Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sermon 8/2/09 “The Upside to a Down Economy

Matthew 6:19-34

Many of us are well aware that we have been in a recession for some time now.

The stock market has experienced significant losses that have resulted in investors like you and me, charities and institutions like our church to have lost between 20-40% in the value of investments. Most real estate values have declined and the housing market is slow. Most businesses have experienced significant declines which placed pressures on many to close the doors, downsize or seek a lifeline from the government. Unemployment has reached 9.5% and is climbing. Newsweek, this past week, had an article that said 6.5 million jobs have been lost since December 2007. Foreclosures are up. Bankruptcy is on the increase. A few weeks ago, the national debt exceeded $1 trillion. We are not immune to the consequences that these factors produce. They are realities that have some level of impact on all of us. Some of our church family have felt the huge impact of these economic factors with job loss, home ownership in danger, their businesses are struggling, etc.

While these statistics are bleak, in my mind they still do not display the full force of what many people are dealing with. Sometime it helps to hear a story. For example, it becomes more real when you know of a guy who just lost his job, thus loosing his health benefits if he does not find another job soon. The problem is that his wife has cancer. This is just one example of someone who is suffering.

I believe that while the economy is very bad and people are suffering a great deal, there is also an upside to a down economy. I know that for those who are really hurting, this sounds unsympathetic, but I in no way mean it this way. Instead, I hope you will be able to find hope in the hopelessness.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus devotes a little time to the issue of finances. He begins by saying,

19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:19-24)

Jesus tells us the same message we briefly mentioned in a sermon on Luke a few weeks ago, that you cannot serve two masters. You will either serve or love money or you will serve and love God. A few verses above this, he says this is the case because where your treasure is; there your heart will be also. If we focus all of our time storing up wealth, then we are not focusing on serving God.

After the sermon I preached on Luke, someone asked me the question, "Can you be wealthy and still be a Christian?" To this, I think the answer is "yes." As a matter of fact I do believe that God blesses some people with means so that they can in turn be a blessing to others. I think our attitude about money makes all the difference in the world. If we live to make money for ourselves, then our hearts are in the wrong place. If we live to serve God, then we will use what God has given to us to serve others.

Jesus then goes on to say,

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:25-34)

Jesus' conclusion is simple, if we place our trust and efforts in following God, then God will care for us. Jesus gives us several examples of this. First he says that the birds of the air do not sow or reap, yet God feeds them. Then he says that we worry about clothing while God clothes the lilies of the field, yet they do not toil or spin. Notice the verbs used in these illustrations. "sow", "reap", "toil", or "spin". These verbs all relate to work that provides basic needs. Jesus is telling us that God created us so we should trust God to provide for us.

This morning, I want us to take some advice, from the greatest Sage of all time, on how to live life when things are tight. Again, I am not suggesting that these things will make everything better, but I do think they will help us respond the best way we can to down times

Upside to a Down Economy One: Reflecting on our Priorities

For us, struggling with a down economy, it seems that Jesus would encourage us to reflect on our priorities. When money is tight, we are forced to go back and look to see what things are truly important. It allows us to take Jesus' words seriously that we cannot love money and God at the same time. Jesus says that where our treasures are where out heart is. Therefore, we should go back and analyze our lives and see where our priorities lay and make life adjustments if necessary.

I love ESPN. I would watch it 24/7 if I could. In order for us to have ESPN, we would need to pay about $50 a month for cable. Of coarse this would also mean that I would want to have a DVR and so forth.

The recession has not really impacted Melanie and I as much as other people. I did not get a pay raise this year, like most of the world, and I began to pay for insurance for Caleb, which meant I was taking home less money. Melanie and I had to evaluate our finances and we made the decision, that while ESPN would be nice, we did not need it. We could take the time that I would normally watch ESPN and spend quality time with each other. Also, I can go to my parent's house and watch it for free and spend quality time with my parents.

I am not suggesting to anyone that you get rid of your cable, but I am suggesting that this may be the time to talk with you spouse about what I would call "kingdom things." To determine "kingdom things" we need to ask if the way we spend our time and energy is pleasing to God. ESPN- Not So Much, Time with Spouse- YES

Upside to a Down Economy Two: Greater Level of Generosity

During times of economic recession, common reason would expect that giving to non-profits, charities and churches would decrease. History has shown this is not necessarily the case. In some situations, total number of dollars may decrease but usually the percentage of income increases.

Do you know in what year in recent history recorded the highest per capita giving? In 1933 – during the height of the Great Depression. Do you know which states annually vie for the highest per capita giving in the US? Arkansas and Mississippi. Do you know another distinction they share? They are the two poorest states in the nation.

I have a theory as to why this is the case. It seems to me that no matter how much money I see people making, the amount of money left over normally remains the same because the more money we make, the more money we spend, causing our standard of living to increase. Because we normally give to God out of what we have left over, our percentage of given actually increases when our income decreases.

Maybe having a down economy will enable us to give at a higher percentage and then challenge us to increase our percentage of giving as the economy recovers. Andy Stanley, in his book Fields of Gold, suggests that we should practice what he calls the 3 P's of giving: (1) Priority Giving (2) Percentage Giving (3) Progressive Giving. He says that we should make giving the number one priority. We should choose a percentage to give and then gradually increase that percentage over time. Doing this enables us to make sure that we keep our heart in the right place.

I have heard it said many times I am beginning to agree that if we want to find out what we value, look at what we spend our money on. Learning to be faithful to God with our money will help us keep God as our treasure.

Upside to a Down Economy Three: Deeper Level of Trust

With a down economy comes anxiety. I don't won't to downplay the real worries that are out there right now. If my wife and I were on the verge of loosing our jobs because of the economy, I would be worried to.

Jesus though, tells us in Matthew 6 that if we will strive first for his kingdom, that God will take care of our needs. It maybe that right now, we can begin to seek God first and allow him to truly care for our needs.

I am reading a book in preparation for our mission sermons called, Finding Calcutta by Mary Poplin, on the life of Mother Teresa. She explains that Mother Teresa placed all of her faith in God. Poplin writes,

From capitalism to communism, economic theories all assume a scarcity of resources. Divine providence assumes that God has provided an abundance for every need. Divine providence is not merely about money, it is an attitude toward life of trust in God.

Poplin goes on later to explain that there were times when Mother Teresa and the volunteers were out of food, but they would play and trust that God would provide and he did. Our test tells us to first seek after God and his kingdom, then God we trust that God will provide.

A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing, impossible as it sounds. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When that was mastered, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting "Left" and "Right!" As they obeyed the commands, they were able to negotiate the course and cross the finish line, depending solely on the sighted skier word. It was either complete trust or catastrophe.

In our lives, we have to learn to trust God. We have to understand that when we are worried about things in our lives, God can see the big picture. The best way to navigate life is to seek God and allow him to pull us through.

I truly believe C.S. Lewis when he says, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in: aim at earth and you will get neither." When we place our hopes and trust in the hands of God, we will find that not only will we find God, we will find that God provides for all we will need now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sermon 7/26/09 “Uniquely Luke Part Seven: The Unfortunate Age of Entitlement”

Luke 17:11-19

Some of you may watch VH-1 on occasion. If you have, you may have seen the show, New York Goes to Hollywood. It is about a girl named Tiffany who goes to Hollywood in attempts a being an actress. As the show begins, the them song "The World Should Revolve Around Me" by Little Jackie comes on. The lyrics are interesting. It says,

I 've had enough failed relationships

I don't get far cause I'm not equipped

I believe the world should revolve around me

I'm to the point of a partnership,

It won't be long till I start to trip,

Yes sir-e the world should revolve around me,

"The world should revolve around me." In doing some research the past couple of weeks, I have seen a trend in many news articles about people believing precisely this. For example, in an ABC article one employer said this about the younger generation of workers, "They grew up with an 'everyone gets a trophy' sense of entitlement," "They are members of a generation that thinks it should get a trophy just for waking up in the morning."

