Archive for October 2011

Follow Me: Matthew 16:21-28

October 25, 2011

Long version of sermon preached by Jeri Katherine Warden on October 23 at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC 29205

“Follow Me”
Matthew 16:21-28

 

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Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Exodus 32:1-14

October 14, 2011

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC on October 9

 

I don’t know if it is the rain or the cooler weather, or just this time of year, but the mice are finding their way back into my house. One night I was sleeping and all of a sudden my dog, Zip, started barking. It startled me and my heart was racing and I listened for what she could possibly be barking at, and then I heard them—scratch, scratch, scratch. Last year about this time of the year the mice came to play, and they always enter first through some hole that must be in the kitchen because they are always behind the oven. I guess it is warm and I guess the kitchen is where all the food is, so I guess if I was a mouse that would be where I would make my home too. But that night Zip started barking and then she jumped down and ran down stairs and the scratch, scratch, scratching stopped. She stayed down there for a while and lay in front of the oven and while she did the mice did not stir, but almost immediately when Zip left the room the mice would get back to whatever mice do, so Zip would bark and run back into the kitchen. This cycle went on for a little while until I had the smarts enough to get up, put out some poison and shut my bedroom door so we couldn’t hear the mice and Zip couldn’t leave the room. What’s that old saying about cat’s and mice…when the cat’s away, the mice will play. Zip is not a cat, but at 10 pounds she is the size of some cats, and when she would leave her post in front of the oven the mice would play.

This old cliché or idiom “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” is a good, descriptive idiom for Exodus 32. Just last week we were in Exodus 20 where God reminded the Israelites that he was the Lord their God who brought them out of slavery and bondage, out of Egypt and provided food, shelter and protection as they made their way to the promise land. And just last week God called the Israelites “my chosen people” and gave Moses and the Israelites the Ten Commandments, or as we said last week Ten Words of life that invite us into the God’s grace, love and a full life in the here and now. And now, just a few chapters after this great moment in Exodus 20, after making a covenant with God and promising to be and live as God’s chosen people the people have turned away from God. Moses wasn’t gone, but for few days, at most a few weeks, and in that time their leader was gone…after their so-called spiritual high or their mountain top experience, God’s chosen people have chosen to return to the lives before God made himself known to the people. “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

The only thing I don’t like about that cliché for these verses in Exodus 32 is that it makes God and Moses the cat, and the only reason the mice play when the cat is away is because there is nothing threatening them, nothing forcing them to obey or keep still and quiet or even go away. And the last analogy or parallel I want to make is that of an oppressive, threatening, and coercive cat to our loving, patient, and forgiving God. Comparing God or even Moses to the cat makes it seem like the Israelites only lived by the Ten Commandments and as the people of God because they were forced to, but as I said last week, we Methodists believe in responsible grace, that there is some human responsibility in living as the people of God. Just because we are away from church, our minister, other believers, or even God we cannot blame our literal or imagined distance for our behavior, for not living as God’s chosen people; for not living as baptized people who have been made new in Christ. We must take responsibility for our actions and our choices and the way we live.

Too often however we succumb to compartmental living. Within ourselves, within our daily lives even to the core of our identity we live divided, parceled, incomplete, disconnected, and segregated lives. At church I am a church person, a believer, a follower of Christ. At school I am a student or a teacher. At work I am a worker just doing my job to get paid. At home I am a son or a daughter or a parent or a grandparent or a husband or a wife. Often we wear multiple hats all at once, but I know from experience and observation that the church hat is often the first to be taken off. I think I have told this story before, but I am going to tell it again. I have a pastor friend who used to drive trucks for a living before he became a pastor. One day when he was out on the road he was talking to a man who asked my friend if he was a Christian. My friend said, “Yes.” But later when he was thinking about it he began to feel ashamed. He thought, “Man, if someone has to ask me if I am a Christian, then I must not be living, or doing something right.” I think we all need to ask ourselves do merely our words testify to our faith, or do our whole lives in all we say and do testify that we are children of God.

