In Christ Alone

“In Christ Alone”

Acts 4-12 salvation, sun

Acts 4:1-17 (4:12) – October 15, 2017

“How many of you remember a time when you were so excited about something that you could barely wait to share that news with another person? Maybe it was getting accepted to the university you dreamed of attending? Or maybe it was that you are finally pregnant after years of waiting? Or maybe it was that you have now been confirmed to be cancer free after lengthy treatment? Or maybe it was when your special someone asked you to marry him? Or maybe you got the job you so desperately hoped for? This exciting news is changing your life, and you want to shout it from the mountaintop!” [1]

With exciting news of that magnitude of importance, who wouldn’t want to share something so earthshaking that is turning your life upside down?

That’s the case here in Acts chapters 3 and 4, where Peter and John are in Jerusalem, telling people about the Messiah Yeshua, the risen Jesus, risen from the dead. Do you know? Have you heard? This news is so exciting that it’s changing my life! Anyway, that is the story that Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples are sharing in downtown Jerusalem at the beginning of Acts 4.

But then, there’s a hitch. A problem, a complication.  Reading from Acts 4:1-2, “The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” In fact, these religious leaders are so upset, they toss Peter and John in prison.

Peter and John—and countless others throughout the centuries—were thrown into prison because of their beliefs, and because of their witness. It doesn’t matter whether it’s during the persecutions of the Roman emperors, the upheavals and persecutions of the religious wars of the 1500’s and 1600’s, or more modern persecutions and executions of the 20th and 21st centuries, people are still imprisoned for their beliefs. People are still persecuted for naming the name of Jesus Christ in a public forum.

This good news is an extremely important thing to proclaim. In many places in the world today and throughout history, this message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead is an extremely dangerous one to proclaim, too.

There must be something behind this God-sent boldness that energizes so many people!

“Solus Christus,” or “By Christ Alone” is another one of the foundational principles that sets Protestants apart. Another of the rallying cries of the Reformation, this important principle means Jesus Christ alone is the mediator between God and humanity. Not the priests as mediator between us and God, and not the sacrifices in the Temple as a necessary covering to allow us to come to God, but salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.

Certain other faith traditions put extra emphasis on the saints, or the Virgin Mary, or on the church hierarchy. Yes, these ought to be honored. Absolutely we have the saints and Mary the mother of Jesus as our blessed examples and those we hold up as special before God. Plus, as the apostle Paul and Doctor Luke tell us repeatedly in the New Testament, we are all called saints of God, so we are all examples for one another.

Back to our passage from Acts 4. What happened to Peter and John? “The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

The religious leaders of Israel had thought they had gotten rid of their problem some weeks ago when they had a rabble-rousing rabbi called Jesus crucified. But, no! More and more problems kept cropping up, ever since they had “misplaced” this rabbi’s body, and then there were some scattered reports of Him being raised from the dead, being alive again.

The religious leaders brought Peter and John before them, and asked point blank: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
What is the foundational principle for Peter and John? Just as Acts 4:12 tells us, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

What is another way of saying this great Good News? “The message of Jesus entails “salvation” (soteria) — a divine reality that generates wholeness, restoration, and reversal of societal norms (“healed” in Acts 4:9 is literally “saved,” sesotai)” [2]

We can say for sure that Peter, John and the other disciples would absolutely agree with the Reformers: “Solus Christus,” or “By Christ Alone” are we saved.

That was one principle that Protestants were willing to die for, and did.

What about you? What about me? Are we willing to proclaim Christ? Why does Peter say it so clearly? Because he has been with Jesus. So, too, we are with Jesus. “By Christ Alone” we are saved, we are restored, and we are walking by His side.

Praise God, alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/fourth-sunday-of-easter7#preaching

Preaching Helps and Worship Resources, Rev. Dawn Chesser, Prayers, Lectionary Hymns, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship, 2015.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2388  Commentary, Acts 4:5-12, Troy Troftgruben, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

 

 

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To God Alone Be Glory

“To God Alone Be Glory”

1 Tim 1-17 immortal, invisible, words

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (1:17) – October 8, 2017

When I was young, I was a member of a Lutheran church on the northwest side of Chicago, baptized and confirmed Lutheran, and well trained in liturgical practice and classic hymnody. Later in high school and into my twenties, I spent a number of years in Evangelical churches. I memorized dozens of bible verses, learned pietistic practices, and completed an undergraduate degree in church music from a local bible college. I sang many beloved old hymns and gospel songs, including “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “To God Be the Glory.”

It’s this last gospel song I would like to quote: “To God be the glory—great things He hath done! So loved He the world that He gave us His Son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the Life-gate that all may go in.”

“To God be the glory!” Exactly the topic of my sermon today. Pastor Kevin asked me to preach on one of the “solas,” the foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. Soli Deo Gloria is one of the “solas” or “onlies” of the Reformation. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg in October 1517, this October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

“Soli Deo Gloria,” or, to God alone be glory, is one of the foundational principles that sets Protestants apart. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, this principle meant that all glory (and honor and worship) is due to God, alone. Not God plus the saints, not God plus the Virgin Mary, not God plus the church hierarchy. God alone is worthy of our glory—and only God is to be worshipped. That was one principle that Protestants were willing to die for, and did.

Our Scripture reading today comes from 1 Timothy 1, starting at verse 12. Paul states: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me trustworthy, appointing me to His service.” Paul is just overflowing with thankfulness here. He is absolutely grateful to the Lord Jesus for extending His grace to Paul and designating Paul a worker for God, in the service of Jesus Christ.

Just to refresh everyone’s memories, the Apostle Paul was not always a follower of Christ. Before he had that sudden, come-to-Jesus experience on the Damascus Road, Paul was called Saul. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, and an up-and-coming member of the Sanhedrin—the ruling council of the Jews in Jerusalem. Saul/Paul had studied at the equivalent of the University of Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city where he grew up, in modern-day Turkey. He saw this breakaway sect of Jews following some “false Messiah” as a clear danger to the worship of the one God who made heaven and earth.

Paul tells us himself what his personal situation was—in brief—in the next verse of 1 Timothy 1: “13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Sure, Saul/Paul was a fire-breathing zealot, ready to grab these “Christians” off the street and throw them in prison. As he himself states, Paul was formerly “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.”

How on earth could God use someone awful like this? A self-admitted bad guy, too! But, wait. This isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Jesus steps into the picture.

What does Paul say in the next verse? “14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” What happened? Jesus Christ happened. God’s grace was poured out on Paul, and he had a true conversion experience. He once was blind but suddenly was given the gift of sight—spiritual sight.

Here in this letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul gives his testimony. He tells everyone what a rotten guy he was, and how God reached down and saved him, and what’s more, put Paul into his service. In many Baptist and Evangelical churches, “the sharing of testimony was [and is] a vital practice of faith. Such sharing of stories, such narrating of God’s faithfulness in our lives was not a moment to extol the speaker’s virtues as a follower of Jesus so much as a way to name God’s acting.” [1]

Paul certainly had a different kind of past life, before coming to Christ, and he definitely remembered aspects of that life. We can see that from these two verses: “15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.”

We can hear rumblings of several other “solas” from our Reformation in these verses, can’t we? Sola Fide—faith alone, and Sola Gratia—grace alone, and certainly Solus Christus—by Christ alone. It is at this earthshaking, deep emotional point that Paul can’t stand it any more and breaks into a glorious doxology: “17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

If we are paying close attention to what he just said, it is at this point that we—all of us—ought to join Paul on our knees and lift our arms to God in praise and awe and honor and glory. Here, in brief, is the tremendous order of events that Paul wrote about at the beginning of his letter to Timothy. Saul/Paul was “the chief of sinners,” came face to face with Jesus, went into God’s service, had his life amazingly changed, and wrote a glorious doxology about it.

Look at this Protestant principle from the point of view of the 1500’s. Was it God—plus the saints, or the Virgin Mary—that caused such a life-changing experience for Paul? I think not. Was it God—plus the church hierarchy—that made Paul do a complete 180 degree turn? No, not that either. It was God alone who brought Paul to his knees. God alone, God’s grace and mercy in Paul’s life, heart and soul had a life-changing effect on Paul. Heart-changing and soul-changing, too!

Sadly, in Martin Luther’s day, many people had (in effect) contingency plans for their salvation. Or, add-ons to get to heaven. For example, they would believe in Jesus Christ and His atonement—plus prayers to the saints; or Jesus Christ and His blood shed on the cross—plus the petitions of the Virgin Mary. All of these additional things were and are blessings, and were and are embraced by people all over the world. Just not to be elevated to the point of worship.

However, Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other Reformers said that it is God alone who was to receive our worship, honor and glory. That is what bursts out of Paul here in 1 Timothy 1. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, Almighty, victorious—Thy great name we praise.”

Which leads us to our response. Yes, we can celebrate! Yes, such a marvelous God is truly to be given all praise. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God and to the Lamb.

But, some of us do not readily burst into speech that might be mistaken as quotes from the King James version of the Bible. I was moved by several paragraphs of a recent book by the noted Christian author Anne Lamott. It comes from the third section of the book “Help Thanks Wow,” which is an exploration of three essential prayers that we all pray at one time or another.

“The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.” [2]

Isn’t this another way of expressing Paul’s glorious doxology? It might not be as elegant, but if the Holy Spirit can take the deep, wordless groanings of our hearts and make them understood in prayer, why not the heartfelt, or exuberant, or awestruck simple “Wow!”

As the Reformers tell us, all of us are sinners, saved by God’s grace. So, all of us can say with Paul that God alone is to be worshiped—to God alone be the glory.

