Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Seeking Responsibility (Forgiveness Part 2)

We continue our sermon series this week on forgiveness.  Just to recap last week: we discovered that scientists have discovered many physical and mental benefits with forgiveness.  We also know that forgiveness is commanded by God and that the Bible tells us that if we don’t forgive, then we will not be forgiven.  Yet, despite all of this, forgiveness is terribly difficult for us to practice.  As we delved into the biblical understanding of forgiveness, we came to understand why: forgiveness means that we pay the cost when someone else wrongs us.  We would rather obtain justice, revenge, or restitution when someone harms us.  We would rather not pay that price ourselves.  We concluded with a working definition of forgiveness that will guide us through the next several weeks: the change in our emotional state when we choose to absorb the cost of someone else’s actions that have hurt us. 

Since we have a working definition of forgiveness, the next question becomes: how do we practice forgiveness?  How do we overcome our natural tendencies toward justice, revenge, and demanding retribution and instead pay the cost of others’ wrong doings?  Now, I am going to admit right here that I am working on the assumption that as Christians, you want to practice forgiveness; you want to follow the commands in scripture; you want to become better at practicing this common faith that we share.  If that is indeed the case, we will proceed.

I find it very interesting that for such an important cornerstone to the Christian life, there really isn’t a whole lot of emphasis on how to forgive in the Bible.  It is certainly commanded.  It is certainly expected, but there isn’t much teaching on how it is to be accomplished.  It would be nice if the Bible had a series of steps laid out: a three step program; a seven step program; a ten step program that would lay out the process of forgiveness so that we could simply walk step by step towards forgiveness.  Alas, but no such list is to be found.  The closest thing we get to a process can be found in Matthew chapter 18.  There is a series of teachings by Jesus that directly relates to forgiveness.

The first part of those teachings, ironically, is a process–although it is not a process of forgiveness.  Again, let’s go back to our working definition of forgiveness: the change in our emotional state when we choose to absorb the cost of someone else’s actions that have hurt us.  Absorbing that cost is very, very difficult.  It causes us hurt.  It causes us grief.  It causes us pain.  It is not something we want to do.  Furthermore, it seems to absolve the guilty party of responsibility.  That is not necessarily a good thing.

I can remember growing up and having lot of friends who were Roman Catholic.  Oftentimes some of them would go out partying on the weekends.  I’d ask them about how they squared their actions with their faith.  They’d usually say, “Well, I’ll just go to confession, and everything will be okay.”  Forgiveness to them was cheap.  It required nothing from them.  It absolved them of responsibility.  They simply continued their behavior.  I think that you and I can agree that this is not optimal.

And so, Jesus begins his teachings on forgiveness with a confrontation of the sin.  Jesus begins his teachings on forgiveness with the idea of getting someone who hurts you to take responsibility for his or her actions.  Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  Now, there are some important details to look at in this statement.  First, Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you...”  This is an important qualifier to this process Jesus is outlining.  There is a difference between someone in the church and someone outside of the church.  Within the church we are expected to take responsibility for our actions; we are expected to take responsibility for our sins; we are expected to make things right as best as we can with our fellow man.  Therefore, when someone in the church sins against us, rather than immediately try and bear the cost of forgiveness, we are called to seek them out.  We are called to try and clear the air. 

This is very practical advice on one level.  I mean, sometimes we hurt people without even realizing it.  Has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever done or said something with the best of intentions only to have someone become very upset with what you have done?  I’m reminded of the story of the Polish man moved to the USA and married an American girl.  Although his English was far from perfect, they got along very well. One day he rushed into a lawyer's office and asked him if he could arrange a divorce for him. The lawyer said that getting a divorce would depend on the circumstances, and asked him the following questions: “Have you any grounds?” “Yes, an acre and half and nice little home.”  “No, I mean what is the foundation of this case?” “It made of concrete.”  “I don't think you understand. Does either of you have a real grudge?” “No, we have carport, and not need one.”  “I mean what are your relations like?” “All my relations still in Poland.”  “Is there any infidelity in your marriage?” “We have hi-fidelity stereo and good DVD player.”  “Does your wife beat you up?” “No, I always up before her.”  “Why do you want this divorce?” “She going to kill me.”  “What makes you think that?” “I got proof.”  “What kind of proof?” “She going to poison me. She buy a bottle at drugstore and put on shelf in bathroom. I can read English pretty good, and it say: Polish remover.”

