The Sower Reconsidered

Matthew 13.18-23

Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.

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!”

That’s it.

The whole parable.

The disciples, rightly confused, confront the living Lord with a, “Um, JC, what’s going on?”

He then drops the hammer with, “Listen to me for a hot second you fools. 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.”

Which apparently wasn’t enough for the ragtag group of followers, so Jesus unpacks the parable of the Sower for his inner circle.

If anyone hears the Word, and doesn’t understand, the devil comes and snatches it up – this is what was sown on the path.

If anyone receives it with joy, but without roots, then it only lasts a little while and then they fall away.

If anyone hears it, but cares more about the world, then they will yield nothing.

If anyone hears it and trusts it, then they will produce a great yield of fruit.

Jesus’ explanation, as we often describe it, actually doesn’t reduce a complex story into something simple. Instead, it takes an already puzzling narrative and drives it in the direction of extremely difficult interpretations.

It’s one of those parables we preachers types might prefer if Jesus had just left it to dangle out there so we could put whatever spin we want on it.

But that’s not the way Jesus rolls.

More often that not, even though Jesus explains the parable we’re asked by people like me to imagine that Jesus is the divine sower, the seeds are his scriptures, and that we are those with the varying soils.

And maybe that’s true, Jesus’ own explanation trends in that direction, but it honestly doesn’t make much sense. After all, throughout the New Testament, the “Word of the Kingdom” doesn’t refer to a collection of texts that are often collecting dust on our respective bookshelves. The Word of the Kingdom is Jesus himself, the divine Word become incarnate in the world.

That might not seem like much, but it means that the Sower in Jesus’ story is God the Father. Jesus, then, since he is the Word, is the seed sown across creation. Which, in the end, means Jesus has already and literally been sown everywhere in the entirety of the cosmos without any cooperation or consent on the part of the soil.

Do we like that?

When we well-meaning Christians read from Jesus’ parables, we tend to read ourselves into the stories and believe their ultimately all about us.

But the parables aren’t about us, they’re about Jesus and the kingdom he came and comes to inaugurate.

And this kingdom is radically different from everything we think we know.

It’s a kingdom of grace – a kingdom of crucifixion, of scandal, of upside down understanding.

The central figure of the parables, if there is one at all, is the messianic madman who is the divine seed of forgiveness given away like its going out of style and who never stops going after the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.

Jesus points to and is himself the mysterious kingdom, who comes to tell scandalous stories, die a scandalous death, and be raised again to fill all with his scandalous grace.

But, back to the Sower.

The Sower goes and scatters seeds everywhere, always, and for all. 

No one, at any time or any place, no matter how good they are or bad they are, no matter how wrong or right they are, is left out of the scope of this agriculturally theological revolution. The differing soils are just that, different. They cover all people and there is no one to whom they do not apply.

And that’s scandalous.

Immediately we think something must surely be wrong here. Because, Jesus can’t really be for all, despite what all of our well-meaning church signs might say.

What about bad people?

What about people who don’t believe?

What about the people who just get on our nerves all the time?

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus guy who is so willing to give away the kingdom for nothing?

Right here, in his waxing lyrical, Jesus doesn’t sound quite like the smart and serious teacher setting the guidelines for his followers that we often imagine him to be.

Instead, Jesus sounds like someone who knows he just said something offensive and is determined to drive the point home again and again and again. 

Even so, the Sower is also very mysterious. I mean, who does he think he is going around tossing seeds everywhere? Don’t we go to church to learn about how to be good, how to have the right kind of soil for Jesus?

Nope.

Consider a seed – a seed is disproportionately tiny in comparison with it ultimately produces. Jesus is like a seed? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning? 

A seed is only good and it can only do anything worth anything when its buried in the ground hidden from view.

Like Jesus buried in the tomb.

It’s only after its covered with dirt, only after its abandoned to its own fate, that the seed bears fruit.

Remember: Jesus as the seeded Word, is despised, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, and left in the ground. And yet, his entire overturning of the cosmos takes place like a seed – it happens in the dark, like a mystery, something that no one gets to witness.

And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all good and fine, but what does it have to do with me? What about my soil? What am I supposed to do?”

Well, sorry to be the bearer of the best news of all, we don’t have to do much of anything. 

Regardless of whatever kind of soil we might have, or we think we have, God is going to get what God wants.

Think about the seeds sown on the road, the seeds eaten by the birds. That sounds pretty terrible right? Jesus even says that the birds are like the devil coming in and snatching up the divine Word.

But do you know what happens when seeds get eaten by birds?

They’re deposited somewhere else, only this time with fertilizer, if you get what I’m saying. 

The Word, like a seed, still works on its own terms and not at all by what we think we can do to it.

Think about the seeds sown in the other locations like the rocky ground, the thorns, or even the good soil – the seed does it’s job – it springs up!

The seed works whether or not it lands on the good soil.

We, however, almost always lean toward another, though not in the text, meaning. “Sure,” we say, “The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we immediately jump into conversations about all the things people need to do to activate Jesus in their lives. 

You’ve got to accept him as your Lord and Savior!

You’ve got to lays your sins up at the altar!

You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart!

If that’s how it all works, if the onus is completely on us, then it’s simply unmitigated Bad News. 

If our salvation is up to us, then the seed might as well not really have been sown in the first place.

Because, in the end, we can’t do much of anything to our soil – whatever form it might be. 

