Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Flaming Hammer

The following is a transcript of my sermon preached Sunday, August 22nd at St. George's Anglican in Waynesburg, PA.  The readings for this week were as follows:  Psalm 46; Isaiah 28:14-22; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29; Luke 13:22-30.  The sermon primarily refers to the reading from Hebrews.

I don’t know if you noticed just now, but our New Testament reading this morning was missing some verses. No, nobody made a mistake. The lectionary—our list of weekly scripture readings found in the prayer book—leaves out Hebrews 12:20-21, as it often does with supposedly unpleasant content. What was left out? Let me read it to you. It says that the hearers at Sinai begged “that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’)”[1]

Our dean and president at Trinity School for Ministry, the Very Rev. Dr. Justyn Terry, has said before that often the scriptures left out of the lectionary are the very ones we ought to preach on. This morning I tell you, I accept his challenge. This morning I will preach the full word of God, however unpleasant it may be.

Israel begged for God’s intense, fiery word to stop. Who among us does not know the difficulty of hearing the full word of God? The gospel, as good news will do, fills us with hope. We rejoice in the glory of God’s mercy and grace extended to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet the cross ought to also to cause us holy fear, as we have been told by Jesus himself that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”[2] The cross both announces the grace of God as well as the sacrificial lifestyle he calls everyone to live.

Last week I spoke the word of God to you. I told the story of Babylon’s invasion of Israel and the dark consequences which followed. It was a dire time in Israel’s history. A time of violence, immorality and uncertainty. I pointed out that our own day suffers many similar problems. I argued that, as in Jeremiah’s day, many voices in our culture claim to have the answers and solutions while those who speak God’s word are deemed dangerous or irrelevant. I concluded that we ought to judge all these voices based on what we know about God through the Bible, through that long and full history of Israel culminated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But did we hear the full word of God? I’m asking myself here; did I even proclaim it?

Let me ask you—who did you identify with in that story? I’m guessing no one here saw themselves as Babylon, the future army of destruction. That would be like rooting for an evil Terminator or a dictator. Maybe some of you saw yourself like Israel—God’s chosen, but compromised by sin, unsure of the word of the Lord in a chaotic time. But my guess is—and I say this because I was no different—that most of us identified with Jeremiah. The one who got it right. The good guy. We like heroes and we want to be heroes—we’re encouraged by their tales of perseverance and righteousness, and rightly so. We ought to aspire to a noble life. However, as we dream of nobility, we must not forget the darkness of our human nature. We don’t like to admit to our own villainy and probably need God’s word to admit it to ourselves.

I will not argue today any differently than I did last week—as Christians, we face a God-less culture which might be happy to eradicate the apostolic witness from public life altogether. But when we point our finger at this sinful culture, are there not three fingers pointing back at us? We who instruct others not to sin, do not we also do some of the very things we criticize? As much as we do so, we ignore part of God’s instruction that our lives ought to reflect our message, and therefore should heed the words we read today in Hebrews: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”[3] Those of us quick to identify the sins of others ought to also examine ourselves.

One of us might say, but Lord, have I not done well enough? Is it not enough to attend church, avoid terrible things like drugs and illicit sex, to do my best to “get by”? So long as I’m not like “those people over there”?

To illustrate my point, I have two stories to tell.

A couple of years ago I lived in Tallahassee, FL with my friend Scott. We were both out of college, both Christians and both working at a job we had because they were willing to give us money if we showed up and, well, confound it if we didn’t have this persistent need to eat regular meals and sleep under a roof behind a locked door. Scott knew a man through mutual friends whose name, like mine, was Mike. Mike did not have his life together. He lived out of his van and was a recovering alcoholic who lapsed every now and then. He had intermittent work with stone-cutting and placing for personalized driveways and patios, but was often short on cash because he would hold out for better paying jobs and feel insulted by low-paying grunt work. He asked Scott if he could live with us and, with my reluctant permission, Scott said yes.

So Mike lived with us for a couple of months. Working intermittently. Taking up large chunks of my free time with his energetic ramblings. Staying off of alcohol. I allowed and tolerated his residency because I regarded it to be my Christian duty, but I was a reluctant host and probably not always a kind one. Shortly after Mike moved out, he lapsed back into his addiction, and stumbled drunk into a house on his street late one night. The young coed he terrified called the police, who arrested him for breaking and entering. When I heard this, I turned my nose up and decided that he deserved what he got. I never visited him in prison.

