Friday, March 19, 2004

I mentioned earlier this week that I had to write a sermon. So, here it is. I don't feel very confident about it, but it's done. And with my current level of exhaustion, that's all that matters. So, it's probably crap, but unfortunately that's the best I can do right now. It is my first sermon ever, so maybe I should cut myself some slack.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 (UMH 810)
Psalm 91
1 He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. [1]
2 I will say [2] of the LORD , "He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust."

9 If you make the Most High your dwelling-
even the LORD , who is my refuge-
10 then no harm will befall you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

14 "Because he loves me," says the LORD , "I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call upon me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him
and show him my salvation."

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I was a procrastinator in school, and I’ve discovered I’m no different when it comes to writing sermons. I spent a lot of time this week thinking about this reading and trying to come up with a good approach. In many ways, it is a very challenging text. On one hand it seems very clear. The writer of this psalm seems to be saying that if you love God, God’s got your back.

However, on the day I looked up the lectionary readings for this week, four Baptist missionaries were murdered in northern Iraq. A fifth was critically wounded. Admittedly, I don’t know all of the facts. I do know that they were working on a water purification project. I have to believe that were doing it for the glory of God. But after reading Psalm 91, you have wonder, why didn’t God watch out for them? If God’s angels are going to protect anyone, wouldn’t it be these people? They were working in the middle of country torn by war, serving people who might not want them to be there, citizens of the occupying army’s country.

I found myself asking how I could preach on this text when I didn’t have an answer. Believe me, I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a good one. All I could think to say was,

“I don’t know why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. I don’t know why missionaries get killed doing God’s work. I don’t know why children suffer and die. I don’t why God seems to promise protection from all of the evil and sickness in the world and then not protect us. I don’t know why so many people claim to know. All I really know is that I’m better off with God in my life. The world is still a scary place and I’m afraid for my family and friends. I know that God is watching out for us, but I’m not sure I’ll every really know exactly how.”

And that made me think of the reading for today from the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy, verses 1-11:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11;
Deuteronomy 26
Firstfruits and Tithes

1 When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us." 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: "My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. 7 Then we cried out to the LORD , the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD , have given me." Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. 11 And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

This passage is essentially a legal text. It reinterprets the legal traditions contained in Exodus and reinterprets them for a settled community, rather than one in exile. In some ways it is very similar to Psalm 91. The Israelites were suffering under the Egyptians, they called out to God, and God led them to the land of milk and honey. However, what I think is important is that they are instructed now to give back to God some of the fruits of their bounty. God provided for them plentifully, but also expects them to acknowledge that provision.

Reading this passage from Deuteronomy made me think of two other things I read this week. First, a Presbyterian minister said (in response to a question about suicide) that God is loving, not logical. We often try to force God into our logical framework. We’re not always going to understand what happens in the world. But as Paul said, we can rest in that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[1] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. " (Romans 8:38-39). Frankly, though, that isn’t a very good answer to the question I asked earlier, either. I still wonder why God can leave us with so much pain in the world and in our lives.

That thought led me to the second article I read. Brian McLaren, a Christian songwriter was discussing the lyrics that we often hear in today’s praise music. He’s distressed that a lot of our praise and worship music, and possibly Christianity in general, is becoming all about me. All about you – all about us. What God has done for us, will do for us, how wonderful God makes us feel.

Not that those things aren’t wonderful and that the gifts God has given us aren’t beyond understanding, because they are. But really what we need to be asking is how has God’s presence in our life moved us to LIVE the gospel. We really need to turn Psalm 91 on its head, in a sense. How can we go about making God our refuge and how can we demonstrate our love for God. We need to focus on making our lives as Christians less selfish, theologically. We should put less emphasis on what God gives to us (which is certainly amazing), but rather how we can glorify God through our gifts and service.

More specifically, are we reaching out to those in our community in Christian mission? Brian remarks, “Jesus came not to be served, but to serve … and as he was sent, so he sent us into the world.” We need to be in mission in the world. Not just evangelizing and not just serving those in worse shape than us. We can be missionaries by sharing how the Grace of God changed our lives.

Speaking of missionaries, I don’t know why they died. I just don’t know. What I do know is that they gave their first fruits to God. They reached out to a nation deeply in need and gave everything. I don’t think we necessarily need to go out and give our lives for God to serve the world. Certainly there is something very humble and honorable in being willing to risk that sacrifice for Christ. And in thinking about how we can serve we should remember those 4 saints and what they were willing to give to advance the ministry of Jesus. Particularly during this season of Lent we should think about how we can give our first fruits to God and make God our refuge.



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