A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - September 9

Sunday, September 9 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, September 12  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Are You a Believer?"

Features - Season After Pentecost & Beginning of Fall Sunday School Schedule

Scripture - James 2:1-10, 14-17

Theme - The letter of James is a very challenging book in the New Testament.  James challenges us to think about if our faith matches our actions.  Are we really believers in our glorious Jesus Christ?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Holy Communion in the Sea of Tranquility - In Loving Memory of Neil Armstrong

This tribute is from this morning's "The Daily Office West" website. I love to read how the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a tangible way of helping us to become conscious of God's grace and presence in our lives no matter where we are.
A statue of Neil Armstrong as an undergraduate at his alma mater, Purdue University, now decorated with signs of mourning and gratitude. Here’s something you may not know or might have forgotten: “In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’ … Eagle’s metal body creaked. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.” — Buzz Aldrin & Neil Armstrong receiving the 1st Communion on the Moon, 1969

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Muddy Cross

Last Sunday, during the annual youth mud pit event held at our Crossroads site on W. Fair Ave., the youth decided to form a human cross in the mud (see above.)  It was a powerful symbol of how God is present with us in the midst of the mud of our lives.

On Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross, he took upon himself our mud, our sins, and the mess of our lives, so that we can become clean.  Sometimes, we get so muddy, that we don't believe that God can make us clean and new.  But the mud, no matter how much it sticks to us is no match to the redeeming work of Christ on the cross.

I love these moments when we are reminded of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  Thank you, youth for giving me a mental picture of what it means to say, "I've been redeemed."  Thank you for reminding me of the title of this blog (Nikos) and the good news of our faith.

"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (Nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:56-57

Sermon (August 26) - "The Life of David: A Dream Fulfilled"

   This is a little risky for a preacher to do but I’m going to ask it anyway.   Is there anyone here today who has been here in worship the past twelve Sundays?  That dates all the way back to June 10th.  Proudly raise your hand if you have been here all of these Sundays since June 10th.  I have a gift I want to give to you.  I personally don’t qualify because I was away on the June 24 Sunday.
(Pastor hands out gifts.)
     I just want to thank you for your commitment to weekly worship attendance because that’s not easy to do during the summer months.  But not only that.  You also have survived the longest sermon series I have ever preached in my pastoral ministry.
     During these past twelve Sundays, we have focused on the life of David from the Old Testament.  When I first thought of possibly dedicating a whole season of the year looking at this one individual, I was worried that it would be a little too much.  I was also worried that I would run out of things to say each week.  But what I found was that so much more could have been said and covered about this one man.
     So here we are.  The final Sunday.  And I need to wrap things up.  The focus last Sunday as well as today isn’t so much on David but on his son, Solomon.  And in today’s scripture reading from I Kings, it’s all about Solomon dedicating the new Temple in Jerusalem.  Even though David has died, his name appears three times in our reading for today.  Three times.
     The first time is when we are reminded that another name for the city of Jerusalem is “City of David.”  If you remember, David had bravely claimed the city of Jerusalem as the new capitol for the people of Israel after he had taken it from the Jebusites.
     The second time David’s name is mentioned is in Solomon’s dedication prayer when he refers to a covenant that God had made with David.  And the third time David’s name is mentioned is when Solomon refers to David as his father in his prayer.
     David’s not even around anymore and yet so much about this story of Solomon dedicating the new Temple won’t let us forget the critical role David played during these glory years of Israel.
     In one of the community’s I served as pastor, I became friends with a Church of Christ pastor who had served as a pastor of his church for over 25 years.  He retired from his church during my time in the community.
     At his retirement, I paid him a high compliment when I said, “Pete, when people refer to my church, they say the Methodist Church on North Detroit Street.’  But when people refer to your church they say, ‘That’s Pete Cramer’s Church.’”  I said to Pete, “When the church is identified by the name of the pastor, you know that you’ve had some staying power.”
     Solomon may be King, but this is still called the city of David. 
     Long before the Temple actually got built it was David’s idea.  The Temple was David’s biggest dream.  He so wanted to build this Temple especially since all of the nations surrounding him had temples for their gods.  Plus, it didn’t seem right that he was living in a luxurious palace while the Lord was without a permanent dwelling place.  But the Lord did tell him that a day would come when a Temple would be built just not during his lifetime. 
     You know, the truth is that we don’t always get to see the results of our deepest longings and dreams in our lifetime.  They come after us and sometimes when we’re long gone.  This is definitely true about the life of David.  He didn’t get to see his dream of a Temple for the Lord and he also experienced his share of broken relationships and disappointments in his lifetime. 
     Sometimes we put David on a pedestal and forget that in many ways, he was like us.  Not everything comes together as we envision and we wonder if we’re really making a difference.
     As I’ve been thinking about this scripture of Solomon dedicating the new Temple in Jerusalem, I thought about how Temple University in Philadelphia was founded.  Penny and I were students at Temple University during my junior year in college.
     Its name is Temple, not because of any direct Jewish connection, but because of Temple Baptist Church.  And the story goes like this:
      A sobbing little girl named Hattie May Wiatt stood near Temple Baptist Church, a small church from which she had been turned away because it "was too crowded." "I can't go to Sunday School," she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by. Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and, taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday School class. The child was so touched that she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship Jesus.

