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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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Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series – The Disobedient Sons

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 21:28-32 – “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

SERMON
Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series
The Disobedient Sons
Matt. 21:23-32
June 17, 2018

Do you know the game “Would You Rather?” It’s a fun game to play with youth groups or in any kind of ice-breaker situation. You ask question like, “Would you rather meet your celebrity crush or find a suitcase with a thousand dollars inside?” Then you let people answer. These questions are usually a lot of fun and a great way to get to know people. Personally, I would rather meet my celebrity crush who was holding a suitcase with a thousand dollars in it.

In our scripture reading today, Jesus decides to play a little “Would You Rather” with the Pharisees. You’d expect him to say something like, “Would you rather me still a storm or change your water into wine?” Instead, he asks them, “Would you rather have a child who was disobedient or a child who breaks promises?” Umm…someone forgot to tell Jesus this game was supposed to be fun.

He asks this question in response to the Pharisees challenging Jesus’ authority. He’s just entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and has gone to the temple to see what’s happening. He’s doing some teaching there when the Pharisees interrupt him and try to trap him with a question about authority. Jesus does some linguistic gymnastics to avoid the trap, then tells this deceptively tame parable.

A man has two sons. He says to one son, “Go and work in the vineyard.” The son refuses, but then later changes his mind and does the work. The man gives the same directive to the other son, who agrees to go, but doesn’t follow through. It’s oddly comforting to know that first century-parents had to deal with the same parenting challenges that we do. Jesus then asks, “Who did what the father wanted?” and the Pharisees respond that it was the one who eventually did the work.

There’s a lot to unpack in this short story. Jesus is setting up a difficult choice for the Pharisees: would a parent rather have a child who disobeys them or a child who dishonors them? I think I would choose to get a dog. Both of these were big cultural taboos during Jesus’ time. Children who didn’t do what their parents asked sent the message that the parents – especially the father – weren’t in charge of their own household, which would have been a brutal blow to their reputation in the community. No one wanted to have the child that everyone else talked about, the one who did the opposite of what the father asks.

But having a child who talked back was just as bad. After all, it’s in the 10 Commandments that children should honor their fathers and mothers. To say “no” to your father’s face was the epitome of not respecting your parents’ authority. So, which would you prefer? To have someone tell you “yes” and then not follow through, or to have someone tell you “no”? Would you rather be lied to or rejected? Can I choose, “None of the above?” Which would you prefer?

Maybe a better question today is, “Which would God prefer?” That’s really what Jesus is asking the Pharisees. In the end, who is most faithful: the one who says “no” but does it, or the one who says “yes” but doesn’t do it? Well, we know which one Jesus prefers because we see it played out in Jesus’ parables. Jesus is pretty hard on the folks who say “yes” to God and then don’t follow through, like the parable where people RSVP for a wedding feast but then don’t show up and are condemned. But Jesus is surprising lenient on the people who say “no” and then change their mind. Think about the prodigal son, who initially rejects his father, but is welcomed back with open arms when he repents. Jesus didn’t seem to care much about dishonor but had a lot to say about those who were disobedient.

So, what does this mean for the original listeners? Jesus makes it pretty clear in his words after the parable. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.  For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

The Pharisees initially said “yes” to God through their faith and work as religious leaders, but when Jesus comes, proclaiming a new way to believe and live out their faith, the Pharisees don’t follow through. And the tax collectors and prostitutes, who live about as far away from God as possible, are the ones who are turning around and saying “yes” to the message Jesus is preaching. Which of the two is doing what the father wants? The ones who are now saying “yes,” even if they started off saying “no.” This means the tax collectors and prostitutes are more faithful than the Pharisees, the people on the outside of the church were acting more faithfully than the people on the inside.

But what does it mean for us? Who are we in this parable? Are we the kid who says “yes” and doesn’t follow through, or the kid who says “no” but turns around? I would say we are both, aren’t we? Which one I am depends on the day, my mood, how busy my schedule is, and the number of annoying people around me. I have told God a well-intentioned “yes” and not followed through, and I’ve told God point-blank “no,” sometimes through my words but mostly through my actions. I want to be the person who says “yes” to God and then follows through. Isn’t that who we are called to be?

