Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Acts 11:1-18

I Say ‘No,’ the Spirit Says ‘Yes’

April 24, 2016

"Peter," God’s voice came to him, "Peter, I know you’re Jewish, Peter, but I want you to eat a bunch of unkosher food, Peter."

"No way, Lord," Peter replied. "I’ve never done it; and I never will."

"Peter," the voice went on, "what God has made clean, you must not call unclean. Oh, and one more thing, Peter. I want you to go eat this unkosher food with a Gentile Roman soldier from Caesarea."

As Peter tells the story, he wants everyone to know that none of this was his idea, that he tried not to do it. He wants everyone to be aware that he said, ‘No,’ but the Holy Spirit said, ‘’Yes.’ And so off to Caesarea Peter went, to eat unkosher food with a Gentile Roman soldier. And in the midst of their meal, the Holy Spirit fell upon this soldier and his household, and in the end Peter not only ate with these Gentiles, he baptized them and welcomed them into the church in the name of Jesus Christ.

Much the same thing happened just a few verses earlier in Acts 10. While Peter was speaking to a crowd of Gentiles, the Holy Spirit fell upon them too The circumcised believers, it says--that is the good, traditional, Jewish believers--were "astounded" that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. "Astounded" probably puts it mildly. Appalled, perhaps. Offended, I’m guessing. Downright resistant, probably. But Peter asked, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit the same as us?" And before anyone could say anything, Peter went ahead and baptized them. He didn’t schedule their circumcisions first. He didn’t make sure they knew how to keep kosher first. He didn’t give them a manual on how to act Jewish first. He just accepted them, the way there were.

Here’s how one writer sums up what had happened. All in favor of admitting Gentiles into our church say Aye. The vote: 30 No votes from the church, one Yes vote from the Holy Spirit. Motion carries. And they’re in.1 That’s how it goes in these Outrageous Stories from the book of Acts.

Now, you might be wondering: why is it such a big deal for Peter to eat unkosher food with a Gentile? I mean, who told him not to do that? Well, in a word, God did. It’s in the Bible, in Leviticus 11 and elsewhere. What to eat, what not to eat, and not to put to fine a point on it, to eat the wrong things, the Bible says, is an abomination (Lev. 11:13). Peter had learned in the temple not to eat unkosher food, he’d learned in the synagogue not to do this, he’d learned not to do this from his mother, for heaven’s sake. And here’s God telling him to do it anyway.

It’s another of these double conversion stories in Acts, two conversions for the price of one. Cornelius, the Roman soldier, is converted to belief in Jesus Christ. But even more amazingly, the church of Jesus Christ is converted to baptize and welcome and even eat with people like Cornelius.

This reading from chapter 11 is one of three times this story is told in Acts. It’s told first in chapter 10, it’s referred to by Peter at the Council of Jerusalem in chapter 15, and here in chapter 11 Peter is called upon to defend himself by church members who think he’s gone too far in admitting Gentiles into the church. And Peter’s defense is essentially this: that God is doing a new thing.2 That’s why it had to come to Peter in a vision. That’s why Peter resisted it at first. That’s why the Holy Spirit had to repeat itself. In bringing Gentiles into the church and in not insisting that they keep kosher, God was doing a new thing.

Now of course there’s nothing new about God doing new things. In Isaiah 42 God says, "See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare." In Isaiah 43 God says, "I am about to do a new thing." And just for good measure in Isaiah 48 God says, "From this time forward I make you hear new things." The Bible itself is full of new things. In Deuteronomy 43 God’s word prohibits certain kinds of people from entering the temple; in Isaiah 56 those same people are welcomed with open arms. Deuteronomy 24 prohibits a man from taking back a wife who’s been with another man; in Jeremiah 3 God changes God’s mind. And most famously in Matthew 5, Jesus says several times, "You have heard it said," and he quotes from the Bible; but then he goes on, "But I say to you," and he tells us the new thing God is doing.

God has done lots of new things, always in the direction of welcoming more and more people into the church community. In Acts it was Samaritans and Gentiles. In our own country’s history it was the Holy Spirit making white people see that black people were, well, people, gifted and beloved just the same. Peter Gomes, the late Harvard chaplain and himself an African-American, says that "Black Muslims ask [in disbelief] how any black person in America could possibly be a Christian, given the legacy of white Christians. The answer, of course, is that if Christianity in American depended upon white Christians, there would be no right-minded black Christians. What is the case is that Christianity, and the Bible in particular, did not depend upon Christians for its gospel of inclusion, but upon God."3 I say, ‘No," but the Spirit says, ‘Yes.’

Then God called the church to see that, despite a few passages in Paul, women are no less called and gifted for ministry than men. My dad had a cousin, Max, who was an Episcopal priest. He had a big heart but he was pretty old-school. When the Episcopal Church began considering the ordination of women I asked him, "Max, what do you think about that?" He said, "The ordination of women goes against all my principles. . . But I try not to let my principles get in the way of what God is doing." I say, ‘No," but the Spirit says, ‘Yes.’

God has done a lot of new things, always in the direction of welcoming more and more people into the church community. This is part of our Methodist DNA. Way back in the 1700s John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, "There is no other religious society under heaven which requires nothing of [people] in order to assure their admission into it but a desire to save their souls. Look all around you; you cannot be admitted into the Church [of England], or . . . the Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Quakers, or any other unless you hold the same opinion with them, and adhere to the same models of worship. The Methodists alone do not insist on your holding this or that opinion, but they think and let think."4 Even though human beings may say, ‘No,’ the Holy Spirit (and John Wesley) say, ‘Yes.’

Today, of course, Methodist churches are struggling about whether to fully welcome gay and lesbian people into our membership, leadership and ministry. We can say, ‘No’—many of us do say, ‘No." But as in Acts, the Holy Spirit gets the deciding vote. And we wrestle with whether people can be Methodist if they love Jesus but can’t accept our creeds and doctrines. We can say, ‘No,’ but deep inside we know how the Holy Spirit is going o vote. And in this multicultural world, we wonder whether people or families can be Christian and Buddhist, or Christian and Hindu or Christian and New Age. For much of my life I might have said, ‘No,’ but only God’s vote counts. God is always doing new things, and always in the direction of welcoming more and more people into the church community.

Now I know there have to be limits to what’s allowed in Christian community. Violence, self-righteousness, lack of concern for the poor—these cannot be endured in the church. No one is arguing in favor of stealing or bearing false witness or the worship of Baal in the church. But throughout the history of the church, God has always been stretching the welcome a little wider. God is forever doing new things.

When the Holy Spirit had fallen on Cornelius and the Gentiles, Peter stepped back and asked, "If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" In the same way in chapter 10, he asked, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these [Gentiles] who have received the Holy Spirit the same as us?" And no one could. Can you?

1 See William H. Willimon, "Led by the Holy Spirit," Living by the Word. The Christian Century (April 17, 1991), 427.

2 See Russell Morton, "Acts 11:1-18," Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation 66/3 (July 2012), 311.

3 Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (Harper One, 2002), 23.

4 Quoted in Charles L. Allen, Meet the Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986), 55.


Acts 9:32-40

No One Will Stay in Their Place, Not Even the Dead

April 17, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

 Every scripture has more than one sermon in it—otherwise the world would have run out of sermons centuries ago. And today’s outrageous story from Acts is no exception. For example, one could preach a sermon about those two folks Peter healed--Aeneas and Dorcas--as representatives of what N.T. Wright has called the "unsung heroines" and heroes of the church.1 Aeneas has been what we sometimes call a "shut-in," laid up in bed for years. It’s never our intention, of course, but you know how easy it is for the church to lose track of people who can no longer get out and about. Despite years of faithful service, despite an ongoing life of prayer, we let people fade from our consciousness. But Peter did not.

