Joy to the World: He Is Risen!

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
April 5, 2015 – Easter Sunday
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                 Joy to the World: He Is Risen!

Scripture Reading:  Mark 16:1-7

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

<<<Repeating last lines from Three Women at the Tomb Trialogue that takes place between the Scripture reading and the sermon…>>> “From death, we have life. From despair, we have hope. From the end, we have a future.” Amen.

Thirty or so of us gathered here on Good Friday evening, two days ago. The sun was setting, and in the darkened Sanctuary we heard, delivered by Bev Turner and Bill Otto, a dramatic reading of the story of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion from the Gospel of John. There are details in that story that surprised some of us—shocked some of us—and as we sat in darkness and listened, the horror of the scene became all too real to us. We were caught up in the dreadfulness of the story, and the title of my sermon expressed the question I think every one of us was asking in our hearts: “Why Do They Call It Good?” Then, as Brooks Myers sang in his deep, mellow voice “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” we stripped the altar and left it bare, as it was at the beginning of service today, with the cross draped in black and the crown of thorns hanging over it. It was a solemn service—and that was fitting—for a Good Friday that didn’t feel all that good.

We did find some hope in the story though—some “good” in Good Friday. There is good news in Jesus’ life. After all, he came into the world to show us the way to the heart of God. His message was always one of reconciliation, peace and love. Jesus spoke enough wisdom to challenge us, performed enough miracles to awe us, until the day we die. And even if the story had ended at the cross—even if Jesus had never risen from the grave—Jesus’ story still would have been “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Jesus came to share with us God’s radical love for all. Joy to the world!

But there is good news in his death, too. Jesus came to secure for us God’s radical forgiveness too. You see, ever since Moses brought God’s law to the people of Israel—long before Jesus was born—the people were required to make blood sacrifices to atone for their sins. Animals—doves, goats, rams—were brought to the Temple to be sacrificed as gifts to God. The animals were killed (as humanely as possible) and their carcasses were burned on the altar to pay the debt for the giver’s sins. The death of an innocent animal cleaned the slate for that person—for a while. But they had to keep coming back and bringing sacrifices for their forgiveness again and again and again. Then Jesus, an innocent man—a man who was also the son of God—came and died and cleaned the slate for all people, for all time. Joy to the world! No more animals needed to be sacrificed, ever again, because forgiveness is ours, forever! That is the good news of his death!

And then came Easter!

Now, I want us to think about something here. I want us to be like our angel Bill and leave no stone unturned! J When Jesus died, what were the last words he spoke? “It is finished.” When Jesus gave up his spirit, his work on earth—the redeeming work he had come to do—was finished. The debt was paid; the slate was clean, for all people, for all time. He died, and it was accomplished. No more was needed. The animals that had been sacrificed before Jesus came—were they required to rise again from the ashes in order to secure the giver’s forgiveness? No. So, neither would Jesus have been required—for the forgiveness of our sins—to rise from the grave. Really think about this: Would more be required of Jesus than had been required of the animals? It wouldn’t make sense.

But then why Easter? What more was accomplished by the resurrection? I like the Apostle Peter’s answer to this question: “Blessed be [God who] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead![1]

“A new birth into a living hope.” God didn’t just leave us forgiven; God offers us a new life! God resurrected Jesus so that we can have hope of change in this life! Jesus rose to a new life in the flesh so we could, too. Beyond forgiven, we could be changed! Jesus specifically named Peter, told the women to tell Peter to meet him in Galilee. Peter had denied Jesus, said he didn’t know him, not once, but three times. Peter gained his forgiveness when Jesus died, but he gained the chance at a new life when Jesus rose from the grave. Peter could change, and Jesus wanted to tell him that! Judas could have, too, if he hadn’t already taken his life into his own hands.

Jesus was doing a new thing here. In the Old Testament, God asks the people, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?” (The answer is, obviously not.) God continues, “Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”[2] In other words, you can’t change either, because you are accustomed to following your own way. In fact, I did a word search, and the only times I found the word “changed” in the Old Testament in reference to people were about changing clothes or wages or color or a name or a date or a law or one’s expression—or one’s mind or behavior in a negative way. God experiences a change of heart on several occasions and acts mercifully toward his rebellious people. But records in the Old Testament of people changing for the better? Sadly, few and far between. It’s no wonder we needed a savior—not only to save us from our sins, but to save us from our inability to move past them—our stuckness—amen?

What are you stuck in? I can tell you where I need to do some work. I could be a little less pessimistic, a little less serious at times. I could take things a little less personally. I could resist that feeling that wells up inside me when the driver ahead of me blocks both lanes so I can’t get into the turn lane until the light has already turned red again. Grrrr! I could make more time for my family and my friends. I could laugh more. Sometimes I get stuck.

I thank God that the resurrection is about getting unstuck. Without it, we would be stuck in our sin, in an endless cycle of repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness, for the same old things, over and over again. Granted, we thank God that forgiveness is available—but change is possible because of the resurrection. The message of the resurrection—the Easter message—is we have a new life in this life! We can change! People can change!

Yes, Mary Magdalene, you said it! “From death, we have life! From despair, we have hope! From the end, we have a future!”

And from our stuckness, we can change! Amen.

[1] 1 Peter 1:3.

[2] Jeremiah 13:23.

Why Do They Call It Good?

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
April 3, 2015 – Good Friday
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                  Why Do They Call It Good?

Scripture Reading:  The Passion Narrative in John 18:1-19:42

1 Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” 5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground.  7 Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” 8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” 9 This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” 10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” 12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.  14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. 15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “Are you not also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the officials had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. 19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the officials standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” 24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. 25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “Are you not also one of his disciples?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed. 28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” 32 (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) 33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. 39 But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 40 They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit. 19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. 4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” 8 Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 19 Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” 23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” 25 And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35 (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36 These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” 37 And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” 38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39 Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40 They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Indeed. Why do they call it good? Jesus, the hope of the Jewish people, the hope of humanity, has just been executed by government order and the will of the people. He has been laid to rest in a borrowed tomb, because he is too poor to have purchased one for himself. The Sabbath is approaching, so nothing more can be done regarding the Jewish mourning rituals for 24 hours. The men and women who love Jesus have no choice but to go to their homes and quietly wait, mourn, grieve the loss of hope.

