Sunday, July 28, 2013

KEEP ON PRAYING!

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 11: 1-13
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 10c, July 28th, 2013

"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. (Luk 11:9 NRS)

There is a powerful scene in the movie, "Flowers of War" based upon the catastrophe of the 1937 Japanese invasion, massacre and destruction of Nangjing, one the four great Chinese cities.   American mortician, John Miller, played by British actor Christian Bale, found himself in the middle of the death and desolation of a war zone, taking refuge in a Catholic Cathedral along with other catholic school girls and also 13 flowers.  When I say 13 flowers, I’m referring to 13 prostitutes from the red light district of that city.   This story takes a most dramatic turn when the Japanese leaders, who do not know about the prostitutes hiding in the basement, demand that all the school girls come and sing for their victory celebration.  This is only a set up for a planned raping and murdering of the young girls.   

Not knowing how to save the girls, John Miller, a sort of international playboy, who has up to now had little to do with God, finds himself in the middle of the Cathedral dressed up as a priest, praying and asking God about what to do to save the girls.  A surviving Chinese from that massacre, who later wrote about it, expressed her feelings in the voice of a survivor, “I’ve never even seen a priest pray like John Miller prayed for us in that moment.”   This amazing story of redemption and sacrifice concludes with the prostitutes being made to look like school girls by the artistic mortician.  They load into the Japanese trucks to attend the so called ‘celebration’ where they will raped and killed (but not without a fight), while the young catholic school girls escape with the help of the American.  It’s quite a story of redemption, sacrifice, and surprising prayer, where every character is transformed by the event as a family of heroes who work to save these young Chinese girls from their doom. 

Maybe something in your life has transformed you from a player into a serious pray-er? “Prayer is real religion,” wrote 19th century pastor and French reformed theologian, Auguste Sabatier.  I might add a simpler definition: Prayer is ‘getting real’---real about our human condition, real about our situation, or just getting real about the limits to our very short, brief lives, that are, as I heard some reiterate last week, ‘like a vapor.’

You have noticed, haven’t you, that even people who don’t normally make prayer a daily habit of their life; people who seldom go to church, will find themselves praying, or attending a prayer vigil when tragedy strikes.   We all remember how many people returned to church to pray right after 911.  Or we might also remember the prayer services after the Oklahoma bombing of the Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh.   You might even remember a time in your own life, when trouble threatened, when you lost someone you loved, and you found yourself uttering a prayer within, crying out ‘why me, Lord’ or ‘why them?’.  

We may not pray as we should, but humans do pray.   Evidence of humans praying goes all the way back to the Neanderthals.  Prayer has a history among both pagans and monotheistic believers.  Thus prayer is not just about belief but it is also about facing our limits and our deepest fears.  We are not always people of prayer, that is, making prayer a daily habit of our lives, but sometime or other we will pray.  People will pray whether they actually believe in God or not.  We pray because we are fragile and frail human beings.   And when we come to know our limits in moment of difficulty or desperation, we will find a way to cry out beyond ourselves.  People of faith, all kinds of faith, will cry out to the infinite, the eternal, and to the mysterious one.  There are very few obstinate persons like Christopher Hitchens, the avowed atheists who allowed no one to pray for him when he was dying with cancer.  Most people without faith or people of the Judeo-Christian faith will pray.   Most all of us will all upon the one whom Jesus taught us to call, “Father”.

In our text today, the disciples were ‘transformed’ by the presence of Jesus.   When they observed Jesus praying, they approach him asking, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1ff).  We are told that Jesus answers their request gladly, saying: “When you pray”….   Notice that Jesus does not say not ‘if’ you pray, but Jesus rightly says, ‘when you pray say:  Father, hallowed be your name.  Your Kingdom come….  Already Jesus shows himself a true prophet because he knows that most all of us will realize the need to pray.    But how?  How should we pray and why should we keep on praying?

TO WHOM DO WE PRAY?
Jesus beings his ‘school’ of prayer by giving instructions about ‘whom’ his disciples are to pray.  Jesus does not instruct believers, or Christians, but Jesus instructs his followers, his disciples.  And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his instruction of the correct ‘pattern for prayer’ with a single word, “Father”.

Jesus is the first who dares to called God, ‘Abba’, Father, or even more endearingly, “Daddy!”  All biblical scholarship will tell you that this was the most drastic change ever made in the practice of human prayer.   Jesus took a radical step forward when he instructed his disciples to address God as if they are part of God’s own family.   Jesus does not understand God as some distant, impersonal deity who created the world and then rode off into the sunset, but God is a constant, compassionate and caring Father and we are the his children---children of his great love and gracious concern.

Now, I realize, right off the bat, that in an imperfect world everyone does not have such a favorable image of ‘father’ in their mind.   Many people have been tremendously scarred by the painful remembrances of very imperfect, or worse, even cruel, harsh, or very absent fathers.  Some people cannot imagine a loving Father because such an appealing image most difficult, if not impossible, for them.   Perhaps they will need to call God their mother, as Jesus implies that he ‘would gather little ones us under her wings like a mother hen’.  Or perhaps they need to refer to God in more generic terms as a ‘caring, compassionate Spirit’.   There are even Christian theologians who insist that we should remove all expression of male gender when we pray, because God is not male or female, but God is an eternal Spirit with both feminine and masculine qualities.   This is what happens in the famous outrageously popular Christian book entitled, The Shack, where God is imagined as a mysterious, loving African-American woman named Papa who likes to cook.  I know this sounds quite strange to those who have ‘orthodox’ hears, but this image of God is filled with love, compassion and care for a man named Mack who is wondering if God cares after his daughter is killed.    The image of God he finds in the Shack helps him deal with the heartbreak of his own life through redeeming relationships with a God who reveals himself in many loving ways.   I can sympathize with such pain and limits with human language to grasp the loving presence of God.   God understands our human limits—that’s why even in the Bible God also has many, many names we can identify with: Jehovah, Lord, Yahweh, creator, provider, redeemer, sustainer, good shepherd and many more.    

