Friday, September 25, 2015

Commandments toward Others (Exodus 20:12-14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

On the Tonight Show, former host Jay Leno frequently conducted "man-on-the street" interviews, and one night he collared some young people to ask them questions about the Bible. "Can you name one of the Ten Commandments?"  One man replied, "Freedom of speech?"   Now if the question had been about the Bill of Rights, he would have been spot on?

What does the Bible say about the Ten Commandments?  God spoke all these words!   That's how Exodus 20 begins.  I am not giving other people's opinions or my own opinions on these commands.  God's authority is behind them.  No one can say: “Well, that's your viewpoint, that's your opinion, but I see it differently from you.”  No, you see it differently from God.  

Dennis Prager in his book, The Ten Commandments, writes:  “No document in world history so changed the world for the better as did the Ten Commandments.  Western civilization, the civilization that developed universal human rights, created women's equality, ended slavery, created parliamentary democracy would not have developed without them.  These commandments are as relevant today as when God gave them to Moses over 3,000 years ago.”

Let's turn to the Fifth Commandment - Honor your Father and Mother.  A father lost his patience with his rambunctious children and scolded them as he put them to bed.   The next morning he found this note stuck to his bedroom door:  “Be good to your children and they will be good to you.  Yours truly, God.”

In the Fifth commandment, God expresses His will for how people are to live within the structure of the family.   Honoring parents strengthens and unites the family unit.  The integrity of the family is paramount in terms of shaping human beings spiritually, intellectually, morally and emotionally.  And further, the survival of a nation depends upon some key factors, and in particular upon the stability and health of the institution of the family.   We know that the breakdown of the family structure negatively impacts communities.  If you build a society in which children honor their parents, society will long survive.  Sadly, the corollary is also true.  Honoring parents teaches children respect for and accountability to a higher authority.   It can also teach children to ultimately honor a higher moral authority than parents, God.  Psychology has shown us that one's attitude towards one's parents shapes one's attitude toward God. 

God's commandment is serious.  It says that to live in peace for generations in the promised land, the Israelites would need to respect authority and build strong families.  This commandment summons us to respect, to honor, to follow, to support, to show our gratitude due our parents.

We often think of this commandment as directing children to obey their parents.  But originally it was intended for the welfare of aging parents, older parents, and the attitude and behavior of their adult children.  There was no social security or medicare or pension plans or investment portfolios 3,000 years ago.   God was commanding adult children to love and care for elderly parents and to assume responsibility for them.  Aging parents who could no longer work, depended entirely upon their children to care for them.  

A common practice among some nomadic tribes of the Canaanite culture was to leave elderly or sick parents behind to die.  This commandment condemns such cruel and inhumane treatment.  Israel was not to resemble other nations, it was not to follow the practice of other tribes, for God had made a covenant with Israel in these commands. 

In the New Testament Jesus condemned using religious laws as a justification for neglecting caring for one's parents.  Jesus denounces the practice in his day where some Jews dedicated their money to Korban or to God to evade their rightful duty to God.  If parents needed financial assistance, an adult child could say:  “Sorry, Mom and Dad, I wish I could help, but can’t, I've dedicated my money to God, my money belongs to God.”  Jesus repudiated this religious loophole and his critique echoes Proverbs 28:24:  “He who defrauds father or mother and says it is no crime is partner to a thug.” 

The Bible has much to say in support of this commandment: “With your whole heart honor your father; your mother’s birth pangs forget not, remember, of these parents you were born; what can you give them for all they gave you?” “Listen to your father who begot you, and despise not your mother when she is old.”  “He who mistreats his father or drives away his mother, is a worthless and disgraceful son.”    

The problem of course is if we were raised by responsible, loving and healthy parents we are more receptive to obeying God's command.  But what if we were abused by our parents, what if we were neglected?   Then this command becomes much more problematic.   

This command means remembering your parent’s humanness and learning to forgive them.  It means acting in a way that shows them courtesy and respect.  It means showing them they are valued and worthwhile.   It means praying for them.   It means not blaming them for all of the problems in your life.  It means not physically or emotionally abusing them and elder abuse is a tragic reality today.   It means to support them, to listen to them, and to help them financially if needed.    It means to assist them in making difficult and emotional decisions, such as when the time has come for them to move out of their home because they can no longer live independently.   I've been through this; it is very difficult. 

I will tell you how inspiring it has been over the years in the churches I've served as pastor, including Pacific Beach, to see many adult children caring so responsibly and lovingly for their aging parents.  I have seen this commandment put into action in many beautiful ways.

