On Disobedience and Mercy

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Molly Williamson about the readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 45.1-15; Isaiah 56.1, 6-8; Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15.21-28). Molly is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Duke University and loves talking about God’s Word. The conversation covers a range of topics including the virtue of YouTube videos, what it means to find reconciliation, the inclusivity of God’s invitation, and what it means to be a Gentile. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Disobedience and Mercy 

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On The Power of Sheer Silence

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Molly Williamson about the readings for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, 1 Kings 19.9-18, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Molly is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament at Duke University and loves talking about God’s Word. The conversation covers a range of topics including the perils of skipping scriptures, how God can speak through silence, and why you can’t ignore the Old Testament. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Sheer Silence

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On Limping With God

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 32.22-31, Isaiah 55.1-5, Romans 9.1-5, and Matthew 14.13-21). The conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to wrestle with God, saying “ho” in church, and how the loaves and fishes bring more than an end to hunger. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Limping With God

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The Cost of Heaven

Matthew 13.45-46

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

In my experience sermons are often very one sided. Someone like me, will stand in a place like this, and tell people like you, what God is saying. But sermons are meant to be more than a monologue, they need to be more than a lecture, they must be more than what I come up with in isolation.

So, I would like some of you to describe heaven for me. What do you think it will look like? Who will be there? What’s on the daily agenda?

 

There was once a man who lived a devout life and toward the end of his days God spoke to him and said, “I am so proud of the way you’ve lived that I’m going to do something I don’t usually do: I’m going to allow you to bring something with you to heaven. You may fill a briefcase with whatever you like and it shall be with you for eternity. Now remember I don’t often make this deal, so make sure you give it some thought.”

So the man did. For weeks and months he wrestled with what he would bring with him to heaven. He made pros and cons lists, he consulted his pastor (who was utterly bewildered by his question) and finally he decided on what to put in the briefcase.

Eventually the time came for the man to die and upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, St. Peter was patiently waiting to greet the man. St. Peter looked him up and down and said, “Hey man, look I’ve gotta ask: what’s in the briefcase? God never lets people bring something inside and he made an exception for you. So, can I see it?”

The man proudly opened his case and showed off 6 gold bars.

St. Peter stood there for a moment and then beckoned for the nearby angels, “Hey everybody, you’ll never believe it. God told this guy he could bring anything he wanted into heaven and he brought asphalt!”

In heaven the streets are paved with gold… Have you ever heard this before? Or maybe the image of heaven inside your mind is a cloud-like place filled with little fat cherubs floating around the air. Or maybe you think heaven is like a never-ending buffet with all of your favorite food.

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I get asked a lot of questions as a pastor. “How am I supposed to pray?” “Where is God in all of this?” “Should I tell my husband what happened?” But the question I’m asked the most, by far, is “What is heaven like?”

Today, when most of us think about heaven, the images conjured in our minds have far more to do with Hallmark than with scripture. Our hopes and dreams about our heavenly reward often reflect what movies and books describe than what the Lord describes.

I wonder if the crowds around Jesus were disappointed when he started talking about the kingdom of heaven. His parables, his long list of comparisons, contain nothing about pearly gates, or endless buffets, or even reuniting with long lost relatives.

The stories Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven are down to earth, literally. At times he talks about the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed. People disregard it and toss it away, but when it takes root it grows greater than any plant and won’t stop growing.

At other times he talks about the kingdom of heaven like yeast being mixed in with three measures of flour. When mixed and baked properly it would’ve been enough bread to feed hundreds of people.

At other times Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sounds less like heaven and more like hell.

And more often than not, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven he compares it to a wedding feast. I like the wedding feast connection because weddings are fun and full of joy and celebration. And, perhaps most importantly, there are always a couple people at the wedding who we never would’ve invited if it was our own, but God’s invitation is not like our invitation.

In today’s short passage, Jesus tells the crowds (and us) that the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

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More than a year ago I was down in Roanoke for the start of Annual Conference. Annual Conference is the once a year opportunity for United Methodist from all over Virginia to get together for prayer, worship, renewal, and church business. I arrived early last year to meet with some of my friends for breakfast, and half of us were about to be ordained in full connection. Though we had all served as pastors for a number of years, we had finally made it through the journey to kneel before the Annual Conference and would now serve the Lord as ordained elders.

