Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Long Way to Go (I Corinthians 3:1-9)

You cannot walk into a church like you are walking into a store, grab a box of faith, and be done with it once and for all.  Faith is just not a one shot deal that covers a person for life and beyond.  Faith is not a product or an object . . . or as some people like to think of it, a full-proof insurance policy that gets one inside the pearly gates of heaven.  Faith is not a badge that we place upon our clothes proclaiming us as the “faithful”.  Faith is more than what some of us think it is . . . faith is a living, breathing, growing part of who we are as the children of God.  Faith is like a plant . . . and, like a plant it must be cared for, nurtured, fed, and allowed to grow.  Faith is life.

So, why then, do we treat it as some sort of object that we pull out and use when we think we need it?

Our scripture reading this morning is a continuation of the letter that the Apostle Paul started a few weeks ago concerning the conflict afflicting the congregation in Corinth.  As you remember, the congregation was split into factions based on the teachings of several of the leaders of the church.  Some were going with Apollos, others were going with Paul, others Peter, and others who were sticking with the fundamentals of Jesus.  No one could agree . . . lots of arguments ensued . . . and, the conflict was threatening the demise of the congregation and its witness to the world around them.  Into this mess steps Paul . . . hoping to smooth over the conflict, reconcile the congregation, and strengthen their witness . . . but, he realizes that this won’t be easy.  It won’t be easy because people are people, and they do not understand faith.  Faith is not a one-time object grabbed off the shelf . . . faith is a journey, an adventure, a process of growing towards what God created as the kingdom.  Faith is not something that is set in stone and accomplished in one day . . . faith is life . . . ever-changing life.

I think that it is important, though the apostle does not bring it up in the particular passage, for all of us to remember that . . . first of all, faith is a gift.  There is nothing that any of us can do to receive this gift other than to accept it.  Second of all, it is a gift that was paid for by someone else . . . not us, but someone else . . . Jesus.  Jesus paid for this gift of faith and has offered it to us.  We did not do anything to receive this gift . . . we did not pay anything for this gift.  Faith is a gift we receive for being in a relationship with the Holy . . . a gift we receive for stepping into an intimacy with the Creator who loves us and desires us . . . a gift for accepting the love that is offered.

Now, Dana and I have now been married for nearly 33 years.  We both remember how excited we were as we said our vows of love to one another . . . and, how scared we were.  We couldn’t put our fingers on what it was that was so scary about getting hitched, after all, we were in love.  Love conquers all . . . even though we thought we understood love, we really did not know a whole bunch about love.  We had not reached the pinnacle of love when we said our “I dos” . . . no, we were just beginning.  With perfect 20/20 hindsight we realize now how little we knew and understood about love, and how complex and deeper our love is now 33 years later.  Love must be nurtured, cared for, fed, and be allowed to grow . . . it is a journey . . . an adventure . . . something takes more than a day to accomplish.

So it is with faith.

The apostle explains to the congregation that faith is like a seed . . . a seed that must be planted . . . a seed that must be cared for . . . a seed that must be allowed to bloom and grow and become what it has been created to be.  The apostle explains that the faith that they have received . . . the gift . . . has been planted in them by those who they follow; but, the gift is not the leaders . . . it is the seed.  It is the seed that matters.  All the nurturing, care, feeding to allow it to grow does not come from the leaders . . . it comes from life . . . it comes from living life.

Living life is not a one-day deal . . . we all still have a long ways to go before it is all said and done.  Because that is the case, how could we ever think that the faith that we have at this moment is it . . . all there is . . . and, that there is nothing left to learn and grow?  The love that I have for my wife today is not the same love that I had for her 33 years ago when we got married . . . no, it is deeper, more profound, and wonderful.  If we had accepted that that was it on the day we got married, I doubt if we would still be married today.

So it is with faith.

The past couple of weeks have been tough on my soul.  From the typical politics of working for a state entity to the daily dealings of family . . . life has been hard.  Throw into that mix having to find the time to respond to a call to investigate a clergy misconduct case . . . life has been hard.  Trying to walk gingerly through relationships with people I love and people I really don’t like . . . life has been hard.  Dealing with the daily commute through several storms in the past few weeks . . . putting up with drivers who are ignorant of winter driving . . . life has been hard.  When life is hard it takes its toll on all of us physically, mentally, and spiritually . . . it wears us out . . . and, it is no different for me.  I have been worn out for the past couple of weeks dealing with life.

And, like any other faithful person . . . I questioned God . . . I questioned what God was doing to me . . . questioned why God was even doing this to me . . . questioning where in the world was God through all of this.  Those were my prayers . . . and, I will tell you what, the silence that answered my prayers did nothing to make me feel better.  Yet, I have received encouragement from others . . . told to hang in there . . . told that if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger . . . told that that is how faith grows.
That is how faith grows . . . by living life . . . by dealing with what life throws at you . . . by taking the highs and the lows . . . by allowing it to challenge you—your thoughts, feelings, and emotions . . . by pushing you to the limits.  It changes you and makes you stronger . . . makes your faith stronger and deeper and more profound . . . it moves you closer to God and to others.