Okay, that’s a joke, and we all know it, but there is some seriousness to it.  It’s a huge misunderstanding, and such misunderstandings can be cleared up very, very quickly in a private meeting between two people.  In the church, this should be easier than it tends to be.  And I know at least one of the reasons why.  We’re afraid.  We’re afraid to go talk to someone because we don’t like confrontation.  We don’t like the thought that someone will be angry with us.  We don’t like the idea that if we confront someone, we might be caused even more hurt.  And so we let it fester.  We let it simmer.  We fail to confront.  And it is not only to our detriment; it is also to the detriment of our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

For you see, the translation that we have before us isn’t as accurate as it could be.  Perhaps a better translation would be this, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have won that one.”  Yes, regained should probably be translated “won”.  This indicates that your fellow church member might be in danger of being lost.  Your fellow brother or sister in Christ might be in danger of losing his or her salvation.  This should be a revolting thought to any Christian.  God desires no one to be lost, and Jesus is giving us the responsibility of restoring our brothers and sisters to faith.  This is much more important and takes much greater precedence than our fear!

So, go.  Speak privately with your brother.  Speak privately with your sister.  If the sin is named; if the air is cleared; you have regained your brother; you have regained your sister; and you no longer have to bear the cost of forgiveness.  Your brother or sister has taken responsibility.

That’s the ideal.  But you and I know that we don’t live in an ideal world.  Oftentimes, confronting our brothers and sisters in their sin does not work.  There is a huge tendency to justify our actions.  “Why did you hit your brother?”  “He was picking on me.”  See the justification?  “You just broke that picture frame by throwing the ball in the house.”  “I didn’t mean to.”  See the justification?  “You shouldn’t say those kinds of things about other people.”  “That’s just your opinion.”  See the justification?  Sometimes, our pride and arrogance gets in the way of us truly taking responsibility for our actions.  And if you experience this when you confront someone who has hurt you, there is another step in the process.  Involve others.  Take another person or two to serve as witnesses. 

And if that doesn’t work, bring it to the church.  Notice that making things public in front of everybody is the last step in the process?  Notice that talking about another person’s sin in front of everyone is forbidden until all other avenues have been exhausted?  How backwards do we often practice Jesus words!!!  How backwards do we often live this out!!!  Oh how many conflicts and trials and broken relationships could be saved were we only to follow the instructions of our Lord and Savior!!

But we do also see before us that there is a time and a place for the church to render judgment.  We also see before us that there is a time and a place for the church to draw lines in the sand between that which is right and that which is wrong.  “If they do not listen to the church, treat them as a Gentile or a tax collector.”  In the language of the day, this means treat them as an outsider.  Treat them as one who does not belong to the fellowship.  You have given them every single opportunity to repent; you have given them every single opportunity to admit their guilt; you have given them every single opportunity to take responsibility for their actions; and they have not accepted it.  It’s time to move on.  It’s time to move to the hard work of forgiveness–of paying for the other person’s actions toward you.  You tried.  You did what you could.  But sometimes, it just doesn’t work out as it should.

And so let us close with a prayer from Desmond Tutu who worked very hard on reconciliation and forgiveness after apartheid came to an end in South Africa

I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again
Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes
or that the one who hurt me may also have cried
I am not yet ready for the journey
I am not yet interested in the path
I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness
Grant me the will to want to forgive
Grant it to me not yet but soon
Can I even form the words
Forgive me?
Dare I even look?
Do I dare to see the hurt that I have caused?
I can glimpse all the shattered pieces of that fragile thing
That soul trying to rise on the broken wings of hope
But only out of the corner of my eye
I am afraid of it
And if I am afraid to see
How can I not be afraid to say
Forgive me?
Is there a place where we can meet?
You and me
The place in the middle
The no man’s land
Where we straddle the lines
Where you are right
and I am right too
And both of us are wrong and wronged
Can we meet there?
And look for the place where the path begins
The path that ends when we forgive.  Amen.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Part 1: Why is Forgiveness so Hard?

As we begin the season of Lent, I am going to begin a sermon series on forgiveness.  Most of us realize that forgiveness is one of the cornerstones of the Christian life–one that has been proclaimed and urged for nearly 2000 years.  But it is very interesting that in the last two decades or so, a wealth of psychological studies have also come out regarding forgiveness.  Some of the conclusions are quite staggering.

