Sunday, June 30, 2013

Let Christ Have a Word With You

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 16;  Luke 8: 15-21
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 7c, June 30th,  2013

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly….”  (Colossians 3: 16).

When you have something to say, you raise your hand, or you find a way to make a statement loud and clear.  Back in high school, I was not very articulate and stuttered a bit at getting my words out.  I was nervous about expressing my feelings to people I didn’t know.  Once, during a meeting, where all the presidents of various school clubs was meeting, I struggled to speak up, and the quick witted, very impatient, but brilliant teacher-advisor, Mrs. Flo Gainey, who was also an English and Humanities teacher, noticed my impediment and told me “You needed to learn to speak correctly and clearly, or you need not speak up at all.”  Her words sounded harsh at the time.   But they were just what I needed to push me the comfort of my safe ‘nest’ and into the real world of ideas and words. 

Do you have something you need to say?  Are you willing to put the time in to learn how to best say it?  I have heard all my life the statistic which says that the greatest fear most people have is the fear of speaking in public.   I guess that’s some sort of job security for me, since I’ve been speaking publically ever since that teacher shoved me out of my comfortable place and into the world of words.   But what words are worth saying?  We live in a world with so much information; including as much misinformation.   Many of the words we hear every day turn out to be just noise; noise that take ups space on the airways and in our heads, they are words that do little good.  How do we know the value of our words?  And what is this virtue of ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in (us) richly’?  If Christ does have something to say, what then does it mean for our lives today, and what would it look like in our ears and on our lips?

The Christ Who Has A Word to Say
In the struggle to define truth, and to know what ‘truth’ or what ‘words’ are worth saying and worth hearing, we need to think about how Christ’s words measure up to the rest of the words we know, hear and value.  Does Christ have something to say that is worth hearing, worth knowing, and worth holding on to in our lives?

Some of you might have seen the academy award winning movie, Life of Pi.  The writer of that story, and C.S. Lewis have a lot in common on how they view the value of the Word of Christ in our lives.   C.S. Lewis depicts Christ as a Lion who fills the world with both terror and goodness.  The key words in C.S. Lewis about Aslan the Lion, who represents Christ, is that he’s not safe, but he is good.”   You get the same kind of story in The Life of Pi, which depicts the fictional story of a young Indian boy who survives 227 days, crossing the Pacific ocean after a shipwreck, on a life boat with a Tiger named, Richard Parker.   At the beginning of the story, as Pi retells his tale to a writer, he says when you I tell you this story, “you will believe in God”.  As the story unfolds you have a young boy who grew up Hindu, became Catholic, and tried out Islam.   He wanted to find the truth of life from day one.  But when his parents attempted to move their zoo away from India to Canada, Pi was the only human survivor of a terrible shipwreck aboard a Japanese Freighter, as he was push out onto a life-boat along with a Zebra, a Heyna, an Orangatan, and the Tiger named Richard Parker. 

You can imagine what the Tiger might have done to the other animals, but really the Tiger actually never hurts anyone.  In fact it is the Heyna that proves to be most deadly, killing both the already injured Zebra and the friendly Orangatan.   Pi barely escapes his bite, until he manages to kill it in self-defense.  But as the story continues, it the Tiger that gives Pi the greatest challenge to survive.   But it is the challenge to feed, train and tame the Tiger that also keeps Pi alert and struggling to stay alive on his very dangerous journey across the Pacific.  When Pi finally reaches the Mexican shore, the Tiger and he are both weak, but as Pi looks up to rejoic with him, the Tiger never looks back, and quietly walks away into the Mexican wilderness.    

Recovering in the Hospital, Japanese insurance adjusters want to hear what happened to the Ship and to Pi, but they cannot believe his story about the Tiger, the Zebra, the Hyena and the Orangatan, nor another part of his story about a floating island where he found fresh water to drink during the day, which turned to a pool of poisonous acid at night.   So, since they did not believe his story, Pi changed it.   He told them that the Zebra was a sailor with a broken leg, the Orangatan was his mother, the Heyena was a cook who killed the sailor and his mother, in order to them like a Cannibal, and finally the Tiger was Pi himself.   By the time you get to the end and his explanation, you don’t know which story is real.   The insurance Adjusters don’t know either.  Since the second story is too real and too graphic, they go back to the original story of the boy and Tiger on the boat.  To the fantasy was less frightening than the reality.  So, the Tiger that kept the boy alive.   And this Tiger represented the God who gave him life, struggle, fear, and made his trip so very dangerous, even more dangerous than lying down and dying, that it also gave him life.

Do you believe that Christ words are like that?   If you studied the ‘Radical’ Bible study with us, from David Platt, you would see them that way.   Christ’s words are indeed life giving, but they are also very demanding and terribly dangerous.   As Dietrich Bonheoffer once paraphrased Jesus’ call to discipleship, “When Christ Calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”   The only way to find true life in Christ is to find a kind of living death which keeps you alive all your life.   Those are not the kinds ‘tiger’ or ‘lion’ words we want to hear, but there is something captivating in them like jumping out of an airplane, like skiing on a mountain where there are avalanches, or like swimming in a part of an ocean that is full of sharks.   These things are dangerous, very dangerous, but they also give some people a thrill of life.   The words of Christ can give you a similar experience to what it gives Rosie, the female jockey, when she rides a race horse.  She’s known today as the fastest woman who ever rode on a horse.  In a recent interview, she told how many times she’s fallen, how many bones she’s broken, and about how dangerous alongside of stronger men and she told about what it’s like to 40 miles an hour on a horse and the toll it continues to take on her body.  But she also says she can’t see herself not doing it.  She lives to get on that horse as see what they can do together.  When she is so close to death, she is so full of life.

The words of Christ can also bring us life, but not without a struggle, without demands, without a cost and not without a call being made upon our live.  “If anyone would come after me, let him (or her), deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”   Those are not easy words to hear.  They are certainly not easy words to follow.  But there is something in them that rings truer than life itself.  Unless you have something to die for, you will have no real reason to live---no matter how much you own, make, keep or try to hold onto.  Life does not come through wealth or length of days, but life is most full when you have a reason, a purpose and a goal that is bigger and large than yourself.   No matter what you think about Jesus, you can’t escape the truth of these words.  Life is only worth living, if you know what you are both living and dying for.   This was at the core of Christ’s words about life and death: Unless you die to yourself, you can’t live.  Unless you live for others, your life is not worth living.   We are all in this together forever, with God and with each other, or what is the value or use of it at all?

The Christ Who Is The Word Worth Saying
When Dietrich Bonheoffer was captured because he had a part in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew from the beginning of his involvement, that it was all or nothing.   And when you look back at Bonhoeffer, you see both great success but you also see this single sad moment of human failure.   If Bonhoeffer had not picked up the sword and had trusted in Christ’s coming victory over Hilter, and had waited for the Allies to become victorious over Nazi Germany, he might not have been captured, and even if he had been, he might have not been hung.  Bonhoeffer could have survived that terrible time and seen the coming whole new world to his Vaterland.    But in this one moment, Bonhoeffer failed to trust in Christ’s words and in Christ’s victory.   Had he not only followed Christ’s words, but also followed Christ as the ultimate Word and power of God’s voice; and had he out of the political struggle and stayed in his pulpit, he might have lived and done even more good for Germany.  

Now, I’m not judging Bonhoeffer, for I admire him greatly.  I admire him probably more than any other theologian because he was willing to put his life on the line and suffer and die for what he believed.   But in the end, what that war proved, and what any war proves, is that we can’t solve the world’s problems the world’s way.   We may even win the war.  It may even be a ‘just war’, if there is such a thing.   But those who live by the sword, will eventually die by the sword.  The way of the world will always fail to achieve what we want.  This is what Jesus wanted to teach his own people, but they would not listen and do the things that make for peace.  They continued to take up the sword and they continued to die by the sword.   But Christ wanted to show them a better, higher, greater, and more promising way.   A way that also requires sacrifice, but a way that in the end, will bring the greatest success---and perhaps, at least as Jesus believed, this other way, this ‘third way’, is the only way that will bring the end of all war and usher in the Kingdom of God.  What is this new way of Christ?  What is this word of Christ that stands above all human words? 

