Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Bridges of Reconciliation (Part 1)

May 6, 2018         Maple Grove UMC

 

To build bridges of healing, compassion, and justice

through our relationships with God, self, and others.

               That is Maple Grove’s new Vision Statement. It’s visionary language because it invites us to see the world a new way—to see all our ministries, everything we do, as bridges to God, and bridges to lonely, hurting people. These words invite us to look for what we need in order to draw closer to God and one another. They inspire us to see our own lives as bridges to reach others with healing, compassion and justice.

          We begin this worship series on Building Bridges with 2 Corinthians 5 and the bridge of reconciliation. Be reconciled to God, Paul writes, and be ambassadors of reconciliation to others. Surely in these angry, divisive and polarized times, what the world needs now is not just love sweet love, but the special form of love called reconciliation. Reconciliation can be as big as the generations of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the endless bloodshed in Syria.

          It can also be as close as home. I’ve heard that there are spouses (this would never happen in the parsonage, you understand!) who after angry words have been exchanged and both spouses have reason to feel hurt, each one will lie on their own side of the bed, backs turned to one another, arms crossed, neither one saying a word, each one waiting for the other to make the first move. Until perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, perhaps days later, one finally reaches a hand across the divide, just letting it rest on the other’s shoulder. That hand is the bridge of reconciliation.

 

          2 Corinthians was written during a period of intense conflict between the apostle Paul and the church at Corinth. Paul was an early hero in that church; he spent more time there, I believe, than anywhere else besides Ephesus. But after he left, other teachers came to Corinth, teachers who disagreed with Paul and disparaged his character. Many of the Corinthians turned against Paul. One of them treated Paul so harshly that even other critics of Paul had to rein him in. Paul had intended to visit Corinth once, maybe even more, but so great was the conflict that Paul canceled these visits and sent Titus instead.

          This letter, 2 Corinthians, is Paul’s olive branch to the Corinthian church, his attempt to patch things up, and chapter 5 is the high point of his appeal. Now, in the midst of this conflict, we might expect Paul to say something like, “Come on, Corinthians, let’s be reconciled to each other.” But instead Paul says, “Come on, Corinthians, let’s all be reconciled to God.” Paul understood that Christians cannot claim peace with God unless we are at peace with one another. And when we are truly reconciled to God, peace with one another will follow.1

              

               2 Corinthians 5 is a treasure chest of good theology about reconciliation:

  • In terms of our relationship with God, note that it’s not that God needs to be reconciled to us; it’s that we need to be reconciled to God. Sometimes we think God is angry about our sins and that we need to appease God or win God over with our repentance and faith. But the truth is, God doesn’t need to change at all. God is always standing there with open arms, ready to receive us home. In fact, Paul says, God has already reconciled the whole world through Christ—all that remains is for us to take God’s hand.
  • And in terms of our relationships with one another, Paul insists in 2 Corinthians 5:14 that Christ died for all, for everyone without exception. In other words, Christ died for me and Christ died for the people with whom I have conflict. Therefore, I can’t relate to those people only in terms of our disagreement; I have to relate to them as persons for whom Jesus gave his life. That puts our conflict in a different perspective.

     Paul is saying not that Christians need some day to be reconciled to one another, but that in Christ reconciliation has already been accomplished. If anyone is in Christ, he says, everything old has passed away. There is a new creation, a new world to live in. Therefore, as one Bible scholar has put it, the old conflicts, like our old sins, have passed away. Like it or not, I am “already reconciled to my neighbor who is now my brother or my sister.” When we keep our eyes on Christ, our Reconciler, we have no time for enmity, no energy for hostility, for everything has been made new.2

 

          That’s the theology. Here’s what it looks like in real life. In the Walking While Black film that we showed last weekend, there is the story of a white police officer who, feeling pressure to get convictions and get bad guys off the street, was persuaded to falsify evidence against an African-American suspect. An innocent man went to prison, and it wasn’t until four years later that the cop ‘fessed up and the man was released. When he got out of prison, the man confronted the now former officer, demanding to know why he’d lied. The former cop first apologized but then said some things that made matters worse, and the two parted with one still bitterly angry and the other feeling guilty and helpless. Years later, by chance, these two men got assigned to work together one-on-one, and they stood there staring at each other. “I figured I was going to take a beating,” the white man says. “I deserved to take a beating.” Instead the black man from whom he’d taken four years of his life, reached out and hugged him, forgave him, became his friend and coworker. Why? Because, he said, “We’re brothers now. Brothers in Christ. All that happened in the old life; there’s a new creation now.” Through Christ God has reconciled us to himself and given us the ministry of reconciliation. I hope you’ll see the film when we show it again June 21.

 

          Reconciliation is not a passive experience, it is an intentional activity. We don’t get to lie back on our side of the bed, arms crossed, waiting for someone else will make the first move. Rather, in Christ we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ—God sends us out as agents of reconciliation.

 

          This scripture has been working on me for weeks now. So here is how I have been an ambassador for Christ this week. I am painfully aware that over seven years as your pastor, I have done and said things that caused people pain. I’m also aware that others have said and done things that hurt my feelings. And whose fault it is—that’s always hard to say, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. All that happened in the old life; in Christ there is a new creation. Christ died for those who have hurt others and for those who have been hurt; we’re all sisters and brothers in Christ. Reconciliation isn’t a passive experience, it’s an intentional action. So this week I sent hand-written letters to several people at Maple Grove, people with whom I’ve had conflict—asking their forgiveness, offering my forgiveness, seeking to build a bridge over all that might hold us apart. I admit—it was hard to do. But I couldn’t preach this sermon to you until I had done that.

          All too often, we lie in bed, turned away from each other, arms crossed, waiting for someone else to make the first move. Well, in Christ, God always makes the first move. And we are ambassadors of that God. I’ve told you what I did this week, as an ambassador for Christ, as an agent of reconciliation. You too, are an ambassador for Christ. What will you do? What bridge of reconciliation will you build for God this week?

1 Drawn from Ernest Best, Second Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 58.

2 Glenn T. Miller, “2 Corinthians 5:11 – 6:13,” Interpretation 54/2 (April 2000), 186-88.

Confirmation Sunday

April 29, 2018

Maple Grove UMC

 

8:30

 

          At second service, I’ll share three things I wish I’d learned in Confirmation forty years ago—maybe you want to come back.  Here at first service, when we’ll present each youth a Wesley Study Bible, I want to share a one-minute message on each of the twelve scriptures the youth shared today—okay, maybe two minutes on each. 

          We used a new Confirmation curriculum this time called “Confirm Not Conform.”  The emphasis is not on the pastors telling youth what they’re supposed to believe, but on youth discerning what they do believe.  So we did not just assign each of them a scripture.  Each youth worked with their Confirmation mentor to select their own scripture, and they told you why they chose that scripture.  I’m going to pick each youth’s scripture out of a hat and share a few words them about it.  You all can listen in:

 

Genesis 1:21-31 (Jennie)

          Genesis 1 is sometimes treated as if it were a scientific explanation of how the earth came to be.  But it’s not—it was composed centuries before science existed.  It’s also sometimes called a creation “story.”  But it’s really not a story, exactly.  What it is, is poetry, or better yet liturgy, the language of worship.  And what this liturgy says is this:  what God made is good, it is good, and behold, it is very good.  Sometimes we get to thinking that God cares only about so-called spiritual things—souls, feelings, beliefs.  Genesis 1 says that’s not true—God created and cares about the physical word.  Therefore, Jennie, our relationship with God includes rescuing animals from harm, preventing pollution, and saving the planet from Climate Change.  Why? Because what God made is good.

 

1 Samuel 2:1-5 (Sasha)

          Samuel’s mother, Hannah, was barren, never expected to have a child.  So when she did, in 1 Samuel 2, she sang a song of praise to God.   But it’s a surprising song of praise for a child.  Hannah sings that rich people will end up starving and the poor will have more than enough.  Sounds like revolution to me!  Over and over, the Bible insists that God cares for the poor; there’s no excuse for leaving people hungry.  You may have kids of your own some day, Sasha.  Teach them songs of praise.  But I hope you’ll also teach them songs of justice, that God cares for the poor.

 

 

 

 

Psalm 23 (Matthew)

          Matthew, the world can be a stressful place, can’t it?  That’s why God gave us the 23rd Psalm—something to turn to when you’re nervous and afraid.  Even when bullies are all around you and you don’t know the answers to the test, the Lord is your shepherd, so it’s going to be all right.  Even in the face of death, God is with you; it’s going to be all right.  The youth asked Cathy and me why we wanted them to memorize their scriptures.  Because what you’ve memorized is with you everywhere, all the time.  And Matthew, everywhere and all the time—that’s when you need to know that the Lord is your shepherd, and it’s going to be all right.

 

Psalms 46:1-6, 9-10 (Nina)

          Nina, Psalm 46 is one of my very favorite psalms.  It helps me not to be so afraid, to feel calmer in the face of troubles.  It helps me breathe deeper, worry less, and trust God more.  It says:  Be still and know that I am God.  Will you do that, Nina?  Will you do that, everyone?  No, not later.  I mean, right now.  Will you take a moment right now to be still and know that God is God? . . . Here’s the thing—you can do that anywhere, anytime.  Just be still for a moment, and let God be God.

 

 

Psalm 103:3-14 (Simon)

          Psalm 103 is about mercy.  The older I get, the more I realize I need mercy.  I get tired and need the mercy of rest.  I mess up and need the mercy of forgiveness.  Times are divisive and I need the mercy of overlooking disagreements.  And the older I get, the more I realize the people around me need mercy.  Sure, sometimes people need guidance and accountability and correction.  But mostly mercy.  Simon, I hope you get the mercy you need, and I hope you’ll all live lives of mercy.

            

 

Proverbs 4:1-9 (Julian)

          This was Julian’s scripture.  All I can say, Dimitri and Amy, is that when, out of the entire Bible, your 13 year-old son selects a scripture about paying attention to his parents and following their instruction, you’re doing something right.  I’m just saying.

 

 

 

Proverbs 29:11-20 (Wyatt)

Wyatt was one of three youth who chose scriptures from the Proverbs.  Two others also chose verses that are rules or practical advice.  The common wisdom is it that youth don’t like rules.  But maybe, parents, that common wisdom is incorrect.  Sure, maybe we have to let youth have a hand in shaping the rules.  But maybe they want rules more than we think. 

 

 

Sirach 27:4-12 (Helen)

          I had to search for Helen’s scripture.  Along with a handful of other books, Sirach is in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant Bible.  It’s another example of a truth we’re learning—that diversity enriches us.  We don’t have to apologize for our traditions; we don’t have to change what is and isn’t in our Bible.  But we can appreciate and learn from the Catholics.  And from other religions.  And from science.  And from so many sources.  Thank you, Helen, for increasing the diversity of our scriptures. 

 

Matthew 5:3-10, 14-16 (Brendan)

Before the bitterness of betrayal

  And the time of tempting,

    There came to Jesus the baptismal blessing:

You are my beloved child,

  With you I am well-pleased.

As if to say—

  Hear these words first.

    You will need them.

 

He in turn would say hard things to others:

  Love your enemies . . .

  You give them something to eat . . .

  Take up your cross . . .

But first, he said, hear these Beatitudes.

They’re backward blessings, to be sure—

Upon the poor,

                           the sad,

                                                   the bullied.

But they are blessings, nonetheless.

And the disciples would need them.

 

 

And now you also, I expect,

Have things you have to face—

  Many hard,

                       Some feel impossible.

And soon enough

  You will go out to face them.

But first, hear these blessings:

  You are a beloved child . . .

    You are well-pleasing to God . . .

      Yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Take these blessings with you.

You will need them.

 

 

Matthew 5:43-48 (Max)

          Max Nauman is a young man who keeps his head down on the table much of the time.  You might think he isn’t paying attention when you talk about Jesus.  You might think that he isn’t taking it in and thinking about it for himself.  You might think that, but when Max shared his scripture, you knew different.  Boiled down, in a few words, the Christian life comes down to one thing—loving people.  And not just loving people who are easy to love, but loving people who are hard to love.  That’s what Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 5:43-48.  Max’s head may be down, but watch how Max treats other people.  He’s paying attention.

 

Matthew 7:1-5 (Joey)

          Don’t judge other people, so you won’t be judged yourself, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-5.  It’s the scripture selected by Joey, but it might serve as a theme verse for Maple Grove’s entire youth ministry.  TMI and Youth Group and the Confirmation Class—all of these are so accepting.  It’s been a long time ago, but I have not forgotten how I got treated when I was 13.  When I’m honest, I also haven’t forgotten how I treated other kids when I was 13.  People made fun of me because of my weird last name, and because my ears turned red when I got embarrassed.  And in my insecurity, I would put down other kids.  Don’t do that, Jesus says.  That’s no way to live.  Joey picked the scripture, but these kids live it out. 

 

Acts 16:25-33 (Jamie)

          Jamie is the only youth who picked a story for his scripture.  Stories are probably my favorite part of scripture.  Stories don’t tell you what to do.  Bible stories make you ponder what kind of person you want to be and what God is like.  The story Jamie chose is about when Paul and Silas were in prison and an earthquake set all the prisoners free.  The guard, responsible for all the prisoners, was about to take his own life, figuring that would be better than what the Romans would do to him for losing his prisoners.   But Paul shouted, “Don’t do it!  We’re all still here.”  What sort of people, Jamie, does this story want us to be?  What is our God like?  Thanks for sharing a wonderful story!

 

 

11:00

          Leading my last Confirmation group at Maple Grove got me reflecting back on my own Confirmation experience, over 40 years ago.  It was really very good.  Our pastor was young and fresh out of seminary, so he had new ideas and cared a lot.  He took us on field trips.  He listened carefully to us.  I loved him and I learned a lot.  Still, looking back over all those years, there are a few things I wish I’d learned in Confirmation, or wish I’d learned better.  Let me share three of them with you today:

          1. I wish I’d learned that Christ’s Church is bigger than Bushton, Kansas (or Columbus, Ohio, for that matter).  The Church is big and almost infinitely varied.  The Church is global and takes different forms around the world.  Despite what it might seem like from a thirteen year-old’s perspective, the Church is always changing—the Church of my youth was nothing like the Church of a few hundred years earlier, and a few years from now the Church will be nothing like what we know today. 

          So . . . I was surprised during college when a friend took me to a Church of all black people.  Cool!  I was surprised when another friend took me to a church where everyone spoke in tongues and some people rolled around on the floor.  Whoa!  I was surprised when I went to Africa and church lasted more than three hours and people get up and dance!  There are churches in Columbus where everyone speaks Chinese or Nepali or Spanish.  There are churches that have women pastors and churches that don’t allow that.  There are churches . . . well, you get the idea.

          I wish I’d learned more about that in Confirmation.  I wish I had taught you more about that in Confirmation.  Because I grew up kind of thinking Church is this one thing, it’s what we did in the 1970s at the Bushton United Methodist Church.  So when I encountered churches that did very different things, I wondered if maybe they were doing something wrong.  And I worried that maybe we were doing something wrong.  But it’s not like that.  We all do our different things for God, and God just soaks it all up.  God made us different for a reason.

          So first of all, I wish I’d learned earlier in life that the Church is great big, diverse, global, and almost infinitely varied.  The more different kinds of churches you experience, the less worried you’ll be about the church being how it’s “supposed” to be, and the more you can just give yourself to God in any way and every way.

 

          2. I wish I’d learned in Confirmation how to love the Bible without idolizing the Bible, how to take the Bible seriously without taking it all literally.  Here’s what I mean.  I was taught that the Bible is God’s rule-book, that what the Bible says goes, forever and for everyone.  And then, as a teenager, I came across some words in the Bible that say women should be silent in church, that women should not teach in church.  Well, that didn’t seem right to me.  But because I’d been taught that the Bible is this eternal, infallible rule book, I felt like I only had two choices:  either get women to be quiet in church or throw the Bible out.

          I wish I’d learned in Confirmation that those aren’t the only two choices, that the Bible is God’s Word, but was also written by human beings who were shaped by their own times and culture.  For a time when women had no rights, the Bible shows a remarkable amount of freedom and leadership for women.  Certain verses of the Bible sound hurtful and restrictive towards women, but the direction, the trajectory of the Bible is towards equality. 

          Too many people nowadays write the Bible off completely, because no one ever taught them what the Bible is and how to make sense of it.  And other people wind up believing unloving and narrow-minded things, because no one ever taught them what the Bible is and how to make sense of it. I wish I had learned in Confirmation how to love the Bible without idolizing it and how to take the Bible seriously without taking it all literally.  It would have saved me a lot of anguish and let me make better decisions.

 

          3. Finally this:  I wish I’d learned in Confirmation that GOD LOVES ME.  Let me explain.  Of course, in some ways I learned in Confirmation that God loves me.  And I grew up as a little child singing “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”  If one of the Confirmation questions had been, “Glenn, does God love you?”, I would have known that the right answer was “Yes.” 

