February 2011 Sermons:
Salt has a bad reputation these days. Doctors tell us that eating too much salt can give us high blood pressure or stomach cancer. But we can’t get away from salt. It’s in practically everything we eat, from cereal to ketchup. Salt makes French fries taste so good! We get free packets of it at McDonald’s. There’s a salt shaker on every dining room table. We pour salt from plastic bags, to melt the ice on our driveways. There’s a bag of salt inside the church door. Salt is everywhere! It’s on our boots, all over our carpets, and on the floors of our cars. By February, we’re sick and tired of it.
In Bible times, people felt differently about salt. It was as precious as silver to Jesus and His disciples. In ancient Palestine, salt was the only preservative available to keep food from spoiling. Refrigerators weren’t invented for another two thousand years. The fatted calf would spoil if the people of ancient Palestine didn’t eat it all on the same day. Soldiers needed salt, too. After being stabbed in battle, they rubbed salt as a disinfectant on the cuts—that’s where our expression, “rubbing salt in the wounds” comes from. Folks in Jesus’ time referred to table fellowship as “sharing the salt”—and that must have been something like “chewing the fat” today. Since Old Testament days, salt had been a symbol for the covenant between the Israelites and God. The priests used it to purify sacrifices in the temple.
Salt was important. When Jesus told His followers, “You are the salt of the earth,” He was saying, “You are pure gold. You all are Rolls-Royces. You are worth millions.” Nowadays, the expression, “salt of the earth,” is a cliché for a good, but rather boring, person. We don’t realize the powerful impact of Jesus’ expression, “salt of the earth,” unless we know its history.
Jesus isn’t just saying that Christians need to be nice people. We do—but there’s much more. He’s commanding us to improve people’s lives. As salt in the world, we’re called to be antiseptic—to do no less than to cleanse the world. Have you ever thought of yourself as a preservative to keep society from going bad? What a responsibility!
In Christian history, religious leaders have been tempted to rise above the world. I would have liked to be a monk or a nun if I had lived in the Middle Ages—hand-lettering copies of the Bible. Monastics lived quiet, relatively easy lives, compared to the serfs who labored in the fields. Christianity is easy from a monastery or a mountaintop. I think of our snow days as a taste of the monastic life. I love them, too. But I’m getting spoiled! I need to be out in the world again.
Worship comforts us, and that is extremely important. For an hour every Sunday, there are no radios or computer monitors—at least not in the sanctuary. We sing and we pray and we listen. There are no interruptions! But we’d lose our saltiness if we sat in the quiet all day every Sunday, like people did a hundred years ago. Our oldest and dearest member, Kathryn Fogel, who will turn 109 years old in May, remembers what it was like to worship here at the beginning of the last century. She was bored sitting all day in church! Sermons lasted as long as two hours. Out in the world, there’s work to be done, and Kathryn couldn’t wait to do it. She got her teaching degree when she was only twenty years old. And, on Monday through Friday, in the classrooms of Coplay schools, she lived out her Christian beliefs. One year, she even taught fifty-five second graders in one classroom. In schools, in law offices, in research labs, in boardrooms, in places of business, and in our homes as we raise our children---whatever we do brings people to Jesus, or sends them away. We are salt for the earth.
We think we can become salt—not now, but in the future after we’ve worked hard to be more perfect. But that’s not what Jesus says. He says, “You are the salt.” It’s not a question of what we should become. When Jesus speaks to His disciples, He is speaking to us, too. It’s not a matter of who I am, He says. It’s a matter of who we are. Salt is different from the world in which it is put. Christians are different from the world we live in.
Jesus talks about salt becoming useless when it has lost its taste. Scientifically, that can’t happen. Sodium chloride is one of the most stable compounds. Salt can’t lose its capacity to season food—unless it’s mixed with something else that looks like salt, and used the way salt is used. So what does Jesus mean? In those days, crooked vendors mixed salt with equal amounts of white sand and sold it to poor people. What could be more useless than flat-tasting salt?
