Nov 13

Getting Ready to Wait



Once upon a time, two young women tried out for their college’s basketball team. At the tryouts the pair quickly discovered that, as good as they were, neither one was going to be the team’s star. Over a couple of weeks, cut after cut happened, and still the women found themselves on the list to return for the next workout. 60, 40, 30, 20: finally the time came to announce the final 15 who would make the team, and there they were—14th and 15th on the roster. They knew they had no chance of ever playing. The team had 5 excellent starters, 5 really good second-string players, and 5 benchwarmers. The two women were not going to run the court this season. Continue reading

Nov 17

The Parable of the Talents

            The most important thing you need to know about the parable you just heard from Matthew’s gospel, the parable of the talents, is that the third servant, the one who buried his treasure in the ground, did exactly what he was supposed to do. In the ancient world, there was no federal insurance for banks. Investing money back then was an even bigger risk than it is today. And the safest, most reliable way to ensure you did not lose your money was to bury it. The servant who buried his master’s treasure didn’t just play it safe; he played it smart, and he played it right. His master had just given him a talent, the equivalent of at least fifteen years’ worth of wages, more money than most people would ever see at one time in those days. So he buries it, just like he’s supposed to do.

            You see, Jesus’ parables are not just relatable stories. They are not mere real-life examples of common sense. They are stories with a twist: something unexpected that upends contemporary wisdom or that results in an ending that no one could have predicted. So many sermons and books on this parable focus on how the servants make use of their talents. That’s important, of course, but those approaches can obscure something deeper and more challenging about the parable of the talents. In this case, the servant who does the right thing is the one who ends up being punished. Why?

            Asking why the servant was punished shifts our attention away from the servants and back to this strange master. And that’s where our attention should have been all along, at least according to Jesus. One of my rules of thumb for reading Scripture is if Jesus tells you what something is about, it’s a safe bet that that’s what it’s about. Here, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, is like a man who decides to take a long and indefinite journey, a man who entrusts vast sums of wealth to his servants while he is gone: to one, enough money to last a lifetime; to the next, enough money to live comfortably for his entire adulthood; and to a third, enough money to retire on. Can you imagine?! This master is on his way out the door. He gives no timetable for his return. He offers no instructions for what to do with his wealth. He leaves no trusted overseer, no one with designated power of attorney. There is no accountability while he is gone. His servants could wait until their master is just out of sight, take their talents, and high-tail it in the opposite direction as fast as they could go. No one would ever catch them. They could set up in some distant country and be set for as long as they might want. Why would anyone take such foolish steps with such vast wealth? Who would do such a thing?

            I think this is why the third servant finds himself in so much trouble when his master returns. If you worked for a master who behaved so strangely, who courted risk so casually, over time you would begin to pick up some of his characteristics. You would see him as an example, and as his servant you would imitate him, regardless of what other masters might want in similar situations. Faithful service to a master means doing as the master does or would do. It’s more than being an ambassador, though, more than just acting on behalf of the master. It’s becoming more and more like the master, shaping your own life in his image. So if your master is the kind of person who takes huge risks with his resources, who even entrusts them indefinitely to his servants, you had better be the kind of servant who takes risks, too, with what your master has given you. The first two slaves get it: they barter and trade with what they have. They risk losing it all in some crazy venture, because that’s what the master had done with them. The third slave, he’s clueless. By hiding his talent in the ground, he shows that he really doesn’t know who his master is, even before he falsely accuses the master of being “a harsh man.” The third servant does not understand what it means to serve this master.

            The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not about a place we go. It’s not about how the world is supposed to work, or some lofty ideals for the church or society. In fact, the kingdom of God is not aboutanything. The kingdom of heaven is the Lord God, God himself, reigning in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is God in Jesus Christ ruling over creation. The man who foolishly risks his wealth by entrusting it to his servants is God in Jesus Christ. He is, as I said months ago, the God who is all in for us.

            In Jesus Christ God gives us wealth beyond anything we could imagine. Not the wealth of gold or silver—the wealth of God’s love, even the wealth of God’s Love in the Holy Spirit. Who would be so foolish as to entrust people like us with such riches? Only the God who is also foolish enough to risk his love by creating a world that might turn against him; who, when that does happen, takes another risk and comes down in human flesh to offer that love to the same people who have rejected him. Jesus offers the fullness of the riches of God’s love to those who would be his servants. In Matthew’s gospel, he tells this parable during Holy Week, days before he is crucified. And then Jesus does leave us. For how long, we don’t know. It may seem like a long time, but he will return. In his absence, he leaves it to his servants, his disciples, his followers, to use the wealth he has given as he would use it.

