Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

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

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Home: Gathering the Outcast

December 20, 2015

What are you looking for this Christmas?  Jeremiah offered hope--a long rope, one end tied securely around the promises of God, something to hang onto when you’re afraid.  Malachi offered God’s refining fire—painful perhaps, but a way to be your very best self.  Like the guy on the bulletin, when you sit on the bench, lean back in the semi-darkness and stare into the distance, with that star shining in the sky like a sign from God, what will you be looking for?

Well, here’s where the prophet Zephaniah was looking for:

The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness,

  And exult over you with loud singing!

At that time, says the Lord, I will bring you home,

  At that time I will gather you.

What are you looking for?  How about a gathering of the scattered?  How about a place, a state of mind, a way of living, called home?

What is home, exactly?  This past week I drove to Kansas to get my daughter from college.  And I got to thinking—and there’s plenty of time to think on an 1800 mile trip: here I am driving to a state I still call "home" but haven’t lived in for 30 years.  And I’m bringing my daughter "home" to Ohio, a place she visits now, but doesn’t really live.  What is home, exactly? 

It’s peculiar that Zephaniah of all prophets should write about homecoming, since Zephaniah lived before the Babylonian exile.  Before 587 BC, the people of Israel hadn’t gone anywhere.  Where was there to come home from?  So Bible scholars propose that later writers added verses 19-20, the bit about homecoming.  They took his earlier words about salvation and joy and applied them to their own later situation, the return from exile.  And that’s okay—because God doesn’t bring people home just one time or in only one way.  As the great preacher Charles Spurgeon put it:  "The fulfillment of a divine promise is not the exhaustion of it.  When a [person] gives you a promise, and . . . keeps it, there is an end of the promise; but it is not so with God. . .  God is prepared to keep it, and keep it, and keep it."1  So Zephaniah’s promise of homecoming is for all time—for you and me, this Christmas and every Christmas.

The longing for home is deep and universal.  Odysseus took ten years to get back from the Trojan War to Ithaca and Penelope.  Dorothy clicked her ruby heels together and chanted, "There’s no place like home."  The sadness of words like "homesick" and "homeless" tell us how vital home is.  The Bible’s primary experience of homesickness was that Babylonian exile, being 500 miles from home.  But there is a little exile in all of us—things are not the way they used to be, our losses are many and deep, and even if we haven’t moved, the places we live feel threatened and precarious. 

Thus we resonate when Zephaniah calls out:

At that time, says the Lord, I will bring you home,

  At that time I will gather you.

But what does home mean?  Pastor Joanna Adams says, "Every once in a while, a member of [my] church . . . will say something like this:  ‘I’m sorry you haven’t seen me in church for a while, but I’ve gotten to where I just can’t come any more.’

"‘Why?’ I ask.  ‘I don’t know what happens,’ they say, ‘but I will come in . . . and the choir will start singing, or you will read a . . . scripture, and the floodgates open.  I am in tears.  It is embarrassing.’  [But] why be embarrassed?" Adams asks.  "Worship is homecoming.  It’s putting ourselves in the place where it’s safe to tell the truth, safe to be who we really are in the presence of the holy and loving God.  We come with broken places and unanswered questions, and God takes us in, and sometimes it feels so good that we weep from sheer relief."2  Worship is homecoming. 

What does home mean?  I have spent so much of my life away from home.  I don’t mean I’ve traveled all that much.  I mean I’ve lived apart from my own true self.  I’ve tried to be somebody I’m not—or tried to convince others I’m that person.  I’ve tried to impress people and have all the answers and look strong, knowing all the while I’m just Glenn, full of fear and needy as the next guy.  And ultimately that’s good enough, because it’s who I am.  "Come on home, son," says the Lord.  "Come on home and be who you are, because there’s no need to be anything more and no reason to be anything less."

God is forever bringing us home.  God brought the people of Israel home to a Promised Land they’d never seen before.  God brought the exiles home from Babylon to a new temple.  And God sent Zephaniah to sing a homecoming song for all the ages. 

So great is God’s hospitality that John’s gospel says the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Greek word translated "dwelt" means literally "to pitch a tent."  In Jesus, God came and pitched a tent among us.  God didn’t even wait for us to make our own way home.  God came and made a home where we are, so that wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever the world is like, it’s home.  What a sacrifice God made; what a risk God took to make this world our home!

So what does home mean?  We see pictures of refugees streaming by the tens of thousands out of Syria and Iraq, people made homeless by the horrors of war.  We saw the photograph of that toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish shore.  I don’t know what the answer is to ISIS and Assad, and frankly I haven’t heard anyone else’s answer that sounds persuasive.  But I do know this:  everyone needs a home.  And if God’s Son made that kind of sacrifice and took that kind of risk to make a home with us, shouldn’t we be willing to make a sacrifice and take a risk to extend that home to others?  What could it mean to have a home and not practice hospitality?

What does home mean?  Frederick Buechner tells about living one winter in New York City, trying to write a book which refused to come to life.  Next door to where I lived, he writes, was a church whose preacher was a man named George Buttrick, and depressed as I was, I started going to hear him preach.  "It was toward the middle of December," Buechner relates, " . . . that [Buttrick] said something that has always stayed with me.  He said that on the previous Sunday, as he was leaving church to go home, he overheard somebody asking someone else, "Are you going home for Christmas?" and I can almost see Buttrick with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people and asked it again—"Are you going home for Christmas?"—and asked it in some sort of way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even oxen kneel.3 Home is where Christ is.

In the spring of 2000 my daddy had wasted away to almost nothing.  I made one last trip to Kansas to see him.  On the last day of my visit, daddy pulled me close to say something, since by that time he could barely whisper.  He looked intently and said, "Home." 

But you are home, Daddy.  We didn’t take you to the hospital.  But he shook his head.  Do you mean when do I have to go back to Ohio?  Tomorrow, Daddy.  But again he shook his head.  He drew a breath as best he could and spoke again.  "I want," he said, "to go home."  And I said, "Daddy, you go ahead, whenever you’re ready."  And the next day, he did.

What does home mean?  Well, God does call us home when we die, it is true.  But before that God calls us home to live here, to be truly alive in Christ.  And then, as for Zephaniah, God rejoices over us in gladness; God does a happy dance in our presence.

So when you sit on the bench, in the semi-darkness, and stare off into the distance with that star shining like a sign from God, what will you be looking for this Christmas?  Well, how about home?  Just to be who you really are, for there’s no need to be anything else and no reason to be anything less.  How about home?  For in Jesus, God has pitched a tent with us, so that whoever you’re with this year or whoever you’re not with,  home is where Christ is.  So today, don’t just go home.  Come home.  Be at home with Christ.  And while you’re at home, welcome others in and watch God’s happy dance together.

Merry Christmas, Maple Grove.


1 Quoted in Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum—Malachi, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 86-87.

2 Joanna M. Adams, "Toward Home," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (December 12, 2006).

3 Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections  (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1996), 24-25. 



Malachi 3:1-4

My Best Self:  Spiritual Soap

December 6, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

What are you looking for this Christmas season?  Last Sunday Jeremiah offered us hope--a long rope, one end tied securely around the promises of God, something to hang onto in the midst of discouragement and fear.  Like the guy on the bulletin, when you sit on the bench, lean back in the semi-darkness and stare into the distance, with that star shining like a sign from God, what will you be looking for this Christmas season?

Well, today, with Malachi, how about looking to be your very best self?  Scholars believe Malachi was written after the exile, as the Israelites were trying to recover from their crushing defeat and the destruction of the temple in 587 BC.  About seventy years later, the exiles miraculously returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple.  So you might assume these would be glorious days for the Jewish people.  But it was not that simple.  The ordeal had done something to their souls.  Trust and love were not as easy to rebuild as bricks and mortar.  Old Testament professor Elizabeth Achtemeier says it’s not that they were living holy lives and so were wondering, "Why are we suffering?"  They were living indifferent lives and didn’t think it mattered, because God seemed absent.  It’s not that they didn’t believe in God; it’s that God felt irrelevant, their relationship with God broken and estranged.1  I wonder if that sounds like anyone you know?

To those who were not expecting any word from the Lord, came this message from Malachi:  "Surprise!," says God.  "Here I come.  I’m sending my messenger (which is what Malachi means in Hebrew) to prepare the way before me.  And the Lord whom you seek (or for that matter, the Lord whom you’ve given up seeking) is coming to you."

And again, you might assume this would be great news.  But then, as now, for a lot of people the coming of the Lord was not a happy thought.  The "Day of the Lord," as it came to be called, was feared as a time of awful judgment.  But in Malachi, surprise again!  Though the Lord comes with fire, it is not a consuming fire but a refining fire.  And though the Lord comes with power, it is power to cleanse, not to destroy.  The surprise is that on the "Day of the Lord," God comes to save and not to punish.

So sure, this refiner’s fire is painful no doubt, but it’s a good and healing hurt.  And yes, this fuller’s soap feels harsh, but makes us pure and clean.  Do you remember when your mom used to scrub you in the tub?  "Not so hard, Mom!  Owww!  You’re gonna rub my skin off!"  Yes, it hurts.  But it’s a mother’s rough love, making you shiny and clean.

Our daughter Emily had nose bleeds when she was little.  They got worse and worse, and then one time it wouldn’t stop.  After trying all the home remedies, we took her to the ER.  The doctor pulled out a long wooden stick.  We asked what it was for.  She said it was treated with a chemical that when inserted in Emily’s nose would essentially burn the blood vessels and cauterize the bleeding.  It was horrible to watch, uncomfortable and painful for Emily.  Sickeningly, it did smell like burning.  But it stopped the nose bleeds for a long time.  It was a healing fire.

The purpose of God’s fire and soap is not to harm but to purify.  And Jesus, we might add, came not to condemn but to forgive and inspire.  Here’s the thing about a refiner’s fire:  it brings out the best of what’s already there, releases the gold that’s hidden inside.  And here’s the thing about fuller’s soap:  it takes what’s already there and makes it shine.  And here’s the thing about the love of God:  it takes who you already are, and brings out the gold; it takes who you are and makes it shine.

So the images of fire and soap may seem harsh for Advent.  But as Rev. Scott Johnston put it:  "God is not saying: ‘I refuse to let you come in for a visit until you clean up.’ . . .  Instead, God is saying:  ‘I am going to help you clean up. I will assist you to throw off the tarnish that prohibits you from truly experiencing the joy [of] this season.’"Again, Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to forgive and inspire.  So will you let God burn away your foolish pride and your lingering shame?  Will you let God scrub away your anger and anxiety?  Will you say to Jesus this Christmas:

Refiner's fire
My heart's one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for, Lord, for You.3

Once again, this Advent season, I invite you to spend some time on the park bench.  Quite literally—come sit here after church. Just be still.  And I mean it figuratively—take this bench with you in your imagination, into your prayer time.  And when you lean back, in the semi-dark, with that star shining like a sign from God, what will YOU be looking for?  Well, how about this:  to be your very best self.  To let God’s fire burn away all that’s not gold.  To let God’s soap make you shine.  This Christmas, I want to be my very bet self.  What are YOU looking for?

1 See Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum—Malachi, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1986), 184; and Eileen M. Schuller, "The Book of Malachi: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections," The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 868.

2 Scott Black Johnston, "Fire and Soap,", accessed 12/2/15.

3 Song lyrics by Brian Doerksen, "Refiner’s Fire,", accessed 12/3/15.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

HOPE: Something to Hang Onto

November 29, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

Again this year our Advent worship series is called:  "What are YOU looking for?"  The guy on the front of the bulletin—"Advent Guy," I call him--is sitting on a park bench, in the semi-darkness, staring into the distance, and you know he’s looking for something.  Don’t know what it is.  Don’t know when he might find it. But the star in the sky is shining like a sign from God.  That’s Advent in a nutshell.

So what are YOU looking for this Christmas season?  For a way not to be so fearful and worried?  For the ability to forgive?  For peace in Syria or peace between police officers and minority populations or maybe peace just in your own home?  Are you looking for a new and different life? 

Well, let’s start our looking, as the lectionary reading from Jeremiah does, with HOPE.  Now, maybe you’re not especially looking for hope today.  When you’re young and have the world by the tail, maybe hope isn’t at the top of your list.  That’s okay.  In fact, that’s more than okay.  But someday you will need hope, so let’s listen to Jeremiah anyway. 

When I was a kid a house just a block or so from ours burned to the ground.  It happened after I’d gone to bed, but from inside our house we could smell the smoke and hear the roar of the fire.  We couldn’t sleep anyway, so we got up and watched for a while.  It was a frightening thing for a kid.  After that I started having bad dreams of our house being on fire in the middle of the night.  And in my dreams, the fire was always in the stairway, so I couldn’t go down to get out of the house.  I had this dream several times and sometimes woke up screaming. 

So one day at bedtime my parents brought into my bedroom a long rope.  They tied one end of it firmly around the bedpost, tucked it under my bed, and told me that if there ever was a fire, all I had to do was open the window, throw the rope out and climb down.  And I never had that nightmare again.  (By the way, if you parents out there are wondering about the wisdom of giving a kid a way to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night--I grew up in Bushton, Kansas, population about 400.  Even if you sneaked out, where would you go?)  What my parents did was to give me something to hang onto, literally yes, but most of all emotionally.  In the middle of the night, when anxieties rise and monsters emerge from the corners, I had something to hang onto. 

In a different way, that’s what Jeremiah did for the people of Israel.  Jeremiah lived and prophesied during the late 7th and early 6th centuries BC, a pivotal and tragic time in Jewish history.  Early in Jeremiah’s life, there was great optimism in Judah.  Assyrian control over their country had declined, and the Jews dreamed of independence.  But almost immediately those dreams were crushed.  A new world power, Babylon, moved in.  Disaster followed disaster, until in 587 BC Jerusalem was overrun, the Temple was destroyed, and the leading people were forced into exile in Babylon, 500 miles away. 

All along the way Jeremiah had been a prophet of doom and gloom, telling his people not to resist the Babylonians, that defeat was inevitable.  But suddenly, once disaster had struck, Jeremiah changed his tune.  In the worst of times, Jeremiah reassured his people of God’s faithfulness, of eventual return from exile, of a new covenant, written this time on their hearts.  The passage we heard today from chapter 33 is part of this surprising message of hope:  The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and Judah—a righteous Branch to bring justice and righteousness.  Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. 

To his people in darkness and exile, to his people having nightmares of fire and loss, Jeremiah spoke a message of hope.  He took a rope and tied one end around the promises of God and tucked it under their beds.  In sorrow and fear, he gave them something to hang onto.

It was not so different when an angel came to a virgin named Mary and said, You will conceive a son and he will reign over Jacob forever.  For nothing will be impossible with God.  John the Baptist cried out, Prepare the way of the Lord.  Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and all people shall see the salvation of our God.  And in a barn in an out of the way town, Jesus was born, and he took a rope and tied one end around the mercy and all-inclusive love of God and tucked it under all our beds.  So that in our sin and fear and sorrow, there is hope, something to hang onto. 

People often mistake hope for optimism.  Optimism is the belief that every day everthing is getting better and better—that the next person I date will be the one, that the medicine is going to cure that cancer, that the stock market is turning around, that the Browns will make the playoffs.  Sometimes optimism is based on evidence—some things really are getting better.  Sometimes it’s just wishful thinking.  But it’s all about things getting better today or tomorrow.  And optimism is crushed one the cancer isn’t cured and the stock market just keeps doing down.

Hope, on the other hand, is deeper and longer-term.  Hope is based neither on evidence nor on wishful thinking, but on the promises and faithfulness of God.  Hope trusts that even if the cancer isn’t cured, God will never let us go.  Hope knows that if the stock market bottoms out, we’ll be okay some other way.  One commentator puts it like this:  Jeremiah’s hope is no longer the short-lived possibility of averting disaster, but a discovery that no disaster can take away a hope founded on God.2   Hope, in other words, isn’t everything getting better, exactly; hope is something to hang onto when everything isn’t better yet.

Hope is closely tied up with faith.  Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler said, "Faith is a word that connects hope and God."3  Faith is a word that connect hope and God--in other words, hope isn’t only something to hang onto, it’s also the act of hanging on.  When everything is hopeless on the human scene, hope trusts that God still has a plan for the future.  When we stand beside the grave of a loved one, and all the pain floods over us, hope trusts that God isn’t done with us yet.  When everything lovely and gracious and pure in our world seems to fall victim to corruption and evil, hope believes that God will find a way.  And when fear threatens to overwhelm our compassion, when there seems to be no answer to prayer, when the news is bad for weeks in a row, hope is hanging onto a God who will not let us go.4

And as this is true for each of us personally and individually, we remember that Jeremiah was giving something to hang onto to everyone, to his whole nation.  And they desperately needed it.  And the truth is, if you look at the news, there’s plenty for us to worry and be concerned about.  But neither fear nor anger are likely to make things any better.

Back in1968, when our country was torn apart by the Viet Nam War and by racial unrest, on April 3, the day before he was shot and killed, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what has become one of his most famous speeches.  At the very end, almost as an afterthought, King paused and said:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"5

Before he died, King gave our country the greatest of all gifts—hope, something to hang onto in the midst of the struggle.

Again this year I invite you to spend some time during Advent on the park bench.  I mean that literally—come sit right here for a while after worship.  And I mean it figuratively—take this bench with you in your imagination, in your heart, in your prayer time.  When you take a moment to lean back, in the semi-dark, and stare into the distance, with that star shining in the sky like a sign from God, what will YOU be looking for?  Well, how about hope--the promises of God, Jeremiah’s righteous Branch.   How about a rope, a lifeline, one end tied around the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let me tuck it under your bed, so that come fire or flood, come sorrow or sickness, when you don’t know what to do next—you’ll always have something to hang onto.

1 See R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 1-12.

2 Clements, 195.

3 Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1986), 39.

4 See Elizabeth Achtemeier, Jeremiah, Knox Preaching Guides (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987), 98

5, accessed 11/21/15

Habakkuk 3:17-19

I Have Decided to Give Thanks

November 22, 2015

Here’s what it was like for the prophet Habakkuk:

  • No blossoms on the fig tree
  • No food in the fields
  • The sheep are lost
  • And the cattle have died.

And here’s what Habakkuk decides to do.  He says:

  • Yet I will rejoice in the Lord
  • And I will exult in the God of my salvation.

Which just goes to show that thanksgiving doesn’t come from the outside, by what happens to us.  It comes from the inside; it’s an attitude we bring to whatever happens.  Thanksgiving is a decision we make based on faith and a relationship with God.

In a moment I’ll explore with you a theology of Thanksgiving.  But first this story, which I’m sure you’ve sat through before, because I tell it every Thanksgiving.  When I was in grad school at Illinois, I had a friend at church named Chris.  I liked Chris a lot, but he had one habit that annoyed me.  At the end of our student worship service, we’d all join hands and pray in a circle.  And Chris always, every time, started his prayer the same way.  He’d say, "Lord, I just want to thank you for this day."  After a while I came to think to myself, "Lord, I just wish he’d say something else for a change."  It seemed so repetitive, so rote, like he wasn’t really thinking about what he was saying.

One day I was talking to Chris before church, and he told me he’d had an unbelievably horrible day.  His mom had called to tell him a relative was in the hospital with cancer; Chris and his wife had got in a huge fight which they hadn’t even started to resolve; and a fire broke out in the lab where he worked and destroyed weeks worth of work.

When it came time for us to join hands and pray in a circle, I looked over at Chris, thinking he might change his prayer this time.  Surely he wouldn’t give God thanks for that horrible day.  Around the circle the praying went.  When the person next to Chris finished, there was a pause.  And finally Chris said, "Lord, I just want to thank you for this day . . ."

I couldn’t believe it!  Afterwards I cornered him and asked, "Chris, did you even mean what you prayed this evening, or is it just something you say?  How could you stand there and thank God for this day?"

Chris looked at me and said, "I have made a decision to thank God for every day.  That way I don’t have to figure out when God deserves to be thanked and when he doesn’t.  I just always thank him."

For Chris, as for Habakkuk, thanksgiving did not come from the outside, by what happened to him; it came from the inside, an attitude he brought to what happened, every day.  Thanksgiving was a decision he had made based on his faith and his relationship with God.

There are many ways of reflecting on this theologically.  Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says:  "Whatever we practice we will become."1  Whatever we give our attention to, whatever we decide to do, that’s what we will become.  So how might your life become filled with joy and praise?  Well, like Habakkuk, by thinking about joy and being committed to praise.  How might you become more thankful?  Maybe by giving thanks, every day.  We become more thankful when thanksgiving isn’t just one day a year, but when it’s is an attitude we bring to every day, a decision we make based on our faith and our relationship with God. I just want to thank you for this day.

Episcopalian preacher, Fleming Rutledge, became responsible for the care of an elderly widow, the wife of a colleague who passed away.2  She says, I knew I was supposed to do this—but I rather dreaded it at first.  I was very busy with many things, and it took a lot of time.  I’d never really known her well.  But I did it—for her remaining years, I visited her and managed her affairs.  And to my surprise, Rutledge says, it became a pleasure and a joy, for this reason:  she was incredibly grateful.  Instead of complaining that I did not come often enough, she thanked me profusely for coming at all.  She appreciated the little favors I did for her as though they had been lavish gifts.  And here’s the point Rutledge is making:  the woman’s thankfulness created a new situation.  Gratitude is soul-enlarging.  Gratitude calls forth a response of loving reciprocity.  Gratitude doesn’t come from outside, by what happens to us; it’s a decision we make based on our faith and our relationship with God.  And it creates a whole new world in the midst of sorrow and stress. 

Now I don’t want to push this too far.  I don’t mean that all you can ever be is thankful.  I don’t mean you can’t be angry, or sad, or upset in any number of ways.  If you deny and tamp down your negative feelings, they will come out somehow, somewhere.  Maybe you’ll get sick.  Maybe your gratitude will come to feel fake.  Maybe you’ll explode at someone for no apparent reason.  No, no—it’s okay to express sadness and anger and all manner of feelings. 

What I mean is that when there are no blossoms on the fig tree and no food in the fields, when the sheep are lost and the herd is gone, along with any crying and fretting we might do, let us also rejoice in the Lord.  Let us also exult in the God of our salvation.  Because gratitude doesn’t come from outside us, by what happens to us.  Gratitude comes from inside us, from our faith and our relationship with God. 

The alternative to thanksgiving, ultimately, is bitterness and complaining.  I know what bitterness and complaining do to other people, how they make them come across.  And I’m sure other people know what bitterness and complaining do to me.  So with a nod to my friend Chris, by the grace of God and to the best of my ability, I have decided to  say, "I just want to thank you, Lord, for this day, and every day.

I heard about a man back in Kansas—he and his brother inherited their father’s farmland, equal portions side by side.  They struck oil on his brother’s land and he made a lot of money.  But though they drilled several wells on his own land, they all came up empty.  And for the rest of his life, he said things like this over and over:  "If they’d struck oil on my land instead of my brother’s, I’d be able to help the church more. . .  If they’d struck oil on my land instead of my brother’s, I could afford to go to Hawaii. . . If they’d struck oil on my land instead of my brother’s, my kids could go to a private college. . . "  Someone said of this man:  He’s only got one card to play, and he just keeps playing it everywhere he goes.

That got me thinking—what if all of us had only one card to play, but instead of it being a card of bitterness and complaining, it was a card of thanksgiving?  And we just kept playing the Thanksgiving card everywhere we went.

In our family, we try to have that card with us at meal time.  For years we were a table for four with giggles and spilled milk and sometimes tears at the table.  And we always began by giving thanks.  Now we’re a table for three and all of us coming and going like crazy.  But we always begin by giving thanks.  And soon enough, Carolyn and I will be a table for two.  And I know that we will always begin by giving thanks.  Dinner time is a good time to play the Thanksgiving card.