John opened his gospel, with the words, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….”, that is “the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”   (John 1:1, 14).   The point John’s gospel is trying to make, is that not only did Jesus tell us the truth about God, Jesus is God’s truth; he is God’s truth in the flesh that lived among us.  But in the same passage, he also says that he was the ‘truth’ and the ‘light’ that was rejected.  “He came unto his own, and his own people did not accept him.”  And who is Jesus’ own people today?  Is that not us?  Are we not the people who are still afraid to follow Christ as the Word?  We are prepared to trust in his words, but we still lack following him as the only truth worth following.   The Word once became flesh and told the truth, way back when, but we are only just ‘so’ interested in following that truth today.  We want his words, but we are still our own TRUTH.  We can only follow His truth so far.  But is it far enough?     

I’m glad, because of God’s marvelous grace, that God can work his salvation in me, and in the world, in spite of me---just as he did in spite of Bonhoeffer; but I’m also sure that God could work much more of his grace and fullness in this world, if I would listen and cooperate with his Spirit more fully, more freely, and more completely---trusting his Word in Jesus even more than his word in me.   If I could only move a closer to closer to Christ by doing more than taking him at his word, but by taking him as THE WORD, for my own life.  That is the direction Paul is encouraging.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.  Who can do that?

The Christ Who Can Be the Word in You and Me
When Paul prays for the church at Colosse to “let the word of Christ dwell in (them) richly,” I don’t know exactly what he is talking about in their situation, but I might know more about what that means for my situation right now.  Paul does not want Christ to be a secondary consideration, but he wants Christ to be our primary consideration.   He wants us to allow Christ to be in us so that Christ becomes both our first and final Word for life.  

Tom Long says that we live in a culture that uses a lot of words, but seldom trusts any of them.   In a sermon about Words, Long says, “We use Words by the bushel, in fact we are the age that does "Word processing." Even so, we don't trust Words; we build scaffolding out of them, but we don't put our weight on it. We know that Words can be slippery, weasel things, used to conceal, to deceive, to distort. Words are cheap; people can hide behind Words.   When a politician gives a speech, what do we say? Promises, promises. When the appliance repair shop says, "We'll be there to fix your refrigerator tomorrow at 2:00. You can count on it." We don't. When a president speaks boldly of building a "new world order" or assures us "I'll never lie to you" or coos soothingly "I feel your pain," we raise a skeptical eyebrow.   Rhetoric, talk, Words -- we don't trust them. Words are sneaky; talk is cheap. We don't want Words; we want substance. As Eliza Doolittle says to her two suitors in My Fair Lady: Words, Words, Words ... is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars burning above; If you're in love, show me! Or, as Edgar Guest put it, uncomfortably closer to home: "I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day ...."  (From Tom Long in Words, Words, Words, at sermons.com).

So how do we trust Christ’s words?  When Christ indwells, we live for him and his truth.  There is nothing spooky about this and it is not always that spiritual.   When the truth of Christ dwells and lives in us, we put on a different set of clothes, and we put a very different self forward.   Our priorities are different.  Our attitudes are different.  Our goals are different.  Our relationships are different.    In the final analysis, we are different---different than we have been, sometimes different than we want to be, and almost always different than the world around us.   When Christ’s presence dwells in us, we are not just survivors going through life, but we thrive in ways that brings life to others, as well as ourselves.  

Letting Christ as the Word live in our life makes one very big difference----our life is no longer our own, because we have been we are bought with a price, we have been born again and we have been crucified with Christ, so that now we find a pearl in living that gives us a treasure which can’t be stored in this world, but can only be stored in heaven.   Holding on to our life as long as we can, the best way we know how, is indeed a a treasure, but it not ‘the pearl of great price’.  Only holding on to Christ and God’s truth in him is ‘that’ pearl.  For Christ not only has a word for us in our lives, he wants to be the Word in us for all our life---now and forever.  Christ is the only one worthy or right enough to be God’s first and final word.  He is the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, first and the last, and he is the truth, way and life, so that no one comes to the Father without knowing the truth that is Him!  

Several weeks ago I was visiting the hospital and walking through a long hallway.  I noticed ahead of me at some distance, a man lying on a bench as if he was not feeling well.   As I walked toward the man, many, that is, too many people walked buy and did not stop, including some with 'white coats'---that is doctors and nurses.  Right as I got near him, finally a security guard came over to him and asked if he was feeling alright.  Then I heard the man lying on the bench answer, "I think I'll be O.K".   Isn't it something, that even in a hospital with people trained to 'care' a person could still die for the lack of it?

It can happen at church too and in our communities that have churches around almost every curve and corner.   Bill Hybels once wrote the the greatest form or strategy in evangelism and sharing of the goodness of Jesus starts in the simplest place with the smallest deed, "simply walk across the room".   When we 'walk across the room' with our faith, that is when Christ's words "dwell in us richly".  

Do you know the truth that is more than words, but is the very truth of Him, not just some truth about him, but is the truth that is Him himself, that can become the truth in and about you?   This is the truth Paul wants you to know and to live.  How will you know for sure that his word is the truth?  You’ll never know until you let his word speak through your life.  You’ll never know until the truth out there, become the truth in here, right in the middle of who you are each and every day.   This is how you’ll know how ‘rich’ he is, and how poor you were, until you let him inside you.   Amen.     

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Forethought or Afterthought?

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 15; Luke 17: 11-19
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 7, June 23rd, 2013

“…..And be thankful.” (Col 3:15 NRS)

True gratitude or thankfulness to God for his kindness to us arises from a foundation laid before, of love to God for what he is in himself. ”       ----Jonathan Edwards

I think I’ve told you about one of the German youth, who grew up in communism, but reclaimed his Christian roots during my missionary work.   After making friends with an American youth, he decided to travel to America to see what it was like to be in an American Christian home; and of all times, he decided to visit during the Thanksgiving holiday.   Before he left he told me: “I can’t wait to see how America Christians celebrate ‘Thanksgiving’”.  When he returned,  he explained how great a trip he had and he shared how kind and gracious his host family was.   But he also said he was somewhat disappointed with the American ritual of Thanksgiving, being only Turkey and Football.  They didn’t even go to church, he persisted.  He just could not understand how Food and Football were Christian!

At the Psychology Today website, Dr. Michael Austin rightly says that “Thanksgiving is much more than “Food and Football---thanksgiving is also a virtue.”  (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ethics-everyone/201011/the-virtue-thankfulness).   You will not find ‘thankfulness’ on the list of Seven virtues which made official by the Catholic church, but you will find it in the writing of some of the great catholic scholars.   Austin says that Thomas Aquinas once wrote that ‘thankfulness’ is one of the most distinct virtues, because ‘thankfulness’ is a special part of justice.   It is a matter of justice or fairness, and moral obligation, for when a person is thankful they are doing the ‘right’ and ‘just’ thing---fully understanding the great debt we owe for our lives---the debt we owe to God, to our parents, and to all and any who have shown fairness and goodness to us.  

The virtue of ‘thankfulness’ was included at the center of Paul’s list.   Thankfulness was also the main theme in one of the most famous parables of Jesus.   What you might also find interesting, is that even great Greek and Roman philosophers elevated the virtue of ‘gratitude’ or ‘thanksgiving’ as not just another virtue, but as ‘the parent or father of all virtues’ .    Because the spirit of gratitude is so important, and the act of thanksgiving is so essential,  we must never see it as an afterthought, but Scripture says it is more like a ‘forethought’ ---as we must start, as well as finish everything we do ‘giving thanks to God’ (Colossians 3.17).   

So, what is so important about being thankful, not just on ‘turkey day’ but on any day and everyday?  And why does ‘thanksgiving’ make Paul’s list not just once, but twice, in the middle and also again at the end?  What is so ‘special’ about putting on the virtue of thankfulness in all we do?

