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Sermon for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphnay 2023

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8

 1Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3“O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” 6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?


Psalm 15

 1Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle? who may abide upon your holy hill? 2Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. 3There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor. 4In his sight the wicked is rejected, but he honors those who fear the Lord. 5He has sworn to do no wrong and does not take back his word. 6He does not give his money in hope of gain, nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. 7Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown.


Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

 18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”


Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

 1Seeing the crowds, {Jesus} went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”


 The Sound of Silence

Have you ever stopped to consider that when it comes to the noise that surrounds us constantly, you and I are blessed?  I say this because, for the most part, living in rural America is a much quieter environment than say inner city Chicago.  Sure, we have the occasional ambulance go by that drives my dogs crazy.  Yes, we have the typical traffic noise of a secondary road.  Of course, we use, powered lawn equipment to keep our property looking nice, power tools to do repairs around the house, and we hear the construction noises of the new houses being built in this area.  But overall, compared to downtown Charlotte, we live in a relatively quiet environment.  But how often do we simply sit and listen to the sounds around us?

I’m going to pause for 20 seconds or so, and during this break I want you to simply listen for the sounds around you.  Amazing, isn’t it?  When we really stop to listen, there are sounds going on all around us that we ordinarily block out.  When we take time to listen, we can hear our own breathing.  We can hear the church’s heating system, the hum of the organ, the sounds of traffic outside, or the tapping of a foot on the floor.  Tinnitus and the voices in my head aside, we’re constantly surrounded by some kind of noise, whether we realize it or not.

Gordon Hempton travels around the world recording sounds–especially sounds found in the most remote parts of the world, or sounds made by the rarest creatures on earth.  Without even being aware of it, if you watch TV or movies, you’ve heard his work.  His recordings are used in movies, TV shows, and video games.  He’s even won an Emmy for his work.  According to Hempton, it’s very difficult to find silence in the U.S.  The sounds of nature are always being drowned out by the sounds of technology.

For example, according to his recordings, the “hum” of power lines can be heard within a two-mile radius of the lines.  The sound of a chain saw can carry more than five miles.  Traffic noise can be heard 8-10 miles away from a major road.  And the noise from a major airport can be heard by folks more than 50 miles away.  When you pay attention to your environment, it’s surprising how noisy the average neighborhood is.

In 2014, a man named Brendan Farrell was looking for an apartment in Los Angeles, and he really hoped to find one in a quiet neighborhood.  However, noise levels aren’t something that realtors put in the apartment listings.  In response, he created a website called HowLoud.com.  HowLoud.com collects noise data from around the country.  It takes public reports on traffic noise, airport noise, noise from restaurants and manufacturing plants, and creates a Soundscore by address and zip code. The Soundscore tells you how loud or how quiet the area is where you live, or where you want to move.

For example, I put the parsonage’s address in and got a score of 99.  The closer you get to 100 the better.  I also put in the address for Holy Trinity in Gastonia and its score was 70.  Compare this to Times Square in New Your City at 57.  I also input several of the congregation member’s addresses and there was no Soundscore for these addresses.  It must be so quiet around here they don’t even bother to report a Soundscore.  Lucky us!  You can compare a soundscore as an inverse to another noise rating, decibels.  An F-15E for example at takeoff is 125 decibels which is just a bit noisier than Dhaka, Bangladesh at 119 db.  Or Midtown NYC at 95 db.  The average Lawnmower has a db rating of 90.  By the way, permanent hearing loss can occur after 2 hours of exposure to noise levels of 80db.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota there’s a place that’s so quiet it doesn’t register a Soundscore at all.  In fact, folks who study sound waves claim that this location is the quietest spot in the world.  It’s the noise-measuring room at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis.  The official name of this room is an anechoic chamber.  Anechoic means “non-reflective.”  For those of us who wear hearing aids, you’ve had the opportunity to experience a version of this room.  The anechoic room at Orfield Laboratories is designed to stop the reflection of sound waves so effectively that its sound level is measured in negative db numbers.  Companies pay to use this room to measure the sound level of their products.

Additionally, NASA’s astronauts spend time in this room to prepare themselves for the silence of outer space.  And if you are so inclined, you can sit in this room and experience what total silence is.  However, be warned, it’s very difficult to experience.  The longest anyone has managed to stay in the room is 45 minutes.  We’re so accustomed to auditory stimulation that the lack of sound is too difficult to endure for any longer than that.  For those of us privileged enough to remember, you might recall the popular Simon and Garfunkel song, “The sounds of silence . . .”  “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again . . .”  I’ve brought all this up to get you to consider the power of silence in our gospel passage for today.

By way of context, recall that in the previous chapter (Matthew 4), Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness after which He was tested by the devil.  When He emerged from the wilderness, He called His first disciples, and began His public ministry.  Matthew 4: 23 reads, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”  Keep those words in mind: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.”  Soon, Jesus had a large crowd following Him.  Can you blame them?  Who among us wouldn’t follow a guy who can heal diseases and cast out demons!  It’s a great way to become the most popular man in town.

As I was reading the previous chapter, I began to wonder, what were Jesus’ disciples doing all this time?  Thank goodness this was before the age of themed merchandise; things like bobbleheads, action figures, and t-shirts.  Business opportunities aside, I’m sure the disciples were busy learning and being a part of the success of Jesus’ ministry.  So, it must have seemed strange that, as we read in Matthew 5, Jesus walked away from the huge crowds and retreated to a mountainside.  Why interrupt a good thing?  Wasn’t this the perfect time to draw the crowd in with a few more miracles?  But Jesus knew that before He went any further, He needed His disciples to understand the message and the vision for His ministry God had called them to.  So, Jesus leads them away from all the noise of the crowds.

In the opening verses of chapter 5 we read, “Seeing the crowds, {Jesus} went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.  And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are…”  We need to note that this teaching was initially intended for His followers.  Jesus needed a quiet place to ensure that their place and purpose in God’s kingdom wasn’t getting lost in the noise of His newly won popularity.  He needed them to understand that His miracles and teaching aren’t an end in themselves.  He didn’t come to overthrow the current civil leadership, obtain power, or ensure His prosperity.  He needed them to fully comprehend the commitment they were making and understand that the true blessings of life aren’t found in the comforts of this world.

Jesus knew that the crowds were coming to see Him because they had a need.  They were hurting.  They desired healing.  They needed to be set free from their demons.  They wanted to know that God is real.  That God sees them and loves them.  The people were coming to Jesus because they had a burden, a heartbreak, a need that only He could fulfill.  It’s only when we lose the comforts, the security, the false blessings of this world that we feel the need for God.  In fact, those who put their hope in the comforts of this world usually miss the greatest blessing God intends for them, knowing God and God’s steadfast love for them.

In 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his fortune in the railroad and shipping industry, died.  At that time, he was the world’s richest man, and he left his family a fortune that would be worth about $300 billion today.  Within 50 years, though, all that money was gone.  The first generation of Vanderbilt’s heirs tried to run his business empire, but without much success.  The next generation didn’t even try.

The second generation devoted themselves to spending as much money as possible on as many luxuries as they could get.  According to news reports of that day, it seemed that the Vanderbilt heirs were competing with each other to see who could live the most over-the-top, lavish lifestyle.

Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson, Reggie Vanderbilt, was the last heir to receive a substantial amount of money from his grandfather’s estate.  Arthur Vanderbilt, a descendant of Cornelius who also wrote a biography of the family, described Reggie in this way: “Self-indulgent, lazy . . . (he) had absolutely no sense of responsibility or purpose other than to keep himself from being bored . . . The only way Reggie could distinguish himself was to live the life of a rich playboy.”  Sadly, Reggie Vanderbilt died at age 45 of cirrhosis of the liver brought on by his excessive drinking.  He left behind numerous debts, basically wiping out the Vanderbilt fortune.  It doesn’t matter how comfortable your current circumstances in life are, if you don’t have the joy of knowing there is a God, and that God loves you, there is no true joy and peace.  That’s the source of hope that sustain us through any challenge that comes in this life.

In a broad way, you could sum up the Beatitudes by saying, Blessed are those who don’t put their hope in the comforts of this world, but put their trust in God who will deliver them.  This brings us to the second thing Jesus teaches us, “You’re blessed if you live in two worlds.”  The number one priority of Jesus’ earthly ministry was teaching about and living out the values of the kingdom of God.

Jesus kicked off His ministry by preaching about the coming kingdom of God.  And even after His death and resurrection, when He again appeared to His followers, He spent 40 days speaking to them about?  You got it, the kingdom of God.  His miracles and healings were signs of the restoration that God promises in God’s future kingdom.

Why does Matthew 4:23 say that Jesus preached “the good news of the kingdom”?  Jesus explains that in these verses of Matthew 5.  The kingdom is good news because it means that the suffering and poverty and injustice and inequality and grief of this world are all temporary.  God promises in Revelation 21 that He wipe away every tear from our eyes (vs. 4).  God will fill the hungry with good things (Luke 1:53).  God will restore what’s broken and make all things new.  But for now, we live with the tension between those two worlds: the world of sin, suffering, poverty and pain, and the kingdom of healing, restoration, and joy.

Kate Bowler has a podcast, titled Everything Happens, where she discusses the issue of God and suffering.  In one episode, she interviews Jerry Sittser, a theology professor and author who lost his wife, mother, and daughter in a devastating car crash a few years ago.  The pain and loss that he and his surviving children have experienced is unimaginable.

In his podcast interview, he says, “I just think we live in a fallen world.  It’s broken everywhere, ricochets everywhere, consequences toppled from one to another.  And we just have to live in that world, that broken world.  And when God chose to roll up His sleeves and get involved, it wasn’t like pulling strings.  It was stepping into the story as a human being who became himself a victim of that same suffering and brokenness.”  God in Christ came into this world to pay the price for our sin.  And in His good time, He’ll return to rescue us from our bondage to sin.  But in the interim, we must live as baptized children in a sin filled world.  Our job is to continue to announce the good news of God’s salvation until Jesus returns.  And this brings us to the final thing Jesus teaches us in this passage: God, in the flesh, stepped into this sin filled world and He died on behalf of all humankind, all to guarantee us a place in His kingdom. 

Dan Lewis, in his daily Now I Know! email newsletter, shares the story of a man named Joe Serna who was sentenced to serve a 24-hour stint in a North Carolina jail for driving while intoxicated and violating his probation.  District Court Judge Lou Olivera didn’t want to pass this sentence, but the law required it.  You see, Judge Olivera knew that Joe Serna was a Special Forces combat veteran who had escaped death three times in Afghanistan and suffered severe PTSD from his combat experiences.

So Judge Olivera, who is himself a former Green Beret, decided that Joe Serna wouldn’t serve his jail sentence alone.  He served that 24-hour sentence right alongside Serna in the same jail cell.  They stayed up most of the night talking and shared a plate of meatloaf.  In an NPR interview with Joe Serna and Judge Olivera, Serna reports that this conversation in jail was the first time he ever opened up to another person about his experiences.  He said, “So thank you for being there for me.  It means a lot to have someone in your position that understands.”

In Jesus, we know that God understands our needs.  God understands our hurts and our sacrifices.  God knows the pain that sin causes not only the sinner, but the innocent as well.  We can’t put our hope in the comforts of this world.  But God has promised us a kingdom in which every tear will be wiped away and every broken thing restored.  So we can find strength in the knowledge that God walks beside us in our brokenness and we can be assured that God can and will turn our brokenness into blessedness and all things will be made new in His kingdom.  And what are we to do in this between time?  God through our prophet Micah tells us, “What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).


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