Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Being Prepared - Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids[a]took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.[b] Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids[c] got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids[d] came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

A few weeks ago I went to Casper, Wyoming, to observe the Total Solar Eclipse. 

Now the thing about a Solar Eclipse is that you know exactly when and where it will happen.

I had no reason not to be prepared.  I even practiced with my cameras and telescopes, and because I was prepared, I enjoyed that event immensely.

I even know when the next Solar Eclipse will be.  I am planning now to be on vacation on April 8, 2024, so I can be in Texas.
More than that, I know that at 1:28 pm on August 12, in the year 2045, when I am still a young man of 91, a total eclipse of the sun will be seen right here in Orlando.  I am inviting you now to meet me here at the church.  The sun and moon will be 68.33 degrees above the horizon at that time, so I plan to get a perfect photo of the church and our remaining steeple in the foreground, with the totality of the eclipse in the background!  Only 28 years left to wait!

In astronomy, things happen in the universe.  You cannot speed them up, you cannot slow them down.  They happen at what I like to call, the “fullness of time.”  When these events happen, there is no reason not to be prepared.

Some things happen unexpectedly.  My wife and I have lived most of our lives either on the coast, or close to it.  We have lived through well over 20 hurricanes.  We have our preparation plan down to a fine science.  We are prepared.  I have no clue when the next hurricane will come, but I will be ready.

I met someone the other day who said he was going to live forever, or die trying.  

Well, of course he is going to die trying. We are all going to die.  

I’m prepared for that. 

This past week I revised my will and all of my end of life documents, signed them and had them notarized.  I am prepared.  

I’m also prepared spiritually. 

I have always liked what Woody Allen said about death.  “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens to me.”

Well, I’m pretty sure I will have to be there when I die. 

As a young Boy Scout I embraced the motto, “be prepared.”

The New Testament lesson today is a parable about preparedness.  

It is, on the surface, about preparing for the Second Coming of Christ.  But on another level this parable can teach us about any time in our lives when something is going to happen – something we no control over.  We cannot rush or delay it.  It may the return of Christ, or it may be your own death.  It may be the hurricane.  It may, in fact, be something that you can control to a degree.  

Retirement.  You might retire early, or delay it a few years.  But it is something that calls you to prepare for.

So within this parable, we learn nothing about when Christ will return.  We are just told it will happen and we need to be prepared.  

And what this text teaches us about preparing for the second coming can be applied to many other things for which we need to be prepared.

So what do we learn about being prepared?

It is interesting that in the parable the bridesmaids all looked pretty much the same.  They all know the bride and groom.  They all dress alike – you’ve been to weddings, bridesmaids always dress similar.  They are all waiting for the wedding to start.  They all have their lamps, something that bridesmaids needed in that culture.

They were all ready – or at least they all looked like they were ready.  Some of them had not brought enough oil.

So here is the first lesson to be learned.  Be sure that you are truly prepared, because it is possible to look just like everyone else, but you have to do more than look prepared.

Are you ready for the next hurricane?  You may have your hurricane prep box in the garage, but over the months you know that is where there are some batteries to be found, so one by one you get a battery here and there and when Hurricane comes and the stores have closed and the power goes off, you realize that you have only one size D battery left.

As a Christian you can talk like everyone else and use all those church words like “saved” or “grace” or “forgiveness.”  You can carry a Bible and quote it freely and accurately.  You can go to church and call yourself Christian, but it is possible to be unprepared for the return of Christ, or for you own death.

“Be prepared” means being truly prepared, not just looking prepared.

The second lesson of the parable is: No one can do it for you.

In retirement, the government may require you to contribute to Social Security, but in Orlando most people’s Social Security checks will almost pay for a person’s monthly rent.  You have to prepare in other ways as well for retirement, the government won’t do it, no one else will do it.

That test coming up in class on Monday morning.  No one can study for you.  No one can take that test for you.  You have to prepare. No one else will do it for you.

The foolish bridesmaids saw that they did not have enough oil, and they asked their wise friends to loan them some of theirs, but that was not possible. The wise ones pointed out that if they shared their oil, none of them would be prepared or able to complete their tasks. 

Preparing for your death or for the Second Coming?  You can’t say the preacher is doing that for you – you must prepare.  You must train your spiritual life yourself.

A third point of the parable is: There is a time called “Too Late.”

