Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.


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How God Deals with Enemies

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 19:18-25, Revelation 7:9-12

             Recently I listened to a podcast by a woman named Ozlem Cekic.  It was a Ted talk given last year in New York called, “Why I Have Coffee with People who Send Me Hate Mail” (Sept. 2018).  Ozlem was one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the Danish parliament.  She was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents, but grew up in Denmark where she became a citizen and was elected to parliament.  But as soon as she was elected, she began receiving hate mail—email messages calling her vile names and telling her to go back where she came from.  She deleted them without responding, until one of her colleagues in parliament told her to save them.  He said, “When something happens to you, it will give the police a lead,” which somehow wasn’t very comforting.

             After a few months of this, she was at a friend’s house, complaining about all the hateful messages she had received, when the friend said, “You should call them up and visit them.”  Ozlem said, “They’ll kill me.”  The friend said, “Oh, they would never attack a member of parliament.”

Ozlem wasn’t sure about that, but the suggestion seemed so outrageous, she decided to try it.  She opened the folder in her computer where she stored all the hate messages and decided to contact the person who had sent the most.  His name was Ingolf.  She found Ingolf’s phone number and called.  When he answered the phone, she blurted out, “Hello, my name is Ozlem.  You have sent me so many hate mails.  You don’t know me, and I don’t know you.  I was wondering if I could come around and we can drink coffee together and talk about it.”  There was silence on the line, and then he said, “I have to ask my wife.”  Ozlem said she stared at the phone and said, “He has a wife?”  She could not believe that such a hateful person had a wife.

  Apparently the wife gave permission, because a couple days later they met at his house.  In the podcast Ozlem says,

 I will never forget when he opened his front door and reached out to shake my hand. I felt so disappointed, because he looked nothing like I'd imagined. I had expected a horrible person -- dirty, messy house. It was not. His house smelled of coffee which was served from a coffee set identical to the one my parents used. I ended up staying for two and a half hours. And we had so many things in common.

             I will come back to Ozlem’s story in a minute.  I share it, however, because it is the perfect introduction for today’s scripture reading.

You cannot appreciate today’s scripture without first understanding the history of Israel’s relationship to its neighbors. The territory of Israel was positioned directly between two of the most powerful warring empires of the ancient Near East: Egypt and Assyria.  These two ancient superpowers fought back and forth for a century or more, and right in the middle between them was Israel.  Israel became the battle ground where these two powers fought each other, sort of like Vietnam during the cold war, which served as a kind of proxy battle ground between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.

             But Isaiah 19 pictures a stunning turnaround in this situation.  Verse 19: “On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border.”

  The Egyptians were one of Israel’s traditional enemies, going back to the time when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt.  At that time Moses went to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and said, “Let my people go that we may worship the Lord in the desert.”  Pharaoh replied, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go?  I do not know the Lord.”  That was the attitude of the Egyptians toward the God of Israel.  But now, Isaiah says, the Egyptians will build an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt.

             Why?  Verse 20: “It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them.”  When the Israelites were slaves of the Egyptians, the Israelites cried to the Lord because of their oppression and the Lord delivered them.  But now in the time of Isaiah, the Egyptians find themselves oppressed.  The Egyptians are under attack by the more powerful Assyrians.  So this time God intervenes to deliver the Egyptians.

Notice how God is not motivated by retaliation.  God does not say to the Egyptians, “Well, you oppressed the Israelites in the time of Moses; now you are getting a taste of your own medicine.  Take that, you Egyptian scum!”  God does not say that.  Instead God hears the cries of Israel’s enemies when they are oppressed, just as God had heard the cries of the Israelites in the time of Moses.  God reaches out to save the Egyptians in the same way God had earlier saved the Israelites.

             But God still isn’t finished.  Verse 23: “On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.”  As I mentioned earlier, there was an ongoing back and forth battle between Egypt and Assyria, much of which took place on the road between them running through Israel.  But now this road will be a highway for cultural and economic commerce.  These old enemies will become trading partners. 

             Isaiah concludes in verses 24-25: “On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’”  All those phrases have been used in the Bible previously for the people of Israel.  But now those same phrases are used of Israel’s enemies—the Egyptians and Assyrians.

            When I read this passage, I thought of my son and daughter-in-law’s honeymoon.  For their honeymoon my youngest son and his wife chose to visit Vietnam.  When they told me I was flabbergasted.  For anyone in my generation and older, Vietnam was not the kind of place you went for your honeymoon.  The very word Vietnam conjured up grim images.  I had both a father and a brother who fought in Vietnam.  But forty years later, here were my son and daughter-in-law going to Vietnam as tourists.  And they came back marveling at what a beautiful country it was and how graciously they were treated by the Vietnamese people.  And now, as we heard, the sister of an American killed in Vietnam is helping to clear land mines, plant trees, and establish schools in Vietnam.  Amazing!  The most powerful manifestation of God is not when we defeat our enemies but when we are reconciled with them.

            Which bring me back to Ozlem Cekic. Near the end of her talk, Ozlem gave this challenge.  She said,

I want to give you a challenge. Before the end of this year, I challenge you to invite someone whom you demonize -- someone whom you disagree with politically and/or culturally and don't think you have anything in common with. I challenge you to invite someone like this to coffee. … Basically, I'm asking you to find an Ingolf in your life, contact him or her and suggest that you meet for coffee.

When you start, you have to remember this: first, don't give up if the person refuses at first. Sometimes it's taken me nearly one year to arrange a coffee meeting. Two: acknowledge the other person's courage. It isn't just you who's brave. … Three: don't judge during the conversation. Make sure that most of the conversation focuses on what you have in common.  And bring food.  And finally, remember to finish the conversation in a positive way because you are going to meet again. A bridge can't be built in one day.

            I don’t know who your Ingolf might be—a person with opposing political views, a person of another race or nationality, or a homeless person you see on the street.  Maybe it’s a neighbor, a coworker, or a family member.  Whoever it is, find your Ingolf, and invite them to coffee.  Try somehow to connect with them, not so you can change them but so you can better understand them, and they can better understand you.  And maybe in the process both of you will witness a miracle.

Poor Draft Choices and a Hopeful Future

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6 [The Message]

             I will read our second scripture near the end of the sermon today.  Before that, I need to talk about the scripture we just heard.

             For Seahawk fans there may be less interest in today’s Superbowl than in the upcoming NFL Draft.  For those of you who don’t follow this stuff, the NFL draft is where teams take turns picking from among the top college football players across the country who are graduating or turning professional.  It’s called a draft because the players don’t get to choose their teams, the teams get to choose their players.  In the NFL draft the team with the worst record gets the first pick, which is a way of trying to even out the talent between teams.

             The problem is that the Seahawks have a mixed record in the draft.  In 1987 the Seahawks had the number one pick in the pro football supplemental draft.  They got the first choice of all eligible college football players in the country.  They chose Brian Bosworth. The Boz, as he was called, seemed like a good choice.  He had played three years for the University of Oklahoma and was twice named the best college linebacker in the country.  The Seahawks signed him to the biggest contract in team history: $11 million dollars over 10 years.  He played only three years.  ESPN named him one of the 10 biggest flops in the last three decades.

            In 1993 the Seahawks tried again.  They had the 2nd pick in the NFL draft, the 2nd choice of any eligible college player in the country.  They chose Rick Mirer from Notre Dame. Rick signed a 5 year, $15 million contract.  He played four years for the Seahawks, and in three of those four years he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.  Pro Football Reference rated him the worst quarterback in NFL history.

            Believe it or not, this is actually relevant to our scripture reading from Isaiah.  Isaiah 5 describes a vineyard planted by the Lord.  Verse 2 says, “He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.”  The Lord did everything to make this a healthy, safe, and productive vineyard.  The Lord had high hopes for this vineyard, expecting it to yield high quality grapes.  But instead it produced wild grapes—grapes that tasted bitter and were worthless.

            In verse 7 we are told the meaning of this parable: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.”

To use football imagery, Israel was God’s first draft choice.  The Bible says this quite clearly.  In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells the people of Israel, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”  Israel was God’s first round draft choice.  And if you think about it, the Lord paid a significant price for them: bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them and feeding them for forty years in the wilderness, defeating all their enemies and giving them a fertile land in which they could plant vineyards and raise crops.  In one sense Isaiah 5 should be taken literally.  The Lord literally created a vineyard for the people of Israel, giving them a good land with the potential to produce delicious grapes.

            But they turned out to be one a “bitter” disappointment.  In Isaiah 5:5-6—the Lord says,

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.  I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.

            This is not just a parable.  It describes quite literally what happened to the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah.  Their vineyards were trampled and destroyed by foreign armies.  Their towers and fortifications were torn down.  The people who survived were taken into exile, which meant the fields were left untended, overgrown with briers and thorns.

            Why did that happen?  Because the people did not fulfill their purpose.  They did not live up to their reason for being drafted.  Verse 7: “God expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mishpah); God expected righteousness (sedeqa), but heard a cry (she’aqa).”  In Hebrew words almost rhyme.  I tried to emulate that in the prayer of confession this morning.  God expected light, but instead got blight.  God expected care, but instead got despair.  God expected hope, but instead got self-centered dopes.  It’s not great poetry, but you get the idea.  God expected Israel to bring blessing into the world, but instead their history was filled with greed, conflict, and destruction.

            But that is not the end of the story.  Now we are ready for the second scripture reading.  By the time of Isaiah 27 Israel and its vineyards had long since been destroyed by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  By the time of Isaiah 27, Israel was no longer a first draft choice.  It was an undrafted free agent, meaning no team wanted it.  But God did, and that is where our second scripture reading begins.  This scripture reading is confusing in the New Revised Standard Bibles, so I am going to read it from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.

At that same time, a fine vineyard will appear.
There’s something to sing about!
I, God, tend it. I keep it well-watered.
I keep careful watch over it so that no one can damage it.
I’m not angry. I care.
Even if it gives me thistles and thornbushes,

I’ll just pull them out and burn them up.
Let that vine cling to me for safety,
let it find a good and whole life with me,
let it hold on for a good and whole life.”

The days are coming when Jacob shall put down roots,
Israel blossom and grow fresh branches, and fill the world with its fruit.

Did you notice how this scripture reverses the damage described in Isaiah 5?  Both talk about God tending a vineyard.  But there is a difference.

-          Isaiah 5: Hedges and walls are torn down, leaving it unprotected.

-          Isaiah 27: God will keep careful watch over it.

-          Isaiah 5: No rain will fall on the land.

-          Isaiah 27: God will keep it well watered.

-          Isaiah 5: It will be overgrown with briers and thorns.

-          Isaiah 27: God will pull out the thistles and thorns.

-          Isaiah 5: The vineyard is a waste.

-          Isaiah 27: The vineyard blossoms and grows.

Isaiah 27 is the vineyard in Isaiah 5 restored.  In fact it is made better.  This new vineyard fills the world with its fruit.  Israel finally becomes the blessing to the world it was meant to be.

It seems that when the Seahawks had a top draft pick, they did not do very well.  The Seahawks often seem to do better when they pick from the bottom of the barrel.  In 2012 they took Russell Wilson as the 75th overall pick.  In 2011 the Seahawks had the 154th pick.  153 college players had already been chosen by that point.  On the 154th pick, the Seahawks took a not very highly rated player from Stanford.  His name was Richard Sherman.

In the time of Isaiah, God could have selected many more promising nations as God’s chosen people, like the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Persians.  But God chose instead to stick with the lowly, defeated people of Israel, determined to make them a fruitful vineyard and a blessing to the world.  Which has happened, we believe, in no small part through an unheralded descendant of Israel named Jesus.

In 2011 the Seahawks signed an undrafted free agent.  That means no professional team wanted him.  No NFL team chose him in the draft that year, so the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent.  His name was Doug Baldwin, who now has the second most career touchdown receptions in Seahawk history.

If the Seahawks can do that with an undrafted football player, if God can do that with a disappointing vineyard, what might the Creator of the universe be able to do with you, if you only give God the chance?

Before the Downfall

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 2:5-17, II Chronicles 26:1, 6-16

             This week I saw an interesting poster. It shows a bicyclist doing a wheelie on the edge of a cliff.  You can probably see the main title under the poster.  It says, “Confidence.”  What you may not be able to read is the subtitle: “The feeling you have before you understand the situation.”

 

            That could be the title over today’s scripture from Isaiah.  Early in Isaiah’s time the people of Judah and Jerusalem were riding high.  In our first scripture, Nanci read about the reign of King Uzziah in Jerusalem, who was king at the time Isaiah began his ministry.  Here are some of the things it said about Uzziah’s reign:

-          Verse 8: “The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong.”

-           Verse 10: “He built towers in the wilderness and hewed out many cisterns, for he had large herds, and he had farmers and vinedressers in the hills and in the fertile lands.”

  This picture of power and prosperity is echoed in the scripture I just read from Isaiah.  Chapter 2, verse 7: “Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.”

  At this point the people of Judah and Jerusalem are comparatively powerful and prosperous.  But a crash is coming—verses 11: “The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.”

  Of all the problems Isaiah identifies in the people of Judah and Jerusalem, the most dangerous is pride—not drugs, not stealing, not lying, not sex, but pride.

  Isaiah brings this up even when he is not talking to the Israelites.  In Isaiah 47:10-11 God says to the Babylonians,

You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.”  Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.”  But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.

            Here God is talking to the enemies of Israel—the Babylonians.  God is an equal opportunity humilater.  According to the Bible, God works at humbling people, cutting down arrogance wherever it is found—whether it’s the pride of Israelites or Babylonians, Americans or Russians, Republicans or Democrats, criminals or church goers.  Why?  Because pride, if left unchecked, is a deadly cancer.  Arrogance is inevitably destructive.  It not only damages our relationships to each other, it makes virtually impossible a relationship to God.

