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2-16-20 — Only The Best — 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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A preacher named Cleophus LaRue once observed that we worship in the church we remember. He said that his idea of what makes for a good church is based on the one he grew up in, where the songs were sung from a hymnbook, not a projection on the wall, and where the saints of his youth like sister Naomi and Deacon Brown shaped his formation in the faith. We worship in the church we remember, which I think is one of the keys to the success of so many modern mega churches. They don’t have to account so much for memories.

Congregations like Saddleback Church in Southern California are often held up as a counterpoint to the established main line churches like ours. Saddleback Church started in the early 1980s with a congregation that could fit into a living room, and today they have over 20,000 in worship every week. They’re doing a lot of things right that we need to learn about, but one thing Rick Warren had going for him when he started the church is that he didn’t have to deal with so many memories. When he graduated from seminary, he did what a business would call market research and found an area of the country that was underserved by churches. He moved there and went door to door asking people what they were looking for in their spiritual lives. He drew a profile of the typical residents of the area. He identified his target population whom he called unchurched Harry and unchurched Mary. Then he grew the church around their expectations and needs. It was brilliant, and a huge contribution to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But like so many successful new church development projects, he didn’t have to deal with institutional memories. They created their own traditions and expectations as they went along.

Eastminster Church has a lot of memories. Generations have been reared here, and each one has passed on to the next its wealth of knowledge and experience – and expectations of what church should be. The church has welcomed new members over the years, and they have all brought with them their own memories of worship and expectations for church. You’ve been able to incorporate new people and new memories into an ongoing stream. It hasn’t always been easy. There have been crises and divisions and setbacks. Each generation faces the question: How do we use what we’ve been given as means to accomplish what we’re here for, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ? That’s where churches like ours that have been around a while are going to have something to teach the newer churches as they move into their second and third generations. How do we honor those memories and traditions that have shaped us without making them the purpose that drives us?

That was the challenge facing the church in Corinth. Each person in the church remembered the one who introduced him or her to Christ, and that memory was the standard of what the church should be. Some had come to the church through the preaching of Apollos, an urbane, sophisticated speaker who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand with his skillful oratory. Some had come to the faith through the work of Cephas, also known as Peter, the rough-hewn fisherman whose hands were calloused from hard physical labor and had what we might call today a blue-collar work ethic. Some were introduced to Jesus by Paul, the intellectual who could quote the Greek philosophers and make a tight argument by citing the Law of Moses chapter and verse. And there were others who didn’t claim any theological lineage and said they got their faith straight from Jesus without it being filtered through anybody.

I can imagine if the people in Corinth were alive today. Those who were drawn to the sophisticated Apollos would become Episcopalians. The followers of independent-minded Peter would be Baptists. The ones who gravitated to Paul would be drawn to the tradition of that great lawyer and thinker John Calvin and become Presbyterians. And those who said they weren’t influenced by anyone but Jesus would start a new nondenominational church. But in Corinth in the first century, they didn’t have that luxury of splitting off and each going their own way. There wasn’t a critical mass of Christians that was big enough for them to survive if each group went off on its own. That’s why Paul pleaded with them to stop focusing on the things that set them apart and focus instead on what held them together – Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross.

Now, most sociologists say that one reason America has the highest rate of church attendance in the developed world is because we have such a wide variety of ways to practice our faith. The diversity of churches creates a market dynamic, where free choice and competition compel congregations to innovate and adapt if they’re going to survive. Most of us have changed churches in the course of our lives. Ministers do. I’ve been the installed pastor in four different congregations. As strongly as I felt God’s call to each one, eventually it was time for me to leave. I’d done my work and in order for the church, and for me, to keep growing in our faith and service to God, we parted ways, grateful for the time God had given us together. Many of you came to Eastminster from another congregation. Some are here because you moved into the area, tried out different churches, and felt that this is the place for you. Some belonged to another church in the area, but because of changes in that congregation, or because of changes in you, you felt the need to make a change.

But the freedom we have to move among faith communities makes us susceptible to the same tendency for which Paul chastised the Corinthians. We can get so focused on what works for us that we forget who we’re working for. We get so caught up in making the church what we think it should be that we act as if it’s our church, and it’s not. It belongs to Jesus. Paul compared what he had contributed to the church to the work of a skilled builder who works alongside others to build on the foundation that has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus. The church can tolerate a lot of diversity because it is built on the sure foundation of Jesus.

