Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Matthew 14:22-33

Take Heart

March 26, 2017   Maple Grove UMC


          This Lenten worship series is called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.”

  • We started with Jesus saying, “Therefore, do not worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or wear . . .” I heard one person summarize that message as “Take deep breaths and don’t watch the news.” That’s a great start to overcoming fear!

  • The next Sunday was about balancing our natural fear of strangers and foreigners with the Bible’s insistence on hospitality and justice.

    Still to come in this series:

  • 1 John says that perfect love casts out fear. Oh, to love like that!

  • The psalms teach that the opposite of fear is not fearlessness but trust.

  • On Good Friday we’ll watch in Gethsemane as Jesus prays himself through fear.

  • Even the Easter story has the phrase Do not be afraid not once but twice. Even on Easter people are afraid.

    We are such fearful creatures; and Jesus just keeps saying it: Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid!

              The first part of today’s Gospel story shows that we can allow ourselves be scared of almost anything—even Jesus! The disciples are in a boat, in a storm, in the dark, wind and waves everywhere, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the sea. But instead of saying, “O thank God, it’s Jesus,” and calming down, they think he’s a ghost and their fear turns to abject terror. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you have ever been afraid of the very thing you needed most? Yeah, me too.

              You see, the disciples thought they were on their own. Jesus had stayed behind to pray and sent them on ahead. What the disciples forgot is that as long as Jesus is praying, we are never alone. What the disciples forgot was that when we need him, Jesus is never far away and will make his way to us come what may. What the disciples forgot was that just a few chapters earlier Jesus had calmed one storm; and if he can calm one storm, he can calm this storm.

              We fear because we forget that Jesus is praying for us, forget that he is never far from us, forget that he is the wave-walker and storm-stiller. We fear, I once read, because we overestimate the power of the storm and underestimate the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. We forget, and so I am here to remind you—we are here every Sunday to remind each other: Take heart, Jesus says, it is I; don’t be afraid.

              Some people stumble over this story and similar stories in the Bible because they get caught up in whether or not it “really happened,” whether physics allows someone to walk on top of water. These people fail to realize that the Bible is not a science textbook, or even a history book, exactly. This story is a parable. At the end of the story when we expect Matthew to say, “the disciples worshiped Jesus,” instead it says, “those in the boat worshiped him.” And who are “those in the boat?” Well, we are, of course. This is not a story about the laws of nature. It’s not a story about something that happened once a long time ago to other people. It’s a story that happens all the time, to us:   in our little boat, in the storm, in the dark, with wind and waves all around, we get so anxious that even Jesus scan frighten us. But here he comes, walking on top of those waves we’re so afraid of, he gets in the boat with us, and now look—everything’s going to be all right. The truth is, he was never far away, and we had each other all the while. What is there, really, to be afraid of?


              The second part of this Gospel story has Peter daring to see if he too can walk on water. He takes a deep breath, steps out of the boat, starts to walk on top of the water, and then suddenly he falls. You could call it a failure; even Jesus seems exasperated with Peter. But what actually happens next? Well, for one thing, water isn't too hard a thing to fall on. It doesn’t hurt him. And then Jesus reaches out, scoops Peter up, and sets him back in the boat with his friends. That's it. That's the full extent of what happens when Peter falls—Jesus picks him up and puts him back in the boat. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? What is there, really, to be afraid of?

    Now I'm aware there's more than one answer to that question. Jesus asks Peter, "Why did you doubt?" Writer Amy Hunter says, "I want to jump in to defend Peter. 'Hello! Lord! Waves and wind!"1 Wind and waves, Lord—what do you mean "Why did I doubt?"

    And we might answer the same way. Why are you afraid?

  • Hello, I might lose my job, Lord. Or my marriage, Lord.

  • Hello, it could be cancer, Lord. People die from it.

  • Hello, I haven't heard from my kid in days, Lord.

  • Hello, Lord, it's called high school, or college, or retirement, or, well, you get the idea.

What are we afraid of? Plenty!  And when we fall, Jesus will scoop us up, dry us off, and set us back in the boat.  And when we get sick, Jesus will come to our side.  And when a loved one dies and we feel all alone, Jesus will set us back in the boat with the other disciples.  And when we go through things we think we can't endure, Jesus will come to us walking right on top of the water, just to show it can be done.  On the one hand, there's plenty to be afraid of; on the other hand, with a Savior like Jesus, what is there to be afraid of?


          Here’s what I mean.  Pastor Michael Lindvall tells this story.  On the day their youngest child was baptized, Pastor Lindvall and his wife took the baby to visit an elderly couple from their church.  Minnie was 91 and near the end of a long and painful battle with cancer.  Her husband Angus was doing the best he could, but just didn’t know how to face life without his partner of over sixty years.  They laid the child in the old woman’s eager arms.  The baby, who had wailed through her baptism and cried much of the day since, became still.  Minnie looked into the baby’s eyes and said, “Shhh, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” 

          Pastor Lindvall writes, As I looked down from the pulpit at the funeral two weeks later, I wondered if it is true that there is nothing to be afraid of. Have all the mothers who have cooed those words to their sleepless babies been telling lies?  After all, a disease marches deeper into your body for a decade and a half, finally taking you away from the ones you love.  And now a man has to sleep alone in a double bed at the age of ninety-one.  Is there really nothing to be afraid of?

          Then came the closing hymn for Minnie’s service. Precious Lord, they sang, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

          Minnie, it occurred to the pastor, had not been afraid, but not precisely because there is nothing to be afraid of.  The truth is more subtle.  There is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid.”2

          Take heart, Jesus says, It is I. Don’t be afraid.  Yes, Lord, we say.  Yes, Lord.


          So here’s what we’re going to do.  In your bulletin is a pink card.  At the top it says, “What are you afraid of?”  And at the bottom it has those words of Jesus: “Take heart. It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  With that card in hand, take a few moments and get in touch with what you fear.  What makes your heart race, your muscles tense, your stomach churn?  Whatever it is, write it down:  What are you afraid of?

          Then when you’re ready, come and leave that paper at the cross.  As you leave that paper here, take a moment to hear Jesus say the words to you:  “Take heart. It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  This is, I hope, a helpful spiritual exercise.  It is, of course, not magic.  Will there still be things to be afraid of after you leave that paper at the cross?  Of course.  But remember--the truth is subtle: there is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid.  Take heart, Jesus said.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.  Whenever you’re ready, bring your card, bring you fear, and leave it at the cross.


1 Amy B. Hunter, "Stepping Out," Living By the Word, The Christian Century (July 26, 2005, 19.

2 Michael L. Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small Town Pastor (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2002), 232-33.


Leviticus 19:33-34 / Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Fear (and Love) of Strangers and Foreigners

March 12, 2017


          Fred Craddock told this story: He stopped off at the Winn Dixie to get some peanut butter.  He was in a hurry, and those stores are so huge.  So he saw a woman pushing a cart, and he thought, She’s comfortable here. I’ll ask her.  He said, “Um, lady, could you direct me to the peanut butter?”

          She jerked around, stared at him, and said, “Are you trying to hit on me?”

          He said, “No, ma’am. I’m looking for the peanut butter.”  As he backed away from there, he saw a store employee, so he said, “Where’s the peanut butter?”

          “Aisle five, I think, way down on the left.”

          He went there, and sure enough—big jars of peanut butter.  As he turned to leave, that woman was there and she said, “You were looking for the peanut butter!”

          He said, “I told you I was looking for the peanut butter.”

          She said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.”

          And Craddock said, “Lady, yes you can. Yes you can.”1


Hold that story in the back of your mind as I think with you, in a biblical and moral context, about fear (and love) of foreigners and strangers. I want to start with an idiosyncratic list of scriptures relating to foreigners.  It's not a scientific selection—just whatever occurred to me in a couple of hours with a Bible in one hand and a notebook in the other. 

  • At the very beginning, Adam and Eve become foreigners, having to leave their original homeland, to which none of us has ever returned.

  • At God’s command, Sarah and Abraham left Ur of Chaldees to sojourn in a land God would show them, only to have to leave that land for a time due to famine.

  • The city of Sodom was destroyed, not because of sexual orientation, but because of its violent refusal of hospitality to strangers.

  • The people of Israel spent years as honored guests, and then as slaves in Egypt, and centuries later were exiles in Babylon.

  • Ruth and Naomi both spent time is immigrants—Ruth as a Moabite in Israel and Naomi an Israelite in Moab.

  • Esther was part of the persecuted Jewish minority in Persia.

  • In the New Testament, Jesus and his parents were refugees in Egypt, fleeing King Herod, who was killing babies in Bethlehem.

  • In Matthew 8 Jesus praises the faith of a Roman soldier—not only a foreigner, but a despised foreigner—and heals his servant.

  • Jesus makes frequent favorable mention of Samaritans, an ethnic group his people hated with a passion

  • Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based in part upon whether or not they welcomed strangers.

  • And when Revelation 7 paints a picture of heaven, there is a multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing together before the throne of God.


The Bible is a big book; there’s other stuff in it too. I know that. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they took it as their divine mission to destroy everyone else living there.  Gentiles weren’t allowed to enter the holiest parts of the temple.  After the exile, Ezra expelled all foreign wives.  And even Jesus once refused healing to someone because she wasn't an Israelite (though he later changed his mind). 


What does the Bible say about how to regard foreigners? We begin at the beginning of the Bible.  Every human being--citizens and foreigners, friends and strangers--every human being is created in the image of God.  In his book Christians at the Border, Daniel Carroll points out that this does not mean there should be no border control or that no one should ever be deported.  But it should inform the tone of Christian talk about immigration.  Decisions about how to treat foreigners may get to legal status and documentation, but it begins with the recognition that all immigrants are people, created in God's image.2 That fact doesn't end the complicated moral and political discussion; but it is the Bible's place to begin the discussion.


What does the Old Testament law say about how to treat foreigners and strangers? We just read a couple of relevant passages, and I'll summarize some others.  If you want to read them for yourself, just Google "Bible and immigrants" or "Bible and foreigners" and you'll find enough scriptures to keep you busy for a while.

