Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Jesus’ Style Hospitality

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-17; Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2013
© 2013

Though not really a part of today’s sermon, Hebrews 13:7, 17 prompts me, as your interim pastor, to tell you something your next pastor probably won’t or can’t tell you.
We who speak God’s Word to you and keep watch over your souls will give account for how you fare spiritually. I take that very seriously as do most pastors I know well.
While we pastors are all too aware of our vulnerability, we know we are called to a way of life and faith for you to imitate. I am personally, acutely aware of the damage of pastoral misconduct and moral failure. We should not be put on a pedestal, but we should be models and guides.
This burden can be crushing, but you have the wonderful power to lighten it for your next pastor. As verse 17 says, “Let them do this with joy and not sighing.” Be spiritually receptive. As 3 John 4 says, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Rather than critiquing a pastor’s sermons and teaching, listen for the voice of God, even when off days repeat.
Unlike many of the homeless people who ate at our church’s community luncheon in Mt. Holly, NJ, Bill never asked for financial assistance. He worshipped enthusiastically at several churches in town. His clothes were tattered, his hair and beard shaggy, and his eyeglasses were held together with tape, but he was always clean. One afternoon I was at the public library reading New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. Bill came in and saw what I was reading. He asked if I had read anything else by Thomas Merton. I sheepishly acknowledged this was the first time I was reading a whole Merton book. Bill had read Thomas Merton’s entire corpus and said everything he wrote was worth reading. We talked all afternoon about spiritual disciplines and our own contemplative experiences. Our unusual friendship blossomed. One day I asked for his last name. He said, “Goodhart.” I began to wonder if Bill adopted homelessness as his spiritual disciple or if he might be an angel sent to see how we’d treat a genuinely gentle person.
Hebrews 13:2 says that by showing hospitality to strangers, some have entertained angels without knowing it. Have you wondered if an angel has encountered you?
Setting my experience with Bill up against the Scriptures for today begs another question. How do or can we form bonds of friendship with people we’ve been trained to be suspicious of?
Hebrews 13:8 prompts another challenging question. How do we proclaim Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever in our rapidly changing world?
As I’ve tried to soak in Hebrews 13 and Luke 14 this week, I believe the answer is for friendly churches to grow into Jesus’ style hospitality by inviting unlikely people to join them. Growing from friendly to hospitable means moving from welcoming people to inviting people. It means moving out of our expected circles of relationships to invite unexpected people to come along with us as we journey with Jesus.
We miss it English, but Hebrews 13:2 is wordplay in Greek. The word for hospitality is philoxenia, which means “love of strangers.” So hospitality is not so much entertaining people you already know as those you don’t.
Hebrews 1-12 is a tightly woven presentation of Christ using Hebrew Scripture and Platonic philosophy. Hebrews 13 may seem like a tacked on, disjointed collection of Christian moralisms. However, I take it as a mosaic of life together in the community of faith, starting with mutual love in verse 1. In our time, this caliber of hospitality is inviting people in our fragmented, polarized society who are hungry for authentic community, for dependable relationships to join us journeying with Jesus.
Hebrews 13:15-16 speaks of offering sacrifices of praise pleasing to God. Church is not about feeling good to be together. Our togetherness culminates in worshipping God. Spiritually hungry people crave a connection with God. As 1 Corinthians 14:25 reminds us, our worship should exude excitement that God is really among us.
The first ⅔ of Luke 14 explores Jesus’ style hospitality from several angles. We’ll focus on Luke 14:1, 7-14 to listen for Jesus’ word on how friendly churches can grow into Jesus’ style hospitality by inviting unlikely people to join them.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Read the whole passage to see how Jesus was being set up and watched for a Sabbath violation. But Jesus turned the tables as he noticed the guests chose places honor. Where did Jesus sit? I suspect he stood at the side and watched until only one place was left, and he sat in the lowest place. His parable is not about manipulatively jockeying for the lowest seats so you can be moved up and honored but as a way of getting to verse 11, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus’ style hospitality is built on humility, on the elimination of social rank.
Jesus’ style hospitality also abandons social reciprocity. It’s not just that you don’t expect a return invitation; you purposely invite people who cannot return your invitation. Such hospitality is essential for inviting unexpected people to join us on the journey with Jesus. They need to know that we don’t consider them a project to make the church bigger, give money, work on a committee or tally a convert. They need to know we care about them as people on the same level as we care about each other.
All of the guests heard Jesus speak to their host about giving a luncheon or dinner, but when he spoke of inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, he raised it to a banquet. Those were the most unlikely guests, and he listed them again in the next parable he told in verses 15-24. We certainly have plenty of such people around us, but I would expand the unlikely guest list to include secular but spiritually hungry and hurting people. Many are the children and grandchildren of baby boomers who have little if any church or religious background. Missiologist Todd M. Johnson and his team at Gordon-Conwell Seminary's Center for the Study of Global Christianity, recently reported its Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020 Report. They found that 20 percent of those who do not identify themselves as Christians in North America do not “personally know” any Christians. That's over 13 million people—about the population of metropolitan Los Angeles. Plenty of them live here in Odessa, TX. To reach them requires Jesus’ style hospitality. They are the unlikely people to invite to join us on our journey with Jesus.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Freedom Days

Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
August 25, 2013
© 2013

I went to Haiti for the first time in the early 80s on a Habitat for Humanity mission trip. Port au Prince was filled with beggars, many of whom were hunched-over women with crippled backs. I learned that they had worked sewing baseballs. Sports equipment, including baseballs was a major export for Haiti at the time. These women held the ball between bare feet as they pulled the single red thread to stitch them – down and up, down and up thousands of times a day. They were paid by the piece not the hour, so women worked as fast as they could. After a few years, their backs could not take the strain, and they were relegated to begging on the streets. I went back to Haiti in the late 90s and saw none of the hunched over women among the beggars. When I asked our host about this he told me that in the political turmoil and embargos following the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the sporting good manufactures had pulled out of Haiti, and the women who had been crippled by sewing baseballs had all since died. I think of these women when I read Luke 13:10-17.
Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Verse 2 says that a spirit had crippled the woman, and in verse 15 Jesus said that Satan had bound her. Yet, Jesus performed a healing rather than casting out a demon. The woman did not ask for healing and expressed no faith. Yet, Jesus called her a daughter of Abraham who deserved to be set free of her ailment (v. 16). Rather than confronting Jesus, the synagogue leader told the people not to come to be cured on the Sabbath day.

The text suggests a boisterous uproar erupted in the synagogue when the woman stood up and praised God. The synagogue leader had to keep repeating his admonition to be heard over the din (v. 14).  Jesus called them hypocrites (v. 15), and his opponents (v. 16) were put to shame, both plural. Though they end up rejoicing, Luke called them a “crowd” (vv. 14, 17) indicating some hostility to Jesus.

Luke identified Jesus as “Lord” (v. 15) when he addressed the crowd and asserted that this woman deserved to be healed even more than an ox or donkey deserved water on Sabbath. Just a note about mangers you will want to remember at Christmas. The homes of many common folk had a place just off the family living area to bring in a few animals for warmth and security, not a barn. They threw kitchen scraps in the manger to feed the animals.

Sabbath is the gateway through which Jesus leads us to the freedom to accept God’s wild and wonderful embrace.

Sabbath has many layers of significance, starting with creation when God rested on the seventh day, not because of being tired but because that work was completed. In Israel, Sabbath was a sign that they belonged to God and were in covenant with God. Sabbath taught them faith in the wilderness by collecting manna on six days but not the seventh. When they settled in the Land, Sabbath taught them to trust God even when a storm on Sabbath might threaten their crops. Sabbath established a healthy rhythm of labor and rest, work and worship.

In this incident, Jesus connected Sabbath with the way the Ten Commandments are presented in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Sabbath is the sign that the Israelites were no longer slaves in Egypt. They could rest and do no work one day a week with no fear of a task master cracking the whip on them. Instead of being forbidden to cure on the Sabbath, Jesus said that the Sabbath was the perfect day for this woman to be set free from her ailment, from being bound.

Like many in positions of religious authority in Jesus’ time, the synagogue leader understood Sabbath in terms of what you can’t do. Some of the “blue laws” and Sunday practices of Christians in our time have a similar focus. But when viewed as the gateway to freedom, Sabbath is about what you don’t have to do.
The contrast between avoiding Mt. Sinai and approaching Mt. Zion in Hebrews 12:18-29 gives us another way to see the gateway through which Jesus leads us to the freedom to accept God’s wild and wonderful embrace.

The God of Mt. Sinai and the God of Mt. Zion is indeed the same consuming fire. This is the wild God who encountered Job in Job 38-41 whom God commended for speaking rightly of God (42:7). Now Jesus invites us to approach this wild God and receive the kingdom that cannot be shaken and worship with reverence and awe.

The fans of great roller coasters seek the thrill of feeling swept out of control while being securely harnessed and returning to safety. Jesus invites us to the thrill of being embraced by the God who is a consuming fire, and he personally promises to be our security and safety.

Uproar broke out during worship in the synagogue when Jesus healed the crippled woman. Their disputes were transformed into exuberant rejoicing. Hebrews 12:28 urges us to offer God acceptable worship with reverence and awe. That cannot be restricted to quiet and calm. I appreciate contemplative worship as much as anybody, but Jesus frees us for energetic expression as well.

For a congregation between pastors, the interim journey is also a gateway through which Jesus leads us to the freedom to accept God’s wild and wonderful embrace.

In writing about moral development Lawrence Kohlberg identified growing in periods of disequalibriation in which old ways of understanding the world don’t fit any longer but the new ways are not clear yet. Enjoy the thrill of God’s wild ride taking us somewhere we still can’t see, confident that Jesus keeps us secure.

The Twelve Steps of AA have proven powerful in addressing many addictions and bondages. Step Four calls us to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” I encourage you as a congregation to use this interim journey to make a searching and fearless inventory of the bondages that keep this congregation bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. This time of disequalibriation can also be an opportunity for each of us as individuals to make a searching and fearless inventory of the personal bondages that keep us bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.

Jesus set the woman in today’s Gospel free from her bondage without being asked and without any expression of faith. I take comfort that I am not dependent on myself to be freed from my bondages. But I also want to know how to access Jesus’ freedom. AA’s fifth step points the way. “To admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is an exact match to James 5:16. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so you may be healed.” The Prayer Triads that start up in September are not a program but an opportunity to do just this. Wherever this interim journey takes us, the essential issues are spiritual, and not about programs and policies.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Interpreting the Present

Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
August 18, 2013
© 2013


Three times rising religious fervor and has swept America. Each had 20-30 years of peak intensity and continues to make an impact today. As much as we might like to hang onto those times, they were relatively brief. In our time of waning religious interest, we are called to seize the opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people to Jesus.

The Great Awakening swept through the churches of New England in the 1730s and 40s. English preacher George Whitfield became one of the most powerful preachers in the American colonies. Candy and I have visited his grave in the basement of Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, MA, where he died of pneumonia after preaching outdoors through a thunderstorm. While this religious energy influenced the movement toward the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States, the force of the Great Awakening faded.

The Second Great Awakening swept across the American frontier in the early 1800s. It brought to faith and into churches people who had left religion behind as they moved west across the Appalachians. Led by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, our Disciples of Christ movement grew out of the Second Great Awakening. While religion influenced the debates over slavery, the force of the Second Great Awakening faded with further westward expansion and the coming of the Civil War.

The third expansion of religious energy and church participation came after World War II, though it was not given a name. Nuclear families fueled suburban growth that churches capitalized on. Billy Graham was preacher to the nation. In the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, the United States distinguished itself from “godless communism” with symbols such as adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and putting “In God We Trust” on dollar bills. This force faded, too, in the social upheaval of the 1960s with the secularism that rose in the era of the Viet Nam war.

This is the 3rd Sunday in a row that we hear words from Jesus in Luke that make us squirm. In Luke 12:49-56, Jesus turns from his disciples and sympathetic audience to address those who are suspicious or hostile. Luke used a language code that is not always as clear in English as in his Greek. He used “people” for sympathetic followers and “crowd” for those who were more hostile. In his account of Holy Week he used this to be clear that the “people” who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday, were different than the “crowd” that called for his crucifixion on Good Friday. As I have lived with this text all week, I believe Jesus is calling us to seize the opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people to him in the present time of waning religious interest. While teaching he said:

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

This passage is often understood in terms of identifying signs in the present of Jesus’ coming in the future. Jesus, however, seemed to be very focused on the present for himself and his listeners. In Palestine, when the wind comes from the west across the Mediterranean Sea, it brings rain. When it comes from the south across the deserts, it brings heat. Jesus seemed to suggest that interpreting the present should be as obvious.

The division Jesus spoke about was division over him. Would people accept and follow him or not. From here forward Luke shows rising opposition to Jesus. Would people recognize that God had visited them in Jesus? On Palm Sunday, in Luke 19:44 Jesus wept that they did “not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.”

Even while Jesus spoke sharply to those who were hostile to him, he was profoundly personal. He acknowledged he was under great stress until his “baptism” was completed. He wished fire on earth was already kindled. The obvious reference to fire speaks of judgment and purification. But other layers are implied as well. With fire as a sign of the presence of God, Jesus suggested that in him God was present in that actual moment. Fire is also a symbol of the spiritual fervor Jesus yearns for in his disciples.

With the literary flourish of “time would fail me to tell …” Hebrews 11 wraps up the examples of faith to encourage us to live in our present moment by faith. Only by faith can we seize the opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people in Jesus in the present of waning religious interest.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel are unlikely, deeply flawed examples of faith. I believe they are listed before the inventory of the accomplishment of faith to encourage us, that however unworthy or weak we may feel, when we trust God, great things can and do happen.

But faith does not guarantee great accomplishment. Sometimes, faith is what gets God’s people through suffering, hardship, torture and even death. We squirm to read this as we did when Jesus spoke of fire.

Hebrews 12 opens with the image of a race in which those who have already crossed the finish line wait for us with cheers. They are not lazy spectators in the stands. They urge us to keep our eyes on Jesus and to let go of everything that holds us back. The words translated “weight and sin” suggest the image of someone trying to run in a luxurious, flowing robe. The idea is to discard everything that distracts us from Jesus.

I have mentioned before that several studies show that the fastest growing religious identification in the United States, especially among young adults, is “none.” If we wring our hands and cluck, “ain’t it awful” and wish we were back in the 50s, we are not interpreting our present time. This present time of waning religious interest offers unique opportunities for spiritual vitality and introducing people to Jesus. Some of the “mega-churches” have been effective here, but they are not our competition. Not everyone will fit there. Many are looking for authentic communities with which to connect.

First priority is to be a community of faith that nurtures serious Christian discipleship. When following Jesus marks us as different from most of the people around us, we need faith strong enough to stand out. Comfortable, routine church membership won’t cut it.

A close second is to be a community of faith that reaches out to and welcomes people who are searching, lonely, questioning, wounded who may know nothing of Jesus. They need to know they can be honest with their doubts and pains. They also need to observe the faith of serious disciples of Jesus that engages with real life.

For a church to welcome those whose religious identity is “none” can seem bewildering. But our faith can embrace them if we think in terms of becoming a church that our grandchildren would want to be part of. Some of you have adult grandchildren. Some of us have grandchildren still in school. Some of you don’t have grandchildren. But I think grandchildren can be a lens through with we look with faith toward Jesus cheering us on to the finish line.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Stable Security

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
August 11, 2013
© 2013


At Jack Rhodes’ service we sang This World is Not My Home. Another favorite that seems to go in the opposite direction is This Is My Father’s World. Right now, I want all of you who identify more with This World Is Not My Home to raise your hand. Next all of you who identify more with This Is My Father’s World raise your hand. How many voted twice?

The Gospel lives between these two seemingly opposite ways of looking at our present. Our world is spectacularly good but tragically broken. By grace, we receive healing now as we hope for eternal restoration. We can journey fearlessly with Jesus through today’s uncertainties, confidently proceeding to God’s city that has foundations.

As we just read, we are like Abraham on a journey as foreigners in the very space God has promised to us.

In Luke 12:32-40, Jesus tells us how to be fearless, alert and ready on our journey. He had been teaching his disciples, not just the twelve, but still a small group, and a larger audience seems to have been listening in.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Jesus often said that a deeper reality was behind the way things appeared. What may seem powerful is actually insignificant, but people who seem small are great in the Kingdom. He is trying to sharpen our spiritual perception.

The Church is consistently at its best when it recognizes it is a vulnerable “little flock.” Yet, we need not fear, for it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. God’s delight is to send power through our weakness! Though Jesus was concerned for poor folk, here he encouraged alms, to be generous, for our spiritual health. It’s not about effective charity; it’s about disconnecting from the temporary so we connect with the eternal. If our treasure is secure in heaven, we need not fear losing it.

The parables of the alert slaves and homeowner are often connected with Jesus second coming. Not that they don’t speak to that, but a careful reading reveals that the text does not specify that, and Jesus’ immediate audience would not have understood that. I think Jesus was telling them that if they were alert and ready for the unexpected, they could recognize that he was the Son of Man who was right there in front of them. While we should be alert and ready for Jesus’ return, I think we should also be alert and ready to recognize that Jesus comes to us unexpectedly. If we are alert and ready, he comes to us in Scripture, prayer, worship and communion. More unexpectedly, he comes in unlikely people, the seemingly insignificant, weak and suffering. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) put it this way in a sonnet. “Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the father through the features of men’s faces.” As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame

Jesus represented this great reversal of expectations when he said the master would have the slaves sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. Thus, we journey fearlessly with Jesus through today’s uncertainties, confidently proceeding to God’s city that has foundations.

When I shared my testimony in my July 7 sermon, I mentioned how Abraham’s living in tents has been a defining metaphor for my journey both personally and professionally.

By faith Abraham set out for a place he was to receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going. As a congregation on an interim journey, you may feel you don’t know where you’re going and question whether a destination awaits. Remember, whatever is next for First Christian Church, Odessa, Jesus goes with you on the journey to God’s city that has foundations. Today’s churches are not God’s city but its pioneer or frontier outposts, little colonies of pilgrims on their way.

Between here and there, like Abraham, we are strangers, aliens, exiles and foreigners in our own world into which God has promised to bring the new heavens and the new earth. As Jesus’ little flock to whom the Father has promised the Kingdom, we may feel like insignificant outsiders, out of sync with the world in which we live, we are also the agents of that Kingdom, traveling the road to the God’s city that has foundations and inviting others to join Jesus on the journey to go there.

Like Abraham, we look forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Thanks to Jesus, we are able to see more than Abraham did. Hebrews (11:16) uses the past tense to affirm that God has already prepared this city for us. The journey of redemption began when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and leads to the God’s city, the New Jerusalem. It is what Jesus described in John 14:2 when he told his disciples that in his Father’s house there were many dwelling places. We are confused by the word “mansion” in the KJV and imagine an extravagant house on a hill far from neighbors. But in 1611 “mansion” meant an apartment in a manor house. Jesus was emphasizing that there was lots of room for lots of people to live together in God’s city, not in lavish isolation.

When people go through transitions, they often say they look forward to “getting back to normal.” But being in transition actually is normal, and we can never reach a steady state until we arrive at God’s city. Right now this congregation is on the interim journey between pastors. We are all in transitions personally and in our families. By faith, we journey fearlessly with Jesus through today’s uncertainties, confidently proceeding to God’s city that has foundations.

In C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, when the children are in England, they long to get to Narnia. When they are in Narnia, the long to get to Aslan’s country. Like them, our journey with Jesus is to go farther up and deeper in.

We are all prone to get comfortable and want to stay at certain places on our journey that feel very close to God’s city, but we forget that while they may be wonderful, they are temporary. I believe this longing comes from the desire for God’s city that has been implanted in us and is nourished by the Holy Spirit. But to be satisfied with something temporary, no matter how good, instead of what is eternal, is spiritually dangerous. It is a sign our treasure and heart are not securely in heaven.
In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that navigating the present was like driving on the freeway looking only at the rearview mirror.  Hebrews tells us that Abraham was able to navigate his journey by looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Jesus tells us to be alert and ready because the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. We may learn lessons from where we have been. We may be thankful for what we remember and experienced along the way. But to journey with Jesus is to look forward to God’s city with each step every day.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Rich Life

Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
August 4, 2013
© 2013

The Rich Fool, Rembrandt, 1627

On July 24 CNN ran a story reporting that 70% of those with a million dollars or more invested don’t consider themselves wealthy. It showed that only when they hit the five million dollar mark do they begin to feel wealthy. That’s the level at which people feel they have no constraints on their activities.

That was the same day as Pope Francis’ first public mass in Brazil at which he urged resisting the ephemeral idols of money, power and pleasure. In his homily he said, “Often a growing sense of loneliness and emptiness in the hearts of many people leads them to seek satisfaction in these ephemeral idols.” The Associated Press

In an uncertain economy, the Church has a wonderful opportunity to invite lonely, empty people to find satisfaction in Jesus that can never come another way.

Today’s scriptures show us how being rich toward God frees us from anxious insecurity.