            A while back I read a novel by Michael Malone called Handling Sin.  I picked it up because I thought it was about theology, which in a way it is.  But it also turned out to be one of the funniest novels I have ever read.   The main character, “our hero” as the narrator calls him, is Raleigh W. Hayes, an insurance salesman, who sets off out to fulfill certain conditions set by his father for inheriting a large sum of money.

Raleigh, I should say, had always been the good child in his family: doing his homework, obeying his parents, never skipping school or getting in trouble, becoming a responsible citizen and family man in the hometown where he grew up.  His father, on the other hand, had run off with a young pregnant woman while Raleigh was still a boy, leaving Raleigh and his brother to care for their shattered mother.  And now years later this same father, well into his 80s and hospitalized with heart blockages, had discharged himself from the hospital, withdrawn all his money from a bank, and driven away in a convertible yellow Cadillac with a young female mental patient, leaving word for Raleigh to meet them in New Orleans.  Along the way Raleigh was to pick up certain items and people that he was to bring with him to meet his father.  If he did so, he would receive a large inheritance.

So Raleigh sets out on this journey to collect certain items and people and bring them to his father in New Orleans.  And that’s when this story becomes a quest, a sort of pilgrimage about handling sin and pride.

            Raleigh, of course, does not think of himself as a sinner, nor as particularly prideful.  He sometimes attends church with his family, because that is what good people do, but the church service does not really speak to him, especially the prayer of confession.  The narrator says,

Now, in its common usage, the word confession did not at all appeal to our hero. … Try as he might during church services, he honestly could not think of any manifold sins and wickednesses that he needed to repent.  He honestly did not see why, in all fairness, he should have provoked God’s wrath and indignation when there were so many really provoking people (like his father…) out there getting off scot-free; nor did he see why he should feel guilty and responsible and worried and all the things he had to confess he did feel, when the truly guilty appeared not to have a care in the world (pp. 230-231).

            I have talked to people in our church and in other churches who felt the same way as Raleigh.  They wonder why we have a prayer of confession every Sunday.  Isn’t that rather negative?  Shouldn’t church make people feel better about themselves rather than making them feel guilty and unworthy?  Even today’s scripture reading from Isaiah seems excessively negative.  Doesn’t it?

            Yes, it does.  But it is also like an immunization.  The scripture reading from Isaiah, like the prayer of confession we say every Sunday in our church service, is an inoculation against pride.  It is a reminder that we are not as righteous and self-sufficient as we might like to think.  We are all of us people who need grace—people who need the tender mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

Raleigh discovers this on his way to New Orleans.  On the journey Raleigh, our upstanding citizen who could think of nothing he needed to confess, becomes a fugitive from the law, ends up in a nunnery, goes on a boat ride with his brother, who it turns out is running drugs, impersonates an FBI agent to escape the Ku Klux Klan, and chases two mafia hit men through a state park in a stolen van.  When he finally gets to New Orleans, he meets his father, and before his father dies Raleigh learns much that he had never understood about his father’s life and in the process receives an inheritance far more important than money.

The story ends with Raleigh back in his hometown attending church on Easter.  Around him are many of the people whom he previously despised.  In the choir was his huge child-like neighbor Mingo Sheffield, who went on the trip with Raleigh, frustrating Raleigh with his bumbling incompetence, but saving him more than once.  The narrator says, “[Mingo] sang out beaming as if he’d just heard the news, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today!  Alleluia!’”  Beside Mingo was Pierce Jimson, another person Raleigh had despised at the beginning of the story.  He was singing, “Sinners to redeem and save.  Alleluia!”  Down from him was Raleigh’s teenage daughter Caroline, with whom Raleigh had fought countless battles over clothes, school, boyfriends, and cars.  She had a green streak painted across her blond hair but she was singing in a beautiful soprano voice, “Where the angels ever sing.  Alleluia!”

The narrator says, “And next to the organist, at his own request, by special arrangement with the choir, to the delight of his family (some of whom cried as they sang), to the astonishment of his neighbors (some of whom lost their places in their hymnals), stiffly stood Raleigh W. Hayes … accompanying the organ and choir on [his father’s] trumpet so highly polished that it glistened like gold.  “The strife is o’er, the battle done.  The victory of life is won.  The song of triumph has begun.  Alleluia!” (p. 592).

I guess we could send all of you on a quest to discover humility, but instead we do it with a prayer of confession and a reading from Isaiah.

Good News for Hypocrites

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 1:10-20; Luke 3:7-18

  The children’s message this morning reminds me of a story about a preacher who finished the service one week saying, “Next Sunday, I am going to preach on the subject of liars.  In preparation I would like you to read Mark, chapter 17.”  On the next Sunday he asked how many people had read the scripture.  Almost everyone’s hand went up.  Then he said, “Okay, you’re the people I want to talk to.  Mark has only 16 chapters.”

  It is not just politicians who sometimes stretch the truth to make themselves look better.  We all do it.  I recently read a sociology study from the 1990s.  In most surveys when American adults are asked if they attended church during the previous week, about 40% say yes.  To test this in 1993 a group of sociologist surveyed the population of a medium-sized county in Ohio: Ashtabula County.  First they did a random phone survey—which was easier to do in 1993 than it would be today—asking people about their religious identification and how often they attended church or their place of worship.  They found that 36% of self-identified Protestants claimed to attend church almost every week.  Then they went through the entire county to collect average weekly attendance figures for every single Protestant church in the county, not just those listed in a phone directory but every building in the county they hosted a weekly Protestant worship service.  They found that the total average attendance of every Protestant house of worship in the whole county was only 20% of the Protestant population.  (Kirk Hadaway, Penny Marler, and Mark Chaves, “What the Polls Don’t Dhow: A Closer Look at U. S. Church Attendance,” American Sociological Review, Dec., 1993; 741).  In other words, 36% said they were in church, but only 20% actually showed up.  And all this time we thought they were going to other churches.  But they weren’t going to any church.  Their walk didn’t match their talk.

  Which, in a way, is the problem with all of us, even those of us who do go to church.

  Isaiah points this out in our scripture reading this morning.  Isaiah chapter 1 begins with a scathing denunciation of the people of Israel.  Verse 4:

Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!

It sounds like he is talking to a bunch of drug dealers and child abusers or at least the kind of people who go skiing on Sundays.  But he is not.  If you read further you discover he is talking to church-goers. In verses 12-14 the Lord says,

When you come to appear before me, who asked this [offerings and sacrifices] from your hand?  Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.  New moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

            The Lord is talking here to church-goers: people who attend worship, pay their pledge, give to mission, make pies for the bake sale, sing in the choir, do work projects, and serve on the session or deacons.  And pastors—don’t forget pastors.  He says to them all, “You are all people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly.”  In other words, we are all hypocrites, people whose lives do not match their faith.

            John the Baptist makes the same point in our first scripture reading.  He says, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to feel from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

            John is not preaching here to people at the Dead End Tavern or the Déjà Vu strip club.  He is talking to people who walked miles into the desert to attend a revival meeting.  He is talking to people who came for baptism.  He is talking to church goers, and in essence he calls them all hypocrites.

            I have mentioned before a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called The Gulag Archipelago.  In the book he describes a friendship he had with another Russian army officer during the World War II, how they had so much in common, so many of the same hopes, dreams, and beliefs.  But after the war their lives took completely different directions.  Solzhenitsyn became a Soviet prisoner for standing up against Stalin’s reign of terror.  His friend became one of Stalin’s interrogators, torturing people into false confessions.  Solzhenitsyn wondered how he and his friend could have turned out so differently when they both had such similar values and beliefs.  But then he made an important discovery.  He writes,

If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?  During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish.  One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being.  At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood (p. 168).

            Isn’t that a definition of hypocrisy: acting like one kind of person in certain situation, and a totally different person somewhere else?  The line between hypocrisy and authenticity runs through the middle of every human being.  It goes to our very core, where only God can dealt with it.

            But here is the Good News: God can bring new life even to hypocrites.  Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.”  Let’s deal with this!  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

God does not simply ignore our sin.  God does not simply look the other way.  But nor does God cut us down and throw us out.  Rather God accepts us, despite our sin, and then works on us to make us new people.

  Recall what Isaiah said in verses 16-17: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  The good news for hypocrites is that God accepts you just as you are.  But the even better news is that God will not leave you that way. God wants us to become not only forgiven people but just people, people who defend the lives and rights of those who do not have the power to defend themselves.

  John the Baptist preaches the same kind of message. While baptizing people for the forgiveness of sin he tells them,

-          “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

-          To tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Don’t be dishonest!

-          To soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation.” Don’t use your power to exploit people.

The Good News for hypocrites is that God accepts us as we are.  The even better news is that God refuses to leave us that way.  God is determined to work on us: to replace deceit with honesty, greed with generosity, self-centeredness with compassion, pride with a sense of community, and gloom with the hope of God’s blessing and peace for all nations.  God is determined to make us new people, slowly and imperfectly perhaps, but steadily and relentlessly, until we discover what it means to be part of God’s family.

            So friends, do not be surprised that the church is full of hypocrites.  The church has always been full of hypocrites.  Just like the halls of government.  Just like the corridors of Hollywood.  Just like the board rooms of businesses and the club houses of sports teams.  The church has always been full of hypocrites.  The difference is that the church was designed for hypocrites.  Jesus came to give his life for hypocrites—hypocrites who will never be the same for having encountered him here in this place.

An Unexpected Fulfillment

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6, Isaiah 55:8-11

             All ministers have great wedding stories, but the best wedding story I have ever heard was told by a minister from Edmonds, WA, named Robert Fulghum.  He is the Unitarian minister who wrote the book Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  This story, which I will paraphrase, is from his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.

*          *          *

The mother of the bride was determined to make this wedding the most memorable wedding anyone ever attended.  To accomplish this she hired an eighteen piece brass and wind ensemble to play for the ceremony and reception.  There were nine bridesmaids, all outfitted with custom-tailored dresses, and an equal number of groomsmen, all wearing purchased—not rented but purchased—tuxedos.  There were also four flower girls, two ring bearers, three simultaneously running video cameras, and enough candles to light a shopping mall.

To be memorable, of course, the wedding had to have a lavish reception, so the mother lined the edges of the beautifully decorated fellowship hall with tables of food.  There was only one problem.  As the bride waited what seemed like hours for the wedding to begin, she started sampling some of the hors d’oeuvres.  First she tried some of the pink, yellow, and green mints.  Then she picked through the nuts and ate all the pecans.  This was followed by a cheese ball or two, some black olives, a handful of glazed almonds, little sausages on a toothpick, some shrimp wrapped in bacon, and some crackers piled with liver pate.  Then to calm her nerves, she chased it all down with a glass of champagne provided by her father.

As the bride came down the aisle what people noticed was not her dress but her face.  It was whiter than the dress.  She came down the aisle like a living grenade with the pin pulled.  When she arrived at the front, she finally threw up.  Not a dainty little urp in her handkerchief but a complete hosing of the chancel steps, including the bridal party.  All of which was captured from different angles by the three simultaneously running video cameras.

Fortunately, Fulghum said, the story had a happy ending.  The wedding guests were dismissed to the fellowship hall.  The bride was revived and the wedding party got a chance to clean up.  After the chancel steps were scrubbed, everyone came back in, the wedding resumed, and the couple were successfully joined in holy matrimony (pp. 9-15).

*          *          *

            What I found ironic in this story is that the hopes of the bride’s mother were fulfilled.  All of the guests agreed it was the most memorable wedding they had ever attended.  It just didn’t happen in quite the way the mother had envisioned.

            Which brings me to our scripture reading.  Isaiah 60 envisions a new day in Israel’s history.  Up to this point Israel had been decimated by one foreign army after another.  First they were attacked by the Syrians.  Then the Assyrians, an even larger empire to the north, conquered over half the territory of Israel, destroying its outlying farms and towns.  Then the Babylonians came along, laying siege to the capital city of Jerusalem, finally conquering it in 587 B. C., and taking many of its inhabitants into exile.

            But Isaiah 60 dreams of a new day when Israel and the city of Jerusalem would be restored to its former glory.  Verse 4: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses arms.”  This is a picture of the Israelite exiles coming home exile.  But notice, it is not Israel’s newly acquired power that brings this about.  “Your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.”  This is not a picture of Israel’s strength, but of God’s strength, bringing the Israelites home from their captivity.

But it is not just Israel that is affected by this work of God.  Verse 3: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  People from all over the world would come to Israel bringing lavish gifts to show their respect to Israel’s God.  Verse 6: “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah.”  Apparently the camels of Midian were like the BMWs of the ancient world.  People from all over the world would bring expensive gifts to Jerusalem in honor of Israel’s God.  Verse 6 continues, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

            Imagine, all the peoples of Arabia—that is where Midian and Ephah were probably located—imagine all the Arabs bringing lavish presents to Israel in honor of Israel’s God.  This is an amazing vision.  But it never came even close to happening at any time in Israel’s history.

Except once.  One night about 500 years later some Gentile astrologers from the east, possibly from Arabia, came to Jerusalem, most likely on camels.  They came because they saw a star.  Remember what Isaiah said: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  A light in Israel draws kings from Arabia to come on their camels bearing gifts, including gold and frankincense.

