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Mark’s telling of the mustard seed parable includes a  detail not in the other versions.  In Mark’s version, the seed becomes a bush, and birds come and nest in the shade of the branches.  Imagine the blessed shade.

Blessed Shade
A Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 and John 12:20-26, with allusions to Ezekiel 17:22-24

The story of the mustard seed is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The way Jesus tells it in Matthew and Luke, the tiny seed grows into a mighty tree. Some birds do like to nest high in a tall tree.

But other birds—especially many small ones—prefer the shelter of something smaller and more humble. They like shrubs and thickets where they might nest in the branches, and often underneath them in the shade. This is the scene Jesus is imagining when he tells the mustard seed story in Mark. The seed germinates, a shrub grows from it, puts forth branches, and birds come make nests in the shade underneath. Wonderful, blessed, sheltering shade.

Imagining the mustard bush sheltering many birds prompted me to read up on what birds find welcoming, things we can do to make our yard a more welcoming habitat. Certainly assisting with food sources and placing houses for birds that like them are helpful. We can provide sheltered spots in the landscaping itself and supply nesting materials. Birds like natural materials like pine straw, but I realized that I can also give them those little ends of yarn left from my needlework projects. I won’t throw those in the trash any more. You can even put yarn scraps and small strips of fabric inside a wire mesh bird feeder, and the birds will come and pull them out with their beaks.

The Sylvan Heights bird sanctuary in Scotland Neck has created a village of different kinds of bird habitats on a large scale. Two years ago when the Morton Salt Shakers (our daytime fellowship group) visited, we were able to go into a special area where we could feed the birds, and they would literally hop on our feet and land on our arms and hands. It was a place where the birds felt perfectly safe around us humans.

Mighty trees make good and beautiful bird habitats, but so do humble shrubs. To create a welcoming habitat, all it takes is one seed that falls on or into the ground, breaks open and dies to its old form, so new life can come out. That one seed can bless many birds.

This is what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus said. It is like a tiny mustard seed sown on the soil. It germinates and grows up into a great shrub, and puts forth its branches. The birds of the air come and nest in the shade. Welcome, welcome shade.

Who finds shelter in the kingdom of God? In the scriptures, birds are sometimes used as a metaphor or symbol for outsiders, for Gentiles—people that aren’t Jewish. It is clear from the gospels that outsiders of many different kinds—Gentiles and more—found a welcome in Jesus. They felt safe with the king of the kingdom. (more…)

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Be brave, little one from Flickr via Wylio

© 2009 Lisa, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

When some of the religious leaders questioned Jesus, it was anything but a friendly debate.  It was religious combat.  In Matthew 22 “Which commandment is the greatest?” is a trick question designed to discredit Jesus.  This kind of religious combat is so common these days, and that disheartens me.  Here is a sermon I recently preached when that passage came up in the lectionary.

Love Comes First
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-14:1 and Matthew 22:34-40

The Bible that Jesus knew was what we call the Old Testament. It had three parts: the law also called Torah—what we know as the first five books of the Bible—the prophets, such as Isaiah, and the writings, such as the Psalms. When they spoke of the Bible, they often called it the law and the prophets. Nobody knew the Bible better than the scribes and Pharisees. They liked nothing better than a vigorous discussion of the scriptures and especially of the sacred law. They loved to pose questions and debate interpretations.

But when some of the Pharisees questioned Jesus, it was anything but a friendly debate. It was not a search for greater light. It was religious combat. They were convinced that Jesus was wrong, and they were out to prove it. Jesus was leading people astray, and he needed to be stopped. They tried to discredit him in the eyes of the people. And soon they would use a cross to stop him.

These Bible experts watched Jesus carefully, trying to catch him making a mistake. They set traps for him, like the one in our gospel lesson today. One with special expertise in the law asked Jesus a question to test him. Note that the Greek word there for test is the same word used when the devil tested Jesus in the wilderness. No, this wasn’t a friendly inquiry.

“Teacher,” the expert asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” It was a trick question. Whatever Jesus answered, the legal expert could pounce. There were 613 commandments in the Torah, and whichever one Jesus cited this man could shoot back, “But what about this other commandment? Or, aren’t you forgetting something? Or, how can you call yourself a man of God if you don’t take this commandment seriously?”

Jesus gave one answer in two parts. “’You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’” This came from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, something every Jewish person recited every day. “This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus continued. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” This came from the book of Leviticus, chapter 19. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Incidentally, in Luke’s telling of this story, this is where the questioner tries to limit who is included in that love by asking, “And just who is my neighbor?” which launches Jesus into the story of the Good Samaritan who rescues a wounded man on the road.

