We all know the the Christmas story as it is told in Luke:
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. -Luke 2:1-20 (CEB)
But have you ever thought about it from God’s perspective? Here is how I think the Christmas story would go from another perspective:
Once upon a time – or before time, actually, before there were clocks or calendars or Christmas trees – God was all there was. No one knows anything about that time because no one was there to know it, but somewhere in the middle of that time before time, God decided to make a world. Maybe God was bored or maybe God was lonely or maybe God just liked to make things and thought it was time to try something big.
Whatever the reason, God made a world – this world – and filled it with the most astonishing things: with humpback whales that sing and white-striped skunks that stink and birds with more colors on them than in a box of Crayola crayons. The list of wonders is too long to go into here, but let’s just say that at the end when God stood back and looked at it all, God was pleased. Only something was missing. God not think what it was at first, but slowly it dawned on God.
Everything God had made was interesting and gorgeous and it all fit together really well, only there was nothing in the world that looked like God exactly. It was as if God had painted this huge masterpiece and then forgot to sign it, so God got busy making the signature piece, something made in God’s own image, so that anyone who looked at it would know who the artist was.
God had a single thing in mind at first, but as God worked, God realized that one thing all by itself was not the kind of statement to make. God knew what it was like to be alone, and that God had made a world God knew what it was like to have company, and company was definitely better. So God decided to make two things instead of one, which were alike but different, and both would be reflections of God – a man and a woman who could keep both God and each other company.
Flesh was what he made them out of – flesh and blood – a wonderful medium, extremely flexible and warm to the touch. Since God, strictly speaking, was not made out of anything at all but was pure mind and pure spirit, he was very taken with flesh and blood. Watching his two creatures stretch and yawn, laugh and run, he found to his surprise that he was more than a little envious of them. He had made them, it was true, and he knew how fragile they were but there very breakability made them more touching to him, somehow. It was not long before God found himself falling in love with them. He liked being with them better than any of the other creatures he had made and he especially liked walking with in the garden in the cool of the evening.
It almost broke God’s heart when they got together behind his back, did the one thing he had asked them not to do and then hid from him – from him! – while he searched the garden until way past dark, calling their names over and over again. Things were different after that. God still loved the human creatures best of all, but the attraction was not mutual. Birds were crazy about God, especially ruby-throated hummingbirds. Dolphins and raccoons could not get enough of him, but the human beings had other things on their minds. They were busy learning how to make things, grow things, buy things, sell things, and the more they learned to do for themselves, the less they depended on God. Night after night he threw pebbles at their windows, inviting them to go for a walk with him, but they said they were sorry, they were busy.
It was not long before most human beings forgot about him. They called themselves “self-made” men and women, as if that were a plus and not a minus. They honestly believed they had created themselves, and they liked the result so much that they divided themselves into groups of people who looked, thought, and talked alike. Those who still believed in God drew pictures of him that looked just like them, and that made it easier for them to turn away from the people who were different. You would not believe the trouble this got them into: everything from armed warfare to cities split right down the middle, with one kind of people living on that side of the line and another kind on the other.
God would have put a stop to it all right there, except for one thing. When he had made human beings, he had made them free. That was built into them just like their hearts and brains were, and even God could not take it back without killing them. So God left them free, and it almost killed him to see what they were doing to each other.
God shouted to them from the sidelines, using every means he could think of, including floods, famines, messengers, and manna. He got inside people’s dreams, and if that did not work, he woke them up in the middle of the night with his whispering. No matter what he tried, however, he came up against the barriers of flesh and blood. They were made of it and he was not, which made translation difficult. God would say, “Please stop before you destroy yourselves!” but all they could hear was thunder. God would say, “I love you as much now as the day I made you,” but all they could hear was a loon calling across the water.
Babies were the exception to this sad state of affairs. While their parents were all but deaf to God’s messages, babies did not have any trouble hearing him at all. They were all the time laughing at God’s jokes or crying with him when he cried, which went right over their parent’s heads. “Colic,” the grown-ups would say, or “Isn’t she cute? She’s laughing at the dust mites in the sunlight.” Only she wasn’t, of course, she was laughing because God had just told her that it was cleaning day in heaven, and that what she saw were fallen stars the angels were shaking from their feather dusters.
Babies did not go to war. They never made hate speeches or littered or refused to play with each other because they belonged to different political parties. They depended on other people for everything necessary for their lives and a phrase like “self-made babies” would have made them laugh until their bellies hurt. While no one asked their opinions about anything that matter (which would have been a smart thing to do), almost everyone seemed to love them, and that gave God an idea.
Why not create himself as one of those delightful creatures?
He tried the idea out on his cabinet of archangels and at first they were all very quiet. Finally, the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for them all. He told God how much they would worry about him, if he did that. He would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures, the angel said. People could do anything they wanted to him, and if he seriously meant to become one of them there would be no escape for him if things turned sour. Could he at least create himself as a magical baby with special powers? It would not take much – just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl lightning bolts if the need arose. The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features.
God thanked the archangels for their concern but said no, he thought he would be just a regular baby. How else could he gain the trust of his creatures? How else could he persuade them that he knew their lives inside and out, unless he lived on like theirs? There was a risk and he knew that. Okay, there was a high risk, but that was part of what he wanted his creatures to know: that he was willing to risk everything to get close to them, in hopes they might love him again.
It was a daring plan, but once the angels saw that God was dead set on it, they broke into applause – not the uproarious kind but the steady kind that goes on and on and on when you have witnessed something you know you will never see again.
While they were still clapping, God turned around and left the cabinet chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars on it collapsed in a heap. Then a strange thing happened. Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep – and right in the middle of them – a bunch of shepherds sitting around a camp fire drinking wine out of skin. It was hard to say who was more startled, the shepherds or the angels, but as the shepherds looked up at them, the angels pushed their senior member to the edge of the hole. Looking down at the human beings who were all trying to hide behind each other (poor creatures, no wings), the angel said in as gentle a voice as he could must, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
And away up the hill, from the direction of town, came the sound of a newborn baby’s cry.
Glory to God in the Highest!
Here is a garrison sermon based on Psalm 91:
We live in an uncertain world. Systems and governments are crumbling around us. The economy is stagnant. Warfare and violence are all around us as many of you know since you are just returning from Afghanistan. We all want a place to go when we’re fearful or tempted, disappointed or discouraged – a place where we can go to get away from it all. A shelter. A retreat. A place in God’s presence. I want you to think about two things: What’s so special about making God your dwelling and what makes prayer a great place of refuge?
One young boy was telling the pastor that his mother said his prayers for him each night. “What do you mean, your mother says your prayers for you?” the puzzled minister inquired. The youngster replied, “When mom tucks me in she always says, “Thank God he’s in bed.”
Well that’s one way of utilizing prayer as a way to get away from it all, but there’s much more.
Consider the words used to describe the place of refuge provided by God in this 91st Psalm. God is our shelter in tough times, rough times, and even good times. We have troubles or we see troubles and we don’t know where to turn. Things are closing in on us and we don’t know where to go. We need a shield or a repellant to keep those tough times away from us.
Did you know that mosquito repellants don’t actually “repel” at all? They hide you. The spray blocks the mosquito’s sensors so they don’t know where you are. In much the same way God can become our trouble repellant. He doesn’t always dispel troubles from our lives but He can hide us from them!
God is also called our “refuge” in verses two and nine. This Hebrew word literally means “hope, place of refuge, shelter, or trust.”
The Psalmist also uses the word “dwelling” in verse nine to describe a close relationship with God.
What’s so special about making God your DWELLING?
Just look at the blessings of dwelling in God’s presence in Psalm 91. Each one of them in itself is outstanding but when you put them all together it’s almost overwhelmingly unbelievable!
V. 1 – REST in God’s shadow.
V. 2,4 – REFUGE in God’s fortress.
V. 3 – REDEMPTION from temptation.
V. 5-6 – RELIANCE upon His promises.
V. 7-8 – RETRIBUTION upon the enemy.
V. 9-10 – RESORT from wrath.
V. 11-12 – REINFORCEMENT from angels.
V. 13-14 – RESCUE from danger.
V. 15 – REQUESTS answered.
V. 16 – RESILIENCE promised.
The 15th verse will be the focus of our consideration today – “He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.” When we are at a point in our lives when we want to get away from it all, we have God for our refuge. In that moment, we pray for God and we go right to God’s presence.
“IF we make the Most High our DWELLING” (V.9) we can claim the promise of God answering our prayers when we’re in trouble. (V. 15) We then have a way to get away from it all.
Prayer in this context is more than just a problem-solving tool. Prayer becomes a WAY OF LIFE.
Our dwelling is where we live – we’re not just an occasional guest. Likewise, our relationship with God should not consist of only an occasional visit. Especially if that visit is solely for the purpose of helping us out of trouble.
Jesus reinforced this insight when he said, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” (John 15:7)
It would be easy for us to zero in on the last part of Christ’s statement and fail to grasp the significance of the first part. We relish the “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” part of Christ’s promise. But we’re often unmindful of the condition: if we’re going to ask so that God answers our prayers, we must “remain” in Christ and His words must “remain” in us.
We know the devil is behind a plot to muddle this truth because he quoted verses eleven and twelve of the 91st Psalm when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.
“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:’He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6)
Satan had these verses of the Bible memorized but he wasn’t dwelling in God’s presence so he purposely twisted the Word of God. Satan was the first to use psychology to battle against his enemy. He’s been involved in that kind of activity since the Garden of Eden.
Jesus on the other hand was always in the presence of the Father. He wasn’t the least bit fooled by Satan’s distorted view of scripture. Jesus knew that prayer was not a lucky rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover that you carried in your hip pocket. God isn’t a genie in a bottle that you rub and get three wishes from when you want them.
TALKING to God is much more effective when we’ve been WALKING with God.
We need to seek His face, not just His hand.
Let’s say we need a favor. Who are we going to ask, a friend or a stranger? Naturally we’re going to ask a friend because we have a relationship with him. The closer the friend the more we may feel inclined to make bigger requests.
That’s why we need to constantly nurture our friendship with God. Friendship is a two-way street. God is the initiator but we’re given an opportunity to reciprocate.
If we come to God ONLY when we’re in trouble and not on a daily basis – what kind of friendship is that? That’s a one-way street kind of friendship. We’re just using God.
On the other hand, when we have a lifestyle of continually walking and talking with God, like we do our other friends, we can call on Him and He will answer.
But be forewarned – He may call on us too!
Psalm 50:15 puts it this way, “and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, AND YOU WILL HONOR ME.”
God wants us to honor Him when He answers our prayers. When He delivers us He expects some sort of appreciation. Isn’t that just good manners? Don’t we at least say thanks to our other friends when they help us?
Our Father in heaven isn’t asking us to do something He doesn’t do. God certainly honors those who participate in a friendship relationship with Him. The last part of our text verse reinforces this principle.
“He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him AND HONOR HIM.” (Psalm 91:15)
Can you imagine that? God honoring us? That’s precisely what He says He will do for those who make Him their dwelling.
The Hebrew word for “honor” literally means “to make heavy.”
Here’s what happens. We go to God with a heavy load of burdens and we leave with a heavy load of blessings! That’s how God honors us. He doesn’t stop at delivering us from our difficulties – He goes on to make us heavy with blessings!
Why wouldn’t we want to honor Him in return? Psalm 91 is not just a song of confidence that God will provide a place for us to get away from it all. It is also a song of thanksgiving and adoration.
Here is a field sermon based on Romans 8:35-39:
I want you to take a look around you right now. Look at the people who are sharing this place with you. You all have things in common: you are Soldiers; you are at war; you are deployed; you are away from your families. There are things that we have in common and yet we can still feel alone and isolated. We are far from our families and our comforts. We may even be scared and afraid to tell others how we are feeling.
There is something I want you to know. Maybe we can’t understand how you are feeling. Maybe you are struggling with something that we can’t understand but there is someone who does know what you are feeling: Jesus. You see as our scripture tells us today there is absolutely nothing that can separate the love of God from us – even our humanity. God our creator took on our flesh to come to this earth to live as we do and to understand what it means to be human. God knew fear and loneliness on the cross and God understands what you are feeling right now and nothing can keep God’s love away from you – For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You are probably thinking “That sounds good Chaplain but I don’t see God here with me now.” Again, I say look around you and see your fellow Soldiers who understand what you are doing and feeling. God is around us not only in creation but in the people we are with. God knows what you are feeling and God has placed people in your life who share those experiences. You are not alone. You are loved.
Here is today’s sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. It is part of a service remembering the events of September 11 ten years ago and is based on Revelation 21:10-22:5:
Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books of the Bible. We don’t use it as often as we do other parts of the New Testament. We usually don’t dabble in it for leisure, and we certainly don’t read it to young children before bedtime! Most of this book is a ferocious mix of images, creatures, battles and symbols. We read about horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more. Lord, have mercy!
Yet despite its fairly bizarre contents, the book of Revelation has had a profound impact on Western culture. It is one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible, depicted in architecture, tapestry, paintings, and altar pieces. Much literature reflects the pervasive power of this text, for example, in the poetry of Dante, John Bunyan, William Blake, T.S. Eliot; the novels of Charlotte Bronte, Ray Bradbury, and more. The Book of Revelation has also influenced a great deal of music, including Handel’s famous Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Many commentators assert that Revelation tells of the unveiling of the end times, the apocalypse. Apocalyptic themes pervade popular culture today. Films and television programs regularly portray tales of the end of time, as does the incredibly popular Left Behind book series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Consumers can’t get enough of apocalyptic literature.
Timothy Luke Johnson, a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology, says that
Few writings…have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation…Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation…its arcane symbols…have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.
If this book is so misunderstood, why is its influence so pervasive? Why has it fired the imagination of writers, artists, and more ordinary folks like us for centuries and popular culture today? The answer, I believe, has two parts.
The first is that the world can be a really scary place–not always, but enough of the time to fuel plenty of anxiety and apocalyptic imagination. Revelation is written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. It’s in the form of a letter from John, a Christian in exile on the island of Patmos, to Christians in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey. It was then still part of the Roman Empire. Many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because some refused to worship the emperor. Some were imprisoned, tortured, or even executed. Many Christians, however, succumbed to the temptation simply to accommodate themselves to the prevailing religious and cultural rituals in order to avoid social ostracism and economic deprivation.
In the midst of such problems, the letter of Revelation was sent not to foretell the end of time but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the religion and social practices of the empire around them.
We, too, live in a scary time. In the last year and a half, we have lived through the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. Unemployment has soared. The loss of a job usually means the end of decent health insurance, too. Foreclosures have become almost normal, as many lose their homes. Meanwhile hunger and homelessness are ever more pervasive.
Our nation is at war in a number of places, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan. Most communities in our country have lost someone or had their loved ones return from war with physical or psychological wounds. We see the names and faces of those in the armed service, some alive, some dead, on the nightly news. Yet, their extraordinary sacrifice has not yet really made us more secure or given us a sense of peace and calm about the future. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis have died from the war’s direct violence as well as the breakdown of basic services like clean water and access to health care. In addition to the human toll, many experts believe these wars will end up costing upwards of a trillion dollars. There seems to be no clear end in sight.
We live in a scary time. You know all these problems. I could list more, but I don’t need to recite them. You are already well acquainted with them.
The worst part, however, is that much of this death-dealing destruction is done in the name of religion. Those who blow themselves up on airplanes or in markets, busy streets, or mosques have a religious vision, as do those who seek vengeance and retribution for such attacks. Those who preach a gospel of prosperity and blame the jobless and the poor for their plight have a religious vision, as do those who would deny food and healthcare to children.
We who call ourselves conscientious Christians also have a religious vision. Has your religion ever gotten in the way of you offering love and grace to a wounded world? If you are like me, I bet it has. One of the problems with deeply religious people like us is that we are sometimes so clear in our convictions that we try to mow down anyone who gets in the way of our carrying them out.
We live in a scary world. No wonder people are drawn to apocalyptic visions! No wonder folks speculate about the world coming to an end. One of my favorite bumper stickers, those occasional theological sound bites that we read in traffic says, “God is coming and he is mad!”
God have every reason to be mad! We’re making a colossal mess of things here! We choose to glorify in all the wrong stuff: war; humiliating our adversaries; shaming the immigrant; ignoring or neglecting our children and families; consuming goods that possess us rather than us possessing them; going through the motions of our religion rather than cultivating spiritual disciplines that help us listen carefully and prayerfully to God; and so much more. These are all choices we actively make, but we don’t have to choose these things–a lesson also found in Revelation.
The second reason that the book of Revelation remains a profoundly powerful text despite being so bizarre is that it acknowledges the hardship and suffering of daily existence while it also invokes the deepest longings of the human heart for life in all its fullness, healed and whole.
