Monday, August 21, 2017

Parables of the lost sheep and lost coin


Imagine growing up where there is an “in group” and an “out group.”  Maybe you don’t have to imagine.  By the time you get to junior high or high school, these things develop all too easily.  But for the purpose of this exercise, imagine that you were and had always been a member of the “in group.”

The rules were made to suit you.  You like the people in your group.  People that you didn’t like were not in your group so you didn’t have to worry about them.  If the rules for the outgroup were not strong enough, then you just revised them.

If you are in the “in group” then it is important that those in the “out group” be kept in their place.  Sure, there was some migration into the “in group” but not without a cost and those who came were never meant to feel as if they were really part of the group.
 
Most of you have discerned at this point that this exercise with you being part of the “in group” is putting you in the Phylacteries of the Pharisees and other self-righteous religious leaders.  Consider the words of Jesus in Matthew’s 23rd chapter.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

In this encounter, the Pharisees are just watching, but read all of the 23rd Chapter of Matthew to get a better perspective of how Jesus saw this group of people.

Let’s play along a little longer with you being part of the self-righteous group.  You knew that you were right in living the way that you lived.  That’s just the way it was.  It had always been that way as long as you could remember.  Yes, there were rules for you but you could interpret them, bend them a little for you while strictly enforcing them with those not in your group.

You could look at those not in your group and condemn them for just about anything that they did.  You held the power and authority to say what was acceptable and what was not.

Then one day a man—sort of a wild card because nobody knew what group he fit into—came along and talked to you and your group and he spoke as one who had real authority.  He would be a great addition to your group but he also talked to those not in your group and treated them as if they were as important as you and your group.  Sometimes it seemed like he valued them more than he did you.

So using the model that you have grown up with you think, “He is either one of us or one of them.  It can’t be both, and because he won’t be exclusive with us; he must be one of them.”

The problem is that he speaks with real authority.  People listen.  People hail him as an important person.  Crowds gather for him. 

On top of all this, when he confronts your group, you always walk away with your tail tucked between your legs. 

We come to this 15th chapter in Luke’s gospel and this group of people known as the Pharisees.  They are observing Jesus.  They have not confronted him on this occasion but they are looking for something big to hold against him.  They would really like to go one up on him.  They are doing what we might call in therapeutic terms, “self talk.” 

They are reinforcing what they think about Jesus by talking among themselves and reminding each other that this man welcomes sinners.  He doesn’t just tolerate them.  He welcomes them.  On top of that he eats with them.

On this occasion, Jesus was teaching and it appeared that mostly people of this “outgroup” had gathered to listen to him.  Tax collectors and sinners is the term we find in the Bible.  Outcasts, those of doubtful reputation, and even notorious sinners encompass the range of descriptive terms for the people that I have described as the “out group.”

But the Pharisees were there and listening and Jesus knew it.  So, he told a story—a parable—about a shepherd and his sheep.  There were one hundred sheep in this story.  That’s a nice size flock, enough to get the people interested anyway.

But one of the sheep is missing.  Jesus surely has the empathy of the crowd at this point.  People understand what it is to take care of sheep.

How do they understand this?  I doubt that there were any shepherds in this crowd.  They have found something else to do for their livelihood. There’s no way that I am going to take care of sheep.  It’s a tough life.  You have to be on guard against wild animals and thieves. 

On top of that, sheep don’t know what’s good for them.  Of course one is missing.  That’s what sheep do.  They go astray.

The question is, what does the shepherd do?  He goes looking for the lost sheep.  That’s what shepherds do.

He leaves the 99 in the open country—some translations say the wilderness—and he starts looking for this lost sheep.  Jesus then said, when he finds it.  Notice that he did not say if he finds it.  He said when he finds it then it is time to celebrate.

He throws this sheep over his shoulder—remember there are 99 left back to their own care—and the shepherd must get back to them so this lost but now found sheep will move at the shepherd’s pace.

But bringing this lost sheep home is cause for celebration.

This parable hits home because it is something that a shepherd would do.  Think back to the beginning of the previous chapter as Jesus is talking about healing on the Sabbath.

He asks, “What would you do if a family member or a donkey or an ox fell into a well on the Sabbath?  Would you not go right away and rescue this person or animal?”

The questions are rhetorical.  Of course, you would rescue them.  Imagine calling out to your favorite ox—who among us does not have a favorite ox—saying, “Just hold on until tomorrow.”

Recall that the Pharisees remained silent.  Had they actually answered the question with the obvious answer, their blindness might have been lifted, but they would not give an answer that seemed to agree with this man who welcomes sinners.

They had to keep their distance.  They did not want this man who dined with outcasts to be seen as part of their elite group.  They were practiced at sales resistance.

Most of us go to yellow or red alert and shields up whenever we talk with a salesman that we don’t know.  The salesman is trained to get you comfortable with saying yes.

Wouldn’t you love to be in perfect health?

Wouldn’t you love to see your grandkids have their college paid for?

Would you love to have two or three times the pay that you have now?

Of course people answer yes to these questions.  That’s why the salesperson asks them.  He wants you to get comfortable saying yes.  Then he starts on his sales spiel.

The Pharisees had obviously had a club meeting to discuss sales resistance with this Jesus.  Unless, they have a plan to trap him, they don’t want to be trapped by their answers to his questions.

The problem is that Jesus was asking questions that they should have been answering so they too would have eyes to see.  Jesus had nothing to sell. He had life abundant and eternal to give!

Jesus is talking to the entire crowd but the Pharisees should have had the greatest understanding of these parables.  Without any comment from the men adorned with phylacteries, Jesus tells another story aimed mostly at the women in the crowd.

A woman has 10 silver coins and loses 1 of them.  At this point, most of the men have tuned out.   

“OK, a sheep running off by itself is one thing, but how does a coin get lost? It can’t run off.  It should be exactly where she left it.  Right?

I would agree it should be exactly where she left it but I don’t even want to confess the hours that I have spent looking for things that were exactly where I left them.

So she turns the house inside out looking for this lost coin.  She gets a lamp to look in dark corners, probably making mental notes where she needs to vacuum now that she has shined the light over there.

Again note, Jesus did not say if she finds the coin; he said when she finds it.  This woman was going to search until she found the coin.

When she does, she is going to get all of her girlfriends together and celebrate.  What was lost is now found.

If they had today’s technology back then, we could all watch the new reality TV shows, Sheep Search and Coin Hunt.  A little Facebook live and hourly tweets could have kept us all plugged in.

The women were surely plugged in to this parable.  Of course you hunt for the lost coin.  Of course you celebrate when you find it.  Of course you rejoice with your friends.

Lost sheep and lost coins were things that people understood.  You didn’t just write them off.  Today, a 1 % write off doesn’t seem as important.

For the past 2 decades many companies have adopted a strategy of attrition with customers that register recurring complaints.  Voice menus with inadequate options frustrate many customers.  Many just live with the substandard service and others just discontinue the service.  Many companies are just fine with losing customers who complain.  They will not invest the extra effort to retain the 1% or 5% or sometimes even 10%. 

But 2000 years ago, you were not content to leave their status as lost.  You found the sheep.  You found the coin.  You searched until you did.

The Pharisees were content with the in group/out group arrangement.  The outcasts were outcasts for a reason and their status did not need to change.  The Pharisees had a never-ending supply of penalty flags and they were content with many being outside their elite circle.

The problem here is that God was not content to write off the lost.  He was not content to just condemn the sinners.  He actively sought the lost and the outcast and those surely on the fringes of society.

He sought them.  He pursued them.  He made a way for them to be included in this wonderful thing that today we call fellowship.  A couple thousand years ago, we would have called it koinonia.  It’s communion, connection, inclusion.

Fellowship is not a strong enough word these days.  We have relegated fellowship to times when we eat and snack, mostly with our close friends.  Koinonia is connecting with everyone as if they were a close friend.  Koinonia is family.

God desires us all to be family.  His heart desires none to perish. He doesn’t want anyone to remain lost and unrepentant.  This is not God’s wish, as if anyone could grant God’s wish; it is the desire of his divine heart. 

That desire produces action!

God didn’t just speak everything into existence and say, “Good luck guys.  See you at the judgment.”  He has been and remains actively engaged with his creation, so much so that he came himself in the form of Jesus to live in the human condition.

God is so engaged with his creation that he took the sin of the world upon himself when Jesus gave himself freely to be the Lamb of God that took away the sin of the world.  If dying for us is not fully engaged, then what could be?

God is so engaged with his creation that when Jesus ascended to heaven, God’s own Spirit came to be with us.  We call this Spirit the Counselor, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, and the Holy Spirit. 

God has not forgotten one of us.  Consider the billions of people alive now and the billions who have lived before us.  You think that God might have written off some of them early on, but God’s heart longs for all to come home to him.

So when Jesus walked the earth teaching and preaching and healing and rebuking and casting out demons and just showing people what his Father’s heart was all about; those on the fringes and edges of society were clearly in his sights.

Those whom the righteous called outcasts and misfits and sinners received head of the line privileges when the one with the words of life came to town.

Of course Jesus went to the lost.  He came to fulfil the desire of his Father’s heart, that none should perish.  He could have just reprimanded the Pharisees, put them on probation, and returned to heaven instead of going all the way to the cross.

But his heart, like his Father’s and like the Spirit’s who lives inside of us now is a heart that none will be lost—that none will be lost.

Our challenge in this age where shepherds are scarce and our money is mostly in the bank is to have a heart for the lost.

We take care of each other as family.  That’s who we are, but we are not content that so many live outside the family.  So many remain lost.  So many seek the things of this world when truth and life and abundance lie in God’s Kingdom that he has opened to us.

Abundance lies in inclusion in the family of faith.  That said, we do have to do some maintenance from time-to-time.  The mission of the church is to reach the lost, bring them to Christ, help them become disciples, help them take on the easy yoke and light burden of our Master.  Somewhere along the way that includes baptism.

But, we also have to take care of those who are a part of this body.  We have to take care of those who are sent and who go into this world to reach the lost.  We must be wise so as not to focus exclusively on the body of believers that gathers weekly, but we must not neglect them.

The shepherd left the 99 for a short time.  He may or may not have left those sheep in the care of an assistant, but he wasn’t gone for a long time.  He left in search of the lost but he came back to the flock. Tending the flock ensured there was a flock to tend.

Surely, he searched with intensity.  Every sheep was important to the shepherd. 

Everyone in a modern-day congregation is important.  We don’t like being compared to sheep, but the analogy is applicable. 

We are also numbered among the shepherds for we carry the good news.  We go in search of the lost.  We desire none to perish.  We leave the flock for short periods and go in search of the lost.

We need the strength of coming together, but we need the heart of mercy that sends us on a mission with passion and intensity when we go in search of the lost.

We are to search for the lost, not out of duty, but out of love.

Has our heart been shaped like our Master’s?  If it has, we have this compulsion to reach out to the lost time and time again.

We will view the lost from his perspective, not so much that they are lost from our local body, but that they have strayed away from the Good Shepherd.

We are his arms and legs and voice and compassion in this age.  We reach out to the lost.  When only 1 sinner comes home, there is rejoicing in heaven.

Rescuing the lost connects heaven and earth with joy and rejoicing.  When the desire of God’s heart is fulfilled, the result is joy.

God knows when a sparrow falls and numbers the hairs on our heads.  He not only knows when a sinner repents and comes home, he is filled with and heaven is filled with joy.

We know that we do not reach out to the lost on our own.  The Holy Spirit is with us until the end of the age.  If the angels in heaven can celebrate when just one lost person comes home, how can we do any less?

We must celebrate the profession of faith.

We must celebrate the baptism.

We must celebrate every step taken in discipleship for this is where we grow in God’s grace.  We not only work to bring people home but to keep them home.  They become part of the family and grow in grace with us.

We can look at the world as a dismal place full of people who have turned away from God, or we can look at it as so many celebrations just waiting to happen.  There are so many opportunities—so many opportunities to excel.

Let us have a heart for the lost.  Let’s take good news to them.  Let’s be God’s light and love to them.  Let those who do not have the Lord taste his goodness in their every encounter with us.

God is not willing that any be discounted as lost.  He has sent us to rescue them.  Walking with God’s Holy Spirit let us bring God the desire of his heart.

That in itself—that we are in this together with God—is cause for celebration.  God trusts us enough to find the lost and be a part of bringing joy to his heart.
Let us reach out to the lost as never before.


Amen.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Parable: The Seat of Honor


This pericope may seem more like a direct teaching than a parable but it is generally numbered among the parables.  For us, we can take what Jesus said to the Pharisees and make application to our lives.

Again, this message is very straight forward.  We do not need much metaphor and surely no allegory.

If your goal is to promote yourself, you may do it for a while but in the long run; you will be humbled.  You might just have to give up your coveted seat for someone else.  That’s a little embarrassing.

If you follow Jesus and humbly accept whatever calling he has for you, he will exalt you.  He will say, come on up here and sit with me.  That’s a good feeling.

You want greatness in God’s Kingdom, then you need to seek servanthood in this age.  If you want the best seats and the most attention now, don’t expect that in the age to come.

This last will be first and the first will be last concept is not really about seating arrangements.  It is about the condition of our heart.

Do we trust that serving God now, today, in this age is exactly what we are supposed to do?  Do we trust that being humble now is what we are called to do?

Do we really want to die to our selfish desires and seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness first?

Or do we tend to be like the Pharisees?  We like the best seats and don’t really consider others.  It is all too natural.

This parable is not talking about getting seats for the Thunder Game or the Kari Jobe concert.  It’s about wanting to be the most favored and seeking this to the exclusion of others.

It is the way of the world.  Everyone is working to be number 1.  We have to beat out our competition. 

Look at the cell phone industry.  It’s not a matter of years between new versions.  It is a matter of months—18 months used to be the norm—now that seems like a long time.

We crave more, bigger, better, shinier, faster, prettier, and of course, newer, devices at every turn.  We never seem to be satisfied when our human nature rules.  We want to have the best of everything as if the world was designed to satisfy our every craving.

But Jesus is talking about a life lived with humility.  Putting others first is a way of life when we follow Jesus.

Consider that Jesus put aside his heavenly domain for a time to live in this world as a human.  He didn’t ride in on a horse.  He was born just like the rest of us.  Actually, most of us were born in a hospital with doctors and nurses attending and the smell of alcohol assuring us everything was sanitary.

Jesus entered this world in what we might call a very humble estate.  Jesus is not preaching to the Pharisees from some pedestal.  He, more than anyone, knew what it was to set aside his status to live the human condition.

At the end of the parable that we call the seat of honor, comes some very direct instruction.  Don’t give banquets for your contemporaries.  Give them for those who can never repay you.

Elsewhere Jesus counseled that even the pagans know how to love those who love them back.  We are counseled to love those who can’t love us back.  They can’t pay us back.

We love those people who can never pay us back.  We have no expectation of being paid back.

But God will bless us for living with the attitude of mercy and generosity and kindness towards those that we might call the least of these our brothers and sisters.

Does this mean that we never host meals with our friends who might return the favor?  No, but we are guarded against becoming exclusive.  We are people of fellowship—koinonia—inclusion; thus, we must guard against becoming an exclusive, country club sort of group or elitist in our associations.

Does this mean that if we are named the Teacher of the Year or the Employee of the Month that we run and hide?  No, we accept the honor, say thank you, and go back to keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus.

We take the momentary recognition and do so thankfully and gracefully knowing that such recognition is transient, but that humility is our governing state while in this world in an age that is also temporary.

But the heart of the message that our Lord gives us is mercy coupled with generosity.  We need to help and love and be generous with the people who can never repay us. 

We need to understand that we are talking about people who may never improve their life situations.  They may always be short on money.  Their health may not improve.  Socially, they may be rough around edges for the rest of their lives.

This parable was delivered while Jesus was dining with the Pharisees and their elite friends.  We must remember that Jesus also dined with those who were very rough around the edges.

We like to meet people where they are, but we never like to leave them there.  We want to lead them to the abundance that we know in Christ Jesus, but some people are just not going to follow.

How do we not become frustrated when people remain in their poverty and apathy and ambivalence?

We love them anyway.  We take stock of just how blessed we are and continue to live a life of mercy and generosity.

Some who we reach out to may follow our Master, but will do so without attending finishing school first.  They may be following Jesus but still rough around the edges.

What do we do?  We love them anyway. 

We recognize how blessed we are to have eyes to see and ears to hear what our Lord has taught us, and we are generous and merciful and kind and longsuffering with those who may never better themselves.  We celebrate that they have come to know life and don’t worry about the fact that they may not be the picture perfect Christian as we would paint that picture.

They may never change.  We pray that they do.  There is a wonderful life for them following Jesus and being God’s love in this world, but not everyone responds.

We love them anyway.

We don’t take care of their every need so as to subsidize their contentment in their current state, but we still are merciful and generous because of who we are.

We hold a banquet for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  It doesn’t look like a banquet from 2000 years ago.  The poor are still among us but these categories are not given to the exclusion of others.

Sometimes that banquet is a sack lunch for kids on Tuesdays.  Sometimes it a box of food from the pantry.  Sometimes it’s help with the water bill.  

Sometimes it’s a voucher to get some milk and eggs from Rudy’s.  

Sometimes that banquet looks a whole lot like Pop Tarts and Peanut Butter.

There have been a lot of Peanut Butter Banquets these last few weeks.

It’s not the appetizer or the salad or the main course or the place settings that makes it a banquet.  It is the fact that we do these things for people who in most cases won’t be able to pay us back.

We do these things without the expectation of being repaid. 

Jesus said, let your light shine before people so they can see your good deeds and that this merciful and generous way of living will bring glory to our Father in heaven.  We do the things that we do because we know they please our heavenly Father.

We are not looking for fame and our own glory.  We thrive on the glory of our heavenly Father.  We hunger for the command of our Master, Christ Jesus, that we love one another.

We love because God is love and we belong to him.

How do we know that we love God?  By loving those who can’t pay us back and not considering that anyone owes us a debt.  We give graciously and do not let our hearts or minds register a debt.

We don’t record the debt!

We don’t expect anything in return, but we get a fantastic return from our Father in heaven.

Everything that you have given without expectation of receiving something in return has been stored up for you as treasure in heaven.  We don’t think about this treasure while we practice mercy and generosity, but we have a treasure awaiting us.

One day, in the twinkling of an eye, we will find that our humility has placed us before our Master and he is saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

He will say, “Come, sit with me up here.”

He will say, “Come and share my happiness.”

For now, we continue to live in humility—still bold in our proclamations of Christ’s victory—but humble in how we live.

For now, we continue to live loving one another.

For now, we continue in our merciful and generous ways helping those who can never repay us and not recording the debt.

For now, we seek the seat at the table with the least status trusting that one day, our Master will invite us to come dine next to him.

Let’s set a banquet for those who can never return the favor.


Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Except for...

Except for…

The church building is a quiet place.  You can get away from the world.  You can enjoy the peace and solitude of a building used only a few hours each week.  Well, except…

Except when the people come on Wednesday nights.
Except when the people come on Sunday mornings.
Except when someone comes needing help with a bill. 
Except when the ladies are cooking a meal for someone.
Except when half a dozen people are making lunches for kids.
Except when someone is decorating for Vacation Bible School.
Except during Vacation Bible School.
Except when someone is facing eviction.
Except when someone traveling is out of gas and sees someone at the church building.
Except when the alcoholics anonymous group needs a safe place to meet.
Except when the Scouts come in force.
Except for a baby shower.
Except when people come to decorate the building for Christmas.
Except when someone needs help with school supplies.
Except for a planning meeting.
Except when it’s time to change to the banners.
Except when someone needs prayer right now.
Except when someone is cleaning.
Except when someone just doesn’t know where to turn.
Except for an elders’ retreat.
Except when kids come looking for candy in October and receive candy plus love.
Except when a family just needs a large place to gather for a meal.
Except when it’s time to receive a dozen cases of plates and cups.
Except when someone is looking for something they left on Sunday.
Except when it’s time for a workday.
Except when it’s time to rearrange the tables.
Except when someone needs to do community service.
Except when the school needs to borrow some tables.
Except when people brings shoeboxes full of goodies and love to send overseas.
Except when someone comes looking for the dish they left at the fellowship meal 4 years ago.
Except when someone just needs to talk.
Except for a wedding service.
Except when a teacher comes to get ready for Sunday.
Except when someone needs to borrow a book on Spiritual Gifts.
Except when someone has a flier to drop off.
Except when it’s time to bring Angel Gifts.
Except for a funeral service.
Except when someone is stuffing eggs with Jesus loves you prizes.
Except when someone needs a prayer blanket to take to a friend.
Except when someone needs a Bible and the bar is fresh out.
Except when people come to sort the coins in the loaves and fishes offerings.
Except when someone needs to make a copy.
Except for a special communion service.
Except when someone needs to practice a special song.
Except when someone is sorting school supplies.
Except for when someone just needs to be told that God loves them.
Except when someone is picking up school supplies.
Except when the schools donate to the food pantry.
Except when it’s time to sort out the dated and dented cans of food.
Except when people share a lunch meal after walking the town with good news.
Except when the football team and cheerleaders come to eat before the game.
Except when someone needs to make a call because they have no phone.
Except when someone needs to use the bathroom right now.
Except when someone has given up on their marriage.
Except when youth football does sign-ups here.
Except for the women’s exercise class.
Except when the UPS driver delivers copier paper and toner.
Except when someone needs to fill a water jug.
Except when the kids gather to head to camp.
Except for when someone just thought they should drop in because.
Except when someone is thinking about checking out of this world.
Except when someone comes to pray at the altar at zero dark thirty.
Except when couples come for counseling prior to marriage.
Except when the ministerial alliance meets in the pastor’s study.
Except when there is a gathering for youth after the football game.
Except when the flowers need to be changed.
Except when someone brings a donation of food or school supplies.
Except when people gather for a one pot meal and filling Christmas sacks.
Except when someone needs to just sit and gaze into the cross and embrace the love that we know in this simple symbol.
Except when the blood drive is held in the fellowship hall.
Except when someone just needs a cup of coffee.
Except when it’s time to clean and reorganize the kitchen.
Except when the Facebook post just isn’t good enough.
Except when someone wants to know that verse from the sermon preached a year ago.
Except when someone has something big they need to share right now.
Except when the people come on Wednesday nights.
Except when the people come on Sunday mornings.

Yes, the church building is a quiet place where you can get away from it all and enjoy the peace and solitude of a building used only a few hours each week.

Thanks be to God for such a place where the church meets and is the light of the world in so many ways!

Thanks be to God that there is a place where people know they can connect with God and others.


Thanks be to God!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Parable: The Barren Fig Tree


The parable, simple as it is, has produced some very intricate commentaries on the nearly inexhaustible patience and longsuffering of God having a terminal point.  That could be the thrust here.  What if the parable is strait forward?  What if it is as simple as it appears?

What if the message from the worker that tends these trees is just, let’s give it a little more time.  Let’s put more effort into nurturing this tree.

By let’s, the worker is seeking grace from the owner so that he can do this extra work.  He is asking for extra work to nurture a tree which by all standards should be cut down.  At least in cutting it down, you get a little firewood and can try something else in its place.

The parable says:  Let’s not give up yet.

If we get allegorical, we have all kinds of issues.  Who is the owner and who is the worker?  If the owner is God, why is he ready to chop down the tree?

If the worker is God or Jesus, who owns the orchard?

If this is a discussion between Father and Son, are we ready for such high level discussions?

Many have taken what might be some circuitous routes to answer these questions, sometimes comparing this with parables about the vineyard and its workers and oft times throwing Israel itself into the mix, but what if the message is simply, “Let’s take a little more time and a reasonable amount of effort to give this tree another chance to produce fruit.”

We might think that this is about evangelism. We should go to the far ends of the earth and deliver the gospel, baptize, and make disciples.  We should, but I suggest that this parable looks at the unfruitful person who has already professed belief in God, and for us, in Jesus.

The Hebrew people were to bless the world.  God blessed them and they in turn were to bless the world.  They didn’t do a very good job of that.  They could barely keep themselves intact as they turned away from God time and time again.

Through Jesus, God’s promise to bless the world through the seed of Abraham is fulfilled, but the Hebrew people had their issues with living up to being God’s Chosen People.

This is not a pick on the Jews moment for we too do not always live up to our God given potential.  We have talked before about the one who has been given much.  The bar has been set high for that person.  We get that.

But what about the people who don’t?  Is it just too bad, so sad for them?

God desires that none perish and that all come to repentance and life if Jesus Christ, but what if people stop at repentance?  They got saved but they are not producing much fruit.  To use Paul’s analogy, they did not build well upon the foundation of Salvation in Jesus Christ.  They are saved like someone running out of a burning building with only the clothing on their backs and no renter’s insurance.

Are we content to leave them there?  Are we content to leave them where they are?

We might be thinking, if the tree gets chopped down, then this must be about salvation.  That’s possible, but we don’t have much direction about the unsaved producing fruit, other than bad fruit.

Fruit is about what we do with what God has given us, but in this case it’s about what God has given other believers.

So should we break out our pointing fingers and go around inspecting other believers to make sure that they are making their fruit quota?  No.

What does the worker do in this parable?  He nurtures.  He is going to water and fertilize.  He is going to go that extra mile to give this tree a chance to join the ranks of those that produce fruit.

That’s where life and life abundant reside, plus there are some rewards down the road.  Life really becomes life when we start producing fruit.

The problem is often that many see salvation as the finish line. I have steered away from hellfire and damnation sermons because a profession of faith rooted in fear hardly prepares the new believer for discipleship.  

Salvation seems to be the finish line having walked the aisle and said the words.  It’s game over.  Now what?

 It is the finish line for sin and death having a say in our eternal condition, but it is really the starting blocks for life.

Which brings us to 25-mile hikes with heavy equipment.  This is where Paul and the Marine are very much in agreement, at least in attitude.  Paul told everyone to carry his own load but that we share on another’s burdens. 

Every Marine is expected to carry his own load, but if a Marine is not keeping up on a long march, the other Marines don’t just shake their heads and keep on going.  They start to take part of his equipment and take turns carrying it.  Everyone finishes. 

It’s a crazy attitude that you expect everyone to do more than they can but if they can’t, you won’t let them fail.  They are part of your team.  This is a way of life for the Marine and the believer.

Now at boot camp, it might be a different story.  If you can’t hack it there, then you don’t need to be a burden to others later.  But for the one who has earned the title Marine, you get them to the finish line.

We as Christians have not earned a title.  We have a fantastic gift, but we should share the same attitude.  We will go the extra mile for our fellow believers.  We are expected to carry our own load but we are expected to help others with their burdens. 

What does this all mean in day-to-day life?

If we have fellow believers who are not fully living, we need to help.  Sometimes that help is just prayer.  Sometimes it is encouragement.  

Sometimes it is walking with a fellow believer through a tough situation. 

Sometimes it is speaking the truth in love, not in condemnation.  

Remember, there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus.

We have a nature that says, “don’t meddle.”  But a little meddling is required.  Connection among believers is needed to produce the fruit that we should.  If your gift is intercession, the person that you are nurturing in your prayers may not even be aware of your efforts. 

But if you are an encourager, then they will surely know.  If you see a gift in a person and you offer to mentor them, then they will surely be aware of that connection. 

The DISCONNECT NOTICES that we have put out many times are not reaching out to the lost, but to the believer who is not living out the fullness of their salvation.  The goal is not people in the pews—though that is often a byproduct—it’s connecting the body of Christ so that together we can produce the fruit that we should be producing.

I am going to make a bold statement here.  It might seem absurd to you, but if every person who has professed Jesus as Lord and has received this wonderful gift of salvation would put what God has given them to work and help others to put what they have been given to work, our country would be changed in that instant.

We would be changed.  It would make no difference who was in the White House or Governor’s Mansion or the halls of Congress.  This entire nation would be changed.

For there are more Christians living outside of church bodies than gather on Sunday mornings.  They have grown comfortable there.  Apathy has crept into their response to salvation and they are not producing fruit for the body of Christ.  We could just say, “Shame on you!”

What if we nurtured them and helped them produce fruit for the body of Christ?  What if we called them home?

What if we didn’t give up on them?  What if we didn’t leave them in their apathy, and discontent, and disconnected state?

What if we nurtured them?

What if we said, “Let’s give it a year with some extra effort and see what happens.”

It’s challenge time.  Who’d a thunk it?

Everyone here knows someone that is disconnected from the body of Christ and needs to come home and needs to produce fruit for the body of Christ and needs to know what living to the full really means.

We all know someone.  The challenge is that you take a year—summer to summer—to invite this someone home.  They may not even live here.  It could be an old college friend or someone that you grew up with who knows the Lord but has forsaken the fellowship of believers and they need to come home and join the ranks of those who produce fruit.

We are still reaching out to the lost.  That’s our commission, but part of that commission deals with those who have been saved.

We are told to make disciples.  We are to help people follow Jesus.  We are to help people love one another.  We are to nurture believers so that they too produce fruit for the Lord and the body of Christ.  It’s not get them to profess their faith and then check them off the list.  Mission Accomplished!

We are still working on our own discipleship and some balk at helping or nurturing or mentoring another believer, but in so doing, we actually grow in our own maturity and produce more fruit.

I challenge you to pick a person or family and write their name on your bulletin.  When you write it, that’s the beginning of a commitment.  When you get home, put that name somewhere that you will see it daily.  Pray for that person or family.  Reach out to that person or family again and again.

Don’t water the tree this August and think that should do it until next summer.    We water and add fertilize and water and we don’t give up.  You can get Miracle Grow and water and fertilizer at the same time if you want.

Here’s the thing.  We don’t give up.  We nurture for a year.

Now, some here might think that this is a trick.  I know what he’s going to do at the end of that year.  He will ask us to pick another family.

And if I did, how bad would that really be?  This commission that we have is for life.  We reach out to the lost and we call believers home—we are part of making disciples.

Here is the thing.  We don’t give up.  We nurture for a year, and at the end of that year if you have been faithful in your prayer and nurturing; you will be looking for the next person or family to help them find their way home to the fullness of life in Christ.

Do this for a year and I won’t need to ask you to do it again.  The Spirit of God that lives within you will be reminding you.

We still cast a broad net wherever we go.  We reach out to many with good news and God’s love, but we pick only one or a family to truly nurture back into the body of Christ for a year.

Let’s give it a year and see what happens.

We could say, they should have done this on their own but they didn’t.  But that’s not our counsel.  Pick a person or a family.  Give them some extra attention or nurturing if you will and do it for a year.

Let’s give it a year and see what happens.


Amen.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Divine Balance


Luke’s 12th chapter is interesting in many ways.  Jesus tells those with ears to hear to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.  These people who have been entrusted as the shepherds of Israel have not done well with their trust.

Do not let them rule over you with fear.  The fear of the Lord is the only fear that you should entertain.  God—not these rule makers, not the devil, not any standard of compliance—holds power over life and death, heaven and hell, worry and peace.

Jesus tells those listening—then and now—that we claim him or we don’t.  There is no sitting on the fence.  If we claim Jesus as Lord, we will profess him publicly, affirm him always, and never forsake him.  He is our Lord.  Those who don’t really believe won’t know the same good standing that we have with our Father in heaven because of Jesus.

Jesus goes so far as the say not to worry even when the authorities take you into custody for believing in him.  God’s own Spirit will be right there with you and even give you the words to say.

Our Lord even spends a little time talking about possessions in what is now called the Parable of the Rich Fool.  We won’t spend time on that now as I will discuss that parable more a few weeks down the road.  Just remember that a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions.

Then it is back to do not worry.  He tells us to look at the example of the birds and the flowers.  We should trust our heavenly Father so much that we worry less than the lilies of the field.  We don’t do worry.  We don’t do fear.  Hear these endearing words from Luke’s gospel.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There is a song that we sing frequently in our First Light service called The More I Seek You.  It has a stanza—if modern hymns still have stanzas—that says:  This love is so deep it’s more than I can stand.  I melt in your peace.  It’s overwhelming.  When we read this brief excerpt from Luke’s gospel, it’s almost like we could melt in our Lord’s peace.

But then Jesus instructed his followers once again to keep their guard up.  Be watchful.  Dress ready for service.  We could take a rabbit trail down putting on the full armor of God, but we won’t do that now.  Keep your lamps burning.  

We have been down this road before.  We understand that watchfulness and peace are not exclusive.  We are ready because we abide in the words of Jesus.  We continue to do the things that we know to do.

Jesus throws an interesting twist into this first parable.  He tells us that when the master—we translate that to our Master—comes home and finds us doing exactly what we should be doing, he will have us relax and recline at the table and he will take care of us.  Now that’s something worth staying the course. 

But—here’s the condition—we don’t know when the Son of Man will return, so we must live for him every day.  Our salvation is secured in the immeasurable love that poured out the blood of Jesus on the cross, but our Lord wants to see how much we have loved him back.

Here is where it gets fun.  Peter asked Jesus, “Is this parable for everyone or just for us?”

Don’t pick on Peter.  It’s a good question.  It’s one of those that comes up in Bible studies full of mature believers. Can everyone walk on water?  Should I be able to move a mountain.  Should I sell everything that I have?  Don’t pick on Peter.  He is asking what others were likely thinking.

The fun part is that Jesus answers the question about one parable with another parable.  At this point, I can see the other disciples giving Peter the look.  Now, we have not one, but two parables to figure out courtesy of Peter the rock.

Jesus begins.  Who is the faithful and wise manager?  The manager is likely also a servant but he is a manager.  Think of Joseph in Potiphar’s house.  He was a slave but in charge of everything.  He was a manager.

Jesus has a parable for managers.  It follows the same model as the ones for servants assigned to pick grapes or tend sheep or clean the house, but it is about managers.  What will the manager do when the master is away?

Will he run a tight ship as if the master were there checking every day or will he get lazy and careless and a little selfish?

We know how this comes out.  Stay the course and reap the rewards.  Stray away and you pay.  Don’t get too wrapped up in all this beating business.  Beatings were the performance evaluation tool of the day.  You didn’t just get a note put in your personnel file back then, you got a beating.

We must get through the part on beatings to get to the heart of the message, but you must endure a short rabbit trail first.  Every time I think about beatings, the old adage, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” comes to mind.

Don’t get wrapped up on this beating business.  Think on how Jesus sums up this pericope. It sounds a whole lot like, “What did you do with what I gave you” in the indicative instead of the interrogative. 

If you were given much then much is expected.  If you are entrusted with much then much more will be asked—much more is required.

Here we go again.  Our salvation, our family, our homes and possessions and money are all trusts.  Our commission to share the gospel is a trust.  Our command that we hold so dear—to love one another as Jesus loved us—is a trust.
Our Spiritual Gifts are a trust.

The talents and abilities that God placed in us at birth are a trust.

If you are gifted as a teacher, God expects you to teach much more than the person terrified of teaching.

If you are a talented carpenter, God expects you to build all of your life.

If you have been blessed with an income, God expects that you will not only tithe, but give something beyond the tithe.

If you have been blessed with possession, God expects that you will be generous.

If you have a house, God expects that you will practice hospitality.

If you have authority, God expects you to practice it with wisdom and mercy.

If you have the gift to work with small children, God expects to see you in the nursery.

If you have the gift to work with small children and the gift of being a teacher, God expects to see you teaching a children’s lesson.

If you have the gift of intercession, God expects to hear from you more than the one who has the gift of service.

If you can’t hold your hands steady any more, God probably doesn’t want you lighting the candles.

If you can’t count, God probably doesn’t want you to be the church treasurer or a bank teller, though I guess these days you can run a cash register.

If you can’t handle controversy, God probably doesn’t want you to negotiate trade agreements.

If you are allergic to bee stings, God probably doesn’t want you to be a bee keeper.

There is a divine balance in what God expects from us. If he has given us a lot to work with, then he expects us to put it all to work.

If we have only been given a little, he expects us to put all of the little that he gave us to work.  There is a divine balance to God’s gifts and expectations.

Nowhere in this chapter or these two parables or any of the connecting teachings do I see which excuses are acceptable for not taking the much or little that we have been given and putting it to work.

Let’s consider where we have been so far.  We take care in what we believe.  We fear only God.  We don’t worry about the daily provisions of our life.  We don’t get wrapped up in our possessions.  We have peace but are watchful.  We don’t worry but are always ready. 

Whether a simple servant or a manager, we do what we know to do.  So what are we to do now?

We should begin with an inventory.  What do I have?

If that list begins with life and the promise of eternal life, then we continue with the inventory.  If not, it’s time to wrestle with this question of whether we believe in a God of love.  If that answer is yes, then do we believe that he loved us enough to take away our sin in the person and blood of his Son that we call Jesus?

If the answer is no, then you can skip this part and just begin a time of silent prayer asking God to open your eyes and your heart to eternal love.

But for those who already believe, let’s inventory what we have.

A home.
Cars, motorcycles, and hoverboards.
A job or income from somewhere.
Food.
Clothing.
Liberty.
Rights.
Money.
Possessions.
Education and continuing education.
Training.
Skills.
Abilities.
Attitudes.
Tools.

Those are typical areas to inventory.  We should see what we have and if we are managing these trusts well.  Here are some that might go overlooked.

Passport.
Connections or a network of connections.
Memberships.
Readerships.
Followings.

Are we managing these things well?  Are we using them to produce a good return for our Lord?

Sometimes, people venture into the “if only” world.  If only I had that skill.  If only that door would open for me.  If only I would win the lottery.  We are called to do what we can with what we have and not be surprised when God adds to it.

If you catch yourself wondering what you could do if you only had…you fill in the blank; first ask yourself what you are doing with what God has already given you.

I think, in fact I am quite sure, that all of us here have been trusted with much; therefore, much is expected from us.
We need to get out of the habit of looking at everything that we don’t have and start focusing on doing great things with what we do have.

We have been trusted with much.  Much is expected from us.
You know who realized this some time ago.  It’s someone that you will recognize.  Consider these words of Mother Teressa.

“I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle.  I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

She understood that she was trusted with much, that she must put that trust to work, and that God would see her through whatever was now in her path because she acted upon this trust.

Was she trusted with money?  Not so much.

Was she trusted with great possessions?  Not so much.

She was trusted with the gifts of mercy and communication. 

Her love was shared wherever she was and her lessons launched world-wide.

It seems that we are even trusted with the challenges of our lives.

We are trusted with much.

I am going to add something to the things with which God trusts us—geography.  Some will be calling ahead to get me sized for a straight jacket, I’m sure.  Do I not realize that we live in a one traffic light town?  We do have all three colors on the light now and even two left turn signals.  That makes us big time as far as I’m concerned.  Most intersections would have 4 left turn signals. We could petition the state for another left turn signal or two, but they would just lead people into or out of a pasture.

Geography!  Really?

Consider that we have been trusted with where we live.  We are half an hour from Walmart, which is how modern civilization is defined.  We don’t have traffic, unless two people stop in the middle of an intersection to talk.  We have affordable housing.  We have all the basic services.

We are blessed to live where we live, but we also can reach out to the world.  It’s seven miles to the interstate.  It’s a couple of keystrokes or mouse clicks to the internet, that is, unless your phone is always connected.  In less than two hours you can be on a plane, unless you can get a private lift out of our local facility.

Today’s generation does not understand what a long-distance call is.  We are connected.  Half of the people you know have never used a pay phone and tried to say everything they needed to in 3 minutes. They have just always been connected.  We have these things called Facetime and Skype.  You can see the person that you are talking to on the other side of the world or the other side of the room.

If you must have something that you can’t get here, it’s 90 minutes to Oklahoma City.  It should take a little longer, but I have seen most of you drive.  And then there is Amazon One Click and Prime.  One click, two days, it’s here.

You are not only blessed to live in small town or rural Oklahoma, you are trusted with much.  Much is expected.

I sometimes get a little terse with my fellow pastors when they ask, “How’s the church doing?”  Before I can answer, they add, “Are you all hanging on?”

It is as if the small town geography defines what God can do with us and through us and for his kingdom.  It is usually 10-15 minutes before my contemporaries get to ask any more questions because I am telling them what you are doing with what God gave you.

You were given much and much is expected.
From where I stand, much is being delivered.  You are producing much fruit.

We must never grow complacent with what God has given us, but I think that somehow we understand today’s message a little better than others.  We never retire from taking what God has given us and putting it to work to serve him.

Not everyone is called to be a theologian.  Not everyone is given the gift of intercession.  Not everyone is given the gift of evangelism.

We all understand some theology, pray quite a bit, and share the gospel, but most of the time we are sharing what we know we have been given—God’s love.

We know that we have been given much love and we are expected to love much.

If we do understand these parables and the obligatory words that connect them to us, and we do conduct an inventory; then let us also be wise as we inventory.  Let’s find the clutter and get rid of it.

Let’s identify the stuff that is getting in the way of taking what we have been given and producing a great return and get rid of it.

We might be talking about physical clutter—actual stuff—but more likely, we will find clutter in our time and senseless obligations. 

This is a complicated century but that does not mean our lives must be complicated.  We are equipped to operate in this crazy millennium, yet have the peace of a simpler time.  We are ready because we do what we know our Lord has called us to do; yet, we sleep well at night.

We realize that we have been given much and that much is expected.  We also know that Jesus gave us words so that we might put them into practice.  So, let’s take inventory of what we have and put it to work to produce a good return for our Lord; and if along the way we find things that are clutter, kick them to the curb.

We with ears to hear are the faithful and wise managers of this age.  Let us be known by our love, our good news, our faith, and the wisdom that God has granted us so generously.


Amen.