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Monday, October 26 2015
Romans 3:19–28; Psalm 46
I was on my way to the dentist’s office a week ago, and was stopped at a red light. A car pulled up in the left hand turn lane next to me. And I don’t know how this happens, but have you ever had the experience that you feel like someone is staring at you? Well – that’s how I felt. I looked over at this dude in the car next to me. He had his window rolled down, and he signaled for me to roll my window down – so I did. All I could think was, “Gee – what’s this guy want? Is there something wrong with my car?”
Turns out what he wanted to know was this. “What does your license plate say?” Now, I know that some people have trouble interpreting my vanity plate. Let me spell it out for you. It’s MYT – the number 4 – TRES. I made it easy for you to see it in print in your bulletin by making that the title of my sermon. Most people look at it and say, “My four tires?” Well, no. Close. And my four tires does make sense when you think about it.
So I shouted back. “Mighty Fortress.” And he said, “Like, A might fortress is our God?”
And I said, “You got it.”
And he said, “Amen! Love it brother!” He gave me a “thumbs up,” at which time the light changed, and off he went.
That incident reminded me of something that happened a few years back. Some of you remember Dr. Donald Schwab. Dr. Schwab passed away just a few weeks ago. But he was a dentist here in town – and a member of the Methodist church down the street. So I find it ironic, that these two stories I am telling just happen to involve dentists. But a number of years ago, I was at the post office over here on Railroad Street. My car was parked outside – and Dr. Schwab comes in, and he sees me and says, “Oh! That must be your car out there. I kinda figured that whoever owned that car was a Christian – and probably a Lutheran.” Well Dr. Schwab was right.
Hey, if I were to ask you, “What is the Lutheran theme song,” how would you respond? You’d better know the answer after that long introduction. Yeah. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Amen! Love it brother Love it sister!
Yeah! We Lutherans love to sing that hymn, especially on this weekend. This weekend when we observe – and celebrate – what we call the Reformation of the church.
Now, many of you know the story. The actual date – the date that we mark the beginning of the Reformation – is October 31st – but today is close enough. Because it was on October 31st in 1517 – that Martin Luther nailed to the church door of the Wittenberg Castle Church what we call the 95 Theses. 95 articles for debate with the church of his day.
What Luther was doing was protesting certain practices that were in place in the church of Luther’s day. He was especially concerned about the sale of indulgences.
An indulgence is a piece of paper – just a piece of paper with words written on it that grant the bearer of that piece of paper a certain number of years removed from one’s own – or a loved one’s – time spent in Purgatory. I don’t want to get into a lengthy explanation of what Purgatory is – but let it be enough to say that the church of Luther’s day taught that when you died you went to a place called Purgatory to pay for your sins that you committed in this life – before entry into heaven was given to you.
Now – you don’t hear me – you don’t hear Pastor Becca – talking about Purgatory because Lutherans don’t believe in Purgatory. The place does not exist. And furthermore – a teaching that relies on Purgatory – and indulgences to reduce one’s time in Purgatory – denies the saving power of Christ. His life – his death – and resurrection are sufficient – they are enough – to pay the full price for all of our sins for all of us.
This is the wonderful truth that Luther discovered in the Scriptures. You see, Luther was an Augustinian Monk. But as dedicated to God and the church that he was, he was not happy monk. The God that he knew – the God that the church taught him about – was an angry God. A God who was out to punish sinners.
So this angry, vengeful image of God is how Luther saw God. Until one day – sometime in 1515 – Luther had an “Ah –hah!” moment. While preparing a lecture on the book of Romans – a book of the Bible that he was a scholar on – and that he had read many times – his heart and his eyes were open to the one verse, Romans 1:17. “The just shall live by faith.” Our reading today from Romans 3:28 repeats that truth. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
I think we can even call it the granddaddy of all “Ah-hah!” moments. Luther finally discovered the God of love that he had been searching for and hoping to find.
What Luther discovered – and what we take as basic to our understanding of the Christian faith – is that our salvation – our life in the here and now as well as our entry into heaven someday – is a gift. Pure gift. Given to us by a loving, gracious God. You don’t have to work for it. You don’t have to earn it.
