Sermon: Why Should We Go to the House of the Lord

Why Should We Go To the House of the Lord?
Psalm 122
27 November 2016

One day the telephone rang in the rector’s office at Christ’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia; it was the church where President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended. On the telephone line, an eager voice asked.  “Tell me, do you expect the President to be in church this Sunday?”  The Rector answered, “I cannot promise that, but we expect God to be here and we believe that will be incentive enough for a reasonably large attendance.”

Here at Rockville United Methodist Church, we believe God is with us and there is an assurance that he is in our lives. That is why we attend church every Sunday morning.

My text for this morning is Psalm 122 and it is about the love a believer has for a place of worship.
1 I was glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.”
This is the Word of God.  Thanks be to God.

Psalm 122 was a song sung by Jewish pilgrims when they got into view of the temple. As they began to walk up the slight incline into the city, they began to sing in preparation for worship in the temple.

In February of 2014, I went to Israel with about 40 ministers and Bishop Devadhar. When we arrived in Jerusalem, I found that once we began to walk up the gradual incline to the old temple area, it was not an easy climb.  You had to be in somewhat good shape to walk those long and hilly slopes.

As I meditated on Psalm 122, I thought of the routine that many family members use on a Sunday morning when they are about to leave their homes. This expression will sound familiar to many of us as we have all called something like, “It is time to go to church” to get the family moving.  Let me suggest a phrase with a richer meaning, verse 1 of this psalm. “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

As you entered the doors of this sanctuary this morning, it is my hope and prayer that each of us felt God’s presence. I hope as we spend time together in service, we will each experience the presence of God, the holy, the divine, the peace and assurance of God.  That is why we come.

As a child, I was fortunate to have parents who instilled in me a desire to be in God’s House. As I look back on it, that provided me with the framework for me to find Jesus as my Savior and a foundation to go into the ministry.  In those early years, I got into the habit of attending worship services on Sunday.  Even today, if I am not in the house of the Lord on Sunday, I feel incomplete and as I get older, I don’t ever want to get in the habit of staying away for whatever reason.

Hebrews 10:25:  Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching. 

Incidentally, the church I attended as a youth, Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church in Quincy, MA closed its doors a couple of years ago. It was sold this past year to a developer who had it demolished on Columbus Day weekend.  Prior to the demolition, I contacted the developer and received permission to go into the church one final time.  When I went inside, the church was just a hollow building with most of its sacred items removed, but in my mind it still felt like the house of God.

For those who do not have a personal relationship with the Lord, a church is a building where nice people go on a Sunday. But for those who have Christ in their hearts, a church building is more than that.  It is a sacred place to meet God and hear his word.

I have great respect for the people needing a cane or walker who come to church. Sometimes they come in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank.  I know it is an effort for these people to be here and I appreciate their faithfulness.

I remember in the first United Methodist Church that I pastored we held a Saturday afternoon worship service. A 96 year old church member would have his health aide drive him, and they would sit together.  On one Saturday afternoon, I saw that the health aide was alone.  After the service, I asked where the man was and she said the parking lot.  He had a bad cough and didn’t want to disturb anyone.  I gave him a one minute sermon and served him communion.

Looking at American history, George Washington’s pastor once said, “No company or visitor ever kept him away from church. The pastor went on.  “I have often been at his breakfast table which was filled with guests.  But to him, there was no excuse for neglecting his God and losing the satisfaction of setting a good example.  Instead of staying at home out of imaginary courtesy to them, he used to constantly invite them to accompany him to church.”  President Theodore Roosevelt, in spite of all of his duties and responsibilities, did everything in his power to never miss a church service.  He took the promise he made at his confirmation seriously when he pledged that he would be faithful.  If Roosevelt could not attend a worship service, he sent a letter to his pastor and explained why he had to be absent.

Unfortunately for today’s society, we have had at least two, maybe three, generations where the parents were not as faithful in raising their children in the Christian faith or bringing them to church.  For faith to work, parents have to teach, to set the example and bring their children to the house of God.  Otherwise, if you let a child make the choice, most likely they won’t.