     A couple of years later, this child lay dead in one of the poor tenement buildings and the parents called for the kind hearted pastor, who had befriended their daughter, to handle the final arrangements. As her poor little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note scribbled in childish handwriting which read, "This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday school.”  For two years she had saved for this offering of love.
     When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the cracked, red pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his deacons to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building.

     But the story didn’t end there! A newspaper learned of the story and published it. It was read by a Realtor who offered them a parcel of land worth thousands of dollars. When told that the church didn’t have that kind of money, the realtor offered the land for 57 cents. Church members were so moved by this act of generosity that they made large financial donations. Checks came from far and wide. Within five years the little girl's gift had increased to $250,000.00 a huge sum especially for the early 1900s. The little girl’s unselfish love had paid large dividends.

     When you are in the city of Philadelphia, look up Temple Baptist Church, with a seating capacity of 3,300 and Temple University with a student population of almost 40,000.  Drive by Good Samaritan Hospital and the Temple Baptist Church Sunday School building which provides plenty of room, so that no child in the area will ever need to be left outside to learn about Jesus.

     In one of the rooms of this building there is a picture of the little girl whose 57 cents, so sacrificially saved, made such remarkable history. Next to her picture is a portrait of her pastor, Dr. Russel H. Conwell.    
     David wanted to build the Temple during his lifetime, but it wasn’t until his son, Solomon built it that his dream was fulfilled where all of God’s people from near and far could come together for worship.  We don’t always know what a difference our dreams and our gifts make, but this story of Solomon and the Temple remind us that God is faithful.
     We have a temple like building, don’t we?  I love this church.  It’s a grand old church that has been a place where so many people have experienced God’s love and grace over the years.
     This past April, we dedicated our newly refurbished church bell during worship and we showed a very moving video that included several pictures of the congregation over the past several decades.  After one of the services, I was standing outside by the bell a church member started telling me how moving the worship service was.  As I turned to look at this person who was talking to me, I noticed that she was crying.  With tears streaming down her face, she said with a quivering voice, “When I saw my children who are now all grown in several of those video pictures during the service, I was so thankful to God that they grew up in a church like this where they experienced God’s love.”
     Now, I don’t know if the ten people who started our church way back in 1812 had any idea that this Temple on the corner of Wheeling and High would be built.  I am fairly confident that they had a dream that stories like this would be shared long after they would be gone.
     David’s dream wasn’t just that a Temple would get built for God someday.  David’s dream was that more and more people would come to know God’s faithfulness and love.  This is why in our scripture reading for today, David’s son, Solomon concludes his dedication prayer with these words, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people of Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”
     The famous archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple once said, “The church exists for the people who are not already in it.”  The reason why we have this Temple is to share God’s love with the people in our community.
     One Sunday morning after worship, a ten year old came up to me with her friend who was about the same age. “Pastor Robert, I want you to meet my friend.  I brought her to church with me.”  And she went on to tell her friend about one of the stories I shared in a recent sermon.  I looked at her grandmother who was standing close by and she said, “She doesn’t miss a thing.”
     This ten year old gets it.  She knows that our Temple is here for the people are not already in it.  She knows that God loves her and she shares that love with her friends.
     Solomon’s dedication of the Temple is a good ending for our summer series on the life of David.  David’s dream came true.
     But David’s biggest dream wouldn’t be fulfilled until several hundred years later when through his lineage, God sent Jesus to be our Lord and Savior.  Through Jesus, we can receive forgiveness from our sins, hope for our future, the promise of eternal life, and opportunities to share our faith and serve others.
     Because of Jesus, the unthinkable becomes thinkable.  The impossible becomes possible.  We can make a difference because God looks at our heart, not at our height.  We can battle giants with a single sling.  We can grieve with hope because God comforts us.  We can claim this city for God.  We can dance because the victory has been won.  We can receive forgiveness from our sins.  And we can dream big and reach the world for Christ.  All of this is what the life of David teaches us us. 
     And so keep building.  Keep planting.  Keep inviting.  Keep trusting. 
     You may not realize it now, but know that you are making an eternal difference.

Sunday Worship Preview - September 2

Sunday, September 2 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, September 5  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Work: Faith Lived Out"

Features - Season After Pentecost; Holy Communion; & Labor Day Weekend

Scripture - Psalm 15 & Colossians 3:12-17

Theme - On this Labor Day weekend, we have the opportunity to reflect on how our vocations connect with our faith.  Our work place is an important way for us to live out our faith.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sermon (August 19) - "The Life of David: Good Answer!"