Jesus expected great things. He wanted His followers not to go flat. Jesus wasn’t speaking just to one disciple or another. He was addressing the church. If you read this passage in Greek, there’s no question about it. He means all of us, not just one or two. The twelve disciples were precious as salt to Him because they were the first Christians!
But when a Christian stops being different from the rest of the world, he or she loses saltiness. That can happen to a disciple or to a congregation. It’s happening in too many churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I pray that it never happens here. Our denomination has lost a thousand congregations since 1983. Numbers aren’t everything, but when numbers go down, we have to pay attention.
In Kathryn Fogel’s childhood, church was the only game in town on Sundays. Now we’re competing with soccer and football and birthday parties and who knows what else. Children can’t bring themselves here on Sunday mornings. If we’re going to raise up a new generation of Christians, we need to expose more families to the excellent Christian Education program in our church.
Christians are called to have salty tongues. There are times when words need to be sharply spoken. Jesus’ words were especially salty when He threw the money-changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. Sometimes we are unwilling to be honest. But people need to be challenged. Jesus accepted the rich young man, but challenged him to give away his possessions. He accepted the woman caught in adultery, but He instructed her to sin no more.
We Christians are expected to shake and sprinkle Christian values all over the earth, the same way we shake a little salt on our mashed potatoes! We think we’re not accomplishing much on a typical day. But a little goes a long way. The children in our church are getting a wonderful Christian education. Don’t we wish everybody did?
Jesus, Himself, was the salt of the earth. He showed the way of self-giving love. He became the source of new life for people when He drew them to worship His Father. You are salt of the earth. Where does the world need salt, and how can we provide it?
Let us pray.
God of grace and truth, we call ourselves your people. Make us worthy of our calling. Your Son, Jesus Christ, has declared that we are salt. Grant us confidence that we can add purity and sharpness to the lives of the people around us. Make our church the instrument, Lord, to purify and enlighten this troubled world. We ask this precious gift in the name of Christ, our Lord. Amen
Do you remember a television game show called "Truth or Consequences?" If you didn’t watch the show, you might think from its name, that it was depressing, like the Russian novel, Crime and Punishment. But it was actually very funny! The contestants on the show were usually married couples. They were first interviewed by the host and then asked to answer a riddle. No one could ever answer it!
If the contestants didn’t come up with the correct answer to the riddle, before Beulah the Buzzer sounded, they had to pay the consequences. This usually meant performing some silly stunt, like swimming in a pool of green jello, or throwing pies made of gooey whipped cream at their spouses. The contestants would win valuable prizes, in return for surviving their stunt and getting laughed at by the studio audience. They might win something like a refrigerator or a washer-dryer or an all expense-paid trip to Hawaii, or all three.
There were never any bad "consequences." People on the show couldn't end up in any worse shape than when they started. Even losers got big consolation prizes. Basically, the only choice you made was whether to be a contestant, in the first place.
Today’s Old Testament scripture lesson is about choosing God’s truth, and it spells out the consequences for not obeying the law. The thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy is the end of a sermon. Moses preached that sermon at the Jordan River, before the Israelites were to enter the Promised Land. Moses was about to die. His protégé, Joshua, would be leading a new generation—the children of the slaves who had walked across the Red Sea and escaped the Pharoah. Moses knew that he, himself, wouldn’t cross over into Canaan with these younger folks. In this farewell address, he urged them to devote themselves to God, so that they would live and prosper. Follow God’s way, he said to his people, and you will be blessed with a good life. Disobedience to the Ten Commandments, on the other hand, would mean death!
