FIRST LESSON Micah 6:1-8 (p. 1447)
SECOND LESSON Matthew 10:40-42 (p. 1512)
SERMON: “Cups of Cold Water”
It’s Martha Stewart time! You know Martha Stewart. She’s the queen of entertaining, the “Citizen of the Year” in the land of pomp and circumstance. She has built an empire out of hospitality and become a millionaire on style.
She bakes her own bread, grows all her own flowers, and can teach us how to do everything from washing our windows to making our beds with tight hospital corners, while grinding corn for tortillas and stenciling our freshly painted ceilings -- all so that our family and guests can feel welcomed when they arrive.
That is what today’s passage from Matthew is all about – well . . . not really. But it is about hospitality, but not the Martha Stewart kind. This is not about the pomp and circumstance of entertaining. Rather, it’s about welcoming the best and the least into our homes and hearts and meeting the needs of the people around us.
It is about the teaching of Christ and the Rule of Saint Benedict and, at the end, little bit more.
First, the teaching of Christ. Christ taught us that whenever we welcome the greatest or the least of those among us, we welcome him. That’s one of the basic messages of this passage. It is also the message of the well-known passage found in Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the coming of God’s glorious kingdom and the separation of the “sheep from the goats,” saying, to all who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoners, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” And to emphasize his point he declared that those who failed to do these tasks of hospitality and caring for others, failed to do them for Christ.
According to Jesus, to entertain the stranger is to entertain the Savior. That is the basis of the Rule of Saint Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” The rule is not to be seen as a burden, but as a privilege, for what a privilege it would be to entertain our Savior -- what a privilege to offer him a drink, or to give him a ride. Who among us wouldn’t jump at the chance to serve our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in some small way? Who wouldn’t consider it an honor? Just so, disciples who follow Jesus are called by God to acts of kindness.
There is a story told about the George Morrison, a Scottish preacher of some fame. Morrison dreamed one night that he traveled up to heaven. There at the Pearly Gates he introduced himself to St. Peter. But St. Peter couldn’t find his name in the Book of Life. Morrison tried to explain that he was a pastor, a man of God. St. Peter had never heard of him. Morrison protested that he had spent years in a well-known ministry and had brought many souls to Christ, but still St. Peter couldn’t locate his name. Finally, St. Peter found it. “Oh, I do have a notation here,” St. Peter remarked, pointing to Morrison’s name. “It says, ‘One night he sat up all night long with somebody who was dying.’” For all his great fame and accomplishments, Morrison would be known in heaven only for his deeds of kindness.
When Henry James was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, James said something that the boy never forgot. “There are three things that are important in human life,” said Henry James. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” One of the very important characteristics of a follower of Christ is kindness. “A cup of cold water . . .”
Kindness is a reflection of the image of God in which we were created. Because God is compassionate and merciful, we are to be compassionate and merciful. Because Jesus is sympathetic and gracious, we are to be sympathetic and gracious. Kindness is a reflection of the image of God in which we were created.
I had the privilege of attending the session meeting at the Three Rivers-Centreville Presbyterian Church several years ago, as an observer. During their time of telling their joys and concerns, one of the elders, a woman, told of how one hot day during the previous week she and her daughter had been driving home from Kalamazoo when, just south of Schoolcraft, they had seen a man lying along the side of the road. Although her daughter expressed real fear about stopping, this woman could not go by, as dozens of drivers were doing, without trying to help the man. Over the protests of her daughter, she turned around and went back to see how they could help. Somehow they managed to get the man away from the edge of the road, to call 911 and get him the help he needed. It turned out that he had been working outdoors all day, and was walking home along 131 when he collapsed from heat exhaustion. Had no one stopped to help him, eventually he would have died there by the side of the road. As I listened to this woman tell her story, I remembered Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, and in this elder I could see a glimpse of the image of Christ.
Kindness is a reflection of the image of God in which we were created. We have also been commanded by Christ to be kind. We don’t have a choice about it. Christ told us, commanded us, to love our enemies. He told us to regard sick people, hungry people, homeless people, people in prison, people who are dying as Christ himself. We are to offer a cup of cold water to anyone who is thirsty, just as we would offer it to him.
