Sunday, March 29, 2015

Palm/Passion Sunday -- March 29, 2015

Divine Politics

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below -- which was not delivered exactly as written -- may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned.

The sermon on Palm Sunday was cut short by a medical emergency involving one of our members attending worship.  She was taken by ambulance to a local hospital.  We pray for her wholeness and healing, and are thankful for the members of our congregation who tenderly cared for her while waiting for medical help. 

Philippians 2:1-11

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

A couple of years ago, I read a book called, American Savior, A Novel of Divine Politics.  At the beginning of the book, we meet Russ Thomas, a TV reporter, who is sent to cover a story of a young child who had fallen three stories, seemed dead, and came back to life when a stranger came up and touched him.  Some people were calling it a miracle, but Russ remained skeptical. Later, he's sent to a hospital where the same stranger has visited a young girl and seemingly cured her of a chronic illness.

The stranger becomes known as "The Good Visitor," and he turns out to be Jesus Christ. One day, Jesus calls Russ and tells him that he's running for President of the United States and would like for Russ to work on his campaign. Russ is not convinced at first, but finally agrees when Jesus visits Russ's girlfriend in a dream.

Jesus assembles a ragtag campaign team and heads out on the road as the candidate for The Divinity Party.  Jesus runs an unusual campaign - he doesn't criticize his opponents and he's always available to take questions.  I know – very unusual, right?  Jesus' chances of being elected seem slim as he faces skepticism from both ends of the political spectrum over his platform of kindness and goodness and the fact that he names his mother as his running mate.

At the end of the book, a woman in a crowd screams out her accusation that the candidate is not really Jesus.

"I might not be," he said slowly. "I might not be. But my question to you is this: would you know him if he came into your midst? If he came into your midst and did not look the way you expected him to look, and did not speak as you expected him to speak, would you know him?"

Maybe I am the only one who thinks like this, but the gospel stories of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy week, seem as inadvertently satirical as this intentionally satirical book I’ve just described.  Unlike a polished politician who spends his or her early career amassing money and connections, and crafting a carefully cultivated public image, Jesus has spent most of the gospel narrative up until today recklessly abandoning his home, family, reputation, and safety.  Instead of ingratiating himself to the powers that be, Jesus has become a scandalous figure in the eyes of the temple authorities. and a terrible pest to the state.  Everyone else who meets Jesus wants to claim him as being on the side of their particular cause, their particular tradition, their particular theological view.

But Jesus refuses to be boxed in by human expectations.  Jesus goes through life on the side of nobody but God, which often puts him at odds with pretty much everyone else except those that nobody else will claim and whom God seems to always side with -- marginalized, sick, despised, and forgotten people.  Those are the kind of folks who will throw their lot in with Jesus because they have nothing left to lose. 

But on this Sunday, Palm Sunday, it seems as if Jesus has finally woken up and gotten with the program.  It’s high political drama, Jesus entering into Jerusalem, greeted by the crowds of people who want him to be their king, to save them from Rome, and be their shiny new Messiah.

But Jesus will have none of it.  He soon turns his back on the shouts of “Hosanna!!” It’s like he didn’t even hear the roar of the crowd.  And once they sense that this Jesus is not the candidate they’d been hoping for, the crowd becomes disillusioned.  Pretty soon, their enchantment with Jesus will morph into anger, which will finally boil over into shouts of “Crucify him!”

Nothing will change Jesus’ course.  Not the fear of disappointing his public.  Not the heartbreak of leaving his friends.  None of that can stop him.  He keeps walking and walking as everything keeps getting darker and darker, but Jesus doesn’t stop walking until the very end.  

In this text from Philippians, Paul tells us why Jesus ignored every opportunity to save himself and take over the whole human operation.  Because Jesus had the mind of God, Jesus had to give himself away completely, to give himself completely over to love.  Jesus had to turn his back on the power that could have so easily been his by getting down on his hands and knees to serve people who couldn’t do a thing for him in return and abandoned him in the end.  Jesus ends up dead because that’s what usually happens when power meets a threat it cannot master or tame.  There’s nothing more threatening to power than genuine, self-giving, self-sacrificing love that is the mind, the very essence, of God. 

Jesus resisted any attempt to make his message or ministry the private domain of a particular culture, government, or group.  By being on God’s side, Jesus was on everyone’s side.  As this became clear, the crowds begin to melt away. 

