Jan 15, 2017 Sermon: “Don’t Forget”
Scripture: Deuteronomy 4: 9-10 and Hebrews 10: 19-25
With hands shaking and knees trembling, I nervously walked into the pulpit of the chapel. It had been two weeks of nonstop travel and learning in South Korea and now Japan, as our seminary group traveled to learn about the culture and religion of these two nations. Now, I had prepared a sermon to give on behalf of my seminary group, my seminary, the United Methodist Church, and Christians in the USA. No pressure! Tokyo Union Seminary is as diverse in denominational affiliations as it is in the ethnic background of its students. Most of its students know Japanese, so that would be the language of choice as I preached that day. No, I didn’t have to preach in Japanese, but it was translated every step of the way, which made a 10 minute sermon, 20 minutes.
I had confidently written this message of Christian unity beyond denominational and national citizenship. It was a work of art, I thought. And yet, as I stepped into the place of preaching, I couldn’t have told you my last name. I’m thankful for the notes I had that day, as I am every Sunday, but I’m even more thankful for the diverse, yet grace filled congregation who gathered that day. I had the perfect closer. I would bless the congregation in Japanese. I found the translated words in google translator, began practicing all week, and when I arrived, the professor who would translate my message, explained to me that the translation was all wrong and corrected me just moments before worship. So as I finished preaching my sermon, ready for the home run swing, instead of saying “God bless you” in Japanese, it was better translated “You bless God.” As I was waiting for the standing ovation, there were only a few confused looks in the chapel that day. Mine included. Yet, my mistake actually worked out quite well.
What is church? What does it mean to be the church? If you ask 10 different people that question, you’ll probably receive 8, 9 or even 10 different responses. Community, family, fellowship, study, service, prayer, doughnuts and worship. What draws us together week after week, month after month, and year after year, for nearly 200 years, at least for the congregation as a whole, but what is it that draws us together?
Some common themes in the Old Testament are remembering, assembly, learning, and an emphasis on the nation or community of Israel. “Don’t forget the things that your eyes have seen nor let them slip from your mind all the days of your life. Make them know to your children and your children’s children. Don’t forgot how you once stood before the Lord your God at Mt Horeb or Sinai, when the Lord spoke to Moses.” There’s a common theme in the Old Testament, especially Deuteronomy, of a divine call to remember. Remember what God has done. Yet it’s so easy to forget.
The entire story of Scripture is God acting with and being with God’s people, then God’s people forgetting. God acts, we forget. And we assemble, we gather, to remember what God has done, proclaim to our children and generations to come, what God has done, and we remind each other that God is faithful today and will be tomorrow. Because it’s really easy to remember God and remember who I am, that I am a child of God, created by God, and loved by God, when things are going really well. When work is great, family is good, life is happy, no problem, but when the storm comes, we face challenges at work, our child won’t sleep or is having a hard time, and when every day seems challenging, we need reminded of who God is, because that’s how we remember who we are.
Church is not really about us at all. It’s not about coming for the music, while it’s always wonderful every Sunday. It’s not just about catching up with friends, while community is important. It’s not about critiquing the sermon, but it’s about praising God in a way where we make room for God to speak, because when God speaks, we remember who we are and who God is. It’s too easy to forget who we are. Yet, the author of Hebrews reminds us whose we are. In Greek, the entire reading from Hebrews is a single sentence with three main verbs: Let us approach, let us hold fast, and let us consider.
The letter to the Hebrews reminds us of who Christ is. The author argues the supremacy of Christ, as the Son of God and as the high priest. Jesus is compared in this letter to the Levitical high priests of the Old Testament, the ones who would make the sacrifice for the community. Yet, Jesus is the one who makes the sacrifice and is the sacrifice. And because of Christ, who is Emmanuel God with us, which I know is proclaimed at Christmas, which was forever ago now, but because of Christ, we are able to draw close to the God who has drawn close to us.
I really connect with the way Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of the Bible paraphrases these verses from Hebrews: “So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body.” As we reflect back to Good Friday and the curtain separating the holiest place from everyone, we remember that when Jesus died the Gospel of Matthew tells us that the curtain was torn. The way to God wasn’t necessarily opened; I would say that God came fully to us in Jesus. “So friends, we can now, without hesitation, walk right up to God.
