The Secret to Happiness

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

What if I told you that I know the secret to happiness? Even better, I am willing to give you that secret…so let’s pass the collection plates one more time. No, give, I’m willing to give you that secret absolutely free. And no, I’m not passing on the knowledge of Jimmy Soul, who dropped a bit of wisdom on the world when he sang, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. So from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.”

Let’s be honest, after singing a song like that, who is going to marry Jimmy Soul? Are you just marrying me because you think I’m ugly?

No, I’ve got the secret! I’ve got scientific evidence where hypotheses have been tested in double-blind trials. And time after time these trials have shown that there is one thing, one quality, that almost without fail leads to a happier life. This quality isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally, but it can be cultivated and it can become a habit. The quality that I’m speaking of, this secret to happiness, is actually something quite simple. It is gratitude. It turns out that the happiest people in the world aren’t necessarily the ones with the most possessions, the prettiest or ugliest spouses, the fastest cars, or the most-powerful jobs. The happiest people in the world are those who are thankful for what they have.

What I want to do this morning is to spend some time looking at what our scriptures say about being thankful, then looking at the science behind it, and we will wrap things up with some practical application (which I admit, I don’t always make things practical!). I’ll also add that I am borrowing a lot from a sermon by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church, which you can watch/listen to here: https://whchurch.org/sermon/the-secret/

I want to start by looking at a few verses, all from the writings of “Paul,” because Paul mentions thankfulness a lot. We often turn to Paul for teachings on other behavioral and ethical questions, so let’s assume that he has something to say about thankfulness. (I’ll ask several from the church to read these passages).

1 Corinthians 1:4: “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

1 Thessalonians 1:2-3: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Thessalonians 1:3: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing…”

Colossians 3:15: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful…”

Look at what Paul is doing. I always that God. We always thank God. We must always thank God. And in the last one, Paul connects the peace of Christ to this concept of thankfulness. Do you want to live in peace? Then start by being thankful! And notice that this is not simply a suggestion, nor is Paul blessing the people who already are thankful, those who naturally have a predisposition toward being thankful. Bless those people who just always remember to say “Please” and “Thank you!” No, this is in the imperative. This is a commandment. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t worship idols, and be thankful!

Now from our passage for today, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Come on, Paul. Really? Rejoice always? Pray continually? Give thanks in all circumstances? This makes me wonder if Paul is really living in the same world as the rest of us. In my world, people get cancer. In my world, there is war. In my world, there is famine and poverty. But remember, Paul didn’t have it all that easy, either. He must have been facing some sort of criticism for his cushy lifestyle at one point, because in 1 Corinthians, he lays out some of what he has experienced: 1 Corinthians 11:23b-27:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one (The maximum allowed by Hebrew Law was 40. See Deut. 25:3). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

This is the guy telling us to be thankful in all circumstances.

But notice that there is a big difference between being thankful in all circumstances and being thankful for all circumstances. You don’t have to be thankful for cancer, childhood obesity, poverty, or being shipwrecked. And just an aside, if you see Paul on a boat, it might be wise to get off. He doesn’t have a good track record in matters maritime. Don’t be thankful for these things, but be thankful in these things.

Let’s bring it down a bit and get a lot less serious. This week Sonya opened the drawer where we keep all of our specialty cooking devices in our kitchen—the whisk, the potato peeler, the rubber spatula—to find the tell-tale sign of an unwanted houseguest. Little black dots sat in the bottom of the drawer, leading to an investigation and thorough cleaning of other drawers and cabinets. We have lived in our old house for nine-and-one-half years and never had a mouse. I think I was even recently bragging about that to someone. Well, no more. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids’ lunch and kept a little extra peanut butter back to use as bate on our mouse trap.

Thursday morning I wake up to more black dots under the kitchen sink, and one dead mouse caught in my trap. And I assumed that there were more hiding somewhere.

This is not how I wanted to spend my Thursday morning. I like to sip my freshly-brewed coffee as I catch up on the day’s news. But here I was, sweeping up mouse poop. And to make matters worse, I had a dentist appointment later that day to pull a tooth. So my day wasn’t looking like it was going to be improving any time soon!

This is where I find my life to be challenging. I start thinking about my sermon on Monday, live with the text for the week, and then really start writing on Thursday. So at this time I had been living with the idea of thankfulness, listening to sermons on thankfulness, and studying thankfulness. I knew the whole “in all things give thanks” thingy. I didn’t want to give thanks as I swept up mouse poop and get ready for a molar extraction.

But I did it anyway.

They say you have to practice what you preach, so I started thinking about why the mice were in my house. It is really simple, and as you probably know, mice tend to come in during the winter months because they are looking for two things: warmth and food. And it sounds like such a cliché, but I realized that I needed to be thankful for my warm house and the food that is in it.

I went to the dentist later on, and I had to go to a specialist to pull my tooth. He is a personal friend of mine and we have a good relationship outside of the dentist office—or maybe I should say we had a good relationship J. No, we are friends in real life. And that’s part of the problem. When I first went to him for a consultation on my tooth extraction he said that it did need to come out, but, in his words, “There was no hurry.” When I went to see him on Thursday I could see in my file that it was exactly one year and one month ago since he told me there was no hurry. Now there was a bit of a hurry.

When he walked into the room he said, “Kevin, it’s been awhile.”

I replied, “Yeah, I know. Getting me to come back has been kind of like…pulling teeth.”  He was kind enough to laugh.

It was not a pleasant experience, but we got through it. And when the bleeding (and the crying) had stopped, he said to me, “Thanks, we will bill your insurance.”

I’m not thankful that I had to have a tooth pulled. But I am thankful for a friend who could help me out and even giggle at my bad jokes. And I am thankful that my wife has a state job that provides good benefits.

In all things, we give thanks, even when we can’t give thanks for all things.

So that’s the biblical side of things, but what about the science? The Bible repeatedly tells us to be thankful, and science tells us that there is a benefit to it. You will be happier.

A 2013 Harris Poll, which is a public opinion polling organization, found that one out of three people in America consider themselves to be more happy than unhappy. One out of three isn’t bad…if you are talking about batting averages. But one out of three happy people means that two out of three are not happy.

How can this be? I bought a Pepsi the other day, and the commercial told me that it would make me happy. I’ve got a smart phone and a smart tv. The advertising industry exists to make you think that your life is just missing this one thing and if you just buy it, your life will be complete. If not complete, at least you will be happy.

And these things do make us happy…for a bit. But then the newer iPhone comes out and the next model is released or our neighbor gets a bigger one. Science shows that what really makes people happy is gratitude. Without exception, happier people tend to be more thankful for what they have. Let’s walk through three scientific tests that have been conducted and published in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Robert Emmonds conducted a 10-week experiment where he divided 411 people into three random groups. The first group was instructed to write down everything throughout the day that they were thankful for. They carried a journal with them, and when they felt thankful, they wrote it down. That’s it. The second group was to write down everything that irritated them. The third group was to write down anything that changed their mood, either positive or negative.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the third group showed no change, which was kind of expected. The big difference was seen when comparing the first two groups. The group that wrote down what they were thankful for consistently ranked their happiness higher on a scale. But there were more side effects. They were more optimistic and reported experiencing less stress. They didn’t get sick as much. And without being instructed to do so, this group exercised more. They were physically active, which has more positive side effects. The thankful group became more social and they expressed more sympathy toward others.

Second study: Dr. Martin Seligman conducted a study where he asked participants to recall someone from their life, regardless of how long ago it was, who had a positive impact on them. They were to then write that person a personal thank-you note and hand deliver it to them. These people took letters to former teachers, friends, and employers, gave them their thank-you cards, and expressed their gratitude. Seligman found that those who wrote the thank-you notes experienced a sense of happiness over a month after the event. There was a residual happiness associated with this act of gratitude.

Third study: 65 people with a severe neuro-muscular disease were divided into two groups for a three-week trial. The first group was to write down any and all of their observations about their own health, well-being, and attitude, and their care givers were asked to write down what they were observing in their clients. The second group was to write down what they were thankful for while their care givers also simply recorded what they were observing in their clients.

As you can probably predict by now, the group that recorded the things that they were thankful for felt better at the end of the three weeks, while the other group did not experience a change. The group that recorded their gratitude didn’t get miraculously better, but they did experience less irritation and less anxiety. They even observed that they were sleeping better. What sets this study apart from the others is that the care takers also observed this upswing in the gratitude group; in other words, other people noticed the improvement. And the care givers themselves experienced an improved sense of happiness and well-being. The point is, gratitude and happiness are contagious!

You can’t argue with this stuff, it’s science!

So what can we do to make this practical? I mean, come on, we all know that we are supposed to show appreciation and say thank you. And yes, the science behind it is really quite convincing. But who is really going to do this?

