A sermon I preached on Sunday, September 13, 2015 at Peakland United Methodist. The texts were Proverbs 1:20-22 and Mark 8:27-38.
A sermon I preached on Sunday, September 13, 2015 at Peakland United Methodist. The texts were Proverbs 1:20-22 and Mark 8:27-38.
This was a sermon preached at Peakland United Methodist Church on Sunday, March 30, 2014. The text was John 9.
This is a recording of my sermon from Sunday, December 29, 2013 at Peakland United Methodist Church. The text was 1 John 4:7-21. This was during the Horizons Praise service.
My sermon from Sunday, July 14, 2013 on Amos 7:7-17 and Luke 10:25-37 preached at Peakland United Methodist.
Scripture readings: Job 23:1-9; 16-17 and Mark 10:17-27
It was a Sunday morning, but something seemed different. As Erin drove to church, she noticed that the roads were more crowded than they normally were. And then she saw it. Instead of an abandoned parking lot at the Toys-R-Us like it was every other Sunday morning, the parking lot was full!
It looked like hundreds of children and their parents wrapped around the building and lined up in anticipation of something – a new Elmo toy, perhaps. Erin couldn’t help but think, “WOW.” All of these families lined up outside of a toy store just to get the newest toy.
As I reflected on Erin’s experience, I found myself thinking of all the children in our community who will never have that experience. Children who struggle to get by each day and who don’t know what the next day will bring. These children are not lined up outside of a Toys-R-Us waiting to take advantage of a sale or release of a new toy on a Sunday morning.
Take Renee for example. Renee is a client at United Methodist Family Services and she doesn’t consider herself anyone’s child. She is a ward of the state. Renee’s biological mother was 17 when Renee was born and living in poverty. Her troubled life involved convictions for theft, cocaine possession, and carrying a concealed weapon. After her mother was arrested for forgery, 7-year-old Renee was scooped up by a social worker and placed in the foster care system. Renee is not waiting outside Toys-R-Us to buy the latest and greatest toy on sale.
Renee is waiting for a forever family who will love and care for her.
Erin’s experience at Toys-R-Us and Renee’s story leaves me wondering, what is it that we the church are seeking for children? Are we seeking and pursuing justice and love for all children? Or are we focusing so much on teaching what we think Christians should believe while neglecting to show how Christians should live by actively pursuing justice?
Job doesn’t quite ask it this way in our Old Testament reading this morning, but he gets there. Job is the Biblical example of what it means to suffer. God and Satan set a bet on the table to see if Job would curse God or not if Job was no longer under God’s protection. God removes his protection from Job and Job loses everything. He loses the family farm, his children die, his wife leaves him because she can’t handle it anymore. His friends try to help, but all they offer are ways in which Job caused this suffering on himself. The verses we read this morning are often looked at by scholars as Job’s complaint to God. Complaint often has a negative tone to it. But challenge your thinking on that. Job is complaining because there is no sense of justice. Job feels that it is not right that he should suffer in the ways in which he has suffered.
Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian author and speaker, who defines himself as an “ordinary radical,” describes his own experience as a youth growing up in the United Methodist Church this way:
I began to wonder if anybody still believed Jesus meant the things he said. Jesus was crazy enough to suggest that if you want to become the greatest, you should become the least. Jesus declared God’s blessing on the poor rather than the rich and insisted it wasn’t enough to love just your friends. I thought that if we really lived like Jesus taught, it would turn the world upside down and that it was a shame Christians had become so normal. I learned in Confirmation class about the fiery beginnings of the Methodist Church, but where had the fire gone? I learned about John Wesley who said that if they didn’t kick him out of town after he spoke, he wondered if he had really preached the Gospel. Then I watched as the congregation built a $120,000 stained glass window. Wesley would not have been happy. I stared at that window. I longed for Jesus to break out of it, to free himself, to come to rise from the dead . . .again.
Claiborne’s words remind me of the story of two old men talking to each other and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to know why God allows such injustices, poverty, suffering, and hunger to exist in the world. His friend says, “Well, why don’t you ask God?” The fellow shakes his head and says he is scared too. When his friend asks him why, he answers, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”
It is quite possible that the rich man in Mark’s gospel today could have felt the same way that this old man did. The rich man comes to Jesus inquiring what he must DO to inherit eternal life. For Mark, eternal life is a synonym for the Kingdom of God. He uses the two terms interchangeably. In Jesus’ time it was widely believed that the rich were more likely to inherit the Kingdom of God. Their wealth was something that they had worked hard to accumulate over time or they had inherited. The rich man was most likely used to doing something in order to inherit great wealth (aka the Kingdom of God).
