Monthly Archives: February 2016

Sermon 28 Feb 2016: “Landlords and Tenants”

Text: Mark 12:1-12

One of my professors at seminary was fond of talking about the importance of preaching, and the purpose for it.  “Preaching is about giving people Jesus,” he would say, “and no other reason. People come each week to hear the gospel.  They come because they need Jesus and come for Jesus.  Your job is to give them Jesus.”

Well, if that’s the case, then I’m not too sure this is the text we want to hear this morning.  Jesus tells a parable about some tenants whose actions go well beyond simply being ungrateful.  Killing servants and killing the landlord’s son thinking that somehow then the landlord will pass everything on to them as inheritance?  It’s more than ungrateful: it’s irrational.  The parable ends with this message: the tenants will be dealt with; they’ll get their due.  I don’t hear a lot of gospel or Jesus, do you?

But we’re Christ’s disciples, not chief priests and elders and scribes.  So Jesus isn’t talking about us, right?  Maybe the parable this morning is a warning to all those ungrateful souls, the unchurched: you owe God.  God is certainly gracious and merciful, but to a point. If you can’t accept that, then you’ll be dealt with; you’ll get your due.

But I’m not sure that message is any different than previous one; in fact, it sounds exactly the same.  And I don’t think that’s the Jesus people will come rushing through the doors this morning or on any Sunday morning to receive.  I don’t think that’s the Jesus people need.

My dad was a pretty generous man, and when things were going good on the farm he would loan money out to others who needed some help from time to time.  “Pay me back when you can,” was my dad’s motto, and usually, everyone that dad loaned money out to paid him back in full. Yet there was this one guy, always asking my dad for money, always paying a little, but then asking for more.  This went on for a while apparently, because when my dad died, we found a ledger that had this guy’s name on it and over the course of 8 years, this guy racked up a total of over $70,000 in debt to my dad. sOf course, this upset my sisters and I.  And we did everything we could to try to collect.  We called his relatives, friends, and former neighbors.  We called his former wives and girlfriends.  We took legal action and sent it through the courts and a collection agency.  But to this day we haven’t seen a single cent of that money, and over time we resigned ourselves – although bitterly – to the fact this guy would never pay back the debt.

I have this unescapable feeling this parable is about us this morning: we act like landlords.  We invest and give away much and expect something in return.  And when we come collecting, our sense of ownership and entitlement leave us feeling cheated and wronged and those ungrateful people who “owe us” – they’ll be dealt with; they’ll get their due. Here’s the thing though: there are things in this life that were never ours in the first place.   If we understand this parable correctly, we’re the tenants.  We are not in control, and our sense of entitlement and ownership of things like our lives, the church, and ministry gets in the way of seeing that these things are a gift that’s meant to be given away.

I want to take a moment to talk about the church and ministry.  Think about how we talk about these things: “This is MY church.”  “This is OUR ministry.”  “Come to OUR worship service and come to an event put on by US” – this or that group. Whether intentional or subconsciously, we talk about the church and ministry as if it’s ours: we’re the landlords.  Not only do we talk about it that way, we sometimes act out.  We get irrationally bitter and defensive and suspicious when we’re told that the church is something to be shared, and that we don’t own it; we perhaps feel the same when we hear we’re not entitled to the fruits of  doing ministry.

The truth is, THE Landlord has invested much in the church and its ministry, and continues to bless it by sending it just what it needs to carry that out.

And God invests and gives to the church, not so that people might be attracted to it through events and programs, and activities, but rather so that it might go out and engage a world full of people who are suffering, ignored, excluded, and crushed by it.

If the church is truly a community following Christ, then the church is the community that exists for no other reason than to give itself completely away for the sake of others.  

So what does this look like?  Two years ago, THIS church, combined with another church across the way, took a bunch of water and ice, filled coolers, and went downtown on a hot summer day to give away free water to thirsty shoppers.  Water was handed out at no cost, with no expectation of getting anything in return.  For those of you who participated, do you remember how it felt to give that water away?  Do you remember how people reacted to you when you handed them water?  And for those who heard about it, do you remember your reaction?

Do you recall what it felt like to give something completely away with no expectation of anything in return?  Do you remember what it was like to truly be Christian community, to be the church in that moment?

Moments like these….they are happening now and can happen again in THIS church.  But it means giving up our sense of entitlement and ownership; it means to stop being landlords of the church and ministry.  We are tenants…..tenants who in faith give up and give away for the sake of others, just as God has given up and given away God’s only Son for us.  Amen.

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Sermon 21 Feb 2016: “What can Jesus do for you?”

Text: Mark 10:32-52

My wife Kelly has started what I call “clean living & clean eating” for Lent.  She’s purging her closet of clothes she no longer wears, and is eating healthier.  I guess a lot of people do that for Lent, but Kelly’s taken it to a new level.  Kelly is into this method of decluttering called the KonMari Method where you say “thank you” to clothes you discard for a variety of reasons – keeping you warm, memories shared, stuff like that.  Kelly has also started a diet called the “Whole 30” – but for 40 days over Lent instead – in which for 30 days you eat a strict diet of no sugar, no soy, no wheat, no artificial anything, no alcohol….pretty much just meat, vegetables, and fruits.  I have to admit, I admire her discipline.

I especially admire her discipline because for me, while I consider myself a pretty disciplined person in general, am NOT disciplined when it comes to clean eating and sorting clothes.  One, I like my Sunday morning breakfast sandwich and coffee from Wawa too much, and I don’t think I could part from all the wrestling sweatshirts and sweatpants I’ve accumulated over the years – a guy can never have enough workout anyway!  So I concede to my wife in these areas…. I have to admit, it makes me feel a little inferior too, because as hard as I might try, I don’t think I could do the whole clean eating, clean living thing.

“Who is the greatest?”  That’s the question the disciples ask today.  They want to know who will sit in the place of honor next to Jesus…who’s earned it?  And we have this blind beggar Bartimaeus, who seems to get rewarded for demonstrating great faith in his cry out to Jesus as he passed by him on the road.  But I think we miss something if we think that they’re challenges to living the right kind of discipleship or having the right kind of faith.  We lose something if we think the point today is to figure out how to be servant of all or to be last, or to demonstrate the kind of faith that will serve us in the hour of need.  If that’s what we get out of this story, then the point is that some are really good at discipleship and some have strong faith…and others aren’t so good at it. In fact, those who aren’t so good, perhaps they shouldn’t even try.

But I wonder, what if our story today was more about describing who Jesus is?

We see that Jesus is one who will go to suffer, be mocked, die and ultimately be raised for our sake.  Jesus is one gives his life as a ransom for many.  Jesus is one who comes alongside blind beggars who cry out for mercy and not just heals them – he restores a sense of wholeness that brings about something altogether more wonderful than a simply restoration of sight.  Jesus gives his life for petty, bickering disciples and heals blind beggars….Jesus has come for BOTH just the same.

It reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son….you know, the father accepts BOTH sons into his home.  The older son…the one who has done everything right, worked his tail off, will get all of his father’s estate, and is resentful he doesn’t get the honor due to him.  And the father accepts back his younger son….the one who’s blown his share of the inheritance and comes back as a beggar, only to be embraced and restored back to his place  as a son.

If this is all true, that this Jesus is one who is for BOTH disciple and beggar, then there’s really only one question to ask:

“What can brown do for you?”

Maybe that slogan rings a bell….it is the long-used campaign of the United Parcel Service, better known as UPS.  They are the folks who show up in the brown truck, dressed in the brown uniforms, and deliver our packages, right?  However, UPS wanted to communicate to businesses and people that their services were much more expansive than that: capabilities into logistics, freight forwarding, customs clearance, and technology and finance.  In many ways, “what brown could do for you” was only limited to the imaginations of their customers.

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Maybe that’s the question we’re being asked today: “What can Jesus do for you?”  What can Jesus do for the church?

And the answer to that question is much more expansive than we can imagine.  It goes beyond the brokenness and narrow-mindedness of our past and present.

It goes well beyond the idea that discipleship is just an obligation with a blueprint for success pinned to it.

It goes well beyond the notion that faith is nothing more than the divine hailmary pass when there’s nowhere to turn; praying for a miracle as a last ditch effort, perhaps.

Things are much more expansive than that in the Kingdom of God and in Christ.

