Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11) (Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Saturday, July 16, and Sunday, July 17, 2011
A major portion of the opening of this sermon is inspired by and taken from Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (New York: Doubleday, 2010).
Do you know who you are?
Do you know who you are? Today’s worship has reminded you in multiple ways. We started with the Invocation—“In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Who are you? You are God’s baptized children, children of the kingdom. We continued with Confession and Absolution—“I forgive you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Who are you? You are God’s forgiven people, forgiven of all your sins.
Do you know who you are? You are God’s children, His forgiven people.
Today we’re going to talk about the reading from Psalm 119, we’re going to talk about a desire to be more Christlike in the world, a yearning for our actions to be more in line with God’s will, but as we talk about this desire, this yearning, this hope that our lives will change and become more like what God wants them to be, as we talk about this, I want you always to remember who you already are.
To help us remember that, let’s use the eternal candle as our reminder today. The eternal candle is here to represent that God is always present, always with us. Today, though, let’s point to the eternal candle as the reminder of who we already are, so when we’re talking about who we might become, as we talk about striving to do God’s will, as we talk about making changes in our actions and changes in the world around us, let’s use that candle as the reminder that our identity is already secure. Through Christ, we are already God’s children, His forgiven, redeemed, saved people. (point to the candle) Do you know who you are? You are God’s children. (point to the candle)
When you think I’m talking about our identity in Christ, when you think I’m talking about who we are because of what God has done for us, when I’m talking about being God’s people because of the cross and resurrection, I want you to help me remember to point to the candle. (point to the candle)
I want us to do this, because when we start talking about making changes in our lives, when we start talking about following God’s law and instruction, when we start talking about Psalm 119, we can forget that our identity is already secure, our identity is already changed, our identity is already sure—we are God’s children (point to the candle). So even though we want to change our actions, even though we want to grow as God’s people, and even though we will sometimes fail to live according to God’s instructions, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus died and rose again for us, died and rose again to make us His children (point to the candle).
Then let’s contemplate what it means to be a Psalm 119 Christian, what it means to let God’s instruction transform your life, and to do that we’ve got to take a look at some new Christians, a new generation of Christians, sometimes called the next Christians, Christians who know who they are in Christ, who know they are God’s children (point to the candle), but who also know they want their lives and the world around them to be transformed.
The next Christians are starting to make changes in the way the Church looks in America. It’s a new generation of Christians who aren’t content with the way things have always been, and they’re not content with the way things are around them. It’s a growing movement of Christians, nothing official, nothing organized, nothing you can put a finger on necessarily—just a change in attitude, change in outlook. It’s a growing movement of Christians, and maybe you know some of them. Maybe you’re one of them. The next Christians “think, believe, live, and see the world in terms of fighting for how things ought to be. It’s synonymous with their commitment to renewing and restoring all things” (Lyons 2010, 62-63).
Psalm 119 is about that commitment, about renewing and restoring all things, about living and fighting for how things ought to be. You see, things ought to be the way God intended them to be, ought to be according to His ways, ought to be done following His law, His instructions, His teachings.
And rather than hearing Psalm 119 as a condemnation, a damning of our sinfulness, we can hear it as a yearning of our souls—our new souls, our new lives in Christ. According to our new natures, according to our lives in Christ (point to the candle), we yearn for how things ought to be. As God’s people, as His children, as His redeemed, forgiven, and saved people (point to the candle), we desire for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in heaven.
And that’s what Psalm 119 is all about. It’s about the sought ought. It’s about the sought ought, the seeking for the way things ought to be, the seeking for God’s ways in the middle of this life. As the psalm says, “I have sought your face with all my heart.” I have sought the ought, sought God’s ought, sought God’s face in the midst of the struggle, I have sought the ought, sought God’s restoration for this life. That’s the sought ought. That’s the yearning of the new heart.
Where’s that yearning come from? That yearning comes from the fact that you’re God’s children, you’re God’s loved, redeemed, restored, saved children (point to the candle). That yearning in Psalm 119, that yearning to know God’s teachings, to do His will, to follow His ways, that yearning isn’t about trying to make yourself into God’s child, isn’t about making yourself right with God. That yearning comes from the fact that you are God’s child, you are His people, you are saved through Jesus (point to the candle). In other words, you already know who you are, and so now you’re responding, now you’re yearning, now you’re seeking, now you’re looking to see where God can do His restoration in the world through you.
Psalm 119 says, “You are my portion, O Lord; I have promised to obey your words.” That’s the yearning to do God’s will. The psalmist says, “I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes.” There’s the yearning of the new life in you. Psalm 119 says, “I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands… At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.” That’s your yearning as a child of God to live the way Your Father has called you to live, the yearning for the ought in your life, the sought ought, the seeking for the way things ought to be. This section of the psalm concludes with that seeking, “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees.”
The sought ought, the seeking for the way things ought to be, the seeking for God’s will, that’s the yearning, that’s the yearning in this psalm when we hear phrases like “sought with all my heart,” “considered and turned,” “hasten and not delay.” It’s a seeking, it’s a searching, it’s a yearning for God’s will to be done in our lives and in the world around us. It’s the prayer—“Thy will be done.” It’s the ache in our new hearts, an ache for things to be transformed around us, an ache for our actions to be transformed into acts of righteousness, acts of God’s love.
