Tag Archives: power

Positional Blindness

The following video was inspired by the notes below it.

 

In the last week, I witnessed a moment in which someone very much like Nicodemus in today’s text had a moment in which they saw beyond their position of privilege and power to recognize that something they cared about was harmful to their brothers and sisters, and rather than continue to embrace it, they chose to remove it from the equation. I am referring to the courageous stance taken by the Republican leadership in South Carolina to pass a bill removing the Confederate Flag from being flown at public buildings in their state. In the face of death threats, a group of people chose to obey God’s call to remove anything in our lives that could lead others into sin. The Governor of that state signed the bill, and the flag, which was re-flown in the 1950s in protest of the Civil Rights movement, was removed to be placed in a relic room. It is not an easy thing to find that we might be blind, and in today’s text we get to see just how hard it really is to overcome our positions in life to see with God’s eyes.

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” John 3:1-15

  • There was a Pharisee. Who were the Pharisees and what did they believe?
  • Came to Jesus in secret. Position of power comes with fear of loss.
  • A private acknowledgement.
  • Taking things way too literally.
  • The wind of the Spirit blows where it pleases, not where we think it should. Acts controversy with Gentile membership.
  • Power blindness. Power has difficulty seeing things that would challenge or destroy its supporting structure.
  • If we are to believe what Jesus says about spiritual realities we must first believe what he says about earthly realities. The gentiles have their lords…
  • The heavenly singularity and the despised savior.
  • Jesus words speak as clearly to us today as they did to Nicodemus, we must accept Jesus’ teaching about the deadly nature of human priority systems in order to be born anew into God’s eternal life. To be born of the Spirit is to accept Jesus as our new head honcho and follow his commands above all others’.
  • Every one of us has blinders that come from our position in life, and it is in our submission to Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit that our blinders can be removed. Join me in praying for the Holy Spirit to fall freshly upon us, to remove whatever blinders keep us from seeing God’s will, and to bind us together as one body dedicated to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us pray.
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First Things First

This sermon was inspired by the following notes.

In our lives, we have many things surrounding us attempting to claim a higher position on our priority list. The hardest decisions in our lives tend to not be between good and evil, but between competing “good” things. Often we make choices and wonder if we chose the right good thing to take precedence. The difficulty for us is compounded by the messages and advertisements around us that each tout themselves as “the best thing”. We have foods that claim to be “superfoods”, insurance companies with “superhero” mascots, politicians claiming to be saviors, and all kinds of products with words designed to make us prioritize that product over everything else. In today’s scripture we see what Jesus’ coming does to our priority structures and what we have to gain from the change.

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). John 1:35-42

  • A relationship with someone who knows.
  • The responsibility to point to Jesus when we see him at work.
  • Jesus is inviting of people right where they are. He had no entrance exam for following. You start where you are.
  • When we welcome people to be in relationship right where they are with no conditions that is incredibly inviting and when that invitation is accepted Jesus begins to teach.
  • Andrew could have gone back to John, back to work, etc, but he found his brother first and told him about the Messiah. When people encounter the God who loves them Just as they are it changes priority structures. Priority one becomes sharing that love, that good news with loved ones.
  • What would have happened if Andrew had gone back to life as usual? No Peter. A different set of disciples. A different story. A story with a huge missing piece.
  • Andrew’s priorities were not to make Peter acceptable than to bring him, but to drag him exactly as he was, with all of the flaws we have come to know and love, the cowardice, the rashness, the temper, the fear, and all that sheer impulsive open mouth insert footedness that made Peter what he was, directly to Jesus to meet the Messiah.
  • Jesus didn’t give Peter the fifth degree over his theology or lifestyle, but gave him a new name and an invitation.
  • The “Bounded Set” mentality vs. the “Centered Set” mentality.

Bounded Set: Do you believe like me? Concerned with enforcing conformity to a norm. What would you say the pros are to this kind of setup? Pros: Easily defined boundary. Easy to determine who “belongs”. How about the Cons? Cons: Who controls the measuring stick? Not welcoming if not ready to 100% conform.