     Well, the first verse of our Old Testament scripture reading is a real downer because it tells us of David’s death.   We have been spending a full summer exploring this one man’s life.  I hope that we have learned a lot from this incredible man of faith.  He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was known as man after God’s own heart.
     To help remind us of what a great person of faith David was, the author of I Kings gives us a small portion of his obituary.   He tells us, “The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.”
     We’re going to conclude our series on the life of David by focusing today and next Sunday on Solomon, David’s son who became the new King of Israel.  And right off the bat, we learn something very important about Solomon.  Like his father, he too wants to be a man after God’s own heart.
     While Solomon was dreaming one night, God tells him, “Ask what I should give you.”  I know of a lot of people who would love God to say something like this to them.  I mean, how would you respond if you heard God say this to you?  And Solomon asked God to give him wisdom.  Good answer, Solomon!  Very impressive!   You could have asked for wealth or power or fame, but you chose wisdom.
     Maybe you’ve heard the story of an angel who appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.
     "Done!" says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a glowing halo of light. After a few seconds, one of his colleagues whispers, "Now that you have been given all of this wisdom, say something wise."
     The dean looks intently at his colleagues gathered around him and says, "I should have taken the money."
     Thankfully, I don’t think that Solomon changed his mind after he asked God to give him wisdom.  Actually, I’m thinking that Solomon already had a lot of wisdom since he chose this over wealth or any other type of selfish request. 
     And here’s what is really impressive; he’s a youth.  Solomon is already showing that he is beyond his years at a very young age.
     Even to this day, we sometimes use or hear the phrase “having the wisdom of Solomon.”  It’s because of this story in the Old Testament.  Jesus even refers to Solomon’s wisdom during his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount.  The words, “Solomon” and “wisdom” are closely associated with each other.
     But what kind of wisdom are we talking about?  A little later in our scripture reading, we are told that the Lord will give Solomon an understanding to discern what is right.  Wisdom isn’t just about how much information or knowledge we have.  It’s about what we do with that knowledge.
     Knowledge is important.  There are some basic things we need to know to help us make good decisions in life.  And so as a new school year begins, I want to encourage all students out there to study hard, hand in your assignments, follow directions, and be nice to your teacher.  Learning can be a lot of fun.  Make this a great year of school.
     Parents and teachers, you can thank me later!
     Penny tells the story of one of her first years in teaching.  She was a first grade teacher at the time.  She asked the class what was the capital of Mexico which is Mexico City.  One of her eager first graders raised her hand and proudly said, “The letter, ‘M’ is the capital of Mexico.”
     Now that I think about it, I know all the capitals too!  Learning is meant to be fun.
     And the same is true as we begin a new fall season of Sunday School classes, bible studies, and small groups.  There is so much for us to learn together right here at First United Methodist Church.
    John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was known to tell his preachers to “read, read, read.”  Wesley also emphasized the importance of education.  He earned the equivalent of a PH.D. while attending Oxford and was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic.  He loved to read ancient, and classical literature which he freely quoted throughout his life.  Wesley read about the latest information on medicine and would share what he was learning with his friends.
   Wesley’s emphasis on education is why our country has over a hundred colleges and universities that were started by Methodists.   One of the things that I try to do is read at least 30 minutes a day.  In addition to reading the bible, I like to read short stories, biographies, and books on history.  Learning and discovering new things is a strong Methodist trait.
     Last spring, a long time member of our church who was in one of our “Unbinding Your Heart” small groups came up to me and said, “You know.  I’m really glad that I’ve been part of my small group.  It’s made me want to know more about the Bible and now I’m reading it every day.”
     I think about Jesus and how immersed he was in the scriptures.  As a faithful Jew in the first century, Jesus was able to use his incredible knowledge of the scriptures to help people understand how God had sent him to be the one who would bring salvation to the world.  And the more that we are able to know the stories of the bible, the more that we are going to understand who Jesus is.
