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Sermon for Sunday 28 July 2019

First Reading                                Genesis 18:17-33

17The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

Psalm                                                            Psalm 138

1I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. 2I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, because of your love and faithfulness; 3For you have glorified your name and your word above all things. 4When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me. 5All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, when they have heard the words of your mouth. 6They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord. 7Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; he perceives the haughty from afar. 8Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand shall save me. 9The Lord will make good his purpose for me; O Lord, your love endures forever; do not abandon the works of your hands.

Second Reading                          Colossians 2:6-19

6Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. 16Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

Gospel                                                          Luke 11:1-13

1Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2And he said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread, 4and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.” 5And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


Back in the Middle Ages, an aged and popular monk announced that in the cathedral that evening he would preach a sermon on the love of God.  The people gathered in anticipation and stood in silence waiting for the service while the sunlight streamed through the beautiful stained glass windows.  When the last glint of color had faded from the windows, the beloved monk took a candle from the altar.  Walking to the life-size figure of Jesus on the cross, he held the light beneath the wounds of the feet, then His hands, then His side.  Still without a word, he let the light shine on the thorn-crowned brow.  That was his sermon.  The people stood in silence and wept.  

They knew they were at the center of a mystery beyond their knowing, that they were looking at the love of God, the image of the invisible God, giving Himself for us – a love so deep, so inclusive, so expansive, so powerful, so complete, that thought of the mind cannot fully comprehend or measure it, or words express it.  This is what Paul understood completely; the human mind’s inability to comprehend fully the depth of God’s love.  This is why Paul goes back to it again and again, I preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23):  this is the purpose and power of the cross.  Paul also knew that sometimes we, as lifelong Christians, can become numb to breadth and depth of this message. 

Each Sunday we begin our service with the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.  It’s an important and absolutely necessary part of the service and one we need to participate in.  But how often do we say the words from rote?  How often do we join in without fully appreciating the rite?  How often do we deeply consider the ramifications, the price paid for us, to have this privilege?  I dare say, not nearly enough.  This is the reason we need to periodically take a step back and look at the message of the Cross with fresh eyes.  We need to hear the message of God’s amazing love and mercy as though we’re hearing it for the first time.  And to do this, we need to start at the point of our deepest needs and look at the cross as the answer to those needs.

When we drill down to the core depths of our being, when we strip back the layers of the nonessential and get down to the base level of our identity, we, apart from physical and survival needs, will discover four absolute needs.  These are the four burning emotional, spiritual, and relational needs which, if go unmet, leave us less than whole, often crippled, sometimes sick to the point of being cut off from reality.  And these needs are common to everyone.  

Even though we may not use the same words to label them, the reality is the same.  These four needs are: 1.) To receive forgiveness; 2.) To love and be loved; 3.) To experience community and 4.) To have a cause for which to live and die.  Within these four needs is our need for acceptance, affirmation, security and freedom, purposefulness and self-esteem.  And in God’s ultimate act of mercy, all these needs are met at the Cross.  In the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, all our deepest needs are met.

The first of these core needs, forgiveness, is the one most recognized by folks when we talk about the Cross.  There are, of course, all sorts of ways to talk about us humans, of what and who we are.  G. K. Chesterton was correct: “whatever else man is, he is not what he was meant to be.”  Sin has pulled us away for God’s original intension and left us wanting.  Omar Chaym said “Pish!  He’s a good fellow and twill all be well.”  But Omar Chaym was a bit naïve because we know deep down his idea is far from the human situation.  We’ve all sinned and fallen short (Rom. 3:23).  We may not mean to be, but we are.  There is within each of us the same warring that terrorized Paul — the battle between the “ good I want to do, but cannot, and the evil I do not want to do-but keep on doing. ” (Rom. 7:19).  In our times of self-examination, we are often driven to cry out with Paul, “O wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).

Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden, sin has been the factor of human life that has ravaged our beings, torn us to pieces, and set us at odds with God, and with each other.  How many here have seen the movie “Amadaeus”?  It was an absorbing drama that brilliantly chronicled how the shadowy side of human nature can finally envelope and destroy a good person and their gifts.  It was a dramatic witness of sin in our life — ravaging our being and setting us at odds with others.

For those who saw the movie or remember the story, you know that Solieri is the protagonist.  He was the court composer for Emperor Franz Joseph.  He had dedicated his life and talent to God, wanting to be a kind of artist-angel, a messenger of God through music.  He was doing well — very well — until the genius Mozart mounted the stage.  Then envy and jealousy began to control him — to consume him in diabolical thoughts and malicious schemes.  It was a sad and tragic end — Solieri’s own gifts and aspirations were destroyed.  He ended up a tormented and deranged shell of his former self.  It was a telling commentary on what the shadowy side of our life — the sinful aspects of our being — can do to us.  But, when we’re most perceptive about ourselves, we come to realize that somehow a wedge has been driven into our life.

It’s a wedge that threatens to split us asunder, or at least to crash our lives forever, preventing us from being whole in intention and direction.  That’s what Paul was bemoaning, “For the good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do — O wretched man that I am.”  Sin prevents us from being what God intended us to be.  It separates us from God and from our brothers and sisters.  Because of sin, we have a great need for forgiveness.  Thankfully, in our Second lesson for today, Paul paints a graphic picture of Christ’s work of forgiveness.  He says that Christ nailed our sins to the cross (v. 14).  Paul goes even further by proclaiming that, “He disarmed the principalities and powers,” triumphing over them (v.15).

We know, we don’t have to be puppets or the victims of satan or any evil spirits working within us or in the world.  Nor do we have to achieve our own salvation, or be intimidated by those who seek to impose religious or other rules and regulations.  We have been forgiven, set free — and, if we will appropriate it, we have the power to live as victors over sin, as both sinner and saint.  This is what Paul is pointing out here, our need for forgiveness is met in the Cross of Christ.

Earlier in verse 22 of Chapter 1, Paul paints a beautiful picture of what the Cross does for us.  The Revised Standard Version translates it, “He has now reconciled (us) in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”  The Living Bible paraphrases that, “And now as a result, Christ has brought you into the very presence of God, and you are standing there before him with nothing left against you — nothing left that He could even chide you for.”  Because of the forgiving grace of God – our sins have been washed clean, removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).

The word “presence” in the above paraphrase means to place beside or near.  What’s happened is that the Cross has ushered us out of estrangement into an intimate fellowship with God.  Through the atoning blood of Jesus, we are forgiven.  The blame for our sins has been taken by Christ and suffered for by Him on the cross.  The Greek word (amomos) or “blameless” in this verse, signifies “without blemish or spot.”  The word comes from the description of a perfect sacrificial animal.  Because of Jesus’ perfect obedience even to death, God accepts us as cleansed, forgiven, and completely reconciled.  We can now come boldly into His holy presence in prayer — especially prayers of confession, and He responds with the love of a Father.  He looks at us as if we had no sin.  Not only are we cleansed, we are now absolved of any charge.  Because of this, it’s good for us to take time regularly to really contemplate God’s powerful work in Christ — our need for forgiveness is met in the Cross.

Second, we not only need forgiveness, we need love; and the Cross meets us at that point of need as well.  More than anything else, the Cross is love at its deepest and purest.  The story is told of a little girl who lived in an orphanage in Pennsylvania.  She was eight years old and had come from an abusive home.  Because of her background, the staff of the orphanage felt her to be a potential discipline problem.  Actually, she was much less of a problem than they imagined, but they watched her closely, nonetheless.

One day, another girl at the orphanage came to the superintendent to report that the girl was sending notes to someone on the outside.  The superintendent thanked the child for the information and asked her to come and tell them if it ever happened again.  Two days later, the girl returned.  She reported that a note had been place in the crook of a tree just outside the door of the building.  Hastily, the superintendent called one of the social workers, and they raced outside to the tree.  She grabbed the note and tore open the envelope.  As she read the contents, her demeaner changed.  Unable to speak, the supervisor simply passed the note to the social worker.  It read, simply: “To whoever finds this, I love you.”  A poignant parable of the need to love and be loved.  

It’s a powerful picture, but no picture of love is more powerful than the Cross.  In the hymn (O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done), Charles Wesley felt God’s love deeply and penned these words:  O Love divine, what has thou done! Th’ incarnate God hath died for me!  The Father’s co-eternal Son Bore all my sins upon the tree!  The Son of God for me hath died: My Lord, my Love, is crucified.  Here in the Cross, our need for love is met in the deepest and purest response possible.  Truly think about this:  Christ’s love for us was so great, that He willingly died for us.  Our third need is a twin to our need for love – it’s the other side of the same coin — our need for community.  We need to belong.  In fact, this may be our most desperate need today.

All sorts of forces have combined to destroy family identity and unity.  All the advanced technology that we celebrated as the way to bring us together has driven us apart.  We’ve become isolated in our mad thirst for wealth, security, pleasure, success, identity.  We’ve replaced actual conversations and personal interactions with social media, thinking it would solve our thirst for community.  Instead of connecting with the people around us, we now feel isolated, cut off.  Another story was shared of an outgoing 40-year-old woman who was a part of a sharing group.

When she was a small child, her parents died, and she was put in an orphanage.   She wasn’t very pretty, and no one seemed to want her, but she said that as far back as she could remember, she longed to be adopted and loved by a family.  She thought about it day and night, but everything she did seemed to go wrong.  She must have tried too hard to please the people who came to look her over and in doing so, would drive them away.  But then one day the head of the orphanage told her that a family was coming to take her home with them.

She was so excited that she jumped up and down and cried.  The matron reminded her that this was a trial, and it might not be a permanent arrangement.  Overwhelmed with joy, the little girl just knew that it would be.  So she went with this family and started to school.  The woman concluded her story with this, “I was the happiest little girl you can imagine, and life began to open for me just a little.  But then one day a few months later I skipped home from school and ran into the front door of the big old house we lived in.  No one was at home, but there in the middle of the front hall was my battered old suitcase with my little coat thrown across it.  As I stood there and looked at my suitcase, it slowly dawned on me what it meant.  I didn’t belong here anymore.”

Miller reports that when the woman stopped speaking there was hardly a dry eye in the group.  But then the woman cleared her throat and said almost matter-of-factly, “This happened to me seven times before I was 13 years old, but wait, don’t cry.  It was experiences like these that ultimately brought me to God.  When I was having so much trouble finding a sense of belonging from other human beings, I was driven to God, and there I found what I had always longed for — a place.”

I’m sure there have been times when we felt we had no place, hopefully not as dramatically as that orphaned girl, but many have felt like we didn’t belong.  Maybe you felt this way in a relationship, at a job, or among our friends.  Some may have felt this way at church or perhaps even in our family; this is when the Cross speaks its most dramatic word to us. 

The ground around the cross is level.  We all stand there stripped of pride, knowing that we cannot save ourselves, and we’re drawn into an experience of love which is the dynamic for community.  When we recognize that because of the work of Jesus we belong; we belong to the family of God, and we belong to each other.

St. Paul talked about our mutual identity, our community of belonging, using the image of circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant for the Jews.  Paul recalls that image and assigns it a spiritual meaning which forges an unbreakable bond of community.  In verses 11 and 12 we read, “In (Christ) you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.”  In baptism we were welcomed into God’s community, His family — a death and resurrection community empowered and bound together by Jesus (v. 12).  This community is the church; not just this community we call Bethel, but the entire Christian community we call the Body of Christ.  This is that one holy catholic and Apostolic community of which Christ is the Head.  He nourishes this community and knits every segment of it together (v. 19).  Our need to belong is met in the Cross of Christ and in the fellowship of His people.

Our need for forgiveness, our need for love, and our need for community — all are met in the Cross.  To this point, all these needs I’ve mentioned, focus on ourselves — our identity and enhancement as individual persons.  However, we were also created to move out of ourselves to find meaning in a cause – a purpose beyond ourselves for which to live and die.  This brings us to the fourth need that’s met in the Cross — our need for a cause for which to live and die.

Paul’s confession of this came earlier in Colossians 1:24, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.”  In Philippians, Paul again stated his purpose even more completely, the cause for which he lived and died,: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10).  The more Paul knew Jesus, the more he realized his true self and the more he experienced fulfillment.  

The more Paul knew Christ, the more he realized his needs and limitations and the more he had to press on to the higher calling in God’s kingdom.  The more Paul centered himself in Christ and pursued this higher calling, the more he became sensitive to the needs of the people around him and the more he realized that Calvary-motivated love had to be the motivation of his life.  And so it is with us: cross-centered purpose gives us meaning.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp.  Out of that experience he discovered and developed logotherapy, a therapeutic approach to healing and health, by discovering meaning.  Meaning, he says, comes from three sources:  love, suffering, and doing a deed.  All of these are gathered upon the cross and in the cross-life to which we’re called.  No wonder Paul could proclaim, “I rejoice in my sufferings” (v. 24).  Because of the love he had received from the Cross, his purpose was to love, even if that came with suffering.  The cross was the driving force of his life.  And because of this, his burning desire was for all persons to experience the love of Jesus Christ which he had experienced.  The cross gave him meaning and it gave him the cause for which he lived and died.

Dr. Parker Palmer, one of the creative leaders in spiritual formation and Christian community, told a group of YMCA workers about a good friend of his who labors in an especially difficult assignment at the New York Catholic Worker House.  One day Dr. Palmer said, “All the facts that I can gather and all the feelings I have tell me this work you’re trying to do is just impossible.  There’s no success in it.  There’s no gratification.  The tide keeps rolling over you.  Why do you keep doing it?”  Looking earnestly at him, one woman answered, “Parker, the thing you don’t understand is this:  Just because a thing is impossible — that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”  The woman is right.

God has made us that way.  We can’t be totally fulfilled without a cause for which to live and die.  The cross meets that need.  Jesus said, “If any persons would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  Jesus is talking about nothing less than the work of God’s kingdom.  When we pray as Jesus taught, “Thy Kingdom come”, we are taking on what some might think of as an apparently impossible task.  But as God Himself asked Abraham, “Is anything impossible for God?”

Dr. Chad Walsh pointed out, in a preface to a book by C. S. Lewis, that “the forces of evil are locked in combat with the servants of God.  However humble our status in this world, we are summoned to fight on one side or the other.”  It’s not only that we have the chance to serve God; if we don’t, we’ll likely, by simple inertia, to end up on the side of evil.  We are therefore called to be a part of this kingdom of God on earth even when it seems that the task of sharing the gospel and God’s love with others is impossible. 

Remember what Jesus said in His illustration of the effect of yeast, “It is like a little leaven which a woman puts in a lump of dough” (Luke 13:21).  Each of us adds our part and the work of God’s kingdom is accomplished.  Jesus calls us to take up our cross, to pray and live the petition “Thy Kingdom come”.  The Cross meets our need for a cause for which to live and die.

In the Cross of Christ, our deepest of needs of forgiveness, love, the need for community and the need for a cause for which to live and die are all graciously met.  Charles Wesley said it well:  Behold him, all ye that pass by, The bleeding Prince of life and peace!  Come, sinners, see your Savior die, And say, was ever grief like his? Come, feel with me his blood applied: My Lord, my Love, is crucified. (O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done).  And like hymn writer Isaac Watts, I hope we respond in total commitment:  Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.  (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross). Amen

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