That is what the apostle is trying to get through to the congregation in Corinth . . . that faith is a not a one-shot deal, but something that lasts a lifetime . . . that it is a journey towards discovery and relationship . . . and, that we still have a long ways to go.  The key to it all is knowing that God is with us each and every step of the way . . . that God never abandons us . . . and, that faith must be cared for if it is ever to be fully realized.  Faith must be lived . . . Jesus showed us the way.  Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Shining Before Others (Matthew 5:13-20)

I want to start this morning with two stories.  The first story is about a man in Enid, Oklahoma by the name of Gary James.  Gary James has owned and run the restaurant/bar Gary’s Chicaros for forty-four years.  Lately he has come under criticism for his outspoken views about people he refuses to serve in his business.  James doesn’t deny that he thinks some people shouldn’t patronize his restaurant.  He proudly wears his opinions on the official t-shirt he sells at his restaurant that proclaims: that gay people (or as he calls them, faggots), blacks (which he calls, niggers), other racial minority groups are not welcome at his restaurant . . . he also threatens violence against Muslims, Democrats, and people who are on welfare.  He don’t care for people with disabilities.  When he banned a disabled customer, the customer complained.  And, guess what . . . he’s been doing it for over forty years and really doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.

The second story focuses on the Olympics being held in Russia and its hospitality to the many visitors from other nations . . . in particular, its accommodations.  In comparison to what we are used to, the accommodations are way below the standards we think are acceptable according to our American point of view.  The Russians have taken a beating in the media and on social media to become the laughing stock of the Western world.  The Russian attempts at being Americanized are subpar and substandard to what most of us would find acceptable even if we were staying at the local Motel 6 . . . but, we forget . . . what we find appalling is often the envy of the rest of the world that does not have the quality of life we have as Americans.  What we forget is that in comparison to the rest of the world, we are wealthy people.

Jesus speaks to us this morning about letting our light shine out to the rest of the world so that they can see the goodness of being in a relationship with God.  In the face of such a challenge, how does the light shine for the restaurant owner in Enid, Oklahoma?  How does it shine upon us as Americans when we make fun of how the rest of the world lives?

That is the challenge that Jesus places before us this morning as we listen into his continued sermon featuring last week’s beatitudes . . . let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.  That is what he said.  Some would argue, but I will say, that our light is our faith.  Faith that is based upon a relationship with God that says that we love and trust not only God, but all of God’s creation.  A faith that is built upon Jesus’ charge to us to love God completely and to love one another . . . relationships.  We are to let our relationships of love shine through so that the rest of the world can see how wonderful it is to be in relationship with God.  How we live and love in life is the light that we shine for the rest of the world to see.

What sort of light does Gary James shine when he spews his hatred in a land that gives him the right to have his own opinions?  What sort of light do any of us shine when we laugh and make fun of other nations and their attempts to be Americanized in their hospitality on the world’s stage?  What sort of light are we letting shine for the rest of the world to see?

Our light shines in the actions that we take . . . are they actions that reflect the love we have received and continue to receive from God?  Are they actions that embrace loving others . . . especially those who are the least of these?  Are they actions that welcome the stranger into our house, the poor into our lives, and the sinner into the fellowship?  Are they actions that display hospitality to all people—all of God’s children, or are they actions that demonstrate selectivity, prejudice, and downright exclusion?  Are they actions that our Lord and Savior would do or are they the actions that we tell ourselves society accepts and that makes it okay?  Our actions speak loudly when it comes to letting our light shine.

So do our words.  The old children’s ditty about “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is a lie.  We know that words hurt and can wound just as bad, and often worse, than sticks or stones.  We know that words have the capability to ruin lives.  We have all felt the sting of words in our own lives.  Thus we should always be careful in how we use words . . . and, how we respond to words.  Are the words we use inviting, welcoming, accepting, and inclusive of those around us?  Are the words we use loving, graceful, and respectful of others?  Are the words we speak congruent to the way that we live our lives?  Words are another way in which we let our lights shine in the world.

Here is Jesus telling us that we have this great relationship with God.  Telling us that because we do have this great relationship we should let the world know about it . . . that we should set it out there so the whole world can see it.  He tells us that we out to spice up the world with our relationship with God.  He tells us to shine before others.  Let others know of our loving relationship with God through the actions that we take and the words that we speak . . . just as Jesus did for us.

That’s the challenge . . . letting your light shine.  I know that we can all do it . . . but, if you need a little help . . . well, I suggest to dig back a few years to your childhood and remember.  Remember:  This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.  This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine . . . let it shine . . . let it shine . . . let it shine.  Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

To Be or Not To Be . . . Blessed (Matthew 5:1-12)

I have been broke . . . poor . . . and, I found no blessing in it.  I have experienced the death of people who I loved deeply . . . I have mourned . . . and, I found no blessing in it.  I have been endured situations in which I was scared . . . fearful . . . threatened . . . or even meek . . . and, there was no blessing in that.  I have been hungry and thirsty . . . scape the bottom of the peanut butter jar hungry . . . and, I did not feel blessed.  What is this blessedness that Jesus speaks about?

