"Three Short Sermons"

by Jackson H. Day
St. James United Methodist Church, West Friendship, Maryland
Fourth Sunday in Epiphany, January 28, 2001


Children's Sermon:

Do any of you have rules?
At school? At home?
Why do we have rules?
Prayer: Thanks to God for giving us rules and structure to help us live together.


TORAH

Scripture 1 Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-6, 8-10

When the seventh month came-the people of Israel being settled in their towns-all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the books of the law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose...

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

So they read from the book from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, :"This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.:" For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then the said to them, "God your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength."



If you wanted to preach a sermon tied to the Super Bowl, three topics you might select would be fitness, teamwork, and playing the game. Believe it or not, these three topics are the essence of last week's lectionary readings, which we have postponed to today.



In a big sense, the Law is about fitness. The heart of the Law, or the Torah as our Jewish brothers and sisters call it, is the Ten Commandments. I remember as a child the Ten Commandments were read at the beginning of the Communion service. So it struck me that it wouldn't hurt to read them again, in case it's been a while since we've heard them all together:



Hear the commandments of God to his people: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage.



1. You shall have no other gods but me.

2. You shall not make for yourself any idol

3. You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother

6. You shall not commit murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not be a false witness

10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.



The book of Nehemiah was written after the Babylonian exile. In about 538 BC the Babylonian King Cyrus began to allow groups of the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem. This morning's scripture takes place about 75 years after that, when Ezra arrived with the Torah, and as we heard in this our first reading, the people wept for joy.



Why such joy? First, because the Law gave them a sense of identity. Who were they, who had been taken captive and held prisoner and finally allowed to return home generations later? They were the people of the Torah, the people to whom God had given the Law, and as long as they followed the Law, they were God's people.



Second, the Law gave them a sense of safety. Laws give guidance, structure, and authority. We get it wrong if we thing the primary purpose of the Law is to help get us into heaven. The very practical purpose of the Law is to help us in this life.



At first blush, the Ten Commandments look like a "to do: list. Or a "to not do" list. But if you examine the laws on the list, you realize what you have is an operating manual that helps us relate to our selves, to others, and to God. At its heart, The Law is not a standard for scoring a test when the course is over, but rather guidance for how the lives we have been given can best be operated.



Most of us who have lived any length of time have broken one or more of the commandments. For many of us it comes very early in life.



When I was about eight years old my family lived in China. One day my parents were out and a vendor came by our house selling pretty vases carved from marble. For some reason, one pair took my fancy. I knew where my father kept some money - so I used it to buy the vases. I wasn't very skillful as a criminal and my parents soon discovered what had happened. Now, it wasn't really a lot of money, and they were pretty vases-but they knew that was not the point. They knew that the kind of person their child would become was at stake, and responded accordingly. Of all the things to be avoided, the "long talk with Dad" was on top of the list! Stealing things never really seemed attractive after that.



As adults, when we break the commandments, we often discover that the Ten Commandments carry built in punishments, just like forgetting to put oil in your car engine carries a built in punishment.



The commandment against killing is an example. We break something in ourselves when we employ death and violence to achieve our ends. Soldiers in combat pay a high price for their commitment to their country. No matter how justified a war may be, we violate our nature when we take another life.



TV tells us that violence can be employed for entertainment and does not have consequences. But the truth is that it does. I recently read of an experiment in California schools where children in one elementary school class were taught how to limit the amount of TV they watched per week and to do other things instead of watching TV. A comparison class did not receive this instruction. Then observers watched the playground behavior of the children in both classes. For the class which received the instruction to cut down on TV and video game usage, verbal aggression observed on the playground was down 50% and physical aggression was down 40%. When we teach children to live closer to the guidance of our operating manual, we are more likely to get the results that we wish.



The Law has been described as a moral compass. It can also be described as a personal fitness program. The more we exercise our moral muscles, the more fit we are, and the easier - and more satisfying - the exercise becomes



The scripture passage reminds us that we have an operating manual for our bodies, minds and souls and the more the operating manual is employed, the more it will give us safety from false gods, violence, broken relationships, falsehood, and loss. And so this was good news, and the people wept for joy, and Ezra said, "don't weep, this is a day of celebration.



So let's join in that celebration by reading Psalm 19 on page 750 responsively.


COMMUNITY



Scripture 2: I Corinthians 12:12-30

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the membes in the body, each one of them, as he chose.

If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, " I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, ":I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable., and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?



If the lesson about the Torah or Law is about a fitness program, talking to us about how we can best get in shape and stay in shape, this second lesson is about getting on the team.



And what a team it is! The list of jobs in this passage makes me think of our work the past two months on the Nominating Committee. OK, who shall we nominate for apostles this year? Who will be the prophets? Who will be the teachers? And most important of all, who will work miracles? And I think some of the miracle workers are right there on the Nominating Committee -- now to be called the Lay Leadership Committee, because we will come to the Charge Conference with a full slate of officers to propose. So for the year 2001 there is a wonderful team of people who said yes when asked.



Finding out what kind of team we're on is pretty important stuff! We have a rare gift in this interim time to make some discoveries about ourselves. It's an uncomfortable time. It takes extra work. But there are extra results to be gained.



In last week's inauguration there was not one second when the United States was without a President. We moved right from one to another. Normally the United Methodist Church is the same way. We go from one pastor to the next without a moment to catch our breath. Well, God has given us a chance to catch our breath and make some discoveries about ourselves, and I hope we can accept that as a gift from God and use it to the best advantage!



It is possible for a church to get too dependent on pastors, and then we forget that we are really part of a team called the Body of Christ. If we think that the minister is the player, God is the coach, and the congregation is the crowd of spectators, we've got it wrong. In truth, the whole congregation is the team, the pastor is the coach - and God is the audience. This is a time to practice becoming a smooth, effective team, so that when the next full time pastor arrives, the church will be ready to move forward.



And there is more. Let us now hear from the Gospel according to St. Luke.



DISCIPLESHIP



Scripture 3 Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sad down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."


If the first lesson told us how to get in shape, and the second told us how to be a team, the third tells us what game we are playing. Can you imagine the players at the Super Bowl this evening forgetting what game they're playing? How about church people? Listen to this story that first appeared in a church magazine almost 50 years ago:



On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought of themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.



Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of a club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving mission, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in the club's decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.



At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.



As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.(1)



Now think back to the Gospel lesson. Jesus reads the scripture. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. And then after sitting down, he tells the others, today this scripture has been fulfilled. I am the one this Scripture refers to. This is my mission statement. These powerful hopes that you have - I am the one who is making these things come true at this very moment. This is the game plan. This is the game.



The Law tells us how to stay fit, and St. Paul tells us how to be a team. But as disciples, as the Body of Christ, Jesus tells us what the game is.



Trust me, the people we see on TV this evening won't forget what their game is.



How about us?



NOTES


1. Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Pp 13-14, Originally appeared in Theodore O. Wedel, "Evangelism--the Mission of the Church to Those Outside Her life," The Ecumenical Review, October 1953, p. 24.



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