Servants of Another

Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35

Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.

First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.

When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.

Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.

Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.

The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.

To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.

It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.

And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.

This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”

We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?

Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:

  • Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
  • Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
  • Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.

Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.

What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.

So where does this all lead us?

First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.

Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”

Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.

Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.

Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.

Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14

Soli Deo Gloria



What’s in a Name?

Fire at Hill Top United Methodist Church, Allentown (Pittsburgh), 8/28/14 Credit: WTAE.com

Fire at Hill Top United Methodist Church, Allentown (Pittsburgh), 8/28/14 Credit: WTAE.com

 Scripture readings: Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16:21-28

I wanted to start this morning by sharing a little bit more with you about the events at our sister church Hill Top United Methodist Church this week. I got news of the fire around two hours after it started and since I live nearby I headed up to see if there was anything I could do. As it turned out there wasn’t anything to do – the firefighters and police had things well in hand – so I spent some time talking with the people who were there. When I got there the fire was under control and the firefighters were checking to be sure there were no hidden hot-spots in the roof and pouring on lots of water.

Even so it was gut-wrenching to watch. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you speechless.

While all this was going on, some of the firefighters entered the church and brought out things they knew the people would want to save. I saw them bring out the pulpit, the Lord’s table, the big painting of Jesus, the cross, the flags, and if I’m not mistaken they got the old photographs that were hanging in the vestibule. They treated everything with great respect and care. Pastor Sue speaks the truth when she said what a fantastic job they did.

I spoke briefly with one of the members of the church council, had a quick word with Pastor Sue, and spoke with a few people nearby. It was during these conversations that I learned how the fire started. I would ask you, as we pray for this situation, remember the roofers and their families in your prayers as well – they must be absolutely devastated.

On the positive side is the outpouring of love and support and prayers coming in from everywhere. We’ve heard the good news that Hill Top’s building has been declared structurally sound, with the exception of the very peak (which can be repaired), so rebuilding is possible – and it seems to be in the heart of the people to do it. And that’s great news!

So I’ve been thinking about all these things for the past few days – thoughts coming to mind throughout the day as I work – and I’ve been reminded of the words of my old pastor who said, “whenever you think of someone, pray for them.” That’s a good rule of thumb for times like this.

One of the other things that kept coming to mind this week was: it seems like everyday reality has been rough lately. What I mean is: there are times when reality can be sweet, like when you’re holding a newborn baby, or when you’re sitting on your porch with friends on a summer night. Life can be sweet and reality can be good. But lately it seems like we’ve been facing a lot of harsh realities, one after another after another. On a global level, we pray for people like Pastor Deb’s daughter Grace ministering in Bethlehem, who lives daily with the harsh reality that bombs might fall from the sky today. We pray for Christians around the world who face homelessness and even death because they refuse to give up their faith. Here in the States we’ve been faced with many harsh realities, from children at our southern borders to – for people of my generation – the death of Robin Williams, which hit home for us in ways we never expected. In our personal lives too we have relatives and friends who are facing the harsh reality of cancer or other serious illness. And now we need to deal with the harsh reality that Hill Top’s congregation will be without a place for the church to call home for a long time to come.

Every time one of these harsh realities hits it stops us in our tracks, it takes our breath away. And we know our lives are never going to be the same again from that point on. We can’t deny it – even though we may be tempted to try – and we can’t turn the clock back. Life just doesn’t come with an “Undo” button.

Dealing with harsh realities is tough. Dealing with harsh realities is also something God specializes in.

Both of our scripture readings for today show God dealing with harsh realities. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is dealing with the harsh reality of his mission on earth: he has been sent here specifically for the purpose of paying the price for human sin. And he is facing into the harsh reality of the cross.

In the reading from Exodus, God is dealing with the harsh reality that his people are suffering as slaves in Egypt. God decides to send Moses to Pharaoh as his messenger, and a leader who will lead the Israelites out to a new land.

When God tells him all this, Moses answers, “who am I? Why should Pharaoh listen to me?” Because Moses is no longer welcome in the Egyptian court, and besides, he feels unequal to the task.

I think many of us, when we are faced with harsh realities, react much the same way. We ask: “Who am I? Who am I to take this on?” We feel unequal to the task.