We can see from the life of the apostle Paul as well as from the lives of countless followers of Christ throughout the centuries, God can use anyone whom God wishes to use. Paul’s heart-stirring testimony can move us to pray, to serve, to live for God. Our Lord Jesus can take us, wherever and whomever we are, and use us. Here I am, God. Here are we. Send me. Send us.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3034 , September 11, 2016, Eric Barreto

[2] Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott, (United States of America: Riverhead Books, published by the Penguin Group, 2012) 71.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

By Scripture Alone

“By Scripture Alone”

2 Tim 3-16 Scripture God-breathed, script

2 Timothy 3:14-17 (3:16) – October 1, 2017

Who remembers going to Sunday school? Remember the bible lessons, and learning about God’s faithfulness? How God was faithful to people over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, and how God is faithful to us, today? Who remembers going to confirmation classes, and learning about God’s grace? How God extends abundant grace to us, today? Who remembers learning about Jesus, and how He came into the world to save sinners, including us?

The young Timothy learned lots of that kind of bible stuff, too. He grew up reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and was carefully taught about God and the ways of salvation and faith. Except, timid Timothy needed a knowledgeable mentor, an older brother in the faith, and he found one in the Apostle Paul. Paul zeroed in on the fact that Timothy grew up with the Scriptures. He praised Timothy for learning the Bible; “how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

I mentioned last week that I will be preaching this month on the five “Solas,” the five foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, this October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

This week, I am preaching on Sola Scriptura, or by Scripture alone. This foundational principle sets Protestants apart. This was a big deal in Martin Luther’s day. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, by Scripture alone was not the case in the minds of many, many people in Martin’s day. Not only clergy but also lay people in the 1500’s thought that they needed more stuff to add to the Bible, for salvation—to get them to heaven.

“I need the Scriptures plus the Pope to save me.” That was what some people thought. They considered the Pope’s pronouncements to be equal in weight to the Scriptures. That was one thing that Martin Luther publicly denounced in his 95 Theses, in several pointed statements.

Don’t get me wrong; I have highly praised both Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II from this pulpit, on several occasions. Francis is a spiritual, kind, caring and devout man, a marvelous representative for the Catholic Church worldwide. I could say similar things about John Paul II, may he rest in peace. Great leaders, and wonderful examples. Just not elevating their pronouncements to the level of the Holy Scriptures.

“I need the Scriptures plus church tradition to save me.” That was what some people thought. Yes, Holy Scripture was important. But many, many people for centuries thought that the doctrines and traditions of the Church Universal were of equal importance. The creeds and confessions and catechisms of the church were considered of equal importance, too.

Guess what? Doctrines, traditions, and creeds are all human creations. That means that humans made them. In most cases, very carefully. They checked and double-checked to make certain they agreed with Scripture. However, sometimes these faulty humans made mistakes. Sometimes these fallible, sinful humans goofed and put down their goofs on paper, for posterity to see. Sometimes sincere people of good conscience passed rules stating that certain things were good or positive or “the way things should be” or “it’s always been that way.”

“Over the centuries, doctrines have been developed with the interests of the Church in mind.  These doctrines have come to us from human hands and minds.  They are imperfect.” [1]

One vivid example? In 2017, we now understand that slavery is immoral. 150 years ago at the beginning of the American Civil War, sincere people of good conscience in certain denominations split ways over the biblical condition of slavery, described numerous times in the Scriptures. They did not reconcile for many decades. Similar to people at the time of Martin Luther, many were bound to tradition and following the church leaders of past centuries.

What about today? Is this still true? I think, yes. Today, “men use the Bible to enforce patriarchy.  Bigots use the Bible to justify discrimination.  The calling to serve the poor falls on deaf ears.  ‘Healing the sick’ is not a community responsibility, lest we have to pay more in taxes.  [Many] Christians use the Bible to satisfy their desires, promote their own interests, and express their own fears and bigotry.” [2]

How can people so blindly follow tradition, we might ask? To illustrate , here is a short story. “The new bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe, cutting off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. Her husband thinks the meat is delicious, but says, “Why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part!” She answers, “That’s the way my mother always made it.”

Bothered by this, the young bride calls her mother and asks, “You know the roast brisket recipe? Why do you cut off the ends of the roast before you put it in the pan?” Her mother answers, “That’s the way your grandmother always made it.”

“The next week, they go to the grandmother’s house, and she prepares the famous roast brisket recipe, again cutting off the ends. The young bride is sure she must be missing some vital information, so she asks her grandma why she cut off the ends. Grandma says, “My dear, that’s the only way it will fit in the pan!” [3]

What does Paul tell Timothy? “How from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. We, too, have learned Scripture in Sunday school, in confirmation classes, in bible studies and sermons over the years. “The one tradition, the one Scripture we are to continue is the one that has been nurtured in us, which points to only one thing: salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” That is a foundation stone of our faith. By Scripture alone.

Returning to the words of the Apostle Paul, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” So, Scripture is God-breathed. Divinely inspired. Breathed out by the Ruach ha Kodesh, the Holy Spirit.

