Monthly Archives: August 2013

Getting Unbent – Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

August 25, 2013
An updated version of this sermon can be found here. 

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)

It was extraordinary, really. I mean, I didn’t even know Jesus was going to be teaching at the synagogue that week. I only wanted to come in from the heat, and hear the Word of the Lord. I waited until all the others were in their usual places before I slipped in at the back. I knew that some of the women would look down their noses at me, but I was past caring about what others thought of me.  I knew that some people were convinced I had committed some terrible sin, to have suffered for as long as I had.

Eighteen years. My back had been bent for eighteen long, painful years. At first, it was just a little hunching over, poor posture you would probably have called it. But the fact was I couldn’t straighten my back, no matter how hard I tried. And over the years, it had grown worse, until I was completely bent over, completely crippled. Oh, I could walk with a stick to lean on. But I could never stand up straight. I couldn’t look you in the eye, or see the stars at night. I couldn’t watch a hawk soar through the sky or admire a rainbow. Mostly, the only direction I could see was down. If I craned my neck, I could see what lay ahead of me in the street, but that took a lot of effort, and the pain was just unbearable. It was easier to stick to pathways I knew well, stay out of the way, and get by as best I could. I had resigned myself to being bent. I managed.

So on that Sabbath, when I slipped into the back of the synagogue, behind all the other women, I wasn’t expecting much more than rest in a cool place while I listened to the readings from the Law and the Prophets. When I heard a strange voice speaking, I tried to look up to see who was teaching. I knew it wasn’t one of our regular rabbis. It was some visiting teacher – someone who spoke with authority, but also with kindness in his voice. It was good teaching, too. I actually understood most of what he was saying, as he explained the scriptures in words that were simple, yet somehow profound at the same time. As this new teacher spoke, I felt – I don’t know how to describe it – peaceful isn’t really the right word, but there was peace in it. I know what it was.

I felt … loved.

The other women were whispering about him. I caught a name – Jesus of Nazareth – and I remembered hearing about this man. He was the one who had nearly started a riot when he taught in his own hometown synagogue a couple of years before. Everything had started out well, as he read the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[1]

When he had rolled up the scroll to teach, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But when the people asked him to give them some sign, he reminded them of the way God’s own people had rejected him, and how God had been merciful to people who were not even children of Abraham. This made the crowd angry, and they even tried to throw him off a cliff! Somehow, he got away. And now, here he was, teaching in our synagogue.

Suddenly, everything got quiet. Jesus had stood and was walking into the room, past all the men in front, through the women, and …. right to me. I was so embarrassed! Here I had tried so hard to slip in quietly so no one would notice me, and this stranger, this Jesus fellow, was calling out to me, making everyone look right at me.

 “Woman,” he said, “You are released from your sickness.” All at once, I felt the pain go away and my back loosen up. When I looked up, he was reaching out toward me, and the look on his face was so kind, so full of compassion. He wasn’t trying to embarrass me. He actually cared about me! Then he put his hands on my shoulders, and it was like a lightning bolt had struck. Such power in those hands! Such warmth and tenderness, too! My back straightened up for the first time in eighteen years, and I stood up! I stood straight up!

What else could I do? “Hallelujah!” I shouted. “Praise God! I have been set free by the power of the Almighty God! Praise the Lord!” The other women around me were astounded. A couple of them hurried over to help me, but I didn’t need any help! The room buzzed as we all began to realize what had just happened. This teacher, this Jesus, had healed me.

I didn’t ask him to do it. I wasn’t even hoping for healing. But he came to me, right where I was, and put his hands on me, and I stood up straight.  He touched me – something no one had ever done. They were all afraid that touching me would make them unclean, so – for eighteen years – people had been careful to stay away from me. No one wanted to risk being made unclean. But when Jesus touched me, it was as if he welcomed me back into life. He made it okay for others to touch me, too. He made me clean again, after eighteen years.

Of course, the ruler of the synagogue wasn’t too happy. He started yelling at the crowd, “There are six days in the week for work, come get healed on those days!” He didn’t yell at Jesus – that would have been rude, since he was probably the one who had invited Jesus to teach that day. But it seemed so silly for him to be ranting about when it was okay to be healed, as if such a miracle could be bothered with checking to see what day it was!