Nowadays, we have many important choices to make. We live in a choice-oriented society. Good and evil aren’t as clear-cut as they were in Bible times. We expect to choose from a huge array of items, instead of picking one thing or the other. For example, we’d rather go to the mall to shop at Christmas than go to downtown Bethlehem, because of the mall’s enormous selection of gifts. We like diners because you can order just about anything from a huge menu in a diner. How long would any restaurant last today if it only offered one entrée and one dessert? Many years ago, a town used to have only one movie theater-- like the Roxy in Northampton. Everyone saw the same movie on Saturday night and talked about it on Sunday morning. But today, we expect to be able to choose from twelve movies at one location like the Promenade, or to pick from hundreds of DVD’s at the video store.
Our lives are full of choices we may not even notice we’re making. Some don’t make a whole lot of difference, like which of our favorite back roads we choose each day to go to work. We all have habits. We don’t think of these habits as choices, but they are, nonetheless. Habits serve us well if they’re healthy. But too often, they are destructive. Habits have a way of resisting change. Once in a while, though, something or someone jars us out of a bad habit---like having a fender-bender when we haven’t fastened our seat belt. Such scary consequences force us to take our lives off of auto pilot, so to speak, and to take control of our decisions again. The habit of not using seat belts is transformed into a much healthier choice--to buckle up.
Sometimes we feel trapped. It seems we have no choices. We may discover we need to work for five or ten more years before we retire. We may have to avoid saying what we really think—like, when we get a gift we don’t like, from a person we do like. We may feel hemmed-in by boring obligations, like driving family members to appointments or soccer games or music lessons all day. But we need to learn to recognize the choices we do have. We can choose not to choose. Doing nothing is a choice.
People who seem to have very few choices can still feel empowered when they realize that they are choosing. I’m speaking of people who are dying, or partners in loveless marriages. Such a person can decide to to have a good attitude about the situation. Perhaps they can even find humor in it. Perhaps they can write a book about how it feels. We can choose life in an amazing variety of ways. Choosing, even choosing not to make a choice, gives us a sense of control that is really satisfying.
Moses’ last sermon to his people is as challenging for us, as it was for the Hebrews in 1400 B.C. Choosing can be complicated, but sometimes, we can see very clearly what needs to be done—just as Moses did. For example, we might leave a dreary job to begin a new career helping people. We might pick up and leave a partner who is hurting us and our children. When we decide to do healthy, Godly things, and we do them, it feels terrific.
God wants us to make choices. It is only in standing up and being counted that we make our mark on the world. We make unhealthy choices too often. We don’t exercise. We choose to drink too much when we shouldn’t. We stay out in the sun without using sunscreen, and get skin cancer. We choose to smoke when we know it will kill us. We choose to speak hurtful words when we could be quiet. All these choices can lead to death in one form or another.
God gives us the choice between life and death. Choose door number one and you will live. Choose door number two and you will die. And yet, God doesn’t ORDER us to do what we should. God simply spells out the law in the Bible. We must choose the good. Death is a slow process of giving ourselves to things that don’t matter. The more we do good things, the more we become good.
In the Deuteronomy passage, God gives Moses and the Hebrews a choice between blessing and curse. Then, God gives them the answer. "Choose life." The gospels repeat this ancient theme many times. For example, Jesus says, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" in the gospel of John.
Be aware of the choices you make. A family or a congregation might not be making choices that could give it new life. Let’s say, for example, that our church got a huge monetary gift, like my home church in New Jersey recently received. They got four hundred and fifty thousand dollars from an anonymous donor. This hasn’t happened to us, so this discussion is hypothetical. But let’s dream a little. If we did get such a gift, how could we use it? Would we put it all in the bank? Would we get an elevator installed, so people with bad knees could go between floors more easily, and coffee hours would be easier? Would we pave the parking lot? Would we improve the lighting around the building? Would we fix up the chapel? Would we create a playground? Would we all go on a mission trip to Haiti or Rumania? Would we do all of the above? Of course we couldn’t do all these things. How would we choose?
God has given us the greatest gift of all—life. Moses helps his people, the Israelites, to choose God and to live well in the Promised Land. Let’s claim the choices that are ours to make, and let us choose life!