A building’s foundation determines what you can build on it. One church that I served as interim pastor was planning to build a new building for its growing ministry with youth. The biggest point of discussion was what kind of foundation the new building was going to have. The original plans called for the building to be built on a concrete slab, but lots of folks were asking if maybe they shouldn’t spend a little more and go ahead and include an unfinished basement that could be finished later, depending on future needs. That was a decision that couldn’t be put off. It had to be made before construction began, because the kind of foundation the building has determines what is built on top.

Eastminster was certainly built on a good foundation. The friendships and love that you share rest on that foundation, and they provide the framework for what God is building now. As our society grows more polarized, as social media sorts us into competing camps, the church is one place where people with many different points of view can come together under the Lordship of Jesus. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what we believe, what our politics are or how we feel about hot button issues. But the promise of the church is that we all belong to Jesus, who sees all the things that make our blood pressure rise from the perspective of eternity. And it’s love and respect that endure. That foundation that Eastminster is built on, that promise of a community that exists to serve others, that is what we build upon.

Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, says half jokingly that he’s formulating a theology of grits. He tells about a friend of his, a Catholic priest, who made his first trip south of the Mason Dixon line. On his first morning in a southern city he went to hotel restaurant for breakfast. After studying the menu, he called his waitress over to his table and asked, “Miss, what’s a grit?” She replied, “Honey, there’s no such thing as a grit. They don’t come by themselves.”

And that caused Mouw to think about what happens when you go to Waffle House down South for breakfast. You may order bacon and eggs, but they come with grits, whether you order them or not.

That’s what the Christian life is like. It doesn’t come by itself. It comes with a lot of stuff we didn’t order. We can’t really fashion it to our own design. The church of our memories is a blessing, but God has more in store.

I’ll bet those who signed the church’s charter back in 1957 couldn’t imagine the world Eastminster would be ministering to in 2020. But this church has grown and prospered for so long because it has built on the good things that have gone before without letting those things weigh you down. No matter how well suited we are for the church as it exists now, we know that God always has more in store, and it’s only the best. “All belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” Let’s not settle for less.




2-16-20 Bulletin

2-16-20 bulletin

2-9-20 — Searched By The Spirit — 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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People are drawn to church for lots of reasons. At one church I served, a Jewish family that lived across the street asked if they could take out a social membership. They enjoyed the Strawberry Festival that the deacons put on every June, the Election Night Supper that Presbyterian Women held in November, the special concerts that the choir gave. They even showed up every Easter at the sunrise service in the town park. Church was a great place to meet their friends, even if they didn’t belong.

Others are drawn by the experience of worship. They like to sing the hymns. Some love the sacred music repertoire, or the pipe organ. Some are intrigued by theology and the Bible and want to learn more. And some come because they want to be part of the church’s mission, a mission that helps make the world a better place by caring for the elderly and the sick, feeding the poor, and standing up for the oppressed around the world. They want to be part of something that matters.

But undergirding everything we do is the promise of a transformed life. How do I find meaning and purpose? What am I supposed to do with my life? Where do I find the wisdom to raise kids? How do I find strength to endure a loss? Along with all the things we do as a church, along with all our activities and our worship and our study is the hope that there is something more to life. Paul told the church in Corinth,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the

human heart conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him” –       these things God has revealed to us through the


For all we have in common with other wonderful organizations that help the poor, nurture kids, cultivate the arts or build community, what makes the church different is that we submit ourselves to the direction of the Spirit that is revealed to us through Jesus Christ. And, says Paul, “those who are spiritual discern all things.”

That’s a wonderful promise, but how many of us consider ourselves spiritual? That sounds like a tall order. Most of us think of a spiritual person as someone like Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, people whose commitment and zeal for God we find hard to imagine. You hear a lot of people these days say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” What they usually mean is that they’re interested in things of the spirit but not in institutions like the church. They’re describing their spiritual quest. But to be what Paul calls a spiritual person – that sounds like a tall order.

