Monday, February 21, 2011

All You Need Is Love!

This sermon was inspired by a presentation given by Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman at the Metro New York Synod Assembly.

Before I began the sermon I played the song, "All You Need Is Love" by the Beatles.

I love the Beatles.
I was not born when the Beatles broke up.
But I was given a love of this band by one of my aunts.
For years she would argue that the Beatles were the greatest group ever and I was missing out on something by not listening to them.
At that time in my life I was into heavy metal.
I was listening to groups like Anthrax, Mega Death, Motley Crue etc..
I thought the Beatles were simply about silly love songs.
My aunt eventually prevailed and she gave me a great gift, the gift of silly love songs.
Songs like the “All You Need Is Love”.
This morning I want us to consider the power of silly love songs.
The power of the silly little songs of love we pass one from one person to the next.
A couple of years ago I bought my children the Kids Bop version of Beatles songs.
And the song, “All You Need is Love” is on that CD.
We were listening to it one day in the car and singing along.
My daughter then five years old said, “Daddy you know this song. Well it says all you need is love and that is nice, but you know you kinda need money too.”
I bet she is not alone in thinking this way.
Many of us secretly believe that love simply is not enough.
That life includes love, but it is only an idea that has nothing to do with the real world.

This morning Jesus challenges us again with his teachings about love.
Love for Jesus is more than idea.
It is an action.
It is a disciplined action that we are confronted with everyday.
Are we going to act in the old way?
“You have heard it said an eye for an eye”
Or are we going to walk in the new way.
“But I tell you love your enemies pray for those that persecute you.”
The crowd that Jesus was talking to in the Sermon on the Mount knew about persecution.
They knew what it was like to be trampled on and forgotten.
Every day they were confronted with the indignities of being a people oppressed by an occupying power.
Jesus words are not pie in the sky wishful thinking.
They are concrete actions that help us confront the evil of the world.
If you want to eradicate evil it is no use to try to do it with evil, only good will win.
Only love can defy hate.
Only non-violence can crush violence.
We have seen this play out many times in human history.
Ghandi’s revolution in India, civil rights in our own country, and more recently in the middle east we are seeing once again the power of people using non-violence resistance to defeat powerful evil.
All of these are powerful testimony to the truth of Jesus’ words we hear this morning.

This might be simply a silly little love song, but it has a power beyond that of the most powerful army of the world.
And that is the wonder of our faith.
That at the center of the universe is the beating heart of an all loving God.
We can talk about God in many ways.
There are many attributes about God.
There are many ways that God calls us to follow him.
But what is at the start of every discussion of the God we know through Jesus Christ is that God is love.

It is the bases for everything we know about God.
Why did God create the world?
Out of love.
Why did God make a covenant with Noah?
Out of love.
Why did God call Abraham?
Out of love.
Why did God rescue Israel from slavery.
Out of love.
Why did God give the law to Moses?
Out of love.
Why did God send his only Son?
Out of love.

The very first thing that we should be telling our children about God is that God is love.
The reason we have Sunday school is so our kids know the silly little love songs that God sings to them every day.
The reason why we gather here on Sunday morning is to sing silly little love songs to God, and hear God’s love song to us.
This morning we will sing songs about God’s love “Then let the servant church arise a caring church that longs to be a partner in Christ’s sacrifice.”
“Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art; visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.”
Silly little love songs that speak of the foundation of our faith in a loving God.
They are important because they tell us of the life that we want.
The life we desire is a life of love.

It is a life that knows how to turn the other cheek.
The life that is so filled with love that it is not threatened by its enemies; it is not threatened by its persecutors.
This life is only possible through Jesus Christ.
When Jesus tells us to, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
He is not telling us that the expectation is to live without moral imperfections.
He is telling us to be whole.
To know the fullness of God’s intention for us is.
And that is love.
To be full of love, and to live that love out in our everyday lives.
The old saying is true, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
That is why it is not foolishness to believe.
It is why we pass on those silly little love songs.
Because we want to live fully into what God has planned not just for us but for all people.

