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Sermon – Happiness, the Wrong Pursuit


a sermon by Gorman Houston
Matthew 5:1-12
First United Methodist Church – Tuscaloosa, Alabama
August 17, 2014

This sermon was given as part of the church’s annual “God on Broadway” series with music and worship centering on the theological themes of the musical, “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  The wishes and consequences of various characters in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales form the plot and theme of the play.

To sample music from the play, follow the youtube link: Into the Woods

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Sermon – “Take What You Want”

Take What you Want
a sermon about God’s Judgment by
Gorman Houston
Isaiah 5:1-7

Preached at First United Methodist Church
March 23, 2014

“Take what you want,” the sign in the quaint shop said, “Take what you want… and pay for it.” I wanted the sign.  They told me it was not for sale.

“Take what you want and pay for it.”  You can live by that saying; you can prosper by that saying; you can understand a whole lot about life just from that saying.

I see it all the time at the University in my talks with students. Some of them come to talk with me about their hopes and dreams and plans for life.  They have high goals, lofty ambitions, tremendous talent.  I remind them that every decision they make today has an impact on those long-term dreams.  They study for the test; they work hard on a project; they labor over a paper.  It’s not just for the grade – it’s the next step toward realizing their dream.  It’s not easy chasing a dream.  “Take what you want.”  “Take what you want in life… and pay for it.”

Of course there are other students I meet with – those who have spent the first part of the semester doing something other than studying.  They stay out too late, let deadlines slip by, spend too much time playing video games, sleep in rather than go to class…. But about this time of year, they realize that trouble is coming.  They come in looking for some help.  There is no help to be had.  I have coached several students this very week to withdraw from my class, because at this point even if they make a perfect score on the final, they will not pass.

The first year I taught, when students failed my class, I felt that I had failed as a teacher to engage them in the subject.  Jeanne is the seasoned teacher in our family.  She told me that by allowing the slackers to fail I was teaching them a valuable life lesson.  The lesson?  “Take what you want.”  “Take what you want… and pay for it.”

Of course this lesson applies not just to students but to us all, does it not?  Most of us want a comfortable, happy life.  What’s wrong with that?

Well, I have just about decided that happiness is the wrong pursuit.  Seeking a comfortable life and a happy family is simply a veiled expression of base hedonism.  It’s tough to make the hard decisions, to do the right thing when we’re just seeking happiness, when we are just trying to be comfortable.  Rarely do we find comfort in employing self-discipline, or when we are experiencing healthy grief or when we are struggling against our will to do the right thing.  Pursuing happiness can lead us down a broad way to dysfunction, and easy path to destruction.

I rather think that the right pursuit is a healthy life.  A family where our communication lines are open, where we have space to be who we are, where we are loved and nurtured and cared for, where dreams are shared and empowered, where we are held to high expectations – and where grace abounds.  Healthy lives.

Of course it costs a lot to have a family like that.  It’s not comfortable; it’s not easy; it’s not fun.  We have to invest ourselves in each other; we have to take time for each other, to listen to each other, to care for each other.  It takes time and self-sacrifice and endurance.  Often it’s easier just to just settle for “a comfortable, happy life.”  “Take what you want… and pay for it.”

Well this morning we are in the midst of our study of Noah, this wonderful story of a friendly ark builder and his floating zoo, this terrible story of a zealous prophet proclaiming the judgment of God, this frightening story of torrents and floods, this hopeful story of salvation and covenant and life.

The saga of Noah tells the story of salvation history.  When we talk about salvation, we are really talking about four distinct movements.

God creates
Sin destroys
Jesus redeems
The Holy Spirit perfects.

That’s salvation, and we see it all in the Noah saga.  That’s why this is such a great story for us to study during this Lenten season.  We see evidence of the creating, redeeming, and perfecting work of God in the midst of and in response to the deadly destruction of sin.

So how about the judgment of God?  We Methodists don’t preach on God’s judgment too terribly often.   For the most part we embody the old Piggly Wiggly brand of optimism, “As you go through life, my brother, what e‘er may be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.”  There’s no question we preach far more on grace than on sin, on forgiveness than on judgment.  But the problem is that if we don’t have a strong theology of sin we can never have a strong theology of salvation.  If we don’t grasp the judgment of God, we really can’t experience the life-giving grace of God.

And we find both in the story of Noah.  In Genesis 6 we read, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Wow!  “I am sorry that I have made them.”  If you live with that one verse very long, it can bring you into deep self-reflection, into deep repentance.

In the story of the flood, we find the judgment of God.  God was sorry that he had created humans.  That’s God’s judgment.  God was grieved.  But in terms of the flood, how do we understand that in terms of God’s Judgment?

The ancient Hebrews understood that the earth was formed in the midst of water.  That God hollowed out space and held the waters back from above and from below to create earth.  Maybe you remember from Genesis 1 where we read that God “separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament,” and how God caused the dry land to appear.  To these ancient Hebrews, the earth existed only because God actively held back the waters from above the earth and the waters from below the earth from flooding it.  The story of the flood, then, is an expression of the judgment of God – that God just quit holding back the waters, that God allowed the waters to do what they would do without his active protection.

This is important for us to understand, because we can think of God’s judgment as being God’s action to strike us down, to destroy his creation.  But over an again in the scriptures we find that God’s judgment is not so much God’s active work to destroy, as God’s passive work of letting nature have its way….of letting us have our way.  You see, it’s sin that destroys – not God.  God simply allows sin to have its way.  God’s judgment is simply this, “Take what you want…and pay for it.”

Isn’t that what we heard in our passage from Isaiah this morning?  It’s a story of God’s judgment.  Did you hear it?  It is, of all things, a love song.  The prophet Isaiah tells of how the vinedresser prepared a vineyard on a fertile hill.  He speaks tenderly of how the land was cleared of all stones and weeds and vines, of how a hedge was built round about it to protect it from the wild, of how a watchtower was built in the midst of it to care for it, and of how choice vines – luxuriant vines – the finest vines were planted. And he tells how the vinedresser cared for the vineyard and kept it clean and beautiful, awaiting the choice grapes to ripen.  But alas, the vine produced sour grapes, wild grapes, perhaps even poisonous grapes.

The vinedresser did not create this garden for toxic grapes.  So what will he do?  What more could he have done?  If care and attention and protection were what was needed, the vine would have produced an abundance of good grapes, but poison was produced instead.  But notice that the vine dresser did not destroy the vineyard.  He did not burn it.  He just said, if you want to be wild, you can be wild.  “I will remove its hedge,” the vinedresser said.  “I will break down its wall…it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.”

Isaiah is telling us that God’s judgment is that God is heart-broken.  And then, it’s not that God acts to destroy.  God doesn’t have to act to destroy.  Our sinful nature destroys.  God simply pulls back, let’s us have our way, let’s us choose our course, let’s us reap what we sow, let’s us take what we want… and pay for it.

God creates…. Sin destroys

Sometimes we can think that the grace of God simply means that God doesn’t care about our sin.  That it really doesn’t matter at all.  Friends, if our sin doesn’t matter at all, then the cross of Christ doesn’t matter at all.  If our sin doesn’t matter at all, then Easter doesn’t matter at all.  If our sin doesn’t matter at all, then Jesus died for absolutely nothing.

Surely our sin matters.  Surely our sin grieves God’s heart.  Surely, we cannot simply wink at our sin or rationalize our sin or walk away from our sin.  Don’t overlook God’s judgment.

“Take what you want… and pay for it.”  That’s God’s judgment to you and to me.  “Take what you want… and pay for it.”  There’s great truth in the simple statement.

But here is my problem.  I can’t pay.  I can never pay for it.  Not unlike you, I’m a sinner by nature and by choice.  I cannot pay for it.  When it comes to my salvation, I’m bankrupt.  I’m in over my head.  I’m upside down.  I can never pay the price.  How about you?

