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Archive for August, 2020

Wise Disciples

Jesus said that people who have been trained for the kingdom of heaven are like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. That is what Jesus does, and what he invites his disciples to do. What new treasures will emerge as the church follows God through the COVID-19 pandemic?

A Sermon on Matthew 13:51-58

At the end of a series of parables about the kingdom of God, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you getting all this?” They replied, “Yes”—though like all of us they still had lots to learn.  Then he added another twist with another parable about treasure.  “Every expert in the law who becomes a disciple, a learner in the kingdom of heaven, is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasure as well as old.”  Notice that Jesus mentioned the new treasure first.  Cherished treasures can be old, like a family heirloom, a family tradition, memories, and stories.  But treasures can also be new, like a precious new baby that God has brought into the family, a new tradition, a new song.  Wise disciples cherish the new along with the old.

Bringing out new treasures along with the old is what Jesus himself was doing.  “I haven’t come to abolish the old tradition, the law and the prophets,” he declared early in Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount.  “I have come to fulfill them.”  Jesus cherished the old tradition, but he also brought new treasure to add to and fulfill it.  Through Jesus, people could now see deep into the merciful heart of God in a new way. 

Not everybody was open to the new treasure, though.  Right after Jesus concluded that particular teaching session, he went home to Nazareth to teach in his home congregation.  You’d think family and friends would be bursting with pride and welcome what he had to say.  But what was their response?  They were offended.  “Where is this youngster getting this quote unquote wisdom?” they complained.  “What gives Jesus the authority to speak a new word from God?  We know Moses, and he’s no Moses.  He’s just the carpenter’s boy, Mary’s boy.  We’ve known him since he was a kid. Who does he think he is telling us that we need to look at things in a new light?”  Tragically, Jesus’ hometown folks hardened their hearts against Jesus and his teaching.  Thus they closed themselves off from the powerful good new things he might have done in their midst.

Hard-heartedness can prevent God’s people from recognizing and embracing new treasure.  I can’t help, for example, thinking of all the treasure that people miss when they refuse to consider that God might speak a word or shepherd a flock through a woman.  And how often has the church forgotten that the old treasures, like favorite old songs and old programs like Sunday school were once brand new?  Sunday school as we know it didn’t originate until 1780, and believe it or not, people in the church resisted it.

Hard-heartedness certainly prevents people from recognizing new treasure, but so can broken-heartedness.    That was the case for God’s people in exile.  Painful memories and guilt and shame hindered them from seeing and latching on to the new treasure that God was offering them.  “The prophets were right,” they confessed.  “We were arrogant and greedy.  We didn’t pay attention to God’s cries for justice for the poor and the widowed and the orphan and the alien.  No wonder God didn’t stop the Babylonians from crushing our homeland. We might as well get used to it,” they concluded.  “We will never see a golden age like the Exodus or the time of King David again.  And even if the Babylonians did decide to let us go home, there’s a huge desert between us and Jerusalem.”  God’s people lost their ability to dream.  If you don’t dream of new possibilities, then you won’t get hurt when they aren’t realized.

That didn’t stop God from dreaming, though.  The people were resigned to life in Babylon, but God was already fashioning new possibilities and doing new things.  “Remember what you saw me do in the past?” God said through Isaiah.  “Well, that’s nothing in comparison to what I am about to do.  Watch for the new thing I’m going to do.  It’s already underway.  Where there seems not to be a way, I am going to make a way home for you, and you are going to sing a new song of praise.”

In the years that followed, some people dared to dream and go with God, and some didn’t.  Some sang new songs of the wonders of God, and some didn’t.  Some welcomed God’s new thing, and some didn’t.

According to Jesus, wise disciples cherish the old treasure and open their hearts to the new.  They give thanks for and draw from the old, old story, but they also get ready to sing a new, new song in response to the living God who is even now up to something new.  

We aren’t in exile in the same way as God’s people in Babylon, and yet we are experiencing an exile.  COVID-19 has exiled us from the church building, and from gathering closely together.  It is challenging us to find new ways to do many things in our families and as a congregation.  Right now it is especially challenging for our families with school children, and their teachers, persevering through a lot of trial and error and ironing out technical issues as they try to keep learning going.  Necessity is definitely the mother of invention.

