FIRST LESSON John 14:15-21
SECOND LESSON I Peter 3:13-22
SERMON: “What You See Is What You Get”
A rancher asked a veterinarian for some free advice. “I have a horse,” he said, “that walks normally sometimes and limps sometimes. What shall I do?”
The veterinarian replied, “The next time he walks normally, sell him.”1
I got up early yesterday morning to make sure I had plenty of time to
get ready for Arlene Vander Hoff’s service. I usually watch a bit of television while I have my morning coffee, and the TV was still tuned to the Hallmark channel from whatever I had been watching the night before. “I Love Lucy” was on. In the episode that was airing, Ricky, Fred and Ethel all make a bet that Lucy cannot go 24 hours without telling a fib or a lie. She takes the bet, but is quickly in difficulty as Ethel reminds her that they are playing bridge that afternoon “with the girls.” Lucy knows what a challenge it will be to be 100% honest in that setting and starts to call Caroline to tell her she is sick and can’t come, but of course . . . that would be a lie and she would lose the bet. I didn’t watch the whole episode yesterday morning – I’ve seen it before. It gets quite funny when Lucy begins telling the absolute truth to her friends.
The Daily Bread devotional reported quite a few years ago that a USA Today poll found that only 56% of Americans teach honesty to their children. And a Louis Harris poll turned up the distressing fact that 65% of high school students would cheat on an important exam. A noted physician appeared on a network news-and-talk show and proclaimed, “Lying is an important part of social life, and children who are unable to do it are children who may have developmental problems.”
I hear news commentators talking often about how we need transparency in government – from individuals to agencies. Sometimes it seems that it’s not so much that people form conspiracies to lie to the people as that apparently it just comes naturally – a sort of default response to all kinds of situations. Remember the endless Watergate hearings? Iran-Contra? Whitewater? Weapons of mass destruction? It’s been going on since the beginning of time . . .
Eve, the serpent and a piece of fruit
Cain and Abel
Abraham and Sarah told King Abimelech when they were living in
the region of the Negev that they were brother and sister so that the king wouldn’t kill Abraham to make Sarah “available.”
Jacob tricking Esau out of his birthright and Jacob and his mother tricking Isaac for the blessing.
David and Bathsheba
In today’s passage from I Peter, he is writing to Christians in Asia Minor who are undergoing a great period of distress and persecution for their faith. They’re suffering in a world where the hidden agendas and filthy tactics of their opponents are life-threatening. Peter encourages and instructs them: 13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.
Much of the world we live in would consider that advice somewhere between naïve and downright foolish. Still Peter coaches them:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”
In a “damned if you do / damned if you don’t” world – it is better to go down for doing good.
If your actions are always about doing the good and right thing, the thing that leaves you with , a clear conscience, you can afford to be transparent in you dealings and relationships. Ultimately it is easier to be a “what you see is what you get” kind of person. You don’t have to keep track of what you have said or done that you don’t want revealed. You may pay some consequences on occasion for mistakes made, but Peter tells us, it is better to go down for doing good than for doing evil.
The ketchup bottle teaches us something about transparency and suffering.
For more than 200 years, ketchup was a disgusting, toxic mix until Henry J. Heinz made a pure variety that he sold in clear glass bottles, showing the public exactly what was inside. That transparency made Heinz an iconic brand.
Before H.J. Heinz started making ketchup and putting it in the iconic glass bottles that adorned our tables, putting ketchup on anything was the equivalent of pouring toxic waste on it. Eating ketchup could be dangerous. Ketchup in 1866 was, according to cookbook author Pierre Blot, “Filthy, decomposed and putrid.” A short tomato growing season, coupled with carelessness, lack of clean storage, generally unsanitary conditions and the addition of highly flammable coal tar to the mix to enhance the red color, all combined to make ketchup a potentially lethal concoction. In an 1896 study, 90 percent of commercial ketchups were found to contain “injurious ingredients that could lead to death.”
Heinz, however, was a morally strong man who believed that “heart power is better than horsepower,” and worked hard at developing a safe environment and process for ketchup to be produced in a way that was pure, enjoyable and transparent. His factory was spotless. His workers were encouraged to be meticulous about cleanliness, and Heinz rewarded them with fresh uniforms, free laundry, free life insurance and health care, athletic facilities, a swimming pool and even an in-house manicurist to make sure that every worker’s nails were immaculate.
