If you turn to the end of the book of Deuteronomy you encounter some of the most moving scenes in the entire Bible. God instructs old Moses who was in Moab to go to Mount Nebo. And there old Moses after forty years of wandering in the wilderness looking for the promised land—he stood on that mountain and looked down at the Jordan River. On the other side was the land he and his people had been promised. But Moses’ time was up. He would never set foot on the new land. And so we are given Moses’ final address to his people. What would he say, there at the end? Those last chapters of Deuteronomy are a series of benedictions. after all he has been through—slavery, Egypt, Red Sea, the wilderness years he still goes a thanks to God. This theme of praise runs through all those last chapters of saying goodbye.
Now I am not Moses and I now quite a hundred years old——though some of you might have wondered. But I thought what I might do on my 82nd birthday today is to look back down my own ministerial road. I have served six churches and after retirement, if you call it that I have served eight other churches as interim pastor. And through the years I have picked up here and there some things I think I have learned along the way. Most of these came through experience and some of them came only when God hit me over the head with a two by four. Let me tell you some of the things I think I have learned along the way.
|photo by C.P. Lesley|
I have been quoting John 3.16 all my life. But it was a long time into adulthood until I realized that the book says, the book says: For God so loved the world. The Greek means kosmos--everything. Not just the Church. Not any particular denomination. Not just the liberals or conservatives. God so loved the world that the Lord God gave all of us Jesus. And all my life has been spent trying to get my arms around the length and the breadth and the height and the depth of this love of God that we see in the heart of Jesus. And if sometimes I grow very weary of anybody who tries to exclude and put a fence around God. Trying to keep God in their little old private back pasture with a bell around his neck. It won't work. Because along the way I have met a bigger God than I ever, ever knew. Nobody can keep this God penned up. God is Maker of heaven and earth. We are all included and nobody is left out. God so loved this world.
The second thing I have learned the hard way is that there is not but one Jesus. I tell it to people caught in the perfectionist trap who come and sit in the counseling room. Some people along the way have been just furious when they discovered that I am not perfect. Sometimes they say: He got angry. He missed me when I was in the hospital. He's not fulfilling my expectations. I tried for years to jump through those impossible hoops before I finally realized it was just not possible. Sometimes they would say: The church let me down. The church broke my heart. Or how can you stand to be Baptist? Have you looked at the Episcopalians or the Presbyterians or the Methodists or even the Disciples--and to these I could add a whole long list of adjectives that are just adjectives. Never nouns. We're mostly the same.
People have told me we need to get back to the early church. Early Church? Have you ever read about Corinth or Galatia or Philippi or Laodicea or Pergamum or just about anywhere. The early church is just like the church today. And Reinhold Niebuhr taught us that in our time there is sometimes more of the culture in this thing we call church than Jesus. We look more like the US of A than we do the Man from Nazareth. Paul taught us we always have the treasure in earthen vessels. Granted sometimes the vessel is a little too earthen--but there is not but one Jesus.
Don't be too hard on yourself. Perfection is overrated. Don't be too hard on your Pastor or the church. Or even the little girl who takes your order at the restaurant after this service. There is not but one Jesus and we are not God. We need to be kind to one another.
Which leads me to the third thing that grows out of this. The demonic is underrated. I
used to think when you got saved the battle was over. Little did I know that the battle was just beginning. Paul talks about the powers and principalities or darkness and how we all have to battle them all our lives. Carl Jung first taught me that we all have a shadow side. Karl Menninger underlined it in his book, Man Against Himself. There is an enemy within our lines that, let go would destroy your life, my life, your marriage, my marriage, your primary relationship, Any good church could be destroyed.
|photo by Lawrence OP / flickr|
Back to the reality check Paul gave us. We have the treasure in earthen vessels. A friend of mine used to say that almost every church he knew had a death wish. Squeeze the treasure too tight and you kill it. Hold it too loose and it slips away and means little or nothing. I have been in some church fights along the way and when the genie gets out of the bottle everything is hurt and crippled and nobody wins. Everybody loses. Everybody.
