Monday, November 25, 2013

November 24, 2013 From Our Heart to God's: Psalm 23 - A Blessed Life

Psalm 23

A friend of mind has a story that is an incredibly powerful reminder of the blessing of life.  She works for IBM, and one day she was preparing for a business trip.  She was booking her flight when her boss asked her to cancel the trip.  She argued that it was an important trip to take but her boss was insistent that she cancel the trip, as IBM had decided to place a freeze on business travel.  She reluctantly canceled the trip.  The flight she was booking flew on September 11, 2001, and turned out to be the second flight that hit the World Trade Center.

It would be impossible not to think of life as incredibly blessed after such an experience.  To awaken every day, knowing that because your trip had been canceled, you are alive.  You are alive and get to enjoy many more years with your spouse.  You are alive and get to watch your children grow up.  You awaken every day with the knowledge that life could have ended far too early.  I believe that experience must be a blessing that would prevent one from ever taking life for granted.

As we conclude our series of messages on the psalms, this morning we come to the final words of the 23rd psalm – my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I like the image of an overflowing cup, as it represents the blessedness of life, so let’s talk about A Blessed Life.

1.  Bless the lives of others. 
Faith is too often seen as completely personal and somewhat of a weak force in life.  But faith is not just personal; it has a very public side as well, and it is certainly not weak.  We are called to help fill the cup of others, so their cup too might overflow, and entering into the lives and the suffering of others is not for the weak or the faint of heart.

One of the great examples of this type of faith, to me, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor in who was in our country, where he could have safely remained, but he returned to Germany to be with his people and to oppose Hitler and his regime.  Though he was forbidden to preach, write, or teach, he did so anyway, which led to his arrest in 1943.  He wrote from prison that he had no regrets about returning, even though it led to his arrest.  While in prison he was most likely aware of his coming fate, which was execution by hanging in the final days of World War II. 

Bonhoeffer composed a poem titled Powers of Good, and there is much power in his words, because of his experience.  Here is a portion of that poem, which is now included in some school textbooks and is sung as a hymn in some churches –

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
We will not falter, thankfully receiving
All that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be they will once more to release us
To life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
That which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
And all our life be dedicate as thine.

Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;
Lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
Leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
Boldly we’ll face the future, come what it may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
And, oh, most surely on each newborn day!

2.  Learn from adversity.
It’s by design that this is one of the great themes of Scripture.  One of history’s great works, St. Augustine’s City of God, reminds us time and again that faith is not forged and made strong by prosperity, but by adversity.  I saw this great quote the other day – some of the best bread is baked in the oven of adversity.

Adversity is, as strange as it may sound, one of life’s gifts, because without adversity we could never truly appreciate the depths of love or gratitude.

George Matheson was a Scottish minister who lived in the 19th century.  As a young man, when he was engaged to be married, his eyesight began to falter and his doctor told him he would quickly lose all of his vision.  When he told his fiancé of his oncoming blindness she immediately handed back to him her engagement ring, saying she did now want to marry one who would soon be so dependent upon her.  It was a crushing experience for him, but out of that experience he wrote the hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
(The Taste of Joy, Calvin Miller, p. 89)

3.  Keep the faith.
Ernest Gordon was the longtime Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University.  I referred to him some months ago in a message.  He wrote the book Through the Valley of the Kwai, which was the basis for the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai.  As a prisoner of war during World War II, Gordon and his fellow soldiers suffered unimaginable difficulty, but it was in those difficult conditions that Gordon himself came to faith.  Of his experience he wrote, faith thrives when there is no hope but God.  It is luxury and success that makes men greedy (The Good Life, Peter J. Gomes, p. 262)

Skeptics will say that faith is a genetic predisposition, a weakness of the intellect, a desire to control others, or that it’s born out of a fear of death.

People place faith in a great many things, but faith in God is, I believe, a foundational need in life. 