But here in Matthew, the two greatest commandments simply hang in the air. They ring like a bell. Love is the point of all the law and all the prophets. Love God, and love neighbor. These two are inseparable. They are a single idea in two directions. We can’t love God without also loving our neighbors. This is the heart of Christian faith. Love. This is the heart of religion. Love. This is the point. Love.

Being right is not the point. Being beyond criticism and perfectly pure is not the point. Having our heads on straight and believing the correct beliefs is not the point. Love is the point. Love comes first.

But for many of these biblical legalists, love did not come first. (more…)

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Weed-whacker from Flickr via Wylio

© 2006 dvs, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Here is a sermon about the wisdom of Rabbi Gamaliel, who was one of Paul’s teachers.  His counsel of restraint is just as wise today as it was in the days of the Book of Acts.

The Wisdom of Gamaliel

A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Acts 5:27-42; 22 (sel. vss.)

Paul did not listen to the wisdom of his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, and he later came to regret it.

Paul was among those who were enraged by the witness and teachings of the apostles of Jesus. He thought Jesus’ followers were just plain wrong. They were dangerous. They were preaching lies. They were misinterpreting the scriptures, and they were dishonoring God.

Paul, then called by his Hebrew name Saul, threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of eliminating and erasing the church. It was he who stood by holding the coats while his colleagues pelted deacon Stephen to death. It was he who breathed threats and murder against the people of Jesus, dragging off to prison any he could lay his hands on. It was he who ravaged the church. Paul was enemy number one.

Or to use the imagery of today’s parable, Paul believed that the followers of Jesus were weeds in the field of true faith, and Paul himself was a self-appointed, industrial strength weedeater.

As we think about this, it’s important to remember that at that time, Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. The church was born inside the Jewish faith. This was a family conflict.

It’s also important to note that the religious authorities and council members came from different groups within Judaism. Pharisees and Sadducees held differing viewpoints on some matters of faith, and sometimes there was friction between them. They tended to disagree vigorously.

It’s also important to remember that some among them were sympathetic to the church, and some, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who were both Pharisees, even became followers of Jesus.

We don’t know whether Gamaliel, also a Pharisee, ever became a follower of Jesus or not. There’s not enough in the story to be able to tell, but the possibility is there. Some traditions say that he did. But there are a few things we can say with certainty about Gamaliel. He was well-respected then, and also down through the ages by both Jews and Christians.

Gamaliel did not think violence was the way. He didn’t think killing the apostles was the answer to the conflict. When he saw the rage in his fellow council members’ faces and heard them calling for the death penalty, he took the floor of the council meeting and called for an executive session. The apostles were taken out.

Then Gamaliel said, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you do to these men. Remember what happened with those other men, Theudas and Judas the Galilean who had followings for a while. They both got killed and their movements fizzled out, and their followers scattered to the four winds.

“I’m telling you,” Gamaliel continued, “keep your hands off these men! Let them alone! If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, you won’t be able to stop it whatever you do. You might even find yourselves fighting against God himself!”

To put Gamaliel’s point succinctly: Be careful! You might be wrong!

Which is also one of the main points of Jesus’ parable about not trying to pull the weeds out of the wheat: You might be wrong!

(more…)

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Art by Pamela Etling

Art by Pamela Etling

Here is the sermon I preached for our congregation’s recent Homecoming Sunday.  As we gave thanks for the past, and looked ahead to the future, it seemed appropriate to lift up Christ once again as the heart of the church and the very life of the church.

Living Is Christ

A Sermon on Philippians 1

 

Given everything that Paul had gone through, it’s understandable that he recognized that death would bring welcome relief. No, he wasn’t suicidal. But life was often a struggle, and ministry was often an uphill battle. Paul had been through so much: hunger, cold, illness, opposition, sometimes violent opposition, imprisonment. Something he called a thorn in the flesh caused him pain that was never completely relieved. And here Paul was in prison again, dependent on the goodwill of others even to have something to eat. This might be his last imprisonment. Execution was a very real possibility.

 

Friends in the church at Philippi had sent Paul support and encouragement, and now he was writing to return the same to them. They weren’t having an easy time of it, either. They were bearing up under opposition from somewhere, perhaps outright persecution like what the church in Iraq is experiencing now. But even the mildest forms of opposition are no fun, as when the community looks down its nose at you, or maybe even worse, just doesn’t care, has no regard for you at all. The church at Philippi was experiencing pain from without, and there was internal stress as well. Later in the letter Paul alludes to the stress that occurs when church members don’t see eye to eye on something.

 

Paul and his Philippian friends had a history of bearing one another’s burdens. He shares some of his own distress in his letter, but he mostly wants to help them in their distress.

 

After reassuring his friends of his ongoing love and prayers for them, Paul shares the vision that is keeping him going, hoping it will help them keep going, too. He sums it up succinctly like this: to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain. (more…)

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The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

God is beginning to bring children to Morton Church again, and recently a 3 1/2 year old noticed the lit candles on the communion table and asked, “Why is there fire up there?”  His question inspired this sermon for our Homecoming Service.

