Thursday, February 26, 2015

To Take Up The Cross Makes A Difference - Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31-38New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I’d be surprised if anyone here knows the name of Grace Thomas.  There is not much of a reason that you should have heard of her. A friend of mine, Tom Long, related her story to me, and until then I don't believe I had ever heard of her.

Grace was the child of a streetcar conductor from Birmingham, Alabama. She fell in love with a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.  She moved to Atlanta and married him, becoming a full-time wife. After a while she had to help support the family so she took a job as a secretary at the state capitol in Atlanta. She was now full-time wife and full-time secretary.

Through her job she became very interested in politics and the law, so she enrolled at night law school. Now she was a full-time wife, a full-time secretary and a full-time law student.

When she finally graduated from law school, she stunned her family by announcing that she was not going to practice law.  “I’ve decided to run for political office.”

They said, “What office? School Board or Library Board?”

She said, “I’m going to run for the governor of Georgia. The highest office in the state.”

Keep in mind that this 1954.  There were nine candidates that year: eight white men and Grace Thomas.

Now there may have been nine candidates but there was only one issue. It was 1954 and Brown versus the Board of Education had come forth from the Supreme Court requiring that public schools be integrated. And eight of those candidates for governor said that they thought Georgians ought to resist this every fiber in their being.

Only one candidate, Grace Thomas, supported desegregation.

Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the polls.”  But not many voters did. She ran dead last.

Her family was relieved, hoping that she had gotten this out of her system.

But she hadn’t.

In 1962 she ran for the governor of Georgia again. This time the civil rights movement was moving ahead at full steam. She went around the state with her message of progress and prosperity and racial harmony. She received death threats on her life and her family feared for her and traveled with her to protect her.

One day, she went to give a campaign speech in the little town of Louisville, Georgia.

Back in my seminary days my wife and I would occasionally travel to Louisville, Georgia, where I would sometimes preach in a little Presbyterian Church, filling in for a vacationing pastor.

It is an interesting little Southern town.

In almost every town in Georgia there is in the center of town a Civil War monument, or perhaps a Civil War cannon, or maybe a statue of a Confederate soldier.

The centerpiece in Louisville is not a Civil War monument or a county courthouse, it’s an old market house.  A century and a half ago, people sold everything at that market house – cotton, corn, pecans, and people.

In fact, more than any other commodity, slaves were what people bought and sold at that market house in Louisville, Georgia.

And in 1963, while the Centennial of the Civil War was being celebrated throughout the South, Grace Thomas stood campaigning for Governor.

She addressed a gathering of farmers and merchants and she pointed at the slave market and said, “This, thank God, has passed and the new age has come. It’s time for Georgians to join hands, all races together.”

Somebody in the crowd shouted at her, “Are you a communist?”

“No!” she said.  “I’m a Christian.  Baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”

We don’t normally think of baptism as a life changing event.  But it is.  Because when we come out of the waters of baptism, we pick up a cross, deny ourselves, and begin to follow Christ.

When you take up the cross and follow Jesus you have a moment that can change everything.

To become a Christian means that you are, from this day forward, out sync with culture.  You are now different.  The old has passed away, and you are now new in Christ.

One of my professors in Seminary told us a story about a young man who came into his office one day.  The young man had been nurtured in the faith, forced to attend Sunday School, required to sit through sermons in the worship services, and against his will had been confirmed.  Now he was a graduate of high school and was on his way to college and about to be on his own.  He went by the pastor’s office and announced to the minister, “I just want you to know that I’m on my way to college next week.  I won’t be coming back to church here or to any other church so you can take me off the membership rolls.”

The minister looked at him and said, “Sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“You bet I have.  I’m out of this religion stuff.  I’ve through.  I’m finished.”

The minister looked at the young man and smiled.

“What are you smiling at?  Don’t you understand what I’m telling you?”

“Doesn’t matter.  You’ll be back.”

“No I won’t.  I’ve had it with church.”

“But you’ve been baptized.  The Spirit of God is in you.  He won’t let you go.”

“I don’t believe in God.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said the minister.  “God believes in you.”