And that’s what it means to say that the just shall live by faith. The just – in other words – those who are made right with God – shall live by faith. That’s it! And the best way I know of for us to understand this is to say, “Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”
The good news for us – and why today is something of a celebration – is that we don’t have to work at earning God’s love and favor. No! We are justified – we are sanctified – okay a couple of big church words there – we are forgiven and made right with God because of what God has already done for us through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. So we are forgiven and we are made right with God as a gift. It’s all gift.
And this gift comes to us because of God’s grace. In other words – God’s undeserved love and favor. Which we receive by faith – which simply means taking God at His word that the gift of forgiveness – and the life and salvation that come with it – is pure gift! So just accept the fact that you are accepted. By God’s grace.
So God became for Luther not a God to be afraid of – not a God to run away from – but a God to run to. Especially in times of trouble. God was not an angry God, but a refuge – a strength. A very present help in trouble as we read earlier in Psalm 46. And by the way –I want you to know that this Psalm – Psalm 46 – this is the Psalm that Luther used to write his powerful hymn – A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
Here’s the deal. God is not an angry God. God is not mad at you. God is not an angry God as Luther once thought, but a fortress. A mighty fortress. A refuge. A strength. And therefore – finally understanding this about God – Luther was able to hang onto his faith – and was able to feel safe and secure in the love of God.
And isn’t that exactly what you want? Isn’t that exactly what you need? In this world – what we want – what we need is a place of security. What we need is a place to feel safe. Airports make us go through security checks. Doesn’t that make you feel safe? Financial systems have security systems for those of us who access our finances online. Doesn’t that make you feel safe? But you know – someone’s always going to find a way, aren’t they! Someone is always going to find a way to beat the system and hack into what we hope are secure systems.
That’s why the Good News for us today is that we do have a secure place. We do have a mighty fortress. The same mighty fortress that Martin Luther discovered – is the same mighty fortress we can know. And this mighty fortress is not so much a place as it is a person. And that person is none other than God Himself.
And I gotta tell ya. How grateful I am that Luther – way back in 1529 – wrote these wonderful words, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott.” (I just wanted to show off my German.) A Mighty Fortress is Our God.
When we need a place of refuge, this hymn reminds us that God offers us his Mighty Fortress – his Feste Burg – His strong tower within a walled city – which is pretty much what the German Feste Burg means in English. A strong tower within a walled city.
When I was a boy, we used to sing this hymn that a line in it that went like this, “Our helper, he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Even in English that’s hard to understand. But that phrase “mortal ills” simply means that in this life, we will have struggles. We will have challenges. We will have difficulties. We will struggle with relationships, we wills struggle with our finances, with difficult people, with failures, illnesses, and the stressors of everyday life. Even though we have in God a mighty fortress, we are going to have struggles – some of our own making – but more likely – struggles over which we have no control and which we did not ask for. But God remains for us a mighty fortress. The God in Jesus Christ who promises to be with us always is that mighty fortress that we need.
So throughout the hymn we sing of these struggles – and yes, they are battles really – between us and the forces of evil as represented by Satan and hordes of devils. The Good News is that they cannot win. At the same time, we are reminded that we can’t win the battle alone. The battle belongs to the Lord. So God sends a champion – Christ Jesus – the Lord of hosts is he. And he will win the battle. Amen?
How do I know this? Listen! In Romans chapter 8, God’s Word tells us that nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from the love of God. And furthermore – in Matthew 28 Jesus promises that he will be with us always. He is the mighty fortress who is with us always.
So no matter what’s going on in your life right now – no matter what you’re going through – I want you to know that God is YOUR mighty fortress. He is the One we can run to – not run away from. SO no matter where you’ve been – no matter what you’ve done – no matter how long you’ve been away – God is your refuge and strength – a very present help in trouble. Therefore – we will not fear. We do NOT have to live in fear.
So let me invite you today to put your trust in God. Not in password protected security systems but in the Lord God. He is a rock. He is a refuge. He is a strong and mighty fortress.
Tuesday, October 20 2015
Gen 14:17-24, Leviticus 27:32-33, Matt 23:23-24, 2 Cor 9:5-8
Welcome to Consecration Weekend/Sunday, which is also sometimes called Stewardship Weekend/Sunday! This is the day we talk about what it means to be stewards of all that God gives us. First of all, what is stewardship…? It’s simply: the use and care of God’s gifts to us. We sometimes use the three T’s to describe stewardship: time, talents, and treasure. Stewardship also includes our care of God’s creation.
