This story comes on the heels of one of my favorite bible stories where Elijah the prophet challenges the prophets of the god Baal to a match. In a nutshell...YWHW comes through in the most powerful way. And the prophets of Baal lose more than they bargained for. But that’s a whole other sermon.
READ: 1 Kings 19: 9-13.
These verses are best understood in the larger context of 1 Kings. In the previous chapter, Elijah is a completely different person. He has raised the dead. Ended a three year drought. He’s challenged and defeated 450 prophets of Baal in the most specular competition. And boldly and bravely ordered them to be killed.
But when Queen Jezebel here’s about this she vows to kill Elijah in retaliation. Even after witnessing what God can do...Elijah is afraid for his life. He flees into the wilderness, sits down under a tree and prays to God to die.
Elijah, who had been so powerful and courageous is now despondent and discouraged. Full of God-inspired imagination before, Elijah now, can see no way out. He feels like a loser, believing he has failed God and his calling. Abandoned and alone, Elijah goes away to have a pity party for himself. He’s done speaking for God. It’s not worth the risk. He just wants to die.
Have you ever felt so broken or alone that death seems like the best possible solution? If so, you’re not alone.
Have you ever wandered in the wilderness...or trudged up a lonely mountain to feel closer to God only to sit and wait…wondering if Heaven has closed its doors. If so, you’re not alone.
Have you ever knelt by your bed and prayed intently for answers until your knees are screaming? Or sat in a pew clutching the bible to your breast waiting in faith and expectation while the airwaves remain silent. God is not home. If so, you’re not alone.
Silent but not alone. This is what Elijah teaches us.
Two years ago, I went to visit my friends in Mexico. I was in a bad place. Like Elijah, I too felt like a loser and a failure. The church wasn’t growing like I expected it to, nor did it look anything like I had imagined. I was struggling with my faith, my confidence, and my call. I was desolated and ran away to Southern Baja to find consolation.
My friend’s built a beautiful beach house where every window had a calming view of the sand and the sea. Getting to that beach was a bit stressful. The pathway was rough- built with rocks, shells and broken glass – each stood out like orange caution cones along the highway warning of danger ahead.
The path eventually gave way to the sand, which was soft and deep. Each step was a struggle... like marching through mud in flip flops. The sand did its best to keep me from advancing any further. But I was determined.
After a hundred yards or so of this thigh burning march, I came face to face with an enormous wall of sand dunes. I felt like I was in Game of Thrones and the giant ice wall was keeping me from going where I needed to go. And so I climbed, pushing through the soft sand.
Atop of the dune the wind off the Pacific Ocean screamed past my face, “Go back. Go back.” But I did not listen. And walked towards the sea. The beach was at least three big city blocks wide and no less than four miles long. I had the entire place to myself. There was not a person in sight anywhere. Talk about being alone.
My focus was on the water that was beckoning and calling me like a salty siren leading a ship into the rocks. A part of me wanted to jump in and be carried out to sea. But with all the energy of the vast Pacific Ocean at it’s disposal something was pushing me back – I was refused and rejected.
Like Elijah, I felt exhausted, alone, self-righteous and under attack. So I screamed and yelled and shouted and cried out to God. The only response I received was a mocking tempest. After hours of this my voice gave out and I simply gave up. God wasn’t at this address.
Back in the solitude of the house I looked through the windows and saw where I had been. In the silence, a sense of peace and accomplishment settled within my soul. It was then I realized God was not absent, but waiting silently for me.
God tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain. Violent forces of nature break underneath him and whirl all around him. Yet God is not in these overwhelming demonstrations of power. Rather, it is out of sheer silence that God finally speaks.
This story reminds me that God’s silence is not God being absent. It’s a way for God to draw us closer to the Divine where we can vent, melt down, and feel sorry for ourselves because sometimes that is exactly what we need the most.
As my wife so brilliantly stated, “God silent is God listening.”
This makes me wonder about our listening. Perhaps we have trouble hearing God speak because of the winds, earthquakes and fires that are erupting all around us.
Social media and 24 hour news constantly vie for our attention. Some of us have marriage or financial troubles, health issues, a problem child or a dying parent that steal our focus from that small voice within. How many ways have you been distracted while reading this message, muchless this past week?
Sometimes we have to move beyond ourselves to hear what God has to say. But sometimes we don’t hear God speak, because we don’t like what God has to say.
Elijah knew what God wanted him to do. But when doing it put a price on his head, Elijah go the heck out of Dodge. It's not that unuaual.
Think about all the people who profess Jesus as their "personal Lord and Savior" but completely ignore what he taught or what he has called them to do.
How many churches are in the middle of building a bigger sanctuary even though Christ called them to build bigger homeless shelters?
Listening is not just hearing words spoken. Listening means fully taking in what God has said and living it out in our lives. It’s listening with the intention of hearing.
My dear friend Dawn and I have a special relationship that provides a sacred space to complain and vent our frustrations. We listen intently, offering ourselves to be the vessel by which God can speak to the other. Through her smoky southern drawl, I often hear God asking, “Are you done with your pity party?”
Sometimes we don’t know we aren’t listening to God. Or sometimes we ourselves are making too much noise to hear God speak to us. And sometimes God is just allowing us a space to vent. But in each of these situations...just as it is in all of life... God is very much present.
If you feel defeated or despondent, distracted or deflated, or like God has left you on your own, don’t despair. God is not absent, but silently at work. Despite Elijah’s fears and failings, God does not give up on him. And neither does God give up on us.
Jesus is our proof of how far God is willing to go to make that point. Jesus knew what it was like to be abandoned. Alone on a cross he cried out the psalm “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” And yet, God was with him. In life and through death. Just the same God is with us, leading us home to the Divine.
We ought to find it encouraging and comforting that God is faithful even in the face of our fear and depression, our worries and our weariness, and our blindness and deafness God does not abandon us. We abandon God. And even then, God sent the Christ to be the open arms of our loving creator.
If we see and do what Jesus does, then we too can help bring people back to the Divine Love of God that waits for them. That’s what God is calling us to do.
So I hope you will remember this: If God appears to be silent, be reassured that God’s loving kindness is never failing even when we can’t feel it.
In these seasons of silence, we need to look within ourselves where there is always a still small voice whispering, “You are my beloved child. Go and be who I called you to be.”
We may be thinking that we’re waiting for God, but really it’s God who silently waits for us.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 (Westminster John Knox: 2009).
Bloom, Jon. When God Seems Silent. (July 18. 2014) https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/when-god-seems-silent
Harris, Tania. Three Reasons God is Silent. Relevant magazine (May 15, 2014) https://relevantmagazine.com/god/3-reasons-god-silent/
The famous Lutheran theologian, Adolf Harnack, referred to this chapter as, “the greatest, strongest, deepest thing Paul ever wrote.” And G. Campbell Morgan, said that “If one examined this chapter, it would be like dissecting a flower to understand it. In the process, one would tear the flower apart and lose its beauty.” My goal here isn’t to tear it apart Paul’s perfectly penned words, but to find our place and God’s power in them.
It should go without saying that the subject of this chapter is love. But not the kind of love I use to describe my longing for donuts or the feelings I have for my wife and kids. Instead Paul chose a rarely used Greek word “Agape.” We’ve talked about agape before; describing it as a type of altruistic, undeserving, unmerited love. The ancient Greeks considered it to be Divine because no human could achieve it. Maybe that’s why Paul chose to use it. And why the early church took the idea and ran with it.
If you read the entire epistle, you’ll see that Paul did not have brides, bouquets, or unity candles in mind when he wrote it. He was not trying to be poetic either, but pastoral. You see, Paul had heard that there were some in Corinth who were trying to enhance their status in the church by puffing-up their spiritual gifts. The age-old, “I’m right, you’re wrong, so get over it” type stuff.
There will always be people who think their insight or opinion is better than everyone else’s. And will do whatever it takes to get their way. This happens in business, in politics, in school, and even in the church. Yet tucked away in the Bible are these profound verses where Paul both admonished and affirmed the young church with one simple command: practice agape, be the divine love of God.
My first point is this: The primacy of love begins with God. You heard me say God is love. And that those who dwell in Love dwell in God forever, for God is love and love never ends. But what exactly does that love look like? Just reread this passage and wherever you see the word love, or any inference of it, replace it with the word God.
For example, God is very patient and kind. God is never jealous or envious, boastful or proud. God is never haughty or selfish or rude. God is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never dies.
I think this exercise gives us a wonderful portrait of who God is. And what agape looks like in reality. Like the ancient Greeks, you might believe it to be impossible for humans to attain agape. You might think the things you’ve done in your past have made you undeserving or unworthy of such love.
But that’s where agape turns everything you know upside-down. It’s God’s way of telling us that we are worthy to be divine and beloved. Agape is our assurance that no matter how far you have strayed from doing what God has called you to do, you are never beyond the boundaries of God’s love. And the proof of this claim is Jesus – the incarnation of God’s agape.
Which is my second point: the character of love is Jesus. If you want to know who Jesus is, then all you have to do is look at what he does. Jesus is God’s love because he lived agape in all that did. Again, replace the word love in this passage with the name Jesus.
Jesus cares more for others than for himself. He isn’t selfish, or force himself on others, or have the need to be first. Jesus doesn’t revel when others grovel. He takes pleasure in being truthful. He trusts God always. He doesn’t keep score but keeps leading us onward and upward to God’s glory.
When we look at Jesus through the lens of Paul’s letter, we see that wherever this kind of Love is practiced, God’s love is present. Our world today could use agape because it defuses fights, and exhausts the need to be right, or to get its own way simply because it’s not focused on itself but on the other.
There was a couple who had been married for 60 years and had no secrets except for one: The woman kept in her closet a shoe box that she forbade her husband from looking in. But on her deathbed the two opened the box together. In it was a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. She explained to her husband that her mother taught her that the secret to a happy marriage was to never argue. Instead of fighting she should crochet a doll. Her husband was touched. Because there was one doll was in the box meant she’d only been angry with him only once in 60 years. But then he asks dying bride, “what about all this money?”
“Oh,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling all the dolls.”
While Paul isn’t speaking of weddings, his pastoral point remains true in all circumstances. Our capacity to flourish in God’s love is realized when we can live out the love of God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. By seeing and doing what Jesus did, we begin to understand that Love is not so much a feeling or spiritual gift. It’s an action. A way God intended us to give our gifts and talents to others. When we give ourselves freely to others… we are giving others a glimpse into God’s gracious heart.
Which takes me to my last point: the enduring presence of love is us.
We are both loved and love. But my fear is we throw the Love word around so much that we’ve lost any sense of agape. To this point, the other night my wife and I were enjoying a glass of wine after dinner. Out of the blue, she says, “I love you.” Instead of just taking it to heart, I jokingly asked “Is that you or the wine talking?” She said, “It’s me. But I was talking to the wine.”
I still remember that time my daughter fell in love with five different guys in a single day…Niall, Harry, Louie, Liam and the other one. Around the same time Fiona began her love affair with One Direction, there was a post making its way around Facebook. It was written by a concerned mom whose daughter always fell head-over-heels in love with whomever she was dating.
When the mom saw her daughter getting involved with a guy she had reservations about, she handed a piece of paper to her daughter with the words of 1 Cor. 13 written on it. And wouldn’t you know it, she put the boy’s name wherever love was written or implied. She told her daughter if this boy could passed this test, he was worthy of her love.
It didn’t take long for the young girl to think about all the times her boyfriend laughed at her when she goofed up. And earlier that day she saw him lie to a teacher so he could do something he wanted to do. The mother concluded her post by stating, “Not only did this give my daughter greater discernment about others but it also has helped her reflect on her own behavior.”
I invite you to put your name in the passage, and think about how might it affect the way you see yourself or how others respond to you. When we take on the qualities of Jesus, God’s agape, we attract those same qualities from others. Patience begets patience. Kindness begets kindness. Love begets love.
God is the primacy of love. Jesus is the character of love. And we are the enduring presence of a love that can transform and renew the world. To practice agape is to practice the immense compassion of God and “to look at people with love the way Jesus looked at the adulterous woman and made her discover her own goodness that empowered her to go and sin no more.”
There’s a good chance we’ll mess up it up from time to time. That’s ok. Love is sloppy and messy and complicated. That’s just the way it is. But as Paul so poetically penned, love rejoices in all things, good and bad, because wherever love is, God is. By this truth, we are able to be patient and kind, to bear all things and hope all things and get through all things.
As we know some marriages don’t last. And our spiritual gifts will eventually fade away if only because every human life comes to an end. But love never dies. We pass it on throughout the generations. But the divine love we receive through Christ is not merely left behind in the hearts of others when we die. But it grabs hold of us and pulls us into God’s heart throughout eternity.
Let us pray:
Most loving Lord, in your perfectness you have made us in your image, and by your steadfast love you have empowered us to be agape. Send us out into the world to be a mirror of you love so others may see you and glorify your wonderful name. Amen.
Today I leave you with the charge Paul gave to the Corinth Christians: “Be on your guard; stand firm in your faith; be courageous; be strong; and let all that you do be done in love.”
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2009) pp. 302-306.
Garish, Jim. Word of God Today. http://www.wordofgodtoday.com/1-corinthians-13 (accessed Oct. 23, 2019)
God Vine. My Daughter’s Boyfriend Test. https://www.godvine.com/read/love-verse-insert-boyfriend-name-test-relationship-951.html(accessed Oct. 23, 2019).
So, I just got back from a lovely trip to Scotland, where I was invited to officiate a wedding of an old friend of mine. It was a beautiful occasion and a spectacular location in the Scottish Borders along the River Tweed where the leaves where just beginning to change colors. The weather was supposed to be rainy and cold, so I grabbed a rain coat and a very thick sweater. Both took up valuable space in my suitcase… and both were never worn because it was so lovely there.
Checking the weather before I left is about all the time I spend preparing for my trip. I spent many hours preparing the words for the wedding ceremony. But as for everything else, I probably took about a half hour max to compare airfare prices, book my flight, and rent a car. And only half that time packing my suitcase.
My friend Dawn is the polar opposite. She prepped for months for her trip to Ireland. She joked about practicing packing and unpacking her bags as if she is preparing for an Olympic event. Unlike me, she goes well prepared. Has all she needs, and knows where it is. By the time she landed in the Emerald Isle, Dawn had her entire journey mapped out – down to the local grocer. Whereas I relied on the overly polite British lady in my GPS to help me navigate the roads and roundabouts so I wouldn’t get lost or starve to death.
We all prepare differently, because each trip is different. Yet no matter how we go about it, nothing compares to the planning God has made to be with us. Then again, God wasn’t planning for just a visit. Which takes us to our reading today from the gospel of John 14:1-7:
I have spoken these words from John’s gospel at countless funerals and bedsides. They often provide a sense of promise and comfort in times of grief or worry. Like the comforting voice in my rental car, when Jesus speaks these words, I feel hopeful – believing them to be true and following them as such. While John alludes to an afterlife, and a promise of something greater is to come, I think Jesus is speaking to the present. After all, preparing for a life after death starts with preparing a way to live rightly so we can die faithfully.
The scene of this passage is set in the upper room where Jesus has gathered with his friends for one last meal. Up to this point, Jesus has washed their feet – teaching them what it means to serve. He has revealed his betrayal by Judas who has already slipped out into the night. He has told them he is leaving soon and where he is going, they cannot come. He even foretold of Peter’s imminent denial to the shock of all present.
So, when Jesus tells his friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it’s easy to understand why there’s a little push back. They’ve been looking for the Messiah. And now they believe they have found him. What they don’t know is that in less than 24 hours, all they had hoped for will be nailed to a cross. And Jesus wants them to be prepared.
But how does one prepare the human heart to be free of trouble when your world seems to be crashing down around you? On Google, Facebook and Twitter you’ll find a million stocked answers and opinions on this. But in the Bible there just one. Jesus said, “Believe in God. Believe also in me.”
It’s worth noting that the central theme of John is the indwelling relationship between Jesus and God. His gospel opens with the bold declaration, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Here John is telling us that Jesus is the Word, the Christ. The one God has been preparing for this moment since the beginning of time.
Jesus comforts his friends by inviting them to have the same intimate relationship that he has with the One who sent him. Jesus is also inviting you and me. This relationship begins not with some great faith which might seem impossible to achieve. It starts with a sliver of belief in the preparation God has made to remove our troubles, distress, agitations and fears through the redemptive work of Christ. Try to imagine the prep that went into that!
After a long overnight flight and a nerve-wracking drive to the rental home, I was exhausted and needed sleep. Unfortunately, I arrived well before our check-in time, and the owners were still preparing our rooms from the previous renters. As I waited in the car for them to finish, I thought about Jesus trading his righteous robe and holy halo for an apron and rubber gloves.
It’s funny to think of Jesus pushing a vacuum and making a bed for me. But that’s what he does. He serves others. He feeds them, washes their feet, and cares for all their needs. So, it’s no surprise that wherever Jesus is, or whatever he’s doing, it’s all to prepare a place for our hearts to share oneness with God.
It makes my heart feel good, knowing there is a place that Jesus is preparing for us and that he is going to come back and take us there. That’s why I often read this passage at funerals or at the bedside of the dying. But every now and then someone asks me “What is that place? And where exactly is it?”
Like so many of us, Thomas also wants to know the way to this place so he can be in the safe care of his Messiah. Can you blame him? Up until meeting Jesus, Thomas relied on the world to make sense of the great mysteries of life and death.
As Jesus begins to reveal the truth for him, its natural for Thomas to want a map or a softly spoken British Sherpa to tell him where to go… because these are roads he’s never traveled. There are signs that are hard to read. And roundabouts ready to throw him off course.
As the Bible reveals, Jesus knows the only way to make sense of the mystery of death is to enter it. And the only way to come out the other side is to follow God through it.
Like a soft spoken voice guiding the way through a backwards maze, Jesus calmly tells his beloved friend, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I read these words and find comfort knowing Jesus is exactly what I need to prepare for life’s journey; there is no need to panic, no need to search desperately for a secret map. I just need to follow the One who is already One with God.
I can trust and believe he knows the way because he’s already been there before. By his words and deeds, Jesus reveals the fullness of God’s love for me so I know where I am going in a world of twists and turns.
I invite you to join me on this trip. I invite you to hear Jesus’ words and follow his way of living, so you will find your place of peace in God’s expansive and everlasting heart… no matter where you are or what the world throws at you.
Jesus said, “Believe in God. And Believe also in me.” In doing so, he’s telling you to believe in who God made you to be – a beloved child with a great mission.
Through Christ, God has already prepared you for glory. By seeing and doing what he does, you too can reveal the personhood of God for others. This is why I believe this passage isn’t so much about being with Jesus in some afterlife, but it has everything to do with our life here and now.
As the world will tell us we can’t, Jesus says we can. This does not necessarily happen in spectacular ways like making the blind see or raising someone from the dead. Yet wherever you bring healing, forgiveness, or any life-giving work into the world, the glory of God is made visible. The presence of God is known. And the love of God is felt.
It is as though God had thought very carefully and spent a lot of time prepping…not so we can just be in heaven after we die. But so we can experience heaven as we live and travel in this journey called life.
As you leave here today, I hope you will ask yourself where you might become the presence of God’s love in the world. How might you be for others the way of Jesus, the truth of Christ, and the life that draws people back to the Oneness of God’s ever expanding love… as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen.
Let us pray:
Most Merciful and Loving God, through the ministry of your Son you have soothed our trouble hearts and free us from the grip of the tomb. As we await the coming of his glory, we pray for your Spirit to keep us filled with the fullness of life so that we can proclaim your glory to all the world. Amen.
In today’s reading, the disciples doubt they have what it takes to accept such an invitation. They feel like it will take more faith than what they have. You might feel the same way – wondering how in the heck anyone can live like Christ, or love as he called us to do?
Even though I ask myself that all the time, it doesn’t invalidate the job of the church or her members. In addressing their concerns Jesus gives us this answer in Luke 17:5-10:
This might seem like two idea’s crammed into one reading. First Jesus talks of faith, and then jumps into something about being a slave. It feels like one of those incomprehensible tweets we get on a daily basis. How are we to read into this? By remembering that it’s Jesus who we follow and not some rambling stooge on Twitter.
A few years ago I was struck by something I read from Richard Rohr who wrote, “After two thousand years of studying to be like Jesus Christ we’ve managed to avoid everything that he taught to do.” His words echo something G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Both men’s views on Christianity, suggest Christ followers have never really put our faith into action, at least not like Jesus did. Yet I think even Rohr and Chesterton would agree there was at least one notable exception beside Christ – Francis of Assisi.
The son of a wealthy textile merchant, Francis always dreamed of earning glory in battle. His first time at war, Assisi was defeated, and Francis was taken prisoner and nearly died in captivity. Through a series of divine interventions, Francis found new glory in answering a unique call to repair God’s church which had fallen away from what Jesus intended it to be.
By the 13th century, the church was waging its own wars in Europe and in the Middle East. Priest were giving special privileges to the wealthy while forgetting the poor completely. Some leaders at the top were even selling positions of power to those who could afford it. While all this was going on, Francis was leading a revolutionary new interpretation of the gospel life – one based more on the works of Christ than the doctrines of man.
This quiet revolution started after Francis met a stranger on a pilgrimage to Rome. Outside of St. Peter’s Church Francis saw a beggar calling out to him. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Francis did something unthinkable. He traded clothes with the man. And Francis himself spent the rest of the day begging for alms in his place. That experience shook him to the core causing him to renounce his family’s wealth and to take on the garb of the poor. Following closely to the example set by Christ, Francis cared for those who were forgotten or pushed away by the church. And soon others followed suit, and a monastic movement was born.
What can Francis teach the Christian churches today?
In some respects many churches have gone back in time — supporting war-like leaders, favoring the rich over the poor, and being more concerned with defending politics and doctrine than loving people. They preach a new life in Christ but they themselves are unwilling to live it.
Perhaps Chesterton was correct to suggests that the Christian ideal is just too difficult and thus left untried. Not so with Francis. His approach to imitating Christ and living a life of service fits with what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.
In response to the disciple’s plea, Jesus tells them that they can accomplish great things for God with just the tiniest amount of faith. This is important to us because Jesus goes on to describe the thankless task of serving God. But a careful read of this passage suggests there is a connection between these two seemingly different points: it’s in serving God that our faith is strengthened.
Francis took great effort to see Christ in every living thing...not just in people but in animals and in plants. He knew he could faithfully embrace a servant life because in every task he did he was actually serving the Lord in the process. The challenge for us today is to see the Divine in all things, especially in the people we serve. In doing so, we can approach even the most thankless task with joy and grace.
I have to keep this in mind when I’m wiping up muddy paw prints off the couch or cleaning dried up toothpaste out of the sink. My dog doesn’t thank me for picking up her poop, but it still has to be done.
In his understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus taught us to do, Francis knew he had all the faith he needed to give of himself completely to do the will of God because through Jesus God had given him complete and unconditional love. As he engaged with this divine love, Francis watched his faith grow stronger and stronger with every person he served.
I believe the same can be true with us. And this is good since Jesus reminded us that when we come in from doing something for God, don’t expect a reward, expect more work. It wasn’t accolades that motivated Francis to see and do what Jesus does, it was love.
Likewise we are called to serve others with love, mercy and grace as if we are serving Jesus himself. Because to love thy neighbor requires us to constantly care for the needs of one another (including animals and our environment that Francis cared deeply for). With each step we take in this direction, our faith increases as does our love, our health, our peace, and our security.
