Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #5: Practicing Healing

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – 13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

SERMON
Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#5 – Practicing Healing
March 18, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’ve never told you this before, but I was once on the receiving end of a miraculous, super-natural healing. No, a TV evangelist didn’t smack me on my forehead or slay me in the Spirit. I was miraculously healed by a chicken poppyseed casserole. This happened right after our first child was born. We were living several hours away from our family, we had virtually no support system, and we were beyond exhausted. And then a little old lady from the church I was serving as a youth pastor showed up at our apartment door with a steaming hot pan of chicken poppyseed casserole. And the Lord said, “It was very good.” It was absolutely the cure we needed for what ailed us at that moment. Does that count as a healing?

For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at how to grow in our faith through the ways we practice living it out. We’ve learned that practicing things like saying yes and no, honoring our bodies, and offering forgiveness help us take the next step on our faith journey. We never expect to master these disciplines, but by practicing them, we can hope to gradually get better at them and honor God in the process.

Today, we are talking about practicing healing. The first challenge we have to overcome is trying to come to a common understanding of what it means to heal, because that concept means different things to different people. For a lot of folks, healing means a physical cure from some malady or illness. That’s certainly one aspect of healing, but it in no way defines its totality. What does it mean to heal or to be healed? And does healing have anything to do with our faith?

Early believers thought so. Healing was very much a part of the early Christian understanding of a life of faith. We know that Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, including the 10 lepers we read about earlier. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the neighboring towns, one of their marching orders was to heal every sickness and disease. The early church picked up on that, making rites like anointing the sick with oil and the laying on of hands an integral part of their wholistic ministry. To this day, the Catholic Church has as one of its seven sacraments the anointing with oil for the purpose of healing.

But somewhere along the line, the sacrament of healing lost its cultural value. It was most likely around the time of the Enlightenment, when spiritual reality and material reality were separated, and the role of human knowledge took precedence over the role of faith. You no longer needed to be anointed with oil when you were sick, because new discoveries were providing scientific cures for diseases. That has proliferated down through the centuries, to the point where the concept of healing is relegated almost exclusively to the world of medicine.

Of course, healing does still exist in religion, but only as a caricature. You probably know of folks like Benny Hinn, who’ve made a fortune off of performing theatrical “cures.” You’ve probably also heard about the dog who was sent to Christian obedience school. On graduation day, he was asked to sit, and he sat. He was asked to speak, and he barked. He was asked to heal, and he raise his paw and said, “Lord Jesus, I command you to remove the squeaky demon from this chew toy.” There’s a good reason we Christians are skeptical about healing as a spiritual practice.

So, healing is either something done with medicine or something to be made fun of in religion. And yet, healing has so many more layers and dimensions to it than a physical cure. As John Koenig says in the book Practicing Our Faith, “Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through our world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, the performance of delicate surgery, or the laying on of hands in a service of worship.” All these acts, and many more, are ways of practicing healing.

In our passage, James tells us praying is one of those ways. He says, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” One of the most effective ways we can practice healing is through intercessory prayer, praying for someone who is sick to be made well (which may be different than being physically cured).

Right after I was diagnosed with MS, a staff member at my seminary came to me and said, “Kory, a group of us have a prayer meeting every Wednesday morning, and we’d like to invite you to attend so that we can lay hands on you and pray for you.” I liked this guy, but I was still coming to terms with my this next chapter in my life and skeptical of what sounded like evangelical revival tactic, so I didn’t go, because that’s not how healing happens. I had just learned I had multiple sclerosis; what good could they do for me?

I have since learned two things about that invitation. First, what he was offering was solidly grounded in scripture. And, second, healing absolutely does happen that way, but maybe not the kind of healing I was looking for. If we think of healing only as a physical cure, then we are limiting our understanding of how God works in our lives, and we’re setting ourselves up with unreachable expectations. If our only form of practicing healing is an intercessory prayer that says, “Lord, take away my grandma’s terminal cancer or else,” then we’re missing the ways God can bring about healing that transcends the physical realm.

Healing, in its most divine form, is not about curing. It’s about restoration. It’s about restoring wholeness to what is broken. That can be a broken bone, or a broken heart, or a broken society. Theologian Paul Tillich said that, “Healing is an element in the work of salvation.” Often, Jesus combined a physical healing with a spiritual one, telling the person who had been physically cured that their sins were forgiven. And remember, James says the prayer of faith will save the sick. Salvation, not curing. So, to practice healing is to practice restoring something to its original, God-ordained state.

Because of this more holistic way of seeing this practice, I believe healing is making a comeback, returning from its banishment to the outskirts of religion to take a central role in the restorative process. I believe, after centuries of thinking religion didn’t have anything to offer in the way of healing, people are coming to see the power of prayer in a different light. When I started in ministry, whenever I was visiting someone in the hospital, I would have to wait until the doctors and nurses and staff were done before I could spend any time with them, and my visits were frequently interrupted for the more important work of attending to the patient’s physical needs. But several times in the past few year, I’ve been visiting with a patient when the doctor has come in the room. I have introduced myself as the person’s pastor, and the doctor has said, “Oh, don’t me interrupt. I’ll wait until you are finished.” The power of prayer is being accepted as part of the healing process for a patient.

So how do we practice this? First, we have to expand our understanding of healing. Trust that God can bring about healing in all situations, even if a physical cure doesn’t take place. Wounds can be healed and wholeness can happen even as bodies give way to sickness and death. Practice having the eyes to see the healing power of God that goes beyond our limited expectations of a person receiving a super-natural cure.

A second way to practice healing is to trust that your prayers for healing make a difference. It can feel helpless to see a friend or loved one suffer, and sometimes prayer can feel like busy work or last-ditch effort to do something, although we don’t always believe it matters. But James tells us the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. When I laid in the hospital bed with my new diagnosis of MS, I could feel the power of people praying for me, and that brought me a sense of peace, that God could work through this curve ball my body had thrown me.

So, who can you pray for today? Who needs healing? Who needs peace, assurance, guidance, a cure? How about praying for our country to be healed from violence and division? We can pray for all of those things, and then trust that God hears those prayers. I believe healing is happening all around us, in some of the most unorthodox and unexpected ways, through whispered words of forgiveness and steaming hot chicken poppy seed casseroles.

I want to close with this story, my most memorable experience of the power of healing. I was once asked to come see a man in a coma so that I could anoint him with oil. Now, you may not know this, but I’m not Catholic, so this was something new to me. Thankfully, I had some oil in my office we use on Ash Wednesday, so I grabbed it and headed to the ICU unit at UK hospital.

The scene when I arrived was tense. The man in question, an athlete in his 40s, had fallen and hit his head and was not expected to survive. The family included a 10-year-old son and the man’s ex-wife and his current girlfriend and his parents and his ex-in-laws and his current girlfriend’s parents. The mood was chaotic and turbulent and contentious. So I gathered the family in the room, and I anointed the man’s head with oil and said a prayer. Then, I invited each family member to anoint his head with oil and speak a word of love to him. And then, completely by the Holy Spirit’s leading, I asked if any of the family members would like to be anointed with oil. Almost all of them stepped forward. Instead of doing all the anointing myself, I anointed the first person, then handed them the oil and said, “Now, anoint the person behind you.” I watched as the son anoint his mother, the ex-wife, who then turned and anointed the current girlfriend as all the various in-laws looked on. The best way I can described what happened was that air in the room softened. Although the man died the next week, I know healing took place in that room, thanks be to God.

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Let Me Tell You A Story sermon series – The Wedding Banquet

SCRIPTURE- Luke 14:15-24 – One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

SERMON
Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series
The Wedding Banquet – Luke 14:15-24
August 19, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

This text will always hold a peculiarly special place in my heart. At my church in Chicago, I preached on it one Sunday, emphasizing the importance of inviting the poor and the lame to our tables to share a meal. That next week, I received three invites to dinner from congregation members. I’m still trying to figure out whether they thought I was poor or my sermons were lame.

There are a lot of images of God in the Bible, which can make it really difficult to figure out who God is for us. There’s God as a stern judge, God as our loving parent, God as a creator, God as a rock and fortress, God as a shepherd. Which one speaks to you probably depends on where you are in life and what challenges you are facing.

The church where I served as a student minister in seminary had a particular view of God that was represented in the design of their sanctuary. The church, which is in Columbus, Ind., featured a sanctuary with all dark wood, no sound system, uncomfortable pews, and no windows. The architect believed that worshipping God should be an austere experience free of trivial distractions like sunlight and joy. The word “austere” means strict or severe, which tells you what the architect thought about God. God was not so much a parent to be loved as a ruler to be feared.

Our parable today presents an image of God that is the polar opposite of that one and is a way of relating to God that I believe doesn’t get near enough attention: God as a party-giver. Isn’t that awesome? Imagine God has someone who gives lavish, extravagant parties and invites us to attend. God is the hospitable socialite, throwing open the doors of God’s house and encouraging people to come and join the party. But not everyone accepts the invitation.

Jesus tells this parable while at a dinner party thrown by a prominent Pharisee. He sees how everyone is jockeying for position to sit in the seats closest to the hosts, which are the seats of honor, so Jesus gives a lesson on humility and the importance of a radical hospitality that encompasses those lower than you on the social ladder. He concludes by saying that, if you do this, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

This prompts one of the dinner guests to say, ““Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” There’s one in every group, right? The brown-noser. The teacher’s pet. The person constantly sucking up to the host. This person makes the assumption that he and the other guests are included in that group of people who are blessed and will be in God’s kingdom You can almost hear all the Pharisees say in response, “Oh yes, aren’t we the lucky ones! Bless us!” and then giving snooty little laughs and clinking their champagne glasses together.

But Jesus is having none of it, because he knows that the ones who are attending this dinner party are the ones who are rejecting the invitation to God’s dinner party. So, he tells this parable about a man who gave a great dinner party and invited many people. Back then, it was hard to invite people to parties because cell phone reception was really poor and people rarely checked their email. So, to invite someone to your house for a party took two steps. The first step was to say to them, “Hey, I’m going to have a party in the next few weeks and you’re invited.” It was like a save-the-date postcard. The second step was to go back to those people the day of the party and say, “OK! I’ve fired up the grill and the corn pudding is in the oven. The feast is ready. C’mon over.”

Ostensibly, the invitees in our parable accepted the first invitation, and are now being issued the second one: “Come, for everything is ready now.” But in between the first invitation and the second one, something more pressing has come up. The first two just made purchases – one bought some land, another some oxen – and they have to go inspect their purchases, so they send their regrets.

Ok. Seriously? First of all, couldn’t the person wait until the next day to inspect the land? It’s not like it was going to move. “Hey, where’s my land? I thought it was supposed to be here.” Second of all, who buys oxen without seeing them first? That would be like me calling Leigh and saying, “Guess what? I just bought a car.” And she would say, “Oh, really? Tell me about it.” “Well, I bought it over the phone, so I have no idea what kind it is, how old it is, how much mileage it has what color it is, or if it has four tires and steering wheel. But I got a great deal on it!”

And how about this third guy? He says, “I have just been married and therefore I cannot come.” So, you’re telling me that a few weeks ago, when the first invitation was sent out, this guy didn’t know he was going to get married? He just woke up one day and decided, “You know, today would be a good day to be betrothed.” No! That’s not how it works. You don’t accept an invitation and then turn it down. That’s not only rude, it wastes the time and resources of the host.

This isn’t about fields or oxen or marriage. This is about making excuses. This is about mixing up priorities. Could the guests have attended the party? Of course they could have. But, for whatever reason, they didn’t want to do so. We’ve all had those occasions, right? You accept an invite in the spur of the moment, only to realize you really, really don’t want to go. So, you secretly pray something will happen that will provide you a convenient excuse not to go. “I have to back out of our lunch date, I completely forgot I’m getting married that day!” I actually read online that a man called canceled on a lunch date with the excuse: “Grandma tried to poison me. Again.” I really want to know more about that story!

As you might guess, this parable is about more than a dinner party and the Pharisees would have gotten Jesus’ message. God, the gracious party giver, had extended the first invitation to the Israelites through Moses, invited them to join God on a journey of faith. Moses prophesied that another one greater than him was to come, the second invitation letting the Israelites know the feast was ready. Jesus is that second invitation, the call to come to God’s table and share in the meal God has prepared. But many people, including the Pharisees, were declining the invitation.

So, Jesus says to the Pharisees, if you don’t want to party with me, I’m going to find some people who do. That’s why Jesus spends time with the lepers, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the outcasts. The Pharisees ridicule Jesus for spending time with such low-lifes, when it’s the Pharisees who have mixed up their priorities and rejected the invitation God has sent them. They are more focused on keeping things austere than they are in enjoying the party God is throwing for them.

In the parable, the servant follows the master’s order, bringing in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. And did catch what happens next? The servant says, “Master, I went out and got everyone you asked me to get…and there’s still room!” How big is this party, anyway? Society was filled with people who didn’t fit in, who didn’t belong, whose physical or mental ailments kept them from being invited to anything. That’s why the master says, “Go out in the roads and lanes and compel people to come in.” They had to be compelled to come to the party, because parties at the master’s house were not something to which they got invited. They weren’t worthy of being guests at such a lavish party.

But here’s the difference between them and the original guests: they came. They didn’t have fields and oxen to distract them. They didn’t have to make up excuses. They were simply thrilled to be invited at all. Does that invitation hold the same importance for us? Are we like the poor and the lame, honored to be invited to such a gathering? Or are we more like the Pharisees, looking for any good reason to opt out? Each week, we’re invited to come to worship, to sing and celebrate, to share in good fellowship and a meal, to reap once again God’s blessings for us, to see God at work around you and to join in that work. How often do we reject that invitation?

I know, we have legitimate reasons for our rejection. We have to work, we have a family, we have financial needs that need to be met. I get it, I’m right there with you. We want to be more faithful in our participation, we want to do a better job growing our faith, we know that there are ways we can use our gifts to serve others. But there’s that field I bought. There are those oxen to be inspected. Grandma may try to poison us!

I read this week that excuses are a form of self-idolatry, because they put ourselves before God. Ouch. Anyone else guilty of that? I know that not even the most faithful among us always accept God’s invitation to worship, to learn, to serve. That’s why you need to know today that this invitation isn’t going to go away. You’re not going to make God love you less by not accepting it. There’s a persistent stubbornness to God’s loving that makes this invitation open-ended.

But there are a couple things you need to know. First, the only way you won’t get to go to the party is if you choose not to go. No one remains outside the party except by their own choice? God isn’t going to check your references for worthiness. Your life is the party God decided to throw for you so you could enjoy God’s blessings, and you are invited. You don’t need to get all dressed up for it. It’s a come-as-you-are party. Actually, it’s more like a be-who-you-are party. If you’re tired, come to the party. If you’re frazzled, come to the party. If you have serious doubts about your faith, come to the party. If you’re worried you’re not good enough, come to the party. There’s plenty of room.

Second – and this one might be a deal-breaker for you – if you accept the invitation to join God’s party, you might not like the other people on the guest list: the poor, the lame, the people on the other side of the political spectrum, the people who don’t use correct punctuation, the people who talk loudly on their cell phones in public places, the people you’d rather not spend any time with. Remember, this is an open invitation. You are invited. So is everyone else. If you want to be part of what Jesus is doing in this world, these are the people you might be hanging out with, people who don’t have voice, people who don’t have a place at the tables of power of privilege, people who define a blessing as having enough food for the day. Are you willing to spend some time with them? Because that’s where God is partying.

The invitation has been offered. The table has been set. The host is eagerly awaiting our response. Will you come? There’s so much going on. Life is so busy! Will you come? Sunday is my only morning to sleep in. The kids’ schedules are chaotic. Will you come? I didn’t like Kory’s sermon last week. What if we sing that one really slow song. Will you come? I’m not sure I even believe this stuff anymore. Will you come? I only have a little to give. It probably won’t make a difference. Will you come? The table is set. The invitation is offered each and every week. God’s love is stubbornly persistent that way. God wants you to join the party. Will you come?

