2012-09-30 12.50.11

Persistence – sermon on Luke 18:1-8

October 16, 2016
Watch this sermon here.

In today’s passage, Luke explains a parable of Jesus before sharing the
parable itself. He only does this two other times. We will look at one of
these next week, when we read about the Pharisee and the tax collector,
and the other is the story of the Ten Talents. But the explanation Luke
gives here helps to focus our attention on the importance of staying
persistently connected to God.  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and
not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who
neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was
a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against
my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘
Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because
this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen
to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his
chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And
yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” -Luke 18:1-8

Let’s start at the end of this passage, and work our way backward. The
question Jesus asks at the conclusion of the story helps us understand it in
a way we might not see if we are in a hurry to read on to the next
passage. So let’s look backward first, to reflect on the parable of the
persistent widow and the unjust judge from the framework this question
gives us: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus started this particular teaching back in Chapter 17 (verse 20) when
the Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. He tells
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor
will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of
God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent
widow closes this longer lecture about the coming of God’s Kingdom on
earth.  The Pharisees had asked “when?” but Jesus answers that how we wait is
much more important than knowing the exact moment. So he throws this
question back at the Pharisees: When the Son of Man comes, will he find
faith on the earth? In other words, will we be faithful to the end? This is
the crux of the matter – will Christ find faithfulness, trustworthiness
among his people when he comes again, whenever that may be?

Let’s go back a step further. Before Jesus asks if we will be faithful, he
assures us that God can always be trusted. God is faithful. Jesus says, “
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and
night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant
justice to them.” (Luke 18:7-8a)

Luke reminds us of the tension first century Christians were feeling
between the expected suddenness of Christ’s second coming, and their
perceived delay of that event. Peter had also written, “Do not ignore this
one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise,
as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to
perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, quoting Psalm 90:4)
God will not put off helping his people, but God does not operate on our
timeline – we exist on his. And rest assured that God will give justice. God
will make right the things that are wrong. God will surely heal what is
broken. But God’s patience should not be seen as procrastination. God is
showing mercy, giving us time to turn to him and seek forgiveness, to ask
him to make us whole.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent headlines might make you wonder if it’s possible. There is plenty
that is wrong and broken in our world, today as much as it was over 2000
years ago. Justice sometimes seems like a dream more than a possible
reality. We see disappointment and pain every day, as people are
murdered, others go without food or adequate shelter, leaders turn out to
be corrupt, governments stop functioning, and self-serving greed has a
higher social value than generosity toward others. Hatred seems to be on
the rise, and mercy is hard to find.

The unjust judge of this parable would fit right into today’s culture: he
doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. He models the exact
opposite of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. The
judge only gives justice to get rid of the widow’s annoyance, not because
he cares about right and wrong. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering
me, I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by
continually coming.’”

Quite literally, this phrase means, “so she won’t slap me in the face,” or “
so she won’t give me a black eye.” I don’t think the judge is too worried
about a poor widow assaulting him. The judge wants to avoid being
embarrassed – or shamed – by the widow’s constant badgering. And it is
that very badgering, the continual showing up on his doorstep to ask for
justice, that finally allows the widow to win over the unethical judge.

Let’s take a look at that widow. Jesus says, “In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my
opponent.’” We don’t know who the opponent is, or what problem the
widow has with the opponent. We only know that she is seeking justice.
And she has her speech down to six words. Persistently, day after day, this
woman kept coming to the judge, saying, “Grant me justice against my
opponent.” What else could she do? This judge is her only hope.

You see, most women were very young, barely teenagers, when they
married, so the possibility of outliving their husbands was a very strong
one. There were many widows, but they weren’t necessarily old women.
The problem was that they often had no means of support when their
husbands died, especially if they had no sons to take responsibility for
them and care for them. They did not inherit their husband’s estate – it
went to another male member of the family. If a widow stayed with her
husband’s family, she became little more than a servant in the household.
If she went back to her own family, the bride price had to be paid back to
the husband’s family. Many times, widows were sold as slaves to pay off
their husband’s debts.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder this widow even tried to seek justice.
Yet here she is, day after day, relentlessly asking an unjust judge to give
her justice against her opponent. “How much more will God give justice to
those who ask him?” Jesus seems to be saying. If a crooked judge can be
convinced to do what is right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, how much
more will God show mercy to those he loves?

God’s love is not only persistent, but also just. God’s loving justice, made
evident in Christ’s cross and resurrection, reveals not only God’s persistent
response to individual sin, but also God’s powerful and persistent
resistance against the unjust powers that be. Which makes me wonder if I’
ve been looking at this parable through the wrong lens.
What if God is not represented in this story by the judge, but by the
persistent widow seeking justice? Certainly, comparing God to an unjust
judge can only work from the “how much more?” viewpoint. But what if
Jesus is actually asking us to see God through the eyes of this persistent
widow seeking justice? And what if the unjust judge who will only do the
right thing to avoid further embarrassment is … me?

Methodist pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:

God is not the judge, but the widow.

Jesus says, “Do not judge,” but still we judge.

We fail to fear God and respect other people.

