Beyond the Letter of the Law – February 16

(click on caret to listen to the sermon)

Sermon: Beyond the Letter of the Law
Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Rev. Laura Brewster

Read Matthew 5:21-37. Focus Verses: 21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.

Introduction. How do you envision God? How we envision God impacts our receptiveness to God’s laws. If we envision God as a wrathful being, we’re likely to view God’s laws with some element of fear and even resentment. However, if we view God as a loving parent, we may be more apt to see God’s laws in a more positive manner – as rules crafted by a caring parent for the good of his children.

Mosaic Law. God provided a myriad of laws to his people, the Israelites, through the Moses. Those laws were designed to help the Israelites keep in right relationship with God and with each other. However, someone could live according to the letter of those laws and still fall short of how God intended them to live.

Sermon on the Mount. Jesus radicalized certain existing laws during the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began by quoting the command: “Thou shalt not kill.” Most of us recognize that as one of the commandments, and it’s a commandment we don’t typically argue with or try to circumvent. We may even like this law because there’s a certain comfort in being able to say: I may not be the best person in the world, but at least I haven’t killed anyone. The trouble is, we can avoid killing someone and still speak poorly of them and hurt their reputation, retaliate against them if they make us angry, or otherwise injure them. We can follow the letter of the law and still hurt others. So, Jesus radicalized the law.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, ‘Don’t commit murder’, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. The word radical comes from the word “radix” and “radix” means root. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged his followers to live according to the root of the commandment. At the root of this commandment is to not allow anger to lead you to say things or do things that will hurt others and hurt your relationships with others. Again, the first command said we should not kill. But the radicalized command tells us that we cannot allow anger to overwhelm us in ways that leads us to hurt others and kill relationships.

Jesus then goes on to radicalize several more laws – laws dealing with adultery, divorce, and speaking truthfully. Some of what Jesus said should not be taken literally. For example, it is unlikely that Jesus literally meant for us to chop off our hands and gauge out our eyes to prevent sin. However, all can be taken radically. That is, we can indeed ask the Holy Spirit to help us live according to the root of the laws. And at the root of each is the call to live in a manner that shows care and respect for others, protects relationships and community, and reflects the will of God.

Salt and Light – February 9

(click on caret to listen to the sermon)

Sermon: Salt and Light
Text: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-16

Rev. Laura Brewster

Read Isaiah 58:1-9a. Key verses: 6 Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? 7 Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?

Read Matthew 5:13-16. Key verses: 13 “You are the salt of the earth… 14 You are the light of the world.

You are Salt. In Jesus’ day, salt was a valuable commodity because it had multiple purposes. By calling us salt, Jesus says we are of value.

You are the Light of the World. In Jesus’ day there weren’t street lights or headlights or security lights on buildings everywhere. So, lamps were an important resource. By referring to us as light, Jesus proclaims we are of value.

We live as salt and light for the benefit of others. That’s right, YOU are salt and light. You are people of value. Jesus makes something else clear too, however. We have a purpose. Jesus says: let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. We are asked to live as salt and light for a purpose – to point others to God.

Sometimes We Forget. Sometimes we forget that God intends for us to serve as salt and light in order to do his work in the world and make a difference in the world. The contemporaries of the Prophet Isaiah forgot. They engaged in religious activity such as worship and fasting, but they didn’t care for those in need. Hence, they had to be reminded that it was not enough to be heavenly minded; they also needed to be of earthly good.

Sometimes We Minimize Our Potential. Sometimes we appreciate the fact that God can indeed share light in the world through US. We see that capacity in others, but we fail to see it in ourselves. Today’s readings remind us that Jesus has pronounced that you are salt and light too. God has given us both our identity and the capacity to live out our identity in ways that make a difference in our corner of the world.

Summary. There is no such thing as private Christianity. Our faith should be visible. It should be lived out in ways that will be seen, in ways that cannot be hidden. None of this is meant to put ourselves in the spotlight. It’s all meant to help others see our good God. So, go and be who Jesus says you are – salt and light – and make a difference.

Violence in the Bible – January 26

(click on caret to listen to the sermon)

Series: Wresting with the Bible
Sermon: Violence in the Bible
Text: 1 Samuel 15:1-9

Rev. Laura Brewster

Introduction: In recent weeks, we have wrestled with biblical passages that trouble us in an effort to learn lessons we can use in our lives. This work of biblical interpretation is referred to as hermeneutics. Today we conclude this series by wrestling with scripture that is violent in nature.

