Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven - Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Psalm 86.11-17   Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Who are we?

Well … take a look around … sure, go ahead … look at one another … chuckle, if you want … or cry, if you must … or simply scratch your head in bewilderment … maybe all three …

This is who we are … 

A little of this and a little of that … and each of us with a tale to tell … a timeline of faith, hope and love … sorrow and tears, as well … a beginning and an end, and a muddle in the middle.

Who are we?

We’re beautiful … and sometimes not.
We’re faithful to the LORD … and sometimes not.
We’re open-hearted and open-minded, gracious and wise … and sometimes not.
We love one another, and there isn’t anything we wouldn’t do for one another … and sometimes not.
We’re on top of the world … at the head of the class … and sometimes not.

Who are we?

We are the people of God … but on this piece of the story, we can never ever say, “sometimes not” … 

For we are what we are by the decision of God, God’s will and God’s purpose, from before the foundation of time, to the end of the age and beyond … and God doesn’t change God’s mind when it comes to the world God loves, and the people who share God’s image.

Did not Paul the Apostle say:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 


Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?


No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We may not always behave accordingly, we may even try to forget it, deny it, run away from it …

But however we respond, however we behave, we cannot, and never will, change the identity given to us by God: We are God’s People, and to God we belong.

So … here we are …

In this place, to say our prayers and sing our hymns … to learn of God, to think deeply about love and mercy … to confess our sins and hear anew the words of forgiveness … to ponder our world … honor one another … and find ways to serve Christ.

Some of us have been here a long time, at least in human years … and some of us are of a more recent vintage … but here we are … the People of God, young and old, man and woman, child and adult, gay and straight, of many colors and many stories … called, claimed, cleansed, commissioned, challenged and cherished …

To be the salt of the earth and the light of the world … 

To be people of good cheer … 
Mindful of the needy …
To care for the earth … 
Look after one another …

As for me, I think a nation as large as we are, as rich as we are, blessed by God as we are … we owe something to one another … 

We owe respect and love and kindness and dignity to one another … no matter who or what people are or what they’ve become … we owe one another the basic things of life … food, water, shelter … health care, retirement security, good jobs, fair wages, decent schools, public transit, good housing, sound nutrition, civil rights and voting rights. 

This isn’t the stuff of politics - food, shelter, safety, respect, dignity, kindness, mercy!

This is the stuff of the Bible … 

The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes … the words of the prophets and the words of Jesus Christ … from creation to covenant, from covenant to the cross, from the cross to the new creation … from beginning to end, from the Alpha to the Omega … from Genesis to the Book of Revelation, it’s called love … love of neighbor and love of God … love for one another, and love for God’s creation … doing unto others what we would hope they might do for us … 

We’ve a story to tell to the nations.
A job a to do.
People to love.
Christ at the center.

In the midst of a sometimes crazy world … dangerous and deadly … lots of lies and half-truths … war and rumors of war …

So Jesus tells a parable … you will work hard, and so will the enemy … you may well tell the truth, but others will tell lies … you may give it your best shot, and others will betray you and betray the very cause for which you work. 

A farmer sows good seed, says Jesus … and along comes the enemy and fills the field with bad seed … and it all starts to grow together … 

Shall we uproot the bad stuff? they ask?
No, says the farmer, you can’t. Uproot the bad, and you’ll uproot the good, too.

There’s no sorting it our right now … 

Just stay with it, says Jesus … 

Keep sowing the good seed … put your hand to the plow and don’t look back … take up your cross and stay with me … and even now, says Jesus, I send you the Holy Spirit …

The Comforter, the Teacher, the Fire, the Fire that consumes the dross and purifies the heart … the Fire of Pentecost … a tongue of flame over the head of every disciple, the gift of language …

To speak intelligibly, to speak kindly to the world … to invite the world to know what it already is and has always been - a creation of God Almighty … good and glorious … 

The language of faith: to help every human being know and receive and live and enjoy what every human being already is and has always been - beloved of God … the creature of God’s own image, given life, and called by God into God’s service.

This morning’s parable is a parable of the kingdom of heaven … the kingdom of heaven is like this, and it’s like that, and then sometimes, it’s like that, or like this … 

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field … 

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed …
Or like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with the flour …
Or like a treasure hidden in a field …
Or a merchant searching for fine pearls …
Or like a net thrown into the sea to catch every kind of fish ..
Or like a king who who wished to settle accounts …
Or like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for the vineyard …
Or a king who gave a great banquet …
Or ten bridesmaids waiting for the groom and some had oil enough, and some were lacking …

And what do we learn?

