The Difference That Makes The Difference

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the burden of pastoral responsibility, the connection between fear and disgrace, permission to move on, the spiderweb of the Bible, counter-cultural humility, unpacking reconciliation, and living the prodigal life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Difference That Makes The Difference

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Devotional – 2 Timothy 2.8-9

Devotional:

2 Timothy 2.8-9

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

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A few of my friends recently embarked on a new venture into the world of podcasting. They call themselves “Crackers and Grape Juice” and they regularly interview people about their faith in order to share the conversations with others through the Internet. One of their regular interviewees is Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, who truly has the gift of preaching. In a recent interview they asked Fleming about her love of scripture and her response was powerful: “If I love scripture, it is because my grandmother read me those stories when I was a child. The role of someone we love, loving us enough to read us scripture, makes all the difference.”

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What do we think of the bible? Is it a text that we are called to master like a subject from school? Should we memorize the facts and dates like a work of history? Should we analyze the literary techniques like a famous work from Shakespeare?

Today, in the lives of Christians, the Word of the Lord is often chained to the realm of the church. If we want our children to learn about the bible, we send them to a Sunday School classroom. If we have a friend grieving the loss of a spouse, we recommend that they go speak with a pastor. If we are unsure about how to encounter a troubling topic, we ask to hear a sermon about it in worship.

But, as Paul reminds us, the word of God is not chained! The bible demands our attention and our affection. It yearns to be read and savored. It should not be relegated to the confines of a church building and should instead sit at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community.

Can you imagine how all children would feel about scripture if someone they loved took the time to read them the stories? Can you imagine how differently you would feel about the bible if someone took the time to read it to you when you were younger?

The call of Christians, all Christians, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. We remember the great stories of the bible when we gather together in worship on Sundays, but that is not enough. We remember the greatness of the risen Lord whenever we share his gospel with the people we love: our families, friends, and neighbors. We remember the acts and grace of God whenever we sit down with one of our children and grandchildren to tell them about how Jesus changed our lives. We remember the resurrection when we believe the Word of God is unchained and worthy of our time.

Authorized for What? – Sermon on Matthew 21.23-32

Matthew 21.23-32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to the, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

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Jesus does what Jesus wants. He has gone all over Galilee proclaiming the Good News, bringing sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. He has fed the multitudes miraculously, walked on water, and calmed the storm. He entered the holy city of Jerusalem on the back of a derelict donkey, charged into the temple and drove out the money-lenders while overturning the tables. Radical and revolutionary, Jesus does what he wants, and now the chief priests and the elders want to stop him in his tracks.

“Who in the world do you think you are? Who gave you the authority to do these things?” Of course, “these things,” refer to him cleansing the temple, curing the blind and lame, feeding the hungry, providing for the poor, listening to the weak, and giving hope to the hopeless. The question has been posed to Jesus before, but never has the question been more ominous; Jesus is in enemy territory and those asking the question will constitute the court that will later sentence him to death by crucifixion.

What gives you the right to come in here and tell us how we are supposed to understand the world?” They do not really want an answer to their question. Instead, they are seeking an opportunity to trap Jesus by means of his response. So Jesus does what he wants: He ignores their question for the moment and proposes a counter-question that they too cannot answer without getting in trouble.

“I will ask you a question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests and the elders argue among themselves about how they can answer. This is a classic Catch-22; “If we say his baptism was from heaven then Jesus will ask why we did not believe him and have him beheaded, and if we say it was an earthly thing the crowds will revolt against us because they all regard John as a prophet.” Caught in a dilemma of their own making, they recognize that there is no way they can answer the question without putting themselves in a worse position, so they answer with the answer that students have relied on for centuries, “We do not know.”

I imagine then, that Jesus smiled while saying, “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

Rev. Dr. Warren Smith

When I was in seminary a professor named Warren Smith led my class through the great wonders of Church History. We studied some of the greatest theologians and mapped the various trajectories of theological positions that have brought our church through the centuries. After a semester of heavy reading and writing, Dr. Smith ended his final lecture with a story…

When he was a young pastor he was appointed to a church fresh out of seminary and did his best to proclaim the Word, serve those in need, and live into God’s kingdom on earth. For months the church listened deeply to his sermons and prayers, and grew in their love of God and neighbor. However, there was one older woman who never spoke to Dr. Smith after worship. She would sit patiently in her pew, unaffected by his words and gestures, and would return to the parking lot without saying a word to the young pastor. That was the typical routine until one Sunday she made her way in the receiving line following church.

Who do you think you are?” she began. “To come into this church and tell us how to live our lives. I have been a Christian longer than you have been alive. What could you possibly teach me about what it means to follow Christ?” And with that, she left.

Her words struck deep in Dr. Smith’s soul. Was she right? What could he possibly teach someone who had been following the Lord for decades when he had just graduated from seminary? Dr. Smith however, is not one to go gently into the night.

The following Sunday, Dr. Smith made his way to the pulpit and began to preach with words that resonated throughout the sanctuary: “I know I may look young from this pulpit. I know that some of you might be concerned with my ability to preach and teach in this church considering my age. But when I stand in this pulpit I AM 4,000 YEARS OLD. I speak with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before me. I am equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Good News of Christ because the Lord is with me even to the end of the age.”

“So too,” he said to my class, “remember that you have been authorized to do incredible things and you are older than you think.”

When Dr. Smith’s authority was challenged he responded by recalling the great tradition of the living Word that is brought forth into new life on a regular basis. He looked back in order to look forward. He validated his responsibility by acknowledging his earthly youth while at the same time affirming his divine wisdom through the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus’ authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders he responded with an unanswerable question, and then with a parable. The parable becomes the lens by which they can see their error and envision a proper understanding of God’s reign in the world.

What do you think? There was a man with two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses, but later he changed his mind and went to work in the field. The father went to the second son and asked him to work in the field as well. The second son agrees to work, but never went to the vineyard. Which of these two sons did the will of his father?

The chief priests and elders respond in unison, “the first.” It is obvious that even though the son refused to work, the fact that he did, in the end, is far better than the son who agrees to work and never enters the vineyard. Jesus then uses the parable to draw the unmistakable conclusion that they, the chief priests and elders, are the second son who has failed to do the father’s will. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. John came in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but they did. Even after you saw what he did, you did not change your minds and believe. You preach and preach, but you never practice the words you proclaim.

Jesus responding with a parable is typical of the gospels, and helpful for bringing about new understanding. He uses a story in order to open up the kingdom of God to show that it works in a way that is approachable and livable.

What do you think of the parable? In your faith journey do you feel like the first brother? Was there a time that you rejected the calling of God on your life, refused to believe, only to find yourself caught up in the grace of God and working in the vineyard of the kingdom? Is your faith vibrantly alive and fruitful?

Or do you feel like the second brother? Was there a time that your faith was so alive that you were willing to say “yes yes” to God’s call on your life only to find yourself apathetic to the work of the church in the kingdom? Is your faith stagnant and fruitless?

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Individually, we can respond to God’s call in faithful ways by reaching out to others in our community and letting God’s love abound in their lives through our actions. But collectively, as a church, it can be quite difficult to be Christ’s body for the world.

This week I met with a handful of other Methodist clergy from the valley and we discussed our local churches, some of the challenges facing our congregations, and the fruit that has come forth during our time of service. We talked about new ministry ideas that might help share the Good News with people in our communities while also affirming the many challenges of being the church for the world today. But, to be honest, most of the conversation was a time for the leaders to complain about the lack of enthusiasm in their churches, their inability to see the call of the church and the mission of God in the world. At one point a friend of mine shook his head and said softly, “It can be so depressing to hear that most of our churches are far more concerned with maintenance, than mission.

One of the hardest things to admit, as a church, is that we are more often like that second son than the first. After all, here we are sitting in the vineyard, preparing to go out to harvest the grapes. But as Christians, we can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. How sad is it that “church work” can quickly degenerate into conversations about maintaining our building, with no excitement about what God’s living Word and grace are doing in our community? How sad is it that the majority of our conversations and budget are focused on making sure that the church will still be here next Sunday instead of focusing on the renewal of the church and the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? Like the second brother we say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path. 

I’ll admit that our church is changing, we are slowly moving away from the maintenance model and are becoming lively and excited about the ways we can be Christ’s body for the world. We are no longer content with just being a building where people can sit together on a Sunday morning. A church is not a building. A church is the work of the people for the vineyard, for the kingdom.

Jesus was authorized by his father in heaven to do the will of God on earth. To overturn the tables in the temple, to call out the leaders of the people for their hypocrisy and limited vision, to seek out the last, least, and lost, to bring them a sense of wholeness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to make disciples.

In the same way, Christ has authorized us to be his body for the kingdom of God. Today we have the remarkable responsibility of acting like God’s son, and the first son from the parable; even when we doubt our responsibility to the mission of God we are needed in the vineyard.

