They said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
I know of a Bishop (thankfully from another denomination) who used to be in charge of recruiting candidates for a local seminary. He would seek out those who felt called to ministry and he would end each and every single interview the same way: with a role play.
He would say, “Pretend I’m not someone from the seminary, but that everything else about my life is true – I’m a 50 something, over-educated, occasionally kind, straight white male. Now… tell me why I should go to church…”
Throughout the years every candidate would mention something about the value of community. But the Bishop would say, “I attend AA and I have all the community support I need.”
Then the candidates would bring up something about reaching out to those in need. But the Bishop would say, “I’m an active member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”
Finally the candidates would make a comment about the power and priority of music in the church. But the Bishop would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”
He recruited for a long time and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything, specifically, about Jesus.
Contrary to how we might imagine it, the church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not the paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all of the community’s musical prodigies. We may have those gifts, but if we’re serious about being the church then we really only have one thing to offer at all: God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Which is just another way of saying: the only thing we have to do is trust (believe) Jesus.
If the church is a business, then it is in the Jesus business. That is: we exist to proclaim the Good News, frankly the best news, that God has seen fit to rectify all we have wronged, that we are loved in spite of all the reasons we shouldn’t be, and that, in the end, we know how the story ends.
And that last claim is important. For, if we already know how the story ends, then we are freed from whatever fears and faults that terrify us.
We are not the main thing in the church. The main thing is Jesus Christ and him crucified, God in the flesh born to live, die, and live again. And Jesus comes to do for us what we can’t, and won’t, do on our own.
It’s why we can call the Good News good. Thanks be to God.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was s shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Advent traditionally starts the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday.
Which is basically the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
And, as God’s people in the world, who live and speak his praise, we know well enough to keep holidays, holy days, in their place.
It’s why we sigh and lament when we see Halloween decorations in the store in the middle of the summer, and Christmas decorations adorning homes before Thanksgiving.
And yet, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent. That is, the time in between the first arrival of Christ and his second coming.
There’s never really been a time for the church that wasn’t Advent – and Advent is its best when we see it as the season of waiting.
So today, despite the power of proper liturgical location, we’re going to have a little Advent. Because if Jesus’ parable is about anything, it’s about waiting.
Listen – Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…
The biggest wedding in a century is about to take place, and the whole community has been abuzz. Did you see her dress? Can you believe all the imported decorations? Is that a real band we hear warming up for the reception?
Ten bridesmaids are waiting from the groom, because what good is a wedding feast if one of the wedding partners is missing?
The wedding is scheduled at 2pm, but the bridesmaids have arrived with plenty of time and with all of their lamps. You see, it was a tradition in this town to welcome the groom with a festival of lights upon his arrival but, seeing as how the wedding was supposed to start in the middle of the afternoon, just as the sun prepares to set, they only brought what they thought they needed.
At least, that’s what half of the bridesmaids did.
The other half, inexplicably, showed up with a couple barrels of kerosene to keep those lamps going even though they wouldn’t need it.
But, unexpectedly, the groom is behind schedule. Hours pass and the bridesmaids can scarcely keep their eyes open when finally, at midnight and with trumpet sound, someone declares, “Behold! The groom is here! The time has come to light the lamps!”
The half with the kerosene barrels are dancing and giggling with excited expectation while the other half start bargaining for more oil.
But there’s not enough to go around.
Therefore, the reasonably unprepared crew sets off for the nearest 7-11 in hopes of procuring the necessary flammable liquids.
By the time they return, however, the doors to the reception have been closed, and despite the girls’ best puppy dog eyes and earnest pleadings, the doors remain closed and they hear the groom’s voice from the other side, “Truly I do not know you.”
Therefore stay awake, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
So much for Jesus being a kind and fair Lord, right?
So much for open hearts, open minds, and open doors, right?
So much for a crowded kingdom of heaven, right?
If we’re honest, this parable rubs us the wrong way. We’re fine with a little nudge toward Good-Samaritan-like behavior, we can even handle the subtle hints about the need for forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal family, but who does Jesus think he is telling us that some don’t get in to the wedding banquet?
Notably, the central figure in this confounding little parable is absent. There’s no miraculous gift of talents, or the prophecy of a coin in a fishes mouth, or even the chopping down of a fig tree – The bridegroom is missing and the bridesmaids are waiting.
It’s an Advent story.
But notice, dear friends, before Jesus reigns down judgement upon the foolish and sleepy bridesmaids, the total inclusion of the wedding feast prior to the party’s beginning.
All ten are part of the wedding party waiting for the party from the very start.
They’ve done nothing to earn their invitation, we learn nothing of their miraculous morality or their gobs of good works, we don’t even know if they were kind to the bride, they’re simply the people for whom an invitation arrived in the mail.
Contrary to how we so love to talk about it in church, good behavior doesn’t save or damn anyone, God has thrown out the ledger book forever, the invitation have been sent out indiscriminately.
What we do with those invitations, however, is something different.
Because, in this parable, there is condemnation. But the condemnation only comes for those who trusted in themselves and in the world more than the Lord.
And, though this certainly ruffles feathers, it’s sound theology.
After all, when salvation by faith alone is proclaimed (when we say things like we don’t have to do anything because Jesus has done everything) it feels like salvation has been made too easy. It means that anybody could get in for nothing.
Faith, then, is belittled to mere mental assent, and we can’t help ourselves from wondering, “If the real work is already done, if we’re already saved, then why should we try to be good, or kind, or loving?” And “If the world is saved in its sin, then why shouldn’t we keep on sinning?”
But, faith isn’t just some decision we make in our brains. Faith is all the intricacies within a trust-relationship with a person – Jesus. And being in relationship means we will always be doing something, not just thinking some things.
Therefore, the question would be better positioned like this: “Since Jesus, through his life-death-resurrection, has already invited me to the Supper of the Lamb, why shouldn’t I live as if I’m already at the party?”
We don’t have to do anything to get in, that’s Jesus department. But as invited members to the wedding feast, it’s good and right for us to live into that joyous celebration now in anticipation of then.
As to the question of continuing in sin, part of the problem is, no matter what, we’re going to keep on sinning. Sin is not really something we have any choice about. Sin is very much who we are.
Sure, we might be able to kick some of our bad habits, but we won’t be able to ditch the root of the problem. No matter how good or bad we are, all of us choose to do things we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
The expression “nobody’s perfect” is meant to comfort us when we mess up. But it’s also just true – nobody’s perfect.
And yet, in spite of our imperfection, God sees fit to hand us a new creation gratis and invites us to live as if we trust that gift.