When I was growing up, our family not only went to church on Sunday mornings, we went back to church on Sunday nights, for a second helping, I guess.  Some of you know Sunday night church.  It was in Sunday night church where I learned the hymns in the old Cokesbury hymnal.  A lot of the times, the congregation would call out the hymn number, and “Miss Lillie” would play it and we would sing along.  Often someone, like Mr. Atlas Molnar would call out, “Number 103.”  We all knew number 103, “Rock of Ages.”  I never really liked “Rock of Ages,” but there is one stanza of that hymn that has incredible power, especially the way it is laid out in the Cokesbury hymnal.

Could my tears forever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
These for sin could not atone
Thou must save, and Thou alone:
In my hand no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.

“Take what you want,” the sign said, “And pay for it.”  That’s a life lesson for us.  We do well to heed it.  But when it comes to our sin, when it comes to God’s judgment, we do well to look to the cross of Christ Jesus.  “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

The cross tells us that God is a God of judgment; the cross tells us that sin destroys; the cross tells us that Jesus redeems; the cross tells us that 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ settled your debt and mine right there on Calvary.  He became the sacrifice, he paid the price.

Take what you want, and pay for it.

In my hand no price I bring.  Simply to thy cross I cling. 

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Can I Get a Witness? – Sermon

“Can I Get a Witness?”  - 
Acts 1:6-11
A sermon by Gorman Houston
First United Methodist Church, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
January 19, 2014 and February 9, 2014

Does the name Martin Niemoller mean anything to you?  Probably not.  You most likely do not know the German Lutheran pastor, born in 1892.   I doubt you know that he was intensely loyal to his homeland, that he dutifully became a cadet in the Imperial Royal Navy, that he served as a U-Boat commander during World War I.  It would be unlikely that you would know that after the war, he went to seminary and, like his father, became a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and served a church near Berlin.  You probably do not know that Martin Niemoller was an early supporter of the Nazi party, or that he justified Adolph Hitler’s anti-Semitic views as being simply extreme expressions of the prejudice which he and most other Germans held at the time.  Nor most likely did you know that later Martin Niemoller became disillusioned with the Nazi regime, that he was arrested, that he was sent to a concentration camp in 1937, and that he remained in a prison camp at Dachau until it was liberated by Allied forces in 1945.

You may not know any of this about Martin Niemoller, because when Martin Niemoller died in 1984, nearly 40 years after his release from prison, he was famous for only one thing.  He was not famous for what he did; he was not famous for what he wrote; he was not famous for what he said.  Martin Niemoller is known even today for what he did not say, for what he never said.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Have you ever felt the sting of disobedience?  The gut-wrenching shame of knowing what is right but not doing it?  Sometimes when we do wrong, we can feel a certain excitement.  Do you know what I mean?  There is a bit of a thrill in being bad, a bit of adventure, perhaps.  But it’s different when our sin is not one of commission but rather of omission.  There is no thrill of knowing the right thing to do, but refusing to do it.  It doesn’t feel daring.  It doesn’t feel exciting.  It doesn’t feel liberating.  It feels cowardly.  It feels shameful.

Tony Campolo, the wild Baptist preacher from Philadelphia, Pennsalyvania, speaks of his sins of omission.  “I remember (the day),” Campolo writes.  “I remember (the day) when I realized I (wasn’t a Christian).  “I was in high school, and there was this kid named Roger.  He was gay and everyone made fun of him.  We ridiculed him.  You know what high school kids can do to a kid like Roger.  We made his life unbearable.  We mocked him.  When he would go into the shower after gym, we would wait until he came out and then we would whip our towels at him and sting him.  Sometimes it would get ugly.

“I wasn’t there” Campolo continues, “the day (a group of guys) pushed Roger into the corner of the shower and… urinated on him, but (I was there the next day when we learned that) he (had gone up in) the attic in the middle of the night and hung himself.

“And I knew right then that I wasn’t a Christian,” Campolo writes, “Because if I had been a Christian (I would have said something.)  I would have stood up for my friend Roger.  Even if they ridiculed me for doing it.  I would have been his friend.  (But I was not a friend – not a friend of Roger… not a friend of Jesus.)”

There is no thrill of knowing the right thing to do, but refusing to do it.  It doesn’t feel daring.  It doesn’t feel exciting.  It doesn’t feel liberating.  It feels cowardly.  It feels shameful.

In the prayers I remember from my childhood are these words…

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

Luke, the evangelist, records in the first chapter of Acts the final words of our Lord.  I’m not talking about the seven-last-words of Jesus on the cross… “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me;” or “Father forgive them for they know not what they do;” or “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit;” or the rest.  I’m talking about the last words of our Lord before he ascended into heaven; the last command he gave to the people who followed him:  “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world.”

We could call it the five final words of Jesus, “You shall be my witnesses.”

“You shall be my witnesses.”  Those 5 instructional, prescriptive words form Jesus’ final instruction to his followers.  And what Jesus was saying is my people will be known for what they do – known for what they say.  Sometimes religious people are known for what they do not do.  “We don’t drink; we don’t smoke; we don’t swear; and we don’t associate with people who do.”  Nah… Jesus said his followers would be known not for what they did not do.  They would be known for what they did do.  “You shall be my witnesses.”

For the first 300 years of the church, the Apostolic Age, that’s exactly what happened.  The followers of Jesus were powerful witnesses.  Against all odds, amidst harsh persecution, with no trained clergy, no standardized Bible, no favorable tax laws for charitable donations, not a single building, no pipe organ, no piano or guitar, no printing press, no radio, no television, no mass media, no social standing – equipped with nothing but faith and hope and love and the charge of their Lord, the earliest followers turned the world upside down.

Most scholars who follow this kind of thing put the number of Christians at the time of Jesus spoke these final words at around 120.  After three years of teaching, preaching, healing up and down Palestine, Jesus had accumulated around 120 followers. But listen to this. By the time the Roman ruler Galerius issued an edict ending the persecution of Christians 300 years later, ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire had converted to the Christian faith – from 120 followers in 30 AD to nearly 7 million in 311 AD.

Remember, the followers of Christ Jesus had nothing, they were persecuted for their faith.  In fact, in the years just before 311, Roman Emperor Diocletian launched the bloodiest campaign against Christians that the empire had ever seen.  Followers who refused to recant were imprisoned or martyred, their property seized.  And all the while the movement was taking over the world, growing by 40% every decade.

You say, “Gorman, that rate of expansion could not have been sustained.”  You’re right, of course, because most movements reach a tipping point, that is they begin to grow at an increasing rate, then they continue to grow but by a decreasing rate, then they plateau.  It would be hard to sustain the kind of growth they were experiencing.  You’re also right because if the movement had continued growing by 40% every decade, there would have been no one left to convert within another 100 years.  By the year 400, 100% of the population would have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord, would have become followers of Jesus Christ.  100% of the population (not just of the Roman Empire) but of the entire world  – the entire world’s population transformed, one life at a time.

How did this happen?  The five-final-words of Christ – “You shall be my witnesses.”  The people of God were known for hospitality, compassion, generosity, as they offered faith, hope, love.  Oh, there were differences of theology, but the variance in beliefs was to be expected.  There were differences in social standing, differences in races, differences in backgrounds, but none of that was an issue.  There were cultural barriers, language barriers, travel barriers, but none of that was able to slow the movement.  What was important was that one-by-one all the world was coming under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, entering a life-changing relationship with Jesus, being filled with his Holy Spirit.  The movement was heart-to-heart, hand-to-hand, life-by-life, and nothing could stop it… nothing, except…

Disobedience.

Over fourth century, the people of God quit sharing their personal stories of faith; they quit reaching out in hope to individuals who were desperate.  They quit caring as personally and passionately for the poor and the dispossessed.  They quit expressing personally their compassion and love for others in a way that offered transformation.  Everything changed.  What brought that about? You may wonder.