In the passage from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not always be with them. He is speaking to them about their fears, anxieties, and despair. He offers them a choice. He says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Eugene Petersen renders this last part of the passage more colloquially, stating that if we keep God’s word, God will “move right into the neighborhood!” God shares the neighborhood with us, but only if we choose to live there! We choose to live there by embodying God’s love for the world. “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (14: 27b), Jesus says. Christ will be with us, even in scary times, if we genuinely strive to love one another and live life in all its fullness.
The passage from Revelation 21 and 22 offers a similar choice. Throughout the book, Babylon serves as the primary symbol for the Roman Empire complete with its injustice, violence and oppression. Candler scholar of New Testament, Gail O’Day, says, “…the goal of Revelation is to invite the churches to move out of Babylon and into the grace of the city of God.”
And what a city it is, this new Jerusalem! The city comes “down out of heaven from God” (21:10). There’s no need for a temple because God’s presence permeates everything. The gates are always open and the gifts of creation are abundantly available to all–all the nations and rulers of the earth. The Tree of Life is planted on each side of the river of the water of life and produces twelve kinds of fruit; “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (22:2b). Professor O’Day claims that “The only way to be excluded from the city is to choose to practice falsehood and deceit (21:27; 22:15), practices which by definition do not belong to the city of God.”
Kindness, justice, truth, grace, love and righteousness on earth! What a vision. We speak of it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Those of us who know the saving grace of Jesus Christ need desperately to live out our belief that God intends to reclaim, restore and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention. If ever there was a time when the world needs the healing, saving grace of Jesus Christ, it is now.
The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky when we die, although we certainly don’t discount that promise. This vision is about that wonderfully delicious pie that we all crave on earth now, a life that basks in God’s presence now, a life that keeps God’s commandment to love one another and mirrors God’s glory today and every day! God has moved into the neighborhood! Revelation is powerful precisely because, in the midst of our anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, our dreams for a future life with God break into the present. Revelation assures us that good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death–all here and now, as well as in eternity.
Is there any tangible and plain proof that God has moved into your life? Does God’s glory–the weighty, powerful, radiant presence of love, grace, healing and wholeness–shine out from your house and your church? Does your faith light up your neighborhood?
We must choose every day to demonstrate concretely and visibly our love for Christ, for each other and for the well-being of our communities. When we do, we actively choose to live in the grace of the city of God, the place that embodies the fullness of God’s hope for the world and for lives grounded in love.
This image was used for the bulletin cover art. It is a powerful image to me that represents not only my scripture choice but the events of 9/11. The story of the painting is just as powerful as the image itself. Toni Franovic was one of the Artists-in-Residence at Wesley Theological Seminary during the 1994-1995 academic year. Toni grew up in Croatia, the child of Jewish and Catholic parents. Identifying with his Jewish heritage, he lived for some time in Israel. For the last several years, he has been living and teaching art at a university in Zagreb. A prolific and talented painter, many of his works are reflections on death, war, and the complexities of religious faith in his native country. On September 11, Toni was visiting in New Jersey, and began to make his way into Manhattan to keep an appointment with a gallery that was interested in showing his work. He didn’t get into the city that day. Instead, he watched the smoke rise from across the river. The next day, he came to Washington, where he also had an appointment with a gallery. In the basement studio of friends, he began to paint. This untitled painting is one of several he did in the first few days after the attack on the World Trade Center. The artist’s immediate response to the death and destruction there, he refers to them as a Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Here is today’s sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost based on Matthew 18:15-20:
Throughout the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, and in these six verses in particular, Jesus underscores the importance of Christian community. Speaking to his disciples, he lets them know that their faith is not a private matter, something they can go off by themselves and enjoy all alone under a tree. Their life in Christ is a community affair, something that happens when two or three of them are gathered in his name. That is he promises to be in their midst, and not when they are off by themselves feeling holy.
He lets them know they need each other, in other words – not only for practical reasons but for spiritual ones as well. They need each other because two heads are better than one; they need each other because they can accomplish more together than they can apart. They need each other like brothers and sisters need each other, to remind themselves that they belong to one family.
When families work right, they are God’s way of teaching us important things, like how to share and how to work together and how to take care of one another. A healthy family has a way of smoothing our rough edges by making us rub up against each other, like tumbling pebbles in a jar. Living with other people, we learn that we cannot have everything our way. We learn to compromise, giving up some of the things we want so that other people can have some of the things they want, and while it is never easy, learning this give and take is part of learning to be fully human.
Not everyone has good memories of growing up, however, because many families do not work right. They are not schools in forbearance and forgiveness bur reformatories where real are more important than people and where the first rule is silence, silence about anything unpleasant or untoward. If you cannot say anything nice do not say anything at all, and if you have a problem with someone, keep it to yourself, because harmony – even the illusion of harmony – is the most important thing, more important than telling the truth, more important than your feelings, and more important, finally, then you.
That is the lesson many families teach and it is a crying shame, but in today’s reading Jesus lets us know that the Christian family does not work that way, that in the household of God, when your brother sins against you, you must go and talk to him, and if that does not work you must keep going back – taking other people with you next time – doing everything in your power to get your brother back again.
There are two curious things about Jesus’ advice. First, he puts the burden on the victim, on the person who has been sinned against. Second, he seems much less interested in who is right and who is wrong than he is in getting the family back together again. The important thing is that we listen to each other, he says, but if a member of the family refuses to listen over and over again – if the doors of communication stay firmly shut – then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. We are to recognize that one of our members has left the family, because the only thing worse than losing a brother or sister is pretending that you have not and letting that person fester in your midst like an untended wound.
It is hard but honest advice, one of those pieces of advice that we know is right, that we know we should take, but one that is very hard to act upon. Can you imagine doing exactly as Jesus suggests? Let’s pretend for just a moment that you are sitting in a pew next to Joe. You have been sitting next to him for some time and you know him pretty well. One day, he asks if he can borrow your lawnmower since his is broken.
Sure, you say, full of good Christian cheer, and Joe assures you that he will bring it back in a week. But the week passes, and then another week, until finally you call Joe and him if you can have your lawnmower back, which is when he tells you that he has loaned it to someone else who has backed over it in his truck and the lawnmower is no more. Joe considers this a piece of bad luck that the two of you share, after all it wasn’t his lawnmower, but you consider that you have been wronged.
So the first thing you do is go over to Joe’s by yourself and talk it over with him, offering to take half of what the lawnmower was worth for the sake of the friendship, but Joe is offended. Can he help it if the guy ran over the lawnmower with his truck? He says that these things happen, and he is sorry it happened to you, but that does not make it his fault. So you go home, open the church directory at random, and call the first two names you see, asking them to go back to Joe’s with you and help you work things out with him.
Next day after work the three of you knock on Joe’s door. He is surprised to see you and gets mad when you tell him why you are there. What are you trying to do, gang up on him? Drag his name through the mud? Standing there on the porch, you start to tell him that you have reconsidered, that you are willing to report the loss of the lawnmower to your insurance company if Joe will just tell them what happened, but before you can finish your speech, Joe tells you to get off his property before he calls the police, and then he shuts the door in your face.
What do you do next? You guessed it: You call everyone in the church and ask them to meet you at Joe’s house next Saturday morning. Since you doubt that he will answer the door, you make signs he can read through his windows, signs that say, “Forget the mower, Joe” and “We are your friends” or “Come out and talk.” On Saturday, everyone is there, milling around on Joe’s front lawn, carrying their signs and watching the house which is as dark and still as a tomb. Nothing happens for twenty minutes or so, but then you see one slat of the blinds pulled back, and while you cannot see Joe you know that he can see you, so you wave and smile and beckon to him to come out. Then the slat pops back into place and nothing happens for another twenty minutes or, until you look and see Joe standing sheepishly on his front porch, a check for the lawn mower in his hand. The crowd cheers, you and Joe embrace and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
I know what you are thinking. “Maybe so and maybe not.,” you are thinking, but how would we know? I have tried anything like that, have you? When someone crosses me, my strategies are usually quite different, and my hunch is that yours are too. The first one, the one that comes most naturally, is to pretend that nothing happened. Forget the lawnmower. Just let it go. No need to get upset. Maybe he will bring it back someday; maybe you will not have to ask. Meanwhile, it is awkward to be around him, but that is better than a fight. Ignore it and it will go away, or at least you will not have to think about it as much.
A second strategy is the cold shoulder. You never the other person what is wrong because that would be impolite, so you just shun the offender – not only Joe but also anyone who does something you do not like. You simply X them out of your mind, and when you walk past them it is like no one is there. It never occurs to you to tell them about what really happened between the two of you because you are sure they already know. They were in the wrong; let them figure it out.
Yet a third strategy is revenge – the silent, deadly kind – where you never admit any ill will toward someone but you let it leak out all over the place, never missing an opportunity to question the other person’s character or tell a little joke at his expense. You embark on a private smear campaign, telling yourself that it makes you feel better, telling yourself that over and over and over again because the truth is that you do not really feel any better at all.
In his book The Great Divorce, the British author C.S. Lewis paints a picture of hell that haunts me, because it bears resemblance to where many human beings live. Hell is like a vast, grey city, Lewis writes, a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle – empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets of empty houses behind them. That, Lewis says, is how hell got so large – empty at the center and inhabited only on the edges – because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.
By confrontation I mean just what the dictionary says: to bring two people face to face, front to front, to sort out what is going on between them. That is what today’s reading recommends, and it is also what most of us would do just about anything to avoid. The excuses rush to our lips. Who am I to judge? What is it to me? I go to her? She is the sinner; let her come to me. Tell him my feelings are hurt? What if he just hurts them again? I would not know what to say. I would feel so foolish. And what is the use, anyway? Things will never change.
Those are all fine excuses, if you do not mind living on the outskirts of hell, but for those of us who are called to Christian community, they will just not do. For us, there is something more important than being right or wrong, and that something is keeping the family together. For us the real problem is not the brother or sister who sins against us but our own fierce wish to defend ourselves against them regardless of the cost. The real problem is the speed with which most of us are ready to forsake our relationships in favor or nursing our hurt feelings, our wounded pride. In old-fashioned language, the problem is how eager we are to repay sin with more sin.
There is another way, an alternative to putting distance between ourselves and those with whom we are in conflict. We can go to them, Jesus says, and tell them what is wrong, or what we think is wrong, because the best way to end a fight is to admit that we too might be wrong. There are certain questions to be asked, such as: Am I sure I know what I am talking about? Have I given the other person every benefit of the doubt? What are my motives in confronting him with my feelings? Do I want to make her feel bad, or do I really want peace? What am I afraid of? Is the relationship worth the risk?
That last question is a very important one, because the only reason to take Jesus’ advice at all is to win back a relationship that is in danger of being lost. Once you have decided that is what you want, it helps to remember that you are working for the relationship, not against it; that your goal is reconciliation, not retribution; and that being right is less important to you than being in relationship.
In a lot of ways, it is a real nuisance to belong to a family. It would be so much easier if we were just a bunch of individuals, loosely bound by similar beliefs but whose affairs remained an essentially private matter between us and God. But according to Jesus, there is no such thing as privacy in the family of God. Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us, and it is of ultimate importance to God. Our life together is the place where we are comforted, confronted, tested, and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God or to flee from God’s presence, depending upon how we come to know or flee from one another.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Here is today’s sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost that was preached at Dry Fork Cumberland Presbyterian Church and based on Matthew 16:13-20:
There is a story of a woman who walked out of her church one Sunday morning after a particularly rousing service. She bumped into a sort of lost-looking man who was standing on the sidewalk looking up at the cross on the top of the church steeple. She excused herself and started to walk away, but the man called her back. “Tell me,” he said, pointing through the front doors into the church she had belonged to most of her life, “What is it that you believe in there?” She started to answer him and then realized that she did not know the answer, or did not know how to put it into words, and as she stood there trying to compose something, the man said, “Never mind. I’m sorry if I bothered you,” and walked away.
The problem is he did bother her, and her story bothers me as I try to decide what I would have answered in her place. Why do I go to church, and what is it exactly that we believe in there? The Nicene Creed? That is not exactly the sort of answer you want to recite on a sidewalk, even if you think someone might stick around until you are finished. That Jesus is my Lord? Sure, but what does that mean to a man or woman on a sidewalk? That in spite of all appearances to the contrary, the world is in God’s good hands? Says who? So what? What is it that we believe?
In this morning’s lesson, Jesus himself is the man on the sidewalk, the one who asks the question about what it all means, about what he means. He and his disciples have just come into the district of Caesarea Philippi trailing miracles behind them: the feeding of the four and five thousand, the calming of the storm at sea, the curing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, among many others. But Jesus has not just been healing; he has been teaching as well, lessons about obedience to the law and the difference between words and deeds and about reading the signs of the times.
Every now and then, he quizzes his disciples to see how much they are taking in, to see how well they have understood him, and he does not hide his displeasure at their consistently low scores. In the verses just before the ones we are addressing today, he warns them to be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Eager to please, they put their literal fishermen’s heads together and decide that Jesus is talking about bread. “We brought no bread,” one of them says, and Jesus explodes. “O men of little faith,” he says, “why do you discuss among yourselves the face that you have no bread? . . . How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread?
Small wonder, then, that they are a little anxious when Jesus gathers them all around and ask an entirely different kind of question – not one about anything he has said, but one about who he is. “Who do men say the Son of man is?” he asks them, and they are relieved, because it is a question they some answers to. “John the Baptist,” one of them answers, while the others rummage around in their heads for what they have heard. “Elijah,” someone else suggests. “Jeremiah,” says another, “or one of the prophets.” They pull the names out of their pockets like interesting stones they have found and hand them over to Jesus for appraisal. There is no great risk involved in repeating what they haveheard, after all, in reporting what others have said theybelieve. This is just a consultation among friends, a staff meeting for the purpose of deciding how Jesus’ ministry is going. Some people believe his is John the Baptist resurrected, some that he is Elijah or one of the other prophets due to appear near the end of the world.
You can almost see the expectation on the disciples’ faces as they turn over the tidbits they have heard. So which is it, Lord? What is the right answer? A, B, C, or none of the above? But Jesus does not give them his answer; what he wants are their answers, and again, you can almost see their faces when he turns the question back on them. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them, they who are his nearest and dearest, they who have received the best he has to offer, who are his own. Who do you say I am? What is it that you believe in your head and heart?
The Bible doesn’t add additional comments very often but I think they would be useful here. I don’t think the disciples answered for a very long time. There was one of those long, long, long awkward silences where no one made eye contact with Jesus. They desperately looked at the sky, the trees, the grass, anything but Jesus while they desperately tried to find an answer. All the while, Jesus sat among them smirking and waiting. Finally, after a long awkwardness, Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!”
Thank goodness for Peter! Right or wrong, he is always the first one out the door, the first one to drop what he is doing to follow Jesus, the first one out of the boat to walk on water, the first one to volunteer his opinion on any given subject. Sometimes, it is hard to say whether he is courageous or just plain reckless, but in any case his answer is apparently the one Jesus is looking for, because in one fell swoop Jesus pronounces Peter blessed, the rock upon which the church will be built, and the inheritor of the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
It sort of makes you want to have your own answer ready just in case you are given a similar opportunity to win the sweepstakes, but there is a catch, because while Peter’s answer seems to be the right one, it is not really his. “Blessed are you,” Jesus tells him, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven,” which is a lot like saying, “Blessed are you for an answer that is not even your own.” If it was not even Peter’s answer, if he did not even think it up, then why does he get rewarded for it?
His sudden promotion may have seemed a bit odd to the other disciples as well. Peter sank in the middle of his walk on water, after all, and while he may have been the first one with his hand in the air when a question was asked, he did not always follow through on his bold pronouncements.
“You are Peter,” Jesus says, giving Simon Bar-Jona a new name, “and on this rock I will build my church,” but six sentences later Jesus will stub his toe on that same rock, for no sooner does Peter receive his new authority than he begins to argue with Jesus about what is going to happen in Jerusalem. “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus finally says to him in next week’s reading. “You are a stumbling block in my path.” Peter goes from being blessed to being satanic, from being the cornerstone of the church to being a stumbling block in Christ’s way. What does it all mean? How can Peter be the rock with the right answer and the devil in the way all at the same time? And if he is, then what in the world is it that we are supposed to learn from him?
It is almost impossible to squeeze a moral lesson out of this story, to find some model for our own behavior, because the fact is that Peter does not on his own do anything particularly right. He is impulsive and opinionated, and when push comes to shove he denies that he knows Jesus at all. About all that can be said in his favor is that he is willing to go first, to speak his mind, and that every time he falls down he gets back up again, brushes himself off, and charges ahead again. While the other disciples hang back for fear of giving the wrong answer, Peter risks his own answer, which, lo and behold, turns out to be God’s answer, and sweet music to Jesus’ ears.
