Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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“Coming In to go Out”

What are you doing at Church?  Even better, why are you here?

Tom Raines (President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources) conducted a Twitter poll of church leaders and church goers from around the country asking them to share some of the reasons people give for not going to church.  Some were ones that you’d might expect: “The church is full of judgmental hypocrites,” “they don’t sing the music I like,”  or “the church is not relevant to my life or the world today.”  But others were perhaps more interesting:

-        We were out of peanut butter.

-        My wife cooked bacon for breakfast and the entire family smelled like it.

-        We got burned out on church so we’ve been taking a break for the last seven years.

-        Both my girlfriends attend that church.

-        I couldn’t get the lid off the peanut butter.

Before I get back to the question I initially posed I would like to address first, what or who is the church?  There are no shortage of opinions on this topic.  Some vary in forms that make the church out to be a voluntary organization or a group of superstitious people with likeminded superstitions.  St. Paul addresses this question extensively beginning in 1st Corinthians 1:1-2 St. Paul writes, “to the church of God in Corinth, to those that are sanctified (growing or becoming) in Christ Jesus, called to be Saints, together with all those, in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ.”  In Galatians 1:2 Paul writes to all of the churches in Galatia where he refers to an assembly of people, not a building or structure where they gather.  Is this an image that initially comes to your mind when we think of Church today?

More often in scripture the term is used more broadly, referring not only to a small subset or congregation but all Christian congregations across the earth.  It is in this sense that we understand it in our liturgy today.  When one is baptized into the church the pastor states that “according to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church.”  This is also how Paul refers to it in Acts 20:28 where he says we are to, “shepherd the Church of God that he ordained with the blood of his own son.”

Again in Ephesians, Paul addresses the church in Ephesus calling them “the saints (or holy persons) who assemble themselves to worship God the Father and his son Jesus Christ.”  The point here is that Paul is referring to the universal church who finds its identity in Jesus Christ and purpose from the Holy Spirit.  He is not referring to one family or congregation, or dare I say denomination to use a modern term, and instead through all of Paul’s letters paints a picture of an assembly where there resides:

-One Spirit who brings life to the church (Romans 8:9)

-One Hope, that in all who receive this Spirit, know that to die is not to be lost, and to know the certainty of Christ’s presence in our world today. (1 Peter 1:3-4)

-One Lord who has taken possession of our lives and lives in our hearts (Ephesians 2:6)

-One Faith that enables every Christian to testify with Paul that, “the life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

-One Baptism, washed of our sins and born of the Spirit

-One God who is Mighty to Save and lets us know that we are his children.

To sum up the answer of who is the Church, we see in scripture that the Church is all people whom God called out of this world, who responded in faith to his Son and live with the promise of salvation both now and to come. 

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “I’ve been to church, and all of that sounds nice, but it does not reflect a reality that I know.”  I ask you again, “what are you doing here?”

During year A of our lectionary we focus on Mathew’s Gospel and as we have seen over the past weeks you can start to pick out some themes as we progress through the year:

  1. Jesus us the fulfillment of Israel's scriptures.
  1. Jesus is the new authoritative new teacher of the law: Mathew states the upholding of Jesus and the Law.  In MT's gospel Jesus gets mad at the Pharisees not for following the law, but instead they didn't follow it well enough and is the new authoritative source for reading the law.  Jesus wants us to read the law but in Mathew's gospel trough Jesus as the new teacher of the law.  Not to dispose of it.  As Pastor Glenn has shown us, Jesus has a perspective on the world where weeds are permitted to grow with grain, where seed is scattered with reckless abandon, and abundance abounds.
  2. A third theme focuses on the coming Son of Man and judge…from a perspective only Jesus could show us.

Matthew chapters 9-13 in particular center on Jesus ministry as a healer and include:

  1. Jesus healing of a paralytic man
  2. Jesus “calls” Matthew
  3. The healing of Jarius’ daughter
  4. The healing of the two blind men
  5. And where Jesus heals the hand of a man

Our Gospel reading today (Matthew 9:9-13) is the second story in the sequence I have listed and at first is seemingly out of place. It is a story about a man that is “called out.”  The truth is we all have a call story. A binding element in Matthew’s story and Jesus’ healing of the paralytic man is 9:12, we see that sin is at the heart of Jesus’ healing ministry.  In the case of the paralytic man, sin was likely associated with the man’s physical condition.  In the case of Matthew it was his profession.  In either case they receive forgiveness from Jesus is spite of how they felt or what they were told, not because of something they did but instead because of what Jesus saw in them.  Moreover, for the tax collector, this acceptance by Jesus was not just extended to one of Jesus’ many followers but to one of the twelve.  In other words, among those commissioned by Jesus to heal others is an individual who was once “sick” and in need of a physician.  Could it be that Matthew truly knows what it means to be healed?  It is in this context that it makes complete sense that Matthew’s “call story” is placed in the middle of Jesus healing ministry.  This makes Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:8 even more real for Matthew and us today, “you received without payment, give without payment.”

Perhaps now you are asking, “what is it you want me to give?  Money, time, mission work; do you want me to volunteer for something?”  To these notions remember that “volunteers, volunteer for voluntary organizations.  Disciples of Jesus Christ offer themselves to the Holy Spirit to be used for the mission of God.”

As members of Christ’s holy Church we come into this place to see what God has for us and in turn share our story with others.  When we look at Matthew’s “call story” in context we see it is truly a healing story.  The truth is that all of our “call stories” are healing stories in some way.  We were all broken and then made whole in Jesus Christ.  Knowing now what it means to be called we can now see ourselves as a church as a people that are healed or called out, not because of what we have done but because of what Christ has done and what the Spirit continues to do through our church.  Freely we have received, so freely we share the hope, faith, and love we have as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. 

We are called to live intentionally about how we point to and reflect God’s love as people who are brought into this building to be sent out to offer healing and forgiveness to all of God’s people.  Who is the church?  We are called, we are healed, brought together in the name of Jesus Christ and sent out into the world to share God’s forgiveness with a hurting and broken world.  Share love today, tell your story…Invite someone to church.    

Matthew 14:13-21

Bread to Share

August 6, 2017

 

          Jesus sees things a different way from the rest of us.  After we heard his Parable of the Sower, someone told me, “No decent farmer is going to just keep throwing seed out there in places where it probably won’t grow.”  That’s true; but Jesus doesn’t see it that way.  After the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, someone said, “Yeah, but if you leave the weeds alone, pretty soon they’ll take over.”  I know that’s true and you know that’s true, but not Jesus.  He sees things a different way from the rest of us.  Jesus thought a yoke could be light—you saw how heavy that yoke was we had in here; he thought a cup of cold water was enough to make a real difference in the world, when we all know it’s not.  Jesus saw things a different way from the rest of us.  And his mission is to get us to see things that way too.

          In today’s gospel reading, there he goes again.  He thinks that if we will share our five loaves and two fish, it will be enough for everybody.  Silly Jesus!  He just sees things different from the rest of us. 

          Of course, as it turns out they really did feed thousands with those five loaves and two fish.  So maybe Jesus isn’t so silly.  And maybe we ought to at least try out his way of seeing things.  

          So how did it happen, that miraculous feeding?  Some have suggested everybody ate only the tiniest bites of bread and fish, that it was not an all-you-can-eat buffet but a kind of symbolic meal.  But that’s clearly not what it says.  Others suggest that once the disciples started sharing, other people were inspired to share the food they had hidden away and it turned out there was plenty there all along.  I’ve always liked that reading—after all, which really is the greater miracle, multiplying loaves or getting people to share?  And of course many people simply believe that when Jesus took the loaves in his hands, one loaf somehow suddenly became a hundred.  But that doesn’t really explain anything, does it? 

