Intersections: Faith Meets Doubt – Sermon on Matthew 14:22-33

Second in a four-part series: Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life
August 13, 2017

Young adults and teenagers are good at asking some really important questions:

  • “Is God real?
  • Why are churches so messed up?
  • Why are so many Christians hypocrites?
  • Can I trust the Bible?
  • Is it wrong to doubt God?

Denying the power of these questions – or worse, ignoring them – simply feeds into the suspicion that our faith isn’t strong enough to handle doubt. But we don’t have to have all the answers. Admitting that we don’t is actually the first step toward establishing our credibility as faithful disciples.

Brad Griffin, of the Fuller Youth Institute, writes, “It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith—it’s silence. … It isn’t the goal of mature Christian adulthood to be “answer-people” or to have everything figured out. In fact, the more we lean into faith, the more we realize it is marked at every turn by mystery, unseeing, complexity, and paradox. As most of the biblical witness portrays, these features deepen our awe, wonder, and humility before God; not our certainty, arrogance, or pride.” 

Paul Tillich is often quoted as saying, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 2)

Both of these authors challenge a standard assumption many Christians hold; that faith and doubt have to be mutually exclusive. But when we look at scripture, we find that this just isn’t the case. In fact, we often see faith and doubt intersecting to bring people into a deep and trusting relationship with God. Continue reading

Intersections: Arguing with God – Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

First in a four-part series: Intersections – Where Faith Meets Life
August 6, 2017
(No video is available for this sermon)

This week has been a struggle for me. On Monday, a dear sister in the Lord died after a long battle with cancer. Cancer didn’t win, but Evie will be greatly missed, especially by the congregation of Bethlehem Covenant Church, where Evie worshiped and served in many ways. Then, two days later, an explosion rocked Minnehaha Academy, where both Evie and I had taught. Two more people died. Friday, a childhood friend of mine, who thought she had kicked cancer, learned that the disease has spread into her bones and her liver. She is putting her affairs in order.

While I know that God can use every circumstance for his purpose, even the painful circumstance of grief, I have to wonder what good can come out of the sorrow experienced by so many this week. Uncertainty clouds the future. What has been difficult for me, as I learned of one tragedy after another, is that I’m too far away from any of the people directly affected to do more than pray for them. Whatever comfort I can offer my friends seems thin and meaningless. I feel helpless. My prayers have often turned into arguments with God this week.

I’m not the first to fight with God. Throughout the Bible, we are given plenty of examples of struggling with the Almighty. Continue reading

Training for the Kingdom – Sermon on Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

Third in a three-part series: Parables – Stories that Read Us
July 30, 2017
(No video is available for this sermon.)

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

These are parables that read us. They teach God’s truth on many levels. How we hear them depends on the condition of our hearts. If we listen well, these stories change us. They define us as children of the kingdom of heaven. (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent, 332.)

Listening is a key component to receiving the parables of Jesus. You may have noticed that, for the past three weeks, we have not put the written words up on the screen for you to read along with the Gospel lesson. Jesus has not been saying, “those who have eyes, read along.” He says, “everyone who has ears, listen.”

In Matthew’s gospel, there is great significance placed on hearing the Word of the Lord. In this thirteenth chapter, Matthew uses the word “listen” fifteen times. “But he also uses the verb … “understand” six times. In Mark’s version of the parables, he asks us “Do you hear Jesus’ message?” But Matthew wants to know, “Do you really understand with your heart?”[1]

Klyne Snodgrass writes, “Real hearing is hearing that leads to obedience, and we should not forget that the Hebrew verb for hearing (shama) is often translated in English as ‘obey.’ Snodgrass goes on to explain that “There are at least eight levels of hearing represented by the verb shama: hearing sound, understanding a language, understanding the intent, recognizing, summoning, … paying attention, agreeing with or believing, and obeying.” (Snodgrass, 170 and also footnote 145) As we hear these parables, then, we need to be careful not to let them go “in one ear and out the other.” They need to go deep into our hearts, where they can work on us and change us.

The other thing we need to remember as we hear these parables, is that they are stories of the present kingdom of heaven. Even when Jesus explains some elements in terms of the end of the age, he is referring to a kingdom that is already among us, already here in the person of Jesus Christ. This kingdom is in the present tense. It is currently active in our world, and it is growing. The kingdom of heaven is like weeds, yeast, buried treasure, pearls, a net. These everyday objects describe how the future reality of God’s reign is already evident in the present kingdom.

So let’s take a look at the short parables Jesus puts before us in today’s passage. Continue reading

When Not to Pull Weeds – Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Second Sermon in a Three-Part Series: Parables – Stories that Read Us
July 23, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

[Jesus] put before them another parable:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

but while everybody was asleep,
an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.
So when the plants came up and bore grain,
then the weeds appeared as well.
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?’
He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’
The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’
But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.
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.'”