“You are Petros,” Jesus says to him making a pun in his native tongue, “and on this petra I will build my church.” It is the same word he uses twice, the masculine and then the feminine form of the word for “rock,” but there is a subtle difference between the two. Petros – the name Jesus gives to Peter – means a stone or a pebble, a small piece of a larger rock, while petra means a boulder, the mother lode, a great big rock. So that makes Peter a chip off the old block, a piece of the rock, against which the powers of death shall not prevail.
It is nothing that he is or says or does by himself that wins him the keys to the kingdom. He is blessed because his answer is God’s answer, and he is a rock because he is a chunk off the Rock of Ages, and it is on this relationship that the church is built, not on any virtue of Peter’s – or yours, or mine. Peter is chosen, but not because the right answer occurred to him. On the contrary, the right answer has occurred to him because he is chosen, because Jesus in his unsearchable wisdom, his inscrutable way, decided to pick a bullheaded, bighearted, fallible, stubborn, never-say-die rock upon which to build his church.
Peter may not exhibit the flawless character, the intellectual profundity, the spiritual depth I would prefer in the founder of my church, but I will tell you this: I am really glad to hear that he is the one in charge of heaven’s gates. Someone like him may understand someone like me – someone who finds answers hard to come by, who finds it easier and safer to repeat what others say – because I have not thought about my own, or because my own do not sound good enough, or because I do not trust God to help me with them. Peter may understand someone who goes ahead and says things and then regrets them, or makes brave promises like, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you,” and then loses heart, denying not once but three times, “I do not know the man!”
If Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, then there is hope for all of us, because he is one of us, because he remains God’s chosen rock whether he is acting like a cornerstone or a stumbling block, and because he shows us that blessedness is less about perfectness than about willingness – that what counts is to risk our own answers, to ahead and try, to get up one more time than we fall down.
The story of Peter’s last encounter with Jesus is told not by Matthew but by John. It takes place on a beach, where the risen Christ has just cooked breakfast for his disciples. As soon as the meal is over, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him, not once but three times, “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And three times, Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep,” which leads you to think that maybe the final answer Jesus seeks form those who love him is not an answer that is spoken so much as one that is lived, that the real truth about who is for each one of us shows up not on our lips but in our lives.
So the next time you bump into someone who asks you what you believe, and all of the sudden you understand that your answer matters a great deal, that even though you do not know who is asking you the question you know for sure whom you are answering – well, go ahead and give it a try. You may say something stupid, but then you may surprise yourself and say something divinely inspired instead. The important thing is to try – not only to say what we believe but also to live what we believe – knowing we are Peter’s kin, and that whether we rise or whether we fall, whether we give the right answer or the wrong one, we too are chips off the old block, pieces of the one true rock against which the very powers of death shall not prevail.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Here is today’s sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost preached at Dry Fork Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It is based on Matthew 15:21-28 (a rather sticky and uncomfortable text):
This passage from Matthew describes one of those difficult moments in Jesus’ life that we might skip altogether if the lectionary did not direct us to deal with it. What makes it so difficult is how harsh Jesus sounds, how harsh and downright rude. First he refuses to answer a women pleading for his help, then he denies that he has anything to offer “her kind,” and finally he likens her to a dog before the sheer force of her faith changes something in him and decides to answer her prayer after all.
The problem is that she is a Canaanite, one of the great unwashed with whom observant Jews of Jesus’ time had little contact. She comes from the coastal region of Syria, where strange gods are worshiped and ritual laws of cleanliness are unknown. She is a Gentile, in other words, which is the biblical term for everyone who is not a Jew, and as such she is both an outsider and untouchable. Oh, and one more thing going against her, she is a woman in 1st Century Palestine – a time and place when women were little more than property.
Earlier, in the tenth chapter of Matthew, it is Jesus himself who warns his disciples to steer clear of Gentiles, remind them that they have been sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. The only catch is that the lost sheep do not seem to want to be found. In spite of Jesus’ undivided attention to them, they are not rushing to respond to his shepherd’s call.
In today’s story he has just come from Nazareth, his own hometown, where his friends and family have doubted his authority and taken offense at his teaching. He has recently heard that John the Baptist has lost his head to a dancing girl, and he has tried to withdraw from the crowds to mourn but they keep following him. So he had to feed them with five loaves and two fishes and then there was the storm at sea and Peter’s attempt to walk on the water which was ruined by Peter’s fear and doubt. Everywhere Jesus turns he finds need – need and people who want what he can do for them but who remain blind to who he is. He is at the frayed end of his rope – all but used up.
Then comes this Canaanite woman crying out to him to heal her daughter – just one more of the needy multitudes who want something from him – only this one does a shocking thing: She calls him by name, “O Lord, Son of David.” It is the title reserved for the Messiah, the title his own people have withheld from him. When this woman addresses him as the Son of David, she names something in him that even his own disciples have failed to recognize, and it must seem like a mean trick of fate to him to hear what he most wants to hear coming from the mouth of someone he least wants to hear it from.
So he does not answer her a word. He draws the line. Enough is enough. He will go no further. The bank is closed. The doctor is out. The sign on the door says, “Closed for Business.” So what if she called him by name? He will not waste his energy on this Gentile woman while his own people go wanting. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says to the woman, and that is supposed to be that. But the woman will not stay on her side of the line. Kneeling at his feet, she says, “Lord, help me.” Jesus has dismissed her but she will not be dismissed. She has her foot in the door to keep Jesus from closing it in her face and she shows no sign of leaving before Jesus has given her a fair chance. “Lord, help me,” she says and I can only imagine that his blood pressure goes up. Can’t she hear? He has told her no, told her she is not his sheep, but she does not seem to get the message. He says it again louder and clearer than before. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he says in a cruel rebuff if ever there was one.
Since Jesus was a human being as well as the Son of God, it seems fair to guess what might have been going on with him. He was discouraged and weary and a long way from home. Every time he turned around, someone wanted something from him, but at the same time no one wanted what he most wanted to give – namely, himself, in terms of who he was for them and not only in terms of what he could do for them.
It is hard not to imagine how that feels, even if you do not happen to be the Messiah – to be surrounded by appetites, by people who want your money and your time and your gifts but who do not seem much interested in who you really are; to be confused about what you are supposed to do, how much you are supposed to give, and to be worried about whether there is enough of you to go around.
The doorbell rings and it is someone asking for a donation for a mission trip or to support some local organization. You drive down the road and stop at a stoplight only to look up and see someone clearly in need of help asking for money to get home. Every trip to the mailbox brings more pleas for help from organizations around the world.
You have to draw the line somewhere. You have to decide what you can do and what you cannot do, whom you can help and whom you cannot help, or you will be eaten alive. You will be swallowed whole and you may never even be missed, because everything you have is not enough to feed the hunger of the world. That is a point most of us reach, anyhow, and often we decide to draw the line around our own families and friends, around our own churches and communities and concerns.
We draw our line, like Jesus, we may lose our tempers when outsiders try to cross it, because they are challenging the limits we have placed on ourselves to protect ourselves. Strangers show up saying, “help me,” and invoke the line, the line that separates us from outsiders, clean from unclean, family from wolves howling in the night. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” we say, or something to that effect. It sounds harsh but what are you going to do? You have to draw the line somewhere.
But the Canaanite woman simply will not budge. Her responses to Jesus remind me of that game in which you stare someone down trying not to be the first person to blink. Jesus all but claps his hands in the woman’s face, but she does not blink. “Yes, Lord,” she says when he calls her a dog, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s tables.” When she says that, something in Jesus snaps. He blinks. His anger dissolves. Something in him is rearranged and changed forever, a change you can hear in his voice. “O woman, daughter is healed instantly.
The line he had drawn between him and the woman disappears; the limits he had placed on himself vanish, and you almost hear the huge wheel of history turning as Jesus comes to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do. He is no longer a Messiah only called to the lost sheep of Israel, but God’s chosen redeemer of the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, beginning with this Canaanite woman.
Through her faith he learns that God’s purpose for him is bigger than he had imagined, that there is enough of him to go around, and in that moment there is no going back to the limits he observed even a moment ago. The old boundaries will not contain his new vision; he must rub them out and draw them bigger, to include this foreign woman today and who knows what tomorrow. It looks like answering God’s call means that he can no longer control his ministry or narrow his mission. There is no more safety or certainty for him, no more guarding against loss or hanging on to his cherished notions about the way things ought to be. Faith works like a lever on him, opening his arms wider and wider until there is room for the whole world in them, until he allows them to be nailed open on the cross.
Isn’t that the way it goes? Over and over, God’s call to us means pushing old boundaries, embracing outsiders, giving up the notion that there is not enough of us to go around. We may resist; we may even lose our tempers, but the call of God is insistent, as insistent as the Canaanite woman who not leave Jesus alone. The call of God keeps after us, calling us by name, until we finally step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves and discover a whole new world on the other side.
For me , one of God’s most insistent calls was to ministry. I didn’t want to be in ministry and I drew my line firmly and resisted. Then it was “okay, God, I will be involved in church life.” The line was redrawn. Then it was “okay, God, I will teach Sunday school.” The line was redrawn. Then it was “okay, God, I will go to seminary” and I redrew the line figuring ordained pastoral ministry was my final line but I redrew the line yet again to include camouflage and Army chaplaincy.
The best lesson, I suppose, is that God’s face can turn up anywhere, and especially on the far side of the lines we draw to protect ourselves: in the face of a Canaanite woman, or in light of a conviction by the Holy Spirit, or even in the sign of a person who is homeless and in need of help along the road. The call of God is insistent, and whenever we limit who we will be to other people or who we will let them be for us, God gets to work, rubbing out the lines we have drawn around ourselves and calling us into the limitless country of his love. We may well formulate new limits and draw new lines, but none of them last very long, because that is the way is when God has called out people. Once God has called us out there is no going back – whatever we choose to do, God never calls back behind our lines.
What does that mean, day to day? It means noticing the difference between the times we are hanging back, clinging to our limits, and the times we are moving out, pushing into new and often frightening territory. It is a difference you can feel: the difference between withdrawing from people, failing to meet their eyes, keeping a tight rein on your feelings, protecting yourself. It is the difference between that and putting yourself in the paths of strangers, being the first to extend your hand, aching with empathy for a world in trouble, trying new things, changing your mind.
It can be a painful difference – as painful as it was for Jesus to hear a Canaanite woman call him Lord when his own family would not; as painful as it was for him to step beyond generations of tradition and respond to her faith; as painful as it is for any one of us to step over the lines we have drawn to protect ourselves and explore unknown terrain.
Let go! Step out! Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a strange door, ask an outsider what his or her life feels like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe! You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been, and there is lots more life where that came from. And if you get scared, which you will, and if you get mad, which you probably will too, remember today’s story. With Jesus as our model – and our Lord – we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, but because we know it is God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Here is my sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost preached at Dry Fork Cumberland Presbyterian Church. It is based on Matthew 14:22-33:
Today’s story about Peter’s brief walk on the water appears only in the Gospel according to Matthew. Mark includes the story about Jesus coming across the sea and calming the storm; John uses an even shorter version of it; and Luke leaves it out altogether. The three Gospel writers who tell the story agree that it followed the feeding of the multitude and that Jesus’ calming of the storm was a miracle worked for the disciples alone – a very unusual occurrence in the New Testament.
They also share an ancient understanding of the sea as the abode of demonic forces, as the place on earth where chaos still reigns, which makes Jesus’ walk across it all the more miraculous. By strolling across the stormy Sea of Galilee as if it were a neighborhood street, he really does beat down Satan under his feet, proving his dominion of the devils of the deep as well as the wild winds and swirling waves above. The Lord of all humankind is also the Lord of the wind, the sea, the earth, and fire, whom elements obey with a word having been spoken.
But only Matthew mentions Peter, which may be why his version of the story is the most popular one. There is something so appealing about Peter: the brash, passionate disciple who is always rushing into things, saying what the others are only thinking, and doing what the others would not dare. Peter is Jesus’ first disciple, his Number One, if you will, and clearly one of his favorites. When Jesus hikes up the mountain for the Transfiguration later in Matthew, Peter is one of the disciples who is along for the journey. While the other two are clearly dumbfounded by the sight of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, it is Peter who blurts out, “Lord, if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses, and one for Elijah:. What a stupid thing to say! What a human thing to say!
It is Peter who asks Jesus to explain his parables, Peter who answers Jesus’ questions first, Peter who understands Jesus’ true identity but fails to understand what it will cost him, and Peter whom Jesus calls the foundation rock of the church, one moment before he also calls him Satan, who is not on the side of God but on the side of man.
It is Peter who swears he will never deny Jesus, and Peter who does; it is Peter whom Jesus asks to pray with him in Gethsemane, and Peter who falls asleep. And in today’s story, it is Peter whom Jesus calls to walk with him upon the water, and Peter who sinks. Over and over and over again, he is the disciple who takes risks, who makes great leaps of faith and stumbles as often as not but who keeps brushing himself off and getting up to try, try again.
It’s hard not to love Peter. Sure, he is one of those enthusiastic types who talk a better game than they play, but still there is something so sincere about him, and so achingly familiar. He is full of faith one minute and full of doubt the next, riding high on his confidence in Jesus one moment and lying in the dirt the next. He is not a fake. Through all his ups and down, all his great moments and his awful ones, Peter’s heart is on his sleeve. What you see is what you get with him – an impetuous, outspoken man who both loves Jesus and lets him, who richly deserves Jesus’ judgment but who also receives his grace.
No wonder Matthew likes him. At the beginning of today’s story, Peter is just one of the crowds. Weary after feeding the five thousand, Jesus has sent his disciples on ahead of him and has gone by himself into the mountains to pray. By nightfall, he is still at it, while out on the sea his disciples have their hands full, trying to steer their little boat right into a high wind and higher waves.
They are all soaked, their teeth chattering from the cold wind and their hands raw and sore from their efforts and then Jesus comes to them. It is around three in the morning, Matthew says, and no one is sleeping even if they want to. They are searching the horizon for a glimpse of land trying to determine how much father they still have to go and someone spots a shadowy figure walking towards them across the wild waves.
“It’s a ghost!” someone cries, but immediately the ghost speaks to them saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” His voice must sound strange to them, or perhaps he is still too far away to see, because Peter does not trust him and are we surprised? Scared to death, putting into words what the others hardly dare to think, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.”
Now what a strange thing to say. Why not say, “Lord, if it is you, tell us what we had for dinner tonight,” or “Lord, if it is you, make this storm stop right now”? But Peter says neither of those things. “Lord,” he says, “if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Let me join you on the water. Show me what you can do, if only you tell me to. Take away my doubt. Make me have faith.
“Come,” Jesus says, so Peter swings his legs over the side of the boast and, while all the other disciples watch with eyes and mouths wide open, he places his feet on the surface of the water – remember waves are crashing against the boat as the water swirls in a tempest – his feet flat on the water and taking a huge breath, stands. Then Peter takes a few hesitant steps towards Jesus across the whipping surface and he is doing just fine until a gust of winds reminds him what he is doing as he nearly falls. He grows scared and his feet begin to sink in the water and he plunges down like a rock.
Even if you have never tried to walk on water, I am sure you know how he felt. Have you ever tried to cross a stream or creek by stepping on rocks only to find one is loose and your foot plunges into the icy water? You stand there afraid of the rest of the rocks.
Maybe you were learning to ride a bicycle and had gained a lot of speed so you weren’t wobbling side to side any longer but flying down the road experiencing pure adrenaline until you lost your confidence and slammed your feet into the ground.
At some point in your life, you find your confidently doing something and then your nerve failed you and you began to doubt to the point that you couldn’t go on.
“Lord, save me,” Peter cries out, and Jesus does, reaching out his hand and catching him, hauling him out of the cold water like a big, frightened fish that Peter once caught. If that wasn’t bad enough, this is followed by awful words from Jesus: “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”
They are the words none of us ever want to hear addressed to us and yet they are the same words many of us ask ourselves every day. Why don’t I have more faith? Why can’t I trust God? Why am I afraid to let go and let God care for me? Why do I doubt? I believe I am in God’s hand and that they are good hands, but then I lose my job and cannot find another, and as the interviews go on and on and on and my savings disappear, my faith goes with them and I begin to sink.
I believe that God is present and active in the world, but terrible things keep happening. I watch the news and I hear the crime stories, hear about deaths, and it seems like the storm will never end. I believe in life after death and a bright future with God, but then I get sick and the doctor says six, maybe nine months, and I pray for a miracle but no miracle comes, and I pray for the reassuring voice of God but no voice comes, and the waves creep up my legs, and I begin to sink.
