Sunday Feb. 28, 2016
Scriptures: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and Genesis 39:1-6a
Rev. Kim P. Wells
On the night before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ended his sermon to the congregation at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee saying:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have see the glory of the coming of the Lord.” [A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr, edited by James M. Washington, p. 286]
Don’t you wonder how people can have such faith? To put their lives on the line for what they believe?
There are other examples of people who just seem to have so much faith. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, was a self made millionaire by the time he was 29. And he gave away his wealth to start an organization building homes for poor people the world over. Wow!
And Nelson Mandela reconciling and serving with his white captors in South Africa. That’s really living out your faith! Or one of the women from Cleveland who was kidnapped by Ariel Castro and kept captive for 10 years who forgave her captor: The man who kept her and two other women imprisoned, regularly raping them. Forgiven. That’s amazing grace!
When we think of the story of Joseph, we think of him forgiving his brothers, the very ones who sold him into slavery. And he not only forgives them, he eventually saves their lives by giving them food and providing them with a new life in Egypt. The very people that wanted to do him in and get rid of him. That’s impressive faith.
And, of course, most impressive, is Jesus who lays down his life for his friends. He stays so true to God and to God’s intentions for humanity, that he endures the suffering and death that ensue. Even, we’re told, forgiving his own killers from the cross.
Most of us, carrying on our every day lives, don’t face these kinds of
circumstances. Most of the time, we are not facing peril for our beliefs. Death is not knocking on the door as a consequence of our activism. Most of us aren’t filthy rich, so we don’t have to worry about giving away all of our wealth for the poor. Most of us will not be so wronged that our forgiveness appears otherworldly.
For most of us, life is pretty ordinary. We go to school. We go to work. Every day. Maybe we deal with our children, changing diapers, chauffeuring them around. Later letting them take care of us. Maybe we mow the grass. Clean the house. Pay the bills. Do the laundry. We might enjoy a hobby. Read books. We might travel. We might have fun with friends. We deal with medical issues and the challenges of aging. We do our best as caregivers to loved ones.
For many of us, we live ordinary lives. Mundane, really. Nothing spectacular or heroic. So what about our faith? In every day life? For those of us who are not sustaining freedom movements or forgiving murderers or funding global charities? What can we expect from our faith?
It’s interesting that in the passage we heard from the New Testament, Jesus is saying don’t make a show of your faith. Don’t use your piety as a way to gain status or respect. This teaching is in the middle of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s sandwiched in between the teaching about loving your enemies and the teaching about not storing up treasure on earth. These are some of the most important teachings of Jesus. And here amidst them are these words about faith practice and religious observance. Jesus is letting us know that faith is not self aggrandizing. It is not about moving you up the social ladder. It is not something that you use to gain status and privilege. In fact, just the opposite. Pray, give alms, fast, yes, but in private. Do it for yourself and God, not to impress others.
But Jesus is not saying don’t bother with religion or religious observance for he knows that it is in the regular discipline of prayer, reading of scripture, attending services, giving of money, singing of hymns, and helping others that our faith shapes our character and gives us life. It’s kind of like watering a plant- you do it again and again and again and it keeps growing. Our daily faith practices feed us. They keep us mindful of our faith. They give us strength for the challenges we face. They help us to know what is right and true. They form us as people who are grateful and giving. Faith practices are the way that we stay connected to God, to Divine Love, to our heart’s center. And that is critical for navigating the course of life. The practices are what give us the strength and will to love our enemies, eschew materialism, and keep greed at bay.
Every day or so, I hear of someone and I think, “They need church.” Now, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that I think the person is going to hell because they don’t go to church. It doesn’t mean that I think the person is morally bad because they don’t go to church. It’s just that sometimes people seem lost, confused, or maybe bitter. They don’t seem to have a moral compass. They don’t seem to have a sense of how to navigate life. They don’t see the conflicts in their behavior. Maybe the person is spending a lot of money on something frivolous when don’t have money for basics like utilities and rent. Maybe a person is laying into their child in the store instead of respecting the child’s needs. Maybe someone is dropping trash from their car. Maybe someone is working in finance and getting people to borrow more money than they can handle and at high interest rates. Maybe we see people letting their friends have a bad influence on them. There are all kinds of ways people just seem to be lacking a sense of the connections between values and behavior, between morals and actions, between what they say and what they do. And so, I think, they need church.
Does this mean that people who go to church never make mistakes, don’t do stupid things, don’t bow to peer pressure, don’t cave in to social and economic pressure? Do people who go to church never make a scene? Of course not! In fact, it might be that weaker people go to church because we need more help!