When we baptize people here at Crestwood, we ask them to affirm a series of promises, to say “yes” to God. Those promises include things like, “Do you promise, with God’s help, to do your best to renounce evil, resist temptation, and to turn to Jesus Christ?” and “Do you promise, trusting in God’s grace, to be faithful in your worship, to be an active part of your church family, and to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others?” Of course, they always say “yes” or else they wouldn’t get dunked. But will they always follow through on those promises? They say they will. But do they? Do you?

This parable provides both a word of warning and word of hope. The word of hope is for those of us who’ve said “no” to God. This parable says it’s never too late to say “yes.” Now, because you’re sitting here, I’m gonna say this part of the parable doesn’t apply to you. Sure, we have our days when we say “no” to God, but for the most part, we made that ultimate decision a long time ago. We may have friends or loved ones who are still saying “no” to God, so this parable can provide us some comfort. But I want to focus more on the word of warning this story gives us.

It’s a warning to those who think they have it all together, that they have all the answers on who God has called them to be. That was the Pharisees. They just knew exactly what God thought, and when Jesus challenged that, rather than saying “yes” to this new way of believing, they clung tightly to their old ways. They were too personally invested in what they thought was right that they were unwilling to admit they were wrong.

We have to be careful about thinking we know the totality of who God is. Some folks today are just sure that God hates certain kinds of people, or that God sanctions certain kinds of treatment of other people. But God doesn’t tend to be one who gets pinned down. Our faith should be flexible, always willing to incorporate new ways of understanding how God is at work and who God calls us to love.

Jesus warns against this when he says that there will be people who cry out “Lord, Lord,” claiming to know him, but who live lives that betray that relationship. I had a guy in my last church named Fred. Fred was a sweet, sweet man who was completely dependable. By that I mean I could depend on him every Sunday to all asleep within the first five minutes of my sermon. Every Sunday. And, every Sunday, good ol’ dependable Fred would come out of worship, shake my hand, and say, “Great sermon, preacher!” Fred knew the right thing to say, but his actions betrayed those words.

Our takeaway from this parable is to try and match our words with our actions. How well do we live out what we say? On Sundays, we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. We promise to put God above the other temptations in our lives. We proclaim that everyone is welcome at the table. How well do our actions match those words? Are we saying “yes” here and then “no” out there?

It’s hard to keep our promises to God because life gets in the way. So we can take solace in the fact that, even if our promises aren’t always good, God’s promises are. God is not in the business of breaking promises to us. In a world where broken promises pile up and clutter our lives, where people say “good sermon” after a good nap, there are some promises that we know we can stake our life on. Promises like, “I will not leave you as orphans,” and “This is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” Promises like “I am with you, even unto the end of the age,” and “Where two or three are gathered, I am with them.” Through Jesus Christ, God has promised to love us and be with us. God promises to weep with us, to mourn with us, to endure pain with us, to rejoice with us. God promises to love each and every one of us as if there is only one person to love.

Ultimately, this parable balances its warning with the reminder that, whoever we are, we don’t have to be that person forever. There is always the opportunity to be a better Christian today than we were yesterday. God loves us for who we are, but God never wants us to stay there. As I heard Rev. Don Gillett say, “Your condition is NOT your conclusion!” Faith is a journey and each day is a new step, a new invitation to say “yes” to God and then follow through. The Pharisees had too much at stake, too much invested in their old ways of living and believing. It was too risky to think that God might be doing a new thing among them. So, they said “no.” What will you say?

 

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Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series – The Rich Man and Lazarus

This is a part of our summer sermon series on the parables of Jesus. God bless you!

SCRIPTURE – Luke 16:19-31 –“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

SERMON
Let Me Tell You a Story Sermon Series
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Luke 16:19-21

I said last week when introducing this sermon series on the parables of Jesus that most of the parables are clear, but none of them are easy. I tried to start us off with a softball last week – be a wheat, not a weed! Easy to understand, even if it’s not always easy to live out. Well, this week, we’re leaving the comfortable paved roads and heading onto the bumpy trail of one of Jesus’ most perplexing and disturbing parables, which is very clear but nowhere near easy.

