Sermon Options: February 19, 2017

January 20th, 2017

The Reward

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

The Rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar, pictures Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God if it is really necessary for him to die on the cross. In deep anguish he prays, among other things, “I’d have to know, I’d have to know, my Lord, if I die, what will be my reward?” We don’t think or talk much about the reward of the Christian life. I suppose we feel reluctant to ask because we think that, if we are being Christian just for what we get out of it, we are probably doing it for the wrong reason. But the question sometimes occurs to most of us, doesn’t it? And in our scripture lessons for today, Paul mentions a reward. So let’s let ourselves ask the question just this once. What is the reward that comes to those who live the Christian life?

There is a reward. When we think about the Christian’s reward, we usually think of something that waits for us beyond this life, something we don’t quite know how to describe because it is hidden behind a veil and probably cannot be adequately described in the words and concepts we have developed to describe things in this life. That expectation has been important to Christians down through the ages. It was important to Paul. Later in his first letter to the Corinthians, he wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The hope for the hereafter has been very important to people in our day, too. Jonathan Kozol wrote a book about the lives of desperately poor people living in a slum of a great city. The book was titled Amazing Grace because the author said the lives of these people were so empty of hope or of promise that they could only find meaning for their lives in the promise of heaven they heard in their little church.1 That promise of a reward in heaven can also mean a lot to people living under oppression or going through debilitating illness and also for most of the rest of us as we approach the end of life. The promise of a reward beyond this life is important.

But there can also be a reward, a wage for work well done and for a life well lived, in this world, too. The Corinthian Christians were interested in that, maybe more interested than they should have been. Corinth was a busy, cosmopolitan city, a center of commerce, a place where people could move up the ladders of affluence and of status. Lots of people were thinking about that sort of thing — and some of them let that kind of thinking get mixed up with their religion. Those who were so interested in “wisdom” were, for the most part, really just looking for an excuse for feeling superior to others. Yes, they were interested in knowing what would be the reward of their righteousness. Finally, Paul said, “Okay, okay. If you want to talk about rewards, we will talk about rewards.”

Paul said that a foundation has been laid and each of us is invited to build upon it. We will be rewarded on the basis of how well we build.

Paul said that he had laid the foundation by preaching to them the gospel of Jesus Christ. If a person or a community builds on any other foundation, they are building something that cannot last. No other foundation can support the structure. So what are we to build on? We are to build on a knowledge that God is, and that God loves us all, and that God is at work in our lives and in our world to save.

As individuals and as churches — and as a universal church — we are called to build something on that foundation. Each of us is to build a life. Together, we are to build a church, and as a whole human race, we are to build a world. We do build those things. We each do build lives. We do build churches — and the church. Yes, and we are the ones who build the world we live in. We might as well accept responsibility for doing the jobs and do them as well as we can.

People and communities build in lots of different ways with lots of different materials. Of course, some don’t think much about building anything. They just kick back and let things happen as they will. But those who do that have to accept responsibility for what gets built in that way.

Of what do we build our lives? Do we build them of commitments to great purposes, of high values, of deep appreciation of beauty and goodness, of integrity and of discipline and of love? Or do we try to build them of the things that magazine advertisements promote?

Of what do we build our churches? Are they built of strong beliefs in eternal truths and of deep commitments to the loving purpose of God for the salvation of the world? Or are they built of the comfortable little services designed to serve its own members and, perhaps, to attract some of the desirable outsiders into membership?

And of what do we build our world? Do we build it of commitments to justice and well-being for all people? Or do we build it of competitions to see who can most effectively exploit others and prosper from it — or out of balances of military power that are designed to oppress and to destroy?

When we get honest, we have to admit that all of us are built of some good stuff and of some stuff that is not good. A song from the ’60s described the lives and the houses that people were building as “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Most of us have incorporated a certain amount of ticky-tacky into our structures — but we are likely not to realize it until judgment day comes.

Paul says we will be rewarded for what we have built and built well. Then what is the reward? The reward for building a good life is the good life itself. What we claim to have built is really God’s gift to us. A life built of great commitments and high values and of love will be life in its fullness and there is nothing better that we could ask for in this life. It is not the wealth or the status symbols or the accumulations of pleasure that really make a life, it is the deep wholeness and humanity. No matter how much of those other things a person has or doesn’t have, it is the quality of the life in the center of the circumstances that is the reward.

And the reward for building a church and a world that live up to their highest purposes is that we get to enjoy the benefits of such a church and such a world. We get to enjoy the service of a church that puts us in touch with the living God and enables us to live the good lives God wants for us. The reward of living in a world that is committed to justice and well-being for all is that we get to live in safety and in a life-enriching harmony with all other people. That, too, is the gift that God keeps wanting to give us.

