Happily Ever After? – Not Your Parent’s Marriage

Happily Ever After? – Not Your Parent’s Marriage
Matthew 18:23-35
02-16-14
The last two weeks have been fun and I hope you are enjoying this series so far.  If you have missed either of the last two sermons you can read them on my blog or listen to them on our podcast site.  We have debunked some myths about marriage and talked about how to stay in love using the blueprint found in 1 Corinthians 13 and our love languages.
The video I showed during the children’s moment was a fun to do.  We have a cute bunch of kids and youth.  I wanted to create this because how our kids see that we love each other tells us a lot about how our marriage is perceived to others.  Now our children’s perception isn’t as accurate as the truth, they really don’t know everything.  But they do give us a window into what our marriage looks like.  The relationship that has the most impact on our marriage is our parent’s marriage.  For good or for bad, that relationship is what helps form how we approach marriage in general.  Our parent’s marriage doesn’t define it but it has a dramatic impact on it.
There are three negative ways that Rod Stafford, the author of this sermon series, brings up about how our parent’s marriage affects our marriages.  Actually to use his words, “Your parent’s marriage potentially has a deadly impact on your marriage in three different ways.”  The first one is the damage of comparison.  Growing up our parent’s marriage is really the only one we know well.  It is the relationship we see daily and the only one we can see behind closed doors.  We, as children, can hear the yells as our parents argue, or apparently from the view of our children and youth, a lot of hugging and kissing.  How we see them acting out married life will impact our own marriage because we will compare our marriage with their marriage.
Some of it is good.  You may think that your Dad is the best husband ever or that your Mom was the best wife ever.  If you hold this view I bet your spouse is abundantly aware that you have this view because it probably comes up a lot.  You may have heard your spouse say, “My Dad is the best husband.  He was always home at 5pm and remembered my Mom’s birthdays and anniversary.  He would bring fresh flowers home and candies.  He would rub her feet and always give her a kiss when he walked into the house.”  Or “My Mom is the best wife you can imagine.  She had dinner on the table by 6 every night and it didn’t come out of the microwave, it was a three course meal every evening.  Mom would press Dad’s shirts so he would look his best for work and would have a pot of coffee waiting for him when he got down stairs.”
Here is the issue that you may not realize.  When we say a statement like those, what you are saying to your spouse is, “We don’t line up to my parent’s marriage.”  “You don’t line up to the expectations I have as a husband/wife.”  You may not mean it but I guarantee that is what your spouse hears.  The damage of comparison is that we are holding up another marriage against ours and it is only our perception of a marriage not the reality.  Maybe Dad came home with flowers and candies because the reality was he really messed up last night and put his foot in his mouth and so he is begging your Mom for forgiveness.  Maybe your Mom served a three course meal every night because that is what the social norm for the day was and if she didn’t her friends would think she wasn’t being a good wife.  In reality she would have much rather have a job and a career all her own instead of being a homemaker.   What we perceive our parent’s marriage to be may not be the reality and so we need to step away from comparison, even the positive.
Now the negative comparison is also difficult.  Maybe your parent’s don’t have the best relationship and maybe this is a statement you have said before.  “I will not be like my mother.”  Or “I will not be like my father.”  But this can damage a marriage in two different ways.  The first is that we think about it too much.  If I told you not to think about ice cream I bet it would be really hard not to think about ice cream.  Your brain just automatically starts to think about it although I told you not too.  The same goes with that trait you couldn’t stand about your parent.  “I will not yell like my father.”  Then we get so caught up thinking about not being like our parent we actually start to embody the trait we are trying to dodge.  Before we know it we are yelling like our father and then we hate ourselves for it.  We end up battling the same demons our parents battle because we cannot stop thinking about not being like them.
The second way is that we get so preoccupied with not become like our parents that we grade our marriage on a curve.  Instead of living into the 16 behaviors of love that we found in 1 Corinthians 13 we live into the fact that at least I am not my mother.  We think, “I may yell at my husband but at least I don’t hit him like my mother did.”  The way we look at our marriage is through the lens of “at least I don’t do.”  That is not what God calls us to grade ourselves on and it looks nothing like the blueprint found in 1 Corinthians 13.
There are two other things that can potentially have a deadly impact on our marriage and I am going to cover them really quickly.  Besides the damaged caused by comparison there is also the damage done by withholding blessing.  Being blessed by the people in our lives is extremely important and God lays out ways that we can share blessings with one another.  There are things that parents should do for their children and ways they bless them growing up and sometimes those things are not done.  Maybe your father never told you he loved you or cared about you.  Maybe your mother never hugged you or said she was proud of you.  Those blessings we miss from our parents tend to follow us into our own marriages.  Since we did not get them from our parents we look to get them other places. 
We look to our spouses to fill that gap but the truth is they can never give you the blessings you wanted from your mother or father because they are not your mother or father.  If you have a gap where some sort of blessing should be the only one who can fill that gap is God.  God, our heavenly Father, is the only one who can give you what you missed from your parents.  Your spouse can’t, your friends can’t, your job can’t.  Only God and so we need to stop looking to fill that hole in our heart caused by missing those blessings, through our spouses and other things.  Only God can do it and God would be happy if we let him.
The third deadly impact on a marriage from your parents is abuse.  Parents can do some evil things to their children.  If you have been abused physically by your parents that will have an impact on your marriage.  If you have been abused emotionally by your parents by being told you are no good, worthless, stupid, a mistake, this will have an impact on your marriage.  If you have been sexually abused, this will have an impact on your marriage.  Abuse is horrible, evil, and more places then we realize.  It creates some heavy damage in our relationships and leaves scars on us that he world may never see but may have a huge effect on our relationship with our spouse. 
With these three types of damage that can be done by our parent’s marriage in mind what must we do?  Now that I have opened Pandora’s box what we do with the realities of these demons?  There are two ways to deal with them, revenge or forgiveness.  Revenge seems a little harsh but it is true when we look at the different types of revenge or vengeance.  When we think of revenge we think about an eye for an eye.  But revenge is simply payment for being hurt.  It can be an eye for an eye but there are other ways they are lived out.  We can get revenge by simply saying, “I’m done with you.”  We walk away or withdraw from a situation or life.  The person may never know why and we probably don’t explain we simply walk away.  Or we belittle or gossip about the person.  This is a way of revenge because we are socially hurting them for the hurt they caused in us.  Naturally if this person physically hurt you it will take a lot of gossip to hurt them back.  The other way we seek revenge is by stuffing the hurt way down.  We suppress it and compress it until it can’t be held back and the little think unleashes an explosion. 
Revenge isn’t healthy though.  It doesn’t really accomplish what we hope it will do.  Rod in his sermon on this topic equates revenge to the game Angry Birds and it works well.  I am sure many of you are familiar with the game Angry Birds but if not I will give you a quick little summary of this physics game.  There are some birds and they are angry because some pigs stole their eggs.  So to get revenge on this pigs they launch themselves at the pigs to destroy them.  The pigs build different things to protect themselves and different birds have different powers to help destroy the buildings and pigs.  Here is the catch though, for those who have played the game before, what happens to the birds after they are flung at the buildings and pigs?  They disappear.  Just like the pigs they disappear and in the end are destroyed.  As they seek revenge on the pigs for stealing their eggs they too die in the process.
Revenge eats at us because we hold on to that hate, that un-forgiveness.  We cannot forgive someone unless something happens to them equally or worse than what they did to us.  Hebrews 12:15 says, “Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people.”  When we seek revenge, which is holding back forgiveness, we are letting a root of bitterness grow up inside us.  This root of bitterness will show up in our marriage and almost all other relationships as well.  It will show up in our relationship with our children and with our friends.  Sometimes it consumes us and all we are angry birds waiting to self destruct for the sake of revenge. 
So how would God like us to handle it?  How would God like us to handle the damage we have in our past to move forward into a deeper and healthier relationship in our marriage?  For that we go back to the scripture I read.  I am sure many of you were wondering what the parable of the unforgiving servant or unmerciful servant had to do with the sermon title, “Not Your Parent’s Marriage.”  And now that you can see that train coming many of you maybe upset.  The F word is not really popular because we would rather just seek revenge.  We would rather hold onto the hurt because, for some of us, we don’t know who we would be without it.  The F word I am talking about is forgiveness.  Yep, I said it, and in church no less. 
The parable of the unmerciful servant is all about forgiveness.  The servant is forgiven a huge amount of debt, more than he could pay back in about 100 lifetimes.  The king is beyond gracious and compassionate.  He shows an abundance of mercy and more than the servant desires or even deserves.  Then the forgiven servant tries to chokes out a tiny bit of money out of someone who owes him.  The mercy he is shown doesn’t follow to the other relationships in his life and in turn the king doesn’t show him any more mercy either.  What this parable boils down to is the our own capacity to experience grace.  The fact that the servant could not forgive the one who owed him money shows that he really didn’t experience the grace from the king who just forgave him an obscene amount of money.
Now don’t get me wrong, our ability to be forgiven by God doesn’t hinge on our ability to forgive others.  Forgiving others doesn’t earn us forgiveness from God.  But our ability to extend grace to people that hurt us is impossible if we never really experienced God’s grace.  Grace cannot be truly extended if is never truly experienced. 
In Rod’s sermon he pointed me to a quote by Bono, the lead singer of the Band U2.  Bono says, “You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.”
When we get caught up in revenge we are seeking an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  We are getting caught up in the karma aspect of life.  Yet this isn’t how God works is it?  Romans 12:19 says, “Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.”  We get comfortable with that because we hope God’s revenge involves hell fire and sulfur falling from the sky.  But what if God decides to handle the revenge we lay at his feet by sending his son to die on the cross and rise again?  What if God’s plan on handling the sins against us is by showing mercy and forgiveness?  What if the King of Kings shows the same mercy on our enemies as he does on us?  Are we comfortable with that?  Are we willing to be okay that grace and mercy overcomes all the evil in this world and in our lives?
If we are going to do what God calls us to do, which is to forgive and show mercy and grace to our enemies, our parents, those who have hurt us in the past so we can live healthier lives that reflect God’s love, then we will have to forgive.  We will have to surrender those sins against us on the altar of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  We will have to move forwards knowing that God loves us and commands us to love our enemy.  Are we willing to surrender to that or is our revenge, our un-forgiveness, too much a part of us that we aren’t willing to let it go?  Are we too consumed with the idea of getting back at those that hurt us, that we are willing to punish the people we are married too?  Do we really want to jeopardize our current relationships for how we have been hurt in past relationships?  Or are we ready to surrender them all to God’s love and grace?
The truth is that if we want a healthy marriage we will have to place God’s grace upon it.  We will have to be willing to surrender our past to the grace and forgiveness that God offers.  We will have to get rid of that root of bitterness that grows inside us.  Are you ready to surrender that to God?  Are you ready to forgive that person who has hurt you and caused you pain?  Leave it here with God, because revenge is all God’s.  Leave it here, surrender it in order to have a healthy, vibrant, and deep love. 