Jesus’ response is enough to jar us as it exposes the shakiness that is the bridge between the have’s and the have-not’s. Jesus flips the understanding of what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God.
Remember last week when we read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples were trying to keep the children away from Jesus? Jesus said, “Let them come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to ones such as these.” Remember how Edwin told us a few times that in Jesus’ day, children were expected to not be seen and not be heard. They had no social status what so ever. They were the least of these. And Jesus says that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus has flipped the understanding of how to enter the Kingdom. He does the same this week, with the rich man.
Jesus calls the rich man to give up all of his possessions and follow Him. The man, as Lamar Williamson, points out, was mostly awe-struck, astonished at what Jesus was asking of him. And the man walked away.
This is the part of the story where we usually yell out like we were watching our favorite TV show, “Dude, what are you doing?? You’re walking away from Jesus??” In Mark’s gospel this is the only time someone is called to follow Jesus and does not immediately do so. But, as Megan, who is also preaching on this text today, pointed out to me, we don’t know what the man does when he leaves. Maybe he was disappointed. Maybe he was angry and bitter. We really don’t know, Mark does not tell us, that’s another story for another book for another day. The question it raises for us is, where are we walking? Where are we going when Jesus calls us?
Today is Children’s Sabbath which is sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund who works tirelessly to ensure every child is healthy, is educated, and has an equal start. They challenge faith communities, like this one, to transform our communities and our nation as they defend and care for the youngest, weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable. The least of these.
So, while we are here in this beautiful place of worship and not in line at the Toys-R-Us, we must tackle some tough questions. Are we engaging in our Christian education in spiritual disciplines that lead to the practice of risk-taking mission and deep authentic community to seek justice for all children? Are we engaging people in our ministries in leadership to equip them to be the change they wish to see in the world? As we consider the millions of children in our own country who live in poverty, who are homeless, abused, neglected, without health insurance, or who are hungry, we must think about how we can be the body, the hands, and the feet of Christ for these children to work for – to pursue – justice on their behalf.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel knew something about pursuing justice. He said once, after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, “It felt as if my feet were praying.” Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King were walking with purpose and intent. To pursue is to hold purpose, there is nothing accidental or incidental about what we are doing. Rabbi Heschel would write, “The term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice”; in other words, justice is something we actively pursue. We don’t just sit back and say oh, that’s a great idea. The talk the talk and we walk the walk.
When a child is in absolute jeopardy, mortal danger, we put out an Amber Alert – we tell the whole community that we are in pursuit of the child and the one who is endangering that child, it is a time of utmost urgency and everyone has to get involved, everyone is expected to be aware, to look out for the child, to do what they can to help rescue the child in danger.
Brothers and sisters, this is our Amber Alert. We as a community of faith, as ones who follow the Christ, need to be on the lookout for children in danger, we need to be in pursuit for safety, to see that justice is done. In an Amber Alert, we get all kinds of information about the child, including their face, name, and story plastered everywhere!
There are countless faces of children lining up, not at Toys-R-Us, but at soup kitchens and other churches and agencies to get one hot meal or one box of food or for the lucky chance of getting to see a doctor at the free clinic. They are lining up all over Africa, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Dominic Republic, Washington D. C., and Lynchburg, Virginia.
We most likely will not get to see the faces of the 16.4 million children in this country who live in poverty, or the millions without needed health care, or the countless faces of children who go to bed hungry. We most likely won’t see the faces of the 5, 367 children and youth who are in foster care in Virginia and the 1, 372 who are waiting to be adopted by a forever family.
But some of us will. 25% of the population in Lynchburg is made up of children living below the poverty level. It is easy to look out and not see, but chances are with 25% of the population being children below the poverty level, we’ve met them. We’ve see them somewhere. How are we going to respond? Are we going to walk away?
Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was, and he answered two-fold: “Love God. Love each other.” We are called to love our neighbors are ourselves. We are called to love our enemies. We are called to love all people. And because we love, we pursue justice. When we pursue justice we are showing others our love.
We can rest assured that the faces we don’t see, God does. God knows each of their names, each of their faces, and each of their stories, just as God knows each of ours. And God has called us to go in pursuit of justice and love on their behalf – the nameless/faceless children of our community and our world. I challenge you this week to consider how God is calling you to be in ministry with children and youth whether that is here at Peakland or in our community of Lynchburg, or beyond. How is God calling you and how fast are you willing to go?
