Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Mark 14:3-9

For the Love of Jesus

October 15, 2017

 

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

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

1. My family—I am blessed.

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

--Many were about children:

3. My kids! Heart. Smiley face!

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

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

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

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

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

--Several were about this:

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

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

9. 133 pints of blood.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Video:  “The Offering”

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

         

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

          “Our class project,” she said.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Mark 9:14-29

Only Through Prayer

October 1, 2017            Maple Grove UMC

 

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

  1. (Not Surprisingly) World Peace

B. Here was another trend:

          5. The Lord’s Prayer

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

C. There were several about the recent natural disasters:

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

D. Many were prayers for self and family:

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

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

          10. For my mom to get a job.

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

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

          12. For peace and for painless feet!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

         

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

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

         

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

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

 

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

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

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

          For everyone born, a place at the table.

          For everyone born, clean water and bread,

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

         

          For just and unjust, a place at the table,

          Abuser, abused, with need to forgive,

          In anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Matthew 20:1-16

God’s Big Love / Even Our Virtues Burned Away

September 24, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness for the Sake of All

September 17, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

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

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

          I said, “I have.”

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

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

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

         

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 18:15-20

Reconciliation 101

September 10, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

         

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

2 Boers, 89.

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

Matthew 16:21-28

Life Is For Others

September 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

             

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    to be consoled as to console;

    to be understood as to understand;

    to be loved as to love;

    For it is in giving that we receive;

    it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

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

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

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery

   in which you have given yourself to us. 

Grant that we may go into the world

   in the strength of your Spirit,

   to give ourselves for others. 

Do I hear an Amen?

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

 

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

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

3 See Hare, 195.

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

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

Isaiah 58:1-7

A Spirituality of Sharing

August 27, 2017   Feed the World Sunday

 

          On this Feed the World Sunday, the sermon is called “A Spirituality of Sharing.”  It comes from the prophet Isaiah.  His people were complaining that the old ways weren’t working any more.  Isaiah’s people went to the Temple.  They held their sacred fasts.  Eating nothing for days on end, they called upon the Lord.  And nothing happened.  It didn’t work.  And so in verse 3 they cry out to God, “Why do we fast, but you don’t see?  Why do we humble ourselves, but you don’t notice?”  They tried ever harder to get noticed by God—bowing their heads to the ground, wearing the roughness of sackcloth, lying in ashes.  These were religious practices that went back to the Babylonian exile, when in terror and anguish they sought to appease an angry God.  But now in better, more prosperous times, they couldn’t seem to connect with God.  The old ways weren’t working any more. 

          The analogy is imperfect, but we too live in relatively prosperous times, and yet people today also have trouble connecting with God.  For so many people these days, the old ways just aren’t working any more.  And their lament to God is reminiscent of Isaiah: “Why do we go to church, but you don’t see?  Why do we pray and believe, but you don’t seem to care?”

          This hungering for connection with God often goes by the name “spirituality.”  Organized religion is passé; spirituality is cool.  People try all kinds of things to satisfy this hunger—everything from Eastern religions to self-help books, everything from huge megachurches to small support groups.  I’m not trying to be judgmental; these are all fine things to try.  But they do all have one thing in common with the kind of fasting Isaiah condemns:  they’re all focused on me, on meeting my needs and satisfying my spiritual hunger, while one’s neighbor’s hunger goes unnoticed.  “Look,” says the Lord in Isaiah, “you serve your own interests on your fast day. . .  Will you call this a fast day acceptable to me?” God asks.

          Well here, says the Lord, I’ve got a spirituality for you  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?  When you see the naked to clothe them, and not to ignore the needs of your own flesh and blood?  Then you’ll call, and the Lord will answer.

          Your own soul is fed, according to Isaiah, by feeding others.  The eternal is discovered by tending to everyday needs.  The presence of God is found in the daily embrace of the poor, the homeless, and yes, even our own kin.1 This is a spirituality of sharing.  It is not hard to understand or complicated to comprehend; it is just, well, hard to do.  And the farther we are removed from living in poverty ourselves, the harder it is to do.

          A food pantry director once told me about a woman she knew who rented a small, rundown house for herself and her three children.  When a friend’s husband abused her, she let that friend and her children stay with her.  When she learned of another family sleeping in a car, she brought them into her home too.  This woman doesn’t go to church—when would she have time?  If she prays or believes in Jesus, she doesn’t ever talk about it.  But according to Isaiah, her fast is most acceptable to God.  She is one of the most “spiritual” people you could ever find. 