This pandemic is challenging emotionally and financially, and in so many other ways.  It has also pulled back the curtain that for so long has allowed our nation to continue to look past big inequity, inequality, injustice.  What other nation with the kinds of resources we have, for example, continues to allow a situation where millions and millions of people are only one illness away from bankruptcy?

What could God be up to in the middle of this mess and uncertainty that is causing pain to so many?  What God said to the exiles in Babylon God says now: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.  Even now it is springing forth.  Do you see it?”  God never stops dreaming and fashioning new possibilities, and God is still in the business of making a way where there doesn’t seem to be any way. 

What’s emerging among us at Morton? What new treasures are on the way to us in this “necessity is the mother of invention time”?  I am looking forward to seeing how God is going to take the new skills we are learning and use them to help us share the old story of Jesus and his love near and far.  Now people can participate from afar.

Building or no, the essentials are getting done.  Prayer?  Check.  Worship and the word?  Check.  Sacraments?  Check.  Caring for the wellbeing of others inside our fellowship and beyond?  Check and check.  What other possibilities await as we live as active citizens of the kingdom of God?  God says, “Behold, I am up to something new.  Do you see it?”  Maybe not yet, but we’re on the lookout.

Thanks be to God for precious old treasure.  Thanks be to God for new treasure, challenging and hope-filled.  Wise disciples cherish them both.  AMEN.

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Treasuring Wholeheartedly

This week Morton Church and I are celebrating thirty years of ministry together.  I am thankful.  This congregation is a luminous pearl in the kingdom of God.

A Sermon on Matthew 13:44-46

There was one occasion when Jesus urged people to count the cost of following him.  But not here.  “Picture the kingdom this way,” he said.  “It’s like a farmhand working in the field.  And when his hoe strikes something hard—surprise!  It’s not a rock.  It’s a treasure so great that with joy he quickly reburies it, hurries off, liquidates all his assets, and uses the money to buy that field.”

“Or picture the kingdom this way,” Jesus went on.  “It’s like a merchant constantly on the lookout for fine pearls.  And one day he finds the most precious pearl he has ever seen.  He hurries to sell all his assets, and uses the money to buy that pearl.”

When these men realized what they were looking at, they were ready to put everything they had on the line.  The treasure was so valuable, the pearl was so luminous and beautiful that they didn’t hesitate at all.  They let go of everything to have something that meant everything.

In parable form, Jesus was calling for the same kind of commitment, the same kind of total life reorientation that he later asked directly of a rich man who came to him looking for the way to eternal life.  There Jesus put it plainly: “Sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

To participate in the kingdom of God, to know its precious treasure, Jesus calls us to be ALL in.  Wholehearted commitment to Jesus and his way, living by kingdom values and kingdom priorities.  It means putting all that we have and all that we are on the line, like the surprised field hand, like the persistent pearl merchant who put their all on the line, treasuring something far greater.

But Jesus isn’t asking anyone to do something he himself has not done.  If anyone knows what it means to be all in, it’s God.  God knows what it is to cherish a treasure so much that God would give anything to have it.  What could mean that much to God?  Human beings.  People are the treasure that is so precious to God, and there is no length to which God will not go to embrace this treasure.

God pours out God’s own life in Jesus Christ, loving each and every one of us with all God’s heart.  Jesus is all in for us.  In Jesus’ eyes, each and every one is worth opening his arms wide on the cross.  Each and every one is worth the effort he made, worth the pain, worth dying for.  Our Savior longs to rescue us all from the sin that kills our love for God and each other.  Our Savior longs to rescue us all from death, and so he gave his all.  Beloved, you and I mean everything to our Savior.  We are his treasure.

