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Sunday, June 30, 2019


A sermon based upon Psalm 33
Preached by Charles J. Tomlin, Pastor
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
June 30th, 2019

Today, we begin this message in your pocket.

“Please take out a one-dollar bill and look at it. The design you are looking at first came off the presses in 1957. This so-called paper money is a cotton and linen blend, with minute red and blue silk fibers running through it. Money isn’t ‘paper’ , it’s actually cloth! We’ve all washed it without it falling apart. Is that what they call money laundering?  Not exactly, but you understand my pun:  When they make money, and it doesn’t grow on trees, because it’s made of cloth.  After they put this silk cloth together, a special, secret blend of ink is used. It is then overprinted with symbols, starched to make it water resistant and pressed to give it that nice crisp look.

Also, when you look on the front of the bill, you see the U.S. Treasury Seal. On the top are the scales—for a balanced budget. In the center is a carpenter’s square—a tool used to ensure an even cut and honest dealings. Underneath is the key to the U.S. Treasury. The year 1789 is when the U.S. Treasury was founded.   

That is all pretty easy to figure out, but what is on the other side?
 It is a “Message in Your Pocket” about the ‘blessing’ upon this nation that we all should learn before this upcoming Independence Day.  

When you turn the dollar bill on its back, you see two circles. Both circles, together, comprise the Great Seal of the U.S. The first Continental Congress requested that Benjamin Franklin and a group of men come up with a seal. It took them four years to accomplish this task and another two years to get it approved. We need to remember these men in that congress were all working with a price on their heads, under the threat of death, if they’d been caught.

Now, to continue, if you look at the right-hand circle and check it carefully, you may recognize the picture. It is on every national cemetery in the United States. It is the centerpiece of most heroes’ monuments in our nation. Slightly modified, it is the seal of the U.S. President and always it is visible when he speaks. Yet very few of us know what the symbols mean.

The bald eagle was selected as a symbol for victory. The eagle is not afraid of storms. The eagle is strong and smart enough to soar above them. The eagle wears no material crown. When this imagery and symbol was chosen, the thirteen original colonies had just broken from the king of England.
Also, notice the shield is not supported by anything. It is independent. This was another way to declare our country would stand on its own. In the eagle’s beak, we read in Latin, E Pluribus Unum—which means, “out of many, one” or “one nation from many people.” We were coming together as one nation.

Above the eagle are 13 stars, one for each of the original 13 colonies. Notice the clouds are rolling away from the stars. As we came together as a nation, the clouds of misunderstanding and storms of conflict were hopefully rolling away.
Notice what the eagle holds in its talons—an olive branch and arrows. As a people, we want peace (the olive branch), but we never will be afraid to fight to preserve peace and defend liberty. The eagle always wants to face the olive branch; but in time of war, its gaze turns toward the arrows to defend itself.

Many will say that the number 13 is unlucky—true almost worldwide. You seldom see a room numbered 13 or hotels with a 13th floor, but notice this: 13 steps on the pyramid, 13 letters in the Latin above the pyramid, 13 letters in the Latin E Pluribus Unum, 13 stars emerging from the clouds, 13 vertical bars on the shield, 13 arrows in the eagle’s talon, 13 leaves on the olive branch, 13 fruit on the olive branch.  13 is was transformed into our lucky number.  It is now, a number that has been transformed to make us rejoice… happy, blessed! 

If you look at the left circle, you will see a pyramid. Pyramids are the world’s greatest symbol of strength and civilization.  Notice, however, that the face of this pyramid is lighted, but the western side is dark. This is because our nation was just beginning. We had not yet begun to explore the West. We had not yet decided what we could do for western civilization. Notice also the pyramid is uncapped. This reminds us we are an experiment, and that we are not even close to being finished.

Inside the capstone is the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-watching eye—an ancient symbol for divinity or the one true God. It was Ben Franklin’s belief that one person couldn’t do it alone; but a group of people, with the help of almighty God, could do anything.  As Christians, you and I know that cornerstone of all nations is the stone the original builders rejected, that is Jesus, the Christ.

In the very middle, slightly above the center, are the words “In God We Trust.” This is our national motto. Above the pyramid in the left circle are the Latin words Annuit Coeptis, which means “Providence has favored our undertaking.” At the base of the pyramid is the Roman numeral for the year 1776. The other Latin phrase below the pyramid is, Novus Ordo Seclorum, which declares, “A new order has begun.”

The words “In God We Trust” are traced to the efforts of Pastor W.R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania. His letter of concern was addressed to the Honorable Salmon P. Chase, on Nov. 13, 1861. Seven days later, Mr. Chase wrote to James Pollock, director of the US. Mint as follows: “No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. Will you cause a device to be prepared without delay with a motto expressing in the finest and tersest words possible, this national recognition?”

Since 1863, the middle of the Civil,War, these words have been printed on the money in our pockets.  It was even printed on our money before it was adopted as our national motto.   Maybe you already knew this, but in case you didn’t, this is the message that travels with you on your money in your pocket. It isn’t just a message of independence, but it’s also a message of dependence upon God’s almighty providence and grace in establishing this great nation.

This message of national blessing goes all the way back to today’s Psalm. Psalm 33 can be divided into two parts. Verses 1-9, speak of God’s rule over His Creation; the whole earth.  In the the second section, the Psalmist observes how God overrule the plans of Kings and other nations to ‘bless’ this nation that he has called forth to bless as his special possession.  Israel of old, were a people called to be by God’s faithfulness, being delivered and shielded from destruction, because they waited upon and trusted in the Lord.