And Dorcas is a widow, it says, devoted to good works and acts of charity. You know the sort—they’re in the quilting group, they paint the fellowship hall, they knit prayer shawls for the sick, they bring food for funeral meals, they pick up senior citizens for church on Sundays, they’ve cleaned the kitchen more times than they could ever count. Wright suggests that had it not been for Peter, Dorcas might never had made it into the pages of the New Testament. And there have been, and still are, thousands of people who live quiet, faithful, pious lives and never show up in the newspaper, maybe not even in the church newsletter. They can go unnoticed and unappreciated. But not by Peter. Aeneas and Dorcas represent the unsung heroes and heroines of the church. Peter heals them, Acts names them, and today we take time be grateful for them.

That’s one sermon you could preach from this scripture. Here’s another one: In his commentary on Acts, Will Willimon points out that Dorcas’ death has caused a crisis in her church community.2 Her fellow church members are not able simply to accept her death and move on. They send people to ask Peter to come. And when Peter gets there, he finds the whole church weeping and wailing. Not just her close relatives, but the whole church is unsure how they will go on without her.

I’ll talk more later about the specific role Dorcas played in her church, but for right now, let me just ask you this: would your death create a crisis for your church community? Do so many people look to you and lean on you, do you have such a vital place in people’s lives, that they’d have to figure out how to get along without you? If so, praise God! And you may want to think about doing some succession planning, so other people know how to do what you do. But if not, if your death would not leave a big hole in your church community . . . it’s not too late. You can say yes to being one of those people God uses to love and serve and unify people in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s not too late.

That’s another sermon you could preach from this outrageous story from Acts 9, and one could expand on either of those sermons in meaningful and fruitful ways. But here’s the sermon I am going to preach from this scripture today: in this new community, called the church, no one will stay in their place.3 The old home-bound member, Aeneas, gets up and walks around. The widow, Dorcas, who is supposed to be humble and subservient, is a crucial leader in the church. The healing of Aeneas and the raising of Dorcas are symbolic. They enact in a physical way the spiritual truth that the resurrection of Jesus has unleashed a new power in the world. And in this new power, no one, not even the dead, will stay in their place.

It’s hard for us today to grasp just how radical a thing Dorcas was doing in Joppa. In a culture in which widows were supposed to be powerless, dependent on a son or a brother or charity, Dorcas has created a cottage industry, making coats and clothing. Rather than waiting to be cared for, she has organized widows to care for themselves. Willimon calls it "a new configuration of power."

What happened after the resurrection of Jesus is that no one would stay in their place. Paralyzed old men get up and walk around changing lives. Common fisherman preach to the temple authorities. A humble widow leads a workforce development program among poor people in Joppa. Later on Peter will sit down and eat with a hated Roman soldier. A sexually questionable man from Ethiopia gets baptized. The Holy Spirit falls upon a crowd of despised Gentiles. In this new community, founded on the resurrection of Jesus, no one has to, and now one does, stay in their place.

Now that might sound exciting, and in many ways it is. But exciting is not all that it is. It’s also disconcerting, and sometimes upsetting. I remember one time at a particularly stressful time in our family my dad had a dream. And in this dream he was a traffic cop, directing traffic. But none of the drivers paid attention to him and none of the cars would stay in the right lanes. So in his dream my dad would lift the cars up and physically put them where he wanted them. He woke up to find that in real life he had picked my mom up and dropped her out of bed! It can be upsetting when people won’t stay in their place—even in dreams, and even if it’s by the power of Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts 17, some people in Thessalonica drag Paul and Silas before the authorities, claiming that they have been "turning the world upside down." It was not a compliment.

In the power of the resurrection, no one, not even the dead, will stay in their place. Can we acknowledge that we find this disconcerting, sometimes even upsetting? While at the same time knowing that ultimately it’s the gospel at work?

"Every time . . . little stories like this are faithfully told by the church," Willimon says, "the social system of paralysis and death is rendered null and void."4 Martin Luther King, Jr. told Bible stories like these, and African-Americans rose from oppression to pride. If everyone just stayed in their place, we still wouldn’t have women preachers in the church. The way things are is not the way they always have to be. So we’ll keep telling our little stories. Because in the power of the resurrection, no one, not even the dead, not even you and not even me, have to stay in their place.

1 N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 154.

2 William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 84.

3 Willimon, 84.

4 Willimon, 85


Acts 9:1-20

Saul (and Ananias) Saw the Light

April 10, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Sequels are all the rage and Acts is a biblical sequel. Luke’s gospel—Part 1--takes the story up to the point where the risen Jesus ascends into heaven. Acts—Part 2--picks it up from there and tells how the Holy Spirit empowered his disciples to heal and save people in his name--in other words, to be for the world the ongoing presence of Jesus.

Our worship series is called ACTing up (get it?)—Five Outrageous Stories from the Book of Acts. Outrageous, how? Well, in Luke Jesus was always doing outrageous stuff—healing the sick, and eating with sinners and outcasts, rising from the dead. But it doesn’t stop. In the sequel, outrageous stuff just keeps on happening:

  • the Holy Spirit descends like fire and causes the disciples to speak in languages they don’t even know
  • they’re compelled to include Gentiles, in the church
  • and the Christian-killer Saul becomes a Christian himself, and even more amazing, the Christians take him in.

If you look at the headings in Bibles, today’s scripture is usually called something like "The Conversion of Saul" or "The Risen Jesus Appears to Saul." And those headings are true as far as they go. Saul does see the light, and his life is turned around by this encounter with the risen Lord. But that’s only half the story. Ananias has a vision too. And the early church has to be turned around from fearing Saul to embracing him. So this is actually a double conversion story, two people see the light. And if you ask me, the second one may be more outrageous.

Let’s start with Saul. He’s appeared a couple of times before in Acts. At the end of chapter 7, some haters stone the Christian Stephen to death. And standing there, approving of it all, was Saul. And in the next chapter, it says, Saul "began to destroy the church," going from house to house, dragging Christians to prison. And it was on a mission of that sort when Saul saw the light—literally--and heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" For three days Saul couldn’t see anything. Finally something like scales fell from his eyes, and when he could see again, he saw Jesus, he saw Christians, he saw his own purpose in life, in a whole new way. He was, in a word, converted.

It’s a great story, a famous story. But I suspect what people really want to know about this story, but may be too polite to ask, is this: Is it true? Does this kind of thing really happen? Oh, I know there are stories like this in the Bible. But does heavenly light really shine and change people’s lives? Does Jesus actually talk to people? Does it really happen?

Well, yes. We’ve just come to tell our stories a different way. In fact, Saul (or Paul) himself has a very different way of telling this story. In Galatians this is how he tells it: "God was pleased to reveal his Son to me. (1:15-16). That’s it. Just because there’s no mention of blinding lights or voices from heaven, doesn’t mean it’s not Jesus reaching down to turn our lives around.

When I was in college I was going to get ice cream one evening with some friends from church. One guy and I thought it was clever to make disparaging comments about people as we passed—about their clothes, their appearance, anything we thought might get a laugh. Nobody paid us much attention until we started picking on some guys we thought might be gay, and we used some derogatory terms about them. (I’m not saying I’m proud of who I was then; I’m just telling you what happened.) The woman who was driving the car, a pastor, pulled over to the side of the road. She stared at us in the rear view mirror and said, "My brother is gay. He is talented and spiritual, and much kinder than you are. And if you’re going to use language like that, please get out of my car right now."

And from that moment I began to see the light. Oh, I had a lot of biblical and theological work to do. But I began to see that we’re all just children of God, and that my putting someone else down says more about me than it does about them. I was, in a word, converted. And while the voice I heard belong to that pastor, the message was from the risen Christ.

Yes, this kind of thing still happens. We just tell the story a different way. I wonder, when has Jesus spoken to you? When have you seen the light?

That’s half the story, the conversion of Saul. But in some ways it’s the rest of the story that’s more amazing. At this point Saul is all dressed up with nowhere to go, he’s a Christian with no church that will let him in. So God sends a vision to Ananias, instructing him to welcome this man Saul. Ananias replies, "I think you must be mistaken, Lord. I’ve heard of this man Saul. He’s out to get us, you know." And all that God has to say is, "I’ve chosen him." And immediately, it says, Ananias laid his hands on him and called him, "Brother Saul." Ananias was, in a word, converted.