And though the time at breakfast was filled with great joy and anticipation, there was also a dark cloud hovering over the gathering. The church is not what it once was and it’s hard to ignore how much it has changed. Gone are the days when one could assume that a church would grow simply by being in a neighborhood. Gone are the days when young couples and families show up on Sunday morning without an invitation. Gone are the days when the church is regarded with high esteem by the surrounding culture.

Last year, as it is now, the church is in a place where just having the doors open is not enough. The church is disproportionately skewing to an older age demographic. And the church is forever suffering under the weight of controversies like the Book of Discipline’s language about homosexuality.

So there we were at breakfast, sharing our excitement about joining the ship of Methodism in full connection, while the ship appears to flooding and without direction. We lamented the church’s current state of affairs, we offered opinions about how we might fix certain items, or how to change certain opinions, and then my friend Morgan interrupted everything.

He said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parables recently, and one in particular. He tells the disciples that the kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” He had been looking down at the table up to this point, but then he raised his head and looked us in the eyes and said, “Do we still feel that way about the kingdom? I mean, are we willing to risk it all, to throw ourselves completely in? Or, at the very least, have we found a pearl in our churches?”

Today the church feels afraid. Few are willing to takes risks, we hold up frightening statistics as a way to guilt people into doing more, and we ask so many questions about the viability of the church going forward. But Jesus doesn’t transform life by scaring the hell out of people. No, Jesus transforms life by helping people like us see how heaven is close at hand.

Morgan’s question has haunted me for more than a year. With all the talk of negativity in the church, with all the fear and frustrations, Morgan turned it all upside down. Where is the pearl of great price in this place? What would I give up everything to possess in the kingdom?

When my son was one month old we brought him to church for the first time. I had taken 4 Sundays off to be at home with Lindsey as we adjusted to life with a newborn, but the time had come to return to the pulpit. I can’t tell you much about the service because I was so sleep deprived that most of it is a blur. But I will never forget the moment Lindsey brought him up to the front to receive communion. Without talking about it ahead of time I took the tiniest piece of bread, dipped it in the cup, and placed it in his mouth.

He has no idea what communion means or even what it is. But for the majority of his little life he has been in church every single week, learning the habits of God in worship, and receiving the body and blood of the one we call Lord. My son knows of no life outside the church. His life has been one defined by the movements not of the world, but by the liturgy.

And seeing him in church, watching him receive communion, hearing him say “amen” without even knowing what it means… I think I would sell everything to keep that.

On Thursday morning I got to church early after working on the sermon a little bit and I discovered a great crowd of people in our parking lot. There were volunteers from Cokesbury, Old Bridge UMC, and from the Salvation Army, and they were all working together to distribute food to those in need. There was no cash box at the front for community members to pay for the food, there was no expectation that they would ever repay us, and (perhaps most importantly) there was no judgment about the fact that they needed food.

I stayed toward the sides of our lot and took it all in for the first time, though I introduced myself to a handful of families patiently waiting for the food. There was one woman who kept her eyes on me while I was moving about and I eventually went up to introduce myself. As I got close she took my hand all she said was, “Thank you. This has saved my life.”

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Experiencing her salvation in our parking lot, seeing the wonder and joy in her eyes, feeling her hope… I think I would sell everything to keep that.

Tomorrow morning we are going to open our doors to all sorts of kids from the community for Vacation Bible School. Some will come from privileged families and will have been here before. Some will come from situations they won’t talk about though it will be clear that the food we offer them will be the first food they taste that day. And a few will come from somewhere in between.

Our volunteers will fill the halls with joy and hope and laughter as we do arts and crafts, as we sing and dance, and as we all learn more about the bible.

Seeing the children and volunteers working together, hearing children excited to learn more about God, seeing individuals interact with one another in a place like this… I think I would sell everything to keep that.

And all of them, from my son in worship, to the woman in the parking lot, to the children in our building will experience the grace of God and they will leave transformed without cost.

In the parable the man sells everything he has for the pearl of great value – the pearl of God’s kingdom is of such importance that merchant gives away his very livelihood to hold on to a little slice of heaven. More important than the money he uses to purchase the pearl is his willingness to trust that the gift of God’s kingdom is more important than any earthly thing.

Friends, the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is not just some place waiting for us in the by and by, it is also something that we can experience here and now. Because the kingdom is something that God is doing, and it is to be received as a gift; a gift like the bread and the cup, a gift like food in a parking lot, a gift like vacation bible school.

The kingdom of heaven is not something that can be acquired, or earn, or purchased; it is a way of being into which we can enter.