I own several textbooks on how to interpret and preach the parables. I was glad to embark on this sermon series because I knew I had those resources in my back pocket to help me make sense of Jesus’ stories. Well, in reviewing those textbooks, not one of them had anything to say about this particular parable. Not one. It’s as if they were saying to me, “Kory, what are you doing?” So, today we’ll be doing a hymn sing! Maureen/Jane, let’s sing the first 10 verses of “Amazing Grace.”

There’s a reason this parable should be handled with kid gloves, if we’re brave enough to touch it at all. It paints a very clear picture of who we’re called to be, what we’re called to do, and what will happen if we don’t do it. If we’re honest, it’s disconcerting and can cause us a lot of anxiety. As one Sermon Talkback participant said on Wednesday, “You’re gonna have to talk me back from the ledge on this one.” Her fear stems from the fact that the most literal interpretation of this parable is either you help everyone you see or else you’re going to Hell. If that’s the case, I don’t like any of our chances.

One of the ways we can begin to peel back the layers of a parable like this is to talk about what Jesus is not trying to do. Jesus is not trying to do with this parable is lay out a systematic theology of the afterlife. As much as we would like to point to this parable to prove the existence of Heaven or Hell, that’s simply not what Jesus is doing here. It would be like reading a cookbook to explain how the mechanics of an oven work. Sure, a cookbook will mention an oven, but that’s not the focus. Similarly, what happens to us after we die is not the purpose of this parable. There’s no mention of God, no mention of Heaven, and only a reference to Hades, the Greek underworld. So, it’s important that we don’t put too much weight on this parable to explain something it was never meant to explain.

So, what does this parable tell us? Well, let’s see what we know. The two main characters are a rich man and Lazarus. Now, right there we have some important information. We know that, of all of the gospels, Luke is the one that deals the most with wealth and riches, and rarely in a positive light. People who were rich were those who let their bling blind them to authentically living out their faith – think of the rich young ruler who couldn’t follow Jesus or the rich people who make a spectacle of how much they gave to church. If you’re a rich person in Luke’s gospel, you’re probably going to be the bad guy.

In contrast, we have the beggar named Lazarus. Can you think of other parables where the characters have names? Not in the good Samaritan. Not in the prodigal son. In fact, not in any other parable. This is the only place in all the gospels where a character in a parable is given a name, Lazarus. By the way, this is not the same Lazarus that Jesus raises from the dead. Naming the beggar will have an important function in this parable. We’ll get to that.

The rich man lives his opulent life while literally stepping over Lazarus, who lies outside his gate, begging for mercy while the dogs lick his wounds. That detail may feel extreme – why would Jesus mention this? It’s to show the depth of depravity in which Lazarus lived. If that sentence makes you go, “Ewww!” then it accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish.

Both men die and their fortunes are reversed. The rich man goes to a place of fire and torment and Lazarus goes to Father Abraham, literally to Abraham’s bosom, where he will be cradled and feed for eternity. The rich man, recognizing his fate, calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus with some water. “Nope,” is the response. “You’re getting what you deserve, and besides, to quote somebody from New England, ‘You can’t get there from here’.” Both the rich man and Lazarus’ fates are sealed, and never the two shall meet. There is a deep chasm between then in death because there was a deep chasm between then when they were alive.

In either a moment of compassionate epiphany or familial selfishness, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five siblings to warn them, lest they end up on the hot seat next to them. Abraham says, “They already have Moses and the prophets” – meaning the holy scriptures as they knew it back then. I love the honesty in the rich man’s response. “Naw, they don’t read that. But if you send a ghost, they’ll pay attention!” To which Abraham says, “If they don’t read the Bible, what good is it to send someone from the dead?”

Is it too late for that hymn sing? OK, let’s see if we can make some sense of this. First of all, let’s return to the name thing. One of the reasons Lazarus is named is because it humanizes him. He’s not some faceless beggar. He’s a person. But the more important reason is that, when the rich man asks Abraham for help, he calls Lazarus by name. He knew him. That’s incredibly important here. Lazarus wasn’t some shifty hobo taking up space in front of the rich man’s mansion. He not only had a name, but the rich man knew it. And yet, he still didn’t do anything to help.

That’s an important fact for us to consider when we’re trying to apply this parable to our own lives. If you take this too literally, you may start to think that unless you help every needy person you ever meet in your entire life, you’re going to a place of fire and torment. That worldview can be paralyzing and severely guilt-inducing. But that’s not what I hear the parable saying. Instead, I read it to say, “Look around you. If you have people on your radar screen, people at your gate, people whose names you know, people who need your presence and attention and help, then you should help them.”

Something that’s easy for us to miss about this parable is the way Jesus is reinterpreting the role of wealth and poverty in his culture. The prevailing belief back then was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and poverty was a sign of God’s curse. If you were rich, you did something right to be blessed by God. And if you were poor, you did something wrong to be cursed by God. So, the fact that Lazarus ends up in a good place and the rich man ends up in a bad place would have been quite counter-cultural and deeply upsetting to anyone back then who had money.

If we know anything about Luke, this shouldn’t surprise us. It’s in his gospel that a pregnant Mary sings that, with the coming of Jesus, “the hungry have been filled and the rich sent away empty.” It’s also in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and follows up with, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation.” The challenge Jesus is providing here is for those of us who have much to bridge the chasm between us and those who have little.

I’m inclined to add, “Before it’s too late,” but I don’t want to go too far down that road. First of all, what happens to us after we die isn’t determined solely by how many beggars we help or how many little old ladies we walk across the street. That’s works righteousness, the belief we can earn our way into Heaven. That scare tactic has been used for a long time to get people to accept Jesus, but I believe in a God who wants us to come to faith out of love and gratitude, not fear. But we can’t just write off the lesson here. The rich man ignored the need around him, and it’s only a short journey to go from “ignore” to “ignorant.” We are called by this parable to be aware, not ignorant, of the needs around us.

When reading a difficult parable, a good question to ask is, “Who am I in this parable?” We’re not Lazarus, that’s for sure. And while we may be reluctantly tempted to see ourselves as the rich man, let’s all give each other the benefit of the doubt this morning. No, if we look closely at this parable, we are there. We’re the five brothers. We’re the ones in need of a warning about how we are to live our lives.

So, as those who need a warning, what does parable say to us? It says we already have what we need to know how to live, which is Moses and the prophets. In other words, we have the Bible. If we want to know how we’re supposed to treat each other, how we’re supposed to share our resources, how we’re supposed to value the image of God in each other, we already have that. God has already told us how we are supposed to treat the poor, the immigrant, the outcast. If we’re letting some other agenda dictate how we do those things, it’s at our own peril.

“But I don’t like reading the Bible. It’s heavy and it’s long and it’s boring and I have to finish watching that show on Netflix. It would be easier if God would just send someone back from the dead to show me what to do.” Well…guess what? You’re in luck, because God did that! God must have known the depth of our ignorance because God put the words of the Bible into flesh and blood, and even though we pierced that flesh and spilled that blood, we still have the example of Jesus, who loved the poor, we welcomed the immigrant, who accepted the outcast. You wanna know how rich people are supposed to treat poor people? You wanna know how we’re all supposed to treat each other, regardless of categories? Look at Jesus.

This isn’t about flinging a coin into a cup. This is about a fundamental attitude of neighborliness. It’s about seeing the suffering of the poor as our suffering and hearing the call to leave our gated communities and join in solidarity with those who struggle. It’s about leaving behind the unhelpful perspectives that poor people are cursed by God and responsible for their own fate and recognizing that we have a role to play and the resources available to honor their humanity and restore their dignity. If we fail to do this, will we go to Hell when we die? I honestly don’t know. But I do know we’ll be voluntarily separating ourselves from the life-giving call of God on our hearts, hoard the gifts God has given us, hiding from God’s presence in our lives. And that in and of itself sounds like Hell to me.

I want to close with the words we’ve already heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah: “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and God will say, ‘Here I am.’

 

 

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Let Me Tell You a Story sermon series – The Wheat and the Weeds

SCRIPTURE – Matt. 13:24-30 – He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

SERMON
Wheat and Weeds
Matt. 13:24-30
June 3, 2018
Kory Wilcoxson

Today we start our summer sermon series on the parables of Jesus. Jesus was a master storyteller and he often used parables to convey deep spiritual truths. Telling a story is a great way to disarm someone – who doesn’t like a story? – and open their ears and hearts to hearing important lessons. The parables were often very clear, but rarely easy to live by. You could usually find the lesson in the place where your expectations get upset, where you say, “That’s not supposed to happen!” Our first parable is the wheat and the weeds.