Francis took his mustard seed of faith and used it to exchange clothes with a beggar. In the process, he found all he needed to work among the poorest of the poor. The very place where God needed him the most.
What is your mustard seed of faith? And how will you put it to work for the Lord? What steps are you willing to take as God opens your heart to this call to serve?
Francis took small steps of faith, each one emboldened him to trust God more. Likewise, with every step we take our trust strengthens – as does our relationship with our Creator and all of creation.
As we leave here today, let us look to the examples of Francis and strive to see Christ in every living thing. Let us serve one another as if we are personally serving our Lord. Let us take up the challenge to embrace the Christian ideal by living it as if Christ actually meant what he said.
G.K. Chesterton concluded in his critique of Christianity by stating, “Let religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Walking the life of faith is simply an act of love. When we embrace Christ with love, we are able to embrace everyone we see and everything we do with love. And like Francis we can say that we are merely servants doing what we were called to do…be the mirror of Christ so others can see the Kingdom of God in all its splendor.
Let us pray together the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O God, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.
You have been called by God to be a chosen people, and through Christ Jesus you have been given all you need to go out into the world to love as God loves you, and to forgive others as you have been forgiven. So go serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. Amen.
Special thanks to Fr. Frank S. Logue whose sermon An Act of Love (10/1/2016) inspired this message. (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/act-love-pentecost-17-c-october-6-2019).
If you have been watching our services, you would know that my name is Rev. Ian. But did you know my name means “God’s greatest gift” or a “Gift from God”? Some might say I am the gift that keeps on giving.
Ian is a Gaelic name. The English translation is John, which the ancient Celts pronounced as, “Sean.” A Name so difficult to say that our old nanny, Josephina…would call me “Senior” because she refused to call me Juan.
John is not only one of the most common names in the world, it’s also one of the oldest. Jesus had a brother named John, as well as a cousin and a disciple. In the Bible we find a gospel and three epistles sharing the same name, Johannine, as they say in Greek.
In today’s reading some picky people want to know not just Jesus’ name but what his name means. It’s found in the Gospel of John 10:22-30
It’s easy for me to say my father and I are one not just because share the same name, but we share the same DNA, the same silly humor, and of course the same faith. In the same respect, my mother and I are one and my kids and I are one. It’s not that shocking to say it publicly in front of the entire world. But when Jesus makes this claim about he and God, in front of this particular audience, it was enough to get him killed.
John tells us Jesus is walking around the Temple. A group notices he’s there and approach him. And ask him directly if he is the Messiah, the one who would be sent by God to save and rescue Israel from their oppressors. It’s a simple yes, no question. Jesus doesn’t make it easy for them. Instead he said, “You’ve seen what I do. And yet you don’t believe.” And they can’t believe because they are not a part of his flock.
Years ago, I gave a sermon on Jesus calling himself the Good Shepherd, which is at the beginning of John 10. After service someone who owned sheep told me the only way he could get his flock into their pen for the night was to sing to them.
His sheep knew his voice and trusted he had their best interest at heart. They did not fear him because they had a relationship with him. But only if he sang to them would they follow. Similarly, I think Jesus is telling us that it’s in both the hearing and doing that unites the sheep with the shepherd.
Like my friends sheep, Jesus’ followers know and trust him, not because they have gone through any rational, or intellectual discernment, but because they’ve watched and witnessed the care he gives.
But the ones who challenge him – whose vision of the Messiah is based on trivial power and not sacrificial love – are unable to see the truth right in front of their eyes. They are too busy maintaining the status quo of the Temple instead of being what the Temple represents. The presence of God in the world. They are blind to who Jesus is because they are unable to see that Jesus is a perfect embodiment of God’s character. He and God are one because they share the same vision of life.
Everywhere Jesus goes, and every time he opens his mouth to speak or his hands to help, he reveals who he is. What does that say to us? Or how people know us or this church?
Jesus shows his true identity in the way he loves people, and cares to their needs. In the same way, God is calling us to follow his lead…like a sheep follows the shepherd. Just as God works through Jesus, God also works through us, to bring healing and peace into a broken and hurting world.
Let us remember that the early church didn’t grow because of traditions, dogmas or creeds. It grew because the people were seeing and experiencing the living Lord in one another and receiving a new life that Paul described as “foolishness to the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27).
Those who have been healed and fed and cared for by Jesus have seen and know God on a much more intimate level. They have experienced God’s love through Christ and have been transformed in the process. Therefore it’s not shocking for them when Jesus declares, “the Father and I are one” because they’ve seen how Jesus shares aligns his life with the righteousness of God.
Gail O’Day said, “It is impossible to distinguish Jesus’ work from God’s, because Jesus shares fully in God’s work.” We must keep our eyes on Jesus because he shows us who God is and who God has called us all to be – the very character of God’s heavenly grace and salvation in this part of God’s kingdom. To paraphrase Dallas Willard, the point of following Jesus isn’t just to secure a place in the kingdom of God after you die. It’s about how we live in God’s kingdom before we die.
Our Good Shepherd is calling us “follow him” which means we are called to follow the way he loves, forgives, heals, and blesses. When we live our life by walking in his footsteps, we stay on the path that leads us and others to God’s loving hands.
Jesus did this by going to the poor and visiting the prisoners. He did it by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. He welcomed the stranger and delivered the oppressed. He touched the untouchable and forgave the unforgiveable. He served the least when no one else would and sacrificed himself for the salvation of all. This is what it means to follow him – to see what he does and do it so others can see God’s glory and do the same. For it’s in both the seeing and doing that unites the sheep with the shepherd. And us to God.
Christianity isn't supposed to be a religion. It’s a way of life. The way of the Christ. It’s the way we are called to live God’s righteousness in the world. So people can see God in their midst.
As John wrote in his first letter to the churches, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us… God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 Jn 4:12, 16). Just as Jesus reminded those guys at the Temple, when you are in God nothing can snatch you away, not even death.
Jesus and God are one because they share one goal and one mission, one redemption and one salvation. This ought to be our goal as well. But let us not be like those who tried to trick Jesus or believe that we are the keepers of God’s righteousness. We are simply doers of it.
Despite what our ego wants us to believe we don’t save people, only God does. Our job is to lead them to him. But if we’ve learned anything today it’s that people aren’t going to follow us or see the way if our actions don’t speak louder than our words. So let us go and show the world God’s love of them by being the love of God for them. Amen.
Let us pray:
Loving and merciful God, thank you for sending us your shepherd to call us and guide us back into your fold. As we move into the world today, may the words of our mouth and the works of heart reveal the true character of you everlasting love. May we always look to Jesus as our guiding light. For it is through him we receive one heart, one mind, one vision, one love, and one everlasting name. Amen.
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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Hearing Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel, it’s hard to imagine going through life and never having received an invitation, not just to a dinner party but to be closer to our Creator. Whether it’s to a birthday party, school dance, a sleepover, or a wedding, getting invited to something makes us feel wanted and important.
In my lifetime, I’ve been invited to all sorts of things from dinner parties to sporting events into people’s lives and on more than one occasion, I’ve even been invited to give my opinion. Invitations not only reach out to us, but each one requires from us a response. Often, a simple yes or no will suffice.
There are all sorts of invitations out there. An old friend of ours specializes in making unique handmade invitations for the very rich. Her artistry has announced some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrity weddings and events.
For the not so famous and formal, there’s Evite – a company that specializes in sending out online invitations. We happen to have received on of those a few weeks ago and now three times a day I am getting junk mail from them. (I need more celebrity friends.)
Of course, there are invitations that are even less formal. They are the simple gestures we make, like a wave of the hand or a quiet look that someone might give you.
While walking Cali the other day, my neighbor’s dog Watson was barking up a storm. Some might see this behavior as a warning to intruders. But his body language told a different story. Pressing his front paws against the glass, Watson jumped up and down, wagging his tail with excitement. This wasn’t a warning but an invitation to play.
