Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Glimpse of the Holy - Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Sermon                                Glimpse of the Holy            Maynard Pittendreigh

        Look at where most at where most people sit during a worship service.

        The back row of the church is the most popular seat in the sanctuary. 

        The person who sits close to the front is either very brave – or is the wife of the Senior Pastor.

        I like to go to sporting events, and I don’t ever remember going to any event and then telling people the next day – “Hey, you won’t believe how great our seats were – we were on the back row!!!”

        No – you will pay extra money to sit closer to the action. 

        Political events, musical concerts, sporting events – we want to be up close. 

        Come to church?  We want the back row.  Maybe the middle row.  Only a few come close. 
        Why is the back row of a church so popular?
        Is it because you want to be close to the exits in case the candles fall off the Lord’s Table and catch the church on fire? 

        Or maybe you like the back row because you are afraid that I might go nuts one morning? 

        Is it because you want to write notes to each other like you did back in study hall when you were kids?

        Years ago a Psychologist asked the question about why people sit where they do in theaters, sporting events, and in many other places.  His conclusion about why people like the back row in churches was that there is within many of us the fear of the holy.

        The fear of the holy is natural.

        In Genesis, Jacob falls asleep and has a vision.  He encounters God.  He sees a stairway resting on the earth with the top reaching to heaven.  He sees angels coming and going and then he sees God.  When he wakes up, he is terrified, because he has gotten too close to the holy.[i]

        Moses encountered God in the form of a bush that was on fire, but was not consumed to ashes.  He hears the voice of God.  When Stephen tells the story of Moses in the Book of Acts, he says, “Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.”[ii]

        Luke’s Gospel says that when Jesus was born “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.[iii]

        And now in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is transfigured.  His body is changed.  It shines like the sun in the sky.  His clothing is radiant. 

        And Peter and James and John – so far so good -- they take all of this in and they remain in control.

        Then Moses shows up.  And Elijah.  Two long gone prophets. 

        And Peter and James and John – well, so far, so good.  Peter begins to babble a bit about how it is good for them to be here and how they can build three shelters – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  That doesn’t make much sense, but how rational do you expect people to be when people from the past start showing up and having conversation with your boss?

        Then the voice of God is heard.

 “This is my son, listen to him.”

        And then Peter and James and John lose it.

        They fall face down into the ground.  And they are terrified.

        They have believed in God.  But now they are so close to God.  And they experience a fear of the holiness of God.

        Why would they be afraid of God?

        God loves them.

        Why be afraid of God?

        God made them.

        Why be afraid of God?

        God has sent them His Son.

        Why be afraid of God?  Why be afraid to get too close to the holy?

        In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, there is this wonderful moment when the prophet Isaiah encounters God.  He records it in his book this way:  “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."

        “At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am done for! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’


        We are afraid of being too close to the holiness of God because deep down inside we know what Isaiah knew, and what Moses and Paul and the shepherds knew. 

        We are sinful people.

        We are unworthy to stand in the presence of God.

        But what is it that Peter and James and John hear God saying to them?

        “This is my son, listen to him.”

        And what is it that Jesus says?

        He spoke of forgiveness. 

        He spoke of mercy.

        On the night in which he was betrayed, while Jesus was with his disciples, the Gospel of Matthew says that “while they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, gives it to everyone and tells them to eat.  And then it says this…

        “Then Jesus took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[iv] 

        The transfiguration changed not only Christ’s body for a moment, but it changes our relationship with God forever

We hear the voice of God, and we hear Him telling us to listen to his son.  And so we are invited to come into a relationship with God, and  we are invited to come close – to come as forgiven people – to gather as close as we can. And to do so, without fear.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
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.

[i] Gen 28:10-15

[ii] Acts 7:30-32

[iii] Luke 2:8-9

[iv] Matt 26:26-29

Friday, February 17, 2017

Loving Generously - Matthew 5:43-48

Matthew 5:43-48New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

        In February, 2002, an American journalist was murdered in Karachi, Pakistan.  He was not just murdered.  No.  He’d been kidnapped and forced to sit in front of a video camera to beg for help.  The kidnappers made unreasonable demands, and they ignored pleas for mercy from his newspaper and even his wife, who pregnant at the time.

        After several days, his kidnappers cut off his head.  They then cut up his body and buried it in a shallow grave that was later discovered by police. 

         Not long after this man’s murder, I met his father.

         I met him at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA – which is the national level of our church that meets every other year.

        From time to time I would see this man’s father speaking.  He spoke at a luncheon. He spoke up in committee meetings as guests of the church.  He spoke at spontaneous gatherings in the hallways of this conference center.

        Well, General Assembly, being a Christian gathering, someone dared to ask the family a question.  “Have you been able to forgive?  Have you been able to love your enemies?”

        “NO,” said one of the relatives.

