November 23, 2014 THE CRITICAL CRITERION

THE CRITICAL CRITERION
Matthew 25: 31-46
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
November 23, 2014

Hear the sermon.

We have come to the last Sunday in the liturgical year. Yes, I know that Baptists traditionally have not paid much attention to the liturgical calendar except for Christmas and Easter, but for most of the Christian world this is the last Sunday of the church year. It is worth pondering that over the centuries the Christian tradition began the church year with Advent and Jesus as a baby and then follows the major events of his life from childhood through the resurrection. Then seven weeks later the church celebrates the story of Pentecost and the spreading of the church around the world. That, in short, is the general outline of the church calendar.

I

This last Sunday in the church calendar, however, is something special. It is called Christ the King Sunday. So the year begins with Jesus as a baby and ends with Jesus as a king and a judge…not a popular image of Jesus today, when we would much rather think of Jesus as a companion, a friend, a healer, or a Savior. Today is the one Sunday of the year when the church considers the implications of Jesus as the victorious king, judging the world.

It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? When you cut through all the apocalyptic imagery of this parable that is peculiar to that time and age, images such as sheep and goats, the devil and his angels, eternal fire and punishment, all of that…you still get the reality of a judgment. Jesus the judge of the world! In our world of non-judgmental, “my conscience is my guide” morality, this parable comes to us as a jolt. Clear away all the apocalyptic paraphernalia, and what you get is something very simple: the idea that one day the whole world will be judged.

And notice that the image is that nations will be judged (v. 32). Nations! That is a frightful thought! Nations? We are so used to an individualistic religion, the idea that we will make a personal account before God at the end of time, that it stretches our imaginations to think of a nation standing before Christ at the end of time to be judged. But that is precisely the image we get here in this parable, and it is enough to keep you awake at night.

The thought that large groups of people, organized into political entities, governed by recognized officials and guided by laws interpreted by a court system, will one day be judged as a political entity, is so foreign to our religious thinking that it comes as a shock. But here it is, in a parable Jesus spoke just hours before he will face his own death. If nothing else, Jesus had a way of getting their attention, and with this one he hit a home run.

II

It is just like Jesus to simplify our ethics. He had a way of cutting through all the legalisms, all the arguments, all the complexities of interpretation, all the intricate networks of excuses and complications and predicaments, the maze of explanations about Keynesian economics and post-Keynesian economics and New-Keynesian economics, and he brings it down to one simple question: did you help people?

Now wait! Don’t go back to personal benevolence! This parable is talking about national policy! Did you help people? Did your national political leaders, your laws, your courts, your structures of society, help people? If you are in a democratic society, did your people vote to help people? Did they support candidates that committed to help people?

The test Jesus gave in this parable of judgment is not based on a complex definition of need. He made it simple:

…for I was hungry, and you gave me food,
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.

The judgment of a nation, in other words, will not be based on the knowledge it has amassed, the power of its military, the influence of its economy, or the sophistication of its arts. It is not based on whether a nation is a democracy, a socialist society, a constitutional monarchy, or even a dictatorship. There is no mention of a faith test: not one word about believing in Jesus or even if a nation is religious. There is no word here about church attendance or religious practices of any kind!

This parable cuts it down to the one question every nation must ultimately answer: how did we react to human need, especially for those who are most vulnerable? This is not about flipping a quarter toward a person on the street corner who has no shelter; this is about supporting national policies that effectively eradicate the pain of families losing their shelter in this most sophisticated land in the world. This is not about buying a turkey for a less fortunate family at Thanksgiving; this is about influencing the turkeys in Washington to actually do something about the shame of persistent poverty and real hunger in this land of plenty!

No wonder we ignore this parable! It is easier to emphasize private morality while we let national policies go their own way. Yes, the poor will always be with us, as Jesus once said, but the poor need not be ignored and marginalized and made to feel guilty for being poor. There is a gentleness about this critical criterion, a caring about this critical criterion, a compassion about this critical criterion that transcends political parties and ideological positions. Any nation, any political party, any administration, any government (local or national), has the capacity to reach out to the least of these: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the cold, the sick, the prisoner.

III

There is one more surprising aspect of this parable that I want to point out. There is an unusual emphasis on the ability to see. Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry…or thirsty? And when was it that we saw you a stranger…or naked? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? There is an extraordinary emphasis on seeing!

That is to say, the limit of our judgment is based on the limit of our seeing the need. At no time in history have we had greater capacity to see and understand the root causes of the needs around us. We have the technology to know the needs of people and to implement strategies to meet those needs as never before! We have satellites scanning the earth looking for weapons and terrorists, and they fail to interpret the obvious: by far the greatest weapon of terror on earth is persistent, grinding, humiliating, hunger and thirst and sickness and limited educational opportunities in a world of plenty. There is no greater terrorism on earth than the terrorism of watching your child die of hunger. That kind of terrorism is the fertile seedbed for the other kind of terrorism that breeds the evil of suicide bombers and those who decapitate innocent people.

It is clear that the long-term solution to terrorism is an international war on poverty and disease and despair and hopelessness. There is not a soul here who does not respect the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those in the military. There is not a soul here who does not pray for those in the military. But when judgment day comes, as this parable promises, and nations are brought before the judgment seat of God, that judgment will not be based on the might of a nation’s military force or the bravery of the men and women who make up the military.

That ultimate judgment will be based on how we responded to the elementary human needs growing out of hunger and thirst and loneliness and despair found in ordinary human beings whom we can see.

IV

The surprise ending of this parable, of course, is that when a nation treats people with this kind of gentle compassion, that nation is treating Christ with compassion. And when a nation withholds such help, it is withheld from Christ himself.

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, when we think of national need, let us consider national judgment. Let us remember with genuine gratitude the sons and daughters of this nation who are serving in the military, sometimes in dangerous places far from home. No one fails to be grateful for their sacrifice and the sacrifices of their families.

And on this Thanksgiving, let us remember the critical criterion of judgment for any nation: …just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.

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November 16, 2014 SUBSTANCE ABUSE

SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Lamentations 3: 19-23 and Matthew 25: 14-30
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
November 16, 2014

Hear the sermon.

On January 1, 1863, the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was brought to Abraham Lincoln by Secretary of State William Seward, helped by his son Frederick. Years later, Frederick wrote about the scene: “The broad sheet was spread open before him on the Cabinet table. Mr. Lincoln dipped his pen in the ink, and then, holding it a moment above the sheet, seemed to hesitate. Looking around, he said, ‘I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper. But I have been receiving calls and shaking hands since nine o’clock this morning, till my arm is stiff and numb. Now this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled they will say he had some compunctions. But anyway, it is going to be done.’ So saying, he slowly and carefully wrote his name at the bottom of the proclamation.”

You can easily google pictures of that signature at the bottom of the Emancipation Proclamation, and you can see how deliberately and carefully he wrote it. He meant it!

This is the day we are asked to sign at the bottom of our Pledge Card to support the ministries of this church. It is a day when we do not hesitate, a day when with quiet determination we sign our card and place it in the offering plate as an act of worship. And we mean it!

I

Some people think of Pledge Sunday as a day of arm twisting, a day when the preacher is supposed to preach a sermon designed to make you feel guilty if you don’t pledge, or if you don’t pledge enough. Rubbish! Pledge Sunday is not about guilt or arm-twisting! Pledge Sunday is a day to celebrate faithfulness: both God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God.

When I was growing up, Pledge Sunday was a day when a wooden model of the church building was placed on the communion table. It had a slit cut into the roof of the model, and during the service, the entire congregation marched down to the front and placed their pledge cards into the slit in the roof of the church model. It was a powerful symbol of faithfulness that I will never forget. I remember to this day how moved I was to see that everyone participated. Everyone cared deeply for the church, and everyone supported it. The amount of each pledge, of course, was private; but the act of pledging was public.

We live in a different world today. Money matters are intensely private. This is, after all, New England! But I still feel something of that powerful symbol on Pledge Sunday. It proclaims that the health of this church is a shared commitment, a united act of faithfulness, and it is still very inspiring.