I am, and I hope you will, too.

They say that it takes three weeks to make a new practice into a habit. So I’m issuing a challenge to everyone to join me and record the things for which you are thankful. Do whatever you feel most comfortable with: carry a notebook, write it on your smartphone, type it on your computer. Just record it. And if that is too much, at least, at the very least, be mindful of the things that you are thankful for throughout the day. If you can’t write it down, speak it out loud. And by the middle of December, we should be a lot happier!

Here’s the take-home point: we are commanded to be thankful. The Bible tells us over and over again to give thanks, and science has shown that a side effect of being thankful is happiness. The odd thing is that the pursuit of happiness for happiness’s sake often leaves us disappointed. However, the pursuit of thankfulness may be the secret that we have been looking for.

The God who made us loves us and wants us to be happy. That same God has spoken to us throughout his scriptures and told us to give thanks. My prayer for us all this Thanksgiving season is that we can become happier people, happier because we are thankful for what we have been given.

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What are you waiting for?

Matthew 25:1-13

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’

7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’

9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’

12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

I recently heard a story from former pastor Francis Chan about his grandmother. Francis said that his grandmother was one of those dear women with a heart of gold, a real saint in the church. She was one of those women who was there any time the doors of the church were unlocked. If someone was in the hospital, she baked the casserole. If there was quilting group, Gram-gram’s fingers had helped to stich it. But outside of church, Gram-gram didn’t have much of a social life. And since Chan’s grandfather had passed away, Gram-gram wasn’t getting out much at all. So Chan made plans to take his wife, children, and Gram-gram out to a play at the local community theater. I don’t recall what play they went to see, but it was a common play, and while it wasn’t a “Christian” play, it wasn’t an offensive or heathenistic play. I’m thinking “Oklahoma!” or something along those lines.

The night of the big show comes and the Chan family dresses up and heads to the community theater. It seems to be going pretty well, the whole crowd seems into it, laughing, singing along. At intermission Chan turns to his Gram-gram and asks how she likes the play.

Gram-gram turns to Francis and says, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.”

Not sure if he heard her correctly, he asks, “What’s that?” and Gram-gram repeats herself, “Oh, I shouldn’t be here.”

It’s a Friday night at 7:00, what else do you have going on? What, are you missing Wheel of Fortune? So Chan asks, “What do you mean, Gram-gram?”

She says, “What if Jesus comes back and I’m here. I should be somewhere praying or helping someone.” (This is as best as I can recall the story. I may miss a few details, but you get the point.)

There is nothing wrong with going to see Oklahoma! at the local community theater. But in Gram-gram’s mind, there was more that she should be doing, more that she could be doing. So Francis Chan said that he told his Gram-gram that he would join her and pray through the second half of the play.

I tell this story for two reasons: 1. I think I can do more. I don’t know when, how, or if I’ll ever see Jesus come back, and I’m not sure that’s what our passage is all about. But I can do more. And 2. We cannot allow these questions to dominate our life, because this life was meant to be lived, not just the next one. And let’s be honest, Gram-gram was a bit of a downer and probably spoiled the play for both her and her grandson. J

Let’s look at this passage for a bit because there is a lot going on here and we need to sort through it all to make some sense of it. The first thing that I want to note is that there are ten young women in this story. We are told that these young women go out to meet the bridegroom, and that five of them were foolish and five of them were wise. We need to break this down a bit more.

It was common practice in Hebrew rhetoric to draw strong boundaries between two groups to make a point. These groups are binary; you are either one or another. One common binary was between the foolish and the wise. Think of the Proverbs, such as 10:1, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” And my favorite, Proverbs 10:21, “A good person’s words will benefit many people, but you can kill yourself with stupidity.”

Jesus, being a Hebrew, carries this tradition into the New Testament era. We can think of examples such as the wise and foolish builders. The foolish man built his house upon the sand while the wise man built his house upon the rock.

All of this reminds me of the Highlights for Children magazine and the comic strip Goofus and Gallant. Goofus and Gallant is a comic strip, which I believe is still running in Highlights, with two scenes depicting the lives of the two characters. There is no ethical pronouncement made about the actions of the characters, but we can pretty well guess what the artist is suggesting. Usually we find a picture with captions like, “Goofus doesn’t make his bed,” and an accompanying picture that says, “Gallant always makes his bed.”

So in our parable, we have five Goofuses and five Gallants.

That’s the easy part. But there is still a lot of confusion on my side, in large part because I am separated by a couple thousand years and a couple thousand miles from Jesus’s culture. First of all, the language used to describe these women isn’t helpful. Is their sexual history really necessary to understand the parable, because we are told that they are virgins. Other translations call them bridesmaids, which just makes me think of Melissa McCarthy movies. The word simply means an unmarried woman who is of the age when she could be married. The word in Greek is the same word that is used to describe Mary the mother of Jesus, Parthenos (like the Parthenon, the temple built for Athena, the maiden goddess). It is simply a reference to their age and stage in life. These ten women are at the age and stage of life that they could be getting married.

Now here is where I have misunderstood this passage for my entire life. These women are not looking to get married to the same man. All my life I have assumed that these were ten young women looking to get married to the same groom and enter into a polygamous marriage. But they aren’t looking to get married to the man, they are simply there to celebrate the marriage between the man and a woman, who is presumably a friend of theirs. I believe that this is why some translations call them bridesmaids.

So these ten women are contemporaries of the bride. They are there to celebrate the wedding of their friend!

I’m one that would not survive in some cultures. I need to know when to be somewhere, and I value punctuality. If we receive a wedding invitation that says the wedding will begin at 1:00, I’ll be there at 12:30. But in Jesus’s day, and in much of the world today, weddings started whenever all the necessary people got there and the celebration could go on for days, and one could only attend if they were invited (drawing from William Barclay’s commentary). Because, you know, there’s only so much cake to go around.

The betrothal ceremony was often followed by a long period of time where the groom went to prepare a home for his new family. Often this involved building an addition onto mom and dad’s home. When the home was ready, the groom led a great processional through the city, where the groom was met by the townspeople, who stopped him and congratulated him. They gave gifts, blessings, food, advice, etc. And as you can imagine, this took a long time. You never knew when the groom was going to show up, and you aren’t going to start a party without the guest of honor!

So the bridesmaids would wait in the street to usher the groom into the wedding celebration. And according to Barclay, it was not lawful to be in the streets of Palestine after dark without a lighted lamp, which I assume is to help prevent crime. So the bridesmaids have their oil lamps, and they wait. And they wait some more. And they fall asleep. Finally, at midnight, they hear a commotion in the street. The groom is coming and this party is going to get started!

Five of the bridesmaids had extra oil to replenish their low-burning lamps. The other five didn’t think this one through. If their lamps went out, they couldn’t be in the street. But if they left, they might miss this by-invitation-only party.

With that background let’s look at the actual text a bit and try to figure out what is going on here. Verses 7-9, “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’”

Guess what happens when they go to buy more oil? The groom shows up, the party begins, and the door is locked to keep uninvited people out.

But here is the interesting part of this story. Remember, this isn’t just Jesus telling some random story, it is a parable. There is a point to the story, and some of the elements in the story represent something else altogether. So this is where things really start to get confusing because when the foolish women ask the wise women to share their oil, the wise women say no.

This does not sound like Jesus to me. Jesus was always talking about sharing. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by saying that if you have two coats you should give one to someone who has none. Jesus made a little boy share his lunch of loaves and fishes. Jesus praised a widow who shared her last mite. How did that Golden Rule go again? What’s with this parable, Jesus?

This is where we get into trouble because people start to guess at what these things stand for. What do the lamps and the oil represent? Some have said that the oil shows us that there are some things that cannot be transferred from one person to the next, so the oil must represent things like our good deeds, our prayers, and our piety. Someone else them comes along and says, It sounds like you are saying that it is our good deeds, prayers, and piety that get us into the party. That sounds a lot like works righteousness.

I’ve even heard a rather anti-Semitic sermon that attempted to demonstrate who the wise and foolish virgins were, saying that the Jews were the foolish virgins, missing their opportunity to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. I think that person was missing something, too. To all those who are trying to figure out what the oil or the lamps or the virgins stand for, I’d just like to say that you are missing the point.

Recall that a parable is different than an allegory. In an allegory everything represents something. Plato’s character, Socrates, used a lot of allegory. But in a parable, the point is the point, and a lot of the rest of the story is just setting up the main plot. The oil and the lamps and the number of virgins, all of these things could represent something, but if they do, Jesus did a really poor job of explaining it to us! We can guess and hypothesize all day long, but the point of the parable is found in verse 13: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Keep watch, because you don’t know when to expect the bridegroom. And you don’t want to miss this party.