            For those of us who follow Jesus, we must be ready to take risks with what God has given us. God did not play it safe with his love for us; we must not play it safe with our love for others. That’s why I’m so excited about the budget church council will vote on tomorrow. It’s not a done deal yet, but the proposed budget actually includes line items for mission work.

            We’ve spent money as a congregation on missions before, of course—in fact, we do it all the time. But putting it into the budget means we’re willing to take a risk. Not a financial risk—financially speaking this is an opportunity to give more for the whole reason we’re here in the first place. No, the risk is much bigger and more exciting. You see, by putting missions into the budget, we’re emphasizing that following Jesus is what being the church at Centre is all about. We’ll be saying that going into the world to spread the gospel as we love our neighbors isn’t just something we do when we have special collections or a small surplus—it’s what we expect to happen as routinely as paying the electric bill or keeping up with the roof.

            And here’s where the risky part comes in. If we make missions part of the routine, part of what’s expected to happen at Centre, we’re going to have to put our talents where our mouths are. Not just our money or the skills and abilities we have. The greatest treasure we have: the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We’ll have to risk forgiving people no one else wants to forgive. We’ll have to risk walking alongside people who have been abandoned by the world. We will have to invite into our buildings and worship services people no one else will have around. We will have to challenge ourselves again and again to love extravagantly, to take risks with our love for the sake of the kingdom, to love as our own Lord and Savior loves us.

            Then we, too, may hear those precious words: Well done, good and faithful servants; enter into the joy of your master.

 
Oct 23

Give to God the Things That Are God’s

Preached By Lynn Davis, Lay Servant at Centre UMC

  

Today, the Lord put it on my heart to expound on the New Testament reading of Matthew 22:15-22. The question the Pharisees tried to use to entrap Jesus…..the question about paying taxes.

The enemies of Christ (the Pharisee’s in this case) wanted to get rid of Jesus either by law or by force and up to this point neither was working.  The law of the land in Jesus’ day was the Roman government and the force of the Jewish people ……came through the hands of its people.

The Romans didn’t concern themselves with the laws of the Jews – they had no respect for the people of Israel, no believe in the One True God or any interest in upholding Israel’s religious laws.

To deal with Jesus by force the Pharisees needed to bring the people of Israel to a place of hatred and contempt – they would be the force needed….the hands that would carry out the acts of violence – they were the ones who administered the beatings of those who rebelled against its religious leaders – they were the force that carried out the stoning deaths – but the problem for the Pharisee’s was that the people saw Jesus as a Prophet and they were unable raise the mob against him.

Up to this point in the gospel of Matthew mostly the chief priests and the elders – men in authority had tried to discredit and put an end to Jesus’ ministry. Now the Pharisees send out their disciples in hopes of tripping Jesus up. They were hoping to catch him with his guard down – they knew he would be suspicious if they themselves addressed him, so they come up with a plan to send their disciples – thinking perhaps… that the disciples would look more like students.  Students asking a question with the intent to learn from the sincere teacher, the way of God in accordance with truth showing no deference or partiality – these is exactly how they greeted him and addressed him in verse 16.

Another important fact that should not go unnoticed is that along with the disciples the Pharisees send along the Herodians. The Herodians were a group among the Jews who supported whole heartedly and were in favor of the ruling power of the Roman Empire.

The question whether it was lawful to pay taxes voluntarily or whether they should insist upon the ancient liberty of their nation… they were the seed of Abraham after all ….God’s chosen people and therefore  should not consent to be in bondage to any man or government …. that included the ruling Roman Empire.

The Pharisee’s plan was to entangle Jesus with his own words and it seemed to be well a though out plan – The question was one that caused great tension between the Jewish nation of Israel and the Roman government, one that brought with it anger, hatred and contempt.

They believed there would be no way Jesus could answer the question without exposing him to the anger and force of the Jews or be in contempt of the laws set by the Roman Empire – but he perceived their wickedness.

Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites – Jesus instructs them to show him the coin – whose head is this, and whose title? The Emperor they respond – then give to the emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.

The scripture tells us they were amazed at his answer – why, because no offense was given. Jesus choose not to Judge or bring division regarding the things of this world, why …..because his kingdom is not of this world.