God comes to us among the powerless,

the orphan, the widow, the Crucified One,

pleading for justice.

So busy with what we want,  

we don’t hear what God wants.

But God keeps coming, keeps pleading for justice.

She does not shout, does not lift up her voice,  

but calmly, confidently, again and again she comes.

She will wear us out with her continual coming,

until we do justice. …”
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light, October 13, 2016)  

That brings us back to the beginning of the story, and the reason Luke
gives us for this parable of Jesus: “Then Jesus told them a parable about
their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Many times, I think, we focus on the ‘need to pray’ part of this
explanation, and we ignore the need ‘not to lose heart.’ Jesus was
teaching his disciples the same persistence he had learned from the
Father. Jesus knew what each disciple would have to face after he was
gone, and he wanted to be sure they were prepared for what was to
come. Luke uses these words of Jesus to remind his readers, decades
later, that they should also not lose heart as they wait for Christ to come
again. And he wrote them down so that other believers, centuries later,
would also be encouraged.

Certainly Luke spends a lot of ink describing the importance of prayer.
Jesus holds up this persistent widow as a model for effective prayer, but
he isn’t talking about mindlessly repeating the same prayers over and over
again. The persistence in prayer Jesus asks of us is a faithful pursuit of
God’s justice in the world.

Praying is simply pouring out our hearts to God, who will always be faithful
to hear us. It means trusting in God, and not in ourselves. It means
constantly hoping for the time when God will make things right, convinced
that God’s justice will prevail over evil.  Just as the widow kept coming to the judge, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds; so we are to keep praying, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds. Not because we are “good Christians” or because
our faith is strong, but because God’s Holy Spirit has given us the courage
to pray without ceasing in a broken and scary world, that God’s Kingdom
will come and God’s will shall be done. If we are to be found faithful when
the Son of Man comes, we must keep praying, and not lose heart.

And what is it that we should pray for? The widow gets it right. Our
prayers must be for justice. Not our petty desires or what we think we
need – for God already knows what we need before we ask, and many
times what God knows we need and what we think we need are not at all the same thing. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will
to be done. We must not lose heart or become weary with waiting for
Christ to come again to deliver us, once and for all, from the pain and
brokenness we see all around us. We must persist in hope, persist in
prayer, and persist in seeking justice until the Lord comes.

Christ’s coming is still in the future, but God’s patience is at work in the
present. The parable assures us that God will save his people. The concern
is not when this will happen, but its certainty, and the necessity for us to
live in readiness and faithfulness.
Will Jesus come again, as he promised? Absolutely. Will God bring justice
to the world? Without a doubt. Will we be faithful until that time, pursuing
justice and working for the Kingdom of God? May it be so!

Let us pray.

“… Persistent God,

help us listen to your cries in the poor,

to your whisperings in our hearts,

to the light in your silence.

We still our minds, cease our judging, and listen.

In our hearts, a river flowing, we listen.

In the unsaid billion prayers, we listen.

We keep praying and do not lose heart. “ (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

Help us to see injustice around us, and to work for the kind of justice that
only comes from you. We don’t ask for fairness, Lord, because sometimes
fairness isn’t just. We ask for your justice, which always includes mercy.
We ask for your justice, which always means sacrifice. We ask for your
justice, that your Kingdom might come and your will might be done here
on earth, even as it is in heaven. Make us instruments of your peace, and
advocates for those who seek justice in an unjust world. Amen.


The Good Confession – Sermon on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

October 2, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

We’ve been reading through Adam Hamilton’s book “Half Truths” on Wednesday night. Each chapter considers a common saying that sounds like it could come from the Bible – but it doesn’t. For example, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is often meant to encourage someone going through a difficult time. But the Bible verse most people associate with this saying is talking about temptation, not hardship.

In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” So, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is a half truth. It’s partly true, but the scripture verse is actually talking about withstanding temptation, not suffering through hardship.

There are a couple more copies of the book out on the table, and you are welcome to pick one up if you’d like to read the last couple of chapters with us.

I think Adam Hamilton could have added a chapter to his book, with a half truth that comes from the passage we are about to read today. You’ve probably heard “Money is the root of all evil” – and maybe you’ve even said it yourself. But in the first letter to Timothy, this isn’t exactly what we hear, if we listen carefully.

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 

It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:6-19)

We began this series four weeks ago, as we heard Jesus describe the high cost of discipleship. Jesus demands our complete commitment. You’re either all in, or you can’t call yourself a disciple. Our journey through the letters to Timothy has shown us that the call to discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s grace. It’s a call to prayer, and to sharing our stories of faith with each new generation, so we can remain faithful to right teaching.

Jesus did a lot of teaching about money, so it may be fitting that we close out this series with a look at what stewardship means to faithful followers of Christ, especially since our annual stewardship drive begins next week! But is this passage really about money? Or is that just another half truth? Let’s take a closer look.

If this passage of scripture were a sandwich, the “bread” would certainly be those verses about money. The top slice of bread includes that often-misquoted verse about the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Note that it isn’t money itself, but loving money that is the problem. Loving money is just another form of idolatry.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” we hear in the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27). Loving money instead of God and neighbor, or more than God and neighbor, gets us into all sorts of trouble. And that trouble affects everyone around us.