The important part? “The descriptive words here are important: teaching, correcting, training. The Scripture invites us into a pattern of gospel living. It does not provide “yes” and “no” answers to every situation, every question, every dilemma.” [4] What the Bible does offer us—these blessed, holy Scriptures invite us into a pattern or example of gospel living. In other words, live like Jesus.

Is this an easy example to follow? No, but it is straight-forward. What would Jesus do?

As John 1 tell us, in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Do you hear? Holy Scripture equals the Word. The Word equals Jesus, the Word made flesh, come down from heaven.

We look to Scripture for our nurture, our faith, and our salvation. We look to our Lord Jesus to save us from our sins. We look to the Word made flesh, the Word we celebrate and remember in Communion, today. Praise God for salvation. Praise God for Scripture.

[1] https://modernlectionaries.blogspot.com/2013/10/making-sense-of-god-sound-doctrine-and_20.html

“Making Sense of God: ‘Sound Doctrine’ and Divine Inspiration,” Richard Mario Procida, Modern Lectionaries, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.snopes.com/weddings/newlywed/secret.asp , adapted.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=725

Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Our Debt? Love One Another

“Our Debt? Love One Another”

Rom 13-8 love one another, script

Romans 13:8-11 (13:8) – September 24, 2017

I am very pleased to announce that a big anniversary is coming up at the end of October. It is not just a big anniversary, it is a huge anniversary. October 31, 1517. This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, on the chapel door at Wittenberg University, in Germany.

Many people do not even know anything about this event. Some people really could not care less. However, I care very much. I was baptized and confirmed a Lutheran and spent two years studying Luther’s Small Catechism in confirmation preparation. I was a history and theology nerd throughout high school, learning as much as I could about the Reformation of the 1500’s, and Martin Luther in particular. I was not your typical teenager.

Today, I want to finish up our short series on the book of Romans, our Epistle readings from the Revised Common Lectionary that we have focused on for the past weeks. The Apostle Paul was also one of Martin Luther’s favorite biblical authors.

The Apostle Paul gets a bad rap from some people. True, he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He came from impeccable bloodlines, from the tribe of Benjamin, trained at the secular college in the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, and mentored by the renowned rabbi Gamaliel. He was puffed up about his ancestry and about his superior schooling.

Can you imagine the high-and-mighty Pharisee Saul-that-was, suddenly transformed into lowly Paul, a follower of the Messiah Jesus? Losing all that prestige, losing his position on the Sanhedrin, and also his position as an up-and-coming leader of the religious Jews. After all that, after such a come-down, Paul is not only following Jesus, but he is using his substantial rhetorical skills at persuading anyone who comes by that they ought to follow Jesus, too! That’s the situation right here, in the letter to the Roman church. We are in the middle of the practical section of the letter, where Paul gives advice and commands for his readers to listen to, and heed.

When it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures and the commands listed there, we recall the Big Ten, the Commandments given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. The Ten Commandments were the ultimate in the commands given to the people of Israel. Even though there were more than six hundred various laws in the Law Code of Moses as written down by various biblical scholars and religious lawyers in centuries following, the Big Ten commands led the list.

Here, in our reading today, Paul lists four of these commandments, the chief commands that refer to our relationships with each other. Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, and do not covet. As a former Pharisee, I suspect Paul had learned them when very young. Repeating them was something the devout followers of the Law of Moses did on a regular basis.

Paul could have given us a repetition of the Commandments and left it at that.

But, no. Paul wanted to go beyond just a rote repetition of the Law of Moses, of the Commandments—even the Ten Commandments that the Lord God gave on Mount Sinai. What he says in this reading today is nothing short of amazing, especially coming from a former Pharisee. Listen again to verse 8: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Full stop. Period.

And, again in verse 10, just in case anyone was not clear about what Paul was saying: “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Going back to our discussion about the Reformation of the 1500’s, one of the great confessions of the Protestant Church is the Heidelberg Catechism, completed in 1562. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the first question at the beginning: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The response: “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head.”

This Catechism was written in uncertain times, when religious wars were causing upheaval over large parts of Europe. Yet, the writers of this document have the sure certainty that Jesus Christ is, indeed, our faithful Savior, protecting us from ultimate, eternal separation from God our Heavenly Father.

Look more closely at this Catechism, which talks of human redemption, God the Father, Son and Spirit, the sacraments, prayer, and the Ten Commandments.

The section on the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” went right to my heart. Question 111 says: “What does God require of you in this commandment?” The response: “That I work for the good of my neighbor wherever I can and may, deal with him/her as I would have others deal with me, and do my work well so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.” What was it that Paul just said in Romans 13:10? ““Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Okay, love one another. But, what does that look like? How do we go about loving each other? The Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm preached on this reading from Romans, several years ago. He said, “loving your neighbor means, “if your neighbor is hungry, feed him.” It means “if your neighbor is thirsty, give her something to drink.” If there are people who are sick or hurting or suffering or alone in the world, visit them. It’s not rocket science! But it’s not easy.” [1]

The problem is, with us fallible people who sin from time to time, we forget. We fall back into old patterns, familiar but not-so-good habits. It’s all very well for Paul and the other Apostles to tell us, “love one another.” Martin Luther would be the first to tell us of his struggles with this very thing! How do we go against the grain and “love one another?” I mean, love all others? No matter who they are? I think we just heard from Dr. Brehm.