  • For example, the Old Testament says that the same laws have to apply to Israelites and aliens alike. You can't have one set of laws for citizens and another set for everyone else.

  • Israelites were prohibited from exploiting aliens. Foreign residents deserved their wages and had to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath like everyone else.

  • Like other vulnerable people, such as widows and orphans, Israelites were required to provide for aliens among them—food and clothing is mentioned in Deuteronomy.

  • Leviticus goes so far as to say, "You shall love the alien as yourself."

All of this shows that Old Testament law has a strong bias in favor of aliens and their rights. However, this doesn't mean that anything goes. 

  • The Hebrew word used in these laws—ger—seems to refer to foreigners with some kind of recognized, long-term standing in the community. A different Hebrew word referred to short-term visitors, who had fewer rights. And still another word could have quite negative connotations about foreigners. And foreigners from different places could be treated differently in Israel—those from friendly countries could become what we might call citizens in three generations, while those from hostile countries required ten generations. (Deut. 23:3-13)

  • And Daniel Carroll points out that foreigners were expected to learn and respect Israel's language and culture.3 If you’re going to live here, learn what it means to live here.

Again, Old Testament law requires fair, generous and loving treatment of aliens. But this is balanced with requirements of practicality and safety.  Okay?

Ultimately there are two main reasons why the people of Israel were commanded to respect and love foreigners:

  1. The first is their own history: The Israelites themselves had been oppressed in Egypt. They were not to do to others what had been done to them.

  2. And second, Israelites were to treat foreigners well because there's a special place in God's heart for the weak and vulnerable. Daniel Carroll says, "Israel is to love sojourners. because God does."4


Why does fear of foreigners and strangers matter so much? Scott Bader-Saye says, "Fear is a moral issue insofar as it shapes the kind of people we become."5 As we're learning, fear causes our muscles to tense up, our breathing to grow rapid, our hearts to race, hormones to pump, and our brains to revert to fight-or flight thinking. We don't make our most rational, let alone our most loving, decisions out of a condition of fear.

Some foreigners, of course, should be feared.  Most, however, should not.  And even when some foreigners are worthy of being feared, they’re still not usually our greatest fear.  Courage, Bader-Saye insists, depends on learning "what to fear and how much to fear it."6 So, for example:

  • Throughout the 1990s US crime rates were declining, yet two-thirds of Americans thought they were rising.7 This doesn't mean we shouldn't have been concerned with the crime that was happening. But for a decade most Americans felt an unnecessary level of fear about crime and our criminal justice policies got shaped by unrealistic fears.

  • Now a great fear of Muslim terrorism has gripped our country. Again, we need to be vigilant about real dangers. I personally know people affected by the event at OSU back in November. Yet the Dispatch reported last month that your likelihood of being killed in the US by a radical Islamic terrorist is less than being killed by lightning. And since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by Muslims.8 Are we fearing the right things?

  • And in our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner tells about a study finding that people who were acutely stressed after the 9/11 attacks and continued to worry about terrorism—about 6% of the population—were at least three times more likely to develop heart problems. If even a tiny fraction of those people suffered a fatal heart attack due to that stress, it would mean more people will have died of fear than died on 9/11.9 Fear is literally killing us.


    Here’s the thing: If we allow our fear of terrorism and foreigners to fundamentally change who we are and how we live, then terrorism has won. Terrorists aren’t trying to kill all of us; they don’t need to. They’re trying to make all of us live in fear. If our fear causes us to overreact with suspicion of all Muslims or by torturing terror suspects, all we do is perpetuate the cycle of terror.

    I was in Britain in the 1980s when the IRA regularly bombed English businesses. Now, of course the police tried to bring bombers to justice and the military tried to prevent attacks—all of that is needed. But after every bombing, that business would reopen the very next day, even if all they could do was set a card table out front with a few doodads to sell, and the sign would always say, “B.A.U.” Business As Usual. Necessary caution? Yes, please. Firm responses to dangerous actions? Absolutely. But fear should not change who we are and how we live. In the face of terrorism, we need some Business As Usual.


    In response to recent rhetoric about foreigners in Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon wrote a little book called Fear of the Other. He says, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear.” And where does that courage come from? From revering, honoring and devoting ourselves to something greater than our own safety--to God, our Rock and Redeemer, the Creator of every human being. And think of church, Willimon says, “as schooling in how to manage our fears, how to fear our fears getting the best of us, fearing the right things in the right way.” 10

    So much of our fear—okay, I’ll own this: so much of my fear—has to do with the safety of my children. Hurt me if you need to, but don’t mess with my kids! And welcoming strangers and loving foreigners may in fact put our kids at some risk. But not welcoming strangers and not loving foreigners also puts our kids at risk—at risk of having cold hearts and of not following Jesus. Do you remember that story about the peanut butter, how the lady said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.” Yes you can; yes you can.


    My 21 year-old daughter, Emily, spent a semester last year studying in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa. She spent the end of that time in a city called Kaolack, where she was one of two white people and possibly the only Christian among 175,000 people. If anyone has ever been, she was a stranger, a foreigner. Every day as Emily walked to work, she saw the same old woman sitting on a stool. After a few days, the old lady motioned her over. And even though Emily had grown used to Senegalese hospitality by that time, she felt some trepidation. Is this old woman going to try to get money from me? More likely, is she going to try to marry me to one of her grandsons? Is someone else waiting around the corner to get me? But Emily went over. The old lady took Emily’s hands in hers, pointed up to God, and began to pray. The woman knew no English or French; Emily knew very little Wolof. But from then on, every morning this old lady prayed for my daughter, saying whatever black Senegalese Muslim old women say to their God for white American Christian college students far from home. I will never meet her. I don’t know her name.  But I am eternally grateful to this woman for her gracious, prayerful welcome of a stranger.


         So here’s your assignment. Some time in the next week or two, spend an hour with someone you might feel some fear of. You don’t need to tell them that’s what you’re doing! Maybe worship in a church made up of immigrants or go to a mosque. Visit someone in prison. Volunteer at the Free Store or New Life Church. Visit the Somali Community Association near Northern Lights or the Bhutanese Community Center on Tamarack. Your assignment is to spend one hour with someone, facing your fear.

    It’s natural to fear strangers and foreigners. The point is to learn to do the right thing anyway.



1 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 45-46.

2 M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, & the Bible, second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press,2014), 45-51.

3 See Carroll R., 99-100.

4 Carroll R., 91.

5 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 26.

6, Bader-Saye, 25.

7 Bader-Saye, 15.

8 Alan B. Miller, "The Inside Story," The Columbus Dispatch, February 12, 2017, G1.

9 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 8.

10William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 35-36.


Matthew 6:25-34

Not to Worry

March 5, 2017        Maple Grove UMC


          “I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their messages with ‘Do not be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening,” writes Scot Bader-Saye in a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.  “But I have come to think differently.  I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.”1

                    The quieting of fear is required to hear and do what God asks of us. That idea is at the heart of this Lenten worship series called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.”  Let me be clear:  this is not to say that all fear is bad.  Fear warns us of danger and teaches us much about ourselves.  But there’s a reason why “Fear not” is the most often repeated command in the Bible.  One teacher found over 365 “fear nots” in the Bible.2 Why so many?  Partly because we are such fearful people!  We need to hear it every day.  And partly because, not just to have fear, but letting fear run your life will leave you unhappy, ungenerous, and ultimately unfaithful. 

                    Between now and Easter we will look at fear in several ways:

  • fear of strangers and foreigners

  • at disciples who are afraid of Jesus and Peter daring, for a moment, to walk on top of the water

  • at the relationship between fear and love

  • at how the opposite of fear isn’t fearlessness but trust

  • and at praying through our fear.


                We begin this series with what is surely the most common type of fear: anxiety. Jesus says, Don’t worry about having enough to eat--birds don’t plant crops or store up food, yet God feeds them. And don’t worry about what you’ll wear--flowers don’t work at all, and still they’re beautiful. Don’t worry.

                First, a few things about what Jesus is not saying here:

  • He’s not saying that nothing bad will ever happen to you. Flowers eventually wither and die; some birds can't find anything to eat. Jesus isn’t saying that bad things can’t happen; he’s saying that worrying won’t make things better.

  • Jesus is also not saying that there’s no need to work and study and plan for the fuure. Jesus knows full well that food doesn’t put itself on the table. What he’s saying is that worry doesn’t put any food on the table.

  • And finally please don’t hear this scripture as a judgment or criticism of worrying. All that criticism accomplishes is that people still worry, and they feel bad about it—maybe even worry about their worrying. This scripture is not a word of judgment; it’s a word of hope—there is a way not to worry, or at least to worry less. Don't you want to know what it is?


I want to start by thinking with you about what worry is. I consider myself an expert on this topic, being an excellent worrier myself and coming from a long line of worriers

      You can distinguish worry from fear.  True fear, writes Gavin de Becker, is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of immediate danger—let’s say as a bear is chasing you, or a car is swerving into your lane.  Anxiety, in contrast, is not a signal, but more of a “state,” a condition—it persists in the absence of any real danger and it does not serve our survival.4 So there’s a difference between true fear and anxiety.  The trouble is, though, the mind and body can’t tell the difference between worry and fear.  Either way, the heart races, muscles tense up, breathing grows rapid and shallow, the brain reverts to fight-of-flights mechanisms.  We are not at our best when we are anxious or afraid.


      Gavin de Becker is a consultant to celebrities and government officials who are being stalked or have received death threats.  He knows a thing or two about fear and danger.  He acknowledges that anxiety is a form of fear, but calls it “manufactured” fear, a form of “self-harrassment.”4 It’s fear based not on what’s about to happen, but on what might happen, or might not happen, or that I imagine could happen, or I hate to think about what it would be like if it did happen.  Near the end of his life, Mark Twain said, “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”5 That’s anxiety.