I remember visiting a woman named Sue in the hospital.  She’d had a mild heart attack and the recovery was slow.  And we got to talking about her life.  Recently her appendix had burst and she was sick for months.  She’d been a widow for years.  She’d lost two children to death.  And there was so much more.  After a while, Sue paused and dabbed her eyes.  And then she said, "But you know, I have been blessed.  It’s been a good life, and I give thanks for it all."  I picked up that card that she’d played and put it in my pocket.

Many of you know Maple Grove member Judy Thompson, and that her mom passed away not long ago.  Judy and I met so she could tell me about her mom and plan the service.  It will be a funeral, of course—there will be tears and sadness, I expect.  But Judy said, "She lived a great life and now she’s in an even better place.  I want this to be a celebration.  I want us to give thanks for her life."  So we’re going to play that Thanksgiving card for Kay Pierece here on Tuesday morning.

I’ve got one of those Thanksgiving cards, of course.  But I’m forever setting it down, losing track of it.  And when I need it most is when it can be hardest to find.  I am a person prone to discouragement and anxiety.  I easily get down on myself.  When the church budget doesn’t balance, I fret.  And when the church isn’t growing, I feel inadequate.  And whenever there’s conflict, I just want to hide.  And right then, of course, is when I most need to find my card, and play it like the ace of trump.  Because gratitude doesn’t come from the outside, by what happens to us; it comes from the inside, a decision we make to give thanks for this day, and every day.

On your way out today, I’m going to have people give you something.  It’s a card.  It may not be the only card you’ll ever need, but if you could have only one card, it’s the one you’d want.  And you can just keep playing it, everywhere you go.  It says: Thanksgiving.

1 Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 209.

2 Fleming Rutledge, "The Thankful Life," The Bible and the New York Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 23-24.


Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17

It’s Complicated

November 8, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

In some ways Facebook is just too simplistic to capture the nuances of life.  Once a friend posted that his brother had been in a terrible car accident and was being rushed to the hospital.  And by the time I saw that post, twelve people had "liked" it.  Now I know—they were just acknowledging that they’d seen his post and were concerned about his brother.  But I couldn’t bring myself to "like" what happened to his brother.  It’s too simplistic.

But in at least one way, Facebook does capture some of the nuances of life.  When you create your profile, it asks you to select your "relationship status."  You can choose from among single, in a relationship, engaged, married, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, separated, divorced and widowed.  And if those aren’t enough, you can choose "It’s complicated."  As a pastor, I’ve listened to enough people’s stories to know that it’s always complicated.  Even if your family looks pretty buttoned-down from the outside, from the inside it’s always complicated. 

I wonder what "relationship status" Ruth would have picked if Facebook had been around in 1100 B.C.?  "Widowed," certainly.  But also "in a relationship" with her mother-in-law, since she’d promised to live and lodge and even die with her.  But at the same time, Naomi is trying to get Ruth married to her relative, Boaz, who first has to give the option to marry Ruth to an older relative.  Now that’s complicated!

And it’s not just Ruth’s "relationship status" that’s complicated.  All of life is complicated, including even salvation.  For in Ruth—and this is true generally in the Bible—salvation is not only about the state of one’s soul; it’s also about whether people have food to eat, and whether people are kind and to one another, and whether the vulnerable are protected and cared for. 

And these things are complicated because Ruth lived in an imperfect world.  When we read Ruth with 21st century eyes, we see the brutal patriarchy of her culture.  Women couldn’t own or sell property.  Women couldn’t engage in business.  There were no jobs for women (well, one, but Ruth never got that desperate).  Only in being attached to a man could a woman eat and staying safe.  And only in bearing children, especially male children, did a woman have status.  In chapter 4 (most of which we didn’t read this morning), where Ruth’s future is determined--her marriage arranged and her family’s property bought and sold--she never speaks or even appears.  As feminist scholar Phyllis Trible puts it, "a man’s world tells a woman’s story."1 

And yet even though all of that is true, Ruth and Naomi find a way to work out their own salvation.  They never give up hope.  They keep their eyes open for opportunities.  They work hard.  They find a kind and decent man, and they go after him.  And when Boaz is slower to respond to Ruth’s charms than they like, Ruth seduces him.  They spend a night together on the granary floor.  Maybe not a romantic scene, but effective.  Boaz gets up the next morning and does what the women have maneuvered him to do—he gets their property back and arranges to marry Ruth.  All this leads to salvation not only for Ruth and Naomi, but eventually for all of Israel and in a way even for us too.  The child of Ruth and Boaz becomes the grandfather of King David, the greatest of Israel’s kings and from whose family would come Jesus our Savior. 

Not everything Ruth and Naomi do can be approved of exactly, in a moral sense.  But within the limitations of their world, they do what they have to do.  And in the end God blesses them with a broken family restored, a marginalized foreigner brought into the community, an older woman vindicated, and a precious new life conceived.  It’s salvation, but goodness knows, it’s complicated.

Now here’s what I want to say to you today:  Ruth was not the last one to live in an imperfect world.  We like to think that we’re no longer a sexist culture, but wage statistics and human trafficking tell a different story.  Of course, many things have improved immeasurably between Ruth’s time and ours—modern medicine, relatively abundant food, nondiscrimination laws.  But in our own ways, so many of us still kind of muddle through.  Within the limitations of our circumstances, we do what we have to do, and so often God blesses us with so more than we could ever ask, think or imagine.

I didn’t choose Ruth for today—it’s just the assigned lectionary reading—but Ruth does seem appropriate for Veterans Day, doesn’t it?  Like Ruth, people serving in the military live in a dangerous and morally challenging world.  Not everything they’re called upon to do on our behalf could be approved of in a moral sense, but they do what they have to do.  And when it turns out well, the result is protecting the innocent, turning back aggressors, in a word--security.  And few people I know are more reluctant to use military power, than veterans, because they know it’s always complicated.

Ruth lived, we all live, in an imperfect world—patriarchal, addicted, violent, unfair.  And yet such good things so often come about— broken families work things out, marginalized outsiders are welcomed, the elderly are cared for, and precious new lives are born every day.  It’s complicated, but here’s what the book of Ruth calls it:  restorer of life, nourisher of old age, salvation, the faithfulness of a gracious God.

1 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986), 166.

2 See Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Ruth, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999),. 67.


Ruth 1:6-17

Not Even Death Can Part Us

November 1, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

The story of Ruth is set in a context of sorrow and loss, as are at least parts of all our stories.  Especially on All Saints Sunday, we are mindful of loss.  Of course that’s not all we’re mindful of.  On All Saints Day we remember our loved ones’ faith, we rejoice in eternal life, we anticipate a reunion with all who have faithfully lived and died.  All that’s true.  But as we read the names and light our candles, we are in a context of sorrow and loss.  And the story of Ruth comes and speaks to us there.

Ruth is also a story about faithfulness.  The Hebrew word is ḥesed, which can be translated kindness, lovingkindness, faithfulness, loyalty.  In giving her daughters-in-law permission to return to their own families, Naomi commits them to God’s ḥesed.  But in choosing to stay with Naomi, Ruth makes the most beautiful promise of ḥesed in the entire Bible:

Where you go, I will go;

  Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people,

  And your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

  There will I be buried.

Not even death, Ruth says, will part me from you!

In her commentary on Ruth, Katharine Sakenfeld says that ḥesed in the Bible refers to an action done for another person that meets three criteria: 1

  1. For an ac to be ḥesed, it must be essential to that person’s survival or basic well-being.  (And Ruth promises Naomi companionship and care.  Those are certainly essential things--check.)
  2. The action must be one that only the person it is in a position to provide.  (At this point, Naomi has literally no one else in her life—check.)
  3. And an act of ḥesed takes place within the context of an existing and positive relationship. (Ruth has been part of Naomi’s family for years—check.)

And if that’s the definition of biblical ḥesed or faithfulness, here’s what it looks like in practice:  After Naomi gves her daughters-in-law permission to go back to their own families, one of them, Orpah, kisses Naomi and departs.  And that’s okay.  But the other one, Ruth, it says, "clung to her."  And this clinging to one another is what makes life precious and sometimes what makes life possible. 