What are we doing as a church? Are we giving our tithes and offerings to God so that the church will stay open, so that we can hear an articulate and thoughtful 15 minute sermon every week. Are we content with letting our discipleship look like maintenance?

What are we doing as Christians? Are we radical people who believe that God continues to do amazing things in the world? Do we hope and pray for God’s will to really be done here on earth among us?

We have been authorized to do great and wonderful things in the world. Let us remember and believe that the Lord will provide, that nothing will ever separate us from God’s love, and that we have been called to work in the vineyard.

Amen.

Take Up Your (Cross) Collar – Sermon on Matthew 11.25-30

Matthew 11.25-30

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such is your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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I wonder what the disciples thought when Jesus said, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Bartholomew probably nodded along in agreement, James and John might have clapped in approval, but there’s a chance that Peter said what I think whenever I come across this passage: “Is he serious?

I mean, in reality, it would seem that what Jesus is talking about here is rather ironic. My yoke is easy and the burden is light? Coming from the one who said: take up your cross and follow me, those who wish to save their life must lose it, sell all of your possessions and give to the poor, let the dead bury the dead, is it easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven… it seems a little paradoxical for him to claim that is yoke his easy and the burden is light. 

When we take a step back and look at the greater picture of this address, Jesus’ invitation is not to the work burdened, nor the sin-burdened, but to the law burdened, to those who felt the heavy weight of religiosity. At a time when law observance was followed by some to a ridiculous degree, Jesus triumphantly invited the weary to come to him for rest.

The promise for the weary is not, however, a rest from inactivity. What Christ offers to the tired is not a vacation from the law but a less burdensome way of fulfilling it. At particular points during his ministry Jesus’ interpretation of the law was more lenient (observing the Sabbath) and at other times more stringent (divorce, acts of mercy, forgiveness). The main thrust being that the weighted matters of the law can be simplified by justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

Compared to the other law followers of his time, Jesus is offering a lesser burden of religious existence. Yet, I can’t help but feel that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that Jesus’ yoke is easy and the burden is light.

 

It brings me more joy than I can describe to know that I have been serving as the pastor of St. John’s for more than a year. I have only begun to scratch the surface of our collective story, the way we have all come to know God in our lives, and I look forward to our continued journeys of faith.

Years ago a good friend of mine had just finished his first year in ministry, like me, when the “honeymoon” period came to an abrupt end. They say that the “honeymoon” period can last anywhere from 6-18 months; the church body becomes so excited with a new pastor that they are willing to look past the old problems to envision a new reality of faith. However, as with all things, the honeymoon eventually comes to an end. Honeymoons can end by a simple mistake from the pulpit, a forgotten phone call to a parishioner in need, or simply when the new shiny toy looses its luster. For my friend, the honeymoon came to a screeching halt during a church council meeting.

After serving for an entire year it appeared as if things were finally getting better for the church; they had new visitors attending worship, new programs had taken off, and they even had a few youth present during church gatherings. Some of the lay people had come to describe this new young pastor as the shot in the arm that the church had desperately needed. He was their little Messiah, inaugurating a new age and time for the church when it could return to its former glory.

The church council meeting took place in the damp church basement that smelled of mold and burnt coffee one evening shortly after his one year anniversary. The leadership of the church sat appropriately in the stiff folding chairs and exchanged pleasantries about the comings and goings of town until the real business came to the floor: The much needed update to the curtains in the fellowship hall. He describes the moment as a eternity of debating what color would best accent the needs of the hall where peoples’ feeling were hurt over the color-coordination. And then they talked about replacing the organ, and the sanctuary windows. They talked about the only two children in worship, just two, who were deemed disruptive to the older folk. And when they were done complaining about the children, they started to complain about my friend…

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The shut-in list was passed around the table until it arrived in his lap when someone said, “the only explanation must be that you don’t have this list. Our last pastor made sure that each of them were visited one a week.” “Thats wonderful” my friend replied, “Who visits them?” “The pastor does!” they all agreed in unison.

My friend looked down at the list and read the names of the faithful church members who could no longer attend. While he sat there in silence reading over the list one of the older women spoke up, “this is the way we’ve always done it, and we’ve always been successful

“Successful at what?” he said. “There are 36 names on this list. That means there were 4 more people on this list than there were in church last Sunday. I don’t think you’ve been successful at all.”

And thus the honeymoon came to an abrupt conclusion. 