IMPORTANT FOR LIVING OUR LIVES
While I was thinking about this message, CBS’s Sunday Morning (April 28th, 2013) ran a special show about the Future, as it might happen.  They talk about all kinds of futuristic ideas.  They spoke of advances in medicine, like making living cells with printers---which is already happening.   They spoke about living longer.  They also spoke about how many futurisitic fantasies did not work out.  They even showed the Jetsons as an example asking, “where’s my Rosie they Robot?  But the one special segment that most caught my attention was asking whether or not, in the future, Science might ever discover life on another planet.    In the segment they showed how a the Kepler Satellite, is currently out beyond our solar system taking pictures of only one segment of 150,000 stars, looking for life.  They have already found solar systems similar to ours and some quite different, like the one that has two suns, as it did on Star Wars.  They have also found what they believe to be several ‘goldilocks’ planets, planets that are neither too cold, nor too hot, but are just the right distance from their sun, so that life might be possible.   Then came the question the reporter put to the scientists, “Do you think that we will find life out there?”   The Scientist did not hesitate to say that surely, microscopic organism must surely be out there if the conditions are as they appear, but she never came close to suggesting that there might be any kind of intelligent life out there.   Finding life is not a problem; finding intelligent life, now that’s the miracle no one even dares to suggest---either ‘out there’ or here on earth, for that matter.

Do you know why no one dares to suggest the existence of intelligent life anywhere else?  Because life, as we know it, in any way we look at it, either as part of a process of God’s intervention over many expanded years of evolution---where one day is like a thousand or maybe million years, or whether the creation of life was a process of more immediate intervention, the reality is the still the same.  Life, as we know it is nothing less than a gift.  And if it took longer we first believed, or God first revealed to us, life is even more of a gift.    Life is so much of a unique gift that we can scan the millions and even billions of stars in the heavens, with the naked eye, or even with the greatest telescopes and computers, and intelligent, thinking, reflective and spiritual life is only here, where we live.   This is not to say that it can’t happen, or won’t happen elsewhere, for I believe it will and it must.  But nothing we know, even with all our advancements of high tech knowledge surpasses understanding and awe for life expressed in the biblical phrase, “When I consider the heavens, the works of thy hands….who is this one who is created just little lower than angels?  Why did God ever think about us?”  (Psalm 19).    The Book of Revelation also confirms in the end, just as in the beginning, that humans have been offered the ‘water of life freely” as a ‘gift’.  When you understand this, everything in your life looks different.  It fact, your lift is never ‘your life’, but it is first and foremost, from start and at the finish, a gift from God that we should be thankful to have.   Life is not a given, here or anywhere; it is always a gift.  

IMPORTANT FOR OUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS
What difference does that make?  The true question is what difference does it not make, when we view our lives as not our own, but as a wonderful gift full of potential, possibility and blessing?  Well, it makes a difference not only to us, but when we gain this perspective of having gratitude for our lives it also makes a difference in our relationships with others.

When Paul wrote about ‘being thankful’ to the Colossians, it was not unique.  Paul speaks of being ‘thankful’ in most every letter he writes.   Even to those Corinthians Christians who gave the most trouble, Paul wrote: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, (1Co 1:4 NRS).  To the church at Ephesus, where Paul suffered so much he writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason, I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Eph 1:15-16 NRS).  Even when he wrote about his fear of the end of all things to the Thessalonians, he wrote, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers…(1Th 1:2 NRS).  For Paul, in his own life and in his relationships with others, giving thanks was not an option.  It was part of his continued experience of God’s grace and goodness.

We too need to be thankful for each other, and never to take our relationships for granted---be it our relationship with parents, children, with others, and also with God.  Giving thanks is part of what it means to live with others in healthy and happy relations.   Speaking of those closest to us---those we might most likely take for granted, there is a saying I read many years ago which most graphical suggests the importance of teaching thanksgiving to our own; saying that ‘sharper than a serpents tooth, is the tongue of a thankless child’.   Thankfulness needs to be the continual lesson we teach our children and the constant virtue we model before them with our own visible and verbal expressions of thanksgiving for our lives and for others.   Nothing is sadder than a young person loses their wonder of life and appreciation of others---losing both the joy of living and being alive in the world and the joy they find in the relationships they have in love and in life.
Who of us will forget those suicides that should never be, or those relationships that didn’t make it, or the families broken up through divorce?  Vigilance in thankfulness as we work against self-centeredness enables us to hold life and loves together with those we are most thankful for.  

THANKFULNESS IS CRUCIAL IN KNOWING GOD
The major single lesson Jesus illustrates concerning ‘thankfulness’ appears in his well-known parable about the healing of ten lepers.   We know that Jesus always touched the untouchable while having pity on them, but this does not mean that Jesus didn’t challenge them or become exasperated with them as well.   In his story about the healing of the ten lepers, only one of the ten came back to express thanks to Jesus for his healing.  Where did those other lepers go?  Why were not thankful?  And if they were thankful, and probably were, how do we know they were thankful to Christ for their new life, if they did not return and give thanks to God.  How else would we know?   Actually, what we do know is that only the one who returned was made ‘whole’---which means literally, that he was the only one who received the fullness of God’s salvation.  It was his attitude of gratitude that made his ‘healing’ worth having.

In Jesus’ parable, thankfulness and gratitude is the proof that God’s power to save has actually been received into our lives.   How else do we know?  How else can we be assured that our faith in Christ is real, unless there is a response of continual thanksgiving and gratitude?   How else do any of us know we are really connected to God, or to anybody, unless our responses of thankfulness and gratitude are actual and real?   As the old saying goes, 90% of everything we believe and do is realized by just showing up.  Showing up is the most important way that this one leper revealed inward thankfulness to God.
 
How do you show up---ready for work, ready for living, ready for caring, and ready to live a life that worships and brings glory to God?  Are you show up, or a no show?  Are you casual hearer, or a careful receiver of the healing power of God’s grace---so careful that you are ready to give thanks, not just with words, but with deeds with every fiber of your being?    Not long ago, I experienced a really interesting story of fiction about a British scientist who was asked to bring the sport of Salmon fishing to the desert of The Yemen.  A wealthy oil Sheikh invested missions of dollars to make the impossible possible in his country.   But this did not come without fierce opposition.   Once, while fishing in Scotland,  some Arabs in opposition to the whole project attempted to kill him, but the Scientist saved the Sheikh’s life and foiled the murder attempt by his skill with a hook on a fly reel.   “I will never forget what you have done for me,” the Sheikh responded.  And in my land,” he continued, “when we way it, we mean it”.   Sure enough, when another assignation attempt came, as a dam was sabotaged and everyone was swimming for their lives, the Sheikh risks his own life to save the Scientist from drowning.   The proof of his thankfulness came, not just in heart, but also in real life.

This is also where our thankfulness to God should show up.   We should be thankful to God, not just for what God has done, but we should be thankful for who God is within himself, as Jonathan Edwards has said.  In this way, thankfulness should not just be an afterthought to what we have been given, but it should also be a  fore thought to how we should live each day because of who God is in giving us his gracious gift of life.   Amen.     

Sunday, June 16, 2013

“THINGS THAT MAKE FOR PEACE”

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3:15 Luke 19: 41-44
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 5, June 16, 2013

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you are called in the one body.”  (Colossians. 3:15).

It was early Easter morning before the tradition of sunrise services.   I heard an unexpected knock on the door of the parsonage.   When I came to the door and pulled back the curtain, there stood a school friend with a   bloody machete in his hand.   That’s not the way I like to start Easter.

After I hesitantly went out the door, I asked my friend what had happened.  “I think I might have killed my best friend”,  he answered.   My school friend had a knack for drama.   When we were in school he was always coming up to me trying out his new karate move.  Those were the days of Bruce Lee and Kung Fu, if you recall.  Since those high school days, I had gone off to college, but he had gone off to the army.   He told me that he had learned all kinds of judo and other fighting skills in the army.   He had been dishonorably discharged because he had pointed a gun at his commanding officer.   Now, he says he has attacked his ‘best friend’.   All else I need to tell you from this story is that within a year of later,  my school friend who was standing at my door with a bloody machete in his hand, was found murdered in the woods.

Conflict, violence, struggle, and unrest are part of our daily world.   And its not just what gets into the newspapers.   Hopefully the struggle and violence is not too close to your home in this moment, but sometimes it does ‘come close to home’ and unfortunately, someday it will.   For you see, the source of conflict and violence is not way out there somewhere in Afghanistan or North Korea, but the source of human conflict is much closer to home, if not ‘too’ close to home.   The source of human conflict says found in the human heart.

