Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Don't do this! Don't eat this! Don't touch this!

I am currently in a class, The Christological Epistles. Actually, class time has yet to begin, but I've been doing required work for the class since early August.

One requirement for the class is that we read the three epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians) in one sitting eight times over the semester. Each reading (I've done half of them) has shed new light on different parts, even in Philippians which is easily my most-read book of the Bible. I've been reading different translations and paraphrases. My first four readings were NRSV, NRSV, KJV, NIV. I plan to do the last four in The Message, NASB, The Amplified Bible (although it might take me a lifetime), and finish again with the NRSV. But yesterday, for a change, I listened to them all for the NIV. If you didn't know, a few of the translations at BibleGateway.com are also available in audio format. I already knew that I am a visual learner. But when I tried to simply listen to the text, I just couldn't concentrate. So in addition to listening, I read along. The guy had an African accent and was a great reader. I enjoyed doing it and may listen to more recorded scripture as I can.

But that's not why I was posting. I came across something in Colossians that made me think upon my own tradition, specifically the tradition of my own denomination. I'm sure the question has been asked of this passage before, but I haven' t been a part of the discussion.

Read Colossians 2:20-23. It may also help to read it in the context of the whole chapter.

The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene (2001) states in paragraph 33.1, "We hold that the Ten Commandments, as reaffirmed in the New Testament, constitute the basic Christian ethic and ought to be obeyed in all particulars." This is the very second statement in the "Covenant of Christian Conduct." I won't even go into detail as to why I think "the Ten Commandments" should be replaced with "the Great Commandment" right now. My question right now is about the word "obey."

Obedience is obviously an essential part of being a child of God.

But "obey" seems to imply blind compliance with rules, orders, commandments with or without understanding as to why. I hear teaching all the time that says something to the effect of, "God knows what's best for you, just do it, even if you don't understand it." I agree with this to a certain degree. But I'm not sure that God directs without good intent. I don't think God came up with arbitrary commandments. I understand that sometimes we have to act in faith and trust him at certain points even when we don't understand. But when it comes to day-to-day living, I think we can have a better understanding of why we do what he tells us to.

Or perhaps my rigid definition and connotatoin of "obey" is incorrect. However, I'm not sure that my definition is inconsistent with the culture in which I live. Dictionary.com offers that to obey means:
1. To carry out or fulfill the command, order, or instruction of.
2. To carry out or comply with (a command, for example).
Is this a good biblical definition?

Jesus said, "If you love me...you will keep my commandments." (italics and pause added) (John 14:15)

I'm saddened with how little my church's Manual speaks of love. For me, it is the essence of it all. We obey God because we love God. We don't obey God simply because "the Bible says to," or "the Manual says to," or "my pastor says to." So what is Paul saying here?

Further, I can't get over how familiar this sentence sounds when I read it in relation to the holiness tradition:
"These [statements, rules, orders, etc.] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence." (verse 23)

I could write for a while on this and may do so someday. But for now, I leave these questions to the rest of you to help me out.

- J

Monday, August 22, 2005

Sin Exposed

I preached yesterday from II Samuel 11 & 12. I didn't really like my sermon. My dislike wasn't that I felt unprepared or that I thought my words could have been formed better or that I wished I could have been more mobile (though each of these is true). Rather, I didn't like what I did because I didn't like the topic.

I've only preached a handful of times thus far in my life (10-15 times?). Most of the time my topic has easily been centered around grace, love, etc. But I really felt led to stick to that which the story of Bathsheba does - sin. Sure, David turns away from his sin and is sorrowful (as in Psalms 32 & 51), but the text above is mainly regarding his sin, what he did to try and cover it up, and how badly it went for he and so many around him because of his sin.

I know it has to be preached sometimes, but I didn't like doing it.

Of note to me is the path by which David's sin went. He refused to acknowledge his sin until it was quite obvious that he was caught. I think perhaps it is a lot easier to acknowledge and therefore, turn from sin once it is known than it is otherwise. (Of course, we know and believe that God knows of sin the moment it happens, but we tend to forget this.)

I've heard Derek Webb say, "The greatest thing that could happen to me is for my sin to be exposed on the six o'clock news."

That rarely happens for the average person. Which makes me think as to why accountability is so important. When we "expose" our sins to at least one other person, it's probably easier to get over it than if we don't. Perhaps this is what James is saying and why he is saying it.