Luke 5:17-26 contains one of my favorite stories in the gospels.  It is the story of the paralyzed man, who was healed by Jesus.  What I like about the story is that the paralyzed man is not the focus of the story; his friends are.  These friends carried the paralyzed man on a mat to a house where Jesus was teaching.  They believed that Jesus could heal their friend, but when they arrived at the house there were so many people gathered it was impossible to get their friend close to Jesus.  Did they give up?  No.  They climbed to the roof of the home, dug a hole in the roof, and lowered their friend through the hole and placed him right in front of Jesus.  Wouldn’t you like to have some friends like that?  They were some great friends.

Faith is a communal activity, not just one that is solitary.  Think of how the faith of those friends must have strengthened the man who was paralyzed.  Imagine his reaction when they said they were taking him to Jesus.  Imagine his reaction upon discovering they couldn’t get to Jesus because of the crowd.  Imagine his reaction when his friends haul him up to the roof and start digging their way through the roof.  Imagine his reaction to suddenly find himself at the feet of Jesus.  They weren’t about to give up and lose faith.

My favorite part of the passage is what Luke says – when Jesus saw their faith.  It was not the faith of the paralyzed man that Jesus saw, but the faith of his friends.  It was the faith of his friends that brought about his healing.

I don’t believe I could do faith on my own.  I haven’t done faith on my own.  I have faith because of my parents, who first instilled it within me.  I have grown in faith because of teachers and mentors and role models who helped me understand faith in a more powerful way.  I continue in faith because of friends and loved ones, who have encouraged me and reminded me that faith never gives up, and never quits.

Remember how you got to where you are in life, because you did not get there on your own.  We so need to remember, because it is too easy to forget.

We live in such a forgetful, disposable culture.  Use it for a short time and then throw it away.  Forget it.  When the Recycled Teenagers went last Wednesday to Nonesuch, to Irish Acres Antiques, located in an old school building, I was looking at a piece made between the late 1800s and about 1910.  Deanie Logan was explaining it to me, and made the interesting comment about the quality and endurance of things made during earlier eras.  Technology has just about finished off any such idea.  A phone lasts until the next, cooler version comes out.  In my previous congregation, we had a rotary dial telephone that remained mounted on the wall.  One day, one of the kids asked if they could use the phone, and then stood there staring at it.  I asked, what was the matter?  He had never seen a rotary dial phone and didn’t know how to use it.  But it worked when the power went off, and it worked when the cellular network was down.  People laughed at it, but it was more reliable than the smartphone in their pocket.

Some people treat faith as though it is something from a bygone, forgotten age.  They want us to believe that the age of faith has come and gone, and that it is foolish to continue to cling to faith in our modern age.

Keep the faith.  It has served humanity well for thousands of years, and will do so until the end of time.

Monday, November 18, 2013

November 17, 2013 From Our Heart to God's: Psalm 23 - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

Psalm 23

Tanya and I attended a dinner with some of her coworkers some years ago.  Twelve or fifteen of us gathered at the home of the owner of the business. 

It was an interesting mixture, in terms of faith.  We were a combination of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim.  The hostess asked me if I would offer the prayer of blessing for our gathering and the meal.  We have some differences in our prayers and I asked her what she was expecting from me, in terms of my prayer.  She graciously said, just pray how you would normally pray.  It was fascinating to gather around that dinner table and talk about our faith and other topics, especially when, in some places, such a gathering could not occur.  In too many places, people who are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim are considered enemies, and a gathering for dinner would be impossible.

As we continue our study of the 23rd psalm, we come to what I think is the toughest verse in the psalm, verse 5 – Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

Why would the psalmist mention bring up the subject of enemies, and what does it mean that God is preparing a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?