So since all that we are and all that we have are gifts from God, stewardship also includes how Christians use their money. It has been said that if you want to know what your priorities truly are—just take a look at your bank account, and what you spend money on. That’s true of us as followers of Jesus, as well. What we use our money on is directly proportional to what our priorities are.
A few summers ago, at the last congregation I served down in Frewsburg, I did a sermon series called “God Questions.” Worship attenders there anonymously submitted questions about faith and God, and four of those questions were addressed in sermons during the month of August.
Well, one of those questions was “What Does God say about Tithing?” Which totally surprised me, and also intrigued me. Because although we hesitate to talk about money, it’s clear that we also have questions about it—especially, how our money is connected to our Christian faith.
So to start off, what is tithing…? Yeah, it’s giving 10% of your income. It’s what most people say we should strive for—some would even say we should strive to give offerings above and beyond tithing.
The thing is, talking about this can be stress-inducing because there are all these emotions attached to money, right? I want everyone to take a deep breath, let it out. This, I hope, will be a stress-free time to talk about tithing and giving, in a way that won’t get your blood pressure rising.
And the way I’m actually going to start is talking about it is how I first learned about tithing in a church setting.
Picture this. It’s 8 years ago. I am a seminary student, and I go to my first day for field education. This is where myself and my fellow seminarians training to be pastors are each assigned to a congregation in Philadelphia area, and there we worked 8-10 hours a week for no pay, learning how to teach, lead worship, preach, and do other pastorly things.
So I go to my first Sunday in the church I was assigned to—you may remember me talking about Mediator Lutheran Church in the inner city of Philadelphia. It is an African-American Lutheran Congregation. And because of this, although they are Lutheran, their worship service is a just a tad different than ours.
And one of the differences really stood out to me. Before taking the offering, the pastor invited the congregation to join together in saying the Tithing Litany found in their bulletin. A WHAT??? I thought. How can they do that?? How can they be so bold as to talk about their worship attenders tithing?? I had heard the word, sure, but it was kind of a dirty word in most circles I was in. Don’t talk about it at church—it will scare people away. You know what I’m talking about!
Yet here was Mediator Lutheran Church, in a very poor neighborhood, having everyone say this litany, using Bible passages about tithing and giving. And sure enough, every week before the offering, they would say this litany together, and you know what?? People were EXCITED about this litany and about giving money. People would say it with energy, especially at the end—they would shout “GOD LOVES A CHEERFUL GIVER!” And they would happily put their money in the plates when the ushers brought them around.
I was dumbfounded. Never had I seen ANYONE be so obviously excited about giving money, especially in church! Usually it’s seen as a kind of necessary evil. Yet, these people, who most of them had very little to give, were thrilled. What made such a difference at Mediator, that people were excited to give, as opposed to every other church I had ever been to?
As I worked there over the year, I found out what the difference was. Although these were people struggling to make ends meet, many had very difficult family situations, and many were dealing with issues we can only imagine, they were very clear on one thing in their lives.
Everything good given to them was from God.
That meant any income they had, anything good happening to their family, anything given them as a surprise gift—that was God supplying them with what they needed. It was God providing for them. I’d heard a few people maybe say that in passing before, but the people at Mediator talked about it all the time.
And they ACTED like it. They were so excited to say the Tithing Litany (which you may have noticed is in your bulletin) and the people at Mediator were excited to give on Sunday because it meant they were able to give back to God what God had first given them. It was a tangible way for them to say thank you to God for all God had provided them. And it blew me away.
The people at Mediator completely changed how I looked at giving. It wasn’t about guilting me into giving money to the church. It’s wasn’t about rules and regulations regarding what I could or couldn’t do with my money.
It was about truly being thankful to God and giving God back just a percentage of what God provides us with every day. That’s what giving is about.
So let’s look at some Bible passages having to do with tithing and giving, and I think we will see that the people at Mediator were on to something quite Biblical. There are many more passages having to do with tithing and giving in the Bible, of course. But we will look at four today. We read three of them as the readings for today earlier in the service.
So we’ll start with the story we read first from Genesis 14. We hear about Abram meeting up with Melchizedek, the high priest. They break bread and drink wine together, and then Abram offers one-tenth of everything gained in battle. The first recorded tithe in the Bible.