Let me say a word about redaction criticism. Redaction criticism is the practice of looking at scripture and asking the question, “Why did the author put this story there?” Or, “Why did they phrase that in this way rather than that way?”

I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it is also clear that different authors tell the story of Jesus differently. Even Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what we call “The Synoptic Gospels” because of their similarities differ. Some include some stories, others leave them out. Luke tells Jesus’s birth narrative in the most detail, Mark starts with Jesus as a grown man.

To understand why one author, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, chose to include or leave out the story, we often look at who their audience was and when they wrote their book of the Bible. Mark is believed to have been written around 70 AD, about the time when the first followers of Jesus were passing away, to preserve these stories. This is also when the Temple was destroyed in Jerusaelm.

Matthew was probably written about 10-20 years later, and it was written to a Gentile audience. And in the chapter preceding our text for this morning, we find Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple. He nailed that one. Then Jesus says in 30b-31, “And they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angles with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

Then in verse 44, “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

That’s all in Mark 13 as well. But do you know what is not in Mark? The parable of the Ten Virgins. Why does Matthew include this parable and Mark doesn’t? Because in Matthew, they are still waiting. Matthew is writing during times of persecution, and people are wondering when things will be made right. Matthew says, keep some oil on hand. It’s going to be a long night. But the party is worth it.

And here we are, 2,000 years later. We are reading the same texts, asking the same questions, praying for things to be set right. I turn on the news, and I hear stories that break my heart, and I pray, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Fix this!

My friends, God is always with us. He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. But sometimes he really feels distant. Just like a 1st century groom had to leave his betrothed, Jesus left his followers. And at times the anticipation is crazy. And at times our oil and our flames just burns low. But that’s when we need faith. Faith is how we respond to the invitation to this great party, even when it seems like it is too far away, or too far out of our reach.

What Francis Chan’s Gram-gram seemed to forget was that this party starts now. When the bridegroom does show up, we aren’t supposed to be ready to start the party, he is supposed to be able to join in the party that has been happening in his absence. So we need oil. And we need forgiveness. And we need love. And we need grace. And we need celebration. And we need to kill the fattened calf. The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet, and Jesus tells us the kingdom of God is among us.

Yes, we can be doing more. We can be living into this party right now. What are you waiting for?

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The Real Me

Matthew 23:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

The weather has turned a bit cooler (and then warmer, and cooler again), so that means a change in clothes. I recently dusted off my old sweatpants and dug my slippers out from under the bed because it can get pretty chilly at night.

One morning I was making lunches for the children while I was still wearing my sweatpants and slippers, and I realized that our compost bucket was very full and needed to be emptied—mostly because it was getting pretty stanky. So I put on my jacket, slipped on some shoes, and ran the kitchen scraps out to the compost pile. When I came in, I took off my coat, slipped into a more comfortable thermal shirt, and changed from my outdoor shoes back into my slippers. And in that moment, I simply blurted out, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

My kids just looked at me like I was a fool.

But you know who I unintentionally was pretending to be. I was Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers’s neighborhood. At the beginning of every episode, Mr. Rogers would come in the front door singing, “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor…” When he entered the t.v. house, he would take off his coat, hang it in the closet, and put on a cardigan sweater. He would also take off his hard-soled dress shoes and put on some tennis shoes. The idea was that he was coming home from work and ready to interact with the children out there in t.v. land. And he always put his shoes away and hung up his coat so as to set a good example for the boys and girls who were watching.

This practice actually began when Rogers was first getting into television. He would dress nicely for the children’s show that he hosted, going to work in a shirt and tie, dress pants, and dress shoes. But he soon found out that his dress shoes were too hard and squeaky for his show because he was constantly moving back and forth out of site as a puppeteer. So he would be on one side of the set acting as King Friday and then have to quickly move over to the other side of the set to play the part of Daniel the Tiger. And as he would go from side to side, you would hear “thump, squeak; thump, squeak; thump, squeak.”

Wanting to look like a professional, Rogers decided he would wear his dress shoes to work, and then change into sneakers just before the cameras went live. And this also allowed him to enter into character, with a change of shoes he went from Fred Rogers, mild-mannered PBS employee to Mr. Rogers, a man with an odd number of make-believe friends.

Fred Rogers was the very definition of a hypocrite.

Now that I have your attention, we can begin.

Today we are going to be talking about hypocrites, and please note that I am back to preaching from the lectionary, so I didn’t choose this scripture or write this sermon with anyone in particular in mind. What I want to look at today is What is a hypocrite? Who is a hypocrite? and How can we become the realest version of ourselves?

So just what is a hypocrite? Jesus throws this term around quite readily in Matthew 23, using it six times in this chapter alone. The Greek word is ὑποκριτής, hupocrites, and it is a compound word made of the word hypo and krino. Hypo is the Greek word for under, and it is the opposite of hyper. Hyperactive means that someone is overactive. Hypoglycemic means that someone has low blood sugar. Krino means to judge or make a pronouncement. Put it all together and we find that a hupocrites is one who judges or makes a pronouncement from below or behind something.

Hupocrites is the Greek word used for an actor, which is why I can call Mr. Rogers a hypocrite and only feel mildly guilty for it. If you think of actors from years ago, they are often depicted as wearing a mask, which conceals their actual identity and allows them to enter into a different character. As that character, they make pronouncements. So in the most literal sense, an actor is a hypocrite and a hypocrite is an actor. They are pretending to be someone that they really aren’t.

My second question is Who is a hypocrite? I mentioned that Jesus uses this word six times in Matthew 23. He must have been living in Hollywood, or maybe he was hanging out locally at the Shakespeare center. He was clearly surrounded by hypocrites. In the verses immediately following our text this morning, Jesus repeatedly says, “Woe to you, you hypocrites!”

Let’s look at the actual quote from verse 13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” The Torah instructors and the Pharisees did not moonlight in the theater; Jesus is using this word metaphorically, and he is using it as we generally understand the word. Jesus is calling these religious leaders “actors.” You stand there, behind your masks, and you make pronouncements upon these people. But you yourselves are far from what you pretend to be.

Let’s back up to verse 3. Jesus says to the people about the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees: “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

First let’s notice that Jesus says that the people should do what they are saying. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees aren’t trying to mislead the people into doing bad things. The problem isn’t that these leaders are telling the people to abuse their relationships and ignore the poor all while worshipping other gods. No, Jesus says to do what they say. Just don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they preach.

Here’s how I understand Jesus’s criticism. It’s okay to ask difficult things of people, Jesus did it all the time. Remember, that whole love your neighbor thing is no walk in the park, and loving your enemy is potentially even more difficult! Don’t get angry? Don’t lust? Jesus asked some very difficult things of us, so the problem isn’t that. The problem is asking or demanding that people do something that is challenging, and then not doing it yourself. Perhaps even worse is demanding these challenging tasks on the part of the people, not doing it yourself, but pretending like you are doing it.

That’s where the whole mask thing comes into play. This is why Jesus accuses them of being actors, of being hypocrites. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees are demanding strict ethical behavior from the people, but then they fail to act that way themselves, and yet they pretend to have it all together. They are simply acting.

Let’s jump ahead to verses 5-7: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.”

Here are a few external manifestation of the Hebrew faith, put on display for all to see. Remember that the phylactery is a box that contains little scrolls of scripture in it which is strapped to the forehead or arm of a practicing Jew. This practice comes from Deuteronomy 6, a part of scripture called “The Shema,” which includes instructions to tie the commandments of God to your arm and your forehead.

Jewish men were to also wear a prayer shawl (tallit) over their heads when they pray. The tallit is to have tassels (tzitzit) that hang down so that the praying person can see them, and remember all the commandments of the Lord (Numbers 15:37-40).

Look at me, with my big phylacteries and long tassels. I’m a child of God!

No, these hypocrites didn’t cover their faces with masks, but they did cover themselves by other means and pretended to be someone and something that they really weren’t.

Jesus emphasizes the religious leaders in this passage, but let’s be honest, we can all fall into this practice. It is probably easier for those of us who are clergy because we stand up every week and tell you what we believe is right and wrong, and that is available in writing and via audio recording. So if I ever say something and get caught doing the opposite, you can go back and show me exactly what I said and when I said it. James 3:1 reminds us that not many of us should be teachers because we will be judged more strictly. More strictly by God or by others? The scripture doesn’t say, but my guess is “yes.”

Many clergy people have been accused of being hypocrites, and rightly so. There are way too many clergy who preach about giving to the poor, and then fly off in the private helicopters; too many clergy getting caught in inappropriate relationships after preaching monogamy.

These are the public figures who get caught, the teachers and the preachers. Yet there are many actors out there, and we are probably all guilty of putting on a mask every now and then, pretending to be someone we are not. This brings me to my third question: how can we be the realest version of ourselves? I’ve got three sub points.