            The whole vision is fulfilled.  But here is the twist.  They present their gifts not to the reigning king of Jerusalem, who would have been King Herod at the time, but to a baby born in a stable whose parents who were refugees.  The remarkable vision of Isaiah 60 is fulfilled, right down to the details—a light arising in the sky, kings drawn to its brightness, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense.  It is all there.  But none of it happens in the way that anyone expected.  I doubt even Isaiah imagined his vision would be fulfilled by Arab astrologers bearing gifts to a poor refugee family in transitional housing.

            That, friends, is how God works.  God fulfills promises, but rarely in the way that anyone expects.  Kurt read about that in our first scripture reading from Isaiah 55:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways, my ways, says the Lord, … For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, … so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I propose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

            In 1946 my brother was baptized at a small Presbyterian church in San Francisco.  I wasn’t around yet, but I am sure it took place like most Presbyterian baptisms.  The minister put water on his head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Then the minister would have said something like this: “Richard Onstot, child of the covenant, you are have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  What a remarkable promise: marked as Christ’s own forever.

Later on my brother did not seem to embrace that identity.  When he got to college he became a classic skeptic.  In his own words, he tuned out faith.  He had little to do with church or God.  In fact, during this time he met and married a woman from Taiwan who was nominally Buddhist.  Religious affiliation meant little to him, much to my parents’ consternation.

            Then he and his wife had a child born on Christmas Eve.  They named her Christine.  When she was old enough, they enrolled her in a preschool at a nearby Presbyterian church.  They enrolled her not because it was at a church but because they heard it was a good preschool.  But then my brother started taking her to Sunday School.  He did not go himself, at least not at first.  He later told me there were competing voices in his head.  One voice said, “Don’t go into that church.  Your wife is Chinese.  She won’t be accepted, and neither will you.”  The other voice said, “Come and see.”  So finally he went, and he discovered that he and his family were welcomed with open arms.

Then one day he called me at my church office in Potlatch.  He called me to tell me he was committing his life to Christ and joining the church.  I almost fell off my chair.  And then I thought about that little Presbyterian Church in San Francisco where he was baptized.  It took almost forty years for the promises given to him in baptism to be fulfilled.  Forty years through all kinds of ups and downs in his life: a broken engagement, four years in the army including a year in Vietnam, a marriage in Taiwan, the birth of a child on Christmas Eve, not to mention countless prayers for him by my parents and grandparents and sometimes even by me.  But it finally worked.  The promise given to him in baptism was fulfilled, marking him as Christ’s own forever.

            That is the story of Isaiah 60.  It is the story of how God works in our lives.  God intends to fulfill the promises given to our children in baptism and the promises given to our world in Isaiah.  But it may not happen in the way or in the time frame that you expect.  The thing to watch is how God might use you in unexpected ways to bring it about.

Singing Isaiah

Ken Onstot

Part I:                             “Starting Over” (Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-2)

Sometimes people must begin again,

Undertaking a fresh start,

Like new growth from a fallen tree,

Not just a tweak of personality,

But a totally transformed heart.

 

So it was in Isaiah’s time.

 

They had tried king after king,

To fix their country’s ills;

But none was able to bring,

The blessing only God fulfills.

 

For some kings were powerful,

But not terribly smart,

Others were incredibly cunning,

But God’s will played too small a part.

 

And even those who wanted to do right,

Lacked the power to save,

Let alone having ability,

To change how people behave.

 

So the people in Isaiah’s time,

Went on their way still sinning;

The only solution possible

Was a totally new beginning.

 

Then God promised an offspring of Jesse,

The father of David’s line,

A new king greater than David,

Whose power and wisdom combine

To bring God’s kingdom of peace.

 

Not just a powerful king,

But one in whom justice would rise;

And not just a smart king,

But one who was spiritually wise.

 

Of course, no descendant of David

Measured up to this;

Nor any other politician

Promising worldly bliss.

 

A new beginning

Requires someone unique

Like a baby born in a manger,

Whom lowly shepherds might seek.

 

For the kingdom of God is not built

By weapons of power or might,

But by the bearer of God’s eternal love,

Bringing God’s compassion to light.

 

And he reigns not by destroying his enemies,

But healing the hurts that divide.

Giving all of us, worthy and unworthy,

The peace only God can provide.

 

Part 2:                     “The Pathway to God” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

How do you get to God?

What barriers must be broken?

What stirrings, yearnings in our hearts

Must somehow be awoken?

 

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

Make straight God’s road,

Let every valley be filled,

Let every mountain erode.”

 

Is this so I can get to God,

Or so God can get to me?

Is the barrier perhaps a prison

From which God must set me free?

 

Originally Isaiah foresaw

The return of exiles to their land,

A way back home from Babylon

Across the desert sand.

 

But preparing a way for the Lord

Involves so much more,

It’s not just a road through the desert

It’s God clearing a path to your door.

 

But for God to do this

Some barriers must be removed,

The pathway to our hearts

Must be seriously improved.

 

Pride must be taken down,

Racism brought to naught,

Self-centered greed must go away

And love for all be taught.

 

The grieving must be comforted,

Guilt must be washed away,

The lowly must be lifted up,

And all of us taught how to pray.

 

Then God’s glory will be shown

For all the world to see,

And at last our world will finally become

The place God meant it to be.


Part 3:                           “Telling Others” (Isaiah 52:7-10)

When you’ve gotten some really good news

It is hard to keep it to yourself;

It is not something you tuck away

In the corner of some dusty shelf.

 

It’s something you can hardly contain,

Your excitement is hard to restrain,

You want everyone to know,

For in the telling your excitement will grow.

 

So it is with good news from God.

It’s something we are all meant to share;

It’s not something just to be felt,

It’s something we’re meant to declare.

 

When God brought the Israelites home

From their Babylonian exile,

The people rejoiced

In their newly freed lifestyle.

 

But God does not rescue people,

Only for the sake of the few,

But that people of all nations might learn

That God’s love is lasting and true.

 

So Isaiah tells the people good news,

Hoping they will not want to refuse

The opportunity to share it with others.

In a larger family of sisters and brothers.

And this, of course, applies to our church.

 

In a world of violence and strife,

God is offering us a new life;

Healing the hurts of the past,

And giving us hope that will last

Forever.

 

That is not something to keep to ourselves,

It is something we are meant to share,

That the depths of God’s grace and compassion

Might be felt by people everywhere.

 

It’s something to share in our actions

In our many daily decisions,

In the way we talk to each other,

And the way we share God’s provisions.

 

So go tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere,

That Jesus Christ is born,

To show us the depths of God’s care.


Part 4:            “Celebrating with All Creation” (Isaiah 55:12-13)

When people do wrong, it is not just humans

Who suffer some kind of harm;

The whole creation is injured,

Forests, animals, crops on the farm.

 

Have you seen what happens in a war?

Or when oily birds wash up on the shore?

Nature suffers when people transgress,

Or turn their back on the poor and oppressed.

 

Thoughtless pollution damages rivers,

Deforestation gives trees the shivers;

Unbridled greed damages the air,

And causes even the fish to despair.

 

It is not just nations but nature,

That yearns for the coming of God’s king,

It’s not just people but trees

Who hope for the salvation he’ll bring.

 

So when Isaiah announces good news

Of God’s coming reign,

All creation breathes a sigh of relief,

And joins in the joyful refrain.

 

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Sing the mountains and hills.

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Burble the rivers and rills.

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Sing the soprano birds

Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Rumble the bison herds.

 

In the end God promises

A new heaven and a new earth,

Not a disembodied existence,

But the dawn of creation’s rebirth.

 

So we pray for God’s kingdom to come

With people of all races and lands,

Looking for the day when we’ll all say hooray,

And the trees of the field will clap their hands.

 

Blessed: A Christmas Eve Meditation

Ken Onstot 

Scripture: Luke 1:26-35

The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.”

But I wonder if Mary really felt favored.

Living at home with her parents, unmarried and pregnant, did she feel favored?

And when Joseph found out, did he feel favored?

Later when their child was born, miles from home, a cattle trough for a cradle,

did they really feel blessed?

How about when they fled as refugees to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers?

Or when their twelve year old boy stayed behind at the temple, and his parents spent three days looking for him?

I don’t think Mary always felt favored,

especially while watching her son die on a cross.

Those whom God chooses may not always feel blessed.

Sometimes they may wish God has chosen someone else:

Like Moses when the Israelites complained about him,

Like David when King Saul tried to kill him,

Like Elijah when he fled from Queen Jezebel,

Like the apostle Paul when he was shipwrecked on his way to Rome.

 

To be chosen by God does not always feel like a blessing.

Sometimes it is confusing.

Sometimes it is disturbing.

Sometimes it is scary.

 

The blessing is in the promise that comes with it.

“Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.”

The Lord is with you!

The Lord is with you!!

That’s the blessing!

Mary, when you go into labor on a pile of straw,

the Lord will be with you.

When you flee as a refugee in the middle of the night,

the Lord will be with you.

When you anguish over your lost child,

the Lord will be with you.

And when you watch your son hang on a cross,

the Lord will be with you,

holding you until the day of his resurrection.

 

And you, here tonight, to you the angel is also speaking:

Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid!

When you are sick and wonder if you will ever get better,

do not be afraid.

When you are out of work, and wonder how you will survive,

do not be afraid.

When you despair for your children, alternating between anger and grief,

do not be afraid.

When your heart breaks over the loss of a loved one,

and you wonder if you will ever feel joy again,

do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid!

For the Lord will be with you.

 

When you are confused and don’t know which way to go,

the Lord will be there.

When you feel alone and forgotten,

The Lord will be there.

Even when everything is going well,

even when there are no dark clouds on your horizon,

the Lord will be there, preparing you for something greater:

a life of love that you cannot yet imagine.

 

Jesus is Immanuel—God with us.

He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.

And his kingdom will have no end.

Neither death nor life,

neither height nor depth,

neither things present nor things to come,

can separate us from his love,

if we trust our lives into his hands.

Amen.

 

What's in a Name?

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 7:3-4, 10-17; Matthew 1:18-25

Introduction

Today’s scripture from Isaiah needs a little background.  In Isaiah’s time the kingdom of Israel had been split by a civil war. The southern half, where Isaiah lived, was called the kingdom of Judah, from which the Jews get their name.  Its capital was the city of Jerusalem, and it was ruled by a king named King Ahaz.  The northern part was called the kingdom of Israel.  Don’t be confused.  At this time the word Israel did not refer to the whole territory as it did in the time of King David.  It referred only to the northern part that had split away the kingdom of Judah.  The northern kingdom was called Israel, or sometimes Ephraim, and its king was named King Pekah.  As you might expect, there was ongoing conflict between these two kingdoms.  But in Isaiah’s time, the northern kingdom under King Pekah formed an alliance with the king of Aram (modern day Syria) to attack Judah and take over its territory.  King Ahaz was terrified by this development, as were the people of Jerusalem.  So Ahaz decided to make an alliance of his own with Assyria, an even bigger and more powerful nation to the east. The problem is that Assyria had its own ambitions for taking over the Middle East.  Today it would be like America coming under attack from Canada and Mexico and appealing for help from China.  Ahaz was reaching for a sword that was likely to cut off his own hand.  And that is where Isaiah comes in.

[Read Isaiah7:3-4, 10-17]

Sermon

            I once heard a father tell about trying to pick a name for his daughter, a name that other children would not ridicule.  I worried about that in the case of my own children.  I knew they would have enough trouble with their last name.  Over the years I have been called Onspot, Onstart, and Nonstop, so I wanted my children to have a first name that would not be easily ridiculed.  So this father and his wife decided to name their daughter Danae.  How do you make fun of a name like Danae?  Well, in middle school the other kids starting calling her “Decay.”  So there you are. 

            Isaiah, however, did not seem to worry about the names he gave his children.  From chapters 7 and 8 we learn that Isaiah had two children.  One was named Maher-shalal-hashbaz.  Imagine having to write that in first grade.  In Hebrew it translates roughly as “Run for your life.”  His other child was named Shear-jashub, which means “Only a few will come back.”

            Not happy names to give your children when you are under attack from powerful enemies.  But then God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz with a message, telling him not to fear these two kings who were attacking him.  And as proof that God would deliver the people of Judah and Jerusalem, God invited Ahaz to choose a sign.  Verse 11: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God: let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven,” in other words as deep as the grave or as high as the sky.  In essence Isaiah invites Ahaz to rely on God instead of his ill-conceived alliance with Assyria.  But Ahaz refuses.  Verse 12: “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’”  At first this sounds rather pious, like when Jesus says to Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Ahaz is quoting from the same Bible verse as Jesus, but not with the same intent.  Ahaz does not want a sign from God, because he wants to go ahead with his own plans for an alliance with Assyria.  He does not want a sign from God; he wants to rely on his own power and cunning.

            But God gives him a sign anyway.  Verse 14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  There has been some confusion about what exactly verse 14 means. The New Revised Standard Version says, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” but the old King James Version translates verse 14 this way: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  That translation is based not on the Hebrew Bible but on a Greek version of the Old Testament, which Matthew quotes in the New Testament.  But the ancient Hebrew text does not call the woman a virgin; it calls her a young woman, and it says she is already pregnant.  Did you notice that?  The child Isaiah talks about has already been conceived, presumably by natural means, and will be born shortly.  But before that child reaches the age of accountability, about 12 years old, the two kings that Ahaz fears will be defeated.

            Please understand, I am not suggesting that Jesus was not born of a virgin.  I have no problem with believing in the virgin birth.  If God can create the world and raise people from the dead, God can produce a baby anyway God wants.  In an age of test tube babies, we shouldn’t be fussing over a virgin birth.

