Monday, July 31, 2017

July 30, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Foundation of It All

Last Sunday we began a new series of messages titled The Great Commandments.  During the worship services last week I also asked that you help me with the next series of messages I will present.  That series is titled I Love the Church Because… and I would love to hear from you.  Would you finish that title with a few sentences, or perhaps a paragraph or two, and send them to me?  I will not use any identifying characteristics if I incorporate what you send to me, but I would love to hear how you finish that title.

As we began our current series of messages last week, I used a passage from the Old Testament prophet Micah, and this week travel further back into the Old Testament to one of the most foundational of all passages.  The passage comes from the book of Deuteronomy and is commonly called the Shema.  The word Shema is actually the Hebrew word for hear, and is the first word of verse 4.  Though shema is simply a Hebrew word, it also becomes a title for what is, in essence, a prayer, which is all of verses 4 – 9.  Taken together, these verses become a prayer that has for centuries been offered each day in the morning and evening.  This would be, if it is an apt comparison, the Hebrew version of John 3:16, in that it is a passage that children would learn from a young age and would be almost universally quoted from memory.

This passage certainly would have been one of the first pieces of Scripture that Jesus learned as a boy.  He would turn to this passage later, during his ministry, quoting it in Matthew 22:35-40 (35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"  37 Jesus replied: "`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment.  39 And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.'  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.") and Mark 12:28-34 (28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions).  Jesus also quotes this passages in Luke 10:25-37, and then tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Follow along with me as I read our Scripture text this morning from Deuteronomy 6:1-9 –

1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess,
so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.
Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.
Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

I will take a few minutes this morning to speak to those three expressions of love that Deuteronomy mentions, but I am going to substitute one of them in the same way Jesus substituted.  Deuteronomy says to love God with all of our heart, soul, and strength.  Jesus uses the words heart, soul, and mind.  I think it’s a good idea to use the phrasing that Jesus used.

1.  Mind.

I start with the mind because it is one of the overlooked components of our love for God.  I find it interestingly ironic that, in our modern, technology obsessed, scientific age, we are not really people of the mind.  We talk about the importance of education, and even base much of our education upon science and technology.  Many colleges and universities, and an increasing number of secondary schools, build their curriculum around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to the exclusion of the liberal arts and many of the traditional educational curricula.  But even with this increasing move to the sciences, we are people who remain more oriented towards the experiential and the emotional, which are represented by the heart.  How many times do we hear ourselves say, or how often do we hear in entertainment – romantic movies, in particular – that we should stop using our head and start following our heart?    

But is that always the best of advice?  Not always.  As one person reminded me this morning, follow your heart, but take your mind along with you because you’re heart is an idiot.  Very sage advice, indeed!  Our mind is a necessary balance to our heart, which doesn’t always make the best of decisions.  Sometimes, for instance, we will say my heart just isn’t in it.  But just because my heart isn’t in something isn’t an excuse to forsake responsibilities.  There are some Sunday mornings when I might be particularly tired and my heart tells me to stay home and in bed, but my head reminds me that there are people who will be here and they will be waiting on me to stand up hear and bring a message.  My head tells me that I have a responsibility as the minister of this church to show up, and to not only show up here but show up in hospitals, and nursing homes, and funeral homes, which are not places that I always enjoy entering, but it is important that I do so.  My heart is often attracted to all the nice guitars hanging on the wall of a music store, and as much as I believe they need a good home I know that if I followed my heart our basement walls would be covered with guitars.  My head tells me that as much as my heart wants to take some of those guitars home, I have bills to pay.  I need to pay the mortgage, and the electric bill, and the insurance bill, and lots of other bills as well.

It’s a wonderful thing to follow our hearts, until it’s a bad idea because our hearts might lead us somewhere unpractical and harmful to us.  That’s why God gave us a mind; so that we can make a good and logical decision.  We can’t be ruled by emotion.  We can’t be ruled by impulse.  We can’t be ruled by every wind that blows our way.