I think that no matter what your occupation, we need to continue to proclaim the perfect example of Jesus Christ, but also admit that we fail. 1. We proclaim the perfection of Christ, not ourselves. That’s not a license to fail, but just me being honest that I do fail. I’m not perfect, and I’m not going to get into the details of my failings here and now; if you really want to know about my failings, just ask my family. They well aware of my imperfections! But just like everyone else, I want people to think well of me. I want people to like me. I want people to respect me. I maybe even want people to be a little bit jealous of me. So in all cases, I try to put my best self out there.

There is the person who we want to be, and there is the person that we want other people to think that we are. Just look at social media and you will see people trying to put an image out there by posting the most glamorous pictures, witty articles, and beautiful projects. And it is okay to try to do better. In fact, I would say that God wants us to try to do better. God isn’t expecting perfection from us. But God also doesn’t need us to pretend to be someone that we aren’t.

That’s one reason I really enjoy the movement to just be honest and genuine online. Check out the pinterest fails sometime at https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-pinterest-fails/. We don’t need to pretend to be someone we aren’t, and we can even have a good time celebrating our humanity.

I think a large part of life is just trying to figure out who you are, and being the best version of that person you can be. 2. Be the best version of you that you can be, where you are, when you are there.

My overseer, Beryl, told me that when he first started at his last church he was a 37-year-old with a wife and two young children at home. He was serving in a large congregation and there was a lot of demand on him for his time and energy. He was leading a team of pastors, teaching Sunday School, preaching regularly, and attending ballet practice, soccer games, and story time at the library. I know some people can keep their work and home lives separate. When that 5 o’clock whistle blows, you drop whatever you are doing and go home for the night, not giving another thought to your work until 8 the next morning. Some people can do that better than others, and some jobs lend themselves to that better than others.

But sometimes it is hard to differentiate between work and home lives. When a part of your job is to care for other people, you don’t just stop caring at 5 pm. So one thing that Beryl did was that he wore a tie to work every day, not just on Sundays. Then when he got home, he took his tie off. While that tie was around his neck, he was on the job, answering emails, returning phone calls, planning worship, and visiting the sick. When that tie came off, he was a father and a husband.

So, is my overseer a hypocrite? Careful, now! No, he isn’t a hypocrite. He isn’t pretending to not be a pastor in one situation and a father in another. He really is a pastor and a parent at all times. What he is doing is he is living into each role different amounts a different times. And by differentiating his roles, he was able to be better at both, rather than just getting skating along in either role.

My friends, I’m going to tell you something that we tell our children and that your parents probably told you, and that you have probably heard your entire life. Just be who you are. Be yourself. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You don’t need to put on a mask and be an actor to get people to like you or respect you. And if there are people who do require that of you, they aren’t worth the energy. 3. If people don’t like the person God created you to be, love them, but don’t worry about impressing them.

Whether you are at work, home, or even in the church, be who you are, warts, failings and all. Sure, try to improve and try to do better. But don’t try to be someone that you aren’t, and don’t make other people feel bad if they can’t live up to the expectations that you can’t live up to yourself.

I think that might be what Fred Rogers meant all those years ago when he said, “Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

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Remembering the Reformation

The other day I was coming from a meeting and decided to stop at Target to pick up a few items. Parking lots can be confusing, and the Target lot is a bit of a challenge to navigate, so I wasn’t surprised when I got behind a car that seemed to be waiting on another car to park. It looked as if a red Cadillac was either going into a spot or coming out, and a white SUV was waiting on them so that they could pass. I surely didn’t wait more than a second or two before the SUV just parked in a different spot and I pulled up to the red Cadillac.

It was then that I noticed that the Cadillac was empty, sitting in the part of the parking lot where you drive, perpendicular to the flow of the traffic. For a brief second I thought that maybe the rapture had occurred, the driver had been taken, and I had been left behind.

I got out and walked up to the empty car, as did the driver of the white SUV. My first thought and fear was that the driver had passed out and was laying over in the seat. But the car was empty. The next thought that crossed my mind was that they probably forgot to put it in park and it could have rolled a bit. But no, it was in park, and when I tried to push it, it would not budge.

The only logical explanation for why this car was sitting where it was sitting, how it was sitting was that the driver probably thought that they were in a spot, having pulled behind another car, and went into Target to do their shopping.

They simply parked it in the wrong place, and maybe, just maybe, that person should not have been driving.

I think this serves as a good metaphor for the church of the Middle Ages. We kind of parked it in the wrong place, theologically speaking, leaving it somewhere it really shouldn’t have been. And the reason it got where it did is because of the person, or maybe I should say the people who were driving it. Someone should have taken his keys a long time ago!

We are talking about the Protestant Reformation today because Tuesday, October 31, 2017 marks the 500-year anniversary of a famous event that marks the unofficial beginning of the reformation. On All Hallows’ Eve Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.

What better way to end our sermon series on Rites, Rituals, and Holy Days than to discuss Reformation Sunday on Reformation Sunday just two days shy of the 500th anniversary? This is actually the first holy day we have discussed on that holy day! Last week I mentioned that the Methodists do a great job focusing on All Saints’ Day. Does anyone want to guess what denomination focuses on Reformation Sunday the most? The Lutherans! Today we are going to talk about Luther, his concerns for the church, and where we might be going for the next 500 years of the church.

Before we get into this teaching, I just want to say that I do believe that there will be Catholics in heaven. It might take them longer to get there because of that whole purgatory thing J, but I believe anyone who calls Jesus Lord will be saved. That doesn’t mean that I agree with all Catholic theology, and Catholics today would condemn the teaching that I am going to be critical of today as well. The role of the pope today is much different than it was 500 years ago. So when I am critical of the church today, please don’t assume that I am being critical of the modern Catholic Church.

Luther grew up in a poor community in a comfortable family; his father owned a copper mine. But Luther saw hunger, sickness, and poverty all around him. The noble men were in their castles, the clergy were in their churches, and the working families were barely getting by. Luther’s father sent him to school, where he studied to be a lawyer. But one night, as he was traveling by horseback, he was caught in a thunderstorm and thrown from his horse. In the midst of the storm, Luther made the promise to God that if he survived the storm, he would dedicate his life to the work of the church.

You’ve got to be careful when you make those promises! Luther made it home, and in the summer of 1505, at the age of 22, Luther left to join a monastery, making vows of chastity and poverty. While in the monastery, Luther became known for his sharp wit and sharper tongue. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, as we will soon see.

Luther and another monk were chosen for some official business and sent from their monastery in Germany to the holy city of Rome in 1511. While there, Luther was appalled at the greed and loose morals of clergy and church leaders. Rome was believed to have been the place where the apostle Peter was martyred, and a church was built at his grave. Peter, as you may recall, is said by the Catholics to have been the first pope, and St. Peter’s Basilica is built at that holy site, the living quarters of the pope are right next door.

During his visit to Rome, Luther might have seen some of the major renovations and upgrades taking place in the home and church of the Pope. The Pope employed two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to do his work: Raphael was hired to paint the walls of the Pope’s home while Michelangelo, who had just finished his sculpture of David, worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Where did all of this money come from? The pockets of the church members, of course! Now imagine you are Luther, growing up in a community of poverty, and having taken a vow of poverty yourself, living in a cold, damp monastery, witnessing these beautiful but very costly building projects. Luther left Rome greatly discouraged.

In 1512 Luther completed doctoral studies and began teaching biblical studies in Wittenberg. He was 29 at the time. Luther taught and preached in Wittenberg where he ruffled a few tail feathers, but didn’t really cause a big uproar in the church or community. Then, in 1517, the church began selling indulgences in Germany, in Luther’s backyard, to fund a major renovation project at St. Peter’s Basilica. I’ve never been to the Vatican, but from the pictures I’ve seen, I think I can say it was a rather extensive renovation, and it makes an excellent location for a Dan Brown novel.

Let me explain indulgences for a moment. To understand indulgences you need to first remember that most people in the world in the Middle Ages could not read and most copies of the Bible were hand-written in Latin, as the printing press wasn’t invented until the middle of the 15th century. Bibles were very rare. All of this is to say that most people did not have access to a Bible, and if they did have access, they couldn’t read it. So you had to rely on the religious elite to tell you what to do.

Catholic tradition also claims that most people do not go directly to heaven when they die. They go to purgatory, where the remnants of their sins are purged from their souls in a painful experience that may last hundreds of years, depending on how sinful a person was. And all of your good and evil acts are set up on a kind of balance scale. You needed more good deeds than bad to go to heaven.