Holy Week always makes me feel a little uncomfortable because I know that I do not have the mind of Jesus.  Holy Week makes me feel uncomfortable because I know I would have a difficult time resisting the impulse to grab the power that Jesus had at his fingertips and strike back against the tyranny of the Roman Empire.   Holy Week makes me uncomfortable because I know I would be one of those people who shouted Hosanna on Sunday, and leave Jesus on his own in a garden a couple of days because this suffering servant has let me down and it’s becoming much too scary and dangerous to follow him.  Any fool could see what was going to happen to Jesus.   Holy Week always makes me uncomfortable because I know  deep down that I am an amateur at love, that I will fall asleep when the going gets tough, that I will not answer his call when it really matters, and I will abandon him if it means I have to give up my own assurance of being right about everything.

Holy Week makes me uncomfortable because it reminds me that walking with Jesus all the way to the cross means I must not only have the mind of God, but also be of the same mind of others who seek to walk the same road.  I can’t claim Jesus as the one who supports my views, my opinions, and my preferences as if that’s all that interests Jesus.  I have to think about other people first, and care more about them than I do for myself.   I have to shed my own little ambitions and my own little prejudices.  And once I do that, what will be left over for me?

This discomfort came into sharp relief for me this week when I was sitting with a group of pastor colleagues talking about a vote on same gender marriage coming up in May at a meeting  of Pittsburgh Presbytery.  Although it has already received support from enough presbyteries to change the wording about marriage in our Book of Order, the presbyteries that have not voted on it yet are still required to do so.  I have sat through pretty much every single meeting of the presbytery over the past decade.  I have been to three General Assemblies where this topic has been front and center.  I have heard pretty much every endless and heated public debate, and countless private ones, on the matters related to homosexuality and the PCUSA.  By my count, I have suffered at least 32 migraine headaches as a result of listening to the arguments.  As I am sure many of you do, I have a very specific point of view on the topic.  But when it comes to how we talk with one another in these gatherings, I find those debates nothing short of soul-sucking awful, no matter the result.

As I sat with my colleagues this week, I wondered out loud:  Can we do this differently this time?  Instead of talking past each other on the floor of presbytery, could we instead seek to honor one another?  Could we look not to our own interests, but to the interests of someone else?  Could we intentionally reach out in humility and maybe love to those with whom we disagree?  Could the headline in the Post-Gazette on the Friday morning for once not be, “Pittsburgh Presbytery approves or disapproves gay marriage after a bitter battle,” but “In a Surprising Turn of Events, Pittsburgh Presbyterians Love One Another.”  Or, “In Surprising Turn of Events, Pittsburgh Presbyterians Unite To Devote Their Energy to Mission and Ministry Instead of Dividing?”

Wouldn’t that be the craziest thing ever?  I’m pretty sure my colleagues wondered what I’d been drinking.

But this is why Jesus’ divine politics made people so mad during Holy Week.  After the parade ends, nobody can claim him as their own personal Messiah.  Jesus openly refuses to side with anyone.  Not with the religious leaders who hear his claims and see his actions as intentional blasphemy.  Not with the disciples who can clearly see how badly this project is going to end and will deny that they ever knew the man in order to save their own skin.  Not with Pilate who despite endless contortions to try to keep Jesus off the cross cannot make a deal with this guy.  Not the crowds who had started out screaming for Roman blood and are now shrieking for the execution of this faker who led them on with his healing and feeding miracles.  Where’s the bread now?  Why won’t Jesus save us, all of us, the way we want to be saved? 

If anyone could claim to know the mind of God, it was Jesus.  And what we see in Holy Week is a God who is driven not by power or by might, but by love and mercy so deep, so wide, so broad that it cannot be contained by one side or another, but is poured out for the sake of everyone.  And that makes Holy Week uncomfortable for us.  It should make us uncomfortable and if it doesn’t, maybe we’re doing it wrong.

