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Sermon for Sunday 28 September 2014

FIRST READING Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32

1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? 3 As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. 25 Yet you say, “The way of the LORD is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. 28 Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the LORD is unfair.” O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? 30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.
PSALM Psalm 25:1–9

1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. 3 Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous. 4 Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. 6 Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD. 8 You are gracious and upright, O LORD; therefore you teach sinners in your way. 9 You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way.

SECOND READING Philippians 2:1–18

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 14 Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you — 18 and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.
GOSPEL Matthew 21:23–32

23 When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28 What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Let me ask you an odd question. Have you ever wanted to smell like Jesus? It’s probably something we haven’t ever given much thought to, but there’s a perfume maker in California (where else?) that promises exactly that. The makers of a perfume called “Virtue”, claim if you wear their perfume, you will smell exactly like Jesus.
Using the Bible as a guide to what kind of plants were used as perfumes in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time, scientists at a perfume company, called IBI, claim that Virtue is a close approximation of what Christ and His followers would have smelled like. It’s a sweet blend consisting mostly of apricot, with a dash of frankincense and myrrh, which, of course, were given to the baby Jesus by the three wise men. So there you have it. You, too, can smell like Jesus.
To me it’s absurd, but it does lead us to a much more profound thought. At the beginning of the book, Just Like Jesus, Max Lucado makes this statement, a statement that I believe is quite important: “God loves you just the way you are.” The reason I think Max’s statement is important is because he doesn’t stop there, he goes further to add, “but He refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus.” Think about that statement for a moment, “God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus.”
How often do we hear just the first half of that statement made but modify it slightly and add, “God loves you just the way you are . . .” and that suits us just fine. The thought is that we want God to accept us just as we are . . . and then leave us alone. After all, it’s uncomfortable to change. As long as God loves us just as we are, we’ve got it made. But despite our desire to remain the same, Mr. Lucado is closer to the truth. The reality is, God does loves us just the way we are, but He refuses to leave us that way. He wants us to be just like Jesus.” And this is St. Paul’s message to the church at Philippi.
In our epistle lesson for this morning, Paul writes, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus . . .” It’s a directive that’s definitely counter-cultural to the message we hear today.
Paul is encouraging the church at Philippi to live in harmony and humility following the example of Christ. He’s telling us to be like Jesus. To humble ourselves as Jesus humbled Himself; to be a servant as He became a servant. Have the same love . . . Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, humbly value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests but to the interests of the others first. What’s more, this is a message that’s directed to the church not just to the individual. It’s a message that characterizes a healthy church, when we humble ourselves and serve one another.
Preacher and teacher Fred Craddock told about visiting a church one time where he was supposed to hold services on Friday evening, Saturday evening, and Sunday morning. When he pulled into the parking lot of the church, a funeral was concluding. People were moving to their automobiles; the hearse was still there. The minister saw him, recognized him, and motioned for him to come over. Craddock didn’t want to intrude, so he was just waiting until the funeral was over. A few minutes later, the pastor introduced the widow to Pastor Craddock, and Pastor Craddock felt awkward.
Fred Craddock said, “This is no time for you to be meeting strangers. I’m sorry, and I’m really sorry about your loss.” The widow’s husband had been killed in an automobile accident and left her with four children. Fred continued, “I know this is a very difficult time for you.” She replied, “It is. So I won’t be at the services tonight, but I’ll be there tomorrow night, and I’ll be there Sunday morning.” Like any sensible and caring person, Craddock said, “Oh, you don’t need to.” “Yes, I do,” she said. Fred said, “Well, what I meant was, I know it’s a very hard time.” And she said, “I know it’s hard. It’s already hard, but you see, this is my church, and they’re going to see that my children and I are okay.” That’s the way the people of God ought to function.
I like something that Ronald L. Nickelson once wrote. “What is the quickest way to identify a great city?” he asked. “Almost everyone knows that Paris is the home of the Eiffel Tower. Rome has its Coliseum; London has Big Ben and the Tower Bridge; Moscow has the Kremlin. Around the world, many cities have landmarks by which they’re recognized.” Even small towns and villages often have unique features that give them a special identity. “Other cities are famous for what happens there.
“Los Angeles makes movies; Cannes has its annual film festival; New Orleans has Mardi Gras. Even if it’s only Lincolnton’s Apple Festival or the Mid-Winter Ice Fishing Festival up north, communities identify themselves in distinctive ways.” Then Nickelson goes on to ask this question: “So what is it that identifies the Christian community (the church) as such? What is the landmark that makes us recognizable to the world? It’s our loyalty to Christ, of course, but that’s not all. Jesus Himself said, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35). Therefore, [the] identifying landmark in the church is faith in God and love.” Not just love of the facilities, or even love for other members but also love for the world around the church.
St. Paul tells us to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests but to the interests of the others.” Therefore, we could define a healthy church as one where people look out for one another. Simon and Garfunkel had a song back in the early 70’s that has become a classic: “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters . . .”
Many of you remember the lyrics: “When you’re weary/ Feeling small/ When tears are in your eyes/ I will dry them all/ I’m on your side/ When times get rough/ And friends just can’t be found/ Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down . . .”
That’s how we should be in the church.
There’s an interesting phrase that has entered our common vernacular in recent years. It’s the phrase, “I have your back.” In the military we’d say I’ve got your 6. If I say to someone, especially in a combat situation, “I’ve got your 6,” it means I’ll be there, to look out for you, to protect you and help you out if we get in trouble. Now that it’s football season, we can see this applied on the field.
According to Michael Lewis’ book from a few years ago The Blind Side, which was later turned into one of my all-time favorite movies, starring Sandra Bulloch, the second most important players, after the quarterback, in professional football are left tackles. Lewis explains the importance of these anonymous, but essential, offensive linemen as he tells the story of Michael Oher who became a stalwart left tackle for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. I’m sure many of you have seen the movie, and if you haven’t I recommend it to everyone.
According to Lewis, since most quarterbacks are right-handed, the left tackle’s main role is to prevent the quarterback from being hit from behind, blindsided. As athletic and as ferocious as today’s linebackers and defensive ends are, it takes a special person to do this. Left tackles now weigh more than 300 pounds, have tremendous strength, and must also be quick on their feet. Today, teams are willing to pay for such a player. Oher, who grew up in abject poverty, signed a contract not long ago worth more than $13,000,000. Of course the quarterback whom he’s protecting makes much more. I wish it always paid that well to have someone else’s back.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t, but it is one way to lay up treasure in Heaven. The testimony of Scripture is that God always has our back and we’re to do the same. We’re to have one another’s back. Or, as in the Simon and Garfunkel analogy, God is our bridge over troubled water and we’re to seek to be bridges for one another. This is the meaning of Christian community and this is how God judges churches. Our church may not be the biggest in the county, we may never give an extraordinary amount to missions in comparison to larger, more affluent churches, but still we can be an extraordinary church if we’re there for one another, look out for one another, help out one another when we’re in trouble. If we love as we’re commanded to love, we’ll have each other’s 6.
Another good analogy for the church is a flock of geese making its way across the sky. You’re probably familiar with this analogy. It contains several elements: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the other birds that follow. By flying in a V formation, the flock adds 71% extra flying range. In the same way church people who share a sense of community can help each other get where they’re going more easily . . . because we’re holding one another up.
Scientists tell us that when a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. When it does it quickly moves back to take advantage of the lifting power of the birds in front. If we’re as wise as the geese, we’ll also stay in formation with those headed where we want to go. We must be willing to accept the help of others when necessary and give our help to others. The geese analogy also gives us a second lesson.
When the lead goose tires, it drops back in the formation and another flies to the point position. This is how leadership in the church ought to work as well. We take turns doing the hard tasks. We respect and protect each other’s unique arrangement of skills, capabilities, talents and resources. If we help each other we prevent burn-out and it also provides encouragement. Guess what, there’s more we can learn from the geese.
The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. One could say that we do a lot of honking in the church; and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our challenge is to make sure that our honking is positive and encouraging. In churches where there’s encouragement, service to God and others is much greater. One final lesson from our fine feathered friends.
When a goose gets sick, two geese drop out of formation and follow it to help and protect it. They have this goose’s back. They stand by each other in difficult times. Again Paul tells us that as a church family, we’re to study the life of Jesus, “to have the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. We’re to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” Rather, in humility we’re to value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests but to the interests of the others.
Can you imagine what the church would be like if we took these words literally? We often say that the church is the body of Christ. That doesn’t mean that we cover ourselves with a special perfume so we will smell like Jesus, but it does mean we ought to live like Jesus and serve like Jesus. And if we take these words of Paul to heart, it means that the church should be willing to lay down its life in order to fulfill its mission.
Think this through for a few moments. Did you know that it’s not our job to protect the church? So many churches are fixated on making sure the church survives. Our task isn’t survival, but service. So many churches have been unwilling to take controversial stands because they might lose influential members. So many churches have been unwilling to serve the least and the lowest because they might not mix well with their church family. They might soil our carpet and get stains on our lovely furniture. Some churches get to a crossroads in their church’s life, when a bold move of faith is called for, but they shrink back. Out of fear they think they must protect the church at all costs.
What if Christ had this attitude with His own body? But that isn’t what He did. Listen to the rest of Paul’s words in our lesson from Philippians: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus who, being in very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Therefore, to live like Jesus is to love and serve one another and to lay down our life for the world. This means our mission is two-fold; love one another and love the world for which Christ died. Years ago a very disturbing case came before the courts in Massachusetts back in the 1920s. It concerned a man who had been walking along a pier when suddenly he tripped over a rope and fell into the cold, deep waters of that ocean bay. He came up sputtering, screaming for help, then sank beneath the surface. For some reason he was unable to swim or stay afloat.
His friends heard his faint cries in the distance, but they were too far away to rescue him. However, only a few yards away, there was a young man lounging on a deck chair, sunbathing. Not only could the sunbather hear the drowning man plead, “Help, I can’t swim,” he was also an excellent swimmer. The tragedy is that he did nothing. He only turned his head to watch indifferently as the man finally sank and drowned.
The family of the victim was so upset by that display of extreme indifference, they sued the sunbather. The result? They lost the case. With a measure of reluctance, the court ruled that the man on the dock had no legal responsibility whatsoever to try to save the drowning man’s life. There’s a world of need outside the doors of our church. Nobody’s going to sue us if we look away, ignore their need. Only God will know. But think what that means. God will know.
St. Paul was writing to the church when he said that we’re to have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. Our job is not to protect the church, but as the church, to love and serve one another. We’re called to have the 6 of others and be willing to lay down our life for those who are outside our doors. Jesus answered the religious authorities who came to test Him asking, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40) Serve God and others first: This is what it means to live like Jesus.

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