Then he left the crowds and went into the house.
And his disciples approached him, saying,
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”

He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;
the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom;
the weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sowed them is the devil;
the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.
Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,
and they will throw them into the furnace of fire,
where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.
Let anyone with ears listen! – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself, or you know someone who has. I hear it all the time, as people come here looking for help when they’ve reached the end of their rope. Imagine a young mother losing her job when she misses too much work because her kids were too sick to take to day care.

Without income, she can’t pay her bills, and is threatened with having her utilities shut off, or being evicted from her home. On top of that, the car breaks down, and she has no money for repairs. Without a car, she can’t look for a new job. One thing piles on top of another until she is overwhelmed with hardship. She feels victimized, as if the world is out to get her. “How can God let this happen?” she asks me. “What have I done to deserve this?”

Such a moment isn’t always the perfect moment to point out that actually, none of us are good, all of us deserve far worse than we get out of life. We are all broken sinners. And it isn’t usually a good time to go into a long explanation of theodicy, that fancy theological word for the question, “Why does God allow evil in the world?” People like this young mother don’t come to me looking for a judgmental sermon. They come looking for a glimmer of hope.

The people who gathered on that beach to hear Jesus tell them stories weren’t much different. They had experienced oppression from Rome. Even among their own people, they had watched the rich get richer while the poor got poorer. Life wasn’t fair. How could God allow his people to continue to suffer, while evil seemed to flourish around them? When would Messiah deliver them from this miserable existence, and bring judgment to Israel’s oppressors? Continue reading

It’s Not About the Dirt – Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

First in a Three Part Series: Parables – Stories That Read Us
July 16, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the
sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

… “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This week we begin a three part Sermon Series on the parables found in the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. We’re calling the series “Parables: Stories that Read Us.” This is more than a catchy title: it describes why Jesus used parables in the first place. Jesus gives this explanation:

“The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ … But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:13, 16-17)

In other words, the way we hear them tells us how receptive we really are to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus uses this first parable to set us up for the seven parables that will follow. They will be all about the Kingdom of God. This one is about the character of God, and how God reveals that character to those who recognize it. It’s a perfect example of a story that reads us. It shows how parables reflect back to us our ability to understand them.

Throughout this 13th chapter of Matthew, Jesus keeps saying, “those who have ears, let them hear; anyone with ears, listen!” In other words, these stories will find the ones who can understand them. As you listen to the story, it will “read” you, and identify which kind of recipient you are by the way you hear it. The depth of our understanding depends on our willingness to be changed by what we hear.

For example, you can take the story at face value: seeds get sown, and where they land determines how well they will grow.

Or, you can try to assign meaning to the parts of the parable, treating it strictly as an allegory. The Sower is God, the Word is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the soil is our hearts. Using this interpretation, and the explanation Jesus gives of this story, we might think the point is to do everything we can to become good soil.

But there’s a problem with this approach: we can’t change the kind of soil we are – only God can do that.

The bigger problem with this kind of interpretation is that it makes the story be about us, about the soil. But the story is not about you (be good dirt); the story is for you. This parable, like all scripture, is really about God and God’s extravagant generosity. So let’s focus on that for a moment.

God is the Sower, scattering seed liberally, even wastefully, everywhere. God sows. It’s what God does. It’s what God keeps on doing. God keeps throwing seeds, regardless of where the seed might land. God is love, and love is generous, lavish, abundant, eager to share what is good. God will not withhold the Word from anyone. God will not deny anyone access to the Good News.

God sows liberally, even wastefully. This parable tells of “a sower who is ridiculously generous with the amount of seed he scatters, throwing it not only on the good soil but on soil that even non-farmers … can recognize weren’t good bets: thorny soil, [rocks,] … and even a beaten path. I mean, what are the chances the seed is going to take root in that?” (David Lose)

God doesn’t use a computer-driven tractor to plot out perfectly spaced rows, carefully inserting each seed at the exact depth of carefully prepared soil for optimum germination. God scatters the Good News of the Kingdom of God liberally, even in places where it is not likely to grow or bear fruit.

God sows everywhere.

Whether on the path, on rocky soil, among thorns, or in the good dirt, the Good News cannot be contained. God does not discriminate between good soil and bad soil. God throws the seed of the Kingdom everywhere! It goes out into all the world, to transform any who will accept it. You see, seed can only become fruitful when it stops being a seed.

Seed must die to become a plant. It breaks open, just as God has broken into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. As it grows, it becomes something that is not a seed anymore – it becomes a plant that bears more seed!

The parables read us – where the seed lands, how we understand the Word and absorb it into our lives, how well our ears are tuned to listen to it, determine the extent to which it can change us, transforming us into fruitful plants that bear abundantly.