As Dr. Brehm tells us, our sinful, fallible selves are “always in the mode of “what’s in it for me?” But that’s not the kind of love the Bible teaches us. The kind of love that Jesus modeled for us and that the Apostles taught us to practice is a kind of love that simply gives to another person—without any wish to get anything in return.” [2]

The Apostle Paul gives us a big challenge today, and also a big blessing. God wants us to love one another! The Lord is so pleased when we try to love each other. As we try to love more and more, we draw closer and closer to God, and to each other. No matter who they are.

I know—from experience!—how difficult this can be. Some of us are stubborn. Some of us are afraid. Loving one another can be a really, really hard challenge. I want all of us to help each other. We can all think of one or two people we encounter on a regular basis who are difficult for us to love. I invite you all to write their names on a piece of paper. We will collect the names and the ushers will bring them forward for us all to pray over. We can ask God’s forgiveness for not loving them, and ask Jesus for His help to love one another as He loved us.

The last question in the Heidelberg Catechism is, “What is the meaning of the little word ‘Amen?’” The answer: “Amen means: this shall truly and certainly be. For my prayer is much more certainly heard by God than I am persuaded in my heart that I desire such things from Him.” We can all say, “Alleluia, amen” to that earnest, heartfelt prayer to God.

[1] http://thewakingdreamer.blogspot.com/2011/09/charity-never-fails-rom.html

A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/4/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]  Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Live at Peace with Everyone

“Live at Peace with Everyone”

Rom 12-18 if possible, peace - words

Romans 12:9-21 (12:18) – September 17, 2017

One of the most heartwarming books I have read in the past few decades is a book by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I would like to read a few sentences from this book.

“These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten): 1. Share everything. 2. Play fair. 3. Don’t hit people. 4. Put things back where you found them. 5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS. 6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. 7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody. 8. Wash your hands before you eat. 9. Flush. 10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. 11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work every day some. 12. Take a nap every afternoon. 13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” [1]

As we listen to this list of things Robert Fulghum brings to our attention, what goes through our heads? Are we charmed by the memories of little ones that come to mind? Or, do we think of the significant truths that come from our kindergarten friends?

As I was considering our Scripture reading this week from Romans, I immediately thought of Robert Fulghum’s book, and specifically this quote. If we set these two lists side by side, each list sounds like it is full of important things. Full of important tasks to accomplish on a regular, if not daily basis.

One thing that people who are very interested in bible translation do when they are looking at specific sentences or paragraphs is the look at the kinds of words that are used, and whether the writer had something special he was trying to get across. In the case of Romans 12, the Apostle Paul is using a lot of verbs, and most of these are imperative verbs. These are all commands to his fellow believers in Rome! Not just suggestions, or recommendations.

“Rather, [Paul’s] exhortations speak to any community patterning its life after that of the crucified and risen Christ. The words are a window on what life in Christ looks like in community.” [2]

Yes, in this American culture, the rugged individual pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, living their life all alone, on the edge, is so important to so many. BUT, the Apostle Paul reminds us that life is to be lived in a community. There are no Lone Ranger Christians. “One is tempted to imagine Paul saying with his syntax, “Don’t try this alone.” His advice is addressed to a bunch of people, and much of it concerns their shared life.” [3]

This piece of advice holds true whether for a group of secular people as well as for a church congregation. A short negative summary of these commands is “Do not do any evil to anyone:” If we turn that around (as Robert Fulghum does) and speak positively, we find that it sounds suspiciously like his list from All I Really Wanted to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.

There is a problem with these lists, no matter whether the Apostle Paul wrote about these commands or whether Robert Fulghum urges us to follow his positive suggestions  A big problem. No matter how much we may be trying to follow Jesus in our daily lives, hypocrisy and insincerity sneak up on all of us and clobber us over the head.

Sadly, we have many, many people with extreme black-and-white thinking, from all areas, from all cultures. These modern-day Pharisees talk about either totally sinning, or totally following God without reservation, and there is nothing at all in between. They bash others over the head with these commands in this list from Romans 12 (and from other lists that Paul writes in other places in the New Testament).

The preacher Kwasi Kena brings us an illustration. “Any bank teller knows that spotting counterfeit money first requires that one knows what is genuine. After repeated exposure to what is genuine, the bank teller can easily spot the counterfeit item. It is the same with genuine Christian love. Constant exposure to genuine Christian love builds a growing desire for more. That yearning for the genuine also produces repulsion toward the counterfeit.” [4]

Yes, we might be able to see blatant insincerity and hypocrisy and counter it, gently, in Christian love. What does Paul tell us, first thing? He says love above all is the way to go. When we are dissatisfied with our own lives or the lives of others, this can be an indication that something is not right. When some Pharisees start judging and self-righteously shaking their fingers at us, and get in our faces with extreme black-and-white thinking, and extreme shaming, what then? Sorrow for them might happen in our hearts. We can point them out immediately.