- J

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Christ Service to All

Here's another recent writing. I'm not sure if you want to call it a sermon, homily, challenge, or whatever (though please keep in mind that I did write it with intentions of an oral delivery). The biblical text is the popular Matthew 25:31-46. Again, a similar disclaimer to ones in the past: If this is being read by someone other than the original writer, it is important to note that the way in which something is said is almost as crucial as the words themselves, sometimes even more so. This is one of those cases, particularly towards the end. Take careful note how the words are read.

Read text.

I’m not going to speak today about the future. I’m not going to directly speak about the future eschatology of Heaven and Hell. Nor will I talk about the separation of the saved and the damned. This passage is often preached from to admonish us about our future, and rightly so for it has much to say about the future. But today, I want us to look more closely at what Jesus says here about his followers, what they look like, and what they inherently do as a result of his love within them.

Jesus has much to say about his family in the book of Matthew. The theme of “family” is an important one to him, and therefore, to God. Keep in mind that the Godly family is different than the family most Americans would describe today. Jesus told us back in chapter 12, verse 50 that “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my [family].” What we just read is not only the last teaching on family in the book of Matthew, but it is the last major teaching about anything that Jesus gives before he is crucified. We need to take note at the importance of what Jesus is saying in this lengthy passage.

He might seem somewhat redundant. This description or story or parable he tells us of the separation of the “sheep and the goats” could be a lot shorter without the repetition of what the sheep do and what the goats don’t do. But perhaps the intent is blatant. Perhaps it is repeated several times to emphasize to the listener or reader the importance of what Jesus is saying.

Jesus is telling those listening that his love and compassion should not be reserved for a special group – even just believers. But rather, love and compassion should be inherently demonstrated to everyone and anyone. It is easy to read this passage and come to the conclusion that “we must do these things” or “we should do these things” as followers of Christ. These conclusions are true, but miss the point. The point of the whole passage is that we should love and serve everyone around us as if Jesus himself were in front of us. He has the very same love for them that he does for us and therefore, our love should also be the same for them. In fact, if we truly love Jesus, we will truly love the disenfranchised and all others around us.

When we say, as a church, that we will uphold and support one another, it should go beyond the simple statement, “We will.” Have you ever noticed how often we do this to support people? We make corporate statements of “We will” during baptism services, membership Sundays, wedding ceremonies, and so on. Our “we will” needs to go beyond the moment of utterance.

When someone is in trouble, our efforts need to be more than adding a name to the Prayer Chain. When someone comes down with a sickness, perhaps the flu, or a broken leg, or worse yet, AIDS or cancer, our efforts to help should go beyond praying through a prayer list, visiting in the hospital, or even bringing over a casserole dish. When we tell someone that we love them, it should go beyond words to sincere actions. Our hearts dictate our actions.

I read a story online about a prominent member in a church who was leading in prayer using one of the same old phrases which was, “Oh, Lord, touch the needy with Thy Finger.” All of a sudden as he was praying, he stopped. The silence caused people to rush over and ask if he were ill. “No,” he said, “but something seemed to say to me, “Thou art the finger.”

For those of you who are parents, what did you do when your first baby came down with a sickness? You tried to give him a bottle, you rubbed her back, you paced back and forth with him in your arms until he went to sleep, and you rocked her in the rocking chair for hours on end. You read baby books to find out what might be going on. Some of you younger parents went to webmd.com to look up symptoms. Many of you called the doctor, even in the wee hours of the night, to see what you should do. You prayed to God for healing, comfort, maybe even a little patience. You did everything in your control to make your child better because you so loved that child that you would do anything to help.

It is notable that Jesus does not separate those whom we should help from those whom we should not help. This is because there is no one we should not help. Our own methods of separation are interesting today. It is easy to walk by a street peddler and not offer him or her help, using the justification of, “Well, I’m not sure what they’ll do with the money.” Or how about this one, “We only help people who are active attendees of our church.” We’d never say or think, “She got pregnant as a teenager. Her situation is her own fault. I didn’t cause her to have so many kids.” But our actions often say it.

This notion of not distinguishing between whom we help becomes quite evident when he notes that the sheep visited those in prison. He gives no distinguishing between those who are in prison by accident or the innocent who are in prison. So when we visit people who are imprisoned, we are visiting those who are there for even the most hideous of crimes. He is not speaking of just the jailed-by-accident or the falsely imprisoned like the persecuted church. He is speaking of all the imprisoned.