Let us pray.
Gracious God, give us good and holy lives. Help us to delight in your good gifts. Open our hearts, we pray, so we may receive your Spirit. Empower us, we pray, to choose rewards that are deeper and better than our own comfort. May we choose life, and may we glorify you each day of our lives! In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN
I’m a peaceful person, but I need to blow off steam like everyone else. When I have to thrash out a problem, I don’t call somebody on the phone. I usually don’t even dash off an email message. I look for a book about that problem. The Bible is the best of these. I write comments in the margins. I star and paper-clip and underline the most helpful passages. If you open the books in my office, you’ll see scribbled notes—names of heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks and Winston Churchill, and villains like Adolf Hitler, that are related to problems I’ve been struggling with. You’ll find names of my former co-workers and bosses. You’ll see my private comments about situations that have challenged me.
I’m a retired librarian. Most librarians don’t scribble in books. But reading and writing about a relationship problem—that’s the way I begin working it out. Sometimes I open an old Bible and find names I had written in the margins ten or fifteen years ago. Now I can hardly remember those problems or people. But they remind me that God’s Word has helped me to survive tough interpersonal challenges.
Christians are supposed to be slow to anger and quick to forgive. That’s the example Jesus set for us. Anger is never far away in our daily lives. How do you react to the irrational behavior of other drivers on the highway? This week, try an experiment. Pay attention to your feelings one evening when you’re driving home on Route 309 in rush hour. Notice how you react to traffic, when you’ve been preoccupied with something not related to driving. When somebody honks behind you, you might honk back—especially if you are mad at your co-worker or worried about your spouse. If you see a driver stopped at a green light, talking on her cell phone, you may get twice as annoyed as you normally would, because you’re so stressed. Negative feelings aren’t sinful, but our reactions can be. That’s how road rage begins. Revenge feeds more revenge. One of the drivers has to stop honking at the other one and say, “No more!,” then drive away.
Today’s gospel lesson is a familiar passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is preaching to the disciples. He’s commenting on the ethical lessons of the Ten Commandments, but He’s also taking them a step further. His disciples are fishermen, not rabbis. They’re starting out in ministry together, and Jesus is challenging them to answer the aggression of the Romans with radical love. Think of how shocking these challenges must have been when Peter, Andrew, James and John—just regular working men-- first heard them in this sermon! Peacemaking lessons are hard for us, too. Christ’s admonition to “turn the other cheek” seems to go against human nature. But Jesus knew what it was like to be despised and rejected, and He practiced what He preached.
I know of four ways people respond to aggression. Think of them as an ethical ladder. Christ calls us to push our response levels up the ladder as far as we can. First, there’s uncontrolled revenge—the bottom step of the ladder. This is the vendetta ethic of the Godfather movies, and it’s the least Christian of the four. We don’t rub out our enemies the way the way Mafia bosses do. But I’m sure you know of someone who has taken uncontrolled revenge. I had a friend, once, who poured rubber cement all over her husband’s computer keyboard. I’m sorry to say that my friend is a Presbyterian, and considers herself a good Christian. Her marriage didn’t last! My husband and I had a boss with a serious anger problem. He kicked the office copier and made crater-like dents in it, when he was angry. The copier wasn’t ruined, but I’m sure the boss’ foot hurt. That kind of wild rage isn’t common among us.
The second is controlled revenge. Jesus describes this type of reaction, quoting an Old Testament verse we know well: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." This ancient rule is a little bit more civilized than Mafia warfare. In primitive cultures of the Middle East, it was considered appropriate, if someone took your cow, to take his lamb. Men were expected to avenge wrongs to their womenfolk. If someone had abducted your sister, you were permitted by law to kill him. You were even encouraged to give back as much as you got. But no more!
The third level is passive resistance. Jesus preaches, “Do not resist an evildoer.” He’s not talking about being too weak or timid to fight back. Jesus means that any Christian should be so self-disciplined that he or she consistently refuses to act in unloving ways, even if provoked to retaliate.