St. Paul said it best, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
When we know of God’s love we allow it to dwell in our hearts and it overflows even to our enemies.
That is how much love God has to give us, enough that it can flow even those people that we don’t like, or whose ideas make our skin crawl.
That is what it means to be whole to fulfill the role that God has given us as the Church and as individual Christians striving to be more Christ like in our daily lives.

And that is why we share those silly love songs, it is why we come here on Sunday morning and here the same stories told again and again.
It is why we sit through sermon after sermon.
We are reminded each time of that great song of God’s love for us.

A couple of weeks ago we were invited by the Smith family to go sledding in Bow after worship.
My son Charlie and I were walking up the hill together so we could sled down.
As we walked Charlie reached out and grabbed my hand and sang, “I want to hold your haaand. I want to hold your hand.”
The Beatles Kids bop had worked Charlie knew his Beatles songs.
I hope that he will always know the silly little love songs that produce in us the ability to reach out in love.
The ability to take someone’s hand and walk in harmony.
I hope he knows that the power of God’s love can not only transform his life, but the world.

It might seem silly, overly optimistic, even foolish.
But I do believe that all we need is love.
I believe in those silly love songs passed on to me from my aunt, and the other saints who have gone before me.
Most of all I believe in God’s love given to me in Jesus Christ that spills out of me into even my enemies.
As Mother Teresa once said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”
So may your day and your life be filled with silly little love songs.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Choose Life!

Today’s Gospel reading is challenging to say the least.
Jesus makes demands on us that seem impossible.
It is not good enough to merely follow the law, what is needed is what comes from the inside of us.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
These are pretty hard words because all of us have been angry with someone else at some point in our lives.
In fact, I would be willing to say that all of us at some point have been angry with someone in the church at some point.
Someone did not do what we thought they should or in a way we thought we should and it made us upset at them.

What are we to do with Jesus teachings this morning?
They leave no room for us to wiggle out of the demands of the law.
They leave no room for us to feel that somehow we have been able to do the right thing with God.
And maybe that is part of the point.
For if you want to justify yourself using the law you better be careful because it is likely you yourself have broken the law.
There is no boasting before God.

There is something more going on than this for us something that I discovered not in confirmation or even seminary.
It was something I discovered on a youth retreat after I had been in ministry for a couple of years.
There was another pastor giving a presentation to the kids about the Ten Commandments.
Listening to her talk on the Ten Commandments I had a revelation the law is good.
That if we lived our lives according the Ten Commandments everything would be great.
If we treated everyone with respect, if we loved God with our whole hearts then this world would be a great place.

That day what struck me about the Ten Commandments was that they were so practical.
In these ten laws we had all we needed to know about living a good life with each other.
Don’t murder, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t covet other people’s things, remember God is the most important thing.
These are good things to live our life by, and I guarantee that if we lived this way our lives would be great.
It is exactly like what God tells us today in our reading from Deuteronomy, “ See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live….Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
To follow the law is to live a good life.
God gives us the commandments out of love, because God knows humans so well that he gave us a way to live.
Jesus knows this too and Jesus interprets these commandments to mean even more then outward behavior.
Jesus is telling us that the commandments go beyond outward behavior to the heart of who and what we are as God’s people.

Here is the key the commandments are not about a tyrannical ruler making us do things that prohibit freedom and free thought.
God is not some ruthless dictator demanding that we follow rules blindly and then punishing us for not following them.
We have seen in extraordinary fashion recently that people yearn to be free.
First in Tunisia then in Egypt we saw that people will not live under tyrannical rules forever.
That eventually people rebel and resent those in power.
In fact, what happened in Egypt has been brewing for a long time.
Yes, people might have outwardly been doing what was being asked but deep down they yearned for more.
And so the commandments and the demands of a Christian life are not about bowing down to a dictator type of god.

I think the history of the church has proven that people will not simply go along with the program.
When the Church has been about controlling people then it has lost its most powerful and central message.
That God is a God of love, forgiveness, and desires a deep relationship with us.
I am glad that the church is not about doing what the pastor tells us, it is about us together collectively journeying to know God better.