The work isn’t easy … and it’s not all about us … it’s about the world, and everyone and everything in it … and maybe we’re not big enough right now for all of that … so we let God expand the boundaries of heart and mind … to take us from Egypt to the Promised Land … to see us through the Red Sea and across the wilderness of sin and sorrow … manna in the morning and water from a rock, a pillar of fire by night and a bright shining cloud by day … God provides, to see us through and on our way … 

The work is hard … 

And sometimes we get it wrong … sometimes we’re the bad seed … our foolishness, our selfishness … we don’t want to grow; we don’t want to learn … sometimes we’re the bad seed … 

Church history makes that clear:

There was a time when good Christian folk thought the world was flat and the sun revolved around the earth … which wouldn’t be so bad if that’s all they thought … but when scientists said the earth was round, and the earth revolved around the sun, good Christians said, “No you don’t. Recant or die.”

There was time when good Christian folk - at least the white kind, thought that slavery was a good idea, and would quote chapter and verse from “god’s word” to make their point … and that it was okay to kill Native Americans and take their land, because America was just like Israel in the Promised Land, and didn’t god command Israel to kill everyone there, and take their land?

Good Christians thought segregation and separate schools were good … along with poll taxes and other devices to suppress voting rights … 

Good Christians can be in it for themselves, sneaky and snide, nasty and nippy … 

Sometimes we’re the bad seed …

So, we keep on learning … learning how to be the good seed … how to be wise and caring and loving and kind … how to discipline ourselves, and say yes to the best … to live our faith … our integrity. … the grace of God … the salvation of Christ, the glory of redemption and peace.

We learn how to be the good seed.

Dear people, who are we?
The people of God, that’s who we are.

Where do we live?
The kingdom of heaven.

Now let’s get to it, dear friends.
Our purpose, our task, our calling, our commission, our glory and our joy:
Love this world as God loves it.
Speak truth to power.
Shed the lies of pomp and pride.
Be kind to the poor and the broken.
Change the social order.
Seek a government of the people, by the people, for the people, because such a government reflects the kingdom of heaven.
Say yes to the good, and no to evil.

Be of good cheer.
Be faithful to the church.
Show up and be here.
Accountable to one another.
Sing with gusto.
Read our Bible, especially the Beatitudes, again and again.
Trust God, trust God, trust God.

Unto the glory of God, and for the healing of the nations.

Amen and Amen!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

"I Will Praise God with an Upright Heart" - Feb. 12, 2017, Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 30.15-18; Psalm 119.1-8; Matthew 5.21-37

I will praise you with an upright heart, says the Psalmist.

I will turn to you, O God, with thanksgiving and devotion.

Praise is simply saying: 
To you, O LORD, I belong.
And how grateful I am.

Though sometimes we’re not so grateful to belong to the LORD.

Jeremiah regretted it.
Lots of others along the way, as well.

Because faith takes us into serious territory.

And we quickly learn: faith can be a burden.

This year, 2017, we celebrate the Birth of the Reformation.
Martin Luther nailed a few papers to the castle door in Wittenberg, Germany, to announce a disputation, a debate … and on those papers, 95 ideas, about faith, the church, and what it means to trust in the love of God.

Luther had no idea where it would all go.
But it didn’t take long for things to go bad.

And when it went bad, it was really bad.
The Pope condemned Luther for heresy.
The Emperor issued a death warrant.

The Pope and the Emperor called on Luther to recant.
Give it up.
Be quiet … go away.
We’ll be friends again.

Some of Luther’s friends gave him the same counsel.
Is it worth it Martin, to go through of all of this?
The brightest minds of the church say you’re wrong.
The emperor wants you dead; the Pope wants you back.
After a thousand years, Martin Luther, how can you now say that the Church has been wrong?
Are you not being a little arrogant about all of this?

Luther had times of great depression, Anfechtung in German - the very word sounds bad, doesn’t it? Anfectung!

Luther was no happy camper in the midst of so many struggles. 
Yes, he had joy, too - joy when he married, joy with his children, and good food and beer. 
He took comfort in the gospel, the pure love of God that can always be trusted … 

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing …

But no one is an Iron Man.
No one is impervious to fear and doubt.
Luther did not always know “the joy of the LORD” … 
His faith took him to serious places … his work required huge burdens … 

Luther knew that somehow or other he was right.
But he didn’t have to be happy and sappy and clappy all the time. 
He didn’t have to sing praise jingles and put on a smile.
He didn’t have to fake it.
Or pretend that everything was wonderful.

My soul is heavy, he said.
My life is burdened.

The burdens of confronting the powers-that-be.
The death of two children.
The death of friends.
And the constant threat of arrest and execution.

