Sunday, June 28, 2015
My grandpa Andrew came to this country from Sweden in 1903. There were thirteen children in that family and there was no more room in the house, so he left to make space for the younger ones. He was the third son which meant that he would never inherit the farm in Sweden, so he came here. He worked as a cabinet maker in the furniture factories in Grand Rapids at the turn of the century, and in fact he worked well beyond his seventy-fifth birthday. He and my Grandma Emma were hard workers, frugal with their money and generous with the church. They didn’t have a car, and they didn’t have a TV or a stereo or anything to play music on, and their chief pleasure was their family. And when my grandpa Andy died, his three children divided his life savings among them – which amounted to $166 a piece. That was his inheritance to his heirs.
My own memory of my grandpa is that every Christmas Eve we would gather at his home and he would call each of his grandchildren in turn, solemnly, by our full name, in order of our birth, and hand us a five dollar bill.
That was Grandpa’s gift to us.
And I remember the stories he told us, again and again, about how he had come to Escanaba, Michigan on the train in the middle of the night, in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of nowhere. Some of you have heard that story!
But what I remember most was my grandpa Andy’s faith. He and my grandmother were early, faithful members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids and very active there. Most Saturdays my mother and my two brothers and I would go visit our grandparents in their home on Brown Street. My brothers and I would wedge ourselves in behind their little kitchen table and sit across from Grandpa. We had milk and cookies. He had coffee which was mostly milk and lots of sugar – always in a big white mug. He would peer over his glasses at each one of us in turn, and he would say to us, every Saturday morning, without fail, in his heavy Swedish accent, “God have been good to me.” That was my inheritance from my Grandpa Andy.
For most things, Grandpa got along well enough in the English language, though with a heavy Swedish accent. But he always prayed in Swedish. I never understood a word of his prayers, but what I heard was a man pouring out his heart to God in a language they both knew, and it sounded like sacred singing to me. That was my real inheritance from him.
So I have been thinking this week about what it means to be an heir of God which is what our passage from Romans calls us. We are children of God and therefore we are heirs of God.
Which means - that everything that is God’s is ours. That all that belongs to God belongs to us also, through Jesus.
So the next time you look up at the sky at night, think to yourself – those are mine. All those stars up there in that dark sky. Those stars are mine. They are God’s and they belong to me. Or when you read about the planets, or watch a special on TV about the planets, think to yourself – those are mine. All those planets hanging out there in space in their orbits – in some way that I, at least, do not understand – think to yourself - they belong to God and they belong to me. And the universes beyond the universes that we cannot see or imagine – they belong to us because they belong to God. Or the next time you’re out in the woods with a little stream that sparkles in the sunlight, or at the lake with the waves pounding in on the shoreline in their precise rhythm – think to yourself, this is God’s and all that’s God’s is mine. Or in your own back yard, when you’re surrounded by flowers that appear by magic from seeds or little flats at the flower store, and hummingbirds at the bird feeders. Remind yourself that they are God’s gift to you. Your inheritance as God’s precious son or daughter.
Today we look around us in this church, and we see the others here – long-time friends who have probably been with you through a hard time or two in your lives. And we say to ourselves – all these belong to me. All these are God’s sons and daughters and they are my sisters and brothers as well. All these people are God’s very gracious gifts to me. Even if I am just beginning to know some of them.
And when we hear of trouble, again, always, in Charleston, or Syria or Boston or wherever else in the world there is trouble, and we see the pictures on TV of those who are suffering there, or immigrants trying to reach a safer place, and we say to ourselves, they belong to me. They are God’s precious children and they are mine also. They are my responsibility. They belong to me.
And congregation of Jesus Christ in at North Kent: don’t forget those promises. Remember those promises that God made to the people in the Old Testament – to Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Jacob and the others. God said, I will be your God. I will love you lavishly and I will care for you tenderly. Those promises are ours as well.