That trust is what we, in the church, call faith. And faith is a gift – there’s no easy answer as to why some of us trust the Lord better than, or more than, others. Except, perhaps, by what Jesus offers us in the parable in question. But faith is a gift, offered freely to all. God, however, will not force us to accept this gift.
And its here, in recognition of the gift of God, that we start to squirm in our seats. Because, apparently, in spite of God’s total desire for salvation for the cosmos, there is a moment when the present will come into contact with God’s divine reality and the party will begin.
But there is no space at the party for party poopers.
All of the parables point to God’s graceful and grace-filled actions in the world. And here, in a parable of judgment, God will triumph in bringing the party to fruition while also separating those who rejoice in the mystery from those who are hellbent on keeping things the same.
Which leads us back to the parable.
Ten girls are on their way to a party, tickled to death for having been invited in the first place.
Five of them are wise, five of them are foolish.
Pause – let us consider, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.”
Okay, the foolish bridesmaids are those who are wise according to the ways of the world. And the wise bridesmaids represent the wisdom of faith which means trusting in the foolishness of the cross.
But for now, they all have what they need – an invitation.
The foolish, though, took lamps with them but no oil. They are those who live according to the logic of the world and what should happen. They are a bunch of happy winners, rejoicing in their win streak, who believe that their good fortune will always hold out because it always has.
These five foolish bridesmaids, knowing its a daytime wedding, reasonably assume they have no need of extra oil – they are rather sensible in their preparation.
The the other five, the so-called wise bridesmaids, insist on lugging around a bunch of kerosene, just in case – nothing could be more dumb. They have complicated their lives by preparing for nothing. They’ve packed their parka for a trip to the beach, and a bathing suit for their trip to the arctic.
And this is when the parable becomes a parable – something goes wrong.
The bridegroom is late, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep.
BOOM the clock strikes 12, and Behold, the Bridegroom, finally, arrives!
The unexpected happens, just like it does in life and in the strange new world of the Bible.
The bridesmaids, even in their dozing off, have done what all Christians do – they wait.
For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people – We wait, in faith, and it is in our waiting that all the good work of the kingdom comes to fruition.
Because waiting is all we have to do – whether we’re like Peter or Judas, if God really does take away the sins of the world, then all we need is faith to accept the invitation of waiting for the party.
The bridesmaids wake up, and they get to work. However, half of them discover they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. They don’t have enough because they never believed they would need it.
In the end, it comes down to trusting in something that is foolish to the world and wise in the Kingdom of God.
The foolish girls run off to buy more oil, at midnight no less, but it is too late. When they return, the door to the party is closed.
The shut door is an image that us well-meaning Christians don’t particularly enjoy, but it is God’s answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. For, in the death of Jesus, God closed forever the ways of winning and rightness.
But the wise bridesmaids, those who are foolish in the eyes of the world, who were willing to trust God more than themselves, were found in their lastness, leastness, lostness, and even deadness to rejoice and celebrate at the party.
And all of the do-gooders who were so sure they could save themselves when it really came down to it, they’re stuck out in the dark with an unusable invitation.
God is a God of judgment, but it is not a judgment based on the political meritocracy that we find in the world, it’s not a judgment of who is good enough, it is a judgment of trust.
Are we willing to rejoice in the knowledge that we get invited even though we don’t deserve it?
Or, do we want to believe that we can make the case for our own deserving even though we deserve nothing?
“Keep alert,” Jesus says at the end, “Because you don’t know when the waiting will end.”
This parable can frighten, and it can confound, but when we come to the conclusion the most appropriate response is, strangely, to laugh (if we can).
We laugh because the thing we’re waiting for is a party!
And that party is not some exclusive club in the hippest part of town with a giant bouncer holding a tiny list of VIPs. The party is already here in Christ who delights in bringing the party to us rather than waiting for us to earn our way in.
I then end with these all too important words from Robert Farrar Capon, “God is not our mother-in-law coming to see if her wedding-present china has been used, or if it has been chipped. God is our funny old uncle who shows up with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
Jesus is the life of the party and he wants a big crowd – the only thing we need to do is trust in him, nothing more, less, or else. Amen.
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 thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”
Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end.
Stories are supposed to easily teach us something about ourselves we didn’t know until the story told us who we are.
Stories are supposed to be approachable, repeatable, and memorable.
Jesus’ stories, we call them parables, are certainly memorable – but not for the right reasons. Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said nothing except in parables.
And, the more we enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more we realize that Jesus himself was a parable – the storyteller become the story.
We often forget, in the ivory towers of our own design, that Jesus was killed for telling the kind of stories he told. Most of them are wildly unfair, they raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty, they give the whole kingdom away for nothing, and mostly, they make us uncomfortable.
If he were a better story teller, the stories would’ve made a little more sense, people would’ve walked away knowing exactly what he was trying to say, and certainly no one would’ve killed him for them.
But they did.
Most sermons, not stories, do their best to explain something. They take a particular text, wave it around for awhile, and then in the end declare, “Hear now the meaning of the scripture… this is how you can apply it to you daily life…”
But Jesus, you know the Lord, rarely explains anything.
Instead, he tells stories.
That Jesus speaks in parables is a reminder that he desired not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
In other words, Jesus’ parables are designed to pop every circuit breaker in the minds of the listeners.
Up until this point in the gospel story, that is, up until he tells the watershed parable of the sower, Jesus has been pretty content with walking and talking and healing and doing whatever went against the grain of what people were expecting. They had their own ideas about what the Messiah would do, and Jesus didn’t give a flip about what they were hoping for.
And it was pretty low key until this parable, because from this point forward, Jesus cranks it up to eleven.
It’s as if, having done the whole ministry thing for awhile, he says to himself, “They haven’t understood much of this kingdom stuff, so I might as well capitalize on it. Maybe I should starting thinking up particular examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from what the people are looking for.”
Listen: Jesus went for a walk by the sea, but there were so many people clamoring to see him, to catch a glimpse of the walking talking Messiah, that he had to get into a boat, and push off from the shore in order to address everyone. And he said, “There was a guy with a bunch of seeds, and everywhere he went he tossed them all over the place. Some of the seeds feel on the open ground and the birds came and ate them. Some other seeds landed among the rocks where there wasn’t much soil and after they sprang up the sun scorched them away. Still yet some other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew and choked them out. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and they brought forth grain, a whole lot of it. Let anyone you can hear me listen!”
The whole parable.