Consider what Dr. Thomas G. Plante said in his article for Psychology Today titled “Seven Rules for Forgiveness,” “It is really hard to forgive, whether it is forgiving yourself or others. We all could likely use some help learning to do it better. But what we may not be aware of is that learning to forgive is good for both our mental and physical health. Quality empirical research has shown that when we are better at forgiveness we experience lower stress, tension, levels of depression, anxiety, and perhaps most important, anger. Anger is toxic to our mental and physical health, increasing our stress reactivity and our risk for illness such as heart disease. In fact, the hostility and anger associated with Type A behavior is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. When we have trouble being able to forgive, we hold in anger, resentment, and bitterness that can harm us in multiple ways and at multiple levels.”

In another article from Psychology Today titled “The Psychology of Forgiveness”, Rubin Khoddam, a PhD student writes this, “Psychologically, when people reported higher levels of forgiveness, they also tended to report better health habits and decreased depression, anxiety, and anger levels. Even in betrayed couples, greater levels of forgiveness were associated with more satisfied relationships, a stronger parenting alliance, and children's perceptions of parenting functioning. Physiologically, higher reported levels of forgiveness were associated with lower white blood cell count and hematocrit levels. White blood cells are an integral part of fighting off diseases and infections. Together, these results highlight the importance of forgiveness - not for the other person, but for you.”

And then there are the personal testimonies by doctors.  In Salon magazine in the article “The Science of Forgiveness”, the following personal story was shared.

In 1978, Dr. Dabney Ewin, a surgeon specializing in burns, was on duty in a New Orleans emergency room when a man was brought in on a gurney. A worker at the Kaiser Aluminum plant, the patient had slipped and fallen into a vat of 950-degree molten aluminum up to his knees. Ewin did something that most would consider strange at best or the work of a charlatan at worst: He hypnotized the burned man. Without a swinging pocket watch or any other theatrical antics, the surgeon did what’s now known in the field of medical hypnosis as an “induction,” instructing the man to relax, breathe deeply, and close his eyes. He told him to imagine that his legs—scorched to the knees and now packed in ice—did not feel hot or painful but “cool and comfortable.” Ewin had found that doing this—in addition to standard treatments—improved his patients’ outcomes. And that’s what happened with the Kaiser Aluminum worker. While such severe burns would normally require months to heal, multiple skin grafts, and maybe even lead to amputation if excessive swelling cut off the blood supply, the man healed in just eighteen days—without a single skin graft.
As Ewin continued using hypnosis to expedite his burn patients’ recoveries, he added another
unorthodox practice to his regimen: He talked to his patients about anger and forgiveness. He noticed that people coming into the ER with burns were often very angry, and not without reason. They were, as he put it, “all burned up,” both literally and figuratively. Hurt and in severe pain due to their own reckless mistake or someone else’s, as they described the accident that left them burned, their words were tinged with angry guilt or blame. He concluded that their anger may have been interfering with their ability to heal by preventing them from relaxing and focusing on getting better. “I was listening to my patients and feeling what they were feeling,” Ewin told me. “It became obvious that this had to be dealt with. Their attitude affected the healing of their burns, and this was particularly true of skin grafts. With someone who’s real angry, we’d put three or four skin grafts on, but his body would reject them.” Whenever a patient seemed angry, Ewin would help them forgive themselves or the person who hurt them, either through a simple conversation or through hypnosis.
Once Ewin began helping his patients forgive, he noticed even more improvement. “What you’re thinking and feeling affects your body,” he would explain to his patients, using the analogy of something embarrassing causing someone to blush. “What you’re feeling will affect the healing of your skin, and we want you to put all your energy into healing.”...“I’d say, ‘You can still pursue damages through an attorney. You’re entitled to be angry, but for now I’m asking you to abandon your entitlement and let it go, to direct your energy toward healing, and turn this over to God or nature or whoever you worship. It’s not up to you to get revenge on yourself or someone else. When you know at a feeling level that you’re letting it go, raise your hand.’ Then I’d shut up, they’d raise their hand, and I’d know that skin graft was gonna take.”