Bill Kuykendall and I were friends for many years, until his death a few years ago.  I met him in college – he was not a classmate, but he was one of my professors.  When I arrived at college I sought advice from some of the upper classmates and one word of advice I heard many times was, “Don’t take a class under Dr. Kuykendall.”

I disregarded that advice, and Kurkendall turned out to be my favorite professor.  But it was easy to see why upper classmates would advise against taking classes under him.  He was tough.
I had an 8 am class with him, “Biblical Archeology.”  Which, by the way, was another bit of advice from upper classmates I had ignored – “Don’t sign up for classes that begin before 11am.”
At this 8 am class, Kurkendall would arrive at 8 am sharp.  He would let us into the classroom and then lock it!  If you arrived at 8:01, too bad.  You were counted as absent.  And you only had two cuts for the whole class.

Those who were late - found out about the danger of being “too late.”

This parable teaches that there comes a time when you are “too late.”  The time to prepare is before the deadline! 

At some point Christ will return with shouts of acclamation.  Or you will breathe your last. 

Too late.

Too late to repair broken relationships with others.  Too late to serve others.  Too late to accept Christ as savior.  Too late to prepare. 
 
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today's trouble is enough for today."  Those are great words of advice, but how do you keep from being anxious about tomorrow?  In Matthew there are two things to remember - trust God, and make reasonable preparations.  

Proverbs, chapter 6, has that great passage about preparation.

It says, "Go to the ant, you lazybones" - I love that translation!

"Go to the ant, you lazybones;
consider its ways and be wise.  
Without having any chief or officer or ruler, 
it prepares its food in summer and gathers its sustenance in harvest."

Preparation is a gift of God.  

It frees us from anxiety and enriches our lives.



Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.



Thursday, October 26, 2017

Reformed and Always Reforming - a sermon for the 500th anniversary of Reformation - Acts 10:9-16

Acts 10:9-16

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.


          If you walk into an Episcopal Church you will find in the pews a hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer.  The prayers in that book are beautiful and well written. 

          Many years ago I visited an elderly woman and at the end of the visit we had a prayer, and I used the opening line from one of those prayers.  I had always thought that opening line had such beauty. 

          “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”

          What I did not know was that this woman had grown up in the Episcopal Church and had memorized many of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, including that one.  She joined in and began to say the prayer with me.  Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know anything but that opening line.

          The prayer book was originally written in 1549, but has been revised many times.  One such revision was in 1928, and it was not revised again until 1979.  Most revisions were minor, until 1979.  Words such as “thee and thou and thine” were replaced with “you and your and yours.”  Throughout the book the language took on a more contemporary feel. 

          Not everyone was happy with the change.  A small number of congregations refused to change and continued to use the 1928 version.

          Many years ago, I was on vacation and attended a church where the 1928 Book of Common Prayer was still used.  The congregation was small.  As I met some of them before worship, I could sense that they were, in every way, inflexible.  In conversations they talked about how they didn’t like computers or cell phones.  I almost expected them to complain about the new fangled automobile. 

          When the minister came out to begin the worship service, he was in a wheel chair.  He had an oxygen tank and there was a tube running up to his nose to provide him with oxygen.

          I was the youngest person there among the almost one dozen in the sanctuary.

          I enjoyed worship that day, using the 1928 prayer book.  But I was saddened to be in a congregation in which a church was so resistant to change that it was about to fade away.

          You may have heard it said that the church does not like change.  That is not really true.  The church is the most flexible organization in human history.  It is always changing. 
         
But what doesn’t change are the local units of the church.  Congregations.  Congregations resist change.  But look beyond the local congregation and examine the global church, and you will see the most flexible organization humanity has ever experienced.
We are always changing.

Which is good, because it means that God is at work, and we are growing.

This morning, we, along with thousands of churches in the Protestant tradition, are celebrating one of the great changes of our church history.  Today is Reformation Sunday. 

I know that this is not as exciting of a day for many of us as Christmas Day, or Easter, or July 4th, or one’s birthday, or International Talk Like a Pirate Day – but it is a significant day and THIS YEAR, it is especially significant because today it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It was on October 31st, 1517, that a Roman Catholic Priest, Martin Luther, nailed a statement on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany that listed a list of 95 issues Luther had with the church.  He wanted the church to address what he considered to be bad theology and non-biblical teachings.  It was the beginning of a split that would divide the Christian Church. 