 

Centered Set: Where are you in relation to Jesus? Concerned with relationship building. What would you say the pros are to this kind of setup? Pros: Welcoming to all. Focused on drawing closer to Jesus. How about the Cons? Cons: Can become relativistic rather than relational. Requires more work.

 

 

[The] situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.    Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001), 208-209.

  • Today we bear that same trust, to seek God’s face, live for him and reflect the light of his love around us. When this happens we see people coming to God just as they are, with all their flaws and we get to witness the transforming power of God at work in them over the years.
  • Sometimes we allow things about ourselves or others to get in the way of the light we are called to shine, and that light grows dim, we forget to put first things first because our eyes have strayed from the love of Jesus.
  • I am sure that I am not the only one here that is guilty of allowing myself to turn away from God’s light, and I invite all of you to join me in praying that we could have the obstructions and false priorities cleared that we might reflect the unconditional love of God on each person around us, welcoming them into relationship with the Messiah, Jesus. Let us pray. Our Open worship will end with the Keith Green song Oh Lord You’re Beautiful.
  • Open Worship

The Rejected Cornerstone

Watch the sermon that arose from the below notes here:

When we first moved to the West Coast we were participating in the life of the L’Arche community in Tacoma, and I got to learn a lot more about the everyday rejection and fear that people with developmental disabilities and mental illness face. There was an opening in my heart as I got to know some of these people, and I learned about the ways I had mistakenly judged others’ value. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on ability and is very quick to push people who it thinks can’t, or won’t, contribute away from others. This rejection leads to all kinds of things, but God has a message for us to hear.

33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;

the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’[h]?

43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

  • The builder and owner of the vineyard
  • Renting the land has conditions
  • The fruit: “22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Galatians 5:22-23
  • The servants = the prophets who were killed when they convicted God’s people
  • The tenants were self-centered and focusing on what benefitted them. This is of course completely unfamiliar to American culture right?
  • The kingdom of God is for those who produce its fruit. Not the fruit of temporal wealth, position, privilege, or power, but the fruit of the Spirit which turns us to the benefit of others.
  • The rejects of a society, the incarcerated, the mocked, the weak, the ill, the poor, the sinner, those unable to produce are the very people God has called to the center of his kingdom.
  • Jesus was rejected and killed because of his understanding that God’s law existed to generate love of God and neighbor, the joy that comes from loving God and seeing his image in every face we encounter, the peace of right relationships that are based on love and not what is in it for us, the patience to seek out that image no matter what, the kindness to cultivate that image and forgive the inevitable mistakes when we don’t live into the image we bear, the generosity to share what we have so that others can have the resources they need to produce spiritual fruit, the faithfulness to keep pressing on to know the Lord and seek his face, the gentleness with ourselves and others that builds us up carefully, and the self-control to place the good of others above our own desires.
  • God is looking for us to produce fruit for him. The cornerstone of self-sacrifice has been laid down and we are built upon it. All our desires and hopes have fallen to pieces and now we live in the glory of a life that is God-centered.
  • As we enter into open worship let us ask God for the strength and grace to live into his values. Let us ask him to prune us so that the fruit we bear can be bountiful and that his glory will be revealed through our love for the bearers of God’s image who surround us. Let us fall on the cornerstone together that all within us will be broken apart that it can be rebuilt to the glory of God.

Jesus Came To…?

Click here to listen to the sermon that came from these notes.

This week we celebrate the coming of Jesus, not only into this world, but into our hearts and lives. Jesus was born to an unwed pregnant teenager in an impoverished town under the brutal oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus was born to a people that were considered insignificant and lived out many of the nightmares faced by the global poor in his earliest years. Jesus did not come in the way anyone expected him to, and yet the impact of this unexpected coming, teaching, death and resurrection has altered the way the world works. God’s intervention had truly come. Last week, we ended with an open worship in which we shared some ways that Jesus came to us and intervened in our lives. It is interesting that all of those ways fit in with the mission statement that Jesus used to describe the reason for his coming.

17 The synagogue attendant gave Him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus unrolled it to the place where Isaiah had written these words:

18 The Spirit of the Lord the Eternal One is on Me.

Why? Because the Eternal designated Me

to be His representative to the poor, to preach good news to them.

