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, March 29, 2013

Can You Imagine a Castle on a Cloud?

Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:11-18
March 31, 2013
© 2013


If you had the power to fix whatever you think is wrong with the world, what would your new world look like? Artists often express these dreams with great eloquence.

Candy and I saw the Les Miserables movie at Christmas with our son Erik, having seen the stage play years ago in Philadelphia. Young Cosette’s song Castle on a Cloud is her dream of escaping abusive servitude and drudgery.

There is a castle on a cloud,
I like to go there in my sleep,
Aren't any floors for me to sweep,
Not in my castle on a cloud.

There is a room that's full of toys,
There are a hundred boys and girls,
Nobody shouts or talks too loud,
Not in my castle on a cloud.

There is a lady all in white,
Holds me and sings a lullaby,
She's nice to see and she's soft to touch,
She says “Cosette, I love you very much.”

I know a place where no one's lost,
I know a place where no one cries,
Crying at all is not allowed,
Not in my castle on a cloud.

John Lennon’s Imagine has become the anthem of a generation and identifies religion, nationalism, personal property and the expectation of life after death as the sources of injustice and suffering that need to be abolished. All of this is packaged as a winsome, lyrical invitation to dream.

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one

The scriptures that we read this morning are visions of God’s renewed world.

The vision of hope in Isaiah 65:17-25 answered the disappointments that came when the people of Judah returned from captivity in Babylon and realized that did not inaugurate the ideal world. Through the prophet, God promised a new heaven and a new earth, which is echoed again in Revelation 21:1. In a time when life was short and any hint of personal, eternal life was vague at best, the defeat of death was longevity measured by centuries and the age of trees. No longer would people work to enrich others but would enjoy the fruits of their own labors. The end of suffering and weeping is also echoed in Revelation 7:17. God will not only protect but rejoice and delight in all who live on God’s holy mountain.

The Apostle Paul’s great treatise on Christ’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 jumps the vision of God’s renewed world a quantum leap ahead from where Isaiah left us. Longevity is no longer measured by centuries or the lifespan of trees but eternal resurrection. Justice and peace come not by restraining oppressors but by the destruction of every ruler, authority and power when Christ hands all the kingdoms of this world over to God the Father.

For centuries people have concocted all sorts of silly speculations about Mary Magdalene, though what the New Testament tells us about her seems more than fascinating enough to me. She is the main character in the account of Jesus’ resurrection in John 20. She, probably with a few other women, was the first to arrive at the empty tomb at dawn. She ran to tell Peter and probably John that Jesus had been taken out of the tomb. Peter and John ran to the tomb but returned to the others without seeing Jesus. Verses 11-18 report that …

… Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.”14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means my Teacher).17Jesus 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.’”18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary’s experience with the risen Jesus was intensely personal. Whether the other women were there at that moment, John focused on the personal encounter between Mary and Jesus. Mary recognized Jesus when he spoke her name, and she called him “my teacher.” Emotionally overwhelmed, she clung to him, not wanting to let him out of her grasp ever again. He said, “Don’t hold onto me.” Something bigger was coming. He said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God,” bringing together the personal and the cosmic.

Mary ran to proclaim, to preach to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” Thus, as the first eye witness to proclaim having seen the risen Jesus, she is called the first apostle and the apostle to the apostles. Legend has it that she once had an audience with the Emperor Tiberius and told how she met the risen Jesus. The Emperor replied that no one could come back to life after a Roman crucifixion any more that the egg on the table could turn red. The story is that the egg on the Emperor’s table instantly turned red, and so many Eastern orthodox icons of Mary Magdalene show her holding a red egg. You can see some at the QR code or web site on the back of today’s bulletin.

The risen Jesus invites us to join him in God’s future that is at once personal and cosmic, immediate and eternal.

Back on August 19, my first Sunday to preach to you, I told of hearing Fr. Thomas Hopko speak on the spiritual life when he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He said that when he was a boy, his mother told him, “If you want to grow as a Christian, read your Bible, say your prayers, and go to church.” Then he said to us, “Now I am the dean of a seminary training people for a lifetime of ministry, and I tell them to read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” As simplistic as it may seem, Jesus meets us in the pages of Scripture, in the quiet conversation of prayer and in the community of God’s people of faith.