Let me tell you a story about Claire. Claire was one of the first youth I met at a church I served during seminary. It was my first real church position, so I was eager to get in there and show the congregation what I could do, while still dealing with the nagging thought that I had no idea what I was doing. I planned a great first gathering and had a deeply profound Bible study and some chocolate chip cookies. This was going to be a life-changing meeting!

Three people showed up. One was Claire. I knew as soon as she walked in the room I was in trouble. Hair dyed black. Black clothes. A look on her face like someone just ran over her dog. I found out later that she was a terrible student in school, hung out with the bad crowd, and listened to loud music that had cuss words in it. Through the whole meeting she just sat there, looking depressed and dejected. She didn’t even take any chocolate chip cookies! Inside, I was mad. This wasn’t how my ministry was supposed to begin. There was a weed in my wheat.

That’s why I relate to the servants in our parable today. When they see that weeds have begun to grow among their master’s wheat, their first response is, “Let’s pluck them up! Let’s barrel into the fields and begin yanking up anything that looks suspicious. That will show those pesky weeds!” But – here’s the part where our expectations are upset – their master says, “No, boys, let’s wait. If you go uprooting all the weeds, you may damage the wheat, and then all is lost. Let’s wait until they mature, and then we’ll separate them.” The Bible stops the dialogue there, but I know what the servants say next. “What? Leave the weeds in there? How can we do that? They’re bad, the wheat is good. It’s as simple as that. We need to take a stand, we need to draw the line. We need to say, ‘Wheat, you stay, but Weed, you go!’”

That’s what we want them to say, isn’t it? Because the world is full of weeds. Jesus defines the weeds as “the sons of the evil one.” Publicly, I define the weeds as anyone who’s keeping me from loving God. Privately, I define weeds as anyone who doesn’t live their lives the way I think they should. They cut me off in traffic, they take 12 items into the 10-items-or-less line at the grocery store, they leave their garbage cans out an extra day. I know everyone in here can name a weed or two in your life.

Of course, there are more serious weeds we deal with. Child molesters. Murderers. Corporate con artists. These weeds do more than just look bad, they choke the life out of the wheat growing around them. They hog all the good soil for themselves, not sharing any with the other plants that are clinging to life. They gulp the water while the wheat shrivels from dehydration. Yes, there are weeds all around us and they deserve nothing more than to be plucked up and thrown away.

I hate to say this out loud, but there are even weeds in the church. Not our church, thank goodness; but I’ve been in other churches where the pristine field of wheat was littered with crabgrass and thistles. These people complain about everything, they gossip and start rumors, and although they have much, they give little. Can you understand why the servants wanted to get the weeds out of the way? It’s hard to be good wheat with all those weeds around.

There’s been a lot of that down through the years, efforts to clarify who’s a weed and who’s wheat. Sometimes that’s even done in the name of God, as if God gave us the power to say who counts and who doesn’t, and the ones labeled weeds get rounded up and huddled into refugee settlements and concentration camps. Turn us loose with our spiritual machetes and there’s no telling who we’ll chop down in the name of Jesus. We all have the dangerous capacity to assume we know the mind of God and the hubris to act on it.

But in our parable, the master has more patience and foresight. He tells his hasty servants to wait. Part of his reasoning is practical. Young wheat and young weeds can look very similar in appearance. It’s impossible to tell them apart. And by the time they both mature, their roots are so intertwined that you can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. To uproot the weeds now could bring about economic ruin, because the harvest of wheat would be destroyed, as well. The only solution then, was to wait, let them both grow and sort them out later.

That may not be soon enough for us stalks of wheat, but there’s wisdom in that line of thinking. As much as I’d like to think I know a weed when I see one, I don’t. Our house in Illinois had some beautiful flowers and landscaping, but during the time that the previous people moved out and we moved in, the yard became infested with weeds. Well, as a first-time homeowner, I was ready to go out into my yard and begin enforcing some agricultural justice on those renegade plants. Problem was, once I fired up the weed-whacker and set to work, I wasn’t sure what to kill and what to keep. I might be tempted to chop something down, only to find it in a vase on my kitchen table later that evening. We think we know the weeds in life, and if you catch us in the right mood we’ll even name names, but we don’t know. Only God truly knows.

Another reason we should wait before pulling up the weeds is that, if we look closely enough, we might find weeds in our own garden. A Far Side cartoon showed the inside of a refrigerator. The bottle of ketchup, a head of lettuce, and a block of cheese were all huddled together on one side of the fridge, their faces covered with fear and their hands in the air. On the other side of the fridge was a carton holding a gun. The caption read, “When sour cream goes bad.” We’ve all got some bad sour cream in our refrigerators, don’t we?

Our hearts are a mixture of good and evil; no one is purely one or the other. We all live with that constant tension of trying to grow our wheat while fighting the weeds. Because of our imperfection, our humanness, our poor choices, we sow bad seeds along with the good, so we are all in need of mercy. Some folks may like to think that there are two kinds of people in the world – wheat and weeds. The problem with that is that no one draws the line between grace and judgment behind them, so a weed is always defined as someone who thinks and behaves differently than me. Wouldn’t life we easier if that were the case? In reality, everyone is a mixture of both.

If that’s true, then everyone has the potential to be transformed by God’s power and love. In the world of agriculture, weeds may contaminate wheat. But in God’s garden, wheat can transform weeds. I certainly forgot it when dealing with Claire. I judged her as weed right away, and that diagnosis colored how I dealt with her for a long time. But I watched as she came to know God, and I watched how God changed Claire, how God’s word took root in her heart. She became a vibrant member of the youth group. She’s matured into a beautiful young woman, full of dreams and aspirations, and with a solid faith in God. She still listens to loud music with cuss words, but sometimes I do, too. Do you know what happened? Where I only saw weeds, God saw wheat.

That’s what God can do if we give God the space to do it. It’s tempting to divide the world into Christians and non-Christians, or better yet Christians like me and everyone else. But putting people into categories is dangerous, because it doesn’t allow for the ambiguity of the human condition. There is more bad in the best of us and more good in the worst of us than we’ll ever know. God can take a person full of anger, envy, or animosity, and turn them into a person full of love, grace, and mercy. A person is not to be judged by a single act or stage of life, but by their whole life. It’s a difficult thing for us to look at someone who’s acting like weed and say, “You know, there’s wheat in that person.” But on our worst days, that’s what God does with us. In my backyard, I’ve never seen a dandelion turn into a rose, no matter how hard I pray. But in my ministry, given a little time and a lot of love and forgiveness, I’ve seen a weed of a person blossom into a flower.

So what do we do? How does the wheat survive if they have to live among the weeds? Do we spend all our time attacking the weeds, trying to keep the garden pure? I’ve seen people who consider themselves wheat to get so riled up and defensive that they start sounded a lot like weeds. “That person calls themselves a Christian, and yet they say THAT? They do THAT?” This parable reminds us that it’s not our job to weed out the world; it’s our job to be wheat, rooting ourselves in the One who planted us.

We are called to be the best wheat we can be, and to trust that God will work through us to bring nourishment and sunlight to those around us. In the ultimate end, we can’t control what’s going to happen to the weeds; we just have to do our best to not be one of them. As Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, “There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” Our goal is to live good lives, honoring God and following Christ, proclaiming the gospel in how we live and treat others.

There are going to be weeds in our life, probably on a daily basis. We’re even going to find weeds in our families, maybe even in our church. And scariest of all, we may even discover weeds in our own hearts. Thankfully, we have a Master Gardener who’s slow to pluck up and burn. He’s patient with us, allowing us time to grow and mature and transform. We have been shown such tremendous mercy and forgiveness by our loving God. May we have the strength to live our lives as fully as possible, and to let God do the sorting out in the end. Because you just never know what God is doing, do you? You just never know how God is turning weeds into wheat in this world…and in us.

