Tag Archives: trust

Eternal Investment – Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30

November 19, 2017

We have some leftover business from last week. Have you been bothered about those five bridesmaids who got locked out of the party, just because they didn’t bring along an extra flask of oil? They came with their lamps, and their lamps had oil, but they didn’t bring along any extra. They thought they were prepared, but they weren’t. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough, after all. And instead of continuing to wait, even if it meant waiting in the dark, they went off looking for what they needed somewhere else. When they finally arrived, the door had been shut, and they were out of luck.

The nagging question left over from last week comes up again this week. Why isn’t “good enough” good enough? In today’s passage, Jesus tells another parable that forces us to consider this question from a different angle. Hear the Word of the Lord, from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ The Word of the Lord, Thanks be to God.

Why isn’t “good enough” good enough, as we wait for Christ to come again? What is it about following Jesus that requires more from us than we are often prepared to offer? Does the abundant life Jesus promises to us only come at extravagant cost?

From today’s parable, it would seem that’s the case. In Luke’s version of this story, each servant is given a pound, but here in Matthew, the unit of measure is a talent. One talent was worth 6000 denarii, and we already know from previous stories that a denarius was the usual daily wage for a common laborer. So, one talent was worth about 20 years of labor.

Here we have an obviously wealthy master entrusting huge sums of money to his servants, and even the least of these would have had to work for twenty years to earn as much as his master hands over to him. This is extravagance on a grand scale.

We usually think of a talent as some special ability or giftedness, and linguistic experts will tell you that the root of our word “talent” probably comes from the original Greek word we find in this parable. But they will also tell you that the meaning we give to “talent” today did not come into common usage until sometime in the 1500s. At the time Jesus told the story, everyone understood that a talent was a fortune, and five talents was an enormous amount of money, a hundred years’ worth of wages.

Why is this important to know? The traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents has focused on using our abilities while we wait for Christ’s return. Use your talents well, or you might lose them. God gave you special gifts, and you don’t want to be caught on judgment day having to explain why you failed to make the most of your talents. Because the master in our story gave to each “according to his ability,” people have made “ability” the central theme of this parable.

But if we realize that Jesus wasn’t necessarily talking about our abilities as much as the greatest treasure we can imagine, it puts a little different spin on the story. Now, instead of using our abilities as best we can, the question becomes, “how much are we willing to risk to get the greatest return on our investment in the kingdom of God?”

And before we can even ask that question, we need to know what great treasure has our master entrusted to us?

Remembering the parable of the ten bridesmaids, we might think that the great treasure entrusted to us is the faith God gives us. Some invest in their own spiritual development, and they see their faith grow. Others may try to hide their faith, and their faith shrivels away.

But then we run into the problem of the one-talent servant who is cast into outer darkness, and we are left wondering if perhaps his faith was not real faith, or if it was not deep enough. And that idea doesn’t match up with the promise that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

But what if the talents don’t represent faith, any more than they represent our God-given abilities? What if this great, immense treasure is something else entirely? Think, for just a moment, about what we as Christians can claim as our most precious treasure, worth more than we can possibly imagine. The Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection is the most powerful and amazing story we know! Instead of teaching us to multiply our faith, or develop our abilities – good and worthy as those things are! – perhaps this parable is here to remind us that our greatest treasure, as Christians, is the gospel itself.[1] So, what are we willing to risk to get the best return on our investment in the gospel of Jesus Christ?” What does an investment in the gospel look like?

First of all, investing in the gospel involves letting it change us. It means allowing its transforming power to work in us until our lives are fully centered on Christ. Then it means spreading that good news, so others can come to know and love Jesus as we do. Living into our faith, showing the world what a difference following Jesus makes in the way we live our lives, telling people about the ways God has transformed us – That is how the gospel multiplies and grows. Not by being buried in the ground, but by being shared. And sharing the gospel is a risky business.

Those first two servants understood the need to risk everything. They invested radically in order to double their investment. The third hid his in the ground, in order to return it risk-free to his master. And before we tell ourselves, “I would never do something like that,” we should keep in mind that the third servant was simply doing what was considered prudent at the time.