“Well, I don’t believe in God.  And you’ll never see me in church ever again.”

“You’ll be back. I told you.  You’ve been baptized.”

“Well unbaptized me!”

“Can’t do it.  Baptisms can’t be undone.  You belong to God, not just to this church.  God’s not going to let you go.”

“There is no God,” the young man declared – and out the office he walked.

The professor sharing that story told us that three years later the young man came back into his office.  His attitude was different.  The smugness was gone.  “Pastor,” he said.  “I’ve been reading the Bible.  I’ve had some changes in my life.  I wondered if I can be rebaptized.”

“Can’t do it,” the pastor told him.  “In our church we only baptize once.  Besides, the one time seemed sufficient for you.  As much as you tried, God did not let go of you.”

When you come out of the waters of baptism, you pick up a cross, deny yourself, and begin to follow Christ.  That cross attaches itself to you and even though it doesn’t seem to take with some people, something powerful has happened. 

Take up your cross and deny yourself – and everything changes.

Peter Gomes is a Harvard preacher and on one occasion he got a taste of just how controversial a seemingly gentle gospel message can be.  He was giving a commencement address at an exclusive private high school for girls in the center of Manhattan.  Gomes had as his text the invitation of Jesus Christ who said, “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin, yet their heavenly father provides for them.”    Throughout his commencement sermon, Gomes said over and over, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.”

The sermon went great – or so the preacher thought.  After the commencement service there was a reception and a father of one of the students came up to Gomes “with fire in his eyes and ice in his voice.”  He told Gomes that what he said in his sermon about anxiety was complete nonsense.  Gomes pointed out that it was Jesus, not he, who actually said it, but the man looked at Gomes and said, “I don’t care who said it, it’s nonsense.  It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job.  You are selling nonsense.”

To be a Christian means you are different.  You are out of sync with the rest of the world. 

The world tells us to make money – a lot of it.  Spend it.  Accumulate wealth and power. 

But what good does that do if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?

To be Christian means you cannot turn your back on someone suffering from injustice.

To be Christian means you cannot ignore the poor, the lonely, the neglected.

To be Christian means you have to stick your neck out for others, loving them and forgiving them – even when they hate you.

To be Christian makes a difference – in your life, and in the life of those around you.

Take up that cross.      Deny yourself.        Follow Christ.

The world tells us to look out for number one – yourself.

Christ calls us to put God first and to put our neighbors before ourselves.

The world tells us to make money, spend it, become as wealthy as you can.

Christ calls us to become generous and to give away what we work for. 

From the first moment you become a Christian and take up a cross, you will be forever different.

Copyright 2015. 
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.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Temptation - Mark 1:9-15

Mark 1:9-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

A young boy was told by his mother to come straight home after school and not to go to the swimming pool because he had been sick and swimming, which was his favorite after school activity, might not be good for him for a few days.

That afternoon, he came home from school carrying in his bag a wet bathing suit.

“Did you go swimming,” his mother asked.

The young boy admitted that he did.

“I told you not to – and yet you went swimming anyway, and you even took your bathing suit – why did you take your bathing suit? You were planning to disobey me.”
“Oh, no,” said the boy, “I wanted to obey you – but I had to take my bathing suit, just in case I was tempted.”

Temptation – I think it was Mae West who once said that she could resist anything, except temptation.

In the musical play, My Fair Lady, there is a song that one of the characters sings,

The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
To see if man could turn away from sin.
The Lord above made liquor for temptation, BUT –
With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck,
When temptation comes you’ll give right in.

We tell jokes about temptation, we laugh about it, we trivialize it – but all of us agree temptation is serious business.

And most of us would say that temptation is not a good thing at all.

But – to be tempted is to be human.  To be tempted is to be alive and breathing and engaged with life and other people.  To resist temptation is a noble enterprise.  To give into temptation is to be fully human.

This story of Jesus being tempted is one of those events in the life of Christ that one finds in three of the Gospels – Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to give lots of information about each temptation and how Jesus dealt with each one.

Mark keeps it short, sweet and to the point – no details at all.

