FIRST LESSON: II Corinthians 6:1-13
SECOND LESSON I Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 20-24, 32-49
SERMON: “The Most Dangerous Place to Walk”
I grew up in a big city – Chicago. And I’ve lived most of my adult life in small towns, and for this girl – big, at least when it comes to a place to live, is not necessarily better. The crime, the pollution, the traffic, the crowded streets and subway are not so great. When I was a middler in seminary, I took a fall and broke my left ankle. You might think it would be an advantage to me that it happened just a couple of blocks from the University of Chicago Hospitals. But the sign on the wall in the waiting room says, “The average wait to see a doctor is five hours. I’ve been to a couple of ER’s here in Michigan and never waited more than a matter of minutes to receive care.
You think you’ve been caught in traffic during construction season on 131? The worst day on 131 doesn’t begin to approach the gridlock on the Dan Ryan Expressway through downtown Chicago. I don’t see how they get away with calling it an “express”-way, because there’s nothing express about it.
In the late 70’s our little family lived for a year in Lexington, KY. The best and closest church we found to attend in Lexington had two or three Sunday services, several choirs, something over 800 people in church every week. Could we find a place to park? No. We worshiped there every Sunday for a while, the people were friendly, smiled and welcomed us, the choirs were superb, the preacher – pretty good, except that he started every sermon with a groaner of a football joke. Then we missed a few weeks. When we went back, the people were friendly, smiled and welcomed us, and it was painfully obvious they didn’t know we’d been gone. So we decided to try the church in Nicholasville, population something under 5,000. No problem finding a place to park. The choir was okay. The preaching was good, but what grabbed us was that when we returned after missing not several, not a couple, but one Sunday, the people said, “Where were you? We missed you last week! Is everything okay?
Bigger is not always better.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not in any way suggesting that this church, or any church should not work at attracting and assimilating new members. What I am saying is that it’s not all about size. If I were to pick one or two sentences from David Ray’s book that are critical it would be these: God does not call churches to be big – or small; God calls churches to be faithful. We could have some lengthy discussions about what constitutes “faithful,” but I’m pretty sure we would include the great commission: “go and make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a)
God seems to love to start small, and then from small beginnings grow something amazing. From cosmic dust to a Big Bang? The next time you consider taking a sip from a fresh, cold mountain stream, remember how much the divine delights in single-celled organisms. There are millions of them floating in one glass of water. Consider how there are more insects than any other class of critters and more beetles than any other kind of insect, each fitting neatly into its particular ecological niche.
Jesus carried on the family tradition with a fascination with all things small and humble.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.” (Luke 13:19)
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.
“What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Luke 13:20-21)
Grains of wheat.
And today we have the story of David and Goliath – apparently a total mismatch.
The Philistines drew up their troops for battle. The Philistines were on one hill, the Israelites on the opposing hill, with the valley between them.
A giant nearly ten feet tall, dressed in 126 pounds of armor, stepped out from the Philistine line into the open, Goliath from Gath. 8-10 Goliath stood there and called out to the Israelite troops, “pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he kills me, the Philistines will all become your slaves. But if kill him, you’ll all become our slaves and serve us. I challenge the troops of Israel this day. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!”
11 When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine’s challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope.
12-15 Long story short, David, the son of Jesse from Bethlehem, the youngest son volunteers to fight Goliath.
24-25 The Israelites, to a man, fell back the moment they saw the giant—totally frightened.
33 Saul tells David that he is too young and inexperienced. David counters with the fact that he has fought lions and bears to protect lambs in the flock, and he’s sure he can do the same to this Philistine.
—and he’s been at this fighting business since before you were born.”
Saul said, “Go. And God help you!”
38-39 They tried to outfit David with armor, but it’s too heavy and awkward. David says, “I can’t even move with all this stuff on me. I’m not used to this.” And he took it all off. He takes five smooth stones and his sling, and goes out to fight.
Goliath taunts him, “Come on, I’ll make roadkill of you for the buzzards.”
45-47 David answers, “You come at me with sword and spear and battle-ax. I come at you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel.
David took off from the front line, running toward the Philistine. David reached into his pocket for a stone, slung it, and hit the Philistine hard in the forehead, embedding the stone deeply. The Philistine crashed, face down in the dirt.
David is not full of self-confidence as he faces the giant — he is full of God-confidence. He knows that if you believe, anything can happen. He trusts that God will deliver Goliath into his hand, and God does just that. When we talk about the power of small, we are really talking about the power of God.