The fourth and highest approach to aggression is Jesus’ commandment to "love (our) enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Try to be like God, who makes the sun rise on the righteous and the unrighteous, Jesus preaches. That sounds nice, you say, but what if someone hurts a member of my family? How do I respond to violence with Christian love?
A couple named Carol and Larry, from Kansas, were about my age in 1999, when their twenty-six-year-old daughter, Amy, was killed in a mugging. She was a social worker living in Brooklyn, and was on her way home from a support group meeting for abused women. Amy was an ordinary girl, good looking and loving. She was killed with a knife on the streets of New York, carrying her groceries home from work. Her murder went unsolved for seventeen months before a tip led police to Margo’s son. The young man confessed. Instead of taking revenge, Carol and Larry offered Margo friendship. “Margo is our sister in Christ,” Amy’s mother Carol declares. Would I be able to say this about the mother of the murderer of my husband or child? Our daughter is the same age as Amy, and I truly don’t know what I would do if someone hurt her. But it’s my duty as a spiritual leader to live the words of Jesus.
How can we show love to those who hurt or offend us? First, look for the humanness of your antagonist. He or she may be a frightened, wounded person. Second, try to understand where the person’s anger comes from. You remember the old story about the man who goes home angry from the office and kicks the dog. That’s called displaced aggression. Third, try to avoid taking that person’s anger personally—even if you feel insulted.
Your first emotional reaction to verbal aggression might be shock or sadness—even tears. Anger comes later. When you are criticized, listen, and then share your sadness or surprise. Being gentle and honest in a loving way is more Christ-like than an angry response. It’s so hard to put this into practice. I am, personally, very sensitive to criticism. You and I can’t obey Christ’s commandments alone. We need God’s help. We need to be part of a church that fosters peace.
If we can love our enemies, it will be because God’s grace has begun to move through us. In Jesus, God nailed the world’s anger to the cross. Everyone we meet (even someone who appears to be an enemy) is a friend whom we ought to love. As we read the Sermon on the Mount, we see God in His Son, Jesus Christ. Let Him show you how to express Christian love in a world that needs it very badly.
Let us pray.
O God, When we picture the faces of people, in our past, that call forth anger or fear in us, may we learn to see them in a new and loving way, though the eyes of Jesus. As you have forgiven us, so enable us to forgive, so we may experience your gift of peace. AMEN
The Shaker hymn says it so well: “It’s a gift to be simple. It’s a gift to be free. It’s a gift to be just who you ought to be.” When was the last time you lived wholeheartedly? Think about family vacations when you were a child. Did you go on camping trips together? Wasn’t it great to pitch your tent, make a campfire, and sleep in a sleeping bag? I loved waking up without the clock radio, packing up the car, and then helping my dad, who was driving, to find the next campground. I could wear the same jeans and socks and t-shirt for two days in a row. We talked and and sang around the campfire and roasted hot dogs and prayed together. We were as free as the birds of the air. Our hearts were full.
But then we went home, and my brothers began soccer practice. My dad went back to work. My mom registered for her college classes. I read the books on the summer reading lists and practiced the piano and bought back-to-school clothes. Those were the early sixties, before people had video games or computers or cell phones. And yet, life was still much too complicated. Campfire songs were quickly forgotten. Our schedules took over. We went to church every Sunday, but somehow God got lost in the shuffle.
Jesus says not to worry about what we eat, what we drink, or what we wear. Is that possible? We worry all the time about things. Do you know anyone who doesn’t? Jesus is making an extravagant statement—and it must have seemed even more extravagant to the disciples who heard Jesus preach this sermon. The people of the ancient Middle East worried about these things—and they had every reason to worry! They had lives that were shorter and harder than ours. They had little food or clothing beyond their basic necessities. During the time of Jesus, there was no refrigeration. No one could keep fish, meat, ripe fruits and vegetables, and milk longer than a day or two before they spoiled. Farmers had to depend on seasonal rains to have any crops at all. The men raised all the food their families and their animals ate, and their womenfolk made all their own clothes. They laid their own bricks or pitched their own tents. It wasn’t a camping trip. It was real life.