Today, the promise once given to Israel, has been extended to any people who will trust in him.  As Scripture testifies, The true ‘God is not a respecter of persons’, that is He does show favoritism, and in every nation, the person who respects him and does what is right is accepted by him (Acts 10: 35). 
This is why we can sing God Bless America, not to ask God’s blessing only on us, but to remind ourselves of the human opportunity as a nation, and as a people, to love what God loves and to do what is right so we can be part of God’s plans to bring ‘righteousness and justice’ into our world.

As we have our own opportunity to live under the motto, ‘In God We Trust’, we too must also think seriously about what doing right and just means.  Too many veterans have given up too much to let this fade. Many veterans came home to a people who didn’t seem to care. Too many veterans didn’t come home at all. On this Independence Day weekend, we do well to acknowledge that we still believe in and bear this sacred ‘trust’.   We don’t want to lose this great opportunity to rejoice and sing in our wonderful land:  “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.”

But there is something else, on our money and about this motto.   This ‘all seeing eye’ is looking back at us.  As Psalm 33 goes on to explain, God has ‘chosen a people to be his heritage….“The Lord looks down from heaven and see all human kind….   The eye of the Lord is on those who fear him…, who hope in his steadfast love,… who trust in his holy name.’  The ‘eye’ of divinity, of providence, and of eternal is still ‘looking down’, but what does he see?  

Alexis de Tocqueville is said to have observed about America, especially in her infancy: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there.
 I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there.
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there.
 I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there.
 I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic congress and her matchless constitution, and it was not there.
Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Didn’t what de Tocqueville see in America what the Psalmist said: ‘the Lord loves justice and righteousness’?   Does America still love what ‘the Lord loves’ today?  Isn’t this what this ‘sacred trust’ means?  As verse 16 and 17 of this text declares:  It is not the might of our military, and I might add, nor is it the amount of our money, but it by the grace of our God and the humble righteousness of His people that we have been blessed.

The highest glory of the American Revolution,” said John Quincy Adams, “was this: it connected....the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.” A few years later, Lawyer and historian John Wingate Thornton, studied the preaching and sermons of the American revolution and commented,  “God blessed America because our forefathers built their nation with reliance on Him and His Word, and because God had a Gospel purpose for our nation.”

Rev. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian, signed the Declaration of Independence. He personally taught several of the signers of the document. Nine of the signers were graduates of the little college over which he presided at Princeton. When he took up his pen to write his name on the Declaration, he declared, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, a spark. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery…”

The inscription on our Liberty Bell cites Leviticus 25:10: “...Proclaim Liberty Throughout the land”.  The Constitution refers to Jesus, stating it was signed “in the year of our Lord, 1787.”

Our patriotic hymn “My Country, ‘tis of Thee” was written in 1831 by a Baptist pastor, Samuel Francis Smith. The Pledge of Allegiance to our flag was written in 1892 by a Baptist pastor, Francis Bellamy.

State legislatures and the U.S. Congress employ paid chaplains to pray at the opening of all sessions. All military branches of the U.S. government have paid chaplains. It may be illegal in our schools and in our state and municipal government buildings, but above the Speaker’s chair in the U.S. Congress hangs a portrait of Moses with the Ten Commandments. The Library of Congress displays statues of Moses and the apostle Paul. It also has large inscriptions of Micah 6:8 and Psalms 19:1 prominently displayed (try that at the next high school football game). The Lincoln Memorial has chiseled on it: “Judgments of the Lord are righteous.”

The Tomb of the Unknowns is dedicated to a soldier “Known but to God.” There is a prayer room in Congress. Think we can get that in our schools? Local courts and boards can no longer open with prayers, because of public opposition, but the Supreme Court opens its sessions with the words “God save the U.S. and this honorable court.” The U.S. government mandates a “National Day of Prayer” each year. Christmas is a federal holiday. What this means is that our godly heritage’ is there, but it is fading.  Why would we turn our backs on this God of righteousness and justice who has blessed us?

Of all the places you could be living today, by the grace of God you are here,  living in the USA—a nation founded with the belief in God and by those who sought a place to worship Him in freedom, seeking justice for all. He has placed you here for a purpose. That purpose is not just to live free only for yourself, but as a creed says ‘ to know Him and enjoy Him forever’, to tell others about Him, to love righteousness and justice for him, and to discover true freedom of the both soul and of spirit.  This is the message in your pocket that should also be the message in your heart!  

But you know, don’t you, that today, we could be in danger of losing God’s blessing upon this great land.  And eventually, if we lose God’s blessing you will also lose your blessings too.   The events of September 11, the unending wars against terrorism, the decline of the west, the political impasse in Washington, the chaos growing in public schools, the anger and violence on our streets and in public places, the rapid decline in church attendance, and the continual slide of moral values, reflect major social and religious changes for our republic.

While America has never been officially a Christian nation, like the European error, we have been largely a nation of Christians, with a overwhelming majority of people who have respected and reverenced its churches.  Now, all that is changing, and changing fast.  According to Pew Research Center, from 2007 to 2014, Christianity in American has taken a sharp downward slide. The fastest growing group in America today are the ‘nones’; a new rising majority with no religious preference whatsoever.  While it is still statistically true that Christianity has is a majority ‘on paper’, the reality ‘on the streets’ and in communities and cities across this nation, is that fewer than 20 percent of Americans attend church to Worship on any given Sunday.  As we all know, it is regular church attendance, that shows where the heart is.