 

 

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This Week’s Sermon – Call Waiting

SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 6:1-8 – In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

 

The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph[b] touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

SERMON
Call Waiting
Isaiah 6:1-8
May 27, 2018

For a book as popular as the Bible, you think it would have more compelling, heroic characters. Usually our bestsellers feature top-secret spies or sword-wielding dragonslayers or at least a teenage wizard with a magic wand. Those kinds of stories sell! And yet, apart from Jesus, who’s more of an anti-hero than a traditional one, what the Bible gives us is not Luke Skywalker or James Bond. Instead, we get a collection of whiners. Crybabies. Cowards. Moses balks when confronted by the burning bush. Peter and the disciples turn tail and run rather than stand up for their beliefs. Jonah skeedaddles in the opposite direction when God gives him an assignment. Where’s a good hero when you need one?

Don’t look to Isaiah. Even though he is the most prolific prophet in the Hebrew scriptures, the start of his journey is a rather inauspicious one. While visiting the temple one day, he sees a heavenly vision complete top-notch special effects like fire and smoke and six-winged seraphs and God on the heavenly throne, and Isaiah’s first response is “Woe is me!” Or, in the more modern translation, “Whoa! Me?”

Whoa! Me? Have you ever said that when you were given a call? I know I have. My journey of faith is filled with spiritual potholes where God called me to do something and I started making excuses. If the church had a nickel for every time someone said, “Whoa! Me?” we wouldn’t need a stewardship campaign. If you’ve said that before, you join a long line of faithful people – Moses, Jonah, Peter, Isaiah – who wished they were on God’s Do-Not-Call List. How many of us, if we had the choice, would rather not be called by God? Life would probably be a lot simpler. What happened in Isaiah’s mind to move him from “Woe is me” to “Send me”?

We learn right away in this passage that Israel is facing a crisis. Their beloved King Uzziah, who had a 52-year reign of peace and prosperity, was now dead. If you remember the turmoil in our country after JFK was assassinated or after 9-11, you get a sense of the upheaval that had taken place with Uzziah’s death. Israel knew his much less popular and less successful son Jotham was taking over. Tumultuous times were ahead for God’s people, so God needs someone, a messenger, to go to the people and exhort them to stay connected to God, no matter their political leaders do and say.

Enter our unlikely hero, Isaiah, who comes to the temple and has this heavenly vision of the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty, surrounded by seraphs who were singing God’s praises: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The repetition here is significant. In the Bible, if you say something once, it’s a statement. If you say something twice, you are putting additional emphasis on it. That’s why God often calls people’s names twice in order to get their attention: “Moses, Moses!” But if you say something three times, you are making a definitive declaration that can’t be refuted. It carries the same gravity of your mom using your middle name: “Kory Thomas!” So what the angels are saying here is that God isn’t just holy; God isn’t just holy, holy; God is holy, holy, holy! God is the epitome of holiness.

Ever since I took Art Appreciation in college, I’ve been a huge fan of Vincent Van Gogh. So, a few summers ago, while Sydney and I were in New York City, we went to the Museum of Modern Art, home of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” When I turned a corner and saw it for the first time, I was mesmerized. If you’ve ever seen a Van Gogh painting in person, you know that he used so much paint that the image seems three-dimensional. I stood in front of the painting for several minutes, taking in its contrasting colors and swirling patterns.

I would imagine what I felt was just a small microcosm of what Isaiah felt when he stood before God in the temple, listening the angels sing about God’s holiness. He was doing then what we are doing now. He was worshipping, which is a great place to start any journey with God. Anything and everything we are called to do has to begin with the acknowledgment that God is the source of all we have and all we are. God is holy, holy, holy, and if we want to succeed in what we do, we start by grounding ourselves in worship of God. If we don’t do that, we may start to think that we are the source of holiness, that we are responsible for our own blessings. Worship reminds us it’s not about us. Worship is not the end result of what we do as followers of Christ as if we can leave this place this morning and check something off our to-do list. Worship is the foundational starting point of the sending out, where we invoke God’s presence and holiness.

And that’s just too much for Isaiah. The majesty of God’s holiness is a like a mirror in which Isaiah can see his own sinfulness and he is overcome by guilt. “Woe is me!” he says. He confesses his own uncleanliness and that of his people as if he just knows this fact disqualifies him from doing anything for God. I remember feeling that way when I entered seminary. I felt called to the concept of serving God but had no idea where to do it, how to do it, or if anybody was going to care when I did it. This call from God created in me fears of inadequacy and failure and embarrassment. Woe is me! During orientation, as I sat with other Moses and Isaiahs and Jonahs, one of the senior students addressed the fears he knew we felt when he said to us, “None of us belong here. None of us are prepared to do God’s work. But remember this: God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.”

Isaiah was afraid because he had unclean lips. He was a sinful person called to do the work of God. But God hears his fears and cleanses him, saying, “Your guilt is departed and your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah was nowhere near ready to serve God, but God equipped him for service. You see, the call is not dependent upon some level of readiness. There are not criteria of perfection you have to meet in order to be called. In my last church, when I would ask someone to serve as an Elder, I would often get the response, “Gosh, I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m worthy of that.” Exactly! None of us are worthy of it. That’s the whole point of God’s grace! God doesn’t call us to serve or teach or visit or lead because we’ve already got it all figured out. If that were a requirement, this place would be empty. God calls us and then provides us the tools we need to do the job. It’s an amazing feeling to be forgiven by God, isn’t it? But we have to remember we’re not just forgiven from sin, we’re forgiven for service.

So Isaiah is equipped through his cleansing, and then God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Notice a couple things here with me. First, we don’t know for sure that God is even speaking to Isaiah. God could be speaking to the angels, brainstorming with them on the best person for the job. And God doesn’t even say what the mission is! God could be looking for volunteers to clean clouds or deal with demons or be on prayer-answering duty. We have no idea what the call is, and neither does Isaiah, but that doesn’t stop him from thrusting up his hand and saying, “Me! Me! Send me!”

That seems a little rash, doesn’t it? I could understand if Isaiah had said, “I’m intrigued by this offer, but I would like to ask some clarifying questions first.” Or if he’d said, “Well, I’d like to hear more about the time commitment before I make a decision.” But no! He’s so overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s gift of grace to him that he is utterly compelled to respond to this call, regardless of what it is. God’s grace is worthy of nothing less than an involuntary response of gratitude.

Notice the pattern this passage provides us. Time spent in worship and in God’s holy presence leads to recognition of our sins, which leads to a confession, which is followed by a pardon and a call to serve. Each Sunday we come into this time of worship, bringing with us all the baggage we’ve accumulated over the past week, the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone. We hear God’s word, we sing God’s praises, we pour out our hearts to God in prayer. Then we touch to our lips the bread and the cup, the cleansing elements of communion. And then we go from this place, back into the world.

In our tumultuous times, God says, “I need someone to go.” Who will go to the rest home and talk to lonely people? Who will sit with the struggling parents of a wayward child? Who will give a ride to the shut-in who has a doctor’s appointment? Who will go to the fatherless child or the widow? Who will visit those without hope in prison? Who will tutor the challenging nine-year-old? Who will teach a Sunday School class? Who will go their next-door neighbor? Who will speak up for those without a voice in the halls of power? Who will go to the friend who needs intervention? Who will go? Who will God send? We have been in God’s presence, we have received God’s goodness, we have been gifted by the Holy Spirit, and we have been called. I don’t know what you’ve been called to do or how you’ve been called to do it. But God didn’t create you to be idle. I know you have been called.

Theologian Soren Kierkegaard tells this parable: A community of ducks waddled a long way on the farm, across the dirt roads, under the fences, through the fields, to the duck church to hear the duck preacher. The duck preacher spoke eloquently of how God has given ducks wings with which to fly. With these wings there was nowhere the ducks could not go, there was no God-given task the ducks could not accomplish. With those wings they had been equipped to soar into the presence of God and do amazing things in God’s name. Enthusiastic quacks of “Amen!” echoed throughout the congregation. At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on how inspiring the message had been, how much it meant to them to hear it. And then they waddled all the way back home.

Isaiah would go on to be one of the most important figures in Jewish history. Not all of us will become so famous when we answer our call. We might not change thousands of lives. Maybe not even hundreds. But we might change one. God has given us the opportunity to join God in working together in this world. Do we say, “Whoa? Me!”? Our worship will be ending soon. We could just waddle back home. Or we could fly.

 

 

 

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