But too often, like the Israelites in Exodus 32, we live “out of sight, out of mind” lives. We come to Sunday school and church, and we even volunteer to help out with this and that at the church and all is well while we’re physically at the church and maybe our spiritual high and mountain top experience with God lasts us through the first couple days of the week or maybe for even a few weeks, but at the first sign of stress, busyness, conflict, fatigue, impatience, tragedy, the demands of other commitments, and so on and so forth…we turn from God. Sometimes even in our first footstep out of the church building we return to our old ways, our old selves before God spoke to our hearts and made us new in Christ. We return to the ways of the world, and we let the world tell us what and who to worship, and we make gods to replace the one true God.  

While we’re away from church we find other people to be besides the people of God. While we’re away from church and all those folks who help keep us accountable to God and who encourage us in our faith journey we find other friends who do not build us up but lead us astray. Notice that it is Aaron, Moses’ brother who went with Moses to confront Pharaoh, who was more eloquent in speech so he spoke on behalf of Moses and God; Aaron who helped lead the people out of Egypt, who performed signs, who only in Exodus 28 was chosen by God to serve as a priest to the Israelites—it is this righteous and chosen man-of-God Aaron who was so swayed by the restless, impatient, weak-hearted mob that even he, Aaron, took part in the people’s revelries, the party, the fun, the celebration, the debauchery while Moses was gone. But…“Out of sight, out of mind.” Right?

“I fear that Aaron is alive and well and living in us.”[1] Aaron was right by his brother’s side when Moses received the Ten Commandments. He heard God say through Moses, “Put God first; worship only God; use God’s name with respect, remember the Sabbath, respect your parents, don’t hurt others, be faithful in your relationships, don’t steal, and don’t lie.” And yet Aaron broke the first commandment to love God above all and with that the floodgate was open and he broke many, many more of God’s commandments.

How many of us are the same? How many of us have a little of Aaron in us? How many of us come to church week after week and yet when we leave this place it is out of sight, out of mind? When we leave this place we forget God’s word read, sung, prayed and proclaimed. On Friday I called my dad at his office to tell him a funny story, but he wasn’t there, and the man who answered the phone asked if I was the daughter who runs—a way I am learning my dad’s friends and co-workers differentiate me from my three sisters. Anyways, we got talking about running and this guy was a stud in his day. He qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon. He ran professionally with team Army and he traveled the international running circuit. Out of the blue he said to me, “Can you tell running was my god?” After doing all this reading about Aaron, the golden calf and Exodus 32, I said, “Go on.” And he said that he lived and breathed for running. He was raised in the church, but he didn’t take church outside the walls of church. He said it wasn’t until he was deployed several years ago that he realized he worshiped running. It wasn’t until he got run over by a Humvee while in Iraq or Afghanistan and suddenly he couldn’t run and would never run at the elite level he had run that he realized how much he had turned from God. He said it was his wake up call, but it took a long time and years of anger and not understanding to see that.

How easily it is for us to go about our ordinary, everyday lives doing what we love and loving what we do, and yet in all that loving and doing we forget about God; we don’t listen to God; we forget what we have learned at church, in Sunday school and in our Bibles; we don’t speak, behave and do as people who call themselves Christians ought to speak, behave and do; we don’t carry and conduct ourselves with the integrity of the children of God, but we give in to the ways of the world and live by the ways of the world. How easily we slip into an “out of sight, out of mind” way of living.

How many times have we all heard at church “love your neighbor,” and yet we go home and only complain about our neighbors or gossip about this person or that person, not showing love and good will as Christ showed the least likely of all people. But…out of sight, out of mind.

How many times have we all heard “give God the first fruits of ourselves and all that we have,” and yet all we have time and energy and resources to give are our leftovers after we buy this and that and go here and there and invest our time and energy in all the wrong places. But…out of sight, out of mind.

How many times have we heard, “God took a day of rest and so should we, or “remember the Sabbath.” And yet, we are production machines who get so consumed by work that we run ourselves ragged and sick. Rest is one of God’s Ten Commandments and yet it is so often out of sight, out of mind.

