September 2011 Sermons:
The Apostle Paul writes beautiful words to the church in Rome: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another—for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” But what happens when love doesn’t come easily? Think of the worst thing someone did to you this past year. Maybe he or she lied to you. Maybe you were cheated in a business deal, or someone said a cruel thing about you. People aren’t perfect, and hurtful things happen.
Jesus knew that conflict might arise when well-meaning people got together in His name. So in today’s gospel passage, He gives us a way to handle disagreement. The plan He gives us, is so simple and practical, you could swear He was the Apostle Paul, writing to a feuding congregation.
A marriage, a friendship and a congregation have a lot in common. If there is good communication, a relationship gets richer during crisis moments, and there will always be crisis moments. What Jesus is doing in this passage is laying down ground rules for "fighting fair." Basically what Jesus is saying, is that we should never tolerate any situation in which there is a problem in the relationship between us and another member of the Christian community. When something goes wrong, what do we do about it? He presents a scheme of action for the mending of relationships between Christians. He’s addressing his comments to the victim, and He emphasizes that we act with mercy.
First of all, He recommends straight talk. You've got a problem with someone? Make the first move by telling that person in private. Speak in the spirit of gentleness. Jesus wouldn’t have had us confront anyone by email or on the telephone. Don't beat around the bush, He says. Get right to it.
But that's so hard to do. We’re afraid of exploding or crying or acting crazy. So we talk to somebody else about the problem instead. We don’t give the person with whom we are disagreeing, a chance to respond. Jesus is urging us not to let conflict isolate us from others. What Jesus is saying is this: "If your brother does wrong or your sister makes a mistake, speak to them, for heaven's sake." Don't keep your mouth shut. You will be held responsible for the consequences of your unwillingness to speak. He’s saying this: if you've got a problem with someone and you don't have the courage to go to that person, then keep it to yourself.
A member of a seminary board shared a concern with an older member. "Share it with the board," said the old man. "Oh, I don't know," said the younger one, "I'm so new to the board. I don't know if I should." The older man looked the younger man in the eye and said, "There are times in my life when I could have spoken up and I didn't; now I regret it. You must raise your question!" So the younger man did, at the next meeting. To his surprise, the other board members listened, and they made an important change in seminary policy, a change that should have been made years earlier.
But it's hard to do, you say. Of course it is. So we express our frustration in destructive ways or we store up all our problems and dump them out on some poor soul who isn’t directly involved. Straight talk without pretense or hidden agenda is hard. But for some, it's not hard at all. They enjoy taking their adversaries down a notch, and they brag about it afterwards. You may have heard about the famous rivalry between Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Once she said to him, "Winston, if I were married to you, I'd put poison in your coffee," to which Churchill answered Lady Astor, "And, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!" Some people seem to have no trouble talking straight. But they don’t try to speak kindly.
Too often, we see disagreements as disasters, instead of opportunities. Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans advises us to speak the truth in love, when we confront a loved one, a friend, or a fellow church member. We must try to do this, Paul says, even when the words come hard. It’s part of our obligation to love our neighbor.
Jesus warns us that this one-on-one approach to disagreement won’t always work. If straight talk doesn't resolve the problem, keep on trying. Try to settle the matter with a few patient and loving friends. If that doesn't work, if the persons still refuse to listen, then you show them the door, Matthew writes. That’s called excommunication, and the early church did it pretty often. Some churches still excommunicate, or at least shun offenders.
There's only one problem with the last step. Jesus would never have taken it. Practically all New Testament commentators agree that this verse about shunning the offender is the early church talking. Internal conflict rattled the church during its early years of rapid expansion. Radical solutions were sometimes called for, and sometimes they weren’t very Christlike.
But in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus transformed that saying to "Love thy neighbor as thyself and even love thine enemy." He didn’t show gentiles or tax collectors the door. In His life, Jesus never treated anyone as an outcast. He said that the last shall be first. If we are going to walk with Jesus, then we must be among the sinners, for they are the people He chose to spend time with. And we must show them the grace of God.
So what do you do about conflict? Talk straight first to the other person, speaking the truth in love. If that doesn't work, get a couple of other people involved. Keep on dealing head-on with the issues that threaten to divide you from your neighbor. Simple steps—but still some of the hardest steps we will ever take.
Jesus promises to help, when He says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” In the end, remember that grace is the bottom line when dealing with conflict. You never know how your behavior toward another person will affect the world around you.
