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.


Please join us for Sunday Worship Service at 10:00 am every week and the fourth Sunday at 6:00pm for an intergenerational & contemporary Agape Worship Service.

The Reason You Are Here

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31; 2:1-4

            I want to begin this morning with a scene from the TV show Everybody Loves Raymond.  In this episode Raymond’s young daughter Ally asks him, “Why are there babies?”  Thinking that she is asking about sex, Raymond has a sneezing attack and has to leave the room.  But his wife prods him to go back and answer her question.  So armed with several books about sex he goes in to have “the talk” with his daughter.  And that’s where our scene begins.

[Show 4 minutes from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0j4iMm4yz8I]

[Description of the scene if the video does not work out: He comes into Ally’s room and says, “I guess you have some questions about babies.”  “Yeah,” she says, “why are there babies?”  He says, “Well, when a man and woman love each other they get married, and then sometimes they decide to make a baby.”  His daughter interrupts and says, “I already know where babies come from.  I was wondering why they are here at all.  Why did God put us here?”  Raymond looks at her and says, “What?”  She says, “Why are we here?”  He says, “Don’t you want to talk about sex?”  She says, “No, I’m wondering why God put us here.”  Raymond looks at her and then starts sneezing.]

            The Bible, I am glad to say, is not afraid to discuss why we are here.  In fact the answer to that question begins in the very first chapter.

            I am going to spend the next several minutes in a rather intense Bible study, so stay with me.  This may seem a little dry and academic, but it gets to the heart of why we are here.

            First, let’s look at Genesis 1:26-27 [Slide 1]

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; …. So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God they were created; male and female God created them.

            What does it mean that we are created in the image and likeness of God?  It can’t mean we look like God.  The Bible is adamantly opposed to making any image that claims to look like God or be God.  So what does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God?

            Well, there is another place in Genesis where these same two words are used: Genesis 5:3 [Slide 2]; “When Adam had lived a hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.”  Here we have the same Hebrew words as in Genesis 1.  Adam became the father of a child in his image and likeness.  Did that mean the child looked exactly like Adam or represented Adam?  No, it meant that they belonged to the same species.  There was a relationship between Adam and his son unlike the relationship Adam had with other animals—a relationship that allowed them to be a family.

            So what does it mean that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God? It means we are created capable of a relationship to God.  We are created to be part of God’s family.

            God demonstrates this in Genesis 1:29 [Slide 3]: “And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”  At this point I am not interested in the dietary issues posed by this verse.  That is another subject.  What interests me is the way God speaks directly to humans in this verse.  God speaks to humans in a different way than God speaks to other parts of creation.  Earlier in chapter 1 God says things like, “Let there be light … let the waters be gathered together into one place … let the earth bring forth living creatures.”  Elsewhere in Genesis 1 God speaks the world into existence; but here God speaks personally to the man and woman as an “I” speaking to a “you.”  God does this all through the rest of the Bible.  Unlike other creatures God addresses humans personally as an “I” speaking to a “you.”  That’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God: God can talk to us, and we can talk back.

            Which brings me to another astonishing detail in verse 26: how God uses the plural. [Slide 4]. God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.”  Who is “us”?  We are not told.  Many Bible scholars suggest it refers to the heavenly host, the angels.  Others say it is a plural of deliberation, like a Presidential candidate saying, “We are taking our message across the country.”  The candidate means, “I am taking my message across the country,” but the candidate uses “we” and “our” makes it sound like the candidate is part of something bigger.

            Of course a classic Christian answer is that God refers here to the Trinity.  When God says, “Let us make humans in our image,” God is referring to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I cannot prove which of these interpretations is correct, but they all assume that God is not a solo act.  From the very beginning God is a relational God, and in creation God invites human beings into that relationship. [Slide 5: Blank]

            And that brings me to one final peculiarity about this chapter.  Why does it describe creation as happening in seven days?  Some take this literally.  They say the Bible describes creation happening in seven days because that’s how it happened.  God created everything in seven 24-hour periods.  Of course science disagrees, and those who take this chapter literally are forced into some bizarre explanations of why some fossils appear millions of years older than other fossils.

            But that debate misses the point.  The Bible is not talking here about seven 24-hour periods.  That is obvious when you look at verse 14 [Slide 6]: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons and for days and years.”  Here in verse 14 God creates the sun and the moon, specifically to be markers of time.  But here is the strange thing: verse 14 is the fourth day of creation.  God does not created the sun until the fourth day!  So what does a day mean if the sun has not yet been created? [Slide 7: Blank]

            It has to have a symbolic meaning.  The seven days of creation mean that the creation is headed toward a climax—a destination—which is the seventh day, the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship.  The whole point of creation is so that we can rest in God’s love and celebrate our life with God forever.   Or as the Presbyterian Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it: “The chief end of people is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

            That’s the Bible’s answer to Ally’s question.  Why are we here?  We are not put here because there is overcrowding in heaven.  Nor is our purpose to accomplish something before we die.  Our purpose is relational: to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s why we are here, not to accomplish something, not to prove something, but to love someone beginning with our Creator, and in the process to let our Creator love us.

            A few months before she died, I had a conversation with Beverly Klose, one of our members at Wesley Gardens.  Beverly was fairly discouraged that day.  Her eyesight had gotten so bad she could no longer read, which she loved to do.  In fact it had gotten so bad she could hardly see to get around her apartment, and she was beginning to trip on things and fall, which made her feel even more helpless.  But it wasn’t feeling helpless that really got her down.  It was feeling useless.  She said to me, “I don’t know why I’m still around; I’m not good for anything anymore.”  Actually I have known numerous people in the later years of their lives who said something like that to me.  “I don’t know why I’m still here; I’m not good for anything anymore.”

            So I said to Beverly, “Can you still pray?”  She said, “Of course.  I pray every day.”  I said, “Then keep praying, because there is no better gift you can give to God or to us.”

            That’s what it means to be created in the image of God.  You are here for a purpose: not to accomplish something but to love someone—to love God with all your heart and to love the other people God puts in your life.  That is your purpose, a purpose so great not even an eternity will make you obsolete.

Waiting for the Rainbow

Ken Onstot

Scriptures:  Genesis 6:11-22; 8:1-12

(Noah's son, enters with two boards and begins nailing them together with a thin third board set up on a saw horse.  Noah enters.)

Noah:  I hope you're almost finished with that patch, son.  We're about to spring a leak on the penguins.

Son (flinging down his hammer on the board):  Will you get off my back, Dad!  The penguins will be just fine.  Penguins are supposed to like water, aren’t they?

Noah:  It's not the penguins I'm worried about.  If this boat leaks, we will all go down.

Son (going over and confronting his father):  I thought you said God was going to protect us.  God will save us, you said, if we build a boat.  So we built a boat.  Now every time I turn around I have to fix a leak.  Or haul water down in rain buckets.  Or rebuild the fence between the foxes and chickens.   Or shore up the flooring between decks, so the giraffes don't land on the hippos.  If we're saved by God, how come I'm doing all the work?

Noah:  Sometimes our work is the means God uses to save us.

Son (goes off to the other side):  Well, I'm starting to wonder about God.  What kind of God would kill off an entire planet—men, women, children, animals?  Does that sound like a loving God to you?

Noah:  Would a loving God stand by and let the world go on as it is?  Would a loving God let people go on killing each other, exploiting each other, lying to one another to satisfy their lust and greed?  Would a loving God allow the world to be despoiled by fewer and fewer people consuming more and more of the earth's resources while others don't have enough to survive? Would God be loving to let people exploit women for sex, children for labor, and nature for greed?  Is that what a loving God would do?

Son (subdued):  Of course not.  But isn't God throwing out the baby with the bathwater... I mean, literally?  Why should children and animals suffer for the wrongdoing of adults?

Noah (also subdued):  I don't know, but it always happens that way.  Look at any war that has ever been fought.  The whole creation suffers when people act wickedly--even children and animals. Children always suffer for their parents' sins.  Then they grow up to repeat them.

Son:  That's an encouraging thought.

Noah:  That's how it works.  The sins of the parents are inherited by the children.  The only way to stop the cycle is to start over.

Son (going over to his father):  So where does that leave us?  If human beings are so hopelessly corrupt that God must wipe them out, why should God save us?  Are we so much better than everyone else?

Noah:  I've wondered about that.

Son: What makes you think we will ever get off this boat?  God told you it would rain for forty days and forty nights.  Apparently God forgot to tell you that the water would go on rising for 150 days.  We've been on this boat for over a year and we still can't see the ground.

Noah:  God promised to save us.

Son:  When?

Noah: I don’t know.

Son:  And then what happens?  Suppose the waters recede and we get off this floating menagerie.  What will keep it from happening again?  You say that God flooded the world because of people's sin.  Well, we're people, aren’t we?  What's going to keep us from sinning again? What will keep our children and their children from sinning?  What will keep God from throwing up his hands and wiping us out all over again?

Noah:  I don't know.  But God must have some plan in mind.  Otherwise God would not have bothered to save us.  Perhaps there is some kind of water that can wash away sins without washing away people.

Son: The only kind of water that could cleanse us from sin is the kind that would kill us.

Noah:  Well, this water (motioning around him) is not going to kill us.  Remember that raven I released two weeks ago.  It never came back.  Maybe it found a place to land.

Son:  Or maybe it ran out of strength and drowned.

Noah:  I don’t think so.  After that I sent out another bird--a dove.  Last night it came back with this.  (He takes out of his pocket a twig from a tree.  The Son goes over and looks at it.)

Son:  An olive branch.  (Thoughtfully)  We haven't had any good olives since, … I can’t remember.  Where did you get this?

Noah:  I told you, the dove brought it back.

Son (handing the branch back):  It was probably just some floating debris, another painful reminder of what's been destroyed by the flood.

Noah:  But look, its fresh.

Son (ignoring it):  How can anything be alive down there after a year under water?  If this boat ever does land, which I doubt, we'll never find anything to eat.  It will all be buried under mud.

Noah:  God will provide, my son.

Son (with sudden vehemence):  How?  We were supposed to be in this boat for 40 days.  But the water kept rising for 150 days.  You think it's starting to go down, but with no land to look at, who can tell?  After 40 more days you sent out that raven.  It never came back.  Who knows what that means?  Then you waited another 7 days and sent out a dove.  It comes back with a branch.  We can't feed this family with a branch.  We're running out of food, Dad.  In another day or two I'm going to slaughter one of those bulls and have steak. (He starts to march off with the hammer in his hand.)

Noah:  Wait!  You can't do that.  They will become extinct.

Son:  Who cares?  Why worry if some species becomes extinct when your own family doesn’t have enough to eat.  We've got to survive.

Noah:  God has given us all the food we need, if we share it.

Son:  But it won’t last much longer.  If God is going to save us, he better do it quick.

Noah (putting his arm around Son):  Son, calm down.  Do you remember how frightened you used to be by storms?  When you heard the thunder you ran for your mother and me.  We held you, and then when the storm passed I took you outside and showed you the rainbow.  The rainbow meant the storm was over and the sun was coming out.  The storm always ends, the sun always comes out.  That's how God meant it to be, and that's how God wants it to be again.

Son:  So we're waiting for the rainbow.

Noah:  That's right.  The rainbow reminds us of God's faithfulness.  I know this is hard.  I don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world, so many floods and fires, storms and earthquakes, wars and famines.  I don’t know why these things happen.  But I have to believe that God still has a purpose for us, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  And I know that no storm can separate us from God's love, otherwise God would not have given us the rainbow.  I don’t know how God will finally deal with human sin, but I believe that one day God will give us a different kind of water—the kind of water that can wash away sin, without washing us away in the process.

Son (shrugs):  So meanwhile I'm supposed to fix the leaks.  Is that it?

Noah:  Yes.  And those boards you put up will be the structure of God's love.  All our work to serve God, to preserve the creation, to help one another live full and productive lives--all of that will be signs of God's faithfulness, just like the rainbow.

Son (going back and picking up his hammer):  I hope you're right, Dad, especially since it's the only chance we've got.

Noah:  Yes, I guess it is.

 

Planned Giving

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 16:1-4; Acts 11:27-30

            You may not realize this, but the scripture we just heard is the first recorded instance of Presbyterian disaster assistance.  You may not have heard the word “Presbyterian” in that scripture, but it was there in verse 30.  After hearing about a famine among people in Jerusalem, the Christians in Antioch sent relief via the elders, which in Greek is the word presbuteros—Presbyterian.  They sent relief via the Presbyterians.

            This offering also had special significance to the Apostle Paul.  He discusses it at length in both his letters to the Corinthians as well as in Romans and Galatians.  He wanted all the Gentile churches around the Mediterranean to participate in this offering, not just for practical reasons but for theological reasons.  For Paul this offering was symbolic.  It represented a predominantly Gentile church in Greece sending aid to a predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem.  Jews and Gentiles had an uneasy relationship in the early church.  So this was significant: a Gentile church in Greece sending aid to a Jewish church in Jerusalem.  It would be like liberal leaning church in Seattle collecting an offering and sending it to Trump supporters in Texas who were flooded out of their homes.  In a famine there is neither Jew nor Greek, in a flood there is neither liberal nor conservative, only people who live by the grace of God.

            Which brings me to our second scripture reading.  These are Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians for how to participate in this offering: I Corinthians 16:1-4.

[Read I Corinthians 16:1-4]

            I think there are three lessons to be learned from Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about this offering: [Slide 1]

            First, Giving should be planned.  Paul wants, not a one-time emotional response, but a planned discipline of giving over time.  On the first day of each week, he says, put something aside so that we don’t have to take a collection when I come.  Giving is not just a one-time emotional response to a need, but an on-going grateful response to God’s blessing.

