October 2014 Sermons:
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Have you ever driven in a hurricane? I don’t recommend it. When trees are down in the middle of the road, and traffic lights are out, every intersection is a nightmare—especially in urban areas. We’re fortunate, here in the Lehigh Valley. There are so many four-way stop signs around here. Because of that, we pay attention to the order in which cars reach an intersection. Stop signs aren’t powered by electricity. Sometimes the simple ways work best.
The Jersey shore has many more traffic lights than the Lehigh Valley, and relatively few four-way stop signs. The lights go down during heavy storms. Falling trees and power outages are much more common there. When the police aren’t at every corner, there are a lot of accidents. I try not to drive when traffic lights aren’t working, but when I am forced to do so, I always give thanks to God for the laws that govern our lives in a civilized society.
In this country, we treasure our freedom. However, complete freedom is dangerous. It’s sad to say, but we don’t get along well in this world without rules. The law guarantees us safe roads, sewer systems, child protection, public education, and safe work environments. Imagine what would happen to the benefits we enjoy-- if our society didn’t have laws to protect them.
The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Old Testament—in Exodus and in Deuteronomy. They’re the best-known rules in the Bible. But did you know that the Hebrew people had more than six hundred other laws? You can find hundreds of them in Leviticus—the book that stops people in their tracks when they try to read the Bible from cover to cover.
The Hebrew people weren’t control freaks, far from it---but they knew they needed laws. Don’t forget---they had been enslaved to a cruel and ruthless Pharaoh. Back in Egypt, they had had no say about anything---- no protection at all. Even though God watched over them behind the scenes, their daily lives were brutal. If each Hebrew slave didn’t produce several hundred bricks a day, he or she could be whipped by the overseers. Now they had left the pyramids behind and were making their way to the Promised Land. There were new challenges all around them. Where would they eat, and sleep, and live? How would they get along with each other?
Did you have to memorize the Ten Commandments in your confirmation class? If you did, I’m sure you didn’t see them as a gift from God. But that’s what they were, and still are! When we’ve known a Bible passage all our lives, we run the risk of not paying attention to it any more. The Ten Commandments are so familiar to us that it may have been some time since we read them carefully—or even obeyed them carefully.
Maybe you recall seeing the old movie, the “Ten Commandments.” Do you remember Charlton Heston as Moses, standing at the top of Mt. Sinai, with thunder and lightning all around him? God had just rescued the Hebrews from drowning in the Red Sea. Right after the big rescue, God gave Moses these simple guidelines to govern the lives of God’s people. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he brought two tablets with laws inscribed on them, and the people agreed to obey them. The Ten Commandments were proof that they had been set free, with God’s help. These laws were their charter of freedom.
Listen to a modern summary of these laws. As you listen, remember that the Hebrews had never had rules like this before. They had been a persecuted minority in land run by a cruel dictator. Imagine God saying to them, through Moses, “Because you have been released from worshiping the gods of Pharaoh, you are free to worship the one God, who loves you. Because you are no longer forced to spend your entire lives building pyramids, you are free to take one day a week off and do no work. Because you are God’s people, you are free to show kindness to one another, to honor your parents, to stay faithful in marriage, to respect each other’s property, and to tell the truth.”
I don’t think we need to post the Ten Commandments in churches or courthouses as long as they are visible to others in the way we live. They don’t begin to tell us everything we need to know, to make ethical decisions in a modern technological society. Do we support capital punishment and stem cell research and the right to die? These are complicated matters. But the commandments are a good starting point for every human being. They remind us that God calls the chosen people to a high-minded way of life.
The Ten Commandments have no penalties attached. They are descriptions of the way a believer should live. They aren’t for a court of law; the natural setting for them is a worship service. Martin Luther called them “taskmasters to drive us to Christ.”
I can choose not to behave the way the Ten Commandments tell me to behave. But I do so, I am choosing not to represent the people of God, and my life won’t reflect God’s character. As a witness to God, my life will be a lie.