Let's turn to the Sixth Commandment – You Shall not Murder!   The Bible makes a distinction between killing and murder.  In English we have two words for taking a life – to kill and to murder.  It is the same in Hebrew; there are two Hebrew words for taking a life.  In the Sixth commandment, the Hebrew word is murder, you shall not murder.

Murder is the illegal or immoral taking of a life.  It is the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.  Our law has first and second degree murder. First degree murder is the intentional murder that is willful and premeditated with malice aforethought. Second degree murder is an intentional murder, but is not premeditated or planned in advance.  Murder is evil.  Murder is a despicable act.   Perhaps you have known someone who was murdered.  Murder is against God's will.  Murder is immoral.  I doubt if anyone here would disagree with this. 

One the other hand, the Sixth commandment does not prohibit killing.  That is an important distinction.  The Bible allows the killing of animals for food.  It allows the killing of another to defend your own life.  It allows killing in times of war.  It allows killing executing a murderer as a penalty for murder.   Some people are against killing in all circumstances.  They might identify themselves as pacifists.  They believe it is wrong, immoral, to kill an animal or another human being period.   They certainly have the right to their view.  The only thing is that they cannot cite the 6th commandment as biblical support for their position. 

Let's turn to the Seventh commandment – You Shall not Commit adultery!  What is adultery?  God's prohibition on a married person having sexual relations with anyone except his or her spouse.    It of course has not gone away.  It occurs outside the church and can occur inside the church.  I remember, years ago, a single woman, a church member, was telling me about some problems she was having in a new relationship.   She casually dropped the fact that the man was married, had two children, and was still living with his family.  He had promised her he was going to leave his wife and that they would get married, but he was dragging his feet. 

She hoped I would be happy for her because of the bad luck she had had with men over the years and because she was lonely.  I reminded her, gently and yet clearly, that she was in an adulteress relationship and I recommended she break it off.  I told her I would be there for pastoral support after she had broken it off.  She became incensed, accused me of being judgmental, told me I didn't care about her, that I had just lost a church member and walked out.  

Why is adultery wrong?  Why is it prohibited?  The Bible offers these reasons, which of course, stand in stark contrast to the tolerant society in which we live today.   Adultery is wrong because God forbids it!   This commandment expresses God’s will for people who have entered into the commitment of marriage.  If we claim that God is the Lord of our lives, if we are accountable to God, if we acknowledge God’s authority over us, then we will honor this commandment.

Adultery is wrong because it’s a sin!  It is an act of disobedience against God’s word and God's intention for the marriage relationship.   It threatens the institution of marriage, it places the marriage in jeopardy.  

Adultery is wrong because it breaks the promises that two people make to each other.  It dishonors the marriage bond and violates mutual trust and respect.  It breaks the marriage vows made in the presence of God and other witnesses, when a couple promises to love one another, and to remain faithful to each other, so long as they both shall live.

Adultery is wrong because it threatens the stability and integrity of the family and society.  It strikes at the heart of the family.  The family is the building block of a society.  It can destroy the very fabric of family life.   It devalues the spouse.  It is hurtful and even devastating to the children.    A healthy and stable marriage is a gift parents can pass on to their children.

Is adultery forgivable?   Yes.  As painful and harmful as it can be, it is forgivable.  God’s grace is always reaching out to us.  It requires genuine repentance and an honest decision to stop/end the behavior.   You recall the story of the men who brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus.  Jesus said:  “Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone.  Then he turned to the woman and said:  “Has no one condemned you.  Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and do not sin again.”  

Should adultery always lead to divorce?  Must it end in divorce?  In my opinion the answer is that it depends.  It depends upon the couple and the circumstances.  Some marriages do end in divorce.  The trust is broken forever and they cannot find it in their hearts to forgive the offending spouse.  Other couples work through the pain and sense of betrayal and gradually rebuild and restore their marriage. 

These three commandments are directed not toward God, but in our interactions with others.  May we truly hear the word of the one true God.   Amen!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Commandments toward God (Exodus 20:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today is my first sermon in a three-week series on the 10 Commandments!  How do you preach on 10 commandments in 3 weeks, well, carefully, with some fear and trembling.  We'll hope for the best.  Let's get right to it; the 10 commandments are of divine origin.   They were given by God's authority, not human authority.  They are authoritative for all people, for all time, for all places.   God gave them to Moses who passed them on to the Jews.  Centuries later Jesus reaffirmed their authority for His followers.

