Sunday, July 30, 2017

“Will He Find Faith…?”

Luke 18: 1-8
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
8th Sunday After Pentecost, July 30th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #6)

In the movie Kicking and Screaming, actor Will Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a father and coach of his son’s soccer team.  Phil grew up with a very arrogant and dysfunctional father, and continues his ways of ‘kicking and screaming’ his way through life.   In one scene, Phil is at the back of a long line at a coffee shop, and begins to demand that the line ‘move along’ so he can be served.  As his frustration boils over, he shows his frequent visitor card demanding for quick service.  It happens to be a video store card, because the coffee shop has no frequent visitor card.  Phil keeps venting his frustration and making loud, obnoxious verbal demands, until the line turns against him and everyone throws him out of the shop. (http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/kicking-and-screaming).

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?  Perhaps we didn’t speak outlandishly out of turn in a public line, but we’ve all been up against life in a way that we become frustrated, and perhaps even angry.   Germany is known as the land of well-established bureaucracy.  Anytime I had any kind of government business, I had to prepare myself to wait for hours in long lines.  Once, I walked into an office to renew my passport and took a number. “I took the number 27 early in the afternoon, but they were only at number 4.”  Another time, on a Monday, when I went to complain to Apartment administrators about a loud neighbor, I discovered they only took complaints on Tuesdays and Thursday.  I returned on Tuesdays and found a room full of people.  They didn’t get to me until Thursday and then they said there was nothing they could do.  I needed to use ear plugs. 

In the question of Jesus we are considering today, Jesus also sounds ‘frustrated’.  It may seem strange, even upsetting to some, that Jesus, the Son of God, could be having
‘one of those bad days’ but here it is. 
After Jesus has told a very unusual story about a widow trying to capture the ear of an unjust, unwilling, and unrighteous judge, whom he preposterously compares to God, Jesus turns the story upside down saying, God is much better than this, so you should ‘always pray, and not give up.’  But then, right after this, comes a dramatic shift in attitude with a very cynical sounding question:  “However,” Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

WILL HE…FIND FAITH?
If you listen closely, there seems to be a ‘pessimistic’ tone in Jesus’ voice.   It is not conclusive, but there is a question about ‘faith’ and the future that is still open, but headed in a negative direction.  Most of the parables in Luke’s gospel have been ‘parables of grace’ (Robert Capron).   You know some of these well, like the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.   But now, this pleading widow stands in the transition stage between those beautiful ‘parables of grace’ and an increasing amount of more harsh ‘parables of judgment’.  Is Jesus beginning to feel the heat and frustration in his ministry that will ultimately lead to his betrayal, crucifixion, and death?
This frustration appeared even more sharply in the gospel of John, which was written sometime after Luke’s gospel.  After Jesus gave some hard lessons in faith, many of his disciples began turn away.  Seeing what was happening, Jesus turned to the small group of 12 he had left, and asked, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”  (John 6:67).  You could ‘cut’ frustration tone of his voice with a knife.

You can see other ‘hints’ of Jesus’ growing frustration in the surrounding context.  Hear, Jesus envisions a widow in an unjust society.  He also likened the current times approaching the times ‘like the days of Noah’ when the flood came as a sign of God’s judgment (17:21).   Just before that, Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only 1 returns in gratitude (17:19).  This immediately follows a story about a Rich man who enters hell because he didn’t care about his poor neighbor (Luke 16).  A most direct references to Jesus frustration is when he outwardly sorrows over Jerusalem,  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.  How often, I’ve longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate (Luke 13:34-35).  Note, this is not frustration at how bad the world is, but it is frustration for how bad things are among God’s own people.

In our own time, way back in 2008, evangelical news reporter Julia Dunn, wondered why so many of the so called faithful are ‘Quitting Church’.   Even she admits not going to church much anymore herself, though she grew up with a strong evangelical faith, and still professes to be a believer in Jesus Christ.   In the opening of her book, she quotes a Barna Survey printed in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today back in 2002.  It was a survey among Christians who were leaving the church, and sometimes the faith.  Hear the reason why:  
(1)Worship was stale; the ‘same old same old’. 
(2) Evangelicals watered down their beliefs—wouldn’t talk about the ‘hard’ issues.   (3) Most churches were segregated in a multi-cultural world. 
(4) Christians take the Bible literally, but not seriously, especially on issues of divorce and sex.   
(5) The Christianity of most people is ‘comfortable’ without any built-in costs.  (6) (6) There is little expectation for God to act, or Robert Capron said, “In seminary they teach you want God can’t do, and then in church you ask God to do it”, but you now believe he can’t.
(7) No one is ready or willing to allow the next generation to remake the church.
(8) US churches would rather compete than cooperate, and finally
(9) Churches don’t desire or allow their leaders to lead(As reported in Quitting Church, by Julia Dunn, Baker Books, 2008, pp 21-22).

We too, if we are observant to what is happening with Christianity in North American, might be wondering alonge with Jesus: “In the next few years, will there be any faith left on this earth?”  Will the church survive?  Will my faith survive? 

We could liken the ‘faith’ situation around us these days to that unforgettable gospel story in the gospel of Mark (4:35-41), where Jesus is in a boat with his disciples headed across the Sea of Galilee when an unexpected storm comes up.  Rembrandt beautifully captured the moment in his famous painting, Christ in the Storm.  If you take a look at the painting (which we only now have photos of, since it was stolen in 1990 and has never been found), you will see a dramatic contrast between the disciples struggling in the storm tossed ship on one side of the painting, and the relative serene, sleeping Jesus, on the other side.  At the stern of the boat, there is a calm around Jesus, even though he sits in the dark.  Another interesting point is that there are 14 figures on the boat, the 12 disciples, Jesus, and in the middle, between the raging storm and the calm surrounding Jesus, is a fellow with his hand slapping his own forehead, as if he is saying, “Hu’oh!  What have I got myself into?”  If you look closely, you’ll see that this is Rembrandt himself, putting his own ‘fears’ into the painting.

If you remember how the gospel depicts this scene, you’ll remember that the disciples awaken Jesus, screaming out, “Teacher, do you not care that will drown” (4:38)?  In response, Jesus doesn’t sound the least bit sympathetic, answering with questions, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith” (Mark 4:40)?  The same kind of questions were put to Simon Peter, when Jesus came to them walking on the water during a similar storm (Matt. 14: 22-33).  Peter asks Jesus’ permission to join him and jumps in the water to walk and meet Jesus.  Peter does quite well, walking on the water for a while, but when the winds and waves pick up, he panics and begins to sink.   When he cries for help, Jesus scolds Peter, asking him:  “O you of little faith, Why did you doubt” (14:31)?    Well, can’t you just imagine Peter answering “Because I was walking on the water, that’s why!” 

So, why was Jesus so exasperated with his disciples in such situations?  I agree with Martin Copenhaver, who said the disciple’s failure of faith meant a lack of trust in their relationship with him.  Jesus is not simply frustrated, but he is hurt.  He takes this personal.  After all he has tried to teach them, and all the love he has shown and promised them, and they still don’t trust him.   Jesus is frustrated because a lack of faith in hard times really comes down to a lack of trust in him.  Jesus is not simply asking, do you believe in me, but do you trust me?  Faith is not just a matter of belief about him, but it is a matter of trusting (From Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 718-719). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

William Sloane Coffin put it this way: “Faith isn’t believing without proof— it’s trusting without reservation.”  Imagine you are at a circus.  A skilled high-wire artist has accomplished so many marvelous feats that the audience has come to believe that he can do almost anything. The ringmaster addresses the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe that this daring man can ride safely over the high wire on his bicycle while carrying someone on his shoulders? If you believe he can do it, please raise your hand!” If you were in the audience you might raise your hand along with all the others, a great silent chorus of belief. “Very well, then,” says the ringmaster, seeing an almost unanimous vote of confidence, “now who will be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders?” The difference between belief and faith is the difference between staying in your seat and volunteering to climb on the shoulders of the high-wire artist.

SHOULD ALWAYS PRAY
Ultimately, faith is not about believing certain things; it is about putting our trust in someone.   Faith is not a possession; rather it is a capacity.  Faith is not something we permanently carry around in our pocket or even in our heart, because it is stronger on some days than others.   No, faith is a living, dynamic, relationship that we must live and do new each and every day.  

Interestingly, in most other languages, faith is not only expressed as a noun, like we often say:  “I have faith’, but faith can be more accurately expressed in other languages as a verb:  You can say something like “I faith sometimes. I wish I could faith more often.  In fact, I’m working on faithing in God in all that I do.”  I know it sounds grammatically crazy and painful it this way, but it is both biblically and theologically correct.   (As quoted in Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 725-733). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

I know it sounds strange, but it’s much more correct to say I‘faith in Jesus’ than ‘I have faith in Jesus.  It is more correct because faith is about being in an active, living, daily, trusting relationship with Jesus than like having a faith that you carry around in your back pocket.   The parable about the Widow and the Unjust Judge makes exactly this point: the relationship we have with God is a relationship this widow couldn’t have with the unjust Judge.   The judge only heard her case, because she kept nagging him.   God hears us, because he loves and cares for us. 

Faith is about prayer, and prayer is about faith because we trust that when we pray we trust that God is listening and will respond to us.  Unlike Huck Finn, who concluded, ‘it don’t do no good’, we pray because we ‘faith’ that God is at the other end of our conversations.  This doesn’t mean that we always get what we want when we pray.  Like any true relationship, we don’t always get what we want, but because we trust, and we keep our trust, we always get the relationship.  And this is what matters most of all.  The great poet Tennyson wrote out a trusting relationship with God in a way that reminds us that God is always more than who or what we can imagine:
“Our little systems have their day, They have their day and cease to be
They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”
             (As quoted in Day, J. Daniel. If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 742). Smyth & Helwys Publishing.).
Trusting in a great, living, and loving God which Tennyson spoke of poetically, the Apostle Paul wrote about with some of the greatest biblical prose ever written, saying: “I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).  Those words are great, only because they are more than words, but speak of a God whom we can trust, and entrust with our whole lives, who is greater than any problem we will ever have. 

…AND NEVER GIVE UP
And because we can trust in this love, and in this God, who has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, interpreting the meaning of Jesus parable about the widow and unjust judge for us,  Luke not only says that we should ‘pray always’, but also we must never give up.  We must never give up on prayer, because of how much God loves us.  Such love does not mean that we will not experience death, troubles in life, terrors or powers that threaten us in creation, but that none of these troubles or terrors ‘will be able to separate us from’ God’s love.  In other words, no matter what happens, or whether our prayers are answered as we will or not,  God loves us and God is the most promising power of love that will always have the final, last, and ultimate word.  God and His love is the ‘who’, the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ we should never, ever, ever give up. 

A final story from early in Martin Copenhaver’s ministry is a story I can’t resist retelling.  He paid a visit to Dorothy, a beloved member of his church.  Her doctor had just left the room, leaving a dark cloud behind him.  Even as a young minister he could not miss it.  Dorothy was an actress with a big personality who was used to commanding a room, but not this room, not now.  She said in a voice softer than I had ever heard her use, “Have a seat, Martin. We’ve just gotten some difficult news.” The young pastor perched on one side of her hospital bed, and her husband, Ed, sat on the other side. Then the two of them relayed some of what they had just learned, news that they themselves could not yet begin to take in fully.  Dorothy’s cancer had recurred after years of remission. A most unwelcome visitor was back. Treatment would begin the following week.

For a moment the three of them sat in silence, while contraptions connected to Dorothy with wires and tubes continued a steady rhythm of drip and pulse and beep. Then Dorothy, looking straight at Ed, said, “I’ll be OK.” Ed replied with his deeply soothing voice, “I know you will be. The doctors assure me that you will . . .” “No, Ed,” she said, her voice gaining in strength, “I mean, I will be OK either way.”  Dorothy did not elaborate, but of course, what she meant was that she would be OK if she lived and OK if she died.  Gratefully, Dorothy ended up living quite a number of years longer, but that was hardly certain on that day— or on any of the days that followed. You never know what a day may hold, which means you need to know something else, which Dorothy did.
(Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 770-782). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

Most of us have faced similar moments with our loved ones, and some of us have faced them ourselves.   When such fearful moments come, whether they be physical or relational, we have two options of faith: One form of faith is that reassure ourselves that everything will be all right— the surgery will be successful, the relationship will be mended, the storm will pass, your worst fears will not be realized.  But there are a few circumstances when that kind of reassurance is not ours to give, either to ourselves or to others.  Then, is when we have nothing else to do except to hold fast to the love of God.  It is to say to ourselves, come what may, God will remain with us, and God will not let us go.  God gets the last word. God is greater than any problem we have.  Or, as Dorothy put it, “I will be OK either way because God is with me.” Isn’t this the kind of trust Jesus was looking for from his friends, even in the midst of a most terrible storm.


A couple of weeks ago, there was a news cast about a young girl, suffering from a disease that left her unable to walk and get around.  A young teen, for his School Science project, had taken a child toy, known as a Big Wheel and converted into a wheel chair to give that young child some mobility.  Even though she still had the disease and face many health problems, the smile on her face, because of the gift of new mobility was tremendous.  That smile was made possible by another person’s showing concern and accepting the challenge.   For me, the great gift was the love behind it.  If we humans can love like that, think how much more God’s love should mean.  Why do we doubt?  Because Jesus has come, why shouldn’t we still have and keep faith?  Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

“What Reward Will You Get?”