Our sanctuary isn’t Mount Sinai, and I am certainly not Moses. But we are like those liberated slaves in one way—we’ve been saved by God. Unfortunately, we are being shaped by a culture in which God is not widely served, or even widely-known. The ancient Hebrews were walking through the wilderness when they received the Ten Commandments. In many ways, so are we. Our hearts can grow bitter as we make our way through the wilderness, if we can’t remember where we are headed. God gets us all together in our church. He separates us for an hour each week, from the chaotic world we live in. He points the way to the Promised Land. The sacrament of Communion which we celebrate today, with Christians all over the world, is an act of remembering with whom our destiny lies.
As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, let us give thanks that God has included us in His covenant of freedom, embodied in Jesus Christ. His covenant says that God’s intentions for peace in the world can be carried out by people like us.
As we celebrate, let us remember what God expects of us, and the plans He has made for us. Let us honor our parents, and all those who have gone before us. Let us observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. Most important of all, let us remember what God has done, and will continue to do. Thanks be to God.
In his letters, the Apostle Paul wrote many personal statements about his walk with God. As he got older, his life had become much harder. Paul had been forced to choose the things on which he was going to set his mind—the positive or the negative. Not an easy choice—for him, or for us.
For years, Paul had devoted his energy to carrying the Christian faith to the Greek and Roman world. He had been traveling on foot, planting new churches around the Mediterranean, when he was arrested by the Romans. He had worked hard, but now it seemed he had lost everything. In his late fifties, Paul found himself on trial for his life. He could have spent hour after hour, with his head in his hands. He could have decided that his life was over. But instead, he chose to write optimistic letters to his new congregations, reminding them that Christ was with them. I find his Epistle to the Philippians especially moving. Changes in our lives aren’t always joyful, as we get older. Paul’s words, “Do not worry about anything,” are inspiring to me.
In the letters he wrote from prison, Paul sent greetings to his many friends in Christ. His words were full of joy and confidence. He wrote about his beautiful memories of worshiping in those churches. Faced with the choice of worrying, or thanking God for His love, Paul decided to concentrate on love. He wrote to the Philippians, “With thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.” Under circumstances like his, could you have done the same?
Paul loved the Philippian church best. Located in northern Greece, it was the first Christian congregation on European soil. The Philippians had lived under Roman control for two hundred years. They suffered injustice and brutality every day. The city of Philippi had a cosmopolitan population which was mostly antagonistic toward Christians. How easy it would have been for Paul’s congregation to become depressed and fearful. "Don't do that," Paul urged his friends in Philippi. "Find whatever you can that is true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and gracious, and think about that."
Paul’s mission to the newest churches was to support these folks in their faith. There were forces around them, pressuring them to worship pagan gods. The people he loved were, most likely, sending messengers to support him in his prison cell. Otherwise we would not have had this letter, because the church in Philippi would never have received it.
In this letter, Paul assured his congregants that he could endure all things. As he wrote, he was drawing strength from Christ’s presence with him. “Keep on doing all that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you also,” Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi.
There are always people who look on the downside of everything. For example, in Jesus' day, many in Palestine had been given to saying that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. To them it was a miserable hick town with no redeeming social value. Well, something good did come out of it---our Savior, Jesus Christ.
"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious. . . if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Those are Paul’s words. We can find good news in almost any circumstance. Paul believed, and I also believe, that it’s important to see the beauty around us and to fill our minds with that beauty.
In families, it’s easy to let competition drain our energy, even at happy times. I can remember Christmas in the fifties when our family would decorate the tree. I would notice my brothers grabbing and hanging the best ornaments, like the Wonderful World of Disney and the one with Fred and Wilma Flintstone, while I was assigned to iron the tree skirt. The tree skirt was a boring job. It didn’t ruin Christmas for me, but it came close. One year, I worried so much that I might not get the present I had asked for from Santa Claus, that what should have been a joyous time became highly stressful. I did get it, and felt bad that I had been so nervous about it. I can remember holiday seasons when I was wiser, and not so preoccupied with material things. I was able to feel what my family called “the Christmas spirit” because my faith was stronger.
