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.

Asphalt Assumptions

Luke 10.25-30a

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…

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Today marks part 4 of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.

Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch that they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us, The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, but during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we are attempting to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.

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I drove into the church parking lot on July 5th, parked the car, and walked into the sanctuary. The light of the sun was streaming through the stained glass windows and everything looked picturesque. It was perfectly quiet so I knelt down on the ground and prayed as I do everything morning. “O Lord, help me to follow your Son in all that I do that I might worthily magnify your name” or something like that.

And then I got up and walked to my office to get working; checked my email, made a few phone calls, and opened up my bible. The phone rang while I was in the middle of reading from the gospel of Luke and I knew it was Ashley calling from the main office. “What?” I answered. “Um…” she said, “Did you see the woman in a bathing suit lying down in one of the parking spaces outside?”

And that’s how it all began.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of her office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closet to the road, was a young woman on her back, wearing a bathing suit, and she looked pretty rough.

“You’re a pastor. Aren’t you supposed to do something?” Ashley said while elbowing me in the ribs.

“Of course I’m supposed to do something,” I said proudly as I started for the door without really knowing what that something was.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

It took awhile to walk across the lawn and the parking lot, and with each step I took I noticed another car driving down the road. Car after car came blazing by while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them so much as slowed down to check on her. I prayed that someone would stop to take care of her, so that I wouldn’t have to, but God wasn’t listening.

She rolled onto her side as I got close and looked at me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house after rush weekend, her bathing suit had small little rips in different places, and she looked utterly bewildered. For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered that I’m a Christian so I said, “Can I help you?”

“I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and twinkle in her eye.

“What happened to you?” I asked before realizing that it sounded remarkably judgmental.

“I’m not sure. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the Fourth of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there,” she said while casually pointing toward the north end of town.

“I tried to walk home,” she continued, “but I lost my phone, and my wallet, and I think I’m still a little messed up, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking lot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

I grabbed her by the hand and helped her up from the ground. As she struggled to steady herself I offered my arm as we walked over to the car.

The great gulf of the lawn and the parking lot from where I found her, to where I parked the car, felt ridiculous. With every two steps we took forward, she began to lean backward and we had to stop and get resettled.

At one point she stopped altogether and looked up in the air. “You should have been there yesterday,” she said dreamily. “The lights and the colors were just like incredible.” Between maintaining her balance and trying to get us to the car, I didn’t have time to notice all the cars that were slowing down to see a bathing suit clad young woman tripping over her own feet in the arms of a young and balding pastor. But I did glance over my shoulder at one point and could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me from afar.

I got her buckled in and asked her to guide me back to her house on the other side of town. It was eerily quiet as we reversed out of the parking lot and I decided to turn on the radio to NPR to fill the void. However, after only listening for a few moments she asked where the voices were coming from so I thought it better to turn it off completely.

As we passed by the post office on Augusta Street she cautioned me against driving too quickly for fear that the government might lock us up forever: “You know they’re always watching and listening to everything!” she said.

While we drove around the corner near the library she acted as if she was on a roller coaster going around a sharp turn. She threw her hands up in the air and shouted, “Wooooooooh I love this part of the ride!”

And when we circled around the park she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

“So, are you like a pastor or something?” she asked abruptly during a moment of clarity and while I was trying to focus on the road. I explained that I was and that she was in the parking lot of the church I serve when I found her. “Well you don’t look like no pastor.” I laughed and began explaining how God doesn’t really care about what we wear to work so long as we work for the Lord, but she wasn’t listening to me. Instead she was humming to herself a tune that sounded vaguely familiar until I realized it was the Star Spangled Banner.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets and she either could not read the street signs or refused to open her eyes to read them at all. The Christian adventure and experience I found myself in was leading me to really wonder about this whole following Jesus thing when we finally pulled up in front of her house.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.”

We sat the in the car for a minute or two while she looked out the window at her house with a strange and detached look on her face. Between the smell and the sight of her in the car, I was ready to be rid of her, but was unsure of how to bring our episode to its conclusion. Finally she reached out her hand toward the handle and I blurted out, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?”