            But for Isaiah the issue is not how the child will be conceived.  The issue is the name given to the child.  King Ahaz is obsessed with threats to his security.  He is shoring up his defenses around Jerusalem.  He is arranging alliances, building coalitions to help fight off his enemies.  Ahaz is doing everything he can to make himself secure, but he is still afraid.  Meanwhile there is a woman in his country who is not afraid.  We are not told who she is, but we know she is not afraid, because of the name she gives to her child.  She does not call him Maher-shalal-hasbaz—“run for your life.”  She does not call him Shear-Jashub—“only a few will return.”  She names him Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”

            Which brings me to the central point of this scripture passage.  The issue is not whether you believe in the virgin birth; the issue is whether you believe in God.  In what do you put your trust?  On what do you rely to keep you safe?  The police?  A home security system?  A pistol by your bed?  What are you counting on to keep you healthy?  Exercise?  A low cholesterol diet?  Large doses of anti-oxidants?  What are you counting on to take care of you in your old age: Social security?  A pension fund? Your children?

Please understand.  I’m not saying that home security systems or pension funds or healthy eating is a bad thing.  But let’s be honest.  If we are counting on any of these things are for our ultimate security, if we are counting on our own resources, our own power, or own cleverness, our own program of exercise and healthy eating—if we are counting on those things to give us a long, happy, successful life, not to mention eternal life—then we are fooling ourselves, just like King Ahaz.

But there was a woman in Isaiah’s time who was not fooled.  She knew her country faced many dangers.  She knew that her own life was at best fragile.  But she was not afraid, because she knew God is with us.

I have shared before the story of Kate Bowler.  Kate is a professor of religion at Duke University, who at the age of 35 was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 cancer.  She went through surgery and then a last ditch experimental treatment that so far has held the cancer at bay, but there is no guarantee that will last.  She wrote about this experience in a book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.  In the book she talks about the many letters she received from people all over the world, some of whom felt the need to explain her suffering in terms of some larger divine purpose.  Generally, those letters did not help.  Here is what helped.  Kate writes,

 The letters that really spoke to me don’t talk about why we die, they talk about who was there.

 She goes on,

 [Something] happened to me, something that I felt uncomfortable telling anyone.  It seemed too odd and simplistic to say what I knew to be true—that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry.  I felt loved. …  At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes.  I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement.  They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus (119-121).

  Sometimes what matters is not why something happens but who is there with you when it does.  Mary and Joseph realized that when they named their own child Jesus.  They, too, lived in perilous times, wondering how they would survive.  But they proclaimed their faith in the name they gave their child: Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.”  They did not name him Immanuel, but he was Immanuel.  Combine the hope of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 with the virgin birth in Matthew 1, and you get Jesus.  Jesus is God with us, God made flesh.  And when we accept that, the things that threaten us and make us afraid don’t seem so powerful or important.

Called at Church

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Isaiah 6:1-13; Mark 4:1-12

 [Preacher stands up and begins preaching]

(CELL PHONE RINGS.  He fumbles to get it out of his pocket, while apologizing to congregation.)

Preacher: I’m sorry.  This is so embarrassing.  I thought it had it turned off.  (Presses a button)  There, now it is turned off.

(CELL PHONE RINGS AGAIN)

Preacher:  Oh for heaven’s sake.  (Again checks and presses button)  I’m sure I had it turned off.  Well, this time it is.

(CELL PHONE RINGS AGAIN)

Preacher: What the ….?  I am so sorry.  Excuse me. (He leaves pulpit and crosses over to the other side of the chancel where he talks on the phone.)

Preacher (in a hushed voice): Whoever you are, this is not a good time to call.  I’m in the middle of church.

(The Lord answers over the sanctuary speakers)

Lord: When is a better time to call?

Preacher: Am I on speaker phone?  Any time is a better time to call, but don’t interrupt me in church.

Lord: Isn’t that the point of church?

Preacher: What do you mean?

Lord: Isn’t the point of church for me to interrupt your life and talk to you?

Preacher: Who is this?  I don’t recognize your number.

Lord: Whom do you think it is?

Preacher: Look, if you are some telemarketer, put me on your do not call list and hang up.  We are in the middle of worshiping God.

Lord: I know.  The singing was so heartfelt this morning, I thought I should respond.

Preacher: Who are you?

Lord: Think about it.  Who could call you in church, even if your cell phone was off?

Preacher (suddenly nervous and stuttering): I … I … don’t know.

Lord: I think you are starting to figure it out.

Preacher: Look, you don’t expect me to believe I am talking to the Lord, do you?  The Lord wouldn’t use a cell phone.  The Lord would send an angel or something.

Lord: That was before we had cell phones.

Preacher: You mean God has to use a cell phone?

Lord: I thought it would get your attention.  People are more likely to answer their cell phone than to answer me.  But I don’t have to use a cell phone.  Try hanging up.

Preacher: What?

Lord: Disconnect the call.

Preacher (pushes the button):  Okay.  There, that should take care of that scam.

Lord: Can you hear me now?

Preacher: Okay, you’ve made your point.  What do you want?

Lord: I want you.  That’s why I called.

Preacher: But what do you want me to do?

Lord: Ah, now that’s a little more complicated.  I want you to proclaim my message to people.

Preacher: Proclaim your message!  What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?

Lord: I know.  But this time I’ve got something special for you to do.

Preacher: Like what?

Lord: Tell people the truth.

Preacher: Haven’t I been telling them the truth?

Lord: Yes, but this time you are going to tell them the truth they may not want to hear.

Preacher: Why me?

Lord: Because I chose you.

Preacher: Lucky me.  I suppose you probably chose me because I’m a preacher, but preachers aren’t special.  We’re no better than anyone else.  You ought to know that.

Lord: I do.

Preacher: So don’t ask me to be your special messenger.  It is hard enough just being a pastor.  Sometimes I lose my patience.  Sometimes my pride gets in the way.  I am not always very generous, especially about giving my time to people who need help.  I am not the best example of being your follower; you should know that.

Lord: I do.  But I’ve taken care of that.

Preacher: How?

Lord: Earlier in the service, didn’t you pass the peace of Christ?  Didn’t you recite words of forgiveness?  Do you think those words are meaningless?  You’ve been forgiven.  Your sins are wiped away.

Preacher: It can’t be that easy.

Lord: No one said it was easy.  It took a huge sacrifice.  And I’m not talking about one of those Old Testament animal sacrifices.  It took the sacrifice of my own Son to forgive you.  Don’t think that was easy!

Preacher: But that does not make me worthy to be your special messenger.

Lord: I’m the one who decides whether you are worthy or not.  Now get going.

Preacher: But what am I supposed to say?

Lord: Tell people that they need to turn their lives around.  Tell them to quit worshiping their money or their career or their looks or their athletic ability.  Tell them it’s time to worship something bigger than themselves.

Preacher: I can’t say that to people.  They will be offended.

Lord: Exactly.

Preacher: They won’t listen to me.

Lord: Exactly.

Preacher (pause): You mean you don’t want people to listen?

Lord: I want them to listen, but I don’t expect them to understand.  I want them to hear my message but I don’t expect them to believe it.

Preacher: Then what is the point of sending me?  What is the point of this church or these people if you don’t expect anyone to believe our message?

Lord: Sometimes you have to make things worse before they can get better.  It’s like an alcoholic.  Sometimes you have to have a painful confrontation.  You have to say things the alcoholic doesn’t want to hear.  And when they refuse to listen, you have to let them suffer the consequences.  You have to stop protecting them and covering for them.

Preacher: So, you think we’re a bunch of alcoholics.

Lord: In a way.  You are addicted to things.  Some are addicted to possessions.  If you are not continuously acquiring new stuff, you are not happy.  Others are addicted to success or recognition.  Unless you keep getting more of it, you feel unfulfilled.  It is like drugs.  You need a bigger hit to feel the same buzz.

Preacher: So you want me to go around telling people that they are a bunch of alcoholics and drug addicts.

Lord: And hypocrites.  Don’t forget to tell them they are hypocrites.  On Sundays they worship me, but the rest of the week they act as if I don’t exist.

Preacher: Obviously, you have never read the books about to win friends and influence people.  You don’t change people by criticizing them or putting them down.  You change people by building them up and gaining their confidence.

Lord: I am not trying to change people, at least not at first.  I am trying to make them face themselves.  Your job is to tear away the pretense.  If you speak my word to them and they don’t listen, they can no longer pretend to be following me.

Preacher: Don’t you want people to follow you?

Lord: Of course.  But I don’t want them pretending to follow me.  If they don’t want me telling them how to live, let them try life on their own.  Let them discover what it is like to be free of all constraints, even God’s.  Let them go into the far country and eat the swill of pigs.  Until the prodigal son left home, he never realized what it meant to have a family.

Preacher: So you want me to drive people away from you, so they will discover what they are missing when you are not there?

Lord: You won’t have to drive people away.  Just tell them what they have to give up in order to follow me.  Tell them they must give up their pride, their independence, their lust, their greed, their grudges or resentments, their desire to get ahead by putting others down.  Tell people these things, and you won’t have to drive them out.  They will leave on their own.

Preacher: It sounds like you don’t want me to help the church grow.  You want me to close it down.

Lord: Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.  In the time of Isaiah I allowed my chosen people Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  They were determined to worship other gods, so I gave them into the hands of those gods.  But I never gave up on them.  Out of the stump that was left I grew a branch that produced Jesus, and from him came the possibility of new life.

Preacher: And now you hope to grow new life in us.

Lord: Exactly.  If you keep on proclaiming my message, if you keep on telling people about me, something may yet grow.  You may not see it.  There may be many twists and turns in a person’s life before it is revealed.  But I can tell you this: Your efforts to share my word will not be wasted.  As the rain comes down from the skies and does not return without watering the earth, so will my word that you speak.  It will not return without accomplishing its purpose.

Preacher: Let me see if I’ve got this straight.  You want me to share your word with people who won’t listen.  And when they reject your word and wander away from you, you intend to let them go, so they will discover what life is like without you.  Then, maybe, at some time in the future they will come back.

Lord: Yes, and do you know why they will come back?  They will come back because they will remember what you told them years earlier when you thought they weren’t listening.

Preacher: So you think they really will listen.

Lord: Call it delayed listening—like a message on your cell phone that you suddenly discover has been there for a long time.

Preacher (taking out his cell phone): Wait a minute.  Have you ever left a message on my phone?

Lord: It has been there all along.  You are just now listening to it.

 

Fake Gospels

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 11:1-6; I Corinthians 15:1-11

             While studying our scripture passage for this week, I discovered a new image for what it means to be a minister.  I’m a matchmaker.  In days before online dating apps, the way you met a compatible person was often through a friend, someone who knew you and the other person and set you up on a date.  It was called matchmaking.  To me, that is a great image for what it means to be a pastor.   A church is not supposed to fall in love with its pastor; it’s supposed to fall in love with Jesus.  My job is to set up you and Jesus on a date, to get you and Jesus into a relationship.

             Which is what the apostle Paul has been trying to do with the Corinthians.  Verse 2: “I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”  Okay, maybe this goes beyond matchmaking; it’s more like an arranged marriage.  But the idea is that Paul is an intermediary.  Paul is trying to get the Corinthians into a relationship with Jesus.

But something has gone terribly wrong.  Verse 3: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunnings, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”  The Corinthians are being seduced into a kind of spiritual adultery, taking up with partners other than the one to whom they have been engaged.

             But here is the tricky part.  The other partners are disguising themselves as the fiancé. They are masquerading as Jesus.  Paul warns about this in verse 4: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.”  The Corinthians are being seduced away from Jesus by people who dress up to look like Jesus.  They use all the same words that are found in the Bible—Jesus, spirit, gospel—they use all the same religious words but give them a different meaning.

  In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey describes some of the interpretations of Jesus which he has heard from various people.  He writes,

Norm Evans, former Miami Dolphins lineman, wrote in his book On God's Squad, "I guarantee you Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game. ... If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot-six-inch 260-pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive lineman like myself."  Fritz Peterson, former New York Yankee, more easily fancies Jesus in a baseball uniform: "I firmly believe that if Jesus Christ was sliding into second base, he would knock the second baseman into left field to break up the double play" (p. 19).

You see the problem?  People use the terms “Jesus” and “Christ,” but they use those words to picture a Jesus of their own creation, a Jesus who looks less like God and more like themselves.

How do we prevent that from happening?  The answer, I think, is to check sources.  The way to distinguish between a fake Jesus and the true Jesus is by checking the source.

By the way, I think this is also a good way to distinguish true news from fake news.  Check sources.  To begin with don’t accept anything as fact just because it is reposted on Facebook or re-tweeted on Twitter.  Go back and check sources, preferably multiple sources.

The apostle Paul operates in a similar way when it comes to claims about Jesus.  Listen again to what he says to the Corinthians in our first scripture reading—I Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sister, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

            Notice how Paul uses sources for his gospel about Jesus.  Yes, he had his own personal experience of Jesus, but he checked out his understanding of Jesus with the people who actually knew him, like Peter and James.  When Paul wrote this letter, Peter and James were still alive.  Paul met them.  He describes this in his letter to the Galatians.  By the way, even the most skeptical, critical Bible scholars agree that the apostle Paul wrote the letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Philippians, and the first letter to the Thessalonians, and that Paul wrote these letter between about 60 and 70 AD.  Even critical Bible scholars agree that Paul knew at least some of Jesus’ first followers and that he wrote these letters only 30 to 40 years after Jesus actually walked the earth.  So Paul knows who he is talking about.

