Please join us for our joint Ash Wednesday service tonight at 7pm at Ypsilanti First United Methodist Church (209 Washtenaw Avenue). This will be the first of three joint services throughout the season of Lent. There is also opportunity to join in small group studies centered around Mike Slaughter’s book “Renegade Gospel.” Please let Pastor Mike know if you are interested in joining one of the small group studies.
Some of you know that last week I started taking three classes
through Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary.
As I was getting ready to travel back to Evanston,
I remembered something that happened to me on my way home
from Garrett a few years ago.
At that point in I had been serving in ministry and walking with Christ
for over a decade, I had finished two degrees in Biblical Studies,
and was working on my M.Div.
Shortly after I left campus a blizzard hit.
I could have turned back but I was anxious to get home and
see my family so I pressed on, all-be-it very slowly and carefully.
When I finally crossed back into the proper time zone and proper state
I decided it was time to pull over for a while and get some dinner.
As I entered the restaurant, another gentleman was leaving.
I held the door for him and he stopped, cocked his head at me, and said, “Hey, aren’t you the guy that sold me my car?”
I chuckled and said no.
He said “OK, well you must have a twin out there somewhere.”
And he left.
I called Bri to check in and waited for my food to arrive.
As I began to eat the gentleman who thought I was a car salesman,
lets call him Joel, re-entered the nearly empty restaurant.
I thought nothing of it at first.
He could have forgotten his cell phone or misplaced his wallet.
There are any number of legitimate reasons would bring someone
back into a restaurant they had just left.
I knew something was up however because he walked in,
looked around, and headed straight for me.
Had he dinged my car in the parking lot?
Did I leave my headlights on?
Joel started by saying,
“I’m sorry. I know you are not the guy that sold me my car.
You see, I am a Christian, and God told me to talk to you,
and I thought that might have been a way to start a conversation.
I have been sitting in my car praying,
and God still told me to come back in and talk to you.”
At this point I knew what was up.
He was about to tell me how God loves me and has a
wonderful plan for my life.
And sure enough, that was what he said next.
“Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?”
I answered, “Yes. Of course.”
He said, “Really? You know that?”
I replied “I’m actually on my way home from a seminary,
where I’m preparing to become a pastor”
Apparently that was not enough to convince poor Joel so he asked
about my denomination. Methodist, I said.
That was the wrong answer I guess because he went on;
he would not be detoured.
God had told him that he had to talk to me
so he had to figure out how to save my soul.
He asked, “If you were to die today,
do you know if you will be spending eternity in heaven or hell?”
Heaven, I replied.
He followed up with, “Why?”
I knew the answer he wanted,
so I decided just to end the interrogation with the words
he needed to hear,
“Because I believe Jesus paid the full price for my sins
by his suffering on the cross and rising on the third day.”
This wasn’t going according to his script at all.
In fact, Joel actually said, “This isn’t going according to my script at all!”
He said, “ I just don’t get it. God told me to talk to you.
If you are already a Christian,
why would he have told me to talk to you?”
I offered, “Well, perhaps God wants us to have a different conversation?
How are things in your life? How is it with your soul?”
The man looked at me and said, “Well, we all have our struggles.”
And he quickly excused himself.
It was a strange and surreal conversation –
but it got me thinking about how, as Christians,
we try to share our faith – with pretty mixed results.
Here was a man who had a lot of courage to approach a stranger,
and even some basic tools for sharing his faith –
but he spent his time trying to convert a man who was already
so full of faith he was entering the ministry.
It feels to me like, maybe, we might be missing the point.
I remember another time I was attending a Crusade.
Do any of you remember those? Not the kind with kings and knights,
but those big televised stadium events where Billy Graham or
another big name evangelist preaches.
At they end they always have these huge altar calls.
You don’t see that type of thing much in Methodist Churches these days. But what happens is they take some celebrities or athletes on stage
and each tells a gut retching story that ends with them coming to faith
in Jesus and everything in life just getting better from there.
Then they call everyone to come forward and to be prayed for and with,
anyone who needs to give their life to Jesus.
At this particular event the gospel that was proclaimed
was not a gospel I was familiar with.
The message runs something like,
“Come to Jesus, and be spared from hell! But wait – there’s more!”
The preacher told people to come forward and give their lives to Jesus
right now before they marry the wrong person,
or chose the wrong college, or begin the wrong career.
He was telling everyone that faith in Christ
made all of our potential bad decisions go away.
That if we came to faith in Christ the stars would align
and life would be nothing but blessings and peace from there on out.
I couldn’t believe it.
This was not a facet of the gospel that I could find anywhere in the bible. In fact the bible promises the opposite.
Jesus tells us that if the world hated him it would hate us, his followers.
That is a far cry from the gospel they were slinging that day.
Now I am not going to tell you that the boldness of Joel at the restaurant
or the preaching at a gospel crusade never bears fruit –
because I know that they have.
Many good, committed, disciples found their faith in such ways.
But I am going to tell you that this is probably not what Jesus had in
mind when he called Peter, Andrew, James, and John
to lay down their nets and fish for people.
No, the type of fishing we see in Joel the restaurant evangelist
and the Gospel of the perfect life crusader
is what my father-in-law calls “sport fishing for Jesus.”
I don’t know how familiar some of you are with fishing.
Sport fishing is about competition.
It’s about who catches the most and the biggest fish.
Sport fishers often debate the best kind of bait
and the most effective lure to reel the most fish in.
Most importantly for our purposes here,
sport fishing is catch-and-release.
You catch the fish, hold it up for a picture,
and then put it back in the water.
When you sport fish for Jesus,
you are hoping to find some attractive bait
to lure a person to a point of deciding to follow Jesus,
pray with them as they decide, and then you walk away.
Had I been in need of salvation that day in the restaurant
I would have left with a budding faith but no direction.
The masses that respond to altar calls at rallies and crusades
are the same. This is not, as we discussed two weeks ago,
This is catch and release evangelism
where you take no responsibility for the future faith development
But the call that we have is not a call to catch-and-release,
it is not a call to sport fishing for Jesus.
The call that we have, the call passed down through the centuries,
to fish for people, to make disciples, is about so much more
than simply getting peoples ticket to heaven stamped,
and it takes a whole lot more effort than simply telling
someone about Jesus and leading them in a sinners’ prayer.
