Tag Archives: stewardship

Through Christ: Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

An earlier version of this sermon was preached on October 19, 2014, and has been updated here for October 22, 2017.

We’ve completed all the coursework for Discipleship 101 and have jumped to the graduate level of learning to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Over the next few weeks, we will celebrate the vows of our baptismal covenant that call each of us to be a minister, through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

How is God calling each of us to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? If we really want to stay centered on Christ and offer Christ by doing everything through Christ, we will want to pay close attention to what Christ himself has to say.

Our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness.

Because the kingdom of God is already present, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Here’s the story so far: We’re in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting for the story.

The characters include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat from earlier in the story. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds.

In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have enlisted the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious. They were political leaders who supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we give our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

When you think about it, the world we live in today is becoming an increasingly polarized society. Everything is ‘either/or’ and if you don’t land on the same side of an issue as your neighbor, that makes you an immediate enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians lived in a similarly polarized world. You either paid allegiance to Caesar, or to God. But Jesus says that looking at this question from a polarized perspective gets it all wrong. If we insist on ‘either/or’ we miss the point.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist.

And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama.

Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, leaving you without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. You are here simply out of curiosity.

Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. You are here, not as a believer necessarily, but as a skeptic. And if this Jesus can embarrass those self-righteous religious leaders, you want to be around to see the show.

Or maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all.

Whatever has brought you into this crowd, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy.

But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. Jesus doesn’t blink. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question.

But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours has.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all.

It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:15-16,

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is why we say, here at First UMC New Ulm, that we are centered on Christ, and that we offer Christ, doing all things through Christ. We bear the image of Christ to the world around us, and how we bear that image determines how willing others may be to receive the good news that Jesus died for their sins and wants to give them eternal life.

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of a discipleship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge or your commitment to service or worship attendance or prayer. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve in a leadership position. As much as I would love to see your deepening faith expressed in all these ways, I’m not asking any of those things.

I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Our identity as beloved children of God, bearing God’s own image, shapes our behavior and our thinking. It urges us to become the people Christ calls us to be, centered on Christ, offering Christ, doing all things through Christ, to the glory of God the Father. ###

 

Discipleship 101: Through Christ – sermon on Philippians 4:8-13

October 15, 2017

This week concludes our Discipleship 101 series with an introduction to our next season of focus. We could call it “Discipleship 201” and bring everything to the next level, but in reality, this is more of a graduate course in following Jesus. From this point forward, we have to decide if this Jesus-following path is really something to which we want to commit our entire lives.

I’m reminded of the time that Jesus’ teachings became too difficult for his disciples to understand, and some turned away from following him. Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” And Simon Peter answered with a question of his own, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

Coming to know Christ in the same deeply personal way as those first disciples did brings us to a new level of maturity in faith. This level can only be found when, like those first disciples, we decide to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul addresses this kind of Christian maturity in his letter to the church at Philippi.

It’s interesting that the verses we will read in a few moments do not appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle of readings. The lectionary only goes as far as verse 9 in this 4th chapter of Philippians. I find this curious, because it omits one of the most popular verses found in scripture – right up there with John 3:16 and the 23rd Psalm: Continue reading

Ten Per Cent Return – Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 (October 13, 2013)

Would you consider ten percent to be a good return on an investment?  Of course, it depends a lot on the investment doesn’t it? Investing in a fast food franchise will look different from a certificate of deposit at the local bank. In any case, if you put something in, it’s usually with the expectation that you will get back something more.

By now, you have read the sermon title, and you may be thinking that you’re in for the annual stewardship sermon, that sermon you never like to hear because it makes you feel guilty about the amount of money you contribute – or don’t – to the church budget. If you’re looking for an easy way to sneak out of the sanctuary about now, you can relax. I already preached the stewardship sermon for today.  It’s sitting over there in that apple core. No, in today’s gospel lesson, Luke tells us of a kind of investment that goes beyond money. Luke isn’t talking about finances here, but about faith. While it might seem that Jesus sees only a ten per cent return on his investment in an outcast’s life, the actual return cannot be measured as easily as a savings account balance. Let us hear the Good News, as recorded in the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, verses 11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the march toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. But there’s a slight problem with Luke’s geography: The boundary between Galilee and Samaria actually runs east-west: it isn’t “on the way” to Jerusalem. Maybe Luke isn’t talking about geography as much as he’s giving us a time frame for this story. Though Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem for several chapters, he’s still nearer the beginning of his journey than the end. Luke doesn’t want us to lose sight of the final destination, however. Jesus may be taking the scenic route, but Jerusalem is where he will eventually go.