            Here is something else you may not realize.  You have already given to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance response to Hurricane Harvey.  You gave to it last spring when we had the One Great Hour of Sharing offering during Lent.  Every year when we give to the One Great Hour of Sharing, we are giving to next year’s disasters.  Even though they have not yet happened, we know they will.  So thanks to your giving last spring, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has already used some of your money for sending teams of people to assist local churches and communities in Texas.  Furthermore, the Presbyterian response won’t evaporate by New Years.  The ongoing money we give to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance will be used for years to come in the rebuilding process, even after the news media has moved on to other things.

            How many of you here this morning participated in one of the mission trips to Mississippi or Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina?  Southminster’s first mission trip to help the victims of Katrina was in the spring of 2007.  That was two years after the hurricane.  The media had gone on to other things, but Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was still there, working with mission teams from churches like ours to find the neediest people, organize groups to help them, and arrange housing and meals for the mission teams.  They did this for years after Hurricane Katrina, and they are planning to do it for years after Hurricane Harvey, counting on the ongoing support year after year of Presbyterians giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing.  Presbyterians, like the apostle Paul, believe in planned giving.

            Second, Giving should be proportional.  In our scripture reading Paul says to the Corinthians, “Each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn.”  This, unfortunately, is not the best translation of Paul’s idea.  In Greek he says literally, “Store up whatever you prosper.”  In other words, give according to the blessings that God has given you.

            The same point is made in our first scripture reading.  Acts 11, verse 29: “The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea.”  Giving is meant to be proportional to what God has given us.  We do not charge a membership fee where everyone pays the same amount to be a member of our church.  Membership in Christ’s body is free.  Giving is not the payment of our dues but an offering of gratitude, which is why the Bible talks about tithing, giving 10% of the crop to God.  In the Bible giving is meant to be proportional to what God has given us.

            Finally, and sometimes this point has not gotten enough attention, Giving should be accountable.  Notice how Paul addresses this in the scripture reading.  He says in verse 3, “And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem.”  Paul is not going to take the gift by himself.  Why?  To avoid any possibility or even appearance of misappropriation of funds.

            Giving should be properly handled and accounted for.  This is not just an accounting principle; it is a Christian principle.  We always have two different people count the offering every Sunday.  They sign the deposit slip with the amount, so that the deposit matches the bank record.  When any money is spent it needs at least two signatures, and when anyone in the church is reimbursed for expenses, they are asked to produce receipts.  And every year the whole thing is audited.  Giving should always be properly handled and accounted for. [Slide 2: Blank]

            A final story.  This is from the book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  Miller tells about an unusual friend of his named Curt.  Curt was not a church-going sort of guy.  He came once in a while, when there was a special reason, but he said he did not really care for church.  Donald Miller writes,

[Curt] used to keep a huge jar on his dresser that was full of money, and when he deposited his paychecks he would pull out 10 percent from the bank.  Cold, hard cash.  He would take the money home and put it in that jar.  The thing must have had a couple thousand dollars in it.  I was over one night watching [TV], and Curt was griping because the cabinet shop didn’t pay him enough so that he could get the motorcycle he wanted.

“Well,” I told him, “you must have thousands of dollars in that stinking jar.  Use that.”

“Can’t,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Isn’t mine,” he smiled, sort of embarrassed.  “It’s God’s.”

“God’s?” I shouted.

“Yeah, that’s my tithe.”

I was a little shocked. … He didn’t seem like the tithing type. …  [But he explained that every so often he took the jar down to the church and dumped the contents on the desk of the church financial secretary.  Then he said,]

“You tithe, Don?”

I just looked at him.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was about to get a lecture on tithing from a guy who probably subscribed to Bikes and Babes magazine.

“Well, Curt, I guess I don’t.” After I said this, Curt shook his head in disappointment.  “It’s a shame, Don,” Curt tilted back a bottle as he spoke, punctuating the sentence with a post-swig burb.  “You are missing out.  I’ve been tithing since I was a kid.” …

Curt went down about two weeks later and turned all his money into the church secretary.  More than three thousand dollars.  I started feeling so guilty I couldn’t sleep (pp. 194-195).

            Giving is not meant to be about guilt.  It is meant to be about gratitude—daily, weekly, and yearly gratitude.  It is not a one-time emotional response to a disaster.  Not that you shouldn’t give to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  But that is not all there is to Christian giving.  Giving, as the Bible talks about it, is an on-going, planned, and properly accounted for response to what God has given us.  That’s how we try to do giving here at Southminster.

Grace Not in Vain

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 15:1-11, 51-58

            Before I read our second scripture, I want to show a two minute segment of a Veggie Tales movie.  Some of you, especially our children, are already familiar with Veggie Tales.  They are short videos, often with a Biblical theme, where the characters all look like vegetables.  This particular Veggie Tale is called “A Snoodle’s Tale.”  One day a Snoodle appears in a town of Snoodles.  This new little Snoodle does not know where he came from, or what he is for, but he finds 3 items in his backpack: a paint brush, a kazoo, and a pair of wings.  He is especially excited about the wings, and he decides to show the others that he can fly.  That’s where our first movie segment begins.  Here is two minutes of “A Snoodle’s Tale.”

[Show www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJzJ5s970Pc.   Start at 2:55, stop at 5:11]

            We will watch the end of the story in a few minutes.  But I wonder if the Apostle Paul ever felt like that Snoodle.  As we heard in the first scripture, Paul was called to be an apostle.  The risen Jesus has appeared to him in order that he might share with others the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And Paul had been doing that for years, starting churches in cities across the Mediterranean, including Corinth.  But the church in Corinth had so many problems.  In chapter 1 we read about divisions and factions in the church.  In chapter 5 there is an episode of sexual misconduct.  In chapter 11 we discover they are abusing the poor, and in later chapters they are fighting with each other over who has the best spiritual gift.  Some of them even question whether Paul is really an apostle.  Paul could have easily felt like that Snoodle: that his gifts as an apostle were unappreciated and wasted and that all his work was in vain.  But it wasn’t!  And here is why.

[Read second scripture: I Corinthians 15:51-58]

            Notice how often in this chapter Paul talks about how our faith might seem like it is in vain [Slide 1]

-          Verse 2: “… you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.”

-          Verse 14: “… if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

-          Verse 17: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

Without Jesus’ resurrection, I think we could all end up feeling like that Snoodle, as if everything in our lives is wasted.

            But in fact Jesus has been raised, and that changes everything. [Slide 2]

-          Verse 10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”

-          Verse 58: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

            Often when we think of Jesus’ resurrection, we think of what it means for life after death.  We think of Easter in terms of what happens after we die.  But Paul sees what Easter means before we die.  It means that the things we do to serve Jesus in this life are not wasted.

            Why?  Because in the resurrection God does not brush aside our feeble efforts to serve Jesus, the way the other Snoodles brushed aside the artwork of that little Snoodle.  God does not brush aside our efforts to serve Jesus.  Rather in the resurrection God takes our efforts to serve Jesus—God takes our lives—and makes of them something more remarkable and more important and more lasting than we ever imagined.

            Listen again to verses 51-52: [Slide 3]

Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

            The resurrection does not mean the continuation of life as it is.  We don’t rise from the dead and go back to being the same bickering, self-centered, angry or depressed people we have always been.  In the resurrection we are transformed into what God intended us to be all along.  And that means the things we do to serve Jesus here and now, things we do to show God’s love in this life, will not be wasted in God’s kingdom; they will be perfected. [Slide 4: Blank]

            Now we are ready to watch the conclusion of “A Snoodle’s Tale.”  After the Snoodle is rejected by the others, he wanders up to a mountain where he meets a voice.  We never do see the figure he meets up on the mountain, but we hear his voice.  The voice invites the Snoodle to come in and have a cup of tea.  And that’s where we see the Snoodle transformed.  Here is the final four minutes of “A Snoodle’s Tale.”

[Show same youtube video.  Start at 9:32 and stop at the end 13:29.]

            What I especially like about this story is how the Snoodle is not the only one transformed by his encounter on the mountain.  Did you notice that?  The Snoodle is not the only one who flies at the end of the movie; so does everyone he encounters.  When the Snoodle tells his story, others are changed.  His efforts are not in vain.

            Neither are yours.  Go and tell your story.

Overhearing the Gospel

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 14:1-12, 13-25

            In our scripture readings this morning Paul makes several references to speaking in tongues.  I don’t know if you have ever been to a church or prayer service where people spoke in tongues, but I found an ABC News segment on YouTube to show you a little of what it is like.  It features a mega-church in Tampa, Florida, led by Pastor Randy White.  Near the beginning it shows him praying in tongues as he walks past a strip joint.  He prays in tongues because he believes this gives him protection from Satan as he prays for the people inside.  Then we see part of a church service at his church where people are praying in tongues and fainting.  They are not having a heart attack; they faint, presumably, because they have been overcome by the Holy Spirit.  Here is a three-minute segment of the show.

[Play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9Ep0WHAsIY]

            Apparently speaking in tongues was a big thing among the Christians in Corinth.  It was popular for the same reason it was popular in Tampa, Florida.  It’s dramatic.  It feels miraculous.  It’s exciting.  What’s a plain old pastor standing in a pulpit compared to that?

            Paul is careful not to put down those who speak in tongues.  In fact Paul says he does it himself.  But when it comes to worshiping together in a church, Paul puts the emphasis on something different.

            The key words in today’s scripture reading are the words “building up.”  Worship is for building up the body of Christ, building people up in their faith, love, and service for Christ.  Notice how often those words are uses in I Corinthians 14: [Slide 1]

-          Verse 3: “On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”

By the way, when Paul talks about “prophesying” he does not mean predicting the future.  In both the Old and New Testament a prophet is someone who proclaims God’s message.  It might include a word of hope about what God will do in the future to save us, or it might include a word of warning about what will happen if we don’t change our ways.  But in the Bible prophecy is roughly the same thing as preaching.  So in this scripture, when you hear the word “prophesy,” think of preaching or teaching God’s message.

-          Verse 4: “Those who speak in tongues build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.”

-          Verse 5: “One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”

[Slide 2]

-          Verse 12: “So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.”

-          Verse 17: “For you may give thanks well enough [when speaking in tongues], but the other person is not built up.”

-          Verse 27: “Let all things be done for building up.”

You see how prominent in this scripture are the words “building up.”  They especially apply when Paul is talking about outsiders—the uninitiated: [Slide 3]

-          Verse 16: “Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?”

[Slide 4]

-          Verses 23-24: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”  (It reminds me of the woman in the video: “These people are crazy.”]  But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.” [Slide 5: Blank]

No one can deny that Pastor White’s church is being built up in numbers.  In fact even the woman we saw at the end of the video ends up joining his church.  And Paul does not object to speaking in tongues.  He says in verse 5, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.”

          Let me clarify.  In that statement Paul does not mean that everyone should speak in tongues.  In chapter 12 he is clear that different gifts of the Spirit are given to different people, and not all have the same gift.  In the video Diane Sawyer makes one mistake.  She says that according to the Bible all the apostles spoke in tongues.  I assume she is referring here to the story of Pentecost where the apostles and other followers of Jesus are together in a room and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they speak in other languages.  But in that case they were speaking in languages that other people understood.  In other words, they were communicating the gospel in languages spoken by people from other countries.  They were not speaking in a string of syllables and consonants that no one could understand.  Pentecost is not a story about speaking in tongues; it’s a story about the apostles prophesying—proclaiming God’s message in languages people could understand.  If you really want to experiencePentecost, don’t go to a church where they speak in tongues, come back this afternoon for the City of Glory church service, where people sing and preach in Swahili, and where those of us who don’t know Swahili are given head phones to hear a translation of the sermon into English.  That’s Pentecost.

          When Paul says, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues,” he does not mean that everyone should speak in tongues.  He means that he is fine with people speaking in tongues, especially when they are praying to God in private.  But when it comes to church Paul would rather have fewer people speaking in tongues and more people teaching Sunday School, or inviting their friends to a Bible study, or supporting missionaries who actually learn the languages of the people among whom they serve.

          And that brings me back to what God really wants in a church service.  I do not think God wants people passing out in church.  I know of no place in the Bible where one of the gifts of the Spirit is unconsciousness.  Paul does not want people passing out in church; he wants them to hear the gospel.  When we sing, God does not care whether we sing traditional hymns or new Christian worship choruses; God wants people to be overhearing the gospel in the music and words, letting the words and music combine to touch both their hearts and their minds, both their emotions and their understanding.

          The same is true for other parts of the service.  When people share the story of God working in their own lives, we overhear the gospel, and it encourages us to believe that God can work in our own lives.  Likewise, when in our prayers we share deep personal needs for God’s help, we overhear the gospel, and it encourages us to believe that God can help with our own personal needs.

          One little digression before we finish.  Later in I Corinthians 14 Paul makes that infamous statement where he says, “Women should be silent in the churches.”  Unfortunately, many churches have taken that to mean that women should not be preachers.  But that is not what Paul means.  Back in I Corinthians 11 Paul says that women in the church should prophesy with their heads covered.  Why he wants their heads covered is a whole other Bible study that probably has to do with cultural associations in Corinth.  The point is that Paul supports women prophesying in church, which as I said means preaching, as long as they wear a head covering.  So in chapter 14 he is not talking about women preachers.  He is apparently talking about women adding to the chaos of a Corinthian worship service by shouting questions.  We surmise this because later he says they should ask their questions at home.  Paul’s concern is that women not add to the chaos of a Corinthian worship service where people are speaking in tongues and shouting out prophecies and asking questions all at the same time.  Paul is not concerned about women preaching in church; he is concerned that worship be intelligible, that people be able to hear and understand the message that is proclaimed.

            The point of worship is to build up the body.  Worship is not just about ourselves; it is not just about meeting our own needs.  It is about building up the body, so that everyone—young and old, men and women, long time members and newcomers—can hear the gospel in terms each can understand.

