Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Matthew 11:2-6

Looking for Jesus?

He’s Wherever the Lame Walk and the Poor Hear Good News

December 4, 2016

This Advent season we are looking for Jesus, week by week making our way to Bethlehem to find the baby in a manger. But along the way, the Gospel readings invite us to look for Jesus in some unlikely places. Last week Jesus said the Son of Man will return at an unexpected hour. If you’re looking for Jesus, stay alert, because every moment of every day is a time when Jesus might show up. Because everything we do—cleaning house and going to work and forgiving others—can be a way to be aware.

Are you looking for Jesus? Today, John the Baptist was looking for Jesus. Or more accurately, John knows where Jesus is; he’s looking to see if Jesus is One he’d thought he was--the Savior, the Messiah, the One. John had been an early believer in Jesus. He’d recognized that he wasn’t worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, and when he baptized Jesus, John heard God’s voice say, "This is my Son, the Beloved." He believed.

But that was a long time ago. And now John is in prison, on death row for criticizing the king’s sexual misbehavior. By now John thought Jesus would have kicked the Romans out of Judea, or at least put together a band of soldiers, maybe come and bust him out of jail. Instead, from what John hears, Jesus has become some traveling preacher and faith healer, all the Jewish leaders hate him, and his posse is a few fisherman and a tax collector.

John is disappointed; Jesus has not lived up to his expectations. So John sent some people to ask Jesus, "Are you the One, or do we need to look for someone else?" He wasn’t exactly looking for Jesus; he was looking right at Jesus and wondering if he should look somewhere else. John may have been the first to grow disillusioned with Jesus, but he wasn’t the last.1 People still look around and wonder: if Jesus is the Savior, why aren’t we saved from senseless violence? If Jesus is the Messiah, why isn’t there more forgiveness and understanding? And if Jesus is the One, why do I still hurt so much inside? And lots of people look at the church and ask, If Jesus is their Savior, why don’t they shelter the injured and the vulnerable? If Jesus is their Messiah, why don’t they exhibit more forgiveness and understanding? And if Jesus really is the One, why don’t they reach out to me and help me stop hurting?

Are you among those who have been disappointed at times? And yet, are you still looking for Jesus? Are you wondering where to look to know he’s the One you need?

Fortunately, Jesus told John . . . and us, exactly where to look to know that he is the One. He tells John’s messengers:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:

The blind receive their sight,

The lame walk

The lepers are cleansed,

The deaf hear,

The dead are raised,

And the poor have good news brought to them.

You heard the same thing in the song Todd sang earlier:

The blind will see. The deaf will hear. The dead will live again. The lame will leap. The dumb will speak The praises of The Lamb.2

That’s where to look for Jesus. He’s wherever bodies and spirits are being healed. Jesus is wherever strangers and outcasts are welcomed. Jesus is wherever people find new life. And any news that’s good for poor people comes straight from Jesus.

I look for Jesus every time I visit the hospital, and most often see him. I see Jesus at AA meetings where lives are being put back together. I see Jesus at the CRC as hungry families find food and social workers help elderly residents stay in their own homes. I see Jesus where volunteers help immigrants learn English. And I absolutely saw Jesus in those cardboard testimonies (the video of which you can see right after this service)—people witnessing to forgiveness and acceptance, healing and peace of mind. Are you looking for Jesus? That’s where to look.

After Jesus tells us where to look, he says one more thing:

Go and tell John, Jesus says, what you hear and see:

The blind receive their sight,

The lame walk

The lepers are cleansed,

The deaf hear,

The dead are raised,

And the poor have good news brought to them.

And then he adds one more thing: "And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." And you might wonder—why would anyone take offense at any of those things? And why would anyone take offense at Jesus, of all people? Well, people did, didn’t they? You may recall they hung him on a cross. The truth is, everything on Jesus’ list of where to look has to do with today we’d call health care or helping the poor. Those were contentious topics back then, and they are contentious topics today. Every preacher and every congregation knows that. New Testament scholar Tom Long puts it this way: "Anyone who expects the work of God or the work of Christ’s church to be safe and free of controversy simply misunderstands the nature of Christ’s mission in the world." This looking for Jesus is blessed and holy and the most life-changing thing there is in the world; just don’t think the way is always agreeable or that everyone will be joyful when you find Jesus. Blessed, he says, is anyone who takes no offense at me."

Are you looking for Jesus? He’s wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the disabled are accommodated, wherever bodies and spirits are cared for and healed, wherever people find new life. That’s where we can look for Jesus.

And what if others are looking for Jesus--where might they look? You may know that the New Testament considers John the Baptist to be the prophet Elijah, preparing the way for Jesus. Barbara Taylor tells this story about Elijah. Jews have a tradition of setting a place at the Passover feast for Elijah, the prophet who is to bring them the good news that the Messiah has come. At a poignant moment in the service, the door is flung open for Elijah and everyone looks with anticipation. For thousands of years that door has been opened, and for thousands of years all that has entered has been the wind.

One Hasidic story tells of a pious Jew who asked his rabbi, "For forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Passover, but he never comes. What is the reason?" The rabbi answered, "In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children. Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide for him and his family everything needed for the Passover. Then on Passover night Elijah will come."

The man did as the rabbi told him, but after Passover he came back and said that he still hadn’t seen Elijah. The rabbi answered, "I know very well that Elijah came on Passover night to the house of your poor neighbor. But of course you could not see him." And the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, "Look, this was Elijah’s face that night."4

If others—perhaps the lame or blind, perhaps the stranger, the spiritually wounded, the poor—are looking for Jesus, show him to them, won’t you?

1 See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 126.

2 Song lyrics by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green.

3 Long, 125.

4 Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings (Atlanta: Susan Hunter Publishing, 1986), 57.

 

Matthew 24:36-44

Looking for Jesus? Then Stay Alert!

November 27, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Advent is the season of four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it’s all about looking for Jesus, making our way to Bethlehem to find a baby in a manger. But every year the lectionary—the assigned scriptures for every Sunday—throws us for a loop. Every year Advent begins not with that baby in a manger, but with grizzly old John the Baptist talking about taking care of the poor and the sick and with bewildering words about the Second Coming. On our way to Bethlehem we wind up looking for Jesus in some unlikely places.

Are you, perhaps, looking for Jesus? This Advent series is especially for two different sets of people looking for Jesus. In the first place, it’s for those who may be looking for Jesus, but don’t really expect to find him—because they think Jesus is too old-fashioned, too judgmental, maybe just too religious for them. If that sounds like you, then pay attention to these Advent Gospel readings—Jesus may turn out to be exactly what you’re looking for. But this series is also for those of us who think we know all too well where to find Jesus—in the safe, comfortable, private religion we grew up with. Well, no doubt Jesus is there, but the Gospels suggest that Jesus is in a lot of other, less comfortable, places too.

Are you looking for Jesus, my friends? Let’s turn to the Gospels and look together.

Advent begins with Jesus saying, "About that day and hour no one knows. . . Two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will be left. . . And like a thief in the night, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." All this talk of the Second Coming—even when it’s Jesus doing the talking—makes many Methodists—how can I put this?—uncomfortable. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga has admitted: "We live in between the first coming of Jesus Christ and his second coming, and most of us feel a lot better about the first one."1 Partly, he suggests, that’s because the first coming is about a baby, and we know about babies, and so we know how to "domesticate" Christmas. We have figured out how to manage Christmas so the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay doesn’t threaten anyone.

But the second coming, Plantinga says, is different—full of urgency, of endings and beginnings and everything changing. The second coming is something we clearly can’t manage or domesticate, we get to vote neither for it nor against it, there’s no way to know how many shopping days may be left until the Son of Man returns.