Remember what I said about the next Christians, the next generation of believers who are making changes in the Church? The next Christians “think, believe, live, and see the world in terms of fighting for how things ought to be. It’s synonymous with their commitment to renewing and restoring all things” (Lyons 2010, 62-63). The next Christians are living out Psalm 119, because they’re living out their identity as Christians, their identity as God’s children (point to the candle). They’re focused on who they are in Christ—His forgiven, redeemed, loved, saved people (point to the candle)—and so they can move forward to live out Psalm 119, to live with a yearning for God’s ways, a yearning to renew and restore the world around them.
In his book, The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons tells the story of one such Christian who saw how things ought to be and set out to make restoration possible. I think it’s helpful to hear her story and see the sought ought, to see that Christ-led impulse to bring renewal and restoration into the world around her.
“At the age of twenty-seven, ‘Cat’ (as her friends affectionately call her) had reached the pinnacle of her career. She was a Wall Street investor who had taken the venture capital world by storm, so you can imagine why she felt a little out of place when a friend invited her to tour a ‘correctional facility’ in Texas….Being free-spirited and adventurous, Cat accepted the invitation. She had no idea how much her life as a high-powered executive was about to be turned upside down.
“When she arrived at the prison, Cat realized that this was not going to be just another field trip. Walls decorated with barbed wire surrounding a towering facility that seemed to scream ‘Keep out.’…
“As she walked down the aisle between cells exchanging glances with the inmates, her preconceptions began to fracture. Instead of seeing ‘wild, caged animals,’ she sensed unlimited possibility. Instead of hardened criminals, she met children without fathers and guilt-ridden men. Hopelessness seemed to reign in their expressions. Many inmates fit the classic profile of a sinner in need of salvation—that was obvious. But more than this, Cat could see something most others never did—glimmers of God’s image radiating from their eyes. Instead of seeing the situation as it was, she had trained her mind to see things as they ought to be.
“As a venture capitalist, she was one of the best at spotting raw business talent. Usually it came in the form of a future CEO presenting a three-hundred-plus-page business plan. Today it was showing up on the prison yard. In a moment of inspiration, Cat recognized that most criminals are really just great entrepreneurs acting as CEOs in an underground world. In their past, they’ve had to be good at recruitment, buying low and selling high, creating distribution channels, and managing their competition. Granted, most applied their skills in all the wrong places—like theft and unsophisticated drug dealing—but even in those instances they inherently understood key business concepts such as risk management and profitability. It’s the way the criminal mind works.
“She got excited imagining what could happen if inmates who were committed to their own transformation were equipped to start and run legitimate companies. What if she could convince seasoned executive leaders throughout corporate America to unearth the buried abilities possessed by convicted felons?
“Motivated by the power of the ought to change lives, Cat launched a business plan competition in the middle of a Texas State prison. To her surprise, over fifty-five inmates enrolled. She recruited fifteen world-class executives to tutor, mentor, and coach her new protégés through the process. Within just nine months, these inmates were wearing caps and gowns for graduations—proudly displaying their hard-earned diplomas from the Prison Entrepreneurship Program. With a little imagination, a sensitivity to notice something broken, and the courage to try to fix it, [Cat] was able to start what has become one of the most successful rehabilitation programs in the country” (Lyons 2010, 63-65).
Cat knows who she is in Christ, knows her identity as a forgiven, redeemed, saved child of God (point to the candle), and with that in mind, she steps out as a Psalm 119 Christian, seeking the ought in the world, seeking to renew and restore the lives of people around her. Prison Entrepreneurship Program is the sought ought. It’s a way of seeing God-possibilities in others. It’s a way of yearning to bring God’s ways into the world.
Psalm 119 is your yearning as a child of God, as someone whose identity is secure in the cross and resurrection (point to the candle). Because you know who you are, now you can step forward, now you can transform your world, now you can go forward on the restorative impulse, now you can go forward and bring change in your life and the lives of the people around you, you can seek to do God’s will. You can be a Psalm 119 Christian.
Let me give you one on the ground example, one small way that I saw a restorative impulse working in our community this week, one way the sought ought showed up right on our street.
After Monday’s storm, maybe you saw some neighborly actions, too, ways that people acted out God’s will, God’s will that we love one another. I saw it in the actions of some guys from McClure’s Garage here in Gurnee. Not long after the storm they came over here in their pickup truck, just around the corner from church at the house of one of our members, Norm. They saw that trees were down in Norm’s yard blocking his driveway, so they jumped out, grabbed a chainsaw, and made quick work on that tree, making enough room for Norm to get his van out of his garage. When Norm tried to pay them for their help, they refused, and they moved on down the road to help more people.
That’s loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s working to bring about love and order into a disrupted world. That’s a Psalm 119 kind of action.
Go out as God’s forgiven, redeemed, saved people (point to the candle). Go out with Psalm 119 actions. Go out with a restorative impulse, an impulse to bring about change in the world, change according to God’s will. Go out and serve the Lord as you serve others. Go out and seek the ought in your world.