Are we living in the Age of Entitlement? In some ways it seems this way. It seems that people feel that they are entitled to receive anything they want just because they exist. In the articles I read, there were several different answers given for why this is the case. Some suggest it is because those persons now in their twenties were raised by their parents to believe they should have the best of everything and were never told "no." Some blame the rise of technology, with instant access and communication.

I am sure all of this has given rise to the problem of entitlement. I do believe there is a story in Luke's gospel that deals with this very thing. While we may be noticing the fad of entitlement today, I am sure this has been a problem for a very long time.

We are going to be studying together Luke 17:11-19. Before we share this story together, it is important to give some background. Remember that Jesus was a Jew. One of the things that Jewish persons believed was that God had chosen them for a specific purpose. They believed that when God acted in the world, he would do so through them. By the 1st century, many Jewish persons had forgotten that they were chosen for a purpose and only remembered that they were chosen and special.

As the story happens in Luke 17, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Just before this incident in Luke's gospel, Jesus gives a teaching lesson about faith. In verse 5 of this chapter, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus then tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed, then they can tell a mulberry tree t to jump in the see and it would do so. A mulberry tree is a deep rooted tree with vine like branches that would take some work to move. He then illustrates the point that just because you do things to serve God you should not think that God then owes you something. Service is done for God is response to what God has already done.

Responding to Jesus

Then, Luke tells this story

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" 14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

Jesus is still on the move and he is between Samaria and Galilee, meaning that he chose to take the road that went through Samaria and not the one that went around it. He enters a village and ten lepers find him. Leprosy was a skin disease that was incurable, this it was very bad. When someone had leprosy they were actually banished from society. They also could not have physical contact with anyone for fear of spreading the disease.

What would often happen though, is that when anyone had a skin condition, it was named leprosy. Of coarse a normal skin condition would go away in time, but the person would still be unclean until they were examined by the priest and pronounced clean.

The 10 people in our story are said to have leprosy. They could have had the real thing, but more than likely, they would have had a skin condition. However, this skin condition would have caused them to be social outcasts until it cleared up. The reason I bring this up is because Jesus' healing of the 10 lepers is more about his restoring them to the community than his actual physically healing them.

Jesus has the lepers do what was custom. They had to go to the priest. What we are not told is whether or not these persons were all Jewish or Samaritans. All we know is that it could be either one. We know from later on that at least on was a Samaritan. Notice that Jesus does not interject where they need to go, just that they need to go to see the priest.

In this story, Luke tells us that one of the ten returns back to Jesus and falls at his feet and thanks him. Jesus notices right away that nine of the ten decided not to go back. We then find out that he was a foreigner. He was a Samaritan. Luke also says this as if there were others in the group who were not foreigners.

There are two questions in mind about this passage. First, why did the first nine refuse to come back? It could have been that once they saw the priest they were in a hurry to get back to their families. If my instinct is correct and most of these nine were Jewish, it could be that they had felt entitled to this type of healing because of who they were as Jews. The story does not ever really say. It also does not say that they were any "less healed" for not going back. They were "ungrateful" but they were still healed.

Luke tends to emphasize the second question I have about this passage, namely why did the one leper return to Jesus. Even if the reason the other nine did not return was to see their family, this one person went right back to thank Jesus. When he gets there, Luke tells us that he prostrated himself on his knees and thanked him. This is not a typical "thank you" His response is one of worship. The Samaritan is responding to Jesus with worship.

I remember when I was ordained an elder in the United Methodist Church a few years ago. The Bishop laid hands on my head and had a prayer. Standing with me was Al Bowls, who was our former District Superintendent, Charles Neal, our former Senior Pastor, and my wife, Melanie. When I stood up after being ordained, I immediately turned and gave Melanie a hug before I hugged the bishop, Al, or Charles. When I finally got around to hugging the bishop, we whispered in my ear, "You are a smart man for hugging her before me."

I did this because I owed Melanie a great deal of gratitude for all the support she had given me. If my parents were on the stage, they would have had the next hug. In a sense, this showed my priorities, at least I hope. The same is true in this passage. The Samaritan's first response was not to go home to his family, it was not to feel entitled and ignore Jesus, it was not to go and work in the field, his first sense of obligation was to Jesus, who had shown grace to him.

Likewise, I believe our first response should be to Jesus. That is what I believe worship is all about. It is about responding to the grace given to us. Through our worship, we show gratitude for God's graciousness.

Gratitude and Faith

If you remember at the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned that this incident is framed within the context of the disciple asking Jesus to "grow their faith." Hopefully we are here this morning because we are hoping to grow in our faith. If these passages go together the way I think they do, then Jesus is saying that one of the ways we grow in our faith journey is by expressing gratitude. Likewise, I see no worse way to grow in our faith than by feeling "entitled." When we are entitled, we believe God owes us grace and forgiveness, when we express gratitude we realize that God owes us nothing, but by his grace we have forgiveness. When we are entitled, we believe God owes us wealth and health, but when we express gratitude we realize that whatever income we bring in and whatever our health is, we realize every day and every dollar is a gift from God and too used for his purposes. When we are entitled, we believe God owes us happiness, but when we express gratitude, we realize that joy comes from God despite our circumstances.

The faith the size of a mustered can toss a sycamore tree into the lake or it can move mountains, but faith comes when we understand that it too is a gift from God. Notice that when the last leaper left Jesus, he told him that his faith had made him well. Jesus did not say that the other nine leapers were any less healed; he just told this one leaper that because he returned in gratitude, his faith had made him well. I believe that by his gratitude, his faith had increased.

Gratitude Conquers Entitlement

I believe this passage gives us a way to deal with our entitlement issues. Deep down I believe that these nine lepers that refuse to return to Jesus did so because they felt "entitled" to the grace Jesus had shown them. Somehow they believed they deserved to be clean of whatever condition they had. On the flip side, the Samaritan returned because he knew he had been shown grace that he did not earn or merit. After all, he was a Samaritan and Jesus in know why owed him anything.

When we feel "entitled" to the best of everything and we believe the world revolves around us, there is no need to show gratitude. However, when we recognize that we are where we are only by God's grace, all we have to give is gratitude.

Mary Grey, our children's director led one of our staff meeting devotionals some time back. She asked us to write down all of the things we were thankful for as a way of showing gratitude. I took her challenge and listed 16 things I was thankful for and then I took the time to thank God for them. It helped me see my life from a different perspective. Instead of seeing all of the ways that I think life is unfair it helped me to understand that I have been shown so much love and grace by God. Instead of thinking about all the negatives in life, it helped me be thankful. I believe showing gratitude is a way to help center ourselves and help pull us out of out feeling of entitlement.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sermon 7/19/09 “Uniquely Luke Part Six: A Hell of a Choice”

Luke 16:19-31

In an episode on Every Loves Raymond, Debra and the kids got to church while Ray stays home. When they go home, the following conversation takes place:    

Debra Barone: Honey, show daddy what you drew.
Ray Barone: That's okay, I can figure it out.
[Ally hands Ray a drawing]
Ray Barone: Um, lets see. A big wall of red?
Ally Barone: No.
Debra Barone: Ally told me that was a picture of you in hell.

Key Biblical Concepts of Hell

In order to work through a perspective of hell that best fit the truths of the Bible and makes rational sense, let's look at the story of Lazarus and the rich man told by Jesus. To set the stage, Jesus has finished saying that a person cannot have two masters, money and God. The Pharisees laugh at him which brings Jesus to tell this story.

19 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' 27 He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- 28 for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' 29 Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' 30 He said, 'No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

Jesus says a man named Lazarus would sit at the rich man's gate longing to eat the crumbs from his table, but was never fed. Both of them died, the poor man going to Abraham's bosom, the rich man to Hades.