As Kwasi Kena tells us, the seasoned bank teller—or, the committed Christian who is loving, caring, generous and kind in his or her dealings with others can spot hypocrisy and insincerity from a mile away. The Apostle Paul’s message urges us to embrace genuine love through Jesus Christ, whether individually or in community. And, even embrace these self-righteous, judgmental ones.

“Mutual love and honour or respect is fundamental to good community (12:10). There is no room for exploitation of any kind. Nor is there room for shaming behaviour. We are to be free from having to win (by making others into losers). Paul urges a positive attitude in 12:11. For Paul this is less about rules of behaviour and more about choosing to believe in hope.” [5]

Over the past several decades Robert Fulghum wrote six books, all New York Times bestsellers, and still popular today. He has a master’s degree in theology and has also been a minister in the Unitarian Church for several decades. I consider his words about kindergarteners (and the rest of us human beings) to be so incredibly important for our search for genuine love, caring, kindness and reaching out to others, in the name of God.

From Rev.Fulghum again: “Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all—the whole world—had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.” [6]

I think the Apostle Paul would approve of Rev. Fulghum’s words. What was one of the summary statements of Paul’s words of wisdom from Romans 12? “17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

It does not matter whether we look at Robert Fulghum’s wise words or at the words of wisdom from Romans 12: care about each other. Love one another. No matter what, no matter where, no matter who. Individually, and in a community.

Let us allow Rev. Fulghum to have the last word for today: “And it is still true, no matter how old you are—when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and to stick together.”[7]

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] Fulghum, Robert, All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986),

[2] Commentary on Romans 12:9-21, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1060   Mary Hinkle Shore

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/book-of-romans-sermon-starters-week-14

Book of Romans, Sermon Starters—Week 14 , Evangelistic Preaching Helps for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Year A– September 3, 2017 by Kwasi Kena

[5] http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpPentecost12.htm “First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages in the Lectionary,” Pentecost 12, William Loader, Murdoch University, Uniting Church in Australia

[6] Fulghum, Robert, All I Really Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1986),

[7] Ibid.

God Wants Me to Change?

“God Wants Me to Change?”

Rom 12-2 be transformed, words

Romans 12:1-2 (12:2) – September 10, 2017

The date of September 11th is a significant date to remember. Just as many people remember where they were on November 22, 1963, the date John F. Kennedy was assassinated, so, too, many people remember where they were on September 11, 2001, when planes flew into buildings, and horror upon horror was seen on televisions and video monitors around the world..

When we think of the inhumanity that people display—people who assassinate a national leader, or who cold-bloodedly kill dozens, or even hundreds of their fellow human beings—man’s inhumanity to man can leave our jaws hanging open, shaking our heads in disbelief.

We are horrified when we think about such things. I am sorry to bring this up, but Romans, the book of the New Testament from which our Scripture reading comes, has some very bad news in it. All of us fall short of what God wants for us. All of us miss the mark, as far as God is concerned. As Romans 3:11 tells us, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one seeks after God.” We are all self-centered, not God-centered.

However, the book of Romans also has some very good news! The Apostle Paul says we are not deserted in such a hopeless situation. No! “The message of [the book of] Romans is that sin’s mastery over humankind has been broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” [1] We all know that the wages of sin is death—death, meaning separation from God forever. But the free gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ! Those are the blessed words of Romans 6:23!

I wanted to remind everyone about this difference, this separation that the Apostle Paul tells us about, us and the Roman believers. Here, on this side, is the BEFORE side. Life without God. Life is really bad news! Eternal darkness, and separation from God, forever. Here, on the other side, is the AFTER side. Life with Christ, and life eternally in God’s presence and light.

Just in case anyone is wondering exactly how we develop a relationship with Christ, we tell our Lord Jesus that we have sinned. We are truly sorry, we confess our sins to Him, and ask Him to forgive us. The best part? He will forgive us, freely! No strings attached. And then, we will enter into the best relationship we will ever have in our lives—true friendship with God.

Thanks be to God that we are accepted through our Lord Jesus Christ, and as Romans 8 tells us, nothing—in the whole universe—can separate us from the love of God!

That, in a nutshell, is the message of the first half of the letter to the Romans. But, now that we are in Christ, now what? What do we do now? How shall we then live? These first two verses of Romans chapter 12 hit home. Paul gives us several strong commands.

Let’s read Romans 12:1 again from that wonderful modern translation by Eugene Peterson, “The Message.” “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

We were just asking, now that I—you—all of us believe in Jesus, confess our sins, and are welcomed by God into the family of God, what next? Right here, Paul tells us. Paul wants us to place our whole lives before God as our offering.

