Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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John 3:1-8, 16-21

LOVE. Born Here.

December 10, 2017

 

          What was born at Christmas?  Well, Christ, of course—the Messiah, Immanuel, the Son of God.  But most simply, LOVE was born at Christmas.  And each Christmas we long again for LOVE to be born in our world and here in our church and here in our hearts. 

          Love was born at Christmas.  Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in John 3:16: “For God so loved that world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  The Son is the gift of the Father’s love.  Love is and love must be at the heart of the gospel and the heart of our lives.

          This is true throughout the New Testament.  The great command-ment is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).  After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said there’s really only one commandment:  “that you love one another” (John 13:31).  1 Corinthians says that three things stand the test of time—faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (13:13).  1 John goes so far as to say, "God is love" (4:16). The greatest image of love is the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward child home with joy and not a word of judgement (Luke 15:11-32). Love is the heart of the gospel and of life. 

 

          Nevertheless, we make endless attempts to place other things at the heart of life.  From all the hoopla, you’d think that what was born at Christmas was decorations and cookies and presents under the tree.  These are great but they’re not the heart; that’s love.  Some people put rules or regulations or traditions at the heart of the gospel.  All these have their place, but they’re not the heart; that’s love.  Some of us, especially us pastors, put church activities at the heart of life—worship and service and Bible study.  These too are wonderful but they’re not the heart; that’s love.

          And some people believe in God’s love, just not for themselves. They consider themselves unworthy or for some reason outside of God’s love. Martin Luther encouraged such people, “Search in your [heart], whether you are not also a [person] (that is, a piece of the world) and [do you] belong to the number which the word “whosoever” embraces, as well as others?”1  Love is born at Christmas not for some, but for all, including me, and no matter what you think, including you.

 

          You may have noticed some harsh language in this scripture.  There is the prospect of perishing and the idea that some of us are condemned.  Love may be at the heart of the gospel, but love is not the only choice in life.  There is always the danger of perishing--of wasting one’s life on something other than love.  If love is not at the heart of life, then something else is at the heart, and is that not a form of perishing?

          And though God did not send the Son to condemn the world, it’s a sad fact that some of us condemn ourselves.  When you turn a light on, some people will come to it; others will hide from it.  I had a friend who one year dedicated himself to loving his wife more fully and sensitively.  He spoke more kindly to her and listened more carefully to her.  He did little things for her around the house and took her special places.  After a few months, word got out, and several men came to ask him for hints on how they too could love their wives better.  But other guys came and complained that the way he was treating his wife was making them look bad and wouldn’t he knock it off.  Put love at the center—some will gather around; others turn away. 

 

          In some ways, keeping God’s love at the heart of life is so simple.  Just don’t complicate things.  There’s a Peanuts cartoon where Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown are sitting under a tree and she asks him, "Do you ever think about love, Chuck?"

"All the time," he says.  "Is music the food of love? Is love a many splendored thing? Is love here to stay? Does love make the world go 'round? Is love . . ."

"Wait a minute, Chuck!" she interrupts.  “I asked you a simple question and I wanted a simple answer! I didn't expect a whole lecture!  Let's start over . . .  Do you ever think about Love, Chuck?"

"Love?" he mumbles, with a confused look on his face.

"That's what I figured. . ." she concludes.  Don’t complicate things!

 

Yes, love is simple, but it's not easy, and when it's needed most, there's nothing sentimental about love.  You parents know what I mean.  Love waits by the phone when a child is out too late, and then hugs them like fury when they finally get home.  Love washes clothes and cooks meals and helps with homework without ever getting thanked.  Love keeps loving when lines are crossed, when angry words are spoken, when disagreements become impasses. 

Think about the love of God that sent the Son into the world.  Who knows how the Father must have worried while the Son was living down here?  Who knows how it hurt the Father to see the Son rejected and despised.  Who knows how the Father's heart broke when the Son breathed his last?  And who knows how the Father must suffer still when in the Son's name people judge and exclude rather than love and include? 

This is the sort of love that was born at Christmas:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

 

I tell you again: tradition has it that John, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John and Revelation, had a disciple come to him.  "Master," he said, "Tell me one thing. . .  Why is it that you always write about love?  Why don't you ever write about anything else?"  St. John paused, waiting for the disciple to work it out himself.  Finally, he answered:  "Because," he said, "in the end, love is all there is."2

Look in the manger, my friends, and what will you find?  God’s love, only love.  Because in the end, that's all there is.