The result was a perfect environment for making a ketchup that would not only not kill you, it was so good that it became a staple on American dinner tables for the next two centuries!
That same kind of transparency can make Christians more palatable, too.
There are some rather toxic forms of “Christianity” out there including the prosperity gospel that tells you that God wants you to be rich and that if you just believe hard enough your life will become wonderful and problems will all go away. There are the people like the ones who told me 30 years ago that because I had left the Baptists of my childhood church and become a Presbyterian I was doomed to hell. (I have no core belief arguments with the Baptists.)
Peter advises these Christians Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16
The constitution of our church tells us that one of our primary tasks is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” That’s why we have Bible studies and Sunday school and expository preaching in worship – so that we will be able to give an answer, so that we will be able to articulate our faith -- not to shove it down other people’s throats, not to say that we have all the answers or to spit them out by rote memory, but by study and meditation and thoughtful reflection to be able to say clearly what we as Christians believe.
Peter calls us to transparency, to be “what you see is what you get,” honest followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr. Madison Sarratt taught mathematics at Vanderbilt University for many years. It is said that before giving a test, the professor would admonish his class something like this: “Today I am giving two examinations: one in trigonometry and the other in honesty. I hope you will pass them both. If you must fail one, fail trigonometry. There are many good people in the world who can’t pass trig, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass the examination of honesty.”2
1Al Schock, Jokes for All Occasions
FIRST LESSON John 14:1-14 (p. 1675)
SECOND LESSON I Peter 2:2-10 (p. 1888)
SERMON: “The Living Stone and a Chosen People”
One of my favorite theologians and cartoonists was Charles Schultz, the artist who gave us the wonderful Peanuts cartoons. In one of my favorite cartoons, Lucy comes storming into the room and demands that Linus change TV channels and then threatens him with her fist if he doesn’t.
“What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus.
“These five fingers,” says Lucy. “Individually they are nothing, but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”
“Which channel do you want?” asks Linus.
After a moment, he turns away, looks at his own fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
Peter was writing some Christians who were facing slander and persecution. They were Christians in dispersion – exile. It letter intended to be passed from group to group to fortify these Christians and enable them to remain steadfast in their commitment to Christ. Peter wrote, “Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people.” Pet encouraged them to stick together, united by their Christian faith.
It is important to consider this passage in light of the Old Testament concept of the Covenant. God promised Abraham that he would have descendants more numerous than the stars. In their old age Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes, was renamed Israel after wrestling with God. God promised the children of Israel that he would be their God and they would be his people. God would bless the Israelites if they kept the Law and were faithful to God. In Christ we have the new Covenant, forgiveness of sin on the strength of Christ’s sacrificial death and the promise of eternal life grounded in his resurrection. “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
These Christians knew what Peter was talking about. Once they had been no people, mere units in a collection of nations that could be classified as heathen. Among them were small pockets of Jews. They understood, also they had been proudly and falsely self-sufficient, but now they had become the recipients of God’s mercy.
If Peter had read Peanuts cartoons, he might well have employed the image of the people holding together, unified and so strengthened as fingers hold together to make a fist. Instead he used the building metaphor of Christ as the Cornerstone and the people as living stones.
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
In our day and age, unless you’re a stone mason, you probably don’t think much about cornerstones because most of our houses don’t have a cornerstone. We have poured concrete foundations, and studded walls. But in first century Israel the primary building material, or at least their foundation material, was stone. And the most important stone in the whole house was the cornerstone, the first stone to be laid in construction. It became the foundation upon which all the other stones were set. The cornerstone had to be the perfect stone and set just so because if it was off, even a little bit, the whole building was off. Those who are in construction know how frustrating it can be when a foundation is not plumb.
Peter tells us Jesus Christ is the stone that was rejected. He was rejected by the Jews. He was rejected by the Romans. When Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself, even his own Father rejected him, at least for a little while. But because he himself was sinless, because God’s plan was to redeem us by his sacrifice, God raised Jesus up and placed him as the Cornerstone. He is the foundation, there is no other foundation upon which we can build the church. Any other foundation would be flawed.
Christian believers are every part of the building except the Cornerstone – not as dead bones or cremains, but living stones.