A MATTER OF THE HEART  
In Paul’s word about ‘peace’ as a Christian virtue, we find this very ancient point of view that the source of struggle, conflict, and unrest in our world resides in the human ‘heart’.   Now of course, we are not speaking about the physical heart, but about the metaphorical heart, that is, the psyche, the soul, the invisible seat and practically undetectable source of human feeling, emotion, attitude and behavior which we know today is part of how our brains are wired---(of course speaking of how our brains are wired is also a metaphor).  In the ancient world before the days of science, and still in these postmodern times after the rise of science, it is very common to speak of emotional, moral, behavioral, and religious issues as matters or habits of the heart.

We still use the ‘heart’ metaphor today because it still speaks of realities that remain beyond the reach of microscope.  It also speaks of realities that effect how we use that might use or abuse that microscope.    When I say “I love my wife with all my heart”, what I’m saying is real, not because it is provable or repeatable, but because it speaks of truth that can’t be fully detected or dissected in any laboratory.  Such matters of the heart are hidden, complicated, but they are also very consequential.  This is why Paul says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your heart.”   This is also why Jesus said to those Pharisees, who were constantly worried about outward rules and rituals of hand washing before meals: "Are you also still without understanding?  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile." (Mat 15:16-20 NRS).  Just because you can’t see what’s in a person’s deepest heart, soul, or mind, (ever how you label it) does not mean that it does not have real-world effect.  The heart matters---it matters as much or more than anything else we can see or imagine.

We all know that both in Scripture and at the core of Christian teaching is a ‘heart’ problem---not a physical heart problem, but a spiritual problem that can wreak havoc in matters in our emotional, psychological, social, and political health.   And when it comes to the ‘things that make for peace’ what is in our heart matters most.   We can go all the way back to one of the very first stories in the Bible, the story of Cain and Abel, and see that the source of human conflict is a conflict in the human soul or heart.   Cain killed his brother, not  because of what his brother did, but he killed his brother because of an unresolved struggle within his own heart.   Remember how the story depicts how the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, you will be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is to have you, but you must master it.”   But Cain could not master it, and you know the rest of the story.  Cain killed his brother Abel, not because they had any kind of real conflict between them, but because of an inward, hidden, secret conflict that was going on between Cain and himself; or maybe even between Cain and God.   Because there was no peace in Cain’s heart, there was a war in his soul that had consequences in the relationship with his brother.

This idea that the source of all human conflict is a matter of the heart is not only true in biblical view, it is also true in the most all world views, including others views of the sacred and the secular.   Paul and Christianity prove they are in tune with ultimate reality when the say that peace a matter of the human heart.  If the heart is not at peace, you will soon know it somewhere in the body, somewhere in the family, somewhere in the community, and somewhere in the world.   It is what is within that defiles and endangers us the most.

During my early days of ministry, I came across a saying not from Christianity, but attributed to Buddha.   A form of this wise saying is said to have been finalized by Lao Tse, a Chinese philosopher of the 6th century.  He was an older contemporary of Confucius and founder of the spiritual way of Tao.   Who knows where this saying actually came from, but it rings true and complements true faith and wisdom:
 “If there is to be peace in the world, there must be peace in the nations. 
If there is to be peace in the nations, there must be peace in the cities. 
If there is peace in the cities, there must be peace between neighbors. 
If there is peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home. 
If there is to be peace in the home, there must be peace in the heart.  (http://www.worldprayers.org/archive/prayers/meditations/if_there_is_to_be_peace.html).

Jesus and Paul could not agree with more.   The only thing they would add to this ancient wisdom is that for there to be ‘peace in the heart’ there must be peace and reconciliation with God.  At the heart of Christian thinking is that God has made reconciliation possible through Jesus’ death and resurrection.   But until we make our peace with God, there is little hope of peace with each other.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF RULE
So, how do people come to find peace with God, which can result in having peace with each other?  Paul suggests that this kind of reconciling peace only happens when people live under a different kind of rule of their life---which he calls the rule of Christ.  Only by letting Christ ‘rule’ our hearts can we maintain peace with each other in the body of Christ and live in peace with others in the world.  Our need for one who can lead us to this peace is why Jesus is called “prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6).    

But how do we come under the rule of Christ’s peace in this violent world?  How can Jesus bring peace to our world of struggle and conflict?   This kind of question brings us to this passage from Luke where Jesus desires to see Jerusalem at peace with God, with itself, and with the Roman political climate of his day.   Jesus came to show them a different way to win, a different way to do politics, and a different way to relate to both insiders and outsiders.  This was Jesus’ hope, but unfortunately, he did not see it become a reality.  In fact, Jesus sees the opposite happening.   He wanted to bring them a way to peace, hope and a future, without violence, without militant force, and without hate and destruction; but as they text says, “they would not”.   Are we any different?

Several years ago a new way of teaching Christian Ethics hit North America.   It was an ethical approach which attempted to find a way to a Christian ethic that would work in today’s confusing world.  Some have used the Bible as the basis for all ethical discussion—calling it biblical ethics, but the Bible has differing approaches.  Other used the Laws or commandments, calling it “Command Ethics”, but these two can be misused or abused.  Others would rather focus on Love, which is Situation ethics, but ‘love’ is also hard to define.   Still some choose to remain secular using words like the ‘greatest good”, saying “Just Do It”.   But John Yoder’s more recent approach rightly declares that as Christians we have only one foundation for our ethics and our rules of behavior; we need to make Jesus our Lord.  He called his way of ethical discussion ‘Messianic Ethics’ building the way every Christian should behave on the Lordship or ‘rule of Christ.’

But are we really ready for such an ethic---such a rule of Christ, as it is often called?   The Ten Commandments are hard enough to keep, but try the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes.  Things like “love your enemy”, turn the other cheek”, “pray for those who curse you”, blessed are the poor, blessed are those that mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted, etc.   This is deep and difficult stuff.  Is a Messianic ethic practical, understandable, or realistic enough?   Every time I think of the Politics of Jesus, I’m reminded of something I read from a German Christian, also a Theologian and TV News anchor.   Franz Alt asked: “Did Jesus fail?  Jesus came to change people and change the world, but the world hasn’t changed that much.   Did Jesus fail?   The question is an important one.   In this age of atom bombs, when we have the power to destroy life on this planet, the question is more important than ever.   Did Jesus fail---fail to bring love, hope, and peace to the world?   Franz Alt continues to say that the answer to this question is even more important.  Did Jesus fail?   No, Jesus didn’t fail, Alt answers.  Jesus was a man for others, and a man like no other.  He treated people differently.  He treated the sinner differently.  He treated women with respect.  He loved the outcast.  He never used force on another.  He was critical of bad religion.   He suggested a different way to live, to love, and to deal with the problems of the world.   And Jesus was faithful to his message up to his end.  Did Jesus fail?  No, but we have failed, Alt answers.  We have failed to really try to follow Jesus.” You can’t say someone failed until his way has been tried and found wanting.   We haven’t really try Jesus’ way, yet.  (A summary from the Franz Alt’s book, Jesus: Der erste neue Man, Muechen, 1989).

Near the end of April, they dedicated the new George W. Bush library in Waco Texas.   Most presidents are respected and liked more after they are out of office.  George W. Bush is no different.   He just became a grandfather.  He is still loved by many, and for good reasons.  And even though there is still controversy surrounding his presidency, Bush did a lot of things right.  One of those was his ideas on Immigration.  What Bush suggested is now being implemented by the Obama Administration.   Still, some people, however, blame Bush for the bad economy.   Others blame the President who is now in office.   The problems may be more Wall Street than White House, but one issue that still stands out and remains most controversial in the former Presidents legacy is his decision to Invade Iraq.   Was it worth it?  Was the torture worth it?  No one doubted that Sadaam Hussein needed to go.  No one doubted that our leaders wanted to defeat Terror--for good reasons.  But also no one found any weapons of mass destruction.    I am not certified to debate political decision-making of a President on such matters.  I am in no position to comment on why or whether he made the right decision.   I believe President Bush did the best he could with the information he believed that the had.  But I still need to say something that we can all learn from War---no matter how right it seems to be.  War-making is never 'right enough.   It is very, very difficult to follow the way of Jesus, which is the way of peacemaking and also follow the way of war-making.  In the thick and thin of life it was hard for George W. Bush, and it is hard for me and you too.  It was also hard for those Zealots, like Judas and others who did not see Jesus’ way as workable.  So Judas betrayed Jesus, and Israel went it’s own way and within 40 years of failing to follow Jesus way of making Peace with the Romans, the nation of Israel, which decided to wage war with the Romans, was completely destroyed.   Jesus warned them this would happen.   Jesus told them that those who ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’.   But they did not listen.  We still have trouble listening to Jesus.  Jesus’ way of peace does not work,  and it does not work mainly because people have little patience for it.  Will we?