I remembered these events recently, with sorrow, because of my current chaplaincy internship at the Beaver County Jail. There I’ve met Marcus, whose name I’ve changed to protect what little privacy he has left, a man I pray with on a regular basis and who is also a killer. Marcus, formerly a Muslim, found Christ while reading the Gospels alone in his cell. He became irritated and unamused by the macho posturing of his fellow inmates, and has come to know the peace of God through the grace and forgiveness of Jesus. Marcus regularly demonstrates an authentic, humble faith and an intelligent curiosity to understand as much about God and the Bible as he can. We are even currently reading a spiritual book together.

Every day I meet with him, I have to be willing to extend Marcus the same grace he has come to accept, or I would not be able to minister to him. I realized quickly from ministering to inmates that I could have no hope of being effective if for a second I considered myself to be better than them. I must remember both that, as the apostle Paul says, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,”[4] as well as that, as the ancient preacher says in Ecclesiastes, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all.”[5] We are all sinners, and given the right circumstances, we may have been capable of both history’s worst atrocities as well as the pettiest of its crimes.

With Scott and I’s friend Mike, however, I had no such kindness. I put in the hours at my meaningless job and resented him for not having the backbone to do the same. When he ended up in prison, I was tired of his excuses, of his problems, of his story. I thought, “He deserved it; I’m done with him.” Lord Jesus, please forgive me this cold-hearted act of pride.

I ask you then, as I’m asking myself, how will you love your neighbor? If we identify and act as orthodox church-goers, do we also keep Christ’s command to love our neighbor by extending gracious kindness to those who don’t deserve it? Or are we content to label them—drunk, addict, sexually immoral, bum, thug? Or gay, liberal, Muslim, socialist? Or homophobe, fundamentalist, fascist, bigot? The church, the right, the left—all of them have labels and names meant to say “I am not like you.” Even “preacher” can become an epithet of derision or separation, assigning something like self-righteousness or self-promotion to one who proclaims the word—or maybe indicating detachment from so-called ordinary life. I am here to tell you, however, that though a preacher may be a, quote, “man of God,” he is still a man.

Paul’s accusation ought to gnaw at the edges of our conscience. No one is righteous. No one does the right thing. If this is so, how can any group or individual claim superiority to another? This is certainly a word we don’t want to hear. It’s natural to us to jostle for position, competing and comparing ourselves to one another. We take comfort in the notion that we’re not all that bad, not “the bad guys.” But in so doing we ignore Paul’s devastating critique of humanity. Again I quote Hebrews to you: “See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking… how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!”[6]

Let’s return again to our readings from last week. God proclaimed through Jeremiah, “Is not my word like fire, like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”[7] Jeremiah’s words undermined the whole nation of Israel, called their religious, political and economic life into question. Had they faithfully responded, God would have broken their public life in pieces in order to reconstruct it in his image. Since they were faithless, he tore the whole thing down and made them start over.

Therefore I ask, what are we doing in church? Isn’t our worship service flush with the word of God, that burning, rock-breaking hammer? Are we not coming, as it says today in Hebrews,

"to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumberable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel?"[8]

Like the Moses trembling at Mt. Sinai, we can never take God’s word for granted. We come to church, together, in the presence of Almighty God, and hear his words. They not only expose our society for its sinfulness, but ourselves as well. All of the ways we fall short of the glory of God.

As Anglicans, we affirm that God is powerfully present in the sacraments. Not only, beloved of God, ought we to faithfully remember and observe God’s story and word, but we also ought to be cognizant of the living God present here with us this morning! He is a God nearby, and not a God far off. As we prepare to receive the eucharist, let us examine ourselves. Do you need to repent of failing to love your neighbor? Is there a hard word God has been prodding your conscience with, one you would rather ignore or forget? In the presence of God, Jesus, the angels, the firstborn, we must repent of our wicked ways and receive the forgiveness of Christ.

We are about to encounter the living God in the body and blood of Jesus, so hear these words: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”[9]

[1] Hebrews 12:19b-21. This section must be modified based on whether the reading is actually modified by the bulletin and/or the reader.
[2] Luke 9:23.
[3] Hebrews 12:25.
[4] Romans 3:10.
[5] Ecclesiastes 9:11.
[6] Hebrews 12:25.
[7] Jeremiah 23:29.
[8] Hebrews 12:22-24.
[9] Hebrews 12:28-29.


Beau Denton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beau Denton said...

Mike! So well done. Your words are challenging and stirring, and I thrill at the thought of you in church leadership.