Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Oct 16, 2016 Sermon: "Ultimate Reality"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Jeremiah 31.27-34
NT: Luke 18.1-8
Ultimate Reality 

            I’ve been questioning the nature of reality lately, and it’s not just because I’ve been running for political office.  And it’s not just because we’re about to welcome a child into the world.  And it’s not just because the world seems to be a crazy place these days.  But I bet all in all those things all contribute to me asking the question:  What really matters in this life? 
            Do you ever find yourself asking that question?  Maybe you’re getting on in years, looking back over your life, and wondering what it’s all been for.  Maybe you’re busier than you’ve ever been, and you’re trying to make sense of who you should spend your limited time on this earth.  Do you ever find yourself wondering: What really matters in this life? 
            If you start thinking about that, soon enough you’ll say that things like family, having a meaningful job, giving back to those around you, making the world a better place.  All those are good answers.  But the more I’ve studied this week’s passage, the more I think that we answer to a higher reality.  Higher than anything we deal with on a daily basis, deeper than any love we feel, wider than any understanding we have about the ways of the world. 
            What really matters most in life?  Verse 33.   “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  The ultimate nature of reality is that we belong to God, and nothing matters compared to that.  Do you understand what I mean when I say “ultimate” reality?  I don’t mean better than the rest.  I mean final.  The final reality is that we belong to God.      
            To appreciate the gravity of that statement God makes not just to the people of Israel in the time Jeremiah was written but also to us today, we need to understand the context.  The people were decimated.  After the destruction of Jerusalem we read about in Lamentations a few weeks ago, the Israelites were literally a broken people. Many died. Many more were enslaved and exiled. Their reality has been turned upside down.  They wanted their lives back. They wanted their homes back, their livestock back, their family back, their church back, their religious relics back, their scrolls of law back which told them what to do and what not to do.  Surely, they wanted their clothes back, their pantries back, their personal items back, their normal lives back.  But God showed them a new, bigger reality.
            Verse 31 says God will make a covenant with the people.  We’ve talked about what a covenant is before.  It’s like an agreement or a contract, but it’s more permanent than that.  You can break an agreement.  If one party backs out, then it’s over.  A covenant can’t be broken.  In Hebrew, the word for making a covenant is literally, “cutting a covenant,” as in “cutting in stone.”  Once you cut it in stone, it’s there for eternity.  And since God is the one who makes a promise in a covenant, it will stand forever.  What will this new reality be like?  Will the people live in a land flowing with milk and honey, where the mountains are made of gold and the trees grow money?  No, of course not.  God says nothing about what their new lives will be like.  Instead, God simply says, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  Because that’s all that really matters. 
            Modern life is filled with many distractions, much more so than in the Israelite’s day.  We work hard all day.  We struggle to sleep at night.  We have a hard time getting up in the morning.  Life is filled with so much stuff.  I beg of you to remember that the covenant God makes is for you, and it is the ultimate reality of life: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  That promise is written in the human heart.  Your heart.  And the more often you can remember that that promise, cut in stone, defines your reality as a human being and a child of God, the more meaningful your life will be. 
            Say it with me: I will be your God, and you shall be my people.  What really matters in this life?  I will be your God, and you will be my people.  When we look at the madness of the world and wonder what is going on, let us remember God’s covenant: I will be your God, and you will be my people. 
            That is the ultimate reality of life.  We belong to God.  Therefore, come madness or mayhem, come turmoil or tumult, come hell or high water—it’s ultimately OK.  We belong to God. 
            The more I’ve prayed about that this week—God’s covenant with us—the more at peace I’ve felt.  Accepting God’s covenant written on your heart allows you to see this life for what it really is and focus on what really matters. 
            One of my teachers had a sign on his board that read, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.”  Remember that, my friends.  There’s only one thing that ultimately matters.  God’s promise, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”  All the rest is small stuff.  Amen. 

             

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Oct 2, 2016 Sermon: "Lament--Let it Out"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Lamentations 1.1-6 & 3.19-26
Lament--Let it Out!
               
                Without knowing the context of Lamentations, it will sound like a sad country song about a man longing after his woman…who has up and left him in the middle of the night never to return!  So let me tell you what’s going on behind the scenes. 
The Israelites—God’s people who were delivered from slavery in Egypt and given the law and sent prophets to guide them towards righteousness—are in trouble.  Serious trouble.  The prophets had been warning them for decades, but they ignored it.  They were finally living the good life, and they didn’t want to think about anything else.    
People once without a land had been granted a homeland in Jerusalem.  Their homes, jobs, religion, and families were all in Jerusalem.  Life was pleasant.  Business was good.  Faith was strong.  The year was 589 BC. 
An invading army led by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia (which is what we call Iraq today) arrived at the city’s walls intent on conquering the ancient metropolis.  It took them two years camped outside the city walls, but they succeeded and took control of Jerusalem.  No, that’s too tame a way of saying it.  They laid siege to Jerusalem.   
The first thing they did was burn the temple to the ground.  They thought this would break the people’s spirits, and it did.  Then they took as many citizens as they could as slaves.  They did this regularly to those they conquered not only to flex their muscle but also to gain free labor.  Finally, they burned everything else still standing.  Houses, barns, everything.  Those Israelites that weren’t killed or enslaved ran for the hills.  The Babylonians left a few slaves behind to tend the fields which they would use to feed their soldiers whenever they had to come back through town.  And Jerusalem was no more.   
The Jewish remnant who ran for the hills are the ones who wrote Lamentations.  Imagine them looking back at the city they loved, now just smoldering ashes, as they try and makes sense of where they should go from there. 
Lamentations lays bare the human soul.  It shows broken people at their very lowest, crying out in despair.  It uses the image of a widow, and widows surely know what it feels like to have your world torn out from under you.  That kind of pain resides deep within the soul.  Like the pain of losing a child or the pain of facing severe trauma.  It’s something so deep that we can’t talk about it.  In fact, when things that bad happen to us we’re often told not to talk about it. 
Rob Bell is a popular Christian pastor and author who tells a story about his dad. When his dad was 8, his father died. But nobody told him.  His mother told him to put on his suit and the whole family piled in the car on the way to church, so the 8 year old boy eventually asked, “Where are we going?”  A cousin in the backseat said, “Your dad’s funeral.” 
When they got there, his mother told him, “We will not shed a tear today. Your father is in Heaven, so we will celebrate.”  He never had time to grieve.  He never was allowed to lament.  Lamentations reminds us there is necessary and important power in lamenting.
When you hit your thumb with a hammer, what do you do?  You say, “Well, that hurt,” and move on?  No, you yell and you curse.  Admit it.  You get it out, and then you move on. 
When you have a bad day at work or you’ve been waiting on the doctor’s office to call all week and they don’t—again—do you yell and curse?  Probably not.  You keep it all inside because that’s what a strong and mature person does.  You bottle it up and let no one in on the secret that inside you’re heart is burning with anger and hurt. 
One of the most baffling things I have learned about human beings in my 34 years of life is what happens to our grief when we don’t deal with it.  I see this all the time, and it confounds me.  Something bad happens, but instead of grieving we try our hardest to ignore it.  We downplay it, we ignore it, we push it aside.  Then like a balloon it pops up somewhere else about something that’s totally unrelated.  Have you ever found yourself yelling at your dog when you’re really mad at yourself for backing into the garage?  Have you ever found yourself yelling at the person on the phone from the phone company when you’re really upset because you’ve been sick and needed help and your friends didn’t notice? 
We can learn a thing or two from Lamentations.  When something happens to us, we need to deal with it.  Plenty of things happen to us on a daily basis.  If we keep it inside, it festers, and the love of God is pushed out of us for the anger burns too hot to let anything else stay close.  We may not face the agony of seeing our civilization burned to the ground like the Israelites, but we have plenty to lament.  Don’t we? 
Something curious happens by the end of the book of Lamentations.  It goes on for three chapters with the people just pouring their hearts out because they’re so sick about what has happened to them.  After you lament out loud—like when you yell after you hit your thumb with a hammer—something happens.  After you get it out, you move on.  Look with me at Lamentations 3.19-26. 
After they get it out, they make room once again for hope.  They have room in their hearts to see that the bad things that happen to them do not define them.  How many times do you see people grieving over things that happened to them 20 or 30 years ago that they’ve never gotten over? 
Lament!  Let it out!  Tell people what’s on your mind!  Tell God what’s on your mind!  Bare your soul when you have something to say.  Then you can move on and renew your faith in God’s good plans for your future.  Because if the Israelites after their beloved city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground can still believe and still trust in God’s goodness, then surely we who are blessed beyond measure can believe and trust in God’s goodness.  Amen. 
go on with our lives.  But the Christian life proclaimed by Jesus in today’s parable is much more involved than that.  With the prophet Isaiah ringing in his head Jesus’ parable proclaims that we are to be repairers of the breach.  Our work as Christians is to see a thing from both sides, minister to people on both sides of the breach, and offer love to both sides.  We as Christians are to be repairers of the breach. We are to live in between two worlds, building bridges on behalf of God. 

