Sunday, August 24, 2014

To the Law and the Testimony!

Sermon on Isaiah 8:16-20; Zechariah 7:9-13; and Acts 17:1-4, 10-12.  Delivered 24 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.

We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible Word of God given to show us, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, our sinful condition before God.  It likewise shows us the way of salvation and provides the instruction we need to develop spiritually and to walk acceptably before God in the new path of faith.  [...]  These Scriptures, given by Divine inspiration, contain the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation; so that whatever is not contained therein nor can be proved thereby is not to be enjoined on any as an article of faith. (Discipline 142.1.2; 104)
So says the Discipline of the Evangelical Congregational Church.  And while any brief summary like this always has to oversimplify things, this is what we believe.  What we have in the Bible is absolutely amazing.  Here, in the form of many kinds of literature written over the course of over a thousand years, is a sweeping explanation of the history of the universe, from creation to new creation.  It tells, explains, and advises us as we live through the story of God's holy love for a sinful people in a fallen world, and how God conquers all the principalities and powers that try to woo us away from him – including the corruption in our own hearts.  This story is the Truth, because it climaxes in the One who proved himself to be the Way for wayward sinners, the Truth for a muddled world, and the Life to revive our dryness and our death.  That story told by the Bible defines our reality, whether we humbly accept it or pridefully write our own stories – and so, for Christians, it sets the proper context for our lives.

As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who fully affirmed and praised the scriptures of the Old Covenant - the Law and the Prophets – and showed how they pointed to him, how he was so deeply woven into their fabric at every point – so deeply woven that the Pharisees, for missing him there, might as well have been unfamiliar with the whole thing.  As Christians, we follow Jesus Christ, who established the New Covenant in his blood and whose earliest followers testified in writing of what he himself had taught them and was still teaching through them in their ministries.  If we are unwilling to let ourselves be shaped by the whole story, then we risk still holding something back from Christ's claim as Lord, his determination to have every inch of us all to himself.  Our beliefs, our attitudes, and our worldview need to be shaped by the Bible, by God's revelation and message, which bears witness to what he has done and how he will bring his good work to completion on the Day that is to come.

In our culture today, we are often surrounded by groups that insist the Bible is to be judged, or at least interpreted, only in terms of their own spiritual experiences or life experiences.  We all know, for instance, of the Mormons, who usually place a premium on 'personal revelation' as effectively superseding whatever the biblical text says – unless it happens to agree with what they already think.  And I've lost track of how many professing Christians, when confronted with something in the Bible that they don't immediately understand or like, I've heard say something like, "Well, so what?  Don't you know that this is 2014?  That may be true for you, but my experience in life says different."  They – and sometimes we – judge the Bible in terms of how well it conforms to their own attitudes, their own personal opinions about God, their own cultural background or desires or ethical preferences or agendas borne from their own experiences.  Contrast this to the attitude of Charles Wesley, who reflected on Isaiah 8:20 in these lyrics (Poetical Works 9:380):
Doctrines, experiences to try,
We to the sacred standard fly,
Assured the Spirit of our Lord
Can never contradict His word:
Whate'er His Spirit speaks in me,
Must with the written word agree;
If not – I cast it all aside,
As Satan's voice, or nature's pride.
Charles Wesley was right to judge all things by the Scriptures – understood rightly and truly, of course.  Sadly, we are also often surrounded by groups and people who insist that the Bible must surely agree with their ideas, and so they – and sometimes we – go hunting around in the Bible for ways to support those ideas, and then ignore or twist the rest.  These groups – like Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance – often insist that they are being faithful to what the Bible means on its own terms.  They – and sometimes we – give great lipservice to the authority of the Bible, and if my friendship with a number of Jehovah's Witnesses has taught me anything, it's that they believe themselves to sincerely mean it.  But still the agenda is that of their pet theology, working through a smattering of out-of-context verses and a modern mindset, rather than the authentic 'agenda' of God as he inspired the biblical writers.

