Sermon delivered by David Burrow April 17, 2016 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (20 MB - .mp3)
The purpose of the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Algona, Iowa is to be an alive and growing family of faith in God, the God whom we know through Jesus Christ and who has given us in Jesus the image of what human life is meant to be.
We strive to mature in faith by encouraging the free exploration of our Christian beliefs so that our faith will be more relevant to our individual lives and to the society in which we live.
With friendship and understanding, we find strength in the diversity of the interests and backgrounds of our members. We welcome all persons who would seek with us answers to life’s ultimate questions.
We take love to be the heart of the Gospel of Jesus and the unifying force in our church. Therefore, we celebrate God’s love and blessings in worship. We nurture one another through acceptance, caring, and sharing. We reach out beyond ourselves to the needs of others, to promote justice and to witness to God’s love.
In all that we do, we seek to continue our heritage of being a pioneering people in a changing world.
In many churches today is celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday, with lectionary readings that celebrate Christ’s role as a shepherd for his people. It’s no surprise, then, that the psalm we read today is Psalm 23. With such a familiar passage, I’ve chosen one of the most traditional versions to read today.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters;[a]
he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff,
they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
thou anointest my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
"If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
Well, they brought the JV back in the pulpit again today. I’m going to start out this morning with a whole bunch of excuses, and then hopefully I’ll manage to pull something together that makes at least a little bit of sense.
When Rev. Burtnett told us he’d be on vacation this week, the board’s first thought was to ask Karen Dearchs to fill in. Karen has been a dear friend to our congregation, and she’s helped us out many times in the past. Unfortunately we found out she was busy this weekend. So then Mick called not one, not two, but three other people—all of whom also had commitments. So, in a pinch, last Saturday I got the word that I should try to prepare a message. I really don’t mind doing that, but a little more advance notice might have been good.
After I agreed to do this week’s service, it seemed as if one thing after another came up with demands on my time. In addition to all the normal stuff that keeps a teacher busy, there were some unexpected things as well. Monday and Tuesday, for instance, I spent a lot of time on some issues with the annual conference for the Iowa Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a group that I’ve served on the board of for years. It was the sort of thing that could have been easily resolved with one quick phone call, but it took ten times as long when strong-willed people mostly communicated with the “reply all” button in their e-mail.
Then on Wednesday I’d agreed to teach my college night class from Estherville, so I drove up there only to find that the materials I’d sent ahead of time had somehow been misplaced. Thursday night I spent about five hours on the road driving to LeMars and back so I could be at the funeral visitation for one of my coworkers’ parents. Then Friday I worked as the official scorer at a high school track meet. We had one technical glitch after another, and our goal was to make it seem to the athletes and fans that things were going smoothly, when it was chaos all around up in the pressbox. On top of that I haven’t felt good all week, and the problems seem to keep moving from one part of the body to another.
I know. I know—enough already. Stop your whining and sobbing. As a teacher I don’t normally move the deadlines because a student had a bad day, and God’s not going to move Sunday because of my problems.
So, while I’d chosen the hymns and readings a week ago, it was just yesterday that I finally got around to working on this message. In preparing the service the very first thing I’d decided on was that we’d use our church’s Statement of Purpose as the affirmation of faith. I love our Statement of Purpose, and I was very pleased that the evangelism and outreach committee decided to put a shortened form of it on the bookmarks we’re using to publicize our church. Lately, though, it seems like we almost never use that statement in our worship services, and I miss that.
One of the key lines in our Statement of Purpose says, “With friendship and understanding, we find strength in the diversity of the interests and backgrounds of our members. We welcome all people who would seek with us answers to life’s ultimate questions.” That line has defined our church for decades, but it really stands out these days when so many Christians seem to have exactly the opposite view.
The churches that are in the news these days seem to go out of their way to welcome only those who believe exactly as they do, and they make examples of those who don’t live up to their ideals. For example, I read just this past week about a non-denominational church in Arkansas that had literally kicked out a teenager and his parents because they felt the kid had turned to what they called “an abhorrent lifestyle”. While it’s not necessary to go into it here, they went on and on about all the juicy details of just what that lifestyle was and dragged the family’s name through the mud. It’s like a modern-day version of The Scarlet Letter.
Also this week a Baptist school in Texas threatened to expel girls who wore what the pastor who served as principal there deemed “inappropriate” prom dresses. That might not seem like such a bad idea, but the pastor chose to illustrate his point by posting pictures he’d found around the internet on his school’s website—in the process turning website of this conservative school into a very adult destination. None of the girls actually planned to wear the obscene outfits he found, but he concluded that even a slightly revealing outfit would lead them down a slippery slope. He called the girls at his school “harlots” and said they didn’t belong there.
These people are excluding others because they don’t feel they’re living up to Christ’s ideals. The fact is, though, none of us do. Most Christians will agree that everyone is a sinner and everyone needs God’s help. The problem with far too many, though, is they don’t want to be around people who commit different sins than they do.
Yes, the news is full of stories about Christians—and I get so tired of hearing all Christians lumped together in one group. In addition to kicking people out of their institutions, we hear that Christians want to legislate morality for other people, and they’re up in arms about laws and court decisions they see as going against their beliefs. The buzz word they use is “religious persecution”, and they argue that somehow their rights are being violated because other people are doing things they don’t like. These people say they want religious freedom, but what they really want is the freedom to impose their beliefs on others.
