Category Archives: Faith

Awakening to Surrender – Sermon on John 14:1-14

May 14, 2017
Mothers’ Day – Easter 5A

What troubles your heart these days?

There’s plenty of stuff to trouble us: wars all over the globe, crime, the economy, politics … and on a more personal level, trouble can haunt us in our families: our marriages, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, our own health – there’s plenty of trouble to go around.

I grew up in a church that was convinced it had the Right Answers to all the Big Questions, and most of the little ones. We knew without a doubt that once you were saved, you were always saved. But if you weren’t saved the way we were saved, you probably weren’t really saved.

We practiced “closed communion” for church members only. This meant observing the Lord’s Supper on Sunday nights, when visitors were less likely to show up. Ours was a very exclusive community of faith, and we were proud of it. We knew who was In and who was Out. We did not let the things of this world trouble us. Or at least, we wouldn’t admit it if they did.

We were nothing at all like the community of faith gathered around the table on the night Jesus was betrayed.

We had answers. … The disciples had questions.

We were full of assurance. … The disciples were full of fear.

We allowed only bona fide church members to receive Communion. … Jesus offered bread and cup to all his followers, even Judas, and said, “Take and eat. Take and drink.”

We were certain: we knew who was In and who was Out. … The disciples were confused: they had thought Jesus would become the King Forever. Here he was talking about dying. And it sounded like he meant “soon.”

As those confused and fearful disciples gathered around the Table, Jesus talked openly with them. He knew it would be his last chance to help them understand what was about to happen, and what they would need to know after he was no longer with them. But his words were not comforting to the disciples. They were troubling words. So Jesus gathered his friends closer.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:1-14)

It may seem strange to hear these words in the middle of the season of Eastertide. We should be celebrating the risen Lord, not going back to the gloom and doom of Holy Week, right? And many of us may associate this particular passage more with the sadness of funerals than with the joy of resurrection.

But Jesus wasn’t only teaching his disciples how to deal with his impending death, nor was he only concerned with a far-distant heavenly future. Jesus was preparing his disciples for carrying on the ministry he had begun. The Kingdom of God had broken into the world, and it would be up to Christ’s followers to continue the work of bringing it to full reality.

For us, the question “who are we following?” never even comes up. We all know from the beginning that the faith we are exploring is Christian faith. Those early disciples didn’t have it so easy. As Jews, they were still caught up in thousands of years of interwoven spiritual and physical DNA. Like my childhood church, they thought they had it all figured out.

They knew how the story was supposed to end. And they knew it wasn’t supposed to end with the Messiah preparing them for his own death. The question they were all asking themselves, but no one wanted to say out loud was this: Have we made a mistake? Did we follow the wrong guy?

So when Jesus promises to come get them later, and tells them that they know the way to where he is going, our good friend Thomas blurts out, “You’ve got to be kidding! We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?”

A couple of weeks ago, the Wednesday night Bible study group took a look at the seven “I AM” statements in John’s gospel. We heard two of them last week, when Jesus announced, “I am the Good Shepherd. I am the gate for the sheep.” Now, to answer Thomas, Jesus makes another claim to his identity.

“Thomas, Thomas, look me in the eye and listen to me. I AM the Way. I am the Truth. The Word was made flesh – that’s me. I am the Life. You don’t need to look for another Messiah. You got it right the first time. I am the way you can get to the Father. Believe me.”

At that moment, Thomas might not have known how the story was going to end, but he must have recognized that Jesus wasn’t declaring a threat – “Believe in me and only me, or else!” Jesus was offering a promise. And that promise was not only for the future, it was a promise to be with the disciples in the here and now, as they figured out how to carry forward the ministry Christ had begun.

We need to be careful about the way we interpret this particular “I AM” statement. We need to make sure we keep it in the context of this conversation between Jesus and the chosen few who have followed him most closely throughout his ministry.

When we pull this statement out of its setting, Karoline Lewis writes, it “stands as contradictory to every other “I AM” statement in the Fourth Gospel. ‘I AM the way, the truth, and the life’ becomes an indication of God’s judgment, exclusion, and absence,” rather than a word of promise.