When we do something good for the Kingdom, precisely because we are a small church, we know that God was in it with us. We don’t have to wonder whether we owe thanks to God or to an individual who dropped a huge wad of cash into our account.
There are approximately 177,000 churches in the United States which have from 7 to 99 adults participating. Only 41% of churches in this country are bigger than that. Clearly, individuals can make a difference, and so can small congregations. Our nation is saturated with these churches. Like most of these churches we have close personal bonds and a high level of commitment. Large churches have to implement “small group” ministries to try to develop the kind of relationships that come naturally here.
We have work to do. David had to show up. He had to be willing to take on the giant. He had to throw off the cumbersome armor so that he could move. He had to gather his stones and he had to take his shot. And he is one more example of God starting out small and watching it grow.
FIRST LESSON: Mark 2:23 – 3:6
SECOND LESSON Romans 14:1-12
SERMON: “The Most Dangerous Place to Walk”
You have heard it said that there are two sides to every issue. But I say to you, that as one member of this congregation (who shall remain nameless) has said to me frequently, there are three sides to every story: His side, her side and what really happened. That may be true. As a people we both struggle with and commend ourselves for our diversity of beliefs and opinions. There’s the one side of nearly every question and the other side, and then there’s the right side. The trouble is we don’t always
have clear access to the “right side.”
History gives us a rather interesting account on resolution of conflict. French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Christo) once had a heated quarrel with a rising young politician. The argument became so intense that a duel was inevitable. Since both men were superb shots they decided to draw lots, the loser agreeing to shoot himself. Dumas lost. Pistol in hand, he withdrew in silent dignity to another room, closing the door behind him. The rest of the company waited in gloomy suspense for the shot that would end his career. It rang out at last. His friends ran to the door, opened it, and found Dumas, smoking revolver in hand. “Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened,” he announced. “I missed.”
There are people who enjoy engaging in controversy. And then there are those who believe that as Christians the best way to approach any conflict that occurs is to run away. After all, God wants us to love our neighbor and that means we shouldn’t argue or fight with them. So if there is a disagreement of any kind, we should flee to avoid having to disagree with them. Since God wants there to be peace in the world, then whenever there is a disagreement of any kind, we should be very careful not to share our beliefs.
“One Sabbath,” relates Mark, “Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Does anyone here think that conflict between God’s faithful people is something new? Here we have evidence that it goes back at least as far as biblical times. The Pharisees lodge a charge against Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus defends them.
Supporting the Pharisees’ side of the argument:
The Sabbath is a day for rest and renewal, which the religious leaders took very seriously. Volumes were written to clarify what did and did not constitute work on the Sabbath. For example:
Uh oh! Conflict!
Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” If David could break the law, then surely Jesus, the Son of God, Son of Man could do so.
27 Then he said to [the Pharisees], “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The next part of today’s gospel reading is the same song, second verse, as Jesus heals a man with a shriveled hand. Are the Pharisees not right that the man could have come for healing any of the six other days of the week? Jesus himself is now working on the Sabbath! But is Jesus not right that even though it is the Sabbath, it is right to choose doing good over doing evil, to choose compassion over callousness, kindness over meanness.
These days, I don’t know where we could run and hide from conflict.
Should the United States, with or without the help of other world nations, take action against a government that while embroiled in civil war unleashed chemical weapons upon its own people? We are war-weary. Have we not learned our lessons from involvement in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan? Haven’t we hurt and lost enough of our young men and women? Haven’t we spent enough of our resources on nation-building when we could invest those resources in helping our own citizens? Who made us the policemen of the world?
And yet, did we not learn that we could not remain neutral forever in the face of Hitler’s aggression in Europe and the atrocities of concentration camps and the annihilation of some six million Jews?
Is there a middle of the road?
We have issues here in our own country, like gun control, health care, welfare reform, tax reform, pro-life /pro-choice issues, economic recovery issues? There’s a reason my wise mother taught me not to discuss religion or politics in any social gathering.
Is there a middle of the road?
Then there are the issues we face in the church – not just our church – all churches deal with these things.
Missions – should start at home. We should take care of our local neighbors first. Really? Are not the children in the Congo, Zimbabwe and Malawi, three of the poorest countries in the world, also God’s children, and don’t the poorest in our own country have much more than most of them?
Stewardship – If I handed each of you paper and pencil and asked you to prepare the church budget for 2014, would we not get as many variations as we had people tackling the task. And on the subject of money, does tithing mean before or after taxes?