A Jesuit priest in training tells how he once went to a shelter to hold mass and to preach on prayer.  He told his pastoral advisor what he planned to preach and his intent on helping the people understand that God is even bigger than a ‘father’ and other images of God can also apply to God, such as a nurturing mother.  When he revealed his sermon topic of giving God a feminine side, his advisor said, “I’d go slow on that one”.  But the young preacher dared to preach it anyway.  Then, right in the middle of the sermon, a homeless man named ‘Con’ stood up and lambasted the preacher in front of the entire congregation.  Con turned to everyone and said something like (I’m softening his more graphic words)  “This fellow doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about.  God is not our mother.  Everyone knows that Mary is our Mother and God is our Father.  Who in the world does this ignorant Moran think he is to change the truth?”  With these words, the homeless man stormed out the door.  Everyone was stunned.  After the service, the young priest, still in shock, went back to his advisor who said, “I hate to say, but I told you to go slow on that one”.  “Do you think I need to change what I preached” for the next service, the young priest asked.   “No,” you go ahead and preach that same sermon again.   I’ll take care of Con and make sure he’s O.K.   Besides, the teenagers were all excited about how it went.  They loved the drama.  The truth is that even if people don’t like it, they need to understand that God is bigger than any single image, including ‘our Father’.   No one can exhaust or control how God decides to show up and share his great, limitless love  (From “Why Bother Praying” by Richard Leonard,  Paulist Press, 2013). 

WHY WE ARE TO KEEP ON PRAYING?
For Jesus, and for most of us, understanding and addressing God as Father is a much welcomed advancement in the history of prayer.  Yet, even Jesus knew that his disciples would sometimes struggle to address God in this way or keep on praying to him.   In at least two places in the gospel of Luke, Jesus deals with the problem of why and how we are to keep praying to this loving Father, even when we don’t always get immediate answers to our prayers. 

In Luke 18, Jesus told of the widow who went to unjust judge, persistently pleading for him to hear her case and give her justice.  Jesus intentionally reminds his disciples that God is not like this ‘unjust’ judge.   “Will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you (Jesus says), he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find (such) faith on the earth?”  (Luke 18: 7-8).  Jesus tells this story precisely because sometimes it seems like God is not answering, does not care, and is a distant or absent Father.  Jesus assures his disciples that God cares, even if it seems like he doesn’t.  The unjust judge is who God is not.

In our current passage, Luke 11, 5ff, Jesus gives us another look at why we should keep praying.  Jesus likens the Father we pray to as ‘friend at midnight’ who is approached by his friend with a very urgent need.  Stop and think!  It’s midnight.  It’s an inopportune time, but this friend of a friend needs to borrow a loaf of bread to feed an unexpected guest who has arrived late.   The friend wakes his friend from sleep who answers negatively: “Go away!  Don’t bother us, we are all gone to bed!   They are friends, but in this inconvenient situation the friend is naturally hesitant.  He needs his sleep.  Jesus then adds this important point about prayer: “Even though he will not get up because they are friends, because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”  

What Jesus is saying is that God, our heavenly Father is NOT like this ‘unjust judge’ and surprisingly, God is also NOT simply a ‘friend’ who will simply wake up and give us what we want.  When you think about it, this is really an awkward, even a somewhat ‘mature’ or complicated understanding of God as Father.  God is a good Father, but he is not a pushover either.  God is more like a loving Father who requires just as much from his children’s own determination and resolve in their praying.   The father lovingly cares, but he cares in such a way that prayer can never be reduced to magic words or demands of entitlement to get whatever we want in life.  Life or prayer will ever work that way. 

So why pray?  If we can’t control the outcome of our asking, and there are no guarantees for answers, why bother praying?  This thorny issue of unanswered prayer is exactly why many have trouble picturing God as a loving, caring Father.  How can people believe that God is a loving Father who has their best interest at heart when they have had a terrible father in this world?   And how can they or we visualize God as loving, when all kinds of bad things have happened--when we’ve had too many prayers go unanswered, or when, in spite of all our praying, life has not gone as planned, hoped, or as we prayed?   It is indeed, hard to keep on praying to God as a loving, caring Father who looks an awful lot like unjust judge or like this slumbering ‘friend’ who doesn’t want to get out of bed in to meet our desperate need.   Why pray to a God who looks like that?

There are many lessons we need to learn from Jesus about praying, but Jesus teaching about ‘persistence’ in prayer may be Jesus’ most practical lesson: “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least BECAUSE OF HIS PERSISTANCE he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”   Why do you think Jesus approaches our major problem with prayer very much like my mother used to tell me, “If you don’t first succeed, try and try and try again?”  It sounds almost too real, too human, and leaves a lot of the power and purpose of prayer within our own attitudes, our own tenacity, and in our own efforts, doesn’t it?   Why do you think Jesus approaches prayer in this very non-magical and almost non-miraculous way?  Is prayer as much human perspiration as it is divine power?   

How Jesus pictures persistent in a disciples’ praying might explain the ‘why’ of praying better than any explanation we could come up with.  In verse 8, Jesus offers us this unforgettable picture of praying with perseverance and persistence, saying: “Ask, (the original Greek (imperative active) can also mean ‘keep on asking’) and it will be given you; search (keep on searching), and you will find; knock (keep on knocking) and the door will be open for you.  For everyone who asks (keeps on asking) receives, and everyone who searches (keeps on searching) finds, and for everyone who knocks ( keeps on knocking), the door will be open.”   What do you think God is trying to accomplish in requiring that we keep on keeping on in our asking, our seeking, and our knocking?  Could there be something more to prayer than getting answers?

In one of the greatest books ever written on the practice of the Christian life in my lifetime, including the practice of prayer, Quaker theologian Richard Foster describes prayer this way: "Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life.  It is original research in unexplored territory… Real prayer is life creating and life changing… To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us… In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves. Progressively we are taught to see things from His point of view..."   I believe Richard Foster is on to what Jesus is teaching us about persistence in prayer.   I might add that we are not simply taught to see what God sees, but we are also called to ‘trust’ God, even when we can’t see why or what is going on.  We need to trust God more than getting answers because we need God most of all.   To understand prayer and asking, seeking, and finding God in our life, takes us to the highest purpose of prayer.  By not always giving us what we want, God, the loving Father can offer us more than we know to how to ask for.   God the loving father is never reduced to a ‘sugar daddy’, but God remains the loving father who draws us toward a living relationship so he can give his children what they could have never imagined.  Listen again to Jesus: “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”     

Has your main priority in prayer been receiving the presence of God into your life through the Holy Spirit?  I didn’t think so, but it should be.   It is this relationship of trust that God is after because this is what we need most to get us through all our lives.  What we need most is not things, not stuff, not what we want or even think we need, but what we need most is God, and to come to trust him, not matter what.

I heard E.V. Hill preach when I was just beginning my ministry in Statesville in the 1980’s.   Dr. Hill died back in 2005.  For years, Dr. Hill was the pastor of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in south central Los Angeles and regularly was listed among the best preachers in the United States.  One of his best known sermons was the eulogy he delivered at the funeral for his wife, whom he affectionately called "Baby."   Here was a man doing a most difficult task, preaching his own wife’s funeral.  That would be extremely difficult.  But, what is particularly memorable about his sermon, says Ron Holmes, is the grieving pastors message about unanswered prayer and about trust in God.