Our text says ‘the Lord looked down’ and observes everyone… and considers all their works (v. 15).  Interestingly, God doesn’t look with favor upon military power, or statistical strength, but it says ‘the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him”.  Notice, however, it does not say that God favors the ‘independent’, but he favors those who depend on His faithful love (18).  God will “deliver THEM from death and keep them alive in famine (19).”  And the greatest famine, is what the prophet Amos once described as: “….not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but (a famine) of hearing the words of the LORD.” (Amos 8:11 NRS). 

While this text clearly shows that a ‘war horse’ for military ‘victory’ or ‘a great army’ ‘cannot save’, it also says what will ‘save’ and what will bless, is to be a people who ‘fear him’, who ‘depend on his faithful love’, who ‘wait on him’, ‘rejoice in him’, who ‘hope in him’ and who ‘trust in his holy name’.

Isn’t this why the apostle Paul called the church, then located in its own very secular and pagan context, not to be ‘overcome with evil’ but to ‘overcome evil by doing good’ (Rom. 12: 21).  He told those first Christians, again, living in Rome under pagan governments, to ‘be subject to the governing authorities’ (Rom. 13:1), who are ordained by God.  He tells Christians to ‘pay their taxes’ and to ‘live honorably’ (13:13) and to ‘put on Jesus Christ’ in everything they do in their lives (13:14).  His premise is that Christians being Christian, that is Christ-like, and also by being good citizens, being ‘salt and light’ they would ‘shed’ light on what was right and ‘shed’ God’s grace on all the people.  

In the same vein, Jesus called us be ‘peacemakers’, by seeking a ‘higher righteousness’ that brings justice for and to all.  And this that Jesus and Paul both preached was really nothing new.  It goes all the back to, and beyond the call for God’s people everywhere to ‘do justice, to love mercy, and (to) walk humbly with our God’ (Micah 6:8). 

Isn’t this really what our great, God-given, blood-bought, blessing of freedom is about?  It isn’t a blessing to live just any way we want or wish.  Our independence, this gift from God our founding fathers acknowledged is not a gift without some important strings attached.  A great example of this responsibility comes from Bob Bartlett, when he was on a ship, exploring the Arctic.  While on that voyage, he and his crew brought back a number of caged bird. During their long trip home over the ocean, one restless bird escape from its cage. In the excitement of freedom, the bird flew away, and the crew watched it fly away out over the water until it disappeared in the blue sky. They all said, “that bird is lost!” However, after some time has passed, to their surprise, they saw that same bird flying back toward the ship at a rapid speed. Panting and breathless, the little feathered prodigal dropped onto the deck. Evidently, when it was far out over the water, lost and alone, that bird frantically searched for the ship again. Now it was was back, where the ship was no longer a prison, but a home. It had learned the hard way, that that ship was the only way safely across that wide and deep ocean (From J. Wallace Hamilton, Horns and Halos, (Revel, 1954).

Isn’t this what Psalmist means when he says we are God’s special possession.  To be claimed, possessed, or own by anyone sounds politically incorrect in our times, because so many, like that bird, wants to fly free without any historical, political, religious, or moral restraint at all.  But isn’t the gospel correct when we learn, once and for all, that we are only fully free when we are at home, on board the greatest ship of all?  This is the ‘gospel ship’ that Christ to make us free by being rooted and connected to God through him.  In Christ, the true God not only looked down, but he also came down, to make us free and blessed with his grace so that we can learn how to love righteousness and justice, just as God does.  For only when love and stay close to what God loves, can we continue to have God’s blessing.  Amen.        


Sunday, June 23, 2019


A sermon based upon Psalm 8, CSB
y Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
June 23rd, 2019

Steven Colbert has a spot on his Late Show. Perhaps you’ve seen it.  He and a celebrity are lying down, supposedly looking up at the stars, wondering about some of the great (and not so great) mysteries of life.  Something like that, in a more serious way, is going on in 8th Psalm, which is specifically labeled as a Psalm of David. Probably, after long hours as a Shepherd boy; keeping watch over his father Jessie’s ‘flock by night’, starring long and deep into the night sky and full of amazement, wonder, and contemplative worship, David could not help but express his thoughts, in what are some of the most beautiful lyrics ever written.

David did not write all the Psalms, but almost half of the 150 Psalms; 73 to be exact, have king David’s name of ownership on them.  Some were written by him, others may have been collected by him, and there is no doubt that David himself wrote this one.  It sounds like ‘a man after God’s own heart’, because it opens and concludes full of absolute praise and worship:  “O Lord, our Lord, How Majestic is Your Name in all the earth’.

Did you especially catch David’s ending, ‘in all’ or ‘throughout the earth’?  To claim that his own Jewish God’s name fills the whole earth was a very big claim for a little shepherd boy.  
As A great preacher once asked; How could David make such a claim,
       when he had never seen flamingos flying over a lake,
        had never watch a whale explode out of the deep blue sea;
        had never seen the long neck of a giraffe,
         had never seen an ugly ostrich stick his head in the sand,
         had never saw melting snow rushing into Fjrods in Scandinavia.
        had never look at the millions of organisms in an electron microscope,
         or had never seen a rocket on TV headed toward the moon,
       nor had a clue that there was a much, much more in that sky he couldn’t see?  

David’s eyesight may have been very good, but still, even on the darkest desert night he could only have seen a few thousand stars, having no idea just how vast and how unlimited this universe, let alone, what may be beyond this universe, in the many multi-verses that science suggests may exist beyond our own?