The science behind forgiveness is powerful.  Very powerful.  However, that does not mean that forgiveness is easy.  Every article I read acknowledged this.  Every. Single. One.  And I found it interesting that few of the articles delved into this aspect very deeply.  Why is it so hard to forgive?  We know that forgiveness is good for you.  As Christians, we know forgiveness is commanded by God–in fact when we pray the Lord’s prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Now, usually, we think this means, “God, forgive us so that we can forgive others.”  However, a more proper reading of the Greek suggests that we are coming to God and saying, “God, forgive me just like I forgive others.”  In other words, in the overall picture, God’s forgiveness will be based in some form on how we forgive others.  All this is to say, is that we know that we are supposed to forgive, but we struggle mightily with actually forgiving.  Today, I’d like to wrestle with why that is the case, and we will begin that wrestling with defining forgiveness.

What exactly is forgiveness?

Okay, bear with me here because I’m going to give a clinical definition of forgiveness published in an article titled “Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results”:  Forgiveness is a process (or the result of a process) that involves a change in emotion and attitude regarding an offender. Most scholars view this an intentional and voluntary process, driven by a deliberate decision to forgive (6, 8, 26, 38). This process results in decreased motivation to retaliate or maintain estrangement from an offender despite their actions, and requires letting go of negative emotions toward the offender. Theorists differ in the extent to which they believe forgiveness also implies replacing the negative emotions with positive attitudes including compassion and benevolence (8, 17, 23, 25, 26). In any event, forgiveness occurs with the victim’s full recognition that he or she deserved better treatment, one reason why Mahatma Gandhi contended that “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”1

Okay, let’s try and break that down a little bit.  Forgiveness is:
1. A change in emotion and attitude toward someone who has hurt you.
2. It’s a process that a person undertakes voluntarily and deliberately.
3. It is a process that a person undertakes with the goal to forgive someone.
4. The process leads you to where you don’t want to hurt the person who has hurt you.
5. The process leads you to get rid of negative emotions.
6. You recognize that you deserved better treatment, but you still let go anyway.
7. This is extremely difficult for a “weak” person to do.

Okay.  That’s a scientific view.  Personally, I might be able to understand forgiveness a little better, but it still doesn’t help me understand why it is so difficult to forgive.  So, let’s turn now to a biblical understanding of forgiveness.  The Greek word used for forgiveness is Aphesis, “which often has the legal sense of “release” from office, marriage, obligation, etc. as also from debt or punishment.”  I would like us to particularly focus on that last piece of the definition–a release from debt or punishment, here is why I think it is particularly hard for us to forgive.

Please note that I am not disputing anything that scientists have said about forgiveness, I’m simply adding a piece to the puzzle. Forgiveness is all the things scientists have said, but they have failed to mention that when you forgive someone, you release them from their debt to you.  Now, what does that mean?

First, let’s think about it in terms of a financial transaction.  Let’s say that one day, you needed to buy a car.  You don’t have enough money to buy a car, so you go to the bank and take out a loan.  You are now in debt, right?  Well, you purchase the car, and then you have a series of set backs.  You are unable to pay your car payment.  You go to the bank and explain your situation.  It just so happens that the CEO of the bank overhears your plight and has compassion on you.  He comes up to you and says, “I am terribly sorry to hear about all that has happened to you.  I tell you what, we are going to write off your loan.”  What did you just receive?  Forgiveness.  You have been forgiven your debt.  But here is the question: who paid the debt?  Who absorbed the cost?  The bank did.  The bank paid for your car in forgiving your debt. 

Now, let’s think about it in terms of an emotional transaction.  Let’s say that a coworker of yours spreads malicious rumors about you.  Soon, everyone is looking at you suspiciously.  Where once you had numerous friends around the office, suddenly you find yourself eating lunch alone.  Finally, someone asks you if the rumors are true.  You are taken aback at what was said about you.  You discover the source of the rumors and are even further taken aback at the person who started them.  You are hurt.  You are wounded.  Your reputation has taken a nasty shot.  And you decide to forgive.  You decide that instead of seeking revenge and restitution, you will simply go about your life and your job.  You know that something is owed to you, but rather than demand it, you move on with your life.  Now, you were owed a debt.  This time, it wasn’t financial, was it?  It was emotional.  Who paid the debt?  Who absorbed the cost?  You did.  You paid the price for someone else’s wrong. 

Do you now see why forgiveness is so difficult?  Do you see now why, even though we know it is good for us; even though we know it is commanded by God; even thought it is a cornerstone of the Christian life; it is extremely hard to practice.  It is extremely hard to accomplish.  We pay for someone else’s wrong doing.  So, let’s put forth a working definition of forgiveness that will guide us for the next several weeks: Forgiveness is the change in our emotional state when we choose to absorb the cost of someone else’s actions that have hurt us. 