For Mark, what seems to be important is not how the temptations happen or how they are resisted.  For Mark what is important is that they are part of the Christian journey.

In Mark, John the Baptist preached, Jesus was baptized and immediately there is the temptation experience.

In Mark the beginning of the ministry of Jesus cannot happen until there is a temptation experience.

Now let’s think about this – was this the first time Jesus had EVER been tempted?  He is 30 or so years old.  I doubt seriously that temptations in general had never ever been part of Christ’s life until this moment.

Jesus had been living life before this moment, and life is not lived in the wilderness, but in the public.  It is lived in the reality of day-to-day existence -- the workplace, in the school, on the street, at home, in relationships. 

This is where all of us meet our temptations. The wilderness, however, contains the ultimate temptation, but hold that thought.

In the years between birth at the manger and his baptism at the age of 30, Jesus was out there in the world.  He experienced life.  He lived it as all of us live our lives – he tempted by everything from jumbo-double- decadent chocolate chip cookies to sexuality.  He was tempted by the economics of reality – greed verses generosity, wealth and poverty, compassion and power.

Some temptations spice up life, some are minor and trivial.  Between the chocolate chip cookies and the sexual pressures of youth, some are not very relevant while others are major and harmful ones move people to such prayers as Psalm 51, which David may have written after Nathan confronted him with a sin that involved adultery and murder and political scandals that dramatically changed his life and the lives of those around him.  (II Samuel 12:1-23)

When Jesus comes to the Jordan for baptism, he has already been tempted.  The New Testament book of Hebrews says he was “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

As he emerged from the water the heavens opened, a dove descended, and the voice said, "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased." But after the baptism, he is led into the wilderness for a temptation experience that is somehow unique. Notice that the one who leads Jesus into this wilderness is not Satan, but the very Spirit of God.  This is no ordinary temptation.

The temptation experience for Jesus is to choose or deny his identity as a beloved child of God, to accept or reject his chosen-ness and God's call to be fully human and fully divine.

All of us, once we become Christians, are driven into the wilderness experiences of life in which we have to face the ultimate questions:
who did I become,
who shall I become,
who am I,
and to whom do I belong?

God leads Jesus into this experience of the wilderness, but it is not God who does the tempting.  Once in the wilderness Jesus finds that he is not alone with God – with him are Satan and wild beasts.

These are not the lions and tigers and bears, Oh my!  These beasts are any spiritual dangers we may face that would destroy our spiritual lives. 

For us, these beasts are the urges to drink after weeks or years of sobriety.

For us, these beasts are the urges to forget your wedding vows for a single night.

For us, these beasts are the urgse to hurt someone who has hurt you.

These beasts are there to tempt us to turn away from our baptism vows and to stop being the new creatures in Christ, and to forget who we are and to whom we belong – and to forsake our Christianity.

These are no mere temptations to go swimming after school when our mother told us to come straight home.  These are the temptations that call us to forget who we are – beloved children of God.

In the wilderness, Jesus transformed his life.  Having been baptized it was in this wilderness of temptation that he faced the temptation to forget who he was.  It was in this wilderness that he made the choice to be who God called him to be. 

At Christ’s Baptism, God had declared, "You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased."

At Christ’s wilderness of temptation, Jesus accepted his true being, his divinely human identity, and God's call.

Every day life delivers up some temptations for us.

Some are great.  Some are minor and trivial.

Some are irresistible and some not.

But from time to time, there are moments when we transcend routine temptations to embrace the seductive questions from the wilderness.  There are times when we are tempted to forget who we are and to whom we will belong.

When I was a teenager my mother would often send me off into the world with her favorite benediction – “Now don’t forget who you are.”  To which I would always love to reply, “Aw Mom, how could I forget a name like Maynard Pittendreigh?”

Of course, she was not afraid that I would forget the name, but rather that while I was out there at school, or in the ball park, or with a crowd, or alone on a date, that I would forget my values.

“Don’t forget who you are” – that is the great temptation of all.

After God proclaims to Jesus at the baptism that he is his beloved child, it is in the wilderness that Jesus is tempted to forget who he is.  But he resists, and he goes out and begins to proclaim the Good News.