Splitting the church was not Luther’s intention.  What he wanted to do was to reform the church.  In his mind, he was trying to correct the church.  The last thing he wanted to do was to fragment the church into the Lutheran, and eventually the Presbyterian, Baptist, and all of the hundreds of other Christian denominations we now have.

Whenever we say the Apostles’ Creed, we declare that we all believe in the holy catholic church.  The term ‘catholic’ there does not mean the Roman Catholic Church, but rather refers to the term ‘catholic’ that means universal.

In spite of all of the visible fragmentation of the Christian church into so many denominations, we still believe there is an invisible unity in the church that binds us together.  That unity is obscured, because of denominations,  but it is still there.  All of us still believe in Christ.  All of us still believe in God. 

One of the key mottos that emerged out of the Reformation was the phrase, “Reformed and still reforming.” Meaning that the Christian Church was always meant to be undergoing change.  We are always supposed to be listening to the voice of God as we move forward in history.

If we are not open to change, we die.

We can celebrate the past, but if we cling to it, the future passes us by and we left behind.

It is a sometimes a difficult thing to accept change in the church. 

Change was difficult for the Apostle Peter.  We see this in our scripture reading today.  Peter had received a vision from God.  In that vision, Peter saw a sheet and inside that sheet were all sorts of animals.  These different animals had one thing in common – they were considered unkosher, which meant that they were forbidden to be eaten.

Peter was a faithful man of God, and he obeyed the Bible.  And in the Old Testament there are lists of food that a godly person should never eat.

Peter knew that it was not lawful to eat camel or vultures – well, who would want to?  And Pigs!  Which means no bacon!  No pork chops, ham or pulled barbecue pork sandwiches.  Lobster?  That’s out.  Shrimp?  Forbidden.

And Peter followed these dietary laws of the Old Testament faithfully.  But in this vision, God shows Peter lots of unlawful, unclean food, and he commands Peter to “Get up, kill and eat” the food.

Peter responds by saying, “But God, we’ve never done it that way before!”  Well, not in those words.  What he says is “No, Lord! I will not!  I have never eaten anything that is not pure and ‘clean’.”

This happens not once by three times, and Peter is left struggling with what this vision meant.

What it meant was that the church needed to change.

One change was that the dietary laws God had given the Jews, were no longer to be applied to Christians from the Gentile culture.  So that means that for lunch tomorrow, I think I’ll have a cup of lobster bisque.

Another change it meant was that Peter was to accept converts to Christianity who were not Jewish.  The Book of Acts tells the history of the earliest years of the church.  The earliest followers were Jews who were accepting Christ as Lord.  When Paul was converted to Christianity, he shared the Gospel with the whole world, including non-Jews. 

What a shock for poor Peter!  We’d never done it that way before!  Peter struggled with that concept of inviting non-Jews to accept Christ, and in this vision he was being taught that God had not declared any human unclean.  The church was having to accept a change – welcoming not only people like themselves, but people of every race and culture and language.

Peter’s initial response was to stand fast and resist change, but God says to Peter, “Do not call unclean that which I have made clean.”

Those were uncomfortable words for Peter to hear because they are words of reformation.

God is on a journey of reformation, and the Lord can call to us to transcend that which has always been accepted or practiced. 

We can accept change.

In our New Testament Lesson, the church is called to change, to progress, to reform, to evolve and to move forward.

The Christian faith is, at its core, a faith that demands change and reformation.

We say that today is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but reforming and changing did not start when Luther nailed a document on a church door in Germany. 

It began with this vision that Peter had in which he was challenged to change his belief that certain foods, and certain people were unclean. 

It really began before that, when Paul began to share the Gospel with Gentiles and began to welcome all people into Christianity.

It even began before that, when a radical Jewish Rabbi named Jesus questioned the religious teachings of his day.  He dared to heal the sick on the Sabbath, contrary to the interpretation of Scripture at that time.  He touched the unclean and the unworthy and extended forgiveness to those who had transgressed the laws of God.  He overturned tables and spoke words of truth.


To be a follower and disciple of Christ is to follow the greatest reformer who ever lived.  When we call ourselves Christian we are committing ourselves to be a people who will be open to new things.

We will learn new things.