Jesus also calls us out of ourselves into the world of struggling people he is loving and transforming, into his cosmic redemption of all humanity and all creation. I believe several of us saw that last Monday evening as we worshipped and ate with the people of Refuge Fellowship. As I listened to one angry young man complain that in this cold snap all the shelters were full, I remembered Jesus saying that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Every Monday morning, those who deliver Mobile Meals look into the faces of people, many of whom are struggling with decline as their lives draw to a conclusion. By reaching out to the hurting, wounded people around us we do much more than extend the love of Jesus to them, we join Jesus in his redemptive mission for all people in all times and all places. Beyond that, we see Christ looking back at us and smiling at us through tears.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Humiliation and Exaltation

Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 19:29-44
March 24, 2013 – Palm Sunday
© 2013

Palm Sunday is a bitter-sweet day in the liturgical calendar. We want to welcome Jesus with cheers and not think too much about what’s coming on Friday. Those who don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday experience jump from “Hosanna!” to “He is risen!” without the Last Supper, praying in the Garden, trial and crucifixion. The seemingly anonymous overseers of the liturgical calendar have tried to remedy this by inserting Passion Sunday to focus on the events around Jesus’ crucifixion either the fifth or sixth Sundays in Lent. Few churches want to give up Palm Sunday festivities on the sixth Sunday, and observing crucifixion on the fifth Sunday, a week before Palm Sunday, is disturbingly out of rhythm.  

I have heard plenty of Palm Sunday sermons about fickle people who shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify!” on Good Friday. Unique among the Gospels, Luke is clear that these were two different groups. Vocabulary that is apparent throughout Luke becomes blatant from Palm Sunday through Good Friday. Luke calls those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday “the people” or “the disciples,” meaning all of his followers not just the Twelve. And Luke calls the mob that cried for his crucifixion “the crowd.” Our English translations don’t always make this as clear as it is in Greek.

While John 12:12 emphasized that pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for Passover went out to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday, Luke emphasized those who had followed Jesus from Galilee and witnessed his deeds of power shouted praises as they approached Jerusalem. This is not a conflict but the bitter-sweet way Luke 19:29-44 sets the stage for Jesus’ response as he came around the Mount of Olives for a panoramic view of Jerusalem.

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry concludes the transition we have been watching through Lent from Jesus’ ministry in Galilee to his destiny with the cross in Jerusalem. In this space, Jesus was teaching on the go and had become increasingly pointed, foreshadowing the climatic confrontation with the Temple leadership in Jerusalem.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.”35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

41As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,42saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
For Luke, the bitter-sweet of Palm Sunday was not fickle people but that Jesus’ disciples enthusiastically shouting his praises, oblivious to his weeping over Jerusalem. Contemplating this incongruity opens a vista into our spaces between humiliation and exaltation, where we can listen for the voice of God to identify our growth zones.

Matthew 21:5 quotes Zechariah 9:9 to specify that Jesus purposely chose to ride a donkey as a sign of humiliation. Jesus presented himself, not as a conquering hero on a white horse but as a servant riding a beast of burden.

In the midst of the exhilarating exaltation of the cheers of his disciples, Jesus was insulted by the Pharisees. Even deeper, his humiliation was knowing that he would not be recognized by the Temple leaders in Jerusalem. He wept for the fate of Jerusalem. If only they recognized him!

In that space between humiliation and exaltation, Jesus yearned for the people of Jerusalem, and I believe for us to identify where we are growing in the things that make for peace: faith and harmony with God.

Philippians 2:5-11 is clearly a hymn of the New Testament Church. Scholars speculate whether Paul inserted a known hymn to make his point or whether he composed it himself. I’m inclined to think Paul used something the Philippian church already sang in worship, but I don’t think it matters. But recognizing how Paul introduced this exquisitely theological praise is critical. “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul is purposely practical!

Jesus leads the way for us through humiliation to exaltation. When you think you deserve some respect or appreciation, remember you are following the one who emptied himself of divine prerogatives to ride a donkey to the cross, weeping, not for himself but for people who couldn’t recognize the things that made for peace.

In your spaces between humiliation and exaltation, how can you listen for the voice of God to identify your growth zones? We may squirm, but these are not deficiencies as much as the zones where the Holy Spirit is encouraging us to grow. Do you feel your hackles coming up when someone challenges you? Maybe it’s when you’re sure you’re right and someone else tells you that they’re sure you’re wrong. Maybe it when you’ve made a decision that affects other people and someone questions your right or authority to make that decision. Behind the noise of your own heart, can you hear the whisper of Jesus saying, “Here is where you are growing now”?

Much has been made of Pope Francis being the first Latin American Pope, the first Jesuit Pope and the first Pope to choose the name Francis. Francis of Assisi never aspired to be a parish priest or bishop, much less a Pope. In fact, he clashed with Popes. Yet in 1208 Pope Innocent III had a dream of the Church sliding off its foundations, stopped by the little monk, Francis. You can see Giotto’s fresco of that dream with the QR code or web address on the back of the bulletin. Francis refused to be called the leader of the Friars Minor, “Little Brothers.” We know them as the Franciscans. Francis would have been horrified to have something named after him. He even refused to be the leader of the band of 12 brothers with whom he lived and served. Though others recorded some of Francis’ sermons, teachings and prayers (some of which are more legendary than historical), he never wrote with the idea of leaving a legacy. Nevertheless, Francis is one of the most influential Christian since the apostolic age. While claimed by Roman Catholics, Protestants and even non-Christians love Francis. Legend has it that in 1219, during the 5th Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines for an audience with the Sultan of Egypt who is reported to have said, “If more Christian were like Francis, I would consider becoming one.”

For centuries the Jesuits and Franciscans have been rivals, making Pope Francis’ choice of that name extraordinary. Pope Francis’ recent symbolic gestures and statements suggest he aspires to emulate Francis of Assisi. How that unfolds remains to be seen. But Francis of Assisi shows us the journey through humiliation to exaltation.

From Luke’s bitter-sweet account of Palm Sunday, as you join the cheers of the multitude of Jesus’ disciples, can you also watch Jesus weeping and hear him whisper, “These things make for peace. You are growing here.”


Friday, March 15, 2013

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Past and Future

Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
March 17, 2013
© 2013


My friend Caela is a pastor in Indiana. She and her husband David have two preschool boys. While watching his Mom read the news on the internet this week, three year old Maitland said, “Oh, I see the Pope! Pope Francis. He is a pastor, just like my mama.” Of course, he is too young to grasp the many layers of irony that make us laugh at his observation. Yet, making the connection between a married, woman Protestant pastor and the Pope surrounded by centuries of tradition and trappings is something of a metaphor for living between the past and the future.

Thanks to Randy for the update from the Search and Call Committee today. Just as the election of a new Pope is a sign that we are living between the past and the future, anticipating a new pastor is an experience of living between the past and the future as a congregation.

We all knew from the beginning that as an interim pastor I would be with you for a brief but important time. Realizing that our time with you will be soon drawing to a conclusion, means that Candy and I are also aware of living in a particular space between our past and our future. We’ve begun to make lists of what we need to do here and in Dallas. After Easter we’ll be with our son David’s family and with Candy’s Dad in Milwaukee to dovetail future plans. I’ve had some inquiries for our next interim ministry but don’t know where God will take us.

Today’s Scripture readings are about emerging from the past so we can embrace the future. They can help us listen for God in the spaces between past and future. They prepare us for God to reverse our expectations.

Providing pastoral leadership and care while the Search and Call Committee looks for another pastor is only part of the ministry of an interim pastor. Equally important is creating a space between pastors that insulates the new pastor from comparisons with the previous pastor. In my time with you, I hope I have helped you listen for God in between pastors.

Isaiah 40-55 was pointedly applicable to Judah’s Babylonian Exile and prepared them to return to their homeland. 43:16-17 recalls God opening the Sea (of Reeds) so they could escape Egyptian slavery on dry ground. But when they were captives in Babylon, a desert rather than a sea was the barrier they would have to cross to get to freedom. Through the prophet, God promised a reversal of the escape from Egypt. Instead of dry land through the sea, God would make a river in the desert; instead of a pursuing army, God would use a pagan King to launch and finance their return to the Promised Land.

Isaiah 43:18-19 says, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing.” Paul was thoroughly familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, so I wonder if he wasn’t thinking of that when he wrote in Philippians 3:13 that he was “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” For Paul, the reversal was to relinquish the accumulation of his greatest religious credentials and accomplishments for a future of knowing Christ and attaining the resurrection of the dead. The space between Paul’s past and Paul’s future was to press on in the power of Christ’s resurrection and the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.

The prophet asked Judah, “Do you not perceive the new thing God is doing through you?” Seen from a New Testament perspective, Judah’s return from Babylon was far greater than the Exodus from Egypt, as it set in motion the coming of the Messiah. For Paul, relinquishing his own righteousness was far eclipsed by receiving the righteousness of Christ. On a congregational scale, I am convinced God is saying to this congregation, “In your space between pastors, the future I have awaiting you will far exceed the best of your past. I’m about to do a new thing. Can you not perceive it?”