          Sometimes whole churches get in on this spirituality of sharing.  When a small African-American church building in Ferguson, Missouri, got damaged in the unrest there in 2014, the Vineyard Church here in Columbus raised money and sent teams to rebuild that church.  Now that’s an acceptable fast.  I once served a church that was part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network.  Several times a year they fed and sheltered homeless families for a week at a time.  I still remember one church member objecting, “Is this really what our church building is for?”  “Yes,” says Isaiah, “it is. What more holy purpose could a church be put to than sheltering the homeless poor?”  That’s an acceptable fast.  And today at 10 am, this entire building will be set up for food-related ministries—making sandwiches and preparing a meal for Faith on 8th homeless shelter, putting together bag lunches for neighbors at CRC, writing letters to government officials about hunger issues, packaging thousands of ready-made meals for destitute people in Haiti.  “Should we really be doing that instead of having worship?” someone asked me on time.  “No,” I replied, “doing that is having worship.”  That is an acceptable fast.  I’ll hope you will stay for this 10 am worship.

 

          I always feel personally convicted by this text from Isaiah.  When I served at Maynard Avenue, I overheard to neighborhood kids talking.  These were boys I was happy to have play in our yard, but I was reluctant to let come in our house, though they sometimes asked to come inside.  As I overheard them talking that day, they were discussing which people in the neighborhood were really their friends.  About one man, they disagreed.  One of them thought he was too grouchy to be their friend.  But the other child said, “Yeah, but he let me in his house.  We watched TV and he gave me a Mountain Dew.”  That settled it for them.  What I knew is that man had a frightening criminal record, and there’s no way they should go inside his house.  But their criteria for friendship was straight out of Isaiah—he let me in his house, he gave me something to drink.  After that, my door was a little more open to those boys. 

 

          Have you ever had trouble connecting with God?  Are the old ways just not working any more?  Well, here from Isaiah is a spirituality for you:  Is it not, Isaiah asks, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?  When you see the naked to clothe them, and not to hide yourself from your own needy relatives?

          It is a spirituality of sharing.  Your own souls are fed, according to Isaiah, by feeding others.  The eternal is discovered by tending to everyday needs. The presence of God is found in the daily embrace of the poor, the homeless, and yes, even your own kin. 

          Then you shall call, promises Isaiah, and the Lord will answer.  Then you shall cry for help and God will say, Here I am.  Here I am. 

 

          Here is one last thought for Feed the World Sunday:  After the Dalai Lama delivered a lecture, a member of the audience asked him what the answer to world hunger is.  The Dalai Lama responded, “Sharing.”2  Amen.

 

1 Walter Brueggemann et al., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 128.

2 The Christian Century (July 12, 2005), 7.

 

Matthew 19:13-15

Let Them Come

August 20, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Why, do you suppose, were people bringing little children to Jesus?  Well, Matthew doesn’t tell us why, but we can figure it out.  Surely it was because they could tell how much Jesus loved their children--that he loved them with a special love, an unconditional love, a life-changing and soul-healing kind of love.  They knew they wanted their little ones to be blessed by this man, by Jesus.

          It’s not so different today.  You brought your children here today to be blessed in the name of this man, Jesus.  You brought your grandchildren, for all I know you brought other people’s children to be with Jesus.  Today, and at least once in a while, you abandon the soccer fields, you give up sleeping in, you call off dance lessons, you kiss your one day off farewell, and you bring your children to Jesus.  And you know why—it’s that love, that unconditional, life-changing, child-blessing love. 

          That’s why they brought their little children to Jesus.  But the story isn’t that simple, is it?  Once they got there, his disciples tried to keep them away from Jesus.  Why would they do that?  Why would his disciples try to keep people away from Jesus?  Well, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, shall we?  I’m sure they did it only for the best of reasons.  They wanted to make sure Jesus spent his limited time and energy on the right kind of people—respectable people, important people, grown-up people, you know, people like themselves. 

          They took it as their job to be gatekeepers for Jesus.  They thought it was their job to stop (the Greek word is kōluō) the wrong kind of people from hanging out with Jesus.  This is not the only time this word kōluō shows up in the New Testament.  One time one of the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop (kōluō) him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38-39).  Makes sense.  But Jesus said, “No, no, do not kōluō him.”  Jesus didn’t need them or want them to be his gatekeepers.

          Jesus criticized religious scholars who heaped up moral burdens on other people.  He said to them, “You aren’t entering the kingdom yourselves, and yet you want to kōluō others from entering (Luke 11:52).

          Several times in the book of Acts, people who were outsiders to Israel—an Ethiopian eunuch (8:37), a Roman soldier (10:47), a whole herd of Gentiles—asked what could prevent (kōluō) them from being baptized.  The truth is, the disciples could think of many reasons not to baptize these unwashed outsiders.  But they Holy Spirit made Peter go ahead and do it anyway. Later Peter had to defend himself:  “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder (that is, kōluō) God?  Well, it turns out he couldn’t kōluō God . . . as much as he might want to.  Jesus doesn’t need us or even want us to be his gatekeepers.