1.  It reflects God’s desire for reconciliation.
When I read the 23rd psalm, this verse always seems to me to come out of nowhere, and seems out of place.  In fact, for a long time when I read the 23rd psalm at funerals this verse seemed totally out of place that my temptation was to leave it out altogether, or at least mumble my way through it.
But perhaps this verse should be clearly enunciated above the others, because if there is one lesson we should learn by the end of our lives it is that we shouldn’t reach the end of our lives without making peace in fractured relationships, and not just with family and friends, but even with our enemies.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I want to nurture my hurts.  I don’t want to let them go.  I want to return hurt for hurt.  I want to plot some revenge.  But I also remember the words of Confucius – Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

What does revenge really accomplish?  I know it may bring some level of satisfaction for a few moments, but does it really solve anything?  What does it accomplish to hold onto a hurt?  What does it accomplish to nurture a hurt, keeping that wound ever fresh and tender?  What does it accomplish to maintain the brokenness in a relationship?

The heart of the gospel is reconciliation.  This is one of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus – to bring reconciliation.  Jesus brought reconciliation between humanity and God, but not just between humanity and God, but also among humanity.

This is one of the primary reasons why I believe so strongly in the church.  I’ve never been able to adopt the theology of the lake and the golf course.  You know that theology – I can worship God just as well at the lake or on the golf course.  A lake is very relaxing for me, but a golf course does absolutely nothing for my faith, I can tell you that.  I come closer to losing my faith on a golf course, although my dangerously errant shots do encourage a lot of praying on the part of others on the course.  I need to be in a place where I will find not only comfort and encouragement, but also some difficult truths.  And one of those difficult truths is that I need to love my enemies.  I don’t have a natural inclination to love my enemies, I can tell you that, and I doubt that most of us do.  But if I want to be like Jesus, I need to hear what Jesus was like, how he lived, and how he wants me to live.  I often hear his name at the lake and on the golf course, but not in the way I need to hear it.  And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with hanging out at a lake or golf course; I’m just saying I think it is an inadequate substitution for the church.

2.  Reconciliation asks us to step across the divide.
Henry Hitchings has written a book with a fascinating premise.  The book is Sorry!  The English and Their Manners, and Hitchings traces the development of manners to the medieval days, when dinner tables often hosted enemies.  There were kings of different countries, or a collection of tribal leaders, or other gatherings of competing groups who would come together around a dinner table to work out treaties or other important matters.  At those dinners, people tended to have very sharp knives, swords, and other weapons, so codes of conduct were developed as a way of regulating violence.  Every meal became an opportunity for violence to break loose.

I think this verse could be read in a couple of different ways.  It can be understood in a human or a divine manner.  Perhaps David meant that his enemies would have to watch while he feasted at God’s great table.  It could thus be a taunt – God is preparing this bountiful table before me and my enemies are there to watch me enjoy it.  They get to see my blessedness but not partake in it.  David was not always forgiving of his enemies, and that could have been his attitude.  But God’s definition of this verse would be different.  In God’s view, it is a banquet table around which are seated enemies, and in God’s kingdom perhaps what he is doing is seating enemies together at the table in an effort to have them work out their differences and bring about peace, so they will become former enemies.  It becomes that step across the divide of brokenness – God has prepared this bountiful table for me, but he has also invited my enemies, and we are called to sit down together at a meal and work out our differences.

God asks us to step across the divide of brokenness and take part in his ministry of reconciliation. 

I received a blistering phone call once from a person who was disappointed in the church where I was serving at the time.  When you’re the minister you sometimes get those kinds of phone calls.  I sat and listened and didn’t say much, because sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you say.  Sometimes, people need to vent, and that’s what this person did.  I don’t know if it made them feel any better, but it didn’t do much for the way I felt.  I felt pretty terrible after listening to all they had to say.

We cannot live in this world without the kinds of experiences that drive wedges between people.  We cannot live in this world without suffering hurts, conflicts, and betrayal.  But we cannot let those experiences dictate how we will respond and how we will live.  The standard by which we are called to respond is the words of Jesus on the cross – Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34).  Wow, that’s tough, isn’t it?  Can you imagine that level of grace and reconciliation?