 

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The Gospel according to Hamilton project – “What We Think We Know”

For this sermon, I joined pastors from churches around the country who each preached on a specific song from the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” All the sermons will be gathered onto one website. When I have more info on that, I’ll update it here.

SCRIPTURE – John 8:2-11 – Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

SERMON
What We Think We Know
Gospel According to Hamilton Project
August 5, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

There has been a lot of great source material for hit Broadway plays. A T.S. Eliot poem inspired the hit musical “Cats.” French writer Gaston Leroux wrote a book about a phantom in an opera house that found its way to the stage. Gregory Maguire reimagined the life of a character from “The Wizard of Oz,” which was turned into “Wicked.” And Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote “Jesus Christ Superstar” based on…some book, I’m not sure which one.

Those are all compelling stories that lend themselves easily to a dramatic retelling. But who reads an 832-page book about our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury and thinks, “This would make an amazing Broadway musical!” A guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda, that’s who. His play about Alexander Hamilton garnered a record 16 Tony nominations and 11 wins, including Best Musical.

If you’ve heard the soundtrack or seen the play, you know why. I was privileged to see it this April in Chicago and it is truly a cultural phenomenon. The play mixes diverse musical styles – everything from rap to British pop – with compelling characters and a surprisingly moving storyline. If you aren’t familiar with “Hamilton,” that’s OK. I’ll let you know what you need to know for this sermon, then I’ll encourage you to check it out yourself. Or you could read the 832-page book.

I was invited a few months ago to be part of a project called “The Gospel According to Hamilton,” in which preachers from across denominations and across the country are preaching today on their song of choice from the play. These sermons will eventually be gathered in one place and made available for review and discussion. Word is that Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has given his blessing to the project.

Let me give you a quick synopsis of the plot which leads up to the song I have chosen. The play follows Hamilton as he comes to New York from his home in the Caribbean to get an education. He meets Aaron Burr and becomes friends with a group of men who are eager to plot a revolution against King George in order to establish the colonies’ independence as a sovereign nation. The play takes us through Hamilton’s role in the American Revolution and it gives us a look into Hamilton’s personal life, including his courtship of and marriage to Eliza Schuyler.

After independence was won and our fledgling nation was just getting off the ground, Hamilton played a crucial role as an architect of our governmental infrastructure, to the detriment of his relationship with his wife and son, Phillip. There were long periods of time they were separated, as Hamilton stayed in New York City to work while Eliza and Philip went upstate for vacation. During one of these separations, Hamilton has an affair with Mariah Reynolds and ends up being extorted by her husband. He blackmails Hamilton, threatening to expose the affair if Hamilton doesn’t pay him off. Hamilton does, from his own pocketbook, and the news of the affair is silenced. Or so Hamilton thinks.

Hamilton’s rival at this time is Thomas Jefferson, who is at odds with him over aspects of the new government’s structure. Jefferson learns about Hamilton’s affair, so he, James Madison, and Aaron Burr confront Hamilton, thinking that Hamilton has used the government’s money to pay off the husband. That leads us to our song, which is called “We Know.”

In the song, Jefferson accuses Hamilton of adultery and misusing government funds, hoping that Hamilton will be trapped and give in to Jefferson’s demands about the government. Hamilton responds that, yes, he did have an affair, but used his own money, and shows Jefferson his personal checkbook to prove it. Jefferson realizes that Hamilton is telling the truth and backs off from going public with the news.

In our story today, a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus by the Pharisees, who know that the penalty for adultery is stoning to death. They ask Jesus if this sentence should be carried out, hoping that Jesus will be trapped. They didn’t care about the woman’s well-being. She was simply a means to an end. To their surprise, Jesus tells them to go ahead and stone her, and then says something that has taken on a life of its own down through the years: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jefferson, Madison, and Burr entered Hamilton’s office that day with stones in their hands. They didn’t care about Hamilton’s well-being. He was simply a means to an end of gaining control of this new government. Once they found out a piece of news that could be used against Hamilton, they took full advantage of it, leveraging his sin in their favor, just like the Pharisees did with the woman.

Jesus had a few things to say about judgment. This story is one of the primary examples. He also says in Matthew 7, “Do not judge, or you, too, will be judged.” He then follows it up with the comparison between the speck in someone else’s eye versus the log in our own. And Paul picks up the theme in Romans 2, saying, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” In the play, Jefferson was guilty of doing exactly what Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for doing. He is condemning the sins of another without acknowledging his own.

A good way to get at this is to divide sins into two broad categories. There are sins of the flesh, like adultery and murder and stealing, and then there are sins of the spirit, like pride and greed and gossip. You’ll notice that sins of the flesh tend to get a lot more attention these days, don’t they? There is a lurid attractiveness to them because they are easier to name and condemn. For example, there are a lot of pastors who’ve been fired for stealing church money or having an affair, but how many pastors lose their jobs because they are too prideful or judgmental?

C.S. Lewis says it this way: “The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred…that is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.”       We are scandalized by sins of the flesh, but Jesus was scandalized by sins of the spirit. He was less concerned about the woman’s adultery than he was about the Pharisees’ arrogance.

And yet, the Bible doesn’t distinguish between the severity of the different sins. As Paul says in Romans, all of us have fallen short of God’s glory, and therefore all of us are in need of salvation. But here’s the thing: it’s a lot easier to feel better about yourself when you can point to someone else’s sin, especially a sin of the flesh, and say, “Aha! At least I’m not as bad as that person.” And that feeling is the root cause of a lot of sins of the spirit, especially judgment.

There’s another great work of art that demonstrates the sin of judgment. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” lawyer Atticus Finch is defending Tom Robinson, an African-American accused of raping a white woman. Atticus is worried Tom will be lynched, so he sits outside Tom’s jail cell. Sure enough, a gang of white men arrives to kill Tom. Just as things start to get tense, Atticus’s daughter Scout runs over to her dad. She looks at the gang of men and notices someone she knows, the dad of her friend, Walter. She asks Mr. Cunningham about Walter’s trouble with the law, pointing out his own sins, then says to Mr. Cunningham, “Tell Walter I said Hi.” The mob, recognizing the sinfulness of what they were about to do, turns and leaves. No one was able to cast the first stone.

We could all use a good dose of self-awareness like this, because, if we want to be really honest, we all hold stones in our hands. Do you harbor judgmental thoughts about someone who’s not good enough? Do you have a superior attitude toward someone who’s made poor choices? Have you spewed impatient words in the heat of anger? Do you harbor bitter resentment toward someone who has wronged you? These are all stones we hold, ready to hurl at someone else. Sure, we might tell ourselves that they deserve it or that we’re just telling them the truth in love or that we’re doing it for their own good. It doesn’t matter how much we polish our stone or paint a pretty flower on it. It’s still a stone, and it’s still meant to do damage.

Thomas Jefferson and his friends entered Hamilton’s office with their arms full of stones. They thought they knew what Hamilton had done, and rather than try to help him get back on the right track, they were ready to stone his political career, his marriage, and his reputation. And yet, they were completely wrong about the source of money. How often do we do that? In the absence of facts, how often do we concoct stories about someone that paints them in a negative light? We think we know, when we really don’t know. Everyone has a story that is deeper and more complex than any of us see. Yet, when dealing with someone with whom we disagree or dislike, we tend to default to the version of the story that makes us look the best and them look the worst. And in doing so, we are committing a sin of the spirit, because we are judging them for their actions, while the log still sits in our eyes.

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” We have that ability, don’t we? We have the ability to judge, to condemn, to wound. That’s a lot of power. But we also have the ability to offer love, to offer acceptance, to offer hope, the very things offered to us by Jesus, who didn’t throw any stones at us, but instead hung on a cross for us. As it says in John 3:17, Jesus didn’t come down to the world to condemn the world, but to offer salvation through him.

What I appreciate about Hamilton in this song is his willingness to do some serious self-examination and to admit his sin of the flesh. I wonder how our lives would be different if we engaged in the same kind of self-examination and entered into the same kind of confession about our sins of the spirit. It can be oddly comforting to hold that stone, can’t it? But I wonder what we might gain if we drop the stone, and instead open our hands in love? We all have good reason to be judged, don’t we? We all fall short, in flesh and in spirit. Yet, we have been given such extravagant grace by Jesus Christ. We may not deserve it, but it’s ours nonetheless. May we give to others what has been given to us.