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Church and Healthcare

Facebook, Twitter, radio, TV, they are all abuzz with the events of today being the official start of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act.  I posted this on Facebook today; “A simple reminder today…”Health care is a basic human right.” – ¶162 of the United Methodist Disciple”

As I commented to comments I reflected with a little bit of sadness.  I am realizing that we, as the Church (note BIG ‘C’) have really moved out of the healthcare arena.  Probably due to cost involved, liability, and the fact that once money was being made the vultures moved in. 

In my hometown of Charlotte, NC one of the two major hospital went through a name change.  What use to be called Presbyterian Hospital is now known as Novant Health.  Their logo looks like N: but that is another story.

What is sad is that originally Presbyterian Hospital was started by the Presbyterians of our area.  It was a simple 20 bed medical center.  Now is attempting to lose all relevance with its denominational past.  “Novant Health” removes all connotations that Christians, seeking to follow God’s will to help the sick and the least of these in our area.

What would it be like for the church to feel the call again?  What would it be like for the people of Christ to take Matthew 25 seriously and reach out to the least and the lost, the SICK?  What would it be like for the church to offer healthcare to the poor and not leave it up to our government?

Is it because it costs too much?  We cannot afford the liability costs?  Are we simply scared? 

I feel we, as the Church in the US, have taken, in general, a back seat and are simply hoping the government will fix the problems instead of letting Jesus do it through us.

Matthew 25:31-46 – Sermon – When Did I See You?

Do you see the eyes of Christ the King?
Photo from www.edgarjd.com  

Matthew 25:31-46
When Did I See You?
11-20-11
As I explained to the kids today, this is Christ the King Sunday or as it is could be referred to, Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is the final Sunday of the Christian year and it is this Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, that we acknowledge, show gratitude and praise God for being the ruler of the entire universe.  We recognize God as the supreme leader, the head of state, the emperor, the king, whatever word you need to use to place God as the highest authority and place of power over your life and the world.  It is this day we think of God as royalty and exalt his glory and greatness.
In this 25th chapter of Matthew that may not be the first idea that comes to mind though.  So far in this chapter we have had the parable of the ten bridesmaids and told to be prepared.  Then we received the message last week that we need to use our talents to better the kingdom.  Today we talk about final judgment, the separation of sheep and goats, eternal punishment and eternal life.  This whole chapter has an eschatological notion to it.  Eschatological refers to the end times and the final judgment.  There are many preachers who lap this stuff up and preach it with great passion and vigor.  Yet, to have an honest moment, I am always a little timid preaching about the final judgment, but we will get to that in a little bit.
On this high Sunday, this Christ the King Sunday, we acknowledge who Christ is.  We receive a peek at Jesus’ glory at the beginning of the scripture.  When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.   All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.   He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”   It is here that we receive the picture of Jesus as the King judging the world while sitting on his throne.  Today we need to recognize and embrace the authority that Jesus has over us.  He will come to judge us.
I have seen those TV preachers who have the huge map of the End of the World predictions behind them.  I have seen the movie “Left Behind” and studied that Darbian view of End Times but now where do we usually see this section of Matthew’s gospel.  We hear a lot about Revelation and Daniel, but not much from a King who will separate the sheep from the goats.  This is because this section of scripture doesn’t feel the same as what you will find in Left Behind, but this is the scripture that scares me the most when I think of the end times and is more than I really wanted to know.[1]
When Jesus tells the crowd of 1st century Jews about separating sheep and goats they would understand.  In a sermon Ken Carter said, The parable of the great judgment separates the sheep and the goats. This was in the common experience of those who listened to Jesus: Sheep preferred fresh air at night; goats preferred warmth. At the judgment, Jesus says, the people will be separated as sheep are separated from goats. The division will be according to our actions. Have we been doers of the word? And the actions are based on a conviction that as we have done them to the people in our lives and in our world, we have done them to Jesus: “As you have done it to the least of these,” Jesus says, “you have done it to me!“”  See that is a little scary.
I have told this story before in a sermon but I think it bears repeating.  “A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, “Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.”  The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the
holy man looked in.  In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the
table was a large pot of stew which smelled delicious and made the holy
man’s mouth water.  The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to
be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.  The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. The Lord said, “You have seen Hell.”  They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one.  There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water.  The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, “I don’t understand.”  It is simple” said the Lord, “it requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other.
[2]
The scary part of the final judgment for me is that according to this 25th chapter of Matthew we will be judged on how we cared for others.  Now as mainline Protestants we have to be careful that we do not wander into the idea of works righteousness.  This is the idea that we can earn our way to heaven.  If we work hard enough on the soup kitchen line then heaven’s doors will be opened up for us.  We still believe that faith is at the center of salvation but we do not believe in a stagnate faith either.  We have a faith of action.  The belief in what Jesus Christ has done for our lives means that we reach out to the people on the screen today.  Those who are hungry, thirsty, the stranger, imprisoned, cold, naked, and the least of these in this world.
Edward Hammett wrote an excellent book that I am reading called “Reaching People Under 40 while Keeping People over 60.”  In this book he talks about the way different generations have viewed Church.  He tells this story about his grandfather, “My granddaddy believed deeply that the Bible taught that the church existed for him.  I can’t find that anywhere in Scripture.  It took me a long time to understand that because I just assumed my granddaddy knew what he was talking about.  I finally asked him, ‘Where did you come up with that?’ ‘Oh, that’s what my daddy told me,’ he said…..My granddaddy was in this camp of equating practice and tradition with the Word of God struggle.  My granddaddy was a deacon of his little mill village church, and he would talk at our Sunday afternoon dinner table where we would eat together sometimes.  He would snap his suspenders after eating, that big old potbelly of his bumped up against the table, and he would say, ‘Well, I wonder what I’m going to get to vote no on tonight at the deacon’s meeting.’  That was how he saw his role as a deacon because he didn’t want anything to change….My granddaddy left a legacy for me that he was more interested in a church that served him than a church that reached those outside the church.  As a grandson, I have to live with that….I went to his church a year or so ago.  Granddaddy has been dead for several years, but the church invited me back to do the last service at the church.  It went out of business.  I said to that group that day, “I’m sorry my granddaddy helped kill this church.’  I really believe he did his part to set that church on a course that led to its demise because he popped his suspenders and voted no on everything….He wanted it for him, not them, and the church went out of business.”[3]
We find Jesus in two places in this parable.  We find him as the King, sitting on the throne.  He is in the place of judgment.  If we are honest we are comfortable with Jesus there.  That feels good.  Yet then he congratulates the sheep for feeding him, giving him something to drink, some clothes, and welcoming him in.  They ask, “when did we see you?” and Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Then he looks at the goats and chastises them for not feeding him, giving him something to drink, some clothes, and welcoming him in.  They ask “when did we see you?” and Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” 
The scary part of the final judgment is that we are asked how we lived out our faith.  God we be pleased that we believed in him and what his Son did for us, yet we will be judged harshly if we simply came and sat in the pews.  In James’s epistle he says, “Faith without works is dead.”  Many think James is contradicting Paul’s and our belief that “a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:28)  But the truth is James is talking about a different type of work.  When Paul states in Romans 3:28 that we are justified by faith apart from works he is talking about following the law which by his time hindered a relationship with God more than grew one.  What James is talking about when he says “Faith without works is dead,” is the same thing that Jesus uses to separate the sheep and goats.
The works James is talking about and what Jesus is looking for is acts of love.  Jesus is looking for how we live out the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor.  The pictures of the thirsty, hungry, strangers, homeless, prisoners and others that have been up on our screen are our neighbors.  Some may live in our city, some of them our nation, but all live in our world.  This world has one King, one Ruler, and one Chief of State and that is Jesus Christ.  We are called to meet this King in the places where the least of these are.  We are called to go forth into the world and be the hands and hearts of the God we serve.
The last couple months of this Christian year have been focused on this subject.  As we move to the beginning of Advent we will also be focused on other places where United Methodist churches have reached out to the least of these in their community.  There is a story of an annual nativity play done by the mentally disabled, a family who was moved by tragedy to bring warm clothes to children half way around the world, a woman who got to know her neighbors and their needs, and how a community participated in a neighbor’s tradition for the first time.  Each week we will get a glimpse of how faith in Christ is being lived out because he is the gift that cannot be contained.
Yet that is next week.  This week we celebrate that Christ is King and reigns over our world.  He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is highest in his glory and yet humble in his love.  He is sitting on his throne but also on the street with the homeless.  We will meet Jesus sitting on his throne someday and he remind us that we have met him before. “When did I see you? we will ask.”   But then we will remember we met him in the eyes and souls of the least of these in our community and world.
And all God’s people said…Amen.


[3]Hammett, Edward H., Reaching People Under 40 while Keeping People over 60. Chalice Press, St Louis Missouri, 2007, p. 51-52.