As we listen to the parables of Jesus over the next few weeks, how will they read us? How will our ears hear them? How will we be changed, as we find ourselves drawn into God’s story, as God invites us to become part of it? How willing are we to be transformed by that story, becoming something we have not been before?

Each Sunday, preachers cast the gospel as broadly as possible, with no guarantee where it will land. Preachers know that people come to church for all kinds of reasons.

  • Maybe you’re a newcomer, checking out this church as you look for a place to call your spiritual home.
  • Maybe you’ve come because you are experiencing a crisis in your life.
  • Maybe you come out of habit, or to see friends you hope will also be here.This is your social network.
  • And maybe you come because you are hungry for God’s Word; you areeager to bring your praise and your gifts to worship the Lord in the spirit of holiness.

    But every preacher knows that no matter how carefully crafted the sermon may be, no matter how much prayer and study have been poured into sharing the Word of the Lord, the chances of something taking root are no better than the sower’s.

    Yet that is what we all have been called to do. To sow the seed and to bear the heartache and frustration when it falls on rocky, weed-infested ground. And you’ve been there, friends! Each of you have experienced the hard truths of this parable on some level.

  • Every parent whose words of loving concern have fallen on a teenager’s deaf ears knows hard-packed ground.
  • Everyone who has operated a business with integrity, only to see clients go where prices are cheaper, understands shallow roots.
  • Every person who has been overwhelmed with worry, or caught in the trap of loving money has experienced the chokehold of thorny weeds.This parable reminds us that we are not alone in these struggles.

    The parable also reminds us where to keep our focus. As a church, we may be tempted to invest time, energy, and hope in trying to coax growth among people who don’t want to grow. We can waste precious effort despairing when the seeds we sow do not take root.

    The sower does not do that. He accepts the reality that a good chunk of seed will fall on bad soil. Yet the sower keeps sowing. Jesus keeps spreading the word, and he calls us to do the same. But Jesus calls us to something even more in this parable. He calls us to hope.

Jesus challenges us to believe in God’s abundance. See, the story could have ended with a normal harvest from good soil. As the Jewish song for Passover goes, “ Dayenu: that would have been enough.” But this story is filled with the promise of lavish abundance, even in the face of rejection and the hard realities of living in this world.

In her novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir, author Bebe Moore Campbell writes: “Some of us have that empty-barrel faith. Walking around expecting things to run out. Expecting that there isn’t enough air, enough water. Expecting that someone is going to do you wrong. The God I serve told me to expect the best, that there is enough for everybody” (quoted by Talitha Arnold, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 240).

David Lose writes, “God does not hold back. God is not worried about whether there will be enough seed or grace or love. God may want our hearts to be good soil but nevertheless hurls a ridiculous amount of seed even on dry, thorny, or beaten soil. Goodness, but you get the feeling this God would probably scatter seed-love-mercy-grace on a parking lot! Why, because there is enough!”

The story is not about the dirt. After all, if the sower didn’t scatter seed so generously, so extravagantly, would it really matter what kind of soil our hearts might be? The story is about God, and the way God breaks into our lives in the person of Jesus Christ, to change us, and offers us his extravagant love.

The story is about God’s abundant generosity, and God’s desire to draw us into the kind of transformation that bears abundantly more than a “normal” crop could possibly bear. Hear God’s love for you and be broken like the shell of a seed, to become something new, as part of God’s story. Let the Word of God grow in you, and produce an abundance in you! Let these parables read you, and change you. All who have ears, listen!

The Advantage of Grace – sermon on Romans 6:12-23

July 2, 2017

We’re looking at a Wesleyan understanding of Grace this month. Two weeks ago, you examined God’s prevenient grace. Before we knew we needed it, God showed us his grace. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8) Last week, you heard the first part of chapter six in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It was all about the grace God offers through Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross. We call this justifying grace – becoming dead to sin, and alive in Christ, puts us right with God. We are justified through our faith in Christ Jesus.

Today we look at another aspect of God’s grace: sanctification. Sanctifying grace sets us apart as holy to the Lord. It is through the ongoing process of sanctification that we become more and more like Christ.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:12-23

“Therefore,” Paul writes, and immediately we realize we need to jump back to last week’s passage to understand what Paul is about to say. Here’s how that passage ended, in verse eleven: “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Now verse 12 makes sense! Therefore, don’t let sin overpower you, because obedience to sin leads to death.

Sin isn’t a very popular topic in today’s churches. We don’t like to hear about the ways we fall short of God’s plan for us. We don’t want anyone reminding us that our self-centered pursuit of what pleases us is not always pleasing to God. And it’s really easy, when we start talking about sin, to point out the sins of others, as if they might be more terrible than our own mediocre sins.

