Friday, October 31, 2014

SERMON: "Children of God"

Children of God
I John 3:1-7

One of my favorite true stories of preacher and writer Fred Craddock happened when he and his wife were at a restaurant in Tennessee.  It was a holiday and an old man started a conversation with them about what they were doing to enjoy their holiday.  At one point in the conversation, the old man asked Craddock what he did for a living.  Craddock thought his answer would finally cause the man to leave them alone – “I’m a preacher.”

To Craddock’s dismay, the man grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table where he and his wife were sitting and started in: “A preacher, eh?  Well, that’s great.  Let me tell you a story about a preacher.”  As the man continued to talk Craddock’s mood changed from one of being annoyed to one of being humbled.

The guy told Fred and his wife that he was a bastard – not in the figurative sense, but in the literal sense.  He was born without knowing who his father was.  He was illegitimate according to the way the people in his small town in the early part of the twentieth century referred to him.  It was a source of great shame to him growing up in that community.

The old man explained that he never went to church growing up.  Until this one Sunday when he decided to hear this new pastor preach.  He said he thought he was very good and so he went back again and again.  In fact he started going just about every week, always arriving a little late and leaving a little early so that he wouldn’t have to talk to anyone.  He just knew everyone was thinking, “Look at that illegitimate boy.  Why, what is he doing in church?”

One Sunday though he got caught up in the sermon and forgot to leave early.  Before he knew it the service was over and people were crowding into the aisles blocking his escape.  He hurried as fast as he could to try and get to a door, but as he did he felt this heavy hand suddenly grab him by a shoulder.  It was the preacher - a big tall man.  The preacher looked down on him and asked, “What’s your name, boy?  Whose son are you?”

The old man said that he died inside as he struggled to offer an answer.  It was the very question he most feared having to answer.  Before he could come up with anything the preacher said, “I know who you are.  I know who your family is.  There’s a distinct family resemblance.  Why, you’re the son, you’re the son, you’re the son of God!”

The old man sitting with Fred Craddock and his wife said, “You know, mister, those words changed my life.”  And he got up and left.

The waitress came over and said to Fred Craddock and his wife, “Do you know who that was?”

“No,” they replied.

“That was Ben Hooper, the two-term governor of Tennessee." (1)

The author of I John proclaims that it’s true for all of us – “we are God’s children” – children of God’s.  That ought to be a source of comfort for all of us – we belong to God – we are God’s offspring.

Now, the author of John is describing here what our relationship with God is like, not describing how we should behave.  He wasn’t giving us a license to be childish.

On an Easter Sunday afternoon a few years back all of Dorothy’s family and my mother had Easter dinner at our cottage on Indian Lake so that Dorothy and I could catch an early flight to Florida on Monday.  Caleb, our niece’s son, is the oldest grandchild.  He had been the only grandchild for several years.  He had been used to all the attention of the whole family.  Our two oldest grandchildren were born that year and thus shared the spotlight.

Caleb liked trains.  He had a collection of trains.  Evan, our grandson, was a little over a year old – 14 months.  Caleb got out his collection of trains and Evan went over to observe – er, uh, take a hands-on look at Caleb’s collection.  Everyone held their breath as they watched to see what Caleb would do.  His mom tried to ward off the inevitable as she started to repeat over and over, “Now, Caleb, it’s OK for Evan to play with your trains too.  Caleb, it will be OK.  You need to share your trains with Evan, Caleb.”  She was successful for awhile.

Watching Caleb and Evan reminded me of a piece I’ve seen a time or two over the years.  It’s titled The Toddler’s Property Laws and goes like this:
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.
If it’s yours and I steal it, it’s mine.
If I saw it first, or last, makes no difference, it’s still mine."  (2)

So, what did the author of I John have in mind when he referred to us as "children of God?" First, we should note why the author wrote the letter and to whom.

 It's believed by some bible scholars that John was writing to persons in the early church who were beginning to become discouraged – who were having their doubts.  A lot of time had passed since Jesus had lived, died and was resurrected and the thrill of it all was beginning to fade.  Their commitment was waning and false teachings were finding their way into the thinking of the day.  The letter by this author of the first letter of John was believed to have been sent to all the churches in that day to challenge these false teachings.

In addition, the scholars believe that the letter was written to a mixed community of faith – that Jews and Gentiles alike were the recipients of the letter - which further contributes to the really radical nature of the author’s assertion – all members of the community of faith are children of God – ethnic origin makes no difference. (3)

We are children of God because of God’s doing.  It’s God’s choice for us to be children.  We are members of the same family because we have the same Father, Parent, Mother, Creator.  We do not choose God.  God chooses us.  We don’t earn a spot in the family by our good deeds or noble thoughts or winsome personalities, but because of one thing – God’s generous love. (4)

Actress Jeanette Clift George tells about a very turbulent flight home one time with a woman and her young baby.  The mother tried to feed the young baby a little fruit and orange juice every time she cried.  Because the flight was so bumpy whenever she did, it would come back up.  When the plane landed it was quite a mess – the carpet and the baby looked just awful.

When they got off the plane, a young man who simply had to be “daddy” was at the gate waiting.  He was dressed in white pants and a white shirt and had some flowers in his hand.  Jeanette George said that she was sure that he would run to the baby, take one look, and keep on running.

That’s not what happened.  She said that the young father ran to his wife and small child, grabbed the messy baby from his wife, and without hesitation held the vomit covered little one against his white shirt and whispered loving things into her ear.  He continued to hug and kiss the little one – continued to stroke her hair – continued to welcome her home all the way to the baggage claim area.

Jeanette George reflecting on this scene asked herself, “Where did I ever get the idea that my father, God, is less loving than a young daddy in white slacks and white shirt?" (5)  God chooses us – embraces us – accepts us with open arms, no matter how messy or how messed up we are.

Another thought of this author of I John is that as a result of this relationship with God through Jesus Christ – as a result of our being children of God’s – we can expect to be at odds with the world.  We are expected to behave differently as children of God and the rest of the world is often not crazy about our different behavior.  It just doesn’t look right – it sometimes causes discomfort with the way world has come to believe it’s OK to order things – think about people – treat people.

I appreciate the way one preacher phrased it: “People who are loved behave differently from those who aren’t.  We are loved.  We are called therefore to love.  This affects our relationship with God and the community." (6)

We’re important to God and we live by a different set of rules now than we did before we understood ourselves loved by God – children of God.  This “different set of rules includes:
We love our neighbors as ourselves.
We listen for God’s voice, not our own.
We consider ourselves to be subject one to another.
We practice kindness and charity.
We bear each other’s burdens.
We forgive rather than bear a grudge." (7)
Jesus had some things to say about how we should behave out of which the just stated list grows.  He said that we should love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.  The message we have heard from the beginning is that we should love one another as God loves us.  It ought to guide everything we think and do.