Just about every sermon I’ve ever read or heard on the parable of the sower retells the story, as I just did, and then asks people to consider what kind of soil they think they have. Which implies the preacher believes he or she knows exactly what Jesus is up to with this one. Moreover, they make it out as if, had they been there, they would’ve known what it all really means.
The truth of the matter, however, is that if any of us had been part of the original Jesus crew, we would’ve walked away scratching our heads.
It’s no wonder, then, that the disciples’ reactions was one of, “Um.. JC, are you alright? You’re talking in parables again, and we can’t understand what you’re trying to say, and frankly, some of us are getting a little uncomfortable?”
“Hey,” Jesus says, “Listen to me for a hot second. I’m letting you in on the mystery, the hidden things, of the kingdom. But for the people on the outside, I’m giving it to them in parables.”
And we, if we were those disciples, want to say, “Jesus. That don’t make no sense.”
His response about the hiddenness of the kingdom, about certain things being weird and uncomfortable, it’s like Jesus is saying, “Okay, if you can get it through your thick skulls that my kingdom works in a mystery, you will have more understanding. But if you don’t get that, if you can’t handle the weirdness and the discomfort and not knowing every little thing, then none of it will ever make a bean’s worth of sense.”
There’s a way to take all of this as if Jesus is telling us we better get shaped up with our understanding of God or he’s going to zap us into oblivion. Or, to use the language of the parables, we better get our soil in order lest we run the risk of the seeds get stolen, scorched, or suffocated.
We, then, could hold a story like this one over the heads of Christians and non-Christians alike until they shape up how we want them to.
We could even employ this parable as the means by which we determine who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside.
But, that’s not what Jesus does.
Jesus sees the obtuseness all around him.
He witness the unlikelihood that anyone will ever get a glimmer of the mystery, let a lone a grip on it.
Hence he ends here by saying, “Seeing, they do not perceive, and listening they do not understand.”
Now, I know some of you have looked ahead of the scripture reading and noted that Jesus then goes straight into explaining the parable, but we’ll get there next week.
For now, I want us to rest in the discomfort of not having all the answers, of seeing without perceiving and listening without understanding.
There’s a summer camp outside of Boston in which, every summer, students are bussed in to confront the complications of race.
On the first night, the students are asked to separate into their respective races to discuss how they have experienced their own race with others of similar situations.
The Latinx kids go into one room, the Black kids in other, there’s a room for the Asian kids, and finally one last room for the White kids.
For many of the students, the sharing on that first night is radically life-changing. For many of them, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to share what its like to be viewed by others through a racial lens, what’s its like to have a prejudice dictate who they are, what it’s like to not be like everyone else.
The counselors then bring all the students back into one group, and each of the races are given a chance to stand in front of everyone else and share their truth. One by one they lift up how horribly they’ve been treated, or what they really want people to know about them, or how much it hurts to hear certain slurs.
Last summer, there was only one white student who attended the camp. With each passing year, the truths spoken to White about the white-ness has resulted in less and less white people attending. But there was one young white woman there, and when she stood in front of the entire camp she said, “I want to continuously challenge white supremacy in white spaces, and that will be uncomfortable for me. But I want to be uncomfortable; I am willing to give up my comfort.”
Later, the black students stood and proclaimed their truth.
“Stop touching my hair just because you don’t know what it feels like.”
“We deserve to be paid the same as white people.”
“Just because you say you have black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.”
But there was one black girl on stage who couldn’t stop thinking about what the young white girl had said. And so, when it was her turn to speak she said, “When white people talk about what they’re ‘willing to give up’ it implies that they are fine sharing a little bit of what they have but they’re going to be fine. It’s not about what you’re willing to give up, it’s what you have to give up. You have to really be uncomfortable. You have to give up what you think belongs to you simply because of the way you look.”
The young white girl immediately started crying and left the room.
A counselor went after her, consoled her, explained that it can’t easy being the only white person in the room, and the girl looked up and said, “Yeah, but this is how people of color feel every day. I guess you really do learn the most when you’re uncomfortable.”
So much of what Christianity, what the church, has become is focused on making people comfortable; how to tell people about Jesus without ever stepping on any toes.
The fire of Pentecost, the one that sent the disciples tumbling into the streets can be found more in our national protests than in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.
Parables are supposed to make us uncomfortable. Whether our soil is rocky, thorny, or barren.
Hear the Good News: The Sower never stops sowing. The Sower doesn’t stop to take stock of the condition of our condition before offering the grace we so desperately need. The Sower just keeps throwing it all over the place until something comes of our nothing.
Remember: When Mary encountered Jesus at the empty tomb she mistook him for the gardener. And what do good gardeners do? They till the soil, they weed out the thorns, they remove the rocks, they do whatever it takes to make the best soil possible.
And that work is uncomfortable.
We, in spite of all our good works, have shut our eyes and closed our ears. We’ve settled for milk toast sermons and milk toast churches. We like hearing about the kingdom so long as it doesn’t require anything for us.
It’s like we’re wandering around deaf and blind.
Fortunately for us, Jesus likes nothing better than healing the blind and opening the ears of the deaf.
We disciples of Jesus may not be that brightest candles in the box, but at least we know a true story when we hear one.
In this story of a reckless Sower we are reminded, yet again, that God is not removed in some far off place content to leave us to our own devices. God’s kingdom is happening, it’s happening right now! Open your eyes! Open your ears!
And here’s the best news of all: Even if we refuse to see and hear, Jesus is gonna open our eyes and ears anyway.
And it’s probably going to be uncomfortable. Amen.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the time or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. When he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Think and Let Think · A Job To Do
You want to hear about Josh don’t you?
Everybody wants to know about Josh. It doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, or even what I say, it always comes back to him.
Which, to be fair, makes sense.
He turned my life upside down before he did it to the world, who wouldn’t want to know more?
But if you want to know about Josh, you need to know what my life was like before he showed up.
I was happy.
Well, that’s not true. But I was really good at making it seem like I was happy.
You know the whole married, kids, nice job, mortgage, decent neighborhood. I traveled a lot for work back then and I was a frequent guest a particular airport bar. I’d be coming in, or going out, or not really knowing the difference when I would sit down and the bartender knew what to bring before I could even ask for it.
And it was during one such barstool session that Josh arrived.
He sat down right next to me and he said, “Pete, you’re going to make a killing on this trip, huge bonus is coming your way, but I’ve got something better for you.”
To be clear, I’d never laid eyes on this guy in my life, and here is is telling me about my work and even calling me by name. I should’ve known then that it was something not normal. But I didn’t, and I just went along with him.