There are some people making big trouble for the Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Bath, England. They aren’t current members but those from centuries past. The people causing problems aren’t deadbeats in the pews but the dead bodies in the basement. And they’re threatening to upset the church in a quite literal way. The church, commonly known as Bath Abbey, is an Anglican parish, founded as a monastery in the seventh century. The current building is a Gothic cathedral more than 500 years old, but it sits on the remains of a massive Norman cathedral that predated it.
The problem is that, over the centuries, an estimated 6,000 people have been buried just below the stone flooring of the church. Over time, as those bodies were reduced to bones and as the graves settled, holes opened up beneath the floor, threatening the very stability of the building. Today, the likelihood that the floors could collapse beneath the feet of someone about to recite the Lord’s Prayer on any given Sunday morning is very real and unsettling.
An extensive project is now underway to stabilize the edifice, involving digging out much of what soil and disturbed human remains are under the floor, filling the empty spaces with grouting and then putting the earth, the human bones, bits of coffin handles and inscribed plaques, etc., back under the floor, and saying a prayer over the whole re-interment. Living stones, not dead bodies will build the church and spread the Good News.
And we are not so much God’s person, as God’s people.
Peter says to the people that they are living stones. Literally speaking, we know that stones are not alive, but inanimate objects. But they are essential parts of the building. If you had said to one of those first century Christians, “I’m going to the church,” they would not have understood you meant that you were going to this building. Those first century Christians understood the church, ecclesia – the Greek word from which we get “ecclesiastical” means those who are called out. They understood the church not as walls, floors, ceilings, windows or carpeting, but living and active people. The “chosen” are the people who have answered Christ’s call to faith and service.
Let us be sure to note that we’re talking about living stones, plural, not a living stone. It’s not possible to build a structure with only the cornerstone and one other stone. To use Peter’s language from this passage, we’re not God’s own person, but God’s own people. In fact, except when speaking of the Cornerstone that is Christ, all of the other metaphors in these verses are in their plural form. As commentator Lewis R. Donelson says it, “Holiness is not any individual’s own possession; it exists when someone loves another. The kind of holiness that comes from the ‘living stone’ exists only in community.” A Christian hermit makes no sense.
Of course, this is where we run into trouble. The trouble with churches isn’t the foundation – it’s the multitude of flaws in the many building blocks. But if we were all as perfect as the Lord, we wouldn’t need forgiveness; we wouldn’t need a Savior. The church will always be a flawed institution because it will always be made of broken people. This human brokenness tends to drive some people away. But trying to live faithfully without the church has its limitations.
There is something vital missing when anyone tries to be a Christian without being part of a Christian community. Yes, we know people can worship God out in the woods by themselves. Yes, you can read and study the scriptures on your own – although that can get you into theological trouble. But Christian faith is ultimately lived out in community, community which finds its unifying strength in the Good News of redemption and salvation through Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Savior.
I read this week about a painter of landscape scenes who always kept in front of him on his easel a number of precious stones-emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. When he was asked why, he said, “To help me keep my colors true. In course of time, without some constant reference, my eye might lose its perception of color tones, and the colors I choose may not be right, may not be what they once were.” One of the “Great Ends of the Church, as laid out in our Book of Order is “the preservation of the Truth.” Some of us work at theology and teach basic Christian doctrine to keep us from sliding too far down slippery slopes.
Jesus Christ is the Cornerstone, the foundation of the faith we profess. We can be assured that Christ will never fail us, never mess up, never forsake us, never give up, give in, or give out. We never have to apologize for Jesus, forgive Jesus, nor make excuses for Jesus. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, our Lord.
As long as we get as organized as Lucy’s fingers, stick together and build on the foundation of Christ the Lord, as long as we are not dead bones, but living stones, we will be God’s faithful people and builders of God’s church.
FIRST LESSON: Exodus 2:1-10 (p. 89)
SECOND LESSON Matthew 15:21-28 (p. 1522)
SERMON: “Soccer-Mom Faith”
A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.
― Washington Irving
Mom—the person most likely to write an autobiography and never mention herself.
— Robert Brault
If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?
— Milton Berle
I never got to be a soccer-mom, and I apologize to all the parents who have told me over the years that they would miss a meeting, choir practice or worship because their child or grandchild had a hockey, basketball, football game or track meet and my eyes just close. It’s not that I’m unsympathetic; it’s just that kids in sports weren’t a part of my particular experience as a mom. So I hope you’ll forgive me if my thoughts this morning about what I’ve chosen to call “soccer-mom faith” are not 100% sports-world accurate, but come from an impression gathered over the years.