          That’s because to ask Did this really happen? or How did this happen? is to ask the wrong questions.  The real question is Do we have eyes to see how this story happens all the time?  As Megan McKenna has put it, this is not a story about something Jesus did a long time ago; this is a story about how life is for followers of Jesus in a world of need.1

          When Jesus looks at the world, he sees that if people will only share what they have, there will be enough and baskets full left over.  Jesus sees a world where abundance, not scarcity, can guide our every decision.  Now deep in our hearts we suspect Jesus is wrong about that.  But he is Jesus, after all, so let’s try humor him and see what might happen. 

          It turns out that the whole Bible is a story of abundance. In Genesis 1, God created heavens filled with stars, seas teeming with creatures, and plants producing of their own kind.  And God called it very good.  When the people of Israel were hungry in the wilderness, God provided manna to eat—they couldn’t horde it or store it up, but every day for forty years there was enough.  During a famine the prophet Elijah asked a poor widow to share her very last morsel of bread; she did, and her jar of flour and jug of oil never ran out (1 Kings 17:6-16).  Elijah’s successor, Elisha, took forty barley loaves and fed the entire country (2 Kings 4:42-44). 

          The Bible is a lesson in abundance . . . but we are slow learners.  Perhaps that’s why the Feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story reported in all four gospels—the Bible wants to make sure we see things the way Jesus does.  And probably that’s why just one chapter after today’s gospel reading Jesus does it again—this time feeding 4000 people with seven loaves (Matthew 15:32-39).  And fresh off the Feeding of the 5000, guess what the disciples say when Jesus wants them to feed the 4000?  Do they say, “Okay, Jesus.  It worked before, so it’ll surely work again.”  No, fresh off the Feeding of the 5000, when Jesus wants them to feed the 4000, they say, “But where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?”  Jesus sees a world of abundance, but in our perpetual fear of scarcity we are such slow learners.

 

          Ultimately our fear of scarcity leads to unattractive consequences.  On a personal level, our fear of scarcity leads to never-ending anxiety.  I’m like the disciples—I want everybody to have enough to eat, really I do, but what if there’s not enough, I worry?  What if we run out?  What if more people show up?  What if I don’t get some? What if this, or what if that? 

          At its worst, this fear of scarcity leads to downright selfishness.  Since we’re not sure there will be enough, we’d better keep all we can for ourselves.  And once you start down that road, no amount ever feels like enough; even the fullest of pantries can’t alleviate our fear.  No one intends to be selfish, but fear of scarcity leads us to places we never meant to go.

          That’s on the personal level.  At the level of the church, this fear of scarcity leads to timidity, to a smallness of vision.  It’s hard to take on big ministries, if you’re afraid people won’t support them.  It’s hard to reach out and care for new people if we’re always worried about ourselves.  Sure, Jesus fed 5000 people with twelve disciples, five loaves and two fish, but we’re not sure Jesus can do anything like that through us . . .  Fear of scarcity leads to timidity, a smallness of vision. 

 

          The good news is that there’s a whole different way of seeing—Jesus’ way of seeing things. Instead of fearing a world of limited resources, Jesus invites us to see a world of God’s abundant gifts and endless possibilities.  It’s a way of seeing that leads to big dreams, bold plans, and extravagant sharing.  It’s very exciting, but also risky, a little scary. 

          Fuad Bahnan, an Arab born in Jerusalem, was the pastor of a small Christian church in predominantly Muslim West Beirut.2  In 1983 the Israeli army pushed north into Lebanon.  Leaders of Pastor Bahnan’s church were worried the Israelis would take Beirut and try to starve out any Palestinian fighters there.  So they decided to buy vast amounts of canned goods and store them at the church, just in case. 

          Their fears came to pass.  West Beirut was entirely cut off.  No one could enter or leave.  No food was allowed in.  The leaders of the church met again, to decide how to distribute their food.  Two proposals were put forward.  One was to distribute the food first to church members, then as supplies permitted, to other Christians, and finally, if any was left over, to the Muslims.  The second proposal was just the opposite:  to distribute food first to their Muslim neighbors, then to other Christians, and finally, if any was left, to members of their church.  The meeting lasted six hours.  It ended when one elderly woman, well-respected, stood up and cried out, “If we don’t demonstrate the love of Christ in this place, who will?”  The food was distributed first to Muslims, then to other Christians, and finally to themselves.  In the end, there was enough for all of them.2  They had learned to see with the eyes of Jesus, a world of abundance, in which five loaves and two fish really can feed us all.

 

     The question for today is not Did this really happen? or How did this happen? The question for today is not even quite Will we share our bread, our time, our money? though it has implications for our sharing.  The question is Can we see the world the way Jesus sees it?  Where seed is scattered lavishly whether it grows or not.  Where weeds are allowed to grow with the wheat.  Where yokes can be easy and even a cup of cold makes a difference.  And where five loaves and a couple of fish are enough to invite everyone to sit at our table.  Where not fear of scarcity, but God’s miraculous abundance guides our every decision. I want to learn to see the way Jesus sees.

1 See Megan McKenna, Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 16-17.

2 Michael L. Lindvall, The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001), 125-26.

Luke 4:16-21 / Mark 11:25

Today!

July 30, 2017

 

          What is a service of healing prayer?  The first thing to do about a healing service is to manage expectations.  So, on the one hand, will we hoot and holler here today?  Well, I’m not going to; you can if it helps you, I guess.  Will we throw crutches around?  No.  Will we sell hankies blessed by the Prayer Team?  No.  This is not a show; it’s a service of worship in which we seek God’s blessing.

          On the other hand, will we pray today for people to be healed in body, mind, spirit, finances, relationships, and any other way they are oppressed?  Absolutely!  Do we believe that prayer taps into a power beyond our understanding?  Yes! 

          In the Introduction to its healing services, The United Methodist Book of Worship says:  “Healing is not magic, but underlying it is the great mystery of God’s love.  . .  God does not promise that we shall be spared suffering but does promise to be with us in our suffering. . .  And God does not promise that we will be cured of all illnesses. . .  A Service of Healing is not necessarily a service of curing, but it provides the atmosphere in which healing can happen.”1 In other words, we come to this service with high expectations of an encounter with the healing God.  We get to share with God our deepest longings and desires.  The outcome of prayer is beyond our control, even beyond our understanding.  But one thing we know and trust—we need not leave here today without the blessing and favor of God.

 

          Will we pray for “miracles” here today?  I guess that depends on what you mean by “miracle.”  Some people think of a miracle as something that happens contrary to the rules of physics or outside the laws of nature.  I’m not sure I’ve ever prayed for that exactly.  But science is learning that energy and matter, mind and body, the spiritual and the rational are interrelated in ways we don’t begin to understand.  Surprising, unexplainable, praiseworthy things do happen—and I will pray for that. 

          The British theologian, Sam Wells, teaches that through the incarnation God is utterly with all of creation all the time, so there is no such thing as nature, understood as a self-sustaining system which God is outside of.  Instead there is creation, which God initiated, upholds and is perpetually with.  Thus “miracles” don’t so much change reality,” Wells says, “as make visible a different, divine reality that is always also part of creation.2

               One miracle I will absolutely pray for is the miracle of forgiveness—both to be forgiven and to be able to forgive others. There are few things in life more powerful than being set free from one’s guilt and shame.  And the action that unblocks the flow of receiving forgiveness is the act of forgiving others.   I know of no gift greater, no action more surprising, no miracle greater than forgiveness.  So yes, I’ll pray for miracles today.