In a little church in a small village, an altar boy serving the priest at Sunday Mass accidentally dropped the cruet, or the little bottle, of wine for the Lord’s Supper. The priest said gruffly to the boy, “Leave the altar and don't come back." That boy became Tito, the Communist leader. In the cathedral of a large city in another place, another altar boy serving the bishop at Sunday Mass also accidentally dropped the cruet of wine. With a warm twinkle in his eyes, the bishop gently whispered, "Someday you will be a priest." That boy became Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
How do we deal with others who have caused us problems? Jesus gives us the answer. We use straight talk, due process, and—above all-- grace. If we can do that, we fulfill the gospel of Christ. The Lord’s Supper binds us together with love. Jesus, our brother and our host, invites us to the table today, to celebrate our relationships with each other and with Him. We are His body. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, help us to shine as light in the darkness of this world. Make us to be more than we could ever be by ourselves. Join us together as members of your body, and use us to make a difference in the world. AMEN
William J. Carl, Jr. “Straight Talk, Due Process, and Grace,” in Church People Beware (Lima, OH:CSS, 1992), 78.
http://en.wikipedia.org, “Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor,” 9/3/11.
“Become Comfortable With Conflict: Step One to Moving Beyond It,” The Parish Paper (January 2010), 1.
Carl, “Straight Talk, Due Process, and Grace,” 79.
Exodus 14: 19-31
Today is the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. What do you remember about that terrible day? I’m sure you recall exactly what you were doing then, if you were in this country and more than three or four years old. None of us who experienced 9/11 will ever forget what we were doing.
Assuming that not all of you were old enough to watch and understand the 9/11 attacks, here’s what happened--on one weekday morning, two thousand people who were going about their daily business, were killed by suicide bombers who had hijacked commercial jets at major airports. Two planes hit and destroyed the World Trade Center, and another hit the Pentagon. A third plane crashed over a small town in western Pennsylvania.
Every American who owned a television, had his or her eyes glued to the screen that day. At Princeton Seminary, it was my first day of classes of my freshman year. It was also the only day I ever saw anybody watching the television in the commuter lounge! Students from California and Iowa and Arizona were saying to each other, “What does all this bombing of the World Trade Center have to do with us?” I was stunned to hear them say this. Now those students are Christian leaders like we are. I believe the legacy of 9/11 “has to do” with ALL of us. Don’t you?
On the radio, we heard recordings of telephone conversations from the Trade Center towers and from United Flight 93. We heard the doomed, whispering to their spouses, “I’m stuck up here; I don’t think I am going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children.” When I heard these cell phone conversations, I wanted to drive home and hug my own family. So I did!
Our national response was, for the most part, wonderful. We Americans are a generous people. We aren’t only generous to people like ourselves. We think of ourselves as generous to everyone on earth. And yet, one of the surprises of 9/11 was the flood of sympathy from around the world. Remember? Even nations we don’t normally think of as our allies, expressed solidarity with us and condemned the terrorist attacks.
How could anyone hate our country the way these terrorists did? We were stunned by the sheer anger. As Americans learned who the suicide bombers were, most of us began to realize that the attacks were the work of a fanatical fringe. We noticed that innocent Arabian Americans were suffering in the backlash, and some of us reached out to these people. I remember being especially nice to gas station attendants in New Jersey who wore turbans, for a long time after September 11.
We saw the power of God on that day, and in the days that followed, in several ways. For awhile, church attendance was booming. American spirituality jumped to new highs in the months following 9/11. Even people who didn’t consider themselves religious, started coming to worship. What a shame it didn’t last!
Remember how courageously New York’s mayor and public officials managed the rescue effort? God’s love was expressed in the bravery of those police officers and fire fighters. There was also an outpouring of public support for the survivors and their families. Remember the long lines of donors in front of the local blood banks? Remember the billions of dollars that people in this country gave to charities, to help the victims? The love of God found expression in the deeds of all those generous folks.
Our Old Testament reading is a story we all know from Sunday School. The tale of the Red Sea crossing inspires fear and faith, just like our own 9/11 stories inspire fear and faith. Think of the stark terror the Israelites must have experienced at the hands of the evil Egyptian oppressors. They had been enslaved to build the pyramids, under brutal conditions. Moses led his people to pack up everything they owned and escape to the Promised Land. Like the 9/11 victims, the Israelites were ordinary people. They were unprepared to face death. Their fear must have paralyzed them, as they spotted the Egyptian chariots, and faced the sea before them.
Moses told them to be still. Then He stepped out in faith. Behind their leader, the Hebrews walked across the sea on dry land. God made a pillar of cloud behind them, in order to shield them from the Egyptian army. It was the power of God, and the faith of Moses, that carried them to the other side.
How did the people inside the Twin Towers feel after the planes hit? Probably even more frightened than the Hebrews. But there were differences. More people died on 9/11 than in the Red Sea. Moses wasn’t on hand to lead the victims on September 11. But God was there. God is always there.
Quite a few people who survived the 2001 terrorist bombings have lived to share their stories in print. I’d like to tell you about a young woman named Leslie Haskin. I recently read an excerpt of her book on the Twin Towers attacks. Haskin writes about God’s presence on that morning. In 2001, Haskin, the author of Escape from the World Trade Center, was one of only two African-American executives working for one of the largest insurance companies in the country. Enjoying all the privileges of an executive's life, Leslie had a corner office in the North Tower. She’d surrounded herself with the "right" people.
Then at 8:43 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, everything changed. Haskin was in her office on the thirty-sixth floor of Tower One when a Boeing 747 airplane slammed into her life, destroying her office and killing all her co-workers. From that moment on, time was both accelerated and suspended for her. Her office, her furniture her computer, and her files, began to crumble to dust. She made a mad dash toward the exit stairs. She closed her eyes and prayed, "God help us." Then she ran down thirty-six flights of steps with lightning speed and made it to the lobby, then to the sidewalk.
In the months that followed the terrorist attacks, Haskin faced a terrible ordeal. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and committed to a mental institution. Her medical bills mounted. Within two years, she had lost everything that she’d worked for. She and her ten-year-old son became homeless. And yet, with the strength of her faith in God, Haskin found her way back to health, and became the manager of a nonprofit corporation and a well-known author.
In the introduction to her book, Haskin writes: “Life changed for all of America in a matter of a few grave moments between a deviant cockpit and the ninety-fifth floor. I have lived and relived those moments a million times.” She continues, "I watched ordinary men and women in suits and dresses transform into heroes and carry others to safety. Some removed their jackets and used them to smother fire from the bloody, peeling bodies of strangers while others comforted those lost in shock."
Haskin writes of her faith and how it was strengthened that day. Here are her words: “I learned that God’s love is the one universal certainty in this world. I learned that, even in the worst of times, God’s loving arms are outstretched to carry us through." Does this remind you of the way God’s pillar of cloud protected the Israelites, as they walked across the Red Sea and made their way to the Promised Land?
Today, Leslie Haskin is an evangelist. She’s on the boards of two rescue ministries-- Safe Hugs and Save the Children. Haskin travels all over the world, encouraging thousands of people in their journey with God. Her message is a simple one, "God is always bigger than our burdens."
How can we witness to our faith? How can we help people when disaster strikes our land, as it most certainly will again? Philip Yancey, editor of Christianity Today, answers those questions. When asked, “Where was God when the planes hit the Twin Towers? ” He replied with a question. “Where is the church when it hurts? If the church is binding wounds, comforting the grieving, and offering food to the hungry, people won’t wonder where God is when it hurts. They’ll know God is in the presence of His people.” We represent Jesus Christ. That is a big responsibility as well as a privilege. Thanks be to God for this blessing.
Let us pray. God of the ages, before your eyes all empires rise and fall yet you are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror and in these moments of remembrance. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love. By your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and work in large ways and small for those things that make for peace. Bless the people and leaders of this nation and all nations so that warfare, like slavery before it, may become only a historic memory. We pray in the strong name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.
“The first will be last, and the last will be first.” That’s one of my favorite sayings of Jesus. I love it when an underdog team scores an upset victory. I cheer when a person who has suffered losses, makes a strong comeback. Don’t you? Jesus promises us that “the first will be last, and the last will be first,” is more than wish fulfillment. Scientists have proven that it’s true, in the job market and at college.
Imagine that you’re sitting in a waiting room with four other people, and you’ve all applied for the same job. You’re waiting to be called in, one by one, for interviews. In a situation like that, do you want to be the first person to be interviewed, or would you rather be the last one? Studies have proven that, in situations like the one I’ve described, that the first person to be interviewed from a handful of equal candidates is the least likely to get hired. On the other hand, the last person to be interviewed is the most likely to get the job. Remember that when you’re cooling your heels in the waiting room!
What about the grading of exams? Does the order in which the professor grades the tests, matter? Yes! It’s been proven that the first essay tests corrected almost always get lower grades than the papers graded last. Surveys show the truth of this, even though we don’t know why it happens. So, don’t hand in your final exam early! Remember that Jesus said the first will be last, and the last will be first.
The verses Barbara read, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, are from the ancient “Christ Hymn.” Less than twenty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the lyrics to “the Christ Hymn” had become as familiar to early Christians as our favorite hymns, like: “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “America the Beautiful,” are to us. As far as the tune goes, we have no idea what it was. The Christ Hymn is a quick retelling of the story of Jesus, from the beginning of time. Christ comes from the Father, and then returns to the Father, in just six verses. Paul’s congregation in the Greek city of Philippi would have known every line of that hymn by heart. I wish we could go back in time to hear them sing it.