PEACE IS SOMETHING WE MAKE
Many people say that avoiding force, violence, or to work toward peace is to take the easy way of a coward.  But Jesus reminds us that choosing to make peace not war, or to turn the other cheek and seek reconciliation and peace with others is the hardest way.  It was the hardest way in Jesus’ day, and it still is in our own.  It is hard make peace without some kind of a show of force.  No doubt, the longest period of peace in the history of the world is known as the Pax Roma, or the Roman Peace, and it took place only because of the power and might of Rome, which everyone was afraid to go up against.   So, we must Christians, who claim to follow Jesus’s way of peace, need to at least hear the argument: The way of temporary peace in a sinful world may require guns, bullets, and bombs.  But the questions which always remain and haunts the world we live in are these; Whose bombs? Which bombs?  How many will it take?  And finally, how long until someone sets off the Big bomb, which makes everything in this world history?  This constant threat of the 'big one' makes the peace question very relevant, doesn’t it?   Can we find another way to peace, before it’s too late to try?  Can we find other ways to confront our adversaries, deal with threats, face our fears, and get rid of our enemies:  Could we not find a way to make our enemies our friends; or at least find a way to live in peace with them without resorting to bullets and bombs?  Is this way of Jesus something we really could or should at least try and how do we do that?

Here, we must finally return what Paul called “letting the peace of Christ rule our hearts”.  What does Paul mean?   Truly, Paul is not speaking about a world solution, but perhaps he’s speaking more about a local solution, even the way to peace in a local church congregation or in first finding peace in our own hearts.  Paul is surely not telling us how to find peace in the world until we find peace right where we live, in our community, in our family, in our homes and in our own hearts.   How can we let this ‘peace of Christ’ rule in our hearts, right where we live?  How can we find peace in our own hearts---so we will at least ‘want’ to have peace with others around us?

Jesus answer, perhaps we might say that Jesus’ rule of ‘peace’, which comes directly from the Sermon on the Mount, is that peace is something we make.  Peace is not something out-there that trickles down from heaven, but peace is something that begins with our own desire, our own decision-making, and our own dogged-determination.   Peace comes from the inside-out, not from the outside-in.  Peace is a matter of Christian discipleship.  Peace is a matter of the heart that submits to the rule of Christ and lives that peace out that as a rule for daily life.  Again, peace is, according to Jesus, something we, as his disciples, must make, but how?   How do we do the ‘things that make for peace’?

The late, great preacher Ernest Campbell once said that there are two fronts on which the human heart craves peace---We want peace within ourselves, and we want peace among ourselves---with other people.   We all know that peace within begins with faith in God.   Jesus said, “My peace I leave with you, let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:7).  Peace comes from knowing that we have nothing to fear from the God we love and who loves us.   Have you made that peace?  This is the first peace we must make.  

Secondly,  Dr. Campbell said that we want peace among ourselves.  How do we make peace with each other?  Where does this kind of peace come from, especially when people have so many different opinions, viewpoints, even different interpretations of what it means to believe in God?    Listen to what Dr. Campbell wrote at the close of a sermon he wrote about peace-making back in 1972 at the Riverside Church in New York.    “I am growing more and more into the conviction that we are never more the church that Christ would have us be than when we turn outward toward the world for which He died.  Frequently I have seen in business places a sign that reads: "We service what we sell." On still other occasions I have seen a "revised standard version" of that sign which reads: "We service only what we sell."  In other words, if you didn't buy that cheap vacuum cleaner here, don't bring it in to us when it breaks down. There is a hint of snobbishness in that. "We service only what we sell."

The business of the church historically is to service what we do not sell.  We do not sell drugs, but we service the addicted!  We do not sell poverty, but we service the needy! We do not sell trouble, but we service the distressed!  We do not sell oppression, but we service the aggrieved!  This is what makes for excitement.  Frankly speaking, and off the record, some churches are just plain dull. Watching them is like watching a battleship getting painted. Because we are involved in making life better for people, church gets exciting and peace breaks out all over the place.   Because of service to each other, we start talking to each other and then we start understanding each other in new ways.  When communication lines go open, people become more aware and more hopeful, and less afraid.   When we do deeds and works of service we make peace.”
(http//ia600804.us.archive.org/18/items/sermonthingsthat00camp/sermonthingsthat00camp.pdf)

I sincerely hope that knowing that serving each other is how we make peace with God, within ourselves, and with each other that we will follow this rule of Christ which makes for peace.  As we come to know what we need to do and we do it, we make the world a more hopeful, helpful,  and much less scary place.   Let’s do these things we need to do for ‘peace’s sake.  We need to do them.  They need us to do them.  We have something that the world needs more than ever.  So, as we serve God, let’s give this world the peace we can make ourselves which begin in ourselves.   Of course, we can only make this kind of peace with God's help.  Amen.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

“Love Above All”

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3:14 & Luke 6:27-36
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 3,  June 9th, 2013

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:14 NRS).

In the long running 60’s Broadway play, and 70’s award winning movie, Fiddler on the Roof, the Jewish Father, Tevye has a big problem.  Not only is the world changing around him and his people are still being persecuted by Russian Tsarists, he has 5 daughters, 3 of which are of marrying age.   His daughters no longer want to marry according to the long-standing Jewish tradition of ‘chosen’ or ‘matchmaker’ marriage, but they want to marry for love.  While Tevye reminds his daughters about “tradition”, they challenge his own understanding of ‘love’, even causing the poor Tevye wife to wonder, “Do you love me?”

If ever a culture has been confused about the meaning of love, it is ours.    In the ancient Greek language they had 4 different words for love, but we only have one.   We can say things like I love my dog, my car, my house, my children and our spouse all with the same word and mean very different things.   The Eskimos have 5 words for snow, which is very important to them.  Why do we only have one word for love?  Is there any wonder we are confused about the true meaning of love?  

LOVE ABOVE ALL
Paul wants to resolve any confusion that might exist about the Christian faith, when he says in our text, ‘above all, clothe yourself in love.”   All the virtues of the resurrected life that we’ve been discussing up to now; compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, bearing one another and forgiving one another, each make up a different part or angle of the overall meaning of virtue of Christian love.   These words are all ‘love’ words; and they are all love virtues.  This means that without love they do not happen. Only with love in our hearts will we practice the virtues of compassion, show kindness, be humble, display meekness, have patience, bear the unbearable and forgive the unforgiveable.  Only love can make these very challenging and demanding virtues happen in our lives.   As Paul says, love ‘binds everything together’.  And love holds us together too.  The biggest, greatest, largest and most important element of the Christian faith, of the Christian experience and of the Christian life is the practice of love---love ‘above all’.

Why is ‘love’ the most important virtue (or behavior) within Christianity?   Love is central to everything it means to be Christian, to follow Jesus Christ because love is what it means to know God.   Scripture says that “God is love”; which means that you can’t separate faith from the practice of loving, or the separate the practice of loving from the practice of faith.  The Christian faith believes that God loves because love is of God.   Love is of God precisely because God is love.  For this reason, in Christian theology, Love is not just any virtue; it is called a ‘theological virtue’.   As with all three theological virtues, faith, hope and love, love not only comes from God alone, love also reveals God to us.  This means you can’t have true love, unless it comes from God, and you only know God fully in the human capacity to love.  In Scripture, of these three theological virtues, ‘faith, hope and love,   Paul reminded us then, in 1 Corinthians as he does here, in Colossians, that: ‘the greatest of these is love’.    This is why, as the fullest revelation of God himself, Jesus gave us the two greatest commandments as commands to love---to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.   ‘For God so loved the world’ is only fully understood when we practice love as the greatest virtue in our life.   Love is central to everything we believe about God and the world.   

If you look deep into Judaism, you will find the message of love, but in post-exilic Judaism, it was the Law, not love that became central.   If you take a close look at Islam, you will find that the central idea is not the love of God, but surrendering to God completely.   Islam is Arabic for ‘surrender’ and a Muslim is one who has submitted completely to God.  It is not love, but full surrender that guides the heart of a Muslim.   In Buddhism, the central idea is Enlightenment.  The Buddha left his love for his wife and family behind to search for enlightenment.  Buddha learned about suffering and love as part of his Enlightenment, but love was only secondary to knowledge.   In Hindu thought, the oldest religion in the world, the key goal is of life is full consciousness, unity or oneness with God.  Only the one who puts on the full yoke of unity with all things, someone who is called the Yoga, can understand love as connected to everything else.   But in Hinduism, this oneness or unity brings about love instead of love bringing about unity.  This is the opposite approach to what Paul is saying when he says that ‘love binds all things together in harmony’.   It is not the binding that causes us to love, but it is the love that will enable us to bind.

To be fair to all those who seek God and desire faith in our global community, it is important to understand that in most, if not all the great religions of the world, love is put right up there near the top of all the greatest  virtues and practices of faith.  But in Christianity, love is not one thing, and it is not only the greatest thing, love is everything.  Remember what Paul told the Corinthians, ‘without love I am nothing’, ‘I gain nothing’ and ‘if I do not have love I am a noisy gong.’  (See 1 Cor. 13: 1-3).  In the core thinking and in the central acts of Jesus and Paul, love is the core motivation.  Love is what motivated Jesus to challenge the status quo in Israel and to include sinners in God’s love, and even to command that the great commandment to love includes the love of enemies  (Matthew 5:44).   In the teachings of Paul, Paul understood that love is the great fruit of the Spirit which gives life, a life that can’t be found in even in the best works of the law.   In is in the Spirit of love that God is able to include all people, both Jew and Gentile in God gift of salvation, which is ‘by grace, through faith, that you are saved, and not of yourselves, for it is God’s gift.  It is not of works lest anyone should boast.” (Eph 2: 8,9).    Because love is the core motivation within true faith is why John writes in his letter to young Christians, that “whoever does not have love, does not have God” (1 John 4.8). 

What I would never say is that other religions fail to understand this any less than many Christians fail to understand or implement it.   The truth is that sometimes, there are people in other religions who come closer to the biblical understanding of love that Christians do.   I am not only thinking here of those Christian who have failed to love, but I am also thinking of some non-Christians in history, or even living today, who have understood God’s love completely.   One person I’m particularly thinking of here is Ghandi, the great Hindu lawyer and teacher who studied and understood Jesus’ teaching on love and civil rights better than most Christians in South Africa, as did many, if not most southern ‘Christians’ here in the south during the Civil Rights era of the 60’s.   The light of God’s love is bright enough to shine through any religious search for truth.   But in the same way, any religion, including Christianity, including any denomination or any church goes completely dark and fails to be of any human or heavenly value, IF WE FAIL TO LOVE.       

LOVE BINDS EVERYTHING TOGETHER
There should be no doubt at the central place of love within the list of Christian virtues, behaviors, or practices.   Love rules supreme in the Christian faith, because without God’s love we have nothing; no hope, no faith, no life worth living, and no death worth dying.  But with love, everything looks different.   It is much like Peter Berger, the great sociologists once put it: “When a mother rocks her crying baby to sleep and night as saying “Hush, don’t cry!  It’s going to be O.K.   This is either the greatest lie in the world or it is right at the source of the greatest truth.”  We are loved by the only one who can tell us in both life and death that everything will be O.K.   It is such great love that holds everything together.

But the question still remains unanswered until we get a closer look at what Paul is saying, when he says that ‘love binds everything together.”   Paul is not only telling us how important love is, he is also telling us what true love is by what true love does.   When Paul wrote his most famous words about love to the Corinthians, Paul only defined love by what love does.   He never gives us any kind of philosophical definition.  The act of love is the only definition we need.   Love is what love does.  It is not something you dream about, but love is something you do.  This is why Paul says: “love is patient, love is kind, love in not envious or boastful, or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”   To this expansive list of what love does, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul adds one more most important characteristic of love:  ‘Love binds everything together in harmony.’   Love ‘bears all things’, ‘believes all things’, love “builds us up” (1 Cor. 8:1), as he also told the Corinthians, but now Paul  tells the Colossians and us, that love is the ‘binding agent’ of human life.  

When I think of the ‘binding power’ of true love, I can’t help but think of the story of the Good Samaritan, one of the greatest love stories in the New Testament, and the whole world.   It’s the story that Luke (10:25-37) included in his gospel, because his gospel was particularly written for those who find themselves outside of a circle of of love.   In the story Jesus told, a Jewish man is robbed and left for dead by the side of the road.  Several religious people come by, but do not stop and help.  It is only the Samaritan, the foreigner, the immigrant, the Mexican, the African American, the Jehovah’s Witness, the Homosexual, the Democrat, Republican, the Liberal or the Fundamentalists, who stops and helps by ‘binding’ up the man’s wounds. 

Just pick out somebody you are prejudice against and put them in this story and you will clearly see and feel how Jesus first told this story.  And did you hear what the Good Samaritan did for this wounded man?    The key to the Good Samaritan’s faith was not decided by his adherence to God’s law, but he was a ‘good’ person and a good neighbor (who we are commanded to be), because he was ‘moved with pity (or compassion)’ and ‘he went to him and bandaged (or bound up, KJV) his wounds.”  True love ‘binds’ us together as we bind up each other’s wounded lives.   We love as wounded healers to each other, Carl Jung the great psychiatrist used to say.   We help and heal each other because we all have hurts and we all have the need to love and be loved.  The deepest wounds can only be healed by human love which mirrors God’s love for us all. 

In Chemistry, if I remember my lessons from long ago, one of the most important elements in physical existence are those elements that have been formed out of chemical bonds, such as H2O.   Without such a ‘bonding’ process human life would be impossible.   But when one part Hydrogen and one part Oxygen are bonded together, we have water.    If it were not for the attraction of electrons to bond together we would not have electricity.   If it were not for the fact that Sodium and Chloride bond together we could not have salt or salt water.   Someone once asked a physicists, “what is the most important chemical bond?”  Do you know what the answer was: all of them.   Love is the bonding agent of human life, human potential, human possibility and our human hope.   Paul was right on when he said that love is the greatest and without love we are nothing, we have nothing, we become nothing.  The bonding nature of love holds everything together.

IN PERFECT HARMONY?
We conclude with the hardest part.   That love is above all is not hard to grasp.  Neither is the concept that love binds us and everything together, but ‘in perfect harmony’?  What does Scripture mean when there are so many different definitions of love, and we all know that love does not solve ALL our problems, iron out ALL our differences, nor does LOVE answer every question we humans can ask about life.   A good case and point is the whole idea of Situation Ethics which once said that “all we need is love”.   There is perfect agreement that love is what we need, but you could never say that love would have stopped someone like Stalin, like Hitler,  or that love was the only way to answer 911, or many other crimes against humanity.  Love is what we need, yes, yes, yes, but love is not ALL we need.  We also need law, justice, judgment, and restitution.  Love rules surpreme.  Love binds us together.  But how can we reach ‘perfect harmony’ in an imperfect world that so diverse, so divisive, and so morally confused and convoluted at times, and is not what life should be?  How can we understand and do love when life doesn’t work, when things don’t go as planned, and when everyone did not get the memo, that all we need is love.  This is the kind of question we always have to put to love when we think about what Christian love should mean and what love must mean.  What kind of ‘harmony’ can love really bring in this fallen world in which we live?   

For one thing, we must understand that Paul did not write about love as a letter to the world, but it was a ‘letter’ to a church who all had faith in the love of Jesus Christ.   Christian love should be extended to the world as our witness to the world, but Christian love is not yet fully possible in this fallen world.   All of the Bible’s words about love were given to disciples, to Christians, to Churches and to people who had already come to know God’s love.   Love is possible only in the context of such faith in the Love of God.

But there is something else we must understand.  When Paul says ‘perfect harmony’ he does not mean to bind everyone together without mistakes, failures, or flawless, but he means binding us together in ‘maturity’, fullness, or completeness.  He does not mean that love makes everything perfect, but he means that ‘love’ makes us as we should be, as we ought to be, even when we are not fully there yet.   Perhaps a true story of human love and compassion in a very difficult situation will help us know what Paul means, and where Paul is coming from when he says love binds us together as we should be.   During War World II we all know the terrible story of what happen to the Jews, and how the Nazi’s intended to annihilate them from the face of the earth.  Eli Wiesel, a Jewish survivor called the moment in history “The Night”.  It was one of the darkest moments of organized hate in human history.  But it is also in the darkness moment of hate that the light of love can also shine the brightest. 