     So when Jesus is teaching and telling the crowd that he is “The living bread that has come down from heaven and whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” he’s referring to the Old Testament story of how God provided bread or manna to the people of Israel when they were starving  in the wilderness.
     I love when I’m part of a bible study and someone’s eyes light up when they learn something new about their faith.  There is so much more that I have to learn about the bible.  Many times, it’s somebody’s comment or insight that helps me to see the scripture in a new way.
     There’s no doubt that knowledge is an important part of what it means to be wise.  We need to know the biblical stories, we need to be aware of the world around us, and we need to be as informed as possible.  Let’s encourage each other to keep learning and discovering new things about our faith.  That’s an important part of wisdom.
     In addition to information and content, wisdom also is about discernment and how we use the knowledge that we have.  That’s really the key in being people who are wise.  We can have all of the knowledge in the world, but unless we use that knowledge in wise and loving ways, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot.  St. Augustine from the 4th century said that all true learning starts with love.
     This is why I am so impressed with Solomon’s answer.  He didn’t just want God to give him knowledge.  In verse 9 of our scripture reading, Solomon tells God, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
     As followers of Jesus, we are called to be good stewards of all of the gifts that God has given us which include our finances, our possessions, our gifts, our talents, our relationships, and our minds.  Part of being a good steward with our minds is to allow God to help us to do the most loving and wise thing when faced with a complicated situation.
     I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times when I’ve been in committee meetings here at this church and just when it seemed like there were no good answers or solutions to something we were facing, some very wise person came up with just the right idea.  God has blessed our church with many wise and discerning people.
     One of you shared with me about a difficult situation you were facing at work.  You were dealing with a customer who was very angry and upset at something that really wasn’t your fault.  Even though you were tempted to get into an argument, you kept calm and didn’t lose your temper.  The situation ended up getting resolved.  God gave you the strength to be wise and discerning in that situation. 
     Life isn’t easy.  We all face what seem to be impossible situations.  We don’t always know which direction to take or how to approach things.  Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player known for his quotes once said.  “When you come to a fork in road, just take it.”  If it was only that simple!
     I’m pretty sure that there are many of us here today who have come to a fork in the road.  You’re facing a complex situation and it’s difficult to know what the right thing is to do.  It might be a financial decision or a medical decision or a relationship decision or some other kind of difficult decision that is causing sleepless nights and a lot of anxiety.
     Who knows, maybe young Solomon was having one of those tossing and turning nights as he was anxious about being the new King of Israel following his father’s death.  And in the middle of the night, God gave Solomon just what he needed; an understanding mind.
     No wonder the Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  It’s when we go to the Lord in prayer that we receive the wisdom and the guidance we need.
     I sense that there are many of us here today, who like Solomon, are in need of God’s wisdom.  I believe that prayer is an important way for us to receive the wisdom and the guidance that God so much wants to give to us.  As you feel led, I invite you right where you’re seated to bow your heads for a time of prayer.
     I don’t know what you might be facing.  Maybe it’s a relationship issue that has you tied up in knots.  Or a financial problem and you don’t know where to turn.  Or you’re worried about finding a job or how to handle a situation at work.  Or maybe you’re getting ready to start school this week and you’re a little nervous about meeting new friends and having a new teacher.  Whatever it is, God invites us in these next few moments to ask for wisdom and discernment in facing these difficult situations.  Let’s just take a minute in silence and listen for God’s voice.  And then I’ll close our time together with a prayer.
(Praying in Silence)
     As we continue in prayer, one of the prayers that I turn to whenever I feel lost and in need of God’s wisdom and guidance is the one I’m about to offer now.  May it be a blessing to you and may we all seek God’s wisdom, like Solomon.
     “O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The Smiths' Look for a Church - Radical Hospitality Training Event