The great preacher I just referred to, the Late Fred Craddock (who influenced this sermon greatly), gave us creative dialogue between an angel and Robert Williams, who had just died and had newly arrived at the pearly gates.   When he approached the desk, the angel ask, “Name?”
         He said, “Williams.”
         “First name, please?”
         “Robert, Everybody knows me.”
         “Well, Robert, we have here 413 billion Robert Williams.  Could you be more specific?
         “But you know, in Gilmer County, they always call be Bob.’
         “Bob?  That helps.  Now, were down to 193 billion.
         “My close friends call me Buddy.”
         “OK, Buddy, now we’re doing well, 97 billion.  Could you help me a little more?
         “Well, I lived out on the road going out….?
         “No, No, which planet?”
         “Well, it was the earth, it was the third planet from the Sun!”
         “That’s good.  What country!”
         “The US of A!”
         “Would you give me the state.”
         “Would you give me the county again?”
         “Now, would you give me the address?”
         “3800 Creekside Loop.”
         “Ah, I see, you are that Robert Williams.”

Isn’t it easy to think small?   Or isn’t it also easy to think you are a big fish, then only to realize later that this is very small pond, and you didn’t realize just how many other ponds there are out there, with even bigger fish, not including in the oceans?  
And have you ever also considered just how big, this small little earth is?   Go out and look at the moon and stars that try to imagine how many other people are doing the same thing, somewhere else in this world.  It’s always dark, somewhere; and every minute there is some boy, girl, man or woman looking up at the same stars, wishing, wondering, hoping, praying.  Teach your children that in the same way we might here, also “in Korea, Russia, Bosnia, Uganda, Brazil, some child is looking up and wondering about what is ‘out there’ and ‘what all this means’ and wishing the same kind of dreams?  The world is put together to get us to wonder, and to think and dream big?

I know that life moves so fast, has so much for us to do, that fewer are taking time to smell the roses or think about ‘what’s it all about Alfie?’.  But when you do, if you did, ----and you will be spiritually poorer if you don’t---  because when you do ‘contemplate’ what this life is, it’s hard not to be filled with the same kind of wonder, the same kind of reverence, the same kind of smallness, but also to come away with a certain grasp of the bigness of life right here, on little earth,  there is life that happens nowhere else, as far as the eye can see.

When we are young, most of us look at life, and considered everything good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, biblical or unbiblical.  But when you look get older and wiser, you just might start seeing another category, like DAVID did, reducing everything that is down to one single category: big and small.  “When I consider (look up) at the Moon and stars, O God, why do you even think about us?” 

The moon and stars, keep going around so orderly.  Whatever the century, whatever the country, whatever ever the moment.   They are so precise that we can plan our lives, our calendars, and calibrate all our instruments on the fact that ‘they’ know exactly where they are going? 
But where are you going?  Where are we going? 
Aren’t we humans getting more and more confused? 
More and more people don’t know whether they supposed to live by the night, or the day, whether they are a boy or a girl, whether they should get married or stay single, whether they are religious or not?   I’m not saying we shouldn’t love such ‘confused’ people, I’m just saying that there is so much more confusion today.  Can’t you see it?

Once, God told Adam, whose name means ‘humankind’: “I’ll give you dominion over the land and sea, and all that is in the land or the sea; over all the beast of the field, over the fish in the sea.   
I’ll give you dominion…” God said.  But today we don’t know what that means, do we?  Does that mean that we control, take, kill and destroy whatever we like, or does that mean that we are too be stewards, caretakers, and care-givers to life that is a “gift’ to us, on this earth?  Too many people believer we can rape the land because we own it.  We can pollute the streams, because it’s  ‘my’ land.  They misunderstand that song: “This land is your land, This land is my land….”  Some people think that means that you can trash it, darken, pollute it, forget about it.  They also think, “It’s my body, I’ll do what I want with it….”  They think “YOU SHALL HAVE DOMINION” means do whatever you want, become whatever you want, say whatever you want.  Have you ever realized what’s not going on in the mind of a person who throws trash out the window of their car, or allows ‘trash’ to come our of their own mouths or life?

And of course, there are also those who think that ‘dominate’ means to accumulate.  It’s yours, so take it, get it, hold it tight.  Most of these people never understand that the more they ‘have’, the less somebody else can have.  Most people never get the reality or the connection between ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots’? 

I recall in the Mission Learning Center, in Richmond, how we once had a meal where we ‘cast lots’ and one group got to eat beans, another rice only, and a too many got nothing, while there was one small little group who got to eat steak, and all the fixings, and not just one steak, but ‘all they could eat.’  That was our ‘actual’ meal for the 30 some missionaries that night, and those most of those barely got barely something, and some and had to go to bed still hungry, already started ‘’hate the few people who would not share with us.  (They were instructed not to share, but we didn’t know).  The next morning, when all came back together: “That’s how the world really is, our missionary teacher, tried to teach us. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s how we make it.  That’s how a few have ‘dominion’ while many others have nothing.  That’s the way the world works, or should I say doesn’t work.  A few have, most have not.  A few grab, hold, collect, or even hoard.  After all, we do have ‘dominion’ don’t we? 

Of course, a even worst ‘confusion’ these days, is not only the increasing idea that I can ‘do what I want’, but it’s also the idea that “I” am the center of my world; and that we are all on our own, without any need to ‘think’ about anything, anyone, or anybody, except ourselves.  They look at the ‘big’ world out there, or the ‘infinite’ sky out there, and reason that there’s nothing more than that.   “This is all there is,” so take, ‘grab all the gusto you can get’, for tomorrow you die, and that’s it.  Life is just life, and nothing else.