Chris Hoke is a jail chaplain and gang pastor on the West coast. He says it’s easy for him to identify with Saul. He knows countless young men who have witnessed violence and perpetrated violence, and he knows it’s possible for those young men to see the light and for their lives to be turned around. "For me," Hoke writes, "it’s more difficult to appreciate…Ananias," that "timid church insider." Apparently, Hoke says, the risen Christ, with his mysterious light, had already reached the violent man on the streets—without the church’s help. Now God wanted the church to welcome this new Christian. And when Ananias laid hands on the man that he feared, Hoke says, something shifted inside of him.1 He was, in a word, converted.

All of a sudden, and rather uncomfortably, this conversion story is not just about violent outsiders. It’s about the conversion story of a timid church—it’s about me, and maybe it’s about you. "Those people," we say to ourselves, might fit in better in some other church. I’m not comfortable with "that kind of person" in my church, we think. That person, we think ever so politely, is too conservative, or too liberal, or too rough around the edges, or too outspoken, or too this or too that for us. But all that God has to say is, "I’ve chosen them." And we are meant to call them Brother Saul or Sister Susan. When we welcome the person we fear, something shifts inside of us. It is, in a word, the conversion of the timid church.

There are, I think, two possible responses to these tales of seeing the light, these stories of conversion. Some people will say, "Oh, I want that! I know I’ve been headed the wrong way, Lord. So turn me around. And I know you’ve got new and different people for me to love and welcome. Send me to them, Jesus--my arms are wide open.

The other possible response is this: "Oh, please no light from heaven, Lord Jesus. I’m perfectly content with the way I am. And different people make me nervous. Can’t you just leave us well enough alone, Lord Jesus?"

I am by nature that second kind of person. I am a timid church member. But I’m praying, nevertheless, to see the light. I want to be part of the outrageous things God is doing in the world. How about you?

1 Chris Hoke, "Jesus’ Barrio: Inmates as Apostles," The Christian Century (November 28, 2012), 32-34.


1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 50-58

Ultimate Healing

March 27, 2016 Easter Sunday Maple Grove UMC

Fleming Rutledge tells about chatting with a friend, a militant atheist, who said he didn’t like birthdays, since he was now "chronologically gifted."  She agreed that getting older is hard.  He said, rather sarcastically, "Well, it’s different for you.  You have eternity to look forward to."  She was indignant:  "That doesn’t make any difference," she told him, "I still don’t like getting older!"  But as she thought more about it, she realized she’d missed an opportunity.  "The next time I see him," she writes, "I am going to reintroduce the subject, and say yes it does too make a difference.  Faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life  . . . makes a great deal of difference."

The reason Rutledge hesitated to say this to her atheist friend is that it makes it sound like the only reason to believe in God is eternal life.  But the genius of the gospel, she says, is that faith in Jesus Christ includes not only the promise of eternal life some day, but also a radically transformed life right now.1  It’s not just that there’s life after death (as cool as that is), but that there’s life before death.  And I know I need that. 

Our worship series in Lent was about Unusual Healings

  • like the lame man in John 5, we don’t get the healing we deserve; we get the healing God so graciously bestows
  • like the blind man in John 9, God is healing all the time.  The only question is, will we see it as a gift or as a problem?
  • after reading about Lazarus in John 11, Ed Lewis asked us, "Can Jesus really raise the dead?"  Well, yeah!
  • and perhaps most unusual of all, after Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus gives Peter a chance to redeem himself. 

Healing is what Jesus does all the time—healing bodies, healing spirits, healing broken relationships.  And the resurrection—well that’s the ultimate healing.  Ultimate in the sense of last or final.  The great teacher of prayer, Richard Foster, says somewhere that every prayer for healing is answered, until the last one.  But see, the resurrection answers even that one.  Even when everything fails, even when death has come, God isn’t done yet.  The resurrection is the ultimate healing.

But the resurrection is also ultimate in the sense of healing what is hardest and most important to heal.  The resurrection not only restores Jesus to life, it heals the hopelessness of the disciples, it overcomes what can feel like the pointlessness of life, it changes the hardest of hearts, and opens up a way in life where there has been no way.  The resurrection is the ultimate healing. 

The church has always professed belief in the resurrection.  The Apostles’ Creed says, "I believe in the resurrection of the body."  I know, it’s unfashionable to believe that.  We’re too sophisticated, too spiritual, to believe in anything as crude as the resurrection of the body.  Well, so were the Corinthians.  Some of them mocked Paul, asking, "How can the dead be raised?  What kind of bodies would they have?"  But Paul has an answer:  "The dead," he says, "will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality."  In the Bible the resurrection is not escaping from the body, as many suggest; it is the ultimate healing of the body--its weakness, decay and mortality.

"Bodies matter to us," Fleming Rutledge insists.  "There is a sense in which we really cannot separate a person from [their] body."  She tells about a friend whose husband died of heart disease when they were still young.  When the funeral director came to take his body away, she was overwhelmed with grief and began to sob.  Someone tried to console her, "It’s only his body," they said.  "His soul has gone to heaven."  But the woman wept even more uncontrollably, saying, "But it’s his body I want!"2  Do you see why the resurrection of the body matters?  Even as it offers hope the future, it takes seriously the reality of death.

But the resurrection of the body also takes this earthly life seriously too.  When Jesus came back from the dead, he still had a body.  True, he seemed to be able to pass through walls and the disciples didn’t always recognize him.  But he walked with them, and talked with them, and even ate with them.  So much of Jesus’ ministry was about bodies—feeding the hungry, and touching lepers and holding children in his arms.  Jesus commanded us to love one another not so much mentally or even spiritually, but to get down on our knees and wash one another’s dusty feet.3  It doesn’t get much more bodily than that.  You can see why the resurrection of the body matters.  Even as it offers hope for the future, it affirms the goodness of this earthly life in all its fleshy glory.  The resurrection is not embarrassed about bodies, it’s not dismissive of the body; it is the ultimate healing of the body. 

The apostle Paul writes a lot of verses in 1 Corinthians 15 sorting out death and resurrection, perishable bodies and imperishable ones, mysteries and change.  It can all sound a bit arcane.  And you might get the idea that Paul’s main intention was to correct the Corinthians’ doctrine, to help them believe the right things about the resurrection.  And in a way, of course, it was.  As Fleming Rutledge learned, what we believe makes a great deal of difference.  But Paul’s ultimate point wasn’t doctrine; it was faith and life.  Paul wanted to correct not just the Corinthians’ thinking, but their living and their confidence in God.  The culmination of this chapter on the resurrection is not about the future, but about right now:  "Therefore, my beloved," Paul concludes, "be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." 

The point, Paul says, is for us to be steadfast, immovable.  Garrison Keillor says that "Easter is that time of year when Christians ask themselves two questions.  Do I really believe all this stuff?  And if so, why do I live the way I do?"4  If Christ is really raised from the dead, why am I so anxious and afraid?  If the resurrection is true, why am I not raised out of my grudges and anger and hardness of heart?  And if I believe all this stuff, why doesn’t joy fill my spirit and forgiveness flood my soul?  "Therefore," Paul says—the point of the resurrection is—"be steadfast, immovable."

Brian Blount is a seminary president who wrote a book on how to preach the resurrection.  It’s called Invasion of the Dead and it’s the only preaching book I know of that has whole chapters about zombies.  Seriously, look it up.  But for now I leave that up to your imagination.  The part I want to share with this Easter is this:  "Don’t just believe in resurrection" he says.  "Don’t just preach resurrection.  Live Resurrection!"    He’s saying pretty much the same thing Fleming Rutledge says and Garrison Keillor says—that the resurrection matters not some day but right now, in the faith and confidence and love with which I live my life.  In another place, Blount says, "Live resurrection in the present like you are certain resurrection is coming in the future."5  Because God can raise the dead, there’s no reason we can’t be steadfast, immovable.