They are preoccupied with goodness.  They focus upon our relationship with and behavior toward God and other people.   The 10 commandments are a summary of the will of God, God’s spiritual and moral imperatives for humanity.   I acknowledge author and radio talk show host Dennis Prager for some insights into these commandments.

The foundation of the 10 commandments is captured in the Old Testament book Deut. 6:4.  It is called the mispah, the Hebrew word for hear. “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  It affirms monotheism or one God as opposed to polytheism, as the one and only God who revealed these commandments.

Our first responsibility is to love God with our whole being - heart, soul, mind, and strength.   We are to love God alone with the unswerving, complete, steadfast loyalty that is the very foundation of the covenant community. 

The 10 commandments are not old fashioned, culturally relative, passe, outdated, archaic religious rules, but rather they are as contemporary today, as they were when God passed the tablets of stone to Moses on Mt. Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula, over 3,000 years ago.

People picture God in different ways in their minds.  A police helicopter high in the sky spotted a car racing down the interstate.  The officer radioed a patrol car who stopped the speeder and an officer began writing a citation.  “Officer, how did you know I was speeding” the man asked?  The patrolman didn’t say anything, but pointed skyward.  Tilting his head toward the heavens the driver mumbled: “Don't tell me your against me too?”

The majority of people in America say that they believe in God.  I am heartened whenever I hear this.  My question is what do they mean by god.  Which god?  What is their concept?  Is it the God spoken of in the Bible: the God of creation, the God of Israel, the God of the church, the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the author of the 10 commandments or some other notion of god? 

What are the commandments and what is their context?  They are laws, imperatives, mandates given by God to His followers, after God carried out an astonishing historical miracle.  God is saying in them that people are to treat other human beings morally.  God's will in these commands is about decency, justice, fairness, morality and righteousness. 

God gave His people an astounding gift, deliverance, freedom, liberty.   “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.”   God hates slavery.  God hates oppression.  God hates injustice.  God loves freedom.  God's desire is that human being live in political, religious and social freedom.  God demonstrated this by freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

God says: “Because I did this, you have an obligation to me, you shall have no other gods before me, don't chase after other gods.”  And the right response of people is:  “God because you saved me from slavery, I commit my life to you, I will worship you alone and obey your laws.”  The underlying spirit infusing the commandments is gratitude, thankfulness for God what God has done, for God's act of deliverance.

Further, the commandments pertain not just to Jews, but to Christians, to all humanity who acknowlege and worship this one true God.  Following the commandments is a way of saying:  “Thank you God for delivering me, thank you God for my freedom, freedom from slavery in Egypt and freedom from slavery to sin and evil.  Thank you for my freedom from the power of sin through Jesus' death on the cross.”

The First commandment says no other gods!  Stay away.  Parents say to their children – be careful whom you hang out with.  Exercise good judgment and discretion.  Don't follow the wrong crowd, don't run with that group of kids, resist peer pressure.  I recall Nancy and I talking about that when the boys were little.    Worship, obey, follow God alone, not other gods. 

The Second command says no idols!  Don't worship things, symbolic gods.  Don't worship money or material things or real estate or the stock market or land or technology or nature.

No idols!  Why, because idols are false gods, imposters, frauds and there are many false gods which threaten to lure our devotion today, right?   Why not follow them?  Why not devote our lives to false gods?  Because bad things result, parents know this.  We know this.  Bad things happen, evil things happen, you hurt yourself or others, you can ruin your life, you can end up in the legal system for the rest of your life, whether the false god is money, and how many stories do we hear daily of greed, robbery, theft, embezzlement and stealing, as well as  gods of  popularity or lust or power.   Worship, obey, follow the one true God alone, not idols.

God is not democratic.  Now I didn't say God isn't a democrat.   God is not all inclusive.  God doesn't offer Himself as one diety among many for us to decide upon, to choose, to listen to like the field of some 6 Democratic candidates and 15 Republican candidates running for President.  God doesn't tolerate rivals.  God doesn't share the stage.  God condemns polytheism and affirms monotheism, one God to be worshipped by all humanity.   Yes, this is highly offensive to some people who want to chose their own god.    The one true God, the God of creation and deliverance doesn't share the spotlight with any other gods.

Jews and Christians are responsible to, accountable to, answerable to one God who revealed  Himself to humanity in historical events and in the person of Jesus Christ as testified to in the scriptures .  Why?   Because God created us in His image, made us for fellowship with himself.   Our lives are incomplete without God.  To refuse to live according to God’s will is to violate our very nature as human beings.  Why? To express our gratitude, our praise, our thanksgiving to God for all He had done, for His gifts and goodness in our lives. 