He sent Me to tell those who are held captive that they can now be set free,

and to tell the blind that they can now see.

He sent Me to liberate those held down by oppression.

19 In short, the Spirit is upon Me to proclaim that now is the time;

this is the jubilee season of the Eternal One’s grace.[f]

20 Jesus rolled up the scroll and returned it to the synagogue attendant. Then He sat down, as a teacher would do, and all in the synagogue focused their attention on Jesus, waiting for Him to speak. 21 He told them that these words from the Hebrew Scriptures were being fulfilled then and there, in their hearing.

22 At first everyone was deeply impressed with the gracious words that poured from Jesus’ lips. Everyone spoke well of Him and was amazed that He could say these things.

 

  • It didn’t last long. Jesus declared God’s grace on all humankind and that was offensive.
  • Isaiah to Jesus the space between.
  • The Spirit of God is the source of Jesus power. Fully human fully God tension.
  • This Spirit worked through him for The Divine Purpose.
  • Good news to the poor. Freedom to those held captive. Sight to the blind. Liberation for the oppressed.
  • The significance of the jubilee.
  • The fulfillment has begun and now we are part of the fulfillment of God’s Promises.

 

Let me encourage you again to remember the ways the gift of God’s son has impacted and changed your life. During our time of open worship take the first five minutes to remind yourself of the ways God has been active in your life and consider what ways God may be leading you to be the agent of His promises of redemption in the lives of those around you.

Bearing Good Fruit

Click here to listen to the sermon that came from these notes.

As we get into the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is becoming more emphatic and is speaking to a broader reality. He has given some very specific instruction, and now is giving the disciples some warnings about what they are going to encounter when the training ends and their time of service begins. Last week we heard Phil speak to the reality that the world around us makes it easy to follow paths that lead away from God and the truth of who and what we have been gifted to be. This week, Jesus addresses how to spot those who are luring us to the easy path for their own ends.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:15-20

  • Agrarian society. How wolves hunt.
  • The two types of wolfishness.
    1. Fear wolf. Throws the acorn at Chicken Little.
    2. No worries wolf. Prosperity, God just wants us to be happy and succesful.
  • The wolves play off of each other for mutual benefit.
  • Wolves are identified by behaviors that benefit them at others’ expense.
  • The fruit we are looking for is fruit that is benefiting others and building them up.
  • Paul in Galatians gives very similar teaching, reiterating what Jesus calls us to look for.

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:13-23

  • There are no qualifying statements. One of the ways we can identify wolfish thoughts in ourselves is when we feel the need to qualify these characteristics and make exceptions.
  • Jesus’ way is focused on others and how we can serve, and that is a narrow gate and a narrow path indeed. Let us ask God to give us wisdom in recognizing the messages of self-gratification that are used to entice us from His path and for the grace to confront ourselves when we give in to wolfish thoughts..

Where the Heart Is

(Click here to listen.)

There are a couple of things that I am led to address as the pastor of this community. The first is to thank you for the prayers you have poured out for Analise and us, there were times in the last couple of weeks that your prayers were what held me together. There are times in our lives when we need others prayers to make it through and by God’s grace we are. The second is to speak a bit about what is happening in Ferguson, and the larger conversation about race that still needs to happen in this country. I grew up in neighborhoods very much like Fergusen and can confirm that there are some members of our nation’s police forces that forget the “and serve” part of the motto that says “To protect and serve.” This happens most often with people of minority status and reflects some of the prejudices that have been active in our country for a very long time. As Christians we have a responsibility to speak the truth and while the expressions of violent rage are indeed counterproductive, we must admit that the rage we are witnessing is not without cause. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that riots are “the language of the unheard.” The question that I see as most important for us to answer is: What are we as a church called to do here, where we live, to bridge the divides that all too obviously still exist in our society? As Christians our first response to the kinds of tragedy we are witnessing is to fall to our knees. All too often we step out and act or speak before consulting with God and we speak to what we see before inviting God to examine our hearts. We have a responsibility to represent the kingdom of God and we cannot do that in isolated and segregated churches or without a proper foundation of prayer. Many of you have asked me what we can do in this climate of crisis we are in and I have a proposal that I want to lay before you: I would like to open the doors of our church from 8AM to 8PM Monday through Saturday for any who desire to come and pray. This will require some volunteers to be here hosting prayer times, but can any of us see the news and say that we don’t need centers of prayer to be open in our communities? I also want to invite you to consider ways in which God may be calling us to mourn with our brothers and sisters who are mourning in Missouri, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Nepal, West Africa and the neighborhoods in which we live. Can I get a quick show of hands on who would be interested in hosting prayer times here at the church? Thank you.

