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Touchy Topics

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Christian Character in a Competitive World preached on August 31, 2008

This sermon is about the excellence to which we are called as Christians. The church and the world represent differing views of life’s “ultimate prizes.”  If parents choose to put their kids in sports or if parents choose to make Sunday school and church attendance a priority for the family, they are making powerful statements about which goals – which prizes – they value the most.  Worldly success is based on the principle of competition and the prizes are more glory and more toys.  Christianity teaches us to strive for Christ-likeness, which entails service of the other and denial of the self.  Those who have committed themselves to the pursuit of “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable….” find that this is not at all a soft option, only there for those who are too weak to compete in “the real world.”  Rather it will take much pain finally to gain what this way-of-life offers: true satisfaction and true significance.      

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Us and the Born-Agains preached on August 24, 2008

It’s a bit strange to inquire into the relationship between the Presbyterian church and the evangelicals, because Presbyterians are evangelicals – this has been our identity since the Reformation, yet on the contemporary church scene, the evangelical label has been cornered by big, youthful, multi-staff, American-style mega-churches, usually Baptist or charismatic in their theology, and this represents a vast cultural difference from the average Presbyterian congregation.  The sermon discusses two main differences between us and the evangelicals.  The obvious one to do with worship, and a related, theological difference, to do with how we envision the relationship between Christ’s people and the world.  Evangelicalism identifies with John’s theology written to a persecuted church, given covert victory by its Lord.  But modern evangelicalism is no longer persecuted, so the emphasis on victory can sound a bit triumphalistic and even aggressive.  However, because evangelicals are so clear about the boundary between church and world, they have a clear sense of mission (“our” mission to “them”) and of the night-and-day difference between being dead in the world (which is passing away) and alive in Christ (who gives the new birth to those who believe).  In the face of evangelical success, Presbyterians must beware that they do not snipe at evangelicals out of envy, or develop such a distaste for the way evangelicals do Christianity, that we fail to “do Christianity” ourselves.    

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Us and the Roman Catholics preached on August 17, 2008

This sermon is about the way we, as Presbyterians, regard “the auld foe,” the Catholic church.  There are undoubtedly differences between Catholic and Protestant belief, and some of these are explored in the sermon: eg. the historic differences re: justification by faith alone vs. a faith and works combo; the different views of authority (Bible alone vs. Bible plus church tradition and magisterium (pope)), leading to different specific beliefs such as purgatory, the mass, intercessory prayer and Mary.  However, there are many common affirmations and much about the Catholic church, in its particularity that Presbyterians can admire: the recent recovery of the Bible, the pastoral relationship between the pope and his people, the strong affirmation of life, the catholicity with which the Catholic church embraces different brands of spirituality within it and the hospitality it extends to us “separated brethren,” and the sense of mystery.  Recent revelations about the way so many priests have fallen from grace in the years when the church was powerful, serves as a test for us: will we kick the Catholic church when it is down, or recognize in these stories both a caution and a pain which touches us too, and proves the unity that we do share as fellow members of Christ’s Body.  

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Note: Guest preachers for Aug 3 and 10.

“Does God heal today?” preached on July 27, 2008

This sermon is about the grace of God’s healing in the world today.  It asserts 1. that God certainly can heal us, 2. that even when God does not heal us in the way that we want, he still loves us and 3.  that we cannot manipulate God into giving us the healing we want – God’s will is sovereign.  The first part of the sermon explores various reasons why healing is not as prevalent today as it was in the ministry of Jesus.  Even within the years covered by the New Testament we see a shift away from charismatic healing toward healing through sustained prayer.  The second part of the sermon tells stories about healings that have taken place (rarely and hardly ever here in the case of charismatic healing, more commonly through sustained prayer).  The sermon ends with the assertion that even death is not a disconfirmation of God’s power to heal.  God may choose to make us whole not for this life but in the life to come.  2000 years after the resurrection of Christ from the dead, God expects that our definition of “Life” is greater than “health and well-being in this life only.”  This sermon was preached on a communion Sunday.

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"We Die…and then what?" preached on July 20, 2008

This sermon discusses the afterlife. Many today do not believe in an afterlife, and of those who do, not all hold that Christianity’s teachings are correct. Ideas hatched out of television screenwriters’ imaginations are often preferred because they avoid belief in a particular Saviour (Jesus Christ) and the unpalatable doctrine of hell. Christian belief is based on what Jesus and Paul taught, and we believe they were in a position to know. The Judeo-Christian hope is not only for the soul’s immortality, but for the body’s resurrection. The raised body will be 1. the self-same which died, and 2. qualitatively changed (suited to house an immortal spirit). The post resurrection appearances of Jesus give us unique glimpses of a resurrection body. Christ’s resurrection body was continuous with his first body (it bore the marks of crucifixion, it ate and drank, it looked somewhat the same). But it is also changed (it is not bound by space and time, its glorified appearance at first confounds recognition, and it is at home not here but in heaven with God). We get this body at the Second Coming (viz. I Thessalonians 4). To reconcile with this future resurrection, what Jesus promises to the thief on the cross about an immediate experience, upon death, of his heavenly reward, Reformed Christians have contended for an “intermediate state” – a time between our deaths and the Last Day, when we are disembodied but already experience our eternal destiny: either life with God (heaven) or apart from him (hell). This is distinct from soul-sleep (unconsciousness until the Last Day) or purgatory (a third place). In summary, God has allowed us to know certain things about the afterlife, but there is much we don’t know and can’t imagine. Still, knowing that heaven is where our faithful God is, is enough to know we want to be there.