As long as I live, whenever I hear that scripture, I will remember one of my colleagues in Nashville telling about an experience he had. We were talking about the hospitality and the lack of hospitality we had experienced in our pastorates there. Dale told me that a few days before, on a particularly hot summer’s afternoon, he was out riding his bike. As he approached the house of one of his regular members, someone who attended worship every Sunday, he realized that he was physically tired, hot and very thirsty. So he decided that this would be a good time and place to stop. His parishioner who was home, stood and talked to his pastor on the porch, but offered him nothing in the way of hospitality. In Dale’s words, he had to “practically beg to get a cup of water.” While he would have liked to have had a drink of water, what Dale missed most that afternoon was a sense of kindness and caring.
What a contrast between that parishioner who hesitated to bring a drink of water to his near-fainting pastor, and the elder from Three Rivers who stopped to help a stranger! (and probably saved his life!)
As Christians we offer kindness because such is the image of God in us, because Christ commanded us to, and – for the pragmatists among us – simply because this is obviously a good strategy. When we respond to someone else with kindness, love and generosity of spirit, they, too, may become a little kinder, gentler. Research shows that this may even be true in dealing with the I.R.S.
According to a study by Loyola University psychologist Dr. Loretta Stalans, taxpayers’ beliefs about audits have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies: If you expect unfair treatment from an auditor, you’re more likely to get it. It’s not that auditors are mind readers. What happens, explains this psychologist, is that taxpayers who expect unfair treatment fail to establish rapport with their auditors. And in an audit, a cordial relationship with your auditor can save you a lot of hassle – and maybe some money.
You see, auditors are more likely to bend the rules if they believe a taxpayer is trying his/her best to comply with tax laws. “The auditor may accept an explanation that records were lost during a move, or that your ex-wife destroyed them,” Stalans says. A taxpayer who expects unfair treatment, on the other hand, is more likely to act aloof or behave uncooperatively, leading the auditor to assume that he or she is being intentionally noncompliant. In such cases, Stalans found, auditors were five times more likely to assert their authority by, say, rejecting an extension request or a taxpayer’s excuse. The same principle applies to dealing with other authorities, like police. Studies have shown that police officers tend to cooperate with citizens who act respectfully, and to strictly enforce the law when a person acts rudely. Kindness is a strategy that works. As my wise mother used to say, “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
Christians are kind because such is the image of God in us, because Christ commands it, because kindness works, and now here’s the twist in this scripture: This passage was not written for the disciples as a command for them to be hospitable. Read it again, and you will notice that Christ tells his disciples of the gift that will come to those who receive them. In other words, this is about those who are hospitable to us.
In some ways that’s harder to take. We would rather be the giver than the receiver. It’s hard for us to accept assistance graciously. We are quick to refuse help, nurture and support from others. Too often we want to retain our self-sufficiency and our independence. Our cry is “Don’t help me, please. Save your help for someone who really needs it.”
Yet, we all need help. There will come the time when we need a ride to the doctor, or a home-cooked meal. There will be times when an offer to baby-sit the children so husband and wife can have a date will go a long way to saving a marriage. Sometimes we, as Christians, need the hospitality of others as much as we need to give it.
This passage reminds us of a simple rule that we frequently ignore. When we refuse hospitality, when we refuse the loving gifts of time or presence or assistance, we refuse to allow the person offering the gift to receive a blessing. We take away an opportunity from them. For to help us is somehow to help the Lord, to participate in some small way in God’s work. We can see that when we are helping another, but when someone is helping us? That’s much harder.
My friend Pat had a lady in her church years ago who traveled the bus everywhere in St. Louis. One day when it was pouring cats and dogs, Pat overheard another member of her church ask to take this lady home. The woman, of course, refused, saying the bus stop was just on the corner.
“Please,” the second church member said. “I would really feel better if you let me drive you.”
“No. I don’t want to be a burden,” replied the first lady.
“I never thought of you as a burden,” came the response. “All I was thinking of was the privilege of getting to know you better during the ride and of not worrying about you later.”
Too often we refuse the kindness of others, thinking that we don’t want to be a burden, but Jesus says, “My child, you are never a burden. You are a child of the King.”
We are called to be kind, for such is the image of God in us. We are commanded to be kind by Christ himself. We are advised to be kind, because it is an approach to life that works, and this passage of scripture is telling us that we need to allow ourselves both the privilege of giving hospitality and of being willing to receive it.
FIRST LESSON Genesis 21:8-21 (p. 29)
SECOND LESSON Matthew 10:24-39 (p. 1511)
SERMON: “Follow the Leader” “Who Is My Leader?”