Well, the conservatives among us probably guessed it – governmental interference.  You’ve been telling us for years that nothing has the power to stop economic growth faster than government intervention.  You’ve said it over and again that nothing has the ability to squelch innovation more completely than government intervention.  Even before there was a FOX  News Network we heard over and again that nothing is able to mess things up more than governmental intervention.  Well, that was certainly the case of the vitality of the Christian faith.  Christianity was no longer outlawed, and the persecutions stopped in 311, but what distorted the faith and made it ultimately almost unrecognizable to early Christians was when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380.  At that point, the mighty, unstoppable movement of God was reconstituted from a movement to an institution.  No longer were you a Christian because Jesus Christ was your Lord and Savior.  Now you were a Christian because you were a Roman.  There was no need to tell the story of faith it seemed.  People were now Christian because they lived in a Christian nation.  No heart needed transforming.  No conversion was required.  And those for whom faith had been transformative were outnumbered by those who were Christian in name alone.  Now the church became focused on other matters – standardizing belief, consolidating power, raising money, building cathedrals, burning heretics, disempowering outsiders, establishing a professional clergy.  When the changes were complete, the Christian faith looked far more like the Roman Empire than it did the movement Jesus Christ started.

I don’t believe that Constantine or the line of leaders who institutionalized the faith meant to strip the faith of its zeal and spiritual power.  It was an unintended consequence.  It was not what any one did.  It was what no one did.  It was a sin of omission.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

When I read this passage in Acts, the question I am left with is, “Can I get a witness?”

The idea makes at least some of us cringe – and for good reason.  Maybe you have experienced the awkwardness of some total stranger asking you if you have been saved.  It’s so confrontational, so in-your-face, so impersonal, so offensive.  Is that what Jesus meant?  Well, Jesus didn’t say, “You shall be my confronters.”  He said, “You shall be my witnesses.”

Or maybe you have heard people tell of us some incredible, miraculous event in their life that brought them to Jesus.  You may think, that’s quite a story. I’d tell it too if I had experienced something that sensational.  Jesus didn’t say, “You shall be my showmen.”  He said, “You shall be my witnesses.”

Or maybe you’ve seen a preacher on TV or somewhere who seems to have all the answers, who knows and can quote the appropriate verse of the Bible for every circumstance of life, who can respond to any situation and never get stumped.  You may think, If I knew all the answers, I’d tell them too.  Jesus didn’t say, “You shall be my experts.”  He said, “You shall be my witnesses.”

Do you know the name Jennifer Rothschild?  I didn’t know Jennifer Rothschild, but Jeanne did.  She knew that Jennifer Rothschild was a beautiful Christian woman, a fantastic musician, a great Bible study leader.  So we invited her to Mobile.  She came filled the sanctuary.  I didn’t know until then that she was blind.  She told her story, how she loved music, how her faith was important to her.  She told us how she began being aware of problems with her sight as a young adult.  She said she prayed for her vision, and she went to doctor after doctor.  Until one day she was told by the doctor that there was nothing more that they could do.  She would lose all of her vision quickly.  Jennifer Rothschild said she was devastated.  God had not healed her.  When she got home from the doctor’s visit, she went to the place she felt most comfortable.  She went to her piano and sat down on the bench, and she began to play the first song that came to her mind… “It is well with my soul.”

There was no miracle.  She did not get what she wanted, what most people have and never even think about.  Her world was going dark.  She would be completely blind.  Jennifer Rosthschild did not understand the mysteries of faith.  But under the Lordship of Jesus Christ she knew that she was in God’s care and keeping, and she sang, “It is well with my soul.”

That is a witness.

It’s not complicated.  It’s just telling your story.  But don’t undersell it.  Being a witness of Jesus Christ is risky business.  It means caring about someone, it means being your brother’s keeper, it means having your heart broken by another person’s suffering, it means being affected by a situation so deeply, that you can’t let go of it, you can’t stay silent about it, you can’t not get involved.  Isn’t that the essence of Jesus’ life?  Don’t you think he wants the same from you and me?

And isn’t that what Jesus taught.  Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  A person travelling on the Jericho road was beaten, stripped, robbed and left for dead.  A priest and a Levite came upon him and passed him by, but a Samaritan came upon him, saw him, had pity on him, bound up his wounds, took him to an inn, provided for his recovery.  Now that’s a witness, don’t you think?

The problem for us is not that we can’t offer a witness.  It is rather that we don’t offer a witness.  Our problem is that we’ve outsourced witnessing.  We’ve created an industry of professional witnesses.

Some of you have spent time in courtrooms for a variety of reasons.  Most of us have at least watched enough television to know what a witness is.  To establish the facts of the case, a lawyer will put someone on the stand who can tell what she saw when the bank was robbed.  A lawyer will put on the stand someone who can tell what he saw when the accident occurred.  They are witnesses.  They were there.  They saw it all.  This is their story of how it looked and felt and sounded.  They are witnesses.

But often, lawyers will call someone who was not there, who didn’t see any of it.  They cannot talk about what actually happened.  They can only talk in theory about what could have happened.  They are professional witnesses.  “The pictures I’ve looked at of the tread marks at the accident scene could be explained in a different way,” the professional witness might say.  “The DNA gathered at the scene may be considered inconclusive,” the professional witness might say.  They are not witnesses… they are paid, professional witnesses.

When the mighty movement of God was institutionalized, it no longer was spread through the faithful witness of followers of Jesus Christ.  Now it is spread through professional witnesses, paid witnesses…clergy, like me, I guess.

Oh, most of us are personal witnesses to the grace and power of God, but don’t expect the Christian faith to grow when it is only propelled by a handful of professional witnesses, rather than by the legions of followers whose lives have experienced the touch of God’s grace.

Can I get a witness?  That’s the question today.  That’s really always been the question Jesus asks of his people.

This weekend we observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I can’t help thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, most of which unfolded during my childhood.  I didn’t understand what was happening for the most part, as it was unfolding.  Sometimes I wonder how I would have responded had I been older.  Would I have offered a faithful witness or would I have ended up on the wrong side of change, on the wrong side of history?  Had I been there would I have had courage to stand up, to speak out, to act up… or would I have kept quiet, done nothing, and just waited to see how things unfolded?

I do not stand in judgment of those who responded in different ways in those days.  I just wonder if I would have had to join Martin Niemoller confessing my sins of omission…

  • When they refused to give the right to vote, I did not speak out because I could vote.
  • When they refused to give justice, I did not speak out because I was treated justly.
  • When they refused to give access to education, I did not speak out because I was afforded an education.
  • When they refused to show hospitality, I did not speak out because I was never turned away.
  • When they blamed the victims for the crimes, I did not speak out because no one ever blamed me.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

Jesus is looking for those who will speak up, those who will stand up, those at times even, who will act up.

Jesus did not say, “You shall be my institution.”  He did not say you shall be members of my church.  He did not say, “You shall be my experts.”  He did not say, “You shall be my morality enforcers.”  What did he say?  “You shall be my witnesses.”  By telling your story, by sharing your faith, by offering genuine love, you will change lives, you will usher in the kingdom of God, you will transform the world.

  • The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan were from the institution, and they passed by.
    • The Samaritan was a witness.  Can I get a witness?
  • Institutional thinking says, evangelism is important because the church needs more people.
    • But a witness says, evangelism is important because People need the Lord.  Can I get a witness?
  • Institutional thinking responds to problems indirectly by establishing agencies, bureaucracy, and programs.
    • A witness responds to problems by reaching out directly with faith, hope, and love.  Can I get a witness?
  • Institutional thinking seeks first to protect the organization
    • A witness seeks first to share the love of Jesus.  Can I get a witness?
  • Institutional thinking manages institutional decline.
    • Witnesses propel the mighty movement of God.  Can I get a witness?

There is no thrill in knowing the right thing to do, but refusing to do it.  It doesn’t feel daring.  It doesn’t feel exciting.  It doesn’t feel liberating.  It feels cowardly.  It feels shameful.

The five final words of Jesus …“You shall be my witnesses.” …“You shall be my witnesses.”  …“You shall be my witnesses.”  …“You shall be my witnesses.” …“You shall be my witnesses.”

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

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Monday, December 23, 2013 – “Christmas in the Dark” – sermon

Christmas in the Dark
a sermon by
Gorman Houston
John 1:1-5

Preached at First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa
Longest Night Service, 2013

What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops. – Mt 10:27

The Christmas holiday is a mixture of hope and dread, of joy and sorrow, of faith and doubt, of light and darkness.  In many ways it is the best of times… it is the worst of times.

