Friday, January 23, 2009

Keep Alert!

Steeple at St. Sebald Lutheran Church, rural Strawberry Point, Iowa

This is a sermon that I gave on November 23, 2008 at Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa. The scripture basis for this is Matthew 25:31-46, Ezekiel 34:11-24, and Ephesians 1:15-23.

The following is a brief meditation based on writings by Claudia Burney:

"Jesus' family lives next door. He’s got an eight-year-old niece and her three-year-old brother. The Son of Man is the uncle of those starving Ethiopian children. They only gets breakfast and lunch at school, when they make it. His sister is a crack addict. His aunts are illegal immigrants, and the processing plant is closing. Poor King of Kings.

Jesus' brother is two houses down and has six children. and his sister-in-law’s pregnant with the seventh. I don’t know if they haven’t figured out what birth control is, or what, but how can his brother feed all those babies on that salary? That means hardworking taxpayers’ money has to go for the Christ’s family food stamps! It's not the right thing to do...

The child of the Lord is a crazy man-paranoid schizophrenic. If he doesn’t take his medication, he walks up and down the street, cussing and spitting on everybody he passes. He’s homeless. Digs out of the trash cans for food. Somebody ought to get him off the street. Jesus' son is nothing but a nuisance. I’m starting to see the family of the Son of God everywhere I go. They're always crying or begging or looking pitiful. Why don’t they pull themselves up by their bootstraps? This is America! Makes me mad. They're ruining our neighborhood and taking our jobs! Somebody ought to do something about them. Somebody ought to. Somebody...."

Perhaps Jesus lives right next door to you or down the road a few miles.

He may even be in your own home.

The question I’d like us to ponder this morning is “What are we going to do about Jesus?”

What are we going to do about the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the shivering, the sick, the imprisoned?

What are we going to do about Jesus?

Maybe we ought to start with, “What are we gonna do about these teachings of Jesus?”

Let’s consider Jesus’ parables that we've been hearing for the past few months.

A few chapters back in the Gospel of Matthew, in Matthew 13 Jesus tells the story of a field with some good crops and some weeds.

Since Jesus was speaking to people who understood at least the basics of farming, when Jesus got to the part about the weeds, the natural reaction of the crowd had to be, “Pull ‘em up! Plant good crops in their place.”

But Jesus has the landowner in the story leave the weeds in place.

Huh? Why?

Later on, in Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus tells an equally undermining story.

The owner hires some workers to work in the vineyard in the early morning.

Around nine o’clock some other guys show up and start working alongside them.

The same happens at noon and three- o’clock.

And they all get paid the same amount.


These and other parables of Jesus inform us that the Kingdom of God looks a lot different from the kingdom of the world we live in.

Let’s face it.

In our culture, we have an understanding of a kingdom which is deeply embedded in return on investment.

And this worldly culture-type of thinking sometimes enters our churches.

Church-growth consulting firms often provide charts and statistics showing where and how much investment will be required to “grow” a congregation.

But does this type of model, resonate with the model that Jesus Christ puts forth?

Is it what Jesus would do?

“Of course!” some of us might exclaim, as we move logically down the line in Matthew’s parables.

“What about the parable of the talents?
Didn’t Jesus talk about using our resources well?”
To that, the answer my friends is a big resounding “Yes!”

But what does that mean in God’s Kingdom?

Does it mean building fancy buildings and having the most state-of-the-art equipment in order to stay in the race with the world?
Or does it mean something more?

One thing we can see for sure as we look at Jesus’ parables is that God is already at work.

This is what the parable of the vineyard presupposes.

We don’t create the vineyard; we join as workers.

Whether you’re coming in at six in the morning or nine or noon or three in the afternoon, the harvest is huge.

And the Return on Investment may not work the same as the return on our 401(k).

This is why Matthew 25 is so important as we try and answer the question: “What are we going to do about Jesus?”

Why did Matthew follow the parable of the talents with the parable of the sheep and goats, anyway?

Perhaps the answer is this: The Return on Investment for properly using the resources we have been given is determined by our ability to use those resources among “the least of these.”

Maybe the Return on Investment in the Kingdom of God has to do with how much love, empathy, money, time, and talents we use in investing in people—which is the same as investing in Jesus, is it not?

What a different model on Church Growth.

If our return on investment is determined by how much we invest in others how would this change how we use our time, talents and money?

For one thing, we may not be so careless with what we have.

If we were to see our stuff—our money, our time, our families, everything we have—as being given to us to use in the work of God’s Kingdom, we might be more careful with what we buy and how we use what we purchase.

We might also use a different measuring stick to define success.