When I look at Psalm 122, there is something else that jumps out at me. It is verse 1 which says.  I was glad when they said to me. Let us go to the house of the Lord.  Notice there is no hint of reluctance, nor is there a sense of duty or obligation.  The psalmist is glad and looks forward to the experience.  I hope that is our experience as well.

Have you ever seen the Olympic ice sport of curling? Curling is like watching shuffleboard on ice with brooms.  It is not terribly exciting except to those who have a genuine interest.  To me it doesn’t exactly get the blood flowing, but if you are a true fan, you are passionate and it is exciting.  When it comes to worship, if a person does not have Christ in their life or does very little to nurture their spiritual life, church worship could be like curling.  It will become irrelevant, and people would rather stay home.

However when a person’s spiritual life becomes renewed and that person becomes born from above, church becomes the House of the Lord, and worship takes on new meaning.

A good worship experience requires some concentration and preparation. In Biblical times, when Jewish pilgrims came within sight of the temple, they began to sing 15 of the Psalm of the Ascents; Psalm 122 is one of them.  As they sang, they began to prepare themselves for worship in the temple.

I think our worship experience would go much better if we had some preparation when we get up on Sunday mornings. Perhaps we should keep the TV off and hold off checking our messages on the computer.  We can listen to some type of spiritual music in the car as we ride to church.  With the proper preparation, when we arrive in the parking lot we can say, “I am glad when they said to me.  Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

In many third world countries, people who have to walk to church have rich worship experiences. It does take an effort to get there, but when they arrive the songs are sweeter, the prayers are richer, and the meditation is life enriching.  On that same trip to Israel with the Bishop, we were given a chance to do anything we wanted on the Sunday in the middle of our tour.  I decided to attend the English speaking St. George’s Anglican Service in East Jerusalem.  To get there I walked from my hotel, which gave me time to think and prepare my heart for worship.  When I arrived, I discovered that there were many similarities to our United Methodist worship service.  But this time, because of my spiritual preparation as I walked to the church, I was more than ready for worship.  After the service was over, I walked back to the hotel and I found myself deep in the thought of what I had heard and experienced.  It was rich.  Normally when I come to the House of the Lord, I just jump in the car and within minutes I am here.  But when I had to walk, what a difference it made.

Let me close with this thought. When you come to worship, I encourage you to prepare yourselves.  Then you can say, “I was glad when they said to me. Let us go to the house of the Lord.” 

Sermon: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Rich Man and Lazarus
Luke 16:19-31
September 25, 2016

When John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, was eighty years old he was met by a friend who shook his trembling hand and asked, “Good morning, how is John Quincy Adams today?  The former president looked at him for a moment and spoke of his physical condition like this.  He said:  “John Quincy Adams is quite well sir, quite well. But the house in which lives at present is become dilapidated.  It is tottering upon its foundations.  Time and seasons have almost destroyed it.  Its roof is pretty worn out.  Its walls are much shattered and crumbles with every wind.  The old tenement is become almost uninhabitable and I think that John Quincy Adams will have to move out soon.  But he himself is well, sir, quite well.”  Not long afterwards the former president had his second and final stroke.  John Quincy Adams had moved on from his shaky tenement, as he called it, to a glorious mansion.

I believe there is no one more competent to talk about the afterlife than Jesus. Our Lord pulled a curtain aside so we can look and see the unseen world.  My text is Luke 16:19-31; it is the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
This is the Word of God.  Thanks be to God.

In this parable, Jesus spoke of a wealthy man who was dressed in purple and fine linen. Evidently he was quite successful and lived in a stately mansion.  Whenever he and his guests would dine at his spacious dinner table, they used golden utensils.  Back then, the rich had an unusual custom; they used pieces of bread, instead of napkins, to wipe fingers.  When they were finished wiping, they would toss the scrap pieces of bread out the window.

We also learn from today’s scripture that a sick beggar named Lazarus spent most of his time at the rich man’s gate. Abandoned by his family, Lazarus lived outdoors where he had to compete with the dogs for the pieces of bread thrown out the window.  Because Lazarus lived outdoors, it took a physical toll on his body.  Though his skin was tough as shoe leather, the insect bites developed into open sores and infections.  Adding insult to injury, wild dogs would lick his infected sores.