Like the pastor who left ministry because his church wouldn’t give him a raise when his family grew to include 5 kids. So he left the church. He went into business, and was pretty successful. But something shifted somewhere along the line, and getting more money became the most important thing in his life. He forged some checks, and spent fifteen years in prison. When he was finally released on parole, he was too ashamed to stay in contact with his children. Within five years, he was a homeless, unemployable alcoholic who died by suicide. Not only was his own life ruined by his desire for money, but his family suffered, his business associates suffered, and the church he left suffered. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

But thanks be to God, the letter to Timothy doesn’t end there! Having bitten into the bread of warning about loving money, we get to the meat of this passage: the Good Confession.

There are basically two kinds of confession found in the New Testament – confessions of sin, and confessions of faith. Confession of sin leads us to repentance and newness of life. Confessing our sin looks backward to what we have been and what we have done, and says “I’m sorry. I don’t want to live that way anymore. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Confession of faith looks forward to what God promises us in the person of Jesus Christ. It gives us something firm to grasp, as we live in new ways as children of God. What does this new life of discipleship look like?

“But as for you, man of God,” the letter to Timothy reads, “shun all this” – in other words, flee from pursuing material wealth. Instead, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (v 11).

Does this list sound familiar? Some of these attributes sound a lot like the list of spiritual gifts we find in Galatians 5:22-23 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

And it isn’t just Paul who writes about these things. In 2 Peter 1:5-7 we read, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”

These are attributes of a true disciple of Jesus Christ:


The letter continues:
Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

Make the good confession, just as you did when you were baptized. Just as Jesus did when he stood before Pilate on the night he was betrayed.

When Pilate asked him if he was a king, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. … my kingdom is from another place, … In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth” (John 18:36-37).

In Romans 10:9-10, Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.”

This is the good confession that Peter made when Jesus asked “But who do you say that I am?” Peter didn’t hesitate: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:15-16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20) There is no greater truth than this, that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This sums up the core of Christian teaching and belief.

God is the Living God, ever eternally always God – not like those idols of wealth and power that do not last – and Jesus is his only Son, who came to give us life. No wonder this letter breaks out into a hymn of praise!

“He … is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

This is the meat, the good confession, that Jesus is Lord.

Which brings us to the bottom slice of bread – the proper use of money, now that we have tasted the goodness of the Lord.

In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” He didn’t hold up poverty as a virtue, any more than Jesus did. Jesus went to the poor to offer them abundance, and Wesley advises us to use that abundance wisely – earning, saving, and giving as much as possible in faithful stewardship.

In another sermon (Sermon 92  “On Zeal,” point 5), Wesley lists character traits that are very similar to Paul’s list of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. He says that these traits lie close to the center of lives ruled by the love of God and neighbor. Wesley tells us that we develop these traits as we engage in acts of mercy and personal piety.

Dawn Chesser writes,Despite all he has written about the dangers of pursuing wealth (verses 9-10), Paul does not advise cutting the wealthy off from the congregation, nor in any way condemning them for their wealth. Not at all. Rather he advises that leaders guide the wealthy among them to “do good, be rich in good works, generous, ready to share” (verse 18, NRSV). In short, pursue the works of mercy, not neglecting the works of piety. Take time, intentionally, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit jails and prisons, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, make peace and resolve conflicts, and work for the common good. Works of mercy are for all a means of cultivating both personal spiritual growth and the greater good of the wider community.

Wealth is neither the reward nor the measure of a church for saving sinners. Love is. And so [followers of Jesus] are to invest themselves, their time, their energy, and their financial and physical resources in engaging the works of mercy by which the fruit of the Spirit becomes most fully known, exercised, and improved within and through us.”

“We pursue what we love, or want to love. Paul is clear. The love of money is completely inconsistent with saving sinners … To be consistent with saving sinners, [we] first must … actively pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (verse 11, NRSV).”[1]

Next week, we begin our stewardship campaign. You’ll be hearing from members of our congregation each week, as they share their own personal experiences of God’s activity in their lives. They will tell us how they have seen that activity bear fruits of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Following Jesus isn’t always about the money – in fact, it usually is not about the money. It’s about consistently making the good confession that Jesus is Lord, so that we may “take hold of the life that really is life.” Amen.



[1] Dawn Chesser , http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/nineteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016


A Holy Calling – Sermon on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

September 25, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

I don’t think I ever really knew what fear was until I became a mother. Suddenly becoming responsible for another human being’s life made me extremely aware of all the ways a tiny life could be put in danger. Parents want to protect our children – these amazing, beautiful, vulnerable little beings who are completely dependent on us – from anything that might hurt them. The responsibility for their safety and wellbeing can be overwhelming, especially when we see threats all around us in the world. Parenting can be a scary thing.

The Apostle Paul knew this feeling all too well, even though we have no evidence that he fathered any children of his own. Paul’s concern was for the spiritual safety and wellbeing of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ through his own ministry, and for the young churches they formed. He was worried about the possibility they might be led astray by false teaching, or become discouraged when their faith was tested. He fretted over their ability to withstand persecution. And so, to encourage these fledgling churches and their leaders, Paul wrote letters to them.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace
from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Timothy 1:1-14

It was customary in the first century for letters to begin with a standard greeting and prayer of gratitude and blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. This letter’s prayer of gratitude describes the faith history of Timothy’s own family: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, it dwells in you.

Do you remember a grandparent sharing faith with you when you were young? These days, because extended families are scattered and children may only see grandparents a few times each year, the church often helps fill the role of grandparent, sharing stories and examples of faith from generation to generation. This is why we make a point, during the baptism of every child, to ask the congregation

“Will you, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of that Church wherever they encounter it in the world, do your part, by word and deed with love and prayer, to guide and nurture these children, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and caring for them as Christ’s own?”

And the congregation answers with gusto every time, “With God’s help, we will.”

But the church, like a grandparent, only plays a supporting role in training up children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6) Parents are the first and best examples of faithful living, the first and best teachers of faith in children’s lives.

It’s in the home that children first learn how to say prayers at bedtime or before meals. It’s in those daily surprise conversations – you know, the ones that start with a deep theological question like, “Mommy, where does God sleep?” or “Why does God make mosquitoes?” – that children learn what their parents believe about God, the world God created, and their place in it. This is how we pass on faith from generation to generation.

The letter to Timothy goes on to explain why this is so important, as it lays out the key truth of this passage.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

In other words, because of the important role that Timothy’s mother and grandmother played in his growing faith, Timothy is to fan into flame the gift of faith that fuels his present ministry. “Paul’s reminder to Timothy to boldly cultivate and embrace his own current calling and ministry is because of, on account of, and rooted in the reality of Timothy’s initial exposure to the faith within the context of his family.”[1]

This is important for us, as well. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that it would be better to expect the “religious professionals” to take on the full responsibility of raising up children in the way they should go. Parents lost confidence in their own ability to share faith with their children. Better to let the seminary-trained pastor do that job, they thought.

And this has been a great loss, not only to the children, but to their parents. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to teach children that God loves them, or to show God’s love by the way we interact with our own families. You cannot measure the joy of watching your own child come to faith through daily prayers and conversations about Jesus, and reading scripture together as a family. The home is where the priesthood of all believers begins its ministry.

So, rekindle the gift of God that is in you, and take heart! Parents, you do not need to be afraid, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (v 7)

“To ‘rekindle the gift’ means to stir up the grace and faith and love that we have received, and we stir them up by putting them in to practice. … Our call is … to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved.” (J. Peter Holmes, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 137-138)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

We live in a world where some are ashamed of the gospel. It isn’t cool or hip to stand up for Jesus. This is where the faith that surrounds our children in the community of the church is so important. This is a place where it is safe, where standing up for Jesus is affirmed. This is the place where children learn how to tell the story of Jesus and learn to live into their own calling as followers of Christ. This is where we learn how to keep the promises made on our behalf at our baptism – to renounce sin, to believe in Jesus, to live our faith each day in ways that others see the light of Christ through us.

The letter continues, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Because we know whom we have believed and to whom we have committed everything, and we trust him to be faithful, we can continue to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. Following sound teaching and staying connected to the family of God, we guard the good deposit of faith that has been entrusted to us, and we teach our children how to do that, too.

We have each been called to a holy purpose, just as Paul and Timothy were. We have each been given a family of faith to help us remember key truths and avoid being drawn away into false doctrines. It is this family of faith that helps us guard the good deposit of faith we have been given.

And faith is a gift – we cannot manufacture it on our own, we cannot create faith by ourselves. We can only exercise the faith we’ve been given, to strengthen it and deepen it as it grows within us.

We each have been called with a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus. We each have been given the faith to answer that call. It is good to remember that, to reaffirm our call from time to time.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a prayer for use in services for the Renewal of the believer’s Covenant with God. Wesley didn’t claim to have written the prayer. He adapted it from other sources, and no one knows who actually wrote the first version of it.

Even though the words of the original covenant prayer are lost, they are thought to be reflected in the Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God which Wesley issued as a pamphlet in 1780. These directions were intended for services to be held regularly in the church, usually around the time of the New Year.

But what better time to renew our covenant with God than on a day when we have witnessed two families enter into that covenant on behalf of their children? So hear the words John Wesley used to introduce this Covenant Prayer back in 1755.

“…Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both… Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.” And so I invite you to join me, as we renew our covenant with God together.


I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3036

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Covenant_Prayer


Called to Pray – Sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Watch a video of this sermon here.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus describe the high cost of discipleship. We learned that Jesus demands our all – you can’t be a half-hearted follower of Jesus. You’re either all in, or you can’t call yourself a disciple. Last week, we began a four-week journey through the letters to Timothy to learn what following Jesus looks like in practical terms.  Timothy and his congregation at Ephesus faced the same questions we do today:

 How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him?

 How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God?
 How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

These are important questions, and Paul has some answers for us.
In chapter one, we saw how Paul’s personal encounter with Christ led him to see the call to discipleship as a call to gratitude for God’s mercy. This week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord. Over the next couple of weeks, we will take a look at our witness and our stewardship as parts of being  faithful followers of Jesus.