We have our first hint that something unusual is about to happen when Luke tells us that these ten lepers approached Jesus. By law, they were supposed to maintain a safe distance from others, warning people away with shouts of “Unclean!  Unclean!” But the lepers draw near to Jesus, at least near enough to call out to him and get his attention. Leprosy could mean any of a number of skin diseases, but whatever the disease, being “unclean” meant being an outcast, unable to participate in normal society.

So here we have ten lepers outside a village. But instead of warning Jesus to stay away, the lepers do something that is highly remarkable. Not only do they call out to Jesus to have mercy on them, they call him “Master” – a title that no one else uses to address Jesus in all the gospel accounts, except for the twelve disciples. It’s worth pondering how these ten outcasts, who have been excluded from social interaction with the general population, could possibly know who Jesus was, or that he had the authority to help them. But they readily appeal to that authority.  Instead of warning Jesus to keep his distance, they put themselves at his mercy.

This particular healing story appears only here, in Luke’s gospel. These ten lepers don’t get as much publicity as the one in chapter 5, whose story also gets told by Mark and Matthew. But this is a much more dramatic healing, because Jesus doesn’t even have to touch these lepers in order for them to be cleansed. He simply sees them.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man passed right by Lazarus, day after day, and never saw him until it was too late. His wealth and his self-centeredness did not allow him to really see Lazarus. It is so easy to ignore the needs around us as we go through our daily routines. When I lived in the Twin Cities, it was easy for me to look the other way whenever I saw a beggar on the street corner as I drove through town. How often do we turn away from people who make us uncomfortable, only because they are different from us?

But Jesus sees these ten lepers, and immediately tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This must have sounded a little strange to these lepers. Showing yourself to the priest was something you did after your skin disease had run its course and you were well again. Jesus was acknowledging the faith these lepers had shown when they called him “Master.” The lepers had already demonstrated their willingness to submit to Jesus’ spiritual authority. When he sends them off to the priests, they don’t ask questions. They just go.

And as they went, they were made clean. Jesus didn’t need to touch them for them to believe that he could heal them. His word alone was enough to send them on their way. They obeyed without question, because they had faith in him. As they acted on their faith, they were made clean. Their leprosy was gone.

But only one of them seems to notice what has happened. Only one of them saw that he had been healed, just as Jesus saw him to heal his disease. Only this one turned back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. The same loud voice that, moments before, should have been yelling “Unclean!  Unclean!” had called out “Have mercy!” instead. Now, this very same loud voice was whooping and hollering in praise to God. He knew that it wasn’t some magic trick or the number of steps he had taken toward the priests that had healed him. He knew it was God’s work, accomplished through Jesus. The leper saw. And the leper’s awareness is, quite literally, the turning point in the story.

The leper turned back. What a beautiful picture of repentance Luke paints for us here! The leper turned away from mindless obedience to empty rules, as he turned toward the Source and Giver of Life. The leper’s response was spontaneous and authentic. The leper praised God, but he also prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The leper’s faith had shown itself in action as he headed for the priests, but the glory he gave to God showed itself in humility and thanksgiving.
Then we get to the punchline.

And he was a Samaritan. Luke loves to remind his readers that Jesus came to reverse the status quo, and one of his favorite ways of doing this is to call attention to Gentiles whose faith brings them into the family of God. First century Jews thought they had exclusive rights to God’s love and goodness. Luke, who was Greek and addressed his writing to a Gentile audience, delighted in pointing out that God had promised salvation to all nations, that God loved all people, and that Israel had no more claim to God’s grace than any other nation.

But there is more at work here than the theme of reversal that threads its way throughout Luke’s writing. Luke carefully sets up the story so that one might assume all ten lepers, though they may be outcasts, are acceptable outcasts. Their leprosy at least has the potential of disappearing after a time of quarantine, and they therefore have the potential to become acceptable again, welcomed back into society. But to a first-century Jew, Samaritans were a particularly distasteful type of outcast. Samaritans were un-redeemable because they refused to acknowledge the Temple in Jerusalem as the only appropriate place to worship God. No Jew in his right mind would ever welcome a Samaritan into fellowship.

