Sunday, February 28, 2016

“Obey Love!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 12:  28-34, CEB
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday of Lent, February 28th, 2016


It’s a question that never gets old.  If there was a fire in your home what would be the first things you'd grab?

Your children, of course, if they can't walk.  Your Pet(s)? Your wallet?  Your computer?  Your passport or other Documents?  What about a precious photograph or a watch or ring that belonged to a grandparent?

Our text from Mark, chapter 12 is about reducing all truth about God down to the most important of all.  As Biblical Christians, we don’t even have to think about this.  The apostle Paul already did our work for us when he wrote to the Corinthians, “Now these three remain; faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13).  Where did Paul get such a worldview as this? 

IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE
Paul’s understanding of the importance of love comes from Jesus’ encounter with a scribe who asked Jesus about which ‘commandment is first of all.’  This question came as a response to a ‘dispute’ Jesus caused among religious leaders by his teaching about the marriage and the resurrection.   Mark tells us that certain Sadducees had intended to challenge Jesus’ teachings with a question about ‘levirate’ marriage, where a brother would marry his brother’s widow.  They imagined how this could happen multiple times, so that the widow might end up having seven husbands.  "If this were to happen, which one would be her husband in heaven?", they asked.

This was intended as a ‘trick’ question to discredit Jesus, but when Jesus answered that in the resurrection people will be like different, like angels, they had no comeback.  Having their undivided attention, Jesus then gave them an even greater defense of ‘resurrection.’  He declared that those who die in faith, like Abraham, Issac, or Jacob, can’t remain dead, because, as Jesus implies, it’s just not logical.   Since “God is the God of the living, not the dead’ (Mark 12:27), there has to be a ‘Resurrection’.   Part of the power of Jesus argument may have been that this was a slogan of the Sadducees, trying to focus only on this ‘living’ of this life, but now, Jesus has turned their own slogan on its head as evidence for future life in God (see Joel Marcus, Mark, in Anchor Bible, Vol. 27A, , Yale University Press, 2009p. 833).
You might wonder what this question about resurrection has to do with the most important ‘commandment’.   The simple answer is everything!  Faith, because of its very nature, allows for questions, which may allow people to get bogged down with debating, discussions, or even divisions, which serve no real purpose.  While questioning, and seeking answers is a necessary part of finding truth, it’s never the main part.   This ‘scribe’ may have been watching all the ‘disputes’ (12:28) going on around Jesus, wondering what faith is really supposed to be about.

Jesus’ answer to this scribes question about ‘which commandment is the first of all’ begins with a quote from the central prayer of the Hebrew Scripture and Prayerbook; “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6.4)By beginning ‘the Shema’, (Literally, “Hear”) Jesus is taking this Scribe, and also us, back to the core of the Law, which was summarized in Deuteronomy, chapter, six.   If you recall, Deuteronomy means ‘second law’, but Moses is not so much ‘laying down the law’ again, as he is reminding the people why God’s law should be trusted and obeyed in the first place.  Moses’ very simple answer is that Israel is to obey God because God has ‘saved’ (Deut. 33:29) and has promised to ‘bless’ Israel (Deut. 1:11).   Since the continuing of this blessing depends upon a covenant relationship (Gen 15.18; Ex, 19:5; Deut. 5:2) with God, Israel must continue to ‘love the Lord’ with ‘all their heart, soul, and strength’ (Dt. 6.4).  The point is that this “law” covenant (Deut 4:13) that has been revealed is not just about word’s, commandments, or laws which God’s people must follow, but God’s word and his laws are about continuing an ongoing, covenantal relationship (Deut. 4: 23-24), a relationship that can only continue if it is based upon faithful, steadfast love (Deut 5: 7-10:  God’s love for Israel and Israel’s love for God. 

To put it another way: Everything in this covenant, both the Old covenant and the New Covenant, is about ‘love’.   To Moses and Israel God reveals himself as a ‘jealous God’ who “shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love (him) and keep (his) commandments (Deut. 9-10).”  Because God is true love, he also requires faithful love from his people.   True Love is what makes this ‘covenant’ relationship work.  In other words, ‘If you love, then you can a faith-relationship work.  But if you don’t love, then nothing about a faith-relationship works.  Nothing works because having faith is based upon an all-or-nothing proposition called ‘love’.   This all or nothing “proposition” means that you decide to hear, obey, and follow God because you love God.  You decide to trust God with all that you are because this is what you do when you ‘love’.  It’s all about love.
Jesus wants this ‘scribe’, and perhaps us too, to realize that our own faith, religious belief, or relationship with God, is based upon ‘steadfast’, ‘faithful’ love.     We must not get confused about what religion means or about what faith is about.  It is all about the discovery of love and the capacity to love.  We must not reduce it down to anything else.  But we have, and we still do.

The story is told that when Friedrich Wilhelm ruled as King of Prussia in the early eighteenth century, he was known to be a short-tempered man.  He also detested ceremony, so it wasn’t unusual for him to walk the streets of Berlin unaccompanied. But if anyone happened to displease him — a not infrequent occurrence — he wouldn’t hesitate to use his walking stick on the hapless offender.  So, when people saw him at a distance, they quickly left the vicinity.

Once Friedrich came pounding down a street when a Berliner caught sight of him too late. His attempt to withdraw into a doorway was foiled.
     "You there!" said Friedrich. "Where are you going?"
The man began to shake. "Into this house, Your Majesty."
     "Is it your house?"
     "No, Your Majesty."
     "A friend’s house?"
     "No, Your Majesty."
     "Then why are you entering it?"
The man feared that he would be taken for a burglar, so he blurted out the truth. "To avoid your Majesty."
     "Why would you wish to avoid me?"
     "Because I am afraid of Your Majesty."