In his eulogy for his wife, Dr. Hill tells of his persistent prayers to God during the time of Baby’s illness, asking God to heal her.  His prayers grew more and more persistent as she worsened and drew closer to death. And the message that came to E. V. in his prayers was simply this—"trust me."  In that repeated-theme-sing-song style of African-American preachers, E. V. tells of his persistent prayers and the repeated answer from God, "Trust me." By the end of his message, E. V., again in that unique style, is shouting the answer, "Trust me, trust me," and telling the congregation while that was not the answer he was seeking, it was good enough for him. Through a difficult time, E. V. Hill persevered and grew in his trust in a loving Father whose answer was not the answer he sought, but the answer we all will need when that time comes. http://www.soth.net/sermons%202006/sermon%203-26-2006.htm)

WHAT DO WE PRAY FOR?
We are to keep praying because God is our loving father who cares for us.  Even when our prayers are not answered as we want, God still cares for us and calls us to trust in him.   So, now that we know who we pray to and why we should pray, answering the question of what we should pray for should be more easily understood.   Once we get our priority of who and why out of the way, the what of prayer is made clear.
  
When you look at the Lord’s prayer, Jesus’ pattern of prayer encourages us to pray for the most basic needs we all have.   The list Jesus teaches us to pray for is not at all exhaustive, but exemplary.  ‘Give us our daily bread’ reminds us of our most basic physical needs God wants to supply according his riches and life’s resources.   “Forgive us, as we forgive others” points us to our emotional and relational needs which help us  know and experience the greatest gift: merciful love.   Finally, “Do not bring us to the hour of trial” is to ask for spiritual guidance so we are not overcome by temptation and give in to the destructiveness of evil.  These are the most basic examples of things we should be asking, seeking, and knocking on God’s door about.  God does not invite us to pray every extravagant thing we might imagine, but God invites us to keep prayer directed toward the simple things that enable us to live our lives to their fullest and to the glory of God.   

Jesus’ approach to prayer is very much like that hit AT&T commercial, which says through the voices of children, “It’s not complicated”.  Of course, AT&T is claiming that their network is bigger, faster, and has more benefits.  God doesn’t need to talk like that because what God has to give us through prayer nothing can compare.  “To whom shall we go,” the disciples once told Jesus, as other were leaving him. “Only you have the words of eternal life.”  In this way, what we should pray for is not complicated because Jesus lifts up our heavenly Father as the ultimate answer to all our prayers. 

Because our loving, heavenly Father has ‘gifts’ the world cannot give us, we pray.   This is where Jesus finally lands his lesson on prayer.  This is what Jesus means when the says that God is a father who knows how to give good gifts, even the best gifts to his children, of which the greatest gift is the Holy Spirit (11:13).
What Jesus means by giving us God’s spirit is so greatly illustrated in the story I began with, 13 Flowers of Nangjing.  In the story I mentioned before, neither the American John Miller, the Prostitutes, or even the convent catholic schoolgirls are as spiritually or heavenly minded as they should be.  Before the war came, they were all stuck in life, going nowhere.  The American is a playboy who drinks too much.  The Prostitutes are survivors who are making their living the best way they can, which brings them much regret.   Even the catholic school girls are not always Christian, as they struggle with their own character development.  There is also a young boy, who helped the priest look after the girls, who feels inadequate because has not done a good job protected the girls, as he promised the Priest who was killed.  Then, there is the father of one of the school girls, who is helping the Japanese navigate the besieged city, so he can help his daughter survive.  But his daughter calls her father a traitor because he is helping the Japanese.

Everyone in the story is a misfit, a mistake, or in some way either a failure in life until the day of testing comes.  In the day of trial, the American sobers up and plays the brave role of father to the girls.  The girls stop looking down on the prostitutes and appreciate them as hurting, helpless, and unfortunate women whom God loves.  The young boy who struggles to be a man, seizes the moment to sacrifice himself by dressing as a girl and sacrificing himself to the Japanese for the sake of the girls.  The father is killed trying to help his daughter escape.  His deed is what makes the escape possible.   Last of all, which is the most outstanding fact of the massacre in history, is that the prostitutes are willing to stand up, substitute and sacrifice themselves in order to save the young girls.  They take their place by pretending to be the virgins the Japanese soldiers want to rape and will eventually kill.   This is the one truth of the story which is verified, but in this story all of the victims become heroes.   They become a transformed people, who from this side of the tragedy, are now viewed as those who found their best selves while serving God and others, even at the sacrifice of their own lives in the worst of situations. 

Isn’t this core of the Christian gospel; that in dying we can live, in giving we will gain, and in serving, we bring the kingdom we are asked to pray for?  This is what prayer is about.  We should keep on praying because we can be more and have more than we now imagine.  We pray so that we become people who make a difference.   We pray so that God can give us, even in our worst moments, the greatest gifts we can never give ourselves so we can stand when the test that comes.   So, keep on asking, seeking and knocking because only God can give you what you can never give yourself: your salvation, your final redemption, and best of all, eternal life to all who believe and endure to the end!  Amen!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

“Whatever”

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 17; Luke 9: 49-62
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin

Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Pentecost 9c, July 21, 2013


“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17 NRS)


You’ve heard that expression when a teenager gets frustrated:  ‘Well, Whatever!’   When they don’t want to face a challenge, though they still may have to, they will often show their aggravation with the answer:  “Whatever!”  It’s a way of saying, O.K., it doesn’t matter anyway, even though it might matter very much.


Paul’s final word in this passage on the behavior of Christian believers is also a sort of ‘whatever’.  But for Paul the word is not said in frustration, but in hope.  For Paul, “Whatever” means that finally and ultimately, God’s will and purposes “will be done on this earth, as they are done in heaven.”  His final challenge to us is that we live our lives toward these great purposes.


LIFE IS FOR FREEDOM

There is a wonderful freedom in Paul’s words: “And whatever you do….!”   This leaves so much in our lives open for exploration, experiment, adventure and discovery.   Paul does not give us a word that explains everything we should do with our lives.   Paul has spent a lot of time telling us about the kind of ‘behavior’ we should have, as we live our lives in Christ, but he has not given us a lot of detail about ‘what’ we are do with our lives.  Paul leaves so much open---open to the continual working of the Holy Spirit, open to the spirit of the times, open to the needs of the moment, and finally, open to our own gifts, dreams and choosing.


One of the greatest gifts of the Christian spiritual tradition to the human race is the ‘freedom’ Christ brings to the human soul and spirit.   Freedom in Christ is one of Paul’s major themes, and it is one of the major themes in all of Scripture.  Jesus himself spoke of freedom, saying, “If the Son has made you free, you are free indeed.   Paul adds in his letter to the Galatians, “For Freedom Christ has made you free!  (Galatians 5:1).   “Amazing Grace, My chains are gone!” is a wonderful song based upon the powerful and difficult work for freedom by the great Christian William Wilberforce, as he worked tirelessly to bring the end of the slave trade to England and finally to the United States.  To have a life of freedom in this world is anything but automatic.  It takes diligence and effort. 


We also know that freedom, just like the word “whatever,” can be both wonderful and dangerous at once.   To enable and empower a person to live free can be, at the same time, one life’s greatest gifts, but it can also become a very dangerous gift.   It becomes dangerous because this same gift of freedom which brings life, hope and faith, can also be abused and misused to enslave and hurt others, and eventually hurt and enslave ourselves.  Remember when Paul encouraged the Galatians toward a life in freedom, he also warned them to “not resubmit to the yoke of bondage.”  (Gal 5:1b).  Freedom has a risky side, as well as, a opportunity side.   This "risky" side of freedom is one of the things that fuels ‘legalistic’ religion.   This great freedom that cries out for ‘liberty and justice’ for all can end up being as dangerous as it is good.   It is that way with any thing valuable; like water, wind, fire, wealth, power or sexuality.  Our great freedom in this country has inspired and it has proven to be better than the alternatives, but this only works as long as we keep liberty and justice in balance with each other.   Other cultures have not be able to enjoy this freedom, and do not understand how it has been or can be done. 


In the book, Looming Towers, the author shows how the early and continued anger within radical Islam is partly based upon the failure to understand and appreciate both the risks and challenges of freedom.  Radical Islam came to believe that ‘forced surrender’ to God ‘by the sword’ is the only true option for the infidel because “freedom” in and of itself is just too dangerous.  But, I should add, what radical Islam will not yet admit, though moderate Islam has, is that organized and restrictive religion can be even more dangerous than freedom.   Within ‘freedom’ there always a question and open question about the good and the right, but there is also always a chance that someone will get it right.   Within restrictive, forced religion or politic,  although the question of the right has been settled, if that religion or politic gets it wrong and remains closed to questioning its own truth, then everyone in that culture is doomed.   


Any claim to have ‘true’ religion beyond raising question or having honest doubt, fails to understand the corruptibility of humanity or the corruptibility of religion (including Christianity), and they also have failed to grasp the incorruptibility of the true God, who remains the unsolved mystery beyond all religions.  My point is this: radical Islam, as well as, any form of ‘black and white’ simplistic religion, included fundamentalist Christianity in some of its most restrictive forms, will certainly take advantage of freedom, but they do not know how to “trust” the an openness toward freedom that seeks to bring justice for all.   To put it a very symbolic way, restrictive cultures, as well as rigid religion---no matter the form it takes, is afraid to get on the bicycle of liberty that is balanced with justice and launch off and ride.  Freedom is full surrender to trust God. 

EVERYTHING IN THE NAME OF JESUS

Enough about our need for freedom that is balanced by justice, let’s now move into the practical world of considering how we, as Christians, are to live out our freedom.   Paul says that as followers of Jesus, we balance our God-given freedom in ‘word and deed’ done ‘in the name of Jesus’.   Freedom is not for 'our' name's sake, but freedom is to be lived out in our words and in our deeds, as we submit to the glorious 'name of Jesus.'  

Right up front, let's face something most obvious here.  When we say we must do everything in the name’ of Jesus, we will find ourselves in conflict with some of the political will in the world around us.  Even in this ‘free’ nation, that is pledged to be ‘under God’, the forefathers intentionally did not name our freedom as ‘Christian’ by saying it comes only ‘in the name of Jesus’.   Our secular state intends to grant freedom both FOR religion in a way that we also honor, respect, and value the freedom God has given to others to be free FROM religion.  For this very reason, Christians, who used to be the majority in this country, are now being asked to keep the “name of Jesus” out of our public expressions and public prayers.   You all know all the arguments, which includes keeping prayer out of public schools, public places, and even recommends that if on certain occasions, personal prayers, when personal prayers are allowed in public places, we are advised us to be politically correct so that Jesus not be ‘named.’  But how Christians leave out the ‘name of Jesus’ when we believe Jesus is the freedom the world needs?  

What Paul goes on to say about ‘the name of Jesus’ might help us deal with the challenges of living in a secular age.  Notice that Paul does not say, ‘whatever you SAY in word or deed speak up in ‘the name of Jesus’, but Paul says, ‘WHATEVER YOU SAY AND DO, DO EVERYTHING IN THE NAME OF JESUS  Here Paul advises that we put more emphasis on ‘doing’ and ‘living’ like Jesus---than talking about Jesus.  Even Jesus himself warned about those who would use his name, but failed to ‘do’ what Jesus said.   Mentioning Jesus and then not living or acting like him, does more harm than good.    This is more important now than ever before.  “Our World Has Changed”  (The headlines on the Biblical Recorder most recently was:  "Our World Has Changed: Court Ruling Leaves Baptist leaders disappointed, but resolute", July 6, 2013) and now that we are the Christian minority and there seems to be no way back.  Someday, perhaps, and even already in some places, our freedom may mean we can’t freely speak up for Jesus in every situation.   But what Paul says here should encourage us to know that what the most important thing is not what we 'say' but what we 'do'.  What we ‘do’ in the name of Jesus has always has been and will always be, even in a secular age, our greatest witness.  

But don’t misunderstand me.   There are still times we should 'stand up' and speak for Jesus, defending and expressing publicly our faith in Jesus, but there is also ample truth in the Bible which reminds us that Jesus gained much more influence over the world when he did not speak up for himself nor insisted to demand his Lordship.  How Jesus stood before Pilate is a perfect example.  In Luke 23 the strength of Jesus was much more revealed in what Jesus did not say in behalf of himself, than in what he did say (verse 3).   Pilate tried to get Jesus to declare who he was openly, but Jesus did not fall for that trap, which made Pilate even more curious and convinced of Jesus’ innocence at his trial (Luke 23: 14-22). 


Jesus never forces himself anyone.  That is not what love does.   We should not force Jesus on anyone either.  We must not take advantage of our status, but we must make our case for Christ and for freedom with humility, respect and grace.   Paul also commanded Christians to ‘subject to the governing authorities’  for the sake of good for all  (Romans 13:1-4).   This underscores what Paul is saying here:   our witness for Christ should major on doing more than defending, demanding, asserting or invoking Jesus’ name upon others.  Jesus was very hesitant and even reluctant to go beyond Galilee or beyond the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ and launch out into the Gentile world until the Spirit preceded and invited them, and what caused the peoples of the world to invite Christ into their own lives has always been in the context of the miraculous ‘deeds’ of God works through the disciples doing.  Word and Deed always go together, says Paul, but it what we do that invites lifts up the 'name of Jesus'.


EVERYTHING IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS 

Paul’s final word about Christian behavior is a word about freedom, but Christian freedom is not simply to do or live anyway we want.   As followers of Christ, we are called most of all to ‘do everything in the name of the LORD Jesus.’   Paul was not specific about what we should do, as he is leaving this up to the leading of the Spirit in our lives.  But Paul does reminds us that whatever we ‘do’ means we must live 'in the name' of the one who is also our LORD.  


Our great freedom in the Lord Jesus is to live for the Lord Jesus right now, in our own time and place.  If you wonder what that should look like, start with the many virtues and behaviors Paul has given, which he saw in Jesus, like compassion, kindness, humility, and meekness.   These are the very first  guidelines for ‘who you should be’ in Christ and ‘how you should live’ for Christ.   Yet, what you are to 'do' in the name of the Lord Jesus’ cannot be exactly determined by anyone else except the living, calling, abiding presence of Jesus in our your life which comes in the Spirit and through Body of Christ we call the church.  What God is calling us to ‘do’ is something we must discover every day as we live together ‘under’ the Lordship of Jesus. The point here is that you don’t simply go looking for what God is calling you to do and then make Jesus Lord of your life, but Paul insists that it’s the other way around: you first make Jesus your LORD and this is when God shows you what you should being doing.  

I thought it most interesting to hear about Charles Ramsey, who helped the first of those kidnapped girls in Cleveland, Amanda Berry, to come out of her prison house to gain her freedom.  When he was walking by eating his McDonald’s meal, he heard her crying for help, he said: "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway."  (http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/local_news/cleveland_metro/cleveland-man-who-found-missing-woman-amanda-berry-i-thought-that-girl-was-dead#ixzz2Sk3H2oZH.

It was humorous how he said that, and how he also reported that he put down his McDonald’s Sandwich to go and help that girl.  McDonald’s tweeted that they would not forget what he did, and they would be in touch.  But what is most endearing about this man is not just that McDonald’s will contact him, or that he simply responded to that woman’s cry for help, but what is most amazing is that in a world where there can be some very bad and evil people, there are also people who cannot help but hear and do what is right when they are called upon to do it.  Interestingly, Charles Ramsey was in no way a perfect person.  He had been in trouble with the law himself,  but now was the time for him to listen, hear, and obey the voice that called him to respond.   In that moment, God spoke to Charles Ramsey, through the voice of an kidnapped woman crying for help.  When the voice comes to you and you respond, you are no longer ruling your own life, but you are letting your life be ruled by what God says needs to be done in that moment.   

I believe this is the kind of ‘rule’ Paul is laying down for those who follow Jesus.   He is not telling us precisely what to do, but he is telling us to be ready and prepared for answering Christ’s call when it comes.   The Lord needs people whose ‘whatever’ puts them on a direct course doing anything and ‘everything’ in Jesus’ name.  As long as people use their freedom to answer God’s call, by making Jesus their LORD in what they say and do, they can discover what it means to actually ‘do’ God’s will.  In other words, if we are willing to do 'everything' in the name of Jesus, then we will be able to do 'anything' that needs to be done.  

So what is God calling us to do?   Remember those Billy Graham crusades with the altar call and with Billy Graham saying ‘while hundreds are coming' and we know that thousands, if not millions responded to the messages Billy Graham preached.  Recently I read that only 2 to 4 percent of those who responded actually are living the Christian life they said they would live? (Statistic from King Ducan in his sermon, “But First”)   This statistic reminds us of the old tent meeting adage: “It doesn’t matter how high you jump, but how straight you walk when your feet hit the ground.”   The question of who we are and need to be, must always end with the answer of what needs to be done by us right now, tomorrow, and the day after that, all in the name of Jesus?  This is what Jesus made clear when he said “whoever is not against me if for me’ and went on to show illustrations of how following Jesus means following through with action for Jesus.   Jesus did not come to win ‘fans’, but he came to make followers, as he said, only those who “keep their hand on the plow” to follow through and do what Jesus calls them to ‘do’, are “fit for the kingdom” (Luke 9: 49-62).  

So, can we make ‘whatever’ a word of about our great opportunity, rather than a word of helpless despair?  Paul did.  Take a look at the last verse in the last chapter of this letter to Colossians where Paul says, “I write this with my own hand.  Remember my chains.  Grace be with you.” (Col. 4:18)  Paul was able to ‘do everything in the name of Jesus’ even from a prison cell.  If God’s grace can be found there---giving opportunity, purpose and hope, it can be found anywhere.  Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Singing Your Life

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 16; Luke 12: 4-7; 22-31
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 8c, July 14, 2012

“And with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. (Col 3:16 NRS).

“He who sings, prays twice.”     ----Saint Augustine

In the German Baptist congregation where I was once pastor, the first class you are asked to take after becoming a new member is ‘music’---either learning to read music, play the flute, or to learn how to sing in church.   In that church, every Christian and every member is expected to take some part in the musical ministry of the church.   Members are not only expected to bring their Bible, but they also purchase and bring their own hymnbook, which they use at home, as well as, at church.  Christians are supposed to make it ‘natural’ to find a way to ‘sing their lives’.

But it’s not just Christians who sing.   The music industry was the first to take advantage of digital technology and last year revenue from music was over 16.5 billion dollars.  Whether or not we agree with all the music on the airways or not, you cannot dispute the face that most all of us are greatly influence by ‘music’.   What day goes by in your own life that you don’t hear or hum a tune?  Being human is an invitation to sing.  Being Christian invites music into our souls and releases music from our souls, and as a follower of Jesus, one of the greatest witness to our faith is to be able to ‘sing’ our lives, whether we can actually stay on pitch or not.

ACKNOWLEDGING THE GIFT
Most of you have watched the reality TV shows like American Idol, The Voice, or the former acappella competition, Sing Off.  Each of them have their own way to introduce and develop new and raw singing talent to their audiences, and to the world.  What is certainly clear in these shows is the contrast between those who can sing well, those who think they can, but can’t, and those who and those have natural, exceptional, world-class talent.   But in most cases we see, the contrast is between those who ‘have it’ and those who ‘don’t’.  The ability to sing like some of these people can, is something that is ‘gifted’.  It can be developed when you have the gift, but it cannot be developed when you don’t.   In this way the gift of music should remind us of the gift of God’s grace.  It is not something we can develop on our own.   It is a gift---a gift from God, as it is a gift from beyond ourselves.      

When we have been given a ‘gift’ of life, that we have not earned, accomplished, or developed on our own, we too have a ‘gift’ to acknowledge.  This is what is meant, first of all, when we speak of ‘singing’ our lives.  Our lives have been given to us as notes on a page, which we did not compose.  Now what we must do is bring that tune into reality, to sing it, to share it, to live it and of course, to acknowledge that we are the singer, but not the author of the song.    This is exactly what Paul means when he writes that his readers should ‘sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God’  with ‘gratitude’.    Just as a bird sets on a ledge and sings for no apparent reason other than pure gratitude, we too, as God’s people, are called to sing our lives with that same kind of gratitude.  Gratitude that is felt in the heart needs to be expressed on the lips and with our lives, in a response of appreciation and thankfulness.   It is something we do with all our being, just like music moves throughout our body and soul.  It is the ‘sound of music’ from our souls that acknowledges all we have been given as a gift.

Speaking of ‘The Sound of Music’, that is the title of one of the most enjoyable musicals of all time.   It was based upon a real singing family, the Von Trap family singers who escaped Austria during the Nazi times.  The person who taught them to sing through that terrible time, was a Nun named Maria, who was so free spirited and joyful that she did not belong in the Nunnery, but she needed to be a teacher who taught children to face, grow, and to claim the fullness of their lives with song.   It was out of those majestic Alpine hills that a ‘sound of music’ challenged the darkness, as this family sang for all people their joy to be alive and to have survived the terrors of War and to still be able to claim the gift of life with song and joy.

Of all people, Christians should have a ‘song’ to sing; a song, which as they old gospel song, “holy angels cannot sing”; the song not only of a thankfulness for life; but also a thankfulness for the redemption of our lives that can overcome darkness, sin, suffering, and pain.   The core message of the gospel is to have been given the gift of singing ‘a new song’.   But how do we get to singing that song of our life with great joy---joy that brings gladness, fullness, completeness and contentment into our lives.  Where does such a song come from?  You might a bit surprise to find the answer.

ACCEPTING OUR LIMITS 
If I were to ask you when has your life been most filled with feelings of a song for life, what you answer?  We’ve all had special moments, high moments, mountain-top moments.   My guess is that most of us, however, would point the moment right after a close brush with death, a close call, a misdiagnosis, or some other moment of relief or release as some of the greatest moments of elation and joy in our lives.   I’ve been there and so have most of you.  You came close to getting killed in an accident.   You recovered from some sickness.  You went to the doctor and he or she gave you a clean bill of health, when you thought it was otherwise, and you were most glad to be alive.  

In my German church, years ago, we asked for testimonies.  I was hoping for some grand testimony about someone having a deep encounter with God or something.  One elderly lady stood up and said she was simply thankful to be there.  Only a couple of days before was nearly killed in a car accident and she went on to describe what happened.  I was sitting there thinking, is this all she has to share from her life of faith?

But as I rethink her testimony, it really makes sense.  When we have a close encounter with death it is most always a time we are most glad to be alive, feel most alive, and understand the gift of life we’ve been given.   We seldom feel the full joy and gift of life when everything is wide open and limitless or when we have ‘life by the tail” or everything under control.   But it is when we feel limited, restricted, threatened or for some reason or other, are contemplating our ‘end’ that we know the joy of life.

What all this means is that we human seem to do better with life and with finding meaning, joy, and hope in life when things are not so wide open.  When we have limits, responsibilities, duties, obligations and commitments.   This is one of the reason it’s so important that young people, young adults know responsibilities as well as opportunities.  If our life is not much more than doing what we want, we can lose the passion and joy of life.  But when we have things to do, jobs to complete, tasks to finish, and people to care for, then we seem to find the greatest peace and happiness.  Happiness and joy is not what you go looking for, but it’s something that you find when you accept ‘who you are’ and ‘who you aren’t’, and you get each up each day, glad to face the day with what’s been handed to you, knowing your song of joy is found in doing what needs to be done.  

When I was a child, some of the most interesting music were not songs about having freedom, but songs about hoping for and dreaming of freedom.  They were songs you whistled while you worked.  “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the live long day….I’ve been working on the railroad, just to pass the time away….”   These were songs of prisoners, having to do some of the dirtiest work, but in that work, they still were thankful to be alive and found a song to sing.   This kind of hope and joy was found not only in work songs, but protest songs, spirituals, folk and country songs.   Songs like “John Henry” was both a ‘work song’ and a ‘protest song’, singing, “That Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord."
Other songs, spiritual and protest songs, were sung in the face of the horrors of slavery.   And as bad as slavery was, and still is as is, there was found some of the highest faith and sweetest earthly joy in dreaming, hoping, and be glad to make it through another day.   One of the greatest spirituals of all time is entitled, There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. One of these mornings bright and fair,  I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.  Gonna kick my wings and cleave the air,  I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.”   Spirituals are some of the greatest songs, because they come from the struggle of a soul under the weight of life and death.   It is in this place we learn to sing our greatest songs.

Thinking about the source of ‘spiritual songs’, brings me our gospel text where Jesus teaches his disciples how to ‘sing’ their lives.   You might call this chapter the ‘bird’ chapter, because Jesus uses both sparrows and ravens to illustrate God’s care for his children.   Here, Jesus speaks intimately to his disciples, though crowds are all around him.  He is warns them about trouble that is brewing, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, but after that can do nothing more.  But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear him!  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten God’s sight.  But even the hairs of your head are all counted.  Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  (Luke 12:4-7).   

Jesus’ point is that his disciples can face the hard things in life because God cares and ultimately God is the only one who has the power over our eternal destiny.   Thus, we need not fear.   This conversation about the God’s care, as seen even in ‘birds’ reaches a climax in verses 22-31, as Jesus encourages his disciples to ‘not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  For life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn and yet God feeds them.  Of how much more value are you than the birds!  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?.... Strive for the Kingdom and these things will be given to you! (22-25, 31).

What do ‘birds’ have to do with singing our lives?  The music of birds is some of the sweetest songs on our planet.  Science tells us that birds sing primarily to attract mates and to claim their territory.  But did you know that a Winter Wren only weighs one third of an once, but can sing 10 times the sound of a crowing rooster?  Did you know that a Brown Thrasher can sing up to 2000 distinct songs?  In North America we primarily hear male birds singing, but in deep, dark and wet Rain Forests, male and female birds often sing in duet.  Most birds sing during the day-time when perched, but there are birds that sing in flight, and the elusive African-European Nightingale is one of the few birds that sings at night. 