A sermon preached on John 6:35, 41-51 on Sunday, August 12, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church.
Dust was flying through the air as the children ran back and forth kicking a soccer ball. Spanish and English floated above heads as college students from the United States were playing futbol with Costa Rican children while on a mission trip to the shantytown Los Diques. As the ball flew past Paul, one of the American college students, the Costa Rican children laughed that they had gotten the ball past him. But Paul’s attention had left the soccer game.
In the distance, Paul noticed something. Or, rather, someone. Sitting next to an electrical pole that didn’t work, in tall green grass that hadn’t been cut, was a toddler. Paul walked over to the electrical pole as the soccer game continued. He picked up the small boy who was wearing only a diaper, and carried him into the church.
This was the first time I met Jabel. He was two at the time. He lived in a small two-room house that sat across the dirt road from a church and next to the shantytown’s trash pile. At random times during the week someone would come by and set the trash on fire to burn down the pile. The smell of burnt trash would drift into Jabel’s house
His single mother worked in coffee fields all day. She would walk about 20 minutes from the shantytown into the nearest city to ride the bus thirty minutes to the coffee fields. During the day, she left her three boys, Jabel and his two older brothers, at home by themselves.
Even though Jabel’s mother loves him deeply, she struggles to put bread on the table.
The average person in the world will eat one small meal today, and this was true for Jabel and others like him in the shantytown of Los Diques. Hunger is a reality that hurts.
In Biblical times, hunger was a reality that was not overlooked. And it is this context of hunger – a universal experience – that Jesus spoke what became controversial words: “I am the bread that comes from heaven.”
In verse 41, John tells us that the Jews started complaining because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came from heaven.” This statement aroused anger and anxiety in the people. This is in contrast to the response Jesus got in last week’s reading from John 6, where the people wanted more of Jesus. They sought him out. But not this week! Here they complain!
They didn’t seek understanding or clarification. Instead they murmur and complain. “How can this be?” they ask. These words from Jesus cause them to remember how their ancestors wandered around in the wilderness (murmuring and complaining, none the less), and how Moses provided them with manna from heaven. “The giving of the manna,” Biblical scholar William Barclay writes, “was held to be the supreme work in the life of Moses and the Messiah was bound to surpass it.” And so, here is this Jesus who claims to be the Messiah, with no manna from heaven. Instead, he calls himself that bread from heaven.
With this one statement, Jesus calls into question everything the people had believed and held as truth. Not only was Jesus changing their way of understanding “bread from heaven,” but he was changing their understanding of being in relationship with God. To be in relationship with God meant believing in Jesus as the Christ.
And their way of coping with this, was to complain. And why not? It’s so easy.
A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.”
But seriously, when it comes to growing in our faith and in our relationship with God, complaining gets in the way. You know why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years? Because they were complaining so much. Look at Jesus’ answer in verse 43: “Do not complain among yourselves.” The Message puts it this way, “Don’t bicker among yourselves.”
Jesus calls it as he sees it. Complaining gets in the way of spiritual growth. Jesus offers to us the Bread of Life, the nourishment that will keep us individually and as a community of faith, from wandering in the wilderness.
Irenaeus, an early church theologian, was asked what new thing has Christ brought that others do not give us, he replied, “He brought himself.” The bread from heaven that Jesus brings is himself for the spiritual self of humanity. “He is,” Irenaeus says, “as necessary to us as our food.”
We may not be hungering for bread like Jabel, but we hunger in a spiritual way. And Jesus says that he is the bread that came from heaven, those who eat of this bread will live forever, and be hungry no more. A hunger that can be fed through Jesus Christ.
For it is through a relationship IN Christ that we, as the workmanship of God, are able to share the Bread of Life with those who are hungering. We, as the Apostle Paul tells us through his letter to the Ephesians are to live the life which we are called. Those of us who claim Christ as Savior are called to be Christians, which can be simply translated as “little Christs.”
In the 1992 Walt Disney film, Aladdin, the title character goes through some extreme measures to get a loaf of bread, including running away from the Sultan’s guards. As an adolescent living on the streets, Aladdin knows that this loaf of bread could possibly be the only food he’ll have that day.
As he’s about to bite into the bread Aladdin notices two small children digging through trash, searching for something to eat. In that moment, Aladdin becomes a “little Christ,” generously giving his bread to the children. As Frances Taylor Gench, of Union Seminary in Richmond says, “No image could convey more clearly Jesus’ power to nourish and sustain human life and to address our ultimate hunger – the hunger in every human heart for relationship with God.”