At this Friedrich Wilhelm became livid with rage. Seizing the poor man by the shoulders, he shook him violently, crying, "How dare you fear me! I am your ruler. You are supposed to love me! Love me, wretch! Love me!"  (From Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, in a sermon “The Great Commandment”  from www.goodpreacher.com, 2015 Luther Seminary.

There are many misguided expressions of the Christian Gospel that present a god, not unlike Friedrich Wilhelm.  A ruler of such holiness and purity he cannot bear to allow any sin or sinful person in his presence.  Therefore, since we are all sinners, this god who can’t ‘bear’ sin, condemns the entire human race to everlasting punishment in hell. "The wages of sin is death."  Since we all sin, we will all die, unless, that is, we do something about it.

But, the problem is, or so says the Gospel, we can’t do something about it.   But have no fear, Jesus is here, and he comes into this world and does not sin.  Since Jesus didn’t sin, he doesn’t have to die, but he does die.  He is willing to die and take all our sins upon himself, vicariously.   He cares for us, he suffers for us, and he dies for us.  Now, all we have to do is believe in Jesus and he’ll get you into heaven.  But if you don’t believe in Jesus, you and everyone else will be sure to get everlasting punishment in Hell.

The problem with this misunderstanding of the Christian gospel is not that it doesn’t have ‘truth’ in it, but that it reduces the gospel to a transaction, making it sound like Jesus, God the Son, came down to earth to save us from God the Father who sends people to Hell.  This is not only a false misunderstanding of the gospel, it misses the “main” point.   

It is this main “point” that Jesus is teaching here in Mark 12, namely that everything in the gospel is based on love—God’s love for us and our love for God.  And if this commandment to love is based upon God’s covenant of love, then how could we ever think a holy God can’t bear sin?  Doesn’t the gospel say that this is exactly what Jesus does, as he ‘bore our sins in his body on the cross’ (1 Peter 2.24)?   Of course, God can handle sin.  Of course, God can bear sin.  The problem is, however, that we can’t.  The problem is not what sin does to God, but the problem the gospel comes to bear, through Jesus Christ, is what sin does to us.  

Only by understanding that it’s all (the law and the gospel) about God’s love’ does faith stay on track.  The gospel doesn’t say, “Jesus so loved the world that he came to save us from God’s wrath against us”, but the gospel says, “God (the Father) so loved the world that he gave his only Son… (John 3:16).  The apostle Paul also would also have not agreed with a simple ‘transaction’ idea that suggests that the Son came to save us from the Father’s wrath toward us.  Paul would not agree with this because Paul wrote: “…In Christ God (the Father that is), was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5:19 NRS).  While Paul would agree that ‘all have sinned’ (Rom. 3.23) or that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom 6.23) or that “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and that we can’t do anything to save our ourselves, since God’s love is ‘free gift’ (Rom. 5: 15-17), Paul would NOT AGREE that anyone suffering the ‘wrath’ or ‘destruction’ of sin is what God desires.  Here, we must be careful that our ‘belief’ does not separate us from the love of God more than our sin does.   Any faith, religion, or belief that misses that the main thing is ‘love’, misses what law and gospel are about.  If faith is not ‘all about love’, it can’t be about God, who is love.

LOVING GOD MEANS LOVING OTHERS
It’s all about love, but of course, people can misunderstand “love” too.   Interestingly, in this text, Jesus doesn’t leave the definition of what it means to ‘love’ God to our own imagination without also giving us a relevant and practical description of what it means for us to ‘love God’.   Jesus doesn’t let this Scribe, or any of us, describe God’s love halfway or in just any way.   No, Jesus says, that if you really love God, because he ‘first loved you’,  you have to go ‘all the way’ by defining it not only as ‘loving ‘the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and strength’ (Deut. 6:5; Mark 12:30), but by also defining it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mk. 12:31).

By pointing to ‘love’ in some very human terms, Jesus reminds this scribe and us that the only way to determine whether or not a person truly loves God is whether or not that person truly ‘loves’ their neighbor  (Leviticus 19: 13-19).   Going all the way back to the Law, Jesus reminds us that love for God will also mean loving others, as the book of Leviticus says:  'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:18 NAS)

When you read Leviticus closely, you will also see that Leviticus defines ‘neighbor’ not only as ‘sons of your people’, but also the ‘needy’ and the ‘stranger’ (Lev. 19:10).  In a most radical, unexpected way, Jesus even enlarges the possibility of the ‘enemy’ as being a ‘neighbor’, when he challenges his disciples not only ‘love their neighbor’, but also to  ‘love their enemies’ and to ‘pray for those who persecute’ them.  While Jesus is not recommending his disciples to become doormats of abuse, he is calling them to gain power over their enemy with the greatest power of all---love.

When Jesus says that loving God means loving others, the most important thing to understand is that the love Jesus commands is exactly what was missing the established religion and in the national politics of his day.  It was the great failure of love in both religion and politics that caused Jesus to reach out to the outcasts, to sinners, to women, to the sick and to the poor.   Behind Jesus’ ministry to the ‘oppressed’ was ‘one’ message, not just for the Jewish faith or the Christian faith, but for all faiths:  When ‘love of God’ does not include ‘love of neighbor’ and even, the more radical ‘love for enemy’, then religion, faith, and politic loses its way.  This is exactly what we see happening with radical Islam today.  

But any faith, Christianity included, which tries to love God without also loving others, is a ‘failed’ faith and will lead to a flawed religious practice.  The early church came to understand this quickly, as was stressed in the Letters of John:  “….Whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 Jn. 3:17).
….. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also  (1 Jn. 4:20-21 NRS).

This last line from John, saying, “those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” is the proper interpretation of what Jesus meant when he says the ‘first commandment of all’ is about ‘love of God’ which includes ‘love of neighbor.  You just can’t have one without the other.  Any expression of love for God that is ‘true’ must be displayed through how we ‘love’ those around us.  Anything else can’t be rightly called ‘loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.'  It is important that we get this right because, if we miss this, we miss everything faith and life are all about.

Don Ward tells about a young person who was trying to find a first job in a very tight economic market and wanted to get the right answers so he could succeed in business.  He managed to get an interview with a great business tycoon.  He asked him, "Sir, what can I do to succeed in business?" The tycoon said, "Two words." The young man whipped out his notebook and with pencil poised asked, "What are those two words?" The tycoon said, "Right decisions."  The young man's next question was obvious, "How do I learn how to make right decisions?" The tycoon said, "One word." The young man said eagerly, "And what is that one word?" The tycoon said, "Experience." The young man asked the next obvious question, "But how do I get experience?" me tycoon said, "Two words." "And what are those two words?" The tycoon said, "Wrong decisions."  (From Don Ward’s sermon, “Getting It All Together”, www.goodpreacher.com. Luther Seminary, 2015).

The school of “wrong decisions” or “hard knocks” is a great school, but too many flunk out before they ever graduate.   If you want to ‘graduate’ from the school of life,  your love for God does must also include love for neighbor, or vice versa, your love for neighbor must also include love for God, or you are making the ‘wrong decision’ about love.  


LOVING OTHERS BRINGS GOD NEAR
Why is all this so very important?  Why is it necessary that our love for God and love for neighbor go together like ‘hand in glove’?   It’s not just about making ‘good’ or ‘wrong’ decisions.  

After Jesus has just explained what loving God should mean,  this Scribe agrees with him and then adds his own commentary, enlarging on everything Jesus has just said.   He agrees with Jesus and now proves that he understands exactly what Jesus means by saying that ‘love’ is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’   Here, the Scribe quotes Hosea and by this is quoting the Spirit of Jesus which was also in all the prophets, saying God desires ‘steadfast love and not sacrifice (6:6, 1 Sam. 15:22; Mic 6:6).’   Upon hearing such an affirmation, Jesus informs this Scribe that he is ‘not far from God’s kingdom’ (Mark 12:34). 

When you fully understand that ‘love’ is the way we ‘obey God’ you are as close as can be to God’s coming kingdom will mean.  When we love God by loving others, we already ‘serving’ and ‘living’ under God’s rule as we obey Jesus’ command to love: “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:34-35 NRS).

Unfortunately, as beautiful as this ‘command’ to love is, we’ve heard it so much,  I fear it’s become hard to hear what it meant when Jesus.  Today,    words about love can seem so ‘washed out’ and so ‘watered down’ to any kind of real commandment.   But it didn’t seem this way to Jesus.  Jesus’ teachings, life, and death, would remind us that ‘love’ will always be the most demanding commandment of all.  It is ‘demanding’ because this “Jesus” who revealed God’s love, did not reveal it with nice platitudes or attitudes, but this Jesus revealed God’s love by word and deed, serving others, by ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).  When you live and die like this,  you are so close to God’s kingdom that it has, Jesus once said, is not ‘here’ or ‘there’, but “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you!” (Luke 17:21).  

A great German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, once wrote that "Our capacity to love is always born out of the experience of being loved." What he means is two things: We can only love if we are confident that God loves us.  And also, it is love from someone else, such as a parent, a spouse, or a friend, or a spouse can also motivate us to love others and God.  Whatever love is, and whatever love can do, it can create a whole new world that begins within our own heart. 

A great example of the transforming power of God’s love is what happened to Darrell Porter, who was once a catcher for the Kansas City Royals.   At one time, Porter was an alcoholic and his problem would not change until he changed.  In the midst of his turmoil, Darrell Porter recommitted his life to Christ.  It is this decision that Porter gives credit to the revitalization of his baseball career.

Whitey Herzog, who managed Porter in Kansas City, later managed the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals needed a catcher and Herzog arranged a trade for Porter.  In St. Louis, Porter was given a new start. His life had improved, except the typical batting slump that baseball players fall into.

Whitey Herzog was concerned about Porter’s batting slump when he spoke with him one day. "Darrell," said Herzog, "we’ve got to work on your hitting. I don’t want you to get down on yourself."
      "Whitey, don’t worry," said Porter. "The Lord is on my side."
     "Well," replied Herzog, "I’m sure the Lord is on your side, but you’d better listen to me because the Lord doesn’t know much about hitting a baseball."  (From a sermon by Dan L. Flanagan, www.goodpreacher.com, Luther Seminary, 2015).

Whitey Herzog over spoke, for he certainly doesn’t know what the Lord knows about Baseball.  But what Herzog was so right about is that “the Lord is on our side” as he was on Darrell Porter’s side.  His story is only one of many stories of how people have been able to deal life’s problems as they re-establish themselves spiritually in God’s love, mercy, and grace.  

