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God’s Work, Our Hands (September 10, 2017)

Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

 

Like so many other passages in the Bible, this one has the potential to be misused—even abused—by those trust not in Jesus but instead in a clear-cut formula for good discipleship. I’ve seen this passage on conflict resolution in the church used to kick people out, to exclude, to justify holding grudges against some who disagree, to isolate people from the rest of their church community.

If they get called out on this very un-Christ-like behavior, the reply is always, “But I followed the steps in Matthew 18! That makes it right!”

The Bible is a funny thing. It is an amazing gift of loving grace, yet can easily be used to justify truly hateful actions.

 

The same with this text. This isn’t a stand alone roadmap for dealing with people we may find offensive. It’s part of a larger section where Jesus teaches the priorities of the what Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven.” Feed the hungry, forgive the sinner, include the outcast, use your power on behalf of those who have none.

In other words, the kingdom of heaven is showing God’s love and compassion in this world.

This section on dealing with difficulty within the church is a continuation of that same theme. In order to defend the interests of the least in our world, we have to be clear about that within the church too. We don’t kick people out for being sinners or having faults. We embrace them and include them and listen to them and treat them.

 

Whenever we turn scripture into a clear formula for discipleship, we’ve already missed the point. Discipleship is trusting and following Jesus, not trusting and following a series of steps or a formula. The kingdom of heaven isn’t like chemistry or math. There are no set formulas that, if we follow them, will give us the right discipleship answer. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is kind of like giving us a pile of crayons and Legos and string and saying, “Show God’s love.”

Jesus’ intention in most of Matthew is that we’re all in this kingdom of heaven thing together, not so that we can be lifted up above others, or push others down below us. But so that we can help each other love the world. Discipleship is how we love the world together, not how closely we can follow a righteousness formula.

This series of reconciliation steps in this text has more to do with overcoming the obstacles that come from living within a community. We do that so we can love the world better. It really has very little to do with knowing when to kick someone out of the church. We love the world better as a community than individually. This text reminds us that showing the kingdom of heaven in the world is what we need to keep foremost in mind.

So what about the binding and loosing part? “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Anyone ever struggle with what that means? Alright! Jesus says I can forgive anyone I want, or send anyone who bugs me into eternal hellfire and damnation! Whoopee! This power is awesome!

Uhmm… Maybe we need to take another look in the context of what’s happening in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew records Jesus spending several chapters leading up to this one trying to explain the “kingdom of heaven.” Nobody gets it, but essentially it’s the job of his disciples to recognize the kingdom of heaven is present whenever God’s unconditional love and compassion show up. Even when they don’t always make sense in this world. His disciples are those that strive to reveal that kingdom of heaven everywhere and to everyone.

What we do here in this life on earth should reflect this kingdom of heaven. So, of course, we want to stick close to those things and those people that help us. We attach ourselves—bind ourselves—to those things. And we stay away from—loose from us—those things that deter us from those things.

Today, throughout the ELCA, we are participating in “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday. A day where we, all of us Lutherans together in one big ol’ community, bind ourselves to acts of service, compassion, and love. We do so because bringing love and service into our communities reveals the kingdom of heaven there. We get to join in, participate with God in kingdom of heaven work. Matthew’s Jesus would be really happy!

We’ve done this in a whole lot of different ways over the years. This year is a different way of showing God’s love and compassion still.

Neighborhood service through local government. How wonderful it would be if participants in city, county, and state governments had the kingdom of heaven foremost in their hearts and minds. This is different than having a Christian government. What we’re striving for is some people, who feel called to do so, have a kingdom of heaven perspective—God’s love and compassion—as one of the voices present when information is gathered, service is done, or decisions are made among us.

As we do this together—this revealing and participating in the compassionate kingdom of heaven, because, as Jesus says, even if it’s only two or three of us—Jesus is there among us.

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Posted by on September 10, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Kingdom of Heaven: Unwanted, Invasive, Contaminated (July 30, 2017)

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

You know what I think about the kingdom of heaven? I think it’s incredibly frustrating. And slow. And sometimes discouraging.