I asked the question with the smallest scrape of Christian compassion, more out of fear than love, and when she did not immediately respond I started to wonder whether or not I had any money in my wallet to offer, or if I needed to walk her to the door to explain to someone what happened.

But then she said, “Honey, this happens to me all the time. Thanks for the ride.” And with that she fell out of the car, picked her self up, and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door. Only after I saw her struggle to find her keys, which she didn’t have, and saw someone open the door and usher her in, did I feel comfortable leaving and driving back to church.

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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For the rest of the day I felt pretty good about myself. After all, I had showed the party-girl mercy and even drove her home. I was the Good Samaritan.

But as the days have passed, and as I have looked out across the front lawn of this church, I’ve thought more and more about my experience. I’ve wondered about the kind of situation she was in that led to her drinking and partying so much that she had no recollection of how she wound up in a stranger’s lawn on the north end of town. What could have driven her to the point of blacking out?

I’ve found myself wondering if she’s doing any better, or if she’s making the same kind of bad decisions. Does she have a family that cares about what she’s doing and where she’s going?

I’ve hoped that she has learned from her mistakes and won’t wind up in the same kind of situation again. How frightening of an experience will it take her to change?

I’ve thought about all the cars that passed her on the morning of July 5th. And I wonder if she was passed out in the parking lot at another church, would I have stopped to help her?

I might’ve been a Samaritan to the woman in the parking lot, but I certainly wasn’t a very good one. I judged her for the kind of behavior that brought her to lie down at this church. I avoided asking personal questions for fear of getting too connected and having to do more than I already did. I didn’t even invite her to come to church one Sunday to experience God’s love at St. John’s.

The Good Samaritan… It’s easier to preach than to practice. So be careful with the whole, “Go and do likewise.” Amen.

Devotional – Isaiah 25.1

Devotional:

Isaiah 25.1

O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

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I felt very stressed during church yesterday. When I arrived in the morning I was dismayed to discover that the boiler was not working properly and we had no heat in the sanctuary. I must’ve gone into the basement five times in order to figure out what was wrong before the worship service began. Instead of taking the proper time to be in prayer and rested for worship, I spent the morning running around with thoughts of pilot lights and water pumps rather than Psalm 19 and God’s presence. Moreover, as the service began I noticed that the sound system was not functioning and I realized I was going to have to use my big preacher voice; instead of entering the sanctuary and singing the opening hymn faithfully, I worried about the lay people who rely on hearing assisted devices that would not be working.

When our service ended I felt drained. Carrying the burden of worship is often enough on its own, but to have the added stressors yesterday was almost too much. (Both the boiler and the sound system have now been fixed, in case any of you were worried). After shaking hands with everyone as they left, my wife, Lindsey, wrapped her arms around me, and told me that she was taking me out to lunch. Without having to explain to her everything that I had been through in the morning, without even mentioning how drained I felt, she read me like a comic book and offered to take care of me.

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We all have many blessings, even when we feel like we are in one of the deep valleys of life. While Lindsey and I drove to lunch yesterday I thanked and praised God for having done so many wonderful things for me: for bringing Lindsey and I together, for appointing me to a church with such loving and caring people, for bringing us to Staunton, for being present with me even when I let the stress of church overpower me. There are times when I find myself praying for others in our church and community, and I forget to thank God for all that he has done for me. It is sad how often I take for granted the incredible grace and mercy of the Lord that has been poured onto my life and I would do better to remember the words of Isaiah while I pray: “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.”

What are some of the wonderful things that God has done for you? Have you thanked God today for the blessings in your life?

Let us be thankful people who praise the Lord for his faithful presence.

On Regretting My Vote

Psalm 13.1-2

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

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Annual Conference always elicits an assortment of emotions for me. At one moment I can feel renewed spiritually and theologically as I listen to some of the great preachers from our conference/denomination as they proclaim the Word of the Lord. At other moments I can feel socially fulfilled as I rekindle friendships with other clergy and laity from Virginia. And still at other times I can feel elated and jovial as I did recently when I witnessed our bishop dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” after we voted to support “Imagine No Malaria.”