Well, that’s what the former renowned atheist Anthony Flew thought, until he one day he thought again about the precise uniqueness of life on this one planet.  He realized how life on this planet earth is a mathematical impossibility, unless some purposeful force manipulated the numbers.  He thought, as he looked at the stars, that no matter how many times you might throw a deck of cards up in the air, you might, after enough time, get one or two of them to stick together, but you would never, ever, ever have a house of cards, unless there was mind to build it.  Somebody had to be the first mind, the first cause, or, as the philosophers used to say, ‘the unmoved mover’.

 Flew finally came understand that the potential and probability of life needed conditions that were more than random, more than accidental, and more than chance. He came to a whole different conclusion about life on earth.   He realized that just a few degrees difference in the angle of this globe, then life would not have happened. He also understood that not only did the earth have to be exactly the right distance from the sun, the sun and the earth too, had to be just the right size.  He understood that in all that great universe, life did not happen, but it happens here, and it happened with some kind of purpose; some kind of evolutionary goal that stopped with humans as the final goal.  Then, he also understood that even his own ability to contemplate this very thought, he was pointing directly toward the great ‘mind’ behind his own thoughts.  The event of humanity, the grandeur of the universe and of the ability of the human mind, was on the side some great purpose and some very great mind.

And when you start realizing that we aren’t here, just for us, and that it’s not just about us,….you finally come, as David did, to the most puzzling, but most necessary question of all:  Who are we?  Why are we here?  What is the deepest meaning of being human in this world?  Who is this mortal that God has taken note of him?

When the King James Version of the Bible asks, who are we that God has ‘visited’ us (v. 4), it seems to imply that the complexity of human life proves that earth is the only planet God has ever ‘visited’.  Of course, we don’t know whether this is true or not, but we can certainly know that life on this this earth is very special because even the idea of life elsewhere is still speculation.  Astronomers get all excited when a radio wave, a blip on a screen, picks up a planet the same distance from a sun about the same size as ours, while at the same time, a far greater event is constantly taking place in ‘maternity wards’ around the world.  Every second a new life, a human life, we we can see and touch comes to life, who is much more dream about.  Who is this person?  Who will this newly born ‘miracle’ turn out to be?  The greatest miracle in our universe are happening right here, right now, right under our noses. 

However, the way David ‘wonders’ in this Psalm, is not just about life itself, but he is wondering how the life of a person could ever really matter?  How could, even this human ‘pixie-dust’ matter, unless the creator-God, the great mind of the heavens, knows and cares about him?   Even as amazing and astounding as human life is, we still end up as dirt to feed the worms, becoming the biggest ‘joke’ of all, unless we are somehow connected to the eternity of God? 

Some say it’s ridiculous to think that we should dare peer beyond life here on earth, and that any imagining of God or eternity is just ‘wishful thinking’ because we face the anxiety of our eventual demise and death.  They suggest that life now, is ‘all there is’ and this should be enough to contemplate.  To allow your mind to move beyond ‘here and now’ is delusional, if not psychotic.

So, where do you come down on the what philosopher Charles Taylor labels as the most important question of life?  Who are you?  Who are we, as human beings?  Is this life all there is, or do do we live in an  ‘enchanted’ world with the possibility of being much more?  Or, are we all we’ve got, all we’ll ever be; and is what we have now, what we know now, all we’ll ever know or should hope for more? 

In David’s mind, this open question of ‘who are we’ leads to asking ‘why would God pay attention to us’. This deep thought is especially mature for a little Shepherd boy, who may have been pointing to himself when he said in verse 4: ‘praise’ comes ‘out of mouth of babes and sucklings’!   As the youngest, and the ‘runt of Jessie’s litter, David may have wondered why would God pay attention to him?

I don’t know about you, but when I ‘consider the heavens’, wonder ‘what it all means’ or ask myself ‘why would God pay attention to me’, I also understand just how ‘temporary’ or ‘small’  my life is.  The sun, moon, and stars are forever, but I’m just a ‘blip’ on the radar screen.  There was a time I didn’t exist.  There will soon come a time I don’t exist.  I have only this time now, what am I supposed to do, or why would it matter?   Life is so brief.  It’s beginning to feel like ‘Happy New Year’ every month.  Life comes and goes so fast.  In the first quarter, I was kicking a football, then in the next quarter I was married and working my life away, in the third quarter I thought I was ahead of the game, and then comes the fourth quarter there are just seconds to go.
Why would God pay attention to me, to you, or to any of us?

David’s answer to his own question was so outrageous to the King James Bible translators, they decided it would be better to ‘duck’ it altogether.  When they read in the Hebrew, the original language of David, that he wrote that we humans are created  ‘a little lower that the Elohim’, they didn’t dare write that. How could King James, who they were all working for, and who understood that only himself, as a king, was next in line to God, ever allow the average person to be labeled this named way?  The Bible the Pilgrims brought with them, the Geneva Bible, said we are ‘a little less than God’, but they knew King James wouldn’t stand for it.   So, what those ‘secretaries’ of King James did, was to settle for placing us ‘a little lower than the angels’, rather than what David actually said.  To substantiate this, they turned to the Greek text that had translated that way.  This wording might have been good help them keep their heads, but today we need to look at what David really said so that we don’t loose ours.

This is certainly an astounding thought, but what does it mean?  What does it matter to be almost God?  Isn’t that just as dangerous to think now, as it would have been in David’s time, or in the time of King James?  Where does such a ‘high opinion’ of ourselves lead?  I’ll tell you where!  It leads right back to Genesis where it says, humans are created in God’s likeness and image.  It also leads us to the New Testament where Jesus says ‘You must be born again!’, where it also says, ‘Now, we are God’s children’ and where it says there is no difference between what is common or what is holy.  It tears down the curtain to the holy of holies and takes us straight into God’s presence where any of us could be called a saint or a priest.  It brings us right to Jesus who tells those who are with him, ‘You are my friends!’

