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Turn Around – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12

December 4, 2016 Advent 2A

What do you think of first when you hear the word “repentance”? What do you think it means to repent?

In today’s gospel lesson, you will hear about repenting three times. John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We usually think about repentance in terms of what we need to repent from – turning away from our sins. But turning away from sin begs the question: What does God call us to repent toward? As you listen to John the Baptist’s words, I invite you to focus your attention on what it is you need to turn toward when you repent. Continue reading

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Salvation Has Come to this House – sermon on Luke 19:1-10

October 30, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

Last week, we heard Jesus tell a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee. He told the story to some people who thought they were better than others, and in that story, the Really Bad Guy, the tax collector, goes home justified, while the Really Good Guy, the Pharisee, goes home no more righteous than he had been before he came to the Temple to pray.

Today’s story is about another tax collector, only this time Jesus isn’t setting up a hypothetical situation to teach a lesson. This time, the tax collector is a real person, a short man named Zacchaeus. But before we can hear this story, we have to know what has happened since last week. Because Jesus has been pretty busy in the last part of chapter 18. Continue reading

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When Righteousness Isn’t Enough – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

October 23, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Like last week’s parable, Luke introduces today’s story with an explanation. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?”

We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time (Luke 22:60), to alert these listeners to their foolishness.

So Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

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

Jesus describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about them to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required.

The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A Pharisee was a Really Good Person.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Person. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal.

But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung.

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects this awareness. He stands where he can be clearly seen by anyone who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a prayer of thanksgiving. His prayer sounds a lot like the psalm David used to rejoice when he was delivered from Saul.

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psalm 18:20-24)

But the Pharisee doesn’t just recite a psalm. He prays, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but he chooses Psalm 51, a prayer of repentance: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.”

Consider the language of these two prayers. Four times, the Pharisee uses the word
“I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. And everything the Pharisee says about himself is true. He has set himself apart from others by faithfully obeying the Law. He really is righteous (Luke 15:7), by the standards of first century Judaism.

So before we condemn the Pharisee for his pride, it might be a good idea to wonder if we’ve prayed prayers similar to his. How often might we have seen someone else down on their luck and said, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It’s too easy to judge the Pharisee as a prideful, self-righteous hypocrite.

The problem with limiting our understanding to such an obvious interpretation is that we end up sounding just like the Pharisee: “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: we aren’t like the hypocrites you find at other churches. We aren’t overly pious, or self righteous, or even like that Pharisee, making a big show of our religion. We show up every week, we listen to Scripture and pray, we sign up to bake pies and serve meals, and we know that we should always be humble.”

When we start sounding like the Pharisee, it might mean we are starting to think like the Pharisee. The Pharisee’s problem is that he thinks his righteousness is securely grounded in his own actions and attitudes. He has trusted in himself, in his own effort. He may be telling the truth about himself, but his prayer misses the truth about God.

In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. The Pharisee made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness.

The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer that cover nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other asked for God’s mercy.

The tax collector isn’t so much humble as desperate. He doesn’t take time to divide humanity into sides, to sort people into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” groups. All he recognizes as he prays is his own great need. He doesn’t stake his hopes on anything he has done or deserved, but entirely on the mercy of God.

This parable can be a trap. Whenever we try to divide people into any kind of groups, we find ourselves siding with the Pharisee. Whenever we take it upon ourselves to judge who is righteous and who is a sinner, as the Pharisee did, or we try to divide people into the proud and the humble, as Luke seems to do, we fall into the trap. “Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” … you will find God on the other side,” David Lose writes. This parable “is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart;” God who justifies the ungodly when they ask for nothing more than mercy.

The only way to avoid this parable’s trap is to remember, each time we try to interpret it, that we can claim nothing but our dependence on God’s mercy. When we forget about creating divisions, and we stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, can be justified through Jesus and invited into God’s mercy and grace.

At the end of the day, the Pharisee went home from the Temple the same way he came. He was righteous, in his own eyes and in the eyes of everyone who saw him. Nothing had changed.

But the tax collector experienced something different. Jesus says that when he left the Temple, he went home … justified. That word means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” How did this happen? The tax collector made no sacrifice, no offering of restitution. So how is it that he was the one who was justified? The tax collector was made right with God by his prayer for God’s mercy.

The prayer didn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. If the tax collector had kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

Dawn Chesser writes,
“We don’t pray because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more about loving God, and loving others the way we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.”

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of conversation about “change” in this congregation. The Healthy Church Initiative process that we voted to undertake back in April has raised lots of questions, and much of the concern that has been expressed in those questions centers around change. How will it work? What do I have to give up? What will I be asked to do differently than I’m used to doing it?

Some people embrace change easily. They thrive on being the first to adopt whatever is new. Just look at the people lined up at an Apple store whenever a new iPhone is released, or even the people who were lined up at the new ALDI when it opened here in New Ulm this week.

Others claim they don’t like change. They like things to stay predictable. They find a lot of comfort in the familiar. They wear the same hairstyle they’ve had for years. They listen to the same music that was popular when they were teenagers. They can tell what day of the week it is by what’s on the table for dinner that night. Meatloaf on Monday, Fish on Friday … you get the idea.

But Jesus doesn’t really give us a choice. If we want to be his disciples, we have to accept the fact that our lives will never be the same. If we hope to see our faith grow, we have to be willing to let Christ change us. A Christian isn’t someone who shows up on Sunday and prays good prayers like a Pharisee. A Christian is someone who has been transformed by the power of the Gospel, someone who has turned away from sin and has asked Jesus for mercy. A Christian is someone who keeps following Jesus, growing deeper in faith, becoming more and more like Christ. You can’t do that unless you are willing to let God change you.

And if we want to see our church grow, we have to be willing to let God change our church. We have to be willing to focus on God’s grace instead of our own accomplishments. We have to seek God’s desire for us instead of seeking for our own preferences to be satisfied. We have to remember that the mission of our church is to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Transformation means change.

One left the Temple the same way he had come – righteous in his own eyes. But sometimes righteousness isn’t enough. The one who went home justified was the one who had humbled himself, focused his attention on God’s grace, and asked for God’s mercy. May we do likewise. Amen.

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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
them,
“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.

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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:

Righteousness
Godliness
Faith
Love
Endurance
Gentleness

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

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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.

WESLEYAN COVENANT PRAYER

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.
Amen.

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

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

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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.