Sunday, February 27, 2011

Remember that God Remembers

(A sermon based on Isaiah 49:8-16a & Matthew 6:24-34 for the Eighth Sunday after Epiphany 2011)

Under the best of circumstances our ability to remember is flawed and limited. It takes a while for some fact to come back to us. The password we have used for a particular internet account for years suddenly escapes our memory. We see someone that we usually see in a particular setting in a different setting and we know the face but can’t put the name with it. We told someone we would do something but the next time it occurs to us the opportunity has passed.

Another unfortunate characteristic of our limited mental capacity is that we tend to think of God in human terms. That is inevitable and it is not all bad; the Bible itself if filled with what we call anthropomorphisms, by which we mean depictions of God in human terms—for an example, think of the image of God “walking” in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day. Moreover, in God’s grace God the Son actually came to us as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ so that we would be better able to think of and to understand God.

Still—too often when we think of God we fall into the trap of assuming that God thinks and talks and feels and acts like we do. Let it be understood: God does not.

To the point for today: we forget; God does not forget.

Even more to the point for today: we forget God; God does not forget us.

God, through the prophet of the Babylonian Exile whose words are preserved in the second part of the Isaiah scroll, offered wonderfully reassuring words to the exiles, culminating in these: “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (Isaiah 49:13). Then, very realistically and understandably, the people (identified with the name “Zion”) said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (v. 14). And to those words God replied, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” (v. 15ab).

These days we would have to answer that question with a “Yes” because we hear all too often of mothers and fathers abandoning or abusing or otherwise showing no compassion for their children. But the Lord was ahead of us: “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…” (vv. 15c-16a).

We may forget. We may forget each other. We may forget to care. We may forget to help. We may forget to be there for each other. But God does not forget. God does not forget God’s children. God does not forget you; God does not forget me; God does not forget us.

And so in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told us, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). He also said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (vv. 28b, 30).

God loves us. God cares for us. God remembers us.

But we forget to remember that God remembers us. Maybe some of us never knew it to begin with, but others of us who have believed in God, served God and worshiped God for years or even for decades sometimes forget to remember. We forget that God is God and that God in God’s compassion, grace and love is in control and will take care of us. In forgetting we open the door of our minds to anxiety and worry and fear.

We need to remember. We need to remember all the time that God is God and that God is for us and with us.

We have to choose to remember, though, and having chosen to remember we have to practice remembering.

Unfortunately, all too often we who are professed followers of Christ live with divided or misplaced loyalties. We choose to forget or to ignore what Jesus said: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 24). The word “wealth” is the Greek word “mammon” which means the whole range of material things.

What sits at the center of our worldview? Is it God or is it the accumulation of stuff? Is it God or is it our possessions? Is it what only God can give us—salvation, eternal life, righteousness, a heart, access to the full range of human experience both now and for all eternity—or is it things that we can, if we try hard enough and get the right breaks, get for ourselves? On what are we building our lives? On what are we focusing our lives?

Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly: what do you find yourself craving? What do you find yourself desiring? For what do you find yourself longing? Our appetites say a lot about us, after all.

Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (v. 33). We who are disciples of Jesus have the wonderful opportunity to put first things first, to have knowing, loving, and serving God constitute our primary craving and desire. Jesus elsewhere said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”; the reverse is also true: “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.”

The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ show us, among many other things, that the essence of living in the kingdom of God is in dying to self and rising to new life in Jesus Christ. And when God has done that in you, it is God that you want above all else because you come to see that God is really all there is; everything else comes to us as part of our relationship with God.

As we practice living that way we will grow more and more to remember that God remembers us, that God will be with us and take care of us all the way through this life and into the next one.

If we practice instead putting others things first, then I guess we’re counting on them to remember us and be with us and take care of us all the way through.

Which way befits children of the Kingdom of God? Which way is our way?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Family Resemblance

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 & Matthew 5:38-48 for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)

Put me in a room full of Ruffins and it is clear that I belong; I look like a Ruffin. Put my children beside me and it is clear that they belong to me; they look a lot like me and a lot like my parents. But—I am not just like all the other Ruffins, not even my Father—and I don’t want to be. And—my children are not just like I am and, believe it or not, they don’t want to be. In fact, my father would not want me to be just like he was and I don’t want my children to be just like I am.