II

Not surprisingly, Jesus had something to say about faithfulness. He told a story about three servants who were given five talents, two talents, and one talent respectively. The master, obviously a symbol for God in the story, leaves town and the servants are left with the decision of what to do with the master’s money. At the end of the story, the master returns and compliments two of the servants with the familiar words, Well done, good and faithful servant.
But I have always been bothered by the severity of the reprimand the master gave to the third servant who buried his money in the backyard and returned every last penny of it to the master. He is called wicked and lazy, and then comes that terrible phrase that leaves us baffled: to those who have shall more be given. And from those who have not, even the little they have, shall be taken away. What can we say about such a statement? Is that a fitting thing to be read in a Christian pulpit? To those who have, they shall receive more? To the Wall Street tycoons who already get Christmas bonuses in the millions, to the professional athletes who measure their contracts in seven figures? More? And to the struggling, minimum wage burger-turner, to the single mother cleaning rooms in a hotel, even what little they have will be taken away? Is that what this text is saying?

Where is the grace in that? It seems so harsh, so cruel, so un-Christian! Where is the grace in this master who is so tough on this well-intentioned, entirely honest and scrupulous servant?

Truth is, grace permeates the story, if you look at it closely. It runs throughout the whole account. It is there from the very first line. The master is going away on a journey and he summons his three servants and gave them—not SOME of his money, not just a little cash to tide them over until he got back. What does the text say? It says that he gave them everything! He divided his substance among them. He put every last cent of his money in their care. That means that when he got back, everything of what he has—his entire estate—has been utterly dependent on what they have done with his substance. If they have blown it, he is bankrupt! He has given them everything until he gets back.

It is worth noting that this is a story that Jesus told toward the end, just before he begins his journey toward the cross. He is about to leave his disciples, and he has given them everything! He must have wondered how his disciples would use the gifts he had given them. His concerns about them must have been, not that they would be too careless, but that they would be too careful. They would abuse the substance of what he had given them by being too careful with it. In other words, substance abuse is not being too risky, but being too careful with what God has given us!

In the story he told, the two servants who were complimented were the ones willing to take risks. The story is clearly suggesting that the master is looking for a few wheeler-dealers with whom to wheel and deal! Pledge Sunday is a time to wheel and deal! Making a pledge to the church is not giving God a gratuity for serving us. God is not a divine waiter at our life’s table! God has put the whole world into our hands. God has entrusted us with God’s whole property. That is grace! We delude ourselves when we think that what we have is ours. It all belongs to God! The question is, what are we going to do with it? How will we invest it?

Where are the wheelers and dealers in the church these days? If there is a problem with the church budget, it is not that it is too high, but that it is far too low. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those of us who have already filled out our pledge cards just marked through them right now and started over to do some real wheeling and dealing—taking some risks! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we invested our resources in a way that allowed us to expand our ministries in this church? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we oversubscribed our budget so that we would have to call a special business meeting to ask, “How would you like to use these additional funds?”

III

This interim period is no time to be content with business as usual. It is time for some wheeling and dealing of our resources! And that wheeling and dealing will take every single one of us—young and old, rich and poor, working and retired, and I can even add—students and regular visitors.

Some people look at the sermon on Pledge Sunday and think the preacher is like a spiritual used car salesman trying to sell a clunker and acting like it’s the greatest thing on the road. But Pledge Sunday is not about slick salesmanship. It is about a serious and joyful act of faithfulness. No one is trying to get you to buy something you don’t want or need. Like you, I am a fellow worshipper, a recipient of more blessings than I can count, and in debt to the church in general and this church in particular.

I propose that we view the offering of our pledge cards the way an ancient priest offered sacrifices to God. He chose the very best that he could find, a lamb without blemish, as the ancient accounts relate it. And there before the altar he would offer the best in behalf of God’s people.

Let us decide to give the best we can—call it a “pledge without blemish!” And then let us have some fun with God’s money! Take some risks, and let this moment be an explosion of faith. And then listen closely, for you may hear a still, small voice saying, Well done, good and faithful servants!

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November 9, 2014 CHOICES THAT MATTER

CHOICES THAT MATTER
Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-28
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
November 9, 2014

Hear the sermon.

Did you see the cartoon of a voting booth with the curtain drawn so that all you could see is a pair of spindly legs beneath the curtains? Underneath is the caption, “Can you hear me now?” (The problem with political jokes is that they sometimes get elected!)

I

The classic text from the book of Joshua that we heard this morning seems meant for the week after an election day: …choose you this day…. It was a day of choice, and to choose one always means to reject another. This, of course, is true for every choice we make. To choose a life partner and seal it with marriage vows is to reject all others as potential mates (although some people seem to want to keep all their options open!) And that commitment/rejection cycle carries on throughout our lives. We choose one job at the cost of rejecting others. We choose one road at the cost of turning away from others. To paraphrase Robert Frost, there are multiple roads and they always diverge in the yellow wood.

In this democracy that we all love, we are deeply influenced by the idea of the freedom of choice. But we are never free FROM choices. This text is a call to make a choice. We have grown fond of the idea of checking “all of the above” in the multiple choices of our lives. We want to gain the advantages of every moral code, every religious system, every philosophical approach.

But there are also those times in our lives when we need to choose. The day comes when we have to check one, commit to one, embrace one. The time has run out, the options are narrowed, the choices are focused, and the pencil is ready. What do we do? We choose! Not to choose is to live in a never-never land of eternal childhood. Not to choose is to attempt to have it all by having nothing. Not to choose is to choose nothing.

There comes a time when we have to choose, to sign on the dotted line, to make tangible choices that affect the future of our lives and the institutions we love. There is a sentimental attachment to the beauty of this place, the familiar sounds of hymns and the ancient cadences of scripture, and the sacred memories many of you hold here. We can enjoy the music of the masters played with the distinctive sound of this organ, and we can love the harmonies of the anthems that thrill our souls and lift our spirits. All of that is wonderful.

But the coming of Pledge Sunday a week from today is about choosing. It is about hard numbers that represent the reality of the costs of ministry to this community and this world. It represents a real choice on the part of each of us. To be specific, it represents our part in pledging the financial resources required to make this church function well in this crucial time of transition. “It’s not easy this year,” we hear people say. That’s right—it is not easy, it never was easy, it never will be easy. Christian faith is not about being easy. As the faithful of every generation remind us, there is a cost to discipleship. So the echoes of Joshua’s words reach from Shechem all the way to 75 North Main Street in Providence: Choose you this day!

II

But let us take this one step further. The biblical text we are examining says more than Choose you this day…. There is more to the sentence. It says, Choose you this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served…or the gods…in whose land you are living. In other words, this is a THEOLOGICAL choice we are making, not just an economic choice.

It is easy and popular to caricature those ancestors who worshipped here with a strictness that seems quaint today. We imagine the bearded fathers and bustled mothers leading their children into their rented pew. We wonder how they sat on hard pews in church for long hours hearing sermons that went on forever. Much of that, of course, was cultural, and none of us would want to resurrect many of those practices. But underneath all that acculturation there was something that our world still needs.

To use a word we seldom hear any more, there was a devoutness that expressed itself in a firm commitment to a specific place…this place…this particular church….in their time. This church, both in the sense of the congregation and also in the sense of this meetinghouse, was not built by wishy-washy accommodation that said, “All religion is basically the same.” It was built by people who were convinced that their understanding of true religious freedom demanded a choice: Choose you this day whom you will serve!

This is far more than a convenient sound bite from Joshua’s sermon. It is recorded in scripture because something happened that day that they never forgot. In their normal form of worship, the people responded to Joshua’s call for a choice by shouting back at him, We will also serve the Lord, for he is our God. After all, we might say, we were born and raised in church. Of course we will serve God! Our ancestors were deacons and Sunday School teachers and even graduates of seminaries. They served their churches and gave their money…surely that ought to count for me! They made wonderful choices that made it possible for me to be here today!

But the call in the text is frightfully personal: YOU choose! It is not our ancestor’s choices that will make the difference today. It is our choices. It is our commitments. It is our loyalties. No church can exist on good feelings alone. No church can thrive on memories of past accomplishments. No time is free from financial pressures. And no congregation is free from stress. That has always been the case, and still the day comes when we are called on to choose.

III

But there is more: the end of this story about Joshua is stunning. It involves the congregation shouting back in response to Joshua’s sermon that day. I think that if you shouted back at me after I got excited in a sermon I might faint! I wouldn’t know what to do! But Joshua was used to it. So he stepped back up to the podium. “Hold the Postlude just a minute. Stop singing the closing hymn long enough for me to say one more thing.” And he got their attention. The music stops playing and the people stop singing. It is deathly quiet. He looks them in the eyes and says, almost in a whisper, “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.” And they stand there in stunned silence until some voice back in the back says, “We mean it!” And the rest of them join in, “Yes, we mean it! We really mean it!”