Jesus warned us that we should be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16).  He called us to use our minds and in his brilliance he was such a great example of how to use our minds.  Jesus was brilliant in his teaching, constructing those amazing parables that drew people in and then drove home his point.  He was brilliant in the way he dealt with his opponents, as there were many times they presented Jesus with what they believed to be an unanswerable question, and believing they had effectively trapped him.  But they did not, as Jesus came back with a brilliant response and left them speechless, and often wary of challenging him again.  As we read the Gospels it is truly impressive to see the ways in which the mind of Jesus worked.

I have spent a lot of time over the course of my life studying.  And while I wasn’t always the most ambitious of students, and not always the best student, I always liked the classroom and I love to learn.  I have a lot of years invested in classes and degree programs, and in spite of all the time and work invested there are many days when I feel as though I don’t know very much.  There are many days when I wish someone would ask me a question I have the answer to.

There has too often been, in the history of American Protestantism, especially, a spirit of anti-intellectualism that has permeated too many churches.  It is an anti-intellectualism that sometimes seems to glory in ignorance, and that is not, I’m certain, what God would desire.  We do not check our minds at the front door of the church; instead we sharpen our minds and we feed our minds, and we challenge our minds.

Verse 7 says to impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  That’s an entreaty to take seriously the call we have to spiritual education.  I believe that, as followers of Jesus, we ought to use the minds that God has given to us.  The mind really is a terrible thing to waste, as the old commercial said.  When the Hebrew people taught their children to recite this prayer it was part of a larger piece of spiritual education they provided for their families.  I am grateful for the opportunity churches have to provide spiritual education, but we need as much spiritual education in the home as we can have as well.  When you children, or your grandchildren, ask you a spiritual question and you don’t know, take the time to study and seek an answer.

2.  Heart.

There were times in history – the Enlightenment, for instance – when the mind took precedence over the heart.  At that point in history, they would have puzzled over our insistence to follow our heart rather than our head.  During the Enlightenment, they would have been people who would follow their heads rather than their hearts.

But we don’t want to be ruled by the head, do we?  We don’t want to be a Mr. Spock, all logic and no emotion.  Because of the power of love, we are people more oriented to the heart, and as much as I like to learn and as much as I like to think and ponder over things, I’ll take the heart. The heart and its accompanying emotion are beautiful gifts.

But I should add that it doesn’t have to be an either/or.  In verse 8, the command to tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads, was practiced quite literally, as the ancient Hebrews wore items called phylacteries, which are small leather boxes which contained the verses of the Shema (and they are still used today).  Phylacteries are worn on the forehead and left arm during times of prayer.  I really like the symbolism in the way phylacteries are tied to a person’s body.  One was tied around the forehead, as if to symbolize the mind and our call to think and meditate and be thoughtful.  The other phylactery was tied around the wrist, where it would nestle against the heartbeat, as a reminder that we are not people of the mind only, but of the heart as well.  There is a balance to being people of the mind and the heart, but if I had to choose, I would choose on the side of the heart, because it represents love.

It is love that binds us together, and that love also informs our language of how we speak of ourselves and it selects the metaphors we use to describe who we are as God’s people.  We often use the word family as a metaphor for the church.  We are like a family here, people will often say about their church.  One metaphor of the church, in the New Testament (often overlooked) is the church as the Bride of Christ.  The image of the church as the Bride of Christ is particularly powerful, I believe, because we can’t conceive of a love more powerful than the love that joins together two people in marriage.  It is a powerful, powerful force, and a beautiful force in life.