Why do we doubt? Because we are afraid, because the sea is so vast and we are so small, because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk, because life is so beyond our control and we are helpless in its grip. Why do we doubt? Because we are afraid, even when we do have faith. Because we do have faith, you know. We do not have none; we have some. Like Peter, we have a little, and a little is better than nothing, even though there are times when it does not seem enough to save us.
Like Peter, we have faith and we doubt, we try to walk with Jesus and we fail, we take a few steps and we sink, we cry out, “Lord, save me!” and he does, giving us both his hand and his rebuke: “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Hearing that, most of us count ourselves failures, but I wonder. Can you imagine the story turning out the other way?
What if Peter had not sunk? What if he had jumped out of the boat with perfect confidence, landed splat with both feet flat on the water and smiled across the waves at Jesus, gliding towards him without a moment’s hesitation? What if the other disciples had followed suit, piling out of the boat after him, and all of them, with perfect faith, had romped on the water while the storm raged and the wind beat the sails and lightning flashed across the sky above their heads?
It would be a different story. It might even be a better story, but it would not be a story about us. The truth about us is even more complicated. The truth about us is that we obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt. But it is not like we do only or the other. We do both. Our faith and our doubt are not mutually exclusive; they both exist in us at the same time, buoying us up and bearing us down, giving us courage and feeding our fears, supporting our weight on the wild seas of our lives and sinking us like rocks.
This is why we need Jesus. This is why we would not be caught dead on the water without him. Our fears and doubts may paralyze us, but they are also what makes us cry out for his saving touch, so how can they be all that bad? If we never sank – if we could walk on water just fine all by ourselves – we would not need a savior. We could go into business for ourselves. Our doubts, fearsome as they are, remind us of who we are, and whose we are, and whom we need in our lives to save our lives. When we sink, as Peter does, as we all do, Jesus reaches out and catches us, responding first with grace, and then with judgment – “why did you doubt?” – but never with rejection. He returns us to the boat, knowing full well that the only reason we are in the boat in the first place is because we believe, or want to believe, and because we mean to follow him through all our doubtful days.
He returns us to the boat, where our companions grab us by the scruff of the neck and haul us aboard, where we fall grateful and exhausted onto the slippery deck. All at once the wind ceases and the waves hush, and in the awesome silence that follows in the night as it becomes day, all of us who are in this boat together worship him saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Each of the four Gospels writers records the life of Jesus in a different way. Picking and choosing from all the stories they knew about what Jesus said and did, each of them came up with a different combination. Only Matthew and Luke write about Jesus’ birth, for example, while John is the only one who tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. The Sermon on the Mount is found only in Matthew, and while Luke includes about half of the same sermon in his Gospel, he says that it took place on wide plain.
But one thing that all four writers included in their Gospels is this morning’s story about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. It was too important a story to leave out – too important in the life of Jesus and too important in the life of the church. It was a story about Jesus’ ability to provide for their needs, and not just their spiritual needs but their physical needs as well. When they were sick, Jesus healed them; when they were sad, Jesus blessed them; when they were hungry, Jesus fed them.
In time, it became a story that early Christians told around the table when they gathered for worship. As they blessed, broke, and shared the miraculous bread of the Lord’s Supper, they remembered that other time when bread was miraculously blessed, broken, and shared, and it was as if Jesus stood among them again, laying his hands on a little so that it became enough for all.
The feeding of the five thousand is a story that carries echoes of other stories, such as the Old Testament story about how manna fell from the sky to feed the children of Israel in the wilderness. That was the first bread miracle that God worked on their behalf. They were far from home in that story too, without a clue where their next meal would come from, when God sent manna from heaven to fill their bellies and feed their trust in God. In the book of 2 Kings you can read the story of another bread miracle, in which the prophet Elisha fed a hundred hungry men with twenty barley loaves. His disciples also protested it was not enough to set before those people but Elisha insisted and the Lord provided, so that everyone ate his fill and there were leftovers besides.
So this morning’s miracle story in one in a series of bread miracles in the Bible, and an impressive one at that. Jesus feeds five thousand men, Matthew tells us, not including the women and children who are present. He feeds what amounts to a small town with five loaves and two fishes, a meal that multiplies until no one can eat any more and the scraps fill twelve baskets. It is a miracle, and perhaps that should be the end of that, but miracles tend to nag at those of us who do not experience them very often.
We tend to wonder things, like, how did it happen exactly? Did Jesus multiply the loaves all at once, so that the disciples had to recruit people to help them carry all that bread? Or did it happen as the loaves were being passed through the crowd? When someone tore off a chunk of bread, did the loaf suddenly grow? As you reached out to take the loaf, did it sort of jump in your hand and get bigger? Or did new loaves appear while no one was looking? Maybe you set yours down for a moment as you shifted your child from one to another, and when you reached down to pick it up again, there were two loaves instead of one. How did it happen?
Matthew does not tell us. What he does tell us is that the miracle happened at “a lonely place apart,” which was where Jesus had gone after he heard the news that John the Baptist was dead, beheaded at the whim of a dancing girl. Having heard that, he wanted to be alone, and who could blame him? He had lost his prophet, the man who had baptized him and who devoted his whole life to preparing the way of the Lord. And worse than that, he had lost him to murder, a vivid reminder to Jesus and everyone else that God’s prophets were no immune to death, that if anything they were more likely to die violently than quietly, and sooner than later.
It was very bad news, and when Jesus heard it he withdrew in a boat to a lonely place apart, but when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. He may have needed to be alone, but they had needs of their own. They were sick, they were sad, they were hungry, and while anyone but the son of God might have ordered them to get lost, Jesus had compassion on them. His heart went out to them, and he spent the afternoon walking among them, laying his hands on them, and saying the things they needed to hear.
When evening fell, the disciples found him and suggested that he send everyone away to buy supper in one of the nearby towns. They meant no harm – they were actually being practical. Night was falling, they were out in the middle of nowhere, and their stomachs were beginning to growl. It was time to call it a day, time to build a campfire, and time to eat the little bit of food they had brought with them. It was time to take care of themselves for a change, and to suggest that everyone else do the same thing.
But Jesus had a better idea – doesn’t he always – for the disciples. “They need not go away,” he said, seeming to know what they crowd needed more than a hot was to stay together, seeming to know that there was more nourishment for them in each other’s company than in some neighboring farmer’s goat cheese or boiled rice. Sometimes, after very bad news, it does not matter what you eat as long as you eat it with someone.
“They need not go away,” Jesus said to his disciples. “You give them something to eat.” I wish I had been there to how they looked at each other when he said that. Give them something to eat? Us? You are in charge here, Jesus; you are the boss. What do you mean, we should give them something to eat? All we have between us is five loaves and two salted fish, which is hardly a snack for twelve men let alone five thousand plus. There are five thousand or more people out there, Jesus. No disrespect intended, but you are not making sense.
He may not have been making sense, but then again he may have had a sense of the situation that went beyond the disciples’ common sense. They were, after all, operating out of a sense of scarcity. They looked at the crowd, saw no picnic baskets, backpacks, or coolers on wheels, and assumed that no one had brought any food to eat. They looked at their own meager resources and assumed it was not enough to go around their own circle, much less feed the whole crowd.
But Jesus operated out of a different set of assumptions. If the disciples operated out of a sense of scarcity, then what Jesus operated out of was a sense of plenty. He looked at the same things the disciples looked at, but where they saw not enough, he saw plenty: plenty of time, plenty of food, and plenty of possibilities with the resources at hand. Not that he knew how it was all going to work out exactly – he was human, remember, as well as divine – but what Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that wherever there was plenty of God there would be plenty of everything else.
So he asked the disciples to bring their food to him, and he ordered the crowd to sit down on the grass, and he proceeded to bless the five loaves and two fishes in front of them all, perfectly confident that God would turn not enough into plenty. Can you imagine what it must have been like to watch him do that? To be sitting in the crowd, watching a rabbi bless five loaves, break them, and give them to his disciples to give to a crowd that went on forever? They did not know they were in the middle of a miracle. All they could do was do the simple math and realize that five loaves divided by five thousand equals one loaf per thousand people with women and children remaining.
Unless you were on the front row, chances are you might not have seen him at all. You might have to punch your neighbor and say, “What’s going on up there?” He might have said, “You’re not going to believe it – that Jesus fellow just said grace over five loaves and two fish and now some of his men are passing them out through the crowd. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, but don’t get excited – it will all be gone before it ever gets to us.”
Some of the crowd must have laughed out loud, while some of them were mystified and still others were embarrassed for Jesus, that he should promise so much with so little to deliver. But I wonder if some of them were not touched, too – touched by the way the disciples handed over all they had, and touched by Jesus’ simple confidence that it would be enough. I wonder if they did not look at that small basket of food going around and feel the food hidden in their pockets begin to burn holes in them. Because you know they had some – a bit of lamb wrapped in a grape leaf, a few raisins, a chunk of bread left over from breakfast. You know some of them tucked a little something away before heading off on foot to a lonely place apart. Wouldn’t you have done the same thing? But it would not have been enough to share, so chances are that those with something to eat kept it hidden – wrapped in a hankie or stuffed up a sleeve – waiting for the right moment to sneak off on a walk and have a bite.
And it might have worked, too. They might have been able to keep their own food for themselves if that bread basket had not come around, full of scraps, everyone so careful not to break off too much, everyone wanting Jesus’ crazy idea to work so much that very carefully, very secretly, they all began to put their own bread in the basket, reaching in as if they were taking some out and leaving some behind instead, so that the meal grew and grew, so that when the disciples collected the broken pieces at the end they stared in amazement at twelve baskets full of bread – sourdough bread, wheat bread, cheesy bread, bagels, pita bread, pumpernickel, maybe even a couple of awful bran muffins – every kind of bread you could think of, the leftovers from a meal for five thousand plus that started off with a blessed and broken loaves.
But that is not a miracle! Isn’t that what you are thinking right now? That is just human beings being generous, sharing what they have – even when it is not much, even when it is not enough to go around. That is not a miracle! This is a whole crowd of people moving from a sense of scarcity to a sense of plenty – overcoming their fear of going hungry, giving up their need to protect themselves. This is just people refusing to play the age-old game of what-is-mine-is-mine-and-what-is-yours-is-yours, people turning their pockets inside out for another without worrying what is in it for them. That is not a miracle! Or is it?
The problem with miracles is that we tend to get mesmerized by them, focusing on God’s responsibility and forgetting our own. Miracles let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, and do it all. We do not have what it takes, after all. What we have to offer is not enough to make a difference at all, so we hold back and wait for a miracle while looking to our own needs and looking for God to help those who cannot help themselves.
Sitting in the crowd, waiting for God to act, we can hang on to our own little loaves of bread. They are not much; they would not go far. Besides, if Jesus is in charge of the bread, doesn’t that excuse from sharing our own? God will provide; let God provide. “Send the crowds way to go into the villages,” the disciples say, “and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus tells us to give them something to eat. Jesus says not me but you; not my bread but yours, not sometime or somewhere but here and now. Stop looking for someone else to solve the problem and solve it yourselves.
Bring what you have to me; that is where to begin. Remember that there is no such thing as your bread and my bread; there is only our bread as in “give us this day our daily bread.” However much you have, just bring it to me and believe that it is enough to begin with, enough to get the ball rolling, enough to start a trend. Be the first in the crowd to turn your pockets inside out; be the first on your block to start a miracle.
No one knows how it really happened. Your guess is as good as mine, but what Jesus has been saying to his followers forever he goes on saying to us today: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” If it is a saying that strikes fear in our hearts and makes the loaves we have seem like nothing at all, we have only to remember what Jesus says next: “Bring them here to me.”
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
I did not preach anywhere today but I am still keeping to the discipline of writing a weekly sermon. Here is today’s sermon for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time based on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43:
For two weeks now, we have been reading stories from the Gospel according to Matthew and just lately his version of our Lord’s parables about the kingdom of heaven. It is like seed sown on different kinds of ground, he says, like a man who sowed good seed in his field, or – tune in next week – like a grain of mustard seed. No one can say for sure how accurate a reporter Matthew is, but one thing is certain: he warms up to any parable that has to do with judgment.
Of all the gospel writers, he is the only one who waxes eloquent about the end of the world, the only one who mentions a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. His is the only gospel that contains the wise and foolish virgins, or the division of sheep from goats, or today’s parable about the wheat and the weeds. Of all the Gospel writers, it is Matthew who most wants a clear-cut creation, in which things are black and white, good or bad, in which people are faithful or wicked, blessed or curse.
It is something he has in common with the early Christians to whom today’s parable is addressed, or at least to them among others. One version of the parable is told to the crowds, according to Matthew, and annotated version to the disciples themselves – again, Matthew’s discrimination between insiders and outsiders, between those with ears to hear and those without. To the insiders, the message is clear: never mind that there seem to be a lot of weeds in the world right now. Hang in there, be patient. When the last day comes the wheat will be vindicated, while the weeds will go up in smoke.
It may have been a comforting message at the time, but in these latter days it tends to have the opposite effect. Matthew may have been clear that there are only two kinds of people the world – the wheat and the weeds – but it is a clarity that escapes most of us, we who have encountered both kinds in ourselves, and in our neighbors, and in the world. Most of our fields are full of mixed plantings, or worse. Sometimes I think that if I examined mine closely, I would not find wheat or weeds anymore. They have grown together for so long that a hybrid would be more likely, a mongrel seed that is neither one nor the other. So the business about gathering and burning the weeds tends to make me a little nervous, and the burning question is: Which am I? Wheat or weed? Blessed or cursed?
The lovely thing about parables is that they rarely answer such questions, or at least not directly. However much we want to read them like Morse code, they behave more like dreams or poems instead, delivering their meaning in images that talk more to our hearts than to our heads. Parables are mysterious, and their mystery has everything to do with their longevity. Left along, they teach us something different every time we hear them, speaking across great distances of time and place and understanding.
But according to Matthew, Jesus does not leave today’s parable alone. According to Matthew, he takes his disciples aside and gives them the key: He is the sower, the field is the world, the weeds belong to the devil, the wheat to the kingdom of God. Everything equals something else with nothing left over, and when you hear it all laid out like that you wonder why he did not just say so in the first place. Some scholars say this is how he avoided arrest; some say it was how he winnowed the listeners. Others say he never explained his parables at all, but that those who recorded his words could not stand their ambiguity, and took the liberty of making a few additions so that no one who heard them later could misunderstand.
Not that it matters much, except to remind us how much we love explanations, which are after all so much easier than mysteries. A parable washed over you like a wave full of life and light, but an explanation – well, an explanation lets you know where you stand. It gives you something to work with, a tool with which to improve yourself and the condition of the world in general. An explanation gives you something to put on the church marquee for Sunday morning, like: “Don’t let the weeds take over;” a message that the servants in today’s parable take to heart.
They are so eager to please. They see something awry in their boss’s best field and offer to fix it. “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” they ask, wanting to be faithful servants, to be counted among the sheep, to be counted good. The weeds they are after all darnel – tares, if your Bible is the King James Version, or Lolium temulentum if you know your weeds – a plant related to wheat, that looks like wheat, that hides out in wheat but that is poisonous in the end, causing blindness and even death if too many of its small black seeds turn up in the bread dough.
Palestinian farmers learned to deal with it early, uprooting the darnel once or twice before harvest so that they did not have to separate the seeds by hand at harvest. To let the wheat and the darnel grow together posed an unnecessary risk, but one that this morning’s sower seems willing to take. He is eccentric, even by ancient standards – reluctant to let his servants weed his field for fear that they will uproot the wheat, certain that an enemy is responsible for the problem in the first place. By modern standards, he seems a little paranoid – I mean, how many of us assume the weeds in our yards are the work of our enemies?
Sometimes it is mighty hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a bad one, especially when it can act both ways. I suppose we have all had the experience of uprooting the raspberries by mistake or protecting something interesting that turns out to be a thistle. I don’t know what makes us think we are any smarter about ourselves or about the other people in our lives. We are so quick to judge, as if we were sure we knew the difference between wheat and weeds, good seed and bad, but that is seldom the case. Turn us loose with our machetes and there is no telling what we will chop down and what we will spare. Meaning to be good servants, we go out to do battle with the weeds and end up standing in a pile of cut wheat.
Or else, we do not, because we have the good sense to listen to the sower, whose orders sound foolhardy if not downright dangerous. Leave them alone, he says, letting us know that he does not share our appetite for a pure crop, a neat field, an efficient operation; letting us know that growth interests him more than perfection and that he is willing to risk fat weeds for fat wheat. When we try to help him out a little, to improve on his plan, he lets us know that our timing is off, not to mention our judgment, and that after all he does own the field.