Why There’s Fire in the Church
A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-10 and Acts 2:1-21
Homecoming Sunday 2013

During worship two Sundays ago, the burning candles on our communion table caught a child’s eye. He asked, “Why is there fire up there?” What caught Moses’ eye was a burning bush. And whenever you see fire in the Bible, it means that God is around somewhere, and it means that God is up to something. Sometimes, like the church gathered in the upper room, Bible people are expectantly waiting for the fire. For others, like Moses, the fire comes to them as a complete surprise.

The day Moses first saw the fire started out just like any other work day. Moses was out in the fields of Midian, doing what he did every day: keeping track of a flock of sheep. Suddenly, there on the horizon that he had scanned countless times before, he noticed something different. “That’s odd,” Moses said to himself. “That bush is on fire, but it’s not getting burned up. Wow! I’ve got to go take a closer look!”

There! God had Moses’ attention, and the next thing you know, God was relighting an old passion in Moses. “Don’t come any closer,” God said when God had Moses’ attention. “Take off your shoes. You’re on holy ground here!”

God then proceeded to pour out what was in God’s heart. “I’ve seen the terrible suffering of my people in slavery in Egypt,” God said. “I’ve heard every one of their cries. I know how miserable they are.”
Moses knew it, too. He had seen it and heard it, too. Years ago Moses had killed an Egyptian that he saw beating an Israelite, and that’s what led him to run away from Egypt and immigrate to Midian. Doggone right Moses knew what God was talking about!

“I’m going to get them out of there and lead them to a new homeland,” God continued. “And so, I am sending YOU as my agent. You’re going down to Egypt, you’re going to tell Pharaoh to let my people go, and you’re going to get them out of there.”

Shocked, Moses proceeded to argue with God about why he was a poor choice for this job, and why God really ought to send somebody else. Eventually, though, Moses quit objecting and headed for Egypt. Despite himself, Moses found his heart on fire again, and soon he found himself face to face with the king of Egypt, right in the heart of the oppression and pain of the Hebrew people, calling for justice in the name of God.

The group gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem was a small church with a big task ahead of it. “You’re going to be my witnesses,” Jesus had told them, “starting here at home in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you are going to get the power to do it.” The fire was on the way.

As the church talked and prayed and waited, a fly on the wall might have heard something like this: “How are we going to manage this? I mean, look at us! Where do we start? What do we say? What about the people who don’t speak our language? And we know this is going to get us in trouble just like it got Jesus in trouble. What will we do then?” You can bet there was some big time praying going on in the upper room, along with Bible study and telling and retelling the stories of Jesus.

The Day of Pentecost found Jesus’ followers together. This time, God didn’t come quietly. God didn’t slip in on the horizon and wait for them to notice. This time the Spirit of God swooped in like a fierce wind, and fire appeared among them and rested on them. In pictures of this event, Jesus’ followers often look like human candles with flames above their heads. And no, they didn’t get burned, either!

Next thing you know, they’re outside of the upper room telling everybody about Jesus, telling everybody about the wonderful things God does. It happened to be homecoming time in Jerusalem then, too. Lots of people from all around the known world were there. They were amazed when they heard the members of the church telling God’s story in their native languages. The Spirit had given the church the ability to speak the languages of the people on the outside who didn’t know Jesus yet.

The whole city knew something was going on. (more…)

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'Rila Monastery' photo (c) 2009, Dvemp - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here is a sermon on Luke 16:10-31.  The issue is especially poignant in the wake of the recent U.S. House vote to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps.”

The Five Brothers

A Sermon on Luke 16:10-31

A few of Jesus’ parables, like the ones we heard last week about the lost sheep and lost coin, seem relatively tame.  But not this one.  This parable is a tough one.  It deals with a sensitive subject: wealth.  And it has a big stinger.

In Jesus’ day people loved to hear stories of people getting what they deserve in the hereafter.  Jesus took one of these popular tales that was circulating at the time, changed some of the details, and aimed it straight at the religious authorities of Judea.

Jesus was tough on them.  He made no attempt to handle them with kid gloves. Jesus had just gotten through pointing out that you can’t serve both God and wealth, only one can be the most important to you, and that the things humans value are an abomination in God’s sight.

The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus.  Why?  They refused to see the serious spiritual problems that money and affluence pose.  They insisted that possessions were a sign that God was pleased with you, that God was blessing you.  Poverty was a sign that God was cursing you. They came by this view honestly.  They drew it from scripture.    Check out Deuteronomy 28.  That’s just one example.  There Moses says that “if you obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth; all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God.”  Then there’s a long list of blessings of every kind, from victory in battle to strong, healthy livestock, to highly productive fields, to many healthy children, to rain just when you need it. If you obey, you’ll be blessed.  If you don’t, you won’t.