It is unsettling in a way. And some of the images Jesus uses are pretty jarring—Noah’s flood, a thief breaking in, two people together and one is taken and the other left. When I was a child, I was taught that this was about the so-called "Rapture," when believers would be beamed up to heaven and everyone else left behind. Most biblical scholars, however, think Jesus was referring to the Roman secret police sweeping through villages and disappearing people. In other words you want to be left, not taken.2 But either way, it’s not exactly a sleepy bedtime story.

But even though Jesus uses unsettling images, to shake us out of our complacency, it’s important to remember whose return the second coming is. It’s not a devastating flood that’s coming, not an actual thief, and certainly not the secret police. His coming may be unpredictable and uncontrollable like these things, but it’s Jesus who’s coming. The Jesus who gave his life for us. The Jesus who forgave those who hung him on the cross. The Jesus who said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." That’s who’s coming back. We may not know when to expect Jesus, but we do know what to expect from Jesus—mercy and love and forgiveness.

So if you’re looking for Jesus, this Gospel reading is not telling you to "Be afraid," but rather "Stay alert!" Unless, of course, you’re living in a way that would disappoint Jesus. And even then, the lesson isn’t so much "Be afraid" as simply, "Live a different way." I’ve told you before about my first grade teacher, Mrs. Rucker. A couple of times a day, Mrs. Rucker would go to the classroom door and announce, "I’m going to step out for a few minutes. When I get back, I want to see everyone sitting at their desk and doing their work." It wasn’t until years later I put it together that Mrs. Rucker smoked and was stepping out to light up. But as soon as Mrs. Rucker closed the classroom door behind her, all heck would break out. We would play basketball into the trashcan, and soccer in the coatroom and leap from desk to desk. And always, on a rotating basis, one student was assigned to watch the door. That student would open it a crack and peek out, and as soon they saw Mrs. Rucker coming down the hall, would shout, "Teacher’s coming!" and by the time Mrs. Rucker walked in, everyone would in fact be seated at their desks doing their work.

One day it was Lori’s turn to watch the door. But she didn’t get out of her seat. "Lori," we said, "hurry up and watch the door, so we don’t get in trouble. And she said, "You wouldn’t need anyone to watch the door and no one would get in trouble if you all just sat at your desks and did your work." It appears that Lori had been reading Matthew’s Gospel.

One of the things that strikes me is the ordinariness of being ready for Jesus. It’s not about doing grand and heroic things. It may be as simple as staying at your desk and doing your work. Leadership guru John Maxwell says, "What matters most is what you do day by day over the long haul. . . The secret of our success is found in our daily agenda."3 You don’t have to leave your job and go off into the desert to find Jesus. You can find Jesus in the midst of your daily routine, if only you will stay alert.

At the same time, we can become just a little too comfortable in our routines. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus finds fault with two sets of people for not being alert: the contemporaries of Noah and the owner of a house that’s about to be broken into. They are judged, Calvin Chinn has pointed out, not for some terrible sin, but for settling too comfortably into business as usual—eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, taking the house for granted.4 In that article I mentioned earlier, Cornelius Plantinga notes that the more comfortable and self-satisfied we become, the less we tend to look for the kingdom of God. "Thy kingdom come," we pray, but we kind of hope it won’t, at least not right away.5 If you’re looking for Jesus, you’ve got to stay alert! And one way to stay alert is to experience a little need and discomfort—if not your own, then someone’s.

You know how hard it is to stay alert, don’t you? You make it to your lunch appointment, spend the afternoon keeping the boss happy, get stuck in traffic and forget to get that gallon of milk so you’ve got to circle back to the grocery store. Then you get home and the kids are crying, or the dog has made a mess, there are five messages on your phone. Once you’ve dealt with all that, it’s dark already. The sink is full of dishes, The news is on—God, not news. Tonight is the night you were going to try to balance the checkbook. Instead you turn the TV on to something mindless, surf the web and drink a couple of those things that help you get to sleep.6 And if Jesus was anywhere in all that—and he probably was—he came and went without notice. Are you looking for Jesus? You’ve got to find a way to stay alert.

Someone once complained to the Buddhist master Achaan Chah that there wasn’t enough time for spiritual practice in his monastery because there were so many chores—sweeping, cleaning, greeting visitors, building, chanting, and so forth—and Achaan Chah asked back, "Is there time to be aware?" Everything we do in life is a chance to be alert.7

Today you may have an opportunity to forgive someone or to continue to judge and despise them. Today you may a chance to go to an AA meeting or not. Today you will have an opportunity to be kind, to stand up against injustice, to spend time with someone who’s lonely or mistreated, and just to sit quietly for a while and breathe deeply . . . or not do those things.

Are you looking for Jesus? Then stay alert!

1 Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., "In the Interim: Between the Advents," The Christian Century (December 6, 2000), 1276.

2 See, for example, Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 178.

3John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 23.

4 Calvin Chinn, "November 27: First Sunday of Advent," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (November 9, 2016), 20.

5 Plantinga, 127.

6 The scenario is inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor, "God’s Beloved Thief," Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999),7.

7 In Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 291

 

 

Psalm 126

Between Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving

November 20, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

So what do you think? What is the mood of this psalm? I assume most people would say something like . . . joy. Anticipation. Gratitude. That’s why I chose it for Thanksgiving Sunday. It’s a happy psalm, right? I always thoughts so; in fact, I still think so. But Old Testament scholars classify this as a psalm of lament. Why is that? you might wonder. Well, right in the middle of the psalm is this verse: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord." Restore our fortunes, O Lord: it’s a prayer for deliverance. Which means that something has gone wrong, that help is needed, that in other words this is a lament.

But it’s a certain kind of lament, isn’t it? It’s not a whiny lament, not a let-me-go-into-great-detail-about-how-bad-I-feel kind of lament. Rather it’s a cry for deliverance that calls to mind God’s faithfulness in the past and that envisions the good God is going to do. Lament does not have to be hopeless or bitter. Rather lament is an opportunity to remember times of thanksgiving past and to anticipate times of thanksgiving to come. Some of the time we’ve just been delivered from trouble and therefore actively giving thanks to God. Much of the time we can remember that deliverance, but we are again in need of some kind; and so we’re lamenting in a way, we’re praying, we’re envisioning God’s new deliverance. We live, in other words, between thanksgiving past and thanksgiving to come. And that means no matter how bad things get, Thanksgiving is always on the way.

Let me point out to you a few wonders of the poetry in Psalm 126:

  • Note the artful shift in verb tenses from past to present to future. The psalm begins in past tense, "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion (that is brought the exiles back from Babylon), we were like those who dream." Past tense—looking back at what God has done. Suddenly in verse four, it bursts into present tense, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord!"—right now, present tense. And in the final verse we taste the future tense: "Those who go forth weeping . . . shall come home with shouts of joy." That’s the movement of the psalm, the movement of our lives—from deliverance past , to present prayers for help, to a future of joy once again. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.
  • Notice that in this psalm, no reason is given for its lament. We don’t know why Israel feels threatened or what they need to be restored from. It simply says, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord." That vagueness makes this prayer anyone’s prayer, it makes this lament everyone’s lament. We can all pray this psalm. We all live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.
  • The psalm compares the community’s fortunes to the watercourses in the Negeb—that is, to streams in the desert. Sometimes they are lush and full, at other times painful and dry. There is an ebb and flow to life—sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. We may not like, but we learn to live with it in faithfulness.
  • And then there’s this lovely image: "Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy!" Our tears don’t just water the earth, they actually become seeds which later sprout into joy. Be not afraid to plant your tears of sorrow, so that in God’s good time you can have a harvest of joy. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving, which means that no matter how bad things get, Thanksgiving is always on its way..

We can learn to tell the stories of our lives in this way, as living always between thanksgiving and thanksgiving. The people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt and danced and sang for joy. Then they wandered in the wilderness for forty years and lamented. Then God led them into the Promised Land and they gave thanks. But in Judges we learn that even in the Promised Land life was full of enemies and trouble, and they cried out for deliverance. God raised up King David to unite and protect them and they gave thanks. But his successors were often weak and idolatrous, which finally resulted in the Babylonian exile, and O how the people lamented. But God restored the exiles to Zion—that is, God miraculously brought the exiles back from Babylon--and their mouths were filled with laughter. But hard times followed . . . And on it goes. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.

My own mother was born in 1929, her parents’ first child and there was much thanksgiving. But the Great Depression came her childhood was filled with dust and deprivation, and they lamented. Finally the Depression lifted and granddad got a good job, and their mouths were filled with laughter and plenty of food. But then came W.W. II with its rationing and its grief. But soon after she married my dad and started a family—sweet thanksgiving. Then came a son with Down Syndrome, and prayers and concern. But you know things were fine and thanksgiving returned. And one day my dad died, a long lament for my mother. But she emerged from that and gave thanks again for grandkids and good work to do. And on it goes. We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving.

So here’s what I want to ask you this Thanksgiving Sunday: can you tell your own story as a series of thanksgiving and laments, and thanks -giving and laments? What would be your great laments? And how has God restored your fortunes?

And one last question, if we live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving, where are you in the story right now? What are you thanking God for right now? Or . . . what deliverance are you envisioning to thank God for in days to come?

We live between thanksgiving and thanksgiving, so that no matter how bad things may get, Thanksgiving is always on the way.

 

2 Kings 6:15-17

More with Us Than with Them

November 6, 2016 All Saints Sunday Maple Grove UMC

This Old Testament reading is part of a larger story. The king of Syria has come to believe that the prophet Elisha is spying on him, or more like Elisha can read his mind. Elisha seems to know where the Syrian army will be before the Syrian army knows, and this inside information has led to victories for Israel. So the king of Syria sends some people to take care of Elisha. In fact, he sends a whole army to take care of Elisha.

Elisha is holed up with one unarmed servant in a place called Dothan, which is surrounded by Syrian horses and chariots—they’re everywhere. The servant naturally is terrified. "Alas, Master!" he says, "What are we going to do?" But Elisha is cool as a cucumber: "Don’t be afraid," he says, "There are more with us than there are with them." And Elisha prays, "O Lord, open his eyes that he may see." And when the servant looks again, the hills are filled with chariots and horses of fire. Not in any typical way, but there were more with Elisha than with the entire army of Syria.

What kind of story is this? It’s not the kind of story about which we ask, "Did this really happen?"1 I mean, probably not, in just the way 2 Kings tells it. But on another level, this story happens all the time. Let me tell you what I mean.

We often find ourselves in the place of Elisha’s servant: frightened, outnumbered, so aware of danger everywhere. We look around and the forces gathered against us seem overwhelming. We feel that way, perhaps, on All Saints Day, both personally and collectively. We’ll read the names today of twenty-three souls, but it may be just one of those names that sends your life reeling, or the name of someone not on this particular list at all. And you may feel alone and helpless. A candle is such a fragile light, when all you want is to see that person once again.

And we feel it collectively. Year after year there are long lists of names. And some of us can look around and remember who’s not here now, and some have been here long enough to remember when the pews were filled in a way they no longer are. The United Methodist Church has been declining my whole life. The traditional church is kind of up against it these days, and like Elisha’s servant, it’s easy to feel weary and beleaguered.

All of that is true, in its way—I don’t dispute it. But only let Elisha pray, and look again: and the hills are filled with horses and chariots of fire. Look again and our hearts are filled with the presence and love of our dearly departed. Look again and the church is filled with those whose names we’ve read but whose spirits are with us still. Yes, it’s easy to feel alone and overwhelmed, but only let Elisha pray and look again: there are always more with us than there are against us.

Only let Elisha pray and there on those hills around us, why, there’s Lloyd Fisher still tap dancing and Twyla still leading the social concerns. There’s Kathleen Shaffer making blankets for babies and there’s Chalice Taylor cheering the choir on. And there’s Newton Fritchley still preaching like these new guys never will, and there’s all those faithful souls in the 1940s who built this sanctuary we worship in today.

Here’s what I believe: I believe those horses and chariots were there all along; the servant just didn’t see them until Elisha prayed. And I believe we too are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; we just don’t always see them until the prayer is prayed. There are always more with us than against us. So let us pray: Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see. Open our eyes, Lord, that we may see. Amen.

1 See Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 67.

 

Luke 19:1-11

Generations of Generosity: Lived in Faith

October 30, 2016

When our daughter Rachel was little, she’d make a grand, dramatic entrance into a room filled with people, wearing hot pink and sparkles, dance and sing like Brittney Spears, take a deep double bow, and then look around with mock bashfulness, and say, "Why is everyone looking at me?" She was hungry for attention, and she got it.

I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a little bit of Rachel in Zacchaeus. Here’s a notorious man, wearing his fancy chief tax collector clothes, in the middle of a big crowd, climbing up to the top of a tree. And when Jesus calls him out, Zacchaeus looks around and says, "Aw shucks, did you mean me?" Zacchaeus too was hungry for something. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus "was trying to see who Jesus was," and we’ll get to that in a minute. But as much as Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was, I expect he wanted Jesus to see who he was too.

Have you ever played hide-and-seek with very young children? Oh, they want to hide, sort of, in the same two places over and over. But mostly they just want to be found. And so wherever they’re hiding, they’ll always leave an arm or a foot sticking out, and if you pretend not to see them right away, they’ll start making noises or calling out your name. I think there was something inside Zacchaeus, I suspect there’s something inside all of us, that just wants to be found by Jesus.

Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, "wanted to see who Jesus was." But he was too short. That’s why he had to climb up in that sycamore tree. You know how it is. You find just the right seats at the movie, right in the middle, about two-thirds of the way back. You settle back into those comfy seats, and then somebody 6’5" comes and plops down in front of you.

But being short isn’t the main thing that can keep you from seeing who Jesus is. Some of us are too busy to see who Jesus is. There’s work and there’s going back to school and soccer and the house at the lake—we’re too busy to see Jesus. Some of us were just not raised knowing how to see Jesus, or we’re too cool or too intellectual to want to be seen with Jesus. Some of us are just too grouchy or too fearful to want to see anything new or different in Jesus. Lots of things can keep us from seeing who Jesus is.

Not only was Zacchaeus short, however, he was also a tax collector; a chief tax collector. Now I understand that if someone at a social gathering announces they work for the IRS, they might not be the most popular person at the party. But at least IRS agents collect taxes for their own country. In Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, tax collectors collected taxes for the Romans. The Romans brought in thousands of soldiers to harass and keep the people down, and then charged them taxes to pay for these soldiers. Tax collectors were the worst sort of people—collaborators with the enemy. What’s more, the Roman assigned each tax collector an amount of money they had to raise from a certain area, and anything they could raise above that amount was theirs to keep. So Zacchaeus was not just a collaborator; he was a blood-sucking collaborator who’d become rich by selling out his own people.

And this Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. He wanted Jesus to find him. Somehow deep inside he knew there must be more to life than cheating people and making money. He knew there must be some other way to live. He suspected there must be something out there called forgiveness and maybe even love, and somehow or other he knew that Jesus was where to find them. Here I am, Jesus! Come and find me, Jesus. I want to see who you are, and I want you to help me be the person I believe I can become.

As you know, Jesus does find Zacchaeus. And as you know, Jesus asks him to come down. And then Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. One writer has suggested that Jesus’ invitation sounds like one child saying to another, "Hey, let’s go play at your house!"1 And so Jesus and Zacchaeus ate and played and talked. And for Zacchaeus everything--and I mean everything--changes. For wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.