But before I can explain why to you, we need to be clear about the definition of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus talks about it. First, it is not a place out in the stars somewhere that your soul goes after you die. At least that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. As Jesus explains it, the kingdom of heaven is something that is present here and now. It’s something that he brings into the world. It is any time and any place God’s will of love, compassion, and grace are being done. It isn’t so much a place as a way of living in the world. It is less about getting ahead in the world and more about giving yourself away for the world. It’s loving with Jesus’ love, forgiving with Jesus’ forgiveness, and being compassionate with Jesus’ compassion. That is the kingdom of God Jesus is talking about.

And it can be frustrating to me. Jesus tries over and over to get people to understand it, and has a hard time succeeding. Here in this text, he tells five quick parables to help us get this concept. I don’t find it frustrating because of what I don’t get about it. I find it frustrating because of the parts I do.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. A weed that was unwanted by everyone in that day. It would take over a field and aggressively take all the water so no crops to grow. And the birds that come and make their nests in the full-grown mustard shrub? They aren’t cute little song birds. They come and peck at all the good seeds that the mustard bush has left.

The kingdom of heaven is like that? Unwanted? Invasive? It just comes in and takes over?

Yes, Jesus says. Like that.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like leaven in bread dough. This is not a nice little package of yeast that makes freshly baked bread fluffy and tall. No, leaven was an impurity, coming from rotten, moldy, old bread. Why would a woman contaminate her bread like that? Unleavened bread was pure and good. Leavened bread was gross.

The kingdom of heaven is like that? Disgusting? Contaminated? Ruining perfectly good bread?

Yes, Jesus says. Like that.

Why do I find that frustrating? Because I tend to agree. I want the kingdom of heaven, i.e., compassion and grace and forgiveness and love to be revealed. But I want it to be revealed on my terms. I don’t want to be compassionate indiscriminately. I don’t want it coming in where I think it has no business being present. I want to live with Jesus’ compassion when I want to, not invading into unwanted places when God wants it done.

I want to dispense compassion to the people I want to dispense it to. Those for whom it will possibly make a difference. Those who will respond to compassion and be open to my compassion changing their lives. Because then I have a better chance of being recognized for my amazing kindness. If it invades where I don’t really want it, happening whenever God wants, my acts of compassion might not be received the way I want. They may think I expect a response from them. They may think that I think they now owe me something. They may be right.

I’ve been known to think, “Wow. After all I did for you, that’s how you repay me? After all my wonderful compassion, you treat me like that?” I performed your wedding and you won’t join my church? I gave you a night’s lodging at a motel, and you tell all your homeless friends I’ll do the same for them?

You see, if I can control when I show compassion, if I control where I reveal the kingdom of God, I can also control how it’s received. I’m not so likely to waste perfectly good compassion on someone who treats my compassion like an invasive contaminate.

So, yes, it’s frustrating that I don’t control the kingdom of God. That with me or without me, compassion and love and grace keep showing up in the world. Sometimes where they have no business showing up.

Part of me longs for the day that this kingdom of compassion takes over everything and everyone like Jesus’ last parable of a net scooping up fish everywhere. But another part of me recognizes that the fullness of that is a long way off, and I have a long way to go before I’m doing my full part in it.

So maybe it’s OK that this kingdom of compassion and grace and forgiveness invades like a weed. Because perhaps it will invade me too. Whether I accept it well or not. Whether I respond well to it or not. And I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Not the Nature of the Soil, but of the Sower (July 16, 2017)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

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Jesus talks in this parable about four different types of dirt: dirt that’s trodden down into a hard path, dirt that’s full of rocks, dirt that has thorns growing in it, and good soil. Each of the first three have problems growing seeds, but the fourth—the good soil—grows seeds like crazy. Yielding 30, 60 or even 100 times more than was planted. In those days, farmers would find that much yield unbelievable!