Why? Because through our obedience God works out his plans and purposes in our individual lives, in our families, in our communities, in our nation and in our world.  God uses our good works, our attentive minds and hearts, our strengths and weaknesse to accomplish his purposes: to change lives, to relieve suffering, to establish justice, to expand His kingdom, to rebuild broken relationships, to bring hope out of despair, to bring unbelievers to a saving faith, to feed the hungry and to establish peace.

The first two commandments are the basis for all the others.  They are the foundation upon which the others rest.   What would the world be like if we didn't chase after and follow false gods?  Imagine it.   How many broken people would be healthy and whole again?  How many burned out people would be full of zeal and energy once more?  How many people would be filled with joy rather than despair and hopelessness?    Peace would replace the violence we daily see around us.

The first two commands call for the reverence due God alone.  Like the Christian woman who took a trip to Israel.  Later in life, she returned to the Holy Land determined to learn Hebrew before she died.  She said:  “I want to be able to greet my Creator in His native tongue.”

Let's turn to the third commandment.  The third commandment in Hebrew can be variously translated: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”  “Don't take the name of God in vain.” 

We often think this commandment is addressing using God's name inappropriately or cavalierly in our daily conversation, like saying: “Oh God I had a rough day today.”  Or using it in profanity, or in our common parlance, or as an idiomatic expression.  And in my view this is bad.  I totally agree.  I cringe when I hear God's name used especially in profanity.  We should not disrespect or profane the holy name of God.

But the third commandment means more.   It means we are not to commit evil by invoking God's name or in the name of God.  The commandment says God will not forgive a person who violates this commandment.  To misuse God's name, to make wrongful use of the name of the Lord God, is to use it as a justification for committing evil.   And extreme radical militant Muslims today are doing just that.  Certainly this commandment pertains to Christians and Jews as well.   This commandment condemns anyone who commits evil and does so invoking the name of God.  It is a great sin and afront to God. 

The Fourth commandment is Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  The Hebrew word Sabbath or Shabbat means rest.  In this command God elevated human beings.  And God elevated animals.  It showed how the one true God values human beings.  No work.  You must rest at least one day a week.  Can I get an amen! 

And that includes you, your children, your slaves, aliens or foreigners among you, which was unprecedented prior to this command, and your livestock.  Even animals used as beasts of burden merit a rest.  This day was meant strengthen family ties and friendships.  This day was meant to strengthen our spiritual relationship with God.  It was meant to focus our hearts, minds and bodies upon the creator and ruler God and not upon work.  God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

One night a little boy knelt beside his bed to say his prayers.  He closed his eyes and prayed:  God bless mom, God bless dad, God bless grandma, God bless grandpa.  And please take care of yourself God, cause if anything happens to you, we’re all sunk.”

We gather as God's people before the one true God who commands our deepest respect, devotion and loyalty, the one in whom we live, and move and have our being.”   Amen!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Getting Out of the Boat (Matthew 14:22-33) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Dean Potter, a 43 year old well-known extreme sports athlete died on May 16, of this year in Yosemite National Park, while base-jumping.  Base-jumping is parachuting or wingsuit flying from a fixed structure or cliff.  It's an an incredibly dangerous sport. Think of it like sky diving but jumping off a fixed point, with little reaction time to correct course.

An article explores how dangerous, risk-taking activities, are becoming a big business. The article notes, "Adrenaline holidays are moving from a niche market to a mainstream …. Danger is an international business.  Parachutists and hang-gliders and skydivers float through the skies, rock-climbers cling to sheer faces and skiers are dropped from helicopters.  In the rainforests, the daring explore canopies on zip wires.  In the oceans, people swim with sharks or free-dive without oxygen.”

Why do people intentionally seek out risky, fear-based activities? The article states that it's a reaction to our sedentary, overly-safe society. "It's an escape from the mundane and the routine.  We need risks to feel fully human, fully alive.  It's about joy and intensity. It's about a drive for excitement.  If we remove risk from our lives, we never find our strengths and weaknesses. We stagnate."

Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist, offers an interesting perspective: "These extreme athletes don't have a death wish; they have a life wish. They don't want to die and they don't expect to die. This is what being alive is for them. They don't want to sit at a desk all day. So rather than call the things athletes do death-defying stunts, they should be called life-striving events.”

