Monday, July 6, 2015

God is God and We are Not

"Relying on the Protection of Divine Providence"
July 5, 2015, First United Methodist Church, Bradenton

Do ya'll know what hastags are?  They are a way to link together with other folks under a similar idea on social media sites like Twitter and Instagram.  You've seen and heard them mentioned in the news.  #BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLives Matter, and recently #LoveWins.  

I was thinking that if I had a hashtag for last week's message it might have been #LibertyMatters or #TruthWins, but the more I thought about it, I decided that perhaps it should just be, #TruthIs.  And this week's hashtag would be #TrustGod.

In these two weeks I get to share with you, I'm focusing on the Biblical worldview found in the Declaration of Independence.  We have been fed a bunch of lies about the Declaration and our nation's founding.  I hope that after last week you have declared your own independence from the lies that say America wasn’t founded on a Judeo-Christian worldview.  At the very least, I hope you will question with boldness the lie that people of faith should just shut up and keep your faith to yourself. 

Let me remind you of a quote from one of the founders, John Adams, that I shared last week.  He said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Americans need to be a moral people.  The limited government our founder’s laid out in the Constitution is based on the idea that “we the people” take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our communities.  That we the people would live lives built on an understanding of biblical morals, not only sexual morals, but things like kindness and compassion, self-control, generosity, working hard, and staying out of debt and caring for others.  The idea is that we don’t need many laws because we take care of ourselves and our neighbors.  You know, love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

But why did Adams say, “moral and religious?”  I mean, can’t you be a moral person without being a religious person?  I know many people who are good decent, moral, people who have no belief in God.  But here is the problem.  If you say you can be moral, without being religious, how do you decide what is moral or virtuous or not?

“The Big Lie” swirling around our world today tells us that morality is the common consensus of the people.  It is agreed upon behavior.  Or in its more extreme version “The Big Lie” says that “my morality is what I decide is right and wrong.  As long as I don’t hurt you, you stay out of my business.”  In short, “The Big Lie” says that deciding what is right and wrong, good and evil, is a human decision not a divine one.  That my friends, is part of the lesson of Adam, Eve and the Apple.  A sermon for another time. 

The Founders knew that the guidance for moral behavior comes from God, and not from what I say, you say, or even we say it is.  I don’t know for certain, but I think that is why John Adams said American’s must be both moral and religious for our form of government to survive.  And why is that?  It is because being religious, believing in God, puts a whole different perspective on things.  A very humbling perspective.  Religious  people know, God is God and they are not. 

There are four references to God in the Declaration.  The two we talked about last week, I see relate quite nicely to this idea that Americans are to be a moral and virtuous people.  Our Creator makes us equal, gives us life, liberty and the ability to pursue our dream, “the ability to write the story of our own life.” (Dinesh D’Souza, America: The Movie).  The laws and the laws of Nature and Nature's God show us how to live happy, healthy, productive, prosperous, and generous lives. 

The second two references come in the last paragraph of the Declaration after Jefferson lists 27 ways the Crown abused its power.  I would love to talk about them, too, but please read them.  "Taxation without Representation” is only one of them, and by far not the most important! 

 Now we get to the end of the document.  Listen for the other two references to God.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Did you hear that?  They appealed to "the Supreme Judge of the world" to judge the rectitude, the rightness, of this decision to separate from Britain... And then, “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence” they mutually pledged to each other all that they had and all that they were to that cause.  They trusted God and each other with their reputations, their money and property, their very lives.

There were 56 men who signed the Declaration.  By their own admission and biographies we know that 32 were Episcopal/Anglican, 13 were Congregationalist, 12 were Presbyterian.  There were 2 Quakers, 2 Unitarians and 1 Catholic.  ”These individuals, … were for the most part active churchgoers and many contributed significantly to their churches both with contributions as well as their service as lay leaders.” Some were sons of preachers, some had theological training but most pursued other careers.

As far as I can tell, two of the signers were former preachers, Lyman Hall a Congregationalist from Georgia had left the ministry to become a physician.   Robert Treat Paine, from Massachusetts, was a minister and chaplain in the French and Indian War, but who soon after that turned to law, left the Congregationalists and became a Unitarian.  There was one active clergyman who signed the Declaration, John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister from New Jersey, who was also the President of Princeton.

As I mentioned last week, Jefferson found in “Creator” and “The laws of nature and nature’s God” language that would unite, not divide, the delegates, or their constituents back home, even with all their doctrinal differences. These last two references to God are no different.  They united Christians to the cause of liberty.  But the words were not Jefferson’s.