 

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Round-A-Bout Sunday sermon – Loaves and Fish

This Sunday, five Disciples pastors in Lexington rotated churches. This is the third year we’ve done this, and it’s always a lot of fun to share the word with brothers and sisters from other congregations. This year, we all preached from John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. This is the word I shared at Twin Pines Christian Church.

SCRIPTURE – John 6:1-15 – After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages[b] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they[c] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

SERMON
Round-A- Bout Sunday – Twin Pines Christian Church
John 6:1-15
July 29, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

It is such an honor for me to be here with you this morning as a part of Round-A-Bout Sunday and to see so many familiar faces. I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters at Crestwood Christian Church, who are pleased to join you in doing God’s work here in Lexington. I’m sure your pastor, Bennie, is in good hands at East Second Street Christian Church as she brings the word there. I also expect she’s going to hear a whole lot more of “Amen” and “Preach it, Sister!” than I am. I’m OK with that. At Crestwood, about the most demonstrative feedback I get during a sermon is a vigorous head-nod every once in a while, so if most of you stay awake this morning, let’s agree to call it a success.

Our passage today that is being preached at all five churches is John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. This is the only miracle of Jesus that appears in all four gospels, but, of course, each gospel tells the story slightly differently. Let’s listen to John’s version….read scripture.

I try to be a fairly optimistic person, but there are a few things in life that can bring me down in a heartbeat. Losing a basketball game on a last-second shot is one of those. Walking out to your car to go to church on Sunday morning and stepping in a present left by your dog. True story, but thankfully not this morning. Watching it rain when the forecast called for sunny skies? Major bummer. A trivial thing that really sticks in my craw is when I go to make a sandwich and find that all that’s left of the loaf are the heels. I’m all ready for a nice PB&J or a tasty bacon sandwich, and all I have to work with are two pieces of edible cardboard. I don’t like not having enough bread.

That’s the problem in our story today, a story I’m sure you’ve all heard. It’s often invoked at church potlucks when more people show up than signed up. I’m sure Twin Pines folks are much better than Crestwood folks about RSVPing for church dinners. Someone will look at the crowd, then survey the pans of broccoli casserole and fried chicken, and ask nervously, “Do we have enough food?” and another person will answer, “Loaves and fish.” Then, everyone nods in knowing agreement. “Yes, loaves and fish.” I’ve never been to a church potluck where we actually ran out of food. God provides. Loaves and fish.

In his version of the loaves and fish tale, John has more on his mind than simply describing a food distribution system. As he does throughout his gospel, John is trying to show his readers how Jesus is the natural successor to Moses, who led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Jesus is also trying to lead God’s people to freedom, but this time it’s freedom from sin. So, in this story, Jesus starts by going up a mountain, just like Moses went up a mountain. Jesus asks in v. 5, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” That echoes Moses’ question to God while leading the people through the wilderness, “Where am I to get meat to give to all these people?” When God provided manna from heaven for the Israelites to eat, they were instructed only to gather enough for each day so none of it went to waste. In v. 12, Jesus says, “Gather the fragments that are left over, so nothing will be lost.” And finally, this story is followed directly by Jesus walking on the water, just as Moses passed through the waters of the Red Sea to lead the people to freedom.

Ok, good to know all that. So what? Why does this matter? Well, in Deuteronomy 18, when Moses is giving his final sermon to the Israelites before he dies and they cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Moses tells the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” This was thought to be a prophecy about the Messiah, God’s anointed one who would come and lead the people to a new kind of freedom. So notice v. 14 of today’s passage: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’” John is saying that Jesus is indeed this prophet, this successor to Moses. The people thought Jesus should be a king, but God had bigger plans. This story is an example of how people think too small when it comes to God. Do we have enough food? Do we have enough of what we need?

The reaction of the two disciples in this story is instructive here. Jesus asks his initial question of Phillip, who says, “Jesus, even if we had six months’ wages, we wouldn’t have enough money to buy bread for everyone here.” I have no problem with that answer. It’s a perfectly logical response to Jesus’ question. It’s simple math. Five loaves and two fish wouldn’t feed 50 people, let alone 5000. But Phillip forgot a crucial variable in this mathematical problem. He was trying to do multiplication without the X factor. In most cases, 2 x 2 = 4. But when you toss Jesus into the equation, the numbers don’t add up. Five loaves plus two fish times Jesus equals enough food for an arena of people, with 12 basketfuls left over. Just like a church potluck. “Loaves and fish.” “Yes, loaves and fish.”

We are all guilty of doing what the disciples are doing. They are operating from a theology of scarcity. When you do you this, no matter how much you have, you never think it’s enough. So, you hold onto what you have, not sharing it with others, not meeting the needs of those around you. You always worry that you’ll only have the heels of the loaf or that your potluck will run out of food. And even when it doesn’t the first time, the second time, the tenth time, you’re just sure that NEXT time there won’t be enough.

What Jesus is doing with the disciples is teaching them to live with a theology of abundance. When you do this, your life is guided by trust and generosity, because you know that no matter how little you have, it will be enough. Living with a theology of abundance can be scary, but it can also be exhilarating, because it releases us from our dependence on possessions and frees us to add Jesus to the equation. I’ve read about and seen this at work, and it is one of the most powerful things to behold.

Here’s an example. The story goes that a young nun once had a crazy idea, so she approached her superiors and said, “I have three dollars and a dream from God to build an orphanage.” Her superiors scoffed and said, “You can’t build an orphanage with three dollars. You can’t do anything with three dollars.” “I know,” said Mother Teresa with a smile, “but with God and three dollars I can do anything.” That’s living with a theology of abundance.

It may sound like I’m throwing caution to the wind and encouraging you to be reckless with your resources because, you know, God will provide. But I understand the theology of scarcity. I understand worrying about having enough. That’s why I’m glad God doesn’t need much to work with. Sometimes I worry my faith isn’t good enough, strong enough. But God doesn’t require me to have a full-blown, fully-developed faith in order to work through me. Jesus says even if our faith is the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough. God can work with that.

That’s why I’m so thankful we have Andrew in this story. After Phillip tells Jesus that it’s impossible to feed everyone, Andrew says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” If Andrew didn’t think Jesus could do something with that boy’s lunch, why bring it up? But I believe Andrew had faith – maybe as small as a mustard seed – that Jesus only needed the heels of a loaf in order to provide a feast. When you add Jesus to the equation, there’s always reason to have hope.

In the movie, “Dumb and Dumber” – bet you didn’t expect to hear that line in this morning’s sermon – Lloyd Christmas, played by Jim Carrey, has a huge crush on Mary Swanson, so he takes a leap of faith and confesses his love to her, and asks her what the odds are they can be together. Mary says, “Not good.” Lloyd tentatively asks, “You mean, like one in a hundred.” Mary responds, “More like one in a million.” Lloyd pauses for a second, then his face lights up and he says, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!” That’s living with a theology of abundance. With Jesus, there is always a chance.

John tells us that once Jesus blessed the food and distributed it, the people all ate as much as they wanted. It’s helpful here to know the meaning of the original Greek, because what Jesus says actually doesn’t make sense. It really says, “They ate more than enough.” You ever felt that way after a Thanksgiving meal? You lean back in your chair, pat your belly, and say, “Woo! I ate too much,” and then you watch the Lions lose to the Bears. And then a half-hour later you’re making a turkey sandwich. When Jesus is in charge of the food, you eat more than enough and there are still leftovers.

When my girls were little, we would say how much we loved each other in a way that it became a competition. “I love you times 10.” “Oh yeah? I love you times 100!” I would say, “Well, I love you times infinity!” thinking I had gone as high as I could go. But, inevitably, one of my girls would say, “Well, I love you infinity plus one.” Dang! She got me. That’s God’s math. That’s Jesus’s generosity. We not only have enough, we have more than enough, we have infinity plus one from God. We think finitely – do we have enough? – when we serve an infinite God.