So the end of the text says that Joshua took a large stone and set it up under THE oak tree at Shechem. This was not just any oak tree…it was THE oak tree. What does that mean? And what was the stone? The text doesn’t say. It doesn’t have to! The readers all knew about the oak tree at Shechem.

Five hundred years earlier, their ancestor Abraham had come to that land under the compulsion of a divine pledge: I will make of you a great nation. When he reached that place in Shechem, their ancestor Abraham had built an altar to God under a sacred oak tree—THAT oak tree. Now, five hundred years later, the people are gathered together at that sacred place where the story of their beginnings as a nation had first taken shape. There Joshua took a stone. Could it have been one of the original stones that Abraham had used so long ago? Could it have been one of the very stones preserved through the centuries like Plymouth Rock is preserved today? Could it have been from the very same altar that Abraham had built so long before?

The implication is that it was. It was a spiritual renewal of a promise of a whole people saying, “We will not forget the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. We will not forget the sacrifices of those who served before us. We will not forget the commitment of those who made this place great.

IV

Next Sunday the church leaders are calling on us all to make a tangible, visible commitment, to fill out a little pledge card that says, “This is what I intend to do under God in supporting this church in 2015. This is my solemn covenant with this church and with God. This is my tangible statement that I will not forget those who made it possible for me to be here, and I will do my part to make sure future generations will be able to worship in this place.”

I am not speaking these words as an outsider. Yes, I know that my church membership is elsewhere, but my wife and I will join you next Sunday in making our pledge to this church, for we believe in you and what you are doing in Providence and beyond. We will join you in pledging our resources as a way of following the way of Jesus Christ as shown by the generations who walked this way before us. We will join you in pledging for the future of this great church!

When we do that, we may sense the smiles of all those bearded fathers, those bustled mothers, those students, and those children who preceded us in this place, for we will join that great chorus of saints who, with firm and honest commitment, have said, As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!

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November 2, 2014 COME NOW, LET US REASON

COME NOW, LET US REASON
Isaiah 1: 10-20
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
November 2, 2014

Hear the sermon.

Come now, let us reason together…, says the text. What a novel idea! We are all saturated with political attack ads that are long on exaggeration and short on reasoning, ads that demonize rather than inform. Trash talk is in; reasoning is out. Shouting is in; reasoning is out. And unfortunately, the lack of reasoning together seems to spread to other areas of life: in offices, in schools, in athletic events, in homes, even in churches! In many cases, there is a lot of shouting at each other and not much listening and reasoning together.

I

There was not much reasoning going on when this text was first spoken. There was a lot of shouting. In fact, if I preached like Isaiah preached in this passage, you would probably tell me politely that you have decided to find some other minister for the interim, thank you very much!
He starts by insulting his congregation: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! In case you missed the insult, Isaiah was not preaching in Sodom or Gomorrah; he was preaching to a well-heeled congregation in Jerusalem. But they all knew the reputation of Sodom and Gomorrah. That was like trash talk! He was trashing his own congregation!

He must have been really young and stupid when he preached this! He must have been upset and fed up with what he perceived as their hypocrisy. It takes some years and life experiences for a preacher to recognize that there is hypocrisy in everyone, including oneself. It takes experience to know that you don’t change that by venting your frustration in a sermon. But here he is, young and brash, virtually trashing them from the pulpit!

I am surprised that this sermon even survived! I am surprised he even got out the next sentence before they threw him out! But you have to give credit to the congregation. They must have believed in freedom of the pulpit because they let him speak. Or perhaps they knew he was young and know-it-all, and they were willing to let him ripen a bit.

So Isaiah goes on with his harangue. What follows is a list of the holiest activities in their collective religious life: their elaborate sacrificial system, their incense, their holidays and prayers, their worship services….today he might have included all our holiest moments: the Lord’s Supper, baptism, our pot-luck dinners, our Christmas pageants—he lists the whole religious apparatus.

And then Isaiah, saying that he was speaking for God, says in effect: “All that stuff bores me to death. Your worship services give me indigestion. Your prayer meetings make me sick! You can keep it up, but I (and that “I” refers to God)…I will not hear you!” Now that is heavy stuff! Isaiah is on the attack! He is venting, and nothing seems to slow him down!

Why is he depicting God as angry? Because, according to Isaiah, your hands are full of blood. Literally, the Hebrew says, Your hands are dripping with bloods. Now, how do you think that went over with the people? Can’t you just hear the parking lot conversations? “How long will we put up with that young preacher?” “Who does he think he is?” “Is that what we get for a seminary education?” “Who was chair of that Search Committee?” But still, they let him speak. You have to give credit to that congregation. They were exceptionally gracious and understanding.

So Isaiah wipes his brow with a handkerchief, rolls up his sleeves, and continues his sermon. Now that he has told them off, he is ready to tell them what they need to do, and his prescription is short and to the point. In our Bibles, it makes up just two verses, comprising one sentence (vv. 16-17)! But what an extraordinary sentence it is! It is a sentence that contains nine imperative verbs. You can easily count them: wash, make, remove, cease, learn, seek, correct, defend, and plead. Nine very strong verbs, all in the imperative form!
Do you remember when your parents resorted to the imperative? If you were doing something that mildly irritated them, they might say, “Now don’t you think you would rather do this?” That is NOT the imperative form. But if you were doing something that absolutely infuriated them, and they were at their wit’s end, then you would get the imperatives that would shoot out like lightning bolts: “Quit it! Put it down! March to your room! Go to bed!” Those are imperatives. Parents save them for special occasions.

That is the grammatical form Isaiah used in this sermon. And did you notice that not one of those imperative verbs is “believe”? Not one! When did we get the idea that being a Christian means checking off a list of doctrines that we believe? Not from the Bible! Doctrine was not the issue! I imagine anyone in that congregation could sit down and carry on an extended theological conversation about belief. They were not lacking in doctrinal correctness.

What they lacked was personal ethics and social justice. Isaiah was making the radical claim that personal ethics and social justice are more important to God than correct doctrine and worship by the book. He was saying, “Forget your worn-out creeds if you can’t treat people with respect and dignity.”

II

OK—let’s take a breather here and give young, brash, impulsive, bold, and undiplomatic Isaiah a break. At least he knows how to get our attention! He has those folk sitting on the edge of their pews! He paints a word picture that has them captivated. The scene is a Hebrew courtroom. The language is the language of a Jewish law court. Come now, let us reason together was a formula used by a judge about to read a sentence. It is equivalent to a modern judge saying the formula: Has the jury reached a verdict? No one is breathing. You can hear a pin drop.

In Isaiah’s word picture, the religious establishment is standing before the judge, and the judge is about to pass sentence. The judge opens his mouth and says, “The evidence is overwhelming; the hands of the religious community are dripping with blood.” There is a rumble of approval in the courtroom as the crowd mumbles its favor. The crowd, after all, is fed up with pious religious hypocrisy.

Then the judge calls for order and continues with the sentence: “The court declares that their guilt is completely forgiven! “What!” shouts the crowd! “What did you say? Surely not!” Then the judge adds this: “But this forgiveness is not free: it comes with a price. The religious community must from this point on live up to its doctrine by seeking justice, correcting oppression, defending the fatherless, and pleading for the widow.”

The courtroom sits in stunned silence. Finally, a local pastor stands up at the defense table and speaks: “You mean we are scot free?” “No,” says the judge, “you are not scot free; you are only free if you become the conscience of the community; you are only free if you live out your faith in tangible ways that convinces the court that you are sincere in your faith.

This is the scene described by Isaiah. It is a word picture that is seared into their minds, and it has lived through the centuries because it is a universal truth. The beautiful words of forgiveness are forever linked to the nine imperatives that precede those words.

III

Centuries later, Jesus would make this clear to a man named Zacchaeus. Remember him?–the little fellow up in the tree who had cheated and swindled his way into wealth and prominence. Half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold, said Zacchaeus.
Jesus responds by saying, Today, salvation has come to this house…, not because Zacchaeus had correct Christology or because Zacchaeus had a particular view of the Bible, or because Zacchaeus could recite a creed. Salvation came because he learned to love his neighbor, and he knew deep down that he was loved, forgiven, and accepted by the great Power of the universe.

When you receive your bread and that little thimble full of Welch’s grape juice this morning, you may look at them and think, “They are so tiny, and we have the audacity to call this a supper!” But that little piece of bread is not small; it symbolizes a gift so big that it covers the whole world! And that little bit of grape juice is not small; it symbolizes a grace that is greater than all our sin.

