Monday, October 27, 2014

October 26 Sermon

Matthew 22:34-40
34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
What a beautiful day to celebrate all that God is doing through North Decatur United Methodist Church. I have been thinking, especially this week, about all that has happened since this time last year. And since this is Consecration Sunday, the day we dedicate ourselves anew to the work of God through North Decatur United Methodist Church, I want to spend some time this morning the state of the church, but I want to frame it in the scriptures, which is a good a place to start as any I think, and this morning, we see the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, asking Jesus an important question.
The Pharisees, the teachers of the law, went up to Jesus trying to entrap him, saying, which commandment is the greatest? This wasn’t an innocent question; the teaching at the time was that all the laws were equal, so they were trying to get him to perjure himself, to say something heretical so that they had ammunition against him.
And his answer was this: the first greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. And here’s the kicker. He isn’t saying, get to a place where you love God and then love your neighbor. He is saying, you can’t separate the two. You can’t properly do one without the other.
In fact, I love the language he uses. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. It’s probably my favorite use of a verb in all of scripture. All the Bible, the whole doorstop of a book, the whole thing hangs on these two hooks: loving God with all you’ve got, and loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself. It means you can’t do this stuff halfway--God wants all your heart and soul and mind, and it means you can’t do it alone.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. That’s the test. Oh, that’s not to say that these are the only two hooks. The church struggles with this sometimes and says oh, if it hangs on any hook at all, let’s get the church involved. There are plenty of hooks, but you knew that already. There’s the hook of “We have always done it this way,” which is a particularly strong hook, until you try to imagine Jesus saying something like “The greatest commandment is this: do it the way you’ve always done it. On this commandment hangs all the law and the prophets.”
There is the hook of “this won’t upset anybody,” as if the way to truly love one another is to keep everything level, try to keep the peace at all costs, remove all the calories from faith so that what we have to offer is a fat-free version of Jesus, tasteless, bland, empty.
There are plenty of hooks. Those are just a couple. But the strongest hooks—the ones that hold everything else—are these: love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else hangs on these. And if that’s the whole ball game, North Decatur, well, let’s just say I think you are doing pretty well. We’re not perfect, and we’ve got a ways to go, but there is much to celebrate, so let’s do that.
I’ve got to tell you, I have found myself getting a little emotional about all that God is doing here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. That’s not really me, but when you consider the great works of God, I don’t know how you act any other way. And the gift to me, as a pastor, is that you are the most willing group of people I’ve ever met. You are willing to do, to try, to give. Even before I was appointed here last June, I knew you were a special group of people, but I didn’t really quite understand until the church council made the difficult decision to totally redo our administrative structure. Every time I talked to you about this, you all kept saying the same thing: let’s try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.
I mean, who says that?! Who in the church is so willing to try new things they say something like that? And so you made the brave decision to try something new. It may seem like a strange thing to celebrate the way that the administrative structure of the church works, but because of the decision you made to change the way we do business, instead of sitting in meetings all day, which I can tell you after spending all of yesterday in Athens, is a miserable way to spend a day, you decided to be about making Disciples!
And my goodness, has it borne fruit. I just want to spend a little time talking about the incredible things that have happened in the last year, because God is at work here in North Decatur United Methodist Church.
The most obvious change, I think is that the worship attendance here at North Decatur has increased phenomenally. That’s because of you. It is because you place priority on being here, being faithful every week. I pay close attention to this sort of thing and we’re averaging 123 people every Sunday. Thanks to your faithfulness and the dedication of our incredible Director of Worship and Arts, the choir is busting at the seams. We hear incredibly beautiful music every week. We’ve seen four baptisms in the past year, with another one coming up in a couple of weeks. The diversity I see on Sunday mornings just nearly brings me to tears, because this is what the church is supposed to be! It is supposed to be a place where we come together, not because we are all the same, but because we are all different, because we have things to learn from one another, because you can’t properly love God without loving your neighbor! And you have been incredibly hospitable as we have welcomed new people into the life of this church. Would you believe that when you include children, we have welcomed forty-two new members in the last twelve months?! Forty-two! God is good! And you are faithful.
All of this growth has not happened overnight, and it’s not been easy. It’s wonderful, but not easy, and yet somehow, North Decatur, you make it look natural! We’ve started five new Sunday school classes this year. Four! What on earth?! Who does that? There’s a new class for young families, a new class for young adults, a new in-depth class we’re calling the Wesley class, and we’ve restarted Sunday school for youth. Plus, we are so overrun with children that we’ve had to divide up the Sunday school class for kids into two different classes! We have the most incredible dedicated teachers, which it takes to run this kind of program. If you don’t have a Sunday school class yet, let’s talk, because there is one waiting for you! And would you believe that a year ago, the Burson building at the back of the campus sat empty all week long—we never used it. But now, on Sunday mornings, the young adults meet in the lobby for Sunday school and the youth meet with Mike Anderson and Ray Cowan in the basement, on Friday evenings, Narcotics Anonymous hosts a group in the lobby, and the preschool uses one of the rooms upstairs for their new Sandbox program which encourages creativity in kids and helps them love learning. If you had told me a year ago the church’s preschool would have been in a position to do that kind of thing I would have said you were crazy. But because our director, Emily Howard, and our assistant director, Julie Seckman, and the preschool board are so incredibly talented, we’re teaching kids about God’s love every single day.
This kind of growth doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens because God is good and you are faithful. It happens because you take seriously God’s call to care for children, to be the church that welcomes and loves children, and we are so fortunate to have been given the gift of the Rev. Mary Gene Lee. I don’t know if you knew this, and she’ll be upset with me for saying so, but Mary Gene has been working with us for the last several months for … free. Here we have one of the preeminent Christian educators of children in the country working with us to put together a children’s ministry program for us and she has done it for free. But it is time we put our money where our mouths are, which is why we’re excited to add new staffing in this area come January, because there are more children out there, more families who need the kind of love that is unique to this place, the kind of love that is produced when you meld the love of God and the love of neighbor.
North Decatur, you are welcoming new people into relationship with Jesus Christ. It is incredible to watch. But you aren’t just welcoming people here. You are reaching out in love, just like you always have. You have always taken God’s mission seriously, but you’ve been up to so much this year that I don’t know what to do other than just list it.
In the last year, you served the homeless at Trinity Table, fed the men at Trinity House, purchased and packaged means for 11,428 kids through Stop Hunger Now, made 3600 sandwiches for the Open Door Community, hosted a luncheon at Decatur Christian Towers, sent expressions of God’s love across the world through Operation Shoebox, did extensive renovation on the home of a senior during Martin Luther King weekend, supported Hagar’s House with love and food and gifts, brought tons of food for Decatur Emergency Assistance Ministry and the North Decatur food pantry, hosted a free dinner and Vacation Bible School for families in the area, sat in the wind and the rain and sold over $11,000 worth of pumpkins with another week to go, and I could go on but I think I’d need a nap. And maybe you will recall that I mentioned last week about our apportionments, about how we spend the first 10% of the church’s budget, and then some, on missional giving to the global church and humanitarian projects all over the world. Thanks to the diligent work of the church council and Bob Stubbs in particular, on Friday, just the day before yesterday, we sent $4800 to the North Georgia conference which means that even though October is not over yet, we’ve already paid 100% of our apportionments for the year. I think you deserve a round of applause for that. In fact, because we’ve paid our apportionments, we’ve decided that instead of keeping this year’s Christmas Eve offering, we’re going to give it away. Since it is Jesus’s birthday, we’re going to give him a present. Half of the offering will go to Decatur Cooperative Ministries for ministry around the corner, and the other half will go to the United Methodist Church’s work eradicating malaria and ebola. God’s faithfulness and your giving have led us to this point.
I want you to know that in working on this sermon I made a list of all the things I am excited about that you have done in the last year, and I quite simply don’t have time to go into all of them. From the renewed relationship with the Candler School of Theology and our wonderful pastoral residents, to the inclusion of young people in leadership, to the incredible minister of visitation we have in Janet Faust, to the incredible work of our kitchen angels, to the fact that some time in the next two weeks we expect a temporary electric fence to be put around the gulch in front of the Burson Building as a company that does this sort of thing brings a herd of sheep to clear that area so that we can start putting effort into the Lottie Hawks prayer garden. I could go on. I don’t have time.  None of this—none of it—would have happened without your understanding of the necessity of melding love of God with love of neighbor. So, in the final analysis, perhaps there is no group of people in the great state of Georgia who needs to hear this sermon any less than you do.

But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. There are others who desperately need you to share with them God’s grace and your love. For it is the core of Christian faith that God first loved us, that God loves us still and loves us so much that death will not win—and it is our responsibility to respond to that love by loving God and loving our neighbors. There’s power in that kind of witness, that kind of giving your whole self, that kind of surrender. Dear friends, I can’t wait to see what God will continue to do in you and through you in the next year. How faithful you are. How good God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 19 Sermon

Matthew 22:15-22
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I have been counting, and in the past two weeks, I have received financial solicitations from my elementary school, my high school, my alma mater, my fraternity, my seminary, my local NPR station, my favorite advocacy organization, my favorite charity, my preferred candidates in the upcoming election, and now, my goodness, we’re going to talk about money at North Decatur United Methodist Church.
I hope you agree with me that it is important to support your schools, your local charities, the issues that move your heart. I think it is important to have your checkbook reflect the desires of your heart; in fact, I give money every year to all the organizations I mentioned. And yet . . . and yet the church is different. I want to talk about that today, about why the church is different, sort of reframe the way we think about money in the church.
I do want to start by just sort of calling a spade a spade, and being clear that one of the weirdest things about the church talking about money is that it is usually the pastor that does it, because it is the case that my family and I benefit financially from your giving. My paycheck comes from you. And that’s strange. It can feel like I am up here begging or whatever, which is not what I mean this to be, particularly as I have asked the church council not to give me a raise this year, but I’ve been in other churches and seen how it can go, and it can feel like the church is after your money more than anything else, but I also want to acknowledge that while it can feel a little like this, that to let that awkward feeling rule is to use the awkward nature of this conversation as an excuse not to talk about it or not to take it seriously.
And so let’s just sort of wallow in that awkwardness for a minute, become friends with it and move on, because this stuff is too important to let the awkwardness stand in the way of having a really frank discussion about the dynamics that are involved in our giving. …
Are we good? Ready to move on? Good.
Let’s talk about generosity for a minute. I hope you have had the chance to be generous. It feels good, doesn’t it? It feels good to give things away. I’d say that if you are looking for long-term happiness, there is no better investment than to give away your money. I like being generous, which is why I support all of those organizations. I like seeing my name in the annual report of the college. I like getting the little return address labels and the magnets and all the rest. And so every year, I sit down with the budget and say to myself, how much do I think my high school needs from me this year? How much does my seminary need from me? How much should I give? And I sort of see where we are financially, my wife and I, and make a decision based on that sort of information.
There’s nothing wrong with this kind of thinking—in fact, it is good to think about how much a charity needs from us. But when we are talking about giving to the church, it is the wrong question, because the church is not just another charity. None of those other organizations can say, with a straight face, what the church says, which is that what we are doing is the most important stuff in the whole world.
I know I am not saying anything revolutionary, but I do want to share that I am not saying this just because the church happens to write my paycheck. If it is true, as we speak about sometimes, that the church functions as the Body of Christ, that it is the body of Christ, then what we are about is fundamentally different than anything else we do, any other good we do, any other service. What we are about here is the most important stuff in the whole world.
And if the church is the most important body in the whole world, that means that charity isn’t. Government isn’t. Those things are important, but they aren’t the most important. I hope this isn’t a surprise to you, mostly because I hope you’ve experienced it for yourself.
I hope that through the church, you have experienced a God who loves us, who delights when we delight, who cries when we cry, the God who loved us so much that he did not let death win, who loves us so much now that death still does not win, so that the worst thing ever to happen to you will not be the last. In fact, God loves us so much that God has given us the gift of the church, this community, to rally round us when we are sick, to care for us when we have loss, to go out the back doors at 12:05 or whatever it is, empowered to change the world. This isn’t a club. We don’t spend this much time and sweat and tears on a club. This is the body of Christ.
And because of the unique nature of the church, when you give to the church, you aren’t really giving to the church. I mean, yes, we need money do ministry, but in a very unique way, you are giving to God, because the church is the primary way God acts in the world. So the wrong question to ask is how much money does the church need? How much should I give in response to the church’s need? The question to ask is this—and I want you to write this down. What percentage of my income is God calling me to invest in the work of God? What percentage of my income is God calling me to invest?
I want to share that I think there are three faithful answers to this question. If you are wondering what percentage of your income that God is calling you to give, I think you can answer that question three ways.
The first faithful way to answer that question is to say that God is calling me to invest ten percent. Maybe you have heard us talking about tithing—that’s what it means. It comes from the Old Testament account of the Israelites being commanded by God to give ten percent of their income to the temple, and every three years giving ten percent to the poor on top of that. This is where we get the language of “first fruits,” of God wanting you to give your first fruits, because the Israelites were literally told to give the first fruits and vegetables and grain they grew to God. We share in this practice today—it was Jesus’s practice and it continues to be God’s expectation. In fact, I want you to know, that tithing, that investing the first ten percent of my income to the work of God through the church, is something that my wife and I both practice. We haven’t always, but a number of years ago we determined to work our way towards a tithe, and it is my practice now. My salary is public, so this isn’t private or whatever, but I tithe. I invest the first ten percent of my income to the church. After every paycheck, $209 is drafted from my bank account, such that I invest $5000 a year in the work of God through North Decatur United Methodist Church. That is 10% of my income, and it is what I will again be writing on my estimate of giving card next week. Special offerings and gifts—and gifts to charity—are on top of this, because God wants my first fruits. Everything else comes after.
You probably know that my wife is also a United Methodist pastor, and she does the same thing with her income to the church she serves. I am not telling you this to brag—there are plenty of folks here who give more than I do—but to affirm that we are talking about real money here. When Stacey and I budget for the year, we budget on 90% of our income, because the first fruits go to God, and it works. It works. In fact, I don’t know if you know this or not, but the church even operates on this principle when we craft the budge. This congregation gives a tithe, the first 10% of our budget back to God through what we call apportionments, giving that goes to the global church. The first ten percent of your giving goes to run Africa University, to provide disaster relief, to feed orphans, to combat diseases like malaria and ebola. It goes to build new churches in the United States and around the world. It goes to our United Methodist Colleges and universities. And then on top of that giving, we budget for special ministries, for cooperative ministries, for missionaries. When we say that God works through the church, we mean it.
Now, I want to be very upfront about all of this, because I don’t think it is helpful to pretend that God doesn’t expect this from us, but I do want to acknowledge that while tithing, that 10% is God’s expectation, it is not the only faithful answer to the question, “what percentage of my income is God calling me to invest in the work of God?”
The second faithful answer to that question, I think, is to say, I hear that this is God’s expectation, but I’m not quite there. I think it is faithful and good and holy to say, 5% or 6% or 4% of our income equals this much money, and it will be tight, but we will build toward tithing, because what we are doing here—welcoming everybody, sharing God’s love, telling God’s story—this stuff is the most important stuff in the whole world. I think that is really, really honorable, and it is a good thing, because before I was a tither, this is how I got there. I said this year, we’ll do this percent. Next year, we’ll take a step up in faith and invest 1 or 2 percent more. I know this can be difficult, because I’ve done it myself, and so if you are wondering about practical ways to do this, about how to make it happen, or why I think it is so important, please know my door is open, because while it is not the case that we talk about money all the time here, it is certainly the case that it is a really, really deeply spiritual issue.
That is the second faithful answer to the question, “what percentage of my income is God calling me to invest through the church,” but there is a third, and maybe this is something you are considering. Tithing is God’s minimum expectation, and yet if I read anything in the life of Jesus, it is that we are called to go beyond the minimum. We are called to keep investing, to keep sharing love. Maybe God is calling you to go beyond 10%. I feel God calling me there, and I am hoping to get there soon, because I want to be faithful. I want to be a faithful disciple. I want to respond to the incredible gift of love I see in Christ, the love that I see in the church.
Now, there’s a danger in this kind of conversation, because you might wonder, how much is enough? And I don’t have a good answer for that. I wish I believed that the more money you gave to the church, the more God would bless you financially, but as Jim said earlier, that’s just not how it works. And yet we are still called to give—not because it buys us happiness, or because the church needs the money, or because we’re hoping to hire a children’s minister next year as Mary Gene steps back, which we are—but because this is what God expects of me. And while it is the case that I’ve never met somebody who got rich by giving their money away, I’ve never met anybody who was unhappy because they did.