Parents are proud of any family resemblance, of course, but good parents want our children to take the best of what we give them and to make the most of it and to take the worst of what we give them and to overcome it or to dispose of it. I am speaking of things mental and moral and emotional and spiritual.

“So let no one boast about human leaders,” Paul wrote to that congregation at Corinth that was tearing itself apart through its divided allegiances to this leader or that one. He continued, “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

“You are settling,” Paul told the Corinthians and also us, “for far too little. You settle for an allegiance to this person or that one when your allegiance should be to God. You settle for following Paul or Apollos or Peter when you should be following God. You act like you belong to a human being when in fact you belong to Christ who in turn belongs to God which, of course, means that you belong to God. You act like something as passing and fleeting as a human leader is so terribly important when in fact God means for everything—for all of life, for all the world, for this age, for the age to come, and even for death—to be to your advantage and for your good.”

As William Barclay put it, “The man who gives his life, his strength, his energy, his heart to some little splinter of a party has surrendered everything to a petty thing, when he could have entered into possession of a fellowship and a love which is as wide as the universe. He has confined into narrow limits a life which should be limitless in its outlook.” [William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), p. 40]

How do we surrender everything to petty things? How do we confine our life to narrow places when God intends for our lives to be limitless in their outlook?

We settle for far too little in our lives as Christians. When we settle for loyalty to a program over loyalty to God Almighty, we settle for far too little. When we settle for participation in a clique or a faction or a denomination over participation in the great communion of all the saints, we settle for far too little. When we settle for surface-level dabbling in the things of the faith over immersion in the great good news of God, we settle for far too little. When we settle for just enough grace to get by over the abundance of grace that God makes available to help us live a glorious life and die a glorious death, we settle for far too little.

Our Father in heaven and Jesus our brother want us to look like, to think like, and to live like the members of their family that we in fact are!

And so Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples and to us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Look like your heavenly Father; show some family resemblance,” he was saying.

We let the word “perfect” scare us. “Surely,” we say, “Jesus doesn’t really expect us to be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect.” After all, we have all heard that God is light with no shade of darkness and we all know how full of shadows we are. After all, we have all heard that God is holy and that sin cannot abide in the presence of a holy God and we all know how much sin abides in us. After all, we have all heard that the Bible elsewhere says that no one is perfect and we would all rather cling in hope to that affirmation from Paul that we no one can be perfect than accept this challenge from the Lord Jesus that we become perfect.

It might at first thought help us to hear that the word translated in our English Bibles as “perfect” really has the meaning of “whole” or “sound” or “complete” but then on second thought we realize just who fragmented and unsound and incomplete we tend to be—and so we’re back where we started.

So I ask you: would Jesus have laid the challenge before us were it not possible for us to live up to the challenge?

Understand this: Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are based on the fact that in Jesus Christ—in his life, his teachings, his healings, his death, and his resurrection—the kingdom of God has come. And if the kingdom of God has come then we who are the children of God have the opportunity to look and think and speak and act, more and more as time goes by, like our heavenly Father—not because of who we are or what we can do but because of who God is and what God can do.

Now, whenever we read the Bible we should be mindful of the context. Jesus has just said those amazing things about how we who follow him are to be, amazing things about turning the other cheek and giving more than someone asks of you and going the second mile. And he topped it all off by saying that most amazing thing: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).

The bottom line, then, is that we are to look like our heavenly Father, that we are to demonstrate a family resemblance to our heavenly Father, in the ways that we come more and more to love other people in miraculous and amazing ways because, after all, that’s the way that our heavenly Father loves and our heavenly Father passes along that spiritual trait to us. We don’t get it all at one time necessarily but we can and should be growing into it more and more as we live more and more of our lives.

Imagine that you’re at a family reunion being hosted by God the Father for his children and by God the Son for his brothers and sisters. Would there be enough family resemblance for people to know you’re truly related? Or would you look like an in-law?...

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Life Built by God

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 & Matthew 5:21-37 for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany 2011)

We are all about building a life.

Individuals build a life by developing a family, by advancing in a career, and by growing in our humanity.

Christian individuals build a life by growing in the image of Christ, by developing attitudes and lifestyles that are characterized by grace, love, and respect, and by becoming ever more aware of the presence and influence of God in our lives.