Worship – What’s the right temperature in the sanctuary? Should we invest in improving the sound system? Must worship be completed in 60 minutes or less? If we can watch a football game for 3 hours, a movie for 2 hours, is it not okay if we’re in here for an extra 5 or 10 minutes?
Here comes the real bottom-line issue that generates differences of opinion: (okay, for some of us it’s bottom line, for others, not so much.) What is required for our salvation? Do we agree with Rob Bell who wrote in Love Wins that in the end everyone will be saved (including opportunities even after death). Or do we agree with Michael Wittmer’s response in Christ Alone, which articulately refutes Bell’s universalism.
Here’s a shameless plug for our Sunday morning conversations for adults: This year we are talking about some issues that tend to tear churches and their members apart. Who is Jesus Christ and how important is the answer to that question? Is it true you’re not a Christian if you believe in evolution? Do Christians have a reasonable hope for a resurrection like Jesus’? Is it true you’re not really a Christian if you are ever plagued by doubts? Is the “Church” [big C] still relevant in today’s world? Must we believe everything in the Bible, literally and word for word?
Neither I, nor those who will be moderating those conversations, within the framework of Martin Theilen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian, expect or require that we will come to final answers and resolutions of these issues that everyone will agree upon. Still, some of us do agree that by talking about them, we may at least come to understand each other better.
The most dangerous place to walk is in the middle of the road. Why? Because you are vulnerable to being hit by vehicles (people) on both sides.
There’s a walk we take between the Law and grace. The Pharisee is right on target with his objection to work on the Sabbath. No Jew of his time would have faulted him for questioning the picking of grain or healing on the Sabbath. The law matters because it sets needed boundaries to live in peace with our neighbors. Breaking the law, even for good reasons, opens the door to slippery slopes and ultimately abolishing it all together. But as important as the law is (and notice that Jesus doesn’t set aside the law; he offers a different interpretation of it), as important as the law is, it must bow to mercy and to life. David Lose writes, “Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed in the law.” Perhaps this is the narrow path Jesus said we would have to walk – the narrow, often tension-filled space between Law and Grace.
The Apostle Paul understood this when he wrote to the church at Rome, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
How many people have turned away from faith altogether because someone or some organization has judged them or people they love harshly.
Who is acceptable in the eyes of God? Will everyone be saved, or only those who happen to agree with me – or with you? I don’t know. Thank goodness it’s up to God.
The most dangerous place to walk is in the middle of the road where you see both sides of an issue, and so are vulnerable to being hit on both sides.
As followers of Jesus Christ we walk in tension between Law and Grace.
EPISTLE LESSON Hebrews 13:1-8
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 81:1-8, 15-16
SERMON: “Show Me the Honey”
More years ago than I like to think about, when we were living about half-way between Ludington and Scottville, we made friends with a family who had – I guess you would call it an egg farm. Well, they had 8,000 chickens that produced something like 6,000 eggs every day. Gordon and his wife and their two children collected, washed, weighed and packed the eggs every day themselves with no hired hands to help. But it wasn’t quite enough business for them, so they started two other businesses on their property – The Fish Cellar (a pun because they set this up in their basement) and honey bees. I like honey, but bees are not my friend. I read the opening page of a book about keeping bees for honey. It said if you hear the word “bees” and think honey, you might do well in this business. But if you hear the word “bees” and think sting – forget it. That was me; I put the book down and never thought about beekeeping again. In all fairness to myself, it’s not just the pain of a potential sting, but along with an allergy to penicillin and keflex, I’m also allergic to bee stings.
Commentary on this 81st Psalm says, “God is in the honey business. We know this because our text says so: “With honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (v. 16). So, God has honey, and God wants to give us some.”
I steer clear of bees – absolutely, but I’m with our friend Pooh: Show me the honey! Great stuff! That bees are able to make honey comb with hexagonal wax cells, fill the cells with honey and then seal them with more wax is remarkable. How it is that bees make cells that are horizontally, but not vertically aligned is amazing.
Getting honey from a rock is not like getting blood from a turnip — it’s something that can actually be done. Bees can build nests and honeycomb in all kinds of places. But finding honey in a rock requires keeping your ears open. If you’re looking for an actual beehive in a rocky land, you must listen for the buzzing of the bees which helps you detect the location of a hive.
