Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God

Isaiah 56.6-8

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

 

“Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!”

So shouted the throngs of white people in Charlottesville last weekend. They carried tiki torches burning in the night, they marched in formation, and they shouted for all to hear what they really felt.

Their anti-Semitic slogan could have gone any number of ways. While carrying around Nazi flags and weapons of violence, while defending white superiority and aggression, they could’ve shouted “Blacks will not replace us!” or “Homosexuals will not replace us” or “The Handicapped will not replace us!”

All of those groups were targeted by the Nazi regime more than half-a-century ago for being “inferior” or a threat to their dominance. The angry and assailing white people in Charlottesville could have picked any number people to shout about, but they picked the Jews. They were there to protest the removal of a Confederate Civil War General’s statue, many of them claimed to be there to protect their white Christianity, and yet they announced for everyone to hear, “Jews will not replace us!”

White Supremacists March with Torches in Charlottesville

People reject other people for all sorts of reasons. White supremacists reject those who represent everything antithetical to their values. Hardline Democrats often reject neo-Conservative values (and vice-versa). Some even reject people for the sport team they root for.

But in the realm of the church, in Christianity, to reject Jews, or any other marginalized group, is simply unchristian. For in God’s vision of the holy mountain, Christians are the gentiles who are gathered to join the Jews. We are the outcasts, the foreigners, the outsiders grafted into God’s great communion. To reject the outcast is to reject ourselves.

There are a great number of Christian churches in the world today with a wide array of views and theologies. In the US, the number of Christian denominations increases every year while the number of actual Christians is falling. And though the church is so varied and different, there is one thing that might unite all churches: the desire to appear as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

All you need to do is check a church website or a bulletin and you can find descriptions of the church that all say something like: we are an open, friendly, inclusive, and welcoming congregation.

In our denomination, we say we have open hearts, open minds, open doors.

Inclusivity is quite the buzzword in the church these days. Rather than appearing at all judgmental, we want people to know that we accept all people. Rather than seeming prejudiced, we want everyone to know they are welcome. Rather than looking at people based on their outward appearance, we want the world to know that we care more about the content of one’s character.

But the truth is there are a great number of people who have been ignored, if not rejected, by congregations claiming to be inclusive. Including our own.

Much like the droves of people protesting in Charlottesville last weekend, we reject others for all sorts of reasons. Non-Christians often assume, thanks to the way the church is talked about in the greater world, that Christians are homophobic, or racist, or elitist, and now anti-Semitic. And you know what, some Christians are. And we should be ashamed for the horrible rhetoric of our past, we should repent for what we have done even if we weren’t there, because whenever the church has rejected “the other” we are forgetting the truth that we were once the rejected outsiders welcomed by God.

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There’s an old story that preachers love to tell about being inclusive and it goes like this: A church was in the middle of a worship service one Sunday morning, the preacher was up in the pulpit, and from where he stood everyone in the pews looked perfect. They were all wearing their Sunday best, the children were all quiet and well-behaved, and no one had fallen asleep. But while the preacher was preaching, a young man entered the back of the church as if he had just come off the street. He smelled up to high heaven, and the congregation quickly moved from focusing on God’s Word to wondering if one of the ushers was going to usher him out.

But the young homeless man walked down the center aisle and took a seat on the floor right in front of the pulpit. The congregation sat stunned while the oldest usher made his way down to the front and instead of berating the young man, he slowly made his way to the floor and sat next to him.

The preacher, witnessing all of this, said to the church, “You all can forget everything I say today, but don’t ever forget what you just saw happen here at the front.”

It’s a nice story right? We can all imagine ourselves in a church setting like that. It even makes us all warm and fuzzy to think about witnessing a holy moment in front of a pulpit.

But the problem with a story like that one is the fact that it makes the church out to be the kind of people who do all the accepting, instead of giving thanks to God for being the One who accepts us in the first place.

It results in us worshipping ourselves instead of worshiping God.

The prophet Isaiah had a tall order. The Israelites were returning from captivity in Babylon to a confused place they’d never even seen. The Word from God came to those who were returning, to those who were too poor to have been exiled in the first place, and to the foreigners who found themselves in a politically unstable part of the world. All of them were unsure of their future when Isaiah offered them a vision of a place where all of them have a place.