Yet think of the people Paul was writing. They weren’t perfect examples of piety. These were the Corinthians who were breaking into factions over their allegiance to Apollos or Cephas or Paul. They were the ones he went on later in his letter to chastise for sexual immorality and poor theology and selfishness at the Lord’s Table. Obviously, Paul thought they had it in them to comprehend the things of God, in spite of their shortcomings.  He wasn’t giving them a secret formula to unlock the mysteries of the universe. He wasn’t prescribing a regimen of spiritual calisthenics to lift them up to heaven. He was just reminding them of what they already had and exhorting them to use it. He was reminding them of a simple fact: They had the mind of Christ.

When Christ puts his claim on us, he transforms our minds and our spirits to conform to the Spirit of God. That same Power that created and sustains the universe has come to us in Christ, and through him our spirits are transformed. We signify that claim in the sacrament of baptism. We become aware of that claim in different ways. Some become aware of Jesus’ claim on their lives in a dramatic conversion experience, like Paul had on the road to Damascus. Others become aware gradually, through the nurture of Christian parents and a caring church. Some like C.S. Lewis get there through an intellectual journey. Others have some life-changing event bring them face to face with God. The ways we become aware of Christ’s claim on us are as different as we are.

Paul reminded the Corinthians that regardless of how Jesus claimed them, they belonged to Christ. Through Christ the Spirit of God searches us and attunes us to the power of God at work all around us. It’s what lets us see the world in a different way. So much of spiritual growth is just being aware of what is going on.

Spiritual growth involves being aware of what is going on in yourself. An important part of growing in the life of the Spirit is understanding who you are, how your own human spirit works. There’s something in us that resists the guidance of the Spirit of God. There’s a perverse independence or pride that doesn’t want anyone, even the Lord of the universe, telling us what is best for us to do. A healthy spiritual life involves deep knowledge of yourself.

One of the blessings of friendship is that our friends help us understand who we are. One of the benefits of a Sunday school class or a small group is that in addition to learning about some topic, you also learn about yourself as you reflect on scripture and faith with others.

You can also learn from the people you meet

in the Bible. Something you might want to try when you’re doing your daily Bible reading is to figure out which character in a Bible story you identify with most. I don’t mean the one you’d most like to be, I mean the one that is most like you. It was a humbling insight to me a while back when I was reflecting on a story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and realized how much I have in common with those religious leaders, and it’s not very flattering. The Pharisees were the ones who wanted to make sure that everything was done properly and according to the rules. They were so concerned that things be done properly, that they resisted when Jesus pushed them out of their comfort zone to do the right thing. I’ve tried to be a little more open to looking for God in the messiness of life.

Another thing to acknowledge about the life of the Spirit is that we come in different spiritual types. There’s always value in setting aside quiet time and getting away from all distractions to focus your thoughts on God and open yourself to the movement of the Spirit. But that’s easier for some than for others. Some, whose spiritual type is more extroverted, are more open to God’s spirit when they’re with others. They can notice God at work more clearly in conversation with others. Some people have a hard time sitting still, and their prayers are deeper when they’re walking or running. Some find techniques from other religious traditions help them focus on the Spirit of God, and incorporate yoga or tai chi in their spiritual life. Knowing yourself lets you allow for what works best for you as a way to notice what God is doing and to discern how God is moving in your life.

Some worry that all this sounds self-absorbed. After all, didn’t Jesus come to serve others? Doesn’t he tell us that the way to find ourselves is to lose ourselves and to give freely of ourselves? Of course. The whole point of knowing yourself is so you can cooperate with what God’s Spirit is doing in you to shape you into a person who is more like Christ. Christ gave himself for the world, and as he shapes us, we become more and more for the world.

Isaiah describes what happens as we grow in the Spirit. He was addressing people who had become self-absorbed in their spirituality, for whom their prayers and their worship and their piety had become simply another means of self-fulfillment. Isaiah wrote:

Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the

bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

As we grow in the life of Christ, we become more like Christ, who gave himself for the world. Just as he sought out the poor and the downtrodden, we become more aware of the needs of others. We notice the poor in our midst. We lose our complacency toward injustice. It starts to matter that so many people in Africa are dying of AIDS, that our government is in cahoots with oppressive dictators, that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

And all that activity leads us back here to worship, and to prayer and to reflection so that we understand what we do and why we do it. We give thanks for what we have seen – the power of God working in places where it’s often overlooked. And as we give thanks, God’s Spirit searches the depths of our spirits and opens our eyes to see what else the redeeming power of Christ is up to and join with him, in our homes, our schools, our places of work, wherever we are, and receive what he has prepared for us, which is beyond anything we ever imagined.