That is what Jesus teachings are about this morning.
It is about a God who wants more for us.
God does not merely want us outwardly to do the right thing, but wants us to feel it in our souls.
God does not merely want us to walk through the motions; God wants us to change in our inner selves our orientation to every part of life.

God does not merely want us to not commit adultery, but wants us to have our spouses be the only target of our affection.
God does not merely wan1t us to come to church and get through it, but wants us to be active in a community of love.
God does not merely want us to swear that we will do what we say, God wants us to do what we will say.
How much better our lives will be when God is in our hearts and minds.
How much better our lives will be when our thoughts are the thoughts of God.
That is how intimately God wants to know us.
That is how intimately God wants us to know God.
God wants to know our inner selves.
In this world we often don’t get beyond what is on the outside with people.
We get to know what they do for work, how many kids they have, what their hobbies are, and where they like to eat dinner.
But we don’t get to know there inner thoughts.
God wants to know us so well that he knows our inner thoughts.
Even more God wants our thoughts to be God’s thoughts because our inner thoughts often lead to our outer action.

For example, I know this congregation that was having a progressive dinner.
One of the parishioners on the way out of someone’s house slipped and fell.
They took this person from their own church to court and sued them for damages.
This is a true story.
You can imagine the damage this did to the fellowship of the people in that congregation.
It made it hard for some people to go to worship.
It made others take up sides.
And it put the pastor in a really awkward position.
What is going on inside of someone when they sue another member of their own congregation?
How can that be the will of God?
The inner life leads us to the outer life.

When I was working in an inner city congregation in Allentown PA, I would go with the pastor to visit to the youth of the congregation.
Most of the kids lived in the projects.
She would tell them you have two choices you can come to church and live or go out on the streets and die.
It was a life and death decision.
God led to life and the streets led to death.
This morning we are confronted with the same choice.
To know God, to love God is to truly live.
To ignore God is to die if not literally then spiritually.
To ignore God is to ignore the inner part of ourselves that yearns for something more.
More than merely filling a role, or following rules, it is about really living.

Yes, God’s law is good.
Knowing God is good, and leads to life.
So today let us choose to know God better and deeper and in doing choose life!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Salt and Light!

This past week we were all reminded of the importance of salt.
Where would we be without salt to make our roads free from snow and ice?
They are finding out in Dallas this week the importance of salt.
Dallas is where the super bowl will be played today and the weather there has been snowy and icy, and they don’t have any salt for the roads.
Dangerous road conditions led to this headline, “Snow adds to weather misery in Dallas-Fort Worth”
Salt in our case is what saves us in our difficult winter conditions.
Salt is the subject of Jesus preaching this morning.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
If we lose our connection to Jesus we lose our saltiness.
We fail to live righteous lives and we fail to have faith in difficult times.
We fail to have our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees.
Likewise we know the importance of light.
Without light how can we see in the dark?
How can we find our way?
We are the light of the world.
And if we are not shining with the love of Christ how will others see through the darkness.

It might seem like a tall order that Jesus has given us.
This is a lot of responsibility to be the light of the world and salt of the earth.
But where else are people going to find their way?
How else are people going to have a sure footing and safe travel through the journey of life?
The truth is that there have been other people who have come before us.
There have been other people who were salted who shined light into the dark places.
All of us have these people in our lives.
We all know of someone who we looked up to and thought I want what that person has.
I want to have a faith like that person has.
I want to serve others like that person does.
So we know that what Jesus asks of us is not impossible.
I would say that we need to be even more salted now than ever.
When religion is seen as a negative thing.
When religious morals and values are being eroded we need now more than ever to be the light of the world to be the salt of the earth.
We cannot expect that the world will be able to teach peace, love, and compassion.
We know that it does not.