It is radical and unnerving Word to those of us with modern sensibilities, whether we’d like to admit it or not, but in God’s kingdom… everyone has a place, including us.

Prior to the return from the exile, membership in God’s community was largely based on being born into the right family, but the vision of who God invites to the holy mountain has nothing to do with genetics, or cultural customs, or skin-pigmentation, or even sexual orientation, but rather on behavior – keep the Sabbath, obey the covenant.

Who we are as Christians is not about what we look like or whom we spend our time with. It’s about loving God and loving our neighbors. God doesn’t even care what church we go to, though Cokesbury is the best one around, God simply hopes for us to live our lives in such a way that we honor and protect every person created by God.

This text, this proclamation from the prophet is good news to the outcasts – to those on the margins of life. It is good news to those who are belittled for their identity, for the people who are not welcomed in many churches on a Sunday morning, and for those who are shamed by the media.

But it is also good news for us, because we are outcasts as well. We are gentiles who have been graciously grafted into God’s vision of a mountain where all are invited to a house of prayer for all people. The good news of this text is that we, not just the people who aren’t here yet, but we are invited to this place even though we don’t deserve it.

And there’s the challenge with being an inclusive church; being inclusive puts all of the power in our hands. But God is the one who invites people to the mountain; God is the one gathering them, not us… because if it were left up to us, we would fail.

Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered. Being inclusive of all peoples means the people on the margins, the ones who suffer at the hands of those in power. But it also means the people in power, the people who thirst for power, the people who are violent for the sake of power.

What happened in Charlottesville last week was terrible, and what makes it even more terrible is the fact that what happened there also happens here in small ways every day.

The practice of racism and bigotry is incompatible with Christian teaching.

To gather together with torches and chants of “The Jews will not replace us!” is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Using tactics of violence and oppression to assert white superiority is incompatible with Christian teaching.

If you turned on the news at all this week and saw what happened in Charlottesville you caught a glimpse of evil. White men and women shooting pepper spray into the faces of black men and women is sinful and shameful. A white man driving a car into a crowd to indiscriminately hurt and main and kill is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. An armed militia marching to intimidate and threaten others does not make sense in the kingdom of God.

And it’s much more than what happened in that sleepy little down. The high rate of incarceration that is so heavily skewed toward black bodies is antithetical to the gospel. The muttering of racial slurs and religious discrimination that happens here in our community is offensive and wrong. The assumption that white is right and black is bad, in whatever way, shape, and form it manifests itself, is incompatible with Christian teaching.

From the riots in Charlottesville, to the backyard barbeque racism of Woodbridge, we are a fallen people in need of grace.

And this is why the vision of God’s holy mountain is so important today in particular. Because it is far too easy to talk about loving and including others, it is way too easy to condemn a group of people for the way they treat others, when the very people we are meant to love and include are not just the people on the margins, but also the people responsible for the riots and the racism.

If the vision of the holy mountain and the house of prayer were left to us to achieve, it would never happen. Our judgments and our fear of the other would prevent us from ever bringing that vision to fruition. We, like the Israelites coming home from captivity, or the ones who were left behind, or the foreigners witnessing it all from the outside, can scarcely imagine what it would look like to have everyone gathered together by God.

Only God could make that vision a reality. Only the Lord has the power and the freedom to gather all to the holy mountain. For our God is in the business of making the impossible possible. Our God makes a way where there is no way. Our God sees us not for the sins of our past but for the potential of our future. God sees the people responsible for the riots as sinners who are not outside the realm of mercy. God sees the racist tendencies of our culture and begins transforming perspectives through little seeds of faith that germinate in ways we can scarcely imagine. And God sees us as the sinners we are; God knows how judgmental we can be in our heart of hearts and beckons us to turn back.

God’s vision of the holy mountain, of the house of prayer, is for all: the oppressed and the oppressor, the powerful and the powerless, the rioters and the peacemakers. Only a God who would give his only Son to change the world could prepare a place where all are welcomed. Only a God of impossible possibility could invite people like us into the fold. Only a God of mercy could open the house of prayer for all people. Amen.