2-9-20 Bulletin

2-9-20 bulletin

February Pew Points


2-2-20 — That Other Cheek — Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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These are some of the best-known sayings of Jesus: turn the other cheek, pray for your enemies, go the second mile. And they’re also some of the hardest to understand. When I read these verses, I immediately start with my list of “what abouts.” What about the child who is bullied on the playground? What about the woman who is attacked in a dark alley? Are we really supposed to be passive in the face of aggression? Does Jesus really mean that we shouldn’t fight back when our basic rights or even our lives are threatened?

The Bible is full of stories about people striking back and giving bad guys what they had coming to them. Look at the story of David and Goliath. David met the giant’s taunts by knocking him cold with a rock from a slingshot and then cutting off his head, as gruesome as any Isis video. The oldest passage in the Bible, the very first verses that were written down, are what is called the Song of Miriam where Moses’ sister leads the women of Israel in rejoicing because their enemies have been wiped out, drowned in the Red Sea. And it’s not just in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the book of Acts tells how Ananias and Sapphira shortchanged the early church by withholding some of the income they had promised, then were struck dead at the feet of the apostle Peter. The book of Revelation is filled with graphic images of violent retribution against the enemies of God. There are plenty of heroes in the Bible who don’t turn the other cheek.

I personally find it hard to preach on this passage. Oh, I agree with it, in theory at least. But it does give me a thrill when the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Did you see that Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips that came out a few years ago? Somali pirates overran a freighter and took the captain hostage. I had a rush of adrenaline and gave an inward cheer when the Navy Seals took out the Somali pirates and freed Tom Hanks. It never crossed my mind while engrossed in the drama to ask WWJD – what would Jesus do?

It feels really good to see someone get even, for justice to be served. But retribution doesn’t last long. It’s not only Jesus who teaches that violence and retribution are short-term solutions. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote a book called The Art of War that is still studied by generals today, asserted that war is the failure of diplomacy. Retribution, whether among nations or individuals, doesn’t settle things. It just creates a cycle of violence, like the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys who fought each other for generations because they could never get even. Even though the Israelis have defeated the Arab states three times in war, the conflict rages on. Palestinians fight back through terrorism or random missile attacks, but the outcome continues to be a cycle of one side trying to subdue the other. Like family members that can’t stop fighting, the only solution is to find a different way of relating, some alternative to the old law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Even that law is misunderstood. It’s not a command to exact revenge for every wrong. It’s a restraint on revenge. It means that if someone takes out your eye, you can’t take out his eye and his tooth. You can only take an eye for an eye, no more. It’s not an invitation to a never-ending cycle of retribution.

On the cross Jesus showed how much more powerful God’s love is than any other force. There he died for us and freed us from all hatred and need for revenge. Jesus came to offer us a whole new way of relating to each other. He undermines violence and hatred at its source, by transforming us from the inside out. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes the new creation that he is bringing in. He shows us how we live as those who have been transformed by his cross. He describes the power of loving our enemies and praying for those who harm us.

When Jesus spoke these words, his country was occupied by the Roman army. A Roman soldier could force anyone who lived in a conquered territory to carry his pack for him. That was an act of forced submission that riled the people because it was a reminder of how powerless they were before their conquerors. Jesus, however, said to carry that pack an extra mile. Can you imagine how stunned a grizzled Roman soldier would be if the person he forced to carry his pack volunteered, out of love for the soldier as a person created in the image of God, to carry his heavy burden for him an extra mile? All of a sudden, the lowly peasant has snatched away the soldier’s power of coercion. The peasant is no longer carrying the burden because the soldier has forced him to. He’s carrying it of his own free will, out of love.

Some of the most powerful images of our age are pictures of those who exercise this kind of power that undermines force with love. Think of the pictures of the children in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 who were sprayed with fire hoses in the struggle for civil rights in America. They galvanized the country by their courage. Remember the picture from 1989 of that lone protester in Tiananmen Square in Beijing standing in front of a tank. The tank could have crushed him, but that young man showed greater power than any armored vehicle.

The kind of love that Jesus describes, the kind of love that he lived, is not a passive emotion. It’s not something that just reacts to what it has received. Jesus asks, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Loving those who love us is admirable, and it’s not always easy, but the Corleones in the Godfather movies loved their family. Jesus is describing a love that can change things from the inside out, the way his love has changed us.

When Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was trying to convince Jackie Robinson to sign on as the first black baseball player in the major leagues, he realized the kind of abuse Robinson was going to receive because of his color. But Rickey told him that if he signed, he had to take what was dished out to him and not retaliate against the racism and bigotry he was going to encounter. Robinson asked him, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson agreed, and look what he did for baseball, for America.

Love has the power to change those who are our enemies, but it also has the power to change us. I have a friend whose job includes advocating for stricter gun control laws. Gun control is one of those hot button issues where people on either side of the issue tend to demonize their opponents with labels and stereotypes. My friend feels pretty passionately about the issue himself. His brother-in-law, though, is a state official in the NRA who feels just as passionately about the other side of the question. You can imagine what some of their conversations are like at Thanksgiving dinner. My friend says that he is grateful for his brother in law because he loves him very much, and because of him he can never think of his opponents as “those people.” He is always remembering that he is dealing with human beings beloved of God, not abstract demons he has to defeat.

Jesus reminds us of the power of prayer to nurture that kind of creative, powerful love. He tells us to pray for those who persecute you. Not many of us are persecuted like those ancient Israelites who were forced to carry the pack of a Roman soldier. Not many of us nowadays experience the same kind of hatred that Jackie Robinson did. But there are people who irritate us and anger us and who may even be out to get us in one way or another. It’s those people whom Jesus also tells us to lift up in prayer. Something amazing can happen when we do. We can find ourselves free from the grip of anger or revenge that might hold on to us. We might find that they don’t dominate our thoughts the way they once did once we commend them to God. We are likely to find that something inside of us is different.

You can do that even in everyday places with people you don’t know. I find that airports are a good place to practice this. I can get very out of sorts in an airport, especially if my travel plans are disrupted. There are all kinds of people to get irritated with – the person who is slowing down the security line, the agent who represents the airline that has lost your bag, the blankety blank who cuts in front of you in the food court. Each one of those irritations is an invitation to offer up a little prayer and recognize that God loves them just as much as God loves you. You haven’t changed the world, but something is likely to change in you.

Until Jesus’ perfect reign comes at last, we’re going to have differences. There are going to be times when we have to use violence to resist violence. But in the end, fighting fire with fire only means that more gets burned. Jesus gives us an alternative. We don’t fight fire with fire. We fight fire with water.  We meet anger with love. We confront hatred with prayer. We turn the other cheek. And love wins.


1-26-20 — But I Say To You — Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Everyone wants to do right. When did you ever set out intentionally to do wrong? You may look back on something you did and say to yourself, “That was wrong. I never should have done that.” But at the moment it probably seemed like the right thing to do. You know it’s wrong to break the speed limit, but you’re running late, so you justify breaking the law. You may regret this morning something you said to a loved one last night, but in the moment you thought he had it coming to him, and it felt like the right thing to do. And there are those times when we know that we’re doing wrong, but can’t stop ourselves and do it anyway. Flip Wilson said, “The devil made me do it.” Paul in Romans says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Even the greatest evil that human beings have carried out has been justified by some standard of what is good, even if that standard had to be contorted to justify what was done. Ethnic cleansing, whether in Darfur or Bosnia or Nazi Europe or colonial America is always given some justification, whether racial purity or bringing justice for age-old grievances or claiming a God-given destiny. Those who commit murder will offer a defense that is based on some concept of good. A drug kingpin will justify killing an opponent by the standard of fairness and justice of the mob; a jilted lover will stab his ex because he feels he has been wronged.

People want to do good, even if that means reinterpreting what good is. And that’s the problem with laws. They can be interpreted. They have loopholes; they are never expansive enough to cover all the wiles of the human heart. It’s like Janet Napolitano said when she was governor of Arizona and Congress approved building a wall along the Mexican border. “Show me a 50 foot wall and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder.”