But the story continues past that. The king of Sodom argues with Abram about what he should take—but Abram chooses to take only that which was agreed upon. His tithing, then, doesn’t just happen in a bubble. It’s part of his wider view on giving and receiving.
Tithing and giving for us, also, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s part of our wider view on giving and receiving, just like Abram. If all that we have comes from God, we naturally want to thank God for what God has given us—and giving and tithing is one of those ways.
And in Leviticus 27:32-33, we see that tithing has become the norm for the Israelites. “32 All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. 33 Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed.”
It was expected to give 10% of what you had to God, no questions asked. If we were to try to answer that question submitted, “What Does God say About Tithing?” using just the Old Testament, the simple answer would be “Do it.”
In the New Testament, however, what is BEHIND tithing and giving is discussed. Let’s look at Matthew 23:23-24 for example. Jesus says: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Harsh words from Jesus! What is Jesus saying to the Pharisees….? Basically, they tithe like they are supposed to, but they don’t do the other things that are incredibly important—working for justice, showing people mercy, sharing their faith.
So tithing isn’t the only thing we do to serve and thank God. It’s not like “oh, I gave my 10 percent, that’s the most important thing, now I’m good.” Tithing is just part of the many things we are called to do as Christians—work for justice in our world, be a merciful presence to others, and share our faith in Jesus Christ. Our intention behind giving is not just something we should do—rather, it’s part of all the things we do as Christians.
The last Bible text we are going to look at today is also from the New Testament—2 Corinthians 9:5-8. Paul says: 5 “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
This passage talks about the intention behind giving. Paul asks the people of the church in Corinth to gather up an offering for those Jesus followers outside of their community who are in need. He says that they should give as they feel moved, not hesitantly or by force, because “God loves a cheerful giver.” That line was Mediator’s favorite line to say in their Tithing Litany, and boy were they cheerful when giving!
So our giving, as we have said earlier, is not because we feel guilty, or because we have to. When we give to the Church and other causes, we give as the Spirit moves us to do so. We give because God first gives to us. Everything we have comes from God, and one of the ways we are able to show God our thanks is by giving back a percentage of what we have back to the Church and our community. The Bible suggests 10%, a tithe, but you can gradually work towards the tithe if you aren’t there yet. Many people start at 5% and work their way over time to 10%. That’s OK too. The 10% is helpful, because it’s good to have a goal to work towards.
And once you get to tithing, or if you are already tithing, that doesn’t mean it has to stop there! If you are moved to give for other specific things either in Church or in our community and world, on top of the tithe, go for it! God has no limit to what God gives us—and neither do we have a limit on what we can give back to God! Paul said in our 2 Cor reading: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”
Because God gives us what we need, we are now able to share that with others. Did you know that Zion actually tithes what is received as well? 10% of what we receive in offerings goes to things like mission trips so people can go to Haiti & Belize, Lutheran Charities, Lake Chautauqua Lutheran Center (LCLC), ELCA Disaster Relief, and other community needs as they come up. How cool is that—our own congregation tithes to thank God for all God gives us!
Before taking our offering today in just a few minutes, as we think about Consecration Sunday and the money resources God has given us, we will be saying the Tithing Litany that Mediator Lutheran Church in Philadelphia uses every Sunday before their offering. Let it be a reminder to us how God blesses us abundantly, and how we have the opportunity both in church and in our community to show God our thanks by giving back some of what God first gives us. God loves a cheerful giver! Amen.
Monday, October 12 2015
In our Gospel reading today from Mark a man – a rich man – comes up to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus talks to him about the Ten Commandments. The rich dude affirms that he has kept the commandments all of his life. But Jesus is not impressed. So he tells rich dude “There is one thing you are still missing. Go and sell all that you have, give the money to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”
Rich dude had everything he could have wanted or needed – at least in terms of what money can buy. BUT – he sensed deep in his soul that something was still missing. And that’s why he comes to Jesus and asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Something was missing.
Trouble is – he was not willing to make the one change that was needed to become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.
