Monthly Archives: July 2007

07-15-07 PAUL’S PURPOSE DRIVEN PASSAGES (Romans 12: 9-21)

PAUL’S PURPOSE DRIVEN PASSAGES

Romans 12: 9-21

 

Newsman Clarence W. Hall followed American troops through Okinawa in 1945. One day as they traveled by jeep, he and his driver came to a small village that looked different from the other villages. He pulled out his pad and wrote: “We have seen other Okinawan villages down at the heels and despairing; by contrast, this one shone like a diamond in a dung heap. Everywhere we were greeted by smiles and dignified bows. Proudly the old men showed their spotless homes, their terraced fields.” He went on to write that there were no jails and no drunkenness and that divorce was unknown. He was told an American missionary 30 years earlier had come and helped two elderly men in town to know Jesus Christ and they chose to follow him.  He had left them a Bible translated into Japanese. Hall finished his quote in his notebook by writing, “So this is what comes out of only a Bible and a couple of old guys who wanted to live like Jesus.”

 

Is there anyone’s home that does not have a Bible?  Is there a hotel room without one?  In America, for those who claim to be Christians, there is a Bible in the home.  But with such huge sums of money put into advertising, and many people learning and being entertained by television and video games, and some lining up to read the latest Harry Potter fantasy or the recently finished work of J.R.R. Tolkien,  THE CHILDREN OF HURIN, or adults having on their summer reading list works by Janet Evanovich, Robert Ludlum, or you fill in the blank, reading is a wonderful way to learn, to escape, and to connect with others.  But for those who sit in a prison cell, with the choice of reading materials being a pile of old novels, some magazines, or a Bible, some decide to live differently, choosing life and asking for forgiveness for their crimes. So they choose a prison ministry Bible and often grow to cherish its words, its guidance, and God’s promises. Some inmates, I am sure, know the Bible better than regular church goers. 

 

A missionary and a Bible made the difference in that original true story in Okinawa; our denomination has gone from 1000 world missionaries 30 years ago to just 247 now, mainly because people in churches read slanted articles about Presbyterians in newspapers and say, “Let’s not give to the General Assembly! We’ll show them!” And so collectively they show villages, tragically, and their choice dries up funding for a missionary to come to their remote village with sermons, classes, and a Bible; lowered support means mission cannot happen with the fervor and numbers once there.  And that is tragic; Marj Carpenter, the magnetic, mission minded, former Moderator of our General Assembly who preached from this pulpit, weeps over that news. Because of our mission work in Korea and Africa years ago, each country now has more Presbyterians than we have in America. An independent group, the Gideons, are proud of the knowledge that a Bible in a Hotel room has saved many a troubled soul. And many of our troops are pouring over their copy of a Bible with new eyes, finding what a nugget of gold it is to have a belief in God when bullets whiz by their heads and their next step might be on an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Devices).  We, by contrast, who have Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and other booksellers, go right past the Bible rack so often. “Already have one, or several of those,” some think. And so they go to the self-help section, or the psychology section, or the Eastern religion section, all in search of peace and purpose when the answers were first, and still are in, the Bible that sits on their nightstand, coffee table, or bookshelf at home.  Few passages in this bestseller condense more vital advice than the 12th chapter of Romans. Today we will look at the heart of New Testament purpose-driven teaching: ways to change the world.

 

First, “Let love be genuine.”  The Apostle Paul, and even Jesus himself, grew up in the shadow of the Greek Theatre, with its comedies and tragedies. On stage the people playing a role would don a mask, either a smiling one or a frowning one, and become that character. Those people were called actors, except the Greek word for actor is hypocrite. A hypocrite was one who personally may not feel a certain way, but one who, to paraphrase the commercial, “plays the role on stage.”  Jesus knows that there are plenty of people who can fake love; in our day they do it for cameras all the time.  And these hypocrites are sometimes the role models for many dewy eyed girls and star-struck boys who use their example of relationship love! Yikes! Paul says, “Let love be genuine.” Our kids, our neighbors, or family members sorely need some good examples. Find them in your life and learn from them. Be a good example yourself!  Read about unselfish love in the book of Ruth. Look at it on the cross of Calvary. But remember what genuine love, Christian love, and friendship love, not just romantic love, is all about. That’s Paul’s first point.

