Tag Archives: discipleship

Growing Pains: A Sermon from the Book of Acts

This sermon was preached for Winthrop Evangelical Covenant Church on October 23, 2022, as part of a series on Understanding the New Testament. A video of this message is available here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an honor to be with you today, as you continue your journey through scripture to discover God’s great plan of redemption. God is on a mission to redeem the world, and God is fulfilling that mission through the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, to recap the last few weeks, or bring you up to date if you are joining us now for the first time, we know that:

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Rocky Road – Wednesday of Holy Week

Read Psalm 70 and John 13:21-32

The farmer from North Dakota shook his head as he looked out the bus window. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many rocks,” he said. We were in the middle of day three of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I realized a farmer from North Dakota probably had a unique view of the landscape of Israel.

Rocks mean work. Rocks must be cleared before plowing and planting can happen. And the farmer was right: rocks were everywhere we looked. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus talked about seed landing on rocky soil. Here was clear evidence that Jesus used common experience to get through to his listeners. They would have known exactly what he meant by “rocky soil.” Rocks dotted every green hillside, every lush valley. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many rocks.

The season of Lent is nearing its end. We often describe the season of Lent as a journey toward the Cross, a path we follow to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

But that path can be a rocky one. Judas had a hard time keeping up, because Jesus wasn’t going the direction Judas thought he should. Judas stumbled over his own ideas about what Messiah should be. In the end, it cost him everything.

The roads Jesus walked were not always smoothly paved. When we choose to follow Jesus, we accept the challenge of walking where we might not otherwise want to go. The season of Lent gives us an opportunity to examine our hearts, and to recommit ourselves to the Way of the Cross. This Way is often steep and difficult to follow. It may be littered with rocks that can trip us up if we aren’t careful. But Jesus leads us on, giving us sure footing if we look to him.

Will you join the journey to the Cross, and learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?

“Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” – Matthew 11:6

Original artwork by Rev. Chris Suerdieck, used with permission.

Getting Closer to the Kingdom – sermon on Mark 12:28-34

Confirmation Sunday, October 31, 2021
Video

It’s Confirmation Sunday! Over the past several months, three young women have been exploring their faith to determine what they believe, and why they believe it. We’ve had some interesting conversations! If they’ve learned anything at all, they’ve learned that easy answers are never enough, and sometimes finding answers to our questions just raises more questions.

We joke sometimes that Confirmation is too often like graduating from church – once teenagers get confirmed, we never see them or their families again. But that isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.

These confirmands are just beginning a journey of faith that will carry them into adulthood. This isn’t the end of the road – it’s the starting line. This is where we equip young people with the basic tools of faith, and teach them how to use those tools, to continue to grow into Christ-likeness. As they move into the next stage of faith development, we the church come alongside them, helping them get closer to the Kingdom of God.

We just heard a couple of scripture passages that highlight the way the Law of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Our gospel reading for today connects the dots between these two ideas – Law and Grace. It’s perfect for Confirmation Sunday! As these confirmands have wrestled with what they believe over the past few months, they have had to consider how the Law and Grace intersect at the point of personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark introduces us to a scribe – one of those legal experts who have been trying, along with the Pharisees, to trap Jesus. Only this particular scribe has been paying attention. He sees something in Jesus the others don’t see. And Jesus sees something in him we might not expect. Jesus can tell this particular scribe – just like our confirmands – is getting closer to the kingdom of God.

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.
– Mark 12:28-34

What’s the most important commandment of all?

613 rules define what was known as The Law. But the first rule, the first commandment in the Ten Commandments, is known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel!” The Lord our God, the Lord is One!” Or, as our modern translations put it: Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord! This acclamation of who God is doesn’t even sound like a Commandment. It’s more of an affirmation of faith. Our God is the One, the Only One. Not a bunch of little statues made out of wood or stone, but a living, all-powerful being who made us to reflect that one-ness. Pretty powerful stuff, when you think about it.

But the second most important commandment of all does sound like a true command. Or does it? “You will…” (or ‘Thou shalt’) could mean “do this.” It could also mean “this is what will happen” – not so much a command, as a prediction.

Because when we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, doesn’t it just naturally follow that we will love our neighbor as ourselves? When loving God is at the very core of who we are, won’t we naturally want to include others in that vast love?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet, throughout history, we know that has never really been the case for God’s people. Maybe it’s because we don’t love God as deeply as we say we do. Maybe it’s because we get distracted by satisfying our own needs and desires, and forget to look out for the needs of others.

Whatever the reason, the simple truth is we don’t do a very good job of loving God or loving our neighbors. Left to our own devices, we would never even get close to the Kingdom of God. We might talk the talk, but we don’t do a very good job of walking the walk. No wonder people outside the church call us hypocrites.

Come to think of it, that’s what Jesus often called the scribes and Pharisees. Scribes just like this one, who notices Jesus is teaching real truth. This legal expert, who would normally be on the opposite side of any argument with Jesus, finds himself in complete agreement. Perhaps no one is more surprised about this than the scribe. “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom,” Jesus tells him. And I can’t help but imagine these two men locking eyes in mutual recognition, nodding to one another with a little smile that says, “You get me. Cool.”

But the best part of this story, in my opinion, is the last line. “After that, no one dared ask him any more questions.” It’s the first century Palestinian version of the mic drop. Boom.

But here’s the good news. You can ask Jesus anything. The ones who wouldn’t dare ask him any more questions were only trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him.

But when we recognize Jesus for who he is, when we see that the most important rule is the rule of love, and we start to live according to that rule, Jesus locks eyes with us and smiles. You’re getting closer to God’s kingdom, he tells us. Or, as John Wesley would say, “you’re going on toward perfection.”

In a moment, you will see a short video of a Zoom call among our candidates for confirmation. They will tell you what they can confirm about their faith right now. This is not the end of their story. It’s the beginning. I hope, as you listen, your own faith is kindled anew. I hope you find yourself coming maybe just another step closer to the kingdom of God.

Identity Crisis: Turning Point – Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28

August 30, 2020  – Pentecost + 13A

Note: this is the final sermon in the “Identity Crisis” series. The previous two weeks were preached by others, while I spent time with my family at my mother’s deathbed.  Watch this sermon on Vimeo.

We’ve been exploring the idea of an identity crisis in Matthew’s gospel these past few weeks. We’ve learned that the crisis isn’t just about how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. The crisis also stems from how we identify Christ at work in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to recognize Jesus, even when he stands right in front of us. Sometimes we doubt who he is, as Peter did when he tried to walk on water. But when we can name Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God – also as Peter did – we find our own identity as well.

Today’s passage from Matthew marks a turning point in the story. Continue reading

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

September 8, 2019

First, I’m not preaching a new sermon. I’ve trimmed the one from three years ago and will use it again this year because, well, it’s still true.

But there are two things I hope to emphasize this time that I’m not sure I made clear before. One is that knowing the cost of discipleship means knowing we can’t afford it. The price is too high, it’s beyond our capacity. And the other is that following Jesus means devoting our whole selves to following Jesus, not the way we follow him. Let me explain.

It is easy to get caught in the trap of believing that our particular method of following Jesus is the only way to do it. Because it works for us, we think it’s not only best, but anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus the way we do isn’t really following Jesus. Not only does this thinking bring us perilously close to judging others, our form of discipleship becomes more important to us than our relationship with Christ itself. And that’s just wrong.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me according to a particular formula,” or even “Follow me according to your understanding of scripture.” Jesus says, “If you want to be my disciple, you have to give up all your pre-conceived notions of what that means, and just stick close to me.” Discipleship means becoming a student of Christ, not a student of ‘following.”

Maybe I’m just picking at nits, but I think this is an important distinction. Christ calls us to follow Christ, not whatever form of Christianity we claim to practice. May I be faithful, may you be faithful, as we follow Jesus together.

Listen to Him – sermon on Luke 9:28-36 for Transfiguration C

March 3, 2019
This message is based on an outline provided by J.D. Walt for the Listen to Him Lenten study series.

A lot has happened since we left Jesus preaching on a level place last week. He has traveled all over Galilee, healing, casting out demons, preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God – and it seems that everywhere he goes, the Pharisees are on his trail. They question him and challenge him. They invite him to dinner, and then criticize him to the other guests. Those Pharisees…

By the time we get from chapter six – where we left off last week – to today’s reading in chapter 9, Jesus has even raised a young girl from the dead. He has fed 5000 people and calmed a storm in the middle of the lake. He has sent out his apostles on their first mission trip, and explained that whoever wants to follow Jesus must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow him. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will save it.

And then he tells them something really amazing. Jesus says, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God.” (9:27) He isn’t predicting that some of the disciples will live until the second coming. He’s telling them about an event that is just around the corner. Continue reading

From a Level Place – Sermon on Luke 6:17-26 for Epiphany 6C

February 13, 2022
Video

Today’s gospel reading reminds me of the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I have often heard this phrase applied to good preaching, and the words we are about to hear from Jesus certainly qualify. But I was surprised to learn that this phrase was first used to describe not preaching, but newspapers. Continue reading

Whoever You Are: Greatest & Least – Sermon on Mark 10:35-45

October 17, 2021
Video

I had a friend who worked really hard at appearing humble. In public, he was always putting himself down, always declining praise when he’d done something good. But in private, it was a different story.

One time he told me of a particularly generous thing he’d done for someone we both knew. And then he said, “But of course, I don’t want anyone to know it was me. Jesus says to give alms in secret.” And I thought, “but you just told me.” Continue reading

FaithWorks: The Implanted Word – sermon on James 1:17-27

August 29, 2021
VIdeo

Tradition tells us that the author of the book of James was the brother of Jesus. James was not one of the original twelve disciples – in fact, we have no evidence he even believed his brother was the Son of God until after the resurrection. However, James quickly became a leader among the believers in Jerusalem. And let’s remember that the church in Jerusalem was the flagship church of the whole Christian movement, so James was an important figure in the church’s early development. Paul even submitted to his authority (Acts 15:13-21).

In the greeting of this letter, James addresses “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1) so we can imagine that his intended audience includes Jewish followers of The Way who have fled from Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen. Christianity was in its early stages; it was still considered a Jewish sect. Continue reading

Gut-wrenching Compassion – Sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

July 18, 2021
Video

We’re working our way through the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel this month, taking a deep look at what it means to live like Jesus. It’s more than just doing what Jesus does, and saying what Jesus says. Living like Jesus means having the same purpose and identifying ourselves completely with Christ. This is an act of continual surrender.

So far, we’ve learned that we need to pay attention to interruptions, because that’s where God often shows up. But sometimes we have to really look for God in order to see God at work. And we have also been reminded to depend completely on God’s provision for us, if we want our lives to be fruitful. Last week, we learned that when evil seems to be winning the battle inside us and in the world around us, the only thing that can save us is finding our identity in Jesus Christ.

Mark likes to insert one story into another, and the story of John the Baptist’s execution last week was one of those insertions. Now Mark brings us back to Galilee, as the disciples return from their preaching expedition. It’s been a good trip, and they are eager to tell Jesus all about it, but they are also really tired.

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