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Sermon for 7 September 2014

FIRST READING Ezekiel 33:7–9

7So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. 9But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

PSALM Psalm 32:1–7

1 Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! 2 Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile! 3 While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. 4 For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD. “Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them. 7 You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
SECOND READING Romans 13:1–10

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

GOSPEL Matthew 18:1–20

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 6 If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. 15 If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Fads come and fads go and so do the challenges that go with them. How many remember a craze where the amount of Goldfish swallowed would win you ridicule or popularity? By the way the record for number of Goldfish swallowed is 1000. Or, how many of us participated in the challenge to see how many people one could fit in a car or a phone booth? And in case you’re wondering, 27 will fit in a Mini Cooper. For those of you born after 1980, a phone booth was a fixed glass enclosure that contained a pay phone. And the answer to the question of how many will fit is 34. It’s amazing what people can be encouraged to do.
Here’s another one for you, who here hasn’t played “tag?” I’m not referring to getting hit by a graffiti artist. I’m taking about the game we played as a child. In the game of tag, the worst thing that could happen to you when you were playing “tag,” was to be touched and declared … “Tag! You’re it!” Once you were “tagged” you were the odd one out. Once you were tagged you were the enemy, the outcast, the outlier, and you worked hard to get that moniker off your back by giving it to someone else. It interesting how time changes things.
Now days, to be “tagged” is to be one of the elect: to be included, to be part of a movement, to be involved in something larger and more important than your Facebook friends, the number of Twitter followers you have or your own email register. To get “tagged” is to be drawn into a new community with distinctive concerns and a unique consciousness. To be “tagged” means that you have been chosen to participate in a larger experience of life.
This week’s epistle reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans and is all about being “tagged.” As Christians, as those who are participants in a unique community called the body of Christ which is defined by a confession of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and our Savior, we have been totally “tagged” by a divine challenge. As Christians, we aren’t defined by our ability to dump ice water over our heads. Christians are instead known by their ability to dump love over all those they bump into. When we’re “tagged” by Christ’s love, we’re called to “tag” all those we can with that same amazing, transforming and overwhelming love. What’s even more interesting is that timing is everything. For example, can you imagine the “Ice¬ Bucket Challenge” in December?
Earlier this year (2014) there were some isolated “cold water challenges” for various charities, where jumping into cold water polar bear ¬style helped raise funds for several local cancer research fund raisers. But it took a good, hot summer to make the “Ice Bucket Challenge” a “viral” phenomena. Sure, a few Viking souls will jump into freezing water when the air temperature is below freezing. But it’s way more likely that people will volunteer to take a cold bath in July or August when the temperatures are hovering around 90, not 9.
I guess I should ask; is there any one here today who has not heard of the “Ice Bucket Challenge?” Just in case you emerged from a cave this past Labor Day weekend, here’s the “Ice Bucket Challenge: “you’re tagged by a friend, where “tagging” means “dared,” to post a video of yourself being doused with a big bucket of ice water, all in order to raise awareness of and funds for research to find a cure for the deadly ALS disease: ¬¬ amyotrophic (a-myo-thropic) lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Before the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” only about one quarter of US citizens even knew that ALS existed. Before this past summer, those of us who knew about this disease mostly knew of it as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” named after the famous baseball player who publically admitted to having the disease in 1939. In Gehrig’s famous “retirement” speech at Yankee stadium, he declared that despite his ALS diagnosis, that gave him only a couple more years of life, the life he had already lived made him feel like “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Seventy ¬five years later a diagnosis of ALS still means an average life expectancy of only three to five years.
Unlike cancer, heart disease, AIDS, and diabetes, until this past summer, ALS hasn’t received a lot of funding for research, and there’s been a very low public awareness of the disease. Now all of sudden, thanks to the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” new generations have not only been informed, but also summoned to join in the fight against ALS. High school kids and college students, socialites and celebrities, Bill Gates and Martha Stewart, Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, Triple H and George W. Bush, just to name a few — all have been online “tagged,” digitally “dared,” to participate in the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” The “challenge” has three components: 1) to be doused on camera to raise awareness of the disease; 2) to give a donation to the cause of curing ALS; 3) to call out others family, friends, and/or unknown entities to join with you in this experience.
The “Ice Bucket Challenge” is the equivalent of lining up in gym class to get “picked” for the kick-ball/soccer team/baseball team. You might hate the game, but you never want to not be picked. The idea being spread here, is that the only thing worse than being “tagged” for the Ice Bucket Challenge, is not being “tagged for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Not to be “tagged” is forwarded as the ultimate rejection. That’s how the craze has helped to raise awareness and funds.
As most of us know, the Labor Day weekend is usually seen as the end of summer. And with that in mind, maybe it’s time for an end-¬of¬-summer evaluation of the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” Yes, it’s made a huge mental mark in our kids’ awareness of a dreadful, debilitating and deadly disease. The “Challenge” has highlighted the need to funnel money and brain¬power towards finding new treatments and an eventual cure for this horrific disease. What I find ironic is that ice water has made a “cold case” disease into a “hot topic” on the medical research radar. I think that’s tremendous. But the phenomenal success of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” also tells us something about the world we live in today.
The first thing we see is that learning has become more and more EPIC; EPIC as an acronym means, Experiential, Participatory, Image-Rich, Connective (EPIC). Notice who were the most enthusiastic participants in the “Ice Bucket Challenge”: young people of middle school, high school, college and post college age groups. Before they took the challenge, most felt compelled to research the disease themselves, learning the medical fundamentals while experiencing social media fun. Most of them probably had never heard of “Lou Gehrig” before being tagged. The “Ice Bucket Challenge” was a non-classroom based, peer¬ to ¬peer, largely online learning experience.
Second, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” was an exercise in online giving. Most of the 100+ million dollars raised so far has been given online. According to a study conducted by Blackbaud, a technology firm servicing nonprofits, 42% of boomers made their 2013 donations via websites. (See “Altruism Finds Its Heart on the Internet,” The Trends Journal, Winter 2014, 9.) But with our kids, that 42% is rapidly approaching 100 percent. A lesson we could take from this fact is that maybe it’s time that we full consider how folks interact in our world today. The challenge before us a disciples of Jesus is, how do we keep the gospel and mission pure while at the same time taking into account the present and future?
Third, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” has its own doctrine of moral depravity and sin. To undergo the ritual and not give, or not evangelize (i.e. tag), is called “slactivism.” In contrast to “activism,” where you participate in doing good by exerting effort and investing time, “slactivists” give only token support by “liking” something on Facebook, sharing a video, or getting wet, thereby feeling good about doing something but without doing anything to actually improve the problem. The problem, thus the challenge for the church, is that there are a lot of slactivists out there.
Fourth, the “P” in EPIC, personal participation, was in large caps in the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” In fact, the ritual of being doused with cold water became a kind of “baptismal rite” for initiation into ALS awareness. The “Ice Bucket Challenge” showed all those who were invited, enticed, or introduced to the world of ALS, that they were not just being offered information about a disease — they were being offered a lifetime membership in a crusade against a terrible foe, a neurological illness that could take out anyone at any time. By participating in the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” thousands of people have been publically “baptized” into a “community” with a cause. All the ice ¬bucket baptized will carry with them a life¬long investment in the cause and cure of the curse of ALS. But this strategy of getting folks involved in a cause isn’t something new.
ALS isn’t the first disease to use community rituals to get people motivated and in motion. The hugely successful 3-¬day Susan G. Komen breast cancer fund¬raising walks are a community building “rite” — a time of bonding and commitment by those committed to defeating a deadly foe. Likewise the “team walks” have also raised awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research. Furthermore, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” is showing us how to evangelize. In the world it’s called “tagged,” but in the church “tagging” is evangelism.
Noah and Lucas Aldrich are brothers. They live in Emmett, Idaho (a bit outside of Boise). Noah is 8 and Lucas is 6. They’ve been amazingly close and enjoying each other since they were born. But the younger brother, Lucas, was born with a genetic condition, “Lis-sen-chepaly”— literally a “smooth brain.” As much as we might dislike our own personal lumps and bumps and wrinkles, it turns out that in our brains, those wrinkly conditions are a good thing. Lucas’ condition has made it impossible for him to walk, talk, or feed himself. He is confined to a wheelchair except of course when he’s lying on the floor of the “kid’s room”, playing with Lego’s Star Wars figures with his brother Noah.
Noah is two years older than his brother, but this “big brother” has been completely committed to Lucas ever since he was born. One could say, they are best friends. Noah and Lucas do everything together. Noah doesn’t mince words when he describes his feelings about his younger brother. His feelings are a complete “ice bucket” of commitment. Noah simply says, “I love him. He is perfect!”
This last year Noah decided he wanted to do a “kid’s triathlon.” No matter that at the time of his decision Noah couldn’t even swim. He started training for the swimming, biking, running marathon he would have to complete. But Noah never considered doing this triathalon without Lucas. Noah’s love for his brother could never leave Lucas on the sidelines. So when Noah competed in his first “kid’s triathlon, he swam his four laps in the pool while pulling Lucas in a small raft behind him. He bicycled with Lucas attached to the back of his bike in a trailer. He ran the last miles of his race while pushing Lucas in a “racing stroller” in front of him. Both Noah and Lucas competed and completed their triathlon together.
Noah has forever “tagged” his brother Lucas with love. He offered love that was not even an effort, just a natural outpouring of an indwelling love. It’s the same kind of love that’s offered up, in a short form, by Paul in this week’s epistle text when the apostle reminds Christians, to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9¬10)
Paul, the hard¬boiled old Pharisee, steeped in the step¬-by-step orderliness of Torah law, had been completely “tagged” by Christ. Jesus’ “Ice Bucket Challenge” was the cross, where He demonstrated His utter commitment to bringing all of humanity back into the Father’s embrace. It was an act of overwhelming love, and redeeming power.
Paul’s own “Ice Bucket Challenge” happened on the road to Damascus, shocking his senses and sensibilities sideways. He was left blind for three days, and more so, after being blind-sided by the presence and power of Christ’s love and forgiveness. But that wasn’t the end; it was the beginning of Paul’s faith journey. It’s not enough to know in our hearts that God is love, that Jesus is Lord and the Spirit is Life. Paul took his “tag”, his challenge, his double dog dare if you will and passed it on to all of Asia Minor and into Rome. Paul “tagged” any and all that he encountered with this message and challenge: God is Love, Jesus is Lord, and God’s Spirit is Life. And you and I are called to do no less.
“Tag, you’re it” should be the chorus of every Christian in the world community. We’re to “tag” those we meet, those we work with, those we know and care about, those we love, not with a challenge to dump ice water on their heads, but with the assurance that they are loved beyond all measure by a Savior God. “Tag.” You are all “it.” God’s love is in our hands. The news that God is Love, that Jesus is Lord, and that God’s Spirit is Life, is waiting to be doused on your neighbor. That’s the real challenge facing us this week. So the challenge is now up to us: who will we tag next?

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