Like a good mystery writer, Luke has planted a tiny detail at the beginning of his story that seems unimportant at first. Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. We don’t know exactly where the village is located. We don’t know if the lepers are Jewish or Samaritan, or some unusual combination of outcasts from both nations. When they head for the priests, we don’t know which direction they go. But this tiny detail sets the scene for Luke to shock his readers with the punch line: oh by the way, the guy that showed the right response to God’s grace? The only one who came back to glorify God and give thanks? That guy? Yeah, HE was a Samaritan! He was someone you would avoid at all costs on at least two counts: a leper and a Samaritan. A double outcast! And yet, Jesus saw him and healed him. What’s more, this Samaritan leper was the only one of ten who saw Jesus for who he really was, the only one who returned to thank Jesus and give glory to God.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 

For the first time, we get a hint that Jesus is not traveling alone. The disciples have not been mentioned in this story. But now Jesus begins to teach by asking a series of questions, so we get the feeling that the disciples have been nearby all along, watching the story unfold before them. Interestingly, the word given to us in the New Revised Standard Version as “asked” really means “answered” in the Greek. Jesus is answering, or responding to, what has just happened, and he grabs this teachable moment to show his disciples again that the Kingdom of God is not what they expect it to be.

All ten of the lepers had faith enough to call on Jesus, submit to his authority, and ask for his mercy. All ten responded to Jesus in obedience, and all ten received physical healing. But where are the other nine? The obvious answer is that they are still headed toward the priests. Whether this is because of their blind obedience to the Law, or simply their eagerness to be restored to society, they are still going the other way. They may have recognized Jesus’ power to heal, but they have missed the point. They have not seen, as the Samaritan has seen, that faith means more than blind obedience.

Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The word “foreigner” is used only in this one instance in the New Testament. Jesus calls attention to the fact that this one, born outside the people of God, is the only one who behaves in a manner appropriate to a true child of Abraham. Only this foreigner, who could not enter the inner courts of the Jewish temple, has shown the kind of faith that responds in gratitude to God’s grace.

Jesus restores the one at his feet by telling him to get up. As he has done before, and will do again before he finally reaches Jerusalem, Jesus announces, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus is talking about more than leprosy here. He is proclaiming the Samaritan’s salvation as well as his physical health. Another pastor friend once commented, “All ten lepers were saved from leprosy, but only one is saved from despair.” Only the one who came back to give thanks, praising and glorifying God, showed the kind of faith that leads to salvation.

The lesson Jesus teaches is clear: The only authentic response to God’s saving grace is faith shown in action, and gratitude that erupts in praise, giving glory to God. So what keeps us from showing our faith by acting on it? What prevents us from being so grateful we can’t help but praise God?

I find that I’m a lot like the nine lepers who disappear down the road: it’s a lot easier for me to simply act on my faith than it is for me to praise God out loud for all the world to hear. I’d like to think I remember to be grateful for God’s goodness to me. I do say prayers of thanksgiving every day, but, if I’m honest, I also know that I’m a little embarrassed when I hear someone praising God for the traffic light staying green until they are through the intersection, or for the price on the gas pump going up just after they’ve pumped a tank-full of gasoline. “How nice for you” I think. “What about the person right behind you?” But the truth is that, while I am judging others for being self-centered in their gratitude, I’m not giving God very much glory in my day-to-day life. I can’t honestly say that praise erupts from my lips whenever I notice how good God has been to me. I’m a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. What kind of weirdo would people think I am?

Luke gives us Jesus’ answer over and over: the kind of weirdo who turns away from the status quo and worships shamelessly at Jesus’ feet. It is no accident that the one who gets it right in this story is the Samaritan, the double outcast. The truth is that we don’t like to identify ourselves as outcasts, as undesirables. But that is what Jesus does time and again throughout the gospel story. He not only reaches out to the dregs of society, he identifies with them, eats with them, walks with them.

Luke often describes society’s “undesirable” people as models of faith and examples of Kingdom living, and the Samaritan leper is a prime example. Luke forces us, along with his first century readers, to recognize that God loves every single person ever born, and God wants every single person ever born to participate in Kingdom joy and fellowship. Luke reminds us that everyone is eligible to participate in the Kingdom of God. Luke uses the theme of reversal to keep us on our toes, to keep us from falling into the trap of thinking we’ve made it into the “desirable” club. The truth is that God doesn’t care how “desirable” we are by the world’s standards. In fact, if we take Scripture seriously, God loves the ones we consider ‘undesirable’ at least as much as He loves anyone else. And he calls us to love them, too. Not judge them. Not scold them. Not ignore them. Love them.

God wants each of us to become the full person we were created to be, so that we can enjoy God’s fellowship. That transformation can only take place when we put our complete trust in God, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, just as the ten lepers started walking toward the priests before there was any evidence that their leprosy was gone.

To be fully transformed, however, means that we not only let our faith show in what we do, we express our thanks in ways that give glory to God. As we repent of our sin and turn toward Christ, God continues to transform us and we become people who, like the Samaritan leper, spontaneously give glory to God. Through the power of his Holy Spirit, God changes us into the more and more perfect image of God we were created to be. And it is this image that God uses to attract others – outcasts like us – into the Kingdom of God.

So how does this fit with our Sowing Seeds of Faith stewardship drive that begins today? It’s simple, really. As God continues to work in us, and as we continue to trust him, we become more and more like Christ. As we see with the eyes of Jesus, our hearts are moved to compassion just has Christ’s heart is moved. We may not have the gift of healing that let’s us say, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” But we do have gifts we can share. Trusting God to use them for his glory, we offer them as our own act of worship. When we begin to see the other outcasts around us, and we admit that we are outcasts, too, we become free. We’re free to give God thanks and praise for the work he is doing here. And God calls us to be part of that work, sharing our gifts, meeting the needs we see, contributing whatever we can to the ministry God has given us to do in this time and place. Sowing Seeds of Faith is just one way to do that. But it’s a start.

The Parable of the Ten Apples

First, let me give credit where it’s due.  This isn’t my story.  I stole it from Rev. Phil Stenberg, who used to offer this little parable every year on Stewardship Sunday as the children’s sermon. I publish this story here so that the first paragraph of my sermon, “Ten Per Cent Return” makes sense. It needs props: ten apples. They need to be small, but not too small.

So, here’s the parable, as I received it from Phil, along with instructions for telling it:

Once upon a time, there was a man who had nothing … and God gave him ten apples.  He gave him three apples to eat, three to trade for shelter from the sun and rain, and three apples to trade for clothing to wear. He gave him one apple so that the man might have something to give back to God to show his gratitude for the other nine.
The man ate three apples (distribute apples to three children).  He traded three for a shelter from the sun and the rain (distribute these, too). He traded three for clothing to wear (hand out three more apples). Then he looked at the tenth apple.  It seemed bigger and juicier than the rest.  He knew that God had given him the tenth apple so he could return it to God out of gratitude for the other nine.  But the tenth apple looked bigger, and juicier than the rest.  And he reasoned that God had all the other apples in the world …

so the man ate the tenth apple

(this is where you must actually eat the apple as the children watch)

– and gave God back the core.

(Place the apple core in a prominent place, where it can be seen throughout the remainder of the worship service.)

Rich Toward God – Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

In today’s passage from the gospel of Luke, we find Jesus in the middle of a long journey.  The trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem only takes about three days to walk, but Luke spends nearly ten chapters getting Jesus and his disciples from point A to point B, as they travel to the place where Jesus will ultimately die for the sins of the world.

This has not been a speedy trip, by any means.  Jesus has been stopping along the way to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God.  Because the locals also gathered to hear what Jesus had to say, many of his teachings have taken the form of parables.  These short stories featured familiar, everyday characters and common events that cut right to the heart of what Jesus wanted his disciples to learn.  Over and over again, throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus told stories like these to point out that the Kingdom of God is not what we humans might expect.