 

               Our gospel reading is from Luke 4. It’s the scripture from Isaiah that Jesus chose for his very first public message. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he read, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  In other words, Jesus took as his starting point, his personal mission statement, you might say, the work of healing, broadly understood:  the healing of physical ailments such as blindness, but also the healing of spiritual, economic, and social ailments—imprisonment, oppression, addiction, debt.  And Jesus kept at this healing mission all his life.  The very next stories in Luke 4 are about Jesus healing someone of an unclean spirit and healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever.  A summary at the end of chapter 4 says,  “all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.  Demons,” it says, whatever that meant in those days, “also came out of many,”  Fully one-third of all the verses in Luke’s gospel are in stories of healing.  Healing was the mission of Jesus; it still is.

 

          When Jesus had finished reading his chosen scripture from Isaiah about release to captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed and favor for all God’s people, he preached on it what was essentially a one-word sermon.  (Don’t you wish your preachers could be so concise?)  “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your presence.”  Today, he said.  God’s saving, healing power is not relegated to Bible stories long ago.  And God’s saving, healing power is not put off till we get to heaven or the End Time comes.  About release of captives and healed bodies, about freedom and God’s favor, Jesus says Today is the day.

          And in Jesus’ name, we say it too.  You are invited to come seek healing today.  No, no, I can’t know what will happen to anyone here today.  But again, one thing I do know and trust--we need not leave here today without the blessing and favor of God.

         

          Each week Cathy Davis and Nancy Gay add to our church’s Prayer List names and situations that you share on prayer cards, call or email to us, or tell us in person.  The Prayer Team faithfully prays for each one of these.  You probably know that.  What you may not know is that periodically the team creates what they call a Rejoice List.  These are the people who can be taken off the Prayer List because they’ve received the healing we prayed for, or they found peace of mind about the situation they shared.  It is often a long and always joyful list.  It’s difficult for us to share this Rejoice List with you because it contains such sensitive and personal information.  But suffice it to say there are surgeries recovered from, cancers gone into remission, relationships restored with sons and daughters, loved ones released from prison, people getting help with addictions, and on and on it goes.  Now, you may say these folks might have got better even without the Prayer Team.  Yeah, maybe—God is good.  But I sure am glad they prayed—aren’t you?

 

          So who are these poor people that Jesus reads about in Isaiah?  Who are the captives and blind ones, who are these oppressed and who is it that’s in need of God’s favor?  Well, the invitation today is to see that we are, you and I.  We are the ones in need of healing.  God’s healing power is not buried in Bible stories of the past nor do we have to wait for heaven or the End of time.  Jesus says healing is fulfilled today.

 

          There are several ways you can engage in this time of healing prayer, and you can choose one or all of them, as you are led. 

          In your bulletin is a card for you to use to reflect and then write down your heart’s longing for healing today.  How do you pray for healing this day—physical, emotional, spiritual, relationships, for someone else?  Write it down.  After the hymn, you can put this card in this Prayer Box up here, you can present it to the prayer partners when you move to a station, or you can take it home with you as a reminder.  But before the hymn we’ll give you a few moments to write down your prayer for healing.   

          Second, after the hymn you can come forward to the table and light a candle—lighting a candle is an ancient and moving act of prayer.

          Finally after the hymn, prayer partners will move to stations, both here at the front of the sanctuary and also at the back.  There is one set of prayer partners ready to come to you wherever you are, if that would be helpful—just signal to them.  At each prayer station, you will be invited to sit.  The prayer partners will ask what healing you long for today.  They’ll offer to anoint you with oil, if you wish.  And then they’ll simply pray for your desire and speak for you a blessing.  As you wait to be prayed for, I’d ask you to stay a ways back from the prayer station so that each encounter can be confidential.  

          Prayer partners will remain after worship in the prayer room in the back of the sanctuary.  If the 9:30 hours approaches, we may go ahead and sing the closing hymn, so that those who need to leave may do so, but don’t let the deter you.  The prayer partners will stay to pray with all who come, as long as they are needed. 

          Jesus said that God’s healing is fulfilled today. 

         

 

1 “Healing Services and Prayers: Introduction,” The United Methodist Book of Worship (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 613-14.

2Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell,

2015), 159.

 

Matthew 13:24-30

To Grow Together

July 23, 2017       Maple Grove UMC

 

          Last Sunday Jesus’ Parable of the Sower was meant to address questions like, If Jesus really is the Messiah, why doesn’t everyone believe in him? and Why don’t more people to come to church in his name? This week’s story, the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, addresses a related question: Why are some of the people who do come to church such, well, trouble-makers? Why are there weeds in our church’s wheat?

          Jesus’ response to people rejecting him, small crowds in church and disappointing results was to say, You know, that’s just the way it is. You scatter the seeds out there and the birds eat some and some don’t grow very well and some get choked out by weeds.  And some of them grow, but not all of them, not all the time.  That’s just the way the kingdom of God is.

          And today Jesus’ response to why there are so many weeds in the wheat, why there’s people we don’t get along with mixed in with the ones we do, is this:  that’s just the way it is too.  That’s not the way God wants it to be.  Things will be different some day.  But for now, that’s just the way the kingdom of God is; it’s a mixed bag, good and bad, wheat and weeds.

          And we know that’s true, don’t we?  There are people in our world, in our communities, in our churches, who are just not wheat people.  They don’t contribute, they don’t help out, they don’t share, they’re negative all the time.  In fact, writes one preacher, I have a list of them right here.1 You might have your own list.  I may be on your list!

          So we all know there are weeds in the wheat.  The question is, what do we do about that?  In the parable, the Master’s servants know what they want to do about it.  They want to go and pull the weeds, get rid of them.  They think that will help.

          But Jesus says, No, no.  That would do more harm than good.  Because when you try to pull the weeds, you’d pull up the wheat along with them.  No, just let them grow up together, he says.  Just let them grow up together, the wheat and weeds, until harvest time.  It will all get sorted out then, he says.

          So what should we do about the fact that there’s good people and bad people, people we like and people we don’t like, wheat and weeds, all mixed up together?  Nothing, Jesus says.  That’s just the way it is.  Just let them all grow together.  That’s kind of a hard lesson, isn’t it?

 

          Now before moving on, I want to make sure you know this parable is not some kind of moral relativism.  Jesus is not saying that it doesn’t matter how you live, or that anything goes in the church.  He’s quite clear that there really is wheat and there really are weeds, and that some day we really will be sorted out.  Here and now just isn’t the time to do the sorting.  And in Matthew 18 Jesus teaches a process for dealing with unacceptable behavior in the church.  He knows that for the unity of the church, certain kinds of behavior have to be confronted and dealt with.  But just to go around pulling weeds, that’s another matter. 

 

          Weeding can be such a damaging process.  A pastor in Virginia told about a nearby church where there was a girl, about fifteen or sixteen, who was wild, out of control.  She engaged in all kinds of inappropriate behavior and everyone knew it.  Well, it was an embarrassment to that church, and so they weeded her over it.  They voted not to let her come to church there any more, not to sing or worship or take Communion there, for one year.  It tore the church up, this pastor said.  It tore up two or three families.  It tore up the town.2 Even though there really are weeds, weeding can be so damaging.