            There are a lot of people out there today who talk about Jesus and don’t know who they are talking about.  Back in the 1980s, there was a church in north Idaho called The Church of Jesus Christ Aryan Nations.  Their pastor, Richard Butler, talked about Jesus all the time, but the Jesus he described was a white supremacist, someone who believed that white people—I should add “white non-Jewish people”—were the chosen race.  But that flies in the face of the people who actually knew Jesus.  For Jesus, by all accounts of the people who knew him, was a Middle Eastern Jew.  That is the truth: Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew who taught us about loving people beyond our own clan.  Richard Butler preached a fake gospel, a gospel that contradicted the best sources we have for what Jesus actually said and did.

            There are many other groups out there claiming to know the mind of Jesus on various issues.  Do they really know the mind of Jesus?  I think the only way to answer that is to check the sources.  Read the book, and not just a verse or two that fits the way you already think.  Read the whole thing, at least the whole New Testament, so that your picture of Jesus fits into the total context of what God is doing in Jesus and in our world today.  That’s what we are trying to do here on Sunday mornings and in Bible studies during the week, and if you want additional help, I can suggest other resources.

            A psychiatrist named Scott Peck tells a wonderful story about meeting Jesus again as a 40 year-old adult when he began reading the gospels for himself.  This is from Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled:

There were all kinds of milestones on (my journey of faith), but perhaps the most important was reading the Gospels for the first time at the age of forty. ... I was absolutely thunderstruck by the extraordinary reality of the man I found in the Gospels.  I discovered a man who was almost continually frustrated.  His frustration leaps out of virtually every page: "What do I have to say to you?  How many times do I have to say it?  What do I have to do to get through to you?"  I also discovered a man who was frequently sad and sometimes depressed ... a man who was terribly, terribly lonely, yet often desperately needed to be alone.  I discovered a man so incredibly real that no one could have made Him up.

It occurred to me then that if the Gospel writers had been into PR and embellishment, as I had assumed, they would have created the kind of Jesus three quarters of Christians still seem to be trying to create ... (someone) with a sweet, unending smile on His face, patting little children on the head, just strolling the earth with this unflappable, unshakable equanimity, because with His mellow-yellow Christ consciousness, He's got peace of mind.  But the Jesus of the Gospels--who some suggest is the best-kept secret of Christianity--did not have much "peace of mind," as we ordinarily think of peace of mind in the world's terms, and insofar as we can be His followers, perhaps we won't either.  Perhaps that's not the point.

So that's when I began to suspect that, rather than being public relations specialists, the Gospel writers were … [trying to describe] the events and sayings in the life of a man they themselves hardly began to understand, but in whom they knew that Heaven and earth had met.  And that's when I began to fall in love with Jesus (pp. 159-61).

            You don’t have to go far to distinguish the true gospel from fake gospels.  Just read the book, and if you need help, ask me.  I am, after all, in the business of matchmaking.

Preaching for Free

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 11:7-11; 12:13-18

             This is a dangerous sermon to preach at a time when our church is beginning to consider its annual budget.  I am not sure Paul’s example is one I want to emulate.

             The puzzling thing is why Paul does this.  Why does Paul insist on preaching for free to the Corinthians.  He does not do this in the case of other churches.  In our first scripture reading, Paul says, “And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends [he is talking about church folks, brothers and sisters in Christ] who came from Macedonia.”  Paul is quite willing to accept support from the Christians in Macedonia.  So why not from Corinth?

             It is not because the Corinthians are too poor to support him.  Last week we read about a special offering Paul was collecting from the people in Corinth to help the starving Christians in Jerusalem.  In chapter 8 he says to the Corinthians, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.”  That does not sound like a congregation unable to support its pastor.

             Here is something even more puzzling.  Turning down pay does not help Paul’s credibility with this congregation; it actually hurts it.  I have mentioned before that were factions among the church members in Corinth some of whom rejected Paul.  They preferred flashier ministers whom Paul derisively calls “super-apostles.”  I picture them like TV evangelists, with slicked back hair and fabulous wardrobes, traveling to conferences in a private jet.  These “super-apostles” dismiss Paul as an amateur hack, someone who preaches for free because that’s all his preaching is worth.

             I will talk more next week about the battle between Paul and these other preachers.  But for this week I want to talk about why Paul refuses compensation from the Corinthians.  The reason is not budgetary; it is theological.  Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the gospel is not something you pay for; it is a free gift of God’s grace.

  Paul makes that connection right away in our first scripture reading, verse 7: “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge?”  Preaching the gospel for free is Paul’s way of emphasizing that the gospel is free.  You are welcomed into God’s family and God’s kingdom not because you have done anything or given anything but because of what Jesus has given for you.

In our second scripture Paul echoes God when he says, “I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you.”

That’s how God feels.  God does not need our money.  Seriously, friends, do you think the Creator of the universe is strapped for cash?  God does not need our money; God wants us.  God wants each of us to be part of God’s new creation, part of that great company of people accepting God’s forgiveness for the things we cannot change, receiving God’s support for the things we can change, learning to love others the way God loves us, knowing that God is not finished with us yet and that God’s grace is greater than anything we can do to mess it up.  That is what God wants for us, and you cannot buy that, you can only accept it, believe in it, and pass it on.

  And that is the only legitimate reason for preaching or giving.

  In the year 2000 a movie came out about an 11 year-old boy named Trevor who is given an assignment in his social studies class: come up with a way to make a difference in the world and do it.  Trevor proposes a plan which he calls "Pay It Forward."  The idea is to do something difficult, risky, and significant for three other people and instead of asking people to pay it back, ask them to pay it forward—to do the same thing for three other people.

When explaining it, Trevor emphasizes three essential details of his plan.  First, the gift or act of helping must be free.  At one point in the movie Trevor feels let down by his social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet.  He says to him, "You don't really care."  Mr. Simonet replies, "I care about you."  Trevor says, "You're a teacher; you're paid to."  That is exactly what Paul does not want the Corinthians to think.  The apostle Paul does not want the Corinthians to think that he cares about them because he is paid to.  He wants them to understand that his care for them is free, just like God's care for us in Jesus Christ.

Second, the gift or act of kindness must be hard, risky, and significant.  It must involve sacrifice.  One person in the movie is arrested for his act of kindness.  Another is killed for it.  Another must confront years of bitterness and pain in an extraordinary act of forgiveness. This is not your ordinary random act of kindness.  These are unearned, unexpected acts of significant personal sacrifice, kind of like what God has done for us in Jesus.

Finally, the gift or act must be accepted and believed before it can be passed on.  Near the beginning of the movie a criminal smashes a car belonging to a reporter.  As the reporter stands there looking at the wreckage wondering how he will get home, a man in a business suit comes up and hands him a key.  "You look like you need help," he says.  “Here take my Jaguar.  It's yours to keep."  The reporter grabs him and says, "What's the catch?  Will I get a huge bill for this?"  “No,” the stranger says, "it's a free gift.  Pay it forward by doing something significant for three other people."  As the stranger leaves the reporter says, "You're crazy.  I'll bet this car is stolen.  I'll bet it's rigged.  It will probably blow up the minute I turn it on.  There is no way I will ever get into that thing."  If he does not believe in the gift, there is no way he will accept it, and if he does not accept it, he has nothing to pay forward.

I have a theory that the reason many people have a hard time accepting God’s grace is because they have a hard time believing in it.  They think there has got to be a catch, or they think there should be a catch.

Now back to my original question.  Why does the apostle Paul refuse payment for preaching, but put on a full-court-press for giving to needy Christians in Jerusalem?  Answer: Paul does not want us to think that the gospel is something we pay back; it is something we pay forward.

In our second scripture reading Paul says, “For children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.”  Have you seen the latest figures on what it costs to raise a child?  According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture a child born this year will cost $233,610 to raise up through age 17, which does not include the cost of college or if at some point the child moves back home.  There is no way any of us can pay back our parents for what they have given us; we can only pay it forward.  We can only try to give our children what our parents have given us.

The same is true for the gift of God’s presence and grace and forgiveness and hope in Jesus Christ.  You will never have enough assets to pay for it; but you don’t have to.  It's free.  It's already yours.  All you have to do is believe it, and accept it, and the best you can to help share it.

The Gain in Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 9:6-15; Psalm 112

 Introduction to scripture reading:

In II Corinthians, Paul devotes 2 of 13 chapters, over 15% of the letter, to a special offering he is collecting from the Gentile Christians in Greece to help the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem suffering from a famine.  We read about it last week, and Paul is still talking about it this week: II Corinthians 9:6-15.  [Read]

Sermon:

I once read a sermon where the pastor told about a young businessman struggling to make ends meet.  At one point the man had fifty dollars on which he and his family had to live for the next two weeks.  But that Sunday at church the man put the entire fifty dollars into the offering plate.  I was curious what lesson the pastor would draw from this. I would have said, “Wow, I don’t think he should have done that.”  I might have even quoted II Corinthians 8:13 where the apostle Paul says, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of fair balance.”  But that was not the point made by that pastor.  He told the congregation, “That man went on to amass one of the largest fortunes in the state.”

            There are a number of pastors out there preaching that giving to the church is a way of becoming rich.  And they quote the Bible, including II Corinthians, chapter 9.  In verse 6 Paul says, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  Then in verse 11 he says, "You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity."

This would be a great way to get pledges.  If I could promise that pledging comes with a winning lottery ticket, or that for every dollar you put in the offering plate you will receive two dollars in stock options, we would have no trouble making our church budget.

But it doesn’t work that way, despite what some preaches say.  After all, who gave more than Jesus?  Yet at the end of his life he had no more money than he started with.  He was born in a borrowed manger and buried in a borrowed tomb.  The apostle Paul did not travel around in luxury.  He walked on foot and hoped he would find someone offer him food and lodging.  Anyone who preaches that giving to the church will make you rich has a hard time explaining Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, Mother Theresa, or almost any other saint in Christian history.  So what does Paul mean when he says, "Whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully"?

First of all, I think the English translation is misleading.  If we translated verse 6 literally from Greek, word of word, it would go something like this: “Those sowing sparingly, sparingly also will they reap, and those sowing on the basis of blessing, on the basis of blessing also will they reap.”

The key word is not bounty but blessing.  If we give out of a sense of being blessed, then the giving will be for us and others a blessing.

This is confirmed by what Paul says in verse 8: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”  Paul does not promise that the Corinthians will become rich.  He promises that God will give them what they need to be a blessing to others.  Which is exactly what God did in the case of Jesus, Paul, St. Francis, and Mother Teresa.  None of them were rich.  But all of them were unquestionably a blessing to others.  God gave them what they needed in order to be a blessing.

This idea is expanded in verses 11-12: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

            Notice, Paul does not say that giving will multiply riches; it will multiply thankfulness.  The gain in giving is gratitude.

            The same idea is found in our first scripture reading from Psalm 112.  Vs. 5-6:

It is well with those who deal generously and lend,
who conduct their affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
they will be remembered forever.

Notice what is promised.  It is not that those who give will get rich, but that they will be remembered, and they will be remembered for their goodness.

This idea is repeated in verse 9:

They have distributed freely,they have given to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.

It is not that those who give freely will be rich, but that they will be remembered with gratitude.

            After church last week one of our church members asked me if Paul ever talked about tithing.  Tithing is the Old Testament practice of giving 10% of the crop to God.  Some churches encourage their members to give 10% of their income to the church.  In the Mormon Church I think it is even required.  But Paul never talks about tithing or any other percentage we should give.  He does not want giving to become a new form of law, a new kind of works righteousness by which we try to buy God’s favor.  The truth is we don’t have enough in our bank account to buy God’s favor.  We could sell our house and cash out our entire 401-K and still not have enough to pay for the love and grace and eternal life God has given to us free of charge in Jesus Christ.  We could never give enough to buy what God has given us.  All we can do is be grateful.

            So that’s why Paul says in verse 7: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Several years ago Time magazine had a cover story called "The New Philanthropists" profiling some of the richest people in America and what they give to various charities and foundations.  We hear all the time about what the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world give to charity.  But the most moving story in this article was about an 81 year-old retired train engineer named Morris Popes.  Morris lived in Atlanta, GA, on a retirement income of about $1,700 a month--about $20,000 a year.  He gave about $3,000 a year to his church, the First Corinth Missionary Baptist Church, and another $1,000 or so a year to the Atlanta Food Bank.  In the article he says, "I look at how God has blessed me during my working years and raising my family, and I can't tell you how many times I've come to these homeless shelters and heard people say, 'My children haven't had a bite to eat today.'  Everyone should feel the pleasure of giving to others.  If they knew that, they would give too" (July 24, 2000, p. 51).

            At the church I served in Spokane, we had an elder on the Stewardship committee named Bucky.  Bucky was a regional vice president at Bank of America, so he knew a lot about managing money responsibly, both for individuals and for our church.  But come stewardship time Bucky sometimes did a talk in the church service.  We called it the Bucky talk, and he often concluded with this line: “Don’t give until it hurts; give until it feels good.”

             I would put it this way: don’t let guilt be your guide; let it be gratitude.

Disciplined Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 9:1-5, I Corinthians 16:1-4

Introduction to Scripture Readings

Our scripture readings this morning need a short introduction.  When a drought struck the territory of Jerusalem and Judea, Paul decided to collect a special offering for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem from the Gentile Christians around the Mediterranean.  This offering was a huge deal to the apostle Paul.  He discusses it in the letter to the Romans, the letter to the Galatians, the first letter to the Corinthians, and the second letter to the Corinthians, where it gets two whole chapters.  For Paul this offering was a chance to bridge the relationship between Jews and Gentiles.  Some Jewish Christians were suspicious of accepting Gentiles into the church.  But now the Gentile Christians in Greek cities like Corinth had the chance to show solidarity with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem by helping them during a natural disaster.  Sort of like people from blue states helping people from red states after a hurricane.  Both of our scripture readings this morning are about this offering.  Let’s listen.