I imagine God is much more like Watson than us. Jumping up and down with excitement while awaiting our reply to come and celebrate the joys and blessings of life. Judging by the stories Jesus tells, I’m going to take creative liberty and say the Kingdom of God is like one great party. I mean think about how many times Jesus’ parables end in some kind of soirée.
A woman finds her lost coin and calls her neighbors to celebrate. The Prodigal Son returns home and they throw such a fantastic party that it causes envy and jealousy. A man invites his friends to dinner, and when they don’t show up, he goes out onto the streets and gathers whoever is nearby to come get their party on!
According to John’s gospel, Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding where the best wine was served after the people were already well lit. The kingdom of God is one great party. And Jesus is inviting you to attend.
This takes us to today’s reading. Luke doesn’t tell us who is sitting at the man’s table. Most likely it’s his friends and family – the people he’d want to show off his important guest to as well as those who could also reciprocate in kind.
Not much has changed has it? When we throw a party we want to gather with people we know and who are like us. After 50 years, my parents stopped having their annual New Years Day party because they realized nearly all the people who came never invited them to do anything.
My folks didn’t need to have the favor returned, but as my mom put it, “It sure would be nice to be invited to do something once in a while.” After all, we want to feel wanted and important to others.
There’s nothing wrong with opening your home to friends and family. But Jesus knows there are some people who never get invited to dinners or parties. They’re the one’s he wants us to remember and be hospitable to.
Jesus tells his host “Next time you gather like this make sure the guest list includes those who could never pay you back.” Today, that would include the single mom on welfare and her children, a young man with autism and his exhausted caretaker, and the down and out whose eyes you often avoid or whose phone calls you no longer return.
Jesus’ message, like his ministry, focuses our eyes and adjusts our heart to celebrate self-giving instead of calculating what we can get in return.
Why is this important?
Invitations do more than simply gather us together. They give us purpose. They invite us to move out of self toward God and toward others; provoking us to listen to and learn, and eventually growing in the way we love and serve God and one another. Jesus is all about building relationships.
A few years back, Kathleen and I accepted an invitation to a dinner party at the home of a woman who I had only met a couple of times. The only thing the guest had in common was the fact that we accepted this crazy invitation to what we aptly called “the forced friendship club.” As we passed the potato salad and grilled chicken, amazing things began to happen. Laughter. Joy. Smiles. Fellowship at its simplest and yet most profound.
We were different, yet one, sharing the Spirit of grace and love with fellow strangers. At this table relationships were formed and God’s kingdom blossomed, all because one woman intentionally invited a group of strangers into her home to partake in a great feast in the presence of God.
So, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say the Kingdom of God is a great party. And Jesus is our hostwho invites us to bring our hearts, our music, our children, our gifts, and all that we have to celebrate with high spirits and laughter.
He wants his joy to be our joy, his peace to be our peace, his love to be ours as well. He wants us not only to come receive it, but to share it…because like the Kingdom of God, this party never ends.
Jesus is an invitation, engraved with his own breath and blood, that calls us to sit at the table of grace. He invites us to bring our troubles and woes to him for redemption and forgiveness. His is an invitation that is pretty much impossible to ever repay. That’s the beautiful part. We don’t have to repay it – we just get to pay it forward. But like all invitations, we can choose to accept or reject him.
By accepting Christ, we begin to move into a deeper, more meaningful and purpose driven relationship with God and with others.
This is where our hearts are transformed and the wounds of our world are healed. Jesus is inviting us to partake in the Kingdom of God…the greatest party ever thrown.
Through Christ, God invites us to celebrate the radical story of grace and redemption; to dance in the joy of love and peace; and to be filled with the bread and wine of eternal life.
You may not believe you are good enough or faithful enough to receive an invitation like this … muchless accept it. But the way I see it, God has never made a person that Christ did not die for.
Jesus said the kingdom of God is here. That means you are in the party now! So, enjoy yourself. Have fun. Meet people. Eat, drink and be merry, or Tom or Jerry or simply your best self. For you are cordially invited to live and thrive with Christ throughout the ages. And I hope to see you there.
Let us pray:
Lord God, you sent your Son to deliver this invitation to the world. Open our hearts today to say yes! Yes, to your grace, yes to your forgiveness, yes to your steadfast love. And with our yeses…send us out into the world today to share this good news and empower us to invite others to see your glory in all that we say and do. Amen.
Above family, career, desires and wants, even nation or church...God must be first in your heart, on your mind, and from your lips. All else is sacrifice.
In all seriousness, I have had many wonderful careers, a so many opportunities to grow from them. I remember my very first assignments when I was hired as a jr. copywriter. I was tasked to write a help wanted ad for our agency. Not the most glamorous of job, but I was happy to do it. I don’t exactly remember what I wrote. I’m sure it was something like: Experienced Account Director needed for a big global brand. Start immediately.
Not not being a fan of mediocrity, I added a little creative twist by writing a small disclaimer at the bottom: You will need to be resilient to the extraneous demands of a temperamental client. This will require working long hours, abandoning friendships, and having the entire creative department hate you if you don’t sell their work.
As you might imagine from a conservative advertising agency, they didn’t run the ad. But they did put me in charge of the company Christmas card that year. Thus my journey up the corporate ladder began.
Years later, I thought it would be funny to do something similar in an ad I created for Honda. Buried in the legal disclaimer I wrote “the 300 hp engine really cooks, in fact it could fry bacon.” I wasn’t trying to be funny, I was just curious if anyone actually reads the fine print. Turns out the guy whose name was printed on my business card did. After that, my corporate climbing days began to wane.
Jesus is offering us a job. However, most of us, including ministers, skim over the fine print. So In today’s reading, Jesus takes the time to tell us what it says. Read Luke 14:25-33 here.
In the 2008 movie Sunshine Cleaning, Amy Adams plays a woman whose job it is to clean up the scenes where people have died, including suicides and murders. By the way, this is a real profession. Crime scene cleaners (also known as bioremediation specialists and forensic cleaners) come in after the police leave to clean and sanitize the area. As disgusting as that job is, most of us would choose it over the one Jesus offers.
Imagine if Jesus posted a help wanted ad. It would probably say, “Meaningful work, travel and meet great people, benefits for life.” Sounds pretty good, right? Then you notice the asterisk connected to some smaller words at the bottom that reads “Job requires you follow a guy who wants you to hate everyone you love, abandon all that you‘ve acquire, and be open to ridicule, torture, imprisonment, and possible crucifixion.” Ready to send in your resume?
The last couple of weeks we’ve talked about the cost of discipleship. And we’ve learned it’s not cheap. Believe it or not, the word ‘cost’ is only found once in the New Testament. Here in Luke. So Jesus spends a lot of time throughout the gospels defining it for us.
We already know that cost is the payment we willingly make to acquire, accomplish, or produce something. It involves some measure of sacrifice and effort if we want to achieve our goal. Thus, Jesus told his followers that they must count the cost of what he’s asking before they come. “Following Jesus is not a whimsical response to a moment of inspiration or feeling,” Danae Ashley writes, “but a deliberate, life-changing decision, like planning for war or taking a new job.”
So Jesus said count the cost before you commit. If you’re going to follow him, then come with your eyes, heart, and mind wide open. Discipleship is a way of life, not a fad or a diet that we abandon whenever we want. It’s a calculated and conscious call to become like Christ with every fiber of our being – even if it means pushing away everything we love to embrace.
But does Jesus really want me to hate my wife and kids? Or sell sell everything I own, and become another burden to society, just to follow him?Are we to read these words as literal instructions? Or is this some more of his hyperbole to wake us up to the seriousness of our mission? Maybe it’s a little of both.
The Bible doesn’t shy away from stating God is number one. That before God there was nothing. The first commandment is there is no other god but YHWH. Anything other than YHWH has the potential to take our focus off doing what God wants us to do. Like Jesus, we have to make God and God’s will our first priority, no matter the cost. If something or someone is stopping you from this, then what good are those things in life?