“Sure,” I said, “That makes total sense, except business has been lousy and I can’t even remember the last time I got a bonus.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I’m in the miracle business and I know one is coming your way. But, again, I’ve got something better for you. Why don’t you finish your drink and follow me?”
Maybe it was the 3rd too many drinks I had already consumed, or the fact that he appeared to know more than he should, or maybe it was something else, but I did get up from that barstool and I followed him straight out of the airport.
And, honestly, I never looked back.
But you don’t want to know about me. You want to know about Josh. You want to know if it’s all true, if it all really happened.
Well, I can tell you the truth, not the crazy stuff that went around on Twitter, or even the low-quality YouTube videos from so-called eye witness.
I was there, for all of it.
Like the time he fed everyone in the park. Do you know that one?
See, we’d been in the park with him all day, Josh had quite a following at that point, he talked most of the day about all sorts of things that sounded nice but didn’t make a lot of sense. At least, it didn’t at the time. He was so good with crowds, it was like he knew exactly how to play them and how to lift them up and bring them down and keep them on the edge of their toes.
But we had been there all day, and when he finished talking he started walking throughout all the people and started curing some of the sick and comforting the downtrodden and no one wanted to leave.
But they were getting hungry.
And then Josh said, “This is a nice size crowd today. You think we have about 5,000? Too bad we don’t have any food to give them. Pizza sounds nice.”
“Pizza?” I said, “Do you know how expensive it is to feed 5,000 people pizza?”
He ignored me and spotted a kid on the other side of the park walking home with a pizza in his arms and he ran after him. Josh came back a minute later with the pizza, and the kid, and said that the boy had agreed to let us borrow the pizza. I mean, who ever heard of borrowing a pizza? But then he told me to round everyone up and to see how far we could stretch it out.
So I grabbed a few pieces and handed them to the closest person and when I went back to the box it was still full. And it was full every time I went back for more. Until everyone in the park had their fill and we even had leftovers.
By the end of the spectacle it was clear what had happened. At first, people just assumed the slices were being passed out from the middle of the park where a whole boatload of pizzas had been delivered. But the word got around that Josh had fed the entire park with just one box of pizza, and they started calling it the greatest miracle of all time and they said that Josh should be elected to the Senate, or even the White House with the kind of powers that he had.
That’s when things really started to change.
Because up until then, Josh seemed content for his miracles to be a substitute for the message. But after the powerful pizza moment, he was convinced that any miracle would give people the wrong impression. He talked about his death a lot at the time and none of us really listened. We were too busy eating our pizza. And even when he talked about a New Order and the first being last and the last being first, it all sounded nice but it couldn’t quite compare with sick kids getting better, and people walking away from their wheelchairs.
But, like I said, things changed after the pizza.
He talked about his death all the time, and those riotous crowds started dwindling. They waited for a miracle and all they got was hot air. He started telling all these stories that didn’t make much sense, like the one about a man abandoned on the side of the road and only a homeless man stopped to help him. Or the one about the dad who sold the family business and gave the proceeds to his youngest son who blew it all in Vegas only to return home penniless and his dad threw him a giant party.
I couldn’t blame the crowds for leaving. I mean, here he was in one day fixing the hunger problem, filling the bellies of thousands. Why couldn’t he run for office and fix all sorts of other things?
But Josh just kept saying the same thing each time, how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously they would still die eventually. He’d talk about a new kind of food, a food that would really fill the world. In fact, he once said that unless we were all filled with him, we would stay dead forever. But if we fed on him, he would raise us from death for good.
But what you really want to know is where he is now. Why did he leave if there’s still so much work to be done?
Well, that’s honestly what I wondered at first too, until I remembered all the stuff he used to say.
Josh’s final earthly act was just as bizarre and paradoxical as his bizarre and paradoxical life was. He had already been killed and raised from the dead. He had been with us for forty days talking to us about all the stuff we had already gone over. When one day he said he wanted to go for a hike. So we filled our bags with sandwiches and headed for the woods. We hiked and hiked until we came to a clearing.
He looked up into the sky and said, “It’s time for me to reign with my Father.”
And one of us said, “Wait, wait, wait. If you’re about to do something really cool, can we at least call the news station to get a camera out here? And if not that, can I at least put it on Facebook Live?”
And Josh said, “No. Listen to me. I know this doesn’t make sense to you. But hasn’t all of this been weird? I am leaving. But I’m not really leaving. It’s time for me to rule over the cosmos, but I’m sending you another soon. I want you to get it through your thick skulls one last time, the world depends on it: The New Order does not come because you or anyone else can do anything to make it happen. I am the New Order; It is me and it is in me. It’s in you. When I ascend I am taking the whole world with me.”
Then he looked up again and continued, “I know it won’t seem like it right now, but this is nothing new. I am simply making manifest what I’ve been doing all along. No meddling, divine or human, spiritual or material, moral or immoral can save the world. Your salvation is already here, in me. The only thing you have to do is trust me.”
And with that he started floating, subtly at first, just a few inches off the ground. “Listen,” he said, “We don’t have long, and you have work to do. But its not the work that you think. It’s not your job to fix anyone or save anyone. Hell, it’s not your job to fix or save yourselves. All you need to do is go and tell everyone what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. Tell them they are forgiven. And when they don’t believe you, because they won’t, tell them again. Tell them again and again and again until it seeps into the marrow of their very existence. Tell them I’ve gone and done for them what they never could for themselves. Tell them. And don’t let them forget.”
And then he disappeared.
We were all stupefied and kept looking hoping against hope that maybe it was just a trick of the light until we realized that he was gone. But the strangest thing was, it didn’t really feel like he was gone. It felt like he was right there with us.
And that’s when two crazy bearded men came tumbling out of the woods and said, “What the hell are you all doing standing around like that? Didn’t you hear what he said? Go. You’ve got a job to do.”
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.
With each passing day of this pandemic, I’ve come across countless posts and articles all about how to make the most of the time we now have on our hands. Which, of course, doesn’t even address the many who still have to work in the midst of all this and those who are putting their lives on the line so that others can have the aforementioned extra time on their hands. Nevertheless, I know people who are using this time to lose those ten pounds they’ve been meaning to get rid of, or become amateur sourdough bakers, or become professional live-streaming worship pastors.
Meanwhile, the talking heads on television are pitting the different political operatives against one another while blaming them for putting us in the mess in the first place.
Similarly, certain individuals are choosing to directly ignore the calls for social-distancing because they believe it is infringing on their freedoms.
And finally, special interest groups are pressuring elected leaders to “reopen” their respective jurisdictions for fear of what the long-term effects will be for the economy.