God’s answer to us is the same answer he gave Moses: “I will be with you.”

Moses replies to this with a question whose meaning is, essentially, “who are you? Who shall I say sent me?”

So God introduces himself: “I AM” – in the Hebrew, “Yahweh” or “I am who I am.”

“I AM” is God’s name, but it also tells us God’s nature, which is to be. We’ve been talking so far about harsh realities. God is the ultimate reality. God is many things – God is holy, God is mighty, God is powerful… but most importantly, God IS. Full stop.

God tells Moses to tell the people: “I am the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus comments on this in Matt 22:32 when he says, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Just as God is the God of Jacob you could also say He is the “God of Nicholas and the God of Robert and the God of Michael…” and so on.

Scripture gives us many names for God and for Jesus. And at times like these – times when harsh realities crowd into our lives – it’s good to remind ourselves of the names of God. It’s like the old saying says, “don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.”

Some of the names for God in the Old Testament include:

  • El Shaddai – God Almighty
  • El Elyon – God Most High
  • Adonai – Lord
  • Elohim – God the Creator (in Genesis ch 1 – interestingly, a plural word!)
  • Elah – Awesome One
  • Ha’kadosh – the Holy One
  • Melek ha’kavod – King of Glory

Names for Jesus include:

  • Saviour
  • Messiah
  • Son of God
  • Word of Life
  • Wonderful Counselor
  • Prince of Peace
    …and most importantly at times like this…
  • **Immanuel – God with us**

Jesus calls himself:

  • The bread of life
  • The light of the world
  • The gate for the sheep
  • The resurrection and the life
  • The true vine
  • The good shepherd

The message of our passages from both Matthew and Exodus is that God sees our sufferings. God sees our harsh realities. And he does more than just observe them, God enters into our suffering with us. God is not ‘watching us from a distance’ like the old song says. God is right there with us, closer than a brother.

All these things that God is – almighty, creator, awesome, holy, saviour, prince of peace – all of that – is with us, in our corner. He is Immanuel, God with us, through the harsh times, in the middle of it all.

Psalm 30:5 says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

And in Psalm 126 the psalmist prays this prayer:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negev.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

God promises “those who sow in tears will reap in joy”. “Like the watercourses in the Negev” – dry river-beds that, when it rains, the desert itself begins to bloom.

One of the comments posted on Facebook this week under the photo of Hill Top said: “there’s no telling what revival God has planned!” I think there’s a word from God in that.

God was with the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. He was there to set them free and he led them through the wilderness and the desert to bring them to the promised land.

Jesus was with us when he lived on earth, and then died for our sins to set us free and open the door to God’s eternal kingdom.

And God is with us now, through all the trials we face. God, whose name is “I AM” – who is the ultimate reality – is with us. Praise God!

Let us encourage each other with this truth in the days ahead. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, August 31 2014




Who Is Jesus?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16:13-20

At the beginning of our reading, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

Immediately prior to asking this question, Jesus had been confronted by the Pharisees and Sadducees, who demanded he show them a ‘sign from heaven’ to prove who he was. The very fact that they were making this demand suggests they already knew who Jesus was, but they were hoping catch him in his own words.

The really odd thing is this: just before they made their demand, Jesus had fed four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread and a few fish. It makes one wonder just how big a miracle the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for?

But Jesus’ miracle was big enough to convince the people, and they had begun to speculate on who he was. So the disciples answered, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah or one of the prophets.”

If Jesus were here today and asked the same question, what kind of answers might he get? A good man? A great teacher? An important prophet? A model of a spiritually mature being? A myth? Someone who lived and died a long time ago?

The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia has this to say about Jesus:

“Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure of Christianity, whom the teachings of most Christian denominations hold to be the Son of God… Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed historically… Most scholars agree that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi from Galilee who preached his message orally, was baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified in Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Scholars have constructed various portraits of the historical Jesus, which often depict him as… the leader of an apocalyptic movement, [or] Messiah, [or] a charismatic healer, [or] a sage and philosopher, [or] an egalitarian social reformer…”

The reader is basically left to choose from any or all of the above.