In the NRSV, the translation leaves in the Greek word hades, which means "the place where the dead go or the depths of the earth." When hades is translated to English it is normally translated as "hell." The Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament is sheol. In the New Testament the word hades, is found 10 times. All of the references refer to a general place where the dead dwell and only Luke 16:23 mentions hades as being a place of suffering.

In the New Testament the Greek word gehenna is the word normally translated as "hell." Gehenna is found 11 times in the gospels and once in the book of James. Gehenna is derived from the Hebrew word ge-hinnom meaning "The valley of Hinnom," which was located outside the city of Jerusalem. It was in this place that forbidden practices took place, including human sacrifices. King Josiah put an end to this by burning the down the high places. In Jesus' day it had become a place where people burned their trash and a burial place for criminals, thus becoming the "place where the fire never goes out." By Jesus' day gehenna was associated with everlasting punishment for the wicked and most of the time gehenna is used, it is associated with fire.

A Hell of a Story

As we dive into the story, it is important for us to remember the initial reason for Jesus telling the story. He tells it because Jesus has just told those listening to him that they cannot service two masters, either God or money. Luke then tells us that the Pharisees were lovers of money.

Notice the comparison between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was wearing fine purple linen which would be very costly and he ate well everyday. Lazarus was covered not in purple clothes but sores and he begged to be filled with the scraps from the table. Notice too, that Jesus tells that the dogs licked his sores. The dogs were probably the ones getting the left over table scraps instead of Lazarus. In this story, the dogs were the only ones to comfort him. They would come and lick his sores.

Their fates change quickly after they die. The rich man is suffering in Hades while the poor man is comforted next to Abraham. In some ways, Jesus is showing that the values of the world are the opposite in God's economy and the rich man is paying the price.

When he looks and sees Lazarus he wants Lazarus to come and comfort him. He never repents for the way he treated him throughout his life. The only thing he is initially concerned with is his self, which is really the very thing that has gotten him in this place to begin with. As the passage goes on, the rich man does ask that someone go to his brothers and warn them. This seems like a generous thing to do initially. I agree with Jerry Walls that while this seems nice, it is really just an attempt at "self justification." He may even think that if he does a good deed, his suffering will relent. Obviously Abraham picks up on this and denies his request. What really gets me is that when Abraham denies request to send Lazarus to his family, the rich man argues with him as if he knows better.

The ending of this parable is noteworthy. Notice that Abraham refuses the rich man's request to send Lazarus for this reason: "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." In others words, they have all the knowledge they need to respond to the truth.

Jerry Walls puts it like this,

The point of the parable is that the rich man is not in hell because he lacks compelling evidence. Just like his brothers, he had compelling evidence. Just like his brothers, he had available to him Moses and the Prophets…. In resisting the truth, he failed to form the sort of character that he would have developed had he responded to the truth that he was given.

A Hell of a Choice

I have always had some difficulty with one aspect of this parable and that is the issue with the rich man being able to go cross of the gulf. Abraham says that the gulf cannot be crossed, which means that this parable would teach that once our verdict is sealed in this life, it is decided.

After thinking about the parable, a though crossed my mind. What if, this gulf is not so much a physical barrier, but a spiritual one? What if the only thing keeping the rich man from crossing is the rich man himself.

In C.S. Lewis' little book The Great Divorce different ghosts (being someone who is not a true person) meet people from their past life who try to get them to repent so they can enter heaven. One person cannot forgive the person who murdered his son. One person is caught up in their intellectual pursuits. One person cannot get past their love for their child.

Lewis sums up why these people refuse to believe in God as the narrator is talking to George McDonald who has been sent to help him understand the realities of what he is witnessing. He says,

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words "Better to reign in hell than serve in Heaven." There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy- that is, to reality. Ye see it easily in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.

The rich man would not cross over because that would require him to see Lazarus as a true person and admit that he had been wrong. Instead, he chose to stay where he was. That is a hell of a choice. I believe the same thing is true for us today. There are spiritual barriers that come between us following the truth set before us.

The Pharisees allowed money to come between them and God. The question for us is this: What is it that keeps us from following the truth set before us? Is it giving up things we want to hold onto? Is it our love for money? It is our issue with control? Is it not being able to forgive someone?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pastoral Column for the week of July 27- Aug. 1: “What keeps people coming to worship?”

Last week I had lunch with a friend who has just moved back into Chattanooga and is in the process of finding a church home. During lunch, I asked him what he looks for in a church as he visits. He essentially evaluates three things: (1) message, (2) music (3) crowd.

Message: He wants the message to actually apply to real life situations.

Music: This person prefers contemporary worship. When he visits a church, he wants to sing songs that are "God centered" not "me centered."

Crowd: He looks to see if there are people his age and wants to see people excited about being in worship.

We all have a role to play in helping people stay a First-Centenary. The staff has to work hard at making sure the worship experience is all it can be, with the message, the liturgy, the music, the prayers, etc being God-centered and being relevant to our everyday lives. Each church member has to make sure and invite others to come and to help create an environment that causes people to want to come back. Just know that each person being in worship really does make a difference in someone else's worship experience.

For the purposes of all the facebookers and bloggers, I want to know what you look for in a church.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon 7/12/09 “Uniquely Luke Part Five I Love you this Much”

Luke 15:11-32

Have you ever lost something valuable? I think one of the most naked feelings is to lose something that is important to you. About four years ago, I was in the Wal-Mart playing around on some of the chairs, trying to find out which ones were the most comfortable ones. I did get some strange looks, but it was worth it. I left the Wal-Mart and got back into the truck and had been going down the road for a couple of minutes when I realized that I did not have my cell phone. I looked all over the truck and could not find it. I decided to go back to the Wal-Mart and find the phone. I went back to the section where the chairs were to see it is was on the floor there and it wasn't. Finally, I gave up looking so I went to the customer service line and just as I was about to get to the front of the line I heard a cell phone ring, playing, "Rocky Top and I was relieved to know that that was my phone. Luckily, someone turned it in. Losing something valuable is never fun, especially when it is gone for good. When we think of losing something, it helps understand our text this morning. Jesus uses three stories where something valuable is lost.

The context in which our Scripture is found begins at the beginning of chapter 15. The text tells us that the tax collectors and sinners are coming out to hear Jesus teach and the Pharisees and the scribes begin to complain. We have already heard them complain a number of times in the Gospel of Luke. Their complaint this time is not much different. They are upset because Jesus hangs out with and accepts sinners. Jesus answers their complaints with three parables.

In the first illustration, Jesus asks the question, "If you had one hundred sheep and one of them was missing, would you not leave the ninety-nine behind and find the one sheep that was missing." Often times, the whole village would keep their sheep together and when one of them would come up missing, the entire village would go out on a rescue mission. When the sheep was found, then the village would come together and through a celebration.

Jesus then gave a second illustration. He asks, if a young woman had ten silver coins and she lost one, would she not take a lamp and sweep every room in the house until she finds it. When she does she will throw a party and celebrate over the one coin that was missing.

The Lost Younger Son

Jesus then tells a parable to illustrate this point further. It is this parable that we will focus in upon. He says there was a father, who had two sons. The younger son comes to him and tells him that he wants his share of the inheritance. Normally, the father waits until he dies or retires to give his inheritance to his sons. In essence, the son is saying, "I wish you were dead, so that I could have this money." The father does something very strange, not only does he give the younger son his share of the inheritance, but he allows him to take his money and leave the family. The son has not only dishonored his father, but has decided he does not want to be a part of the family any more.

The younger son takes his money and goes to a distant land, and spends it on what Jesus says, "Wild living." Just when his money is run out, a great famine sweeps the land and he begins to starve. He finally convinces a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs and he is so hungry the food he is feeding to the pigs looks tasty. We have a young man who had been with his father and lived the good life. He has come a long way in the wrong direction by this point in the story. He is at his lowest point. He has been forced to do something no good Jew would ever do, that it to feed a pig, which is an unclean animal.     