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What Are You Doing Here?

1 Kings 19.9-18

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.

I wrote a B- sermon this week on the palpable silence of 1 Kings 19. In praying over the text I felt God nudging me to write about the need for the absence of sound in our lives in order to really hear what God has to say. I had stories picked out about times in my life where I was particularly silent and how transformative they were for me.

The whole worship service, in fact, was planned around the topic of silence, about the need to listen more than speak. And last night, after returning home from the wonderful Ice Cream Social that we had, I turned on the news and realized that my sermon had to go; that I need to start over, because the Lord was speaking and it was time for me to listen.

A few months ago, the overwhelming majority of the City Council in Charlottesville, VA voted to remove a confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee. Lee is somewhat of a beloved figure here in the state of Virginia; people love him without really knowing much about him. And so when the city decided to remove a statue in his honor, people went ballistic. On one side there were people who were thrilled that the city was finally willing to be bold enough to take steps in a new direction, willing to ask themselves hard questions, and willing to publically declare where they were. And on the other side, there were people who were outraged that a man of great respect and honor in history was going to be torn down as if he never really mattered.

And then people stopped talking about it. Weeks and months passed until this weekend when the fever pitch of outrage began to resonate in new and frightening ways.

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Groups from all over the country met in Charlottesville this weekend to protest the removal of the statue, to stand in affirmation of the City Council’s decision, and some with hope to hold the peace.

When I turned the news on last night I saw what I thought was the National Guard entering Charlottesville to keep the peace, but in fact what I saw was armed militia’s from across the country, bearing arms and other weapons in order to name and claim there side.

I saw what I thought were clergy standing tall in protest but then I saw them pushed and spit on and berated by the throbbing crowds. I saw what I thought was a group of young people marching to protect the lives of the protestors, but in fact it was a group of neo-Nazis carrying torches and chanting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

The news then broke to a reporter meeting with different individuals, and she asked them all the same question: “What are you doing here?”

The first man was about my age wearing an army helmet with a rifle hung lazily over his shoulder. He was staring directly into the camera while the reporter asked her question and he responded without hesitation: “I am here to stand up for my freedom. People keep trying to destroy my white heritage and my white church. I am here to stand for free market economics. I am here to destroy the Jews.”

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was older with a long scraggly beard hanging below his neckline. Every thing he said came out as a shout and because it was on the radio they had to bleep out every time he shouted the N-word. He was clearly angry, but his anger was unintelligible.

“What are you doing here?”

The next man was young and was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, but before he was able to answer the reporter’s question, angry protestors were pushing forward to him in order to prevent him from speaking.

“What are you doing here?”

Yesterday afternoon a young white man got into his car and drove it into a car of protestors in favor of removing the statue; one of the bystanders was murdered and dozens were injured.

“What are you doing here?”

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Before Elijah’s encounter with the Lord, Queen Jezebel sent a messenger to the prophet telling him that she intended to kill him that very day. Elijah ran for his life and he journeyed into the wilderness. Prior to the cave, Elijah collapsed under a shrub and prayed for God to take his life because he felt worthless, but God sent an angelic messenger who cared for him until sending him on his way. And that’s where our story begins.

Elijah came to a cave and spent the night. In the morning the voice of the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” The prophet responded with, “Lord, I’ve been a good prophet. I’ve told the people what they were supposed to do, I even struck down the false prophets, but now I’m all alone and people are trying to kill me.”

God, evidently disappointed with Elijah’s answer, commanded the prophet to stand on the mountain. First, there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, there was the sound of sheer silence.

When Elijah heard the silence, he went to the mouth of the cave and the Lord asked him again, “What are you doing here Elijah?”

Elijah was a prophet, but he was also a revolutionary. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. He was a defender of the Lord and an enemy of corrupt leaders within his own community. He even killed false prophets. His revolutionary credentials are what make him so important in the New Testament where people were constantly wondering if Jesus was the new Elijah.

