Monday, November 17, 2014

November 16 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here).
Matthew 25:14-30
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
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Well, we are in the second part of a little two week series in which we are talking about the end of time, which may sound like a strange thing to talk about, but popular culture is clearly infatuated with it. And last week we talked about the silliness of the idea that God would leave people behind. God’s promise to us is presence, being present with us. And we talked a little bit about what to do in the meantime, which is to say that we are not supposed to idly wait.
You should know that I do not like to wait. There are few things I despise more than waiting in line. In the grocery store I am constantly eyeing the next register to monitor how fast it is moving. I just don’t wait well. And to be honest, I don’t know of a lot of people who do. One of the things about the world these days is that it seems to move faster than ever, and work can follow you everywhere, so there’s always an email to return, a Facebook status to update, a text to send, a phone call to make. And so when the power goes out, or my phone runs out of juice, I just about don’t know what to do. It can make a person crazy, having to wait like that, and yet, of course, this is what we are called to do as Christians. We believe that one day, Christ will dry every tear, stop every hurt, right every wrong; we’re just waiting for it to happen. But we aren’t separate from that hope, because as we wait, we are to do the work of love. We are to serve God and serve others, so that Christ can break into and breathe hope into even the most hopeless situations, as God works through us.
So it is that in this morning’s scripture lesson, which shows up in the Gospel of Matthew just after the one we read last week, Jesus talks to us about that waiting, about what we do in the meantime, which in the final analysis is all the time we’ve got.
Like he does so often, instead of just telling us, he shares a parable, a story. He says, a wealthy man was headed out of town on a great journey, so he called his workers together—slaves, in the words of this ancient story—and says to them, I’m leaving. I need you to care for things while I am gone. And so he gives them a total of eight talents, which was a certain amount of money back then. To the worker he trusted the most, he gave five talents, to the next, two talents, and to the one he trusted the least, one, which is still a hefty sum of money. A talent, as best as we can tell, was an amount of money equal to the salary you’d earn from twenty years of working. So this isn’t a nickel and dime deal. This is the real thing. This is the kind of stuff you and I are entrusted with while we wait.
And the workers go about their lives, tending to the field, watching the man’s property, and eventually he comes back and calls the workers together and says, all right, I’m back, give me your report.
And the worker who received five talents says, “Master, I took the five talents you gave me and I have made five more.” Now, I think that’s a pretty nice return, 100%, and the wealthy man seems to agree, and he says, “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And the second worker comes and the same thing happens. “You gave me two talents and I made two more,” and the wealthy man says “Well done. I have entrusted you with this and you have delivered, so I will put you in charge of many more things.”
And then the last worker comes forward, sort of fearfully, sheepishly, and he says, “You know, I’ve seen what kind of guy you are. You harvest things you didn’t plant, you exceed the boundaries of your property line, so I figured the best thing to do would be to play it safe, to dig a hole, hide the whole thing in the ground, so at least you couldn’t get onto me for losing your money.”
And the wealthy man is enraged, and he says, “I see how it is. I see what you think I am. And if I really am that way, don’t you think you should have at least taken it to the bank to see what kind of interest you could get?” And he strips the guy of everything he has, takes away his title and his money and his responsibility and throws him out. Just tosses him out the gate.
I want to stop here and acknowledge that this is a difficult story. There are plenty of landmines within it that we need to contain, carefully, before we can get into the meat of the lesson of the story. First, this story has been used countless times as a way for well-dressed prosperity Gospel preachers to say, “give your money to the church and God will bless you financially.” And that’s not it at all. This is not a story about getting rich; notice that the wealthy man doesn’t give his slaves any of the money. He just gives them more responsibility.
I think there’s also something we need to say about how harsh this story is. You see, those of us in what we call the mainline tradition like to sometimes take the Bible and make it nice and cute and sweet. We like to knock the rough corners off of the Bible and sand it down until it resembles something nice and pretty, and that’s well and good until you realize that you’ve sanded it so finely and created a surface so shiny that when you look at it, you see your own reflection rather than God’s. So I think we need to acknowledge that this stuff is a little harsh, and kind of learn to live with it, because the message of God isn’t always easy. It is always loving, and it is always gracious, but it isn’t always easy.
I mean, I am sure it wouldn’t have been easy to have been the first worker, the one who was trusted with five talents. For one, that’s a hefty sum. That’s a lot of pressure. But it must have been absolutely terrifying to invest all of it. It’s not that he kept three in stable value funds and put two in domestic stocks. He put it all on the line, every bit.