The only people who went directly to heaven were the saints. This is where the indulgences come in. The saints had performed so many good deeds that they had some left over, excess good deeds that they did not need to get in. And the good news is that these good deeds were transferable in the form of an indulgence! All you needed was an official piece of paper from the pope and you could purchase forgiveness for sins. Perhaps even better, you could purchase the forgiveness of sins for your loved ones.

Is there a better way to raise money than to offer someone the opportunity to get their mother, father, grandmother or grandfather out of purgatory and into heaven? Just give a little more and you will relieve your loved one’s suffering. You do love your mother, don’t you?

There was a phrase that was repeated among the bishops who were selling indulgences: “When a coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs.”

After years of frustration with the greed of Rome, Luther decided to step up and do something about it. So he wrote out 95 theses, 95 statements, most of them directed toward the pope, the abuse of power, and the selling of indulgences. He took this handwritten, Latin list and nailed it to the door of his church on October 31, 1517. The official title of his document was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”

When I hear this story, I think, Wow, that guy had some courage. He had some gumption. He had some nerve to post this on the front door! But this was really an everyday kind of act. The front door was often used as a bulletin board to post announcements. Luther’s list of grievances has a preamble that invites people to the church to discuss these thoughts. He couldn’t post them on Facebook or send out an e-vite to his discussion.

What really made a difference is how Luther presented his thoughts and the fact that someone translated them into German and mass produced copies on that new invention we call the printing press. Luther wrote in a very direct fashion and didn’t mince words. And later in his career he would be even more direct, and insulting! If you are ever looking for a way to kill some time, search for “The Luther Insulter” online. The Luther Insulter generates memes with quotes from Luther, some of which aren’t appropriate to share in church!

We’ve neither time nor energy to cover each thesis, but I would put them into three categories, and in the spirit of Reformation Sunday, I’ll use the Latin phrases that Luther would have used: 1. Sola Fide, Sola Gratia; 2. Sola Scriptura; 3. Presbyterii Fidelium. Before we look at these categories, I should just note that Luther wasn’t saying anything new. Other’s had made these critiques of the church before; some of them died because of it. But the time was right for Luther, and he had some friends in high places who helped keep him alive during this time.

Sola Fide, Sola Gratia. Literally this means faith alone, grace alone. What Luther wanted to communicate is that we are saved by the grace of God simply by putting our faith in Jesus Christ. As a young monk, Luther would spend hours at a time in confession, always worried that he had forgotten to confess some small sin because those small sins add up. And when you have the balance scale in heaven weighing your good deeds against your bad deeds, you want to make sure to have as many of those bad ones forgiven. Luther also spent hours each day in prayer, face down on a hard floor, considering his life, his victories, and his failures.

It was in his own studies that Luther came to Ephesians 2:8-9 and felt a burden disappear: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Christianity wasn’t about buying indulgences. In fact, Luther would write that he found no mention of indulgences in the Bible. Furthermore, he didn’t find any mention of purgatory or the pope (that one might have got him into a little trouble). Luther was a dedicate student of the scriptures, which brings us to our second category: Sola Scriptura.

You have probably put together by now that “sola” means “alone,” and you can probably guess what scriptura means. Luther believed that our understanding of God and the practices of the church should be based on scripture alone, not on what the church or the pope said, and not just based on tradition.

Let’s also consider here the third category of theses as there are some overlapping areas between this point and the following one. Presbyterii Fidelium, which is a lot more difficult to guess. This one comes from our scripture reading for today; it is the Priesthood of All Believers.

Luther believed that theology and ethics should be based on Scripture Alone, and he also believed that everyone should be able to read and interpret the texts on their own, which is a part of the priesthood of all believers. So Luther spent his later years translating the original Greek and Hebrew texts into the common German vernacular. In 1522 he published his translation of the New Testament, with Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation all stuck at the end because he didn’t think that highly of those books. Remember that he called James an “Epistle of Straw.” He would then publish the entire Old Testament with a separate Apocrypha in 1534.

Just a little bit of fun trivia for you, Luther’s translation is still popular in many German-speaking circles and is often the Bible used in Amish worship settings. Luther’s translation was so popular that were around 30 additional translations made into various common vernaculars in the middle of the 16th century, which may have influenced a man named King James to authorize an official translation into English, which was finished in 1611.

Luther did not believe that a priest or professional clergy person was necessary for God to hear our prayers and that anyone could go to God through prayer without the mediation of a priest. He also believed that everyone could and should read the Bible for themselves. Luther has been quoted as saying, “Any shepherd boy behind the bush with the Holy Spirit can interpret the Scriptures better than the pope” (as quoted by Palmer Becker in Anabaptist Essentials, 83). I’ve never felt that it was my job to pray for you because God didn’t hear the prayer of the non-ordained like you, and I’ve never felt that it was my job to tell you what the Bible says and expect you to just believe me. No, we are walking through this together. I encourage you to read, study, pray and together we will discuss what this means.

I think of the church of the Middle Ages was a lot like that red car I saw in the Target parking lot. Somebody parked it in the wrong place, and maybe that person shouldn’t have been driving at all.

For the last 500 years, the church has been protesting; that is, after all, what it means to be a Protestant. And we have gotten really good at pointing out where we disagree with one another, protesting the beliefs of this church and protesting the beliefs of that church. It is my hope that as we begin the next 500 years of church history that we will flip things like Luther did, only now, rather than pointing out the things we disagree with, I hope we can start pointing out the things that we appreciate about one another.

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Remembering the Faithful

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

We are in week 724 of our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days. Maybe not 724, but we have been at this for a bit, and we will conclude this series next week when we celebrate Reformation Sunday. We’ve been through quite a bit: Passover, Hanukkah, Sabbath, Baptism, Communion, and last week we considered both Advent and Lent. Each week we have used a symbol that has been left near the front of the sanctuary as a reminder of these holy days, but last week I failed to even mention the symbol that I brought for Lent and Advent, which was a clock. I spoke about how Advent and Lent build anticipation as we near the day when Jesus sets things right, and someone asked after last Sunday’s sermon if I intentionally did not mention the large clock behind me as a way to build the anticipation.

Yes, let’s go with that.

Maybe you give me too much credit, because I just flat-out forgot it. Which is even funnier because the whole point of this series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days and all of these symbols were meant to help us remember.

So I’m going to lead with my symbol today, which may not bring you back to a certain memory in the same way it does for me because this is unique to someone I lost this last year, my grandfather. My grandfather passed away on January 3, 2017, fifteen years to the date after my grandmother’s passing. I’ve got a few things from him: some coins, a cuckoo clock, and my pointy nose.

What may surprise you is that what I want to share today is my grandfather’s dog tags from World War II. I’ve mentioned before that my grandfather served in a non-combatant role in WWII. I’ve also mentioned that I believe in nonviolence. So what I have in my grandfather’s dog tags are not only a reminder of him, but also a challenge to my idealism.

Today we are discussing a Holy Day called “All Saints’ Day.” This one may be new to you, but I’m pretty sure that you are at least familiar with some of the spin-offs from this day of remembrance. So what we are going to do today is look at our scripture to see what we can learn from the past, consider the ways All Saints’ Day has and is celebrated, and ask how we can best remember those who have come before us.

I love this passage from Hebrews 12 and the idea of a “great cloud of witnesses.” Let’s work backwards through this phrase. The word we translate as witness is “martous,” and it is where we get the word martyr from. Witness is an interesting word, because it can describe people on both sides of an action. If there was a crime or a good deed committed, and you saw it, you might say that you witnessed that event. Or we can flip that around. If you are telling about an event or a story that happened to you, you might say that you are witnessing. We sometimes use the phrase “to witness” to describe when someone shares their faith story. We are bearing witness.

So to witness can mean to see something first hand or to tell about something that you have seen first hand.

The word we translate as cloud is “nephos.” Nephos can literally refer to the clouds in the sky, or it can be used metaphorically to describe a great number of people. Imagine a group of people filling a city, looking like a cloud, moving slowly, filling every inch. Some have even claimed that the word nephos was used to describe the cheap seats in a stadium. We might call it the “nose bleed section.” Some scholars believe that nephos martous was like a stadium filled with this great number of witnesses, watching every aspect of our lives play out in front of them.

I’m not sure that I love that image. But let’s put it together. There is this large group of witnesses. With the dual role of the word witness, we can assume that these people are telling us their story and watching as our stories unfold.

To understand this even better, we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 11, where the author of Hebrews gives us a definition: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.”

The author then goes on to tell the stories of people from the Old Testament and their faith. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Moses are all listed by name. Abraham knew a thing or two about faith, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Moses, well he had some doubts, stumbled along the way, but he was faithful in the end.

These are the people who make up a small part of the great cloud of witnesses. Five people a great cloud do not make, so I think we can assume that the cloud of witnesses is made up of all those people of faith who have gone on before us.