Our world tells us to hold onto everything we have, because we may need it someday. But our God tells us that there are people out there who need it right now, and we have been given more than enough. More than enough love. More than enough grace. More than enough acceptance. More than enough stuff. More than enough food. You may have a lot to give. You may only have a little to give. The amount doesn’t matter. What matters is the spirit in which you give it.

A couple Sundays ago, one of our youngsters came up to me after church, waited until I had talked to everyone in line, and then handed me an envelope. She said with the most earnest look on her face, “Pastor Kory, please give this to the poor.” Inside the envelope was a crumpled-up dollar bill. I know she believed in her heart that her dollar bill could really make a difference. Now, you may be thinking, what difference can a dollar make? Probably not much. But with God and a dollar…who knows how many people could be fed?

If you think you don’t have enough, then you’ll never have enough. But if you trust that God will provide, not just enough, but more than enough, then you’ll not only have enough for you, but for others, as well. Our abundance isn’t meant to be hoarded. We have more than enough, don’t we? And yet, in this local and global potluck in which we live, there are people who don’t even have the heels. What are we doing to do it about? Are we going to hold on to what we have? Or are we going to open our hands so our bread can be, taken, blessed, and shared by Jesus? Is there really enough for everyone? Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. But…loaves and fish. Yes, loaves and fish.

 

 

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Let Me Tell You A Story sermon series – The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 25:1-13 –  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

SERMON
Let Me Tell You A Story sermon series
The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids
Matt. 25:1-13
July 22, 2018

 

In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, Calvin walks into the room wearing – picture this in your mind – a large space helmet, a long superhero cape, carrying a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other. His mom looks at his get-up and says, “So, what’s up today?” Calvin replies, “Nothing so far.”  “So far?” she asks. “Well you never know,” he says. “Something could happen today.” As he leaves his mom says, “I need a suit like that!”

Calvin was living out the time-tested axiom to “be prepared.” This is more than just a Boy Scout motto or insurance company slogan. As we see in today’s passage, “be prepared” is a command from Jesus himself. But here’s what I want to know: Prepared for what? If you ask Calvin, he seems like he’s prepared for just about anything, from a blackout to a baseball game to a moon landing. But what is Jesus telling us we are supposed to be prepared for?

I want to start by saying this parable is hard. As one commentator says, it’s odd, it’s ominous, and it’s archaic. So, we’ve got some work to do this morning. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page in understanding what’s going on. Jesus says the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive for a wedding, who is delayed in coming. While waiting, all ten fall asleep. When they awaken to the news that the groom is coming, five of them have lamps that went out, while the others’ are still burning because they brought enough oil. When the five foolish bridesmaids ask the five wise ones to borrow oil, they are told there’s not enough, so the foolish ones have to go in search of more oil. While they are gone, the groom arrives and invites the five wise bridesmaids into the party. When the foolish return with oil and knock on the door, the groom says he doesn’t know them and shuts the door on them. And everybody lives uncomfortably ever after.

Usually, when we read one of Jesus’ parables, we’re invited to see ourselves in it, or at least who Jesus is calling us to be. For example, we should strive to be the good Samaritan who stops to help someone, the prodigal son who turns around and comes back home, the father who welcomes his wayward child with open arms. So, who are we supposed to be in this parable? Because, to be honest, I’m having trouble finding anyone to whom I want to relate.

I don’t want to be the foolish bridesmaids, who aren’t prepared and miss the arrival of the groom. I don’t want to be the wise bridesmaids, because they refuse to share their oil with their friends. And I don’t want to be the groom, because he shows up late and shuts out five of his friends from the party. Maybe I could be the wedding cake!

To better understand the harshness of this parable, we need to situate it in the context of Matthew’s gospel. It occurs in chapter 25, and there are only 28 chapters in Matthew, so we know we’re close to the end. This parable is sandwiched in between two others that also emphasize preparation for the master’s return. In a sense, Jesus is giving his followers a final exam before his crucifixion. He’s telling them he’s going to come again, and this time, they better be ready. Either be prepared or be left behind.

A few weeks ago when I was on vacation, I worshipped at East Second Street Christian Church, not knowing that it was the celebration of Rev. Don Gillett’s 19th year at East Second Street, so he wasn’t preaching. When I walked in, one of the ushers shook my hand and asked, “Oh, are you our guest preacher today?” You know those anxiety dreams you have the night before something big like, say, a sermon, when you dream that you get to church and you’ve completely forgotten that you were supposed to preach? Well, dreams do come true! Thankfully, I was NOT the guest preacher that morning, but for a moment, I was afraid I had shown up not prepared.

Jesus tells us to keep awake, to be prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, which translates to the second coming of Jesus. That warning carried a lot of power for the first decade or so after the crucifixion. But Matthew is writing at least 30 years after that, so the urgency to be prepared has lost its edge. In the parable, Jesus notes the bridegroom has been delayed, but that shouldn’t keep us from waiting expectantly and being prepared, because something could happen today. And yet, after only 30 years, Jesus’ followers were getting a bit drowsy waiting for him.

So, how are we doing 2000 years later? Do we still feel the expectation that Jesus could come at any time? To be honest, I think we have stopped waiting. We’ve grown accustomed to life the way it is, so this parable doesn’t carry much weight for us. Every year before Christmas we have a season of waiting called Advent, when we live out the expectancy of the birth of the Christ child, which is a portent of the arrival of Jesus a second time. But how well does that message get through the jingling bells and pretty packaging of the season? We’ve stopped waiting. Now, if Jesus had been born in August we could have avoided competing with Christmas. What does it mean to be prepared for something when you’re not sure it’s even going to happen? Does this parable have anything to say to us?

This story is a great reminder that, even when a story in the Bible seems to have lost its applicability, there is still truth there to be heeded. I will admit there are parts of this parable that I fundamentally disagree with, and I have to wrestle with that, and that’s OK. I don’t accept a picture of Jesus that permanently closes the door on anyone. That’s not the God I worship. I know Jesus was trying to make a point about being prepared, but the foolish bridesmaids don’t just stand around in the dark, they make an effort to get more oil. I don’t like the fact that the wise bridesmaids are rewarded and yet refuse to share their abundance. I don’t see myself in this parable.

Or do I? What I also have to admit is that I’ve been the wise bridesmaid that refused to share the abundance I have. I’ve been the groom who has shut people out of my life because they didn’t act like I thought they should. And I’ve been the foolish bridesmaid who wasn’t prepared to act when Jesus showed up in my life. I may not believe in being prepared for a second coming, but that doesn’t mean I still shouldn’t be prepared, because something may happen today, Jesus may show up, and I don’t want to miss it.

That’s the truth I take away from this story today. The warning to keep awake may feel like it no longer applies to a literal second coming, but it does still apply to the other ways Jesus shows up in our lives. Maybe the message today, 2000 years later after it was first shared, is not so much that we should be waiting expectantly for Jesus to arrive again, but instead that we should keep awake for the ways that Jesus shows up in our waiting. Because, as we all know, it’s hard to wait.

Today in worship we welcome the Mlombi family, who we have the honor of serving as they establish their new home here in Lexington after spending – let this sink in – 22 years in a refugee camp. Can you imagine? I hope that gives us all some perspective. Personally, I get impatient when the line at Panera is too long. Some of us had to go without power this weekend after violent storms ripped through the area. And some of us spent 22 years in a refugee camp. Waiting can be really, really hard.

And yet, Jesus shows up in the midst of our waiting. In interpreting this scripture for myself, I choose to balance the disturbing picture of the groom who shuts the door with the words of Jesus from Matthew 7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

So our responsibility is to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Because, as we all know, there will be times in our lives when the waiting gets tough, and our lights run low, and the flame of hope inside of us flickers and dims. And when that happens, we need to have a reserve of oil from which to draw. We can be prepared by continuing to seek Jesus in our lives so that our spiritual reserves don’t run out.

I believe there are two kinds of people in this world: those who panic when their gas gauge gets close to ½ full, and those who are convinced that they can still squeeze a few more miles out of the tank, even when the needle dips below the E. I’m definitely the second kind. I’ve coasted into more than one gas stations as my car sputtered to a stop. Now, we have display systems that tell you exactly how many miles you have left, which frankly takes all the adventure out of it.