Given that definition, it is easy to see why the old adage is so true: to err is human, but to forgive is divine.  Indeed, forgiveness is divine, and I invite you to journey with me in the next few weeks as we see this: as we see divine forgiveness and then how it translates into human forgiveness.  In invite you to join me as we learn how to forgive.  Amen.

1. American Psychological Association, (2006). Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results. Washington, DC: Office of International Affairs. Reprinted, 2008.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mark #5: Giving Glory to God

Today, we come to the fifth and final mark of the church and the individual Christian found in Romans chapter 15:1-6.  The church is called to do all things to the glory of God. Verse 6 reads, “So that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Okay, this sounds simple enough.  Give glory to God.  Do everything to the glory of God.  So, here’s the question what exactly is glory?  Have you ever stopped to think about it?  What does it mean to give glory to God?

Sure, we’ve all heard about giving glory to God.  We’ve sung about giving glory to God.  We’ve sung about God’s glory.

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
“Angels from the realm’s of glory!”
“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.”
“All glory, laud and honor, to you Redeemer King!

You will notice that there’s a bit of a difference in terminology there.  You’ll notice that on one hand when we sing about giving glory to God, it’s essentially that we are giving God praise.  We are exalting God.  On the other hand, we see that glory is something that God already has.  God has glory.  We see His glory.  It can be a bit confusing.

So, let’s clear it up a little bit.  The word glory in the Bible–particularly in the New Testament comes from the Greek word, doxa.  This is where we get the title to the hymn we sing after we take up our offerings: the doxology.  That’s just a bit of trivia for you this morning.  But interestingly enough, the word doxa, denotes “divine and heavenly radiance” the “loftiness and majesty” of God, and even the “being of God.”  It highlights “divine honor”, “divine splendor”, “divine power”, and “visible divine radiance.” 

So, if this is the case.  If the word glory means “divine and heavenly radiance”, the “loftiness and majesty of God”, “divine honor”, “divine splendor”, “divine power,” and “visible divine radiance,” what does it mean that a church does everything for this?  What does it mean that we live our lives to give this to God?

Well, my brothers and sisters, fortunately, we do not have to turn to Google for help here.  In fact, I am quite sure that Google will lead us astray.  Fortunately, we have a word from God that helps us see what it means to give glory to God–the one who is already full of glory.

Let me read to you a portion of Exodus chapter 33 beginning in verse 18.  You see, Moses and God are having a conversation up on Mount Sinai.  They have talked long about a great many things, and Moses makes a request of God.  “18Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ 19And God said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ 21And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’”

So you see, my brothers and sisters, God’s glory is too much for us to comprehend.  God’s glory is too much for human eyes.  God’s splendor and majesty is too powerful for us to be able to look upon.  It is so overwhelming; it is so powerful; it is so beautiful; that were we to gaze upon it, we would die.  And so, Moses was not allowed to see the fullness of the glory of God–even though he deeply longed for it.  Moses was not allowed to look into the face of God.  God covered Moses’ face as He passed by.  So, Moses only got to get a glimpse of God’s glory.  Moses only got to see a smidgen of the overall beauty and majesty and power of God. But what effect did that have?

Well, we need to move on to chapter 34 of the book of Exodus.  We need to see what happened after Moses encountered God.  We need to see what happened after Moses got to see a glimpse of the glory of God.  Here we go, we begin in verse 29, “ Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.”

Did you catch what was happening here?  Did you catch what was happening to Moses after he talked with God?  Did you catch what Moses was like once he had met God and encountered God’s glory? 

Moses shined.
Moses was radiant.
Moses was beautiful.

Not with his own light.  Not with his own power.  Not with his own beauty.  Not with his own glory.  No.  Moses was shining the glory of God, reflecting it to the people of Israel.  Think about that a minute.  After encountering God and God’s glory, Moses reflected that glory to the rest of the world.  This was not something that Moses did on his own.  This was not something Moses decided to do. Moses simply asked to see God’s glory, and after encountering just a smidgen of the glory of God, God made Moses shine!

Do you see the connection to the church?  Do you see the connection to you and your life?  We radiate the glory of God.  This what it means to give Him glory.  This is what it means to do everything to the glory of God.  Because we have encountered God.  Because we have seen the glory of God, we shine that into the world in everything that we do.