3.  In God’s kingdom, there are no enemies.
We live in a world full of enemies.  There are people who consider us enemies simply because of our nationality.  Others may consider us an enemy for other reasons.  And when someone considers us their enemies, it’s a natural response to consider them an enemy in response.  And it’s not just from one nation to another, but among our own society.  We hear an increasing amount of language that reflects how we see others as our enemies because they have a different point of view politically, religiously, or in some other arena.  The church is the body of Christ, and thus should reflect the nature of Christ, but in some corners of the church world we hear words that are more representative of division and rejection than reconciliation, unfortunately.

Jesus had enemies, obviously.  His teachings so enraged people they put him to death.  But Jesus did not name anyone as his enemy.  What Jesus did was to show a different way.  We generally want to do one of a couple of things when it comes to our enemies – we want to flee, but they remain our enemies and stay so in our hearts and minds; or, we can fight them, in which case we take on their character.

This verse is a mirror – it shows the ugliness and the hatred and the hurt and all that is broken about humanity.  We like to polish ourselves up with beautiful theological language and use these great clichés but deep down there is a different reality.  When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, that is, not a cliché; that is a cold, hard truth. 

I am often amused that people think I have a good memory because I don’t often refer to my notes while preaching.  I write a manuscript each week and also make a “cheat sheet” of notes that I carry around with me, and I scan those notes on Saturday and early on Sunday morning.  But trust me, my memory, in general, is not very reliable.

But I do remember some things, even when they go back a lot of years.  I remember all too well the times I walked down the hallway at school and felt the anger and shame as someone made fun of me and embarrassed me in front of others?  I imagine you have a good memory for such events as well.  Do you remember when someone took credit for something you did at work?  Do you remember when someone said something about you that wasn’t true?  Do you remember the hurt someone inflicted on you?

It’s a hard truth that God is asking for reconciliation, and that he asks us to step across the divide of separation, but when we do so we take on one of the greatest of God’s characteristics.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

November 10, 2013 From Our Heart to God's: Psalm 23 - Walking Through the Valley

Edward Bowen recently did something that drew a lot of attention in western Pennsylvania.  Bowen is 41 years old and is the pastor at Bates Memorial Presbyterian Church in Huntington, West Virginia.  Before moving to Huntington he was pastor of Crafton United Presbyterian Church in Crafton, Pennsylvania.  Before entering the ministry he was a corporate accountant, and he used his accounting skills to make very wise investments.

Edward Bowen also has a form of cancer that gives him only a year or two to live.  In considering his mortality he decided he wanted to do something that would, in his words, use the time I have left to do as much good as I can.  He has established a fund that will value $1 million dollars and be used for causes that help the kids in his old neighborhood in Crafton, so that his ministry can continue after he is gone.

Edward Bowen is beginning his walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but he understands that not only will his life continue in eternity, the impact of his life can continue in this world as well.

As we continue our series within a series – our series of messages on the psalms, and now several weeks on the 23rd psalm – we come to what are some of the most well-known words in that well-known passage of Scripture – Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

As I said a few weeks ago, it’s a bit amazing that the 23rd psalm is so beloved when it is filled with so much difficult language.  When we talk about difficulties, what is more difficult that the prospect of our own mortality?

The shadow of death always threatens to cast itself over our lives.  Before we walk far down the road of life, we become acquainted with the reality of loss.  As we walk further down life’s road, it becomes a more constant companion as we lose friends and loved ones.  And as we walk further still, we realize there is more of life’s road behind us than in front of us.

I must hasten to say that my purpose this morning is not to bring a discouraging word to you.  My intent is not to make you wish you had stayed home this morning.  In fact, my purpose is the opposite.  The psalmist affirms, in a moving and powerful way, that we can find hope in the face of life’s greatest challenges and even in death itself.

1.  Life is many things, and one of them is challenging.
There is a lot going on in this brief verse. It recognizes not only our mortality, but also the reality of danger, evil, suffering, and so many other threats that fill our world.  It is a harsh reminder that we will not escape suffering and difficulty in this life, and we will not escape it because of faith.  The promise that we will escape suffering and difficulty does not exist anywhere in the Bible.