Our hidden camera secretly went to a church in the greater Columbus area to check out how well they offer hospitality to help us know what to do and what not to do. One of the members of this church looks a lot like me. :) 

If you would like to help families like the Smiths' feel welcomed at our church, please join us for a hospitality training event at our church, 163 E. Wheeling Street, Lancaster, OH on Sunday, September 9, 9 A.M. in room #22 (2nd floor.)  The training will provide practical ways for our church to offer radical hospitality to our guests.  Sign up for our training event by Sunday, September 2.


Today (August 19) would have been mom's 83rd birthday.  She died a couple of months ago on June 9.  Traditionally, the church celebrates those who have gone before us on their death anniversary rather than on their birth dates.

I always found this a bit odd because birthdays have a much more positive and joyful feel to them.  In the wisdom of the church, death anniversaries remind us of the full life of the individual and of the day when they entered into glory.  This is made possible because Jesus defeated sin and death on Good Friday and rose to new life on Easter Sunday. As I go through this day and think about mom and how I would have called her on the phone to tell her I love her, I will also remember that today is a Sunday. 

Sunday, the day when the women found the tomb empty!  Sunday, the day when we heard, He is not here.  He is risen!  Sunday, the day of resurrection!  Sunday, the new eighth day of creation!  Sunday, a taste of what is to come when there will be a new heaven and a new earth! Sunday, a day that points to that time when we will be reunited with all of those who have faithfully lived and died!  Sunday!

Sunday!  SundaySunday!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Those Holy Moments

Aren't holy moments wonderful?  They often happen when you least expect them.  You go through a day or a week, not really expecting anything out of the ordinary and all of the sudden, God's presence is unmistakable.

I spent this past week at a West Ohio conference clergy leader retreat at Mohican State Park.  We clergy are strange people (I didn't need to tell you this!)  We have egos.  Some of us are high church.  Some of us are low church.  Some of us talk really loud even during casual conversation while others of us rarely say a word when in a small group.  We are all over the board theologically.  You would think that with all of these differences, we would not enjoy each other's company!

And yet, whenever we gather, the presence of Christ surrounds our time together in amazing and beautiful ways.  People who usually wouldn't be friends because of so many differences become brothers and sisters in Christ and a loving community is formed.