When we travel, it’s usually for fun. We aren’t nomads. Not many of us farm our own land, but we can live more simply than we do. We expend too much energy in buying and displaying material things. We play with expensive toys, and then, after a time, we replace them with more expensive toys. We enlarge our closets and garages and attics so we can store it all. Some people hire professional consultants to help them sell or get rid of stuff they don’t need anymore. Does it take a family vacation, and a week of simple living, to help us realize we don’t need so much stuff? Jesus tells us to cut back on clutter and to focus on serving God. But it’s so hard. We feel pressure to have what everyone else has. I feel it as much as you do.
The coffee maker, in our kitchen at home, is older than the oldest coffeepot in the church kitchen. We have a “Mr. Coffee” from the early seventies. “Harvest gold” plastic coffee pots became obsolete thirty years ago. You can’t even find them in yard sales. But our “Mr. Coffee” works fine! I told my friend, who’s a pastor, that I had been tempted to buy a new coffeemaker at the Bon-Ton sale Monday. Everyone else has a chrome coffee pot with a 24-hour timer now, and I was feeling the pressure to upgrade. She asked me, “If your old pot still makes coffee, why do you have to get a new one, just because they’re on sale?” She was right.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying that worrying is a spiritual problem. Our anxiety shows how little we trust God’s providence. When we fuss about what to eat and what to drink, or what we use to make our coffee, we show so little faith. When we forget God, we are less likely to care for other people, and we don’t try to nurture our children with Christian values.
The gospels tell us, very clearly, that God wants us to care for the marginalized and the poor. People are more important than things! A wise person once said that we are to use things and love people, not the other way around. Jesus tells His disciples to trust God completely for everything. If God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, how much more will God do for the people of God! Birds have carefree lives that make our multi-tasking look so sad! Jesus states that God, our heavenly Father, knows what we need. God knows that we need to eat, to drink, and to be clothed. God will provide abundantly for us. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer includes these words: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Jesus says that your only concern should be to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” In other words, we, as faithful people, should place Jesus Christ first. When we are about God’s business, we have no need to worry about anything else. Think about where your heart should be, and forget how old your coffee pot is. In God’s community, people look out for each other. They think about their neighbors, more than they think about themselves.
Consider how you are spending your money and your life. What do you possess that you just can’t do without? Can you cast off the burdens society has placed on your back? Let us refocus on the most important things in life, and not set our hearts on accumulating more stuff!
I once read a book by Daniel Zeluff, called There’s Algae in the Baptismal Font. The title describes a society, sometime in the future, in which Christian values no longer exist. No one feels the need to believe in God or to nurture faith. Children aren’t baptized, in this future time. No one needs to be cleansed, because everybody is considered a really good person. Adults do what others expect of them. They have everything they are expected to have. In this time in the future, being like everybody else is all that matters. No one asks why they should do anything. God isn’t in the picture. People move onward and upward. Their homes and their lives are kept up-to-date. And yet, in this time in the future, there is algae in people’s hearts and souls—not just in the baptismal font.
Our young people are growing up in an even more materialistic culture than we did. As Christians, we must share our values with them. The good news of the gospel is that God will help us. The Holy Spirit is here today as we baptize Michael Francis Snyder. We are God’s people. We are fulfilling God’s righteousness in a wholehearted way. We can’t serve two masters in this world. Let us worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in all that we do.
Let us pray.
Great God, we thank you for today, for this moment. Help us to seek first your kingdom, right now, and to fill our lives with kingdom thoughts so that our lives may be lived well. In Jesus’ name, AMEN
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
Web Site Design by Tammy Seidick Graphic Design