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End of Story: Sheep and Goats – Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

We’ve finally made it. Today marks the end of the church year, when we celebrate the ultimate reign of Christ. This also means that we’ve come to the end of the year of Matthew in our cycle of scripture readings called the lectionary. And it means that in today’s passage, we hear the final words of Jesus’ final sermon on the end of the age. Like the three parables that have come before this closing statement, the parable of the sheep and the goats describes what will happen on the final Day of Judgment. So take a deep breath and get ready for what you are about to hear, because this is Christ’s last word on the subject, end of story.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

The thing that strikes me about this familiar parable is the element of surprise. Throughout this final sermon, Jesus has repeated the warning that the final judgment will come when we least expect it. When the Son of Man comes in glory, it will be a big surprise to everyone. Back in chapter 22, we heard of a wedding guest who is surprised to be thrown out of the party because he isn’t dressed correctly. The foolish bridesmaids at the beginning of chapter 25 were surprised that they had run out of oil, and they were further surprised to be shut out of the wedding feast when they arrived after the door had been closed. The third servant in last week’s story was surprised that his master had expected him to invest the talent he’d been given, instead of burying it for safe-keeping, as conventional wisdom would indicate.

And now, we see that both the sheep and the goats are surprised to learn they have encountered the Good Shepherd whenever they met “the least of these.” Whether they were caring for the needs of others or ignoring those needs, the surprise is the same: “Lord, when did we see you…?” they ask.

And I think the reason both sheep and goats show surprise is also the same: when responding out of our primary identity, it doesn’t occur to us that we are doing anything special or unusual. It isn’t that caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry makes you into a sheep instead of a goat. Caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry simply shows the world whether you already are a sheep … or a goat. The way you respond to ‘the least of these’ demonstrates where your true identity lies.

Because if your identity lies in yourself, or what you think makes you important in the world, you won’t see the needs around you as something that should matter to you. But when you identify with Jesus, you see Jesus in others, whether they are sick or poor or hungry or in prison – you see them as Jesus sees them, and you see Jesus in them. When meeting the Lord in the least instead of the greatest, the righteous will respond out of righteousness, and those who are not righteous … will not.

And that’s where the rub comes in this parable. Because, too often, we don’t see others as Christ. We don’t recognize Christ in the people we encounter every day. We don’t respond to each person in the same way we think we’d respond to Jesus if we met him on the street.

But what would happen if we recognized Christ in each of the people we encounter every day, and responded to each person knowing that he or she was Jesus? How differently would we behave toward the person who rings up our groceries, or hands us our lunch through the drive-up window? How would we react to that obnoxious co-worker, or the people who act like they are better than we are? How could we be changed if we knew that each unexpected meeting was really a chance to look into the eyes of Christ himself?

You see, just as he once came to earth in human form, Jesus will come again to rule as Christ the King. In the meantime, Christ comes among us as one of the least of these, asking for food, in need of shelter, calling our attention to the thirst for living water that we see all around us, if we will only look. And Jesus comes in a way that makes him accessible to us in our need.

Karoline Lewis writes,  “At the end of the day, to claim Christ as king, to believe in God’s reign, has to be a claim on our present, and not just the future glory of ‘thy kingdom come.’ … how we decide to live matters. Not just for ourselves. Not just for those immediately around us. But for the sake of … the reign of Christ here and now.”

So what is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats for us, in the here and now? Do we really need another story of division and separation in this time of growing polarization in our society? In a season when what we long to hear is a word of encouragement and hope, do we really need to be reminded about judgment?

Yes, we do.

In fact, I think Jesus tells these stories about judgment at the end of time in order to offer us some encouragement and hope. And not so we will think ’those people who don’t believe  like I do are gonna get what’s coming to them when Jesus separates the goats from us sheep!”

The Hebrew word often translated as “righteousness” in our Bible is rich in meaning. It means justice, or God-rightness. But what we too often forget is that God’s justice includes both judgment and mercy. And that’s a good thing for all of us.

Just as both groups of bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom, both the sheep and the goats failed to recognize Jesus in the people they encountered – the sick and hungry and naked and imprisoned. Neither those who cared or those who ignored the ‘least of these’ saw Jesus when they met him.

And that’s the point. Whether you recognize him or not, whether your lamp is lit or not, Jesus still comes. Jesus shows up for us. In the mundane, everyday interactions we have with others – and even in pandemic quarantine, we still interact with others everyday, if only in the way we think about them – even there, Jesus comes to us.

Remember that Jesus tells all these parables about the time when God’s reign will be fully established in the context of Holy Week. Within 48 hours, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet and tell them “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). But just before that happens, a couple of “Greeks” approach Philip and say, “Sir we would see Jesus” (John 12:21). John’s gospel never tells us if they get to have that face-to-face interview, but isn’t it interesting that they ask in the way they do? “We would see Jesus,” or “we want to see Jesus.” I have a feeling that if Jesus had been in earshot, he might have responded, “You would, would you? Well, just look around!”

When we were in the Holy Land, we met with Archbishop Elias Chacour in Galilee. He offered to answer any of our questions the time would allow, but first we had to answer his question: “What did you come to the Holy Land hoping to find?” He waited, and few offered some timid responses. He shook his head and said, “Did you come here looking for Jesus? He isn’t here! Didn’t you get the memo? He is risen! He goes before you, just as he said he would!”

The parable of the sheep and goats teaches us to stop looking for Jesus, stop wishing you could see him face-to-face, and start realizing you see Jesus in every single person you encounter.

Start seeing Jesus in the ones who annoy you because they won’t wear a mask properly in public, and the ones who annoy you because they keep telling you how to wear your mask.

Start seeing Jesus in…
the ones who need the food we put in the Blessing Box,
and the ones who wipe it out daily;
the ones who agree with your political opinions
and the ones who clearly do not;
the ones who are victims of crime,
and the ones who commit those crimes;
the oppressed and their oppressors;…
the ones who’ve hurt you, and the ones you’ve hurt.

Start seeing Jesus, because he’s there, waiting for you to recognize him, to receive him, to accept his forgiveness, to enter into his joy. And when that happens, when you start seeing Jesus in the least as well as the greatest, they won’t be ‘least’ or ‘great’ anymore. They will become part of us, one in Christ. And you may be surprised that, when you see Jesus in them, they will be able to see Jesus in you.

Christ the King A, November 22, 2020
Watch a video of this sermon here.


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End of Story: When ‘Good Enough’ Isn’t – Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

Watch a video of this sermon here.

We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.

The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle. Continue reading

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End of Story: Waiting in the Dark – Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

In 1961, my family moved into a house that was a model of modern innovation. The bedrooms had built-in desks with fluorescent light fixtures, and the closets had sliding doors. The kitchen was all-electric, and there were not only one, but two picture windows looking out over the golf course across the road. But the feature that set this house apart was not visible from the road, or even from inside that all-electric kitchen.

This house had its own bomb shelter, already equipped with blankets, flashlights, jugs of water, and food rations packed in barrels. It was the epitome of middle class preparedness for surviving a nuclear attack. Should anyone decide to “drop the bomb” on southeast Kansas, our family was ready for disaster. We were prepared. Continue reading

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Identity Marker 5: One in Purpose (Love) – Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46

When our younger son was living with us while attending college, I would often come home to find him sprawled in front of the television. Almost always, he would be shouting out responses to the game show, Jeopardy! He was pretty good at remembering the bits of trivia that were represented by various categories on the game board, and he was extremely good at remembering to always phrase his responses in the form of a question.

It’s easy to play Jeopardy! from the comfort of your own couch, where you can feel brilliant every time you get one right. The stakes aren’t very high if you miss one, and if you get too frustrated, you can always turn off the TV. Jeopardy!’s format puts questions in the form of answers, and answers must take the form of questions. It’s obviously a winning formula for a game show. That whole question-and-answer thing was something Jesus was pretty good at, too. Continue reading

Identity Markers Series

October, 2020

What identifies you as a follower of Jesus Christ? In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, and in Matthew’s gospel as well, we find a number of key attributes that tell others we belong to Jesus.

The first Sunday of October is traditionally known as World Communion Sunday. The words of consecration we use in the United Methodist Church further illustrate the unity of these attributes: “… one with Christ, one with each other, one in mission to all the world…”

Join me as we explore what it means to find our primary identity in Jesus Christ this month.

September 27, 2020
Identity Marker 1: Of the Same Mind (Philippians 2:1-13)
Humility in Obedience

October 4, 2020
Identity Marker 2: Pressing On (Philippians 3:4-16)
Surrender

October 11, 2020
Identity Marker 3: One with Each Other (Philippians 4:1-9)
Joy

October 18, 2020
Identity Marker 4: One With Christ (Matthew 22:15-22)
Belonging

October 25, 2020
Identity Marker 5: One in Purpose (Matthew 22:34-46)
Love

Identity Crisis: Turning Point – Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

August 30, 2020  – Pentecost + 13A

Note: this is the final sermon in the “Identity Crisis” series. The previous two weeks were preached by others, while I spent time with my family at my mother’s deathbed.  Watch this sermon on Vimeo.

We’ve been exploring the idea of an identity crisis in Matthew’s gospel these past few weeks. We’ve learned that the crisis isn’t just about how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. The crisis also stems from how we identify Christ at work in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to recognize Jesus, even when he stands right in front of us. Sometimes we doubt who he is, as Peter did when he tried to walk on water. But when we can name Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God – also as Peter did – we find our own identity as well.

Today’s passage from Matthew marks a turning point in the story. Continue reading

Identity Crisis: Nothing But – Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21

August 2, 2020
Pentecost A+9
Watch on Vimeo.

Many people operate out of a scarcity mindset – we are all too aware of what we don’t have. During the early weeks of the COVID shutdown, it was difficult to find toilet paper in the stores. Some of that difficulty was simply because most of the toilet paper being manufactured is for institutional use – office buildings, schools, hotels, for example. Suddenly, office buildings, schools, and hotels were empty. Everyone was at home, and the demand for Quilted Northern and Charmin Strong outstripped the availability of those products.

But there was something else going on, too. People were ‘stocking up’ on basic essentials like toilet paper because they were afraid. They were operating out of a mindset of scarcity, hoarding resources instead of sharing them.

The crowds following Jesus around Galilee were used to living a life of scarcity. Continue reading

Stories that Read Us – Matthew 13 Parables

This three-part series has been updated from 2017.

July 12, 2020 – “It’s Not About the Dirt” covers the parable of the Sower and its explanation in Matthew 13:1-9, 16-23. Watch on Vimeo.

July 19, 2020 – “When Not To Pull Weeds” addresses the parable of the Wheat and Tares in  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43. Watch on Vimeo.

July 26, 2020 – “Training for the Kingdom” pulls together the final “short” parables from Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 to conclude the series. Watch on Vimeo.

Prisoners of Hope – Sermon on Zechariah 9:9-12

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2020
Watch on Vimeo.

It’s been good to visit with a few of you this week, to learn what is on your heart as we begin the work of interim ministry together. You may remember a video that appeared on the church website a few months ago, where I explained the developmental tasks this congregation will need to address during this season.

Over the next several weeks, I will be explaining each of these tasks in greater detail, so that we can begin this important and urgent work with full understanding. The first task is to come to terms with your past. This might be the most difficult task of all, but the other steps of the process depend on getting this one right, so it’s a good place to begin. Continue reading

A Prophet’s Welcome – Sermon on Matthew 10:40-42

June 28, 2020 (Pentecost A +4)
Watch on Vimeo.

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)

We like to think we would welcome Jesus if he showed up on our doorstep, don’t we? We would recognize him immediately, and we’d usher him into our homes with joy. More than likely, we’d find some way to set out a meal for Jesus, knowing that good food usually makes for good conversation, and the gospels all tell us that Jesus liked to eat with people.

But what if Jesus showed up at your door when the larder was empty? What if the beds weren’t made and the place was a mess? What if there was no place for Jesus to sit, because every seat was piled high with newspapers, unfolded laundry – stuff… you get the idea. What if you hadn’t dusted or vacuumed in weeks, and there were dirty dishes in the sink? What would your welcome to the King of Kings look like then? Continue reading

A Sending Word – Sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:8 for Pentecost A+2

June 14, 2020
My final Sunday with First United Methodist Church, New Ulm, Minnesota

How do disciples become apostles? When does following turn into being sent?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched those first disciples of Jesus gather in fear after the crucifixion, be amazed at Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven, and receive the Great Commission to make disciples. We’ve seen them return to Jerusalem with joy, praising God, and we’ve looked on as they gathered once more in a room together, praying to receive what Jesus had promised them, power from on high. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blows them out into the city to share the Good News, and the church is born.

Somewhere in there, they’ve been transformed from frightened followers to bold announcers of the gospel. Somewhere in there, they’ve changed from apprentice craftsmen to master builders in God’s kingdom here on earth. Continue reading

But Some Doubted – sermon for Trinity Sunday on Matthew 28:16-20

June 7, 2020

It’s Trinity Sunday, so that means we hear the only verse in the Bible where Jesus refers to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Maybe instead of getting caught up in trying to explain the Trinity, we should call this Great Commission Sunday! I mean, last week was Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit arrived with a whoosh and with fire, and gave birth to the church. It makes sense that a week later, the church would get its marching orders.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

We often do focus on the Great Commission instead of the inter-relational mystery of the Triune God on Trinity Sunday. These are Jesus’ last words on earth, after all. And these words form the mission statement of the church: Go into all the world. Make disciples of all the people. Baptize all of them, and teach them all the things I’ve taught you. It’s a pretty inclusive commandment. Just because the church has struggled for centuries to actually fulfill the all-encompassing nature of this mission doesn’t mean we should ignore it.

Sometimes we focus on the “Go” part of Christ’s words. Get off your duff, get moving, get out there and introduce people to Jesus! You might be surprised to learn that “Go” isn’t the main verb in the Great Commission. Make disciples is the imperative Jesus uses. The going, baptizing, and teaching are all elements of disciple-making, but making disciples is the primary task Christ gives the church.

Making disciples does not mean coercing people or forcing them into ‘right belief’. It means engaging in God’s creative work, and that’s one of the reasons hearing the creation story makes sense for Trinity Sunday. Did you hear how the spirit – or the winds of God – hovered over the waters at creation? Did you notice how God says, “Let’s make humankind in our image?” God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.

This is what Jesus means when he says, “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer are one and the same being. He holds heavenly authority. But he also holds earthly authority.

See, authority has two aspects – we hear about this in an encounter Jesus has with a centurion in Matthew 8. Maybe you remember the story. The centurion comes to Jesus asking for help. His servant is sick, and he asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus offers to come to the centurion’s house, but the centurion says, “I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof, but just say the word and I know he will be well.”

And then the centurion explains why he thinks Jesus can heal the servant by simply speaking. he says, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)

The centurion understood that authority is handed down from a higher authority, but it is also ‘handed up’ from below. We give authority to those we choose to have over us. So when Jesus says, “all authority has been given to me in heaven and earth,” he’s talking about the authority that comes from his heavenly Father, but also the authority vested in him by us, his followers.

And I think heavenly and earthly authority is the key to the Great Commission’s power. Because it answers a question all of us ask, maybe every day: Whom can you trust?
Who will tell you the truth without spinning it?
Who will lead you in a way that is just and merciful at the same time?
Who will have your best interests at heart?
Who will stand for you when no one else will?
Who will keep you safe from harm, do you good; who will love you?
Whom can you trust?

If we go back to the beginning of this passage, Matthew gives us a really important piece of information we might have missed as we hurried over familiar words on our way to going, making, baptizing, and teaching new disciples. In verse 17, Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Some doubted, or maybe all doubted to some extent. The Greek isn’t really clear. Either way, worship and doubt are inextricably linked here. They worshiped. And at least some of them doubted. They weren’t sure if they could trust the one they were worshipping, but they worshiped anyway. And they doubted.

Why do you think Matthew puts that in there? Maybe he mentions the doubt as a way to encourage us when our own faith is too small to live out the gospel. We aren’t alone when it comes to doubt, when it comes to wondering whom we can trust. Even the closest followers of Jesus had their moments when they just weren’t sure.

But I also think Matthew is reminding us that doubt is an integral part of faith. Someone once said that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt or fear; it’s certainty. You see, when we are certain of something, we don’t really need faith. When we are sure in our own minds, we don’t really need to trust anyone else.

Doubt makes us vulnerable to grace. Doubt opens us up to the possibility that there is someone we can trust, and trusting in the face of our doubt is what faith really means. Trusting in the face of our doubt is what following Jesus really means. Helping others learn to trust Jesus in the face of their own doubt – that’s making disciples.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching
them to obey everything that I have commanded you,”
Jesus says.

Then he makes a promise, and it’s a promise reminding us how none of this is possible if we try to do it in our own strength. “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Jesus is with you. Making disciples of Jesus Christ is not something you do under your own authority; you do it under his. And he promises to be with you in every circumstance. Even in your doubt. When you aren’t sure where to place your trust, you can trust in Christ, who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, will be with you.

Death Stinks – Sermon on John 11:1-45 for Lent 5A

March 29, 2020

Death really stinks, doesn’t it? I can remember the first time I smelled that smell. A mouse – or some animal – had died in the wall of the apartment where I was living. After a few days the stench was unbearable. I called the landlord, and he just laughed at me. “It’ll go away in a while,” he said. “Just live with it.” Continue reading