The mother of four young boys often had difficulty curbing their energy, especially in church. But when her minister preached on “turning the other cheek,” the boys gave him their undivided attention. “No matter what others do to us,” he said, “we should never try to ‘get even.’”
That afternoon the youngest boy came into the house crying. Between sobs he said he’d kicked one of his brothers, who then kicked him in return.
“I’m sorry you’re hurt,” his mother said. “But you shouldn’t go
around kicking people.”
Still choking back tears, he replied, “But the preacher said he isn’t supposed to kick me back.”
There may be times in life when we feel like the world is against us, kicking us, including our family members.
37 ”Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus said, 34 ”Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— 36a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
That sounds like pretty serious stuff. People who earnestly and sincerely profess that they are followers of Jesus Christ frequently disagree, sometimes about trivial matters and sometimes about deeply held convictions. It rarely convinces the rest of the world to believe in Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Some claim the others will not go to heaven; retaliate with name-calling and intimidation. One of the strengths of our Presbyterian tradition is an understanding that people of good conscience can disagree – sometimes vehemently.
Whenever a person follows the Word of God there will always be someone to oppose him/her. Anyway you look at it, when you follow Jesus, you will have opposition at times.
In the text from Matthew, Jesus tells us not to be afraid of those
who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. I am discovering more and more that many people are much more concerned with the here and now, with what is happening today, than they are with what will happen for all eternity. I have to work to wrap my mind around that because logic tells me that eternity is going to be a lot longer than this present life.
As many of you, though perhaps not all of you, know, during this past week the General Assembly of the PCUSA has been meeting in Detroit. Of all the issues up for consideration, surely none is as controversial as that of marriage. The assembly approved what is called an “Authoritative Interpretation,” recommended by the Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues. That it is an “Authoritative Interpretation means that unlike overtures to change the Book of Order that must go to the presbyteries for approval, it takes effect immediately. This Authoritative Interpretation allows for pastoral discretion to perform “any such marriage they believe the Holy Spirit calls them to perform where legal by state law.
They also approved a change of language in the Book of Order to indicate that ‘marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.” This will require ratification by the presbyteries.
A pastoral letter was sent to the churches from the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Stated Clerk and the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Mission agency, announcing these decisions and commenting that they “came with much thought, discussion and prayer” and acknowledging that the PCUSA will be interpreting these actions for some time.
“Please know that the same triune God in whom we place our hope, faith, and trust in is still in control, and that the assembly’s action today is the result of deep discernment to hear God’s voice and discern God’s will. We concur with the feelings expressed by Teaching Elder Commissioner Jeffrey Bridgeman, moderator of the Assembly Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues, during his presentation to the assembly. “The apostle Paul tells us that ours is, in fact, ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ as ‘ambassadors of Christ,’ and he died for us so that we might be reconciled, that we might become reconcilers,” Bridgeman said. In this season of both happiness and sadness over the assembly’s decisions, we call on you to remember the overflowing grace and love God gifts us with, and to take seriously our charge to bestow the same grace and love on one another.”
These are issues that have been debated since before I started seminary 27 years ago. We will continue to debate and interpret these issues for years to come. This morning I ask each of you to remember that some of our members and friends are deeply grieved by these decisions and some are pleased and glad that much long, hard work has brought about this result. People within the church will disagree, family members will disagree; there will be people in the places where you work, socialize, go to school and play sports who will disagree. While this is fresh in the news strangers when they realize you are Presbyterian may slap you on the back and congratulate you and there will be those who will shake their heads in condemnation and pity.
The denomination has lost members and whole churches over the ordination decisions made in 2010 and there is every reason to believe that there will be more departures over these decisions.
I would tell you this morning to just get biblical in your response, your personal decision process, but over the years I have heard arguments eloquently made on both sides of the issues that are solidly grounded in scripture. If I were clergy in certain other Christian denominations I would stand here and tell you what you ought to think about these things, but that is not the Presbyterian way. As one of you reminds us frequently, God alone is Lord of the conscience. We hold space in the Presbyterian Church for diverse opinions on many matters.
But I will encourage you this morning to follow the leader – not the pastor, not the elders, not even the General Assembly, but the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus was preparing his disciples to go out into the world to spread the Good News, he warned them of theological and cultural resistance: “ Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 In other words, follow the leader. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation puts it this way:
26-27 ”Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. 28 ”Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life—body and soul—in his hands.