Paul writes this whole chapter about the resurrection, ending with this powerful culmination:  Therefore, be steadfast, immovable.  And here’s the very next verse in 1 Corinthians.  We don’t often read these passages together because the next verse starts a new chapter.  But the chapters and verses were added centuries later—Paul just wrote one continuous letter.  And the very next verse says this:  "Now concerning the collection for the saints . . ."  Now I’m not fishing for money here on Easter Sunday.  I’m just saying that belief in the resurrection is directly connected to our generosity.  Belief in the resurrection is connected to our ability to forgive.  Belief in the resurrection is connected to our faith and hope and love.  God can raise the dead for heaven’s sake—why not be steadfast, immovable. 

My teacher, Fred Craddock, learned that in the Bible when you give your life to Jesus, you’re raised from the dead, you’re different.  "That’s what was puzzling me," he says, when I gave my life to Jesus just a couple of weeks shy of my fourteenth birthday.  "As I walked home from church that day," he says, I was thinking about that.  I mean, when you’ve been raised from the dead, you don’t look the same, sound the same, talk the same, do the same.  But what do you do?  How do you talk?  What is your life like now?

He says, "I went to school Monday morning thinking, Is anybody going to notice that I’ve been raised from the dead?  Should I dress up a little?  Do I use different words?  Do I throw in a verse of scripture now and then?  How do I treat people in the lunch line?  Are they going to say, "Well, looks like Fred’s been raised from the dead."6

He tells it as a humorous, adolescent story.  But in a way it’s not funny at all, and there’s nothing really adolescent about it.  Belief in Jesus Christ and the resurrection make a great deal of difference.  And the resurrection includes not only the promise of eternal life some day, but a radically transformed life right now.  Here’s what I want to say to 13, amost 14 year-old Fred, and by extension to you this morning:  This is how people will know that you’ve been raised from the dead—because you are steadfast, immovable.  That is the ultimate healing. 

1 Fleming Rutledge, "Faith Overcomes the World," The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 157-58.

2 Fleming Rutledge, "Hear! See! Touch!" The Bible and the New York Times, 145.

3 See Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Holy Spirit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 18.

4 Quoted by Shawnthea Monroe, "John 20:19-31," Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 16, 2016), 23.

5 Brian K. Blount, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2014), 76-77

6 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 92-93.


Isaiah 53

Redemptive Suffering:  By His Bruises We Are Healed

March 20, 2016  Palm Sunday Maple Grove UMC

People ask, especially during Holy Week:  Why did Jesus have to die?  And if you ask the question that way, you often wind up with an answer that sounds like this:  Because humans sinned, and because there has to be a price for sin, and because we humans can’t pay that price ourselves, therefore God’s Son had to die to pay the price for us.  That’s become the standard answer to the question, "Why did Jesus have to die?"  Admittedly, there’s a kind of logic to it.  But that was not the way early Christians asked the question.  They didn’t start with a philosophical question about what had to happen.  They started with a fact—the fact that Jesus, the one they’d called Lord and Messiah . . . the fact that Jesus, the one they loved . . . was dead.  And their question was:  How are we going to make sense of that?  How can we go one and find something good in the suffering of Jesus?

To wrestle with those questions, the early church turned to Isaiah 53, which we just read together.  That scripture was written centuries earlier, but it reminded them of Jesus.  And you can see why.  It says, "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering" and again, "He was despised and afflicted, but did not open his mouth."  They did not have to try to answer their questions from scratch.  In Isaiah 53 they had a difficult, yet deep and rich resource to draw from.  Walter Brueggemann has said that Isaiah 53 is one of the most important intellectual breakthroughs in the history of the world.  Isaiah dares to say that people can be healed by the suffering of others.  Isaiah’s good news to the exiles of his day is that God can use the suffering of one person, or a group of people, to create newness for all people.1  "By his wounds," Isaiah says, "we are healed."  And the good news the early Christians found is that God can use the suffering of Jesus to create newness, to bring forgiveness, to heal the power of sin and death for all people.  Talk about unusual healings! 

Before we explore this redemptive suffering of Jesus, I want to point out that this idea of one person suffering for the good of others may not  be as unusual as you think.  In Exodus 32 Moses pleads with God to forgive his people, and if you won’t, Moses tells God, take my name out of your book as well.  Moses is willing to suffer a terrible consequence with and for his people.  Mother Teresa took on the suffering of the dying poor in Calcutta and carried them in her heart.  Gandhi was imprisoned many times and undertook long hunger strikes to free his people from oppression.  And bringing it closer to home, what parent would not willingly bear any suffering in order to protect their child from harm?  I don’t mean these are exactly the same as what Isaiah describes or what Jesus did, but you see that people can, in fact, be healed by the suffering of others. 

One problem with asking the question this way--"Why did Jesus have to die?"--is that it backs God into a corner.  It takes something Jesus did out of amazing love and something God did out of amazing creativity and turns it into a matter of duty and fate.  So many answers to the question, "Why did Jesus have to die?" make God sound cruel and demanding and full of wrath, and if we know anything about God, it’s that God is love.  And so many answers to that question turn Jesus into little more than a victim of sacrifice.  And if we know anything about Jesus, it’s that he was no victim.

Jesus didn’t die because otherwise God couldn’t forgive us—God can forgive anyone God wants to forgive.  Jesus died because he relentlessly sought justice and stood up for the poor and marginalized, and he was willing to pay the price for that.2  And in Isaiah 53 the servant did not suffer instead of his people—everyone suffers—he suffered with and for the healing of his people.3

"By his wounds we are healed," says Isaiah.  And just as Isaiah discovered that God was present with them in the suffering of exile, so the early Christians discovered that God was with them in the suffering of Jesus on the cross.  Beyond our understanding, this was the costly way God chose to heal the world.  What the early Christians saw when they turned to Isaiah 53 was not some angry God demanding punishment, but a new understanding of God’s power.  Paul Hanson points out that the servant in Isaiah 53 does not accomplish God’s purpose through violence or force, but through gentleness.4  And in the same way, Jesus does not win our salvation through violence or force—he did not come with harsh words and guns blazing; he won our salvation through the costly path of nonviolence, by bearing our burdens and crying our tears.

Why did Jesus have to die?  Well, I don’t know that he had to die.  But since he did, how can we make sense of that? How can we find meaning in the death of Jesus?  With the early Christians, let’s turn to Isaiah and his astonishing idea that people can be healed by the suffering of others.

Isaiah’s poetry, Brueggemann suggests, can’t be reduced to a rational formula, to what theologians call a "theory of the atonement."6  It works more at the level of the heart than the head.  We are not told how one person’s guilt and pain can be borne by another.  We don’t learn how the suffering of one makes healing possible for another.  We are only told that it is so—that by his wounds we are healed.  It is certainly important to think about that, to ponder how it is so.  But it is even more important just to let it be, to accept the costly healing Christ offers, and to respond with gratitude and awe.  By his wounds we are healed—that is the redemptive suffering of Christ. 

1 Walter Brueggemann, Disciple: Becoming Disciples Through Bible Study, video for session 12. 

2 See Daniel Berrigan, Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 154-55.

3 See Daniel P. Bailey, "The Suffering Servant: Recent Tübingen Scholarship on Isaiah 53," Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins, ed. William H. Bellinger and William R. Farmer (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 240-41.

4 Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation (Louisville : John Knox Press, 1995), 165-66.

6 Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville : Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 145-46.


John 21:15-19

Healing Is a Chance to Redeem Yourself

March 6, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Since our worship series is called Unusual Healings, you might be wondering: where was the healing in that gospel story?  Peter isn’t lame like the man in chapter 5, or blind like the man in chapter 9, or dead like Lazarus.  What’s Peter need to be healed of?  Lots of things.  But at this moment, Peter needs above all to be healed of denying Jesus--not once, not twice, but three times.  Peter, who earlier had claimed that he would lay down his life for Jesus, now won’t even admit to knowing Jesus.  That’s what Peter needs to be healed of. 

In a word, Peter needs to be healed of his failure.  And I wonder—have you ever failed?  Or what may amount to the same thing, have you ever felt like a failure?  As a Christian, as a student, as a friend, as an employee, as a parent or son or daughter—have you ever felt like a failure?  I don’t know what it’s like in your profession, but here’s some statistics about mine:  1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to burnout or contention in their churches, and for every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.1  Failure is an occupational hazard.

Have you ever failed, or felt like a failure?  If so, you stand with Peter in the ranks of the people Jesus loved most.  If so, you have tasted what James Fowler has called "the sacrament of defeat."2  If you have ever failed, you are in need of the kind of healing Jesus offers in the gospel today.  Let’s call it redemption. 

In these Unusual Healing stories from John, Jesus never simply announces that someone is well.  Rather in each of the stories, Jesus expects the person being healed to participate in their healing.  The lame man has to get up, pick up his mat, and walk.  The blind man must go to the pool of Siloam and wash the mud off his eyes.  And Lazarus has to obey Jesus and come out of the tomb.  And in today’s story, Jesus doesn’t just say, "Oh Peter, I know you denied me, but don’t worry about it."  He doesn’t even say, "Peter, I forgive you."  What Jesus does is give Peter a chance to participate in his own healing; Jesus gives Peter a chance to redeem himself.

"Simon, son of John," Jesus asked, "do you love me more than these?"

"Yes, Lord," Peter replied, "you know that I love you."

"Feed my lambs," Jesus said.  Again Jesus asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

And again Peter replied, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

"Tend my sheep," Jesus said.  The third time, Jesus asked, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

"Lord," Peter complained, "you know everything; you know that I love you."

"Feed my sheep."

For every time Peter had denied him, Jesus gives him a chance to say, "Lord, I love you."  And each time Peter states his love, Jesus is repairing the holes in Peter’s broken spirit.  Love is a necessary part of healing.  But as important as love is in Peter’s redemption, Jesus knows that feeling love isn’t all it takes.  Peter doesn’t just need to be granted healing, he needs to participate in his healing.  He doesn’t just need to be given redemption, he needs a chance to redeem himself. 

In the book about forgiveness that we studied last Lent, Desmond Tutu says that "[a] big part of asking for forgiveness is making amends," doing something about it 3 AA knows this too.  Step 8 says, "Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all."  We need more than forgiveness; we need a chance to redeem ourselves.

My first semester in seminary other students and I served as chaplain interns at a hospital.  Early in my time there, a nurse asked me to visit a woman about to die from cirrhosis.  I spent about an hour with her in pleasant conversation, and I felt pretty good about myself.  Later I reported to my share group about that visit and the leader asked me, "Did you talk to her about dying?" 

"No," I said, "it didn’t come up."

"Well," he, "it sounds like she gave you several clues that she wanted to talk about dying.  Why didn’t you?"

I thought about that.  "Afraid," I said.  And suddenly I realized that my visit had missed the mark.  I experienced that "sacrament of defeat."  Now the leader could have said, "Well, that’s all right, Glenn.  Get ‘em next time."  Or he could have had me write a reflection paper about my fear of death.  But here’s what he did:  He said, "My pager tells me that she’s still alive.  Why don’t you go back to her room right now and ask if there’s anything else, anything maybe harder or deeper she might want to talk about."  I went.  And she did want to talk—about her own fear that was mixed with gratitude, about her regrets and how she hoped God still loved her.  She wept, and I wept, and she prayed for what she said was the first time in years.  In the spirit of Jesus, that teacher gave me a chance to redeem myself.

For a while my father had an old pickup that he parked on the grass behind our shed.  And when I mowed the lawn, I always asked him to move the pickup so I could mow underneath it.  But one time—after all, I was learning to drive at the time—I decided to move that pickup myself.  I wasn’t used to driving a stick shift, though, and so focused was I on the clutch and giving it just the right amount of gas, that I didn’t pay attention to where I was backing, and I ran over one of the wheels of the lawn mower.  I had to go tell my dad what I’d done.  My dad took it to the shop and straightened the axle—never said a word.  The wheel worked okay, but was still a little wobbly—enough to remind me of my failure, of that "sacrament of defeat." 

The next time I mowed, I went in and asked my dad to move the pickup.  He started to get up, then reached in his pocket and tossed me the keys.  Never said a word.  He didn’t need to.  I knew what he was doing.  In the spirit of Jesus, he was giving me a chance to redeem myself.

And here’s how Jesus does that:  every time Peter declares his love, Jesus gives him something to do—Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep.  In having a purpose in life again, in getting to do something important and meaningful for Jesus, whom he had let down, Peter was more than forgiven, he was redeemed.

Here’s what I want you to take home with you today:  not that you have to earn God’s love and forgiveness, but that to be well requires that you participate in your own healing.  And that the chance to redeem yourself is always at hand—to feed Christ’s sheep, to reach out to your neighbors with food, and caring, and friendship.  In having a mission in life, in getting to do something important and meaningful for others, you can be more than forgiven, you are redeemed. 

Ever since Maple Grove served a meal last October for homeless folks at Broad Street UMC, I’ve been hearing from people that they’d like to do more of that—maybe serve a meal at Broad Street again, or at CRC, or maybe right here at Maple Grove.  People are hearing Christ’s call to feed his sheep.  I want to give you an opportunity today to express your interest in Maple Grove preparing a meal on a regular basis and eating with hungry neighbors.  There are easels with large sheets of paper—one here in the sanctuary and another in the lobby.  If you put your name and contact info on one of the sheets, someone will get back to you.  Putting your name there doesn’t commit you to anything, and I’m not ready to commit to any particular kind of meal.  But I’m hearing the call to feed Christ’s sheep, and I know how wonderful it is to do something important and meaningful for others.  To feed Christ’s sheep is a chance to be not just forgiven, but redeemed. 

1 J.R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 46

2 See Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 143.

3 Desmond Tut and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 186-87.


John 9

Healing as Gift and Problem

February 21, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

This story of Jesus healing the blind man and last week’s healing story both have surprising things in them

  • Last week in John 5 Jesus asks the man, "Do you want to be made well?" And we’d expect the man to shout out, "Yes, yes, that’s what I want."  But you’ll remember, that’s not what he said.  He said, in effect, "Yes, but . . . ."  He was ambivalent.  Part of him wanted to get well, and part of him preferred to stay sick.  Surprised?
  • Here in John 9 Jesus makes a blind man see.  And we’d expect everyone to rejoice with him.  You’d think there would be alleluias and high fives all around.  But there’s not.  In response to his healing, this man’s family, his neighbors and the religious leaders respond only with suspicion, anger and fear.  Surprised?

It turns out that in the Bible, and in our world today, healing is not only a gift, but also a problem. 

First, how healing—and in particular, how receiving sight—is a gift.  John never says that this man had faith in Jesus and that’s why he was healed.  The truth is, this man had no idea who Jesus was.  And the man never even asked to be able to see.  The healing is all gift; it’s grace and only grace.  Remember, the message of the gospel is that we don’t get the healing we deserve; we get the healing that God so graciously bestows. 

One of the gifts in this story is how Jesus challenges the connection people make between sin and our sickness and suffering.  Right off the bat the disciples ask Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born bind?"  In other words, when they encounter someone with a condition of some kind, their first thought was not to help the person or love the person, but to figure out whose fault the condition is.  And throughout the story, the religious leaders continue to assume the man was blind because was, in their words, "born in sin."  This may seem like archaic thinking to you, but Maple Grove member Nancy Foulger, who is a nurse, says that people in the hospital think this way all the time.  They ask, "What did I do that made this happen?  Why is God angry with me?"  Apparently it’s not as archaic as we might think. 

But Jesus will have none of that way of thinking.  He says that what caused the blindness doesn’t matter; what matters is what he’s going to do about it.  And surely that’s almost always true.  What causes our sickness or suffering doesn’t matter nearly as much as what we’re going to do about it--or better yet, what we let God do about it.  What a gift it is not to have to be blind and feel responsible for our blindness, what a gift not to have to a heart condition and blame yourself for it, what a gift not to have to have an addiction and have to feel guilty about it.  What a gift it is to ask instead, "So, what can I do about it?"  Or better yet, "What will I let God do about it?"