Did you know the Jewish people in Israel (before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that is) sacrificed all kinds of things at the Temple, often? That was a requirement for being obedient to God, for being a fine, upstanding Jew. There were thank offerings, and guilt offerings, offerings for forgiveness and for harvest time, wave offerings, drink offerings, and animal offerings. Offerings on special occasions, and everyday offerings. There were enough animal, grain, wine, and other offerings to keep the many priests at the Temple in Jerusalem very busy, indeed! I’m not talking about only the Pharisees, but all of Israel. God expected offerings from everyone.

That was then—during the time of Jesus, and before. But, what about now? What kinds of offerings is Paul talking about? How do we bring offerings to God? I’ll say it again. Or rather, Paul will tell us, from Romans 12:1: “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

A number of years ago, my children, my husband and I went to Michigan to see my in-laws. They decided we all should go to a really nice public garden, some distance away from their home. The public garden included a butterfly house. I don’t know whether anyone here has ever been to a butterfly house, but all different kinds and colors of butterflies fly around. Plus, there is a special section where the caterpillars make their cocoons and become a chrysalis. It takes some time, but finally they transform into a butterfly. My children just loved watching the butterflies flit around from flower to flower. I decided to sit still, and several butterflies came and landed on my arms. One even landed on my head.

Is there a difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly? I think we all would say, yes! Certainly! Is there a difference between the sinful us, and the forgiven us? I think so. That is what the Apostle Paul is getting at.

God is so pleased when we bring our whole selves to God. Before, our old selves were sinful, self-centered, and not doing or thinking or saying the things that pleased God. That sinful self is what the Apostle Paul talks about in the first half of this letter to the Romans! But now we have a relationship with God, we are being changed from the inside out. A complete change of our inner, spiritual selves, from being self-centered to God-centered!

A caterpillar changes or transforms into a butterfly. In the same way, “Paul speaks of radical inward change. The mind is key in the renewal process. The renewed mind is able to think, discern, and test what will please God instead of being deceived by sin.” [2]

Now, I need to let everyone know: this change is still happening. We are not completely sin-less. With God’s help, we sin less and less.

Sadly, the world we inhabit is still very much affected by sin. We can see that from natural disasters, like hurricanes, wild fires and earthquakes (to mention some catastrophic things happening in our world right now). Our fellow human beings are also very much affected by sin and self-involvement, self-centered fear and self-important egotism, focusing on their own issues to the neglect of any one or any thing else.

Which brings us full circle to what we started this sermon with: man’s inhumanity to man. It is not difficult to tick off on both hands the horrible things people do to other people. We can feel sadness for the sin we still have in our own lives, too. We can shake our heads, in sorrow and grief. And, yes, we can praise God that God is not finished with us yet!

As the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Scripture reading in Romans 12:2, “fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it.”

Does God want all of us to change? You bet! Each day we are becoming more and more changed into the likeness of our Lord Jesus. We can all say “amen!” to that.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1038

Commentary, Romans 12:1-8, Mary Hinkle Shore,, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] Chesser, Dawn  – Director of Preaching Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/book-of-romans-sermon-starters-week-13

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Compassion? Go and Do Likewise

“Compassion? Go and Do Likewise”

Luke 10-37 good-samaritan, line drawing

Luke 10:25-37 (10:37) – September 3, 2017

A good number of years ago, my husband and I attended a large church. This church had a great number of activities, classes and ministries. One of the classes that I enjoyed attending was one particular adult Sunday school class. In this class, there were a number of middle-aged and older adults, some of whom really enjoyed discussing and arguing together about the finer points of the Bible. Some of these people were really knowledgeable about Scripture, about archeology and about ancient culture, and they could argue their points to beat the band. Did I mention that a number of them were lawyers?  People who were well trained to argue and press their points firmly. Even pouncing upon and verbally trapping their adversaries.

While I enjoyed this verbal sparring on occasion, this got a bit tiresome. Instead of huddling together, talking among ourselves inside a church classroom, I wanted to go out into the community and talk with others about the love of God. I wanted to show people how much God loves them.

That’s the situation in the Gospel of Luke. The Rabbi Jesus was having another one of His religious conversations, about the finer points of the Mosaic Law Code. Yes, Jesus knew the Law of Moses backwards and forwards. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures intimately. Yet, so did many of the religious leaders who asked Jesus question after question. Especially this religious lawyer who asked Jesus several questions. I believe this lawyer was well trained to argue and press his points firmly. Even pouncing upon and verbally trapping his adversaries.

I love this compassion series that I have been using for our summer sermon series. The Illustrated Children’s Ministry has done a tremendous job of translating the weekly Bible passages into an understandable story that anyone can understand. I bet we all know passages from the Bible that are so difficult. Not these Scripture passages! These Bible translations are straightforward so that anyone from 5 to 95 can easily understand them.

Let’s listen to the beginning of Luke 10, starting at verse 25: “A man who knew a whole lot about religious laws came to Jesus with a question. He said, “Teacher, how do I really, truly, live with God?”