In the midst of sorrow and loss we cling to one another—we live and lodge together, we worship and even die together.  The word for "cling" in Ruth is the same word that appears in Genesis where it says: "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife."  Marriage is one form of ḥesed, of clinging to one another through life.  But it's not the only one.  Ruth is a younger woman clinging to an older one, hers is a clinging that crosses boundaries of nationality and culture and religion.  We don’t have to be like one another to support each other through the ups and downs of life—we just have to need each other and be there for each other.

In the midst of sorrow and loss, we cling to one another, but we also to God.  One of the verses of "For All the Saints" that we didn’t sing says:

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;

Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;

Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light. 

The saints clung to God, their captain.  Psalm 46 begins:  "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, thought the earth should change."  We cling to God.

And finally, there is God’s clinging to us, God whose ḥesed is the source of all faithfulness.  Martin Copenhaver has suggested that one reason why the story of Ruth—who was a foreigner, after all—made it into the Hebrew Bible was that she reminded the Jews of something important about their God.2  God does not leave when the going gets tough, when we are as destitute as a poor widow in a far-off land.  God does not love us only when we’re lovable or only to get something back from us.  Rather God loves us because . . . well, because that’s what God promised to do.  Especially in times of sorrow and loss, God clings to us with an everlasting faithfulness.

Not that any of this is easy.  Sometimes we let each other down in our clinging to one another.  And sometimes in our sorrow it’s hard to know, to feel, God’s arms around us.  And just as that’s sometimes true for us, it was true in the story of Ruth.  God is referred to in the book of Ruth and called upon in Ruth, but unlike so much of the Old Testament, never once in the whole book of Ruth does God ever speak or act directly.  Which, to be honest with you, sounds a lot like how God is in my life.  I know God is clinging to me, I know God is always faithful, but usually not too directly or in obvious ways.

In Ruth, in life, God is found in how we treat each other, in the commitments we keep to each other.  God may not speak directly, but when Ruth says to Naomi, "Where you go, I will go," isn’t that the ḥesed of God?  And when we light our candles, when our love is not ended even by death, is that not the faithfulness of God incarnate in our clinging to one another?3

I had a church member one time in Kobacker House, the hospice care facility, obviously in her final hours.  I visited late one evening and met her son who had just flown in from across the country.  I offered to get him some blankets for the sofa in the room, but he declined, saying he’d spend the night next to his mother’s bed.  When I left he was sitting there holding her hand.  And when I came back in the morning, she had just passed, and he was still sitting in the very same place, still holding her hand. 

In the midst of sorrow and loss, that mom and that son clung to one another, and the room was filled with God.  And here’s what it means to be God’s people:  in the midst of sorrow and loss, we cling to one another, we light our holy candles, and this room too is filled with God.

1 Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, Ruth, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1999), 24.

2 Martin B. Copenhaver, "The Only Thing to Do," The Christian Century (October 19, 1994), 947.

3 See Martha L. Moore-Keish, "Ruth 2," Interpretation 64/2 (April 2010), 174.


Mark 10:46-52

To See

October 25, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

I am Bartimaeus, in several ways, if only small ways.  I don’t mean to overdramatize my own situation—I haven’t been through anything like a sightless beggar in ancient Israel.  But I have been at risk of losing my vision, one eye at a time.   When Bartimaeus tells Jesus, "I want to see again," I get it.  I remember sitting nervously in the ophthalmologist’s office with my retina detached so badly that half the vision in one eye had gone black.  He said, "Don’t move your head, and go straight to the operating room.  I’m not sure I can fix it, but I’ll try."  And weeks later, I remember taking the bandage off and exclaiming, "I can see!  Thank you, Jesus, and Dr. Chorich!"

At the same time, it’s also important to note that we think differently about blindness today than they did in Jesus’ day.  Back then blindness rendered a person virtually unemployable, an object of pity and contempt.  Today, sight impaired folks can do, well, pretty much whatever they want to.  We now know that with a few accommodations, they are not disabled, but rather differently abled, with fuller, richer use of other senses. 

But there’s vision and there’s . . . vision.  And while Jesus is reported to have healed the physical sight of a handful people, in the gospels vision is always symbolic.  Jesus called some religious leaders "blind guides," even though their optic nerves worked just fine.  After he gave a hard teaching, Jesus was known to ask, "Do you have eyes and fail to see?"  And when Saul (who would later become the apostle Paul) met Jesus on the Damascus road, he was overcome by a great light.  Later something like scales fell from his eyes, and when he opened them again, he saw Jesus and the whole world in a new way.  In Mark’s gospel, this is the last healing Jesus does, the culmination of his ministry.  You can bet that Jesus, had more in mind than our eyeballs.  There’s vision and then there’s . . . vision.

One kind of vision that needs healed is our self-perception.  This can be about mundane things like someone making this gesture to let you know you have mustard on your face, or this one to let you know you’re talking too loud.  It’s helpful to have our self-perception corrected.  Other corrections can be a little more jarring.  I wonder if you’ve ever received any criticism.  I have.  It you’re anything like me, it might make you angry or embarrassed at first.  But later, if it’s valid criticism, it makes you think.  You realize that the way you think you’re coming across isn’t the way everyone else see it.  At its best, criticism gives us a chance for self-correction.

Years ago I talked to a man who said he used to drink a lot and do drugs.  He had a wife and children, but he didn’t always make it home at night; he seldom put groceries on the table.  Finally he got involved in a burglary to get drug money and ended up in jail.  And then, he said, "I just stopped drinking."

"How were you able to stop?" I asked.

"Well," he said, "I was sitting in jail, and suddenly I SAW my life—the running around, forgetting my family, how sick and unhappy I felt all the time.  And I SAW how some other people lived—peaceful, taking care of their kids, going to church.  And when I saw my life that way," he said, "I knew how I wanted to live, so I quit drinking, I started praying, and put my family back together again. 

And though not in quite that way, I’ve been that man, I am Bartimaeus.  So how good it is that Jesus sends people to tell us, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."  Lord, have mercy, and heal our self-perception. 

Another kind of vision that needs healed is our ability to see God in our everyday lives.  This is a special kind of vision, a spiritual vision.  And of all the people in the story, Bartimaeus was best at this kind of vision.  He was the first one other than demons to call Jesus the "son of David."  How was it that the blind old beggar in the back row could see what nobody else could?  Well, again, seeing God is a special kind of vision.

Some people wondered where God was on 9-11; others clearly saw that God was in the firefighters rushing in to rescue the victims and in all who comforted the grieving.  Some people might wonder where God was on Calvary; Christians see that God was in Jesus, giving his life out of love for us all.  Prof. Marianne Sawicki has suggested that in order to get at the real Jesus, you have to do the right kind of seeing.  And so it is the task of Sunday school and devotions and youth group and preaching and Confirmation and Bible study—to help people "see the Lord."1

Maple Grove member Sue Fletcher is about to launch an art project (really it’s a spiritual practice, but it’s launching as an art project).  She’s inviting us to take photographs of where we see God in everyday life, and we will exhibit some of the pictures in our art hallway.  Now I’m sure that by the time Valerie Aveni gets done with our photographs they will look like art.  But the point is not the quality of our photography, but the quality of our vision.  Can you see God in a child at play?  in the wrinkled hands of the elderly?  in a simple act of kindness?  in someone standing up for justice?  In a world that’s overwhelmingly skeptical and rational, busy and unkind, I am Bartimaeus—I need my eyes healed so I can see God more clearly.  So how good it is that Jesus sends people to say, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."  Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord; we want to see you.

One more--what we need are eyes to see what really matters, to see what it is we truly long for.  Just before today’s story, two of the disciples, James and John, come and ask Jesus for a favor.  Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?"  It’s the exact same question Jesus asked Bartimaeus:  "What do you want me to do for you?"  We want to sit on big thrones, James and John reply, one on either side of you in heaven.  Jesus has just been teaching about suffering for others and laying down his life.  And they want adulation, glory.  And Jesus says, "No, that’s not even mine to give."  But when Bartimaeus asked to see again, Jesus said, "Sure, absolutely."  What’s the difference?  James and John couldn’t see what really mattered.  They couldn’t even see the deepest longing of their own hearts, which is simply to be with Jesus, not to be seen with Jesus.  But Bartimaeus, the blind man, saw clearly what matters most:  vision.

It’s surprisingly difficult to see what really matters.  I had a friend who was divorced and miserable, so he got married again.  Two years and he was divorced again.  "What happened?" I asked him.  He said, "It turns out that getting married again wasn’t what I wanted after all." 

When I was a kid I loved the Hardy Boys mystery books.  I decided to collect as many of them as possible.  And through birthday presents and Christmas gifts and saving my own money, I did get a lot of those books.  But once I had them, they weren’t nearly as interesting as I’d expected.  And pretty soon I wanted the shelf space for something else, so I put the Hardy Boys books in a box in the closet and forgot about them until I cleaned out the closet when I went to college.  It turns out that reading the books was what really mattered, not collecting them. 

I could go on and on with stories like that, and so could you.  It’s hard to see what really matters, hard to get in touch with the truest longings of our own hearts.  Years ago, I received one of those stories that float around the internet, so I can’t tell you if it really happened, but I do know it rings true.  Nancy was traveling with her husband and their toddler, Eric, on Christmas Day to visit family.  They stopped at a diner for lunch.  Eric was in a high chair when suddenly he squealed with glee and shouted, "Hi!"

Nancy looked around and saw the source of Eric’s merriment—a man wearing an old rag of a coat, dirty and greasy.  His hair was a mess, his whiskers matted and even from across the room she could sense the odor. 

"Hi there, big boy," the man was saying with delight.  "I see you!"  Nancy began to feel angry that this old geezer was being a nuisance with her son.  Their food came but the man kept talking to Eric.  "Do you know patty-cake?  Do you know peek-a-boo?  Look, he knows peek-a-boo!"  Nobody in the diner thought the man was cute.  He’d obviously been drinking.  She felt embarrassed; meanwhile her son sat there admiring the old man and his antics.

As they paid their bill and were making their escape, they had to walk right by where the man was by the door.  As she walked by holding Eric, Nancy turned away.  But as she did Eric wiggled out of her arms and propelled himself into the man’s outstretched arms.  Suddenly, she says, a very smelly old man and a very eager baby completed their courtship.  The toddler laid his head gently on the man’s ragged shoulder.  The man’s eyes filled with tears.  He rocked and cradled the baby for a moment and then handed Eric back, saying, "You take care of this baby, okay?"

Nancy writes, I had just witnessed Christ’s love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no barriers, made no judgments; a child who saw a dear soul and a mother who saw only an outward appearance.  I was a Christian," she says, "who was blind, holding a child who was not."

I am Bartimaeus—I need my eyes healed, so I can see myself clearly, so I can see God every day, and so I can keep my eyes on what really matters.  I wonder if you are Bartimaeus too?  Well, how good it is that Jesus sends people to tell us, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 

What we want is to see, clearly now.


1 Marianne Sawicki, Seeing the Lord: Resurrection and Early Christian Practices (Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 66, xii.



1 Corinthians 12:12-27

In the Body, Everybody Matters

October 18, 2015

At Maple Grove this Sunday, the culmination of the stewardship campaign when we bring our commitments of service and financial giving, is called Celebration Sunday, emphasizing the joy of the day.  One church I served calls it Loyalty Sunday, stressing our duty to God.  And that’s important, but maybe a little heavy.  Many churches call it Consecration Sunday, because we dedicate our gifts and intentions to God.  And that’s good, but how many people have any idea what ‘consecration’ means?  So I think Maple Grove did well to call this Celebration Sunday.  Who doesn’t love to celebrate?  And here shortly we’ll sing some good old hymns, we’ll ring the bell, and eat cake together—it will be a celebration.

But the name Celebration Sunday does beg one question:  what exactly are we celebrating?  Clearly not that every member has signed up for the perfect ministry team or that we’ve surpassed our financial goal—because we don’t know those things yet.  No, rather than celebrating outcomes—be they marvelous or concerning, we are celebrating today this church community where God’s love is at the heart of everything and everyone, and for that reason everybody matters. 

One way to celebrate is to share the responses you wrote on your Friendship Cards last Sunday.  Many more cards are on display in the art hallway.  And this week there were responses that showed up on multiple cards.  So let’s play Family Feud.  I’ve got the top five responses right here.  I asked you to fill in the blank:  At Maple Grove, every _________ matters.  Any guesses what’s in the top five?

Top 5 Responses

Tie for 4th: Act of Kindness, one added smiles and hugs, one had a scripture reference to Acts 3:6 (7 responses)

Tie for 4th: Day or Moment (7 responses)

Tie for 2nd. Soul (8 responses)

Tie for 2nd: Child (there were also cards that said "elder" and "old person" (8 responses)

#1: Person, or Human Being or Everyone (20 responses)


  • Moment of thinking about how to live godly
  • Leaf on the tree
  • Trustees meeting
  • Greeting
  • Particle of light
  • Joy and sorrow
  • Laugh
  • Kitchen class (isn’t there only one?)
  • Refugee
  • Why
  • Pet
  • Dominic (mom adds:  and every child who is not named Dominic!)

We celebrate that with God’s love at the heart of everything and everyone, everybody and every response matters.

From 1 Corinthians 12, we celebrate that together we are the body of Christ.  I got a phone call one time from the seminary I graduated from.  Don’t you dread those calls?  They say they’ve just called to update their records and tell you about what’s going on at the school.  But you know why they’ve called.  After listening politely, I told him that, even though I had done so in the past, I didn’t plan to make a financial contribution that year.  I had orthodontia bills, the list of organizations I was supporting had grown longer and longer, I was getting nervous about saving for college.  And he said, "I understand.  But let me ask you--will you just contribute something, even one dollar?  The amount, he said, is not the only thing that matters.  It also matters that we are all in this together.  Whether our graduates are bishops or pastors or counselors or chaplains or teachers, we all have this in common—Candler School of Theology.  And whether we are wildly liberal or deeply conservative, we all have this in common—Candler School of Theology."

And I sent in a contribution--not because I wanted to be part of something, but because he’d reminded me that I already was part of something.  And if having the Candler School of Theology in common matters (and it does), just think how much it matters that we have in common our baptism and being a part of the body of Christ.

That’s how Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12.  "For just as the body is one and has many members," he says, "and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ."  Again later he sums it up, "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it."  Now in some ways, all this talk about the body gets a little comical.  If the whole body were just a great big eyeball, he says, how would you hear?  And if you were just a giant ear, how would you smell anything?  Then Paul gets almost risqué, referring to the "less honorable" members of our bodies that we keep covered up.  Can you say that in church?

So on the one hand, this is kind of a humorous, light-hearted way to get the Corinthians to understand that in the church, everybody matters.  But at the same time, it’s also a sort of cutting, challenging message.  Paul’s point is not only to lift up the lowly, but also to bring the proud down a notch or two.  The foot may look down on itself because it’s not a hand, or the ear may feel disrespected because it’s not an eye.  But Paul says, don’t worry about it--just be what you are.  We all need each other, and in the body, everybody matters.  But he also turns that around and says, "The eye can’t say to the hand, ‘Hey, we don’t need you," and the head can’t say to the feet, ‘You’re not as important as I am."  Because, again, we all need each other, and in the body, everybody matters.

Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians not because they were all getting along with each other so amazingly well, but precisely because they weren’t.  They were divided as Jews and Gentiles.  They were divided as wealthy and poor.  They were divided because some thought they were so spiritually advanced they didn’t need the others.  That’s why Paul wrote to them, "You are the body of Christ."  You see, some people think Paul was making a comparison here—you the church are like a body.  Other people think Paul was using a metaphor or image—you are, in a manner of speaking, the body of Christ.  But that’s not actually what Paul says.  I’m thinking he meant it literally—not you are like the body of Christ, but you are the body of Christ.  As Barbara Taylor puts it, "Whether you like it or not, whether you feel it or not, whether you like each other or not, you are the body of Christ and there is nothing you can do about it but act like it.1 

So on Celebration Sunday we don’t yet celebrate results and outcomes—ministry teams filled, budgets surpassed.  That will come, by God’s grace.  But today we celebrate this church community where God’s love is at the heart of everything and everyone and for that reason everybody matters.  Sometimes that’s easy to celebrate.  We are so glad that there are members and friends here who can sing and play instruments, who can bake and sew, who can paint walls and replace broken boards, who can pray for the grieving and visit those in the hospital, for all the glorious diversity of parts of the body.  That’s easy to celebrate.

Of course, sometimes it’s harder to celebrate our diversity.  The problem, as Barbara Taylor acknowledges, "begins when you put me in community with a bunch of other people who look, smell, think, talk and act differently from me.  One is perfectly cheerful but she can talk for thirty minutes straight without stopping to breathe, while another has been so beaten up by life that everything he says comes out as a [complaint].  One speaks so intimately of God that everyone around her feels like a spiritual slouch and another prays big hot air balloons on Sunday mornings and then goes home to knock his family around.  "Now you are the body of Christ," Paul says, "and individually members of it."

Gee, thanks!  Are we really supposed to celebrate that?  Actually, yes.  It means, thank God, that we don’t have to try to make ourselves into the body of Christ by our perfection or by our wonderful charm or our endless patience.  Like it or not, we already are the body of Christ—the long-talker and the complainer, the overly pious and the hypocrite--all we have to do is act like it.  And I think we can all celebrate that.

And that celebration works in one more way:  just as I have to learn to appreciate those parts of the body I find less attractive, I know full well that there are plenty of people who find me to an unattractive part of the body.  And I too, even in my bad days and weak moments, I am a part of the body of Christ.  Because in the body of Christ, everybody matters.

In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris, says that feels Jesus’ hand most in church or at the monastery she visits.  Just a look around the motley crew assembled in Jesus’ name, she says, myself among them, lets me know how unlikely it all is.  The whole lot of us, warts and all, just seems so improbable, so absurd, I figure that only Christ would be so foolish, or so powerful, as to have brought us all together. 

She describes one evening when she was the only guest at a convent and the sisters invited her to join them in statio, their formal procession into church.  It is a powerful reminder of community solidarity—you line up two by two, not with the person you choose, but with the one you’re assigned by the leader, or prioress.  The procession, Norris says, is an enactment of the diversity of the body—the peace-making nuns next to the trouble-makers, the sweet next to the sour, the joyful with the mournful, all one line, one body in Christ.

The prioress was my partner, Norris says.  "We bow first to the Christ who is at the altar," she whispered to me. "And then we turn to face our partner, and bow to the Christ in each other."  "I see," I said, and I did.3

I know that we’re not monks or sisters, nor most of us even Catholic, but we are the body of Christ.  So I wonder if you would be willing to bow right now to the Christ that is at the altar.  And I wonder if you would bow to the Christ in the people around you, each one of them, one by one.  We celebrate today that God is at the heart of everything and everyone and for that reason in the body, everybody matters.  Do you see?  I do.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997), 88

2 Taylor, 86.

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


1 Corinthians 12:4-11

Every (Spiritual) Gift Matters

October 11, 2015 Maple Grove UMC

As you know, our stewardship campaign theme is:  At Maple Grove, EVERYBODY MATTERS.  And from 1 Corinthians, the specific message today is that Every Spiritual Gift Matters.  Every Spiritual Gift Matters—that is true in at least three ways:

  1. It is simply a factual statement at Maple Grove.
  2. It is a deep theological truth.
  3. It is a vision to live into.

First of all, that every spiritual gift matters is what the EMIM (Every Member in Ministry) model of ministry is all about.   With the exception of a few leadership committees, we don’t call and ask you if you’d like to be an usher or prepare meals for homeless neighbors or be in the bell choir or help people find parking places.  Every October at stewardship time, you have the opportunity to tell us what your spiritual gifts are, what brings you joy, how God is calling you to serve.  All our ministry teams are listed in the EMIM booklet and every check mark made on every commitment card is meticulously recorded and followed up on.  And if you don’t find in the booklet a way of serving that matches your spiritual gifts, just come talk to Cathy or me about starting a new ministry team so you can live out your calling.  At Maple Grove, every spiritual gift matters.  It’s a fact.

This past week I had the privilege of reading the Friendship Cards you filled out last Sunday.  I asked you, "What gifts do you have to share for the common good?"  In the past I’ve always tried to put similar cards together, to create groups or categories so I can see trends and tendencies.  But here’s what happened this time:  the responses were so different from each other that I couldn’t really create many categories.  There were a few small groupings.  Several people said they have the gift of being a good listener.  There are folks who have the gift of welcoming and of accepting all people.  But for the most part, it was hard to find more than two or three cards to put in the same pile! 

At first that kind of concerned me.  Where’s the unity here?  But then it occurred to me—the diversity of responses proves Paul’s point.  He says in 1 Corinthians:  "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone."  Variety, Paul calls it.  Well, he got that right!  Let me share with you, more or less randomly, some of your responses.  More cards are posted on the bulletin board in the art hallway.  What gifts do you have to share for the common good? 

  • I have been blessed to have some manual skills. Glad to contribute when able.
  • Praying for the church and its members and families
  • Generosity
  • Laughter and humor (yes, please!)
  • The gift of caring and compassion for others. 
  • One person is a specialized reading tutor
  • Project management and organization (yes, please!)
  • Art
  • Helping people!
  • Common sense, good reasoning skills
  • My voice—choir
  • Helping someone to sobriety.
  • Love (always yes to that one!)

And here are two of my favorite cards.  Make of them what you will.  What gifts do you have to share for the common good?

  • Our daughter!
  • My wife!

Paul says there are a variety of gifts and services and activities.  At Maple Grove, every spiritual gift matters.  So in the first place, that is a factual statement, and your Friendship Cards are the proof.

But it’s more than that.  Every Spiritual Gift Matters is also a deep theological truth.  Paul wasn’t trying to tell the Corinthians something about themselves, that they were different from each other; he was trying to tell them something about God:  that God made us different from each other, on purpose.  He’s making a point about what it means for usto be one in Christ.  In his classic commentary, C.K. Barrett puts it this way:  "Uniformity of experience and service is not to be expected; unity lies ultimately in the Spirit who gives, the Lord who is served, [and] the God who is at work."1  If everyone sang in the choir, who would work on the website?  And if everyone worked on the website, who would make sack lunches for the homeless?  But if everyone made lunches, who would listen and pray with the grieving?  And if everyone listened to the grieving, who would take a stand for justice?  Sometimes we say it dismissively, of someone we don’t appreciate—well, it takes all kinds.  But it really does take all kinds.  It’s not just a fact that every spiritual gift matters, it’s a theological truth, it’s the way God wants it to be. 

Now the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians is a little problematic for many of us.  Paul’s list includes nine specific things:

    • the utterance of wisdom
    • the utterance of knowledge
    • faith
    • healing
    • miracles
    • prophecy
    • the discernment of spirits
    • various kinds of tongues
    • and the interpretation of tongues.

If we were to make a list of the spiritual gifts most important to us at Maple Grove, it would probably be pretty different, right?  Some things on Paul’s list seem a little vague.  Other things, such as speaking in tongues, not all of us are fully comfortable with.  When it comes to speaking in tongues, let me say only this:  while it’s presence on this biblical list ought to make some of us have a more open mind about this so-called "Pentecostal" gift, Paul was actually trying to downplay its importance in the church by placing it last on this list.  But surely Paul didn’t mean this to be an exhaustive list of every possible gift of the Spirit, and in fact he has other lists of spiritual gifts in Romans and Ephesians that are different from this one.  His point is the variety of gifts.  We would surely want to add musical gifts, communication skills, electronic and technological skills, the arts of all kinds, and since we’re Methodists--preparing food. God wants us to have and to use a vast variety of gifts.