Even within the church people don’t agree about who Jesus is. When I Googled the question this past week I found that some call Jesus “the center of our faith,” some say, “Jesus is Lord of all,” some say, “He’s the saviour of the world,” others say, “Jesus is true God and true man in one person,” and still others say “it is nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity.”

If people in the church can’t even agree about who Jesus is, how do we go about answering Jesus’ question? Should we even try?

I believe we should. I believe the question “who is Jesus?” is probably the most important question any of us will ever answer.

When Jesus was a baby, being presented at the temple by his parents, an elderly prophet named Simeon came up to them and spoke a prophecy over the baby Jesus. Here’s what he said:

Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35)

Did you catch that? “So that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Whatever people think of Jesus, whatever people say about him, reveals their innermost thoughts – says more about them than it does about Jesus. You want to know what a person is really all about? Where a person is really coming from? Ask them who Jesus is.

So Jesus listens to what his disciples say, and then he asks, “and who do you say that I am?”

Peter then makes the great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The word Christ back in those days meant Messiah, or anointed one. When a person was anointed it meant that God had chosen him to become king, and the anointing was accompanied by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

For example, in the Old Testament, Samuel anointed David to be king in 1 Samuel 16:13:

“Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.”

Jesus’ anointing came at his baptism as recorded in Matthew 3:16-17:

“when Jesus had been baptized, as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.””

This is what it means to be anointed. But it means still more to be THE Christ. Not “a” christ, but “the” Christ, the one promised from the foundation of the world.

When Peter calls Jesus “the Son of the Living God” Jesus answers:

“You are blessed! Flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this, but my father in heaven.”

And this is true of us as well. When we know that Jesus is the Son of God, we are blessed – because it’s not our reason or our intellect that got us there. It’s God working in us, teaching us who Jesus is. As the theologian Charles Simeon put it:

“No one has eyes to see this truth, till the veil is removed from the heart, and understanding is enlightened by the Spirit of God.”

The apostle Paul agrees in I Cor 12:3:

“No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

And Jesus himself says in John 6:44

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

Knowing who Jesus is, is the gift of God through the Holy Spirit. And if we know this we are blessed by God!

Jesus then continues, saying to Peter: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This is a play on words in the Greek: “you are Petros (the proper name Peter) and on this petra (a rock) I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overpower it.”

What is this rock on which Jesus will build his church? Is it Peter himself? No. It’s on the rock of Peter’s confession: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is faith in the Son of God that builds the church.

Jesus goes on to say “I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

I don’t know about you, but at this point my mind begins to drift off to cartoons of St. Peter at the pearly gates, an old man with a long grey beard holding a set of keys and checking a list to see who’s on it. That’s not exactly what Jesus has in mind.

On the other hand some people think Jesus means this generically, that the keys belong to all believers everywhere… and that’s not exactly the meaning either. In the phrase “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” the word “you” in the Greek is singular. Jesus is speaking to Peter individually, not to the disciples as a group. And that’s because Peter has a job to do. Peter is the one who will organize the first church in Jerusalem. Peter is the one who will be the first to understand that God receives Gentiles, allowing those of us who are non-Jews to hear the Gospel and become believers. Peter “had the honor of opening the church to both Jews and Gentiles.” (Simeon)

So what is this talk about keys then? The concept of keys in this sense is foreign to us, because in 21st century America, we don’t have walled cities and we don’t live in castles. We don’t lock up the entire town at night. But let me share an experience that might help make some sense of this.

A number of years ago I visited the Tower of London in England. The Tower is kind of like a castle in the middle of downtown London, made up of a number of towers as well as museums and homes for some of the Queen’s elite guards. It takes up a few city blocks. A long time ago it’s where they kept prisoners and held public executions, but these days it’s where the Crown Jewels are kept, and it’s a popular tourist destination.

One of the little-known secrets of the Tower – worth looking into if you ever go there – is the way they close the Tower at night. It’s called the Ceremony of the Keys and it’s a military ceremony that has been done the same way every night for over 700 years. If you’ve ever seen the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC – that will give you an idea of the kind of gravity and ceremony of the event. The men who guard the Tower join together in a 30-minute ceremony to lock the doors of the Tower for the evening.

