Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: Psalm 1:2
Old Testament: Psalm 1
New Testament: Philippians 4:4-8, 13
Every organization faces the challenge of staying on topic. When it comes to groups of people, it’s easy for them to get off track from their mission.
Several years ago, Ford Motor Company wanted to expand its business by going global. In 1998, it bought the English automaker, Jaguar. In 1999, it bought the Swedish automaker, Volvo. In 2000, it bought another British automaker, Land Rover.
For a decade Ford tried to manage these three companies, plus its Ford brand and Lincoln Mercury. It didn’t think this would be a problem. Ford was in the auto-making business. These were simply different autos.
What Ford learned over a decade was its vision to be a global automaker wasn’t working. Each brand had its own organizational culture. These different cultures didn’t work the same. They didn’t integrate well together.
Each brand had its own production methods. Each had different parts, different engines, different platforms on which each model was built. It was a logistical nightmare to have the inventory needed to service each brand.
Ford’s own brand was suffering. It was diverting energy and resources to improve its European brands at the expense of Ford quality and performance. Lincoln Mercury sales were slipping for the same reason.
Beyond Ford’s problems, the Japanese had improved their quality and performance. They were selling more cars in America than Ford.
Ford learned the hard way there were unintended consequences to not staying on topic. Ford needed to focus exclusively on delivering quality and performance of Ford’s brand.
Ford Motor Company sold off its Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo divisions and got back to its original mission. It recommitted itself to building quality, affordable cars and trucks under the Ford and Lincoln Mercury brand.
Congregations face the same challenge. Religion is not simply something into which we’re born, despite Presbyterian predestination theology. A believer’s choice is still involved in religious faith.
Each Christian denomination has its own culture. That culture competes with other religious cultures in America’s supermarket of religions. We live in a nation where religions are like vegetables in the produce section. There are many choices. Whether we like it or not, we, our children, and grandchildren are making choices with our feet about what god we worship.
Our national culture resembles biblical Greece. Deities of many religions are worshipped across America. A smorgasbord of gods competes for our souls.
There are the official religions of the world – Hindu, Tao, Shinto, Jain, Confucian, Judaism, and Islam. There are neo-pagan religions of the Druids, Celts, and Germans that are making a comeback – especially in Western cultures. Dead mythical religions of the ancient world are continually re-presented in movies by Hollywood. Some people fall under their influence. For instance, vampires are more than a teen fantasy for some teens and adults.
There’s a religion called theosophy that flies under the radar. We would know an aspect of it as scientology. It has captured several Hollywood elites. It has also spawned a neo-pagan religion that was deadly in history – the Nazis.
There are Unitarians and Universalists who are religious expressions of humanism. Their opposite yet related devotees are atheists. Both worship at the altar of human reason and self-empowerment.
Other religions worship material goods – materialism. Their temples sit along Wall Street and Madison Avenue in New York. Some religious disciples worship the nation. Washington, D.C. is their sanctuary.
Others worship sports teams. Their achievements evoke extraordinary devotion. They have heroes who are worshipped who are no more than human beings. Athletes are elevated by adoring fans and broadcasters as heroic defenders of a nation’s or a city’s superiority in the world.
Some heroes are great military and political leaders. They’ve shown heroic courage in sacrificing themselves in defense of others. We make statues to them.
Children can be worshipped by parents, as well as parents by children. Hero worship can come in many forms.
People worship chemical substances. We call them addictions, but worship is more like it. These worshippers live or die chasing after delusional dreams in their addiction. Chemical substances are often mixed with death worship by their worshippers in a ritualistic form, like Satanism, Voodoo, or Santeria.
People worship food. A thousand years from our descendants may believe the remains of golden arches they found were some form of global religious cult. Ronald McDonald could be considered a cultic object we venerated. Or maybe images of Burger King will be uncovered – the great ruler of our stomachs.
Animals are worshipped – like peoples’ pets. People worship nature. They say they find the sacred in nature. Nature worship once was called animism by anthropologists studying primitive religions. Today, it’s called environmentalism.
Some worship political parties and their leaders. Others worship currency and savings accounts. Wherever people devote their energy and thought about what they consider to be a life or death matter there is worship. Some worshippers worship themselves. We call that narcissism. Others worship ideas and philosophies – like communism and socialism.
In this diverse world of alternative religions, gods, and beliefs from which to choose, we say Jesus Christ is our Lord. What makes Him different from the deities behind every other form of worship?
How do we make a compelling case to our children to worship Jesus Christ as Lord in the supermarket of religious choice? A congregation’s children, after all, is a church’s first mission field. But they aren’t the only ones. In a national culture of thousands of religious deities, we need to target parents and grandparents as well. Children worship as parents lead them, or don’t lead them.
We have so many deities that are taken seriously in this country because adults are freely abandoning what they learned as children in churches. They’re exploring, and later turning to, other forms of worship than Jesus Christ.
This is the challenge to stay on target before a congregation. Congregations that limit themselves to worshipping Jesus Christ and fulfilling His mission stay on topic. Those who become distracted produce results that speak for themselves. When a congregation loses Christ’s reason for its existence, it diverts energy and resources to activities that don’t focus on worshipping Jesus Christ as Lord in the national supermarket of gods and goddesses.