God calls us to reject both of these approaches, although even the most sincere and dedicated Christians often stumble into forms of both from time to time.  God calls us to first read the Bible responsibly – and then to take him at his word.  This means using our heads and our hearts, and learning what we can about the way the scriptures fit together and respond to their original settings and now, through that, ours; and it means reading the Bible together, bringing all our gifts and graces to the table.  John Wesley once wrote (Works [1812] 12:230, 233):
Beware of that daughter of pride, enthusiasm!  O keep at the utmost distance from it: give no place to a heated imagination.  Do not hastily ascribe things to God.  Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God.  They may be from him.  They may be from nature.  They may be from the devil.  Therefore "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God."  Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it.  You are in danger of enthusiasm every hour, if you depart ever so little from Scripture: yea, or the plain literal meaning of the text, taken in connexion with the context.  And so you are, if you despise or lightly esteem reason, knowledge, or human learning: every one of which is an excellent gift of God, and may serve the noblest purposes.  [...]  Beware of judging people right or wrong, by your own feelings.  This is no scriptural way of judging.  O keep close to the law and the testimony!
Amen and amen!  If I had to quibble with any of it, I'd clarify that 'literal' here should cover all the different ways the Bible communicates in styles of literature – some of which are relatively straightforward narrative, and some of which aren't.  But even Wesley is very clear: we must stick to the clear meaning of the text, as clarified and taken in connection with the context – the context of the passage, of the book, of the time and place and culture where it was written, and of the Bible as a whole.  And once we do that, and once we take into account how it might speak from that setting to our sometimes-the-same, sometimes-different world today, what is equally clear is this: we must "keep close" to it, we must test all things by it, we must rely on it as the word of our God, to be trusted faithfully and obeyed diligently, just as the Berean Jews did in Acts 17 in testing even a true apostle of Jesus Christ against it.

Rather than turn aside to other authorities, we do celebrate all truth that anyone can teach us – whether scientific, philosophical, religious, historical, ethical, cultural, or whatever – but we recognize it in the light of the Bible as properly understood in context by the living witness of the whole Christian church and through the devoted and heartfelt study that marks the discipline of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  This is the standard, and we are called to cling to it, unlike the sinful people of Zechariah 7 who stubbornly refused to heed the Law or the Prophets – both of which were given by God to instruct them – and to instruct us, alongside their fulfillment in the New Covenant scriptures.

As Isaiah 8 shows us, we aren't to run aside after mediums, psychics, fortune-tellers, horoscope-mongers, spiritualists, gurus, or any other false God-alternative; we are called to stick to God's word of instruction, God's commandments, God's design for human flourishing, and God's testimony to what he has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do in the whole Body united to their living Head by the bonds of the Spirit he has poured in our hearts.  Thanks be to God for entrusting his sacred word to his people, and for giving us the Spirit to enlighten our minds and hearts so that we can read it together and put these words into practice.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Treasure of the Church

Sermon on Proverbs 14:31; Mark 10:17-21; and 2 Corinthians 8:9-12.  Delivered 10 August 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  

It was the middle of the third century.  Those were the days of persecution under Valerian, the emperor of Rome.  The church in Rome, although they had accumulated some wealth, lived in fear – and with good reason.  When Valerian came to power in the year 253, the emperor Decius, who oversaw one of the most ruthless persecutions of Christians in all of history up until then, had been dead only two years.

This was a powerful age of Christian charity.  Church leaders could count on wealthy Christian families to work together where it was needed.  When people were taken captive in a massive raid, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, was able to put together a large amount of money – the equivalent of thousands of dollars – to ransom them back.  And in Rome alone, the church provided charity to over fifteen hundred people in poverty due to disabilities or illness.  Valerian's advisors convinced him that the church's wealth made it a powerful danger.  They thought that maybe the economy was so weak because Christians were hoarding all the money to themselves.  

So in the year 257, Valerian suddenly gave orders to the Senate that all Christian bishops, pastors, and deacons had only two options: to worship the Roman gods in addition to Jesus, or to be sent away into exile.  The orders also tried to ban Christians from meeting in their usual places.  Some Christian leaders suffered greatly, being whipped, chained, and forced to work long hours in the mines in bad conditions.  But still the Christians praised Jesus.  Still the Christians committed themselves to helping others.  Still the Christians prayed for the leaders who persecuted them.

A year later, in the summer of the year 258, Valerian gave a harsher set of orders.  Bishops, pastors, and deacons were to be immediately executed.  High-class Roman Christians would lose their rank and have all their wealth taken away – and if they continued to be loyal to Christ, they too would be put to death.  The emperor and his minions meant business.  In Rome, bishop Sixtus and some other church leaders were seized during a worship service and put to death on August 6, just over a month before Cyprian was beheaded in Carthage, with his only answer at trial being, "Thanks be to God!"

Before Sixtus died, he gave instructions to one of his surviving deacons, a man named Lawrence.  Lawrence, as the last living deacon, was a steward of the church.  He was the church treasurer, and his task was to ensure that the church funds were handled well and put to godly use.  He took every last bit of it and traveled through the city of Rome, finding the people who depended most on the church's charity.  And he gave them alms until nothing was left.