Hear another parable of the wheat and weeds. One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheat field. No sooner had they begun to work than they began to argue – first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds and then about the rest of the weeds. Did the Queen Anne’s lace pose a real threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration? And the blackberries? They would be ripe in just a week or two, but they were, after all, weeds – or were they? And the honeysuckle – it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.
About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss shows up and ordered them out of his field. Dejected, they did as they were told. Back at the barn, he took away their machetes, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit so they could watch the way the light moved across the field. At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit to them and their profession, but as the summer wore on, they marveled at the profusion of growth – tall wheat surrounded by goldenrod, ragweed, and brown-eyed Susans. The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had bloomed and ripened and gone to seed, the reapers came.
Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked. And the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and the flour the wheat made was excellent. When the harvest was over, the owner called them all together – the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors – and broke bread with them, bread that was the final product of that whole messy, gorgeous, mixed-up field, and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good.
Let those who had ears to hear, hear. Amen.
Jesus left the house (which one we are not sure) as is often the case in his ministry. He went to the Sea of Galilee and great crowds gathered around him. He began to teach in parables. It sounds so familiar to us because Jesus often left one place to go to the water and teach the crowds. It is a wonderful image to have in our minds – Jesus seated and surrounded by crowds in rapt attention to every word he said. No one would dare sleep while Jesus preached – could you imagine falling asleep while the Son of God was preaching, I mean, well that’s another sermon. I am sure the crowd laughed at every single one of his jokes – no matter how terrible they were. On this particular day, Jesus told a story that would later be labeled The Parable of the Sower, a familiar and loved parable to many.
When we give parables titles, we think we know them. When we think we know the parables, we think we really know Jesus as if he is our best friend. We think he is tame and Jesus’ message loses its radical nature. Most of us think we know the point of this parable and we can comfortably sit back and hear it without being shocked. After all, Jesus himself explained its meaning. Just in case you missed the explanation, listen again to the end of today’s reading:
“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
There it is. It is clear that Jesus explained the meaning of the parable. But did he? In its present form, the parable is about our response to the seed (the word of God) which has been sown among us. But was this really Jesus’ point? When we read things, we tend to want to make them about us. Okay, I tend to like to make things about me – only child syndrome – but I think Christians tend to do the same thing as well. So what is this parable all about?
That is where biblical scholars step in to the discussion. The general consensus among these scholars is that if you study the parable, it is not about us, not about what kind of soil we are, but about Jesus, about God, about why his kingdom is not fully realized and does not bear fruit, but that when the kingdom is realized it will happen suddenly and without warning, just as much of the work of the sower seems useless, the interpretation of the parable with which most of us grew up was a later addition of the church in order to determine what has happening in its daily life, the different levels of membership commitment. Do you get the point? We have been missing the boat with this parable for centuries. It’s all about God, not about you and me! There is an important lesson for life in that insight.
Let’s look at the parable in this new, well actually the original way. It is all about this sower, God, who went out to sow seed, but only some of it takes root. Many of the seeds took no root, failed to yield fruit. It may seem that much of what God does seems not to fruit from our perspective. Yet, the Bible reports that there was a rich harvest, despite the false starts, that God the sower brings about a rich harvest, in some cases a hundredfold yield! (Matthew 13:8). And it is all God’s work, for you and I are nothing but passive soil.
Can we agree that soil is passive? Since when does soil actively receive seed and take actions to ensure that the seed flourishes? I mean, I have never observed a single piece of agonized soil, in despair over whether it will provide a good home for seed; losing sleep at night in doubt and worry; going to college to learn to be the best soil it can be. Of course, that is absurd. It is nature (God) that grows the seed, along with the sower (who is represented as God in the parable). In other words, the parable is all about what God does, not what we do or must do. It’s not about you and me; it’s about God!
That’s a valuable lesson for living. The problem is that we don’t quite believe it, or don’t practice it. Too often in my life it’s about me, and God comes in somewhere around second place or lower. Now, I don’t ignore God it’s just that God gets overlooked at times or that I simply take God for granted. During my time in seminary, I often joked that I didn’t have time for God because seminary (and the study of God) was in the way.
How about you? Are you not inclined to look to yourself, your friends, or some human endeavor like science, politics, or education for answers to life’s tough questions? There is nothing wrong with looking to these resources for help in life, if they are understood as gifts of God, as tools used by God to give us all good. Unfortunately, though, too often it does not work that way, and you and I engage in the most heinous forms of idolatry. Hear that again. You and I bow down to idols we have built no less than any of the most ancient idolaters.
The issue, Martin Luther claims, is who we make God to be — whether we let God be God or try to become god ourselves. As he put it, “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.”
All of us have a god. But far too often, what we look to for refuge in need, what we trust, are the things of this world — wealth, status, job, self-esteem, friends, even family. Those things are too often our gods. Too often you and I illicitly shift the focus, get our priorities messed up. We make it all about ourselves, and not God.
It’s true. Too often we are not God-centered enough. I really like what Rick Warren said in his best-seller when he contended that “it’s not about you” and then proceeded to remind readers that “we must begin with God.” He’s also on target in my book when he tries to give comfort to his parishioners at his California mega-church. He is correct in lifting the burden from them regarding the feeling that no one is good enough to do God’s work. But he does this with an attitude that it does not have to be perfect, just “good enough” for God to use and bless it. I would say that this gets the focus off God and Christ’s work on the cross, shifting the attention instead on to our good intentions and efforts. God does demand perfection, but accepts us anyhow, not because we are “good enough.”
What happens to you when you don’t get so hung up on yourself, when life is more about God than about yourself? We can get some helpful ideas from the giants of the faith — both with regard to how it feels for Christians and how to think about God permeating every aspect of our lives.
There is an absolute and universal dependence of the redeemed on God. The nature and contrivance of our redemption is such, that the redeemed are in every thing directly, immediately, and entirely dependent on God: They are dependent on him for all, and are dependent on him every way. Feel dependent on God, and you’ll make your life be more about God.
We need to realize that like soil, we are created by the Creator. Our being, our comfort, our purpose is that we belong to God, body and soul, and we should expect all things from God rather than from ourselves. Let me say that again, we should expect all things from God rather than ourselves.
Back to Martin Luther who said something very similar He claimed that “creatures are only the hands, channels, and means through which God bestows all blessings.” As I said before: Use the things of the world, but be sure that God is getting the credit for using the knowledge, the technology, and the friends who help you. It really is all about God. Now, I know at this point, you are probably thinking, ‘okay Tim, this sounds interesting but what does it have to do with our parable about seeds and sowing?”
So it is back to our parable. The soil may help the seeds to grow. But it is just a channel (like the rain). God makes the growth happen. I once read a compelling image for explaining how God can be the source of all good while using earthly channels. He compared God to a vast, infinite ocean, one larger than the seven seas combined. Think of the whole cosmos as a tiny sponge thrown into the immense sea.
What becomes of the sponge? It is totally saturated by the ocean’s water. That is the way your and my life, the way the whole cosmos, is! We are in that sponge thrown in the infinite ocean. It is not that God is in us. You and I are in God, totally permeated by God!
Filled with God, with God’s love, you might think about God along with as an eternal, inexhaustible fountain who overflows with pure goodness – sort of like one of those chocolate fountains that never seems to run out of chocolate. Think of it: you and I are being saturated by the goodness of God, and that soaking will never end. It really is all about that wonderful fountain called God.
Saturated by God. What is it like to experience that reality? Again another one of those wonderful images I came across in a book. We are so saturated by God that it is like we were drunk with God, and when that happens we have peace and freedom.
Drunk with God — out of your mind with peace and freedom. It happens when your life is all about God. Gee, what a fun way to live! Who needs a purpose? It will happen spontaneously. God’s love is saturating you and me. God has authority. The things of the world don’t stand a chance. Be filled with all things God – whether it be the seed of the sower or the Spirit of God – be filled.
Here is today’s sermon for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time preached at West Side Cumberland Presbyterian Church and based on Matthew 11:16-21, 25-30:
When Jesus tells a story about children we expect it will be a nice story. The image of Jesus with children bumping around his feet is a popular one in churches. “Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them,” is a favorite biblical verse. The problem is, children aren’t always nice, as anyone who has actually been around them knows. Martin Luther got at this in 1538, perhaps thinking of his six children under the age of 12: “Christ said we must become as little children to enter the kingdom. Dear God, this is too much. Must we become such idiots?” Jesus isn’t that harsh, at least, but he does say this: “To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’.” He does not seem to distinguish between his enemies and his followers here. I seem to remember a chant from the playground when I was a kid—yo mommy, yo daddy, yo whole generation. That’s Jesus here–this whole generation is like children saying cruel things to one another on the playground, who will neither weep nor laugh as they should. You’re all children, he says to us—in a bad way.
But it only gets worse. To let you in on a little preacher secret—when something is left out of a Sunday reading, immediately go and look it up—that’s where the good stuff is. “Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you Korazim! Woe to you Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Try putting that in crochet for the mantle.
Then Jesus has something of a mood swing. He starts talking about children again—more pleasantly this time—thanking God for hiding these things from the wise and learned and revealing them only to infants. Then we get one of the loveliest verses in the whole New Testament, one that is often bronzed in churches: “come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Beautiful. The thing is, when you read the passage just before it, it’s not so comforting.
When I was in college I volunteered to help freshmen move in on their first day. This was not, of course, mere altruism—it was a great way to meet girls, and besides we got a free T-shirt. On the back was printed this verse—“come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Upperclassmen movers, claiming to be Jesus for young co-eds.
Don’t we do that with religion? Coopt it to some personal desire, make it useful to some project of our own to which God is inconsequential? I want to meet freshmen girls, I don a T-shirt with a bible verse pretending merely to be helpful. A trivial example. But our politicians and pundits, left and right, are sure they know what Jesus has to say about any and everything, they (we?) whip Jesus out of their pocket like a mascot to bless every cause, wield him like a club to bash their enemies. Just so, they, we, turn Jesus into an idol. A mute, dumb god whom we use to get what we want.
And just so, Jesus blasts us. Jesus expresses ferocious rage, lashing out at whole communities, places he’d preached and lived in, places surely filled with people he loved, and promising them a terrible fate. It’s clear here that Jesus is not a mascot, not a sword to stab our enemies, but a person—who gets angry, who has enemies as well as friends, whose anger will fall on us if we’re not careful. Now we’re a long way from gentle Jesus, meek and mild, kind to children and nice to everyone, and we should be. For that Jesus can be the worst of idols, but this one is Lord of heaven and earth, Lord of history and eternity, our maker and our judge. He is worthy of our reverence. It reminds me of the comment about Aslan in CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, when a child asks if he’s safe—he’s a lion after all. “Safe, no no no,” she is told. “He’s not safe. But he’s good.”
This is a difficult Lord. One who won’t let you guess in advance what he will say or do. One whom to follow is an adventure—for it will get you into trouble, and also lead you into unexpected joy. This is why our churches are not museums or mausoleums, but assembly halls, theaters in which anything can happen, anyone might show up, even God.
The danger when we hear Jesus speak of children is that we foist our expectations of childhood onto Jesus. And what we, as a culture, mean by “childhood” can be rather scary. I think of the child beauty pageants that came to public attention a number of years ago when the little girl was murdered—images of 5 year olds prettied up and taught that come-hither glance. I have seen stories recently of weight lifter children—ten year olds with six pack abs, in body building contests. And of other children whose parents hire personal trainers—the money to be made in athletics is so colossal that one can hardly avoid making the investment. We all hear these stories and shake our head. But isn’t it extraordinarily hard to keep our children from being jammed into our expectations for them—to be beautiful or wealthy—to be an object of their parents’ damaged desire.
We also know about adults who’ve never really grown up. Men and women who will not accept responsibility but instead travel the world just to be seen and spend money just to spend it.
We so badly need the church to help us be mature persons. This is the most exciting part about parenting for me. Teaching my daughter to pray before she knows any better. Having her learn to sit in church as long as she does in front of the television. It’s not obvious that tv should be easier to pay attention to than worship after all. If kids are nothing else they’re certainly malleable, watching what we do, imitating it—to a frightening degree really. That’s how we must be with reference to Jesus.
I spent 3 years of my life in graduate school at Memphis Theological Seminary, finally finished with my degree in May. The best thing MTS did for me was to provide me with wise mentors. I don’t first think of their erudition or scholarship—though those are necessary. It’s their skill as wise guides—their ability to pick me up off the floor when I was discouraged, to point out my strengths when I couldn’t see them, to be both kind and resourceful. Under my mentor’s tutelage I became more than I could have alone. This isn’t because I’m a carbon copy of him—I worked on quite different things—it’s because he gave me space to be what I was to become, within limits, with wisdom and good humor. That’s the seminary at its best. We so often hear stories of the other kind of teacher—the one whose students become commodities for the pursuit of his own greatness—but more often teaching is a sort of wise parenting of children.
Jesus here promises to do something like this for us, children that we are, cruel to one another that we are, undisciplined and unruly that we are. He calls himself the Son of his Father, whom he thanks for revealing these things not to wise, but to infants. This Father takes in infants, not adults, the untutored, not the expert, the undisciplined, not the perfect. And he makes them brothers and sisters with Jesus, having his same Father. St. Cyprian said “no one can have God for a Father who doesn’t have the church for a mother.” Another way to say this is God has one son by nature—Jesus, but many by grace or adoption—the rest of us who are baptized into his body. In this family there are high standards, there is great discipline, but there is also unbounded joy.
Discipline first. A Mennonite friend of mine, that is a member of a historic peace church, describes idolatry as service of “Mars, mammon, and me.” Mars, the god of war—so prevalent now in our consciousness we don’t even remember it’s abnormal to be in a constant state of war, with untold losses in humanity and treasure. Mammon – weatlh – another demanding god. Someone my age is told to plan to need some $3 million to retire with. Not to worry, if I invest now and the stock market hums for 3 decades I’m there. This is a difficult master—one requiring sacrifice, hard work, sweat and anxiety, but one that may finally bless me, if I’m lucky. Then the worst idol—me. It is so hard to avoid a sense that my desires are the most important thing in the world. We’re such good consumers we don’t even notice the abnormality of our sense that my needs and wants are to be fulfilled and defended against others by any means necessary. The gods of mars, mammon, and me.
And Jesus says, over against these gods, “come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest.” It’s hard to serve mars, mammon, and me, sure it feels natural, but it’s much harder than it is to serve Jesus, whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light. Who is not safe, but good.
I’m always struck when I ask people who live radical, costly forms of Christianity how they feel about doing so. I talked with people from intentional Christian communities—that is, communities of persons who give up their individual paychecks to a common pot from which they all live. Modern day monastics really, but these are evangelicals, living mostly in inner-city settings. Their work for reconciliation and peace is astounding, and a model for others. But when I say as much to them they tend to say something like, “actually, it’s the easiest and best way to live.” What? No paycheck, no private house, no retirement account or health care—and this is the easiest way to live?
Well, sure, you trust your health insurance and retirement and military, we trust God. Christianity for them might have a difficult Lord, a yoke of sorts, but it’s the most gracious Lord and easiest yoke available. Bob Dylan in one of his Christian phases sang “you got to serve somebody, it might be the devil, or it might be the Lord, but you got to serve somebody.” If the question is between mammon, mars, me or Jesus—Jesus wins out every time.
If Jesus is indeed a difficult but gracious Lord, a teacher wise enough to make us good students, grownup adults, then this place, the church, is a playground of imagination. Have you ever stopped and looked at the way light plays through color glass, how sound carries in lofty spaces, how the presence of God at times is so close you can almost touch it. Between light and shadow, robe and ritual, pew and organ our minds learn to imagine discipleship, to live into the wise and good lordship of Jesus. And it’s a great gift.
It’s striking, that in our magnificent churches filled with accomplished people in the pages of the Bible, we’re all supposed to become children. We’re so busy growing up here in this place and Jesus invites us to grow down. Not because kids are cute or Jesus is nice, as I’ve said. But because we all need wise and good teaching, we all need a lighter yoke and a lesser load than we’re carrying. And the cross that Jesus bears, heavy as it looks, when we carry it with him, is the best way to toddle through life.
Here is my final sermon to Grace CP Church that I preached today. It was a challenge to find the right words to say farewell and to sum up a pastorate and this is my attempt. Is is based on 2 Corinthians 13:11-14:
I am grateful that today is the last day that I have to preach after Jamey sings the special music! God speaks volumes through his talent and there are Sundays when the special music is more than enough and no sermon is necessary…sorry, but I am still going to preach today.
Today is the day. Today is a day of possibilities and excitement. New things are happening both for me and for you. Today is a good day but it is a sad day too – because today we end our journey together and begin new, separate ones as God leads us in new directions to new ministries. Today is a day of new things, of endings, and of beginnings.
Let me thank you for your patience and investment over these past few years. I have learned some invaluable lessons from you. I have learned firsthand, from you, how much love and affection a pastor can feel and how much he can store in his heart toward his congregation. You have met me with grace, mercy, and trust. You have graciously obliged all of my crazy ideas and whims – and I will admit some were a bit crazier than others. You have offered support and encouragement at times that I needed it most. You have patiently waited as I have clumsily stumbled through many of ministry’s firsts with you and I thank every one of you.
Of course, I cannot thank all of you without thanking the guy who is sitting behind me. While we did not have the best beginning to our relationship long, long ago, I am grateful to Terry in ways that words can never fully express. He held me back at those times when I needed to be and he pushed me at those times when I needed to be. He kept my head out of the clouds and more than once gave me a good kick in the . . . well let’s say pants. He has been a great guide, mentor, and friend – sorry, Janeane, I am going to make his head swell – and I thank God every day for my friendship with Terry and I am glad he has been part of not only my life but Lisa’s and Sophia’s as well.
As I began to prepare for this morning, I took a trip down memory lane. You have been the home to nearly all of my ministry firsts. My first sermon in view of a call was in this pulpit, well actually the brown one in the narthex but close enough. My first Sunday as a pastor anywhere was right here. My first attempts at program development and my first bible Study were at this church. My first Sunday as an ordained minister and my first time serving communion was at this church. The first time I moderated a Session meeting was at this church. Even the first time I shared in a baptism was right here. And this morning is no different. I realized that even today is another first. Today is my first last Sunday. Today, I will preach my first last sermon. So even in this time of transition, we are still experiencing firsts together.
As I was searching for a text and for the topic this morning, I realized something extraordinary. First sermons are easy. Well, if you take out the nerves and fear and the uncertainty, they are easy. At that point, you are fresh and maybe a little naïve. The church has never heard you. All of life seems so full of possibilities. Those first messages are full of hope and anticipation. Then you eventually get to the last message. I am discovering those are not as easy. What do you say to the people that you love on that last day? What do you share with them? What do you say if there is the chance you will not get to personally share with them again?
Now, I will put you at ease. That sounds like a lead-in to a very long sermon and I do not think any of us want a long, sad sermon today – well at least I do not want one this morning. Additionally, we are going to meet again. I hope that I will be invited back at some point in the future for a homecoming or a revival. I know our paths will cross from time to time.
As I was considering this occasion and what I need to say, I believe that Paul gives us a fitting passage. Yes, for those who know me well, this is significant that I would use Paul in my last sermon, as he is not one of my favorite people in the Bible; but he provides the benediction that I longed to give, but proved too ineloquent to write. I would invite you to join with me at the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth and I will be reading it as it is found in the New Revised Standard Version:
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
If we wanted to use a Pauline benediction, he gives us plenty of possibilities in each of his letters. In each letter, he gives a farewell benediction as he always ended his letters to his churches with a farewell and some final instructions. He anticipated meeting them again in future encounters and always held out the possibility that it would happen. He rarely said good-bye in his letters but rather “see you later” or “farewell” or even “TTYL”. I intend to do the same thing this morning. As I am saying farewell, I have a few final instructions for you courtesy of Paul.
What did Paul share with his Corinthian brothers and sisters? What was his farewell and conclusion? How did he sum up his instruction and his hope for those people that he loved at the church in Corinth?
In this passage, Paul gave a final challenge to the church as he was preparing to close his letter. Paul realized the importance of this time in the lives of the people. He recognized that he could not merely say “good-bye” without reiterating those things that were important.
The letter closes with a challenge to listen and hear what he has to say to them. Paul expected, no he demanded, that the church fervently pursue the goal of holiness, righteousness, and godly living. He expected that they set high standards and he showed them by his own example as he lived his life. He expected that they would demand the most of themselves. Paul was not pacified with superficial Christian living and growth. He was an all or nothing kind of guy. And if they were going to carry the name of Christ to a lost and dying world, if they were going to be the church, if they were going to worship together then he expected that they would do so with fervor and passion. But there is more than just fervor and passion in spreading the gospel and being the church.
One of the recurring themes in nearly all of Paul’s letters is unity and reconciliation. To nearly every church, he stresses the importance of unity within the body of Christ. Even here, he ends the letter by encouraging them to live in harmony with one another. Now, does anyone want to venture and take a guess as to why this is such an important, recurring, and volatile topic?
I believe that Paul had seen numerous instances where the church was struggling to fulfill its rightful place in the world because of the rifts and cliques within the local congregations. Oh, they have the passion and the fervor but in Paul’s time, there were certainly some personal issues. You could look at rest of this letter to the Corinthians, or the first letter to the Corinthians, or the letter to the Thessalonians, or any other part of the New Testament and find a reason for personal conflict and dissension. Some were theological differences as they were literally inventing the Church but some were also personality differences.
Paul recognized that the health, endurance, integrity, and effectiveness of the local church was going to hinge heavily on their ability to look beyond differences and find common ground in harmony, peace, and love. He knew that their ability to draw nearer to and to please God was going to hinge largely on whether they could live in peace with one another.
And nothing has changed. For Grace CP Church, your health, endurance, integrity, and effectiveness is going to be determined by how well you are able to come together and work in ministry.
Let me challenge you in the words of Paul, “be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.” I believe that our church is unified in the understanding of the majority of the major Biblical doctrines. There might be some minor differences on certain details and convictions, but overwhelmingly, the church agrees on most interpretative issues. That is not my major concern.
My bigger concern is harmony within our body and community. Now, I am going to take a little liberty here, be exceedingly honest, with the hope that you will again be patient and tolerant on my last Sunday, and not fire me in my last 15 minutes in the pulpit. Our work as a church is hindered when we fail to get along. I am not talking about differences in theology or doctrine. I am talking about hurtful comments made behind people’s backs and even those little cliques or groups that tend to exclude others and keep people (and the church) from reaching its full potential in Christ. They are always part of the church, this church, the one next door, the one up the street, the universal church, unfortunately, and they hinder God’s work. Let go and be in harmony with one another. It is hard and I even have been wrapped up in them but we need to live in harmony and let. Our service to God will not reach its full potential; we will not find the intimacy we want with Christ until we are able to pursue peace and harmony and be inclusive of everyone. The work of the kingdom of God in this world is challenging enough, we do not need to be dividing ourselves in this place.
Paul was never one to mince words. He tended to declare what he intended with boldness and clarity. I am certain that there were times when those messages were hard to hear and receive and I am sure more than once he managed to upset someone here or there. However, there was an overriding factor in Paul’s message to the local church. While he demanded a lot of them, while he declared the truth unapologetically to them, he also loved them deeply. Paul’s desire was not to hurt feelings. It was not to degrade or belittle those that had ways to go to improve in their attempt to follow Christ nor was it to humiliate people publicly for their failures. Rather, he simply longed to lead them closer to their Savior. His love demanded that he share openly and honestly with them about those things that hindered their relationship with Jesus.
And when all is said and done, when Paul is done teaching and preaching, when Paul is done reiterating his final instructions, we see evidence of his love shining through. He called for the obedience of God’s people, and then he bid God’s grace and blessing on those he loved.
Paul’s desire for this church was simply for them to find and experience all that God had for them. He wanted them to experience the magnificent freedom of Christ’s grace. He wanted them to bask in the greatest of the Heavenly Father’s love for them. He wanted them to feel the presence of God and to experience true fellowship with God through the power of the Spirit. I want nothing less for you.
I have often wondered how I would judge the success of my ministry here. Over the past few months, I have thought often about how I would gauge my effectiveness in fulfilling my mission as the pastor of a portion of Christ’s church. And I believe that I finally know. I understand that there are plenty of ways that I have failed. In fact, most of my regrets are sins of omission, rather than commission. I wish that I had found time to visit more. I wish that I could have taken a greater part in the individual lives of God’s people. I wish that I could have given more yet seminary always seemed to dominate my time. Yet, even with regrets, even with ways that I wish I had done better, I believe that it is still possible to find success in this ministry. I have decided that the way to gauge your effectiveness in ministry is by the measure of the love and the hope that you have for the people of the congregation.
You were with me during a significant time in my life – that is my journey through seminary and my journey to discern my calling to ministry – and that changed several times. We worked in ministry together, we prayed together, we cried together, and we grew together. Now, we part paths and we seek to fulfill God’s calling in our lives as we each embark on a new journey. Some of the words Jamey sang this morning say “You just call out my name; and you know wherever I am I’ll come running to see you again.” Well, I do not know that the Army will let me do that because I do not want to end up AWOL but that does not mean you will not be in my prayers. I will be in prayer for you and I will check on you no matter where we end up in this world. I may not be here but I am not saying good-bye – just farewell. As Christians, we never, ever really say good-bye.
Now my friends, my brothers and sisters, for the final time as you pastor, I say, “May the love God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you on this day, and tomorrow, and in the tomorrows yet to come.” Amen and Hooah!
Here is today’s worship bulletin. To create the bulletin cover image, I used Tagxedo, the logo of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the text of my sermon. You can find a full version of the image here.
Here is my sermon for Trinity Sunday based on Revelation 4:1-11:
I want everyone to take a deep breath and brace yourselves. Today, I wish to take up the weighty and challenging subject of the Trinity because in the universal calendar of the Church by which we govern our worship, this is Trinity Sunday – the first Sunday after Pentecost, and the day devoted to this central doctrine of the Christian faith. The logic is inescapable. On Christmas we talk about the nativity and birth of Jesus, on Easter, we talk about the resurrection of Jesus, last week on Pentecost we talked about the Holy Spirit, and today on Trinity Sunday, we talk about the Trinity.
In addition to the fact that this is Trinity Sunday and a sermon on this topic would be in order, there are several other reasons why I want to talk about the Trinity this morning. One of the reasons has to do with the fact that the Trinity is a doctrine and I want to remind you that doctrine is an essential expression of a believer’s faith. It is very easy to think about the Christian faith as a lovely story about Jesus, or as a historical phenomenon involving God, or as a series of ethical or social precepts, or even as a cultural experience. All of this is in part true and part of the whole truth, but none of it can be used to avoid that there is a form, content, and substance to the Christian faith. I think the main reason I want to talk to you about the Trinity because I want to invite to think about the Christian faith as having a content that forces you not simply to act, which is easy, nor to feel, which is easier yet, but to think, that is to open your minds and use your imaginations and wrestle with the implications of what you find as you think about the nature of God, as you imagine the big picture.
Our text this morning doesn’t speak of the doctrine of the Trinity. Believe me, you didn’t miss it when I read it though you are welcome to go back and look to make sure but it isn’t there. In fact, you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible – at least not explicitly stated. Instead, we are taken by St. John the Divine on a guided tour of the spiritual imagination; we are given insight into a visionary’s vision; the glimpse through the open door into the wonders of heaven allows us along with John to leave the level of debate and argument over doctrine and enter into the realm of imagination. This text, like all of Revelation, is an invitation to extend the consciousness of the mind, to push beyond our petty realities, and to see the things that were, that are, and that are to be. John invites us to a new form of seeing, and like a novice guided to “see” a painting or hear a “musical composition” once thought familiar, one begins to see new, different, and wonderful things.
It is very much like the story of the little girl in Sunday school who was busily drawing with all of her crayons and all of her might. Her teacher asked what she was drawing and the little girl replied, “I am drawing a picture of God.” Her teacher taken back said gently, “But my dear, nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the little girl replied, “They will when I am finished.” Such is the purpose of John to draw us a picture of God that we will recognize when he is finished.
What are the images that emerge from the labor of his strokes? Don’t waste your efforts trying to make sense of all of that wonderful symbolism, trying to figure out what the twenty-four thrones mean, the seven flaming torches, the sea of crystal, and all of that. Look at the passage and see the great throne right smack dab in the middle surrounded by flashes of lightning while thunder booms overhead. If it sounds familiar, it may be because you have watched The Wizard of Oz a few times or many times for that matter. That scene where Dorothy and her friends first appear before the mysterious wizard comes straight from the pages of Revelation according to the author of The Wizard of Oz – Frank Baum.
In reading the book of Revelation, especially this chapter, one must not be distracted by details, one must always look for the big picture and keep in sight the object of all this frantic energy and detail. What is at the center of it all? The one who sits on the throne, who lives for ever and ever. That is what verse nine says, and all of this energy and imagination is directed to the worship of one who was, and is, and is to be, who rules – that is sits upon the throne – and who lives forever. It is to the one who sits on the throne that these glorious creatures full of wings and eyes sing without pausing for breath, “Holy, holy, holy is God the Sovereign Lord of all, who was, and is, and is to be.” What kind of sovereign is the one who can command such ceaseless praise? This one is described in verse eleven as “You are worthy, O Lord, our God, to receive glory and honor and power, because you created all things and by your will they were created and have their being.”
The picture of God is of one who is the creator, and by whose will all things that are, are. It is what we acknowledge when in the paraphrase of Psalm 100, which we are going to sing shortly, we say, “Know that the Lord is God indeed; without our aid he us make….” Why did God do this? Well, the hymn goes on to tell us:
For why, The Lord our God is good,
His mercy is forever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.
We have here caught a glimpse through that open door into heave, and we have seen a God who is worthy to be worshiped because God is the good creator of us all, who only will last forever, for God is forever. The character of God is good and ultimately enduring, and the fruit, the expression of God’s goodness, is ourselves and the creation of which we are a part. We are reminded of this when in the Genesis story we heard this morning, God is described as calling God’s handiwork good, and as being pleased and satisfied with it. That means that good is part of God’s intention, and as the creator, like the little girl and her drawing, always puts part of God into what God creates, we participate in goodness because God is goodness, and we and God therefore share that which is good.
God is not simply good, however, and if that is all we see in this picture painted for us by John, we have missed the big picture. The point that gives goodness its validity and makes it a hopeful cause is that God is eternal – that is forever, the sovereign Lord of all that was, that is, and that is to be. That is the big picture, the biggest picture possible. When we think about God, some may be impressed by the majesty and glory, some by the raw and naked power, the thunder and the lightning; for others it may the goodness and benevolence that impresses, but for me and I suspect for you as well, it is the utter timelessness of God that impresses, the endurance before and beyond our imagination. As Isaac Watts reminds us:
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
Through endless years the same.
Such a big picture of God nearly defies imagination, but it is only imagination that will allow us to grow and be able to see something of that big picture. We must remember that the object of Christian theology and doctrine is not to reduce incomprehensibilities to our small size but rather to make us grow is some small degree to the capacity of the subject. John gives us his wonderful vision, seen as through a crack into heaven, and the church has described that same vision in its efforts to describe God in the doctrine of the Trinity – that which was, that which is, and that is to be – time past: creation; time present: redemption; and time future: the ultimate justice of God. The Trinity is the attempt of the church to paint a picture of God and to understand it in ways that extend and expand the ordinary consciousness. The church baptizes the faithful in the name of the Trinity, the church blesses the living and the dead in the undivided name of the Trinity, and the church praises and worships the Trinity throughout the year.
Why does the church cling to the Trinity in the face of the claims of the modern need for tidy, useful, and simple thoughts? The church is bound to the Trinity because it works to explain the unexplainable and it helps to draw for us the big picture, it satisfies our need to engage and stretch and stimulate our imagination, it enlivens our worship, it stimulates our debate, and it gives us cause to wait out the impatient adversities of this fallen and falling world. The Trinity is the expression of our ultimate optimism in the face of provisional pessimism. The Trinity allows us to imagine, experience, anticipate, and celebrate the wholeness and unity of God, and the only appropriate response to all of that is to worship God with all those who fall down before the throne and sing ceaselessly, “Holy, holy, holy…” Such is the experience of fullness, the wholeness, the unity of God: the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to be. That’s the big picture. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Here is a copy of today’s worship bulletin.
Today is Pentecost. Here is the sermon for today based on Acts 2:1-21:
Many images leap from the page in the account of that first Pentecost from the book of Acts. There is, first, the chaotic sense of the crowd, all those people from all of those places: “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven,” as the text puts it. “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans, and Arabians.” What a mixed multitude! It would almost be like Times Square on a busy summer afternoon, the streets of Calcutta or even downtown Nashville on a typical day. People everywhere from everywhere cam to celebrate the great Jewish festival fifty days after Passover. There is the sense of the crowd, and for many of us that is unattractive, unappealing, and one of the liabilities of Pentecost. There is the crowd with its bad manners and high spirits, its jostling and bargaining, the bizarre in the bazaar. That is one of the great images of Pentecost.
