Sunday, July 5, 2020

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:1-14
Romans 7:14-25a
Matthew 11:25-30

For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice.

I was in the living room yesterday, sitting on a chair near where I have my bible study materials set. I looked at them several times and told myself that I should get to work. Instead of moving, I sat there with my tablet in my hand, a game on the screen. I decided to play for a few minutes and then get to work. A few minutes turned into longer. Then I did a little surfing on my Facebook page. I eventually moved to the chair behind my makeshift desk, but I put my tablet down in easy reach. I was distracted by it more than few times.

Alas, I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I know I should do.

Paul understood what I am saying.

I think what I like most about Paul is his honesty. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure.

George Carlin was a comedian, a controversial comedian at times, but very funny. He was a stand-up comic specializing in satire. He reached out and touched our basic human nature in a way that was both funny and critical. Nothing was out of bounds for Carlin, including religion. He was fascinated by words, using linguistics as the focus of some of his comedy. It was George Carlin that first asked, “Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?”

One of his most famous routines had to do with language. It was such a controversial routine; he was arrested for disturbing the peace when he first performed it in 1972. The judge dismissed the case on free speech grounds and that there was not disruption of the peace. It was later aired on radio which resulted in a court case that went all the way to the Supreme Court establishing the government’s authority to control offensive language on the public airways. The routine, of course, was “The Seven Dirty Words that you can’t say on Television.” Here is an excerpt from that routine. (I have not included the seven words.)

“I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I uh, I think is important. I love…as I say, they’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have really. We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid. You know, [humming]. And, then we assign a word to a thought, [clicks tongue]. And we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. I like to think, yeah, the same words that hurt can heal. It’s a matter of how you pick them. There are some people that aren’t into all the words. There are some people who would have you not use certain words. Yeah, there are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can't say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven. Bad words. That’s what they told us they were, remember? “That’s a bad word.” “Awwww.” There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions.”

I don’t like the seven dirty words, although they have become more acceptable in today’s society. You still can’t say them on standard TV, although they are found on cable, in music, movies, and all over social media. Those words serve no real linguistic function in communication except as exclamations or for shock value. Unfortunately, for some, those words are a vital part of their speech; for them, every other word is one of the seven. Their sentences stop making sense and start sounding like jabbering.

I do not use some of those words because they are not only offensive but they are not even pleasant on the tongue. They don’t fit well into conversation and they have no value in making a statement, even if it is meant to shock. Overuse and abuse of those words stops being funny and becomes upsetting as much because it shows a lack of concern for others as it does a lack of cohesive language.

Unfortunately, I do occasionally use one or two of those words. I don’t want to do it; I do not have control of my tongue and often end up saying something I really know I should not say. It is not only dirty words that slip from my mouth. When I’m cut off on the highway, I am quick to call that person something that is not very nice. I’ve used words about people that I would never want others to use about me. When I do this, I am cut to the heart. I know I have done the very same things on the highway, and though I’m quick to justify my failure with excuses I am never willing to give the other guy the same consideration. When this happens, I vow to be more considerate on the road and to hold my tongue. I ask forgiveness for the thoughts, words and deeds against my neighbor. And it doesn’t take very long before I spit out those same words all over again.

Alas, I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I know I should do.

We are saved by the grace of Christ. While our salvation is a future promise of eternal life, we are saved in this life to be transformed for the sake of the Gospel and for the glory of God. We are saved and are sanctified so that the world will see Christ in our life and in our deeds. Unfortunately, we are still living in the flesh, the flesh which is weak. We fail. We spend too much time playing games and not enough time in God’s Word. We say things we know we shouldn’t but the words come out of our mouths even before we realize we are thinking about them. We do what is wrong even before we realize we are doing it. We don’t do what is right and do not even realize our failure until the moment has passed. We fail because our flesh still holds the sin which Christ has overcome.

There is a phrase attributed to Martin Luther, “simul justus et peccator” which means “simultaneously saint and sinner.” We are saved and are assured of the hope of eternal life. We are being transformed into the saints that God has created and ordained us to be. It is a process that takes a lifetime; while we still live in these bodies of flesh we will fail.

We don’t want to admit our failure. This is true also for institutions and organizations. The Bible tells us that where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, God will be with them. Unfortunately, there are those who believe that whatever words come out of the churches must be absolutely true, as if the words of religious people must be from the mouth of God. Those that hold leadership positions are expected to have a closer relationship with God and therefore by His hand must be right. We see this most clearly in those cults with charismatic leaders. None of their followers dare to disagree because they do not have the same connection to God. Those leaders forget their imperfection. They forget that they are no different than Paul, out of control.

It is said that if you ask ten Christians a question, you’ll get eleven answers. I’m sure the same can be said about other aspects of our life, like political parties and even family members. Our answers, our opinions, are based on our own biases and circumstances. We can fail. We can make mistakes. We can say and do the wrong things. And, as Paul suggests, it is most likely that we’ll do things wrong, especially if we rely on our own power.

The 14th and 15th centuries were a time of upheaval in the Church. National partiality created tension between the churches in Italy and in France. At one point, the seat of the Pope was moved out of Rome to Avignon, France. It was moved back to Rome after a time, but the cardinals were almost all French. The Italian people were afraid that the cardinals would elect a French pope, and that he would move the seat to France again. The cardinals elected an Italian, fled the country, and then elected a French man into the office. Who was the real authority? There were people on both sides, which was right? All claimed to be from God, which one was true?