Faith instead is a response to how God restores us to wholeness in our deepest cries for mercy.

Discipleship instead is a life of sacrifice, suffering, and humility that gives immeasurable joy and meaning to our lives.

Our past and present don’t hold us captive, but rather our lives freed into the expansive hope and new life that comes to us in the promise of God’s future.

It is my prayer for you – and for me – this morning that in the deepest longings of our hearts and minds and spirits, our sight might be expanded to see all the ways this Jesus is not only with us, but is also for us.

What can Jesus do for you?  Amen.

 

 

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Sermon 14 February 2016: “Entitlements & the Kingdom of God”

Text: Mark 10:17-31

I call my early to mid 20s the “Christian” phase of my life.  When I moved down to Charleston, SC after graduating from the Naval Academy, I began living the “Christian” life – listening to nothing but Christian Music on the radio, putting that Christian fish symbol on my truck, reading nothing but Christian books like Joyce Meyers and Rick Warren, participating in every committee and event at church, and dedicating my time to having nothing but Christian friends who would talk about Christian things like being on fire for Christ and dedicating our lives to being more bold in letting people know we were Christian and letting them know what a great life it was indeed.

Standing here today, I don’t begrudge those who choose to do live that same life; it works for some and I suppose there are probably some of you out there that a “Christian” life works for you as well. I suppose it’s not a bad life. In fact, it’s probably a good life……

But it doesn’t guarantee or entitle you to success or even eternal life, for that matter.

When I was on shore tour at the NROTC Unit, one of my students was a prior enlisted sailor.  All he wanted to do is by a pilot.  He was an outstanding performer as an enlisted sailor, high marks on his evaluations.  At the NROTC Unit, he had a 4.0 GPA, was one of the top leaders in the Unit, and worked hard…those achievements weren’t be accident.  It came time for service selection, and he was certain he was going to get his top choice: Navy pilot.  In fact, I remember him saying in his mind there was no way they couldn’t give it to him…..all his hard work, top performance, it HAD to result in his choice.  But when the selections came out, he didn’t get picked up as a Navy pilot.  He was understandably devastated, but also bitter. “I deserved better,” I remember him saying.

You can’t help but hear the hint of entitlement in the rich man and Peter’s words this morning: “Hey Jesus, I’ve done everything you’ve asked, I’ve worked hard at it, I’ve even sacrificed…..don’t you think that’s worth at least even the smallest of guarantees of some reward?”  And while sitting here this morning we might scoff at their sense of entitlement, if we’re being honest, aren’t we the same way?  We work hard, we dedicate ourselves to being good Christians, to keeping our church alive.  Shouldn’t that entitle us to some sort of success?

Jesus’ answer to the man, to Peter, and to us this morning: “That’s not how it works.”

Jesus proclaims that none of this stuff really matters.  In fact, Jesus is entirely disinterested in the whole notion of “goodness” – even dismissing the man when he calls Jesus “good teacher.”  And if we think the point of this story is to NOT be like the rich man and to NOT respond like the disciples, then that’s just another sad attempt by all of us to seize control and once again attempt to take the Kingdom of God by the horns and wrestle our way into it on our own efforts.  And that attempt to inherit eternal life….it’s hopeless.  Jesus says as much.  If that’s how you think, then your only hope is to be last.  Give everything away.  Be a prostitute, a tax collector, a thug, a cheat, be a loser….a sinner.   

Things like salvation, the Kingdom of God, and eternal life are not guarantees or entitlements…..rather, they’re a gift. It is by the grace of God alone, God giving God’s only Son Jesus for no other reason than selfless love, that we are saved.  For humans, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.  We know how this works – our attempts at survival, control, and ultimately to save end up being exhausting, impossible lives to live.  It is only by God’s grace that we can hope to gain anything of value in this life, and the next.  In other words….let go. Trust in God.  Because whether it’s our own lives or the church, we ultimately can’t do anything to save it.

But our trust is not an empty one; this God in Christ moves us in a new direction – from death to life.  Endings to new beginnings. Insecurity to faith. Mistrust and secrecy to transparency and reconciliation.  Cross to Resurrection.  So we trust – By grace alone,  through faith alone.  By God’s hand alone. Amen.

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