So why do they call it good? Why is it not Sad Friday or Dark Friday or even Black Friday? The good that we see in it is in hindsight; it’s superimposed on the day, based on our knowledge that Easter is coming, but the day itself … well, the story we just heard does not make me want to smile.

What if the story had ended there? Indeed, there have been those throughout history who have contended that it did—those who argue that the resurrection was a hoax, just as the Romans predicted, and that Jesus never really saw the light of day again. If the story had ended there—and that’s all the disciples had to go on at that point—would any good have come out of the whole life and ministry of Jesus? Could it have been “good” Friday, even if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead?

Yes. It could have.

Jesus came, preaching a message of reconciliation—reconciliation with God and with every other human being on the planet. Jesus came, preaching a message of peace—peace with enemies, peace with nations, peace with the planet. Jesus came, preaching a message of love—love for God, for humankind, and for self. Jesus demonstrated these messages in every act—in every single thing he did. He healed people on the Sabbath because he knew God wanted them to be whole. He made friends with prostitutes, criminals and crooks because he knew God loved them too. He spent time with children because he knew that they are the future of the world. He turned water into wine at a wedding feast because he knew that God wants us to relax and enjoy the company of our friends and family members. And he prayed to his dear heavenly father because he knew that God wants, more than anything, to be in fellowship with humankind—himself included. That is why God sent him to us. That is the good news, and that is what makes Good Friday “good.” Amen?

If the story had ended with the tomb, we still could have started churches in his name. We still could be Christians. We still would never run out of things to preach about, things to celebrate, things to aspire to. Even if Jesus had not risen from the grave, this would still be “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” That may sound like heresy to some, but to me, it adds even more beauty to the entire story. It was already amazing enough as it was! This man Jesus—who was also the son of God—brought so much good into the world that if we listened, if we believed, if we acted on it, the world would already have been changed forever. I think sometimes we forget that the Gospels are filled with enough wisdom to challenge us, enough miracles to awe us, until the day we die. That puts the “good” back into Good Friday.

And there is “good” hidden in a lot of places in the story. Some of it is symbolism; some of it is fact. But all of it points to God’s longing to give us lives of reconciliation, peace and love.

For example, the crown of thorns[1] that Jesus wore is believed to have been made of hawthorn branches. Today, the extract of the hawthorn tree, commonly called Crown of Thorns extract, is sometimes used to treat problems with the cardiovascular and nervous systems. So, on many levels, Jesus bore the remedy for our troubled hearts, minds and bodies. That is good news.

Another example of good hidden in the passion narratives is this: On the cross, Jesus’ thirst was quenched with soured wine. The wine was mixed with gall (according to Matthew) and myrrh (according to Mark). Taken together, these two mixtures symbolize the bitterness—the gall—of life’s pain, and the sweet, soothing comfort—the myrrh—that God brings. That is good news.

Another example: The wine mixture was lifted to Jesus’ lips using a hyssop[2] branch. Why hyssop? Because hyssop is a symbol of cleansing. In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites marked their doorposts with lamb’s blood in order for the angel of death to pass over them, God instructed them to use a bunch of hyssop as a “paintbrush,” to signify that God was marking his people as pure and exempt from the punishment God was about to deal out to the Egyptians. David also mentions hyssop in Psalm 51:7, when he asks God to cleanse hum spiritually as he confesses his sin. He writes, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” And when Jesus drank the wine from the hyssop branch, it was, in fact, his last act before he declared his work on earth finished and gave up his spirit. What a beautiful picture of purification this is, as Jesus declares us cleansed, pure, forgiven. And that is good news.

Rev. Geoffrey Black, former General Minister of the United Church of Christ, reflects on the mystery of Holy Week this way: “Perhaps the holiness of this week is to be found in the slight glimmers of hope that break through from time to time as we read the Passion narrative. There is hope to be found in Jesus’ expectation that beyond his death, the Gospel would be proclaimed throughout the world. There is hope expressed in that meal of remembrance and in [Jesus’] expectation that he would indeed drink of the fruit of the vine anew in the Kingdom of God. Hope is evident in Jesus’ declaration that he would be raised from death and go before them to Galilee. … As present-day disciples of Jesus recalling the events of Holy Week, we confront the stark and terrifying realities of his suffering and death, … yet, it is important that we also catch the glimpses of hope laced through the story and hold on to them as a reminder that in the most dire of circumstances, it is in Jesus Christ we find our hope.”[3]

Why do they call it good? Because even if the story ended at the tomb—and thank God it didn’t—we would still have Jesus, the greatest reconciler, peacemaker and lover of all time. Because even if the story ended at the tomb—and thank God it didn’t—we could still be certain that Jesus heals the trouble of our hearts, the bitterness of our lives, and the guilt of our souls. Hope is laced through the story, and hope will carry us through to Easter Sunday. Amen.

[1] http://homeremedies4mom.com/crown-of-thorns-extract-heart-problems/

[2] http://www.gotquestions.org/hyssop-Bible.html#ixzz3W5PBFKE6

[3] The Holiness Found in Hope: A Meditation For Holy Week, March 31, 2015.

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
March 22, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                            The Ninth and Tenth Commandments

Scripture Reading:  Exodus 20:1-17 (excerpts)

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. … You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. … Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Today we complete our sermon series on the Ten Commandments. I’m covering two commandments today because when we had to cancel church because of snow on February 22, I lost one of the ten Sundays I had scheduled for this series. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and so it will be time to move from the Old Testament to the New. It will be time to move from the words of promise and covenant that we have found in these Ten Commandments to their realization and fulfillment in the new covenant. Next Sunday is time to celebrate the New Testament hope of Jesus, amen?