And if we are God’s children we walk around every day in a bubble of blessing – the gracious gift of God to us. And when we are lonely or discouraged or worried, God’s Spirit is as close to us as our breathing in and out. Or when we are knocked down by one bout of bad health after another, or we see the stock market dipping and there goes our retirement income, or when we have a decision to make. Or as church, when it’s not clear at all what the future will be. There is God, beside us, whether we realize it or not, holding us and loving us. Because we are the children of God. Because that’s what perfect parents do for their children. We are held, every second of every day of our lives in the big warm, loving hands of God. And nothing is strong enough to yank us out of those hands. So no matter what may happen to us in our lives - and there will be things that will happen to us - nothing can really harm us as we live our lives in God’s hands.
In case you wonder if all this blessedness can really be true – in case you can’t quite believe it all - then look at this communion table. It’s the proof, in front of our very eyes, of God’s amazing love for us through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, all of God’s love comes pouring down on us until we are standing knee deep in God’s love. As the sons and daughters of God. The heirs of God. All of God’s love, and all of God’s power, and all of God’s majesty and goodness and forgiveness come deluging down on us. All because we belong to God. And in that confidence we live each day and move into the future.
Colossians 3:12-17 and Galatians 3:23-29
Sunday, June 21, 2015
So here’s the question. If we are not saved by keeping the Ten Commandments, then why do we obey them?
We’ve been dancing around this question for a couple of weeks now. It started, as you may recall, with Peter. Who was a very good Jew, and who kept all the Old Testament Jewish laws perfectly. He didn’t eat what he wasn’t supposed to eat, and he didn’t associate with people who weren’t Jews, and he certainly didn’t stay overnight in their homes or have any sort of meaningful conversations with them. And yet, God came to him very powerfully, one day when he was praying on the rooftop of a house in Joppa. And God made the point to him, very clearly, that a new time had come. That he was now to associate with people who were not Jews, and even baptize them, and that people who were not Jews did not have to obey all those laws in the Old Testament. God made the point three times, in fact, just in case Peter may have missed it the first time. And Peter responded, quickly and completely – the way he did everything.
And then you remember how there was a great argument in the Christian church about all this, and how headquarters Church in Jerusalem called Peter and Paul and others back to Jerusalem for a conference, in which they discussed all this – heatedly and at great length. And you remember how Jesus’ brother James finally helped them come to a compromise, and they decided that people who were not Jews did not have to keep all the Jewish laws in the Old Testament, but only the most important ones.
But the question kept circulating around in the church, because here you have all these good Jews who have meticulously kept all these Jewish laws since they were babies, and celebrated all the Jewish holidays and eaten all the Jewish foods, and only the foods that Jews were supposed to eat. And suddenly, they are being told, by Peter and Paul, no less, that none of that is important at all, and the way to have life with God is through Jesus. It was mind-boggling. It was too hard to believe. So Peter and Paul had to say it again and again and Paul had to write it, again and again, in letters that he wrote to the churches all over Greece and Turkey, including the letter to the church in Galatia, which we have just read this morning. And Paul says very clearly, there, that we are no longer living under the laws, but we are living in faith in Jesus. It’s not keeping the laws that makes us children of God. It’s Jesus Christ who makes us children of God. And to boggle their minds even further, he makes the point there’s no difference between Jews and Greeks, and men and women and slaves and free. All of us are descendants of Abraham, and all of us belong to Jesus Christ and all of us are children of God.
So here’s the question again. If all of this is true, then why do we keep the Ten Commandments? If we are children of God through Jesus, if we are already God’s chosen sons and daughters, why bother? Why should we tell the truth when it would be a whole lot easier to tell a little white lie? Why should we take care of our parents as they become older? Why should we be careful to be honest in our business dealings? Why should we be content with what we have in life instead of wanting more and more and more? Why should we resist the temptation to sleep around in the wrong bed when things are going badly at home? Why, in the end, should we bother to worship God on a Sunday? When we have plenty other places to be and plenty of other things to do? If none of that really matters? If keeping the Ten Commandments really doesn’t matter?
Well, Presbyterians have a very good answer for all of that. Presbyterians say that we keep the Ten Commandments to make God love us. We do them because we understand that in Jesus, God already loves us dearly. We are already God’s chosen ones. And we wake up every single day, determined to do our very best, every single day, to show our deep, deep gratitude. (That comes through loud and clear in our Heidelberg Catechism that we read this morning.)
So here’s that looks like. That we wake up every day doing our best to show our gratitude to God that day that we read about in both our passages for the morning.
A woman is getting up in the morning, and she is putting on her shirt for the day. And as she puts on her shirt, she also puts on compassion. And as she puts on her shoes, she also puts on kindness and humility. Or a man is getting ready for the day, and as he pulls on his pants, he also puts on patience. He puts on a shirt for the day, and as he does that, he puts on forgiveness. And then he puts on a belt that holds his shirt and his pants together, and the belt that he puts on is love. That man and women eat their breakfast that day in harmony, and as they walk out the door for the day they take their last little sip of coffee and they are full of gratitude. Which stays with them the whole day.
So that whatever happens to them that day and wherever they are, and whomever they are with, this woman and man are wearing compassion and kindness and patience and humility and forgiveness and peace and gratitude and love. They encounter a conflict at work, and they are clothed with peace. They have a conversation with a friend or neighbor and they respond with humility. Someone offends them deeply during the day, but they are wearing forgiveness. They come up against an unsolvable problem, but they have patience draped over their shoulders. They see a person in some special need, and they are covered with kindness, so they respond, even though they are tired. And at the end of the day, this woman and man come back home to each other and to their family. And they are still wearing patience, and peace and kindness and humility and forgiveness and gratitude and they are still wearing that belt of love which holds it all together. And they spend the evening together, still wearing those clothes.
And I have discovered this. That it’s pretty hard to be angry with somebody for very long if you genuinely love that person. And it’s pretty hard to be critical, or mean spirited or impatient, if you’re truly grateful. It’s pretty hard to fight with other people for very long if your whole life is surrounded by the peace that Christ gives. It’s pretty hard to be arrogant if you’re wearing humility.
So then, we are wearing all those clothes – we are wearing compassion, and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and forgiveness and love. In that spirit, we keep the Ten Commandments. And in that spirit, we make a special effort to care for our aging parents or other family members or friends - cheerfully. We make a habit of being honest even though it’s hard and even though most other people aren’t. We tell the truth in humility. We celebrate what is good rather than dwell on what is bad. We do our very best to make peace in our homes instead of straying off sleeping in beds where we don’t belong. We learn to be content with what we have. And we come to church on a Sunday morning because that’s one of the best places to show our gratitude to God. Because we are so full of thanks and gratitude that we can’t keep their mouths shut about it. Because we struggle every day to find new ways, or better ways, or more appropriate ways, to show our deep, deep gratitude for the life we have with God.
The life that is full, and rich and satisfying and overflowing with love and justice and peace. The life that overflows in goodness, and great bounty and wealth we don’t have words for.
So here’s the last question for the day: Are you that person we’ve been talking about this morning? Who puts on kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and forgiveness and love every morning and walks around all day in that clothing?
So let me tell you what has been happening to Paul since we saw him last week. When we saw him last week, he was in Jerusalem, summoned there for a conference with the leaders of the mother church in Jerusalem, in about the year 50 AD. About five years have elapsed and in those five years Paul has been everywhere in Greece and Turkey and all over the Mediterranean region. I counted twenty places that he passed through or visited for some period of time.
He spent some time in Athens, in Greece. That was a very sophisticated city, if you might remember, full of Greek philosophers and teachers, and Paul had several conversations with some of them about the host of Greek gods and goddesses they had. And they had gods of other cultures – Roman gods and goddesses and Egyptian gods and goddesses. There was a temple or a shrine or an altar on almost every street corner to one of their gods or another. Paul said to them, “Why do you have these gods that are made of wood or stone or gold or silver, and why have you built these shrines for these gods that are dead? I know the living God. From one ancestor that God made all of human life, and the world and everything in it. The true God isn’t a statue of some kind, made of silver or gold or wood that you can hold in your hands. The true God doesn’t live in shrines made by humans. The true God is a living God. And if we search for that God, we will find the real, living God. And,” said Paul,(and this will get him into trouble) “now is the time to turn from your gods of silver and gold and wood and stone, and turn to the living God.” He said that in Athens and he probably said much the same thing wherever he went. Because everybody around that area worshipped the same Greek and Egyptian and Roman gods and goddesses. That’s what happened in Athens.