How do we define God’s blessing on the church today?

More people, bigger buildings, better programs?

Those are ways that we can measure growth.

Certainly we want more people.

But is that all there is to it?

I've heard it said that, “Grace is a vibrant and growing congregation.”

We are growing as a congregation here at Church of the Saviour.

But we do have a long way to go.

It would be awesome to have this building packed out every Sunday morning and all through the week, but what if God is measuring our success by completely different qualifications?

What if success in God’s Kingdom is more people being fed, less discrimination against other human beings, people growing more and more in love for God and neighbor, less hate, taking care of the lonely or lost neighbor next door, ministering to people living with terminal illnesses, helping out at the local food bank, giving what we can of our income to Church or going way above and sending some money to Episcopal Relief and Development for projects around the world.

What if success in God’s Kingdom is more about those things and less about us.

In Romans, Paul urges us—due to God’s mercy—to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

That means we give all that we are and all that we have to God.

That is success.

That is the goal.

That is the measuring stick.

“What do we do about Jesus?”

We give Jesus everything.

And we do this through loving other people with Christ’s unconditional love—no matter whether they are rich, poor, straight, gay, black, white, illegal immigrants, US citizens, male, female…you name it.

And we love them, not only by what we say to them or about them—but by what we do for them.

In our Epistle Lesson from Paul's letter to the Church at Ephesus. Paul says, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you.”

So, if we have faith and love towards all the saints. And by saints that means all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Then we are doing what God wishes us to do.

This is the measuring stick of success.

Love towards others means that we do things that we wouldn't do otherwise.
Suppose you see a brother or a sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
You see, faith by itself isn’t enough.
Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

Is your faith alive or is it dead and useless?

God measures our success by completely different qualifications than that of the world.

Are more people being fed, are less people dying of AIDS, and are families being restored?
This is a very different understanding of what we should expect to receive from investing in God’s Kingdom.

It’s not a selfish thing—it’s about everyone.

What a reason to invest.

The main point of the parable of the weeds that I mentioned earlier is this: “Who knows where God may be at work?”

And the best way to answer that question may be this: “God is at work when people act like Jesus.”

And we act like Jesus when we are bringing “good news to the poor,” proclaiming “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” and are helping to “let the oppressed go free”.

We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a lost and dying world.

Jesus invested in people—so should we!!!

In Ezekiel, it says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.” How do we do this? I believe we do this when we...

Act justly.
Love with mercy.
Walk humbly.

These are actions.

Do these actions define you and I—do they define the Church of the Saviour?

And you and I—we are the Church of the Saviour—whether we are in here worshiping, studying the Bible, or out in the world working with others one on one at work, at school, in the community, at our neighbor’s house, in our own home.

Our faith and our actions cannot become two separate expressions of our commitment to God.

We can’t have one without the other.

We’ve all heard stories of leaders in the church who seem upstanding on Sundays but go home and are anything but upstanding.

Or what about those who praise God in church only to cheat customers and abuse employees in the workplace?

In this morning’s parable of the Sheep and Goats there are consequences for not caring for those at the margins.

What we do about Jesus has everything to do with how we treat those in need.

Did you give a cup of cold water, a hot meal, clothing, a place to stay, a bit of your time to sit and listen to those who couldn’t possibly return the favor?

The answer to the question of: “What do we do about Jesus” begins with the person sitting next to you, behind you or in front of you…
…it begins with the people who live next door to us or down the street.

It begins with those who live in our own home, and it expands outward.

“Master, what are you talking about?
When did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink?
And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?
Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling you the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’”

May it be so!


Friday, January 9, 2009

The Foolish Bridesmaids

Painting of Jesus at St. Sebald Lutheran Church, rural Strawberry Point, Iowa

This is a sermon I gave at Church of the Saviour, Clermont, Iowa on November 9, 2008. The basis for the message is Matthew 25:1-13.

Today we heard Joshua say that we should “Serve the Lord” and then we heard Paul telling the Church in ThessalonĂ­ki that Jesus will return one day. The Gospel is from Matthew and Jesus combines those two ideas. We have been reading our way through Matthew this year. As Jesus told this parable in chapter 25 he was already well into a lengthy explanation of events surrounding his second coming in chapter 24. Jesus had spoke of his death and resurrection before, but this concerns his second coming.

Jesus has said in Matthew 24 that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” However he has also said that “no-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”
Friends, that includes any human beings even religious leaders. Only the Father knows.

As part of the lead up to this parable Jesus has told his disciples to “be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Nearly two thousand years later, as we hear these words of Jesus, how do we react? Are we ready? Are we prepared?