 

Next, “Hate what is evil.”  Dr. Scott Peck once wrote a book not because it was easy, but because it was needed. In PEOPLE OF THE LIE, he addressed human evil, not random weather patterns that seemed evil, not evil like Hindus and Buddhists and more recently Christian Scientists believed which is that evil is not the force that goes against God, evil is just the necessary flip side of goodness; nor did he write about evil as Martin Buber put it his book GOOD AND EVIL, calling it “‘the yeast in the dough,’ the ferment placed in the soul by God.” No, Peck described the traditional Christian model of evil that he called “Diabolical Dualism” where God was the strong one, the Creator, with the Evil One also at work in the world as the Destroyer.  Peck, who became a Christian by Baptism at the age of forty-three on March 9th, 1980, produced a whole book describing the evil in human nature that we are encouraged to hate, cautioning us, as St. Augustine did in his famous book CITY OF GOD, to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Hating evil empowers us to combat it, to transform it, stay away from it, or rescue others from it. You can think of destructive behavior I am sure, that has torn apart a family, or a worker, or a friend. God is in the connecting business; through chaplains, pastors, and missionaries, we try to introduce others to Jesus who are stumbling in the dark. Henri Nouwen calls our role, “Wounded Healers.” John Claypool calls it being a “Fellow Struggler.”  Paul knew what it was like to fight against evil, persecution, and misunderstanding. If you too know what that is like, then read the Bible!! Read Romans! Read Acts! Read John!

Then Paul implores readers to “Hold fast to what is good” after telling them what to avoid. He adds: “Love one another in mutual affection.” At a wedding 30 years ago, I was asked to sing a solo with these words: “Love one another, love one another, as I have loved you. And care for each other, care for each other, as I have cared for you. And bear one another’s burdens; and share each other’s joys. Love one another, love one another; and bring each other home.”  Taken from 1 John and John’s gospel, the words summarize the commandment Jesus gave us: it’s not like Bill Cosby in his comical skit about Noah when, after arguing with the Lord every step of the way and having the heavens start to pour rain, he looked up into the clouds and said sheepishly, “Me and you Lord, Right? Just me and you!” No! The love Jesus offers is not just for your personal salvation; it is so “that the world might be saved through him.” Paul then moves quickly forward, believing that his listeners have gotten his drift: “outdo one another in showing honor.” In a culture of disrespect, what a world changing idea that is! Paul was saying, of course, that in his world that demanded honor be shown only to Caesar, people of every walk and class deserved honor as Jesus himself did. One summer I was in the housekeeping department of a fine department store three days a week, and sold fine women’s shoes three different days of the week in the same store. When I was picking up trash behind registers, the clerks would not look at or speak to me. When I was selling shoes, the same clerks would stop over and ask me to go to dinner with them. What a lesson in judging people by the kind of work they do instead of by the content of their character! Showing honor to all is Christ-like work.

 

“Do not lag in zeal.” How many times has the gospel been put into the hands of a milk toast or spineless preacher? What a disservice to the urgency of the gospel! We have only so many chances to try to help others come to Jesus and open their hearts to him. And to just own a Bible and even belong to a church, but not walk the walk is the greatest disservice a person can do to him..  People run from Christianity when they witness hypocrisy: that is, when, people where the mask (read here, clothes, crosses, or car fish) of being Christian but don’t live like one. Either follow the book and walk the walk, or renounce claims to Christ and the eternal benefits and responsibilities. You cannot have it both ways. Instead, as Paul says, “Be ardent in spirit and serve the Lord.”  Churches whose leaders are spirit filled and serve the Lord in mission are, in the opinion of Paul, the final frontier to be claimed, the last hill to climb, the finest witness of the faith. And letting that spirit infuse your life at home and at work and in public is vital Jesus lives in you. As he once preached and Matthew recorded: “Whenever you did it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” So Paul puts a bow on this gift of a passage by saying “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  Paul has a longer message on hope and suffering in the 5th chapter of his letter. And to contribute to the needs of the saints was a reminder not only to tithe back to God what was already God’s (1 Corinthians 4), but also to give to Christian mission and the poor (2 Corinthians 8). If Christians forget that action part of their discipleship—being a good example, being a good giver, being one who cares for others—it is like having Christ under the hood of your car but never putting the car in gear. No Christian decals on the side of the car will prove the power of what’s under the hood when there are no gears to transmit the power to the wheels.  So without the actions, the Christ that is supposed to live in our hearts has only the decals of the faith, but not the dealings of the faith. And when people see your Christian life as “all show and no go,” then onlookers will begin to snicker one word under their breath: “hypocrite.”