            I was heartened to see that our college chaplain took her students to downtown Charlotte this weekend to deliver coffee and bagels to police and protesters, provocateurs and pastors, the poor and the politicians this weekend.  That is our calling as Christians.  We are to be repairers of the breach.  We are to love fully, love wholly, and love unconditionally. 

            What breaches exist in your life?  What walls keep you from making things right?  Repair the breaches this week.  The ones in your homes, in your families, in your workplaces, in your circle of friends.  Our calling as Christians is to occupy the space between two worlds.  That’s what it means to be in the world but not of the world.  We are to stand in between the breach and bring people together, for in so doing we enact the bold love of God to a world which desperately needs it.  Amen.  

Sept 25, 2016 Sermon: "Repairers of the Breach"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 58.12
NT: Luke 16.19-31
Repairers of the Breach
             
            This week, my heart has been in Charlotte.  Surely, many of you have watched what is happening there on television.  Kerry & I used to walk those streets.  We had our first date near the downtown protest site.  One of our classmates is on the police force.  Others are clergy and teachers who participated in the protests.  So we see it from both sides. 
            When we lived in Charlotte, we attended a Presbyterian Church in what people called the “bad” side of town.  This church was so poor that a wealthy congregation on the other side of town paid their pastor for them.  But they had the most amazing gospel choir you’ve ever heard in your life!  They began each service with joys & concerns, and it was not uncommon for people to rejoice about getting out of jail so they could be in church or people asking for prayers because they’d just been diagnosed with AIDS.  Joys & concerns alone usually lasted half an hour.  Needless to say, our preppy white faces stuck out like knots on a log.  But they loved us, and we loved them. 
            A boy named William lived in the projects beside the church.  I was his mentor for three years.   William would be about 25 years old today.  I worry about William.  I pray he is alive, safe, and loved.  He told me I was the only “cool white dude” he’d ever known.  William’s dad was in prison; his mom was…I don’t know…absent.  In three years of mentoring William, which involved going to his apartment as often as every week, I never even met her.  Once I asked William if I could.  He looked away and changed the subject.
            Even as a young, na├»ve college student, I was aware that William and I lived in different worlds.  Even as a 12 year old boy who failed school most years, William too was aware that he and I lived in different worlds.  One time I drove into the projects at night to drop William off.  “Just drop me off on the corner,” he said.  “Don’t go in.” 
            “Why?” I asked. 
            “Just listen to me, man.  We don’t want no trouble.”  We lived in different worlds.  I wasn’t comfortable in his, and he wasn’t always comfortable with me in his. 
            He wasn’t comfortable in mine either.  One day I brought him to our college for a basketball game.  We were driving towards the campus and I could tell he was just enthralled as we drove through the neighborhood.  He said, “Man, you stay here!?!  This is like the movies, man.”  It was only 10 minutes from his house, but he had never been to that part of town.  He had never been more than a few miles from the projects.  Then a police car passed us, and William ducked down in the seat.  I asked him what he was doing.  “Man, don’t you know somebody like me ain’t supposed to be here.”  We lived in different worlds.  I feared for my safety in his world, and he feared for his safety in mine. 
            I’m telling you about William not just because of what we’ve seen in Charlotte this week, but also because of this week’s story from Luke.  The rich man and Lazarus live side by side for years, but they live in different worlds.  The rich man inside the gate of his mansion; Lazarus sitting outside begging for crumbs.  They pass each other.  They encounter one another.  But they do not engage each other.  They share very little other than space. 
Sound familiar?  The world may have turned since then, but it hasn’t changed much.  We share space—and little else—with a great many people we encounter everyday.  This is a world of many worlds…and they’re colliding all the time. 
            Back to our parable.  When the rich man and Lazarus each move on to the next world, once again they can see each other.  Now the rich man is sitting outside the gate and Lazarus is inside the palace.  They have proximity once again.  The roles are reversed.  But there’s still a breach between them. 
            Parables are meant to shock us.  What’s so shocking about this one?  People would expect heaven to be everything this world isn’t.  They would expect the rich man and Lazarus to live happily ever after, right?  So Jesus tells this parable as a way of saying, “If you don’t learn how to live happily ever after now, what makes you think that will change later?”  Jesus wants the rich man and Lazarus, people from different worlds living in the same space, to make things right now.      
            Friends, this broken world is filled with breaches.  Walls between us and people in our proximity.  Space between people because they have different skin color or a different culture or different numbers beside their bank accounts.  William and I lived five miles apart just outside downtown Charlotte.  Yet our lives took very different paths.  How many people do you see each day that live in a totally different world? 
            It’s easy to watch television, proclaim the answers, and go on with our lives.  But the Christian life proclaimed by Jesus in today’s parable is much more involved than that.  With the prophet Isaiah ringing in his head Jesus’ parable proclaims that we are to be repairers of the breach.  Our work as Christians is to see a thing from both sides, minister to people on both sides of the breach, and offer love to both sides.  We as Christians are to be repairers of the breach. We are to live in between two worlds, building bridges on behalf of God. 
            I was heartened to see that our college chaplain took her students to downtown Charlotte this weekend to deliver coffee and bagels to police and protesters, provocateurs and pastors, the poor and the politicians this weekend.  That is our calling as Christians.  We are to be repairers of the breach.  We are to love fully, love wholly, and love unconditionally. 