"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious...if anything is worthy of praise, think on these things."
But how? We are doubtful. We’ve lost people we love. We’ve failed at many things. We ask, from time to time, “Is this all there is?’ Some of us aren’t sure whether we, or the universe in which we live, are headed for death or for life. You may try your best to hitch your wagon to a star, but it won’t make any difference if you suspect that your star is going to fizzle out. What you believe, in your heart, will determine what you think and feel.
We’re free to choose how we respond in life. If you believe that your star will outlast all of the darkness that’s trying to absorb it, and if you believe that the universe will move toward the fulfillment of God’s purpose, then you’ll find yourself in the opposite frame of mind from people who don’t believe those things will happen. You will discover that in the worst arguments, and the scariest times, you will be able to find humor--- or, at least, a lesson to be learned. I heard about a mainline Protestant congregation that split in half, and stayed divided, over an argument that started before a church dinner years ago. The cooks in the kitchen were bickering about whether to serve real mashed potatoes or instant mashed potatoes at the dinner. You may smile, but this really happened. I don’t know what they finally served. It hardly matters now.
The joy Paul describes is not just any joy; it’s joy in the Lord. The peace is not just any peace; it’s God’s peace. Paul was hampered by his lack of freedom at the time he wrote this letter. But with Christ in control, Paul felt he could face anything with confidence. That confidence was the source of his joy.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Most people are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” The person who thanks God for the joys of living, makes the best of the worst of times.
When Eva Claire is baptized today, well be reminded that she is part of God’s great plan for peace in the universe, and we will rejoice. While Eva Claire is still a baby, she won’t understand the gift God has given her. But, as she grows, she’ll experience God’s grace, and understand what happened when the Holy Spirit descended on her today. She’ll understand the importance of doing faithful things, thankful things--even courageous things. The Lord is near—and, for us and for Eva Claire, that makes all the difference.
When you first hear today’s Old Testament lesson and gospel lesson, it’s hard to find anything these stories have in common. One is about Moses; the other is about Jesus. But let’s look more closely at both scripture lessons.
In the first one, Moses says to God: "Show me your glory!" In the other story, Jesus says to the Pharisees’ friends, "Show me your money.” In the Old Testament lesson, God says that no one can see His face and live. In Matthew, Jesus asks whose face is on the coin. In Exodus, Moses takes cover in the cleft of the rock. In the gospel lesson, Jesus refuses to take cover, under either Jewish or Roman law. Do you see what these stories have in common? ?
First — the Exodus passage. What a wonderful story! Let’s backtrack and see what happened before it. At the beginning of chapter 33, God told Moses to continue leading the Hebrews to the Promised Land. But God is really angry with the people for their disobedience now. "I will not go up among you," God says, "or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people." Why is God so angry? Because of the golden calf, which Aaron and the people made while Moses was on Mt. Sinai. While Moses was out of sight for forty days, the people had sinned. They had melted down their jewelry and created a graven image. When Moses had come down from the mountain with the tablets of the covenant and seen the golden calf and the people dancing around it, he had gotten angry and broken the tablets.
Then Moses had returned to God and pleaded for forgiveness. God had said, "Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.” Then God had sent a plague on the people. Now, God has promised to send an angel to go before them into the Promised Land. But God wants to “wash His hands” of the Hebrew refugees.
In the part of the story Mickey read this morning, God changes His mind! First, Moses prays: "Consider, too, that this nation is your people!" Moses is saying God had made a promise to the Hebrews. If God isn’t going to do what God had promised, then how will the other nations regard the Hebrews as God’s people? God renews His promise. "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you, Moses, have found favor in my sight,” God promises Moses.
Doesn’t this seem like a good place for Moses to stop pushing his luck? But the Hebrew leader forges on. Moses says to God, "Show me your glory, I pray. I want to be certain that you are who you are. I want to be certain you can do what you have promised.”?