Lent, also, is a space between the past and the future. We look back at our spiritual struggles and wandering, and we look ahead to redemption and resurrection. Lent is an annual reminder that we are neither chained to our past nor fully living our future. In Luke’s Gospel, we’ve been following Jesus through the spaces between his Galilean ministry and his redemptive mission at the cross. Today we jump to John 12:1-8 for a poignant, personal glimpse into one of those spaces. All four Gospels record a woman anointing Jesus. Scholars love to debate the identity of the women and the exact occasions of the anointings. That could be another fun Bible study, but too detailed for a sermon. I will tell you this much. Matthew 26 and Mark 14 are almost certainly reporting the same incident. I believe Luke 7 was a different woman much earlier in Jesus’ ministry. While I can’t prove it, I suspect John 12 is the same woman and incident as Matthew and Mark, that John has told in his own way of making the dramatic transition to the events of Holy Week.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The dinner for Jesus at Bethany seemed to be out of gratitude for the raising of Lazarus. Though unlikely that Mary bought the perfume thinking of Jesus’ burial, he pointedly turned it into a stark precursor of his death.

When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 15:11 about always having the poor, both the context of that verse and his own life, preclude using it to rationalize withholding generosity from the poor. By saying “you do not always have me,” he focused this occasion on his coming death.

For Mary to anoint and let her hair down in public to wipe the feet of a man who was not her husband was scandalous intimacy. I have posted some art work that gives a sense of this at the QR code or web address on the back of the bulletin. In these passages, I believe I hear the voice of God in the spaces between the past and the future inviting us to a similarly close relationship with Jesus.

In Isaiah 43:21, God called Judah “the people I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” Each time we see Mary of Bethany, she is an icon of deep closeness with Jesus: the dinner in Luke 10:38-42, the death of her brother Lazarus in John 11:28-33 and the anointing we read today.

When Paul wrote in Philippians 3:8, 10 that he wanted to know Christ, he wasn’t thinking of a seminary degree. He wanted to be so absorbed in Jesus that he could live every day by the power of Jesus’s resurrection.

Paul also knew that for Jesus’ resurrection to be his daily reality, not just a past event or future hope, he would also share the fellowship of his suffering. To be with Jesus in the spaces between the past and the future is to be with him wherever people suffer as you journey toward the future with hope.

As we read that Paul pressed “on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” we need to be careful to realize he had not just replaced one form of human spiritual exertion with another. Rather, like Paul we can be confident that Jesus has made us his own, so as we live in the spaces between the past and the future, we are increasingly congruent with Jesus.

Friday, March 8, 2013

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Failure and Forgiveness

Joshua 5:9-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 10, 2013
© 2013


Through Lent, we’ve been walking with Jesus toward Jerusalem and his destiny with the cross.

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”3So he told them this parable:

11“There was a man who had two sons.12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

I.                I’m sure you recognized Jesus’ parable we usually call The Prodigal Son from Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32. As familiar as it is, as we listen to it we can hear God’s voice in the spaces between failure and forgiveness. Whether our own or someone else’s, God whispers, “All this is from me.”

A.           Without even considering its place in Jesus’ teaching, it is the epitome of the storyteller’s art. Compact with nothing superfluous, yet vivid in detail. Colorful, complex characters. Relational tension and drama. It was told. Jesus did not publish a collection of stories he wrote. These are meant to be spoken and heard. I tell these Gospel stories to give you a taste of that experience.

B.            This story has inspired great art. One of the best is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. You can see it and others with the QR code or website on the back of your bulletin. One is a self-portrait in which Rembrandt portrays himself as the Prodigal living the wild life.

C.            I react with personal intensity to this story. As a kid watching something as innocent as Leave it to Beaver on TV, I would cringe when I saw a character headed for trouble and say, “Don’t do that!” Even telling the story this morning, something deep inside of me screams to the younger son, “Stop! You’ll be sorry.” And to the older son, “Go in with a smile and hug your brother, or you’ll regret it.” I ache for the unrecoverable losses in the story.

II.            Part of the powerful genius of the story is where Jesus ended, leaving us hanging with huge questions.

A.           First, did the elder son go into the party? If so how did he greet his brother? The younger brother was hoping to sneak home and blend in with the hired hands. How did he respond to becoming the center of attention? What tangle of emotions did the father experience as his joy at having the younger son home was tempered by the pain of what he had lost and the tension with the elder son?

B.            When the party was over, did the younger son work like a hired hand since he no longer had a stake in the estate? Did he live in the family house or the servant’s quarters? What happened between the brothers in their daily interaction? Did the younger brother save up money to buy a house in town and get another job? What happened to the father’s relationship with each of the sons?

C.            What happened after the father died? Who stood where at the funeral? If he was still working for the estate, was the younger brother fired? Were the brothers reconciled or did they go their separate ways, dissolving their relationship? Did they hold onto guilt and resentment?

III.       Jesus was prompting us to ask questions about ourselves. Do we have the same sense of entitlement as the younger brother? While you wouldn’t say it this way, do you think the world owes you something? Or do we have the same sense of entitlement as the older brother? “I work hard so I deserve my advantages?” Jesus was getting at something far deeper than the truism that privileges come with responsibilities.

A.           We read in Joshua 5 today about God rolling the disgrace of Egypt off of Israel before they celebrate Passover and enter the Promised Land. As a free people in their own land, they must never forget that God freed them from slavery and fed them in the wilderness.

B.            2 Corinthians 5:18 tells us that both our redemption from sin by Christ as well as our ministry of reconciliation that calls others to Christ, is all from God. Do not forget!

C.            Prosperity is spiritually dangerous. It distorts the way we view ourselves. Ego creep easily pushes God to the edge.

1.              In Deuteronomy 8:17 as Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

2.              In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul points directly at us. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?”

IV.      In this Lenten season of self-examination, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son prompts us to listen for God’s voice in the spaces between failure and forgiveness. Whether our own or someone else’s, God whispers, “All this is from me.”

The church I served in New Jersey had an extensive low-income housing ministry. In connection with that, Habitat for Humanity founder, Millard Fuller, came to speak. In some sense, he experienced the life of both the younger and older brothers. Far from perfect, yet used by God.

He paid his way through Auburn University with entrepreneurial projects such as a service so parents could send birthday cakes to their student children. With a law degree from the University of Alabama, he became a successful lawyer and businessman – a millionaire by age 29. But his marriage and family were in shambles.

In 1968 the Fullers liquidated their wealth, gave it all away to charity and moved into Koinonia Farm, a Christian community in Georgia. From there they went to Zaire (now DR Congo) as missionaries with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). On returning to the U.S. they began a housing ministry with Koinonia Farm that eventually led to Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity was already growing rapidly around the world when former President Jimmy Carter raised its profile considerably as the flagship global force for decent, affordable housing.

If you are familiar with Habitat for Humanity, you know about Millard Fuller’s volatile, stormy relationship there. Some of that stemmed from his entrepreneurial, take-charge personality and some from relational and marital issues. I am not intending to hold Millard Fuller up as either a hero and role model or as a fallen, disgraced leader.

Rather, looking through the lens of Jesus’ Prodigal Son story, we see that both great accomplishments and great mercy are God’s gifts. You and I are also younger brothers who have received extravagant grace from God. You and I are also older brothers who are in danger of forgetting that our greatest achievements are also extravagant gifts from God. So in the spaces between failure and forgiveness, listen for the voice of God.


Friday, March 1, 2013

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between… Ambition and Vulnerability

Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
March 3, 2013
© 2013


I.                Over 7 years have passed since Pat Robertson and others declared Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on the decadence of New Orleans. Westboro Baptist Church still gets news coverage when their pickets assert that tragedies are God’s wrath on the immorality of the United States. Do you ever think God sends so many tornados to Oklahoma to punish us for some unrecognized sin? Was this week’s blizzard God’s reprimand of the people northwest of us and the rain God’s approval for us here to the south and east of the freeze line? Could this week’s earthquake right here in Midwest City have been God’s slap on the wrist for being spiritually lazy?

A.           Whether you are grimacing or smiling, you have certainly had occasion to ask why something particularly bad has happened to you or to someone you know. We’ve all said, “They didn’t deserve that,” or asked, “What did I do to deserve that?” When my friend Wes Kennedy was going through all the procedures following a cancer diagnosis, intending sympathy, his doctor asked, “Do you ever wonder, why me?” To which Wes responded, “Why not me? I don’t expect to be exempt from the realities of life.”

B.            Candy’s Mother credited her bout with tuberculosis with bringing her back to a close relationship with God. I don’t think God specifically steered some TB bacteria her way. Her less wayward sisters also contracted tuberculosis. Rather, I would suggest that God had been graciously calling to her all along, and during her recovery in the sanitarium she was ready and quiet enough to listen.

C.            In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, we may be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.

II.            As I’ve already said, during Lent we are journeying with Jesus to the cross. In Luke 11-12, Jesus’ teaching to the people on his path had become increasingly confrontational. In Luke 13:1-9 he was not yet in Jerusalem, but it was on his mind as he headed there and was brought gossip from Jerusalem.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

A.           The first thing to notice is that Jesus asserted that the tragedies were not punishment or even natural consequences for the behavior of their victims. We can’t be sure of the specific events Jesus was speaking about, but some things did happen that could have connected.

1.              Galileans were not too welcome in Jerusalem. Many rebel movements started in Galilee, so the Romans were suspicious that Galileans in Jerusalem were fomenting insurrection. Their fellow Jews considered them to be uncouth and impious, not really worthy of bringing a pure sacrifice to the Temple. On more than one occasion Pilate was known to send soldiers into the Temple to assassinate any he thought might be using piety as a cover for conspiracy. The Jerusalem Jews might suggest that because the Galileans were ritually impure, God allowed the Romans to kill them before they got to the altar. Maybe these deserved it.

2.              Pilate wanted to build a Roman style water works in Jerusalem, and he confiscated some of the Temple offerings to pay for it. The Jews he hired to build it were considered wicked traitors. We don’t know if the tower that fell was part of that project or if those killed were working on it, but the Pool of Siloam was a water source for Pilate’s project. Gossip may have been that God purposely pushed the tower on them.

B.            While Jesus specified that neither Pilate’s human cruelty nor the accidental collapse of the tower were God’s punishment, he said they were God’s urgent invitation to repent – recognize that life is uncertain, and God is calling. Don’t miss your opportunity to reply to God.

C.            That is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Like the gardener, God is giving you an opportunity to be fruitful, but it is limited. The time will come for the ax and saw, and the opportunity may be missed. I doubt Jesus had this in mind, but the gardener’s cultivating and spreading of manure can also be a parable for us about life’s difficult times. These spaces stir up our lives and dump stink on us, but those may be the triggers for our spiritual vigor.

III.       Scholars debate exactly how, who and when the book of Isaiah came to be what we know. Exploring that could be a fun Bible study, but they all agree that Isaiah 55 comes from the section written for Judah when they were in Exile in Babylon. It is God’s word of hope in the darkest space of their history.

A.           In vv. 2-3, God calls, “Listen to me, and I will lead you to joyful, vivacious bounty. The dark space is temporary.”

B.            In vv. 6-7, God calls, “This is the time of opportunity. I am near right now. Turn to me and receive my mercy.”

C.            In vv. 1-2, 4-5, God calls, “I want you to flourish, to be so conspicuously inviting that you attract all people to me.”

IV.      In the ancient examples of Israel’s history, 1 Corinthians 10 weaves these same themes together for us: listen for God’s voice, turn to God, be nourished by God. In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, we may be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.

A.           I hope you are not tempted to think of my time with you as your interim pastor as God’s punishment. I know that the interim between pastors is a time of uncertainty. As you already heard from Jason, it is often a time of financial anxiety in which seeing God’s bounty can be difficult. As an act of faith, I encourage you to pray and step up your giving, building hope and expectation for the ministry bounty God has waiting. Holding back on your giving, your energy, your enthusiasm with a “wait and see” attitude, is to spend for that which does not satisfy. Instead, use God’s resources to buy into God’s bounty.

B.            Lent reminds us that our journey with Jesus is not always a level, smooth path. Ignatius of Loyola imagined it as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. (Spiritual Exercises, 313-327) Of the 150 Psalms, ⅔ are laments or complaints. Passing through the dark spaces does not mean we have lost our way. 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns us of the danger of thinking that we stand. When we know we are vulnerable, we are more inclined to listen for the voice of God and depend on the mercy of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether the challenge is health, career, family, financial or relational, listen for the voice of God.

C.            The recent political posturing around “sequestration” reminds us that many things over which we have no personal control can plunge us into uncertain spaces. Though not nearly as extreme as Judah’s Exile in Babylon, the prescription is the same. Informed by Scripture and attuned to the Holy Spirit, listen for the voice of God. That will not be what to do about external circumstances but about responding to God’s invitation to spiritual renewal for you and your church. It means flourishing as a community of hope that is so attractive, people trapped in their dark spaces with flock to Jesus because you embody God’s bounty.