Don’t ever say those most profane words, ‘I’m only human!’  Why do we say that when we make a mistake?  Why can’t we start saying when we do something beautiful or good that ‘I did that because I’m human.’  Why can’t we not only say that ‘to err is human, but also say that to forgive is human too, because we are like God? 
Now, I know that making humans comes with risks, and even God had regrets a few times about how a lot lower than God we can go, but still when we get it and when we live like it, being human on this earth will forever be the most beautiful thing.

Recently, Teresa and I watched the Independent, Norwegian Film, ‘The 12th Man’.  It told the true story about 12 men who were commissioned to Sabotage Nazi naval efforts in Norwegian waters.  After much success, the German located their boat and captured 11 of them, but the 12th man was able to escape.  He was injured, and in subfreezing weather he would never had escaped over the mountains to the safety of neutral Sweden, had it not been for the aid and help of local farmers and fellow Norwegians, who put their own lives at risk, to keep their injured ‘hero’ from being captured.  At the end of the story, it was shown in text, that Jan considered those who helped him, the real heroes, so that when he died in 1984, he was buried, not in his hometown, but in the town at the foot of the mountain where the people had helped him escape.  Even in a time when the dark side of humanity was on display, was also the time when the best of what it means to be human came shinning through.  

Isn’t that how it often turns out?  You are going through a hard time, and think you are all alone, then someone shows up and offers you a helping hand and a kind word.  Or you read or hear that someone has left another baby in a trash can, but then next you hear how a community came together to help a handicapped child, or reached out to a disabled veteran, or offered to help a struggling family or person get through a very difficult spot.  At the same time it was the worst of times, it can be the best of times.  When the human person is seen at their lowest, you turn around and you see another who amazes you with their ‘god-like’ goodness and generosity.

In The Education of Little Tree, a marvelous story is told about a Cherokee Indian boy in western North Carolina, who was raised by his grandparents, and was very, very poor.  He knew his grandparents had nothing to get him for Christmas; they had no money.  But he wanted to give his grandmother something so he got some leather hide and sewed a little pouch, a purse for coins.  He didn’t want to give it to her and hurt her feelings because she would have to say, “Well, Little Tree, I don’t have anything for you.”
         So you know what he did?  He pushed that little purse he made way down in a bin of dried beans.  They ate dried beans all winter.  He pushed it down in the bin about ‘Christmas deep’.  His grandmother would start reaching into the bin every day, October, November, and then December.  About the middle of December, she say, “Little Tree, look what I found.  Look what I found!  And he ran over and looked, “What is that?’  She said, “It’s a Christmas present.  I didn’t know who….”  And Little Tree interrupted and said, “Wow! That’s Beautiful!”

         Didn’t David say that on our best day, we can clearly see that we are indeed made ‘a little less than God’.  Of course, sometimes we act like ‘trash’, but have you ever watched how when the snow fall comes, even a trashing, cold, broken up ground can ‘mound’ up in white to the glory of God (Fred Craddock).    How did Paul say the same thing David said?  To the Ephesians he wrote:  “For we are God's masterpiece…(re)created anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Eph. 2:10 NLT). 

Do you hear?  It’s still something to sing about: We are God’s masterpiece.  He made us just ‘a little less’ than God.  Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

“Blessed is the Man…”

A sermon based upon Psalm 1
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Father’s Day,  June 16th, 2019

Happy Father’s Day!  Have you every thought about what it means to wish a Father to be happy?   Does it mean the children need to behave today?   Does it mean that his wife take him out to eat or fix him his favorite meal?  This is the question today’s Scripture puts before us.

Today, on this Father’s Day, we begin a series of summer messages from the Psalms. I’m calling this series Singing through the Summer, because the Psalms were originally the worship songs, prayers, poems, and deepest thoughts of God’s people. They were music and thoughts offered up to their God as both prayer and praise.

This first Psalm was first, not because it was the first Psalm ever written, but because it offered a good introduction to what all the Psalms are about.  They express what it means for a person to seek to live their lives in the fullness of God’s presence.  Living in God’s presence opens a person to receiving the blessings of God’s promises, even in a world where life also has the potential and possibility of becoming dark, negative and cursed.

I realized that speaking of a ‘curse’ is very heavy, serious language for Father’s Day, but until you know what we have to be ‘happy’ about, how can you be happy about anything.  Besides, finding happiness can be elusive.  The more you go after happiness, the less happy you can become.  That’s why it’s important to understand the spiritual connection between happy and blessed, between happiness and holiness.  This is important to understand, because life does not always bless us like it should.  Even a very good world can become dark, negative, oppressive, and cursed.   This is part of what the opening story about Adam’s sin is about.  Because of the freedom to sin, life can be turned into a curse, rather than a blessing.

But the most important thing about understanding how life can become a negative, is to know that right back at that same time, when the curse of sin came into the world, God put a rescue plan in place.  God’s rescue plan was to reach out and bless certain willing, responsive, and obedient people so they could be blessed, and become a blessing to others, bringing God’s blessing back into the world.  The first to hear and answer God’s call to blessing was Abraham. God called Abraham to be blessed, so that he could be a blessing to many, many more.  It is no accident that we call that first, obedient man, the father of all.