The preacher I referred to a moment ago went on to say: “Civility is merely following the golden rule – treating others as we wish to be treated.  What could be more Christian than, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew :12).  If you want people to be kind to you, be kind to them.  If you don’t want to be cut off in traffic, don’t be the guy who cuts off other drivers.  If you want to be let out into traffic, let others out.  If you want civil treatment at the grocery store, or in your kitchen, treat others with civility and respect.  Even if you don’t get civility in return, keep your cool, and let the civility flow." (8)

A final note about being children of God it would be well to take note of is that children grow, develop, mature.  The author of I John noted in verse 2: “What we will be has not yet been revealed (I John 3:2b).”  What we do know is that we will be like Jesus when our growth is finished.   Our growth means many things then:
* it means that we need to be prepared to find new ways to share the good news -
* it means we need to serve the poor -
* it means we need to heal the sick -
* it means we need to bind up the brokenhearted -
* “It means walking the self-denying, cross-carrying path of discipleship and following Christ’s example of eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, loving enemies and turning the other cheek.  It means swimming in the same gene pool of Jesus, opening ourselves further to the movement of the Holy Spirit and allowing ourselves to become ever more effective channels for the ever-flowing love of God." (9)

Brothers and sisters in Christ – fellow children of God – this relationship with God which labels us “children of God” doesn’t carry with the title reasons to turn up our noses at the rest of the world.  Rather, it carries with it the notion that we have special responsibilities – we are called to live for the good of the world, not our own.

1 Tony Campolo, It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’, a quote from Fred Craddock.
2 “Newportance,” Homiletics, March - April, 2006, p. 71-72.
3 Ibid., p. 69.
4 “Charlemagne’s Children,” Homiletics, May – June, 2003, p. 12.
5 Ibid.
6 “Newportance,” p. 69 -70.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 “Charlemagne’s Children,” p. 12.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

SERMON: "A Tear-Wiping Community"

"A Tear-Wiping Community"
Revelation 7:9-17

When serving churches I usually chose the Sunday after November 1st as All Saints’ Sunday. All Saints’ Day (November 1) is the day after All Saints’ Eve (October 31) - or, Halloween. It’s a time in the church year when we not only remember the saints of the church – those canonized by the church – but also, those members of the church who have departed this life and those who still make up the church.

When the Bible uses saints it is referencing the faithful – all the faithful – not just those who have died and moved on to become even more fully part of God’s kingdom – heaven. All Saints’ Sunday or Day is a time for us to think about both the dead and the living saints – all of us.

Now, with that little pre-sermon offering finished let us turn to John’s hallucination-like book. One of the popular ways some read the book of Revelation is with an eye to what is going on in history. They attempt to associate descriptions John offers to people, places and events going on in the world right now. I have to admit to you that I’m not a fan of those who have attempted this down through the ages. I find it a colossal waste of time to try and figure out what John had in mind when he wrote the book.  And, I’m in good company.

Martin Luther once noted that the letter written to the seven churches in Asia should have been returned to sender. Zwingli was almost as harsh. He rather bluntly offered that in his opinion the book isn’t biblical and shouldn’t be included in the New Testament. John Calvin thought it such a worthless work that he never even offered a single comment on it despite writing extensively on every other New Testament work. (1)

Those comments aside, I want to share with you that at times I have found the book to be helpful when I have simply let some of the images in it wash through me. One such image is in the text on which I'm focusing this sermon. The thought – the image - of God being one who wipes away our tears I find powerful – I experience as comforting. It's images such as this one that suggests to me that the message of Revelation is one of encouragement and hope and comfort – a message I am certainly in need of often.

Think about it for a moment: God – the author of creation – the all-powerful one - the Ground of our Being – stoops and wipes the tears from our eyes. I find that to be an amazing image. I think it’s one of the most defining statements about the nature of God in all the Bible (2) – “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” God is with us – God is concerned about our needs and concerns – God is with us in our suffering and our successes, our joys and our tears. It’s the God Jesus showed us. He made us aware that the God he believed in was like “a loving parent bending down and personally wiping the tears out of children’s eyes. (Jesus’ God offers) comfort for the grieving, healing for the bruised and battered, hope for the despairing. There is a God who is aware of our heartaches, our frustrations, our fears – who personally longs to bow down
before us and wipe the tears from our eyes.

“God is an intimate and loving God. That is what Christ taught us and even showed us. God is very close. God knows each of us better than our best friend knows us.  And God cares about our problems." (3)

Now, I would like to suggest to you that one of the reasons God created churches was so that we could help in this tear-wiping ministry – that we would be the way people would recognize God’s tear-wiping.

Clara Null of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma wrote in The Christian Reader magazine: “It was one of the worst days of my life.  The washing machine broke down, the telephone kept ringing, my head ached, and the mail carrier brought a bill I had no money to pay. Almost to the breaking point, I lifted my one-year-old into his highchair, leaned my head against the tray, and began to cry. Without a word my son took his pacifier out of his mouth … and stuck it in mine." (4)

The community of faith – the church – exists to help with the tear-wiping of God – to offer our brothers and sisters in Christ pacifiers – not as a way to avoid the discomforts of life – the painful realities of life – but to provide comfort in the midst of the discomforts and pains.

When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was developing her work among the dying she showed a class of seminary students a drawing a child had made. The child had terminal cancer but wouldn’t talk to anyone. His drawings were all the communication he offered.

The drawing Kubler-Ross showed the class included a beautiful little cottage set off to the side of the paper. Above the cottage was a bright, brilliant shining sun. Surrounding the cottage was a beautiful lawn with flowers and trees. In front of the cottage was a family of four: a mother, a father, and two children playing. In the center of the paper though was this tiny figure representing the dying child and this large tank pointing right at him as if ready to destroy him.

Dr. Kubler-Ross asked the group of students how they thought they could help this child communicate his fear? How could they offer him comfort?

The first one that tried drew a picture of a person holding a stop sign in front of the tank. There was no reaction from the boy.

A second seminarian drew a picture of a person standing beside the little figure in the picture and had the figure holding the hand of the child. Suddenly the child’s wall of silence broke and he began to pour out all his pent-up feelings. (5)

Our God stands beside us. Our God holds our hand. Our God gently wipes tears from our eyes. And we are the ones through whom others come to recognize the tear-wiping.  We are a tear-wiping community.

Now, this is not a Pollyanna faith we are espousing.  It does not say that we will avoid tears.  Far from it.  What it says is this, there is One who wipes tears from children’s eyes – all ages of children’s eyes. We can keep standing and hold on because we know that someone stands beside us – that someone holds our hand. (6)

And one of the ways we wipe away tears is by our being present when others remember – by mentioning the names of loved ones in a worship service – by recalling with – by lighting candles in memory of and being willing to sorrow again alongside and with those who know the pain the most.

1.   Robert S. Crilley, “When the Saints Come Marching In”, Veiled Glimpses of God’s (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 1995), 0-7880-0464-6.
2.  King Duncan, “When You Feel Like Crying,” Collected Sermons (Dynamic Preaching, 2005), 0-000- 0000-20.
3.  King Duncan, “Oh, God!” 2007 Second Quarter Sermons (Dynamic Preaching, 2007), 0-000-0000-20.
4.  "When You Feel Like Crying."
5.  Ibid., as quoted from Dick Underdahl -
6.  "Oh, God!"

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Some Final Comments About #Ice Bucket Challenge"

"Some Final Comments About #Ice Bucket Challenge"

There are not enough positive words to describe the miraculous impact the "Ice Bucket Challenge" phenomena had on those of us whose lives are affected by ALS. To sense the new people made aware of the disease and its impact on PALS and our friends and families lifted our spirits beyond anything most of us thought possible! And, an awesome amount of money was raised by and for The ALS Association (National and local chapters) and many other ALS organizations involved in the fight against this disease. Thanks goes to many people and whatever it was that caused the public's psyche to add the fuel necessary for this simple activity to become a highly successful craze.

Despite our overwhelming joy for the surprising results of the Ice Bucket Challenge some reactions have created some disappointment in some of us. First, there are the comments that seem to suggest that some people feel the ALS groups shouldn't have been the beneficiaries of the gifts because there were other starts that had a different intent.

Second, there are some high expectations that these funds will result in a cure and finally an understanding of causes. I share that high hope, but I sense there's almost an unrealistic expectation that this one effort will reap eternal results and no more awareness or fundraising will be necessary. Why do we expect the results for research relative to ALS to be so much higher or greater than any one of numerous other life-depriving diseases? I choose not to name names because my intent is not to criticize the advocates on behalf of other diseases, rather it is to create an apologetic for a similar playing field of expectations. We can all think of diseases that have seen some treatments developed as a result of walks, rides, and runs of interested and motivated supporters. Seldom have such advances meant the fight was over and events need no longer be held. The advances that hopefully will happen as a result of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge probably end the need for further efforts. It's a war we're waging, not a single skirmish!

Third, I think many have somewhat of a misunderstanding of what was raised. My sense is that all the money that was reported raised nationally included much that was being raised by local chapters for their local Walks to Defeat ALS and thus only a portion of it will go to national for research. My point here is not to argue against more money going to research as a result of this year's outstanding effort! I absolutely expect more money (dollars and percentage!) to go toward appropriate research projects. I only wish to offer a cautionary and explanatory word about what's available to do what. I know not all local ALS Chapters are as highly regarded as the two chapters in Ohio. I have nothing but praise though for the local chapter and thus am bias in my support of their work. It's because of the Walk efforts that they are able to effectively perform their mission. I know some expect other than their mission from them but that's not what they are chartered to do.

Which brings me to my final comment for this blog post. There are numerous other worthwhile ALS organizations that are filling the gaps that exist between what the Association can do and other needs of PALS families. There are also numerous research-only efforts that are vital to the need to fight this disease on multiple fronts. None of us can get the job done alone. We all need to work together if we're going to ultimately win the war. We need to guard against stepping on one another's toes or areas of expertise. We need to guard against jealousy and envy and greed and pride. We all don't need to be involved in supporting research, especially when it will hinder us from performing what motivated our coming into existence in the first place.

I cannot say enough about how impressed I am with what some organizations are doing on behalf of PALS and CALS. The only one I'll mention is PHAALS (Playing Hardball Against ALS) because it's a group I know about, received help from, know many of the people they have helped, and its birth began in an area of the state in which I was raised and still have many family and friends. They are most involved in raising awareness by holding events at high school baseball games and other fundraisers. Their funds are primarily used to provide scholarships for the children of PALS and the fulfilling of personal dreams of PALS. (This isn't a research project so people will have to seek out groups doing similar things in their own area.)

O. K., I'm done. I'd like to write more but the fingers and hands say time to stop.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

SERMON: "To Love and Serve"

Love God … and … Love Your Neighbor!
Matthew 22:34-40

There’s a Jewish story with a Mr. Kleinman cast visiting an unfamiliar town on the Sabbath. He went to the local synagogue for services and met a Mr. Putterman. Putterman invited him to his home for the evening.

At Putterman’s home Kleinman enjoyed a beautiful hot bath with scented soap. He dried himself with fluffy towels. The evening included a delicious meal. Mr. Kleinman spent the night sleeping on a really comfortable bed with fresh sheets.  Basically, Mr. Kleinman was treated like royalty by Mr. Putterman.

As Mr. Kleinman prepared to leave the next morning he said: “This was a delightful Sabbath. Thank you so much. What can I do to repay you?”

With that, Mr. Putterman presented Kleinman with a piece of paper on which was written: “Warm bath – six dollars; two cakes of soap – four dollars; clean towels – three dollars; full dinner – twenty dollars; overnight lodging – forty dollars; fresh sheets – three dollars; Total: Seventy-six dollars.”

Kleinman was shocked.  “You’re charging me?” Putterman replied: “Certainly.”
“But you invited me! I was your guest! I’ve never heard of such a thing! This is outrageous!” Kleinman protested.

Putterman said, “Nevertheless, if you could just settle up.” Kleinman responded, “I will do no such thing!”
“Alright,” sighed Mr. Putterman.  “Let’s not argue.  Let’s take this case to the rabbi and let him decide.” “That suits me fine,” said Kleinman and off they went to the local rabbi.
In the Rabbi’s study Kleinman laid out his case. The rabbi listened and stroked his beard. When Kleinman finished, he asked Putterman, “Do you have anything to add?”

Putterman replied, “No, it happened just the way Mr. Kleinman described.”

The rabbi then said, “Very well. In that case, based on numerous Talmudic precedents and on similar cases found in the Reposa, it is my decision that Mr. Kleinman should pay Mr. Putterman.”

Kleinman of course was dumbfounded. Still, a rabbi had heard his case - had considered it - and reached a decision.  The two men thanked the rabbi and left.

Once outside, Mr. Kleinman began to count his money.  “What are you doing?” asked Putterman.
“I’m going to pay you,” said Kleinman.

“Don’t be foolish,” said Putterman. “You were my guest. I was honored to have you spend the Sabbath with me.  I hope you’ll come again.”