The Kingdom of God flips our understanding of power upside down, and our values right side up.  You heard this reversal a couple of weeks ago, in the story of Martha and her sister Mary.  You even heard it last week, when the theme of worship was “change.”  Now, Jesus is about to challenge some commonly accepted ideas concerning wealth and greed.  But this lesson is not a “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” kind of lesson.  Jesus is more concerned with attitudes of the heart than the difference between tithes and taxes.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, beginning in verse 13.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  – Luke 12:13-21

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

A wise pastor once told me, “Interruptions are where true ministry begins.”  He went on to explain that it is in the interruptions to our daily routine that God breaks in with reminders that we are here to do the work of the Kingdom, and that work is far more important than ticking things of our “to do” lists.

So here is Jesus, in the middle of his daily routine of teaching, interrupted by someone who has apparently not even been listening to what Jesus has been saying.  Jesus has been instructing his disciples on the need for faithfulness in situations of persecution[1] when he is abruptly interrupted by this person from the crowd, who demands assistance.

How rude, right?

To be fair, it would not have been unusual for someone who needed to resolve a legal matter to appeal to a local rabbi for help.  Law and religion were so closely intertwined, that there was barely any distinction between a judge and a teacher.  If this was a young man whose older brother had refused to share the father’s inheritance, he might have seen Jesus as one who would have the legal authority to resolve the dispute.  On the other hand, it may be that this young man was behaving selfishly, rebelling against an older brother who was trying to keep the family together by keeping the property together.  We don’t know.  But Jesus saw straight into this young man’s heart, and knew immediately that the man’s legal concern was not the real problem. The real problem was greed.

I’m sure the young man was surprised when Jesus refused to help him. Wasn’t this the same guy who had worked miracles everywhere he went?  If he could make blind people see and crippled people walk, didn’t he have the authority to do a simple thing like force an older brother to do what the law said he should do with their father’s property?  And what did all this talk about greed have to do with fairness?  Instead of helping, Jesus was giving this young man the brush off!  How rude, right?

The misuse of wealth was actually a major topic of discussion in first century Palestine, and almost every chapter of Luke’s Gospel has some reference to money and material resources.[2]  The tenth Commandment – thou shalt not covet – was familiar to everyone.  Greed is nothing more than a desire to have more than we actually have, and Jesus used this “teachable moment” to explain why greed has no place in the Kingdom of God.  Instead of an interruption, Jesus treated the man’s demand as an opportunity to upset the apple cart of expectations one more time, teaching that the ways of God are nothing like our ways.

So Jesus tells a story, a story with a twist.  We’ve heard it often enough that it doesn’t hold much surprise for us, so let me tell it again, to show you where the surprise came for these people who heard it the very first time.

There was this rich farmer, who had a really good year.  The ratio of sunshine to rain had been perfect, and the timing of the weather couldn’t have been better.  Without any more labor than he usually put into his farm, the land had produced a bumper crop, and harvest was going to be greatIn first century Palestine, this would have been evidence of God’s blessing on a good man.  Good fortune meant you’d been doing what you were supposed to do, and God was smiling on you.

What shall I do with all this good fortune?” the farmer asks himselfWait a minute, the crowd is thinking. We know what a guy talking to himself means in story language – and it isn’t good. People who talk to themselves are usually the bad guy in the story – but this must be a good guy, right? I mean, look at all these abundant crops?  So the crowd leans in to listen to Jesus more closely, wondering which way the punch line is going to fall.

“I know!” says the farmer. “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, to store all my wealth! Then I can relax, eat, drink, and be merry!”  Okay, this just doesn’t make sense, some in the crowd start to grumble. You don’t tear down your barns right before harvest!  And why is he storing his wealth?  … Unless he’s planning to manipulate the corn futures.  No, no, others argue.  He’s just being a good agri-businessman!  He knows how to play the market! You’re not listening, a third group chimes in.  Apparently, he plans to hoard it all for himself!

While the people hearing the story start to argue among themselves, Jesus delivers the punch line:You fool!”  God says (and this is very unusual, for God to be an actual character in the drama of one of these stories, by the way). “This very night your life is required of you.  So now, who’s going to get all that wealth you accumulated?”  The crowd simmers down to think about this unexpected twist.  Death hadn’t been part of the picture until now.  And, if they were honest with themselves, God hadn’t been part of the picture, either.

That’s the point.  That’s why we call this story the Parable of the Rich Fool.  Jesus wasn’t saying that there is anything wrong with wealth.  Jesus was saying this: instead of foolishly focusing your effort on getting rich for yourself, be rich toward God.

Almost a year ago, an article appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that was titled, “Possessed by Money.”  The article described some research done by Kathleen Vohs,  from the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.  This research explored the psychological effects of wealth, and used a number of different tests with a wide range of subjects.  What she discovered to be consistent among all the findings was this: “Subjects with money on their minds are self-sufficient, self-focused, and anything but selfless.”  In all of the experiments, Vohs found that “people who are reminded of money are really good at pursuing goals, but they’re not that interpersonally kind or warm.  They’re kind of standoffish, keeping in their own head, not interested in being friends with anyone.”[3]  Vohs describes these people as “siloed” more than anti-social, and she is quick to say that we are not talking about wealthy people, necessarily, but those who are pursuing wealth, people who think about money a lot.  Some really wealthy people don’t think about money very much at all, while some middle class and very poor people think about money all the time.  It’s the thinking about money that creates the isolation Vohs describes in her work.

No wonder Jesus calls this rich farmer a fool!  By focusing on his own accumulation of wealth and goods, he has isolated himself from others.  Friends, this is not what the Kingdom of God is about.  The Kingdom of God is about community, interconnectedness, living and working together for the glory of God.

So, how can we be rich toward God?  Let me be clear here.  This is not a sermon on financial stewardship.  I am not talking about increasing your pledge or tithing.  That would be a pretty foolish way for me to begin my ministry here with you at First United Methodist Church of New Ulm!  But it is possible that, as we begin this work together, you might have some high hopes, some expectation of things changing, adding new members, balancing the budget with ease, paying 100 per cent of our apportionment this year, being able to just relax, eat, drink, and be merry on Wednesday nights.

These might all seem like really good goals.  But none of them will be achieved until we, as a church, and as individuals, can honestly say that we are being rich toward God.  What, exactly, does that mean?

Being rich toward God means placing value on the same things God values.  It means loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.[4]  It means loving mercy, acting justly, and walking humbly with your God.[5] It means enjoying a rich spiritual life of prayer, Bible study, and fellowship with other believers as we seek to follow Jesus Christ and learn from him together.  It means being honest with ourselves about our own hoarding of God’s riches, the talents and gifts he has given to each one of us to use for his glory.  It means living lives of forgiveness, asking for it when we need it, and offering forgiveness to others.  It means repenting of the sin of self-sufficiency, and trusting that God will provide for all our needs if we will be rich toward God in the way we live our lives.

As I have visited with some of you this past week, and observed your faith in action, I have seen many ways in which this congregation is already being rich toward God.  You may not notice this.  You might take for granted the many things you already do that put God at the center and bring him glory, so let me take a moment to tell you what I’ve seen.

I’ve seen the Lord’s Laborers painstakingly cutting up shopping bags, so that others can crochet them into sleeping mats for the homeless.  I’ve seen children loved and fed on Wednesday nights, I’ve seen evidence that this congregation wants to participate in the mission of the whole church, by gathering school supplies for United Way, and pooling efforts and resources with neighboring churches for Vacation Bible School.  I’ve seen a calendar get posted on the bulletin board, where you can sign up to provide a meal for the family of one of our members who is recovering from surgery.  I’ve seen a church council bowed in prayer together, and resources shared with those who come to this church looking for help with gas or food.  I’ve seen a multi-generational group of people become an inter-generational part of the body of Christ, loving our children, valuing the wisdom of our elders, working together to share Christ’s love.  And that’s just in my first week among you.

In Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonika, he commended his co-workers there for doing all the right things in ministry.  And then he wrote, “Finally, then, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.”[6]

Do what you are already doing more and more, thinking less about possessions and money, and more and more about God at the very center of your lives.  The Psalmist writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”[7]

As we approach this Table today, as we offer up our worship and praise and thanks to the God who saves us, may we strive to strive less. May we hope to hope more. May we love without reservation, less concerned with ourselves and more dependent on God to provide for us, to care for us, to be rich toward us in grace and mercy. May we be rich toward God. Amen.

[1] Luke 12:1-12

[2] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 389-390.

[3] Bill Ward, Star Tribune, August 30, 2012, Variety section, page 1.

[4] Mark 12:30-31

[5] Micah 6:8

[6] 1 Thessalonians 4:1

[7] Psalm 73:25-26