Or when we feed the hungry, we don’t distinguish between those who are hungry by their own doing – such as the drug addict or the alcoholic. As followers of Christ, we don’t ask them how they got where they are. Our priority is not figuring out if we should help them, but how we should help them.

You know, God has a lot more to say to us about the disenfranchised throughout scripture than I think we Americans like to admit or perhaps even notice. With the emergence of American Society out of the American Revolution and other revolutions – political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. – comes a tendency to care for the individual of the self. We are an individualistic society, built on the self-made man (or woman) and individualism. We are taught to look out for ourselves and that to climb the ladder of success, sometimes we have to push others down as we go up.

You have heard the saying, “To climb the ladder of success, sometimes we have to push others down as we go up,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the saying, “This is a dog-eat-dog world and to survive, do in Rome as the Romans do,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the saying, “The last one standing wins,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the teaching, “Go on the offensive, throw the first punch, come in first place, be the first in all that you do for the good of yourself,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”
You have heard the teaching, “Look out for yourself first, and when you are able, help others,” but Jesus says, “Just as you do to the least of all people, you do to me.”

Is this a biblical mandate that we should feed the hungry and quench the thirsty and welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned at least once a day, every day? No, of course it’s not. What Jesus is telling us is that to be a part of the kingdom of God, our hearts should be in a place that when an opportunity to do so arises, we should respond as if Jesus himself were standing in front of us. Better said, our hearts should be in a place that when an opportunity to do so arises, we would respond as if Jesus himself were standing in front of us.

You see, the sheep didn’t even know what they had done. They didn’t put “feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned” on a checklist every day to make sure it was done. Rather, they had simply lived a live out of which compassion flowed freely, without thought as to should or must, but with a heart that just always did. Our hearts dictate our actions.

The call to love and compassion really isn’t simply a call to do something. It is a call to be someone. Be one of love. Be one of compassion. Be one not simply to recognize the hurting, the lost, or the disenfranchised, but the one who doesn’t know any difference but to help the least of these. Our doing will come out of our being.

The Christian community – that is, the corporate body of people who follow Christ – that is, the Church – is one that looks out for the rest of the world as if Jesus were walking all over the place. No, this isn’t an accountability thing for us – we don’t do just to please Jesus, but we do what we do for someone else because our doing would please Jesus himself. Jesus is our model, not our accountability. Certainly we want what we do to demonstrate who we are. But first, we need to look at who we are in our very hearts. Our hearts dictate our actions.

Lastly, it might be goodly challenging for us to notice something about this passage. This is the only picture Matthew gives for any judgment. Again, I’m not talking about a future Final Judgment, though it is very likely that this is what the passage is describing. But rather, I’m talking about judgment, here and now. The passage has a lot to say about who is in the kingdom of God and who isn’t in the kingdom of God. Let’s look at the criteria he gives us for those who are in the kingdom of Heaven and those who are not. Better said, let’s take a look at the criterion (singular) for those who are in the kingdom of Heaven and those who are not. Is it justification? No. Is it salvation? No. Is it forgiveness for sins? No. Is it sanctification? No. Though it can be easily shown that each of these is important, Matthew takes no time to do so here. Jesus says that those who show the same love and compassion to fellow human as they would to he himself – the very God of the universe – are in the kingdom of Heaven.

I think the words of John Wesley will best challenge us today in response to this message,
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Friday, August 12, 2005

A Working Philosophy of Worship, August 12, 2005

I recently wrote "A Philosophy of Worship" as a requirement for class. It is a working philosphy/theology, one that I imagine is faulty in places and needs work in others. I hope to update it from time-to-time as I have more experience and as others lead me in a better way. I do not hold it as a prescription for everyone, but for myself, and perhaps, for my own church (should I ever have the privileged responsibility some day). It is very long, without apology.

I have heard it said that the only purpose for which humanity created is to worship of God the Creator. This may be partly true, but I think that God is more of a loving Creator than a demanding Creator. His jealousy may call for our attention, but his love calls for our genuine response to him and the Love that he is. If he was such a demanding God, I imagine that he could force us to worship him, much like the attempt of Nebuchadnezzar and his idol. But I am pretty sure that God is better than demanding – he wants the real thing. He wants humanity to choose to worship him, so won over by his love that she can only but worship him. That’s sincerity of heart, that’s spirit, and that’s truth.

A philosophy of worship must come out of a theology of God. While that may seem broad, our thoughts on God should rule the rest of our lives. Thus, my philosophy of worship comes out of who I believe God to be. His interaction with humanity in the past – scripturally, in my observation (including some reason), and in my personal life – helps form a theology of worship.

It will help to clarify a working definition of ‘worship’ for this paper. Actually, rather than a definition, perhaps we will call it an explanation. Definitions are often seen as exhaustive. Worship is not exhaustive. No “expert” scholar on worship knows it all – not Robert Webber, Marva Dawn, Randall Davey, the Pope, or anyone else. Our worship of God will not and can not even come to culmination until all believers are together around the throne in the perfect and holy loving presence of God. Worship is not exhaustive and is forever changing on this earth. In fact, I might even say that the Jesus who walked on this earth did not know all there is today to know about worship. You see, if worship is to be genuine, and if we are indeed to choose to worship God, then worship will always be a working project, changing according to the ways in which worshippers choose to worship to be the most genuine that they can be. Worship is not static. It is a dynamic, changing enterprise that changes with the culture and response of the worshipper. Basically, God doesn't care what or how we do, he cares why and with what heart we do it (this applies to way more than worship).

That said, the working “explanation” we will assume in this paper is that worship is our affirming response to God’s love. This may be explained a number of ways, but primarily by surrender and praise. Surrender has to do with the giving of every aspect of our lives. Praise has to do with declaring God’s glory.

Some might think that it is hard to put an overall theme to the Bible as a whole. Even after several reads, this could still be true for any individual. I however believe it to be not only possible, but the very intent of God in scripture. God is a loving God and a desire to commune with humanity demands from that love. Throughout scripture, God’s intentional desire is to lovingly commune in holiness with humanity. He is already there (holiness). So his action with and amongst humanity is in an attempt to bring us into his holy love.

Rather than banish Adam and Eve to death, stricken from existence, in his grace, he gave them the opportunity to return to communion with him. He gave them and the rest of us who have followed their suit in sin the choice to make a u-turn (that’s called repentance) back to running after him towards his perfect love. Though Israel was unswervingly sinful, often blatantly dishonorable towards God, he even today has provided salvation from the sinful lives they lived.

Then Christ came to walk the earth and demonstrated the epitome of love – he laid down his life by his own accord. His death on the cross is the greatest demonstration of love ever, but Christ demonstrated love during his earthly ministry in other ways: forgiving time and again the sinful, caring for the lost and disenfranchised, and restoring Peter and the disciples after they all turned from him during his hardest trials, to name a few. The Bible is chalk full – saturated – with the love of God for humanity. It’s the very theme.

Time and again when God demonstrated this love, humanity’s response was to worship. Noah and his sons built an altar after the flood. So did Abraham and Isaac after God gave Isaac’s life back. The Psalms are full of writings praising God after something that he did (i.e. after David was forgiven for his sexual and murderous sin). After Jesus, who is God, healed individuals, several of them made declaration of his divinity. Paul rejoiced in the fact that God blessed him in his weakness. All these are examples of man’s thankful, declaratory, honoring, humble response to God’s love.

Worship is scriptural.

The Bible has much to say about how we worship God. The Torah is full of instructions and laws meant to keep holy the area of the presence of the Lord, the people of the Lord, and the ways of the Lord. The Psalms give good literary evidence and background for worshipful attitudes and forms. Paul time and again admonishes churches to worship in certain ways. The Revelation of John depicts great images of the whole of the Kingdom of God together, praising his holiness around the throne of God. But perhaps the greatest call to worship in the whole of the Bible, in my eyes, comes in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel.

John is full of Christ’s response to improper, self-gratifying, and ignorant human expectation. The woman at Jacob’s well was steeped in her own presuppositions about how to worship God. She even knew what people other than her own culture presumed God wanted as worship.

I pray that we are not today as ignorant as the people in the book of John (I hold not the Samaritan woman as an exclusive example). The Bible is a great source and standard by which to measure our worship. But methods, ways, means, and specifics are not prescriptive. The necessity comes not in specifics, but the intent. The intent is where God looks for true worship.