A phone can play all sorts of games, take pictures and create music. It even tracks your location and counts your steps along the way. But if you can’t call your mother on her birthday, then it’s not really a phone is it?
If we can’t make doing God’s will our first priority, then what does that say about who we are, or about our faith? Paul said, “it is by faith that we are saved,” so then why risk salvation by taking our faith so lightly? Likewise, if we want our Christianity to mean anything, then we need to take inventory and make following Jesus a priority.
When Kathleen and I got married, I was still sneaking funny things into my ads and making a salary that afforded us a home, a family, and the comforts of life. Before I entered ministry, I took our finances into consideration. I calculated what going back to school would do to our retirement, my social security, as well as our savings and investments.
I failed, however, to truly calculate the cost it would have on Kathleen, or on the faith of our kids, or the disruption to our social life when we had to pack up and move to follow Jesus.
I’ve learned, as Melissa Early pointed out, “You can’t mitigate the cost of discipleship with budget spreadsheets and good project management. It’s about sacrifice—not just of comfort and companionship but of one’s rootedness in a community, one’s present circumstances, and one’s future.”
To make God number one in my life meant making those I love with every fiber of my being second-class citizens. And it still doesn’t seem fair. I can’t really explain it beyond this, but I know God is faithful to me, and so I ought to be faithful to God.
Jesus is calling you to follow him. To do what he does so that others can see God’s glory and do God’s will. He’s asking a lot, but he also gives you more than you could ever imagine. We can’t come on this cross-carrying journey half-heartedly, because God doesn’t come half-heartedly. We got to be all in, just as God is. We have to come ready to give up our life, and all that we hold dear, because that’s what God did for us through Christ.
I don’t know how many people went home after hearing Jesus say these words, but I know the twelve remained. They may not have been perfect, but they were willing to sacrifice the cost. Are we?
Last week I read this passage to a group of seniors that I minister to at an assisted living home. One women rightfully asked, “Can I not follow Jesus if I am unable to do what he’s asking here?”
My answer was unequivocally, “Yes!” No one jumps into the deep end of the pool and begins swimming. First you learn about water, then how not to drown. Eventually, you learn some strokes and before you know you’re moving through the water like it’s second nature.
C.S. Lewis said the whole purpose of becoming a Christian is to become a little Christ. To achieve what he is suggesting will take instruction, practice, patience and time. Perhaps more than we are willing to give. But to his point, when we see what Jesus does and practice doing it daily like he did, then our love, forgiveness, hospitality, kindness and sharing of ourselves and our resources becomes as natural as breathing.
Discipleship is a journey which begins with taking that first small step…and doing it over and over again until it becomes a more confident stride. But for it to be truly meaningful, to get a big return on our investment, each step must lead us to a closer, more intimate relationship with God. We do this by following the way of Christ, who put his own agenda second to God’s.
“We may respond immediately to Jesus’ call but it will take a lifetime for us to see how that decision plays out, but if we don’t read the fine print, we may fall away from the path” (Ashley). So I ask, what are those things in life that are pulling you away from God and doing God’s will?
Above family, career, desires and wants, even nation or church...God must be first in your heart, on your mind, and from your lips. All else is sacrifice. Or as John the Baptizer put it, “I must decrease so Christ can increase” (John 3:30). This is the great cost we must be willing to pay for our faith. Greater still is the reward we receive.
Earlier in Luke, Jesus said you are blessed when people laugh at you and hate and even kill you because you chose to put God’s way above theirs. Instead of getting down, leap up with gladness and joy, for your reward is great in heaven (Luke 6:22-23). Jesus never promised an easy life—just one filled with wild variables, defining challenges and unforeseen rewards.
Through Jesus, God beckons out to us, pointing our eyes and hearts towards the fine print and showing us how to respond with our lives so that we might experience something more than we can ask for or imagine.The only guarantee is that it will be a tough job, with long hours and great risks. But the benefits you receive will last long after your work is done.
Let us pray:
Merciful and loving God, you have opened our hearts with your love, and opened our minds with your words. Open now to us the endless possibilities to make your will come alive in us in all that we do for your glory, Amen.
Ashley, Danae M. Fine Print. episcopalchurch.org (attained on September 4, 2019)
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C. Vol. 4. (Westminster John Knox: 2010) pp. 44-49.
Early, Melissa. Reflections on the Lectionary. Christian Century, Vol. 136, No. 18. August 28, 2019, p.18.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. (Macmillan Publishing: 1978) p. 153.
This weekend, across America, people are taking time off from work to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Most businesses offer Labor Day as a paid holiday for their employees. But there are plenty of places like restaurants and retail that if you don’t work you don’t get paid. No one understands better than day laborers in our communities who survive on whatever job they can get for the day.
A few years back a friend hired me and a couple of day laborers to demo a bathroom for a remodel. I showed up early, got to work, and wasted no time busting down walls and tearing up floors. It was a hard, backbreaking job for anyone, especially someone like me who spent most of my time sitting in an air conditioned office.
Once the last of our mess was swept up and thrown into the dumpster, my friend lined us up and gave us our pay. We each received a one hundred dollar bill. To them that was fair pay for a fair days work. But I was used to making more than that per hour, this was simply pocket change. I remember thinking about how anyone could live on such a little amount. And now I am in ministry I know exactly how...you don’t.
Whenever I read the parable about the laborers in the vineyard I think of those two guys I worked with that day. The story is found in Matthew 20:1-16.
In this parable I see a lot of similarities to our world today. For example, the workday begins early. Those who needed a job for the day got up before the sun and gathered in a specific place to wait for someone to employ them. In my neighborhood, the painters gather in front of the paint store, plumbers stand near the plumbing supply shop, and you can always find plenty of willing hands in the Home Depot parking lot. Every morning they gather hoping to be picked so they can get the money they need to pay their bills and support a family.
Another similarity is that the employer set the wage. And each worker agreed that it’s fair before they entered the vineyard to work. Negotiating salary and benefits would come much later. And still to a very select few. In this story the workers are just happy to have work.
Jesus doesn’t tells why, but over the course of a day more workers are needed. So the manager goes out four more times, with each worker agreeing to the same terms. At the end of the day, the men line up to get paid, just like I did after that demo job. Every laborer, no matter how long they worked, received the same amount in their paycheck, which seems odd to the workers, but for different reasons. Jesus said this is what the Kingdom of God is like. And it pisses some people off.
A literal interpretation of this story would most likely raise the hackles on any business-minded person because it tosses out every notion we’ve learned about fair compensation. In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey asks, “Who in their right mind would offer the same reward to those who have earned it and to those who have not?” The answer is simple. God would. God views fairness differently. And thank God for that.
Naturally, those who were hired first grumble, they feel as if they should get more. It’s easy for us to sympathize with their complaints, isn’t it? Something in our gut says this is just simply not fair. It’s not the American way! But how soon we forget God’s ways are often different from ours. We may think it unjust that one who worked a full day in the hot blazing sun should receive the same pay as those who barely had time to break a sweat. But God doesn’t see it that way. And thank God for that.
It does seem unfair… until you stand in the shoes of those who where hired last. Jesus makes a big deal about this point. When the vineyard manager looked at the guys standing around late in the evening, did he think they were lazy bums? Was he judging them when he asked, ‘Why are you standing around all day doing nothing?’
No, he was sympathetic to their plight that no one hired them and now they have to figure out a way to get food on their table. Imagine what it’s like to watch others get picked while you get passed over. The fear and pressure of making ends meet can be overwhelming. I know first hand what it can do to a person’s psyche.
When Jesus tells us parables about the Kingdom of God, he is showing us a world that is different. A world where starting with a disadvantage, like language, skin color, education, citizenship, or getting hired at the last minute, won’t set you back. Because God is faithful and generous. Our timing or even our incompetence does not stop God from loving us any more or any less. In God’s Kingdom, things like grace, love, mercy, forgiveness can never be calculated on a timesheet. They aren’t held over our head as a bonus or reward based on merit. Each one is a gift, freely given to all who are willing to enter the vineyard.