“But you gave me a bill. We had a dispute, a decision was rendered,” said the confused Kleinman. “Oh, that!” said Putterman.  “I just wanted to see what kind of schmuck we have for a rabbi.”1
The lawyer who approached Jesus in the temple that day and asked for his opinion on the greatest law  wasn’t really looking for new insight into what made Jesus tick. He wanted to show Jesus up as a schmuck – as a fraud. He was trying to trap him into saying something that would turn those who were flocking to him against him. Once again the religious of that day failed. Jesus’ response was right on and everyone in the temple that day knew it.

“What of all that is written in the Old Testament – the teachings of Moses and the Prophets – the works of at least 30 authors, describing events which occurred during over 2000 years of history – books of a variety of literature styles: history, poetry, songs, prophecy, wisdom, story form – what of it all is most important, Jesus?”

With no hesitation, Jesus proclaimed: “First, love God with all of your heart, mind and soul. And there’s a second one very closely associated with it, love your neighbor as yourself.  All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Of course, Jesus was quoting some very familiar verses to those raised in the Jewish faith. They are the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, known as the “shema” and memorized by every Jewish child as early as they are able to memorize.

Suppose a visitor approached you after the service some Sunday and said something to you like: “You know, I used to go to church a lot when I was a kid, but I’ve been out of the church for a long time now. It just didn’t seem that important to me, I guess. I couldn’t fit it into my busy schedule. But now I want to come back. I feel like something is missing in my life, and I think I know what it is. So I’ve been visiting around at some of the local churches, trying to find out where I fit in. I wonder if you could tell me what would be expected of me if I joined your church?”

Remember, the person has just experienced an hour worship service. They’ve already seen and heard the pastor. That's not who they want to hear from. They want to hear from a pew person. They want to know from someone who won’t take forever to provide an answer. What would you say in a matter of a minute or two?

Now, at the last church I served there were two things I hoped would immediately pop into everyone's head. One was the mission statement: "we are an open community of Christians who love God and serve our neighbors" (which was our interpretation of Jesus’ response to the lawyer in the text we are considering); and the second would be the emphasis on the concept that all members are ministers. Of course, then hopefully would follow comments about specific ministries unique to the person being asked the question. I would think things like the Stephen Ministers, music and drama, outreach to the community and the sharing of space.

There’s a similarity between the question I’ve phrased from the lips of the hypothetical stranger and that which the lawyer asked Jesus in the temple that day. “What if I wanted to be a follower of yours, Jesus? What would be expected of me? What is most important for those of us who say yes to following you, Jesus?” “What should be central to our lives – central to how we should live out the faith?”

“Love God and love your neighbors,” that was his response and it is still his response to us today. “Love God with every aspect of who you are – with all your body, with all your mind, and with all your soul. And, love your neighbor as you love yourself." Yes, I said ‘as you love yourself’ so you better get that right in your head as well. You should love yourself because God made you and God don’t make any junk.” (There’s just so much more that could be - needs to be - said in this regard. But that’s all I’m going to say today - love yourself.)

The love Jesus has in mind here is more than a doctrine.  It’s more than words.  It’s more than a feeling.  “(It’s) a sacrifice, obedience, partnership, turning the other check. We may sing ‘I love to tell the story of unseen things above,’ but what the world is looking for is not words or melodies, but love, love that manifest itself in the way we spend our money, the way we vote, the way we treat those who don’t deserve our love, those whose skin color or beliefs are different than ours.  ‘Mother, father, sister, brother, everybody sing and shout, cause
that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love.’”2

In another place Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for another person.” In John’s letter he uses these words: “Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. If we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us. God is love. Those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”

“In the end, the bottom line is: God wants us to love one another. It’s God’s commandment to us. Love sums up all the commandments. It has authority behind it.  It’s not an option.  It’s not a theory, an idea, a philosophy to bounce around.  It’s not a question or suggestion as one possible route you may take.  It’s a command.  This
is my commandment that you love one another. It is the ‘law,’ that the psalmist meditates on day and night (Psalm 1).”3 The Word of God became flesh. In Jesus’ life we see love as a binding, relationship, a caring, a willingness to sacrifice, to lay down one’s life, to enter into the other person’s situation.4 We who choose to be his followers agree to follow in his footsteps.

One winter, a woman was walking down the main street of Birmingham, Alabama. She was shopping for Christmas presents. She happened upon a small boy – she estimated about seven-years-old. He wasn’t dressed very warm - barefooted - standing over a heater vent in the sidewalk to keep warm. He had a bundle of newspapers under his arm that he was trying to sell to those who walked by.

The woman went up to him and she said, “Son, where are your shoes and socks?” He said, “Lady, I ain’t got none.”
She then invited him to go with her into one of the nearby department stores and there she purchased for him a pair of socks and a heavy pair of shoes.
The young lad skipped away and out of the store without so much of a thank you. Suddenly he reappeared and he asked, “Lady, are you God?”

“No, son,” she said, “I’m not God.  But I am one of his children.”

The little guy turned to leave again while saying, “I knowed you must be some kin to him.”5 It’s about love, folks, love.

When Alice Trowbridge was an associate pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago she told the inside story of a tragedy that was on the national news after the flooding in the mid-west.  The tragedy that she referenced in the sermon happened in Chesterton, Indiana.

A ten-year-old boy named Doug and a couple of his friends were dipping their toes in the creek following the torrential rains that caused the flooding. Doug was sucked into the raging river. Doug’s neighbors were home and saw what happened. While most people along the river were screaming, Mark Thanos, one of Doug’s neighbors and a high school English teacher, jumped into the water to try and save the boy.

Mark wasn’t particularly a very good swimmer and began to struggle. Mark’s seventy-four-year-old father, John, jumped into the water to try and help his son.  Father and son both drowned.

Ten-year-old Doug survived. Later that day as he clung to his mother he was heard to keep crying, “I wish he knew I could swim … I wish he didn’t love me that much.”

It was love of course that drove son and father into that water to save a neighbor – a force greater than any force in the universe.

There’s more to the story though as Alice related it to her congregation. In the Chicago Tribune two reporters by the names of Stacy St. Clair and John Kass told the “rest of the story.” Tragedy had not the final word.

“The day after John and Mark Thanos, father and son, drowned in that churning creek, the young Doug and his family visited the newly widowed Victoria Thanos and her own sons. Ten-year-old Doug had made Victoria a home-made cake. Victoria hugged the neighbor boy tightly. She asked if he was feeling better, and she made a fuss over his cake.  She then invited Doug and his family to sit down and have something to eat with her boys.

“So they did. And Victoria began to tell stories. Stories about her husband, her own sons,  and  their grandfather.  And as they broke bread together, the gravity of grief gave way to the grace of love.