All of this can fall into the category of “thinking big.” Rather than addressing the small and local concerns that are, somewhat, within our control, we pass the buck along to someone else in hopes that they can bring about the change that requires the least from us. Or, a little closer to home, we’re feeling pressured to make the most of this pandemic by reimagining ourselves and fixing all the things we’ve let go for too long.
The problem with “thinking big” is that it almost never works.
Back in 1972, in the midst of the rise of feminism, racial reconciliation, and environmentalism, Wendell Berry had this to say on “thinking big”:
“For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enrichment of the government. But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his/her own, is already solving the problem. A person who is trying to live as neighbor to their neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of peace and humanity, and let there be no mistake about it – they are doing that work.” – Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony 1972
The challenges, and problems, that feminism/racial reconciliation/environmentalism aimed to erase are still very much a part of the fabric of our reality. It’s been nearly fifty years since Wendell Berry wrote those words and women are still paid less than men, racism is very much alive, and the environment has passed the point of no return. (However, strangely enough, certain cities across the globe are seeing the skylines without smog for the first time in decades because everyone has been forced to stay inside).
The critique from 1972 is just as relevant today as it was then. The more we assume, or hope, that necessary changes will be accomplished by other people further up the ladder, the longer we will be disappointed. The same holds true with our own desires for self-improvement. If we want to use this time to become master bakers, or perfect painters, or marathon runners, that’s fine, but there’s a better than good chance we’re just going to disappoint ourselves.
Wendell Berry’s alternative, and an alternative from the gospel is to think little. Instead of waiting for the world to change, we can make small changes in our own lives. We can absolutely start and try new things, but keeping our goals in check will help us in these challenging times rather than shaming us into not accomplishing what we wanted.
In 1 Peter there’s this great line about how, through Jesus, we’ve come to trust in God. I love that because it’s not about trusting in ourselves or in other people. For, more often than not, we are masters of disappointment. But God? God remains steadfast no matter the circumstances; Jesus’ is still raised from the dead whether we can worship together in church, or we can run a marathon, or we can bake the perfect loaf of bread.
This is a strange time we find ourselves in. We can do things now we’ve never done before. But it’s also a pandemic. It’s okay if we don’t do anything at all. We can watch Netflix until our eyes hurt. We can go all the way to the end of the bag of Cheetos. We can wear pajamas all day long. The gospel has set us free from the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world has placed on us.
The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t much at all. Because in the end, the rest is up to God.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
We’re often told to not mix politics with religion – political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere and therefore they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.
Except the world interferes with both all the time! We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back their role in politics, and I even get letters in the mail from political parties asking me to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit!
Whether we like it or not, the so-called “separation of church and state” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage where neither partner is sure why they are still together.
It then becomes remarkably difficult for Christians to think theologically about what it means to be political, and we wind up privatizing whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it influence how we behave Monday-Saturday.
However, as Christians, we believe that our truest citizenship does not lie in our geography, or our nationstate, or even our socio-economic bracket. Instead, we believe our citizenship is in heaven.
We follow and worship a Lord whose kingdom is very different from the one that surrounds us in the world. All of our assumptions about what it important, who we are to be, and what we are to care about are changed by Jesus Christ who is our Lord of lords.
But then a question naturally follows: If our truest citizenship is in heaven, should we still participate in the forms of citizenship made manifest in something like an election?
The answer, of course, is yes. By all means we can participate in the political process of our country and we can certainly vote in something like an election.
And yet, the Lord cautions us with a very particular and poignant word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”
Today we tend to throw all of our eggs in our respective political baskets and we, foolishly, believe that so long as our candidate gets elected everything will be fine for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone, people have rejoiced and people have wept, and many things have remained the same.
The democratic practices we hold so dear are very important, but they will not bring us salvation.
Or, to put it more succinctly, Stanley Hauerwas says:
“I think voting is way overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member. And we have to wait, oftentimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced.”
So this election day, as we wrestle with the call to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord might grant us the patience necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that whomever is elected will not bring us salvation, but that we wait with hope and joy for the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ, whom we did not elect.
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worthy a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
For the month of September we’re keeping things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.
The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.
The first week we were challenged to spend time every day being grateful for our time. Last week we had a clean out challenge where we reflected on what really matters in our lives.
Today we’re moving on to the subject of money.
The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, possessions, money, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.
Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
The church was in the midst of a stewardship drive and the finance committee could not stop arguing. Every Sunday they bickered in the hallways and in the narthex fighting about who they could hit up for more money this year, about how much they would need to raise in order to buy new candlestick holders for the altar, and about whether the pastor should know who gives and how much.
Finally they called for a formal meeting on a Sunday evening and after 3 hours of more shouting, disagreeing, and even some belittling, they ended only to have the frustrations spill out into the parking lot as everyone was preparing to leave.
However, sitting outside the front doors of the church was a homeless man holding out a styrofoam cup hoping for donations. He had been there for most of the afternoon, hopeful for any gift, and he could not help from overhearing the church folk arguing inside and out the parking lot.
After some time has passed, the man stood up from his spot and he meandered over to one of the older women with her hand placed perfectly on her hips, he reached out for her hand, dumped the few dollars and space change he had received, and said, “You clearly need this more than I do.”
Money! Everyone’s favorite subject in church! In ranks up their with politics and sexuality! I can tell that you all have just been on the edge of your pews all morning waiting to hear what I have to say like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning.
Money! The American Dream! So many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us this dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deeper bank accounts. We hope to pursue more than we have, to gain more than we have, and to save more than we have.
And, importantly, most of us tend to measure our success based on the number in our bank accounts.
But, and this is a big but, for a lot of us the American Dream feels like the American Nightmare.
For as much hope as we might have for a day in the future when all of our finances will be taken care of, there’s plenty in the present to worry us. There was a study recently that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances – more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are worried about job security, and 52% report lying away at night thinking about their bank accounts.
That might not sound all that surprising to any of us here, because honestly, who among us hasn’t worried about money?
How about this then – in 1990 the average credit card debt in America was $3,000 and today it is well over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, student loans, or medical debt.
For many of us The American Dream has become The American Nightmare when it comes to money and finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few us us save money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come.
But then it does.
Over and over again.
Jesus was teaching in the temple when he warned everyone with ears to hear about the religious elite.
“Watch out for those scribes and priests – you know, the ones who like to walk around in long robes and get all the respect in public, the preachers who like to gets the seats of privilege. They are the type of people who prey on the widows and the poor and for the sake of appearances will fill their prayers with big and long words. Watch out for them.”