Come now, let us reason together. We are loved…forgiven…accepted by God; when we know that, there is very little we cannot do when we work together as a congregation.

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October 26, 2014 FAITHFUL TO THE DREAM

FAITHFUL TO THE DREAM!
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 26, 2014

Hear the sermon.

How would you like to write your own epitaph? Cemeteries today tend to require that all headstones be the same size and shape, and none of them with epitaphs. How boring! Whatever their reasons for such dullness, we and those who follow us have lost something when they do away with epitaphs.
Epitaphs are a gift to future generations. Most of us are familiar with variations of this often used and somewhat smug epitaph found in multiple cemeteries around the world:
Come, blooming youths, as you walk by,
And on these lines do cast an eye.
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so shall you be.
Remember this and follow me.

To which someone at a cemetery in Waynesville, NC replied by writing on the tombstone:
To follow you I am not content,
How do I know which way you went?

Then there is the wonderful epitaph of Mel Blanc, who was the voice of Porky Pig. It simply reads, “That’s all, folks!” Also in Hollywood, there is the epitaph of Jackie Gleason: “And away we go!”
In Uniontown, Pennsylvania, is the epitaph of a man named Jonathan Blake:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Blake,
Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.

Boot Hill in Tombstone, Arizona has some wonderful epitaphs:
Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a 44
No less, no more.

OK—one more: this one is from Albany, NY:
Harry Edsel Smith
Born 1903-Died 1942
Looked up the elevator shaft
To see if the car
Was on the way down.
It was

This stuff is priceless: like the gravestone of the hypochondriac in Georgia that says, “I told you I was sick!”

I

 

There is an extraordinary epitaph in the story of the death of Moses. It was written by someone who was obviously struck by the fact that the shining star of Israel’s history had no monument, not even a gravesite for people to visit. No one knew where he was buried. So in a postscript to the book of Deuteronomy, some unknown author gave Moses an epitaph: Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.

That is quite an epitaph! Who among us would not like to have something like that said about us? Never since has there arisen a golfer in New England like me…. Never since has there arisen a soccer mom in Providence like me…. You know, we could let our imaginations go wild on this!

But Moses was assigned this spectacular epitaph. There appears to be some wistfulness in this epitaph. After all, Moses had a hard life. The very people who revered him when he died gave him hell while he was living! And finally, when they reached the very edge of the Promised Land, Moses climbs Mount Pisgah and looks out over the land of his dreams.

Ah, the land of his dreams, the land for which he had been yearning all those years, the land toward which all his work and struggle had been directed for a lifetime. And now, at long last, he stands on top of Mount Pisgah looking out over that land, and he will never step foot on it. The biblical text says almost pathetically: Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab…. The fulfillment of his lifetime dream would be left to someone else.

II

The unspoken message of this story is that many great dreams are greater than one lifetime can fulfill. In fact, the great dreams are constructed on a scale too large to fulfill in one lifetime. When we hear a resonate baritone voice singing a spiritual like, Deep river, my home is over Jordan…, a spiritual inspired by this very biblical story, we imagine all the generations of slaves who dreamed of freedom but never got there. They died and were buried, often in unmarked graves, while their children and their children’s children were left to cross over into freedom.

It is, of course, very good to experience the fruits of our labor and to know the fulfillment of dreams come true. But it is also true that some dreams are greater than the scope of our lifetimes. We need those mega-dreams, those dreams that are bigger than we can fulfill in one generation. We all need a place that holds up the standard of great dreams…dreams like the hope of “a beloved community,” the dreams of the prophets like a time when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, dreams of Jesus when he spoke of the meek and the merciful and the pure in heart and the peacemakers and the salt of the earth. We need a place where we can grapple with difficult dreams like loving our enemies and who is our neighbor and praying for those who persecute you. We need a community where the dream of love becomes flesh-and-blood real.

Church is just such a place! Church holds up dreams greater than one lifetime can fulfill. Providence was founded on a dream that was oh so fragile at the time: a dream of soul liberty and separation of church and state. In 1638, who could have imagined that a whole nation would adopt that dream? That dream was bigger than the lifetime of Roger Williams.

When we gather as a church, we are working together to fulfill a dream, a dream that is bigger than one person, bigger than one congregation, bigger than one lifetime can fulfill. We constantly work together on this dream; we teach it to our children; we pass on to the next generation that gleam in the eye, that hope for a better world, that Way of living which Jesus taught us. Being faithful to that mega-dream takes a lifetime and more.

Why anyone would ever imagine that working for that dream is not worth our greatest investment, our deepest commitment, and our most fervent prayers is beyond me. Society goes through trends when church is more or less important. We endure periods when scandal rocks parts of the church, when attendance rises or falls, and the quality of church programming varies over the years. But the dream remains. It is as real today as it was in the golden glow of yesteryear when this church, along with most Protestant churches, was filled with people.

When we announced today that the theme for this year’s stewardship emphasis is “Choices That Matter,” we were thinking not just of political choices. We will, I hope, all make choices and vote on Election Day. Those are important choices. But there is also our choice to invest in the church’s dream, a dream greater than the budgetary needs for one year. Sure, a church budget pays for the heat…it pays for the salaries of staff members…it pays all the bills an institution like ours accumulates in order to function. And, it pays out generous checks to ministries in this community and around the world to keep the larger dream alive.
The function of a church budget is not so much to keep the lights on in the building as it is to keep the dream alive in our hearts! That dream is greater than the sum of all our bills. It is the dream that we fund, and it calls for faithfulness.

Moses died and is buried on Mount Pisgah. Joshua steps into his place, and he in turn eventually dies and is buried. New circumstances require new leaders, and generation after generation does its part and passes the leadership on. Yet through all those generations, the one dream, inspired by the divine Spirit, remains constant.

III

Some of you are familiar with the mountain near Asheville, NC called Mount Pisgah.  You can understand why it was named Mount Pisgah. It is a 360 degree view. On a clear day you can see 100 miles over some of the most beautiful land in America.

On a good day, this church is our Mount Pisgah. When we worship together we are casting our eyes over a dream of a world that is just and peaceful, a world in which wars are no more and hatred is vanquished, a world in which there is enough for everyone, and a world in which compassion prevails. It is dream articulated so eloquently by Martin Luther King in August of 1963: a dream “when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing…Free at last….” Our generation now carries this dream, and we will pass it on to the next.

That dream sustains us; it inspires us; it compels us. And like Moses, there will come a day when we will say to those we love, “This is a dream that I now leave for you, but be assured that you are not alone.” May it be said of this generation that we were faithful to the dream, faithful to the hope, and faithful to the reality of living that dream in the community of faith that we know as the First Baptist Church in America.

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October 19, 2014 TAKE YOUR MAT

Take your mat
John 5: 2-18
A sermon by Linda Bausserman

Hear the sermon.