Sadly not everyone sees it that way. You might think you’re more deserving because you’ve done more to help your community, or given more to support your church. These are great things, and you should continue doing them. Only do so without judging those are aren’t as good and righteous as you, or cannot afford to give as generously as you can. Jesus reminds us that we need to be more sympathetic to those who are at a disadvantage, and teach by example for those who might be new to this living Christ in the world thing.
Look, we are all trying to find our own way in and around the vineyard. Some of us are just lucky enough to have been given a head start. But God is gracious and loving to all who wish to enter, anytime and all the time.
This is God’s Kingdom not ours. God is the owner and can do whatever the heck God wants to do. And instead of getting mad we should count our blessings knowing “God dispenses gifts, not wages.” God isn’t concerned about what we deserve; God merely gives us what we need; “even if it means paying some people twelve times more than what they deserved.”
Five times the manager goes out to gather people. I imagine if he went out a sixth or a seventh time, the end of the story wouldn't change. Whether you’ve been faithful and devoted your whole life, or you’re just coming to terms with Christ as your Lord, your paycheck is as good as anyone else’s. At the end of the day, Christ died for all. And we all benefit because of it.
God loves and welcomes all into the vineyard. And we should thank God for that. We should be grateful that our God is a loving and giving God who sucks at math.
While I was teaching a class on the Gospel of Matthew, and on this particular parable, someone joked that “God is a lousy bookkeeper because he adds infinity to every paycheck he hands out.” Think about that…God adding infinity to your life. Infinite grace. Infinite love. Infinite forgiveness. Imagine all the power, wisdom, joy and peace that you can handle – doled out to you every single day.
Imagine how good it that makes you feel when no one else will give you the time of day? That’s how those workers felt when they are finally hired. They are paid first, not because they need it more but because they are able to receive it with joy and gratitude – not with envy or pettiness.
God is a generous employer. God gives us what we need, not what we deserve. And thank God for that. Because there’s still work to be done. God is still looking for us and gathering us and hiring us to work. But are you willing to step into the vineyard?
Are you willing to get your hands dirty in the Kingdom of God? Are you willing to show grace to someone even if they do not deserve it? Or love someone as God has loved you? Are you willing forgive one another’s debts and trespasses, just as God forgave yours? Or lend a hand to someone who is at a disadvantage without expecting anything in return from them?
Jesus called us to continue his ministry, to help others see their worth in God’s eyes. Spreading love, sharing grace, sewing justice so we can live in peace. This is our job. Each one of us has been hired to work in a specific role at a specific time. For some it’s early in their life and career, and for others much later in the game.
It doesn’t matter. There’s still plenty of work to be done. More planting, more growing and more harvesting the fruits of God’s glory until Christ comes again.
But each one of us must be willing to enter the vineyard and endure to the end of the workday, however long that might be.
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 92-97.
McNeely, Darris. The Parable of the Workers - A Fair Wage From a Fair Employer. (March 15, 2013) https://www.ucg.org/good-news/lessons-from-the-parables-the-parable-of-the-workers-a-fair-wage-from-a-fair-employer. (culled on August 30, 2019)
Yancy, Phillip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997) pp. 61-63.
This is an important turning point in Mark’s gospel. It’s the third time Jesus has revealed that he’ll be rejected and suffer at the hands of his own people. As Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, we have to ask ourselves if we have what it takes to follow him. Like we learned last week, that entails denying ourself, taking up our cross, and doing what Jesus does – no matter the cost.
There are a few questions in this one passage. It would have been nice had Jesus stopped after asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they could have given the usual answers, make me see again, help me walk, or heal our friend. Heck, they could have asked him to make more wine for their party, or multiply the chicken nuggets so everyone could have seconds.
But instead the boys asked to sit next to Jesus in Heaven – the seat of power in any kingdom. The others get mad at James and John for their audacity. But not Jesus. He loves them and tolerates them, and entertains their desire with a follow up question…“Are you able to drink from my cup or share my baptism?”
Let’s think about that for a moment. “Are you able?”
To be willing is one thing. But to be able is a whole other level of commitment. I am willing to be a Christian, but am I able to be Christlike in all areas of my life? I’m willing to love people, but am I able to love all people the way Jesus did?
As he moves closer to his passion, Jesus needs to know if his disciples are faithfully committed to continuing his ministry. So he asks, “Are you able?” Three little words that should give us pause.
I admitted last week that of all the 300 plus questions Jesus asks, this is my least favorite because it makes me doubt my commitment to my faith; especially my faith in God’s ability to work through me. If I’m being truthful and honest, I put off asking this particular question because it requires me to be vulnerable and raw. It exposes my weakness and means I have to admit, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if I am able...and that scares me.
When Jesus asked the question the boys answered without giving it a second thought. “We are able.” I wish I could be that quick, or confident, to give a thumbs up to Jesus like James and John did. It makes me wonder if these two disciples even hear what Jesus is saying? Do they understand the risk of what is at stake?
When I look at my own fears and anxieties, and the shame I have for not fully living up to my abilities, my guess is they actually do know what Jesus is asking of them and that’s why they give such a definitive answer.
James and John have been traveling with Jesus for some time now. They’ve heard what he’s said, and seen how people react. They know what Jesus is asking them to do, and what they will face in order to be faithful to his mission. Their request isn’t that unreasonable, given what’s in store for them.
If I were in their shoes, I’d want to sit next to Jesus too. Not because I want power or prestige, but because being close to Christ is the safest place to be when the world around you falls apart. It seems the disciples are finally able to see who Jesus is, and what that means to the world and their mission. If they’re going to do what he does, then they need to be as close to God as possible. And so do we. Jesus is the way to having that close relationship with God.
When Jesus asks the boys, “are you able,” he wasn’t trying to trick them or make them look bad. Instead he was inviting them to participate in the Kingdom of God. The way they are able to participate is by becoming a servant. Whoever wants to be first must be a slave. Christ came to serve people, not to be served by them—to give away his life so others can live. The seat of power isn’t in what you get but what you give.
To participate in God’s kingdom, I don’t think we need to be able...any more than we need to be worthy, or good enough. God knows our hearts. And God is more than able to do things whether we have any abilities or not.
So perhaps it’s not about being able, but being willing to be close to Jesus – to go where he goes and do what he does.
So let me ask you: Are you willing to lend a hand to someone who has gone out of their way to harm you? Are you willing to stay up all night with a friend to reconcile a mistake or a misunderstanding?
Are you willing to stand up for a kid at school who is getting bullied, or befriend someone who’s alone, even if they are not like you?
Are you willing to let your guard down, to be vulnerable, or admit that you’re not always in control of your life, or you don’t always have the right answer?
Are you willing to be the presence of Christ in the world knowing God is willing and able to give you the strength and power you need to overcome whatever the world throws at you?
Are you willing to see and do what Jesus does, so that others can enjoy the benefits of God’s redemptive love and grace as you have received through Christ?
Jesus is asking the boys if they are able, but he’s challenging their willingness to commit. Jesus is challenging us to, to put our faith on the front line and to live countercultural to the ways of the world – to give up our power, to become weak and vulnerable in order to find who we really are... beloved children of God.
If we are willing to open our hearts and follow the way of Christ, then we are able to be the antidote to a world that uses its power to dominate the weak. If we are willing to follow Christ in both good times and tough times, we will be able to be bridge builders where others have made walls.
Again, this church’s vision is to Love God, Love Others, and Serve Both. There are many ways to do this. And we invite you to join us in this mission. You might think you’re not able to do it, but as long as you are willing, God is able to empower you with the same spirit given to Christ. If you are willing God is able to work with you and through you to make possible what the world has said is impossible.
If you are willing to receive God’s love that comes to us through Christ...then you too will be able to give all of who you are, for the sake of seeking justice, loving neighbors and forgiving all debts. You will be able, because God is able to do anything and all things. One needs to look no further than the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus the Christ to see what God is capable of doing.