The phrases, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” were not in Jefferson’s draft presented to the Continental Congress.  The Congress added them.  But who?  We don’t know.  History does not record which delegates made the suggestions.  There is an oral tradition, a legend, that says it was the Rev. Witherspoon who suggested these phrases be added.  Probably because he was the only active preacher in the crowd, and he had just preached a sermon on “The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men,” but honestly I think this language could have been any of the men in that room.

These men knew, and boldly declared in these phrases, that God is God, and they were not. They knew that God would judge their actions.  They knew they were accountable to God for what they were about to do.   And they also knew that God cared about the rise and fall of nations.  They knew that throughout history, God actively participated in the lives of men.  They knew they were not alone.

They appealed to God, to the Supreme Judge of the World, to determine if their cause was just.  That phrase “Supreme Judge of the World” would have been known to most of them because it was part of the Westminster Confession and it was also well-known through the sermon “The Final Judgement” preached, as well as published, about 20 years before by the famous Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards.   But it is an idea that resonates with all Christians.  We said it in the Apostles’ Creed this morning.  (We believe in Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father and will judge the living and the dead.)

The Founder’s knew, and knew it was important for each citizen to know that we are all accountable to God.  Let that sink in for a minute.  You are answerable, not just to other folks for what you do.  You are answerable to God.  The time will come when you will have to answer to God for how you lived your life.  Jesus will be our Judge. Sheep and goats.  Right and left. Inherit the Kingdom.  Eternal punishment.  Some are justified by their faith in Jesus Christ.  Others are not.  We are justified  - that is forgiven of our sins and made right with God – we are justified by our faith through God’s grace (amen) as evidenced by our works. And all of us will have to account for everything that we ever thought, said or did to our Creator.

These gentlemen of the Continental Congress were the elected representatives of their colonies.  They struggled with this decision.  They were Englishmen, they tried to remain loyal to the King, but his tyranny became intolerable.   They knew with this decision, this monumental decision to sever ties with Great Britain and establish a new nation that they were accountable not only to themselves and to each other, and not just to the folks who elected them, but they were accountable to God for the rightness of this decision. 

How great would it be if our elected officials knew that with each decision, they were answerable not only to themselves, to their donors, to their party, to their constituents, but to God as well?  I wonder how different our country would look.  How different if business people, teachers, doctors, lawyers and just plain ole folks like you and me recognized the eternal consequences of our decisions and not just the immediate ones?

Our founders knew God is God, and they were not.  They humbled themselves before the Supreme Judge of the World.  They knew they were accountable to God.

And in addition to that they went on to pledge their trust in God.   They, as a Congress,  added to the Declaration that they were forming this new nation, “with a firm reliance on Divine Providence.”    Again, this idea wasn’t something new, but a bedrock foundation of the Christian faith, although the phrase is often used to mean different things.    

We don’t use the word Providence much anymore.  Sometimes Divine Providence simply refers to God. 

Sometimes Divine Providence refers to God’s control over creation, from the rising and setting of the sun, to the birds of the field and number of hairs on your head.  Other times, it refers to God’s active involvement in the lives of mankind, in nations, communities and communities of faith.  And yet other times, Divine Providence refers to God’s daily and intimate involvement – guidance, comfort, correction - in the lives of individuals. 

In Calvinist thought Providence is closely connected with the idea of predestination.  That God’s sovereignty controls all aspects of creation, and includes God’s control over who is saved and who is not.  While not in any way limiting God’s sovereignty, other faith traditions, including us Methodists, see the role of man’s free will as a part of God’s sovereign plan.   

So in short, and with way too much simplification, Divine Providence refers to God, to God’s general protection and provision for all creation, and also, to God’s special care and guidance for individuals, for communities and yes, for nations. 

But you know what, no matter how you heard the words, "with a firm reliance on divine providence" in 1776, there was no doubt in your mind that God, the creator, the law giver, the supreme Judge, was also the Sovereign God who cares for  - and is actively involved in - the lives of men and nations. 

In May 1776, Rev. Samuel West preached a sermon to the Massachusetts House of Representatives entitled Natural Law:  The True Principles of Government.  In part of it, he described the hand of God involved in this idea of America from the beginning.  

Our fathers fled from the rage of prelatical tyranny and persecution (in  essence, of the prelates, the leaders of the church), and came into this land in order to enjoy liberty of conscience, and they have increased to a great people.  Many have been the interpositions of Divine Providence on our behalf, both in our fathers' days and ours; and, though we are now engaged in a war with Great Britain, yet we have been prospered in a most wonderful manner.  And can we think that he who has thus far helped us will give us up into the hands of our enemies?  Certainly he that has begun to deliver us will continue to show his mercy towards us, in saving us from the hands of our enemies: he will not forsake us if we do not forsake him.

And haven't we seen God's providential hand in our history since, both for our prosperity and correction?   We have not been perfect.  Throughout America’s history, we have sinned against God and against each other. Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address clearly stated that the Civil War was God’s just punishment on America for failing to abandon slavery.  The ideals of the Declaration of Independence were not fully realized at their founding, or at the end of the Civil War, or even today.  Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I Have a Dream Speech” talked about how the words of equality and liberty were a promissory note to future generations.  They still are.  As long as God’s gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness continue to stir in human hearts, and it is our duty, our responsibility to promote, protect and defend what God has given to us.  And to trust in God to help us.  Each generation has its role to play in “securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”  That’s in the Preamble to the Constitution.  D’Souza says near the end of the movie America.  The founders created a nation based on the idea of liberty, the Civil War preserved that liberty, World War II protected that liberty, and the challenge of our generation is to restore that liberty.  God will not forsake us if we do not forsake him. (Rev. West)

The Founders knew that God is God, and they were not.  They put their trust in God’s guiding hand.  They knew they were not alone in this endeavour and that God would guide them.  In God We Trust, didn’t just show up on our money in 1864.  It is a part of who America is.  Check out the last verse of the Star-Spangled Banner sometime.

In preparing this message, the scripture that continually came to mind was Micah Chapter 6.  It is a courtroom scene.  The Lord is demanding to know why His people have abandoned him. 

O my people, what have I done to you?
What have I done to make you tired of me?
Answer me!  (3,NLT)

And the Lord goes on to recount for them how he brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and blessed them and showed them again and again how faithful God is to us.  It is a story that continues through history.   God shows his love and faithfulness again and again and we reject him.

In Micah’s courtroom scene, the people seem to repent and want to know what to do.  Should we bring burnt offerings, sacrifice our children? Here is the answer:

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
    and to walk humbly with your God. (8,NLT)

Do what is right, love mercy, walk humbly with God. (Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.)   I believe that is exactly what our Founder’s did, and what they want us to do too. 

Do what is right, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. 

My prayer is that each of us, that the people of America, will turn again to the God of our Fathers, and with a firm reliance on Divine Providence, pledge all that we have  - our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor, to the cause of God’s liberty and the cause of God’s love for us all.  Amen




Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Self-Evident Truth vs. The Big Lie

 "We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident" 
Delivered June 28, 2015 at First United Methodist Church, Bradenton, Florida

Ready for a little history lesson?  

On June 10, 1776, the colony of Virginia, through its representative Richard Henry Lee, proposed a resolution to the Second Continental Congress that the United Colonies “are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states.”  Before the Congress debated the resolution, they tasked a committee of 5 men – John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia - to prepare a formal declaration of independence.   Thomas Jefferson, the youngest of the five, but the best writer, wrote the first draft.  Franklin and Adams made some changes and 239 years ago today, June 28, 1776, the Committee of Five - presented their final draft of a declaration of independence to the Second Continental Congress.  

The members of Congress made a number of changes, the most notable of which was removing the paragraph that asserted Britain had forced slavery on the colonies. It began like this:  He [King George III] has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most Sacred Right of Life & Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their Transportation thither." 

The Southern colonies objected. That fight would come later but it would come. For now, the colonies were united against King George, but as we see through history, the fight for liberty marches on.  

On July 2, 1776, the resolution on independence was adopted.  Twelve colonies voted yes.  New York later approved it on July 9.  On July 4, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved and sent to the printer.    

The Declaration clearly was directed at King George.  It boldly stated the just causes for American’s separation from England.  (We should talk about King George’s tyranny some day.)   It declared to the world that the United Colonies, now the United States, were an independent nation.  But the Declaration holds within it, challenges to the American people as well.   

Hear these words.  

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….. 

You might be thinking, "Nice history lesson Preacher Girl, but move on." 
Have you been paying attention to the news this week?   If you have been paying attention particularly to the recent Supreme Court decisions you will not be surprised that most Americans, including our judges and elected representatives, believe that these documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - are nothing but interesting historical relics.  In hearing about the Supreme Court’s decisions it seems obvious to me that the Declaration and the Constitution no longer hold the power of law or authority or even influence over America.   

I am not here this morning to debate the merits or faults of ObamaCare or same sex marriage.  But even the dissenting judges recognized that these two Supreme Court decisions - upholding the Affordable Care Act, and the legalizing same sex marriage – violated basic Constitutional principles.  The details of how can be a discussion for another day.  In both these rulings, but for different reasons, the Court ignored the Constitution.  It seems to happen a lot.  I am sad to say, it appears Constitution is effectively null and void.  

And honestly, the Declaration of Independence was demoted to the dustbin of history long ago.  Even so I was still shocked to hear Chris Cuomo, a commentator on CNN, say to Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, without batting an eye, - “Our rights do not come from God, your honor, and you know that. They come from man... “   (Chris Cuomo says "our rights do not come from God,” February 12, 2015,    

How did we get to be a nation that believes our rights come from man rather than believing our rights come from God?  Here is my theory. I call it “The Big Lie.”  I call it that because I believe its source is Satan, and Jesus told us Satan is a liar and the Father of lies.  This is a spiritual battle as well as a political one.  (How politically incorrect is that?!!) 

Evil has a vested interest in the destruction of America, because at its core, America is based on the idea that God can rule a nation through the hearts of men, not through a theocracy, not through a king, but through the consent of a faithful people. That the love of God can shine through a nation.   That my friends, is what makes America exceptional.  And that is why Satan and the powers of evil cannot allow it to stand. 

We, the people of America, are complicit in our own destruction. Over the past 100 years for sure, and definitely over the past 50, people of faith have checked out of the political process.  Over time, bit by bit, we have been cowed into submission by the tyranny of “The Big Lie.”  The bottom line of “The Big Lie” is that God does not exist, but forces of evil at work in the world just don’t come right out and say that.  Well sometimes they do, like that Time Magazine cover “Is God Dead?”  That was in 1966 BTW.  But most of the time, evil just nibbles at the edges.  “The Big Lie” says things like our founders were really atheists, deists at best, and that America was not founded on Biblical principles, but that America was really founded as a secular society free of any religious influence. Look at how “The Big Lie” interprets the meaning of separation of church and state stuff.   

“The Big Lie” says that, even if you want to delude yourself into believing in God, your right to freely practice your faith,  means that you can worship anyway you choose, within the confines of your church, of course.  But remember, you must check your faith at the door to your sanctuary and keep it away from your workplace (you know the Marine who was just fired because she had a Bible verse on her computer), your school (remember, they took the Bible and prayer out of the schools in the 1960s), and especially from the voting booth (you know, preachers can’t talk about candidates or churches will get in trouble…)    

“The Big Lie” says that that truth is relative which really means that there is no truth at all.  Each of us makes our own truth, right? We each can decide what is wrong and what is right.  Or we can accept that morality is determined by a community consensus, not divine law. Or we can just do what somebody in power tells us to do…..  You can write all the hate crime legislation you want, but you cannot legislate kindness and compassion.  You can confiscate everything I have, but you cannot legislate generosity.  You can ban me from buying a Coke larger than 16 ounces, but you cannot legislate self-control.  Kindness, generosity, self-control are hallmarks of a moral people.  Wouldn’t you rather be a good people than a governed people? “The Big Lie” claims that the people who believe in truth are evil and liars themselves.  Hateful people.  Heard that lately?  The world is turned on its head. 

The bottom line of “The Big Lie,” Satan’s ultimate goal, is to convince you that that there is no God, so he can step in and take over. 

How do you fight “The Big Lie?”  You fight “The Big Lie” with “The Bigger Truth.”  Let’s go back to the dusty old Declaration of Independence and (perhaps your even dustier) Bible. 

The Declaration bases this idea of America on what it says is, self-evident truth.  Self-evident means that any thinking person doesn’t need any additional proof.   It is obvious.  Self-evident.  These truths were self-evident to the American people in large part because of a group of individual men, spread throughout the colonies, who went out on Sunday mornings, put on black robes and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  History calls them the Black Robe Regiment.   I think the British may have referred to them that way too. 
America was populated by people of many denominations. In the Declaration, the Anglicans could find common cause and a common language with the Catholics, the Congregationalists, the Universalists, the Baptists, the Scotch and American Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Moravians, the Quakers, the Shakers, the Deists and the myriad of other Christian groups in America.  (See The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David L. Holmes, Oxford University Press, 2006, Kindle Loc 317)

These groups may have disagreed on the nature of Christ’s divinity, on the proper method of baptism, on the meaning of Holy Communion, the role of the clergy, on a whole library of doctrinal issues but they could agree on some things.  Even with the 1000 or so Jews represented in the colonies population of about 3.5 million could agree with what Mr. Jefferson wrote. Jefferson’s genius just amazes me in how he finds the words that would unite people of faith and not divide them.  Oh, how we need statesmen to unite us and not divide us these days!
I am here in the tradition of that Black Robe Regiment to tell you that even if these truths do not seem self-evident to you and your neighbors, they are indeed still true.  I start from a place where I believe Jesus is the Son of God, who died for my sins and rose from the dead.  He will hold me accountable to these truths.  

  1. There is a God.  God has ordered the universe – the laws of nature – and has given humanity rules to follow for our benefit, out health and well-being.  You know, the laws of Nature and Nature’s God.  The revelation of God in the universe and Scripture.  
  2. People are created in the image of God.  We are all equal in his sight.  You know, in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free….
  3. God has given to each and every person the “rights” the gifts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that is the ability to pursue our own purpose and destiny. 
  4. And human beings, while created in the image of God, are also fallen, and prone to evil.  So governments are needed to protect the rights God has given us from those, like tyrannical kings and power-hungry parliaments and even selfish neighbors, who would like to take them from us.

The phrases “all men are created equal,” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have resonated through the ages.  They roll off our tongues with ease, but we have forgotten that each word, each idea is infused with the necessity of virtue and morality.  Here is our challenge. 

The Founders knew, the weakening of our faith, would be the weakening of the republic.  John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

So let’s talk about morality and virtue for a minute.  (Deep breath)  I’m not going to much talk about sexual morality this morning.  I think the biblical worldview of sex has been pushed to the margins it’s going to take a while to bring that discussion back on track.  A few months back I heard Andy Stanley challenged his congregation of 30,000 to not talk about gay marriage until they had gotten their own sexual house in order.  That means they needed to go a full year without committing adultery, viewing pornography, even the soft stuff like TV and movies.  Hey ya’ll, get rid of that copy of 50 Shades of Grey.  Stop engaging in premarital sex, extramarital sex, any sex outside of marriage and yes, that includes flirting with your married coworker at the watercooler.  Then we’ll talk.  Kind of reminds me of not casting the first stone….

My friends, morality and virtue aren’t just about sex.  It’s about how we live our lives.  About how we control ourselves and interact with others.  It’s about personal responsibility.  Are you every day trying to be a better person, a good person? 

And when the Founders spoke of morality, they took their own moral development quite seriously.  Do you?  As a child Washington wrote out 150 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.  They helped shaped his life and the good man that he was.  Granted, some of them sound a bit fussy to us, but their focus was on how to courteously interact with others. 

Franklin, the purveyor of wisdom in Poor Richard’s Almanack put himself on personal regime of moral improvement when he was in his 20s.   He identified 13 virtues that he wanted to make a habit of.  Sincerity, Industry, Justice, Frugality, Moderation, Humility.   He would focus on one each week.  He had a little book with one for each page and at the end of day, week review how he was doing and where he needed to improve.  

Jefferson, ah Jefferson.  Gets a bad rap among some Christians for the Jefferson Bible.  You know where he took out all the spiritual stuff in the Gospels, the miracles and the divinity of Christ.  I will admit he struggled with the divinity of Christ and the doctrines of the Church.  Jefferson encouraged his nephew Peter Carr to question with boldness even the existence of God?  Nothing wrong in that.  Our faith in stronger when it moves through the fires of honest questioning.

The actual title of what we call The Jefferson Bible is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.   Jefferson understood that the best systems of ethics and morals from Jesus.  That is what he distilled into the Jefferson Bible.  Oh, that the members of the Congress who get a copy would read the teachings of Jesus! 

The American people of the colonial era understood all this.  The preachers of the day – the Black Robe Regiment – would preach the saving grace of Jesus Christ and how, in gratitude, we should live moral and decent lives.   

These preachers taught that the individual spirit that Americans hold so dear is all about personal responsibility.  “The Big Lie” would have your believe that American individualism is about selfishness.  Not so. Individualism in America means each person is responsible for themselves and to each other.  Equality demands respect.  Life, liberty and that pursuit of happiness only work, when I respect your life, your liberty and your pursuit of your own dreams.   You know, love God and love your neighbor as yourself. 

Let’s begin there.   You are responsible for yourself.  You reap what you sow – literally and figuratively. 

You are responsible to fulfill the role in your family, be faithful to your spouse, honor your parents, care for your elderly parents, and teach your children in the way they ought to go. 

You have a responsibility to contribute to society.  You know, all that stuff about helping others in the community of faith, like caring for the widows and orphans.  Or about caring for those in the community at large?  Does the Good Samaritan ring a bell?  How about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger?

The preachers taught that you are to honor the government, render unto Caesar, and all that jazz.  But I might add, we should follow the government only when the government follows God.  Many years later Martin Luther King Jr., who I think would be proud to be considered a part of the Black Robe Regiment, taught us what civil disobedience looked like, didn’t he?  

All Biblical.    

Well, are Americans still a moral, virtuous, a religious people? Are we self-reliant? Are you?  Perhaps not as much as we should be.  If we look at our neighbors rather than at most of the news and the media…. We find bits of hope. 
Look at Charleston.  I see hope in families who offered the saving grace of Jesus, who offered forgiveness to the man who confessed, with racist intent, to murdering their pastor, mother, friends.  I see hope in the members of the community who have pledged to protect the grieving from the disruption of outside agitators.  Look at folks who went to help people in Ferguson, and clean the streets of Baltimore. 

I see hope as Dave and I travel around the country.  Just recently we did the Hot Rod Power Tour in Dave’s 55 Chevy.  5000 cars, most vintage, travelling the same route from Madison Wi, to Champaign, IL, to St. Louis, to Memphis, to Birmingham, to Gulfport, MS, to Baton Rouge over 7 days.  And you know what.  Despite the traffic jams, there was no road rage.  People honked their horns to acknowledge a cool car, not as a sign of impatience.  People let each other merge in.  People stopped and helped when a car was in trouble.  Because there were more men than women, sometimes there was a line for the men’s room, and us ladies let the men use our restroom.  How about that?   People just stopped to chat and admire the cars.  A couple folks even stopped to admire our Ben Carson for President bumper sticker. Strangers became friends.  The venues we visited each evening were clean, the people courteous, even the vendors gave free advice.  And these are folks of all ages, all races, from all over the country.  It gives me hope. 

There are good people out there.  They are the core of America and the hope of America.  We just need to strap on a little courage to fight “The Big Lie.”  We need to fight “The Big Lie” that God is dead. We need to strap on the courage to boldly live lives of decency, morality and personal responsibility. We need to be that light so others see our goodness.  We need to strap on the courage to fight for our God given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

We know from our history that we need to fight for liberty with each generation.  Sometimes we need to fight enemies from outside our country.  There was no compromise to be had with the evil that was Nazism.  There can be no compromise with the evil that is Islamism that we see in ISIS and elsewhere.  

But sometimes, we have to fight the enemy within our borders.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,   “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  And, might I add, not to vote is to vote.  Thomas Jefferson said:  “We in America do not have government by the majority – we have government by the majority who participate.  All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”   It has been estimated that 50% of American Christians, those that go to church on a regular basis, are not even registered to vote. And that among those that are registered less than 40% ever darken a circle on a ballot.  And that those that do vote often are more driven by their pocketbook than their principles. 

Why is that?  I believe Christians have bought “The Big Lie” that people of faith should keep their faith to themselves, shut up and stay home. 

Please don’t believe it anymore. 

Please don’t let community consensus determine your moral choices, but look to God’s Word.  Please be involved as a person of faith – everywhere you go! 

This Independence Day, make it your Independence Day, and speak up, and speak out.  Declare Independence from “The Big Lie” and grab with gusto “The Bigger Truth”…

that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

And let me read just a little bit more…

 --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it...

Reclaim the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. It is our fight.  It is our right.  It is our duty to ourselves, to each other, to the future, and to God. Amen.



Monday, January 26, 2015

Soul Searching

Preached at First United Methodist Church, Bradenton, Florida
January 25, 2015


What do you think of when you hear the word “soul”?  Soul mate, soul music, soul food, I’m a soul man?

 What is your soul?  You have one you know.  All human beings do.  How many of you have prayed:  Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray dear Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray dear Lord my soul to take.  Amen.  So what is it you want God to take and keep?   Or how about this, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength."    (Luke 10"27) What is it God wants you to love Him with?

 A lot has been written about souls.  But for today, this is what I’m talking about:  Humans are physical and spiritual beings.   A person’s soul is their spirit.  Our soul is our inner life.  It is the part of us that motivates us. The soul helps direct our thoughts, emotions and actions.  You have a soul, a spiritual side to your personhood, just like you have a physical side, an emotional side, a rational side.  Your soul is responsible for your will to live, your will to achieve, your will to love and be loved.  The soul is the seat of desire. The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh.  And a scholar named Hans Walter Wolff describes the soul as the “needy man”  …Your soul is a needy man, a needy woman….. We see to be limited in so many ways - in our intelligence, our strength, our energy, our morality, but there is only one area where human beings are unlimited. …. We always want more: more time, more wisdom, more beauty, more funny YouTube videos. This is the soul crying out. (John Ortberg. Soul Keeping, 82)   

 How do we satisfy the desires of our souls?  We do a little soul searching, right? Socrates did say that the unexamined life is not worth living.   Soul-searching means to think seriously about what is important to us and what to do about it.   In all our soul searching, we try to figure out what will make us happy, whatever you think that might be….

 But you have to admit that in all our soul searching, something is missing.  We seem to go down a lot of rabbit trails, try different things, don’t we?   A new job, a new car, a new house, a new spouse.  Gee, that almost sounds like a new Dr. Seuss book.  Anyway, we just can’t seem to get satisfactory answers on our own. I believe this is typified by the  British poet Mick Jagger as immortalized by the Rolling Stones, "I can’t get no, satisfaction.  I can't get no satisfaction, I can't get no satisfaction  'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try. I can't get no, I can't get no.  No, no, no, hey, hey, hey. I can’t get no satisfaction."

And we can’t get no satisfaction on our own, because God never intended us to.  God never intended us to be satisfied with a life without God.   In all of our soul-searching, God is not a disinterested party. God has placed a desire for Himself in our souls, a desire that we seem to want to fill with everything but God.  That’s what sin is all about, but more about that later.   

 History is full of other versions of I can’t get no satisfaction.  St. Augustine, 4th century wrote:  You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (  Thomas Aquinas, 13th century, wrote that this neediness of the soul is a pointer to God. (Ortberg, 82)  Blaise Pascal, 17th century,  There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus. (

And this idea isn’t just something some philosophers from Augustine to Mick Jagger discovered in their own soul-searching.  From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is a record of humans trying to satisfy their souls with everything but God, and God waiting patiently to be welcomed into their lives. 

 Genesis.  The beginning.  Adam and Eve have done the one thing that God asked them not to do.  They disobeyed.  They sinned.  Did God stop the experiment creation and start over?  No, He didn’t.  Because though they could no longer sense God the way they had before their sin, the God came searching for them. 

Genesis 3:8-10 When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (NLT)

 Where are you?  Are you hiding from God? 

 And then at the end of the Bible (just before the maps and concordance)  we find in John’s Revelation,   Jesus sending a message to one of the churches, a church whose love for Jesus has become lukewarm:

 Revelation 3:20 Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. (NLT)

 Friends with God.  How cool would that be!  There was a painting of this verse outside of the pastor’s office in the church where I grew up.  Jesus knocking at a door.  And if you looked closely, you would see that there was no a door handle on the outside of the door.  The artist’s profound point is that only we can choose to open the door to God, or we can choose not to.  God will not force himself in, but He will keep knocking.  Do you hear God knocking on the door of your soul?  Will you let him in? 

And the highpoint in about the middle of the Bible, in this sacred record of the struggle between our souls and God, comes Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, God himself, who said he came to seek and to save what was lost.  He told stories about how lost sheep, lost coins and lost sons were all found.  Two of those  stories end with Jesus saying, there was was rejoicing in heaven over sinners (those separated from God) who repent (turn away from their self-centered soul-searching to God).  (See Luke 15)

 “We are all sinners.  We all fall short of the Glory of God.  If God has a standard, we all fall short.  We need someone to do what we cannot do for ourselves.”  Jesus did more than tell stories and give us great moral precepts.  He died for all our sins, and rose from the dead to unite us with  God.  Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me shall have eternal life, will not be judged, will have crossed over from death into life.”  (John 5:24)  God through Christ has done something for you that you cannot do for yourself.  God has done through Christ what he never intended for you do to on your own." (Andy Stanley, Something for Everyone,

 The entire Bible is about how we are sinners and God loves us anyway.  It’s about how we keep turning our back on Him, and He keeps trying to get our attention.  God wants to be a part of our lives infinitely more than we can imagine and God is never going to give up. 

 So how does this all work?  Jesus described it to man named Nicodemus.  (John 3) Nicodemus, another searcher for the truth, came to Jesus at night because he was afraid of what his friends, the other Jewish leaders, might think.  Consorting with the enemy, if you will.  Kind of like a Republican wanting to have a meaningful talk with the President, or a Democrat honestly seeking to talk with Speaker Boehner.  He went at night when no one would know.  And Jesus freaked him out when he told him he needed to be born again. 

 (Paraphrasing here) Not possible, said Nicodemus , I’m already here.  Jesus told him that it is not only possible but it is necessary.     Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. (3:6)   Remember, humans are both physical and spiritual beings. 

The wind (that is, the Spirit of God)  blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8, NIV)

 As you know, wind moves from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure.  When you keep the door shut, God’s spirit just keeps moving around you, banging at the door.  But only when you open the door, will He come in.   God’s spirit joining with your spirit. Like Paul described to the church in Rome:  Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”[i] 16 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15-16)  

 The story of God searching for us doesn’t end with the Bible.  Let me tell you some real-life stories about how people and God reconnected in our lifetimes.

 (Note:  In the preached version, I did not  initially identify the people I was talking about in the sermon.  I extemporaneously summarized their stories.)
The first story was about Anne. 
You can read her story here:   or in her book, Travelling Mercies. 
I ended my description with her words:  

 I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along me heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “[Okay,]. I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”

 Here is Jack's story.  (He wrote a book about it, entitled Surprised by Joy.)    I ended my description with his words: 

 Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive. At each step one had less chance “to call one’s soul one’s own.” To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.” (Surprised by Joy, 236)    

 And now Susie’s story.   Susie appeared to have it all.  Young, healthy, educated, with a wonderful, well-paying  job she loved.  She was married to her high school sweetheart.  They had a great house, great cars and not debt.  Life looked really good from the outside.  But Susie felt that something was missing in her life and in her marriage.   She had been raised in the church, the Methodist church.   She hadn’t rejected the God of her youth, but gave him an increasingly small role in her life.  Sunday’s were for doing laundry and prayers were of the “Help me, help me” variety that we all seem to say from time to time.  But as I said, Susie felt that something was missing, so in her soul searching Susie decided to read her Bible and on the way to work. Each day she would stop at a park near the office and read a few Psalms.  Then, one day, she got to Psalm 139 where she read this:  “You have searched me, Lord,   and you know me.”  And after the Psalmist David tells how God hunted him down, created him, never let him go, the Psalm ends:  “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. “

 And in that moment Susie knew that she was loved – not because she was a good boss, wife, daughter, friend, none of that.  All things she struggled so hard to earn.  She knew in that moment that she was simply loved for who she was, a forgiven child of God, and not for what she did or didn’t do.  Soon after she returned to church.  She knelt at the rail waiting for Holy Communion, the first time in a long time, and heard in the depths of her soul, welcome home.  

 In case you were wondering,  Anne’s story is that of Anne Lamott, best-selling author, and now elder in her Presbyterian church.  Her latest book is Small Victories:  Spotting the Improbable Moments of Grace.  Jack is CS Lewis, who went on to write of the most important books on Christianity in the 20th century, like Surprised by Joy, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and maybe you’ve heard of the Chronicles of Narnia….or seen the movies.   And Susie, in case you couldn’t guess is me.  That marriage ended in divorce.   I changed careers and became a pastor. And I married again to the most wonderful man on the planet. I am happier and more at peace than I could have ever imagined. 

 Each of these stories is marked by our neediness, and God’s loving desire to satisfy that need with Himself.  But the paths for each of us in our relationship to God are as unique as we are. 

 Every one of us, you included, has that neediness inside of us that we try to satisfy on our own – Anne tried with alcohol and drugs, CS Lewis with intellectual pursuits, me with plain old stuff and trying to please everybody. 

 But if we pay attention, the wind of God’s Spirit is always moving around us.  God will use what is unique in us and in our circumstances to draw us to Him. God’s soul connected with Anne’s soul through the gospel music pouring out of a little country church and a vision of Jesus in the depths of her sadness and in the hour of her need.  God’s soul reconnected with Jack’s soul through his interests, conversations with Christian friends, and his intellect.  God’s soul connected with my soul through His Word and in the Sacraments.  Each step in a process leading to the moment when we surrendered our lives to the love of God. 

 God met each of us in a different place, in a different way.  God never gave up on any of us, and God will never give up on you.  He wants you to believe that He is who He says he is. 

 Jesus told Nicodemus a great truth:  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16)

Anne believes.  Jack believes.  I believe.  We believe and in our belief the door to our souls opened, and God’s Holy Spirit moved into our lives.  Our souls are satisfied. 

 But what about you?  Is today the day for you to say Yes, Lord, I believe in You?  Is today the day for you to say, please Lord, make me yours and satisfying the longing of my heart.    As you can tell from my stories, you can say yes to God in the way that suits you.  There is no one size fits all way to do it.  It is up to you and God.   

 But sometimes we want a little help with the words.  So I’m going to end by offering you a prayer.  You can change the words.  You can ignore it.  You can tuck it away for later.  Perhaps, if you have already given your life to Christ, you can use it to make a little more room for Him. 

 (Please pray with me)  Heavenly Father, Blessed Lord Jesus, Holy Spirit,  Come into my life.  Thank you for loving me.   Thank you for never giving up on me.  I believe Jesus is the Son of God.  I believe he died for my sins.  I believe he rose from the dead.  I am a sinner, begging for forgiveness.  Help me turn away from my self-centered soul searching and put my trust in You.  You alone can satisfy my soul. Amen.