 

1 Quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 211.

2 Quoted in Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). 

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus Is Everyone

November 26, 2017      Maple Grove UMC

 

          In this parable, there is good news and bad news . . . or what may feel like bad news.  The good news is that Jesus is everywhere.  No matter where you go, Jesus is already there, Immanuel, God-with-us always and everywhere. Good news!  The bad news is that Jesus is also everyone.  He is present in every beggar, every prisoner, every stranger.  That's a lot to take in.  But as is often true of the Gospel, the bad news is the good news, if only we can learn to see it that way.

 

          This Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, what he's been leading up to for 25 chapters. Immediately after this begins his arrest and crucifixion, so this is it, his last chance to get his message across.  We’ve been reading through Matthew’s gospel this whole year, so we know the kind of things he's been teaching.  We’ve watched as he’s touched the untouchable, in the form of lepers.  We’ve seen him include a despised a tax collector in his inner circle. We heard him say of an officer of the occupation Roman army that he had more faith than anyone in Israel.  We saw him repeatedly heal on the Sabbath, insisting that loving people is more important than keeping rules. 

          Given all that, who knows whom Jesus would ask us to touch and include and love today?  Well, actually, we do know, because in this culminating parable, he tells us quite specifically:  the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  Only now instead of just modeling for us how to touch and include and love these people, he tells us that’s how we’re going to be judged at the end of time—by how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  That’s quite a culminating teaching!

 

          I want to say first of all that this is a theological story.  That is, it’s not just an ethical story about how we should live and treat people; it’s a story about theos, about who God is and how God relates to the world.  Speci-fically, this story is Matthew’s version of the incarnation, the Christian doctrine that in Christ God became truly human, in Christ God entered our world as one of us. The scripture usually referred to for the incarnation is John 1:14:  “The Word became flesh and lived us. . .” Matthew’s version takes it one step further:  not only did the Creator of the universe become human in general; the Creator of the universe chose to become poor, hungry, a stranger.1  This story is theology.  And here’s how theology matters: Mother Teresa said, “We should not serve the poor as though they were Jesus.  We should serve the poor because they are Jesus.2

 

          Now here’s a little aside about this parable, a truth that I won't dwell on, but at least want to mention in passing.  Did you notice who is brought before the judgment seat of the Son of Man?  It’s not you and me as individuals.  Jesus says, “All the nations will be gathered before him.”  So in the final judgment, it won’t be about whether or not I personally fed the hungry or whether you on your own cared for the sick.  It will be about how we’ve done collectively, as a nation. This is not a parable about personal charity but about what John Wesley called “social holiness.”  Again, I’m not going to dwell on that today, but I thought you’d want to be aware of it.

 

            One of the things that can make it hard to care for the hungry and homeless and outcast, is that the sea of need can be so impersonal.  If we don’t know any prisoners, for example, it’s easy to assume they’re all alike, that they don’t need or deserve our care and support.  If we don’t know any homeless people, it’s easy to be afraid of them or blame them for poor choices.  And if we don’t know any immigrants, we may not understand the desperate decisions they’ve had to make. 

          It’s when we know someone’s name that our hearts shift, that compassion wells up.  I had lots of assumptions and judgments about homeless folks; and then I volunteered in a shelter once a week in Atlanta and I got to know guys like Rodney, and Bob, and Antoine.  Real people, sons and brothers and fathers, people with demons and dreams, people who laugh and cry, people who play cards and watch football.  People, I discovered, a lot like me.

          Our family used to have a neighbor who said horrible racist things.  He was against all black people . . . except the ones he knew.  Laticia and Jackson and Lawrence, they were different.  Why?  Because he knew their names; because they were real people to him.  Knowing people's names makes a difference.

          Here’s what Jesus does in this parable:  he gives a name to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger.  He gives a name to the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  From now on we do know their name—it’s Jesus.3  From now on there is no one we can ignore or stereotype, for we know them individually and care about them personally—their name is Jesus.

 

          That Jesus makes a list of certain kinds of people is troubling to some. He names six specific kinds of people:  the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  These, he says, are me. Jesus should have known that any time you make a list you’re asking for trouble.  "What about us?" cried people with disabilities. "What about us?" cried the elderly?  What about me, is what we mean, I suppose.  Why just these six kinds of people and not others?  How can we tell exactly which ones are you, Jesus, and which ones we can safely ignore?

          One of my teachers grew up on a farm. One time their mule got out and his mom sent him to fetch it. Finding the mule involved going over a hill and across the woods where there was an old family cemetery.  And before he left, his mom told him, “Now when you go through the graveyard, make sure you don’t step on any graves.  Graves are sacred.” He remembers how ridiculous he must have looked, tiptoeing and taking first tiny steps and then giants steps, trying to avoid graves he couldn't even see.  When he got home, he said, “Mama, I can’t tell what part is sacred.”  And she said, “Well, I know it looks the same.  But if you’ll treat it all as sacred, you’ll never miss.”4

          Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying: if you just treat everyone as sacred, you’ll never miss. If you feed every hungry person and give a drink to all who are thirsty, if you welcome every stranger and clothe every ill-clad soul, if you care for all the sick and visit at least someone in prison—if you do all that, you can't miss me, he’s saying. And if you want to help persons with disabilities, too, and care for the elderly and be kind to yourself, all the better.  If we’ll just treat everyone as sacred, we’ll never miss the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

          Now, this parable may sound daunting, like it’s trying to force us to do things that are scary or uncomfortable.  Maybe a little, but I don't think that's the main point. After all, it’s not a grim duty, not some horrible task, to feed and welcome and care for Jesus; it’s a privilege, the highlight of life.  And sooner or later, most of us wind up being down and out; and I sure hope when that's me, someone will see in me the face of Christ.

 

          One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, tells of being the only guest one Sunday night at a women’s monastery.  So the sisters invited her to join them in statio, the community’s procession into the church for worship.  The prioress was her partner, so she could give Kathleen instructions along the way.  The procession, Norris writes, ended like this:  The prioress told me, “First we bow first to the Christ who is at the altar.” So I did.  “And then," the prioress whispered, "we turn to face our partner, and bow to the Christ in each of them.”  “'I see,' I said, and I did.'”5  I really did.

 

          Jesus is everyone--the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.  We give our food, we risk relationship with those who make us uncomfortable, we share our precious time, we reach out across all differences, and we bow to the Christ in everyone.  Yes, Jesus, I say, I see you there in that neighbor.  And on a good day, I really do.

 

 

1 See Miguel A. De La Torre, “A Colonized Christmas Story,” Interpretation 71/4 (October 2017), 414-15.

2 Alive Now (March/April 1999), 37.

3 See Penelope Duckworth, “The Body of Christ,” I Am: Teaching Sermons on the Incarnation, The Teaching Sermon Series (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 73.

4 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 91.

5 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 162-63.

Matthew 25:14-30

Thanksgiving or Fear?

November 19, 2017      Maple Grove UMC

 

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

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

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

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

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

         

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

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

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

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

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

          Marlin: What?

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

 

         

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Matthew 25:1-13

Something to Live For

November 12, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

We Remember and Bear Witness 

November 5, 2017Maple Grove UMC 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Mark 9:33-37

Greatest of All Is Servant of All

October 22, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

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

          --Many cards echoed this theme:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

           

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s nice too, I guess.”

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

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

 

Here is Jesus’ measuring stick for greatness:

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Mark 14:3-9

For the Love of Jesus

October 15, 2017

 

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

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

1. My family—I am blessed.

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

--Many were about children:

3. My kids! Heart. Smiley face!

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

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

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

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

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

--Several were about this:

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

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

9. 133 pints of blood.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video:  “The Offering”

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

         

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

          “Our class project,” she said.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Mark 9:14-29

Only Through Prayer

October 1, 2017            Maple Grove UMC

 

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

  1. (Not Surprisingly) World Peace

B. Here was another trend:

          5. The Lord’s Prayer

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

C. There were several about the recent natural disasters:

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

D. Many were prayers for self and family:

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

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

          10. For my mom to get a job.

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

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

          12. For peace and for painless feet!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

         

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

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

         

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

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

 

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

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

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

          For everyone born, a place at the table.

          For everyone born, clean water and bread,

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

         

          For just and unjust, a place at the table,

          Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,

          In anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Matthew 20:1-16

God’s Big Love / Even Our Virtues Burned Away

September 24, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness for the Sake of All

September 17, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

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

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

          I said, “I have.”

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

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

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

         

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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