The Unavoidably Communal Part of Communion

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 11:17-34; I Corinthians 12:12-13

            This week in our church eNews I said that communion is one of the few things left that you can’t download from the internet.  But apparently I was wrong.  After submitting that article, I Googled “taking communion at home,” and I discovered there is a website called eHolyCommunion.com.  Their home page says,

Come before God; attend our complete, private, and self-paced read through worship service.  Prepare and be filled with our Lord Jesus Christ by receiving him in Holy Communion. … We are online 24-7 with easy access for you all day and all night by your PC, laptop, notebook, cell phone, and tablet in countries all over God’s good earth.

All you had to do was get a piece of bread, some grape juice or wine, and log on.

          There you are.  You could be home taking communion in your pajamas.  Except it would not be communion.  Listen again to what Paul says to the Corinthians:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.  For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.

            Apparently when the Christians in Corinth had communion, they combined it with a full dinner, a kind of first century potluck.  Only it wasn’t really a potluck.  The richer Christians brought their own food and drink and consumed it before the poor Christians arrived so they did not have to share it.  This explains what Paul says later in verses 33-34:

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.

            Paul was furious because the Corinthians treated communion as their own private meal, and in the process they forgot about the community, especially the needs of the poor.  Paul is so upset about this, in verse 27 he says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”  In other words, if we take communion in an unworthy manner, we are desecrating the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ and doing ourselves more harm than good.

            Unfortunately people sometimes misunderstand what this means.  I once talked to a church member who told me she never takes communion if she is mad at someone.  If she is mad at someone and hasn’t forgiven them, she feels unworthy to take communion.

          That might limit the number of us taking communion this morning.  In fact we might not even bother passing the tray.  If we must be worthy of communion before taking it, we might as well all go home.

            But that is not what Paul means by taking communion in an unworthy manner.  He explains what he means in verse 29: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  In other words, to take communion in an unworthy manner means to take communion without discerning the body.

            Okay, so what does it mean to discern the body?  The context gives us the answer.  In I Corinthians 10, Paul again talks communion and says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  Then in the next chapter, chapter 12, he says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”

            What does it mean to discern the body when taking communion?  It means to recognize that communion makes us together the body of Christ.  It means that communion is unavoidably communal.  You can’t receive the body of Christ broken for you without sensitivity and concern for the greater body of which we are a part.

            One evening a couple weeks ago, I was driving home past our church when I saw a group of about 10 youth sitting in a circle on the lawn in front of our building.  I thought, “What’s going on?”  So I turned around and came back.  When I parked, they didn’t seem to notice me.  Their heads were bowed as if reading or praying.  But as I walked toward them I noticed they were all tapping away on their phones.  It was a bizarre sight: ten youth in a circle on the church lawn heads bowed tapping away on their phones.  I said, “Hi, I’m Pastor Ken.  What’s up?”  One of them finally looked up and said, “Pokemon Go!”  Pokemon Go is a game you play on your phone where you capture various Pokemon characters by finding them in places around the neighborhood.  When you go to a certain spot, these Pokemon characters show up on your phone.  Our church is a Pokemon Go hot spot, where many different Pokemon characters will show up on your phone when you come here.  Finally I said, “Do you guys know each other?”  They looked around, shook their heads, then bent back down to their phones.  I thought, “Wow, here is a group of youth, drawn to our church by Pokemon Go, and they don’t even know each other.  Nor did they seem interested in knowing each other.  They just came for what each of them could get on their own phone.

            How tragic would it be if that is what happened this morning during communion.  If we are here only to get Jesus for ourselves, we are missing part of the point of Jesus’ coming.  Jesus gave his body for us, so that we could become a body in him.  Jesus came to bring us together in a community that would embody his love, not only for each other but to the larger community around us, including the poor.  That, by the way, is why we have a special offering for the Deacons on communion Sundays to help people in our church or community with emergency needs, like temporary housing, rent assistance, or assistance with utilities or handicap accessibility.  We have a Deacons’ offering on communion Sundays to remember that communion makes us part of a community in Christ.

          In a book called Alone Together, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, tells about some children who are given a robot dog called AIBO.  AIBO is programmed to do many things that a real dog would do.  For example, it learns to come when called, to wag its tail when happy, and to sulk with its head down when neglected.  An 11 year-old girl named Yolanda suggests that AIBO has advantages over a real dog.  “AIBO,” she says, “doesn’t shed, doesn’t bite, doesn’t die,” and a 9 year-old named Lydia adds, “I might like [AIBO] more than a real living animal, like a real cat or a real dog, because, like if you had a bad day … then you could just turn this thing off and it wouldn’t bug you” (p. 59).

          I wonder if that isn’t why many people prefer a virtual church to a real one.  If your church is online and you’ve had a bad day, you just turn it off and it won’t bug you.  But when you come to a real church with real people, then you are up against people who shed.  We do it in our own peculiar ways, but we shed, and sometimes we bite, and sometimes people die and it hurts.  Learning to live with real people in a real church family takes patience and sensitivity.  It requires the effort to communicate and clear up misunderstandings, and sometimes it results in losing someone you have grown to care about, and it hurts.

          But that is exactly what God did by sending Jesus.  God did not just send us text messages in the form of commandments or emails through the prophets.  God sent his Son in person, in the flesh, in the body, to show the depth of God’s love in human bodily life.

          So welcome to communion.  At this table we get not a virtual savior but a real one, not an on-line community but a community of flesh and blood.

Why Sexual Morality Matters

Erin McArdel and Ken Onstot

Scripture: I Corinthians 6:12-20

 

Part I: Dealing with Taboo Topics—Erin

Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees

And the flowers and the trees

The moon up above, and the thing called love

Who can guess what the topic of today's sermon is?   That's right. Today, we will be talking about sex.   Now you might be wondering, why? What business is it of the church to be speaking about what we do with our personal lives behind closed doors?  

And in fact, generally speaking (and I realize that I am making a gross overgeneralization here) I think that the church has done a terrible job of addressing the issue of healthy sexuality.  The topic of sexuality, it seems, quite often only comes up in our churches in the discussion of homosexuality, the results of which are frequently toxic in that they drive a wedge in our communities and make some feel unaccepted.  I do not believe that is at all the kind of message Paul would have advocated for.  Paul does, however, find it important to talk about touchy subjects which we may rather avoid or which might make us feel uncomfortable...such as sexuality...and so to answer the question of what business the church has in our sexual lives...Paul would say plenty.

Paul believes that all aspects of our personal lives have bearing on our communal lives as the Body of Christ and thus should be examined through the lens of whether they give glory to God.  Sure, we have freedom in Christ, which is to say that because we are forgiven and made right with God through Christ, we are no longer bound to trying to achieve righteousness before God through the Old Testament law.  However, with the gift of freedom comes the responsibility of making good personal decisions and striving to reflect the love of Christ in all that we do. One of the tasks of Christian community, in Paul’s view, is to hold one another accountable to living lives that bring glory to God.  Both the individual and communal Body are the instruments through which we encounter and serve one another and God.  Because of this, the choices we make in our personal lives and with our bodies matter and it also matters that we talk about issues such as these in community.

If we are not willing to strip away the masks we layer on for fear of being seen as our naked and true selves, if we do not desire to constructively and critically assess our lives and choices and perhaps be a bit uncomfortable in the process of being challenged and stretched into becoming our best selves—then we should probably avoid Paul’s writings.  Because, let’s face it.  He tackles some pretty tough subjects.  But since Paul is speaking as an Apostle, we can learn something from him of the heart of God.  Through Paul, God confronts us with topics we might rather avoid—topics like sex. 

Now there are some in this room for whom this topic may be particularly challenging who have been hurt by sexual immorality, sometimes even at the hands of the church or of fellow Christians. Through Paul’s writing, God responds compassionately saying, “I hear you. I see your hurt, and it’s not okay.” And God gives directions so as to avoid further hurts and divisions. If at any point during our sermon today, anyone feelstriggered, please be gentle and gracious with yourself and do what you need to do, whether you need a time-out from the sermon or to talk with one of us afterwards. It is important to us that everyone feel safe.  

It would of course be impossible for us to tackle all aspects of sexuality in one sermon.  But we hope that today will begin to remove the stigma so often associated with this topic and will create a safe space to have continued dialogue as we wrestle with how to glorify God in the sexual dimension of our lives. 

Being sexually moral involves engaging in consensual sexual behaviors within the confines of a committed and just relationship for the purpose of expressing love and unity.  Partners should view one another as equals and desire mutual satisfaction.  In the portion of his letter that we read today, Paul advises the church in Corinth and us that in order to glorify God in our sexual behaviors, we must flee from fornication or sexual immorality and he gives his theological arguments for this charge, which include the argument that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We will explore the importance of our bodies—and why this message was so important for the Corinthians to hear—in the next section of our sermon: Why Bodily Life Matters.

 

Part II: Why Bodily Life Matters—Ken

To understand this scripture I must go back to something said by Socrates about 400 years before Jesus.  I quoted this in a sermon two weeks ago, but let me read part of it again.  Socrates said,

It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).

Basically, Socrates believed that bodily life was at best irrelevant and at worst a hindrance to our spiritual lives.  We will only have a true spiritual life, he said, when we are quit of the body, meaning when we die and our immortal souls experience the pure light of truth.

The Corinthians to whom Paul is writing have been steeped in this philosophy.  From this they drew two seemingly opposite conclusions.  On the one hand, some of the Corinthians thought that bodily life was bad and that Christians should avoid bodily entanglements as much as possible.  In the scripture we read two weeks ago from I Corinthians 7, they say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” meaning we are better off having no sexual relations at all, even if we are married.

Paul disagrees.  In chapter 7 he tells the Corinthians that becoming a Christian does not mean you should avoid marriage or sexual relations with your spouse.  These are good things created by God.  If you are married your job is not to leave your marriage but to serve God in your marriage, including the mutual enjoyment of sex.  Paul is quite explicit about that.  Bodily life is not something to be avoided; it is the arena in which we are called to serve Jesus.  That’s part of what it means that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.  They are the arena in which we are called to love and serve God.

But some of the Corinthians drew the opposite conclusion from Socrates.  They said that since bodily life is irrelevant to our spiritual lives, it does not matter what we do with our bodies.  We are free to do anything we want with our bodies.

These folks are quoted in our scripture reading for today.  They say, “All things are lawful for me.”  In other words, we can have sex with anyone we want, because it is just physical.  It’s something we do with our bodies that has no relevance to our relationship with God.

Interestingly, this is similar to the way many people view sex today.   Christian Smith, a sociologist from Notre Dame, has written a fascinating book called Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.  The book is based on surveys and in depth interviews with about 2,500 young adults, 18 to 23 year-olds, from across the country and from all walks of life.  Among the many topics covered in these interviews were questions about how they viewed sex.  Here are some responses from the young adults interviewed:

  • Well, it’s more physical.  You just, you don’t have to be dating them or going out with them.  You just have a physical thing at a party or whatever.
  • In my personal perspective, hooking up is completely different than getting into a relationship.  If I’m hooking up with a guy, I don’t plan on dating them.  It depends. … I don’t need that commitment.  I don’t need that relationship.  I don’t need that love from somebody else.  I’m fine with myself.  Entertainment, thrill, all of it.  Just for fun.
  • It’s more of a physical thing, not an emotional thing.  You don’t have to worry about the emotions or the jealousy.  But the only bad thing about that is someone always ends up getting feelings [for the other], and then … [well] It’s not a good way to go, but you do it sometimes (pp. 60-61).

The theme in these comments is that sex is not that big a deal.  It is just something you do with your body; it does not really define you as a person; it does not really affect your soul.  Except when it does.   And that brings us to the next part of our sermon.

 

Part III: How Sex Unites—Erin            

Paul would argue that there is no such thing as casual sex.  Sex always affects you as a person either for good or for ill.  He writes “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”  He reminds us that our bodies are members of Christ and that we are united to the Lord and one spirit with him. 

Paul believes that all bodily deeds are of spiritual significance and should be oriented toward God who created our bodies, redeemed our bodies, and will one day resurrect our bodies.  Thus, that which we do with our bodies should draw us into deeper relationship and union with God, including especially something as intimate as sex.

Paul makes his case for the unity that can and should come out of sex by referring to one of the creation accounts wherein God recognizes the human need both for community and for intimate partnership and thus creates a woman for Adam.  Adam recognizes her as his equal in that they are created of the same matter.  They are created as sexual beings with mutual desire for one another and in the act of being united to one another through sex, they become one flesh. 

Paul challenges us to view and experience sex in a manner similar to that of the Genesis account—as an act which unites us with the other, becoming, in effect one body.  Furthermore the act of sex which has a uniting effect between two partners can also draw us into deeper relationship and union with God.  How so?

Firstly, we are created by God as sexual beings.  Our sexuality is a part of the order of creation, which God deemed as good.  Since our sexuality is instinctive to our humanity, there is no way that we can separate it out from the way in which we relate to others or to God—it is a part of us.  The gift of sex is meant to be enjoyed and to draw us nearer to our partner.  Since we come to know God more through our relationships with one another, as we are drawn nearer to our partner through engaging in healthy and disciplined sex, we can also come to know God more.

Secondly, we are drawn into deeper union with God when we recognize our vulnerability and dependence on God.  The Genesis account describes that the man and his wife were both naked and unashamed.  Sex, when participated in equally with the goal of expressing love, unity, and achieving mutual satisfaction invites us to be fully vulnerable before our partner.  Our being naked before the other, both physically and figuratively, requires trust, honesty, openness, and sensitivity to the other’s needs and desires.  It’s interesting that, further on in the Genesis account, after the man sins, he becomes ashamed of his nakedness.  “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself,” he tells God.  He became afraid of being vulnerable before God.  Practicing honesty and openness within the context of sex with our partner may better empower us to be vulnerable before God.  When we are willing to be completely honest and open with God about our whole selves, then we can be more aware of and receptive to the dwelling of Christ within us and we can be better representatives of God’s grace in the world. 