As I was preparing for this week’s sermon, I looked at the upcoming text, and as I prayed over the text on fasting, I got the sense that it was ground that didn’t need to be covered again since it was a continuation of the prayer theme from three weeks ago in which we talked about the ways we can abuse public acts of piety to place our glory ahead of God’s. Jesus’ top priority was the work of spreading the kingdom, and as he invested his teaching in the disciples he gave them tools to help diagnose their priorities and warnings about how placing other priorities ahead of God’s work causes a divided life. God’s call on us is not to divide our allegiances and loyalties between the things of this world and God, but to instead place our entire being, way of life, and value systems into the hands that knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. We live in a society that is based on the consumption of goods and services, more so than at any other time in history. This society teaches us that what we produce and consume is the measure of our worth as human beings, and everything is designed to fail or be used up. That attitude bleeds over into our opinions on the value of human beings and we see interactions like those in Fergusen and elsewhere in which people are treated as disposable. This is what happens when we place value in finite things, and Jesus gives us words from God to check ourselves.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:19-21

Now that Jesus has addressed the controversial topics of sex and power he turns his attention to money and the ways we determine value. These teachings of Jesus are not intended to shame us, but instead to invite us into relationships that have their value in the things of God. Jesus begins by warning us about storing up what the world around us holds to be valuable. Let me give you an example from the past, does anyone remember beanie babies? These were small stuffed animals that were mass produced and marketed as “collectibles.” They were released in an artificial scarcity with a slick marketing campaign. Many people got caught up in the craze and jumped on the bandwagon with some paying upwards of $200 for a single stuffed toy. This bubble eventually burst, but not without some people losing a lot of money in their speculation. The things marketed to us as valuable can all too easily turn out to be worthless in the long run, and Jesus is reminding us that there is only one place in which our investment is safe.

There is no security here on this earth. Let me repeat that: no matter what anyone tells you or promises, there is no place on this globe or in this universe in which any of us will be secure from loss. The flowers fade, the grass withers and our flesh is as dust, my future hangs on my feeblest breath. Every town and city will wither and every nation will eventually crumble. Every currency will collapse, every bit in our bitcoins will be set to zero. Little geek humor reference: there are 10 kinds of people in the world…those who understand binary and those who don’t. In binary there are only two numbers, zero and one so 10 would be two in decimal. Every corporation will close its doors and its books. Even the very world we tread on is susceptible to the dangers of space. Nowhere that life exists can be secure. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the next part which says don’t worry, and we will get there in a few weeks. For now Jesus is telling his disciples that trust and hope placed in the things and powers of this world is misplaced. Hope and trust cannot be supported by things doomed to fail.

There is only one source of hope and trust, one source for security that is not dependent on circumstances. When what we treasure is the joy that comes from being in the presence of the God whose love caused the universe to exist, there is nothing more needed to feel a sense of security, and nothing will shake us, not even other people’s religious opinions. I we are feeling insecure in our faith or life, it might be time to do some prayerful evaluation to discover what we might be trusting in that isn’t God. Where is my treasure invested? That might just tell me where my priorities are.