Matthew 5: 43-48
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
7th Sunday After Pentecost, July 23th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #5)

Perhaps you’ve heard about the perfect man and a perfect woman.  They met each other at a perfect party. They dated for two perfect years. They had the perfect wedding and the perfect honeymoon. They had two perfect children.

One day the perfect man and the perfect woman were driving in there perfect car, they saw an elf by the side of the road, being the perfect people they were they picked him up.  Well, as the perfect man and the perfect woman were driving with the elf, somehow they got into an accident.  Two people died and one lived.

Who died and who lived?  The perfect woman, because the perfect man and elves don’t exist.   (http://www.ebaumsworld.com/jokes/perfection/196721/).

BE PERFECT?
If Jesus had said ‘be perfect’ right at the first of his sermon, hardly anyone in that world or ours, would have listened to the rest he had to say.   For we all know that ‘nobody’s perfect’, not even women.   But Jesus did not start with images of perfection, he started with what everyone knew was the most obvious, most acceptable standard of moral living clearly written in the law: ‘love your neighbor, and hate your enemy’ (v.43).  

This is the pattern of teaching that flows throughout this ‘Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus began where people are, with the standards of morality, ethics, and religion everyone knows are conventionally expected, like do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not break an oath, or eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (See vs. 21-42).  These were the most widely agreed upon morals long established in the Hebrew law, since Moses handed them down.  And in most every way, they still hold true.  You can’t have a civilization without basic moral rules, human rights and civil laws.  And as human beings, we can’t be remain civil, or even survive, without protecting these basic human rights and sharing a common set of basic moral laws and values.   

Recently, when Americans learned of the tragic return and death of the University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, all our hearts broke for his family and we share a sense of moral outrage that North Korea should be held morally responsible for his death.  A regime that does not care for the basic needs of its citizens, will not treat its prisoners fairly.  This is a government that has lost and should lose its credibility.   We know this, and we we should also know that this is the most basic moral ‘standard’ Jesus refers to when he quotes the basic moral norms of the Hebrew people, handed down from Moses, recorded in the Old Testament. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/us/otto-warmbier-north-korea-dies.html).
But when Jesus refers to the law, he does not settle for it alone.  Jesus does not intend to contradict the law, nor diminish the law.  He does expect his disciples to respect it and uphold it, but he also expects his disciples to take the law as a platform to build upon, to both uphold and also to supersede it—that is, ‘to fulfill it’, he says, and that means to be able to use for what it was intended to do, create the opportunity for building an even better world, better society, and to become even better people too.

This is what Jesus means, when he ends this passage, by saying ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’   This is, as one Australian pastor named it, PLAN B, that is ‘Plan BE’, which is no less, but even more than plan A.   Jesus’s Sermon on the Mountain raises the ethical standard of living, so that Jesus’ disciples can not only be compliant with the law, and respect the law, but that Jesus’ disciples can become ‘salt and light’ encouraging and leading by example to show the world an even higher ethic and morality that can bring new possibilities and new opportunities for life and living.

In fact, the word used here for ‘perfect’ means to be ‘complete’, or ‘mature’, which is to become the kind of people we were meant to be, as we live on a moral level that allows us to reach our fullest human potential.   What Jesus means here, is not to be absolutely flawless, which no one can achieve, but this the meaning here is more like the catchy television jingle, ‘to be all that we can be’, and even more, to discover not only what is in us, but also to discover what is out before us.

A few months ago, I told the Young Adult Bible Study about a Movie I had watched recently about the incredible world famous athlete, the Brazilian Olympian and soccer player, Pele.  Interestingly, Pele was not his real name.  It was his nickname used to make fun of him, but it stuck.  But what was most interestingly about his life was how he developed his amazing talent based upon what native Brazilans call ‘the beautiful game’.  Not only did he learn much of his natural playing skill from and Father and from ancient native defensive fighting techniques, when he tried only use conventional forms of soccer, some of his coaches recommended, it back fired.  Only when Pele was able to use his creativity to surpass the conventional forms of soccer, was he able to play and score better than any who played before him, or any who have played since. 

This need to surpass the conventional laws of Moses and morality is exactly what Jesus means by ‘perfection’.   When Jesus said that he came ‘not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it’, he did not mean to simply comply to the law, but to live on a higher level, to go beyond it, and to use the law to live a life that did not settle for how things are, but living the law in a way that your life reached beyond to how things ‘should be’.   In other words, when Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, he means more than obey the law in a way that you settle for less, but he means to obey the law in a way that you will achieve and also obtain more. 

‘WHAT REWARD….?
This idea of ‘obtaining more’ brings us right to the heart of this question Jesus asked, when he asked right in the middle of this text: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

Right in the middle of this text and in the middle of this question is a word that is not very popular in religious settings these days; the word ‘reward’.  Some people think it cheapens or might even wrap true faith.   And this is possible, isn’t it?   Think about the negative connotation of the suicide bomber who goes into a crowded market, or onto a crowded street and blows themselves up in hopes of going to heaven and getting some nice reward, which helps him or her to accomplish the cause of their god in the world, no matter who gets hurts, including themselves.   But also think of a good person, not a crazy person, but a good person who settles for less than they could do or accomplish in this life, because they know that at the end of life, there is, as Scripture says,  a reward, or a ‘crown’ of victory or faithfulness, waiting for them.   There reward is not something they should live for here and now, but there ‘reward is in heaven’.

And isn’t this what Jesus also advises at the end of this great ‘Sermon’, when he says,  “Seek, God’s Kingdom, first,” (6:33), or  ‘Don’t store up treasures on this earth…but store up treasure in heaven?’ (6:19-20).  Some say that this whole idea of rewards, if misunderstood, will lead to a faith that is only based on ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ and cheapens faith, and lessens our human drive to work, to achieve, and to ‘be all we can be’.   Many suggest that true religion, updated for today, should refrain from teaching about ‘rewards’ on earth, or in heaven, and should be faithful and live righteously simply because this is right, whether there are rewards or not.

While there are dangerous misunderstandings about ‘rewards’, I think we deny, not only part of the Bible, but we also deny part of what it means to be human, if we neglect to take Jesus’ teaching about ‘reward’ seriously.   Besides, Jesus is not simply speaking of ‘rewards’ in heaven, but, as I’ve already tried to explain, Jesus is speaking about the heavenly rewards in ways that break into our lives now, as we live toward God’s future,  by living out a higher level of morality and ethic in the here and now.  What Jesus is trying to do is not to negate heaven or heavenly rewards, but to help his disciples realize that God’s kingdom, rule, and way of life, can break through and come near now, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’

IF YOU LOVE THOSE WHO LOVE YOU
Faith, hope, and love are the ways we live toward God’s heavenly kingdom now.   And, as it is written, “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).   But it is a particular kind of ‘love’ that Paul meant, and Jesus means, not just love by any definition. 