Every week I stand in this place and I talk about how God gathers us together, how God proclaims God’s Word to us, and then we respond to it. The truth behind all that is our response, if it ever amounts to anything, pales in comparison to what God did, what God does, and what God will do. 

And that’s the best news of all.

It’s Good News, really Good News, because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves can take us away from the Lord that refuses to let us go. 

We can, of course, squirm and kick and complain and make things all the more messy. But if God really is the God of Scripture, the great divine Sower, then there is no way we will ever find ourselves anywhere other than being reconciled and forgiven over and over and over again.

Think about it – even the good soil, the best soil with all the right nutrients, does nothing to the seed for it to bear fruit. The soil simply receives the Word called Jesus, trusts it, and then fruit comes from it. It’s not that the good soil has the responsibility to make the right choices or the proper proclamations or maintain moral purity, rather the only thing the good soil has to do is make sure it gets out of the way of the seed doing its seed thing.

Or, to put it another way, we do respond to the good work done for us and to us and in us, but our only real response is to not screw it up, to not make Jesus’ job harder than it already is.

The seed is sown regardless of the soil it lands on. Which means the seed is not sown in order to force us into making better choices, or to punish us for all our bad choices. The seed is sown simply and yet powerfully to bear fruit among us, within us, for us, and often in spite of us.

In the end, the seed that is Christ is sown to bring us home, back to the Sower’s house, to be part of the grain that becomes the bread of life at the Supper of the Lamb.

Jesus gets what Jesus wants.

The only problem occurs when we get in his way.

And we sure love to get in His way.

Take, for instance, all the social media posts I’ve seen over the last few weeks, lambasting Christians for posting about “Black Lives Matter.” I had more than a few people assure me that the only proper and faithful and Christian response to the present (and longstanding) crisis is to affirm “All Lives Matter.”

But that’s, literally, getting in the way of Jesus.

You know, the Good Shepherd who, in another parable, leaves behind ALL the other sheep in order to go off after the one in danger, the one in need.

Or, consider all the countless pictures of white Jesus that are put up in homes and in sanctuaries. Those images that make white people like me feel comfortable knowing that my Savior is just like me.

That’s getting in the way of Jesus.

Jesus was a first century carpenter turned rabbi who spent his entire earthly life living in the Middle East! He didn’t look like me in the least.

Or, finally, think about all the people lamenting the riots and the protests for not witnessing to the practice of Christian non-violence. The whole, “Why can’t we all just get along?” And “This isn’t what Jesus would’ve wanted.”

Well, do you remember what happened to Jesus? He was nailed to a tree for the things he said, for rioting inside the temple and flipping tables over, and showing up for the people we otherwise would ignore.

We are blessed because Jesus continues to be sown all over creation, bearing fruit we couldn’t on our own. 

We are blessed because Jesus won’t give up on us even when everything seems like he should.

We are blessed because, no matter what our soil looks like, Jesus delights in making something of our nothing. Amen. 

Uncomfortable

Matthew 13.1-13

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.’”

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/835967350&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true Think and Let Think · Uncomfortable

Jesus wasn’t a very good storyteller.

Forgive me Lord, but it’s true.

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.

We 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.

Including us.

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!”

That’s it.

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.

On Personal Pandemic Improvements

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but there has been no shortage of people claiming this is the perfect time to fashion ourselves into the the best versions we can muster. From learning how to bake sourdough bread, to losing those ten extra pounds we put on at Thanksgiving, to learning a new language – now is the moment to seize the day! 

And yet, as Christians, we know better than most that telling someone to change rarely, if ever, works. 

IMG-p14RobertFarrarCapon_cropped-44-247-150-2-5

One of my favorite theological writers, Robert Farrar Capon, puts it like this:

I do not seriously expect that you would never be angry just because I lectured you about your temper. We have far less power than we think to revolutionize our behavior. The real saints among us are not, as we commonly suppose, those who have conquered their vices, but those who have not allowed vice to blunt their critical appreciation of virtue. They may go on sinning, but they don’t stop confessing. Therefore, you do not need me to urge a modest reform upon you: all reforms, as you know perfectly well, turn out automatically to be more modest than anything else. What you need is a call to immodest repentance, so that when you sin, you will at least sin boldly, honoring the law with an honest breach rather than fiddling with it until it isn’t a law.” RFC, Party Spirit

Rather than becoming the best version of ourselves, now is the time to rest in the knowledge that God loves us as we are. Which, to be clear, is astounding! That’s the best news we can ever offer anyone because it sets us free from the expectations of the world and the expectations we place on ourselves. The only thing we need to do is trust. Which, in the end, isn’t so hard after all.

Capon-1

Wake Up!

Romans 13.11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Oh the times they are a-changin’ 

Words immortalized by the great Bob Dylan, conveying a sentiment we all know all too well. Time, by definition, is always in a state of flux. And no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve experienced, we seem to agree that we all want more of it. Time that is.

It can be said that those of us here today live under the oppressive tyranny of time. It hovers over us in every moment, reminding us how much more we still have to do as a nearly silent clicking in our minds forces us to realize that we are running out of time. Today the demands on our time are overwhelming – homes have to accommodate for multiple work schedules, children have to balance manifold school responsibilities, extra-curricular activities are scheduled with no end in sight, doctors appointments are made months in advance with the hope we’ll actually be able to be seen on time, on and on and on. 

In our family we tried to make it work with a physical and central calendar upon which we could keep in all together, but it quickly lost its ability to keep us in line and in time. Now, we rely heavily on a digital calendar on our phones that syncs up automatically so we know who is doing what when. 

Advent-2017

And then we add the Advent season on top of all of that. Advent, for many of us, is the break-neck race between Thanksgiving and Christmas in which we have to (re)decorate the house, find all the perfect presents (and find time to wrap them), get the kids to the Christmas concert practice, actually go to the Christmas concert, coordinate schedules with in-laws about who is coming and when, and then make it to the Advent services on Sunday morning all while making it appear that we are not overwhelmed by everything else in our lives.

And then we can even add how our rapid fire sense of communication has really ramped up over the last decade such that we can communicate with anyone, at anytime, instantaneously. It has left us feeling like we should be, or have to be, connected with one another 24-7 and we measure our successes based on the number of likes on a photo or the number of retweets on a quippy line we thought up while zoning out on Tryptophan at the Thanksgiving table.

This was made very apparent to me this last week when I checked in on a particular church member to ask how they were doing and they responded by saying, “Well, as you know, we’ve been really overwhelmed since returning from vacation.” To which I kindly remarked, “Oh, where did you go?” And instead of just telling me where they went, they said, “Didn’t you see the pictures we posted on Facebook?”

Oh the times they are a-changin’.

And it is here, while completely overwhelmed by our lack of time, that Paul shows up to say, “You know what time it is.”

Do we?

I’m not sure that I do. For, I too fall prey to the nagging sensation that life is just ticking by and I’m always behind. I grow frustrated behind the red lights of traffic lamenting the things I won’t be able to get done at home. I sigh as my son drags his feet while making his way, late, to bed. And I tap my toes behind families and individuals at the grocery store as they fumble around in the wallets to pay for their items so that the rest of us can do the same.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself resenting time and the lack of it.

And Paul thinks we know what time it is?

Of course, for Paul, the time he speaks of is not the tyrannical ruler so many of us experience today. Time, for Paul, is not the fear of getting everything done between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Time, for Paul, is nothing less that the transformation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Did you notice the qualifier he puts into the sentence? You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure we like the tone Paul has for us. I mean, who does he think he is telling us to wake up? Doesn’t he know how hard we try, how much effort we put to this crazy thing called life? You would think that he’d maybe have a little more respect for us than to tell us to wake up.

But, we do need to wake up. All of us. 

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

And not just to wake up out of the craziness the world has told us to experience this time of year, though we should wake up from that, but to wake up from the lie we’ve fed ourselves about who we are and what we are doing with our lives. 

Paul, here, hits us over the head, as is often the case, with the fact that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead, and his returning in the future, have overturned ALL previous perspectives placed on human life in the world.

He has this great line that we often gloss over far too quickly: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. For many of us, that moment of becoming believers came with a catch – if we believe this, then God will do this. Or if we lay aside our sins, then God will give us eternal life as our everlasting reward. Or if we promise to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then God will love us back.

But there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

A few days ago I was speaking with an acquaintance about his experience of church. Years ago he had felt the call of God on his life to plant a new church and did so using the tools of the trade that were passed onto him – basically that people need to understand how bad they’ve been in order to change and to get God to love them.

And for awhile, it worked. This church planter was able to find people near the rock-bottom of their lives and convince them to turn around so that God could finally make something of their nothing. Years passed and the church plateaued with those early converts beginning to revert back to lifestyles of their prior selves.

Until one day when the church planter gathered down by the local river with a few new disciples. He was baptizing them one by one in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then the town drunk showed up.

It was a small enough town that everyone knew he was the town drunk, and there in front of God and a whole bunch of witnesses, the drunk walked knee-deep into the river and asked the pastor to baptize him.

The pastor said, “Bill, are you ready to give up the bottle and give your life to Jesus?”

He thought for a moment, and with whiskey on his breath he said, “I don’t think I can Pastor.”

And then the pastor turned him away. 

In the days that followed, the pastor received congratulatory affirmations from his congregation. His email inbox filled up with messages about how much his people respected him for standing up for holiness. People waited in line on Sunday morning to express their gratitude for the example he was setting in the community. 

Meanwhile the pastor felt ashamed. 

He denied the means of grace to a man who was seeking it on the basis of a moral absolute. He refused the gift of God to a man unless he was willing to prove how committed he was to the cause. He believed that only the man’s improvement would warrant the baptism made possible in the person of Jesus Christ.

And the pastor felt ashamed because he couldn’t get a line out of his head, a line from the lips of Jesus, “I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”

In many ways the world tells us over and over again that we have to do something to earn something. But grace is different. In fact, it could not be more different. God shows up and says, I’m giving this to precisely because you haven’t and you’re never going to deserve it!

It was that realization that led the church planter to leave the church and start over – he had grown weary with making people feel weary for not being enough. The moralisms and calls to perfection were resulting in even greater examples of self-righteousness, all while people like the town drunk were being turned away from the grace of God!

We know what time it is – time for us to wake up! It’s not going to be easy, but we all have to kick the addiction we’ve grown far too comfortable with – and not necessarily the addictions we might be thinking about. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to flush all of our religion and morality pills down the toilet, we’ve got to pour out our bottles of self-righteousness and judgment. Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than our finger-wagging and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is exactly our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place!

Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. It is on this side of discovering God’s unending love and grace for us, in spite of our deservings and earnings, that we can start to live differently. Our desires to be better, even though they might ultimately fail, only ever come as a response to what God has done and never as a prerequisite. 

