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On Holy Ground 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
08/28/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
AUGUST 28, 2011

On Holy Ground
Exodus 3:1-18
Romans 12:9-21


This past Wednesday night, the evening before our meeting of The Fellowship of Presbyterians began, Stuart Gordon, Brian Dixon, Mike Baron and I found ourselves as excited as little kids to be at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis, to see a game between the Minnesota Twins and the Baltimore Orioles. While the three women in our group opted for a highly-rated Italian restaurant, we got to eat at the ballpark. In the second inning, Mike Baron and I got up in search of dinner. We settled into the longest line we could find, and I stood right behind a young man in his twenties, wearing a Twins hat and a Harmon Killebrew jersey. "What would you recommend?" I asked. "That's easy," he replied, "You have to try the bratwurst with grilled onions. It's the real thing. Best in town. There is nothing else like it." Of course, we both took his advice! And we were not sorry. (I had some indigestion for the rest of the evening, but wasn't sorry.) Have you ever noticed how much we long for something authentic, something genuine? A number of years ago Coca-Cola was advertised all over the world as "The Real Thing." They even had a song that I bet many of you can still sing. Coke understood that whether they were "the real thing" or not, people long for what is real, what is authentic, what is genuine.

So Paul begins the second half of Romans 12 with this word: "Let love be genuine…." Of all the things we long for to be real, to be genuine, maybe there is nothing we ache for more than love. "Let love be genuine." Eugene Peterson, in The Message, says, "Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it." Paul follows this word with twenty-three imperatives. You likely know the words that follow: "Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer." The list goes on from there, and it is powerful, it is beautiful, it is challenging. But the whole list, all twenty-three imperatives, are really developed and grow out of the first: "Let love be genuine." And all of this, you will recall, all of this compelling list grows out of the right worship of God. Remember how Paul begins Romans 12? "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." "Put your whole self in!" we said last week, in the language of the Hokey Pokey.

In that context of giving yourself, your whole self to God in worship, "Let love be genuine…." More than anything else, the Church needs to be genuine in this. We need for our love to be real, to be authentic. One of my favorite modern novels about the Church is Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe. It tells the story of Ian Bedloe, a teenager who suspects his brother's wife is cheating on him. So he tells his brother what he believes, and his brother goes out and drives his car into a wall, likely a suicide. Shortly after this his sister-in-law takes an overdose of sleeping pills and she too dies, leaving three young children for Ian's aging, flawed parents to raise. Ian is filled with guilt when one day he wanders into a downtown storefront in Baltimore with about fifteen people called The Church of the Second Chance. Eventually Ian confesses, tells them the truth about who he thinks he is and what he believes he has done. Reverend Emmett says, "View your burden as a gift. It's the theme that has been given you to work with. Accept that, and lean into it. This is the only life you'll have." Ian decides in time to drop out of college so he can raise these three kids. He lays aside his own plans, and bears the burden of these three children. And Ian Bedloe is changed by his decision. The children begin to grow into interesting people, and in the life of this strange little church, Ian's practice of Gospel love and hospitality starts to transform him as well. His sister Daphne notices it. She says Ian's new-found faith has turned him into someone who is "unusually Christian, a peculiar kind of saint … maybe."

Ian learns that the only life that counts is the life that costs you something. Ian has learned what genuine love looks and feels like, and in it he finds his own redemption.

Galen, a renowned physician of the Roman Empire, writes of the early Christian community during the spread of the plague. He was amazed that when everyone else was fleeing to get away from the danger of the plague, there were Christians who stayed behind to care for strangers who were suffering from it, and they even used their own money to pay for funerals and burial for those who died. Galen was moved by these actions. Their love was so genuine that even a noted man outside the Church noted how genuine and costly their love was.

All of this, of course, is because "God is love." If Biblical faith teaches us anything, it teaches us that God is personal, infinitely personal. God came to Moses out of the bush that was burning and yet not consumed as inexhaustible mystery, yet out of that bush, God spoke Moses' name. And calling Moses by name, Moses takes the shoes off his feet, for he knows he is standing on holy ground.

Anytime we "Let love be genuine…," we are standing on holy ground. Paul also says, "Practice hospitality. Contribute to the needs of the saints." Genuine love is always generous, and hospitable, welcoming, inviting. Churches alive with the Gospel practice hospitality. They welcome the stranger. They are generous to the saints. They "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." They "extend hospitality to strangers."

A few weeks ago on an exquisite Sunday night, an older couple in this community invited us for dinner. Our hostess apologized when the two of us stood in the kitchen together, "I feel selfish having the two of you for dinner since we aren't even members of your church. We have known and loved Connie all her life. I only know you from funerals and weddings, but it has always made me want to know you more." Well, I mean to tell you, everything about the night was magic. We sat on their back porch high atop a hill, and we watched the setting sun light up the sky in reds and oranges and pinks I could never adequately describe. We talked about our lives over the breaking of bread and it was as if God Himself were present at the table. We were on holy ground, and all four of us knew it.

Of course, hospitality does not have to be anything extravagant. It can be a warm smile, eyes that catch and hold, a touch on the shoulder, a word of warmth and welcome. Anytime we can empty ourselves of any sense of our own importance and focus on the needs of another, hospitality happens. And when we welcome the stranger, we are on holy ground. Remember Hebrews 13:2? "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Have you ever done this? 

Two summers ago at the end of our sabbatical leave we were in Greece, and we found ourselves on a gondola heading up steep cliffs to the island we were visiting. An older African-American couple was in the car with us. They asked, "Do you have any idea what to do here?" In fact, we had been to this island once before and we knew exactly what we wanted to do. I told them we were headed to a small town on the other side of the island by taxi. "Would you mind if we joined you?" she asked. I said, "We'd love it if you would!" As we rode, we talked. They were celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary and lived in Los Angeles. We talked about Corinth, where we had been earlier, and learned quickly that they were Christians, too. They were asking questions about where in the Bible Paul goes to Corinth. (They were in luck!) I told them, "Acts 18." They had even been to Nashville, to the Ryman Auditorium, she told us. Stupid me! I said, "You know, anybody who is anyone in music has sung in the Ryman. Even Enrico Caruso has sung in the Ryman." The conversation was wonderful! It just flowed. When the cab arrived, I tried to pay for it. He insisted on sharing the tab with me. We introduced ourselves to them. "I'm Todd, and this is Connie." She said, "My name is Marilyn, and this is Billy." And then it dawned on me. We were riding all this time with Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis of The Fifth Dimension, and we did not even know it. You never know who you are going to meet, but the call to extend hospitality to strangers is always at the heart of our calling. It is utterly central to the life of this Church, dear friends. People are hungry for love that is genuine, for truly hospitable churches.

Finally, Paul gets to the hardest love of all, love for our enemies. We are called to love friends and family, even strangers. But remember Jesus' word? "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you." Genuine love, the love of Jesus, is not only extended to friends and strangers. It is offered to our enemies. "Bless those who persecute you…," Paul says. "Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble is noble in the sight of all." "Insofar as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord."

Here is what one New Testament scholar calls, "Paul's peace ethic." Genuine love seeks to "live in harmony with all." "If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If she is thirsty, give her something to drink." This is the only way that peace will ever come. It is why Jesus died on the cross, while uttering, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Our willingness to avoid vengeance and resentment begins with our awareness that this is God's business, not ours. Vengeance is too rich for our blood. Wrath is God's business alone. We are to trust that justice will come in God's good time, and that if justice is due, justice will be done, by God, who alone is just. Our willingness to avoid hatred and vengeance is a sign of our trust that God is God. We do not have to bear that burden. I have learned the hard way to let go of bitterness. It costs us way too much to carry it. And life is too short.

Kevin Costner and little Elijah Wood starred in the 1994 movie, The War. The War is the Vietnam War, and Costner plays a Vietnam veteran, Stephen Simmons. He returns shell-shocked, and has spent time in a mental hospital to recover and heal from his psychic wounds from the War. But The War is also the one being waged between Simmons' children and the Lipnicki's over a tree house his children built near the edge of their Mississippi town. The Lipnicki kids are tough, and one night at an amusement park, they surround little Stu Simmons, and they start beating on him, while Stu's Dad is off buying them some cotton candy. Stephen arrives just in time to break up the fight. They are yelling at them, taunting the Simmons. So Stephen orders Stu to get into the car, and still carrying the cotton candy, this Vietnam veteran strides toward them, and they shrink back in fear when he approaches. He gets to them, and when he does, Stephen Simmons hands them two huge cones of cotton candy. When he gets back to the car, Stu can't believe it. "They were beating me up. Why did you do that? Why did you give them the cotton candy?!" "Because it looks like no one has done anything for them in a long time."

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." This is Jesus' way, the way of the cross, where Jesus shed His blood for our sins, making peace with God. "Let love be genuine."

AMEN.
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