            What breaches exist in your life?  What walls keep you from making things right?  Repair the breaches this week.  The ones in your homes, in your families, in your workplaces, in your circle of friends.  Our calling as Christians is to occupy the space between two worlds.  That’s what it means to be in the world but not of the world.  We are to stand in between the breach and bring people together, for in so doing we enact the bold love of God to a world which desperately needs it.  Amen.  

Sept 18, 2016 Sermon: "Two Masters"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 16.1-13
Two Masters

            This is a strange parable.  We spent much of Bible Study this week shaking our heads trying to find something, anything redeeming about this strange parable!  The only thing we could agree upon was the last verse.  Serving two masters is a concept we understand.  We may not get how Jesus makes the point, but we get the point. 
And then… I’m only going to say this once because it would hurt our collective pride...Allan Clower made a good point.  What can I say, Jim?  Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then. 
He said, “One time I had two bosses, and it was terrible!  You couldn’t do anything right.” 
Anybody here ever had two bosses or two people you reported to at work?  How’d that work?  Not so well.  I had two bosses once when I worked at the Greenbrier during high school.  They both made me a schedule, and it was completely different!  That was only the beginning of the struggle.  You can’t have two bosses.  You can’t have two masters. 
That was the rich man’s problem, and that was the shrewd manager’s problem.  Let’s break this strange parable down as simply as possible.
            Jesus tells us the boss man is set to fire his manager.  Why?  Because he’s not managing well.  The manager realizes he’s about to be out of a job, so he goes to see all his boss’s debtors.  He tells them he’ll slash their bills if they promise to give him shelter when he’s fired.  They agree, and they pay him.  No, they don’t!  That’s a common misconception about this parable.  They don’t pay the manager a dime.  He simply lowers their bills in exchange for shelter.  Isn’t that manager a good guy?  Well, not really.  He was looking out for himself. 
            Companies today do things like that all the time.  “Switch from Dish Network to DirecTV and pay only $29.99 per month!”  What they don’t tell you is that after a few months your bill will keep going up and up and up.  Or, “Call now for a free ginsu knife!  But wait, we’ll double your order and send you two knives!”  What they don’t tell you is that it’s not really free because they charge you $10 for handling, $20 for shipping, and they do that twice, once for each knife.  Right?  Hidden charges have been a business tactic for millennia. 
            Let’s remember the economics of this.  In the ancient Roman world, Jews & Christians were forbidden from charging interest by the Old Testament.  Of course, people found ways around that.  They charged fees which regularly amounted to 50% for goods and 25% for money.  Would you pay 25% interest to borrow money for your house today?  Not to mention the cut off the top taken by the managers collecting what was due.  So when this manager takes a bill and cuts it in half, he’s actually not doing them such a gracious favor.  He’s just removing the fees. 
            So…back to our story…the boss learns his manager’s scheme, and he fires him.  No, he doesn’t!  You would expect him to, but instead he congratulates him on acting so shrewdly.  Why would he do that?  Because the boss is as ruthless as the manager.  They both are concerned about the wrong things. 
            Parables are meant to shock us.  Meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head.  And conventional wisdom says that we should all be repulsed that the shrewd manager uses two wrongs to make a right.  It doesn’t work that way and we all know it.  All of us except the shrewd boss, who admires him for being so shrewd.  That’s the shocking part of this parable Jesus uses to knock us off balance. 
            He says, “Whoever is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in very much.”  The little things matter.  And if you know someone who fudges the truth or blurs the lines about little things, do they also in the big things that matter?  The shrewd manager had squandered the boss’s wealth, and he tried to make it right…by squandering even more of it!  Do two wrongs make a right?  Not for Jesus. 
            I used to think this parable was about greed, but now I think it’s about something deeper.  Idols.  When your greed gets the best of you, it becomes an idol.  Something you can’t stop thinking about.  Something that guides your every decision and makes you think two wrongs can make a right. 
            In fact, as we all know well, two masters makes for not having one at all.  You can’t love God and money, Jesus says.  You can only serve one master.  Whom will you serve?  Amen.