I could go on and on with ways we all turn from God as the Israelites did in Exodus 32…as Aaron, a righteous priest, even did. But I think you get the point. Please don’t leave here full of guilt, feeling as though you are too far gone from God’s unconditional love and grace. We are never out of God’s reach. Though we turn from God, and though we hurt God as we turn from his love, God does not turn from us, but forgives us over and over and invites us to return to him over and over. This is the Good News for all people—Romans 5 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The Good News is this though we might be “out of sight, out of mind” people—though God and God’s church and the ways of God might be ought of sight and out of mind, we are never, never out of sight and out of mind to God.

 


[1] John C. Holbert, “Genuine Leadership: Reflections on Exodus 32:1-14,” October 3, 2011, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Genuine-Leadership-John-Holbert-10-04-2011.html.

God’s Top Ten: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

October 14, 2011

preached by Rev. Jeri Katherine Warden on October 2, 2011 at Wesley Memorial UMC, Columbia, SC

Have you ever noticed that our culture is obsessed with “Top Ten” things? Think about it for a moment. You probably have seen a top ten list very recently. After last night’s football game everyone is waiting for the new College Football BCS top ten teams—to see if the gamecock’s loss moved them out of the top ten and Clemson’s win moved them into that coveted spot within the top ten. Many people wait everyday to see ESPN’s Sports Center top ten plays of the day. Every year Forbes magazine lists the top ten wealthiest people in the world, and the New York Times highlights the top ten colleges in the US, and People magazine rates the top ten most beautiful people. It seems like every magazine has a top-ten article advertised on the front cover of every single issue. But our “top ten” obsession doesn’t stop with newspapers and magazines. Every week on the radio there is a list of the top ten songs. Late night T.V. programs like the Daily Show with Jon Stewart have top ten lists of various political and culture absurdities. There is a top ten New York Bestsellers for the most popular books each week. Even the FBI has a top ten most wanted list that is occasionally shared with the public. As I was doing some research for this sermon I learned that there are several websites solely devoted to top ten lists. If you want you can visit websites like toptenz.net and top-10-list.org to find top ten lists from the top ten most misunderstood creatures to the top ten teen comedies to even the top ten video games based on books. They have top ten lists from every category you can possibly think of.

Sometimes I think we can name these kinds of culturally relevant, absurd or funny top ten lists better than we can name God’s top ten here in Exodus 20. And I even think sometime we even get more excited to talk about whose in the top ten of the BCS poll and such, but we are much less excited or even desire to talk about the top Ten Commandments God gave us through Moses. When someone brings up the Ten Commandments we may nod our heads and say, “Yeah, I know them.” But do we? Do we really know the Ten Commandments, or do we really just know about them—that they exist and were given to Moses from God on Mt. Sinai? Is that the extent that we know the Ten Commandments?  Perhaps you know and can name a few, or maybe you can name all of them, but does that mean that we know what they really mean for us today, what they mean for us as the people of God?

I can’t help but think about Kevin Smith’s 1999 movie Dogma with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Alan Rickman, Chris Rock, Selma Hayek and a whole cast of now Hollywood A-listers.  Alan Rickman, who you probably know best as Professor Severus Snape from Harry Potter, plays Metatron who is supposed to be the voice of the Almighty. In one scene he says, “Tell a person that you’re the Metatron and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody is a theology scholar.” I think there is some truth in the latter part of his statement. I wonder how many people associate the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Cecil DeMille’s famous movie better than God and the Bible.

Perhaps we don’t like to talk about the Ten Commandments because they sound so archaic and irrelevant, just a bunch of rules, a list of do’s and don’ts. Perhaps it is because over the thousands of years since Moses received God’s Ten Commandments the language, context, or background story, and meaning and significance has been watered down or lost. You know “commandments” really isn’t a good translation of the Hebrew word for commandments here in Exodus 20. A better translation is God’s “Ten Words.” These ten words are not so much timeless truths or just merely good advice from God, but words of life given to a people who God delivered from slavery to life, to a new life in God full of hope and assurance. As Christians we say the first “word” given to Moses is “You shall have no other gods before me.” But in Judaism the first word is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”  These ten words remind us who is our God and they are about life in God and our response to God’s outpouring grace.