We are able. But are we willing to commit? To say “Yes, Lord, I am.”
If you are willing, then you are able to have the faith to do all that you are called to do, in the name of the one who gave his life for the ransom of all.
Let us pray: Lord, you have given us your promise and by your Holy Spirit you have given us you power to do things we never thought we could do. May our eyes and ears always be focused on doing your work, so that your will can be done, for the glory of your name, Amen.
Bartlett, David. L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B. Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 189-91.
Some material was taken from a previous sermon first published on October 18, 2015.
It seems like yesterday that I waved goodbye to my mom and dad, as I drove off to California to finish college. On that day, August 14, 1989, my mom’s biggest concern was not my safety, or being infected with liberal ideology. It was something deeper. She knew that once she let me go there would not be turning back. That’s the cost of parenting, knowing one day your child will leave you to begin a life of their own.
Twenty-one years later I would find myself embarking on another journey, this time leaving a career to go to grad school. I knew that once I began seminary there would be no turning back. My old life in advertising would have to die so my new life in ministry could flourish. That was a cost I was willing to make. Of course, saying yes to God doesn’t come cheap.
In the foreword to the book "The Cost of Discipleship”, the author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is quoted as saying, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Think about that, Jesus is calling you to come and die. Six years after his book was published, Bonhoeffer was executed by Hitler. He willingly paid the ultimate price for his faith.
Before I read his book I thought the cost of discipleship was leaving a good salary, having to learn ancient Hebrew, and tripling my intake of caffeine. But the further I go in my spiritual journey, the more I have realized... to truly follow Christ, you must be willing to die so you can be resurrected – you must live a life in balance between dying to your old self and embracing a new, resurrected self.
Which takes us to our question found at the end of Matthew 16:24-26.
Jesus asks two really big questions that have taken me years to grasp. What will it profit me if I gain the whole world but forfeit my life? Or what will I give in return for my life? It seems Jesus is asking a rhetorical question to make a startling point. “If you want to save your life, prepare to lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake…you’ll find it.”
So let me ask you this: What are you going to do with your life? Will you live it by the world’s standards, perusing your own self interest? Or how God wants us to live, in self-giving communities of love?
I believe Jesus is calling us to embrace a resurrection life, but in order to do so...something has to give. Jesus knows this is going to be difficult to live out, muchless understand. Luckily, he provides us with a three-step method to get us going.
Step one: Deny yourself. This seems pretty clear. It means refusing or letting go of your wants and desires...especially when they’re not in sync with what God desires. But there’s more to it. The verb used is the same one that describes Peter denying Christ three times. So to deny yourself means refusing to recognize or acknowledge the truth of who you are.
For example, I am no longer a creative director. I am a follower of Christ. And while I am a son, a father, a husband, or simply Ian, I know if I want to save my life I have to let go of who I think I am and be who God wants me to be. This requires dying daily to my old self so I can live a new resurrected life in Christ. Living a resurrected life means sacrificing our will so that God’s will can be one. Your ego won’t like this, because it’s been trained to look out for you.
Jesus, like the Buddha, calls us to renounce the ego, to abandon it for something greater than ourselves. This is means every day your ego will have to die a little death so you can be born anew to live a resurrected life. This death, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. A seed must die to create a new plant. This is what Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Through death comes new life.
Which takes us to step two…taking up the cross. Now one could say this is the big, contextual idea of Christianity. A vivid metaphor for self-denial, that invites us to participate in the fullness of life, and without the fear of death. Which seems ironic given the fact that the cross was one of Rome’s most brutal weapons.
The soldiers told anyone who dare to rebel against Caesar to “pick up you cross.” It was common for a convicted criminal to strap the horizontal wood beam onto his back and lug it to the place he would be killed. Along the way he’d be subject to humiliation, ridicule, and shame before finally enduring an agonizing death that could take hours, or even days to complete.
Peter understood the cross to be a symbol of great suffering and shame. Which is why, in the previous verses when Jesus tells him what he is about to go through, Peter steps up to protect his teacher. And he was rebuked. His ego thought he could save Jesus. Jesus had a cross to bear. And so do we.
We don’t save people. God does. But we can show them how to be reborn.
Living a resurrected life means making the work of Jesus our top priority.But we can’t do this when our old self is in the way. We have to let it die so we can live a new life in imitation of the One who leads the way.
This takes us to Step Three: Following Jesus. Like the other two, this verb is in present tense. This means a constant, mindful, daily effort. To follow Jesus means we have to make the daily decision to devote our hearts, hands, thoughts, and lips to doing God’s will. Living a resurrected life means constantly asking yourself, “Am I doing what I want, or what God wants me to do?” Am I loving others as God loves me, or forgiving as I have been forgiven, helping as I want to be helped?
As Bonhoeffer taught, God’s grace doesn’t come cheap. Cheap grace is like what we talked about last week...when Jesus asked why do you call me Lord but not do what I tell you to do. In contrast, Jesus showed us that grace is costly because it costs us our lives if we want to find true life. It calls us to see what Jesus does and then do it, even if the world rejects you or kills you in the process.
Why is this important? Because Jesus asked, “What good is all the stuff in the world if you forfeit your life?” God has given you life, so what are you going to do with it? Your will? Or God’s?
God wants our total allegiance and commitment. Worldly possessions or suffering shouldn’t be a deterrent for giving God what God wants. Sooner or later, earthly things will fade away. But spiritual things resurrect into bigger and better things. If a person rejects God’s will to becomes the richest, most powerful person on earth, that person will have lost the only part of his or her self that lasts forever. The soul.
Jeffery Epstein, the multimillionaire who recently committed suicide in jail, is a perfect example of someone who had it all – money, mansions, and material wealth. By living his life by his terms, his ego drove him to do some horrific things to other human beings. At the end of the day all he accumulated in life could not save him from himself.
As Micheal Huffington wrote, “Everything we think we own is only being loaned to us until we die. And on our deathbed, at the moment of death, no one but God can save our souls.”
If we focus all our attention on the successes of this world… what will it do for us after this life has passed? If we feed our physical desires yet starve our spiritual well-being, what will we really gain?
As God’s beloved children, we are called to embrace a resurrected life above all other life.Jesus is not giving us a prosperity gospel, where God desires to shower you in material wealth. He gives us a costly one – one that makes you spiritually rich as you deepen your relationship with God.
You can have the latest and greatest cell phone, one that can do amazing things and keep you entertained for hours on end. But its joy and fulfillment will only last until a new, faster, smarter and sexier phone comes along. What the world offers us, will only last so long. Our souls will last an eternity.
We can’t ignore the health of our souls any more than the health of our bodies. Just as our physical lives need to be nourished, so to does the spiritual. And that nourishment is love…God’s love for us and our love for one another. God is love – the ultimate source of nourishment for our souls. The cross is a perfect reminder of how far God will go to love us. Out of his great love for us, Jesus paid the ultimate price for our souls.
By his death and resurrection, Jesus has given us new life, with a new meaning and purpose. And today he’s asking us what are we going to do with it, now that we have received it? God invites us to participate in love…to see and do what Jesus does, so that others can learn and teach the will of God.
As Bonhoeffer reminds us, sacrificial love is never cheap. It comes with a cost. More often than not, that cost is your life. Giving up of your old selfish, ego-centered life for one of self-denial, cross-bearing, faithful following of the One who draws us back into the heart of God, the epicenter of love and life everlasting.
Once you take God’s grace and love into your heart, once you claim the name of Christ, there’s no going back. But that’s the price I’m willing to pay to be with the One who loves me, no matter what.
Let us pray.
Holy Creator of light and love, how blessed are we for the sacrifice you made for us. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so we can fearlessly give of ourselves to others like Christ showed us to do. Embrace us as we let go of ourselves and remake us to be your people, with the heart and hands of Jesus who died for our sins, and was resurrected for the glory of your name, Amen.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (New York: MacMillan, 1939).
Rohr, Richard. Immortal Diamond. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
Huffington, Micheal. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/michael_huffington_505117
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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