Tag Archives: mercy

Whose Neighbor Are You? Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

July 14, 2019

Earlier this week, I was trying to remember exactly where my grandparents had lived when I was a little girl. So I called my mom. My mother has never been known to give a straight answer to a question when there’s a story she could tell instead. So, when I asked “do you know the name of the street where Grandpa and Grandma lived in Pretty Prairie?” her answer started out with, “All three of us girls were born on Uncle Harry’s farm. I think Edie Beth was about a year old when mom and dad moved to Hutchinson…”

An hour later, I had heard stories about my grandfather hauling coal in the winter and ice in the summer, my grandmother recovering from typhoid fever in a sod house on the Kansas prairie when she was a little girl, my great-grandfather dying just shortly after he’d finally paid off a debt his brother had incurred years before, and a few other tidbits of family history. But I never did learn the name of the street where Grandpa and Grandma lived in Pretty Prairie. Continue reading

For Sam

You cannot hurry Death, or make it wait.

It will come when it is ready, not a moment sooner.

Even after all the prayers are said, and all the permissions given,

Even after the sins are absolved,

and the Bread and Cup have been received one last time,

Even then,

Death takes its own time.

“Not yet,” Death whispers.

Soon, but not now.

Death will slip in the door when you aren’t looking.

While you doze beside the deathbed, or turn to adjust a pillow.

Just when you’ve relaxed and thought to yourself,

“He seems to be getting better – is that possible?”

Or just as someone else calls your name and you look away …

Death will come,

Stealing the last breath as you wait for the next one and realize (too late)

He’s already gone.

Listen to Him: Lost and Found – Sermon on Luke 15:1-32

March 31, 2019
Lent 4C

What’s your favorite story? Is it one you read when you were young, or maybe heard your parents tell you over and over? When our sons were young enough we could still tell them what to do, we made them sit through all of Lawrence of Arabia. We kept telling them we wanted them to be culturally literate, so they could get half of the jokes that flew past them when they watched the Simpsons.

Stories shape our worldview. They help us make sense of things we don’t understand. Stories teach us how to get along in the world, how to deal with hardships and challenges, how to behave toward others. It’s how the Inuit raise their children to be gentle and never explode in anger – they use storytelling to help young children understand the consequences of their actions.[1]

Jesus fully understood the power of storytelling. That’s why he used parables so often in his teaching. Stories helped the people who were listening to Jesus get a better grasp of who God is, and just how much God loves us.

So here we are, in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, and once again, it’s story time. Here we are, following Jesus toward Jerusalem for the last time, and once again, we find Jesus at a table. Continue reading

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

Get Up and Go – sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10

May 1, 2016 Easter 6C

Did you ever try to run away from home when you were a kid? Do you remember why you wanted to run away? I remember the time I got so angry at my mother that I decided I just had to leave. I think I was about eight years old.

I had some vague notion in my head that people who ran away from home had to tie up all their belongings in a bundle and hang it on the end of a stick. But I didn’t have a stick, and I didn’t know how to make a bundle, so I settled for the next best thing: A plastic doll case. I couldn’t squeeze very much into it, so I took just the essentials: a favorite stuffed toy, some socks, a comb, a small box of raisins in case I got hungry … that was about all that would fit.

As I made my way across the back yard, I ran into our neighbor, Mr. Perry. “Where are you going?” he asked me.

“I’m running away.”

“Oh, well I was hoping maybe you could help me crank the ice cream.”

Mr. Perry made peach ice cream that was to die for. As I turned the crank on the ice cream freezer, we talked. To this day, I do not remember what had made me mad enough that I thought I had to run away from home, but by the time Mr. Perry took the paddle out of the ice cream and handed it to me to lick, I wasn’t mad anymore. I took my plastic doll case back up to my room and unpacked it.

My mother never even knew I’d left the house.

Like my eight year old self, Jonah got so mad, he decided to run away. I really was surprised when I realized that the story of Jonah was missing from our 31-week walk through the Bible. How can you skip Jonah? It’s a universal story. Every known religion has some version of the Jonah story in its mythology. Continue reading

Justified – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Justified.
In printing, this word means the way text lines up along both the left and right margins of the page. “Justified” can also mean acceptable, or reasonable under the circumstances: for example, if someone proves to be trustworthy, you would be justified putting faith in that person; or, under certain conditions, an action is justified, such as deciding not to wait any longer for someone who is already an hour late for an appointment.

But in this passage we are given today from the Gospel of Luke, “justified” means something else. It means being made righteous in God’s eyes. It means being made right. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter, verses 9 through 14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Like last week’s passage, this story is introduced with an explanation. Some of the parables Jesus come to us without clarification, and Jesus explained other parables to the disciples only after the crowds had gone home. But here, we have two parables back-to-back that Luke introduces with some editorial comment, so his readers will be sure to understand their purpose. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time[1], to alert these listeners to their foolishness, so Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.

Jesus first describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about these men – and they were all men, by the way – to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was a real Jew’s Jew: obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required. The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A good Pharisee considered it his duty to know the Law inside and out, and to live according to each detail of that Law. A Pharisee was a Really Good Guy.