“By the way, to this day Victoria tells her friends that if they are praying for anyone, they are to pray for that little boy Doug.”6
“Uh, Jesus. Uh, Jesus, which is the greatest of all the laws?”
And the love Jesus had in mind when he summarized all of the teachings in the law and the prophets was not that sort of vague understanding we’ve made it out to be in our society. It was not philio love – the love we enjoy with our friends. It was not eros love – the love known as erotica. It was agape love - that which has no dependency on wanting or even expecting something from the other. Jesus pretty much redefined it by modeling it, embodying it. He loved by commanding that it involves such things as turning the other cheek, going the second mile when commanded by an enemy to go one mile, forgiving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, giving without expecting anything in return.

As a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we who are his followers understand that it’s not simply about believing “in love.” It’s believing that love is defined as suffering, sacrificing, nonviolently acting. You know, like we saw him do on the cross.

It’s like that slogan that was on a tee-shirt a few years back. “I asked Jesus, ‘how much do you love me?’ And he spread out his arms wide on the cross, and he died.”

The Jewish Humor List. 5. pp. 140-141 as quoted in King Duncan’s “Insincere Religion,” Collected Sermons, 2005, 0-000-0000-20.
George S. Johnson, “What Does It Mean to Love?” Critical Decisions in Following Jesus (Lima: C.S.S. Publishing Company, 1992), 1-55673-427-1.
Stephen M. Crotts/George L. Murphy/Stan Purdum, “How to Love God,” Sermons For Sundays: After Pentecost (Last Third): Rendering to God (Lima: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 2004), 0788023233e.
Leonard Sweet, “The 2 Love Laws,” Leonard Sweet Sermons (ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2008), 0-000-1415.

Monday, October 13, 2014

SERMON: "What's God's?"

What Is God’s?
Matthew 22:15-22

A wealthy member of a congregation stood up at a meeting to share with the others some things about his journey of faith. He began with: “I’m a millionaire and I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life.” He went on to describe an event that he considered a turning point in his relationship with God. It happened on the day he earned his first dollar. There was a meeting at the church that night. The speaker talked about his work as a missionary. The wealthy man shared that near the end of the evening the pastor of his church got up to receive the offering and announced that everything given that night would go to the missionary to fund the work he was doing.

The man continued to explain the dilemma he felt he had.  On the one hand he wanted to support the mission work, but on the other he wasn’t sure he wanted to put the whole first dollar he had just earned in.  He noted that he knew he couldn’t make change from the offering plate when it went by him.  He knew that his choices were either to give all of that dollar he had just earned or nothing.  He shared with those who were at the meeting that he decided that he had to give all that he had to God.  He closed by observing that he believed that God had blessed his decision and that was why he was wealthy.

You could have heard a pin drop when he finished and returned to his pew.  When he sat down, an elderly lady behind him leaned forward and said, “I dare you to do it again.” (1)

I started basing my sermons on the membership vows ("to uphold the ministries of the church with my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness") during the annual Stewardship Campaign in the last two churches I pastored - two churches that were organized for ministry around the Every Member in Ministry model. I found it wonderfully fulfilling as well as challenging. Oh, it didn't entirely remove the awkwardness of mentioning money in a sermon but it helped. Rewriting a sermon on finances to no particular church is even more freeing!!  (Sidebar: I heard a really fine sermon this past Sunday at Maple Grove UMC by Pastor Glenn Schwerdtfeger. Part of it dealt with this uneasiness that usually accompanies the preparation to present and listen about money. Good effort, Glenn!)

Before I offer a word about the text, I'd like to share a basic belief I think is essential for us to buy into if we are ever going to have a proper understanding of stewardship.

The word itself comes from an Old English expression, “sty ward” – ward of the sty – a keeper of the pigs.  There came a time when the word referred “to anyone who had responsibility for the estates or properties of another.” (2)

Later the word became a proper name of a royal British family, the Stuarts.  When we use the word “stewardship” in the life of the church we usually have in mind the money that we give to support the ministries of the church.  And, there’s no question that that is a part of it.  But the biblical concept actually goes beyond our financial gifts to the church.  The concept of stewardship that we glean from the scriptures and which we should remember whenever we are making decisions about what we are going to do with what we have and who we are; the concept that we glean is that every aspect of creation is God’s.  God made everything and then gave us the responsibility of caring for the day-to-day operation of it all.  We were made stewards of all of God’s creation – keepers of all of God’s creation, not just the pig pens - but everything God created and provides for us.  This simply means that we are responsible for how we use the planet, the environment, our talents - personally and corporately - our time, our ability to think and to feel, our very physical bodies.  We are keepers of our bodies, minds, spirits, the earth and all that is on it and around it.

It is out of the gratitude we have for God’s gifts that we care for, use, what God provides us.  Stewardship involves not just the portion of money we give to the church – not just the portion of our time when we do something for or through the church – but rather how we spend all of our time – all of our money – all of the skills and interests and intellect and passion that makes us who we are. (3)

A well-known phrase that is often heard when we are discussing these matters is: “Where a person’s treasure is, there is his (or her) heart also.”  The saying is often followed with the observation that if we really want to know what it is we value, all we really have to do is take a close look at our check book and our calendar.

Martin Luther once noted that we are in need of three conversions: our hearts, our minds and our purses. Billy Graham phrased it this way: “If a person gets his attitude toward money right, it will straighten out almost every other area in his life.” Sir Winston Churchill once noted: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” John Updike wrote: “In America, it is hard to achieve a sense of enough!” And, Maya Angelou noted: “The New Testament informs the reader that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the believer.”

And so these two strange bedfellows approach Jesus in the temple one day in an attempt to make Jesus look bad. The Herodians and the Pharisees are indeed a strange tag-team. The Pharisees were devout Jews whose primary role was to interpret the Torah. They didn’t have much use for the Romans and especially the Roman government.

Although not much is known about the Herodians most biblical scholars describe them as a secular political party supportive of the government – supportive of the Roman occupation and the taxes necessary to support it. The exchange involves the first of four “controversy stories” – stories seen as attempts on the part of religious authorities to discredit Jesus.  It’s noted that all three of “the synoptic gospels record this intellectual wrestling match between Jesus and the strange tag-team of Pharisees and Herodians.” (4)

What brought them together was their mutual concern about the influence and popularity they sensed Jesus gathering.  They assumed that Jesus had to have some sort of political agenda: “Why else would he be touring the countryside, making speeches, and hugging all those children?” (5)  And so they went to Jesus to try and trap him into making a political misstep.

The Jews (you remember) resented the Roman occupation.  They particularly didn’t like the idea of having to pay taxes to this despised government on their own land.  The tax they were supposed to pay in this case amounted to about the amount a common laborer made working one day.  The tax could only be paid with the denarius which was a coin that had Caesar’s image on one side and his title and divine status on the other.  The very coin itself was offensive to the Jews.  They considered it to be a breaking of one of the Ten Commandments which prohibited graven images.  Because of their attitude about the Roman coin most Jews refused to use them.  After all, they had their own temple currency.