You might think that what gets healed in this story is the man’s eyes.  Well, yes, but that’s not the main thing.  In the Unusual Healings study, Adam Thomas suggests that in that culture this man was probably pigeon-holed all his life as "the blind man."  That’s all anyone allowed him to be—"the blind man"--so that over time his entire identity got wrapped up in his blindness.  But Jesus heals him of that notion.  The man was, Thomas says, a whole person when he was blind, but in Jesus he knows he’s a whole person and gradually he gains the confidence to let other people know he’s a whole person.2

Maybe you too have your identity wrapped around something in your life.  Maybe you’re always "the shy one," or "the angry one."  Maybe you’re "drop-out" in the family or "the poor widow," "the black sheep" or "the goody two-shoes."  Well, maybe you are, and maybe you need to be healed of some things.  But meantime, in Jesus you’re already a whole person.  What a gift it is to know that.  And what a gift to know that I may not be perfect, but in Jesus, by God, I am a whole person.

In this story, the man’s physical eyes are healed.  But more than that, he comes to see who Jesus is, and who he is himself.  When the religious leaders keep pressuring the man about whether Jesus is a sinner or a prophet and exactly how is sight was restored, the man finally says, "Look, I don’t know any of that.  All I know is one thing:  I was blind but now I see." 

The one thing I know, one woman said, is when I was going through my divorce, I hurt so much I couldn’t sleep or eat, and I was so filled with hate I couldn’t think, but somehow I got through it, and I’ve come to see that the way I got through it was Jesus.3  One thing I know, someone said to me this week, is that even though my grandma is dying, she’s going to be with God and we’ll be together in heaven some day.  What a gift it is to be able to see not everything, but the one thing that really matters.

Being healed, being able to see, is a gift.

  But unfortunately in the Bible, and in our world today, not everyone sees it that way.  You’ll notice that not one person in this whole story rejoices with this man.  No one pats him on the back. No one throws a party.  No one even sends him a card.  I wonder why that is?

Most blatantly, the religious leaders object because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath.  And on the Sabbath they were to do no work, not even healing unless it was an emergency.  And this man had been blind all his life, he wasn’t even asking to see—surely Jesus could have waited till the next day.  And where did those rules come from?  Well, from the Bible, of course.  But Jesus didn’t believe that the rules in the Bible were put there to hinder us from healing or loving or doing justice.  But the Pharisees were not the last ones to use the rules in the Bible to try to hinder people from healing and loving and doing justice.  Not everyone is happy with breaking the rules, even when it’s for healing or loving or justice.

Why is it that no one rejoices that the man can see?  I suspect, in part, it comes down to that old truth that change—even good change—is hard.  After he could see, this man’s neighbors all of a sudden couldn’t even recognize him.  Some of them said, "Yeah, I think it’s him."  And others said, "I don’t know—could be someone who looks like him."  What’s going on?  It’s not like the man grew a beard or put on a wig.  He could see—that doesn’t change his appearance.  But something had changed, and it threw them for a loop.  John Stone wrote a short poem called, "Tree":

I was used to you

and your countable


What is this sudden

bursting into leaves?4

Change—even good change—is hard to adjust to.

Family systems theory has a concept called homeostasis.  Homeostasis means that every family, every organization, has a tendency to maintain its status quo and that every person in the system plays a role in maintaining that status quo.  It doesn’t mean the system is healthy, only that it functions that way and tends to keep on functioning that way.  One of the problems with homeostasis is that when someone who has been unwell starts to get better, it upsets the whole system.  The family has found a way to function with that person being sick; it doesn’t know how to function with that person being well.  And so the system—mostly unconsciously—tries to keep that person sick.  It’s their role in the system.  And you can probably begin to see why change is hard, and why not everyone is happy when someone is healed. 

There are all sorts of ways that we see problems instead of gifts, even in the church.  Richard Lischer writes that in his church one of the pillars of the congregation stopped to tell him he’d been "born again." 

"You’ve been what?" Lischer asked.

"Yes," the man said, "last week I visited my brother-in-law’s church, the Running River of Life Tabernacle, and I don’t know what it was, but something happened and I’m born again.

"You can’t be born again," Lischer said, "you’re a Lutheran.  And you’re the chairman of the board of trustees."  Not everyone rejoices when God changes lives.

In her novel Revelation, Peggy Payne tells of a Presbyterian minister who has a vision, a revelation from God.  One afternoon while grilling steaks in the backyard, he hears the voice of God speaking to him.  It changes his life.  And the rest of the story tells the price he pays for that revelation.  Do the leaders of his congregation rejoice with him?  No, they send him for psychiatric evaluation and put him on administrative leave.5  Not everyone rejoices when God changes lives.

There are all sorts of ways that we see problems instead of gifts, even in the church. 

  • A pastor from a more conservative denomination recently told me about the irate mom who stormed into his office saying, "I can’t believe you’re letting that woman teach my child’s Sunday school class!  Didn’t you know, Pastor, that she’s divorced?"

"Yes," he replied, "I knew.  But isn’t she loving the children?  Isn’t she teaching them about Jesus and how to pray?" 

"That’s not the point," the woman shouted.  "Don’t you know what the Bible says about divorce? 

  • And somewhere else a woman new to her church started an after-school children’s program.  The kids sang songs, they learned Bible stories, they had a nutritious snack.  A whole crowd of kids started coming every afternoon.  But then church members started grumbling, "Did you take this program through the Education Committee?  Did the Administrative Council vote to approve it?  Rules are rules," someone told her.  And she got discouraged and quit. 

Here’s what I believe:  God is healing all the time.  All the time God is giving sight to blind eyes.  All the time God is giving new life.  In fact, as Adam Thomas puts it, "Each one of us is being healed.  Right here.  Right now."6  That part is up to God.

The only question is this:  With all this healing going on, will we see it as a gift . . . or a problem?  That part, well that is up to us.

1 See Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2012), 563.

2 See Adam Thomas, Unusual Healings: Leader Guide, Unusual Gospel for Unusual People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 28-29.

3 Richard Lischer, "Acknowledgment," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (March 3, 1999), 245.

4 John Stone, "Tree," The Smell of Matches (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1972), 50.

5 Lischer, 245.

6 Adam Thomas, Unusual Healings: Personal Reflection Guide , Unusual Gospel for Unusual People (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 8.


John 5:2-15

You Have Been Made Well

February 14, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

Yes, but . . .  Essentially that’s what the sick man said when Jesus asked if he wanted to be made well.  Yes, but . . . 

I’ve heard that answer myself.  "Are you ready for surgery?" I ask people.  Yes . . . but.

I once asked a couple during pre-marital counseling, "Do you want to get married?"  I wasn’t sure.  "Yes . . ." she said. "But," he said.

I might ask you, "Do you like coming to church?"  And if you were honest, you might say, "Well yes, but . . ."

There was a man who had been sick for 38 years.  And every day for 38 years he would make his way to a certain pool.  The legend was that whenever the water in that pool would stir, the first one in would be healed.  I don’t know if that was really true, but every day people came—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  So let’s see--every day for 38 years would be

13,870 times.  That’s how many times this man had come to the pool.

One day Jesus came and saw the man lying there and asked, straight out, "Do you want to be made well?"  You’d think the man would immediately shout, "Yes, yes, of course I want to be made well!"  But that’s not what the man said.  He said, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I’m making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."  What he says, in other words, is:  Yes, I want to be well.  But I have these very good reasons why I’m not." 

I wonder, why is this man so unsure about wanting to be made well?  Why is he ambivalent about being healed?  After all, he knows—we all know—that there’s a high cost to staying sick.  If picking up his mat and being healed leads to life, then staying on his mat must lead to a kind of death.  When we resist the goodness God wants to give us, we grow listless, bitter, hopeless.  Staying on the mat, not consenting to be healed, forces us to deny our dreams and the longings that only a well self can fulfill.  Yes, there is a cost to not saying "yes" to being made well.