Today the church is being tested more than ever and the enemy is out to trip us up, to entangle us in the things of this world. With all of the hurt, pain, anger, contempt and tension in our world, our nation, our state, our communities and yes even in our own families and in our own homes…the enemy is trying to ensnare us.  The enemy wants to entrap us into thinking the problems of our day are too big for us to get involved. The enemy who is of this world wants us to think these problems are too big for the church and wants us to believe we cannot make a meaningful impact for the kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters when we allow our minds to succumb to this way of thinking we are allowing the enemy to defeat and entrap us.  We have taken our eyes off of Christ and we have lost sight of the Kingdom of God.

Some of us unwillingly or even willingly accept the lies from Satan that we are powerless to change or even impact the problems of this world. Some of us struggle with trying to figure out how we can make a difference, while the rest of us cry out to God and ask him to send revival. 

Brothers and sisters we are the revival, we are God’s agents in this world, we are his hands and feet.  How can we keep our eyes on Christ, how can we impact a hurting world for Christ….in Chapter 5 of Matthew, right after the sermon on the mount, Jesus teaches us to be Salt & Light.

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. You are the light of the world like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father (Matt 5:13-16).

Jesus challenged the Chief Priests, the elders Israel, the Pharisees, the men of authority and yes the Church to be the Salt & Light of this earth. He taught his disciples and all those who believed what it meant to be the Light of the World – to not hide from fear and persecution but to set their eyes, their ears and their hearts on the Kingdom of God… not on the things of this world.

1.     To not be ashamed to be a follower of Jesus Christ

 
2.     To let go of the fear of being rejected or persecuted by friends, family, coworkers and even strangers because of our love for Jesus and our Father in Heaven who sent Him

3.     To hold steadfast in our faith…not only in the good times but in times of trials and temptations

4.     To love our enemies

5.     To pray to our Father in heaven in sincerity and in love

6.     To do for others – acts of love and mercy

7.     To not worry about the things of this world but to build up a store house of heavenly treasure where moths and rust cannot destroy.

Yesterday I had the blessing of attending Mt. Zion’s Women’s Conference, the title and theme of the conference was “Reaching for Eternity.”   I was reminded of the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes but  more importantly I had a greater appreciation for his response…..give to Caesar the things that are Caesars and give to God the things that are Gods.

The things of this world (the things of Caesar) very often distract us from an abundant life with God. It stands in the way of the race set before us, the prize found in reaching for eternity…..Brothers and Sisters it is the giving to God the things that are Gods that allows us to reach for eternity.

Beloved let us be the Salt that preserves and keeps this world from rotting away, let us be the Salt that leads to a thirst for Living Water….Let us be the Light that illuminates and rids the world of darkness, let our good deeds shine out for all to see so that everyone will praise our heavenly Father.

Closing Prayer: Father we join with all of heaven this morning…Great is your name and worthy of our praise – let your people tremble, let the earth quake let all of creation worship your Holy name  for you Lord God are Holy and worthy of all our praise!  Teach us your ways of Lord so that we might reach for eternity, and win the race set before us and take hold of the price for which Christ Jesus died for us to have.  Amen!

 Footnote:

I would like to offer a small note of praise and thanksgiving for the resources available when studying and seeking God’s heart. I would especially like to acknowledge Matthew Henry’s Commentary made available online, through www.biblegateway.com; and Mt. Zion Church in Churchville MD for their Reaching for Eternity Women’s Conference – guest speaker, Tracy Tiernan who inspired some of the content for this sermon.
Aug 04

You Give Them Something to Eat

            In the middle of the lush fields and summer green of Forest Hill, the desert can seem a long way off. The closest desert, as far as I can tell, is somewhere out west, Texas, maybe, or New Mexico or Colorado. Here it’s easy to forget what deserts are like—or to pretend that they don’t exist.

            The truth is, deserts are a lot closer than we care to think. In fact, I imagine just about all of us have been in some kind of a desert at some point: the desert of loneliness, the desert of despair, the desert of depression, the desert of sin. One of the scariest deserts to face is the food desert. Recently, the term “food desert” has been used to name neighborhoods and towns that have no easy access to food, or at least to good food, because grocery stores and other food providers won’t set up shop. Often these food deserts are in urban areas like Baltimore or Philadelphia. As close as these cities and their food deserts are, they still seem a million miles from Forest Hill, a small town of a few thousand people that has at least three large, well-stocked grocery stores, not to mention produce stands and even farms. But food deserts aren’t just found in the cities. Every time a person goes hungry, she finds herself in a food desert. Every time someone must choose between paying the electric bill and buying groceries, he finds himself in a food desert. Every time children arrive at school without having breakfast, they and their families find themselves in a food desert. Friends, we are surrounded by the desert.