I’ll use Paul’s concluding thoughts for today’s closing charge and benediction. No matter what else you read this summer, turn also to the book, the Good Book, for direction in the Purpose Driven Life.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         July 15, 2007

07-08-07 PAUL’S PURPOSE-DRIVEN PASSAGES (Colossians 3: 12-17)

PAUL’S PURPOSE-DRIVEN PASSAGES

Colossians 3: 12-17

 

Princeton professor Dr. Shane Berg relates the story of his “Grandma Inez’s Back Stoop” in a sermon he preached last January.  He said that as a boy he dealt out innumerable insults and hateful remarks to his brother.  When he was with his parents, his babysitters, or even his teachers, they were at a loss to curb their cruelty toward each other.  Only one person knew how to handle them; only one person’s consequences they dreaded: she was a small woman in her early seventies: but she was smart and tough. “Even in the last years of her life,” Dr. Berg said, “[my grandmother] had no problem handling her two rambunctious grandsons when we came to blows at her house. When such a dust-up occurred, she would come marching out of the house and grab each of us hard by the back of the arm, depositing us on her back stoop. We knew what was coming next, and we hated it. She insisted that we sit side by side on that stoop until each of us said something nice to the other one, and we had to mean it (she could tell when we were faking it.) This was always an exercise of excruciating pain and agony—at precisely the moment I wanted to throttle my little brother, I was instead compelled to speak kindly to him. Sometimes we sat for over a half an hour before we could muster the will to spit out some expression of affection for each other. But here is the interesting thing: on those days when we were forced into such an encounter, my brother and I would not fight again. The words of kindness that we had exchanged seemed to sap the energy from our feelings of hostility.” [Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vo. XXVIII, Number 1, p. 7-8]  Today I have noticed an abundance of hateful and intolerant words and actions in our world; have you?  Cable news channels pit a Democratic pundit against a Republican pundit and sometimes civility goes out the window and they both need Dr. Berg’s grandmother to grab them by their arms.  This week the color drained from the faces of many in the Western world upon learning that it was doctors who were masterminding the Scotland collision that failed: DOCTORS; People who take an oath to “First, do no harm!”  What hate possessed them? What evil was so heinous that they turned to the dark side?  Or was it they themselves, in a warped or demented sense of honoring God, who took words, twisted from a Koran or distorted by an Imam, and became living breathing symbols of evil? Do they deserve the suicidal death they apparently wanted but failed to achieve? Or would it be better to substitute the chest-thumping actions of testosterone-filled officials with a grandmother who sat them down next to some Western human beings and waited until they said something nice to each other? Of course, that is a naïve thought, isn’t it? But my fellow Christians and seekers after Christ hear this: it was the Lord Jesus who welcomed Samaritans, who forgave women who sinned and men who betrayed. By contrast, it was Christians in the 4th century who, in the name of the Lord, attacked a temple in Alexandria, killed people, destroyed priceless art, and ages of history that can no longer be reclaimed. What? This is what Jesus would do?  In this century, the German ruler named Hitler, using a twisted cross as his party symbol, decided to try to rid the world of Jews. Would he have unwittingly marched his so-called Savior, Jesus (himself a Jew) to his death as well?  What is a redemptive answer to human bickering and maneuvering beyond the already tried responses of retaliation, pre-emptive strikes, and an eye for an eye?  Where are the brave men like Winston Churchill in the Second World War who are willing, with oratory that shows not an ounce of cowardice but also shows overflowing wisdom and encouragement, to take two enemies out to the back porch until each sees the other one also as a human being, sharing the same planet, wanting virtually the same things for his children and his world? But it is naïve to consider that each wants God to be revered, laws to be observed, and safety for his family, isn’t it?  We in the church today, taking a fresh look at the New Testament, will not relinquish control of religion to radicals so it can be hopelessly twisted or despicably distorted. The Christian faith, as demonstrated by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, has a different way to change the world. As writer Kathleen Norris has put it, in a measured tone, “Religion’s abilities to restore sick people to health are downplayed these days—I know a chaplain at a historically Protestant college who has had to fight to keep a campus ministry going because the school now has a counseling service staffed by a psychologist. But it is my firm conviction that some people may more readily be reached, changed, and even healed through religious means than through psychiatry.” [AMAZING GRACE, Riverhead Books, 1998, pl. 179.] So we could turn to the preacher of Ecclesiastes, a person so burned out that he had virtually given up on humanity, and find the painful words that were read from the Old Testament. What hope is proclaimed from that pulpit? Such an ilk, like the “whisky priest” depicted in Graham Greene’s novel  THE POWER AND THE GLORY goes through the motions of faith but has stopped living it or believing in it.  It is terrible to think that there are preachers, and other human beings, who are as sarcastic, hopeless, bitter, and empty as that preacher and that priest, but indeed there are. Our world cannot be saved by such a bleak outlook; O Lord deliver us from giving up on people and their sometimes shallow, sometimes materialistic, sometimes self-serving, sometimes manipulative, sometimes horrific deeds! No! When people seem to wallow in their own mud, or when people try to get ahead with such franticness that they spin their wheels, burying themselves axle deep in sand, then a different way out needs to be found; not as if it has to be invented-not at all. It just has to be discovered, or, in some cases, rediscovered. It is the way of Christ without the layers of interpretation that institutions or bishops or priests or pastors have put on them.  Today, from the New Testament, were read words that the Apostle Paul chose to tell Colossian Christians who were not acting like Christians. In a sky full of stars that we call choices, these words point to true north. Paul could have written with the tone of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, but thankfully his heart was opened to these inspired words from God.