Lewis continues, “These are words of comfort, not condition, for the disciples. There is nothing uncertain for their present or their future because of their relationship with Jesus. Of that, Jesus wants them to be secure.”[1] In other words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” is a promise for believers, not a threat for unbelievers.

Thomas must have been paying attention. We know that, after the Resurrection, Thomas will make the most powerful declaration of faith found in any of the gospels. He will kneel at Jesus’ feet and proclaim with certainty, “My Lord and my God.”

And that is what we are called to do. We are called to say with full assurance, “Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and I want to commit my life to following him as my Lord and Savior.” Accepting Christ as Savior is not the end, but the beginning of a life where Jesus is Lord. This is the promise Christ makes when he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I’m how you get to the Father.”

David Lose writes that this statement is “Sheer promise. And just in case we’re not sure, Jesus heaps on another promise to boot: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” All of which adds a twist to our usual conception of heaven. When Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for us, we tend to think in very far-off, eternal terms. And yet Jesus’ departure to the Father not only secures our place in God’s presence but also creates the possibility to follow Jesus, do his works, and even do greater works … right now, in this very present moment. Heaven, for John, is as much a present-tense category as it is future one.”[2]

But let’s back up for a moment. Let’s go back to that first verse again, the one where Jesus says, “Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.” This week, I studied these familiar words as they fit into the broader story, and I was suddenly struck by their connection to something Jesus says way back in chapter 12.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in the Palm Procession, and some Greeks have come to Phillip to ask, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (12:21). When Philip tells Jesus about their request, Jesus begins to talk about his impending death. Listen to what he says in verses 27 and 28: “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”

Shortly after this conversation, Jesus will gather his friends in the upper room. Just as his own soul was troubled back in chapter 12, he will see that his disciples’ hearts are troubled as they gather around his table. They will argue about who is to be the greatest in his kingdom, and he will wrap a towel around his waist and get down on his knees to do the job of the lowliest servant. He will wash their stinky feet.

When Jesus’ soul is troubled, instead of asking the Father to save him from what is coming, he surrenders to God’s will, to glorify God’s name.

When Jesus washes his disciples feet, and then tells them, “ Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me,” he is inviting them to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

When Jesus says, “Those who believe in me will do the works I do, and even greater works than these, because I’m going to the Father,” he is inviting us to a life of surrender, so that God’s name will be glorified.

Becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work. Just as Jesus healed the sick, cared for the poor, and preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, so we are to bind up the broken-hearted, feed the hungry, and share God’s love.

But we can only do this when our service comes out of humble surrender to God’s will, giving glory to God’s name. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That’s what it means to come to the Father through him. It means surrender.

The Way is the way of surrender to God’s will for us. The Truth is that giving God glory is all that really matters. The Life is a life of surrender, lived in relationship with God the Father through his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

David Lose points out that the questions Thomas and Philip pose aren’t really questions of “How.” They are “why” questions. Why do you have to leave us now, Jesus? Why can’t we go with you? Why are you leaving us in this broken, miserable world? We might wonder the same thing. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What reason do we have to continue on the journey toward Christ-likeness?

Often, when we want answers, what we really need is relationship. The answer Jesus gives to “Why?” is not “Because.” The answer Jesus gives is his very self. ”Whatever the disciples may ask, Jesus will keep offering not simply answers but himself.”[3]

This is what he means when he says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (14:14) Jesus does not promise to be our short order cook, serving up whatever we demand of him to satisfy our own desires.

Jesus promises himself, fully surrendered to glorify the Father. As we act on his behalf to do the works he did, and even greater works than these, he invites us to that same life of surrender.

[1] Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1994
[2] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3218
[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-5-a-jesus-real-presence/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28…In+the+Meantime%29

Awakening to Faith – Sermon on John 20:19-31 for Easter 2A

April 23, 2017
Watch the video here.

It’s still Easter. Put yourself in the upper room for a moment. Imagine what it was like to have waited there together over the Sabbath, hiding behind locked doors. All your hopes and dreams have been crushed. The One you thought would free you from oppression has been brutally executed. You are afraid.

Then something happens that you can’t quite explain, and you aren’t sure you can believe. Some of the women have gone to the tomb early in the morning, and they come back breathlessly exclaiming that the tomb is empty. He isn’t there. They babble on about seeing angels. Something about “he is risen!” Could it be true?

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31

If you compare these two appearances of the risen Christ, they are nearly the same. The door is locked. Jesus suddenly stands in the middle of the room and says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows his hands and side to prove he is the same Jesus they saw die on the cross, but who now is very much alive. After the disciples respond to this good news, Jesus says a few more words. The stories are almost identical.

But not quite.

For one thing, at the first appearance, Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and share the good news, and he breathes on them as he says, “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission happens moments before Jesus ascends into heaven, and in Luke’s version of the story, the disciples don’t receive the Holy Spirit until Pentecost.

But John never was much for chronology. His story is less concerned with making the dates match up, and more concerned with getting the word out: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
Believe the Good News!

And keep in mind that for John, believing is always a verb, never the noun “belief.” And believing – or “faithing,” if there were such a word in English – is such an important concept that this verb appears six times in this passage, and 90 more times throughout the rest of John’s gospel.

Believing is more than intellectual agreement. It’s more than understanding or accepting an idea as true. Believing means trusting, or having faith in something. Believing is what John is very eager for us to do. And once we believe that Jesus is the Christ, it is a short leap to receive the Holy Spirit and be sent out to help others see, so they, too, may believe.

If those Jesus sends fail to share their faith effectively, others will remain stuck in their unbelief; their sins will be retained. They won’t experience forgiveness. (20:23) The stakes of this mission are high. And because the stakes are high, Jesus has to make sure each disciple is convinced of the truth. All the disciples must see for themselves that Jesus has been raised from death to new life.

Seeing is believing for John. “Come and see” weaves its way throughout the gospel story. We find it in the first chapter, when Jesus meets the first disciples who have been following John the Baptist, and they ask where he is staying. “Come and see,” he says (John 1:39).

A few verses later, when Philip invites Nathaniel to meet Jesus, Nate asks, “Can any thing good come out of Nazareth?” and Philip says, “Come and see” (1:46). Then the Samaritan woman at the well runs to tell her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29) and when Jesus arrives four days too late in Bethany, he asks Mary and Martha where they’ve buried Lazarus. “Come and see,” they tell him (11:34).

In fact, we find some form of the word “see” more than twenty times throughout John’s gospel, and ‘seeing’ means everything from physical sight to full understanding[1].

But Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to his friends. Thomas did not see Jesus. The disciples tell him later, just as Mary told them last week, “We have seen the Lord.” Thomas is skeptical, just as they had been, only moments before Jesus showed up.

So, a week later, Jesus goes through the whole appearing routine again, only this time, it’s for Thomas’ benefit. While the other disciples simply rejoiced when they recognized the risen Savior, Thomas offers a confession that is profound and personal: “MY Lord and MY God,” he cries out. Not just “the” Lord. Not just “Son of the Living God,” but MY Lord and MY God. In an instant, he moves from skepticism to trust. Thomas “sees.” All the disciples see.

Because Jesus keeps showing up. He repeatedly appears to those who need some visual proof he has risen. He doesn’t judge or criticize, he just keeps showing up unexpectedly until they get it. He offers shalom three times, twice in the first visit and then again, just for Tom.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says. Shalom. The disciples were afraid, but this time, when Jesus appears, he doesn’t give the “Stop being afraid, fear not” greeting that we have come to expect when a messenger from God shows up. Instead, he offers peace. Over and over again.

But notice that this risen Christ also offers some astounding evidence to prove he is who they can barely believe he is. Instead of showing them himself in flawless resurrected glory, he holds out his hands, and shows them his side. He offers his wounds, symbols of his own vulnerable humanity, as proof of his identity.

This is the same Christ who breathes Holy Spirit on a room full of people mere hours after walking out of a tomb. And here he is, not once but twice, offering peace from wounded hands that have felt the ultimate pain and suffering a human can experience. But pain, grief, and wounds are not signs of weakness. Rachael Keefe [2] writes,

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that perfection is to be prized and that we should keep other things quiet. This mindset is causing us harm. If the risen Christ identified himself by his wounds, then why do we go to such extremes to hide our own?

We are enamored with perfection in western culture. We must look perfect, act perfect, be perfect. We shy away from any displays of imperfection. … How many people are afraid to be honest about their own struggles for fear of judgment? For fear of being seen as weak or in need?

Funny how we have done this to one another when we worship a God who conquered death, but saw no reason to remove the marks of human frailty. The … marks of sin and death were clearly still visible, reminding us of our true nature. We are fragile and finite. We can bruise, bend, and break in countless ways for reasons sometimes beyond our understanding. Many things can wound us deeply. Why deny that? Why hide it?”

Keefe goes on to consider what it might look like in our worship if we offered each other our wounds, our pain, our vulnerability as frail human beings when we “pass the peace.” This might give “Peace be with you,” a new and profound meaning. It could help us recognize that we, as the church, embody a Christ who is both wounded and whole, just as we are. “Peace be with you” then becomes a reminder of healing and hope, not just a casual “Glad to see you” greeting.

“If the Son of God, the risen Christ, can use his wounds as proof of his life, experience, and identity, shouldn’t we be doing the same thing? Here I am. Here are my wounds. Touch them if you need to. I am God’s beloved. Peace be with you.” (Rachael Keefe)

This brings us to the purpose statement for John’s entire Gospel:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

The disciples who had lived and walked with Jesus, the ones who had watched him die and be buried, they all needed some visible sign that he was really alive again. Jesus gave it to them, as often as they needed to see it, so that they might believe. But we should not feel left out, just because we weren’t in that room on Easter night.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas. That’s us. We are the ones for whom John wrote his book, so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name.

Thomas gets a bum rap, I think, when we call him “Doubting Thomas.” After all, his confession of Jesus as Lord and God is the strongest statement of faith we can find in the gospels. Thomas is the one who told the others, “if he’s determined to go to Bethany, where his life has already been threatened, we might as well go die with him, too.”

This kind of faith, this kind of believing, includes a healthy dose of doubt. Frederick Buechner, put it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”[3]

Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for building faith. It is only when we ask the hard questions that God can provide us with answers to deepen our relationship with him. This is how God gives us tools to share our faith with others when life throws hard questions at them.

And maybe this is the reason John gives us the story of Thomas a week after the resurrection. To remind us that it is healthy to doubt, so that our believing, our “faithing” keeps awake and moving. And it is also healthy to recognize our risen Lord – not because of his white raiment or the halo artists paint around his head – but because of his deep wounds, still evident and fresh a week after he has conquered death once and for all.

Like Thomas, may you see those wounds and know that Christ sees yours.
Like Thomas, may you own your doubts, so that your faith may grow.
Like Thomas, may you bow before Jesus and say with assurance, “My Lord, and my God.” And through the very act of believing, amid your doubts, revealing your wounds, may you have life in his name.

[1] Richard Dietrich, Feasting on the Word,Year A Vol. 2, 397.
[2] Rachael Keefe: https://rachaelkeefe.wordpress.com/2017/04/20/blood-sweat-and-tears/
[3] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/10/26/doubt

Putting Down Your Jar – Sermon on John 4:5-42 (take two)

You can find the script for this message here. This account of the Samaritan woman at the well was first preached in 2014, a few months after I began an appointment as First UMC’s pastor. Three years later, this text fit quite well in the Unbinding Your Heart sermon series. So here is the updated version.

Sometimes, a first-person story gets to the heart of the matter more effectively than a description of events. Sometimes, talking about the Word doesn’t mean as much as simply speaking the Word from inside the story. So on this fourth Sunday of Lent in 2017 (third Sunday of Lent in Year A, if you follow the lectionary cycle), I put on a scarf and told the story of the Woman at the Well from her perspective. Here’s the video.

As you meet Christ at your own personal well, may you recognize what the people from Sychar recognized: Jesus is the Savior of the world. That means he is the Savior of you.  Believe this Good News!

Heading for Deep Water – Sermon on Luke 5:1-10

March 12, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

If you’re a guest today, you have come into a church that is on an exciting adventure with God! We’re spending the 6 weeks of Lent together inviting God to change us in any way that God wants to. The Spirit of God is moving in our church. Some of you have told me stories of the Spirit working as you talk about what’s happening with your small groups, your prayer exercises, and reading the book Unbinding Your Heart.

Would you like to join us? There’s still time to join a small group this week. In fact, one group meets right after coffee time in the pastor’s study today. There’s one early on Tuesday morning, and a couple of groups meet on Wednesday night as part of Family Night. Thursday options include an afternoon study and an evening group. Whichever group you join, we’ll bring you up to speed!

Here’s what we know so far: mainline Christian churches are rapidly declining in membership and influence in our country. We’ve grown reluctant to bring new people into Christian faith, and that reluctance prevents us from sharing our faith with others.

Last week, we explored why it makes a difference in our lives that we are Christians. We considered what our motivations might be for sharing the Christian faith with people who don’t have a faith. We considered that some of us don’t have a dramatic faith story to share, like Paul on the road to Damascus. Some of us are more like Ananias. Our personal stories might not be very dramatic, but God can use us as the domino that tips someone else into following Jesus.

In fact, there’s someone here today who has had just that kind of experience. I’d like to invite her to come share her story with you. Kris?

Continue reading

The Great Invitation: This, Not That – Sermon on Matthew 5:21-37

February 12, 2017
Epiphany 6A
View a video of this sermon here.

Effective teachers know that good corrective instruction starts with an evaluation of what the student has already mastered. That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s easier to help a student fix what needs to be fixed if you start by affirming what’s already going well. Good teachers point out the positives before they get to what needs to be improved. So, Jesus has begun his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with the good news: You are blessed, you are salt and light.

Jesus reminds us that God is at work, and we already are salt and light to the world, seasoning it with God’s love and shining God’s light into every dark corner. We also heard him insist that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

As Jesus digs deeper into what it means to live into the spirit of the Law, he makes it clear that being his follower requires more from us than obeying a few rules. In this week’s passage, Jesus is moving from the positives to what we, his students, need to improve, as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven. Continue reading

Persistence – sermon on Luke 18:1-8

October 16, 2016
Watch this sermon here.

In today’s passage, Luke explains a parable of Jesus before sharing the
parable itself. He only does this two other times. We will look at one of
these next week, when we read about the Pharisee and the tax collector,
and the other is the story of the Ten Talents. But the explanation Luke
gives here helps to focus our attention on the importance of staying
persistently connected to God.  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and
not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who
neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was
a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against
my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘
Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because
this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen
to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his
chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in
helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And
yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” -Luke 18:1-8

Let’s start at the end of this passage, and work our way backward. The
question Jesus asks at the conclusion of the story helps us understand it in
a way we might not see if we are in a hurry to read on to the next
passage. So let’s look backward first, to reflect on the parable of the
persistent widow and the unjust judge from the framework this question
gives us: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Jesus started this particular teaching back in Chapter 17 (verse 20) when
the Pharisees asked him when the Kingdom of God was coming. He tells
them,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor
will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of
God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent
widow closes this longer lecture about the coming of God’s Kingdom on
earth.  The Pharisees had asked “when?” but Jesus answers that how we wait is
much more important than knowing the exact moment. So he throws this
question back at the Pharisees: When the Son of Man comes, will he find
faith on the earth? In other words, will we be faithful to the end? This is
the crux of the matter – will Christ find faithfulness, trustworthiness
among his people when he comes again, whenever that may be?

Let’s go back a step further. Before Jesus asks if we will be faithful, he
assures us that God can always be trusted. God is faithful. Jesus says, “
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and
night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant
justice to them.” (Luke 18:7-8a)

Luke reminds us of the tension first century Christians were feeling
between the expected suddenness of Christ’s second coming, and their
perceived delay of that event. Peter had also written, “Do not ignore this
one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise,
as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to
perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, quoting Psalm 90:4)
God will not put off helping his people, but God does not operate on our
timeline – we exist on his. And rest assured that God will give justice. God
will make right the things that are wrong. God will surely heal what is
broken. But God’s patience should not be seen as procrastination. God is
showing mercy, giving us time to turn to him and seek forgiveness, to ask
him to make us whole.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Recent headlines might make you wonder if it’s possible. There is plenty
that is wrong and broken in our world, today as much as it was over 2000
years ago. Justice sometimes seems like a dream more than a possible
reality. We see disappointment and pain every day, as people are
murdered, others go without food or adequate shelter, leaders turn out to
be corrupt, governments stop functioning, and self-serving greed has a
higher social value than generosity toward others. Hatred seems to be on
the rise, and mercy is hard to find.

The unjust judge of this parable would fit right into today’s culture: he
doesn’t fear God, and he has no respect for people. He models the exact
opposite of the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor. The
judge only gives justice to get rid of the widow’s annoyance, not because
he cares about right and wrong. “Yet because this widow keeps bothering
me, I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out by
continually coming.’”

Quite literally, this phrase means, “so she won’t slap me in the face,” or “
so she won’t give me a black eye.” I don’t think the judge is too worried
about a poor widow assaulting him. The judge wants to avoid being
embarrassed – or shamed – by the widow’s constant badgering. And it is
that very badgering, the continual showing up on his doorstep to ask for
justice, that finally allows the widow to win over the unethical judge.

Let’s take a look at that widow. Jesus says, “In that city there was a widow
who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my
opponent.’” We don’t know who the opponent is, or what problem the
widow has with the opponent. We only know that she is seeking justice.
And she has her speech down to six words. Persistently, day after day, this
woman kept coming to the judge, saying, “Grant me justice against my
opponent.” What else could she do? This judge is her only hope.

You see, most women were very young, barely teenagers, when they
married, so the possibility of outliving their husbands was a very strong
one. There were many widows, but they weren’t necessarily old women.
The problem was that they often had no means of support when their
husbands died, especially if they had no sons to take responsibility for
them and care for them. They did not inherit their husband’s estate – it
went to another male member of the family. If a widow stayed with her
husband’s family, she became little more than a servant in the household.
If she went back to her own family, the bride price had to be paid back to
the husband’s family. Many times, widows were sold as slaves to pay off
their husband’s debts.

With all this in mind, it’s a wonder this widow even tried to seek justice.
Yet here she is, day after day, relentlessly asking an unjust judge to give
her justice against her opponent. “How much more will God give justice to
those who ask him?” Jesus seems to be saying. If a crooked judge can be
convinced to do what is right, even if it’s for the wrong reasons, how much
more will God show mercy to those he loves?

God’s love is not only persistent, but also just. God’s loving justice, made
evident in Christ’s cross and resurrection, reveals not only God’s persistent
response to individual sin, but also God’s powerful and persistent
resistance against the unjust powers that be. Which makes me wonder if I’
ve been looking at this parable through the wrong lens.
What if God is not represented in this story by the judge, but by the
persistent widow seeking justice? Certainly, comparing God to an unjust
judge can only work from the “how much more?” viewpoint. But what if
Jesus is actually asking us to see God through the eyes of this persistent
widow seeking justice? And what if the unjust judge who will only do the
right thing to avoid further embarrassment is … me?

Methodist pastor and poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes:

God is not the judge, but the widow.

Jesus says, “Do not judge,” but still we judge.

We fail to fear God and respect other people.

God comes to us among the powerless,

the orphan, the widow, the Crucified One,

pleading for justice.

So busy with what we want,  

we don’t hear what God wants.

But God keeps coming, keeps pleading for justice.

She does not shout, does not lift up her voice,  

but calmly, confidently, again and again she comes.

She will wear us out with her continual coming,

until we do justice. …”
(Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light, October 13, 2016)  

That brings us back to the beginning of the story, and the reason Luke
gives us for this parable of Jesus: “Then Jesus told them a parable about
their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Many times, I think, we focus on the ‘need to pray’ part of this
explanation, and we ignore the need ‘not to lose heart.’ Jesus was
teaching his disciples the same persistence he had learned from the
Father. Jesus knew what each disciple would have to face after he was
gone, and he wanted to be sure they were prepared for what was to
come. Luke uses these words of Jesus to remind his readers, decades
later, that they should also not lose heart as they wait for Christ to come
again. And he wrote them down so that other believers, centuries later,
would also be encouraged.

Certainly Luke spends a lot of ink describing the importance of prayer.
Jesus holds up this persistent widow as a model for effective prayer, but
he isn’t talking about mindlessly repeating the same prayers over and over
again. The persistence in prayer Jesus asks of us is a faithful pursuit of
God’s justice in the world.

Praying is simply pouring out our hearts to God, who will always be faithful
to hear us. It means trusting in God, and not in ourselves. It means
constantly hoping for the time when God will make things right, convinced
that God’s justice will prevail over evil.  Just as the widow kept coming to the judge, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds; so we are to keep praying, determined, relentless,
hoping against all odds. Not because we are “good Christians” or because
our faith is strong, but because God’s Holy Spirit has given us the courage
to pray without ceasing in a broken and scary world, that God’s Kingdom
will come and God’s will shall be done. If we are to be found faithful when
the Son of Man comes, we must keep praying, and not lose heart.

And what is it that we should pray for? The widow gets it right. Our
prayers must be for justice. Not our petty desires or what we think we
need – for God already knows what we need before we ask, and many
times what God knows we need and what we think we need are not at all the same thing. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will
to be done. We must not lose heart or become weary with waiting for
Christ to come again to deliver us, once and for all, from the pain and
brokenness we see all around us. We must persist in hope, persist in
prayer, and persist in seeking justice until the Lord comes.

Christ’s coming is still in the future, but God’s patience is at work in the
present. The parable assures us that God will save his people. The concern
is not when this will happen, but its certainty, and the necessity for us to
live in readiness and faithfulness.
Will Jesus come again, as he promised? Absolutely. Will God bring justice
to the world? Without a doubt. Will we be faithful until that time, pursuing
justice and working for the Kingdom of God? May it be so!

Let us pray.

“… Persistent God,

help us listen to your cries in the poor,

to your whisperings in our hearts,

to the light in your silence.

We still our minds, cease our judging, and listen.

In our hearts, a river flowing, we listen.

In the unsaid billion prayers, we listen.

We keep praying and do not lose heart. “ (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)

Help us to see injustice around us, and to work for the kind of justice that
only comes from you. We don’t ask for fairness, Lord, because sometimes
fairness isn’t just. We ask for your justice, which always includes mercy.
We ask for your justice, which always means sacrifice. We ask for your
justice, that your Kingdom might come and your will might be done here
on earth, even as it is in heaven. Make us instruments of your peace, and
advocates for those who seek justice in an unjust world. Amen.

The Good Confession – Sermon on 1 Timothy 6:6-19

October 2, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

We’ve been reading through Adam Hamilton’s book “Half Truths” on Wednesday night. Each chapter considers a common saying that sounds like it could come from the Bible – but it doesn’t. For example, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is often meant to encourage someone going through a difficult time. But the Bible verse most people associate with this saying is talking about temptation, not hardship.

In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we read, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” So, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” is a half truth. It’s partly true, but the scripture verse is actually talking about withstanding temptation, not suffering through hardship.

There are a couple more copies of the book out on the table, and you are welcome to pick one up if you’d like to read the last couple of chapters with us.

I think Adam Hamilton could have added a chapter to his book, with a half truth that comes from the passage we are about to read today. You’ve probably heard “Money is the root of all evil” – and maybe you’ve even said it yourself. But in the first letter to Timothy, this isn’t exactly what we hear, if we listen carefully.

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 

It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:6-19)

We began this series four weeks ago, as we heard Jesus describe the high cost of discipleship. Jesus demands our complete commitment. You’re either all in, or you can’t call yourself a disciple. Our journey through the letters to Timothy has shown us that the call to discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s grace. It’s a call to prayer, and to sharing our stories of faith with each new generation, so we can remain faithful to right teaching.

Jesus did a lot of teaching about money, so it may be fitting that we close out this series with a look at what stewardship means to faithful followers of Christ, especially since our annual stewardship drive begins next week! But is this passage really about money? Or is that just another half truth? Let’s take a closer look.

If this passage of scripture were a sandwich, the “bread” would certainly be those verses about money. The top slice of bread includes that often-misquoted verse about the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Note that it isn’t money itself, but loving money that is the problem. Loving money is just another form of idolatry.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself,” we hear in the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27). Loving money instead of God and neighbor, or more than God and neighbor, gets us into all sorts of trouble. And that trouble affects everyone around us.

Like the pastor who left ministry because his church wouldn’t give him a raise when his family grew to include 5 kids. So he left the church. He went into business, and was pretty successful. But something shifted somewhere along the line, and getting more money became the most important thing in his life. He forged some checks, and spent fifteen years in prison. When he was finally released on parole, he was too ashamed to stay in contact with his children. Within five years, he was a homeless, unemployable alcoholic who died by suicide. Not only was his own life ruined by his desire for money, but his family suffered, his business associates suffered, and the church he left suffered. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

But thanks be to God, the letter to Timothy doesn’t end there! Having bitten into the bread of warning about loving money, we get to the meat of this passage: the Good Confession.

There are basically two kinds of confession found in the New Testament – confessions of sin, and confessions of faith. Confession of sin leads us to repentance and newness of life. Confessing our sin looks backward to what we have been and what we have done, and says “I’m sorry. I don’t want to live that way anymore. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Confession of faith looks forward to what God promises us in the person of Jesus Christ. It gives us something firm to grasp, as we live in new ways as children of God. What does this new life of discipleship look like?

“But as for you, man of God,” the letter to Timothy reads, “shun all this” – in other words, flee from pursuing material wealth. Instead, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (v 11).

Does this list sound familiar? Some of these attributes sound a lot like the list of spiritual gifts we find in Galatians 5:22-23 – “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

And it isn’t just Paul who writes about these things. In 2 Peter 1:5-7 we read, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.”

These are attributes of a true disciple of Jesus Christ:

Righteousness
Godliness
Faith
Love
Endurance
Gentleness

The letter continues:
Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

Make the good confession, just as you did when you were baptized. Just as Jesus did when he stood before Pilate on the night he was betrayed.

When Pilate asked him if he was a king, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. … my kingdom is from another place, … In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth” (John 18:36-37).

In Romans 10:9-10, Paul writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.”

This is the good confession that Peter made when Jesus asked “But who do you say that I am?” Peter didn’t hesitate: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” (Matthew 16:15-16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20) There is no greater truth than this, that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This sums up the core of Christian teaching and belief.

God is the Living God, ever eternally always God – not like those idols of wealth and power that do not last – and Jesus is his only Son, who came to give us life. No wonder this letter breaks out into a hymn of praise!

“He … is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

This is the meat, the good confession, that Jesus is Lord.

Which brings us to the bottom slice of bread – the proper use of money, now that we have tasted the goodness of the Lord.

In his sermon on “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” He didn’t hold up poverty as a virtue, any more than Jesus did. Jesus went to the poor to offer them abundance, and Wesley advises us to use that abundance wisely – earning, saving, and giving as much as possible in faithful stewardship.

In another sermon (Sermon 92  “On Zeal,” point 5), Wesley lists character traits that are very similar to Paul’s list of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. He says that these traits lie close to the center of lives ruled by the love of God and neighbor. Wesley tells us that we develop these traits as we engage in acts of mercy and personal piety.

Dawn Chesser writes,Despite all he has written about the dangers of pursuing wealth (verses 9-10), Paul does not advise cutting the wealthy off from the congregation, nor in any way condemning them for their wealth. Not at all. Rather he advises that leaders guide the wealthy among them to “do good, be rich in good works, generous, ready to share” (verse 18, NRSV). In short, pursue the works of mercy, not neglecting the works of piety. Take time, intentionally, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit jails and prisons, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, make peace and resolve conflicts, and work for the common good. Works of mercy are for all a means of cultivating both personal spiritual growth and the greater good of the wider community.

Wealth is neither the reward nor the measure of a church for saving sinners. Love is. And so [followers of Jesus] are to invest themselves, their time, their energy, and their financial and physical resources in engaging the works of mercy by which the fruit of the Spirit becomes most fully known, exercised, and improved within and through us.”

“We pursue what we love, or want to love. Paul is clear. The love of money is completely inconsistent with saving sinners … To be consistent with saving sinners, [we] first must … actively pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (verse 11, NRSV).”[1]

Next week, we begin our stewardship campaign. You’ll be hearing from members of our congregation each week, as they share their own personal experiences of God’s activity in their lives. They will tell us how they have seen that activity bear fruits of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Following Jesus isn’t always about the money – in fact, it usually is not about the money. It’s about consistently making the good confession that Jesus is Lord, so that we may “take hold of the life that really is life.” Amen.

 

 

[1] Dawn Chesser , http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/nineteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-c-2016