“Jesus asked him, “Well, what does God’s law say? How do you understand it?” The man answered him, “It says to love God, completely—with heart and soul and strength and mind—and to love your neighbor like your own self.” And Jesus said to him, “That’s it! Do that, and you’ll have the life you’re asking about.”

That’s the initial question the lawyer asks. How does he—how do we—really, truly, live with God? Jesus responds with the question, “What does God’s law say?”

I recently preached a sermon about this all-important two-part law: we love God completely, the vertical part of love, and we love our neighbor like our own selves, the horizontal part of love. That is distilling all of God’s many commands in the Bible down to the foundation, the very core of what God expects from us. That two-part command is enough for another sermon. Indeed, many sermons have been preached on this bible verse!

But, wait, there’s more. The religious lawyer wasn’t done with the Rabbi Jesus yet. He goes a step further, and asks another question. I am not certain whether he wanted to trick Jesus, and make Him trip up verbally, or whether the lawyer felt really convicted, and wanted to justify himself.

What does our Scripture passage say? “Still wondering, the man asked, “But who exactly is my neighbor?” And in response, Jesus told this story.”

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. A certain man—an anonymous, undefined man, so we are not sure where he fit in the social order—this man was beaten up and left for dead while he was traveling. He is identified only by what happened to him.

Two fellow travelers came upon him, on the side of the road. One was a priest, an important religious man. He looked at the hurt guy from a distance, and then turned and went on his way. The second was a Levite, another important lay leader at a synagogue. He also looked at the hurt guy from a distance. He, too, crossed to the other side of the road and passed by the guy who was lying in a ditch.

Both of these men were upstanding leaders in their communities. Both of them had significant stature. Both of them neglected this poor guy who was obviously in need of help. We are not told why, just that both of these very important people stopped, noticed the guy who was beaten up, and passed by on the other side of the road.

Now, the third man to pass by was a Samaritan. I don’t know whether you are aware of the fear and even hatred the Jewish people had for Samaritans. Think back a number of decades. Can anyone remember the fear and animosity parts of this country had for black people? How Jim Crow laws were firmly in place in large parts of the South? Let’s go back to World War II, and the perceptions of Germans, Italians, and Japanese in the United States. There was a great fear and animosity for these groups of people.

Now you might better understand the fear and hatred the Jewish people had for these half-breed Samaritans, supposed traitors to the people of Israel.

The third person to come upon the hurt man in Jesus’s story? He was indeed a Samaritan, and he did something none of Jesus’s listeners would expect. The Samaritan was kind to the hurt man.  As commentator David Lose tells us, “the Samaritan instead goes to him, and becomes vulnerable in that closeness. How often are we frightened to come close to others simply because we do not want to bear their pain, to be open to their need?” [1]

Most of the people listening to this story would have been enemies to the Samaritans, since Jews and Samaritans did not get along. How do you imagine the people Jesus was talking to felt when they heard this story of a Samaritan reaching out to help a Jew? Can we take this shocking story and move it to the present day? Are we shocked when we see a newspaper article or television news story about an observant Muslim man helping an elderly Orthodox Jew who has fallen and hurt himself on a busy sidewalk?

Again, are we frightened to come close to others simply because we are afraid of being open to their need? To their pain?

The Samaritan showed compassion by binding up the hurt man’s wounds, taking him to an inn and paying for the hurt man to stay there and recuperate. Compassion, indeed, is sympathy put into action. As I have been preaching each week this summer, God wants each of us to show compassion to others. Be kind, show mercy, be sympathetic. Just like the Samaritan.

We need to look at the end of the story from Luke 10. Then Jesus asked, “Who became a neighbor to the man who was attacked?” And the man with the questions said, “The one who had compassion for him.” Jesus said, “Go. Do that.”

I can just see the religious lawyer, shocked that the hated Samaritan is the good guy in this story of the Rabbi Jesus. His answer in response to “who became the neighbor?” The lawyer couldn’t even say “the Samaritan,” so he said “the one who had compassion.” Jesus speaks to us, just as strongly as He spoke to that lawyer so long ago. We are to have compassion, in exactly the same way.

“No one is beyond the reach of God’s love. No one. And so Jesus brings this home by choosing the most unlikely of characters to serve as the instrument of God’s mercy and grace and exemplify Christ-like behavior. That’s what God does: God chooses people no one expects and does amazing things through them. Even a Samaritan. Even our people. Even me. Even you.” [2]

What does Jesus say to the lawyer? What does Jesus say to us, today? “Go. Do that.” “Go, and do likewise.”

 

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-8-c-the-god-we-didnt-expect/  “The God We Didn’t Expect,” David Lose, in the Meantime, 2016.

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-8-c-the-god-we-didnt-expect/  “The God We Didn’t Expect,” David Lose, in the Meantime, 2016.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Illustrated Compassion: Learning to Love Like God. Many of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this series.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my summer sermon series on compassion. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)