In my life I have tried to practice the act of mercy . . . the act of forgiveness . . . only to be taken advantaged of and hurt by those I have shown mercy towards.  Where was the blessing in that?  I have tried to be pure in heart . . . to trust others . . . to love completely and with no strings attached, only to have my heart stepped on, mauled, and generally abused.  This is blessing?  I have tried to be a peacemaker . . . to work for justice . . . to seek reconciliation . . . and, I have been attacked, called names, and ridiculed.  Where is the blessing in this?  I have known persecution . . . felt the sting of revenge . . . been slandered . . . this is not a blessing.  What is this blessedness that Jesus speaks of?

What is this blessedness that Jesus speaks of in our scripture reading this morning?  I do not think that I am the only one who goes down this list of “blessings”, scratching my head, and wondering what in the world does Jesus mean when he calls these blessings.  Apparently Jesus has a whole different understanding of blessing than most of us do.

When I think of being blessed . . . well, I think of things that make me feel good . . . things that make me feel happy . . . things that make me feel appreciated and wanted.  When I think of being blessed I think about receiving something that I really wanted . . . or of having great luck . . . of having things go my way.  I think of blessing as being a positive that makes me feel good, not something negative that seems to make me suffer.  As I listen to the things of blessing in Jesus’ words, I do not hear a whole bunch of feel good sort of things.

 Lately we have been in the award season on television.  There have been the Golden Globe awards . . . the Grammys . . . the People Choice awards . . . the Country Music awards . . . and, soon, the Oscars.  And, with the awards circuit we have been able to witness a whole bunch of people of all walks of life in the entertainment industry stand before us and proclaim how thankful they are that God has blessed them . . . blessed them with talent, good looks, money, beautiful spouses and, great lives.  Who among us would not agree that this truly sounds more like “blessing” than what Jesus is talking about.  Isn’t that what we think about when we think of “blessing”?

Sure it is!  But, you know what?  Jesus is right.  Jesus is not speaking about happiness . . . he is not speaking about people, places, or things that make us happy.  Blessing does not come from emotional bliss or good fortune . . . even though those are nice things to have in one’s life.  Those are not the marks of blessings . . . shoot, even bad people . . . evil people . . . have those things.  No, blessing is something deeper . . . something more intimate . . . and, something that we can choose to have in our own lives if we want it.  Blessing comes from being in an intimate relationship with God.

Jesus tells us that we are to have a relationship with God . . . to love the Lord, our God, completely.  That is our first charge . . . to know and love the Lord completely.  To realize that we need God.  To trust God . . . that God will take care of all of our needs . . . and, to know that God desires us to be who God created us to be.  Out of this intimate relationship with God we want to please God by doing God’s will . . . we want to love . . . love God and beyond to others.  In that relationship with God we find blessing.

 When I was poor . . . I still had my relationship with God.  When I was mourning . . . I still had God in my sorrow.  When I was meek . . . God was still there.  When I was hungry . . . God was there.  When I practiced mercy, peacemaking, and purity . . . when I was persecuted for doing so . . . I still had my relationship with God.  True, life sucked . . . life was hard . . . and, who do you think caught all of my complaining, whining, and pity?  God . . . God did because we have a relationship . . . through thick and thin, God stuck with me.  God did not abandoned me like so many others do when things start to get rough or go bad.  God loved me no matter what . . . and, I was blessed.

And, I am blessed.

Because I am blessed I cannot help but to be blessing to others.  That is what Jesus also told us that we were to be about if we were going to be his followers.  Jesus expects us to love others because we experience the grace and love of an intimate relationship with God.  We love because we are loved.  Thus we are to go out into the world and be those “blessings” that Jesus is speaking about . . . we are to be merciful even though the world around us doesn’t care one iota about mercy . . . we are to be pure in heart even though the world seems to mock purity . . . we are to be peacemakers even though the world has no room for peace . . . and, we are to expect that we will be persecuted in following the example of Jesus.  We are to stand by others, just as God has stood by us.  It is in the relationship that the “blessing” is found.

 Unfortunately we get our understandings of “blessing” mixed up and confused.  I am blessed not because of the house I live in . . . not because of the money I have in the bank . . . not because of all the toys I own.  I blessed because of the relationships I have in which I am loved for who I am by another.  The blessing comes in the relationship.

Jesus was and is always about the relationship . . . relationship with God . . . relationship with others.  When it is about the relationship it does not matter if you are wealthy or poor, stuffed to the gills with food or hungry . . . God will stick by you through thick and thin.  God will stick by you because God loves you for who you were created to be . . . God’s child.  Nothing you can do can ever separate you from the love of God.  Once you enter into that relationship with God you are blessed and will always be blessed.

But . . . and in this there is always a “but” . . . it is always up to us as individuals.  To be or not to be blessed . . . that is up to us.  Amen.