During this controversy over authority, one of the popes actually sold indulgences to raise the money he needed to wage war against the other pope. Could God really wish His people to fight one another over a position whose official title is “Servant of the Servants of God?” This was the question asked by a man named John Huss (Jan Hus). We often think of Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation, but there were others before him who laid the foundation for reform. John Huss preached about the abuses of the church a hundred years before Martin Luther. The question of papal authority was brought into question during a debate between Luther and Johannes Eck, who asked Luther whether the Church had been right to condemn Huss. Luther thought about it a moment and said that Huss had been unjustly condemned.

John Huss was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, having been found guilty of heresy. The question before the council was about this issue of papal authority. John Huss believed that the pope was not a divinely created position, but one of necessity to keep order in the church. The leaders had only recently managed to bring the Church under the authority of one Pope after the confusion between Italian and French popes, so they did not want anything that might disrupt the shaky unity. They found him guilty and he was martyred. The followers of John Huss became what are known today as the Moravian Church.

John Huss Day is July 6th and it is a secular holiday in the Czech Republic. Though there are few Moravians in that nation, John Huss is still seen as a national hero. As a matter of fact, most Czechs consider themselves non-religious and those who are Christian are Roman Catholic. Yet, the courage of John Huss is still remembered today because he willingly faced death for the sake of Jesus and His followers. John Huss once wrote, “One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.” This quest for money above care for God’s sheep is still a problem in many churches today.

Arguments about power still divide the Church. It has been this way since the beginning; even the people who followed Jesus had differing expectations of the Messiah. Zechariah gives us a picture of the one who would be anointed to save God’s people. He called Israel to rejoice because her king would arrive on a donkey. In Jesus’ day the people were looking for someone to fight, someone who could overcome their oppressors with power. They wanted Jesus to be a fierce warrior in a chariot with a war horse. A king on a donkey does not seem like someone who could bring hope or peace. After all, how can there be peace with a humble king? This is not what they expected, this is exactly what God sent. Jesus rode a donkey as He entered victoriously into Jerusalem just days before His death. Jesus got the people’s attention not with a loud voice and awesome military power but with words of hope and miraculous deeds that changed the lives of those who met.

Our work as Christians is not to rule the world with power and might, we are to follow Jesus. The world will see God’s grace through the compassion shared by those who have experienced it.

Today’s Psalm is a prayer of praise to the lovingkindness of God. The entire psalm is an acrostic, a poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. We can’t see this in the English, but the literary technique is important. The psalmist found a way to praise God literally from “A to Z.” Have you ever tried to write a poem that uses every letter of the alphabet?

I think the key word in today’s passage is “lovingkindness.” The Hebrew word is “hesed” and is sometimes translated “steadfast love, compassion, or mercy.” It is the sympathetic concern for the suffering of another. It can be described as an action that is not warranted by the circumstances. We think of compassion as meeting the needs of those who need our help, but hesed actually initiates the relationship. It is compassion that goes out even before the needs are known. The lovingkindness in the Psalm is God’s covenant love for His people.

Lovingkindness is proactive. The Lord God Almighty, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has shown the most incredible compassion to all He has made. He is the Creator and Redeemer; He has redeemed His creation. Christ died for sinners even before we knew we were sinners. He died for us even before we were born. God’s lovingkindness came to us long before we even knew we needed it.

Unfortunately, too many do not recognize their need for the mercy and grace of God. They refuse His forgiveness because they do not accept that they are sinners in need of a Savior. They reject the reality of their sinfulness. Despite their rejection, God’s Kingdom came for them, too. By God’s grace, we have become the manifestation of His lovingkindness as we take the Gospel into the world. Through us, the world will see and hear of God’s mighty acts, the splendor of His kingdom. It is a hard task, and we struggle with knowing that we are not worthy of the calling.

We look to Paul for guidance about how to live and serve God. Sometimes we put Paul on a pedestal, but Paul knew that he was not perfect. Paul knew his failures, he recognized his frailty. He knew that he was likely to do what is wrong. If Paul, who met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, did not have control over his own flesh, how do we expect to be any better? This is why we must always remember that God does call and ordain His Church to do His work in this world even though the Church is made of many fallible and imperfect members. We don’t have control: we do what we want to do which is not always what God would have us do. We are called to serve God; He can and will bring us to perfection, but it won’t happen in this life. We live in hope because of God’s lovingkindness. He is faithful to His covenant promises.

Matthew is a brilliant storyteller. He was an accountant (tax collector) so his Gospel is written from a logical, almost mathematical, point of view. He organized his thoughts in a way that first reports what Jesus has to say and then shows Jesus living the truths He has spoken. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, chapters five through seven. Matthew has taken the wise words of Jesus and put them into a coherent, powerful message about the Kingdom of God. The Sermon teaches us how to live as disciples. Any life in God’s kingdom begins with healing, so in chapters eight and nine, Matthew shows Jesus touching the lives of those He is calling to faith in very real ways. There are ten acts of deliverance in those chapters, related to the wisdom spoken in the Sermon. We can see this pattern of discourse and then living throughout the book of Matthew. He ultimately ends with the revelation that HE would die, and then we see His death on the cross. Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk. Then He calls us to do the same.

This is hard for us to grasp, because like Paul we recognize our own sinfulness. We are yoked to sin; we do what we don’t want to do and we don’t do what we know we should do. It is a burden each one of us carries, but Jesus made a powerful promise to those of us with faith that live in a world full of burdens: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus Christ has given us the Great Commission to go out and make disciples of all nations. This task can seem like a burden, particularly when we can’t even convince the people we love that real peace is found in the Gospel. We rest in the promise of hope that comes from faith in Christ, and trust that He will be faithful. The burden is one that we do not carry alone. The yoke of Jesus Christ is light because He promised to be with us and it is by His power that the people will be saved.

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