Of course the same thing could be said of all of life, couldn’t it?  But the emotions of Christmas are extreme – it’s as if our nerve endings are bare – we can feel the great joy and the deep depression, a grand warmth and a bitter cold; we can feel dearly loved, and we can feel completely forgotten.

Through the years I’ve ended up counseling a fair number of folks on Christmas Eve – not in an office or in a clinical situation – usually just on the back pew in a candle-lit sanctuary at the close of a worship service.  It just seems that on Christmas Eve we can come to church, and in the beauty of the sanctuary, amid the sounds of Christmas carols and familiar scripture readings songs… our hearts can grow strangely still.  And in the quiet reflection on that holy night, as we turn our hearts toward a helpless babe in a crude stable, we confront our own vulnerabilities.  Our hurts and brokenness and deep longings just lie exposed.

With Louise it was a decision to call her dad, who had deserted her family when she was a child.  At 58 she was no longer a child.  Oh, but there was still a dark place in her soul, a shadow that fell across her heart, and on Christmas Eve she was ready to bring it to light.  It was time to forgive, time to try to understand decisions made a half-century before, time perhaps to reconcile.

With Mickey it was grief.  Her only son had been killed in a car accident when he was twenty.  It was unbelievably tragic.  Mickey had decided never to feel joy again… only pain, only grief.  It was all she had left, a dark place in her soul.  The shadow that fell across her heart was deep unresolved, compounded grief, but on Christmas Eve nearly twenty-five years after her son died, Mickey was finally ready to bring those dark places to light.  It was time to find peace, time to find hope, time perhaps to feel loved again.

With Craig it was guilt.  His addiction was killing him, destroying his family, consuming his life.  Some nights, like the night before, he just did not go home.  He didn’t want his family to see him the way he was, so he just stayed out all night.  Oh, the holidays were always tough on him… too many parties, too much unstructured time, too many temptations.  The dark place in his soul, the shadow that fell across his heart was like a cancer, and on this Christmas Eve he was ready to bring it to light.  It was time to face the truth, time to say no to his addiction, so he could say yes to his family, yes to his work, yes his life, yes to his Lord.  For Craig it was time to quit dying and time to start living.

Oh, and there are more, many more… people who come to the Christmas season with dark places in their hearts, shadows of grief and loss and pain and hardship and moral failure and addiction and disappointment and illness and death.  And for a host of reasons – good and bad – this season causes us to be acutely aware of the darkness in our lives, the shadows that fall across our heart, and we are drawn beyond the garish decorations of the season to the light of the savior, the true light which dispels the darkness.

In many ways, that is the essence of Christmas.  It always has been.  The truth is that like just about every other movement of God, Christmas was born in darkness.  Christmas came in the dark.  I’m not talking about the time in which Christ Jesus was born.  I have no idea whether the Christ was born at night or at noontime.  But I do know that Christmas was born in the dark.  It was a time when the People of Israel felt powerless, a time of occupation, a time when all seemed lost… it was a time of unsettling turmoil in the life of the principle characters in the saga – Mary, Joseph… it was a time of deep darkness for God’s people.  Faith had been boiled down to nothing more than an oppressive moral code unevenly enforced by self-righteous authorities.  This was a dark time.

Christmas, you see, – like all other movements of God was born in the dark.  And one of the most empowering lessons we learn from the Christmas saga is that God does some of his best work in the dark.

Have you ever thought about it?  God does some of his best work in the dark.  We read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void and darkness spread over the face of the deep.  And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light, and God saw that the light was good.”

And in our text tonight, “In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and without him was not anything made that was made.”  And listen to this, “In him was life, and the life was the life of humanity.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The darkness of chaos could not thwart God’s creative genius, and out of darkness – out of nothingness, God created everything that exists – everything that is.   And, of course, that’s not all.  When evil had its way, when error was enthroned, when people walked in thick darkness, God shined his light – and the darkness receded, for the darkness could not overcome the light.  Isn’t that the story we read over and again in the scriptures?

“When Israel was in Egypt land/ oppressed so hard they could not stand.”  When God’s people were enslaved, God acted to relieve their suffering, acted to redeem his people from slavery, acted to bring them forth to a good and broad land, a land which he had promised to their ancestors.  It was in the dark, bitter days of slavery that God began his work to set his people free, and it was in the darkness of the Passover night, that God’s work was complete.  His people redeemed and freed from oppression.  God does some of his best work in the dark.

Don’t we see the same thing in the accounts of the prophets?  Just about every prophet was called during dark times to shine the light of truth.  God was at work in his people—even when they rebelled against him.  It was not easy for Jeremiah; not easy for Hosea; not easy for Isaiah not easy for Ezekiel; not easy for Elijah.  It was not easy, because they lived in a dark time.  But they had a message to share, a light to bring to the nations.  God uttered his word in the darkness, and his truth became the light.  God does his best work in the dark.

And certainly we see the same thing throughout the Gospels, do we not?   Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, and Jesus offered light to show him the way of salvation.  And it was in the dark night that the disciples struggled to make headway across the Sea of Galilee – fearful, frustrated, and fretful, but Jesus came to them and his light offered peace and hope, and assurance of God’s presence and care.

And it was a dark night indeed in Gethsemane when the forces of evil were running loose, and Jesus offered himself freely to those who came to destroy him.  He was condemned to die by those he came to save under cover of darkness.  No wonder when he died on the cross, the sun refused to shine – darkness covered the land – darkness covered the universe as Jesus breathed his last on Calvary’s cross.  Oh, but were you there when he rose up from the tomb? The Gospel writers tell us that “before dawn on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” that God raised his son to eternal life – the day of the resurrection.  Oh yes!  God does his best work in the dark.

God does his best work in the dark, because where God is there is no darkness at all.  The night and the day are as one.

And what I want you to know tonight, as we gather on the night of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, as we gather at the darkest time of the year, what I want you to know is that God does his best work in the dark.

Many of us have gathered here tonight because there is darkness in our soul, a shadow falling across our heart.  This can be a very hard season indeed… a dark time.

But God does his best work in the dark.  It has been my experience that often – very often – those whose faith is strong, whose lives are whole, whose witness is compelling, whose testimony is true are simply those among us who have learned personally that God does some of his best work in the dark.  They know what it is like to have darkness in their soul, a shadow fall over their heart.  But they have found the light of life, the one in whom there is light, which the darkness cannot comprehend or extinguish.  God does his best work in the dark.

How many grieving souls have found this to be true?  How many broken hearts can testify to God’s goodness!  How many condemned lives across the land are witness to the amazing grace of God in their darkest hour!  God does his best work in the dark – so much so that sometimes people get the idea that God brings the darkness.  But God does not bring the darkness.  Darkness has no source.  Darkness is the absence of light.  God is the source of truth; God is the source of love; God is the source of light, and when God’s light shines, the darkness flees.

It is amazing how light dispels the darkness, and illumines our hearts with faith and hope and love.  In God’s light, we find courage even in our darkest hour.

So perhaps this night you may light a candle as an outward act in which you invite the light of Christ to dispel the darkness in your soul, to erase the shadow that falls across your heart, to kindle and re-kindle faith and hope and love.  “In him was light, and the light was the life of humanity.”

That is exactly what Janet found to be profoundly true.  Nearly fifty years ago now, Janet was a care-free fifth-grade school girl.  But one December morning, two policemen arrived at Janet’s school; then accompanied the school’s principal, they came to Janet’s math class, and they knocked on the door.  When the teacher came to the door, and they said they needed to see Janet, her eyes filled with tears.  She knew they had come to deliver terrible new.

She took a moment, cleared her throat, and turned and gently called Janet. The young girl did not know whether to be honored or frightened as her name was called so gently by the teacher.  She rose from her desk and walked to the front of the class.  She left her books; she left her coat; she left her lunch, and she never returned – not until after the Christmas vacation. The principal told Janet that her father had just been killed in an automobile accident.  Darkness fell upon Janet’s young life.