Listen. I’m about to sit down, but I want to acknowledge that this is not the most complex sermon you’ll ever hear from me. It won’t win any awards for rhetoric or poetry. And yet sometimes we just need to lay things on the table, for it is the case that this question—how much of my income is God calling me to invest in the work of God?—this is one of the most important questions of the life of faith. It is so important that the church spends a month talking about it and even risks making you a little uncomfortable. And so as we prepare for Consecration Sunday next week, when we will fill out our little estimate of giving cards and chart a course in faith for the next year, what percentage of your income does God want you to divert from investing in your kingdom so that you can invest it in God’s kingdom, the thing that is being built here, in this community, and around the world? What percentage of yourself will you invest?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A quote that is haunting me today #umc

Sophie Scholl was a Lutheran revolutionary in Germany during World War II. She was executed as a traitor to the Third Reich at age 21. Her words are haunting me a bit today. I have never been one to keep the peace for the sake of keeping the peace, but I want to acknowledge that those of us who are working for the unity of the church are walking a fine line. Unity, after all, is not the same thing as going along to go along.
"The real damage is done by those millions who want to 'survive.' The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don't want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won't take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don't like to make waves-or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It's the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you'll keep it under control. If you don't make any noise, the bogeyman won't find you. But it's all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn."

Monday, October 13, 2014

October 12 Sermon

Matthew 22:1-14
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Those of you who are new to this place may wonder why it is that we use a certain scripture lesson each week. It’s not like we’ve been going verse by verse through the Bible each week for the sixty years this congregation has been around or anything. And it’s certainly not that I figure out what I want to say and then find a verse in scripture to support what it is that I want to tell you. The Bible is so large, and so complex, that there’s support for almost anything you could possibly want to argue about. If you want to argue about the merits of being a vegetarian, you can find ammunition in scripture. If you want to say we should handle snakes in worship, you can find that, too. You can probably find something that suggests God is a Georgia fan, which is, of course, ridiculous, because we all know that God roots for the University of Tennessee.
No, the reason we end up with certain scriptures on certain Sundays is that we have a custom of following the Lectionary, the 3-year cycle of weekly readings that all of the world’s major denominations have agreed upon. Not every church uses it, but many of them do, and there are certain lessons picked out for certain Sundays, and I like that, because it keeps me honest, it keeps me from bending scripture to fit my own biases, which is something the politicians do enough of already, so it’s not like we need preachers to jump on that particular bandwagon.
I almost always like that, and then there are Sundays like today, when we have so many new folks among us, so many children. We want to be hospitable, of course, because we’ve found something really special here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, and we’d like everybody to feel at home here and experience some of the special-ness that lives here. But on this Sunday, on this Sunday with so many children and so many newcomers and such sweetness in the air, we are dealt one of the most difficult stories to explain in all of the Bible, the most difficult parable that Jesus tells, so difficult that it ends with a guy who probably can’t even afford a wedding robe being thrown out of the party and out into the street.
And you know what I think is most difficult about this? Not that it seems so out of character for the church. What’s is difficult, to me, is that it seems so in character. Oh, not here—certainly not here—but it fits our own preconceived notions about the church being holier than thou, thinking they are better than everybody else, the kind of place that stands guard outside the doors of the party by the velvet rope and only lets the special people through. And that’s bad enough, but when you start thinking about the idea that God might have been involved in this unjust decision, well, it’s almost too much for me to bear. That’s not how I understand God’s radical love for everybody, no matter what. It doesn’t match that message we sometimes put on the church sign, that young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, you are welcome here, as if all of those things are fine as long as you are dressed properly. If that’s the God we are talking about—the kind who throws people out on a technicality, as if you can offer a meal to a person who is homeless and expect him to show up in tails —then I’m out. There’s no grace in that, no love.
Of course, Jesus’s stories are not to be taken literally, at least not these kinds of stories. There were no actual servants, no actual wedding garments. Parables are stories that point to greater truths, if you’re willing to squeeze them until the juice comes out.
For instance, one of the things we learn from this parable is that God sets an exquisite table but that people don’t always respond. This resonates with me. I am a little bit of a foodie, which might not surprise you. I love a good meal on a special occasion, and I’m shocked by the number of people who just scarf down fast food in their cars or what have you, instead of savoring, enjoying. And this is the way God’s world is, too. God creates this world in which loving one another is so meaningful, loving God is so rewarding, and yet we ignore it, we go about our business looking out for number one, forgetting that it is by loving others that we will, ourselves, experience love.
But what is more, when those hoity toity people who feel as if they deserve the best things in life decide that they have better things to do, God turns around and offers the meal to the poor, the homeless, the outcast, and this I can get behind, because I’ll be honest, there are times in my life when I feel outcast, when I feel like an outsider. It’s not easy to be a Christian these days. I’ve told this story before, but when my wife Stacey, who is also a United Methodist minister, and I go to cocktail parties, we have a game we play that just never fails. When the conversation gets kind of tedious, we ask the person we’re talking to what he or she does for a living and then we start timing it. Because once the other person says that she’s a doctor or he’s a teacher or whatever, they ask us the same question, and we tell them the truth, that I’m a United Methodist pastor, and they sort of back away slowly, like they’ve run across a crazy person or a live landmine. This can be what it’s like for any of us: what do you mean you can’t be there Sunday morning? You have church?!