That’s surprisingly similar to what our country fights against elsewhere in the world. I was reminded of that recently while I while driving. Whenever I drive long distances, I listen to audiobooks, and recently I listened to I Am Malala, the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was nearly murdered by the Taliban for campaigning for right of girls to go to school. It’s a fascinating book that traces this amazing girl’s journey and contrasts life in the Middle East and the West. Malala led a relatively peaceful life until the mountains of northwest Pakistan came under the control of conservative clerics who sought to impose their idea of morality on the people—and particularly on women and girls, who they viewed as somehow inferior to men. The book is fascinating, and I’d highly encourage anyone to read it.
What’s almost scary to me is that the Christians who make the news in America these days seem have more in common with the mullahs in Pakistan and Afghanistan than they do to the words of Jesus. They feel that only their view of things is right, and they want the law to back them up on that. Too many religious zealots in America who seem to want a Christian version of Sharia law—and they want to be the judges of what’s right and what’s wrong.
I often wonder just what these people are scared of. Some say they are being “persecuted”, but no one has ever said they can’t practice their faith—only that they have to extend the same courtesy to others. Some modern Christians claim to be martyrs, but allowing diversity is hardly the same being fed to the lions. Letting others lead their lives while you go about yours is a far cry from being crucified. There is serious persecution against Christians in the world, but it’s in places like China and Iran, not Alabama and Texas.
Is the Christian faith so weak that we can’t withstand the modern world? I don’t’ think so. Christians have endured real persecution in the past, and faith can withstand the challenges we face today.
There’s certainly nothing new about this divide between conservative and progressive Christians. The hymn we sang to open our service today, “God of Grace and God of Glory” was written in 1930 by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the pastor who founded the Riverside Church in New York, which today is one of the largest congregations associated with our United Church of Christ. Fosdick is probably best known for a series of sermons he wrote with titles like “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” and “In Defense of Liberal Protestantism”. His writing is still widely available online, and—like the Malala book—I’d recommend anyone read them. Fosdick was ordained a Baptist, and the first church he served was Presbyterian. He founded Riverside, though, as a refuge for those who (like him) felt unwelcome in the evangelical churches of the 1920s, His church and our national U.C.C. continue to serve that purpose today.
Those who are afraid of diversity should just turn to the Bible. There are dozens of references in both the old and new testaments that make it clear that God’s love really is for everyone.
Consider, for instance, the reading from Revelation that we heard as part of today’s lectionary. Revelation is not a book that progressive Christians usually spend much time with. I chose to keep it as part of today’s readings, though, because even Revelation talks about diversity: the great multitude from all tribes and peoples and languages. Even in flowery apocalyptic language we see that God embraces all his children.
While I included the reading from Revelation, I chose not to read the gospel that goes with today’s lectionary. If I’d stretched things, though, I could have made it fit my theme as well. The “official” gospel reading for the lectionary is from John 10. It was chosen for Good Shepherd Sunday, because Jesus calls refers to himself as a shepherd in it. When I looked up John 10 in my Bible, though, it had the section heading “Jesus is rejected by the Jews”. It’s sort of interesting that Jesus himself suffered real persecution, even from his own people. He overcame it, though, and he gave us the example of how to live.
What I chose to use for a gospel reading instead were Christ’s own words in the Sermon on the Mount. His words are very straightforward, though we often tend to forget them: Do not judge. Do not condemn. Give, expecting nothing in return. Forgive. Love your enemies. Do good. Be merciful. If there’s any better guide for how to lead a Christian life, I don’t know what it is.
Now we could look at our Statement of Purpose and pat ourselves on the back while we point out all those other people who exclude people while we see ourselves as tolerant. Sometimes we forget, though, that Jesus’ words apply to us as well. We can’t be so pompous that we just criticize other people and call them bigots without even hearing their side of the story.
I came across poster not long ago sponsored by a conservative organization that is a reminder of this. It said, “You say you want tolerance and despise hate, but if I don’t agree with everything you say, you call it intolerance and hate. Explain to me again just how that works.”
A lot of us who see ourselves as tolerant and progressive can fall into that trap. When we say we’re welcoming to everybody, we need to really mean it. We need to reach out to include even those who disagree with us. We can learn a lot from the enthusiasm and commitment of more conservative Christians, and we certainly shouldn’t just write them off.
As I was thinking about the themes I wanted to include this morning, a song kept going through my head. It’s a little children’s ditty that I thought was an old folk song, but in fact it was written in the 1970s by a man named Bill Staines. The chorus goes like this:
All God's creatures got a place in the
Some sing low and some sing higher,
Some sing out loud on a telephone wire,
Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they’ve got.
Let me take a minute and play a version of the song for you.
(Celtic Thunder – “A Place in the Choir”)
The music is by an Irish group named Celtic
Thunder, and in fairness for using their song I should mention that they’ll be
performing in both Des Moines and Minneapolis this fall.
I think I particularly relate to that song because I remember back in junior high being one of those people who was asked to clap their hands and mouth the words during the choir show—and even the rhythm of my hand clapping may be questionable. The song shows that everyone is welcome to join in, though. All God’s creatures, all God’s children, everyone has a place in the choir.
So even those of us who might sound like a frog or a hippopotamus can add to God’s great song. Let’s remember that, and hope that we and all Christians keep that in mind and welcome all people to take their place in the choir.
(C) 2016 firstname.lastname@example.org