This sense of family among pastoral colleagues always catches me by surprise and it did again this past week at Mohican State Park.  Each of our eight districts was responsible for providing worship and devotional times during the week which were held in our conference meeting room.  On the final evening, the Capitol Area North District chose to have the worship service outside overlooking the peaceful lake as a campfire was crackling and the sun was setting off in the distance.

One of the pastors shared a very moving and personal story of faith.  Together, we sang a beautiful chorus about the presence of the Holy Spirit.  There was laughter.  There was friendship.  We were experiencing another one of those holy moments.

Sadly, I often hear of people who cease to be friends because of differing opinions on controversial topics.  Unfortunately, this is becoming the norm in our ever polarizing culture. 

Only God can bring such a strange group of people together and form them into a family who have a common purpose and mission in sharing the love of Jesus Christ to a broken and hurting world.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sunday Worship Preview - August 26

Sunday, August 26 - (9:00 & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 29  (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "The Life of David: A Dream Fulfilled"

Features - Season After Pentecost

Scripture - I Kings 8:1,6, 10-11

Theme - When Solomon offers a prayer at the dedication of the Temple, we are reminded of God's faithfulness because it was David who had desired to build a Temple for God.  Sometimes we don't always see the the results of the seeds we plant for God's kingdom.  What are the seeds of God's kingdom that you are planting today?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Second Saturday Outreach Prayer - By Jeff Campbell

This prayer was offered by Jeff Campbell, who coordinates our Second Saturday Outreach ministry at Lancaster First UMC.  This is an awesome ministry in which people gather on the 2nd Saturday of each month, 8:30 A.M. at our Crossroads facility to serve for the morning in our community.
We always begin our morning with a prayer and this is Jeff's prayer from our August gathering.  This prayer is great theology because it connects each of our activities with the reason why we are doing them. On the day this prayer was given, I was with the team who was painting over the graffiti at the underpasses of the bike trail.  As I painted, I thought of Jeff's prayer and how God is the one who makes all things new again.
Thank you for gathering us together today to spread your love.
As we make our blankets, let us make them with love and your blessing of warmth to those who will receive them.
As we are washing cars and painting walls of graffiti making them look new again, remind us you do this for us when you forgive us.
As we deliver fruit and cookies or play Bingo in the nursing home, let us bring a smile or touch someone’s heart to let them feel your love through us.
Lord, bless the loving hands that have prepared the cookies and donated the fruit that we will be delivering today. Let them know how much they are appreciated for their gift to others.
Be with us today and everyday and shine through us for others to see you,
In Christ’s name we pray,

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sermon (August 12) - "The Life of David: How Do You Want to Be Remembered?"