Why did the world need a spiritual father?  Well, why does anyone need a father?  We come into this world vulnerable and helpless, where everything could be against us, were it not for the family where we are loved and blessed.  If we don’t have this kind of family, where are blessed with love (an instruction too), we too could have ended up cursed in or for life.  But when we have a caring family where we grow up loved, we can have the feeling of being blessed all our lives, no matter what we might find ourselves up against.  This is what fatherhood is about, whether we are religious or not.  We all need someone to give us this kind of blessing.  And, according to Jesus, God’s greatest desire is to be known as our loving, heavenly father, who will give us the blessing that can guide and shape us, for all of our lives.

It is this giving of the  “Blessing” that makes truly makes  ‘happy’ possible for us, and it’s what makes Father’s and Mother’s the most important people in our lives.  But where does this parental power to bless come from?  That is what this first Psalm is about.  In a patriarchal society, this Psalm about ‘blessedness’ was especially written to the ‘man’, to the proverbial ‘head of the household’, but today we should take it to mean any person; male or female, father or mother, single or married.  ‘Blessed’ or “Happy” is the ‘person’ who is like this; to be blessed and to bless. If you want to rise above the  ‘curse’ that still haunts in this world, the Psalmist implies that God’s people start ‘here’.

Blessed is about living, not having.  The world has so much to offer, that it can mistakenly become about what people have or don’t have.  You know how that goes, if I drive a nice car, I’m a successful person.   If I have a bigger, nicer house, I’m have much more than you.  If I go after everything I want, then, when I obtain it, I’ll be happy.

Interestingly, that’s normally not the way it really is.  Studies in Cultural Anthropology normally show the opposite. Poor people in other cultures, who just have enough, who have to keep family and friends close to survive and get by, are generally much happier than wealthy cultures like ours.  Have you ever wondered why the Amish live so simply?  Have you ever wondered why we have so much, but still struggle to get along with each other? When will we finally realize that life is much more about how we live than what we have.

Besides, most of the time, when we have something, just to have or show something, it points to something missing in our lives, that we are trying to make up for.  I recall hearing some fellow on the radio who was constantly bragging and how America was better than any other country in the world.  He explained how he had been all over the world, and there was nothing that could compare.  Of course, the fellow had only visited all those other countries.  He was making a very shallow observation.  What he was saying had a lot more to say about him, than it actually said about the rest of the world, or about America.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we can be blessed to live in a free country, and there is certainly nothing wrong with working hard, earning, or buying, or having anything, including a ‘great country’, except when it comes at the expense of living as we should be living.  Life is for living, more than it will ever be about having, and living is not about living it up, as it is about being blessed so that we can pass the blessing along.

When the Psalmist used the word ‘blessed’ as a way or ‘walk’ of life, he was using it in a similar way in how Jesus used ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes.   When you read the Beatitudes you can easily see that ‘blessed’ is definitely not about being ‘happy’ for something.  The ‘pursuit of happiness’, according to Jesus, means something all together different.  Jesus’ way or walk of happiness is certainly not the American Dream, which could become the American Scream’ when people don’t get or have what they want.   The very people who think the purpose of life is to go after their own happiness, often end up the most miserable of all.  This is why the ancients preferred the pursuit of ‘blessedness’ instead the ‘pursuit of happiness’. 

What the Psalmist wants to say, right at the first of everything else, is that happy, or blessed is a verb, before it can be an adjective or a noun.  In other words, happy starts with how you live.  The Psalmist understood that our God has a morally, good heart, and we are created with that same capacity and need, to be and do good with our lives.  It should be ‘goodness’ and not ‘gladness’ that is our first priority.  Gladness flows out of goodness, not goodness out of gladness.  If we are only seeking gladness, according to the Psalmist, we will miss what it means to be blessed.  Blessed has much more do with ‘how’ we live than ‘what’ we have. 

This call to ‘goodness’ and to finding gladness through goodness; through how we live rather than through what we have, might sound complex and complicated.  But is ‘good’ really that complicated?  I wish I had a nickel for each time I left my home and Mom or Dad told me, “Be Good!”  When I think about, if I had once been smart enough to respond by asking, ‘What do you mean by good?’, what do you think would have happened next?   I didn’t dare ask, because they assumed I knew, and I’d better know, if I wanted their blessing.

What I learned, even very early on, was not everything about what was good, or wasn’t, but I learned that being good and being blessed is about choosing.  It was, and still is about choosing; choosing  from what I should know is right, and what I know is wrong.  Being blessed meant that doing or being good was the only choice I could make, and enjoy the blessing in my life.

That’s also how the Psalmist understood the good; at least in its most basic form. It was not that complicated.  It was a clear choice between two clear ways.  It was a choice out of what we already should know.  It was how we first learn how to do or be good, starting with the company we keep, or should I say, the company we ‘shouldn’t’ keep.  

Isn’t it interesting, how uncomplicated this is? It sounds just like the world of Eden, where Adam and Eve had the whole world of Paradise, if they would’ve just stayed away from the tree.   Their future of living in a good world depended on, first of all, what they shouldn’t do.  This is where goodness starts, as a choice.  I’m not saying that this is all ‘good’ means, only refusing the bad, the negative, or the temptation, but the Psalmist is right in saying that the refusing to join in with the bad; which he names as the ‘walk of the wicked’  the ‘way of the sinner’, or the ‘seat of the scornful’.  Isn’t this often where the choice to do right or wrong most always starts? Gaining God’s blessing is so uncomplicated, so elementary, and so basic, it starts with as simple an effort of learning what you shouldn’t do.  We all hear no, long before we learn what is a yes.  The greatest good starts, as Nancy Reagan used to encourage: “just say no!”