Finally, through the act of sex we both give and receive love.  A major attribute of God is love.  I said previously that one of the major purposes of sex is the expression of love between two consenting and committed individuals.  Since all of love comes from God, then we can gain a deeper understanding of God’s love for us when we engage in loving acts with one another, including sex between partners.  This love can be cheapened, however, if out of the context of a committed relationship—wherein one can be fully united, vulnerable and intimate in the way God intends, and Paul would argue that sexual acts that are absent of commitment are immoral.

Paul writes that the body is meant not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the fornicator sins against the body itself in that he or she defiles the bodily temple where the Holy Spirit dwells.  Because our bodies are members of Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, we should treat them with reverence and honor.  In the act of sex, one should treat both his or her own body with respect and also the person with whom they are having sex.  There are all kinds of ways that sex can be used dishonorably and destructively—some more obvious than others—such as sexual abuse, incest, pedophilia, pornography, or having an affair.  But there are other, less obvious ways that sex can be destructive.  Some examples are having sex before one is ready as a result of peer pressure, engaging in sexual behaviors as a result of one’s own insecurities in an attempt at seeking approval from another, having sex to make another person jealous or because we feel jealous of them, or any situation where there is an imbalance of power within the relationship.

As the body of Christ, it is important that we examine our own sexual lives to ensure that we are engaging in moral and unifying behaviors and also that we speak out against sexual immorality so that we are not complicit in silencing the voices or experiences of those who have been hurt or are hurting themselves.  As God’s representatives in the world, we should stand with God in validating the hurt caused by sexual immorality, responding to it with compassion, love and justice, and creating a safe place for people to heal. 

If engaging in sexually immoral behaviors ourselves or silencing the voices of those hurt by sexual immorality, thenwe are cheapening the gift of sex from God—a gift which is intended to bring unity between two partners within a committed relationship and draw them closer to God.

Part IV: The Connection to Commitment—Ken

After describing some of the attitudes about sex which Christian Smith encountered in his interviews, he writes,

A significant number of emerging adults, it seems, have suffered devastating breakups involving romantic partners with whom they thought they were very seriously involved, probably on the path to marriage. … We interviewers were taken aback, actually, by the number of traumatic breakups we heard described, since we had embarked on the interviews with the belief that emerging adults generally want to hold off on seriously committed relationships.  But the fact is that while most emerging adults do want to hold off, they … also yearn for the kind of intimacy, loyalty, and security that only highly committed relationships can deliver (p. 61).

And that brings me back to Paul’s theme in I Corinthians.  Sex is not a bad thing we should avoid at all costs; it is a good thing meant to bind us together in lasting relationships and give us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

I find it ironic that at the very moment in history when some heterosexual couples are playing down the importance of marriage, homosexual couples are fighting for it.  Isn’t that ironic?  I have known numerous heterosexual couples who said to me, “Marriage is not that big a deal.  It’s just a piece of paper.”  And yet there are now homosexual couples thrilled to have that piece of paper.

Let me say that today’s scripture, by itself, does not address the issue of homosexuality.  This will not be a sermon about homosexuality.  There are other places where Paul addresses homosexual relationships, and those scriptures need to be looked at in their own context.  Unfortunately, Bible scholars are in fierce disagreement on what those scriptures mean, so that’s why we have faithful Bible believing Christians struggling with this issue.  We are not in agreement in this church, in this Presbytery, or in the worldwide body of Christ on how to understand homosexuality.

But here is what comes through to me in this scripture passage: sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual, only achieves its true purpose when combined with commitment.  When sex is separated from commitment, it produces jealousy, anxiety, fear, and sometimes a desperate need to control or dominate the other person.  Then something meant to give us loyalty, security, mutuality, and hope gives us just the opposite.  Instead of being a sign of God’s steadfast love, it casts doubt over whether steadfast love is even possible in human bodily life.

Sex is meant to make two people one, and when it does, it gives us a glimpse of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, the kind of steadfast love and faithfulness God wants for us all.

Lasting Love

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 13; Psalm 136:1-3, 23-26

            Every time I read I Corinthians 13 I feel guilty.  It says, “Love is patient.”  I hear that, and I think about the time a couple weeks ago I was in the grocery store check-out line, and the person in front of me wanted to buy a bottle of gin.  So the checker had to go find someone with the key to open the liquor cabinet and get the bottle of gin, which took forever, and when she came back the customer said, “No, that’s not the right bottle.”  So she again had to find a manager with a key, and after several minutes brought back a different bottle of gin.  But when the customer tried to pay for it his card was rejected.  So he fumbles in his wallet looking for another card and finally says he’ll have to go home and come back.  And this was in the express line.  Love is patient, but sometimes I am not.

            Then it says, “Love is not envious.”  I have a confession.  I am not envious of many people, but I would give anything to have a voice like Tom Hutyler, the stadium announcer for the Mariners.  Have you listened to that voice?  A voice like that could bring an entire community to Jesus.  If I had a voice like that … well….  Love is not envious, but me—that’s another story.

            Even worse is verse 5: “Love is not resentful,” or as the Good News Bible translates it: “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.”  I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to forgive a wrong than to forget it.  It is just too handy to keep it around, and use it as a weapon if the other person ever starts to complain about something I do.  Love does not keep a record of wrongs, but me—that’s another story.

            If it is any comfort, the Corinthians had the same problems.  This week while studying this passage, I discovered that almost every characteristic of love mentioned in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.  For example, Paul says that love is not envious or jealous.  Earlier in I Corinthians chapter 3 Paul says to the Corinthians, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not … behaving according to human inclinations?”  The Corinthians had a problem with jealousy.

            Paul also says, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”  In I Corinthians 5 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Your boasting is not a good thing,” and in I Corinthians 4 Paul says, “But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.”  Some of the Corinthians see themselves as superior to others in the church.  They see themselves as being more knowledgeable or spiritual.  So Paul says to them, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”

            One more example.  In I Corinthians 13 Paul says, “Love does not insist on its own way.”  Earlier in I Corinthians 10 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Do not seek your own advantage.”  In Greek it says literally, “Do not insist on your own way.”  Almost every aspect of love described in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.

            Which brings me to a point I made in the church eNews this week.  You often hear I Corinthians 13 read at a wedding.  I myself have read this scripture at probably a hundred weddings in the last 35 years.  But I Corinthians 13 was not originally written for weddings.  It was not originally written for couples or families.  It was written for people needing to get along with each other in a church.  All the things said in this chapter are describing ways we need to treat each other in the church: with patience, kindness, and even politeness, putting up with one another, believing in how God can work in us, and hoping for what God can yet do through us if we give God the chance.  I Corinthians 13 is not only a manual for family relations; it is a manual for church relations.

            And here is why love is so important in a church: because all the other things we might do in this church are only temporary.  Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will come to an end.”  For the word “prophecies” the Good News Bible uses the expression “inspired messages.”  In verse 2 it says, “I may have the gift of inspired preaching, but if I have no love I am nothing.”  I hate it when the Bible gets personal.  But it is true.  Preaching is not the most important thing that happens in a church.  One day there will not be no more preaching.  In the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more sermons.  We will not need any preachers telling us about God; we will see God face to face.  But by the time we get to heaven we better have learned how to love, because if we haven’t, heaven will not be heaven.

            This point is so important, Paul uses several examples to make it.  He says, “If I have knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing.”  It does not matter how smart you are or how many degrees you have behind your name or how many Bible studies you have been to; if you haven’t learned how to love people you have nothing.

            Or he says, “If I give away all my possessions but have no love, I am nothing.”  It does not matter how much you give to the church or to COTN; it does not matter how much volunteer work you do at Kent Hope or the Des Moines foodbank or anywhere else; if you have not learned how to love people, you have nothing.  Because all those things will be gone in the Kingdom of God.  There won’t be any churches or foodbanks or homeless shelters in heaven.  What there will be are people, and if you haven’t learned how to love people, what are you going to do?

            Do you see what is at stake here?  Love is the only thing that will still be relevant when everything else is gone.  So if we don’t start practicing love here and now, practicing love in our families, in our church, in our community, even in our country and world, we won’t be ready for heaven even if by God’s grace we get there.

            But here is the good news.  God’s love is not like ours.  God is patient and kind, even when we are not.  God does not keep a record of wrongs, even when we do.  God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

            And that’s why for Paul the most important characteristic of love is its endurance.  After all the other characteristics of love are mentioned, Paul summarizes with these words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Then he says, “Love never ends.”

            Garrison Keillor once said that there are no perfect marriages, only marriages that give up and marriages that keep trying (Wobegon Boy, p. 142).  That is true of all forms of love.  None of us are always patient.  All of us are sometimes envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  We all keep a secret record of wrongs.  The only chance we have to succeed at love is to hang in there with each other—to keep trying.  That is the key to marriage and also the key to being a church: to keep trying, to keep showing up, to keep working at it.  For Paul the most important characteristic of love is endurance, and the most important way we show love and grow in love is by continuing to try.

            This does not mean we never confront other people about their actions.  If you noticed, Paul said, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.”  In other words love does not overlook wrongdoing that hurts other people or puts them down.  Love is not silent when people are unjustly treated or ignored.  Love does not stand aside while people destroy themselves or others with drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or deceit.  Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.   Yet even with that, love continues to seek the best possible good for the other person as well as for ourselves.  It’s faith, hope, and persistence never fails, just like God’s faith, hope, and persistence in us.

            In a book called The Road Less Traveled psychiatrist Scott Peck notes that when couples fall in love all things seem possible to them. He writes, “United with our beloved we feel we can conquer all obstacles.  …  All problems will be overcome.”  But then he says, “Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself.  He wants to have sex; she doesn’t.  She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t.  He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher.  She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his.  She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers.  … One by one, gradually the ego boundaries snap back into place. … Once again they are two separate individuals.  At this point they either begin to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving” (pp. 87-88).

            The same thing applies to being a church.  It is one thing to commit your life to Jesus in a powerful moment of faith.  But when you join a church—that’s when you begin the real work of learning how to love.

Single, Married, Divorced, and Christian

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 7:8-16, 17-24

            I Corinthians 7 is not a scripture one would normally pick for a wedding.  In verses 8-9 Paul says,

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

Now there is a ringing endorsement for matrimony.

But this scripture does not only addresses marriage; it also has implications for civil rights.  Listen again to verse 21: “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”  A verse like that, wrongly interpreted, could set back the civil rights movement 200 years. 

            This chapter can be easily misunderstood, so this morning I am going to talk about it more like a Bible study than a sermon, because if we don’t understand this scripture in the right way, we will get the wrong message.

            I need to begin, however, with a quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates.  This is one of Socrates’ teachings recorded by his disciple Plato: [Slides 1]

For the body is a source of endless trouble: … it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery ….  Whence comes wars and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  … It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. [Slide 2] … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).

Socrates believed that to understand goodness and truth you must transcend human bodily life; you must get as far from bodily life as possible.

            Socrates lived around 400 years before Jesus, so when Jesus showed up, the Greeks in Corinth tended to see Jesus in light of Socrates.  Paul quotes their point of view in the first verse of chapter 7: [Slide 3]

            Now concerning what you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”

Note that the words in quotation marks are not Paul’s point of view.  They are the words that the Corinthians wrote to Paul.  The Corinthians, at least some of them, think that sexuality and marriage are bad and that Christians are better off remaining celebate.

            Paul certainly admits that bodily life contains hazards for our spiritual lives, but he does not want spiritual life to be divorced from our bodily life.  He wants our bodily lives to be the arena in which our spiritual lives are lived out.

            So in verse 8 Paul says, [Slide 4] “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”  In other words, it is okay to be single.  You don’t have to have a husband or wife to be a complete person.  Jews were taught that to fulfill your personhood you needed to get married and have children.  But Paul says no, you can serve God just the way you are as single person or a widow.  In fact later in the chapter he mentions some advantages of being single.  Without the responsibilities of a family, a single person can devote more time and energy to helping people in need and showing Christ’s love to the lonely and forgotten.  For Paul being single is not a liability but an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to serve God in ways you could not do if you were married and had a family.

            On the other hand, Paul says, you can also serve God when you are married.  Verses 10-11: [Slide 5]

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

            Remember, Socrates taught that bodily life was a source of trouble.  The Greek Christians in Corinth took this to mean that the best thing was for a man not touch a woman. In other words, they thought that Christians should avoid marriage, and if married, that they should separate from their spouses and become like monks or nuns.

            But Paul says no.  Don’t separate, because you think marriage is harming your spirituality.  Rather think of marriage as a place for living out your spirituality.  Verses 12-14: [Slide 6]

To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.

            Paul does not mean that marriage will automatically make your spouse into a believer.  Marrying someone because you think you can change them, or fix their problems, or make their issues go away—marrying someone for such a reason is almost always a mistake.  However, if you are married and you are a follower of Jesus, or if you become a follower of Jesus after you are married, then you don’t need to leave your marriage to go live in a monastery or convent.  Your marriage can now be part of your mission field. [Slide 7: Blank]

            Paul is not dealing here with situations like domestic violence, adultery, criminal behavior, destructive addictions, or severe mental and emotional dysfunction.  We cannot apply this scripture blindly to these situations because Paul is not addressing these situations in this scripture.  He is addressing people who have been told that bodily life is bad and that sexual relations will corrupt you, especially when a believer is married to an unbeliever.  Remember, these are people who say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman, isn’t it?”  To them Paul says, “No, bodily life is good.  Jesus came to redeem our bodily lives.”  You need not be afraid of being tainted by an unbelieving spouse.  You can be the one doing the “tainting.”  As a husband or wife you can be the one infecting the people around you with faith.

           Of course sometimes that doesn’t work.  In verses 15-16 Paul talks about a situation where the spouse does not want to stay in the marriage.  In that situation, Paul says, you cannot control what your spouse does.  If your spouse is determined to leave, or to wreck the marriage by persistent destructive actions, then you can’t save it by yourself.  As Paul says in verse 15, God has called you to a life of peace.  The point is to continue serving God whatever your situation, whether you are single, married, divorced, or widowed.

