Sermon for September 8, 2019

Hurricane Dorian has left a trail of destruction, and possibly the worst has been in the island nation of the Bahamas. The storm was at its worst, a category five with winds of over 180 miles an hour when it hit portions of the island. On the news the Prime Minister said we have nothing with which to meet this storm except one thing, our faith in God. It was a wonderful testimony of faith. Certainly he did not mean people would sit back and expect God to do the work of rescue and rebuilding. Faith means God is trusted to strengthen people from within, so that they can use their hands for the massive work of clean-up ahead. This Sunday has been designated as God’s Work, Our Hands by the ELCA. Congregations are asked to engage in works benefiting the community. Today members of the Confirmation class and their parents will be serving a breakfast after worship, with donations given to the Conover Fire and Rescue squad. This is not only fund-raising but an opportunity to pause and thank members of the community who give of their time and energy to help others in times of crisis. Hands will be busy making breakfast and eating to show appreciation for those whose hands drive fire trucks or an ambulance to keep us safe. How is this God’s work? It is God’s work to create faith in our hearts, a truly  active faith that is busy loving neighbors, an overall witness to the love of God for the wider community outside the church walls.

In the gospel lesson Jesus wanted to make sure the people who were following him understood faith was not merely a spectator sport. Faith in God means complete commitment to God and God’s will for the world. Large crowds were following Jesus. This following did not necessarily mean commitment but curiosity—hoping to see another miracle. This happened with an incident we read about in the gospel of John. With only lad’s small lunch of five loaves and two fish, Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000. The crowds were following Jesus and they wanted to make them their king as Jesus told them, because you ate your fill of bread and fish. So Jesus told the crowd what it meant to truly be his follower, and as we heard, his words were shocking. First of all Jesus said “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Earlier in the gospel of Luke Jesus told the people to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them. So what gives? This doesn’t make any sense, love your enemies and hate your family. Do you have to hate your father and mother, wife, children and siblings before you can love them, Jesus’ words are troubling here.

Jesus does not mean for Christianity to be a hate group. Jesus demands total commitment from those who say they are his followers. Faith means trusting Jesus and obeying his word takes priority over what is precious to us, even our families and life itself. When Jesus used the word “hate” for family, he did not mean an emotional rejection. He meant to love God more than our families. We know Jesus had a family, his mother Mary and his siblings were one day trying to reach him. Jesus was engaged in teaching the people when that message came to him, ‘you family wants to see you.’ Jesus replied, “My mother and siblings are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Jesus was speaking of a wider family of his throughout all of time, those who know faith as not only hearing the word of God, but obeying it, applying that word for their daily life. The first lesson told us the meaning of love for God: walking in God’s ways, and observing the commandments. The reading from Deuteronomy further calls us to “choose life, so that you and your descendants, your family, may live.” Loving God, through trust and obedience of God’s commandments, means life as it is meant to be, and we learn to love our families when we seek to put God first. Love for God leads us to love ourselves in a healthy way, and this leads to love for spouse, parents and children. The commandments of God are a gift for they teach us to honor parents, and for husband and wife to love and respect each other. A faithful marriage and love within family certainly leads to love for neighbors and concern for community.

We know that in this world many do not choose life.  Is this not true of all of us? We have no right to have a smug-faith and pretend we are holier than thou. We have been known to break the commandments. The biggest break is, as the reading from Deuteronomy said, “your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them.” The other god Jesus was most concerned was with our possessions, our money.  Jesus warned you cannot serve God and money. No wonder Jesus often said “give up all your possessions”. How does that make you feel? We may not like what our Lord says because we tend to cling to our possessions in spite of our numerous excuses and denials. It is interesting that the first lessons spoke of our hearts turning away and do not hear….” We are bombarded, as we know, by all kinds of messages of consumerism. We are encouraged to worry about things and be afraid. If the message of God’s Word, a word of love for us and neighbor, is not heard, we will be led astray. Instead of clinging to possessions, the first reading told us to cling to God.

The current Opiod addiction crisis speaks of so much brokenness and sorrow. There are more deaths from opiod addiction than the deaths from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan each year. My favorite columnist for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, wrote in the Sunday, August 25th edition that America’s war on drugs has been a failure: more arrests and incarcerations only meant that addictions soared. He told the story of a man named Johnny Brusquet. He was born addicted because his mother was taking opiod drugs. His mother died of an overdose. His sister died of an over dose. He never really knew his father. How can one ever succeed when he started life with so much against him? God gave him a musical talent, not only to play piano and other instruments, but to write music as well. He made a good living with music. But then he suffered a series of setbacks and he was homeless, and began using and selling drugs. A policeman discovered possession, but instead of jail, was referred to a counseling service. What impressed me in this story is that although Johnny relapsed time and time again, his counselor did not give up on him, for they understood the throes of addiction.  Now he has been sober for well over a year. He is back at work. He said ‘I now go to the 7-11 and pay the cashier. This is a big deal for me for I used to steal from this place. We pray for Johnny and others on their life long journey of sobriety thankful a counselor did not give up on him. I love the column written by Susan for the Frederick Place newsletter. She wrote about a former resident who is an alcoholic. After relapse and troubles, he is now in recovery and doing well. She wrote, I understand, because she is an alcoholic and went through treatment centers six times. It is because counselors did not give up on her that she is sober today, sober for well over 13 years.

Jesus said to follow him you must take up the cross. Jesus wasn’t throwing out impossible demands. He practiced what he preached. Jesus carried the cross. He suffered and died under orders from Pontius Pilate, representing an emperor who thought he was god. Jesus did not want to die, but he obediently chose death for our lives. The cross Jesus carried is the cross of all our sins, idolatry, addictions, and broken lives and death. Jesus lifted from us the crushing burden of sin, which we cannot lift, with the power of a love that is truly impossible to measure. There is a hymn that says “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” When the text says “cling to God” it means cling to Jesus, which is to cling to his cross, revealing a love, a mercy, a healing that is for you.

On the first day of confirmation the students were asked to draw a “coat of arms” that symbolizes their faith. All of them drew representations of their family. And all of them drew among their family a cross. I asked “why the cross?”, and one student asked, “doesn’t the cross mean peace?” I had the student read from Colossians which says of Jesus ‘the fullness of deity was pleased to dwell, and he made peace through the blood of his cross.” No, we are not to hate members of our families, but we as faithful followers of Jesus we are called to full commitment to him and his word. This commitment means to cling to God, cling to the cross, revealing a real love, a love that will never give up on you.