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"A burning question" preached on July 13, 2008

This sermon is about cremation.  The position taken is that cremation does not affect our chances of salvation: the only relevant factor when it comes to that is whether we have trusted in Christ and availed ourselves of God’s free offer.  But it is important for Christians to give some thought to creating a fitting ritual to mark our passing, including the arrangements made for our bodily remains.  The history of Christianity’s negativity toward cremation is traced and found to have roots, common with all the Abrahamic religions, in the patriarchal preference for buring their dead.  The Christian preference for burial was further strengthened in the context of ancient Rome where Christian and pagan attitudes toward death were sharply distinguished.  How is the Christian attitude today distinguished vis-à-vis our modern culture.  Two proposals are made: 1. by having a joyful, worshipful service which preaches the objective gospel ie. the death and resurrection of Christ in which our hope of resurrection is grounded, as opposed to the so-subjective services that have become the norm: the “celebrations of life” which merely reflect the character and tastes of the individual, and 2. by a preference for simplicity over against the vanity which is catered to by many of the available “funeral products.”  On the grounds that it is simple and cost-efficient, cremation might actually be quite a good witness, allowing families to put the emphasis not on what is seen (ie. the body) but on what is unseen.   

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"Three things that destroy Christian community" preached on July 6, 2008

This sermon speaks about the difference between communities that have a good spirit and communities where the quality of life is not so good.  For churches it is not so much things like life expectancy, education and economic standard of living (which are the criteria the UN uses when determining the best countries of the world to live in), but whether the church can truly be the body of Christ, knit together in love, that Paul describes in I Cor. 12 & 13.  This sermon discusses in particular three things which destroy Christian community: negativity (which is basically a refusal to exercise the love which “believes all things, hopes all things”), injustice (which is a refusal of everyone to bear their part in Christ’s body, so that no one part is overburdened and tempted to feel resentment), and intolerance (which is basically the refusal to love sinners radically and long-sufferingly, despite their sin).    

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"How does the church change its mind?" preached on June 29, 2008

This sermon looks at the strategies the church uses to integrate change. Four branches of Christianity (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Charismatic and Reformed) represent four distinct approaches to integrating change, but all of them take their cues either from the Church or from the Spirit or from the Word, not simply from cultural pressure. As Reformed Christians we view the church as fallible (reformed and ever reforming), and the Holy Spirit as an auxiliary rather than an independent source of revelation. Therefore for us, the legitimate integration of change must arise from Scriptural interpretation. On some matters, where scripture is clear and univocal, the goal of “interpretation” seems to be to justify our “opinions,” and is illegitimate. On other matters there is genuinely a dialectic within Scripture itself, so interpretation – the science of figuring out what Scripture says and how it applies – is crucial to direct the church’s thinking and conduct. The letter to Philemon is an interesting case study in interpretation, because it contains a dialectic within itself. On the one hand, Paul seems to leave the institution of slavery unopposed. On the other hand, the implications of things he says in the letter eg. to receive Onesimus “as a slave, and more than a slave -- as a brother…in the Lord” sow the seeds of a quiet revolution. So often our attitude toward change is governed by our temperament (ie. we are temperamentally either conservatives or revolutionaries). Rather, we should ask: “what is scripture saying” about each and every issue, being ready to change and change radically when Scripture commands it, and also being ready to hold firm when the tides of cultural opinion oppose the Word of the Lord. It is the task of every Christian to engage in responsible Scriptural interpretation, so that we can discern truly God’s Word for our day.

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"The gay challenge to the church" preached on June 22, 2008

This sermon discusses the Christian response to homosexuality. In the Presbyterian Church that response has been defined as “welcoming but not affirming.” Unlike some of our sister denominations, the Presbyterian Church continues to regard homosexual practice as sin, seeing no other way of interpreting the plain sense of Scripture. This means that we cannot bless with the rites of ordination or marriage, what we believe God has not blessed. Rather we place upon homosexual people the same call to faithful and obedient discipleship that we place upon all Christians; this includes – for all of us – the call to exercise our sexuality within the framework that God has intended for it. The Bible’s witness to (heterosexual) marriage as the exclusive context in which humans can exercise their sexuality sacramentally (as something which points beyond itself) as opposed to idolatrously (as something which isolates and exalts the gift without reference to the Giver) corrects heterosexual promiscuity as much as it does homosexual practice. The acceptance of promiscuity in the heterosexual world has contributed, as much as movements in media, marketing, law, and science, to the culture’s widespread acceptance of homosexuality, even in the face of empirical evidence that it does not aid the survival of a culture. Congregations that are able to blend acceptance of the person with rejection of the sin, do have good news for homosexuals, because they present the gay person with the opportunity to break free of the idolatry of sex and to be defined in terms of something other than their sexuality. The challenge which gay people present to the church is not only in terms of the truth question: (what does the Bible teach about homosexuality). They also come to the church with unique spiritual needs and, by dint of long struggle, often with considerable Christian maturity and gifting. The challenge to the church is to minister to the spiritual needs of gay people with compassion and to take full advantage of the gifts and just admonitions which this sector of our population brings.

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"The gender wars and a God called ‘Father’" preached on Father's Day June 15, 2008

This sermon discusses the gender wars, or the challenge which the feminist movement has brought to the church over the past 40 years of so. The first wave of the feminist challenge had to do with interpretation of the Biblical texts about women’s (or wifely) submission. The second wave had to do with gaining admittance for women to the historically male offices of the church. The front now has shifted and has much more to do with our use of language, and the way it reflects a mistaken (male) image of God. The sermon explains the difference between inclusive language for people and inclusive language for God, between the modes of imagery and address. The argument of the sermon is that Christians have the very great privilege of addressing God as Father because Jesus identified him as such. This mode of address which is identifying, both for us and for God when we use it, is different from the revelation of what God is like, through various images in Scripture. Father-language for God cannot be expunged from the Christian vocabulary without very grave consequences for our understanding of the relationship in which we stand with God through Jesus. Therefore we should not allow it to become a casualty of the gender wars. Rather on this Father’s day we should celebrate not only our earthly Father, but also the Fatherhood of God -- from which every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.

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"Did we steward it well?" preached on June 8, 2008

This sermon addresses the wider issue of stewardship, which certainly has a financial dimension, but which really alludes to our quality of care for all that God has entrusted to us. The stewardship perspective teaches us that we do not possess what we have merely for our own satisfaction at being endowed, but we hold what we have as a trust from God. Wealth (or any asset) is meant to flow through us, not only to us. The parable of the talents teaches us that God does not expect us to sit on our assets. He expects a return. If he does not get a return, he will assume we are not really that interested in advancing His interests – the goals of his kingdom – and he will remove the privilege of being His gospel-bearers and kingdom-partners from us. Therefore stewardship deals not only with how zealous and lucky we are in investment, but with how aligned we are, with God’s interests and ways of accounting.

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"What about tithing?" preached on June 1, 2008

This sermon discusses the fraught question of whether Christians are bound to tithe. The tithe began with Abram, as a spontaneous response of gratitude to the grace of God. Then it was written into the Old Testament law. All Israelites had to give 10% of their revenues to the Levites for the maintenance of divine worship. The Levites lived off this tenth, but also tithed a tenth of it. So the tithe was for maintaining the Lord’s witness, not merely to do good, and it was to be given from the first-fruits, not the left-overs. The year of the tithe was also instituted under the law to support widows, orphans and resident aliens, in addition to the Levites – an ancient social welfare provision. The sermon argues that the New Testament may not impose the tithe as legal obligation, but, like the relation of gospel to law generally, gospel demands more, not less. The kind of arguments that Christians use to justify giving less than a tithe are reminiscent of the Israelite resentment of the tithe (which the prophets inveigh against) or the pharisaical tendency (which Jesus mocked) for exploiting loopholes in the tithing law. Even so, it is not ultimately the number that God cares about (since all is His anyway) but the state of our heart. Under the New Covenant, giving ought to become again what it was for Abraham – a spontaneous response of gratitude and faith in the face of God’s amazing grace.

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"A God who takes sides?" preached on May 25, 2008

This sermon wrestles with the way Scripture represents God: namely as a God who is biased – who takes sides, and who does not always act according to our canons of fairness. Often God’s election (ie. choice of some and not others) is inexplicable and can only be reconciled with our sense of fairness by saying that God is free (ie. not obligated to show mercy to anyone. Yet, out of his goodness, He shows mercy to some). In other texts there appears to be a method to God’s bias, in that He chooses most consistently to align himself with what this world most despises. Christians are called to choose God’s side on those issues where He declares it plainly. The alternative is to be squeezed into the world’s mold – to make up our minds on the basis of worldly pressure or fickle feelings. Where the church lacks the conviction to support God’s bias, it not only incurs God’s judgment, but also tempts the judgment of future generations, as it may become captive to the enormous blind spots of the present generation. For Christians, therefore, truth can never be a matter of indifference. The truth matters, and the truth is out there.

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