Category Archives: Faith

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

Called to Receive Mercy – Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

September 11, 2016

The books of First and Second Timothy, and Titus are called “pastoral letters.” They were written to encourage young pastors of new churches in the first century. Each letter includes some teaching about doctrine, because there was a lot of controversy early on concerning what Christians should believe, and how they should live.

It was hard to make up rules for living, without falling into the trap of becoming all about the rules, and not about faith. That had been the problem in Jewish religious practice, and the early church wanted to avoid it.

They wanted to keep the main thing the main thing: faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen, and ascended into glory. Living out that faith in Jewish society was difficult enough, but living out that faith in a pagan society, like Ephesus, was even more challenging.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore discipleship through the letters to Timothy. As pastor of the church at Ephesus, Timothy and his congregation faced the same questions we do today. How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

  • This week, we take a look at Paul’s experience of being called into Christ’s service. We will see how discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s mercy.
  • Next week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord.
  • On the 25th, we will skip ahead to 2nd Timothy, to see how discipleship requires aligning ourselves with sound teaching,
  • and on World Communion Sunday, as we begin our Fall pledge campaign, we will consider how stewardship is an important part of discipleship.
  • But it’s all about how to follow Jesus, once we’ve received him as our Savior. And who better than a first century apostle, writing to the early church, to help us learn how to follow Jesus?

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

To fully understand this passage, we need to remember the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), and studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day in Jerusalem, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul joined the Pharisees, and was vigorous in his defense of Jewish traditions.

In his zeal, Saul persecuted the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On his way to Damascus, determined to arrest any who “belonged to the Way,” as the early church movement was called, he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that changed his life, and Christ called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1).[1]

Paul’s story gives us a dramatic example of what repentance looks like – turning away from sin, and going in a new direction as a follower of Jesus. We need to remember that Paul wasn’t turning away from one religion to follow a new one. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Paul’s conversion was within his understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. He repented of being a Pharisee, and began to live out his Jewish faith in God in a new way, as a disciple of Jesus.

Before this experience, Saul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). Afterward, Paul became someone who rejected violence, and also the impressive rhetoric prized by the culture of the day.

Instead, Paul sought Christ to empower his speaking and strengthen his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). Paul repented from persecuting Christians and turned toward leading them; from promoting violence, to peace.

Paul saw clearly that what had happened to him was not his own doing. It was by the grace of God that Jesus had appeared to him on the road, and called him to become someone new. The only right response, in the face of such undeserved mercy, is gratitude. And Paul pours out his thanks to God for this amazing gift of love, mercy, and faith.

Paul recognizes that he doesn’t deserve this gift. After all, he had been operating against God’s purposes when he persecuted the church. Paul says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” He knew who Jesus was, certainly. But he didn’t know Jesus personally. His ignorant unbelief was grounded in the assumption that he was acting in God’s will, when in fact, he was acting in opposition to God’s purpose. Yes, he thought he was serving God and taking a stand for what he believed to be right. But he was wrong.

How often we do this! We think we have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and we stand up to what we think is evil, when we are really opposing God – because we are acting out of our own assumptions instead of God’s mercy! Yet God’s grace overflowed in faith and love for Paul, and God’s grace overflows in faith and love for us, too.

If you analyze these few verses, you will find that there are really only two sentence subjects: Paul, and Jesus. It’s personal, and it’s relational, this mercy and grace that Paul has experienced. For Paul, experience is more important than doctrine. The reality of knowing Jesus is more important than anything you might believe about Jesus.

There’s a phrase that identifies the core teaching of this passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” It occurs throughout the pastoral letters, and it may have even been part of the developing liturgy of the early church. It identifies key elements of belief, things we can all agree are the important tenets of our faith. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul tells Timothy. This is the main thing that needs to always be the main thing.

Christ came to save sinners. The missio Dei – or mission of God – has always been clear: To seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), as we heard earlier in the gospel parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).

Last week, I mentioned that we can get stuck here, so eager to see sinners saved that we focus all our attention on conversion. But that’s God’s job. Our mission is also clear.

In the Great Commission Jesus says: “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It doesn’t say, “Go convince people to believe in me, and then leave them on their own to figure out how to follow me.”

Jesus came to save sinners, to redeem us for the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, and that salvation transforms us into something new, something that continues to grow deeper in faith as we follow Jesus by his grace and mercy. Jesus came to save sinners, who then become disciples, following him day by day, moment by moment, growing ever closer to him, becoming more and more like him.

Paul adds his own personal testimony to this statement of faith:
“—of whom I am the foremost.”
This is the gospel: Jesus came to save sinners – and I’m the worst one.

And that brings us right back to Mercy and Grace. It’s because I am the worst sinner on earth that I can experience this amazing grace, this abundant mercy and forgiveness. Verse 16 says, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

This is why God shows me mercy: so that I can be an example to anyone else who wants to come to Jesus, but thinks they aren’t worthy, or don’t qualify for such grace. None of us qualify. So all of us who have received God’s mercy can show others, “no matter how bad you think you are, if Jesus could forgive me, Jesus can forgive you.”

Just as Jesus called Paul to turn on the road to Damascus and begin a new life in Christ, he calls us to turn on our road to wherever we think we’re going, and follow him. This act of repentance has to happen over and over again, not because Jesus changes the path we are to follow, but because we keep wandering away from it. Just like Saul, we think we are doing the right thing, and in our stubbornness we fail to see that we are opposing God’s good purpose for us.

That’s why we have each other, to encourage one another along the road, to hold one another accountable for staying true to the way of Christ. Following Jesus is a relational endeavor.

God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. When we stray, lose our way, or even run from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. To answer the call to receive mercy, 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. Receiving mercy 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 what can we say to such amazing grace, to such profound mercy?

Paul has an answer for this question. The only thing we can do is praise God for his goodness, and thank him for his mighty love. Our lives praise God. Our prayers and songs give God glory. And as we lift our voices and show our gratitude by the way we live, encouraging one another and helping each other stay true to the gospel, we become examples to those who would come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.”

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Christian Eberhart, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1768

Counting the Cost – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

September 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.

One of the first phrases I learned to speak when I lived in Germany was, “Wie viel kostet es?” “How much does it cost?” I had to know how much things were worth, to stay within the budget dictated by the cash in my hand whenever I went to the market. What we ate depended on its cost. If the cost was too high, we didn’t eat it!

I am not a “shopper.” I don’t enjoy looking at rows and rows of merchandise with an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude. It may be because whenever I see something I really like, it’s way outside my budget. I know I’m in trouble if the price tag isn’t visible, because: “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. He knows that this will be his last journey, that the price tag on this trip is high, and it isn’t negotiable.

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
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?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

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.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)

Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him! Have you 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. So he turns to the crowd and tells them, “Unless you’re serious about following me, you might as well go home!”

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. We need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus, because the cost is high.

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.

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. So, the Greek word misew can be translated as “hate” but it also means disregard, be indifferent to, or to love one thing less than something else. 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. 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, 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 faces around him turn somber as his words started to sink in. Whenever Jesus found that his words were too hard for people to hear, he turned to one of his favorite teaching strategies – telling parables.

“If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and 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 sit down and figure out if your army was strong enough to defeat the enemy?”

But there are three things about these little parables we may miss if we read them too quickly. First, Jesus tells us that the process of building or going to battle starts with sitting down. Counting the cost requires some thoughtful pondering before any action can take place. In the same way, we can’t follow Jesus any old way it suits us. We have to carefully consider the commitment we are making.

Second, Jesus focuses on outcomes. Counting the cost indicates that there is some end in mind, some goal to be reached. You don’t start building a tower unless you plan to finish it. You don’t head into battle unless you think you can overcome the enemy. You don’t follow Jesus unless you want your life to be changed forever.

Finally, 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. There is no price tag visible, so you can’t afford it.

But Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Not only do we need to count the cost, that cost is everything we hold valuable. We have to bid farewell to everything we call our own. We have to leave behind everything that matters most to us.

And 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. This isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done thing. It’s an ongoing, day-by-day, moment-by-moment surrender to God’s grace and mercy.

To be a disciple of Jesus you must know that the cost will be putting Jesus first, and everything else last. That starts the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus, and it does not stop. Ever. There is no 401K plan for being a Christian. You don’t retire from following Jesus, to live off the investment of your past discipleship. Every day starts anew. Every moment requires your full commitment. And if you aren’t willing to give your all, Jesus says, you cannot call yourself one of his followers.

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. We can’t hold anything back, if we want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Because there is no way to “sort of” take up your cross. There is no way to follow Jesus on your own terms, when it is convenient to you. You can’t follow Jesus for the way it makes you feel about yourself or the way others admire your piety. You must surrender everything to Christ, or you aren’t really a follower.

The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. 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? In his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard lists the things we lose if we don’t follow Jesus with our whole being. He 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.”

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth giving up abiding peace to live life on your own terms? Is it worth sacrificing a life penetrated by love to settle for having things the way you like them? Is it worth cutting yourself off from faith that trusts in God’s overarching plan for your good, in order to run your life the way you want to? Is it worth giving up hope, and the power to stand in the face of evil? Is it worth it to you to say “No” to God’s abundance, so you can skimp by on your own meager resources? Because that’s what it costs to not take up your cross.

Notice that I am not talking about salvation here. I am talking about discipleship. I grew up in a church that focused all its attention on getting people saved, but it failed to teach those new believers how to follow Jesus and make him Lord of their lives once they’d experienced that salvation. Jesus wants to do more for us than save us from our sins, as important as that is. Jesus wants to give us abundant life, to deepen our relationship with him as we grow in faith. Jesus wants us to be his true disciples.

When we say “yes” to following Jesus, when we surrender our will to his will, something amazing happens. Bit by bit, we are changed. Each time we keep saying “yes, Lord, I leave behind everything to follow you,” we are re-formed. We are transformed, becoming more and more like Christ. We experience abundant life, by God’s grace. And we discover that the cost of following Jesus, that we thought we couldn’t possibly afford, is worth it all. Because the price has already been paid out of God’s deep love for us, and when we give our all to Christ, we receive so much more!

As we come to this Table, prepared for all who desire to follow Jesus, he invites you to count the cost. Don’t come out of habit, or because you want others to see you doing the right thing. Don’t come to prove yourself righteous, because none of us is righteous on our own. When you come to this Table, come to offer yourself, body, mind and soul, to the One who died to save you, who rose again to redeem you, and who will come again to claim you as his own. When you come to this Table, having counted the cost, come as a true follower of Jesus Christ, ready to leave behind everything you ever thought was important, so that you can take up your cross and follow Him. Amen.

Clothed in Christ – Sermon on Colossians 3:12-17

July 31, 2016
View a video of this sermon here. 

Did you ever play “Dress Up” when you were little? Maybe you dressed up as a superhero, or you put on your parents’ clothes to play a game of make-believe, pretending you were all grown up. Maybe you put on a costume for Halloween, or to act out your part in the Christmas pageant. Whatever you put on, it gave you permission to be someone different for a short time, to pretend you had more power or grace or holiness than you actually possessed. You could be someone new.

A couple of years ago, I listened to an interview with one of the actors from Downton Abbey. She described how putting on those amazing period costumes affected her. Her posture changed, even the way she spoke suddenly became more refined. Wearing the costume automatically put her into the character she was portraying. Putting on the dress made her into someone new.

Maybe this is why Paul chooses to use clothing as a metaphor in his letter to the Colossians. Paul writes about taking off the old self and clothing ourselves in the new life in Christ. Colossians 3:1-11 tells us to strip away everything from our lives that is not of God, so that we can put on the new self, the self that is constantly being restored to bear the image of God. In that process, Paul tells us, there is no longer any identity that matters, except for Christ, who is all and in all.

But, even though the assigned reading for today ends there, Paul does not! He goes on to describe what we are to put on, once we have stripped away all the sinfulness and self-centeredness, and have given ourselves over completely to become followers of Jesus Christ.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17

This taking off the old and putting on the new that Paul describes is the essence of following Jesus. We renounce sin in all its forms and repent of our old, broken way of living for ourselves. Then we turn away from that life and toward the new life in Christ that is filled with grace and peace. We begin living for God, and in the process, we become more and more like Christ.

Clothe yourself with Christ’s attributes of humility and gentleness, forgiveness and love, Paul tells us. As we consciously begin to wear these attributes, we may find that they don’t fit very well at first. They won’t fit at all if we try to put them on without first taking off the pride and anger, the lying and the fear that marked our old life.

For Christ’s goodness to live in us and fit us well, we must strip off everything that connects us to sin. Then, and only then, will the characteristics of Christ-likeness begin to fit. As they become more and more a part of our thinking and speaking and doing, we find that something else happens. Putting on these external behaviors does something to our internal spirit.

“Let Christ’s peace rule in your hearts,” Paul writes. What began as an outward change of behavior now becomes and inward change of heart. The peace of Christ begins to take over the way we think and behave, ruling not only our hearts, but also our actions.

It is important to remember that all of the Christ-like characteristics we are to put on are social ones. We are connected to one another, and as Christ’s body, we are sent into the world to connect with others, as well.

Kenneth Sehested writes, “There is more than functional purpose for being clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with one another, forgiving each other, binding us to each other – such work is not for the faint of heart. This is not conflict-avoidance advice. … This is about what to do when bare-knuckled emotional brawls break out.”[1]

Because they will. People whose lives are connected by a common purpose, as we are in the church, are bound to come into conflict with each other from time to time. The question isn’t whether, but how will we respond to that conflict when it arises.

When you avoid me because you are angry or disagree with me, it does damage, not only to the Body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to your witness to the world that is watching. When I confront you with anger or abusive language, it does damage, not only to the body of Christ to which we both belong, but also to my witness to a world that is always looking to see what makes us different because we follow Christ Jesus.

That’s why Paul puts one Christ-like virtue ahead of all the others. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony,” he writes. Even when we disagree, as we sometimes will, speaking the truth in love will keep us in harmony with one another, and keep our witness to the rest of the world intact.

Paul goes on to say, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” This change of heart, this movement from clothing ourselves in Christ to finding inward peace, happens when we immerse ourselves in the Word of God.

John W. Coakley writes, “The texts of the Bible … are not to be treated as objects to be understood, containers of ideas to be questioned or debated, rather, they are to be taken into oneself through the whole shape of daily life.”[2] The author of Hebrews puts it another way: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). When Christ’s word dwells in us richly, our lives bubble up in worship and praise, and we are filled to the brim with thanksgiving.

Giving God thanks and praise is the one thing you can do that will set you apart from the rest of the world. Because the rest of the world is busy trying to be self-sufficient, instead of God-dependent. The rest of the world is busy paying attention to its physical desires instead of seeking the Kingdom of God. The rest of the world is obsessed with hatred and fear, with anger and lies, instead of the love, peace, and truth that Christ offers to all who will call on his name and turn their lives over to him.

Three times in two verses, Paul reminds us to be thankful, to have gratitude in our hearts, to give God our thanks and praise in everything we do. The word for thanksgiving is Eucharist, a word we closely associate with worship. We don’t know if the early church was already using this word to mean Communion, as we use it now, but it’s helpful to remember that we call it Eucharist because the solemn rite we follow in this sacrament always begins with something called the Great Thanksgiving.

Paul tells us that, having put off the old sinful self, and having put on Christ, our hearts are transformed by Christ’s peace as we take God’s Word into ourselves. The only response we can offer to such a great gift is our continual thanks and praise. Our lives become lives of worship, so that everything we do or think or say is done in the name of Jesus, even as we give thanks to God through Christ.


A church was looking for a new pastor, and the District Superintendent (DS) sat down with church leaders to talk about what they wanted to see in this new person. “Someone who can attract young families,” they said. This made sense, because the church had been in decline for many years, and the congregation was aging. So the DS asked them, “what is it about your church that young families would find attractive now?”

They looked at each other, then at the floor.
“Well, what attracted you to this church when you first started to come here?” the DS asked encouragingly.

“It’s the fellowship. This is where I can see my friends every week, and we can catch up with each other’s lives,” one woman replied. “It’s where I get a sense of belonging, where my friendships were formed.”

The DS thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, and these days, people who are under the age of 35 with children can get that same sense of belonging and friendship building at their kids’ soccer games, or other sports activities. They build friendships with other parents whose kids are involved in the same things their kids are involved in. They don’t need church for ‘fellowship,’” the DS said. “What else?”

“Well, church is where I get involved in helping other people. We work at the food pantry or take a meal to the homeless shelter, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that,” said one man.

“Yes, and people who are under the age of 35 do those things, too. They just don’t need a church to help them do it. They are very involved in social justice issues, but they work through secular organizations to get that same satisfaction,” the DS told them. “What else?”

The room was silent. Someone coughed.

Finally, the DS said, “What’s the one thing that church has to offer that soccer teams and social agencies often don’t? … Anyone?”

Still no answer.

“Okay, look at it this way. What difference has being part of this church made to your faith? How has following Jesus Christ, as a member of this congregation, changed your life?”

“Oh pastor,” one man grumbled, “You don’t want to go there. That’s getting too personal!”

“Well,” the DS answered, “it’s the one thing you have going for you that other social groups and service groups don’t. The one thing the church can claim as its own is Jesus, and if you can’t identify how Jesus has changed your life, what makes you think anyone else would be attracted to your church?”


Sometimes it’s the people in the pews who need Jesus the most.

When we put on Christ, we look different, we act differently, we speak differently, because we not only wear Christ on the outside, we are filled with Christ from the inside. And it shows. People notice. They become curious, and want to know why our lives are different from theirs, why we have peace and joy in abundance, whatever the circumstances are, why we aren’t greedy like everyone else, why we aren’t consumed with lust, why we aren’t angry all the time, why we don’t resort to slander and gossip and foul language.

If no one is noticing how your life is different from theirs, why is that? If no one is asking you how you have such peace, why is that? If no one is remarking about the joy you always show, why aren’t they? If no one can see Christ in you, ask yourself why.

Could it be that you haven’t really been changed, that you have not ever experienced the transformation Christ offers to all who will call him Lord? Is it possible that the person who needs Jesus most is you?

If you are like the person who comes to church to see your friends, but Christ hasn’t changed your life and made you new, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.

If you come to church for the satisfaction of serving others, maybe it’s time for you to strip off the old you and clothe yourself in Jesus Christ.

If you talk one way at church, but your language at home and at work is laced with criticism and slander and abusive talk, maybe it’s time for you to cast off the old you and clothe yourself “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Maybe it’s time for you to start bearing with your sisters and brothers in Christ, and if you have a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you.

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

[1] Kenneth Sehested, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, 160.

[2] John W. Coakley, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, 162.