No matter what happens, in various ways, birds sing their way through life.  When we learn to acknowledge and accept the life God has given us, even under difficult circumstances, we can best sing our lives as an expression of faith, hope and love.   Several years ago, the church where I pastored had a ministry at the local prison.  It was our responsibility to go to that prison once a year, feed the prisoners, encourage them, share our witness and share a worship service together.   Normally we would plan special music and I would preach a brief message.  But often our worship service would be taken over by the inmates.  We came to be a blessing to them and then ended up blessing our lives.  It’s amazing how people learn to worship when they know they are a ‘captive’ audience.   There was something about these men who could go nowhere else, who knew how to offer up their lives to God.  If they could do that in their circumstances, surely we can still sing through ours.

APPREHENDING THE PROMISE 
We are only able to sing like this, even in and against the darkness that comes in our lives, when we let God’s love and truth challenge and lay hold of us.   Again, our in this text from Colossians,  we sing our lives as we “let the Word of Christ fully dwell in us,” as we “admonish one another in all wisdom” and as we actively, ‘with gratitude in (our) hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”  The is the context of the music for our lives.   See how Paul puts the Word of Christ on one side, along with singing spiritual songs on the other, and then ‘admonishing one another’ in the middle’.    The Common English Version captures his thought best: “The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col 3:16 CEB).    This reminds us that the song God has put in our hearts is a tool for challenging, sharpening, and giving shape to our Christian lives.  When we sing our lives we take hold of all that God has for us.

King Duncan tells of a Mother who received a Walt Disney video and Cinderella.   They watched it non-stop for three days.   Since it was warm outside, the family kept their windows open. Their neighbors were having their roof re-shingled by three burly men.  As the Mom went out to get the mail one afternoon, she heard a roofer singing, “. . . put it together and what do you get?”   From the other side of the house came a chorus of two more husky voices: “Bibbidi bobbidi, bibbidi bobbidi, bibbidi, bobbidi boo!”   If a child’s tune can shape the voices and ideas of these men, think what God’s music can do, if we will listen, sing, and join in the chorus.  (As told by King Duncan in a sermon at www.sermons.com).

Anne Lamott recounts her experience in the little African-American church she attends in California, the church that led her to conversion as an adult.  She says, “Of all the things I loved about that church . . . it was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open. Has singing ever done that to you?” she asks. She continues, “The singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart . . . 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. But I had to leave before the sermon. (One day), she writes, I went . . . to church . . . so hung over that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous . . . but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling‑-and it washed over me.”  (From Anne Lamott, in Traveling Mercies (Pantheon, 1998), pp. 47‑50).

Maybe music has done something like that to you.  Maybe God’s music can still do something like that in you?   Music can do amazing things for the human soul, but even more amazing what the soul can do, when we God’s song enables us to sing our way through life.   Amen.



Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fire-Cracker Virtue

A Sermon Based Upon Colossians 3: 16;  Luke 11:37-54
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Pentecost 7c, July 7, 2013

“…Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; (Col 3:16 NRS)
In the history of my home church in Turnersburg, there was a time when the church took this text seriously and actually did teach, admonish, exhort ,or warn its members when they were caught in an intentional and public moral fault.   If the person did not turn from their sin and repent, they faced the possibility of being admonished, disciplined, or worst, ‘churched’-- that is ex-communicated from the church family and fellowship.    The belief was that the personal irresponsible behavior of the one should not jeopardize the witness of the many.   Such a judgment was never easy, but it became especially difficult when family members stood with each other rather than with the voice of the church.  After the loss of too many members, the admonishing and church disciplined stopped.  It had gone too far for the church too continue.

Our text today calls us in the church to ‘teach and admonish each other in wisdom”   This is certainly a virtue or practice that has been lost in the church today.   And to bring up such an issue could just as explosive as firecrackers the 4th of July.  What are we to do with such a world in the culture of the church today?

A PRACTICE THAT CAN BE ABUSED
Today we wear our feelings way too much on our sleeves for such admonishing or warning today.  Let the church issue an admonishment or warning against someone, and there is likely too much grief, ensuing public conflict, or maybe even a law suit.  Church discipline is out; silence is golden.   We can’t afford to lose anyone.  We can’t afford to say too much or go too far.   If any discussion goes on, it goes on behind closed doors, behind the scenes or behind the back.   There is little value in telling the truth in the open.  There is too great a fear that someone is going to get their feelings hurt or that a mistake will be made and it will come back to hurt the whole church.

When I became a pastor in Germany, the German Baptist church still practiced church discipline.    Once, one of our members, whom I did not know and saw in church only once, got in trouble with the law.   One of the leaders of the congregation asked me to go with him visit the man in prison.   I was with him so far.   Then he told me he wanted me help him confront the man with his moral failure---not his crime, but his sin against God and against the congregation.   If the man was humble and repentant, he would be retained on the church membership.   If the man resisted, the leader told me, it would be my responsibility, as the spiritual leader of the church, to recommend that he be removed from the church.  That was not something I had ever done, and was reluctant to be responsible for, especially cross culture.  Fortunately, it never came about.  I did not want to stand in judgment over anyone.   But the question is still very real in the church today.  We all know the value of telling each other the truth in love, and we also know that the church will eventually lose its ability to challenge the world and the culture, if it always looks the other way or if it goes too far by trying to play moral policemen.  When we admonish too harshly or we ignore the truth, we risk hurting others.

So, how do we overcome this virtue deficit in the church of today?  How can we single out, isolate, or purge the sins that can so easily beset us, overcome us, or damage our common witness to the world?   And which sins are worth confronting, and which sins are worth leaving alone?   Where will we draw the line and where will we let things go?   And how do we distinguish the church from our own family, and how do we distinguish the church from just another club, where sometimes the membership rules are stiffer than our own?     How do we hold the integrity of the church together without tearing our relationships with each other apart?  As you can clearly see, there are many more questions than answers when it comes to the value and virtue of admonishing each other at church.

THE WISDOM WE ALL NEED
Recently,  in a newspaper article spoke about Tom Lambeth recent speech about North Carolina and her people; people who are often as stubborn as they are good.  One farmer commented that ‘he didn’t have much formal education, so when he went to work on the farm he had to use his head.”  (From an article by D.J. Martin in the Statesville Record and Landmark, April 30, 2013).  Now, that’s the spirit of what Paul means when he not only says, ‘teach and admonish each other’, but he also says that if you are going to practice teaching or admonishing you will need ‘sofia’ or “wisdom.”  In other words, you’d better use your head.