In those days, they didn’t sport fish.
Fishing was life-or-death; it was a way of life.
And they didn’t use a hook and bait, like we think of fishing today;
fishing meant using a net – throwing a net out into the water,
and reeling the net in.
Some days there were a lot of fish in the net;
some days there weren’t any;
some days there were good and bad fish all mixed together. Regardless, you just keep casting the net in again and again…
and if you’re not catching any fish, you find another spot on the water,
and you throw your net in again.
Jesus didn’t use bait to catch people
and he didn’t just take a picture and let them go.
He invited people to come and follow him.
Our job is to just keep “casting the net”
and let God worry about what comes in.
Our job is to keep inviting people, sharing God’s love,
and drawing them in.
We do that by modeling faith, by investing in the lives of others,
by inviting them and including them,
no matter who or where they are in journey of faith.
We discussed last week that before we can make disciples
we must first be disciples ourselves.
We must be about the work of growing our own faith
learning from those who have gone on before us
while clearing the path and showing the way for those behind us.
Assuming that we are there,
that we are seeking to be disciples ourselves,
to make disciples there are three things we need to do.
We need to invest, to invite, and to include.
Investing our time and resources in others,
those outside our church, outside of our faith community.
This goes along with the saying that no one cares what you know until they know that you care.
As you make the time and the effort to invest yourself in other people
you let them know that you care about who they are and
how their life is going.
Those that you invest in you also have to invite.
Invite them to church, sure, but also to birthday parties,
and bar-b-que’s, and breakfast out, and game night with your friends.
And finally we need to be inclusive.
And this is one of the tough ones.
Because if I were to ask you to close your eyes
and picture in your mind the people that you want
to invest in and invite to become part of our community
I can almost guarantee most of what you picture
is going to look very similar to who is here now.
Every church says they want to grow
and have new young people in them
so long as the new young people are
simply younger versions of themselves
who will want to do things exactly the way we always have.
We need to fight against that tendency.
We need to seek out those who do not look like,
talk like, act like, think like, or even believe like ourselves
and include them, invite them, and invest in them.
We need to keep casting the net,
sharing the love that God has given us,
sharing what we believe (even if we don’t have all the answers)…
we need to be authentic and earnest about our faith,
so others might see the love of Christ, made visible, in us.
Our scripture this morning thrusts us to the end
of the story of Moses. And while it holds a powerful lesson for us
to discover that lesson we have to go back and remember
who Moses really was.
Moses’ story begins, as most stories of great people do,
with his mother: a Hebrew slave, a woman of faith,
who – when Pharaoh ordered all Hebrew baby boys to be killed –
chose instead to set her son adrift in a basket with nothing more
than a prayer that he would survive and be found and cared for.
Her prayer is answered as her son is found by
the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in the palace
as a prince of Egypt.
As a young man, despite his royal upbringing,
when he sees a guard mistreating one of the Hebrew slaves
he takes action but ends up killing the guard.
In fear he flees Egypt and takes up residence in Midian,
where he spends 40 years tending sheep
– until one day he spots a burning bush –
only it’s not your typical burning bush;
this bush is on fire but not being burnt up at all;
oh, and this bush… well it SPEAKS to him.
It turns out the bush is a representation of the God of Israel…
a God that Moses really doesn’t know at all except, perhaps,
through a few stories he heard the Hebrew slaves tell..
a God that has an important mission for him.
After some hemming and hawing and negotiation,
Moses does as God asks and heads for Egypt
to ask Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people
so they can go to the land that God has promised to them.
And this is where we really get to begin to see
what kind of person Moses is.
He could have stayed where he was.
He was happy in Midian.
He has a wife and is part of a prominent family.
Yet like Abraham before him, he pulls up stakes and
goes to do what God has called him to do,
to free a people that he doesn’t really know,
a people that, at first, have a hard time trusting him…
And then he leads them to a land that neither he nor they
have ever seen, all on the say so of a God whose voice
he has only just come to know.
Here we discover the tremendous faith of Moses and his
extraordinary love for the community into which he was born.
So he heads to Egypt to free his people.
You probably remember that Moses’ meeting with Pharaoh
doesn’t go too well. Pharaoh is not real happy with these
demands and tells Moses to take a hike.
That is when stuff gets really weird and fantastic.
Pharaoh says “no,” and God, through Moses,
unleashes 10 plagues in an effort to get Pharaoh to relent
and let the Israelites go.
Folks, it rained frogs. Frogs! Real hippity hopping frogs.
And locusts covered the land,
and all the waters turned to blood. It was a living nightmare.
After the final plague, of course, Pharaoh relents, in grief,
and allows Moses and the Hebrews to leave.
They make it to the Red Sea before Pharaoh has a change of heart
and sends the army after them.
Moses, with some power from on high,
parts the Red Sea like Charlton Heston,
and the Israelites walk on dry land to the other side.
When their pursuers try to cross after them,
the Red Sea snaps back together,
claiming the armies of Egypt for its own.
And that is where we yell cut and roll the credits
because there is nothing left to see here. Right?
Well, maybe there is a little more to the story.
Only about 40 years of wandering, complaining, warring,
complaining, powerful and diverse miracles,
oh, and did I mention, complaining?
Indeed, there are more than enough stories of
Moses and the Israelites after they cross the Red Sea,
but we just don’t have the time here today to name them all.
But I want to encourage you to read up on Moses.
You will not be disappointed.
In our reading from Deuteronomy this morning,
we hear the story of the death of Moses.
He doesn’t die on the battlefield.
He doesn’t die from a fall while climbing one
of the many mountains he climbed.
And he doesn’t die after leading the Israelites triumphantly
across the Jordan River and into the land of promise.
No; instead, Moses hikes up another mountain to meet with God.
The mountain overlooks the promised land,
and Moses is allowed to see it all,
to glimpse the promised land in its entirety.
Then God tells Moses that, after all he’s gone
through to get the people to that place
– he doesn’t get to enter into the promised land himself.
And then Moses dies, right there,
within sight of the land promised to his ancestors,
the land that the Israelites had dreamed about for 40 years.