Most of those five years, Paul’s been in far Western Turkey, and the principle city there is Ephesus – just across the Aegean Sea from Athens. It’s been a hard five years for Paul. Everywhere he went, he talked about Jesus, and almost everywhere he went he met serious trouble because he talked about Jesus. Twice he’s been attacked by the leaders of the synagogues, and twice he escaped in the nick of time before he could be attacked. Once he was forced to leave town in the middle of the night. He was arrested and put in jail -- held in chains, and through it all, feared for his life. He’s covered over 3,000 miles by ship or overland in a day, of course when any kind of transportation was very tricky, as we have talked about.
And now this story for today, which takes place in Ephesus. A man named Demetrius was a silversmith there, and he earned his income from making silver statues of the goddess Artemis. Ephesus was known to be the home of the goddess Artemis, and in fact her temple there in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Now Demetrius noticed that business was slacking off a bit. People weren’t buying his silver statues of Artemis and he blamed Paul for that (rightly or wrongly) and he aroused the other silversmiths in Ephesus against Paul. He warned them that their livelihoods were in danger, and that the reputation of the great goddess Artemis was in danger, and if they weren’t very careful, her very temple would be in danger. And he incited all the silversmiths and in fact the entire city against Paul. (Which wasn’t at all the first time that something like this had happened, as we talked about last week.) And before you know it, there’s a whole mob of people shouting in the streets in Ephesus. Some of them are shouting one thing and some of them shouting something else, and most of them not sure why they were there and what they were shouting about. And then before you know it, they are filling the huge amphitheater in Ephesus – which held 25,000 people - all shouting angry slogans – for about two hours of that. Paul’s friends advised him not to go near the mob in that amphitheater, and so did officials in the city of Ephesus. And in the end, the only thing that saved Paul from the mob was the sanity and calm speaking of the City Clerk. And Paul once again, said a fond goodbye to the members of the church in Ephesus, and was on his way back to Greece. Where maybe he would be a little safer for a day or two.
He writes about this all in a letter he wrote to the church at Corinth in Greece. He says, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sister, about the hardships we suffered. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. God delivered us from such a deadly peril and will deliver us.”
Now that was Paul in Turkey in about the year 55 or so. Speaking eloquently about Jesus everywhere he went. And very often in danger because of it. And speaking about the how God was with him in those very dangerous times and how God saved him again and again.
And now let me say this to my beloved congregation of Jesus Christ at North Kent Church:
There are times when we speak out also, because we are also followers of Jesus, and we speak in his name. We do that carefully, and with a great deal of prayer and thought ahead of time, and with the support of others. We take a long hard look at Jesus, and we see his priorities, and what he was passionate about, and when we see things happening that would hurt Jesus, or anger him, we do speak out. When we see that seniors are being mis-treated, we speak out. When we see that the disabled are not being cared for, or not being cared for well enough, we speak out. When we see that children are being neglected or not being loved well enough, we speak out. When we see that the needs of the poor are not being addressed, or not being addressed well enough, we speak out. When we see that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, we speak out, just like Jesus did about that very thing. When we see that laws are being enacted that would make Jesus angry, or that do not honor God, we speak out. We overcome our fears and our shyness and we speak out. We do that peacefully and prayerfully. We speak out because we are followers of Jesus. We stand in the company of his servant Paul and because we are the Children of a living God who made and loves the entire world and wants justice.
And more than speaking out, sometimes we take action. This congregation is so very good at taking action on behalf of those whom Jesus loves best. I am so proud to be your temporary part time pastor as I watch what you do for the ones whom Jesus loves best.
So let me give you this assignment: think about the places you are and the people you know and the issues that are in front of you, and the news of the world you hear. And think about how you may respond to all that, in Jesus’ name.
And as we do that, we are confident of the power and protection of God around us, just as Paul was. And we ask God to bless our speaking and our acting and we step out and speak in Jesus’ name.