          But there’s a difference between knowing the right answer, and really knowing something.  There’s a difference between knowing something in your head and knowing it in your heart.  So I was taught it, but I’m not sure I really learned it—that God loves me.  And it is one of the most important things there is to know, maybe the most important thing—that God loves me.  It’s so important because all too often the world will try to teach you that you’re no good, that you’re not loved.  Some teachers will teach you that, bosses, family members, friends (or sort-of friends).  And if you’re anything like me, all too often you’ll teach yourself that you’re not good, that you’re not loved.  That if you don’t get good enough grades, or if you don’t make the basketball team, or if you make choices others don’t approve of, then you’re not loved.  But that’s not true!  Now don’t get me wrong—grades do matter, I love sports, and considering how others feel is very important.  But none of those things makes any difference about whether or not you are loved.  You are.  When you’ve done well and when you’ve messed it all up, God loves you.  When you follow Jesus and when you don’t follow Jesus, God loves you.  When other people like what you decide and when they don’t, God loves you.

          God loves you.  Not only do I wish I’d learned that in Confirmation.  I wish I’d learned that in college.  And seminary.  And last week.  If it’s the last thing I say to you--and it is--God loves you.  

Luke 5:29-32

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

April 22, 2018

 

          The film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released in 1967. It was Spencer Tracy’s last role. Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar for it. Sydney Poitier, on the other hand, wasn’t even nominated—I wonder why not? It’s the story of a black man and a white woman who fall in love and decide to get married. Both sets of parents strongly oppose the relation-ship (both fathers at any rate). But love is love, right? And—spoiler alert, here--love prevails in the end. But just to put this in context, in 1967 so-called “interracial marriage” was still illegal in 17 states. Who should marry whom, even who should come to dinner with whom, was a big deal in 1967. And in various ways, it still is in 2018. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

          Who’s at the table was certainly a big deal in Jesus’ time. Jesus had called a man named Levi—we know him as Matthew—to follow him and be one of his disciples. And this Levi was a tax collector. Now even today tax collectors don’t win many popularity contests. If you work for the IRS and someone asks what you do for a living, you probably learn to say, “Oh . . . I’m in collections,” or “I’m . . . an accountant.” You don’t say, “I’m responsible for taking a quarter of every dollar you earn and turning it over to the government to do things you don’t agree with.” No tax collector still isn’t up there with nurse or fire fighter in terms of popularity.

          But in Jesus’ day there was more to it. Tax collectors worked ultimately for the occupation Roman empire. They’d sold out to the enemy. The money they collected went to support the army that held them down. What’s more, they worked under a tax farming system. They were told how much they had to turn over to their Roman masters; anything they collected beyond that was theirs to keep. Tax collectors got rich cheating their own people. And of course Jewish tax collectors had daily interactions with Gentile Romans; therefore by Jewish law they were always ritually unclean—good Jews really weren’t supposed to be at table with them. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Actually, it’s even worse than that. It’s not that Jesus invited one random tax collector over to his house. It’s that Levi the tax collector, now Levi the disciple, had a banquet for all the tax collectors in town, and invited Jesus to eat with them. Also at the table, Luke says, were “sinners.” “Sinners” is a kind of technical term in the gospels. It doesn’t mean sinners in the sense of “Oh, we’re all sinners.” It means people who have been kicked out of the synagogue for notorious behavior. They may not be worse sinners than everyone else, but they’d got caught; they shocked and offended people. Guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Well, Jesus is coming to dinner. With the tax collectors and sinners. All at the same table. “I have come to call not the righteous,” he tells them, “but sinners.” That’s who’s coming to dinner.

 

          In verse 30, when the Pharisees complain about eating with tax collectors and sinners, they spoke not to Jesus directly, but to his disciples. They asked the disciples, “Why do you all eat with such people?” What this means, according to Bible commentaries, is that when Luke was writing his gospel, not just Jesus but the church—that is, Jesus’ disciples—was being criticized for its inclusive table fellowship. People were faulting the church for welcoming people who shocked them or made them uncomfortable.1 And the church defended itself by pointing to Jesus who not only welcomed all kinds of people to his table, but went himself and ate at the tables of all kinds of people.

 

          The evangelist, Tony Campolo, tells of arriving in Hawaii to preach at a conference. He went to bed but the time difference made him wake up at 3:00 am, desperately hungry. He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get breakfast in the middle of the night. The only place open was a grungy diner down an alley. He’s sitting at the counter about 3:30 when in walk eight or nine street-walkers, having just finished their night’s work. Tony admits he wasn’t entirely comfortable sitting with them, so he gulped his coffee to make a getaway. Right then the woman next to him announces to everyone: “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be 39.” To which one of the other women replied nastily, “So what d’ya want from me? A party? Ya want me to bake a cake and sing happy birthday?”

          “Aw, come on,” the first woman says, “you don’t have to be so mean. I’m just saying, it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. Why should I have a party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life.”

          Well, when Tony heard that, he had an idea. When the women had all left, he asked the guy at the counter, “Do they come here every night?”

          “Yeah, every night, about the same time.”

          “The one next to me, her too?”

          “Yeah, that’s Agnes. She’s come in here every night for years. Why do you want to know?”

          “Because she said tomorrow’s her birthday. What do you think? Could we could throw a little party for her here in the diner?”

          A smile came over the man’s grubby face. So they make their plans, and at 2:30 the next night Tony is back, with balloons and a sign that says, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” The cook has enough cake and coffee for an army. And somehow word had got out. The whole diner was packed with streetwalkers.

          At 3:30 the door opens and in walks Agnes. Everyone shouts, “Surprise! Happy birthday, Agnes!” She’s flabbergasted, stunned. Agnes is crying so hard she can’t blow out the candles.

          Finally, Tony stands on a chair and says, “What do you say we pray together?” And there they are in that greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 am, listening as Rev. Tony Campolo prays for Agnes, her health, her safety, her family, her soul.

          Afterwards the diner guy comes over to Tony, with a trace of hostility, and says, “Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

          On the spur of the moment, Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”

          Diner guy ponders a moment and says, “No way. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, even I would join it.”2 With Jesus as our leader, guess who’s coming to dinner?

          Peter Storey, who was a Methodist bishop in South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, wrote a little book on the seven last words of Christ. When it comes to the story about Jesus hanging on the cross next to two criminals, Peter Storey writes, “Because he died as he lived, Jesus did not die . . . alone. His life had always been one of solidarity . . . with the least and lowest. . . We should not be surprised, then, that on the day of his dying, Jesus was once more in the company of those whom society had cast out. . . Some tell us,” Storey writes, “that following Jesus is a simple matter of inviting him into our hearts. But when we do that, Jesus always asks, ‘May I bring my friends?’ And when we look at them, we see that they are not the kind of company we try to keep. The friends of Jesus are the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the homeless, the neglected—the lepers of life. We hesitate and ask, ‘Jesus, must we really have them too?” Jesus replies, “Love me, love my friends.”3

          Guess who’s coming to dinner?

 

          When I was pastor at another church, I got to know a neighborhood teenager named Pat. Pat was rough guy—he said rude things to girls, he tried to bully other boys out of their money, he sold drugs on the side. He was also a natural-born leader. All the little boys followed him around like a mother duck. I figured if I could get him to use those leadership qualities for good instead of bad, we’d really have something. He came to our after-school basketball program, so every afternoon I invited him to church. And I invited him to church. For months I invited Pat to church. And then one day, out of the blue, he showed up. It was Communion Sunday, and he came right up front to receive the bread and the cup. Everybody saw him.

          After church two moms of teenage sons cornered me in the lobby. I figured they were going to chew me out for letting someone like Pat in the church. “Do you know who that guy is?” Ruth asked me.” “Yes,” I said, “that’s Pat. I know him.”

          “Do you know he’s tried to hurt both of our sons?” Mary asked.

          “No,” I said, “but I’m not surprised.” And I waited for them to tell me to kick him out, to tell him he’s not allowed in church. Ruth picked it up again. “We think it’s very important for him to be here in church,” she said. No one needs church more than Pat,” she said, “and we just wanted to make sure he’s welcome here.”

          “If you say so,” I said.

          “No, we don’t say so,” Mary added. “Jesus says so.” Guess who came to dinner?

 

          You know, here’s the thing: in the end, the only ones who will not be at Jesus’ table are the ones who refuse to come. Everyone’s welcome; but some of us don’t like the company. Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? When the son who’d wasted his inheritance on women and wine came home, the father threw a party and killed the fatted calf. Everyone was welcome at that party. The older brother—the good son, the honorable son . . . the resentful son—he too was welcome at that table. The only question was—would he come? The only question is--will we come?