Then, later on, Jesus explains this parable to his disciples. The seed is the “word of the kingdom,” he says. We can talk later about what that means. The different soils are different responses from different people to that word of the kingdom being cast among them. Obviously, those who respond as good soil are those who understand the word of the kingdom and respond very well to it. But not everyone does, apparently. Only those who are good soil.

How do you know who the good soil is? How do we know if we are good soil? Is good soil the “good” Christians? Those who volunteer their time to feed the hungry and house the homeless? Is good soil limited to pastors? People who pray well? Those whose spiritual lives are beyond that of mere mortals? Whatever it is that makes people good soil, that’s what we want to be doing, don’t we?

I think that even with very little thought we can see that it isn’t that simple. None of us are just one soil type. We’re not divided into good people and bad ones. One of the most helpful things in our Lutheran theology is that we understand that each of us are, at the same time, both saint and sinner. Both good soil and not so good. Even if we feel like one kind of soil more than other kinds, we fluctuate during our lifetimes, sometimes we can be several different soils during a single day.

So, I’ll ask again, how do you know who the good soil is? I believe the point of the parable is that we don’t know.

Look at the main character, the sower, throwing seeds everywhere, indiscriminately, extravagantly, foolishly, wastefully. If the sower knows where the good soil is, wouldn’t he just sow his seeds there? Why waste seeds casting them where they aren’t likely to produce anything? Jesus, the one who casts the words of the kingdom, flings them everywhere without regard as to who will produce fruit and who won’t—because it’s not about the nature of the soil, it’s about the nature of the sower.

Think about where and with whom Jesus cast the words of the kingdom—which, by the way, are the things central to the nature of God: love, compassion, forgiveness, lifting up those that are pushed down, justice. Think about where Jesus showed those things, with whom he shared these kingdom experiences. Jesus spent much of his time casting the words of the kingdom—showing mercy and compassion—to sinners, tax collectors, the sick, those left out, even the twelve disciples who never seemed to get it. If ever there was bad soil, it was that group. It looked like a waste of time to those who thought they knew who the good soil was.

Jesus wasn’t picky. He showed compassion everywhere, to everyone. Some who received the seeds of compassion would yield the fruit of those seeds by showing even more compassion, and some wouldn’t. He showed forgiveness even to the worst people. Some who received the seeds of forgiveness would yield the fruit of those seeds by showing more forgiveness, and some wouldn’t. Jesus loved even the unlovable. Some who received the seeds of love would yield the fruit of those seeds by loving others, and some wouldn’t.

Jesus just threw the seeds of God’s grace, love, and compassion everywhere. All the time. To anyone. It didn’t matter if they were good soil or not. It didn’t matter if they were hardened or shallow or had bad priorities. Jesus doesn’t hold back, but keep sowing compassion, love, and grace with wild generosity. To all kinds of soils, no matter what.

Which is amazingly good news. If Jesus is sowing forgiveness and compassion everywhere, to everyone, whether they are good soil or not, that means he’s sowing forgiveness and compassion to me. To you. Right now. Whether you’re good soil or not. Christ’s compassion is being thrown at you. Christ’s love is raining down on you like so many seeds. Regardless of your soil condition today. And who knows, it just might take root.

But even if it doesn’t, the generous seeds of an extravagant sower continue to be cast in you. Again and again. Indiscriminately, extravagantly, foolishly, wastefully. Because it’s not about the nature of the soil, it’s about the nature of the sower. The word of the kingdom is flung everywhere. Who knows where it will take root and bear 30, 60, or even 100 fold? Who knows? Maybe in you.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Giant Pool of Compassion Let Loose (July 2, 2017)

Matthew 10:40-42

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Remember in school when you were assigned a reading that was boring, irrelevant, impossible to understand? You’d turn a page and look at the book, and it seemed that the side of the book left to read was just as big as before? The side of pages read remained pitifully small. One page seemed to make no difference at all. It seemed like this reading will never be done. What’s one page when there are hundreds of pages yet to go?