The truth is, I’d wager that none of us feels entirely adequate, none of us thinks we’re good enough, and there’s a certain part of us that identifies with the outcasts that God brings into the party, that says thank goodness, because nobody takes me seriously in my usual life, at least I’ve got God.
And so it was with Jesus. We know that Jesus, who was an outcast himself, spent his whole life welcoming those who’d been outcasts, the kind of people you wouldn’t exactly call polite company. Prostitutes. Sinners. Broken people. The kind of people the traditional religious communities wouldn’t have anything to do with. The kind of people that inspire us here at North Decatur to welcome everybody, no matter what, because these are the kinds of people closest to Jesus’s heart. And so when he tells the story of the wedding feast, he makes a point to say that they went and pulled people off the street. They didn’t do background checks or call references. They just grabbed them, brought them inside, and gave them the most delicious meals of their lives.
This is the kind of God I worship. The kind of God I can get behind. And yet, like sometimes happens in the Bible, we get thrown this little detail, this one line that stands in the way of my full-throated acceptance of this story and makes me want to put on a singlet and meet it at the middle of that mat to wrestle.
The king came in and saw this beautiful scene of these outcasts eating this delicious meal, the kind of thing you’d expect in an oil painting, but upon noticing one of them without the proper garment, grabs him by the lapel, drags him to the front door, and throws him outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I was fine with this story until this last detail, of course: partly because the business of casting people out doesn’t jive with my understanding of God, but if I’m honest, and I try to be, the bigger problem is that I worry that I’m the one without the wedding garment. I’m the imposter. It’s a common fear, that you grow up and you go to work and have a family, or create adult relationships and have some level of authority, and you just worry you’re going to be found out, like you’re an imposter in your own body just waiting for somebody to notice, to drag you by the lapel, and to throw you out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Thank goodness this is just a story, a parable, sort of a fable to get us thinking, rather than a literal story of God, because it is difficult enough for us to get through our baggage to deal with it as it is. But there it is in scripture, even in the lectionary on the day all you preschool families are here, so we’ve got to deal with it, difficult or not.
I want you to know that I have spent a whole lot of time meditating on this story, reading about it, praying about it, seeing what other people have to say about it, that sort of thing. And I have come to three conclusions. Let me share those with you.
First, the doors are indeed open wide. In God’s world, everybody is welcome, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, purple, green, or polka-dotted, you are welcome here. And those who stand against welcoming everybody into God’s house stand counter to the God I worship, the Jesus I read about in scripture who welcomed everyone, who affirmed the humanity in each person he met, who went to such lengths as to go out into the street and compel people to come in and receive the greatest meal of their lives. This is why we put such an emphasis on welcoming. There’s enough in life telling you that you aren’t good enough. If anybody ought to be tasked with welcoming everybody, it ought to be the church. The doors are indeed opened wide.
Second, the process of following Jesus, which is what are about here, doesn’t mean you get to come in, say “I will” when the pastor asks you the membership vows, but then stay the same, as if nothing has changed, as if nothing will ever change. That’s not how this works. We have expectations, or, better, said, God has expectations, that when you joined the church and promised to uphold it with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness for Jesus Christ—that you weren’t holding your fingers behind your back! The business of being God’s children is for real. Christian living is for real, and we won’t apologize for asking those of you who call North Decatur UMC home to work towards setting aside a portion of your income to the work of God through this church. Nobody’s getting rich here, but without all of those things—prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness—we can’t be the church! We need all of these things, and we don’t mean to privilege money above other things, but it seems as if money is the hardest topic, the most difficult vow, the most complicated oath, because yes I’ll pray, and yes I’ll be here as long as the Georgia game doesn’t run too long, and I’ll serve; I’ll even publicly testify to my allegiance to Jesus. Just leave my money alone. The poor sap without a wedding garment wasn’t thrown out because he couldn’t afford one. He was thrown out because he confused the warm welcome with low expectations.
Let me say it this way: if you aren’t convinced that what we are doing here, that the business of serving the poor, of welcoming all people, of being a witness for justice in the world so that everybody has enough, of sharing the love and message of Jesus Christ with everybody—if you aren’t convinced that this stuff is the most important stuff in the whole world, there’s plenty you could do on Sunday morning. I haven’t always been a church guy. I know about the brunch specials at Sweet Melissa’s. But if it is the case that we’re doing important things, the most important things, I think God wants us to acknowledge that these things are priority one, not to break us, not to cause us financial pain, but because the business of being generous, the business of really, really loving other people and living for other people and for God is the most wonderful thing there is. That’s the mystery of love: that you won’t have it unless you share it. You can’t run out. To be faithful is to recognize that God meets us where we are but expects us to grow, to give more, to serve more, to love more.

And finally. I think it is significant that the poor sap was thrown out of the wedding because he wasn’t wearing the proper party attire. In the final analysis, he was thrown out for failure to party. This doesn’t mean we should all eat, drink, and be merry at the expense of going to the difficult places and doing the difficult things, but it does mean that if you can’t get to a place where you are serving less out of dour obligation than out of love, there is no wedding garment, no rented tuxedo in the world that looks good enough to hide your resentment. It may sound weird to say that you need to choose to be joyful, but in the final analysis, it is a choice. It’s a scary one, for it means serving more than you expected, giving more than you planned, loving more than you think you’re capable of. But if you make that choice, if you are willing to do the work of joy and find gladness in serving others, in being about the work of the Lord, in enjoying the food that has been set before you, you will find yourself in the presence of the God who loves nothing more than preparing the feast, and as a bonus, you’ll be dressed appropriately for the party. In the name of God the creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, October 6, 2014

October 5 Sermon (World Communion Sunday)