We are called to do the same – to share the Bread the Life with those who are hungering. When Paul says in Ephesians 5:1 that we should be “imitators of God,” this is what he means. We – in every way, on every day – are to imitate the God we say we love. Whether that be in Central America, right here in Lynchburg, or even within the walls here at Peakland; packing lunches or giving money to support a feeding program; we are called to imitate the Christ.
So, I ask you how – where – are you being called to imitate Christ by sharing the Bread of Life?
Surrounded by books with notes in the margins. Legal pads with barely readable notes scribbled on them. Blank computer screen.
Slowly the words begin to find their place on the screen. At first the words and sentences come slow, but eventually the sentences start to form and the sentences begin to make paragraphs. As fingers move across the keys, thoughts, ideas, and bits of worship pour out that you never knew existed inside of you. Jokes appear that you think are hilarious, and then you delete them because you realize nobody else is going to know what it means. You proofread, and proofread, and proofread. You get someone else to proofread. You proofread again. And again.
Soon you are done. There is nothing else you can say, though you may think of a few illustrations or teachable points you could include, but it may take another 2-3 pages, and you don’t want to do that . . . to anyone.
After sitting back and relaxing, you realize: you don’t have a clean shirt to wear when you preach.
A sermon preached January 1, 2012 at Lebanon United Methodist Church on Matthew 2:1-12 and Ephesians 3:1-12.
This week our church will be a part of the 7th mission trip to Los Diques, Costa Rica. I have had the privilege, by the grace of God and the generosity of others, to be a part of all 7 mission trips. Since the first trip in 2006, my experiences in Diques have influenced my preaching and my teaching in various ways. It’s not uncommon for me to share a story about Don Victor, the pastor at the Church of the Light of the New Day in Diques, or his family. Or about different children we’ve meet over the years and how their stories impacted our lives.
Don Victor and his story came to mind as I pondered today’s worship service. About 25 years ago, Don Victor moved his family into Los Diques, leaving behind a comfortable lifestyle to live in a place with no electricity, no running water, and streets and floors made of dirt. Why? That’s the question that so many Costa Ricans and Americans have asked for years. Why would he do this?
Don Victor saw something in Diques that few others did, and few still do to this day. Where others saw prostitutes and drug dealers, Don Victor saw children of God. Where others saw a collection of run down shacks, Don Victor saw the Kingdom of God. Even with this new perspective, Don Victor’s story is not a warm, cuddly one. He was met with a lot of resistance. He received very little support from other Christians because he was doing ministry in such a ghetto. During worship services, neighbors would play loud music or run loud machinery. At times rocks would rain down on the building during services. There were days when dead dogs were thrown at the building, landing right at the front gate.
As Don Victor was welcoming the outcasts of Diques into the Body of Christ, he was unwelcomed.
The Apostle Paul knew something about not being welcomed. It is believed that Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians while in prison. Paul’s preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ was not welcomed. Yet, the gospel was not the only thing not welcomed in the first century church. There was a major controversy in the first church, something I know we are not accustomed to today. Luke documents the controversy well in Acts 15. In Paul’s day, there was one major division among people – Jew or Gentile.
In the simplest definition, a Gentile is a non-Jew. The Acts 15 controversy centered on whether Gentile Christians should go through the same rituals that the Jewish Christians did. In a sense, it became an issue of membership. The Jewish Christians were not recognizing the Gentile Christians membership in the church. The issue was not limited to just Acts 15. It was a problem that would rear its ugly head throughout the early church.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul’s major theme is that God’s plan of salvation is evident through the unified – the oneness – of the body of the church – the body of Christ. Many of the mission trips to Costa Rica have had the theme of “Somos Uno” – We are one. Don Victor preached about how we are all different, different languages, colors, and hair styles, with different abilities, skills, and gifts, and when we come together we make up the Body of Christ and together accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God.
This idea – this theology – is sprinkled throughout Paul’s letters, including in Ephesians. Yet, there is this division between Jews and Gentiles. Paul, in essence, tells the Ephesians what he tells so many others, “Get over it.” Yes, there are differences. And that happens. But don’t let those differences become stumbling blocks to doing Kingdom work. What Paul is saying is that we all – Jews and Gentiles – can live together in this new Christian community to do the work of the kindgom.
Yet, the notion that Gentiles were to be included and participate on an equal basis with Jewish people was still quite controversial at the time. Paul had a goal to unite Jew and Gentile in equal grace. The bottom line for Paul is this: Christ simply HAS been made manifest to all, and the good news about him WILL go out from all who are committed to him and to all the world, including the Gentiles.