The NRSV version that was read this morning uses the word “confidence”. Come to God with confidence, not in our own abilities or actions or faith, but in what Christ has done for us. Sometimes we forget that and yet, when we gather in this space, or really in any place, just as we gathered in the chapel last week with 7 people for one service or over 100 for the last service, we gather to remember and celebrate. Church is the greatest example of God infused community, where we gather with confident expectation that just as God spoke at Mt Horeb, God speaks today. By next Sunday I might forget, but Sunday is always coming. And we are church between Sundays as well. During the week, as we are a dispersed community, learning at school, working, shopping, or at home, remember the church community in prayer and remember that we’re never alone. Together, as a community of faith, as the body of Christ, we approach God with confidence. Let us approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith.
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope. Our hope is found in Christ who calls us by our real name. While the world tells us that we are too slow, too tired, too old or young, too weak, Christ calls us by our real name. It’s really easy to forget my real name: a child of God. I too often forget my true self: a follower of Jesus Christ. At times I can’t remember God’s faithfulness in calling me his beloved child yesterday, so I need you today to remind me. We hold fast to the hope of our faith together, reminding each other that we are loved and we belong.
Did you know that California redwood trees are the tallest and oldest trees in the world? They are amazing creations of nature, as some of them stand hundreds of feet high and are thousands of years old. You might think that to stand that tall they would have deep roots that go down into the earth. Redwoods really do not have many deep roots, nor do they go that deep into the earth. Instead, they have stood for centuries, because their roots are intertwined and interwoven with each other. When the wind blows and the storm comes, the redwoods are able to stand because they hold fast to one another.
As a church, let’s hold fast to the hope we find in one another. Remind each other of God’s faithfulness so that we will never forget the things our eyes have seen. Hold fast, for God who has promised is faithful. As our nation remembers and celebrates Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King this weekend and tomorrow, we might recall that Dr. speak spoke here in Indianapolis on Dec. 12th, 1958 in front of a crowd of 4,000 people. During his speech, he said, “We must learn to live together as brothers (and sisters), or we will die as fools.” His words ring true for our nation, politics and for our church. We must learn to live together. Church, don’t forget King’s dream. how long must King wait? How long must our nation wait? How long can we, the church, wait for his dream?
Let us approach God with confidence. Let us hold fast to hope and each other. Let us provoke one another to love and good deeds. Or as Eugene Peterson writes, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out.” As Dwight Peterson, Professor of New Testament at Eastern University writes, “The church does these things together. That implication is now made explicit here. One of the results of the death of Christ for us is that we, the people of God, ought to work together to encourage one another to live lives that are more faithful to God. The author of Hebrews recognizes that real faithfulness cannot be done alone. It requires community.”
How do we live these “let us” statements out? Do not avoid worshiping together as some do, but encourage each other on. For it is in the gathered community that we remember and we celebrate. We remember who God is and who we are and we approach with confidence. We remember our hope found in the community, the body of Christ. We remember that we are to be people of love and good deeds. Don’t forget, you have something to offer. You have spiritual gifts to give. You have energy, prayers, and life to offer the church. The church community makes a difference only when individuals choose to offer themselves together to making a Kingdom difference here and now.
I saw people being the church this week, actually in the last couple of days. Friday morning we welcomed around 140 people for the MLK Community Center breakfast. We had many greeters and hosts who offered wonderful hospitality. They were being the church. On Friday evening, during our confirmation gathering, I saw several mentors gather with their confirmands and have meaningful conversation on a night where they could have been doing many others things. They were being the church. On Saturday morning, I saw the Gathering of Men gather for breakfast and conversation. They offered support, fellowship and prayer to one another. They were being the church.
I suppose when I really reflect on that message I preached many years ago in Tokyo, I really preached a message that described the church, where we bless God. A church where we are united in our experience, our approach toward God, where we hold fast to the hope of Christ and each other, and where we go forth from our space and time of worship to love and serve. It went so well the first time, I’m going to use it again. Don’t forget, “You bless God.”
Gracious God, we pray that we might be your church. Give us the courage to approach you with confidence in our prayers, worship and service. Give us the ability to hold fast to our faith in Christ and our connection with each other. Give us grace to provoke each other to love and good deeds. May we never forget why we have gathered in this space and community today. Continue to stir our hearts to meet in community and to go forth to make a Kingdom difference for you, because this is ultimately all about you and what you have done and will continue to do in our lives. Help us to remember to bless you in all we do. We offer these prayers in the name of Jesus the Christ our Lord. Amen.