There’s a vicious circle that I often get stuck in; I think that because I am a Christian, I should always have the right answer, never have any doubts, and in practice, be a model of perfection. Guess what? I’m not perfect yet.
Young people grow into an ever-widening circle of people for whom they must show love and compassion. First it is their siblings and parents, then their playmates, then the people at school, especially those who are being bullied or ostracized. As we enter into adulthood, our calling to compassion must extend to those who are poor, or subject to abuse.
Jesus breaks the rules. He comes from God like John the Baptist does, but he doesn't sit out in the wilderness eating locust and wearing wild animal skins. He is in the tradition of Isaiah and Moses, yet he doesn’t write long books or tote stone tablets with rules to learn. There are three rules that I have learned from watching Jesus:
1) Always be compassionate.
2) Awareness beats ignorance
3) The ends never justify the means (or always trust the process).
We use many rules each day to stay healthy. We brush our teeth religiously, schedule routine medical appointments, trim toenails, spray sunscreen, and perhaps, floss. Each of these has an embedded mental mantra. Just as we say to ourselves thirty days hath September, so we repeat trite rules to form virtuous habits. Yet, there is something in me that rebels against rules. To have physical health and spiritual shalom I need to intentionally embed a limited number of phrases into my subconscious. I need to make it a rule to keep certain rules.
The point of always be compassionate, is that shalom will lie, not in the place where others say that it is, but in the place our heart, that is fully invested in the rule, finds to be compassionate. So, the father in Jesus story about prodigals, is thought to be violating the rule of compassion towards the vegan village and the older brother when he kills the fatted calf for his lost son. But shalom favors this extravagant gesture of grace. Only when we have the first rule firmly embedded in our mind can we see this.
Prophets, like Jeremiah, are also known as seers. I looked it up, the word seer comes from the compound see and -er. God asks Jeremiah to go to the potter’s shop and see. As a photography nut, this has become important to me. Most people go to somewhere scenic and snap selfies on their cell phones. The camera in my iPhone is in some ways superior to the expensive camera with aspherical lenses that I use when I am seriously seeing. That’s the point, using a cell phone rarely makes one a seer. Jeremiah is asked to go down to the potter’s shop and see. When we stop and simply observe — breathe… close your eyes… empty… breathe… now open your eyes — release for a few days the need to post something to Facebook.
I’m running out the door, late, as usual. Across the street my neighbor is sitting alone, on his porch. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t acknowledge me. Yet, I hear a silent nudge in my heart, saying, Go over and talk to him.
But, I have a meeting to attend. My neighbor is a recovering alcoholic who has recently left the path. His wife is forcing him to move out, saying, “I won’t live with a drunk.” I helped him pack a U-haul over the weekend. I let him borrow my car to take his son out to the park. He thanked me. I learned the next day that he had picked up a bottle of whiskey on the way back from the park. No, I didn’t want to go across the street to talk to him.
I went on my way and didn’t think much about it until I saw the scripture for this Sunday. In Acts 16:9-15, Paul has a vision. A man from Macedonia appeared in a dream saying, “Come over to help us.” This meant crossing the Aegean Sea and starting a new ministry in Europe. Paul already had his hands full with Asia Minor. He had meetings to attend.
v1) I have proven myself incapable of distinguishing between what I need and what I want. The Master lays down for me nutritious food and clear water. I beg for table scraps, wolf them down, and barf it all up on the carpet. I root through the garbage, I drink from the toilet. In spite of all this, the Master loves this shepherd.
v2-3) Our friendship has been formed by many walks. It is in going out into the world that I have come to know my Master’s will. He leads me around dangers and across busy streets. He seems to know both the destination and the lessons I need to learn on the way. He knows when I need to rest, or take a drink. He always has a bag handy for when I poop. He waits patiently for me and teaches me to wait for him.
v 4) I don’t think about death. I know that my Master’s life will go on much longer than mine. I simply hope that he will remember me. The Master has disciplined me when I’ve needed it. He has guided me when I have been anxious. In fact, he has never failed at this. I am comforted. I have the strength to face the unknown.
There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
I like the word, 'vocation.' It is built upon the Latin for calling and reminds us that what we do in life, whether it is a paid career or a volunteer service around the neighborhood, is done because of what God spoke into being when he made us. We are called and we respond. I also can’t help but notice what Paul says about our vocations in 1 Corinthians 12. He says that they are related to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual gifts are given to everyone of our members. Many use them to build up the church. Humor me, let me apply Paul’s words here to the broader realm of the service we give in life, to our jobs, to our community, and to our loved ones. Both the roles that we take on (father, mother, boss, pastor) and the skills that we need to perform in those roles, are from God. They are a sacred trust. He assigns them as He wishes.
Imagine Henry, a Easter-Christmas nominal Christian, coming to your church this week and hearing Jesus’ story about how on Judgement Day, God will sort us all out, like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Henry has never spent a day upon a farm. He wonders what is so bad about goats. He gets the bit about how people, who are only nice when they know that there’s something in it for them, deserve Hell. But, what’s this talk about all of humankind being brought before God (Jesus) and given only one chance to make it into heaven? Henry, like Hamlet and many other fictional people, views his life as a series of good and bad decisions. We assume that we get into heaven if we happen to be doing something good when we die; like Hamlet’s stepfather saying his prayers. I think that this week’s sermon should answer Henry’s questions, instead of going over the familiar ground of being good when nobody is watching.
First, we have to say that goats are really fine animals. Jesus’ point is not that sheep are warm and fuzzy and therefor saved. He is referring to the fact that shepherds can do this separation very easily. God will not take long to sort us. The direction of our hearts, is an open book to Jesus who lives within us.
Out in the dessert, Moses lifts up a cross-shaped stick. This is the moment of maximum anxiety. The people have reached the end of their own resources. They are lost. They are sick. The are, what Jesus would later call, the poor in faith. They are entering a 12 Step program for irreligious people — which begins with admitting that we are powerless to save ourselves. On the stick is a brazen snake. This drains the last bit of rationality and ‘this is how we do things’ out of the situation. Imagine going down the aisle of your church with a snake on a stick.
The people just have to look at the snake pole to be healed. This is a pretty good analogy to the free nature of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. That’s why the story of Moses and the snake-stick precedes our favorite verse, John 3:16.
It seems strange dealing with the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) in the middle of the summer. The hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” puts this parable to music. It is rarely sung except at Thanksgiving. Then, the actions of the farmer make sense. By telling Jesus’ parable in the summer, we preserve its shock value. The farmer lets the weeds grow among his corn. He’s my kind of gardener. We aren’t meant to imitate the farmer of this story. We are meant to think about what it means to be wheat or corn. We are meant to think about what happens to the weeds in the end.
This parable is one of Jesus’ many end of time stories. Why do the the good die young and the bad continue to do bad things with impunity? Well, Jesus tells us, this is temporary. In the final judgment, the weeds will be gathered and roasted. Bad people are weeds. Good people are corn. Get the picture?
Anne Dillard whacks us on the side of the head when she says, “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is… Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.” Jesus likens God’s evangelism to a farmer who throws most of his seed away (Matthew 13:1-9). The profligate sower throws his precious seed out on the path, where the Devil and the birds whisk it away. Then there is the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:19-34). We would like to blame Esau for wasting his birthright, but it’s God who puts the red-headed man on the stupid path where the Devil steals his soul.
Genesis 25, Matthew 13, and Romans 8, all seem to be driving home the point that the people who enter into God’s kingdom, do so by grace. Most people in this world are not spiritual. I’m not talking about religious affiliation or church attendance. I’m saying that the seed of having a real love for God is wasted on most people. Jesus says that God is willing to play the odds and let most people live their lives with nominal affection for him. But the few seeds that fall on fertile souls, burst forth into miraculous fruitfulness. They respond and yield a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirty times more seed than what was sown.
The story of Abraham in Genesis 21:8-21 is impossible to preach, so why not take it on this week? In it, God is criminally negligent, Abraham guilty of attempted murder, and the notion of predestination affirmed. There are few places in the Bible more open to controversy. There are some great truths, however, that you can teach using it. You can talk about the sacredness of family, marriage, and the grace of God. You can also preach the great lesson of Scott Peck, that life is painful and we can not grow as people until we embrace the emotional difficulties of our current situation. Because Abraham is unwilling to face the crisis of his family on this day, he subjects himself to a lifetime of regret.
But first, we have to talk about Sarah. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with her baby Isaac and is overwhelmed by the green eyed monster, Jealousy. Ishmael is Abraham’s firstborn child, something no son of hers will ever be. There is something more. Sarah sees the financial resources and the family’s prestige as a fixed commodity. The more one child gets, the less that is available for the other. This ‘zero sum game’ is Sin’s most popular myth. Her grandchild, Jacob, will divide the family’s wealth among 12 sons and not diminish the inheritance one iota. In todays world, people are always using the devil’s zero sum logic and abandoning God’s promise of abundance.