Our greatest honor and respect should be for God our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, not those who can only harm our bodies. What is the greatest commandment? Jesus was asked. “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you mind and with all your soul, and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.” He never said only love those who agree with you. He never said love only those who are without sin. He never said use every tactic you can muster to intimidate the opposition. He said, “Love your enemies.”
I don’t generally tend to think of evil as devil in a red suit with a pitchfork in his hand, but at times like these I can visualize a devil. And I see him comfortably sitting back, grinning ear to ear, laughing even, pleased that Christians are so divided that they aren’t even sure who their leader is. I hear him chuckle that we spend so much energy and spill so much ink on divisive issues that we are hampered, debilitated, prevented from our mission of proclaiming the love of God in Christ. I see his lazy butt in his easy chair as he sits back waiting for Christians to do his dirty work, to destroy the Church by fighting and quarreling and being so focused on the sin of others that they forget that God so loves the world that he sent Jesus into the world to pay the price for sin, that we might all be redeemed through faith in him.
My leader is Jesus Christ, Son of God who reminds me by the power of the Holy Spirit that God loves you and me.
Who is your leader?
FIRST LESSON Proverbs 1:1-9, 4:1-4 (p. 984 & 989 )
SECOND LESSON Galatians 3:23-29 (p. 1813)
SERMON “Our Father Who Art on Earth”
In every community, in every civilization, even in matriarchal societies, loving responsible fathers are a blessing to their families. So today we honor our Dads. One author has listed some ways to recognize if someone is a father:
You know he’s a father if he finds a Mutant Ninja Turtle in his briefcase, and he takes it around the office for “Show and Tell.”
You know he’s a father if he finds a clean house when he comes home from work and thinks he must be in the wrong house.
You know he’s a father when he takes a client to lunch and auto-
matically asks for a booster seat. You know he’s a father when he puts his wife in the back seat and fastens her seat belt for her. You know he’s a father if he keeps fighting the urge to wipe somebody’s mouth with his shirttail. My own dad was not perfect, but he was darn good. It seemed to me he could do anything. He once built a clock for which he even turned his own tiny brass screws. He played billiards with friends every week, and he got so good at it that he discovered he was unable to purchase a cue stick that was straight enough, so he took to making his own, turning them on the lathe in our basement. Making one wasn’t enough – he made at least a dozen of them and gave them away to other players. He could help me with homework in just about any subject, and because he loved to teach he would often tell me more than I needed to know to get my schoolwork done. When I took chemistry in high school I learned to tell him up front how much time I had: “Dad, I have 20 minutes to get this problem solved. . . .” Otherwise he would just keep going. And he stepped up to the plate when I went to Chicago to go to seminary, helping me and being a role model for my son. I could go on, but we would be here all day. Still, there was one thing my dad wasn’t particularly good at, and that was verbalizing approval. He was the kind of dad I could show a report card with 4 A’s and a B and his only comment would be about the B: “What happened there?” Then in 1993 my daughter was hospitalized for such a long time that insurance coverage ended. The facility advised me to apply for a grant from the State of Illinois to cover her expenses. So I did that – it meant filling out many pages of paperwork and a trip to Springfield for a personal interview. All worth it because we got the grant. The week I received notice that we got it was also the week I had the last conversation I ever had with my dad. I had kept them informed all through the application process, and when I told my parents that Kathryn’s medical would be covered by the State of Illinois, my dad said, “I know you worked hard for that, and I’m proud of you.” It was less than a week later that he died in his sleep from a stroke. I cannot tell you in words how much it means to me twenty-one years later that his last words to me were that he was proud of me. Imagine that you were going through a difficult time in your life, and you opened your Bible looking for encouragement. Imagine then that a letter fell out and that on it was this passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” If you didn’t know anything else about our Christian faith, there is enough encouragement and love in this one passage to keep you going for a long time. Who are we? Children of God. God loves us even more than our earthly mothers and fathers. God loves us without reservations, conditions, or limitations. If you have felt God’s love since the first time your parents took you to Sunday school, since the day you were baptized, or if you never felt it before this moment, please hear me this morning: You are a beloved child of God. You may have done some things you are ashamed of. God loves you anyway. You may have spoken harsh or untrue words. Still God loves you. You may have disappointed your parents, your spouse, your children, your colleagues and/or your neighbors. God loves you. Today we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy baptism. This is without a doubt the greatest honor conferred on pastors when we are ordained, to recognize and celebrate the unconditional love of God – of God who is present with us, loving us every moment of every day of our lives. Now and then in session, Bible study, Sunday school, the topic of what people are looking for in worship services, and particularly from the sermon. Most frequently I hear that people want guidance about how to live their lives in ways that are pleasing to God. So we go to the Sermon on the Mount. A pastor could preach from there for weeks, months, even years. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. Be reconciled with your brothers and sisters. Do not commit adultery – even in your heart. Do not murder – or even call someone a fool. Love your enemies. Give to the needy. Fast and pray in God’s presence, not for others to notice. Do not worry. Do not judge. There’s a dozen messages right there, and it’s just the tip of the wisdom in one book about Jesus. Why did God come to us in Jesus? To teach us; to heal us; to reconcile us with God, to bring us life, and life abundant. Jesus came to reveal to us all who God is. Creation reveals God – in part. The Law reveals God – in part. The prophets told about God – in part. In Jesus Christ God is revealed as fully as it is humanly possible to understand. Do you seek guidance for living your life in ways that follow Christ? Then certainly be peacemakers; be reconciled with others; love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. Give to the needy; decline to judge others and love your enemies. Beyond that . . . reveal the presence of God here and now. Show the unconditional love of God. Our Father who art in heaven is also our loving Father here on earth, today, this moment, right here and right now. There is a world of people around us who don’t really know that. Do you want to follow Christ? To be obedient to Christ? Then please hear his last words to his disciples: “God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) .
Candidate for Ordination to Teaching Elder, Christopher Mergener, was our guest preacher today as part of his requirements to be certified ready to receive a call.
FIRST LESSON I Peter 4:12-14, I Peter 5:6-11
SECOND LESSON John 17:1-11
SERMON: “Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication & Division”
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ prize-winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude a strange disease invaded the old village of Macondo from somewhere in the surrounding swamp. It is a lethal disease of insomnia that attacks the whole town. The initial effect is the inability of people to sleep, although the villagers do not feel any bodily fatigue at all. A more critical effect than that slowly manifests itself: loss of memory. Gradually the victims realize they can no longer remember or recall the past. Soon they find that they cannot remember the name or the meaning of the simplest things used every day.
You’ve heard of the fellow who said two things happen to you when you grow old — “one is the loss of memory, and I can’t remember the other.”
What happens to a people who do not remember history? They are doomed to repeat it. Memory is a teaching tool.
Christians are to be reminders, living reminders of Christ’s presence in the world. The world’s lethal disease is amnesia, the loss of memory. Today is a Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. This was Jesus’ great “object lesson” . . . “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In today’s Gospel reading we overhear a part of the prayer as Jesus was talking with God the Father before he was arrested. The Message version records part of the prayer this way:
I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me.
They were yours in the first place; Then you gave them to me,
And they have now done what you said.
They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, That everything you gave me is firsthand from you,
For the message you gave me, I gave them; And they took it, and were convinced That I came from you.
They believed that you sent me.
They’ll continue in the world While I return to you.
Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life That you conferred as a gift through me, so they can be one heart and mind As we are one heart and mind.
Why do you suppose John recorded this prayer . . . so that we would remember and the world we live in would be able to see Christ in us. He prays for the church, that we will
all be one. As author King Duncan comments, “Considering the present fragmentation of the Christian community, Christ is probably still praying that prayer today.” So what is it that holds us – the Church – together? First of all, we are united by our beliefs. Somehow when I am typing the word ‘united’ my fingers often type the word ‘untied,’ and we may just as easily be ‘untied’ by our beliefs. Whether united or untied, what we believe is important. Duncan shares a story from another author, John R. Claypool, a certain Mexican bank robber by the name of Jorge Rodriguez, who operated along the Texas border around the turn of the century. He was so successful in his raids that the Texas Rangers put a whole extra posse along the Rio Grande to try and stop him. Sure enough, late one afternoon, one of the special Rangers saw Jorge stealthily slipping across the river, and trailed him at a discreet distance as he returned to his home village. He watched as Jorge mingled with the people in the square around the town well and then went into his favorite cantina to relax. The Ranger slipped in and managed to get the drop on Jorge. With a pistol to his head he said, "I know who you are, Jorge Rodriguez, and I have come to get back all the money that you have stolen from the banks in Texas. Unless you give it to me, I am going to blow your brains out." There was one fatal difficulty, however, Jorge did not speak English and the Texas Ranger was not versed in Spanish. There they were, two adults at a verbal impasse. Just about that time an enterprising Mexican youth came up and said, "I am bilingual. Do you want me to act as translator?" The Ranger nodded, and he proceeded to put the words of the Ranger into terms that Jorge could understand. Nervously, Jorge answered back: "Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, he will find a loose one there. Pull it out and all the money is behind there. Please tell him quickly." The young translator got a thoughtful, then solemn look on his face and said to the Ranger in perfect English, "Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die." (1)
It is absurd to say that what you do not know won't hurt you. Tell that to Jorge Rodriguez. It is equally absurd to say that it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. Of course it matters what you believe. When the first missionary arrived on Lakemba, one of the Fiji Islands the islanders worshipped a god of harvest, to whom an annual sacrifice had to be offered to insure good crops. Usually a small young boy was chosen. On a killing stone, the little head was crushed with a rock, so that the victim's blood would flow down and cover the whole stone. They believed then the god would give a good and plentiful harvest.