Whatever aspect of discipleship we focus on, it’s important to remember that no single piece of the puzzle will give us the whole picture of discipleship. It’s a good idea, then, to take a moment to zoom out before we zoom in on today’s passage, to see how these verses fit into the whole letter to young pastor Tim.

The letter begins by stating its primary purpose: “When I left Macedonia, I asked you to stay behind in Ephesus so that you could instruct certain individuals not to spread wrong teaching.” (1:3) So we know that there has been some “wrong teaching” going on in the Ephesus church, and this letter serves to remind Tim of the “right teaching” he is to offer. The letter goes on to express gratitude for Paul’s own salvation and calling, and for Timothy’s faithfulness, before getting down to the business of outlining the instruction that Timothy needs to pass on to his congregation. This is where today’s passage brings us.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all  —this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-7) 

“First of all, then,” … the instruction begins, but this isn’t going to be a point-by-point outline. Prayer isn’t something we do at the beginning and then check off the list. After all, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

“First and foremost” or “most importantly” might be another way of looking at this. Prayer is the most useful tool in our discipleship toolbox. A life of prayer sets us apart as followers of Jesus. “Matt” Matthews (Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 4, p 89) writes, “Prayer is not at the center of things… but it gets us there.”

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, …”(2:1)

Supplications – now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. But we do it all the time – at the grocery store, at the gas station, in the supper line on Wednesday nights. Supplication is simply asking for what you need. “May I please have more applesauce?” “Would you please give me a receipt?” That’s supplication.

Asking God for what you need is the most basic kind of prayer you can pray. It’s the kind of prayer Jesus encouraged in his Sermon on the Mount. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matt 6:8) “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11)

Intercession, on the other hand, is praying on behalf of another, asking God to give someone else what that person needs. These are the prayers we pray when we pray for the sick, the bereaved, or those who have a special need. These are the prayers we pray for our children and our parents.

We understand what it means to give thanks, and to give God praise in our prayers – though I sometimes think that these two forms of prayer don’t get as much “air time” as supplications and intercessions in my own prayer life. But these four types of prayer are not offered here as a formula to follow, so much as an accumulation of all types of prayer. Pray every way you can, all the time, – for everyone.

Pray for everyone, even (especially?) for your enemies, and for those who are not like you. Pray for everyone, especially leaders and “all who are in high positions.” Rulers need God’s mercy and guidance as much as anyone else. Pray for them, even if you disagree with their politics. Why? “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Prayer cultivates peaceful relationships, and godliness is a benchmark of doing God’s will. It’s a sign of true discipleship.

Prayer isn’t the main thing, but it gets us to the main thing – “there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind: Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Pray for everyone because God wants everyone to be saved and know truth. Here again, just as we heard in chapter one, we see that the central idea is Christ’s redemptive work in the world. The center of last week’s passage was: “this saying is reliable and worthy of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This week, we zoom in on the same central truth: “Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom for all” Not just for some, but for all.

We pray for everyone because Christ died for everyone. It is God’s deep desire to save everyone. Not everyone will accept this amazing gift, but God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In John’s gospel we read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that this list of ways to pray culminates in thanksgiving. John Wesley spoke of the “holiness of gratitude.” He said that “we who are grateful believe we have better than we deserve. Instead of taking things for granted, we see good things in life as gifts. Instead of assuming we are entitled, we assume grace underlies all we have. Gratitude gives thanks for mercy. Complaints focus on what we don’t have. Gratitude notices the good and is thankful. Gratitude sets us up for joy in life. Rather than merely consuming or existing, those who are grateful choose to embrace what life gives and enjoy life’s mercies.” (CEB notes on 1 Timothy 2:2)

So pray with gratitude because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for you. Do this as a response to God’s call on your life. Paul was called as an apostle and teacher to the Gentiles, and God calls each of us into some unique form of ministry that only we can perform for the kingdom of God. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, fully devoted to serving him.

How is God calling you to live out your faith? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that question, I invite you to make supplication – ask God for what you need, and in this case, what you need is to be and do what Christ calls you toward. And if that prospect seems to frightening for you, maybe you could start with some intercessions.

Who can you pray for? How can you ask God to bless them, heal them, be present with them, help their faith to grow to full maturity? Who do you struggle the most to get along with? Pray for that person. Who irritates you most? Who challenges your good will the most? See what prayer for that person might do for you and your relationship.

If praying for a specific individual is still more than you’re comfortable doing, try praying for our church. Right now, we are on the cusp of a great thing that God is about to do among us. One way I can tell this is so is that Satan has been busy, trying to divide us and raising doubt where faith should be strong.

But God is stronger than Satan, and God will work in us, and has been working among us. One place where this is most evident is our Wednesday Family Night program.

I had this message from our District Superintendent a few days ago. We were setting the date for a special charge conference, and he offered this additional comment:

“By the way when Mark Miller and I were looking at the data of which churches sustained an increase in worship attendance for the
past three consecutive years we found only 6 churches in all of Minnesota United Methodism. New Ulm First was one of them!!!! Great work. In 2015 you were 14 more AWA then you were in 2012! You may think that’s nothing, but when you compare it to a culture of huge decline, its leading us!!! And a huge sign of hope!”

Do you know where that Average Worship Attendance increase is showing up most? It’s on Wednesday night.

Another place where God is moving among us to do great things is in the work of the Healthy Church Initiative Implementation Team. Energy and joy are bubbling up in this group of dedicated servant leaders who are seeking God’s direction for our congregation. One of the goals is to create an environment for Pentecost to happen, and the team that is working on this goal has identified several prayer initiatives for us to adopt.

One of those prayer practices is to simply arrive at worship a few minutes early so you can pray for the worship service. It seems likeCa simple thing, and in a way it is, but the impact of God’s people praying for God’s presence to be made known to us in our worship can be powerful.

So let’s go back to those questions that are the same for us today as they were for Timothy and the church at Ephesus:

 How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him?

First of all, then, I pray. I ask God to let my life reflect his glory so that others will notice that I honor Christ. I pray for those I know who don’t know Jesus. I give God thanks for all the good that is in the world, and I praise God in my prayers, so that the praise on my lips fills my heart and spills out into my life.

 How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God?

First of all, then, I pray. I make supplication to God to use me for his purpose, to keep me grounded in faith, and to protect me from evil.

 How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

First of all, then, I pray for them. I lift up prayers of intercession for those who struggle with faith issues, with health issues, with job issues and financial issues. I pray for them, and they pray for me. I pray especially for members of the Body who have hurt or angered me. I pray for us to find unity in Christ Jesus.

In 1818, James Montgomery wrote a hymn about prayer. Of his more than four hundred hymns including Go to Dark Gethsemane and Angels from the Realms of Glory, he thought this one was his finest.

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;  

The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.  

The saints in prayer appear as one
In word, in deed, and mind,  

While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.  

No prayer is made by man alone
The Holy Spirit pleads, 

And Jesus, on th’eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.  

O Thou by Whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,

The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray

Let us pray.



Called to Receive Mercy – Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

September 11, 2016

The books of First and Second Timothy, and Titus are called “pastoral letters.” They were written to encourage young pastors of new churches in the first century. Each letter includes some teaching about doctrine, because there was a lot of controversy early on concerning what Christians should believe, and how they should live.

It was hard to make up rules for living, without falling into the trap of becoming all about the rules, and not about faith. That had been the problem in Jewish religious practice, and the early church wanted to avoid it.

They wanted to keep the main thing the main thing: faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen, and ascended into glory. Living out that faith in Jewish society was difficult enough, but living out that faith in a pagan society, like Ephesus, was even more challenging.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore discipleship through the letters to Timothy. As pastor of the church at Ephesus, Timothy and his congregation faced the same questions we do today. How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

  • This week, we take a look at Paul’s experience of being called into Christ’s service. We will see how discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s mercy.
  • Next week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord.
  • On the 25th, we will skip ahead to 2nd Timothy, to see how discipleship requires aligning ourselves with sound teaching,
  • and on World Communion Sunday, as we begin our Fall pledge campaign, we will consider how stewardship is an important part of discipleship.
  • But it’s all about how to follow Jesus, once we’ve received him as our Savior. And who better than a first century apostle, writing to the early church, to help us learn how to follow Jesus?

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

To fully understand this passage, we need to remember the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), and studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day in Jerusalem, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul joined the Pharisees, and was vigorous in his defense of Jewish traditions.

In his zeal, Saul persecuted the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On his way to Damascus, determined to arrest any who “belonged to the Way,” as the early church movement was called, he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that changed his life, and Christ called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1).[1]

Paul’s story gives us a dramatic example of what repentance looks like – turning away from sin, and going in a new direction as a follower of Jesus. We need to remember that Paul wasn’t turning away from one religion to follow a new one. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Paul’s conversion was within his understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. He repented of being a Pharisee, and began to live out his Jewish faith in God in a new way, as a disciple of Jesus.

Before this experience, Saul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). Afterward, Paul became someone who rejected violence, and also the impressive rhetoric prized by the culture of the day.

Instead, Paul sought Christ to empower his speaking and strengthen his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). Paul repented from persecuting Christians and turned toward leading them; from promoting violence, to peace.

Paul saw clearly that what had happened to him was not his own doing. It was by the grace of God that Jesus had appeared to him on the road, and called him to become someone new. The only right response, in the face of such undeserved mercy, is gratitude. And Paul pours out his thanks to God for this amazing gift of love, mercy, and faith.

Paul recognizes that he doesn’t deserve this gift. After all, he had been operating against God’s purposes when he persecuted the church. Paul says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” He knew who Jesus was, certainly. But he didn’t know Jesus personally. His ignorant unbelief was grounded in the assumption that he was acting in God’s will, when in fact, he was acting in opposition to God’s purpose. Yes, he thought he was serving God and taking a stand for what he believed to be right. But he was wrong.

How often we do this! We think we have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and we stand up to what we think is evil, when we are really opposing God – because we are acting out of our own assumptions instead of God’s mercy! Yet God’s grace overflowed in faith and love for Paul, and God’s grace overflows in faith and love for us, too.