      De Becker says that most often we worry because it provides some “some secondary reward.”  If you’re a worrier like me, you’ll recognize these secondary rewards, but as I list them, it will be hard to consider them rewards exactly..

  • Worry, he says, is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t actually do anything about the matter.

  • Worry is a way to avoid admitting our powerlessness over something, since worry makes us feel like we’re doing something.

  • Worry is what de Becker calls a cloying way to have connection with others; in other words, worry is a poor substitute for love.

  • Finally, worry is a protection against future disappointment. If I worry about failing now, maybe it won’t feel so bad when I actually do fail.6

That makes worry sound like a fun life, doesn’t it? When you put it in these terms, you might wonder, “Why do I worry?”  That’s a good question, worthy of our reflection.  But today’s question is, “What am I going to do about anxiety?  How can I stop worrying, or at least worry less?”

Let me share two ideas about that. You can take them with you.  They're safe to try at home.  What to do about worry?

  1. Intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different way. First, the body: simply taking three deep breaths begins to slow down your heart rate and to release the tension in your body. Try it, right now. Nothing is more effective in countering anxiety than breathing. And try forcing yourself to smile—it is harder to stay worried when you’re smiling and laughing—it's physiologically true.

And then the eyes: almost every book on fear I read had this advice--don’t watch the evening news—the steady diet of crime and car crashes causes you to see the world in an unrealistic way. Keep a gratitude journal—every day write down three things you’re grateful for.  It shifts your focus from the negative to the positive, and gratitude is wonderful medicine for anxiety.  Start each day expecting good things to happen.  Let this be part of your morning prayers: “God, I am expecting good things to happen today."  This may or may not make good things happen, but it will help you notice when they do happen.  So much depends on how you look at things.  I was in a Bible study one time with Jody Oates, whom many of you know.  We were studying the story in Matthew where Jesus stayed behind and the disciples crossed the lake and the boat was far from the land, Matthew says, for the wind was against them.  And I said, “In't that they way it always is?  Isn’t the wind always against us?”  And Jody said, “Actually, no, a lot of times the wind is quite nice.”  And you know, he’s right.  I had developed a way of looking at the world that was negative, anxious and incorrect.  Worry is about how you look at the world, and about whether you hold tensions and troubles in your body or release them.  And so to worry less, intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different, more positive way. 

  1. And then there’s this. In his book about dialing back fear, Dr. Marc Siegel says “that if fear is unlearned, it is because a new emotion replaces it.” Fear doesn’t just go away; you have to replace it with something. And secular though he is, Dr. Siegel suggests caring. Caring for someone else gets us out of that self-centered cycle of anxiety. It's good for you. And Scot Bader-Saye admits that we can’t just command ourselves to feel less fear—it doesn't work. Overwhelming fears must be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a larger story that is hopeful and not tragic.7

          And here’s how Jesus said the same thing: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ God knows you need those things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I know this can sound like a religious platitude, but it’s really a deep spiritual truth. Again, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen, and it doesn’t mean you should work hard and plan for the future. But you don’t overcome anxiety by doing battle anxiety. You overcome anxiety by reaching out for God, by trusting in God’s care, by breathing in God’s goodness and letting God hold all that burdens you.

          But what if I tried it and it didn’t work? Keep trying! I mean, what’s the alternative—keep worrying? Or rather, trying isn’t quite the right word. Keep letting this happen in you:

          I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to put you ahead of my worry. I’m going to seek you first, Lord.

          I’m worried sick, and your righteousness, God, will be enough.



          I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to let you calm my quivering, fearful heart. Lord knows I can’t calm it myself.

          God will hold you as far as, and to the extent that, you will allow yourself to be held. It’s not a platitude; it’s the truth we so desperately need.


1Scot Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 59.

2Lloyd Ogilvie, Facing the Future Without Fear,, accessed March 2, 2017.

3 See Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence New York: Delta, 1999), 292-93.

4 de Becker, 302.

5 de Becker, 315.

6 de Becker, 302.

7 Bader-Saye, 60.


Matthew 5:38-48

Relationships Include . . . Enemies

February 19, 2017        Maple Grove UMC


          We may have smiled and nodded during the Gospel reading today, but if we’re honest we have to admit that those are some very hard teachings, aren’t they?  Jesus says not to resist anyone who harms you.  Whoa!  He says to love not only your friends, but even your enemies.  Really? These are hard teachings, and people know it.

          Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Campolo dared to read in church these words of Jesus about loving enemies and not retaliating.  One listener came to him and declared, “This is no time to go around quoting Jesus.”  “I’ve got news for you,” responded Campolo; “this is exactly the time we had better quote Jesus.”1

          These are difficult teachings.  By that I do not mean that I’m telling you, “Hey, these may be hard for you.”  I mean they’re hard for all of us.  These teaching are hard because they challenge the notion that justice is about punishment or even about our safety, and they contradict the idea that love is about fairness.  They’re not, Jesus says.  Justice and love are not about treating people the way they deserve to be treated, but treating people the way God treats us.  That is challenging, to say the least.


          So what does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart of all our relationships, including relationships with enemies?

          Well, for one thing, it implies that it’s okay to have enemies.  There’s the old joke about the preacher who gave a sermon on forgiving our enemies.  At the end of the sermon, he asked everyone to raise their hand if they were willing to try forgive their enemies.  Every hand went up but one.  “Mrs. Jones?” the preacher asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?”

          “I don’t have any,” she replied, smiling sweetly.

          “Mrs. Jones, that is remarkable.  How old are you?”

          “93,” she replied.

          “Oh, Mrs. Jones, what a lesson you are to us.  Come up front and tell us how a person can live 93 years and not have an enemy in the world.”

          The little old lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation and said, “I outlived the wenches.”

          Well, that’s one method. I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind. 


          I want to start with some questions that are kind of philosophical:  What did Jesus mean when he said to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies? Why did he want us to live like that? What kind of ethics was Jesus teaching?

  • First, I mentioned last Sunday I believe the Sermon on the Mount is a kingdom ethics—that is, how Christians need to live in community with each other. These are essentially rules for how we have to treat people if our life together is going to be happy and peaceful.

         Clarence Jordan shows that the Bible arrived at this kingdom, or community, ethics in four steps:2

    (1) First there is unlimited retaliation. If someone harms or disrespects you, you can get back at them in any way you’re able to, up to and including killing them. There are no limits. It’s a state of nature.

    (2) Second comes limited retaliation. We may think “an eye for an eye” sounds barbaric, but it’s a vast improvement over unlimited retaliation! In a way, it’s still the basis of our criminal justice system: the punishment should fit the crime. It makes a kind of sense. But we also know how it inevitably turns out: if you harm me and I harm you back in a similar way, you’re still angry and eventually you’ll harm me again, and then I have to harm you again. It’s an endless cycle of violence and vengeance. Ghandi is often credited with saying that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

    (3) So the third step is limited love, the Bible’s command to love your neighbor. Even if your neighbor harms you, you’ve still got to love them. This is a vast improvement over retaliation, but is still limited only to neighbors. An example from Jesus’ time might be that if a neighbor, that is, another Jew, knocked out your eye or tooth, he can be forgiven; but if a Gentile did it, then all bets are off. It’s limited love.

    (4) So the final step, the step Jesus takes in the Sermon on the Mount, is unlimited love. Jesus is saying that love must be the basis for all relationships and must be applied universally—to people like us and to people different from us, to people who treat us well and people who hate us. Just love ‘em all, is what Jesus is saying.

         At first, Jordan admits, unlimited love seems counterintuitive, impractical, even dangerous. And indeed there are risks--Jesus himself wound up on a cross. But ultimately, Jordan says, unlimited love is the only way of living with each other that can possibly make any sense. Everything else perpetuates a cycle of violence and exclusion.


              So one way of looking at loving one’s enemy and non-retaliation is as kingdom ethics, behavior that makes life together possible and fruitful. But ethicists talk about the difference between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Consequentialist ethics says that it’s the consequences of our behavior that matters, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because these things will lead to the best outcomes. Deontological ethics says that certain things are just right or wrong regardless of the outcome, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because it’s the right thing to do. Which was Jesus teaching—consequentialist ethics or deontological? I’d like to say, “Both.”

              In terms of consequentialist ethics, it’s important to note that in telling people not to retaliate, Jesus did not say to be a victim or a doormat to be walked on. He gave three examples of how to respond to mistreatment. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” he says, “turn the other also.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies a backhanded blow, which in that culture was not only painful, but deeply insulting. To turn the other cheek is a nonviolent but aggressive response. It says, “Oh yeah, big guy? I can take it! You have not defeated my spirit, and I will not sink to your level.”

              Again, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” As best I can tell, this was a kind of rude joke. Jewish men wore two garments—their coat, an outer garment, and their cloak, an inner garment. If you’re only wearing two garments, and someone takes the outer one, and you offer them the inner one too—what does that leave you wearing? This is a way of publicly shaming a person who would try to take everything you’ve got, even the clothes off your back. Maybe you can’t stop them from taking your stuff, but you can make them look bad.

              And Roman soldiers could legally require people to carry their pack for one mile, but only one mile. To voluntarily carry that pack a second mile makes the soldier a law-breaker and makes him look weak. It shows that you are in charge, not him.

              So when Jesus says not to retaliate, he doesn’t mean to be passive. Rather these are ways to stand up for yourself without stooping to the level of violence and revenge.


                   I believe all of that is true, that ultimately non-retaliation, forgiveness, and love of enemy are the only things that can save the world. I’m not saying I’m often courageous and in tune enough with God to live that way. But I believe it.