In his response to Jesus, Zacchaeus uses only two verbs. The NRSV has them as "I will give," and "I will repay." But more literally the Greek says, "I give," and "I give back." Zacchaeus’ first response—in fact, so far as we know, his only response—to Jesus coming into his life was to give. He gives half of everything he had to the poor, and for restitution to anyone he’s cheated, he promises to give back four times the original amount. This is not a polite gift made out of guilt or social convention; this is a gift grounded in gratitude, the offering of a changed mind and touched heart. Wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.

Now I want to ask you a question at this point in the story: how do you suppose Zacchaeus felt, having made such a lavish gift? Well, Luke does come out and tell us how Zacchaeus felt, but we can infer from the story. This is a party; it’s Celebration Sunday at the Zacchaeus household! There is no indication that Zacchaeus gives grudgingly or out of guilt. His life has been changed by the love and acceptance of Jesus, and he is set free to give joyfully and with excitement.

This is both a biblical and a psychological truth. Jesus famously said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." But a microbiologist named Hans Selye has proven it scientifically. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on stress and he coined the term altruistic egoism. It means that giving to others is a way of taking care of yourself. He reports the outcome of his studies this way: "those who earn the goodwill of their neighbors are dramatically better off psychologically and physiologically than those who are looked upon as selfish and greedy.2 In other words, giving is good for you! Jesus knew that. Zacchaeus joyfully discovered that. And that truth is always there, waiting for us to claim it.

There is, unfortunately, a flip side to this truth. If giving brings joy and salvation, not giving brings sadness. Just a few verses before he tells us about Zacchaeus, Luke tells about Jesus and the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The man says, "I’ve done all that." Jesus says, "There’s one more thing you can do: sell everything you’ve got and give the money to the poor." And when he heard this, Luke tell us, the man became sad. And that’s how the story ends: with sadness. No generosity, not joy.

Years ago I had a relative. I’ll call her Agnes. Agnes’ husband struck it rich. He became a multi-millionaire back in the 1960s, when a million dollars was a fabulous amount of money. But he wasn’t nice to her—in fact he was abusive to her. And over time, the family saw Agnes less and less, she grew thinner and thinner, and eventually got cancer and died. When the family got together to go through her possessions, they found rooms filled with brand new clothes, never worn, the tags still on them. As a way of coping with her stress and disappointment, she shopped. And what she bought, she kept. And in her keeping, she became sad beyond all telling. Just imagine how Agnes’ life might have changed if only she’d given all those clothes away. She could have provided free clothing to every poor woman in her city for years. How much fun it would have been to give it all away! But she didn’t, and that’s how her story ended. And more than thirty years later, I can still feel the sadness of it.

Here is Luke’s point, I believe, in putting these two stories so close together: we sometimes talk about giving as a sacrifice, by which we mean something painful, something that costs us dearly. But Luke is suggesting that giving is joyful and saving; it is not giving that turns out to be painful and costly.

So where are we in this Generations of Generosity campaign?

  • We’ve been sharing the list of projects we hope to do. Admittedly many of them aren’t all that thrilling: leveling sidewalks, repairing roofs and mortar, replacing old electrical circuits and getting reliable heat in the education wing. Not exciting, exactly, but I think we all know these things have to be done.
  • We’ve been praying our prayer: Lord, what do you want to do through me?
  • And now we’re about ready to hold those commitment cards in our hands. They were mailed out on Friday; you’ll probably get them tomorrow. Most of us have mixed feelings as we hold these cards in our hands. There is a Christmas song that tells about "tidings of comfort and joy." Well, commitment cards bring, for many of us, tidings of discomfort and joy. Oh, there’s joy all right—joy at being blessed to be able to give, joy at doing something together that none of us can do alone. But there’s also discomfort as we ponder just how God might answer that prayer: Lord, what do want to do through me?

Now I understand that not everyone can participate. I’ve received some lovely letters from people saying we’ve moved to a retirement community and don’t really have any money of our own any more. But we love Maple Grove and will keep supporting the annual budget as long as we can. Or we’re expecting another child and childcare is all we can afford right now, but we love Maple Grove and will keep doing the best we can. Thank you for those notes. Other people won’t participate because they’re unhappy about something at church or about something in their life. And that’s okay—everyone gets to make up their own mind.

  • But here’s where we are. We’ve been trying to see who Jesus is, and more than anything, we want him to come and find us. We’ve climbed up in a tree because we know deep inside there’s more to life than what we’ve seen so far. And it turns out Jesus wants to come to your home. The Lord Jesus wants to come into your heart, into your life. And you wonder, if I let him in, will I have to give something? Or maybe you worry, if I let Jesus in, will I have to make a painful sacrifice? And the answer is: No. No, you won’t have to give anything at all. But you sure will want to. And the result will be: joy. Joy and celebration. Wherever Jesus enters, generosity is close behind.

1 Paul D. Duke, "A Festive Repentance: Luke 19:1-10," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (October 18, 1995), 957.

2 See Bob Buford, Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2

 

Luke 11:9-13

Generations of Generosity: Revealed in Prayer

October 16, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

We are in the middle of this series about our "Generations of Generosity" campaign, and today’s message is called "Revealed in Prayer." When it comes to prayer, some people will tell you, "Be careful what you expect from prayer because you may not get it." At the same time, other people will warn you, "Be careful what you pray for because you just might get it." We’ll talk about both of those concerns today.

This fall, as we always do, we’re asking you prayerfully to consider how God is leading you to support the ministries of our church by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness. I hope you’ve received the stewardship packet in the mail. On November 6 bring both your annual and capital campaign commitment cards to worship and together we’ll dedicate them to God. Please note that there’s a new place on this commitment card to share that you’ve invited someone to Maple Grove this year, which is one of our goals this year and a way of supporting our church by our Witness. What’s more, there’s still time to make that invitation before November 6!

This year, in addition to our annual pledges, we’re asking everyone who can to make an additional three-year commitment to the Generations of Generosity capital campaign, to fund long-term, major, repairs and improvements to this building. You should be receiving, most of you by email--a brochure outlining the priorities and projects in this campaign. I want you to hear this: if your circumstances don’t allow you to make an additional financial commitment at this time, please continue to support only the annual budget and feel good about that. I know that a capital campaign may sound more exciting than the annual budget, but we’re asking that support of the capital campaign be "second mile" giving, an additional sacrifice on top of your regular generosity to the church. Okay?

Something very special will happen here next Sunday. We are going to be celebrating all the ministries of our church (we’ve listed over 150 ministries sponsored or hosted by Maple Grove) and in a simple and heart-felt way we’re going to share how God is changing lives right here all the time. You’ve probably never seen anything quite like it and you won’t want to miss next Sunday.

Last week we looked at the importance of being "grounded in gratitude" and heard about that Samaritan who when he was cured of leprosy came busting back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Jesus with all his heart. We can all be that one--so before we get to today’s focus on prayer, let me share with you a small sampling of the gratitude cards we received las Sunday. You’ll find all the cards in the lower lobby. I tried to select cards that are representative of many people’s responses.

I am most thankful for . . .

*My family and the fact that clean water comes out of my tap

*The love that is so present in so many hearts

*Family, friends, health (and health insurance, someone else adds)

*The people of Maple Grove and all that goes on here,

as well as the opportunity for me to grow and share my faith.

And cookies!

*Being called a child of God.

*That my kids are happy, most of the time.

What I love most about Maple Grove is . . .

*When I walk through the doors, it always feels a little like coming home.

*It’s bringing me back to Jesus.

*A church and pastor that accept me for who I am and my partner.

I love this church!

*That although we may think differently, we love alike!

*The church takes the time and spends the energy to ministry to children.