           By the way, that is also the key to understanding Paul’s words about slavery in verse 21: [Slide 8] “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” Paul is not endorsing slavery.  Paul is the one who said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Paul does not endorse slavery, nor is he against slaves gaining their freedom.  Paul is the one who set free a slave girl in Philippi and later a slave named Onesimus.  When Paul says, [Slide 9] “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you,” he does not mean you should never change your circumstances.  He means that you should live into your calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ no matter what your circumstances.  If you are a slave, you don’t have to wait until you are free to serve Jesus; you can do it now.  If you are single, you need not wait until you get married to serve Jesus; you can do it now.  If you are married, you need not wait until you get rid of your husband or wife before you can serve Jesus; you can do it now.  Because if you learn to serve Jesus now, in your present circumstances, you will still know how to do it when your circumstances change, as inevitably they will. [Slide 10 Blank]

           There is a wonderful picture of this in C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.  As I have mentioned before, The Screwtape Letters is a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil’s chief tempters, giving advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people.  At one point Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for letting his subject get into a relationship with a devout Christian girl.  Here is Screwtape’s description of the situation.  Remember, this is written from the devil’s point of view.  When Screwtape talks about the “Enemy,” he means God.  Screwtape says,

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find.  Not only a Christian but such a Christian…. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny!  Filthy, insipid little prude—and yet ready to fall into this booby’s arms like any other breeding animal.  Why doesn’t the Enemy blast her for it, if He’s so moonstruck by virginity—instead of looking on there, grinning?

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 odor.  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. … 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).

            God does not despise human bodily life, whether single or married, divorced or widowed, working, unemployed or retired.  God does not despise your life as it is; rather God sees your life right now—single or married, working or retired—God sees your life right now as an opportunity to share God’s love in a way that other people will be tainted by it.

Freedom, Rights, and Service

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 9:19-23; Galatians 5:13-15

            On June 12 thousands of people in over 80 cities across Russia marched in protest of corruption by Russian officials, specifically the way certain Russian officials were getting rich by controlling government contracts and doling them out to a favored few in exchange for lucrative bribes.  It is important to note that they were not calling for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin or the Russian government; they were only protesting the practice of corruption and favoritism by some officials.  But immediately riot police went out and started beating up the protestors, arresting more than 1000 of them just in the city of Moscow.

            When I read about this, I thought about the last time we had marchers in Seattle.  I don’t remember what the issue was, but whether I agreed with it or not, and even if I was irritated because a street I wanted to use was closed off for a time, I give thanks that we have the freedom in this country to march—to engage in peaceful, non-destructive demonstrations to express a political opinion, because many people in the world do not have that right.  Freedom of speech is not something to be taken for granted.

          Nor is freedom of the press.  According to Article 53 of the North Korean Constitution, citizens of North Korea have freedom of speech, press, association, and demonstration.  But not really.  The only demonstrations allowed are the ones actually organized by the government.  Internet access is tightly controlled and most radios and televisions in North Korean homes are engineered only to receive government approved stations.  In addition all journalists must be approved by the government and be members of the ruling party.   So even if sometimes I shake my head at the rantings on cable news channels, I am grateful they exist.  Because in some other countries they are not allowed.

            And then there is religion.  In North Korea, as in several other countries, Christian are allowed to worship in a limited number of preapproved churches, but they are strictly forbidden to invite non-Christians to come to their services.  There are very few countries that forbid the existence of Christian churches, not even North Korea.  But there are a numerous countries, including North Korea, with strict laws against proselytizing people, which means telling people about your faith and inviting them to come and experience it.  So I am grateful for the freedom we have in this country, not just the freedom to worship but the freedom to invite our neighbors to come and worship. That is a simple freedom not to be taken for granted.

            But nothing will endanger our freedom like its misuse as a vehicle for self-indulgence and greed.  In our first scripture reading from Galatians 5, the apostle Paul says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. … If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

          He goes on in Galatians to describe the fruits of self-indulgence, what he calls the works of the flesh, verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

            I did not really appreciate this list until I read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of it in his massive paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.  Listen to his paraphrase of Galatians 5:19-21:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

            That’s what we get when our freedom is separated from our purpose.  Our purpose is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if our freedom is not used for that purpose, it will eventually destroy us.

            And that’s where we come to Paul’s discussion of his own freedom in I Corinthians, chapter 9.  In verse 19 he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”  By the word “win” he means help people believe in and experience God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.  If our freedom is not used for that purpose, Paul says, then it is wasted.

            He goes on to give examples.  As a Christian he is free from the Jewish laws of the Old Testament, but he is bound by a greater law—the law of love.  And so when relating to Jewish people, he respects and observes their laws so that when he shares the gospel with them, he will have credibility.  Likewise with those outside the law—meaning Gentiles—he shows respect for them and their traditions so that when he shares the gospel with them, there will be no unnecessary barriers to hearing it.  When he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” he does not mean sacrificing his own beliefs and values.  He means respecting and loving people on their own terms, in order that they might hear and believe the good news of God’s transforming love.

            This is part of a long discussion in I Corinthians 9 about the rights of an apostle.  I was thinking about reading the whole chapter, because the first 14 verses are about clergy compensation, the right of an apostle to be paid.  I thought that was something we should all read.  Only if you read it you will discover that after spending 14 verses arguing that apostles have a right to be paid, Paul says he gladly gives up this right in order to help spread the gospel.  So you have to be careful.  The Bible does not always say what we want it to say.  But the point Paul makes over and over in this chapter is that his rights as an apostle don’t mean anything unless he is using them to share with others the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.  That’s the point of being an apostle.

            That is also the point of having freedom.  If we have freedom of speech, it is not so we can put each other down but so we can build each other up in the life God wants us to have in Jesus Christ.  That certainly includes standing up for people whose rights have been trampled, but the point of standing up for human rights is not so that people can do whatever they want; it is so that people everywhere can become the beacons of light and hope that God meant them to be all along.

            The only way we will preserve freedom of speech in this country is if we use it to build people up rather than to tear them down.  The only way we will preserve freedom of the press in this country is if we use it to speak the truth in love.  The only way we will preserve freedom of assembly in this country is if we use it to build bridges of community.  And the only way we will preserve freedom of worship in this country is if we use it to worship Someone greater than ourselves.

Unexpected Candidates for Sainthood

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 1:1-9; I Peter 2:9-10

Recently I read a book by David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity.  It was based on a national survey of young adults who don’t go to any church and don’t really want to.  They are what the book calls “young outsiders.”  In the survey the authors asked these young adults what it was about the church that turned them off.  Here is part of their list.  Churches, they said, are judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, and boring (p. 72).

Ouch!  In her book Take this Bread Sara Miles describes her journey from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian, a move that her atheist friends could not understand.  She writes,

"I knew what they thought: Christians were corny, sentimental, vulgar, embarrassing, intolerant, superstitious, dogmatic, self-righteous, do-goody, obtuse, smug, unsophisticated, and dumb.  They thought I wasn’t like that, so I couldn’t be a “real” Christian" (p. 262).

Wow!  Somewhere along the line we Christians have developed an awful reputation, especially among the young and sophisticated.

So it is striking to me how the apostle Paul addresses the Christians in Corinth.  He writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”

I need to warn you that Paul wrote this letter to a fairly messed up church.  We will see this as we work our way through the book over the summer.  Later in chapter 1 Paul describes divisions in the church—factions that are threatening to split it apart.  Chapter 5 reports a case of incest in the church.  Chapter 8 suggests that some of the members are worshiping idols.  Chapter 11 accuses them of gluttony, drunkenness, and total disregard of the poor.  This is one dysfunctional church, but Paul calls them saints.

Then in the verses that follow Paul gives thanks for the very qualities of the Corinthians that are causing many of their problems.  In verse 5 Paul gives thanks “that in every way you have been enriched by [Jesus], in speech and knowledge of every kind.”  Some of the divisions I the church were caused by their speech, specifically those who were speaking in tongues.  But Paul gives thanks for their speech.  Others in the church considered themselves more knowledgeable, more sophisticated than others.  Later in the letter Paul chastises them for this attitude, but here in chapter 1 Paul gives thanks for their knowledge.  Then in verse 7 he says, “So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Later we will discover that spiritual gifts were a problem among the Christians in Corinth, because some thought their spiritual gifts were better than the gifts of others.  Yet Paul gives thanks for their spiritual gifts.  What is he thinking?

He is thinking that God is at work in this congregation.  That is the key.  They are sanctified—made holy—in Christ Jesus.  They are saints because God is at work among them. So whatever problems they may have—even if they are intolerant, self-righteous, hypocritical, smug, unsophisticated, and dumb—it doesn’t matter.  They are saints!

By the way, Paul never uses the word “saint” to refer to an exceptional individual Christian.  He never refers to “Saint So and So.”  When talking about Christians, he always uses the word for the collective body of the people in the church.

For Paul there are three key factors that make ordinary, imperfect, sometimes judgmental and hypocritical churchgoers into saints, and that will be the outline for the rest of this sermon.  The rest of this sermon will be an old-fashioned three point sermon, something that might actually allow you to take notes.  So here we go.  How can Paul call this divisive, dysfunctional, hypocritical church “the saints of God in Corinth”?

Number 1: [Slide 1, click 1] Because Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.  Notice again what Paul says in verse 2, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus.”  To be sanctified means to be made holy.  They are holy not because they have proven themselves holy but because Jesus has declared them holy.  Peter makes the same point in our first scripture lesson.  He says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  You did not earn your status as saints.  God chose you for sainthood by calling you into the family of God we call the church.

William Sloane Coffin, the former pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City, once said, “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value” (Credo, p. 6).  God’s love does not look for saints, it manufactures them.  Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.

Number 2: Paul calls the Corinthians saints, [click 2] because Sainthood is a mission, not a status.  Our English word saint is a translation for a Greek word that means “set apart for a sacred purpose.”  This building becomes a sanctuary—a holy place—when it is set apart for a sacred use.  The bread and grape juice on the communion table on communion Sundays become Holy Communion when they are set apart for a sacred use.  There is nothing sacred about the bread or grape juice on the communion table.  I think it’s the cheapest stuff Georgia can find.  But it becomes holy when it is set part for a special use.

The same is true for us.  There is nothing holy about the people in this church.  Sometimes I think we’re the cheapest stuff God could find.  But we are saints, we are holy, because God has set us apart for a special purpose: to be witnesses to God’s coming kingdom, to be living testimonies of what God can do with cheap materials to build an everlasting temple for the Holy Spirit.  You are holy because God has set you apart for a special purpose.

Peter makes this same point in our first scripture reading: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [here is the purpose] you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are saints on a mission to tell the world about God’s transforming love, even if you can’t yet see it in our own lives.

Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.  It is a mission, not a status.  And Number 3: [Click 3]  Sainthood is a hope, not an accomplishment.

Recall what Paul says in I Corinthians 1:8: “He [God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Notice, we are not blameless now.  Right now we are sinners.  Right now we are probably all the things that the young outsiders accuse us of being.  Hypocrites—guilty!  Insensitive to others—guilty!  Smug—probably too often.  Unwise in some of our attitudes and decisions—you bet!  At best you might call us “saints in training”—interns in sainthood just barely beginning to learn the robes.

But the good news is that God is not finished with us yet.  We are a project in holiness that God is one day determined to complete.

C. S. Lewis was once asked, “If Christianity is true, why are not all Christians obviously nicer than non-Christians?”  That is the objection of those young outsiders in the survey and the atheist friends of Sara Miles.  If Christians are supposed to be saints, why aren’t they better than other people?  Here is part of C. S. Lewis’ response, from his book Mere Christianity:

"Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin.  That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works.  The question is what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one.  Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so" (p. 178).

Sainthood is not an accomplishment, it’s a project, and worship is where we invite God to come and keep chiseling away.

The Power of Praise

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Chronicles 20:13-23; Revelation 7:9-12

Several years ago I heard author Anne Lamott speak at Whitworth University.  She has an amazing life story.  At one time she was alcoholic, bulimic, addicted to crack, and having simultaneous affairs with two married men.  Her life was a mess.  But she says in her book Traveling Mercies that on Sundays she would walk around a flea market in her town of Marin City, CA, and hear gospel music coming from a church across the street.  She writes,

It was called St. Andrew Presbyterian, and it looked homely and impoverished, a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a small parcel of land with a few skinny pine trees.  But the music wafting out was so pretty that I would stop and listen.  I knew a lot of the hymns from the times I’d gone to church with my grandparents and from the albums we’d had of spirituals.  Finally, I began stopping in at St. Andrew from time to time, standing in the doorway to listen to the songs.  I couldn’t believe how run-down it was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and overshined, and plastic stained-glass windows.  But it had a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth. …  I went back to St. Andrew about once a month.  No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying.  I always left before the sermon.  I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him. …

Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself.  Then the singing enveloped me.  It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart.  There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.  Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender.  Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated.  Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life (pp. 46-48).

I have never doubted the power of music to shape someone’s heart, but I have to say that our scripture for today from II Chronicles 20 takes this to a whole new level.  The nation Judah—from which we get the word Jews—was under attack from a large coalition of armies to the east.  Out of fear the people of Judah from across the land gathered in Jerusalem for a day of prayer.  Verse 13 says, “Meanwhile all Judah stood before the Lord with their little ones, their wives, and their children.”  The mention of little ones and children emphasizes their vulnerability.  Verse 14 says, “Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph.”