What made Elijah revolutionary was his commitment to a world where widows, orphans, and strangers were protected against terrible economic situations and a world out of control. Elijah was like the person more concerned with whether or not the people at Rising Hope have something to eat than what President Trump recently tweeted. Elijah was like the man at the hospital arguing with the intake nurse that someone had waited too long before being treated. Elijah was like couple that did not hesitate to become a foster family for those in need.

And yet Elijah fled. Most of us would’ve done the same. When we feel overwhelmed by the world, by the responsibilities, by the commitments, we run. We flee from helping those who cannot help themselves. We run from the hectic nature of this world to vacation destinations and terrible reality shows. We flee from breaking news reports about the possibility of nuclear geopolitical tensions in a stiff drink or the bottom of a bottle.

It is there, in the caves of our own making, we wait for a word from the Lord. Like Elijah, we wait for God to tell us exactly what to do, or we wait for God to fix all of those external problems, or we wait and hide because we’re not sure if God’s even out there any more.

And that’s when God shows up not with an answer, not with a solution, but with a question, “What are you doing here?”

Being in the presence of God, whether mundane or majestic, is all about being inspired and transformed. Who we were fades into something new and wonderful because God is the one changing, morphing, and moving us.

But Elijah was the same after the experience of silence as he was in the cave; his response to the divine question was the same. He was not changed. The earthquake, wind, fire, all of them were distractions. God was not in any of them. They are a reminder that when we are desperate we are tempted to look for God in all the wrong places, when God is the one looking for us!

We look for God in the big bombastic language of a preacher promising prosperity, or in the raise at work that we think will finally make us financially comfortable, or we look for God in the broken relationships that will never be what they once were.

God’s question to the prophet is important because Elijah’s answer was wrong. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “O God, I’ve done everything that I can and now I’m the only one left.” Elijah was not alone. There were still thousands of individuals who remained faithful to the covenant. And then God commanded Elijah to “go” because there was still work to do.

And this my friends is grace: Despite Elijah’s fears and failures, his inability to remember the God who called him to be a prophet in the first place, God did not give up on him. God still had work for him to do.

But Elijah could not hear the call to go, until he experienced the sheer silence. For it was in the sheer silence he remembered who he was, and whose he was.

I like to think that we live in a better world than the one we inherited. I like to look at the history books of the past to see how far we’ve come. I am grateful that our church has people in in who do not look like, I am grateful that there are no longer water fountains that say “Colored” and “White.” I am grateful that our children sit in classrooms full of people from all over the world with every shade of skin pigmentation.

But when I turned on the news last night, I realized that maybe we haven’t really come that far at all. Maybe we’ve congratulated ourselves too much for being progressive, because friends there is still work for us to do.

God in scripture is a God for the margins. God, again and again, stands with those who are persecuted and martyred and belittled. And throughout the bible, God implores all of the prophets to be mindful of those who are without, those who are suffering, and those who are forced to the margins of life.

We can distract ourselves from the suffering of the people around us, we can go to the right grocery store and the right shopping center in order to avoid the differences of our community, but we worship a God who was born into the suffering of the world, who was born to parents who do not look like anyone in this room.

There are and will be times in our lives that are so overwhelming that we can lose perspective. Like the powerful prophet, we can be pushed too far from our identity and we can retreat into caves of denial.

We can tell ourselves that what happened in Charlottesville will never happen here, but it does every day in some small way, shape, or form.

            We can tell ourselves that the angry white folk in Charlottesville are fringe racists, but they are here in this community too, they are our parents and brothers and sisters and neighbors. They are mumbling in their cars whenever they pass a black man on the street, and they spit words of hate at black women in parking lots.

            We can tell ourselves that we’re in a better world than the one we inherited, but Charlottesville is but one sign that we’ve still got work to do.

We’ve got work to do because our God is not done with us yet. God is working through people like you and me to make the Kingdom come on earth. God is interrupting our lives whenever we gather in this place for worship, with moments of silence to really confront who we are and whose we are.

God is asking us the same question that the reporter asked the protestors, the same question that Elijah heard in the cave, and how we answer the question defines who we are and whose we are.

“What are you doing here?” Amen.

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…

parables

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.

Who-Is-My-Neighbor

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.

Weekly Devotional Image

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? 

psalm-13

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.