Janet told me years later as an adult, that the darkness in her life was compounded the following spring when she learned that her older brother – her only sibling – had been drafted to go to fight in Vietnam.  That would leave just Janet and her mom at home alone and put her brother in constant danger.  Janet’s brother was seven years older than she, and she simply adored him.

Janet said that the day before her brother left to report to basic training the house was filled with relatives and friends who stopped by to see him.  That night, after everyone had left and darkness was setting in, her brother brought his packed bags out of his room and put them by the door.  When Janet saw his bags, she burst into tears and ran outside.  After a short while, he found her out in the back yard.  He put his arm around her, and they talked about all manner of things – what things would be like for him, what things would be like for them at home.  The moon was full and shining brightly – big and beautiful, not unlike the one we’ve seen this week.  “Look at the moon,” her brother said.  Janet looked at it and smiled.  It’s hard to look at a full moon and not smile.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “Every night no matter where I am, I’ll look up and find the moon, I’ll tell the man in the moon, ‘when you get over North Carolina, tell Janet I love her.’  And that moon will travel all the way around the world until it shines over our backyard.  When you look out and see the moon, you’ll know I’m thinking of you.”

And so it was.  Janet found that night after night, she looked for the moon, and in the glow of its soft light, she felt the darkness push back.  She felt not fear or dread, but a deepening of faith and hope and love.  Oh my….

  • “A people who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”
  • “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
  • God does some of his best work in the dark. 
  • “Arise, shine for your light has come.”
Pure and Simple Logo 2.

Getting Out-Fished

Getting Out-Fished

A sermon preached by Gorman Houston

The Bridge - First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa, Alabama

November 24, 2013

Luke 5:1-11

1 While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes’aret. 2 And he saw two boats by the lake; but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had ceased speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” 6 And when they had done this, they enclosed a great shoal of fish; and as their nets were breaking, 7 they beckoned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 9 For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zeb’edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

 

We read that Jesus came to the Sea of Galilee.  Luke prefers to call it the Lake of Gennesaret.  After all, it really is just a lake – only 13 miles long and 7½ miles wide – bigger than a pond, smaller than a sea. It’s a lake. Luke paints the picture with ordinariness — not only of the Lake, but also of the fishermen, the context, the entire event.  There is nothing extraordinary about this series of events, no hint that this lake, these people, this day would be transformational.  Of course, that’s the genius of the story.  The extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. That’s the genius of the Gospel.  The divine hidden in a human.

The Gospel message isn’t that there are super people out there who are without sin and without hangups and without problems, whom Jesus calls to service.  No, the Gospel message is not that there are certain holy places which will transform us if only we will make the pilgrimage.  No.  The Gospel message is not even that there are certain events or rituals which have power if only we will submit to them.  No, the Gospel is about how God transforms that which is ordinary into something extraordinary, how God transacts his business in the regular routines of life.

So the Gospel is filled with stories in which Jesus encounters ordinary folks in ordinary places and does something extraordinary.  This morning we see it in fishermen and fish.  Luke tells us that Jesus was walking by the Lake of Genneseret, and he was surrounded by people who longed to hear his teachings, so he got into Simon Peter’s boat.

Simon Peter, of course, was a fisherman.  At least that’s what he thought.  That’s all he had ever done, fish.  It’s what his father did.  It’s what his brother did.  They were fishermen.  And perhaps Simon Peter would have simply remained a fisherman if he had never let Jesus in his boat.

Now let me stop right there.  If you are just looking for a little religion to make you respectable, a little religion that will never make much a difference, a little religion that won’t cost you much, a little religion that you can tuck in your pocket, then don’t ever let Jesus in your boat.  First it’s a teaching or two, and the next thing you know you’re in over your head.

That’s what happened to Peter.  He should have seen it coming.  Jesus needed a boat, just to teach in, and he asked Peter.  You see, here’s the problem – when we let Jesus in our boat, he doesn’t just stay in our boat.  He gets in our family, he gets in our business, he gets in our finances, he gets in our relationships, he gets in our friendship circles, he gets in our church.  It happens every time.  It happened to Peter.  Peter let him in his boat, and before the day was out, everything in Peter’s life had changed.

So Peter let Jesus into his boat.  He certainly wasn’t using it.  He was through fishing for the day.  He was cleaning up, washing out his nets.  He was finished, at least he thought.  So Jesus got in and pushed out a little from the shore so that the crowds might hear him clearly.  Luke tells us not a word about Jesus’ teaching.  What he tells us is that after he had taught the people, he said to Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

What Peter didn’t know was that this is the great invitation of Christ to us all.  It is the invitation to everyone who comes to faith, “Put out into the deep water.”  Do you hear the invitation?  So often we choose to stay in the shallow waters, don’t we?  In the safe water, don’t we? We may think that it is prudent to stay in the shallow water; we may think that things are predictable when we stay in the shallow waters, but Christ Jesus will have none of it.  The call of our Lord is out to the deep – out where it’s not safe, out where it’s not predictable.

And Peter responded with deference and logic, with a fisherman’s insight, with reasoned caution.  “Master,” he said, “We toiled all night and took nothing!”  What Peter did not know was that Jesus’ invitation is almost never intuitive.  Jesus’ invitation is not a safe, easy way to live.  It’s always risky, always counter-cultural, always frightening.  And here’s the reason.  We are hard-wired to think of ourselves, to plan for ourselves, to look after ourselves, and Jesus’ invitation is always for us to think beyond ourselves, to plan beyond ourselves, to live beyond ourselves.

Peter responded to Jesus’ invitation with logical resistance, but perhaps even to his own amazement, his obedience trumped his logic.  “At your word I will let down the nets.”  And in that act of folly, in that act of outlandish obedience, this seasoned fisherman went out into the deep, he got in over his head, and… he got out-fished.  Oh he caught a huge haul of fish.  But really it was Peter who got caught in this story.  He just got out-fished.   it was there that they got caught by God’s great plan.  They just got caught.

It started when he let down the nets, the same nets which had been empty every time they had pulled them up all night long, but this time they were filled.  In fact, the nets were suddenly in danger of breaking from the great haul of fish…even the boat was in danger of sinking from sheer volume of fish.  The deep water is where God does his best work – deep water where we are in over our heads, where we are living beyond our understanding, where we are living beyond our own abilities, where we are living beyond ourselves.

And in that moment, Luke reports, Peter realized that he’d been caught by something great and frightening, and he knew that he would never be the same.  His ordinary life had been caught up in the mighty movement of God.  And right there in the boat — out in the deep water surrounded by flopping, smelly fish — he fell to his knees, and he confessed his unworthiness.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter thought his sin, his limitations would disqualify him from God’s great plan.  But Jesus wasn’t vetting Peter to see if he would fit in.  Jesus knew whom he had caught.  “Do not be afraid.” Jesus said.  “You think your destiny in life is to catch fish.  No.  That’s just because you have been living for yourself – you’ve narrowed the world down to your own little concerns.  But you’re not in the safe, shallow water any more.  From now on, you will be out in the deep water, you will be in over your head, you will be living beyond yourself… no longer are you simply one who catches fish.  You are the one who will be catching disciples.”

And Luke tells us in simple sentences, as if it were the kind of thing that happened every day, “When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”  Oh my.  Do you see what happened, Peter left everything – the boat, the fish, his old life.  He left everything and followed Jesus.  Peter had been outfished… He’d been caught.

What happened to Peter, happens every time someone truly comes to faith in Christ.  I mean, that’s what following Jesus Christ is about – pushing out into the deep water, trusting God enough to get out of the superficial, petty concerns in life, and getting in over our heads – living beyond ourselves, experiencing the wonder of God’s grace.

It’s not just Peter.  We see it throughout the scriptures.   Just thumb through your Bible, you’ll see that it is filled with stories of folks who got out fished, who got caught, folks who encountered the grace and power of God, quit living in shallow superficiality, began to live beyond themselves, and experienced transformation. Just call the roll.