This little genealogy, this short list of ancestors, is given for a purpose.  It connects Jahaziel to his ancestor Asaph.  Why is that important?  Because Asaph was the original choir director for the people of Israel.  Asaph was one of the musicians appointed by King David to lead music in the Jerusalem sanctuary.  In fact there are twelve psalms in the book of Psalms written not by David but by Asaph.  He was like Edie’s brother—the Duane Funderburk of ancient Jerusalem.  And the fact that he was Jahaziel’s ancestor means that Jahaziel was the heir to that same role.  The choir director position was hereditary.  Jahaziel was the music director of ancient Jerusalem.

At this critical moment with Jerusalem under attack from a large coalition of armies, it is not the king who delivers a message to the people of Judah, nor some prophet or preacher; it’s the choir director.  Verse 15:

He [Jahaziel] said, “Listen, all Judah and Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you: Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.

With that they prepare for battle.  But notice how they prepare.  They did not collect their weapons.  They did not put on their armor.  They did not train like Navy Seals for urban fighting and hand to hand combat.  They held a worship service.  Verses 18-19:

Then Jehoshaphat bowed down with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the Lord, worshiping the Lord.  And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.

The next morning they went out to face the enemy, and verse 21 says,

When he [King Jehoshaphat] had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy splendor, as they went before the army, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

When they go out to battle, King Jehoshaphat puts the choir out front, and they sing, not some new song written especially for the occasion but an old familiar worship chorus, a refrain found in numerous psalms: Give thanks to the Lord, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Then comes the biggest surprise of all—verse 23: “For the Ammonites and Moab attacked Mount Seir, destroying them utterly; and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped destroy each other.”  The enemies of Judah were consumed by their own animosities and defeated by a choir singing praise to God.

This story may seem to you like a fairy tale, but I think it is profoundly true.  Evil feeds off of fear.  Terrorism lives off of terror.  Oppression and injustice always try to justify themselves with worries about will happen if certain people are not destroyed or at least kept in their place.  Every evil in the history of the world has lived and breathed off of fear.

But what better remedy for fear than singing praise to God?  The very act of praising God neutralizes the power of fear.  The very act of standing in this church singing “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” is a defiant statement to the world that no power on this earth, personal or political, can thwart God’s destiny for us.  Our destiny is not in the hands of any politician or military leader or terrorist or missile defense system.  It is in the hands of the God who created the universe, whose steadfast love endures forever.

So here is the message in this scripture passage: Don’t mess with the choir.  Don’t mess with the worship band.  ISIS militants and Russian hackers and North Korean missiles are no match for the people of God singing God’s praise, because when people are singing God’s praise, no malevolent power on earth can make us afraid.

That’s what Anne Lamott experienced in that small Presbyterian Church in Marin City.  The singing of God’s praise worked a remarkable change in her life and in the lives of others she met at that church.  Here is one more story from her book:

One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our eyes. … Shortly [before], his partner died of the disease.  A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since.  Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. … He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.

There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken.  She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all. …  I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease.  But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone over.  He finally missed a couple of Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke.  Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days.

So on this particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes, “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up.  But he sang away sitting down with the hymnal in his lap.  And when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”  The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged?  Why do the shadows fall?”  And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent to lift him up—lifted this white rag doll, this scarecrow.  She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.  And it pierced me.  I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy (pp. 63-65).

Don’t mess with the choir, because when people sing praise to God, the walls come tumbling down.

Full of Hot Air

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-13; Luke 4:16-21; Joel 2:27-29

Something in Middle Eastern geography

Produces visions;

Judaism, Christianity, Islam,

Three world-encompassing religions.

 

Maybe it’s the wind parched land,

Or heat radiating off the sand

That produces mirage-like sensations,

What some people call revelations.

 

Revelation or mirage,

Prophet or pretender,

Which was Jesus,

Heretic or God’s righteous defender?

 

Even in his own home town

People were divided,

Some followed, some rejected,

And some were simply undecided.

 

In the synagogue Jesus read

Isaiah’s glorious vision

Of a Spirit anointed prophet

Proclaiming God’s provision

For the poor, the blind,

Those at the end of their rope,

Who had nothing else to grasp

But the good news of God’s hope.

 

Jesus read Isaiah’s words,

Then closed the book;

He said, “Today, it’s fulfilled,

You have only to look.”

 

Some nodded with hope,

Some thought him on dope;

Some appreciated his care,

Others said, “He’s full of hot air.”

And they were right!

 

Holy Spirit, hot air, wind and fire;

Igniting our hearts with God’s desire

For a world of righteousness, peace, and love

That can only come from the Lord above.

 

That’s what happened at Pentecost:

The blowing of a heaven-sent breeze

Ignited by God’s fire,

Bringing disciples to their knees.

 

They were all together in that upper room.

When the Spirit went Ka-boom

And rained on them a fiery shower

Filling them with heavenly power.

 

But it wasn’t just the twelve

Who received the Spirit that day;

Luke says the believers numbered over one hundred,

And many were gathered in that room to pray,

Including women who had followed Jesus

And supported the work of his mission.

They too spoke in tongues that day

And received the Spirit’s commission.

How striking that they were together

When the Spirit came.

Many feel closest to God alone,

A big crowd just isn’t the same.

 

They would prefer meeting God on a lake

Or praying quietly alone;

Other people are such a distraction,

With their attitudes, quirks, and ringing cell phones.

 

Great revelations are for the solitary,

Jesus in the desert, Buddha under a tree,

Moses on Mt. Sinai;

Surely the Spirit is not a democracy.

 

Yet they were together that day

When the Spirit came to reside

On men and women, young and old,

Just as Joel had prophesied.

 

It came with tongues of fire.

Now there is a picture absurd!

Such an image is not meant to be seen,

It’s really meant to be heard.

 

For the Spirit is, above all, a sound,

The voice of people speaking,

Inviting us to know the God

We’ve all along been seeking.

 

And the message got through that day

Thanks to the Spirit,

For the disciples delivered it

In a way so people could hear it.

Most would have probably understood

If the message had been given in Greek,

But in using each one’s language of birth,

The Spirit chose a more personal way to speak.

 

At the Tower of Babel

Language divided.

In the upper room at Pentecost

Language united.

 

Still not everyone believed.

The message they had received.

The apostles were debunked

With claims they were drunk.

Even though it was only nine in the morning;

The lines in the bar weren’t even forming.

 

There is always a way to reject God’s call

To build back up the Christ-shattered wall,

Denying the hope Jesus called us to preach

To a hungering world he wants us to reach.

 

But the Spirit is not so easily thwarted,

Nor its message so easily distorted.

 

Though some mocked the Spirit that day

The flame still had its way

Burning into many a heart

Inviting others to take their part

Sharing God’s yearning for reconciliation

With the people of every race and nation.

 

Holy Spirit, wind and flame;

The disciples were indeed full of hot air,

The kind of hot air that lifts people up

From their solitary despair.

 

The kind of hot air expanding the boundaries

Of our shrunken worldview

Opening doors of new mission

For all to pursue.

 

The kind of hot air

Wafted abroad,

Inviting unexpected people

To a relationship with God.

 

Holy Spirit, hot air,

Don’t be afraid to breathe it in.

For the breath of life that created the world,

Can help life begin again.

 

The Once and Future King

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 17:20-33; Luke 4:16-21

This week in our church eNews I told about a conversation I had with a Jewish Boy Scout whom I met at a Boy Scout camp in North Idaho.  The boy had many questions about what Christians believe and why there are so many different churches.  But near the end of the conversation he asked me this question.  He said, “How can you Christians believe that the Messiah has come when there is still so much suffering in the world?”

Good question.  In our first scripture Jesus reads this passage from the prophet Isaiah: [Slide 1]

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus reads this text then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Really?  This scripture is about the coming of God’s kingdom.  It’s about end of violence and oppression, the end of poverty and hunger, the end of disease and disability.  In what sense has Jesus fulfilled this scripture?

In our second scripture the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come.  Essentially they are asking the same question as the Jewish Boy Scout: “If you are the Messiah, if you are God’s promised king, then where is the kingdom?”

Jesus replies, [Slide 2] “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” or some translations say, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

Some people take this to mean the kingdom of God is not something out there; it is something in here—in our hearts.  It is a spiritual kingdom.  Which is partly true.  Jesus came to transform our hearts.  But he also came to transform our world.  That’s what Isaiah was talking about and what Jesus affirms when he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  When Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” he means that that kingdom of God has arrived in him, but at present it is a hidden kingdom, not something readily observable.

Elsewhere Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. [Slide 3: Mustard seed] If a mustard seed were dropped on some dirt you wouldn’t even see it.  You would not even know it is there.  But it is, and over time it sends down shoots and pushes up little spouts, and a bud begins to grow and leaves appear, and it grows and grows until eventually [Slide 4: Mustard plant] it becomes like a tree big enough for the birds to build a nest.  [Slide 5: Blank] Or Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like yeast in bread dough.  Looking at the lump of dough you would not know the yeast is there.  But it is, and over time it begins to ferment and bubble and expand and push out the sides of the dough until the whole lump is transformed.  The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.  It has arrived in him, but it is not yet fully visible.

Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”  The term “Son of Man” comes from Daniel, chapter 7: [Slide 6]

I saw one like [the Son of Man] coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

When Jesus uses the term Son of Man, he is referring to God’s future king who will reign over all peoples, nations, and languages, bringing God’s righteousness and peace to the whole world.

So who is this Son of Man?  Jesus tells us in verse 25: [Slide 7] “But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.”  The promised Son of Man is none other than Jesus, who as he speaks these words is on his way toward crucifixion in Jerusalem.

And that’s why Jesus says to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”  Jesus is about to be taken away from them.  For a time it will appear as if evil and suffering have triumphed.  But the suffering of Jesus will be the key to God’s victory.

In seminary one of my teachers compared it to D-day in World War II. [Slide 8: D-day landing]  On D-day, June 6, 1944, about 2500 American soldiers were killed attacking the beaches of Normandy.  In the next three months, between June 7 and August 30, an estimated 20,000 more Americans were killed securing the region of Normandy as a base for the assault on Hitler’s Germany.  It is sobering, especially on Memorial Day, to remember how many Americans gave their lives in just one battle to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century.

But that battle was a turning point in World War II.  In a very real sense the power of Nazi Germany was broken on D-day.  Once the allies had a base in Normandy [Slide 9: Normandy troop build up] they began pouring troops and tanks and supplies and equipment across the channel into France.  There were still many battles to be fought as the allies struggled across Europe toward Germany.  There was still much suffering and many more lives to be lost.  But in a sense, strategically, the war was won on D-day.  It was just a matter of time. [Slide 10: Blank]

That is the sense in which the kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus.  The coming of Jesus is like the allied troops landing in Normandy.  When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, the power of evil in this world was broken.  Admittedly the battle is not over.  There is still evil and suffering in this world.  But a decisive turning point has been reached.  A beachhead for the kingdom of God has been established in this world, and one day it will permeate the whole creation, like lightning flashing across the sky from one end to the other.

The question is whether we perceive the true situation.

This week I read about the diary of a teenager girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. [Slide 11: Brigitte] Her name was Brigitte Eicke, seen her in front of a row boat.  Brigitte began writing in her diary in December of 1942, and she wrote in it almost every day.  Her entries from 1944 to 1945 show a teenager aware of but untroubled by the chaos around her.  For example on February 1, 1944, she writes in her diary: “The school had been bombed when we arrived this morning.  Waltraud, Melitta, and I went back to Gisela’s and danced to grammaphone records.” [Slide 12: Brigitte and friends] This is in Berlin early 1944.  In November of that year, as allied troops were advancing across Europe nearing Germany, Brigitte complained in her diary about a disastrous perm she got and worried about how she would look the next day when she went to work.  On March 2, 1945, just two months before the Nazi surrender, Brigitte wrote in her diary, “Margot and I went to the Admiralspalast cinema….  It was such a lovely film, but there was a power cut in the middle of it.  How annoying!” (quoted by Jane Paulick in “The Carefree Life of a Teen in Wartime Berlin,” Spiegel Online International).

Brigitte’s diary helps me understand Jesus’ words in verses 26-27: [Slide 13]

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark.

In other words, like Brigitte, they were unaware that there world was about to change, that in fact it had already changed and they just didn’t know it. [Slide 14: Blank]

That’s what Jesus is saying here in these scriptures.  Evil, hate, violence, injustice, oppression, poverty, addiction, disease, dysfunction, alienation, pollution—all these things have been defeated, and one day the victory will be complete, and the creation will be transformed into the place it was meant to be all along.

The key is to see where things are going and not give up.  The key is to see that the battle turned.  Hate, injustice, suffering, alienation—these things will not go on forever.  In Jesus the allies have landed, and you can ignore that fact or join those who are living into the new reality.

Dinner Invitations

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 14:15-24; 14:12-14

A parable takes on different meanings depending on where you put yourself in the story.  We saw that two months ago when we read the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, if you see yourself as one of the people passing by the injured traveler, it becomes a parable about helping your neighbor.  Either you are like the priest or Levite, too busy to help, or you are like the Good Samaritan, who stops to help.  That’s one way to read the parable of the Good Samaritan: as a story about helping your neighbor.

But another way to read that parable is to see yourself as the injured traveler.  If you are the helpless, injured traveler on the road, then the story takes on a different significance.  It becomes a parable about salvation.  We are not saved by how religious we are—that would be the priest; nor by how many good works we do—that would be the Levite.  Instead we are saved by the one despised and rejected by others—that would be the Samaritan—the one who at great personal sacrifice paid the price for our healing.  Looked at one way, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an illustration of how to be a good neighbor.  But looked at another way, it is an illustration of salvation by grace through Jesus.

The same is true with this parable we just heard called the Parable of the Great Banquet.  This parable has two different meanings, depending on where you see yourself in the story.  So this morning I am going to preach two sermons.  Don’t worry, they will be short.  But I want to preach two sermons instead of one to highlight the two sides of the story.

Sermon #1

In the first sermon I invite you to see yourself as one of the people invited to the banquet.