Jesus, I think, is one who says each page read is important, because each page is part of the whole book. And it’s the book that matters, with each page contributing something to the book as a whole.

I say that because of how Jesus ends his instructions to his disciples in these verses before he sends them out. Some people will welcome you, in which case they welcome me. Okay. Some will welcome a prophet or a righteous person, their reward will be appropriate. Big time actions! Heroes and people that make a difference in the world. But some will just give you a cup of water. That’s it. Nothing life-changing. Nothing heroic or requiring major sacrifice. Just a cup of water. Yet even this small act means they keep their reward.

You see, it’s not the individual acts of kindness or compassion that change the world. Any more than it’s a single page that makes a book. It’s the totality of compassion, and every single act, no matter how small, contributes to the pool of compassion being let loose in the world. It’s the entire pool of compassion that changes the world. And even a cup of water contributes.

Here’s what this looks like. A couple of weeks ago we finished a very successful VBS. It took 44 people at LCM to pull it off. Each contributing something to make the entire VBS experience significant for the 80 kids that came. I can’t begin to list the various tasks, ideas, organizing, ordering, supporting, coordinating, and more.

Some were bigger pieces and some were smaller. Some took a lot of time and some took a little bit. But each person’s gifts contributed. Each person was part of what made VBS fun and beneficial for our neighborhood kids.

That doesn’t include those who donated materials and food items. Some donations were larger and some smaller, but each one was used and became part of showing God’s love to our neighborhood kids.

And that doesn’t include the Sky Ranch staff that led worship and three stations and brought curriculum. Even if you count he Sky Ranch staff, that wouldn’t include the other 50 members of the staff at Sky Ranch that prayed, organized, wrote, and trained those three for our VBS.

Just for one week of VBS, there were lots of different people contributing in lots of different ways. Some were major contributors, and some minor. But each contribution of time, skills, ideas, and energy was part of the whole VBS at LCM 2017. And it’s the whole of VBS that matters to our neighborhood kids. It’s the whole package of love and care that affects them. Every contribution mattered, and every contribution is appreciated. Thank you, everyone who helped, no matter how small that help may seem compared to someone else. You were part of God’s love being shown. You made a difference. Truly I tell you, none of you will lose your reward.

That’s just one week of VBS. As a congregation, we are about compassion and love every day, permanently. It’s why we’re here and it’s what we do. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of you will lose your reward.

Some people’s contributions to this congregational are large and visible: Council members, heads of big ministries, staff. Other people are behind the scenes and their contributions and help are less visible. Others help in smaller ways less frequently. Whoever gives even a minute of their time to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of you will lose your reward.

Some people in this congregation are regular, major financial contributors. Still others put a dollar in the plate once in a while. Whoever gives even a nickel to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of you will lose your reward.

LCM’s ministry is an entire effort. And no matter how you small may think your effort is, no matter how insignificant you think your contribution is, no matter how little time you take in congregational ministry, it is still part of the whole of what we do. Together. It’s the whole of LCM that matters, and you are part of that. Thank you. Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of you will lose your reward.

So we keep at it. One act at a time, one gift at a time, one contribution at a time. You see, it’s not the individual acts of kindness or compassion that change the world. Any more than it’s a single page that makes a book. It’s the totality of compassion, and every single act, not matter how small, contributes to the pool of compassion being let loose in the world. It’s the entire pool of compassion that changes the world. And even a cup of water contributes. Each page matters. Each page is a contribution. Each page is part of the book, part of God’s library of compassion. And that is what changes the world.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Power Doesn’t Bring Victory (June 25, 2017)

Matthew 10:24-39

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

I was one of those kids who got bullied a lot in elementary and middle school. I was the shy, passive, skinny, band geek who wore big glasses and got good grades and wasn’t good in sports. In those days, that was a perfect recipe for being picked on. I believed, at the time, that I had two choices: either fight back, fighting power with more power, or run away, avoiding the power altogether. I rarely did the first, and became very good at the second.