That’s why Paul can call upon us to live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. He can do so not because doing so warrants God’s love, but because God’s love is such that we can’t be what we once were.

All the while remembering that even if we are quarreling or jealous or drunk or licentious, it will never remove what God has already made possible, for us, in Jesus.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the life of Christians. Our time has been changed. And it might seem strange to start on such a strange note, but it might be the note we need the most. That we need it is indicated by the ways in which we are struggling to keep our necks above water under the tyranny of time, or the temptations to compare ourselves and our worth based on our perceived notions of other people and their worth. 

Instead, Paul points us to something different. We’ve trapped ourselves in a nightmare of our own making, and its time to wake up, to force ourselves to destroy the systems and expectations that drive us away from one another instead of toward each other. The time has come, as he puts it, to put on the Lord Jesus, to remember our baptisms, and ultimately to remember who we are and whose we are. 

There is no hope in us. If it were all up to us, we all would fail. Thanks be to God then that our hope doesn’t have to be put in us. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Devotional – Psalm 96.9

Psalm 96.9

Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.

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When was the last time you were really nervous? Can you remember being called to the front of the class as a child and the anxiety that poured on you like a wave when it was your turn to speak? Was it at your wedding when you saw your spouse standing next to you at the altar? Was it the moment you found out that you were going to become a parent for the first time? Was it the time you were called into your boss’ office and didn’t know whether you’d still have a job at the end of the meeting? At the heart of my vocation is a call to stand before the gathered congregation and proclaim words about the Lord. And, even after doing this for a number of years, I am thankful for a large pulpit that covers up my nervous ticks when I’m preaching.

This Sunday, my best friend (and the best man at my wedding) will be in town with his family and will worship at St. John’s. We became fast friends while in seminary and he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest preachers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And to be perfectly honest, I am really nervous about leading worship and preaching in front of him on Sunday. Perhaps its because I know how gifted he is, or because we are so close that I really respect his opinion, or maybe it’s the conflation of having not preached for a month because of the birth of my son. Whatever the reason, I am nervous about Sunday.

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However, nerves can be a gift. If you’re anything like me, being nervous often brings out some of my best work. When the deadline approaches, and my anxiety jumps up a few notches, my focus becomes clearer and I am more articulate. As I am placed in a situation that makes me nervous I respond from the heart, rather than stewing about it for a prolonged period of time and answering from my mind.

Sometimes we need to feel nervous before the Lord. Not necessarily every Sunday in worship, or every time we open our bibles, but we do need to have experiences when we “tremble before him.” We often sugarcoat church and worship to make it as appealing as possible with messages about how loved we are. And, even though those types of Christian experiences are important, we also need to have them balanced with conviction. We need close friends who can challenge us to be better than we are. We need churches that challenge our sense of the status quo and push us to be more like Jesus. We need experiences of God that leave us trembling so that we remember that God is God, and we are not.

Strange Stories From Scripture: A Week In The Word – Sermon on Judges 3.12-23

Judges 3.12-23

The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab eighteen years. But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” So the king said, “Silence!” and all his attendants went out from his presence. Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly; the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber on him, and locked them.

Today marks the second part of our series on Strange Stories from Scripture. As a church we are taking time to look at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about during Sunday school. These are the stories that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can even recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives.

Our first story was from the book of Numbers regarding the foolish prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. We explored how the donkey attempted to steer Balaam in the right direction, and pondered about the donkeys in our lives.

Today we are talking about Ehud and King Eglon from the book of Judges.

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Monday.

I’m sitting in my office, going over the emails from the weekend when I pull out the list of all the scriptures from now until Christmas Eve. I reread the plan for the sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture, I wonder if people felt convicted by the sermon on Balaam and his donkey yesterday. I check the email once again to see if anyone took the time to send me a complaint about the sermon. The only one I receive makes a comment about seeing such a “smart… donkey” in the pulpit, but I file it away for later.

The A.C. is pumping out cold air, and I open up my bible to Judges 3 to read the scripture for Sunday. The story of Ehud and Eglon. As the words flow past my eyes, I can’t help myself from giggling in the office: Ehud stabs him in the belly, and Eglon was so fat that the blade disappeared and the dirt came out. I quickly scan through a number of other translations to see what they do with the vague “dirt” description. Some call it dirt, most call it dung, but at least one calls it poop.

When I see the word poop in the bible, it just makes me laugh.

I wonder if people will let me get away with saying poop from the pulpit on Sunday morning. I quickly make a note to pray about it during the week, before deciding whether or not to put “poop” in the sermon.

This has got to be one of the funniest and strangest stories in the bible, but before I dive into sermon writing, I decide to leave the word document open on my computer, and get to some of my other daily tasks before returning.

Tuesday.

The screen stares back at me empty. So I decide to get the mental juices flowing and rewrite the story in my own words:

The Israelites messed up again. Whether they were grumbling for more food, or worshipping false idols, they messed up, and the Lord decided to raise up King Eglon of Moab against God’s people, because they were continually messing up. King Eglon, with the help of God, went and defeated Israel and ruled over God’s people for 18 years.

But then, of course, the Israelites started to cry out to the Lord for delivery, perhaps they had seen the error of their ways, so God decided to provide their savior, Ehud, a left-handed man.

The Israelites, at the time, were in the habit of sending their taxes to King Eglon, and Ehud used this delivery to make his attack. He fashioned himself a double-edged sword, and attached it to his thigh under his clothes.

