Monday, June 23, 2008

Proper 7 Year A June 22, 2008

Matthew 10:24-39

Jesus said to the twelve disciples,

"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

"For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Sermon

Today I want you to make some mental lists. First, I want you to list 5 people you really love to be around. Second, 5 things you really enjoy doing. Now list one thing that causes the most pain and trouble in your life and that you wish you could get rid of.

Okay. Let’s imagine at this point that you now have to give up being around those 5 people you love and to give up those 5 things you really enjoy doing in order to be a Christian. What about the thing that causes the most pain and trouble? You have to keep that, sorry.

So, are you willing to give all that up? Are you willing to lay it down and follow Jesus?

In our country these days, we have it pretty easy. We usually do not have to give up much of anything to be a Christian. The same is not true for other countries around the globe. Christians in North Korea, China, Iraq, Pakistan and other parts of the world are suffering for their faith. They have to surrender their livelihoods, turn their backs on family and friends, are driven out of their homes and lose everything they own, sometimes even their lives, in order to follow Jesus.

You can read their stories on websites like the Voice of the Martyrs and International Christian Concern. I printed off this report from the latter site that lists the top 10 countries that persecute Christians. It makes for sobering reading.

This is what Jesus is describing to the disciples in our gospel reading today. This is what the early church faced as it struggled to spread the gospel. The fact that these saints succeeded despite everything they suffered speaks volumes for the strength of their belief in what they were doing. It is one of the most powerful reasons for realizing that Jesus was really who he claimed to be. How many people do you know who would willingly die for a lie? These witnesses were willing to lay down their lives because they KNEW that Jesus was the Son of God. They believed wholeheartedly in the truth of what they preached. They gave their all.

And this powerful witness is what spreads the gospel, even today. It is the reason why Christianity is growing in the very countries that seek to repress it. The gospel has always resonated in places where there is little hope, because of the hope that it offers.

So how can we hope to match that? We live in a country with the greatest freedom of religion that the world has ever seen. Most of us never will be persecuted for our faith, other than in subtle social ways. So how does the message in our reading pertain to us?

We have a harder time making disciples in our country simply because we have it so easy. It’s hard to witness the awesome power of belief in something when you won’t lose anything by that belief. So what do we do to show people the difference that our belief makes in our lives?

That’s where we come to that last item: the one thing in your life that causes you the most pain and sorrow. Sorry…you don’t get to turn your back on it. You have to pick it up and follow Jesus. That is your cross. The most effective witness you can make to the indifferent world we live in is to show how your faith allows you to live with your pain and sorrow. One of the most deceptive theologies alive in our country to day is the so-called “Prosperity Doctrine”. It teaches that if you believe in God, that you can get whatever you want just by “claiming it”, that is, speaking the words aloud. As if God was some sort of giant vending machine that will spit out what you want if you only put in the right amount of money and press the right buttons.

Such a doctrine is dangerous, not only because it is false, but because it does not make disciples. It produces followers that will leave at the first disappointment when they do not get what they want. In order to make truly strong disciples in our country, the only thing we can do is to show how our faith allows us to cope with disease, sorrow and want.

By living our faith through our suffering, we can make effective witnesses for the gospel today. St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel always, when necessary use words.” Our lives and how we live them will always be our most effective witness to the world.

D. L. Moody said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.”

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Proper 5 Year A June 8, 2008

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live." And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well." Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.


Sermon

In a couple of weeks, it will be exactly halfway to Christmas. Sound good today? Cold? Snow? Looking forward to it? No?

I bring up Christmas today because of one of my favorite movies that I watch at Christmas time every year, A Miracle on 34th Street. This classic Christmas movie, staring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, is a movie about faith. And faith is what our gospel reading is all about today.

In the gospel reading, we see two wonderful examples of people who had faith. The leader of the synagogue had faith that Jesus could raise his daughter from the dead. The woman with hemorrhages had faith that Jesus could heal her. They both got what they asked for, because they had faith.

In the movie, Fred Gailey, the lawyer played by John Payne, tells Doris Walker, played by Maureen O’Hara, that “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Doris had let her bad experiences with men color her outlook on life, causing her to raise her daughter, Susan, to not believe in anything except that which she could see.

A lot of people today also do not believe in anything except that which they can see. They scorn faith as a crutch and a delusion. Their “common sense” tells them that God does not exist.

It’s often hard to discuss God with such people, because there really is no way to prove conclusively to such people that God exists. And you’ll find that most of them have tried to find out whether God exists, but since they can’t find enough evidence, they will not believe. They read as much as they can on the subject and finally they come to the same conclusion that I came to, when I was conducting a similar search:

There is no way to reason ourselves into faith in God. We can’t read enough books, we can’t conduct experiments, we can’t do anything except DECIDE to believe. That decision to believe is faith. Faith is not a feeling. It is not something we receive from God. It is truly deciding to believe in something IN SPITE of the lack of evidence or evidence to the contrary.

So what does this have to do with us? We’re all sitting here in church, believing in God, right? Why do we need to talk about faith at all, since we obviously have it?

Ah, but do we? We have faith that God exists, but what kind of God do we believe in? Do we believe in a personal God, who will actually care whether we get the job we need, or give us healing for our diseases, or find a buyer for our house? Or do we lack that faith, believing instead in a God who is impersonal, uninterested in us and our daily lives? Do we lack the faith that would let God help us or do we struggle on trying to solve our own problems without God’s help?

In our gospel reading, the women with hemorrhages only wanted to touch the fringes of Jesus’ garment, believing that that was all she would need to do. Her faith in a personal caring God led her to believe that she not only didn’t need to touch Jesus himself, she didn’t even need his whole attention. She made a choice to believe in a God that was so powerful that even touching the fringe of his garment would heal her. Even as this timid approach was enough to get Jesus’ attention, so we do not need to fear approaching God with problems that seem trivial to us when compared with others’ greater problems. Everything that concerns us, concerns God.

Catherine Marshall, in her book “Beyond Ourselves” relates how she was struggling to create a curtain for her door such as she’d seen in a women’s magazine. It had an hourglass shape and looked like it would be easy to copy, but try as she might she simply could not figure out how it was made. She writes:

“Finally, in great disgust, I gave up, went upstairs and flopped down on a bed. After I had been lying there a few minutes the inner Voice said very quietly, “You do it this way.” There followed a set of simple directions involving graduated tucks. The directions worked easily, perfectly.”

She goes on to say that while this help she received may seem trivial, that it is a “mistake to think of God’s intervention only in terms of great events and dramatic circumstances—a sudden healing, or the saving of a life in jeopardy. After all, most of our days are full of ordinary events and common experiences. Are we to believe that God has no interest in these?”

In the movie, Doris is finally convinced that it is important to have faith. Doris tells Susan she should believe that Santa Claus will bring her the present she asked for. Susan repeats to herself, “I believe, I believe; it’s silly, but I believe” and is rewarded by getting her heart’s desire.

Just like that first step in faith in God, we also have to take the step of faith in believing in a personal God. We need to decide that God IS interested in our daily lives, in helping us with our daily concerns, large and small. No, it doesn’t make sense that God would have time for us, with as many problems as the world has today and with the sheer numbers of people on the earth. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the psalmist said. It’s a question that we have been asking ourselves for centuries. But when we realize that God can pay attention to all our needs big and small, all of us, all the time, we only begin to know how incredibly powerful, awesome and loving God is, a God that has every hair of our heads numbered and knows when every sparrow falls.

Common sense would say, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Ramona C. Carroll, a Christian author, said, “Faith is putting all your eggs in God's basket, then counting your blessings before they hatch.” May we all have that kind of faith.