And so these two groups – the Pharisees, represented by their disciples, and the Herodians square off with Jesus.  They start with a compliment, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”  They didn’t really believe it, but they wanted the people standing around listening to think they were giving Jesus a fair chance.  “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

They thought they had him.  If he said that the tax should not be paid to the Roman government, he would have been in trouble with the Roman government represented by the Herodians.  He would have been perceived as siding with the revolutionaries trying to overthrow the Roman government.

On the other hand, if he said yes he would have been in trouble with most of his following.  He would have lost face with his constituency.

Knowing the real motivation behind the question, Jesus asked to be shown the coin used for the tax.  Jesus held up the coin and asked them whose head was on it.  It’s helpful to know at this point that the Greek word which we translate as “head” is a word from which we get our English word icon.  Some have suggested that perhaps “a better translation of Jesus’ question would be, ‘Whose image is this on the coin?’”

The word “image” allows this text to reveal to us a deeper fundamental truth of our faith.  If we give the coin to the emperor because it is his image on it, then what is it that we give to God because God’s image is on it?. . .

“In other words, we give to the emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God ourselves because you and I are created in the image of God, both male and female.  Jesus is not only refusing to play the win-lose games of the Pharisees, but he is backing it up with a more profound truth: we owe the one who made us our very lives – not just money, but everything of who we are.” (6)

We are God’s coin.  We are what is God’s!  We give to God what is God’s when we take seriously what we do with all that God has entrusted to us: our possessions, our skills, our resources, our minds, our bodies, our decisions, our motivations, our time, our feet, our mouths, our eyes, our prayers, our hands, and yes, our money.  Stewardship is based on the belief that all that we have is God’s and we are responsible to God for what we do with it – not just the portion of our time and resources that we give to the church.  The first step to being a steward of God’s is to buy into this understanding – to get our minds around what it means for the choices we make.  Once someone does, it changes every decision they make.

Susie Scott was a Playboy centerfold back in the early ‘80s.  After her appearance in the magazine she spent the next ten years modeling, acting, and doing promotional work for the magazine.

She made a good living and enjoyed the life that is often attached to the lifestyle of celebrities.  After a failed marriage, she married an Aspen, Colorado attorney and settled down with him to enjoy the comfortable lifestyle that their wealth offered them.  She was a partner in an antique store and a sushi bar for a time.

Her life changed though the day she watched a documentary on Mongolian orphans.  She just felt that she had to do something.  A friend suggested that she take a look at the situation in Haiti because of how poor it was and how close it was to the United States.  She did and that resulted in her selling her businesses and traveling to Haiti.

When she arrived she told the taxi driver to take her to where “the poor people are.”  He dropped her off in a shantytown and quickly sped away.  A family of 17 took her in for the night.  With their help she learned how really bad it was in Haiti.

Susie later shared with a reporter, “I knew I had been born that day.”  She also said in the article that she completely committed herself to Christ once she began to work in Haiti.  With her husband as a partner, Susie launched the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, an organization dedicated to serving the children of Haiti.  It now operates six schools, five orphanages and a hospital ward for abandoned children. Susie’s group feeds, clothes, educates and nurses close to 2,000 children.

She isn’t a hands-off administrator.  She spends a great deal of time there nursing sick children and helping any way she can.  It’s not been easy.  She contracted lice, scabies, mange, and was treated for encephalitis.  She has also had some run-ins with gangs and bureaucrats.  But, sticking with it has won for her the respect of the people of Haiti and the Haitian government.

Susie’s story is a story about stewardship.  Susie and Joe fund the foundation’s expenses – administration, publicity and travel expenses - with their own money.  They believe in what they are doing – it shows in where they put their time and money – it shows on their calendar and in their checkbook.   Donations, including some which come because of Susie’s unique personal story and the Playboy background - which shows that in God’s economy, nothing is wasted – donations cover the operating budget of the foundation.

“But, it’s also a story about stewardship because Susie was able to see that not only her money, but her position of privilege, her celebrity status, and her life experience itself were treasures on loan from God, and she put them to use in a way that honors Christ.” (7)

There’s no question that not very many of us have the resources at our disposal that she does.  But all of us do have our own unique set of gifts that God has given us.  “The worst error we can make is to think (that those gifts) are only for our personal use.  But it is a correctable situation, and one we can start in motion by acknowledging that everything we have comes from God’s hand.” (8)

In this stewardship season I'd like to simply invite us to prayerfully consider the difference believing that all we are and have are God’s might make in what we do with the resources God has entrusted to us.  What would it mean to our giving effort if we really believed we were accountable to God for all that we have and what we do with it?

What is God’s?  Everything.  I believe that most churches have not scratched the surface of what is possible through the ministries of our churches if we all give out of the gratitude we feel for what God has gifted us.
What were they thinking when they asked Jesus that question in the temple? What were they thinking after he responded? More importantly, what are we thinking about how we should use the resources God has made us stewards of? The worship of money is a deadly spiritual problem. Why is it the more we have the less we seem able to give? Why is it that the more things we own, the greater is the temptation for our things to own us? What indeed are we thinking?

Brett Blair,
Homiletics, “Mint Errors,” September – October 2005, p. 54.
HomileticsOnline, “Paying Dues to God,” October, 1996.
Johnny Dean, “Another Tricky Question,”, 1999.
Paul J. Nechterlien, “A win-win answer to a lose-lose question,” October 20, 2002, Girardian Reflections Web Site,
“Mint Errors,” p. 54 – 55.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Books That Have Contributed to My Developing Beliefs"

"Books That Have Influenced Me, My Thinking, and Beliefs"

Over the years people have asked me what experiences have most influenced me to think, believe and live as I do. To be sure, there have been a variety of experiences including the suffering of others, service opportunities with the disadvantaged, action/reflection, and the thinking of others as imparted by word of mouth and/or pen. I thought I would share in this blog post about some of the influential books.

When I was young my reading was limited to school subjects, the Bible, and books dealing with sports. While I now read a variety of books since my being diagnosed with ALS and having much more time for leisure reading, for many years my reading was primarily books dealing with spiritual/religious/church/psychology/sociology/marriage/personal growth subjects. It will become obvious as you continue to read what follows.  

Your God is Too Small (J. B. Phillips) - I especially appreciated the first half of the book. I believe I read it the first time when I was in high school. It was most helpful in ridding me from those images of God as a policemen, Santa Claus or judge in the sky. It also freed me up from a human-like God with a long flowing white beard.

The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) - Not an easy read but helped shape my views about how much more there is to Christianity than beliefs in one's head. Action - based on one's understanding of community, the church and acting on one's beliefs.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Rabbi Harold Kushner) - This is the one that helped reform my thinking around how God works or doesn't work, especially related to suffering. Read it and discussed it with a Sunday School class shortly after experiencing several disturbing losses.