In some ways, you know, I have to think that what the two workers did—the one with the five and the one with the two—I think that’s one of the most difficult things you can do. Not just the work of investing—though it was a lot of work—but making a decision to trust. To say, you know God has given me this. I intend to use it for the good of the kingdom. I’m not going to keep it as it is. I’m not going to live in fear. I’m going to use it. After all, isn’t the prayer of “use me, O God,” the most powerful prayer, the most ultimate desire of each of us? Isn’t that what we want more than anything else: to be seen as worthy in the eyes of God, to be used for God’s purposes, whatever that means for you?
I like that message. It’s difficult, but I like it, because, of course, one of the central messages of the whole Bible is this: do not fear. Do not fear. We know how the story is going to end, and maybe we have things we need to do in the meantime, but it’s not like we’re in the dark about whether God is going to win. God will triumph. All the pains of the world will go away: all the heartache, all the hurt, all the tears. This is the message of the Bible. Love wins.
And I’ve got to be honest. One of the reasons I like that message so much is that boy, do I need to hear it. Again and again and again. There is so much out there that wants to control us by fear, because fear is one of the most powerful forces in the whole world. It is tempting to give into it now and again, to say, you know, this is too scary. I am going to sit this one out. And when you think of it that way, well, I don’t know about you but I have a little sympathy for the third worker, the one who dug and buried and delivered to his boss 100% of what had been entrusted to him. Not only has he protected the man’s significant asset, but he’s also remarkably honest when the man asks him what he was thinking. “Master,” he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was . . . afraid.”
It is fear that drives him. Fear. And it is fear that keeps him from being used as an instrument of God, because he is afraid. And what a pity, to be given the opportunity to be used by God and then to just . . . pass!
I mean, this being a story about the nature of God, not just some fable about how to invest your money, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the first two workers double their investments! If I’ve learned anything through my time in ministry, it is that God will always use us when we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice: maybe not in the way we’d like, and in this case not with a financial reward but with more responsibility, which is not exactly what those of us who have lived long faithful lives are necessarily looking for as a reward! But God always rewards those who take seriously God’s promises, rewards those who trust. And lest you think that trust is something you either do or don’t, let’s be clear that one thing this story tells us is that we have to choose to trust. Not blindly, of course, but purposefully, because you don’t go off and invest five talents, what amounts to 100 years worth of income, without making the decision to trust.
And yet the third worker is so bound by fear that cannot not imagine the good that can be done in God’s kingdom with that kind of wealth. He’s so bound up that he can’t even see the value of what he’s been given, can’t even hear God’s voice calling him to reinvest, to constantly reinvest, to take what he has been given and use it for the glory of God.
It is fear the drives him, that sits in front of his face and blinds him to possibility, for, of course, fear is the enemy of imagination. This guy has forgotten that scripture tells us, again and again, that God is more powerful than our pain and our difficulty and that in the end, God will win. Maybe that win doesn’t look like you expected. Maybe it will enlarge your territory, give you new responsibility, pluck you up out of your comfort zone and deposit you in a place you barely recognize with people you don’t know so that you can make good on God’s investment in you.
In the end, the God who loves us will never leave us, and you can bury that if you like or you can take it to the bank, your choice.
I will end with this. Let’s bring this out of the stratosphere and set it down on the altar next to the cornucopia. I’d challenge anybody who doesn’t believe in miracles to sit down with me and review all that has happened in this congregation on this corner over the last twelve months. I was looking out last week at the young adults—all crammed in a pew in the middle of the sanctuary—and remembering only or two of them has been here longer than a year. That’s a miracle. You have been so successful in reaching out to new people in new ways that we’ve welcomed nearly fifty new people into membership this year, and now I’ve got to hire somebody to help keep up with our children and families. That’s a miracle. We’re reaching out to new people in new ways, including the fact that you’ve already fed 10,000 kids through Stop Hunger Now and raised enough money through the pumpkin patch to feed 22,732 more. That’s a miracle. But these miracles have not been pulled out of thin air. They have come about because you—those who have been here for decades and those of you who have been here for a few weeks—all of you have been willing to invest, to trust God, to dream dreams, to imagine what God might do.
And now that we’re seeing some return on our investment—God’s investment, really—we’ve got a choice. We can say, all right, this is great, but God is calling us to more because God always blesses faithfulness, because God always says yes to the prayer of “Use me, O God.”
Or we can say, eh, that’s good enough. This is just about all the growth and change I’m comfortable with, and besides, you never know what the Bishop’s going to do. Best to bury what we’ve got so at least we don’t have to worry about losing our hard-earned church.