              But I also believe that Jesus wanted us to live that way even if it wouldn’t save the world. “Love,” one commentator sums up, “is not a weapon or tool. Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of [their] response.”3 Clarence Jordan put it, “Jesus didn’t tell his followers to love their enemies because love would or would not work. The idea probably never occurred to him to raise the question of whether or not it was practical. He told them that they should do it ‘that they might be [children of their Father in heaven]4, to be close to God. “Be perfect, therefore,” Jesus concludes, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect, of course, impossible, problematic. But as I heard Laurie Clark say a few days ago, the Greek is mistranslated here. The word doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ in our usual sense; it means ‘whole.’ We turn the other cheek, we let stuff go, we love even those who hate and hurt us, so that we can be ‘whole’ like God, whether it “works” or not.


              In a moment I want to tell you a couple stories about loving enemies on an interpersonal level. But I want to note that this works at the national level as well. A recent issue of The Christian Century5 told of a restorative justice project in Uganda led by a retired Anglican bishop. In the 1980s and 90s the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 60,000 children in Uganda, killed over 100,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. With that many people involved, to retaliate or even to punish all the wrongdoers would only further devastate the country. Instead the bishop is trying a process of justice called mato oput, which centers on forgiveness, truth telling, compensation, and a ritual in which enemies share food together. Another article was about the widow of a Japanese reporter who was abducted and killed in Iraq by one of the warring parties there. Instead of seeking revenge, she built a hospital and offered it to those who had killed her husband. Take those stories times 100, times 1000, times what you do and what I do, and the entire world is more ‘whole,’ more like God.


              I’ve probably told you before about the time I was playing tennis, doubles with my brother, my sister and my brother-in-law. Somewhere toward the end of the first set, little Charley Yoder started riding his bike back and forth across our court, intentionally interrupting our game. We pointed out that there was an entire vacant court where he could ride without disturbing our game, but he just kept riding back and forth across our court. We told him to Scram, Knock it off, or else. But he just kept riding back and forth across our court. I chased him off with my racket (I like to think I wouldn’t have actually hit the kid), and he disappeared. But of course two points later he was back riding back and forth across our court.

              We decided to take a break, hoping he’d lose interest and go away. But he didn’t; he just kept riding around. I went to get some water and when I came back, I saw my sister and Charley Yoder sitting under a tree playing a game together. I was incensed—this was no way to treat someone who’s ruining our game! It got worse: when they got up, Charley picked up my sister’s racket and she said, “Charley’s going to take my place for a while.”

              “No way!” I shouted. But she’s my big sister, so she got her way. We finished the set—me, my brother, my brother-in-law and Charley Yoder. I did not enjoy it. He wasn’t very good. And he smiled with joy the entire time. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. It’s a hard teaching.


              Finally this: Will Campbell was a white Southern Baptist preacher who became a civil rights leader in the South. He wrote a book about his life called Brother to a Dragonfly. (The language, just so you know, was Will Campbell’s uncle’s, not mine.) Will tells how in 1959 his father died after a long illness. Will was exhausted from caring for him, overcome with sorrow. His sister, though, came and said, “Will, I know you’re tired. . . But will you stay with him tonight?” He promised that he’d keep watch over the body that night.

              Several hours into the night Will heard, “Believe it’s cooled off a bit.” “Yea,” he replied, “I believe it has.” Slowly, he writes, it occurred to me that someone from out of the darkness had spoken to me. I did not need to turn around to ask who it was. I’d not heard the voice for a long time, but I knew it was a favorite uncle from my childhood. In recent years he’d been one of the most critical and vocal ones concerning my activities in the civil rights controversy, expressing bitter disappointment and displeasure that his own nephew had turned out to be what he called a nigger lover and renegade preacher. I’d ceased to visit him when I came home because I loved him too much to risk his rejection.

              He moved quietly out of the darkness and sat down beside me. I tried to see my watch. “It’s three o-clock,” he said. I assumed he knew about the promise I’d made my sister, and had been sitting in the shadows since the last mourner had left, deciding in his own time when I had been alone—though not alone—long enough.

              He poured coffee from a lunch box thermos and handed it to me. And until the dawn, Will Campbell writes, I sat in the redemptive company of a racist Jesus.6

              “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. And maybe even harder, let them love you. Our God-Centered relationships include . . . our enemies. It’s a hard teaching. And the only way to change the world.



1 Tony Campolo, “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,” The Sunday After Tuesday: College Pulpits Respond to 9/11, ed. William H. Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 52.

2 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970), 63-68.

3 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 60.

4 Jordan, 68.

5 The Christian Century (February 15, 2017), 18-19.

6 Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1988), 150-51.



Matthew 5:21-30

Relationship with Others Is Relationship with God

February 12, 2017             Maple Grove UMC


            What if during worship everyone got up, walked across the room, and engaged in heartfelt conversation with someone?  Or what if everyone got up and walked out of church calling some long-lost friend on the phone?  Bad behavior in Church?  No, I think that would great!  Hold that thought—I’ll come back to it. 

            But first, what about those teachings where Jesus seems to equate anger and insult with murder and lust with adultery?  What are we to make of that?  Does he really mean it?  Are we all in a lot of trouble? 

            Chapters 5-7 in Matthew’s Gospel are called the “Sermon on the Mount,” which is the Bible’s purest, highest description of how Christians should live.  And today’s teachings about killing and adultery are the first of what scholars called “the Six Antitheses.”  Six times in this sermon Jesus says, “you have heard it said that . . . but I say to you this.”  In addition to killing and adultery, these antitheses are about divorce, taking oaths, retaliating when someone wrongs you, and loving not just our neighbors but even our enemies (more on that one next Sunday).

            So morally challenging are these antitheses and the rest of this Sermon that several common interpretations over the ages essentially say that these teachings don’t exactly, or don’t fully, apply to most of us.  For example, Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages taught that only monks and nuns were expected to fully comply with the Sermon on the Mount.  Some Christians believe the Sermon on the Mount can’t be fulfilled here and now but only when Jesus returns.  And one Lutheran interpretation is that the Sermon on the Mount is intentionally impossible for us to live up to and that Jesus was trying to teach us that we can’t meet God’s demands on our own and that’s how we learn to rely on the mercy and grace of Christ.1 Clever interpretations, all of them, by people far smarter than I. But it strikes me that they’re all ways of trying to avoid the fact that Jesus wants us to live higher and holier lives. 

            I assume and I believe that Jesus really wanted us all to live this way—to weed anger and lust out of our hearts, to hold marriage sacred, to let our word be our word, not to strike back when people hurt us, and to love all people, even our enemies, even those who persecute us.  I’m not saying I live this way—I need God’s mercy every day.  I’m saying that I believe Jesus wants us, he longs for us, he expects us to learn to live this way. 

            Now I would want to make that conditional in a couple of ways:

  • First, Jesus uses some strong and exaggerated language in the Sermon on the Mount. Did he really want us to gouge out an eye or chop off a hand? Well, I don’t think so. But I know what he means. . . And did he really mean that being angry is exactly the same as killing someone? I don’t think so, but I know what he means. . . The exaggerations show how seriously Jesus meant these teachings.

  • And second, I think Jesus was teaching a kingdom ethic. This is how Christians are meant to live in community with one another. This high and holy way of life may not be possible for each of us separately and individually. But together, as fellow disciples of Jesus, much more is possible.


So Jesus said, "You've heard it said, 'You shall not murder,' but I say to you 'If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be handed to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to hell.'" So does this mean, asks Tom Long, that "if you lose your temper at a church committee meeting and unload a piece of your mind on some poor soul across the table," that you're going to hell?2 Thankfully, no, since that would be bad news for me, and maybe a few of you as well.  The Greek word Jesus uses for anger means literally to swell or run over; it was used of people who boiled up inside until they were ready to explode.3 This kind of anger doesn't just suddenly occur; it has to be allowed, even cultivated over time.

Clarence Jorden--the civil rights leader I mentioned last Sunday who helped found Habitat for Humanity--understood that murder is already being born when we lose respect for someone else as a human being and allow ourselves to overlook the infinite worth of every child of God. He notes that one early sign of this kind of overrunning anger is self-pity: craving attention or respect and not getting as much as you think you should, always feeling like you're carrying more than your share of the load, being unwilling to see how you have contributed to the problems around you.  Allowed to flourish and spread, self-pity is fertile ground for the kind of anger Jesus is talking about.4

It is not hard to see how this is a kingdom ethic, the way we need to live for Christianity community to work. As one Lutheran bishop puts it, "In this commu- nity, it's not enough only to avoid homicide.  There is no room even for . . .  insult, or name-calling—no room for behaviors that chip away at relationship and community."5 But it's also easy to see that the person this kind of anger and self-pity hurt most is the one who carries them around.  How joyful, how blessed, can life be when you're always lugging around that load of hurt feelings?  The surest way to guard against killing, Jesus is saying, is to develop within yourself a peaceful disposition.6 Amen?


And again Jesus says, "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." First of all, notice that even though back then, as now, it was common to blame women for men's bad behavior, Jesus will have none of that.  He directly instructs men to control not only our behavior but what's in our hearts.

But as with anger, surely Jesus didn't mean that sexual desire is wrong, or everyone's in trouble. Rather than desire, Tom Long teaches, by lust Jesus means our basic attitudes, the choices we make about what we will allow to take root in our imaginations, to shape our thoughts, to govern our actions, and to mold our relationships.7 Lust is, ultimately, looking at someone with an intention of breaking a covenant, looking at someone as a means to your end rather than a human being to love and care for.  Unless we are mentally ill, each one has the capacity to decide what we will keep thinking about, what we will allow ourselves to look at, and what our intentions toward others will be.

I met once with a couple planning to get married, but along the way he developed a relationship with another woman. I don't mean that he touched that woman, but he met with her, he called her frequently, he confided in her.  And his fiancé found out. He and I met to talk about it.  He said, "I just couldn't help myself."  I asked, "Is that really true?"  He thought and then said, "Well, no.  I didn't help myself.  But how can I stop it from happening again?"  And I said, "You tell me:  how can you stop it?"  And over the next hour he said:

  • I can take out of my phone the personal numbers of any woman I might think of confiding in. Uh-huh

  • I can make sure I don't meet with other women one-on-one, but only in group settings. Uh-huh.