This beautiful and brief parable from the lips of Jesus is not about the cost of heaven. It is, instead, a testament to the fact that our response to the kingdom is total, it is everything we have. To be joined up in to this kingdom of heaven on earth, the kingdom that is both here and not yet, means committing our whole beings, without reserve, and with totality.

The kingdom of heaven is a gift that transforms every bit of our lives here and now.

There is no amount of money on earth that can purchase salvation. As the old hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.” But the parable begs us to ask ourselves the same questions that Morgan asked me, “Do we feel like the merchant? Are we willing to risk it all, and throw ourselves completely in? Or, at the very least, have we found a pearl in this place?” Amen.

On The Tricky Wicket

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 29.15-28, 1 Kings 3.5-12, Romans 8.26-39, and Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52). The conversation covers a range of topics including what it takes to find “the one”, reading the bible to someone on Death Row, talking about sex in church, and Jesus’ obsession with parables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Tricky Wicket

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An Altar Call To Dust

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Genesis 28.10-19a, Isaiah 44.6-8, Romans 8.12-25, Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43). The conversation covers a range of topics including Little House on the Prairie, Christian time travelers, being scared @#$%less, altar calls, and growing weeds with the wheat. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: An Altar Call To Dust 

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Don’t Let God Take Care Of Your Garden

Matthew 13.1-9

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

 

“What kind of soil do you have?!” The street preacher was screaming at anyone with ears to hear and most people were moving as far away as possible. The young college students were far more concerned with getting to class on time than they were with the strange man yelling at them, but he persisted.

“Are you receptive to the Word of God?” Many of the people walking across campus at that moment had spent the last few months and years being receptive to the manifold number of new ideas they encountered in their classroom. The man berating them represented the old way of doing things, the unsophisticated, unkind ways of spreading the news. No one so much as even looked him in the eye.

“If you do not receive the Word you will scorch and wither away for all of eternity!” At some time the threat might have caused people to shudder in fear, or at the very least stop in their tracks and contemplate what their eternal reward might look like. But on that day his words were falling on deaf ears, but he just kept getting louder and louder and louder.

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Unlike the street preacher filled with a faulty sense of evangelism, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. He did not frighten people in the midst of their daily lives, he did not berate them in the streets, his life and witness captivated people to his presence and they joined him by the water.

Unlike the street preacher, Jesus did not stand on soapbox or peer down on people from the height of a pulpit, he pushed off from shore in a little boat and sat down to tell them parables.

Parables are meant to be confusing. They are not simple and straightforward comments about the kingdom of God. Instead they are meant to leave us scratching our heads until God says what God wants to say.

Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he threw out the seeds as far as he could, some seeds fell on the path and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they sprang up quickly but were unable to root deeply and were scorched by the rising sun. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked out the growth. Other seeds fell on the good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

Many of us might have gardens, or at the least we’ve planted something at some point in our lives. We’ve taken the time to find the perfect soil, and the right seed, and the optimum sunlight, and the proper amount of water and we’ve patiently waited for the seed to grow. We know, even the non-gardeners among us, the value of being attentive to the seed, soil, sunlight, and water. Which makes this parable all the more strange because the sower is terrible at his job.

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I mean he goes about flinging the seed this way and that. He doesn’t take the time to assess the pH level of the soil, he doesn’t dig small holes for the seed to be covered, he doesn’t even clear the area of other growth before he casts the seed. The sower in the parable is like a businessman who offers loans to people who have no hope of ever paying it back; like a wealthy family giving food to homeless people who will never find employment, like a parent who keeps forgiving a wayward child knowing they will not change, like a church opening its doors to a bunch of sinners who will always fall back.

The sower doesn’t know what he’s doing. Think about all the seeds that he threw in vain, think about all the time he wasted sowing seeds in the wrong places; what a fool.

And yet this is what God is like: God is the sower who scatters the seed regardless of the soil. Our God is a foolish gardener. At least according to the ways of the world.

Jesus shared this parable with the crowds from the boat on the water. But it was not just a story, it’s how he lived his life. Jesus went from place to place offering the grace and mercy of God without concern for the type of people receiving it. He did not overlook anyone as if they weren’t good enough for the kingdom. He did not scream at people until he was blue in the face trying to convince them to follow him. He just went out to sow.

For the early church this was more than a story that resonated deeply. It was hard to be a disciple shortly after the resurrection of Jesus; poverty and persecution, false prophets and poor communication. The early Christians scattered the seed like Jesus and people rejected it. Not because it was wrong or false or faulty, but because sometimes seeds don’t grow, whether in farming or in faith.