And now, to our series …

Today’s commandments—the ninth and tenth—are, in short, you shall not bear false witness and you shall not covet. But I’m going to turn these around and look at the tenth commandment before the ninth, because the tenth commandment is really where it all begins. “You shall not covet” is about our thought life—and we all know that everything we say and everything we do originates in what we think. This tenth commandment addresses that part of our being that has not yet reached expression. It is a thought, a feeling, an impulse, an idea, that we must decide what to do with. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that we’re talking about a negative thought. Now, we may decide to speak it—which takes us to our ninth commandment: bearing false witness or, more literally according to the Hebrew, speaking falsely, dealing fraudulently. Or we may decide to act on it—which takes us back to our eighth commandment (stealing) or our seventh (adultery or other forms of unfaithfulness) or our sixth (murder of body or spirit). Or we may decide to uproot that thought and not give heed to it at all, choosing to honor God and be obedient to his commands. From heart, to mouth, to hands—or not. The choice is really ours.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” And Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, quoted the Proverb and took it the next step: “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

And that takes us back to the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness.” I said a moment ago that this really means, according to the Hebrew, speaking falsely or dealing fraudulently. When Jesus listed the commandments to the rich young man, he said simply, “You shall not defraud.” But some (and I think we can blame the King James Version for this) interpret it as “you shall not lie,” and so they insist on indiscriminately telling every “truth,” regardless of how brutal, regardless of how it may affect the spirit of the hearer. But it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks, isn’t it, and what does brutal truth-telling reveal about a heart?

You know that I’ve been using Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s book on the Ten Commandments as a resource for this sermon series. Dr. Laura has something to say about this. She writes, “Often, when a caller to my radio program wants to reveal a truth because, [the caller] protests, “Honesty is the best policy,” I challenge the caller with, “Oh yeah? All honesty is worth speaking. Okay, you’re ugly and you’re stupid and people hate you.” This is usually met with immediate, profound silence. [And then I ask them,] “Do you still think all honesty is best spoken?”

Sometimes, honesty kills. Sometimes, in light of compassion, goodness and sociability, we must “alter the truth” a bit. <<Look at Nathan.>> Honey, does this robe make me look fat? Well, of course it does. It must add 50 pounds. You can’t tell how big I am when I have this thing on! But you wouldn’t tell me that! Because you’re kind and compassionate. And using the truth in that way—to break my spirit—would be, in a sense, bearing false witness against me.

Dr. Laura says, “Lying is a very serious matter that can undermine our personal, marital, and social relationships. Telling the whole truth can sometimes do the same thing. We should assume that all forms of lying are forbidden, unless it is to save a life, foster justice, or demonstrate profound compassion and goodness.”

As Christians, we need to pay attention to how we use the truth. Is it to build up? Or is it to tear down? When we pray, “Change my heart, oh God.[1] Make it ever true. Change my heart, oh God. May I be like you,” do we remember that to be like God is to desire the very best for every single member of the human race? Every time we speak, we must ask ourselves, “Do my words bring life or destroy it?”

My pastor in Longmont used to begin every sermon by reciting Psalm 19:14: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” What a wonderfully humble way to make sure she didn’t get in the way of what God wanted to do in that moment. And I truly believe that is the longing of each one of our hearts—to be in the center of God’s will, doing, saying, thinking that which will bring glory to God.

And back to the big picture—the “moral of the whole story.” Bringing glory to God is why God gave us the Ten Commandments. When the people of Israel first received them, they lived among foreigners. They had just been delivered from slavery in Egypt and had made their way into the land God had promised to give them. But there were still inhabitants of that land, and those inhabitants worshiped other gods—foreign gods, mysterious gods who, because they were not God, did not speak to their followers. To the people of those lands, worshiping a god meant trying to guess what would please that god, and trying to do everything in such a time and manner as to not anger that god and have to suffer the consequences. It was a guessing game, and fraught with assumption and superstition.

And then along came the people of Israel—worshipers of Yahweh, Jehovah, the great I Am—and this God says, “I don’t want to keep you in suspense. I am going to enter into covenant with you by telling you what will please me. I am going to write it down for you, with my very finger, on tablets of stone, so you will never forget what it means to be in relationship with me.” This was such a game-changer! Such a radical, unheard-of thing for a God to do! And the awe and respect for this God of Israel spread throughout the surrounding nations, because this God actually spoke to his people! That is what I hope we will get, more than anything, from this series. God goes out of his way to communicate with us—to be in relationship with us! These commandments are not a burdensome set of rules and regulations laid upon us by a fear-mongering god; they are covenant, they are freedom; they are peace. And if we follow them, they help us live in peace—with God and with our fellow humans. I was telling a friend about this approach to the Ten Commandments, and she said, “I’ve never thought about them as making my life easier; I’ve always thought of them as being a legalistic set of rules that are impossible to live under. And because we can’t obey them, we still needed a savior, so God sent Jesus.” And she’s right, too. I think it’s both/and. After all, Jesus came to bring salvation, but he also said he didn’t come to abolish the law; he came to fulfill it. And as much as we cherish our “freedom in Christ,” we must remember that Jesus still wants us to honor God’s commands. Recall his words to his followers, in the Sermon on the Mount:

You are the light of the world. … Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The Ten Commandments are not obsolete, a thing of the past, for the Jews but not for us. They are the basis on which an ordered society—a godly society—lives, and they are a gift from God. Jesus affirmed that. So, let us, as Jesus said, do them and teach them, so that through our faith and obedience, we may bring glory to our faithful, loving God!

Amen.

[1] Eddie Espinosa. Maranatha Music Praise: Hymns and Choruses.

Honesty 101

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
March 15, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                Honesty 101

Scripture Reading:  Exodus 20:1-14 (excerpts)

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. … You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. … Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. … ”

This is the eighth sermon in our series on the Ten Commandments: “You shall not steal.” The story is told of a young boy who went to the farmer’s market with his parents one day, and he stood for a long, long time at one merchant’s booth, standing very close, gazing on the display of shiny red apples. The merchant approached the boy and asked, “Young man, are you trying to steal one of my apples?” And the boy responded, “No, sir. I’m trying not to.” — You shall not steal. It’s Honesty 101.

To explore this commandment, I’m going to weave together three stories from the New Testament—one is a parable Jesus told (the parable of the Good Samaritan), and two are stories about encounters Jesus had with people. I’ll also be borrowing a bit from the work of Rev. Dan Jackson, a pastor whose work I follow online. Give credit where credit is due, for “you shall not steal,” right? J

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan, in the tenth chapter of Luke? Jesus told the story like this: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half-dead.” Rev. Jackson says the robbers’ attitude was, “What’s yours is mine; I’ll take it.” We steal when we take, and yes, taking what’s not ours is what comes to mind first when we think about the eighth commandment. Like the little boy, trying so hard not to steal the apple… “What’s yours is mine; I’ll take it.”