We need the heart because it is the seat of our passion, and we need passion in life.  My mind will tell me, logically, that I need to step out of my own life and do something for others, but when my heart is touched by the sight of someone who is suffering, or someone who is hurt, or someone who is treated unjustly, that’s when passion will fill my heart and I will be moved and motivated in a way that the mind cannot accomplish.  When Jesus observed what was going on in the Temple and saw the way that the moneychangers and others were taking advantage of the worshippers, he could have walked around and said, thoughtfully, you know, I’ve been walking around here and observing what’s going on, and I’d like to make a suggestion about how we can make this an experience that is fair to all involved.  Is that what he did?  No!  When Jesus saw what was taking place his heart was about to explode out of his chest, his passion was aroused, and his righteous anger rose within him as he fashioned a whip and began to knock over the tables of the moneychangers and drive them out while proclaiming my Father’s house is a house of prayer but you have turned it into a den of thieves!  (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-16).  In that instance, certainly, the heart trumped the head, and rightfully so.

In John 11 we read of the death of Lazarus.  Jesus traveled to Bethany, where Lazarus had lived with his sisters, Mary and Martha.  Jesus could have turned to Mary and Martha in their heartbreak and offered them a theological treatise on death and resurrection, but he did not.  Instead, Jesus went to the tomb of Lazarus, and what did he do?  He wept (John 11:35).  Isn’t that a beautiful, powerful image?  I don’t know about you, but I feel so much better to think about the fact that Jesus wept.  I’m glad that the heart of Jesus was sometimes so touched and so broken that he wept.  I am moved to think of Jesus, there at the tomb of Lazarus, with tears streaming down his face and into the dirt and dust of that land.  It makes me feel better when my heart is touched or broken.  Sometimes I weep because I am so overwhelmed with fears or struggles and I don’t know what to do but the fact that Jesus also wept gives me strength.  I can’t always reason myself out of fear and struggles, but I can weep and allow those tears to cleanse my soul and when they have cleansed my soul I can feel the strength of God welling up within me and I know I can make it another day.  Maybe nothing has changed, but I feel better, because I know that God is a God who weeps with me and a God who has had heartbreak, just like each of us.

3.  Soul.

The mind and the heart are a little bit easier in terms of what they represent.  What about the soul?  I have to be honest and say that, while the mind and heart were relatively easy for me, the soul was a bit tougher.  After a good deal of thought this is what I came to think – the soul represents that upon which we stake our lives.  The soul represents what it is that we have built our lives upon, and what kind of foundation we have for our lives?  In Matthew 16:26, Jesus says, What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

It is very easy to trade away our souls for something much less valuable.  Sometimes we use the term Esau trade to describe a very bad decision.  Esau, you will remember, traded his birthright to his brother Jacob for some food (Genesis 25:27-34 – 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”  (That is why he was also called Edom.)  31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”  32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”  33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.  34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.  So Esau despised his birthright.)  It has become too easy, in our modern world, to make an Esau trade for our souls.  We can easily trade away that which is of far great value – our soul – for something new, shiny, bright, and attractive, but ultimately of far lesser value.

In Luke 12:13-21 Jesus tell the story of a rich man, who did just that.  Jesus tells us that the man committed the very error of which Jesus warned – he gained everything, but lost his soul in the process (13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”).

The heart and mind are important for many reasons, but one of the most important of reasons is to protect our souls.  The mind helps us to filter out the false claims to our souls and the heart will guide us to the true loves in life that will attach us to what will ultimately nourish our souls.

It is very common for people to wear items of jewelry or clothing that symbolize their faith or, perhaps, remind the wearer of their faith and its importance in their lives, much as the ancient Hebrews wore phylacteries.  I wear two items on my right wrist for that purpose.  One is a leather strap that wraps three times around my wrist.  Tanya and I bought a few of these when we were at the Vatican two years ago.  It has the Lord’s Prayer printed in Latin on the leather.  I also have a bracelet with the word peace on it, and the symbol of a dove engraved on it, which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit.  I wear it because peace is a hope and a prayer not only for the world, but for my own heart and the heart of others, and it serves as a reminder to me of the peace that Jesus is the source of that peace.