          In my home church back in a tiny town in Kansas, a man who has a church member but didn’t really come to church any more had an RV.  And he parked his RV on a vacant lot the church owned across the street.  They bought the lot for parking, but no one ever parked there.  Now I don’t know why he parked his RV there--maybe an agreement with the pastor or a previous chair of Trustees.  It wasn’t really hurting anything.  But the new chair of Trustees called and told him he couldn’t park his RV there any more.  He didn’t give any reason, just said he couldn’t do it.  It hurt the man’s feelings and he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to be part of a church that would treat someone that way.  The new chair of Trustees told him, “The church doesn’t need your kind anyway.”  It tore up two or three families.  It tore up the little town.  Even though sometimes there really are weeds, weeding can be so damaging. 

 

          And for that matter, what makes any of us think we’re up to doing the weeding?  When I was a brand new pastor, the leader of Vacation Bible School came to me complaining that the woman who had signed up to teach one of the classes had quit at the last minute.  Bible School was going to start on Monday, and on Sunday after church she told her she just couldn’t do it.  She couldn’t find anyone else on such short notice and had to put two classes together, and it was a real mess.  The leader, who was usually a kind and patient woman, sort of snapped under the pressure.  She chewed that woman out and good, telling her that if she wasn’t going to follow through, she shouldn’t have signed up, and that she’d never wanted to work with her again.  The next day we found out that woman’s husband had left her, gone to Maine with some other woman, leaving her alone with their two daughters.  What do we know about pulling weeds?

          When I was in high school a member of our church came to Bible study one evening and shared some ideas that kind of shocked everyone, including me.  He had different views from the rest of us about the authority of the Bible and certain moral rules in particular.  He was told by several people that he was simply wrong and that he shouldn’t say such things at church.  I didn’t say anything, but I agreed with them.  Looking back, I now agree with every single thing that man said.  What do we know about pulling weeds?  There is One who will sort out the weeds from the wheat come harvest time, but it isn’t you and it isn’t me.

          There was a pastor in Tennessee, a very successful minister, except his current church was full of problems.  There was stress and division and just a mean spirit.  He got so sick of it he told a colleague, “I‘m thinking of quitting.”

          “I hope it won’t come to that,” his friend said.

          “Well, I might.”

          “Well, I hope not.”

          “You know what I’m going to do?” he said.  “I’m going to buy a little piece of land over in Arkansas, and I’m going to build my own church.  It’ll be a study where I can do my work.  No sanctuary.  No Sunday school rooms.  No fellowship hall.  No members.  Just me and God.3 Once you start weeding, that’s what you wind up with—just you and God.  Maybe not even you, on a bad day.

         

          Weeding can be so damaging.  What makes any of us think that we’re the ones to do the weeding?  And there’s one more thing:  sometimes weeds turn into wheat.  Sometimes leopards change their spots.  I know, that sounds like a physical impossibility.  And maybe it is.  But with God all things are possible.  I admit that I have given up on people, and I see them years later, and they’re not the same person.  They’ve quit all that drinking, or they’ve been healed of their bitterness and anger, or they’ve stopped feeling sorry for themselves.  You wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but there it is.  I suspect there are people who have seen me at certain moments of my life, and they might have good reason to say, “Well, that one should never be a pastor,” or “I can’t see him being a kind and caring sort.”  But God wasn’t done with me yet on those certain days, and God still isn’t done with me.  And God isn’t done with you either.  And God isn’t done with the person you’re ready to write off.  You start weeding, and you can get in the way of God’s work of transforming lives.

 

          That’s just the way the kingdom of God is, Jesus says—it’s a mixed bag.  Good and bad, people you like and people you don’t like, wheat and weeds all mixed up together.  That’s pretty messy, isn’t it?  When we invite people to come to church, we’d like to be able to promise them a place where it’s all wheat, where no one would ever hurt their feelings, everyone would be kind and accepting all the time, where the preacher would never say some crazy wrong-headed thing.  But we can’t promise that, of course.  I suppose that’s because God is so terribly patient with us, that as much as sin and evil must break God’s heart, God wants to give everyone one of us every possible chance to shine like golden waves of grain. 

 

          Now, I’ve taken Jesus’ parable to be, more or less, about the church.  And it is, I’m sure.  But it also has some implications for our own internal lives.  When there are things about myself that I do not like—my anger, my pride, my self-doubt—I’d like to root those out of my personality, pull them out like weeds.  But my counselor tells me, “You can’t do that, Glenn.  Because if you rip out your anger, what else might you rip out with it?  And if you just pull out all your pride, what damage might that do?  No, no, she says, you’ve got to befriend your shadow side.  Let it all grow up together, and see if some of those weeds inside you can be transformed into wheat.

          And the parable also surely has a thing or two to say to our country at this point in time.  Depending on our political inclinations, we’re all ready to weed out someone--immigrants , or rich people, or Muslims, or Republicans or Democrats.  But weeding can be so damaging.  Just let them grow together, Jesus said.  Leave it to One wiser than ourselves to sort it all out.

 

          The kingdom of God, Jesus said, is a mixed bag—good and bad, people you like and people you don’t like, wheat and weeds all mixed together.  That’s just the way it is, for now.  We’ll all get sorted out some day.  In the meantime, the good news—and I do think it’s good news—is that we’re stuck with each other, wheat and weeds growing together in God’s kingdom.  Oh sure, I think I could decide pretty well which of us are weeds and which of us is wheat.  You might have your own list, quite different from mine.  The task we have been given, however, is not to sort out who’s weeds and who’s wheat.  The task we’ve been given is not to get rid of the weeds.  Our task is to learn to live together and love each other, mixed bag that we are.  And that, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like.  That’s just the way it is. 

 

1 See Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 26.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 106.

3 Craddock Stories, 106-7.

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Called to Keep Trying

July 16, 2017       Maple Grove UMC

 

          There are at least three ways of hearing this parable.  The interpretation that Matthew gives in chapter 13 invites you to ponder what kind of soil you are. 

  • We could be like soil on a path where there’s just too much going on and kingdom messages get through. One prominent preacher complains that people don’t listen to what he says. Church announcements are published in the parish paper, he says, reprinted in the weekly bulletin, and repeated orally before worship. Then during the Benediction he prays: “Lord, please help the people to remember the fellowship supper on Wednesday at 6:30--that’s Wednesday at 6:30, Lord. And invariably at the door afterwards someone will ask, “Are we going to have the fellowship dinner?”1 People don’t listen! Don’t be like that path soil.

  • We could be like shallow, rocky ground. “Whatever happened to so-and-so,” people ask, “who joined the church a year ago and was so excited about things?” “Well,” I’ll respond, “his friends gave him a hard time for going to church and he kind of let it go,” or “She was on a ministry team and a decision didn’t go her way, so she stopped coming.” Don’t be like that shallow, rocky soil.

  • Some people are like thorny ground, where the cares of the world choke seeds off. Fred Craddock tells about worshiping one time where the sermon was dynamic, the music was inspiring, the whole thing was life-changing. As he walked out he picked up a bulletin someone had dropped. On it was a handwritten conversation: “Shall we close the deal today?” it began. In another hand: “But it’s Sunday.” In the first hand again, “But if we don’t close it today we may lost it.”2 During church! Weeds choke out the Word. Don’t be like thorny ground.

  • What we want to be is good soil, where God’s Word takes root and grows, bearing fruit of 30, 60, 100 times.

There’s a good sermon in there, but I’m reading it a different way today.

 

          A second way of hearing this parable is to imagine ourselves not as soil but as seeds; we are how God shares the kingdom with others.  It’s not so much our mission, it’ss our identity, our privilege to be tossed out there by God.  Can you imagine yourself as God’s seed, yielding for God 100 more people, or 60, or 30 . . . or 1?  There’s a good sermon that way, too. 