 

          Now I’m going to pick a little bit today at some of the ways disciples of Jesus still today try to kōluō others, still volunteer to be his gatekeepers.  But I want you to know that I’m not picking at you, or not only at you.  I’m just a recovering gatekeeper myself; I’ve got plenty of kōluō in me.  I used to be a stickler about baptism.  You know, a child really ought to be baptized into the church community where they will be raised.  Parents take some pretty momentous vows when they bring their kids for baptism.  So I would say to parents, “You know, you haven’t been in church the last few years, does this mean you’re going to start being in church now?”  Or I’d say, “Grandma lives here in Columbus but you live three states away?  Are you really going to raise your child in this church?”  But who am I to kōluō God?  If parents want to bring their kids to Jesus, let them come.  I’m just a recovering gatekeeper.

          Cathy Davis and I wrestle with this whenever we offer Confirmation.  Families will say, “I want my son or daughter to be in Confirmation, but she’s got soccer games half the Sundays you’re meeting, or he’ll have to leave early because he volunteers at COSI.”  And my first thought is, “Choose church for a change!”  And then I think, but who am I to kōluō God?  If parents want to bring their kids to Jesus, even just once in a while, let them come.  If I pick at gatekeepers here today, please know I’m one of them myself. 

 

          In the Gospel reading today, it was little children the disciples were trying to keep away from Jesus.  That may sound strange, since in the church today we practically bend over backwards to get children to come.  But back then children were not thought of the way we think of them today.  Children were a burden, to be kept quiet and out of the way, until they were big enough to work and contribute.  We know better today.  And yet . . .

          Bishop Will Willimon tells about the pastor he appointed to what was a dying urban congregation, just a handful of elderly people left.  But the new young pastor noticed children passing by the church all day, and had an idea.  She talked to one of her parishioners, an old lady who’d once played piano with some of the greats of jazz music, and asked if she’d come and play at church on Wednesday afternoons.  The pastor recruited a few other ladies to make peanut butter sandwiches. And on Wednesday afternoon she rolled the piano outside, turned on a sprinkler, blocked off the street for kickball games.  That was a year ago.  Today, the bishop says, nearly a hundred children crowd that church every Wednesday afternoon.  On Sundays, Sunday school rooms are full.  The children have brought their parents.  It’s like resurrection in that church.  And then, Bishop Willimon concludes, “the administrative board met and asked the bishop to move their new pastor.  ‘It’s just not the same church,’ they said.1

          It breaks your heart, doesn’t it?  Oh, Jesus said, let the little ones come to me.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come. 

 

          Of course, “little ones” aren’t just children.  It’s anyone who might get left out, excluded, turned away, forgotten.  My preaching professor says one of the best sermons he ever heard was at a service in a nursing home.  The preacher read from Matthew 19, about parents bringing their children to Jesus.  “Great day in the morning,” the professor thought, “of all the scriptures to read—the average age is 117—and she reads, ‘Bring the little children.’”

          The preacher closed her Bible and said, “I still can’t get over the fact that Jesus’ disciples said, “Get those children out of here.”  But I guess I can understand it.  I mean, they make noise.  They have to be cared for.  Sometimes you have to get up and go out with them.  They take everybody else’s time.  Besides that, they can’t give anything; they can’t teach a class; they can’t sing in the choir.  They’re mostly powerless.  I understand that, she said.  And then after a long pause she went on, “But Jesus said, let the little ones come to me.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come.2 And we all know what she meant, don’t we?  And what Jesus meant.

 

          For centuries the church tried to kōluō women--not just tried to, did.  Oh, women were allowed to come to church--to cook and clean and watch the babies.  But they weren’t allowed to preach, or teach, or lead, or even to be an usher.  It breaks your heart, doesn’t it?  But Jesus said, let the people come to me.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come.

 

          Our own Methodist Church has split, several times, over race.  In 1787 Rev. Richard Allen led black members out of St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia after blacks were physically removed from worship for refusing to sit in the balcony.  That was the start of the AME, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  And in 1844 we split into the Methodist Episcopal Church North & M.E. Church South over slavery.  And 173 years later, here we are with people parading around asserting their superiority to blacks and Jews.  And other people making excuses for them, or equating them with civil rights protestors.  And Jesus wipes the tears from his eyes and says, for the love of God, just let the people come.  I don’t need or want any gatekeepers.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let them come.

 

          So sometimes, like today, we’re the parents in this Gospel story, bringing our children to be blessed with the unconditional, the life-changing, soul-healing love of Jesus.  It’s good to bring our children to Jesus.         Sometimes, sadly, we are the disciples, volunteering as unwanted gatekeepers of Jesus, still being healed of our need to kōluō others. 

          But sometimes, we’re the “little ones,” the weary and lonely, the sick and the dying, the outcast and unwanted.  Sooner or later we’re all just “liilte ones,” aching to hear for ourselves what Jesus says to all:  Let them come, he says.  Don’t kōluō anyone.  Let everybody come.  And that is the good news of Jesus Christ.

 

1 William H. Willimon, ”The Danger of Fishing with Jesus,” The Collected Sermons of William H. Willimon (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 166-67.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 148.

 

 

“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.

mg3

Connect with Us

We're on Social Networks.
Follow us & get in touch.