 

          So far, more or less, we’ve looked at this Bible story from the perspective of the Pharisees, as respectable folks who are sometimes surprised by who’s coming to dinner at Jesus’ table. And usually that is my perspective on this story. After all, I clean up pretty nice, I pay my taxes, I try not to make a scene, I’m a preacher, for heaven’s sake. Frankly, I am welcome at most tables. But once in a while, I’m not. Or I get to feeling like I’m not. A few times, I’ve been rejected from people’s fellowship because of stands I’ve taken, because people disagree with me. “Don’t come to my table with those ideas,” they say, in effect. And sometimes, when I’m weary and discouraged, when I’ve let people down or not lived up to my own standards, I get to thinking they’re right. Maybe there’s not a place for me at the table, or maybe there shouldn’t be. And that’s when Jesus pulls out a chair and tells me to sit down. And when I object, when I say, “Oh Jesus, there are people who don’t want me at this table,” Jesus says, “Well, they’re just going to have to deal with it. Because this is my table, and you’re staying put.” And whom am I go argue with Jesus?

 

          So guess who’s coming to dinner? Levi the tax collector. A table full of sinners. A criminal on the cross. Jesus Christ. Agnes from Hawaii and Pat the bully. Oh, and there’s me. And then there’s you, should you decide to come.

         

 

1 Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 78. See also Ronald P. Byars, The Sacraments in Biblical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 262.

2 See among other places, http://www.swapmeetdave.com/Bible/Agnes.htm. Accessed 4/12/18.

3 Peter Storey, Listening at Golgotha (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2004), 28-30.

John 21:1-14

Come to the Table

April 8, 2018        Maple Grove UMC

 

          What a wonderful story. Of all the resurrection appearance stories in the Bible, this one is my favorite. There are just so many things we could go into. For example, when Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” he doesn’t mean what most of us might mean by that. For Peter, fishing isn’t a pleasant diversion, not a time to get away and clear his head, not a way to bond with his dad or son. When Peter says, “I’m going fishing,” he means that after the death of Jesus, he’s going back to his old life, the only job he knows. It means he’s giving up on following Jesus as a way of life. But Jesus doesn’t let him give up for long. . .

 

          There are so many things in the story we could go into. At first, John tells us, the disciples don’t know it’s Jesus standing there on the beach. There are other stories where the disciples are mysteriously prevented from recognizing the risen Jesus, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. After all it’s just after dawn and the disciples are a hundred yards from shore. I doubt I’d recognize my own children from a hundred yards at dawn. No, to recognize Jesus you’ve got to come up close—get out of your boat, put down what you’re doing, leave behind your fear, and come right up close. That’s what it takes to recognize the Risen Lord.

 

          There are so many things in this story we could go into. Like when they’ve been fishing all night and caught nothing, Jesus says, “Hey guys, why don’t you try the nets on the right side of the boat?” And of course they get this huge catch of fish. Some people think this was a miracle—that Jesus had some kind of supernatural fishing power. Maybe. But maybe he was just saying, “Why don’t you try the other side of the boat for a change.” If you’ve been fishing in the same spot all night and caught nothing, try the other side of the boat for a change. If you’ve been trying the same thing over and over and not getting results you want, try the other side of the boat. If you’ve been singing the same songs and offering the same programs and people aren’t excited any more, then try the other side of the boat for a change. You never know what might happen.

 

          There are so many things in this story we could go into. Do you remember how in verse 11 the net is not torn, though filled with that overwhelming load of fish? As one commentator has put it, “Jesus would like us, in all our diversity [and differences] . . . to be one.   The net,” he says, “does not have to split, though filled with multiple, varied and outsized fish.”1 Surely there’s a message here for the United Methodist church: We can be different and diverse, and yet the net does not need to split.”

 

          There are so many things in this story we could go into. Such as this: the disciples are all together when this took place. Now we’re getting deeper into the story. “It is especially when disciples are all together,” writes Frederick Bruner, “that the Risen Lord . . . reveals himself.”2 Now, the truth is, they weren’t all together. John names Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the two sons of Zebedee, and two other unnamed disciples. That’s seven disciples, not twelve, or by now, I guess, eleven. But given that there were almost 500 people here a week ago and, well, not that many today—seven out of eleven isn’t bad for the Sunday after Easter.

          The point is that Jesus invites all to come and dine. It’s especially when disciples are all together that the Risen Lord appears. The table is the place where Jesus welcomes all, and when all are together at the table is when Jesus shows up. “The church,” writes my teacher, Fred Craddock, “is a group eating together with glad and generous hearts. . . [So w]hen you separate the table you have destroyed the church. It is not a church,” he says, “where some refuse to eat with others.”3

          They were all together after Easter. It’s especially when disciples are all together that the Risen Lord appears. Wesley Allen tells of a church in Kentucky that began to experience growth due to folks from the community joining. But these new folks were different from the long-time members—ethnically diverse, some were LGBT persons, some were pierced and tattooed. Long-time members were uncomfortable but kept quiet as long as the new members put money in the offering plate and didn’t try to change anything. But when they had meetings to talk about how to move forward together, the same thing always happened: distrust arose, prejudices were expressed, conversation gave way to shouting. Then, on one occasion, the pastor started the meeting differently. He placed a loaf of bread and a cup in the middle of the group. “At the end of the meeting,” he said, “we’re going to share the Lord’s Supper. You are going to pass the bread and wine to one another in witness to the fact that Christ died for everyone here, whether you agree with or like each other or not.” And the conversation was different that night.4

          I know that some people can argue even at the table. But my grandma wouldn’t have stood for it. Neither does Jesus. The table is the place where Jesus welcomes all, and when all are together at the table is when Risen Christ appears.

Oh, there are so many things in this story we could go into. Depending on how you count them, not including the Empty Tomb stories, the gospels have eight appearances of the Risen Christ. Three of these, more than a third, involve eating. If it’s when we are all together that the Risen Christ appears, it’s when he eats with us that we know it’s him. Luke tells about two discouraged disciples walking along the road to Emmaus. The Risen Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s him. They walk and talk, they invite him to stay with them and he leads them in Bible study, but still they don’t know it’s Jesus. Only, Luke says, when he breaks the bread do they suddenly recognize him. In the next story, the Risen Jesus is trying to convince the disciples he’s real and not a ghost, but he’s not having much success. Finally he asks for something to eat and they give him a piece of fish. In eating, they know Christ is real.

And so in today’s story, at first none of them knows it’s Jesus there on the beach. Peter figures it out first and goes splashing ashore. But when Jesus gives them something to eat, it says, then none of them dared to ask, “Who are you?” because they all knew it was the Lord. The Risen Lord was known then, and the Risen Lord is known today, in the breaking of bread--not just here from the pulpit, but especially there at the table.

 

Oh, there are so many things in this story we could go into. Just one more. “Come,” Jesus said to those seven weary disciples, “Come and have breakfast.” Breakfast is the most intimate of meals. I had a friend who told me that he was about to ask his girlfriend to marry him. A few days later I called and asked, “How did it go?” “Well,” he said, “I invited her over to my place. She stayed for dinner . . . and she stayed for breakfast, and we’re getting married in August.” Breakfast is the most intimate of meals.

When our daughters were little, our family had a little story Bible. More pictures than words, kind of a “greatest hits” of the scriptures. Every night at bedtime we’d read them two or three of those stories. Every night, the girls would try to get us to read two or three more stories—I thought they just loved Bible stories; turns out they were just trying to extend bedtime! Either way, they heard a lot of Bible stories. One of Rachel’s favorite stories in the book was today’s gospel reading about Jesus sharing breakfast on the beach with his disciples. One summer when she was about four, we were on vacation in the Outer Banks, and Rachel told us that the next morning she wanted us all to have breakfast on the beach. We set an alarm and all four of us gathered on the sand at sunrise. And four year-old Rachel took bread and handed some to each of us, and she took fish—well, goldfish crackers--and gave us all a handful. Taking the lead role, she said to the rest of us, “Come, and have breakfast.” And suddenly there were not four of us there, but five on the beach. And none of us dared to ask, “Who is it?” because we all knew it was the Lord. Breakfast is the most intimate of meals.

 

O Come to the table, my friends, come and have breakfast. Come to the table, and eat with the Risen Lord. For the table is the place where Jesus welcomes all people and all kinds of people. O come to the table, my friends. For none of us here will need to ask, “Who is it?” because we will all know it is the Lord.

 

1 Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 1213.