Wisdom has a long standing tradition in Israel before Jesus came along.   The Wisdom teaching of the Hebrew Bible mostly came together after Israel’s moral failure and exile in Babylon, not before.   It was through their failure that they learned what they never wanted to happen again.   The wanted to learn from their mistakes and do whatever it took to avoid such failure.    In order to this from happening, they believed they needed not just human wisdom, but also divine wisdom.   Israel believed that reminding each other about what kind of life was ‘wise’ and what kind of life was ‘unwise’ what was human wisdom and what has divine, might keep them from failing God, failing each other, and falling into the trap of their own personal failure which could lead to national failure. 

When Jesus came on the scene, it is said by many Bible scholars today, especially Marcus Borg, that Jesus himself was a teacher, not just of righteousness, but a teacher of an alternative form of divine ‘wisdom’.   Jesus used short sayings and short stories we call parables to teach a different way to look at the world so that Israel would avoid great moral failure.   The wisdom Jesus reveals is wisely centered in God, not in the surrounding culture.   For example, instead of seeing God as a judge and lawgiver, God is forgiving and gracious.  Instead of measuring a person’s worth by measuring up to certain moral standards, all persons have infinite worth as children of God.   Instead of avoiding sinners and outcasts, everyone is invited to God’s table of forgiveness and grace.  Instead of finding identity from social or religious traditions, persons are to know themselves in their relationship with God.    The meaning of one’s life does not come in having it all, being first, or saving oneself, but in giving, being last, and losing oneself for the sake of others.  (http://www.aportraitofjesus.org/wisdom2.shtml). 

The wisdom Jesus came to teach is not a wisdom that judges for the sake of passing judgment, but judges for the sake of establishing God’s table for all who will come to God’s table of grace.    By accepting the unacceptable and by challenging the accepted,  Jesus offered the world a different kind of wisdom, which would create a new community, not community based upon rules and regulations, but a community based upon relationships and having its focus on God. 

Only such a community with such other-worldly wisdom can ‘teach’ and ‘admonish’ each other in love.  This very way of positive way of wisdom, warning and admonishing is clearly suggested in how the King James Version translates this text.  Instead of following the literal Greek construct, the King James follows the spirit of the text, saying, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Col 3:16 KJV).  In this interpretation “admonishing” each other is understood in quite differently than someone standing over another person in judgment.  Instead of any kind of personal or problematic singling out and judging of the sins, the King James version suggest that the judgment, warning, admonishing and teaching should comes directly from the Lord through the songs, through the hymns, and through the spiritual messages when we sing with grace in our hearts toward each other, not through some Christian court proceedings. 

If this is what Paul means, and I believe it is, then he is following the very words of Jesus who told us when the Holy Spirit comes, he will convict and convince people of their sins.   Even though the church still holds the keys of the kingdom and should make decisive judgments about what is right and what is wrong, following the voice and vote of the church body, it is the Holy Spirit who, through the joy of worship, the preaching, the teaching, and witness of the church built on grace, who is to have the first and final word.   If the spirit is allowed to do his work, then the admonishing and the teaching will come in ways that are far more wise than we can ever know how to be in our own wisdom.

And when the Spirit speaks, Jesus once said, the Spirit can speak in very convincing and convicting ways.   I recall several years ago when the church where I was pastor wanted to go through a building program.   Before we got to that, the deacons and I were working on trying to shore up old church roles.   We have about 200 people attending worship, but we had way over 700 and close to 800 still on church roles.   We needed to cut some of those on the roll, not because they were delinquent, but because no one knew whether or not they were still alive after so many years.   But no one wanted to do the cutting.  What if we cut the wrong person?  What if they hear about us cutting them out?  No one wanted to be the bad guy nor had the guts to make the first cut.   

At least no one wanted to until we started our building program.   We had hired a church consultant to come in and advise us on how to build our building and to help us know how much building to build.  How much was this consultant going to cost us?  He was going to charge us his fee based upon resident church membership rolls, not by average attendance.   When  we heard that, you never heard of a deacon board more ready to get on the phones and find out whose name they could take off the rolls.  

THE TEACHING THAT SAVES 
When it comes to church discipline and admonishing each other in love, perhaps the wisdom we need comes from another perspective we could be missing in today’s church.   This wisdom comes from understanding shared accountability before God.    When people come into church understanding that they will one day be held accountable to God in the final judgment, they seem to want to have others hold them accountable now.  But when there is no real belief in final judgment, or in giving a final account to God, who really wants to be held accountable now?   Only when we believe in God’s final word of truth, will we want accept any kind of truth greater than our own right now.  We can get over and grow from what others say to us now, but the judgment of God will be final with eternal consequences.

Our gospel text, serves as an example of Paul’s words in the life of Christ.   When you read Jesus harsh sounding admonishment of the Pharisees, you certainly cringe at his direct and very dangerous critique of their lifestyle and behavior.  But you must also take into consideration that these are not people that Jesus hated, but they are people Jesus loved.  Israel was headed for grave trouble, and these religious leaders were Israel’s only hope.  Notice how some of these Pharisees keep asking him out to dinner, even though he is speaking such hard words.  Some of these leader will get mad enough at Jesus to side with other Jewish leaders who will eventually sentence Jesus to death, but Jesus believes the pain is worth the sacrifice if they redeem their ways and the nation is saved.  

Of course, Jesus hope to change them didn’t work.  Israel could have taken his admonishment to heart and have changed, and even saved themselves from the judgment of God and the wrath of Rome.   Jesus showed them the ‘things that made for peace, but they would not’ listen.   That how it was with Israel, but that’s not how it has to be with us.  We can let other hold us accountable, and it can make us better people for doing so.

In a Blondie cartoon, Blondie hands Dagwood the broom. "Honey, I want you to sweep the cellar.  And do it right this time or don't do it."   In the next frame Dagwood is asleep on the couch, broom idle beside him. In the last frame a disgruntled Blondie steers Dagwood toward the cellar as he protests, "Well, I thought you gave me a choice."

Like Dagwood, we really don't have the choice about life to "do it right or not at all." Life is here. We didn't ask for it, but we've got it. This is no dress rehearsal. This is it. Our choice is: what shall we do with our one life?  Shall we do it right? Shall we put our faith in Christ as Lord and live as Christians, God helping us?  Shall we come down on the side of doing right instead of doing wrong?  Shall we open ourselves to the correction of the Holy Spirit and even the gentle corrections of the body of Christ which wants to us worship God and come to our senses?   

We don’t have a choice not to get our lives right.  The choices we make must be right, and we must help each other to get it right, because our rightness or wrongness determines whether or not we face days of dread or coming days of joyful triumph.  The songs we sing to each other, and the wise and gentle teachings and admonishments we give as we hold each other accountable, and as we also ‘let’ others hold us accountable, should remind us that grace is on our side.  Let us sing our way to doing what is right, which brings us all hope, and turn from doing what can bring us so much more pain, hurt and sorrow.    AMEN