        “That’s the trouble with you Christians.  You love too generously.  I love only one thing.  My hate.  Since they cut off my son’s head, hate is what I have become, and I like it. I have a right to hate.”
        Man.  He’s correct.  He’s on target.  He has a right to hate.  Someone murdered his son.  They video taped the murder.  It’s posted on the internet.  His father has seen it.  Someday this victim’s son, unborn at the time of the murder, may Google it up and see it when he’s 6 or 7 or 8.

        How can this family not hate?

        They have a right.

        We’ve never been through what that man went through – or at least I haven’t.  And part of us can never understand what that family went through.  We would not want to know what that family has been through.

        But each of us may feel that we have a right to hate.

        Because something bad happened to us.

        Something unique.

        Something no one else can understand. 
        And we don’t forgive, because that would be absurd.

        And we don’t love, because we have a right to hate.

        Statistics tell us that 1 in 6 women have been sexually assaulted.  Statistically speaking, that means that given last week’s Sunday attendance, 50 women who were worshipping at Grace Covenant Church had been, at one time in their lives, at some point in their lives, sexually assaulted.[1]

        Well, let’s say that we are a statistical anomaly.  Let’s say that here at Grace Covenant Church, only half that number have been assaulted – so that still leaves 25.  Twenty five women we know whom have had something horrible happen to them.

        You see, it’s not just out there that bad things have happened.  We’ve had bad things happen.  Our loved ones and friends have had unspeakable things happen to them.

        People have been victimized and abused as children when they could not defend themselves -- And they were victimized by the very people who were supposed to love them and take care of them and protect them.

        They have a right to hate.

        Good people go to work day after day, and one day they find that they no longer have work to go to.  They have been fired and it happened in a way that dehumanized them and humiliated them. 

        They have a right to hate.

        A family discovers a child has cancer.  And they pray and they hope and one day they stand at a grave and watch a little casket lowered in the ground.

        And they hate.  They are angry.  And it is not satisfying enough to hate cancer, so the parents hate the doctors, who may have done all they could and more.  Or they hate the nurses, because maybe they didn’t think the nurses were gentle enough in sticking needles into the fragile daughter’s arm.  Or they hate their pastor, because the pastor represents God – and if they have the courage, they will God himself.

        They have a right to hate.

        And along comes Jesus Christ, who in this Sermon on the Mount says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies.”

        Jesus Christ, how you can say that?
        How can Jesus Christ say to the man who has worked hard, worked honestly, worked faithfully, and who now has been fired, “Love your boss.”

        After all, doesn’t that man have a right to hate?

        How can Jesus Christ say to the family of the dead child, “Love the doctors, nurses, pastors whom you think failed your daughter.”

        After all, doesn’t that family have a right to hate someone – something?

        How can Jesus Christ say to the person who was raped, or to the person who was robbed, or to the person who was humiliated, or to anyone, “Love.”

        After all, don’t we all have a right to hate certain people?

        How in God’s name, can Jesus Christ say to a family whose son was kidnapped, murdered, decapitated on video, “love your enemy?”

        After all, don’t some people have the ultimate right to hate beyond question?

        The father of that reporter whose death can still be found on the Internet said, “The problem with you Christians is that you love too generously.” 

        No, that’s not the problem.  Because Lord knows, we haven’t loved nearly that generously.

        We hate.  We despise.  We have a right.

        Loving generously is not the problem.

        Loving generously is the goal that we’ve never been able to quite reach.

        What did Jesus know about all of this anyway?  What did he know about life?  I mean really. 

        He was never a woman who was sexually assaulted.

        He never had a daughter die of cancer.

        He never turned on the computer to see a video of his son being murdered.

        Nobody ever fired Jesus from a job.

        But then – he was humiliated. 
        He was deserted by friends. 

        He was mistreated by the government. 

        He was assaulted and beaten and tortured.

        And he was nailed to a cross and put to death – and if the Internet had been around back then, his mother Mary would have stumbled on the reruns on You Tube.

        Jesus had a right to hate.

        But Jesus found it possible to love even his enemies.

        Jesus was hanging on a cross.  At his feet people have taken his clothing and are playing games to see who wins the clothing to take home.  As if it is not bad enough to have your life taken away, you have to die in front of people who don’t care – who in fact care more about your clothing than they care about you. 

        Jesus had a right to hate – but instead, he prays “Father, forgive them.”[2]

        I’m not going suggest that you don’t have the right to hate.

        Maybe you do.

        Maybe you do have the right to hate the person who humiliated you, took advantage of you, fired you, deserted you, raped you, assaulted you, did some unspeakable thing to you… whatever.

        Maybe you do have the right to hate.

        But what Jesus does is to offer you a better way.

        You may think you have the right to hate, but Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

        The problem with Christians is that we have not loved generously enough. 

        On July 12, 1986, New York City Police officer, Steven McDonald, was on patrol in Central Park and stopped to question three teenagers.  One of them, a 15 year old, took out a gun and shot the officer in the head and neck. 

