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Based on the Scripture readings:
Psalm 9:9–20
Mark 4:35–41

2018 June 24
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Native Sojourner

People were stealing money from churches in Maine about thirty years ago. The treasurer of one Roman Catholic church in Brunswick took almost $500,000 over several years and just a few years ago north of Boston the treasurer of a UCC church took $50,000.

Pastors were breaking their marriage vows and their ordination vows back when I was in Maine as well. They were having extramarital affairs and drinking on the job and breaking confidences, and I was on the committee that could de-rock them, and it always made me sick to my stomach, and just a few years ago someone nearby did it again, and it cost our denomination tens of thousands of dollars and a great break in trust.

So twenty-five years or so ago, I developed a training for church people, and it had some blunt elements. One section was called “Don’t take money from your church,” and another was called “Don’t sleep with your parishioners.” It was based on the ten commandments and a story told by Mel Brooks because sometimes you need to say “Just don’t do that.”

I’m no longer on the relevant committees to care for church misconduct. What I wrestle with currently is how to be a Christian citizen in a moment of cultural confusion about national conduct. What I worry about lately is the dozens of commandments about how to treat each other and what to ask from God in the face of what can easily be described as cruelty or evil or sin, and all of these are bad as they describe how the nation that I love and the one where I was born of immigrants from 1723 and immigrants from 1895 now treats modern immigrants in a non-Biblical, non-Christian way, and let me explain.

The reason to start with the story of theft and adultery and broken vows is to clarify how there is obvious right and wrong in our church experience. The reason to focus on the current treatment of those seeking asylum or new life in my country is to explore how there is also right and wrong, at least for Christians, this week and for all the seasons to come.

You could overdo it, doing this, but ponder four texts to see if they don’t have a ten commandment sort of clarity, and start with Exodus, the second book in our Bible. This bit comes just after the Decalogue as Moses hears God say:

“You must not mistreat a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry and my wrath will burn and I will kill you.” (Exodus 22:21–24a)

Some people don’t like texts like this. And they need understanding if not explanation. But it also makes sense to know what it says in our scripture, even when it’s blunt. This next one comes from the book right after Exodus—Leviticus: 

“When a stranger sojourns in your land you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33–34)

You can see the trend all through our Bible. Because next Deuteronomy goes on, sounding like Micah and saying:

“What does the Lord require of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul… (for God) executes justice for the fatherless and the widow and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:12, 18–19)

This doesn’t sound so much like “Obey the government,” as has been said, but love and follow God, plus, finally, if you claim to be a Christian, ponder the fourth note for now: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with Jesus Christ speaking.

In order for churches to deal with theft or infidelity, we have to be clear about our core values. In order for American Christians to interpret the present days, we have to be clear about our core texts. And these four barely scratch the surface. But ideally they gets us started in this moment of confusion.

For this is important as well: when you quote scripture to counter ignorance or bad philosophy, it is not done to trade an eye for an eye but to clarify how we see God’s way and how God helps us to see our way.

So let me add thematically to what we’ve read specifically to see what we can do next.

We told the story of David and Goliath to our children this morning, and you know it. And while it has many layers, one message that courses through them all is that God sides with those who are living against the odds.

There is a whole Psalm printed in the Bulletin this morning, and it is easy to see that it describes the pleasure of harmonious relationships. (Psalm. 133)

We did ponder the storm at sea while Jesus slept this morning, and its central claim is that God gives Jesus the power to rule over a chaotic creation.

That is, we’re not at the end of the story of the immigrants and exiles and sojourners in America just yet. And we know where God will call the story. But what does that mean?

I’m about to do something that I don’t do often. I ask you to open your Bible to Psalm 9 which may be around page 606 in the pew Bibles, and I ask you to take a look at how it moves so that you can explore what moves to make yourself and what moves we can make together.

(At this point we read aloud from Ps. 9 in unison: verses 9–11, 15, and 18–20.)

The psalmist recognizes that the world is in crisis—it says the nations have sunk into a pit that they made. And that we get snared in the work of our own hands. And we know this. It’s very honest.

Yet then comes our Gospel. It’s a dramatic, distracting story, but draw back and see that it includes three claims: God gives Jesus power to calm chaos, Jesus does so—which is a sermon in itself, and the essence of the story is not just Jesus’ power or action but the fact that Jesus is teaching his disciples what to do during a storm. At its heart this is a text about Jesus as a teacher and us as learners for how to handle storms.

So, what now?

Let me be blunt. Those who seek the side of love, of loving their neighbor and of loving the sojourner, are on the side of the scriptures, which we claim means the side of God. And, while there are plenty of struggles and wars in the Bible, none of them calls for what is condemned in Matthew: none of them calls for the slaughter of the innocents.

But, as on the Sea of Galilee, when we are in the middle of the storm we can forget our faith and forget our power. So Jesus reminds us and restores us.

Therefore what we do in church is learn how to see together, not poke out someone else’s eye, but share a vision by seeking it ourselves. What we see in scripture is both the reminder that we do get confused during a storm and that we have power from Jesus to resolve this.

After last Sunday, several of our children wrote letters to national leaders asking them to end the policy of separating sojourning children from their parents. We need more letters. Next Saturday people across America will gather in groups to continue this claim. Christians have a call there.

Just yesterday I visited Heidi Freimanis and Bill Cordts and their then twenty-nine hour old son behind the security doors of Newton Wellesley Hospital. And later in the day, each of my children went into the safety of Newton Centre for dinners with their friends. And the idea of having an infant, a middle school kid, or an almost eighteen year old divided, separated, removed from their mother or father by someone quoting scripture is evil and immoral. And one sermon or one church won’t change our nation. And there is no simple, settled way to end this message. Yet our task this summer is to know our own identity, to see God’s way, and keep at it. To keep at it. And to know that Jesus teaches us the way to address chaos, so that’s why we come back together. Amen.

(This sermon is to strengthen the faith of the members and friends, near and far, of Newton Highlands Congregational Church, UCC. It is not for publication or other use.)

 Copyright © 2018 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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