Christian Ed classes, in choir, in volunteering through OCCCDA, through mentoring, and through praying for our children, through encouraging them.  I’m going to ask Pastor Leonard to come now and to lead us in prayer for those who are working in our Christian Ed. Program in the coming year.  We want to dedicate ourselves to this work and to ask for God’s anointing so we can do it well. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

"The God of Honor" Sermon on Luke 11:5-10; 18:1-8, 8/18/13

In these 2 passages that we’ve read today, Jesus is teaching on prayer.  In one, a man is appealing to his neighbor to help him out with a fairly simple need for some bread for a visitor who has arrived late at night.  In the other a woman is appealing to a judge for justice against her adversary, which is probably a little more complicated than borrowing a loaf of bread.  But in each case, whether the request is simple or complex, the person has to persist in asking.  Both of these parables have been used to teach the point that we are to pray consistently and persistently and God will hear and answer our prayers.  Jesus even states in Luke 11:9 that we are to ask, seek, knock, and there will be a response.  The verb tense that Jesus uses is one that is progressive, meaning we are to ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.  The widow in chapter 18 is certainly a picture of persistence.  This scoundrel of a judge declares that he’ll be sure to give her justice so she won’t wear him out with her constant coming to court.  The best way to get rid of her is to give her what she wants!
But we don’t persist in asking if we know there is no chance of an answer.  Last month, I took my car to my mechanic for an oil change.  He opens at 8AM so I was there at 8:30.  But the doors were locked, no one was there.  It was the day after July 4th and he had closed for the holiday weekend.  There was no sense in me staying there knocking on the door asking for an oil change, because there was no chance for an answer.  We only persist in asking if we know there is chance of getting an answer.  So inherent in Jesus’ admonition to keep on asking, seeking, knocking in prayer is the reality that an answer is possible.  The widow persisted in pestering the judge because he was the one who could and should give her justice.  The man persisted in pestering his neighbor at midnight because he knew the neighbor was there and could give him what he needed.  We are to be persistent in prayer because God is the one who can and will answer our prayers.
There is another reason to persist in prayer and that has to do with a cultural factor at work in these stories that people in Jesus’ day would have picked up on immediately, but it’s one that is not as strong in our own culture and that is the concept of honor and shame.  Middle Eastern culture is not as individualistic as our own culture.  It’s very communal.  So we have to keep in mind when we read about Jesus’ interactions and teachings, that it is always in the context of a community.  So let me ask you a question.  When you hear the story of the man going to his neighbor at midnight and waking him up, asking him to get out of bed and give him some bread for this visitor, do you sympathize more with the man who needs the bread, or with the neighbor who has to get out of bed and give this guy bread and then most likely get his kids back to sleep because the whole household has been woken up?  Because if the guy had just planned ahead for his visitor and made sure he had bread, this wouldn’t have happened.  Am I right?
Jesus’ audience would have sympathized with the guy who needed the bread, not the guy who was woken up.  Back in those days, you were honor bound to give the best hospitality to guests.  The basic need was an unbroken loaf of bread for each guest.  People ate with their hands and bread served as a utensil.  You wouldn’t give a dinner guest a fork that someone else had used that hadn’t been washed.  They wouldn’t have given someone a loaf of bread that another person had eaten from.   Also back in those days, there would have been a communal oven in the village that everyone used and so you only had certain days of the week when your family could use the oven.  So everyone knew the schedule and knew who had fresh bread in the house.  Obviously the guy with the guest didn’t have use of the oven that day or he would have made fresh bread for his guest.  But he knew his neighbor did use the oven and did have fresh bread.  Finally, when a guest came, they were the guest of the whole community, not just one individual family.  It was the responsibility of the whole village to see that they were properly cared for.  Because people placed such a high value on hospitality, everyone in the village would have done what was necessary to properly care for the guest.  It would have brought shame on the whole village if a guest was not treated well.
Today, when we invite someone over we take full responsibility for caring for them.  We don’t want people to leave our home thinking we were rude or not good hosts.  This weekend my brother and his family were with us to celebrate Bethannie’s leaving for college.  So I made sure the house was cleaned, fresh sheets were put on the bed, fresh towels were put out and that we had extra food and drinks on hand.  We wanted them to be comfortable in our home.    Back in Jesus’ day, a visit like this would have been more communal.  One neighbor would have provided the sheets, another the towels, another special dishes and so forth.  The host was providing the house for the person to stay in, so he would have gone around the village and collected everything else he needed for the guest from his neighbors.  So if he knows that this person has the best tablecloth in the village and that one the best dishes, he goes and gets those because the honor of the whole village is at stake.  The village doesn’t want to be known as a poor place with bad hospitality so everyone would have brought out the best and taken care of the guest.
So when people heard the story that this man was going around asking for bread, they sympathized with him and understood that their sense of honor would have compelled them to get out of bed at midnight and get together the best loaves of bread they had and give them to the man, along with anything else he needed.  Applying this to prayer, we persist in praying because God is the one whose sense of honor will compel Him to answer our prayers.  If our sense of honor and value of hospitality compels us to provide for guests in our home in an adequate way, how much more will God provide for us, His children, when we have need?
God is the one who can and will answer our prayers.  There are many instances in the Bible where God tells His people to come to Him and ask and He will answer.  Isaiah 58:9 says “You will call and the Lord will answer.”  In Isaiah 65:24 God says “Before they call I will answer.”  In Jeremiah 33:3 He says “Call to me and I will answer you and show you great and mighty things you do not know.”  In Psalm 86:7 the psalmist says to God “When I am in distress I call to you because you answer me.”
 It’s a matter of honor with God that He answer when people call on Him in prayer.  The concept of honor in Jesus’ day had to do with avoiding shame.  There were strong ideas of what was honorable and what was not.  People of honor were people who followed conventions and didn’t do things to bring shame on themselves, their families or their communities.  This idea still persists in many cultures of the world including the Middle East.  One of the things you may have heard of is honor killings.  This is when a person is killed by a member of their family or social group because they have been thought to bring shame on their family or community.  Most often it is women who are killed in this way because the way they dress or act is considered shameful, or because they don’t want a prearranged marriage.  It is estimated that as many as 20,000 women a year are victims of honor killings.  This shows you how seriously honor and shame are taken in these cultures.  So in these parables that we are looking at today, we have to realize how startling it would have been to Jesus’ listeners to hear that a neighbor would refuse to give bread or a judge would have no concern for what people thought of him and his actions.  It got their attention because these things went so much against their core value of honor.
The parable Jesus tells in Luke 18 was scandalous not only because there was a judge who didn’t fear God or care about people, but also because this judge represents God!  Jesus is taking a bold risk in using a negative character to represent God and to teach by contrast that God answers prayer.  The point of the parable is that we ought to always pray and not lose heart.  Jesus begins with a description of the judge who is a man who doesn’t feel shame.  He’s an anomaly in this honor bound culture. This is one of the sharpest criticisms that could be levied against a person in Jesus’ day.  This judge does shameful things but doesn’t feel ashamed of them.  He should be a person of honor.  He’s a leader in the community and people come to him for justice.  He has a great deal of power and authority.  He should be the one who is most concerned that things are done right.  
The widow by contrast is innocent, without power, destitute, and oppressed.  She has no one to help her.  Back in Jesus’ day a woman didn’t go to court.  A man would go if a family had a legal issue because court was a very rough place. The fact that this widow is in court pleading her own case shows that she has absolutely no one to help her.  This judge should have taken care of her need first.  In the Old Testament the Lord had specified that orphans and widows were to be cared for and to be protected from oppression and violence.  The orphans and widows were to be the first ones whose cases were heard in court.  The fact that this widow had to keep coming to the judge with her plea was against Old Testament law.  Her legal rights were being violated.  But the judge is the only one who can give her justice so she keeps coming back day after day.  The judge becomes convinced that she will never give up, that she will pester and irritate him forever.  And so even though he can’t be appealed to out of a sense of duty to God or to the people, or out of sense of shame for evil, he finally grants the woman justice just so he can have some peace.