Then Jesus immediately gathered the crowd around the treasury and they watched as people filed in line to drop of their donations. Many rich people proudly walked ahead to make the donation as public as possible, but then a poor widow shuffled over and put two small coins in the treasury, two coins that amounted to a penny.
Jesus pulled his disciples close and said, “That poor widow put in more than all the rest who are contributing to the treasury. The rest of them gave out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had: her whole life.”
In life, few of us have any use for hypocrites. Those people who are pretentious and show off their status only to draw more attention to themselves at the expense of the less fortunate – like politicians making great sums of money while complaining that it’s not enough to live on – like pastors urging their congregations to make financial commitments while they themselves offer nothing.
Today we’re obviously talking about money, and the text makes it quite difficult to make a case for giving it to church.
Because we can take the story of the widow at face value – she truly sacrifices. She is the example upon which Jesus makes a theological claim. But let us not forget that her gift is considered far greater than greater sums of money not because of the amount but because of her generosity.
And that’s why we have to sit with something rather uncomfortable before we jump to the simplicity of money, which of course is no simple thing. It is good and right for us to rest in the tension of the text read for us today because this is about more than just encouraging extravagant generosity – it is an indictment, plain and simple, against any institution (including our own) that results in a poor widow giving all she has so that the leaders can continue to live lives of wealth, comfort, and power.
We might leave church today feeling guilty about the money we give (or don’t give), we might feel apathetic about what our contributions can really do for our church or for our community. But perhaps the most appropriate feeling might be outrage; outrage toward any system that appropriates the property of the poor and near-destitute in order to perpetuate wealth for the elite.
Ask any pastor and they’ll tell you the best givers in the church are almost always the poorest. It’s those on limited and fixed incomes who are usually the first to tithe, but the wealthy and elite, those with gifts to share, have a harder time with it.
Maybe you’ll be surprised to hear, or maybe you won’t, that there are more than 950 billionaires in the world and yet the percentage of giving among the majority of the billionaires does not rise above the single digits.
By the time Jesus encountered this scene by the treasury, the whole religious apparatus was perverted. The operators lived privileged lives, and the poor, widowed, orphaned, and marginalized were no longer protected.
And today, sadly, some things haven’t changed.
I was out of the office for two days this week between clergy meetings and hospital visits, and when I checked the church voicemail on Thursday morning we had over twenty messages, twenty messages in two days, from people in our immediate community who needed financial help – a rent payment, a overdue electricity bill, grocery money.
And I wish, I wish, that we could give money to every single person who called. I wish that my days were primarily filled with making sure that people could stay in their homes, that those homes could keep the lights on, and that the refrigerators were well stocked.
But we can only use what we are given.
And so, from this story of Jesus and the widow, from the reflections on the church’s, and any institution’s, temptations to prey on the weak, it’s quite difficult and problematic for someone like me, part of the religious elite, standing in my long robe, to build a case for why the church is worthy of the gifts of its givers.
The church is only worthy when we use the gifts as Jesus commands.
As I noted last week and at the beginning of this sermon, each Sunday this month we are taking the time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship.
This week we are encouraging everyone to budget their money.
For a long time there’s been an 80-10-10 focus on finances in which you spend 80% of your money on what you need to live, you save 10% for the future and unanticipated emergencies, and 10% is given away. So the challenge is to sit down with your finances and start thinking about what it would take to break it all down into something close to the 80-10-10 model.
But, of course, tithing is really hard. It simply may not be possible for you to give 10% away. However, it is helpful to think about your generosity in terms of a total value instead of an occasional offering. As in, what does 2% look like for you? Or even 5%?
And you can leave it right there, a relatively simple thought experiment, or you can take it one step farther and take a good look at whatever debt you might have and make a plan to repay it. If you are anywhere near the average $9,000 in credit card debt, and you only make the minimum payment every month, it will take something like 200 years before it will all go away. So look at what is owed, and make a budgetary plan to star chipping away at it so than it no longer grips your around your soul like a shackle, so that you never wander over to the offering plate and have to give away your entire life at the value of a penny.
And, if you want serious extra credit, you can bring back a commitment card next week (found in your bulletin). It is something to prayerfully consider and fill out, a commitment of giving to the church so that no widow in our community will be forced to give away her very life at the expense of her life being ignored.
A lot of us have a warped understanding of what faithful giving looks like. We think that if we give, then God will give more back to us. But that is not how it works. We do not give to God in order to get something in return.
Do you think the widow at the treasury believed that if she just kept giving everything that she would one day wake up with an overflowing bank account?
We give to God simply because God has given to us. We believe that when we give it blesses not us, but others. And then, of course, it is in the blessing of others that we are blessed.
The church is not perfect. After all, it’s filled with broken people like you and me.
But we believe in having transparency in our finances and we are committed to serving those in need.
We believe in the power of the blessings God has given us to bless others.
And we believe that by returning to God what belongs to God, we take steps toward making the kingdom incarnate on earth. Amen.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and the blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
Annual Conference is a strange beast. It is uniquely United Methodist, and it is the one time each year when church representatives, clergy and lay, from all over our state get together to worship, to pray, and of course, to vote.
The first time I ever went to annual conference, it was years before I actually became a pastor. The lay representative from my home church was unable to attend, so they asked me, a teenager, to go in his place. I, at the time, was beginning to wrestle with a call to ordained ministry so I figured I’d have to find out what all this stuff was about anyway, so I went.
I can’t tell you much about that first annual conference. There were a lot of people in one place uncomfortably shifting around in their seats as we listened to individuals talk about all kinds of stuff that were only barely relevant to the mission of the God in the world, but eventually something happened that I will never forget, and it took place when we came to the time of voting.
Someone, somewhere, put forth a motion requiring every United Methodist church in our conference to take at least one Sunday a year to pray for our country’s troops, and more specifically for those fighting overseas.
There was an audible affirmation of the motion, but before it could be put to a vote, somebody, somewhere, offered an amendment. They walked up to their microphone and said, “I am fine with praying for our troops, frankly we should be doing it anyway without being told to do it at least one Sunday a year. My only concern is that if we mandate and require all churches to be obedient to this rule, then we should also ask them to pray for our enemies, particularly those whom our military is fighting against.”
And like a stick of dynamite, the room exploded in arguments.
It took another hour of debates and amendments and further motions, 60 minutes of pastors and people pontificating about the validity of such a strange and bold request, before we got rid of the original request all together. Not because people were against praying for our troops, but because we could not agree on whether or not to pray for our enemies as well.