After the doors have been locked, the guard with the keys comes over to our small group of guests and explains that the Queen’s keys – the keys he holds in his hands – legally represent the Queen herself. Her keys temporarily give him her authority. And it’s considered a great honor to be chosen to hold the keys and lock the Tower door.

The guard holding the keys then looks around at us visitors and says, “has it occurred to any of you yet, that the Tower is now locked for the evening, and YOU are still inside?”

And suddenly one becomes very aware of exactly what it means to live in a kingdom – because our fate now rests in the good will of the Sovereign and her representative. The man holding the Queen’s keys has both the right and the authority to keep us locked in the Tower if he so chooses, and no power on earth can change that. Or he can choose to set us free. And of course, following the Queen’s wishes, that’s what he does.

That’s the meaning of what Jesus said to Peter. Our fate, every one of us, rests in the good will of the Sovereign – Jesus the Lord, with His Father in heaven. Peter is given the right to hold the keys, to guard the crown jewel – the church – and to invite into the kingdom those his Sovereign invites.

Peter will spend the rest of his life carrying out this commission.

The passage then ends with a curious charge: Jesus says to his disciples, “don’t tell anyone that I’m the Messiah.” Why would he want to keep it a secret? We don’t know for sure but most theologians agree it’s because the time wasn’t right yet. If Jesus had revealed his true identity sooner, he would most likely have been put to death sooner – and he still has more to do before He goes to the cross.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

Like Peter, we need to be ready with an answer. When we hear people say things like, “all religions are the same” or “Jesus was just a good man” we need to be ready with an answer. When someone asks, “why do you follow Jesus?” or “why do you go to church?” we need to be ready with an answer.

Like Jesus, we also need to be ready with questions. “What do you think public opinion is about this issue or that? And what do you say about it?” – using leading questions to lead into conversations about things that really matter.

And finally, the building stones for the church are the same today as they were two thousand years ago. Jesus is the anointed one, the one and only Messiah, the Son of the living God, and on this truth the church is built. By faith in Him, let us continue to build up the church.

And while we are doing that, the one holding the keys of the kingdom says, “The door is open. Welcome in.” Amen.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 8/24/14


The story of Joseph and his brothers is a story that has captured peoples’ imaginations for thousands of years. Books have been written about it, movies have been made about it, they even made a Broadway show out of it a few years back – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a great tale, full of all the things that make up memorable stories: dreams and danger, betrayal and intrigue, palaces and kings. It’s also a family story, though it’s not the kind of story you’re likely to find on the Family Channel.

Today I’d like to take us inside the story, behind the scenes so to speak. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s friend Sam says:

“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for… because they were exciting and life was a bit dull… but that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered.”

The ‘tales that really matter’, as Sam comes to realize, aren’t all that easy to live through for the people in them. The same could be said of Joseph and his brothers.

The story of Joseph and his family, like most family stories, actually begins years before they’re born, in generations past. The anger and division in Jacob’s family can be traced all the way back to their father Jacob’s birth. Jacob had a twin brother, Esau, who was born just minutes before he was. As the eldest, Esau had the right of inheritance. But Jacob, who wrestled with his brother even in the womb, is not content being second. God tells his mother Rebekah the reason the babies are wrestling inside her is because ‘the elder will serve the younger’. Throughout his life Jacob uses every opportunity to try to force that prophecy to come true. He acquires his brother’s birthright by withholding food when Esau is starving; he and his mother conspire to deceive his father Isaac to get Esau’s blessing for Jacob.

Esau, who is furious when he finds out about the conspiracy, makes plans to kill Jacob. So Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban in a foreign land, for safety. Jacob soon discovers that Laban is just as crafty as he is. Jacob falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and agrees to work for seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. But on the morning after his wedding Jacob wakes up and finds Laban has pulled a bait-and-switch, and Jacob is sleeping with Leah, Rachel’s older sister! Jacob confronts his father-in-law, who concocts a story about it being tradition that the older sister must be married first, but he says ‘never mind – you can work another seven years for Rachel’. Jacob is so in love that he does.