 

          But there’s another way to read this story, perhaps the most natural way.  Remember—the main character in a parable is usually the one mentioned first.  And this parable starts out like this:  “Listen! A sower went out to sow . . .”  So who’s the story about?  The sower.

          Taken this way, the parable is about how hard, how unpredictable, frankly how discouraging this work of sharing God’s love and inviting people to church can be.  You dream of bearing fruit 30, 60 or 100-fold, and all too often what you wind up with is a grand total of nothing. 

          Remember from last Sunday--Jesus had reason to be discouraged at this point in his ministry.  His message has become divisive and unpopular, cities where he did deeds of power have rejected him, and even John the Baptist has his doubts.  The early church, where Matthew wrote his gospel, had similar experiences and disappointments.  The Parable of the Sower addresses questions like, “If Jesus is so wonderful, why doesn’t everyone believe in him?  If the Kingdom of God is at hand, why doesn’t it look like it?  And why hasn’t the Church been more successful?”3

          When we’re honest, we Methodists have similar questions.  Some of you have been hard at work sowing God’s seed in this church for fifty years, yet worship attendance is about half what it was fifty years ago. And despite well-loved pastors and dedicated members, the Methodist church has been shrinking since the 1970s.4 What’s going on?

          So many people want to blame pastors for their discouragement about church.  So many pastors want to blame their church members.  But in his parable, Jesus doesn’t feel the need to blame anyone.  It’s just the way it is, he says:  some of the seed falls on the path where birds eat it, and some falls on the rocky ground that has no depth, and some falls where thorns choke it out.  And some seed falls on good soil and bears fruit--but not all of it, not all the time.  Rejection of Jesus and small crowds in church don’t have to be anybody’s fault.  The question isn’t, who can I blame. The question is what are we going to do about it? Well, Jesus’ parable suggests a couple of answers.

 

  1. First, the church is based not on efficiency, but on trusting God’s abundance. Jesus does not say, Let’s appoint a Soil Analysis Committee to figure out the best place to plant our precious seeds. He didn’t say, Let’s plant only certain kinds of seeds, or only at certain times of year, so we don’t run out of precious seed. We get to thinking that resources are scarce; but Jesus’ parable has a different idea. So when times are tough we want to cut the budget; Jesus wants us to give ourselves away. When the crowd gets smaller, we want to circle the wagons and take care of the ones we’ve still got; Jesus wants us to keep reaching out. Jesus says, just keep throwing seeds out there. There’s no shortage of love to share; there’s plenty of seed. So just keep throwing it out there.

              It reminds me of the song, In This Very Room—I believe it’s Nancy Foulger who sometimes sings it for us:

              And in this very room there's quite enough love for all of us,           And in this very room there's quite enough joy for all of us,           And there's quite enough hope and quite enough power

                 to chase away any gloom,           For Jesus, Lord Jesus ... is in this very room.

     

              “Beneath this parable,” writes one pastor, “is a bedrock assumption of abundance. . . Grace is flung and wasted everywhere.”5 Go ahead and share! There’s plenty for everyone!

     

  2. That’s one lesson from this parable—the kingdom of God has an abundance of love and room for all. Share it!

              Here’s the other lesson of the parable, as I see it. Jesus’ message in the face of unresponsive cities, smaller crowds and discouraging results is this: keep trying. Don’t give up. We may or may not be granted what feels like success, but we are called to keep at it. According to the parable, at least ¾ of kingdom seeds never bear fruit, ¾ of our efforts to share God’s love and invite people to church won’t pan out. The answer to that is not to give up. The answer is to sow even more seed, to invite at least four for everyone one you want to show up, to keep trying.

    Of course, in order to keep trying you have to start trying. I read a sermon by a preacher whose church was just about to move into a new, larger facility. He ended his sermon like this: In a short while our church is going to be in our new building. We are going to be in a place in which you can finally invite your friends to come. We do not have room now, and we appreciate your keeping them away so far. But soon we are going to have a place, and then I may just say, “Scatter the seed. It will land in the most unlikely places, and some people may say, “Why did you invite him?” But you never know, because the seed is the Word of God, and once the invitation is out there, you never know what might happen.6

    Well, I’ve done an audit of available space here at Maple Grove and there’s seems to be plenty of room. So I’m saying it today—Scatter the seed, my friends. Throw it out there!

              In the face of smaller crowds and disappointing results, trust in God’s abundance and keep trying.

     

     

1 Fred B. Craddock, “God Opens the Ear,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 44.

2 Craddock, 44-45.

3 See Mark Trotter, What Are You Waiting For? Sermons on the Parables of Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 17.

4 David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 183.

5 Brian Hiortdahl, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (June 28, 2011), 21.

6 Fred B. Craddock, “At Random,” The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 24.

 

Matthew 11:25-30

Easy Yokes, Light Burdens

July 9, 2017         Maple Grove

 

          Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Come to me, you weary.  What makes people weary?  Weary is not the same as tired.  You’re tired when you mow the grass and weed the flowers and trim the bushes.  And when you’re done your bones ache, but you pour yourself an iced tea and sit on the porch and admire how everything looks.  That’s tired.  Weary is when you get half-way done and the mower quits and no amount of pulling will bring it back to life.  So you weed the garden. go inside to brag to your wife about all the weeds you’ve pulled, and she says, “I hope you didn’t pull up the new flowers that just came up.”  “New flowers?”  Then you trim the bushes and the neighbor chews you out for leaving twigs on his lawn. That’s weary.  Tired is “worn out;” weary is “worn down.” 

          What makes people weary?  Burn-out, in my experience, is usually not about working too hard or too many hours.  It’s about working hard at things that don’t really seem to matter, that aren’t getting results any more, that no one seems to appreciate anyway. You know, weary.

          Jesus knew this weariness.  They brought someone with seizures to the disciples but they couldn’t help him.  Jesus said, “How much longer must I be with you?”  He was weary.  At the end of chapter 17 Jesus tells the disciples he’ll be betrayed and put to death, and the next thing they can think of to talk about is which them is the greatest.  It made Jesus weary.  In Gethsemane Jesus begged them to stay awake while he prayed, yet they could not stay awake even one hour.  And in chapter 11, just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is lamenting that cities where’d he’d done great deeds of power would not repent, and even John the Baptist had begun to have his doubts about Jesus.  He was weary. 

 

          Perhaps his own weariness was why Jesus prayed to God: “Thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  He knew that those who are most open to the gospel are not the strong but the weak, not those who have it all together but those whose lives have fallen apart, not the successful but the weary.  Our weariness, in other words, may not be a curse after all, but an opportunity for God.  It’s not until you get to the point you can’t do it yourself that you begin to let go and turn to Jesus.  Michael Yaconelli says:  “We know we are ready for God to work in our lives when we’re tired.”1 You know, weary.  Are you ready for God to work in your life?

 

          Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 

          Why is Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light?  It’s not that he isn’t demanding.  He sends us out to share God’s love and invite people to church.  Demanding.  He tells us to give to every person who begs from us.  Demanding.  He says for us to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times.  Demanding.  He wants us to love not just our friends but our enemies.  What makes that yoke easy and that burden light?

  1. Well, for one thing, Jesus’ burden is the right burden, carried in the right way. This is what God-Centered Wellbeing and Calling means. The trick is not to find the most lucrative burden, or the most impressive, or the one closest at hand. The trick is to find the burden that’s yours, that fits the way God made you, that brings you joy and satisfaction because it is your calling.

              Another way of thinking about this is that the light burden is authentic. If you’re working hard all the time but doing it to keep up with the Jones’s or impress your friends, it’ll wear you out. If you’re nice to your family but just to keep mama off your back, you’ll come to resent them. And if you grit your teeth and fill out Maple Grove’s service commitment card because you feel like it’s your duty, where’s the joy? The light burden is the right burden carried in the right way.

          I think of Peggy Bowers whose funeral we had here yesterday.  She was a nurse for over forty years, and when she wasn’t working in the ER at Riverside, she was taking a friend to the doctor or checking on a neighbor.  No one made Peggy be a nurse, and it must have been hard, stressful, demanding work.  But for Peggy it was an easy yoke, a light burden, because it was her calling, what God made her to do.

          Sometimes, of course, we all to knuckle down and do something just because it has to be done.  Caregiving may not be your calling but your spouse is sick, overtime may not be your thing but your family needs debts paid down, I don’t love driving but my daughter lives 700 miles away.  What are you going to do?  When you’ve just got to do something, you have two choices.  You can do it bitterly, griping and complaining, making yourself and the people around you miserable; or you can accept it lightly, grateful for the ability to do it and that you don’t have to do it forever.  Even when it’s not quite the right burden, how much lighter it is when you carry the right way. 

 2. Why is Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light? Because it’s your calling, the right burden carried in the right way. Second, the word translated as an “easy” yoke means, literally, “kind” or “loving.” There are some teachers or bosses that you’d do anything for. Why? Because they’re kind, loving. There are other teachers and other bosses that make even the simplest thing feel hard. Guess which kind of teacher Jesus is?

     Have you ever noticed how people’s attitude toward certain activities changes when they fall in love? Someone who used to hate to go to the gym is suddenly there at 6:00 am . . . if the girlfriend is there. Football games aren’t so boring, long walks aren’t as dull, even the opera is tolerable, if shared with the one you love.

     Well, what about a life lived out in love of Jesus? What about work done, sacrifices made, gifts given, indignities suffered all out of love of Jesus? The ordained ministry is sometimes called “the yoke of obedience.” Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? And it can be like that--when no one volunteers, and you fight with the Trustees, when some people call to complain you’ve done something too much and others call to complain you haven’t done it enough, and the phone rings with news of yet another death. As long as you’re carrying all that to do your job or keep people happy, it’s heavy. But Jesus says, Come to me. You’re not doing it for yourself, but out of love for me. 

     In A Chorus Line they sing: 

Kiss today goodbye and point me toward tomorrow We did what we had to do Won't forget, can't regret what I did for love.

 

3. What makes Jesus’ yoke easy and his burden light? Because it’s our calling, the right burden carried in the right way. Because it’s carried out of love for Jesus. And here’s one more. Look at the yoke: it’s not for one burden-bearer but for two. One commentary has Jesus saying, “Become my yoke mate, and learn how to pull the load by working beside me and watching how I do it. The heavy labor will seem lighter when you allow me to help you with it.2 Jesus is not calling you to a task. Oh, there’s work to do, but he’s inviting you into a relationship. And Jesus isn’t inviting you to come and do a duty, though again there is much to do. He’s calling you to share life with him. He didn’t say come and do a bunch of stuff; he said come to me.

 

          Have you ever been weary?  Maybe you’re weary today?  Jesus said,

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

 

1 Michael Yaconelli, Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 98.

2 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 129.

 

 

Matthew 10:40-42

The Calling Right in Front of You

July 2, 2017

 

          This worship series is about God-Centered Wellbeing and Calling—what your purpose in life is, what God is calling you to do and how God is calling you to live.  We began by hearing three Maple Grove members tell about their individual, or particular, calling of God:  to love without needing to judge, to be a church youth group leader, to reinvent oneself after a season of grief and loss.  Last Sunday we heard about a calling that belongs to all Christians—to share God’s love to others and invite them to church. 

          Different as they are, one thing those two callings have in common is they both some involve some planning, or at least a little reflection.  God’s purpose for your life may smack you upside the head, but more likely you’ll need to spend some serious time in prayer and self-reflection to work it out.  And some people are just naturals at telling others about God’s love and inviting them to church, but most of us have to work up to those things.  These are callings you have to prepare for.  But the calling in today’s Gospel reading is different; it’s the calling that’s right in front of you.  Whoever welcomes someone in my name, Jesus says, will be rewarded.  Those who give so much as a cup of cold water to one of these littles ones—they will not lose their reward.  There’s nothing you really have to prepare for here.  No deep reflection is necessary.  Just basic hospitality, just be kind to the people in front of you, don't let anyone pass by without caring for them.  Sometimes the calling is right in front of you.

 

Earlier in chapter 10, as Jesus sent the disciples out to share God's love and to heal the sick, he warned them that they would meet opposition; they were entering a time of controversy and division, even division within their own families. (Sound familiar?)  Maybe that's why Jesus ended this chapter emphasizing hospitality and kindness.  For when is the need for hospitality and kindness greater than in a time of controversy?  In a divisive time, you don't have to seek out opportunities for hospitality and kindness.  No, in times like that, the calling is right in front of you.

 

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Taylor, tells of a week when she was busy preparing a sermon about the Good Samaritan, that story about being a neighbor by helping someone in need. She worked on that sermon every day--reading commentaries, praying about it, talking with other preachers.  One of the truths I got from the parable, she says, is that God comes to us daily in unexpected encounters with unexpected people, and if we're faithful, we won't ignore them.  Then, she says, on Thursday I was driving to church, when I saw a car with its hood up along the road.  This was in the 80s, before cell phones.  A large man stepped into the road, she says, holding up some jumper cables and looking me straight in the eye.  Several hundred thoughts went through her mind in about three seconds.  "The man needs help—you are a single woman alone in a car—the man needs help—you are a single woman alone in a car—the man needs help—never open your door to a stranger—go to the nearest gas station and send a mechanic—but the man needs help—what if he can't afford a mechanic—the man needs help—I'm sorry,” she decided, “I can't help—maybe the next person will.”  And I drove on to church, she says, to complete my research on the Good Samaritan.1 Sometimes the calling isn't at church; sometimes it's right in front of you. 

I think of this sometimes after worship, if I see a visitor, a newcomer, standing in a corner of the lobby by herself. It doesn't happen often, but I have seen it.  It's not that we're unfriendly or uncaring, of course.  It's just that we are called to so many places on Sunday—to TJs with friends or to football on TV or to deliver flowers to shut-ins.  Or here's my own calling—I'm always headed to a meeting.  And there stands that lonely person aching for someone to talk to or better yet, have lunch with.  If you welcome someone in my name, Jesus says, you're welcoming me.  Even a cup of cold water matters.  The calling is right in front of us.

Sometimes I see the people at the bus stop across Henderson Road. Especially in winter they look cold, lonely, miserable.  Several times I've asked someone to help me make coffee, get some paper cups, put some sugar and creamer on a cart, wheel it across the street, and start handing out coffee.  So far no one I've shared this with has thought it's a good idea, especially not in winter.  And I suppose everyone thinks the pastor has more important things to do than stand on a street corner handing out coffee.  Everyone, that is, except Jesus.  The gospel is as simple hospitality and kindness, and the calling is right in front of me.  You’ll know where to look for me this winter . . .

 

Now you might be wondering—welcoming a stranger, a cup of cold water, free coffee—I mean, these are nice things, but they're not very, well, religious.  Shouldn't the church stick to sacred things—Bible studies, funerals, organ music, and leave strangers to homeless shelters and leave cups of water to the Culligan Man?  But Jesus has a way of mixing up what's sacred and what's not.  In another place in Matthew, Jesus teaches that if you visit someone in prison, if you feed or clothe the needy, if you offer health care to the poor, you're doing it to none other than Jesus himself.  And here in Matthew 10, Jesus says that if you welcome someone, anyone, in my name, it's like welcoming me.  And suddenly hospitality seems a lot more religious.  And that cup of water, Jesus says, that's holy water--I've got my reward set on that water.  So what is sacred and what is secular?  Well with Jesus, it's hard to tell, so maybe we'd better just treat it all as holy.

 

When I was pastor at Maynard Avenue Church, there were two little tow-headed boys who lived just up the street. They were—how can I put this?—lightly supervised, and roamed the neighborhood from sunrise to sunset.  They played in the park, dumpster-dived in the alley, chatted up anyone who'd take the time.  They often came to church on Sundays—not always for worship or Sunday school, but always for the refreshments afterward.  One Friday afternoon I was laboring away in the church office on my sermon (probably on the Good Samaritan), when I heard the church doorbell.  I debated with myself.  It's surely just someone wanting a sandwich or a bus ticket, someone with a hard luck story.  And I've just got to finish this sermon.  But Strength Finders says that one of my Top 5 Strengths is "Responsibility."  So I got up and trudged to the door.  It was the two boys.  "Is there church today?" they asked.  What I thought was, "Does it look like there's church today?  Is it Sunday?"  But what I said was, "No, no church today, boys.  Sorry." 

"Well then, can we come in and get a drink?" I started to say no, to send them home for a drink.  Then I remembered—half the time they were locked out of their own home.  "All right," I said, "come on in and have a drink."  We went downstairs to the water fountain, but the water pressure was low and it was hard for them to drink.

"Can you get us some cups?" they asked. I thought to myself, "and how about a steak and baked potato while I'm at it.  But what I said was, "Sure, be right back."  In a kitchen closet found two red plastic cups, brought them back and filled them up, and handed them to the boys.

"Aren't you going to have some water too?" they asked. In for a penny, in for a pound.  I went back to the kitchen, found one more red plastic cup and filled it for myself.  I started to drink my water.

"Wait! Don't you want to sit down, Pastor?" they asked, as though I were their guest. "You know, that's exactly what I want," I said. "Where do you want to sit?"

We went out front and sat on the steps. We talked and we drank our water.  You know, one thing I'd said earlier turned out to be wrong.  We did have church that day, after all--two tow-headed boys, one reluctant pastor, and three red plastic cups of water.  All it takes to have church is a bit of hospitality and kindness.  And the calling is right in front of you.

 

 

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley, 1993), 115.  

Matthew 10:24-33

Do Not Be Afraid . . . Again

June 25, 2017

 

        We did a whole sermon series back in Lent—March and April—called Overcoming Fear with Faith. 

  • We heard Jesus say, “Don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink. God knows you need those things. But seek first God and God’s kingdom and everything else will take care of itself.

  • We may fear foreigners and strangers, but the Bible is clear we must welcome and care for them.

  • When Peter tries to walk on the water, he grows fearful of the wind and waves, but when he falls, what happens? Jesus scoops him up and sets him back in the boat.

  • There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear.

  • On Good Friday Jesus prayed his way through fear in Gethsemane.

  • Even on Easter, the message comes two times: Don’t be afraid.

     

    So you might think we’d pretty well covered the topic of fear in the scriptures. But no, here is Jesus today telling his disciples not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them (v. 26), Do not fear (v. 28), So do not be afraid (v. 31). And what are the disciples afraid of? Well, he’d just called them and sent them out to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and healing power. And Jesus warned that some people would oppose them, maybe even persecute them for this message. Well, yeah. I might be afraid of that. How about you?

     

            We’re in this worship series now about God-Centered Wellbeing and calling, what God calls us to do, how God calls us to be in the world. Last Sunday we heard Maple Grove members tell about their individual calling of God—to love others without needing to judge, to be a church youth leader, to reinvent oneself after grief and loss. And over lunch today we’ll work on our own personal mission statements.

    But today’s scripture is not about this individual call of God to each one of us; it’s about a calling that belongs to all disciples, one common to every Christian—to go and share the good news of Jesus Christ. We worked on that common calling three Sundays ago—writing down why Jesus is important to you, what difference the church makes in your life, and who is that one person you can invite to church. Sure enough, we wrote all that down. And then the fear sets in, right? I mean have you actually invited that person? See what I mean about fear? That’s why Jesus said it not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them, Do not fear, So do not be afraid.

     

            New Testament scholar, Susan Garrett, points out that one problem interpreting Matthew 10 for our own situation is that the specific hardships Jesus warns about aren’t likely to happen to us. Our very lives are not at risk for telling a neighbor about Jesus, and we won’t get thrown in prison for inviting family and friends to church. But even though we don’t face persecution of that sort, she says, we still face some real obstacles.1 When we think about telling others about God’s love and inviting them to church, we worry that people will think we’re nosy or meddling. We’re afraid they might think we’re criticizing them or suggesting there’s something wrong with them. We’re afraid of being labeled “that religious fanatic neighbor” or the “grandparents who only talks about church.” In today’s contentious climate, we’re afraid that even mentioning God or church might stir up anger or division. Maybe you’re afraid that the person you invite to church won’t come; or maybe you’re afraid they will come and you’ll feel responsible for them here.

    There’s no end of things to be afraid of . . . for the twelve disciples back then and for us today. But Professor Garrett also points out that while we might think the main obstacles to sharing our faith are human opposition or potential criticism, Jesus teaches that the chief obstacle (as Tommy Thompson has been telling me) is fear itself. Of course things may not turn out the way we want. Of course there’s risk in anything important you do. It’s not that there isn’t anything to be afraid of; it’s that Jesus calls us to share and invite anyway. That’s why he said it not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them, Do not fear, So do not be afraid.

     

    In this gospel reading, Jesus does not promise to protect us from all harm. But he does give us two good reasons to face our fears of telling people about God’s love and inviting them to church:

  • First, we never do anything without God’s presence and care. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground, Jesus says, apart from our Father. That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen—sparrows do fall. But whether the person you tell about God’s love is delighted or offended, whether the person you invite comes to church or runs the other way, you are still in the shadow of God’s love. Do not be afraid.

  • Second, Jesus says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before the Father in heaven.” I know Jesus loves us whether we’ve done well or failed miserably; forgiveness and mercy are his trademark. But isn’t your heart hungry to acknowledge him? Don’t you long for others to know the forgiveness and mercy that you know? Sharing and inviting is one of the things Jesus calls every disciples to do. Fearful or not, I want to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.

 

When Fred Craddock was a boy back in the 1930s his family lived near a railroad tracks. Fred remembers a number of mornings waking up and going into the kitchen for breakfast, and there’d be a strange, ill-kempt, poorly dressed man at the table eating.  He was scared of them.  So one morning when such a man left, he said, “Mom, who was that?”

She said, “Well, his name was Henry, and he said he was hungry.”

“Where’d he come from?”

“He came down the railroad tracks, honey,” she explained. Some people call them ‘hobos.’  They walk the tracks doing odd jobs, begging, whatever they can to stay alive.”

“But Mama,” Fred insisted, “weren’t you scared?”

She said, “Well, he’s hungry.”

“But I was scared!”

“Well, he’s hungry.”2

Fred remembered his mother’s lesson the rest of his life. What is our fear when one of God’s children is hungry?  What is our fear when a neighbor needs to know Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness?  What is our fear when a child needs Vacation Bible School, when someone is lonely or despairing and needs a church family, or has gifts and skills and nowhere to offer them?  That’s why Jesus said it not once, not twice, but three times: Have no fear of them, Do not fear, So do not be afraid.

