"TOGETHER" - Psalm 24; Romans 12:3-12

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Texts: Psalm 24; Romans 12:3-12


            I suspect that many of us might be able to quote the opening line of the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23 remains perhaps some of the most familiar and most beloved words in the whole Bible: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

            Psalm 24 – which we heard a moment ago – may not be so well known. But, Psalm 24 may be equally profound and so important: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”

            The earth is the Lord’s and ALL THAT IS IN IT. The world and all people BELONG TO GOD.

            Those words feel especially pertinent for me to hear lately. In my own life, in my family life, among our community, and more, the big “C” – cancer – seems to be threatening. Cancer has a way of turning life upside down. Cancer has a way of altering the way we see ourselves, our future, our whole world.

            Many of you know how this goes,  . . .

Several close loved ones in our family find themselves reading everything they can about medical issues, diagnoses, and prognoses. The calls, texts messages, and emails from loved ones seem so constant - the latest news of doctor visits, scheduled surgeries, or other treatments. This is in regard to a brother, a sister in-law, a cousin and another loved one. And one of Ginger’s closest relatives is in the final days – maybe hours - of fighting a long battle with cancer.

I also spent many hours this week with some in this community who continue with treatment plans, depleted strength from radiation and therapy, because of cancer. When we find ourselves in the midst of these challenges, we also find ourselves thinking, praying, and talking about faith, life, death, and other critical issues. This is a very privileged part of my calling as a pastor, but also challenging.

Cancer tends to alter so much about us. And we ask questions, raise doubts, want to know . . . . about God and other things.

            So the opening words of Psalm 24 are especially pertinent and helpful: “The earth IS the Lord’s and ALL that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”

            No matter what happens to us, or to our loved ones, we belong to God. The world and those who live in it belong to God. I need to hear that again today.

            From the earliest pages of the Bible, we learn some very important things. We learn that life is a gift from God. In Genesis 2:7, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” This is a poetic way of affirming where life comes from – from God. We live because God gives us life – breath. Life is holy. Life is precious. This is the common ground in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We have evolved through the millennia but life and breath come from God. We belong to God – the world and those who live in it.

            Then the last pages of the Bible also hold a very important promise. Life is NOT simply vanity and flies away. Life is NOT without purpose and a future. Life is always enfolded in God just as life comes from God. Our lives are God’s own. Our future is God’s own. All things are moving toward the promised reign of God when everything leads to a new heaven and a new earth where God’s light shines and chases away all darkness, when there is no more pain or suffering or sorrow, when all will be well and all manner of things will be well.

            This faith, this theological thinking, this framework intend to shape and sustain our lives. It is the basic gospel – the bedrock of our living and our dying. The world and those who live in it belong to God, who breathed life into us, knows us, goes with us, and holds us forever.

            Those become really important words in the face of cancer. Those become really important words when life can feel so fragile. And the sense of fragility only increases with swirling political issues, issues in the city, continuing wars, worries about nuclear threat, and all the other things that discourage us and bat us around.

            This faith, this framework for living is what the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Romans. For the first few chapters, he affirms how life can get so messed up. Instead of seeing life as God’s gift – breath breathed into us from God – and living and loving as God’s people, we are so good at living selfishly and foolishly.

            Then, the middle chapters of Romans explain what God does about this mess – God offers Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection, we find our way and our purpose toward the reign of God. God comes among us in Jesus, meets us in the mess of life and saves us. God shows us the truth – nothing can separate us from God’s love. 

            Then the concluding chapters, beginning with Chapter 12, convey what this means for our lives. How shall we live? What shall we then do?

            Listen now to some of chapter 12:

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            In the midst of a world that belongs to God, in the midst of lives that are held always in God’s care, we are to live a certain way. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all its people. That means we are to think with sober judgment, each according the faith that God has given. We are to use our various gifts for goodness in the world – and we all have different gifts and abilities. Then finally, “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, . . . rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” These go TOGETHER: WHO we belong to and HOW we live.