As we are reading through the story, we cannot help but to think one of two things. We can either say he is getting what he deserved. After all, he disgraced his father and then he squandered all of his inheritance on wild living and he deserves to be in this position. Or, we are thinking at this point, "Why does he not just go back home and beg his father to forgive him."

Our scripture tells us that this is exactly what he decides to do. Our text tells us that he came to his senses and decides that even the slaves at his father's house live better than he is. He devises a speech in which he will ask his father if he can be a hired hand and work for his father. So, the younger son heads back home and while he is a long way off, his father sees him coming and runs our to meet him. The father is filled with compassion and embraces him and kisses him. The son begins to tell the speech he has prepared and only gets out the words, "Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy to be your son." The father then calls the servants and says, "Get the finest robe in the house, and get my ring and sandals for his feet." By putting these things on him, the father was restoring him to his place in the family as his son. Then, he said, let's kill the fattest calf, for this son of mine was lost, but is now found. As the New Living Translation says, "So, the party began."

The Lost Older Son

Jesus does not end the story there however. We find out that the father is confronted with another issue, namely his older son. When the older son, who has been working in the field, comes in, he sees a party going on. He asks one of the servants what the party is for and they tell him that his brother has come back home and that his father has killed the fattest calf for him. The older brother becomes angry and refuses to go into the party to celebrate.

At this point it is fair to point out that the younger son has not only wasted his money, but by being allowed back into the family, cuts into the inheritance of the older brother.

We might look at this as if he is pouting, but actually, he is shaming his father by not going into the party as the older son. If you will remember, the younger son has already shamed his father. So what will the father do? He does the same thing he did for the younger son, he goes out and finds him.

When the father goes out and meets the older son, and begs him to come to the party. The older son then says that he has been serving all of this time and that he has never gotten a party thrown for him. He says, "When this son of yours comes back from squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf." Notice the language he is using. He says, "This son of yours." He never calls his father "father", nor does he claim to be related to his brother. He makes reference to being a servant, not a son.

Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God when he says that both sons were lost. He points out that both sons in this parable are lost, just in different ways. The younger son falls into the trap of "self-discovery" while the older brother falls into "moral conformity." In other words, while the younger son is clearly lost, the older son is just as lost even though he appears to be the obedient son.

I believe the older son, even though he has been home the whole time, does not really know his father or the love of his father. I think the older son is just as lost as the younger one was. I also think the older son represents the Pharisees and religious leaders who are asking Jesus why he associates with sinners. Jesus is telling them that they are just as lost as the sinners he associates with because, even though they have never strayed from the letter of the law, they do not know God or God's love.

The Loving Father

I think this story should have a different name. Most people call it the story of the Prodigal Son, but I agree with William Barkley, it should be called the story of the Loving Father. The father's love is the one thing that remains constant. The same love that allowed the younger son to disgrace him and leave the family was the love that met the younger son on the road home and restored him to the family. This is a story of the father allowing his son to be lost in order that he might be found again. Jesus is saying this is the same kind of love God has. If you think about it, God takes a very big risk in allowing us the freedom to make choices other than God. This same love which enables us the freedom to turn away from God, gives us the freedom to come to our senses and to come home. When we do that, we are restored and made children of God.

Bill Cosby once said

Even though your kids will consistently do the exact opposite of what you tell them, you have to keep on loving them just as much. To any question about your response to children's strange behavior, there is really one answer: give them love.

I think Bill Cosby summarizes this passage up until this point quite nicely. Although the younger son did something quite strange and hurtful to his father, the father gave him love and it was this love that brought him back home.

Knowing the Father's Love

When we read this story, we often feel sorry for the younger son, but we look at content towards the older one. I cannot help be feel sorry for him as well. He has been in his Father's house all his life and yet he does not really know the deep love of his father. He may have very honest reasons for not knowing this. It could just be misunderstanding on his part. Maybe something has happened in his past that prevents him from experiencing the warmth of his father's love.

This reminds me of a country music song. A friend of mine had told me about it, and that he thought I should use in a sermon. The name of it is, "I Love You This Much", by Jimmy Wayne. The song is about a kid who grew up only seeing his dad once a year and longing to know that his dad loved him. The chorus says,

"I love you this much and I am waiting on you to make up your mind, do you love me too."

Finally he grows up hating his dad because he has never been a part of his life. He had not only missed out on knowing the love of his dad, but he missed out on knowing the love of his Heavenly Father. Finally when his dad passes away, he is at the front of the church at his dad's casket and the song says,

Half way through the service
While the choir sang a hymn
He looked up above the preacher
And he sadly stared at Him
He said "Forgive me father"
When he realized
That he hadn't been unloved or alone all his life
His arms were stretched out as far as they'd go
Nailed to the cross, for the whole world to know    

Just like the Pharisees, this passage is open-ended for us as well. Will we see that God loves us like the father in the story loves both of his sons? We were lost, but now we are fond thanks to the love of God.

Sermon 7/5/09 “Uniquely Luke Part Four You Won’t Crash God’s Party by Showing Up”

Scripture: Luke 14:15-24

Have you ever thought about the excuses we give for failing to do something? reported these real excuses for being late to work

1. While rowing across the river to work, I got lost in the fog.

2. Someone stole all my daffodils.

3. I had to go audition for American Idol.

4. My ex-husband stole my car so I couldn't drive to work.

5. My route to work was shut down by a Presidential motorcade.

6. I have transient amnesia and couldn't remember my job.

7. I was indicted for securities fraud this morning.

8. The line was too long at Starbucks.

9. I was trying to get my gun back from the police.

10. I didn't have money for gas because all of the pawn shops were closed.

Today we are continuing to study unique passages in the gospel of Luke. Today we are going to focus in on a dinner Jesus has with some religious leaders in Luke 14. Just so you know this was not the first dinner Jesus had been invited to. Back in Luke 7 Jesus was invited to a dinner and in the midst of that dinner a woman with a bad reputation came in and stared rubbing Jesus' feet. You would think by now Jesus would have been banned from these dinners, but we have him attending another dinner.

It was common in Jesus' day for religious leaders to invite traveling preachers like Jesus in for dinner so they could test his theology. Beginning in chapter 14 of Luke, the dinner begins on the Sabbath day and so what does Jesus do right off the bat. He heals a guy with dropsy, which was the swelling of tissue due to having excess water. Jesus heals the guy, then turns around and tells the people that they should not strive to have the best seats, but they should take the worst seats and wait to be invited to the seats of honor.

One thing to note about dinners in Jesus' day was that they were done as a way of achieving social status. Therefore you would want to invite the best guest and you would want to attend the best dinners. Beginning in verse 12, Jesus then turns to the host and gives him some advice about hosting a dinner. He says,

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.

13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Jesus is playing on the idea that the host is only inviting people to his dinner who can repay him for his generosity. Jesus tells him that he should invite those who cannot repay him so that God can reward him. As Jesus is giving his dinner host some advice, Luke records this, "One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, "Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!"" For sure, this man was making a comparison of this meal that he was currently eating to the meal that he anticipated having when the Kingdom of God was established. It is hard to know for sure what his motivation for saying this was, but I think he is trying to bring the focus off of the poor and on to those gathered around the table. In other words, he was saying that the ones around the table are the ones who are blessed because they eat bread in God's kingdom. In response to this statement, Jesus shares the following parable,

Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, 'Come; for everything is ready now.'18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.' 19 Another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.' 20 Another said, 'I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.'21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, 'Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.'22 And the slave said, 'Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.'23 Then the master said to the slave, 'Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.'"

The Excuses that We Make

In Jesus' parable, he tells the story of a wealthy person who throws a party. The clue that he is wealthy comes from the fact that it was a "great" party and "many" people were invited. It would have been customary for two dinner requests to go out; one invited them to come so that they would know how many people would come in order to know how much food to prepare. Then, the servant would go back out and issue a second invitation to come to the dinner. In Jesus' parable, the group who initially says yes to the invitation declines the second one after the food has been prepared.