Matthew 21:33-46
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
A few weeks ago, in my hometown of Memphis, over a hundred teenagers decided to swarm a Kroger and brutally beat anybody and everybody they could get their hands on. They were indiscriminate in terms of who they decided to beat; some of their victims were young, some were old, some were black, some were white. We know about the particulars because one young woman was with them, videotaping the whole thing, laughing the whole time until she realized that one of the Kroger employees who was attacked had been kicked in the head so many times that he’d been rendered unconscious.
And if this were it, if the police had gone after the attackers and everybody agreed it was awful and should never happen again, that would be one thing. But just this week, the local news affiliate interviewed two young men from Memphis, asking them what they thought about the incident.
“That’s just what our generation does,” one of them said.
“It’s fun,” the other one said, laughing. “Nobody cares about Jail. You go in, and you get out. If you don’t get out, you’re in with people you know.”
And so as a person of faith, you want to know something I’m really struggling with? I’m struggling with the fact that this morning’s scripture lesson sounds so familiar. I want to be able to come to the Bible and learn something new. I want to come to church and hear the preacher open the Bible and say this is what Jesus says and isn’t it revolutionary, but here we are with the story of the tenants who live on the vineyard and kill every single person the owner sends to check on the property, and this isn’t new. It isn’t revolutionary. It’s Memphis. It’s the 5 o clock news. It’s life, so much of what we see in the real world. We already know this story, and we experience it every time we turn on the news and see violence, or we experience loss, or we find humanity faced with a deadly disease. I don’t need Jesus to tell me that people are cruel, that life is not fair. I know that very deeply.
In the church, we call this kind of response compassion fatigue, when we know too much and are just so overwhelmed by it all that we are rendered completely spent. And so like the landowner who builds a vineyard and surrounds it with a wall and a watchtower, we build walls around us, do everything we can to protect ourselves from that cruelty, and we stand in our watchtowers and peek over the edge so that we can sound the alarm if somebody dares approach us, if somebody dares come near enough to speak to us, let alone to enter our lives in such a way as to require us to be vulnerable.
On this World Communion Sunday, the day on which we celebrate our common table, the day on which churches all over the world celebrate communion and we talk about our connection to one another because Jesus has supposedly torn down the walls that separate us, I’ve got to be honest, when I hear this morning’s scripture lesson, I am having trouble getting past the boundaries we set that stand in the way of that connection, the walls we build, the things that block us from relationship, and maybe we build them as survival mechanisms because we are so overwhelmed with the problems in the world that we don’t know what else to do, but they stand in opposition to Jesus! They stand against who Jesus calls us to be one, especially on this day when we celebrate the church all over the world! They stand against the oneness of the church, our unity and our connection to one another, not just on earth, but as the great cloud of witnesses, everyone who has gone before and comes today and will ever come to share in the Gospel feast.
It is these boundaries that Jesus speaks about in the story this morning, when he tells this story to the Pharisees and scribes, the religious leaders of the day who were far more concerned with laws and rules than love and grace. It is these boundaries he’s talking about when tells the story of the landowner, who is God, sending his son, who is Jesus, to check on the rich vineyard of the world, and who, rather than being celebrated as the greatest gift humankind has ever received, is beaten and killed. It’s not that Jesus didn’t know what he was getting into. The world can be a rash, blunt, violent place. It’s not that God doesn’t know. It’s that God loves us enough to come anyway, to break boundaries that might have otherwise kept him away, to share love even in the face of death.
There is power in that kind of witness: not just two thousand years ago, but now! I’d venture to say that it’s a message that is so attractive that it’s one reason this church is growing! We send out first-time visitor surveys with a self-addressed stamped envelope to every first time visitor and you know what most of them come back saying? They say that one thing they just love about North Decatur United Methodist Church is its diversity: not just in race, but nationality, and age, and temperament. For it is the case that when we break down boundaries, when the barriers that separate us are moved or scaled, Jesus Christ is present in that moment, for when two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus says, I am there.
None of this is to say that boundaries are all bad. Those of us who have spent time in therapy know that we need healthy boundaries, personal boundaries which tell us and those around us what is safe and permissible behavior. These are good things. The problem is not healthy personal boundaries. The problem comes when we create boundaries that are not rooted in love for God and love for neighbor. The problems come when we climb our little watchtowers and refuse to come down and say, oh, I’m just trying to protect my boundaries, instead of acknowledging that Christ calls us to break down walls, not build them up.
Let me give you an example. If you call my cell phone—the number is right there in your bulletin—and I don’t answer, you will hear my voicemail, which says that I hope you will leave a message, but that if you are calling on a Friday, you should know that Friday is my Sabbath day, and I try not to conduct church business on Fridays. But do leave me a message and I will get back to you.
Now, I do try not to conduct church business on Fridays, which I think is a healthy personal boundary, but that does not mean I get the day off from being a Christian! I don’t get to eat, drink, and be merry or whatever, without concern for God and concern for you. I don’t even get the day off from being your pastor, and so if there is an emergency, I expect you to tell me! The personal boundary is important, but if it stands between me and loving God fully and loving other people fully, it is not of God, for we see in the person of Jesus all sorts of boundaries being broken: boundaries that kept people from loving one another, that kept whole classes of people subjugated, that kept women oppressed and the poor and the sick and the foreigner out of sight and out of mind. Jesus breaks all these boundaries, for the love of Jesus is for everybody. Everybody.
Of course, of all of Jesus’s boundary-breaking moments, few were as profound as that which happened in the upper room, in the days before his death, in which he gathered the disciples and broke down the ultimate barrier, that chasm between God and people, and said, this, this is my body, broken for you. Eat and remember, not just now, but always. And then he took the cup, and shared it with the disciples, and said this is the cup of the new covenant. Drink and remember, not just now, but always.
Friends, in this feast, there are no boundaries. We don’t turn people away here. While each of us may have our own preconceived notions about who gets in and who doesn’t, about who deserves to be here and who doesn’t, Jesus reminds us in today’s story that the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone. We may sometimes reject Jesus, but Jesus never rejects us.
In this feast, there are no boundaries: not of nationality, of income, of orthodoxy, of age, not even of denomination. For when the time comes, and we celebrate together this holy mystery, in which we experience God’s grace, whatever that means, however God happens to do it, we will do so as a community for whom the ultimate boundary has already been broken, a community that Jesus Christ has reconciled to God, and to one another. It’s why a couple of weeks ago, we took the three movements of worship we do every week here at NDUMC: welcoming, listening, responding, and added a fourth: Reconciling. We do this because Christ did it for us, because in the kingdom of God the boundaries that lie between us are to be broken down, for there is far more that unites us than divides us, and even the things that divide us are no match for God.
Now, if you have been around the church for some time, you may know that on World Communion Sunday, it can be traditional for the pastor to preach about all the missions we’re involved in all over the world, all the good we do and the bonds we’re seeking to build in other countries. These things are good, and I want to honor those bonds, and to encourage you to pray that they strengthen. But there is a danger in this kind of thinking, because when all we talk about are those poor people, those other people, we’re actually building higher walls rather than breaking them down, for in Christ, there is no us vs. them. There is just us. For scripture tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and in that love, we are all connected. Nothing can separate us, for God does not give up on us.
This is the good news in this morning’s scripture lesson: God did not, does not give up on us. God kept sending, keeps sending people to walk through the hole in the fence to meet us where we are, and we don’t always respond as well as we should, but God keeps sending. Just as Jesus broke boundaries between rich and poor, sinner and saint, God and humans, so does God break boundaries when he sends us people now. God keeps sending people, even if we keep tarring and feathering them. Even if we kill them. God keeps sending people who cross those boundaries and show us a new way, and what’s more, God calls us to be those people.
This kind of boundary-breaking is not easy, and if you are diligent at it, if you truly seek to break down the walls that separate you and other people, if you seek to live as Christ calls us to live, you’ll find yourself feeling like you’re running into those walls, again and again. But if you keep trying, you’ll feel those walls crack, slowly at first, and then more radically. It takes time, and it takes practice, but that’s why we come together so often to share Holy Communion. This isn’t just about taking the bread and the cup, though it is that. It isn’t just about receiving grace, though it is that, as well. Communion is called communion for a reason—for in the act of receiving it, we are communing with God and one another. Every time we gather at the table, we are practicing for that blessed day on which we will cross the last boundary that separates us, and we will all gather together as one family.