King Eglon was a very fat man.

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When Ehud finished delivering the money, he sent his compatriots away, and teased the King with the promise of a secret message from God. Eglon sent away all of the people from his inner court and invited Ehud to share this secret. But as Ehud leaned in to deliver the precious secret, he removed the hidden dagger and thrust it into Eglon’s belly.

Strangely enough, the further Ehud pushed, more of Eglon fat rolled over the blade until it disappeared from view, and Eglon’s poop came out. Then Ehud snuck out of the chamber and locked the doors behind him.

I rewrite the story, looking for sermonic inspiration that would drop down from heaven like manna in the wilderness, but I just sit in my office wondering what in the world God is trying to say through the text. Throughout the day the phone and doorbell continue to ring at church, and I welcome the distractions.

Wednesday.

I pull out some commentaries on the text, and decide to see what other people think God was saying. A few of them go into remarkable detail about the significance of Ehud being left-handed, while others address how detailed the descriptions were, and a few even propose a sexually metaphorical interpretation.

The more I read, the less the story makes me laugh. Instead of looking at the story like a cartoon with poop on the floor, I see human beings driven by enough anger and fear to conquer a nation, and murder a king.

Reluctantly, I start searching online for other sermons about Ehud and Eglon. Do people preach about this? What in the world do they say?

One of the sermons is titled, “Lefty vs. Hefty” and it is all about the differences between the two central characters. The writer emphasizes Ehud’s cunning against Eglon’s girth.

One of the sermons is titled, “Salvation” and it goes into profound detail regarding how, supposedly, God ordains the killing of people even today who get what they deserve. The preacher calls for the people to commit themselves to a radical system of justice, where they take matters into their own hands, just like Ehud did.

One of the sermons is titled, “The Power of Praise” and it focuses on how Ehud was able to trick Eglon into giving him the opportunity to strike. It ends with a reminder for the listeners to be careful about the promises they hear and the compliments offered their way, because a dagger might be lurking in the corner.

The more I read from God’s Word and from other sermons the more I regret picking the scripture for the series:

Eglon, the fat king, is now less a caricature, and more like the punishment God ordained for the people for messing up.

Ehud, the people’s deliverer, is now less a righteous judge, and more like a murderer.

Months ago I thought it would be perfect and hilarious to use this text during a series on Strange Stories, but now I worry about what I will actually say about it when the time comes.

Thursday.

Sitting in a coffee shop in attempts to begin crafting a sermon, I continue to stare at a blank screen. I have started at least three different sermons but before I am able to start really crafting a deep response to the Word, I highlight the text and pressed “delete.” Nothing feels good enough, all of the attempts feel flat.

How is this story speaking anything into our world today? What does the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud have anything to do with the life of St. John’s and the community of disciples?

I close the computer and grab a nearby newspaper in hopes to distract myself from the seemingly endless flicker of the cursor on my computer. The top article says “US drops Atomic Bomb on Japan 70 years ago today.

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Before I realize it, I am sucked into the article, and the sermon floats away from the forefront of my mind. The writer has reproduced the original texts used the Associated Press the day the Atomic Bomb was first reported:

“An atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and as the greatest achievement of organized science, has been loosed upon Japan… The atomic bomb destroyed more than 60 percent – 4.1 square miles – of Hiroshima, city of 343,000 and radio Tokyo reported “practically every living thing” there was annihilated… Secretary of War Henry Stimson said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” (From the original AP article http://bigstory.ap.org/urn:publicid:ap.org:3fd267ba7b3c40479382189c99172d61)

I read the article and tears begin to form and fall down my face. Normally I would hide my face from the other patrons, but I am so struck by the words that I forget where I am and what I’m doing. 70 years ago we dropped the most powerful weapon we had ever created on a nation and virtually wiped out an entire city in a matter of seconds.

I start to remember where I am, and the sermon that needs to be written. The connections between the article and the scripture start to form:

Did Ehud leave the sword in Eglon because he wanted the effects to be devastating? Did he want to leave his mark in such a way that death was not the only consequence? Was the Atomic Bomb our sword that we had hidden under our clothes? Did we attack Japan in such a way that death was only the beginning of what we wanted to accomplish?

I wonder what people will think if I try to draw a connection between the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb with the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud. Did Ehud do the right thing? Did we do the right thing? I have no idea where the sermon is heading.

Friday

I sigh deeply in front of my computer. Picking the Ehud and Eglon story was a bad idea. I explore an idea about dressing up like Ehud with a sword in church but it feels trite, impractical, and vaguely irreligious. I start writing a poem about how the Lord calls people to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times, but then it feels like I’m telling people its okay to murder and steal.

I sit in silence with my hands outstretched praying for the Lord’s will to be done, and for the sermon to be written. And I wait.

Saturday

The Community Cook-Out is going well; children are running around, adults are being fed, and conversations are flowing all over the place. I am thankful for the distraction the cook-out has provided, though I’m also worried about tomorrow morning. What will I say when the time comes? What is God’s Word speaking into our lives right now?

I watch the community in action. Not just the church, but all the people who make Staunton what it is and I think about Jesus. I remember the call to live radically transformed lives based on love and forgiveness, not on fear and retribution. I see people breaking bread for the first time, and I see Jesus in the midst of the people providing hope, the Holy Spirit giving life to our words and relationships, and God making new and lasting connections.