If you analyze these few verses, you will find that there are really only two sentence subjects: Paul, and Jesus. It’s personal, and it’s relational, this mercy and grace that Paul has experienced. For Paul, experience is more important than doctrine. The reality of knowing Jesus is more important than anything you might believe about Jesus.

There’s a phrase that identifies the core teaching of this passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” It occurs throughout the pastoral letters, and it may have even been part of the developing liturgy of the early church. It identifies key elements of belief, things we can all agree are the important tenets of our faith. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul tells Timothy. This is the main thing that needs to always be the main thing.

Christ came to save sinners. The missio Dei – or mission of God – has always been clear: To seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), as we heard earlier in the gospel parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).

Last week, I mentioned that we can get stuck here, so eager to see sinners saved that we focus all our attention on conversion. But that’s God’s job. Our mission is also clear.

In the Great Commission Jesus says: “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It doesn’t say, “Go convince people to believe in me, and then leave them on their own to figure out how to follow me.”

Jesus came to save sinners, to redeem us for the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, and that salvation transforms us into something new, something that continues to grow deeper in faith as we follow Jesus by his grace and mercy. Jesus came to save sinners, who then become disciples, following him day by day, moment by moment, growing ever closer to him, becoming more and more like him.

Paul adds his own personal testimony to this statement of faith:
“—of whom I am the foremost.”
This is the gospel: Jesus came to save sinners – and I’m the worst one.

And that brings us right back to Mercy and Grace. It’s because I am the worst sinner on earth that I can experience this amazing grace, this abundant mercy and forgiveness. Verse 16 says, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

This is why God shows me mercy: so that I can be an example to anyone else who wants to come to Jesus, but thinks they aren’t worthy, or don’t qualify for such grace. None of us qualify. So all of us who have received God’s mercy can show others, “no matter how bad you think you are, if Jesus could forgive me, Jesus can forgive you.”

Just as Jesus called Paul to turn on the road to Damascus and begin a new life in Christ, he calls us to turn on our road to wherever we think we’re going, and follow him. This act of repentance has to happen over and over again, not because Jesus changes the path we are to follow, but because we keep wandering away from it. Just like Saul, we think we are doing the right thing, and in our stubbornness we fail to see that we are opposing God’s good purpose for us.

That’s why we have each other, to encourage one another along the road, to hold one another accountable for staying true to the way of Christ. Following Jesus is a relational endeavor.

God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. When we stray, lose our way, or even run from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. To answer the call to receive mercy, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else.

Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple. Receiving mercy requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And what can we say to such amazing grace, to such profound mercy?

Paul has an answer for this question. The only thing we can do is praise God for his goodness, and thank him for his mighty love. Our lives praise God. Our prayers and songs give God glory. And as we lift our voices and show our gratitude by the way we live, encouraging one another and helping each other stay true to the gospel, we become examples to those who would come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.”

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Christian Eberhart, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1768

walking behind the bishop2015-01-10 10.15.09

Counting the Cost – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

September 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

One of the first phrases I learned to speak when I lived in Germany was, “Wie viel kostet es?” “How much does it cost?” I had to know how much things were worth, to stay within the budget dictated by the cash in my hand whenever I went to the market. What we ate depended on its cost. If the cost was too high, we didn’t eat it!

I am not a “shopper.” I don’t enjoy looking at rows and rows of merchandise with an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude. It may be because whenever I see something I really like, it’s way outside my budget. I know I’m in trouble if the price tag isn’t visible, because: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”

In today’s passage, Jesus explains the cost of true discipleship to his followers. Jesus is on the move again. He has left the hospitality of the Pharisee’s table, and is headed once again toward Jerusalem. He knows that this will be his last journey, that the price tag on this trip is high, and it isn’t negotiable.

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)

Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him! Have you ever heard Jesus be so negative? Ten times in these few verses, he uses the word “not” – three of those are in the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has seen the crowds growing behind him, and he knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free lunch. Some of them are following only because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around Jesus and his disciples. So he turns to the crowd and tells them, “Unless you’re serious about following me, you might as well go home!”

But Jesus is not trying to get rid of followers. He just wants them – and us – to know what is involved in being a true disciple. We need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus, because the cost is high.

Specifically, Jesus says we must hate our families if we want to follow him. This was pretty strong stuff in a culture where family was everything, and loyalty to one’s family was the highest loyalty expected. So let’s take a look at that word, “hate,” to see what Jesus means.

First, we must realize that this kind of “hate” is not an emotion – it’s an attitude of perspective. Keep in mind that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it. So, the Greek word misew can be translated as “hate” but it also means disregard, be indifferent to, or to love one thing less than something else. In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples. Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you. Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”

Not only must we be willing to put Jesus ahead of all other priorities, he raises the price of discipleship even higher. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says. Keep in mind that, at this point in his ministry, his own cross wasn’t even on the horizon yet. His original listeners would not have been aware, as we are, of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion.

To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that would surely end in death. It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war. If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, to the point of death.

Jesus must have seen the faces around him turn somber as his words started to sink in. Whenever Jesus found that his words were too hard for people to hear, he turned to one of his favorite teaching strategies – telling parables.

“If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if you could afford it? You wouldn’t want to become a laughingstock because you failed to plan your project well! And if you were a king going into battle, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if your army was strong enough to defeat the enemy?”

But there are three things about these little parables we may miss if we read them too quickly. First, Jesus tells us that the process of building or going to battle starts with sitting down. Counting the cost requires some thoughtful pondering before any action can take place. In the same way, we can’t follow Jesus any old way it suits us. We have to carefully consider the commitment we are making.

Second, Jesus focuses on outcomes. Counting the cost indicates that there is some end in mind, some goal to be reached. You don’t start building a tower unless you plan to finish it. You don’t head into battle unless you think you can overcome the enemy. You don’t follow Jesus unless you want your life to be changed forever.

Finally, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available. No matter what accounting system you use, no matter what assets you think you have, when it comes to following Jesus, you don’t have enough to pay the cost on your own. Your resources are not sufficient. There is no price tag visible, so you can’t afford it.

But Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Not only do we need to count the cost, that cost is everything we hold valuable. We have to bid farewell to everything we call our own. We have to leave behind everything that matters most to us.

And when Jesus says you have to leave behind everything that matters to you, whether it is family, or good standing in the community, or the things you own, he means you have to leave it behind now, and keep leaving it behind. This isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done thing. It’s an ongoing, day-by-day, moment-by-moment surrender to God’s grace and mercy.

To be a disciple of Jesus you must know that the cost will be putting Jesus first, and everything else last. That starts the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus, and it does not stop. Ever. There is no 401K plan for being a Christian. You don’t retire from following Jesus, to live off the investment of your past discipleship. Every day starts anew. Every moment requires your full commitment. And if you aren’t willing to give your all, Jesus says, you cannot call yourself one of his followers.

All those lessons Jesus has been teaching us the past few weeks about hypocrisy, letting our fears get the best of us, placing a higher value on material wealth than spiritual wealth – it all boils down to this: go all in, or go home. We can’t hold anything back, if we want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Because there is no way to “sort of” take up your cross. There is no way to follow Jesus on your own terms, when it is convenient to you. You can’t follow Jesus for the way it makes you feel about yourself or the way others admire your piety. You must surrender everything to Christ, or you aren’t really a follower.

The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. Yes, Jesus asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority, but what price do we pay if we decide to not follow Jesus? What is the cost of refusing to be a true disciple? In his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard lists the things we lose if we don’t follow Jesus with our whole being. He writes:

“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.”

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth giving up abiding peace to live life on your own terms? Is it worth sacrificing a life penetrated by love to settle for having things the way you like them? Is it worth cutting yourself off from faith that trusts in God’s overarching plan for your good, in order to run your life the way you want to? Is it worth giving up hope, and the power to stand in the face of evil? Is it worth it to you to say “No” to God’s abundance, so you can skimp by on your own meager resources? Because that’s what it costs to not take up your cross.

Notice that I am not talking about salvation here. I am talking about discipleship. I grew up in a church that focused all its attention on getting people saved, but it failed to teach those new believers how to follow Jesus and make him Lord of their lives once they’d experienced that salvation. Jesus wants to do more for us than save us from our sins, as important as that is. Jesus wants to give us abundant life, to deepen our relationship with him as we grow in faith. Jesus wants us to be his true disciples.

When we say “yes” to following Jesus, when we surrender our will to his will, something amazing happens. Bit by bit, we are changed. Each time we keep saying “yes, Lord, I leave behind everything to follow you,” we are re-formed. We are transformed, becoming more and more like Christ. We experience abundant life, by God’s grace. And we discover that the cost of following Jesus, that we thought we couldn’t possibly afford, is worth it all. Because the price has already been paid out of God’s deep love for us, and when we give our all to Christ, we receive so much more!

As we come to this Table, prepared for all who desire to follow Jesus, he invites you to count the cost. Don’t come out of habit, or because you want others to see you doing the right thing. Don’t come to prove yourself righteous, because none of us is righteous on our own. When you come to this Table, come to offer yourself, body, mind and soul, to the One who died to save you, who rose again to redeem you, and who will come again to claim you as his own. When you come to this Table, having counted the cost, come as a true follower of Jesus Christ, ready to leave behind everything you ever thought was important, so that you can take up your cross and follow Him. Amen.

Vacating: Day Two

Rain drips from the pine trees into the lake. A mist hovers over the water, like the Spirit at Creation.

This is where healing begins, going back to the very beginning, when everything was new, before corruption began to eat away at the perfect balance.

Even now, the forest is greater than the houses that peek out from their clearings: tiny shelters against the elements that were designed to sustain us (before we broke everything and had to hide from perfection).

Even now, creation claims its rightful place in the Order established by Creator God. Only we struggle into and out of that Order. Only we fight against accepting our place in it.

Creation waits for us to figure it out, to realize that true rest and peace comes from submitting ourselves to the great design. For this is where healing begins: back at the beginning, as the rain drips from the pines into the lake, and the mist hovers over the water.