This is practice, and so as we prepare for communion, I want to get you to think about one thing. There are many who feel as if the church does not want them. The barriers they see aren’t necessarily in their own minds, either, because throughout the centuries, the church has sometimes gone out of its way at times to make people feel unwelcome. Some people feel as if there’s a giant do not enter sign on the front door of the church, as if what we’re doing here today is not for them. And because this is practice, in a few minutes, I’m going to do something strange. I am going to place a line of caution tape in front of the altar rail: not to block you from receiving Communion, but because there are plenty of places respectable Christians aren’t supposed to go, plenty of people we’re not supposed to deal with, and yet in this act, we’re in communion with them all. And so when the time comes, let’s practice crossing that boundary together and declare, together, that there is no barrier, no boundary, no divide so strong that it can’t be overcome by the love of God as expressed through God’s people. As you practice this meal and as you experience Christ with these people, may you be reminded that Jesus calls us to bring others with us, for the table is long, and there is plenty of room. Why, there’s even a place for you.

Monday, September 22, 2014

September 21 Sermon

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I am asking this morning in response to this morning’s scripture reading. It’s a question that haunts my life, in fact, that I can’t seem to get over, and it’s only human. The workers in the vineyard asked it, in a manner of speaking. The ones who worked all day said, great, you’re being generous to the ones who showed up late, but what’s in it for me? Where’s my reward for working hard, for being faithful?
It is only human, and for as much as I ask it, as we ask it, the workers in the vineyard had good reason to ask it, because the class of workers we are talking about were incredibly poor. I hope that when you picture the people in Jesus’s story in your mind’s eye you are picturing the guys waiting outside the Home Depot on Lawrenceville Highway, because that’s about right. And it just so happens that the wage the workers would have received, what the landowner in the story calls the usual daily wage, wouldn’t have even been enough to feed their families for a day, which meant that the workers were forced to beg the rest of the year, survive on scraps and the goodness of others. And these, these are the people Jesus speaks of when he talks about who is first in the kingdom of Heaven. He doesn’t tell a story about rich people. He doesn’t say that there were ten faithful churchgoers or what have you. He talks about the poorest of the poor, those who I would think have every right to complain when they do backbreaking work all day and are left to try to feed their families with the same amount of money given to those who showed up at the end of the day and hardly lifted a finger.
It’s all got me thinking about some of the people who come by the church during the week needing some sort of assistance, usually some food, maybe a night or two at an extended stay motel while they get their things in order. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Anybody who says we’ve solved the problem of homelessness in Atlanta needs to come sit in the welcome center of North Decatur United Methodist Church and meet some of our neighbors who come looking for something to eat or a place to stay. I wish I had a solution to the problem of homelessness, but I don’t, so we muddle through the best we can, try to do well by our cooperative ministries, advocate for a more holistic approach to dealing with addiction and mental illness, and the like, but we’ll never deny somebody food. It’s why the food pantry needs your help.
And so here I am one day at the church, minding my own business, and this guy comes in who is clearly struggling with alcoholism and needs some help, and I tell him that there isn’t a whole lot we can do for him, but that we’ll pay for a couple of nights at the extended stay motel while we work to find some resources for him to dry out, to get connected with AA, for us to see if there was something we could do for him. And he starts to cry, and you begin to understand the power of this upside-down kingdom of God, in which the last is first, because that kind of grace is rare, it’s just so rare.
In fact, when I stop by the motel to pay the guy’s bill, the manager starts yelling at me. Yelling! The manager wants me to know that he’s seen this particular gentleman walk to the convenience store to buy alcohol, as if it were some great surprise to me that a person with alcoholism would be buying booze! And then the manager says something I will carry with me forever. He says: “You know, I’m just trying to save the church’s money. Helping this guy is a waste, because he is a waste.”
A waste. I hesitate to even speak that kind of profanity from God’s pulpit in God’s church. A waste. As if one of God’s children is expendable, as if the throes of a disease like alcoholism makes you less than human. I hope that’s not the case, because while it’s not the case that I struggle with alcoholism, I’d stack my sins up next to anybody’s. A waste. It’s profane, that kind of speech. It’s sickening.
And yet, church, I want you to know, that it’s a pretty common way of thinking to see those kinds of people as a waste. Drug addicts? They just blow their money on booze and blow. No use helping them. . People dying of ebola? Oh, they were probably going to starve anyway. Poor people? They just don’t work hard enough, as if how hard you work had anything to do with your worth as a child of God.
I know these things sound ridiculous—at least I hope they do—but I’ve heard every one of them come out of the mouth of self-professing Christians! It’s amazing, just how good we are as a society at finding reasons not to like people when they don’t meet our standards. Of course, it’s not really our standards that are the issue. It’s our own inadequacy. It’s our need to lift ourselves by lowering others.
That guy, those people, these workers who showed up at the end of the day and barely lifted a finger, well, the Bible is clear about those people. Those people are first in the kingdom of God. You don’t earn your way to salvation. In fact, it might just be the case that at the end of the day the people with the least capital find themselves closest to God’s heart. You know, those people who aren’t talented enough to get hired the first, second, third times. Those people who some see as a complete waste.
Look, I don’t know who those people are for you, but none of us is completely innocement here, because there are many sins that blind us to the way that the kingdom of Heaven works. Those sins have names like racism and sexism and heterosexism and greed. They are sins that manifest themselves in ways that make us seem holier than thou, overly pious, like workaholics, like holy crusaders. And yet Jesus says to us, time and time again, I am not interested in the crusaders. I am interested in the last. If you want to be first, you need to be last.
This is all well and good, and makes for a nice sermon about lowering yourself, about being less pompous and more generous or whatever, but I’ll be honest, I suspect it is not quite this easy, because if I am not like those people, the poor workers in the vineyard or the folks who wander in during the week, I am left to ask: What’s in it for me? After all, if the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he called the church the only organization on earth that exists for the benefit of those who aren’t yet its members, what’s in it for those of us who are already here?
But even more than all this: when I read the Bible, when I read stories like the one we heard from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, when I hear Jesus say things like “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” I really wonder, what’s in it for me? Because I can make some sort of half-hearted attempt to look at the Greek and the way the verb is conjugated and the context and that sort of thing to try and say, oh, Jesus didn’t actually mean that the poor will receive the Kingdom of heaven, and if he did, surely somehow he meant to include me in that distinction, but the bottom line is this: I am not poor. I am not subject to racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or able-ism. I don’t have to worry, when I walk into a room, how people will respond to the color of my skin. At the end of the day, I am really pretty privileged, and while I have my own struggles, while my life hasn’t been a cakewalk, I can’t escape the nagging feeling—confirmed every time I actually open my eyes to the state of the world, to the hunger, the pain, the violence in the world—that even acknowledging my own struggles, there’s no way—no way—to read this story, about the last being first and the first being last, and find myself anywhere other than one of the workers picked at the beginning of the day, one of the people that Jesus ejected from the beginning of the line and sent to the back.
You see, I have my own stuff. My own baggage. We all do. But so often, when I consider how it is that Jesus sees me, when I think about what Jesus is calling me to be and to do, I hide behind that baggage, pull out a bicycle pump and attempt to inflate it until it’s so big that I can say, oh, Jesus must have been talking about me when he said that the last shall be first. He must want to pluck me from the back and put me at the beginning of the line. But I suspect that it may all be a ruse to make me feel better about myself.
If you have been in my office here at the church you may have noticed that I only have one actual photograph hanging on the wall behind my desk. It is a photo of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, who was the spiritual father of the American civil rights movement, a student of Mahatma Gandhi and a teacher of Dr. King. And so much of what Dr. King believed about the movement and did in response stems from Thurman and a little book he wrote called Jesus and the Disinherited. I’ve probably read that little book twenty times. I discovered it in college and it has haunted me ever since.
The reason is this. Thurman says that throughout the centuries, the oppressed have asked some version of the question: What’s in it for me? And so Thurman looks at the life of Jesus, at the things he says, including this business of the last being first and the first being last, and he concludes that the Bible is clear that Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, the disinherited, the people with their backs against the wall. And as I look at the life of Jesus, at the things he actually said, I can’t see how Thurman is wrong. The words are there in black and white. But what haunts me is this: if Jesus was not joking when he said that blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, well, what’s in it for me?
I will end with this. I have a ministry colleague, a young African-American pastor from Chicago I met at a conference. He spends a lot of his time working with troubled youth, and we bonded over our love of Howard Thurman. I shared with him once that I was getting ready to teach a class on Jesus and the Disinherited to a group of wealthy, white people.
And my friend looked at me for a minute and just busted out laughing. What on earth are you doing teaching Howard Thurman to that group of people? What could Thurman possibly have to say to them?

I want you to know I’ve chewed on that question for several years. I’m going to be chewing on it the rest of my life, I think, because I am not disinherited. I am not oppressed. And if it is the case that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and I am already near the front of the line, what’s in it for me? I don’t know that that question has the kind of answer you can neatly tie up a sermon with, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the answer lies somewhere in following the savior, trying to learn from and be like Jesus, the God who set aside the power and the trappings of that particular job and became like one of us. You could spend a lifetime figuring out what that means for you, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. May you be haunted by this good, faithful question. Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

September 14 Sermon

Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Forgiveness. Is there anything in the whole world people want more but want to need any less? I don’t know about you—you probably don’t replay conversations back in your head a hundred times after you have them—but it seems like I reflect upon what I have said over the course of a day and continually seem to find myself speaking the most unkind things, the most ridiculous things. It seems like I constantly do things that I should know better than to do, things which seem to be born of some pain deep within myself that comes out sometimes, that manifests itself by my making an unkind remark, or an unfair comment, or not treating someone with the respect due them as someone made in the image of God.
I don’t mean to be self-hating here, because I suspect I’m not alone in this. To be human is to need forgiveness, because it is the case that what God calls us to is love, in all circumstances, no matter what, and yet what we frequently deliver is love, in some circumstances, provided that it’s not too inconvenient. I don’t think it’s worth flagellating ourselves over. I don’t think you’ve got to wear the hair shirt like John the Baptist did, or to splay yourself on the altar or whatever, but even if we need not get stuck on our sin, even if we don’t get totally hung up on the things for which we need forgiveness, we do need to acknowledge that sin. We need to acknowledge that we are built for community, for loving God and loving one another without limits, and that even when we encounter forgiveness that ought to move us to love without limits, that ought to spur us to love without limits, so often, we still manage to miss the mark.
Instead of clothing our entire lives in forgiveness, we ask the same question Peter asks in this morning’s scripture lesson. How often should we forgive? And I guess, it’s a legitimate question, because just like I screw up pretty frequently, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of somebody else’s sin, somebody else’s screw up, and I need to offer forgiveness, too. And it’s the case that while forgiveness is what we’re obviously called to offer in the face of that kind of thing, that kind of broken relationship, it is also true that it’s not easy! It is not easy to forgive, and it’s not always immediately possible. We sometimes downplay the serious abuse some people have experienced and say, just forgive and move on, as if it were that easy. It’s not, and besides, for as insidious as resentment is, as hard as it is to live with, resentment is actually a lot more fun than forgiveness in many ways, because it takes us and the other person at equal levels and raises us up, so that the person who has sinned against us has to wallow a bit, as if those of us up here are the ones who have it all together and the person who has committed something against us needs to really feel it before we’re willing to forgive.
And so it is this dynamic that makes this morning’s Bible story so interesting, I think. Peter asks Jesus, so, how often should we forgive? How many times do we have to play the fool before we wise up and get past this need to forgive? As many as seven times, seven, which was a holy number to the Jews that at that time, and which represents, at least to me anyway, a pretty reasonable attempt at creating reconciliation? And Jesus gathers the disciples and says, not just seven, but seventy-seven, which is not a literal response but a command to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive and to never stop forgiving.
And if this weren’t difficult enough, Jesus then tells a story that isn’t technically true in terms of whether it happened, but which carries so much truth in it that it rings true to me today. I suspect it will ring true for you as well. What I mean to say is, this is a fictional story that Jesus tells about someone he makes up, but I know this guy. I know lots of this guy. I suspect you do, too.
It’s the story of a king and a guy who owes the king ten thousand talents, and while we can’t put an exact figure on it in terms of modern equivalency, some sources think that 10,000 talents means that this guy hero owes the king something like the kinds of wages you’d earn working every day for 90,000 years. It’s silly, that amount of money, and so the point isn’t the number, but the fact that you could never, ever, ever pay that kind of money off. It’s the kind of debt that would make Bernie Madoff look like Santa Claus. And the king’s calling in his debts, and he calls this guy in and says, pay me what you owe, but of course the guy doesn’t have the money, I don’t think there would be enough money in the whole world to pay that kind of debt, and so the king says, fine, we’ll sell you, we’ll sell your family, we’ll sell everything you own, and that will at least make up for some of the money you’ve squandered.
And the guy with the debt gets down on his knees and begs, and says, look, I know it’s a lot, but just give me some time, and I’ll pay you, I promise. And the king does something pretty remarkable, which is to say that without so much as breaking the guy’s knee, the king sends him on his way and forgives the man’s debt.
I don’t know if you’ve borne witness to that kind of forgiveness, but it can change a person—should change a person--should put its mark upon your heart and never let you go. I was reading a story this week about two twenty-year-old young women, Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson, who were hit by a drunk driver, Eric Smallridge. The women were killed instantly. The drunk driver walked away form the accident. I can’t imagine the grief their parents felt, what that must have felt like, but somehow, and I wish I knew how, somehow they managed to channel their grief into advocacy, starting a foundation and working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to teach teenagers about the dangers of drinking and driving. And amazingly, the parents of those young women invited Eric Smallridge, the man who had killed them, to go around with them as they spoke, and judge agreed to grant him temporary release. The grace and the forgiveness that must’ve been involved in being in the same room as the person who killed your child, I can’t even imagine. And then to use that grace to help save the lives of other people’s children, I mean, that’s the power of forgiveness. In fact, when Eric Smallridge had the occasion to petition the judge for early release, the parents of these young women wrote letters to the judge in support of his release.
This is what forgiveness does. It unbinds everybody. It certainly unbinds the person who has received forgiveness, and in the case of Eric Smallridge, it helped him help others by sharing his story, by being honest and forthright about the choices he had made the devastation he had caused. But when you find yourself in the position to forgive somebody, don’t think the only person who needs unbinding is the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness also unbinds the forgiver. Resentment may be secretly fun—it may feel nice to feel better than somebody else, even if that’s small comfort in the scheme of things—but resentment ultimately degrades a person, callouses a heart, pokes holes in the soul.
And so I wish the story that Jesus tells were more like this, that it involved the man with the insurmountable debt getting up upon the occasion of his forgiveness and skipping away, running with his arms outstretched to embrace the man who owed him, compared to what he’d been forgiven, a small pittance, but there wasn’t any of that. You’d hope for reconciliation, for the clouds to part and the sun to shine through and birds to sing, but that’s not what happened. What happened was that the man who’d been forgiven for a debt amounting to 90,000 years of work refused to forgive a debt owed to him equaling about a hundred days wages. That’s something 300,000 times smaller than the debt he’d just been forgiven, so you’d think it would all be water under the bridge, but no, no. He has the guy locked up, thrown in prison, tells the jailer to throw away the key.
But the story doesn’t end here. When his fellow workers saw what happened, they were incensed, understandably, and they went to the king and told him all that had gone on. And the king, also incensed, summoned the first guy and said, “I forgave you because you pleaded with me, and then you turn around and do this? You are offered the most unbelievable experience of forgiveness, and this is what comes of it?” And the king sent him away, to be tortured—tortured!—until his debt was repaid, which, of course, it never was.
And this, Jesus says, is what it’s like for God. God will do this to us unless we also forgive.
Now, I want to take a minute and acknowledge that this is really difficult, this idea of God callously sending away to be tortured. In fact, outside of a story that Jesus tells for dramatic effect, I don’t think it quite happens that way. It doesn’t match my understanding of the love ethic of Jesus, the ways he is portrayed in the rest of scripture. I don’t think God does actually does this sort of thing, and so I don’t have a great answer here as to what this is all about. But I do think there are three things we can say about it.
First, I think we can say that we need to confess. You know, here in a few minutes, when I finally get ready to sit down, we’re going to do something we don’t do every week, which is that we’re going to pray the prayer of confession. This is part of our heritage as United Methodists, and I wish we used it more often, so we’re going to do it today. We’re going to confess together that we need forgiveness, individually as people who sin, who break relationship, and as a community, as a church, as a people who haven’t always spoken up for justice, who haven’t always done the right thing, who have sometimes left important words unsaid and important work undone. We’re going to confess together, and I think that’s a fair expectation, because I think we can say that this story reminds us that we need to confess.
Second, I think we can say that we need to accept forgiveness. Sometimes this is easy, like when it means you don’t have to work for 90,000 years to repay a debt. But sometimes it’s not so easy, because we get to feeling guilty about all that we’ve done, and it can overwhelm a person. God doesn’t call us to be overwhelmed, to splay on the altar and never get up again. The message of Jesus Christ is that the work of forgiveness has already been done, if you will just accept it. So I don’t know what you need forgiving for today, but I hope you’ll ask God to forgive you and then move on, not in a way that keeps you from learning, but in a way that pulls you out from underneath its weight.
Third, I think we can say that once we accept that forgiveness, we need to turn around and forgive. Don’t be like the petty man in Jesus’s story. Don’t be that guy. The world is full of that guy already. Don’t be that guy. Recognize that the gift of forgiveness is most powerful when it is shared, and of course, this is one reason why we confess our need for forgiveness. Not so that we will feel better about ourselves. Not just because it’s some command from God. But because it is a reminder of God’s work in our lives, and because it is through the act of forgiveness, of accepting it and sharing it with others, it is through that act that we achieve peace. Now, you’ll see at the end of this liturgy, which is printed in your bulletin, we’re going to be passing the peace. Let me just say a word about that. Passing of the peace is not running across the sanctuary to hug somebody’s neck. It’s not about how’s your momma and them. Passing the peace is a profoundly theological act in which you shake someone’s hand in a sign of fellowship and offer a sign of peace and reconciliation, typically saying something like “the peace of the Lord be with you,” or “peace,” as you shake hands. It’s a reminder of God’s forgiveness, and it’s a sign of forgiveness towards one another. And so let me say that if you are here for the first time, it’s likely that nobody here has sinned against you yet. If you’ve been here for a while and you’re meeting somebody for the first time, it’s not likely that they’ve sinned against you either. But the passing of the peace is not just about individual acts of forgiveness, though those are important and if you stick around here long enough, you’ll feel the need. Passing the peace is not just about individual forgiveness, but it’s cosmic forgiveness, forgiveness on behalf of and in acknowledgement of those who have sinned against each of us and all of us, together. So when the time comes, I hope you’ll really exchange signs of peace with the people sitting near you. It’s a powerful thing when it is done in the name of reconciliation.
And, you know, it’s funny; the people I know who have been the slowest to offer forgiveness, to offer peace, who have not been able to bring themselves to forgive some long-ago slight, some festering sin, those people are the most miserable people I know. They, themselves, have the least peace. They don’t need God to torture them. They do it just fine all by themselves.

And so as we prepare to pray together, let me confess something. As I have lived with this story, as I have struggled with it, I find myself just a little bit giddy at the idea that the first guy, the one who was forgiven and then wouldn’t forgive, I’m just a little too happy that in the end, he gets his come-uppance. Is there a part of you that feels this way when you hear this story? Do you like that he ends up tortured? And if so, does that say anything about you and your own need to live a life of forgiveness?

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