You can imagine that this would not make the dinner host too happy as it would not be too pleasing for us today. This would be like us inviting a group of people over to the house and then have them initially say yes, but then when the food is cooked deciding not to come.

To make matters worse, Jesus tells of three of the excuses given for not showing up. The first one says he has bought a piece of land and has to go inspect it. Think about this for a second. He bought some land without looking at it first, not too bright. This would be like us buying a house to live in without looking at the inside of it. The second guy says that he has bought 5 yoke to plow a field and now must go test them out. This would be like us buying a car without test driving it. Finally a guy says that he just got married and he can't come. This is a better excuse, but he knew he was married when he accepted the invitation the first time. His wife will still be around after the dinner is over. These excuses are just that, they are excuses.

I am reminded of some of the excuses that I hear about why people do not accept the invitation to follow Jesus. My favorite is this; I am not a Christian because of all the hypocrites. I do agree that there are hypocrites that claim to be Christians. Sometimes I find myself being the chief hypocrite. I am afraid to put a Christian bumper sticker on my truck just in case my driving is not too good.

Sometimes I hear people saying, "Christianity is outdated." Again, I understand that the Bible was written a long time ago, but again, this is just an excuse to never consider its truthfulness.

Oftentimes I will hear a person says, "I can be a moral person without being a Christian." Again, I am not saying someone couldn't be moral and a non-Christian, but this still does not deal with whether or not someone should follow Jesus.

The problem is that these excuses do not address the real issue. It is just an excuse people give. Just like the three guys in this story were giving excuses to cover up their real reasons for not coming, so too do we for not following Jesus.

Deep down inside the reason these three guys decided not to come to the party is because they probably had what they thought was a better offer. Deep down the reason we decide not to accept Jesus' invitation is because we think we know better and we do not want to change.

The Graciousness in the Response

If the excuses given by these three guests are not shocking enough, the response by the host would have blown Jesus' listeners out of the water. The expectation would have been for the host to get made and get even, which would have been justified. He was just humiliated. Instead, he responds by telling his servant to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, which are the very persons Jesus told us he was sent to bring good news to in chapter 4. Then, when there was still room, he told his servant to go out to the roads and lanes and invite more people to come so that it would be full. Instead of getting justice from those who rejected the invitation, the host went out and invited as many people as he could so that the table would be full.

Traditionally this has been interpreted to mean that God first invites the Jews of higher standing, and then when they do not respond, he invites the poor among the Jews and then finally the Gentiles. While I do believe these three layers of meaning are in the text, I think he was using this to illustrate the graciousness of the host in inviting all to the table. God's invitation is not based on exclusive categories, but is open to all who will respond.

Inviting Others to the Party

One of the things that struck me the most about the parable was the language Jesus used in describing how the slave was to get people to come to the party. He tells him to "bring" in the lame and to "compel" people to come to the dinner. Why would the second and third groups need to be "compelled" to come?

In Jesus' day, only those of great honor would be welcomed and invited to the party because it was only the wealthy who could reciprocate the favor. The poor among them would not have found themselves to be worthy to come to the party. The dinner host is invited those who felt unworthy to come.

Of all the excesses I have heard for people not following Jesus, I have found one to be legitimate. I have heard people say, "I am not worthy of all Jesus has for me." The dinner host tells the servant to "compel" them to come. In other words, he tells them to make it so they come, even if they don't feel worthy to come.

I know that I have often felt unworthy of the grace of God. I guess that is why it is called grace. Nobody is every worthy, but this does not keep God from extending the invitation for us to follow Jesus.

I believe Jesus' challenge for us to be people who will go out and compel people to follow Jesus. In the words of one of our speakers at Annual Conference in Lake Junaluska, we are to be a "go out church" not a "come to church." This morning we set up 350 chairs so that we could see that there is still room in this building for people to come. Our job is to "go out" and invite people to the party so we can follow Jesus together.




Sermon 6/28/09 “Uniquely Luke Part Three: God Loves You and I am Trying”

Luke 10:25-37

I will never forget a man named Jack. We called him "the candy man", not after the movie, but because he would give out candy to all the kids after church. He would always ask the question, "Are you still saved?" Sometimes he would put his hand on my head and tell me he was going to pray for me and he would say, "Out ignorance." My favorite was when he would come up to me and say, "God loves you and I am trying." Today we are going to talk about trying to love others even when it is hard.

Last week, we talked used the story of Martha and Mary to teach the point that we need to make spending time with Jesus and those Jesus entrusts us with. In Luke's account, the story that we are going to share today actually comes before the story of Mary and Martha. I want to suggest that in some ways this story actually goes together. Luke tells us,

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

In Jesus answering the question of which commandment is the greatest, he pieces together two pieces of the Old Testament, first from Deuteronomy 6 when he says that the first thing to do is to love God. He says the second thing is to love your neighbor. Last week we focused on loving God with Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. This week, I want us to focus in on loving our neighbor. To do that, lets look at the story together.

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" 37 The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise.

Being God's Representative

In the story, the lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus' answer and presses Jesus further. He asks him, "Who is my neighbor?" Stop for a moment and ask yourself what the intent of this question is. Another way of asking this question is to ask, "Who do I have to love and who can I not love?"

Jews had widely understood the Law of Moses to say that their neighbors were fellow Jews. Therefore, the law exempted them from loving the gentiles.

Jesus responds to the question with a parable. He says that a man was going down from Jerusalem and is beaten and mugged by robbers and then left for dead. In the parable, two people, a Priest and a Levite see the man and walk on the other side of the road and do not stop to help this man. Both the priest and the Levite are God's representatives in the temple. They have probably finished their duties there and are leaving, since they are walking away from Jerusalem. These two people have accumulated status as God's people, not because of their actions, but because of the birth status. They are both well respected by their communities because of the importance of their position. These people serve the people in the temple and represent God their, but when they come by a man coming from Jerusalem, who has possibly just come from the temple, they pass him by.

Then, Jesus tells us that a Samaritan walks by and sees the man lying on the road and he has compassion for him. His compassion causes him to bandage up his wounds and take him to an inn where he could recover. He saved this person from dying on the road. As Joel Green points out, what distinguishes the Samaritan from the other two others is not that he is a Samaritan or that the other men are religious figures, but that this person has compassion. This person acts on God's behalf. If you will remember, Jesus is the one who sees people and has compassion for them. It is Jesus' compassion that leads him to heal and restore people.

What makes a person the representative of God is not the position of a person, but rather, whether the person does what God would do. These two people who work in the temple are not God's representatives, but rather, the Samaritan is the one who acts on God's behalf. At the end of the story, Jesus asks the lawyer, "Who was the neighbor?" The lawyer responds, "The one who showed mercy." In other words, "the one who acted on God's behalf is the neighbor." Jesus has totally turned the question around. Instead of asking who can we exclude from loving, Jesus says loving your neighbor is seeing people the way God sees them and having compassion for them.

Shortly after World War 2 came to close, Europe had been ravaged by war and was in ruins. It was not uncommon to see orphans in the streets because their orphanage had been destroyed. Early one morning an American soldier was making his way back to the barracks in London. As he turned the corner in his jeep, he spotted a little boy with his nose pressed to the window of the pastry shop. Inside, the cook was kneading dough for a fresh batch of doughnuts. The hungry boy stared in silence, with his nose pressed against the window, drooling and watching the cook's every move. The soldier pulled his jeep to the curb, stopped, and got out. "Son, would you like some of those?" The boy was startled. Oh yeah… I would." The American stepped inside and bought a dozen, put them in a bag and walked back to where the little boy was standing in the cold. He smiled, held out the bag and said simply, "Here you go." As he turned and walked away, he felt a tug on his coat. He looked back and heard the child ask quietly, "Mister… are you God?"