The heart, soul, and mind are great gifts of God to us, and are, ultimately, to be the guiding stars in our love for him.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

July 23, 2017 The Great Commandments: The Big Three

This morning we begin a new series of messages titled The Great Commandments.  We begin with a passage from the Old Testament prophet Micah, a passage which contains one of the most famous of all prophetic messages – And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  That’s a great verse to memorize, and if you like to mark favorite verses in your Bible, be sure and underline that one, mark it with a highlighter, and fold over the edge of the page so you can turn to it quickly.

After we complete this series we will move to a series called I Love the Church.  I would appreciate your help on that series.  If you would complete the sentence I Love the Church Because… I would appreciate hearing from you (I will not identify you in any of the comments I use).  I would add that I’m not looking for comments such as I love the church because I can get a 20-minute nap every week during the sermon.  If you do write that, I will be sure and identify you!  One of the messages of that series will be titled I Love the Church In Spite of…  That message will address not only the hurts that we sometimes experience in the life of the church, but also the accusations that are often leveled at churches, such as being full of hypocrites, etc.

This morning, as we begin our new series, we do so by acknowledging that the prophets were an amazing breed of people.  While we generally think of the prophets as thundering out God’s judgment upon the people of Israel, they were far more than just pronouncers of divine judgment.  The prophets fulfilled several functions, one of which was to speak the right word for the right moment.  This meant that there were indeed times when they would be confrontational and judgmental, but there were other times when they were very comforting, gentle, and pastoral.  Sometimes people need to be confronted, but not always.  Sometimes people need to be comforted and they need pastoral care.  The prophets knew what was needed, which is not always an easy task.  The prophets were also called to speak the truth, even when doing so put them in danger.  The classic example of this, to me, is when the prophet Nathan confronted King David over his affair with Bathsheeba and the subsequent action David took to ensure the death of her husband, Uriah.  It was an incredibly bold move on the part of Nathan to make such a public accusation against the king, but he did so, in spite of the fact that it could have put his own life at risk.  (1The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.  “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”  David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”  Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’  11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”  13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” II Samuel 12:1-13).

I imagine that the prophets did not always want to be confrontational, but they were at times because it was a necessity, as it is today.  Prophets fulfill the function of speaking truth, sometimes very hard truth, to the people that need to hear it, and it is often the people in power who need to hear those truths.  I am not a prophet.  I am a pastor; that is how I understand myself.  But sometimes my role requires that I speak even the hard truths that I don’t want to speak.  Not many people are able to effectively strike the balance of being prophetic and pastoral; generally speaking, we are one or the other.  The prophets, however, were unique individuals in that they were able to be speak a prophetic word when necessary, but also be pastoral as the need presented itself.

In this week’s Scripture text we read of three commands that are offered by the prophet Micah – to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.  It is interesting to note, I think, that these commands are action-oriented, that is, they are not commands about belief.  Sometimes churches become so concerned about right belief we forget that Scripture has quite a bit to say about right action.  I am not minimizing the importance of doctrine and belief, and it is a gift to us that we have 2,000 years of Christian theology upon which we can build a foundation of faith, but our faith is not only about belief; it is also about action.  Right action was at the heart of the message of the prophets.  It is difficult to find many references of the prophets prescribing belief, but there are many, many references to the prophets prescribing right action.

Follow along with me as I read from the 6th chapter of Micah.

Micah 6:1-8 –

1 Listen to what the Lord says:  “Stand up, plead my case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say.
“Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.  For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.
“My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.
I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.
My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered.  Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?  Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
It is very convenient that Micah provided a three-point outline for us to follow, and I will spend some moments on each of these three commands given by Micah – act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God

1.  Act justly.

The prophets are perhaps most well known for their stern proclamations, often having to do with God’s condemnation of the lack of justice in social systems and his anger at the unfair treatment of people, particularly people of little means, power, or influence.  In the ancient world it was common for the wealthy and powerful to take advantage of the poor.  Economic policies were often designed not only to drive people into poverty, but to keep them trapped in that poverty.  The use of taxation policy, usury, and other economic practices made life very difficult for scores of people.  It was, to use modern language, a rigged system (as is still the case today, so the words of the prophets remain very timely and applicable).