“Rabbinic law stipulated that burying was the best safeguard against theft and that when one buries entrusted money one is free from liability for it” (Boucher, 139, quoted by Alyce McKenzie.).

Two servants invest radically, and double their money. The third followed a perfectly acceptable course of action, with minimal risk. He did what would have been considered “good enough.” But it wasn’t.

Because if we are talking about the gospel, about following Jesus and being obedient to his teaching, we have to act on that teaching for it to do any good. And the reason we have to act on the gospel isn’t just because Jesus says so.

The parable teaches that the master will return, the promised kingdom is coming, and when it comes all the false values of this age will become obsolete. The gospel of mercy, peace, and forgiveness is all that will matter in the age to come. “What will stand at the end is the gospel and nothing else.”[2]

There’s something else in this parable that we need to see clearly for it to make sense. The relationship between the master and his servants determined how they responded to the trust he placed in them. The two servants who doubled their investment clearly trusted their master enough to risk losing his money. He rewards them with greater responsibility, and invites them into his joy.

The mutual trust between the master and these servants made it possible for them to invest fearlessly what had been entrusted to them. But the third servant does not see his master in such a positive light. In fact, the third servant’s conservative handling of his master’s wealth is clearly based in fear of what would happen should he lose it all.

If we think about our relationship with God in these terms, we must ask ourselves, what is our image of God, and how does that image dictate the way we act? Try it for a moment. What does God look like to you when you close your eyes? What do his hair and his face look like? His clothing? His posture? Is he smiling, or looking stern? Does he have a beard?

Those images we hold in our minds dictate the way we behave. If we see God as a stern ruler who punishes those who disobey him, we will act in fear, just as the third servant did. But if we see God as a generous and loving caregiver who wants only the best for us, we will act in confidence that he will forgive us when we do wrong. We can depend on God’s abundance being made available to us.

Our image of God determines how we invest in his kingdom. Either we will share lavishly, or we will hide the good news where it does no one any good. It all depends on how we view God, and how much we trust the One who entrusts us with his greatest treasure.

To be a trustworthy servant, we must be willing to trust the One who trusts us. And that trust is the key to understanding what this parable is really about. It isn’t about using the abilities we’ve been given, even though that is a worthy thing to do. It isn’t about believing that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save us from our sins, even though that belief is necessary for our salvation. Faith is more than simply believing something to be true. James 2:19 says even the demons believe in God, and they shudder. Faith is more than that.

Faith is trusting what you believe, which means becoming vulnerable, putting yourself at risk. Are we willing to invest extravagantly in the work of God’s kingdom? We have been given not only the great commandment, to love God and our neighbor, but also the great commission, to make disciples. Not just converts, but disciples who are fully devoted to a life of following Jesus Christ.

And in order to make disciples, we have to be disciples. Yesterday, those of us who attended the charge conference heard District Superintendent Fred remind us that God has one plan for reaching the world, and that plan is the church. There is no Plan B. We’re all Christ has to reach new people and heal a broken world! But we can’t make disciples if we aren’t fully devoted to being disciples. We can’t share what we don’t have. And the world desperately needs what we say we have.

It’s by what we do that people see the need to have Jesus in their lives. It’s the risks we take that show the depth of our faith. Not just belief, but trust. The master trusted his servants. Two of them trusted him back. The third one, not so much. Faith means trusting in what we believe to the point of greatest risk. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what he asks of us.

Your commitment to follow Jesus is much more than a slip of paper you can place in the offering plate this morning. It’s a promise to let Christ invade your life, take over your thinking and your doing, and completely trust him. Trust him to show up whenever you show up for worship. Trust him to use your talents, your gifts, your time and treasure to further his kingdom. Trust him to listen when you pray and trust him to be present with you when you serve. Trust him to place you in front of people who need an invitation into a life of faith, and trust him to give you the right words to offer that invitation.

So, if you haven’t filled out a commitment form yet, I encourage you to do it right now. Ask God to guide your hand as you fill in the blanks. Trust him to help you keep the promises you make, and know that God will fulfill his promise to be with you as you devote yourself to a life of faithful discipleship.

Are you willing to trust him, to risk everything in order to hear him say to you, at the end of time, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master?’

[1] Thomas Long, Matthew, 281-282.

[2] Long, 282.

To whom can we go? Sermon on John 6:56-69 Pentecost 13B

August 23, 2015 
[Jesus said,] “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  

He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But among you there are some who do not believe
.”
For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.
And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.  So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
Simon Peter answered him, “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 6:56-69

Lord, to whom can we go?

Just a few hours after our friend Brad took his last breath on Thursday, another friend’s son also breathed his last following a courageous battle with cancer. Atticus was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma when he was 13 months old. He didn’t make it to his second birthday. As I think about Brad and Atticus, the question Peter asks takes on a different meaning than it had for me a week ago.

 “Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.” 

What does this mean for us? How do we come to know and believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God? What is this eternal life that Jesus has been talking about for the past five weeks, as we worked our way through the sixth chapter of John’s gospel? Where else could we find such life?

The passage we just read had to borrow a few verses from last week’s reading, or we would not even know that Jesus is still talking about bread. Specifically, he is talking about himself as the Bread of Life. His own body and blood are food for the world, just as the loaves and fishes were food for the people who are listening to him in today’s reading.

Once again, we hear the offensive language from last week about gnawing on the flesh and blood of Jesus being what gets us to abide in him, and him in us, giving us life through his life source. And this life is not like the life of those who ate manna from heaven as they wandered in the wilderness with Moses. This is life in Christ, a life that starts immediately and never ends. It is life in the eternal now.

Somehow, the scene has shifted as Jesus has been saying these offensive words. The conversation that began back in verse 25, when those who had chased him around the lake finally meet up with him on the beach, has moved into the synagogue of Capernaum. Now Jesus is in a position of authority as he speaks to his followers, and what he has to say is not something they want to hear.

The disciples grumble about the difficulty of this teaching – but it isn’t clear what they find difficult. The word for grumbling, or murmuring or complaining, happens only four times in John, and three of them have been in chapter six. Back in verse 41, the Judeans grumbled among themselves about Jesus’ claim that he came from heaven, and in verse 43 Jesus tells them to stop it. Later on, in chapter 7, the Pharisees will hear that the people are murmuring among themselves that maybe Jesus is the Christ after all, and they will send temple guards to arrest him. But here in verse 61, it’s the disciples who are doing the grumbling. These are the ones who have been following Jesus faithfully up to this point. These are the ones who claim to believe he is from God. But do they really?

Jesus asks if his followers are “scandalized” or offended by his talk about flesh and blood, and then he offers something even more scandalous: the claim that he not only comes from heaven, but that he will also return there. This gets us to the heart of the matter: Jesus offers spirit and life, life that is eternally grounded in a heavenly home. Near the end of John’s gospel, he will tell his closest friends, “In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I tell you that I go to prepare a place for you? .., And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (Jn 14:2-3)

Throughout this chapter, we have had little reminders of the Exodus story of Israel. Jesus feeds people in the wilderness with bread and fish, and Moses led Israel through the wilderness as they lived off the manna and quail God sent them. In both stories, the same people who get fed are the ones who complain and grumble.

The issue isn’t really the grumbling, though. It’s the lack of trust in God that the grumbling represents. Jesus says, “among you there are some who do not believe” (v.64). The Greek word pisteuo occurs more than 80 times in John. That’s more than in all of Paul’s letters together (Douglas R. A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 385.). Pisteuo usually gets translated as “believe,” and we might think this means intellectual belief. But its more common meaning is to trust or rely upon someone. The problem is not a cognitive one, but an issue of trust. Pisteuo never occurs in the form of a noun. It is always a verb in John. Faith is not something you have but something you do. Believing is an action, not a thing. Not believing is nothing short of betrayal.

Karoline Lewis writes that betrayal, in John’s gospel, is disbelieving. “The real betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.” We betray Jesus when we think that real, abundant life in the eternal now could never be ours. Maybe it’s easy to imagine that God loves the world, but when it comes down to you, personally, you think you aren’t really worthy of God’s love. You can’t imagine how God could love someone like you, and you aren’t sure you want to trust in a relationship that might just be a figment of your own imagination.

“Because at the end of the day, life, real life, life lived, abundant life, is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours.” You’re unable to accept that abundant life could be true, you’re reluctant to imagine, to dream, to picture that when God says God loves the world that he actually means you. Maybe that kind of life is for someone else, but not for you. Yet, Jesus says, “That’s not the way it is.” At least, that’s not the way it has to be.

You see, there comes a moment when you must decide. You have to choose between trusting Jesus and betraying him. You have to decide to go all in, or get out. Many of the disciples who had been following Jesus up to this point in the story “turned back and no longer went about with him.” They decided they couldn’t handle being a true disciple of Jesus. They couldn’t trust him to be who he said he was, to give what he promised.

So, many of them left. When the picture of discipleship Jesus painted got too graphic for their tastes, they turned away. When his words upset the comfortable and familiar way they thought things ought to be, they gave up. It was too hard. Not too hard to understand, but too hard for them to accept. They weren’t ready to become “scandalized” by the gospel Jesus was offering them. They couldn’t commit to the cost of discipleship if it meant identifying with scandal in the eyes of the world.

So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

This is the first time in John’s gospel that he names the closest followers of Jesus as “the Twelve.” These are the ones who have been called out, the ones he invited personally into his ministry. They are the ones who started following him before they knew what they were getting into. As the others leave, Jesus turns to his best friends and gives them an out. If they think the road is going to be too rough, now is the time to bail. Now is the moment when they must choose. Jesus looks around the group as he waits for their decision. He already knows that one of them, Judas, will eventually betray him. He makes eye contact with each of these men, but none of them speak. Except for Peter. And he speaks for all twelve.

“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.” 

Why do some turn away from Jesus and others trust him? Some can’t accept the scandal of the gospel, but those who accept it know there is no other way. For some, eating bread that can go stale is the only thing they’ve ever known, and they can’t imagine eating real bread, living bread. Some simply cannot trust God to love them. Some won’t commit to a life that is all consuming, even though it is continually fed by the Holy Spirit. And some just want to avoid being identified with the scandal of the gospel, a scandal that could embarrass or humiliate them in the eyes of the world.

But why settle for bread that is not bread? Bread that will grow stale, and will not satisfy? Why settle for life that is not rich and full of meaning? Why fear humiliation, when Christ himself suffered the ultimate humiliation of death on a cross for our sakes?

Peter knew that he had found the source of all meaning in life. He knew that Jesus was the Holy One of God. He knew that no where else would he ever find the words of eternal life. He had come to believe and know that there was no where else to go, no one else who could take the place of Jesus in his life. He realized that he had no hope, except in giving himself completely to Jesus.

Is this teaching too difficult for you to accept? Does it offend you to hear that Jesus demands all of your trust, all of your obedience, all of your life? Do you also wish to go away? Or will you follow, as part of the community of faithful people in this time and place who stand with Peter and say, “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.”

Hoping Against Hope – Sermon on Romans 4:13-25 Lent 2B

March 1, 2015

Out of the blue, we land in the middle of one of the Apostle Paul’s thickest chunks of writing this morning. If you were around during the summer, you might remember that we spent several weeks in the book of Romans, but please don’t feel guilty if that doesn’t ring a bell for you. Summer seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? For me, last Sunday seems like a lifetime ago! So here’s a little refresher course in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.

This was not a church that Paul had started, and he did not personally know the people who would receive the letter. At the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had not yet been to Rome. His letter was a kind of introduction to prepare the Roman Christians for a visit Paul was eagerly planning to make.

He had heard rumors about the church in Rome, however. He knew that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there were not in agreement, and he wanted to help them be reconciled to one another. Mostly, he wanted the Jewish Christians to recognize that faith in Jesus Christ did not require conversion to Judaism first.

In the passage we are about to read, Paul explains that becoming a member of God’s covenant group depends on one thing and one thing only: faith. And to prove his point, Paul holds up as an example the greatest patriarch of them all, good old Father Abraham.

 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25, NRSV)

In the passage we heard earlier from Genesis, the Lord appeared to Abram, and changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, or “Father of a Multitude.” The promise that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations” is only part of God’s covenant with Abraham, but it is the part Paul wants us to notice in this fourth chapter.

Paul wants his readers to recognize that God’s promise was to make Abraham the father of many nations, not just one great nation. And to drive home his point, Paul reminds us that even Abraham wasn’t a Jew. He was a Gentile, a pagan Gentile at that. Continue reading

Racing Toward the Impossible – Easter Sermon on John 20:1-18

It was good to just rest. After all the events of Friday, it was good to find some quiet time to process everything. The sound of those nails being pounded into the cross, the darkness, and the smell of death were overwhelming. So it was good to observe Sabbath, to have some time to think, the second day after Jesus was crucified.

Oh, I know you would rather talk about the third day. That’s the one everybody likes to celebrate. But that second day, that quiet Sabbath, was important, too. All of the disciples needed that day, to come to terms with the way things had played out. It wasn’t what anyone had expected, and getting over the shock of realizing Jesus was really dead would take some time.

What would happen now, without a leader? Peter could have taken over, but he was just as devastated as everyone else. More so, maybe. And the disciple Jesus loved had been sticking close to Peter’s side, as everyone huddled in that room together. There had been talk all day long. Hushed whispers, loud wailings, each one grieving, everyone trying to figure out what to do next. While some kept watch, in case the religious leaders came looking for more disciples to arrest, others slept, or tried to eat. A few talked through the night, trying to decide some course of action, but in the end, no one had a good idea, and almost everyone had dozed off by the time morning came. No one even noticed Mary slipping out while it was still dark outside.

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

There was a lot of running going on that morning. First Mary Magdalene ran back to the disciples as soon as she realized the stone had been removed from the tomb. Though Mary is the only woman mentioned in John’s version of this story, we get the sense that there were other women with her when she said, “We don’t know where they have put Jesus.” So they must have been running with her, as she raced back to tell the others what she had found.

We don’t know if Mary even looked inside the tomb before jumping to the conclusion that someone had taken the body away. It’s hard to tell why she assumed the body has been stolen. Maybe she thought the tomb had only been ‘on loan’ as a temporary burial place, just to get through the Sabbath, and its actual owner had removed the body. Maybe she thought the religious leaders had moved the body before this tomb became an unwelcome shrine. It’s hard to tell who she means when she says “they,” but it’s obviously not “one of us.” And it’s clear that Mary thinks Jesus is still dead.

But Mary’s words crackle like a starting pistol, sending Peter and the other disciple racing toward the garden to see for themselves. And this is where the scene becomes almost comical – you can practically hear an old piano playing silent-movie-chase-scene music, as one disciple gets there first, but doesn’t go in, and the other runs right past him to duck into the … empty tomb! Well, how about that! Mary was right, after all. There’s no body here. Just some grave clothes lying around, and what’s this? The head cloth has been carefully rolled up and placed away from the other wrappings. That’s strange. Peter and the other disciple leave, scratching their heads, believing that the body is certainly gone, but not quite clear yet on the concept of resurrection.

After all, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, someone else had to unwrap him after he walked out of his tomb. So, who unwrapped Jesus’ body for him, and why? Peter and his friend simply cannot comprehend that the impossible has happened here. So, they leave.

Before we condemn them for their lack of faith, or even for short memories that can’t remember Jesus’ own words about being the resurrection and the life, we might want to stop and consider how we, too, walk away from the things we can’t explain. When our view of God is challenged, when he doesn’t work in our lives the way we think he ought to work, how often do we give up and walk away, muttering to ourselves or anyone else who will listen? We aren’t much different from Peter and that other disciple.

But Mary comes back into the story, to remind us that there is more than one way to miss recognizing the miracle of resurrection. She must have run right back to the tomb behind those racing disciples, because here she is again, weeping as they walk away. As she bends over to peer into the empty tomb, just to be sure Jesus isn’t hiding under that pile of linen, she discovers that it is no longer empty. It was empty just a moment ago, but now there are two – not one, but two – angels, sitting there calmly, asking a simple question: “Woman, why are you weeping?”

This might seem an odd question, since Mary is standing in front of a new grave. It’s a place where people normally weep. But they know something she hasn’t quite accepted yet. Mary is still stuck in the “He’s dead” reality of her own limited understanding. She hasn’t grasped the impossible fact that Jesus is alive. She can only answer, “They’ve taken him away, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”

As she turns around, she sees a man standing there, who asks her the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Her answer is another repetition of the theme, “I don’t know where they’ve taken him.” She’s stuck in this groove of grief, this firm belief that Jesus is dead, and she says the same thing she’s been saying all along, first to the disciples, then to the angels, and now to this man she doesn’t recognize, so she figures he must be the caretaker of this garden.

Aren’t we sometimes like Mary, too? When God doesn’t fit neatly into the box of our belief system, we might just walk away, as those racing disciples did, or we might act like Mary: senselessly, stubbornly repeating our view of truth, even when evidence to the contrary stands right in front of us.

Then, Jesus says her name. “Mary,” is all it takes for this sheep to recognize her shepherd’s voice. Jesus calls each of us by name, too, urging us to recognize him as our risen Lord. What keeps us from seeing him, when he’s standing right in front of us? What prevents us from reaching out to him, as Mary apparently did, naming him as our beloved teacher and Lord?

Theologian Karl Barth says we come to worship to answer this one, simple question: “Is it true?” Is it true that God exists? Is it true that he created a perfect world, and that humans were part of that creation? Is it true that he wanted us to love him the same way he loves us, freely, and of our own choice, so he made it possible for us to choose not to love him? Is it true that we broke his heart and the perfect world he created by choosing the wrong thing, and he’s been working to heal our brokenness ever since? Is it true that he loves us so much he gave his only Son to die, so that we could be reconciled to him? Is it true that this same Son not only died, but rose again, to give us eternal life?  Is it true?

There was a time in my life when I was pretty skeptical – maybe even downright cynical – about all this hocus-pocus we call faith. I had read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I thought I had it figured out. I was pretty smug about my openness to the possibility of a variety of mythological explanations for the things we cannot explain.

Then my world came crashing down around my ears and I found myself wondering: if there was a God, why didn’t he care about me anymore? I call that time in my life “the bottom of the well.” As I slowly climbed out of that well, I rebuilt my understanding of who God is, and I began to realize that he truly did love me. But I couldn’t quite get my head around that. I couldn’t explain it. I knew I wasn’t lovable. And then, one day as I read my Bible, without really seeing the words on the page, I realized I was like that other disciple, the one who entered the tomb after Peter, looked around, and believed. But we don’t know what he believed. The rest of that sentence says that the disciples still didn’t “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” And I realized I was a lot like Mary, repeating over and over my version of reality, trying to make the evidence right in front of me fit into a box that was too small. I remember saying out loud, “Lord, I don’t know what to believe anymore.” And it came to me, clear as a bell, “That’s okay. Just trust.” That’s when I was changed, like Mary, into someone who could suddenly recognize Jesus.

That’s what I invite you to do today. No matter what your questions are, no matter what keeps you stuck in doubt or skepticism, no matter what makes you walk away scratching your head. Trust Jesus to be who he said he was, to do what he promised to do, dying for your sake, rising again to new life, so that you can live, forever reconciled to God, starting now.

Then you, too, can join Mary in saying, “I have seen the Lord.”

The Lord is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia.
Amen.

How Big Is Your Faith? – Sermon on Luke 17:5-10 (October 6, 2013)

When Bruce and I first moved to Minnesota, we became acquainted with an invasive plant called buckthorn. European Buckthorn was introduced to Minnesota by landscapers who liked its appealing look. It often came under other names, such as black dogwood, alder dogwood, arrow wood, or Persian berries.Though it is sometimes called a dogwood tree, it is not related to North American dogwood species. Buckthorn has become an invasive nuisance in North America, partly because it blocks the sun from native plants, but also because it spreads quickly. Buckthorn bark and berries have a medicinal use: they are very effective laxatives, and the berries provide the harshest laxative effect. That’s the problem with buckthorn: birds like the berries, but they can’t digest the seeds. Buckthorn propagates through bird droppings.

As I considered today’s scripture passage, I was reminded of buckthorn. Like buckthorn, mustard weed also propagates through bird droppings, because birds cannot digest the seeds. Mustard weed was ancient Palestine’s version of buckthorn: a nuisance plant that was difficult to get rid of. Mustard plants grew rapidly, and could easily be more than six feet tall. They sprang up in the middle of wheat fields, and blocked the sunshine from the growing grain. It didn’t do much good to pull up the weeds, because birds would just drop seeds somewhere else in the field. Mustard seeds are tiny, but their impact on Palestine’s agriculture was huge.

In today’s passage, Jesus begins by comparing faith to a tiny mustard seed, but he goes on to explain that it isn’t how much faith you have that matters. It’s how you use it.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of amustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17:5-10

If you’re thinking this saying about faith and mustard seeds sounds familiar, you’re right. We also hear Jesus make this statement in the Gospel of Matthew. But Matthew puts Jesus in a different setting than Luke does for this teaching.  In Matthew 17, Jesus has just cast out a demon that the disciples couldn’t get to budge. When they ask him why they couldn’t get rid of the demon, he tells them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”[1]

But here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is answering the disciples’ request for increased faith. Jesus had just been teaching them about forgiveness, and the importance of forgiving. Perhaps they realized that the kind of forgiveness Jesus was asking them to offer required more faith than they had. At least the disciples understood that faith wasn’t something they could manufacture on their own. They had figured out that it doesn’t develop by following a “Greater Faith in Thirty Days Plan.” They knew that faith is a gift from God.

Jesus says it doesn’t take much faith to do great things. The tiniest amount of faith can plant a tree in the ocean, or move a mountain from one place to another. In Matthew’s version, it sounds like Jesus is chiding the disciples for having so little faith, but here in Luke, we get a little different slant.

Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how to get more faith. He doesn’t give the disciples a discipleship plan, or assign them each a faith journey partner, or ask them to write in their faith building journals. They might have been expecting a miracle, but they don’t get that, either. Instead of waving a magic wand and saying, “Poof, have more faith,” Jesus says, “It doesn’t take much faith to do what you need to do.”  In other words, “You have plenty right now.”

You have enough faith. It doesn’t take much. God has already given you all the faith you need.

Have you ever noticed how Jesus often manages to avoid answering questions that are put to him, by answering a different question altogether? This used to annoy me, particularly when I really wanted to know the answer to a question myself. Wouldn’t it be great, on those days when you feel like you need a little more faith, to look up Luke 17:5-6 and have the instruction manual right there in front of you? But instead of answering the question, Jesus goes off on some tangent that doesn’t even seem related to the current topic of discussion! It took me a long time to figure out why Jesus does this so often throughout the gospels. This passage is just one more example of Jesus telling the disciples they are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking for more faith, or bigger faith, the disciples should have been finding opportunities to act on the faith they already had. Instead of treating God like a short order cook who could be expected to slap a scoop of faith onto a plate, they needed to be living into the faith they’d already been given. To show the disciples how they’d gotten it backwards, Jesus tells a parable. And to understand the parable, we need to understand what slavery meant to the disciples who heard the story first.

Even though it was against Jewish law to own another Jew as a slave, slavery as an institution was quite common throughout the first century world. Slavery was the most common means available to get out of debt in that time. It was like taking out a loan with yourself as the collateral. You could sell yourself to another, to be that person’s servant for a contracted period of time, and use the money to pay off your debts. Once your agreed period of service was done, you were free again. Slavery was an institution that was taken for granted, and it apparently crossed common boundaries between social and economic classes. But the distinction between slavery and freedom remained clear. As a slave, you were bound to obey the authority of your master. And as a master, you were not beholden to your slave for the service that slave provided to you. As Jesus tells the story, he draws on the social construct of the day, assuming a small landowner with only one slave who works in the field as well as in the house (jobs that would be divided among several servants in a larger estate), a slave who does his duty, and expects nothing from his master in return for his labor. Jesus says, “Would you tell your slave to eat first, before serving you? Of course not. Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Serve my dinner, and then you can go eat yours?”

Then Jesus does something between verses nine and ten that we might miss if we aren’t careful. Up to this point in the story, Jesus has had his listeners identifying with the master of the house. Suddenly, he changes the viewpoint of his listeners to that of the slave. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” In other words, being faithful and obedient to God doesn’t make God owe us anything. It’s what we are supposed to do. We need to be more faithful, serving with no expectation of praise or recognition, in true humility. Our obedience is by no means a way to gain honor, and good works aren’t something we do in order to receive a reward. We obey and serve because Christ calls us to follow him in obedient service. He gives us plenty of faith to do this, but it’s up to us to be faithful followers.

Not only does Jesus switch us from “master” viewpoint to “servant” viewpoint, asking us to identify with the humble servant who does what he’s asked to do without expecting any special reward, Jesus makes an even bigger shift. Notice how the pronoun changes from “I” to “we”? Once again, we are reminded that we can be believers in isolation, but to become true and faithful disciples, we must live out our faith in community.

Faith depends on this idea of community, because, when you get right down to it, faith is bigger than believing. The Heidelberg Catechism characterizes true faith not only as certain knowledge, but also as a “wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit create in me through the gospel.” Faith is trust, and trust requires relationship. As we put our trust in Jesus, we give up any illusions of depending on ourselves only, and we recognize that faith cannot be measured; it can only be lived.

We don’t need more faith; we need to be faithful. And it’s also possible that we need a different kind of faith. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that, like mustard weed, spreads contagiously wherever it is dropped, grows persistently, and cannot be easily destroyed. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that is willing to enter the process of Christian character formation with humility, spiritual discipline, and patient trust. When we understand that faith is trusting God, we can begin to live out that trust through discipline and humility, becoming true servants of God who do the work God gives us to do.

What work is that?  How can we be faithful servants who trust our Master?

Next Sunday, we will receive new members to this congregation. As we do so, we will promise to uphold one another through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

We promise to pray for one another, and with one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of us decided to meet together regularly to pray with each other for the needs of this congregation, this town, and Christ’s ministry among us?

We promise our presence. There’s a popular quote that floats around the internet. The percentages vary, but the most common version goes like this: “Ninety per cent of success is showing up.” No one seems to know who said it first. Most people ascribe the original quote to Mark Twain, but Woody Allen’s version, “Eighty percent of life is showing up” comes pretty close, too. The point is simple. You have to be present to participate in the full life of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something you can do via e-mail or text. It isn’t something you can pencil into your calendar, and erase when other events crowd into your time. Your presence among the people of God is not only important for you, it’s important for the rest of us.

We promise our gifts. Not only our tithes and offerings, but our spiritual gifts help to build up the Body of Christ. We have each been given a variety of gifts, and using them is part of our discipleship. It’s how we follow Jesus.

We promise our service. Not to be thanked, not to be recognized, not to receive honor, but because God calls us to serve.

And we promise our witness. This promise was added to the membership vows just a few years ago, to remind us that we are called to be witnesses to God’s work among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and his continued work among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. No one is asking you to stand on the street corner and preach. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to tell others the good news that God loves us so much he sent his own Son, that whoever believes on him will have eternal life.

Trust God. Be faithful. Have a contagious kind of faith that can’t help but share the good news. This is discipleship.

Recently, someone interviewed Christian author, educator and pastor, Eugene Peterson, who is probably most famous for his version of the Bible called The Message. Peterson is now eighty-one years old, and he shared his opinions about what it takes to become a devoted follower of Jesus. He was asked, “As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship?” Peterson answered, ”Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place.”[2]

Go to the nearest, smallest church, and stick it out for six months. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of New Ulm, Minnesota. We have plenty of faith. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed, dropped where it can take root, to do what God is calling us to do. God is calling us to be faith-ful, to trust him, to do the work he has given us, as obedient servants. God is calling us to promise our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we live out our faith together in this community we call ‘church.’ As we do that, we may discover that our faith does, indeed, grow – not because of anything we do, but because of the One we trust and obey. Amen.