There were a few Friendship Cards that concern me.  One card said, "What gifts do you have to offer for the common good?"

    • None (ouch!)
    • I kind of struggle with this a bit . . . maybe a little money
    • Wrong day to ask!  (I understand that feeling) 

But these cards hurt my heart.  Now, these responses could mean one of two things.  These people could mean that they have spiritual gifts, just none they want to share.  But the common good is what spiritual gifts are for.  "To each," Paul writes, "is given the manifestation of the Spirit" not for our own use or for our families, but all gifts, he says are "for the common good."  Our gifts and talents and skills are not our own; they’re God’s.  And God’s Spirit entrusts them to us for the good of all of us.

So it’s sad when someone doesn’t want to share their spiritual gift.  But it’s even sadder when someone thinks they don’t have a spiritual gift.  For the theological truth, Paul says, is that God has given gifts to each--not to some people, and not to almost all, but to everybody.  And it is the task of ministry to help people identify and claim their spiritual gifts.  So when anyone struggles to answer the question, "What gifts do you have to share for the common good," it means that our ministry—my ministry—hasn’t yet been effective for that person, that more ministry is called for. 

Sometimes children and youth think, "I don’t have anything to offer yet."  Not true!  Kids already serve as ushers and greeters and acolytes.  Kids already invite other kids to TMI and take part in project Sunday school presentations.  And kids can do, well, almost anything.  Just ask or sign up.  Every spiritual gift matters.

Sometimes I hear from senior citizens, "I can’t do much any more.  You probably don’t need me."  Not true!  I know it must be difficult not to be able to do some things you used to do.  Spiritual gifts may have to change over time.  But can you write caring notes?  Can you sit by a door and say, "Welcome to Maple Grove?"  Can you make phone calls to check on people?  Can you pray?  Every spiritual gift matters.

Sometimes it’s a matter of low spiritual self-esteem.  People think, "Ah, I’m no good.  I don’t have anything to add."  Not true!  You may feel beat down in spirit.  But the Bible insists that God has given a manifestation of the Spirit to each.  So come see Cathy or me, join a small group, ask for a Stephen Minister--let your sisters and brothers help build you up so that you can see the gifts God has given you.  Every spiritual gift matters. 

So Every Spiritual Gift Matters is a factual statement.  It’s the way it is at Maple Grove.  And Every Spiritual Gift Matters is also a theological truth—it’s how God made us or life together.  But there’s one more thing about Every Spiritual Gift Matters:  it’s also a vision for us to live into.

One reason I say this is that I am painfully aware we don’t always get this right.  A few months ago I talked to someone who had joined Maple Grove but had decided to transfer to another church.  She joined a group here but never quite felt part of it.  She volunteered for one of our ministries, but didn’t feel appreciated.  I don’t know what happened, why the connections didn’t work.  But she felt like her gifts didn’t matter here.  And our vision is that Everybody Matters.

I talked one time to a long-time Maple Grove member who expressed disappointment that no one from the church came to her home while her husband was dying.  It could have just been a communication problem, but she felt like they didn’t matter.  And our vision is that Everybody Matters.

When we sent out the letters for Christmas in July, one person wrote back, "I only hear from the church when you’re asking for money."  Now of course that’s not really true.  They get the newsletter every month, and they get emails about the CROP Walk and Sunday school classes and special worship services.  But see, it wasn’t really about money.  That person felt like they didn’t matter to the church.  So I called them.  And I visited them.  And I visited again.  Why?  Because our vision is that Everybody Matters.

As the people of Israel dreamed of returning home from exile, they weren’t just dreaming of a geographical place.  They were dreaming of a life where they all mattered—mattered to God and mattered to one another.  Here’s how the prophet Jeremiah expressed their dreaming:  "And they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord."  Nor shall any be missing.

It is a fact at Maple Grove—Every Spiritual Gift Matters.  The variety of your Friendship Card responses is the proof of that.

And it is a deep theological truth—God has given to each a gift of the Spirit for the common good, no excuses and no exceptions.

And whenever we fall short, it becomes our vision and our commitment:  At Maple Grove, Everybody Matters.

1 C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 284.


Revelation 7:9-14

From All Tribes and Peoples and Languages

October 4, 2015   World Communion Sunday Maple Grove UMC

The multitude that gathers around God’s throne in heaven, Revelation says, is from all tribes and peoples and languages.  That’s quite the World Communion Sunday kind of scene!  Heavenly is a wonderfully multi-cultural place.  But increasingly that’s the kind of crowds we see here on earth as well.  It sounds like, oh, New York City.  Or like the United Methodist Church which, as we heard earlier has congregations in at least ten countries in Africa, several European nations, and the Philippines.  Or like Columbus, Ohio, for that matter.  I used to volunteer at Scottwood Elementary School on the East side, which has students whose families come from 28 different countries—that’s challenging but marvelous. 

The heavenly multitude is from all tribes and peoples and languages, a stirring display of inclusiveness.  And World Communion Sunday anticipates and celebrates that heavenly inclusiveness.  Of course, we have to confess that in our nations and in our churches and in our own hearts, this spirit of inclusion is often in tension with a spirit of exclusion.  This was true in the early church.  Jesus died for every sinner in the world—but Jewish believers had trouble accepting Gentile believers, and Gentile believers had trouble understanding Jewish believers.  Europe is struggling right now with how inclusive they will be of refugees from the war in Syria.  And I don’t have to tell you how our own country both generously includes and fearfully excludes immigrants.  Even churches are not exempt from this tension—over 50 years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out that 11 am on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in this nation."  Still true.

Christian faith and World Communion Sunday give us a new perspective on this tension between inclusion and exclusion.  "Reading the newspaper," Barbara Brown Taylor says, "I see a map of the world with symbols denoting war, earthquake, famine.  There are black lines separating this country from that, this people from that.  I note with some relief that the area in which I live is free of symbols.  I look once and think, "Thank God, I’m an American."  I look twice and think, "God help me, I’m an earthling."1  All of us are God’s people, no exceptions. 

In light of the heavenly multitude from all tribes and peoples and languages, this tension between inclusion and exclusion melts away.  We know that there’s no US part of heaven, no Korean corner in heaven, no section of heaven for Africans.  There’s just heaven, with forgiven sinners from all tribes and peoples and languages standing together before the throne of God.  And what is that prayer we say?  Our Father, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen?

This scripture and World Communion Sunday also give us an opportunity to stand in solidarity with Christians around the world who have been, and still are being, persecuted for following Jesus Christ.  Revelation says that the ones gathered around God’s throne are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal, probably referring to the persecution of Christians under the Roman emperor Nero.  Blaming Christians for the great fire in Rome in 64 A.D., Nero crucified Christians, fed them to wild animals, set them on fire. 

Even today, the organization "Open Doors" says that every month 322 Christians are put to death for their faith, every month 214 churches or Christian properties are destroyed, and every month 772 violent acts are committed against Christians because of their faith.2  I know that some Christians in this country feel mistreated, but on World Communion Sunday let’s be grateful for the for our very real freedom of faith and let us stand in solidarity with these believers who are being truly persecuted.

A lot of people think that the Book of Revelation is mostly about the end of time, what will be some day in the future.  But that’s not quite it.  As one teacher puts it, "The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be.  [The triumph of God’s people] will be because it is the fundamental truth . . . of God."3   In the same way, people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages gathering around the throne of God is not just what will happen in heaven some day; it is the fundamental reality of life with God, even though we don’t yet fully live it out. 

At the "Circles of Grace" meeting this past Sunday evening, one of the leaders told about going to church during a trip to the Ukraine.  It was an Ukrainian Orthodox church and he couldn’t understand a word that was said--until they got to the part where the priest lifted up the bread and cup, and then, he said, I knew exactly what he was saying.  And suddenly it strikes us how all tribes and peoples and languages really are one in Christ—not some day in heaven, but right now, in the breaking of the bread.  May it be so on earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), 45.

2, accessed 10/1/15.

3 Balmer H. Kelly, "Revelation 7:9-17," Between Text and Sermon, Interpretation (July 1986), 294.



Connect with Us

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