Monthly Archives: August 2017

Intersections: Sacred Living in a Secular World – Sermon on Romans 12:1-8

August 27, 2017

Someone once said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar.” Maybe people cringe from offering themselves completely to God because they focus on what they will lose when they make a sacrifice. Maybe it’s because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal.

But Paul asks us to consider a different meaning for the word “sacrifice.” He calls us to remember that the root of this word is the same as the word “sacred.” Instead of thinking of a sacrifice as something we have to give up, or give away, or kill, Paul invites us to recognize that true sacrifice means setting apart something as sacred or holy. The thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves.

This week, we’re finishing up the series on Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life. We’ve wrestled with God, we’ve explored doubt and how science and scripture inform each other. Now it’s time to get down to the real nitty-gritty.

How can we, as devoted followers of Jesus Christ, live sacred, set apart lives, while still staying connected to the world in which we live? How do we live in the world without being assimilated by the world? How can the way we live our lives be so full of joy and peace, so different from worldly living, that our lives attract others to Jesus? Continue reading

Intersections: Where Science Meets Scripture – sermon on Genesis 1:1-5, 27 – 2:22

We’re in the middle of a series of sermons based on topics you have
requested, as we look at places where faith intersects with life. We started off learning how to wrestle with God. When God shows up in
your life, confronting you with your past, preparing you for your future,
the only option for your present is to grab hold of God and hang on. We
also learned that, any time you wrestle with the living God, you will be
changed, and God will bless those who engage in the struggle.

Last week, we looked at the intersection of faith with doubt. We
considered the possibility that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but  certainty, because if we insist on being certain, we don’t really need faith.
Doubt keeps faith alive and active. When Jesus asks us, “Why did you  doubt?” it’s an invitation to examine why we choose to believe.

Next week, we will examine how we can be faithful Christians who are ‘in
the world, but not of the world,’ and at the same time, connect with
people who need to know Jesus, but who see Christians as hypocrites or
snobs.

But this week, we get to tackle a topic that might be the most
controversial of all: how do we reconcile the biblical accounts of creation
with a scientific understanding of how the world came to be? Are science
and scripture mutually exclusive? Can you be a good Christian and still  accept that the earth is billions of years old, as scientists claim? Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but while everybody was asleep,
an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.
So when the plants came up and bore grain,
then the weeds appeared as well.
And the slaves of the householder came and said to him,
‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where, then, did these weeds come from?’
He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’
The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’
But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.
Let both of them grow together until the harvest;
and at harvest time I will tell the reapers,
Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned,
but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading