Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Matthew 25:14-30

Thanksgiving or Fear?

November 19, 2017      Maple Grove UMC

 

          This is Thanksgiving Sunday.  But the Parable of the Talents is just the assigned Gospel reading for the third Sunday of November.  It’s not a story about Thanksgiving. . .  Or is it?

          It is a story about stewardship.  And a steward is a person appointed to take care of someone else’s property—a “manager,” is the word we’d use today.  All three of the slaves in Jesus’ story are stewards.  The master went on a journey and “entrusted his property to them.” 

          And isn’t gratitude all about acknowledging that everything is gift?  As the offering prayer says, “all that we are and all that we have is a trust from you, O God.”  Almost by definition, giving thanks recognizes that we haven’t made or deserved what we have.  If we had made or deserved it, we wouldn’t need to give thanks for it.  Sure, I know, we work hard for what we have.  Some people really have built their own home or built a business from scratch.  But where did you get the ability to build or do business?  You might say, from going to school or from your parents.  Okay, but where did your ability to learn come from, or your family?  You can push it back as far as you like, but sooner or later you have to admit that ultimately, it’s all from God and everything is God’s.  Psalm 24 begins: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  Some of what’s in the world is entrusted to us for a while.  And during that while, all we can do is be grateful.

          This is the central teaching of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.  In chapter 8, before they enter the Promised Land, Moses warns the people: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord you God. . . When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied—today we’d say, when you have cell phones and big screen TVs and cars and more books than you can count . . .  then do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the Lord you God. . .

          In monasteries, the monks’ things were sometimes marked with their name under the Latin phrase, ad usus, meaning “for the use of” of that monk.  Each monk was reminded that things were given into his use, but didn’t actually belong to him.1  Even so, I sometimes invite people to meet in “my” office or to come to “my” house; but really both office and house are Maple Grove’s.  And Carolyn and I are truly grateful for their use.  But ultimately everything is ad usus.  Our cars, our money, our homes—all will eventually cease to exist or be someone else’s.  Our talents, our education, our good health—all are ad usus, all come from God.  We have the privilege of being “stewards” of all the amazing gifts of life.  Thanks be to the One who entrusts them, for a time, into our care.

         

          In the story, two of the slaves did well; they made good use of what the master entrusted to them.  But the third slave did not do well.  He made no use of what was entrusted to him.  And the story tells us why.  It wasn’t because he got less than the other two; it wasn’t because he didn’t know what to do.  Do you remember why he buried his talent in the ground?  He tells the master, “I was afraid.”  I was afraid, he says, and that’s why I buried what you gave me.  In the gospel, not only is fear the opposite of faith, as we learned during Lent; fear is also the opposite of thanksgiving.

          I want to show you a clip from the Disney film Finding Nemo.  You should know that Finding Nemo is the favorite movie of my now 22 year-old daughter, Emily.  It has been her favorite since it came out when she was 8.  She is happy to let you know that she has Nemo coloring books and Nemo stuffed animals and now, along with her sister, a Nemo tattoo.  Now, I’m not a big tattoo person, but listen to the story.  Emily graduated from college in May which, as often happens, precipitated a period of intense anxiety.  I asked Emily to put it in her own words.  There are reasons I won’t go into, but Emily wrote to me, “I was so scared that I was going to have to move back to Ohio, that I would lose my job, my friends, my independence and your trust.”  But she turned to her sister.  “Rachel,” Emily writes, “was there for me.  She reassured me that these fears were normal, but they didn’t have to control me.  This tattoo is my tie to her and my reminder that she is there for me.  I’m grateful for that.”  Well, tattoo and all, I’m grateful too.  Our lives . . . and our children . . . are not our own.  And the only way to enjoy them, the only way to live thankfully, is not in fear, but in gratitude. 

          Here’s the clip.  In case you haven’t seen the movie, two clownfish are attacked by barracuda.  Marlin is knocked unconscious, and when he wakes up his wife is gone, along with all but one of her eggs.  That egg becomes a son, Nemo.  Nemo’s dad is understandably overprotective, which causes Nemo to sneak away and get captured by people collecting fish for aquariums.  The rest of the movie follows the adventures of Nemo’s dad and his friend Dory, a good-hearted but goofy fish, on their quest of finding Nemo.  This scene takes place at one of the lowest points for Marlin, when he and Dory have been swallowed by a whale:

          Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.

          Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.

          Marlin: What?

          Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever    happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

 

         

          Like Nemo’s dad, because of his fear the third slave in Jesus’ story was determined that “nothing would ever happen” to what was entrusted to him.  And of course, that’s exactly what happened . . . nothing.  Fear is natural, even necessary.  But when fear becomes too much, when we allow fear to be in control, it casts a shadow over what we love; fear becomes the opposite of gratitude.  Here’s how Scott Bader-Saye puts it:  “We find ourselves unable to rejoice in the presence of what we love, because we are too afraid of losing  it.”2

 

 

          So it’s a story about Thanksgiving after all. . .  Our worship today recognizes that everything is ad usus, entrusted to us for a time.  That everything, ultimately, comes from God and is God’s.  Today, we take a moment to acknowledge where it all comes from.  We remember the Lord our God.  And we give thanks.

          And in our worship today we seek to hold what we have a little less tightly, to let go of the fear of losing and embrace the joy of having, if only for today. 

 

 

          After the hymn, I’ll invite you to share what has been entrusted to you for which you are grateful.  Let me begin, and don’t forget our “Yea, God” response:

  • For an office and a lovely home that are not mine, but for me to use and to share—we say, Yea, God!
  • For a church with people who are persistently and sometimes beautifully in disagreement—we say, Yea, God!
  • And for my daughters, who move away, and get tattoos, and whom despite all my fears I cannot protect—we say, Yea, God!

          Let’s sing the hymn, and then I’ll ask you what you want to say “Yea, God” about.

 

 

1 See Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Ad Usus: “For the Use Of,” Alive Now (September/October 2009), 13.

2 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 58. 

Matthew 25:1-13

Something to Live For

November 12, 2017

 

          We’re getting close now to the end of Matthew’s gospel.  In chapter 25, Jesus tells three parables about the return of the Son of Man, the end of time.  And each holds a surprise. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats we learn that when Christ comes in glory, he will sort us out not by what we've believed or how much faith we've had, but by whether or not we fed the hungry, visited folks in prison and welcomed strangers.  Hmm . . .  More on that in two weeks.  And in the Parable of the Talents, Jesus says that upon his return the master will want to know not what we’ve done to protect what he's given us, but how we’ve used and invested everything entrusted to us. More on that next Sunday. 

          And then there’s today’s parable.  Ten bridesmaids take their lamps and await the arrival of the groom.  Five bridesmaids are wise and take along extra oil for their lamps; five are foolish and don’t take any.  The groom’s flight gets delayed and they all eventually go to sleep.  When he finally arrives, the wise maids fill their lamps and relight them.  The foolish ones have to ask to borrow some oil, but the wise ones say 'no' and send them off to the store.  And while the foolish are shopping for oil, the groom comes and takes the wise ones into the wedding hall.  The door is shut and the groom won’t let the foolish ones in when they got back.

          Now, I’ve got some questions about this story:

  • Why did they have to have a lit lamp to get into the wedding?  An invitation I can see, but a lit lamp? 
  • Would the groom (presumably a Christ figure) really shut the door in their face, just because they forgot their oil? Frankly, I don’t believe God ever shuts the door on people.  But in the story, I suppose, this might communicate a sense of seriousness, that our choices really do have eternal consequences.
  • Most of all I wonder--shouldn’t the wise bridesmaids have shared with the foolish ones?  Isn’t sharing a part of wisdom? Elsewhere Jesus does talk a lot about sharing.  Here, I suppose, it means no one can live your spiritual life for you.  Each of us has to be ready for Christ our own self.

 

          So I have questions, but here’s what I take to be the point of this story: Jesus wants us to be ready not just for his return, but for his delay, for him not to return. Put another way, this parable means Jesus wants us to be ready not just to die, but to keep living. You see billboards along the interstate that say, “IF YOU DIED TONIGHT, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU WOULD GO?”  This parable suggests a different question: “IF YOU DON’T DIE TONIGHT, DO YOU KNOW HOW YOU WILL LIVE TOMORROW?”  Do you have oil in your lamp?  Is your light shining with the love and the mercy of Christ?

 

          Here’s a real-life example. After our daughter Rachel was born, Carolyn had some internal bleeding.  They rushed her to surgery, and let me know that it was touch-and-go.  Even after the surgery, they stressed that her life was still at risk.  Now, thank God, she did recover.  But when she got home from the hospital, I wanted to make sure I was prepared to lose her at any time.  Suddenly I understood that as a real possibility. So I tried to stay in her presence constantly.  I wanted to get her anything she needed and tell her repeatedly how precious she was to me. And all that’s good . . . to an extent.  But it turns out Carolyn needed me to do things other than wait on her and tell her how much I loved her—things like taking care of our daughters and doing the dishes.  And it turns out the better Carolyn felt, the less she wanted me in her presence all the time—don’t you have a sermon to write or a Trustees meeting you can go to?  In other words, she needed me to be ready not just for her to die, but also and especially ready for her to live.  To keep some oil in my lamp, to let my light shine for our daughters and our church and for everyone.

 

          So what is the oil in our lamps?  How do we prepare for Christ not to come back?  What does it mean to have something not just to die for, but to live for?  Well, that’s what all of Matthew is about, what we've been reading all year.  To be ready to live, Jesus teaches, means

  • To forgive people not seven, but seventy-seven times—let that light shine!
  • To trust God and not to worry—let it shine!
  • To choose not to retaliate when others do harm—let it shine!
  • To care for the sick, visit those in prison, and welcome strangers—let it shine!

Here, I believe, is the secret:  to be ready to live every day in these ways is to be ready to die. To be ready to meet Jesus is not to say the Sinner’s Prayer obsessively; it is to forgive people, to stand with the persecuted, to welcome a stranger.

 

          And here is the connection to Veterans Day.  We know our military members have something to die for—our freedom, our security. But shouldn’t we also make sure they have something to live for? 

  • Ready access to health care and mental health treatment. 
  • A sense of honor and respect for what they’ve endured—even if we civilians can’t fully understand it. 
  • And a country worthy of their sacrifice—a country where all kids can go to quality schools, a country where our discourse is guided by kindness rather than anger, a country where their sisters and daughters (and they themselves) can go to work and school without being groped and harassed. A worthy country.

I want to be part of giving our veterans something not just to die for, but something to live for.  How about you?

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

We Remember and Bear Witness 

November 5, 2017Maple Grove UMC 

          In October we reviewed our United Methodist vows faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, presence, gifts, and service.  There’s one more:  we support the ministries of the church by our WITNESS.  That one is a little harder to wrap our minds around.  What do we mean by “witness?”  A lot of times it means what we at Maple Grove call invitation—inviting others to “come and see” this Jesus we know, inviting people to “come and see” what God is doing at Maple Grove.  But today I have a different take on witness.  To witness, literally, is to remember something and to tell about it.  If you’re put on the witness stand, that’s what you’re asked to do--to remember and tell. So let’s do that today.

Remembering has always been part faith.  No less an authority than Pope Francis says that “The believer is essentially one who remembers.”1

Native American writer, William Least Heat Moon says, “It is memory that makes things matter.”  He tells how his father had a stroke, and several days later still wasn’t sure who William was; he recognized him only as a man and not as a son.  One afternoon, he says, my dad’s speech still all jumbled up, I gave him a pencil and asked him to write down who he was. In fear of failing and what that would mean, he took the pencil and slowly, unsteadily, marked out his name.  Next, he says, I asked my dad to write down my name.  He faltered, but did it.  Finally, he says, I asked my dad to write down what I was to him.  At first he seemed confused, then started moving his hand and marked something down.  Uneasily, Heat Moon says, I picked up the pad, and I could just make out what it said:  “My boy.”  I looked at him.  The right half of his face was smiling.  “And for a while longer, anyway, we had escaped the obliteration of our shared past, the thing that bound us.”2  Please don’t misunderstand me: we still visit and love and care for people who have lost all memory.  But you know what he means:  it is memory that makes things matter. 

 

So to what are we witnessing here this All Saints Day?  What are we remembering and tell about here today?  First, we remember our Roll of the Victorious, those Maple Grove members we long loved and now miss.

  • I remember John Burnham, an historian’s historian.  Among many other books, he wrote Bad Habits, most of which I know he didn’t have!
  • I remember Peggy Bowers, a nurse’s nurse, so kind and caring, her outfit always tasteful and her hair always in place.
  • I remember Larry Loughead, a dentist’s dentist, a racing enthusiast, a kind and gentle man, always a dear friend to me.
  • And I remember Vonna Fissel, her dementia such that I’m not sure she ever really knew me, but she was always as sweet as the day is long.

These and many others, for their faithfulness and love:  we remember and we bear witness.

 

Second, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, we remember our Lord Jesus at the table, on the night when he was betrayed, how he took the bread and then the cup.  Now you might say we can’t possibly ‘remember’ that, exactly—it took place 2000 years ago.  But we do have “memories” of things before our time, don’t’ we?  I distinctly remember my four year-old brother Alan, on the day I was brought home from the hospital as a baby, while our mother tried to take a nap, dangerously sneaking me out of my crib and carrying me around the house.  Until our grandma caught him and cried out, “Oh! Alan’s got the baby.” And my mother was up like a shot.  Who could forget?  And I proudly remember my father in his military uniform, serving in WWII, even though it happened twenty years before I was born.  I remember these things because I’ve been told about them many times by reliable people.  I remember them because by now these stories are part of who I am.

Even so, we remember our Lord Jesus at the table on the night when he was betrayed, how he took the bread and then the cup.  We remember because we’ve read it in the scriptures and been told about it many times by reliable people. We remember him saying to us, “This is my body that is for you,” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this,” he told us, “as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  We do remember.  Our Lord Jesus at the table: we remember and we bear witness.

 

What’s more, remembering is not just a mental activity.  Jesus didn’t say, “Please sit around and think about me.”  He said, “Do this.  Do these thing in remembrance of me.”  Professor Ronald Byars writes, “It is the doing that is the remembrance”--taking bread, giving thanks, breaking the bread, giving it to others, eating it together.  This is not just an introspective remembering, it is a physical remembering, a remembering of actions, a remembering that we do together every time we come to this table.3  As we do these actions again and again: we remember and we bear witness.

 

And then there’s this:  the apostle Paul says that whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim not the Lord’s teachings, not his life, but we proclaim his death until he comes again.  Why this emphasis on Christ’s death?  Well, unlike so many of us, the Bible insists on remembering all of life, the good and the ugly, the joyful and the painful.  People nowadays want to say, “Oh slavery, that was a long time ago; let’s just forget about that and move on. . .” Or, “There are certain things in our family that we just don’t bring up—better just to ignore them.”  But the Bible says, “Sure enough, Adam and Eve ate from that tree, and life has been hard ever since.”  The Bible says, “Sure enough, Cain killed Abel, and violence has been with us ever since. “  The Bible says, “Sure enough, the people of Israel took possession of the Promised Land, but not without brutality and bloodhsed.”  The Bible dares to remember all of life.

And so we remember not just the life, not just the teachings, but also the death of Jesus.  We specifically remember Jesus’ death for two reasons:

  • First, Jesus didn’t just teach us how to love God and one another.  He didn’t just rise again to give us hope.  He also gave his life for us.  Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  It’s on the cross above all that the depth of God’s love is clear.  What Christ did for us on the cross: we remember and we bear witness.
  • But second, our lives too are marked by the cross.  People grapple with addiction and depression, with cancer and sorrow.  And Jesus entered into all of that, Jesus knew all that personally.  There is nothing that can happen to us that Jesus does not understand from the inside out.  In the hardest that life can offer, Christ is with us because he is one of us. The presence and the compassion of Christ from the cross: we remember and we bear witness.

 

          Today for All Saints Sunday we bear witness, we tell what we remember:

  • Our loved ones, whose names have been read:  we remember and we bear witness.
  • The table where Jesus told us what to do, to take and bless and break and share this bread:  we remember and we bear witness.
  • And finally, Christ’s death for us, that he understands every tear and every trouble: we remember and we bear witness.

 

 

1 Quoted in Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), xiii. 

2 William Least Heat Moon, PrairyErth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 266.

3 Ronald P. Byars, The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective, Interpretation: Resources for the use of Scripture in the Church, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 189.

Mark 9:33-37

Greatest of All Is Servant of All

October 22, 2017

 

          We pledge to support the ministries of the church by our service.  So last Sunday I asked you, “Why do you serve?”  Here are just a handful of your wonderful responses.  You can read more on the bulletin board down the art hallway.

          --The greatest number of responses had to do with God telling us and calling us to serve:

  1. Jesus said God’s greatest commandment is to love one another.  Serving others is a demonstration of following this commandment.
  2. God called me.  I responded at age 9.  I’ve enjoyed serving.

          --Another group of responses had to do with the satisfaction we get out of serving:

  1. Feels Good!
  2. Serving reduces my depression.
  3. Serving is my love language.  It gives me joy in my heart.

          --Many cards echoed this theme:

  1. Because others have been there for me and I want to pay it forward.
  2. People in the community where I grew up made sure I had clothes.

 

          --Several people noted that serving is loving more than just people:

  1. It is part of my faith journey.  To serve others is to serve God.

          --For many people, the reason to serve is as simple helping people:

  1. Because others need help.
  2. To see the joy in their hearts.

          --Serving is part of our witness to the love of Christ:

  1. I want others to know there are caring, inclusive people at Maple Grove.

     --And finally there was this one-of-a-kind card I want to share:

  1. This is a difficult question as in recent years aging, health and financial challenges have closed many of the ways I formerly served.  I work on this in my prayer and meditation time—have to redefine for me what service means. 

 

Who is the greatest?  That's what the disciples were talking about one day.  Peter probably started it, saying something about being the only disciple who'd ever walked on water. "I'm the greatest," he bragged.  But James and John took offense: "Hey, we were up there with Jesus when he met with Moses and Elijah; "Jesus always picks us for special things.  Our mother thinks we're the greatest."  "Oh yeah?" Matthew chimed in.  "I was a tax collector.  I know people; I've got connections you fisherman can only dream about."  "You’re all dreaming," Judas said.  "Jesus trusted me to be the treasurer.  I'm the greatest."1

And on it went, until Jesus asked them, "Hey, what are you guys talking about?" All of a sudden it got quiet.  Everyone looked down at their sandals.  Because Jesus had just been telling them that he was on his way to lay down his life, to suffer and die.  And they were arguing about which of them was the greatest.

Yeah, their conversation may have been a little misguided.  Maybe it wasn't the best time for that particular discussion.  But it is an important question:  Who is the greatest?  What makes someone great?  What do you mean if you say, "Wow, my parents—they were great people?"  If you want your kids to be great people, what kind of life would you model for them?  What is greatness?

In their usual clueless way, that's what the disciples were debating that day.  And then Jesus entered the debate.  Or rather, Jesus ended the debate.  He gives them a new measuring stick for greatness.  "You want to see greatness?" he asks them.  Here's greatness:  and he holds up a little child.  You need to know that in the ancient world, children were not regarded the they are today.  They were the least-valued members of society.  Children had no rights.  They contributed nothing to the family.  They were always at the mercy of others.  Here's greatness, Jesus says.  And he holds up the weakest, most vulnerable person there was. 

The measuring stick for greatness that Jesus gives them has two elements:

  1. If you want to be first, he says, take the last place and serve everyone else.  What is greatness?  Greatness is serving.
  2. And if you want to be great, he says, welcome a child--welcome the weakest, neediest people around you.  Greatness is caring for the vulnerable and excluded. 

           

This was, and remains, a difficult lesson. For one of my classes in seminary, I had to do an in-depth analysis of the congregation I was part of.  We had to look at mission and vision statements, outline the leadership structure, describe the worship and music.  And then there was this question: Name and tell about several “important” people in the congregation. So I started writing.  Well, there’s Rex, of course—he’s the pastor.  And there’s Jim, who was Director of Public Health for the state of Georgia.  And there’s Joe, a downtown property developer who helped bring the Olympics to Atlanta. 

And suddenly I noticed what I was doing.  I was using the wrong measuring stick for greatness.  Not that there was anything wrong with Rex and Jim and Joe—wonderful guys.  But I started my list again, asking myself who was great in terms of serving, who was great in terms of welcoming the vulnerable and excluded. Well, there was “Veronica,” a developmentally delayed adult who was always on the verge of being homeless and who despite the church’s best efforts had lost her baby to foster care.  But she always sat by the front door and greeted people with an infectious smile and brought people from housing projects to church with her.  And there was “Hugh,” a part-time taxi driver who never learned to read, but who came early every Sunday to set up tables and chairs and stayed late to clean up when everyone else had gone home. And there was the guy whom came up for worship from the homeless shelter and sat by himself in the back row and wouldn’t talk to anyone no matter how hard we tried.  But his presence made it look and feel more welcoming for other homeless people to come to worship and many holy relationships were formed. 

What does it mean to be great?  It means, Jesus said, serving others.  It means welcoming the weakest and neediest among us.  It means Veronica, and Hugh, and our homeless friend in the back row.

 

Now the world says that to be great is to be able to get your own way, right?  To have enough money or talent or power that you can throw your weight around, to get other people to do what you want.  And sometimes these worldly standards of greatness infiltrate the church.  We get to thinking that to be great in the church is to have influence and power, to be able to get one’s own way.  So we have to keep holding up Jesus’ greatness measuring stick:  that to be great is serving others, that greatness is welcoming the vulnerable and excluded. We have to keep reminding ourselves.

But sometimes—thank God!--just the opposite happens.  Sometimes Jesus’ standard of greatness infiltrates the world.  How many of you saw the article in Monday’s Dispatch about the OSU football players who took advantage of their off week to visit cancer patients at the James?   They visited a man who had been battling multiple myeloma for 14 years, after being told he had no more than 3 years to live.  “That’s one of those things,” J.T. Barrett said, “it’s bigger than football"2

Here’s how I imagine it.  When those players get to the pearly gates some day, St. Peter will ask them about their lives.  They’ll say, “We all played football for THE Ohio State University!” 

“Well, that’s nice,” St. Peter will say with a yawn.

“And I,” Barrett will add, “was a record-setting quarterback.”

“Yeah, that’s nice too, I guess.”

“And sometimes,” a defensive tackle will add, “we used to go visit people with cancer at the hospital.”

“Really?”  St. Peter will say, suddenly interested.  “Now that is great stuff!” 

 

Here is Jesus’ measuring stick for greatness:

  1. If you want to be first, he says, take the last place and serve everyone else.  Greatness is serving others.
  2. And if you want to be great, welcome a child. Greatness is caring for the vulnerable and excluded. 

Take that measuring stick with you today.  Look around, hold it up.  See what it tells you about who is truly great.  And if you dare, hold it ups and see what it says about your own greatness. 

 

Toward the back of your bulletin today, you’ll find a list of things to do, many of them fairly small, humble things:  ushering, moving books from the church library, hanging banners, gardening, serving food at CRC or Manna Café or on Thanksgiving Day or here on Sunday mornings, cleaning the kitchen.  The intro to this list asks, “Looking for an opportunity to serve?”  But given Jesus’ measuring stick, a better title might be “Opportunities for Greatness.” 

What does it mean to be great?  Take Jesus’ measuring stick with you: Greatness is serving others, Jesus said.  And welcoming the vulnerable and excluded. 

 

1 See Judith M. Gundry-Volf, "Mark 9:33-37," Interpretation (January 1999), 57-58.

2 https://www.elevenwarriors.com/ohio-state-football/2017/10/86671/ohio-state-football-players-give-and-receive-inspiration-in-monday-trip-to-james-cancer-hospital.  Accessed Oct. 20, 2017.

Mark 14:3-9

For the Love of Jesus

October 15, 2017

 

          I asked you last Sunday, “What is the greatest gift you’ve ever given . . . or received?” I’ll share just a few now and you can read many more on the bulletin board down the art hallway.

--Not surprisingly, the greatest number of responses were about family.  Some were about family in general:

1. My family—I am blessed.

2. Inclusion in my husband’s family & Inclusion in the Maple Grove family of God

--Many were about children:

3. My kids! Heart. Smiley face!

4. Micah, Suzy, Jaden (I know whose kids those are, Kris & Aaron Shear!)

--And quite a few were about partners and spouses:

5. Greatest gift received? My wife who made all my happiness possible

6. My husband. God put him in my life and I give God thanks every day for this gift.

--  7. This one says simply “Love.”  And there were many variations of God’s love, people’s love, mercy, grace, etc.

--Several were about this:

8. Both given and received . . .  acceptance and forgiveness.

--There were actually multiple cards that for greatest gift ever given said something like this:

9. 133 pints of blood.

--And then there were many very personal responses that simply can’t be categorized.  I encourage you to read them all on the bulletin board.  Here are just four:

10. As I was graduating high school, the pastor and organist convinced me to go to a 4-year college.  I had no money but they convinced me that I’d figure it out.  I did.

11. (I take this one to be a young person’s handwriting.)  My phone.

12. My favorite aunt recently died.  My uncle gave me one of her bracelets that she wore all the time.  Now when I wear it, I feel her presence and know she is with me.

13. Best Gift Given: Caring for my dad weeks before he died.  Received: Visiting my mom one week before she died.

 

Video:  “The Offering”

 

          We pledge to support the ministries of the church with our gifts.  The video offers a laugh at some reasons people might give to their church:

  • There’s pride—wanting the praise of others, our name on a plaque.  Jesus talks about this in the Sermon on the Mount.  He doesn’t say you can’t give to be seen by others.  He just says that if you do, that’s all the reward there is—no inner satisfaction, no spiritual growth, just the plaque.
  • Others give out of guilt.  As the video shows, giving this way is misery, because it’s never enough.  First receive God’s mercy and forgiveness; then you give out of gratitude. 
  • Many people give as that first woman did--or started to--to meet the needs if the church.  There is nothing wrong with this.  We’re all being asked to do that:  to increase our giving in order to add a youth leader to our church staff.  But giving to meet a need has its drawbacks.  It tempts us to compare our giving with others.  How great is the need?  What’s “my share?”  Why aren’t other people giving “their share?”  This might meet the need, but it seldom leads to joy.
  • The last man wanted to give to “say thanks” to God but was sadly unprepared to give.  But that’s a whole different sermon!

 

          Today I want to hold up to you gospel reading, how after dinner one night a woman took an entire jar of costly perfume—worth, some said, 300 denarii—and poured it all out on Jesus’ head.  300 denarii was roughly a year’s pay for a laborer—we might say $30,000 today.  The woman took $30,000 worth of perfume and poured it out on Jesus’ head. 

          $30,000—what got into this woman?  Well, overwhelming gratitude.  John’s gospel says this woman was Mary, whose brother Jesus had raised from the dead.  What’s $30,000 when your brother is alive again?

          What got into this woman?  She seems to have sensed that Jesus was on his way to die.  Nard was used to anoint the dead.  What’s $30,000 when the Lord, the Son of God, is laying down his life for you?

          What got into this woman?  Well, let’s just call it love.  The woman gave this gift out of love for Jesus.  Guilt can pry some contributions out of us.  Meeting needs can prompt some carefully measured gifts.  But it is love that unlocks the heart; it is love that generates generosity.

          Bishop Robert Schnase tells about six members of a church’s Finance Committee dealing with an air conditioning repair bill of $465.  The checking account was too low to pay the bill, so they met to discuss what to do.  Borrow the money? Decrease giving to apportionments? Make yet another appeal to the congregation?  Finally one woman said, “Look, we’re letting our need to pay this bill prevent us from seeing what the church is really for—loving Jesus.  Some of us at this table could write a check for the entire $465 and never miss it.  And she got out her purse, wrote a check for $465 and put it on the table.  “Now you don’t have to give to pay the air conditioning bill,” she told them.  You can just give because you love Jesus.  They all put checks of their own on the table.  The result was that the air conditioner bill was paid that night and the church had $1695 to launch a new ministry to reach children for Jesus Christ.1

         

          When she was in grade school, my daughter’s school did a fundraiser for leukemia.  Part of the money went to medical research and part went to the family of a girl from the school who had the disease.  We were asked to collect change, so our family had a jar on the dining room table and we’d put change in it every now and then.  When it was time for Rachel to take the money to school, she came out of her room that morning with a huge plastic bag crammed full of change.  I mean, she could barely carry it!  I began my fatherly investigation.  “What’s that for?”

          “Our class project,” she said.

          “Do you even know how much money is in there?” I asked.

          “No,” she said, “I just filled the bag up until I couldn’t get any more in.”

          I started to object.  I thought to myself, “Now honey, you have to think about saving your money, too.  It’s nice to be generous, dear, but you need to be sensible too.”  She must have sensed what I was about to say.  “But Daddy,” she cried, “I love that girl!”  I didn’t say anything.  I just nodded . . . and cried a little. 

 

          Now even as I tell that story, I can see it from a different angle.  That was fine for her--right?--she had no rent to pay.  She had no mouths to feed, no college loans to repay.  I get that.  And I really hope you won’t put all your money in a bag and bring it here, okay?  But I also hope that love for Jesus will be pounding in your heart next time the offering plate is passed, that love for Jesus will guide your hand as when you fill out your commitment card.  Not pride, not guilt, not even meeting the needs of the church will cause us to break the jar and pour out our perfume.  For that, it’s got to come out of love for Jesus. 

 

1 Adapted from Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 111-12.

Mark 9:14-29

Only Through Prayer

October 1, 2017            Maple Grove UMC

 

          Last Sunday I asked, If you could pray only one prayer, what would it be?  Most of your responses fell into a few categories:

  1. (Not Surprisingly) World Peace

B. Here was another trend:

          5. The Lord’s Prayer

          6. The Lord’s Prayer.  You get the idea.

C. There were several about the recent natural disasters:

          7. I pray for God to be with the people of Puerto Rico.

D. Many were prayers for self and family:

          8. Please, God, keep my daughters safe and healthy.  (Oh wait, that’s my card!)

          9. I would pray that Jesus be more in my marriage.

          10. For my mom to get a job.

          11. For the Lord to repair the relationship between my father and brother. 

E. And then there was a card that had both of the above:

          12. For peace and for painless feet!

F. Just as Maple Grove has many food-related ministries, there were food-related prayers:

          13. That everyone in this world has enough to eat each day.

G. And finally there were many I might call prayers for transformation, for God to change who we are:

          14. That we as people of the world would be more willing to listen to each other without always wanting to judge. 

          15. Lord, please help our world leaders to be more understanding toward each other.  Amen?

 

          Today’s gospel story ends with Jesus saying, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”  Only through prayer—that’s where we’ll focus today.  But there are a couple of other sermons in this story before you get to that verse.  When the father tells Jesus how awful things sre for his son and how his disciples couldn’t do anything about it, Jesus says, “Bring him to me.”  When you’ve tried everything else, Jesus says, bring it to me.  So is your faith dried up and you’re filled with doubt?  “Bring it to me,” he says.  “Are you grieving?” Jesus asks—“Bring it to me.”  “Is your family in trouble and you don’t know what to do?  Bring it to me,” Jesus says.  Bring it to Jesus—that’s one sermon from this gospel story.

          Here’s another:  When the father takes his son to Jesus, he says, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us.”  Jesus says, “If I can—all things can be done for the one who believes.”  And the father lays it out there:  “I do believe;” he says, “help my unbelief.”  Faith, you see, isn’t something you either have or don’t have.  The boy’s father wasn’t sure that Jesus could help them; but he was at least hopeful, or he wouldn’t have been there.  I suspect that’s true for some of us:  we may not completely believe; but we at least want to believe, or we wouldn’t be here.  Faith can falter, to be sure.  What faith cannot do is despair; faith can’t give up.  That’s another sermon from this gospel story.

 

          But today’s sermon is about the end of this story— about the powerlessness of the disciples.  After Jesus cures the boy, they ask Jesus, “Why couldn’t we do it?” I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that:  Why can’t we do it?  We read these miraculous stories in the Bible . . . and we wonder.  We hear testimonies of people who overcome amazing obstacles . . . and we wonder.  Church conferences tell of congregations that double in size.  And we wonder, why can’t we do that?  Why do we feel so powerless?  

         

          Well, Jesus gives the answer:  “This kind,” he says, “can come out only through prayer.”  Only through prayer, is his answer.    Now, does that mean if we just pray hard enough, we’ll get anything we want?  Is God like a vending machine and if you put enough faith in the slot, you get whichever button you push?  Well, no.  That’s not what the gospel means by ‘prayer.’ 

          Notice that Jesus didn’t even pray for the boy right there on the spot.  He didn’t have to.  He was already prayed up.  Jesus didn’t mean that if in the moment when the boy was brought to them the disciples had just remembered to mumble a prayer that everything would have been great.  Prayer, for Jesus, isn’t something that happens in a moment; it is how you let God change you over the long haul.  “Prayer in Mark,” writes Lamar Williamson, “is not pious manipulation of God to get what we want, but communing with God in the wilderness . . . and wrestling alone in the night to submit one’s own will to that of God.”1

         

          Some things can be done, Jesus taught, only through prayer. The next time in Mark that Jesus talks about prayer is in chapter 11, where prayer is connected to “the power of belief.”  To pray, in Mark, is to learn to believe that the way things are is not the way they always have to be, that things that seem impossible can be transformed when brought to Jesus.2

          Years ago, New Testament scholar, Walter Wink, wrote a famous article about prayer.  He says that we don’t pray because we believe certain things about prayer; we pray because the struggle to be human requires it.3  Prayer, Wink says, is spiritual defiance of what is in the name of what God has promised.  And “miracle,” he teaches, is just a word we use for the things the powers-that-be have deluded us into thinking God can’t do.  Prayer feeds one’s belief and starves one’s unbelief.  Some thing can be done only through prayer.

 

          I sat on a bench outside the church with a man who’d come for AA.  He told me it was the tenth anniversary of his sobriety.  I congratulated him and asked how he’d done it.  “Well,” he said, “I prayed.  I didn’t ask God to make me sober; I knew I had to do that.  I asked God to help me believe it was possible to be sober.  And he did.”  Some thing can be done only through prayer.

          Maple Grove’s Finance Committee is asking us to support a 2018 budget that will be up at least 6%, so we can hire a part-time youth leader.  Which means that since some people can’t increase their giving and some people will inevitably die and move away, some of us will have to increase our giving more than 6% for that to happen.  Someone asked me if we should make a back-up plan for youth ministry in case we don’t get enough money.  I thought about that.  But I decided it seems better to pray for belief rather than plan for unbelief.  Some things can be done only through prayer.  This is one of them.

          In a moment the choir is going to sing an anthem called For Everyone Born. 

          For everyone born, a place at the table.

          For everyone born, clean water and bread,

          A shelter, a space, a safe place for growing.

         

          For just and unjust, a place at the table,

          Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,

          In anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy.

 

          It sounds like a pipedream, doesn’t it, in these bitter and divided times—a mindset of mercy, the just and unjust together, abuser and abused together with need to forgive.  A place at the table for black and white, for young and old, for those who kneel and those who stand, for ones we agree with and ones we don’t.  It seems impossible, doesn’t it?  So let’s take it to Jesus.  Some things can be done only through prayer.

 

          So let’s pray.  At 9:29 every day, morning and evening.  God wants to do BIG things.  And I want to let God do them.  Mark 9:29 to feed our faith and starve our unbelief.  Set your prayer alarms now for 9:29.  Some things can be done only through prayer.

 

1 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), 166.

2 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 255.

3 Walter Wink, “Prayer: History Belongs to the Intercessors, Co-creating with God through Prayer,” Sojourners (October 1990), 10-14.

 

Matthew 20:1-16

God’s Big Love / Even Our Virtues Burned Away

September 24, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          The Parable of the Landowner is . . . upsetting.  It’s unfair and unrealistic, and no way to run a business.  Fortunately, it wasn’t intended as payroll advice.  The story is intended to tell us about the kingdom of heaven--that is, to tell us about God and about our life together with God. 

          Let me share with you three things this parable suggests to me about the God Jesus wants us to know:

  1. God is more concerned with grace and love than with work and worth.  I know, we’ve heard that before, right?  We’re saved by grace through faith, not by works lest anyone should boast.  We say we believe that, and probably we do.  But when Jesus puts it in the form of this story, it catches our attention, doesn’t it? 

     God doesn’t give us good things because we’ve worked for them, but because we need them and because God loves us.  And God doesn’t give some of us more good things because we’ve done more for God; God gives each of us what we need because God loves us.  God’s grace doesn’t keep score.  Grace doesn’t track our hours.  Grace doesn’t rank us by merit or worth.  Grace is simply given to us because God loves us.  That’s one thing this parable tells us about God.

  1. God works out of an assumption of abundance.  God created everything and called it all “very good.”  When there were 5000 people and not much food, the disciples were afraid there wasn’t enough.  But Jesus believed, and there was enough for everyone and baskets left over—an abundance!  In the parable, not only did the landowner have enough to pay the first workers a denarius, or the usual daily wage, turns out he had enough to pay all the workers that much—an abundance! 

     And an assumption of abundance leads to generosity.  Having more than enough, God just lavishes love around.  Children often fear that if their parents have another child, there will be less love for them.  But at least with the best of parents, that’s not how it works.  There’s enough love for the first child and the new baby, and the next, and even the next.  God’s love is not a limited supply, but a boundless ocean, and therefore God can be as generous as God chooses to be.

  1. Finally this:  God’s main concern is not making a profit, nor getting in the crop, but the people.  The landowner doesn’t hire more workers because he needs them, but because they need him.  One commentator says: this is a story “about a God who wants everyone in the vineyard.”1  God is not concerned that everyone work hard.  God doesn’t care if the process is unfair.  God doesn’t mind if unworthy people sneak in.  God just wants everyone in.  God is like the grandma who is not content until every son and every daughter, every grandchild and every cousin, until everyone is at the table.  To grandma, old disputes don’t matter, how far you have to drive doesn’t matter, the fact that some brought food and helped cook while some just plopped down in a chair doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that everyone is at the table. That’s what God is like.

 

          Now if we learned things only about God in this parable, it would be an interesting little story, pleasant even.  The difficulty in the story, the rub,  is that we also learn things about ourselves--unflattering things, uncomfortable things.  Or let me not speak for you:  I learn unflattering and uncomfortable things about myself from this story.

  1. For example, God is more concerned with grace and love than with work and worth.  And I love that about God, but there’s something inside me that doesn’t like that, that resents that about God.  I’m not the only one who felt that way, am I?  When you, who had worked all day, found out the landowner was paying those who’d only worked an hour or two the usual daily wage, you began to expect a little something extra in your paycheck, right?  And when you didn’t get it, you felt, what? Angry?  Cheated?  Taken advantage of?  I mean, yes, we got what we agreed to.  Yes, it’s a reasonable wage.  The trouble isn’t what I got.  The trouble is what they got—unearned, unfair.  I mean, if it’s going to be like that, why did I bother to work all day?  What life lesson does this teach those freeloaders?  We think we’re in favor of God’s grace . . . until someone else receives it.  And then it doesn’t sit quite right.
  2. Here’s a second thing we learn about ourselves from this story:  while God has an assumption of abundance, we have a model of scarcity.  Those who worked all day felt like they had less when those who worked fewer hours got the same amount.  Even though they had exactly what they’d been promised, an amount they’d once been happy with, it felt like less when someone else got it too.

     We’re like that, aren’t we?  Cathy Davis and I went to a seminar on “Healthy Relationships,” and the leader talked about how if your friend develops another relationship, you’re afraid you’ll get less friendship from them because someone else is getting friendship from them too. Of course, that’s probably not true.  Your friend may become an even better, more caring person because of this other relationship.  Maybe we can all three hang out together, and you’ll have more friendship.  But we still feel that way.  It’s a model of scarcity.

  1. Finally, God just wants everyone to be in the vineyard.  And we want that too . . . sort of.  But we also want to be special.  When those who worked all day grumbled to the landowner, they said, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”  They didn’t mind if these lesser creatures got in the vineyard; they just didn’t want to be their equals.  They wanted to be, well, special.  I know, it doesn’t sound very flattering when put that way.  But you felt it, didn’t you?

 

          If this were the only place in the Bible where Jesus said things like this, I might just let it pass, not bother point these things out to you.  But of course, there’s the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the father forgives his wayward younger son and kills for him the fatted calf, only to have his hard-working older son complain, “Hey, where's my fatted calf?  What am I, chopped liver?”  And essentially the father tells him to get over it and welcome back his brother.

          Jesus praises the idle sister Mary over the hard-working sister Martha, and it doesn’t sit well with Martha.  Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners and tells the rich to give away what they’ve earned.  He makes the hero of his story not the well-respected priest or Levite, but a despised Samaritan.  And he says he came not for the righteous and the well, but for sinners and the sick.  We pastors, of course, prefer the hard-working, the righteous and the well.  It just goes to show you, if you needed further proof, that pastors aren’t Jesus.

 

          Flannery O’Connor writes in one of her short stories about a comfortable, middle-class Southern lady--with 1950’s attitudes--Mrs. Turpin. She liked to thank Jesus for not making her poor or too rich, for not making her lazy or black, and especially for not making her white-trash.  Mrs. Turpin has a humiliating experience, which shakes her sense of superiority.  And at the end of the story, this experience results in a vision:

          There was only a purple streak in the sky, writes O’Connor, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. . .  She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of Blacks in white robes. . . And, last of all, bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and her husband, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable and respectable as they had always been. . .  They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.  In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. 

          At length she got down . . . and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house.  In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward in the starry field and shouting hallelujah.2

 

          And we want to say, “But I want to be more than just “in.”  I’ve worked all these hours.  I’ve got all these lovely virtues.”  But then we notice that even our virtues have been burned away, useless.  We might want to say, “I’m not sure I even want to be in, if those people are going to be in too.”

          But God just says, “That’s okay.  You don’t have to want to be in.  But you’re still in, because I love you.”  

 

          If God’s love is at the heart of our life together, then what we have to do is let God’s love be at the heart of our life together.  Not our hard work, not our fine virtues, not our rules and our superior opinions.  You’re in because God loves you.  And I’m in because God loves me, but I’m no more or no less in than you.  And the person you least want to be in is also in, because God loves them.  We have to let God’s love be at the heart of our life together. . .  It’s harder than it might seem.

 

1 Craig Kocher, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (September 9, 2008), 2.

2 Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” Everything That Rises Must Converge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965).

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness for the Sake of All

September 17, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          One time an extended family member struck my mother in the face—hard enough to knock her down, make her bleed, and give her a black eye.  This was a dear family member, who loved my parents deeply but also had a violent temper.  He was immediately remorseful; nothing like that ever happened again.  But there were serious consequences—he was not allowed  in my parents’ home for a long time.  Eventually they worked things out and forged a new relationship.

          Years later, though, I was talking about that family member with my parents.  I said some uncharitable things about him.  My mother stopped the conversation, looked intently at me, and said, “Glenn, you’ve got to forgive him.”

          I said, “I have.”

          “No,” she said, “you haven’t.”

          I thought about that and said, “Okay, what of it?  Why should I forgive him?  He hit my mother, and that will never be okay.”

          She said, “No, that will never be okay.  But you’ve got to forgive him for the sake of the family.  He is and always will be a member of our family, just like you.  And the whole family depends on you forgiving him.”

         

          Desmond Tutu has written a magnificent book called No Future Without Forgiveness, describing the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after apartheid.  For decades White people controlled, segregated, deprived and traumatized Blacks and what were then “Colored” people in South Africa.  White military and White police officers beat Blacks for the fun of it.  White authorities made Black activists “disappear.”  Sometimes brutalized Blacks struck back at Whites. 

          So when apartheid ended in 1991, the question was, how would majority Blacks treat the minority Whites who had oppressed them for so long?  Besides vengeance and retaliation, which everyone knew would be catastrophic, history, Tutu writes, presented two models:

  • something like the Nuremberg trials after WWII, where Nazis were hunted down and put on trial for war crimes

Instead, South Africa chose what Tutu calls a “third way”—Truth and Reconciliation.  If perpetrators of violence would publicly confess their crimes and apologize, they would be forgiven and given a fresh start in society.  The Truth and Reconciliation process was gut-wrenching and imperfect, Tutu admits.  But “on its success,” he writes, hinges “the survival of our nation . . .  It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people, because without forgiveness . . . we have no future.”1

 

               Today’s Gospel reading is a famous teaching on forgiveness.  Just before today’s reading, Jesus lays out his four-step process for dealing with conflict.  This process involves confrontation and accountability for bad behavior, but it also requires forgiveness and reconciliation.  Jesus’ teaching apparently makes Peter a little nervous.  He asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times would I have to forgive someone—as many as, say, seven times?  Seven is a good biblical number.  But Jesus says, “No, not seven, but 77 times.”  Your translation may not say 77 times; it may read 70 times 7 times, or 490 times.  The original Greek can be read either way.  And it doesn’t make any difference.  It’s a number too high to keep track of.  As Martin Luther put it, “Forgiveness is not an occasional art, it is a permanent attitude.”2

 

               There are many reasons it’s important, even necessary, to forgive others.

  • One reason is that Jesus told us to.  For Christians, forgiving others is not a suggestion, it’s a commandment.  Jeanne Bishop’s husband and pregnant sister were shot and left to bleed to death, and the killer showed no remorse.  But Jeanne says, “I have to forgive [their] killer . . . not because he has an excuse—he has none whatsoever.  I forgive not because he asked for it; he has not. . .  Rather I forgive for the One who asked me to and taught me to.”3  One reason to forgive is that Jesus told us to.
  • But sometimes, we do forgive because others need it.  A friend told me that the teenager next door backed into his car.  And every time the kid saw him after that, he’d apologize all over again, “Mr. Jones, I’m so sorry about your car.”  Every time.  Finally my friend said, “Taylor, look at me.  It was a mistake.  You learned a lesson.  I forgive you.”  And the kid never mentioned it again.  Sometimes we forgive because others need to be forgiven.
  • Third, we forgive others so we can be forgiven.  It’s in the Lord’s Prayer:  “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Now, surely it isn’t that God won’t forgive us until we forgive others.  It’s that we can’t really receive forgiveness while we’re holding onto our resentment and bitterness towards others.  We forgive so we can receive forgiveness.
  • Finally, we forgive as part of our own healing, to no longer be controlled by past traumas. Jack Kornfield tells of two ex-prisoners of war who meet after many years. When the first one asks, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” the second man answers, “No, never.”  “Well then,” the first man replies, “they still have you in prison.”4 We forgive to set our own spirits free.

 

          All of those are good reasons to forgive.  But in light of our theme of “God-Centered Wellbeing and Community,” there’s one more reason:  We forgive others for the good of all, for the sake of the community, whether that community is your family, the church, our country, or what have you.  If we are going to live together, we have to find a way to forgive one another. 

          Now, I’m going to start by remembering what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not forgetting—besides being impossible, forgiveness is about dealing with what happened, not forgetting it.  Forgiveness is not letting people get away with things—Jesus commands us to forgive 77 times, but in the context of confronting and holding people accountable for their behavior.  Forgiveness does not mean staying with someone who’s hurting you—you can forgive and protect yourself.  There’s much more to say here, but I want to save a few minutes to think about why and how forgiveness is important in community.

  1. For one thing, forgiveness rids a community of the poison of bitterness and resentment.  That’s what my mother was talking about—my anger at that family member was affecting the whole family.  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  If Paul had heard about these two women’s disagreement in prison hundreds of miles away, clearly their dispute was no longer just personal.  It was poisoning the whole church. They needed to work things out for the good of all the Philippians.
  2. Forgiveness is—at least partly--a community act.  In its context in the gospel, the question isn’t simply, “How many times do I personally have to forgive someone who sins against me?”  The question is, “How many times should the community follow Jesus’ four-step process for dealing with trouble in the church?  How many times should we confront and restore those who cause pain?”5  The burden of forgiving is not just on you or on me, but on us together.

     That’s why every time someone is baptized here, we say together, “We will surround this child, this person, with a community of love and forgiveness. . .”  We become forgiving individuals by being part of a forgiving community.  When I am unforgiving or you are unforgiving, how will our children know that forgiveness is the heart of the gospel?

  1.  Finally, forgiveness is the only way people can be restored to community.  Chris Dorsey points out that the king in Jesus’ parable forgave the enormous debt of the first slave because it was “important to the king that the slave and his family . . . continue as productive members of the community.”6 Sure, you can throw a debtor in prison, but how does that help the productivity of the country?  Sure you can ostracize and stay angry at someone who hurts your feelings, but how does that help the community?

     And this restoration to community works in both directions.  Miroslav Volf says that when I refuse to forgive, I exclude my enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.7 When we refuse to forgive, we think that we’re punishing and excluding the other person.  And we are.  What we fail to realize is that we are punishing and excluding ourselves to exactly the same extent.  “Our inability to forgive,” writes Chris Dorsey, “is just as disruptive to community as the original transgression.” 

 

          Forgiveness removes poison from the community.  Forgiveness is what Christians do together, what we receive from God and model for our children.  And forgiveness is the only way to restore others and ourselves to community.  No wonder Jesus said, “How many times do you need to forgive?  As many as it takes.  As many as it takes.”

 

 

1Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 165.

2 Alive Now (March/April 2003), 5.

3 John M. Buchanan, “A Historic Ban,” Editor’s Desk, The Christian Century (April 5, 2011), 3.

4 https://jackkornfield.com/the-practice-of-forgiveness/.

5 See Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation 54/2 (April 2000), 152.

6 Chris Dorsey, Living By the Word, The Christian Century (August 30, 2017), 18.

7 Miroslav Volf, “Overcoming the Double Exclusion,” Circuit Rider (March/April 2003), 17.

Matthew 18:15-20

Reconciliation 101

September 10, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Loving and hopeful as he was, Jesus was not naïve about the church.  Or if he was, he took off his rose-colored glasses before sharing today’s gospel reading.  “When another member of the church sins against you,” he says, here’s what you should do.  And if they keep on sinning against you, here’s what else to do. . .”  Even before there was such a thing as “the church,” Jesus was already giving a process for resolving conflicts in the church.  In fact, this is the one and only time Jesus himself ever uses the word “church”—when he’s teaching how to resolve conflicts in the church.1  Blest Be the Tie That Binds we’ll sing today.  And those ties are indeed blest, but they are blest because they are not automatic, because they cannot be taken for granted.  The ties that bind our hearts in Christian love are precious precisely because they are tender and fragile.

 

          (As an aside before we dig in, your own Bible translation may say, “If your brother sins against you” instead of “If a member of the church sins against you.”  Literally, the Greek says “your brother.”  But it’s clear from the context that Jesus is talking not about family relationships, but church relationships.  Matthew uses the word “brother” to refer to fellow believers, both male and female.  So “member of the church” is not a perfect translation, but is probably the best we can do.  Just so you know.)

 

          So . . . if a member of the church sins against you . . . Jesus lays out a four-step process for dealing with it. 

  1. First, go to that person one on one, privately.  Work it out yourselves. 
  2. If that doesn’t work, take two or three others with you, as witnesses.  Maybe that will get the person’s attention. 
  3. And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says, take it to the whole church—let everyone know what’s going on.  Surely that will change the person’s behavior.
  4. And if even that doesn’t work, he says, then let that person be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector, an outsider. 

I have to admit, this whole thing sounds harsh to me.  First of all, you’re not supposed to just let stuff go?  Jesus wants you to confront folks about their bad behavior?  Yikes.  And then he wants you to involve others in that conflict and make a public deal out of it?  Double yikes.  And then you’re allowed, essentially, to kick the person out.  Excommunicate, the Catholics call it.  Shun them, the Amish say.  Big time yikes.

          The whole business just sounded harsh to me upon first reading.  And second reading.  And third.  I mean we’re talking about the possibility of putting people out of the church here.  But the more time I spent with this scripture, the less harsh and the more loving it began to sound to me.  Let me tell you why.

         

          First, at least in Jesus’ plan the conflict is addressed, everything is out in the open.  I’ll admit to you, and many of you already know, that I am of the “ostrich” school of dealing with conflict.  The hope is that if you bury your head in the sand long enough, when you finally come up for air, maybe the conflict will have magically disappeared.  Please don’t ask me how well that works. You already know.  At least Jesus’ plan has a chance to deal with conflict positively; not dealing with it has a 0% chance of that.

 

          But here’s the thing:  clearly the goal of Jesus’ process is not punishment, though it could result in that.  The goal is not to remove someone from the fellowship, though in extreme cases that could happen.  And the goal is certainly not get revenge or to shame anyone—revenge is easy; this process is hard.  No, clearly the goal of all this is reconciliation, the healing of a troubled relationship, preserving the wellbeing of the whole community by putting out little fires before they become big fires.  In my initial readings of this scripture, I got hung up on the punishment part; Jesus is hung up on restoring relationships. 

          The context in Matthew’s gospel makes this even clearer.  Just prior to this scripture is the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  If a shepherd has 100 sheep and one goes astray, what does he do?  He leaves the 99 and searches for the one until he finds it. It’s all about reconciliation.  For Jesus it’s restoring relationships that matters.

          And right after today’s scripture Peter asks Jesus, How many times do I have to forgive a “brother,” that is, a member of the church?  As many as seven times?  No, Jesus says, not seven, but 77 times.  Not even 77 offenses is allowed to come between “brothers” of the faith.  For Jesus it’s restoring relationships that matters.

          Mennonite pastor, Arthur Boers, notes three errors people make when applying Jesus’ process from Matthew 18:

  1. Focusing on punishing a person rather than reconciling with a person
  2. Concentrating on the offense rather than the person
  3. Worrying more about rules and standards than about the person.2

In other words, if you’re focusing on the person, you’re probably doing it right.  For Jesus it’s relationships that matter.

 

          Here’s something else about Jesus’ four-step process:  When you confront a member of the church who has sinned against you, Jesus says, “if the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to,” then take it to the next level.  What the offended person can expect from the other person is simply to be listened to.  Jesus doesn’t say that the other person will always agree with your point of view.  He doesn’t say they have to change everything you don’t like.  He just says they have to listen to you.  Reconciliation may be less about changing other people than about simply listening to one another.  I can’t promise you that I’ll always agree with you.  I can’t promise I can change everything you don’t like about me.  But I can listen to you.  It’s about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.

 

          And this:  even what I took to be the harshest part of Jesus’ conflict resolution process—to let someone be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector—even that isn’t as harsh as I was making it out to be.  I took this to mean removing someone from the church community, and maybe it does mean that.  But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?  He invited them to dinner, and he called them down from sycamore trees, and he even asked one tax collector—Matthew--to be his disciple.  In other words, when someone sins against you and won’t listen to you, what do you to?  You love them all the more!  You go out of your way to bring them back in.  It’s about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.

 

          Before wrapping up today on God-Centered Wellbeing and Community, I just want to point out a couple of limitations with Jesus’ model for resolving conflicts.

  • First, in Matthew 18 it perfectly seems clear who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s done the sinning and who’s been sinned against.  But we all know it’s not always quite that clear.  I can think of several times when I thought sure I was the one who’d been sinned against, and lo and behold, the other person didn’t see it that way.  Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says to first take the log out your own eye before offering to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  No, you don’t need to shy away from confronting someone who sins against you.  I’m just saying, oftentimes there’s more than one sinner in any crowd of two people.  And what matters most isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong.  What matters most is reconciliation.  For Jesus it’s relationships that matter.
  • And finally this: so many of our conflicts in the church aren’t really about one person “sinning” against another.  Our conflicts are about differing points of view, different visions of the church, different cultural or political or theological assumptions.  We have conflict not just because one person treats another person badly.  That happens, of course.  But more often we have conflict, for example, because we have different understandings of human sexuality.  Or because different things make us feel safe in the church.  Or because we like to sing different kinds of church music.  We’re not so much sinners and those sinned against; we’re brothers and sisters in Christ with different points of view.  Communications consultant, Nate Regier, has offered a four-point strategy for dealing with these types of conflicts:
  1. “Share how you feel about the conflict.”  It’s okay to talk about controversial things, so long as you don’t insist that everyone think and feel the same way you do.
  2. “Suggest what you are willing to do to work on the conflict.”  It’s amazing what others are willing to do to work on a conflict if they see you working on it first.
  3. “Discern and share what is at stake for you in [the conflict].”  If you can be clear and honest about why something is important to you, others may understand you better, have more empathy.
  4. “Temporarily suspend your own agenda in the conflict and listen to the other’s agenda.”3  And now we’re back to last Sunday and putting others first. 

          In the last verse of this scripture, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We know that Jesus is with us everywhere, all the time—when we are pray and when we are at work, when we are sleeping and when we are awake.  But Jesus promised to be with us when we are working out conflicts in the church, when we are reconciling with one another.  The gospel is all about reconciliation; for Jesus it’s relationships that matter.  How is that for God-Centered Wellbeing and Community?

 

1 John Howard Yoder.  Quoted in Arthur Paul Boers, Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute, 1999), 88.

2 Boers, 89.

3 The Christian Century (August 30, 2017), 9.

Matthew 16:21-28

Life Is For Others

September 3, 2017

          Today’s reading is a watershed passage in Matthew.  Up to this point Jesus has called his disciples; he has taught and healed.  But in chapter 16 he gets down to brass tacks.  He asks the disciples if they know who he is.  And Peter gets it right:  You’re the Messiah, the Son of God.  But Peter didn’t get right what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.  When Jesus starts talking about suffering and death, Peter says, “No way, Jesus.  Not you!”  So from this point on, Jesus prepares the disciples for exactly that--his suffering and death.  Oh . . . and that to be his followers means denying themselves and taking up their own crosses.  This is a watershed moment in the gospel; no passage in Matthew is more important than this one.1

          This passage has many things to teach us, depending on our questions and needs. We could have turned to this scripture during our study on overcoming fear.  In Jesus’ time, of course, the cross was not yet a religious symbol.  It was a method of execution used by the Romans to intimidate and terrorize people.  Barbara Taylor says the cross was used to reinforce the idea that pain and death are the worst things in the world and that people should do anything to avoid them.  By telling his disciples to take up their cross, Jesus defied that idea.  In fact, he says, there are worse things than death in the world, and living in perpetual fear is one of those things.  Instead of running away from what makes you afraid, Jesus says, pick it up, take it on.  Instead of surrendering yourself to fear, surrender yourself to God.  That’s one lesson from this scripture.2

          Or we might bring to this scripture the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” That’s a big questions. Here is Matthew’s answer:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and especially follow Jesus.  Matthew defines faith not by what you believe, but by whether or not you follow Jesus.  I know that ‘believe’ is an important word in other parts of the Bible, in John’s gospel, for example.  But never once in Matthew does Jesus ever ask anyone to believe in him or to believe anything about him.  To be a Christian, for Matthew, is to do what Jesus did, to love the way Jesus loved, to follow him. That’s another lesson from this scripture.

               So today, in this worship series, we bring to this scripture the question, What does this passage have to say about God-Centered Wellbeing and Community? What does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart, not just each of us of our own lives, but at the heart of our life together?

          And the answer is:  to put others first.  In the words of Jesus, to “deny yourself.”  I’m aware that this verse has been used in hurtful ways, especially against women and minorities.  When people of greater power use this phrase “deny yourself” to keep people of less power down, that does not enhance community and does not keep God’s love at the center of life.  But to “deny yourself” does not mean to beat yourself up, or to fail to take care of yourself, or to look down on yourself.  To “deny yourself” means to subordinate your own will to God’s will (which of course is always a loving and life-affirming will).3 In other words, to “deny yourself” is to put God’s love at the heart not just of your own life, but at the heart of our life together. 

          We can tell that denying ourselves is life-affirming because Jesus says that those who “lose” their lives for his sake will actually “find” their lives.  Self-denial is actually the way to the greatest possible fulfillment.  “Denying yourself” doesn’t mean that you don’t get to do fun things; it means being set free to do the things that matter most.

          So what does it look like, this Christian denying of self?  Let me paint you a few pictures that I came across this past week. 

  • I read about a representative of Teach America at Duke University.4 Teach American recruits graduates from prestigious colleges to go into some of our poorest public schools. She stood in front of these Duke seniors and said, “I can tell by looking at you I’ve probably come to the wrong place. You’re all headed to Silicon Valley and Wall Street. And here I am, trying to get you to go to rural West Virginia and South L.A. to teach in dangerous schools for almost no money. I’m probably in the wrong place, but if by chance, some of you happen to be interested, I’ve got these brochures about Teach America. Meeting’s over.”

              And she was mobbed by students, fighting over those brochures. Now whatever you think Teach America, and I know some educators have objections, the point is that these privileged 22 year-olds were ready to deny themselves, eager to put others’ needs ahead of their own, to put God’s love at the heart of our life together. And not because they wanted to lose their own lives; but precisely because they wanted to find their own lives.

             

  • Chris Anderson, a Roman Catholic deacon, tells of an elderly church member dying in a dark, fetid room. His daughter caress for him tenderly, even though he was a harsh man and abused her and her mother. He had been in combat in war, and maybe that was it. But now he is dying, and his daughter is with him.

    Anderson came to read Psalms to him it seemed to soothe and comfort the dying man. But later, Anderson reports, the man opens his eyes and croaks out two words to his daughter. You witch, he says, only it’s not really ‘witch’ that he says.

    Now who knows what going through this man’s mind. Maybe he wasn’t seeing his daughter at all. Maybe he was talking to Death or something from the war decades ago. But that’s what he said: You witch. And this is what his daughter does. She rises from her chair, leans over the bed, and whispers in his ear: Daddy, I love you. And then he died.

    The last thing this man ever said was vulgar and angry and abusive. But that wasn’t the last thing he ever heard.5 She chose, in a way, to deny herself, to take the way of love and forgiveness, for the sake of everyone, for the sake of generations to come, to rise above bitterness and revenge. But not in any way to lose her own life, but precisely to find it, to be free, to set God’s love at the heart of our life together.

  • Just this past week I heard an interview with a homeowner near Houston. Her house had not yet been damaged, but authorities had come to evacuate her because they were going to release water from a reservoir upstream. They were going to intentionally flood her home in order to save other homes. She was in tears as she carried a few treasured belongings to a truck. And here is what she said: “It breaks my heart to think of losing this home where I raised my family. But we’re in this together, and if I have to lose my home so that other people can save theirs, that’s what I’ll do.” She denied herself. She placed God’s love at the center of her entire community. But she did not lose herself—no, far from it. She found her truest and holiest self in the dirty waters of Hurricane Harvey.

    Here’s how the Prayer of St. Francis puts it:

    O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

    to be consoled as to console;

    to be understood as to understand;

    to be loved as to love;

    For it is in giving that we receive;

    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

    it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

In just a moment we'll come to the table where we will rehearse the story of Jesus giving himself for us, offering for us his very body and blood. And here is the prayer that we will pray when we are finished:

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery

   in which you have given yourself to us. 

Grant that we may go into the world

   in the strength of your Spirit,

   to give ourselves for others. 

Do I hear an Amen?

What does denying oneself and taking up one’s cross have to do with God-Centered Wellbeing and Community? Only everything.  Only putting others ahead of ourselves.  Not to lose ourselves, but to find our truest and holiest selves.

 

1 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 193.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Pick Up Your Cross,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering, The Teaching Sermon Series (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 59.

3 See Hare, 195.

4 William H. Willimon, “The Journey,” Pulpit Resource (28/3, July, August, September 2000), 50.

5 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God Everywhere (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 50-51.

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