May 19, 2019
A junior high music teacher had just organized a band in her school. The principal was so proud of the music teacher's efforts that without consulting her, he decided that the band should give a concert for the entire school. The music teacher wasn't so sure her young musicians were ready to give a concert, so she tried to talk the principal out of holding it, but to no avail. Just before the concert was ready to begin, as the music teacher stood on the podium, she leaned forward and whispered to her nervous musicians, "If you're not sure of your part, just pretend to play." Then she stepped back, lifted her baton and with a great flourish brought it down – and - nothing happened! The band brought forth a resounding silence.
Sometimes we in the church are like that junior high band, unsure of our parts, tentative in our roles, reluctant to trumpet forth the music of faith that God desires of us. And that's because we often have trouble deciding what's most important to us. An incident in Texas, several summers ago, dramatically illustrates this. It was a hot, 99-degree August day when a ten-month-old baby girl was accidentally locked in a parked car by her aunt. Frantically the mother and the aunt ran around the auto in near hysteria, while a neighbor attempted to unlock the car with a clothes hanger. The infant was bawling at the top of her lungs, beginning to turn purple and foam from the mouth, a combination of anxiety and the intense heat inside the car. It had quickly become a life-and-death situation when Fred, a tow-truck driver, arrived on the scene. He grabbed a hammer from his truck and smashed the back side window of the car to free the baby.
Was he heralded a hero? Not so. According to an article in the local paper, he is quoted as saying, "The lady was mad at me because I broke the window. I just thought, 'What's more important -- a baby or a window?' " Most of the choices we make in life are not between what is trivial and what is important. Rather, most of the choices we make are usually between what is important and what is more important.
This morning's Gospel reading is so timely for us because it shows us what is most important. As we gather in worship today we affirm that the greatest blessing that God has given us is God's love for us -- God's love that forgives us our sins and makes us His children; brings us together into a fellowship with one another; sends us forth to proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As God's people we gather together as a congregation to affirm to one another what is most important for us -- God's love. As Jesus says this morning, "A new commandment I give to you: that you should love one another; even as I have loved you, you should love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
The Reverend Timothy J. Kennedy tells of traveling by bus throughout Israel one summer. On one part of the journey, the bus driver placed a big white sign by the passenger side windshield. Since it was in Arabic, Kennedy asked their guide to translate. The sign said, “This is an Arab bus, owned and operated by Arabs. Please do not throw stones.” When they got close to Tel Aviv, the driver pulled another sign from behind his seat, and replaced the first sign in the windshield. Since it was in Hebrew, Kennedy asked their guide to translate again. The new sign said, “This is a Jewish bus, owned and operated by Israelis. Please do not throw stones.”
How do you tell the difference between an Arab bus and a Jewish bus? A big plastic sign in the windshield. But back to our primary question, how do you identify a Christian? I guess we could wear plastic signs. But would that really do the trick? (1) Jesus did not say that the faithful will be known by the fact we have read the Bible from cover to cover or that we believe everything in the Bible from Genesis right on through to Revelation. Jesus did not say that they will know us by our ability to recite the Apostles’ Creed both forward and backward. Our Lord did not say they will know us by the way we go to church regularly, or because we have the outline of a fish on the bumper of our car. Jesus said his followers were to be identified by their love for one another We may tithe. We may teach. We may sing or serve or read or greet. We may visit on behalf of our congregation, preach, clean the kitchen, attend to the altar, sponsor the youth, mow the grass, maintain the building.. All of these things are of vital importance to a congregation. They are wonderful and important to our life together. But if we do not do them out of love for God, if we do not love one another, we miss what God desires most of us.
Lucy stands with her arms folded and a resolute expression on her face, while Charlie Brown pleads with her. "Lucy," he says, "you must be more loving. The world needs love. Make this world a better place, Lucy, by loving someone else." At that Lucy whirls around angrily and Charlie goes flipping over backwards. "Look, you blockhead," Lucy screams. "The world I love. It's people I can't stand!" And I think that sometimes we can identify with that. It's easy to love in the abstract -- the world, people in general. We have no problem with that. It's people around us that can drive us crazy. And yet it is precisely those people around us, people nearest to us, with whom we work and go to school, neighbors next door, and the people we sit next to in church, that Jesus calls us to love.
Love which finds expression in kindness, courtesy, tolerance, and acceptance of those around us. Jesus calls us to bring that love to light in the way that we treat those around us. It's easy to love people in general, to affirm that love is a good thing and something we all need. But it's another thing altogether to put that love into action, to make love concrete in our attitudes and actions toward others. Someone once said, "We are judged by our actions, not our intentions. We may have a heart of gold, but then, so does a hard-boiled egg."
As a congregation of God's people, we are called to care for one another, to set aside our preconceived notions of who is and who is not acceptable to God. Our lives must be characterized by love in action. Take all the psychology texts written and boil them down to their essential truth and you'd have difficulty coming up with a better rule for life than: "As I have loved you, love one another." Most authorities tell us that love is a learned response. Just as the abused often becomes an abuser, so the one who is loved learns to love. We live in a world that seems increasingly hostile or at the least more indifferent to the Christian faith, a world that grows more and more self-centered every day, a world that has lost the meaning of the word "sacrifice," that does not understand the commitment of faith. We are part of this world and not surprisingly may find it difficult to tolerate others, to understand others, to love others – especially when we get into politics. This command to love which Jesus gives us, is not a legalistic requirement laid upon us by him. Rather it is the natural response of our hearts to the love that we have received from God through Jesus which is unconditional, undeserved and unlimited. The truth is that we love because he first loved us. And now it is our turn. It is our time to share God’s with others.