First let me say that soccer moms don’t care if their child [or grandchild] is their biological offspring or adopted. Matthew tells us of a Canaanite woman who came seeking healing for her daughter. There is nothing in the narrative to indicate the girl is anything other than her biological child. From Exodus Dottie read for us about Pharaoh’s daughter adopting the baby she discovered floating in a basket on the Nile. She named him Moses because she drew him out of the water. Now Moses’ birth mother was still living and was engaged to nurse the baby. Did either woman love him more or less than the other? No. Whether a child is adopted or biological – mom loves him/her. I have a friend who has three daughters; the younger two are very close in age, one is adopted and the other, like her oldest, is their biological child. I can never keep straight which one is adopted and which isn’t – and I think that is because when she brags about them, my friend never makes any distinction.
Moses’ mother did what she had to do to protect her child. A new king had come into power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph and this king became alarmed that the Israelites were growing in numbers. So first he enslaved the Hebrew people, and when that didn’t do it, he gave an order to the midwives that when they attended a birth, if a baby was a girl, they could let it live, but if a boy, they were to kill it. So Moses’ birth mother gave him up to Pharaoh’s daughter to save his life.
The Canaanite woman heard about the miracles and healing power of Jesus, so when her daughter fell seriously ill, demon-possessed she believed, the woman braved the crowd and pestered Jesus to heal her. This woman would do what she had to do to save her daughter. Jesus ignored her until the disciples came and asked him to send this annoyingly persistent woman away. Notice he says to the disciples that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Perhaps overhearing, but certainly not giving up she kneels in front of him and begs, “Lord, help me!”
We don’t like this part of the story much because it seems to pain Jesus in a rather uncompassionate light: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Really? Is he calling her a dog? Is there a limit on the number of people he can help and heal that helping this woman’s child will take a healing away from one of the Israelites? Or is it a test of her determination? And she is determined, so determined that she snaps back, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” For the sake of her child this woman risks ridicule and endures insults. She never gives up. Her faith and certainly her persistence are rewarded; her daughter receives healing.
Sometimes mom-faith/dad faith has to challenge the authorities. Jay Leno told about his mother, who as an immigrant lived in constant fear of deportation. You could miss up to four questions on the citizenship test, and his mom missed five. The question she flunked on was: "What is the Constitution of the United States?" The answer she gave was: "A boat," which wasn't entirely wrong. The USS Constitution was docked in Boston. But the judge instantly denied her citizenship. Jay’s father stormed up to the judge. "What is this? Let me see the test! She's not wrong-the Constitution is a boat!" The judge rolled his eyes and said, "No, the Constitution is our basic governing-" "It's also a boat in Boston! The Constitution! Same thing! Come on!" The judge finally couldn't take any more. He said, "Fine. She's a citizen. Now get out of here!”
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Galatia, “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his [children], you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.
Good soccer moms are like God who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to protect and save his children. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17).
And to the Christians in Ephesus Paul wrote, “In love 5 God predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us.
FIRST LESSON Luke 24:13-35
SECOND LESSON Acts 2:14, 22-24, 36-41
SERMON: “About Face!”
In his sermon on today’s message from the Book of the Acts, Leonard Sweet poses the question, “Will you dance the metanoia with me?” He says, “Every generation has a signature dance. Anyone remember the “Twist?” The “Conga?” The “Hokey Pokey?” The “Funky Chicken?” About fifteen years ago you could not go anywhere — a party, a wedding reception, a baseball game — without being bullied to “Do the Macarena with Me.” I’m not much of a dancer, so don’t worry, I’m not going to make you get up and dance, but I do remember one thing about the Macarena:’ It requires repeated metanoia – changing direction. Peter, having been commissioned by the risen Christ to feed his lambs was now preaching to a gathering of his fellow Israelites. He doesn’t mince any words, but points directly to the role the Jews have already played in the drama. “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:22-23). That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: God has raised Jesus from the dead, “let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified (if anyone in the crowd hadn’t yet connected with their involvement in the matter, here it is again, this Jesus, whom you crucified) [has been made by God] both Lord and Messiah.” 37 Cut to the quick, those who were there listening asked Peter and the other apostles, “So now what do we do?” 38-39 Peter said, “Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. (Acts 2:37-39, The Message)
Two of the most difficult words for us to deal with today are “sin” and “repent.” We hesitate to label much of anything sin in today’s culture. We’re pretty much okay with the Ten Commandments, but even there some of us struggle with some of them. I’m okay, You’re Okay, published in 1967 is a classic text on transactional analysis and used by many as a self-help tool to understand the origins of their own behavior. Sadly the title has been hijacked over the years and taken to mean that whatever I do is okay, and whatever you do is okay too. In a culture that no longer wants to recognize much of anything as sin, “I’m okay, you’re okay sounds good.