A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Guy. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal. But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung. It would be perfectly understandable for a Pharisee to see a tax collector and think to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects his attitude. He stands apart, where he can be clearly seen by others who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a familiar prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps he borrows from a Psalm of David to pray, maybe the one David used to rejoice when he was delivered from the hand of Saul.

Psalm 18:20-24 reads:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

But even if he uses a psalm of David to frame his prayer, the Pharisee doesn’t stop there. He goes on to declare, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” Four times, he uses the word “I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. In the Pharisee’s mind, his own actions are what’s most important. As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.

The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but, by contrast, he chooses Psalm 51, the psalm David wrote to ask forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.” In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. Compared to God, the tax collector can only beat his breast and beg forgiveness. He can’t help but pray for God’s mercy, fully aware of his own sinfulness.

If the story ended here, it would be easy to think that each of these prayers accurately reflected the men who prayed them, and leave it at that. But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that.

The movie, Shadowlands, tells the true story of theologian C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, whom Lewis married late in life. Joy died of bone cancer only four years after meeting C.S. Lewis. During a brief remission from Joy’s cancer, a friend tells Lewis, “I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis replies, “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”[2]

Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. That’s why Jesus doesn’t end the story with two prayers that reflect the men who pray them, because prayer changed one of them. And that is a beginning, not an end. If the tax collector kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This is not an end, but a beginning.

While we do need to follow the tax collector’s example of humble repentance, it’s also important that we don’t get stuck in the “What a worm I am” mode, certain that we are stained beyond redemption. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to wallow in our failure to measure up to God’s standard. Yes, we need to admit our sin and ask God for mercy, but it doesn’t end there. Once we are made right, we need to act in that assurance, and do right. Not like the Pharisee, so we will be noticed, but like the tax collector who knows how precious grace is.

At the same time, Jesus doesn’t encourage us to be like the Pharisee, either, proud of the good work we do, the way we show up for church on Sunday, the committees on which we serve. Jesus has addressed this issue of pride and self-righteousness before, among his own disciples, so it isn’t something new. When James and John come to him and ask to be seated on his left and right, the other disciples are pretty upset with the way these brothers try to insert themselves at the head of the table. Jesus reminds them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[3]

Once again, we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not interested in hearing about how good we are, for not one of us is good enough. Scripture tells us that there is none who is righteous, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The proud Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in his own righteousness. The humble tax collector trusted in God’s mercy. The tax collector’s honest humility is what sends him home …

justified.

The Greek word used here comes from legal language, and it means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” The tax collector is the one who is made right with God, not the Pharisee. Prayer doesn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.

Wait a minute! The tax collector is a Really Bad Guy! It’s the Really Bad Guy who gets it right?

Comparison may be the key to understanding this parable. The Pharisee compared himself to a tax collector, and made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness. The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God. His humility saved him. His request for mercy sent him home justified.

Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer covering nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other prayed persistently and humbly for God’s mercy.

That’s the kind of attitude we ought to have, says Jesus: persistent and humble. Not just in our prayers, but in the way we live our whole lives. We need to think neither too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but to be honest in our humility and desire for restoration to God.

We pray not because it changes God, but because it changes US.

  • It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
  • It changes us into people who care less and less about having our good works recognized
  • It changes us into people who care more and more about loving God, and loving others as much as we love ourselves
  • It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.

So, I must ask you: Have you, like the tax collector, been justified by repenting of your sins? Have you thrown yourself on the mercy of God? Have you accepted the righteousness that God offers through his Son Jesus Christ? If you can answer yes to all these questions, go in peace this day to share the love of God with others, and offer them the good news that God loved them enough to send his Son to die for them. If you long to be justified, to be forgiven of your sins, to live in the peace and knowledge that you have been made right with God, I invite you to talk with me, or with someone here you trust, to learn how you, too, can claim this gracious gift. Amen.


[1] Luke 22:60

[2] Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship (http://www.gbod.org).

[3] Matthew 20:26-28

Mercy and Justice

This is not a blog post about Martin Luther King Day, even though we celebrate 50 years of “I Have A Dream” today. This is not a blog post about the presidential inauguration. Four years ago was history in the making. Today is just confirmation that it wasn’t a fluke. Frankly, I don’t have a thing to say on either of these topics that someone else hasn’t already said better and more eloquently. (And I am not talking about Mark Driscoll, who seems to have forgotten that bit about “judge not, unless you wanna be judged.”)

What burns my oatmeal right now is the awareness that, as much as we say mercy and justice matter to us as Christ-followers, most of the Christians I know are not too comfortable making mercy and justice a reality for others. We are grateful when it comes our way, but showing mercy – real caring for another that costs us – is something we simply don’t know how to do very well. We can pray for another’s need. We can talk about a problem we see. But when it comes to forgiving someone who has wronged us or putting another’s welfare and safety ahead of our own, we look more like Mark Driscoll than Jesus.

And do we even know what justice really is? The mission statement for my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, focuses on the desire to see more disciples among more populations in a more caring and just world, but what exactly does that mean? Whose justice are we talking about here? And who gets to decide what that justice looks, smells, and feels like?

Jesus came into the world to shine light into our darkness, to make wrong things right again, to heal brokenness and offer hope where there is no hope. He calls each of us to participate in that same work. So I have to ask myself: What am I doing to show that kind of mercy and build that kind of justice? What are you doing to make this a more caring and just world?