How much more will a loving father grant justice to His children who cry out to Him day and night?  If we persist in prayer, we will be heard.  We aren’t appealing to a scoundrel of a judge who doesn’t care for anyone but himself.  We are appealing to the God who welcomes us to come before Him in prayer, whose character is one of mercy and justice, and who wants to answer our prayers.   In Luke 18:7-8 Jesus asks the rhetorical question “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?  Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”  It is in God’s character to answer us when we cry out to Him.
The night when I was working on this sermon our dog was sitting next to me in the chair in the living room.  Vandy had come in to work on some things there as well and he was talking to the dog.  He had gotten her a doggie biscuit earlier and he always gets a couple and teases her with them.  He’ll give her one and then hide the others somewhere.  So he had one doggie biscuit set aside but she snuck up and got it.  He was fussing at her that she took it without asking.  So I asked him why did she need to ask and he said because it was polite.  Now the doggie biscuits all belong to the dog.  They were bought for her, they are made for her and nobody else in the house is going to eat them. But she still has to ask for them.  It’s kind of the same way when we pray.  God has all that we need.  He’s Lord of our lives and He’s provided for our salvation and for every circumstance we may face in life.  He created this world with everything that we need for life.  He’s provided for the life to come.  All this is for us.  But we still have to ask.  And we have to be persistent in asking.  Because really it’s not about being polite, it’s about being in a relationship.  Vandy wants the dog to ask him for treats because he wants to relate to her.  He wants her attention and wants to interact with her.  God wants to have our attention.  He wants to communicate with us and relate to us.  He wants us to learn about Him as we relate to Him.   
Ultimately we pray because God is our Father.  When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he said we are to start with the words “Our Father”.  These are words of relationship.  The relationship we have with God is one of love and acceptance and also one of discipline and correction, all done with perfect justice and mercy.  We spend time with God so that we can become more like Christ, that we can also be people of honor. The bible tells us that we are being formed into the likeness of Christ, with ever-increasing glory that comes from the Spirit.  We pray persistently so that we can come to know the mind of Christ, to know His will for our lives, and to receive what we need from His Spirit in order to participate in His mission on earth.  God doesn’t reject the person who comes before Him in prayer.  He doesn’t kick us out of His presence or walk away from us.  He doesn’t leave us hanging, refusing to grant us what is just and right as He knows it should be.  He may tell us “no” or He may make us wait while He works to get things ready for us to receive a “yes”. But He never ignores us or actively works to harm us.  
It takes faith and persistence to keep coming to God, presenting our requests to Him, when it seems no answer is coming.  But in those times, as we continue to come to God in prayer, we get to be in His presence.  I remember Pastor Leonard’s sermon from a few weeks ago when he reflected on the story of Jesus and the disciples in the boat when the storm came up and the disciples woke Jesus up, scared they were going to be killed.  They had the answer to their prayers right there in the boat with them.  They were with Jesus.  As an outsider looking in I can say of course they were going to survive because Jesus was there.  But how many times do we get discouraged and afraid because we pray for something and don’t see the answer and we forget that Jesus is in the boat with us?  He’s promised to never leave us.  
I’ll invite the worship team to come forward now as we transition into a time of prayer.  And during this time, I want to encourage us to think about who God is.  He’s the God of hospitality who welcomes us to come into His presence and spend time with Him.  He’s our Father who loves us and has already determined to provide for us.  He’s the God of honor who keeps His word and doesn’t lie to us.  He’s the God who sees and hears us, He gets us, He knows where we are at and still welcomes us to come to Him.  One of the things that has struck me this summer as I’ve watched the response of this congregation to this series of sermons on the Scriptures of Good Report is that many of us are carrying heavy burdens and many people are coming to God in prayer for many different things.  Some of you may have gotten answers already this summer but others are still burdened and still crying out.  As we pray today, let’s pray for each other for God to give us the strength and the faith to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, knowing that we will get an answer.  