Many people assume that the Bible says God will not give us more than we can handle.  People often say this, but that verse does not exist in the Bible.  But it could.  I don’t believe God give us more than we can handle, but life sometimes does. 

We could spend all day here trying to come up with an answer as to why life has to be challenging, but I’ll save us the time and just say that it is.  Why, I don’t know.  The Bible doesn’t, unfortunately, answer the question of why life is challenging, or why good people sometimes suffer while evil people prosper.  That doesn’t seem just, does it?  Some people are so kind and so nice and so gentle and so loving, and yet their lives are full of heartache and pain.  And some people are mean and self-centered and hateful, and they seem to prosper in almost everything they touch.  I don’t know why that is, but it just is.

Suffering is not the exception; it is the norm.  When you walk out your door in the morning you do not know what might happen to you.

2.  The challenges of life can bring strength and even blessing to us.
Isn’t that a strange thing to say?

I played my only year of organized football when I was in 8th grade.  I wasn’t very good.  I was a last string running back on offense and a slightly used safety on defense.  When we were doing our conditioning drills before the season started we did a type of exercises that were at that time a new way of exercising – isometric exercises.  Isometric exercises work differently from, for instance, weight lifting.  Weight lifting works with repetition in lifting, but isometrics work on the principle of resistance, where you push against an object that offers a great deal of resistance, but it is in the resistance that we build muscle and stamina.

There’s something very theological about that kind of exercise, because we build strength of heart and spirit when we encounter resistance.

This is why, I think, that we shouldn’t always try to remove every problem from the lives of our loved ones, especially our children.  You can’t protect yourself or your loved ones from suffering, and you shouldn’t always protect them, because we must learn how to deal with suffering and difficulty.  A person who is always protected and sheltered from the realities of life will never be given the opportunity to develop strength of heart, spirit, and faith.

Helen Keller wrote that character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

I love the story of Joseph and his brother in the book of Genesis, even though it’s a tough story to read.  Brothers don’t always get along.  I have two brothers and we didn’t always get along, but Joseph and his brothers – now there is a dysfunctional family.  Joseph was so disliked by his brothers that they decided they would kill him.  One of the brothers – Judah – said they shouldn’t kill him, but make a profit off of him by selling him into slavery.  I hope you remember the rest of the story, and how Joseph rises to second in command in Egypt to the Pharaoh.  When famine comes to his homeland his brothers come to Egypt in search of food, and they find themselves face to face with their brother Joseph – the one they sold into slavery years before.  And this is what Joseph says to his brothers – what you meant for evil, God meant for good (Genesis 50:20).

I don’t believe that God brings suffering and difficulty upon us, but I believe God transforms our suffering and difficulty into something that can bring us strength and, as only God can do, bring blessing to us.  It was terrible what Joseph’s brothers did to him, selling him into slavery.  It was terrible that they allowed their father to believe for so many years that his son was dead.  There’s no way to put a positive spin on those events.  But, God is never content to allow suffering and difficulty to exist, so he specializes in bringing strength, hope, blessing – good things out of those difficulties. 

3.  Don’t fear.
I have witnessed a lot of suffering and tragedy and loss during the course of my ministry.  I have witnessed people experience unspeakable tragedy.  I have witnessed people, good people, suffer through what they should never have to suffer.  I have witnessed people taking their final breath and pass from this life to the next.  And through it all I have become more convinced that God is real, that there is more than just this life, that God is good and that he loves us, and that our eternal destiny is secure in his hands.  Because all that is true, I can let go of fear. 

Now, I have to be honest and say that I still worry a lot, and I often have anxiety about life, but fear is a different matter.  Worry and anxiety are emotional reactions to the struggles of life, but fear is a threat that seeks to take away the realization of who God is and what he wants for us.

This verse of the 23rd psalm is a very powerful affirmation – I will fear no evil.  Whatever comes my way, whatever happens in life, I will fear no evil.  The psalmist said he found comfort in God’s rod and staff.  As a shepherd, a staff served several purposes, one of which was defense.  A shepherd had to defend his flock against many dangers. And that is the message of this verse.  We can walk anywhere in life – even in the shadow of death – and not be afraid, because we are in the hands of God.  When we suffer, we remain in the hands of God.  When we victimized by the world’s evils, we remain in the hands of God. 

I think the most vivid image in this verse is that we walk through the valley.  When I picture a valley, I visualize a winding road, because those are the kinds of valleys I knew growing up in the mountains of West Virginia.  My dad loved taking the winding road.  I did not.  Riding in the back seat of a station wagon as we wound along those West Virginia roads was not my idea of a good time.  I really disliked the windy road.  I still do.  For those of you who like to take the back roads to Louisville I say more power to you, but give me the interstate.  I want to take the easiest straightest road, not only when I am driving, but also as I live.  But it’s not always possible, and it’s not always beneficial.

Yesterday I officiated at the wedding of a young man whose family have been our friends for many years.  It was a beautiful wedding, and there was a particular moment that was very moving.  During the lighting of the Unity Candle there is a pause after the couple light the candle.  From my perspective, on the platform, it’s very interesting to watch the guests.  I could see the groom’s grandmother, and I’m sure, as she watched her grandson’s wedding, that she was thinking about her husband, who passed away several years ago.  I could see his uncle and his wife, who are facing a tremendously challenging health diagnoses, yet their love and devotion to one another remain stronger than ever.  I watched other couples enjoy what, I’m sure, was a moment of reflection upon their own marriages and their years together.  I could see my wife, Tanya, and I thought about our almost 30 year marriage, and what a gift it is to our lives.  As I watched these members of the congregation, and others, I thought about what a gift of God it is that we do not walk this life alone, especially when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. 

Never forget that you are not alone.  God has blessed your life with others who will always walk with you, and he is always with you as well.

Monday, November 04, 2013

November 3, 2013 From Our Heart to God's: Psalm 23 - The Road of Righteousness

Psalm 23

Does anyone recognize the name Darnell Barton?  You may not recognize his name, but many of you will probably know what he did recently.

Darnell is a bus driver in Buffalo, New York.  Last week, as he was traveling his route, he drove across an overpass bridge, and as he did, he spotted a woman perched on the edge of the bridge, ready to jump into the traffic below.  One of the amazing parts of the story is that a video camera on his bus captured the action.  As the woman was obviously in distress and about to jump, one person walked right past her and paid no attention.  Another person rode past on their bicycle, missing or ignoring her.
Darnell stopped his bus, opened the door, and called out to her.  Then he got off his bus, talked her off her perch, and put his arm around her as she climbed back to the sidewalk.  Then he sat down and talked to her.

Asked about his actions, he said he grew up in church and he could hear his mom’s voice in his head, quoting II Timothy 4:2, be ready in season and out of season, and that if you have time to do anything, you have time to do the right thing.

In theological terms, we might call it not just the right thing, but also the righteous thing.

As we continue studying the 23rd psalm, today we’ll consider the latter part of verse 3 – he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

What I would like for us to do this morning is to read the 23rd psalm together.  Would you stand and read with me?

1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
This morning we will consider The Road of Righteousness.  What does it mean to be righteousness?

1.  It is not being better than others.
Sometimes church people are criticized as being self-righteous.  Do you think that’s a fair criticism?  Not always, but sometimes it is, isn’t it? 

Self-righteousness is when we believe we are better, or superior, to others.  And not just better as in a better basketball player than someone else, or a better piano player.  It’s not a better ability, but a belief that one has a greater level of goodness and even a greater level of value and worth.

Self-righteousness is not hard to identify.  We know when we see it, because it’s ugly.  It’s distasteful.  It’s wrong.  And, unfortunately, it’s alive and well in the world.