To be fair, it’s his job to make sure the Sabbath is kept holy. He’s the one responsible for making sure we all follow the rules, and if you start making exceptions for miracles, pretty soon you find yourself making exceptions for other things, and before you know it, the Sabbath isn’t set apart for rest anymore. But still…. no one had asked Jesus to work a miracle. He just did it.

I wonder if the synagogue ruler was more worried about losing his own position of importance. I mean, no one had ever seen him heal anyone! If this visiting rabbi Jesus was going to be a better teacher and go around healing people, it stood to reason people would start following him instead of the local rabbi, right? I wonder if he was a little jealous of Jesus. But he had to be careful not to show it, for that would be breaking the tenth commandment. So he lashed out at the crowd about the fourth commandment, instead of facing Jesus directly.

But Jesus knew his heart.

Even though the rabbi would not talk directly to Jesus, Jesus spoke directly to him. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Don’t each of you untie your donkey and lead it to water on the sabbath? Isn’t this woman worth more than a donkey? Shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

When Jesus called the rabbi a hypocrite, or “actor,” the crowd gasped. But, as I thought about it later, I began to see what he meant. The rabbi was worried about sticking to the letter of the law, but he really wasn’t concerned with fulfilling the spirit of the law. Sabbath rest is supposed to give us rest and refreshment, to renew life after a hard week of work. Healing a poor old woman’s bent back certainly does that.

Some people think my story is strange. Some people think I made it up. But I know what happened that day in the synagogue, and I’m standing here in front of you as living proof that my back is straight, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. I don’t know why Jesus decided to walk into a huddle of unimportant women and put his hands on my back, but I do know that I cannot stop giving thanks to God that he did. I will praise the Lord my whole life long, for he came to me and touched me. He released me from the pain and humiliation of my poor, stooped back, and set me free. Praise God! Hallelujah!

So, if you don’t mind my asking, what is Jesus calling out to you to do? How is Jesus calling you to stand up straight, to be released from your bound up spirit?

And what is your response to such grace?

You don’t even need to ask him – Jesus is already working among you. Jesus is calling out to you, inviting you into his presence, inviting you into his grace. Jesus is reaching out to touch each one here, to heal you and to include you in his love.

How will you respond? Will you keep acting out your traditions and rules, like the synagogue leader? Or will you stand up and join me in heartfelt praise?

Are you willing to applaud the One who made you? Will you sing and pray and give thanks with joyful abandon? Will you bow the knees of your heart and humbly adore the God who reigns over heaven and earth? Will you live a life that oozes joy out of every pore of your being, a life that makes others turn and say, “That one is a child of God!”

For Jesus is walking toward you, reaching out to touch you, ready to heal you of your brokenness, to restore you to wholeness, to claim you as his own.

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

[1] Luke 4:16-21

How’s the Weather? – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

“It’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon,” Garrison Keillor likes to say.  There have been meetings and e-mails, phone calls and road trips, people to meet, places to go, and things to do.  We’ve cooked meals, done laundry, had maintenance done, and fixed things that were broken.  On top of all that, some of us have prepared and taught lessons, or served in a multitude of other ways for Vacation Bible School.  We’ve attended funerals and weddings, bought groceries, fed the dog, and picked flowers.  Business as usual, right?  The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.

And in the middle of our long list of tasks to complete, Jesus shows up and calls us nasty names.  Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us in shrill frustration at our blindness, our foolishness.  You think I’m making this up?  If a preacher were looking for trouble in a preaching text, this one has plenty.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, twelfth chapter, beginning at verse 49.

Jesus said to his disciples:

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.  55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  56 You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? – Luke 12:49-56

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Not a very cheerful passage, is it?  Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem.  As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him.  There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule.  They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength.  They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David.  They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed.  Not that kind of king.

It must have been very frustrating for Jesus.  Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it.  Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations.  Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus breaks out of his mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, and starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?

Jesus, who only recently was rebuking James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them[1], suddenly declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself.  (Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?)”

There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes.  James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire.  He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.

And that time is very near.  Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified.  There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.  The baptism Jesus is about to undergo is a flood of anguish, as he takes on the sins of the entire world.

The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor.  This is not the sweet baby Jesus for whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to all” back in Luke 2.  No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace.  His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.  On the other hand, Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote.  Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world.  The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission.  That mission is to redeem a broken world.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites?  We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity.  But here Jesus turns the dial a notch.  It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without complete unity.  He is not satisfied with half measures.

But maybe the confusion and tension of Jesus’ teachings here cannot, and should not, be resolved.  If we look at this passage in light of the whole gospel story, perhaps we find it may describe rather than prescribe division among us.  That is, it is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parent or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes brought about by Christ’s work.

Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations?  Jesus is not saying that it is his intent to separate family members from one another, but that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, vocation, allegiance, and status.  Instead, they will be determined by whether or not that person accepts or denies Jesus as Lord.  What ties believers together is not the covenant of ancestry, but the covenant of blood, poured out for those who find fellowship in the family of God.

The harsh sayings and indictments resounding in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed.  Such social realities and values often end up favoring those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless. The radical purposes of God have completely demolished the status quo.  Jesus shatters it with his mission of compassion, mercy, and justice.  Staking our claim with Jesus will inevitably separate us from those who deny his Lordship.  Coming alongside Jesus in his mission will most certainly divide us from those who fear giving up their positions of power in order to bring peace and justice to others.  God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome.

A watershed determines which direction water will flow.  The hills and ridges between two rivers set the boundaries between the two watershed areas.  The weather on one side of the ridge can be quite different from the weather in the neighboring watershed.  Some of you may have experienced this, since New Ulm has one of those ridges running through it, between the Cottonwood and the Minnesota Rivers.  I can remember driving from southeast Kansas to Kansas City when I was younger, and about the time we hit Fort Scott, Kansas, the weather would always change.  It would suddenly be colder, or hotter, or it would start raining, or the sun would come out.  We had climbed to the top of a ridge between two watersheds, and that dividing line made all the difference in what the weather would be.

We are quite interested in predicting the weather, aren’t we?  Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly.  The people crowding around Jesus were no different.  They could tell if it was going to rain by noticing the smallest cloud in the west.  And if the wind was out of the south, coming off the desert, it was going to be a scorcher.

Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near.  In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah.  Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.  We are faced with the ridge, the dividing line, between two watersheds.  On one side of the hill, the water runs toward destruction and ruin.  On the other side of the hill, the water runs toward the new age of Christ’s reign on earth.  If we can read the weather cues on either side of the dividing line, why can’t we tell what time it is?

The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so.  It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root words of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refer to an actor, or interpreter.  Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs.  This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup.  It is hypocrisy.

So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm?  What time is it getting to be?  What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion?  How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be?  As I get to know you and the city of New Ulm a little better each week, I am discovering some of the things that we tend to ignore.  Maybe we think the problem is too big, like making sure there is enough affordable housing available.  Maybe we think the problem has been around so long, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Division among institutions such as churches and their associated education systems is just easier to work around than it is to try to change.  Within our own congregation, there has been, at one time or another, division about worship styles, how to do children’s ministry, youth programming, discipleship.   While these issues may seem to have been resolved, there may still be scars and even unhealed hurts that remain.  On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine.  But are we really paying attention to what time it is?

Sometimes, the presenting issue that divides us is not the real issue.

I suggested once that it might work better for the organist at a former church if the piano were on the same side of the sanctuary as the organ console, much as we have here at First UMC.  A flurry of opposition arose, and the senior pastor heard many complaints about the possibility of ruining the beauty and symmetry of the sanctuary.  But it wasn’t the piano that was the real issue.  When we said, “fine, leave the piano where it is.  Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you,” we learned that the real issue was confusion about a new contemporary service, being introduced at about that same time.  There was division, but it wasn’t about the piano.

Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock.  What time is it?  The same time it was 2000 years ago.  Time to wake up.  Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees.  Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living.  It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and see how far it is from what Jesus asks of us.  It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting.  In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation![2]”  It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ.  The time is now.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.