*Music, music, music!

The prayer that we’re being asked to pray for this campaign is: Lord, what do you want to do through me? I hope you know this prayer by heart. Say it with me: Lord, what do you want to do through me? What I love about this prayer is that it brings together two things that too often get separated: Christian spirituality and Christian action.

In this endlessly violent and unjust world, there are Christians who have grown weary of only praying. Every time, for example, there’s school shooting or hate crime, our leaders call on us to pray, but no changes are made to background checks for gun purchases or to our mental health system. Until it happens again, and we’re called upon to pray again, and again nothing changes. There’s actually a book that came out a couple of years ago called Never Pray Again and it’s subtitled Lift your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work.1 I understand the concern behind this book, but I don’t share its understanding of prayer. Prayer is not the enemy of Christian action; prayer is what prompts and guides Christian action.

The gospels catch Jesus at prayer before every important action he takes: before his baptism, before he chooses the twelve disciples, before he tells them about his suffering and death, prior to the Transfiguration, and of course in the Garden of Gethsemane before he goes to the cross. And in today’s Gospel reading Jesus assures us that God hears and attends to every prayer we pray. Walter Wink, one of the great Christian activists of our day, is also a strong believer in the power of prayer. Prayer, he wrote, "changes the world and it changes what is possible to God."2 Prayer really changes things. But our capital campaign prayer—Lord, what do you want to do through me?—suggests that the first thing prayer changes is me and what I’m willing to do for God.

That, I think, is where the phrase--be careful what you pray for, you just might get it—comes in. Be careful when you pray, God, please change the hearts of young people today, because God may choose to do just that, through you. And be careful when you pray, God, please make sure our church building is in good condition, because God may choose to do just that, through you.

But just as the gospels often catch Jesus at prayer, the gospels are also clear that Christians are to participate in the kingdom of God, that Jesus’ followers are people who do the things he did. Christians, therefore, are people who welcome strangers, who care for the sick, who cry out of justice, who love our enemies. When the disciples were concerned about the hungry crowds and wanted to send them away, Jesus said, "No, you give them something to eat." God certainly has been known to do things for people, but more often God does things through people. Maple Grove’s Trustees have been praying for years for God to provide for this grand old building. Well, God has decided to do it, and this Generations of Generosity campaign is how God is going to do it. Lord, what do you want to do through me? That is the perfect convergence of prayer and action, or in this case, of prayer and generosity.

Here’s a story about this convergence of prayer and generosity. It’s a story about Monica and Bill Tenney. Bill several weeks ago started praying our prayer—Lord, what do you want to do through me? And as he would pray that prayer, he’d write down a number, the amount he felt called to give to the capital campaign. And the more Bill prayed, the higher that number got. One day Monica looked at the number Bill was writing down and immediately told him, "Bill, stop praying!" The moral of the story is that prayer really changes things, especially ourselves, so be careful what you pray for. Lord, what do you want to do through me? (By the way, Bill, Monica gave me permission for both of you to tell that story!)

I want to conclude this morning by acknowledging that this prayer really is about our capital campaign and how God will lead each of us in deciding how to support it. I have been praying this prayer every day for several weeks, and sure enough Carolyn and I have decided to give an amount to the capital campaign that feels uncomfortably high for a family with two kids in college at the same time. But it’s also important to know that this is not a prayer only about a capital campaign. Lord, what do you want to do through me? is a fantastic prayer for every aspect of life. And here’s what else has happened since I’ve been praying that prayer. Three or four times recently, I’ve felt the urge to reach out to an old friend or a Maple Grove member I haven’t talked to for a while. Such deep and uplifting conversations have resulted. Could I have reached out to those people any time? Of course, but I didn’t. Prayer changes things. And since I have been praying this prayer, I have changed a long-term habit that was not good for my health. Could I have changed that habit any time in the past ten years? Of course, but I didn’t. Prayer changes things.

I can only imagine all that is going to happen when a whole church is praying that prayer together! Will you say it with me one more time: Lord, what do you want to do through me?

1 Aric Clark, Doug Hagler and Nick Larson, Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get to Work (Chalice Press, 2014).

2 Walter Wink, "Prayer: History Belongs to the Intercessors," Sojourners (October 1990), 13.

 

Luke 17:11-19

Generations of Generosity: Grounded in Gratitude

October 9, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Kent Millard is a retired United Methodist pastor who was once appointed to be a district superintendent in South Dakota, following Reuben Job who’d been elected a bishop. This appointment required his family to relocate, and as sometimes happens, not everyone in the family was happy about moving. Kent’s son Kendall absolutely did not want to move and leave his friends, and he made his unhappiness abundantly clear. When the Millard family arrived at their new parsonage, however, Kendall was shocked by what he found set up in the living room. It was a beautiful electric train set with a note that read, "This is a gift from the Reuben Job family to Kendall. Hope you enjoy your new home."

You can imagine the excitement and joy from young Kendall to find such a wonderful gift from a family he didn’t even know. He played with that train set all day long. The next day, Kendall came into his father’s study with his hands full of coins and plopped them down on the desk, saying, "Dad, give this to God." Rev. Millard was surprised by his son’s spontaneous offering and so he asked him, "Why are you giving this money to God?" The child answered, "Just to say thanks."1

Kendall had received a generous gift from a kind pastor and he was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he wanted to give an offering back to God, just to say thanks. Young Kendall Millard was grounded in gratitude.

The truth is that all of us have received abundant gifts from the hands of our generous God. God has filled us with the blessings of life and love, family and friends, a community and congregation, relationships and resources. We are calling today "Gratitude Sunday" as we kick-off our GENERATIONS OF GENEROSITY Capital Campaign for much-needed maintenance and upgrades to this grand old building. The question before us this morning is, How do we tell God "thank you?" When we consider all the generous gifts God has given us, how will we respond? How will our lives reflect that we too are grounded in gratitude?

As we ponder those questions, there is no better place to turn than to the story of Jesus and the Ten Lepers, our gospel reading today. Scholars tell us that leprosy in the Bible was not the same as modern leprosy, which is known as Hanson’s Disease. Biblical leprosy was a variety of different skin conditions for which there was no treatment and little hope. Leprosy ate away at people’s bodies and left them maimed and disfigured. It left people unable to work or marry or enjoy even the simplest pleasures of life.

The worst thing about leprosy, though, was not the disease itself but the ostracism.2 They believed the disease was highly contagious, and the scriptures commanded Israelites to put lepers out of the camp (Numbers 5:2). Lepers were not supposed to get within 50 yards of a clean person, and everywhere they went they heard the familiar words, "Leper! Unclean!" It’s clear in the Gospel story that as the ten lepers approached Jesus, they made sure to stay at a distance. Their life was a hell of isolation and loneliness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, we know just how those lepers felt. We don’t; we can’t. But some of us know something about isolation. Maybe you live far from family or don’t get along with family. Maybe you’ve never quite fit in, been excluded because people found you ‘different’ or ‘difficult.’ Maybe your spouse has died or your marriage has ended, or perhaps you isolate yourself due to depression or circumstances. Few of us are lepers, but many of us know something about isolation.

Well, here’s what Jesus did when the ten lepers came to him crying for mercy. He sent them to the priest, who had authority to declare them clean. He didn’t even cure them first; he just told them to go to the priest, and they were cured along the way. Nine of the lepers apparently did what Jesus told them to do—they went to the priest and got declared clean. Only one of the lepers, a Samaritan, did not do what Jesus told them to. Instead, when he discovered that he was cured, he came busting back to Jesus, praising God, throwing himself on the ground and loving Jesus with all his heart.