SO let me ask you. When it comes to whatever it is that is important to you in your life – what is the most important thing? What is it? I want to suggest to you today – no – I want to affirm for you today – that the most important thing for each one of us – is to learn what it means to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
But here’s the challenge. What is it – or what are the things – if there is anything at all – that is holding you back from wanting to be a fully devoted disciple of Jesus Christ? Now, it’s going to be different things for any one of us. For the man in our Gospel reading today – it was his wealth. His wealth was more important to him than being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Now listen! This is not an anti-wealth, anti-money story. But it is told to us so that we can think about whatever it is – if indeed there is something – and it just might be our own wealth, money, status, and position – but whatever it is – if there is something – what is it that is separating me and keeping me from being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ?
In other words, what’s the most important thing? For rich dude it was his wealth. That was his barrier. And he wasn’t willing to make any changes. So what changes am I willing to make to become that Christ centered – Christ-like disciple – that Jesus is calling me to be?
Folks, this is so important. And again, this is why church matters. Where else are you going to hear someone challenge you to ask the right questions – to challenge you to examine your own life – and just think about where it is that you are when it comes to your faith in Christ Jesus?
Because I am of the opinion – it is one of my core beliefs – that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. As disciples of Jesus Christ – we never stop growing – never stop learning – never stop becoming all that God wants us to become.
Again – that’s why church matters. And because church matters, it is my firm belief that God’s vision for the church – for this congregation – is that we always keep our focus on just two things.
Number 1: Telling others the Good News message of Jesus Christ. And
Number 2: Making disciples – encouraging people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. And this last one is a process – a life-long process.
So the vision that God has for this church is that it will continue to be a growing church. And I’m not just talking about how many people show up every week. Well, yes, I am talking about that, but more importantly – I’m talking about what happens in the hearts and minds and lives of everyone who comes through our doors. A church can grow in numbers – and we are certainly doing that. Just look at the folks – the new disciples – who we are welcoming into membership today!
But if that’s all that’s happening – then the best we can say is that we are an inch deep and a mile wide. We grow as disciples when we take seriously those six marks of discipleship. They’re on the front page of your mission minutes. Take that out for a minute and let’s look at them again. And as you’re getting them out, let me say simply that these are not rules – this is not a new set of rules.
That’s good news. Because the last thing any of us needs is a new set of rules. Can I get an “Amen” on that?
So the marks of discipleship are not a new set of rules. These are simply what being a disciple looks like. 1. Read the Bible every day. 2. Worship every week. 3. Pray every day. 4. Serve others at Zion and beyond 5. Develop spiritual friendships. 6. Give of my time, talents, and financial resources.
If you are growing in these areas – then you are becoming the person God wants you to be. I don’t believe God wants us to be a mile wide and an inch deep. I believe God wants us to grow deeper in our understanding and in our practice of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
So the vision for Zion Lutheran Church is to reach out to everyone who is willing to listen with the Good News message of Jesus Christ. And to make disciples of those who walk through our doors.
So how can you support that vision? Glad you asked. Next weekend is our Consecration Weekend. This is our once a year day or weekend when we consecrate ourselves to God and His church. And in a very specific way by declaring what our financial commitment to the work of the Lord at Zion Lutheran Church – what our support of God’s vision for this place will be in 2016.
Now if you are a guest with us today, I want you to know that this is something we ask only of those who are members at this church. And then just once a year.
For everyone else, this coming week, I want you to be thinking about how you and – if you are a part of a family – how you and your family are going to contribute to the work of the Lord here in this place. How is it that God is calling you to invest in what it is that God is doing here in this place?
I am simply offering you the opportunity. I’m not telling anyone how much I think they ought to give. I have never done that, and I will never do that. I am simply extending to you the invitation not only to benefit from what God is doing here in this place – but more than that – to take part in what God is doing here in this place with your financial tithes and offerings. And frankly? I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t invite you to do that.
And the wonderful thing is is that so many of you get this. You understand what giving is all about. You are generous – and because you are so generous – we don’t have money problems at this church. And that’s because so many of you get it. You understand what giving is all about.
So your church – this church – doesn’t need your money. That’s a strange thing for a preacher to say, I know. BUT here’s the thing. There IS a need. And that need is that you have a need. I have a need. We have a need – as disciples of Jesus Christ – we have a need to give. We have a need to invest in what it is that God is doing here in this place.
Just look around. Look at all the kids we have in worship – in Sunday School – in confirmation – in youth groups. We have a great staff to lead these ministries in Elaine and Kurt, and a great support staff in April and Karen. Great music ministries with great musicians. Look at the variety of worship opportunities we have each weekend.
Look at how the members of this church are cared for – and how all of you care for each other. Look at the outreach to the local community and internationally. These are the things that you do – that YOU do – when you invest in what God is doing here in this place.
So let me ask you how it is that you have benefited from being a part of God’s Kingdom here in this place. How have you grown? How have you changed? What does this place mean to you?
I just want you to know that your gifts do have an impact. Touching hearts. Changing lives. Making a difference. In the name of Jesus. So between now and next week I want you to think about – I want you to pray about – and I want you decide what your financial contribution to the work of the Lord will be in 2016. We’ll ask you to make that commitment next week on consecration weekend.
And remember to ask yourself, “What is the most important thing?” What is the most important thing in my life – and what am I willing to do in order to get there or to make that happen? What am I willing to do to invest in what God is doing in and through this place?
You think about that this week. Amen
Monday, October 05 2015
I recently saw what we call a meme on Facebook— that’s something that gets shared around the internet, usually a photo or picture with a message written on it. And in this meme there is a husband and wife talking. Both are dressed like they are in the 1950’s.
And the husband says to his wife: “I’ve been thinking. I’m the MAN of this house, so starting tomorrow I want you to have a hot, delicious meal ready for me the second I walk through that door. Afterwards, while watching ESPN and relaxing in my chair, you’ll bring me my slippers and then run my bath. And when I’m done with my bath, guess who’s going to dress me and comb my hair?”
And the wife replies: “The funeral director.”
In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we listen in on Jesus’ conversations about a topic that is still very relevant today—marriage and divorce. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, come to test Jesus, to trip him up. They ask him “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They know the answer, according to Jewish Law. They know that in Deuteronomy 21:4 it says that if a man marries a woman “but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”
They are asking Jesus this to see what he will say, if he will state what the Law says. In typical Jesus fashion, he answers their question first with another question: “What did Moses command you?” And they answer him with the basic answer that everyone would have known at the time: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”
So here’s some fun background to this law about divorce. There were two camps of thinking about this. As we heard in Deuteronomy, a man could divorce his wife “if he finds something objectionable about her.” One camp said that this only included adultery—so the only way a man could divorce a woman is if she was unfaithful. The other camp said that anything the man found objectionable was a reason to divorce her. Like, she could burn the dinner one night and he could divorce her. Or as Pastor Randy has said, “If your wife makes bad coffee, it would be grounds for divorce.”
But did anyone notice what all of these laws about divorce had in common…? Only the husband can divorce the wife. The wife has no say in any of it. Which was standard back then, because women and children were considered property, not people.
But here’s the thing. Jesus takes that law and makes it both more equal and more demanding.
First he says "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
So in just a few sentences, Jesus holds everyone to a different standard. He quotes the Genesis passage we read earlier, and says that once two people are married and have become one flesh, since God has brought them together, they shouldn’t be separated.
This is hugely different than what was said before. Before, a husband could divorce his wife. Now Jesus is saying that divorce is not something God wants to happen.
And then Jesus says to the disciples: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
This is a MUCH higher standard than what was previously set. And, did anyone notice how equality is built into what Jesus said…? He said “If SHE divorces HER HUSBAND…” When before divorce was only a choice the husband could make, Jesus includes women in the decision and the higher standard.
And although the equality of the genders thing is cool, Jesus’ statements on divorce are hard to hear. All of us have been touched by divorce in some way. You may be divorced yourself. You may have remarried after a divorce. You may have a family member or friend who’s been divorced, or a friend or family member’s parents have been divorced. Either way, everyone has seen divorce at some point.
And I think everyone can agree that divorce is not fun. Even in the most cordial of situations, divorce is painful. And if there are children involved, it is even more painful as everyone figures out how to co-parent and be fair to the kids.
And we can also agree that sometimes divorce needs to happen. If a marriage is unhealthy for various reasons, it is sometimes better for a person to be without their spouse.
Jesus ups the ante and says that divorce is not what God wants for God’s people. God is saddened by broken relationships, and divorce is part of that.
Now some people have read these Bible verses and have interpreted them to say that divorce should never happen, that no matter what is going on in your marriage, that you should stay together because divorce is not in God’s plan. These verses have been used to keep people in abusive relationships, in relationships that shouldn’t have happened in the first place, in relationships that clearly needed to end. And that is just plain wrong.