Part of what it means to love our neighbor is that we love the way God loves. Since God shows love to every person, regardless of who they are, we are called to do the same. Although this Jewish traveler would have agreed theologically with the two guys who passed him by, it was the Samaritan that represented God.

Showing Love when it is Hard.

There is a catch in this story. Although the important point is not that this was a Samaritan that had compassion on this traveler, the point adds a nice twist. Jesus had already said in Luke that it is not good for a person to just love those who love you or to be good to only those who are good to you, or to lend to just those who lend to you. He says even sinners do that. He says that you should love those who hate you and those who persecute you. Indeed we have this type of love in the story. I think it is reasonably safe to assume this person who was robbed and left to die was a Jew. The fact that the Samaritan acted with compassion is important because Samaritans and Jews were not the best of friends. The Jews had excluded them from the neighbor category and they did not associate with each other, nor did they worship together. Yet, the Samaritan loved his enemy.

Some kids ages 6-8 were asked what love means to them and their answers were very clever. One boy said, "Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other." One girl, age six said, "Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs." Terri at age four said, "Love is what makes you smile when you're tired." My favorite answer though came from a six-year-old named Nikka. She said, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you hate."

I think she is on to something. Loving your neighbor is about loving everyone, no matter who they are. The most difficult people to love are the ones who hate you, but those are the people God calls us to love. A guy who I went to church with used to tell me, "God loves you and I am trying." Honestly, I did not know whether or not to laugh or be offended. I think he is on to something though. Because God loves people, we should love them, even if it is difficult. Maybe we should be the Samaritan everyday.



Sermon 6/21/09 “Uniquely Luke Part Two: Showing up is half the Battle”

Luke 10:38-42

Cats in the Cradle was originally written in 1974 by Harry Chapin. It is about a father that is too busy for his son and keeps telling him that he will spend time with him later on. By the end of the song, the little boy grows up and is a man. The song is then reversed, with the dad asking the son to come visit and the son says,

I've long since retired, my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
"I'd like to see you, if you don't mind."
He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I could find the time.
You see my new job's a hassle and the kids have the flu,
But it's sure nice talkin' to you, Dad.
It's been sure nice talkin' to you."
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

Experts tell us that kids want to be just like their parents so we as parents need to model the behavior we want to see in them. This song demonstrates that truth.

This Sunday is Father's day, but I want to make sure that we all understand that while there are some fathers who do not care to spend time with their family, not all fathers are like that. I am fortunate to have a great dad. This message is not geared for fathers in particular, it is for everyone one of us who are busy and need to be reminded of the importance of being there for those we love.

In Luke's gospel, we find a story of Jesus coming to visit Martha and Mary. The text is found in Luke 10:38-42. It says,

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

 "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

This is a short story, but it has so much stuff in it. In this passage, Jesus is traveling towards Jerusalem and stops by to visit a lady named Martha. She has a sister named Mary. Luke tells us first that Mary is sitting at the Lord's feet, listening to him. Luke tells us that Martha had a lot of tasks to do and was distracted. The TNIV says she was distracted by all the preparations she had to do.

We read that Martha was a little upset because she sees her sister listening to Jesus, but not making preparation for him. In other words, she is not being hospitable. Martha then points this problem out to Jesus. Jesus then does something the reader should not expect. He tells Martha that Mary is actually doing what is correct while Martha is distracted and worried about many things. He tells her that only one thing is necessary and Mary is doing it.

Priority One: Sitting at the Feet of Jesus

One of the shows that she likes and somehow got me hooked on is Samantha Who. In the episode just before Thanksgiving, Samantha's best friend Dena is having relationship problems with her boyfriend. There relationship had begun well, but as of late; he was working all of the time. They break up and then Dena's boyfriend finds her in the movie theater to explain his actions.

He tells her that, quote, "I have not been neglecting you, I have just been taking you for granted." In the show, he explains that this is a good thing because he feels comfortable enough with her to take her for granted. I asked Melanie If I could use that excuse and she said no. Oh well.

Oftentimes when we look at this story we say that this is a story about doing verses being. We read this story and conclude that we must spend time with Jesus before we can serve Jesus. I think this is part of the story, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

To understand the importance of where this passage is located can help us better understand the message that Luke wants us to get from the passage. In this chapter, Jesus has already sent out seventy of his followers in hopes that when they arrive, people will be hospitable to them. If they don't welcome them, they are in essence rejecting God. Then Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan who showed hospitality to the injured man. Now Jesus tells a story of Martha, who is busy in preparation for Jesus. She is doing what she is supposed to and being hospitable to Jesus. The way the story is set up, Martha would be the one who is doing what she is supposed to do and following through to be a good host.

It is also helpful to understand what Mary is actually doing and why Martha is actually so upset about. Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him. This does not mean that she was just sitting at his feet like a puppy dog, she was listening to him and learning. This is what a student would do if a rabbi was teaching. They would say they "sat at ones" feet. Mary was actually acting as one of Jesus' male disciples and learning to follow him.

The reason Martha was so upset was because Mary was acting outside of her role as a female. Women would have been making all the preparations while the men listened to Jesus teach. Mary was acting outside her role as a female, thus upsetting Martha.

If we put all of this together, Jesus wants our hospitably to lead to discipleship. In other words, inviting someone in and showing hospitality should then lead to us growing closer to God.

Jesus says that in the end, only one thing is necessary. This does not mean that all the work Martha is doing is not important. After all, someone has to do it. Jesus just said that Mary was doing the one that that was necessary.

Taking Those You Love For Granted

We often presume on our relationships, whether it be with God, our spouse, our children, our parents, or our friends. When we do this, we can take these relationships for granted. This passage is primarily about sitting at the feet of Jesus and growing in faith, but it also points to a truth in our other relationships. Outside of our relationship with God, our relationships with our family are the most important thing and we cannot take those for granted.

When I was a chaplain at St. Joseph hospital in Lexington, one of my patients was the former governor of Kentucky. He ended up dying while in the hospital, but I will never forget my visits with him. He had so many stories to tell of his travels and all the things he had done. I will never forget one thing he told me during one of our visits. He said, "Brian, I have traveled all over the world. I have eaten with kings and queens, foreign dictators and the president. But, I would give all that up in a second to know that I could spend more time with my wife and kids."

After reflecting on these words and the advice of many pastors, I have come to realize that while people regret not spending time with their family, I have never heard anyone say they regret spending time with those they love.

Jesus in this text is asking us to simply show up. We need to spend time with him and with those he has entrusted us with. While my preaching is important, I will never have a greater influence on anyone like I do Caleb and Melanie. He has given them to me as a gift and now he is asking me to show up. The same is true for you and those in your life. Jesus is just asking you to show up in their lives.




Sermon 6/14/09 “Uniquely Luke Part One: Hard to Handle”

Luke 4:16-30

We recognize many products by the phrase that they use in advertisements. For example, when someone says,

"Just dot is" we think Nike

"Reach out and Touch Someone we think AT&T

"Snap, Crackle, Pop" we think Rice Krispies

"Where's the Beef" we think Wendi's

'It keeps going, and going and going" we think Energizer Batteries

'It's everywhere you want to be." VISA

Churches are even getting into the mix by using Bible verses that denote what their church or organization's mission is. Here in the Vine, we use John 15:5 which says, "I am the vine, you are the branches. If anyone remains in me, they will bear much fruit, bur a part from me you can do nothing." Our goal in the Vine is to connect people to Jesus so they can grow in their faith and bear fruit in order to serve the world.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus had this type of verse that characterized his ministry as he went from synagogue to synagogue. Luke 4 records the story of Jesus returning to his hometown

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
         because he has anointed me
            to bring good news to the poor.
     He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
         and recovery of sight to the blind,
            to let the oppressed go free,
19  to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Jesus has just returned to his hometown of Nazareth after traveling around preaching. News about him was traveling fast. On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue as was his routine. This means that he normally would go into the synagogue where ever he went. He stood up and read from the scroll, which was the text from Isaiah 61:1-2 with one exception. Jesus supplements Isaiah 58:6 where it says, "To set the oppressed free." Jesus leaves off Isaiah 61:2b where it says, "and the day of our Lord's vengeance."

It seems that Jesus may have been reading from the text that he believed summarized the purpose of his ministry the most. We may want to call this Jesus' mission statement. His purpose was to preach good news to the poor. He then elaborates on what preaching the good news to the poor will mean. He continues to quote from Isaiah. He says it means that he will (1) Bring freedom to the captives (2) Bring sight to the blind, (3) set the oppressed free and to (4) proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

If you were to break this down into the language we use today for mission and vision statements, Jesus would have said that his mission was to "Preach good news to the poor."

When we talk about the poor, scripture references them in two ways. They can be those who have material wealth, but are spiritually poor like the rich young ruler who would not sell his possessions or like the religious leaders who had control but did not really know God. Or, they can be the marginally poor due to social or religious exclusion, which seems to be the case in the gospel of Luke. Notice who Jesus heals in Luke, (1) Leapers, (2) Handicapped (3) Tax Collectors (4) Gentiles (5) Women (6) People possessed by demons and (7) a criminal.

Interesting enough, in Luke's gospel, Jesus does not just heal people for the sake of healing. Jesus heals people in order to reestablish them into the community of faith. Verse 19 says that he has now come to pronounce the year of the Lord's favor. This may be referring to the Old Testament's Day of Jubilee. In Leviticus, the Hebrews were commanded to have a Jubilee year on the fiftieth year in which all the people who were slaves would be set free and all the land were return to their original owners. Of course they never followed this command and you can imagine why. Jesus was saying that he has come to proclaim that those on the margin are now set free. They were to be "released" from the things that were holding them down.

Joel Green, who is a New Testament professor at wrote a little book called The Theology of the Gospel of Luke in which he says that in Luke's gospel, Jesus' focus on preaching to the poor meant that his goal was to overturn previous measures of status so that anyone could receive God's grace freely no matter what their status was.

I take this to be good news. No matter what our background, no matter what we have done to be where we are, no matter what we have done, no matter what keeps us from God, Jesus tells us that both the poor and the spiritually poor can receive God's grace freely. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free. Jesus has come to release us from those things that bind us.

I can still remember the first sermon that I ever preached. It was in the church I grew up in. The text I preached on was actually the text I am preaching on next week. I still remember that two people came down to the alter and one person accepted Jesus. I remember the people at the church were so proud, just as Jesus' listeners, at least for a moment were proud of him. Luke writes,

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?"

The problem begins in the next few verses when Jesus continues to explain the ministry God called him to.

He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself !' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.' " 24And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepersd in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Notice Jesus quickly goes from hometown hero to villain with just a few words. Notice what he says. Jesus uses a proverb that says, "Doctor cure yourself," which really means do for us, your relatives before you cure other people. Jesus gives more explanation when he says that they are going to ask him to do things he has done elsewhere for them.

We begin to see the real motivation of Jesus' hometown folks. They have gathered to hear and see him because they have heard of all the things he has done. They were probably sitting on the edge of their seat waiting on him to do some good stuff.

Jesus does not give in to their demands. Instead he uses two examples from the Old Testament of prophets who perform miracles for outsiders. First, he uses the example of Elijah who served a widow, who happened to be a gentile. Elisha, likewise, healed a leaper who was a gentile and not other Jews with leprosy.

This clearly upset Jesus' hometown folks so much that they wanted to throw him off a cliff. Talk about a bad homecoming.

As I have read and reflected on this text, I am convinced that the reason the hometown people got so mad at Jesus is because Jesus was not all theirs. Let me explain. When Jesus was preaching to them, they loved him, but when he told them that his ministry was elsewhere, they became irate. I believe they wanted Jesus all to themselves. The truth that Jesus came for people that were not living in Nazareth was too hard for them to handle.

This truth hit me one day when I heard a pastor during the Iraq war saying that we need to pray for our troops and the Iraqi troops. At first I was thinking, "Why in the world would we pray for the other country?" After the service I asked the pastor about it and he simply said, "If we believe that God loves the world, then we should believe that God loves them as well. You see, it is easy to think that Jesus is all ours. We can keep him in our little box. However, the fact is, Jesus is for the whole world. That truth is sometimes hard to handle.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Devotional Thought: Being Untied On the Sabbath

In my reading today, I read through Luke 13. One story struck me, which had Jesus on the Sabbath heal a woman who was hunched over. Of coarse he was chastised for this. His response was in the form of a question of sorts. He really asks what the purpose of the Sabbath is. He phrases it like this, "Shouldn't she be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath?" The answer, of coarse is "yes." In reflecting on this, should this not really be the purpose of our day of worship? Church should not just be about good music or good preaching. While these things are nice, the real purpose is about connecting with Jesus in such a way that we are untied from the things that bind us.

I hope we do more than just entertain in The Vine. I think we do, but sometimes it is hard to tell. I do hope I see people moving to the place where they take Jesus more seriously. Where we can come and worship together and poor our hearts out and allow God's spirit to change us. I think it would be more amazing to see 200 sold out followers of Jesus than 400 people coming to be entertained, but it would be best to see 400 sold out followers of Jesus. My prayer is that God would make it happen, even if he has to use me to do it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller

All of my Presbyterian friends have been telling me to read two books by Tim Keller, so I finally gave in and read The Prodigal God. Tim Keller is the pastor an inner city church in New York called, Redeemer Presbyterian Church. He has a huge audience through his books and sermons. He is very well loved, especially in the Reformed Tradition. I found this book to be very insightful.

Tim Keller's whole book is about the parable of the Prodigal son (or as it should be called, the prodigal sons). He correctly grounds this parable in its context, which is that Jesus tells all three parables in Luke 15 to those who are upset that Jesus eats with sinners. He points out that both sons in this parable are lost, just in different ways. The younger son falls into the trap of "self-discovery" while the older brother falls into "moral conformity." In both cases, they are acting out of selfishness but in both cases God acts out of grace. Keller then goes on to point out that in the case of the younger son, we see that God's grace is free. In the case of the older son, God's grace is costly.

While I really liked the overall flow and argument of the whole book, I found that it was the smaller things that Keller said that really spoke to me. For instance, later on in the book he ponders on the question about who was supposed to go and search for the younger son in this parable because in the two previous parables, someone always searches for the items lost. The shepherd searches for the sheep and the lady searches for the coin. He points out that nobody goes in search for the younger son. He then says that it should have been the older brother who went out to look for him. To add insult to injury, the older son not only refuses to search, but he complains when he comes back home.

Being a "Wesleyan" in my theology I was on the look out for places where I would disagree with Keller's theology. I was impressed that most of the book focused so much on the heart of Christianity that I found myself agreeing with Keller most of the time. I agree with him that salvation begins with God's desire to save us, not our desire to repent. I also agree though, that our repentance is important after God's grace first finds us. I believe that God's grace is very costly. The only place I found myself disagreeing with him was when he said that the way we know that God is initiating salvation is when we feel convicted about our lives. While I think this is how God reaches us, I do believe that God initiates this in all persons, it is just that some people choose, in the words of Keller, to be content with "self-discovery" or "moral conformity." In the words of Milton, "Some people would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven."