We are masters at justification, at finding reasons to clear our consciences and feel OK about ourselves. We need laws because they give us a minimum standard of how to live together and fulfill our minimal responsibilities as citizens. On April 15, I fully intend to pay what I owe my country in taxes, but I’m going to spend a lot time poring over my tax return to make sure I don’t pay anything more. A manufacturer is going to comply with environmental regulations to do its part for the environment and to avoid getting fined by the EPA, but it’s probably not going to do much more than the law requires or it might be at a disadvantage with its competitors. It would be nice if we could trust every person to do exactly what they were supposed to do, to pull their fair share, and to work together for the common good, but we can’t see inside the human heart. Ever since God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses, we have had laws to guide us and keep us within certain bounds for our own good and for the good of others. And ever since God gave Moses the Commandments, we’ve been looking for ways to parse our way around them.

There’s a common misconception that Jesus came to replace the understanding of God we have from the Old Testament, that he came to do away with the old laws and replace them with grace and forgiveness. Some people think that the God we know in the Old Testament is a God of law, while the God we know through Jesus is a God of grace. Well, for one thing, there’s lots of love and forgiveness and grace in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus clearly says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Instead of letting us off the hook from having to follow the laws of the Old Testament, Jesus holds us even more accountable. He holds us accountable not for how we follow the letter of God’s law, but how we follow the spirit. He has come to bring in what he calls the kingdom of heaven, that way of living together and relating to one another that isn’t guided by self-interest or individual maximization, but by the welfare of others that springs from the God of love. He has called us to be part of that kingdom, where he tells us the requirement for belonging is “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And how do we be perfect like our heavenly Father? Not by trying harder and harder to obey the letter of the law. Not by striving to be perfect on our own. We do that by giving our lives to Jesus, who changes our hearts so that we have the heart of God.

In this section of his Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus describes what it looks like when those whom he has called to be part of God’s kingdom live the way the law intends us to live. Rather than going into a long discourse on abstract concepts of justice and law and righteousness, Jesus gives some concrete examples so we can get the drift of what he’s saying. He starts with what most people consider probably the worst transgression of the law there is: murder. That’s one Commandment that most people can feel good about keeping. But Jesus says, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment.” Ouch. Who hasn’t been angry? Even Jesus was angry when he used a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple. You can’t be a parent without getting angry with your kids for disobeying or doing something that puts them in danger. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus “be angry but do not sin.” Anger can spark us to stand up for justice or discipline our kids or expose wrongdoing. Jesus got angry with the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple, but then he went to the cross to die for them. A parent gets angry with a child for disobeying, but then love channels that anger as motivation to train the child. Jesus knows how dangerous anger is. It’s like a nuclear reaction. If it can be channeled properly, a nuclear reaction can produce energy to power a city, but it can easily get out of control and lead to massive destruction.

A while back I read Rick Atkins’ best-selling Liberation Trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. He tells how ineffective Allied forces were when they first landed in North Africa in autumn of 1942 because the soldiers were green and not battle hardened. They hadn’t become angry enough with the enemy to throw themselves completely into battle. By the time the Allies were fighting their way through France and Germany in late 1944, they had become a more effective killing machine. After years of war, they became angry enough with the enemy that they could bring themselves to do things that are horrifying to read about. A few years ago Ken Burns produced a documentary on PBS called The War. It was about the American war effort, and it ended with the soldiers returning home. It told how the Greatest Generation got back into their routines, started families, and built careers. But there were certain things they never talked about around the grill on the patio or over the bridge table on Saturday night. My father was one of those. He was a Marine who earned two battle stars and a Purple Heart. I remember how he would talk fondly about his comrades and the exotic things he saw in the South Pacific. He told some scary stories about being trapped on a submerged submarine and being stranded on an island for days surviving off coconuts. But there was always a line he would never cross. It was clear there were some things he would not discuss. There were things they had to do in order to win the war and preserve our freedom, but they were things that did not always square with their image of who they were as children of God, things that they do not want to bring back up to the light of day, things that they could not have done if they hadn’t had the anger to fuel them.  We’re grateful to them for what they did for us, but what a price they had to pay.

Anger can cause us to dehumanize another person, and at the heart of all God’s commandments is the command to recognize and honor the humanity of others. Take the next example Jesus gives of adultery. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We may not be able to control the thoughts that pop into our minds, but we can control what we do with those thoughts. One way that people justify watching pornography is that they don’t act on their thoughts. If they are married, they remain physically faithful to their spouse. Adultery as Jesus defines it is anything that objectifies someone as a object of lust or disregards the vows of fidelity we make to another. It’s when we see others as objects to satisfy our desires, not as people made in the image of God, whom God loves and cares for. That is not being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Or divorce. Jesus was speaking to a culture in which all a man had to do to divorce his wife was present her with a written statement that they were now divorced. The law was written so that the woman could be free to marry another man, but in those days when women were not allowed to have the same freedoms they do today, they were basically dependent on their husbands or their fathers for survival. For a man to cut off his wife, even according to the law, was to leave her destitute with no means of supporting herself. It was treating her as an object, not a human being beloved of God.