[1] Luke 9:51-56

[2] 2 Corinthians 6:2

Be Prepared – Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

Another sermon on this text can be found here. It’s focus is on the first verse of the passage: “Have no fear, little flock …”

Last week, we considered what it means to be “rich toward God” and this Sunday’s text picks up almost where we left off.  As we join the disciples in trying to figure out how to be rich toward God, Jesus continues to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, and how different that Kingdom is from anything we might imagine.  Jesus must have noticed some looks of concern around him as the disciples tried to grasp this up-ended view of how the world should be.  He addressed this concern with assurances that we each matter to God, so we can stop worrying about our basic needs, because God will provide for us.  If he feeds the birds and clothes the flowers of the field, God can be depended on to care for every detail of our lives, because God loves us so very, very much.  Let’s join Jesus and his disciples again, as they travel toward Jerusalem, and the story continues.

Hear the Word of the Lord.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Luke 12:32-40

This passage offers us three things to consider, as we continue to learn how to be rich toward God.  First, do not be afraid.  Second, store up heavenly treasure, and third, be ready for the Kingdom of God.  I have to tell you that this might be the first time I’ve ever preached a standard, three-point sermon, and on the surface, it may seem that these three points have very little to do with one another.  In reality, they are closely connected.  Let’s figure out how.

We heard the opening phrase, “Do not be afraid” earlier this morning, in the reading from Genesis 15.  When God spoke to Abram, his very first words were, “Be not afraid, Abram.”  Just like Mary, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, Abram probably was shocked when God spoke to him.  Just like Mary, Abram accepted the Word of the Lord on faith, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”[1]

The Greek verb phobeomai gives us the root for our word “phobia” and it means “fear” or “be afraid.” But me phobou means a bit more than “Fear not,” or even “be not afraid.”  A better translation might be: “Stop being afraid,” or “fear no more.”  We aren’t talking about hypothetical fear that might occur sometime down the road here.  This isn’t even a warning against becoming afraid.  The angel Gabriel didn’t say, “Heads up, Mary, I don’t want to startle you, but I’ve got a Word from God for you.”  We are talking about real fear that is already present, fear that has been with us for some time already, fear that won’t let go of us.  And Jesus says, “Stop it.  Stop being afraid.”

What are we afraid of?

Despite Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inspiring words, we’re pretty sure we have more to fear than fear itself, right?  We fear what we can’t see, what we don’t know.  We fear losing control of our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to someone else.  We fear getting hurt.  We fear what others might think of us.  We fear shame.

We may try to escape our fear by ignoring it, or by building elaborate fantasies to hide from it.  We may even try to escape our fear by “drowning our sorrows” or “getting high.”  We may try to stockpile comfort to offset our fear.  Maybe we overeat.  Maybe we seek attention, even if it’s negative attention.  Have you ever heard of “the law of the soggy potato chip?”  Back in the late 70s, Psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson wrote a parenting book called, How to Discipline With Love (1977).  His premise for the Law of the Soggy Potato Chip was that children would rather have negative attention than no attention at all, just as children would rather have a soggy potato chip than no potato chip at all.  But potato chips won’t get it, no matter how crisp they are.  None of these things will take away our fear.

Yet Jesus says, “Stop being afraid.”  Just stop it.

Fear motivated the rich farmer from last week to stockpile all his goods.  He was willing to tear down all his barns right before harvest, in order to build bigger barns to keep all his stuff for himself, remember? It’s easy to call him a fool, since Jesus did, but are we any better?

Bruce and I have been “purging” our belongings as we prepare to move to New Ulm from the house where we’ve lived for fifteen years.  At first, we carefully selected items that we thought might have value to someone else, and we sold many of them on eBay and Craigslist.  This weekend, we held a garage sale to get rid of even more things.  We have noticed that it gets easier and easier to let go of stuff, the closer we get to moving day.  We wonder why we didn’t do this sooner.  And we wonder how we managed to accumulate so much stuff in the first place.  Are we afraid we might need something and not be able to get it when we need it?

Yet Jesus says, “Your Father in Heaven knows what you need.”
And Jesus also says:

Store up treasure in heaven

Get rid of your fear

Get rid of your need to be in control

Get rid of your stuff

Instead, deposit your treasure into the bank of the Holy Spirit

Remember what Paul wrote to the Galatians?  “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”[2]

In ancient Rome, gifts were given to create a sense of obligation for repayment.  It was the way one climbed the social ladder – making sure others were in your debt and owed you favors.  But in Kingdom Economy, God lavishly gives away his entire Kingdom to us, and when we, in turn, give without expecting anything in return, we participate in that Kingdom and receive even more from God.  More love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more faithfulness, more self-control, more, more, more.

More … treasure.

Your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which he has already decided it is his pleasure to give you.  What stands at the core of this Good News is not the fear of shame, but God’s amazingly tender concern for us, his own little flock.  This is an invitation to trust that our future rests in the gracious promises and presence of God.  The Gospel invites us to put first things first.  The Gospel says, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”[3]

Because it was God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom in the first place.

This is the same good pleasure (or “delightful decision”) that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[4]  It is the same good pleasure God announced at Jesus’ baptism when he said, “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.”[5] And this good pleasure, or “delightful decision” has already happened.  God has already given us the Kingdom through his Son, Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom of God is not just eternal life in the sweet by and by; the Kingdom of God’s active and current reign over heaven has begun on earth through Jesus’ ministry, and continues to the present time.  It is here, now.

God has already given us the Kingdom. We respond by carrying out the values and standards of that Kingdom, which include getting rid of possessions, giving to the poor, and making purses that contain ultimate, inexhaustible, heavenly treasure.

Instead of getting rich by accumulating human treasure, our hearts are set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.

Since God, in his own good pleasure, has already given us the Kingdom, we are called to be prepared for its fulfillment when Christ comes again.  While Jesus is certainly talking about the end of time, when he will come again in glory to reign over a new heaven and a new earth, we should not be distracted by attempts to pinpoint the day and the hour this will happen.  We should also not be lulled into passively twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return.

Luke offers the certainty that Christ will come again, and the uncertainty of when that will be.  This certain uncertainty focuses on the point of this passage: instead of twiddling our thumbs – or, at the other extreme, living wildly – because the end is near, we need to be faithful and alert.

Stop being afraid.  Invest in the heavenly treasure of God’s kingdom, and be ready for Christ to return.

“Being ready for Jesus’ coming is less about any actual time and place and more about imagining Jesus’ activity in the world, when and where you least expect it or imagine seeing it.  In other words, waiting around, waiting for instructions is not going to cut it.  Being without fear, knowing the sources of your treasure – that is, your identity, your worth as a child of God – makes it possible to be prepared for full participation in God’s Kingdom.” In this passage, the focus is not so much on the end times as on the end ways.  The consistent message throughout the passage is not  “be ready so that you will avoid punishment,” but rather, “be ready so that you will receive blessing.”

It is like keeping your house staged like a picture out of Better Homes and Gardens, because you never know when the realtor is going to want to show your home to a prospective buyer.  This kind of “being prepared” is less about being on high alert 24/7, and more about focusing on the things of God, while developing our peripheral vision in anticipation of being happily surprised when the time comes.

Have you ever seen the kitchen of a really excellent restaurant?  Every tool, every ingredient, is within easy reach of the chef who prepares the food.  Everything has a place, and there is a place for everything.  What you may not notice is the army of prep cooks, dishwashers, and other staff who make sure that every tool, every ingredient is within the chef’s reach. Meals leave the kitchen with elegant precision because the kitchen is prepared to anticipate every guest’s order.  The room hums with activity.  Maybe you’ve seen the joke “Jesus is coming back soon. Look busy.”  Looking busy isn’t enough.  Our waiting is an active participation in the Kingdom.

Remember how Luke likes to flip the tables of our expectations?  He gives us one more image in this story to do this again in the short parable about the master returning from the wedding banquet.  To understand this parable, we need to know what it means when the master “Fastens his belt.”  Older translations called this  “girding the loins.”  This quaint term simply means to gather up your robe, your garment, and tuck it into your belt so you can run, or do physical labor.

According to first-century wedding customs, the bridegroom would go out to meet his bride and return with her to his own home.  His servants would be properly attired, ready to serve, and their lights burning as they waited eagerly for him to bring his bride back to his home.  But when he arrives, what does the master do?  He girds up his own loins, and serves his servants!

Look at the image of Jesus in our window here above the chancel.  Is he looking at you with love and compassion?  As you look on this image, has it ever occurred to you that you might be viewing the reverse side of it?  That maybe the direction of Jesus’ gaze is outward, over the city of New Ulm, as much as it is inward, looking down on us gathered here in this sanctuary?  The light shines through the glass in both directions.  Are we being bright enough in here to let Christ be seen out there?

Stop being afraid.

Know that your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which in his own good pleasure God has already given to you.

Be prepared for his coming, with all the spiritual tools and ingredients you need within easy reach, and your garment tucked up into your belt so you are ready to work.  Then look out the window and see who Jesus sees.  Be prepared. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

[1] Genesis 15:6

[2] Galatians 5:22-23

[3] Matthew 6:33

[4] Luke 2:14

[5] Luke 3:22

Getting rid of all the things

The good news: we sold our house, just in the nick of time to go forward with the purchase of our new house. The bad news: we have two weeks to get everything packed and ready to move. And I have limited time to be present in this process, because my new ministry is two hours away from this house that needs to be … purged.garagesalesign

I tried to find a better word, because purge always brings eating disorders to my mind, and this process – unlike eating disorders – is a healthy one. It’s a chance to clear out all the stuff that no longer has a place in our lives, the clutter that has accumulated over the years, the things that get in our way and distract our thinking.

Clutter makes me uneasy, guilty that I’m not doing something about it but not guilty enough to clear it out of my life. When I have no choice but to dig in and “get rid of all the things,” I’m always surprised by the sense of calm that comes with an uncluttered home. The nagging guilt goes away, and I can sit in peace, enjoying the space that is now empty and clean.

But beware the warning Jesus gave about the demons coming back (Matthew 12:43-45). Cleaning out the clutter is not enough; that empty space needs to be claimed before it becomes seven times more cluttered than it was before. Once the house is clean, the boxes labeled, and the moving truck is pulling away, it’s time to hand over the keys to the new owner.

sold house keysPurging a house of accumulated things is similar to the purging of our souls as we prepare for God to move in us. Handing over the keys (the control) of our lives to Jesus, we need to really let him take over ownership of all that we are.  Releasing our lives into God’s control ensures that the cleared spaces stay open, giving room to the Holy Spirit to work in us, transforming us into the people we were always meant to be.

Rich Toward God – Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

This was the first sermon I preached at First UMC New Ulm, on August 4, 2013, as I began my first appointment to full-time ministry. To find an updated (and possibly improved) version of this message for August 4, 2019, click here. 

In today’s passage from the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus in the middle of a long journey.  The trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem only takes about three days to walk, but Luke spends nearly ten chapters getting Jesus and his disciples from point A to point B, as they travel to the place where Jesus will ultimately die for the sins of the world.

This has not been a speedy trip, by any means.  Jesus has been stopping along the way to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God.  Because the locals also gathered to hear what Jesus had to say, many of his teachings have taken the form of parables.  These short stories featured familiar, everyday characters and common events that cut right to the heart of what Jesus wanted his disciples to learn.  Over and over again, throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus told stories like these to point out that the Kingdom of God is not what we humans might expect.

The Kingdom of God flips our understanding of power upside down, and our values right side up.  You heard this reversal a couple of weeks ago, in the story of Martha and her sister Mary.  You even heard it last week, when the theme of worship was “change.”  Now, Jesus is about to challenge some commonly accepted ideas concerning wealth and greed.  But this lesson is not a “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” kind of lesson.  Jesus is more concerned with attitudes of the heart than the difference between tithes and taxes.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, beginning in verse 13.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  – Luke 12:13-21

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

A wise pastor once told me, “Interruptions are where true ministry begins.”  He went on to explain that it is in the interruptions to our daily routine that God breaks in with reminders that we are here to do the work of the Kingdom, and that work is far more important than ticking things of our “to do” lists.

So here is Jesus, in the middle of his daily routine of teaching, interrupted by someone who has apparently not even been listening to what Jesus has been saying.  Jesus has been instructing his disciples on the need for faithfulness in situations of persecution[1] when he is abruptly interrupted by this person from the crowd, who demands assistance.

How rude, right?

To be fair, it would not have been unusual for someone who needed to resolve a legal matter to appeal to a local rabbi for help.  Law and religion were so closely intertwined, that there was barely any distinction between a judge and a teacher.  If this was a young man whose older brother had refused to share the father’s inheritance, he might have seen Jesus as one who would have the legal authority to resolve the dispute.  On the other hand, it may be that this young man was behaving selfishly, rebelling against an older brother who was trying to keep the family together by keeping the property together.  We don’t know.  But Jesus saw straight into this young man’s heart, and knew immediately that the man’s legal concern was not the real problem. The real problem was greed.

I’m sure the young man was surprised when Jesus refused to help him. Wasn’t this the same guy who had worked miracles everywhere he went?  If he could make blind people see and crippled people walk, didn’t he have the authority to do a simple thing like force an older brother to do what the law said he should do with their father’s property?  And what did all this talk about greed have to do with fairness?  Instead of helping, Jesus was giving this young man the brush off!  How rude, right?

The misuse of wealth was actually a major topic of discussion in first century Palestine, and almost every chapter of Luke’s Gospel has some reference to money and material resources.[2]  The tenth Commandment – thou shalt not covet – was familiar to everyone.  Greed is nothing more than a desire to have more than we actually have, and Jesus used this “teachable moment” to explain why greed has no place in the Kingdom of God.  Instead of an interruption, Jesus treated the man’s demand as an opportunity to upset the apple cart of expectations one more time, teaching that the ways of God are nothing like our ways.

So Jesus tells a story, a story with a twist.  We’ve heard it often enough that it doesn’t hold much surprise for us, so let me tell it again, to show you where the surprise came for these people who heard it the very first time.

There was this rich farmer, who had a really good year.  The ratio of sunshine to rain had been perfect, and the timing of the weather couldn’t have been better.  Without any more labor than he usually put into his farm, the land had produced a bumper crop, and harvest was going to be greatIn first century Palestine, this would have been evidence of God’s blessing on a good man.  Good fortune meant you’d been doing what you were supposed to do, and God was smiling on you.

What shall I do with all this good fortune?” the farmer asks himselfWait a minute, the crowd is thinking. We know what a guy talking to himself means in story language – and it isn’t good. People who talk to themselves are usually the bad guy in the story – but this must be a good guy, right? I mean, look at all these abundant crops?  So the crowd leans in to listen to Jesus more closely, wondering which way the punch line is going to fall.

“I know!” says the farmer. “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, to store all my wealth! Then I can relax, eat, drink, and be merry!”  Okay, this just doesn’t make sense, some in the crowd start to grumble. You don’t tear down your barns right before harvest!  And why is he storing his wealth?  … Unless he’s planning to manipulate the corn futures.  No, no, others argue.  He’s just being a good agri-businessman!  He knows how to play the market! You’re not listening, a third group chimes in.  Apparently, he plans to hoard it all for himself!

While the people hearing the story start to argue among themselves, Jesus delivers the punch line:You fool!”  God says (and this is very unusual, for God to be an actual character in the drama of one of these stories, by the way). “This very night your life is required of you.  So now, who’s going to get all that wealth you accumulated?”  The crowd simmers down to think about this unexpected twist.  Death hadn’t been part of the picture until now.  And, if they were honest with themselves, God hadn’t been part of the picture, either.

That’s the point.  That’s why we call this story the Parable of the Rich Fool.  Jesus wasn’t saying that there is anything wrong with wealth.  Jesus was saying this: instead of foolishly focusing your effort on getting rich for yourself, be rich toward God.

Almost a year ago, an article appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was titled, “Possessed by Money.”  The article described some research done by Kathleen Vohs,  from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.  This research explored the psychological effects of wealth, and used a number of different tests with a wide range of subjects.  What she discovered to be consistent among all the findings was this: “Subjects with money on their minds are self-sufficient, self-focused, and anything but selfless.”  In all of the experiments, Vohs found that “people who are reminded of money are really good at pursuing goals, but they’re not that interpersonally kind or warm.  They’re kind of standoffish, keeping in their own head, not interested in being friends with anyone.”[3]  Vohs describes these people as “siloed” more than anti-social, and she is quick to say that we are not talking about wealthy people, necessarily, but those who are pursuing wealth, people who think about money a lot.  Some really wealthy people don’t think about money very much at all, while some middle class and very poor people think about money all the time.  It’s the thinking about money that creates the isolation Vohs describes in her work.

No wonder Jesus calls this rich farmer a fool!  By focusing on his own accumulation of wealth and goods, he has isolated himself from others.  Friends, this is not what the Kingdom of God is about.  The Kingdom of God is about community, interconnectedness, living and working together for the glory of God.

So, how can we be rich toward God?  Let me be clear here.  This is not a sermon on financial stewardship.  I am not talking about increasing your pledge or tithing.  That would be a pretty foolish way for me to begin my ministry here with you at First United Methodist Church of New Ulm!  But it is possible that, as we begin this work together, you might have some high hopes, some expectation of things changing, adding new members, balancing the budget with ease, paying 100 per cent of our apportionment this year, being able to just relax, eat, drink, and be merry on Wednesday nights.

These might all seem like really good goals.  But none of them will be achieved until we, as a church, and as individuals, can honestly say that we are being rich toward God.  What, exactly, does that mean?

Being rich toward God means placing value on the same things God values.  It means loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.[4]  It means loving mercy, acting justly, and walking humbly with your God.[5] It means enjoying a rich spiritual life of prayer, Bible study, and fellowship with other believers as we seek to follow Jesus Christ and learn from him together.  It means being honest with ourselves about our own hoarding of God’s riches, the talents and gifts he has given to each one of us to use for his glory.  It means living lives of forgiveness, asking for it when we need it, and offering forgiveness to others.  It means repenting of the sin of self-sufficiency, and trusting that God will provide for all our needs if we will be rich toward God in the way we live our lives.

As I have visited with some of you this past week, and observed your faith in action, I have seen many ways in which this congregation is already being rich toward God.  You may not notice this.  You might take for granted the many things you already do that put God at the center and bring him glory, so let me take a moment to tell you what I’ve seen.

I’ve seen the Lord’s Laborers painstakingly cutting up shopping bags, so that others can crochet them into sleeping mats for the homeless.  I’ve seen children loved and fed on Wednesday nights, I’ve seen evidence that this congregation wants to participate in the mission of the whole church, by gathering school supplies for United Way, and pooling efforts and resources with neighboring churches for Vacation Bible School.  I’ve seen a calendar get posted on the bulletin board, where you can sign up to provide a meal for the family of one of our members who is recovering from surgery.  I’ve seen a church council bowed in prayer together, and resources shared with those who come to this church looking for help with gas or food.  I’ve seen a multi-generational group of people become an inter-generational part of the body of Christ, loving our children, valuing the wisdom of our elders, working together to share Christ’s love.  And that’s just in my first week among you.

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonika, he commended his co-workers there for doing all the right things in ministry.  And then he wrote, “Finally, then, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”[6]

Do what you are already doing more and more, thinking less about possessions and money, and more and more about God at the very center of your lives.  The Psalmist writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”[7]

As we approach this Table today, as we offer up our worship and praise and thanks to the God who saves us, may we strive to strive less. May we hope to hope more. May we love without reservation, less concerned with ourselves and more dependent on God to provide for us, to care for us, to be rich toward us in grace and mercy. May we be rich toward God. Amen.

[1] Luke 12:1-12

[2] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 389-390.

[3] Bill Ward, Star Tribune, August 30, 2012, Variety section, page 1.

[4] Mark 12:30-31

[5] Micah 6:8

[6] 1 Thessalonians 4:1

[7] Psalm 73:25-26