But these verses DO challenge us to look at marriage, and the other relationships in our lives, and to know that God loves marriage, God loves our relationships with one another, and wants them to thrive. And Jesus wants us to put God first in these relationships, so they will be centered in our faith and healthy. God wants that for us.
This passage isn’t just about divorce, but about all of our relationships with one another. Healthy relationships are God’s business—just look at the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20 (that’s your homework)! All of them have to do with our relationship with God and with each other. Having God-centered relationships means listening for what God is telling us about how to live in this world with each other and be loving neighbors to one another. Because God first loves us, we are able to love each other.
Jesus end our passage from the Gospel of Mark by telling the disciples who were trying to stop people from bringing children to him: “"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."
How are we supposed to be like children? Children love without abandon. Children do not see divisions among others like we do. They simply love.
Author Dave Simmons tells this story of taking his children to the mall. He writes: “I took Helen (eight years old) and Brandon (five years old) to the Cloverleaf Mall in Hattiesburg to do a little shopping. As we drove up, we spotted a Peterbilt eighteen-wheeler parked with a big sign on it that said, "Petting Zoo." The kids jumped up in a rush and asked, "Daddy, Daddy. Can we go? Please. Please. Can we go?"
"Sure," I said, flipping them both a quarter before walking into Sears. They bolted away, and I felt free to take my time looking for a scroll saw. A petting zoo consists of a portable fence erected in the mall with about six inches of sawdust and a hundred little furry baby animals of all kinds. Kids pay their money and stay in the enclosure enraptured with the squirmy little critters while their moms and dads shop.
A few minutes later, I turned around and saw Helen walking along behind me. I was shocked to see she preferred the hardware department to the petting zoo. Recognizing my error, I bent down and asked her what was wrong.
She looked up at me with those giant limpid brown eyes and said sadly, "Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave Brandon my quarter." Then she said the most beautiful thing I ever heard. She repeated the family motto. The family motto is in "Love is Action!"”
Jesus challenges us to love one another, to hold ourselves to the standard of healthy, God-centered relationships—and as little Helen said, to put our love into action. “Love is Action!” Jesus loves us all, no matter what we do or how we mess up. And because we are loved by Jesus, we are able to share that love with each other and with those around us, especially in the midst of broken relationships. Amen.
Monday, October 05 2015
Clergy meetings are be interesting things. You get a bunch of pastors in a room together, and strange things can happen. If you had to picture what a group of pastors meeting together would look like, what would you see….? I think most people expect clergy meetings to be extremely calm and always on point, with the pastors who are gathered talking about Scripture and holy things with reverence and insightfulness. You might be imagine all of us holy and unperturbed, thinking deeply.
And sometimes, that does happen. I’ve been to clergy gatherings where the discussion about God and the Bible was so good, it changed my sermon for that week and even my faith.
But many times, the pastors at clergy meetings have a tendency, either consciously or subconsciously, to try to one-up each other. And the conversations can go something like this:
“My congregation is using a brand new Sunday School curriculum that is bringing in children and young families in droves!”
“Well, my congregation is renovating the sanctuary so that 200 more people can attend worship!”
“At our congregation, we are starting a soup kitchen, so we can connect with the community and feed people with food AND God’s Word!”
It does happen. And pastors can get jealous when another pastor has something amazing going on at their congregation. They begin to wish that they could be the pastor at that other congregation. It’s called “pulpit envy,” I kid you not.
In a clergy meeting that happened a few years ago, a congregation that put up a new sign was the talk of the group. Other pastors wondered how this congregation managed to get such a great looking sign up when they themselves had to deal with so many restrictions from the town while trying to erect their own sign.
…The next day, someone from the town board visited this congregation to “discuss” the new sign and the town regulations regarding such a sign. Coincidence?! Perhaps. But the truth remains—pastors are not immune to jealousy and competition that we all feel sometimes.
This issue has existed in the human race for thousands of years. How do we know this? Let’s take a look at our Gospel reading for today.
“They came to Capernaum, and after going indoors Jesus asked his disciples. ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they would not answer him, because on the road they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.”
“They had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest.”
I think we all can relate to that. I don’t mean to say that we sit next to each other and go, “I’m the best!”, “No, I’m the best!” “No, I am!!” But we have this drive to always be the best, the most successful, the one with the biggest house, the most money, the one with the smartest kids.