However, at other times I can feel deflated and frustrated with our church. Traditionally Annual Conference has been a time of Holy Conferencing when the leaders of the church gather together to have their faith reignited for the kingdom of God. In the beginning of our denomination’s history annual conferences were held to maintain the theological convictions of our connection as the circuit riders were spread other a vast geographical area. It also served to maintain the relationships with fellow disciples as well as a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God. As the decades passed, annual conferences began to focus more on the polity of our church while still providing avenues for spiritual growth. In our contemporary period annual conference is a time when we hear about the focus of the denomination, recommit ourselves to spiritual disciplines, and vote on resolutions that have been put forth for our consideration.

After spending Saturday afternoon deeply entrenched in the reports from various agencies within the church (Report from the Common Table, Report of the Site Selection Committee, etc.) it was time to begin our holy conferencing around the resolutions. We were running behind schedule, as is typical at Annual Conference, and only began speaking about the resolutions at 4:30 pm (thirty minutes before a recess for dinner until the Service for the Ordering of Ministry at 7:30 pm).

It has been no secret that Resolution 1 was one of the most anticipated conversations to take place this year (as was also made evident via the conference hashtag #vaumc14 where many people were anxiously awaiting the resolutions). Resolution 1 was as follows:

 

Resolution 1: “Change Book of Discipline Reference to Homosexuality”

Whereas, as stated in the opening sentence of ¶161F in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Whereas we declare that the following statement found later in ¶161F in the Book of Discipline “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” is inconsistent with the first statement. Whereas medical science has established that homosexuality is a state of being and not a choice and therefore homosexuals are part of God’s creation. [See Amicus Brief filed by American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other related organizations, Hollingsworth vs Perry.] Whereas Scripture is not referring to the loving, consensual, victimless relationships we speak of today. Whereas the words used by Paul as applied to homosexuality are the result of translations and interpretations, these passages are therefore open to alternative interpretations. Whereas Christian marriage is offered to sinners, even when the sin is extreme, but we do not offer it to homosexuals who are living out their lives in love as created by God. Whereas the General Conference has failed to explain why a loving, monogamous relationship is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Whereas the current policies, laws, doctrine and practices of the United Methodist church as documented in the Book of Discipline relating to homosexual relationships creates a double standard thereby promoting discrimination and creating the circumstances that lead to the very behaviors among homosexuals that are abhorred in the Bible, both of which are in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. [“Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22: 37-40); and many other references.] Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and the attendant references to and penalties for homosexuality detailed in ¶¶341.6, 2702.1 and 304.4 from the Book of Discipline and all people be accepted into The United Methodist Church to truly embrace “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” as Christ would have us live.

 

When it came time to hear the resolution, a representative stood before the Annual Conference and explained their position in a way that accurately reflected the above written resolution. As is commonly practiced, the bishop then inquired if anyone would like to speak for or against the resolution. In response a leading elder from our conference offered a motion suspending conversation on Resolution 1 indefinitely so that we, as a conference, could gather in small groups over the next year to begin having conversations about how to move forward regarding this “issue.” Two people then spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke against it.

When the bishop called for us to vote on suspending the conversation, I raised my hand.

As I sat there listening to the murmuring of the crowds while various lay leaders and clergy spoke into the microphones I was overwhelmed by the vitriolic responses from the people both for and against the resolution. It frightened me to see and hear Christian disciples speak so harshly against one another publicly and privately as we gathered to be the body of Christ for the world. When it came time to vote on whether to suspend the conversation or not, I believed that the right and true and faithful thing to do was vote to have the conversation stop. In so voting, I was implicitly hoping and praying that over the next year we, as a church, can faithfully respond to this resolution in such a way that it represents the will of God, not just to be decided by the people gathered at conference (who, in my opinion, disproportionately represent the church).

However, over the last two days I have begun to regret the vote I cast. While reading from the lectionary texts this morning I was struck by the first two verses of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” It seems to me that, as a church, we have been having a conversation about homosexuality for a very long time. People have raised their opinion for the continued language in our Book of Discipline, and others have spoken against it. Moreover, Annual Conference is supposed to be the time that we gather for holy conferencing to experience the will of God and attempt to make it incarnate in the way we live our lives. I have begun to regret my vote because I now believe that I participated in a continual and perpetual denial of the value of the LGBTQ community by putting the language of homosexuality from our Book of Discipline on the back-burner.