This is exactly what happened in a small town in France during that terrible darkness of the Holocaust.  The city of Le Chambon was inhabited by French Hugenots, Protestant Christians who were hunted and killed during the time of the reformation.  They still remain marginal Christians in French society today, and many of them came to the United States seeking religious freedom.  When Jews came to their town seeking refugee from the Nazi, they offered them hospitality instead of hostility.  Villagers lead by their Hugenot pastor, Andre Trocme, not only offered the Jews a place to hide, but they did this at the risk of their own lives as the German army occupied their own country.   But they welcome these ‘strangers’ as if they were welcoming Jesus.  They took them in, hid them, feed them, protected them, and even ‘lied’ to save their lives.  They offered them hospitality because they identified with them as people who had been hunted down and wounded by hostility themselves.  They didn’t think twice about offering them love, because gospel that had offered them life in the midst of death (As told in Jonathan Wilson’s Gospel Virtues, Practicing Faith Hope and Love in Uncertain Times, IVP Press, 1998, p 180).

It’s a long and difficult trip to move from hostility to showing love and hospitality, said the late Henri Nouwen.  But offering strangers, even our enemy, a place to be loved instead of a place to be hated is to offer them a chance to be changed by love.  This is exactly why Jesus said, “love your enemy” and Paul went on to say to the Romans “be devoted to one another in love….practice hospitality, bless those who persecute you….never pay back evil to anyone…never take your own revenge….BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY FEED HIM AND IF HE IS THRISTY, GIVE HIM DRINK, FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.  Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” (From parts of Romans 12: 1—21)  And the greatest good, we know already, is love.   It is love above all, (which binds us up, as the Good Samaritan shows us) and also bind us together in perfect harmony.”   Amen.
    

Sunday, June 2, 2013

“Judging Rightly--Forgiving Rightly"

Sermon based upon Colossians 3:13; Luke 7:36-50
Dr. Charles J. Tomln, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 2, June 2, 2013

Judge not, lest you are judged.”  We all know that command from the Bible.   But at another time the Bible says: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?”  (1Co 6:2 NRS).    Is the Bible contradicting itself?   Perhaps our text today will help sort this out. 

Today we continue our study in Christian virtues from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.   We have spoken of these ‘virtues’ and the new clothes of the Christian life, which include “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness (or meekness),   patience, and “bearing one another.”   Today we come to the next Christian virtue which says that we are to “forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also forgive.” (Colossians 3:13).  This could be a very good place for us to begin to ‘judge rightly’.  Just how much has the Lord forgiven us?   Can we measure it?   This story from Luke can help us figure whether the Lord has forgiven us a little or a lot?   If you’ve been forgiven a little, you might not make such a good judge.  If you’ve been forgiven a lot, you are probably much better judge than most.  Let me explain what I mean.

Jesus was invited to a Pharisees house for dinner.  During the meal, a street walker comes right off the street.   She has recognized Jesus and she enters the house uninvited and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears.   As a result, it’s not only woman who in trouble, but it’s also Jesus:  “If this guy was a true prophet he would know who’s this woman is!”   The implication is that Jesus’ is a poor judge of character.   This proves he’s not a very good preacher too, or so they say.   Who says, that’s always the main question, isn’t it?

Several years ago, a church wanted to get rid of their preacher.  So someone made a story that they came into the church office and the pastor’s hair was messed up.    They said he must have been with the secretary.  They didn’t mention that it was a windy day.   The preacher went and got a lawyer.  The lawyer called a conference and told the deacons that if that church ruined the preacher’s reputation, they would be paying his salary the rest of his life.   The preacher ended up leaving the church, but he did keep his reputation.   Years later I saw in the Biblical Recorder that the pastor had retired.   He was awarded by his congregation as being the most caring pastor they had ever had.   Funny, isn’t it?  One church called him a devil.  The other church called him an angel sent from God.   Isn’t it amazing how people can get their wires crossed?  Who do you think was judging rightly?

A JUDGMENT UPON JUDGMENTALISM
In this text today we see a great reversal.    The judgment that Simon the Pharisee makes about this woman is quickly questioned by Jesus.   Strangely enough, by the time we get to the end of the story it is this street-walker who seems to be in doing right, and it is Simon the Pharisee who ends up doing wrong.    In the end, it’s not the person who invites Jesus into his house who does the good thing, but it’s the one who invited herself to the party who ends doing rightly and being the ‘life of the party’.  Is this any way to explain the forgiving love of God?   What in the world is going on here?  What’s right about this street-walker?  What’s all wrong about Simon the religious man?

Well, the problem can be seen in a story James Moore told about some children running a lemonade stand.   A certain man was driving home from work one day when he saw a group of young children selling lemonade on a corner near his home. The kids had posted the typical Magic Marker sign over their lemonade stand:  “Lemonade – 10 cents”.    The man was impressed with the enterprising young children, so he pulled over to the curb to buy a cup of lemonade… and to give his support to the children’s financial effort.      A young boy approached his car and the man placed his order for one cup of lemonade… and he gave the boy a quarter.    After much deliberation, the children determined that the man had some change coming and they perused through their “cigar box cash register”… and finally came up with the correct amount.

The boy returned with the change with the man’s cup of lemonade. The boy then just stood there by the man’s car and stared at the man as he enjoyed his fresh lemonade. Finally, the boy asked the man if he were finished. “Just about,” the man said, “but why?” The little boy said, “That’s the only cup we have, and we need it back to stay in business.” It’s difficult to operate a lemonade business if you have only one cup!

That’s the problem with Simon.   He only has ‘one cup’ religion.   Simon loves people.  Simon loves God.  But he only loves the kind of people he thinks God would love.   He cannot love all the people God loves.   This is what blocks forgiveness.   We lose the ability to love the people God loves.

THE ONE WHO LOVES THE MOST
Brent Younger tells Vacation Bible School in a Southern Baptist Church in Mississippi.     He says that as a child, on Friday, they would skip the high tech missionary slide show, because it was ‘salvation’ day.  At the close of the assembly the pastor would explain the plan of salvation.  The four points were: God loves us; sin pushes us away from God; Jesus died for our sins; and if we believed this is true, we could be saved.  The pastor would say, "Raise your hand if you believe this."   You know how that goes.

During his last year as a student in Vacation Bible School a smart aleck child asked: "What about the Indians who were here before Columbus? Did they go to heaven?"
The pastor said, "The Bible says that you have to believe in Jesus to go to heaven."
The sixth grader replied: "But the Indians never even heard of Jesus. That’s not fair."
The pastor, a bit defensive, said, "We have to believe what the Bible says."
The sixth grader protested, "But the Indians didn’t have a Bible."
Finally my father said, "Brett, we’ll talk about this when we get home."  Huh Oh!  I know what happened to him when he got home.   It’s the same thing that happened to me when I once talked back to my mother.  Didn’t you hear me say I only did it once?

But there is something important about this question.   Some version of the question "What about the Indians?" has been around a long time, challenging everyone who takes God’s love seriously.  The question goes to the heart of our faith. Do we believe in having special knowledge or do we believe in saving grace?   Which do we believe really believe in?  Do we judge who gets in, or do we let God judge?

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize that if we had been born in India, we would be Hindus. If we had been born in Iraq, we would be Muslims. We wouldn’t know the four steps to being saved (Today it’s reduced to three: Admit, Believe, and Confess.).   Just by being born we would be lost.  Even if it’s not our fault, we are still lost.  Unless we do something God is going to get us. 

But ignoring the experience of billions of people might be just as big an insult to God as Simon insulted this street walker. The God who offers grace is certainly bigger than our version of religion, church or our own understanding of the ‘plan of salvation’.   If Salvation belongs to God, then it can never belong to any of us.  Remember Jesus didn’t say to those people who were healed, “Your Baptism by immersion saved you” or your “religion saved you”, or your “church saved you”, and Jesus didn’t even say, “I have save you”, but what Jesus actually said was: “Your faith has made you well”.   This is the same as saying “your faith in wanting to get well or be saved has healed or saved you”.   