Martin Luther—the 16th-century reformer of the church—had much to say about this. Keep in mind that Luther was not known for great diplomacy or charm in his writings, and this is what he wrote about stealing: “Now, [stealing] is indeed quite a wide-spread and common vice, but so little regarded and observed that it exceeds all measure, so that if all who are thieves, and yet do not wish to be called such, were to be hanged on gallows, the world would soon be devastated and there would be a lack both of executioners and gallows.”[1] Okay, Marty, I think we get your point! We are all guilty of taking what’s not ours. But that’s only half of it …

A second attitude that’s relevant to this commandment is, “What’s mine is mine, and I’ll keep it.” We steal by keeping what we should give (or give up). Jesus continued his parable with this: “A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite: when he came to the place and saw him, he passed by on the other side.” Yes, we can steal by doing nothing—by holding onto what we should be giving away.

The most obvious example is this: The Bible allows for the ownership of private property, but in this country at least, we have taken that right to a new, almost obscene, level. Most Americans have a serious case of TMJ (Too Much Junk), and it weighs us down. We own so much “stuff” that we can’t fit it into our houses, so we fill our garages and park our cars outside. Then we can’t fit it all into our garages, so we rent storage units and fill them too! Property rights, on steroids. Yesterday, those of us who participated in the doorknob-hanger outreach event stopped in at Cindy Halsey’s house afterward, and we were all impressed at how (as you might expect if you know her at all) organized her garage is. She said, “Yeah, I don’t do well with clutter.” Preach it, sister! Neither do I! And I drove immediately to the Arc Thrift Store to donate a load of junk that had been cluttering up my back seat! (I blessed them with my junk! J )

A rich young man once asked Jesus how to get to heaven. Jesus knew the man couldn’t part with his “stuff.” This is our second story, and it’s in Mark 10. I’ll read it to you.

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’” [The man] said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.[2]

The rich man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” … Property rights, to a fault. He had the right to own many things. And he had probably worked very hard to earn them. But when it came right down to it, he said, “What’s mine is mine!” And Jesus said, “It sure is, but if you’re not careful, pretty soon it will own you! And, eventually, it will destroy you.”

Like it almost did to Zacchaeus. Here’s our third story. Do you remember the New Testament story of old Zacchaeus? He was a tax collector—one of the most corrupt lines of work in ancient Israel. It was like being a member of the mafia—extortion, bribery, playing his Jewish clients against his Roman overseers, and always able to put a little of the excess in his own pocket. That’s what made it so attractive to those who had failed God’s course in Honesty 101: it was easy money.

Zacchaeus heard there was a new preacher in town. He heard about a scruffy Galilean who taught his students not to worry about what they would eat or drink or wear—for God would surely provide for them as he did the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Zacchaeus was not a tall man, and that’s why he climbed up in the sycamore tree when Jesus was coming by—so he could get a good look at this new prophet, find out if he was the real deal.

Jesus saw little old Zack up in the tree and must have sensed that he was ready to have a change of heart, because Jesus went right over to that tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down from there, because I’m coming to your house today.”

Zacchaeus did have a change of heart! He immediately jumped down to the ground, and nobody had to tell him what to do. He already knew. He said, “You know what? I’m going to give half of everything I own to the poor, and everyone I’ve cheated, I’m going to repay fourfold”fourfold, when what was required by Jewish law was just twofold!

What a great formula! What if we all lived like that? Do someone wrong, pay them back fourfold. Of everything else we own, give half to the poor. If we all lived like that, I wonder how long we would still have poor among us… I think, in a deeper sense, we would all be a lot “richer.” Amen?

Zacchaeus, in the end, had the same attitude as the Good Samaritan, the protagonist of Jesus’ parable (going back to that first story in our weaving). Remember the victim—the man the robbers robbed and the priest and Levite avoided? That man, in the story, is still lying on the side of the road when Jesus concludes his parable like this: “A Samaritan, as he traveled, came to where the man was; and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ This attitude, Jackson says, is, “What’s mine is yours; let’s share it.” It’s the same attitude Zacchaeus had, after his “conversion.” It’s the attitude Jesus is looking for. Or, even better, “What I have is God’s; let’s share it.”

For while the Bible allows for the ownership of private property, it recognizes too that whatever we possess, we hold in trust for God. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” All that you own—all that you are—is from God. God has made you a manager, a steward, a caretaker of God’s gifts—both tangible and intangible.

In my research for this sermon, I stumbled upon the section in the Catholic Catechism about this commandment.[3] This document leaves absolutely no doubt about what it means to steal, and it goes way beyond how we regard physical property. Theft, according to the Catholic Catechism, includes not returning something you’ve borrowed, not paying a fair wage, not providing for the poor, price-fixing, insider trading, pilfering, work poorly done, tax evasion, forgery, excessive expense, waste of resources, violating a contract, lack of respect for creation, cruelty to animals, laziness, discrimination, personal and national greed … and on and on and on until it covers almost every area of life and could almost be the only commandment on the second tablet—the entire moral code written into one commandment.

The Catholics are right about this one—sorry, Martin Luther; that’s just how it is. It is about so much more than money. Because …

   Just as outright thievery is the act of stealing someone else’s physical property,

Cheating is an attempt to steal someone else’s initiative.

Oppression is an attempt to steal someone else’s dignity.

Plagiarism is an attempt to steal someone else’s genius.

Ridicule is an attempt to steal someone else’s confidence.

Gossip is an attempt to steal someone else’s reputation.

Blame-shifting is an attempt to steal someone else’s credibility.

Yes, we are all thieves. We are all guilty. We all need God’s mercy, God’s second chance. How many are familiar of the story of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables? Jean Valjean has been released from a 19-year prison sentence for stealing. He seeks shelter with a bishop who takes him in for the night. During the night, he steals the bishop’s silverware, and the next day, he is caught and brought back to the bishop. And that kind and godly bishop, who represents Christ on multiple levels, says to Jean’s accusers, “No, he didn’t steal the silver. It was a gift. What I am wondering, my dear friend, is why you did not also take the candlesticks I gave you. Here—your candlesticks. Now go, and become an honest person.”

We are all thieves. But here are your candlesticks. <<Point to cross.>> Honesty 101. By the grace of God, you just passed the course, with flying colors. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Luther’s Large Catechism, accessed at http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/catechism/web/cat-07.html

[2] Verses 17-22.