When discussing commands it is important to make a distinction between the types of commands that are offered in the Bible.  The Bible’s commands can generally be categorized under the heading of either prohibition or prescription.  Commands of prohibition are the most well known and would be those such as found in the Ten Commandments, most of which start with the words thou shalt not.  A prohibition, simply put, prohibits certain behaviors – thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not bear false witness.  A prescription is the opposite, in that it does not prohibit certain behaviors as much is it commands that we engage in certain behaviors.  A commandment of prohibition is aimed at preventing behavior that is destructive and harmful, such as theft and violence.  The aim of prescriptive commands is to encourage behavior that is positive and helps to strengthen the fabric of society, such as laws that treat people equally and fairly and do not give unfair advantage to particular groups.  An example of a prescriptive command is one related to what was called gleaning, which was the practice of leaving part of a field unharvested so that the poor could have a portion of the crop (Leviticus 23:22 – when you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Leave them for the poor and the alien.  This practice of gleaning is central to the story of the book of Ruth).  Law of prescription were not only limited to the prophets, but can be found throughout the Scriptures, such as this one in Romans 12:20-21 – To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Justice is an incredibly important practice; it was in the ancient world and remains so in our modern world.  We hear a great deal about social justice these days.  Social justice is a term of which I am not a big fan, not because I don’t believe in justice, but I don’t think we often realize what we mean by a term such as social justice.  For example, while attending the General Assembly last week I was interested, as always, in the resolutions that were presented to the Assembly.  We are a group of autonomous congregations, so those resolutions have no binding power upon us, but they are important in that they speak for our denomination.  One of the resolutions presented was to express support for Palestinian children.  I am all for offering support to Palestinian children, but I couldn’t help but wonder about other children in the world who need our expression of support.  What about the children of Syria, who have suffered so much because of the warfare that has ripped apart that country?  What about the children of the many people migrating into Europe, seeking a better life?  What about the children of South and Central American who are making the perilous journey – sometimes without their parents – to the north to find a better life?  Don’t all the children of the world – especially those in such difficult conditions – deserve our expressions of support and desire for justice?  The resolution was far too narrow in its wording, in my opinion, and betrayed a rather narrow focus, as it was more about reacting to the political context of our own society.  The prophets had a universal message, and any resolution that limits its scope to our political context rather than understanding the larger, more universally perspective, does not reflect the concern of the prophets, in my opinion.  Imagine, for instance, if you have more than one child, someone praying for only one of your children.  It wouldn’t take long before you would object.  I am one of five children; I have an older and younger brother and two younger sisters.  Imagine if someone continually told my parents, we are praying for Dave.  We pray that God blesses him and looks over him.  After a while they might have said, we have other children as well, you know.  If we only express a desire for justice and only express an interest in some people we are doing the same as a person who would only pray for one of a couple’s children.  God would say to us, I imagine, I have more children, you know.  My children aren’t just in your congregation.  They are not just in Shelbyville.  They are not just in Kentucky.  They are not just in the United States.  My children are everywhere because every person is my child!  God’s interest is broader than only our society, and that is what the prophets were trying to get people to understand.

2.  Love mercy.

I don’t know about you, but I have a love/hate relationship with social media.  I am a regular user of social media because it is another tool that helps me to stay in touch with people, but I also believe that it brings out many of our worst elements and magnifies them.  As a case in point, I read an article recently that absolutely astounded me.  I had hoped that it was, perhaps, “fake news,” so I did a little research to determine the authenticity of the story and found it was indeed true.

The story came out of the state of Florida and told of a disabled man entering into a lake.  Not long after entering the lake he began having difficulty and called out for help.  A group of people were near the edge of the lake but did nothing to help the man.  In fact, not only did they not help the man, but they began to taunt him and even to video him as he struggled to keep his head above water and they continued to video as he eventually drowned.  But the sadness of the story does not end there; after the man died at least one of the onlookers posted the video of the drowning on the internet.

