Monthly Archives: September 2013

Compassion Sunday – September 29, 2013

First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, MN observes “Compassion Sunday” on fifth Sundays throughout the year. Since September has five Sundays, we will be worshiping briefly at 9:30 this week, then heading out to visit the home-bound, cook and freeze meals, make sleeping mats for the homeless out of plastic shopping bags (here’s a link to another First UMC Church that does this down in Grapevine, TX), and kick off our prayer ministry. There might be another project or two I’ve forgotten to mention. The idea is that we put hands and feet to our worship, and worship by doing something for others.

The preaching text for this Sunday is the story of the poor man Lazarus (the only character in the parables of Jesus who actually gets a name!) and the rich man who ignored him until they had both died. You can read Luke 16:19-31 here. I know some of you read this blog only when you missed the sermon on Sunday, and this week you won’t be able to do that, because I’m not going to post it. If you want to hear the homily about “Trading Places” you’ll just have to show up. It won’t make much sense outside the context of Compassion Sunday.

For the other two or three of you who check this blog on a regular basis, enjoy your week off from trying to make sense of my attempts at theological reflection. You’re welcome! But don’t get too comfortable. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired to write a bonus post this week. Among other things, I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately …

What is essential to worship? Can you truly worship God without things like scripture, prayer, confession, declaring what we believe? I recently observed a Eucharist in which the celebrant skipped over the confession, but offered an assurance of pardon, and it made me wonder … what do you think?



It’s … Complicated – Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” – Luke 16:1-13

Scholars cannot agree on the meaning of this passage. Every commentary I consulted this week began with some version of  “This is a very difficult text.”  One preacher suggests that most people can do an adequate job of explaining most parables, but not this one. “This week,” he admonishes, “without a trained professional, you interpret the gospel at your peril. Welcome to Luke 16; don’t try this at home.”[1] It’s even hard to find a consensus on where the parable actually ends and the explanation – such as it is – begins. I wrestled with these words all week. I tried looking at them from top to bottom and from end to beginning. I tried dividing the chunks into smaller chunks. I examined individual words. All my study and pondering left me frustrated, unsure of the lesson Jesus was trying to teach. I kept struggling to identify what it is we, as a church, need to take away from this passage that we haven’t already covered, but my frustration only grew. So bear with me as we work through it together.

Let’s start at the top. At the very least, we can identify the original audience. Jesus is talking to his disciples. This probably refers to a larger group than the twelve disciples who followed Jesus most closely, but at least we know Jesus is addressing followers, and not opponents. Those Pharisees who have been giving Jesus so much trouble may be lurking around in the background, but Jesus is not dealing with them at this moment. He is teaching his own students, the sheep who belong to him. And that means that, if we claim to follow Jesus, he is speaking directly to us, too.

Jesus introduces us to two characters: a wealthy master, and the manager of his estate. Right off the bat, we see the conflict in the story. The manager has been accused of squandering his master’s property, and he is about to be fired. Before we can go further in the story, we need a little background information.

First, we need to know that a manager of an estate could act in every capacity as the owner’s agent. The manager had full authority to buy, sell, and handle the property of his master. His decisions were equal to the master’s decisions, and his character was considered to reflect his master’s character. The manager’s behavior was an extension of the master’s own behavior, if the master did not publicly object to it. Whatever the manager did was as if the master had done it himself.

We also know that Luke tended to represent wealth as a negative attribute, and this went against the commonly held belief that wealth indicated God had rewarded the rich for their righteousness. There are exceptions, of course, but usually Luke presents material wealth as a bad thing. Here’s our first question to ponder: Is the master a good guy or a bad guy? He clearly does not want the manager’s squandering to reflect badly on himself, but is this because he is an upstanding businessman who would never squander his resources, or because he wants to keep up appearances, and make himself look better than he really is?

Jesus doesn’t tell us.

Moving on.

When faced with the prospect of getting fired, the manager panics. “What shall I do?” he asks himself. He’s too weak for even the lowliest manual labor available, and he’s too proud to beg. At least he is honest with himself, even if he has been dishonest in his job. But he’s shrewd. He has street smarts. So it doesn’t take him long to come up with a plan.

This plan depends on that social structure we saw at work a couple of weeks ago, when Jesus was invited to eat at the Pharisee leader’s house. If you missed that sermon, here’s the recap:

Remember that the foundation of Roman class structure was Patronage, an intricate system of benefactors and clients. Favors were the currency of this system, and the more favors that were owed to you as a benefactor, the higher you could rank in society. That ranking was also affected by the number of favors you, as a client, owed to your own benefactors. Social advancement was everyone’s goal, and putting yourself forward by associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, while making sure you were owed enough favors by others who were one rung below you, required constant maneuvering – and a good memory for who owed what to whom.

Our friend the shrewd manager had a good memory. He knew who owed his master the greatest debts, and a couple of quick calls put him back in business.