We will follow new directions.

We will not fall into the trap of saying, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Years ago I was doing some research in church history.  I came across a diary that had been kept by a student a century earlier.  In one entry he wrote about a new pastor at his church.  He was concerned that all of the adult leaders were rejecting this new pastor, while all of the college students adored this new pastor.  As he reflected on why the older people rejected the pastor, the young college student wrote in his diary, “The adults have two main complaints about our new pastor.  First, he is clean shaven, and the adults wonder how a pastor who is too young to grow a beard can be trusted to teach spiritual truths. Second, the sermons are only 45 minutes long at most, and the adults say nothing worth hearing can be said in such a short time.”

It was nothing more than a time of change, and when viewed a hundred years later the resistance to change seems silly.

When I was a teenager, white congregations were having to decide whether or not to allow African Americans into the doors of their churches to worship.  Now, some 50 years later, it seems shameful that there was such resistance to changing what Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to when he said Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. 

When I was in Seminary, students would preach at churches on Sundays when the pastor of that church was on vacation.  We called it “the preaching circuit” and we all loved signing up to go to different churches every Sunday.  One student was not welcome in these pulpits, and the rest of us stood in solidarity to refuse to preach in those churches until our fellow student was allowed to preach there.  You see that one student was not welcome in the pulpit because she was a woman.  Today 42% of our seminary students are women and it would be intolerable to deny someone a presence in a Presbyterian pulpit because of gender.  We used to say, “we’ve never done it that way before,” and now many young people do not even know the struggle women pastors had – and some cases still have.  Things change.  And that is good.

In more recent years we face issues of sexual orientation and gender identification. The church is never able to say, “we have arrived.  We are finished.”

No, we are reformed, but we must always be reforming.  We are always discovering that in some way the church has declared as unclean what God has declared clean, and we must be challenged.  We have to be open to change. 

Every day we have to wake up and look at the world and ask, “Where is the Spirit leading me today?”

Like Paul, and Peter, and Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we can hear the voice of God say, as he said to Isaiah, “Look, and see.  I am doing something new!”

When the church changes, never respond by saying, “We’ve done it that way before.”  Instead, be open to the spirit of God and be willing to walk in what direction God leads.

Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Salt of the Earth, City on a Hill -- Matthew 5:13-16

Matthew 5:13-16

 

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”

 

He does not say you are going to be a light of the world.  He does not say that someday you are going to become a city on a hill. 

 

He says this is what you already are.

 

You ARE the Light of the world.

 

You ARE the city on the hill.

 

The question is this – when people look at you, what kind of city do they see?

Now there are at least three levels of understanding this city on a hill.

 

One level is personal and individual.

You, Joe, are the salt of the earth, a city on a hill.

And Jane, you are also the salt of the earth, a city on a hill. 

And the same is true with you, and you, and you, and oh by the way, ME!

 

This business of being watched by the world brings with it a great burden of responsibility. 

 

People are watching.

Children and youth watch adults and we present a model of how to be and behave.  For good or bad! 

 

People our age are watching us for inspiration and encouragement.

 

And non Christians are watching because they love to catch Christians being hypocrites! 

 

People are looking at YOU as an individual to be the city on a hill that inspires and encourages. So you best be the salt of the earth kind of person.

 

On another level, however, you can understand the church is the city on the hill.

 

We, collectively, make up that city when we come together as a church.  And people are watching Grace/Orlando.  Others look at us and want to know how we respond to the homeless.  How do we respond to crime and to victims of crime.  How do we welcome strangers when they come in.

 

The church is a city on a hill, not just individuals – but the church as a whole is that city.

 

So we together need to work together to make sure that what our community sees in us is the kind of city set on a hill that Christ desires.

 

Now there is one other level in which we can understand the call to be a city on a hill. 

 

And it is this level that particularly resonates with us later this week as we celebrate the Fourth of July.

 

It is us as a nation.

 

I have a friend on Facebook, and like a lot of friends on Facebook I have never met Kate.  Kate and I share the hobby of astronomy and that is how we have connected.  Kate would be furious if she found out that I was talking about her in a sermon – she is an atheist and hates anything to do with the church.  But we do have good conversations about astronomy, and sometimes about faith.  She is intensely interested in politics.  She wanted Hillary to win so badly.  She is watching the news very closely about Trump’s appointment to the US Supreme Court.  She counts the roll call votes on certain proposed legislation.

 

Which surprises me because Kate lives on the other side of this planet.  She lives in Australia!

 

I asked her one time why she had such a deep, deep passionate interest in our politics.  I mean, I don’t follow Australian politics.

 

She said it was because what happened in America was felt all over the world.  She looked to America to lead the rest of the world.  In other words, even though she is an atheist, and even though she might not realize it, she was in agreement with the words spoken by Jesus when he said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world, a city on a hill.”

 

In 1630 eleven ships carrying a thousand Puritans left England to immigrate to Massachusetts.  On one of the ships, the Arebella, their future governor, John Winthrop, delievered a sermon named, “A Model of Christian Charity.”  In it he referred to this text from Matthew and said that the colonies in America were a city on a hill and the eyes of all people were upon them. 

 

The eyes of the world are still upon us.

 

The problem is that we are not doing as good of a job as we should.

We fail, and we often fail miserably.

 

As an individual, as a church, and as nation, we are not that wonderful city on a hill for the world to see and be inspired by.

 

We have crime in this nation.

We have racism.

We have scandals and corruption.

Because we have a Constitution that guarantees a free press we air our dirty laundry whenever we discover problems and try to resolve them.

 

Hmmm…. Has there been an example of a community that was called to be a city on a hill that failed in that calling?

 

Well, Sodom comes to mind!

 

And that is not a very comfortable thought!

 

You probably know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We have the impression, I think, that Sodom and Gomorrah were the rotten cities of the ancient world.  Like Flint, Michigan, with the corruption in its city government that failed to provide clean and safe water.

 

Or like Las Vegas and the greed and lust we associate with that city.

 

Or like Washington DC and the political quarmire we associate with DC.

 

Sodom and Gomorrah calls up the images of “bad and evil cities.”

But no, according to many Bible Scholars, they were model communities.  They were, by many standards, living up to the call to be a city on a hill.  Other communities looked up to them.

 

Except for God.

God decides to destroy them because of their sin.

Do you know the sin that condemned them?

 

Well, the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible, and in Ezekiel 16:49, we read this:

 

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

 

As the story goes in the Book of Genesis, Abraham learns about God’s plan to destroy Sodom, and Abraham is concerned.  And he becomes an advocate on behalf of Sodom.

 

Now we all know the old saying that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. 

 

Abraham turns that around and wonders if a few good apples can save the bunch, or in this case, the city on the hill, Sodom.

 

"Wait a minute," says father Abraham. "What if there are in that city, 50 righteous people? Will you save the city?"

 

          And the messenger of God, an angel, says, "Yes.”

 

          Almost immediately, Abraham thinks he might have overestimated the number of good souls in Sodom.  He might not be able to come up with 50 righteous people.

 

“What if there are 45?"

 

          "I'll save it."

 

          "What if there are 40?"

 

          "I'll save it."

          "30?"

          "Save it."

          Abraham is on a roll here.

"20? 10?"

          "Even if there are only ten, I'll not destroy it."

 

          The concept of course, is not that one bad apple spoils the bunch, but that one good apple can restore the others.

    

A few good people, simply by being Christian people, the salt of the earth, and the light of the world, can preserve and restore a broken society.

 

You see, anytime we complain about the politicians in Washington not doing enough, we need to look toward ourselves and ask, “what can I do to restore my broken society?”

    

We live in an age of violence. We may not be able to change society, but we as individuals can say, I will not be violent.

    

We live in an age of dishonesty, tax cheats, and workers who steal from the office. We can't change others. But we can be the salt of the earth and as individuals be people of honesty.

 

     We live in an age in which others break their word and their pledge. We cannot change others perhaps, but we can change ourselves. We can be people of integrity.

    

John Winthrop preached a sermon to a group of Puritans who were coming to this nation to help build it.  He told them they were the city on the hill.  He told them that the world would be watching.  And the world has watched.

 

If we don’t like what we see in our nation, then we need to listen to one of the lessons of Sodom and start finding a few righteous souls to redeem the city on the hill – and the only way to find such people is for us to be better individuals. 

 

If we are to redeem this nation, it is up to the individuals who make up this country to become the salt of the world.

 

Don’t like what you see in this country, or community?  Don’t look at the sin of others.  Look for the righteousness in yourself.