            No matter the worries . . . or the circumstances of our lives, we are called to stay focused on the absolute values of our faith: the sanctity of life always held by God, the dignity of individuals, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the concern for those who have less, the love of neighbor and stranger: “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” We belong to God. We keep striving to love. These go TOGETHER.

            “Can a chicken nugget change the world?”

            That is the question that starts an award-winning speech at the World Championship of Toastmasters. Simon Scriver, from England, talks about how one of his first jobs was working at McDonalds. He showed a flare at age 16 for doing the small jobs around the restaurant.  So, pretty soon, he was promoted to the chicken station. At the chicken station, his job was to put six chicken nuggets in each box.

“What I used to do,” Simon says, “was put 7 nuggets in each box. . . an extra nugget into each box. .  .  . Then I would peek out from the chicken station and watch people eat the nuggets.” They would have one nugget, then another, and around the third nugget they would realize that they had an EXTRA one. They would look around as if it was their lucky day. He says, “The big guy – Ronald MacDonald – was smiling down on that person.” Grace had touched their lives. And they thought – this good day was the day to do something about it – start that business, make the marriage proposal, do something wonderful, etc.

The speech is funny, but the main point – the reason the speech received the award: small gestures make a big difference in life. Small gestures have big impacts. And Simon Scriver goes on talking about real life moments when small gestures helped so much: a kind act, an encouraging word, an extended hand, goodness instead of selfishness, generosity instead of greed.

We all have an extra nugget of love that we can offer with every moment. We all have an extra nugget of kindness that we can give.

Because we belong to God – Psalm 24 - Paul says, “do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the spirit. Serve the Lord.” Small gestures – nuggets of love - can indeed change the world.

            Several times this fall I have mentioned the name Jonathan Sacks, one of my favorite theologians and writers. Sacks keeps saying that what the world needs is reciprocal altruism. Reciprocal altruism looks like this:

-          if you seek respect, you must give it.

-          If you ask for tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance.

-          If you wish NOT to be offended, then you must make sure you do NOT offend.

Perhaps this – reciprocal altruism - would be a good goal as we gather with family and friends around the Thanksgiving table, and always. J

No mind was ever changed by animosity. No soul was ever saved by harshness or hate. No truth was ever proved by rudeness, aggression, and violence. No redemption was ever brought by anger or holy war. No religion won the admiration of the world by its capacity to inflict suffering on others (see J. Sacks, Not in God’s Name, p. 263-265).

All of life belongs to God. And we know how we are to live – no matter what is before us, what we are dealing with: let love be genuine, hold fast to what is good. Be patient in suffering. Persevere in prayer.

We seek to trust God. We seek to serve God. TOGETHER.

If you are looking for a good movie to see in the coming Thanksgiving holidays, go see “WONDER.” It is based on a true story about a 5th grade boy born with significant facial deformities. Up until the 5th grade, his parents home-schooled him. But with 5th grade, his parents determined that he should go to school with others. This would be a major step for everyone involved. The movie is about what happens to the boy as he encounters other schoolmates with his facial deformities (kids can be so tough!), and what happens to everyone around him in this difficult year of adjusting to school with his very unusual appearance. The movie reminds us that everyone is on a journey – some less difficult than others. We all have challenges.

Do the things that come our way bring out the best in us? Or not? Are there things that we can do that LIFT the hearts of others? Do the circumstances and challenges of our lives make us bitter or better? Are we seeking always to grow in grace and kindness?

This is the call of the faith.

We all have our challenges. And we all have the promise of the gospel and the calling from God: the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it. Let love be genuine, hold fast to what is good.  These things go TOGETHER.

May it be so, today, tomorrow, forever. AMEN    

Prayer of Commitment: Empower us, O God, with a fresh sense of your abiding presence and promises that make all things new. Empower us with new devotion to trust you and serve Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on November 19, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.

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