 [Read scriptures]

 Sermon

             In 2005 there was a nationally telecast benefit concert called “Shelter from the Storm,” raising money for victims of hurricane Katrina.  It featured performers like Mariah Carey, U2, Alicia Keys, Garth Brooks, and Randy Newman.  Phones were answered on camera by celebrities like Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Reba McEntire, Ellen DeGeneres, and Allison Janney.  There was even a competition between celebrities.  During the telecast Queen Latifah donated $100,000, and rapper Lil’ Jon decided to top that with a check for $250,000.  The concert was televised on all the major networks, and later released on DVD.  It raised $30 million dollars in one night.

Too bad the Apostle Paul did not have the resources of modern fundraising.  But he was not averse to using some of their techniques.  In II Corinthians 8, he tells the Corinthians:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich (II Cor. 8:9).

There is a definite pull at the heartstrings.  Then in verses 12-13 Paul says,

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need … (II Corinthians 8:12-13).

It’s like flashing pictures of hurricane survivors, adding a little guilt to your motivation.  Then he brings in the celebrities, verses 16 and 18:

But thanks be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same eagerness for you that I myself have. … With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news (II Corinthians 8:16, 18).

We don’t know who this famous preacher is, but apparently the Corinthians did.  Paul brings in the big guns for this fundraiser.

Finally he uses competition.  Chapter 9, verses 2:

For I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia [Greece] has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them (II Corinthians 9:2).

Paul may not have the technology, but he knows how to do fundraising.

            And yet here is where an interesting change takes place.  Paul says,

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion (II Corinthians 9:3, 5).

Or as one translation puts it: “not as something wrung out of you.”

Paul worries not so much about the motivation of the Corinthians to support this offering as their discipline in following through on it.  Paul wants giving to be not just an emotional one-time response to a heartbreaking need, which is how most fundraising appeals work; Paul wants their giving to be a disciplined part of their Christian lives.

            Recall what Paul said to the Corinthians in his first letter:

Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia.  On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come (I Corinthians 16:1-2).

Here again Paul wants giving to be a spiritual discipline.  That is probably why he suggests setting the money aside on the first day of the week.  In the early church the first day of the week was the day of worship in honor of Jesus’ resurrection.  That’s how Christians came to worship on Sundays, to celebrate the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Paul wants giving to be a part of worship, not a one-time response to a need, but a disciplined part of our Christian lives.  If you notice, the word “discipline” has as its root the word “disciple.”

            It is often thought that character shapes habits.  An honest person has the habit of telling the truth; a generous person displays the habit of sharing with others.  But I wonder if doesn’t often work the other way around.  People acquire the character of honesty, because they practice the habit of telling the truth.  And people acquire the character of generosity by practicing the habit of giving.

There is a classic musical called “My Fair Lady” in which Henry Higgins, a speech teacher, takes on the challenge of transforming a poor uneducated girl from the streets of London into a high society debutante—a woman of such refinement and sophistication that none of the elite of London would ever guess her true origin.  In the case of Eliza Doolittle he begins not with her hair style, clothes, or manners, but with her habits of speech.

            This turns out to be one of the hardest thing for her to change.  She practices and practices, but it doesn’t help, until suddenly one day she says with clear, beautiful pronunciation, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”  Professor Higgins jerks his head around and says, “What did you say?”  Without a trace of Cockney accent she says, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”  Higgins leaps us and says, “By jove, I think she’s got it,” and they practice saying and singing the words over and over.

In a sense the Christian faith is like that.  It involves putting on the qualities of new life in Christ, even before we are comfortable with them.  It means practicing the disciplines of discipleship until we finally get the hang of it.  And in the process a change begins to happen.

            In the movie of the musical there is an interesting change that happens in Eliza Doolittle.  At the beginning Professor Higgins treats her with contempt.  He is, after all, a professor, while she is a tramp.  But by the end of the movie she will not tolerate this anymore.  She has spent so much time practicing dignity, she begins to have dignity.  She will no longer allow Professor Higgins to treat her in an undignified way.  She has rehearsed for so long at being a lady of sophistication and grace; she actually becomes one.

That’s how Paul sees discipleship.  We practice being a disciple of Jesus until we finally become one.  And that, according to Paul, is how giving works.

Death, Resurrection, and Judgment

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 5:1-10; I Corinthians 3:10-15

This poem was given to me to read at the memorial service for a 55 year-old woman killed in a car accident.  It’s like many poems I have seen over the years telling family members not to weep at the death of a loved one.  But in this case I had a hard time reading it.  I could not imagine how the husband and children of this 55 year-old woman could stand at her grave and not weep.  But they wanted me to read it, so I did.  It went like this:

When I am gone, remember I'm with Jesus;

Then do not mourn because I have passed away.

Life holds so many griefs and disappointments,

And will you cry because I did not stay? ...

Grieve not because the eyes that looked upon you

Shall never see your face on earth again;

Rejoice, because they look upon the Savior

Who gave his life to ransom sinful men.

Weep not because I walk no longer with you;

Remember, I am walking streets of gold.

Weep for yourselves that you awhile must tarry

Before the blessed Lord you may behold.

  Somehow this poem does not seem very comforting to the people who are left behind.  It reminds me of a famous picture taken at the end of the Vietnam War. This iconic picture shows Vietnamese civilians trying to board a U. S. helicopter to escape Saigon before it falls to the North Vietnamese.  I thought of this picture as I read the last four lines of that poem:

Weep not because I walk no longer with you;

Remember, I am walking streets of gold.

Weep for yourselves that you awhile must tarry

Before the blessed Lord you may behold.

It is nice to know that when we die, we will go to be with Jesus.  But what about the people who are left behind?  And what about all the places in the world where there is hunger, illness, loneliness, violence, injustice, and suffering?  Does God simply want to pull a few chosen people into the helicopter, leaving the rest to suffer?

Not according to the Bible.  In our second scripture reading Paul says, "For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."

Notice two things about this verse.  First, Paul says that in the present we “groan.”  In other words as followers of Jesus we mourn and weep over the way things are in the world.  Grief is not a sign that we lack faith. In the beatitudes Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn. … Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  Grief is not a sign that we lack faith; it is an appropriate response to the world as it is.  In Romans 8 Paul says,

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

            As Christians we do not look forward to leaving bodily life behind but to seeing the redemption of bodily life—its transformation and fulfillment in God’s kingdom.  That’s what Paul means in the second part of the verse: "… because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."  To be unclothed means to be rid of bodily life, which is what some ancient Greek philosophers aspired to.  But that is not what Paul wants.  "We wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed."  God's goal for us and for the world is not to leave bodily life behind but to transform bodily life it into what God meant it to be all along.

            In verse 1 Paul says, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  Notice again how the image works.  The goal, unlike in ancient Greek philosophy, is not just for our souls to rise up to heaven leaving our earthly tent—our earthly body—behind.  The goal, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, is the resurrection of the body.  The goal is for our lives to be made part of a new building from God—a new creation where those who mourn will be comforted, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled; a place where the sick will be healed, where the homeless will have a home, and where refugees fleeing for their lives will finally feel safe.  That’s what Paul means when he says, “So that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

             The relevance of this becomes apparent when we look back at our first scripture reading.  In I Corinthians 3:10 Paul says, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”

  There is a connection between receiving a new building from God and building on it with care.

             Let me be clear here.  We do not build the kingdom of God.  Eternal life in God’s kingdom—in God’ building—is a gift of God’s grace.  And yet, if we build with the right materials, we get to contribute to it.  Verses 12-15:

The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.

            At the end of our second scripture reading—II Corinthians 5:10—Paul says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.”  It sounds like we are saved by our works, but that’s not what Paul means.  The judgment lies in whether the things we do in this life will be built into the new creation or whether they will need to be destroyed in order to make room for it.  In other words, the judgment is whether your life here in this world makes a lasting contribution to God’s kingdom or whether it ends up totally wasted.  If we build with love rather than hate, patience rather than anger, generosity rather than greed, courage rather than despair—then the things we do in this life can actually be incorporated into the new creation rather than being demolished to make room for it.

            This week I received a mailing from Habitat for Humanity in King County.  Habitat for Humanity is a Christian based organization helping families obtain a home through what they call “sweat equity.”  The family provides hundreds of hours of labor toward the construction or rehabilitation of a house, and Habitat provides the finances and other volunteer help needed to complete it.  The family’s labor constitutes their down payment, and the rest of the payments they make on the house, at whatever rate they can afford, go toward building homes for other people.  The mailing I received this week was their annual report.  In the back were a list of donors, and Southminster Presbyterian Church was listed under the Cornerstone Society, which means that cumulatively over the years Southminster has given over $50,000 to Habitat to help build housing for homeless people in South King County.  This puts us in the same giving category as Costco, Expedia, Nordstrom, and Safeco Insurance.

            Did any of you know that?  I had no idea.  Every year a part of our church budget (15%) is designated for Witness in Action to be used for mission in our community and around the world, and every year little by little we have been making what turns out to be an extraordinary contribution to help families in our community have an affordable place to live.

            That, I would humbly suggest, is the building material of God’s kingdom.  Paul says, “If this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”  We cannot take credit for this building.  It is a gift from God.  But one day when we look at it, we will see in the corner a little plaque inscribed Southminster Presbyterian Church.  And when we go inside we will meet all kinds of people we have never met before, people of all different races, nations, and languages.  And when they hear that we are from Southminster, they will say, “Really?  You are from Southminster?  I never thought I would actually meet someone from Southminster.  Thank you.”

Ambassadors of a New Creation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 5:16-21; Galatians 3:23-29

 

As a child I watched the old Superman television show almost every afternoon after school.  The special effects were terrible, but I still loved it.  So when the first movie version of Superman came out in 1978, with all new special effects, I was anxious to see it.  But it was not the special effects that impressed me.  It was the backstory of Superman, which you never got in the television show.  In the movie, unlike the television show, we saw how Superman came to earth and was found by a farm couple named Jonathan and Martha Kent.  We then watched as the young Clark Kent grew up, in many ways a typical adolescent: painfully self-conscious, trying to impress girls, wondering who he was.  He knew he had extraordinary speed and strength, but his adoptive parents would not allow him to use them.  So instead of being a star football player, he was the trainer on the football team handing out water bottles.  In one scene he complains bitterly to his father, "I could score a touchdown every time, every time!"  Jonathan Kent puts his arm around him and says, "You are here for a reason, I don't know whose reason, but it is not to score touchdowns."

Finally when Clark turns 18 he discovers a crystal containing a message from his birth father Jor-El.  Jor-El says to him, "There are questions to be asked, and it is time you did so."  The first question on Clark’s mind is "Who am I?"  As if anticipating that question Jor-El says, "Your name is Kal-El.  You have been sent to earth from the planet Krypton. You are different from others.  You have extraordinary powers, only some of which you have discovered.  It is now time for you to join your new world and serve its collective humanity.  Live as one of them, Kal-El, but discover where your power is needed.  They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be.  They only lack a light to show them the way.  For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.”

I had no idea the movie would be so theological.  Now I am not suggesting that Jesus was sent from the planet Krypton, or that following will him will make you a superhero.  But I was struck by two things that happened to Superman, two keys to his growing up: 1) discovering his identity and 2) discerning his mission.  Those are the two keys for all of us: discovering our identity and discerning our mission—understanding who we are and realizing why we are here?

Our scripture this morning can help us with that.  Paul begins by talking about how we look at people.  Verse 16: “From now on we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”  In other words, Paul says, we no longer judge people by appearances.  Often we judge people by looking at certain categories: their age, their appearance, their capabilities, and their affiliations.  Paul admits he once looked at people that way.  He judged them according to whether they were Jews or Gentiles, whether they were righteous or sinners, whether they were educated or ignorant.  And he regarded Jesus as a dangerous heretic for welcoming sinners and claiming to speak for God.

But all that changed when he met Jesus risen from the dead.  When Paul met Jesus risen from the dead, he realized he had been wrong about Jesus and by extension about everybody else.  In verse 17 he says, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new."

When you are baptized, when you become a follower of Jesus, you become part of a new creation--a new planet, so to speak.  You are given a new identity with a new purpose.

In many ways, of course, you are still the same person you were before.  You are still a member of your family, you are still a student in your school, you are still a worker at your company and a citizen of your country.  You don't cease to be Clark Kent.  But when you are baptized and when you commit your life to Christ, you discover that you have a new identity.  You are not just Clark Kent anymore.  You are Kal-El.

I have mentioned before in sermons how when God calls people God sometimes give them a new name.  After promising Abram many descendants who would bring blessing to the world, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.”  Suddenly, this old childless man had a new identity.  He was the father of multitudes.  God did the same for his wife Sarai.  God gave her the new name Sarah, which in Hebrew means “princess.”  The migrant woman who came to Canaan from a foreign land is now royalty.  If you remember, Jesus did the same thing to one of his disciples named Simon.  He changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means “rock.”  It is like what happened to Clark Kent when he learned that his real name was Kal-El.  Outwardly he was the same person, but in a deeper sense he was a new person.  He had a new understanding of who he was and why he was here.

That's what happens when we are baptized and joined to Christ.  In Galatians 3:27 Paul says, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." It's like the S-symbol on Superman’s chest, which I discover in the movie does not stand for Superman.  The S was a symbol worn by people on the planet Krypton.  When you are baptized you are clothed with a new identity.  As Paul says in verse 28, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."  When you are baptized, you are no longer a Democrat or a Republican, you are no longer a Husky or a Cougar, you are no longer just white or black, Middle Eastern or American.  You are one in Christ.  When you are baptized, those old identities are transcended by a new one.