To me, what “church” means is being part of a community that celebrates and reinforces values that honor creation, see all of life as sacred, and respect the dignity of the whole human family. Church represents a life oriented toward giving not taking. It is about seeing a bigger picture and your part in it. And, a big part of church is accepting yourself and others with all of our wonder and all of our warts. We will make mistakes and screw up. But we know that is human and we try again. And we want to offer the same grace to others. Church is about seeing our best selves and summoning them to the surface, aligning our beliefs with our actions.
In church we are striving toward healing and wholeness for ourselves and for the world. We are trying to get our behavior in line with our hopes, dreams, and beliefs. We are seeking integration. That is the quest of our full humanity. Coke Coughenour, a friend of LUCC, wrote a beautiful essay about this for the last Westminster Shores newsletter. I recommend it to you.
Church brings us together in solidarity with others who have been drawn to the way of Jesus, the path of justice, love, compassion and forgiveness. Church is about living in God’s realm, living Love’s way, here and now. And becoming more and more complete in that identity and that community.
Without “church” and that could be mosque, synagogue, or another faith community, people are more prone to being fragmented. Pulled apart. Buffeted by the winds of society and culture around them. With little sense of home, acceptance, and a way back. Without community and solidarity. Ruled by the tyrant “me.” Selfish. Self absorbed. A small life enslaved.
Church is an antidote to all of that. Faith practices day in and day out, week in and week out, shape our worldview, our sense of self, and help us figure out where we fit in to the whole. Our faith becomes our home, our grounding. Nurturing and fostering our growth and healing.
Our faith teaches us that we find our truest selves in service. Day in and day out. Not necessarily the one heroic episode, say, rescuing someone from drowning. But the day to day kindness, the smile, the practical help here and there, the caring, attentive presence, the every day efforts to make the world a better place. This daily mode of being is how divine love comes into the world and spreads. Most of the good that happens in this world is done by everyday people, doing for others, where they are needed. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to be “special” or “gifted” or in Mensa. It’s the everyday dedication to service and the wellbeing of others that God uses to bless the world.
Our faith also teaches us to live our everyday ordinary lives with a sense of joy, delight, and gratitude. Instead of just being a daily grind, we feel graced by a good meal or a good laugh or a good friend. We treasure another dawn. We see the miracle of each and every breath. We are stunned over and over and over again by the magnificence and beauty of nature. Miracle after miracle after miracle! Wow!
Our faith, nurtured through regular faith practices shapes our character and our life style. It informs our choices. It provides a compass to navigate through life. We are shaped and formed by God/Spirit/the Holy/Love.
Now, we started by talking about some giants of the faith. People who have made an extraordinary witness to the realm of God and the power of love to transform lives and the world. And each one of them was rooted in a faith tradition. Each one was part of a community of faith practice, formation, and solidarity. Their faith led and guided them. It gave them strength and insight for their life’s calling.
But this leaves me wondering, is it that regular habit of faith that led them to do those extraordinary things? Sometimes, I think it happens like that. We go about our business, going to church, praying, reflecting on scripture, sharing with the poor, and out of that emerges some grand and noble aim that we must devote our lives to. I think this is the case with Dr. King. If he had not been a person of faith, he may very well have never been a Civil Rights leader. His involvement in the movement came directly from his experience with church and the Bible. Sometimes our engagement with our faith compels us to be involved in things we never could have expected. So, our ordinary lives and faith practice may lead to quite extraordinary service.
This is certainly the case with Jesus. His faith led him to make a bold witness that was threatening to others and engendered hostility and retaliation which resulted in his death. Sometimes faith practice gets us into trouble.
Other times, I think we are just thrown into circumstances that require our response. That’s what we see with Joseph. He ended up in Egypt, a slave, then a vizier, and finally a savior, really. But he did not create the circumstances that led to all of that. He dealt with what life handed him.
We see this in other situations of tragedy and disaster. What a compelling Christian witness we saw from the Amish community where the children were killed in the school house. They had nothing to do with creating that circumstance. And yet, it happened. And they had to respond. And they responded with forgiveness, love, and support for the shooter’s widow, Marie Roberts. In the aftermath of the shooting, she wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” It was a remarkable witness, that arose from the ordinary, steady practice of faith that shapes and forms.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Nickel_Mines_School_shooting]
Sometimes life throws us into unexpected situations. And we do what we can. We try to do what is right. We try to live out our faith. And the result is something we never would have predicted or known we were capable of. But all that church and faith practice was preparing us, making us ready, and we had what we needed when the time came.
Who knows where going to church may lead? We know that through our practice, the world will be blessed and so will we, though we don’t know how. So, let us persist in our faith journey, trusting Love to make us who we need to be. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.