Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Call To Action!

This sermon was originally preached at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at the 9 am service. The audio can be heard here

This morning, we are faced with two familiar texts. If you remember, I preached the Micah text in conjunction to celebrate the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 88th anniversary of his death two weeks ago, and today’s gospel happens to be The Beatitudes.
These twelve verses are familiar to those of us who have been in the church for a great length of time; in fact, these verses are presented first by Matthew to introduce his readers to the importance of understanding Jesus and the requirements for entering the kingdom, because for Matthew and his retelling of the Gospel, entering the Kingdom of God is the most important aspect of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
Yes, these are quite familiar verses, and please understand that while we proclaim them as Gospel today, Matthew’s readers and those who originally heard Jesus speak these words saw them as revolutionary. And let’s be honest this morning, they WERE revolutionary, for they speak to a people who were anything but blessed.
I love studying people smarter than me, so I defer to Dr. Marcia Y. Riggs, a noted Presbyterian theologian. She says it this way:
Jesus delivers these blessings to a people whose sociopolitical context is the Roman Empire and whose religious context is the elite Jewish establishment. What Jesus teaches in these ten verses critiques both contexts. The people being blessed are the underclass of the Roman Empire and the Jewish establishment, for they were one in the same. These blessings are delivered to the groups God deems worthy, not because of their own achievements or status in society, but because God chooses to be on the side of the weak, the forgotten, the despised, the justice seekers, the peacemakers, and those persecuted because of their beliefs.
Jesus makes a clarion call about what is happening here, and there is a political foundation for what is being said – all of this is organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able – at potential risk of their own lives – for the sake of a world in which the unvalued, including they themselves when they are persecuted, are at last fully valued as human beings. These verses provide a commissioning that undergirds the necessary instructions for Jesus’ chosen disciples and others in the crowd who desire to follow Jesus. As Jesus pronounces God’s blessings, he frames the call to discipleship in terms of both which they are to be, their character, and its consequences for their lives in the present sociopolitical and religious context, as well as in God’s future.
So, Guy, what do Dr. Riggs’ observations, Micah’s message, and Jesus’ sermon mean for us today? I am so glad that you asked!
As I am fond of reminding this congregation, I prepare sermons with the bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. This week was no different. I also tell you, at least once a month, that I don’t preach politics, because I honestly believe that the church and the state should be separate for this one reason – once you start allowing one religious body to control civil government, you must be open to letting ALL religions have a chance to control civil government, and once that happens, it is no longer a civil government, it is a theocracy.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against the wanton and rampant discrimination against our Muslim brothers and sisters. In the name of “protecting liberty and freedom”, actions have been taken to actively discriminate against them because of their religion, an position that directly contradicts what this country claims it is based on – religious freedom. In this country, within the last 24 hours, a mosque in Victoria, Texas was set afire – less than 24 hours after the ban on Muslims entering this country was enacted. If I am honest, even though we may disagree about religion in some instances, if Jesus were preaching this message today, he would include our Muslim brothers and sisters in those who are blessed.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being if I did not point out the glaring hypocrisy of banning people seeking to flee war torn countries attempting to come here for safety and sanctuary, while quoting the words of one who, as a baby, was an illegal alien in a country while one the run, because there was a bounty on his head.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against the repeal of an admitted health care law that covered 20 million Americans, most poor and disabled, who now face the nightmare of managing chronic illnesses without health care. I would be remiss in my duties if I did not speak out against the continued purposeful cuts in the social safety net, which is for ALL of us, especially those who are elderly – attacks on Medicare and Social Security.
This morning, I would be remiss in my duties, both as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ AND as a decent human being, if I did not speak out against finding $15 billion dollars to build a wall to keep brown people out, which not being able to find $15 billion to fix the infrastructure in Flint, Michigan so that Americans can have clean drinking water.
Look at the text, if you will. If you look at all of the persons who are considered blessed, they truly ARE those looked down upon in society, and the religious and civil leaders who heard this sermon realized that this was a call to upend society as they knew it. It was a call to flip the establishment on its head! It was a call to liberate the people.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That’s a promise of what is to come!
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. That’s for those who have lost loved ones to the empire.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. That’s for those who have been quieted, were abused and trampled over.  Notice it doesn’t say weak – but meek.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Those people who work towards a better day for those whoa re downtrodden by the religious authorities in the name of religion, they will see their work rewarded.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The measure you give shall be the measure you receive – pressed down, shaken together, and running over shall men give to you!
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.  When I see those two verses, I immediately point back to Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your might.” THAT’S how one can be pure in heart. THAT’S how one can be called a peacemaker.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Let me make a declaration here: Jesus tells us “you are going to have to wait to receive your rewards. I don’t like this one, personally, as it has been used to subjugate people and to tell them to be happy with their suffering. “
But there is a link between the beatitudes and Micah – if you live the words of Micah 6:8, you then can live the beatitudes.
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?
Is it easy to do? Absolutely not. It causes you to actually have to DO something – justice. It causes you to actually DO something – love kindness. It causes you to actually DO something – walk humbly with your God.
Those who are at the bottom of society, those who need to be blessed, those who are the outcast, already know how to live Micah 6:8, which means to me, they live the beatitudes. May the rest of us learn to do the same.

Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love Wins!

This message was originally preached on January 22, 2017, at the Mount Pleasant Reformed United Church of Christ at the 11:00 a.m service. The audio can be heard here.

The longer I live, the more I realize that when it comes to people, they always want to be right.

If you don’t believe, me, from September until January, there are some homes that are split in half over football games, and that is very apparent in this area. One person in the house is a Washington Redskins fan, and the other is a Dallas Cowboys fan. A personal note here, the Cowboys fan is right. In other households, one spouse is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and the other is a Baltimore Ravens fan, and these divisions cause much consternation in the home, and a friendly rivalry exists, but there is still some love there.

 The longer I live, the more I realize that people always want to be right. If you don’t believe me, look at the political situation in our country this very day. Two days ago, many people descended on Washington, DC to inaugurate a new president in the United States, and a day later, many people descended on Washington, DC to protest the inauguration of the new president in the United States. In many neighborhoods in this country, these divisions over the new president’s positions, policies, and practices are causing people to look at each other with suspicion and if we are honest, leading some to reconsider their relationships with people they have lived next door to, played golf with, shared recipes with, and in some instances, actually lived with.

 And I would be remiss in my duties as your pastor if I did not mention that, even in our churches this morning, there is a great division over this same event. There are people who are reconsidering their relationships with people they’ve sat next to, played golf with, shared recipes with, and in some instances, actually lived with, over the election. There is a great division in this country, and if we are honest, rightly so, because of some beliefs about rights and positions on social issues.

And if we are going to really honest thins morning, these divisions  will remain for the foreseeable future, as many of them are based on how people see other people, in their humanity. The longer I live, I tell you, the more I realize that people want to be right, and this is made very evident in this morning’s text from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. If we look at the city of Corinth, we will find that it looks suspiciously like our country this morning, according to Fordham University’s Laurence Welborn, professor of Biblical Studies and Pauline Epistles.

He says it this way: “Paul’s Corinth was a Roman city, was diverse, and included Syrians and Egyptians, along with Greeks who had immigrated from the surrounding cities. Philo speaks of a sizeable Jewish community in Corinth, and the city regained it’s ancient prosperity based on its favorable location. Sharp contrasts between rich and poor were apparent in this flourishing commercial center, but opportunities for social advancement also existed; even freedmen held civic office, something uncommon elsewhere.” Corinth sounds like our country today, and, in the midst of all of those social divisions, there were divisions in, all of places, the Corinthian church.

Paul describes the situation in the church in terms like those used by political orators to characterize conflicts within city-states of the day, and if we examine the text closely, Paul appeals for the church to be in agreement and to be united in the same mind and the same purpose echoes the language of speeches on accord. Paul talks to the people in language they understand in an effort to get the people to get rid of their divisions.

Look at the text: Paul tells the people that he has received reports that there are quarrels – divisions – among the people: “Chloe’s people have reported this, and you are dividing yourselves into factions. Each one of you are are trying to show that you are right. “I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos. I belong to Cephas. I belong to Christ!” These divisions are splitting the church. And a note – “I belong to Christ” was not indictive of a “Christ Party” as it were, but to be used as satire.

But there are these divisions. Paul asks “Has Christ been divided? Did Paul die for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” And then he drops this nutritional nugget – “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel. And, not only did he send me to proclaim the gospel, but to do it simply, so that the cross of Christ might not lose its power.” And that right there, was divisive within Paul himself. Remember that Paul was an orator – he was a lawyer, he was a Pharisee. He was used to speaking with power and his words had impact. I am sure that as a public speaker, he knew how to move the people with his rhetoric.

Sounds like today. We have public speakers who know how to make wonderful speeches, saying a whole lot of nothing, which excites the people and keeps divisions going, but say nothing. But back to Paul. Paul then ends this portion of the letter with this theological explosion: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” What? Glad you are as confused as me, and I am sure, the listeners of the day. So, let me help you out a bit. This “foolishness”, as it were, is not the right word to use – these folks look at the gospel as “folly” or “a vulgar joke”.

I still maintain that if one if going to talk about Christ and the message He proclaimed, one must talk about things HE talked about. Jesus talked about the poor, and the sick, and the downtrodden. However, let’s be honest – we don’t want to talk about those things, especially today. We see these things, but don’t want to talk about them. Let’s not talk about the poor, because if they work harder, they would not be poor. Let’s not talk about healthcare, because if people took better care of themselves, they wouldn’t be sick. Let’s not talk about global warming, because we all know it’s a hoax, despite what we actually see and record. We don’t want to talk about that stuff, because it does not impact us. It does not make us feel good, It would actually mean we have to think about someone outside of our own immediate circle of family and friends.

 Yes, to the educated, the learned, the rich and the powerful, Paul’s preaching the cross of Christ is foolishness, for to those being saved, it is the power of God. How can that be? It just is. What do you mean Guy? I am glad you asked. The message of the cross, for me, is that love wins. In spite of the things that divide us, and some of those things are deep and foundational, the cross shows us that love wins. That’s foolishness – a dead messiah? How is that possible? It is. Love wins. I know that we are divided among race, gender, socioecomic, and political lines. Yes. Love wins. That’s foolishness, even to some of us who call ourselves preachers of the Gospel.

I know that “love wins” seems to be simplistic and na├»ve. But for me, THAT is the message of the Cross. I know that the execution of Jesus was a political act, mean to scare the people into submission, but in the midst of it, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice shows that true love is to lay down one’s life for a friend. That’s foolishness. But that’s love. Love wins, in spite of everything else going on in the world, in spite of all of the foolishness and competitions and distractions, love wins.

50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King said the following in his annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear. And I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I'm talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.”

So my friends, love wins. Despite divisions and distractions, love wins. Despite evidence to the contrary, love wins. And in order for love to truly win in the face of hate, WE must be the one to show that love wins. I can’t control other people’s actions, but I can show love.

YOU can’t control other people’s reactions, but you can show love. I know that sounds foolish and simplistic, but it’s true. Love wins.

Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

WWMD?

This sermon was originally preached on January 15, 2017 at the Keysville Grace United Church of Christ, Keymar, MD. The audio can be heard here.

On this day 88 years ago in Atlanta, GA, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior was born to Reverend Martin Luther King, Senior and Mrs. Alberta Williams King. The middle child, but the oldest son, his father changed both their names from Michael to Martin, in honor of the famed German theologian Martin Luther, following a 1934 trip to the Fifth Baptist World Alliance Congress in Berlin.

A graduate from Morehouse College, the Crozier Theological Seminary and Boston University, he served as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1963, gave his most famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I Have A Dream.”

His life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on Friday, April 4, 1963 while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee. Survived by his wife, the former Coretta Scott, and their four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice, as well as his parents and siblings, he was 39 years old at the time of his death.

I have, in the interest of time, reduced one of the most influential men in the history of this nation down two three paragraphs, sort of like people who reduce Dr. King down to the punch line “I Have A Dream” or call him “The Drum Major of Justice”, and that’s all. Many of these people enjoy the day off work that is supposed to honor this hero, but in all honesty, act in ways that are completely opposite to everything that Dr. King believed in.