2 Bruner, 1207.

3 Fred B. Craddock, “Table Talk,” The Collected Sermons of Fred. B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 219.

4 Freely adapted from O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Preaching in the Era of Trump (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017), 35.

Ephesians 2:1-10

Saved By Grace, Raised With Christ

April 1, 2018        Maple Grove UMC

 

          Certain believers like to start conversations this way: Are you saved? they ask earnestly. Are you saved? they want to know. And I know what they mean. They mean have I had an emotional conversion experience, asked Jesus into my heart and prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. And they want a one-word answer: Yes. Yes, I am saved. That’s what they want to hear. And the fact is, I could give them that answer—all of that is true for me. But that feels like such a partial, inadequate answer. There is so much more to being saved than that. I want to give them two additional, longer answers--a Lenten answer (a good answer) and an Easter answer (a great answer).

 

          Are you saved? My answer from the season of Lent, from the scriptures we’ve been looking at together, would be: Not only am I saved; I have been saved by Jesus. And Jesus saves means:

  • I have been restored to community, made welcome in the place of worship, un-ostracized
  • I have been accepted for who I am right now and for who, by the grace of God, I may become
  • I have learned to notice when I’ve been healed and have come busting back to Jesus like a man in love
  • I have not been rescued from pain, but Jesus has been with me in my suffering and through my suffering.

 

     I have been saved. A couple of weeks ago the Columbus Dispatch ran an article about a man who in January learned that he was dead.1 After working for 20 years in Turkey, Constantin Reliu returned to his native Romania to discover that his wife had officially registered him as dead. He went to court to overturn his death certificate, but he was too late. The decision, the court said, was final. He is, for the rest of his life, the living dead.

          Now not in a legal sense, but spiritually that’s the situation described in Ephesians 2. “You were dead,” it says, “through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived.” We were all that way, it says. Breathing, walking, going to work and school, having families, going to church, alive . . . but dead too, in a sense.

          This spiritual deadness results in all manner of sinful behavior. Ephesians doesn’t go into detail, but you know the kinds of trouble people get themselves into. But sinful behavior is just the outward symptom of the problem. The root cause, writes New Testament scholar Ralph Martin, is alientation.2 People are not in sync with the Creator; therefore we are anxious and out of sorts. People are cut off from God’s purpose for their lives; therefore we live out some other story, a story that’s not truly who we are. People are alienated from our own true selves; therefore we act out in angry, hurtful ways. The sinful behaviors are many and varied, but the root cause is alienation. It is a kind of death.

 

          But then something happened. The turning point of this scripture comes in verse 4. Actually the turning point of all existence comes in verse 4: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive. . .” We were dead, but God. Ephesians says, by grace you have been saved. We were dead, but God. Then it says it again: by grace you have been saved. Am I saved? you want to know. Not only am I saved; I have been saved.

          Everything in this scripture is in the past tense:

  • But God made us alive together with Christ
  • By grace you have been saved
  • God raised us up
  • And again, by grace you have been saved

And here’s what that means. Fleming Rutledge says, “We have been saved. Not ‘we might be saved,’ or ‘you could be saved,’ or ‘maybe you will be saved,’ or any other kind of ‘saved’ that has an ‘if’ attached to it. Not ‘saved if you are good,’ or ‘saved if you are proper,’ or ‘saved if you are better than somebody else.’ Just saved.3 It’s past tense.

          So the Easter message is not about trying harder. It’s not about needing to understand things better. It’s not about getting your act together. It’s past tense. Jesus died for us a long time ago, and God has loved us longer than that. Are you saved? people want to know. Not only am I saved, I have been saved. Past tense. Taken care of. Count on it. Blessed assurance. Amen.

 

          And that is some very good news. But are you ready for some even better news? Easter is not only the end of the old life; it is the beginning of a new life.4 Here’s how Ephesians puts it: But God, it says, who is rich in mercy,

  • Made us alive together with Christ
  • Saved us by his grace
  • But what is more, God raised us up with Christ.

Which leads to my second answer to the question we started with. Are you saved? people want to know. Why, not only am I saved—I’ve been raised. “The resurrection,” writes Justo Gonzalez, “is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just [the old story’s] happy ending. It is the beginning of a [whole new] new story.”5 You know, raised.

 

          Now before I go on and tell about the goodness and glory of being raised, let me pause to acknowledge that being raised to new life can feel, well, unsettling. Here’s why: Craig Barnes says that “in order to receive this new life, we have to stop clinging to the old one.”6 So yes, we want new life, new growth, new possibilities . . . but we also like the comfort and familiarity of the old life. Sometimes we’d rather sit by the tomb weeping than embrace the new thing God is doing. There’s the old joke—how many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb? Thirteen. One to change the light bulb and twelve to complain that they liked the old one better. The message of the empty tomb is that we have to stop looking for Jesus in the past—he’s not there, he’s been raised, and so have we. In order to receive new life, we have to stop clinging to the old one. I’m not going to dwell on it this morning. But I do want to acknowledge that change is hard—even good, holy, necessary change is hard. So pray for us.

 

               What does it mean to be not just saved, but raised?

  • I think of my friends in AA. It’s one thing to stop drinking. That’s necessary, difficult, for some it’s all-consuming. To stop drinking, you might say, is like being saved. But then what? Once you’ve stopped drinking, there’s still this hole in your life. And now that you’re not drinking, you know and feel that hole in your life. You’ve got to fill that hole with something other than alcohol—with God, with love, with a new purpose, with Step 12 which is taking the message to other alcoholics. Not just saved, but raised—that’s what Easter’s about.
  • My mother lived for six years after my daddy died. They’d been married for fifty years, and she’d been pretty much his full-time care giver for a couple of years. When he died, she wasn’t just sad--she was lost. After a few months I asked her how she was doing. She said, “Well, I don’t cry every day any more. I’m eating and sleeping better.” She paused, and then went on, “But that’s not enough.” And pretty soon she started volunteering at a thrift store, taking on tasks at church again, and babysitting regularly for her grandkids. She didn’t want to just eat and sleep and breathe; she wanted to live. Not just saved, but raised—that’s what Easter’s about.
  • I read about Grace Presbyterian Church.7 They’d been declining for decades. They tried adding services and programs, but nothing worked. Then one spring, the roof started leaking. The roofer said he could start work during Holy Week or they’d have to wait for months, which put the sanctuary out of commission. The Church Council began looking for another place to meet. Their young pastor took the opportunity to suggest that on Good Friday they walk through the neighborhood and sing and pray at places where trouble or violence had occurred in the past year. After two hours the small group returned, determined to share their experiences with the whole church. One by one on Easter morning they told what they had seen and felt, and finally one of them said, “We can’t stay inside this building any longer. This morning we are opening the doors of this church and committing ourselves to work for justice in this community. Christ is risen. Alleluia!”

          Soon they started serving a weekly meal for single moms. They volunteered in the neighborhood school. They picked up trash at bus stops. And little by little the church began to grow. They had to get over wanting just to be saved, to just keep existing, and start praying to be raised to new life, new ministry, new relationships with new people. Not just saved, but raised—that’s what Easter’s about.

  • And now here we are, you and me, this Easter Day. I’ve been praying and pondering for weeks about what to say to you today. How to help you see and feel that it’s not just that you are saved, but that you have been saved. Past tense. Taken care of. Blessed assurance. Amen. And more than that, I’ve been pondering how to help you see and feel that you can be not just saved, but raised. That things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been—in fact, things can’t be the way they’ve always been—but God gives new life, new growth, new possibilities.

     And then one morning, during my prayer time, it hit me. I don’t want to just preach about being raised; I want to be raised! I don’t want to just tell people about new life; I want new life! I want to be able to let go of criticism and just keep doing the right thing. I want to stop worrying about my daughters and just love and appreciate them. I want to stop fussing about where people in the church do and don’t want to go, and just go where God already is.

          I said all that to God Thursday morning. And do you know what God said? Here is what God said. God said, “Okay.” “Okay,” God said. I wonder what new life you’re longing for?

 

          If anyone should ever ask you Are you saved?, you know what to say, right?

  • Am I saved? Why, I have been saved! Past tense. Taken care of. Blessed assurance. Amen.
  • Are you saved? people want to know. Am I saved? Why, not only saved; I’ve been raised!

 

1 Alison Mutler, ”Dead Man Walking: Court Rejects Man’s Claim He’s Alive,” The Columbus Dispatch (March 16, 2018), A14.

2 Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1992), 25-27.