Film maker Francis Ford Coppola writes: "An essential element of art is risk. If you don't take risks, how are you going to make something really beautiful that hasn't been seen before? I always had a good philosophy of risks.  The only risk is to waste your life, so that when you die, you say, 'Oh, I wish I had done this.”

What are typical words from a 16 year old boy, “Hey guys, watch this.”  I remember when I was 12 years old I was jumping off the roof of a house into a sand pile below.  It was such fun.  But on the third jump I missed the sand pile.  It's not good to miss the sand pile.    I broke my arm and am fortunate that that's all I broke.   When we lived in CO I took a hot air balloon ride.  Nancy declined the opportunity.   Standing in a basket, we rose to over a 1000 feet and gazed out at a picturesque view of Steamboat Springs.

My risk-taking days have slowed down a bit, since I have entered the world of seniors.  And yet when you think about it, everything you do, every day that you live, has an element of risk.  Getting out of bed has an element of risk.

I like to walk along East Mission Bay from the Hilton down to Sea world.  Now walking is tame, mundane, pedestrian right; I mean how risky is walking?

But one day I was buzzed by an enthusiastic bee, and I'm allergic to bee stings.  Fortunately he didn't sting me.  And another day a bicyclist coming from behind whizzed past me and nearly brushed my shoulder.  And then there is the sign that reads: “Caution: Low flying aircraft.”  You are walking along the beautiful bay, minding your own business, when you suddenly hear the roar of these radio controlled aircraft flying around you.   Maybe walking should be re-classified as an extreme sport.   Yes, there are even risks in taking a nice walk at the bay.

What risks have you taken in your life?  Do you regret taking them or are you glad you did?  Perhaps you have taken risks in sports, in travel, in education, or your career, in making friends or even in intervening in a life and death situation to save someone's life?   I know if I was in trouble I would want someone around me who was a risk-taker, who would take action, rather than someone who was risk-averse and simply stood quietly by.  I would also hope that I would do the same for someone who was in trouble.

It's essential to take risks in life, isn't it?  What a sad, unrewarding and unfulfilling life we would lead if we never took risks.   The world would never move forward.   We wouldn't have many fond memories.   We would never have anything or do anything worthwhile if we were always risk averse.  No new relationships would be formed.  No new inventions would be invented.  No new lands would be explored.  No new communities would be built.  No new companies would be started.  No one would get educated.  No one would ever get married.  No one would have children.   We would never try to help someone in danger or defend this nation against enemies if we were afraid to take risks.

Helen Keller wrote:  “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said:  “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”  Mark Twain wrote:  “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Taking risks, getting out of the boat, trying to walk on water, is crucial in the gift of the life that God has blessed us with.  In our story from Matthew the disciple Peter makes the bold decision to get out of the boat.  There were no lifeguards sitting in towers, no rescue boats nearby, to save him if he ran into trouble.  Jesus' disciples are in the boat.  Jesus is standing on shore.  The wind and the waves are pounding against the boat.  Jesus goes out to them walking on water.  The disciples are terrified.  They cry out, thinking they are seeing a ghost.  Jesus says to them: “Take heart, have courage.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”

The disciple Peter calls out, “Lord, if it's you tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come,” Jesus says to Peter.  Peter gets out of the boat, and starts to walk on the water toward Jesus.  But the wind kicks up and Peter grows afraid, starts to sink and cries out “Lord, save me.”  Yes,  getting of the the boat is often frightening, isn't it?

Immediately Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter.  “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  And after climbing back into the boat, the wind dies down.  Then the disciples fall to their knees and worship Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”   Yes, God wants us to takes risks for him, and the important lesson is that God is faithful and is with us in such times.

Does being a Christian involve risk-taking?  Does following Christ involve the business of risk-taking?  Is the church in the business of risk-taking?  Absolutely.  Christian discipleship means to grow and growth means being willing to try new things.  Christian discipleship means obedience and obedience means being ready to try new things.  Risk-taking always involves dealing with the dichotomy of fear and courage, the fear of failure, the fear of harm, the fear of regret.

God knows we must deal daily with the challenge of witnessing to Christ that involves the tension between the desire for safety and comfort on the one hand and the willingness on the other hand to take risks in the name of Christ.

How long has it been since you took a risk for God?   How long has it been since you took the simple risk of inviting a neighbor to join you in church?  Or in offering to help someone, perhaps even a stranger, who was in need?  What great risks are we taking for God? 

God desires His followers to take risks.  Is God calling you to get out of the boat?  What are you waiting for?   Amen!