And with that new identity comes a new mission.  Listen again to II Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.

When Clark Kent discovered his true identity, he also discovered his true mission.  The same thing is true for us.  When you realize that through baptism you are an adopted child of God, you discover that your family has a mission: to invite the whole world back into the relationship with God and with each that we were meant to have when we were created.

While I was in Spokane I met a Presbyterian pastor from India named Philip Prasad.  Philip was born to parents who were Dalits—Untouchables—the lowest class in India’s Hindu culture.  He describes his childhood in these words:

By age of seven, I had mastered the art of behaving like an Untouchable!  I was growing up in a bleak, filthy, foul smelling, depressing to this day, Untouchable colony of Kot Mohalla. … On many days when I had nothing else to do, I tagged along with my grandmother on her rounds of removing human waste from 22 latrines. [Which she die by hand!]  I learned my basic lessons of behavior from my job of collecting the leftover chapati from the homes where my grandmother had cleaned the latrines.  [A chapatti was a round flat break, like a tortilla.]  When I reached a home which owed us a chapati for cleaning the latrine, I had to stand in the street and shout out aloud that their Bhangi was there.  [Bhangi was a derogatory term for an Untouchable.] Even going up to the door was prohibited for fear of my feet polluting that part of the house. … Someone would come out of the house and throw the bread like a Frisbee towards my basket which I would have to catch.  I became quite good at beating the dogs, though at times I had to fight for it. … Schools and education were not in the consciousness of the entire colony.  …. There seemed no other life possible for the Untouchables, as we were born in filth, worked in filth, and died in filth.

But then something happened to change Philip’s identity.  His parents became Christians as a result of a Presbyterian missionary who worked about a mile away.  For the first time his father realized that he did not have to believe in or obey the Hindu caste system and its rules laid down for Untouchables.  Instead he acquired some books, and with the help of a missionary he mastered both the Hindi and Urdu languages.  He then went to a Presbyterian seminary in India and was ordained to serve a circuit of 60 villages, which he did for 42 years.  He also taught his wife, who ran a school for Untouchable children in a rural village.  Philip himself eventually went to a Christian high school, graduated from a Presbyterian college in India, attended a Presbyterian seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and returned to India to start scores of Christian schools and churches.  With his new identity, Philip discovered a new mission for his life: to be an ambassador of the new creation made possible by Jesus.

That’s our mission.  Like Clark Kent, we have an identity greater than our family name and a mission bigger than scoring touchdowns.  We are ambassadors of a new creation—little demonstration projects of what God can do in us and in our world, if we give God the chance.

 

Mirror, Mirror

2 Corinthians 3:7-18, 4:6-7, Exodus 34:29-35

By Rev. Aaron Willett

Mirrors are powerful things. In the tale of Snow-White, originally told by the Brothers Grimm and of course later made into a classic Disney film, a magic mirror drives the action.

I imagine most of us are familiar with the story. After Snow-White’s mother dies, her father, the king, remarries, and here we’ll pick up with the Brothers Grimm:

She was a beautiful woman, but she was proud and arrogant, and she could not stand it if anyone might surpass her in beauty. She had a magic mirror. Every morning she stood before it, looked at herself, and said:

        Mirror, mirror, on the wall,

        Who in this land is fairest of all?

To this the mirror answered:

        You, my queen, are fairest of all.

Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the mirror spoke the truth.

Snow-White grew up and became ever more beautiful. When she was seven years old she was as beautiful as the light of day, even more beautiful than the queen herself.

One day when the queen asked her mirror:

        Mirror, mirror, on the wall,

        Who in this land is fairest of all?

It answered:

        You, my queen, are fair; it is true.

        But Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you.

The queen took fright and turned yellow and green with envy. From that hour on whenever she looked at Snow-White her heart turned over inside her body, so great was her hatred for the girl. The envy and pride grew ever greater, like a weed in her heart, until she had no peace day and night.

By her own request, the queen’s mirror was a mirror of comparison, and it became a mirror of envy. The forces of comparison all always around us. We have a lot of hand-me-down books in our house, and Laura and I were recently frustrated when reading Mercer Mayer’s “Little Critter’s Slumber Party” to Thea. The whole book is based on Little Critter being so impressed with his wealthy friend’s big house, big toys, and fancy things.

Comparison, and it’s corollary, envy, are all over.

Of course, in our passage today, Paul does his own comparison, but does not resolve with envy. In his comparison, Paul clearly deviates from the “simple meaning of the text” in Exodus. Exodus says nothing about Moses’ veil hiding the fading of God’s glory on his face. In his use of the Exodus passage, Paul is either plain wrong or powerfully right.

To Paul, the Law has come to be a code of death and condemnation that has lost its splendor. Before he was an Apostle of Christ, Paul was a zealous Pharisee, powerfully motivated by the Law as God’s revelation to humanity. So Paul’s argument that the glory of the Law is fading is derived from Paul’s own experience of conversion. In Christ, Paul experienced a glory beyond anything he had known. As he writes “Indeed, what once had glory has lost its glory because of the greater glory.”

While the Law is of God and is therefore has inherent and life-giving value, in comparing it to Jesus it is a passing glory, while Jesus’ glory just keeps on growing—it is a permanent splendor, written not on stone but on hearts. The law without Jesus is like confession without an assurance of pardon.

And so Paul find for us a new meaning of the revelation of God’s presence in Moses’ veiled, shining face—God’s glory was present in the Law, yes, but it has been powerfully surpassed by Jesus.

So great, in fact, is Jesus’ glory, that we reflect Christ to each other. Just as last week, pastor Ken preached about us being the aroma of Christ, this week Paul suggests we are the image of Christ. I don’t think we’re going to get to all five senses, but the case could probably be made—after all, we are the body of Christ in the world.

Verse 18 says, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

We shine God’s light, God’s glory, because we are being transformed. The glory of Christ surpasses the glory of Moses and the Law because Jesus gives us hope. Our hope in Christ frees us from the fear of death and condemnation, frees us to share in the permanent splendor of God. So we don’t need a veil, we are free to act in boldness.

I don’t think though that this boldness looks like a person with a megaphone meting out spiritual and auditory pain at the home plate entrance to Safeco. This is not the boldness of the Queen, rooted in her own beauty. This is not confidence in one’s own resume and pedigree. No, this boldness is rooted in humility. “We have this treasure in clay jars, earthen vessels, to show that this power comes from God and not from us.”

As with us, the Church in Corinth was full of flaws. Paul writes of the abundant tears he shed while writing his first letter (2:4). Yet he also suggests that this flawed church reveals God’s glory to each other and to the world. Friends, that’s good news for us!

We are humble, sinful, and flawed people, and yet, as we grow in faith, and as we hang around Jesus, we become more like Jesus. The more time we spend in Jesus’ glow, the more it sticks to us, the more it shines from us.

This is the Jesus pattern. In the Ancient Near East, uncleanliness was a contagion. The Law makes this plenty clear. A religiously clean person touching an unclean person did not produce a transfer of cleanness, but uncleanness. Stop to help a leper? Get ready for up to 80 days of purification rituals before you can be considered “clean” again. Touch a corpse? You’re unclean too. Have a discharge of bodily fluids? You’re out. This is the fading glory of the Law. Into this world came Jesus, and when Jesus touched the lepers, they were healed, and when Jesus came to his dead friend Lazarus, he raised him up. When the bleeding woman touched the hem of his robe, she was freed from her suffering. Jesus carries the contagion of holiness into our world and into our lives. Association with Jesus means we live by his life, and bit by bit his glory becomes revealed in us.

In the 1999 film, The Green Mile, John Coffey is a man falsely convicted of murder. But John Coffey seems to be a special agent of God, possessed with divine powers of healing and with a kind of “second sight” that allows him to see into people’s souls to learn the truth about them.

At one point in the movie, Coffey revives (resurrects!) a fellow prisoner’s pet mouse after a cruel prison guard on Death Row had smashed the little critter to death. At another point Coffey shares some of his powerful insights with Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard played by Tom Hanks, whom Coffey had also previously healed of a painful infection.

When the movie ends, we flash forward about 70 some years only to discover at the end that the mouse, Mr. Jingles, is still alive and so—now well into his 100s—is Paul. In explaining to a friend why Mr. Jingles and he now have such extraordinary long life, the long-since retired Paul Edgecomb suspects that when someone with as much divine life in him as John Coffey had touches you and heals you, sparks of that divine life get into you (even if you’re a mouse!).

(Green Mile Synopsis from Scott Hoezee, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/last-epiphany-c/?type=lectionary_epistle)

Like Paul Edgecomb and Mr. Jingles, we have been touched by the contagion of holiness.

We are free to be bold in our humility and vulnerability. Our boldness does not come from our own light, but by the light of Christ. This little light of mine is the light of Christ. Our boldness can be as small as mentioning church in our conversations with others. It can look like speaking openly about how our faith has shaped our values and impacts our path in life. While boldness in humility sometimes looks like open mouths, it can also look like open hearts and ears listening to the stories of others.

We, the holy, common people of God, are privileged to bear Christ to each other and the world. In our flaws, in our failings, in our successes, in our triumphs, we don’t need metaphorical veils to hide behind, because in Christ we are being transformed from one degree of Glory into another.

What if the Magic Mirror had known this truth? How would it have responded? Maybe like this:

One day when the queen asked her mirror:

        Mirror, mirror, on the wall,

        Who in this land is fairest of all?

It answered:

        You, my queen, are fair, I guess,

        But next to Christ, you count as less.

        Snow-White’s alright it’s also true,

        But Jesus Christ’s the real view. 

And then the mirror grew bold:

        All you people, you all fall short.

        You’re a fading glory, a growing wart.

        But living with Jesus in your heart,

        You’ll find growing in you the better part:

        Grace abounds wherein Christ dwells,

        Earthen vessels then chime like bells.

        You can release your vicious envy;

        You can be free of your load, so heavy.

        So, now be a mirror to each other,

        Share God’s love with sister and brother.

        Let Christ’s light shine right through you,

        Then through God’s love you’ll be fair too.

Maybe if the mirror had said that, they all would have lived happily ever after? I don’t know. Let’s pray:

God of light and life,

make us carriers of your contagion,  

mirrors of your glory,

that we might carry your love, your light

into the world, that it might know life in you. Amen.


The Smell of Salvation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 2:14-17; Genesis 8:20-22

  I grew up in Tacoma, back when it was a city you could smell before you saw it.  Later when I lived in Potlatch, Idaho, I discovered the same thing was true of Lewiston.  When you approach Lewiston from the north, before you drop down the hill you can sometimes smell the city before you see it.  People in Lewiston told me it was the smell of money, which was probably what some people in Tacoma thought.  It depends on how you look at it.

Smells aren’t always off-putting.  When we lived in Potlatch, sometimes when we were baking a little boy would come over from next door.  He would stand by the back door screen and say, "If I stand right here it smells like cookies."  He usually got one.  Smells have a way of communicating, for good or for bad.  They alert you to the presence of something even before you can see it.

Which is why I find it interesting that Paul compares the Christian faith to an odor.  II Corinthians 2:14-15:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance [Greek: osme] that comes from knowing him.  For we are the aroma [Greek: euodia] of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

In the Bible there are powerful associations with these two words.  In our first scripture reading, after Noah gets off the ark, he offers a sacrifice to the Lord.  Genesis 8:21 says,

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor [Greek: osme euodia—fragrant aroma], the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

God knows that even after the flood people will go on sinning.  God is not naïve about the human heart.  Nevertheless, because of Noah’s fragrant offering, God promises in the future to save humanity.  Noah’s offering was the smell of salvation.

In the New Testament this theme is picked up and applied to Jesus.  Ephesians 5:1-2:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering [Greek: osme euodia) and sacrifice to God.

Jesus was the ultimate osme euodia, the ultimate whiff of salvation.

            But it does not stop there.  Paul says that we also can be an osme euodia, a fragrant offering to God.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives thanks for the financial support he has received from them for his mission work, and in Philippians 4:18 he says,

I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering [Greek: osme euodia], a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was the ultimate "fragrant offering" to God, but our little offerings--our giving, our sharing, our prayers, our serving in the name of Christ--these things share in the fragrant offering of Christ, and they allow other people to pick up the scent.

I mentioned at the beginning that sometimes you can smell things before you see them.  I think the kingdom of God is like that.  We can't see the kingdom of God yet.  The promise of peace on earth and good will to all people is still beyond the horizon.  But sometimes in a community of faith you get a whiff of it.  When we come here and sing hymns, we get a whiff of the kingdom of God where people of every race, nation, and language will stand before God singing their hearts out with gratitude.  And when we collect food for the food bank or provide meals for Hospitality House, the women’s shelter, or even when we do things that don’t involve food—preparing books for the inmates at the SCORE jail or hygiene packs for Children of the Nations or cisterns to hold rainwater for women in Kenya or school supplies for children at North Hill and Des Moines elementary schools—when we offering these gifts to help other people in Jesus’ name—we release an osme euodia—the fragrant aroma of God’s salvation.  And people can smell it before they see it.  People can get a whiff of the kingdom long before Christ returns to make it visible.

Of course, the aroma of faith does not smell the same to all people.  In II Corinthians 2:16 Paul says, "To the one [it is] a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life."  To a white supremacist the idea of people from all different races, nations, and languages gathering together around the throne of God smells like the stench of death.  To those who want to dominate, control, or exploit others—to them the gospel of Christ has a dangerous odor, like the smell of ozone just before lightning strikes.  But to those who yearn for God's kingdom, who dream of the day when people of different races and ethnic groups will live together in peace, when no one will go to bed hungry, no one will be homeless, no one will be unloved--to these people the aroma of faith is a breath of fresh air in smoggy world.