This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/).

I regret my vote. I believe the time is now for the UMC to faithfully and finally address the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. But, as a conference, we voted to push the decision back, yet again.

It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit abides in us over the coming year as we continue to have holy conferences. And it is my deepest and sincerest prayer that soon, we, along with the LGBTQ community, will no longer have to cry out like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”

 

Questions: In the End… – Sermon on John 14.5-6, 1 Timothy 2.1-4, and John 13.34

(Instead of a typical ~15 minute sermon from the pulpit, I broke the following sermon up into 3 homilies. I preached the first from the pulpit, the second from the lectern, and the third from the middle)

John 14.5-6

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

1 Timothy 2.1-4

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth.

John 13.34

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.

 

Today we conclude our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, faith, and the church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithfully respond to those questions. Over the last two weeks we have looked at what it means to be “saved” and how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another. Today we are talking about other faiths and how they relate to Christianity. So, here we go…

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John 14.5-6: Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

For nearly an entire semester I sat in the front row for my class on “Hindu Traditions” at JMU. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, and habits. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject and as we came to the conclusion of the class, I was thankful for his ability to open my eyes to the wonders of a great religion.

It was during our last class session that Dr. Mittal asked if there were anything remaining questions before the Final Exam. A few hands raised, mostly questions about the actual exam; Would it be multiple choice? Would it contain essays? But, one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade for Christ” sweater, asked a question that I’ll never forget: “If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”

The room was silent. 

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and flare his nostrils. “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class!”

The disciple Thomas, ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying, questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were going. And Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, truth, and life; rather, he is all of these. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth. 

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From the beginning of the church, this statement has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace in your life, you can only find it through Jesus Christ; hence the strong push for evangelism over the last 2 millennia. Not only did Jesus command the disciples to go to all the nations baptizing everyone in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we have been steeped in our tradition that affirms salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

In the first few centuries the church agreed that outside of the church, there is no salvation. In order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you had to be taught the ways of the church, engage in acts of kindness and mercy, and be baptized in order to find your identity within the body of Christ. Even with the rise of other religions, and the interaction between them and Christianity, we affirm that the only way to God is through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class because of what my fellow student had said to Dr. Mittal. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or illicit some sort of reaction from him. However, perhaps she was being remarkably genuine, concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would continue on a path that would separate him from God.

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

1 Timothy 2.1-4: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.”

Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century (who I have mentioned a number of times from the pulpit) was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and publications there are examples where he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. He dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Once, after a series of lectures, a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you a universalist? Do you believe that everyone will go to heaven?” Barth probably crossed his arms and thought deeply about his response. After contemplating the implications of what he was about to say, Barth answered the young theologian: “That is a great question. Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. Our world is becoming more and more diverse, with differing understandings of Christianity springing up all over the world. Was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross only for those who believe in him, or was it for all of creation?

We might think of the often quoted John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” or the number of instances in scripture where individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, and the unnamed centurion who declared, “Truly this man was God’s Son” at the moment Christ died on the cross) who played remarkable roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God. Every individual has been molded from God’s image and given life through the Spirit regardless of their religious affiliation.

We might think of examples from Christ’s ministry where he did not come for the religious elite, but for the last, the least, and the lost. Jesus shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the outcasts. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but only those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to comes, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, then God’s mercy truly knows no bounds. God’s love is so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to all creation. God’s love has been poured out through Christ’s death and resurrection onto the church, and to everyone outside of the church. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and everyone in between have been caught up in God’s great cosmic victory over death.

In Barth’s response to the young theologian, he deliberately avoided answering the specific question, yet he embodied the kind of hope that all Christians should have; that God’s love is so powerful that he came to die for us, while we were yet sinners; that God’s mercy is so strong that nothing will ever separate us from God; and that God’s grace is so abundant that heaven will be crowded.

After all, “This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved.” Amen.