For as we all know, the world is full of talk about love.  We use the language of love to speak about loving our animals, our cars, or some other object, in the same way we speak of loving our family, our friends, or loving God.   We know we don’t mean it in the same way, but how do we rephrase it when language can be so limited?

Laws about love can be limited too.  With the law, then and now, we can tell, and even demand what people are not supposed to do to each other, but you can’t use the law to make people, or even help people know how they should love each other.  In other words, we have laws about how to get a divorce, and we even have laws about what a marriage means legally, but we don’t have laws about how to make a marriage work or how to make a marriage last.   In other words, when a Lawyer or a Politician says we are ‘nation of laws’, halfway quoting Thomas Jefferson, or some other patriot who said, ‘we are a nation of laws, not men’, we know they mean something very important, because we can’t just be a nation that makes up the laws as we go, based on what we want when we want it.  But what we must also realize is that to be a ‘good nation’, maybe even a ‘righteous’ one, we must not only settle for being ‘a nation of laws’, but if we want to ‘be what we can be and should be’, we must also be a ‘nation of laws’ that keeps using the law to continue asking ourselves what love means or we lessen or cheapen the laws we have.

Again, Jesus does not intend to cheapen the law, nor to lessen any moral law, which says for us, ‘to love your neighbor’, but he does commands his disciples to go beyond this.  Jesus says there is no real, lasting or enduring reward, ether here and now on earth, or in heaven, by only settling for a definition of love that means loving only those who love me back, or who are able to give to me in return.  The ‘rewards’ of love, which only God gives, comes to those who learn to define love in bigger terms; that is much bigger and broader terms, that begins by ‘loving those’ who don’t or can’t pay you back (v.46-47). 

Most everybody wants a better neighborhood, and we will try to love our neighbors.  Most everybody will try or want to love their own family and their own people.  Even people we think little of, will try to do this.  We need our family, and our family needs us.  But to love those who don’t love us, or can’t love you or pay you back, now that’s a higher form of living and loving, which Jesus says, brings the potential, possibilities, and the perfections of kingdom of heaven, right down to earth, right where we live and where we love.

We can think about Jesus command in various ways, can’t we?   We can think about going to a nursing home to pay a visit, or to pay our respects to someone who has died, or to pay tribute to someone who has done something worthy of respect and admiration.    What is interesting is this idea of ‘paying’ a visit, paying respect, or paying tribute, or even the idea of ‘paying our dues’.   The most basic idea in our language is not only that we owe this to people, but what we are also doing even more.  The more recent phrase, saying that by doing something good, showing mercy, hope, faith, and love to someone, even someone we might not know, we might ‘pay it forward’ so that a better world comes into being.   Interestingly, this term ‘Pay it Forward’, that was used recently in a popular movie, goes back to an older practice of people who have received a loan, paying to loan off to someone else who might need the money, rather than paying the money back to the original lender who most obviously, doesn’t need the money (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pay_it_forward).  This idea of paying a good deed forward, can be found in many inspirational writings and people, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin who wrote, in a letter to Benjamin Webb in April of 1784, 
“I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you.  When you…meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity.  I hope it may go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. 
This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

But what Jesus means is not a ‘trick’ nor it is only something that can be done with ‘money’.  It is about love, and love that really makes a difference in this world and in the world to come.   It is a love that loves for the sake of loving, of being merciful, and of showing the kind of love that not only settles for how things are, but a love that reaches out to how things might be, if more people were living for, and showing love to each other, regardless of the ‘pay back’.

The other day, when I was leaving Home Depot in Statesville, a man was standing at the intersection with a brochure in his hand.  Because I had to stop at the traffic light, he was apple to approach my car window.  As he flashed the brochure into my face, I saw that it had some words about supporting a Mission, but it was a brochure that was so poorly done, that I realized the mission was probably about him.   The whole thing could have been a lie, with the ultimate truth being that he needed the money.  
Then I recalled what my professors, Don Cook once advised in class in Seminary.   He told us that in our pastoral ministry, we would sometimes come upon people asking for handouts, who were ‘taking us for a ride’, as they say,  but he added, as long as you are not letting them take advantage of you and you are ‘taking the ride’ for the sake of loving and caring, then it will do you no real harm, and will bless you anyway.   Perhaps, it will even open up an opportunity for you to share your faith, or to show them what love will do, even for someone who does not know what love means. 
Remembering this, I took out a small ‘bill’ from my pocket and offered it to the fellow standing at my car window.  He said ‘bless you’ and ‘thank you’ and waited for the next car to stop.
Who knows whether or not that dollar went to a Mission cause, or he was the mission cause.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I gave it and that was a small blessing.  It’s like the time when someone stole the Bible commentary writer, Matthew Henry’s wallet.   In reflecting on the incident, Henry said, “One, I am thankful that he never robbed me before. Two, I am thankful that although he took my wallet, he did not take my life.   Three, although he took all I had, it was not much.  And fourth, I am glad that it was I who was robbed, not I who did the robbing.” (urbanfaith.com/2011/11/what-did-matt-w-henry-say-when-a-man-stole-his-wallet.html/).   

LOVE YOUR ENEMY….
But as we come to finally accept the full challenge of Jesus’ question, “What reward have you when ONLY love those who love you”, we need that this challenge is not obeying the law, abiding by the law, living the law, or especially not settling for way things normally are.   No, Jesus is not only talking about ‘loving those you love’ or trying to love those who don’t love you, but Jesus actually challenges the possibility of bringing about a whole new situation, a whole new and different reality, a better reality, by calling upon those who would follow him, to not only ‘love your neighbor’ but to also accept the challenge of loving ‘your enemy’.

I started out this message, speaking about the tragic death of Otto Warmbeir at the hands of the world’s current enemy number one, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un.  Most of us feel that this regime is worse than irrational, and that somebody needs to stop him and his current dangerous build-up of nuclear weapons.   I think it is most interestingly, and has been upsetting to some, that President Trump has suggesting that he would like to sit down and talk with the dictator.  What is even more interesting, as I write this message, South Korean president, Moon Jae-is, is on his way to the United States to meet with President Trump, perhaps to suggest that South Korea and the United States, take a softer approach and try to negotiate with this ‘irrational dictator’.  Moon has already suggested in his country, that the US should withdraw some troops and lessen the threat against North Korea by a show of good-will.   Now this might seem crazy, just as crazy as Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemy’, but we must remember that South Korea is the one with most to lose.  President Moon believes that showing some good-will could transform a nobody wins situation, and might help move North Korea from being the world’s worst enemy, to inviting them to a whole new possibility of becoming a friend.


Now, of course, who would dare suggest such as thing?  I’m glad you asked.  His name is…, well you know?   But do you know him enough to trust him, and to trust him not just enough to love those who love you, but trust him enough to cast some love toward someone you know doesn’t love, who might even hate you?  Could you do this, for the sake of transforming your world, or the world?   Now, that’s the real question?   Amen. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

“Why Do You See the Speck?”