As we hear Jesus speaking through this parable; what do we hear, and how do we react?

It is very fashionable for some in the Christian community to point out that we are living in the ‘last days’ or the ‘end times’, and that Jesus will soon return. That may or may not be true. However, this parable was especially poignant for St. Matthew’s first readers. Matthew wrote this down and it helped the church; it helped because in 50 or 60 AD the early church was starting to say things like this: “Where is Jesus? He said he would return ‘soon’. Where is Jesus? Is he coming back? When is he coming back?”

Jesus spoke to his disciples then, and speaks to us now, saying this:

1) I am coming back.
2) I may return much later than you expect.
3) I will return at a time when many least expect it.
4) Are you ready, are you prepared for my return?
5) Be ready!

The parable of the ten virgins asks us to consider which ‘group of five’ best describes us.

At the time of Christ in Palestine, marriage rituals were a lot more elaborate than we have at present. Once a groom had paid the wedding price to the father of the bride a period of a year would elapse. During that time the groom would go back to his home and prepare it for the arrival of his bride. When the right moment had arrived he would set off to the bride's house to bring her 'home'. A great procession would be the order of the day and everyone in the procession would have their own torch or lamp. To be in the procession without a lamp or torch meant that you were a gatecrasher to the wedding celebrations and you would be locked out when the groom reached his home.

So there are ten young Jewish girls who are waiting for the bridegroom. They are first century Jewish bridesmaids or bridal attendants but their job right now is waiting not for the bride but for the bridegroom. When he arrived they would walk with him, carrying flaming torches as the bridegroom took his bride home.

Five of the ten are prepared. They have plenty of oil to last. If the Bridegroom is a long time in coming they are well prepared. If he does not come for a long time yet they will still be prepared when he does come.

But five of the ten are not prepared. They only have enough oil to last a very short time. They are not prepared. If the bridegroom is a long time in coming then when he does return they will not be ready.

The bridegroom shows up at midnight. All of the ten are asleep. Life goes on. We need sleep. In fact I can personally assure you that sleep is our friend. This parable is not about staying awake. We are not supposed to be always awake with eyes ’glued’ open. Those who were well prepared were asleep. No, this parable asks whether we are ready. Are you prepared for the return of Jesus, the bridegroom of the church?

Which set of bridesmaids describes you?

It is not necessarily helpful to try to work out whether the ‘oil’ in this parable actually means ‘this’ or ‘that’; whether having enough oil ‘means’ regular bible reading or having faith or doing good works. Far more likely is that Jesus goes on to explore our state of readiness in next weeks Gospel lesson about the Parable of the Talents.

Like the plot of a decent book or movie the story develops. Jesus goes on to talk about what we each do with the time and talents he gives to us.

So are we ready? Are we prepared?
The return of Jesus is not something we can push to the back of our minds thinking it’ll never happen. Because it will happen someday. It may even happen before I start my next sentence....

OK, so Jesus has decided to wait a while longer....

But please remember this:

That our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is critical.
That living life in relationship with Jesus is critical.
That loving God and loving our neighbor is critical; there are no other commandments greater than these!

Are you ready? Are you prepared?

Let’s pray.

Dear Lord,

We know that we are like the foolish bridesmaids and that we aren't ready. May you help everyone of us here today to be wise and learn to be prepared for the time that you return. In your Holy name, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Are You Serving?

St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Maquoketa, Iowa

This is the sermon I gave at the Church of the Saviour in Clermont, Iowa on October 26, 2008. The basis for the sermon is 1 Thessalonians 2:1-16.

Bill is a 20 year old college Student. He’s been active in church for 5 or 6 years, he got active because of his youth group. He volunteers as a leader of the youth group on Friday nights. His friends call him Blue because he has red hair.

Violet is a 77 year old retiree. She’s still energetic enough, in bursts at least, to continue her ministry in the church, by doing lots of pastoral care.

Ruby is a little over 29. At least that’s all she says. She’s an IT specialist. She leads a small group and is involved with the outreach ministry in her local church.
Jack is a father of 3 teenagers, an accountant, and in his late 40’s. He’s just old enough to be considered a baby-boomer but young enough to think of himself as a Gen-Xer. He’s a leader of the men’s group at his church as well as being a member of vestry and one of the small groups in the church.

All of these people have something in common. They’re all people with a ministry in God’s Church. And they’re all people who want to know how to serve God better, how to serve God’s church better.