But Peter is speaking to a gathering of his fellow Jews, and they don’t deny the existence of, the seriousness of, or their participation in the sin of putting Christ on the cross. Feeling a sincere sense of remorse, they want to know what to do now.
Turn around! About face! says Peter. Change the direction of what you were doing. Instead of persecuting Jesus and now his followers, change direction, receive the mercy he offers and be baptized.
Metanoia, repent, turn around, about face, change direction. It’s not enough to be sorry. It’s not enough to feel guilty. Go in a new direction.
Not all changes of direction, not all changes in behavior are repentance. Sometimes we change behavior for self-centered reasons.
Giving to charity because it is a good tax break is not generosity.
Going to church because it is good for one’s business reputation, or political standing is not turning toward God.
Giving up of a sinful habit, not because I want to be controlled by the Spirit of God instead of by the habit, or because the habit inhibits my performance at work and is harming my professional reputation, is not turning toward God.
In all of those situations we may have changed our behavior, which may be helpful, but if we have turned because it happens to suit us and we can still believe we are in control, we have not yet turned around to let God be in charge of our lives. True repentance means turning and going in a new direction, a God-given direction, a Spirit-driven direction.
If you struggle with letting God be in control of your life, your business, your church . . . don’t feel alone. It is human nature that we want to have control over our lives and what we believe belongs to us. This may be one of the best definitions of “original sin” – self-centeredness instead of God-centeredness. It’s not that babies do anything that breaks God’s commands the moment they are born. But babies are self-centered. Psychologists tell us that for the first few months babies don’t distinguish between themselves and their environment. From the moment they first draw breath, it’s about what they want and what they need. Quickly babies learn that when they cry someone comes running to meet their needs – food, warmth, hold me, comfort me, get that sharp diaper pin out of me! Maturity begins to emerge when we develop the ability to respond to the needs of others.
Repent and be baptized – turn around and submit to God’s will.
Leonard Sweet reminds us, “If we about face from the rules for Life according to this world in order to embrace the behaviors mandated by Jesus as “the Life,” there will be conflict.
The world does not like it when we choose compassion over coercion.
The world does not like it when we opt for mercy over revenge. The world does not like when we offer forgiveness instead of judgment.
The world does not like it when we give second chances instead of “first dibs.”
When Peter offered his audience an answer for what they could do to get right with God, he did not create a creed or a mission statement. He did not propose a prayer. He did not come up with an updated version of the Ten Commandments or a revised Book of Order.
All that was required was to repent, to turn around, and to do so in
“the name of Jesus Christ.” Believing in the person of Jesus, not in any list of rules or litany of principles, was what brought the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, there is more good news, because we know more of the story. We have read the letters of the Apostle Paul. We know that repentance, baptism, salvation are not just for one group. God’s love and mercy are available to all. Years ago, there was a bag lady in New York City who attended a preaching service at a Manhattan Rescue Mission. Afterwards in the line to receive soup, she mentioned to the preacher she was now ready to give her life to Jesus. She said, “I never knew until today that my name is in the Bible.” The preacher smiled and said, “What’s your name?” She said, “Edith. My name is Edith. And my name is in the Bible.” The preacher said, “I’m sorry ma’am but you must be mistaken. The name Edith never appears in the Bible.” She said, “Oh yes it does, you read it a few minutes ago!” He opened his Bible and she pointed her dirty finger to Luke 15:2. The preacher had been reading from the King James Version, and it says, “This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.” She said, “There it is! Jesus receiveth sinners and Edith with them!” Indeed, the good news is Jesus does receive sinners, and Edith, and David, and Jane, and Mary, and John and anyone else who comes to Him!1 If Peter could promise forgiveness and salvation to those who were complicit in putting Jesus on the cross, then we can trust that no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, you can do an about face, you can let God direct your life by the power of the Holy Spirit. You can begin again. 1 From a sermon by Fred Markes, What is God Like?, 8/30/2011)