It’s a big prayer! God listens to it, and offers Moses something. But instead of showing Moses his Godness, God will let Moses see his goodness. Instead of disclosing His Divine Presence, God answers, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord.’I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." Moses wants to see God’s face. God offers Moses His back instead. Moses prays. God responds. God will still be with God’s people. Moses wants everything. God offers less than Moses has requested – but it’s enough, isn’t it? ?
When you worry about what tomorrow might bring, for your job or your family, you need to know that God hears you. When it’s three o’clock in the morning and your kid hasn’t come home yet, and each minute drags like an hour, you need to know God is listening. When life is hard, we wonder what will happen to us. We need to be reminded that we aren’t alone. God is in charge, and leading us. Moses needed that. He was weary of leadership. Moses saw God, not God’s face, but God walking ahead, leading the way.
God is still in relationship with His people. But it’s on God’s terms, not ours. God may put his hand on Moses, but God can’t be handled or managed by Moses—or by any other human being. And that’s good news. Because if we could really manage God, like we manage our finances and our homes and our church, then God wouldn’t be God anymore. God shows Moses enough of Himself to assure Moses of His presence, but not so much that the divine mystery is gone. Our relationship with God must be based on faith.
Now, for our gospel lesson. The Pharisees’ friends have a plan to catch Jesus in a mistake that, they hope, will get Him into trouble. They ask him about a hot-button issue: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If He says yes, He’ll be siding with the Romans against the Jewish rebels, and if He says no, the conquerors will arrest Him. Either way, Jesus will lose. But Jesus sees through their question and responds: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s."
Some think this passage is about separating church and state. If we see this answer as neatly dividing the two, we miss Jesus’ point. He was not AGAINST first-century Judaism. He was not AGAINST the Roman Empire. Jesus was FOR God’s power over the church and the state and the world.
We don’t like uncertainty. Neither did Moses or the Pharisees. So we take cover under easy answers and labels. Either you’re a liberal or a conservative. Either you support change within the system or you support the system “as is.” Either you’re pro-government or anti-government. Jesus’ “non-answer” points to the uncontrollable God that is our God. Jesus keeps challenging us to think outside the box. Jesus is telling the people, “Yes, there are earthly matters of obedience, like paying taxes. There are faith matters of obedience to God that require our devotion. These matters aren’t necessarily at odds. Don’t try to use one to avoid the other. God rules the secular and the spiritual, so do both!” Nobody or can paint Jesus into a corner. God is in charge—not any human agency.
Moses didn’t seek out the cleft of the rock. Moses didn’t cover his face with his hand. God protected Moses. But God didn’t want Moses to come down from the mountain and say that he had God all figured out and that if the Hebrews followed Moses, God would be their God. No, God made a promise first: "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” God was unwilling to show His face, but Moses sees God’s back — and that has to be enough.
We can see glimpses of the divine everywhere. "I will make all my goodness pass before you,” God tells Moses. Though God’s glory is veiled, there’s no taking cover from Him. God can’t be confined to any leader or church or nation. God goes before us and gives us rest. Enjoy it! Share it! The goodness of God gave us Moses. And the goodness of God gave us Jesus.
A Pharisee asked Jesus, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" This sounds like an innocent question, but it’s not. All the laws in the Torah were said to be equal in importance—all six hundred and thirteen of them. Jews would think it incredibly nervy for anyone to rank the laws of Moses in order of importance. Obviously, the Pharisee had contrived the question to destroy Jesus.
It's okay for someone like you or me to say, "I’ll think about that and get back to you later." But a teacher of the law should be able to answer a question like that, off the top of his head. If he doesn't, he loses credibility. That's what the questioner is hoping will happen to Jesus. He's tired of people listening to this Galilean upstart, and not to him. He's the expert in the law, after all.
