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.
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.