  • When I'm feeling hurt or depressed (which is one I tend to get in trouble), I can reach out right away to a safe person to help me feel better, so I don't reach out to an inappropriate person. Uh-huh.

There were others, but you get the idea. Lust is looking at someone with the wrong intentions, and there are many ways to cultivate right intentions in all our relationship.  Amen?


But let me return to where I started: what if everyone suddenly got up in the middle of church and engaged in heart-felt conversation with someone?  Jesus said, "So when you're offering your gift at the altar [loosely translated, "when you're at church"], if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."  Jesus is saying that our relationship with God is all mixed up with our relationships with other people.  We are not fully reconciled to God until we are reconciled with one another. That is a challenging teaching for these divided times we live in.  And to make it even more challenging, Jesus did not say "If you're at the altar and remember that you have something against someone else, make sure to go and point it out to them."  That can be important in relationships too—don't get me wrong.  But it's not where Jesus focuses.  He says, "If you're at the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go and be reconciled." 

One way we've been talking about God-Centered Wellbeing is that it's seeking to keep our relationship with God and God's love at the heart of all our other relationships. This gospel lesson teaches an important corollary:  All of our other relationships are always at the heart of our relationship with God.  You can't escape the messiness of your difficult relationships by coming to church; all of that comes with you to the altar.  In fact, at the altar is where our need for reconciliation becomes so compelling that we just might get up and do something about it. 

It happens all the time. Not long ago one Maple Grove member was disappointed and hurt by something another Maple Grove member said, and in turn he said some hurtful back.  He took a few weeks off and was thinking of leaving the church completely.  But as took Holy Communion one Sunday, he looked across the room and saw that person he was angry at taking the very same Communion at the very same time.  And his heart cried out to be reconciled in the name of Jesus.  So he reached out to that person, said he was sorry for what he'd said and wanted to repair things between them.  And the other person rethought what he had said and affirmed that person in a healing way.  The altar of God had done its holy work

So what if during worship everyone got up, walked across the room, and engaged in heartfelt conversation with someone? Or what if everyone got up and made a phone call to a person they hadn't talked to in ages?  Bad behavior in church?  No, no—it's called living out the Sermon on the Mount.  Go, be reconciled to your sister or brother; church will still be here when you get back.  Our relationship with God is our relationship with others.


1 See J. Carl Laney, “Nine Ways to Approach the Sermon on the Mount,”, accessed February 10, 2017.

2 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 56.

3 Clarence Jorden, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952), 88.

4 Jordan, 57.

5 Brian Maas, "Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary," The Christian Century (January 18, 2017), 21.

6 Joardan, 54.

7 Long, 54.


Matthew 5:13-16

Salt & Light: It’s All About Relationships

February 5, 2017


            Before he was the bishop of Alabama, Will Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University, where part of his job was to have conversations with students about faith and religion and life.  One student told him that he and his roommate weren’t getting along well.  “Why not?” Willimon asked.  “Because he’s a Muslim and I’m not,” the student said.  Willimon asked why that made a difference.

            “When we moved in together, he asked me what my religion was,” the student replied.  “I told him that I was a sort of Christian.  A Lutheran.  I told him up front that my family and I weren’t the very best Christians, that we only went to church occasionally, and it wasn’t that big a deal to me.  But my roommate has this nasty habit of asking embarrassing questions.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like after we had roomed together a few weeks, he asked me, ‘Why do you Christians never pray?’  I told him, ‘We pray all the time.  We just sort of keep it to ourselves.’”

            “He said, ‘I’ll say you do!  I’ve never seen you pray.’  He prays, like, a half dozen times a day on his prayer rug in our room.

            “The last straw was Saturday morning, when I came in from a date, and he asked me, “Doesn’t your Bible talk about avoiding dissolute living?”

            “I told him, ‘Look, it’s not dissolute living; it was just a party at the Tri Delt house.  I told you I’m not the best Christian in the world.  You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me!”1


            You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me . . .  I sympathize with that student; I’m not eager for the Christian faith to be judged by everything I do and say either.  But it begs the question:  what should people judge the Christian faith by?  Well, Jesus answers that question in the Gospel reading today.  And no, it’s not how often or where we pray or even whether or not we party with the Tri Delts.  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  And “You are the light of the world. . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  What should people judge the Christian faith by?  Well, according to Jesus, by us, by how we engage with others and shine on those around us, by our relationships with one another and with other people.  And surely our salt will be saltier, surely our light will shine brighter, if we keep God’s love at the heart of all those relationships.


            So in part, the way we are salt and light, how people will judge the Christian faith, has to do with our internal relationships, the way we love one another in the church.  In the Greek of the New Testament, when Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world,” the word ‘you’ is not singular, but plural.  In the South it would be “y’all are the salt of the earth,” or back in Kansas we’d say, “you guys are the light of the world.”  In other words, I am not the light, and you and you and you are not the light individually.  We are the light of the world, together. 

            One way the world will judge the Christian faith is by our internal relationships.  That’s why in John 13:35 Jesus tells the Twelve, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  You might expect him to say that other people will know we’re his disciples if we love them; but instead he says people will know we’re his disciples if we love one another.  I’ve heard it put this way:  the church’s greatest witness to the world is the quality of our life together. 

            Now, admittedly, that’s harder than it might seem.  The truth is, it can be easier to love a perfect stranger than someone who lives in your own home.  And sometimes, the better you get to know a person, the harder they are to love!  The rapid pace of change in our culture and the current passion in our politics makes simply loving one another especially challenging right now.  I know I’ve said some things that didn’t help others feel loved.  And I’m aware that there are times when I'm quicker to look for reasons to criticize people I disagree with than I am to find reasons to be kind to them.  Maybe you’ve been like that too?          

            As salt of the earth and light of the world, I’d like to take a deep breath, take a step back, and make a fresh start at this loving one another.  Why?  Because the witness of the gospel depends on it.  Because not just me and you and you, but "y'all"--we all—are the salt of the earth and the light of the word, together.  People will, and are, judging the Christian faith by how we love one another.


So being salt and light is partly about our internal relationships, how we love one another in the church; but being salt and light is also about our external relationships, how we treat our neighbors well beyond the church.  Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works.”  And New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, points out that both salt and light are important not just in and of themselves, but because of their impact on something else—salt impacts food, light impacts darkness. 2  And Christians impact our neighbors and the world. 

                    Being salt of the earth and light of the world means that our relationships will give us away. Clarence Jordan was a civil rights leader in the 1940s and 50s and was also helped found Habitat for Humanity.  He notes that “Jesus isn’t saying here that you shouldn’t hide your light [under a basket.  What Jesus is saying is] that nobody ever does that.”3 We can’t do that.  Our light is shining, whether we mean it to or not.  So when we feed the hungry, when we welcome strangers and people who are different from us, when we visit the sick and the elderly, our light is shining.  And when we do not feed the hungry, when we do not welcome strangers and people who are different from us, when we neglect the sick and the elderly, our light is shining then as well. 

            Again, Scot McKnight describes what it looks like when a church lives out Jesus’ call to be salt and light.  He visited a church called New Covenant Fellowship in Champaign, Illinois.  “The only way I can describe this church,” he says, is that “the boundaries between church and community are porous.  The church is an offering to the community and the community seeps into the church.”  Do you feel how this church’s relationships with those around them are like salt and light?  There is no “in” or “out” at New Covenant, just people in relationship with each other.  McKnight says that the day he was there he “experienced some homeless folks, a middle-aged woman who showed signs of schizophrenia, some Jewish neighbors who thought the topic of [the day’s] teaching was of interest to them. . . “The salt and light metaphors,” McKnight concludes, “reveal that the church’s fundamental task is to mediate God’s presence.”4 In other words, it’s all about relationships.


            Y’all are the salt of the earth, Jesus said.  Y’all are the light of the world, together.  You’ll remember that student who told his Muslim roommate: “You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me.”  But people do judge the Christian faith by us, by how we love one another, and by how we welcome and include and love our neighbors near and far.  I, for one, have heard this scripture this week.  I repent of ways that God’s love has not been at the heart of my relationships and I am committed to putting God’s love back at the heart of all my relationships.  I wonder who will join me on that journey?


1Adapted from William H. Willimon, “Árguing with Muslims: God-Talk on Campus,” The Christian Century (November 16, 2004), 34.

2 Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 56.

3 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970, Koinonia Edition), 42.

4 McKnight, 61.


Church Well-Being 2016

Jane Rantz & Bill Tenney

Address Delivered January 29, 2017


Let us pray together:


Deliver us, God, from the temptation of accepting the world that we see as the only world that is. For the world that we see is not the world for which you created us. Give strength to our pursuit of true knowledge, and to a life lived in your presence and in your mystery.


We give thanks and praise for the movement toward broad inclusiveness here in the diverse community of Maple Grove. We pray that even though at times we do not think alike, you will enable us, God, to love alike.


Open our hearts, our minds, and our doors. May we invite others to join us as we see Christ in every person we meet. We know we can experience a glimpse of heaven on earth when we make that spiritual connection with others.


Guide us in this New Year to be all that we can be for you! 

In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.


Brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to celebrate the end of a year dedicated to being one in Christ, and in the beginning of another year. The Book of Revelation promises a new heaven and a new earth, not an escape from earth. We seek to live on earth as Jesus did, making heaven and earth one.


How do we live this heaven on earth? By being willing to journey beyond our comfort zones to discover the world for which we have been created. We invite the Christ in us to live through us, loving our neighbors, our community, and our world. This is not a love that begins and ends just in warm feelings; it is a love that speaks in courage, in patience and kindness, and by being and by doing.


Bill and I want to share how Maple Grove has lived our mission statement of being an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.


Like Paul, we are called to foster a culture of invitation to Christian community. We have grown: We are committed to an ever-deepening relationship with God.

We have been transformed: We have formed life-changing relationships while serving others.


We are blessed by the leadership of Pastor Glenn, Cathy Davis, and Dawn Nauman. They help and encourage us to ponder their messages and be all that we can be as disciples of Christ. They love and support us through good times and bad. Thank you, Glenn, Cathy, and Dawn!