For the people of today, it’s more than story that resonates as well. It should ring familiar to the parent whose words of guidance and support fall on the ears of children who do not listen. They know about hard packed soil. It should connect with the business owner who produces a great product only to have the customer seek out a cheaper company. They know about shallow roots. It should ring true with the church that invites families and individuals to experience the love and grace of God only to have fewer people in the pews each year. They know the heartache of bad sowing.

In ministry, and in life, we spend a lot of time lamenting and despairing about the seeds that don’t take root. We spend countless hours reflecting on why something failed, and what we can do to bring new energy to a dead program, or hope to a lifeless tradition. We keep funneling money into places with the expectation that it will make a difference and we just keep seeing the same thing over and over again.

But the Sower in Jesus’ parable doesn’t do that. The Sower accepts the reality that some seeds will never grow and he keeps on sowing anyway. He is willing to throw out the seed anywhere no matter what the soil looks like. The Sower doesn’t return to the rocky ground and fume with frustration when the seeds don’t grow. No, the Sower has hope that by casting the seed anywhere it will eventually find the right soil and grow abundantly.

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve often heard this passage discussed in such a way that congregations are called to reflect on their personal soil. Like the street preacher I heard in college we are forced to ask ourselves: Do I have shallow soil? Am I a patch of barren ground? Do I have well cultivated soil for God’s seed?

Sermons like that leave congregations reeling on their way out, not feeling confused about the parable. Instead, people like you and me leave church feeling guilty about our dirt.

But the parable is not about us! When we limit this story to our soil we neglect to encounter the beauty and the truth of Jesus’ words. If we leave this place only thinking about the soil of our receptiveness we will miss the miracle of God’s grace. The Sower trusts that the harvest will be plentiful, even a hundredfold.

During the time of Christ sevenfold meant a really good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. If a farmer reaped thirtyfold it would feed a village for a year. But a hundredfold, the abundance that Jesus speaks about, would let a farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee.

The Sower therefore, is not foolish and brash in his sowing; the sower is trusting and faithful.

Do we trust like that? Are we willing to scatter the seeds of God’s grace indiscriminately? Are we filled with hopeful expectation?

Or are we afraid? Would we rather keep putting our hopes and trust in earthly things? Do we think we’re better gardeners than the One who created the Garden?

The parable by the seashore is for those with ears to hear. It is not a call for blind and reckless optimism, but a call to trust that God will provide if we are willing to be seeds for others. Because that’s the thing… sometimes God sows us into the strangest and most unlikely of places.

The older man walked into the back of the church as the announcements were being made. He looked uncomfortable sitting in the pew all by himself and held the bulletin at a distance as if it might attack him. When other people stood up to sing he stood as well but remained silent, and then the pastor asked everyone to pass the peace of Christ.

Immediately the sanctuary erupted into a cacophony of sound as people wandered around greeting one another. The man stood alone for the briefest of moments before someone walked up and wrapped their arms around him. The man was so shocked that he just stood there as a few other people walked over to greet him.

For the rest of the service he sat in his pew staring at the ground and did not listen to a word the preacher said.

And when worship ended and people started to filter of the sanctuary the man began to cry. His eyes welled up slowly at first but the longer he sat there the harder he cried. Eventually one of the ushers saw the man and made his way over to make sure everything was okay.

The crying man looked up and asked, “Do you all greet each other like that every week?”

            The usher shrugged and said, “Of course we do.”

            The crying man then said, “That was the first time anyone hugged me since my wife died six months ago.”

Can you imagine what that man must have felt like that morning? Can you picture how he looked sitting in the pew all by himself? And the hug of a stranger at the beginning of worship changed his life.

That man was in no shape to receive the Word. His life had become the rocky sun scorched ground but God had thrown down a seed anyway. Jesus’ story is about more than having the right soil to receive the Word, it’s about the good Sower who spreads the Word.

All of us are here because God sowed a seed in our lives. It might’ve happened when we were really young through a family member, or it might’ve happened recently through a complete stranger, but we are products of the seeds God has sowed.

And our God is a high risk God. Our God flings seeds this way and that. Our God is relentless in offering opportunities to all people. Over and over again in scripture God calls on the last, the least, and the lost to guide, nurture, and sustain God’s people.

We might not want to let God take care of our backyard gardens, wasting seeds left and right. But when it comes to the garden of the church, when it comes to people like you and me, there is no greater gardener than the Lord. Amen.