“Put on then” {as if putting on clothing, or even armor} as God’s chosen ones, holy {one who is set apart from others} and beloved {if no one has told you lately that you are loved by God, let me tell you that now!} put on compassion {that is, be ready to suffer with others in the bonds of humanity} kindness {show mercy and love beyond what might be expected} lowliness {do not think of yourself as higher than the next person}, meekness {quiet gentleness, not loud obnoxiousness} and patience {hold your tongue longer than you think you can, then wait a little longer}, and if one has a complaint against the other, forgiving each other {hard for angry boys or girls to do, or angry men or women, but necessary; Why? Because} As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love {wearing love as if it were a prayer shawl} which binds everything together in perfect harmony. {Those who show love and feel loved feel whole and blessed.} And let the peace of Christ {which is rooted in the love just described} rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. {All are one in the body of Christ which is the Church. Then Paul uses these three freeing words:} And be thankful. {Thankful people move toward wholeness; bitter people act like victims.} Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, {yes, your New Testament is the original purpose-driven guide for life} teach {others what you learn by word and example} and admonish one another in all wisdom {like in the old days when moms in neighborhoods each had the permission and authority to put anyone in a gang of boys or a group of girls in line. Permission to admonish lets brothers and sisters in Christ work to hold each other accountable to their Lord and their promises.} Then Paul’s words end with thanking God, praising God, and letting gratitude be the order of the day. 

 

Friends, film and file footage remind us that health care, education, common moral values, and ways of worshipping God that are not mostly a narcissistic activity, are each lacking in our day.  Those who have a steady diet of talking heads on television can easily become pessimistic and sarcastic like the preacher in Ecclesiastes. But Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Even here, this church works to make a difference through health ministries, Christian Education, youth groups, and services that focus on God. Let us work to make a difference rather than give up and despair.

 

When I came to this church in 1985, the air was filled with suspicion, distrust, bitterness, wariness, and spiritual paralysis. Going to Paul’s passage and asking for God’s Spirit to return, I invited any who would listen to help turn this ship around that was on a course of choppy waters.  It was slow hard work. One Sunday morning as I turned the lights on in my office, I found a note surreptitiously dropped on my chair. It wasn’t the first time I would get unsigned notes; it wouldn’t be the last. The note read: “All that it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.” I wondered if the writer meant I was doing nothing, or if the person meant that good things were happening because I was doing something. It was another of many anxious Sundays, only to have Elder and charter member number one Ernest W. Hunt, pull me aside after worship. “Did you get my note?” he asked. “That was your note? I asked back. “Yes,” he replied. “You’re doing a fine job. Keep up the good work.”  I’ve never forgotten the sense of relief I got with his words and his smile.  I’ll never forget the words that Paul told the Colossians that I have used at many a wedding and with Confirmation Classes. And I’ll never forget the story of a small woman who was able to get two fighting grandsons to be kind the rest of the day. There is hope for our world. And the hope starts first with Jesus: Jesus in you, and Jesus in me.  Let’s grab the world by the arm, shall we?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 8, 2007