And some ambition is good, right? We want to do things, be good at things. We want to be good at our jobs, get compliments from our bosses when we do a project well. Without ambition, we wouldn’t get anything done. We’d sit on our couches all the time, passively watching the TV, eating potato chips, wondering—why should we get up and do something??
But TOO MUCH ambition is not a good thing. When ambition becomes what drives a person, that’s a huge problem. And the disciples know this. They knew Jesus wouldn’t like their argument about who’s the best. When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about, what do they do….??
Yeah, they shut up. Because they know that Jesus wouldn’t like their excessive ambition. And Jesus tells them that what they are arguing about is the opposite of what they should be doing; he says “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be servant of all.”
And I think this text is very appropriate to our lives here in Clarence Center. We may not argue verbally about who’s the best all the time, but we act it out. We are expected to compete with co-workers at our jobs on a regular basis. We climb the corporate ladder as quickly as we can, so we can make the most money we can. We may build or buy bigger and bigger houses, we buy new cars before we probably need to.
For example, one of my neighbors in Clarence Center has a big house with a pool and a commercial-grade playground in their backyard. They actually built a bigger house across the way, and moved into that house a month or so ago. And they are still trying to sell their old house. Anyone want to be our neighbors…? I warn you, you may get sticker shock!
And the younger folks in our families aren’t immune to this. We put signs on our cars that proclaim our kids’ accomplishments (“My kid is an honors student at ‘insert school name here’”). Our kids are expected to take as many advanced classes as possible and get involved in many extracurricular activities so that they can get into the best possible college or university. And when they manage to do that, we replace the honors student sticker with one that proclaims which high-powered university they attend.
And because we are expected to live this way at our jobs and schools and in our family life, this over ambitiousness begins to inform our whole lives. We begin to make success an idol. If something isn’t going to further our future in some way, it’s seen as a failure and not worth our time.
And where does this over ambitiousness come from? Well, I’m sure we could analyze social norms and make charts and stuff, but at least one of the places it comes from is in our passage from today. Let’s back-up and read what it says BEFORE they start arguing about who is the greatest.
It says: “But they (that’s the disciples) did not understand what this teaching meant, and they were afraid to ask him.”
So Jesus is telling the disciples about how the Son of Man will be killed and then be resurrected three days later. That’s quite a statement! But the disciples don’t understand, and they are too afraid to ask Jesus what all that means.
And right after they don’t get it and are scared to ask Jesus about it, they are arguing with each other about who is the greatest. It’s not a coincidence that one follows the other.
I think a lot of our obsession to be the best comes from the fact that we are too scared to admit that we don’t have all the answers—and we are afraid to ask God the tough questions about things we don’t understand.
The thing is, though, God wants us to ask questions. God wants us to have an active faith, where we struggle with things we don’t understand and talk about it. Jesus has conversations with people in the Bible all the time, when they ask tough questions!
One of the big examples is in John chapter three, when Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders, and he came to ask Jesus questions on topics about faith that he had been struggling with, and Jesus talks with him and has a conversation. And Nicodemus is better for it—he ends up being one of the people who anoints Jesus body after the crucifixion and lays him in the tomb. His faith in Jesus became stronger because he struggled with those tough questions with Jesus.
When we are Christians who go to church, I think we assume we are supposed to have all the answers. But, that’s not the case! One of the great things about our faith is that we can ask questions and talk things out with others. That’s why group Bible studies and learning times like what we have on Sundays mornings and other opportunities during the week are great! Because we can talk and ask questions as grow in our faith together. (Shameless plug time—check your Mission Minutes for all of the ways you can join others in asking questions and growing in your faith!)
And like Nicodemus, when we struggle with those tough faith questions with each other and with Jesus, we are better for it. Our faith becomes stronger because we are active in our faith, thinking about it and learning to live it. And as we ask those tough questions, God is in the middle of our struggles, many times answering our questions directly or through other people.
In promotion materials for the Alpha Course, the introduction to Christianity class that we at Zion have offered before and are planning to offer again this spring, there is this one query:
“If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?”
So now, I invite you to think about that. Take some time today when you go home. Try asking God that question about something you’re struggling with. God wants to hear your questions, wants to be in that struggle with you. Bring it to God. And you may be surprised at how asking those tough questions of God can free you and help you grow in your faith. Amen.