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to deepen their faith and understanding. Timothy Keller is a great writer and champion of the faith.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sermon 6/7/09 “Jesus’ Last Words of Wisdom Part 5: Better to ask Permission and Forgiveness”

This weekend marks a mile stone for me. I went to Kentucky to attend the graduation of the youngest kids who were in my youth group when I left for Chattanooga back in 2003. I can't believe it is already time for them to graduate. I can still remember announcing to the youth that I was leaving after four great years of youth ministry. I remember Kelsi, who graduated this year, telling me that I would not get to see her graduate and I remember making the promise that I would be there. Leaving is never easy. Dennis Flaugher will be leaving First-Centenary after six years of being our discipleship pastor and Clair will be leaving after two years of being our student minister. I am sure they are just as sad as I was six years ago.

Throughout the Farewell Discourses, Jesus has been announcing that he will only be with them for a little will. Now, in the final section of the discourse or the final sermon, whichever way you view this material, Jesus again tells them that he is leaving. The text reads,

"A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me." 17 Then some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying to us, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" 18 They said, "What does he mean by this 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about." 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'? 20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. 25 "I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father." 29 His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God." 31 Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (NRSV John 16:16-33)

Jesus makes the statement that in a little while they will no longer see him, but then in a little while they will see him again

The whole text can be divided into two parts based on the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. They ask one question and give one comment. First, in verses 17 and 18 they ask, "What does Jesus mean my saying this and what is a little while. Jesus answers the question by giving them that in a little while he will leave them, the world will be happy, and the disciples will weep and morn, but that after a "little while" their weeping will turn to joy when Jesus comes back.

There have been two lines of thought regarding how to understand this passage. Some folks have thought that this refers to the time between Jesus' death and his second coming. This would mean that we are living in the midst of the period of weeping and suffering, but we are to wait for the day of Jesus' return where our weeping will turn to joy.

I think a better understanding of this passage would be to say that the "little while" refers to the time between Jesus' death and resurrection. At Jesus' death the disciples would weep, but at his resurrection their sorrow would turn to joy. If this is the case, which I think it is, this would mean that we are living in the time of joy. It also means, as Jesus continues on that we are at the time when we can ask anything is Jesus' name and it will be given. Jesus says during the time we are in now, if we ask, he will tell us plainly.

The second peace of this discourse is when the disciples make the comment that Jesus is finally speaking to them plainly and they now believe the things Jesus is telling them. Jesus tells them that their will be a time of persecution, but it is telling them these things so that they will have peace.

The Problem with Petitioner Prayer

I want to turn our attention to a small piece of this passage that has troubled many people. When Jesus is explaining what things will be like when he returns, he says, "On that day you will ask nothing of me. Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete." This is not the first time in the Farewell discourses that Jesus has mentioned this fact. In chapter 14, you may recall that Jesus tells the disciples that because he is going to the father, they will do even greater things than he has done. He then tells the disciples, "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it." (NRSV John 14:13-14) The again in chapter 15, Jesus says, "You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name." (NRSV John 15:16)

I think CS Lewis sums the problem up nicely in his only book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm when he suggests that the issue is not that God does not grant every request we make of him. We know that we oftentimes ask prayers that are not in our best interest. We also realize that some of our prayers, if they were granted would mean that someone else's prayers were not granted. For instance, in this tough economy, many people are applying for jobs and praying sincerely that they get the job. Knowing that it is God's will for people to work if they can, this seems like a prayer that God would grant. However, when God answers yes to one person, it means keep looking for someone else.

Lewis goes on to say that intellectually we can understand why God does not grant every prayer request, but what is more troubling is that he promises to grant anything that is asked in Jesus name. So, why would Jesus promise us something so huge and yet not be able to follow through on it.

The Three Not so Right Answers

It seems that this question is often answered in two different ways that I believe are unhelpful. First, it is said that God already has his mind made up before we pray, so that when we pray we are really just praying to discover God's will. The purpose of prayer is not to petition God for things, but to change our own hearts to accept God's will.

I do want to say that this answer is not totally wrong. I do firmly believe that part of what God does in prayer is to help us understand his will better and to deepen our relationship with him more. The problem with this view is that it is not what Jesus tells us in these passages. He does not say pray in my name so that you will have a deeper understanding of what my will is. He does say that if we ask in his name he will give us a more clear understanding of things.

On the other side, people often say that the reason God does not answer our prayers is because the person does not pray with enough faith. To me this is even more troubling than the first answer. While I do think that there are some things that God wants to do for us, but waits until we ask him, there are many things that faithful Christians ask in prayer that are not granted.

The third "not so right answers" is what I call the Garth Brooks Solution." You may remember his song, "Unanswered Prayers." which takes place when he and his current wife run into his old high school girlfriend, whom Garth had asked God to make it so that she would marry him. This is what he says,

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers

Remember when you're talking to the man upstairs

Just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care

Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers


Again, part of this song is helpful. Sometimes we do not get the response to our prayers we wanted and we do find that God somehow takes our lives and makes something great out of it. Oftentimes we are thankful for the way our lives turned out and we are glad God did not say yes to our prayer. The reason this is not completely the solution though, is twofold. (1) I believe God response to all of our prayers so that none of those prayers go answered. (2) What happens when our unanswered prayers do not turn out so well. I guess under the "Garth Brooks Solution" some of God greatest practical jokes would be unanswered prayers. The way our life turns out does not determine the effectiveness of our prayer and whether God answers them.

What does it mean to Pray in Jesus' name?

It seems to me that to understand why Jesus would make such a claim to his disciples that he did mean that they could really ask in his name and it would be granted means two things for sure:

  1. God calls Christians to participate in the work that God is doing with our prayers. When we read the context around the John 14 passage quoted earlier, we will notice that the context is about Jesus; followers being able to do greater things than what Jesus did. Part of the way they would be able to do this was that Jesus would send someone to come along beside them, namely the Holy Spirit, but the other explanation for how this is possible is that they will be able to draw on Jesus through prayer.


    For some reason, God finds it best not to just determine everything to be the way that it is, but God wants to use his followers to accomplish his purposes in the world. Prayer in one of the key ways God wants us to do this. By praying in Jesus' name, God will give us the power to do God's will.


  2. Secondly, God has called us so that we will bear fruit in our lives. Praying in Jesus' name in John 15 is for the purposes of bearing fruit. What does it mean to "bear fruit?" It means that will love one another. Praying in Jesus' name is important because by doing so it should allow us to form the character of a person who loves others.

    Practically speaking, praying in Jesus' name may mean that we get the opposite of what we ask for. If God wants to grant us fruit in our lives so that we love one another, then when we pray those selfish prayers, God could use those moments as a teaching moment to help us grow into the mature person God wants us to be.

  3. Finally, in the passage we read this morning, the subject matter turns to the disciples having understanding into what Jesus is telling them. Notice that they do not understand the meaning of Jesus' teaching. Jesus then tells the disciples that one day their sorrow will be turned to joy and on that day they can ask for anything in his name. He then tells them that one day they will understand him plainly and when that happens, they can ask for anything in his name.

Ask for Permission and Forgiveness

We often hear the expression, "It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission." Of course we say this when we want to do something that we want to do, but we know that those responsible will not think it is a good idea. We then act on our idea and hope it works out. When it does, we look good, but when it fails we then have to ask forgiveness. I am sure all of us have been in this type of situations.

When it comes to prayer, I think it is important to ask for both permission and forgiveness. Here is what I mean. The more I think about Jesus' comments about asking in my name, the more I think about why Jesus would have said these words. As we have already said, it is not because all our requests are granted. We have suggested that it has something to do with us helping in God's work in the world and our developing the character God wants us to have.

The more I think about it, the more I think praying in Jesus' name is not about getting the thing we ask for, but getting the power necessary to be God's ambassador in the world. The details we ask for are secondary to the purpose that God wants to achieve. As Lewis suggests, it isn't about getting our request granted, it is about knowing that Jesus is listening to us where we are and responding in such a way so we can truly do the work of God in the world.

If that is true, then it is important to ask permission of God. God wants us to reveal our heart to him. God also wants to change our hearts, which may mean we have to ask for forgiveness.