Because this Scribe knew the need to follow the command to love, he came as close to the kingdom as you can get and still be alive.  He not only came so ‘close’ you could see God in him, he was so close that you could see that he was “in God’, and clearly he was in the one, true God, who has, through Jesus, revealed himself once and for all, as the God who is love  (1 John 4:16).   That’s how close you too can get when you obey the command to love.  Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

“Move Mountains!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 11: 20-25, CEB
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Lent, February 21th, 2016

It’s a very beautiful drive on Highway 321, going from Lenoir to Blowing Rock, or vice versa.   When I was a child, we made that drive almost every fall, and I was filled with the wonder of nature and mountains every time.  And it wasn’t just the divine side of that view which amazed me, I must admit that the human side of that drive amazed me too, as I thought about how hard it must have been to build that road which either climbed or came down the side of mountains. 

In more recent years, that drive has been somewhat ‘tamed’, if not, transformed once again.   It’s perhaps even more amazing today how on Highway 321, mountains have been blasted, roads were made straighter, and valleys have been filled in and lifted up to make it even easier on travelers.   Who would have imagined early in American history, how easy it would be today to travel through those mountains and gain those grand views on a pleasant Sunday afternoon?

In our text from Mark 11, Jesus speaks of having faith to move Mountains.   Applying our understanding of human advancements over the scan of 2,000 years, just think of all the ‘impossible’ things that have been invented since Jesus’ day: Electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, air conditioning, trains, planes and automobiles, space travel,  and now computers, internet, and of course, mobile phones.   With so much human ingenuity to razzle and dazzle us, is it any one that churches are not filled, and God seems less important?

HAVING FAITH CAN BE DIFFICULT
However, when Jesus spoke about ‘moving mountains’ he wasn’t speaking about bulldozers moving a lot of dirt, rock or stone.   Jesus was not even thinking about any particular kind of human advancement.  No, when Jesus spoke metaphorically about moving mountains, Jesus was speaking about prayer and faith, which is made clear in this text, when he says, quite emphatically, “Have faith in God!

Of course, calling for prayer is one think, even wanting to pray is another, but believing in the kind of pray that demands ‘faith’ can sometimes be very hard to do.  But isn’t that why Jesus is encouraging it.  Faith is not easy, nor is prayer an ‘automatic’ way of getting what you want or even getting what you need.   Again, let’s face this whole picture of having faith and praying as we know it can sometimes be, difficult!  What is more difficult than praying, seeking, asking, and knocking, and it seems that not only does the door not open, but the door is bolted shut and it appears as if no one is home.  That’s at least how one Christian expressed how it feels when you pray and nothing happens.  If you recall, this is exactly why Mark Twain’s Huck Finn said he didn’t pray anymore.  Here’s the quote:
 “Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing
come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I
would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line,
but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the
hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and
by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a
fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.

I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it.
I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t
Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork? Why can’t the widow
get back her silver snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat
up? No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told
the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying
for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told
me what she meant–I must help other people, and do everything I could
for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think
about myself. This was including Miss Watson, as I took it. I went out
in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t
see no advantage about it–except for the other people; so at last I
reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.”

Some people, like Huck Finn, and most all of us, at some time or other, will see ‘no advantage’ about praying so we just ‘let it go’.   I’ll talk more about the advantages of prayer when we reach Mark 14, but in this passage I want us to see the ‘disadvantages’ when people stop praying and just ‘let it go’.   Can you see a little bit of what might happen in the very ‘context’ of Jesus own “prayer- less” and ‘faith-less’ situation?   Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and what does he find?  He declares that “God’s house shall (should) be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But, instead, he declares, (they) made it a den of robbers." (Mk. 11:17 NRS).   How did this happen?  Did this happen when they lost faith in God or did they lose faith in God because their prayers weren’t working? 

What we can know for sure is that ‘unanswered prayer’ can cause people to lose faith in both prayer and God.  The story is told about a man who prays and prays for a woman to become his wife.   He tells her about his constant praying that she will marry him and he keeps sending her letter after letter which the postman took right to her front door day and day.   After receiving all these ‘prayer’ letters she ends up marrying the postman whom she got to know through the sending of all those letters. 

This is funny, but unanswered prayer is no joke.   It can be a matter of life and death.  Sometimes we really need certain ‘prayers’ to be answered, but they aren’t.  Some soldiers are prayed for, but still don’t come home.  Some people need financial, medical, or immediate help, but no one or nothing comes.   Mothers with young children do not always get better so they can take care of the children.  Fathers do not always make it through a sickness, when the family depends on them.  Children who are prayed to stay safe, do not always remain safe.   Now, some people will say that you didn’t pray hard, long, or sincere enough, and others will say that there was some kind of  ‘unconfessed sin’ that got in the way.   Most will say that all prayer is answered in some way, either with a yes, a no, or ‘you have to wait’.   While any or all of this may be true, we must still admit that Huck Finn is ‘correct’ to observe that prayer is not always what it seems to be.   When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, encouraging them to ‘Ask and it will be given to you, to seek and you will find, or to knock and the door will be opened” and then adds, that “everyone who asks receives, who seeks find, and who knocks has doors open” we all know that is sounds very much like an overstatement of the case.   Prayer is seldom what the disciples or we thought we were being promised, when Jesus taught about prayer.

How many prayers of yours have been “unanswered”?  How many times have you felt as if you were losing faith in God?  We do at least know that Jesus doesn't encourage faith because its easy, but he is encouraging ‘faith in God’ because sometimes its not easy at all.   Sometimes faith get hard, real hard.   Sometimes there is seems to be no rhyme and no reason. You pray, you ask, but you don't receive.  Why should you still have faith? 

We can’t say everything that was behind Israel’s loss of faith.    Perhaps the law seemed to be hard and much too harsh.  Anyway, the nation had failed to measure up to it, and probably never did.  The prophets had been stoned too.  Even John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus was about to be rejected and crucified too.  And even after all these political adjustments had been made, Israel was still not saved. 