The God I Don't Believe In  (Juan Arias) At one point in the introduction to his book, Arias makes a comment something like this : "the god many atheists don't believe in is frankly the same God I don't believe in either."  As I read his thoughts, especially some of the poetry that began several of the chapters, I came to the same conclusion and it is why I do not find conversations with atheists, doubters, and agnostics troubling but interesting and challenging.

The Dream of God  (Verna Dozier) - This wonderful and easy read challenges us to consider whether the early church got it wrong when it chose the direction of the church based on the writings of some of the apostles and Paul rather than on Jesus' dream - - real challenge to conventional thinking - one of the Servant Leadership books.

Listening Hearts - Another Servant Leadership book inviting us all to consider call in our lives. One of the books I encourage people to read when they are contemplating doing something and wondering if it's what God is calling them to do. Not a typical chapter lay out. Great questions to ask oneself at the back of the book.

Cry Pain, Cry Hope (Elizabeth O'Connor) - In my opinion the key Servant Leadership book and the one that most inspired my interest in the Every Member in Ministry model for organizing the life of a local church. It also helps the reader look at the painful experiences of life in a new light.

The Hell Jesus Never Intended (Keith Wright) - The title says it all. A belief I've long held only the author provides much scholarship than I have used to come to where I am. A great help as one moves from a conventional faith journey and system of belief.

A New Kind of Christianity (Brian McClaren) This book pushes the envelope!  I don't agree with everything but found it challenging, inspiring, and interesting all at the same time.  

Christianity For the Rest of Us (Dianna Butler Bass) - A good read but a little repetitive. Basically allows for Christianity to grow with something other than a literal, narrow faith journey. Pop religion is my way of describing what she offers an alternative to.

StrengthFinders - I regret that I didn't happen on this Gallup work much earlier in my ministry. It's an excellent secular assist for understanding gifts/skills/aptitudes/strengths. I think this work is especially beneficial for those persons and organizations who would like to live out their existence from a position of strength.

Reaching Out (Henri Nouwen) - A really old book but one that helped develop my attitude toward our responsibility to be a hospitable people.

What's So Amazing About Grace? (Philip Yancey) - Great stories that really help make the point of just how expansive the concept of grace is.

Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God  (Frank Schaeffer) - Shortly after a recent blog post a member of a church I served several years ago sent me a note suggesting I read this. It is a very interesting and helpful perspective.

Marcus Borg - Over the last few years I've read several books by Borg. As far as I'm concerned he's one of the more interesting biblical scholars. He uses biblical history and the scriptures to make his point. Challenging at times but very helpful.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sermon: "Outlandish Grace"

Matthew 20:1-16

This may be one of the toughest passages in all the scriptures for us to get our heads around as residents of the 21st century. It’s just so contrary to the way we understand what is fair – what is involved in treating people equally.

We understand why the man who left church one Sunday after hearing a sermon on this parable by Jesus said to his minister: “You know, preacher, there are parts of the Bible that are difficult to abide, and other parts that aren’t. The story you preached on today is one that I find totally offensive! It’s just not fair to pay everyone the same wage when some have worked hard and some have hardly worked. Jesus was just wrong about that. I think you should have preached on something less offensive.” (1) The minister reported that he preached on the Prodigal Son the following week.

It’s important that we don’t discount this parable because of the way it clashes with the way we normally think about such things. Remember: the purpose of a parable is to compare something we know something about with something we’re not as familiar with to help the unfamiliar become known or understood. We know what it means to get paid for working in a field. We are not quite as sure about what followers of Jesus Christ will receive as a result of believing and working on behalf of the kingdom of God.

The intent of today’s parable is not to revise the economic system of America. It’s not a mini-course in labor management. Its intent is not to influence what fair labor laws should be or to bust unions. It’s simply an illustration about how God works when it comes to giving kingdom-living status to us. So, let’s look again at this challenging parable.

The people listening to Jesus that day understood the scene he was describing. They knew about landowners, vineyards, harvesting, and day-laborers. They knew how important it was for grape growers to hire grape pickers. They knew that when the grapes were ready they had to be picked promptly because the weather could change quickly and the crop would be ruined. It made sense to them that the grape growers would get more and more anxious as the day wore on and the picking wasn’t finished. It made sense to them that the owner would hire more workers even one hour before quitting time because of how desperate he was to get as much of the crop off as possible.

When Jesus talked about the landowner going out early in the morning to hire people to work in the vineyard, the crowd could picture a marketplace with people standing around waiting for the invitation to go to work. They knew the people Jesus described in his parable were people in need of work – people who really wanted to work.

Those listening that day knew the desperateness of the temp-service-like pool of people who were seeking to be chosen to go to work. They knew that their standing in line for work meant they were living very close to the starvation line. The disciples and the others listening to Jesus could picture the scene – how the mood of the crowd changed from quiet and reserved to excited and expectant when they saw the grape grower arrive and heard him announce: “The grapes are ripe! There’s plenty of work for everyone who wants to work! Let’s go!” Jesus’ audience would have had no problem picturing the scene of the unemployed rushing to the grape grower to hear his pay offer and they could visualize the first shift enthusiastically hustling into the vineyard and the same being true for each of the groups hired later who didn’t get hired by anyone else during the day.

Yes, the crowd listening to Jesus that day probably were nodding their heads to acknowledge that they understood the scene Jesus described. That is, until payroll time rolled around. Confusion had to be the look on their faces and questioning glances toward one another had to accompany the ending of the telling of this parable by Jesus. “Last ones hired being paid first? Everyone receiving the same pay? What in the world was Jesus talking about? That wasn’t the way things normally went down on the farm.”

I think there are at least two messages Jesus wanted to convey when he shared this parable. One of them, and it is the primary one, is that God is a God of grace. Some people believe that God’s love and forgiveness are things we have to earn. They believe it’s all about saying the right prayers – giving a certain amount – performing an adequate number of good deeds. Some people believe there’s no room for talk about God’s love and grace – that the primary message should be to “scare ‘em out of hell.” It’s important for them to be able to determine who is in and who is out based upon a bunch of rules and regulations.

Very simply put: this parable challenges all such thinking – radically alters such concepts about how God works. It portrays for us – describes for us – a God of limitless grace. God’s grace is awesome, incomprehensible, extravagant, amazing, accepting, outlandish. Jesus told this story because he wants all to know that there is not a one of us who are beyond the grace of God. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, what we think about ourselves, what others think about us, or what others tell us we should think about ourselves, God loves us, cares about us, offers us grace.