Jesus combines passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus in a brilliant answer. It’s tough for any faithful person to disagree with His words: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Jesus has constantly been in conflict with the “-powers-that-be” in the Jerusalem temple. He’s probably getting tired of the Pharisees’ trying to trip Him up with all these questions. But He doesn’t walk away. After answering the “greatest commandment” question, He asks them a tough question about the Messiah, and wins points with the crowd by doing so. Jesus loves His critics enough to disagree with them. He looks them in the eyes, and tells them they are dead wrong. Why does He speak so directly and so harshly? Because He loves them. Jesus sees God’s image in His enemies. God’s law is about loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk. If love dominates our emotions, we will love all people created in God’s image, whether we like them or not.
In Christian churches, everything we do, must be done in love. But we fall short. Although love is a beautiful concept, it isn’t our natural inclination. We’re sinners. We have many different kinds of darkness—anger and envy and fear-- in our hearts.
Unfortunately, people use the Internet to vent their crankiness. There was a hoax on Facebook earlier this month. It taught me a lesson about what love isn’t! Actress Meryl Streep had supposedly posted her beliefs about getting along with people. It said that she doesn’t bother with anyone she doesn’t like. Her photo appeared on Facebook, above a long quotation, said to be from her. The actress’s words, or what people thought were her words, went viral. A hundred and fifty thousand people shared them on Facebook earlier this fall. When you listen to them, bear in mind that a young man from Portugal who works as a “life-coach” and doesn’t even know Meryl Streep, actually wrote them.
Here’s the last half of his long quotation: “I no longer spend a single minute on those who lie and want to manipulate. I decided not to coexist anymore with pretense, hypocrisy, dishonesty and cheap praise…I hate conflict and comparisons…I avoid people with rigid and inflexible personalities. In friendship I dislike the lack of loyalty and betrayal. I do not get along with those who do not know how to give a compliment or a word of encouragement. Exaggerations bore me and I have difficulty accepting those who do not like animals. And on top of everything, I have no patience for anyone who does not deserve my patience.”
These words are un-Christian. And yet, thousands of people have sent them to their Facebook friends, adding comments like, “I love her!” Meaning Meryl Streep, of course! In my younger days, I made quite a few judgmental statements like that. Pastors don’t have the luxury of dropping friends because of their character flaws. I even have to love people who don’t like animals!
The man whose words that caused such a stir on Facebook, actually wrote them in Portuguese. Now he’s famous for pulling off “the Meryl Streep hoax.” How he managed this publicity stunt, doesn’t matter. My question is, why did people love these snarky words? Because co-workers have been driving them crazy? Because they feel pressured to be perfect? Because they hate getting older? With a beautiful photo of Meryl Streep above this quotation, nobody seemed to notice how nasty these words really are.
Love can be like a foreign language, when we try to communicate with those who are different from us. It’s not easy to love others the way they need to be loved. If we’ve had relatively easy lives, it’s hard to understand folks who have struggled. So often, they hide from the church, and when they come and ask for our help, we don’t listen. Instead, we judge. We even turn them away. We end up being friends with a handful of people, and shutting out others.
We are created in God's image. We all have the potential to love as Jesus loved us, but it doesn’t come naturally. We need to hear stories from the Bible and to be reminded of the greatest commandment, the heart of the law. That’s why we need churches. That’s why Christian education matters.
One time some people visited Mother Teresa in Calcutta. As they left her house, they begged her, "Tell us something that will help us to live our lives better." Mother Teresa said, "Smile at each other; smile at your wife, smile at your husband, smile at your children, smile at each other—it doesn't matter who it is—and that will help you to grow up in greater love for each other."
My guess is, Jesus couldn’t care less if we need to learn more about theology, or if we attend church every week. (Don’t get me wrong, these are good things.) No, what Jesus seems to really care about is whether we have seen the image of God in our sisters and brothers, and whether we have loved them.
The Pharisees knew scripture, perhaps without knowing its deeper meaning. They failed to recognize that one cannot love God without loving his or her neighbor. Perhaps the temple officials of Jesus’ day can be excused, but we can’t. Will we act in love, or will we hold on to grudges and fears? Without love, our lives lack purpose. We find purpose only in God, who is love, itself.
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