As I have stated in the past, I believe that one cannot effectively speak to the church or the world with just the Bible or the newspaper – we are required to prepare sermons with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and these days, that axiom certainly applies. In less than seven days, we will inaugurate a new president in this country, and while many people do not agree with the manner in which he was elected, the process, as established, was followed.

In the midst of that, however, there has been a turn to inflame our basest, and if we are honest, nasty traits. There has been a rise in hate crimes against minorities, whether we want to call them hate crimes or not. There has been a rise in substance abuse cases, whether we want to admit it or not. And just this week, what I consider to be a crime occurred on Capital Hill – the United States Congress has begun moving to repeal the Affordable Care Act, potentially cancelling health care for millions of citizens. There has been a decline in civility, especially when the powerful mock the powerless from their bully pulpits, and using coded language that most decent people would consider shameful.

So, on this anniversary of the birth of Dr. King, I pose the following question: What would Martin do? We know that “What Would Jesus Do” is a popular question and marketing strategy, and let me be clear, I am not elevating Martin to be equal with Jesus, but as a hero to many people, I think that is a fair question to ask. What WOULD Martin do if he were faced with the political, economic, and social landscape we face today? WWMD? I believe Martin would say, “Look to the prophet Micah”.

Now we don’t know much about this prophet, but in his introduction to the book that carries his name, Dr. Gregory Mobley of Andover Newton Theological School, tells us that he was from a small town southwest of Jerusalem called More-sheth-gath, and he had a populist message. Micah expressed disdain for the corruptions and pretensions of Jerusalem and its leaders. He recalled the traditions of early Israel and condemned religious practices unaccompanied by ethical performance.

I asked the question “What Would Martin Do?” and I believe that, if Martin King were alive today, he would say, “There is precedent. Look at Micah!”

Micah makes is very clear:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to live kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The Lord has told us what is good: the Lord requires us to do justice, not just talk about it. I’m sure if we asked Martin “What does doing justice look like?” I would like to think that Martin would show us by:


  • speaking out against income inequality, and how the top 1% of people in this country control 90% of the wealth;
  • talking about how, in some inner city communities, food deserts exist, and you can get access to grease laden and unhealthy fast foods, but not be able to purchase a fresh tomato or fresh chicken. I would hope he would declare that people deserve to shop in stores that should not be condemned;
  • informing the people the fact that people in major cities in the United States don’t have access to clean water, which is a sin and a shame before God almighty herself; and
  • declaring that the lack of healthcare to the least of these truly is an example of not loving your neighbor as yourself;
  • standing up with ALL disenfranchised people: the poor, the underclass, the underemployed, racial minorities, women, the LGBT community, immigrants, and yes, even Muslims. He would model loving your neighbor as yourself.

Let me put a pin here for a minute – so many people have attempted to neuter Dr. King, like they have Jesus, by making him this soft, ethereal, passive doormat. While Martin believed in non-violence as a tactic, that does NOT mean he was weak by any means. It takes strength to turn the other cheek. It takes strength to be called everything but a child of God. It takes strength to remain strong when the people who have claimed to be in your corner desert you in jail. It takes strength to forgive people who try and kill you, for racists who bomb your house, and who kill four little black girls on a Sunday morning.

I am sure that if we asked Martin “How does one live kindness?” he would show us by:

  • calling out our behaviors of treating the disabled as less than people,
  • calling us out for not following the biblical mandate to take care of the widows and orphans;
  • taking us to task for sending soldiers off to war, and not providing them with adequate physical AND mental health care when they return home; and
  • not cutting holes in the social safety net that many of us might have to depend on should we fall on hard times. 

I am sure that if we ask Martin, “How does one walk humbly with your God?”, he would show us by:

  • crying out against religious institutions that are more concerned with piety than providing assistance, more concerned with buildings and business than building disciples and loving communities, and more concerned with fame than faith;
  • explaining that you can’t claim to love God and hate ANY of God’s people, that are made in God’s image; and
  • reminding us that we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So, before I take my seat, if you want to know “What would Martin do?” the answer is simple: he would live the words of Micah 6.8.  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. He would, and we should as well. That, my friends, is something worth celebrating.


Amen.