And finally, Jesus gives the example of swearing an oath. If we truly are to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, as those who are perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, what sense does it make to swear under oath? In our legal system, you can be held liable for making a false statement under oath, but you can’t be prosecuted for telling a lie to your neighbor over lunch. That implies that there are two kinds of speech – speech under oath that is always true and other speech that may or may not be true. In God’s realm, there is only truth. God never speaks what is not true, and neither do those who are called God’s children.

So for Jesus, the standard of right and wrong is how our words and actions and thoughts build up relationships and respect others. Before Pilate sent Jesus to the cross, he found legal justification to put him to death. Jesus was convicted as a threat to the emperor and one who broke the laws. The Romans were legally justified for killing Jesus. But Jesus went to the cross to fulfill God’s law, to restore that broken relationship between humankind and God and the broken relationships among people. He showed the kind of love God has for us, which is the kind of love we are called to have for one another.

Jesus didn’t come to do away with God’s law. He came to fulfill it. And this is God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We can be as precise in following the letter of the law as a Pharisee, but if we don’t do everything out of love, we are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Jesus changes our hearts so we are fit for God’s kingdom, where the law is made perfect in love.

1-26-20 Bulletin

2-2-20 bulletin

1-19-20 — Bound To Differ — 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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I don’t have to tell you that we’re living in divisive times. It seems like every news event that happens sends opposing sides scurrying to their ideological corners to engage in verbal combat. Even a natural disaster like the wild fires in Australia have sparked heated partisan bickering. Look at what happens every time there’s a mass shooting. Newspapers, airwaves and blogs start to explain why it happened. Those attempts usually reveal more about the commentators than about the shooter. One side of the political spectrum immediately blames the other for creating a climate of vitriol that led directly to the violence. As it becomes clearer that the alleged shooter has emotional and mental problems, the other side shoots back by saying that their accusers were once again trying to deny individual responsibility and solve all our problems by social engineering. Explaining the tragedy becomes a contest to see which side can score the best talking points.

That’s what happens when we think of politics and social discourse as a protracted sporting event, with elections being like the Super Bowl where the goal is for one side to emerge victorious over the other.  The goal isn’t to work together to arrive at what is true and good and right, but to vanquish the opponent and vindicate ourselves. It’s a zero- sum game. If what you believe is right, then those who disagree have to be wrong. Period. End of discussion.

It’s a pattern that carries over into the church. Just before Christmas I was talking with a friend of mine who is pastor of one our larger Presbyterian churches. He’s had a productive ministry there. The church’s mission and outreach has grown. A year or so ago members of the church, a same sex couple, asked if they could get married in the sanctuary. The session decided it was finally time for the church to confront that issue because there are other LGBTQ people who worship there. My friend led the church through a long and thorough process to come up with a decision that was true to scripture, would be pleasing to Christ, and preserve the peace, unity and purity of the church. But after going through the long process, he was shocked at the vitriol that surfaced when it came time to make a decision. He was disheartened by how mean some church members have been to each other. It was as they forgot all the hard work they’d done on how to discuss controversial issues in the spirit of Christ and reverted to the models of debate they see on cable TV.

Eastminster had your share of divisions and church fights in your history. By God’s grace, this is now a congregation that demonstrates the love and acceptance of Jesus and is focused on serving him faithfully without energy being diverted to quarreling. But it took a long time and lots of effort to bring healing.

If it’s any consolation, this problem isn’t new. It’s why Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The church he had founded was being torn apart by differences. There was conflict over everything from how to worship to sexual morality. But it wasn’t just that there was disagreement. People were impugning each other’s integrity, accusing their opponents of being traitors to the faith.

Church fights can be the most painful of all because the stakes are so high. They deal with things that are at the core of our being. Even if the presenting issues seem trivial – the color of the carpet or the order of worship – they have to do with the way we honor God, and that really matters.