One day Lazarus died and was immediately moved to a cemetery where the poor and strangers were buried. A hole was dug and perhaps someone was kind enough to say a few words.  Once covered over with dirt, Lazarus was forgotten.  But within a fraction of a second of his death, through time and space, Lazarus was carried by the angels to his eternal reward where he finally experienced peace and contentment.

Then the Bible tells us that the rich man died. His servants took his body, washed and anointed it with special oil.  They took expensive fine linen cloth and carefully wrapped frankincense in between the layers for purposes of preservation.  But when the rich man died, he too was taken to a certain place, but it was not paradise.  For the first time in his life, he was alone and in agony, very much aware of his surroundings.

You see the rich man had enjoyed a very good life, but his life revolved around himself, with no concern for God or his immediate neighbor. Lazarus on the other hand led a difficult life, but was now in a place of peace and wholeness.  This parable seems to indicate is a different set of values where wrongs are made right and justice is done.

The message that Jesus conveys to all is that there is life beyond the grave, and to reach its potential we must include God in our lives and remember the poor and needy.

Death is no respecter of persons. It knocks on the doors of mansions as well as homeless shelters.  There is an old Irish Proverb that says:  “If the rich could hire the poor to die for them, then the poor could make a good living.” John 3:16, a Bible verse that many that are familiar with, says:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. That whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

When I first read the story of the Richman and Lazarus, I was relatively young in the faith. I was glad I had earlier made a profession of faith, forever settling the question of where I was to spend eternity.  And today, after all those years, I still have assurance in my heart that when my days are done, I will be with Christ in eternity.  It is like taking out an insurance policy to be used later.

For those who have made that important profession of faith, we can focus our energies on living for Christ and doing what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves, such as the refugee family we are preparing to host.

I suspect that the rich man’s downfall in this parable was that he was all about himself. There is no evidence that he had time for God, and he certainly ignored and showed no compassion or interest in Lazarus.

Fidel Castro, the former President of Cuba, was once asked if he ever spent time pondering what his death might be like. His response:  “I have never thought much about that because I don’t attach much importance to what happens after I die.”  Now that he is 90 years old and has been in ill health, I wonder if he has changed his mind.

As a pastor, it still surprises me, when I meet people who act unconcerned about what happens in the life beyond. It kind of scares me when people get so close to the end, and their attitude is ‘I’ll find out when I get there.’  Whether it be in a hospital room, nursing home or where ever the topic comes up, I will tastefully remind people that when life as we know it is over, we will wake up.  It will either be in the “good place” or in the “other place” and they know exactly what I mean.

If I am wrong about Christ and eternal life, I have nothing to lose. But if a person doesn’t believe the words of Christ and they are wrong-then what?  For me I don’t want to take that chance.  Contrary to popular belief, our entrance into eternal life does not come at the hour of death, but in the moment we ask Christ into our hearts.

Death is not the end, like a period at the end of a sentence. It is a comma.  If you are not sure about this or have doubts, I would urge you to make peace with your Maker.

Let me share this poem. It is called A Building in Heaven.

I purchased a town lot in heaven. On the city not built with hands.
I’m sending material daily.  To build in that happy land. 

I’d like a mansion on Main Street where streets are all paved with gold.
With a clear view of the pearly gates where Christ takes care of the soul.
I want to send good material that will stand the test of time.
So I’ll not be disappointed when I reach that home sublime. 

Prayer is for the foundation, faith and love for the walls.
Good deed for the reinforcement that will stand when the Savior calls.
I would like for you my neighbor in that city so divine.
Maybe just across the street or your home close to mine.
Up there we will know no sorrow; tears will never dim the eyes.
There we will rest in peace forever in that happy home on high.

What I like about this poem is that we are to send materials: prayer is the foundation, faith and love for the walls, etc.  In other words, we need to be busy on this side of eternity by doing good deeds, such as helping the poor, getting ready for the refugee family, doing what we can to be a blessing to others.  We will end this sermon singing “Mansion Over the Hilltop”.