[3] By their numbering, “you shall not steal” is the Seventh Commandment.

Covenant Partners

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
March 8, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                             Covenant Partners

Scripture Reading:  Exodus 20:1-14 (excerpts)

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. … You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. … Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. … ”

I haven’t preached a sermon in a while. After I preached on the sixth commandment—“You shall not kill”—we were snowed out and had to cancel church, and then last Sunday we were blessed by the ministry of the young people of this congregation as they led us in worship and even preached the sermon. Kelly and David, I still remember the many ways in which you exhorted us to love, for, as you said, “Love Is Universal.”

And if indeed love is universal (and it is), then that would be the best way to sum up the entire message of the Ten Commandments. “Love.” Jesus compressed the ten into two primary commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”; and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And today we continue on our journey through the “love your neighbor as yourself” portion of the commandments—those last six commandments known as the moral code—to the seventh commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.”

Adultery, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “consensual [intimate relations] between a married person and a person other than the spouse.” That is the literal, on-the-surface definition, but this commandment goes so much deeper, into themes of covenant and promise-keeping; it becomes a metaphor for our relationship with God. We are covenant partners with a spouse in the same way we are covenant partners with God. The seventh commandment goes so far beyond that three-letter “s” word.

But I must digress here, because that reminds me of an Ole and Lena joke I heard a long time ago. Please bear with me… It was Ole and Lena’s wedding night, and they were driving to their honeymoon destination in Minnesota. Ole was feeling a little frisky, so he reached over and put his hand on Lena’s knee. Lena just giggled and said, “Ole, you can go farther if you want.” So Ole said, “Oh, okay,” and he drove all the way to Duluth. (Sorry about that!)

Covenant partners … There is a tragic but beautiful story hidden in the Old Testament book of Hosea. It is seldom used to interpret the seventh commandment, but I think the connection is clear. Around 700 years before Jesus was born, back in the days when Israel and Judah were ruled by kings and prompted by the wisdom of the prophets, back in the days when Israel had forgotten about being a covenant partner with God, one of those prophets, a man named Hosea, heard the voice of God. God told Hosea to find and take as his wife a woman who was a prostitute.

Hosea followed God’s command: he married a woman named Gomer—a woman who was scorned for her illicit behavior—and during their marriage, she bore three children. The Bible implies that Hosea was the father of the first child; of the other two, he probably was not, for Gomer had been unfaithful to him. Broken-hearted, and now fully living a life that was a metaphor for the way the people of Israel had been unfaithful to God by worshipping other gods, Hosea divorced Gomer. But just as God would not give up on the people of Israel, God would not let Hosea give up on Gomer. God told Hosea to go to Gomer, to plead with her. God said to Hosea, “The way you feel about Gomer is exactly the way I feel about my people. Beg her to put an end to this behavior! Tell her to be faithful to you, because you love her! She doesn’t know that it was you who protected her, provided for her, covered her, in spite of her unfaithfulness! She thought it was her false lovers, but it was you! Go to her and beg her to honor the covenant she has with you!”

So Hosea—whose name means salvation: the same name in Hebrew as Joshua, Yeshua, and Jesus—went to Gomer to make his plea, the plea of a betrayed lover; the impassioned plea also of a heartbroken God forsaken by his people: “If you come back to me, I will restore things to you as they were when you were young. I will make a new covenant with you; I will protect you. I will take you back, as my spouse, forever—in righteousness, in justice, in steadfast love, in mercy, in renewed faithfulness; and you will know me once again as your beloved spouse.”

And Hosea, the betrayed husband who had divorced his unfaithful wife, went, contrary to all common sense and practice, and bought her back—paid money to redeem her from the consequences of her sins—money, grain and wine—and once again made her his wife.

And ten chapters later, in the last chapter of the book of Hosea, are the most beautiful words of healing and restoration in the entire Bible—It’s God, speaking of the people of Israel: “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. … They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.” A heartbroken God pays the price to bring his people back into covenant with him.

This, I believe, is why it grieves the heart of God when spouses who have joined themselves to one another in the holy covenant of marriage violate that covenant and give their affection to someone else. We can find a lot of verses in the Bible—a lot of Old Testament laws and a lot of New Testament commentary on those laws—that define the covenant limitations on human intimacy and the consequences for stepping over the line. And that’s not because God is standing over us, ready to crack the whip if we disobey; it’s because God, having been in the role of the spurned lover, knows how that rejection feels and does not want any of us to have to hurt like that. Marriage, the most intimate of human relationships, is the best metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s people. We enter into the covenant of marriage by choice, just as we enter into relationship with God. Covenant partners, mutually sharing the most intimate parts of our lives.

God said it—and Jesus expounded on it—“You shall not commit adultery.” Because it breaks God’s heart. But back to our original question: What, exactly, constitutes adultery? Sadly, 15 years ago, a President of the United States gave this country a lot to talk about regarding that question. “I did not have … relations with that woman.” What actions must be present for a relationship to be considered adulterous? … What does it take to break your heart? One writer’s view sums it up pretty well for me: I should not conduct myself with another person in any way that I would not be comfortable having my spouse conduct himself (or herself) with someone else. In the words of Dr. Laura Schlessinger, “My bottom line is this: when you love someone, you do not behave in ways that bring pain, fear, doubt, or insecurity to their lives, minds, and hearts.” [1] You know, come to think of it, that sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, doesn’t it? Jesus said, in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But why is it that sometimes it’s easier to behave in hurtful ways to those who are closest to us?

Yes, we can find a lot of verses in the Bible that talk about adultery. If I tried to address each one of them, balancing one off the other and examining each one in its historical and cultural context, and explaining how each one was a commentary on the previous one, we would be here all day. Adultery, divorce, remarriage—these are issues that have been steeped with controversy and pain throughout the history of the church. These are issues about which, at times, the church has been more of an agent of injury than an agent of healing. If we took a literal reading of some scriptures, Nathan and I (both previously divorced) would be considered by some in the church to be adulterers right now. I do not see it that way. The story of Hosea and Gomer is proof enough to me of God’s persistent love and “irrational” mercy toward each of his children. God, as I often say, is a God of second chances. The God of universal love knows that we don’t always get it right and does not give up on us. God, the renewer of covenant, always seeks us out and calls us home.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

[1] Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her book The Ten Commandments, page 232.

Ashes to Ashes; Stardust to Stardust

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
February 18, 2015 – Ash Wednesday
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

Ashes to Ashes; Stardust to Stardust

Genesis 1:1-4,14-16,18; 2:7; 3:17,19 NRSV

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. … And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years” … And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. …. And God saw that it was good. … Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. … And to the man God said, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Isaiah 58:6-12

This is the sort of fast that pleases me: Remove the chains of injustice! Undo the ropes of the yoke! Let those who are oppressed go free, and break every yoke you encounter! Share your bread with those who are hungry, and shelter homeless poor people! Clothe those who are naked, and don’t hide from the needs of your own flesh and blood! Do this, and your light will shine like the dawn and your healing will break forth like lightning! Your integrity will go before you, and the glory of Yahweh will be your rearguard. Cry, and the Yahweh will answer; call, and God will say, “I am here—provided you remove from your midst all oppression, finger pointing, and malicious talk! If you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows will become like noon. Yahweh will always guide you, giving relief in desert places. God will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. You will rebuild the ancient ruins, and build upon age­?old foundations. You will be called the Repairer of Broken Walls and Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods.”

Additional reading: A Cosmological Creation Story: “The Star Within”

by Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith

https://pastordawn.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/ash-wed-readings.pdf

Are we dust, or are we stardust? That’s the question I posed on the bulletin insert promoting this service. Of course, the Bible says we came from dust—“the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground”—as Jason read a few minutes ago. And if we are but dust, should we not be humble? Should we not grovel? Should we not crawl to God, begging for forgiveness we don’t deserve? That’s the attitude that has prevailed on Ash Wednesday for 900 years as Christians receive, on the first day of Lent, ashes in the sign of the cross on their foreheads as a reminder, at least for one day, to be humble. “Remember, oh man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

When I was in seminary (a non-UCC seminary, by the way), there was a particular, morbid piety surrounding Ash Wednesday. It was based on this same theological view that humans really are no better than the dust of the earth—that even though God has redeemed us through our beautiful Lord Jesus Christ, it is good for us to remember our foul human nature by receiving the ashes on our foreheads. Everyone—students, faculty, staff—received their ashes at morning chapel and wore them proudly—smudgy, dirty, itchy badges of dishonor—until they went to bed that night or, for some, woke up the next morning. If you missed chapel and did not bear the mark of ash, you were looked upon as heathen, unpracticing, impious. That’s when I developed my deep aversion to the ritual of the imposition of ashes. Life already beats us down enough; do we really need more reminders of how hopeless things can seem? If we are dust (even redeemed dust), how lofty can our hopes really be? How much change can we hope to make?

But are we dust, or are we stardust? If the account Clarke read to us a few minutes ago has any credibility to it—if all of the chemical elements required to create human life came to the earth from the interstellar dust of generations of ancestral stars, and if by some miracle of God, those atoms, in their cosmic dance, developed into the living cells of carbon-based life which then, by some miracle of God, advanced into plant life, animal life, human life—then what does that say about us? We are stardust! We are light, created by the same God who created the first light: the sun, the moon, and the stars!

If we are stardust, how lofty can our hopes be? If we are stardust, then we are made of the very elements that illuminate the world! If we are stardust, then we are transformed by God’s creative energy into an existence that conducts God’s good news into the rest of the world.

If we are stardust, how much change can we hope to make? How does “Repairer of Broken Walls and Restorer of Ruined Neighborhoods” sound to you? How about “Rebuilder of Ancient Ruins and Builder upon Age­-Old Foundations”? That’s what kind of change God says we can make.

Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is traditionally a day of fasting—the day we declare what we plan to give up for the season of Lent. Just like the pious people at my seminary who wore their ashes with pride, people of faith have often taken the same approach to fasting, making sure everyone knew how much they were “suffering.” In our Isaiah passage, God says that’s not the kind of fast he’s looking for. God says this is the kind of fast that will really make a difference in this world: Fast from injustice! Fast from oppression! Fast from greed by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked! Help the afflicted fast from their affliction!

God says if we undertake this kind of fast—if we act like stardust—our light will shine like the dawn and our healing will break forth like lightning! Our light will rise in darkness, and it will shine so brightly there will be no shadows!

Are we dust, or are we stardust? It only matters if seeing it one way over the other will help you rise to the level of stardom God has called you to. The whole season of Lent is our celebration of what God has done to help us rise to that level of stardom—sending our beautiful Lord Jesus to earth so we could be free of guilt, free of aimlessness, free of sin, free to partner with God in the continuing creation of this beautiful world that he created … from stardust.  Amen.

You Shall Not Murder

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
February 15, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                       You Shall Not Murder

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:13

“You shall not murder.”

I know, it’s almost comical, using this short four-word verse as our entire scripture reading—especially since the readings for the last several weeks have taken almost an entire page! But I did that on purpose, because in its unembellished brevity, this verse says at least as much as all the others.

At first glance though, this sixth commandment—the second in the moral code, the group of commandments that tells us how to relate to our fellow humans—probably seems less relevant to us, in day-to-day life, than all the rest. For I would guess that few (if any) of us here have ever seriously considered committing murder.

And that’s good, because human life—human lifeblood—is so precious to God! We were created in God’s own image, with God’s own breath blown into our nostrils. We are set above all other creatures to care for them, for our fellow humans, for ourselves, and for this planet we all call home. Our loving Creator set this whole system in motion with the best of intentions for all of it, and then put the humans in charge. What an awesome and wonderful responsibility and privilege that is! The writer of Psalm 8 was filled with wonder at this too, writing in praise to God:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

 What are human beings that you are mindful of them, [what are] mortals that you care for them?

 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,

 All sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

 The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth![1]

God created all of this and then set us in charge of it, to care for it, to nurture it. And we don’t even get four chapters into the Bible when one human violates this sacred trust by taking the life of another human. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy, and God asked him, with a broken heart, “Where is your brother Abel?”—just like God asked Adam, with a broken heart, exactly one chapter earlier, when Adam tried to hide his guilt: “Adam, where are you?” Like parent, like child, and God was grieved. God had such high hopes for his species, and now, twice already, they had gone their own way. This time, though, blood had been shed—innocent blood. God’s precious gift of life had been stolen and could not be returned. “Oh, Cain! Where is your brother? For his innocent blood is crying out to me from the ground!” …

I wonder if it had occurred to God before that moment that humans could be capable of such evil. Certainly their treachery in the garden had been a clue. But this was so awful, so horrible, so permanent—and such a far cry from the wonderful destiny God had planned for these human creatures he had set in sovereignty over the rest of this beautiful planet. They had been created to nurture; how could they murder?