So what I want us to do as a response today is to stand up and join hands with the people sitting next to you.  This may mean you need to move around a little or reach across the aisle for someone’s hand.  And as we hold hands, let’s pray for the people on either side of us.  I’m going to ask the worship team to join hands with me up here.  We’re going to just take a few minutes and pray for each other, for the worries or burdens that the people next to us might be bearing, for the needs they might have, for God to be at work in their lives and for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done.  Let’s take a few moments and pray.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jordan Kauffman

            Jordan grew up in a Christian family, went to church regularly, and in general was a good guy. He wasn’t rebellious, never did anything crazy. He believed what his parents believed, and did what the church told him to do, for the most part. He did accept Christ when he was seven and several more times after that. That’s because Jordan liked going up for altar calls though, and it was a competition between him and his cousin to see who could get up there first – actually, Jordan admits that it was probably only a competition for him. His cousin may have had better intentions.
            Jordan’s relationship with Christ started very early, though he didn’t entirely understand the weight of that relationship and begin to have a more personal connection with Christ until right before he started high school. The summer after eighth grade, Jordan went on a middle school retreat. While he was there he had something like a vision. It was similar to something he had seen in a made-for-TV Christian movie. He was in a large crowd when everyone froze and he was the only one who could move. Jesus was on the cross, and Jordan walked up to him. They looked at each other, then Jordan turned and just walked away.
            This was an eye opener for Jordan, and marked the beginning of his personal relationship with Christ. From that point on, Jordan made greater attempts at seeking out Christ. He wasn’t always successful, and it was still hard, though. Throughout high school, Jordan tried to figure out how to separate his faith from that of his parents, how to have his own relationship with Christ that wasn’t just mimicry. Jordan also describes his relationship with Jesus in high school as being very emotionally based. The best way he knew to connect with God was through emotionally charged situations, and so he was constantly seeking these out. He judged how his relationship with God was going by how he felt, and that wasn’t always the best measure. While he was feeling good about it, that would be great, but if he felt distant from God, he didn’t have much to hold onto to tell him that wasn’t necessarily true.
            At this point, Jordan’s relationship with Christ is very different from how it was in high school. He now is much more intellectual in his approach to God than he used to be. He’s always thinking about why he believes what he believes, why he does certain things, whether or not there is value in different traditions and practices of the church. And all of that is good. Jordan is very thoughtful of how he relates to God, though he does think he’s become too analytical. He has a hard time believing the things he did in high school, but wishes sometimes that he could get caught up in an emotionally charged moment with God from time to time. He is now trying to find that balance between being both emotional and intellectual with God.
            Jordan also, like many of us, struggles with a vast amount of other things in his relationship with God. He has a hard time figuring out how he’s supposed to love a God that he can’t easily see or hear. He wonders how he is now supposed to be a man of God, since he is no longer a child. And most of all, he wonders what his role is in God’s Kingdom, and what His plan for him is.

            Jordan struggles with many things, and has gone through a lot of dramatic changes in his relationship with Christ. He has gone from misunderstanding and complacency, to emotional overdrive, to an analytical approach. He is still trying to find a balance in how he relates to God. However, despite all the changes he’s gone through, and things he still has trouble with, Jordan is still actively seeking out God. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Holding On or Being Held?" Sermon on Luke 12:16-34, 8/11/13

            This whole chapter in Luke deals with some important themes.  Jesus is talking about those things that are most important in life and not being concerned just for one’s physical well being.  Along with having enough food and clothing, it is also important that we be people of integrity, that what we do in the dark, we will not be ashamed of in the light.  If we say we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need to demonstrate that in every area of our lives.  Just as food and clothing are important, so are healthy relationships with our families and neighbors and colleagues.  Jesus warns the people listening to him to be on their guard against all kinds of greed because true life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.  To illustrate this he tells them the parable of the rich fool.
There is a rich man whose fields produce an abundance of crops and he finds he doesn’t have enough room to store all the grain.  So he takes counsel with himself.  He literally says “Self, what will I do? I don’t have any place to store my grain.  I know.  I’ll tear down the barns I have and build bigger ones and then I can say to my self, ‘Self, you have plenty of food for years to come.  Retire and enjoy the good life.’”    He’s kind of like Gollum and Smeagol talking about how to get the ring of power back.  No good can come of this.