I think about Jesus and the new life he invites his disciples to experience. I think about the lengths God was willing to go to to respond to the cries of God’s people, raising up prophets and judges. I think about God finally offering the most precious gift he ever could, his Son, to die for all the people out on the front lawn of the church, and for the world.

I wonder if the story of Ehud and Eglon isn’t so much about how we react when the world pushes us into a corner, but about the trajectory of God’s gifts to the world. That at one time God would raise up a judge to save Israel, but that now God raised up his Son to save us from ourselves and from death.

Sunday

I stand in the sanctuary before disciples hungry for the Word of God and I say: I offer this to you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Confronting Conflict – Sermon on Isaiah 6.1-8

Isaiah 6.1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. Then seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

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Tell me about your last fight.” So began one of my recent premarital counseling sessions. The couple danced around the question for a few moments, claiming they couldn’t remember the last time they had a fight, but when I started to ask more specific questions the answers started pouring out. Their conflict could be boiled down to a lack of communication, and when I sat there with them I saw them begin to share things with one another for the very first time. Before we went on, I couldn’t help myself from asking, “Why haven’t you talked about this stuff before?”

The woman sat in my office with her head hung low. It took her a few minutes to muster the courage to begin telling her story, and when she started it came out like the floodgates were opening. She felt invisible to her husband, no matter what she did, he would brush it off and continue to focus on the task before him. She was afraid that she had done something wrong and didn’t know where else to turn so she came to me. We talked together about her situation, but I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “Why hasn’t she told her husband how he makes her feel?

We were sitting on the edge of a property in West Virginia after nearly a week on our mission trip. The young boy was from a different church, but I could tell something had sent him over the edge. His tears fell slowly and deliberately as he confided in me about his struggles. He could not longer stand being treated like an infant or a child. He had important ideas and things to share but everyone brushed him aside instead of treating him with worth. Rather than being supported in his discipled journey, he felt like he was all alone and he was worried. I listened, but I also knew that when the end of the trip arrived he would be going home to a different community and a different church so I asked, “Is there someone from home that you can share all of this with?” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m afraid.

In each of your bulletins you will find a piece of paper about the size of an index card and I would like you to hold it in your hand. We’re going to have some time for silence, and during that time I want everyone to write down the name of one person that you are currently in conflict with.

Maybe your mother-in-law has been driving you crazy with her relentless need to tell you how to raise your family. Perhaps your boss continues to heed your advice, but then takes all the credit when things go right. Maybe your son has made some poor choices and you can’t remember the last time you had a decent conversation about anything. Perhaps one of your best friends is letting their backwards political opinions isolate them from what it means to be a decent human being. Maybe your pastor has been preaching all sorts of sermons that you definitely do not agree with.

So take a moment, and write down a name. No one will see it but you. When you’ve finished, I want you to hold the card in your hand for the rest of the sermon.

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne. God encountered the soon-to-be prophet in the midst of something important. Uzziah was an arrogant ruler, and his arrogance led to his death. Even though his reign brought economic prosperity, he neglected to respect the temple and the worship of God. It was at this particular time, in the wake of Uzziah’s death that Isaiah was called to speak.

The call is frightening. The Lord is high and lofty with the hem of his robe filling up the entirety of the temple. Seraphs, winged creatures, were flying above the Lord, each with six wings. One of them called out to another and declared, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

Everything around Isaiah began to shake and tremble and the room filled with smoke. Only then does Isaiah muster up the courage to say anything at all, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

Isaiah was confronted with the utter and radical holiness of the Lord. With wind spinning, floors shaking, and voices trembling, Isaiah is struck with the realization of his own unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people. Have you ever felt unworthy when confronted by something greater than yourself?

When I saw my wife Lindsey walking down the aisle at my home church to meet me at the altar for the covenant of marriage, I felt completely unworthy. When I held Archer and Abram Pattie in my arms above the baptismal font and brought them into the fold of God’s kingdom, I felt completely unworthy. Every month when I serve communion here at the front of the church, I am met with eyes of Christians who have lived far more faithfully than I ever will, and I feel completely unworthy.

God’s majesty, whether through the beauty of creation, a call vision, or the people in our lives often leaves us feeling pretty feeble. When we discover the divine we can only feel that much more mortal. When we encounter the infinite, we are reminded of our finitude. When we meet the living God, we can’t help but wonder about the lives that he gave to us.

God’s call is frightening. God calls the young and old, men and women, to abandon their former and sinful ways to live fully in Christ. God called a young prophet to speak harsh truths to a community that had grown far too complacent. God continues to call all of his children to be prophetic with our words and our actions.

The call is frightening and scary enough. But when we respond, when we answer the call, the real trouble begins.

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Then one of the seraphs flying high above the Lord came down to Isaiah with a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with the burning coal and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!

Isaiah was dramatically changed through his encounter. The flaming coal not only cleansed him, but it also gave the him the power to speak on behalf of the Lord. In a matter of moments he went from crying out, “Woe is me! I am lost” to “Here am I; send me!

This whole story about Isaiah’s call is a lot like what we do in worship. We come together to praise the almighty God, we pray and confess our unworthiness, and then seek forgiveness. We pray for God to give us the grace and strength to hear the Word with faith so that we can respond accordingly.

How we worship matters because it shapes us into the disciples we are called to be. Every Sunday is like Isaiah’s call. We meet the Lord in the words from scriptures, prayers, hymns, and our brothers and sisters. Through that encounter we are called to live out our faith as soon as we depart in a way that will make God’s kingdom reign. All of these things that we do on a weekly basis, they are done to attune us to the voice of God who speaks into our lives.