But Luther knew he had to do what he was doing.
He was the man of the hour.
Upon whom the mantle of leadership had fallen.

Dear Christian friends, there is joy in knowing the grace of God and the love of our LORD Jesus Christ.

But like it or not, there’s more than one note in the symphony of God’s story.

There is also the discomfort and sting of the cross.
Take up your cross, says Jesus.
Be ready for enemies … ready for hard times.
What they’ve done to me, they’re likely to do to you, too.

Families will be upset.
People of your own household with turn against one another.

It helps to know something of church history.
To be mindful of those for whom the way of Christ has been a hard and difficult road.
American Christianity is far too eager to be happy.
To put on a smily face and play the game, “let’s pretend.”
In churches across America, preachers have become cheerleaders and crowd managers … whipping up the joy noise … and people go home having praised the LORD, but I’ll say to you, they praised without an upright heart … 

Jesus never pretended such nonsense.
And neither did Paul the Apostle, or any of the other great women and men who took up the cross and followed Christ.

Think of the Presbyterian Missionaries who traveled the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee.
Missionaries in far away lands, and day-by-day servants of the LORD, doing good, bearing burdens, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting those in prison, defending the unjustly accused, standing up for civil rights and justice.

Martin Luther, the Reformer.
Martin Luther King, Jr. on Petus Bridge.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer conspiring to take Hitler’s life.

Our own John Calvin in Geneva.
And a host of others who tackled the big stuff.
And paid a big price.

So, let’s be clear.
To praise God with an upright heart is to be real.
Authentic, engaged.
Devoted, ready.

Ready to offer the whole of our lives.
A sweet offering unto God.

As best we can.
From day-to-day, and,
Over the years.

And then, sometimes, not so much.
And then, sometimes.
Maybe not at all.

But God remains faithful - that’s the gospel.
Always and forever faithful.
Faithful to us.
Faithful to the ultimate purpose of God’s love - to restore creation, give life, set the captives free, give sight to the blind, healing to the sick … 

God keeps going.
And, then, in some miraculous way, so do we.

God’s grace at work.
The Holy Spirit within us, around us.
Through the life of the church.
And the life of all who dare to think deeply.

In the novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” author Anthony Doerr tells the tale of a girl gone blind by age 6 … she lives with her father, a widower.
The father builds a miniature of the neighborhood, and she learns how to feel every little street and every little house with her finger tips, and then she walks with her father, with her cane, feeling the sidewalk, the buildings, the gutter drains, learning her neighborhood.
The father takes her out one day on their usual walk, and then, he turns her around several times and says, “Take us home, Marie-Laurie.”
With bumps and bruises, and busy folks bumping into her, she drops her cane and begins to cry.
Her father lifts her up and hugs her tightly.
“It’s so big,” she whispers.
“You can do this Marie.”

At first she can’t.
And then one day …

And for us, too … by the Holy Spirit:
We try, and try again.
People bump into us … we lose our way … 
It’s so big, we cry.
And it is.
And sometimes we can’t.
But in time, something good happens.

We grow in the grace of God.
We learn the power of prayer.
We give and receive love.
We engage and serve.
We weep and we laugh.
We lament and we try again.

Because it is so big.

Jesus speaks of big things:

Murder and judgment.
Adultery and love.
Oath making and truthfulness.

Serious stuff, is it not?

Many years ago, I showed a film to my session, produced by physicians against nuclear war … a stirring presentation of our need to work for peace and oppose war.

Afterward, one of the elders came to me and said, “Well, Tom, if there’s a nuclear war, and we all die, we just go to heaven. What’s wrong with that?”

I don’t know what I said then - I don’t think I managed that one very well.

So the question bounced around in my head for a long time until I came up with a story, of a man who dreamed of going to heaven.

And when the man stood by the pearly gates, St. Peter said to him: “You didn’t care about God’s earth; what makes you think you’ll care about God’s heaven.” And the man was turned away.

Nothing is more important to God then how we live with one another, and how we take care of God’s earth. 

It’s all so big, we cry!
And so it is.
But we can learn to do it.

Because we have to.

For the truth … our own survival, God’s green earth … 

To hear some Christians yak about it, you’d think God didn’t care about the snails and the minnows … but God cares deeply … all living creatures … when the Bible says, God so loved the world, that ain’t just you and me … it’s all of God’s creatures, great and small … the whole shebang, all of it … and that’s the truth … the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The truth that sets us free.
To have an upright heart.
Honest and real.
Serious about the things of God.
Serious about how we live with one another and how we care for God’s creation.

I will praise you with an upright heart.

Amen and Amen.