The next passage requires a bit of explanation since there is a bit of a translation issue here. The word Jesus uses that our bibles translate as “healthy” implies generosity and the word we translate as “unhealthy” implies stinginess. When we don’t allow ourselves to be controlled by accumulating things or wealth we look at others with generous and healthy eyes. This is a consequence of living in the light of God’s truth, that nothing is more valuable than the treasure of serving God. When we look upon others with the understanding that our treasure is entirely in God’s hands we can be healthy in the ways we give to others. Jesus hasn’t really changed the topic that he has been talking about, just approaching the need to have right relationships built on the foundation of God’s loving grace and mercy from a different angle each time. Every display of unhealthiness and darkness comes from being afraid of losing what we rely on. It comes from treasuring that which is fleeting in its very nature. When we are deceived into believing that things or money are where our value lies, we look out at others in unhealthy ways, we hoard what we have. The fear of loss will then begin to taint our relationships and as we gather our things up to hide them and keep them away from others. That fear and anxiety will then begin to dominate our thinking and any disagreement will be perceived as a threat to the house of cards we have built on the shifting sands of worldly power, reputation, or wealth. Why is it that Jesus could hang around the people that his society deemed worthless? What was it that prevented the Pharisees from hanging out with the tax collectors, gluttons, hookers, and other broken types? He did not treasure the things or opinions of the world, but instead invested himself fully in the love of God. This is the source of power and courage, that God is with us and we can serve him. This is what can enable us to truly befriend the people who our society tells us are threats. What would it mean for us as Clackamas Park Friends Church to place our treasure, the resources we have been gifted with, entirely into God’s hands to be used up and given away without fear of loss? What kind of faith statement would it be for us to declare with our actions that we trust the generosity of God to overcome our fear of loss? That we could lose every worldly possession and still rejoice because our treasure is secure in God?

Friends, if there is fear in our lives it comes from having something other than God’s priorities guiding our actions. I can only speak this from my own experience of this truth given us by Jesus: when I am fearful it is because I am trusting in something that can be shaken. This is the hard truth that Jesus gives us today: we can only serve one master, there can never be “God and” there is only “God or”. I really would like there to be some way for me to serve God and money, God and food, God and my family, but as soon as I allow for any other master, no matter how important that master is to follow in this world, the door to fear has opened because of my idolatry. Every one of us in this room has something that it is most easy for us to slip an unconscious “and” into our lives, something that we tend to focus on instead of God. Let us take the time now to renew our determination to follow God and God alone.

Let us begin our time of silence with a time of confession and renew our focus. Friends, every day we must get up, face into the unhealthy patterns of this world and ask God to give us the strength to resist the temptation to put other things first in our lives. We are called together as a body to help each other resist, to help each other overcome, to redirect each other’s attention and priorities back to God as our eyes slip off the mark. Let us take this time of open worship to confess our fears to God, renew our determination to serve God alone, and resolve to support each other as we face into the unhealthy patterns of fear that close us off from the generosity that comes from serving  God. Let us put everything with God that our treasure may be stored up in His presence and our hearts reside in his steadfast love. Let us pray.

Poking Holes in Public Holiness

(Click here to listen. Speaker’s Note: The audio version of this sermon deviates from and significantly improves on the printed text below.)

In the Sermon on the Mount, we have seen how Jesus consistently raises the bar for his disciples from the letter of the law which kills to the spirit of the law which brings life. From a faith that is self-centered to a faith that is God-centered. Today’s text is no different, and the critique Jesus levels has been echoed repeatedly through the centuries. One of my favorite Dilbert comics is a conversation between Dogbert and Ratbert in which Dogbert had just cashed out as CEO of a company and was going to turn his attention to Philanthropy. Ratbert, being the comic foil, asks if that is the study of people named Phil to which Dogbert replies “It’s mostly about watching people beg and having buildings named after me.” In Jesus’ time the practice of giving alms to the poor was a part of Hebrew tradition and throughout the scriptures there are commands to care for the poor, the stranger, the alien, the orphan and the widow. The awesome thing was that the Jewish people really did make a big deal about the importance of their acts of charity, and their theology reflected it. However, as with many good works, there came a time in which a line of glorification was crossed. The line between glorifying God and glorifying self gets blurry awfully fast sometimes, and Jesus was fully aware of that fact. In today’s teaching Jesus addresses some of the things that will help us to keep our eyes on the mark of God’s glory.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4

