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Under the Influence of the Holy Spirit and the Law versus the Gospel 2/12/17 Sermon at Bethlehem Church in Oakland

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Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 6th Sunday of Epiphany, February 12th 2017

 Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 Psalm 119: 1-8 I Cor 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-37

Under the Influence of the Holy Spirit

Preface: I first called this sermon The Law versus the Gospel because the Gospel lesson that I read to you from the Sermon on the Mount is really law and can come across in a very judgmental way. We have to make a distinction between the gospel as a genre, which in this case contains the law, and the Gospel as all the promises of God: abundant life, forgiveness of sins, salvation, and even life everlasting. The Gospel is absolute, while the law is relative to a time and place, except for the natural law of preserving life, nourishing life, educating the young, and improving life. The Gospel gives the wherewithal to fulfill the law; indeed, to do more than the law requires. Now to my sermon.

I thank God that you called me to preach and preside for you this morning. What an honor it is to be able to preach the Word of God for you for three Sundays! I remember, back about fifteen years ago, when Pr. Julius Carroll asked me to step in for him during his sabbatical after my four years at St. John’s Lutheran Church in East Oakland. I spent two years with you at that time and then how Pr. Richard Rubio Bowley called me after I returned from Philadelphia in 2008 for another two years with you. We even stepped back in for six weeks when Pr. Clay had to be treated for cancer – so our relationship goes back a long way.

     What is important, however, is your strengthening up by increasing your faith and your numbers. The prayer for today provides what you and I need to hear and take to heart for this strengthening.

O God, you are the strength of all of us who hope in you, because we are weak mortals and we cannot accomplish anything good without you.

That means we cannot increase our faith and our numbers here at Bethlehem without the help of God, without the real presence of Christ. Without that we are helpless. The prayer continues:

Help us understand the things we ought to do and give us the grace and the power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

And God will answer this prayer for you. I can witness to you from experience that God answers prayer. “God turns, turns, turns those around who turn away from you.”[1] That comes from Psalm 126. To put your address on its words: When God restored the fortunes of Bethlehem, then we thought we were dreaming and our overflowing pews were filled with laughter…Those who plant their seeds with tears will come back carrying the sheathes, rejoicing – their harvest, that means, bringing in all the new members into Bethlehem, rejoicing! “Bringing in the sheathes, bringing in the sheathes, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheathes!” That’s a song for Bethlehem Missionary Lutheran Church!

     Our Old Testament lesson tells us to choose life! The death wish is very strong, but the power of the Holy Spirit is stronger. Christ came to bring life, abundant life! St. Paul in First Corinthians reminds us not to have divisions, but to be one in Christ like the family you’ve become; and the Gospel takes each commandment and increases it to the Nth degree. Thou shalt not kill: don’t even insult anyone or call them names! Thou shalt not commit adultery: don’t even allow lust to take hold of you. If what you are looking at makes you stumble: cut it out. If what your hand is doing, those things you do that make you stumble: cut it out. Old primitive punishments like plucking our eyes and cutting off hands were crimes in and of themselves. The Gospel has lifted us up so we don’t take those words literally. But if you are a doctor and someone has gangrene in his or her leg, you have to cut it off to save the person’s life. The medical sense would make it different.

     But think of a poor addict: we can feel powerless and like St. Paul says, the good that we would do, we don’t do; and the wrong that we don’t want to do, that’s what we do. “Who can save us from this body of death. Thanks, be to God,” St. Paul exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” The Holy Spirit gives us the grace and the strength to overcome the treachery in our cheating hearts. I usually pray: “Dear God, give me grace, so I don’t fall on my face.”

     Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, there’s no obligation: we can’t help choosing life, can’t help walking the straight and narrow, can’t help loving one another, can’t help bringing ourselves and others together, strengthening our congregation. And of course, one member that you really need is a pastor. But don’t forget: Christ, the Good Shepherd is really present among you and you are also the priesthood of believers – meaning that you are all ministers.

You are all ministers. Now that is a big thing that makes us little. We can seat our pastor at a head table and that love and respect is good; or as some congregations do, buy him a Rolls Royce. But look at the word “minister” carefully. Do you hear “mini” in it? “Mini” means little. St. Paul was called Saul after the King who was six inches taller than anyone in Israel. (He would have been a good basketball player.) When Christ stopped him in his tracks, he called him Paul from the Latin Paulus-a-um, meaning little, little one. So being ministers means making ourselves little and doing little acts of kindness and sharing blessed assurances of love.

     And those little things mean a lot. (You may know the song.) And the little things, like feeding the hungry, which is not so little here, come from Bethlehem’s big heart. I know because I have experienced it. And when that kind of love, service, and respect well up in a congregation, even spring up like a fountain, then people will come to quench the thirst of their souls and the fill the hunger of their hearts. When people experience it, they get out of their death wish to which they are addicted and choose the abundant life in Christ. They yearn for oneness, where people are one heart and soul together – by the grace of Christ. And we will not kill, we will not hurt, we will not insult one another. We will not let lust give us an impure heart. We will not swear and our word yes will be yes and our no will be no.

     In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew intensifies each commandment. Martin Luther of old redirected the commandments to their positive side. Thou shalt not kill means that we should love our neighbor as ourselves through the grace and strength that God gives us. Thou shalt not commit adultery: husbands love and respect your wives and wives love and respect your husbands, mutually. You can mutually say to one another: Be my Valentine? When we dally outside of faith and allow our faith to decrease, we can easily become tempted away by the world. We have to take time to pray, read our bibles, come to church, and encourage one another.

     We can say: “What’s the use? We have had one pastor after another and look where we are today?” Now I don’t know whether for the Super Bowl you were a Falcon or a Patriot’s fan, but what if Tom Brady had said “What’s the use?” 25 points behind? They said it could not be done! They said nobody could do it! But when you realize Christ is really present with you, making you one heart and soul together, you have a quarterback greater than Tom Brady. It does not matter how far behind you’ve come. The Holy Spirit puts you out front again. The Holy Spirit makes it so that we get back into the game, “the wonderful game called love.” In the Holy Spirit, we can’t help doing little random acts of kindness and senseless acts of love. When we no longer live, but Christ lives in us, then we too can sing the song, “I can’t help loving you. I’ve made up my mind.” Because that is the mind of Christ, which we share. The mind of Christ, mind you, makes us one heart and soul in Christ, with a power far greater than any addiction.

     The Gospel is that God writes straight on crooked lines.[2] Hey, we’re sinners, but God must have loved sinners, because he made so many of us. But when Christ lives in our hearts and lives our lives, then we become saints, the saints of God. So, let’s pray that Bethlehem catches a new pastor, a pastor who is a mini-ster not a magi-ster. And that the Holy Spirit give Bethlehem’s members the grace, resources, and power to call that pastor – so that by God’s grace Bethlehem increases in strength and numbers. Because Bethlehem needs to have that powerful life-giving and loving impact on this neighborhood, on Oakland, and the others places that you come from.

You are named after the tiny city of Bethlehem in Judea and look at the impact it had on the whole world. That’s because Christ was born in that Bethlehem of old and imagine the impact of this congregation because Christ gets born in your hearts here in Bethlehem on West 12th Street in Oakland? And then Christ will come again and say, “Well done, you good and faithful servants. Amen.

___________________

[1] From my song: “Turn, Turn, Turn Them around Who are Turning Away.” (Psalm 126)

[2] An old Portuguese saying.

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Written by peterkrey

February 14, 2017 at 10:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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