Could it have been that it was a loss of faith that cause Israel to 'lower' temple standards?  Maybe it wasn’t always a den of thieves.   Many become ‘thieves’ when they lose hope or believe there is no use to hope?  Some became excited when Jesus came to town, but by the end of the week they would lose all hope in Jesus too.  Jesus said Have faith!   But they didn't, and maybe they couldn't, at least not yet.
Regaining ‘faith’ is not something that can be recovered all at once, can it?

FAITHLESSNESS WILL LEAD TO HOPELESSNESS
But we must try.  We must pray and try to regain our faith, even when things are not as we would like them to be?    Do you know why we must ‘have faith in God’ even when we don’t feel like it?   Jesus shows us why.  Right after Jesus reminds them of their need for faith, he does a very strange thing to make a point.  Jesus ‘curses’ a fig tree that does not have figs, even when it was not the season for it to have figs. 

A tree can't help not having figs, can it?   Especially when it’s not the season for figs?  Why does Jesus do something as cruel as this?   But what Jesus is doing is not really based on what's wrong with the fig tree, but it's based on what's gone wrong among the people, and especially with the temple in Israel.  The temple is no longer what it was intended to be.  It had ceased being a place of prayer where people of ‘all nations’ could be made aware of God’s presence.  As Tom Wright says the problem in the temple was not simply commercialization; it was much worse.  It was about corruption and it was about bad politics and bad religion which lost faith.  Since they had lost faith in God they were now becoming so nationalistic they had become fruitless in their worship and unfaithful in their service to God.   Israel’s religious, social and political life had become worthless.  It was showy like a tree putting on a bunch of leaves, but it all this ‘show’ was without real substance or productivity.  Without real spiritual fruit, Israel had no life.    And the problem was not that Israel was just ‘faithless’ in this moment, Israel, like this tree was cursed because she had become "hopeless"  for the future Jesus' is merely announcing what is already obvious: Israel is hopeless because she has lost faith.

Last year, I saw Oprah on national TV promoting a new show on her network entitled Belief.  Oprah, the queen of popular religion in America, said her show was a show anyone could watch, even atheists, because everyone has to have some kind of faith;   “Everyone believers in something!”  Those were her exact words.  With this they ran a preview from her new show, depicting how a young orthodox Jewish boy’s life was given hope by having a robust faith.  Again, Oprah preaches, “God has given us all that same capacity and need to have a faith that gives us all hope. “ Without having faith we will eventually lose hope. 

An even better example of how faith can sustain hope was shared with me recently when I heard about a doctor in a bible study group who told how someone made a huge impact on them.  A young man was critically injured in a logging accident.  His parents came with to the hospital as he was not yet married.  When this doctor realized his head injuries were too severe, she dreaded having to go out and tell them.  After they lost him, she went out to inform the mother and father.  They were first in a moment of silent shock, but then, suddenly, without warning, the mother raised her hands and started shouting “Thank you, Jesus!” 

The doctor, not being a person of faith, could not figure out what was happening or what she meant.  She decided to stay with family and learn for herself.  Later the mother explained that she was thanking God for the years she had with her son.  She was not ‘thankful’ for his tragic death, but she mustered the faith to be ‘thankful’ for the days she had with her son.   It was her thankfulness and faith that kept her from losing all hope.   The doctor told her Bible Study group that that mother’s faith is what impacted her so much, she became a person of faith herself.

FAITH GIVES NEW POSSIBILITIES
Keeping Faith is about finding hope.  Without ‘faith’, even when faith is hard, life will become hopeless.  This is why Jesus looks at his disciples and says, emphatically: “Have Faith in God!”  But what does this mean?  Most of us can understand that we need to try to have faith, even when it’s not easy.  But it is this final word from Jesus, when goes beyond ‘hanging on’ and challenging us to have the faith to ‘move mountains’ that seems like ‘overkill’ and makes faith even ‘harder’, doesn’t it?   As one popular preacher preaches, it doesn’t just sound like prayer  ‘moves mountains’, but it sounds like Jesus is telling us to “speak to our mountains” and they will move.  They will move, one preacher says, because our ‘faith moves’ God into action. (www.resource4us.net/docs/SpeakToYourMountains.pdf).

It is most unfortunate when people, even some, even well-meaning preachers, take this wonderful saying from Jesus and try to turn it into praying that seems like saying ‘magic words’.   Is this really what Jesus really means?  Just speak up, or ‘faith up’ and God will spring into action?  

Robert Capon tells about a worker in a synagogue who one day went to the Rabbi to announce his resignation.  The Rabbi responded with surprise.  “How can you do this?  You have been one of our most valued employees for over thirty years!  Why are you acting so impulsively?   The worker countered, “I will be honest.  I do not believe in anything we are doing here.  It’s all a sham!  “How can you say that?” the Rabbi responds.   The worker explains: Every Friday afternoon, as the sun is going down and the Sabbath begins, I have gone into our holy space where the ten words of Moses on the wall and I’ve prayed, “Yahweh, Lord the universe, please help me win the lottery tomorrow night.”  I have done this for over thirty years and nothing has ever happened.  Thus I’ve concluded that there is no one on the other end of this praying business.”
The Rabbi looks at him and answers,  “I don’t that this is a valid text, but the Sabbath is about to begin.  Let me go in with you into the holy space and maybe I can discern what the problem is.”  They went in together and the worker repeated the request he had been making all those years, and suddenly, out of the great silence came a deep, resonating voice which boomed,  “Mosey, Mosey!  Give me a break.  You could have at least bought a ticket!”

When Jesus tells his disciples that they can speak to the mountain’ and it will move, he was not just saying any “mountain”  Jesus was speaking of THE MOUNTAIN, which was the temple mound, where the temple of the Lord stood that had become a ‘den of thieves’ rather than a ‘house of prayer’.   This ‘mountain’, which should have represented God’s presence alive and active in the world, had no real vision or witness.  Since this ‘temple’ failed to portray the truth about God, it will be moved, and after that, the temple will no longer be a place but a person—a son who has come to put ‘life’ back into God’s people, who are called to renew their faith in God and prayer.   When God raises Jesus from the dead as the new ‘temple’, those who trust him will become the place, that is the ‘temple’ where God is present and at work.  All they have to do now is ‘speak the word’ of faith and they will become the temple themselves.

We still have a tendency to turn this passage “faith” that gives us magic words for instant, dramatic results.   But what if it is just what Jesus says, it’s about having faith, no matter what the results are, because the greatest result of faith is us---that God is with us and in us,  as we, though our faith and life of prayer, become the “temple where God is at work?   Isn’t that how this text ends, not with ‘mountains moving’, but with a call to prayer, who by a people who need to realize they have God’s great ‘spiritual’ power within themselves.  Isn’t this what Jesus means when he says  And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.  …. (11:25).

But really what is faith?  What kind of ‘power’ is it?  Is it an attitude like positive thinking?  Or is it something more?  It may be all of this and more.  One thing for sure, faith has a power all on its own and it can change our perception of reality which helps us deal with the challenges of life, keeping us steady, giving us confidence and bringing out our best. 

Coaches, better than most, understand the importance of having the kind of faith that brings confidence, perception, and attitude.  The story’s told about much-beloved basketball coach Jim Valvano who was seeking to lead North Carolina State to the 1983 championship of the ACC.  Freshman Lorenzo Charles was going to the free throw line in the closing seconds.  Valvano called time out. “After Lo hits these two free throws,” Valvano said to his team, “I want us to guard the inbound pass . . .”

The team broke from the huddle and walked toward the free-throw lane. At the last second, Coach Valvano is rumored to have pulled point guard Sidney Lowe aside and whispered, “If Lo misses these two shots . . .” and he proceeded to tell him what to do in that case.   It is clear that Valvano did not want to plant the idea in Lorenzo Charles’ mind that he might miss even though Charles was only a 67% shooter.  He knew the freshman needed a shot of confidence. And so he said, “After Lo hits these two free throws . . .”   Charles’ first attempt missed the rim it wasn’t even close. But his second shot fell through the net. N. C. State won the game and went on to win the national championship (Eddie Jones, My Father’s Business: 30 Inspirational Stories for Finding God’s Will For Your Life (Kindle edition 2012) as quoted by King Ducan at www.esermons.com).  

Did Coach Valvano’s positive affirmation helped Lorenzo Charles at that critical moment. Perhaps? Attitudes are powerful.  Attitudes of faith can be life-changing, especially when they give us the confidence to give life ‘our best shot’. 

When we allow ourselves to be the faithful, praying, trusting, confident and forgiving people we are supposed to be, we too can experience the power of the ‘new possibility’ Jesus brings into the world.  This is not a new possibility about buildings, about new ideas, nor is this the kind of possibility that leaves our souls and spirits the way they are.  No, when we have enough faith to trust God, following God’s will and God’s agenda,  we experience the beginning of all the possibility that will one day make ‘all things new’ taking us all to a whole, new world.  This is a world that can begin to happen now, by faith, but is finally fulfilled in our hopefulness of our resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ, who did not, cannot, and will not, disappoint.    Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

“Find True Value!”

A Sermon Based Upon Mark 10: 17-31, CEB
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.  
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany, February 14th, 2016

A story is told about a break-in to an electronics store.  It happened in the dead of night.  The police responded to the alarm.  The owner let them in.  The police and the owner went through the store, but nothing seemed to be missing or stolen.  So everyone assumed that the alarm went off accidentally.  The owner locked up the store and went home. 

But in the morning when shoppers came, they discovered something really interesting about the merchandise.  High definition, flat screened TVs were selling for a $1.50.  Computer cables were selling for $1500.  Batteries cost $600 and laptop computers were going for $4.00.  

What the intruders had done during the break-in was to simply switch the price tags on everything.  They went around the store and took the price tag on the high definition TVs and put them on the batteries.  They took the battery prices and put them on the TVs.  The next morning shoppers suffered ‘sticker shock’ and ‘sticker surprise’, while thieves bought what they wanted on discount  (http://www.richnathan.org/message/changing-the-price-tags-of-life/).

While this sounds a bit humorous, this has happened so often that more and more “price tags” are now embedded or ‘coded’ right into the product labels.  Who knows what ‘work around’ thieves will come up with next?

MIXED UP VALUES
The act of ‘price’ altering can get you convicted of ‘larceny’, but I sometimes wonder what it means when society ‘alters’ the ‘price tags’ that have been attached to long-held, sacred and moral values?   What happens when our most cherished ‘values’ get all mixed up?

Since our country places much of its value in ‘money’,  think about how little value our country puts upon paying ‘teachers’ who educate our own children, over against how much we pay certain popular athletes?   Or think about how much more actors or pop music stars are paid to ‘act’ or ‘play’ than we pay firemen, policemen, or other service oriented persons who do not ‘act’, but do ‘real’ and very dangerous jobs to protect us. 