Jesus is at a dinner party when one of the guests says to him, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”  In response Jesus tells a parable about a host who invites people to a dinner party.  Verses 16-17:

Then Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.  At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’”

You see the connection.  This parable is a response to the person who said, “Blessed is the one who eats bread in the kingdom of God.  The parable is about being invited to God’s banquet.

Notice that the invitation is free.  To get into this banquet you don’t need a credit card or even a pledge card.  You don’t have to show your voting record or your community service record or even your record of church attendance.  According to Jesus, God is standing at the gate of heaven with open arms, ready to welcome you like the father who welcomed home the prodigal son.  All you have to do is come.

But then comes the surprise.  Verses 18-20:

But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’

Each of them had something in their lives that was keeping them from the party.

None of these things are bad in themselves.  It is not wrong to own property.  It is not wrong to have livestock or tools with which you earn a living.  It is not wrong to get married and care about your spouse and family.  These things are not bad.  They only become bad if they keep us away from the relationship to God for which we were created.

I made this point last week, but let me make it again.  Anything good in our lives can become bad if it becomes our god.  Food is a good thing, but it becomes destructive if it becomes our god; if we become obsessed with it.  Money and possessions can be a blessing, but if they become our god, if we become obsessed with them and constantly worried about them, if they begin to take all our attention, undermining our relationships to everyone else including God, they will destroy us.

Likewise family.  Even something as good as marriage and family can become destructive if it becomes your god.  Because if family relationships become your god you will not be able to give them the space they need to grow. You will become anxious and controlling of them and devastated if a family member should reject you or even not respond to you in the way you had hoped.  As I said last week, the only way to really love our family is to love God first.  And that’s why Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness—first accept the invitation to the banquet—then everything else in your life will find its proper place.

That is sermon #1.  If you are one of the invited guests, don’t allow lesser things in your life to keep you from the party.  Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and everything else in your life will find its proper place.

Sermon #2

Now Sermon #2.  This time imagine yourself not as one of the invited guests but as the servant of the host.  You probably didn’t even notice the servant or slave, but he or she is an important character.  The master addresses the servant or slave three times:

-          V. 17: “He sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’”

-          Then in v. 21, when the first group declined the invitation, the master said to the servant, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”

-          Finally in v. 23 the master says again to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”

This parable takes on a new meaning if you see yourself not as the invited guest but as the servant sent out with invitations.  It means there is more work to do.  There are more people to invite because God’s house is still not full.

Which is exactly what we are trying to do here at Southminster.  We at Southminster are trying to see ourselves as the servant in this parable.  We are trying to create occasions when we can invite friends and neighbors to come to the banquet.  Sometimes these are actual meals: like SPC Together, Agape, the men’s barbecue, breakfast at the Cove or breakfast on Mother’s Day.  Other times we invite people to metaphorical banquets like worship, communion, Bible studies, and prayer gatherings.

We have several special opportunities to do this coming up:

-          You could use the insert in the bulletin this morning to invite a neighbor or friend to the Festival of Music next week.  This could be a non-threatening way for someone with no church connection to experience a little bit of what church is like, meeting some of our folks and hearing about our faith as expressed in music.

-          We also have an opportunity in the evening on June 2 to get to know some of our neighbors at the North Hill Elementary School.  They have told us they would welcome our help running some of the games or concessions for their school carnival.  This could be a great, non-threating way to meet some parents who are standing around while their children are playing a game.  We don’t have to be aggressive; just get to know them.  Sometimes people are touched just by knowing that folks across the street are interested in them.

These are just some of the opportunities we have to invite friends and neighbors to come to the party, to experience with us the joy and gratitude of being part of God’s family.

But Jesus does not stop there.  Next the master tells the slave to go out into the streets and invite the poor, blind, lame, or crippled.  So we try to do that as well.  Here are some examples:

-          The protein packs that we made at SPC Together.  Many of you have taken one or more of these packs and given them to people you see on the street holding a sign asking for help.  The pack includes the name of our church and a prayer for God’s blessing.  We have a few more in the blue box in the coffee room.

-          Others in our church have been involved with Praisealujah, a local shelter and Christian recovery program.  Besides financial support for Praisealujah we have shared meals with them, worshiped with them, and done Bible study with them.

-          We are just beginning a new relationship with City of Glory, a new Christian community of immigrants predominantly from East Africa.  We hope that some of them will share appetizers with us tonight at 5:30 as well as joining us for worship at Agape.

There are many other ways we go out to invite others--people outside our usual circle of contacts: distributing food at the food bank, serving meals at Hospitality House, providing services at Kent Hope, books at the SCORE jail, and on and on.  We are not just the people invited to the banquet in God’s kingdom, we are the messengers sent out with the invitation.

One of my favorite stories from my days as a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, is the story of an elder in the church who invited her neighbor to come to our worship service one Sunday.  The neighbor said, “I don’t want to go to that church; it’s full of hypocrites.”  The elder replied, “That’s okay, there is always room for one more.”

That is the two sides of this parable.  You are the undeserving guest invited to the greatest dinner party of all time: the banquet in God’s kingdom.  But you are also the servant sent out to invite others.

 

Jesus on Motherhood

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 8:19-21, 12:49-53, 14:25-26

It seemed like such a good idea.  All winter and spring we have been studying the Gospel of Luke in our church services, so on Mother’s Day I thought why not look through the Gospel of Luke for places where Jesus talks about mothers.  So I did.  And here is what I found.

First is the scripture passage Rob just read from Luke 8.  Jesus’ mother and brothers can’t reach him because of the crowd, so they send a message asking to see him.  Does Jesus say, “By all means, bring them in”? Or better yet does he go out to them?  No.  Instead he says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Wow.  That’s not what you would expect on a Mother’s Day card.

But it only gets worse.  Now let me read the next two places where Jesus talks about mothers, as well as fathers.

[Read Luke 12:49-53 and 14:25-26]

I’m curious.  Have many of you ever heard these scripture passages preached on Mother’s Day?  I thought not.  What are we to do with this?  Is Jesus launching a war against family values?  Or is he after something else?

Let’s go back and start with the first scripture passage: Luke 8:21.  [Slide 1: Luke 8:21]  Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  If you read this statement carefully, Jesus does not exclude his mother and brothers from his family, from those who hear the word of God and do it.  In fact we know from the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, that Jesus’ mother and brothers were among Jesus’ followers.  After the resurrection Acts 1:14 says, [Slide 2: Acts 1:14] “All these [meaning all the disciples] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”  So we know that Jesus’ mother and brothers were not excluded from his family.

So what is Jesus’ point?  In this statement, [Slide 3: Luke 8:21] “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,” Jesus is not excluding his own family; he is broadening the definition of family to include us.  We too get to be part of Jesus’ family.  In Jesus our heredity does not determine our destiny.  Our family of origin does not determine our membership in the family of God.

Some of you, I know, had a rough upbringing.  You have shared with me about having parents who struggled with alcoholism or abuse.  Your experience growing up was not the stuff of a Hallmark card.  To you Jesus offers good news.  Your heredity does not determine your destiny.  Your family of origin does not determine your relationship to God.

But there is also a warning in these words.  Your family of origin does not determine your membership in the family of God.  In other words, you cannot skate into the kingdom on your parent’s faith.  You have to make that decision and commitment for yourself.

I remember talking to one of our church members who grew up in a Christian family, but when he went to college he suddenly realized that he was free.  He did not have to do what his parents did or believe what his parents believed.  There were alternatives.  College is full of alternative beliefs, many of which allow for sleeping in on Sunday morning.  So this young man had to decide if he wanted to continue in the faith of his parents.  I asked him how he made up his mind.  He said, “I looked at my friends who decided to live without faith, who decided to live only for themselves, and I did not want to be like them.  So I went back to church.”

There you have it.  No matter what faith you inherit from your parents, you must make your own personal commitment to discover your place in the family of God.

And that’s where following Jesus can sometimes create tension in families.  In Luke 12 Jesus says something startling.  He says, [Slide 4: Luke 12:51] “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

At one level Jesus is talking about how his followers will be persecuted after he is gone.  Later in Luke 21 Jesus tells his disciples, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.”  Some of Jesus’ first followers were rejected by their own families.

In Spokane I visited a member of the church who had quit coming.  She had quit long before I came, so I knew it wasn’t me, but I was curious why she quit.  So I went to see her.  I wondered if there had been some conflict or incident that drove her away, but her answer surprised me.  She did not talk about a conflict or incident with another church member; instead she had a falling out with her son.  I thought maybe her son had gotten into drugs or crime, and the mother blamed God or the church for not protecting him.  So I asked, “What happened with your son?”  She said with disgust, “He’s a missionary.”  I said, “Pardon me.”  She went on, “Patrick was such a gifted boy.  He could have really made something of himself.  But he threw it all away to become a Presbyterian missionary living with poor people in Africa.”

I was speechless.  Finally I said, “Well, you must at least be proud that he is helping people,” but she just shook her head as if he were a drug addict.

That’s when, for the first time, I began understood these words of Jesus: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  Sometimes following Jesus may put us at odds with our own family.

But there is another danger that concerns Jesus, which he addresses in Luke 14:26 [Slide 5: Luke 14:26] “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Jesus does not mean that we should literally hate our families, any more than he means we should literally hate ourselves.  Jesus is using classic Middle Eastern exaggeration, as when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, or if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”  If Jesus meant that literally we would all be blind and limbless.  Jesus does not mean that we should hate our families.  But he does mean that we must love him first, because if we do not love him first we will not be able to properly love our families. [Slide 6: Blank]

Think about this a moment.  How can we give our children the freedom they need to grow if we don’t trust God to be there with them?  If we don’t trust God, we will end up obsessive and controlling over our children.  And how can we forgive our children or anyone else if we don’t first believe in God’s grace toward us?  We have to love Jesus first before we can properly love our families.

I shared this story a couple years ago, but it is so fitting for today’s scripture readings I have to share it again.  It’s from C. S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, where a bus load of tourists from hell are allowed to visit heaven.  One of the ghosts on the bus is a woman who takes the trip to heaven because she wants to find her son Michael who died previously.  When she arrives, she says to the tour guide, “When am I going to be allowed to see my son?”  The tour guide says, “There’s no question of being allowed.  As soon as it’s possible for him to see you, of course he will.  You need to be thickened up a bit.”

“How?” says the [mother].

“I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,” [says the tour guide].  “You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want someone else besides Michael.  I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning.  That will come later.  It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.”

“Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing?” [says the mother]. “Well, never mind.  I’ll do whatever’s necessary.  What do you want me to do?  Come on.  The sooner I begin it, the sooner they’ll let me see my boy.  I’m quite ready.”

[The tour guide says,] “But don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind?  You’re treating God only as a means to Michael.  But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.”

“This is all nonsense,” [says the mother], “cruel and wicked nonsense.  What right have you to say things like that about Mother-love?  It is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature.”

[The tour guide says,] “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves.  They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein.  They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”

“My love for Michael would never have gone bad.  Not if we’d lived together for millions of years.”

“You are mistaken,” [says the tour guide].  “Haven’t you met—down there—mothers who have their sons with them in Hell?  Does their love make them happy?”

“Give me my boy,” [screams the mother].  “I don’t care about all your rules and regulations.  I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart.  I believe in a God of Love.  No one has a right to come between me and my son.  Not even God.  Tell him that to His face.  I want my boy, and I mean to have him.  He is mine, do you understand?  Mine, mine, mine” (pp. 91-95).

You get the feeling she would gladly take her son with her back to hell.  Even something as good and holy as family can become toxic if it becomes more important than God.  The only way to really love our families is to love God first, for only then we will our other relationships find their proper bearing.

The Four Sides of the Cross

Ken Onstot

“Paying for the Damage”

Scripture: Romans 3:21-26

If I drive into the church parking lot

And run into your car,

Forgiveness will not come cheap.

You may say, “Forget about it.”

But the insurance company won’t,

Unless someone else pays for the damage.

 

When hurt is inflicted,

Someone bears the pain;

When wrong is done,

Someone suffers for it.

When damage occurs,

Someone pays the price.

Forgiveness is nice to talk about,

But someone bears the cost.

 

Families in a South Carolina church

Forgive the murderer who bereaved them.

But what if he had been forgiven

By the judge?

The judge has no right to do that,

Since the judge did not suffer the wrong.

 

God, Paul says, is both righteous and forgiving,

Both just and justifying,

Bringing the wronged and the wrongdoer

Back into right relationship.

 

But how?

Jesus can forgive his crucifiers.

But how can he forgive the wife,

Who cheated on her husband, the father

Who abused his child, the company

That defaulted on its pension, the driver

Who killed a pedestrian?

How can he forgive you and me

For the mean, dishonest, uncaring things

We did to someone else?

 

The Bible says Jesus redeemed us,

Like making payment to a pawnshop

To get back a treasure.

 

God put him forward, Paul says,

Like a sacrifice of atonement,

Like the ransom for a hostage,

Like a benefactor paying off our debt,

Like a substitute taking our place at the gallows.

 

All these have one thing in common:

Whatever damage I did to your car,

Or to you,

Whatever damage you did to others,

Or to yourself,

Jesus accepts the blame,

Jesus suffers the consequences,

Jesus takes on the hurt,

Jesus pays for the damage.

 

And that’s why Jesus can forgive.

 

 

“Correcting the Cause”

Scripture: I John 1:5-10

So I drive into the parking lot,

And hit your car.

And you say, “I forgive you,”

After paying yourself to have it fixed.

 

But there is still a problem:

Why did I hit your car in the first place?

And what will keep me from doing it again?

Does my eyesight need correction?

My reflexes evaluation?

My drinking rehabilitation?

Do I need to quit texting?

 

It is one thing to forgive a sin.

It is another to attack the cause.

 

But the causes of sin are complex,

And deeper than poor driving.

Self-centeredness cannot be corrected

With glasses;

Idols are not as easily put away

As cell phones;

And alcoholism has a higher cure rate

Than bitterness.