Our scripture today is like a one act play with two scenes. The first scene takes place near the edge of the city by a pool of water. The second takes place in the temple and the two are tied together by a man who is healed by Jesus. Apparently this pool on the outskirts of the city was fed by a spring. When the spring released water, the surface of the pool would ripple. People believed that the first person into the pool when the waters were disturbed, would be healed. So, as you can imagine, the pool was surrounded by the sick, the maimed, the desperate. Among those people, was a man who had been there for 38 years, waiting for his turn to be healed. We don’t know what his infirmity was; but it hindered quick movement to the pool. And apparently he had no friends or family to help him. It must have been an every-man-for-himself kind of place. Into this mass of suffering humanity waded Jesus. He went straight to this man – surely the most pitiable of all those gathered there. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Well duh! What an astounding question! “I can’t get to the pool fast enough,” the man replies. Jesus says, “Pick up your mat and walk.” and he does.
Now I have a little different take on this from what I have heard in sermons and read in commentaries. I have seen implications that the man was accustomed to his life of ease on his pallet and thus there was some doubt that he really wanted to be healed. Not an unreasonable question and one can certainly make a powerful sermon based whether we really desire healing which would also involve a change in lifestyle. The man in our story would have to go out and find a job to support himself. It had been 38 years – what skills might he still have? He would have to start completely from scratch. Certainly a daunting prospect as anyone knows who had been out of work for a while. But look at the light this interpretation puts on Jesus. I don’t think Jesus was taunting this guy for his laziness nor accusing him of not trying hard enough or of being a welfare cheat. I can’t imagine what this man’s frame of mind might have been after all these years of frustration, disappointment and pain. I think Jesus posed the question to give the man a minute to recover from his surprise and start the transition from despair to hope. I also don’t think the man’s answer was evasive. We expect him, of course, to say yes, enthusiastically and joyfully. But as we read later in the story, he didn’t even know who Jesus was so wasn’t aware of the possibilities. The idea that someone might heal him on the spot was probably incomprehensible, just as it would be today. I think that he was simply telling Jesus what he needed – someone to help him get down into the water in the pool. Can you imagine how surprised and flustered he must have been that someone paid attention to him and might be willing to help him after all this time? Then Jesus simply tells him to get up and carry his mat. And, he does. Don’t you wonder why Jesus tells him to take his mat? It isn’t the first time Jesus has done that. He also told a paralytic that he healed to carry his mat. I don’t know how long this man had been lying on that particular mat; but, I can’t imagine that he would want to take it with him. And, why should Jesus care about what he did with it? It sounds a bit like Jesus’ admonition: “take up your cross and follow me.” (“Pick up your mat and walk”) The man is not only healed, he is charged with something to do. Perhaps the mat will serve as a reminder of where he came from and what Jesus has done for him. Though he is healed, his illness is a burden that he must bear – certainly 38 years of suffering will leave a mark on a person. We all have our mats to carry as we face what life brings us.
This story also raises a difficult question – why was this particular man healed? Most of the stories of healing involve people who come to Jesus or are brought to him to be healed. I believe that this is the only time that Jesus approached someone and asked if they wanted to be healed. It appears that Jesus didn’t heal unless someone wanted it. However, it also seems that any time someone in the Bible asked for healing Jesus provided it. So we are left wondering why we aren’t always healed when we ask for it. It wouldn’t surprise me if everyone here has had the experience that their prayers for healing of a friend or family member weren’t answered the way they wanted. It is clear in this story that Jesus didn’t heal everyone. He might have waved his arm in a mighty gesture and healed everyone by the pool. But he didn’t. Don’t we wish God would wave a mighty arm over West Africa and heal all those afflicted with Ebola. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Jesus chose this one man. It’s tempting to speculate that he chose this man because his was the worst case. He had after all suffered there for long time. But perhaps the time spent there spoke to his capacity for hope. Perhaps during his time there, he had come to deep spiritual truths as people often do in times of great suffering. We can assume that he was religious because the first place he went after being healed was the temple. Still, he had done nothing obvious to make him Jesus’ choice. He didn’t ask to be healed or profess any belief in Jesus himself. He hadn’t done any great deed that might make him worthy of reward. There was nothing special about him to make him stand out as deserving to be healed. Perhaps Jesus chose him simply because he was the person most needing healing. Why some people are healed and others not, only God knows; but I find comfort knowing that Jesus comes to us in our worst moments, unbidden, to offer hope if not healing. And isn’t that what we really need, hope to carry on, comfort that we are not alone, knowledge that God is with us in our suffering?
There are, of course, examples in the Bible where God didn’t answer the petitioners the way they wanted. One is Paul who prayed to have what he called ‘a thorn in his side’ removed. We don’t know what that thorn was – it has been speculated that it was malaria because Paul came from Tarsus, a mosquito breeding-ground. God’s answer to Paul was not healing but “My grace is sufficient for you” which I take to mean that though God wouldn’t remove the thorn, he would provide Paul the support to get through it or bear it. And apparently he did because Paul learned to live with his thorn. He remained faithful to God and lived into his sixties and died not from this thorn but by martyrdom. I don’t know why Paul wasn’t healed. It seems he had already had plenty of suffering in his life of beatings and imprisonments. But since he wasn’t healed, I’m grateful that he wrote about it. If a person like Paul wasn’t always given what he asked for, why should I be disappointed when my petitions aren’t answered the way I wish. It doesn’t mean that I should give up praying, prayer keeps up the connection with God and gives us hope. Hope that God will be with us, as he was with Paul, no matter what. So our challenge is to remain faithful, like Paul – no matter what.
Another example was Jesus himself in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him. God didn’t remove the cup but Jesus also remained faithful. Despite feeling forsaken by God on the cross, he said “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” And the outcome was resurrection and joy. When our prayers for healing aren’t answered the way we want, it’s small comfort in the midst of the suffering to know that we are in good company. But at least we should not assume that we aren’t good enough, or aren’t praying enough or don’t have enough faith if we don’t get the answers we want. What we can be sure of is that God is there with us in our most difficult moments, supporting us, loving us and giving us hope.
Now the healing is not the end of this story. There is a second scene in this play. The man went to the temple, carrying his mat and immediately got into trouble. It was against the law to carry a mat on the Sabbath. No one was interested in the astounding fact that he had been sick for 38 years and was now well. They were more concerned that he had broken a law. For them, you shall not carry anything on the Sabbath had become a more important law than love your neighbor! They also confronted Jesus, who had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. There were at least three other healings that took place in the temple on the Sabbath and each time Jesus tried to get the Pharisees to understand that people are more important than the law. The law was meant to help people in their relationship to God, not do them harm. Unfortunately, they never did get it.
Our Thursday evening group has been reading a book by Thomas Cahill, the same author that Tom has mentioned in a couple of his sermons. Cahill suggests that Jesus is preaching to two groups of people, the powerless and the powerful. Take, for example, the beatitudes. Some are directed toward people who have no control over their situation and others toward those who are in their position by choice. Cahill places the mourners, the meek, the pure and the persecuted among the powerless who have had their situation thrust upon them. Saying that the powerless are blessed reminded them that God loves them and will see to their ultimate triumph. In contrast, the poor in spirit, the champions of justice for the downtrodden, the merciful and the peacemakers have chosen to be the way they are. And the powerful are goaded by these examples of people who are blessed because they have abandoned their comfort for the sake of others. To use a quote you have probably heard before, the purpose of Jesus message is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our story today seems to fit into that pattern. In scene 1 Jesus blessed a powerless man. He chose to heal a suffering man on the Sabbath even though it was against the law. He surely knew that he would get into trouble for it. But it provided him yet another opportunity, in scene 2, to show the people in power what their priorities should be.
Jesus always puts people first. Yet he never forces anyone to accept him. He never interferes with our free will. Similarly, we are offered opportunities to serve; but, again, how we respond is our choice. In our lives there will be times of suffering. But there will also be times when we can be of service to our neighbor. When we are suffering, we are called to trust. When life is good, we are challenged to help others. Whatever our situation, however, we are assured that God support and guide us. God will always be there with us, loving us.

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October 12, 2014 POWER, SEX, AND A SELF-MADE GOD

POWER, SEX, AND A SELF-MADE GOD
Exodus 32: 1-14 and Matthew 23: 23-28
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 12, 2014

Hear the sermon.