For example, in a reactionary move the state legislator is considering adding more reasons to allow the death penalty in New Hampshire.
It is no doubt that the murders from home invasions are awful.
But I am not sure that killing more people will solve the problem.
Have we as a society totally given up on the idea of reconciliation.
Have we given up on forgiveness?
Only people who are salted know that these are important moral beliefs.

I was thinking of the people in my life who I have met who where lights shining for me, of the people who were well salted in their lives.
They all shared certain characteristics.
One, they all had a deep relationship with Jesus.
They studied their Bibles even into their later years knowing that God’s word was the key to knowing their Lord.
They had disciplined prayer lives, and they all felt worship was the highlight of their week.
Two they all had a certain amount of humility.
Not fake humility, but the idea that they were no better than anyone else.
Three they all were eager and able to forgive.
Four they were about creating peace in their lives.
In their families, in their churches, in their homes they were about peace.
Not peace as a political slogan but a deep and abiding peace in the depths of their souls.
Five they had a faith in the possibility of a better tomorrow.
Six they loved deeply and told you that they loved you.
Seven no matter their life circumstances they had faith in God’s ability to do something amazing and wonderful.

I am sure there are more but these were the ones that came up easily for me.
When I think of what Jesus meant by being salt and light I think of these things.
Not because they are great religious ideals (even though they are) but because they were brought to life by someone I knew and respected.
If we are able to live as Jesus teaches us to I think that some people will revile us.
But I also think that some people will look at us and think, “I want what that person has.”
I want to have faith in the midst of trouble and turmoil.
I want to love more and say it to those I love.
I want to have a deep and abiding peace.
I want to have faith in a better tomorrow.
Maybe you are one of those people like me who desires more out of life then the accumulation of wealth, or winning the big game, or being the best and brightest.
I want more than this.
I want what Dorothy Ricks has.
She is an extraordinary woman who was the chair of my internship committee while I was in seminary.
She had seen many things in her life.
She had good times and bad times.
And she had this thing about her.
She was faithful, loving, caring, and a person of great peace.
She loved Jesus and knew her savior well.
She was my teacher, and my guide for the year I was on internship.
Then there was Ms. Rene.
Another salted person who lived a life of service.
She was the first one at the church every morning and the last one to leave.
She was one of the people that started the homeless feeding ministry.
She was strong, clear, and filled with the spirit.
She was my teacher too.
I could go on and on of all the people I have known who were well salted who shined a light into my life.

To be salted and the light is to know Jesus and who he is.
That is why the sermon on the mountain is so important because Jesus is giving us a road map on how to live.
We live through Jesus.
Jesus fulfills the law, by helping us see it in life.
If you want to know what it means to follow God then look at Jesus, know Jesus and his teachings.
The problem is that we fall away very easily from our relationship to Jesus.
We get busy and other things get in our way.
We are too busy to pray, or study the Bible.
I will worship when I get other things in my day.
And then we lose our saltiness, we lose the light that makes us see through the darkness.

This is not about following the law.
It is about knowing Jesus so well that instinctively without thinking we live as the salt and light.

I want to end by saying that our children especially need this.
Our children have lost their way.
This week I heard a report that kids are less connected to social networks.
Because of this they are becoming less compassionate.
Malcolm Smith of the University of New Hampshire gave a lecture this week and said that “repeat bullies have a deficit in social learning and are missing basic values like manners, civility and kindness. He says they think they are better than others.”
We need to be salted ourselves and remain in relationship with Jesus and one another.
The church is still that place where we have to show up, and we have to deal with other people.
The Church can be the place where we show that kindness matters, and that we are no better than anyone else.
But that God loves us all the same.
That we are all equally sinful and saved by the light and salt that is provided by Jesus Christ.

I believe that we have an important part to play in our world.
That we can be the place that continue to teach about the important morals of peace, love, kindness, civility, and compassion.
Jesus told us that we are the salt of the earth; we are the light of the world.
And through us others would see God and glorify God’s name.
Jesus believed that we as the church centered in Jesus can provide safe travel through the dangers of life.
People would see our good works and think, “I want what they have.”
So go out and be the salt of the earth and the light to the world.