Welcome to First Christian Church of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Today is Sunday, April 10th, 2011 – two weeks to go until Easter.
New Testament lesson: I Corinthians 13:1-8a
Gospel lesson: Luke 12:22-34
4/10/11, the fifth Sunday of Lent.
A little less than four months ago, on the last Sunday in Advent, I walked in the door of the sanctuary at Foothills Christian Church in Phoenix for the first time since August 1st. After spending a semester at Wake Forest, studying at the Divinity School, I was prepared for the inevitable onslaught of questions about my time at seminary, and how it was preparing me to be a pastor. So I was relaxed and smiling when one of the older ladies of the church – in fact, one of two who took care of me in the church’s nursery back in early 1983, when I was a year and a half old and the church was still known as Phoenix Central Christian Church – approached me. What I was not prepared for was the question she was about to ask me – a question that I’ve been getting asked since 2001, when I turned twenty.
“Jimmy,” she said to me, “when are you going to find yourself a nice girl and get married?”
Really? A semester in seminary, and this is the first question I get asked upon my return to my home congregation? There I was, all prepared to expound at length about the royal Davidic dynasty of Israel, about the Papal schism of the fourteenth century, about the ways in which Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas have affected the ethics of Christianity, and what exactly “ko amar adonai” means in Hebrew (“Thus saith the Lord”, in case you’re wondering). And I get a question about when I’m going to get married.
Now, I have no doubt that this member of Foothills had the best of intentions in mind. However, to my mind, this is a case of worrying about the things of this earth as opposed to the things of what is to come, and in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus admonishes His disciples not to worry about what is going to happen on this earth. “How can any of you by worrying add even an hour to your life?” He asks.
This is an easy Scripture to be confused by. I’ve known a great many people who look at this Scripture and say, “So I’m not supposed to worry about whether I’m going to have clothing, or a place to live, or food to eat?” Of course you should. Those are all important. They are real, natural concerns. However, as the New Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “real security does not come by simply being concerned about the means of life.”
The point Jesus is trying to make comes across in verse twenty-three – “Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.” In other words, there is a great deal more to life – as we now know it, and as we will know it in the future – than what we have here on earth. Those things that we posses and know during our time on this planet are infinitesimal compared to the things of heaven.
And that is why Jesus admonishes His disciples to not store up their treasures on earth. And you know, we all store up our treasures on earth. I LIKE my treasures on earth. I like my tablet computer, which allows me to give sermons or lectures without being stuck behind a lectern. I like my Android phone, which keeps me connected to the Internet pretty much all the time. I like my little netbook computer, which weighs two pounds, fits in the back pocket of my backpack, and is perfect for taking to school. I like my Alienware laptop, which is high-powered enough to run NORAD. I like my desktop computer, which I built from the ground up. I like my car, and the fact that it was built in 2008, and not when I was eight years old (like my first car). Heck, I like the box at my parents house in Phoenix that contains the entire 1993 original set of the Star Trek: The Next Generation action figure line. But here’s the thing: “Treasures on earth can be destroyed by moths, stolen by thieves,” and that refers not just to our possessions, but to the ideas that we consider important on this earth. “But the treasures that we have in heaven cannot be touched by anybody – and where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Again, when we build up that which we have here on this earth, our focus can be lost. We fail to see the things of heaven, so intent are we on the things of this earth. But when we build up that which we will have in heaven, nobody can take it away from us.
If you think about it, this whole idea of concerning yourself more with the things of heaven really plays directly into the hands of the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew – “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus here commands His disciples not to form an army to take back Israel, not to march across the earth as a conquering divine army, but to show to all nations the message of the love and peace of God, so that they too can share in the fellowship that Christians look forward to in the time to come. Essentially, this is Christ’s call to all His disciples – not just the twelve, but to each and every follower of Christ – this is His call to us to let the world know that we are Christians by our love.
Okay. So that’s what I like to call the “teachin’” portion of this sermon. And now for what I like to call the “preachin’” portion. You see, I’m one of those Disciples of Christ who is NOT ashamed to admit that we Disciples are pretty much as Baptist as you can get without actually BEING Baptist, and so I’m more than happy to let my inner southern gospel preacher out to play from time to time. Don’t worry, though, no fire or brimstone here.
If we truly consider the state of the Church today, we find that we as Christians are nearly obsessed with the things of this earth.
Take politics, for example. Politics tend to ruin churches. Who shall we vote for? Barack Obama? John McCain? Shall we be a Republican church, a Democratic church? How shall we come down on an issue such as gun control or immigration? These are questions that tear apart Christian communities on a disturbingly regular basis, and yet, they are questions that are not of the kingdom of God – they are solely of this earth. Our politics will have no bearing whatsoever in the heavenly realm.
Or, maybe the language we use. You know, Wake Forest University School of Divinity has as part of its mission statement the idea that we will strive to use inclusive language as much as possible. And this is an excellent idea. One of the primary goals of theological education at Wake Forest is to ensure that the future pastors coming out of there will educate their congregations in the understanding that God transcends gender, and God includes all genders. God is not male, God is not female, God simply IS. And yet, there are those at Wake Forest who have so radicalized this idea that it has gone far beyond where it should be. Indeed, heaven help you if you should accidentally refer to God as “the Father” or “He” in the presence of one of these slightly over-zealous souls – you will be raked over the coals. Come on! We’re not here to sow divisiveness and anger over something that is solely of this earth – the hymn does say, “They’ll know we are Christians by our LOVE,” not “they’ll know we are Christians by the fact that we’re JERKS.”
And what about marriage? Oh, that’s a fun one, isn’t it? But let’s face it – marriage is something of this world, and only of this world. Yes, it’s a very important institution – in fact, I truly do hope to make the older ladies at Foothills Christian Church quite happy, and find that nice girl and get married some time before they die. However, in Matthew 23, the Saducees bring a question before Jesus – a woman marries a man, he dies; per Jewish tradition, she marries his brother, and then he dies; the process repeats, through seven brothers before she dies. “Who will she be married to at the resurrection?” they ask Him.
Nobody, Jesus replies. In heaven, there are no husbands, there are no wives. Marriage is a concept of this earth, and yet, there are those Christians out there who expend uncountable time, energy, and money to quite angrily and emphatically ensure that those people who happen to be different from them can’t get married. They’re sowing divisiveness, they’re sowing anger, and they certainly aren’t showing that they’re Christians by their love.
So we ask the question, do we allow these things of the earth to continue splintering the Church of Christ, to continue making it weaker and weaker unto the point of collapse? Are politics so important that we should set aside the Great Commission of Christ, to make disciples of all nations? It can’t possibly be so important that we not call God by a masculine name that we should be critical of our brothers and sisters in Christ to the point of anger. And I certainly don’t understand how angry, hostile opposition to gay marriage is in any way demonstrating the love that Christ calls us to have for our neighbors as we do for ourselves.
But we must not just love our neighbors. No, much as we hate to admit it, every one of us has those we might consider our enemies. And Christ wants us to love them too. When we can let go of the things of this earth that have made us enemies, when we can remember the things of heaven, we will love our enemies, and we will pray for those who persecute us. And that will be a better day.
But who says it has to be down the road? “Better is one day in your house than a thousand elsewhere,” says the eighty-fourth Psalm. And here we are, in the house of God. Today can be a better day. Today WILL be a better day.
(A note: for the record, this is the point at which I got wound up and got myself into super-Southern preacher mode. And you better believe that when I called for an “AMEN!” at the end of this cadence, I got a BIG one.)
It will be a better day when we decide that the things of this earth are only of this earth, and that they are not more important than the things of heaven.
It will be a better day when we choose to see our fellow humans for that which makes us the same, and not that which makes us different.
It will be a better day when the Church is not defined by that which divides us, but by that which unites us.
It will be a better day when we all recognize that we worship the same God, no matter in what way we might address our Creator.
It will be a better day when we choose to live as Christ and pray for those who persecute us.
It will be a better day when we love our neighbors AND our enemies as we have loved ourselves.
It will be a better day when they know that we are Christians BY OUR LOVE. Can I get an AMEN?!
Special thanks to Shannon Axtell, Skyler Daniel, and Carter McNeese for coming and helping out with the First Christian praise band this morning. My most humble appreciation also goes to my friends April Bounds, Suzie Farris, Carter Love, and Scott & Amber Westberg for coming to First Christian this morning to show their support, with a special mention to April and Carter for making sure that I was well-dressed this morning, and to April for being my photographer.