And the competition and envy that was once between Esau and Jacob is now between Leah and Rachel. The two women begin to compete in the child-bearing department. God, seeing that Leah is un-loved, gives her many children; while Rachel, who is loved, has none. After some jockeying with their maids and a few more babies, by the time Leah’s oldest boy has grown up there are ten sons in the family, and none of them is Rachel’s. Any family who has ever struggled to have children knows the kind of pain Rachel was feeling. Finally Rachel gets pregnant and gives birth to Joseph – and Joseph, being the only son of the woman Jacob loves, immediately becomes his father’s favorite. To make matters worse, a few years later Rachel gets pregnant again… and dies in childbirth. As she is dying she names her last son “Ben-oni”, which means ‘son of my sorrow’. (Jacob later renames the boy “Benjamin” which means ‘son of my right hand’.)

And the competition and envy that was once between Esau and Jacob is now between Jacob’s sons: the elder ten against the younger two. The elder ten are herdsmen, keeping sheep and other animals; but Joseph stays at home near his father. Jacob sometimes sends Joseph out to see how the older boys are doing and report back to him. His brothers come to see him as a tattle-tale and a snitch. Jacob makes Joseph a beautiful coat of many colors, something he’s never done for any of the other boys. And then Joseph starts having dreams – dreams about sheaves of wheat belonging to his brothers coming and bowing down to his sheaf of wheat.

The older boys have had just about enough. The next time Joseph comes to check up on them, they grab him. They’re about to kill him when a caravan passes by. So they sell him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver.

Imagine what it might have been like to have been one of the ten brothers. They’ve worked for years for their father – hard labor – and not one word of thanks. It seems like nothing they do is ever good enough. Their father never wanted their mother, and as Leah’s children they are rejected through no fault of their own. To be rejected by a parent is one of the hardest things a child can live through. And then to see their father favoring Joseph over them, a child who does nothing but make their lives harder – no wonder they’re angry. No wonder they want to get rid of him.

On the other hand, imagine what it might have been like to be Joseph – young, innocent, not really understanding why he’s his father’s favorite. (Not that he wants to change that.) Not really understanding why his brothers hate him, why they hate it when he tells the truth. And suddenly one day he finds himself attacked by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and then sold to foreigners as a slave. Torn away from everything and everyone he’s ever known, torn away from the father who loves him – can you hear his cries for mercy as the caravan pulls away?

Fast forward now to our scripture for today. Fifteen years have passed, give or take a few. In that time, the ten brothers have married and started families of their own. Their father Jacob has never stopped grieving for Joseph – and they have come to realize their anger hasn’t gotten rid of Joseph after all, it’s just turned him into a ghost who will haunt their father for as long as he lives. Their lives are not happy.

Meanwhile Joseph was sold to the Captain of the Guard in Egypt. He does well there until his boss’s wife decides she wants him. When he refuses her, she accuses him of rape, and Joseph is thrown in prison. From there, after a few years, he gets the chance to interpret a dream for Pharaoh and overnight he is made the second most powerful man in country. He is given Pharaoh’s signet ring and Pharaoh’s daughter for a wife. Joseph has kids. He dresses and acts and talks like an Egyptian. He keeps his Hebrew faith but otherwise he’s one of them. And life is good.

The dream Joseph interprets for Pharoah predicts there will be seven years of great abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph uses his position to gather food for the coming famine. When the famine comes, news of Egypt’s food reaches Jacob’s family in Canaan, and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy food – all of them but Benjamin.

When the brothers arrive Joseph recognizes them immediately, but his brothers don’t know him. Joseph looks like an Egyptian, and he speaks through a translator. What went through Joseph’s mind in those moments? Should he tell them who he is? Do they still hate him? Can they be trusted? Where’s Benjamin?

Joseph decides to test them. He accuses the brothers of being spies and throws them into prison. He questions them and they confess there is still one brother at home. Joseph tells them, “Here’s how I will know if you are honest men. One of you is going to stay here in prison. The rest of you take food back to your families – I don’t want them to starve – but then come back to me with your youngest brother. That way I’ll know you are telling the truth. