Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Finding Firm Footing

Rev. Kathy Donley

02/26/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28; Matthew 7:21-29

 

One Sunday in December, the children of another church gathered after worship to rehearse for the annual Christmas pageant.  The toddlers were dressed as lambs with woolly ears and caps.  The angels wandered aimlessly, wings drooping as they waited their turn onstage.  The stars of the show, Mary and Joseph, were being arranged at the front, along with a plastic baby doll that had played Jesus for decades.  Suddenly a little shepherd shouted out, “Wait a second, wait a second.  Do you mean to tell me we are going to do exactly the same story as we did last year?” [1]

This is, of course, what every Sunday School teacher hopes for, that the student will recognize and remember the story when it is shared again for the second or third or fiftieth time. 

 

“Teach your children well.”  It was sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash a generation ago.  It was taught by Moses thousands of years earlier.   What has come just before this are the ten commandments and the summary statement to love God with heart and soul. 

 

“Give attention to God’s words,” the Deuteronomist is saying, “to the rules that govern our relationships with each other and with God.”  Talk about them when you are at home and when you are out in the world, first thing in the morning and last thing at night.  These are not words that apply just on Sundays.  Every aspect of daily life is to be informed by our faith. 

 

Judaism was not a religion that sought to convert others, and yet they were instructed to profess it publicly, to wear it, if not on their sleeve, then on their foreheads and hands.    They professed their faith, not to convert others, but for their own sakes, so that it would flourish in them. 

 

At my aunt’s funeral last weekend, one of my cousins started talking about our genealogy.  My father has done a lot of historical work.  I have a thick binder, somewhere, with all of his research.  But my cousin is newly interested.  He asked if I knew that we are part Cherokee, which I did not.  So, he explained how and when and where that occurred in the family tree.  And what about our Polish ancestor, our only Jewish relative, who changed his name in a feeble attempt to hide that fact?  And then, we remembered the family bigamist who moved out west on the prairie and set up a homestead, but when he sent for his wife back east, she refused to come.  So, he simply took another wife, without bothering to formally divorce the first one, which my grandmother said, is what anyone would do.

 

We tell the story of family because we know what we tell much better than what is contained in a binder somewhere.  “We know and love the story of God’s claims on us in direct proportion to how well we tell that story. . .”[2]

 

Teach the children well, because someday, they will be the adults and they will need to know.  Teach the children well, because you need to know it yourself.

 

Moses is addressing all the people, but primarily the adults.  Contrary to some popular beliefs, there does not appear to be a statute of limitations on learning God’s word.  I have known people who felt that they did not get enough Bible when they were young.  Their parents did not teach them or take them to Sunday School and so they think it is too late to learn.  It is never too late.  If you did not get enough Bible at a younger age, here’s an idea – try becoming a children’s Sunday School teacher now.  You will learn what you need in order to teach it.  And trust me, our children will help you.  Some of them will be saying “wait a second, wait a second.  I heard this exact same story last year.” 

 

* * *

 

In the reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been doing as Moses instructed.  He has been teaching.  This is the end of a long section of teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount. 

 

Jesus has been teaching the basics, about loving God and loving neighbors and loving enemies.  He has been walking through the ten commandments, although he does not call them that.  He has been talking in everyday language, out in the midst of ordinary life with ordinary people.  As this teaching draws to a close, he tells this short parable about two builders, one who built on rock and one who built on sand. 

 

The wise builder is the one who builds on the solid foundation.   Applying the metaphor, we understand that Jesus means that the foundation is the word of God and Jesus’ own teaching.  He says that the wise person is the one who hears Jesus’ words and acts on them.   Hearing and doing the will of God are the hallmarks of a disciple. We might ask “What do you believe?”  and then “What difference does it make, in your own life, in the lives of those around you, that you believe it?”

 

If Jesus’ teachings are the blueprints, then we build our lives by living out what he taught.  Jesus says that those who hear his words and do them are wise.  That should be simple enough to understand, even if living out his teachings is not simple to do.  That could be the end of this sermon – learn Jesus’ teachings and do them.  It could be, but it’s not.  It’s not because of the warning which comes just a few verses earlier. 

Listen to vs. 21-23 again, Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

 

“Jesus is Lord” was the confession of the early church.  “Jesus is Lord” and not Caesar.  It was a radical profession of faith which could result in very costly discipleship, if Caesar’s representatives heard you say it and took offense. 

 

“Jesus is Lord” was a profound statement, but it appears that knowing the right words, having the right theology is not enough.  Not everyone who claims the name of Jesus is actually within the kingdom of heaven.

This is a hard saying for most of us.  Most of the time we don’t like this.  We are big on inclusion.  Our favorite texts are the ones where Jesus welcomes everyone, including specifically those who are normally left out.  But lately many of us are seeing distressing actions being done by those who claim to be Christian.  Actions which we strongly believe are contrary to Jesus’ teaching.  And in that light, then perhaps we might find these words of Jesus helpful.

It might be worth noting that Jesus is talking to insiders, not outside enemies.  These are not the political or religious authorities who persecuted the early Christians.  They are the insiders who speak the language of faith.  Not only are they insiders, they are amazingly successful insiders -- they are powerful preachers, proficient healers who seem to be doing great things in Jesus’ name.    But Jesus calls them evildoers.

William Sloan Coffin served as the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City from 1977-1987.  One of his ideas about evil was that it often disguises itself.  He said, “If evil is a soul hiding from itself, if the primary motive of evil is disguise, then we should not be surprised to find evil people in the churches.  For what better way to disguise evil from oneself and from others than to wrap it all up in piety and to become a highly visible Christian - a preacher, let's say, or a deacon or trustee?” [3]

 

Jesus is warning us about evil, warning about how subtle it can be, how disguised it can be, when he says, “On that day, many people will say, 'Lord, Lord, when we spoke big and influential religious-sounding things, didn't we do it while invoking your name? When we drove out people whom we called demonic or dangerous, didn't we do it while invoking your name? And when we showed our tremendous power over others, didn't we do it while invoking your name?'”

But Jesus responds: “Go away from me, evildoers, for you said what you said and did what you did, even using my name, but they were not my words and they were not my ministry.” [4]

 

Jesus rejects these insiders because for all their demonstrations of religion, they have failed to do the will of God.  And what is the will of God? Elsewhere, Jesus summed it up in two sentances - Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  If we miss this, we miss everything.

 

Maybe you have just thought of someone, a well-known evangelist or a prominent political leader, who seems to fit this description of evil in disguise.  Yes, my mind goes there, too.  Christianity is being hijacked by those with power who are using it to harm and destroy others.  The life of a disciple is a life of discernment.  We must listen carefully for the voice of Christ.  We must rightly divide the word of God to find the truth or falsehood within our leaders.

 

But first we must look for the truth or the lie within ourselves. How well do we know and live the story of God’s claims on us?  How solid is our connection to the rock? 

It is always easier to see the failure of others and harder to see it in ourselves.  I needed to hear these words from another pastor this week.  He said “What is true of individuals is also true of churches.  A church that has become only a venue for adoration of the Divine (proclaiming Lord, Lord) has not fully become a part of the realm of God.  A church that has become only a social service agency, . . . is also not really inside the “kingdom of heaven.”  A church that is, at least provisionally, demonstrating the reality of the reign of God in the world will be a gathering of people who seek to deepen their relationship with Christ and who, transformed by that relationship, engage others both with the church and beyond it . . . in ways that makes real God’s just will for all.”[5] 

 

What is God's just will for all?  Jesus said to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  If we miss this, we miss everything.

Blessed and wise are those who hear Jesus' words and act on them.  Amen.

 

 

 


[1]As told by Lillian Daniel in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1, Advent Through Transfiguration, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.   (Atlanta:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 410.

[2] Sheldon W. Sorge in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 1, Advent Through Transfiguration, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.   (Atlanta:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), p. 411-412

[3] William Sloan Coffin, The Collected Sermons of William Sloan Coffin:  The Riverside Years, Volume II, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 98

[4] Andrew Purves in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013)   p. 180.

[5] Timothy B. Cargal in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Volume 1, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2013)   p. 179-180.

 

 

 

 

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