If you think of an ancient story like the worship of the golden calf to be hopelessly out of date and having no connection with the 21st century, I invite you to think with me this morning about how closely and clearly such a story speaks to our day.
The story has Moses standing next to God on Mt. Sinai, and you half expect Moses to be pulling his hair out in frustration! Instead, God observes that crowd dancing around a golden calf and calls them a stiff-necked people and growls to Moses, Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them, as if God was not capable of being furious with them when Moses was present!
I
We do not know what convinced Aaron to turn against his brother Moses. Perhaps it was a case of sibling rivalry, as novelist Frederick Buechner speculates. What we do know is that it had to do with power and control. There was no question that the God of Sinai was powerful, but not controllable, and people yearn to have a god that they can control.
Isn’t it interesting that as long as this God was saving them from the Egyptians or providing manna, they were fine with that! But no sooner did God make some ethical demands on them in the form of the Ten Commandments, and they were ready to fall down before a golden calf. The word really indicates a bull. There was nothing unusual about that. Every culture in the ancient world was connected to bull worship of some kind. A snorting bull was a pervasive symbol of power and virility in the ancient world.
It still is: consider the statue of the Wall Street bull in Manhattan. What a symbol! It is eleven feet tall, with nostrils flaring, and its wickedly long, sharp horns are ready to gore. Its tail is curved like a lash. This contemporary bull shows an aggressive, even belligerent force on the move, and also symbolizes unpredictability. Not a bad symbol for the stock market!
The bull in the biblical story, like any bull market today, is made of the gold and jewelry of the people. Aaron had the bull fashioned into a deity. For them, the bull represented a powerful, sexually active, and promiscuous god who would not burden them with any ethical guidelines and no call for a covenant commitment to live together in peace and justice. This god cared nothing for the poor, the stranger, or the sick. This god was mute in the face of any behavior they chose.
And choose they did! The enigmatic biblical phrase, rose up to revel, has definite sexual connotations. So with no ethical guidelines, no restrictions on behavior, these people reveled before the golden bull, celebrating not just freedom, but license to do whatever in the world they wanted to do!
II
So what contemporary meaning can we take away from this primitive story? Why does the picture of the golden bull linger in our collective consciousness? What is it about this story that can speak to a tech-friendly 21st century crowd?
Let us start with this: the problem was not irreligion. There was plenty of religion dancing around that golden bull. So when you hear someone say that all religion is basically the same, you know better. The worship of the golden bull is not the same as the worship of the God of Sinai!
To use the imagery of this story, how do we know when religion is worshipping a golden bull, and when religion is worshipping the God of Sinai? How do we distinguish between the two? What is good religion and what is bad religion? This is a question raised repeatedly by thoughtful people.
Some critics of religion seem to see only bad religion, and no one of us would even attempt to deny the critics who claim that religion can be bad. Clearly, bad religion has led to bloody wars, cruel persecutions, human sacrifice, and hypocrisy, and it can be narrow-minded, selfish, and intolerant. Sheer cruelty and brutal murder practiced by bullies claiming to represent Islam can make our stomach turn and be an embarrassment to faithful Muslims around the world. No one denies that there is bad religion.
After all, bad religion was what Jesus confronted! I doubt that he ever encountered an atheist! Irreligion was not a problem he confronted. If you read the gospel stories closely, you will see that Jesus was constantly trying to bring people back to good religion. Listen to him address bad religion: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith!
III
So let us think together about good religion. Out of the mysterious smoke and thunder of Sinai came Moses with Ten Commandments chiseled on stone. From those Ten Commandments came a prophetic tradition that is clearly articulated in the prophets: What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts…. cease to do evil. Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow–so said Isaiah.
And then there was Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
Good religion passionately cares about justice, kindness, and humility. Good religion cares about the poor and needy, the overlooked and the oppressed. This is the prophetic tradition, and it is clearly the tradition for which Jesus lived and died. Bad religion stood at the foot of the cross and mocked him, saying: He saved others; he cannot save himself. Bad religion walked into Jerusalem past those three crosses on Golgotha and ducked its head, ignoring the injustice on the hill above them, the same way we duck our heads and ignore the injustice in our world. Good religion stays focused on justice, kindness, and humility. And so it has been for 2,000 years.
For the last two centuries it has been assumed by western culture that as society becomes more scientific and technological, people will become more secular and less religious. On the surface, the decline in church attendance might lead us to believe that assumption. Church attendance may be in decline, but some studies show that religion has actually increased!
IV
So we have no lack of religion. The problem is lack of good religion! Just as the story we read today about the golden bull represents a picture of bad religion, I want to leave you with a picture of good religion. Here is a word picture that has quickly traveled the internet and has thus become well-known throughout the world and is read and re-read at the beginning of each school year. I am talking about the letter written by Nelba Marquez-Greene to school teachers everywhere. Here is a condensed version of it:
I lost my 6-year-old daughter Ana Grace on Dec. 14, 2012, in the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My son, who was in the building and heard the shooting, survived.
While waiting in the firehouse that day to hear the official news that our daughter was dead, my husband and I made promises to ourselves, to each other, and to our son. We promised to face the future with courage, faith, and love. As teachers and school employees begin this new year, my wish for you is that same courage, faith, and love….
Parents are sending their precious children to you this fall. Some will come fully prepared, and others not. They will come fed and with empty bellies. They will come from intact homes and fractured ones. Love them all.
………………..

A few weeks before the shooting, Ana Grace and I shared a special morning. Lunches were packed and clothes were picked out the night before, so we had extra time to snuggle. And while I lay in bed with my beautiful caramel princess, she sensed that I was distracted and asked, “What’s the matter, Mom?” I remember saying to her, “Nothing, baby. It’s just work.” She looked at me for a very long time with a thoughtful stare, then she told me, “Don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry, Mom.”
As you begin this school year, remember Ana Grace. Walk with courage, with faith, and with love. And don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry.”
V
She was writing that letter to teachers everywhere, but she could have been writing it to any of us. This is good religion. And it happens not just among the teachers and school workers to whom she was writing, but also in homes and offices and labs and hospitals and on farms and in the air. And thank God, it also happens in churches!
We all worry about the events in the news over which we have very little influence and no control. It can be frustrating and frightening. But there are some things over which we do have influence and even some control. We can practice good religion every single day. There are people to help, children and youth to respect and love and guide, patients to treat, clients to deal with honestly, colleagues to honor, friends to care for, and family members to love. There are grateful notes to write, kind words to type, compliments to tweet, and hugs to give. These are all daily actions of good religion.
Good religion is confidence that life has meaning because whatever we may face, life has a divine origin and a divine destiny. Whatever we may face, we have the divine promise from Christ himself, I am with you always. And if little Ana Grace were living and speaking with us today, she might remind us that in the midst of all our busy lives, “Don’t let them suck your fun circuits dry.”

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October 5, 2014 The Top Ten Words

THE TOP TEN WORDS
Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens
October 5, 2014

Hear the sermon.

Who would have thought that a primitive document that is 3,000 years old, born in a culture that was in the backwaters of the Mediterranean world, a culture that the educated, influential, literate world hardly noticed, would end up being a football kicked around in the culture battles of the most advanced technological society on the face of the earth!
I
Yet a battle over the posting of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or in public school classrooms has raged or simmered off and on for at least a decade. One Kentucky lawyer, trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Ten Commandments were mainly secular, argued that references to God in the Ten Commandments were minimal. This prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask if he had actually read the first four, the first of which begins, I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the display of public monuments of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, the nine justices produced at least ten opinions. Sounds like a Baptist church!
On the extreme right wing of the debate are organizations such as The Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, whose purpose includes doing away with the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and replacing it with the Ten Commandments. And while they are at it, they promote the death penalty for all murder, adultery, and homosexuality, a position that does seem to contradict the sixth commandment, but let’s not be picky!
Thomas Cahill, who has written a wonderful book entitled The Gifts of the Jews, makes the remarkable comment that there is no document in all of the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. He goes on to explain that other cultures do offer similar ethical guidelines, but here is the difference: they are always offered in a legal framework (i.e. if you do such and such, then this will be the consequence). That is not the case with the Ten Commandments.
Neither are they what we might call a Martha Stewart list of ten ways to make life happier and healthier. You know, the Ten Commandments are not a case of God looking at humanity and saying something like, I do wish you would get your act together! Why aren’t you eating silky braised chicken with pearl onions and mushrooms for lunch? Where is your collection of hand-painted Venetian glass? And while you’re at it, where did you pick up those extra pounds?
II
So let us pause for a few minutes to consider what is so special about these Ten Commandments. What has made them remain alive and well through all the centuries?
Here in this document, for the first time in history, human beings were offered a code without justification and without elaboration. In fact, biblical scholars think that they were originally just ten Hebrew words that could easily be memorized by illiterate people in the desert. Ten Words that still speak in the 21st century!
They are not propositions for debate; they are not suggestions for happier living; they are not even challenges. They are just what they seem to be, and they have been received by three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, Islam also considers them as Holy Scripture! And they have been accepted by billions more non-religious folk as reasonable and necessary and even unalterable because they come, as Cahill poetically phrased it, from the deep silence that each of us carries within.
But what do they mean? How can they bend and flex for every age and every culture? Take the prohibition on killing, for example. Those who howl the loudest about public displays of the Ten Commandments are frequently the very ones who call the loudest for capital punishment or for carpet bombing of an enemy. So how do we bend and shape the commandment about not killing to justify what obviously is killing? Commandment #6 is a challenge!
These and other obvious questions are not easily answered. Yet…we know deep down that there is something fundamentally right about the commandment! We just don’t know how to apply it! And what about the slow, unnoticed destruction of human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves? If poverty kills, as we know it does, then are we breaking the 6th commandment when we fail to support jobs programs? Are drug companies guilty of breaking the 6th commandment when they choose not to produce a life-saving drug because it will not turn a profit?
There is more than one way to kill, as we all recognize. If the divine principle behind this commandment is that all human life is precious, then we live out this commandment by supporting laws and public policy that enhance and protect the most human life and support the highest quality of life for the most people. This is always a very complex issue that is not easily reduced to a bumper sticker.
III
Now let’s slow down and take a deep breath! We are wading into some deep water here! But one thing is not so deep: through all the centuries since Jesus, the Ten Commandments have been most often used to instruct new Christians at the time of their baptism. In fact, some of the oldest baptismal liturgies ever found have the believer being baptized at sunrise, coming up out of the water of baptism and facing East, the direction of the rising sun, and reciting none other than the Ten Commandments! Think of that! At the dawn of a new day in the life of a believer, the first words spoken are the words of the Decalogue! Why? Because like the children of Israel coming through the waters of the Red Sea and receiving the commandments, the new Christian comes through the waters of baptism and pledges allegiance to a vision of reality that is rooted in God’s radical policy and deeply at odds with our dominant culture.
When a new Christian is baptized, she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve this act of God’s grace. She is raised to new life because of something God has done, not something she has done! And when we take communion, we are being gifted with new life, not because of anything we have done, but because of something Christ has done!
This is precisely what struck John Newton, the slave ship captain who was converted and wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He was only too aware of what he had done, and there was nothing he could do to undo the misery he had caused as the captain of a slave ship. The pain and death caused by the infamous Middle Passage had been part of the economic system, you could say, but he knew he had cooperated in an evil system. No amount of saying he was sorry or just doing his job could atone for it.
Then he experienced the “amazing grace” of God. We might cringe at the 18th century language that describes himself as a “wretch,” but how would you feel if you had been the captain of a slave ship? “Wretch” might be too tame a word! And yet few of us would fail to identify with his classic line: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
The church has always agreed with our Jewish friends that the Ten Commandments are sheer grace, a gift from God to a world in desperate need of those Ten Words. Those ten words, along with the presence of Christ, can lead us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and they can lead us home.
IV
And what is home? Ah, you know what home is! Home is any place that lives out the grace of God and accepts you just the way you are. Home is the place where you can make mistakes and still be loved. Home is the place where you can break every commandment in the book and still be forgiven. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost famously said, “they have to take you in.”
I want to remind you that this church is just such a place. To paraphrase a familiar line, “we reserve the right to be a spiritual home to anyone looking for a home.” Whatever dangers, toils, and snares may lie before you, you know that here is a place where you can face them with a church family that will support you, pray for you, and love you.
This week I received an email from an good friend named Mitch Carnell, who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC. That church, like this one, has a long history. It was the first Baptist church established in the south. Here is what Mitch wrote to me and to several others: “October 6, 2014, is my 50th anniversary as a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston…Although these fifty years have not been without heartbreak and pain, my family and I found a home. This is a loving, supportive church family. I have nothing but gratitude for the people at First Baptist and thanksgiving for the spiritual nourishment I have found here.”
Many of you can say the same about this church. Families gather; they laugh and cry together; they tell stories; and they eat. Oh, how families eat! So let’s be family, wherever you are from today. It is dinner time…time to eat…time to be thankful…time to remember.