Jesus is talking to me in this text. Because both of my choices in response to the power of bullies were responses to their power. Either I got more power (learn how to beat them up) or be frightened by their power (run away). But what Jesus is actually saying here is that power isn’t relevant. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

He’s been pretty clear with his disciples up until now. You have the authority, he says as he’s sending them out, to love with God’s love and to show God’s compassion to those you meet. Start with your neighbors, and show them what the kingdom of heaven looks like. It looks like healing, like kindness, like removing obstacles in their lives, like lifting them up. You have the authority to do that. So go do it.

He continues today by recognizing that showing the compassion of God in the face of those who use power has consequences. Don’t worry about that, he says. When you follow me, you love your enemies and you show compassion to those around you. This won’t be easy. Those who use power to win may not respond well. Follow me in love anyway. Some may turn against you. Even if they’re in your own family. Follow me to show compassion anyway. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

You don’t have to be afraid of those who use power, he says. They cannot affect your soul, he says. You don’t have to be afraid, because God, who knows every sparrow that falls, loves you. God knows how many hairs are on your head, and says you are valuable to God. So it’s God you pay attention to. It’s God’s kingdom you reveal in the world. Because God, who created the heavens and the earth, is with you and loves you and knows how valuable you actually are. So we don’t have to be afraid of those who use power to win. Because their power doesn’t matter to God. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

We may understand that, but it doesn’t make it easy. And, if we’re honest, I think most of us would admit that following Jesus in into the pits of power armed only with love is not the kind of Christianity we signed up for. Very few of us are Jesus “activists,” marching in Jesus rallies and risking alienation from our loved ones for Jesus’ sake.

This discipleship work is hard stuff, and we can’t afford to start kicking ourselves if we don’t measure up to some arbitrary (and false!) standard we’ve created in our heads. Instead of running away in fear because those who use power might use it against us, we need to lift each other up, and encourage each other, because there will be another opportunity to show compassion. And another one after that. And then another. We aren’t going to follow Jesus to stand with every person in every situation where compassion is called for, but we can follow him into some of them, even though we’ll miss the mark in others.

Rather than feeling bad about the ones we miss, or defending ourselves when we miss them, we need to encourage each other for the next opportunity. Instead of fighting those who use power with more power, we need to remind each other what love looks like. As we do that, the ways in which we follow Jesus become clearer. We can see more opportunities to follow Jesus in love and compassion, and we venture a little further than we did the last time we tried.

What this looks like for me is that I’ve become more vocal about the racism in our culture. Sometimes I can bring compassion into the midst of racists without fighting to win a racist argument. I’m clearer about calling out my own white privilege. I’m more bold in being an outspoken advocate for the LGTBQ community. And I’ve appreciated the support when I am “unfriended” on social media or hear disparaging remarks as a result. I’ve needed the forgiveness offered when I haven’t stood up with love for those who need a voice and a friend. As a result, I’m more likely to follow Jesus further the next time.

Following Jesus isn’t about winning, or being right, defeating those in power, or even using power for good things. It’s about being Christ’s love and Christ’s compassion in the face of those who use power to win. Following Jesus makes for very bad politics but very good discipleship. Because it is love and compassion. In fact, following Jesus, cross and all, is the only way to reveal to the world what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Jesus is pretty clear with us. We have the authority, he says, to love with God’s love and to show God’s compassion to those we meet. No matter the consequences. In the kingdom of heaven, power doesn’t bring victory. Only love and compassion do.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“That’s What Compassion Looks Like” (June 18, 2017)

Matthew 9:35—10:8

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. 5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Jesus gives his apostles their marching orders. He gives them specific instructions on how to go about this mission. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Proclaim that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons. Accept no pay.

What do you think? Are these specific instructions how disciples all over the world and who live centuries later are to go about being part of Jesus’ mission? Don’t go near non-Jews, stay out of towns that aren’t exclusively Jewish, and talk only to Jews? Of course not. We understand these specific instructions are for those twelve in a precise context at a particular time.

So how do we understand our role, our own specifics, in being part of Jesus’ mission? Where do we find that? Where in the Bible do we discover what Jesus calls us to do in our context, in in our time, in our particular circumstances?

I find the answer to that toward the beginning of this text. Jesus is going about cities and villages, but he’s the only one teaching, healing, and so forth. Then, in verse 36, “when he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless.” It’s at that point that he gathers the twelve disciples together and sends them out to do the same thing he’s been doing: cast out demons, teach, heal and so forth.

The trigger that turns him from doing it alone to recruiting and equipping his disciples to join him is his compassion for those who are stressed, who are worried, who are helpless. In his context, compassion looks like healing and casting out demons—the source of people’s worry and anxiety. Those are the things that keep them without any voice or power. It’s his compassion, recognizing the depth and breadth of people’s anxiety and pain.

The guiding value here isn’t Jesus’ specifics of teaching, healing, or casting out demons. Rather, it’s compassion—noticing the concerns that cause people to throw their hands up in despair, to give up. Stepping in when someone is helpless or vulnerable, especially when it would be easier to look the other way.

The girl who noticed a new classmate seemed sad. When she tried to talk to him, she realized he only spoke Spanish. So she took out her phone and used a translation app to write him a note asking if he wanted to sit with her today. “Look for me at lunch, and I’ll show you where we sit. We can just color or tell scary stories.” That’s what compassion looks like.

The man on the lite rail who noticed another man with his head in his hands, mumbling. When he asked the man if he was ok, the man replied he had a headache and was running late for a job interview. A woman nearby offered him an Advil, but he had no water, so a young mother offered him a juice box. The first man suggested that when the other man got to the interview, to apologize for being late, but offer no excuses. Just walk into the interview tall and tie his hair back if he could. A teenager nearby gave him a hair-tie off her wrist. When the man stepped off the train for his interview, the whole car waved and wished him good luck. That’s what compassion looks like.

Or the grandmother who was new to text messaging and tried to invite her grandchild to Thanksgiving dinner, but entered the wrong number, accidentally inviting a random 17 year old. When they figured out the mistake, the grandma invited him anyway texting, “Of course you can come. That’s what grandmas do . . . feed everyone.” That’s what compassion looks like.

Or this week at VBS, one girl’s first time here and didn’t know anyone.  One the first night and was having a hard time participating, obviously very shy. Another girl in her crew saw it, came over to her and invited her to do the movements to the song together. By the next night, the girl was involved in everything and having a wonderful time. That’s what compassion looks like.

Those are the instructions Jesus gave his disciples. Show compassion. Simply pay attention to those you meet and step in when someone is stressed or defenseless. It’s less about solving the issue and more about simply being there–showing up. Letting someone know they aren’t alone in their helplessness. Going a step beyond what’s easy to accompany another person who is vulnerable.

Those who follow Jesus are sent into their neighborhood simply to do that—show compassion.

Think about where you’re likely to be his week. What would compassion look like in those places, among those people. Recognize that each one of us are called, are equipped, and are sent to those exact places with clear instructions from Jesus himself. Pay attention to those you meet. When you see someone alone or anxious or helpless, step in and walk with them for a few minutes. Le them know someone cares. That’s what Jesus himself did. That’s what he sent his disciples to do. Show compassion.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’”

That’s us. We are the disciples who are now being sent to show compassion. As we go, we are already proclaiming the good news, that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Redeeming the Stones (May 14, 2017)

Acts 7:55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand Image result for beautiful stonesof God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

My Uncle Tom Melville, who was very dear to me, died two weeks ago. He had quite an influence on me as Iwas growing up. He was a missionary priest in Guatemala. He would come to visit us occasionally, and told exotic stories of his adventures in the jungles of Guatemala that kept all of us riveted. Stories of good people who suffered in poverty, their struggle with an oppressive government and powerful landowners, and his efforts to bring fairness and justice into their lives. Things that make the very best stories.