Moses dies and is then buried somewhere unknown to everyone,
and Joshua takes over.
While this seems unfair we are,
at least, given a reason for it, sort of.
And to find that reason,
we are going to take a look at one of those many stories
from Israel’s years of wandering in the wilderness.
As I mentioned earlier the Israelites would often complain to Moses,
“Moses we’re hungry.
Moses we’re thirsty.
Thanks for the bread, Moses, but we want meat too.”
They would cap off most complaints with:
you know “we were better off as slaves in Egypt.”
So Moses would go and bring the complaints to God.
And God, in God’s awesomeness, would provide in miraculous ways.
In the book of Numbers chapter 20 a complaint comes to Moses.
This one is about fresh water.
Moses goes to God with the request,
and God is specific in his answer.
In Numbers 20:8 God told Moses
“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation…
and COMMAND the rock before their eyes to yield its water.”
And he does just that, sort of.
The rock gives the Israelites plenty of water to drink.
It is a great miracle.
Except Moses doesn’t follow the directions
exactly as he was supposed to.
Moses takes the staff and goes to the rock with the people assembled
and commands the rock to bring forth water,
all in accordance with what God had said,
but then Moses calls an audible,
he decides to add some showmanship,
and he hits the rock with the staff, twice.
To us this doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Moses adds a little razzle dazzle to the whole thing.
In fact this is not the first time that God
has brought water from a rock.
Earlier in their wanderings God commanded Moses
to call water from a rock and to hit it twice with the staff.
But apparently, this time, God was not amused with the rock hitting.
In verse 12 God says to Moses;
“Because you did not trust in me…
therefore you shall not bring this assembly
into the land that I have given them.”
Now we could discuss until we are blue in the face
why it is that Moses hitting the rock with the staff this time
would exclude him from entering the promised land
when it didn’t the first time.
Honestly though, scholars and teachers and preachers still debate
and try to make sense of what exactly made this
such a terrible sin but for the sake of time,
let’s take it on faith that God had a good reason.
So now this is the part I want us to really pay attention to
concerning the type of person Moses is.
Moses knows that he will not enter the land.
All the way back in the wilderness, while they were still on their way,
while he was still dealing with the daily whining
and complaining of the Hebrew people.
Moses already knows he isn’t going all the way.
He knows that he will not live in the land
that is flowing with milk and honey.
He knows that his life of obedience and hardship
will not end in a triumphal crossing of the Jordan River.
He knows all of that, but he doesn’t get bitter.
He doesn’t run off to herd sheep with his father-in-law again.
He doesn’t waver at all in his commitment to lead his people.
He continues on, because he knows that the promised land
was not promised to him alone, but to the people of Israel.
Moses knows that the community is what is important.
He knows that Abraham was promised that his children
would number as the sands on the sea shore,
but Abraham did not live to see it.
He knows that Isaac and Jacob were inheritors
of both the promise of the land that flows with milk and honey
and the promise of being fathers of a great nation.
Yet they did not live to see it.
Moses knows what they knew.
All of their life, all of their toil and their struggle was not
so they could see the fulfillment of the promise,
but so that those who would come after them,
their descendants, would receive the promise.
They were a part of a much bigger story,
one that had started before they were born,
one that would continue long after they were gone.
It wasn’t ever about Moses entering the promised land
and leading the nation of Israel.
It was about Israel reaching the promised land.
It’s a story, not about a few chosen people
whose names we remember, but it’s a much bigger story,
a story about the faithfulness of God to a whole people,
and the few instruments that God used along the way.
The patriarchs and Moses were tremendous people
that God used to better the lives of those around them,
to help to nurture and push and teach the generations
that would come after them,
so that those future generations would one day
be able to claim God’s promise for their own and enter the land.
Have you ever had people like that in your life?
The kind of people who take the time to help you
get better at being you?
The kind of people who knew their lives were about more
than themselves and so were willing to invest in other’s lives,
in your life, to plant seeds and dream
of a future they themselves might not get to see?
When I look back over my nearly 35 years of life,
I come across a lot of those people.
I remember the husband of my first boss at a McDonald’s I worked at,
who spent time teaching my angry teenage self
how to work on cars while processing life and
why it was that I was so angry at it.
Instead of writing me off as another bitter teenager,
he chose to invest in me as a person
and made me better because of it.
And the kind man who I barely knew who GAVE me my first guitar when he saw that I was struggling to learn on my roommate’s old
That kind soul could never have imagined how,
from those first chords,
music would become such a huge part of my life:
as I led worship, made friends,
started a band that would help me meet my future wife,
and even played guitar for my future children in living rooms
and hospital rooms alike finding comfort and power in music,
in the best times and the worst.
I remember the husband and wife who
ran the teen center in my home town,
who walked with me through the deaths of my grandfathers
and helped me to find true faith and to keep it in difficult times.
They could never have imagined that the road
would have led me here – to a pulpit – but everything I do in my
ministry is at least in part thanks to everything
they were willing to do in theirs.
We all, with a little bit of reflection,
can think of those people who influenced and motivated
and helped us throughout our lives.
Where would we be without them? Who would we be?
How much longer would I have hung on to my anger?
Would I have given up on playing guitar?
Would I even be a pastor or love God today
if it were not for the energy and time and love
that these people poured into my life?
I never asked them to.
I didn’t seek them out or pay them for their gifts.
No one did. They didn’t know who I would grow up to be.
They just knew, as did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses,
that it was their job to help motivate and guide those around them
to help them grow closer to God, to grow closer to each other,
to try and help those who follow after them
to engage and enjoy faith and life more.
We United Methodists have a mission statement.
Do any of you know what it is?
Our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the
transformation of the world.”
And how do we accomplish that mission?
By pouring our time and talents and energy into those around us,
into those who are coming up after us.
If we want to transform the world then it has to start here:
by investing in each others’ lives,
by encouraging and teaching each other,
by seeking those who need our love and encouragement
and giving it to them generously.
Even if we don’t see the end game,
even if we don’t know if or how or when those seeds we plant,
those gifts we offer, might take root and bear fruit
still we keep reaching out, investing,
generously, hopefully, faithfully, trusting God to do the rest.
There are people that we work with or
go to church or school with or
that we see in the coffee shop that need to hear from you,
that need to learn from you or simply to know
that you care about them.
That’s where it starts: that’s how we bear witness to God’s love
by loving just as freely, just as generously,
just as extravagantly as God in Christ has loved us.
If we want to transform the world, to make it a better place,
well, then we have to start doing it.
Start investing time in each other and in those that we meet.
And then we will start to see disciples being made and
even if we ourselves don’t get to see it all the way through
we can know that God is still in the process
of making this world a better place,
that God still has the power to bring people
to a tomorrow that is better and brighter than today.
When I was a kid, I really wanted a pair of Air Jordan high tops.
The only problem was that they cost over $100,
and my mom had a rule about shoes.
She would never spend more than $25 on a pair of shoes
because we went through them so fast and really,
she would say, “Really, if you are paying more than $25
for a pair of shoes, you are just paying for the name.”
I didn’t care. I wanted a name brand of shoes.
All the cool kids in my class had Nike Air Jordan’s
or Reebok Pumps.
My mom being the kind soul that she is scoured the aisles
in all the discount shoe places and found an
off-brand pair of “Jordan’s” that had
an approximation of the iconic “Air Jordan” emblem on them.
Just before my freshman year of High School,
my aunt got married, and my new uncle came
to pick me up to bring me shoe shopping.
He did not care about my mother’s moratorium on expensive shoes.
He was new to the family and wanted to make a good impression,
so he was going to pay any difference.
He brought me to a real shoe store,
the kind where $25 might get you a pair of laces.
The problem was, unbeknownst to him,
none of these shoes actually fit my feet.
They were all, at best, about half a size too small,
and none of the ones I liked came any bigger.
But I was going to have a pair of Nikes my first day
of high school if it killed me.
So I lied. I told him the pair I liked best fit just fine.
He purchased them, and he brought me home.
I spent the rest of the weekend before school started
trying to stretch them out so that they didn’t hurt so much,
but nothing worked.
But I would not be deterred.
I wore those Nike high tops to my first day of high school.
I wore them with pride knowing they were name brand,
knowing that they would help bring me to
the inner circle of the popular kids,
and my life would be so much better
because of that little white swoosh on the side.
By lunch my feet were screaming at me.
My blisters had blisters, and I could not wait for the day to end.
When I got home I took off the shoes my uncle had bought me –
those expensive, name-brand, long yearned for,
long desired shoes – and I put them in my closet,
and I never wore them again.
After all that longing, I found myself gladly going back
to my old worn-out off-brand shoes and realizing that,
at least when it comes to footwear,
there are more important things than the logo on the side.
It baffles the mind to think about how much value we attribute to the
images stamped on things.
The Nike swoosh, the Air Jordan silhouette,
the apple with a single bite taken out of it –
these images become symbols of success and
pride and rarely allow us the room to question why.
We find Jesus, in our scripture this morning,
dealing with an issue of such an image.
Once again the religious elite are trying to trap Jesus.
One group wants him to look like a Roman sympathizer
and the other wants him to look like a rabble rouser.
So they ask him: Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor?
I am sure that we are all very familiar with
what it means to pay taxes and all the different kinds of taxes
that we are obliged to pay.
We are subject to income tax,
sales tax, property tax, estate tax, and many more.
Taxes in Jesus’ day were pretty much the same.
There were taxes that people paid to the temple in Jerusalem in
order to be allowed to worship;
there were taxes paid to the Roman Empire
that were used to pay the soldiers and
governors to keep peace across the land.
There was one tax in particular that the Hebrews
would have had a big problem with,
and that would be the tax that all those within the Roman Empire
were required to pay to the gods of the Roman Empire.
In particular, the Jewish faithful struggled with the tax to the emperor,
who was considered to be the manifestation of god on earth.
It was possibly this tax that the questioners of Jesus had in mind. There was even a specific coin with which this tax must be paid,
and it was a coin with the image of the emperor stamped upon it.
If Jesus approved of paying the tax to the emperor then the Pharisees,
the strictest keepers of the law, would be able to speak against him. Since the coin required for payment
held the graven image of the emperor,
he would be in violation of the second commandment.
In addition, because the tax honored the emperor as a god,
it would put Jesus in violation of the first commandment, too.
Likewise, if Jesus were to answer “No” – don’t pay the tax –
then he would be seen by the governing authorities as
another subversive who needed to be dealt with
before he could disrupt the peace.
They thought they had him trapped.
But Jesus, in his fashion, confounds them by examining the coin
and asking about the name and image inscribed on it.
Whose name is here? he asks. Whose face is this?
When they answer, the only answer available –
“Caesar’s,” he simply responds:
then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Having Caesar’s name and image on the coin,
in the view of Jesus, demonstrated Caesar’s claim on the coin.
If that coin is what Caesar values, then give it to him. (delitcates)
When we put our name on something we are saying that it
has value to us. We are claiming ownership of that thing.
Think about the things that we put our names on.
It starts early – when our moms and dads would write our names on
lunch bags and inside every piece of clothing we took
to summer camp – that simple act that says:
this belongs to me, and if it’s lost, I hope you’ll help me get it back.
As we grow, that act of labelling and naming goes even deeper.
In our relationships, for example:
Do you remember letting your girlfriend wear your football jersey
or receiving an I.D. bracelet from “Things Remembered”
with your girlfriends name on it?
Or on a much bigger scale – it’s a big act of love and oneness
when two people choose not only to take their vows
but to share a common name.
We monogram our towels and
personalize our phone cases and
do whatever we can to distinguish the things
that we put value on from everyone else’s things.
Even more valuable than the things we put our name on
are the things that famous people put their names on.
As soon as something is endorsed by someone famous,
it automatically goes up in price –
just like the Nike Air Jordan’s.
Nike Air tennis shoes were $60,
Nike Air Jordan’s $120, and the only difference
was that little silhouette of Michael Jordan. It is incredible.
And we buy into it for the most part.
We tend to choose the name brand over
the generic when the only difference is the packaging.
We think: if Michael Jordan or Bobby Flay or the NFL has put their
name and logo on this thing, it must be good. (Gordon Ramsey Toaster)
As much as we would like to think that we are smarter than that,
more often than not, we find our selves choosing
the branded image.
What we put our names on –
and what names and images we carry with us – matter.
That’s why this question, this trap for Jesus,
is such a powerful one:
because of course God does care about the names and
images we carry with us through our lives.
The fatal flaw in the plan of the religious elite to discredit and
debunk Jesus, however, is thinking that God cares about
their shiny bits of stamped metal.
Now I will tell you that there is a message in this passage
to us about our responsibility to pay our taxes.
It’s a part of how we participate in the calling –
as imperfect as the system may be –
it’s about our calling to respect authority and more importantly to
care for one another.
Romans chapter 13 bears this out.
We are supposed to respect the laws of the land in which we live
until they cross the line of making us disobey God.
But I think there is a greater message here that we might miss.
After Jesus tells the crowds to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,
he then goes on to say that we should render to God what is God’s.
And while some may view that statement as cryptic,
I assure you it is anything but.
For the listeners of Jesus in that context,
this entire conversation is overflowing with meaning.
Jesus tells them to give the denarius to Caesar
because it bears his image.
If Caesar’s image on the coin gives him ownership of that coin,
then we have to see that –
in order to give God that which belongs to God –
we must give God that which bears God’s image.
What is it that bears God’s image?
In all of creation, what has been made specifically in God’s image?
That’s right. You and me.
All of humanity has been stamped with the image of God,
the Imago Dei. And if we are to give to God what is God’s,
then we are to give God nothing less than all of ourselves.
We are the image bearers of God in this world.
Our whole self bears God’s image, and so our whole self –
our whole life – belongs to God.
In our modern culture we like to play games.
We like to compartmentalize our lives.
We have our work lives and our home lives
and our spiritual lives.
Each has a different hat that we wear,
and we act differently depending on which hat we are wearing
and we do our best to not let any of the distinct areas of our lives
cross over and contaminate each other.
But friends I am here to tell you that this just isn’t the way it is
supposed to be.
We can separate our work and home lives.
In a lot of ways that is smart and healthy.
Bringing your work home with you can cause all sorts of problems.
But we are created in the image of God,
created to be image bearers of the divine,
and that is not something that we should be trying to
isolate or suppress.
That is not something that just comes out on Sunday morning.
Every molecule of our existence is stamped with God’s image,
and therefore every instant of our lives, at home, at work,
in our recreation time, and even on vacation,
we are bearing the image of God to the world.
Everything we have, everything we are, is God’s.
A big part of the reason why,
if you look at your life and are not as
satisfied with it as you thought you would or should be,
may be because you are denying who you are in some part of it.
Maybe at work you choose to never let your faith be seen,
or at home you choose to never enrich your faith
beyond Sunday morning.
You neglect to have conversations of a spiritual nature with
those you love and care for because you think those
things are supposed to be private.
Well, stop it! Stop denying that you are an image bearer of God.
Stop denying that God is present and interested in
every aspect of your life.
Stop withholding your spiritual journey from those around you.
Now I am not saying you should become the person at work
who is trying to evangelize everyone.
Or that every single conversation you have has to be about God. I am saying it is time to stop pretending that
God is only interested in you on Sunday morning.
Start sharing your fears and dreams with your family and friends.
Start letting those in your life see that you have struggles and
that your faith helps you.
And, by all means, start letting your faith help you with
One of the biggest mistakes we make is forgetting whose
image we carry, the true brand that is stamped on us.
Our value comes from that image,
from the name that we carry on our selves.
The greatest example of an image bearer of God
doing what an image bearer of God should do is Jesus.
Somehow, between the creation and the coming of Christ,
something happened to the image of God in us.
Through the ravages of sin and time and disobedience,
the image of God in humanity was marred – though still there,
it was tarnished, it was forgotten under the
layers of filth that humanity was coated in.
The life and teachings and miracles of Jesus
were intended to remind humanity of whose
image they were created in, to remind us of the
potential we have as image bearers of God.
The death of Jesus blasted away all of the gunk that
was clinging to and distorting the image of God in us.
And, by our seeking to be like Christ, in our sanctification,
we begin to polish and restore the luster of the image of God
that is unique in all of us.
We begin to realize and access the potential with
which we were all created.
But that cannot happen in a vacuum.
Iron sharpens iron my friends.
We can only realize our potential as individuals
when we are working together in community.
When we struggle and wrestle with our faith and
our understanding of God together.
We are the image bearers of God.
God loves us, and values us deeply enough, to put his image –
his name – on our lives.
We are called to give to God what is God’s…
that means we are called to give God all that we are.
God is at work in the world and at work in you and
it is up to you to make sure that you do not miss what God is doing.
The community of faith is where that happens,
where callings are considered and affirmed,
where compassion is tested, where grief is not borne alone,
where love is practiced and perfected before
it is let loose in the world.
When we come together to remind one another whose image and
whose name is on our lives – when we come to remind one another
who and whose we are – then together, we learn to live and love
and walk as Christ walked, as image bearers of God. Amen? Amen.
To my memory, every question I had for my parents
from the time I was 12 until I went away to college
ended with one of them summarily ending the exchange
with the nuclear bomb of all parental responses to such questions.
It would always go a little something like this:
My initial question: “Dad, can I go to the movies with
my friends this weekend?”
Response from Dad: “No.”
Follow up question from me: “Why?”
Dad’s nuclear bomb response: “Because I said so, that’s why!”
I could never understand the reason for such a short answer.
I couldn’t wrap my head around why it was that they
never gave me reasons for some of their decisions.
It should have been easy enough to say:
“No, because your grades have been slipping” or
“No, we can’t afford that this week.”
I would have been able to stomach those responses
a lot easier than the “because I said so” response.
I just never understood it.
Until Michaela started asking questions, that is.
A four year old wants to know the whys and hows
of everything in the universe.
And all those questions can wear you out…
especially when every answer is met with another question.
Sooner or later, most of us parents reach the end of our rope –
either the end of our patience,
or the end of our knowledge,
or the end of our explanations… and so we say:
“Because I said so.” It’s an answer that works – sometimes –
for parents… but it’s not a very compelling answer
when it comes from a pastor, from a priest, or from a church.
For a good chunk of the church’s history,
unwanted questions and questioners were just done away with.
The authority of the church and its teachings were absolute;
there were so many questions that “good Christians” just didn’t ask.
You were allowed to ask the right questions –
which means, the questions to which you had already
been given the answers.
But follow-ups were right-out.
In fact, prior to the Reformation, people posing questions
that went against church teaching were often excommunicated.
They were forced to leave the Church,
they were not allowed to participate in the life of the church
or even to be buried in holy ground.
One of the strengths of the Protestant Reformation
is that it pushed those limits… the first Protestant, Martin Luther,
didn’t ask questions to cause trouble;
he asked questions that were born out of his
sincere struggles with his faith.
When the Church of that day told him to stop –
he left, and a whole new kind of church was born:
a church where people were encouraged to read the scriptures
and wrestle with the hard questions for themselves.
Of course the Protestant Reformation didn’t entirely solve the problem. Many people wrestling with many questions
meant many different viewpoints and answers might emerge –
and they don’t always agree.
When disagreements arose in congregations
over questions of doctrine one congregation
or denomination became two or sometimes three separate ones.
Now-a-days we have a mix of both models of dealing with questions.
If it is a large group within a church that is questioning something
that the church believes or doesn’t believe,
splits can occur within that group.
If it is simply an individual or two raising the questions,
many churches will, delicately, kindly,
or rather rudely and directly ask the question bearers to leave.
It takes a very courageous congregation –
and a very courageous leader –
to allow the space for everyone,
even those with difficult questions and different answers
to work and worship together.
It’s hard. It’s threatening. And it’s downright uncomfortable.
When it comes to faith, the general assumption
is that if you have a question that doesn’t fit in to the narrow,
shallow, box of answers that we possess,
then you are just trying to cause trouble.
If you don’t accept the answers that are given,
then you must not have enough faith…
and if you don’t have enough of the right kind of faith,
well, then you just aren’t welcome here.
People often use passages like this -our scripture for today-
to say that it is not a good idea to ask God any questions.
Even my “go-to” set of commentaries on this passage
uses this opportunity to say that we really don’t want to start
asking God questions.
The chief priests and elders asked questions,
and look where it got them,
entering the kingdom behind the tax collectors and sinners.
Personally, however, I could not disagree more with the notion
that our questions about life, the universe,
and everything are to be avoided.
There are no wrong questions when it comes
to our questions of faith and of God.
There are, however, wrong attitudes and motivations.
The questions raised by the chief priests and elders in our passage
don’t have anything to do with the wrestling of their souls
or the struggles of their faith.
Instead, they are trying to trap Jesus,
to find a way to shut him up and shut him down
and in doing so protect their own power.
They wanted to find out if Jesus was going to be the type of guy
that towed the company line and fit in with them
or if he was going to make trouble and bring their
own power and authority into question.
They had to have had an idea of who Jesus might be.
A large part of the belief structure of the Israelites
was waiting for the coming Messiah.
They had theories and time tables and
all sorts of ideas around when and how
and who the Messiah would be.
They were the first century equivalent of the folks
who always predict when Jesus is coming back
or when the “rapture” will happen.
As teachers of Israel you would think they could come up
with a better question for a potential Messiah than
“Where does your authority come from?”
All this question did was reveal their true motive, holding on to power.
As we study the gospels we find that
Jesus doesn’t always react in this way to questions.
Jesus answers a lot of questions – sometimes with parables,
of course, but still he answers them.
He doesn’t rebuke the questioners,
but invites them to think and consider even
more deeply the question at stake.
The only time he gets upset is when he can see
the ulterior motives at work.
Earlier this week I put out a question on Facebook
in order to see what kind of questions
were on peoples hearts to ask Jesus if we had the chance. Amazingly, not one single question was about
where Jesus gets his authority from.
There were many who want to know why people suffer,
or why babies get cancer, or what happens after we die?
There were questions about how we might feel truly
set free and forgiven from our past,
or how we might better follow God in the days ahead.
The questions we have are questions that relate to our lives and
to how we move and live and breathe in the world.
They are not about us trying to maintain our power.
They are about us figuring out how to live in the world
with our beliefs and how those beliefs
shape the way we live with each other.
For God, questions are never the problem;
the problem is the motivation and attitude behind them.
Questions about God and about faith and
how everything holds together are not signs of a lack of faith but
signs of a faith taken seriously.
If we really love God, if we really want to follow God more closely,
to better understand how God is at work in the world
and in our lives – then we will struggle,
and we will wrestle along the way;
just as in any other area of our lives,
in faith, questioning is a part of how we grow.
If you are looking for a loop-hole to justify sin,
or to prove that God is a just a giant cosmic jerk so
that you can do what you want,
or for an answer that somehow exempts you from
the journey and struggle of faith,
you are asking questions with the wrong attitudes and motivations
and you need to stop, consider that attitude and change it.
However, if your questions are real, and honest,
and seeking to deepen your relationship between
yourself and God or yourself and others
then you can ask all the questions you want and search for those answers freely.
This, my friends, is how our faith grows by asking the hard questions
and seeking the answers. Don’t hear me incorrectly.
Just because you are seeking the answers doesn’t mean
you will always find the answers.
But by seeking to answer them we might get to
understand the question better,
or to know ourselves more,
or to catch a clearer glimpse of who God is.
Finding the answer to life, the universe, and everything
is probably not going to happen in this life.
We will not find all the answers.
The point is not finding the answer
but continuing in a dialogue for our journey of faith.
Our questions and our searching create
a conversation that needs to be maintained.
When I was in Bible College I had a friend named Dave.
Dave was my roommate and, I thought, my BFF.
But after those two years together
we went in different directions.
We sent letters and emails for a while
but somewhere along he way we just stopped connecting.
We became too busy,
too caught up in whatever we were doing to
do the work to maintain that friendship and that relationship died. I couldn’t even tell you what country Dave is living in now or
if he has a family. I don’t even know where to start
asking those questions because we are
no longer in relationship and apparently he doesn’t Facebook.
Maintaining that conversation with God and with others,
communicating the good and the bad and the ugly is
how we all grow in our relationship with God and with each other. Without it, without the work to maintain the relationship,
asking the hard questions and seeking the answers
the relationship dies.
When we take the time to question our faith, to study it,
to search out the answers, that’s when we start to find out
what our faith is really made of,
what kind of pressure it will hold up under.
If it’s just a superficial and shallow thing that
we do on Sunday morning,
we will find out in time of crisis
that our faith is not going to sustain us.
If your faith can’t handle questions,
your faith is not big enough.
If your God can’t handle your questions,
then you need a bigger God.
You need to be willing to ask the questions,
to dig the deep roots, to water and test your faith before
the storm comes – so you can weather that storm
when it shows up; because it always does.
When we’ve tested our faith, put it through its paces,
formed deeper bonds with God,
then when tragedy strikes we have a faith that can sustain us. Even if we find an aspect of our faith lacking in that crucial moment,
we will have equipped ourselves with the tools to repair it,
to seek out where we were wrong and
figure out how to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
So this morning I want to challenge you to start asking
the hard questions, but I want to encourage you to not do it alone.
In a couple of weeks we will be starting our small group study.
That would be a great place to start, to begin to wrestle with
the deeper questions of faith.
If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea
we will be starting membership classes as well.
Even if you have been a member of this church since
before the foundation was laid I promise you there
will be great conversation and opportunity to deepen your faith.
And if the group stuff is too much for you to handle right now then
please pick up your bible and read it some more.
Find the questions that your heart is asking.
Then give me a call; we can get a cup of coffee,
and at least try to understand the question a little better.
To have faith friends, is to have questions,
but not just questions, rather questions whose answers may
be outside of our reach but still we believe.
This is faith: believing even in the not knowing;
being honest about the questions at the heart of our lives;
and the way we grow our faith is by living into those questions,
and trusting that, even in the unknowing,
even in the wrestling, we are not alone,
but God is with us. Amen? Amen.
Saturday November 15th from 9:00am until 3:00pm
Join us for our annual Holiday Vendor/Craft Sale & do some wonderful Christmas Shopping. There is something for everyone!!
Some of our vendors include:
That 1 Girl
Glass Art by Robert
Cookie Lee Jewelry & Scarves
….and many more!!
Many vendors will offer “cash & carry” items, and will be accepting orders for delivery before Christmas.
Be sure to visit our Gingerbread Cafe where delicious homemade food will be available throughout the day!
This event is a fundraiser to benefit St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church.
Door Prizes & Free Gifts for all who attend!!!
We are located off the I-94 Service Drive & Grove Rd., on the corner of Borgstrom & Ruth. Phone #: 734-483-5876
One of my favorite comedy actors of all time is Steve Martin.
Back in the mid 90’s he was in a movie
that was an update of a 50’s television show called Sgt. Bilko. Steve played a fast talking con-man of a Master Sergeant named
Ernie Bilko. At one point, during a dressing down
from another officer, Steve delivers a line
that I always think about when I read this
passage of scripture.
He says, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay
for an honest day’s work.”
This is one of those parables that makes a lot of us uncomfortable,
because the story that Jesus tells in this passage
slaps our western, capitalistic natures right in the face.
Those who work hard should get paid more than those who do not. Those who only worked an hour shouldn’t get paid the same
as those who worked hard, all day, through the blazing sun.
While the parable specifically speaks in terms of money,
I think it is obvious enough that what we are really talking about
is inclusion in the Kingdom of God;
it’s a story about those who have labored long for God
and those who are only just beginning to discover a life of faith.
History is full of people waiting until the last possible moment
to make peace with God
And history is also full of Christians who have struggled
to accept that God’s grace is available even for “those” people,
the ones who tarried, the ones who waited until
it was almost too late.
Jesus, if you remember, was hung on a cross between two thieves,
one who mocked him and one who recognized
Jesus for who he was and asked for mercy.
He received it, mere hours before he passed into the next life.
Back when kings were more than figureheads,
they led men into battle and had to deal brutally
with other kings and their forces…
and, to be honest, being a king had its perks, too.
So it was not uncommon to see a king wait until
he was on his deathbed to be baptized.
They did this to “assure” that they would enter heaven
in a state of “innocence”, having just been cleansed through baptism.
Even today we hear of death row inmates,
living on borrowed time, making professions of faith
with full confidence that their faith has made them whole
and fit for the kingdom of God.
It just seems wrong, doesn’t it?
The idea that people who know and believe
that there is a judgment to come and yet choose
to live lives of debauchery anyway and then accept
salvation when their time is running out.
A Christian philosopher and author named Peter Rollins
wrote a collection of parables that are rather brilliant.
One of those parables does a good job of helping us
to see the reality of these late hour faith professions.
Rollins tells the story of two brothers who embraced faith together at an early age. One of the brothers took his commitment very seriously and wrestled diligently with the Scriptures. When he became a man, he gave up all of his worldly possessions and went to live in the poorest and most dangerous area of the city.
Many friends deserted him, and, because of his uncompromising dedication to the oppressed, he lost the one woman he truly loved, forsaking the possibility of marriage for the sake of his work.
The pain of this separation haunted him all his days. And because of the conditions in which he lived, he was frequently ill. When he died, no one was present, and only a handful of people showed up for his funeral.
In contrast, the other brother never took his faith seriously at all. As a man he became very settled, satisfied, and influential. He married the woman he loved, had many children, and lived in a beautiful home.
As his satisfaction grew, his thoughts of God dissolved to nothing. He gave little to charity, unless it was prudent to do so for the sake of his reputation, and paid little heed to those who suffered around him. After a long, happy, and successful life, he died in the arms of his loving wife with his children and grandchildren surrounding him.
In heaven God called the two brothers before him, embraced them both warmly, and to each gave an equal share of the kingdom.
As one might expect, the brother who had been faithful all his years was surprised he had given up everything to live what turned out to be a torturous life of hardship.
However, instead of being bitter, his surprise was a joyous one. He turned to his brother, smiled deeply, and said, “Today my joy is finally complete, for we are together again. Come, let us break bread together.” In response, his brother said nothing, but began to weep over the wasted life that he had led.
In the end, both brothers ended up in the same place. Both are standing at the feet of Christ. The one is overjoyed while the other is weeping weeping because of the realization that his life could have been so much more than it was.
