Sermon
June 23, 2002
Rev. Virnette Hamilton
First Congregational Church, New Milford, CT  06776
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Scripture Reading

Matthew 10:34-39
34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (NRSV)

Romans 6:1-11
1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

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Sermon - Out of the Fog

I have a real conversation stopper for you. Have you died to sin? Paul begins by saying: What then can we say? I agree. There is not much to say after you are asked, Have you died to sin.

But that is the question of the day. Or maybe we could turn it around and ask “are you alive to God in Jesus Christ. “

Now that is not such a conversation stopper – but what does it really mean? It asks, have you died to sin?

Both of our passages speak of finding life only when we give it up to God, The submission of our control to God.

That is a huge demand… Matthew’s words were to act as encouragement to those who were struggling to live as Christians in an atmosphere of hostility and danger. They were already facing persecution because of their radical belief in a new world order, that would be filled with compassion.

Mohammed had similar words of encouragement for his early followers, who also faced persecution.

Hear the words of the Qur’an.

“Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord. “

and “that I will not waste the work of the workers among you who were persecuted in My way and who fought and were slain, I will most certainly cover their deeds and I will most certainly make them enter gardens beneath which rivers flow; a reward from Allah and with Allah is yet better reward.”

I had a conversation with Toby Gbeh this week, Not only is Toby is an ordained minister he also has a degree in Islamic Studies. The Muslims would call this Jihad. Exerting one’s utmost power, efforts, endeavors, or ability in contending with an object of disapprobation. This object could derive from one of three sources – the visible enemy, the devil from within, or aspects of one’s self. A jihad of the heart denotes struggle against one’s own sinful inclinations. A jihad of the tongue requires speaking on behalf of the good. Jihad involves pain, because it means denial of yourself, for the sake of pleasing God. If your jihad involves giving or living our your life for the sake of the community, you are assured a place in paradise.

Here is how we would describe that concept in our Christian scriptures. “ Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” “For whoever has died is freed from sin, but if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will live with him.”

Losing your life means that you let go of your need for control , you let God set the agenda. You focus on bringing God’s grace to bear on every situation. You live your life in accord with God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior, and you confess that he is the son of the living God, then your call from God is to live as Christ would live – fighting against sin in any form, advocating for grace.

This is not a difficult concept, until we say yes to this and decide to live it. That is when we begin to understand the persecution the early Christians faced.

Those who actively struggle to change the way the world works, to make life more godly, more holy, those who undertake justice – God’s justice – those whose motivations have nothing to do with fear or self-interest and everything to do with grace – those folks face the same persecution as the early Christians.

None of us want to hear that – because we – as humans - rarely fall into that “pure heart of God category”. Only rarely do we quit worrying about the consequences for ourselves and worry about the greater good.

We notice those folks who challenge our way of life – and if they cost us nothing, then we applaud them. Like Mother Teresa. Her work was spectacular, and it cost us little, either emotionally or financially. She is held up as a saint.

But there are others who stand up and shout “this is wrong – how would God want this to go” - and we turn our backs, because if they succeed, we would have to pay – either with our dollars, or our hearts, or our time and energy. And we fear that the cost will be too great.

How many people tried to change the way the Catholic Church dealt with priestly misconduct. How many times did they get the door slammed in their face? Will it change now? We can only pray that God will continue to strengthen the resolve of those in the midst of the battle.

These battles play themselves out everywhere. In our community – think of the current battles at town hall. They play themselves out within this congregation. These battles rage in our hearts… we as Christians are continually being asked to examine the question – is my reaction based on my fear and my desire to control that fear – or is my reaction based on God’s grace.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged, Jesus said. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye.”

We all want to be the one who is right – the one who understands the big picture, the one who has the proper solution. But we still have to ask ourselves, is our solution based on our fears or on God’s grace.

Answering that question is difficult, for it means objectively examining your motives … it really means that you have to ask yourself tough questions – like who will benefit from my solution – how does it benefit me – what do I gain – what will others lose. How does God perceive my work?

All of this requires prayer and attentiveness.

This discernment process is a bit like driving in the fog – at the beginning you really can’t see where you are going, or even where you have been. You feel panic threatening to grab you as the fog obliterates your world. When you are first trying to answer the question of my fear or God’s grace, you are blind to much of what is around you – Your view of the world is obscured by the fears and hopes that dwell in your own heart and mind. Self interest clouds your vision of the future. You keep your fears of your heart in check by using your mind to control the future. There is no room for God to guide you in that process. It is truly a crisis of faith.

When you begin a jihad of the heart. you begin to answer the questions of benefit and loss, and pay attention to God’s grace, you realize how close God is, and then you can start to relinquish your need to control the outcome. Aha – that is when you begin to die to sin. For when God is close, sin is far away.

How will you know if this happens, how will you know if you are in the process of answering God’s call to a life based on your baptism in Jesus Christ? How will you know when you are dieing to sin, losing your life, so that you might gain it. The fog will blow away and suddenly, you will begin to see quite clearly. You will understand the fear and the need for control that motivates the situation, both your own and others. You will see the answer that you have searched for, and – a dramatic change will take place, where you begin to find compassion and forgiveness welling up in your heart. You will experience God’s presence with you… as your fear recedes and your courage takes control.

Sin and God, Fear and grace, opposites… when fear is present, grace vanishes. When God is not allowed to guide you, sin is present.

The fog closes in. Losing your life means giving God an opportunity to lead and guide your every thought and action. Gaining your life means being one with God, seeing clearly, acting with holy intention.

Being a true Christian is work. It demands something of us – it isn’t free and it isn’t the path of least resistance. I heard a quote this week, since the kingdom hasn’t come yet there is still time for improvement.

May your jihad be blessed and may your vision be from God. Amen.

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