So why didn’t the man just say "yes"?  Why don’t we all?  Well, because there is also a cost to saying "yes."1  To be healed would change the man’s life, and change—even good change—is hard and scary.  When you let God take hold of your life, you relinquish control of your life.  If the man became well, he’d suddenly have responsibilities, his excuse to lie on his mat all day would be gone.  After all, he must have thought--I’m used to this mat, I’m used to people’s pity and scorn, I’m used to feeling sorry for myself.  It’s what I know.  Can I really risk getting well?

Jesus asked, "Do you want to be made well?"  And the answer isn’t as simple as it seems.  Yes, but . . .  he answers.  I get it.

If you read the commentaries, this man is characterized in a wide variety of ways.  Some people think the man is a victim—a victim of religious leaders who leave people unwell to keep them coming back, or a victim of people pushing ahead of him to get to the pool.  Others think he’s just a whiner who won’t help himself.  Some people think he’s just lazy, while others think that all he needed was one good friend.  It’s always hard, isn’t it, to know when to pat somebody on the head and say, "There, there," and when to tell them pick up their stinking mat and walk?  When is someone’s suffering is their own fault and when is it just something that happened to them?

And this story has an answer to those questions.  The answer is:  it doesn’t matter.  Jesus never asked why the man had been sick.  And the man doesn’t somehow have to earn his healing.  John never says the man had faith and that’s why he was healed.  In fact, even though Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well, the man never even asks to be healed.  This healing is all grace, all the way down.  Jesus doesn’t heal him because of anything the man does or fails to do; Jesus heals him because he can, because the man needs it, because Jesus’ mission is to give abundant life.  The message of the gospel is that we don’t get the healing we deserve; we get the healing God so graciously bestows. 

That’s one message of this gospel story.  Here’s another:  the time to be well is now.2  After 38 years of being ill, after 38 years of lying helplessly on his mat, when Jesus comes this man’s waiting is over.  There is no waiting for the water to be stirred.  There is no waiting to be first in line.  There is no waiting for the Sabbath to be over, as the religious leaders insisted.  The man is talking about obstacles to wellbeing, about why healing hasn’t happened yet; Jesus is talking about how it’s already happened.  The time to be well is now.  Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.

Now, we need to be careful with this.  Often our healing is not quite so complete nor so sudden as it was for this man.  It’s easy to grow impatient with people who remain unwell for a long time.  We think, and sometimes we may even say, things like, "Why don’t you just stop drinking?" or "Why don’t you watch your diet better?" or "Why don’t you just get out of that abusive relationship?"  And the person probably thinks, "Gee, I never thought of that.  I’ll do that tomorrow."  But might there be a way, gently and positively, to let people know that we don’t get the healing we deserve, we get the blessings God so graciously bestows, and that the time to be well is not some day, it’s now.

Being well also does not always mean being cured, or getting everything we want.  Gerrit Dawson, a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, tells how when his kids were little, he was so busy, rushing from meeting to meeting, always being called to the hospital or some emergency.3  One week he got down in the back and today’s scripture happened to be his daily devotions.  So he prayed and expected to be made well, to be able to get up and walk.  But that didn’t happen.  And he worried about all the things he wasn’t getting done.  But during those days that Gerrit was down in the back, his children noticed that he wasn’t able to run around the way he usually did.  They could find him any time they wanted him.  He would sit still and read to them or talk with them for hours on end.  And they were delighted.  He realized that God had given him the healing he needed most, that at least for a time, being well did not mean his back getting better.  Being well meant spending precious time with his children.  Of course, whether to accept that gift of precious time or fritter it away worrying about other things—that was up to him. 

The person I have known who understood this most deeply was Bill Croy.  You will remember that once he received that diagnosis of ALS, Bill did not ask people to pray for him to be cured.  And so far as I know, no one with ALS has ever been cured.  But Bill did ask people to pray for him to receive the miracles of faith and inner strength, that he might be at peace and bear witness to the power of love.  And even though after a time Bill never physically walked again, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, he was well every day.   And he knew it, and we got to know it too.

The way John tells the story, Jesus told the man to get up, pick up his mat and walk.  And he did.  He walked away without even finding out who had healed him.  Then later, after the religious leaders had fussed about him healing on the Sabbath, Jesus found the man again, and repeated, "You have been made well!"  The commentaries debate about why there was the second meeting between Jesus and the man, why Jesus told him to be well and then told him again that he had been made well.  But I think I know: there is something inside us that wants to be made well, a part of us that cries out "Yes!" when Jesus asks, "Do you want to be made well."  But there is also something inside us that doesn’t want to be made well, a part that is scared and resistant to change.  We forget what Jesus can do, we get focused on the obstacles and problems, we think of all the reasons why we’re not well.  So Jesus comes back and reminds us:  "See," he says, "you have been made well. . .   Don’t forget," he says, "you are well."

Here is the message of the gospel:  we do not get the healing we deserve; we get the healing God so graciously bestows.  And the time to be well is now.  So let Jesus say his words to you:  My friends, you have been made well.  Oh, I don’t know if your disease will be cured today.  I don’t know if your back will feel better tomorrow.  What I do know is that there is this deep well of wellness at the heart of your life, and you can claim it any time you choose to.  So whenever you’re tempted to give up or to feel sorry for yourself, hear what Jesus says:  You have been made well.  And whenever you get focused on the obstacles and problems, hear what Jesus says to you:  You have been made well.  Whenever the old life, the old fear, that old helplessness calls out to you, claim the words that Jesus says:  You have been made well.4

So to make a good beginning of Lent, will you repeat after me?

I have been made well.

I have been made well.

By the love of Jesus Christ,

I have been made well.


1 The cost of saying "Yes" and "No’ is borrowed from Esther Armstrong and Dale Stitt, "Do You Want to Be Healed," Journey to Freedom (28th Edition, June 2001), 3.

2 See Mary Hinkle Shore, "Poolside Healing," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (May 1, 2007), 20.

3 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Writing on the Heart: Inviting Scripture to Shape Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1995), 35.

4 See Dawson, 34.


Acts 3:1-10 / Luke 19:1-10

TRANSFORM:  Life-Changing Relationships

January 31, 2016 Maple Grove UMC

The mission of Maple Grove is first to be an open community of Christians.  And we are!  The vision, then, where we want to go with that mission, is to be invitational.  How will anyone know we’re an open community unless we say to them the three magic words:  Come and See?

  The mission continues:  we are an open community of Christians who love God.  And we do!  But we don’t want the best years of our faith to be five or ten or fifty years ago.  The vision is to grow, for all of us to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.

And the mission statement concludes: we are an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors.  And we do!  We have over 75 ministry teams and more than 1000 individual service commitments for 2016.  The vision, then, where we’re going with that mission, is to transform, to ensure that both our own lives and the lives of the people we serve are changed.  And that happens through relationships. 

In Acts 3 a lame man asks Peter and John for a handout.  They don’t give him that.  But what they do instead is to look at him intently—that is, they take time to see him as a human being with feelings and strengths as well as needs.  They touch him and share with him the healing love of God.  Giving money is important.  But seeing and touching and loving—these transform.

Zacchaeus, a tax collector who had become rich by cheating people and collaborating with the enemy, climbed a tree to see Jesus.  There are so many ways Jesus could have responded to Zacchaeus.  He could have judged and criticized him.  He could have shouted a message of forgiveness from afar.  Instead, Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ home; he spent time with him.  And Zacchaeus’ life was changed forever.  Relationships transform.

Thom Stevenson, who sings in our choir and leads our Reconciling Ministries Team, had a vision for a nonprofit called Chefvet, a workforce development program for disabled veterans.  For two years he’d been worried and stressed about finding the right building for his program.  Then last August he took some food from Feed the World Sunday to Faith on 8th homeless shelter.  And he was greeted there by a homeless veteran in a wheelchair.  And suddenly Thom felt, "This man’s waiting on us to care about him, to see him as a human being."  We focus so much on needs and obstacles that we lose sight of the faces of the people in front of us.  Now Chefvet is piloting its first group of vets through culinary training and social supports, and it is based at . . . Faith on 8th.  Buildings and funding and business plans matter, but relationships transform.