Jesus’ reply to her and to us: “People, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither this way or that…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[1]

Everything in our lives as Christians is judged by such. God does not measure with lists of sins and lists of good deeds. God considers the heart to be the heart of the matter. Lamar Boschman said it well: “When I worship, I would rather my heart be without words than my words be without heart.” I would expound on this by saying that God rathers the heart over the words and not just words, but over methods, styles, traditions, and relics.

I am fed up with the Church measuring success in terms of numbers. If I ever find out that numbers are the best judgment of success, I will skip church to the nearest mosque. It is not going to happen though. God does not measure in numbers. He measures in spirit and truth, in sincerity of heart. Certainly, the Bible is full of great numbers (the Nation of Israel’s conquests, the feeding of the thousands, conversions on Pentecost). These are all testimonies to God’s greatness. They are almost analogies for us to understand the power and reaches of God. They are parables that point to God. When Jesus talked about the one lost sheep, he demonstrated the importance of the individual and not the crowd. He was making an analogy of the love of a shepherd for his flock. He was talking about people as individuals. Just the same, numbers are a testimony to the greatness of measurement, not the canon itself.

Always Consider Intent: Why we do what we do
Sometimes, as I am in a Sunday church service, I wonder how many are truly thinking about what we are doing. Perhaps my own thoughts are not indicative of the true intent of others – I really should not judge. But I cannot help but wonder if other have the same struggle that I do: finding sincerity in the red taped mess that we call worship.

A Greek word translated to ‘worship’ is proskunew. I am told that the literal meaning is to surrender and has even been used in military situations. It might be compared to “giving out”, “giving over”, “giving up”, “admitting”, “self-sacrifice”, “losing oneself to”, etc. It is basically removing the human and putting in the God. It is removal of self-gratifying human desire and arrival of a self-sacrificing, cruciform, God-satiating desire. It is admitting that I am human and that God is God. It is confession that I am nothing and that God is everything. It is coming clean with God. It is owning up to the fact that I am lost on my own – a soul destined for nothing without God’s grace.

Romans 12:1 says it pretty well – “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”[2] Sacrifice is a key word. It involves the death of something, in this case, my self-will and human life.

Praise is the response to the ability to surrender. God has given us the chance and we can barely believe it. It is so incredible a thing (his gracious acceptance of our surrender) that we can only but declare his greatness. The offering from God to us demands our adoring response. How incredible!

Individual Motive to Worship
It is more common today to think of worship as a corporate act. It certainly is one (see below). But worship begins with the individual. We already quoted Romans 12:1 which calls for something that only an individual can do. No one can decide to worship for someone else. It is a decision made by the individual. Each day we are called to worship God with our very lives (again, see Romans 12:1 and any other admonition to worship God). This inevitably leads to corporate worship.

Corporate Call to Worship
The Church is the Body of Christ here on earth. If we do not get together and commune in worshipping God the Creator, we are told that the very rocks will cry out. It is not simply what we ought to do, however, it is what we naturally will do when we allow God to work through us. When we experience the work of God in our lives as individuals and as a corporate community, it will subsequently follow that we want to worship God together. Once we truly and unhinderedly experience God’s holy and ‘perfectest’ love (the final consummation), we will see what the truest form of worship is. We will indeed be the truest worshippers there are. And I am pretty sure that there will be no individual worship at that moment – we will all be together – God’s very plan from the beginning. (Praise him that he gave us another shot. And another one. And another.)

The Worship Service
One might say that I am pretty strict about the corporate worship service. I almost feel critical talking about it as I seem to have a lot more “don’ts” than “dos”. I will try to sound positive though and give reasoning for my convictions. Also, as I am an American and feel led to pastoral ministry in the United States, these convictions are more so for my American brothers and sisters. I would not necessarily prescribe all of them to the whole of the Body of Christ (though it may be possible with some of them). Further, I do not even hold them as prescriptions for all Americans.

The corporate worship service is a worship service. I realize that I am stating the obvious but feel that it needs to be stated. Church “worship” services are inundated with aspects other than worship these days: honoring people, musical performances, financial pleas, political agendas, secular commercials, the agendas of personal convictions, basically all things other than worship of God. Not all of the preceding list are negative occurances, or should not necessarily be performed within the influence of a church. But none of them belongs in a worship service.

My congregation can fill the whole week with evangelism activities, musical recitals and concerts, social action events, business meetings, rallies for financial support of worthy causes, and announcements regarding all of it. The church should do many of these things, but not in a worship service. (Please, do not give the excuse/explanation/reasoning that I often hear, "But it's when everyone is together and will hear what we have to say.")