The same loss of value is true in many other areas, such as undervaluing the farmers who do the work of putting food on our tables, undervaluing the poor workers who make our clothes, the mechanics who fix our cars, or the nurses who provide close and personal care for us.  These jobs are often undervalued, and the work they do is often overlooked, while those who thrill or excite us for a moment are overvalued and overemphasized.   Who would dispute that we live in a world where ‘values’ are seldom calculated with deserved fairness or justice?  

Besides money, another area where ‘values’ get mixed up are associated with morals.
Take for instance the moral value of ‘Chasity’.  Most people don’t even know the word today.  But years ago, when our nation was mostly influenced by a common set of moral and Christian virtues and values, it was agreed that ‘unmarried persons’ should abstain from sex until marriage.  Chasity was then a commonly accepted moral value by a society that had been greatly influenced by Christian morals which once encouraged the sacredness of marriage (http://www.crisismagazine.com/2009/our-societys-common-values).  

As we all know, any common set of moral values’ or ‘beliefs’ are no longer a shared by most people today.   Even the whole question about morality has changed.  The most important question in our society is no longer, “Is it wrong, or is it right, or what is best, but the primary question has become something like: “Can it be tolerated, could it be acceptable, or might a certain lifestyle be considered normal for some, even if it isn’t normal for others?”  By allowing individuals and minority groups the freedom to establish their own personal values, as long as no direct harm comes to others, it seems to be deemed by the majority that liberty should be constantly increased so to insure the most justice ‘for all’.   

While liberty and ‘freedom’ can be both overvalued and undervalued,  our nation was founded upon a vision of liberty that afforded our forefathers a way of escape from the religious coercion of their time.  The original vision of “America”, written into our constitution, offered an alternative ‘secular’ vision over any dominating religious vision, allowing for a ‘freedom from’ religion, as well as, a freedom ‘for’ religion.  As we Baptist should know better than most, our ancestors immigrated to this ‘free land’ in hopes of finding a freedom to live and worship by their own self-determination.  In many cases, they were fleeing from oppressive religious control and persecution in “Christian” Europe and desired some sort of secular protection from that very negative past.    

Freedom remains our most cherished American value because any kind of moral, religious or political vision needs to remain flexible enough to prevent any return to the oppressive political and religious intolerance of the past.  An interesting, even comical example of our need for moral freedom and flexibility is illustrated in the fact that we don’t ‘stone’ children for disobedience as the ancient Hebrews did, nor do we still punish ‘moral’ public “sins” with stocks and chains.  We also do not publically humiliate or ‘church’ people for what we deem to be “sinful” behavior as has been done in the past.  Any attempt to enforce, pressure, or coerce morality does not work just like it hasn’t worked in society at large.  A prime example of this was America’s failed attempt to enforce Prohibition.  When “alcohol” consumption was moralized it quickly became politicized and ended up making matters worse.   

So, in a world where values are constantly changing, challenged, or corrected, how do we, as followers of Jesus Christ, arrive at any kind of consensus for a moral vision or consistent set of values we should embrace, promote, or expect from each other?   With the decay and decline of moral consensus in our nation, even workplaces have felt the need to clarify their own mission, vision and values.   We need freedom and flexibility, but we also know that even everything is at risk or can fall apart, if we lose our moral or ethical compass.  So, what keeps us from getting our values confused and mixed up?   Why do we need to try to assess or find ‘true value’ in the first place?

THE NEED OF ‘TRUE VALUE’
The loss of ‘true value’ is written all over this 10th chapter of Mark, which gives us an outline of broken relationships, vulnerable children, misplaced wealth, and wayward desires which could get, even the best of us in deep, deep trouble.   Notice how this chapter begins with Jesus speaking about broken marriages that end in divorce and also concludes with a Blind man crying out for help, while Jesus’ own disciples find little value in responding to his cries. 


Can you see the loss of ‘true value’ in the world exposed in this single chapter from Mark?  These are astounding examples of how easily a broken, cold, heartless world can overtake us when values get all mixed up.  And it can happen, as the gospel reveal, even among religious people.   When we see Jesus own disciples failing to reach out to the most vulnerable---the children---or when we see these same disciples discussing their private and public desire for greatness at the expense serving humbly, we see the how easily true value is lost and tragic it would be if we lose sight of what values make us better people who could live in a much better world, if we could only ‘visualize’ it. 

We could illustrate many of these examples of broken values, but we already know-all- too- well what happens when the ‘marriage’ loses its value to one marriage partner.  It is impossible keep the value of a relationship, when one of them no longer values it.  Or, what about the vulnerability of children?  When society no longer understands the sacred value of childbearing and our responsibility to children?   I recall walking on the streets of Sao Paulo Brazil back in the 80’s, seeing newspaper sections blowing in the early morning breeze all over the sidewalks.  I asked my interpreter why they were left on the streets, and she responded this is where thousands of ‘street children’  lay newspapers down on the streets to sleep at night. 

Of course, the devaluing of human life is not only about children.  Just a few days ago, I was watching a Youtube Interview with Holocaust survivor,  Manny Steinberg, who told of the horrendous experience he, his brother and father had during the Nazi occupation of Poland.  But it wasn’t those stories which caught my attention.  When he was asked about his early life as a Jew in Poland, he told of growing up in a home where his grandparents lived with them.  He also told how his grandfather impacted his life, teaching him, guiding him, and even correcting him, so he would grow up ‘right’.  That how it was then, but in world today, ‘grandparents’ and the ‘elderly’ are not valued as much as they once were in earlier days.  Today most of them are understood more as liabilities and inconveniences, than assets, gifts, or responsibilities. 

