Sunday, August 11, 2013

Ordinary 19C, August 11, 2013 -- Guest Preacher: Alan Olson

No Jesus, Know Fear; Know Jesus, No Fear

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
1The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5“Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7“Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.

22“Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

Luke 12:32-40
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

            When I was selecting texts for this morning’s lessons, I had a difficult choice to make. One of the other Old Testament readings in the Lectionary for this week is from the first chapter of Isaiah, and it includes verses 10-13:
1:10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
1:11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
1:12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more;
1:13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
God strikes the same tone in Psalm 50, acknowledging the frequent sacrifices made by Israel, yet rebuking them all the same. The main charge against Israel is that the people are not making their offerings with thanksgiving. Rather, they are just going through the motions—sacrifice is an empty observance and God is not satisfied by this. The people of God have forgotten God; the price for this forgetfulness? God has the right to tear Israel apart. And the ending for today’s reading from Isaiah is about the same, as God says to Israel, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” That’s pretty scary stuff.
            This language of charges and rights and judgments almost seems to be borrowed from the courtroom. In fact, this is a common device in the Old Testament. Biblical scholars call this form a covenant lawsuit. God is placing the people Israel on trial for not living up to their obligations. Another place where you may have noticed this is in the Book of Micah, chapter 6, verses 1-8. In that passage, God lists many of the things that God has done for Israel, and then God demands that Israel answer for its shortcomings. I mention this because the answers to the charges that God raises against Israel are remarkably similar. In Micah 6:8, the prophet exhorts Israel to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Similarly, Isaiah instructs Israel to: “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
            It sounds easy, yet Israel seems to have trouble living into these instructions… and so do we. I think part of the problem, which is reinforced by these scriptures, is that God offers us heaping helpings of fear. Fear can be a great motivator, but sometimes it motivates us too well; it distorts the larger picture. For centuries, the Church has taught us that our main purpose here on Earth is to get into Heaven when we die. And if we obey what we’re told in the scriptures, and we live right, then we’ll get in. That’s it! Oh, and we should also be scared of going to Hell. Really, really scared. Fear helped to keep us in line.
            And then some crazy people came along and challenged some of these teachings. Crazy people, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who didn’t believe in works righteousness, the idea that you or I could work our way into Heaven by doing good deeds or perfectly observing all of God’s commandments—if such a thing were humanly possible. Don’t worry. It’s not. Don’t worry.
            This is how Jesus begins this morning’s lesson from Luke: “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Jesus begins by dialing down the fear: “Do not be afraid, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Wow, that’s really happy and hopeful. Then, instead of telling us to be afraid, Jesus tells us how we should live, and that’s truly frightening: he tells us to sell all our possessions. Sell all our possessions!
            I can’t believe that none of you jumped up and ran out of here. You’re all going to wait to sell all your possessions until after church, right? Yeah, me, too.
            And this is where the widows and the orphans and the thankfulness come back into the picture. What Jesus is talking about, what Isaiah is talking about, what Micah was talking about, and what the Psalmist was talking about was living in a right relationship with God. To do this, we must thank God for the love that God has shown us, and then we must love one another—completely and unconditionally—just as God loves us. We call this agape love. I’m sure you’ve heard this term before.
            A great example of this can be found in Mark 12:29-31, when Jesus answers the scribe’s question, which is the greatest commandment: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
            Caring for the widow and the orphan, providing for the poor, advocating for the homeless, feeding the hungry, these are acts of love for our human family. We all talk about doing these things, and some of us do these things . . . some of the time. So let me ask you the uncomfortable question: When is the last time one of you sold an extra TV set, or an old car, and gave the money to charity? When’s the last time you went out to a restaurant and ate a really expensive meal? Could you have opted for a less expensive mean, and then, maybe made a donation to your local food bank?
            Before you start squirming in your pews, do not be afraid. I am not here to condemn you. I am no holier than any of you. I have also missed countless opportunities for acts of charity; I have failed, time and again, to live into that right relationship with God. And God loves me still, just as God loves each of you. Do not be afraid.
            Jesus is not calling for each of us to sell all our earthly possessions, though he is calling for us to let go of our greed and give freely of ourselves. Greed is an easy trap to fall into. Anxiety and fear can lead us to believe that we won’t have enough: enough food, enough money, enough love. So we hoard them when we can find them. This is a problem. The Apostle Paul might call this idolatry; at the very least, it seems that we are putting goods in the place of God, and in our hoarding, we disregard the needs of others.[1]
            In our disregard for the needs of others, we fail to practice agape love. Our failure works on another level. If our desire to hoard comes from a fear of scarcity, then we are also failing to fully trust in God. We’re not alone in this. Think of the Israelites, wandering through the desert. God led them out of Egypt, sent them manna, yet they complained about the accommodations on the trip. Even worse, they worshipped a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai. They were not willing to trust completely in God. I think it’s safe to say that fear can interrupt a healthy relationship with God.
            Yet God did not let the Israelites perish in the desert. As many times as they turned away, God welcomed them back. What’s more, when the people of Israel continued to have trouble living in a right relationship with God, God entered the world in the person of Jesus. God’s only son was sent to teach us how to restore our relationship with God. What an amazing act of grace!
            And that restoration begins with prayer, as we were taught by Jesus. Let’s look at the language of the Lord’s Prayer. I do not ask God to provide for me. No. Collectively, we ask for God to provide for us just what we need—and nothing more! We do not ask for an abundance of resources; we ask for our daily bread. Our daily bread.
            It strikes me that the Lord’s Prayer is also a prayer of trust. By voicing this prayer, we are saying that we trust God to feed us, to take care of our needs. We ask God to provide for everyone; sometimes we are the instruments by which God provides for others, it is part of the cycle of trust and agape love. We trust that God loves us enough to provide for us, and we reflect that love and trust to those who cannot care for themselves. All the time, Jesus reminds us, “Do not fear.” This is the grace of God. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace,” in the person of Jesus, “my fears relieved.” And with deepest thanksgiving, I say, thanks be to God! Amen!

[1] Fred B. Craddock. Luke. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990.

Ordinary 18C, August 4, 2013 -- Guest Preacher, Keith Mihelcic

Identity Crisis

Colossians 3:1-11
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
But now you must get rid of all such things--anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices
and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."
But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you? “And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. “Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? ‘Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. ‘But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

When it comes to picking a topic for a sermon, there are essentially two types of preachers out there: there are the ones who, when they write a sermon like to choose their own texts. Perhaps they feel called to preach on a certain topic, or perhaps they decide to preach on a theme or a series that they have come up with. Then there are the others, like myself, who rely on the lectionary to suggest to them what to preach from.
I, myself am not as imaginative or as hardworking as the first group! I would say once, maybe twice, I have selected my own texts to preach from. I prefer to have the lectionary just throw me a few verses to choose from.
Now this has led me into trouble before. Two of the hardest sermons I ever researched and wrote, I preached here, at Emsworth UPC. The first one was on that Presbyterian staple, the highly confusing, sometimes controversial, yet always fun, predestination. The second was even worse. It was on that wonderful, wonderful Romans passage in which Paul speaks of the hate of God. That is always a fun verse to try to wrap your mind around.
Yet, after initially reading the texts for today, I immediately had one thought pop into my mind: mistaken identity. It is a much bigger problem than most of us would like to think. Mistaken identity has almost reached epidemic-like levels in this country, in my opinion. Also, this is not something new. As we will see mistaken identity has been an issue for thousands of years, from the time of Adam and Eve in the garden, to this very day. This may seem a bit of a stretch, but hear me out.
Let’s start with us, the body of Christ. Do we suffer from mistaken identity? Do we really know who we are? If we are just a bunch of loving compassionate people following Jesus, why don’t we always act like it? Why don’t I always act like it? What it comes down to, in my opinion, is faith and belief. Many of you, I am sure, have heard the analogy that goes something like this: I believe that this chair will support my weight. I honestly do. Well then, why don’t I turn that belief into faith and have a seat?
Jesus was very clear on the way we are to live. However, just in case he was a little ambiguous with his words, the Apostle Paul clarifies them for us. We know how we are to live. We have been given the perfect example in Jesus Christ.
When I was younger I would behave badly and my Mom would ask me “How old are you?” When I would sheepishly answer she would then say “Act like it!”  I guess we can rephrase the question. Whenever we find ourselves falling into all too familiar traps and patterns we can ask ourselves “Who is our Lord and Savior who died for our sins?”
Jesus Christ.
Then perhaps we should act like He is. Perhaps we should act like Him.
The term Christians means, literally, “little Christs”. Are we? Do we act like it? Well, we are.
We should act like who we are. No matter if we like it or not, we are called to, and hopefully compelled to, live and act a certain way. Paul gives us a fantastic list of things that we need to get rid of or “put away”. Granted there are some nasty things on that list. I won’t ask for a show of hands but I bet the majority of us can point to one or two of those things on this list, maybe more, that we are guilty of. Maybe even recently. This month perhaps? This week? week. Maybe even today.
I know that in my own life it seems like I put on anger when I get into my car.  I get angry sometimes when I drive and people are not driving up to my expectations. I get frustrated and think bad thoughts when the cashier at the store is having a bad day and taking for-ev-er to check people out. Come on, lady. Hurry up. Don’t you know who I am? Do I know who I am? Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. Jesus would weep, I think.
Now an interlude…… and a confession.
When I write a sermon the first thing I do is come up with a general theme. After that, or sometimes right around the same time I usually come up with a title. Then I will write an outline, do a little research, and then I actually get down to writing it.
With this sermon I did all of that and I was just to that line, (hopefully you remember it!) where I said “Jesus would weep”. After that point, it seems my inspiration dried up and my motivation left me. Yes, I still had an outline that I could have worked from and I tried a few times. Yet nothing that I came up with sounded good to me. It just didn’t feel right. Now, I know that most folks who write, or paint or do “creative” things have a moment when they look at something they are working on and think “This is total garbage. What am I doing here?”
That is how I felt every time I decided to go beyond that aforementioned sentence.
I will be honest; I have had a rough couple of weeks. Tore a calf muscle, (it is almost healed), my Mom went into the hospital in very dramatic fashion, (she is doing fine now, see?) my Dad had to go to the ER with an issue the other night. Add on to that the stress of work and my boss being on vacation, so I am running the show, and customers complaining, and people in my department coming in three hours late, on and on and on…all this stress, at times. All this business. All this living.
At one point on Friday, in the midst of all the chaos, I sat back in my chair at work took a deep breath and it came to me. Or should I say, I heard a still small voice inside my head. I knew why I was so blocked when it came to this sermon.
I had forgotten. It wasn’t so much as mistaken identity; I was having an identity crisis. Forgetting who I am, I had spiritual amnesia so to speak. I think that this is an issue that many of us have and live with from time to time.
As Solomon wrote “There is nothing new under the sun”. Nothing. This kind of identity crisis and the spiritual malaise that comes with it has been going on for a long, long time. Think of all the people of God in the Old Testament. Now think about the faults that each one had. Murderers. Adulterers. Drunks. Cowards. People with breath-taking anger management issues. People a lot like us.
People who were blessed by God, saw God work and move in their lives, yet people who still did not get it. People who still clung to their old ways. Isn’t that us?
I know it’s me. From time to time I get this way where I feel just so overwhelmed, and you would think it would force me to my knees, and maybe, at first, it does. But I get up and try to take it all on again myself. Alone. Of my own accord and power.
I forget who I am in Christ. Or maybe sometimes I do not fully realize who he is. Jesus got that a lot. Look at the guy in our Gospel lesson. He thinks Jesus came to solve family disputes over property. Sure, rabbis back then were often asked to settle disputes, but that is not why Jesus came. Jesus plainly through his parable tells this man you are worried about the wrong things. Your priorities are way out of line. I am not here to be your lawyer.
Believe it or not, I am beginning to think that perhaps Jesus does not care about my financial well being. At all. I believe Pastor Susan said it in a sermon a few weeks ago, something to the effect of, “when you have absolutely nothing - THAT is when your true character comes through.
That is what Jesus wants. The TRUE “us” to come out. Ever notice that people in poor countries who are Christians are so joyous? They have so little, yet they rejoice so much. We have SO much and we sulk. We want more. WE are driven by our consumerism and our selfish desires and fleshly lusts, to what end? Why?
I went out and got a new phone the other night. I didn’t really need a new phone. The one I had was working just fine. It was old and it did not have all of the bells and whistles that some of the newer ones have. Also, my contract was up, so technically the phone was free. I paid a small “upgrade” fee. Whatever that is.
You know why I needed that phone? So that when I pass away, when I see Jesus in heaven I can say Jesus, check out my new phone! Isn’t it great?”
But wait.
I can’t take that with me, can I? None of us can take anything with us? So what will I have with me when I meet Jesus face to face? Nothing. None of my stuff?
No. It will be just me as I am, and as I was meant to be. I will be standing there before Jesus in all his glory.
I am not trying to make anyone feel bad this morning. Not at all. That’s not my job today. I am preaching the sermon I felt called to write and deliver. If you have any feelings at all about anything I have touched on this morning, I encourage you to think about it. To pray long and hard about it. I know I will.
The thing is, as I was writing and thinking about this sermon a thought kept crossing my mind. I think I may be the one person in here who needs to hear this the most. In turn, instead of preaching to the choir I am preaching to myself.
However, I think that God wanted me to share it with all of you.
For we must remember our identities. For our real identities, when we strip away all the things, and all of the sins of the flesh that cling to all of us, our real, authentic identities come out when we stand before Christ. For as we heard today we have been risen in Christ. THAT is our identity. Our lives, our REAL lives are hidden with him. Our lives our not in the sins we commit or the things we own. Although, those things can overshadow and threaten to eclipse the lives we are called to lead.
Our identities became one with Jesus when we gave our lives to Him. We need so desperately to remember that. We should not remember this like we would some random fact or piece of information. We need to remember this as we live out a strong, vibrant faith. As we live out our identities, identities that I pray will never be in crisis. Amen