3 Fleming Rutledge, “Saved!,” The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 180.

4 Samuel Wells writes this of baptism in Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 92.

5 Justo Gonzalez, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 274.

6 M. Craig Barnes, “We’re All Terminal,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century (April 6, 2004), 18.

7 Adapted from Claudio Carvalhaes and Paul Galbreath, “The Season of Easter: Imaginative Figurings for the Body of Christ,” Interpretation 63/1 (January 2011), 9-10.

Luke 23:32-43

What Jesus Means By ‘Saved’

March 25, 2018

 

          You drive along the interstate and see it on billboards: JESUS SAVES. Sometimes the sign will have the name of a church or organization, but often just those two words: JESUS SAVES. Pastor and author Frederick Buechner has written that those signs are a little embarrassing to him.1 Embarrassing, he says, because they remind him of old-time religion--pulpit-pounding, hyper-emotional, fundamentalist religion. Or perhaps they’re embarrassing, he confesses, because they remind him that he needs to be saved. Proud, self-sufficient, respectable as we are, there comes a time when all we can do is cry out, “Lord, save me!” We don’t like to be reminded of that.

          JESUS SAVES, the billboards say. Personally, I’m not embarrassed by those signs—more uneasy, I’d say. Yes, Jesus saves—but what does that mean? There’s more to ‘Jesus saves’ than can fit on a billboard, more to it than you can take in at 70 miles an hour. As we’ve explored together these past few Sundays, ‘Jesus saves’ means

  • to be restored to community, to be made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized
  • to be accepted for who you are right now and who, by the grace of God, you may become
  • to notice when you’ve been healed, and to come busting back to Jesus like someone in love
  • to be saved, Rev. Michelle taught us, is to be transformed.

Yes, Jesus saves—but I worry those two words will get oversimplified and therefore misused.

 

          It’s happened before. Three times in the crucifixion story the idea that ‘Jesus saves’ is used to mock Jesus. As people cast lots to divvy up Jesus’ clothing, Luke says, the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” The Roman soldiers taunted him the same way, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals on the cross gets in on the act, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

          ‘Jesus saves’ is reduced to a way of mocking Jesus because they completely misunderstand what it means. ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean that he will rescue us from pain or give us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain; he saves by sharing our suffering.

          The other criminal on the cross gets it right. He accepts his suffering and simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” – with me. The message of the cross is that to be saved is not to be rescued from suffering: to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. Or perhaps better, to be saved is for Jesus to be with you in your suffering and beyond your suffering.

 

          And then as saved people, as people who are confidently with Jesus, we can in turn enter into others’ suffering. Because we are firmly in Jesus’ presence, we can share the pain of others. Being saved is not about getting our ticket to heaven punched; it’s about caring so powerfully for others that, like Jesus on the cross, we will not let them go.

          Back in December the Columbus Dispatch ran a long article about a group working on the South Side to try to stop the violence that led to last year having a record number of murders in Columbus. This group, led by several black pastors, marches and prays and encourages people and talks to folks on the street. One of the group members said, “These dudes on the street are angry. Their friends are dead. They want to play tough with guns. But they really are that way because they have no hope. They think nobody cares if they live or die. So we intervene. Working with the babies, the kids, the women. . . You’ve got to be present. Every day.”2

          The newspaper article is called “Saving Souls.” I think that’s exactly right. No, they’re not really preaching. They’re not trying to get people to believe this or that about God. They’re being with people. They’re entering into their neighbors’ suffering and pain. They are being Jesus on the South Side: and what Jesus does is he saves.

 

          ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean he rescues people from pain or gives us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain, by sharing our suffering. The message of the cross is that to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. And being saved yourself, to be Jesus to others.

          Let the billboards, let the church, let our lives proclaim it: Jesus saves!

         

1 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 59-69.

 

2 Holly Zachariah, “Saving Souls,” The Columbus Dispatch (December 22, 2017), F17-21.

Luke 23:32-43

What Jesus Means By ‘Saved’

March 25, 2018

 

          You drive along the interstate and see it on billboards: JESUS SAVES. Sometimes the sign will have the name of a church or organization, but often just those two words: JESUS SAVES. Pastor and author Frederick Buechner has written that those signs are a little embarrassing to him.1 Embarrassing, he says, because they remind him of old-time religion--pulpit-pounding, hyper-emotional, fundamentalist religion. Or perhaps they’re embarrassing, he confesses, because they remind him that he needs to be saved. Proud, self-sufficient, respectable as we are, there comes a time when all we can do is cry out, “Lord, save me!” We don’t like to be reminded of that.

          JESUS SAVES, the billboards say. Personally, I’m not embarrassed by those signs—more uneasy, I’d say. Yes, Jesus saves—but what does that mean? There’s more to ‘Jesus saves’ than can fit on a billboard, more to it than you can take in at 70 miles an hour. As we’ve explored together these past few Sundays, ‘Jesus saves’ means

  • to be restored to community, to be made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized
  • to be accepted for who you are right now and who, by the grace of God, you may become
  • to notice when you’ve been healed, and to come busting back to Jesus like someone in love
  • to be saved, Rev. Michelle taught us, is to be transformed.

Yes, Jesus saves—but I worry those two words will get oversimplified and therefore misused.

 

          It’s happened before. Three times in the crucifixion story the idea that ‘Jesus saves’ is used to mock Jesus. As people cast lots to divvy up Jesus’ clothing, Luke says, the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah.” The Roman soldiers taunted him the same way, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” Even one of the criminals on the cross gets in on the act, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

          ‘Jesus saves’ is reduced to a way of mocking Jesus because they completely misunderstand what it means. ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean that he will rescue us from pain or give us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain; he saves by sharing our suffering.

          The other criminal on the cross gets it right. He accepts his suffering and simply says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” – with me. The message of the cross is that to be saved is not to be rescued from suffering: to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. Or perhaps better, to be saved is for Jesus to be with you in your suffering and beyond your suffering.

 

          And then as saved people, as people who are confidently with Jesus, we can in turn enter into others’ suffering. Because we are firmly in Jesus’ presence, we can share the pain of others. Being saved is not about getting our ticket to heaven punched; it’s about caring so powerfully for others that, like Jesus on the cross, we will not let them go.

          Back in December the Columbus Dispatch ran a long article about a group working on the South Side to try to stop the violence that led to last year having a record number of murders in Columbus. This group, led by several black pastors, marches and prays and encourages people and talks to folks on the street. One of the group members said, “These dudes on the street are angry. Their friends are dead. They want to play tough with guns. But they really are that way because they have no hope. They think nobody cares if they live or die. So we intervene. Working with the babies, the kids, the women. . . You’ve got to be present. Every day.”2

          The newspaper article is called “Saving Souls.” I think that’s exactly right. No, they’re not really preaching. They’re not trying to get people to believe this or that about God. They’re being with people. They’re entering into their neighbors’ suffering and pain. They are being Jesus on the South Side: and what Jesus does is he saves.

 

          ‘Jesus saves’ does not mean he rescues people from pain or gives us a get-out-of-suffering-free card. Rather, on the cross Jesus saves by entering into our pain, by sharing our suffering. The message of the cross is that to be saved is to be with Jesus, in your suffering and beyond your suffering. And being saved yourself, to be Jesus to others.

          Let the billboards, let the church, let our lives proclaim it: Jesus saves!

         

1 Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 59-69.

 

2 Holly Zachariah, “Saving Souls,” The Columbus Dispatch (December 22, 2017), F17-21.

Matthew 8:23-27 & 14:22-33

“Lord, Save Us!”

March 18, 2018

 

          The disciples are out in a boat. A terrible windstorm comes up and they’re afraid—they’re bailing to beat the band, flailing around and wishing they’d said goodbye to their families. Meantime Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. Finally they think to wake him up, crying out, “Lord, save us!” Good call--Jesus saves! A few chapters later, it happens again: boat, storm, fear, flailing around--until Jesus comes to them walking on the waves. Peter wants to try that too, and he does for a moment. Until he notices the wind and the waves, panics and starts to sink. So he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Good call again—Jesus saves!

 

          I told a story on Ash Wednesday as the season of Lent began. I want to return to it now, as we near the end of Lent. Years ago I knew a man who got a new job at an insurance company downtown. It was a big promotion for him to a mid-level management position. He now had a whole team of people reporting to him, and no longer did he work at a cubicle; he had an office, with a door that closed! He was feeling pretty good about himself. But almost right away he started to struggle. There were a couple of computer applications that he never quite got the hang of. His supervisor was concerned because he wasn’t tracking his budget very well, and his team members were concerned that wasn’t keeping up with their work flow. But he didn’t want anyone to find out he didn’t understand those applications, so he kept that to himself and tried to compensate by working harder. Of course that didn’t help and at his six month review it was made clear that he would lose his job if things didn’t improve.