Churches build a life, too; we do so by finding our identity, by developing our ministry, and by becoming ever more aware of the presence and influence of God in our lives.

As we move forward we need and want to see signs of increasing maturity; we need and want to see signs that we are making progress.

Sometimes we don’t see the signs of progress that we’d like to see in our life as Christians or in our life as a church, though.

Sometimes a church—this church, for example—can look at the church at Corinth as Paul describes it and it’s like looking in a mirror; we too find ourselves beset by signs of rampant humanity, by indications of blatant immaturity, and by evidence of stunted fellowship.

Sometimes a Christian individual—you and I, for example—can look at the person that Jesus describes as the kind of person that a citizen of the kingdom of heaven ought not be and it’s like looking in a mirror; we too find ourselves beset by and even controlled by our anger, our lust, and our dishonesty.

And so we find ourselves saying things like this: “Well, we’re only human, after all, and we can’t change the way we are, so we’ll just have to live with and in our anger, lust, and dishonesty” or “Well, the church is made up of human beings, after all, so we’ll just have to live with and in our immaturity and our broken fellowship.”

The other day I asked my wife, “Do you believe that we put a man on the moon?” “Of course I do,” she replied. “Well, then,” I responded, “wouldn’t you think that you and I could figure out a way to go out of town for a couple of days?” The questions I posed are illustrative of a flaw in our thinking. We say “We put a man on the moon” as if that sort of thing happens every day but when it comes to something like “Let’s get out of a town for a couple of days” we treat it as an impossibility. We are not amazed when human beings accomplish something amazing and spectacular but we do not believe that amazing and spectacular—and even simple and down-to-earth—things can be accomplished in our everyday lives.

So if I ask you, “Do you believe that God created the heavens and the earth?” you will respond “Of course we do!” If I ask you, “Do you believe that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead?” you will respond “Of course we do!” If I ask you, “Do you believe that God has a home waiting for you in heaven?” you will respond “Of course we do!”

But if I ask, “Do you believe that God can overcome the rampant humanity, the blatant immaturity, and the stunted fellowship that we so often find in the church?” you are likely to respond with something like, “Well, I’m sure that God wants to but, after all, we’re only human.” And if I ask, “Do you believe that God can overcome the anger, lust, and dishonesty that so often dominate our lives?” you are likely to respond, “Well, I’m sure that God wants to but, after all, we’re only human.”

Indeed—we’re only human. That’s our reality.

But even more indeed—God is God and God is present in God’s church and God is present in God’s people and that, brothers and sisters, is our greater—our greatest—reality!

If the only kind of church life we can build is the kind of church life we can build, then we just have to admit that we will always be less than we should be and that we will have to live with the frustrations of our spiritual, mental, and emotional limitations. If the only kind of Christian life you and I can build is the kind of life you and I can build, then we just have to admit that we will always be less than we should be and that we will have to live with the frustrations of our spiritual, mental, and emotional limitations.

But what if—

What if the coming of Jesus Christ into this world really did inaugurate the reign of God in the world?

What if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ really do mean that God is present in our lives and in our churches and that God really is working to form and shape us into who we could and should be?

What if the Holy Spirit of God really is in our lives and in our churches?

What if we are not “only human” but human beings whom Almighty God is for and with and beside and within?

If we are only human—if the only lives we can have are lives that we build—then we will keep on being angry and taking revenge and holding grudges and living with broken relationships and treating people as objects and judging our speech by its advantage to us rather than its truthfulness.

But if God is God and if God is working in and on and through us to build our lives, then we really can become—because God can cause us to become—people who more and more live for sound relationships, people who more and more treat people with love, respect, and grace, and people who more and more can be depended on to be honest and trustworthy.

If we are only human—if the only church life we can have is the one that we build—then we will keep on being fractious and contentious and selfish and short-sighted and hemmed in and walled in.

But if God is God and if God is working in and on and through us to build the church, then we really can become—because God can cause us to become—a church made up people knitted together by grace and love and hope into a true community that glows with the presence of God.

It is God who builds the life of a Christian; it is God who builds the life of the Church.

So picture God standing there beside you, there within you, here within us, tools in hand…

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Prayer of Blessing on the Ministry of Sarah Holik

(On January 23, 2011 Sarah Holik, Children's Minister at FBC Fitzgerald, GA, was ordained to the ministry at Parkway Baptist Church in Duluth, her home church during her seminary years. Today, February 6, 2011, Rev. Holik preached in our morning worship service and at the end of the service her new home church family gathered around her to bless her in her ministry. This is the text of the prayer I prayed.]


O God who calls all your people into your service and who equips all your people for the service into which you call us, we praise you today for your beloved child and your chosen servant Sarah Holik, for the particular life you have given her, and for the particular ministry into which you have called her and for which you have equipped her, are equipping her, and will equip her.

We praise you for the blessing that is ours to share as Sarah’s family of faith in her life, in her call, in her service, and in her ministry. Inspire us to take full advantage of the opportunity to walk alongside her in discipleship, in fellowship, and in ministry. Help us to learn from each other—she from us and we from her—as together we follow you.

Since Sarah is a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ our Lord, form her steadily and surely through all the events of her life and through all the seasons of her ministry into a minister whose life and ministry reflect the love, hope, peace, joy, and service of our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant her grace—grace in loss and in gain, grace in failure and in success, grace in sorrow and in joy, grace in solitude and in community, grace in being and in doing, grace in listening and in speaking, grace in forgiving and in being forgiven, grace in losing and in gaining, and grace in dying and in living.

Lord God, bless the ministry of Sarah Holik right here and right now and in all the places and times that will come.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do We Believe in God?

On Wednesday nights I’ve been leading our folks in a study of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134); our guide for the study has been Eugene Peterson’s excellent book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

At our most recent session we dealt with Psalm 123, which begins this way:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
(v. 1).

About those opening lines Peterson says, “The person of faith looks up to God, not at him or down on him” (p. 61). It is, in other words, Almighty God with whom we have to deal and it is Almighty God, not some divine buddy who willingly fits in our box and who is at our beck and call with whom we have to do.

I can’t help but wonder, though, how seriously we take that reality—for that matter, I wonder how seriously I take that reality. I mean, if we believe in God and if we believe that we worship God and serve God and can look up to God—remember now, we’re talking about God the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Savior, and Lord—then shouldn’t that belief—shouldn’t that reality—make a tremendous difference in our lives?

The Songs of Ascent were sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way up to Jerusalem to worship at the great festivals; they were, then, songs for pilgrimage. By extension, they are useful to us as we make the pilgrimage that is life; the goal of that pilgrimage for the person of faith is God. We are on our way to God and all along the way we have the responsibility and the privilege of looking up to God for our hope, help, and guidance.

We can’t get to God without God, after all.

So along the way, we can look up to God! We need to look up to God! We must look up to God! The concept is frankly mind-blowing and spirit-blowing…and it should be life-altering and life-shaping and life-determining.

But there is more.

The psalm goes on to say,

As the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
until he has mercy upon us
(vv. 1-2, NRSV).

About this Peterson says, “The word mercy means that the upward look to God in the heavens does not expect God to stay in the heavens but to come down, to enter our condition, to accomplish the vast enterprise of redemption, to fashion in us his eternal salvation” (p. 64). In other words, the God of heaven to whom we look up is also the God who comes down to us; God did that in the coming of Jesus Christ to us and God continues to do that in the coming of the Holy Spirit to us.

God—Almighty God—is with us! How seriously do we take that reality?

Last Wednesday night I found myself asking that question to my flock in very direct terms because, as I reflected on it right there in front of them, I was almost overcome with awe over the fact that the God who is above and over us is also for us, in us, and with us as I was simultaneously almost overcome with doubt about whether we come anywhere near believing it.

Until we really believe it, maybe we can’t really be changed by it.

As for me, I am trying honestly to examine the state of my spirit, the state of my heart, the state of my mind, the state of my motives, the state of my actions—the state of my life, in other words—to see just how God-influenced my life is.

In so doing, I am being confronted with very troubling questions that should confront all of us. Is my life being changed by the very real presence of a very real God in my very real life? Can I honestly say that the state of my life, after almost fifty years of supposed discipleship, reflects the kind of growth and change that the presence of Almighty God with and in me should have produced?

Do we really believe that God is with us?

Do we really believe that God is changing us?

Do we really take God seriously?

Join me in taking a deep breath, in swallowing hard, and in asking the question that must be asked: do we really believe in God?