So, where is your needle today? Maybe you just filled up and you’ve got all the spiritual fuel you need. Maybe you’re half full, but you’ve got enough to keep you going. Maybe you’re on E, sputtering into worship today, running on fumes and hoping to restore your reserves. Wherever your needle is, the door is open to you and the table is set. As Paul tells us in Philippians, Jesus Christ has emptied himself for us, pouring himself out so that we may be filled with the hope and grace that he offers us. Even in our times of intense waiting, Christ is there, abiding with us, reminding us that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not long lines, not power outages, not refugee camps.

Today, my prayer is that we leave this place with our needs on F, filled with the knowledge that Christ is not delayed, but is with us even now. And I pray that we leave this placing looking for opportunities to share the abundance we have been given with those whose flames are flickering. Jesus says that we are the light of the world, called to shine in the dark places around us, illuminating and enlightening, bringing the hope of Christ to a weary world. Here is the oil we need. Here is the bridegroom for whom we wait.

Will there be a literal second coming of Jesus? I honestly don’t know. I hope so, but I also recognize that Jesus has already come to us in other ways – through the words of scripture, through the kindness of friends, through the bread and the cup. And we are invited simply to be still, to be refilled, to receive the gifts that Christ offers. Because, when we leave this place, well, you never know. Something could happen today. And when it does – because we know it will, either today or another day – let’s remember that Christ will be there with us.

 

 

 

 

 

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Let Me Tell You A Story sermon series – The Sower and the Seeds

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 – 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[a] listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 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.[c] 22 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. 23 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.”

SERMON
Let Me Tell You A Story Sermon Series
The Sower and the Seeds
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 15, 2018

Remember Cliff Notes? Back before we had Google and Wikipedia, Cliff Notes were nifty little cheat sheets you could buy that would summarize famous works of literature in just a few pages. Almost every high school student who was too lazy to actually read “Beowulf” or “Wuthering Heights” made good use of Cliff Notes to pass their English tests. If you need to borrow any, I think I have the complete set.

For today’s parable, Jesus is kind enough to offer the Cliff Notes version to his disciples. This is the first parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel, so the disciples are a little confused. After he tells the parable of the sower, they ask him, “Why do you speak to the crowds in parables?” Jesus explains why and, starting with verse 18, gives them a step-by-step explanation of exactly what the parable means. Anyone wish he had done the same thing for the rest of the Bible? That sure would have been helpful. We don’t know if Jesus actually gave this explanation, or if it was added later to Matthew’s gospel after the original readers clamored for a Cliff Notes version of this story. Either way, it’s an intriguing glimpse into the allegorical meaning behind this parable.

The story is fairly simple, but you won’t be surprised to know I have some problems with it, specifically with the sower. If his goal is to grow a crop and reap a harvest, why in the world is he sowing seed on paths, in rocky terrain, and among thorn bushes? When I picture a person planting a seed, I see them hunched over, burrowing a little hole in the ground, carefully placing the seed, then covering it up with dirt and giving it a little pat-pat. But this guy is strewing seed like Oprah giving away cars. “And YOU get carrots! And YOU get cherry tomatoes!” I’ve seen plenty of flower girls at weddings who broadcast the flowers like they’re giving away T-shirts at a baseball game. That’s what this reckless sower reminds me of. Doesn’t he care where the seed lands?

Let’s look at those landing places, as Jesus explains them for us. The sower sows the seeds, which is the word of God. The first place the seeds land is the path, where birds come and snatch away the seed before it can ever take root. Jesus tells us the birds represent the Evil One, who snatches away God’s word from our hearts before it can find a home. The word falls on deaf ears, people who don’t have any desire to pay attention. I am picturing the faces of the poor, tortured souls who are forced by the family to come to church on Easter because they don’t want to disappoint Grandma. They stuff themselves into uncomfortable suits and sweat through a sermon they don’t care about and they think that has nothing to do with them. That’s the path on which the seed falls.

The second place is the rocky ground, where the seed begins to sprout but then quickly withers because there’s no depth there. Jesus says the word is initially received with joy, but when hardship comes, it dries up because it hasn’t been able to take root. I know a lot of people who grew up going to church camp, and when the last day came and people were invited forward to give their life to Jesus, these folks marched down the aisle, tears streaming, ready to change their wicked ways and turn their lives around. And then, two weeks later, they were the ones giving me the answers to the English test because I forgot to buy the Cliff Notes. But next year at church camp, when Friday came, they marched down the aisle again.

The third place the seed falls is among the thorns, which Jesus says represents the cares of the world and the lure of wealth. These things are competing priorities that suck up our attention like thorn bushes suck up nutrients from the soil, depriving the seed of what it needs to grow. The seed is never able to take root because there’s simply not room, and it eventually dies. Notice, this soil is still productive, because the thorns grow there. There’s potential for a harvest, but too much competition. These kinds of folks come to church because it’s what you are supposed to do, but they have too much other stuff going on for it to make much of a difference. They come here for information, not transformation.

The final place the seed rests is in fertile soil, where it is able to take root, blossom, and return a harvest. This soil represents the good, faithful Christian who hears God’s word and obeys, letting it bear fruit in their lives. I’m glad that Jesus pro-rates this production for us. Some seeds produce one hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty. Not every Christian has the same potential to produce fruit; we can’t all be Mother Theresa. But each of us should be producing some kind of fruit for God’s kingdom.

The traditional lesson to take away from this parable is that we should all strive to be fertile soil. We all want to produce fruit, right? So, if we can just try hard enough, we’ll be the kind of soil that receives the word of God and turns it into an abundant crop, which means we will live lives that reflect our faith and the love God has for us. The fruit we are called to bear is to be as Christ-like as possible, living as he has called us to live. We are called to be the good soil. Are you good soil?

I am. Sometimes. OK, part of the time. OK, I was last Tuesday. But other days, I’m a paved parking lot, or a rock quarry, or full of thistles and crabgrass. I’d love to be fertile soil all the time, but to be honest, I have all four soils within me, and which one I am is often determined by how hungry I am or the last text I received or whether or not the Reds won last night. I’m not one person, I’m several people. Not in the sense that I need a psychiatric evaluation – well, that’s debatable – but in the sense that what is fertile soil today may be the center of a four-lane highway tomorrow.

But I’m here, and you’re here, so the assumption is that, at some point in our lives, that seed that was sown our way took root long enough for us to begin bearing fruit. We don’t always produce a bumper crop, but we at least we are trying to be productive Christians in how we and treat others. And, as we bear fruit, we are then called to do the work of the sower, spreading the seeds of God’s love and acceptance to others. As the word of God takes root in us and bears fruit, we then are called to share what we learn.

I read a quote this week that helped me understand the mindset of the sower: “He who plants a seed trusts God.” That’s so true, right? Once that seed goes in the ground, so much is out of our control. I’ve yet to meet a farmer who stands over his field and yells, “C’mon! Hurry up and grow!” If you’ve ever planted a garden, you know it takes time and patience, and many of the variables that determine the success of your garden are out of your control. You plant your seeds, you do what you can, then you trust in God.

We are simply called to sow the seed, to share the gospel through our words and actions, to live as Christ has called us to live. We don’t control the kind of soil in which the seeds land. I’ve talked to many people who turned a deaf ear to my message. I’ve talked to many people who got excited about coming to church, only to stop coming after a few weeks. I’ve talked to many people who promise they’ll get more involved as soon as they have enough time, as soon as they finish something else, as soon as they can clear some space. And I’ve talked to some people who were fertile soil and in which God’s word took root.

We just don’t know, do we? We’re not called to make sure the seed grows, we’re simply called to scatter it recklessly, letting it land where it may, trusting in God to make it grow. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe it’s the wrong season for someone. But we don’t have the authority to decide who gets to hear the word and who doesn’t. We don’t get to choose to whom we offer grace and forgiveness and to whom we withhold it. We don’t get to say whose life is valuable, whose worthy of God’s love, who belongs or doesn’t belong in God’s kingdom. If we do that, we’re not sowing seed, we’re simply making sure our church lawns are well-manicured.