Now, this is where biblical scholars start to disagree with one another, as they interpret this parable. Some say the manager was clearing the books of overcharges. Overcharging was the most common means of collecting interest on a debt without calling it interest – which would have been a flagrant disobedience of Jewish law. If the master was in on the game, he would not want it known that he had overcharged his customers, so he would willingly go along with the scheme to save face.

Others insist the manager was simply deducting his own cut of the profits that he had added to the debt without his master’s knowledge. Still others think the master knew full well that his manager was padding the books for his own benefit, but didn’t care because the master was just as crafty as the manager (we’re back to that business of an agent fully representing the character of his boss). Some think the manager was getting revenge on his master for firing him, by reducing his income while ingratiating himself with the people who owed his master the most. Everyone agrees that it would be easy to make friends among the master’s customers by decreasing the debts they owed. And everyone agrees that a manager who cheats his master in order to make friends with his master’s clients is anything but righteous.

It’s the master’s reaction to the scheme that takes us by surprise.

Instead of firing the manager first for squandering his wealth, or later for cutting his profits, the master commends the manager for acting shrewdly. Why on earth would he do this? Luke gives us no clues, and we must be careful to not read too much between the lines of this story.  But there are a couple of possibilities.

Perhaps the master praised the manager because the outcome was a good one, and the manager’s actions corrected the wrong he had done when he mismanaged the master’s business. The manager repents of his wrongdoing, the debtors are happy, the bill is collected, and the master’s conscience is clear. Or maybe the master praised the manager because the outcome was a good one, even though the manager and the master were both dishonest. The manager’s quick thinking makes the master look more righteous and caring than he really is. The debtors are still happy, and the bills are paid, but there is no repentance in this picture for either the manager or his boss. Either way, the master praises the manager for his quick thinking and his smart plan to provide for his own future.

This brings us to the moral of the story, and this is where things get really confusing. Listen again to Jesus explain this parable:

For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.


What does he mean? The parable itself is confusing enough, and now the explanation just makes things worse. Let’s look at it again.

Jesus is identifying two different groups of people: the children of this age –which surely includes the manager, and maybe even includes his boss – and the children of light – I hope that means you and me, as followers of Jesus. What Jesus is saying here is that the manager knew how to handle the system of worldly wealth to his best advantage. He got it. He knew the ropes. But we, as children of light, do not always know how to live within our “system” of the Kingdom of God. We do not always act like we know the kingdom is already here, already transforming the world, and we are already part of it. We fumble back and forth between two worlds, and can’t really move fluently in either one.

And it’s almost always money that trips us up. The word in older translations was “mammon” and I like this word, because it is rich in meaning. It says more than the words “money” or “wealth” can convey. Here’s why: According to New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass, “What is not obvious in Greek or English is that ‘faithful,’ ‘entrust,’ and ‘true’ in Hebrew and Aramaic all derive from the same root as ‘mammon’ – a word that means ‘that in which one places trust’ and is derived from ‘amen.’[2] So Jesus is playing with words in the native language of his hearers. We may think of Mammon as evil money, but it’s really whatever you trust when you aren’t trusting God.

Think about it.

What do you call that fund your wealthy parents set up for you, from which you could start drawing income after you reached a certain age? Right: a trust fund. (Don’t feel bad if you didn’t get one, I didn’t either.)

And who is the person that manages that fund for you? Right: a trustee. What is printed on our money in that fund? In God We Trust. Ironic, isn’t it?

Don’t put your trust in the wrong thing. Put your trust in God, because money won’t do you any good when God’s kingdom is fulfilled and Christ comes again in glory.

We could paraphrase that troublesome verse nine to read, “Put yourself in a good position through your wise use of money, instead of trusting in it, so that when this age is over God will receive you into his eternal home.” The children of the world might know how to manage earthly resources to their advantage, but we are children of light, and we need to manage our spiritual resources just as wisely, so that we are prepared to give an account before God.

The point Jesus is making is starting to sound very familiar. You cannot serve both God and wealth. If you want to be a disciple, you have to go all in, turning away from every form of Mammon, everything you trust in that isn’t of God. Yes, we have heard this lesson before – Hasn’t Jesus been pounding it into our heads over and over again?

Maybe that’s the point. Jesus has to keep teaching the same lesson over and over, getting more and more radical in his approach and crazier with the examples he uses, because we just don’t get it, any more than his original listeners got it. We still keep trying to live our lives according to the rules of this world, instead of living lives of total devotion to God. What will it take to get through to us? To make us change our ways and start questioning our motives and drastically changing our behavior? The stakes are getting higher and higher, and we still aren’t paying attention. Do we think this Word of the Lord doesn’t apply to us?

There’s a story that goes around the operatic world of an American tenor who finally realized his dream of singing at La Scala in Milan, Italy. La Scala is considered the greatest opera house in the world, and when you get to sing there, you’ve really made it. You’re a star. So this tenor performs at La Scala, and his big aria is met with thunderous cheering. “Encore!  Encore!” the crowd yells. So the tenor nods to the orchestra conductor, and the music begins again. He sings his big aria, and again the crowd goes wild. “Encore! Encore! Sing it again! Sing it again!”  they scream. The tenor is deeply moved at this reception, and he obliges. He sings it again. And again. Finally, the tenor quiets the crowd and steps to the front of the stage. With hands on his heart and tears streaming down his face, he thanks the audience. “But my friends, I cannot sing it again. My voice is nearly gone from all these encores, and we still need to finish the opera!” In the very back of the opera house, a little man gets to his feet and says, “You’ll sing it till you get it right.”

Jesus is asking us to rehearse this lesson over and over, until we get it right. The parables he uses may get crazier and crazier, but until we get it right, he keeps repeating the lesson for us.

So here it is again.

God’s radical love for us demands a radical response.

If you want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, you have to give up everything you think is important, and start living a radically different life.

If you want to be ready for the Kingdom of God, you have to give up everything that matters most to you, and start living a radically different life.

If you want to be seated at the head of the table, you have to give up your pride, and start living a radically different life.

If you want to recognize the signs of the times, and be ready for the time when we are all held accountable to God, you have to be willing to focus all your energy and attention on following Jesus. You have to give up everything, and start living a radically different life.

It isn’t easy. It doesn’t make sense. It costs everything.

But when we turn away from trusting our money or our own wits, and we start trusting God to save us and to provide for us, we find that our real debt, the debt for all our sin, has been paid in full by the One who loved us so much he died for us. And when this age, this earth is done, God will receive us into his eternal home, where we will live with him forever.

Jesus says, “If then you have not been faithful with earthly wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches of heaven?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  You cannot serve both God and Mammon” – whether that “mammon” is money, or your own shrewdness, or anything else that prevents you from trusting God.

How you take care of a little will be a good indicator of the way you take care of a lot. If you can’t manage a small amount entrusted to you, you can’t be given your own wealth. God’s claim on us is an exclusive one. You can’t serve God on Sunday and ignore him the rest of the week while you serve whatever your personal “mammon” happens to be. Because you are a representative of Christ, just as surely as that dishonest manager was a representative of his master.

When Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, he told them: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”[3]

There it is again. Trust. Christ calls us to trust him, and also to be trustworthy stewards of our faith, the mysteries of God. As faithful stewards, we are called to show the same character as our master, Jesus Christ. We are called to serve.

Next week, the nominating committee will be meeting to recommend some of you to serve in particular ways within the congregation of this church. I know that several of you already hold multiple responsibilities, and others of you may have gifts and talents that are going unused. This is not really good stewardship of our energy and time, of our gifts and abilities. So I urge you, if you already serve on a committee or give more than two hours of your time each week in church work, say “No” when the nominating committee calls you. We don’t want any member of this congregation burning out. But prayerfully try to think of someone else in this church who might be able to do what you are being asked to do, and encourage that person to participate in the life of this congregation in that way. And if you haven’t yet been asked to serve, but you sense God calling you toward a particular area of ministry, go ahead and volunteer before someone asks you!

Together, as faithful and trustworthy stewards of God’s mysteries, we can share the good news that Christ died for our sins, Christ rose from the dead, and Christ reigns in glory. He invites us to accept him as our only Lord and Master, so that we may have eternal life with him in the Kingdom of God, but he also invites us to live into that kingdom reality here and now as children of the light. When Christ comes, will he find you faithful? He’s trusting you to be a good manager, a good steward. Will you trust him?

[2] Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent, 414.

[3] 1 Corinthians 4:1-2

Getting Found – Sermon on Luke 15:1-10

It’s a common practice for schools to encourage parents to check the Lost and Found collection during Parent/Teacher conferences. One year, to attract parents to the area where the Lost and Found items were displayed, an administrator posted a sign at a school’s entrance that caught everyone’s attention. A simple stick figure had been made from scraps of wood. The mannequin was propped in a pair of snow boots that had been stuffed with Lost and Found gym socks. It wore a pair of Lost and Found sweatpants, a Lost and Found jacket, a hat and scarf and gloves – all from the Lost and Found. Hanging from one “arm” was a lunch box. The other carried a backpack. A sign was pinned to the front of the scarecrow that read “Are you missing something? Do I belong to you?”

As Jesus continues on his journey toward Jerusalem, followed by those crowds that include people of every description, his teaching is becoming more and more intense. Last week, we heard him insist that no one could follow him who had not renounced everything else – family, wealth, or reputation – for the sake of being a disciple of Jesus. Scribes and Pharisees had challenged Jesus, but they were still part of the crowd. At first they had come out of curiosity. Later, they came to discredit this new, unauthorized teaching. Now they were following Jesus with the intent of catching him in some heresy. Whatever their reason for being there, people came and listened. As they listened, they asked questions about the things Jesus said that didn’t make sense to them. And there were plenty of questions!

Over the past few weeks, we have already seen how Luke’s gospel is filled with examples of the many ways Jesus challenged the status quo. The theme of reversal threads its way throughout Luke’s story, and by now, it should come as no surprise that Jesus is going to flip things topsy-turvy whenever he opens his mouth. As the scribes and Pharisees listened to Jesus, they wondered where did he get authority to say such things? Were they missing something? Did Jesus belong to God? And if he did, did they? Hear the Word of the Lord, as found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, verses 1-10:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The three parables that make up chapter fifteen all focus on the central theme of the lost getting found, and the joy that is shared in the finding. Many scholars believe they were told as a single unit from the beginning of the Christian era, passed along through the oral tradition that Luke used to compile his gospel account. Today’s reading focuses on the first two of these parables, saving the parable of the prodigal son for the season of Lent. As I read these stories again and again, I am struck by the realization that, in order for the lost to be found, it had to belong to someone first. The lost sheep was not a wild sheep that the shepherd happened upon and added to his flock. That sheep had belonged to the shepherd from the beginning, and had strayed away. The coin that the woman lost had been part of her life savings. It belonged to her. When she found it, she rejoiced with her neighbors that something of her very own had been restored to her. When Jesus told these stories, he was describing things that had once been where they belonged, but had somehow gone missing.

As you ponder that thought, you might be thinking of things that have gone missing from your life over the years. Maybe you have lost touch with people who were once dear to you. Perhaps you have allowed a broken relationship to remain broken, and you have lost the sense of freedom that comes with forgiving and being forgiven.

Maybe you have lost the habit of reading God’s Word on a daily basis, or the diligent practice of prayer. Maybe you have lost faith in God, wondering how God could allow evil to persist in the world. Perhaps you’ve lost purpose, or joy, or the assurance that you belong to a loving God who cares for you. Whatever you’ve lost, Jesus tells these stories to you, just as surely as he told them to his disciples and the crowds around him as he traveled to Jerusalem.

Remember that Jesus was responding to the grumbling he heard from the scribes and Pharisees, as they complained about the company he was keeping. In last week’s passage, Jesus ate with a respectable Pharisee, but this week, he has accepted hospitality from the opposite end of the social spectrum. Those Pharisees who entertained Jesus a few verses ago are now upset because he also eats with sinners and tax collectors. (Apparently, tax collectors were in their own class of sinfulness, apart from regular sinners such as liars, adulterers, murderers, and thieves.)

Yet, while these righteous teachers and leaders are criticizing Jesus for hanging out with the wrong crowd, Jesus is trying to teach them a short lesson in how the Kingdom of God really works. He isn’t too worried about the people who already believe in God and worship God.  Jesus is concerned about the ones who have been excluded, the ones who are lost.

So he tells two stories, and the main character in each of them is someone from the bottom of the social ladder. Shepherds were notoriously despised in Jewish society. They could not be called upon as witnesses, because they weren’t trusted to tell the truth. They were considered no better than robbers, partly because they sometimes tended to let their sheep wander onto land that belonged to someone else. In the parable of the lost coin, it’s a woman who searches diligently for her silver drachma. Women had no social standing at all in first century Palestine, and were completely dependent on their fathers or husbands. They too could not serve as witnesses, not because they were considered dishonest and untrustworthy like shepherds, but because they were not considered at all. Yet, here Jesus uses these two outcast figures to demonstrate how carefully God searches for his own, how diligently he pursues his children, how joyfully God celebrates whenever one of his lost ones repents, and returns to be loved and embraced.

It’s easy, sometimes, to get lost in the details of one of Jesus’ stories. We can get caught up in trying to assign specific meaning to each element. What does the coin stand for? Who does the shepherd or the woman represent? What is the significance of sheep, instead of, say, cattle? Jesus wasn’t too concerned about these issues. When Jesus told these two parables, and the one that follows about the prodigal son, his focus was on the certainty of searching, and the celebration at finding what was lost.

Neither the searching nor the celebration was really new to the crowds listening to Jesus. They had heard, and maybe even sung Psalm 27:

“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. … Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”[1]

And the idea of God doing the searching was also not new to them. They were intimately familiar with Psalm 139: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” The reading we heard from Jeremiah today describes a God who searches for any who are good, any who are righteous, but a God who finds a world lost completely to evil. Within a few years, the Apostle Paul would write to his friend Timothy of his own dependence on God to find him in his lost-ness. Time and again, we get lost, and time and again, God searches for us to bring us home.

Here’s the thing: We belong to God. When we stray, lose our way, or even run away from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. The question each of us must answer is simply this: do we want to be lost, or do we want to be found? We can choose to stay lost and suffer the consequences of our rebellion against God’s love for us. But Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

You don’t have to run away from God to be lost. Even if you do everything in your own power to be right, you can still be lost. To get found, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else. Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple.

Getting found requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And that means that, when we see people turning to God who might not be our idea of “good,” we welcome them into the family with open arms, just as Jesus welcomed sinners AND Pharisees; just as God welcomes us.

Jesus is saying that sinners and tax collectors, the scum of society, all belong to God, just as much as anyone, and God is eager to restore all of us to himself. Once we accept that we belong to God and choose to serve him, we can’t slam the door in other people’s faces. It’s our job to hold the door open for everyone, even those we might consider outcasts. Especially those we might consider to be outcasts. We are to rejoice with God whenever one of these outcasts ‘gets found’ because all are precious to God. And we are also to join with God in the work of finding lost ones, and pointing them toward Christ.

The parables were given to religious insiders – Pharisees and scribes. Whether or not we want to admit it, we fall into that category, too. We are the religious insiders in our society. And if we read these parables closely, we may realize that the ones who need to repent are the ones hearing the story. A coin or a sheep cannot repent. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to repent, as members of the “already found” group of insiders. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to repent of our smugness, our complacency, our failure to include sinners and tax collectors as part of “us.”

Verse one says that the sinners and tax collectors were “coming near” to Jesus – and that can be threatening to insiders. We don’t want to lose our place in the inner circle, or be shoved out of our spot at the head of the table. But Jesus says there’s room for everyone who seeks him in the Kingdom of God. And he also reminds us that the ones he seeks are already near to him. If they were going to shove you out of your spot, it would have happened by now. So, instead of fretting over keeping your place near Jesus, he invites you to rejoice with him that another has been found! The table keeps getting bigger! Quick, draw up another chair and welcome into your midst the ones Jesus welcomes!

It’s easy to focus on the redemption of the “lost” around us, and we should be joining God in the search for those he seeks to bring home. But our role in this search is different from God’s part.  Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”[2] It’s God’s job to search and save. It’s our job to search and welcome. Theologian Penny Nixon writes, “Religious insiders are often more comfortable with saving the lost than welcoming those whom they perceive to be lost. Saving is about power, whereas welcoming is about intimacy.”[3]

Christ calls us to welcome the outcast, because we were once outcasts. Christ calls us to rejoice when one of the least of these discovers that this is home! Christ calls us to fully embrace each person he brings into our midst – not as a project to be worked on, but as one of us, redeemed by God’s grace alone.

Remember the Lost and Found scarecrow’s sign? “Are you missing something? Do I belong to you?”  If you feel lost, know that God wants to pull you out of the Lost and Found box, and bring you home. If you know you’ve been found, it’s time to welcome others into the family of God, into the life and community of this congregation. It’s time to rejoice over each one of us whom God has found.  Amen.

[1] Psalm 27:4, 7-8

[2] Luke 19:10

[3] Nixon, G. Penny. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, 71.

What’s it worth to you? – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

September 8, 2013
Note: There’s a newer (and I think better) sermon on this text here. 

As we prepared to move to New Ulm, Bruce became an expert at selling things on EBay. Books and other items we had accumulated over the years went out the door each week, and Bruce’s PayPal account grew accordingly. The people who shop on eBay are constantly looking for deals, but they also search for one-of-a-kind items that are simply not available anywhere else. For example, Bruce once sold an out-of-print book to the author who had written it. On eBay, any item is worth exactly what the market for that item will bear. It’s worth what the buyer is willing to pay – no more, and no less. EBay shoppers know how to count the cost.

A high school economics teacher summarized her subject to a group of parents by telling them, “Everything has a cost. Everything has a benefit. In this class, students learn how to weigh the benefit against the cost, with the goal of gaining the greatest benefit at the lowest cost.” Even high school students know how to count the cost.

I am not a “shopper.” I don’t really enjoy strolling through store after store, admiring merchandise and looking for deals. But I have friends who like to shop, and when we get together, we inevitably end up at the mall or in a department store. Once, as we browsed through an exclusive furniture store, I did see a chair that I liked. I looked for a price tag, but couldn’t find one. My friend nudged me and whispered that familiar adage: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”

In today’s passage, Jesus explains the cost of true discipleship to his followers. Jesus is on the move again. He has left the hospitality of the Pharisee’s table, and is headed once again toward Jerusalem. The crowds are gathering. Can you imagine what it must have been like to work out in the field and see this cloud of dust rising from the road off in the distance, to see the swarm of people moving along that road, and to hear the distant buzz of their conversation? It wouldn’t take much to compel you to run in that direction, just to see what all the commotion was about, would it? The question is, once you got close enough to see and hear Jesus, to realize who this must be, and to listen to his teaching, would you mosey back to work, or leave it all behind to join the crowds that flocked after him? Hear the word of the Lord, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verses 25-33.

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him, doesn’t it? Have we ever heard Jesus be so negative? Ten times in these few verses, he uses the word “not” – three of those are in the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has seen the crowds growing behind him, and he knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free lunch! Some of them are following only because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around Jesus and his disciples. With the noise of this growing rabble rising, I’m sure it was difficult for Jesus to talk with his true disciples along the way. So he turns to the crowd and says, in essence, “Unless you’re serious about following me, go away!”

It reminds me of walking to school with my older sister when we were young. Though our mother had asked her to watch out for me on the way to and from school, she wanted no part of this assignment. As soon as we turned the corner, and were out of my mother’s sight, my sister would make me walk behind her – and the farther behind her I could get, the better! “You’re too close!” she would say. “Stop following me!” To her credit, she would always wait for me at the curb when it was time to cross the street. To her relief, I’m sure, we only lived four blocks from school.

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

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

To quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “ You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” First, we must realize that this kind of “hate” is not an emotion – it’s an attitude of perspective. Keep in mind that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it. Fewer than 6,000 words or word stems can be found in the New Testament. By comparison,

“the Second Edition of the 20-volume  Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”[1]

Rather than creating new words for every nuance as we do in English, first century Greek gave each word a broad range of meaning. So, the Greek word miséo can be translated as “hate” but it also means despise, disregard, be indifferent to, or love less. In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples. Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you.” To us, he says, “Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”

Not only must we be willing to put Jesus ahead of all other priorities, he raises the price of discipleship even higher. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says. Keep in mind that, at this point in his ministry, his own cross wasn’t even on the horizon yet. His original listeners would not have been aware, as we are twenty-one centuries later, of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion. To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that would surely end in death. It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war. If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, to the point of death.

Jesus must have seen the joyful faces around him become more somber as his words started to sink in. When Jesus found that his teaching was too hard for people to hear, he often turned to one of his favorite strategies – parables.

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

But here’s the thing we may miss if we gloss over these little parables too quickly. In both cases, the building and the battle, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available. No matter what accounting system you use, no matter what assets you think you have, when it comes to following Jesus, you don’t have enough to pay the cost on your own. Your resources are not sufficient.

This is where God’s economy takes over, and our attempts to balance the books fall woefully short. If we are willing to commit everything we are and everything we hold dear to the purpose of following Jesus, God will be faithful to do what he has promised. God has already offered us his entire Kingdom. God gives us eternal life with him.

Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Remember the rich and foolish farmer from a month ago? The one who decided to tear down his barns in the middle of harvest, to build bigger ones? It seems we are back where we started, with Jesus preaching a stewardship sermon. But he isn’t talking about our tithes and offerings. Another way to translate “give up” might be “leave behind” or “bid farewell.” Bidding farewell to all we have, leaving it behind us, might be an appropriate image, given the setting of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. But here’s another Greek lesson for you. Present tense in Greek doesn’t just mean “now.” It also means that the action has not yet been completed, that it is continuing, in progress. When Jesus says you have to leave behind everything that matters to you, whether it is family, or good standing in the community, or the things you own, he means you have to leave it behind now, and keep leaving it behind.

Our response must be all or nothing. All those lessons Jesus has been teaching us the past few weeks about hypocrisy, letting our fears get the best of us, placing a higher value on material wealth than spiritual wealth – it all boils down to this: go all in, or go home.

The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. The theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleshipand I recommend it to you if you have never read it. Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached as a member of the Confessing Church in Germany, a group of clergy who resisted Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer was executed near the end of World War II for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew the cost of remaining loyal to Jesus, but theologian Dallas Willard takes it a step further. In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines,  Willard considers that the cost of NON-discipleship is even higher than the cost of following Jesus. Yes, Jesus asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority, but what price do we pay if we decide to not follow Jesus? What is the cost of refusing to be a true disciple? Willard writes:

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

So what does it mean to be a true disciple? What does it look like? How do we do it? Following Jesus is an ongoing process that begins with doing the things Jesus did, and caring about the things Jesus cares about. Bishop Bruce R. Ough says in his September column on the Minnesota Conference website:

“The scriptural imperatives to cultivate spiritual vitality, reach new people, and heal a broken world are more than a vision for every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota; these imperatives are Jesus’ very methodology for fulfilling his mission.”

Friends, it’s hard to reach new people and heal a broken world if we haven’t already begun to cultivate spiritual vitality first. Let’s start there, and see what God might do among us as we become more and more like Jesus. Here are some possibilities:

Jesus prayed. A lot. To be a true disciple, we need to maintain an ongoing conversation with God through an active prayer life. 

You could join the prayer team. Every endeavor of this church must begin and end in prayer. Otherwise, we are not being faithful disciples who do the things Jesus did. Maybe you think you don’t have any special gift or talent to offer the ministry of this church, but every single person here can pray. For some of you, this is your spiritual gift. We need you to be on the prayer team. I urge you to prayerfully consider being part of an active and vital prayer ministry here at First United Methodist Church. Check the prayer insert in your bulletin, and contact the prayer team coordinators.

Jesus knew the Scriptures, and referred to them often. His true disciples need to be students of the Word.

New Bible Study small groups are forming for October and November. See Dennis J. for more information. Better yet, tell him you’d like to lead a group. During October and November, on the table in the narthex, you will find study questions for the day’s sermon text, and the text for the coming week, so you can go deeper into the Word with other disciples. Our hope is that there will be groups meeting throughout the week, so you can find a time that works for your schedule. If you’re already involved in a Bible Study group, be faithful in your attendance and participate actively in the discussion of Scripture. The Word of God is not just marks on a page – it is God’s living, breathing means of showing us how we can be transformed into the people God created us to be.

Jesus enjoyed fellowship – table fellowship whenever possible! – and true disciples also enjoy spending time with other believers.

You can participate in the Wednesday night Family time. There’s no better way to do that “fellowship” thing than over a meal! Come share food and life together as we grow more and more into the church God calls us to be.

If you are not already a member of First United Methodist Church, think about joining the church. Bruce and I would like to invite you to join us after worship on Sunday, September 22 – that’s two weeks from today – for brunch and an opportunity to learn what it means to belong to this congregation. We’ll talk a little about what it means to be a Methodist, but mostly what it means to follow Jesus in this place with these people. If you are curious and want to know more, just make a note of that on the friendship register – have you signed the friendship register in your pew today? Please do, whether you’re a member or not.

Which brings us to service.

Jesus served others through acts of compassion, mercy, and justice, and he calls us to find ways to serve others. Help cook a Wednesday night meal. Help with one of the many Wednesday night activities. Volunteer in the nursery. Mentor a confirmand. Serve on a committee. Join me next month at Ridgeway on 23rd for a hymn sing with the residents of the memory unit. Carry communion to someone who isn’t able to come to church. Be the hands and feet of Christ.

True disciples do what Jesus did, and care about the things Jesus cares about. Are you willing to commit to a life of following Jesus? Can you leave behind the things that matter most to you, and make the things that matter most to God your highest priority? The cost is great, but the cost of non-discipleship is even greater. The choice is yours. What’s it worth to you, to follow Jesus?

Sacred Pace

One morning, a few years ago, I followed a young couple through a college campus on my way to an appointment. These two, walking with their arms around each other’s waists, walked in perfect step, steadily and rhythmically. Their pace was not hurried, but neither were they strolling slowly. I could keep up with them, but I felt no urgency to move past them as we walked the same path through the campus. As I watched them, I realized they were not consciously working at staying in step with each other. The rhythm of their walk was perfectly timed, and very natural. They were at peace.

I thought about walking with Jesus that way. Keeping a sacred pace that was neither too fast nor too slow, a pace that came naturally, allowing me to talk with Jesus while staying in perfect step with the Master. The young couple reminded me that in order to maintain ‘sacred pace’ we must keep in step with Jesus, and let him keep his arm around us as we embrace him in return.  We must also keep our arms around each other as we walk together. Sometimes it is slow, so slow, in contrast to our daily frenzy.

As I shared these thoughts with a friend, he said, “Yes, but sometimes it means gearing up.” Sometimes, we need to add some energy to our steps, lengthen our stride, and work to keep up with Jesus as he leads us along the pathway. Sometimes, sacred pace may even mean gearing up into a full, exhilarating run. Keeping in step with Jesus could make us break a sweat.

Finding that sacred pace is not so much about speeding up or forcing myself to slow down. It isn’t about speed. It has more to do with staying aware of the pace set by the One who moves beside us, and maintaining a rhythm. It’s about being in step and keeping your arms around each other’s waists, walking in an embrace with Christ. Early Pietists asked one another a question that we might do well to repeat to one another, too: “How goes your walk with the Lord?” Are you keeping sacred pace?

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. – I John 1:5-7

Where Will You Sit? – Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14

September 1, 2013
An updated sermon on this text can be found here. 

Several celebrations this week focused on civil rights and equality for all. On Wednesday, you may have heard excerpts from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech as the nation remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, a major event in the struggle for racial equality, a struggle that continues even today. On Monday, we also observed Women’s Equality Day, celebrating the 93rd anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Were you aware that Monday was Women’s Equality Day? Among the historic events noted in that celebration was the women’s equal pay act of 1963, the same year of the March on Washington.

This particular law had a great impact on my family. My mother had been working two jobs as a single parent of five children, and we were all happy for her when she landed a job at the local company that printed city directories, because this meant she could work one job. She ran one of two large Xerox machines, and often came home with black printing dust spattered on her clothes. But it was a good job, and the hours roughly coincided with our school day, so she didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving us at home alone. An added plus was that the print shop was only a couple of blocks from our house – within walking distance! – and even at 29 cents a gallon, gas for the car was a precious commodity. One day, her supervisor called her into his office to give her good news – she was getting a raise! She thanked him, then asked how much the guy was getting who ran the other Xerox machine, doing exactly the same work as my mom. The supervisor spluttered and stuttered. The other guy had a family to support, after all. “What on earth do you think I’m doing?” my mother asked him. Equality isn’t always something you can legislate.

In the passage we have before us today, Jesus is talking about Kingdom equality. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to us through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verse 1, then skipping to verses 7 through 14. Luke writes:

Luke 14:1  On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7  When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”12  He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The Jesus of Luke’s gospel has a strong interest in eating. There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table in Luke than in any other gospel. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like reading Luke so much – I share his affinity for all things associated with food! So here we find Jesus at table with a large group of people, and –as is his habit – Jesus is teaching while everyone eats. Jesus isn’t particularly interested in the food being served. What he’s really interested in is the people at the table.

Jesus was not giving a Miss Manners lesson for table etiquette here. He was explaining, once again, how different the rules are in the Kingdom of God. To understand just how radical this teaching was for the people gathered at that Pharisee’s table, we need to remember the social system that was in place at the time.

Jewish Palestine, where Jesus lived, was a part of the Roman Empire and governed by the Roman class structure. Birth, wealth, position and citizenship determined the social classes. You were either a patrician eligible for the senate, an equestrian – one small step down from a patrician, or a plebian – of the lowest class, just above slaves. There was no middle class. Women were in the same class as their fathers or husbands.[1]

The foundation of Roman class structure was Patronage, an intricate system of benefactors and their clients. Favors were the currency of this system, and the more favors that were owed to you as a benefactor, the higher you could rank in society. That ranking was also affected by the number of favors you, as a client, owed yourself. Tied up in this system of favors owed and collected was a strong sense of honor and shame. It would be extremely embarrassing to owe someone a favor and be unable to repay that debt when the benefactor requested it. Such an embarrassment would certainly lower your social standing. At the same time, there was some stigma attached to calling in a debt that you knew could not be repaid. Social advancement was everyone’s goal, and putting yourself forward by associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, while making sure you were owed enough favors by others who were one rung below you, required constant maneuvering – and a good memory for who owed what to whom.

But Jesus has a different idea for the way things ought to work. By now, we should be familiar with Luke’s focus on turning expectations upside down. As Jesus watched the guests at this Pharisee’s house jockeying for good positions at the table, he saw a double teaching opportunity, and he grabbed it.

First, he addressed the guests. He reminded them of the advice found in Proverbs: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”[2] While this was practical social advice for his listeners, it carried with it a reminder that the people present at the table belonged to God, not Rome. Jesus was reinforcing their identity as children of Israel, an identity that had eroded as Roman customs and attitudes had been adopted over time. The Roman practice of self-promotion did not fit well with the prophets of old, who had encouraged “walking humbly with your God.”[3]

Within a few years, the early church would sing a hymn about Jesus that the Apostle Paul would record in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very natureof a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.[4]

Jesus was telling the guests at this feast, “Instead of seeking glory for yourself, spend your time and energy giving glory to God.” While the guests chewed on that food for thought, Jesus turned to his host, the leader of the Pharisees.

Knowing what we do about social customs of the time, and recognizing that any self-respecting Pharisee would invite to a dinner only those who could be considered at least equals, one has to wonder what Jesus was doing there in the first place. Granted, not all Pharisees were opposed to Jesus – in fact, some had warned him earlier when Herod was looking for Jesus to kill him. And it’s possible that Jesus was invited to this particular banquet simply so the Pharisees present could watch him, to see if he broke Sabbath rules again. But it is also possible that this particular Pharisee did, in fact, consider Jesus to be at least an equal. He may have even seen Jesus as a step up the social ladder from himself. Jesus had demonstrated a keen understanding of scripture, and had been an effective teacher in synagogues wherever he traveled. Jesus certainly had a following. Whatever the connection was, Jesus had no intention of letting his host off the hook when it came to table etiquette in the Kingdom of God.

“You’re inviting the wrong people,” Jesus told him. “By including only friends, family, and those who can advance your status, you are no better than these guests who are fighting over the best seat in the house. You’re trying to make yourself look good by surrounding yourself with “important” people, while you ignore the ones who should be enjoying your hospitality.”

Jesus always knows how to cut to the chase, doesn’t he? He recognized both the guests and their host as social climbers, and he wanted to urge them toward true generosity, real hospitality that expected nothing in return. It was time to throw out the old guest list of relatives and members of the same social class, and replace it with a list of people who would never be the natural choice, people who could never return the favor. It was time to throw out the old order of self-promotion and realize that we are all in equal need of grace and mercy in the eyes of God. And if we are in equal need of grace, how can we continue to participate in a system that places more value on some people and less value on others?

Treating others, such as the poor, the sick, the blind, the crippled in spirit, as if they were our equals still places barriers between “us” and “them.” Treating others as equals is only the first step toward becoming equal as joint-heirs in the family of God. And this is what Jesus came to accomplish. Jesus came to level the playing field between the haves and the have nots, between the wealthy and the poor, between the healthy and the sick. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All of us need grace. Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-human drive to seek the best seat in the house does not show genuine participation in God’s mercy or love. Even treating others as if they were our equals is not enough. Only true humility can give us the right perspective.

Think about it. How often do we draw attention to what we are doing for God, in an attempt to justify ourselves? This is the same thing as taking a “better seat” at the table. We do not need to justify ourselves before God – he has already justified us through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Or maybe we are trying to prove to others that we are good Christians by doing more and more. We wear our hyperactivity like a badge of honor – see how much I love Jesus? Look at all the good works I am doing for the Lord!

But Jesus says, you don’t need to try to impress anyone with your righteousness. The only one whose opinion of you matters is God, and he knows your heart. He knows how far short of his righteousness you really fall. And he loves you anyway.

The one who issues the invitation has the final say about the ranking of guests. As we accept Christ’s invitation to join him at Table in the Kingdom of God we must admit that we are only there by grace. We don’t deserve such grace, and we aren’t any better than anyone else because of it. Taking our place at the bottom of the table, where we know we belong if we’re really honest, allows us to respond with joy when Jesus, our host, taps us on the shoulder and says, “What are you doing down here? Come on up and sit by me.”