    When I was first thinking about preaching a summer series on the life of David, I was really excited and eager to get started.  I mean, we’re talking about one of the most recognizable names in the entire Bible and all of those great Old Testament stories about him.
     Who doesn’t like the story of little David going out to fight the big bad giant Goliath with just a sling and some stones?  Or the story of how God chose David to be the next king of Israel?  Do you remember that story?  It’s when Jesse’s sons were paraded in front of the prophet Samuel.  And each of these sons looks like he would be the ideal king.  But God instead chose the least likely of the sons.  God chose little scrawny, David.  That’s a great story, isn’t it?  God doesn’t look on our outer appearance.  He looks at what’s in our heart.
     Or how about the story of brave David sneaking into the city of Jerusalem to take that city from the Jebusites and making it the capitol for a new united Israel?  What an exciting story!
     And then you have the story of David and Bathsheba, the R rated story in the bible.  It has all the makings of a summer block buster movie.  Pastor Cheryl and I tamed it down a little bit for our family friendly worship experience, but we did learn from that story that it is possible to resist temptation with the power of God’s grace, and if we do fall into temptation, that we can own up to our sins and receive forgiveness from God.
     These are the stories that I was looking forward to during these summer months.  But I didn’t expect this very sad and tragic story that we find in II Samuel chapter 18.  I’m not sure that too many churches are focusing on this appointed scripture reading for today.  I would venture to say that 99.9% of all preachers are preaching on one of the other scripture readings instead.
     But that’s OK because if we want to really know who David was, we need to hear as many of these stories as possible.  With just a few more Sundays to go on the life of David, we have this very, very sad story.  We’ve already heard it read, but allow me to set the scene of what’s going on here.  This is one of those stories that if taken out of context, we can easily miss the point.
     On the surface, this sounds like a story in which we should feel really sorry for David.  I mean, his son, Absalom has died in battle.  And upon hearing this sad news, David weeps and cries out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
     At first glance, this appears to be a story in which we feel great sympathy for David and so we enter into his grief.  And while there is that element to the story, it’s really much more complicated and tragic, I’m sorry to say.
     This scripture reading is from II Samuel, chapter 18, but we need to go back to chapter 11, the story of David and Bathsheba and her husband Uriah to understand what’s going on.  As you may remember, even though David was a tremendous leader for Israel, he did a terrible thing when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.  After he discovered that she was pregnant, he had Uriah killed to cover up what he had done.
     But then the prophet, Nathan confronted David about his sin and you may remember from last Sunday that he ended up repenting and receiving forgiveness from God.  But even after David repented and received forgiveness, Nathan still told David that there would be consequences for his actions.  And that’s important for us to remember whenever we sin and ask God for forgiveness.  Admitting our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness is so central to our faith but the truth is that we also need to face the consequences from those sins.
     The title I gave that sermon on David and Bathsheba was that famous line, “O, What a Tangled Web We Weave.”  And from that point on, David experiences a very tangled web as a result of his sin, and David somehow manages to tangle things up even more.
     We fast forward several years when Absalom, who was David and Bathsheba’s son is now an adult.  Absalom finds out that his brother has sexually abused their sister, Tamar.  Mysteriously, David does nothing to bring justice to Amnon who did this terrible thing.  Absalom does the right thing by being there for his sister.  But because his father, David does nothing about this, Absalom takes matters into his own hands and kills his brother, Amnon.
     Absalom then flees Jerusalem and stays away from his father David for three years.  David ends up forgiving Absalom for murdering his brother, Amnon and has him return to Jerusalem and they are reunited as father and son.  But the story takes another tragic twist when Absalom undercuts David’s leadership to the point where he leaves Jerusalem and claims to be the true king of Israel.  And now David has to flee Jerusalem for his life.  The nation of Israel is now experiencing a civil war between David and his own son, Absalom.
     Today’s scripture reading is when David’s men were finally able to track down Absalom and kill him in battle.  To complicate matters, David’s own men are upset with him because while they are risking their lives and fighting for the unity of Israel, David’s heart isn’t with them since he’s more concerned about his son even though his son had betrayed him.
     O, what a tangled web we weave.  What a sad, sad story!
     Part of me wants to throw up my arms and ask, “Lord, what can we possibly learn from this story?”  One of the commentaries that I read about this chapter in II Samuel has this as the subtitle, “A Story in Which Everything is Wrong.”  And that is so true. 
     In this story, everybody is angry at everybody else.  David is angry at Absalom for betraying him.  Absalom was angry at his father, David for not doing anything about Tamar’s rape.  David’s fighting men are angry at David because it’s because of David’s mistakes that they have risked their lives to stop Absalom.