Jesus invested in some pretty rocky ground. Tax collectors. Prostitutes. Lepers. Demon-possessed people. And the folks who seemed like fertile ground – the Pharisees, the teachers of the law – were the ones who weren’t receptive to the message Jesus was bringing. I bet there are at least a dozen people in here right now whose relatives said to them at one point, “YOU are going to church? YOU?” Jesus says that the seed that finds fertile soil will produce up to one hundred-fold. You just never know, do you? That person who you don’t want to help or you’re afraid to talk with or that believes differently than you on some issues may be fertile soil for receiving the love and grace of God you have to share. You just never know. Each of us should be producing some kind of fruit for God’s kingdom.

Ultimately, this parable is a call to receptivity. How receptivity are we to receiving God’s word? I’m very receptive to receiving it when I agree with it or when it provides me comfort. But when God calls me to love someone I don’t want to love or rethink the way I believe about something, my heart hardens into concrete. This parable challenges us to stay receptive to God’s word, and then to be generous – even reckless – in how we share what we hear. But in order to share it, we have to hear it.

At the end of the parable, Jesus says to the crowd, “Let anyone with ears listen!” This isn’t an anatomical statement; it’s a theological one, because Jesus knew that just because a person has two auditory receptors protruding from the sides of their head, they aren’t necessarily listening. He wants to know if we’re paying attention, not relying on the Cliff Notes but letting the message sink in, take root. I love the way the Message translates that line of this parable. It says that, once Jesus told the parable, he asked the crowd, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

 

 

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Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series – The Wise and Foolish Builders

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 7:21-27 – 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

Hearers and Doers

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

SERMON
Building a Foundation
Matthew 7:24-27
July 1, 2018

When I was in seminary, we hosted a group of Buddhist monks who spent a week making a mandala. A mandala is an intricate work of art depicting symbols of Buddhism made completely out of colored sand. These monks spent hours leaning over a round table, painstakingly placing grains of sand into this picture. At the end of the week, the finished product, about 10 feet across, was elaborate and visually stunning. The monks carried the mandala down to the local creek and poured the sand into it, letting their art infuse the local ecological community. The beauty of the mandala was in the joy of creating it, but in just a few minutes, all the sand was washed away.

A few summers ago, my family and I spent about a week in Ireland. One of the things that struck us about that country was how old it was. We saw a monastery at Clonmacnoise which dated back to the 800s, and a wall built by the Romans that pre-dated Jesus. When I touched it, I imagined the Roman worker who put it that stone in place over 2000 years ago. These rocks had been there for centuries, enduring all kinds of weather, and yet stood firmly in their place.

Our parable for today contrasts these two diverse formations. Jesus tells us about two men who build houses. Notice, he doesn’t say anything about the houses themselves. They could have been shacks or mansions. They may have been starkly different or exactly the same. One may have had a car port and the other a man cave. We don’t know. What we do know is that they were built on different foundations: one on rock, the other on sand. When the storms come, one house washes away like the Buddhist mandala, while the other one stands firm like the Roman wall.

Jesus tells this parable at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. This sermon is one of the longest discourses we have from Jesus, in which he teaches the crowds who have gathered what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is were we get the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek. This sermon is where Jesus talks about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. It’s here we learn from Jesus the Lord’s prayer and hear him say, “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be, also.” It’s also here where Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged” and gives us the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. He may have gone a little bit over 20 minutes, but it was totally worth it.

So how do you end such a powerful sermon? Jesus says, “Everyone who hears these words and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” Jesus prefaces the parable by saying just because you can say “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean you’re a shoe-in for his inner circle. There’s a difference between speaking his name and doing his will.

The image of the wise and foolish builders would have resonated with Jesus’ listeners. Jesus was a carpenter, so he knew a little something about building houses. The area of the world where he lived and did his ministry often experienced dry seasons and rainy seasons. During the dry seasons, dried-up riverbeds seemed to be a great place to build a house. That is, until the rainy season. If a person built a house in the sand of a dry riverbed, when the rains came, even if you had a sump pump and a backup sump pump, the house would be washed away. Building on sand was a lot easier and more convenient than digging deeper down below the sand and building on rock, but it had its consequences. How the houses were anchored determined how long they lasted in the storms. Now, you may think that’s the point of the parable and of this sermon. Stay anchored in Jesus and you’ll weather life storms. Sounds like a nice thing to crochet on a pillow, doesn’t it? But we have to ask the next question, we have to go deeper into this story. We have to wonder what it means to be anchored in Jesus.

It feels like the right answer is to pray to Jesus, to read our Bible, to go to church, to do all the things we’ve been taught to do to be a good Christian. But notice, Jesus doesn’t say anything about that. Well, that’s not true. He says those things are half the battle. “Everyone who hears these words of mine,” he says. So we have to listen to Jesus – through prayer, through the Bible, through worship. But the second half of that sentence is the real kicker – “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them.” That’s the wise person. The foolish person is the one who hears the words and doesn’t act on them.

I was seeing a physical therapist recently about some knee pain I was having. She showed me some exercises I needed to do that would help. She said, “Do these three times a day, then come and see me in a week.” I went to see her in a week, and she asked, “How’s your knee?” “It hurts.” “Did you do the exercises I showed you.” “No.” “Well, that wasn’t very smart, was it?” “No.” “So, what do you think will make your knee feel better?” “Doing the exercises.” She said, “You’re smarter than you look.” I heard her words, but I didn’t act on them. Foolish.

What words of Jesus should we act on? Well, remember this parable comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, so that’s probably a good place to start. Jesus says blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek. Jesus talks about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer and says, “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be, also.” He tells us, “Judge not, lest you be judged” and gives us the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. “Anyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is wise.” How are we doing in acting out these words, in loving our enemies, in counting the poor among God’s blessed, in treating others as we would want to be treated? Are we wise or foolish?

I believe Jesus closes the sermon this way because he know our propensity to focus on ourselves, and when we do that, we focus on the storms in our lives, which makes them seem bigger and bigger. When I was first dealing with my knee pain, I remember thinking, “What if I can never run again? What if it has to be replaced? What if they have to amputate from the waist down?”

Now, I don’t mean to trivialize our storms, because we’ve all faced some hellacious monsoons. But something happens when we take that inward focus and turn it in a different direction. If I have spent time serving others, working with others, seeing God in others, then my life and storms are put into perspective. My knee pain carries a different meaning after I’ve served lunch to a man in a wheelchair. The judgment I’m feeling from someone pales in comparison to how homosexuals or minorities feel. When we focus on the needs and value of others, we build a foundation of humility, of justice, of serving the least of these which gives us spiritual security in the midst of our own storms.

It also reminds us that Jesus is there. When we see how Jesus is working to still the storms of the poor, the meek, even our enemies, we are better able to see Jesus in the midst of our own squalls. When we look for Jesus as we love and serve others, we better train ourselves to see him in our own lives.

After Hurricane Katrina, I took a youth group to New Orleans to do flood relief work. We spent a whole week gutting a house that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. As I worked at the house on Majestic Oaks, carrying out wedding albums and nice clothes and exercise equipment to be hauled away to a landfill, I tried to put myself in the place of the homeowner, a lady named Iris DiCrispino. Iris raised seven kids in that house. She had lived there for decades, and yet didn’t even have time to take her most precious possessions with her as she fled from the rising waters. The storms had taken it all away.

A few months after we got back, I got a card from Iris. She was living in another part of Louisiana and was waiting to find out what was going to happen to her house. I expected the tone of the letter to be one of anger or despair, but instead it was nothing but gratitude and grace – for the work we had done, for her own safety, for a house that had served her well. She was obviously a woman of faith, and her words were staked in the hope that comes from faith in Christ. That following April, I got an Easter card from her, telling me she would never be able to return to her home, and then praising God for the gift of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. I thought I was doing Iris a favor by working on her house, but I learned that it was she who was helping me gain perspective on my own storms.

It’s important to pray. It’s important to read the Bible. It’s important to come to worship. But if you end there, you’re missing the point, because our faith is not for ourselves. We strengthen our faith when we give it away, using our gifts and resources to serve others. There are no short cuts to a strong foundation. You can’t get there all at once. You get there one step at a time, one act at a time.