“For to all those who have,” Jesus says, “more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Monday, November 10, 2014

November 9 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

Matthew 25:1-13
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
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For the next two weeks we will be talking about the end of things, which may be a strange thing to talk about, but it is certainly a popular thing these days. Think for a moment about the word “apocalyptic.” What comes to mind? I think it is instructive that with a very few exceptions, it was not until humanity created the ability to annihilate itself with nuclear weapons that apocalyptic fiction rose to prominence as a genre. Think of classics like A Canticle for Leibowitz, or more modern works like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. You will certainly find apocalyptic themes in the Hunger Games books. And the end of things being a particularly compelling theme, there are more movies on this topic than I can count. In fact, let me show you these. You may not be able to see them, but later you can come see them in my office where they are prominently displayed. They are Bobbleheads of Michonne and Rick Grimes, two characters from one of my favorite television shows, the Walking Dead, which is a program centered on the idea of a zombie apocalypse.
You can’t get away from this kind of thing, and I get it; we live in a strange time technologically, culturally, religiously. If you’ve been in the church for decades you’ll note that the nature of the church is changing very quickly, shrinking in some places, losing much of what it has once been. So it is natural to gravitate to stories about the end of things, natural to look for guidance in the Bible about how this will all end. I think that’s a good thing. I wish people would look to the Bible when they made most of their decisions.
The problem is this. This focus on being left behind—the version of the end of things you read about in novels and see in movies—that version is not based in truth. It takes a few verses in what is a very large book and twists them to fit a system of belief that doesn’t match up with who Jesus was, who Jesus is. And sometimes it gets played as harmless entertainment, just a way to spend a couple of hours, but it is insidious, because it hides behind claims of being fiction while at the same time claiming to be Biblical. It claims to be Christian. And it really just isn’t.
For one thing, if you are newer to the faith, you may be surprised to know that this idea that people would be plucked up while others would be left behind to face supernatural forces—this is an idea that has really only existed as an idea for less than two hundred years. Jesus was around two thousand years ago, and he didn’t mention it. None of the Biblical writers mentioned it. Martin Luther never mentioned it. This idea stems from a misunderstanding of the book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, and a small handful of verses throughout the New Testament.
So you should know that this stuff wasn’t even really an idea until it was dreamed up in the early eighteenth century by a couple of Puritan ministers named Increase and Cotton Mather whose other claim to fame  is that they are widely understood to have laid the groundwork that led to the Salem Witch trials. The word “rapture” simply does not exist in the Bible. And the book of Revelation, which so many people—including the people who wrote the popular Left Behind books—have turned into some sort of map of how the end of times is going to happen, that book isn’t a warning. It isn’t a map. It’s a love letter. It’s a book of worship. It is like Communion: a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It uses symbolism because we worship a God who is bigger than our literal language. Revelation is a reminder that God is with us always, that life can be difficult and bad, terrible things can happen, but that all the suffering, all the evil, all the problems of the world are no match for God. It’s not about God leaving us behind. It’s about God being with us always.
Now, I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that a preacher ought to always show his or her work—you know, let me throw all these Greek words at you to show you how smart I am or whatever—but looking at the language this was written in is helpful, and the word we talk about sometimes in the church is parousia. Parousia. It means the coming of Christ to save us from all the difficult things in life, all the pain. And the Greek word parousia is most accurately translated as “presence.” Here we are focused on being Left Behind and the very word the Bible uses means Christ’s presence with us. That kind of misunderstanding would be ridiculously laughable if it weren’t real.
Christ will be present with us. You know, I may sometimes get to worrying about the state of things, but we are promised in scripture that this all ends well! One day, we read in scripture, Jesus will right every wrong, dry every tear, and justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
So what I want to do with the rest of my time this morning is talk about the scripture that Anna read this morning and point out some things we can learn about the end of things. And then next week, we’ll talk about what God wants us to do while we wait.
In this morning’s scripture lesson, we find Jesus, and the authorities are onto him. He doesn’t have much time left, and so he launches into this long set of stories and teachings about how to be faithful. You know, in the months before my grandfather passed away, we knew it wouldn’t be long, so we started to gather more often for meals as an extended family, at these long tables because there are dozens of us, and we’d put Papaw at the head of the table and leave the other end open. And after dinner, my grandfather would sort of pat himself on the belly, and we knew he was done eating and it was time, so somebody would set up a video camera at the far end of the table and we’d ask him to remind us about stories we’d heard him tell—about growing up in coal country in Arkansas, about leaving his family as a child to find work, about his time in the War. And because he also knew he was nearing the end of his life, he wanted to share those stories with us, so that they would become a part of us. They weren’t just warnings, and they weren’t about how he was mad at us. They were stories he told us because he loved us, because when we saw him in those stories, and when we carried those stories with us, a part of who he was would remain with us.