But finding honey from a rock as promised in Psalm 81 is only minimally about the honey itself. Here the honey is a metaphor for God’s blessings – sweet and delightful, and listening for God’s voice is what helps you find those blessings.
The reminder is there for a forgetful people, a people whose history goes up and down like a wild roller coaster ride, this is the God who brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. This is the God who has blessings for the people, just open your mouth and taste the sweetness. “But, complains the Lord, “my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.”
Since the time of King David when many of the psalms were written, for some 3,000 years, God’s people have resisted the idea of obedience. Oh, it goes back further than that – Our first parents in the Garden of Eden were convinced that they knew better than God what they could and should do.
“My people would not listen to me,” says God, so God said, “Okay, do it your way. Be your own authority.” The implication is that the result will be far from satisfying.
If we want to find the honey, we have to listen. And if we want God’s blessings . . . we have to listen. The Hebrew word translated here as “listen” — shema — means “to hear intelligently (often with the implication of attention, obedience).”
We don’t like that obedience thing. After all, we are adults, grown-ups living in a land where freedom reigns and if the Bible says one thing, but when with all my years of experience and education and my intelligence that Bible doesn’t make sense to me, then it must be wrong. We think, “I will do what I think is right.” And then we wonder why we don’t have all of God’s promised blessings.
Most of know the poem called “Footprints,” that describes a dream in which a person is walking along a beach with God, leaving two sets of footprints in the sand. When the person looks back he notices that in the tough times, at the lowest and most hopeless moments of his life, there is only one set of prints. Why would God abandon him in those times. “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.” It is a beloved poem because of the reassurance it offers that God carries us through the hard times.
Lon Waitman, in contemplating this whole thing about obedience to God, revisited the Footprints poem:
Footprints Revisited by Lon Waitman
One night I had a wondrous dream. A set of prints on the sand was seen.
The footprints of my precious Lord, yet mine were not along the shore.
But then a strange print appeared. I asked the Lord, “What have we here?”
This print is large and round and neat, but Lord, it’s just too big for feet.
“My child,” he said in somber tones, “for miles I carried you alone.
I challenged you to seek my face, take up your cross and walk in grace.
You disobeyed, you would not grow.
You would not stand against the flow.
Your neck was stiff, your ears were shut.
So there I dropped you – on your butt!
Because in life there comes a time when one must fight,
when one must climb,
When one must rise and take a stand – or leave one’s butt print in the sand.
13 ”If my people would only listen to me,
if Israel would only follow my ways,
16 . . . you would be fed with the finest of wheat;
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
A video clip from worship films reminded me that when God calls us to do something, he often stretches us beyond our comfort zone. We are quick to say things like, “I don’t do mornings.”
“I don’t do nursery.” “
“I don’t do that tithing thing.”
“I don’t do youth ministry. I don’t do Sunday school. That’s just not my thing.”
Consider for a moment:
What if Noah had said, “I don’t do arks?”
What if David had said, “I don’t do giants?”
What if Mary had said, “I don’t do stables?”
What if Paul had said, “I don’t do Gentiles?”
What if Jesus had said, “I don’t do crosses?”
Shema means listen, not just “hear,” but listen with attention, with a sense of responding with obedience. The word “obey” is found 206 times in the Old and New Testaments. Add 38 more for the word “obedience.” We don’t really like that obedience thing, and yet it is central to finding an appropriate response to God. In Deuteronomy we hear Moses charge the people, to “be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess. (Deuteronomy 5:32-33) The Gospel of John records Jesus’ words: “If you love me you will obey what I command. (John 14:15) and “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” (John 14:21) Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9)
Remember WWJD bracelets and such – the initials standing for “What Would Jesus Do” reminding us to ask ourselves that question, especially in difficult circumstances.
I’ve got a new one for you --- YBSW – stands for “Yeah, But So What.” YBSW – Every time you read your Bible, attend a class, listen to a sermon, sing a hymn, pray a prayer, ask yourself, YBSW. Listen – shema – for what God is saying to you. Listen with attention to how God is calling you past your comfort zone to respond in obedience so that you will be filled with honey from the rock.
Show me the honey? The blessings of God follow obedience to God.
What is the honey? God invites us to join his family and live like the children of God — grown children, mind you, for it’s not a call to childishness. But it is a call to reflect the values of God’s family and of our heavenly parent.
Call it shema — or call it listening to God — or call it obedience — or whatever term best clarifies it for you. The result is having access to and being satisfied by sweet honey from the rock that is the Lord.