Is this what we have come to?  Have we lost all sense of mercy in this world?  Thankfully, no we have not lost all mercy, although we have certainly lost some.  Mercy was one of the traits of the prophets, even though we often associate them with judgment.  But, as I said at the beginning of the message, the prophets knew the right word for the right moment, so they were just as at home being pastoral and merciful as they were judgmental (I can think of a number of passages, among them this one that is a particular favorite of mine – Isaiah 40: 29-31 – He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted.  But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall run and not be weary.  They shall walk and not faint).

I think it is also fair to ask, if there is a moral responsibility to be merciful to someone drowning within your field of vision, does that responsibility go away when distance increases?  I believe those witnesses to the man’s drowning had a moral obligation to help him, but tragically, they abdicated that responsibility.  If we have an obligation to someone in our field of vision, what about those who are outside of our field of vision and, most often then, out of our thoughts as well.  The prophets, once again, reminded us to always have a larger field of vision, extending our care and our work for justice to those outside of our own families, our own communities, and even our own nation.

3.  Walk humbly with your God.

Humility, Paul reminds us, is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).  The prophets also made the case for allowing humility to be a part of our lives. 

Now, I am not a Hebrew scholar – or a scholar of any language.  I have spoken before about my struggles with Greek.  While struggling through three years of Greek, I held on to the hope I heard expressed by many, and that was their assertion that Hebrew is a much easier language.  Let me tell you this, just in case you are one of those who think it would be “great to read the Bible in its original languages” – Hebrew is a very difficult language!  There are no vowels, it reads backwards from what we are accustomed to, and the letters do not correspond to anything that look like the letters in our alphabet.  I say that to remind you that when I speak about the Hebrew language I am dependent upon others for their expertise.  I have learned this fascinating bit of insight about the Hebrew word used for humility in this verse.  The particular Hebrew word is used only in this one instance in the entire Old Testament. Although humility is a word used throughout the Old Testament, the Hebrew word used in this verse is used only in this one instance.  Isn’t that fascinating?  And here is what it implies – it speaks to us about the classic horizontal/vertical relationship between God and his followers.  That is, if we consider ourselves to be a follower of God we must remember that the horizontal relationship – our relationship to our fellow man – is very important.  In fact, the word used here implies that if we are not working for justice for others and if we are not demonstrating care then we cannot claim to be walking with God.

That’s quite a powerful truth, isn’t it?  We cannot be right with God if we are not right with others.  A right relationship with God requires a right relationship with others, and this is why the prophets so often railed against injustice and the ills of society, because they understood the importance of that connection.

The particular Hebrew word for humbly that is used here appears only this single time in all of the Old Testament.  It carries the meaning of walking with, and what that means is that there is a union between one’s faith and one’s relationship to other people.  It ties together our relationship with God and other people.  This is the culmination – you can’t have this definition of humility unless things are right with God and humanity.

And so I will close with this thought – we are talking about The Great Commands, but does treating our fellow human beings justly, with mercy, and with humility need to be commanded?  Shouldn’t that be obvious, and shouldn’t it also be something we would do without having to be commanded?  It would be wonderful if that were the case, but obviously it is not.  When we survey the course of human history, and when we survey current events, it becomes obvious why these kinds of behaviors are commanded by God – because otherwise they may not be put into practice.  Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  Not just great advice, but great commands as well.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

July 16, 2017 Music of the Heart: The Power of Friendship

This morning we conclude our series of messages, Music From the Heart.  Next week we begin a series of messages titled The Great Commandments.

Today’s message title is You’re My Best Friend, and is based on the song of the same name by the band Queen (you can watch and listen to a very creative version of the song at the following link – 

As I mentioned last week, three of the four messages have come from Old Testament texts, because I believe that we sometimes overlook that portion of the Bible, which is full of such great stories, and today’s text contains a portion of one of those – the friendship between David and Jonathan.  Time doesn’t allow me to cover all the background of this story, so I hope you took the time to read the study guide that was emailed on Thursday.  If you do not receive email, and would like to receive a printed copy of the study guides, please let us know in the church office.