I’ve spoken to you before about a great pastor named Will Campbell.  Will was born in the very poor deep south of Mississippi.  He was ordained at a local Baptist church when he was seventeen and eventually played a central role as white activist on behalf of African Americans, working with most of the civil rights leaders of the time.  For example, in 1957, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School, and he was the only white person invited to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership conference by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But as the years went on, Campbell began to feel uneasy about his work.  He realized that he was beginning to hate those redneck bigots who hated.  Campbell discovered how easy it is to play favorites and to oppress the oppressors.  He realized that after 20 years in ministry, he had become little more than a social activist, which is different from being a follower of Jesus.  He had created a God in his own image.

What happened was that he realized Jesus died for bigots as well as the people whose civil rights Campbell had spent his life fighting for.  Campbell said, “Anyone who is not as concerned with the moral soul of the dispossessor as well as the dispossessed is being less than Christian.”

Acting upon this conviction, Campbell reached out.  On the night before the Grand Dragon of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan was shipped off to Federal prison, Campbell celebrated communion with him.  Later, he ministered to James Earl Ray who had murdered his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr.  When people asked Will Campbell if he really expected to save the souls of such men, Campbell said he thought it would be presumptuous to think so.  He said, “They might, however, save mine.” 

Campbell made civil rights activists uncomfortable because did things like becoming friends with bigots.  Campbell made bigots uncomfortable because he stood with civil rights activists.  But in the end, following Jesus meant more than comfort to Campbell.

The bad news of the Gospel on Palm Sunday is that God will never be God on our terms. God will never be the answer to our own, self-defined questions. God comes to us in Christ and demands that we let go of our questions and instead answer God’s question.  And God’s question to us is simply this: “Who do you say that I Am?” Who is this man who lives life wholly for others, who makes himself nothing, who does not regard equality with God as something to be held onto, who empties himself, who though he was rich for our sakes was made poor, who having loved those who were his own, loved them to the end even when they turned their backs on him.—who do you say this person is? Who is this one who loved infinitely?

The answer the church gives is that this man who lived wholly for others is God incarnate.

But for us to say yes to God, we must submit ourselves to the severe mercy of having our hopes dashed. This is the lesson of Palm Sunday: that only when we have our hopes dashed are we set free to receive the saving grace we do not expect.  And if its costly grace and not the kind that comes cheap, it will most certainly make us uncomfortable.

Palm Sunday is a reminder to us that God came, not to fulfill our hopes, but to bring them to nothing, and that by so dashing our hopes, we will receive more than we could ever ask or think.

In this week’s issue of Christian Century, John Buchanan writes: “We become fools for Christ because Jesus was still loving and forgiving even as men were driving nails through his wrists and ankles.  Because of Easter, we dare to believe that the resurrection drama points to God’s ultimate power and authority.  Death did not defeat Jesus.  The power of empire, human hatred, cruelty, and bigotry did not prevail on that dark Friday because three days later, there was Easter.”

Thanks be to God.  Amen

Monday, March 23, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Lent -- March 15, 2015

Going to the Other Side

Guest Preacher:  Reverend Sharon Stewart

Isaiah 43:14-21

Gods Mercy and Israels Unfaithfulness
This is what the Lord says
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
For your sake I will send to Babylon
    and bring down as fugitives all the Babylonians,
    in the ships in which they took pride.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
    Israels Creator, your King.
This is what the Lord says
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
    the people I formed for myself
    that they may proclaim my praise.

Mark 4:35-41; Mark 5:1

Jesus Calms the Storm

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, Let us go over to the other side. 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, Teacher, dont you care if we drown?
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, Quiet! Be still! Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?
41 They were terrified and asked each other, Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!

5:1 - They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes.

Jesus said, Lets go to the other side: going to the other side. This can mean many places - the other side of the lake; the other side of the street. In Pittsburgh we know a lot about going to the other side of the river; more than 29 bridges cross the three rivers. If you cross a bridge in Pittsburgh, you will experience a different venue, on the other side; a different type of landscaping;  homes and neighborhoodsYou begin to see life from a different perspective. That is what it was like for the disciples. They were called to a new experience as followers of Jesus. They were going from a predominately Jewish area to a Gentile region, the Gerasenes.

In this story from the Gospel of Mark,  after Jesus spoke with the crowds he said, lets go to the other side. The disciples trusted him; he was their teacher and they knew he was tired. So they began to take care of the rowing as Jesus slept in the back of the boat. Many of the disciples were experienced fisherman so they knew the sea well. Suddenly a storm came upon them. Remember when you were a child and you could hear the thunder and wind; it shook the house and could be very frightening. In the similar way, the disciples were in this thunderous, explosive squall as the wind was blowing and the water was splashing into the boat. Yet Jesus remained asleep on the soft cushion; they wondered, doesnt he care; why is he not helping? They woke him up.

So Jesus stood up; he rebuked the demonic fury of the wind and waves. Then, what followed was a dead calm.

It was so profound that it sucked the life out of the chaos and it restored order to the sea. This dead calm had a life of its own. After the waves were coming into the boat and the wind tossing them to and fro, there was quiet. We can imagine that it was so quiet it must have been unnerving. Instead of celebrating the calm and order that came from Jesus rebuking the sea, the disciples were terrified. The Greek work used here is fo-be-ō - to be struck with fear.  Why was this calm so unnerving? Perhaps there is another window into the story that we need to see today.

Maybe we need to reflect on his questions to the disciples: Why are you afraid? Why are you now afraid? 

Remember Jesus disciples were very accustomed to storms/the chaos.  Almost half of them have been fishermen their whole lives. The storms were disruptive to their flow of rowing across the sea yet they had experienced these kinds of storms before; what they were not familiar with was this kind of calm.

Jesus seemed to get that they were reflecting on what just happened. There was the storm and then this sudden calm. He asked them, Why are you terrified, dont you have faith? The calm came suddenly, there was no more frantic rowing, the wild crazy winds were gone. Notice that it was after Jesus calmed the wind and waves that they were terrified. Often times we have the adrenaline rush and the intuition to deal with the chaos, the storms but it is in the reflecting about the storms and the chaos that can be unnerving. In the calm and quiet time of reflection we think about how we reacted, we begin to breath and recover. In the calm, we begin to grow from past experiences.

As Jesus and the disciples went to the other side, they were given a time of calm; a time to recover and a time prepare for the next thing. They were going to a place to learn, cross ethnic barriers and to experience the work of the Lord in another culture. 

Today, I want to share a story about modern day disciples or apostles who were also sent to the other side of the ocean to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We were sent during the calm; calm from months of civil war in South Sudan.

In January of 2015, five pastors and one young adult  traveled from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC to Dubai and finally to Juba South Sudan in Africa, it took 24 hours to go to the other side.

In the scriptures we read about Sudan. It is referred to as Cush, Nubia and Ethiopia. Cush is a term for the people descended from Cush; the grandson of Noah, and it refers to the country immediately south of Egypt along the Nile.

We hear about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 who was the treasurer of Queen Candice who ruled in present day Northern Sudan. He traveled to Jerusalem to worship. When the Eunuch met Philip he interpreted the scriptures from Isaiah that the eunuch was reading; then Philip Baptized him.  He became a baptized Christian convert. We see here that back in the 1st century, God was doing a new thing. The history of the Christian church in Sudan began in AD 37 with an Ethiopian Eunuch.

The church in Sudan grew steadily, and in the third century many coptic Egyptian Christians fled to Sudan to escape the persecutions of the Roman emperors. Strong Christian communities were flourishing in Sudan (Cush). By the 6th century, Christianity had become the official religion of these Sudanese kingdoms. Archaeologists have unearthed over a hundred churches dating back to this period. Many of these churches have elaborate Christian paintings on the walls. Sudan contains the oldest community of Christians in Africa - who have suffered some of the worst persecutions in the world.

As the scriptures state in Isaiah 18:2, The Sudanese are a tall people, a smooth skinned people, with a violent history. The Christians in Sudan have been longing for independence; to be free from persecution and most recently from Islamic, Sharia law.
In 2011, the people of South Sudan finally achieved independence after years of struggle and warfare. As a result of the peace agreement, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese were forced to leave their homes in Khartoum and other parts of north Sudan in order to come back to their ancestral homeland in the south. They were not allowed to take much property with them, and they arrived in an under-developed land with little infrastructure and very few  resources. The worlds newest country was among the worlds poorest countries. But they had hope; they had religious freedom and they were away from oppression. For 2 years, there was growth and joy in South Sudan, the beginnings of a plan for self-governance and a longing to emerge into a more developed future.

However, in December of 2013, a political conflict developed into a clash within the South Sudanese military. The ethnic and tribally-based violence erupted into a full-scale civil war. Within months, two million people were displaced from their homes. And although the situation has improved enough for us to visit, the fighting continues even to this day in different parts of South Sudan.
So, why, why did we go to the other side to a place where there has been years of stormy chaos? Perhaps it was because, just like the disciples needed to go to the other side of the Lake, we desired to expand our relationships; develop relationships with our brothers and sisters on the other side of the ocean; to love one our brothers and sisters in Christ from different ethnic groups. In South Sudan there are 74 ethnic groups.  We met with the pastors from several ethnic groups all from the South Sudanese Presbyterian Evangelical Churches. For a long time Christians in Sudan felt alone and abandoned. We heard them say, We are a hidden people fighting a forgotten war. It has been so important to let them know: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. There are people who are praying and who care enough to have sent us to be present with you.
Most of these pastors came from the North Sudan; recently they had to build new churches with new congregants; then when the tribal war broke out in December of 2013, they lost these buildings, homes were looted and many friends and relatives died.  Thousands of displaced people sought shelter at the U.N. South Sudan Mission in Juba; Many of the displaced fear going home even though Juba has been relatively calm.
Some of the pastors we were with have not been out of the UN camp since the war broke out in December 2013. The purpose of our trip was to spend time with leaders and mission co-workers in worship, retreat, celebration, and listening. We invited them to go with us out of the city into a to place where there was calm, a retreat center called RECONCILE in the town YEI.
During our week at the retreat center, we learned that many of the pastors living in deplorable conditions in the UN Camps had very little privacy. All day long they hear the sounds of discontent children crying; restless teenagers, frustrated parents and there is very little to do. Most of them did not feel well; malaria, colds and stomach pains are some of the concerns that spoke to us about.
Our brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced post traumatic stress; the pastors struggled with talking about their past; what they have seen and experienced. Thinking about the past was too painful. It many ways  it was terrifying. One of the workshops that we went through was about Post Trauma Stress. Watching the looks on the faces was so telling; there was pain yet amazing hope. During free time, they began to talk about the fighting that has occurred between tribes, what has caused the conflict; how to solve it; they talked and laughed into the night. You could see relief and joy in their faces. Hope for the future; hope for a peaceful nation where there is freedom to preach the gospel. During this calm on the other side we heard our brothers and sisters talk together; they were breaking down barriers as these pastors from different tribes were developing deeper relationships and beginning to trust each other.
At one point, I said to the general secretary; My heart aches for tall of you; so many of you have lost your homes; families need to live in another country; and you have experienced such trauma and suffering. He said,
We are grateful that you are here to stand with us; to listen to our stories. You need to remember that this is our sin; we need to learn how to get along with each other. Our tribes are fighting; we are using this time of calm for God to teach us; for us to learn about each other. Thank you for giving us this calm space to talk and to heal. We need to teach our church, our community; pray for peace; pray that we may have peace.

Not only are they dealing with their own brokenness but they have the pressures from many countries trying to control and influence them. There are many other nations interested in their oil and other resources.
Yet, Philip did not blame others; he was able to name the chaos of his country. He said, it is our sin; we are fighting; it is our doing; we need to learn how to get along. We are recognizing our own sin and talking about it together; owning our part in the storm.
During this calm at the retreat center, it was a sacred time of sharing. It was a time to build relationships, cross tribal and ethnic barriers and begin to see ways of reconciliation as a nation. You must understand, the Christians in Sudan have experienced years and years of warfare; the current generation in South Sudan has never lived without war. Yet, they are strong; they have learned to have faith; a faith that drives out fear. They are learning to break down the barriers between ethnic groups; to talk and to listen to each other. It was a time of reconciliation and healing.
How refreshing! As we got to know our brother and sisters on the other side, we realized how much we can learn from them. In one way or another we all experienced transformation in South Sudan. As areas in our personal lives were awakened that week; some of us began to see areas in our own lives that need healing; in the calm we were reminded that ALL are broken; all of us have areas of fear during the storms and during the calm times in our life.
As we returned to North America, we could not help but ask; what is God saying to us now? Do we have our own version of ethnic and tribal wars? What kinds of barriers do we need to cross for reconciliation in our family? In our neighborhood? In our church? In the denomination? In political parties?
As Jesus disciples we can be assured that Jesus is with us during the storms. We are also called to listen during the calm. As individuals and as a community we can ask, what is on the other side for us? Are we willing to be unnerved by the calm and to get clarity about ways to break down barriers? Are we willing to seek reconciliation; to seek forgiveness and to forgive? What is on the other side for you? Will it be freedom from a burden; a relief?