Let us go back to our sixth commandment for a moment, because we need to get at the difference between “murder” and “kill,” and how that difference affects our understanding of the commandment. Almost every version of the Bible translates the Hebrew word ratzach as “murder”—not “kill”—and murder is the more accurate translation. The one notable version that renders is “kill” is the King James Version, and that’s the one most of us grew up with, so that’s the one that sticks in our minds, isn’t it? Actually though, there are several other Hebrew words that mean “kill,” but this one, ratzach, means “to shed innocent blood, to wrongfully take a life, to murder.”

So this commandment is about murder, which leaves the door open, just a crack, for certain other kinds of life-taking. Genesis 9:6 gives us the very first example: capital punishment. In that scripture, God says, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in [my] own image [I] made humankind.” Other examples in scripture show that God also allows for killing when necessary to defend the life of oneself or another human—in immediate attack or in the case of a just war. But the shedding of any blood grieves deeply the heart of God, because we are all created in the image of God—even those who are not faithful to God.

For example, according to one Jewish tradition, after the Israelites had passed safely through the Red Sea and water crashed down upon the Egyptian army, annihilating every last soldier, the angels began to sing the praises of God. But, according to this tradition, God silenced them, saying, “My creatures are drowning, and you are praising me?!?”[2]

God cherishes life in all its forms. Murder is the senseless stealing of a life, and we are commanded not to steal a life. This statement alone deserves more interpretation, a little broader application. Are we not stealing our own lives when we pollute our bodies with food, drink, chemicals and sedentary lifestyles that threaten our ability to live the full and fruitful lives God intends for each one of us? Are we not stealing the life of the very planet that sustains us when we fail to protect her fragile environment and take steps to restore the damage we’ve done through our careless use of her natural resources? And in those same acts, are we not stealing the very life and future of every creature God has called us to protect?

God cherishes life in all its forms, and humans are more than just physical beings. We are spiritual. We are emotional. We are intellectual. We are relational. We are social. And it is possible to “murder” humans in any of those ways as well. The earth’s environment is fragile—no reasonable person will deny that—but the human’s internal environment is just as fragile. When I gossip about you, engage in character assassination, publicly embarrass or humiliate you, refuse to validate your thoughts and your feelings, withhold forgiveness from you, I am murdering you emotionally and possibly even spiritually.

Jesus had something to say about the sixth commandment, and it’s recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:21-24. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘Whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. … So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Jesus is saying that it is just as possible to steal the life of a brother or a sister (emotionally, spiritually) with our anger or our words as it is with a knife or a rock (or, in today’s weaponry, a gun). And that our relationships with our brothers and sisters are just as high a priority to God as our very acts of worship.

God gave me a unique opportunity recently to be on the receiving end of how this feels. Now, let me preface my story by saying that the people in this story are the sweetest people in the world and would not hurt anyone if you paid them to; this story is just a reflection of what my state of mind was at the time, and something I believe God wanted me to experience firsthand.

Some friends of ours were planning a housewarming party. I was asked by a family member to help plan the party, but every time I offered to do something, I was told, very innocently and unintentionally, “No, that’s already been taken care of”; or “No, we don’t need that”; or “No, we’ve already got that”; or “No, we know you’re busy, so you don’t need to come early and help set up.” … I ended up getting really, genuinely hurt and offended! I overreacted. I took it personally. I had a bit of an emotional meltdown—yes, me!—and when someone finally did ask me, a few minutes before the party, to do some small task, I said curtly, “No, I don’t think so.” I couldn’t believe I said that! Where had that come from? And who was I in all of this? Suddenly I realized that that is exactly how people who come to church feel when they offer to help but we say we don’t “need” them. They have put themselves out on a limb, and by saying “No, we don’t need your help,” we are emotionally and spiritually stealing their life. It’s a small facet of church life—such a “little” thing, but I will never forget how demeaning that felt.

In the case of my friends, all’s well that ends well. Mutual apologies and forgiveness led us back to a healthy place in our relationship. But in church and in families, all doesn’t always end well. Sometimes accepting God’s forgiveness is the easy part. Sometimes finding our way with the other people God has forgiven is the challenging part. God, help us to leave anger and insults at the altar so that we do not hurt the precious people you bring through our church doors. Help us to receive every gift, every offer to help, with gratitude. Help us to be the balm in Gilead that does not inflict wounds but makes the wounded whole. Amen.

[1] Psalm 8:3-9.

[2] Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her book The Ten Commandments, page 183.

Father/Mother/God

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
February 8, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                              Father/Mother/God

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:1-11

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, in her book The Ten Commandments, tells the story of “a rabbi [who was] sitting next to an atheist on an airplane. Every few minutes, one of the rabbi’s children or grandchildren would [turn and] inquire about his needs for food, drink or comfort. The atheist commented, ‘The respect your children and grandchildren show you is wonderful. Mine don’t show me that respect.’ The rabbi responded, ‘Think about it. To my children and grandchildren, I am one step closer in a chain of tradition to the time when God spoke to the whole Jewish people on Mount Sinai. To your children and grandchildren, you are one step closer to being an ape.’” J

Ah, yes. “Honor your father and your mother.”

This is already the fifth Sunday in our series on the Ten Commandments. We’ve considered the first four commandments so far—“You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol” and “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” and “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Those are the commandments that address our relationship with God. They describe our part in that sacred romance that God longs to have with each one of us. The others tell us how to relate to humankind.

Today’s commandment, the fifth commandment, is often considered something of a bridge between the first four and the last five. It holds space between the commandments that direct our divine relationship and the ones that direct our earthly ones, just as our own earthly parents are in the unique situation of holding space between our heavenly parent and us.