It was certainly alive and well in the time of Jesus.  Luke 18:9-14 contains a parable told by Jesus that warns of the dangers of self-righteousness –

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.
12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

They were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.  The moment we start feeling proud of ourselves for being so righteous, we are in danger of self-righteousness.

C. S. Lewis says that it is pride leads to self-righteousness –
Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone…In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself…As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

2.  Righteousness is a way of life.
Righteousness is not defined so much by what we believe, but by what we do.  It is a way of life.  We are, after all, remembered more for what we do than what we say.

Righteousness is walking in the way of Jesus.  Sometimes, church people seem to enjoy arguing about what people should believe.  I think one of the reasons why this happens is because it’s easier to argue about beliefs than it is to walk in the ways of Jesus.  It’s easier to argue about what we should believe about Jesus than it is to be like Jesus, isn’t it?

The psalmist uses the image of a path – he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.  Certainly, a shepherd would be familiar with the paths that sheep created as they walked to the watering holes or to the best pastures.  On our farm we often followed the paths of the animals across the property.  The cows had a tough enough hide that they could create paths through thickets we could never get through, but after they created a path we could go that way.  It was especially helpful when they created some paths to get to the best blackberry plants that grew on our farm.

A path is created by consistently walking the same way, and in this case, in the 23rd psalm, it means to walk in the ways of God, and we walk in the ways of God walking in the ways of Jesus.  Where did his feet take him?  The feet of Jesus took to where he was needed.  He walked with those who mourned.  He walked with those who were poor.  He walked with those who were lonely.  He walked with those who were outcast and rejected.  He walked with those who were hungry and thirsty.  He walked with those who were sick.  He walked with those who were unwelcome among the faithful.  He walked with those who were judged by others.  He walked as a friend to the friendless.  He walked with those with faith.  He walked with those with no faith. He walked with those who would follow him.  He walked with those who would not follow him.  He walked with those who loved him.  He walked with those who did not love him.  His feet made a well-worn path to where he was needed.

3.  Our lives reflect on the character of God.
I would say that Darnell Barton reflects well the character of God.  He saw a need that others couldn’t see, or wouldn’t see, and he demonstrated compassion. 

It’s interesting that the psalmist says that God leads us on the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.

People do not see God, but they do see us, and the unnerving part of being a person of faith is the realization that people see God through the lens of you and me.  And, unfortunately, the lens of our humanity often distorts what people see of God, and what they think about God.  People look at what has been done in the name of God and respond with I don’t want any part of that.  Well, to be honest, I don’t want any part of some of what I see that takes place in the name of God.

It is incumbent upon us, I believe, to act as a counter-balance to the ugliness of what some people say and do in the name of God.  It is important that we counter the epithets, the harshness, and the prejudice that takes place in the name of God.

Jessica Eaves is another great example of reflecting the character of God.  Ms. Eaves is a member of FCC (Disciples of Christ) in Guthrie, Oklahoma.  She was shopping last month when someone stole her wallet.  She saw the person a few minutes later, in another aisle, who had stolen her wallet.  This is what she had to say – As I saw him, a scripture came to me from Luke, which basically says ‘if someone should take your cloak, you should give them your shirt as well.  So she approached the man and told him, I think you have something of mine.  I’m gonna give you a choice.  You can either give me my wallet and I’ll forgive you right now, and I’ll even take you to the front and pay for your groceries.  He reached into his pocket and gave it back to her, and started crying.  She walked him to the front of the store and paid for his groceries.

It’s sure good to hear those kinds of stories, isn’t it?  It’s good to know that people like Darnell Barton and Jessica Eaves are living their faith by walking the path of righteousness.  But they are certainly not the only ones.  I am moved so often as I watch you walk the path of righteousness.  From my perspective I am blessed with the opportunity to see people walking in the way of Jesus day after day, performing important ministries.

May we walk daily in the ways of Jesus.