No more than a day after his mentor Sixtus had died, Lawrence received a visit from Rome's prefect, the city administrator.  This prefect demanded that Lawrence turn over everything valuable that the church had.  The prefect tried to manipulate Lawrence, pointing out that gold didn't bear the image of God and so wasn't essential to what Lawrence believed.  Lawrence assured the prefect that the church was far richer than he had ever imagined – even richer than the emperor himself.  All he asked was for three days to get everything in order.  And the greedy prefect, eagerly imagining a horde of loot, waited.

When the three days were up, Lawrence and the prefect walked together to the church building.  I imagine that the prefect's anticipation rose with every step - and dropped as soon as Lawrence gave the order for the doors to be opened and shouted, "Behold, the treasure of the church!"  There in the sanctuary stood the most vulnerable of the Roman poor.  The disabled, the blind, the deaf, the amputees, the lepers – all the people, over fifteen hundred of them, who had depended on the church to live, as the church lived out what Jesus taught.

"Look," said Lawrence, "here they are.  This is the treasure of the church."  This was a kingdom investment, worth far more than gold.  The prefect had been right: Gold coins bore the image of Caesar, not the image of God.  But the image of God is a far, far better treasure than the image of Caesar.  The truth of the gospel, made flesh in human lives, is vastly more valuable than the contents of any bank account.  As one Christian poet put it, "Indeed the gold that brighter shines / is light enlightening all mankind".  Any coins that Lawrence might have turned over would one day rust away or depreciate.  But these lives, these precious lives, had a significance that would outlive empires.  They were the real treasure.

The prefect was not amused, and Lawrence paid with his mortal life.  Today, I don't know that prefect's name.  But I do know the name of Lawrence, a martyr for Christ's poor.  I do know that the rightful treasure of the church cannot be measured by the digits behind a dollar sign, or by the beautiful stained glass in our windows, or by the furnishings of our buildings; but the treasure of the church can be measured by where our dollar signs go.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the beauty of the feet on the mountains of they who bring good news that our God reigns and the hands that bring healing to the broken.  The treasure of the church can be measured by the way we furnish our lives with love made real in action.

The prefect was wrong.  He cared about economic domination.  Lawrence had no interest in serving Mammon.  The church of Lawrence's time knew the best financial advice that John Wesley ever gave: "Having first gained all you can, and secondly saved all you can, then give all you can"!  That wasn't just Lawrence's personal philosophy.  It was the heart of the church.  The church didn't demonize money or the rich – so long as they stayed where they belong: in the service of God's will, in the service of "the least of these".

What and where is our treasure?  Is it in our wallets and in our houses and in our TVs and cars?  Or is it in food on the table of the hungry, and assurance in the hearts of those in debt, and open skies of freedom over the heads of prisoners?  Is our treasure stored in the bank, or the food bank?  I know that this church has its eye on its true treasure.  It's why we eagerly look for ways to serve our community.  It's why we take advantage of opportunities like Operation Christmas Child: to make a kingdom-investment in the happiness and education of children in need around the world.  Through giving, through prayer, through relationships, they become our treasure, and the poor right here in Salisbury Township also become our treasure.

Jesus Christ left heaven's treasury for our world of poverty.  Because we were "sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore", Jesus ready stood to save us, "full of pity, love and power".  He emptied himself, he humbled himself, he became poor to make us rich with the blessings of God.  This goes beyond the Ten Commandments.  Like Jesus told the rich young ruler, this gets to the heart of "Love the Lord thy God" – enough to take up a cross and follow him even into the jaws of death – and of "Love thy neighbor" – enough to give up everything, if Jesus asks, to serve the poor.  He may not ask us to give up everything, but I'm seldom surprised when he asks me to give up more than I'm comfortable with.  But we can trust Jesus when he assures us that, when we look back from a heavenly point-of-view on every loving act of surrender for the poor, it will be worth it.

The prefect couldn't see that.  His heart was too full of greed to catch a glimpse of the joy of the Lord.  And so he cursed Lawrence, whose heart was too full of joy to leave space for greed.  And through many agonies, handling each of them with grace, Lawrence, lover of the poor, passed into the joyous reward of the God who walked this earth as a poor, wayfaring stranger like us.  Lawrence traded time for eternity in the year 258, on the tenth day of August – 1756 years ago today.  Kingdoms have come and kingdoms have gone, but the kingdom of our God abides forever, served by a great cloud of witnesses – St. Lawrence included.  We share in his faith – the faith of our fathers.  Do we share in his heart?  We know what was the treasure of his church.  What is the treasure of this church?