Jesus said, I am with you. I will show you the way! Jesus said, get in the boat and lets go to the other side! Be Still; be quiet..Do not be afraid. Have faith. I am with you!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent -- March 8, 2015

 A Forgetful, Forgiving God

Guest Preacher:  Ruling Elder Keith Mihelcic

Exodus 20:1-17
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
John 2:13-22  The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
I know, I know. You’re thinking what is up with three readings - in a row! You ought to thank me, I almost put the Psalm reading in there too! Trust me, I think I know what I am doing! I wanted them to all come at you like that. Boom -boom-boom! I guess I just wanted to try to recapture the effect that it had on me when I read these passages.

Do not get me wrong, it’s not as if when I read these three passages I immediately had an idea for a sermon pop into my head. That hardly ever happens. Usually one passage will pop out at me I will let that marinate for a bit. I will kick it around in my head, re-read it a few times a day. Usually, something will come to me - an idea, a theme, a general outline - something that I believe I can work with.

Sometimes it comes relatively easy. Sometimes not so much. This week was neither hard, nor was it easy. I was just a bit lost, I suppose. I read the passages several time, but nothing was really jumping out at me. I guess I could have forced something, but usually when I do that I end up throwing away an almost written sermon, at the last minute, in order to go in a different direction.

Usually, like most people who preach. (notice I did not call myself a preacher; I just think of myself as someone who preaches sometimes. Think of it this way, just because you can bake a cake that does not make you a pastry chef!)

But I digress, I usually, like most people who preach, pick two passages from the lectionary readings. Out of those two I will typically focus on one and maybe, manage to work in the other reading as well.

This time it was different. As I mentioned, I could not come up with any one idea that I really liked. Then, as I was reading through them all again, in order, just like we heard this morning, it hit me. I think I know why this sermon wasn’t coming so easily.

Let me preface this by saying that no one likes to be told all about themselves. You know that moment. It’s awful. We have all had moments in our lives when someone - a wife, mother, brother, sister, friend, etc - has taken us to task. However, what makes these moments worse is when you know, in the very depth of your heart and mind that the other person is right. All that you can do is listen.

I think that is what God is doing in these three passages. He is telling us all about ourselves. I believe that we should listen.

Let us start with the Exodus passage. The Ten Commandments. What exactly are the Ten Commandments? Sure, obviously, they are commandments. Well, duh. I mean, commandment is in the title.

This is an instruction manual. A behaviour manual for the human race, if you will. We obviously were not then, and are not now, going to figure it out for ourselves. I mean, think about it. Have we really come that far from those days? Sure technology has advanced the way we break the Commandments, but it hasn’t changed that fact that we still break them. Constantly.

We don’t bow down to actual golden calves these days. Instead we bow down to and create idols of a myriad of other things. We sit in front of a box and let it entertain us, we bury our faces in our phones and our computers. We make idols out of all of these things we have. Things that really do what? Distract us. Amuse us. Make us feel good. At least temporarily, they do. Where does that get us?

Think about some of the ways that the Lord’s name in used these days. If that is not taking his name in vain what is?

Consider this: when is the last time you truly rested on the Sabbath?

Have you heard the way that some kids talk to or about their parent’s these days? Very little honor there.

We don’t kill each other with rock any more. We have bombs and guns for that.

People still commit actual physical adultery these days, for sure.  Why do that? Get all the lust you want by turning on the TV or getting on your computer.

People still steal, but now people can steal with a few keystrokes.

We all still lie and we all still covet, Oh my, how we all still covet.

God knows how people are. When I say the way “are” I don’t mean he knows how we are in this day in age. God knows man and what is in him on a level we can’t comprehend. He knows that we need to be told how to not behave badly. We need reminders of what bad behavior is.

I have heard  many preachers divide the  the Ten Commandments divided into two parts. 1-4 are about how our relationship with God should be and 5-10 are about how we should interact with each other.
These are reminders from a holy God as to how we are to interact with Him and with all of those around us. Think we don’t need reminded these days? Turn on the news or read a paper.