     Everybody is angry at everybody and it can all be traced back to the consequences of David’s sin and David’s poor leadership in all of these events.  And yet, we still remember David as a great leader of Israel and a man who was after God’s own heart.  He’s still viewed as a great biblical hero. 
     But then I started thinking about other great biblical people in the bible and was reminded that they had feet of clay as well.  Abraham left everything to follow God’s calling but he ended up doubting God and he lied to Pharaoh to protect his life.
     Moses led the people of Israel to freedom but he sinned against God and didn’t even make it into the Promised Land. 
     Peter, probably the greatest of Jesus’ disciples, denied that he even knew Jesus.
     The reason we have these flawed biblical heroes and these very painful and sad stories like the one for today, is to show how serious and detrimental sin can be.  It’s like the biblical authors continually want to remind us of the consequences of sin.
     As I think about this sad part of David’s life, I’m reminded of another David who I have known for many years.  I always admired him. He was a great athlete and a very skilled carpenter, probably one of the strongest and toughest guys I have ever met. 
     But even with all of these great qualities, it always bothered me that David never attended church with his wife and children.  Even when his children would sing in the children’s choir on a Sunday morning, he wouldn’t come.  He kept God and the church at a distance, for some reason.
     One day, I felt led to begin praying for David on a regular basis.  Knowing that he didn’t believe in God and that as a carpenter he often worked outside on building projects, I prayed that David would be able to see God’s handiwork on those beautiful blue sky workdays.  Even when I moved from that community, I continued to pray for David that he would know of God’s love for him and that God is real. 
     A few years later, his wife told me that he was now attending church with her and the family.  I was so glad to hear this! This was an answer to prayer!  And not only was he attending church, he was also leading a bible study in their home!  He was beginning to lead church mission trips in Africa and throughout our country to help with building projects.
     But even with all of these wonderful changes in his life, there were signs that something wasn’t quite right, something from his past that was unresolved.  To this day, I don’t know what demons David was battling against, but they were very, very real.
     And he ended up making some really bad decisions.  He started having an affair and when his wife finally heard about it, she was devastated.  He quit attending church and slowly drifted away from his faith.  In fact, he even said that he would never set foot in a church again.  He and his wife divorced and from that point on, I kind of lost contact with David.  That was several years ago.
     And then just last year, I attended the wedding of his son, but David didn’t come.  I discovered at the wedding that David, now in his early 60’s, was confined to a wheelchair and under hospice care.  The family showed me a picture of David in a photo album at the wedding. 
     The day after the wedding, I received the sad news that David had died.  It was like he gave everything he had so that he would live through his son’s wedding day, which amazingly, he was able to do in his very weakened state.
     That’s a sad story, isn’t it?  Kind of sad like the story from our scripture reading for today.    We get these stories from time to time as we read through the bible.  We can’t ignore them.  They’re must be some purpose for stories like these or they wouldn’t be in the Bible.
     If David did all of these bad things, why do we still remember him as a great biblical hero?  Why would we spend a whole summer focusing on this one man from the Bible?  These are the questions I’ve been wrestling with as I prepared for this message today. 
     It’s interesting that we still hold David in high regard.   I think it’s because of at least two very important reasons.  And the first reason is that even though David really messed up during this part of his life, that doesn’t take away from all of the good he did for God and for Israel.
     And secondly, we remember David, not primarily for what he did or didn’t do, but because of the promise that God had made to him.  And the promise was that it would be through David’s lineage, that a king, a messiah, would one day bring salvation to the world.  Hundreds of years after the time of David, God sent us this Savior, and his name is Jesus. 
     And it’s through Jesus, that you and I are invited to receive salvation, forgiveness of our sins, and new life.  God kept the promise that he made to David.  Jesus wants to be our Lord and Savior.   So our sad story today eventually has a very good ending.
     Oh, and as for the story of the other David I was telling you about?  When I heard that he had died, I found his obituary online.  I was surprised to read that David’s funeral would be held in the church, the same church that he said he would never return to again.
     The obituary read that David left this earth to be with the Lord on July 31st, 2011.  It went on to say that his personal mission was to serve the Lord by going to Sierra Leone in Africa, South Dakota, Mississippi and Kentucky to build homes for those in need.  As I read this, I realized that at some point, David had made peace with God.
     And at the very bottom of the obituary, it said, “In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of David may be made to the Sierra Leone Water Drilling Fund being raised at the church.”
     Thankfully, this is how I will remember him.