Luke gives special attention to what is apparent in all of the Gospels: Jesus’ compassion for the poor, challenging expectations for the wealthy and warnings of the dangers of money. As I have spent the week with Luke 12:13-21, I have frequently thought of Mark Twain’s observation, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Jesus seemed to take advantage of an interruption while he was teaching.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And 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.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then 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. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But 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?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

We can miss Jesus’ point in this passage in two opposite ways. One is to rationalize and excuse ourselves because we don’t feel wealthy or because we tithe or are generous to charities. The other is to demonize those we think are wealthy as though wealth is universally corrupting. Both approaches are superficial and simplistic. I believe Jesus was warning us of the danger of pursuing money as a life goal rather than using money as a means to a life that grows out of being rich toward God.

Jesus did not suggest the person who asked his help in the dispute over a family inheritance didn’t deserve his share. Jesus did not suggest that the rich man did anything unethical to gain his wealth. Jesus warned against all kinds of greed, that is defining your life by your possessions at the expense of family relationships and secure personal peace. Even seemingly just and noble pursuit of wealth is spiritually dangerous when it supplants being rich toward God.

“Eat, drink and be merry” has come from this parable to represent frivolous, hedonistic living. But in Jesus’ story the rich man first says to himself “relax,” and “merry” is better translated as “be glad” or “rejoice.” It is the same word used by the father when the Prodigal Son came home. (Luke 15:32) The rich man’s problem was that he thought his wealth, rather than God, made him secure.

Jesus used the interruption of his teaching to say most emphatically that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions but in being rich toward God. Jesus is telling us that Malcom Forbes was wrong when he said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Instead, Jesus wants us to know that being rich toward God frees us from anxious insecurity. In Colossians 3 that we read this morning, Paul gives instructions for being rich toward God.

This picks up from where we left off on July 21 in Luke 10:42 when Jesus said to Martha, “There is need of only one thing.” Get a single focus. “Set your minds on things that are above.” (v. 2) When the only thing that matters is intimacy with Jesus and serving his Kingdom, everything else falls into place. Whether we have a lot of money or very little money, if whatever we have is a means we can use on behalf of Jesus, we don’t need to be anxious whether the economy is up or down.

We skipped verses 4-11 that describe what happens to our relationships when we lose our focus on Christ and things above. That’s important, but the relationships with God’s people described in verses 12-14 are the way we experience being rich toward God every day. Notice how realistic they are. Forgiveness and bearing with each other’s complaints is where the rubber meets the road.

Paul did not write to make the peace of Christ rule in our hearts. He wrote to let the peace of Christ rule. (v. 15) Christ’s peace is available for us to receive. It happens when the word of Christ dwells in us richly, which comes as we saturate ourselves with the Bible, learn and worship God together, and keep focused by doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus with thanksgiving.

In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi was asked what he would do if he knew Jesus was going to return. He said he would keep on watering his garden. A few hundred years later, the great reformer Martin Luther was asked the same question. He said, “If I knew Jesus was coming tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.” Three centuries after Luther, John Wesley’s reply was, “I would spend my last day exactly as I expect to spend it now.” Daily Devotions from Lutheran Hour Ministries, “Keeping Watch," March 24, 2007

The interim journey for a church between pastors can evoke a myriad of anxieties and insecurities. Money can easily rise to the top of the list along with: Will we find a good pastor? Will we like the new pastor? What if the new pastor changes what we are comfortable with? Will the new pastor bring in new people? We want to grow but are anxious about how new people will change our church. Set your minds of things above so you can be rich toward God. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Security is not found in budgets and committees. It is not found in ideal pastors or programs. Christ is the only security, and when we focus on him, all these other things fall into place, even if not as we hope.

I do not speak to you today as one who has perfected being rich toward God and so have no anxieties and insecurities. Candy and I have parents at different places on their journeys to the end of this life. We have a son with significant unresolved issues. One of our daughters-in-law deals with bipolar disorder. We struggle with our own finances when unanticipated expenses strain the budget. One way I try to keep focus on being rich toward God when the stress level rises, is repeating what is called “The Jesus Prayer” which comes from Luke 18:13 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Having walked with three congregations on the journey between pastors, I can tell you the essential issues are spiritual, not about procedures, programs, prospective pastor profiles, budgets, schedules, or votes. All of those things find their place when the congregation together focuses on Jesus.

Being at a place on our journey as a couple where we have never been before, I can also tell you that anxiety is a signal I am being distracted and a reminder to return my focus to Jesus. I can’t tell you I’ve mastered it, but I can tell you that it works. Being rich toward God, frees us from anxiety and insecurity.