In our wilderness places of temptations, let us not forget who we are.  We are also beloved children of God.  Let us, like Christ, remain focused on remembering to whom we belong.

Copyright 2015. 
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.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Ash Wednesday - Spring Cleaning Begins With Adding Some Dust

Education is a process that never ends, and I learned something new that I had not known previously about the season of Lent. 

We begin the observance of Lent tonight with our Ash Wednesday service, and like most pastors, I know a few things about Lent.  What I did not know until this week is that the word “Lent” originally meant the season of spring!  I picked this up from a colleague in ministry - the Reverend Dr. Fred Anderson of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.

Maybe you knew that, but I did not.  In fact in Old English, even as late as the 1300s, Lent was the word that referred to our post-winter season.  It was only in the 14th century that Spring sprung into common use.

And here it is Ash Wednesday and we are getting ready for some spiritual Spring cleaning with a bit of dusting – not removing dust, but adding dust.  Ashes are about to be placed on our foreheads.

But now that I know about the history behind the word “Lent” I am thinking about spring cleaning and dusting – getting rid of the cobwebs that have gathered in our lives, or the other unnecessary trash that get in the way of our understanding of God in our lives.

Holy dusting for Christians has traditionally involved three spiritual disciplines: prayer, self-denial, and acts of charity, or more specifically still, giving to the poor.

These Lenten traditions are very ancient, but helpful to us in our modern world.

Prayer is, of course, how we draw near to God. It is an intentional communication and contact with God.

It is a time of focusing on the always present God, in such a way that we can truly feel the presence of God.
On Sunday mornings, our bulletin includes the Seven Marks of Discipleship – seven actions that ought to always be part of our lives, and one of them is to pray daily.

If you have not already been practicing this discipline daily, I invite you to begin your holy dusting this way.  Commit yourself to praying daily – or better yet, three times daily -  with prayer at morning, noon, and night. It need not be long or eloquent.  The prayer simply needs to be purposeful and intentional.

Philippians 4:6 teaches us “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

And in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, we are instructed to “Pray without ceasing.”

Self denial is another one of the ancient disciplines.
This was often done through the act of fasting, and during Lent one of the strong traditions was to deny oneself of a type of food – perhaps coffee, chocolate, or other food to which one had become dependent.  But more than fasting, self denial might be the elimination of smoking or other unhealthy action.  It might mean controlling the amount of alcohol.  In this 21st century, it might mean denying oneself of technology – television, texting, or other online diversions.  Anything that keeps us from connecting with God or our neighbors can be something we might deny ourselves for a period of time.

This sort of self denial helps clear the mind, clean up our spirit, and draw us back into intentional dependence on God.

Self denial is holy dusting for our spring cleaning – our Lenten observance.

In Matthew 4, Jesus begins his ministry with a period of 40 days of self denial – fasting in the desert.  It is what makes him strong enough to resist Satan and to begin his journey to death on the cross and the resurrection to follow.

The third way we shake the dust off of our lives is through charity.

Intentional, generous, purposeful giving to the poor or the needy. 

Caring for the poor among us is one of the foundational acts to being a member of the people of God.

Time and again Jesus calls us to give to the poor and to help those less fortunate than we are.

In Matthew 25 we read these words:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[g] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We are expected to show charity to the poor and needy.

As you push the dust out of your life this Lent, begin to look for a way in which you can give to someone in need. See what a difference it makes – not just in the life of the person you help, but in your own life.

Finally, as you begin this season of holy dusting, I invite you to take upon yourself the dust of ashes.

Ashes have long been, since earliest biblical times, a sign of grief and repentance.  They also serve to remind us that you and I are mere mortals who live by the grace of God, and someday will die and be embraced in the salvation of God.

"Remember you are dust, from dust you have come and to dust you will return. Repent and believe the gospel."

This evening we mark ourselves for this time of holy dusting, this spring cleaning of our souls, so that we might be better prepared for Lent, better prepared for Easter, and better prepared to be the disciples Christ seeks.

Copyright 2015. 
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.