Read First Samuel 15:1-9. Key verse: “So go! Attack the Amalekites; put everything that belongs to them under the ban. Spare no one. Kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

Context. The group that King Saul was called to obliterate – the Amalekites – were not strangers to the Israelites. The Israelites and Amalekites fought when Israel first entered Canaan. (Exodus 17:8ff). At the conclusion of that story we are told: “The Lord is at war with Amalek in every generation.” It troubles some modern Christians to read that the prophet Samuel told King Saul that God wanted all Amalekites – including children – wiped out. It may be even more troubling to realize that it is not the only time God gives the order to annihilate a group of people.

Other passages. Speaking through Moses, God commanded the Israelites to kill the inhabitants of numerous cities once they moved into Canaan. In Deuteronomy 20:16-17 we read “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you…. At the end of that campaign, the populations of 31 cities were utterly destroyed. So, the order that Samuel gave to Saul to destroy the Amalekites is in harmony with other orders given in God’s name in other portions of the Old Testament.

The order to destroy the Amalekites was not, however, in harmony with scriptures in which Jesus taught us about how to relate to our enemies. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us: “Blessed are the peacemakers . . . ” “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Using Reason. How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory messages? When we use reason, we can actually arrive at two different conclusions. One possible conclusion is that God did order the destruction of certain groups of people because he had a greater purpose in mind. God’s greater purpose was to ensure that the Israelites survived and become a nation that followed him and a nation that could serve as a light to others. A second possible conclusion is that the orders given by Samuel (and Moses) did not accurately reflect God’s true will. Rather, the orders were based on their flawed understanding of God’s will. Persons who hold to this second way of thinking would say that God’s true will is revealed through the life and teachings of Jesus. And, the life and teachings of Jesus tell us that God loved the entire world and wants us to love all people in the world too. Jesus’ call to love trumps any seemingly contradictory message. It is the ultimate litmus test.

A Lesson for Us. Whether or not we believe that God actually gave the order to kill all the Amalekites, King Saul did believe that, and Saul disobeyed the order by saving the king of the Amalekites. This raises an important question for us. How often do we know what God wants from us but fail to follow through because we prefer to do something else? Understand that there are consequences for disobedience. When we intentionally fall short of what God asks of us, we risk our relationship with God.

Women in the Bible – January 12

(click on caret to listen to the sermon)

Series: Wresting with the Bible
Sermon: Women in the Bible
Text: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

Rev. Laura Brewster

We Treasure the Bible. The Bible nurtures our faith and guides us in life. We love, rely on it and trust it.

Some Parts of the Bible Trouble Some of Us. Some of us are confused or troubled by some stories in the Bible. For example, you may be troubled when you read about the time that God used Samuel to say: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Don’t Ignore Troubling Passages. There is a temptation is to ignore troubling passages. But we are better served by trying to interpret them and seeking their message for us today. We’ll do that in coming weeks. We’ll use five tools to do our work of biblical interpretation: 1) Identify literary style. 2) Look at the larger context. 3) Consider the historical situation. 4) Look at other relevant passages in the Bible. 5) Use our reason.

Read First Corinthians 14:33-35. This passage clearly states that women should be silent in the church. Let’s not ignore that. Instead, let’s wrestle with it using the tools I referred to earlier.

Literary Genre. This is a letter. Because it is in the Bible, it is for us. However, it was not specifically written to us. Rather, it was sent to specific people at a specific place for a specific reason.

Context. When we read what precedes 1st Corinthians 14:33, we see that Paul thought that the worship services in Corinth had become chaotic. Somehow, the women he wanted to silence were adding to the chaos. Paul gives guidance to different groups to bring order to worship, even though that curtailed personal freedom.

Historical Setting. Paul wrote these words in 53 or 54 A.D. a time when Christians had begun to realize that the end of the world was not coming immediately, and that they needed to learn how to live within the Greco-Roman world in which they found themselves. That culture was very hostile to Christians. As a result, early Christians tried hard not to draw too much attention to themselves. And that likely meant adopting traditional cultural views on appropriate behavior for women.

Other Passages in the Bible. There are other passages, such as First Timothy 2:11, which prohibit women from speaking or teaching or exercising any kind of authority. However, in Galatians 3:26, Paul argues for equality among believers. Additionally, other passages make it clear that Paul did allow women to exercise leadership in other churches. See Romans 16:1, Romans 16:3, and Romans 16:7. Additionally, in the gospels we see that Jesus allowed Mary to sit at his feet and learn like a disciple (Luke 10:38-42). And after his death and resurrection, Jesus sends women to tell others about his resurrection.