When I was about ten years old, I remember my Uncle Tom no longer being in Guatemala. He and his new wife, my Aunt Marge, had been forced out of Guatemala for opposing the government’s policies that kept the poor in poverty. They were also released from their vows as a priest and a nun.

They had gone from Guatemala to Washington, D.C. In protest of the Vietnam War and the U.S. support of a corrupt government in Guatemala, they, along with seven other people, broke into the selective service office in Catonsville, MD, removed almost 400 military draft records there, took them out into the parking lot, and burned them. All of the “Catonsville Nine,” as they came to be called, then stood in a circle praying and waiting for the police to come and arrest them.

Tom and Marge both served some time in federal prison for that. What I took away from that was that when you act with compassion for others who are powerless to act for themselves, there may be consequences. Rather than back away from acts of compassion for the sake of justice, you act anyway and take the consequences.

So when I read this story in the book of Acts about Stephen, it elicits a similar reaction from me.

Stephen was one of the seven people who were chosen by this fledgling Jesus movement to serve tables and do other tasks. The apostles, then, would be freed up to teach and share what this Jesus movement was all about.

Stephen, however, was pretty good at preaching himself. Some who were in power were upset, accused him of blasphemy, and incited a crowd. He stood up for Christ’s gospel of peace and compassion, and was killed by those who couldn’t see God’s vision in that.

Sometimes, when you act with compassion for others who are powerless to act for themselves, there may be consequences. Rather than back away from acts of compassion for the sake of justice, you act anyway and take the consequences.

All my life I’ve marveled at Stephen, whose convictions were so strong that he was willing to face death rather than back away. I still do, but as I grieve the death of my uncle, something else occurs to me. When you don’t see God’s vision of peace, justice for the least, and compassion, you can easily justify throwing rocks at those who do.

Like Stephen, my uncle faced significant consequences because those in power couldn’t see God’s work of compassion and justice being done by him. We could argue about whether or not his methods produced the best results—the same with Stephen, actually. Still, because they couldn’t/ wouldn’t recognize God, those in power could justify throwing stones.

Think about this: throwing stones is actually anything we say and do that doesn’t support the gospel of peace and compassion. We all throw rocks. We all oppose God’s vision in some ways. And we all justify doing it.

The stoning of Stephen is a big example, but there are all kinds of small ones too. Stones that we constantly tossing at other people or things so we don’t have to see the hard part of God’s vision of justice and love.

Any time I try to gain something for myself at the expense of someone else, I’m throwing a stone at them.

Any time I turn aside when someone else is hungry or hurting or in need, I’m throwing a stone at them.

Any time I’m not hearing the pain or sadness that someone else is speaking, I’m throwing stones at them.

Any time I throw blame, exclude someone who’s different, talk about someone instead of talking to them, put my own comfort and preferences ahead of someone else’s, I’m throwing stones. I’m acting in opposition to the gospel of peace and compassion.

Stones themselves aren’t bad, but we can use stones badly. We have a God who is forgiving and gracious, whose very nature is compassion and redemption. Today, God can redeem our stones of opposition, and allow us to use them instead for God’s vision of peace.

The very stones that were used to kill Stephen could have been used in good and helpful ways. Homes could have been built from those stones. Beautiful sculptures and artwork could have come from those stones. Roads could have been built. Even jewelry could have been made from those stones. They could have been used for beautiful, peaceful, compassionate purposes. They didn’t have to be used to oppose Christ’s gospel of peace with such violence.

We have a pile of stones in the back of the church. When you leave today, take one with you. Consider the many ways it could be used. And in the same way, consider how many different ways our words can be used. How many different actions we can take, how many different behaviors we can exhibit. How many uses there are for our money and resources. All of these can be used to oppose Christ’s gospel, or to reveal it. We have been given a new chance today for the stones of our lives to be part of God’s justice and compassion in the world.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2017 in Sermon

 

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