To what extent are we enjoying that reward? To what extent are you enjoying the wages of work well done? We may not really know until some crisis makes it obvious. Paul introduces the idea of a judgment day into our thinking. “... the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13). Are we talking about the final judgment? Paul may have been. But judgment day can come right in the middle of life when something happens that puts our building to the test, something like a catastrophic illness, or a national crisis like the September 11 tragedy, or maybe some opportunity to do some great good that shows whether or not we are willing to rise to the challenge. Just as a hurricane or an earthquake can test the quality of a building’s construction, so a crisis in our lives, or in the life of our church or nation, can show us how well we have built. If we have incorporated too much “ticky-tacky” into the construction, the structures may not be able to stand and serve. If we have built well, our reward will be that we will be able to cope and to keep on living a good quality of life in the midst of whatever circumstances may come along.

But Paul adds something very interesting. He says that even if the crisis proves the inadequacy of our building, it may still work for our salvation. It can show us what is important and what is not. The “fire” can act as a refiner’s fire and cause us to rebuild and to rebuild better.

Let me tell you a story about a fire. A certain Christian man finally got that big promotion in his profession. He moved to a new city to assume the responsibilities of vice president of a major bank. He and his family were excited about building that fine new home that they had always dreamed of. They built it in an affluent suburb where all of the homes were fine. They brought into it all of the things that they had accumulated and treasured over the years and they carefully selected the new furniture and appliances that would make their home just right. The family was really beginning to enjoy their new home and their new situation in life. Everything looked just right — but no one could see the defective wiring that a careless workman had left as his contribution to their happiness. One night only a few months after moving into the house, the man had a dream that there was a fire in the attic. He woke up in a fright — and discovered that his dream was true. Quickly, he woke up his wife and children and got them out of the house as it burst into flames. As he stood and watched his dream house burn, neighbors came running up to him and asked if there was anything he wanted them to try to save. He shook his head and said, “No. My wife and children are safe and there’s nothing else in the house that is worth the risk of life.” Very quickly, the fire had caused him to put things into perspective. It would be unrealistic to say that they did not suffer some grief because of their loss. But they knew to be grateful that they still had everything that was really important. That was a kind of a salvation.

Many have gone through crisis experiences that helped them to realize that some of the things they thought were very important really weren’t and some of the things they had neglected were the things that really made life worth living. That can indeed be an experience of salvation — and that, too, is a kind of reward.

But then Paul moves on to enlarge his metaphor and he has a surprise for us. He says, “Do you not know that you [you Christians, you churches] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). If we can keep our lives from being cluttered up with things that distract us from what is important, the Spirit of God will teach us real wisdom and help us catch a new vision of things as they really are. One of the things we will be shown is that since you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God and all things belong to God, then all things belong to you.

Now, there is a vision we may have a hard time catching. We are an awful lot like the Corinthians. They were so preoccupied with who has wisdom and who doesn’t and who has wealth and who doesn’t and who has status and who doesn’t and which house church has the most attractive pastor and which has the truest doctrine that they were missing the magnificent vision of the whole that was there before them. We do that, too. We divide our lives up like we divide our property into little gated communities with guards at the gates or like pieces of turf with “keep out” signs on the fences. Then we exhaust ourselves with being defensive of what is ours and jealous of what is not. Paul says to forget that foolishness. Everything good is yours. Does that come as a surprise? Can you take it in?

Some of our songwriters have caught the vision. An old spiritual that came to us from a group of people who had nothing at all in this world said, “All around me looks so shine, asked the Lord if all was mine. Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.” Another hymn describes the beauty that surrounds us when “morning has broken” and how that beauty takes on eternal significance. Then it says, “Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning born of the one light Eden saw play! Praise with elation, praise every morning, God’s recreation of the new day!” You don’t have to own a sunrise or a sunset to enjoy it. You just have to claim it and take it in before it slips away. It was put there for you. It is yours. God gave it to you.

You can feel the same way about the wisdom and the accomplishments and the goodness of other people. They are yours, too, because ultimately they are God’s. In just that same way, every bit of the beauty and goodness and truth and nobility and aliveness and joy that are to be found in this world, in all of life, yes, and in death too, are yours. Don’t try to own them in some way that hoards them and keeps them away from others. That won’t work. That will spoil it. But simply move through life with arms and heart wide open to embrace and to share every good thing that is there for you. And when the time comes for you to leave this life, approach the great unknown beyond this life in the same way. Everything good is yours. God has freely given it to you. And that is your reward just for allowing the Spirit of God to show you that you are beloved children of God.

The Offense Of Grace

Matthew 5:38-48

Victor Hugo begins Les Miserables with the story of Jean Valjean. He is an ex-convict who has just been released from nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. As he reenters society, no one will house him or give him work because of his criminal record — that is until he stumbles into the bishop’s house. Much to Valjean’s bewilderment, the bishop treats him with kindness and hospitality. Seizing the moment, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plates and, then, flees into the night.

The bishop’s reaction to Valjean’s treachery is not what we might expect. Instead of being angry and offering condemnation, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity. “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver; it belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” he reasons to himself. So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the bishop’s silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also ... why did you not take them along with the plates?” The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.

Like Joseph’s brothers cowering in fear before the one they have wronged, Jean Valjean expects blame and condemnation for his actions. Instead, he receives forgiveness and mercy. He expects hatred, and, instead, he receives love, and at that moment evil is transformed into good.

Our story today is a true story of grace, and as such it is God’s story. In fact, it summarizes the gospel — the good news which we have received, and the good news which we are called to live.

Though Jesus’ words and Joseph’s words focus on how we are to treat others, they are based upon the way God treats us. Loving enemies, forgiving negative experiences, giving and expecting nothing in return, offering mercy instead of blame and condemnation — this is God’s story. After all, God put a rainbow promise in the sky, even though we hadn’t earned it. God made manna to fall from heaven, even though the wandering Israelites had done nothing but complain and whine. In Jesus’ most difficult parable, the vineyard owner, who is God, pays the one-hour workers the same as the eight-hour workers, and thus gives them — and us — not what we deserve but what we need. And in the archetypal tale of the Prodigal Son, we meet a God who rejoices when a sinner comes home.

Yes, again and again and again, God gives us grace instead of grief. God gives us blessing instead of blame. God gives us comfort instead of condemnation. And in the serendipity of those surprising moments we are changed. Yet, it is one thing for God to be gracious to us. After all, that is what God is for. It’s quite another for us to do the same. After all, we live in the real world, and we must be practical, cautious, and sensible. Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek is dangerous business — foolhardy and contrary to our best interests. No, we need to be right, to be safe, to be number one, always to be in control of the situation — this is the only way to preserve one’s skin. And so we, the worldly people of the twenty-first century, live not in a world of grace, but instead in a world of hostility. We live in a world where if we get robbed or mugged, we press charges. We live in a world where, in order to maintain national superiority, we can never admit that the United States is wrong. We live in a world where eighty percent of Americans believe in legalized revenge — better known as capital punishment. We live in a world where, after parents die and sibling rivalries turn into warfare, millions of dollars and thousands of emotional hours are spent contesting wills and fighting over family heirlooms.

Yes, resentment and retaliation, judgment and blame are tightly woven into the fabric of our human nature. This negative reaction to the bad things in life is learned behavior in a world where self

comes first. It is part of the original sin of seeing ourselves as the center of the universe. And it is the disease of the soul which Jesus comes to heal. When he eats with Zacchaeus, when he forgives and empowers the woman at the well, when he breaks bread with Judas, and when he gives authority to faithless Peter, Jesus gives them — and gives us — grace. He gives us the benefit of the doubt, the gift of a second chance, the lavish and generous blessing of unconditional love. And then Jesus asks us to do the same — to take the risk, to make the decision, yes, to follow him. He asks us to be foolish enough to spurn the ways of the world, and to do things in a new way.

The writer and surgeon Bernie Siegel tells the story of Wild Bill, an inmate of a concentration camp, who after six years of serving the enemy as an interpreter, was still full of energy and physical health and a gentle positive spirit. To the other prisoners, he was a beacon of hope, an agent of reconciliation, one who was constantly urging them to forgive each other and the enemy. This man’s positive spirit was all the more amazing because of the horror which he himself had experienced at the beginning of the war — watching his own family: his wife, his two daughters, his three little boys, shot before his very eyes by Nazi soldiers in Warsaw.

When asked to explain his lack of bitterness, Wild Bill responded, “I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who matter most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life — whether it was a few days or many years — loving every person I came in contact with.”

A new ethic — to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive and love no matter what — it is what Jesus asks. But does it make sense? And does it work? Or is it an offense in our dog-eat-dog world? Is it realistic to expect the families of Timothy McVeigh’s victims to forgive him and to love him? Is it appropriate to ask a battered wife to pray for the one who abuses her, to offer the other cheek to the husband who has struck the first one? Yes, God sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike — but are we called to love and be merciful to people who take us for granted and use us for their own advantage? These selfless, idealistic values may be fine for a Messiah, but for those of us who are victims and victimizers in the real world, they are offensive and dangerous.

Unless, of course, we look at them in a new way. Years ago I read a book about Christian assertiveness, and these puzzling words from Matthew were offered as guidelines for healthy assertive behavior. You see, to love our enemy is to take charge of the situation, to refrain from just reacting as a victim of their behavior. To love our enemy is to change the situation, to take the initiative to relate to our victimizers in a new way — literally to take the power out of their hands and to put it in ours in a positive way. To love the enemy does not mean to like the enemy. Instead it means to understand them as human beings — troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.

This is not to suggest that we passively sit back and ask for more abuse. It does not mean that the abused wife continues to live with the husband who beats her. No, the loving thing to do, the thing that is in the best interests of the one who is doing the hurting, may be to blow the whistle, to press charges, to get help for a sickness that is out of control. You see, to do good, to love and forgive those who offend us, is to refrain from hurting them in the same way they have hurt us. It is to initiate a new form of confrontation and healing that will lead to the well-being of all the parties involved. An ethic of grace — far from being an offense — is an invitation to take the offensive, to live positively instead of negatively, to stop playing the role of victim, and to start living a life of proactive discipleship.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once wrote:

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship ... We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.

King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative good will to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.

My friends, an ethic of grace is different from an ethic of justice. Instead of reacting to the sin of others, instead of basing our response on reward or revenge or reciprocity, we can, instead, initiate a new relationship based on love and hope. And, by taking the high road, we can become fertile ground for abundant life to grow, both for our enemy and for our selves.

I was once offered the gift of grace from an enemy, and it was a transforming moment in my life. Years ago, when my husband and I were called to be co-pastors of a church in New Jersey, the pastoral nominating committee was split. Seven members of the committee were favorable to our candidacy, but four members were opposed. Though it is usually a bad idea to accept a call to a church when there is that kind of split, we were assured that the committee itself was so conflicted that no candidate could have fared better. One of the members who was opposed to us was Pearl, a strong-minded, fairly conservative elder who also happened to be clerk of session. She didn’t like our theology, she didn’t like the idea of a clergy couple, and she definitely didn’t like the idea of a clergywoman. Fortunately, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to call us as their co-pastors, but that still didn’t convince Pearl. She just didn’t like us, and she wasn’t about to accept us as her pastors.

A few weeks after we moved and started our ministry, I was feeling particularly low. Though the congregation had been welcoming, I was still feeling like a stranger, still feeling like people were suspicious, still feeling like my husband was the more acceptable pastor. In fact, I was feeling like we had made a terrible mistake, when all of a sudden the doorbell rang. I went to open the door, and there stood Pearl, holding a broom, a loaf of bread, and a shaker of salt. She smiled at me and said, “I come from German stock, and there is an old tradition in our family. Whenever someone moves into a new home they are given three gifts: a broom to sweep away the evil spirits, a loaf of bread to make their house into a home, and a pinch of salt to bring good luck. I want to welcome you to your new home — and to welcome you as my new pastor.”

Well, Pearl and I never saw eye to eye on theology. But that day Pearl took the offensive and changed a relationship of hostility into a relationship of grace. That day she decided to love her enemy, and I felt like I had finally come home.

These words in Matthew are not spoken to the world at large. Jesus knew that secular people could neither understand nor honor such a difficult ethic. No, these words in Matthew are spoken to the disciples, to believers who have decided to follow Jesus. These words are spoken to us, people who have chosen to be the yeast in a world that needs the fullness of grace. This day may we hear these words, and do them, all to the glory of God.

May it be so — for you and for me. Amen.

Psalm 119:33-40

Like last week’s selection from the opening portion of this same psalm, today’s selection celebrates the joy that comes of following God’s Law, the Torah. As is usually the case with psalm selections in the lectionary, it amplifies the First Lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures — which this week happens to be Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18.

Reading through verses 9-18 of the Leviticus passage, we quickly discover that following God’s Law transcends mere legalism: at the root of each of these commandments is a deep and abiding ethical concern for the well-being of others. The command to leave something in the field for the gleaners (Leviticus 19:9-10) honors the needs of the poor. The prohibition against stealing has a human face: “You shall not defraud your neighbor” (v. 13a). “You shall not keep the wages of a laborer until morning” (v. 13b) is among the earliest examples of fair-labor legislation — the workers, after all, need their salaries if they are to feed their families. There is concern for the disabled (v. 14), and an admonition to treat everyone equally: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (v. 15). Ultimately, there comes a prohibition against hate itself (v. 17), followed by the greatest commandment of all: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 18).

“Give me understanding,” pleads the psalmist, “that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34). Perhaps the most important aspect of this understanding is the discovery that God’s Law is about much more than statutes and regulations and ordinances and codicils. With love at its very heart, it is the concrete manifestation of the Lord’s desire that we live in harmony with others, and even with ourselves. The law the psalmist begs to understand has, in the very deepest sense, a human face. “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities,” he pleads; “give me life in your ways” (v. 37). Far from being a dead letter, the law is life-giving.

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