Reason / Common Sense. Reason tells us that Paul had to navigate between a belief that women were capable of serving as leaders and a culture that believed that women needed to be quiet and subservient. So, Paul would silence women if he thought that their voices might keep the church from sharing the gospel with culture. However, Paul encouraged women to work in ministry in other settings. Thus, Paul’s words against women in ministry were not binding on all women then, and they don’t need to be binding on all women now.

Modern Application. Jesus accepted people of different genders, different ethnic groups, and different social spheres. Today Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, continues to call all types of people to follow him and to use their voices to speak out on his behalf. The Lord has given you a voice to share his love and his message, are you using it?

Preparing with Luke: The Sounds of Christmas – December 15

(click on caret to listen to the sermon)

Series: Advent with the Gospels
Sermon: Preparing with Luke: The Sounds of Christmas
Text: Luke 1:5-2:20

Rev. Audrey Spencer

Last week Laura said, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”
Well, this week we are in full-blown Christmas mode. We hear the carols being played on all the radio stations and in most of the stores. Most folks have their trees up and hopefully have a good start on the shopping.
In the church, we are mid-way through Advent. Drawing near to the celebration of the birth of our Saviour.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty partial to the gospel of Luke during the season of Advent. It’s the one that contains the stories we associate most with the season.
It tells of the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. It has the beautiful words of Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
And it has the story we hear most often on Christmas Eve: the shepherds’ visit by the angels and the joyful announcement of Jesus’ birth.
Do you remember Linus from the Peanuts Christmas pageant? He even memorized it!!
Luke is unique in his manner of writing in his telling of the Christmas story.
Mark wrote with urgency and a sparse narrative style, Matthew wrote with an ominous tone and John wrote with a poetic style.
But Luke wrote with a song in his head. Nearly every character in Luke’s Nativity story breaks out in song at some point.
Luke is kind of like a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical: Something happens to someone, and then they sing about it.
Our hope as we hear the words in Luke’s gospel is that we will hear the melody and our hearts will be open to the soul-stirring sounds of Christmas.
Will you allow these songs to deafen the stress of deadlines and to-do lists, and allow you to listen for the overwhelming hush of a faint baby’s cry and the glorious songs of angels in the sky.

Let’s consider three characters and the songs they speak to us.
We will look at Zechariah first. Zachariah was an elderly priest who lived under the rule of King Herod.
He and his wife Elizabeth were quite elderly and childless, despite their most earnest prayers.
One day as Zechariah was in the Temple performing his priestly work, the angel Gabriel came to him, saying: “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name
him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes … He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah …. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1: 13-17)
This was good news!! You would think Zechariah would be singing songs of joy!!! Shouting “Hallelujah”
But instead he said: “How can I be sure of this?” Lord, my wife and I are old. You’ve got to be kidding! How will we ever live to raise a child?”
Now before we go criticizing Zechariah, let’s just be honest about our questions to God. Isn’t his reaction similar to our kind of disbelief and skepticism we have in December when we are preparing for Christmas?
“Peace on Earth?” There’s nothing peaceful like that nowadays.
“This is a season of hope?” I can barely keep my life together.
“Joy and gladness?” For me? How is this possible?”
And so, like Zechariah, we say, “How will I know that is so? How could this be?”
The angel responds to Zechariah: “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you ….. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen” (Luke 1:19-20)
And right then, the priest lost his voice.
But in the next nine months, something happened to Zachariah.
In the quiet of his mind, he time to think and reflect. Who knows what he was doing or NOT doing during this time. But what we do know is that he changed.
It turns out that the silence from the angel was not a curse after all, but the remedy.
After the child was born, a disagreement over what the name of the child should be. Some said it should be Zach Jr., while Elizabeth wanted to name him John.
Zachariah who could still not speak, picked up a tablet and wrote, “His name is John,” just as the angel had told him.
At that moment, Zachariah’s atrophied vocal cords burst into new purposeful life.
And Luke records an amazing song of praise that Zachariah offered up to God for the amazing gift of son and acknowledges the impact he will make on the world.
Consider these words from Zachariah’s song in verses 76-79.
“You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins.
Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
Do you think there was anyway Zachariah would have come to this conclusion without the time of silence?
Do you think there’s a lesson to be learned from this man who at first was so distracted by his present reality that he could not conceive what God had planned and how that would change his life and others?
Silence is a teacher. I pray we all try to unplug from all the Christmas noise this year.