Too often today we read the Ten Commandments as binding rules and just more regulations for our lives of what and what not to do as Christians; we don’t think of grace, but a God who wants us to follow a bunch of rules. But in the first verse of Exodus 20 God reminds us that he is the author of true freedom. We humans have many ways to toss ourselves into one sort of slavery or another—we make ourselves slaves of this world so easily, slaves to work, people, money, sex, drugs, alcohol, material things, and all sorts of things that rob us of true life, but Exodus 20 reminds us that God is ever ready to bring us out of slavery, to bring us out of whatever has us in bondage that keeps us from life and freedom.

The Ten Commandments are a gift to those who have been set free. They are words of life that show how freedom can be kept, how we can live life together as the people of God. They are not an assault course, a barrier to be overcome, or a check list of things we need to do in order to gain freedom. Freedom is a gift from God, not something that can be earned by years of striving, laboring, toiling or working. These words of life then are a kind of means of grace that we come to know God’s free grace and the freedom and full life he created us for. The commandments are not a prison or a straightjacket in which God restricts and holds down his people from enjoying life. God has done what humanity could not and cannot do for itself; God gave the Hebrew people freedom in the crossing of the Red Sea. And in Exodus 20 he gave his people a second gift—the means of keeping that freedom. In the whole story of the Hebrew people, from their slavery, to Moses confronting Pharaoh to the plagues to the crossing of the Red Sea, to wandering in the desert, to God providing manna from heaven—God has shown who he is and what true freedom we can have in him. God’s top ten words for our lives remind us that our God is living, active and present in the lives of all people, but that living in the presence of God brings responsibility or responsible grace as we Methodists like to say.

In German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most famous book The Cost of Discipleship published in 1937 in the face of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer writes about cheap and costly grace. He says, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace… Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing… Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate… Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it cost a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner…Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.”[1]

Today we often hear freedom isn’t free. Well, that isn’t true of those who call ourselves Christians. God has given us freedom as a gift; it is free. But that freedom is in him, and not how we choose to interpret that freedom. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “With great freedom comes great responsibility.” I think that is what Bonhoeffer was talking about with cheap and costly grace, and I think that is the message of Exodus 20. God wants us to have freedom and to enjoy a full life in the here and now, but he has also given us a means of keeping our freedom and ways to enjoy that freedom and to protect us and to nurture us—and those ways are found in God’s Top Ten words to live by here in Exodus 20. In our Sunday School lesson today someone said, “You can’t enter into the joy of the Lord unless you’re faithful to do the things he said to do.” God has given us words of life:

Put God first

Worship only God

Use God’s name with respect

Remember God’s Sabbath

Respect your parents

Don’t hurt others

Be faithful in marriage

Don’t steal

Don’t lie

Don’t be envious of others

These Ten Commandments are a call to follow God, a call Jesus reminds us of in the New Testament when he summarizes these ten words in just two words: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. Each of these Ten Words of life deal with loving God, loving our neighbors and loving ourselves. So, what does that tell us about God’s Top Ten words for our lives? What is at the heart of freedom? Love. Love is at the heart of freedom. God’s Ten Words in Exodus were given to us out of love, as a parent looks after children. Our Bibles tell us in 1 John 4 that God is love. What does the world need now? Love, sweet, love, says that top ten song from 1965. But loves is also what the Bible says the world needs. The world needs God, and as disciples of God we are called to make known God’s love in the world, a love so great that has the power to transform the world, so that all may know the freedom God offers.

That is a big calling—a calling that can seem very overwhelming and perhaps so much so that we don’t know where to begin or go about living into this calling. But we right here; we can begin with these Ten Words in Exodus 20. We can begin by learning them, living them, allowing them to shape our lives and our relationships. We can make these our top Ten Words to live by, knowing that we are not alone, but that in these Top Ten words there is unity with our Christian brothers and sisters around the world; there is a common ground which we can encourage one another and remind each other of the life in freedom we have all been called. I encourage you to spend some time with these Ten Words in Exodus 20. Don’t let them intimidate you, but open your hearts and your lives to God’s love speaking to the world through these commandments. God wants us to have freedom, and God has given us a means to know true freedom, but now it is up to you to respond to God. Amen.

 

 

 


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 45-49.