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September 28, 2014 FRESH VISION AND THE WATER OF LIFE

FRESH VISION AND THE WATER OF LIFE!
Exodus 17: 1-7 and John 4: 7-15
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 28, 2014

Hear the sermon.

What a bummer! A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last month asked the question, “Will life for our children’s generation be better than it has been for us?” And the result was that fully 76% said that they do not have such confidence. And it was the same with the wealthy and the poor, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, old and young, east and west, north and south.

This is not just about who is in the White House. The numbers were similar when there was a Republican President. There is a loss of confidence that is exacerbated by rising threat levels from terror organizations. There’s an old saying that confidence is silent; insecurity is loud.

I

In the story we read from the book of Exodus today, Moses is finding the people to be louder and louder! “Are we there yet? How much farther do we have to go? My feet hurt. Are we there yet? I think I’m going to throw up! I’m tired; I’m bored; Are we there yet? I’m sick of manna; I’m frustrated; I need a break. Why can’t we rest? Are we there yet? Do we have to wait in line for manna? Aren’t we there yet? Where is God? Where is this Yahwey?”

These are the same people who had observed the plagues in Egypt…the same people who had been liberated from slavery…the same people who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea…the same people who had been grateful for manna to eat…these are the same people who now experience a widespread loss of confidence! It was hot; they were thirsty; the cattle were dying; the children were crying; tempers were flaring.

The scene is at Rephidim in the wilderness. No one knows exactly where that was. We just know that it was a place they did not want to be. It was a place where their insecurities made them loud in their complaints. Heat and thirst have a way of cutting through the red tape of politeness. Where is God now? There is no substitute for water, the basic element of life that would sustain them. So the deepest question of faith (“Where is God?”) is tied to the deepest material reality of life (“Where is water?”).

That is to say, the water question was turned into the God question! As a result, they dare to ask the question, “Is God with us or not?” In their quarrelsome, testy relationship with Moses, they asked a variation of the question articulated by Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”: “Don’t talk of love, show me!” “Don’t talk of water, show me!” Don’t give me pious platitudes, show me! You brought us out here, now show us the water!

We are all sympathetic with Moses in this story. After all, it wasn’t his fault that they were thirsty; he was just as thirsty as they were! He was only following what he believed to be the leadership of God. If we had been in his shoes, we would have been tempted to say, “Hey, I didn’t want this job in the first place! Don’t give me any grief after all I have done for you!”

But instead of saying something like that, Moses follows a different plan. Strike the rock, says the Almighty. Strike it! Strike it hard! Just do it! And water will come out of it, so that the people may drink. Like blood from a turnip; like a purse from the ear of a sow; like joy from sorrow; like hope from despair; like Easter out of Good Friday! We can’t explain it; we just know it happens; and this story about water gushing from a rock in the desert is our story, our experience, our faith, our hope.

It prompts us to ask the contemporary questions: is there cool water rushing from the rock of nations exhausted from constant conflict? Is there life-giving water for the person wandering in the wilderness of depression, or the wilderness of addiction, or the wilderness of doubt? Is there refreshing water for the person facing the heat of cancer radiation, the fear of illness, the agony of post-traumatic stress disorder? Is there relief for those who feel dried up inside, thinking they are worthless, living a personal hell, and wondering whether they will ever be good enough?

II

Years later, Jesus would meet just such a person. She is nameless in our gospel reading for today. We know her as the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus begins by asking her for a drink of water, but then quickly reverses the conversation by saying, “I have asked you for water, but you should really be asking me for water, for I have the water of life.” And this woman, anxious, parched, and brittle, says, Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty….
This exchange is a dramatic way to make the claim that in this story, Jesus is doing what only God can do: give water in a barren life, turn an inner wilderness into a productive life, and give hope where there was no hope. To some, she was just another nobody, relegated to second or third class status, ignored by others, despised because of her race, ostracized because of her life-style, avoided because of her gender, feared because of her ethnicity, shunned as unorthodox because of her religion, nothing but “a dog,” as most of the Jews called Samaritans.

It is hot; she is thirsty; she takes her bucket to the only source of water she knows, trudging under the heat of the noonday sun, and she encounters this stranger sitting on the side of the well. She tucks her head and ignores him. Of course she does! It is social convention. It is an unspoken rule. They would act as if neither of them were present. She draws her water…, and HE breaks the silence!

And when he does that, he crosses that most formidable barrier in human history, that barrier that separates people from one another by prejudice, by social convention, by hatred, by fear. He breaks that barrier, cutting through all the pretensions and the red tape, crossing over the social expectations and cultural norms built up over the centuries. He speaks to her!

And in doing so he becomes the Jewish man speaking kindly to a Palestinian woman, the Sunni man speaking with a Shiite woman, the Christian fundamentalist speaking with a trans-gendered woman; the Republican speaking kindly to a Democrat, an oil magnate speaking kindly to an environmentalist, the farmer speaking kindly to the urban sophisticate, the majority speaking kindly to the minority. Doesn’t Jesus have any respect for our long-established boundaries? Doesn’t Jesus know about our culture wars?!

When the disciples returned from an errand, the text says that they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Of course they were! They were still caught up in the old right and wrong, them and us, good and evil dichotomies. They had been taught about the “evil empire,” and as far as they were concerned, Samaria was the capital of the evil empire.

But have you noticed? The conversation Jesus has with this thirsty, needy Samaritan woman is longer than any conversation recorded in the New Testament! He looks right into her eyes and gives her the respect that no one had given her for no telling how long. He doesn’t care about social taboos. He doesn’t care about what people think. All he cares about is giving living water to a thus far barren life.

This is extraordinary good news! Into the desert of a failed, defeated, dejected, defamed, demoralized, depressed life comes the cool, clear, life-giving, thirst-quenching, hope-instilling water of life! From the hard rock of a failed, floundering, faltering, forsaken, fallen life comes the pure, cool water that quenches the deepest needs of life! This is good news for any culture living in fear, anxious over the future, and thirsting for God.