The theme of our passage from the Epistle to the Philippians is this---even though Jesus was entitled to be first, and to share in all the glory of heaven forever, He still chose to be last. He became a humble servant. He even allowed Himself to be crucified. He gave His life for us, in obedience to God, with no hope of reward. But then, God raised Jesus from the dead and brought Him back up into heaven. Then, God made Him first, above everything and everyone.
But there’s something about this familiar passage that goes against the grain for us. Society pushes us to be number one. But if there are leaders, there must be followers, too. Is it possible to be a servant and also a king? The theme of the “Christ Hymn” says yes! Its theme is downward mobility. Jesus was born to be a winner, for sure. Why didn’t He just stay on top? If we were Jesus, and started out at the top in heaven, why would we want to go from first to last? If we’re in that number one position, we look down on the people who aren’t at our level. When someone condescends that way, we say that person is a "snob." A snob is someone who thinks that someone’s value, or worth, is measured by his or her status.
I recently learned where the word "snob" came from. British society in the nineteenth century was very class-conscious. In the 1820’s, at Oxford University in England, professors would make notes about their students on their class rosters, referring to the social rank of each student. Many students at Oxford were children of earls, barons, and dukes. But plenty of other students were commoners. The Oxford professors felt they had to recognize the commoners and the nobles on their student lists. They wrote, next to the names of the commoners, the phrase, "s. nob." That was an abbreviation for the Latin words, "sine nobilitate," which means, "without nobility." If your professor at Oxford wrote "snob" next to your name, that meant that you were a commoner. But soon the meaning of snob took on the exact opposite meaning. Now the word, “snob” describes a person who looks down on people who have less power. Christ was not a snob.
The Philippian church was Paul’s favorite congregation. He was writing this epistle, or letter, as a sermon to be read at a worship service. He wrote it at a time of tremendous social and political upheaval in the area around the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. There were pagan religions competing with Christianity, religions that stressed the power of the individual to make things happen. The Roman Empire glorified competition and aggressive behavior. And so, the Philippians were surrounded by heretical ideas. Paul knew this. He wanted them to hold on to their faith in Christ and their love for each other. He wanted this congregation to resist the social pressure to do otherwise.
More often than not, problems in churches prompted Paul to write letters like this. His letters are full of pastoral care and advice. I’m guessing that Paul had been told that these folks were being influenced to compete within their congregation, but history doesn’t tell us that for sure. There’s a theme that pervades the letter. Paul wanted these folks to be humble. He didn’t want to hear any arguments, among Philippian Christians, about who was the best.
Mahatma Gandhi, the twentieth-century pacifist, was raised in the Hindu religion, but he read the Bible. Gandhi had attended Oxford University, as a young man, and earned a degree there. Once he said, to a British classmate, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He had noticed how competitively the British hierarchy behaved in India, and he was not impressed. Gandhi lived his beliefs—which weren’t so different from Christ’s of humility and peacemaking.
The Christ Hymn is a story of transformation. Paul is calling the Philippians to try to be like Christ. It was challenging for them, and it’s challenging for us. How can we be like Christ? We’re not perfect, but we know that God has made each one unique. God is challenging us to live as servants and followers. We act humble when we bow our heads in prayer, and when we respond to compliments by saying, “It was really nothing.” Is humility a set of motions we go through, or is it real?
We are willing to love, as long as it doesn’t cost too much. But can we really bend our knees to Christ, and to the people around us, who are the image of God? As Jesus Himself did when He bent to the floor, to wash the disciples’ feet? Paul is saying to us in this passage from Philippians: “You might not think some people are worthy to shine your shoes, but I am asking you to wash their feet.” Jesus gave up His status, in order to serve others, and because He did, God gave Him a name above all names. The first became last, and then became Lord for all time!
Here’s Paul’s message to us in a nutshell. People who are looking for a place to worship, and a congregation to join, should be able to look at the Philippians--and us-- and say, “I like Christ, and, what’s more, I like these Christians!”
Let us pray. Lord, help us to embrace our calling as servants. Help us to live courageous lives, showing your loving kindness. Shape us, we pray, into the people that we need to become for the sake of your mission in the world. All these things we pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN
“Why The Last Usually Are First," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 2, 2005.
Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (New York: Pantheon, 2004), 75.
Gilberto Colazzo, “Pastoral Perspective on Philippians 2:1-13,” in David Bartlett and others, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 ( Decatur, GA: Columbia Theological Seminary, 2011), 110.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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