There is a wonderful illustration of this in a chapter from C. S. Lewis' book The Screwtape Letters.  I have mentioned this book before in some sermons.  For those not familiar with it, The Screwtape Letters are a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil's chief tempters, to his nephew Wormwood, a sort-of apprentice tempter.  The letters give Screwtape's advice on how Wormwood should handle one of his "patients," a new Christian whom Screwtape hopes to corrupt.  At one point in the book this patient falls in love with a Christian, a woman of devout, intelligent, and humble faith—all things which the devil deeply detests.  Here is Screwtape's description of her in one of his letters to Wormwood:

I have looked up this girl's dossier and am horrified at what I find.  Not only a Christian but such a Christian ….  She makes me vomit.  She stinks and scalds the very pages of the dossier.  [Notice how Screwtape reacts to the whiff of this woman's faith.]  It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened.  We'd have had her to the arena in the old days.  That's what her sort is made for.  Not that she'd do much good there, either.  A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she'd faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile. ... Looks as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, and yet has a satirical wit. …

Then, of course, he gets to know this woman's family and whole circle.  Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered?  The whole place reeks of that deadly odour.  The very gardener, though he has been there only five years, is beginning to acquire it.  Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them.  The dog and the cat are tainted with it. ... We are certain (it is a matter of first principles) that each member of the family must in some way be making capital out of the others--but we can't find out how.  They guard as jealously as the Enemy Himself the secret of what really lies behind [this thing they call love].  The whole house and garden are one vast obscenity.  It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven... (pp. 101-102).

Sometimes before you can see the kingdom of God you can smell it.  Our worship, our prayers, our gifts, our sacrifices, and our service in the name of Christ--all these things are the smell of salvation, giving people a whiff of what is to come.

 

Healing Painful Relationships

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 2:1-11; Romans 5:6-11

             In the past I have shared theological insights from Calvin and Hobbes, but this morning I dug out of my files an old comic strip from Peanuts.  In this strip Charlie Brown meets Linus and says, “Where have you been?”  Linus says, “Church school.  We’ve been studying the letters of the Apostle Paul.”  You can already see the relevance of this.  Charlie Brown says, “That should be interesting.”  Linus says, “It is, although I must admit it makes me feel a little guilty.  I always feel like I’m reading someone else’s mail.”

             Which is part of the problem with II Corinthians.  When studying II Corinthians, we are reading someone one else’s mail.  Throughout the letter Paul refers to situations that the Corinthians know about but we don’t.  We must infer what happened from Paul’s response.

             In this case it appears that Paul and his ministry has come under attack.  We get clues of what was said from the way Paul responds.  For example, some called Paul wishy-washy for changing his mind about visiting them.  We read about that last week.  They also mocked his weak appearance and his unpolished speaking style.  Paul mentions this later in chapter 10, verse 10, when he quotes one of their attacks against him: “They say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’”  They mocked him for his appearance and speaking style.  Above all, they challenged his credentials as an apostle.  They point out that he was not one of Jesus’ original followers, and they question whether he is even Jewish, whether he is a legitimate descendant of Abraham, like the other apostles.  Paul was in fact Jewish, but his opponents sowed doubt about this to undermine his credibility.  They said things about Paul, including things that were not true, to undermine his authority and discredit his preaching.

             This apparently happened during a “painful” visit Paul mentions in verse 1.  He says to the Corinthians, “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit,” implying that his last visit had been painful.  Apparently Paul had been stung and hurt by things some of the people in Corinth had said about him.  Even more he was hurt that the Corinthians as a whole allowed it to go on.  The majority in the church stood by and said nothing while Paul’s character and credibility were savaged by a few discontents.  So he cancelled his second visit to them, the one we read last week he had promised to make.  He cancelled it to avoid another painful visit.

             Which strikes me as one lesson we might learn from this scripture.  Sometimes the first response to a painful situation should be to give yourself space from it, a chance for things to calm down and for you to get a little perspective.  Being a follower of Jesus does not mean you must go on letting yourself be abused.  Whether it is an abusive boss, an abusive neighbor, or an abusive family member, being a follower of Jesus does not mean you should sit there and take it.  This helps neither you nor the abusive person.  So Paul starts by giving himself a little space—a respite from the abusive situation.

             But he does not stop there.  He then writes a letter.  He refers to this in verse 3: “And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice.”  We don’t know for sure what he said in this letter, but if you want a taste of it, you can read II Corinthians chapters 10-13.  Some Bible scholars think chapters 10-13 is an excerpt from this painful letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians.  We don’t know that for sure, but whatever Paul wrote it was painful for him to say.

  This is important.  Paul did not write out of anger, he wrote out of anguish.  Verse 4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”  Paul confronts the Corinthians not to punish them but to deal with the issues that are separating them.

             Here is the second lesson in this scripture: The first response to a painful situation may be to give yourself space, but it cannot stop there.  The second response should be to confront the abuse, not only for your sake but for the sake of the abuser.

             One of the things I appreciate about the “Me, too” movement is not only that women are standing up for their dignity but that men are being confronted about behaviors that are wrong, that they need to change for their own sake.  I hope the “Me, too” movement not only helps women to be the people God created them to be, but men, too.

             Paul feels pain about his relationship to the Corinthians, but it is the pain of love, the pain of caring about a relationship.

  In a sense God does not want to spare us from that kind of pain, because it is the same kind of pain God feels toward us when we turn away from God.  God grieves when we turn away from God to live self-absorbed lives, because God knows we are hurting ourselves.  When we live self-absorbed lives, oblivious or not caring about the hurt we do to others, then we are eroding our souls.  God knows that, so God confronts us, as did the apostle Paul.

             So what happened when Paul wrote his confrontational letter to the Corinthians?  We are not told how it affected the offending people, but we are told that the majority in the church censured those who had been saying hurtful things about Paul.  We know this, because in verse 6 Paul says, “This punishment by the majority is enough.”  The word translated punishment is a Greek word that more commonly means to rebuke or censure.  The Corinthians did not round up and beat the people who were disparaging Paul.  They publicly rejected the hurtful things they said about Paul.  Which as I mentioned earlier was Paul’s deepest concern.  By their silence the majority in Corinth were allowing a minority to discredit Paul and by extension the gospel he proclaimed.  But now by this public censure against the critics, they reaffirmed their relationship to Paul and their commitment to the gospel he proclaimed.

             Which brings me to the third lesson in this scripture.  In verse 7 Paul switches gears.  He says, “So now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.”

             Most Bible commentaries on this passage assume that Paul says this because the person or persons maligning Paul had repented of their actions.  But it does not say that.  Go back and look at this scripture carefully.  Paul does not say that the offending person has repented; he says that the punishment or censure by the majority is enough.  His concern is whether the majority of the Corinthians will reject this person’s slander and reaffirm their commitment to Jesus.  That’s Paul’s concern.  Having established that, Paul now invites them to be gracious—to give grace—toward the offending person in order to win him back.

             Does the offending person come back?  We don’t know.  The text does not say.  We cannot control what other people do.  The Bible does not promise that confronting people and seeking reconciliation will always work.  It doesn’t always work.  The other person may not want to be reconciled.

Nevertheless, the Bible tells us to try.  Why?  Because that is what God has done for us.  Our first scripture reading says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Jesus’ unjust death confronted us with the depth of own injustice and wrongdoing, while also opening the door to healing and reconciliation.  Now it is up to us whether we will walk through that door.  So it is with our painful relationships to others.  We can confront the wrong and open the door to healing, but we can’t control how the other person will respond.

  But even in the process of confronting and offering grace, there is a certain healing that happens to us—no matter how the other person responds.  When we confront a painful relationship out of love rather than anger, and when we open a door to reconciliation, we allow a certain healing to happen in us, even if the other person wants no part of it.  It is the healing that happens when we finally let go of a hurt, knowing we have done what we could about it, so that God’s grace can bathe the wound.

Yes, No, and Maybe

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Corinthians 1:15-22; John 21:15-17

I don’t remember my children's first words when they were learning to speak, but I remember what seemed like their favorite word.  Their favorite word was "No!"  They said "No" when we tried to feed them broccoli.  They said "No" when we told them it was time for bed.  They said "No" when any of their siblings tried to pick up one of their toys.  They were quite good and quite clear at saying “No.”

Of course I know where they learned that.  They learned it from us, their parents.  It seemed like we were always saying no to them.  We said "No" when they tried to touch the fireplace.  We said "No" when they grabbed the cat by the tail.  We said "No" when they wanted a cookie before dinner.  Even when my children’s requests seemed reasonable, my instinct was always to hesitate, to not promise anything too quickly.  About the best my children could hope for from me was “Maybe."

Which seems to be the problem the Corinthians had with the apostle Paul.  We are not completely clear about the situation, but apparently the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that he would visit them twice: once on the way through Greece to Macedonia, and then on the way back.  But then he changed his mind for reasons we will read about next week.  But to the Corinthians Paul was like a politician who had broken a campaign promise.  They questioned his integrity and reliability, which to Paul was a serious issue, because if his opponents could question his integrity and reliability, they might also question the truth of his preaching.  If Paul's word could not be trusted about travel plans, how could it be trusted about Jesus?

Paul responds to this charge in our second scripture reading.  First he paraphrases their complaint.  Verse 17: "Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this?  Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say 'Yes, yes' and 'No, no' at the same time?"  In other words, am I like politicians who change their message from the primaries to the general election?  Do I say one thing when appealing to my base, and something else when trying to win over independent voters?  That is the kind of charge the Corinthians leveled against Paul.

Interestingly, Paul does not answer their complaint by defending himself, at least not until later in the chapter.  We will read about that next week.  But Paul’s first response is not to defend his record and integrity the way a politician would.  Paul’s first response is not to defend his own reliability but to insist on God's reliability.  Verses 19-20:  "For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus, Timothy, and I, was not 'Yes and No'; but in him it is always 'Yes.'  For in him every one of God's promises is a 'Yes.'"

Notice how Paul emphasizes that the message about Jesus which he preached to the Corinthians is the same message preached by Silvanus and Timothy.  It is not just about Paul’s reliability; it is about the reliability of the gospel.  The truth of the gospel does not depend on the trustworthiness of any single person who proclaims it.

This is important, because pastors are not always reliable, any more than parents.  We have seen that too often in recent years, not just in the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, but in various forms of clergy misconduct in all churches, sometimes sexual and sometimes financial.  And even when not guilty of a prosecutable offense, pastors often let people down.

Our Presbytery Executive in Spokane once stood up at a Presbytery meeting and said that at one time or another he had received complaints about every single minister in the presbytery.  We were all stunned.  We wanted to know who they were.  These were not sexual misconduct complaints, but some kind of complaint by people about their pastor, and none of us got off unscathed.

I hate to admit this, but it’s true: you cannot count on pastors to be an example of the gospel.  We’re not that good.  If you think we are perfect, we will disillusion you, just like parents.

But you can count on God.  That’s Paul’s point.

There are religions where God's promises are presented as "Maybe."  If you live a good enough life, if you do enough good things, if you give enough money to the church, then maybe you will make it to heaven.  Maybe you will be accepted by God.

That is not the God shown to us in Jesus.  There is no "Maybe" with Jesus.   In Jesus, every one of God’s promises is Yes.  Are you loved by God?  Yes.  Were you made a child of God in baptism?  Yes.  Does God have a purpose for your life here and now?  Yes.  Does God have a destiny for you greater than you have yet imagined?  Yes.  All the promises of God in Jesus are Yes, and no disappointing pastor or disillusioning parent can mess that up.

Don't get me wrong.  "No" is still an important word.  I am glad we taught our children to say "No," because "No" is the word which makes you a free and independent human being.  If someone at school or work offers you drugs or pressures you to have sex, you have the ability to say “No.”  If they want you to join in ridiculing people because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or even their politics, you have the ability to say “No.”  If your boss at work wants you to falsify a financial report in order to avoid taxes, you have the ability to say "No."  "No" is the word which makes you a free and independent human being.

"No" is a very important word, but it is not the most important word.  The most important word you will ever say is "Yes."  If "No" is a declaration of independence, then "Yes" is a commitment to community.  If "No" is the word that separates us, "Yes" is the word that draws us together.  You would not exist, you would not have a family or job or this church, if people in the past had not said "Yes" to some commitment.  "Yes" is the word of commitment which draws us together into a community.

How do we learn to say "Yes"?  The same way we learn to say "No"—by having it said to us.  You can see this in our first scripture lesson.  You may recall that when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.  Three times Peter was asked, "Aren't you also one of Jesus' followers?", and three times Peter said, "No."  The good news, however, is that even when Peter said "No" to Jesus, Jesus did not say "No" to Peter.  After Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, he appeared again to Peter and said, "Peter, do you love me?"  Three times Jesus asked Peter that question, and three times Peter said, Yes.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you."  Peter can say "Yes" to Jesus, because Jesus has said "Yes" to him.

All of you have or will say some important "Yeses" in your life.  You say “Yes” when you choose a college or career.  You say “Yes” when you get married.  You say “Yes” when you decide to have children.  All of you have or will experience crucial times in your life when you say "Yes."  But the most important "Yes" you will ever say is "Yes" to God.  When you are baptized or confirmed or join the church, when you bring your children for baptism or when you are ordained as a church officer—whatever the situation, the most important "Yes" you will ever say is "Yes" to God, and you can say that because God has said "Yes" to you.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7