When the Corinthians broke into factions, cast aspersions on one another and spent all their energy fighting, they were at cross-purposes with the very reason God had called them into being. The questions they had were similar to the ones we wrestle with today: Can you really be a Christian if you don’t believe the same way I do? What kind of worship best honors God? What is the proper sexual morality for God’s people? Those are important questions. They shouldn’t be ignored or papered over. Paul wasn’t saying that anything and everything should be accepted without making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong.

Paul had some definite opinions on the controversies that were dividing the Corinthians. But before diving into the controversies, Paul reminded them that what they had in common was much more important than their differences.

He didn’t start by lecturing them on civility. He doesn’t evenhandedly weigh out the opposing arguments and try to find some middle ground. The first thing Paul did was give thanks to God for what bound them together. He says, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus for in every way you have been enriched in him… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” He starts with giving thanks.

When we give thanks, we recognize that we are dependent and fallible. Giving thanks is how we acknowledge that we can’t take credit for what we have or what we’ve accomplished. We recognize those places where God is at work among us. When we see God at work, carrying out God’s purposes, it puts our agendas in perspective.

Try this exercise for a few weeks. Every night before you go to bed, set aside a few minutes and think back over your day. Identify those places where you saw God at work in your life and give thanks for them. Maybe it was a kind word that a coworker said to you. Perhaps it was some insight you had into a dilemma that was troubling you. Maybe it was the way the sunset was reflecting off a field of snow. It could have been some strength you discovered deep inside you that helped you get through a difficult moment. Identifying those places where God was present in your life and giving thanks for them puts you in touch with something else that is going on. You realize that you’re not alone and that it’s God who strengthens you and guides you. You don’t have to be defensive about your opinions or your ideologies when you know God is working through you for something that is better than anything you can conceive of.

Martin Luther King Jr. had that perspective. He was able to see beyond any narrow interest to a broader vision of Isaiah. One of his rivals in the struggle for civil rights was Malcolm X. Malcolm ridiculed King’s philosophy of nonviolence and called for armed resistance to white segregation. The way Malcolm saw it, white people had used violence to suppress blacks for centuries, and the only way to meet violence was with violence. Malcolm wanted to vanquish the enemy so his side would win.

King realized that racism is bad for white people too. It poisons the soul of the racist. He saw the struggle as more than just one side triumphing over the other. His dream was for a world where all people live together in justice and peace, not for a world where the oppressed and the oppressor just changed sides. He dreamed of a world that was fundamentally transformed. The dream that he shared in that famous speech on the national mall in August of 1963 was taken right out of the Bible, the prophet Isaiah’s promise of the world where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and all people will live together in peace.

One of the dangers of strong convictions is that they seal us off from other perspectives. The louder and stronger we defend our positions, the less we hear those who think differently. The more we hunker down in our convictions and shut others out, the more likely we are to objectify those who disagree with us. And when we treat people as objects, we’re not showing the light of Christ that saves the world.

King and Paul both had strong convictions, but they were grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we anchor our convictions in a living, ongoing relationship with Christ, in a relationship that is nurtured and sustained by thanksgiving and prayer, then we allow him to use us to bring about his dream for what the world should be. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King wrote to the white pastors who told him to tone it down, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth and goodness and thereby rose above his environment.”

And Christ expects the church to rise above our environment of invective and hatred. Paul begins his letter by reminding the Corinthians who they are. They are  “the church of God that is in Corinth… those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus…” God is at the center of their being. They hadn’t voluntarily banded together as a service club or a civic organization. They weren’t an affinity group or a life-style enclave. They were called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus. The church can’t set its own agenda that’s fought out among its members. God set the agenda for the church before any of them ever belonged to it. In Isaiah 49:6 God says, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” That’s why the church exists, to give Christ’s light to the nations so God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

In another one of his speeches King said, “We’re all tied together in a garment of destiny.” The church can be a model for our nation. By the way we treat those who differ from us, we can be that light to the nations. We don’t shun controversy or differences, but we deal with them in the spirit of Jesus, giving thanks first of all for the grace we’ve receive through him. Then we lay our differences before him and let him use them like threads to weave that garment of destiny. We may be bound to differ, but we’re bound together in Jesus.

1-19-20 Bulletin

1-19-20 bulletin