            In Middle Eastern culture, family, friends, community are all very important.  When someone has an important decision to make, they consult with others.  They don’t do this on their own.  They have long discussions with family and friends who can help them think it through from various angles and then they make their decision.  It’s important to have people in our lives who can give us good advice and who will truly look after our best interests.  It’s important who we talk to, who we listen to, and who has influence in our lives.  But this rich fool didn’t consult with anyone but himself.  He seems not to have anyone close to him
            Jesus’ audience would have picked this up right away when he was telling this parable and would have wondered what was wrong with this rich man that he didn’t talk with others before making a decision about what to do with his crop.  This man lives isolated from his fellow human beings and so the only person who’s interests he takes into account are his own.  Now this guy is already rich even before he has this bumper crop.  It wouldn’t hurt him to sell the whole crop rather than store it.  It wouldn’t hurt him to give the crop away.  He would still be rich.  But in taking counsel with himself, he decides to tear down the barns he has and build bigger ones to store all of his crops and then he’ll retire.  We don’t know how old he is.  He could be still pretty young and have several good years of farming ahead of him.  But in taking counsel with himself, he decides to store this crop and retire and live off it for the rest of his life.
 I’m not a farmer but I’m pretty sure that’s not really a good idea.  Where is he going to store things between the time he tears down the old barns and builds the new ones?  And why would he want to store it all anyway?  What if rats get into it or it gets moldy or rots?  And what about his land?  Is he just going to let it sit fallow for the rest of his life?  What about all the people who could benefit from the food he grows?  How is it going to affect his community if he no longer is hiring people to work his land and selling his crops to others?
But the rich fool doesn’t seem to take any of this into consideration.  He is only focusing on himself.  Just like in Lord of the Rings when Gollum held onto the ring of power, this rich fool is holding on to his crops.  But with Gollum we know that, not only was he holding onto the ring, but the ring was also holding on to him.  The more he tried to possess the ring, the more he was possessed by it until he was destroyed by it.  That’s what happens with the rich fool.  God steps in and says to him “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 
This is getting to the crux of Jesus’ point.  Life is something that is given by God.  The Greek word for “life” that is used is “psyche” which means the animating force of life.  It is the thing that leaves the body at death.  It is something we cannot create, but rather is bestowed on us by God.  And life is not something we can hold on to indefinitely.  We can’t stop it from leaving the body at the time of death. 
The Hebrew word that refers to this life force is nephesh and the nephesh is the thing that hungers and thirsts after God.  It is the part of us that is able to relate most directly to God.  And the nephesh is that thing that realizes it must remain connected to God if it is to be healthy and strong.  This nephesh, this life force is what is being demanded of the man.  The language God uses is that of repayment of debt.  In other words God is foreclosing on the rich man’s soul.  He’s taking back what he had loaned to this man because the man has failed to make proper payment on the loan.  Jesus says in verse 21 “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich, (not abundantly generous) toward God.” 
Our very life force is on loan to us by God.  And he can demand it back at any time.  There is a generosity towards God that is expected of anyone who has been given life.  But we won’t express this generosity if we are being held down by the things of this life.  The rich fool could only think of what he needed to have a good physical life.  With his bumper crop he had hit the lottery and was planning to retire.  He wasn’t planning on doing anything to help out his community.  In fact his actions were probably going to result in harm to his community.
Jesus warns us not to fall into the trap of worrying so much about the things of this life, being held down by the things of this life,  and he mentions specifically food and clothing.  Food and clothing are necessities of life.  They represent basic needs we have for nourishment and protection.  Yet Jesus points out that God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers and they don’t grow crops or make cloth or do any worrying or planning for their basic needs.  Yet God provides beautifully and abundantly for them.  And how much more valuable are we than birds?  How much more important to God are we than flowers?  Our worrying doesn’t gain us anything so why do we do it?
Now what Jesus means by worrying is the state of being tossed around mentally, going back and forth, unable to come to any state of peace or resolution about things because we feel like a rat in a maze with no way out.  We get frantic in our minds over things that we have no control over and can’t do anything about.  When we get in this state we are being held down by anxiety and worry.  We have no peace.  There’s only fear, confusion, panic.  And when we are in this state, we can’t be generous towards God or anyone else.  When we get like this our relationships are going to suffer.  We’re going to be jealous or resentful of people who aren’t suffering.  We’re going to feel sorry for ourselves.  We may isolate ourselves.  We complain and argue and drive people away.  We don’t pray and may begin to blame God for what’s going on in our lives.  We hold on tighter to what we have, worried that it won’t be enough.  We aren’t trusting God anymore.  This isn’t the way to live and it certainly isn’t the abundant life that Jesus died for us to have.