Isaiah’s call, this dramatic and overpowering moment in the temple, reminds us that when we encounter the living God, there is not way to know God without being changed. Like a coal coming from the altar to our lips, we are tasked with speaking words like fire. Like a frightened prophet we are given the power to cry out “Here am I; send me!

The prophet was called to speak during a particular time, to sinners in the midst of sin. If we hear something from God’s Word today it should be a similar call. We should not be afraid to names the sins of our time, just as Isaiah did when he confronted the people’s political arrogance, spiritual pride, and economic injustice.

Abraham had to confront the Lord who promised to make his descendants more numerous than the stars. Jacob had to confront his twin brother Esau who sought to kill him for stealing his blessing. David had to confront King Saul who was jealous of the Lord’s favor. Isaiah had to confront a people who neglected to thank God for being the source of all their blessings. Jesus had to confront a religious elite who no longer practiced what they preached. Peter had to confront the gentiles and welcome them into the fold of the church. Paul had to confront his own sinfulness and call others to do the same.

Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront the conflict in their lives. To be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love. To be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong. To follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

What situation are you in right now that God is calling you to confront? I believe the holy Lord of hosts is personally addressing each and every one of us in the scripture today. Who do we need to call out? Where are the conflicts in our lives?

In each of our hands we have a name that represents a conflict in our life. Some of them can be confronted with a phone call or a conversation. Some of them can be confronted with our willingness to forgive a wrong that was done toward us. Some of them can be confronted with the simplest of gestures.

It might not go well. If we take the first step to confront one of our conflicts, it might blow up in our faces. But the longer we let these names stay on paper, the longer the conflict will keep us from fully living out our identities as disciples. The longer we let the conflict simmer, the longer we will be people of unclean lips living amidst unclean lips. The longer the conflicts remain, the harder it will be to hear the living God speaking into our lives.

The voice of the Lord is saying to all of us, “Whom shall we send, who will go for us to confront the conflict?” Our answer should be the same as Isaiah’s, “Here am I, send me!” Amen.

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Eyes On The Sky – Sermon on Acts 1.6-14

Acts 1.6-14

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 times 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. While 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 there were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

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I was sitting in the congregation at Trinity United Methodist Church in Lexington, VA for my first district event as a pastor. The room was filled, as you would expect, with older Christians (lay and clergy) dedicated to the kingdom of God as made manifest in the UMC. We listened to our District Superintendent discuss the challenges facing the church in our contemporary period and how similar they are to the problems that John Wesley faced in England when he initiated the Methodist movement of scriptural holiness.

All of the districts that make up our Annual Conference are required to gather annually for the purposes of restoring our souls for the adventure of doing church, and to discuss business matters as they pertain to our locality. Reports are filed annually for our review and approval as well as a new budget that needs to be considered by the body of Christ gathered together.

As far as I was concerned, the budget appeared fine. Sure, there were a few minor changes; some programs needed more money, and some programs had been receiving too much without being fruitful for the church. The only noticeable and significant change was found regarding the budgetary needs for “district youth.” I can’t remember the exact figures but it was a noticeable decline in funding for the young people of the district.

One representative present noticed this significant change and decided to make it abundantly clear to everyone how upset she was that the money had been decreased. She said, “I want to know why we lowered the district youth budget. The youth are the future of the church, and if we don’t invest in the them, the church will disappear.

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A worthy comment, don’t you think?

Our District Superintendent then calmly responded to her comment: “I appreciate what you are saying. We do need to invest in our youth. But I want to be clear about something; the youth are not the future of the church, they are very much a part of the church right now. The mentality that “the youth are the future of the church” prevents us from treating them as the church in the present. We will gladly restore money to the youth district budget, but for the last few years we have done nothing with and for them. I would love to hear ideas about what we can do right now for them, and then we can responsibly apply money to the District Youth.”

youth-ministry

After Jesus’ resurrection, he spent 40 days with his beloved disciples speaking about the kingdom of God. This forty day period was a great pause in the dynamic actions of God in the world; after the resurrection but before the day of pentecost, Christ had fellowship with his brothers and sisters to teach them about the coming days of ministry and service.

When they had come together after Jesus had completed his teaching, some of the disciples asked the question that was still on everyone’s mind: “Lord, is this the time that you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even after the resurrection, they were so caught up in the drama of Roman occupation that their vision of God’s kingdom was limited to political ramifications alone. So Jesus did what all great teachers do, he ignored their question: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that God has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had finished saying this, he was lifted up toward heaven and a cloud took him out of the disciples presence.

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The disciples stood transfixed, as any of us would have, with their eyes on the sky, perhaps held is disbelief. Suddenly two men in whites robes appeared and said, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up to heaven will return in the same way” So, the disciples returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer.

Jesus made three promises to his disciples before he ascended into heaven: the gift of the Holy Spirit would come, they would spread their witness to the ends of the earth, and Jesus himself would eventually return. They had been given a job to do before he left: wait for the Spirit in Jerusalem and then spread the gospel, but when he was lifted up the disciples stood paralyzed with the eyes on the sky. Can you blame them? Jesus had come back from the grave, resurrected and clothed in the glory of God to teach them about the kingdom, and now he had left again. Their friend and Lord had departed, entrusting the future of the church and the kingdom to this group of uneducated, poor, and often ignorant community.