Then we get to Paul in 1st Corinthians. At it’s heart it is a really affirming passage. It speaks of the power of the cross of Jesus Christ to save. Read it a little closer, though. Between the lines if you will.

There is a huge difference in the thought process of God as opposed to the thought process of man. Verse 25 says it all, “For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength”.

While this passage is mainly comparing believers and unbelievers, are we that different from the Jews and Greeks that Paul is talking about? We think that we are pretty smart sometimes. I know I do. I also believe that we rely on our own strength way too much. Especially when you consider that the creator of everything is on our side and in our corner. Paul tells us we have Jesus. The power and the wisdom of God on our side. Yet we still don’t trust God’s wisdom. We still don’t rely on his strength.

Then there is the John passage. What a passage. Angry Jesus. But first, a word from the prophet Malachai. (More Scripture!)  I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years”.

What a passage! That describes Jesus perfectly at the temple. Who can stand when he appears. Apparently, no one can! This picture of Jesus has always stood out in my mind.
Here is Jesus so mad that a harsh rebuke will not suffice! He makes a whip! He is flipping over tables! He is confronting those in positions of authority and telling them all about themselves. Why at this time? Why at this place? What was going on here that caused such a visceral response from the person who extols living peaceably and turning the other cheek?

Well, to be certain Jesus had the right to do what he was doing. I have read in a couple of commentaries and study Bibles  that Jesus was showing his authority here. That is, he was putting people on notice. He was doing a task that only he had the proper authority to do.
Yet, I think there is more to this. I always picture Jesus as very frustrated during all of this. The reason why? These people are just not getting it. If I may quote my study Bible directly, Jesus “has a zeal for God and keeping holy ordinances holy”. Why does he feel so strongly about this?

This is his Father’s house. It is not a place to be abused. This is a place to draw near and worship. A place to be still and know the Lord. We need that. We need that holy place we can go to. Now, I am not talking about a building. If you really read the text Jesus was not talking about a building. We all know that now. In hindsight even the disciples knew it. Jesus, when he was talking to the leadership of the day, made a direct correlation between himself and the temple because that is the place where the Holy Spirit now rested. That was the only temple that mattered in the long run.

But Jesus knew how important that relationship with himself, with God, is. That is one of the reasons, in my opinion, that he is so heated about this. Jesus knows what we need. We need as direct a path to God as we can get.  We need not to encumber ourselves in that journey. This can be done when we put obstacles in our own way, or when we trip over the ones already there.

Jesus knows what we really need and this day at the temple he had enough of seeing people clogging the path to God.

When you think about it I guess it can get a little depressing. I wrote an outline for this sermon and I had these section heading for each of the readings labeled as such. Mind you this is from God’s perspective, at least in my opinion.

Exodus - This is how you people need to behave
Corinthians - This is how you people think
John - Just stop it already!

Like I said. Kind of depressing. I think that the main thing is that we have to keep this in perspective. Yes, we are sinners. And, yes, we are good at it. Yet we are forgiven and loved beyond measure.

My older brother, being a typical older brother, believes that he know a lot more than me about various topics. One of his favorite sayings, usually when we are talking about music, is “I have forgotten more about music than you will ever know”. God can say a similar thing.

God has forgotten more about us than we will ever know about ourselves.

We were made for relationship with God. Each and every one of us. Jesus knows this.
We were not made to hate, kill, envy or lust. But we do. We always have and we always will.

All of this talk of commandments, and the way we think, and what we really need in our lives, do we really need to be reminded of all of that?
I believe we do need to be reminded.

Not that we should dwell on our own sins or dwell upon all of the evil in the world. But we must think about it. We need to think about the ways we all go astray and the things that get in the way of us deepening our relationship with God. To paraphrase Paul, we need to start thinking like Jesus. We need the mind of Christ.

What is the end result of all of this? What if we obeyed the commandments just a little better, individually and as a society? What if we started thinking just a little more like Jesus? What if we all tried to remove just some of the clutter in our spiritual lives? Where do you think that would leave us? Where do you think that would leave the world?

I know where it would leave us. It would leave us in a much better place. It would leave us really meaning it when we prayed “on earth, as it is in heaven” because we would be actively trying to make that happen, bit by bit.