 

Sin is a problem that must be attacked

From the inside.

 

The Bible calls this cleansing.

“If we confess our sins,

God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins

And cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

It is not just the car that needs to be fixed;

It’s the driver.

 

This, too, is a reason for the cross.

“The blood of Jesus

Cleanses us from all sin”--

Not only our violence, but our anger;

Not only our stealing but our greed;

Not only our lust but our ingratitude.

 

Cleansing is a lifelong process.

You don’t look at the cross

And suddenly feel kind

Toward your enemies.

You don’t look at the cross

And suddenly feel gratitude

For the disappointments in your life.

You don’t look at the cross

And suddenly feel moved

By generosity or humility.

 

But maybe when you look at the cross

Your own struggles don’t seem so daunting

Since the one who died on a cross

Will help carry yours.

 

You can look at the cross

As another miscarriage of justice,

Fueling your disillusionment.

Or you can look at the cross

As the triumph of love,

And glean courage from it

To try loving again.

 

“Intervening with the Court”

Scripture: Romans 8:31-34

So I drive into the parking lot

And smash into your car.

And you say, “You’re forgiven.”

And I get help

For my self-preoccupation.

 

But there is yet another problem.

The state requires an accident report.

A ticket has been written

With a summons to appear in court,

And the judge is not inclined

To be lenient.

 

It is not enough to pay for the damage.

It is not enough to reform your driving.

There is a judge to be faced,

An accounting to be given,

For which it may help

To have a good lawyer.

 

“Who is in a position to condemn?

It is Christ Jesus, who died,

Yes, who was raised,

Who is at the right hand of God,

Who indeed intercedes for us.”

 

When you’re in court,

You need a good lawyer.

How much better a lawyer

Who is related to the Judge.

 

 

The good news of the gospel

Is not only that Jesus died,

But that he lives,

That he ascended into heaven,

That sits at the right hand of his Father

To plead our case.

 

The cross is not just a sacrifice

That pays for our sins,

Though it is that.

It is not just an example of love,

Inspiring us to love others,

Though it is that.

The cross is the bar exam

Admitting Jesus to the heavenly court,

Qualifying him to plead our case,

Before a Holy Judge

Whom we on our own

Have no right to approach.

 

Do not treat too casually

The God of all creation;

Nor think you can cozy up

To the Judge of all the earth.

 

You are in serious trouble,

And the only thing that will save you,

Is a friend in high places.

 

“Reconciling with the Owner”

Scriptures: Romans 5:6-11

So I drive into the parking lot

And smash into your car.

And you pay for the damage;

And I get help for my driving,

And the court finds me “Not Guilty,”

Thanks to a good lawyer, who happens to be

The Judge’s Son.

 

There is still one more problem:

My relationship to the car owner.

 

If you smash your best friend’s car,

Are you worried only about getting a ticket?

Are you concerned only about your insurance rates?

Is there not a friendship that’s been damaged,

A trust that’s been violated,

A relationship broken that means more

Than an insurance claim?

 

Is it enough to escape God’s punishment,

If you no longer have God’s companionship?

Is it enough to avoid hell,

If you no longer have a friend in heaven?

 

How tragic to walk away from the cross

Forgiven, but alone;

Delivered from punishment,

But still alienated

From the best friend you could ever have.

 

“If while we were enemies,

We were reconciled to God

Through the death of his Son,

Much more surely, having been reconciled,

Will we be saved by his life.”

 

The cross is a mystery with four sides.

Jesus paid for our sins,

So we could be forgiven;

Jesus moved our hearts,

So we could learn to love;

Jesus passed the bar,

So he could plead our case;

Jesus broke down the barriers,

So we and God could be friends again.

 

How do you receive such a gift?

By believing it,

By giving thanks for it,

By living as if it is true:

As if you are forgiven

And need no longer nurse your grudges,

As if you are transformed

And need no longer repeat your mistakes,

As if you are exonerated,

And need no longer condemn one another,

As if you are reconciled to God,

And no longer have to hide.

 

There are four sides to the cross,

All of which are needed

To repair a broken car,

And to heal a broken life.

 

Easter Dinner

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 24:36-49; Isaiah 25:6-9

            A while back there was a documentary on television claiming to have found the bones of Jesus.  In a cave near Jerusalem archeologists discovered a series of burial boxes called ossuaries, one of which was labeled Yeshua bar Yosef, which would be translated Jesus son of Joseph.  The filmmakers speculated that this box might contain the very bones of Jesus.  Of course, there is no proof for this.  The names Jesus and Joseph were quite common in ancient Israel.  This week, out of curiosity, I Googled grave markers for anyone named Kenneth, son of Clyde.  I discovered I was buried in Michigan.

            But what struck me about this documentary was not the claim to have found Jesus’ bones.  What struck me was the number of people interviewed who said it did not matter.  They said that finding the bones of Jesus would not at all change their understanding of Easter.  They said that Jesus still lives in our hearts, even if his body rotted in a tomb.

            Interestingly that was the opinion of one of our recent American presidents.  In a book called In the Arena written shortly before his death, former president Richard Nixon says,

Orthodox teachers have always insisted that the physical resurrection of Jesus is the most important cornerstone in the Christian religion.  I believe that the modern world will find a real resurrection in the life and teaching of Jesus.

He continues,

The resurrection symbolically teaches the great lesson that men who achieve the highest values in their lives may gain immortality (p. 89).

In Richard Nixon’s view Jesus’ resurrection meant that he lived on in the memory of his followers, even after his career ended on a cross.

But that is not the story of Easter told by those who first experienced it.  I must confess that I have a problem with historians who try to reconstruct the story of Jesus while ignoring the testimony of the people who knew him, or who at least knew people who knew him.

Let me say word here about the gospels.  I know there is disagreement among scholars about whether the gospels were written by people who knew Jesus.  Was John’s gospel written by John the disciples or a later John?  We don’t know for sure.  Same with Matthew.  And Mark and Luke don’t even claim to be apostles.   What we have in the gospels may or may not have been written by people who knew Jesus.  But they were almost certainly written by people who knew people who knew Jesus.  Even the most critical scholars agree that the gospels were written only 40 to 60 years after Jesus walked the earth.  And all four gospels, while not agreeing in every detail, are united in saying that Jesus’ tomb was empty.

According to the Bible, Easter is not the story of Jesus living on in our hearts.  It is not the story of people remembering Jesus’ teaching after he was gone.  It is the story of Jesus transforming physical earthly life.  It is the story of Jesus defeating injustice, conquering death, and launching a new creation.

            Luke’s gospel stresses this.  On Easter evening Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.  Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.”  Notice the reference to his bones, which are not in an ossuary but raised from the dead.  Then, as if to emphasize the point, he asks for a piece of fish and eats it.

            That would have been too much for President Nixon.  An ongoing spiritual influence does not eat fish.  But the gospel writers tell us that Jesus rose from the dead physically, and not just spiritually.

Now here is the question: why does that matter?  Why was it so important to the gospel writers that Jesus was alive physically and not just as a memory in our hearts?

Because the resurrection demonstrates how much God cares about human bodily life.   A religion which emphasizes our souls over our bodies tends to play down bodily life.  If human bodily life is ultimately destined for decay, then why worry about it?  We should be out saving souls, not fussing about disease, hunger, homelessness, discrimination, or climate change.

But what if God's ultimate goal for us is not to get rid of our bodies but to transform them?  What if God's ultimate goal for the world is not to leave the physical world behind but to make it part of a new creation?

That's what Jesus' resurrection demonstrates.  God's goal for us is not to make us disembodied spirits who never have to eat.  God's goal is to make us part of a new creation where everyone has enough to eat.  Do you see the difference?  That's why it was so significant for Jesus, after his resurrection, to eat with his disciples.

We see the same idea in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah 25 says,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines; of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all the people, the sheet that is spread over all the nations; he will swallow up death forever.

            The kingdom of God is not a place where people leave their bodies behind; it is a place where their bodies are finally made whole, and so is the world.

            At first glance the ending of Luke’s gospel seems to contradict this.  At the very end of Luke’s gospel Jesus is carried up into heaven, which sounds like he leaves the world behind?

            But Luke also insists that Jesus will return to complete what he has begun.  Remember what we pray every week in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  According to Jesus heaven is the place where God’s will is already done in anticipation of when it will be done on earth.  And when the Bible says that Jesus ascended to heaven, it means that Jesus reigns in heaven in anticipation of the time when he will reign on earth.  That’s why the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, talks about the creation of a new heaven and earth.  God does not want only to take us to heaven; God wants to create a new heaven and earth and use us as witnesses of how it will look. 

Which means that every time we hand out food at the foodbank, every time we do the Crop Walk or give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program so that people can become food self-sufficient, we bear witness to the resurrection.  We anticipate the day when God’s kingdom will come, and everyone will have enough to eat.

Likewise, every time we care for human bodies including our own; every time we care for our planet and try to be good stewards of its resources; every time we help provide jobs for the jobless and homes for the homeless and friendship for the friendless; every time we stand up for someone being bullied or abused or treated unjustly; every time we are faithful in our relationships and compassionate toward those who share our all-too-human weaknesses—every time we do these things we bear witness to the resurrection.  We demonstrate that the story of Easter is not over, and it won’t be until God removes the shroud of death hanging over the world and welcomes us to the worldwide Easter dinner hosted by his Son.

Why Prayer Requires Persistence

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 18:1-8, Luke 11:5-13

 

            I got my first and only community theater experience in Potlatch, Idaho.  In Spokane they had plenty of better actors to choose from, but in Potlatch they were glad to have me.  One year we put on a Neil Simon comedy called The Good Doctor, and in one of the scenes I played a banker talking to a woman who came into to complain that her husband’s employer had wrongfully deducted money from his paycheck.  In the scene I listen to the woman’s concern and nod sympathetically, then I say to her, “Madame, I don’t wish to be unkind, but I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place.  Your petition, no matter how justified, has nothing to do with us.  You’ll have to go to the agency where your husband was employed.”

            “What do you mean?” she shrieks.  “I’ve been to five agencies already and none of them will even listen to my petition.  I’m about to lose my mind.  The hair is coming out of my head,” and she pulls a fist full of hair off of her head and plops it on my desk.

            “Please, Madame,” I say, “keep your hair in its proper place.  Now listen carefully to me.  This is a bank.  A bank!  We are in the banking business.  We bank money.  Funds that are brought here are banked by us.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

            “What are you saying?” she asks.

            “I’m saying I can’t help you.”

            She scowls and says, “Are you saying you can’t help me?”

            “I’m trying, but I’m not making much headway.”

            Then she gets really upset.  As the scene unfolds she waves a doctor’s certificate in my face, faints on the floor, and finally climbs up on my desk and puts a curse on the entire bank.  Finally I say, “Stop!  I beg of you.”  Then turning to an assistant I say, “Give her the money.  Give her what she wants.  Give her anything, only get her out of here.”

            And that, Jesus says, is how we should pray to God.  An interesting comparison, don’t you think?

            Last week Jesus compared being a disciple to being a dishonest manager.  This week he compares God to a corrupt judge.  But the point is not that God is a corrupt judge.  It is a “how much more” parable.  If even a corrupt judge will listen to the persistent pleas for help by a poor widow, how much more will God.  We simply need to keep praying.

            But why?  According to Jesus, God knows what we need before we ask.  So why do we need to ask?  And why must we keep asking?

            In a book called Holy the Firm Annie Dillard tells about living on Lummi Island on Puget Sound.  She writes,

There is one church here, so I go to it. … On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty….  The minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt.  The man knows God.  Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world—for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all—in the middle of this he stopped and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.”  After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer.  Because of this, I like him very much (quoted in Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God, 183-184).

            Why must we pray the same things every week?  Why must we confess our sins over and over again?  Why must we pray over and over for peace in our world and healing of our loved ones?  Why must we repeat every week these same words: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Didn’t God hear us the first time?

            Beaver made this point last Sunday night at SPC Together, but let me repeat it.  Prayer is not just about getting what we want or even what we need.  Prayer is about building a relationship.

            Notice what Jesus says in our first scripture reading.  Verse 9: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  Sometimes people take this to mean that if we ask for something we will get it, if we have enough faith.  But that is not what Jesus says.  In verse 13 he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  The promise is not that God will give us whatever we ask, but that when we pray God will give us the Holy Spirit, which means that God will give us God!  That God will give us not what we ask for but the most important thing we could have: a relationship to the God who created us.

            Jesus makes the same point in our second scripture reading, but in a different way.  He says that God will grant justice to those who cry out to God day and night.  God will not delay in helping those who cry out to God for help.  “And yet,” Jesus concludes, “when the Son of Man comes [meaning when Jesus himself comes], will he find faith on earth?”

            The question is not whether God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  That is not in doubt.  The question is whether we will have a relationship to the One who brings these things.  And that relationship is built day by day, prayer by prayer, knocking again and again at God’s door, not so that you can get to God but so that God can get to you.

            Let me close by reading a portion of a book by Frederick Buechner.  Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister from Vermont and has written a book about key aspects of faith called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.  This is what he says about prayer.

*          *          *

            According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about prayer is to keep at it.  The images he uses to explain this are all rather comic, as though he thought it comic to have to explain it at all.  He says God is like a friend you go to borrow bread from at midnight.  The friend tells you in effect to drop dead, but you go on knocking anyway until he finally gives you what you want so he can go back to bed again.  Or God is like a crooked judge who refuses to hear the case of a certain poor widow, presumably because he knows there is nothing in it for him.  But she keeps hounding him until he hears her case just to keep her out of his hair. …

            Be importunate, Jesus says—not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there is no way of getting to your door. …

            (And) when the prayer goes unanswered?  Who knows?  Just keep praying, Jesus says.  Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. … Keep beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring the answer you want, he will bring himself.  And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.

*          *          *

            That is why prayer requires persistence.

 

"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