 

My friend was young, brash, and foolish, and he was wrong. It is part of the pastor’s vocation to visit the shut-ins, to maintain a connection between the people and their church. But he was also right about something; the call of discipleship rest on all of us, not just the pastor.

Once, while I was working on a sermon, I got a call letting me know that a beloved woman from the church I was serving had just been admitted to the local hospital after having a stroke. I remember leaving my my computer and bible open on my desk, and driving straight to the hospital. I sat by her bed and held her hand as she talked to me about everything that had happened to her, her inability to move some of her fingers, her fears about being able to return to the normalcy of life, but the thing that stuck with me most was the last thing she said before I left.

“Thank you for coming to see me,” she said. “I miss my church. I’m so sorry that I haven’t had a chance to come hear you preach, but I’ve been too sick to leave the house and my hearing has gotten so bad. I miss the people. I’ve received a lot of cards that have helped to cheer me up. But you know what? No one has come to visit me. And the only reason you’re here is because I’m in the hospital.

I am a professional Christian. I have it easy. I am paid by you to live out my faith, order the church, preside over the sacraments, proclaim the Word of the Lord, and serve the needs of the community. I attend our committee meetings to help with the ordering of the church, I pray over the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of communion, I preach sermons from this pulpit every week, and when someone has a need I leave what I’m doing to be with them. Going to visit someone in the hospital is what I am called to do. However, one of the hardest things to accept and live into, is our shared commitment to take care of one another.

I went to see that woman in the hospital because I knew it was what I was supposed to do. I went because I am a pastor, but more importantly I went because I am a Christian. When I wear my clergy collar it is a constant reminder that I am called to act, think, live, and behave like a Christian. This collar has become my yoke. It sits uncomfortably around my neck as a constant reminder of who I am and whose I am. Im not proud to admit it but, sometimes, I need to wear it in order to live out my faith. Without this yoke around my neck it becomes too easy to fade into the crowd and forget my obligation to make God’s kingdom alive in the world. I am weak enough that I need to have something like this to help me remain faithful.

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And so I wonder… I ask myself: Did I go see her because it was the right thing to do? Or did I go see her because that’s what you expect me to do?

When you wear something like this around your neck you begin to act differently. It is an inescapable demarkation that I have given my life to Christ to live a radically transformed life that often feels burdensome and heavy, unlike the easy yoke of today’s scripture.

Jesus calls the weary to come to him because his yoke is easy. A good yoke is one that is carefully shaped so that there will be a minimum of chafing for the animal. Jesus’ yoke therefore is one that is supposed to be kind to our shoulders, enabling us to carry the load more easily. But I will be the first to tell you, sometimes the weight feels unbearable.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” In our discipleship we are not merely called to listen to Jesus’ words and reflect on them. In other words, our faith in not one that is limited to the mind. From Christ we are to learn not only to think, but to do. We gather in this place every Sunday to learn by listening and then living out God’s Word in the world. The yoke of discipleship, much like this collar, is not one that Jesus imposes on us, but one that he wore and continues to wear alongside us. 

When the weight of discipleship begins to feel too heavy for me, I call for Christ’s help with the load. I cannot do this on my own for I am a wretched man, full of sin and devoid of glory. Only through Christ’s love and grace am I able to take up my cross, which is to say I am able to take up my collar, and live as a Christian fully and deeply. 

Imagine what it would look like if we all started acting like Jesus here and everywhere. The burden of wearing a collar like this in the world is mine to bear. But think, if you can, how differently you would act if you wore one around your neck. That’s why I have placed 100 collars in our sanctuary this morning. Take one home with you, leave it in a place where you will see it regularly, and when you do, ask yourself, “how would I behave today if that yoke was hanging around my neck?”

Christ is on the other side of your yoke, helping you to carry this burden of being his body for the world; it is not easy being Christian. The cost of discipleship is one that will cost us our very lives. And just as Christ is helping to carry your yoke, so also are we called to help one another.

When we hear about the sufferings within our community we have been given the great privilege to help carry those who are in their deepest valleys while at the same time recognize that we need to be helped through our sufferings as well.

I count myself blessed to serve the needs of this church, to wear this collar that comes at a price, to take Christ’s yoke upon my shoulders because it is through God’s love, Christ’s mercy, and the Spirit’s presence through people like you that the yoke becomes easy and the burden is light.

Let us all put Christ’s yoke upon our shoulders, let us take up our collars to live as Christ’s body for the world, serving the needs of others while lifting up one another in faith.

Amen.