While standing with their necks craned backwards two men appear to remind the disciples of their purpose, a reminder that we need to hear as well: “Why are you looking up to the heavens?” You have a job to do. There is work to be done.

When the woman stood up to question the budget as the District Conference I could understand where she was coming from. Reducing the money from the youth budget sounds like a bad thing to do. But her notion of “youth as the future of the church” is just like the disciples stuck with their eyes on the sky. One of the greatest problems facing the present church is our inability to see the present. We become so consumed with the future of the church that we lose sight of our mission right here and now. 

It astounds me how often people ask me about the future of the church. And I don’t mean what the church will be doing next year. People want to know the long term hope for the church of the distant future. The questions I hear are regularly oriented to a future that is beyond our ability to grasp or imagine: Where are all the young people? How can we convince the millennials to attend church? How can we build 250 churches in the next 30 years? …

This is how many of us live our lives, consumed by the distant future of all things, not just the church: we think about the next war, the next financial rise or decline, the future of democracy in America and abroad, the survival of the “perfect” family model of a husband, wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. We no longer look at the horizon, instead we want to look over the mountains and imagine the great fields and grasses beyond our vision.

Jesus, however, was of a different mind. Begin now! Get your eyes out of the sky and start focusing on the present. Right here and now our task is to transform the present by witnessing to Christ, to the kingdom, and to his Word. This is not to say that we are forbidden from planning for the future; we can, but not at the expense of the present. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When the angels reproved the disciples for their transfixed gaze on the heavens, how did the disciples respond? They waited and and they prayed.

In an age of activism and instant gratification, we would expect the disciples to something a little more “useful” than wait and pray. We would expect them to meet together in different committees to implement action plans like: creating contemporary worship services. To ask questions such as:“how can we build 250 churches in the next thirty years?” or “how can we convince the young people to start coming to church?” Yet, when they were told to witness to the ends of the earth, when they were tasked with spreading the Word of the Lord, their first response was prayer. While the world was ready to keep spinning, to forget about the political problem that was squashed when they crucified Jesus, ready to get back to life as usual, the disciples met in the upper room and devoted themselves to prayer.

Gathering to wait and pray are often depicted as the two primary actives of a faithful church. It amazes me how far I, and we, have fallen from this blueprint. When the church encounters a crisis we treat it as such and we immediately implement plans and programs to fix it. When I am asked about how I intend to get more people to start attending church, people want to know what I’m going to change in order to make church appealing immediately. Imagine, if you can, how people would react if, after they asked the question, I responded, “I should pray about it.

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We don’t want to wait. We want things to happen immediately. Thats why people still ask, whenever I introduce myself as the Pastor of St. John’s, “how many people do you have in worship?” We want numbers, and figures, and diagrams, and growth, and tangible results as soon as possible. Christ, on the other hand, wants patience and prayer.

Waiting and praying is a heavy burden for those of us caught up in the technically impatient world of the present. We live in an age of instant everything, and so many want the church to be exactly the same way. One of the toughest tasks that will face us as a church, and I really mean us, the people of St. John’s, will be to be a people of prayer, when the world expects us to be a people of instant results.

In life, all things come and go. Where there is life there is always death, where there is love there is loss, where there is hope there is sorrow, where there is joy there is pain. So too, Jesus came to be with his people, and then he left; he ascended into heaven. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes there is an unrecognized good that comes with the going.

Jesus wants persons, not puppets. We are not here to be controlled by the great puppet master in the sky who moves us to where we are supposed to go. Instead Jesus has left us to be his body for the world, to be true and full persons who are prepared to go and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. Sometimes we have to be left on our own to really learn who we are, and whose we are.

A parent can never be there for every single thing their child ever does. If they were, the child would never learn how to grow, blossom, and mature into their true nature. A boss can never oversee everything their employees do, otherwise the business would lack the great imaginative capabilities of numerous minds, rather than a solitary and isolated vision. A pastor can never lead as a perfect disciple for everyone else to follow, because all pastors are like everyone else, sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.

Christ ascended into heaven so that the church could become his body for the world, so they we could become his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samara, and to the ends of the earth.

So, how do we begin? How do we live into this call that Christ has placed on our lives? How can we start being his body for the world and have a vibrant and life-giving church?

We begin by waiting and praying.

Like the disciples, we need to be patient before we jump into “fixing” all of the “problems” that we see. Imagine a church that prayed fervently for the needs of our faith community in the hope of meeting the needs of so many on a regular basis. Imagine what this place would look like if we spent the first fifteen minutes of worship every Sunday in silence, waiting and praying to the God who calls us and knows us by name. Imagine what our family lives would look like if we spent five minutes with our children praying for them and their friends every morning before they left for school. Imagine a faith life where we prayed not just for what we want, but for the needs and hopes of the people who bother us the most.

It would be strange. For many it would be uncomfortable. Waiting and praying are no longer natural habits for the people who live in the world today. We have become so habituated into expecting “instant everything” that we rarely relish in the joy that is patience and prayer.

Today, let us become a people of waiting and prayer. As we take the steps to this table we are reminded that even though Jesus ascended to heaven, he never really left us. For he is here with us in the bread and the wine. He becomes manifest in our lives when we participate in his kingdom on earth. Do not let yourselves be burdened by the worries of the future, instead let us all get our eyes out of the sky and start doing the work of the Lord here and now, work that begins with prayer.