Abraham and Sarah — called to give birth to a new nation at the age of 100.   Joshua.  Conquer a hostile land.  Daniel stand faithful and strong. Esther, save the entire Hebrew people.  David.  He spent his entire life taking on jobs too big for him — killing Goliath as a child, conquering lands as a military leader, establishing a great and powerful nation as King.  And the list goes on and on.  They all got out-fished, they got caught — every one of them, no longer living for their own petty purposes, but for the great and grand purposes of God.

So, you see, when it comes to you and me, we should not expect our faith to be easy and safe.  It never has been.  If your faith is not challenging you to take outrageous risks, you might need to check it out to make sure you have the real thing and not a knock-off, some cheap substitute.  Jesus just gets in the boat with us, out-fishes us, catches us, pushes us into the deep water, and calls us to live way beyond ourselves.  It’s the same message.  Jesus did not say, “take the broad and easy way.”  No his word has always been, “narrow the gate and straight the way that leads to life.”  He never said “play it safe,” no his word was “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it.”  Jesus never said, “Just worry about yourself.”  His word was “Tend the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, visit those in prison, welcome the stranger…”  He never lets us stay in the shallow water, he calls us to go deep… to give and not count the cost, to forgive and not keep score, to trust God and not be anxious, to seek “first the kingdom of God.”  You see, it’s never a matter of playing it safe.  It’s never a matter of doing the expedient thing.  It’s never a matter of taking the road most travelled.  It’s always, “Push out into the deep; get in over your head, live beyond yourself.”  That’s where we encounter God… that’s where our lives are transformed, that’s where we quit living for ourselves, that’s where we join God in his world-changing work.  That’s where we get out-fished!

Sometimes we may hear people say things like, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  I want to say, “You obviously do not know the same God I do.  You obviously have not read the Bible?”  We may want to believe such things, but the greater truth is that God always gives us more than we can handle.  This is the way I see it.  God does not make the task small enough for his people.  God makes his people big enough for the task.  That’s the message of the scripture.  That’s truth you can count on.  God does not make the task small enough for you.  God makes you big enough for the task.  God calls you into the deep water; he calls you to live beyond ourselves.

If we stay in the shallow water, we will never get caught – not by Jesus.  We’ll never experience his grace as it cleanses our heart and soul of evil, never experience the wonder of his love as it moves us to reach out to the wretched and powerless and desperate, never experience his Holy Spirit as it surges within us to empower us to face a challenge, to comfort us in our deepest despair, to unite us in spite of our differences.  We can be a church in the shallow water, but not if we are going to be faithful to Jesus Christ.  He calls us out of the superficial and into the deep.  He wants us to experience the abundance of God’s grace and love and truth.  He wants to catch us.  “From now own,” he told Peter, “You will be catching disciples.”

Today is the climax of our stewardship campaign – “Tithe Pride.”  Haha.  Today, we are asked to commit ourselves to the work of God in our midst through this church.  Sometimes we think that stewardship is just about raising money.  It is about raising money, but to think that’s all it is, is like thinking that this story in Luke about the call of Peter is just about the fish.  A stewardship campaign is a time for us to take a spiritual inventory, to see where we are in faith.  Where are you?  Are you trying to play it safe by living in the shallow waters?

Well, let me tell you.  No matter what else you do.  No matter how many possessions you have.  No matter how much power you wield.  No matter how prominent or popular you become.  None of it has any ultimate value. You will always be out-fished.  But here’s what I want you to know.  The one who out-fishes us all, wants to catch you.

henceforth you will be catching men.”…when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Sermon: When All Else Fails, Rejoice

Sermon preached at First United Methodist Church, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on August 11, 2013.

When All Else Fails…Rejoice
a sermon by
Gorman Houston
Philippians 4:4-7, 10-13

          If anything can go wrong, it will.  Perhaps you recognize Murphy’s Law.  Or some people may call it the first law of Murphy, for many others have followed, or added on, like…

If anything can go wrong, it will… and the first addendum…at the worst possible time… the second, and it will all be your fault,…the third, and everyone will know it.

Or an extrapolation: Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.

Or the contrapositive: if everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something

Then there’s Murphy’s Law of Thermodynamics: Things get worse under pressure.

And Murphy Philosophy: Smile . . . tomorrow will be worse.

And Murphy’s Constant: Matter will be damaged in direct proportion to its value.

And then, of course, there’s Paul’s instruction: “Rejoice in the Lord, always.”  What?  Talk about a gripe session spoiler, a pity-party pooper!  Talk about a little goodie-two-shoes twerpy tweet.  What kind of Polyanna land do you live in Paul?  We’re talking the real world here, where things go wrong, where life is hard, where dreams crash, where we can’t ever get ahead, where good guys finish last, where money is tight, where the pain is real, where the grief is gut-wrenching, where death is inevitable.

“Rejoice in the Lord, always?”  Yeah right?  Oh, and the extension, “Do not worry about anything.”  And the corollary, “I have learned to be content in whatever state I am in.”

It makes you wonder what kind of guy is this who could write these things?  I did this last week in the Bridge.  Let’s do it here too.  Try to picture Paul, in your mind.  What does he look like?  Is he tall or short?  How about his hair — does he have a lot—long, maybe bushy hair or is he a guy with less hair, thin hair, maybe even balding?  Is he a big muscle guy or a slight fellow?  Would you be more likely to choose him to be on your football team or your debate team?

Most people picture him as a rather a slight, balding academic type.  That’s pretty much the image we have of Paul isn’t it?  So it’s easy for us to think about him the way we think about lots of academic types.  We may think that all of that stuff he writes may sound good in an ivory tower—the hallowed halls of ivy—but down here where the rubber hits the road, it’s another thing altogether.  Those ideals and theories don’t play well down here in the trenches.  In the real world that kind of stuff doesn’t work, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”  “Don’t worry about anything.”  Yeah, right.

But not so fast.  Before we dismiss Paul too quickly, you might want to know that we get another picture of him in the scripture.  In fact, he has given us a self-portrait of sorts in one of his letters.  When we read 2 Corinthians 11, we find that Paul describes himself by writing about his trials.  He tells us,

“Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Cor 11:24-27).

Let’s look at what this means.  Paul had received the 39 lashes five times.  “Mosaic law prescribed a maximum of forty lashes to be meted out as punishment for an offense (Deuteronomy 25:3).  The number was lowered to thirty-nine to keep the flogger from accidentally miscounting and thus becoming a lawbreaker himself.  In fact, if a person were given one stripe too many and died, the flogger would be held responsible.  In preparation for (this kind of whipping), the person’s hands were bound, one on either side to a pillar, and his clothing was torn to expose the chest and back.  The lashes were administered with a strap consisting of three hide thongs, (with metal studs embedded to rip the flesh).  26 blows were given to the back and then 13 blows to the chest.”  If you saw “The Passion of the Christ,” you are perhaps able to visualize what it was like for someone to receive the thirty-nine lashes.  The punishment always resulted in great blood loss and often caused death either immediately or later due to infection.  Paul received that punishment not once but five times.  The scourging left hideous scars.  With three thongs, 39 lashes, five times.  Paul would have had nearly 600 scars crisscrossing his back.  Can you picture his back and torso?

Three times he was beaten with rods.  Many of us associate this punishment with that of caning, like in the Philippines — painful, primitive, but not life-threatening.  But that’s not what this is.  There is something more here.  The Romans often used this as a form of cruel punishment.  These were not canes.  These were clubs.  Often those who were being punished were clubbed to death.  Ribs were almost always broken, along with fingers, arm bones, clavicles, and leg bones.  Sometimes lungs were punctured, even the heart was bruised.  Paul received this punishment three times.  Can you picture his limp, his swollen hands, his discomfort in breathing?

Once Paul records he received a stoning.  Stoning was typically a Jewish form of capital punishment for offenses like idolatry, blasphemy, and adultery.  Sometimes we picture stoning like a circle of folks standing around someone and throwing rocks.  But that’s not it at all.  Do you remember when Jesus went to Nazareth, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.  People took offense when he claimed to be the Messiah, and they sought to stone him.  The Gospel tells us they wanted to throw him headlong off a cliff.  That’s the way stonings were done.  Usually the person was thrown off a cliff onto the hard ground, and large boulders were then thrown on him.  The crumpled body was then often dragged through the town and dumped outside the city walls.  Can you see his disfigured body, his crooked back, his bruised head, his painful steps?  By the way, — his crime for all these punishments — being a witness for Jesus Christ.

All of this took place in addition to his imprisonment and mistreatment on every front from friend and foe alike.  He was shipwrecked three times — adrift in the open sea day and night, in constant danger no matter where he was or with whom he traveled, often without food or water or even clothes.  Can you picture his weary eyes, the exhaustion in his body?

And he writes in our lesson today not in complaint but in praise, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”  And then he adds in triumph — over all who have sought to destroy him, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  Picture this saint of God, having been tormented and tortured and now sitting in a dark prison cell scarred and bruised, eyes swollen, nose broken, stooped and struggling to walk — never complaining, but singing praise to God.

And here we are two thousand years later thinking we know more about the struggles of life than Paul, thinking of Paul as a detached academic, far removed from the burdens of life.  Now can you picture Paul?  With that image in our minds, let’s hear Paul’s words again.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say rejoice.”

Well, what do you think it might mean to rejoice in the Lord?  First, Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord, not in the circumstances.  Right?  Which one is more powerful?  Which one is going to last the longest – your circumstances or the Lord?  So, Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord, not in our circumstances.  Ok, but it’s more than that.

Paul uses the term in Christ or in the Lord, to speak of people who have claimed genuine salvation.  Those who have crucified their sinful nature – their basic human nature – crucified their egoism (looking out for their own best interests) and their hedonism (relentlessly seeking pleasure and avoiding pain).  Those who are in Christ have crucified their sinful nature and have been given new life through the power of the Holy Spirit – a new nature, a new purpose and understanding of life.  That’s what it means to Paul to be in Christ – no longer seeking our own way or our glory or our own petty purposes, but now living fully and faithfully to the greater glory of God, pursuing his purposes.  That’s what it means to be in Christ, to be in the Lord.

And Paul is assuring us that if we are in Christ, we are never lost, we can never be broken beyond healing, we will never be abandoned or forsaken or forgotten, not if we are in Christ.  And there is nothing that can go wrong that is strong enough to take that away – no pain, no problem, no illness, no violence, not even death. Oh, Murphy’s law is still in effect.  Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and it will go wrong at the worst possible time, and it will be your fault, and everyone will know.  But it will never defeat us – for we are in Christ, established firmly on the Rock of Ages.  And Jesus told us that the house built on the rock would stand through the storms of time.  So, rejoice in the Lord… rejoice in Christ… always.  If you want a reason to rejoice, I’ll give you a reason to rejoice, you are in Christ.  Do you remember the old hymn?

Oh! sometimes the shadows are deep,
And rough seems the path to the goal,
And sorrows, sometimes how they sweep
Like tempests down over the soul
Oh, then to the Rock let me fly,
to the rock that is higher than I.

          The great women and men of faith have known this to be true.  Look at those who have left a lasting mark on the world, on our souls – the Apostolic Fathers, the early Christians, the reformers, the witnesses for Christ against tyranny and oppression, who stood up against the forces of evil, who advanced the kingdom of God in God forsaken places.  Name one, name one who has made a true difference, and I’ll tell you her life was not easy and carefree.   Name one who ever advanced the cause of Christ against injustice and indifference and I’ll tell you his life was no without pain and hardship.

My friends, Murphy understood the problem well.  The reality is that no matter how much we might dream of having a perfect life—a perfect marriage, a perfect family, perfect children, a perfect schedule, a perfect job, a perfect life, perfection is unsustainable.  Hear me again perfection is unsustainable.  Anything that can go wrong will!  At the worst possible time!  And it will all be your fault!  And everyone will know it!

But here 20 centuries later, we can still hear the sounds of a wounded, persecuted, ill-treated soldier of Christ, from a rat-infested dark prison cell, hands and feet in shackles, body aching.  He’s been knocked down over and again, but he’s never been knocked out.  We still hear his voice, and, O My Lord, he’s singing.  Yes, he’s still singing a breathy song… of praise.  “Rejoice in the Lord, always.”

My friends, that’s not detached academic psycho-babble.  That’s the way to healing.  That’s the path to wholeness.  That’s the essence of salvation.  That’s the manual for survival when everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

          So, when your perfect little world starts falling apart and you are tempted to give up or to give in or maybe just complain, or have your own pity party, remember Paul, remember his back, and then go over to the mirror, pull up your shirt, and look at your own back.   Now, really… “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say, Rejoice.”

 

The Fine Art of Giant Killing – 1 Samuel 17

This sermon was preached at the First United Methodist Church of Tuscaloosa on Sunday, September 22, 2013, the day when Bibles were presented to third-grade students.

The Fine Art of Giant Killing
a sermon by
Gorman Houston
1 Samuel 17 (Selected verses)

          The story of David and Goliath captures our imagination, perhaps as no other story.  Even people who know little or nothing about the Bible know the story of David and Goliath.  How great is it that a young boy defeats a giant while the adults cower in fear!  No wonder children love this story.

When our son Gorman was young, he and I would read his Bible storybook just about every evening, and often he would want to act out the stories.  His favorite was David and Goliath.  I don’t have to tell you who always played the part of Goliath.  How many times I fell to the death on the floor of the parsonage den in Greenville, as my six-year old son put one foot on my chest and raised his arms in victory.  The beauty of this story is that you don’t have to be a Bible scholar or a great theologian to grasp its meaning, weakness conquers brute strength, evil is overpowered by good, and the bully is defeated by the underdog.  It’s a great story.  But my question to you this morning is, “Is it your story?”

The story begins as the people of God face an overwhelming foe — a menacing giant who threatens to destroy them.  The Philistines were a war-machine.  Their presence was known in Palestine from the days of Abraham, and when Israel settled the land after the Exodus, the Philistines became a constant threat to their very survival.  The Philistines were an unusually large people with the latest military technology—bronze, no less.

And from their ranks emerged a giant of epic proportions, a champion—Goliath.  The scriptures report that he was  6 cubits and a span, that is nearly 10 feet tall.  He was perhaps the most powerful man in the world.  And well armed.—goodness his armor alone weighed more than David.  And we read that for forty days Goliath taunted the Hebrew people.  Every day the same threats, the same insults, the same menacing presence.

My friend Ed knew something about facing the same giant every day.  The giant that menaced him was alcoholism.  And it was the same giant every day.  Ed was in field sales, so he was on the road most of the week almost every week.  And as soon as he would determine his schedule, the giant would come out to taunt.  If he was scheduled to be in Memphis on Tuesday, his mind would race ahead to a bar there he knew well.  Like a siren calling him, he would hear the giant menacing him for days before he even got to Memphis.  And, of course, the same was true in every city.  It was the same giant… taunting and tormenting him.

As a nation we know something about facing the same giant every day.  In the tragic shooting in our Nation’s Capital this week, it’s the same giant taunting us.  Runaway violence… a violent culture… set on destruction.  It taunts us with the shooting deaths of school children; it taunts us with bombings at the Boston Marathon; it taunts us with this mass murder in the Navy Yard in Washington, DC.  It’s the same giant taunting and tormenting us.

As a state, as a city, as a university, we know something about facing the same giant.  I don’t have to tell you that the giant of racial discrimination and intolerance – even bigotry – has taunted the State of Alabama since the earliest days.  This giant taunts and menaces us by turning us against each other, by disregarding human dignity, by violating our own sensibilities—not only of justice and fairness but of hospitality and unity, of what it means to offer Christ-like love to the stranger.

There is nothing new about the giants we face.   What giant is taunting and tormenting you?  Fear, shame, self-loathing, addiction, debt, insecurity, illness, broken relationships.