David became the second king of Israel, following the reign of Saul.  David was a very close friend of Jonathan, whose father was Saul, the first king of Israel.  Saul had become very jealous of David and sought on more than one occasion to kill him.  Jonathan worked to protect his friend David, and in today’s Scripture text we read of the time when Jonathan provides a signal to David that the king had once again planned to kill David.  This passage tells us of the parting of the two friends, just before David flees for his life.

Follow along with me, please, as I read a portion of that story.

I Samuel 20:35-42 –

35 In the morning Jonathan went out to the field for his meeting with David. He had a small boy with him,
36 and he said to the boy, “Run and find the arrows I shoot.” As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him.
37 When the boy came to the place where Jonathan’s arrow had fallen, Jonathan called out after him, “Isn’t the arrow beyond you?”
38 Then he shouted, “Hurry! Go quickly! Don’t stop!” The boy picked up the arrow and returned to his master.
39 (The boy knew nothing about all this; only Jonathan and David knew.)
40 Then Jonathan gave his weapons to the boy and said, “Go, carry them back to town.”
41 After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most.
42 Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’” Then David left, and Jonathan went back to the town.

There are so many things we can say about friends, and I will, for the sake of time, limit it to three.

Friends are –

1.  Gifts from God.

I have to admit that I am sometimes skeptical about the number of “friends” some people have on social media.  Is it really possible to have 3,000 “friends” on Facebook?  Maybe I’m jealous, but I sometimes doubt whether it is possible to have that many friends.  At the same time, however, I realize that, over the course of our lives, we meet a lot of people, and while they may not all be our close friends, they are acquaintances and they can also have an impact on our lives.  Almost every person we meet during the course of our lives has the potential to influence us, to impact us, and to make a difference in our lives, which is a true gift.

Being at church camp two weeks ago I witnessed the amazing bond that the counselors and students have forged through their years of sharing the camp experience.  It got me to thinking about my camp friends from many years ago. I remember some of my camp friends very well.  You wouldn’t know their names, but people like Rocky Estell, who was a friend from East Liverpool, Ohio.  I also remember many of the leaders and counselors – Karl Marshall, Gene Carter, and others.  And though I have also forgotten a lot of names, those people still influence my life, and they continue to be gifts of God to me.  It’s difficult for me to imagine what my life would be like without their friendship and their influence.

How many of you remember graduation time, when you stood in line before processing in, or after the ceremony concluded, and you said to your friends and classmates, we’ll stay in touch.  We won’t forget one another.  We’ll always be friends.  I said that at my high school graduation, and some of those friends I have not seen since that night.  But it doesn’t mean that they are absent from my life, because I think of many of them often, and I know they remain influential to my life and I am grateful they were a part of my life, even though it has been years since I have seen some of them.  There are college friends, church friends, neighborhood friends, and more that move in and out of our lives.  They are with us for a season and then we are separated, maybe to never cross paths again, but that does not diminish the reality of the gift they are to our lives.

Last summer I had the opportunity to meet with my college roommate.  Tanya and I met Rick and his wife, Penny, in Harrodsburg, as they were in that area vacationing with their family.  I had not seen Rick in over twenty-five years, so it was such a pleasure to sit and talk with him.  We talk back and forth on Facebook, but to sit with him and relive our time together in college was a wonderful experience.  Rick was, and continues to be, a very important person in my life, and when we greeted one another last summer it was like the years suddenly melted away and we picked up where we had left off.

This story of the parting of David and Jonathan resonates with all of us, because we know what it is to be separated from friends.  The parting of David and Jonathan was, obviously, very emotional, but their friendship remained, even though they were separated from one another.
Scripture provides us with other such examples and one comes from Acts 20:36–38, where we read that Paul is preparing to depart from Ephesus – 36 When he had said this, he knelt down with all of them and prayed.  37 They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him.  38 What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.  Paul had been with his friends in Ephesus for about two years, and as he parts they know they will never see him again.  Imagine the emotion of that moment!  And yet they knew, as we know, that even when we are apart, our friends are ever with us.