Perhaps most challenging of all in this chapter, is the story of this rich, young man, who walks up to Jesus desiring to find an answer for his hope of ‘life’, but then walks away because he is unwilling to exchange what he values for the ultimate value; answering the call to work for God’s coming kingdom.  Let’s take a closer look at this rich, young man and how he epitomizes both the desire and the disappointment of our society today?  

This rich young man comes to Jesus knowing exactly what he wants.  Even though the has what he wants, he still a “spiritual dissatisfaction” which has led him to Jesus.  The tragedy in the story is not that he refuses to give his money to the help the poor, but the real tragedy is that he doesn’t realize how poor of a person he has become because he can’t stop thinking about anybody but himself.  Everything he came for is to get something, so that the only story of his life is about no one but himself.  Isn’t this the real reason he rejects Jesus’ solution to his problem?  He can’t see his real problem because he only sees himself.  By only seeing the ‘value’ of saving himself, or saving his own pocket book, and by caring too little about helping anyone, he ends us ‘lost in the cosmos’, even with all his wealth.  He just can’t allow himself to accept the ‘true value’ that can save his soul from great emptiness and regret.

Of course, this problem is not just a ‘money’ or ‘ethical’ problem, it is also an even deeper ‘spiritual’ or ‘character issue, which we see clearly reflected in how the ‘disciples’, even after they have left all to follow Jesus, are still stuck in the ‘values’ of the world as they seek to be ‘greater’ than the other and volley for power and position.  Isn’t it true that even we in the church, like those disciples can even get our own “spiritual” values confused with what Scripture calls ‘fleshly or ‘worldly’ values.  How much do we, lose our ‘value’ by going after ‘success’ or ‘reputation’ rather than elevating humility and service?    How much more do we also consider what ‘we’ want over what ‘God’ commands?

Is there any way that a self-serving, self-seeking, self-focused culture like, can ever recover the value of the “good” that is not just for me, but points beyond ourselves, to the God-given value that God has put in all of us?  How do we move from a self-obsessed and self-centered focus upon what is only good for ‘me’?  Do we even want to ask what might be most valued by God?  Might we see how his problem is a great problem of assessing ‘value’, as is also ours?   Wasn’t there a ‘right’ solution he should have been able to find in as a sense of “true value”, purpose and vision which included others besides himself?   Didn’t he walk away unsatisfied, unfulfilled, if not also unsaved, because he would not discover that finding ‘true value’ in life was much, much more than protecting or holding on to what would only be good for him?

 FINDING VALUE THROUGH JESUS
However you ‘percieve’ the rich man’s problem, it is clear that Jesus was trying to help this very wealthy person find the only kind of ‘value’ that would save and redeem him from the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ about himself.  But this rich man was unwilling to accept the ‘value’ that Jesus ‘offered’ him.  Because of all that he had and wanted to hold on to, he would not answer the call of Jesus Christ to find ‘true value’ for his life.  Can or will we do any better?

What Jesus wanted this ‘rich man’ to do, was to realize his own self-worth (not just having money) by acting with human compassion to serve human need with all that he had.  By reaching out to the weak, the outcast, and the disadvantaged, he could discover his own ‘self-worth’.  But instead of answering the call to follow Jesus into to become part of the answer, he decides to walk away.  He can’t accept Jesus assessment of what truly matters and what really counts.  He will assess his life by himself.   So, he decides to go away, even with regret and sorrow for how he will now go on to live the rest of his life.  He has chosen not to do the one thing that will change everything.  He wants what Jesus offers, but he just can’t accept it.  He doesn’t refuse to follow Jesus because he is holding on to his money, but he refuses to follow Jesus by continuing to hold on to heart.  He will not allow his own heart to be touched by what God values most.  

But what if he had?  Recently I saw the advertisement for an original movie, entitled, “Man In the High Castle”, which was a story that imagined “What if Hitler and the Axis powers had won the war?”  In an imaginative way, I also wonder how this man’s life could have been different, if he had turned loose and followed Jesus to have the kind of life that could have brought him an even greater value than all his ‘wealth’? 

When my wife and I decided God was calling us to become “missionaries”, we sold everything we had and left for Europe.   Most everyone respected us, but not a few wondered ‘why’ we did something like this?  What was the ‘value’ in it?   As we started our mission work in Germany, even east Germans were asking us the same thing?  Why would we leave ‘haven’ of our homeland and come to theirs, an area that had suffered two world wars and lived under communism for almost 50 years.  Why?

One day, when I was searching for ways to establish my ministry in eastern Germany,  a school teacher called me and told me about a student she knew who had been thrown in a ‘trash can’ and was being called ‘worthless’ by other students.  “Knowing that you came here as a missionary, I wondered if you could do anything to help him?”
I went to visit that young man and asked him,  “What would you like an American to teach you?”  His short answer: “Play Baseball”.   I leased an abandoned soccer field and we started unofficial baseball training program.   It was so successful in reaching out to other youth, some of them, including that first young man becoming Christians, that even “Morman missionaries” took notice.  It also helped build a new ministry and outreach to youth in that town, which still brings joy and value into my own soul and heart.

This is the kind of joy and blessing you too can encounter when you allow God to determine what you should value.   What about you?   Does your life have ‘true value’?  Would you let God reassess what should matter for you, so that your life obtains a quality that endures, not just for a moment, but for an eternity?  


PRAYER:  “Dear Lord, help me not to be bound my own desires, but turn me loose to follow you into an adventurous world of new possibilities that gives life true value.”  Amen.