For the People of Israel it was Goliath, the champion Philistine.  And this giant called for someone to come fight him. “Come out and fight,” he called to the people.  “If I lose, we will become your slaves.  If you lose, you will become ours.”  Don’t think the giants we face are benign.  Don’t think that the giants which taunt you can be appeased.  These giants will enslave you, control you, manipulate you, and destroy you.

And the people of God cowered in fear, helpless before the enemy.  No one stepped up to the challenge.  King Saul would not fight.  It was his duty to protect his people, but he would not fight.  Instead, he offered a huge reward for anyone who would prevail against the giant—a cash bounty, his own daughter in marriage, freedom from taxation.  But not one person came forward to fight the giant.

What happens when no one fights the giants?  The giants do not go away.  The giants do not lose interest.  When no one fights the giant, the giant controls by fear and intimidation.  And the battle is put off until another time, the can is kicked down the road—often put off to the next generation.  We burden the next generation with unresolved matters, with debts, with addictions, with problems we either could not or would not solve.  And that’s just what happened in the story from 1 Samuel.  The battle fell to the next generation.

The Bible tells us that no adult stepped forward to fight, a young shepherd boy came forward.  David, the youngest son of Jesse.  This story of the battle with Goliath is really David’s introduction in the Bible.  He is mentioned a time or two before as a shepherd boy who plays a lyre, but this story reveals his character, his bravery, his faith, his courage.

We read that David approached King Saul and volunteered to take on the giant.  Isn’t that just like children?  Oh, that’s why Christ Jesus called for us to have child-like faith?  David was confident he could defeat the giant.  Of course King Saul dismissed David’s suggestion, reminding David that the giant had been fighting battles since long before David was even born.  But Saul was desperate and David was insistent, so Saul agreed to send this child into battle.  Oh, how often we send our children to fight our battles!

Saul prepared David for battle.  He even called for his armor to be brought for David to use in the battle.  But David refused the offer.  It’s a fascinating detail in the story.  It may have been included just to underscore that David was a young boy.  Armor made for a man would not fit a boy.

The detail may have been included to reveal that David was not going to fight Goliath on Goliath’s terms.  David had to do what David did, not what Goliath did.  Last week, when Alabama fell 14 points behind in the Texas A&M game, I was in the upper deck of the end zone with other dismayed Alabama fans.  But a lone voice gave us hope, “Come on, Alabama,” the fan cried, “Do what we do!” Of course, we all thought.  Let’s don’t play on Texas A&M’s terms.  Let’s do what we do.  David did not wear Saul’s armor.  David was not going to fight Goliath on Goliath’s terms.  He had to do what he did.  Just as David had fought and prevailed against wild animals, so he would prevail against his wild animal – with just a sling and a few smooth stones.

And it may be that this detail was included to point out that David would not wear Saul’s armor into battle, because David did not need the armor of Saul.  David was armed and armored by his faith.  Now hear me.  We often think of faith as some loosely jointed points of doctrine we hold or maybe just wishful thinking that everything will work out.  That is not what faith is—at least not a faith like David’s.  There was nothing passive about David’s faith.  Like all true faith, David’s faith gave him great certainty that God was fully engaged in this battle.  In fact, David proclaimed, “The battle belongs the Lord.”  It was that faith which equipped David with what the Apostle Paul would later call the Whole Armor of God.  He had the incredible courage to stand up to the giant, to fight the giant, to prevail against the giant.

While others simply wished the giant would go away, while others cowered in fear, or looked for ways to appease the giant, David engaged in battle, fully equipped by the faith that God was neither absent nor dis-interested.  David simply lived and believed that God’s truth was marching on!  Now that’s faith.

So from all the host of the Israelite army stepped forward a young, squeaky voiced boy to take on the nearly ten-foot tall fully armed Philistine giant.  They met in the valley between the two armies.  On the one side a mighty warrior prepared for battle with 126 pounds of armor and a shield-bearer standing before him. And on the other, a slight, ruddy faced shepherd boy with nothing but his staff, a sling, and five smooth stones…and an absolute confidence in his God.

The giant taunted David, but the shepherd boy responded with prophetic zeal, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head… so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle belongs to the LORD and he will give you into our hand.”

And with just one stone in his sling, David defeated the mighty giant.  And he went and took the Philistine’s sword and cut off his head.  Sometimes we have to use the weapon of the giant to decapitate the giant.  We decapitate intolerance when we are intolerant of intolerance.  We decapitate hatred when we hate hatred.  David decapitated the champion and sent the entire Philistine army scurrying in retreat.  What a great victory for the people of God!  Now that’s a great Bible story.  So what about it?  Is it your story?

You say, “Gorman, I have no problem identifying with the people of Israel as they faced the giant, and I have no trouble identifying with King Saul as he lamented his weakness, and I have no problem assessing the strength of the giant.  But when it comes to an unarmed shepherd boy slaying the mighty champion, that’s where I have trouble believing.”  I don’t fault you.  It’s hard to believe.  I mean, maybe we have trouble believing that giants can be killed.  The giants that taunt us have not been killed.  Or it maybe  we have trouble believing that God is engaged in the events of our lives, the events of our world.  Maybe we just can’t believe.  I don’t know.  But you know what I do know?

I know that I’m glad Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone believed.  He was born into the affluence of Italian nobility and lived a carefree life.  But when he came to faith, he had to confront the giant of his own affluence and privilege in the midst of great poverty and suffering.  His faith led him confront the giant, to renounce his wealth, and stand against the corruption in the church.  In fact, even the Pope recognized that the Church was being saved by this poor beggar.  His became a life of purity and poverty.  We know him today as St. Francis of Assisi, we know him as a giant killer.  I’m glad he believed.

And I know that I’m glad Martin Luther believed…. He faced a giant and courageously stood against the excesses of the Church, publicly posted his 99 complaints on the door of the Wittenburg Church, and sparked the Protestant Reformation which transformed and perhaps saved Christianity.  Martin Luther believed the battle belonged to God, and he was a giant killer. I’m glad he believed.

And I know that I’m just glad that Toyohiko Kagawa  believed—when his parents both died at an early age, he came under the care of Presbyterian missionaries in Japan, converted to the Christian faith and spent his life fighting the giant of poverty and hopelessness in his homeland.  A pacifist, he faced personal peril in his country which had become a war machine.  Toyohiko Kagawa believed that God cared for the poor and powerless and stood against violence and war.  Toyohiko Kagawa was a giant killer.  I’m glad Toyohiko Kagawa believed.

And I know I’m glad Julia Tutwiler believed.  She stood against the giant of human suffering and indifference here in Alabama amid great ignorance, and suffering.  She started the first public kindergarten in Alabama, opened the door for women to receive formal education at the University of Alabama, and she worked tirelessly to care for the forgotten, as she demanded reform in the prisons, separating the sexes, removing children from prisons for adults, and standing up against the worst cruelty of all – the leasing of convicts.  Julia Tutwiler believed that every life had value in God’s eyes, and she was a giant killer.  I’m glad Julia Tutwiler believed.

And I know I’m glad Vivian Malone and James Hood believed, as they stood before the giant of a segregated education system in Alabama, and unbelievable hatred and bigotry.  And 50 years ago stared down the power-holders of our state and walked through the schoolhouse door to integrate the University of Alabama.  Vivian Malone and James Hood believed their actions could change the world, and they were giant killers.  I’m glad Vivian Malone and James Hood believed.

Oh, David’s story is the story of faith.  And as we read scripture we find that it shows up over and again.  David’s story is Moses story as he refused to cower before mighty Pharaoh and freed the Hebrew people.  David’s story was Esther’s story, as she refused to cower before the evil plots of Haman, but instead risked her life to save the Hebrew people.  David’s story was Daniel’s story, as he did not cower before the edicts of King Darius but stood strong and was delivered from the lion’s den.   David’s story is the story of true faith.

My friends, there is no question that we face giants – violence, suffering, bigotry, intolerance, terrorism, addictions, brokenness, grief….  And there is no question that these giants taunt and torment us.  And there is no question that God is fully invested in the story of deliverance.  The only question that remains is, is David’s story our story?