In Deuteronomy 30.19 Moses is preparing them for his leave-taking and he says: "I have set before you life and death, choose life that you and your descendants may live..." Keep your eyes open. We all have a shadow side, which can destroy us all. And the antidote is found after Moses said choose life or death. He says: "Love the Lord your God, obey his voice, cleave to him..." Don't take the demonic for granted. It is a serious threat to us all.
|photo by no-frills / flickr|
Do you doubt it? Look at your own life. After that breast surgery—grace. After that divorce—grace. After that job you lost—grace. After the death of somebody you loved more than life itself—grace. After embarrassment and shame when they found out—grace. After the depression you thought would never end—grace. Standing there looking in the mirror the lines, the years—yoiu mutter: Where did it all go? Grace even then.
No wonder the favorite hymn around the world is Amazing Grace. With a lump in our throats we sing it, “Through many dangers toils and snares I have already come…” No wonder we call this grace amazing. It leads us all the way home.
|photo by Billie / flickr|
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians says: You have been comforted in your afflictions so that you will comfort another in their afflictions. This is not a peripheral thing. This is the heart of our faith. And any praise that stays inside the house, any doxology that only talks about how blessed we are—is a partial gospel. For worship that does not, like Isaiah touches us and asks: “Will you go? Will you go?” is not gospel at all. Watch the pronouns. “I”. “I”. “I.” For any gospel that does not open us up to a larger world is not enough. The gospel of Jesus Christ is self-less. “Not I…" Paul said, " but Christ liveth in me.” The pronouns turn us outward to them.
This is really why we pass these offering plates week after week. We know that life really is like breath—and if we save it, we lose it. On our better days we don't spend everything on ourselves. We save our lives when we lose our lives. Remember the graces that have come to you--and give something back.
|photo by ally213 / flickr|
This Benediction of Moses begins with praise ends with praise. In the whole last address the theme of: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow" runs through it all. The Psalms which was the first hymnbook of the Jews and the Christians was a book of Praise.
I don't know how much energy I have wasted through the years on fretting and stewing and worrying. It put blinders on my eyes. I couldn't see beyond my nose. Just groveling in self-pity: “Me…me…me.” And out there the birds were singing and the crickets were chirping and life was good and grace came and came and came despite my muttering. And I am trying--hard as it is--to sing the Doxology. The folk that sing it and live it are the people I want to be around. The grateful. That's the best Christian witness I know. Say grace my friends, not only before the meal--when you don't forget it or are not too tired. Say grace when you wake up, when you look across at the one beside you, when you open your eyes to another day and another chance. When you stretch and move and do whatever it is you do. Sing your Doxology over it all. I have found it the hardest song to sing--and the best.
I love the story of the little boy that was learning to mow lawns. He could hardly wait for the grass to come up in the springtime. It would be the first time to cut the lawn all by himself. And so Spring came and he did a wonderful job in his yard. And then he stood by his neighbor’s fence and looked over at his tall grass that needed cutting. The neighbor saw him and said, “Would you like to mow my lawn?” The little boy nodded. “Oh yes.” And then man said, “How about three dollars.” And the little boy turned and walked away with his head down. The man couldn’t understand. “What’s wrong?” And the little boy said, “Mister, I ain't got but two dollars to give you.”
Looking back I feel like I should have been paying the church for the high privilege of being able to do what I do. Unlike Moses on Mount Nebo I hope I have whole lot of living yet to do. But I have learned a powerful thing along the way. Paul said it to his beloved friends at Philippi. And if I had a Benediction, like Moses, this would be it. “I am sure that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Thanks be to God!
(This was my 82nd birthday and I was trying to find something that might be appropriate for this occasion. So I preached this sermon at the Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC.)
--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com