The old killing stone where life was taken has now become the baptismal font, where new life begins for those who are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Of course it matters what you believe.. Sometimes it matters so much that churches divide. That's sad. But when the dust settles, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, there is a common bond that unites everyone who takes upon himself or herself the name Christian. That bond is this: We believe that God so loved the world that He gave His own Son that whoever believes in him shall have life everlasting. We believe that and that unites us with millions of believers around this planet.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Peter spoke to the crowd to tell them about Jesus. Luke records “41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
As I studied the prayer that Jesus prayed for the church, for his disciples, I thought about the options that are still in front of us as a church today, which brought to mind the four basic functions I learned in elementary arithmetic: Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division.
I always like addition better than subtraction. Addition has, for me, a positive connotation. When Peter shared the Good News about Jesus Christ, how he died on the cross and that God raised him from the dead, freeing us all from the power of sin and death, God added daily to their numbers.
Sometimes churches add to their numbers by receiving members who transfer from other churches, occasionally Presbyterians even receive members from other denominations. That transaction may add to one church’s membership list but it subtracts from another church’s roll. Changing pews does nothing to add to the kingdom those who are being saved. The Good News does that when people come to faith in Christ, whether or not they join a congregation.
Subtraction happens when we lose members because they move away, die . . . or when their feelings are hurt or people are offended by the words or actions of others. Some subtractions are natural and unavoidable – growing up, moving away, going to be with the Lord. Some are sad, and avoidable. I still like addition better than subtraction.
I always prefer to end on a positive note, so even though we learned division after we learned multiplication, let’s consider it next. We know division happens when we break something into pieces. The kind of division I learned in fourth grade was about dividing things into equal-sized pieces. If I have a dozen cookies and am playing with three friends, so there are four of us, how many cookies should each of us get so that we have the same amount?
Sadly division in the church isn’t about cookies . . . it happens when we have major disagreements . . . or for some people minor disagreements blown up into major ones. And those divisions are rarely into equal parts. General Assembly made some decisions in 2010 about who could be ordained to be Teaching and Ruling Elders, and a significant number of churches have left the denomination. As a people we are divided on this issue.
It is both an advantage and a disadvantage of the Presbyterian form of government that the people vote on issues, and as we know in the political world of our local and national governments, you win some, you lose some. And it can be difficult to be gracious losers . . . and gracious winners.
Back to the positive! In third grade we learned multiplication. I remember learning the times tables and thinking this was the greatest thing! Basically it’s a fast way of adding. I come to the gathering with my three – so there are four of us and we each bring three cookies. Which is easier: 4 + 4 = 8 + 4 = 12 + 4 = 16 . . . or 4 x 4 = 16. Multiplication is great!
And right now multiplication is what we need in the church. little c and Big C.
Suppose each member of a one-hundred member church took seriously the idea of bringing one person to Christ, one person to join the church in the next two years. By this time in 2016 that church would have 200 members. Suppose those 200 members did the same thing – you don’t have to preach like Peter and bring in 3,000 at a time. But by 2018 that 100 member congregation in 2014, that became 200 members in 2016 would be 400 members in 2018. Would you have worries then about meeting a budget? About having
Here’s the cool thing: This multiplication process means that in the next four years each of you has a goal of bringing just two people – you are not responsible to bring in 300 or 200 or even 100 . . . just 2.
We can add and multiply or we can divide and subtract. Which way do you believe God wants us to go?