III

Could it be today that you are thirsty for such water? Do you find yourself complaining, tired, fatigued from trying to create your own spiritual water supply by pursuing larger portfolios or the latest fashions or longer vacations or loftier titles or the latest I-phone? Have you noticed that such attempt s can leave us still thirsty? Have you noticed that the accumulation of things can leave us full of trinkets but empty of meaning? These scripture stories today invite us to ponder these questions.

They also invite us to stand back while God breaks all the taboos of history and social convention and even logic to supply us with a deluge of refreshment. Stand back and stand by, for we are thirsty people! The staff is raised over the rock; Jesus is waiting for us by the well; and God is longing for us to say, Give me this water, that I may never thirst again!

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September 21, 2014 ENTITLEMENT VERSUS GRACE

ENTITLEMENT VERSUS GRACE
Matthew 20: 1-6
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
September 21, 2014

Hear the sermon.

The month of September marks the anniversaries of two separate deaths that took place within days of each other. The first is the tragic death of Princess Diana at the age of thirty-six; the other is the death by heart attack of Mother Theresa, who died just one day before Diana’s state funeral. I mention these two anniversaries partly because they represent such contrasts.

While much of the world was riveted to their TV’s for Diana’s funeral, Mother Theresa’s funeral was a quiet affair in the Catholic tradition, where prayers for God’s mercy were said, and there was nothing in the funeral that recognized any special claim she might have had for divine favor. The liturgy itself reminded the participants that everyone alike is in need of God’s grace.

I

I think of these two funerals when I consider the contrast between entitlement and grace. Princess Diana was born into an aristocratic English family in 1961, and received the title Lady Diana Spencer when her father inherited the title Earl Spencer in 1975, when Diana was only 14 years old. A global audience of 750 million people watched her wedding that took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral in July, 1981. Once married to Prince Charles, she received more titles: Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Duchess of Rothesay, Countess of Chester, and Baroness of Renfrew. It’s a good thing she didn’t have to put all of that on a business card!

Mother Theresa, by contrast, was born of Albanian parents in 1910. Her given name was Agnes. Her father was a construction worker who died when she was 10 years old. She was raised by her devout mother, who instilled in her daughter a deep compassion for the poor. “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others,” her mother once told her. Her mother would invite the poor into their home to eat. Agnes once asked her mother, “Who are all these people?” And her mother responded, “Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.” Mother Theresa never grew to be more than five feet tall, and she had no titles.

Mother Theresa would have loved this story Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard. Reading between the lines, I suspect the writer of the gospel of Matthew slipped this story in because the church he was leading was composed of two types of people. First, there were the entitled: those who had a strong Jewish background and had become Christians in the synagogue after hearing the story of Jesus. They had been blessed with all the gifts of the Jewish faith. They knew the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. The men had been circumcised, and both women and men had benefited from the idea that they were part of God’s chosen people. They felt privileged; they felt entitled; they were like royalty in the church!

And then there were those who would have identified more with Mother Theresa. They were people who had grown up out of the orbit of the Jewish faith. They did not know the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. They had never been through the rituals of circumcision or experienced a bar or bat mitzvah. They had no conception of being God’s special people.

We can hardly imagine how those two groups melded into one! That is to say, how do we create a church out of Princess Diana aristocrats and Mother Theresa destitute and outcasts? It is in that context that I think this parable was used. The late-comers to the congregation, the Gentiles, were fully members of the church and deserved the same recognition as the Jewish members of the church.

Those who had been working from the very beginning to establish the church in a hostile environment; those who gave generously all those years to keep the church afloat; those who sacrificed their time and efforts, taught the scriptures, led the worship, served on committees, visited the sick, supported the poor, washed the dishes, cleaned the floors, served communion, took out the garbage, passed the plates, paid the bills, sang in the choir, filled out the annual report forms, served coffee after the service, and locked the doors when everyone had left…these people thought they deserved more than those upstart Gentiles who just came into the church!

That, I think, is the way this story was used in the early church. And, I suppose, it has its relevance for today, but instead of wringing this text tighter to get a few more drops of meaning out of it, I propose that we step back and look at this story alongside the old familiar story of Jonah.

II

There really is a parallel! The story of Jonah is a kind of parable that speaks about entitlement and grace. Jonah thought he was special! After all, he was called to be a prophet! He was educated, ordained, credentialed, certified, and validated by his denomination. He had a sheaf of letters of reference, a 4.0 GPA, and he came from a long line of famous preachers. Jonah was happy to receive grace from God. In fact, he expected nothing less from God! He thought he was entitled. In fact, Jonah had decided that he would be the ideal pastor of that fine, well-to-do, high-salaried church in Tarshish! But God apparently had other plans for Jonah. God called Jonah to a church in the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood of the city of Nineveh, a city renowned for its crime and corruption.

That call of God was a stinging blow to someone like Jonah, who thought he was entitled. So instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah decided he would just take a trip to Tarshish and show up at that well-to-do church. That is when Jonah found himself in big trouble. On the ship sailing to Tarshish, a storm blew up, and the ship was in danger of sinking. So here we find the famous account of Jonah being swallowed up by a great sea monster…(incidentally, the word “whale” is not found in the story of Jonah! It is clearly a parable, never meant to be literal.) Haven’t you ever felt like Jonah? Haven’t you ever felt swallowed up by developments beyond your control?

But as I was saying, when Jonah found himself sinking and sliding down the gullet of a great sea monster, he started yelling: I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.,…The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head…yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord…! I bet he did!
Truth is, Jonah didn’t deserve such deliverance. He had been a jerk, and he proceeded to continue being a jerk. He went to the city of Nineveh and announced with glee its impending destruction. Then he waited outside the city limits to watch the show. But the destruction of Nineveh did not take place because the city repented, from the king down to the poorest citizen, they all repented. And they received divine mercy. There is nothing that can make some religious people madder than the mercy of God! God seems to like people that some religious folk can’t seem to stand!

III

So we have before us two stories that end in the same way. Jonah is peeved over God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh, and the full-time workers are peeved over the equal treatment of the part-time workers. And the truth is that we are secretly sympathetic with their anger. Both stories assault our sense of fairness! We may never understand God’s logic, but we can understand some things.

Like this: whether you enter the life of faith sooner or later, whether you serve God from the first flush of youth into the strength of your midday and finally when the shadows of life are lengthening; or, if you enter the life of faith as your day is dying in the west, you are equally precious to God.
And to carry this one step further, there are those who are full of years, when their work is done and they have finished their course. They are surrounded by children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, honored for the heritage they leave. But then there are those young people who are taken from us long before their journey is ended, long before they have achieved their potential, long before we are ready even to consider the possibility of their death. And from this parable we get the assurance that both are equally welcomed by the divine. We learn something about the welcome of God.

But there is more: we learn something about the compassion of God. There is a tenderness to these stories. I don’t know a better word to use: tenderness. Jonah, the jerk, was like Fred Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist Church, loving the idea of the wrath of God. But God turned out to have compassion on Nineveh just the way God had compassion for Jonah in his plight. But this was an affront to Jonah’s sense of entitlement! How could God have compassion on the people of Nineveh—they didn’t deserve it the way he did!

And in the parable of Jesus, the owner of the vineyard keeps coming back to the town square to find more workers because he can’t stand to see people out of work. There is a compassion here for those out of work. We may not have an easy answer to the complex issue of joblessness, but we can advocate for those out of work. We can vote for humane policies that show compassion and not condemnation for those out of work.

And there is one more thing: these stories picture an extraordinarily generous God. It is pure grace that saved Jonah, and it is pure grace that pays the workers a full day’s wage. Nothing but grace! The bottom line is that the life God gives us is not just payment for good work, but a gift we do not even deserve…nothing but grace!

IV

In every other vineyard in this world, what really counts are political connections and status and degrees and titles and seniority. We strive to be President, Chairperson, Dean, doctor, tenured professor, the Reverend Doctor, whatever! But all of those titles are irrelevant in this life of faith.

When you enter the world of faith in Christ, you enter a community of brothers and sisters, founded to help heal the wounds of the world. Let none of us begrudge the width of God’s embrace. We cannot earn the favor of God. As the old gospel song says, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell.” There is no pecking order, no ranking according to our church attendance, no social or economic status, no title or birthright to give any one of us special privilege. The call of Christ is to all who labor and are heavy-laden.
And to all who received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God.

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