Justin Martyr, a second-century theologian and interpreter of the faith, once remarked on how loving one another made a profound difference in the Christian community: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or culture. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
A love that is as concerned for others as it is concerned for self is the most powerful force in the world. As an unknown poet puts it:
Love changes everything it touches:
It makes heavy burdens light,
Long hours short.
Ordinary faces beautiful,
Houses into homes,
Picnics into banquets,
Wilted daisies into bouquets,
God into sacrifice and sinners into saints.
The poet ends with a challenging query.
Doesn’t it make you wonder what might happen to you
If you yielded to God’s love?
Love has the potential to change everything. Experiencing love in your life can change you. Loving another person can change that person. Loving another person can change you. So take up your instruments and play! Let our band strike up a tune, for the musical score, the notes, are laid out before us
Thanks be to God for the blessing that comes with loving one another. Amen
May 12, 2019
You may have heard this story before, but it is one of those stories that can be heard time and time again.
There was a little boy who wanted to meet God. He knew it was a long trip to where God lived so he packed his suitcase with a bag of potato chips and a six-pack of root beer and started his journey. When he had gone about three blocks, he met an old man who was sitting in the park, just staring at some pigeons. The boy sat down next to him and opened his suitcase. He was about to take a drink from his root beer when he noticed that the old man looked hungry, so he offered him some chips. The old man gratefully accepted It and smiled at him.His smile was so pretty that the boy wanted to see it again, so he offered him a root beer. Again, he smiled at him. The boy was delighted! They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling, but they never said a word... As twilight approached, the boy realized how tired he was and he got up to leave; But before he had gone more than a few steps, he turned around, ran back to the old man, and gave him a hug. He got back the biggest smile ever... When the boy opened the door to his own house a short time later, his mother was surprised by the look of joy on his face. She asked him, "What did you do today that made you so happy?" He replied, "I had lunch with God." Before his mother could respond, he added, "You know what? He's got the most beautiful smile I've ever seen! Meanwhile, the old man, also radiant with joy, returned to his home. His son was stunned by the look of peace on his face and he asked, "dad, what did you do today that made you so happy?" He replied "I ate potato chips in the park with God." And before his son responded, he added, "You know, he's much younger than I expected."
Jesus relates to them that he has done works in his Father's name but they have missed the signs and then he tells them that they do not believe because they do not belong to his sheep. Apparently, Jesus’ explanation of God does not do a thing for them! We can only guess at the awful condescension filling the air. Jesus, we know your parents; they were not all that much and here you are trying to be somebody with little or no proof. It is a time of confrontation. The powers that be are pushing for Jesus to announce that he is the Messiah. Jesus is even more determined to let them know that they have been missing the point all along. He has told them, mostly by his miraculous works, but that does not seem to register. He tells them right up front that they do not belong to his sheep. The insiders are really the outsiders! Their need to be in control and dominate has left them on the outside looking in. Jesus proclaims that he and the Father are one. This was an outright heresy to those Jewish elites in the temple. To the powers that be, it meant he was either God or equal with God. No one could be labeled God, especially outside of their power structure! Time and again we get the idea, unless they can name him the Messiah and give him their approval, he would always be deficient and not measure up.
Today we deal with people on a daily basis who are not his sheep. Oh, they have heard his voice but have explained it away — sometimes in clever ways. They don't know him and are not interested in him because he is just not their idea of what a Messiah should be. Let's face it, you and I probably miss the signs, too. Are we looking for the Messiah’s return. Do we know what we are looking for. Would we recognize Jesus if we did come across him. There are those who hear his voice and do not know him
Some years ago a jail chaplain named Carl Burke wrote a little paperback book titled “God is for Real, Man.” he was asked a question at a Baptist summer camp: “What is God like?” and in good preacher-like fashion he replied, “Well, God is like a father.” “Hah!” said the boy who had asked the question, “If he is like my father I sure would hate him!” Right away Burke saw the problem: how do you translate Biblical language which comes out of a bygone age into a more modern language which meets the needs of persons in a completely different cultural context? He asked the inner-city young people to put down their idea of God. The 23rd Psalm started like this:The Lord is my Probation Officer, He will help me, He tries to help me make it every day....
When Jesus called Himself the “Good Shepherd,” there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that He was making a Messianic claim. Those who heard His words would recall the prophecy of Isaiah 40:11: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” How familiar are those words, for we hear them every Advent and Christmas season when we hear Handel’s magnificent Messiah. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” said Jesus in John 10:14. He says that he knows all of His sheep by name. How wonderful for those of us who live in such an impersonal age. Sometimes we may feel as though we are merely numbers on somebody’s gigantic computer. But Jesus says that he knows each of us by name. The image of God as the Good Shepherd tells us that this is the way it is with God. He knows our name. That is one reason why at baptism, the child’s name is clearly stated aloud for all to hear. It was said by someone who has had the privilege of knowing a number of Christians from Nigeria that he was puzzled because all of their names seemed to begin with the three-letters “olu.” He asked a Nigerian friend what that meant. “Oh,” said he, “In our native language, olu’ means God. So every child carries the name of God!’ “ I like that! “I am the Good Shepherd,” said Jesus. He is out there on all the roads where people like you and me get ourselves lost...gently calling our names. And too often we don’t recognize him. We don’t see the Christ in those we meet. As children of God we all have the Divine within us. Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime! God is always there. Be on the lookout! Have lunch with God.......bring chips. Amen