And Jesus says to this grateful Samaritan former leper a surprising thing. Jesus does not say, "Why are you here? Why didn’t you go do what I told you to do?" Instead Jesus told him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." Your faith, Jesus says, has "made you well." Earlier, when it says that all ten were "healed" on their way to the priest, the Greek word is iaomai. It’s a medical term meaning "cured." But when Jesus speaks to the one who came back to say thanks, he uses a different Greek word, sōzō, which means to be saved, not just cured but fully healed. In the language of our God-Centered Wellbeing team, sōzō means to have not just wellness but wellbeing.

The story reveals that there is a difference between being cured and being well. Ten were cured, only one was made well. Being cured is a physical thing; being well requires being grounded in gratitude.

Barbara Taylor puts it like this: The nine, she says, were obedient and behaved like good lepers, good religious people; only one "behaved like a man in love."3 Then she becomes confessional. She says, what is apparent in my own life is that I know how to be obedient; I don’t always know how to be in love. I read my Bible, say my prayers, pay my pledge. And there’s nothing wrong with that, she says. It’s kept the church going for years. But our hearts long for something else, for something more than obedience. We want to come busting back to Jesus, praising God and loving Jesus with all our hearts. We long not just to be good religious people; we long to be in love, to be grounded in gratitude.

Taylor concludes by turning Jesus’ question around. Jesus asked the grateful Samaritan former leper, "Where are the nine?" Where are the ones who didn’t come busting back? But our question is, "Where is the tenth?" Where is the one who does come busting back to Jesus, grounded in gratitude? Well, I’ll tell you where that one is:

  • That one came busting into my office several weeks ago, and with tears in her eyes she said, "Thank God, there’s been an unexpected change in my financial situation and I can make a pledge to the capital campaign of $ _______ . The number was so large that I was taken aback; I had to call her later that day to make sure I’d heard her right. And she continues to tell me, "I feel joy, I am privileged to be able to do this for the church that has changed my life." She is grounded in gratitude.
  • A couple of weeks ago Maple Grove member Sandy Freer told folks, "Brian and I always do what we can to support the ministries here, the annual budget.  But when I first heard about a capital campaign, I knew I wanted to be part of it.  We are blessed to worship in a beautiful sanctuary and enjoy classes and meals here because people we’ve never met made gifts to build this building.  Now I’m excited to be able to make a gift so that people in the future can continue to gather here to love God and serve others." Sandy is not giving grudgingly or dutifully. She’s excited to give. It’s her way of busting back to Jesus with a heart full of love, of being grounded in gratitude.
  • And you saw how our children are grounded in gratitude. They enthusiastically love this church because of cookies and plays and fun, because of cookies, and because of TMI and serving others and welcoming people with open arms. And did I mention cookies? They’re not afraid to come busting back to Jesus with hearts full of love. They’re grounded in gratitude.

Now it’s our turn. The ushers are going to distribute Gratitude Cards to everyone here. There are just two simple questions on each card: What I am thankful for… and What I love most about Maple Grove is… Find a pencil, borrow a pen. If there are people who need help writing, someone give them a hand. You can put your name on it if you want—just remember these will be displayed for all to see. At the end of the service there will be people at each exit with baskets to collect your cards. I’ve got my own card, and a pencil here some place.

Where is the tenth? Where’s the one who will come busting back to Jesus with a heart full of love, the one grounded in gratitude? Here we are. Let’s all be that one!

 

1 Today’s sermon draws heavily from "Sermon 1: Grounded in Gratitude," http://www.horizonsstewardship.com/client-files/.

2 Justo González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 204.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), 110-12.

 

 

Revelation 22:1-2

Tree of Life: Healing of the Nations

October 2, 2016 World Communion Sunday Maple Grove UMC

Today we conclude this series on trees in the Bible. "Why trees?" some of you have asked. The name of our church was the inspiration. When you’re called Maple Grove, you really ought to know about trees in the Bible! But trees have always been at the heart of religion and deep in the human psyche. The epic of Gilgamesh, dating back to at least 2500 BC, has a tree of life that gets snatched away by a serpent. Our own book of Genesis has a serpent and a tree. The Buddha reached enlightenment sitting under the Bo Tree of Wisdom. In psychodynamic theory, Freud thought trees stood for . . . well, I’ll leave it to your imagination what Freud thought about trees. Perhaps more helpfully, Karl Jung found trees to be archetypes of the self--a union of earth, heaven and water. Why trees? Because trees reach deep into the human spirit.

And then there’s this: just as the first story of the first book of the Bible contains a tree (the tree from which Adam and Eve took and ate), the last vision of the last book of the Bible contains a tree: on either side of the river that flows from the throne of God, says Revelation, is the tree of life, and the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations.

Most people think the visions in Revelation are of the "End," that is, how things are going to be some day in the future. But New Testament scholar Eugene Boring teaches that "All Revelation’s statements about the ‘End’ are really statements about God."1 That is, Revelation’s visions about the "End" are really visions of life the way God wants it to be, now and forever. The completion of the visions may indeed take place some time in the future, but the reality of these visions exists already in the will of God and in the hearts and minds of God’s people. The tree of life, then, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, this tree may not yet be thoroughly visible right now, but it is as real as God’s longing for peace, and it will become as visible as God’s people dare to make it. Oh, how we need, and Oh, how we are those leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

As I hear those words, "for the healing of the nations," I’m reminded of the ending of a poem that Dottie Trax shared with me a few weeks ago:

later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the

whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere2

I met with the Maple Grove youth last Sunday evening, asking them to think and pray with me about this vision from Revelation. They used arts and crafts (glitter was the key ingredient) to make artistic leaves, to represent the leaves that are for the healing of the nations. And as they cut and pasted, we talked about places in the world today in need of healing. The conversation got around to Syria, and one of the youth asked, "What exactly is the fighting in Syria about?" I waited, hoping that someone, anyone else would speak up. But when no one did, I gave it a try: "Well, Syria’s ruler, Hafez Assad, is a brutal dictator who has committed atrocities against his own people, so various groups tried to rebel against him, and the US kind of supported them. But Assad also has lots of American weapons, so they weren’t able to drive him out. And then ISIS got involved and teamed up with some of our allies, so we couldn’t be allies with them any more. And Turkey is our friend, kind of, unless we support the Kurds too much. And Russia came in and pretended to be our friend, but wasn’t."

"So who do we want to win?" he asked.

"I don’t know," I had to admit. "I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as ‘winning’ any more, only killing."

We’re going to put some of our youth’s leaves here by the table of Communion with Christ. May they be for the healing of Syria.

It’s hard not to lose sleep over the violence of Islamic extremism in so many places. Boko Haram kidnapped school girls in Nigeria, killed 20,000 people and displaced 2 million people from their homes. Iraq is torn apart, Yemen has civil war, and there are bombings and shootings in the West as well. But here’s something else. Late last year in Kenya members of the jihadist group al-Shabaab hijacked a bus and asked the Muslim passengers to identify the Christians so they could kill them. The Muslims refused, telling the terrorists to kill everyone or leave. Thank God, they left. These our Muslim brothers and sisters were being the leaves of that tree, bringing healing to the nations. And in gratitude for their courage we place these leaves by the table of our Communion with Christ.

On Wednesday Cathy Davis, Nancy Watson and I attended a United Methodist district event about ministry with immigrants and refugees. Did you know that there are 65,000 Somalis in the Columbus area who have fled the violence in their homeland? There are 25,000 Nepalese here who were forced from their homes in Bhutan. We heard from a man who escaped from Iraq. His life was threatened by Al Qaeda because he translated for the Americans. Members of Worthington United Methodist Church sponsored his family and helped them get settled here, and his gratitude is overflowing. We don’t have to go anywhere to be leaves for the healing of the nations. The nations are right here, waiting for us to extend the hand of peace. Let’s place these leaves by our Communion table, in anticipation of our own ministry with refugees.