          He was literally returning from that fateful six-month review, back to his office with the door that closes, when he saw something he’d never noticed before. Around the corner from his office, on the very same floor, was a sign above a doorway. The sign said, “Tech Support.” So desperate was he at that moment that he poked his head in the door, and cried out, “I’m about to lose my job because I don’t understand two applications. Can you help me?” The woman at the desk said, “Of course, that’s what we’re here for. What’s your name?” She looked at her computer screen and said, “How about if someone stops by your office tomorrow afternoon?” Not only did they help him learn and feel confident with those applications, every time they were updated, they came back and got him up to speed again.

          He said to me, “Do you mean to tell me I went through all that stress, that I almost lost my job, for nothing? That all along all I had to do was ask for help?” Of course, he already knew the answer. What I was thinking was this: whenever we start bailing and fearing and flailing around, do you mean to tell me that all we have to do is ask for help? All we have to do is cry out to Jesus to save us? But of course, you already know the answer. If Tech Support saves, just think how Jesus saves!

 

          As I studied for this sermon I looked back at some previous sermons I’ve preached on these scriptures. One that caught my eye I preached during a capital campaign at another church. The problems with that building were so critical that if tuckpointing and drainage work weren’t done, it really was in danger of collapsing, falling apart. But we weren’t certain we could raise enough money to do the work. Several people asked me, “What are we going to do if we don’t raise enough money? What’s the back-up plan?” So in the sermon I tried to encouraged people, like Peter, to step out of the boat in their giving, to take a leap of faith in their generosity. And I said there really wasn’t a back-up plan except, like Peter, to cry out, “Lord, save me!”

          I wish I hadn’t said that. Or I wish at least that I’d put it a different way. Because when you’re out in a boat and a storm comes up, when the building is leaking and you don’t know what to do, crying out, “Lord, save me!” is not a back-up plan. Crying out, “Lord, save me!” is the plan.

 

          Most Bible commentaries agree that Matthew intended these stories of disciples, boats and storms not just as miracle stories, but as parables.1 The metaphor of the disciples in a boat, shaken by wind and threatened by waves, is a symbol of our life together in the church. In fact, one of the most common images for the church in early Christian is a boat. Here’s one that goes back to the 2nd century, from the catacombs beneath Rome:

 

It’s a simple picture, representing the church.

          In the Greek Orthodox Church, the disciples in a boat was a common icon for Christians contemplating the life of the church:

 

 

 

This picture shows Saint Nicholas, who lived in the 300s, as one of the disciples in the boat with Jesus:

 

 

 

And the image of the church as boat continues into modern church art and architecture. Here’s a beautiful church window from the 20th century:

 

 

 

 

It is a picture of the church.

          The image of the church as a boat is apt because, of course, the church is always facing some storm or other.

  • The first storm was the ascension of Jesus into heaven. One moment he was with the disciples; the next moment he was not, or at least not in the same way. They stood there staring into space, wondering What are we going to do now? Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always some kind of storm.
  • And then Gentiles started believing in Jesus and wanted to worship and pray and even eat with these Jewish Christians, which the rules strictly prohibited. What are we going to do now? they wondered. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm.
  • And then the Romans started persecuting Christians—burning them alive or throwing them to the lions if they wouldn’t renounce Christ. What are we going to do? they wondered. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm.
  • You may know that the Methodist Church—then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church--split ages ago over whether Christians could participate in slavery, and it didn’t reunite for almost 100 years. For generations they wondered, What are we going to do? Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There are some pretty big storms out there.
  • I remember when people wouldn’t attend worship at my home church if there was a woman preacher. It seems silly now, but there were strong feelings about it back then. What are we going to do? they wondered. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm.
  • And of course you know what the United Methodist Church is struggling with now—whether or not LGBT people will be truly and fully welcome everyone the way all people are welcome here. I know--people won’t always worry about this, but right now there are strong feelings about it. What are we going to do? people are wondering. Well, stay in the boat, and cry out, “Lord, save us!” There’s always a storm of some kind or another.

 

          Here’s the thing: In Matthew 8 when the church—I mean, when the disciples in the boat—were being swamped by the waves, do you remember where Jesus was? He was sound asleep! Not the slightest bit concerned. And in chapter 14 when the church—I mean, the disciples in the boat—were being battered by the waves, far from land, where was Jesus? He was taking a walk on top of the waves. In fact, Mark adds the detail that Jesus intended to walk right by them, not understanding why they were so worked up.

          Jesus is simply not preoccupied with our preoccupations; he is not worried by the things that upset us; he is not caught up in our anxiety and negativity. He’s seen storms come and he’s seen storms go. Therefore he can sleep right through them; therefore he walk right over the top of them. He can silence a storm with just a word. The trick isn’t to never be afraid of anything; the trick is knowing whom to call out to when we are afraid. Because Jesus saves. Crying out, “Lord, save us!” isn’t the back-up plan; crying out, “Lord, save us!” is the plan. The answer to so many, perhaps all, of the churches problems and concerns is just to stay in the boat and cry out together, “Lord, save us!”

 

          Now, there is another sermon in this Bible story. I mean, what about Peter? He didn’t stay in the boat, right? He got out of the boat and at least started to walk on water. And if I had time, I could preach you that sermon. There comes a time in every Christian’s life when you’ve got to step out of the boat. Every new ministry in the church was started by someone who dared to step out and try something new. Every social change comes about because someone dares to step out of the boat.

  • This church building hasn’t always been here. Someone dared to dream of building a beautiful church at the corner of Henderson and High, and someone dated to ask people for money to build it, lots of money. They stepped out of the boat, and here we are today.
  • And, for example, mission trips don’t just happen. Patti and John and Dan research projects and raise money and twist people’s arms to go. They step out of the boat every year, and think of all that’s been done.
  • And Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges, and John Wesley and all those kids from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School speaking to legislators and marching on Washington. Ministries happen, the world changes, because ordinary people step out of the boat. Maybe you will too.

 

          But I don’t have time to preach that sermon today. And anyway, I think the message that’s needed most right now is the one about staying in the boat. You’ll notice that eleven of the twelve disciples did not step out of the boat, and nowhere does Jesus criticize them for that. There’s a lot to be said for just staying in the boat. The answer to so many of the church’s problems and concerns is just to stay together and cry out, “Lord, save us!” Because, you see, the trick isn’t to never be afraid of anything; the trick is knowing whom to call out to when we are afraid. Jesus saves. Crying out, “Lord, save us!” isn’t the back-up plan; crying out, “Lord, save us!” is the plan. Why? Because Jesus saves.

 

 

1 See for example Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 95.

Luke 17:11-19

Ten Are Healed, One Is Saved

March 4, 2018

 

          Jesus saves. All this season of Lent we’re looking at what that means in the stories of Jesus. For the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, ‘Jesus saves’ means not only that her hemorrhage stops, but that she is restored to family and community, made welcome in the place of worship, she is un-ostracized. Jesus saves. For the woman others called a sinner, ‘Jesus saves’ means being accepted, loved, respected for who she is and who by the grace of God she may become. Jesus saves.

          Today’s gospel story draws a distinction between being ‘healed’ on the one hand and being ‘saved’ on the other. All ten lepers, it says, are healed—“made clean,” Luke calls it. Iaomai, is the Greek word—it’s a medical term; we might best call it ‘cured.’ Ten lepers are cured, but to only one leper does Jesus say, “Your faith has . . . made you well,” it says. But of course by now you know that ‘made well’ is our old friend, the Greek word sōzō. It’s sometimes translated ‘healed,’ yes; and sometimes ‘made well.’ But it means saved, in all the ways that Jesus saves.

          So what’s the difference between being cured and being saved? What set the one leper apart from the other nine? Let me give you two answers to those questions.

  1. All ten lepers, it says, were made clean as they were on their way to the priest. But here’s what happened to the one that didn’t happen to the others. It says, “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God.” He is saved because he sees what God has done--he notices, he pays attention.

Here’s how Chris Anderson puts it in his wonderful book, Light When it Comes: The key word in the story, he says, is seeing, realizing. And one of them, Luke says, realizing that he had been healed. . . “As if,” Anderson says, “you wouldn’t know you’d been healed of leprosy. As if that wouldn’t be obvious.”