Bob Hirst has faithfully led Maple Grove’s usher teams for years.  The offering always gets collected.  Bulletins always get handed out.  Anything we ask for is meticulously cared for.  Bob does all that.  But that’s not the main thing Bob does.  The main thing Bob does is connect people with each other.  These usher teams stay together for years.  Team members check on each other when someone’s not here, they pray for each other, they solve life problems together.  What Bob demonstrates is that details matter, but relationships transform. 

The enduring mission of our church is to serve our neighbors.  And we do!  The vision, where we’re going with that mission, is to transform, for both our own lives and the lives of the people we serve to be changed.  And that happens through relationships.  That’s the vision. 


Philippians 3:10-13, 4:8-9

GROW:  This One Thing I Do

January 24, 2016

William Sloane Coffin, who was chaplain at Yale, "used to look around impatiently at the alumni returning for class reunions and mutter . . . ‘They look back on their student days and say, ‘Ah, bright college years!  Those were the best days of our lives.’  The trouble," Coffin concluded, "is they’re right."1  Coffin’s point, I think, is not that our teens and twenties, howver we spend them, shouldn’t be exciting and memorable.  His point is that throughout our years life should continue to grow richer and deeper and ever more precious. 

So it is with our love of God.  We talked last Sunday about our church’s mission and vision.  The enduring mission of Maple Grove is first to be an open community of Christians.  And we are!  We are friendly, tolerant, welcoming.  The next step, then, where we’re going with that mission, is to be invitational—to cultivate a culture of invitation to Christian community.  How will people know we’re an open community unless we say the magic words:  Come and see.

The mission statement goes on:  we are an open community of Christians who love God.  And again, we do.  And where we want to go with that mission, the next step is to grow.  We don’t want the best years of our faith to be five or ten or fifty years ago.  The vision is for all of us to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.

And so today we turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he says of his relationship with God:  "Not that I have already . . . reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own."  He goes on to write, "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."  Our love for God is never static and never exhausted, but there is always more, and more, and more of God to love.  We press on toward the goal.

Which means that we are forever leaving behind where we’ve been and who we’ve been, for the next step in our love of God.  In his commentary on Philippians, Fred Craddock points out Paul’s testimony in chapter 4 is not the standard one about "my life was worthless and I was wallowing in sin, but then I found Jesus and now I’ve seen the light."  What Paul says is more like, "My relationship with God was deep and meaningful, but I left all that behind, and now through Christ my love for God is deeper and more meaningful still."2  It’s easy to grow complacent in the spiritual life, to get stuck in a rut, to be content with the faith of our childhood (or our 20s . . . or our 70s).  But the vision is to grow, ever and always to fall deeper and deeper in love with God.

Now this spiritual growth takes place in lots of ways and lots of places—in your reading and personal devotions, through music and the arts, in counseling and friendships.  All of life is filled with the glory of God.  But it only makes sense that the church would be all about helping people grow in love of God.  In fact, one of the most influential church leadership books of recent years says that what a church is is a "straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth."3  Now I would want to say that a church is more than that—the church is also a center for feeding the hungry and comforting the grieving, the church is an outpost of social justice.  But if the church is not a "straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth," what is it? 

We have many of the components of such a process here at Maple Grove: 

  • A Disciple’s Path for new members, which focuses on prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
  • Covenant Bible Study to get people acquainted with the Word
  • Strengths Finder to identify what you’re good at and what your passio is
  • The Wellbeing book study to help put God’s love at the center of every aspect of your life.
  • And Wellbeing "Connection Groups" for support in specific areas of life
  • Church-wide Lenten studies, including Unusual Healings starting next month, so we all grow together
  • We Spy God to keep your eyes open for where God is at work around you.
  • And I could go on and on.

So many of the components of a spiritual growth process are in place.  What we want to do now is to make these components more strategic.  How can you know where to get started growing spiritually?  When you’ve finished one class or experience, what’s next?  What are the opportunities beyond Maple Grove to spread your wings?  I want to line things up in a way that helps everyone grow from you are to the next place spiritually--as Paul put it: "to press on toward the goal."

I want to share with you today three insights about spiritual growth from Philippians 3 and 4. 

      1. According to Paul, spiritual growth is about both thinking and doing, it’s both cognitive and behavioral.  Here’s how Paul puts it:  "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." That’s the cognitive part. 

What you think about is what you’ll become; what you’re looking for is what you’ll tend to find.  There’s no surer way to be bitter and unforgiving than to think bitter thoughts and nurse a grudge.  And there’s no surer way to be kinder and calmer than to surround yourself with positive people and envision peace.  It’s the power of positive thinking—not that positive thinking always changes your circumstances.  But positive thinking changes who you are in the midst of those circumstances. 

But spiritual growth is about more than thinking—it’s also about doing.  Paul writes:  "Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."  Find someone whose faith you respect, and do what they do.  If they volunteer at a food pantry, then you find a way to serve the poor.  If they do devotions and prayer every morning, you find a daily spiritual practice.  If they take a deep breath and stay calm in stressful situations, you take a deep breath and stay calm.  One way to be more spiritually mature is to act more spiritually mature.

So that’s one thing:  spiritual growth is about both thinking and doing.

      1. Consider the role of suffering in spiritual growth.  Paul writes:  "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings . . ."   It is out of sorrow and crisis that we are strengthened.  I don’t mean that God sends or causes suffering, only that suffering forces us to rely on deeper resources.  I talked with someone recently who was going through an almost unimaginably difficult experience.  But she told me, "I thought I was just broken, but it turns out I’ve been broken open."  That’s what I’m talking about.

There are at least a couple reasons why crises can be occasions for learning to love God more.  One is that crises force us to reevaluate what we believe.  When a loved one dies, when we struggle with depression, when prayers seem to go unanswered, we look at our beliefs and ask, "Do these still work for me?"  What works in our 20s may not work in our 50s, and our 80s may require a whole new perspective.  Suffering causes us to let go of ideas that no longer help us and find deeper truths.

But crises work on more than our ideas; they also work on our trust of God.  Sometimes it’s not until we simply have to that we give things to God, that we place ourselves and our loved ones in God’s hands.  One writer said that in a crisis, "you may feel, at least at first, that you are losing control of your life.  To that [he says], ‘Good for you.’"4  The more you learn to let God love you, the more God can love you.

    1. Finally, according to Paul spiritual growth is about focus, knowing what’s most important.  He says, "this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead."  This one thing I do.  You go deeper with God not by doing more things, but by doing one thing, the thing God has for you. 

In the movie City Slickers, Jack Palance plays a wise old cowboy on a dude ranch where city guys, like Billy Crystal, come to deal with their mid-life crises.  Palance says, "You all come out here about the same age.  Same problems.  Spend fifty weeks a year getting knots in your rope then . . . then you think two weeks up here will untie them for you.  None of you get it.  (Long pause.)  Do you know what the secret of life is?

Billy Crystal says, "No, what?"

"This," Palance says, holding up his finger.

"Your finger?"

"One thing.  Just one thing," Palace says.  "You stick to that and everything else don’t mean [nothing]."

Billy Crystal says, "That’s great, but what’s the one thing?"

"That," Palance says, "is what you’ve got to figure out."5

So what’s you one thing, my friends?  Above all else, what is God calling you to do and to be?  What will bring you greatest joy and let your light shine brightest?  Oh, your one thing may change over time.  For a while it may be raising your kids.  For a while it may be your prayer life, or forgiving others or caring for the needy.  But if you want to love God more each day, don’t do everything, do the one thing God is calling you to do right now.  "This one thing I do," Paul says.

Your richest, deepest love of God is still ahead of you.  The mission is to love God, but the vision, where we’re going with that is to grow, to commit to an ever-deepening relationship with God.  That is the one thing. 

1 Richard B. Hays, "Eyes on the Prize," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (March 11, 1992), 273.

2 Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 58

3 Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2006), 67.

4 Bob Buford, Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 36.

5 Quoted in Buford, 80.




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