I want to close with this quote from one of the Old Testament prophets, who channels God’s voice to help the Israelites understand what God truly wants from them. Does God want worship? Does God want sacrifice? Does God want someone who knows all the right things to say? Here’s what God says in Micah: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

 

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Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

SCRIPTURE – Luke 18:9-14 – He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

SERMON
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Luke 18:9-14
June 24, 2018

When I was in grade school, I’d rush home in the afternoon and flip on the TV to watch my favorite afternoon shows. There was Batman, the Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and a rerun of an old Western series. “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi Yo Silver!’” The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore, with Jay Silverheels as Tonto. One of the reasons I liked that show as a kid was that there wasn’t any ambiguity. You never worried that the Lone Ranger was going to turn evil. The signs were clear, if not completely politically correct: good guy – white hat, white horse, white teeth, clean-shaven. Bad guy – black hat, black horse, black teeth, black robe, beard. You knew who was good and who was bad, and you knew that good always won.

On the surface, Jesus tells his parables with the same kind of clarity. When you read them the first time, it’s clear who’s good and who’s bad. The servant who buries his master’s money so as not to lose it is good. The rebellious son who fritters away his inheritance is bad. The man who stops to help the robbery victim in the road is good. The two people who walk by that victim without stopping are bad. See, this is easy!

Until you look closer. The good servant who protects his master’s money is called “wicked.” The prodigal son who wasted his inheritance returns home to a party in his honor. The man who stops to help the robbery victim was a despicable Samaritan, while those “bad guys” who didn’t stop were a priest and a religious leader. All of a sudden, it’s no longer easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Where’s our Kemosabe when you need him?

In this sermon series on the parables, we’re learning that Jesus gets a kick out of turning the tables on social conventions. That applies to our passage for today. A quick look at the cast list reveals clear lines of demarcation. The opening line sets the stage: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”  The crowd would have known that the good guy is the Pharisee, the religious leader who dutifully fulfills his obligations. The bad guy is the tax collector, the traitor who robs his own people while working for the Roman Empire. But once Jesus is done telling it, the one who leaves the temple justified is not the Pharisee, but the tax collector.

I feel like I say this a lot, but I have a real problem with Jesus and this story. I struggle with the implications of the conclusions Jesus draws based on the actions of these two men. First, I have trouble with the Pharisee ending up as the bad guy here. Look at his resume: he’s a Pharisee, one of the chief religious leaders of the time. He comes to worship regularly and has given his life to serving the church. He fasts twice a week when only once was required, and he honors God through sacrificial giving. I bet he even sings all the words to the hymns, even the ones he doesn’t like. Or at least he lip-syncs. And for goodness sake, he’s in the temple praying! This is the kind of person you want in your church, right?

On the other end of the spectrum, the good guy in this parable ends up being the tax collector. This man is lifted up as exemplary, and yet he approaches God as this self-denigrating groveler who can’t even turn his face to God. Based on this example, how low do we have to go? Do we have to roll around in the dirt for awhile and compare ourselves to worms in order to make the cut? I once said in a communion meditation that we are not worthy to come to the table and yet God invites us anyway. After worship, a very upset parishioner stormed up to me and said, “My whole life I’ve been told I’m not worthy. I would think that church is the one place where I am worthy!” Point well-taken. How worthy or unworthy do we have to be for God?

So I’m having trouble agreeing with Jesus’ conclusions here. I’m having trouble reconciling who these people are with who I think they should be. In my version of the story, it’s very clear who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat. And I’m tempted to draw the same distinctions in life, as well, between who’s good and who’s bad. People who pray, who tithe, who live out their faith are good. People who don’t do those things, or who don’t do them in the way I think they should, are bad, even if they ask for mercy. I’m gonna have to disagree with Jesus on this one.

It’s probably a good sign you’re wrong if you disagree with Jesus. I’m trying to make him fit my worldview instead of letting him transform it. My problem is that I’m trying to understand the character of the Pharisee and tax collector. Instead, maybe I should be exploring what the story tells me about God’s character, a God who extends grace to both of these people, regardless of how over-worthy or under-worthy they think they are.

Obviously, the Pharisee does some things wrong here. First, and this is a bit picky, aren’t you supposed to pray with your eyes closed? If so, how did he see the tax collector? It reminds me of the prayer before Thanksgiving dinner, when I have one eye closed and one on the turkey.

The Pharisee’s other prayer faux-pas are more egregious. Just because the Pharisee is religious doesn’t make him righteous. All the things he puts in his laundry list of good deeds are worthy of praise, but his achievements are not in question here. There’s a good chance God knows your resume, so no need to recite it. Notice that what he lists is measurable: numbers of times he fasts, amount he gives. It’s like reading the back of his spiritual baseball card.

But authentic faith isn’t measurable. If I go to church or give my money or serve on a committee, I can measure what I’ve done. But you can’t measure grace. Or forgiveness. Or repentance. I wonder if the Pharisee spouts his stats as a way to avoid the harder questions of faith and more demanding issues that confront him.

Do we do that? Do we shy away from the challenges to our faith that we see on the street corners of our community and the borders of our country because it would require something more from us? There are things going on in our community and our nation that demand a response from people of faith, but that’s a lot harder, more challenging, riskier than just meeting the basic spiritual requirements.

The problem isn’t that Pharisee was doing wrong things. It’s that he was doing right things for wrong reasons. He does all the talking and none of the listening. He assumed all his good deeds earned him good standing with God. He forgot that good standing isn’t earned; it’s given as a gift. And to make matter worse, he lifts himself up by putting someone else down. He uses the tax collector as Exhibit A to prove how worthy he is of God’s attention. “I should be praised, God, because I’m better than that person.” We’d never say what the Pharisee said – out loud, at least. Have you ever caught yourself wondering, “Why can’t other people just be more like me?”

But isn’t that just human nature? Isn’t it almost an involuntary reaction to compare ourselves with someone else? Anytime we walk into a new situation, the first thing we do is look around at others to see how we fit in. We gravitate toward those in the white hats, who are like us, and create space and distance from those least like us. It’s human nature to want to feel good about ourselves, and one of the ways we can do that is to look around us at those who are less fortunate, less motivated, less privileged, less affluent and say, “Look down there! There but for the grace of God go I.”

But saying that statement implies that the person down there isn’t a recipient of God’s grace, as if we have the power to draw those boundaries. The God I worship extends grace to everyone, even the people that I so readily place at the other end of the spectrum from me. God can be so frustratingly merciful sometimes! We delude ourselves into thinking we are so much different from those whom we don’t want to be like, which makes it easier for us to dehumanize them, discriminated against them, talk about and treat them as objects, when in reality we are bound together by our common humanity. Technically, the Pharisee tells the absolute truth in his prayers. He is all the things he says he is. But he misses the true nature of his blessing. He is not who he is because of himself, but because of God’s blessing, and his God is the same God as the tax collector’s God. The Pharisee wants to build a wall between them, forgetting that Christ has already built a bridge that connects them.

What I believe Jesus is pointing out here is the importance of coming to God in prayer just as we are, not padding our spiritual statistics like the Pharisee. Catholics call this confession, a word that makes us Protestants cringe. But confession isn’t about slipping into a telephone booth to share your darkest secrets and say a few Hail Marys. Confession is simply presenting your real self to God. It’s bringing before God not the person we hope to be or the person we think we should be, but the person we really are. Prayer is a time for us to speak openly and honestly with God, even if we can’t do that with anyone else, and then to receive the gift of mercy that God has to give each one of us.

That’s the beauty of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. None of us are worthy to be welcomed here, and yet all of us are. The church is the only institution in the world whose membership is based on our unworthiness as a member. I don’t say that to put us down, because we’re good people! But none of us can earn what we receive here. All of us – Pharisees, tax collectors, thieves, rogues, adulterers, those who think they have it all together, those who know they’ll never have it all together – are welcomed into this place.

So maybe the most appropriate prayer here isn’t “Look at how great I am” or “Look at how sinful I am.” Maybe the most appropriate prayer is the old slave prayer used by Dr. Martin Luther King at the end of his sermons: “O God, I ain’t what I ought to be, and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but by your Grace, I ain’t what I used to be.” Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

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