Sunday, February 27, 2011

Loving God and Loving Others

After the initial warm-up remarks, the announcements included the following:
1. There will be an Ash Wednesday service on March 9 here at the church, with no Adventure Club or youth group that evening.
2. VBS is a ways off, but summer will be here before we know it and Brooke is gathering volunteers to help now.
3. Covenant Park is a great resource our church has available and it's not too early to begin planning your summer. Cheryl Borndal has registration forms.
4. A building project meeting is scheduled for Monday at 6:00 p.m. Bring an appetite because there will be pizza.

The Quartet+Levi began the worship time with "Teach Me, Lord" and then led us in a set of choruses from the silver song book. They also sang during the offering that followed, always nice.

Jeff Larson read Matthew 6:24-34 and then Brad led us in a time of prayer, which was followed by the message.

Loving God and Loving Others

Brad began by noting that relationships are hard. All of us have relationship issues. It may be a co-worker, a family member, spouses, neighbors or even friends.

Not only are relationships challenging, but today's passage of Scripture is also challenging, as it talks about adultery, lust, gouging out eyes, turning the other cheek when being struck, and more. "So with the time we have remaining, I'd like to read the text and then we'll close in prayer," he said.

It was a light-hearted entrance into the theme, but by the end of the message it was apparent to all that this was a section of the Sermon on the Mount that has some serious things to say.

Ultimately, the easiest way to sum up the whole of the law of God is to recognize that it is a law of love. Love God and love one another. But life has ways of tripping us up.

The passage is Matthew 5:21-48 which covers a lot of familiar territory: murder, adultery, divorce and more.

Pastor Brad noted that there is a sequence in sin. Sin doesn't just happen. And Jesus zeroes in on it through these well known commandments. How does it happen? It's like a string of dominoes and when the first one tips, the rest are set in motion. Verses 27 & 28 show that murder begins in the heart. It begins with an attitude.

Adultery, too, doesn't just happen. We live in a culture that bombards us with sexual imagery. By allowing our minds to fixate on sexual fantasy, we have set in motion the actions that will trip us up. Brad pointed out that this is an equal opportunity issue that affects young and old, male and female.

Jesus then makes a hard prescription. "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." Is the Bible telling us to gouge out our eyes? To cut off our hands? No, the Lord is making a point. This is a serious issue and if one is to find freedom from sin, one needs to take drastic action.

The truth is, you can still cut off your hand and pluck out your eye and still have lust in your heart. What is that drastic step for you?

Another tough section follows, the matter of divorce. Divorce was never God's intent. But what Brad pointed out that is significant is that there is a relationship between all these sections of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' discussion of divorce should not be divorced from the preceding paragraph on adultery, or the one before that addressing murder. These are dominoes, beginning with an attitude in the heart that leads to hatred, loss of intimacy, lust and ultimately the violation of one's (wedding) vows. It's not by chance that Jesus deals with adultery in the next breath after addressing murder.

When Jesus says, "Do not break your oaths. Let your yes be yes and your no be no," He again goes deeper than that. People say they will swear on a stack of Bibles that what they said is true or whatever, but why? They are trying to manipulate others to buy in to their interpretation of the facts. Jesus says that kingdom people are not concerned with spinning or stretching the truth, or manipulating others. They have integrity, and their word is good.

At this point Brad shared a number of lame excuses he has heard people give over the years when they want out of their marriages. You can see how all of these sections are intertwined not isolated points in the sermon. Jesus says, "Keep your oaths."

Brad then turned to verse 38, leading into a most misunderstood passage. "“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."

Is Jesus saying that if you live with an abuser and they strike you in the cheek you're supposed to just turn the other and let them whack you again? Or if you're being sued for your car you should throw in the house as well? Or if your drug addict nephew is asking for money you should give it to him?

Brad said that Jesus is not setting down laws here. He is using illustrations of what kingdom people might do in certain situations because they go against the culture. The culture says, "When you're hit, hit back." Jesus says there are alternatives.

The real issue is this: Am I becoming the kind of person Jesus wants me to be?

The kicker verse in this whole section is verses 43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

The law of love is the basic kingdom rule. It begins with having your attitude right. The general law of the kingdom is learning how to apply it in every and any situation we're in in like. What do our actions look like when we apply the law of love. To be like Jesus is to be a loving servant. That's why you find Him spending time with children in the midst of a busy day. Or washing the feet of His disciples, and giving His life on a cross.

Jesus still goes further. "Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." Jesus doesn't call us to do what He did on the cross. But He does call us to be saturated with His kind of love.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do Not Judge

An energetic buzz filled the sanctuary today as we enjoyed the company of youth from First Covenant of River Falls, Wisconsin. The brisk chill outside was forgotten for a time as we celebrated another uplifting service here at New Life. Pastor Brad greeted us warmly and, as his custom, tipped his hand to our theme today. "Before you take the speck out of your neighbor's eye, take the plank out of your own eye," Jesus said. And with the assistance of several of the youth we were each handed a small plank of wood as a reminder for when we leave the service today.

Announcements included a reminder that a special Ash Wednesday service will replace Adventure Club and the regular youth group on March 9.

The youth of River Falls led the worship time after Darlene's introit. The Scripture reading was from Matthew 5:38-48, followed by a time of prayer.

Do Not Judge

Pastor Brad noted that it is not surprising when Jesus offers an object lesson from a woodworking shop, since He was the son of a carpenter. The message today was from Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount.
1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (NIV)

Brad's aim was to get us thinking about the planks in our own eyes. We're all very quick to see the other person's faults... but how is it we're so slow to recognize our own or see things about ourselves that are so plainly visible to others.

He illustrated this with an incident that occurred while he was water skiing a number of years ago. He'd taken a dive and the tip of his board hit him on the head, but he was in such an adrenaline rush that he didn't really feel it. As he prepared to get lifted for another pull, his friends were saying he should get in the boat and have his injury looked at. "What injury?" he wondered. From his perspective he was fine, but from theirs he was a bloody mess... he just didn't see it.

So it is that we are often unaware of how we appear to others, nor do we always recognize the plank in our own eyes when we think we see things clearly, but they are not what they seem.

Pastor Brad elaborated on three points with regard to Jesus' injunction, "Do not judge."

Jesus was not talking about discernment. As Christians it is expected that we will be discerning. Leaders must make decisions all the time was regard to what will harm the flock or be helpful. Juries must make decisions with regard to guilt or innocence. Jesus was not addressing jurors, or asking people to suspend making critical assessments.

The Greek word Jesus used here was in regard to condemnation. We are not to condemn. Stop jumping on people. Here's the paraphrase of this same passage in The Message:

1-5 "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, 'Let me wash your face for you,' when your own face is distorted by contempt? It's this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

Brad referenced an observation by Dallas Willard. How does Jesus know that those who judge are hypocrites? Is it just that we all come short, like the statement, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."? No, it's because He understands that condemnation is itself the plank that is in our own eye. It blinds us to the reality of the other person.

What is the plank that is in your eye? Brad outlined three.

1) Our attitudes toward those far from God

Romans 1 spells out the downward spiral of those who have rejected God's ways. Often, Christians take a high and mighty stance when referencing those whom this segment of Scripture describes. But then Paul turns the tables. "You have no excuse when you judge."

And yet, too often we hate. Paul's pointed message is that hate is wrong. "These are people who Jesus died for."

Brad asked, "So what is your attitude toward those outside the family of God? Do you judge them or do you love them? Do you feel better than them or humbled that God's grace has come your way in your life?"

2) Our attitudes toward those within the family of God

After a humorous story about a young rabbi that took over a new somewhat divisive congregation, Brad pointed out that one of Jesus' last prayers was that we might be one. Unity in the church is unfortunately rare, in part due to the excesses of Christian legalism. Brad highlights just a few of the "rules" that Christians in the past have promulgated and adhered to: dancing, playing cards, roller skating, wearing makeup, going to movies, listening to jazz or rock and roll, playing pool.

Though we laugh at some of the past man-made legalistic creeds, we're often very serious about the contemporary issues that divide us today. Pulling no punches, Brad listed the following:
True Christ followers only worship with hymns.
True Christ followers only sing choruses to worship Him.
Male Christ followers don't wear ear rings.
True Christ followers don't wear tattoos.
True Christ followers would never have a glass of wine with their dinner.
True Christ followers are vegetarians.
True Christ followers enjoy all that God made on this earth.
True Christ followers would never buy a lottery ticket.
True Christ followers would never go to an R rater movie. (Note: The Passion of the Christ shot that one in the foot.)
A true Christ follower who really loved God would never go through a divorce.
A true Christ follower would never let their children wear a costume at Halloween.
A true Christ follower would never allow Santa Claus be part of their Christmas tradition.
A true Christ follower would never read a Harry Potter novel.... or vote for a Democrat... or for a Republican...
and on and on it goes from our end times views to the appropriateness of what we wear to church.

This is just a portion of our contemporary hit list, condemnation list. But you won't find a one of these on God's list. We divide, we debate, we argue and we judge instead of giving one another freedom to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to each of us through his or her own conscience.

3) Condemnation of those who are unresponsive to our efforts to straighten them out.
Part of this comes from our wrong interpretation of "pearls before swine." But pigs cannot digest pearls, and often end up attacking the one trying to cram those pearls down their throats.

Often our efforts to help others get straight is motivated by a sense of superiority. What we need to remember is that we, too, were once the pigs. Do you really love them or is it more about you trying to get a feather in your cap for straightening them out.

Brad noted that we're not being asked to abandon our convictions, but you can't slam them down other peoples' throats either.

In closing we were reminded that how we love others is how we love the Lord.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ask, Seek and Knock

Brad opened the service by thanking everyone involved in making Saturday evening's Valentine Sweetheart Banquet a special occasion, especially Leonard Armstrong who prepared the feast, Susie Newman, Susie Lane, Nancy Vanderscheuren and Ed Newman who served as MC for the entertainment portion of the event, plus special guest Corianne Lee.

The quartet began the worship time with the Gaither Trio song "God Is Good" followed by "If That Isn't Love." After a time of worship and the offering, we listened to the reading of I Corinthians 3:1-9.

Ask, Seek & Knock

Pastor Brad began by sharing how he's lately been studying the Sermon on the Mount as a whole as opposed to the piecemeal manner in which it is often contemplated where we think about the Beatitudes at one time and the story of the house built on a rock another time. By meditating on the sermon holistically, new insights can be gained.

Today's message was on prayer, but Brad wanted us to see that this section where Jesus taught us about prayer is integrally related to what precedes it, words of caution about judging others. Jesus' words, "Ask... seek... knock" are given to us in the context of relationships. Interestingly enough, what immediately follows is the Golden Rule, "Do unto others..."

If Christians would conduct themselves with the attitude of ask, seek, knock we might get more headway in our relationships and our efforts in the world. Ask means to get permission. Seek, in the original Greek, is to seek and keep seeking. Knock means don't barge in, don't force things.

As mentioned, the section just before this is dealing with horizontal relationships. Jesus takes things into a vertical direction, but it is still about relationship, only now He addresses our relationship with God.

7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

God is our Father, and like a good Father He responds to our requests. Just like earthly fathers, he cares and listens. Yet, as C.S. Lewis notes, prayers are not always granted. God, who is perfect, knows what we need and responds with our best interest in mind.

Brad noted that God is unchanging in character, and raised the question whether it is futile for us to try to change His mind when something has been decided. He then cited two examples where God did indeed change his mind, the first being in Exodus 32 where Moses interceded on behalf of Israel. The second time was when Isaiah visited Hezekiah who was dying and God gave the king another fifteen years of life. In other words, if we ask, sometimes we really can change God's mind.

Pastor Brad cited an especially good prayer for certain circumstances. "Lord, if this is of You, may it increase. If it is not of You, may it go away."

Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. This is what God wants us to do. This is how we show our earnestness.

When seeking God's will, Brad affirmed that the more important thing is not what we do but rather who we become. God's aim is to make us like Jesus, and our character is more important than whether we move this direction or that.

Ultimately, God's desire for us is a relationship with Himself, that we pursue Him more than "answers."

As the Scripture states, "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart." What this means is that when we know and understand God's heart we can move in greater harmony with Him.

It's like at a party when your spouse is across the room and he or she indicates it's time to go with that look in the eyes. So it is we know God's heart and intent by looking full in His face.

Prayer is not a technique. It is not something mechanical like pushing the right buttons, or an incantation where you have to say the right words. It is a relationship.

Knock, and keep on knocking.

In closing we drank in again the words of that great hymn Be Thou My Vision.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

First in the Pool

Pastor Brad, having been at a conference all week, yielded the pulpit to Pastor Dave Eaton this morning, but welcomed us warmly and led the service. In his opening remarks Brad reminded us that everything we do matters. For Christians, life is not simply a "holding pattern" till Jesus returns. Our actions here matter and we're on earth to make a difference.

Announcements were several.
1) Saturday is the Sweetheart Banquet here at the church, featuring delicious hors d'oeuvres, exquisite cuisine and scrumptious desserts by Chef Leonard, followed by a modest evening of entertainment. You can't beat the price... free (with a suggested donation of ten dollars for those who are able.) 5:30 p.m. Saturday the 12th.
2) Paula S. reminded us that a number of folks from the church will be going as a group to see a theatrical production of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None at St. Scholastica the weekend of the 19th. Call Paula if interested in being part of it and to suggest whether Saturday eve or Sunday at two is best for you.
3) Susie Newman shared that if anyone is interested in more information on being a mentor through Mentor Duluth, give her a call.
4) Deacons meeting is Tuesday at 6:00 p.m.
5) This Wednesday will be an Adventure Club Fun Night with sledding and a bonfire.

Darlene played a beautiful medley of Open Our Eyes, Lord and Be Thou My Vision to begin the service in earnest. After leading us in worship, Brad read to us from John 5:1-15, the passage from which today's sermon would be derived. After a time of prayer, Pastor Eaton brought us the message.

First in the Pool

The Pool of Bethesda was a place of expectation. The basis of this expectation was a belief that at certain times the waters would be stirred and the first into the pool after the stirring of the waters would be healed. In fact, some translations of the Bible include a verse explaining the basis of this belief, in verse four: For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. (KJV)

This "stirring of the waters" was not something that occurred daily. It was an occasional event, and unfortunately for those who were especially debilitated, the least seek could usually reach the pool faster and get there first.

The story tells of an invalid who had been poolside there for 38 years. It is probable that at this point he had lost hope of ever being healed. Possibly he was paraplegic, and most certainly a man with hygiene issues, a man neglected and ignored. But when Jesus saw this man, He had compassion.

The story records three statements that Jesus made to this man that are applicable to all of us who are in need.

1) "Do you want to get well?"
We get used to things. When things become familiar to us we often don't even notice them anymore. We often adopt an attitude of resignation to our problems and some people even get a sense of identity from their misery.

What Jesus was saying is, "Do you have the will to be healed?" The man himself began like many of us do, making excuses. In his case, he said he had no one to help him into the pool. But why was he alone? Why did he have no one there? Has he alienated the people who once loved him?

2) "Get up. Pick up your mat and walk."
Grace is an amazing thing. God is willing and able to help us. This man's healing was wholly grace, but for grace to take effect it required a response of faith. To his credit, the invalid when instructed attempted to obey, and was indeed healed. God did it, but the man had a response of faith.

Note the reaction of the religious leaders though. They were no rejoicing. Yet had they noticed him before? Had they shown compassion to the man before? Instead they are critical legalists. Spiritual legalism is a life sucking spirit. The problem was in the early church and is often with us today.

3) "Stop sinning"
As He addressed the woman caught in adultery, so Jesus spoke here an important third statement. We have been healed to bring glory to God and to leave behind what does not bring honor to Him.

As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans:
1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2)

The important thing for each of us in our relationship with Jesus, which gives us the strength to follow that which God has called us to be and do.

After a story about a man who rescued a drowning swimmer, we celebrated the Sacrament of Communion.