Yet there is another image, one that fascinates us as much as the other assaults us, and that is the image of the esoteric, the fantastic, and the ecstatic that comes in the form of the tongues of heavenly fire and the mighty wind. There are the phenomena of Pentecost: fire and wind, power, and life.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
Medieval artists loved to paint Pentecostal paintings with great gusts of wind filling up churches, and flames of fire hovering about the apostolic heads like little Bunsen burners. It is a scene bound to attract attention and there is no other like it anywhere in the Bible: a room invaded by the divine presence, a secret place transformed and holy.
There is a third image of the Pentecost and quite possibly the most memorable for us today for it is this very image that gives our idea of the term “Pentecostal” That is, conversation in tongues, the utterance of sounds and thoughts thought to be inspired where the dumb and the mute speak. We have these ideas in our heads when sudden ecstatic speech or utterances take-over an otherwise rational man or woman and suddenly they are dancing and shouting out in what we might classify as babbling. The closest I ever came to experiencing this was that immersion trip I took to Kentucky a few years ago. One Sunday, we worshiped with a church where calm, collected, and dare I say meek men suddenly were filled with the Spirit and shouting, hooping, and prancing all around the pulpit. It was a fascinating and yet frightening experience to behold.
However, we need to be good readers of the text (thank you, Dr. Minor) and see what is really on the page. If we look and look closely, we will see more than an excited and ecstatic crown engaged in utterances of the Spirit. However, I do not want to dismiss any of these ideas, they are significant, but in reality, Pentecost is the gift of understanding. It was the gift of Pentecost that these many and diverse people should understand one another. The text tells us:
And at this sound, the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? We hear them telling in our own tongues, the mighty works of God.’
The gift of Pentecost overcame the curse of Babel. At Babel, you will recall, there occurred the confusion of tongues as a result of the earthly arrogance to build a tower into heaven in the plain of Shinar. Our unity to frustrate the divine purpose was destroyed and we were made captives our own languages, divided by our inability to hear or to be heard, to understand or be understood. The diversity we celebrate so frequently and loudly was not a blessing but rather a curse, and it has served to do little in this world but maintain the differences and erect a wall of ethnocentrism behind which we hide and protect ourselves from others. At Pentecost, diversity was overcome by a power that transcended it, the power to understand, to hear in one’s own language, one’s own accent – a northern one in my case –, and regional dialect the wonder of God. The gift of understanding did not diminish the diversity of that great crowed; the people did not cease to be Medes, Persians, and Elamites. They were not reduced to some vague generality without a history or place. They did not become less than they were, they became more than they had been, for they become at one with all of those who heard and understood that God was alive and active in this world and eager that they, all of them, should participate in God’s purposes.
The unity of Christ’s holy, apostolic, and catholic Church, a unity that is celebrated worldwide today, is a unity that is based upon an understanding of who and what God is and has done, is doing, and will do. The understanding that united the faithful is an understanding of the mighty works of God, but there is another form of understanding at work as well – and that is our understanding that others hear of the same mighty works of God in their own tongues and dialects. The gospel is not “our” gospel that is to be translated from our language and experience to others for their benefit; the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ that all of us are privileged to hear, and the unity of what we hear overcomes the diversity of who we are.
We should remember, that is you and I, that we are members of a fellowship that exceeds our capacity to define it. Since the 16th Century, we Protestants have boasted of what we are not and to who we do not belong. A religion of protest is essentially a negative, denying religion. Having cut ourselves off from anything beyond our own circle, we have been tempted to make our circle the object of our worship. It is a dangerous, heretical, and even sinful elevation of the particular to the universal, and it is further a denial of the will of God as expressed in Jesus that we should all be one. Pentecost reminds us that the gift of understanding, the gift that transcends logic and diversity, is the gift of the spirit of unity: union with God and God’s most perfect will, union with our sisters and brothers everywhere, in all places, and at all times, with whom we share and hear in our own tongues the mighty works of God. Such a spirit as this gave birth to our Church and yet sustains it. Such a spirit is its only true and godly hope, and such a spirit, the spirit of understanding, fellowship, and grace, is what we seek to express and share as we gather around the Lord’s Holy Table.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended, and with a mighty wind and cloven tongues of fire for a moment overcame human differences and united that diverse and dispirited company by the gift of understanding. They heard the good news as they were, where they were, and they were never the same again. Pentecost is many things – fire, wind, ecstasy, and renewal – but more than all that it is the Spirit whose gift is that of understanding, of knowing who and whose we are. We celebrated today once again that gift to them and to us, and we pray that what transformed them may transform us, and with us the whole world. Amen.
Here is today’s sermon based on 1 Peter 3:13-22:
When is the last time you underwent serious persecution because of your faith?
This question usually brings raised eyebrows in this land of, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” where we affirm that every person has, “…been endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
We aren’t persecuted for our faith in the West – are we?
Actually, there are people who live in our country who have been persecuted. Muslims around the country will tell you that they endured insult and rejection during the period after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Nevertheless, the policy of our nation, our laws, and our cherished position is that every person has the right to practice their faith and worship as they please without interference.
This is not the case in many places in our world. The Christian Science Monitor carried a story relating the horror many have endured because of their Christian faith – frequently at the hands of governments.
In Boston, Sudanese refugee Francis Bol Bok has perhaps the most compelling story of all. Enslaved in Northern Sudan by Muslims as a seven-year-old boy for 10 years, he was beaten almost daily for his Christian beliefs. Mr. Bol Bok finally escaped in 1996.
Margaret Chu recalls the 23 years she spent in Chinese labor camps because she refused to renounce her Catholic faith. The hardest times, she said, were when she was forced to labor for 18 hours day harvesting rice. Food was sometimes limited to grass or rice husks. Still, she prayed daily, using her fingers as a rosary, and somehow survived. “Here I have real freedom to believe in God, but my heart is still left behind in China with my friends still under the pressure,” she says.
Mina Nevisa understands persecution this all too well. Her ordeal began one afternoon in 1982, when as a 17-year-old Iranian student; she felt something under a table at the Teheran University library. She reached down and pulled out a Bible, the first one she had ever seen written in her native Persian. Curious, she stayed up for the next two nights reading the book with a flashlight under a blanket, despite warnings from her father, an Islamic fundamentalist priest. The discovery soon led to Ms. Nevisa’s conversion to Christianity, denunciation by her parents and family, and – after the arrest and killing of members of her prayer group – her secret flight from Iran. In Europe, she received death threats after writing “Don’t Keep Me Silent,” a book about the persecution of converted Christians in Islamic countries. So in 1998 she moved again, to the United States.
The fact is that most of us have not endured any real persecution because of our Christian faith. Nevertheless, it takes place in several parts of our world and was simply a part of Christian living in the earliest church. Our reading from 1 Peter is written to Christians who are regularly suffering persecution for their faith. Although we are not certain of the date of the writing of 1 Peter, there are many who believe the persecution took place under the Emperor Trajan.
Whether it was Trajan however, or the earlier Emperor Domitian, there is some compelling correspondence between Pliny the Younger, a governor of one of the Roman provinces and the Emperor Trajan as Pliny tries to figure out what he should do with his investigation of Christians. The letter is written between 111 – 113 A.D. Pliny writes: “… in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness, and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.”
1 Peter is addressed to Christian people who lived with the threat of death for their faith. Yet, rather than squelch the church or even slow down its growth, persecution actually resulted in a stronger, faster growing church.
The book of Acts tells the story of persecution which broke out in Jerusalem under the leadership of Saul, who would later become the Apostle Paul. Paul stood by approving the death of Stephen, the very first Christian martyr. The writer of Acts reports, “…a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” [Acts 8:1]
In addition, what happened to the Christian faith? Did it cease to exist? Did frightened Christians withdraw from the world and from the life of faith?
The story in Acts shows a persecuted church thriving and growing – even more so in the face of persecution. “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. [Acts 8: 3-4]
In fact, the fierce enemy of the church, Saul himself was converted shortly after the death of Stephen and he became the chief missionary force for Christ in the early years of the infant church.
However, persecution did not end with the end of biblical days, it was “on again, off again” in the first three centuries of the church’s existence — yet, the church never ceased growing. If nothing else, those early centuries are testimony to the power of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of the followers of Christ.
One of the strong leaders of the early church was a man named Tertullian, the son of a Commander of a Roman Legion. He was born in Carthage, North Africa in 150 AD. On the way to becoming an influential lawyer with all the advantages of Roman society’s elite, he became a Christian and was one of the strongest voices for religious toleration and a powerful advocate for Christians in the young church. Tertullian first wrote that persecution only caused the faith to grow. He wrote that, the persecution of the church by the Roman authorities actually strengthened the Church of Christ: “It is bait that wins men for (our) school. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow: the blood of Christians is seed of the church.”
What of the church in our time? In our town?
We do not live with a price tag on our heads because of our faith. That is a good thing. — Isn’t it? None of us would be happy to see persecution like that which took place under the Emperor Nero or Trajan break out again.
At least most of us would not. I do remember a pastor from years back who said to the congregation one Sunday morning as he lamented what he saw as a lack of commitment in the modern church, “What we need these days is another good round of persecution where we would have to put our lives on the line for our faith!”
Actually, some writers including C. S. Lewis have suggested that the devil shifted tactics in persecution. In his book The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon writes to his nephew: “Don’t make it hard for Christians. Don’t persecute them. Make it easy to be a Christian… even respectable.” So the logic went in the malevolent mind of the Enemy.
In light of this “shift” in what it cost to be a Christian, it might seem as though the words of 1 Peter written to a suffering church would not have all that much to say to us modern Christians. But this supposition would be wrong. There are two significant teaching that come from our text that need to very much play a part in our lives as contemporary Christians.
We need to always be prepared to give a reason for our faith in Christ. The text reads, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” The world may not demand an accounting of our faith the way Pliny demanded an accounting and a renunciation of faith — but there is still a need for Christian people who can articulate the faith in terms of how it brings great hope to our lives. It is true that we do this with our words – but it is also important (maybe even more important) to do it with the actions of our lives… important that we bear a sense of hope in Christ even in the tough times.
When you remain hopeful in the face of trial, your faith speaks volumes!
And remember the words immediately following the injunction to be ready to give an accounting of our faith. “… Do it with gentleness and reverence.” In other words the kind of “in your faith evangelism” we’ve frequently seen in our time – does not attract people to Christ, but turns them off.
Clue number one for a vital faith. Remain hopeful in the face of trial and be ready to express or articulate that hope when people want to know where your strength comes from.
No matter what may be going on in the world around us. Whether we are living under terrible persecution, with tough circumstances or in relative peace — the outcome of all things is certain. Listen once again: “Jesus Christ… has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”
To those early Christians, the message was, “No matter who is in power on this earth and no matter how much they may do to hurt and even kill us – Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of God and every power and every authority shall one day answer to him!”
The message remains the same for you and me today. Times have changed, worldly powers have come, and gone, circumstances are radically different. But this one thing has not changed. Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of God and every power and every authority shall one day answer to him!”
And that is why we are faithful and hopeful – no matter what!
Given the prediction of the Rapture yesterday, I decided to depart from the Revised Common Lectionary and preach on that topic instead. Below is my sermon based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13:
Given all the focus on the Rapture over the past few days, I thought it would be appropriate to offer my thoughts on the Rapture. You know even CNN would cut into its regular coverage at the top of every hour to do a rapture check. It was an interesting day and here we are today – the day after and what do we do now?
Dispensationalism. Eschatology. End times. Rapture. All buzz words among certain denominations and sects who are focused on the end times. You know the other day I saw magnificent Jaguar on the interstate. A fine piece of machinery…On the bumper of that magnificent machine was a sticker proclaiming, “Warning! This car will be driverless at the rapture.” At the speed the car was moving and the way its driver wantonly cut in and out of traffic, it appeared driverless now! In fact, we all would have been safer had it been!
Paul’s warning to the Thessalonians to shun such disorderly people immediately came to mind. Paul was talking about a group in the church at Thessalonica who thought their faith exempted them from responsible living within and to the community. They thought they were free to do as they pleased, come and go as they pleased, participate as they pleased with no responsibility to contribute to it. After all, Jesus was coming soon to whisk them away from this world and its cares. Such is the kind of thinking that frequently emerges in faith communities during moments of great stress, be that persecution from the emperor or a local community. Living with the tension of code orange or code red status for long periods of time, as we do in the U.S., watching the carnage and absorbing the seeming futility that bombards us nightly as news comes in from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and absorbing the tragedies we witness as people starve or bear the ravages of feuding war lords or politicians in the Third World.
In the days when the Bible was being written, such circumstances gave birth to a special kind of literature scholars called apocalyptic. Apocalyptic, which means “to reveal,” uses vivid language, the portrayal of cosmic portents, natural disasters, wars, plagues, and other events to reveal what it is God is about to do to preserve the world and God’s people within it. It is intended to give the faithful hope, to assure that God is still God, still in control and has not forgotten the world or God’s people. But during times of severe stress, as people lose their nerve, such literature can be misread and distorted. Folks begin to scan Scripture searching for any fragment that might hint at signs of divine rescue, as though faith were a cosmic “hall pass” that allows God’s people to avoid hardship or suffering by being whisked away from it all. This is the bumper sticker theology that went whizzing by me on the interstate last week. It is also the theology that is frequently expressed by those who put so much stock in the so called rapture.
I said “so-called” because the notion and presumptions of this 20th-century heresy emerged from a distorted 19th-century reading of a passage in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica–the 4th chapter, verses 16 and 17–where Paul talks about being caught up in the victorious presence of the Lord at his final return. By the way, the word “rapture” does not even appear there–or elsewhere in Scripture–and is a concept the church knew nothing about for the first 1800 years of its life. It is an idea that emerges when texts that speak of the ultimate triumph of God are read through spectacles looking for some sign that the faithful will not have to go through the trials and tribulations of a world convulsed by the power of sin and death. Add that to a second heresy–dispensationalism–and you have a distorted theology which supports the modern nation of Israel as if it were the descendant of the biblical Israel and co-opts them for its own very distorted apocalyptic doomsday purpose.
Jesus has a very different view of reality. And he says so most clearly in the 21st chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem teaching about the coming of the kingdom of God. He is standing in the courtyard of the temple with its lavishly adorned and bejeweled inner wall, the outer face of which was so completely covered with gold that, we are told, when the sun rose and shined upon it, it was as if one were looking directly at the sun. Someone in the crowd has just drawn Jesus’ attention to all this glory. In response, Jesus warns that the day is coming when not one stone of the temple will be left standing upon another. To those standing there, the notion of the destruction of the temple could only mean that Jesus was speaking about the end of the age. And so they asked him, “Teacher, when will this be and what will be the signs that this is about to take place?” But, notice, read the text carefully. Jesus does not answer their question. Rather, he issues three imperatives:
Do not be led astray.
Do not go after them.
Do not be terrified.
“Do not be led astray, for many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he, and the time is near.’” In our own day we have seen the Jim Joneses and the David Koreshes and now the Harold Campings of life. Heaven only knows how many other false prophets will come to lead their people to such doom. Jesus warns, “Do not go after them.” He is telling his followers not to be misled by false prophets who come claiming messianic authority proclaiming that the time is near. These are not God’s messengers. They’re religious charlatans, false prophets who prey upon the religiously naïve and gullible, serving up a faithless form of Christianity that is more interested in serving self than serving our Lord.
So, too, for those who look at the signs of the times and predict the rapture and the end of the world. Don’t be led astray. Do not follow them. Jesus says the signs of the time are nothing more than that, signs of the confusion of our day, of our own doing, not portents of God’s designated day for a new heaven and a new earth. The chaos of nation against nation, earthquakes, various famines, plagues, dreadful portents and great signs of heaven, the dreadful AIDS pandemic in Africa, the extraordinary hardships of the people of the third world-when you hear of these, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but….” Now let us listen to Jesus’ words very carefully: “The end will not follow immediately.” Jesus is not forecasting the end. He is describing what faithfulness requires of us, what it looks like until the end, as Jesus lays before his listeners a description of what is to come to his disciples.
More than one commentator has noted that what follows is a precise description of what in fact actually did happen to Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection: arrests, trials, exclusions from synagogues, betrayal by family members, persecution and imprisonment, and, for some, even death–all reported in Luke’s companion volume to his gospel, the Book of Acts. But notice what Jesus says about these hardships. His disciples are not to be whisked away from them because of their faith. Rather, they are to be led through them in order to give witness to their faith! The hardships, the tribulations, the moments of suffering are but opportunities to testify to the power and ultimate triumph of God. Those who patiently endure, who faithfully engage the powers and principalities of their day with Jesus’ words and power, will find that in doing so, they have gained their life.
By the time this gospel is being read for the first time, Jesus’ predictions had already taken place. And those reading Jesus’ words not only knew him to be a true prophet, they also knew that much of what he was saying could be in store for them as well. They heard Jesus telling them that the new they were looking for-the new heaven and a new earth, the new Jerusalem of Isaiah’s prophecy-was not to come without turmoil and testing, without their bearing witness to God’s power to transform life at precisely those moments when it seems most improbable. That is the way God works. The message here is: remain faithful to God as God’s people and God will remain faithful to you.
That word has not changed. Jesus’ word to us is the same as it was to those first disciples who heard him. The new heaven and the new earth will not come without turmoil, without testing, and our bearing witness to it at precisely those moments when it seems most improbable. How you and I deal with this world, its ups and downs, its triumphs and defeats, its dictators and false prophets, is the surest attestation of our faith–a faith that leads to God’s vision of life or a faith that is only self-serving. The person who patiently endures, who faithfully engages the powers and principalities of our day, finds that in doing so she is not only bearing witness, she is also soul crafting, shaping a life fit for the life of the world to come. This is what Christians in Zimbabwe know when they ask for our prayers. They are not asking that they be whisked away from their nation’s turmoils and suffering, but rather that they be given the grace and the endurance to live through it faithfully until the day God does bring deliverance. They are asking us to pray for them in their ordeal of soul crafting.
For soul crafting is not withdrawing from the world in spiritual idleness, as some in the church of Thessalonica were doing. Soul crafting engages the turmoil in God’s name and endures, trusting that God does not abandon God’s beloved. It is not withdrawal into the so-called spiritual endeavors, dutifully reading and studying our Bible, praying as we await the coming of the Lord so that God will lift us out of this turmoil. Soul crafting engages the weightier spiritual matters of life–the political and the economic issues that bring the chaos, injustice, sufferings and other upheavals we live alongside of in this world. Soul crafting digs into the day-to-day challenges of our lives, recognizing that God is at work in them and through us in these places in ways that no one of us can accomplish on our own. Soul crafting “plunges us into the reality of everyday life even as it also insists that this life is not the whole story,” so writes Beverly Gaventa. There is no room here for a theology in which we are divinely whisked away from the scene leaving our cars driverless. That is the theology of false prophets, “spiritual busybodies” out of step with the faith. Jesus says we are to ignore such false prophets and their best-selling novels, and instead engage this world in faith, bearing witness to God’s sovereignty and Christ’s lordship, trusting in them in and out of season.
Persevere. Patiently endure, and you will begin to craft your life, your soul in such a way that even in death not a hair of your head will be lost.
Here is today’s sermon based on John 10:1-10:
There are significant days in our lives and sometimes we realize them and sometimes we don’t. Yesterday was a significant day in my life. Lisa and I talked on the way home and I had a chance to do some reflection and I realized something – the faculty and staff of MTS are in many ways shepherds. I think back that I arrived at seminary green and naïve. The faculty took my by the hands and lead me down new paths and opened my eyes. Then there were days when they kicked me in the ahhhh well pants. They gave me that prodding that I so needed to keep going on this journey.
In a similar way, there is not-so-gentle kick out of the sheepfold in today’s Gospel reading, although I doubt you noticed any mention of being kicked through the gate in Jesus’ words. We’ll get back to this shove in a moment. First, notice that in John chapter 10, Jesus employs the imagery of first-century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, the most experience I’ve ever had with sheep was the kid’s summer program I worked at during college. We would take the children on field trips during the summer and one day we went to a farm. I learned you have to dodge sheep poo. If you’re anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a “figure of speech,” we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus’ choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.
So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hills. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hills has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.
When the shepherd arises the next morning, Jesus explains, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.
Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.
Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, kicked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.
Too often, we simply exist or breathe. We do not live. We exist. We have simply settled ourselves in our sheepfold. The sheepfold is the comfortable “life” that we exist in. The sheepfold is our unchallenged beliefs and assumptions. Our minds have numbed. Our hearts have hibernated. Our spirits have deflated. But we don’t notice because we are safe and we are comfortable
This existing is the complete opposite of the message of the Resurrection and of Easter: life cannot be conquered– not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens–fully, intensely, and eternally. Indeed, Jesus tells us this morning: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, all of creation, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life and the wonder of Easter cannot be contained to one day or one Sunday.
And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds–whatever they may be–we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.
In the movie The Matrix, one of the characters, Neo, is offered a choice between a blue pill and red pill. The blue pill will return him to the life he knows – comfort, safety, familiarity, and existence in the sheepfold. The red pill – ahh the red pill will open his eyes to the world around him. It will challenge him and give him a new life a life beyond simply existence. Jesus is doing the same thing. He is calling us out of the sheepfold to a new life beyond simply existence. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God. Amen.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Here is today’s sermon based on John 20:19-31:
Over the past three years, I have made many trips to the holy land … Memphis, Tennessee. Now, Memphis is holy land for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their BBQ. Now, for those of us who are not Southerners, it is difficult to understand that BBQ is a holy thing. In fact, it is part of what southerners call the southern trinity: BBQ, blues, and the Bible. Memphis is known for their BBQ, especially their ribs. As one of my seminary professors says, “Good ribs would make an angel weep.”
Now BBQ is not the only reason Memphis is considered to be holy land. The primary reason, of course, is that it is the home of Elvis.
A few summers ago, I had the chance to visit Graceland – or Mecca to Elvis fans – with Lisa, my parents, and my grandparents. I believe we were pilgrims in a holy land of sorts. I was not overly impressed by Graceland but what I found more interesting was the people. There were literally people weeping at Elvis’ grave and he has been dead most of my life! I was in amazement at the reactions of people and that made the visit worthwhile. These people have literally elevated Elvis to a holy status thus making Graceland holy ground.
It doesn’t stop there. In fact, there have been studies on the parallels between Jesus and Elvis, most notably by the renowned theologian Adam Sandler. He explains:
- Jesus said: “Love thy neighbor. (Matthew 22:39); Elvis said: “Don’t be cruel.” (RCA, 1956)
- Jesus is part of the Trinity; Elvis’ first band was a trio.
- Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd; Elvis dated Cybil Sheppard.
Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of faith….
As I said before, a few summers ago, we took time on our Memphis trip to visit the shrine of Graceland. There was the great welcome sign–a twenty-five foot high Elvis on a billboard saying “Welcome to the Kingdom!” And after the requisite photographs, we got in line for tickets. As we were waiting, I turned to one of the tour guides and asked, “So, how long did Elvis actually live here?” There was an audible gasp from the surrounding crowd. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” She then pointed at her t-shirt, which read: “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”
It didn’t matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth over thirty-two years ago. It didn’t matter. She didn’t care. Elvis fans don’t care. Without any proof, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby. The King lives.
It’s a shame we don’t all live our lives with that kind of faith. I’m afraid that most of us tend more towards the disciple Thomas than the tour guide at Graceland. Our scripture today is the familiar story of doubting Thomas. There we find the disciples locked up behind closed doors after Jesus’ crucifixion. And Jesus came and stood among them. When they saw him, the disciples rejoiced. But Thomas was not there at the time. When the other disciples later told Thomas about it, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger … in his side, I will not believe.” A week later, when Thomas was with the disciples, Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. When he put his hand in Jesus’ side–he knew.
“My Lord and my God,” said Thomas.
Jesus then said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We’ve all heard this story before. More importantly, we’ve all lived it. We’ve all had times in our lives where we’ve doubted, where we have said to God, “Show me a sign! Give me some proof!” Maybe it was because we were in a place of unbearable pain, or a time we faced hardship with no answers, a time when God seemed silent. We have all been at that point where, like Thomas, we yearned for a sign from God.
And why not? We live in a world where “proof” trumps faith. We send robots with cameras to the farthest ends of the universe so we can know for sure what’s out there. We won’t believe an assertion until a complicated mathematical equation says it’s true. We won’t believe until we have actually seen the birth certificate. And anytime -and I do mean anytime- there is a wall bearing a sign “wet paint,” we will touch it just to be sure that it really is wet.
If only we could have the faith of Elvis fans, a faith driven not by empirical proof, but by the voice in our hearts. Finding that kind of faith can change our lives. For when you believe something in your heart, you begin to act it in your life.
Look at Elvis fans. They not only believe he lives, they act like he lives. For example, they are constantly looking for Elvis. The Bible says seek and you find. Well, Elvis fans follow that to a tee. They are constantly looking for the King. And, sometimes, they find him. There have been Elvis sightings all over the world–from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she found the image of Elvis in a taco at Taco Bell.
If only we’d put even 1% of that kind of energy towards looking for Jesus, we might actually find him too. Maybe we’d find him in the eyes of a little child or the downcast gaze of a homeless stranger. Maybe we’d find him in the face of an enemy or the tears of a loved one with whom we are fighting. If you believe he lives, you’ll act like he lives. You’ll look for him and you’ll find him.
Another thing–Elvis fans believe he lives, so they look for others who believe as well, like through Elvis fan clubs. I heard a story on the Graceland tour about a woman who was in a fan club called “Taking Care of Business.” She had to have major surgery and afterwards received hundreds of cards and letters from “Elvis friends” all over the world. We Christians can learn something from this. Community is what gives us strength, support, and focus in times we most need it. Finding families of faith is what helps us keep our faith. If you believe he lives, you’ll look for others who believe as well.
Here’s a third example, and probably the most important. Because they believe he lives, Elvis fans go out into in the world and share his message. They play Elvis’ music; they dress up as Elvis impersonators; they decorate their homes with Elvis memorabilia. One of my favorite things at the Graceland gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler. It was a foot-high plastic Elvis in a sequin jumpsuit, and as he watered your yard, he would swivel his hips. Whether through word or music, impersonators or sprinklers, Elvis fans proudly proclaim the message of the King.
This provides an interesting contrast to the disciples. Before Jesus appeared in their midst, the book of John tells us that the disciples were in hiding behind locked doors. They weren’t looking for Jesus. They weren’t going around looking for other believers. They weren’t out in the world preaching the word. They weren’t proclaiming the message of the King. They were hidden in fear, locked away in shame because they didn’t believe he lived.
I’m afraid that many of us live a similar existence; a life with little or no faith in the risen Christ, our hearts locked up and closed away.
I read a story in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis about a young woman on the tour told a story about how she grew up listening to Elvis. Sadly, she lived through an abusive childhood, but she talked about how she used daydreams of Elvis as an escape. “He was my safe space,” she said, “my little corner of heaven.” Because she believed he lived, she honored him in her heart and that enabled her to find peace in the hardest of places.
If only we would open our hearts to Jesus in the same way. When we honor the risen Christ in our hearts, we have our own safe space, our own little corner of heaven in which to rest and to heal. I am reminded of Tusculum’s Passion Play in which we disciples celebrated Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the play. You see every time Jesus did a miracle, we would put our hands in the air and do our touchdown Jesus moment. It is easy to have faith in a setting like the play or the church but what if we had our touchdown Jesus moment in public among strangers?
If you believe he lives–you’ll act like he lives. And Jesus’ message is certainly a message of action. Elvis apparently felt the same way. For Elvis said early in his career, “Music and religion are similar–because both should make you wanna move.”
The gospel is a living, vibrant force that should make us want to get out and move, move around in the world, move towards each other in love and compassion, move towards bringing in the kingdom or whatever.
I want a religion that makes me wanna move.
I want a savior that makes me wanna put on a sequin jump suit and sing.
I want to believe in a Jesus that lives.
Don’t let the doubts and fears of life shake your belief. Don’t let your faith be driven by anything but the voice of your heart. Remember: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” For if we believe he lives, our lives will change. We will search for and find him; we will proclaim his message; we will honor his spirit with ours.
Sometime this week, find a quiet moment, ask yourself, “Do you believe?” From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come: He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.
Here is my Palm Sunday sermon based on Matthew 21:1-11:
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to the Son of David.
Today the Christian church around the world celebrates one of the most colorful events of its faith heritage-the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. When Matthew tells the story in his Gospel, he becomes so caught up in the spirit of the occasion, he has Jesus riding on two animals instead of one. Verse 7: “The disciples brought the donkey and the colt and spread their cloaks upon them and Jesus sat on them.” That would be a sight to behold whether the Messiah was doing or not! Matthew’s exuberance is balanced by his careful attention to the historical magnitude of the moment. He quotes not just one prophet but two, both Zechariah and Isaiah. He wants to make it clear that the Messiah, the King, the Savior for whom the people have waited so long, is the one who is coming into the city. Tell the daughter of Zion, “Look, your king is coming to you mounted on a donkey.” The point is unmistakable. Royalty is on the way, but it is the kind of royalty that people have never seen before – a humble royalty. A servant king.
Two thousand years after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, another visitor came to the city, Germany’s last Kaiser, Wilhelm II. His entourage was so grand that he had to have the Jaffe Gate in the old city widened so that his over-sized carriage could pass through. After the parade had ended, someone climbed up and attached a large sign to the gate. The sign read, “A better man than Wilhelm came through this city’s gate. He rode on a donkey.”
What made Jesus a better man, do you think? What was it about him that compelled the people to spread their cloaks and wave their branches in the air? What is it about him that still inspires millions of people to give their lives to him and even for him? Nowhere has the paradoxical beauty of the mind of Christ been more eloquently expressed than by Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
What made him a better man? It was his beautiful mind, which was nothing less than the very mind of God. His beautiful mind put him on the back of that donkey.
His beautiful mind gave him the courage to speak the message of salvation no matter what it cost.
His beautiful mind opened his eyes so that he could see the people who were being put down or shut out by unjust practices and selfish ambitions on the part of others.
His beautiful mind led him to overturn the tables of the money changers in the temple, led him to cure the blind and the lame.
His beautiful mind brought him to his knees before the disciples so that he could wash their feet on the night of his betrayal.
His mind led him to the cross where he poured out his life.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul admonished his friends in Philippi. If you want to belong to him, the first
thing you will need to do is get your mind right. Can we live that way too? Paul thought we could. “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus,” he said. But not in the sense of transplanting that divine perspective into ourselves through our own efforts; certainly that
is impossible. No, it is this sense of receiving the gift of transformation that I am speaking of today-receiving transformation through him who became completely one of us and, thereby, defeated everything. And I do mean everything that would keep us from our own full humanity.
What does a Christ-like mind look like as we live in the world? We can see it clearly in the great saints and martyrs, such as Mother Teresa or Albert Schweitzer or Dietrich Bonheoffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. or even Mahatma Gandhi. All of these people lost themselves in their quest to live like Christ in the world. The great thing is in losing themselves, they found themselves.
An artist becomes lost in the work. Lovers become lost in their beloved. Workers are excited about a common enterprise. You toss aside that part of yourself that is always watching how you’re doing. In self-forgetfulness, you become most fully yourself. This is the great paradox of human existence.
In my studies, I have found that the churches that are growing the fastest are the ones that provide entertainment instead of worship and make
people feel good about themselves. They preach sermons like “Everyone is a winner!” or “God loves you just the way you are.” Those are not bad sermons but I wonder what kind of church you would have if your sermon titles were “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Or about this one for a sermon, “Those who want to save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake, will find them.”
To see what the world cannot see and then to do something about it-these are the marks of the mind of Christ.
Why did Jesus ride that little donkey or rather both of those donkeys into town that day? I think he did it to demonstrate true greatness to all the world. After the donkey came the cross. And it is there, right there, that you see greatness in all its glory.
In my Catholic tradition growing up, we said the Nicene Creed and in this tradition we say the Apostle’s Creed. Both creeds include the line: “He was crucified, dead and buried.” In other traditions there is another line added to the creedal statement: He descended into hell. What a powerful acknowledgment that there is no human experience – no height, no depth, no loss, no pain, no apparently God-forsaken place, even the farthest reaches of hell – that Jesus has not entered into. He descended into hell is immediately followed by the glad affirmation that he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven. It is here that the great reversal takes place. The servant becomes Lord. The humiliated one becomes the exalted one whose name is above every name. He ascended into heaven, and on Palm Sunday, and during this Holy Week ahead, we remember that he did not get there the easy way.
What a journey he had. Before the suffering and the crucifying and the dying, he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey and all the city was in turmoil, Matthew tells us. As is always the case, English words are entirely too mild for the original Greek meaning of this word “turmoil.” In Greek the word was usually used in reference to violent changes in the weather or earthquakes. In other words, Jesus comes into town and the whole world shakes. A fundamental shift takes place at the heart of things, and nothing is ever the same again.
I hope that parade will pass down your street today. I hope your heart will bow before him. I hope your very world will be in turmoil as Jesus comes to your heart and nothing is ever the same again. I hope your hosannas will ring to highest of heavens.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to the Son of David. Amen.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.