Including the unwelcomed.
This is just one of the themes we uncover in Matthew’s birth narrative, where the final pieces of the Nativity Set – the arrival of the wise men – are put into place. Iraqi or Iranian star gazers were not normally seen waltzing into Jerusalem looking for a newborn king. “If they did,” as one observer has noted, “they would have known enough protocol from their own culture that they wouldn’t normally start by asking common people and maybe a priest or two where this child might be. Matters of state like this would usually have been handled by an official delegation working through all the ‘right’ channels. In short, what these men were doing in Jerusalem and how they did it was bound – and maybe even intended – to draw suspicion from the powers that be.” And suspicion it did draw.
Here are men most likely dressed in clothing that is very different from the cultural norm of Jerusalem, they probably have different facial features, and the gifts they bring with them suggest they are of a higher economic means than the average Jerusalem citizen. These men are different.
Of the four Gospels, Matthew’s Gospel is the most Jewish. It’s possible that the faith community that Matthew is writing his gospel for is the first Jewish Christian community in the first century. There is a strong sense in this gospel to follow the Mosaic law; to hear Jesus teach in the tradition of the great Hebrew rabbis; and the importance of spiritual practices. In Matthew’s view, this rich tradition of the Jewish faith are items that should be continued in the Christian faith. Yet, with all this Jewishness, Matthew’s birth narrative has the least amount of Jewish characters.
It seems that the Jewish-Gentile tension is present in this early faith community as well. I don’t think that it was a mere chance that Matthew includes the Magi in his gospel account. Matthew is saying that there are traditions that are important and will guide us to growth, but that does not mean that we should keep Gentiles out, because they don’t fit into that tradition. Mike Slaughter, a Methodist minister, points out that it was these nameless travelers who are the committed ones in Matthew’s narrative. It was not the Jews, the ones inside the faith community, it was the Gentiles, those outside the community of faith. Upon arrival, they bow down and worship Christ; they open their treasures and present them to the King; and they leave by a different way – transformed – changed.
From the beginning, Matthew is telling his faith community that tradition is important and valued, but that does not mean we exclude those who are different from us. Christ is for all. That is the message of the Manger. The Christ child was not born in a palace with plush pillows, but rather in a barn surrounded by manure. The Christ child was not visited by great political leaders, but rather was surrounded by barn yard animals, smelly shepherds, and foreigners. Christ does the unexpected, and welcomes the unexpected.
The shantytown that is Los Diques is a place where people with no other means go. Families escaping abusive fathers. Mothers addicted to drugs. Grandmothers raising her grandchildren. Young boys whose only way out is to join a gang; young girls whose only way out is to sell herself. This is a place the government would rather not exist, which is why they have been so reluctant over the years to provide the basic necessities for these people.
Yet, none of this matters to Don Victor. Never has. People are people. And all people need grace.
I remember once walking through Los Diques with Don Victor and we came upon a teenage boy, who was 15 or 16. Don Victor looked him right in the eyes and began to rattle off in his mumbling kind of Spanish. I couldn’t understand a word Don Victor was saying, but I did know from context clues he offered earlier on our walk that we were in the area of Diques where pot was being grown – marjurnia. While I couldn’t understand, I knew from the young man’s facial expression that he understood what Don Victor was saying. I noticed his arms abused like a cutting board from the drugs he had been taking. Don Victor knew this young man, knew that no matter what he had done that day, he needed to know that there was a place for him at the church, that he was valued by Don Victor and Jesus, and that grace was for him too.
The fact that these Magi, studiers of the stars from a foreign land, visited the Christ Child is a bit of foreshadowing into the ministry of Christ. Jesus welcomed all. The tax collector that nobody wanted to have lunch with; the children everyone wanted to keep in their place; the leper that no one dared touch; the bleeding woman everyone had forgotten about. And Jesus stills welcomes all, no matter where you have been or what you have done.
Whenever we gather around this Table, Spencer (or any other Elder) will say that this table is not Lebanon’s table – it is not the UMC’s table – it is Christ’s Table, and as such, all are welcomed. All are welcomed at Christ’s table. The bottom line of Paul’s message to the Ephesians is the bottom line of Christ’s table: Christ simply has been made manifest to all, and to all there is equal grace.
That’s the lesson I have learned from Don Victor – that all are welcomed – all receive grace. That is the message of Paul’s ministry and the message of the Manger. . . and the Cross. And we who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to follow in those footsteps to welcome all to share the good news of an equal grace to all.