But Jesus saw the flaws in their too-neat system of rewards and punishments.  For all their intense study of scripture, these particular leaders, anyway, had skipped over the deep and powerful message of Moses and the prophets giving the people of God solemn responsibilities towards all people in need.

There were two men, Jesus said.  One was the richest of the rich.  He ate gourmet meals every day.  He dressed in the finest clothes right down to his linen underwear.  His clothes were purple, the color of royalty, power, and authority.  He had it all.

Just outside the rich man’s gate lay a man who was the poorest of the poor.  He had nothing.  No food, no home, inadequate clothing.  Like Job, he was clothed in sores.  He was sick.  He couldn’t walk any more.  How he longed for the rich man’s table scraps.

Now note: Jesus makes no moral judgments here.  There’s no explanation of how the rich man got his wealth, no hint of any dirty doings.  Plus, there’s no explanation of how Lazarus got in the fix he was in either, and no hint that he was particularly righteous.

Scene 2: Both men died.  Now everything is exactly reversed.  Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.  The picture here is of the way people reclined at banquets in Jesus’ day.  Lazarus reclined next to Abraham at the heavenly banquet.

Far, far away the rich man found himself in Hades with nothing but pain.  If only he could just get one drop of water.  He begged Abraham to send Lazarus over with just one drop of water.

“Sorry, my child.  Not possible,” Abraham replied.  The rich man and Lazarus never connected in life.  Now they can’t connect in death.

Now why did things turn out this way?  (more…)

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Here is a repost of a sermon I preached years ago in my small congregation:

Just a Spirit of Weakness…

Painting by James Tissot

In God’s eyes there is no “just a” as in “we’re just a small church.”  When I hear people in small congregations use those two words “just a,” I suspect that a spirit of weakness has hold of them.  Like the bent over woman in the synagogue in Luke 13, small churches often have a hard time looking the world in the face.  Christ the healer is at work doing something about that.  Here’s a sermon I preached on Luke 13:10-21 some years ago.  Notice that the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast immediately follow the healing story. 

“Stand Up Straight!”

This story of Jesus is one of my all time favorites.  And now it is especially poignant because my father is in the same fix as the woman in the story.  He is bent over, and he feels too weak to stand up straight.

The Greek text says that a spirit of weakness had crippled this woman.  For eighteen years it had held her down, so that she couldn’t stand up straight.  Nowadays she would probably receive a diagnosis of scoliosis or osteoporosis. Think of what that means.  Pain.  Spontaneous fractures in her vertebrae.  Think of what being bent all the time did to this woman’s lungs and her other internal organs.  Think of what this woman had to do to her neck to be able to see.  She would have to bend it backwards, like this, or else turn sideways and look at the world from the side.  It took so much effort to look up and see that she spent most of the time looking at the ground.

Even worse, perhaps, than the physical suffering was the emotional suffering.  In Jesus’ day people believed that disability was caused by a demon, and that it was a punishment from God.  Just as they do now, people stared.  They avoided her.  They wondered what in the world this woman had done to deserve such an affliction.  It was a source of shame.

Shame is very much a spirit of weakness.  Shame makes it tough to stand tall and look the world in the face.  It has many sources.  Example: Appearance is so important in today’s world.  If you can’t fit the ideal or even the norm, you are subject to harsh judgment and even ridicule.  Heaven help you if you’re not thin!  Heaven help you if you have some kind of deformity, or a condition that makes it hard for you to control your muscles!  Heaven help you if you’re frail and require a lot of care!  You will be stared at and pitied.  And it hurts.  It really hurts.

There are many sources of shame.  Many folks are ashamed to let any weakness or hurt or inadequacy show.  Even a single incident of abuse can be enough to break people’s spirits, leaving them feeling terribly ashamed.  Shame has such a tight grip on some people that deep inside themselves they believe their whole life is a mistake.  How can you stand up and look the world in the face gripped by such a spirit?

Even churches can be gripped by a spirit of weakness.  This is a frequent problem among small churches and an issue at every small church gathering I’ve ever been a part of.  These dear congregations describe themselves this way:  “We’re just a small church.”  “Just a.”  What belittling words!  “Just a!” They might not say this out loud, but they’re thinking it:  “No pastor will ever stay with us long.  As soon as she can, she’ll move to greener pastures.”  Some churches are downright ashamed of being small.  Any church worth its salt is supposed to have certain programs and resources.  Even churches a lot bigger than we are ashamed of their struggles.  Some congregations are so worried about their inadequacies they can’t see their strengths.  It’s hard to see heaven when you’re looking down all the time.  Why set their sights on anything, only to be disappointed?  Besides, they figure their days are numbered. (more…)

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