I want to draw a connection to my sermon title here …

You may have noticed that a moment ago I said “heavenly parent” and not just “heavenly father.” You may have also noticed that in our Call to Worship, the first person of the Trinity was referred to as “Abba, Father, Mother, Creator.” You will undoubtedly notice that in our Hymn of Response, God is referred to not only as “warm father God” but also as “strong mother God.” And, if you’re very familiar with scripture, you may also know that several Old Testament passages describe God in feminine terms. Genesis 1:27 says God created humankind in God’s own image, both male and female. And God says to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 32:18, “You forgot the God who gave you birth” [literally, “who bore you in childbirth”]; and in Isaiah 42:14, “For a long time I have kept silent … but now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant”; and in Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Consider also Hosea 11:3-4, Hosea 13:8, Deuteronomy 32:11-12, and Isaiah 49:15, where God is described as a mother bear, a mother lion, a mother eagle, a nursing human mother!

It took a while to get used to this, but I have come to love it, because when we acknowledge both the masculine and the feminine attributes—both the paternal and the maternal traits—of God, we experience a more well-rounded, more complete persona of God. God is now nurturing, protecting, comforting—the true mother image—as well as exhibiting those traits we traditionally assign to a father. And, let’s face it: there are some people—even some here, among us, today—whose relationship with their human father is or was less than ideal. Painful, even.  Maybe it’s you. And if we can all embrace (in solidarity with you) an image of God that includes the feminine, then for all of us the concept of “Honor your [heavenly] father and mother” will take on a deeper, more accessible meaning. It will bridge the gap between what you have experienced and what God intended for you. It will create for you something that is worthy of being lifted up and celebrated. It will create something worthy of being honored.

But really—what does it mean to “honor” someone? It’s interesting that, while we are told, in scripture, to love God and love neighbor, we are not told to love our parents. We are told to honor them. Why? Because honoring is the visible side of love. I can love my country, and that can fill my heart, but I honor it when I salute the flag, vote, or sign up for military service. I can love the earth with all my spirit, but I honor it when I make choices to recycle, use less of its natural resources, leave a smaller carbon footprint.

When we honor our parents—when we publicly, visibly, intentionally honor them, even if we don’t always feel they deserve it—we honor God. Your parents—whether they’re biological, step, adoptive, surrogate, foster, grand, in-law or some other combination thereof—aren’t perfect. (I don’t have to tell you that.) My parents aren’t perfect. As a parent, I am not perfect. As a parent, neither are you. (I don’t have to tell you that either.) But earthly parents, though flawed, though very much in need of being forgiven by their children, are the human counterparts of our perfect heavenly parent, and God says that is to be honored.

Even Jesus, dying on the cross, honored Mary, his earthly mother, and made sure she would be provided for after his death. John 19:26-27 says Jesus saw his mother standing at the foot of the cross with his “beloved disciple” John, and said to her (indicating John), “Woman, here is your son.” He said to John, “Here is your mother,” and John honored that request by immediately taking her into his own home and providing for her as if she were his own mother.

Honor your father and mother. But some are not so honorable. Does that mean God calls us to blind compliance, blind obedience? No. Here’s how one pastor[1] explains it: “If my parents abandon me, I will honor them by seeking, though not forcing, reconciliation. If my parents abuse me, I will honor them by praying for them, so that they might see their error—and by escaping, if possible, so that they cannot continue to sin upon me. … If they are breaking the law, and refuse to heed my warnings, I will honor them by calling the police. Making them accountable to the highest moral order is honoring them in that I esteem them capable of responsible action.”

Those are rare cases, though—thank God! Most parents are honorable. What most parents desire, especially later in life, is contact: family relationships. And we dishonor them by denying them that. Most parents want us to ask them for help when we need it and it’s something they can help with. They want us to honor their wisdom. They want us to ask their advice. My mom posted on Facebook recently a cartoon drawing of an aging couple, and the caption said, “Parents are not around forever. Call them, visit them. Take their grandchildren to see them. Laugh with them, hug them. Let them speak and tell you the same old stories over and over again. Take them their favorite foods and sweets. Treat them with respect, patience, and plenty of love. Tomorrow might be too late!” Of course I shared that post to my own Facebook wall—and then, of course, I called my parents. (And we plan to visit them in May and, hopefully, take one of our grandchildren with us.)

There’s another way we honor our parents that may not be as obvious. We honor God by striving to be all that God has called us to be—by being the best person we can, by living up to God’s best hopes for us. Do we not also honor our earthly parents by doing the same? Those of you who are parents—go back in your mind to the first time you held your newborn daughter or son or grandchild. You had high hopes for that child. Maybe you had no specific goals in mind, but you know you wanted nothing but the best for her/him. Above all, you wanted that child to feel as happy as he or she made you feel at that very moment. Your parents felt the same way when you were born. What would it take for you to fulfill that wish—to honor your parents’ wish for your happiness—to make their dreams for you come true? Are there steps you can take toward a lifelong goal? Are there obstacles to your joy that you can remove from your life? What’s holding you back?

My mom and dad have always been very supportive of me, even when I made choices they knew were not the best for me. We all made mistakes (I did; they did), but they kept the lines of communication open, and we made it through my more tumultuous years. When I was in my late 30s, I entered seminary, and when I was 45 (ten years ago last September), I was ordained. My parents attended my ordination ceremony in Longmont, and I will never forget what my dad said to me when he came through the reception line after the ceremony. Just five little words. He came to me, gave me a hug, and with a voice full of emotion, he said, “You make me so proud.” In that moment, I knew that what I had accomplished not only pleased God but brought great honor to my father and my mother. This was something none of us had ever imagined one of us would do. This was something that honored my parents, validated their efforts, repaid their sacrifices, and told them that their parenting brought honor to God. Who would have thought it would do all of that?

This commandment—this fifth one—is the first one that comes with a promise. It says “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land.” I think “long” means much more than long here. I think it means deep and rich and full and rewarding and complete, and full of happiness and healing and forgiveness and restoration. I think it means that if we honor our fathers and mothers, our own children will rise up, eventually, to fulfill our own best hopes for them. I think, in those “long” days in the land, God, who is “Abba, Father, Mother, Creator”—“warm father God” and “strong mother God”—will come to us, give us a hug, and with a voice full of emotion, will say, “You make me so proud!”

Amen.

[1] A chaplain at the Glenburn Evangelical Covenant Church of Glenburn, Maine; quoted on page 157 of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s book The Ten Commandments.