I think the parable offers us a second related message though, and that is that we need to be careful how we think about where we are on this faith journey. We need to guard against thinking we deserve more – deserve special treatment, special places of honor - because we’ve been at this Christianity thing longer than others or because we’ve done more or given more. Length of time we’ve been a believer does not earn for us special grace – special places in the Kingdom of God.

Matthew created the backdrop for the parable Jesus shared by telling about three things that happened in Jesus’ life just prior to him resorting to this story. The implication being that this parable was necessary because of these things.

First, some people brought some children to him for him to lay his hands on them and to pray for them. The disciples tried to put a stop to it. Jesus rejected the attitude of his disciples. He said instead, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he blessed them and they went away.

I think it’s important to note that Matthew didn’t report that the children were in need of some special dispensation by Jesus because of something they had done wrong or some decision they made. They were blessed by Jesus simply because they were children and because of Jesus’ understanding of God’s grace it was his to impart.

The second story Matthew used to set-up this parable had a rich young man approach Jesus inquiring about obtaining eternal life. He sought information about what “good thing” he needed to do. Jesus told him to obey the commandments. The young man asked him to be more specific. Jesus was, and the young man said he kept all of those.

And then, sensing that he still wasn’t in, the young man pressed Jesus: “What else, Jesus? What else do I need to do?” And Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect that he should go and sell all he had and give the money to the poor and then come and follow him. The wealthy young man sadly turned away, implying that giving up his riches was too big a price tag. Then Jesus commented about the difficulty the rich have entering the kingdom of heaven.

His statement astonished the disciples. It caused them to ask: “Well, who then can be saved?” And Jesus, knowing they didn’t quite catch the connection between the scene with the children and this encounter with the rich man answered, “With this man it’s impossible, but with God all things are possible.” “Salvation is not something we can earn or buy – it’s not something obtained by our own action or efforts.” “Only God provides salvation – and it is only through God’s grace that it is provided.”

The final scene Matthew uses to prepare us to hear the parable by Jesus has Peter expressing the concern Jesus’ response created in the disciples. “Jesus, we have left everything for you! What then will there be for us?” “Jesus, if these insignificant little children can obtain your blessing and this rich guy can’t obtain it with all he has to offer, where does what we have done and who we are fit? What do we earn for having given up so much?”

Ready? Jesus responded with: “Peter, you are going to receive salvation, eternal life, a place in the kingdom of heaven, but, it’s not because of what you’ve given up. It’s because of God’s grace. Oh, and Peter, everyone else throughout history who desires it will receive the same thing you do no matter when they come on board and no matter how much they get done for the kingdom, nor how many they bring to me.”

Again, a second message from this story from Jesus’ lips is that we need to be careful on this journey of faith.
We need to guard against envy – against believing that we deserve something more than others simply because we have been a member of the church longer, been a Christian longer, read our bibles more often, invited more people to church, guided more people as they’ve sought to become followers of Jesus Christ.

The painful reality is that despite Jesus’ cautionary words, there’ve been numerous people through the years who have misunderstood what Jesus said. All of us probably know a horror story or two of times people have become overzealous about roles or positions they’ve held in the church. Some have felt they have earned the right to speak on behalf of the whole church because of how much they’ve given or because of their family ties or because of the length of time they’ve been a member. They think they can dictate policy and they are very reluctant to even listen to new ideas from newer members. The point Jesus is making is that we should be on the lookout for such temptations in ourselves.

I’d like to close with a story by John Sumwalt in which he retells this infamous parable utilizing a setting that we’re all familiar with in the life of the church. The setting has to do with a circumstance that developed in a particular choir. Happily, the story doesn’t reflect any experience in any choir I've been associated with during my career, but it does help us visualize, maybe even recall, how it happens in groups in the life of the church.  

Sumwalt writes: “Boyd Dillard joined the choir on his 75th birthday, a week after he became a member of the church. He had been an active barbershopper for years and he belonged to the local chorus guild, but this was his first experience in a church choir. His rich baritone voice was a welcome addition, and he readily joined in the merriment and camaraderie enjoyed by the men in the back row bass section.

“Ann Hershner joined the choir in late October, shortly before the start of Christmas cantata rehearsals. She had just moved to town from out of state to take a position in the music department at the local college. Several choir members commented on her beautiful alto voice at the end of her first practice, and they told her how glad they were to have her in their group.

“The very next week, the choir director handed out the music for the Christmas cantata. It was an old, familiar work, much loved by everyone. The director then announced who would be singing the solos and their special parts. Boyd and Ann were to sing a duet which everyone recognized to be the key musical climax in the cantata. Both Ann and Boyd seemed pleased to be chosen for these important parts, but no one else was smiling. ‘It’s not fair!’ someone was heard to mutter down at the end of the alto section. ‘She just joined the choir. Why should she get to sing the best part?’

“There was also some grumbling among the men in the parking lot later, after Boyd had gone home. ‘It’s not right,’ one of the tenors said. ‘Some of us have been singing in the church choir for years and years. I think we should be shown some consideration.’

“The following week, as the choir director was about to begin rehearsal, Harold Redburg asked if he might be permitted to lead the choir in a brief devotion before they started to sing. Harold was the choir’s senior member. Only a few months earlier they had celebrated his 50th anniversary with the chancel choir. The director nodded his assent, and everyone waited expectantly to hear what it was that Harold had to share.

“Harold opened his Bible to the 20th chapter of Matthew and he began to read verses 1-16: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard . . .” (2)

Some have labeled this parable one of “. . . the greatest and most glorious of them all.” It’s indeed a marvelous one for it at one and the same time offers us a word of hope and a word of caution – a word of encouragement and a word of warning. Through this parable we sense God’s outlandish grace working in our lives and we hear the invitation for us to do the same as we encounter others.

Grace, friends, God’s grace – is awesome – is outlandish – is amazing – is God’s way of dealing with us. Let us resolve anew to accept its renewing power in our lives – to believe that God really loves us and forgives us no matter from what our circumstances. And, let us also resolve to do all we can to live a life of grace-giving so that others will come to know God’s saving grace as well. Let’s get to cheering for the good fortune of one another, rather than jeering the unworthiness we believe we see in others while marveling at our own good fortune in spite of our unworthiness.

Let us pray:  “Lord, we have nothing, we are nothing, we can do nothing – except by your grace. Take us, Lord, as we are. Accept us, even in our weaknesses. Forgive us for our failings. Above all, help us to accept the amazing truth that you love others as much as you love us.  The forgiveness and grace you extend to us, is also offered to our sisters and brothers.

“Lord, help us to celebrate your extravagant grace and not to resent when it is the extravagant grace offered to all. In the name of the one who revealed unto us your graciousness, even Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen."

1.Johnny Dean, “Exasperating Grace” (
2.John Sumwalt, “Preaching to the Choir.”  
((There are probably a few more references I used than the ones I noted.))