So for them a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where Paul spends a lot of time defending himself by explaining what motivated him in his preaching of the gospel can be a great help.
So what I want to do today is to think about what those four people, along with us, can learn from Paul’s example that will help them in serving others with the gospel.
You can make a fairly good guess from the things Paul says in the first few verses of chapter 2 what the accusations were that these people were making. "He was a weakling. He ran away at the first sign of trouble. We haven’t seen or heard of him since. Obviously the only thing he was interested in was having us support him while he swanned around looking important. And as soon as a bit of opposition arose he headed for the hills; ran off in the dark of night! He was more interested in his own safety than your welfare."
Well, that was probably something like what they were complaining about, because here’s how he answers it.

First: He appeals to their memory of what happened.
He says: "You yourselves know, brothers and sisters." Notice how that phrase, "You know" or "You remember" is repeated over and over again: Sometimes when we’re the object of false accusations we get carried away with defending ourselves rather than stopping and asking a couple of simple questions, like: "Are there any grounds to these accusations?" "Do others see things the way this person sees them?" You see, the accusation may totally unfounded. It may all be in the mind of the accuser. If we look at the facts of the situation we may see that the way we acted was OK.
That’s what Paul says here. He says "Think back to what actually happened. Was my coming to you a waste of time? Was my message just hot air? Did I run at the first sign of danger, leaving you without my support? Of course not. In fact if you think back to when I came to you, it was just after I’d been thrown into jail in Philippi, put in the stocks, beaten, humiliated. But that didn’t stop me from preaching the gospel to you, facing the possibility of further opposition, further suffering. In fact I preached with great courage in the face of that opposition."
What’s more the way he spoke to them was with openness and frankness. That’s the idea behind that word ’declare’. There was nothing underhanded or manipulative in the way he presented the gospel. There was no deceit or impure motives or trickery in the way he spoke. That’s why he can repeatedly call on their memory of what happened. This is a lesson for us isn’t it? Let’s make sure that we minister in God’s church with such an openness and integrity that we can look back later on and say "You know what we were like. You know the way we lived among you. You know the sorts of people we proved to be." And in case you think you can get away with some lower standard than this, remember that people notice what you do as much as what you say, if not more so. But secondly,
He explains his own motivation
In fact he comes up with four metaphors, four pictures to do this.
A Steward
He says "we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel." He speaks because God has given him that charge. God has entrusted him with this great treasure the way the owner of a property might entrust it to a steward. So not only does he not do it for personal gain of some sort, that’s the negative, he does it because God has entrusted him with it. He’s someone whom God has tested and approved.
The idea is of an apprentice who spends the first years of his training being tested on the range of skills required. Or a teacher who goes out on teaching rounds and gets an assessment from the school they work in. Or a medical intern who works under a medical registrar and receives an assessment at the end of their rounds. Once they get through that assessment, once they’re considered skilled enough or trustworthy enough they’re allowed to practice unsupervised. Well now, Paul says, he’s been through his basic training and passed with flying colors He’s received the approval of God and so he’s entrusted with the responsibility of taking the message to others.
So, far from doing it out of the desire for personal gain, his real motivation is to please his master, that is, to please God who’s continually testing his heart.
Now we talk a bit about the need to share the Gospel here at Church of the Saviour. You may be sick of hearing about it in fact. But here’s one reason why we keep on talking about it: because God has entrusted this message not only to Paul, but to us as well. When Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, he also told them to teach others to obey everything that he’d commanded them. That of course included the command to go into all the world. So we also have that call, that responsibility. We too, are stewards of the Gospel.
How can Bill the college student serve the Church? How can we? By being a good steward of the Gospel. Of course, that may mean God will tests our hearts as well? So we need to think about what he’ll find there. Will it be the desire to please him, or the desire to please ourselves? Will it be the desire to see others come to faith, to a living knowledge of Jesus Christ, or the desire to not have our comfortable lives upset?
I’m not asking this to worry you, or to make you afraid, but to encourage you to take seriously the responsibility that comes from having been given the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ, from having heard the gospel that sets us free.
Having said that, Paul then goes on to another image, another model from which he draws inspiration.
A Mother
He says: "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us." I doubt that you could think of anyone who cares for a child more than a nursing mother. And the sort of care that a mother gives her baby is a selfless care. She doesn’t do it out of any ulterior motive. There’s no sense that she’s going to get something out of it. In fact it’s the very helplessness of a baby that makes caring for it so imperative. There’s a difference in the way she loves a little baby and the way she’ll love them when they’re 16 years old, for example. Both will be examples of motherly love, but one will go out of it’s way to do whatever the child needs, the other, if it’s wise love, might tell the child to wake up to them self and start acting their age, or start taking responsibility for them self.
The other element in this picture is the way you don’t expect a mother to be looked after by her child. Rather it’s the other way around. So too, Paul made sure that he wasn’t a burden to those he ministered to. He worked as a tent maker in order to support himself while he preached the Gospel, or he used funds sent to him from other churches so he didn’t need to rely on new converts for his support. He says he might have insisted on his rights as an apostle of Christ, but he exchanged that authority for a mother’s gentleness. And that involved sharing not only financial support, but his whole self because they were so dear to him.
One of the things that are most satisfying in Christian ministry is the close relationships that develop with those among whom you minister. I’m sure if you speak to Marva later about her experience in Swaziland when she returns, I'm sure that she’ll tell you how wonderful it was to share in those people’s lives, to discover people who had become dear to her in just a few days. This is the sad thing about those who refuse to share the Gospel with others: they rarely have the joy of sharing new life with people. The joy of motherhood is only experienced by having a child. I can’t tell you what it’s like. I can only tell you what being a father is like. But by all accounts it’s a pretty good experience, for most mothers at least. Likewise it’s a great experience to see people come to faith and grow in that faith through our ministry.
How can Violet the retiree serve the church or her small group? By caring for those in it the way a mother cares for her young child; by nurturing them, feeding them, loving them with the love of the one who brought them into this world.