And just to be clear, with the way this passage is set up, I believe that these faithful people are bearing witness to a life of faithfulness, not just watching us from the nosebleed section of the stadium. These are the saints, the holy ones, whose lives we look to as an example of how to persevere the trials and temptations of this world. So you can feel comfortable taking your time when you change clothes, they aren’t watching. J

Like I’ve said before about other holy days, All Saints’ Day does indeed have its roots in the Catholic Church, but many protestant churches observe All Saints’ Day today as well. We just often do it differently.

For instance, in the Catholic Church you are probably aware that they practice something called the veneration of the saints where members of the church go through a process known as “canonization.” Each step provides a different title for the person, and in the final step they become recognized by the church as a saint. Many of these saints have been given a special day of celebration; you may heard the phrase, “The Feast Day of St….” Today is dedicated to John Paul II.

But here’s the problem. There are over 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church, and only 365 days a year, maybe 366 if you’re lucky. So how do you celebrate the saints who didn’t get their own day?

You have a little something called “All Saints’ Day.”

All Saints’ Day is a part of a three-day celebration. And to prime you for this, I want us all to recite the Lord’s Prayer, from the King James Version, until I say “stop.” And don’t worry, I won’t make you go very far.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed…” STOP!

Hallowed, like God’s name has had the insides all cleaned out and now it is hollow?

No, hallow is simply an old English word for holy. Shakespeare wrote his plays about the same time the KJV was written, and he even refers to All Saints’ Day as Hallowmas. So if Hallowmas is All Saints’ Day, what is the night before? That would make it All Hallows’ Eve, or what we commonly call Halloween.

In our culture, Halloween is a strange time of year where we carve pumpkins, dress up in costumes, try to scare one another, and beg our neighbors for candy. And that just goes to show you how people can take a holiday, forget about its origins, grab a few traditions, and run the opposite way with it! But I can totally see how celebrating the lives of those who have passed away can become a bit scary with talk of the dead, ghosts, spirits and the like. There is some debate about this, but some historians claim that the practice of trick-or-treating comes from the tradition of Christians going from house-to-house collecting food for the poor on All Hallows’ Eve. Growing up I was told that trick-or-treating was invented by a dentist who wanted more children to get cavities so that he would have more work. I could believe either of those scenarios.

I said that this was a three-day event in the church, so what is left after All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day? Every year on November 2, the Catholic Church celebrates All Souls’ Day. Guess what, not everyone who has gone before us has been a saint, and surely not everyone has been recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint! So the Catholic Church observes a day to remember all of the faithful who have passed on.

If you are familiar with Latino/a culture, you have probably heard of Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This is a day of celebration where the dead are honored and remembered, often people dress up in deathly costumes and decorate with skeletons. Dia de Muertos is the way Latinos do the three-day celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. When the Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism to Latin America, the locals incorporated some of their own customs into the event. And if you are going to remember a beloved relative, what better way is there than with churros?

I’ve been pretty careful up to this point to differentiate between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches because there is a significant amount of differences in how we approach All Saints’ Day. Since we Protestants don’t officially canonize saints, we use this word differently. If I speak of my dear Aunt Sally and say that she was quite the saint, I’m not saying that she had been recognized by the church as such. You wouldn’t ask me, “Oh really? When is her feast day?” I’m saying that she was a good example, someone that I think I could learn from.

When we recognize All Saints’ Day in the Protestant church we tend to treat this day like the Catholic Church treats All Souls’ Day. My time with those rascals, the Methodists, has shown me that they really take All Saints’ Day seriously. I found this quote online: “In Methodist theology, All Saints’ Day revolves around ‘giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints,’ including those who are ‘famous or obscure.’” Wikipedia, Joe Iovnio.

It is tradition in the Methodist Church to read aloud the names of everyone in that congregation who had passed away in the last year. The Methodist website, “Discipleship Ministries” lists 24 different hymns from their two hymnals to choose from that focus on the faith of their ancestors. There are many liturgical readings available, including prayers, like this one:

We bless your holy name, O God,

for all your servants who, having finished their course,

now rest from their labors.

Give us grace to follow the example

of their steadfastness and faithfulness,

to your honor and glory;

through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

For me, All Saints’ Day isn’t about praying to a saint or feasting in the name of the departed faithful. It is about remembering the ones who practiced their faith and passed it on to us. It is about remembering my grandmother, who wore her prayer covering at all times, even fixing it to her wigs when the chemo took her hair. It is about remembering the beloved members of this congregation with whom I have walked through the final days of their lives. It is about remembering my first pastoral mentor, Howard Schmitt—or Schmitty as I liked to call him (but not to his face), who died in a car accident and spent his last few breaths making sure his wife knew he loved her and that he had forgiven the young man who crossed the center line.

Were these people saints? Not literally, no. There is no Saint Schmitty. But can we learn from the examples of these people? Absolutely, but only if we put forth the effort to remember them.

I know that you have remembered the saints in your life as well, and you do so in various ways. I have been collecting the names of your dearly-departed loved ones over the last few weeks for our time of remembrance, and some of these names were familiar to me, even though I’d never met the deceased. I saw names like Anna and Carrie from one family, names I recognized as the first-born great-granddaughters of these saints. And Edna Mae, whose granddaughter shares a name and an acronym, and is here today. My brother’s twins have my maternal grandparents’ names as middle names.

Whether we celebrate All Saints’ Day on the first of November or not is of no importance to me whatsoever. What really matters is that we remember the faithful who have gone on before us. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have lived a life worth emulating. Not because they were perfect. Abraham, Moses, these people weren’t perfect. But because they were people of faith.

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Remembering the Anticipation

 

Matthew 4:1-11

Today we are continuing our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days in the church where we are intentionally slowing down and looking at these special days on our church calendars and asking why we celebrate or don’t celebrate certain events.

When I first started working through this series in my mind I began listing some of the church holidays and practices that I wanted to cover. Days like Passover, Hanukkah and events like Baptism and Communion seemed like really great places to start. I recall making the comment to myself that I would not be talking about Easter or Christmas. These days are well known and really, I’m going to guess that most people who come to our church are at least somewhat familiar with Christmas and Easter.

But as I was trying to figure out the last few weeks of this series, I thought maybe I too quickly dismissed Easter and Christmas. And no, I don’t plan to focus on those two holy days today, but I do want to look at the seasons around them. We are going to expand our sermon series to Rituals, Rites, and Holy Seasons. Today I want to look at both Advent and Lent.

Like me, many of you did not grow up observing Advent and Lent. Someone once asked me what I was going to give up for Lent and I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Lent? Like the stuff in your belly button? (I know a guy who can make coins appear in his belly button, but that’s a little off the subject.)

When I did start hearing about Advent and Lent in my early adult life, I often heard people say things like “Those are Catholic things” and “Those aren’t biblical.”

True, Advent and Lent started in the Catholic Church. So did pretty much every practice in the church because for the first 1500 years the Catholic Church was one of the only churches. It is also true that many of the Protestant churches discontinued these observations because they are not laid out in the Bible, so yes, they are not biblical.

But over the last few decades, more Protestant churches have come back to these holy seasons, and I hope to show you why. And to paraphrase a theologian, it is true that Advent and Lent aren’t biblical. But then again, neither is shampoo. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. Today we will look at some of the history behind these holy seasons and ask what they might mean to us and for us today.

Let’s start with Advent. Advent always begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Sometimes this date falls in November and other times in December. Sometimes Advent begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving, other times there is a week in between. This year Thanksgiving is early and Advent doesn’t start until December, but it all depends on how both Thanksgiving and Christmas fall on any given year.

We get the word Advent from the Latin adventus. Adventus simply means an arrival. The next time you are waiting on an order from Amazon, you can tell people you are waiting on an adventus from UPS. Maybe it will come on the adventus caboose? Perhaps you know someone who likes to use fancy words in the church. They might use the Greek equivalent: Parousia. So in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when someone talks about Advent, Adventus, or the Parousia, they are obviously talking about the arrival of Jesus.

I have from time to time mentioned that I like to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The RCL is set up on a three-year cycle, and includes readings from the Old Testament, Psalms, Gospels, and an Epistle. The RCL cycle begins with the first Sunday of Advent and I would say that the Lectionary kind of builds around Advent and Lent.

What I mean by that is that every year you will find similar themes each week during Advent. The first Sunday always focuses on a prophetic passage from the Old Testament, often from Isaiah, telling about how God has broken into the world and how the people long for God to act again. The New Testament passage is usually a reference to the Second Advent, the second coming of Christ. This coming Advent the New Testament passage is from Mark 13, which is often called “The Mini Apocalypse,” and contains such things as verse 26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

Week two we move to comfort. Again, we draw from Isaiah, which is a popular book that Handel used in his Messiah. Comfort ye, my people. Week two is John the Baptist Sunday as John prepares the way for the Lord. The high places are made low and the crooked path is made straight. The second Sunday in Advent is often designated at “Peace Sunday.”