Matthew 25:14-30 – Sermon – Being Me

Matthew 25:14-30
Being Me
11/13/11

As college basketball season kicked off today I thought this story was appropriate.  J Mac is an astounding and heartfelt tale of someone living up or even beyond his potential.  Be honest guys, how many of you started to get a little teary as he starts to hit all those three pointers?  If you would have told him when he was a freshman that by the time he graduated he would be world famous for his basketball abilities he would have looked at you and said you were crazy.  There are some people who are born to play basketball others who are not.  Michael Jordan, 6’6”, 195lbs, the man could dunk like no other, could shoot like no other, and could take over a game if necessary.  He is Michael Jordan, aka Air Jordan, aka His Airness.  One of the reasons he could jump, switch hands, eat a sandwich and then lay the ball up is because he had one of the highest vertical leaps in NBA history, 46 inches.  Just to give you a perspective, if MJ was standing next to me he could jump straight up and his feet would be about the height of my shoulders.  That is insane, that is raw natural, God-given ability.
I on the other hand was called “Ground Jordan” at my neighbor pickup games.  I have the vertical leap of about 2”.  When I stand here and jump straight up, my feet get about as high as they are now.  When God was passing out the ability to leap tall buildings with a single bound, he skipped over me.  I had dreams when shooting basketball in my driveway growing up of playing in high school, college and we would get one of those little trampolines out and act like we were even players in the NBA.  But the truth is, my jump shot is sketchy, (I can’t keep my elbows in).  I can dribble okay but I get winded after two times up and down the court.  Some of that I could change, other parts, no matter how hard I practiced, no matter how hard I tried, I would have never made it.  I would never be carried off the court on the shoulders of my teammates like J Mac and I could never play or even jump as well as MJ. 
In today’s parable the master leaves on a journey and entrusts his property to them.  He doesn’t just split it into thirds, but he gives it out “each according to his ability.”  This is scandalous!  In our “everybody is a winner” world we live in some of us may get mad that God, the master, gives out talents to each according to their ability.  This means some people get more and others get less.  It seems really unfair.  Why should Michael Jordan get all the ups, why couldn’t I get some ups?  But if we all had the same abilities why would we need each other?  Why would it be exciting to watch Cam Newton on Sunday afternoons?  Why would it be inspiring to watch a movie directed by Spielberg?  Why would we look up to at someone like Mother Teresa as an example of how to live out a holy life?  If we all had the same abilities then it wouldn’t be that impressive.
The truth is we are not all created equal we are all simply created in the image of God.  We each have limitations.  Sure there are things Michael Jordan can do that I can’t do but there may, just may be some things that I can do that Michael Jordan cannot.  I have personal limitations because of my DNA, because of my behavioral tendencies, and because of who I am.  We all do and it is when we start to get comfortable with that, understand that, and live into that is when we start to live into who God created us to be.
Before we go much further let me explain a little bit about what talent was that Jesus is talking about here.  A talent was the highest unit of measurement in the ancient world.  Today the largest unit of measurement is a light year, or the distance it takes light to travel in one year.  It takes light to get from the sun to the earth about 8 minutes which is only 93 million miles away.  In a year, light can travel 5.8 trillion miles.  Therefore if we were to translate the Biblical word for the largest measurement into today’s largest measurements, but instead of miles let’s use dollars just to stay with the theme here.  The third servant in this parable gets 5.8 trillion dollars.  The second receives 11.6 trillion and the first receives 5 talents, or 5 light years or 29 trillion dollars.
I have taken this example to the extreme only to make the numbers seem absurd.  If we would translate what a true talent was worth in Biblical times it was 1 talent = 6,000 denarii.  A denarius was equal to one day’s pay.  This means that one talent was worth about 6,000 days pay.  The living wage for Davidson County for one person is $8.14 an hour, which for an 8 hour day is $65.  One talent would then equal $390,720 and this would be the amount that the third servant received.  The second would receive $781,440 and the first who received five talents would get $1,953,600.  I want to stay away from that because if I asked you what you would do with $2 million you could answer me.  If I asked you what you would do with 29 trillion you may be a little more dumbfounded.
The people who heard this parable come out of Jesus’ mouth would have been flabbergasted by a master giving his servants 5 talents.  That is unheard of and would blow their minds.  When we were hunting for Osama bin Laden, a news team went around and asked the people of Afghanistan what they would do if they found him and were award the $25 million bounty the US had on his head.  They had no clue what that type of money was like and some of them answered, “buy a new horse cart?” or “Have enough food for a year?”[1]  If I asked you what you would do with 29 trillion dollars you may look at me and say, “buy a new house.”  But you could by the Vanderbilt’s out of the Biltmore Estate for only 2.7 billion, so what would you do with the other $28.99 trillion?  Or heck if you were the first servant you would still have $5.79 trillion to spend.  It is hard to think about that, but that is the size of the gift the master was giving the servants.
I have rambled on with numbers for a while now.  But what this parable boils down to is that the master gives the servants a gift each to their own abilities.  When the master returns he asks them to show them what they have done with this gift.  The first two have doubled their money.  The third one has done nothing with it.  He was scared of the master and so he simply buried the money in the ground.  He said to the master, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you”  But is this really true?  Would a harsh man go away on a journey and entrust a crazy amount of money to his servants?  Would a harsh man be so happy with the servants who used their talents that he welcomed them into his joy?  Or is it that the third servant’s own fear paralyzed him and made him unable to do anything?
There was moment in my senior year at Montreat College that a huge decision had to be made.  I had felt the call into ministry and the next step in that process was graduate school to get my Masters of Divinity.  I had looked at three schools and decided to go to Duke, that wasn’t the scary part.  It was right around graduation, right about the time my last final was over and I was sitting in my car parked at the house I rented with some friends.  The weight of this new step hit me.  I was going to graduate college with a degree.  I was about to go on to Seminary.  I was about to take another step in the process to becoming an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.  Fear crept up my throat and I couldn’t keep it in.  My hands were sweating as I gripped the steering wheel.  I started up and I prayed that if this was what God wanted of me, if this was my calling, then so be it.  “Use me Lord, to do thy will.”
I prayed that prayer over and over again through my three years at Duke.  I kept running away from the idea of being a local pastor.  I though chaplaincy was the way to go, Christian Camp Director, anything but a guy who preaches every week and leads a congregation.  That seemed too much and sometimes it still does.  But as I prayed I felt assurance that there is nothing else I should be doing.  This is where God has called me and so I follow. 
I still have a long way to go until I am good at it but I took a giant leap a couple of years ago.  My second year as your minister I enrolled in the Royce and Jane Reynolds Program in Church Leadership.  This year long training was the best thing that has happened to my pastoral identity.  Before this program I thought that to be a good pastor, to be a good preacher, to be a good leader I had to be someone else.  A good preacher looks like Rob Bell, Bishop Willimon, or even Billy Graham.  A good leader looks like Mike Slaughter, Adam Hamilton, or even John Wesley.  I kept looking at those other professional God-talkers and I knew I was nothing like that.  It was almost like standing on the basketball court and playing horse with Michael Jordan.  I would never have that talent or those natural abilities.
But what changed my life is realizing that God knew what God was doing when he created me.  When he made me an introvert who really isn’t the life of the party he knew what he was doing.  I can see who is being left out of the crowd and my heart goes out to them.  I still get nervous in crowds, because I would rather be in a small group or one on one.  I preach from notes because my fear of messing up and the nerves of actually talking in front of people.  I am shy, I am passionate, I am a planner, I like stats, logistics, and vision casting and at times I may be hard to get to know.  I realized that God is using all these things that make up who I am to spread the love and grace of his son to the world.  I can do it my way, not anyone else’s, because he gives to each according to their ability.
There are many ways to take this parable but what I felt most strongly while preparing this sermon this week is to share that God has given you a great gift.  The talent that the master gives is the gift of his Son.  We all have the love of Christ in us because we were all created in God’s image.  As image-bearers we are to go into the world to transform the world into the Kingdom of God.  The only way this is possible is to be who God has created us all to be.
Jason “J Mac” McElwain was born autistic but by living into who he is, an energetic, enthusiastic and passionate person he has inspired millions of people around the world.  All he did was be himself.  All God is asking each of us to be ourselves.  Whoever you are, whoever God created you to be, simply being that in this world and you will be sharing the gift you have been entrusted.  Then when the master returns he will look you in the eye and ask what you have done with what he has given you and smile.  He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
And all God’s people said…Amen


[1]Jason Byassee, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 36, No. 4, Year A & B, Logos Productions Inc., October, November, December 2008, p.30.

Matthew 25:1-13 – Sermon – Foolish or Wise

(here is a very rough draft of my sermon, enjoy and help me out by clicking an ad, thanks and happy preaching)
 Matthew 25:1-13
Foolish or Wise 11-06-11

 It was a picture perfect fall day in the mountains. It was one of those days that you look up into the sky and tell God, “stop showing off.” As I hung out in the locker room with the groomsman and groom we waited for the time to take the long walk to the site of the wedding. We were Grandfather Mountain’s country club and we were walking to this island in the middle of the valley and golf course. Yes it was one of “those type” of weddings and as the officiate I was simply along for the ride. The family and guests started to gather and so did the clouds. We stood out there, on that island, with the bride in her sleeveless gown and veil whipping in the wind. Oh, did I forget to mention that instead of being the nice sunny fall day it was unseasonable cool and most people came dressed for 60 degrees and not the 45 it actually was. As teeth chattered, mine included, I talked as loud as I could over the wind to pronounce this couple man and wife. It was their dream wedding but it wasn’t exactly like they had planned.

Some of the best advice I ever received as Alycia and I prepared to get married was from my associate minister who actually married us. In one of our pre-material counseling sessions Alycia and I were discussing the worst case scenarios about what could happen as families, ex-wives, out-of-towners, and friends all collided to celebrate our day. Our minister looked at us and he said, “no matter what happens, at the end of the day, you will be husband and wife.” That gave us some peace and we could rest a little. We had to remind ourselves of that as a bowie knife wearing husband number three backed up strait into husband number one after the rehersal. Things don’t always go as planned.

 When things don’t go as planned it is an opportunity to gain patience. This is not what you want to hear in the middle of these situations. When your three year old who is on the floor of the grocery store throwing an epic temper tantrum, the person who comes up to you and reminds you that this is the perfect time to practice patience, may actually find themselves on the floor because of the fist you just planted on their face. Sure in the hindsight it may seen as a place patience is fostered but not in the throws of chaos. Fuses can be very short then and patience can be a long way away.

In this parable of Jesus ten bridesmaids await the arrival of the groom. Back then a wedding was a frantic and chaotic as it is today, except in Jesus’ time it could last a couple of days. The way a wedding went back then was guests and the bride and her family all gathered at her house and awaited the arrival of the groom. When the groom showed up the guests and bridesmaids all went out and greeted him, lit torches and then in a grand processional walked to the groom’s house. There the groom’s family and guests awaited their arrival and then had the ceremony and banquet that could last for several days. You can see how a little mishap could make things go easily array.

The groom has a flat tire on the way to the bride’s house or entrance into the bride’s city doesn’t go as easily as they had hoped because of Roman soldiers. For whatever reason, in this parable the groom doesn’t show up until midnight. Some of the guests have fallen asleep, including some of the bridesmaids. When they yell that he is coming everyone jumps into action and start to light their lamps. Five of the bridesmaid had brought enough oil and five hadn’t. The five foolish ones run off to the nearest 24 hour Walmart to buy some more but when they finally get to the groom’s house they had already gone inside and they are left out in the cold. Things don’t always go as planned. Jesus tells us to “keep awake because you don’t know the day or the hour.”

There are two ways of looking at that last statement. One way is the revival preacher kind of way. “Be awake, be alert because you never know when Jesus will come back again. Where do you want to be when he returns? When Jesus comes back where do you want to be part of the party or out in the cold?” This interpretation leads us down a threat line of thought. We are warned to be ready. We are commanded to be on alert out of fear. I have to admit I am usually turned off by this type of preaching. I am uncomfortable with preaching that way because I have witnessed it be more about emotional manipulation than preaching the gospel. Yet it does have it’s place and there are tons of people who find that message inspiring and thought provoking.

When we play on the idea of fear or the threat aspect of this scripture people do stand up and listen. Fear and threats are prevalent in our daily lives. There are certain malls that people will not go to because of the fear of the people who frequent them. There are others who have bunkers in their back yards stocked with a decade’s worth of food and supplies to live through whatever attack they are predicting is coming next, whether it was the nuclear scares of the 60s, Y2K, or this idea that once again the world will come crashing to a halt because of the Mayan calendar in 2012. Simply watch the news tonight and you can find out what the next thing is we should fear.

There is purpose in this tactic though. I think back to my Boy Scout career and all the way up from Cub Scouts to being an Eagle Scout we were taught the Scout Motto, Be Prepared. The merit badges we earned taught us things that would prepare us for life. Wilderness Survival, camping, economics, environmental science, hiking, first aid and so on. The work you did in these earning these badges gives you the foundation to handle things as life is lived.

You never know when these skills you learned will come in handy. The first summer we moved to Thomasville Alycia’s parents came up to visit and her Dad and I went to Winding Creek to hit a couple of golf balls. As we were crossing over business 85 on 109, a lady pulled out in front of traffic and the little truck that had just passed us smacked the trunk of this lady’s car, spinning her 180 degrees. There is no worse sound than a car accident. Knowing we should hang around as witnessed for the police Ken and I got out of the car and asked if everyone was alright. The grandmother who was driving the car was upset and the mother who was in the passenger seat was trying to comfort her daughter who was in the back seat and who was bleeding from a small cut on her forehead. When I noticed the cut I asked if she had a first aid kit and my father-in-law did in the back of his car. The little girl started to freak out at this point as she realized she was bleeding and the mom started to go off into another world as well. But using my first aid training I learned almost twenty years earlier as a Boy Scout we applied pressure to the wound and we could tell she would be okay.

We have to be alert, always ready, because we don’t know the day or hour of the groom’s arrival. Some of the bridesmaids were ready, some were not. The wise were prepared, the foolish were not. If we are ready, if we are prepared, then the arrival will not surprise us. But to do that we have to train ourselves and form a foundation of knowledge and faith to be ready to use when necessary. As we are do this our vision of reality changes. For example, if I told you to count the number of white vans you saw for the next week and you took this seriously you would start to see white vans everywhere. You will notice them in the grocery store parking lot, at stoplights, and on the highways. Do this and you will start to ask yourself, is there an increase in white vans? Did Jim call people who owned white vans and asked them to drive close to me this week? No, but since our eyes were looking out, ready to see white vans, we were more apt to see them. If we are alert and ready our eyes are opened up to see God coming all around us.

The other way of interpreting this story is hearing the good news that God will come. No matter how dark your midnight may be or if you feel like you have any oil left in your lamp or not, God, the groom, is coming and will come. Our time is not like God’s time but God keeps his promises and he will come. When we read this piece of scripture this way we hear the promise involved, the hope, and the covenant. We tend to get so stuck on the bridesmaids who are left out that we forget there are guests and five bridesmaids that are in the party because they were ready. We pray all the time for God to come into our lives and if we are alert God does.

Today is All Saints Day is a celebration of those who have gone before us and who reside in the presence of God’s glory this morning. I had the honor of being let in to the lives of Frances and Wesley during their last days here on earth. As their illness started to overtake their bodies their families and I prayed that God would come, end their suffering. God in God’s time did come and answer our prayers. Peace and wholeness came to their lives eventually. It took some time and family members sat there for days and nights and waited, and waited, and prayed, and waited. As I look back at my visit to these Saints who have gone ahead of us I can see that God was really there all along. In those rooms where loved ones gathered, God was there. In the Hospice Care workers who came to provide comfort, God was there. In the silence of not knowing what to say but knowing you want to be by their side, God was there. God comes, God always shows up.

We all have saints in our lives. Those people who shape us and mold us into the Christians we are today. We remember them as our Sunday School teachers, the leaders of our church in years past, the people who pushed us to believe in God and see God in our midst. They are people who we point to and say God used them to help us grow. They are Saints and we remember them.

The truth is we can combine these two interpretations of this scripture. If we are alert and if we are prepared then we can see God coming into our midst all around us. God comes, in the darkest hour and through the people we love and cherish. If we refocus our minds to see God all around us, then we will start to see how active God truly is in our lives. Five bridesmaids were foolish because they had to scramble when the groom showed up and the party passed them by. They had limited vision to see and limited hearing to hear God’s promise. Five other bridesmaids were alert and prepared and when the groom shows up in their midst they are there to welcome and follow him to the party.

Today we remember our Saints and we recognize that they were wise in their lives. They were prepared to see God in their midst and they have gone on to follow him to the eternal party. The bread we break and the cup that we share today reminds us of the connection. In our Great Thanksgiving we say that we join the all the company of heaven as we praise God’s name. In the mystery of this sacrament we are joined together as people here on earth, with those who are surrounding the eternal table of God. In the sharing of the body and blood of our savior we join them once again, celebrating that our God has come and that we are in the midst of God.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Matthew 6:24 – Sermon – Who Do We Serve?

Stewardship
Matthew 6:24
Who Do We Serve?
10-30-11

(First 40 seconds of Money is played) As I thought about this sermon this is the first song that popped into my head. It is Pink Floyd’s Money. If you didn’t catch the lyrics they said, “Money, get away, you get a job with good pay and you’re okay.” The sound effects in this sound maybe a little dated because our cash registers don’t make that sound any more, but most of us still knew what that sound was. I guess if we were to update this song for 2011, instead of 1973, we would hear a card swipe noise.

A lot has changed in the world since 1973 when Pink Floyd’s Money came out. Right now America is in a battle with money. We are having major economic struggles. There are people on the right who are making demands and people on the left doing the same. They wall want reform but they cannot agree on how to do it. Some say the rich should pay more, some say the rich should pay less. Some say everyone should pay the same. But beyond our governmental money is our personal finances. It is reported that 75% of Americans have credit cards and the US Census states that on those cards is $886 billion in debt and it was expected to be up to $1.177 trillion by 2011. The average credit card debt is $5,100 on their cards. Our average worship attendance is 78 for this year, 1/3 of those are children, so around 50 adults are here each week. This means that we, as a congregation, probably have around a quarter of a million dollars in debt sitting in this sanctuary right now. I know some of you are out or were never in debt, so that means the 50 people number is probably down to 40 or 35. This begs the question, who are we serving?

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he talks a little bit about money. In Matthew 6:24 he says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” This is true and I am going to take today’s sermon to look at why it is true. We are serving one or the other and using one to serve the other. Many people are uncomfortable for ministers to talk about what the Bible teaches us about how to use our money because they think that is meddling, or getting involved in their personal business. I make no apologies today because I want you to grow closer to God. God requires that we give our whole being in service to him. That involves all aspects of our lives and person. This includes money.

Some people may say that this is not the right time to talk about money. With unemployment so high and people not doing well in their jobs, money is tight. We are ending our Stewardship Campaign and as we approach the last two months of the year we will be talking a lot about the $22,000 we are behind currently. As our nation’s politicians battle with one another about how to use our money, is this really the right time to discuss what God says to do with the little we feel we have? It is not the right time, it is the perfect time to talk.

It is at crisis moments that people are willing to make the biggest changes in their lives. It is faced with the decision to give up smoking or have the live saving surgery needed, that people choose to give up the habit finally. It is when you hit rock bottom with your alcoholism that you finally decide to get help. It is when the bills are piled to high and you have pulled the phone out of the wall so you don’t have to listen to those creditors anymore, when you may want to look at how you can dig yourself out of the hole you are in financially. Now is the perfect time because if we do not switch who we serve we will be left alone and high and dry.

here is a good little video that helps bring this into perspective.

What does money give us? Our world tells us that money gives us happiness. Donald Trump once said, “Whoever says money can’t buy happiness doesn’t know where to shop.” We are bombarded with countless advertisements that tell us how to use our money to purchase things that will make us happy. It is the newest tablet that can solve all our lives’ issues. We that new car make truly make us feel better about ourselves? Does it really matter what TV we watch the game on? According to the commercials, YES!

Money gives us security. We feel secure in our lives when we have insurance to cover anything unexpected and a savings account that makes up for the unexpected things that the insurance doesn’t cover. This way we have control over anything that comes our way. Investment firms want us to make sure we have the right number before we retire and that needs to be close to a seven digit number. Our houses use to be the rock on which our financial situation stood. Yet three years ago things changed and now a lot of people owed more than their house was worth. As the market has risen and fallen and risen and fallen, people have seen their savings, rise and fall, rise slightly and then fall even more. We are stuck and that feeling of security that our money has given us is gone.

When you get into small talk with someone before about three sentences in we ask, “What do you do for a living?” It is a natural thing to ask because how we make money is how we identify who we are. I’m a computer programmer. I’m a nurse. I work with children as a day care provider. I’m a second shift fabric cutter. Yes these jobs, which we earn money doing, give us a sense of identity, purpose and hopefully fulfillment. It feels good to cash a paycheck. It feels great to get money for doing work. But does that truly leave to fulfillment?

W. Graham Scroggie, as pastor at the turn of the 20th century, once said, “There are two ways in which a Christian may view his money—‘How much of my money shall I use for God?’ or ‘How much of God’s money shall I use for myself?’” This is a direct change in thinking when it comes to money. When we see our paycheck, our bank accounts, our investment profolios we think, our money. Yet if we track that money back far enough, to the reason we got it in the first place, we always end up at God. We get a paycheck because we are good at our job. We are good at our job because it fits our talents and abilities. Those talents and abilities were given to us by God. What if you don’t like your job. We get a paycheck for doing work. We are able to do work because we have two hands, lungs, feet, a heartbeat and a brain. All those come from God. We really don’t need six degrees of separation to find out that everything we truly have comes from God. Yet that is a different way of thinking about things.

It is different to us but it was engrained into the thinking of the people in the Bible. If we read Exodus we get the story of the Hebrew people being moved out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the wilderness. It is out there that God starts to train his people to become the nation he wants them to be. In chapter 25 Moses is getting instructions from God on how to build the Tabernacle, the church. It starts off saying, “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from each man whose heart prompts him to give.’” They are doing so because they are overjoyed by the gracious God they worship, who has brought them out of slavery and into freedom. Then in chapters 35 and 36 people start to bring freewill offerings to the Tabernacle. People start piling their gifts and preparing to build their temple. Gift upon gift comes, until finally Moses has to speak up and say, “‘No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.’ And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work.”(36:6-7) The Israelites were so moved by God’s gracious gifts that they flooded the sanctuary with more than they could handle. They gave so much that it was almost too much. I truly pray that our cards on the altar, would reflect the same sentiment.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he gives them an update on one of the first Christian capital campaigns. Paul had sent word out to the churches he helped start that there was a need in the believers of Jerusalem. Many of the believers were from the poor in that city and to make matters worse a famine had hit the area. Paul called in some favors and asked for some help. Paul tells them that he knows they are not seeing great times too but it was their duty, they faith, they dedication to follow God that calls them to serve God by helping others. It is here in chapter 8:7 that Paul writes, “But just as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us- see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” If we as Christians want to make it clear who we serve, we have to put our money to work through the act of generosity.

There are many spiritual disciplines out there to partake in. Prayer and meditation can center our souls and give us time to hear God in our daily lives. But carving out time to daily talk with God also demonstrates priorities. It says that out of everything I need to do today, talking with God, listening to God is something I have to do. My time with God is too important. There is also fasting. This is the discipline of not eating for a certain period of time, like fasting from lunch on every Wednesday during a holy season or for a whole day. The purpose of fasting is to once again put in perspective what is most important in our lives. God is most important, more important than our time and our food. When we feel hungry we are reminded also of all the things God has given us because at the end of that period of time we will have a full pantry to open up and feast on.

There are more spiritual disciplines you can participate in, like service and worship. But I highlighted these too because it takes a couple of things that we cherish in our lives and it reorders our thinking about them. Our time and our food are vitally important to us but when we put God in front of them we are reminded who we truly serve. Do we serve the clock or the calendar, or the creator of time? Do we worship the food in front of us or do we see it as a blessing that comes from the creator of the earth?

Giving or being generous is also a spiritual discipline because it reminds us who we truly serve. Richard Foster is a Christian theologian from the Quaker tradition and he once said, “If money determines what we do and what we don’t do, then money is our boss.” Giving is not an extension of what you possess. It isn’t the left over fruit that doesn’t serve any other purpose. We are not to give God our leftovers. Giving is an expression of who possess you. We give because God is working in us and through us to transform the world.

Rev. J.H. Jowett said that “The real measure of our wealth is how much we’d be worth if we lost all our money.” What would you be worth? Is your worth found in your check book or in your savings account? Or is it found in the ways you live out your faith? Are your daily actions a reflection and a response of the God who loves you? Are you putting God in front of all aspects of your life or just the ones you feel you don’t need to necessarily control? Money is money, but God is God. Jesus states that we cannot serve two masters. Paul tells us to excel in everything including our giving. What is God telling you to do?

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Matthew 22:34-46 – Sermon – Easily Complicated

Matthew 22:34-46
Easily Complicated
10-23-11
Did you know there are many ways you can sing Amazing Grace?  Chris Tomlin did a great rendition which we sang a month or two ago, but you can use the words but sing it using other tunes.  It can be fun, let me show you.
·         House of the Rising Sun
·         Gilligan’s Island
·         Sweet Home Alabama
·         If I had $1,000,000
·         Peaceful Easy Feeling
Sure that was a little fun be we do the same thing with the word love.  We can use it bring people to tears, when we look into someone’s eye and say, I love you.  It is the last thing people say as their spouse goes back to surgery or when you leave for a trip.  But in the same breath we can say that we love Cool Ranch Doritos.  We love our children but we also love the Carolina Panthers.  We love to walk on the beach or we love a certain pair of jeans.  We can toss that word around a lot without really giving it any type of meaning, but there are other times when we use it and it can move mountains and bring people to tears.
I was watching the news one day and they had a video of a soldier surprising his daughter at school.  I forget how long it actually was since they had seen each other.  But when she saw him she ran into his arms, hugged his neck and shouted, “I love you Daddy.”  I felt like I was Kevan Callicutt I had so many tears coming down my face.  The use of love in that context meant everything.
We are limited in our English language because we have only one word for love, L-O-V-E.  In the Biblical Greek language they had four ways of saying love.  Phileomeans brotherly love, like in Philadelphia, the city of…brotherly love.  This is the type of love friends have for one another.  The next type is storge, this love is affection.  We can love our food or clothes this way.  We are attached to it but it is not as deep as our love for our closest friends.  Eros is where we get the word erotic from.  It is lust.  It is physical love.  It is the type of love that is made. [think about it]
In today’s scripture Jesus gets the third test in a series in this Chapter of Matthew.  If you remember last week the disciples of some Pharisees and some political fans of Herod came and asked Jesus about taxes.  In between that question and this question, we have the Sadducees coming to Jesus to ask about marriage in heaven and what happens if a woman married seven brothers in her lifetime.  Then we get today’s scripture which is the Pharisees turn.  Their disciples walked away from Jesus astonished that he said to ‘render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  When Jesus told the Sadducees that he was the God of the living not the dead,” they left in silence.  Now it was the Pharisees turn and they walk up to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
They were determined to get him.  This would get him.  There were over 600 of them to choose from.  Surely Jesus’ answer will give the Pharisees, the most religious, highly educated, and esteemed people in the community some type of footing to turn Jesus’ name to mud.  They wait on baited breath. 
Jesus’ answers them with something that sounds recited, from memory.  It sounds like Jesus answers them like we say the Lord’s Prayer, almost mundane and bored.  It is almost child like.  Jesus looks at them and says, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  This answer really isn’t original.  It wasn’t like Jesus’ answer to paying the taxes or what to do about a woman in heaven who was married seven times.  His answer is so simple it is almost insane.
[Actually do these things as they are described]  There once was a preacher who stood in front of his congregation and wanted to test them on their Biblical knowledge.  He started off by glaring at them to make them stir.  Then he stepped down from the pulpit because he knew when he did that people started to get a little more nervous.  He walked up and down the aisle and he looked them in the eye and he asked them, “If you had to sum up the entire Christian faith, how would you do it?”  The congregation looked, similar to you all, a little nervous about why the preacher is down here looking at them.  He waited, no answers.  He glared at them even more.  He waited, still nothing.  Until finally a first grader, who had her head buried into the Children’s Worship Bulletin, raised her hand.  Left with no other option he called on her and asked how she would sum up the entire Christian faith.  She looked at him and said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong…”
There would be no Jewish child who did not know these two pieces of scripture.  The first one, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” is from Deuteronomy 6:5.  All Jewish children were asked to memorize the first five books of our Bible and many did before they were 10.  This quotation of scripture would have been a piece of cake for any child standing near Jesus.  The same is true for the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourselves.”  That is from Leviticus 19:18.  The reason Jesus answer has the tone of something recited from memory because it was and had been for almost 23 years at that point. 
What is interesting is when we think of the commandments we don’t usually think of these.  We go to Charlton Heston standing on the side of a mountain with two stone tablets.  We Christians have thrown a hissy fit when someone tires to disturb the Ten Commandments.  There have been numerous legal battles.  In May, Giles County, VA’s school board voted twice in two months to have the framed Ten Commandments removed from its schools.  There is 2.6 ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments that was removed from the Alabama state building a while ago that caused a huge controversy. 
Here is my thought.  I think the Ten Commandments are vitally important to know and understand because they are scripture.  But they are not what Jesus hung his hat on.  When he was asked what the greatest commandment was, he didn’t even get close to the Ten Commandments.  Here is the thing about the Ten Commandments.  They were used to set up a nation.  They formulated how a nation or society should work.  It makes sense to worship only God, to respect your parents and not to steal, murder, and lie.  That is how a civil society should act.  Yet there is one world that is vitally important to Jesus that doesn’t exist in the Ten Commandments at all.  L-O-V-E.  Yes the second commandment mentions it, saying that God will have mercy to the thousandth generation “of those who love me and keep my commandments.”  But the key part of that commandment was not to make any idols or graven images.  You could remove that line and still have the main focus of the commandment in tack. 
If you remove love from the two commandments Jesus gives us, you are left with nothing.
In fact that is what the two commandments are all about.  Love God and Love your neighbor.  If you follow these two then you will actually follow all ten mentioned in Exodus 20.  But you can follow all ten and not follow both two.  As Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3)  You could not steal, not murder, not lie and still not love.  You could respect your parents, worship only God, and not have any idols but still not love.
Love is what transformed the Jewish law into the Christian faith.  Love is what changes the world as we knew it.  Love that looked like no other, acted like no other and sacrificed like no other.  Love came as God in flesh, as God incarnate, and lived our life, died our death, and rose again for our sake.  That is love.  That is Jesus Christ. 
There is a story of a certain medieval monk who announced he would be preaching next Sunday evening on “The Love of God.” As the shadows fell and the light ceased to come in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered. In the darkness of the altar, the monk lighted a candle and carried it to the crucifix. First of all, he illumined the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then the marks of the spear wound. In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle and left the chancel. There was nothing else to say.[1]
It seems so simple.  We are to love God and we are to love our neighbor.  It is so straightforward that a child can remember that.  But Jesus knows that simplicity doesn’t necessary mean easy.  I wrestled with the second part of the scripture today.  It is in these last five verses that Jesus turns back to the Pharisees and asks them a question.  He looks at them and asks, “What do you think of the Messiah?  Whose son is he?”  They answer him, “The son of David.”  Jesus replies, how is it if through he Spirit David calls the Messiah Lord. How can the Messiah be David’s son but also his Lord.”  The Pharisees join their disciples, the Herodians and the Sadducees in astonished silence.   
It is in this section that Jesus wants to know who they think the Messiah is.  What does the savior of Israel, the chosen one look like?  They state that he will come from the line of David, which is true and is exactly what the Gospel of Matthew points out at the beginning.  But Jesus is shifting the conversation to dig deeper.  They have a two dimensional view of who the Messiah is and what he will do.  He will be the son of David, yes, but since he is also called Lord by David he will be more than that too.  Jesus is attempting to show them that what seems easy is actually more complicated.  The Messiah will not look like what they expect, considering he is standing in front of them and they don’t recognize this son of David and this Son of God.
Loving God seems easy, unless you are the confronted like the rich young ruler.  He has followed all the commandments until Jesus tells him to sell all that he has and give it to the poor.  Then loving God becomes hard.  Loving God is easy when surrounded by your friends and cherished loved ones.  It is hard to come and love God in worship when you are going through a divorce or when a congregation is going through conflict.
Loving your neighbor is easy when you like the people you live next to.  Yet Jesus doesn’t say our neighbors are the people next door.  He mentions they are the strangers, the sojourners, the aliens, the poor, the weak, the orphaned, the widowed, the children, the elderly, the Spanish Speaking, the dark skinned, the Arab, the Asian, and the enemy.  Now it gets more complicated.
Love seems easy, until we see where it leads and what it did.  Love is hard when we have to follow the one who embodied it and lived it out.  Love seems really complicated when it is nailed on a cross for our sake.  We have two simple commandments to follow, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[2]  It is that easy and that complicated.
And all God’s people said…Amen.


[2]Other commentaries looked at but not quoted was William Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, Vol. 36, No 4, p.17-20.

Matthew 22:15-22 – Sermon – Render

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(warning rough draft ahead)

Matthew 22:15-22
Render
10-16-11
While doing research for this sermon I came upon an article by David Lose.  In this article he suggests that a way of dealing with this piece of scripture we get today is going by the old adage, “I don’t know, what do you think?”  He states that this is an empowering conversation starter because it engages the people in the conversation to share their thoughts.  If a child comes up to you and asks “Why is the sky blue?” what would be your answer?  I know it has something to do with light and it reflecting off something but the truth is “I don’t know, what do you think?”  What kind of cool conversation can come out of that? 
We may have heard this text before.  It is a one of those sayings of Jesus that tend to get mentioned even in our popular language.  The New International Version states verse 21 as, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  The King James says, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  The Greek word used in this verse to mean give or render is apodidomi (a-po-di-do-me).  It also means to pay off, discharge what is due, to give back, or to recompense in a good or bad sense.  I like the way the King Jimmy states it, render.
Render or even give has its bad and good sense.  God wants us to give him our whole being.  He wants us to render our lives in humble obedience.  We see this as a good thing, (well most of us).  On April 15th, we give the IRS what we owe (well most of us).  We have to give an account for what we made in a year and then pay the appropriate taxes for that.  Warren Buffet just made public his 2010 taxes.  He made over $62 million dollars and had a taxable income of just under $40 million.  He paid $6.9 million in taxes for 2010.  He had to give the IRS or render to them what was owed. 
The idea of taxation was at the heart of the birth of this country.  The original Tea Party, the Boston Tea Party, happened because people were tired of being taxed without having a voice.  They had “taxation without representation.”  They fought against this idea and then eventually the United States was born. 
Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted for saying, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  Taxation has been around since the beginning of time and this was true for the people of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time.  Actually they had lots of taxes to pay.  Some had to be paid to the Temple, the Temple Tax.  To pay this they had to use Jewish currency only and so there were currency exchange people set up in the Temple to help trade in the Roman money for Jewish money.  These were some of the people Jesus throws out when he had arrived in Jerusalem.
They also had to pay taxes to Rome, in Roman money.  This really made many Jews mad because they had to pay a tax to help the occupying government.  Their hard earned money had to be given to Rome to pay for the soldiers and army that kept them in line.  It would be like if Canada occupied the US by force one day.  We had to pay our regular taxes to the IRS but then we had to also pay taxes to Canada to help pay for their military and government which now dictates our way of life.  Not only that but you had to exchange your US dollars for Canadian dollars before you paid that tax.  It would be beyond frustrating and it was for the first century Jews who lived this out in their daily lives.  This was the society that Jesus lived in.
This is the world of the piece of scripture today.  I found it interesting how this scripture starts. The Pharisees hatched this plan but then they sent their disciples and some Herodians to trap him.  The Pharisees didn’t go themselves, they sent others to do their dirty work or maybe to throw Jesus off a little.  Now we can understand who the disciples of the Pharisees are.  They were fans of that certain Pharisees’ teachings and were following them around similar to what the 12 were doing with Jesus.  Herodians though we might not be familiar with.  They were the political friends of King Herod.  Herod was the Roman elected King of the Jews.  Since he was elected by the Romans there were some Jews who were not fans of Herod, yet there were others who were.  So the disciples of the Pharisees and fans of King Herod came to Jesus and they asked him, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.  [trying hard to kiss up, or buttering him up for the kill]  Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
From their point of view they have only given Jesus two options.  They thought they were asking him a yes or no question.  If Jesus answers yes, we are to pay taxes, they could call him out as a Roman sympathizer and they could use that to drive a wedge between him and the Jewish people.  If Jesus answers no, they could accuse him of treason or troublemaking against Rome.  They think they have Jesus in a Catch 22.  But the reality is much deeper than that.
Jesus sees through their rouse and in classic Jesus nature asks a question to answer a question.  He asks them, “You hypocrites, [Jesus is not interested in kissing up] why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.  Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?”  They handed Jesus a coin like this one on the screen.  As you can tell one side has a picture of a person with some writing around it.  The picture is of Caesar, the Emperor of Rome.  The inscription says, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus.”  This is basically calling the Roman Emperor out as the Son of God.  Simply having this coin, this idol of to a false God, is breaking the first two commandments, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me and thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Good thing our money is different right?  Nothing on there might make God mad or be considered breaking any commandments like idolatry or graven images.  Yet if you pull out any of our money you will find the motto of our nation, “In God we Trust.”  This has been on our coins since 1864 and was put on our paper currency in 1956.  This has not always been popular though.  There was a big case in 1984 where a group tried to have the motto removed from our currency.  Yet the Supreme Court upheld it because they thought it “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”  President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want it added when he was President because he saw it as sacrilegious to put the name of God on money.
Yet there it is, the generic word that simply means a supreme being.  God could mean any god.  Our God has a specific name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This Trinitarian God is the God we worship.  Is this what God means on our money?  If we spoke Arabic this would say Allah, because that is Arabic word of God with a capital G.  If we spoke Hebrew it would say Yahweh.  Yet both Allah and Yahweh are not the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So what God is our money referencing?  “I don’t know, what do you think?”
As we read this scripture today our 21stcentury minds read into this scripture our modern tendencies.  We look at this and say this is a good example of the separation of Church and State.  Yet in the 1st century Jewish mind there was no such thing.  Who did the Jews have to pay taxes too?  Both their religion and their state.  They had to pay Temple Taxes and Roman Taxes.  There was no removing the State from religion or religion from the state.  However, for us there is a difference and so Jesus’ question is even more relevant to us today than ever before.
“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  In our compartmental lives this seems easy to do, right?  We understand what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?  Because we live in a nation that divides a line between Church and State Jesus’ question is easy for us.  Yet what if we look at it from God’s perspective, where does God draw the line?
Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  So everything is God’s.  Yet, the car I drive I paid for, so it is mine, oh wait, it is in this world so that means it is God’s.  The food I ate, I bought, so it is mine.  Oh wait, it grew because of rain and it is of this world, so it is God’s.  Well the children I made with my wife, those are mine, you can see it on their faces because they look like us.  But they live here too, so they too are God’s.  So what isn’t of this world and isn’t God’s.  “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Well let’s look at it more philosophical.  Instead of physical things let’s look at generalities.  What is ours?  What is Caesar’s and what is God’s when it comes to time, money, worship, devotion, and love?  “I don’t know, what do you think?”
We have this thought that the line is easily defined.  We think we can see it in our daily lives.  I recently had a discussion with someone about the role faith, Christianity, or even Church should have in the political world.  He was totally against the church interacting with the political world.  I agree that I should not stand up here and tell you who to vote for in a couple of weeks but that doesn’t mean we are be silent on social issues.  We forget that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an ordained minister, a preacher, a man of God, a devoted Christian who stepped out into the political world to change our society and our culture by standing up to the policies and government at the time.
When it comes to social issues the Church should have a lot to say in this world.  We should speak up for the poor, defend the oppressed, and stand up in the face of injustice.  My discussion with this person then turned to social services.  His idea is that the government pays way too much to take care of the poor in this country.  I told him I agreed that the government does too much but that isn’t the fault of the government, it is our fault as the church.  We have failed to do our job so the government has to step up instead.  Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, and house the stranger.  It was Jesus who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when [God] would save [His] people.  He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.”  We as his Church are to follow his lead.  So where is that line between God and Caesar?  “I don’t know, what do you think?”
As the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians looked at the coin in their hand their minds went numb with the question Jesus asked.  Scripture tells us that they went away amazed.  Jesus doesn’t give us a clean cut answer to what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.  The demands of the nation and society in which we live and the demands of God are left to us to interpret.  Yet, thank you God for giving us brains and the ability to reason to think this through.  Both demand that we render our obedience and our money.  Both God and Caesar ask us to render ourselves, but how much?  How can we faithfully be Christian and American?  How can we be faithful to both yet the most faithful to the one who is the Creator of all?  Not the God on our money, but to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  “I don’t know, what do you think?”
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Matthew 21:33-46 – Sermon – They Are Us

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Matthew 21:33-46
They are Us
10-2-11
Allegory.  An allegory is a form of literature in which a story or image stands for something else.  It is a way of telling us a story while making us think about another one.  There are some famous pieces of literature that are allegory.  Plato’s Republic  is a big one.  In that one he talks about the perfect society.  Dante’s The Divine Comedy is another one, where he talks about the levels of hell.  These are all stories that point to other issues of the day.
Some of the most famous uses of allegory are found in Aesop’s Fables.  I know you know some of these stories.  How about this one…[SLIDE] this is an artist’s picture of the boy who cried wolf.  We know this story. A boy is to watch over some sheep and cries wolf.  The whole town comes running but no wolf.  The boy does it again, still no wolf.  Then the wolf really shows up and the townspeople don’t come running because they think he is lying.  Is this really simply a story about some sheep, a boy, and a wolf?  No.  Raise your hand if you never realized this was simply a story to share a moral.  Allegory points us beyond the story because the whole point of the story is to draw your attention to that point.
[SLIDE]  Try this one.  This is another one of Aesop’s fables, the grasshopper and the ant.  In this story the grasshopper goofs off all spring, summer and fall and doesn’t prepare for winter while the ant works every day.  Then winter comes and the ant has tons of food and grasshopper is left out in the cold.  What was the moral of this story?  Once again, the point of the story was to point to the fact that we are to work hard and have foresight.
But allegory is not just old tales.  They show up in movies now all the time too.  [SLIDE] 1968, Planet of the Apes.  Charlton Heston is human living in an ape world.  This was a great allegory of the culture of its time.  Through the story hit discussed ideas like racism, creationism and evolution, and animal rights, anti-nuclear politics, and even McCarthyism.[1]  These were all hot button topics in the 60s, I’m sure many of you remember.
There was another breakthrough movie that was also a large allegory.  [SLIDE] The Matrix came out in 1999 and blew people away with its cool special effects and action sequences.  But this too was an allegory for some of the things that were on the fore front of our minds a decade and a half ago.  The main idea is that our contemporary experience is too much influenced by the commercialized, media-driven society in which we live in.  The whole idea in the movies is that what we see isn’t real can be seen around every day.  From the adds that tell us owning a certain car will give our lives meaning to the fact that every cover model has been so air brushed it is impossible to know what she really looks like in person.  Once again the movie pointed beyond itself and to this deeper commentary on the culture in which we are living in.
These verses in the 21st chapter of Matthew are an allegory.  It is not a parable.  Fred Craddock[2], a famous scholar and preaching professor, says a parable is a self-contained story.  Think of the parable of the lost coin.  The woman loses a coin, finds it, and then throws a party to celebrate.  This is not a story that has a social commentary.  It is a story that points us to the reality of the Kingdom of God, but it is about the world around this woman or the coins.  Craddock says that an allegory points to events outside the story.  It is actually a social commentary.
Let’s take this story a chunk at a time and see what Jesus is referring to and what is happening in his society. 
33“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower.
Yes, I know I just spent the whole sermon explaining what an allegory was and Jesus says right off, here is another parable.  But the truth is we now defined what Jesus is doing here as allegory.  As Matthew’s author was writing this he did not know there was such thing.  In this story God is represented by the landowner and the vineyard is the land of Israel.  This is a shout out to Isaiah where he does the same thing.  The tenants are the religious rulers, the servants are the Old Testament Prophets, and of course the son is Jesus.  But what else we learn is that the landowner has done a lot of the grunt work of farming.  He put the wall up, dug the winepress and put in a watchtower.  He got things ready for his tenants. 
Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
We have to remember that in allegory, not every little detail has meaning, it is still a story.  Some people might say that this is proof that God doesn’t act within our world because he is the landowner and has gone on vacation to let the humans run free.  But this is just adding to the story and give the reason why his servants will have to come back to collect.  God is not an absentee landlord.
   35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 
The tenants have not seen the landlord but all they have seen is his servants who keep coming up and demanding fruit from the vineyard.  They react in violence.  They react in a way that seems unsettling to say the least.  We read this and we pretend we are offended by it but we have seen far worse on TV and in the movies.  Let’s face it this is not the most violently disturbing thing in the Bible but it is still shakes us up.  Why would these tenants have such an adverse reaction to being asked to collect on something they promised?  They didn’t own the land yet they still refuse to give anything to the landowner.
37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
   38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
The landowner tries one last ditch effort to get what was promised to him.  He sends his son in hopes that the tenants will respect his own son.  But they treat him as well as they did the servants.  They kill him.
Then Jesus turns to the religious leaders and asks them. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus has them right where he wants them.  They answer his question but they haven’t put it together that he was talking about them.  It is the religious people that Jesus is most frustrated with.  He is mad because they don’t get it.  That is what we talked about last week and as we continue in this chapter we get the same type of idea that it is the religious people Jesus is tired of.  But how do they react.  The chapter ends with this verse,  45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.  They did not repent from their thinking, they moved forward in their desire to keep their power and control.  They did exactly what the tenants of the allegory did, they kill the landlord’s son.
Another mistake that comes out of this parable is that many think this points out that it is the Jews that are at fault for killing Jesus.  Anit-semetics point to this scripture as proof from Jesus’ mouth.  But it isn’t really true.  The Jews are at fault as the Romans and gentile.  But if we keep focused on the Jews then we can keep God from messing with us.  If we can point to THEM then we are free.  THEY are the ones who plotted to kill Jesus.  THEY are the ones who didn’t hear and understand God’s word.  THEY are the one who didn’t believe.
Yet when we set up a THEY verse WE, or US verses THEM, we lose every time.  What smacks us on the face in this parable is the notion that THEY are US.  Yes, the religious leaders of Jesus’ allegory are really us today.  Sure society has changed a little but the moral of the allegory is still the same.  Jesus is pushing the tenants of the vineyard to realize that fruits must be grown and we have to respect the landlord’s wishes and provide fruit. 
We have all been given a vineyard to work.  The world we live in is our vineyard.  My world looks different than your world and your world looks different then the person sitting next to you, even your children or spouse.  The people we know, the lives we lead, the decisions we make are all tending to that vineyard.  God has graciously provided this land, this life, to work but there is a demand that fruit be harvested.  Have we harvested any fruit?
Roger Lovette[3]wrote in a commentary I read this week, “I’ve got a retired business person who is assisting me with managing the church.  He tells me that he has never worked in a system that had as little accountability as the church.  ‘You people never take a moment to step back and ask simply ‘what have we done with what we have been given?,” he says.”  In almost any other area in life, in our jobs, in sports, in our hobbies, there is a level of accountability.  If we don’t play well out on the field, our coaches hold us up to the standard of play and ask what happened?  If we don’t fulfill the job description we were hired to do, we may not have a job any more.  Why aren’t we held accountable at church?
One of the major reasons my generation and the one after me is so frustrated with church is because of the church is too judgmental.  They don’t like preachers up behind their big stone pulpits yelling at them and telling casting judgment on who they are.  I am very aware of this and try not to be judgmental at all.  Is there a difference between judgment and accountability?
The landlord sends his servants to collect the fruit.  God looks at the lives that he has given us and sends his servants to collect the fruit.  The son has already been killed but we are still charged with the idea of being fruitful.  We look at the religious leaders of Jesus’ time and we point our fingers at them and say, “They didn’t even see God’s son in their midst.  They missed out on an opportunity to have their lives transformed.  They were too caught up in their own power, their own temple, their own lives.  They missed out.”
Lucky for us we get it.  We make room for God in our daily lives and we see the Risen Lord in our midst.  We aren’t too busy with our own lives to not be fruitful.  We produce good tasting fruit for God all the time.  We understand what it takes to follow God and we don’t get caught up in our own ideas.  We understand sarcasm.
The truth is, Jesus reaches through the pages today and grabs our hearts.  As he lays into the religious people of that day, he does so again to the religious people here.  He holds us accountable and asks us to bear fruit.  They are Us but luckily God is God.
And all God’s people said…Amen.


[2]Willimon, William H., Pulpit Resource, Vol. 36, No. 4, Year A & B, 2008 p.6.
[3]Ibid

Matthew 21:23-32 – Sermon – Two Sons

(Caution this is only a draft, so please excuse the typos and other grammatical mishaps.  I hope it helps in your preparation though and please help me by clicking on an ad.  Thanks and blessings upon you as you preach this week.)
Matthew 21:23-32
Two Sons
09-24-11
During this Ordinary Time or Kingdom Tide part of the Christian year we have been staying with the Gospel of Matthew because it is Year A.  On the first Sunday of Advent move into a new Christian year and move into the Lectionary’s Year B where we will concentrate on the Gospel of Mark.  But until then we stay with Matthew.  We are in the 21st Chapter which is a busy chapter.  When it starts off we get Jesus entering the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey hearing the cheers and shouts of the crowd.  Then we witness him enter the temple where he throws out the money changers and merchants.  The next morning he withers a fig tree.  All of this happens in the first 22 verses of this chapter in Matthew.
Jesus storms into Jerusalem and turns it on its head.  The religious leaders do not know what to think.  They had heard rumors of this guy named Jesus.  They had sent fellow Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the law to test him, watch him, and critique him.  But here he is; in their holy spot; teaching to a crowd who had come to see him.  They were a little skeptical of this man standing in front of them and so they start to question him.  This is always a bad idea.  No one backs Jesus into a corner.
They ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?”  Jesus does not like to be tested.  He does not like to be questioned in such a way that assumes that we have the answers and he doesn’t.  Some might say he has a God complex, but since he is God it is okay in this situation.  He answers them the way that Jesus answers most questions, with a question.  In this brilliant move he turns over the tables in the temple once again, this time metaphorically instead of real tables.  The question he asks them is, “John’s baptism – where did it come from?  Was it from heaven, or from men?” 
The religious leaders ponder this question.  I envision some kind of holy huddle in the corner of the courtyard as they discuss the way they should answer.  Jesus only gives them two choices.  John the Baptist’s authority can come from heaven or from men.  If they choose heaven then Jesus is going to ask them why they don’t believe.  If they answer men, they were afraid the people would be upset because they hold John up as a prophet.  They were caught in a Catch 22.  So they baulk and say, “We don’t know.”  Then Jesus tells them the parable of the two sons.
Lovett Weems is the head of the Lewis Center of Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC.  He spoke at the District Superintendent Consultation at the beginning of this year.  During this talk he predicted where the United Methodist Church is going.  Many recounted last that this was a huge eye opener.  Weems predicts that a Death Tsunami will start hitting the UMC in 7 years.  It will be caused by a couple of situations.  Since we became the United Methodist church, since the Methodist Church and the United Brethren merged in 1968, everything that has to do with money has increased.  When we look at where the UM church is now compared to where we were in 1968 our net assets have increased by 206%, giving per worshiper has increased by 178% and total giving has increased by 147%.  This is as a denomination, not as a local church.  This is good news as we sit in the middle of the Great Recession. 
He goes on though to explain that everything that has to do with people is down.  Churches are down 13%, attendance down 18%, membership down 24%, professions of faith down 39% and children and youth down 60%.  But what does this mean?  If our money as a denomination is going up but our people are going down and getting older looking at the number of children and youth, what is happening?  What is happening is fewer people are giving more.  The ones who are giving more tend to be the older members of our congregations. 
Then in 2018 starts the death tsunami.  This is a tsunami that will hit us in the US in general.  By the year 2050 there will 50% more deaths than there were in 2010.  Why?  Because the bulk of our population is getting older.  There are around six generations living currently.  Everyone doesn’t agree on where some generations end and start but there are six alive today.  Let me demonstrate.  If you were born after the year 2000 stand up.  You are part of Generation Z or the Net Generation, or Generation I (for internet).  You’re the newest generation and you haven’t really gotten a name yet.  If you were born between 1980 and 2000 please stand up.  You are part of Generation Y.  Stand up if you were born between 1965 and 1980.  This is my generation, Generation X.  Please stand if you were born between 1946 and 1964.  These are the Baby Boomers.  1925-1945, please stand, you are part of the Silent Generation.  The Greatest Generation are the ones who were born between 1901 and 1924.  Anyone here in that generation?
The largest generation currently is the Baby Boomers.  There were 76 million people born between the years 1946 and 1964.  Only 4 million died before 2000 leaving 72 million Baby Boomers in our populations.  10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day.  The next generation, Generation X only has between 41 and 51 million people (depending on where you get your stats from).  This is far below the number in the generation before them.  This generation has the personality which is not interested in Church.  They distrust institutions, are children of divorce, latch key kids who grew up and don’t want anything to do with their parent’s ideas and beliefs.   The loyal members of the UMC, are the Baby Boomers and Silent Generations.  But by 2050, the youngest Baby Boomer will be 86 years old.  They will be the shut-ins, the ones living on fixed incomes.  The Silent Generation or the GI Generation is leaving this earth at 1,000 people a day.  As that generation dies off it will be the Boomers next and they will leave much faster because there are a lot more of them. This is the start of what Weems calls the Death Tsunami.
Let’s go back to Jesus’ parable today.  After being questioned about his authority and turning that question back on the chief priests and elders, Jesus says, “What do you think?  There was a man with two sons.”  Jesus lays out two examples for the religious leaders to chew one.   Both sons are asked to go work in the field.  The first one says no but then goes out later and does work after he changes his mind.  The second one says he will go out but then doesn’t. 
The first son sounds rebellious and rude.  He tells his father, “I will not.”  He seems defiant and callous against his father’s wishes.  The second son on the surface seems loyal and obedient but later disappoints us when he does not do what he said he would do.  As I was reading this passage again I was struck by a similar parable that Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel, the parable of the prodigal son or as it is also called, the parable of the lost son.  In that story the younger son demands his father’s inheritance and spends it frivolously.  He hits rock bottom which was feeding pigs and being so hungry that he wished he could eat what the pigs ate.  For a Jew, this was below rock bottom.  He eventually goes back home to seek forgiveness and gets it, along with a huge party.
The older brother had stayed at home the whole time and did what the father asked.  He ran the father’s business and was obedient.  But when he sees the party for the younger brother here is what Luke’s gospel says, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.  So his father went out and laded with him.  But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!  ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘ you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”  At the end of this parable which brother do you think is really lost?
With this Death Tsunami on the horizon, less than a decade away from the waters starting to rise, what are we going to do as a denomination?  The college of bishops asked the Connectional Table of the denomination (it is like the Church Council of the denomination) to start to look at this approaching problem and start coming up with some solutions.  In this call to action it talks a lot about church vitality.  It asks if our congregations are being vital congregations to their communities.  Are we gaining members, having professions of faith, are we being missional minded, and are we growing in our faith?  Are we making an impact on people’s lives?
Our conference has come out with a score card for a congregation’s vitality.  Looking at four different aspects of the church’s life you get a Revitalization Score.  Depending on your score it tells whether or not your congregation needs to reevaluate, if you are moving in the right direction and making progress or if you have been revitalized.  The key is to make strong congregation who can weather the storm that is about to hit; to make the changes necessary now before the wave begins to roll in.
The two sons in Matthew’s gospel have been all given the same task, to go out and work in the vineyard.  The first one refuses but then eventually goes.  The second says he will do it but doesn’t.  Jesus looks at the religious leaders and then asks them, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”  They all agreed this time that it was the first.  Then Jesus tells them that the people they see as dirt in the world, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them. 
In Luke the son who seeks forgiveness, the one that the world sees as the degenerate, is the one enjoying the party the Father has thrown.  The older son is left in the field, angry and pouting.  The second son in Matthew says he will go work but then never does.  We don’t know why but his intentions on being obedient get deterred.   He could have gotten distracted during the day.  He could have been wrapped up in another project and when he picked his head up the day was over.  Whatever the excuse, it is just that, an excuse.  At the end of the day the first son, the one who seems disobedient and rude is the one who does what the father wants.
This week has been hectic and frustrating for those who live on Facebook.  I confess I am trying to understand the changes that this social network has gone through.  Many people though really complained about it. They were angry that this medium they use to communicate for social and business reasons was altered.  They don’t pay to get on but yet they did not like the changes.  Change is hard and to do what God wants can be even harder.  It can become inconvenient, annoying, and bothersome.  Yet we are asked to go do the work in the vineyard.
The reality of the Death Tsunami is true.  In the next forty years the Baby Boomer generation will bow out in dramatic form.  That is not speculation, that is fact.  How the United Methodist Church deals with this reality is up in the air.  Will we survive as a denomination?  Will we be able to make the move from being supported by the Baby Boomers to Generation X, Y and Z?  How we handle this transition, this change will tell us which son we are.
Are we the one who is willing to do the work but then at the end of the day we don’t?  Are we the son who sits out in the field stewing because we feel we deserve something for our loyalty and work?
At the end of this passage the religious leaders stood around with their mouths open wide.  They were under the impression they were doing what God wanted.  They were following the path the best way they knew how.  But what they missed was the fact that God was moving in their midst.  He was doing so with John the Baptist but they ignored him.  God was moving in the Jesus Christ, who was both God and human.  But they rejected him as well.  They missed out on the opportunities God was laying at their feet because they didn’t want to face the reality that God was changing the way the thought about and followed God.  They missed out and the ones who recognized it, the sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes were able to participate in the Kingdom of God that was in their midst.
God doesn’t just seek change, he seeks transformation.  That is what was happening in Jerusalem that week and we are on the cusp of another dramatic move in our denomination.  What son we will be is yet to be determined.
And all God’s people said…Amen.