Thirdly, Paul likens himself to a father and here there are again a number of elements involved.
First he says "You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God." Like the traditional father he’s acted as the breadwinner of the family. He’s worked hard to provide for his children.
We know from 2 Corinthians that the Macedonian churches suffered from extreme poverty. So it would have been an incredible burden on them to have to support Paul and Silas and Timothy while they were there. But instead Paul decided to work to support himself and his ministry, just as a father goes out to work to support his household.
But his action as a father is more than just that. In fact if that were all a father did he wouldn’t actually be much of a father would he? No, Paul acts like a father in the example he gives, through his purity and righteousness of behavior. Again he’s referring back to the question of his motives. He hasn’t acted with ulterior motives. Rather he’s acted like a father, having only his children’s interests in mind, showing them how to live as disciples of Christ.
Again, the way he operated was by "urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." In those days the father was the one whose job was to educate his children, to train them in the family business. So just as a father might do this by urging and encouraging and pleading with his child to do better and especially to lead a life worthy of the family, so Paul has urged them to lead a life worthy of God.
How can Jack the accountant serve the church or his men’s group? By living a life of integrity; by being a leader whose Godly life is an example to others; by urging and encouraging others to live a life that’s worthy of God the way a father encourages his children.
Before we go on to Paul’s final metaphor let me just say that it’s interesting that Paul takes on himself both those traditional pictures of parental roles. Some people have read into passages like this a theology of parenting that assigns one role to women and one to men, but Paul in fact takes on both roles in his own ministry. So perhaps he’s indicating the fact that those traditional roles aren’t fixed; that it’s possible for a father to feed and nurture his children, for a mother to teach and encourage and urge her children to greater effort. Anyway that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Finally, Paul describes himself as one who proclaims the word of God. That is, he comes as a herald passing on a message from the king. The word gospel in fact was used for proclamations of great events brought by heralds from the king or the emperor. So when he says "When you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers" he’s reminding them that he came as God’s herald, as a prophet sent from God to bring them a message of great news from the king.
Sometimes Christians get embarrassed at the thought that we have this message that must sound so strange to people. We imagine what they must think when we talk about God appearing as a human being, or Jesus dying then rising again. And we might even think we look foolish presenting this message, let alone wondering how it will ever have an impact on our rationalistic culture. But here’s the great assurance for us. We’re simply acting as God’s messengers, God’s heralds. And the message we’re presenting is one of great importance to those who hear it. It’s the sort of message that should be accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. A new king is reigning and that king calls his people to return to him. Some people may think we’re nuts or ignore us as being irrelevant. Some may even treat us badly, as they did Paul and the converts in Thessalonica. But this is God’s message and, as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, he already has those he’s chosen, waiting to hear the call, waiting for the herald to appear and announce this message from the king.
So how can Ruby the IT specialist serve the church? By proclaiming the message of the gospel; by being a herald of the King, by bringing new people into God’s kingdom or encouraging others to do so.
Whether you see yourself as a steward of a great treasure in the Gospel, a mother, caring for, feeding, nurturing, her children, a father, providing for, teaching, encouraging, urging his children to live Godly lives, or a herald announcing great news of a king whose reign is forever, the way to serve the church, the way to serve God in the Church, is to build it up by proclaiming the Gospel, by helping those who come to faith to grow, and by encouraging them to become mature believers who in turn can bring others into the kingdom.