We’re thankful for the service of Eve Hathaway, who is the heart and soul of our church office. Thanks to Chip Austin and Terrell Brown, who take pride in the care and upkeep of our facility. Thanks to Sue Fletcher and Nancy Gay, whose ministries reach out to care for our absent and elderly members. We are grateful, too, for the loving care that Mandy Wray, our nursery coordinator, provides to the very youngest visitors to Maple Grove, and for the service of our additional nursery coordinator for 2017, Michelle Sekuskey.


We are blessed by the musical gifts of Len Bussard, Greg White, Rev. Michelle Baker, and our inspiring choirs. When the Chancel Choir sings, we hear scripture and messages of the love and peace of Christ woven into melody and harmony. When the bell choir rings, or New Song or our gifted soloists sing or play their instruments, they help put us in touch with God’s holiness and majesty. We deeply appreciate how much all of you do for us.


Thanks to the Maple Grove Players, who through drama, humor, and music deliver God’s message in our church and through their outreach programs to other groups in our community.


A few weeks ago we completed a successful capital campaign under the leadership of the Bennetts and Freers and their team members. Thanks to all of them and to those who have contributed to the campaign and committed to paying it forward to keep the physical facility of Maple Grove going for following generations. We have been the beneficiaries of those who came before us and with their faith and commitment laid the foundation and built upon the rock that became Maple Grove United Methodist Church at Henderson and High. Our pledged amount to the campaign to date is $875,000, and we have already received first fruits of $201,000. Projects to improve safety are beginning.


The capital campaign is a three-year effort, and if you haven’t already pledged, please consider doing so as you are able in the future.


Based on a successful stewardship campaign, our financial figures for 2016 are great! Total income was $571,649. Total expenses were $560,667 giving us a surplus of $10,982. This is the second year in a row we have finished with a surplus. Total church income was up, and expenses were held down. Our budget for 2017 is $572,434, which is a 0.72% decrease over last year’s budget. If you have not already made a commitment to the operating budget, please note that pledges are always gratefully accepted!


Last year we welcomed 33 new members to our Maple Grove family. Our total membership was 587. We had 117 first-time visitors.  


Maple Grovers love God and serve their neighbors in over 75 active ministry teams, thanks to the large number of ministry volunteers and team leaders. Among the mission and outreach ministries are groups that served here in Columbus at the NNEMAP Food Pantry and the New Life United Methodist Church Clothing Room. In partnership with the Clintonville Resources Center, we served dinner the first Thursday of each month and provided other food for the hungry: Sunday breakfasts, sack lunches, summer lunches for kids, and non-perishable food donations. We prepare and deliver sandwiches twice monthly to the Faith on 8th Men’s Shelter.


Our adult mission team traveled to Andrews, South Carolina, and completed repairs on mobile homes that had been damaged by storms. We hosted Feed the World, which provided food to people in need locally and around the world. (It was an amazing event, and if you missed out on participating last year, be aware that we plan to host it again this year in the month of August.)


Also in 2016, we completed our three-year 30-thousand-dollar pledge to Imagine No Malaria as our world outreach part of the Christmas in July campaign. Thanks to your support over the last three years, we helped save three thousand lives in Africa.


Maple Grove served 225 Thanksgiving meals in Fellowship Hall and delivered leftovers to local shelters. We provided 140 food boxes to Bethlehem on Broad Street. (There are only 153 days until our next Christmas in July!)


Maple Grove continues to add study groups for spiritual formation. Thirteen classes meet faithfully every Sunday morning. Seven other classes meet during the week. The following short-term study groups were offered in 2016: Disciples Path, We Make the Road, For the Love of God, Soul of a Pilgrim, Open the Door, Unusual Healings, and several Covenant study groups. Three Love Our Neighbor events were held during the summer. These included lunch and time to explore topics of Differences & Sameness, Conflict Resolution and Reconciling Ministries. Each event was attended by 60-70 people.


Four of our members are training as Stephen Ministers as we partner for training with Overbrook Presbyterian and North Broadway UMC. This will give us a total of 17 active Stephen Ministers. We also trained four more Hometown Service Volunteers through the HEROES program.


Twenty-seven women participated in a spiritual retreat at the Lial Renewal Center. Twenty-nine women attended an Advent Contemplative Gathering. There are two active United Methodist Women’s Circles.


The God-Centered Wellbeing Team put on an Emotional Resilience workshop, which drew 50-60 attendees. God-Centered Wellbeing also continued growing a variety of human connection groups in 2016.


The Teenage Youth group has 12 active participants. Our teens participated in the annual CROP Walk, sang carols to homebound folks, took Valentines to Wesley Glen, partnered with CRC to rake leaves for our senior neighbors, made sandwiches for Faith on 8th, led a Christmas Eve worship, and learned about mercy and justice.


Thirteen participants went on an unforgettable youth mission trip to Memphis, Tennessee. Their experiences on that trip included attending a service addressing racial violence, serving dinner at a homeless shelter, working at a Baptist boys’ ranch (where they heard heartbreaking stories of abuse, broken homes, abandonment and addiction, but also of gratitude for the ranch and for a God of love, forgiveness and second chances). Also in Tennessee, they volunteered at the Lisieux House for women in recovery from addiction and human trafficking, and heard more stories of second chances by the grace of God. They visited with residents of a rehabilitation facility, and they toured the National Civil Rights Museum, which includes the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.


Ten seventh and eighth graders completed confirmation in May of 2016.


Dawn Nauman’s ministry to children continued with the process where all kids in the fourth through the sixth grades had the opportunity to study the same scripture and develop a presentation (In Project Sunday School on Sunday mornings and Tween Ministry Incorporated, or TMI, on Sunday afternoons). There were two Project Sunday School music and drama performances during worship in 2016. Both were based on New Testament scriptures—one on healing, and one on thankfulness. More than 25 kids participated in each of these events. At 8:30 services, TMI gave the message twice, on healing and on thankfulness.


Children and youth ministries continue to embrace our sanctuary’s audio-visual system, probably more than any other group, as they incorporate technology into their interpretations of the Bible.


Our Child and Family Support Group met twice last year to develop and support ministries for children and tweens at Maple Grove.


TMI kids in fourth through sixth grades continued to meet on alternating Sundays and for fun Friday evening activities. Attendance swelled to an average of 20 children (up from five in the first year and 18 in 2015). TMI continues to be an invitational ministry. Kids brought their friends to our Friday night activities and on Sunday evenings. They also took field trips for swimming at an indoor pool and for bowling. Members of TMI and their families prepared and served pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and assisted with the children’s Easter egg hunt.


We presented the Justin Roberts concert, which welcomed neighbors to our green space for a great family-oriented day.


Vacation Bible School was well attended, with more than 60 children and a strong group of leaders, including many teens and tweens from the church. We continue to use the small-group model, which allows leaders of all ages to develop strong relationships with children and work with peers within the church. During VBS, we raised money and awareness about type 1 diabetes, an illness that struck one of our Maple Grove families during the past year.


Advent and Christmas at Maple Grove was a great experience, with more than 35 children participating in the Christmas pageant. Church member Valerie Aveni provided music leadership, and the kids performed in a wonderful pageant that included both vocal music and bells. Kids also were invited to share their talents before the service. This year, many new families from the neighborhood or who have found our church by being invited to TMI events participated in the pageant.


In December, Maple Grove hosted a potluck for folks interested in building bridges between families in the Muslim, Methodist, and other communities in and around Columbus. More than 80 people gathered to get to know each other. This ministry of Muslims, Methodists, and More continues in 2017.


Late in 2015, a group of Maple Grove members joined together to promote our church’s openness to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, race, economic status, or a number of other descriptors that have been used in society to discriminate and divide God’s people.


This group grew in number as its work progressed. They crafted a statement of welcome, emphasizing the full inclusion of all of humanity, in all its diversity, in the life and ministries of Maple Grove. In the spring of 2016, the group presented this statement of welcome and inclusiveness to our church’s Administrative Council for approval. The council unanimously approved the statement, and it now appears on Maple Grove’s website. (We note that a church’s website is now, for many people, the primary means of finding out about a church before trying it out on Sunday.)


As a further public step in our movement toward broad inclusiveness, Maple Grove members were invited to vote at our November 2016 charge conference on whether to become a Reconciling Congregation, joining other area United Methodist churches in welcoming “people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into the full life of the church.” The reconciling designation allows people who are unfamiliar with Maple Grove, and perhaps are looking for a church home in Clintonville or nearby, to see that we are a church that welcomes one and all—something those of us who have already found our church home here know but that may not be readily apparent to folks who haven’t worshipped with us yet.


The proposal to become a Reconciling Congregation passed overwhelmingly, and we celebrate Maple Grove’s progress toward broad inclusion of all God’s people in the life and work of the church.


This is a day and a year of new beginnings. Let us draw near to God, praying for the willingness to deeply listen to each other without judgment, to be of comfort and compassion to one another even when we do not think alike, and to be united in our loving and living in a way that brings heaven to earth. Together, may we have the heart of Christ to take the next step, and the next, and all that follow!


Matthew 4:12-22

Not Alone

January 22, 2017          Maple Grove UMC


          Today’s gospel story is an early turning point in Jesus’ life.  He has submitted to baptism and heard those amazing words, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Then the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he fasts for forty days and is tempted by the devil.  There are many ways to think about these temptations, but in one way or another they all have to do with whether Jesus will make his ministry about himself—his own power, his own glory, his own ego--or let his ministry be about God and God’s will.  Then on the heels of that, Jesus learns that the one who had prepared the way for him, John the Baptist, has been arrested by Herod the King.  In other words, it is now his time.

          Bible scholar Joseph Donders writes about this pivotal moment in Jesus’ life.1 “The first thing Jesus did,” Donders writes, “when he heard that John the Baptizer had been arrested, was leave Nazareth forever.  He chose a new home, his new headquarters, at Capernaum.”  It’s like this geographic move represented a spiritual movement, a life change, that Jesus was going through.