The second track on Luke’s Advent playlist is probably the most famous song in the New Testament.
It’s sung by Mary, the mother of Jesus.

When we meet the young girl, who Laura said last week may have been only 12 or 13 years old, she was engaged to Joseph.
Later we find out that she is a relative of Elizabeth, which gives us the first indication that the songs of Mary and Zachariah are somehow going to be linked.
The same angel Gabriel visited Mary with the same news that she was going to be a parent. And we hear the same words of “how can this be” from Mary that we heard from Zachariah.
Zachariah balked at the news because he was too old. Mary balked because she was too young and had not had relationship with Joseph.
Different reasons, but still skeptical.
We’re not sure why the angel silenced Zachariah and not Mary.
Maybe because of the potential scandal and even danger for Mary, that he treated her with more understanding.
Whatever the reason, the angel seems to have given Mary a second chance.
First, Gabriel tried to offer an explanation that was a tad more theological that biological: “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1: 35).
Not the stuff from your average junior high health class is it? And maybe Mary was unconvinced.
So then, the messenger of God went a step further and offered proof, a sign which Mary could look to for reassurance.
He tells the story of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
And ends with the words, “Nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1: 36-37)
This must have tipped the scale for Mary, because she then said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said”. (Luke 1: 38)
What we see here is that before Mary’s pregnancy became a blessing to the world, Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a blessing to Mary.
Mary runs to the Judean City where Elizabeth lived and we see the tender encounter between these two women.
Elizabeth offers these words of encouragement to Mary: “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry … Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her” (Luke 1 :42-45)
Both of these pregnancies illustrate the nature of miracles in the Bible.
Elizabeth was showing Mary that when one is blessed by God, one must be a blessing for others. That’s what Elizabeth became for Mary, so that Mary could become the same for the entire world.

That, finally, is what set the stage for the most beautiful song in the entire New Testament. A song that, at first, seems fairly autobiographical:
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored, because the mighty one has done great things for me”.
But it doesn’t take long before there’s a major shift in the content and focus of Mary’s song.
The first verses are about what God has done for Mary, and then changes to what God will do through Mary.
“Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.” (verses 49-55)
Mary’s song is critically important to the Advent story.
The season just is not complete without it.
It’s a song with only two verses: first about Mary being blessed by God, and then about God using Mary to be a blessing to others.
That’s an important message for those of us waiting for a Jesus who is already here!!
We’ve already been given the gift of Jesus. So it’s our responsibility to be the bearers of that gift to others!
We can be the encouragers to others as Elizabeth was or we can be the Marys that God works through to the world around us.
Then, of course, we can’t leave out the song of joy provided to the shepherds by the angels.
Luke 2: 1-20 has become the staple Scripture for Christmas Eve services, and it’s hard to read this passage without listening to it with the child-like wonder of Linus van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as he speaks the words beginning in verse 8.

For many of us, the angel’s song is full of marvel and spectacle.
Even the key words of their song pop out like lights in the night sky: Good News ….. Savior ….. Glory ….. Peace.
But notice how the song begins? “Don’t be afraid”
Sound familiar? These are the words of the angel Gabriel to Zachariah, Mary and now the Shepherds.
The shepherds’ sole job was to care for the sheep. If they left them the sheep could be in danger by the wild animals. I’m sure angels popping down out of the sky was a fearful moment for them.
They were lowly shepherds, not soldiers. There was a lot to fear in the world around at that time.
Yet, up against the dark night sky and the canvas of suffering and sadness, that the angelic choir sang a melody that would echo for all eternity:
“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:14) –
I think todays’ world needs to hear a song of hope such as this; don’t you? In a world that seems so harsh and lacking love and compassion. In a world of so many doubts and fears.

Maybe this is why Luke’s version of the Christmas story was written:
To provide songs that strengthen the soul in the midst of suffering.
This is the holy task that God calls the church to.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our tactics to combat evil must be born of a different standard then we see in the world of politics or military.
We are to claim the songs of peace, comfort, and courage, daring to perform them where the world most needs to hear them.
We can’t hide behind the comfort and security of our safe places.
A sacred harmony that pulses with God’s unconditional love, and that calls us to forgiveness.
The church has a song to perform, and we have instruments to play. And God has stepped onto the podium, baton in hand, directing us.