Obedience is a dirty word. It is a dirty word because we don’t like getting too close to it; it makes us uncomfortable. In our freedom-worshipping culture, we strive for independence and liberty above all else. We talk about being guided by our inner voice, we promise our children they can become anything they want when they grow up, we tell people to make their own destiny.
And yet Jesus, the one whom we worship, love, and adore, loves us enough to command us toward obedience.
No doubt this sounds authoritarian, and perhaps we don’t like imagining Jesus this way. Maybe we’d rather think of Jesus’ words as suggestions more than commands. From the time we are young we are taught about the folly of fascism and the need to reject superior rulers who tell us what to do. But lest we reject Jesus for his calls to obedience, let us at least admit the truth of our own subjugation.
We are all obeying somebody.
In this world we respond to a great number of masters with an almost blind and willful ignorance – our peers, our families, our jobs, our government, our political parties, popular fads. They all dictate, in some way, shape, or form, what we are to say, how we are to act, and who we are to be.
We do as we are told.
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.
We could debate, much like the people at annual conference did, about what it means to be obedient or not. But perhaps the better question is: “Who do we really obey?”
There are of course some Christians who boldly claim that Jesus, and the bible, are their ultimate authority – and they follow them explicitly.
I love meeting people like that, and not for the right reasons. I love people who blindly obey the bible because there are all kinds of crazy stuff in here, and contrary to John, it can feel pretty burdensome.
In Leviticus the people of God are expressly forbidden from wearing clothing with more than two materials mixed together (Leviticus 19.19). Do you know how hard it is to find clothing made of only one material? Most of what we wear is a blend of more than one substance, and we are so bold in our sinfulness that we brazenly show up to church wearing our sins literally on our sleeves!
Or we can look at other places in Leviticus, like when it says men must not cut the hair on the sides of our heads, or cut the edges of our beards (Leviticus 19.27). Take a good hard look around the room right now; not only do we have heathens in different clothing materials, we’ve got men on a straight shot to eternal damnation because they decided to pull out the bic razor this morning before they came to church!
The laws are indeed burdensome!
And yet, somehow, John is bold to proclaim the opposite.
Jesus requires our obedience to his commandments. We are called to obey that which he calls us to do. And, taking a cue from the New Testament, if we look at the summary of the commandments as loving God and loving neighbor, we can then begin to wrestle with how difficult those two things may or may not be.
Loving our neighbors is about more than treating folks like family. In fact, sometimes that’s exactly the opposite of what we want! Just think about the last time you gathered around the table for Thanksgiving with family members you fundamentally disagree with! Rules and calls to obedience in terms of loving our neighbors become nothing more than abstractions unless they are somehow tied to a deep awareness of the mystical union we have with God in Christ Jesus.
It is precisely because God loves us, in spite of us, that we can love others. It is in the recognition of our unworthiness that we can actually meet the other where they are and, in spite of differences, we can love one another.
We follow, we are obedient to this law, not because being close to Jesus helps us get what we need or want.
We follow, we are obedient to this law, because we believe that being close to Jesus allows God to fulfill whatever God wants to get out of this world!
We live in a time deeply saturated in pluralism, when countless value systems vie for superiority or are uncritically embraced such that we no longer know who we are or what we are doing. We so root ourselves in ourselves, that we move farther away from God while telling ourselves that at least we are free.
But the Gospel is disorienting. It finds us where we are, in our shadowed existence, or deeply rooted in our own convictions, and it turns it upside down. The messages of grace, of Jesus’ life-death-resurrection, are unnervingly radical!
The commandments to love God and neighbor, though difficult according to the ways of the world, are possible through the impossible possibility of God. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God – when we believe (not just with our minds but with our actions) that Jesus is the Messiah, we begin to see how bound together we all are, and how we, and all of our earthly perspectives, have been conquered by God for something greater.
Right now the contemporary church, from the realm of United Methodism to conservative evangelicalism, is struggling. The church struggles, in large part, because of our failure to recognize how we are bound to God and not to the world – such that many churches take their theological cues from the powers and principalities and assert them on scripture, rather than the other way around.
It is precisely why our divisions are growing wider and our walls are growing taller.
For too many decades, our denomination (United Methodism) has struggled with the question of human sexuality. We have in our polity the theological position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The belief and claim manifests itself in different ways from leaders barring homosexuals from becoming members at local churches to committees denouncing transgendered individuals, to pastors being punished for officiating at same-sex weddings.
Part of the church’s willingness to claim homosexuality as incompatible is rooted in the fact that our denomination believes that in so doing it is remaining obedient to Jesus’ commandments.
For months there has been a commission within the denomination seeking a Way Forward regarding human sexuality. They have read books, and prayed together, they have listened to stories, and imagined the future of the church. Our governing council of Bishops met this week in Chicago to begin looking at the commission’s proposals about where the church is being called and what’s in store for us.
There have been parliamentary debates and procedures to follow, press releases are being put together, and some churches are already banding together in hopes of starting their own denomination whether leaning traditional or progressive.
And, in the coming months, we’re going to talk more about the commission and the path of the United Methodist Church. But right now we don’t know a whole lot more than what I just told you. However, one thing we do know is that everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.
Gay or straight, black or white, soldier or enemy, whoever believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God. We, and they, are made one, by the Spirit, in Christ Jesus who came to live, die, and rise again. We can build our walls higher, we can put stricter language in our institution, we can do all kinds of things, but only Jesus conquers the world.
Jesus conquers us.
To confess with our lips and with our lives that Jesus is the Messiah is a radical thing. It compels us to tell the world that no one else has the power Jesus has – not a political party, not a government, not even a church institution. It pushes us to look in the face of the powers and principalities and triumphantly declare, “No more!”
It is the beginning of a revolution of our hearts. Amen.
10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry
The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways
At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.
Time = Trust
After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.
The Job Is Big
The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.
It’s Hard to Let Go
My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.
If You Build It They Might Come
Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.
A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference
I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.
It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.
Thankfulness Breeds Generosity
For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.
Though We May Not Think Alike…
John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.
I Still Have The Best Job In The World
Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that the Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon you high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, the weapons of war perished!
Funerals are strange, difficult, and at times, beautiful. I usually receive the phone call from someone in the family, or from a funeral home, that someone has died and they were hoping that I would preside over the service. No matter who the person is, I am immediately filled with sadness knowing that someone, anyone, is now gone. Regardless of my personal connection to the individual, there is a sense of loss that comes with death and not even I can avoid it.
But then I have to get to work. I have to take that grief and hold it for a moment while I help others properly grieve their loss. I have to balance the proper amount of mourning with hope, sadness with peace, and death with resurrection.