          Donders goes on:  “The second thing [Jesus] did was start to preach.  His message was short and clear.”  It was, in fact, the very same message preached by John: Everyone repent!  We all need to change our hearts and minds, to let go of the old and embrace the new, for the Kingdom of God had come very, very near. 

          “But preaching,” Donders acknowledges, “is a strange thing.  Preaching can be frustrating.  As a preacher,” he says, “I know very well what I am talking about.  You can preach and preach, people can listen and listen, and you just wonder what all that preaching and all that listening accomplish.  I am afraid,” he admits, “that very often they accomplish nothing at all.  Something else must be added. . .”

          So “according to today’s gospel, Jesus did a third thing.  He left Nazareth, he started preaching, and he decided not to remain alone.”  He decided to associate, to unite himself with others, to create a community.  He called Simon and Andrew, he called James and John, and afterwards he called many others.  In our day, he has called you and he has called even me.  Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but at this early turning point in his ministry and life, he decided not to remain alone, but to do his work and to live his life in the company of others.

          I suspect there were times when Jesus regretted that decision!  As lonely and as limiting as can be to be alone, living in community has challenges of its own.  The Twelve that Jesus chose to be closest to him neverendlngly misunderstood him.  They asked exasperating questions.  They were afraid of him when he walked on the water, and they deserted him when soldiers came to arrest him.  He would frequently get frustrated with them, and call them, “You of little faith.”  And of the Twelve closest to him, one betrayed him and another denied him.  Even for Jesus, community—being with others--involved conflict and disappointment. 

          But still, he did it.  He called Simon and Andrew, he called James and John; he called many others and in our own day, he has called you and me.  This was, Donders says, “normal and logical for anyone who wants to change anything in this world.  When you want something to be done, you associate, come together, network, unite, and do it together.  That’s what Jesus did.”  There’s an old joke that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God and wound up with the church. . .  We chuckle, perhaps, because we sense the great and unfortunate difference between the kingdom of God and the church as we know it.  But really, the joke isn’t true.  Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God AND he came to found the church, to be with people, to bring people together in his name to show the world until the end of time what love and forgiveness and acceptance and unity of spirit look like. 

          After his baptism and temptation, after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus left Nazareth for Capernaum, he started preaching, and he decided not to remain alone. 


          But there’s more to it even than that.  Jesus also decided not to let his disciples remain alone.  He didn’t just say, “Follow me—I want to be with you.”  He said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Jesus calls us to be with him, and he tells us to call others to be with us and him.  This is what at Maple Grove we call the ministry of invitation--reaching out to others to say, “Come and see who Jesus is; come and see what Christian community can be like.  Come and see.”

          This ministry of invitation is admittedly hard most of us.  One of Administrative Council’s goals last year was that everyone would invite at least one person to a Maple Grove event some time during the year.  Sounds simple enough on paper, right? Well, on the commitment cards last fall, we gave people a chance to report how they did.  53 people said, “Yes, I invited someone in 2016.”  That’s not quite everyone. . .  But the good news is that 93 people said they intend to invite someone this year.  In other words, invitation is hard, but we are learning and gaining confidence, and we are committed to fishing for people.

          Jesus makes this ministry of invitation easier in two ways in this gospel reading.  One thing is this:  family counts.  Simon and Andrew are brothers.  James and John are brothers.  When inviting others, Jesu wasn’t talking about going door to door or accosting strangers on street corners.  We start with brothers and sisters, parents and children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  Family counts.

          The second way Jesus makes invitation easier is this:  our invitation comes out of who we are.  To these fishermen, Jesus says, “I will make you fish for people.”  To construction workers he might have said, “I will make you builders of the kingdom,” to IT folks, “I will make you network people,” or to coaches, “I will make you recruiters for Team Jesus.”  Well, you get the idea.  Just be who you are, and use who you are to build relationships for Jesus.


          God-Centered Wellbeing is a movement, or maybe better, an emphasis, a way of being mindful to keep God’s love at the center of all that we do and all that what are.  And we start with our relationships.  Jesus chose not to remain alone, and he urged his disciples not to remain alone, but to be in holy relationship with others. 


          Jesus made his decision not to remain alone at a critical and stressful time in his life—after his baptism and his temptation in the wilderness and after the arrest of his relative and forerunner, John.  My own personal tendency in critical and stressful times is to isolate myself, to withdraw and protect myself and lick my wounds.  But that is not the call of the gospel.  Here’s how Donders puts it:  “[Jesus’] followers are not allowed to merely stay at home, criticizing and complaining. . .  We, his followers, are not allowed to remain alone, safe and secure.  We, his followers, are asked to associate ourselves with him and with one another in an organized and efficient drive to chase away the evils that terrorize our [world]. 

          So “please, sister,” he concludes, “please brother, don’t remain alone, don’t just criticize.  That’s too easy.  Let us unite, let us come together in [Christ’s] desire to shape God’s new world.  Let us associate, let us move together with him in the direction of the Kingdom.” 

          The answer for Jesus and the answer for us, is this:  not to remain alone.  We’re in this together.


1 Joseph P. Donders, “Not Alone,” Alive Now (January/February 2006), 34-36.



Matthew 3:13-17

No Matter What—You Are a Child of God

January 8, 2017


          No matter what—you are a child of God, precious and beloved. No matter how high you climb in life, no matter how many degrees you may get or how many people may serve and respect you, you will never achieve a title higher than you received at your baptism:  child of God, precious and beloved.  And no matter how low your heart may sink, no matter what is done to you or how you may disappoint yourself, baptism never rubs off.  No matter what--you are a child of God, precious and beloved.


          Baptism has many different meanings and associations. The word ‘baptize’ means literally to dip or to wash, so baptism represents the washing away of sin and the cleansing of our souls.  Baptism also symbolizes dying and rising to new life.  In immersion, when we go under the water it is like dying to our old life, and when we come back up, breathless and gasping, it is rising to the new life God makes for us in Jesus Christ.  Baptism is also a sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace; or in John Wesley’s term it is a ‘means of grace,’ that is, God is present to us in all sorts of ways and places, but there are certain places where God has promised to be, where God’s grace is reliably present, and baptism is one of those places. 

          So baptism has many meanings and associations, but two above all stand out in today’s gospel reading. First, solidarity.  On the day when Jesus came to be baptized by John, as Barbara Taylor imagines it, "the place was teeming with sinners—faulty, sorry, guilty human beings—who hoped against hope that John could clean them up and turn their lives around."  Probably most of them hadn't done horrible things, but if not, they may havehad horrible things done to them, or experienced the horrible side of life.  They were troubled and weary, ashamed and wounded, and they were coming for baptism so they could feel clean again. 

          And then Jesus showed up and got in line with them.1 John tried to talk Jesus out of it: “No, no, I need you to baptize me, not the other way around.”  But Jesus insisted.  You see, Jesus didn’t only come to give his life for us.  He didn’t stand up front and lecture us or shout encouragement from afar.  He came to be with us, to be one of us, to stand in solidarity with us in all our trouble and weariness, in all our shame and woundedness.  We have baptism in common not only with one another and all other Christians, we have baptism in common with Jesus himself.  He comes and gets in line with us; we are in this life together, Jesus and us.  Baptism is about solidarity.


          But here’s the rest of the story:  Baptism bestows on us an identity.  As Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  So important are these words, that they are repeated verbatim at the Transfiguration.  Jesus becomes dazzling white as his disciples look again and again the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  And one assumes that in less public ways, God was always whispering these words to Jesus.  When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved.  When the Pharisees criticized him and the disciples failed to understand, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved.  And when he wrestled in Gethsemane with the prospect of dying, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved. 

          Baptism bestows on us an identity, one we need to remember all of our lives.  No matter what, it says, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.  Peter Storey, the former Methodist bishop in South Africa, a white man who opposed apartheid, tells of a party at which he and Desmond Tutu were the honored guests.  A group of black South Africans asked Peter and Desmond if they understood why they were throwing a party for them.  “Because we were with you in the struggle against apartheid?”  Their hosts replied, “No, because you baptized us; you told us who we were and remembered it even when no one else did.”2 Baptism bestows on us an identity, one we need to know and remember all our lives.

          This is a kind of high theology of baptism, that baptism has the power to change us from one thing to another.  Thomas Lynch tells of his grandmother who was raised a Methodist but married into an Irish Catholic family.  Tongue in cheek she would explain to people how she converted to Catholicism.  She would say, “Ah, the priest splashed a little water on me and said, ‘Geraldine, you were born a Methodist, raised a Methodist. Thanks be to God, now you’re a Catholic.  Amen.”  And that was that.

          One evening Geraldine was grilling some steaks on a Friday in Lent when some church officials showed up to enforce the ban on eating meat on Friday during Lent.  Geraldine calmly splashed some water on the grill and said, ‘You were born a cow, and raised a cow.  Thanks be to God, now you are fish!”  Baptism changes our identity!  But always she’d end her story with this summary:  ‘Surely we’re all children of God, the same but different.’3 Do I hear an ‘Amen?’

          Baptism makes us something new, something we weren’t before.  Now don’t misunderstand me.  Baptism isn’t magic.  God loves unbaptized people just as much as baptized people. God doesn’t need baptism; we need baptism.  And we all know that some people struggle to live out the new identity baptism has given them.  But what baptism gives us, ideally, in a way that we can take hold of and understand, is what Rowan Williams calls “the restoration of what it is to be truly human.  To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended.”4


          One problem is, some of us get to thinking that we are somehow more than just children of God.  We get to thinking that we don’t have to get in line with all the other poor sinners—with poor people or foreigners, with the uncouth or the unemployed.  We get to thinking that unlike run-of-the-mill children of God, we deserve a special status amongst God’s people, what with our years of faithful service, our generous giving, our demonstrated good taste and common sense.  Surely there’s a special line for those of us entitled to such respect, and we know who we are?  But baptism’s answer is: “Well, no, actually.  There’s only the one line, the same line Jesus went and got in.  And there is no higher title anywhere in heaven or earth than “child of God, precious and beloved.” 