Knowing that is who we are is itself precious kingdom treasure, for there are so many voices in the world, even within ourselves that tell us we are not worth it, that we are only worth what we can do, that our flaws and weaknesses, and mistakes render us worthless.   In the kingdom of God, all are beloved.  In the kingdom of God, love is the purpose of life, and that love is lived out as we seek life with peace with justice and wellbeing for all.  In the kingdom of God, the wondrous will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven.   The kingdom of God and what God is up to in it are bigger than the earthly span of our lives, but our lives don’t stop mattering when we die.  We rest in the love of God through Jesus on earth and in heaven, here and now and then and there in eternity.  We are safe and saved, treasured forever and always.

Again and again Jesus calls us to let go of lesser treasures and stake our lives on this one: abundant life in God’s kingdom forever and always.

Life together in beloved community is certainly one of the precious treasures of the kingdom of God.  It is luminous, lovely, holy.  I understand the joy when the field hand discovered the treasure, and when the merchant discovered the beautiful pearl.  When I met you all for the first time, when John and I spent that first day here with your search committee, we recognized the loving presence of God here right off the bat.  That afternoon in the sanctuary I preached to the committee about the four friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  Then we sang “Blest Be the Tie” together.  Back around the table in the fellowship hall, the committee made it clear that it would not matter to you all that speaking clearly is an issue for me, and that folks might have to listen harder to understand my speech.  That meant everything to me.  Before we left, Peggy threw her arms around me.  When we got in the car to head home to Richmond, I said to John, “I think this might be it!”  I rejoice in this treasure that I found, and that found me.

What treasure to talk together all these years about the God we know in Jesus, getting to know him more deeply and learning to trust him more and more.  We have prayed oceans of prayer together in Jesus’ name, through many joys and sorrows and everything in between.  What treasure that the Holy Spirit has been among us faithfully, challenging, comforting, and sustaining us.  What treasures are the people that God has brought together through the years, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses.  We have learned so much from one another about many things—faithfulness, forbearance, forgiveness, and more.  

Our quest continues, to lift up Jesus together, to tell the story of Jesus and his love whenever, wherever, and however we can.  For all this is too wonderful to keep to ourselves.  It’s the nature of kingdom treasure.  When we embrace it with all our hearts we can’t keep it all to ourselves, because we long for the time when all will know Jesus and his love, when all will find healing, wholeness, salvation, when all will find their place and their purpose in the kingdom.  We love to tell this story that we have loved so long.

Jesus, the king who embraces us wholeheartedly, calls us to embrace the kingdom wholeheartedly.  We are called to treasure wholeheartedly the one who treasures us, and to treasure wholeheartedly the way of the one who treasures us.  For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.  AMEN.

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Going Viral

A sermon about mustard seeds, yeast….and viruses.

Going Viral

tiny size of seeds inside of a jar

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

A Sermon on Matthew 13:44-46

Some of Jesus’ parables are short stories, complete with characters and a plot.  The Good Samaritan story is a famous example.  But other times, Jesus simply sets an image before his listeners, a snapshot of a common item or situation, like a mustard seed or a pinch of yeast, and we have to think about the picture for a while.  “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that sprouts and grows,”  he said in today’s reading.  “It is also like yeast that a woman mixed into a batch of bread until the whole thing was leavened.”

Mustard seed and yeast may sound like ordinary, harmless substances to us, but that’s not how people saw them in Jesus’ day.  Jesus might as well have told them that the kingdom of God is like a weed.  The yeast is an even more surprising example for Jesus to use.  Why?  Because every other reference to yeast and leaven in the Bible is negative.  Leaven was thought to be a symbol of corruption, rot, and sin.  To this day, Jewish Passover rules instruct families to get rid of every last speck of yeast in the house, and then to eat unleavened bread for the duration of the holy feast.

These associations would have given these two parables extra punch to those who heard them.  Who could forget?  To imagine a parable packing that kind of punch, imagine Jesus putting one before us that goes like this:  The kingdom of heaven is like a virus that someone breathed in.  It invaded a cell, where it tricked the cell’s DNA into churning out copies of the virus itself.  The new viruses invaded more and more cells until the whole body was infected.  The person breathed out more viruses, and then they went on to infect other people.  Pretty soon there was an epidemic, then a pandemic.

How can the kingdom of God be like an invasive weed, or like multiplying yeast, OR like a spreading virus? (more…)

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