Matthew 7:1-6
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
6th Sunday After Pentecost, July 16th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #4)

If you’ve ever had an eye problem you will never forget it.

Once, I pick up a gravel with a lawn mower and it ricocheted off a tree and glazed my eye.  The pain was unbearable for days.  Fortunately the injury was only to one eye, but during the time that eye was healing, I couldn’t see out of either eye.

My wife has allergies that often gets into her eyes.  The first time it happened, we had no clue what was happening.   She had to go a whole week with both eyes patched.   When they finally discovered the cause of her deteriorated retina, they told her that to deal with the problem when it reoccurs, she should immediately keep her eyes closed overnight and it would heal itself.   Occasionally, it still happens, but now she knows how to deal with it.

Eye problems can be difficult to deal with.   In our text today, Jesus reminds us that it’s very easy for Kingdom people--that is Christian, who truly try to follow the way of Jesus, to also develop a kind of spiritual eye problems.  Because we are people who are trying to live rightly, we will have a tendency become ‘judgmental.’  But we’d better think twice about that Jesus says.  Before we try to ‘take the speck’ out of the eye of our brother or sister, we’d better ‘first remove the plank, the log or the beam, from our own eyes.

‘JUDGE NOT’
When Jesus says ‘Don’t judge’ he is specifically speaking to us, his followers.  He is not speaking to pagans, Gentiles or simple Jews, but to his own followers.  This is one of Jesus’ very few clear cut, absolute, direct commands and he aims it right at us.  Can you see how important this was to Jesus?

In the recent book, “Unchristian’, author David Kinnaman, who worked for the Barna Research Group, writes about what the ‘new generation really thinks about Christianity’.  Not only do young people think that the church of today is ‘hypocritical’, ‘antihomosexual’, sheltered, misguided, and way too political, they also think the church and church people are way ‘too judgmental’.  To be exact, 87% of youth outside the church, which means almost 9 out of 10 young people, think the church is way too judgmental (p. 182).  In one example, Kinnaman tells of a young woman who was visiting a women’s Bible study group.  As they were discussing prayer issues, she told of a girl she knew who was pregnant, whose boyfriend left her, and she felt all alone and was considering aborting her child.  When the young woman shared, there wasn’t one Christian who empathized with the young girl.   Each of them rushed to get on the judgment wagon.  This kind of so-called judgmental “Christian” attitude, shocked the young woman.  She just couldn’t believe how harsh these Christian women were.  The young woman was not advocating that the girl should have an abortion, she was just trying to help the others know how to feel and pray for her.   What the group didn’t know was that there new Bible study partner had an abortion many years ago.  She would never have wish an abortion for anyone, but what it did do was make her at least understand the feelings the young girl felt.  She left that meeting with the impression that Christians don’t have empathetic feelings.  She said she didn’t need a judgmental faith like that.  She would figure out this “Jesus-thing” on her on.  She became one of those who ‘likes Jesus’, but not the church.

Being judgmental goes back a long ways.  And for the record, it’s not simply a Christian, or a religious problem; it is a human problem.   Don’t you recall how once in the Old Testament, when King David got very excited about the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, that he ‘danced before the Lord with all his might’(2 Sam. 6:14) and evidently exposed some of his private parts.  Michal, the daughter of the former king Saul, saw her over-exposed King and husband, only to unload on him for ‘going around half-naked….,’  exposing himself to ‘servant girlsas any vulgar servant might (6:20).’ 
Perhaps she made a point, but did she hear what she sounded like.  Did it cross her mind that her sour disposition was even worse that David’s nakedness?  

This is the thing about being judgmental, isn’t it?  According to Jesus, it’s fairly easy to go around trying to find the fault-specks of other people, but it’s really hard to take an honest look at what everyone sees and knows about us, except us.  Pastor Dan Day rightly calls this the ‘pickiness problem’.   This pickiness problem of self-excusing and other-judging, goes all the way back to the Garden, when Adam tried to make God believe it was all Eve’s fault.  “It was THAT WOMAN you put here with me---she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it?” (Gen. 3:12). It was her, not me.  She did it!

We all have at some form of this ‘pickiness problem’ in each of us, don’t we?   And I don’t think we can or should blame Eve or Adam for it either.  I think the story of Adam and Eve is the about OUR human condition, not just THEIR condition.  The story of Adam and Eve is not about who caused us to be who we are, but it is the story of who we humans have always been, right from the very first ‘bite’. 

But here’s an even bigger story.  Just because we are now Christians, and just because we are now ‘new creatures in Christ’, this does not mean that we are able to shake off our human qualities and conditions.  We can try to change some of them.  We can try to kick some of our bad habits and behaviors, but the truth is, and Jesus knew this, that some things are liable to get worse, rather than better, now that we are following Jesus.  Case in point is what happened with James and John, nicknamed the ‘Sons of Thunder’.  Once, when the disciples encountered some Samaritans, who refused to allow Jesus and them to make a short cut through their town, they were ready to ‘call down fire from heaven’ against those folks  (Luke 9:52-54).   Evidently, James and John didn’t even flinch when Jesus said “Blessed are the Merciful”, or said “Love Your Enemy”.   Right before that, after arguing with the other disciples over ‘who is the greatest’, James and John  requested that only they were capable of ruling with Jesus in the coming kingdom (9:46).   In both cases, whether with a stranger or a friend, they were ready not to not only pass judgment, but to carry it out, even without a trial.  

This human tendency to judge others, rather than take an ‘honest look at ourselves’  is exactly why Jesus makes this command ‘not’ to judge straight toward us.  Exactly because we are still human, and as we are ‘being transformed by the renewing of our minds’ as Paul says, we are still ‘not yet what we will be’, as John also says.

How does this human tendency to judge, and pass judgment on others, come out in your life?  Well, in my life, one of the ways it shows up is when my wife makes toast.   As you know, my wife is a wonderful cook.  And she not only cooks well, she manages well, and she can cook fast and good.  But sometimes, especially when she is making breakfast in the morning, she will have a many things going at the same time, and I have to remind her about the toast.  Often times, it’s too late.   Well, the truth is, I should be helping with the toast.  The truth is, I have a tendency to leave things laying around the house.   The truth is, I’m supposed to make the bed every day, but sometimes I leave it unmade.   And the biggest truth is, when she burns the toast, I should keep my big mouth shut, but it’s a still a struggle.  The biggest struggle is not to scrape the black off the toast, or to make new toast, but the struggle is for me to keep my mouth shut, and to remember what mom said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!”

Of course, there are other more complicated issues, because we all have our own ‘pickiness’ stuff that we struggle with.   For all of us, inside the church and outside the church too, because we are human, we struggle with jumping conclusions and passing judgment too quickly.   Probably the biggest lesson came for me when I went to a Wedding years ago, and the officiating pastor performed the entire service from memory.   As a young pastor, I was not impressed, but was perhaps a little jealous that he had the mind to do that, and somewhat infuriated that he would try, because there were a few times he struggled.  When I realized that he was struggling to recall the words to the ceremony, I thought to myself, “How dare him try to be so impressive with his memory that he was somewhat spoiling this sacred moment?”   But as the service came to a conclusion, I suddenly had a rude-awakening.   This pastor was blind.  He had lost his eyesight and was doing the best he could.  And he was now doing a really great job.  It was me that was making the biggest blunder.  It was I who deserved to be judged, not him.
‘WHY DO YOU….?
Moving from Jesus’ command “Do not judge!” we now come to Jesus’ big “Why?”  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s (or sister’s eye) and pay no attention to the plank in your own?”  Then he adds, “How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye, when all the time there is a plank hanging out of your own eye?  Why?  How dare you try to do something like this (7:3-4). 

Jesus paints an unforgettable, funny picture of a person trying to get a splinter or speck out of another person’s eye, when they have a log or plank hanging out of their own eye.  But Jesus is not joking.  This kind of ‘judging’ or ‘judgmentalism’  can destroy churches, communities, and families.   In fact, Jesus has already spoken of the seriousness of all this.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured (out) to you” (7:2).   Jesus takes ‘judging’ and ‘judgmentalism’ so seriously, that it even sounds like he is going back to ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth’ (Matt. 5:38).  But he’s really not.  Let me explain my point with a reminder of Shakespeare’s play, “Measure for Measure”, which was based upon this text.  This play is called a Comedy, because everything turns out alright in the end, but most of the play is dark and disturbing.

The focus of the play is about Angelo, a noble but stern lord, who is left in temporary charge of Vienna while Vincentio, the Duke, goes away for a spell.  At least he pretends he goes away, but actually stays near in disguise.  For no sooner has Angelo taken charge, he reveals his strict, moralistic self, tightens up the laws, and condemns someone named Claudio to death, because Claudio has fathered a child out of wedlock.  Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who was about to become a nun, pleas for her brother’s life, warning Angelo, that if he handles her brother too harshly, God might also handle him harshly.  She questions in great Shakespearean prose: 
If He (God), which is at the top of judgment, should but judge you as you are? 
O, think on that and mercy then will breathe within your lips, like a man new made.”

Angelo refuses.  Claudio must die.  But at the same time, Claudio is smitten with passion and lust for Isabella herself, and offers to spare her brother, if she will allow him to have his way with her.  The plot twists and turns, but ends with Angelo’s own vices and crimes being exposed, with him finally pleading for a sentence of death against himself.  Instead, the Duke, who has been around the whole time, now reveals himself, pardons them all, making Angelo live with the truth about himself for the rest of his life  (Most of this comes from NT Wright, commentary on Matthew, p. 68, or from http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/measure/summary.html).

The fate of Angelo is the fate, Jesus questions and warns us about.  “Why” would we try to judge the faults of others, without looking at our own faults first?   Why would we dare this, knowing we could get into worst trouble by judging or disobeying Jesus?  Without having to get into Freudian analysis, the answer could be right here, in Jesus own question:  Why do we look at the speck in THEM?  How could we avoid seeing a ‘plank’ or a ‘log’ in our own eye, and instead, stress ourselves and other out, by straining to see the speck in their eye?  Well, couldn’t it be the same reason some were ‘straining a gnat and swallow a camel’ (Matt. 23:24)?   By putting the focus on others, on other things, we get the focus off of ourselves.  We see what we want to see, no matter how small or big, and we don’t see what we don’t want to see, no matter how big that is either.

A good example of this is a family reunion.  Who wants to go to one?  Who wants to go and smell Aunt Sally’s bad perfume, listen to Uncle Jim’s bad jokes, or cringe when Cousin Jack gets all political and opinionated?   We all have relatives we can’t stand to be around for obvious reasons.  But the unobvious one, and perhaps the hardest reason these relatives are hard to be with, is because they are one of us.  As Pastor Dan Day says, “These are your family”, and when we are with them, we are forced to face the fact that they ‘we are all one, big, messed-up, dysfunctional family, whether our name is Smith or Ekweku, Zawahiri or Grunewald.  As Scripture says, ‘we are all of one blood’ (Acts 17:26, KJV), and ‘when I’m grumbling about how many jerk there are in the world,  I need to realize what arrogant and impossible turf is being defended’  by trying to exempt myself, which is only an attempt to avoid owning up to how the dysfunction runs right through me  (Day, J. Daniel. If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 536). Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Kindle Edition.

FIRST TAKE THE PLANK FROM YOUR OWN EYE, THEN….
Now, as we conclude, we must not misunderstand Jesus.  Jesus is not saying that the Christian or the church shouldn’t make serious judgment calls.  This is definitely not an excuse to live like the world, to condone the way the world lives, nor to overlook the need to correct each other in love.   There is still room in the church for rules, values, and standards.   In fact, Jesus says, “First take the plank out of your eye,’ then, he implies, you can work on ‘the speck’ in your brother or sister’s eye. 

No, this is not a question of making judgments, but its about becoming judgmental, that is taking upon ourselves a role that only belongs to God.   Why is Jesus so concerned about this?  The truth is Jesus is not simply trying to stop us from judging each other.  This is the small picture, but it’s not the big picture.   The big picture concerns the work and growth of the kingdom in us and in the world around us. While we, as Christians, cannot cause the Kingdom of God to come on our terms, we can seemingly slow it down, or at least, prevent the kingdom of God’s grace, from being present in our own church, in our own family, in our own community, in a way that God’s mercy and grace is denied becoming a reality in our own lives.    

We prevent this ‘blessedness’ from being real in us, when we live judgmentally, forgetting to examine ourselves first.   Though we may not have the same faults as others, and they may in fact have sins that outwardly seem much worse, what Jesus names here is the sin of a follower, or an outwardly religious person, which is a sin much worse than even being the worse sinner.  For you see, sinners can be forgiven, but a hypocrite cannot.  A hypocrite can’t be forgiven because they will not because their sin is too great, but because by the very nature of their sin, they will not admit to being just as big, or just as bad a sinner as everyone else.  Remember the Pharisee who prayed: “Thank God, I’m not like that man over there” verses the one who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  The second prayer results in salvation, but the first doesn’t result in salvation because, the person prays to put themselves in a category that implies they don’t need salvation.

But it doesn’t have to be or stay this way.   Recall that wonderful gospel song of the 70’s, ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’, and its chorus that went: 
“Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the water.
Put your hand in the hand of the man who calmed the sea. 
Take a look at yourself and you can look at others differently.
Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.’

This is what this question is all about.  It is not simply a lesson on how to be a good Christian, but it is an even more important lesson about how we all need Jesus, and we need each other too.  As a welcome saying goes, “We are not supposed to see through others, but to help to see others through.”  Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

“Where Have We Been; Where Are We Going?”

Matthew 1: 1-17
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Zion Baptist  Church, 11:00 am.
5h Sunday After Pentecost, July 9th, 2017,    Homecoming Service

When James Rowles (R-O-W-L-E-S, pronounced rolls) was in the seminary, he was invited to preach at a small rural church.  However, the man who was to introduce him to the congregation had trouble pronouncing his name.  So, the guest pastor offered this verbal clue: Remember rolls, like hot buttered rolls.”   It worked. When it came time for the introduction, the man announced, “Today, as our guest speaker, we are pleased to have with us the Reverend James Biscuits.”  (From Reader’s Digest, http://www.rd.com/jokes/religion/)

Today is “Homecoming”.  You don’t have a guest preacher named “rolls” or “biscuits.’ You’ve got me; but we are all anticipating our fellowship meal together.  But it is not just the food we think about, it’s also our wonderful fellowship as the local body of Jesus Christ.  This celebration of a church anniversary reminds us that we are people living in the midst of a long story, ongoing for 191 years and beyond.   And since this story of faith and fellowship is ongoing, we are very much like Janus of Roman mythology.   He was the mythical god of beginnings and endings, gates and doorways, of passages and of time.   You will still see him as a decoration on some elaborate gates and doorways.  The month of January was named after him because he is the story of someone who constantly and simultaneously looked forward and backward at the same time.   He could look both ways at once.

LOOKING BACK:  ALL IN THE FAMILY
Today, as we reflect over 191 years of this congregation’s life and history, we also need to have the courage and hope it takes to look back, look around and look toward the future, and that is not easy, especially with the challenges of our times and our constantly increasingly ‘churchless’ society.  

But before we address the challenge before us, I want to read a text that marks a similar turning point in the history and story of the Bible: the opening seventeen verses of Matthew 1:1-17.   This text may seem like a strange text for a sermon: seventeen verses of names — who was the father of whom for forty-two generations.  It’s a passage that’s never included in a lectionary, seldom read in a worship service, and omitted or drastically abridged in children’s bibles.  It surely seems like mere background information that we should skip over.  But in Matthew’s understanding of the gospel, and in the logic of the assembling of the New Testament books (placing Matthew’s gospel first), this genealogy is the proper beginning for the story of Jesus and has an important message for us today.  

So, first of all, Jesus’ family history is so important in the Bible for the same reason your own family stories important to the story of this church.   In the story of God, the people whom God loves always matters most.  Churches are not mainly about religion or theology either, but churches are about people.   The word ‘church’ itself is a testimony to this, because the word does not mean sanctuary where God lives, but the word literally means an ‘assembly’ of people.  People are the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit.  This church is made of a special, unique, ‘called’ or ‘peculiar’ people, some who among your families, but also others on the outside, who should be important to us too. 

What we need to see in Jesus’ genealogy is that it serves two distinct purposes :  First, it tells its readers just who Jesus was---that is the people he came from.  The original readers of this gospel were Jewish people.  Matthew believed they could best understand Jesus if they knew how He fit into their own common story. “You know who Abraham was,” he is saying, and “you know Isaac and Jacob and David and Solomon.  Now, with this genealogy that includes them, he is saying “let me introduce you to Jesus, the Christ, who is their descendant.”

So, when Matthew wrote this genealogy, he was, first of all, looking backward.   By looking back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and to David especially, Matthew was trying to establish Jesus’ credentials as one among them, who is born to be their awaited Messiah---the Christ.   Now, that’s a big statement, a really big one.   It would be a hard one, even an impossible one for most people to accept.  But it would have never, ever gotten off the ground, had Matthew not connected Jesus with the story of his own people.  Jesus is not Jesus, unless he was one of them.

Also, before we think about how we should live for Jesus today and in the future, we must first ask, what does it mean ‘to be one of us.’   In other words, what has it meant and what does it mean to be a part of the church?  We all know that the history of rural churches like Zion, often gravitate around certain families.    We are called, by experts, a ‘family chapel’ with several families being essential to this church’s history and hope.   We could speak of these families one by one, but this might seem to belittle the others who have become part of our congregation.  What I want to say, most of all, is that   Jesus couldn’t be Jesus in without his family and his heritage, and this church can’t be who it is, without the families who have made you who you are. 

Since I grew up elsewhere, I can tell you from my own church experience, how the families who made up my home church, were very important to shaping its history.   I recall when I was writing the history of that church, reading in the old minutes of how the church finally came to end the old practice of publically exposing, humiliating, and ‘churching’ members many, many years ago.  People today have difficulty understanding such strict social behavior in the past, just like we can’t understand how the Catholic once excommunicated people, or put once put people on trial and executed them for heresy.  What people don’t understand about ‘then’ was how much more serious life was then, because almost all matters were matters of life and death.  In early American history, churches barely survived the elements and rawness of life, so any threat to the covenant community was deemed a serious threat to the community’s identity the survival of its faith.  So, in Baptist history, when people were publically exposed, it was not in hope of simply humiliating them, or destroying them, but it was in hope of saving them and the church too. 

Of course, today it seems like a ‘strange’ way to save somebody, by throwing them out for bad behavior or for an addiction.   We know much more about addictions today.  A lot has changed, and not just in the church.  I recall Wes Palms telling about how he ran behind the DDT fog machine (I did too), with his Surgeon father, holding a cigarette and cheering him on.   His father, although a doctor, was a smoker and doctor back in the 50’s and 60’s, when almost no one understood the dangers of cigarettes.   We should never judge people in the past, including people in the biblical story, without also understanding the context of that day.  In the same way, because churches are made of people, who have been saved through many blunders and mistakes, we must not discredit these who are part of our past.   No, it should make us appreciate them more, and also, to appreciate the families who stayed together to do God’s work, even while they were still learning and maturing in the process. 

In regard to my home church’s practice of church discipline, fortunately my home church ceased this harsh practice when it came to realize that it was doing more harm than good.   Once, when a member was publically exposed for insobriety, and did not repent, he was band from membership.   His family, who loved him, in spite of his flaws and failures, decided to leave the congregation too.   It didn’t take too many times for this to happen, that the congregation, as a family, had to find a better way to deal with its humanity.  Without having good families, being a family that loves, cares and grows like families should, we could not be the church.   We would have stopped being church long ago, if we had not learned just to be made up of families, but to become a family---the family of God.

I’m sure you could find similar stories of family in our church histories.   What is wonderful about learning your history, warts and all, is when you also see through struggle and challenge, you also find both growth and maturity.   Looking in this way, including when we look back into the story of the Bible, we can see a people of God who did not just have an existence, but were also a people on a journey.   And isn’t this what all our stories should be about:  not a final destination, but a continuing journey?