The third Sunday of Advent might be my favorite. It is sometimes called “Stir it up Sunday.” This is when things start to change. Our Isaiah passage is the one that Jesus quotes in his first sermon: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favor. And we find John out in front of Jesus, stirring things up.

Then on week four, we have the announcement of Jesus’s birth. Mary sings. We celebrate.

Advent is repeated every December as a way to point out that this world is not as it is supposed to be. And just as God has broken into this world and dwelled among us, God has promised to do it again. Advent is the movement from despair to hope and from hope to celebration.

Throughout Advent we perform a number of acts to build the anticipation. Some churches have a special “Hanging of the Greens” ceremony at the beginning of Advent. The Hanging of the Greens is a service where evergreen wreaths and boughs are hung around the church. We literally deck the halls with boughs of holly. Fall la la la la, la la la la. The idea is that in the midst of the darkest and coldest time of the year, there is still hope. There is hope in the everlasting life of Jesus. The greens symbolize the movement from despair to hope.

We often have an Advent wreath with candles. The greenery is again a symbol of eternal life and each candle marks the coming of Christ, the light of the world. Advent wreaths were first introduced in the 16th century in the Lutheran tradition, but it has only become popular in the US in the last 80 years or so. Each week we light an additional candle each Sunday as the light of the world grows brighter. All four candles are lit on the last Sunday before Christmas, and then the center, white candle, called the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Eve.

Some families have incorporated the use of an Advent Calendar into their home lives. These calendars can be very simply, where you cross off a day every 24 hours, counting down the time until Christmas. Others can be quite elaborate, opening little doors to reveal yuletide scenes and sometimes little treats. All of these things are meant to draw us from despair to hope; from tragedy to promises fulfilled.

What I really like about Advent is that we are building anticipation over a period of four weeks. I think about the way children look forward to Christmas, mostly for selfish reasons. They want presents. They want candy and visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. It is no big secret that Christmas has kind of become commercialized over the last few generations. When the last drumstick drops on Thanksgiving, we switch to shopping mode. Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving Day and we push, shove, and plow our ways to the best deals, buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have.

Advent is a way to capture some of the excitement and anticipation of Christmas that we enjoyed as children without the thin veil of consumerism. Rather than the anticipation of toys, we anticipate a world where there is no pain, no suffering, no hunger, no unmet need.

Yeah, Advent might not be laid out in the Bible, and it might be a “Catholic thing,” but I believe it is a good thing as well. And really, who doesn’t like to sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel?”

That was the simple one. Let’s be honest, Advent is an easier sell than Lent. Which sounds better, “Hey, let’s light some candles each week,” or “Hey, let’s give up something we really like for about 40 days.”

And if we don’t understand Lent, we shouldn’t be surprised when people outside of the church don’t get it. Some of you may remember in 2010 when a reporter on the air was questioning the black smudge on the forehead of Vice President Joe Biden. “It looks like some kind of bruise,” she said. What it was was ashes in the shape of a cross; it was Ash Wednesday.

Let’s back up a bit. Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting, moderation, and self-denial. Like Advent, there is no biblical mandate to observe Lent, but there is reason to believe that a form of Lent has been a part of the Christian tradition since the beginning. Some in the early church would fast from Good Friday until Easter morning for a period of about 40 hours. Some sources note that baptismal candidates were required to participate in a fast for 40 days before their baptism on Easter Sunday. Yet it wasn’t until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that the practice of Lent became an official part of the church.

Today, those who observe Lent do so for a period of 40 days, not including Sundays. Sundays are a “mini-Easter.” Why 40? Well, 40 is a common number in the Bible. The rain fell for 40 days and 40 nights, Elijah walked for 40 days to Mt. Horeb. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and then later led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years. And of course, Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for 40 days. And since we are called to be like Jesus, maybe we should fast for 40 days as well.

Most people do not do a complete fast for 40 days. That’s just not healthy. It has been a tradition to only eat one meal a day, or to fast from certain foods, like meat, during Lent. Meat is a luxury in some communities, and denying yourself that luxury is an act of solidarity with our God who humbly took on the form of a human in Jesus.

Different traditions measure the 40 days of Lent, well, differently. The most common way is to count 40 days backwards from Easter, again, not counting Sundays. And since Easter always comes on a Sunday, Lent always begins on a Wednesday. That day is called “Ash Wednesday.”

The Hebrew tradition lifts up a number of external symbols of repentance, such as sackcloth and ashes. Sackcloth is a rough material that was likely made out of coarse goat hair; you will sometimes hear a sackcloth garment referred to as a hairshirt. It’s like that really itchy sweater that your grandmother made you when you were a kid, times 10. Ashes are ashes, and they were often dumped over a person’s head.

The idea behind wearing sackcloth and putting ashes on your head is that you are taking your internal feelings and putting them on display. I’m uncomfortable. I’m dirty. I need to repent.

Ashes and sackcloth were used when someone needed to repent of a personal sin, when they were mourning the loss of a loved one, and mourning a national disaster. There are really good examples found in Esther 4, Daniel 9, 1 Samuel 13, and Jeremiah 6:26, which says, “Put on sackcloth, my people, and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

I know, this stuff sounds fun, but that’s not really the point. One of the pushbacks that I hear about Lent is that this is an attempt to earn God’s grace. And if that is how someone presents Lent to you, I don’t think that they understand Lent. Jesus Christ is sufficient and his grace does abound. We don’t put on sackcloth and ashes so that God will give us grace. We do this because God has given us grace.

The idea is to begin the period of Lent with mourning and self-denial, but to move toward celebration and new life. These holy days and seasons are about living out and living into God’s promises.

Let’s just look at a couple of Lenten practices real quickly. First, Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of Lent where some traditions smear ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of repentance. Traditionally, these ashes are supposed to come from the previous year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds. But come on, who has that kind of storage? Since people often give up something they like to eat on Ash Wednesday, they often gorge on that item the day before. That day goes by several names, including Shrove Tuesday, which means “repentance,” Pancake Tuesday (no kidding), and Fat Tuesday, which me may know better in the French, which is Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the day of preparation for Lent. Eat your sweets while you can!

My pushback on some of the practices of Lent is that we sometimes make it too public. Look at Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I’ve never put ashes on my forehead, in part because Jesus says that when we fast we are to wash our face. This may be a direct critique of people dumping ashes on their heads when they fast. This is supposed to be done in private, and it is between you and God.

But also notice that Jesus says, “When you fast…,” and he says it twice in these three verses. The Bible might not directly tell us that we need to fast for a period of 40 days before Easter, but it does seem like Jesus expects us to fast.

I’m not an expert of fasting and I think that we in the modern, western world just don’t understand the whole idea of self-denial. It isn’t a way to gain God’s graces or to assure God’s blessing. This is an act of devotion. Like reading your Bible or devotional readings, or praying, fasting is meant to be a way to connect with God.

So when we come to Lent again in a few months, I encourage you to give something up. Give up social media, give up sugar. Give up gossip, give away some more money. The idea is that Jesus gave up everything for us, what can we give up for him?

Advent and Lent are seasons of the church that are moving us, pulling us, drawing us from something toward something. We move from despair to hope. We move from self-denial to abundance. We move from repentance to new life.

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Remembering the Sabbath

Romans 14:1-9New International Version (NIV)

1Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

We are at week five of our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days, where we slow down and consider the meaning behind some of these days that we may take for granted, moving too quickly on to the next thing. I promised last week that I would light these thirty-minute menorah candles at the beginning of my sermon today and quit speaking when they burn out, and I’m going to use this practice as an intro to our next holy day.

I mentioned last week that there is one candle on the menorah that is set aside, taller, or out of line from the rest, which is called the Shamash. The Shamash, the servant candle, is used to light all of the other Hanukkah candles. Here is why it is important. The Hanukkah candles are not to be lit until the sun has gone down and since Hanukkah is eight nights long, at least one night will fall on the Sabbath. The Hebrew people celebrate the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday. And Exodus 35:3 says, “Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

So during Hanukkah, the Shamash is lit on Friday before the sun goes down. After sundown, when it officially becomes the Sabbath, the other Hanukkah candles can be lit by using the Shamash because you aren’t lighting a new light, you are passing on an existing flame.

I can think of a number of these seemingly-strict Sabbath Day restrictions. Did you know that some of the more conservative forms of Judaism prohibit the use of technology on the Sabbath? This isn’t just about putting down your iPad or smartphone. This means operating any device that runs on electricity. But please note that there is a difference between operating an electric device and taking advantage of an electric device that is already operating on its own. For instance, I’ve mentioned the Sabbath elevator in a sermon before. In Jewish communities it is common to find an elevator with a Sabbath setting. The elevator will stop and open its doors on every floor from bottom to top, allowing people to get on and off without ever pushing a button. If it is going to be stopping at the fifth floor anyway, why not just go along for the ride?

One of you mentioned a few years ago that your refrigerator has a Sabbath mode on it and I have since learned that this is common on both refrigerators and ovens. When you open a refrigerators, what normally happens? The light comes on. Ours doesn’t, but they are supposed to. There is a switch that flips when you open the door and the light comes on. Some rabbi has decreed that opening the refrigerator door is considered operating an electronic device, so when you put it on Sabbath mode, the light won’t come on and the compressors won’t kick in. The Sabbath mode on an oven is essentially a timer that you set before the Sabbath so the oven will come on at a certain time and then turn off by itself without you having to operate a switch.

Whether or not a person can adjust the temperature on an oven on the Sabbath is a hot debate right now (pun intended!). Some claim that a traditional dial is not the same thing as operating a switch so as long as there isn’t a digital readout that changes. Others require a delay after the temperature change is called for by the user before actual temperature change is initiated so that the change wasn’t a direct result of the person’s action.

Really. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

My default mode is to go directly to sarcasm. I really want to make some jokes, poke some fun, and laugh at these strict practices. For me, this feels a lot like what I seen in the Amish communities near my childhood home. Phones are forbidden in the Amish community, unless it is a cell phone. You know, because it doesn’t have wires. There are some people making decent money in Holmes and Wayne Counties, Ohio, picking up cell phones at the end of the day, charging them, and returning them to their Amish customers in the morning. The phones aren’t the only thing being charged!

Why do we observe the Sabbath? Or should we? I think that it is important to take time for Sabbath, but I also think that some people are a little legalistic about the Sabbath. That applies to Jews and Christians. So today we will look at the reasons for observing the Sabbath, reasons not to, and what this practice might look like today.

The origin of the Sabbath goes all the way back to the beginning. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and everything therein. Genesis 2:2-3, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

God rested, but God does a lot of things that we don’t do. And you have to think that creating the entire world is going to take a lot out of you. There really isn’t reason to think that people observed the Sabbath until the time of Moses and the Exodus.

When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt they stop at Mt. Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:8-11 we find the first time that God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Don’t work. Don’t make your children work. Don’t make your servants work. Don’t even make your animals work. And if there are non-Israelites living in your town, they aren’t supposed to work, either.

The Sabbath laws will be laid out a little more clearly throughout the Hebrew Bible, and more clearly in the Mishnah, a commentary written by the Rabbis. The Mishnah names 39 categories of prohibited actions on the Sabbath, with hundreds of subcategories. And according to the Hebrew Bible, breaking the Sabbath is punishable by death.

When you consider all that the Old Testament had to say about the Sabbath, you soon realize that the Sabbath Day was meant for one thing: rest. Before I started research for this message, I would have said that the Sabbath was for two things: rest and worship. But looking at passages like Exodus 20, is there any reason to think that worship is to be a major part of the Sabbath?

Now I will admit that was a bit of a trick question, because in ancient Israel, worship was a part of every day. The Temple was always filled with people reading and studying the Torah, giving sermons and lessons. The priests offered sacrifices and prayers every day. So worship wasn’t just something that was done on the Sabbath. It was done every day. For sure, worship was a central act that took place on the Sabbath; attendance and participation was higher when people were forbidden to work.

Make no mistake about it, the Sabbath was meant as a day of rest. The Hebrew word Shabbat even means to cease, to end, or to rest.

When I was in seminary, my Hebrew professor invited a Hebrew professor from James Madison University to come and give a guest lecture one day. My Hebrew professor was a Mennonite. The visiting Hebrew professor was a Hebrew.

I remember one thing from this lecture that this very serious professor said that we thought was a joke, and I remember one student laughing out loud and slapping his desk even after the professor assured us that he was not joking. The professor said that he gets a little annoyed at Christians for keeping the Sabbath because the Sabbath was not meant for us, it was meant for his people, the Jews.

And you know what? In a way, he is right.

Exodus 31 lays it out pretty clearly as God speaks to Moses. Beginning in verse 13 and jumping around a bit: “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed’” (13, 16-17, emphasis mine).

After we realized that the professor wasn’t joking, the immediate response of our class was that we Christians had been grafted into the covenant that God made with Israel. But he wanted to know why we didn’t keep all the commandments then. We were cherry picking.

Again, he was right. We are never commanded to keep the Sabbath in the New Testament. And in the famous discussion among the early church about the requirements for Gentiles to enter the church, known as the Jerusalem Council, we can find the teachings of the early church: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things” (Acts 15:28-29).

So was Sabbath keeping commanded of the church in the New Testament? Nope, but they did it anyway. Just a few chapters later in Acts 20:7 we read, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” That may be a reference to the disciples coming together for Communion, an act of remembrance and worship.

Even though Sabbath keeping wasn’t commanded, the disciples knew that it was a good thing. We all need rest, and that it abundantly clear in the New Testament. What we don’t need are all of the rules governing how we are to rest and what is and is not acceptable.

We always need to go back to not only our Lord, but also our perfect example, Jesus. Jesus regularly broke the Sabbath laws by doing such heinous things as…healing the sick. Come on, Jesus. That paralytic can wait until after sundown!

I think that one of the best examples is found in Mark chapter 2. In this chapter we find the story of Jesus’s disciples walking through a grain field, plucking a few heads, shaking out the grain, and eating the seeds on the Sabbath. This act was considered harvesting and was strictly forbidden. The stealing of the grain was okay, but the harvesting was a big no-no.

Jesus’s response in verse 27 sums it all up: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

You are missing the point. The point isn’t about what one can and cannot do. The point is that we need rest. We physically need to change things up on a weekly basis, and I would add that we need the mental break as well.

Throughout the Gospels we find stories of Jesus feeding large groups of people, and then going away by himself to rest and pray. At one point Jesus is healing the sick and the lame, and he takes off to go rest. There were still people to feed. There were still people to heal. I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but Jesus is setting an example for his followers to set aside time for rest and worship. Call it Sabbath, call it taking a break. It doesn’t matter what you call it, we need it.

There will always be hungry to feed and sick people to care for. But if we don’t care for ourselves, we won’t be able to care for others.

So what are we to make of our scripture from Romans for this morning? Paul seems to be addressing two different yet similar issues: eating meat-perhaps meat sacrificed to idols or unclean meat, and those who consider one day of the week more sacred than another. The second one seems to be a debate among the Roman Christians about when they should be observing the Sabbath. Is one day really better than another? I mentioned the Acts 20 passage earlier that said the Apostles gathered to break bread on the first day of the week. Act 3 says that they met together every day. So when should we meet?

10:30 am on Sundays.

We meet and observe the Sabbath on Sundays when God is said to have rested on the seventh day because Sunday is the day of the resurrection. And in Revelation 1:10, John refers to Sunday as “The Lord’s Day.”

There was a pretty big debate in the early church about when Christians should observe the Sabbath. It was such a debate that it took an edict from Emperor Constantine in 321 AD to settle the matter, when Constantine declared Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath.

I’m glad that’s settled! No, we still have churches that debate this. The real Sabbath should be Saturday, the 7th day! No, it’s Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Resurrection Day!

No!!!! Don’t miss the point. The point is that we need to rest. We need to step back and say Today I will not chase the almighty dollar. Today I will spend time with my family and friends. Today I will worship my Lord and Savior. Today I will sleep in a bit and eat pancakes.

A few years back a group was scheduling a golf outing for a Sunday and a dear lady (not from our church) overheard these men and came to me with a concern. “They shouldn’t be golfing on the Lord’s Day!” she told me.

It is a lot easier to just make rules and say what we should and should not be doing. It is easy to say, “Don’t operate an electronic device.” “Don’t walk more than x miles.” “Don’t heal or pluck heads of grain.” And for some people, that’s okay. Paul says to those people, If you are doing it for the Lord, that’s great. And we aren’t supposed to judge people who do it differently.

But Paul also calls those people weak.

It is a lot harder to simply say to make sure to rest. How much? When? Where? What can I do? No, just rest. God rested, Jesus rested, and so should you.

For me, golf is very stressful. I spend way too much time in the woods looking for a ball. But if playing golf is restful to you, play golf for the Lord.

I’m not interested in a list of do’s and don’ts. I’m interested in one question: Are you finding time to rest? One the seventh day, God rested, and set the day aside as holy. As people created in the image of God, we are hardwired to need rest on a weekly basis too.

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