Jesus offers us comfort in these verses when he says that we are not to be anxious and agitated even about the basic necessities of life because our Father knows we need these things.  Our Father is the one who is our creator, our preserver, our guardian and our protector.  Inherent in this word “father” is the meaning of one who knows us, loves us, and wants to take care of us.  He has our best interests at heart.  He takes pleasure in us.   He knows what we need.  He is aware of what is going on and He has already determined to provide what we need.  In fact, even more than supplying the basic needs of this life, our Father takes pleasure in giving us His Kingdom.  He has already decided to give us His kingdom as a gift.  It doesn’t cost us anything.  If He’s already decided to do this, how much easier is it for him to give us the basic necessities of life?  And if that is such a small thing for him to do, why do we worry and get in such an agitated state about it?  This is Jesus’ question, not mine.  I tend to worry. 
For me, I have to remind myself very often that I am of more value to God than the birds and the flowers are, and that it pleases Him to give me the kingdom in addition to all the necessities of life.  For me, the hard part is trusting Him when I feel that I have a necessary need and I don’t see how He’s going to provide for that.  But sometimes what He considers necessary and what I consider necessary are 2 different things.  One of the verses we’ve been memorizing this summer is Isaiah 43:1-2 where God says “Do not fear, I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not sweep you away.”  I don’t see the necessity of passing through water and fire.  I figure if there’s water there, I need a bridge or a boat and God says, no you need to jump in and pass through that water.  And I say, I can’t swim and He says, well I can, so jump in.  Our perception of what we need is often different than what God knows we need.  If we hold on to our own perception of what we need, we fall into worry and panic and so forth and we fail to live in generosity towards God and others, experiencing the Kingdom of God among us.
I read a story once about a woman named Granny Brand who was a missionary in India for many years.  After she was widowed, she continued to live in India and serve.  When she turned 70 years old, her missions board told her they would no longer continue to support her.  She needed to retire and return home.  She refused.  She used what resources she had and built a little shack to live in, got a horse, and continued to travel around on horseback, ministering in various villages.  She fell off the horse once and broke her hip.  Her son who was a doctor told her she needed to go home but she refused.  Finally when she was 93, she couldn’t ride the horse anymore so the men in the villages she ministered in built her a stretcher and continued carrying her around from village to village so she could continue to minister to people.  She finally died at age 95. 
Granny Brand had God’s perspective on what she needed.  She wasn’t listening to what the people around her told her she needed.  She understood her place in the Kingdom of God and that place was to minister to people in India.  She did exactly what Jesus describes in verses 33 and 34 in pretty much liquidating all her resources, living very simply, and being rich towards God and others.  Her heart, the center of her spiritual life, was firmly in the kingdom of God, not in the possessions of this world.  She had purpose and meaning in her life.  She had people who helped her and provided for her.  She was living in right relationships with the people God had called her to be with.  She wasn’t holding on to the things of this life like the rich food did, and she wasn’t being held captive by worries and doubts. 

As we transition into a time of prayer, the question to ask ourselves is what are we holding on to and what is holding on to us?  Are we holding on to worries about what we don’t have or ambitions to have more?  Are we holding on to those things that separate us from other people?  Are we being held down by fears or feelings of inadequacy?  What is holding us back from being generous towards God and others?  As the worship team comes up and leads us in our closing song, let’s take these things to God.  Our Father loves us.  We are valuable to Him and it gives Him pleasure to give us the kingdom.  But we have to let go of what we think that needs to look like and embrace God’s vision for our lives.  Maybe it’s time to jump into the fire or the water and find out what it’s like to have God with us in those places.  Maybe we’re already in those places and we need to open our eyes to see God with us and let go of the worry and fear and take hold of Him.  We don’t have to continue to be afraid.  Our Father takes pleasure in giving us His Kingdom.
-Pastor Lynn Parks