And this is how I think it was with Jesus. The stories he tells can sound harsh—perhaps you have heard the one about cursing the poor old fig tree. But they aren’t about being upset with us any more than the end of things is about God leaving us once and for all, which of course it isn’t. They’re about love, about sharing a piece of himself with the disciples, and through scripture, with us. And so he tells the disciple a story.
Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took extra flasks of oil with them. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come to meet him!” And so they all got up and got their lamps ready, but the five that didn’t have extra oil saw their lamps going out. Those five had to go to the store—in the middle of the night, as if Walmart was around back then—and while they were gone, the bridegroom came. The half that were ready went to the wedding banquet. The half that weren’t missed the boat.
And he ends the story this way: keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I mean, it does sound a little ominous. I get why people think of this stuff as harsh. Keep awake. If you aren’t paying attention, you may miss the coming of Jesus. And, to be clear, it’s one of those mysteries of faith that we don’t understand, but we do believe we worship a God who will wipe every tear, to right every wrong. When we talk about the end of things, this is what we are talking about.
What gets me, though, is that there is this whole industry of religious broadcasting and Christian novels that either take the events of the day and try to hammer them into something that looks like the symbolism we see in the book of Revelation or they create a story out of symbols and make it sound like it is Christian theology, when the whole point of this story is that you can’t anticipate when Christ will break through! You can’t look to the stars or whatever. You can’t count the number of times a word appears in the Bible and figure it out. There’s no use looking for some sort of Bible code. Christ comes in unexpected ways and in unexpected times. When Jesus says you know neither the day nor the hour, he doesn’t mean that it’s going to be some time in September. He means that the business of trying to game the system is completely unscriptural. It’s wrong. It keeps you from faithfully following Jesus, from faithfully showing love all the time, not just in front of the judge or whatever.
There is this episode of the Simpsons I love—I wonder when the last time you had a pastor who quoted the Walking Dead and the Simpsons in the same sermon—but it is an episode called Homer the Heretic, in which Homer Simspon gets tired of being bored every week in church, which I know is something none of you struggle with. And so he creates his own religion based on his own personal tastes. And his daughter Lisa sees him walking in the back yard dressed like a monk, and she says, “Dad, why are you dedicating your life to blasphemy?” And Home looks at her reassuringly and says, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. If I’m wrong, I’ll recant on my deathbed.”
It is silly, but how many people act like that, in one manner or another? How many people use Christian faith as a sort of last-ditch life-insurance policy, instead of actually living it? It takes the pressure off of us, for sure; it turns religion into something you can kind of just think in your mind, rather than doing the things that Jesus tells us to do: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, welcoming the stranger, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, we believe that one day, there will be no more sickness, no more hunger, for Christ will break through and, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Yes, in the Communion liturgy, the congregation acknowledges that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” that this is the great mystery of faith, but this isn’t a threat; it’s a promise! It is a promise of hope, and love. It is the promise of presence.
And, sure, it can be difficult to wait. It can be difficult to say, here I have lived my whole life trying to be faithful and it hasn’t cured my sadness, hasn’t cured my pain, hasn’t cured the fact that I keep losing people I love. But the Christian faith is not about doing good so that you can be rewarded. If it were, Mother Teresa wouldn’t have experienced so much doubt. Martin Luther King wouldn’t have been martyred. Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified.
The Christian faith isn’t about avoiding pain. It is about hope, about Resurrection, about acknowledging that the worst thing is never the last thing, which means there is something greater and more powerful than pain. And, yes, following Christ is about waiting patiently, not idly, but patiently, and productively, for the promises of God to continue to born.
When you look at it that way, this business about being ready because you do not know the day or the hour—that’s not a threat. It’s a promise. Being ready isn’t about crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s in case Jesus shows up to check your papers. It’s about sharing love in the meantime. It’s about the meantime. For if you love, you will have love in abundance, enough to fill your flask and your lamp and maybe even enough to share. You won’t run out, because if you love, you will have love.

Now, next week, we’ll talk more about what that means, about how we wait. But, you know, in the meantime, keep sharing love. In the meantime, let us be the presence of Christ for others. Let us keep our lamps burning, for thanks be to God, this isn’t a story about scaring anybody into belief, but about shining light while we wait. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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.”
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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.
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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.
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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.

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