It’s not the brother who lived a hard life for his faith who has regrets in the end, but the brother who realizes how much more he could have done. His life could have made a greater impact on people, and a greater impact for the kingdom of God.
The point of this scripture, friends, is not that some people get what they don’t deserve. We might say that, in fact, the point is that none of us gets what we deserve – and that’s a good thing. That’s what we call grace.
The point of this scripture is that God’s grace is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter whether we come to it early or late whether we toil for God all our days or we repent on our deathbed, because none of us, ever, deserves God’s forgiveness, and none of us can earn God’s love.
The miracle is that God doesn’t leave us all to perish in the dust. The miracle is that we receive grace at all.
It still seems wrong in some way, doesn’t it? There are good, faithful Christians who work hard day in and day out, striving to be better people, to follow Christ every day.
The life of a Christian is not an easy life. There are personal struggles and persecutions. There are things that we are called to do that we would rather not do but we do them because we are followers of Christ.
It is not fair that others can live a life of comfort while we struggle and
get to make peace with God in the end.
But lets take a closer look at the alternative the life of constant searching, longing to have that purpose and that peace. St. Augustine famously said,
“You have made us for yourself O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Others talk about a God-shaped hole in our lives
a hole that keeps us striving and searching,
because it is a space that only God can fill.
For those who don’t know God,
who haven’t found peace in God’s love,
life is an endless searching for that missing piece,
that missing presence that can make us hole.
Imagine living that way:
As life goes on you spend time seeking the peace
you know your heart desires.
You try filling that space with career, family, possessions.
Around every corner, just when you think you might
have found that peace, it disappears…
until one day, through wisdom, through persistent searching,
through grace, long overdue, you find Jesus.
You find faith. You find mercy and grace.
You find the good news that you don’t have to earn God’s peace,
that you don’t have to search for God’s love
because God has loved you all along.
Finally, you find the peace you’ve been searching for.
If we are being honest, most of us, if given the choice would much
rather have the struggle of faith than the struggle to find faith.
The life of faith isn’t easy
but the life of the unsettled soul is so much harder to face.
When we read this parable,
many of us feel a sense of righteous indignation
because we see ourselves on the side
of those who have worked long and hard all the day,
only to find that all those Johnny-come-latelies
receive the same wages as ourselves.
But we fail to imagine this story from the other side:
to consider those who waited all day, hope fading away,
waiting to be hired, losing hope that it will happen today…
looking at the possibility of going home empty handed,
unable to provide for ourselves or our families that night.
This wasn’t a day of laughter and leisure;
this was a day of hard waiting and despair…
that is, until the landowner showed up at the eleventh hour and gave us a chance to have something, anything, to show for that day.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather have been hired on early in
the morning, to know my day would mean something, and to know
that I’d be able to provide for my family at the end.
None of us wants to feel like our life was wasted.
We all want to have some peace of mind and to feel
like what we do makes a difference in the world.
The idea of forgetting our responsibilities and sowing our oats
and doing whatever we want may seem like a fun idea
every now and then…
we may be tempted sometimes to go and live the easy life,
and plan simply to come back begging forgiveness
when the clock starts to run out
but the truth of the matter is we never know
when the end is going to come,
and what should scare us most is,
having been given this great gift of life,
coming to the end and finding that
we didn’t infuse it with the level of meaning that we could have.
My wife and I are very different people.
She was raised in the church by good Christian parents
who gave her the room to grow into her own faith.
I was raised Catholic… and not by choice. Don’t get me wrong here;
I have nothing against the Roman Catholic church as a whole
we may disagree on some theological points,
but the Catholic church has been life-giving and grace-filled
for a great many people. I just wasn’t one of them.
My parents made sure that I went to services
but didn’t always attend themselves.
I spent more energy in my youth trying to get out
of going to church than I did trying to understand
the message that was being preached.
I remember when I was allowed to walk to the church on my own.
It was the greatest thing ever because I discovered something.
I discovered, that when I got home,
the only proof I needed to convince my parents of my attendance
was the bulletin!
So on those Sundays that I went to church on my own,
I would sneak in the back a little late, grab a bulletin off the table,
and then go commune with my friends
who were also skipping church via the bulletin loop hole.
I did not come to understand or appreciate faith
and the message of Jesus until I was 17 years old.
Many of those teen years were spent in
well, let’s just say, less-than-holy pursuits.
But when I came to faith,
when I experienced the grace that God had been offering me,
it was like I had been living in the dark
and someone had turned on the lights.
It was like realizing I had been blind up until that point,
but now I could see.
Bri was born into her faith and nurtured in it. I struggled against it and, for a while, wanted nothing to do with it.
But, by God’s grace, Bri and I are now both in the same place. We are both serving God and our congregations to the best of our ability. Sometimes she thinks she would be a more understanding pastor if she had a little bit of my experience. Sometimes I think I would be a better pastor with a little more of hers.
Regardless of how or when we come to faith, the important part is that we do. And when we do, we understand that the grace we are given, the grace we experience from God, is not just for ourselves but for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are a pauper or a king, a saint or a serial killer. The grace of God is given freely, and when we receive it, it will change our souls forever.
It is not for us to judge who is worthy of the grace that God gives. We do not get to call God’s generosity unfair. The only thing that is unfair is that we get grace at all.
We are allowed the opportunity to live a life of grace and love today.
Remember the story I shared a little earlier, about the two brothers? The brother who worked in poverty and illness and strife did those things, not to earn passage to heaven and not to secure a greater reward in the hereafter. He worked and toiled because early on he discovered what it meant to love God. He discovered that “the only remedy for love is to love more.”
For those of us who are blessed to walk with Christ, we must understand that that is the blessing. That is the reward: peace with God in our lives, now. We don’t have to spend our lives wondering and wandering and waiting to discover the truth. We have it now. We don’t have to spend our lives searching or empty or afraid. Our toil is not for reward. Our toil is the reward. We are rewarded with the privilege to walk with and work with God in this life. We are blessed indeed… and we are blessed to be a blessing.
The challenge for us is to let go of the idea of what is fair or unfair.
The challenge for us is to accept people wherever they are at in their journey of faith… or on their journey to faith.
The challenge for us is to make the grace and love of Christ visible in this world so that those who are still searching can find their way home. Amen? Amen.