            In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus enters his own desert—well, wilderness, really, not, strictly speaking, a desert. Jesus finds himself in the desert for the same reason Moses enters the desert a thousand years earlier—he’s fleeing from a Pharaoh. In Moses’ day, it was an actual Pharaoh, an iron-fisted ruler who cruelly sought to destroy the Israelites. We’ll be hearing more about this Pharaoh in just a few more weeks. In Jesus’ day, the “Pharaoh” is King Herod, not an Egyptian but a puppet of the Roman Empire. In the passage just before our gospel reading this morning, Pharaoh, I mean King Herod, has executed John the Baptist. Jesus hears about John’s death and heads for the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

            Like Moses, however, Jesus does not enter the desert alone. Oh, he means to. He’s escaping, seeking some time to himself to recover from the news of the Baptist’s death. But Israel follows Jesus into the wilderness as surely as they followed Moses across the Red Sea, disrupting Jesus’ plans for some needed respite.

            Jesus, of course, does not send them away: he saw them “and he had compassion for them,” Matthew tells us. Jesus doesn’t accept their presence reluctantly; he feels for them. He loves them. He heals them. And then he feeds them.

            This last part is the part most of us probably know, the feeding of the 5000. The disciples come to Jesus near the end of the day and say, “Jesus, it’s getting late. Send them away; they need food. The roads aren’t safe at night.” The disciples realize that they and the crowds are in the middle of a food desert.

            Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” You can imagine how the disciples would have panicked—where could twelve men find food for 10, 15, maybe even 20,000 people? After all, they are in the middle of a food desert. There’s nothing here. We have nothing to offer them; only these five loaves of bread and two fish.

            “It’s enough,” Jesus says.

            “Enough? For 20,000 people?! It’s not even enough for us twelve!”

            “Bring them here to me.”

Last spring, when I learned that I would be appointed to Centre, two things got me excited about serving here. First, the District Superintendent told me that you have weekly communion. I love that. I became a pastor so that I could preside at the Eucharist. Second, the District Superintendent told me you had a food pantry. Feeding hungry people is so important to the church’s witness and mission in the world. I’ve been to the food pantry twice already, and I am so proud of how our church dedicates a space in our community building to share food with people from our community who are lost in food deserts. And it’s not just our own pantry. We have members who serve those without homes at local shelters and who work with Mason-Dixon Community Services. I’m excited about the ways we serve our community.

Maybe you don’t see a connection between celebrating communion every week and serving our hungry neighbors every week, but I do. And so does Jesus. Look at what happens when the disciples give him the five loaves and two fish: Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples.” Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Jesus does in the Upper Room. Matthew 26:26 reads, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’”

It’s also the same thing that happens every Sunday here at Centre: we offer to our Lord bread and the cup, we give thanks, and we break the bread, trusting by faith that it somehow is Christ’s body, broken for us. The bread for the 5,000 and the bread for Holy Communion are united in Christ’s acts of thanksgiving and sacrifice.

The past few weeks we listened to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. We heard about weeds and wheat, fields and seeds, treasure and pearls. All of it leads up to the feeding of the 5000. Matthew places this story just after these parables. It’s as if he—and, of course, the Holy Spirit—was trying to tell us, “The bounty of God’s garden is for the good of God’s people. God’s bounty is for the physical and spiritual needs of his people. Feed on Christ in thanksgiving at his Supper; then, go and feed his people, your neighbors. Offer to Christ what you have received from God, and he will bless it and return it to you, for the sake of others.”

            Two weeks ago, at the pantry, our church served three families who found themselves in food deserts. Last week we waited two hours, and nobody came by. If our pantry only reached one family for the entire year, it would still be worthwhile.

And yet I am haunted by Jesus’ words: “You give them something to eat.” Is God calling us to do even more with our pantry? Is Jesus heading out into nearby deserts ahead of us? Do we feel compelled to follow him? In our weekly communion service, where all who come are fed, all receive the same thing, and all are given enough of what they need, is God giving us a glimpse of his vision for this vital ministry?

Jesus had compassion for the crowd. “He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking up the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” So may it be with us. Amen.

 
Jul 14

The Sower

Last week we heard from the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, about the love God has for us. God calls us into a garden that he has prepared for us, a garden of fruits and flowers, a garden of life and intimacy with him: Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away! We might think of the kingdom of God as that garden, the place where God calls us and meets us. The kingdom of God is not just about heaven, of course. The kingdom of God is here, now, already breaking in, already changing lives, already setting the universe on the course of redemption and resurrection. God’s salvation and love is for all that God has created.