What we need to understand is that ‘salvation’ can never been reduced to a 4 or 3 point plan, but salvation is the experience of God’s forgiveness and grace.   The greatest truth in this world is the love, grace, and forgiveness of God.   This is the information that can save anybody and everybody anytime and anyplace.      

This is exactly the information that ‘saved’ this street-walker.   She did not come to understand the 4 or 3 point plan of salvation, like we might explain it, but she came to understand it as Jesus himself explained it.  And this Jesus, if we really believe in the risen Lord, should still be the one who fully explains it---not us.   What Jesus explains to the soul is exactly what this woman experienced---that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what you’ve done, or what you haven’t done, this doesn’t matter if you will come to know in your heart right now that you are unconditionally loved.   And because of this love you can be a whole new person---and you can love that much too, when you bow down to worship the one who loves you without hesitation.    

Who knows how the full awareness of God’s unconditional love first hits people?   Every person who finds such love has their own story.  What’s your story?   This is the kind of story moment that makes life worth living and makes it worth having been born.  It’s the kind of moment that gets you laughing with those around you who also know that love until the tears run down your cheeks; or until you hear beautiful music together; or until you weep with somebody else’s in their own tragedy, fully realizing that because you are loved, you really can and do love someone in the same way.   Just as you are forgiven and are loved unconditionally, you are able to forgive and love unconditionally.   As Paul says, just as Jesus loves and forgives you, so you can forgive.

In a moment of love like this, God is trying to open up our lives to something bigger, better, greater and larger.  Frederick Buechner writes: "If you turn your back on such a moment and hurry along to do business as usual, it may lose you the ball game. If you throw your arms around such a moment and hug it like crazy, it may save your soul."   (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 85).    Would you like to have your soul saved, even after you’ve invited Jesus into your house?   We need to give love, forgiveness and grace to other people, because no story about love, grace and forgiveness is far from our own, if it is real.

Can you see how desperate this woman was to see and worship Jesus?   Why else would a woman like her want to go into a Pharisee’s house?   She knows that Simon will not welcome her there, but Jesus will.  And now, because of God’s love, grace and forgiveness, which she has found in Jesus Christ, Jesus is all that matters.   She can love anyone and she is the one in this story who loves and forgives the most, because she knows she is loved and forgiven the most.    She is not thinking of her reputation.  She is not thinking of her failures.  She is not thinking about the repercussions.  She is only thinking about serving Jesus.   This is what a person does who really knows what it’s like to be forgiven.   They are able to love and forgive in return.

THE ONE WHO LOVES THE LEAST
At first, everything goes as the woman planned.  She makes her way to Jesus’ bruised, dusty, worn, working feet.   She gets out the perfume, and then after pouring on the perfume something happens that she didn’t plan.    She is overcome with a release of tears.  Not knowing what else to do, she lets down her hair to clean Jesus’ feet.  She isn’t thinking, but she is lost in loving, serving, and caring.

This is all more than Simon the Pharisee can stand.  How could Jesus let such a scandalous thing go on? Simon’s been gracious enough to invite Jesus to dinner—even though some of Simon’s friends disapprove.  Now this woman is falling all over Jesus, kissing his feet, and filling the room with the overpowering smell perfume and the overflowing of emotion and love.

The whole spectacle leads Simon to say to himself—just loud enough for everyone at the table to hear him—"If this man were a real prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is."  We’ve all said things like that about people, sometimes thinking, and other times without thinking!    Knowing what Simon is thinking, Jesus tells a story: "Two men were in debt to a certain bank. One owed five thousand dollars, the other five hundred. When neither of them could pay, the president of the bank wrote off both debts." (Anyone who has dealt with a bank knows that this is a only a parable.) "Which of the two will be more grateful?"

Simon scratches his head nervously, "I suppose the one forgiven the greater debt."  "YOU SUPPOSE? Of course, the one who was forgiven more will be more grateful."   Then Jesus turns on Simon, comparing his puny hospitality to that of the woman who has lovingly kissed Jesus’ feet.    Simon already thinks he is so righteous that he sees little need to be forgiven, thus he has little reason to be grateful, and has little ability to be gracious and to forgive.   In God’s eyes, it the righteous, not the sinners who need to repent and be forgiven.  The sinners realize that they are sinners and already know how to repent, love and forgive.   They are one step ahead of righteous people Simon, the Pharisee.

Don’t miss the point: The difference between Simon and the Woman is that Simon’s selfish pride must be worse to God than the woman’s sexual sins.  The sinful woman knows more forgiveness because she feels more need for grace, not because her sin is worse.   Robert Capon writes: "The difference between those in heaven and those in hell is that the people in heaven celebrate God’s forgetfulness of their sin and the people in hell are like raccoons trying to pry off the lid of the can, so they can fling it open so the sin of those they think shouldn’t be in heaven will fling out everywhere."    Jesus doesn’t want Simon be like a raging raccoon, so Jesus turns to him and asks, "Do you see this woman?"   What Jesus means is do you see what she did that you didn’t do, can’t do, and don’t have?  She has forgiveness and she knows how to forgive?  Do we see this woman, too?

I know that I’ve told you about the German Bartender and German Lutheran pastor who changed places.  For one month, the Bartender became a pastor of a church, and for one month the Lutheran pastor became a Bartender.  (You can do that and keep your job only in Germany).  After one month, the Bartender was so frustrated that he wanted to quickly get back to his job as Bartender.  He never wanted to ever go in a church again.   The Pastor resigned his job and became a Bartender because he said the people loved each other more in the bar than they do in the church.  He had not realized how loving and forgiving people could be and he wanted to spend the rest of his days in ministry counseling people as a Bartender in a bar.  Now that’s just as much a scandal, and worse, it’s true.    Who has ever heard of such a thing, where people in the church forget how to be a church; and people in the bar know much better how to be Christians?  Could it happen today, as it did 2000 years ago?  Could being a saved sinner teach a person how to be a saved Christian?

Fred Craddock tells of visiting a small church and being surprised at the appearance of a large pastor—6’4" and 300 pounds. The pastor’s most noticeable feature was his stumbling, lumbering gait. He was awkward, almost falling, with long, useless arms at his sides, like they were awaiting further instruction. His head was misshapen. His hair was askew. He stumbled up the steps to get to the pulpit. "When he turned to face us, " Craddock says, "I saw the thick glasses, and through them I could see milky film over his eyes, one of his eyes going out, nothing coming in to the other. When he read, he held the book near his nose. When he spoke, the muscles in his neck worked with such vigor as he pushed out the words, as if he had learned to speak as an adult. But I lost all consciousness of that after a while. He read 1 Corinthians 13 and spoke on the greatness of love. He wasn’t poetic or prophetic, but was warm and affectionate. The relationship between those people, the love that he extended as he preached, and the love that came back from those people who sat quietly, leaning forward, was captivating and I was captured. How could this grotesque creature be so full of love? I didn’t understand. I started remembering those stories about how people who have grotesque features are sometimes granted a special quality of affection, Beauty and the Beast or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I thought of children with Down’s syndrome, how they have the capacity to grab you and hug you and kiss you, when other children stand at a distance. Is this what I’m seeing? Is this the providence of God that grants people who lack attractiveness on the outside to have that quality on the inside?"

"After the service, I lingered at the door and listened to the greetings and little words of pastoral care and comfort between him and the members. One woman I would guess to be seventy shook his hand at the door. She said, ‘I wish I could know your mother.’ She was having the same trouble I was. She didn’t understand the source of this love and thought maybe, ‘I wish I knew your mother.’ He said, ‘My mother’s name is Grace.’"

A few minutes later, Craddock remarked: "That was an unusual response you gave to that woman, ‘My mother’s name is Grace.’"   The pastor explained: "When I was born I was put up for adoption at the Department of Family Services. As you can guess, nobody wanted to adopt me. So I went from foster home to foster home, and when I was about seventeen, I saw some young people going into a church. I so wanted some friends, so I went in, and there I met grace—the grace of God."  (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, (St. Louis: Chalice, 2001, 49-50).

"Sometimes a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not seek for anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted’"  (Paul Tillich).

So, how do we forgive?   We forgive as we understand how we have been loved and forgiven.   So now you know how you can forgive, don't you?  Amen.