Think about it. Why would you listen be quick to listen to the world for advice? It could turn out like a man who had a sick mule and he went to his next door neighbor and said, "Sam, my mule is sick. When your mule got sick what did you do for it?" He said, "I gave him a quart of kerosene."
The man went home and gave his mule a quart of kerosene and the mule died. He came back and said, "Sam, didn't you tell me to give my mule a quart of kerosene?" Sam answered, “No, you ask me what I did. , "I did give my mule a quart of kerosene, but don’t feel bad, mine did too!"
There are people who are dead today, in prison today, people who are on the junk heap of life today, people who are eaten up with sexual disease today, because they kept bad company or listened to the wrong crowd.  And do you see how easily it can happen from the clear progression of this text?  The blessed are not only told not to listen, but they are told not to ‘stand’ around bad company because once when stay around bad company you can start to believe bad company, then it isn’t long until you begin to behave like bad company. What you let into your head will make its way into your heart, belief will soon be behavior. That is why, as James Merritt puts it: “if you feed your mind mental junk food you will live a junk yard life. If you listen to the wrong crowd and you hang around the wrong crowd, then you will start acting like the wrong crowd.
Then, you will finally move into the third phase, where you "Join in with scoffers." (Psalm 1:1, NLT) This is the worst stage of all. This is when you are really you become the wrong crowd. First you are enticed, then you become engaged, as you embrace the world, as the world embraces and applauds you.  What is most important to learn here, is that you can avoid this downward spiral altogether by making a simple choice. God’s people find the good God intends because they chose to walk a different way, and this walk starts with a no, before it is yes.  Isn’t this the approach to living, that the great American poet, Robert Frost meant, when he spoke of meeting a fork in the road, and taking ‘the road less traveled’.  It was choosing and going the opposite of the normal way of the world that ‘made all the difference’.  And so often, the road we don’t take, is what helps us turn down the road we should travel in life.

Finally, finding the ‘blessedness’ the Psalmist means, is surprisingly about being, not doing; it is about being the person God created us to be, not trying to be something we’re not. 

In many of my messages these days, I  emphasize ‘doing’, because ‘doing’ and ‘following’ Jesus is a very important part of our Christian life and walk.  Doing is important, very important, especially in our witness in a world that has more troubling trusting that what we say, or what God says, is true.  As someone has said, ‘we all live in Missouri now, the show me state” and people need to see before they can believe.   This is the state of things in the world, but it’s not the heart of things, nor the heart of the matter. 

The heart of the matter, however, is that God blesses us because of who we are, not simply because of what we do.  We don’t live a certain way, because we should, or have to, but we live a certain way because of who we are, and whose we are. Being always comes before doing.  Being is being who we are supposed to be, down to the depths of our heart and soul.

Did you notice here how psalmist compare God’s people to trees?  Trees were often symbols of life, strength and goodness to the ancients.  A healthy tree stood firm (1:3) and strong, weathering great storms.  And when planted by the ‘waters’ of life, in the right soil, a heathy tree is practically impossible to uproot (Matthew 15:13).  If you study history, you will find that most of the people who have truly moved this world have been people the winds of this world could not move.
Where on God's earth would we be today in America, if it had not been for people like Martin Luther King? How could one African-American man move an entire nation in a way that a civil war could not? And when God’s people stand strong, even when the negative winds blow full force, if we are planted in him, we can not only weather the storm and bless the world.  But if our roots are too shallow, or if our hearts are not alive in him, who knows how long we can hold on?
There is a Christian college in the mid-west where there was once a large lovely tree that was a central part of the landscape. It was one of the places that students would love to come and meet and talk. For decades that giant oak brought beauty to the campus and shade to thousands of students. One day a loud crack echoed across the campus and that tree, under which so many conversations had taken place and so many memories had been built, crashed to the ground. 
When they examined it, they noticed that disease had been growing within that massive tree to the point where all that was left was the outer trunk. Inside was nothing more than an empty shell, so when the harsh wind blew, the hollow tree fell.
This is an important word to conclude with because it’s easy for us ‘men’ to define the value and strength of our lives based upon what is on the outside; our careers, work, or upon our success.  But what the Psalmist says and means by living a blessed life is always be more about ‘who’ we are on the inside, and how connected we are to the source of life.   Blessedness is a state of being, that comes from the choice to be connected to God and who he created us to be.

Isn’t this state of being, at the heart of what the Psalms reveal?  The Psalms constantly take us into the heart, of people whose hearts are in God; in God’s love, living for God’s purpose and living each day in God’s presence.  This is why the Psalms start with the hope of finding God’s blessing, and ends with resounding and repeating ‘Hallelujahs:  Praise the Lord! O my soul (146).  Praise the Lord!  How good it is To sing his praises! (147).  Praise the Lord, from the heavens(148).  Praise the Lord, Sing…a new song(149).  And finally, “‘Praise the Lord In His Sanctuary! (150).  Did you notice how the man who knows the promise and blessing of God, ends up at church?  He ends up there because as the last Psalm exclaims, ‘Let everything that has breathe praise the Lord!” (150:6).  Again, it’s not because of what they do, but because God gives them life and their life is in God.

In the same way, the man, the boy, the woman, or girl, who realizes that simply by being alive, they walk in the way of God’s blessing, can’t help but end up praising and thanking God for each and everyday of life. It is in understanding the simplicity of this greatest of all blessings; the blessing called life, that we can know how to feel blessed, and also know how to bless. Amen.