            This week, and for the next few weeks, we listen to parables from Jesus about life in the garden. And these parables, just like the Song of Solomon, can only be understood if we accept one fundamental truth about the Bible: the Bible is about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible is not about me; the Bible is not about you. The Bible is about God—the Lord.

            Now, fortunately for us, for you and me, the God the Bible is about—the only God, the one True God—is also the God who invites us to get involved with what he is doing, the God who loves us, who cares for us, and who invites us to participate in his life. The Bible is about the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Miriam, Ruth, Mary, and Jesus. Saying the Bible is about God frees us from making the Bible about us. Saying the Bible is about God frees us to find our place in God’s story, instead of us trying to squeeze God into the little room left in our crowded stories.

            So let me say it again: the Bible is about God. And if the Bible is about God, then the sower in this morning’s parable is… Jesus. Yes! The Sunday School answer is once again the right answer. Jesus is the sower. And the parable of the sower is about Jesus, about God.

            Listen carefully. I don’t care how many times you’ve tried to share the gospel with someone. I don’t care how frustrated you are that some people listen to you and others ignore you. I don’t care about your passion for evangelism. You are not the sower.

            Listen again. I don’t care how many sermons I’ve preached. I don’t care how congregations have responded. I don’t care how hard it is to figure out why some people respond to my preaching and others don’t. I am not the sower.

            Jesus is the sower in this morning’s parable. Jesus, sent by the Father, went out to the field—the garden, the kingdom of God—to sow seed. Some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly—only to wither away, since they had no root. Other seeds fell among thorns, which choked them out. And some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain.

            The seed, Jesus explains, is the word of the kingdom. What is that? It is the gospel, the good news, that Christ proclaims in the Sermon on the Mount, in the invitation to his disciples, in the call to Israel and all the world to follow him. Some people hear the word and respond faithfully, bearing fruit in generous yields. What fruit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). Many others, however, do not yield fruit. They get snared by the traps of the devil, trapped by fears of persecution and danger, or caught up in worldly desires—especially the desire for money. See Judas.

            Why does this person respond in faith and that person get caught up in distracting desires? Jesus’ parable doesn’t even try to tell us. There is no answer. There can be no answer. To pretend there is an answer is to pretend that there are good reasons—or any reasons at all—not to follow Jesus, that there are good reasons—or any reasons at all—not to listen to God. There are none. So if you’ve been telling yourself reasons and excuses not to follow Jesus, give them up. They’re no good, they don’t fly, and you’re better off without them. And if you claim you’ve heard the Word of God and been changed by it, show us your fruit. Where is your joy, your peace, your patience, your gentleness, your love?

            This parable, though, is not about you, and it’s not about me. Like everything in the Bible, it’s about God. And this is what the parable of the sower tells us about God: God’s love, for you, for me, for everything and everyone God created, is extravagant beyond all measures.

            So often, when we love, even when we say we love as much as we can, we hold something back. We say we love our friends and family, but we guard ourselves against getting hurt. We claim to love our neighbor, but we make sure we’re taken care of first. We say we love our enemy, as Christ commanded us, but we arm ourselves with weapons and words to strike deadly blows. We claim we love our Lord with all our heart, our mind, and our strength, but we hold back a little just in case. Our love has limits. By the grace of God, we seek to love beyond our limits, but we are still moving on toward perfection.

            Not so for God. God, in Jesus Christ, is the sower who spreads seeds on all the land. He throws his seeds carelessly to the wind, knowing that some of it will fall on fertile soil and some of it will fall on barren ground. Christ does not say, “I will only share the good news of God’s kingdom with the best, the most important, or the ones I know will respond well.” Christ walks out into his garden and starts scattering seed. Christ does not hold back the best seed for the best parts of the garden; he offers the same to everyone—just as he offers the same to everyone at the table.

            This is how great God’s love in Christ is: that he is willing even to let some, perhaps most, of the seeds go to waste for the sake of the bountiful harvest that comes from the seeds that do land in good earth. Our love has limits; God’s has none. God’s love is extravagant, wasteful, unrestrained, and beyond all human reason.

            Friends, this is the good news for us this morning. God loves us so much that the words of the kingdom of God are given even to such undeserving souls as you and me. The parable of the sower invites our response. Not the one too-often declared, that we should try to be good soil, as if we could earn our way into hearing God’s word. No. The true response to the parable of the sower is for us to pray that the Holy Spirit would so fill us that we might produce fruit worthy of the gospel. The true response is to celebrate the gracious love of God that spills over all boundaries and all borders. The rest is up to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.