When I receive that first phone call I have to start taking care of the logistics: Where will the funeral take place and when? Do they want someone to play the organ? Are they hoping for a particular soloist? Does anyone from the family want to speak on behalf of the dead? And only after the plans are made can we begin talking about the person, making sure that I know everything I can in order to properly proclaim their life, death, and resurrection.
Most of the time funerals take place in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Friends and family have to take time off from work, or take their children out of school, in order to attend the service. Yet, funerals are not meant for immediate friends and family alone. The entire community of faith is called to witness to the life of those who have died so that we can continue to live out their witness regardless of how well we knew them, or not.
So, this morning, as I mentioned before, we are doing something a little different. A few weeks ago one of our church members named Dick Dickerson passed away. He had only been coming for a few years, but he was a staple in worship. He always sat in the back of the church on the right side, he flirted with every female that crossed his path, and he was incredibly sweet.
When I found out that his family would be having a private service in Kentucky at a later date I knew that we still needed to do something here in order to say goodbye. I knew that we needed to praise God for putting Dick in our lives. And I knew that we were going to have our own little funeral for him on a Sunday morning.
Dick Dickerson called me “honey.” I know that this might’ve bothered other young pastors, but to me it was endearing and precious. I would walk over to visit Dick next door at Brightview/Baldwin Park and the moment I entered his room he would always say something like “Come on honey and sit down with me.” For months I cherished this identification, it made me feel special that Dick felt so connected to me. It was only later that I learned he called most of the people in his life “honey”!
My wife Lindsey would stop by to say hello before a church service started and he would hug her while calling her “honey,” Grace Daughtrey would smile and politely nod her head as he greeted her with a “good morning honey,” and even Marshall Kirby would start to blush when Dick would refer to his Sunday driver as “honey.”
Dick Dickerson was a man of profound love, who deeply appreciated all that God had given him from the very beginning till the very end.
Dick grew up in Kentucky with a family in the midst of financial struggles. Living through the depression was, as he put it, one of the hardest things to witness. But at some point there was a family in the community who saw Dick’s potential, and they brought him under their wing and helped to provide for his education. He always maintained a connection with his biological family, but in his quasi-adoptive family he saw the Christian commitment to loving others, something that would affect the rest of his life.
Dick was a man of stories, stories that shaped his life and the lives of others. When he served as a quartermaster in Patton’s army during World War II he used to offer whisky to his fellow soldiers so long as they affirmed the beliefs of the Republican party. He told me that at the beginning of the war most of his friends were Democrats, but by the time they got home (and enjoyed the whisky) they had become staunch conservatives!
He, unlike others who served in World War 2, was ready and willing to share reflections on his experiences precisely because he did not want anyone to have to experience what he did. He often told a story about an evening that took place in the middle of the war on Christmas Eve when he found himself resting for the night in a bombed out church building. He could remember the wax dripping from the candles, the hole in the roof letting in the tiniest of snowflakes, and all the soldiers huddling together for warmth.
He asked a question of the men that night that he only later attributed to the Holy Spirit. He asked if the men wanted to pray for anything. One soldier prayed for his family back home, another prayed for warmer weather, but one of the youngest said something that would stay with Dick the rest of his life: “I seem to remember Jesus saying something about praying for our enemies, so tonight I would like to pray for the men we’re fighting against. I pray that God would be with them as He is with us.” Dick said that while other men might have grown angry or dismissed the prayer, all of the men joined together in that tiny church on Christmas eve, and prayed for their enemies.
Prayer was at the heart of Dick Dickerson’ life. He spent most of his free time going through a list of people that he lifted up to the Lord and regularly invited me to join him in his prayers. He once told me that prayer was the only thing that got him through the war, and that prayer was the only thing that kept him together once he returned home.
Dick lived a wonderful and blessed life. He married his sweetheart Mildred, had two children, and eventually began working for Madison College in Harrisonburg. Dr. Dickerson, as he was known to his students, made himself available to everyone all all times because he saw the value in other people. Whether in the classroom or at home, you knew that he would make time for you no matter what.
I spent a lot of time with Dick over the last two years, we talked about a great number of things, but the one thing we talked about the most was death. In fact during our very first and our very last conversations he said the same thing to me: “Honey, I’m ready to die.”
In the beginning of 2 Samuel we have a song that David wrote in memory of Saul and Jonathan. After giving their lives for the Lord and the people, David called the nation to weep for their loss: “O how the mighty have fallen.” In life David and Saul were seemingly opposed, but in the experience their death David wept and mourned.
Many of us take the people in our lives for granted. We grow so accustom to their presence and persistence, that we rarely think about what life would be like without them. It is only when someone is truly gone that we can really appreciate what they always meant to us. It happened to David after Saul died. It happened to the disciples during those three days before Jesus rose again. And it has happened to me with nearly every person that I have buried while I have served this church.
But friends, resurrection comes into its fullest meaning when we lose someone we love.
Can you imagine the exultation the disciples experienced when they saw their Lord again after he broke free from the chains of death? Can you picture the joy on their faces when they were able to sit again with their teacher and friend? Can you imagine how David would have felt if he knew that one day someone from his family tree would eventually hang in a tree for the sins of the world so that we could all rise again in the resurrection?
Dick Dickerson was ready to die because he trusted the Lord. His trust was evident in our many conversations, and in is interactions with others, but it was most present while he prayed at this altar.
Dick rarely missed a communion Sunday. Even while his bone cancer was spreading throughout his body, he would make the long and slow journey to the front of this sanctuary to pray on his knees to the Lord. After feasting on the body and the blood, Dick would lay all the worries of his life out for the Lord, he would pray for God’s forgiveness over his sins, and he would thank the Almighty for surrounding him at every moment throughout his blessed life.
Are we ready to die? Every death in this church community is a constant reminder that the bell will toll for us all, and that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Are we ready to die? What kind of faith would it take to be ready to give our lives over to the Lord?
Dick Dickerson certainly had that kind of faith, a faith born out of prayer, presence, and praise, a kind of faith shaped by World War 2, and a kind of faith made real through the witness of Christ’s church.
As we prepare to take steps toward this altar, to feast at Christ’s table, we do well to remember all who have gone before us to eat and pray. We remember Dick Dickerson and his willingness to lift us up. We remember the saints before us, in our midst, and those who will come after and discover God’s grace in a moment like this. And we remember that Jesus came to die so that we would all live, so that death would be defeated, so that the resurrection would be offered to us all.
So, thanks be to God for the great gift at this table and for the life of Dick Dickerson, a man who lived by faith, prayed with every fiber of his being, and was ready to die. Amen.