 

1 Susan R. Garrett, “Matthew 10:24-33,” From Text to Sermon, Interpretation 47/2 (April 1993), 166-69.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 109.

 

 

Acts 2:1-21

Made to Live with Authority

June 4, 2017            Maple Grove UMC

 

            The leader of Maple Grove’s “Invitation Team” is Don Ackerman.  He’s a husband and father of two young sons, he’s a seminary student up at Methesco, and he teaches military science at Capital University.  He’s in Kentucky for several weeks this summer training 600 cadets, but before he left he gave me some marching orders about the scriptures for today and next Sunday.  Acts 2 reports that on the day of Pentecost, 3000 welcomed the message about Jesus and were baptized.  A church Invitation Team has a natural interest in a story like that!

            On Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell upon Peter and the other disciples.  Note that the Spirit didn’t cause them to know Jesus—they already knew Jesus.  Neither did the Holy Spirit cause them to love Jesus—they already loved Jesus.  But even though they already knew and loved Jesus, they didn’t feel worthy or authorized to tell anyone about Jesus and his love.  After all, the last time we saw the disciples, they’d been busy deserting and denying Jesus.  And now they were stuck inside, keeping Jesus and his love to themselves. 

            On Pentecost, all that changed.  The Holy Spirit came and the fisherman Peter told about Jesus as if he’d been doing it all his life.  And all the believers went out and told about God’s deeds of power in ways that everyone could understand. 

            And once this sharing got started, there was no stopping it.  3000 people came to Jesus just that day and it went on from there.  The secret is in the sharing and inviting, and the Spirit authorizes believers to do exactly that. 

            So as the Holy Spirit falls on us this Pentecost day, what will we share about Jesus?  And with whom will we share?  You’ll find in your bulletin a card on which to write what you can share.  After all, you are the world’s leading expert in your own experience of Jesus and his church—that’s all you have to share.  The card is intentionally small.  You don’t have to write an essay—just share a sentence or two.

            And who is the best person for you to tell about Jesus and his love?  Your parents?  Your kids or grandkids?  Your hair dresser?  Neighbor?  Someone going through grief or loss?  A couple getting married or having a child?  Write down that person’s name and begin to pray for the right opportunity to share.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are authorized to share and invite!

 

John 17:1-11, 20-23

And Jesus, Still Up There Praying

May 28, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

A friend told me this story. In the church where he grew up a retired pastor, Rev. Johnson, from time to time would be called upon to deliver the pastoral prayer.  He'd always been known for his, uh, stamina when praying.  But the older Rev. Johnson got, the longer he prayed, until one time, he just didn't stop.  He prayed so long that people opened their eyes and checked their watches.  Those with lunch plans started to file out.  Everyone else looked at the pastor, wondering what to do.  Finally, the pastor motioned for everyone to move downstairs for coffee time, signaling them to be quiet so as not to disturb Rev. Johnson’s marathon praying.  As fellowship time was wrapping up, someone asked, "Hey, where's Rev. Johnson?"  Someone ran upstairs and reported, "He's still up there praying!"   To which the pastor, knowing of much trouble and many needs in his congregation, replied, "Oh, thank goodness!" 

 

John 17 is the end of what Bible scholars call this gospel’s "Farewell Discourse." In chapters 14, 15 and 16, Jesus teaches and prepares the disciples for his departure, and he concludes this Farewell Discourse by praying for them--for all of chapter 17 he prays for them.  We only read part of it here this morning.  And for all we know, John 17 may be just a summary of all that Jesus actually prayed; he may have gone on as long as Rev. Johnson.  The disciples may have eventually filtered out of the room, checked their phones, got a snack.  Until one of them thought to ask, "Hey, where's Jesus?"  Someone went back to the upper room to check:  "He still up there's praying."  To which the disciples, if they had any sense, must have replied, "Oh, thank goodness!" 

At a time of change and stress, when the disciples probably didn’t even know what to pray for, they got to overhear Jesus praying for them. And at a time of change and stress, when we may not know exactly how to pray, through John’s gospel we got to overhear Jesus praying for us.  In John 17 Jesus prays for three things:

  1. First he prays for his own glorification, which may sound like a selfish prayer, until you remember that in John’s gospel Jesus’ glorification refers to his death. He prays for the completion of what he came to do on the cross, which gave God glory and eternal life to those who believe.

  2. In verse 9 Jesus begins to pray for the disciples—for them to be protected and sanctified, for them to be sent out to the world even as Jesus had been sent to them. Whether they knew it yet or not, they would desperately need this prayer.

  3. And finally, starting in verse 20, Jesus prays for those who would believe in him because of the disciples’ ministry, that is, for future Christians—that is, even for us. And what he prays for future believers is that they—that we--might be one, even as he and the Father are one.

         Jesus finishes his prayer, and immediately soldiers arrive and his glorification begins. Yet in a way, Jesus never finishes that prayer. Romans 8:34 tells of Jesus “who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” In other words, where is Jesus now? Well, he’s still up there praying for us. To which we can only say, thank goodness!

     

         The four gospels each remember and tell different things about Jesus, depending on what was going on in the time and place where that gospel was written. One of the things going on when John was written was conflict.1 Three times John refers to believers being kicked out of their synagogues. Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus must have felt like the Christians had changed too much, gone too far. And Jews who did believe in Jesus must in turn have felt judged and excluded by the others. What’s more, it turns out that within the first couple of generations, even those who did believe in Jesus didn’t believe in him in quite the same way. What was in one sense all God’s people became in practice divided factions. And in the midst of that conflict, what John remembered was Jesus praying, asking God that they might all be one. “Where’s Jesus now?” John’s people wondered. And the answer is: “Still up there praying.” Thank goodness!

     

         Now we are in one of those times of conflict again. The United Methodist Church has formed a “Commission on a Way Forward,” to see if we can even stay together as one church. And in many ways it would be easier to come apart. I’m certainly ready to be part of a denomination that doesn’t try to tell me who can and can’t be members, or who can and can’t get married. But then I think of my friend, Rev. Robert Sieh from Liberia in Africa, who will be here at Maple Grove next Sunday. I suspect he and I are on different sides of most of the issues dividing our church. Yet I very much want to be part of the same church with him, and I know I can be one with him. Here’s what Jesus prayed, “that they may be completely one”—why? “so that the world[, Father,] may know that you have sent me.” More than our own convictions are at stake, as important as they are. Not our agreement, but our oneness is our witness to the world to the truth of Christ.

     

         And that conflict that is national and global is felt right here at Maple Grove. I hear from angry people on the left and from disgruntled people on the right. I hear from people who are discouraged that things haven’t changed faster and from others who can’t endure one more change. And in the midst of that, I’ve got my own thoughts and feelings.

         The temptation when conflict arises is to do something, quickly, decisively—to kick out those who make us uncomfortable, to create a policy against those we disagree with, or to just not talk about certain things. Not that there isn’t anything to do. At the invitation of one church member I’m reading a book about politics from a perspective not my own—it’s good to do that. Our young adults are having a “conversation circle” this Friday, not to argue or debate but just to listen to one another. Staff-Parish Relations chair, Lynne Matthaes, and I have strategized about ways to bring people together and overcome divisions.

         But the first thing to do about conflict is not to do anything at all. It is to step back and let Jesus do what he does. And where is Jesus? He’s still up there praying for us. Thank God!

     

         He’s saying:

  • Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

  • As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

  • The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.

     

         Where’s Jesus in these trying times? He’s still up there praying. Thank goodness. Thank goodness.

     

    1Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, i-xii, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), LXVII-LXXVI.

 

 

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