“But we’re being healed of leprosy all the time,” he says, “and we’re always failing to realize it.” I drive down the road and the leaves are turning yellow and red. A friend says something kind. I raise the cup at Holy Communion, brimming with wine, like rubies in a brooch. But I let the moments pass, or I never realize they’ve happened at all.1

Those are his examples of lepers being healed all the time. I have plenty of my own. My wife had cancer; my daughter had a life-threatening condition. And both are alive and living the dream. Almost every Sunday I get to hold one of your babies, and take that precious life into my own fragile hands. I sat recently in the presence of two people tearfully forgiving one another after years of separation and anger. I’m being healed of leprosy all the time, but all too often I let the moments pass, or never realize they’ve happened at all.

Those are my examples of lepers being healed all the time. I suspect you have some of your own. And when we manage to see, when we take time to realize what Jesus has done, we turn and praise God. Already we’ve been cured, already we’ve been healed. But in the seeing, in the noticing, we are saved.

 

  1. That’s one: we are saved when we see what Jesus has done and turn and praise the Lord. Here’s the other one. Because their disease was contagious, lepers had to stay away from everyone else. They lived outside the city walls. If they went anywhere they had to shout out they were lepers so others would stay away. If lepers thought they’d been cured, only the priest could certify it; only the priest could give lepers approval to return society and their loved ones. So in the process of healing them, Jesus naturally sends all ten lepers to the priest, to be proclaimed cured. Nine of them do as they’re told, never to be heard from again. But one of them does not do what Jesus says to do. One of them does not go to the priest. One of them is disobedient. And that’s the one, it says, who has faith. That one is saved.

          What are we to make of that—that it’s the disobedient one that is saved? Well, for one thing, this one is a Samaritan—a “foreigner,” Jesus calls him. Literally, the Greek word means someone “of another race.” In other words, he is a double outsider—not only a leper, but a despised foreign leper. Maybe he has less to lose than the others. Or maybe he has less to gain by going to the priest. Whatever the reason is, nine lepers behave like respectable people, obedient religious people, rule-followers; they do what Jesus tells them to do, what you’d expect cured lepers to do—they go to the priest.

          But one of them, a double outsider, does not. One of them makes a scene. When he sees that he is cured, he turns; he comes busting back to Jesus, shouting for all the world to hear. He throws himself face-down on the ground at Jesus’ feet. He will not quit thanking Jesus and praising God. He is not obedient; he is not respectable. Instead, as Barbara Taylor puts it, he acts “like a man in love.”2 It’s one thing to be cured of leprosy, it’s one thing to go obediently and respectably to the priest—it’s another thing altogether to come busting back to Jesus, giving thanks and praising God like a woman or man, like a girl or boy in love. Ten are healed; one is saved.

          Barbara Taylor grows confessional in her sermon on this scripture. She says, I know how to be obedient; what I don’t know so well is how to be in love with Jesus. I read my Bible, say my prayers, pay my pledge. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s the kind of steady, rule-following discipleship—the discipleship of the nine lepers—that keeps the church going. I am, she admits, one of the nine. But what we long to be, what our hearts cry out for—at least once in a while—is to be in love with Jesus, to come busting back shouting praise and throwing ourselves on the ground. What we long for, what our hearts cry out for . . . is to be saved.

          Where are the nine, Jesus asks the healed Samaritan leper. But of course we know where the nine are. They’re us. An even better question is, “Where is the one, the one who got saved?”

 

          To be saved is to be restored to family and community, made welcome in the place of worship, to be un-ostracized. Jesus saves. To be saved is to accepted, loved, respected for who you are right now and who by the grace of God you may become. Jesus saves. To be saved is to see how we you being healed all the time, and for once in your life be the one who leaves obedience and respectability behind to come busting back to Jesus with gratitude and joy. Jesus saves, if only we will let him.

 

1 Chris Anderson, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness & Seeing God in Everything (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 61-62.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Tenth Leper,” The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), 107-13.

Luke 7:36-50

Saved = Forgiven and Unashamed

February 25, 2018

 

          Our worship theme this Lent is “Jesus Saves.” And last week we learned that the Greek word for ‘saved’ is sōzō, but sōzō gets translated different ways depending on context: ‘saved,’ yes, but also ‘healed,’ and sometimes ‘made well.’ For the woman with the flow of blood in last week’s gospel reading, ‘saved’ meant physical healing, but it was healing and then some—it was being restored to community, being welcomed in the place of worship, being made somebody instead of nobody. Jesus saves. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” And this time saved means forgiven. And forgiveness is a great big deal—don’t get me wrong. But even so, saved is forgiveness . . . and then some. Let me tell you what I mean.

 

          Simon the Pharisee is criticizing Jesus; the Pharisees were always criticizing Jesus. This time it was for failing to recognize “who and what sort” of woman this is who has cried on his hair and kissed his feet. That’s the sort of thing Pharisees care about—Pharisees back then and Pharisees here today--who and who sort of people others are. Are they respectable enough? Are they of the right nationality and social class? Do they follow the rules? Do they make us uncomfortable in some way? That’s what Pharisees care about—who and of what sort other people are.

          But Jesus says to Simon: Do you see this woman? Did you hear that question in the gospel? Do you see this woman, Jesus asked. Well, sort of, he had. He’d seen her enough to judge her. He’d seen her enough to know Jesus shouldn’t be with her. But seen her, who she was inside, what it felt like to be her, what her human potential was? No. When he looked at her, all he saw was “a sinner.” He didn’t even know--didn’t care to know--her name. He thought he had her summed up in one word: sinner.

 

          New Testament scholar Wendy Farley points out that this woman has almost certainly been mistreated, traumatized.1 Prostitutes then, as now, didn’t simply ‘choose’ to walk the streets. They were abused, beaten, threatened, deprived of other options—trafficked, is the word we use today. And for traumatized persons, Farley says, forgiveness is not enough. If we hear in this passage only a message of forgiveness, she writes, we remain in the world of the Pharisee. Pharisees can forgive people . . . but still despise them, Pharisees can forgive people . . . but still feel superior to them, Even Pharisees can forgive people . . . but those people are still unwelcome.

          It’s not that the woman doesn’t need to be forgiven; she does. But for her—and, I suppose, for all of us—to be saved is to be forgiven . . . and then some. For this woman, to be saved has to mean being accepted, loved, respected. Here’s how Farley puts it: “Jesus is not distracted by her sin but rather perceives the beauty of her soul shining in her beautiful actions [of loving Jesus]. She does not see herself as beautiful, but he does.” Simon, Jesus asks, do you see this woman? No, Simon doesn’t want to see her. But Jesus does. Jesus saves.

 

          The healing of shame, being truly ‘saved,’ is more than forgiveness. In her shame, one writer has suggested, this woman probably thought, “Joseph is a carpenter, Ruth is a seamstress, Ben is a priest, and I am a sinner.”2 But that’s her shame talking. Sure she’s sinned; we all have. But that’s not who she is. Jesus sees so much more in her than that; Jesus sees something beautiful in her. Jesus saves. And you know, on a good day, I’m fine; I’m okay with myself. But on a bad day, on one of those days that just keep spiraling down, I say to myself: worship attendance is down, the church budget is tight, some people are mad at me. I am a failure. But that, of course, is my shame talking. Sure I have failed at this and that, but that’s not who I am. Jesus sees so much more than that; Jesus sees something beautiful in me. Jesus saves.

 

          That is a beautiful and redeeming part of this story. But it’s only part of the story. There is in the gospel story this woman Jesus whom forgives and accepts; he sees something beautiful in her. In a word, Jesus saves her. But there is someone else in the story, someone who needs saved even more than her, and someone who at the end of the story is still not saved—and that is Simon the Pharisee. At the end of the story, he still thinks he’s better than others, he needs to feel more respectable than others, he still believes he doesn’t belong in the same room or the same category of people with this woman--this woman Jesus loves and who has loved Jesus back. Simon the Pharisee believes he doesn’t need to be saved, and so, sadly, he is not.

 

          Jesus saves. Which means that he heals, yes, but healed and then some. He restores people to community, welcomes people into places of worship, un-ostracizes people. Jesus saves. Which means that Jesus forgives, yes, but forgives and then some. He sees more in us than we can see in ourselves. He sees something beautiful in the broken and downtrodden.

          And the question for us is this: will we be the church of Simon the Pharisee or the church of Jesus the Savior? Will we be the church of Simon the criticizer, the judge, the one who endlessly finds fault--or the church of Jesus who sees something beautiful in everyone? I know what kind of church I need. Jesus saves.

The Lenten Prayer

         

 

1 Wendy Farley, “Luke 7:36-50,” Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation 69/1 (January 2015), 76-77.

2 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Heartfelt: Finding Our Way Back to God (Upper Room Press, 1993), 79.

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