When I met with our church youth, they were concerned mainly about violence and injustice here in the US. One of them actually knew Tyre King, killed recently on the East side. And they know about Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York. And there’s Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—all African-Americans who were shot by police or died in police custody. When our youth say that Black Lives Matter they don’t mean that white or brown lives don’t matter. They mean, Can’t we do something to overcome the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow? Can’t we eliminate racist talk from our politics? And can’t we change the fact that black men are seven times more likely than whites to die in encounters with police?3 This is not to blame anyone in particular, but just to acknowledge a truth about our country. Our youth created many leaves to heal racism in our nation; I want to join them.

At the same time, can’t we support our police officers who on a daily basis risk their lives to protect and rescue people of every color and culture? Being a police officer has been ranked one of the 15 most dangerous jobs in our country and the 4th most stressful. Let’s offer them some of our leaves for the healing of our nation, for the healing of the tension between police and community.

The last vision of the Bible is of the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We pray for that vision, for that will of God, to be ever more visible in the world. And on this World Communion Sunday, let’s commit ourselves to be those leaves, for the healing of the nations and of our own nation.

1 M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 215.

2 Warsan Shire, "What They Did Yesterday Afternoon," http://amberjkeyser.com/2015/11/warsan-shire/.

3 "Police Gunfire: Unarmed Black Men 7 Times More Likely to Die Than Whites" The Chicago Tribune, August 9, 2015.

 

Isaiah 55:12-13

The Trees Clap Their Hands

September 25, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, for one, the Psalms tell about joy:

The pastures of the wilderness overflow,

The hills gird themselves with joy,

They shout and sing together with joy. (Psalm 65:11-13)

O come, let us sing to the Lord;

Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

(Psalm 95:1)

May those who sow in tears

Reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

Bearing the seed of sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy,

Carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:4-6)

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, the poets know about joy. There’s Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring—

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; . . .

What is all this juice and all this joy?1

There e.e. cummings:

I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.2

And there’s my favorite poet, Mary Oliver:

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There [is] . . .

much that can never be redeemed.

Still, life has some possibility left. . .

It could be anything,

but very likely you notice it in the instant

when love begins. . .

Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid

of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.3

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, if I get a vote, the one who knows joy best is Isaiah, the prophet who got to tell the exiles they were going home. Today’s tree scripture is also today’s joy scripture and also today’s anthem:

For you shall go out with joy,

be led forth with peace,

the mountains and the hills

shall break forth before you into singing

and all the trees, the trees shall clap their hands.

Pine trees shall shoot up in place of the camel thorn,

myrtles instead of briars.

All this shall win the Lord a great name,

a sign for all time.

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, maybe, with Isaiah, it’s best not to tell you at all, but to show you: Clap my hands! Or better yet to join with you and the trees in clapping our hands for joy: All of us clap our hands!

I want specifically this morning to think with you about three aspects, or three kinds, of joy: joy as a response to circumstances, joy that comes from inside, and finally expectant joy, or anticipatory joy.

Joy as a Response to Circumstances

In Exodus 15 Moses’ sister, Miriam, pulls out her tambourine and leads the people in song and dance. Why? Because the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. In 2 Samuel 6 King David danced before the Lord with all his might. Why? Because at long last the ark of the covenant had been brought to Jerusalem. In Matthew 28 the women ran from the tomb quickly and with great joy. Why? Because the angel said that Jesus was raised. There is a joy that is our natural and heart-felt response to circumstances.

Periodically our church’s prayer team sends out what they call their "Rejoice List." The prayer team’s work is confidential but here, without names, are samples from a recent Rejoice List. They’d been praying for a Maple Grove member who’d receiving an emergency pacemaker. All had gone well. They’d been praying for a member’s daughter and son-in-law who’d been separated, but now had reconciled. One couple’s grand-daughter had been born and all were well after a high-risk pregnancy. Do you see why they call it the Rejoice List? Joy is our natural and heart-felt response to answered prayer.

I wrote this poem many years ago, a true story about our daughter Rachel’s response to first seeing the beach:

She toddled down the dune to that first sight

Of sea, for which there is no grown-up speech,

Much less for two year-olds. She took it in

Silence, just beach far as her eyes could reach.

Who knew the universe could be so blue?

Who knew the world would be this wide? Who knew?

She looked, she laughed, and then she clapped her hands.

It was, she knew, the only thing to do.

Will you join Rachel and all the trees in clapping our hands for joy?

Joy From the Inside

Sometimes, however, there aren’t any circumstances to prompt our joy. And yet . . . ultimately joy does not come to us from the outside; joy is something that arises from the inside. In the church we call this "the joy of the Lord." It’s joy that comes not from getting a job or from the Buckeye’s beating Oklahoma, but from the presence and promise of God in our lives.

In the first church I served I visited a woman in a nursing home. I got to know her story. She was legally blind. She’d lost most of one leg to diabetes. Her husband had died when they were still young, and two of her three children had succumbed to cancer. And yet every time I visited, she had a smile on her face and was eager to sing hymns with me. I asked her one time, "Mary, with everything that’s happened to you, you have every right to be sad and angry. How is it that you’re always filled with joy?" More than twenty years later, I still remember what she told me. "Pastor, joy isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something God gives you. All you have to do is receive it." Amen.

Here’s how the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk put it:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Because joy is something that comes from the inside, will you join Habakkuk and all the trees in clapping our hands for joy?

Expectant Joy

There is joy that a response to circumstances. There is joy that comes from the inside. And finally there is expectant joy, the joy of anticipation. In Columbus, Ohio, we call this ‘tailgating.’ The game won’t start for hours, but already fans are rejoicing. It’s expectant joy.

Our family took a beach vacation the first week of August. Already in June I was shopping for beach chairs and travel size toiletries. Part of me was already on Pawley's Island. It’s expectant joy.

In the flow of Maple Grove’s capital campaign this fall, Celebration Sunday--when we’ll have special music and decorations and grand refreshments--comes before most of us fill out our pledge cards. Some might call this wishful thinking. I call it expectant joy.

That’s what’s going on in Isaiah 55. When Isaiah wrote these words to the exiles in Babylon about going out with joy, no one had gone anywhere yet. The people of Israel were still slogging it out in Babylon, with no way home in sight. There was nothing obvious to rejoice about, no clear reason for the trees to clap their leafy hands. Here’s how Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "before there can be any geographical departure from [Babylon], there must be a liturgical, emotional, imaginative departure. Israel in exile must be able to think and feel and imagine its life out beyond Babylonian administration."4 In other words, expectant joy doesn’t just take place chronologically prior to a joyful event, our expectant joy is part of what makes that event happen. Nancy Gay calls this "visioning prayer." Before it happens, already she sees it and rejoices for it.

The truth is, not every Jewish exile in Babylon wanted to go back to Israel. Some had cushy jobs in Babylon. Some didn’t have it so well but were more afraid of change than of staying put. None of them knew what the journey would be like. As Brueggemann points out, Isaiah’s call to go out with joy is not an imperative. God doesn’t nag those who fear what’s new. It is an invitation; it’s permission to clap your hands on your way to a new and joyful life.5 So why don’t we? With the exiles let’s envision, let’s rejoice and clap a new life into existence.

How can I tell you about this joy of the Lord, this joy of just being alive in God’s world, this joy? Well, channeling Brueggeman, let me say to you this way: O my Maple Grove friends, when you go out today, go out with joy and peace, not in anxiety and anger. Go out with your life transformed from brier to myrtles, from camel thorn to towering pine. Go out from tired old fears that divide us, go out from old quarrels unresolved. Go out from sin unforgiven. Go out from old decisions that have scarred and wounded. Go out from old memories that have become weights around your neck. Go out into God’s promised future, which our rejoicing helps make happen. And once more with two year-old Rachel, and once more with the prophet Habakkuk, and once more all the trees, will you clap your hands with joy?6

1 Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring," https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/51002.

2 e.e. cummings, "I thank you God for most this amazing," https://thepoetryplace.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/i-thank-you-god-for-most-this-amazing/

3 Mary Oliver, "Don’t Hesitate," Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), 42.

4 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 162.

5 See Walter Brueggemann, "Sabbaticals for Rats?" The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011),132.

6 The ending is adapted from Walter Brueggemann, "Power to Remember, Freedom to Forget," The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness, ed. Charles L. Campbell (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 62.

 

Luke 13:1-9

Fruitless Trees—Grace and Manure

September 18, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Like a tree planted by the water—or as we learned, like a tree transplanted by the water—that was our first Tree scripture, from Psalm 1. We can be strong and stable and fruitful because of our relationship with God. Last Sunday Charles Hill shared with us about the tiny mustard seed that becomes a tree. Little, he told us, is much when God is in it.1 Next Sunday we’ll hear about trees that clap their hands for joy, and we’ll conclude this series with a tree in the book of Revelation whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. Narrowing down all the tree stories in the Bible for just five sermons was difficult. There are so many we won’t get to. There is that tree in the Garden of Eden from which they were not to eat . . . and you know how that turned out. In the Old Testament trees can be symbols of idolatry--they worshiped Baal, Jeremiah says, "on every high hill and under every green tree" (Jeremiah 2:20) . But trees could also stand for safety and prosperity—Micah promises, "but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid (4:4). There is the stump of Jesse in Isaiah from which the Messiah grew. Good trees, Jesus said, bear good fruit, and bad trees bear bad fruit. And the cross itself is referred to as a tree. In fact, the word ‘tree’ occurs 393 times in the translation I use; how did I decide to include today’s parable about a tree that gets spared the axe?

Well, for one thing this parable contains the word ‘manure.’ And the junior high boy in me has always wanted to say ‘manure,’--or some synonym for manure--in a sermon. So there, I’ll say it: ‘manure.’ It’s in the Bible.

But really this scripture addresses two of the biggest questions human beings have:

  • Why do such bad things happen to people?
  • And why do good things happen to undeserving people?

So, why do such bad things happen to people? Well, you may have noticed that Jesus raises this question, and then he doesn’t answer it. He tells us that one common answer to the question is wrong, and then he tells people to reflect on their own lives instead of asking why the world works the way it does. Jesus asks, "Do you think that the folks Pilate murdered died because they were worse than everyone else?" "No," he says, "but why don’t you repent?

"And how about the 18 poor souls that had that tower collapse on them? Did that happen to them because of something they’d done wrong?" Again he says, "No, but why don’t you repent?"

Why do such bad things happen to people? Why did a drunk driver hit my cousin’s car? Why did our friends’ little girl get cancer and die? Why were certain people in the Twin Towers on 9-11 and not others? Oh, I know, people like Pat Robertson think they know the reason for AIDS and why Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The fact he thinks he knows those things reveals that he hasn’t listened to Jesus. Why do bad things happen to people? No one knows. If even Jesus knew, he didn’t say. Jesus was not given to judgmental pronouncements or idle speculation. Instead, he invited people to examine their own lives, to see if while we’re here, we might live and love more faithfully.

There simply isn’t any clear, straight-line correlation between our failings and our suffering. The next part of the scripture will suggest that there’s also no clear, straight-line correlation between our goodness and our flourishing. Now, we might not like that. I have several ideas about how the universe might work better, but so far God hasn’t consulted me on those things. It’s just the way it is. Stuff happens. My part is not to know why others suffer or prosper; my part is to say, with the old spiritual, it’s not my brother and not my sister, it’s not my father and not my mother, it’s not the preacher and not the deacon, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

Which brings us to the parable of the tree that bore no fruit. The owner was ready to chop it down, calling it a waste of soil. But the gardener begged, "Sir, give it another year. Let me coddle it and fertilize it and give it some TLC. If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then we can let it go."

Some people have suffered and some have even been cut down. What does it mean that some of us are still standing? New Testament scholar, Justo González, sums the parable up this way: "those of us who survive, those Galileans who were not killed by Herod, or those Jews on whom the tower did not fall, or those of us who have not died from famine, or those who were not in the Twin Towers on September 11, are living only by the grace of God, and . . . our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit."2 Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians: "If you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall."

We trees sometimes get pretty proud of our lovely branches and green leaves. We get to thinking that we have grown all by our own power. Even if we’re not bearing fruit, still, look at our leaves and branches. But Jesus’ parable pokes a hole in all that pride. If we’re standing at all, it’s by the mercy and grace of the gardener.

Years ago I came across a poem by Scott Cairns that says this well and isn’t far from my own experience. The poem is called "Imperative," and it’s not very long:

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television. All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean. The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need. Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.3

Just don’t go thinking you deserve any of it. That’s what Jesus is saying to the trees that are still standing. The Christian Century magazine recently asked people to submit short articles about mistakes they had made. A pastor from Indiana shared how as a brand new 25 year-old minister he was sent to a church that had been torn apart by conflict.4 He did his best, preaching healing messages, visiting people in their homes. But then anonymous notes and phone calls begin. The letters revealed personal knowledge about the pastor and some infor-mation about the letter-writer. He looked for patterns and details, and finally decided that the source had to be the wife of a certain farmer in the church. During the conflict her husband had stopped attending services. He writes, I called Betty and asked if I could come visit. We sat at her kitchen table and made small talk for a few minutes. Then I told her I knew she had been making the anonymous phone calls and writing the letters.

And as those words came out of my mouth, the pastor writes, I suddenly saw another piece of the puzzle that made it impossible for Betty to have been the caller and letter-writer. But my words had been spoken; they sat there on the kitchen table between us. He says, "I braced for a storm. I waited for Betty to promise that she would never again darken the doors of the church. But there was no storm. Betty looked at me across the table and I saw disappointment in her eyes. "No, pastor," she said, "I didn’t make those calls or write any letters." And then she said simply, "Pastor, would you like some sweet tea?"

"Yes, Ma’am," he said. We talked about the family, the farm, weather and the church. She let me pray. She shook my hand and said she’d see me on Sunday. . . Sometimes we pastors are privileged to flourish in the ministry like a great maple tree. But when we do, it’s only ever by the grace of people like Betty and the amazing mercy of God. I suspect the same might be true in your line of work.

Stephen Hawking begins his book, A Brief History of Time, with this story:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "And what is the tortoise standing on?" "You’re very clever, young man,’ very clever," said the old lady, "But it’s turtles all the way down!"5

Here’s what I’m trying to say: We may think we’ve caused our own growth. We may think we’ve made our own breaks and watered our own successes. But it’s grace all the way down. There’s nowhere to sink our roots but the soil God provides, and there’s nowhere to get water but the rain that God sends. It’s grace all the way down.

So this scripture is just a few reflections about tragedy, just a little story about a tree. But as is often the case with little things, if God is in them, they can become big things. Here are three ways this little story might change your life:

    • You don’t have to prove anything, my friends; you get to bear fruit. That could change your life.
    • Rather than worry about other people’s faults, I can choose to work on my own. That too could change your life.
    • And if ever I’m blessed to flourish and grow, thank God. Just thank God. And that will most assuredly change your life.

1 Song title by Kittie L. Suffield. In the public domain. http://library.timelesstruths.org/music /Little_Is_Much_When_God_Is_in_It/.

2Justo L. González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 172.

3 Scott Cairns, "Imperative," The Christian Century (November 6-19, 2002), 21.

4 Mark Owen Fenstermacher, "Mistakes," The Christian Century (July 6, 2016), 25-26.

5 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 1.

 

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