Today’s text is one that we can struggle with applying, so to get our minds on the same page I want to share one way I saw this done. In a large high school like the one I attended the statistical likelihood of someone experiencing tragedy was pretty high, and we often heard through the grapevine how someone’s parent had cancer or was getting divorced. What was really interesting was that usually within two days of the tragedy making the rounds of the school, a bouquet of handpicked flowers addressed to the student would appear overnight. Nobody could figure out who was doing this, and it had a hugely positive effect on the student body. I still couldn’t tell you who, but it had to be someone or some people on the staff who had access to the student address records. Regardless of who did it, on the back of each card was the 23rd Psalm. Whoever did this found a way to apply today’s text and led others to share secret acts of compassion in ways that point to the goodness of the God who inspires them.

When we give in secret, without strings or even allowing others to know who is doing the giving there are some amazing opportunities that open up. The first opportunity is for God to be glorified. When I was growing up in the ministry in New York, we were trying to feed 25-40 people three meals a day and some months we used all of the tricks the third worlders who lived with us knew about stretching food. Occasionally a miracle would happen. We would open our front door in the morning and there on the porch would be bags and bags of food. There would be no note or anything to identify where this came from other than the name of the store on the shopping bags. That food came from God, and everyone in our house knew it. When whoever left that food did it in secret they turned away from credit and acclaim so the people who were living with us would know that the source of this food was Jesus. God received the glory.

There was something else that happened as well, when miracles occur it doesn’t feel like a handout. There is no weird relational dynamic that places the giver over the receiver because nobody knows where things came from. One of the dynamics that Jesus is really addressing here is giving with an eye towards exerting influence or control over others. When we don’t let our left hand know what the right hand is doing in our giving we are exercising a very important act of trust. We are expressing a trust that God will be glorified and we trust that the right things will be done in God’s church without our exerting financial influence over the process.

These acts of trust and faith are not easy, and we are bombarded constantly with the message that other people are not trustworthy, especially people in the church, especially the fallible people who lead our churches. Don’t hear me say that we should not have checks and balances, but that those checks and balances need to be disconnected from personal financial involvement. The problem is one of a misplaced sense of ownership, and I must confess that I have heard that little voice in my soul that says things like “I am a consistent giver so the leaders had better listen to me.” and “Hey, this is my church because I help support it.” and even “I helped found this church and everyone knows I give to make this ministry happen so my voice needs to be heard on this.” I think all of us have heard variations on those themes and have had to check ourselves with the reminder that “No. This is God’s church and I have to submit to his leading.” All glory, authority, control, and power belong to God and God alone, and Jesus is helping us find ways to silence those voices that tempt us to think otherwise.

Jesus is doing more here than keeping us from trying to Lord it over others because of the amount of money we are able to give. He is reminding us of the answer to one of the big questions of life “Why am I here?” Humanity has asked this question for as long as there has been the ability to think about it. For a majority of my life, the answers that I would give, even in theologically prettied up language, were mostly variations on the theme of do the best I can for myself and my family. As I have been part of the Friends and experienced the challenge to live simply, below my means, God has used that to help me focus on the purpose we all are created for: To glorify God; to serve God’s purposes in the world and to show by my trust that God is worthy of the glory, worthy of honor, worthy of praise. When I surrender my desire to control and let my giving be hidden from others, I create an opportunity for others to experience the goodness of God. In that experience of God’s goodness, maybe, just maybe a seed will be planted and God can be glorified in another person’s life as they accept the gift of Jesus.

Jesus is reminding us in today’s teaching to once again keep our eyes on the end game. The mark we aim at is that mark of loving perfection which we see in Jesus. We need his help to keep our eyes focused on that, and Jesus points out for us the reward that comes from following him and his purposes in the world. God’s glory is shown and when we are in his presence we get to hear the words we so long to hear: “Well done my good and faithful servant.” As we enter into our time of open worship take the first five minutes of silence to allow your thoughts to quiet. As we consider this teaching of Jesus maybe you will be inspired to an act of creative hidden generosity. What joy can we bring to others so that they might give glory to our God? Who knows, maybe if enough of us take on this task we can begin to see the fulfillment of the promise in Habakkuk 2:14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Let us pray.