But all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We are all guilty, in one way or another. We all need grace. And even after we have accepted Christ’s justifying grace, even after we have begun to walk in newness of life, we keep on needing grace.

Paul tells us that we need to keep on choosing grace as we seek to become more and more like Christ. Whatever we obey, that is what rules us. If we obey sin, it leads to death, but if we obey God, it leads to life. And this is not just-barely-getting-by life. Obedience to God brings us abundant freedom for all eternity, beginning now.

But doesn’t this freedom simply mean that we can go ahead and sin, knowing that God will forgive us? In fact, shouldn’t we sin more, so we can experience even greater levels of God’s grace? No, Paul says. You’re missing the point. The point isn’t personal freedom to do whatever we want.

Theologian Rudolph Bultmann writes, “Genuine freedom … withstands the clamor and pressure of momentary motivations.” Harold Masback adds, “Mere ‘freedom from’ this law or that obligation never leads to flourishing life unless it is linked with ‘freedom for’ a higher, heartfelt commitment.” (Feasting On the Word, Year A, Volume 3, 187.) The point of grace isn’t freedom. The point is sanctification.

Now there’s a word you don’t hear at the coffee shop during the week! That’s definitely a Sunday word, a great example of churchy language that we are supposed to avoid if we want to attract new people, people who might be put off by words that only the Christian insiders understand. But do we understand what sanctification means?

The biblical definition of sanctification is to be set apart for God’s glory. John Wesley used sanctification and perfection interchangeably. We don’t like that word, perfection, either. But Wesley wasn’t trying to set up an impossible standard for living.

For Wesley, “going on toward perfection” was a life-long process of Christian discipleship. Being perfected in grace means that we become more and more like Jesus, saying and doing the things that Jesus said and did, living our lives as he would live them if he were us. It’s a process of transformation.

One of the most frequent criticisms young adults offer the church is that we are hypocrites. We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk. We say we love Jesus, but we live our lives as if he didn’t exist (Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist).

Paul reminds us, “What advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death” (v 21). Walk the walk, Paul tells us. Live for Christ, now that you are dead to sin. Sanctification isn’t something that happens automatically; it’s a choice we make day by day, sometimes moment by moment.

Sanctification is what happens to us, by God’s grace, when we decide to center our lives on being disciples of Jesus Christ. It is that life of discipleship that sets us apart, and gives glory to God. And here’s the really wonderful thing: when we allow ourselves to be transformed in this way, we begin to transform the world around us.

At our recent Minnesota Annual Conference, Junius Dotson, General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries for the United Methodist Church, had this to say about the purpose of discipleship, or this process of sanctification:
“The point of discipleship is to influence the culture around us. We limit discipleship by segregating the secular from the sacred. We never take our faith public!
“The culture will have to live under the influence of Christ. In the world, [you] are each professionals who have been strategically positioned to reach new people and change their worldview, impacting the people around you. We don’t have to waste time in church meetings talking to death how to go beyond the church walls. We are already in every place in the community, in society.”

You have been strategically positioned to impact the people around you by the way you live out your faith, the way you ‘walk the walk.’ Think about that. How are you strategically placed to bring glory to God throughout the week?

It isn’t by our effort; we can’t strive for it. It is by God’s grace alone that we can be transformed. To what end? What’s the advantage of sanctifying grace? “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” The wages of sin is death – that’s what we earn, what is due to us right now. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord – we can’t earn it. God gives us this gift through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Yet we must choose, and the choice is always before us – Obedience to sin that results in death, or obedience to God that results in eternal life, fully transformed into the likeness of the one we follow, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who invites us to this Table now. …

 

Awakening to Love – Sermon on John 14:15-21

Aldersgate Sunday
May 21, 2017
View a video of this sermon here. 

We are drawing near to the end of this season of Easter. Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Ascension, and the week after that will be Pentecost, the birthday of the church. But today, it is still Easter, the season when we’ve been learning what it means to follow the risen Christ.

It is also Aldersgate Sunday, the day we remember how John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” as he suddenly felt sure of his own salvation. This event in his own spiritual journey led him to develop a way of discipleship that would become the United Methodist Church.

Throughout this Eastertide, we have been examining what discipleship looks like through the theme of Awakening. Thomas awakened us to the realization that doubt is a necessary element of real faith. The disciples on their way to Emmaus, maybe Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas, awakened in us the need to be together: to break bread together, to examine God’s Word together.

Jesus awakened us to recognize him as the Gate to salvation, and last week, we were awakened in the Upper Room to the realization that following Jesus means surrendering ourselves completely to him, just as he surrendered himself completely to the Father’s will, and for the Father’s glory.

Each of these awakenings has highlighted a different element of discipleship: Continue reading