2.  The Hands and Feet of Christ.

We often use the expression that we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ.  That is a function of friends.  Friends help friends build a home, as we did this weekend working on the Powell family’s Habitat home, and in doing so, are the hands and feet of Christ.  Friends take off work to come and cut wood, and in doing so are the hands and feet of Christ.  Friends give up a Saturday to frame walls and they are happy to do so, and are the hands and feet of Christ.  Friends sit with us in hospital rooms and funeral homes, and in doing so are the hands and feet of Christ.  They laugh with us, cry with us, comfort us, encourage us, strengthen us, and in doing all this, are the hands and feet of Christ.

I was at the General Assembly in Indianapolis from last Sunday evening until Wednesday evening.  The theme of the Assembly was One.  That was alto the title of my second message in this series – One.  The Assembly featured people of different states, different nations, different ethnicities, different languages, and different points of view, but together are the hands and feet of Christ.  What else can unite such a disparate group of people, bringing them together for a common purpose that lifts them above anything that might separate them?  Nothing that I know of, except to be the hands and feet of Christ.  The church is unique in that it crosses every boundary of humanity – language, ethnicity, nationality, social, economic, educational, class (have a missed any?) – and recognizes God as the supreme authority and ruler over all. 

Christ represents all people, and by being a part of the church – the body of Christ – we become his hands and feet in all that we do.  In this way, we are become more than friends, we become part of something larger than ourselves; we become family.

3.  Friends Are Family.
While attending the General Assembly I noticed an interesting practice.  When I went to eat, because I was by myself, most restaurants seated me off in a corner.  In fact, at one restaurant, I was seated in a section of the restaurant where no one else was seated.  Talk about feeling isolated!  I was not only isolated, but forgotten.  After sitting there for about fifteen minutes, with no server coming to take my order or bring me something to eat, I left.  The next restaurant I entered also seated me off in a corner by myself.  Now, I have to admit that after surviving a week of church camp with a bunch of middle schoolers I didn’t mind a bit of isolation and quiet, but after several times of being seated off by myself I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me!

While we are like – and need – our quiet time, no one wants to be isolated.  We need friends because we are created as social creatures.  And while we all have our families, some families are so dysfunctional and unhealthy that friends become even more important.

Tanya and I celebrated our 33rd anniversary in May.  For all of those years we have not lived near any of our family.  We are hundreds of miles from our nearest relatives, so the church becomes a surrogate family for us.  In each church we have served, we have enjoyed “adopted” families.  In Lawrenceburg, Bill and Evelyn Endicott were like second parents to us.  Bill and Evelyn owned the hardware store in Lawrenceburg and were well known in the community for their generosity and care to many people, especially to their ministers.  They lived up the street from Tanya and me at the time and were like second parents to us.  They have both been gone for a number of years but I will never forget how much they cared for us and how they became family for us.  I think of Fred and Lennie Taylor, members of our previous church, who took Bill and Evelyn’s place as adopted parents to us.  I am grateful to all those who were like second parents to us, who became adopted siblings to us, adopted grandparents to our children, and welcomed us into their families.

Friendships binds us together not just as acquaintances, not just as friends, but as family.  In fact, we often speak of our church as being our church family.  We speak of the family of God, which is a very apt description.  At the General Assembly the church was often refereed to as the beloved community.  That sounds a lot like a family to me.

David and Jonathan were not just friends; they were family.  Imagine how difficult it must have been for Jonathan, whose father sought to kill his friend, David.  Imagine the pain of being caught between your father and your best friend!  Blood is a bond, certainly, but the bond of friendship can be, sometimes, an even greater bond.  It certainly was for David and Jonathan.

I am grateful for you, my friends, my family.  You all are a gift of God to me, and I will always be grateful for The Power of Friendship that comes into my life because of you.