A worship service is meant to worship God. If events do indeed happen such as individuals claiming forgiveness in Christ, or one is led to give financially to the Lord or to a cause by the Lord, PRAISE GOD! These are acts of worship and can eventuate out from a worship service. But they come via worship.

Jesus talked about the fact that when he was raised up, he would draw all the earth unto himself. I realize that this is mostly considered an explanation of events on the cross, but I see parallels today. I truly believe that ‘good things’ are an eventual bi-product of good worship. People will be convicted, “get saved”, “get sanctified”, or basically seek whatever way they know they should in response to God.

Truthfully, there is nothing practical about worship. But as we are human, we are finite and must work in the temporal world. This takes discipline, and as a leader in the Church, I realize the need for specifics and intentionality. I realize that my own convictions may not transfer well to every individual in my congregation. However, there are some specifics perhaps on which I will not back down. There is not an easy way to organize these, so I will simply rattle them off. Some are very specific (i.e. re: the American flag). I am intentional in listing them here for now though – they may be quite indicative of the contemporary situation and need particular emphasis. Hopefully they will not be needed in the future.

For my congregation:
- Always remember that a worship service is a worship service.
- The American flag (or any other secular symbolic element) has no place in worship any more than an Asherah poles did in the holy of holies.
- The one leading in corporate prayer need not face the congregation.
- Speaking of prayer, as I pray, pray with me.
- Our offering is given to the Lord every day of the week by everyone.
- Our finances are given to the Lord via the Church on a regular basis as one is able. (By the way, if you make any money...you're probably able.)
- Whenever feasible, worship is done by the whole community together. If we are “Timbuctoo First Church”, we worship together as a whole, not “Timbuctoo First Church: 8:30 AM” and “Timbuctoo First Church: 10:30 AM”. If the sanctuary is too small for all our people…PRAISE GOD!!! Let’s build a bigger sanctuary.

For those helping to "lead" worship:
- There is something to be said about the intent of a service. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” is not a good hymn to sing the week I am preaching about sexual purity. Let’s get together and plan regularly and often, okay?
- I don’t care if you wear a tie. I don’t care if you wear a scarf. I do care that everything about you says, “Don’t look at me. Look at God.”
- Your presence is not to be noticed more than your ability to lead.
- Your ability comes not in presentation of you, but presentation of God. Take this into consideration with the things that you wear, the things that you say (if anything at all), the motions that you make, the expressions that you bear. If you need to wear a robe to accomplish this, so be it – I’ll even wear one with you.
- If you absolutely have to use a choir, it is to lead worship, not present (except for special occasions such as cantatas, dramas, etc.).
- If someone stands up in worship, it’s okay.
- If someone sits down during worship, it’s okay.
- If someone goes to the altar without being invited (by you or me), it’s okay.
- I’m not sure how the offertory came into existence, but consider it out of existence.
- Scripture is way better than anything you or I have to say. Use often and use well.
- I commit to praying for you as you prepare for and as you lead worship. We will pray together in preparation for worship.
- I will preach as often as possible with the exception of sabbatical leaves (I stress the importance of consistency).

Worship services should include:
- Worship through music (as long as music is the greatest expression of human emotion, which I envision it will be for years to come)
- Corporate prayer
- Scripture (all of it)
- Regular communion
- The Word of God (also known as “the message”)
- Congregational response to all of the above

Worship services should not include:
- The American flag
- The Star-Spangled Banner
- “Friendship Time”
- Performance-oriented solos, duets, trios, or any other performance
- Baptism
- I will not go as far as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and disallow harmony, but see his point in that that the ability of one can impede the worship of another. May we be harmonious to the ears of God.

In regards to the hot debate over infant baptism, dedication, etc., I do not have strong convictions. I admonish parents to dedicate their children to God the very second they know he or she has been conceived. If they want to do this as an testimony before the local Body of Christ with some water as a symbol of the purity of God, great.

For myself, I need to remember that it’s not about me (or you). I don’t have all the correct answers. There isn’t always one correct answer to any given question. Other people worship God in different ways than I do.

I will do my best to bring people to God, to bring them to Heaven. I am not sure that I can bring Heaven to them on this earth (although I am willing to learn from someone more about this and am contemplating the subject, "Heaven on earth"). No, I would not say that worship on earth is “practice” as many do, but it sure ain’t the real thing, in the fullness that it will be later on.

I strive onward.

[1] John 4:22-24, NRSV with a little bit of paraphrasing
[2] NRSV

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Another Sermon

It's been a while since I've posted anything. I've had lots to do. But to show that I'm still interested in this thing, I'll post a sermon I wrote recently. I've barely even read it over, so forgive mistakes, typos, or anything else that's wrong. :-)

The biblical text is Matthew 5:33-37. I don't really have a title.

Sermon Text:
Perhaps different connotations come to each of your minds when you hear the word “honesty”. You might think back to your childhood, one in which you were admonished by a parent or grandparent or other respectable authority in your life to “tell the truth”. Perhaps you think of innocence. Innocence is often equated with honesty. Or maybe you think of the word “integrity”. For you, honesty is about being a person of integrity, one to whom others look as a model character, one who always does what is right.

We often hear phrases such as, “He is an honest man” or “Honesty is a virtue”. I remember growing up, when my mother was frustrated with us kids (and always deservedly so), she would simply exclaim, “Honestly!” The words honest, honesty, and honestly are quite common in our everyday language today.

Each of these is probably a good explanation, presumption, or assumption, whichever you’d like to call them. But Jesus tells us in a much simpler, yet perhaps much more challenging way what honesty is.

Read text.

Now we know that this passage is in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings Jesus taught that Matthew or a follower compiled and wrote down. The Sermon on the Mount offers many teachings for life: admonishments to challenge the culture of the time to walk in love following God and his ways rather than human tradition, among other things. Jesus begins this particular section with the statement that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. The law and prophets refer to much of the Old Testament and even more. So Jesus begins with what theologians and biblical scholars often call the “antitheses.” An antithesis is when Jesus says, “You have heard this…but I tell you this.” He sets out to challenge (or perhaps even affirm in a new kind of way) various cultural and religious teachings or norms of life. In addition to the one we just read, others include things such as, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You should not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Or, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Jesus says these things knowing the ways of those who were listening to offer them what he (God) would do in a situation and what we as humans seeking to do good in the eyes of God should do.

In all honesty, there is little for us to expound upon for this particular antithesis – “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by earth.” Basically, Jesus says, “Do not swear an oath at all.” He explains further, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’.”

The King James Version says, “Let your communication be ‘Yea, yea’ or ‘Nay, nay.’ The Message puts it this way, “Just say ‘yes’ and just say ‘no’.” Basically, Jesus is saying that when you say “yes”, mean exactly that – yes. And when you say “no”, mean exactly that – no. Tell what you mean to say and mean what you do say.

This all boils down – as with everything that God wants us to do – to sincerity of heart. In fact, letting “yes” mean “yes” and “no” mean “no” isn’t simply about what we say to others. It is about what we say to ourselves.

Do you ever lie to yourself? Have you ever believed something that you knew wasn’t true, but over a period of time you had convinced yourself that it was true? Or, have you ever lied to yourself about something and over a period of time could not even tell the difference between what was right and what wasn’t right?

When I was eight years old, I was outside playing with some friends. It was late October, perhaps early November – some time in the New England fall – and we were doing something fall-like (playing football, perhaps). And before I went outside to play, my mother had told me to wear my coat. So I put it on as I went out the door. But soon it was lying on the ground rather than around my torso. Soon enough, our game was over. I went inside, and somehow, my coat was once again back on my body. It wasn’t even a thought in my mind as to whether or not I had had it on the whole time or not. I left the house and entered the house with it on.

So when I came inside and my mother asked me if I wore my coat, I simply replied, “Yes, ma, can’t you see that I’m wearing it?”

Now, my mother, like many mothers, has spies all over the world that keep up on her children regardless of whether she is there or not. I’ve never met one of them. I’ve often looked for them, but I’ve never caught one. I just know that they exist. My mother has spies all over the place. I know this because my mother knows things that there is no possible way she could unless she has come kind of covert and incognito spy network watching her children and their every move.

So, naturally, she somehow knew that I wasn’t wearing my coat the whole time. This is one of those childhood times when you specifically remember every little detail of the situation. My mother was sitting in a wicker rocking chair downstairs in the family/TV room next to the window. She called me over and sat me on her lap. She looked into my eyes with that knowing, yet annoyingly loving look, and asked again, “Jeremy David, were you wearing your coat the whole time when you were outside playing?” Usually, at this point, I knew I was caught and I’d admit my fault. But this particular time that I remember, I looked her in the eye and said – even if with a quiver in my voice and chin, “Yes, ma, I was wearing it!” She laid me back on herself and we sat there so I could think about it for a while. I remember in my mind thinking, “You were wearing it, right? Weren’t you?” I had convinced myself through my own lie that I had been. But then as I thought about it, I remembered unzipping it and throwing it on the brown grass so I could run better. And then I remembered putting it back on with the split-second thought that left as quickly as it came, “I’d better be wearing this when I get back inside.” And so, after a few minutes, I sat up and looked at my mother and admitted that I had not been wearing my coat the whole time. As usual, the love and grace displayed by my parents again came through from my mother – she forgave me, we hugged, I probably cried, and all was good.

But do you see the issue here? Certainly there are other values and morals – as we like to call them – that are important to this story like honoring and obeying our parents. But what I want us to see is the way in which I convinced myself of a falsehood. I lied and didn’t care about it to the point that I believed the lie as a truth. The matter was so trivial – it was just about wearing a coat. I didn’t lie about stealing or about cheating on a test or something else that in and of itself was bad. I was fine. I hadn’t caught a cold from the weather outside. And when it comes down to it, whether I wore a coat or didn’t wear a coat didn’t matter. What mattered was the fact that I was dishonest and dishonorable.

We do this all the time today. We begin believing things to make our story “straighter”. We rationalize. We give in to our minds. We submit to things that make us more comfortable or make a situation make more sense.

But Jesus tells us that his disciples – that is, people who truly follow the God – give the whole truth all the time. He himself was and is the truth. And we’re not just talking about the words that we use and say. We’re talking about a life of honesty. We’re talking about the truthfulness of all that we are, all that we say, all that we do.

I’m sure you all know the story of the boy who cried “wolf”. He was out watching the sheep, and bored out of his mind, decided to cry “Wolf!” to see what excitement it might bring from those who could hear him. And once several came running at the sound of his exclamation, he pointed, laughed, and rolled on the ground at their looks of panic and alarm. And then when everything settled down, he quickly grew bored again and did the same thing, cried “Wolf!” and everybody came running to help, but yet again, he was “just kidding”. Then, when a wolf actually did appear and he cried out its name, no one came to help. The story often ends differently depending on who’s telling it to whom, but perhaps a sheep is lost, or all the sheep are lost, or even the boy himself is eaten alive. And then when we hear this story, there’s always the ever-important postscript that says, “The moral of the story is ‘even when liars tell the truth, they are not believed’.” So, basically, don’t be a liar or no one will believe you when you tell the truth.

But the moral of this fable doesn’t give the whole truth either. We don’t not lie simply so that we will be believed in future situations. We don’t not do something in order to create a good future. This is the problem with much of our belief today. This is a problem with how we live. We live planning for the future for fear of what might happen. Jesus came to tell us that now is the time to live rightly. Now is the time for which we live. We don’t live a certain way out of fear of consequences, we live a certain way because it’s who we are supposed to be and better yet, who we want to be.

Jesus, and thus God himself, wants us to live righteously right now. God wants truthfulness in all of our words, all of our actions, and all of our being not so that we can be believed in the future, but because we are supposed to live the truth. Truth is what we are supposed to be. Truth is what we are supposed to be because truth is who God is.

God seeks and desires sincerity of heart. A few verses before this passage when Jesus is explaining the fulfillment of the law, he talks about righteousness. Verse 20 says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes and Pharisees were the experts on the law. When it came to knowing what the law said for any given situation, they knew the answer. They could quote chapter and verse at a moment’s notice. They knew the words of the law perhaps just as well as Jesus. But they missed on the intent of the law. They memorized and imitated as they thought best, but they didn’t know why they did what they did. This is Jesus’ point – You can do your best, following the law and being a moral person, a person of good morals, but unless you exceed that kind of righteousness, unless you exceed actions and correctness to the point of sincerity of heart, you will not know heaven.

May we be honest in all that we do…
…not only in thought of the future,
…not only to be true as a witness,
…not only because it is what Jesus would do,
…not only because the Bible says to…
…or because our parents tell us to,
…or because the American Law tells us to,
…or even solely based on the fact that Jesus tells us to,

…but because we want to be sincere people before our fellow humans and before God.

May our hearts be sincere in all that we are.