          There are more of us, however, who get to thinking that we are somehow less than children of God.  We may have felt the power of that identity at some point, but life has a way of wearing us down.  Years of hard work tires us out, relentless criticism wearies our spirits, family stress takes its toll, our own foolishness and negativity bring us down.  Sure, sometimes we just get worn down.  But here’s what baptism says:  No matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.

          Sometimes the church itself, through its doctrine or a lack of love, causes someone to feel less than a child of God.  Marilyn Alexander remembers, “On a crisp Dakota Sunday morning, tightly wrapped against the November cold, I was carried off to the town’s Methodist church to be the delight of the baptizing family of God. . .  Thirty-two years later,” she says, “I remember my baptism.  The church does not.”  The church, she says, has denied the identity bestowed on me at my baptism because of my sexual orientation. Sometimes, tragically, churches get it wrong; but God does not.  No matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.

          After the choir sings, we will say together the liturgy of remembering and reaffirming our baptism.  If you’ve not been baptized, there is nothing standing in your way.  Just come to me and state your intention, and we can make it happen today. And if today isn’t the day, that’s okay. Anticipate your baptism here today and know deep in your heart that no matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved. 


1 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The River of Life,” Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 33-34.

2 In Stanley Hauerwas, “Transfigured,” Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), 85.

3 Thomas Lynch, The Christian Century (February 22, 2011), 27.

4 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publis

Looking for Jesus? Try the Manger

Christmas Eve 2016

Maple Grove UMC


          Are you looking for Jesus?  That’s been our theme here this season before Christmas.  Are you looking for Jesus—is that why you’re here?  Oh, I know—there are lots of reasons to be at church on Christmas Eve.  Some people come to sing the carols and hear the Christmas music.  Some people come because, well, they’ve always come to church on Christmas Eve—it’s a tradition.  Some people come just to make grandma happy once a year.  There aren’t any bad reasons to come to church on Christmas Eve. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve come to church this day because somehow or other, in the midst of it all, you’re looking for Jesus in your life.  Here’s where we’ve been the past few weeks.  Week 1 said that if you’re looking for Jesus, then stay alert—every moment of every day is a time when Jesus might show up.  Week 2 told us that wherever bodies and spirits are being healed and wherever the poor find relief, that’s where to look for Jesus.  But that Jesus is Immanuel reminded us that in some ways we don’t have to look for Jesus at all—he is God-with-us, always and everywhere.  If  you’re looking for Jesus, there are many right answers about where and how to look.

          And now finally we come to Christmas Eve.  Matthew’s gospel tells the story of the Wisemen who come from afar, looking for Jesus.  Unlike most men, they stop and ask for directions, saying to King Herod, “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?”  And the answer is not in the temple or palace, not in the capital city or any important place at all.  The answer is in Bethlehem, a has-been village in the hinterlands, not where you might expect the Son of God at all.  For my Advent devotions this year, I reread a book of Christmas sermons by Martin Luther who in the 1500s said:  “If we Christians would join the Wise Men, we must close our eyes to all that glitters before the world and look rather on the despised and foolish things, help the poor, comfort the despised, and aid the neighbor in his need.”1 Are you looking for Jesus?  Well, we’re beginning to find out where to look.


          Now I’m going to be careful here.  Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, once preached on Christmas Eve about Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem, seeking to do away with this newborn pretender to his throne.  Rev. Marty compared this tragedy to a little boy who’d been killed that month in our own country.  One mother told him after the service that mention of children being murdered had no place in a Christmas sermon.  She said, “I will never set foot in this church again.”  And she never did.  “What I underestimated,” Marty admits, “on that particular Christmas night, was the peril of tampering with holiday sentiment.”2 Well, I promise not to tell you any stories about harming children tonight.  But in principal, I’m with Rev. Marty—the Savior we need is one who isn’t afraid to be found in dark and troubled places, because the world is full of dark in troubled places, even at Christmas


               So let’s look at where the gospels say to look for Jesus. In Luke, if you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger.  Mary gave birth not in the comfort of home but on the road, and not in an inn but in the barn out back.  And she laid her baby not in a crib but in a manger.  Now I know we make mangers look cute and cozy in our Hallmark manger scenes.  But you know what a manger is, right?  It comes from the French word, manger, meaning to chew or eat.  It’s the place where farm animals get their feed.  Rough and dirty would come closer to describing it than cute and cozy.  It is nowhere that any of us would even consider laying our baby.  But that’s all Mary had for Jesus.  If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger. 

          And according to Luke, Jesus’ first visitors were not the grandparents with their cameras nor the neighbors with Babies”R”Us gifts cards, but shepherds straight from the fields, meaning they hadn’t had time to clean up.  Now we often romanticize shepherds too, but Martin Luther corrects that.  Being a shepherd, he says, was “low-down work, and the men who did it were regarded as trash.”3 What’s more, these aren’t just any shepherds; these are the ones who were keeping watch over their flocks in the middle of the night.  If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger, try the night shift of the worst job you can think of.

          Well, that’s Luke’s gospel—what about Matthew?  Well, Matthew is the one who tells about King Herod doing that thing I promised I wouldn’t tell about.  And because of that, Mary and Joseph had to take their baby and flee for their lives.  They wound up in Egypt, where they looked and dressed different from everyone else, didn’t know the language and hadn’t been properly vetted  They were what today we would call refugees.  In Columbus today there between 40,000 and 65,000 Somalis who have fled violence there.  11 million Syrians have fled the fighting in their country.  If you’re looking for Jesus, try among the refugees. 


          Writer Harriett Richie tells about the year her husband was hungry after the late Christmas Eve service.  The only place they could find open was a truck stop by the interstate.  By that time the kids were asleep.  The air smelled of coffee, bacon and cigarette smoke.  The juke box played bad country music; a one-armed man in a baseball cap sat at the bar and drank with a couple of other scruffy guys.   A thin woman named Rita came to take their order, looking as any woman might who drew the late shift on Christmas Eve.  Harriett admits: the snob in me was enjoying feeling out of place there.  “Years from now,” she thought, “we’ll laugh and say, ‘Remember that Christmas Eve we ate at the truck stop?  The awful music and the tacky lights?’”

          A beat up VW pulled up outside and a bearded young man in jeans got out.  He opened he door for a young woman holding a baby.  They hurried inside and took a booth in back.  As Rita took their order, the baby started to cry.  The father lifted the baby to his shoulder but it didn’t help.  Rita poured them coffee.  The mother took the baby and began rocking it in her arms.  The mother picked up the diaper bag and started to leave.  But Rita came over and held out her arms.  “Drink your coffee, Hon.  Let’s see what I can do.”  Rita began walking, talking, bouncing the baby.  She showed her to the man in the baseball cap.  He began whistling and making silly faces, and the baby stopped crying.  “Just look at this little darlin’,” she said.  “Mine are so big and grown.”

          The one-armed fellow took a pot of coffee and started waiting on tables.  As he filled their mugs, Harriett felt tears in her eyes.  Her husband wanted to know what was wrong.

          “Nothing.  Just Christmas,” she said. . .  “He’d come here, wouldn’t he?” she asked.

          “Who would?” her husband said.

          “Jesus.  If Jesus were born in this town tonight and his choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be here, wouldn’t it?”

          He didn’t answer right away, but looked around the place, looked at the people.  Finally he said, “Either here or a homeless shelter.” 

          The houses in our neighborhood were dark, Harriett writes.  As we passed the Mulfords, I wondered what Christmas Day would be like for them.  Their daughter died in a car accident during the summer.  Next door Jack McCarthy had lost his job.  A little farther down the street lived the Baileys, whose marriage was hanging together by the slimmest thread.  Mrs. Smith’s grown son had died from AIDS.  Maybe we’re not so different from the people in the truck stop, she thought.

          After they tucked in the children, she picked up a Bible and found where it says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”  Then she found the Christmas story where it says, “I am bringing good news of great joy for all  the people.” 

          Many Christmases have passed since that night, she says, but I still believe that Jesus would be born in what I’d call an unholy place.  But rich, poor or in between, we’re all poor in spirit.  In the places where we are broken, she concludes, in the dark holes where something is missing, in the silence of unanswered questions, the wondrous gift is given.4

          If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger, try the truck stop late at night, try your neighbors’ silent pain, try the broken places of your own heart and life.


          Here’s the passage from Martin Luther that really tugged at my heart this Advent season.  He says, “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves, ‘If only I had been there [in Bethlehem]!  How quick I would have been to help the Baby!  I would have [changed his diapers].  How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!’  Sure you would have,” Luther says.  “You say that because you know how great Christ is. . .  [Well,] why don’t you do it now?  You have Christ in your neighbor.  You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”5

               Why don’t you do it now? Luther asked 500 years ago. Well, we do, some.  And Christmas is the time to turn our hearts to do it more. 


Thinking back to Peter Marty’s controversial Christmas sermon, I’m not intending to tamper with holiday sentiment—really I’m not. My home is as decorated as anyone’s.  Later tonight our family will give gifts to each other that we don’t really need but that warm our hearts nevertheless.  Tomorrow we’ll have dinner and reminisce about Christmases past.  I’ll enjoy every card you send and every cookie you give me!  Holiday sentiment?  Count me in!

          But if you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger.  Try among the refugees, the homeless couple out back of the inn, the night shift diner, try your neighbor’s silent pain and the broken places in your own heart and life.  That’s where the wondrous gift is given. 


1 Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), 59.

2 Peter W. Marty, “Christmas Unvarnished: A Savior for a Troubled World,” The Christian Century (December 12, 2012), 10.

3 Bainton, 35.

4Harriett Richie, “He’d Come Here: Christmas Eve,” The Christian Century (December 13, 1995), 1205-06.

5 Bainton, 31.



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