This morning’s two Scripture passages can help us discover God’s instructions for us in our spiritual quest to stay on topic.
First, Christ’s followers study God’s directions for living. Psalm 1 claims a righteous man or woman devotes himself or herself to study God’s law and meditate on its application for living.
God’s law isn’t complex. It originates in 10 commands. From those 10 commands proceed applications for living.
- I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other gods before me.
- You shall not make graven images or worship them.
- You shall not wrongfully use God’s name.
- Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
- Honor your mother and father.
- Do not commit murder.
- Do not commit adultery.
- Do not steal.
- Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.
These commands restrict Christ’s followers to a particular life. We’re not free to live beyond the life they proscribe. Our freedom of faithful living lies within the life created by God’s laws.
Jesus expanded the meaning of their application. Nine of the commandments describe specific actions that are prohibited. Jesus expanded the commandments beyond actions to intentions. God measures our faithfulness by the intentions in our minds and hearts.
Jesus expanded these laws to two further proclamations by God that are positive directions for living. “Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This Golden Rule restricts our emotions. It guards against anger and vengeance in the face of injustice. It calls us to a life that respects one another despite our differences.
When we stay on topic, we don’t let ourselves off the hook for following them. We don’t justify a brief lapse into wanting revenge for an injustice against us. We can’t explain away harboring anger for a betrayal we’ve experienced.
It takes tremendous spiritual discipline to live like this. This is the kind of life we saw in Jesus Christ. We’re to live by its discipline like Christ. When we do, we are staying on topic as Christ’s followers.
To live such a humble, selfless life requires daily study and meditation upon God’s law and how Jesus Christ lived it. Very few people live with such devotion. But when we do, we show our children and neighbors a different kind of life than what comes from worshipping other gods and goddesses.
Years ago, I went to the bedside of a dear church member who was nearing the gates of the kingdom of heaven. Edna was a tremendously humble woman who had lost her husband years earlier. She yearned to be resurrected with him.
When I offered to pray for her, she said, “I’m not worthy of prayer.” I was stunned. I knew Edna as a gentle, kind soul, who loved the Lord and had faithfully engaged in Christian service.
Edna was genuinely sincere. She said she could never pray for herself. She didn’t believe she was worthy to ask anything of Christ. She admitted her faults. Such a servant’s heart comes from daily devotion upon the magnitude of Jesus Christ’s life, and the kind of life she thought she failed to live by His standards.
She knew God’s law, and Jesus’ teachings about our intentions and motives for doing the things we do that violate His commandments. In the sweetness of her admission, Edna was staying on topic during the final moments of her life. She was teaching her 60 year-old children and her 30 year-old grandchildren how to stay on topic as Christians. Staying on topic requires daily devotion and meditation on Christ’s commandments for living.
Second, Christ’s followers keep their minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. When we keep our minds on these blessings, we are staying on topic. We will be disciple-makers.
There is absolutely no way you can lose track of Jesus Christ’s mission of disciple-making if your mind is on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Only one subject fulfills each of these traits – Jesus Christ.
Only Jesus Christ satisfies the criteria of what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Everything Christ did during His lifetime on earth served the cause of uplifting other peoples’ lives. Everything Christ did during His lifetime brought new life to other peoples’ lives. This is disciple-making.
Our lives are uplifted by the truth, honor, just, pure, pleasing and commendable acts of Jesus Christ that makes new disciples. We have been given new life by the truth, honor, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable interventions by Jesus Christ in an unjust, dishonorable, untruthful, impure world.
All around us are people who live extraordinary lives of joy and generosity who have every reason to be despondent and discouraged. From the woman we pass using a walker on the sidewalk whose smile on her face radiates joy, to the man who clearly can’t see, yet beams with happiness despite his disability. From little children who forgive angry parents to the faithful widow who daily prays in love for children who never call – these people keep their minds and hearts on daily thinking about the excellence and praise-worthy love of Jesus Christ.
From the disappointment of divorce or the dashed hopes of getting a job we were praying to receive – daily thinking about Jesus Christ’s goodness and love for you keeps you on topic. By focusing on Jesus Christ each day, you can’t help but be joyful – genuinely joyful. Joy is what makes new disciples of Jesus!
Christ’s disciples aren’t dismayed by what isn’t fair about life. Christ’s disciples rise above a world of disappointment. They are grateful each day for the blessings they can see through contemplating Jesus Christ.
We saw this in the Amish community in Lancaster County after those elementary school children lost their lives several years ago. We saw that following the gunman who killed five people in church in Charleston, South Carolina last year.
We don’t need to have something that terrible happen to us to find joy every day. But there are dramatic things happening all around the world that you can’t miss if you watch the evening news, or hear the radio news. There are dramatic things happening in Pittsburgh each day that can discourage you if you let them. Studying Christ won’t let them drag you down.
You will see a different world when you study Jesus Christ each day. You will be a different person who will inspire your children and neighbors to join you in worshipping Jesus Christ who has saved you. Your perpetual joy from studying Jesus Christ each day will keep you staying on topic! Amen.