        McDonald was rushed to the hospital, and while he survived, he was paralyzed from the neck down.  He had been married for 8 months and his 23 year old wife was 8 months pregnant. 

        After 18 months in the hospital – 18 months – that’s a year and a half – that’s more than twice the amount of time he had been married -- McDonald was able to go home.

        One of the first things he and his wife did was to have their son baptized.  At the baptism, McDonald told people that he had forgiven the 15 year old who had forever changed his life.  McDonald told his church, “I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me - the anger, the bitterness, the hatred.  I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us.”

        In the years following this shooting, McDonald has often told people that the only thing worse than a bullet in his spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart.  He says that such an attitude would have extended his tragic injury into his soul, hurting his wife, son, and others even more.

        McDonald had a right to hate.  No one can deny that. 

        But he found a better way.  He learned to love his enemy.[3]

        On October 2, 2006, a man walked into a school and began killing and wounding students and teachers.  The school was in an Amish community, and the grandfather of one of the murdered girls told CNN television, “We must not think evil of this man” who killed our children. 

        That community had a right to hate, but they sought love and forgiveness, and out of that, they found healing.  Instead of a community torn and wounded and destroyed, they refused to be a part of a cycle of hatred and violence, and found peace.  As community, they marched to the home of the parents of the man who had murdered and injured their children.  They didn’t march to that family out of revenge, but offer that family forgiveness and love. [4]

        We clothe ourselves in hatred.  In bitterness.  We were humiliated.  We were hurt.  We were the victim.

        And we KNOW that we have the right to hate.

        But at some point, we have to let go of that.  We have to walk out of the cycle of hatred and bitterness.  We have stop clothing ourselves in bitterness, and instead find a way to do what the Bible tells us to do – to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”[5]

        Maybe we do have a right to hate.  But there is another way.

        It is time for us to love generously -- and to find peace for ourselves.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
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.

[5] Colossians 3:12

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The 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.

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.

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.

          In the original Spiderman movie, Peter Parker is a restless teenager who is giving his guardians – Aunt Maye and Uncle Ben – a bit of a tough time.  After all, he has just been bitten by a spider that has been exposed to gamma radiation, which has changed Peter Parker into a teenager with great power.

          In a tender moment, Uncle Ben senses that Peter is going through confusing changes in his life. He does not have a clue what kind of changes, but he turns to his nephew and says, “These are the years when a man changes into the man he is going to be the rest of his life.  Just be careful who you change into.”

          Now that is just a movie.  And it is based on just a comic book.
But it is true.  From time to time we face decisions and in those decision we are not just deciding what kind of work we will do, or whether we will do our homework for school, or whether we are going to do a good job or a sloppy job – what we are really deciding is what kind of person am I going to be?

Am I going to be a loving person or an unloving person?

Am I going to be a just person or a selfish person?

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?

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 Wintrhop, 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.

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, she believes in the words spoken by Jesus when he said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world, a city on a hill.”

Of course, Jesus was not talking about America here.  He was really talking to his disciples. 

But we like to think that America is a Christian nation.  Of course, we know that America is not just a nation of Christians.  We have Jews and Muslims and Hindus, but we like to think that many of our values as a nation came out of the influence of Christians.

And if we are to call ourselves a nation with Christian values, we need to remember that we are indeed a light to the world, and a city on a hill.  People are watching us to see what kind of city we are.

President Reagan loved to refer to America as a city on a hill.  He used that idea frequently in his campaign for the 1980 election.  In his farewell speech to the nation on January 11, 1989, he said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it.  But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city that hummed with commerce and creativity.  And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.”

Part of being this city on the hill is that it comes with a burden of responsibility. 

In January, 1961, then President-elect John Kennedy also evoked this verse when he spoke to the General Court of Massachusetts as a reminder that America is still that city on a hill, and he told them that every level of government and every person needed to be aware of the great trust and responsibility they had to be an example to others.

Kennedy had such a way with words and he hit the nail on the head by referring to being called a city on a hill a “great trust” and “responsibility.”

Those of you who grew up with younger siblings probably remember the admonition of your parents to set a good example for the younger brother or sister.  You had a responsibility to be an example.

Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, all of you have the sacred trust and a “great trust” and “responsibility” to be an example to the world.  People are looking at you, and you are an example, a city on a hill.

You see, it doesn’t matter if we are talking about America, or our church, or our scout pack or troop, or yourself as a lone individual.  People are watching.  You are setting an example.

The question is, what kind of example are you setting?  What kind of city on a hill do people see when they look at us?

What kind of nation do people see when they look at America?

What kind of Scout troop do people see when they look at your group?

What kind of individual Christian do people see when they look at your Facebook page, or your conduct at work, or your behavior in the classroom.

You are, right now, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and the city on the hill.  You are not becoming that, you are that right now.  And people are looking.  So what do they see? 

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
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.