LOOK AROUND:  A GOOD, BUT FLAWED FAMILY
Also, by this genealogical list Matthew also comments that these are the ‘generations of Jesus Christ’ (1:17), the people of the past create the possibility of the story of faith going on right now.  Can you see how important this is, not just to look back, but also to look around?   When Matthew challenged Israel to ‘look around’  he hoped that  would they see, not only their people, whose story gave us the hope of the Messiah, but that they would also see the story of the people who needed the Messiah today.

We also, should not only look back to see where we’ve been, or who we’ve been, but we also see who we really are---a people who still need Jesus.  If you take time to look closely at this genealogy and these generations, you will notice that we know only a few of them.  Most of them were not great heroes and all of them were sinners, flawed people who needed God just like we do.  These were a people, who like Abraham, were on a journey but they arrived because they were ‘looking for a city whose builder and maker is God’ (Hebrew 11:10; 13:14).   And just as they were a people on a journey to a ‘city’ they could not build for themselves, they were a people who had made many mistakes, had some great failures, and were not always faithful to God.  But the point Matthew is making now, is that by sending Jesus, God is still faithful to them.  

What do we see when we look around?   Do we see perfect people?  No, of course not.  Do we see people who are always faithful to God?  No, not that either.   When we look around, then and now, we see a people who need Jesus, just as much now as ever.    This is also important for us to see so that we don’t glorify the past, but that we live in the present, and remain focused on the God who still saves, still redeems, and who remains faithful to us---all of us.  For even when we fail him, God never fails us.

When I look at my own Tomlin generation, I see both the good and the bad, the fabulous and the flawed.   Not long ago, while recovering from surgery, I studied the Tomlin family, and I learned some interesting fact, which my family, either didn’t know or had forgotten, perhaps on purpose.   I learned that my first ancestor in American, lived in Virginia, but moved to Maryland and his son became a leader in an Anglican congregation at Rock Creek Church.   But after he committed adultery, he lost much of his wealth and in 1783, his two of his sons moved to North Carolina and became Methodists.  I also looked back and saw how they own slaves and their grandsons fought in the civil war.  After being captured, both of them were taken to a Federal prison in Morganton where one of them died, but the other escaped and came back home.  My family descended from the one who barely escaped. 

I could also mention how one ancestor had a child, but was never married.   My family never told me stuff like this; they kept it all secret, as many families did.   About that time, perhaps because of this, they stopped being Presbyterian and became Baptist.   Also, her son, my young grandfather, died prematurely of complications from surgery. My grandmother successfully raised 7 kids all alone, the oldest being 16, even though Social Services advised her to put them all up for adoption.  Grandma was a reverent, quiet, but was also a very hard-working lady, with strong ‘will’ and ‘determination’ that was passed down to her children, and children’s children. 

So, when I look back I see a very human family, mostly good, but also flawed, being blessed, but also needing a blessing.   I can imagine you see some similar things when you look back or even when you around now.   But when I look, I don’t look to judge, but I see them honestly, not through rose-colored glasses, but I look and say with Matthew:  ‘these are the generations….’; people who are mostly good, but also very human and people who still, need Jesus, just as much as Matthew’s people did.

Henry Ford once said that ‘all history is bunk’’, meaning nonsense, or counterfeit.  There is some truth to this, because no telling of a story ever tells the whole story.   What we can also say is that whether we are telling our human story, telling the story of the church, or thinking specifically about the story of this church, we remember and face the real story, not to glamorize the good or dramatize the bad, but we remember so that we find the hope, life, and redemption that we need for our lives right now.   For again, just as much as they needed Jesus when they established this church 191 years ago,  we should also realize how much we, who make up this church still need Jesus today. 

LOOKING FORWARD:  A FAMILY FULL OF HOPE  
Just as Matthew’s people needed a messiah to ‘save them from their sins’ (1:21), so do we, still today and we will also tomorrow.   Knowing God in the past, having a history with God, does not guarantee a future.   This is Matthew’s people needed Jesus---to give them a future.   For only a living God, a God of hope who is alive in us, and goes with us because we are on a journey with him, can promise us a future.   

When Jesus ministered among his people, he made it plain to His disciples to that should do more than ‘remember’ what He had done.  He also said: “Go and be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8)!  “Go and work in the vineyard  (Matt. 21:28)!  Go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19)!” Jesus never let His disciples dwell on what had already been done. Their purpose and hope for the future to be found in where they were going, and who they were becoming, not in who they were or where they had been: “The one who believes…will do greater works than these” (John 14: 12).

So, where are we going?   In this changing, challenging world, what is our purpose and what kind of future do we need to work toward together?   Several months ago, when I preached the Associational Message, here in this Sanctuary,  I told of going to a very informative seminar recently, led by a national youth leader from Fuller Seminary in California.   He told us that, in this future, a future that always belongs to the young, and never to us,  he said that a church that wanted to survive and thrive, in spite of the changing and challenging landscape of doing church today,  needed to be a church that learned to ‘grow younger’.   Interestingly, his explanation of what it means to grow younger did not necessarily mean what we might think it could mean.   Sure, young people like a different kind of music, and dress in a different way, and will worship in different ways, but the one place the life of the church of the past, present, and future came come together, is in how ‘warm’, relational, inviting, caring, and understanding we are now.   He summed it up this way:  ‘the new cool for the church is warm’.  If you can do ‘warm’, even in this increasingly cold, impersonal, too often unhelpful and uncaring world, you will be a church with a future, rescuing those who still need God’s salvation.  

What can we do to become a warmer congregation?  How can warm-up our ‘warm’?   Perhaps the best answer is the best part of the story we already know.  One of the most important theological books of the last twenty-five years is a book called Theology of Hope, by the now 90 year old plus, German professor, Jurgen Moltmann.   He barely survived WWII, living in Hamburg as the bombs fell all around him.  That was when he learned about the God who is hope:  “From first to last,” wrote Moltmann, “Christianity is … hope, forward looking and forward moving.” The promise that the future is ultimately in God’s hands is “the (warm) glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.”  It is our faith in the end of time that directs our journey through all time. (Theology of Hope. New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 16.)

If we want to have hope, we must share hope, speak hope, and be hope to the hapless and to the hopeless.  The Church of Jesus Christ is the first-fruits, the beginning of the  coming Kingdom of God, when God’s saving presence brings eternal spring into this cold, hopeless, and hurting world.  It is our purpose to remember God’s faithfulness, kindness, and mercy through our history up to now, and with this remembering, to be moved and help move our world toward the hopeful goal God has given us.

So during this anniversary celebration, like Matthew, we not only see Jesus, but we see Jesus as part of a long, great, continuing story of faith.  ….We look to our history — the history of God’s people, of the Christian Church, of this congregation — remembering who we are and where we have been. And at the same time we look to the future, remembering what we have been put here to do and where we are going. Our history is always leading us somewhere; our glory as God’s children is always yet to come.  Amen.