But this is kind of where we get into trouble.  This is kind of where we miss the mark.  Because oftentimes we tend to be more concerned about talking about ourselves than we are showing the glory of God.  Now, I know that statement isn’t the nicest statement to say in regards to churches and individual Christians.  Believe me, I am well aware that when I am pointing the finger out, there are three more pointing right back at me.  I’m as guilty as anything of that statement.  I know for most of my life, I’ve been more concerned with me and what I want.  I’ve been more concerned with growing a church so that I could get recognition.  I’ve been more concerned with attaining goals and status than I have been with showing forth Jesus.  Don’t think that I’m innocent in this.  I’ve been more than wrong.

And there are many churches that have fallen into this kind of stuff too.  We focus on the wrong things.  We focus on simply getting members to join our churches.  We focus on growing our programs.  We focus on making sure enough money is flowing into our offering plates.  We focus on our music and on our youth.  And while none of this is necessarily bad, where is God in the midst of this?  Where is our giving glory to God.  Are we going to give glory when our churches and our programs grow, or are we going to give glory to God first and then watch what happens when that glory is reflected into the world?

And this just makes sense.  I mean, when Jesus gathered his disciples on the hill outside of Jerusalem and was lifted up into heaven, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Now, what kind of disciples do you think Jesus wanted his followers to make? What kind of disciples do you think Jesus expects us to make?  Do you think he wanted us to make disciples of St. John Lutheran Church?  Do you think he wants us to make disciples of Pastor Haug?  Of Christa?  Of Ralph?  Of Rick, or Debbie, or James?  Do you think Jesus wants disciples of WELCA or Lutheran Men in Mission?  No!  He wants people to follow Him!  He wants people to have Him enthroned in their hearts!  This church can’t give people what Jesus can!  We can’t give people what Jesus can!  We can only point the way to Jesus so that they can fall in love with Him!

And so we give glory to God.  We help people encounter God.  And you may ask, “Where can I find God? Where can I encounter Him and His love? Where can I point people so that they can encounter Him?  Where can we encounter God so that we reflect His glory just like Moses reflected His glory?”

And the answer my brothers and sisters is this: there are many places we can eventually encounter God, but if you want to meet Him and come to see His great love, look no further than the cross.  Look no further than the place where the God of this universe took your sin upon Himself and died for you.  Look no further than to the place where He loved you when you were unlovable.  Look no further than the place where He hung and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”  Look no further than the place where Jesus emptied Himself so that you and I may be filled.  Look no further than the place where “sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  Did ere such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown.”

For you see, my brothers and sisters, when you gaze upon the face of the one who died for you in your brokenness; when you look into His eyes and see His disappointment in your sin but also the depths of His loved; when you have your heart touched by Him, oh, oh you see that Jesus is the most beautiful; most awe inspiring; most wonderful thing that you can ever behold.  You long for Him to reveal Himself to you.  You beg like Moses begged, “Lord, show me your glory!”  And He does.  Yes, He does.  And when He shows you His glory, then that glory shines off of you.  It reflects off of you, and it draws people to Him.  And then they will say, “There is no way we can account for what we see here other than to say that God’s hand is at work.  There is no way we can account for the love, respect, care, and compassion that we see at work here.  These things just don’t happen in the world.  There must be something else at work. There must be something else that has brought these things to fruition.  There must be a power that is real and greater than anything we have ever seen.  There must be a God.” (Keller) This is the mark of a Christian.  This is the mark of a church–that it gives glory to God so that others are drawn to Him.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mark #4: Living in Harmony

There is a deep desire within each and every one of us to see authentic community–to see and live in a place where we have peace with one another without strife and conflict.  You can see this longing throughout the history of humanity: in its songs; in its literature; in its artwork.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!” goes the great folk song.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says the golden rule which is a part of every major religion and philosophy.

When we see senseless violence and destruction, we ask, “What’s wrong with people?”

And we say the immortal words of Rodney King who spoke in the early 1990's concerning the riots which bear his name, “Why can’t we just all get along?”

Why can’t we, indeed?

And such peace and harmony ideally should be one of the greatest marks of the church.  St. Paul lays it out for us this morning as the fourth mark found in Romans 15:1-6, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.”  Paul earnestly prays and admonishes the church at the same time with these words.  He prays and admonishes that we live together in harmony.

Yet...Paul had just finished chapter 14 in the book of Romans–and chapter 14 was all about a church that was not living in harmony.  In fact, if you read through Paul’s letters to the churches, you will find that most of them are dealing with churches who are experiencing some sort of conflict.  1 and 2 Corinthians deal with a church that is divided because of different pastors who have served it.  Galatians deals with a church that is divided because of misunderstandings of the Gospel.  Romans shows division over misunderstanding how the Gospel is lived out.  The Thessalonians are dealing with people who refuse to work.  And so on and so forth.

If you read the book of Acts, you will also see the church divided at times, culminating in the first great council of the Church in Acts chapter 15 where a division regarding whether Gentiles should be added to the church is addressed.  And this is just what is in the Bible.  If you read church history, you will find all sorts of divisions and arguments.  The church is just like the rest of the world when it comes to its divisions and sects and groups and denominations.  There are tens of thousands of different denominations within Christianity, and there seems to be very little harmony.

Just about every congregation knows this.  Just about every single congregation has experienced conflict in its lifetime.  Why can’t we get along?  Why can’t we concentrate on simply being the church; worshiping; reaching out with the Gospel?

Oh, we could spend a lot of time on this–a lot of time. There are many, many possibilities.  But let me read to you, this morning a particularly insightful word from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was extremely bright and who died because he dared stand against the Nazi party in Germany.

Bonhoeffer wrote several Christian classics including a little book titled, Life Together, and in that book he says this:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.  The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.  Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.  He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream.  God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.  Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.  The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.  A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.  Sooner or later, it will collapse.  Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was writing those words about me.  Honestly, because I know that I have and had a dream about what a Christian community should be; should look like; should operate like.  I had a dream about how a church should function and how people should act within that community. 

But what Bonhoeffer points out is this: this is MY dream.  It’s not God’s dream.  And if we are to truly experience Christian harmony, we must give up our dreams and submit them to God’s dream and God’s will.  If we pursue our dream, the results will not be pretty, but if we submit to God’s dream.  If we submit to Jesus and His dream for the church, beauty will take place, and this is exactly what Paul tells us.  Hear that verse one more time and pay particular attention to the last part of the verse.  “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.”

We must submit ourselves in accordance with Christ Jesus if we want to live in harmony.  Let me show you how this works.  Please remember, I am not a trained musician, and I don’t know music terminology.  I just play my guitar and sing, but here is what I know.  Each string needs to be in tune.  And each string sounds pretty good by itself.  Each makes a nice sound when it is picked.  But if you strum all six strings together, the sound isn’t exactly good.  It’s just some noise.
But, when different strings submit to the will of the musician, harmony appears.  Chords appear.  The sound comes together beautifully.  And as the musician begins pressing down on different strings in different sequences, music begins to appear.  The strings must submit to the will of the musician, or there is no music.  There is no harmony.  But when the Great Musician is working and His people are submitting, there is harmony; there is beautiful music that arises from His Church:

(Sing “Shout to the North)

Oh, my brothers and sisters, if we are going to make music that draws the world to Jesus, we are going to have to submit to Him.  We are going to have to be in accordance with Him.  We are going to have to be in harmony with Him!!  I mean, I am no big fan of T.D. Jakes, the televangelist, but he was absolutely correct when he said, “You can’t learn to be in harmony with other people until you learn to be in harmony with God.”

But here is the good news, God has acted so that we can be in harmony with Him.  God has acted through Jesus so that we may be brought into a right relationship with God.  Jesus has taken our disharmony–our sin–upon himself and put it to death with Him on the cross.  Jesus has taken our disharmony into Himself and tuned it to righteousness.  Jesus has taken our disharmony and transformed it into His beauty, not by any work of our own–not because we deserved it–or anything about us.  He did this through sheer grace; through sheer mercy; because of His great love for you and for me.  You don’t have to worry about tuning yourself.  You don’t have to worry about getting everything together.  Simply put your trust in Jesus, and He will bring you to the place you need to be.  Simply trust in Jesus and what He did on the cross and you will be led into a place of ultimate harmony; first with God, and then with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

As we submit to Jesus more and more in our lives; as we are captured by his grace and mercy; we begin to show this mark more and more as a church.  We begin to live in harmony, and we make beautiful music that proclaims Jesus to the world.  Amen.