 

John 13.34: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

During my final year of seminary I served as an on-call chaplain at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay on the hospital property for 24 hours attending the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that occurred throughout our shift. One night, after sitting with numerous families who had just learned that someone had died, after talking with patients just diagnosed with inoperable cancer, after pacing up and down the sterile halls for hours, I found myself in the chapel. A tiny room, no bigger than our narthex, it contained numerous religious materials, a piano, an altar, and a notebook for prayers. Whenever I had a moment I would stop in and pray the prayers out loud, and most of the time it was empty. It became a place of solace for me, a space where I could remove myself from the chaos of the hospital.

Burning Bush in Duke Hospital's Chapel

Burning Bush in Duke Hospital’s Chapel

Every once and awhile I would encounter a Muslim praying on his knees in the corner. We would always politely nod toward one another and continue on with our religious responsibilities. But that night, the night that felt like it would never end, everything changed.

I was standing at the altar, while my companion prayed in the corner, we both spoke in a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all of the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. “Let us pray together” he said. And without discussing the details, without organizing our thoughts, without debating the theological differences and implications, we both began to pray, shoulder to shoulder, for the people we were serving. When our prayers naturally came to their conclusion, we met eye to eye, nodded, and went on our separate ways.

In compiling all of the questions for this sermon series, “What happens to people of other faiths?” appeared more than any other. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, the most significant challenge to, and opportunity for, the Christian church today. Moreover, the rise of atheism further complicates the picture into a varied mosaic whereby the church is challenged to address both those who do not believe and those who do believe, but who believe differently from us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths? I don’t know. We can take Jesus words from John, or other affirmations from scripture and receive very different answers. One of the struggles with being a Christian is that we have to paradoxically affirm both responses, that salvation can only come through the church, and that through Christ all have been saved. “What happens to people of other faiths?” is an interesting question, but in the end, God is the only one who holds the answer. However, a question that strikes at our hearts today is: “How do we relate to people of other faiths?”

Jesus commands all of us to love one another, this is the new commandment. If there is any command from Jesus to obey in our lives regarding other faiths it is this: love one another. In my own life God has used a number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to be a discipleship of Jesus Christ: questions from my secular friends about why I believe, the love expressed by indigenous Mayan women in the highlands of Guatemala, one of the Muslim doctors at Duke Hospital who met me in the depth of suffering for prayer.

What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desire us to be in relationship with others. This means that we have to be willing to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, and people with no beliefs at all. We are called to love one another just as God has loved us. We are not here just to minister to other Christians, but to the whole world. We are called to seek justice and mercy in the world for ALL who are oppressed regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender, economic status, and religious affiliation.

And so, in the great adapted words of John Wesley: Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, though we may not have the same opinion about the role that Jesus plays in the cosmic victory over death, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt, we may. Amen.

Weekly Devotional – 1/27/14

Devotional:

Psalm 15.1-4

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt.

 

“Being a Christian must be so easy,” a friend of mine once said, “You can do whatever you want, just so long as you confess right before you die, you’ll still go to heaven.”

Responding to those kind of comments has always been difficult for me. Yes, we do believe that God’s forgiveness will always come because nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Yes,  you could live your whole life in ignorance of God’s love and mercy, only to discover it in your last days and God would still be there waiting to receive you. However, upon later reflection, I wish I could have responded to that particular comment in the way that Augustine did in the fourth century:

703“Some delude themselves because of God’s mercy. They say: “I still have a little time left to live how I like. Why shouldn’t I live how I like as much as I like and then turn to God later? After all, God has promised to pardon me.” I respond, “True, but he has not promised that you are going to be alive tomorrow.” – St. Augustine, Sermon 339

When Christianity is compartmentalized into “what happens to me after I die?” then all respect and concern for the present is lost. In Psalm 15 we learn about what it means to be welcomed to God’s holy hill, to abide in God’s tent; our faithfulness is far less concerned with our ability to accept God in our last days, than it is about living a life of service and holiness.

A professor of mine once said, “The question should not be, ‘If I die tonight, what will happen to me?’ but instead, ‘If I live for another day, what will I do with it? How will I love God and my neighbor?’”

So, let us all seek to live holy lives in the present. Let us not put off for tomorrow what we can, and should, do today. Let us look at our own lives and ask “am I walking blamelessly, doing what is right, and speaking the truth?”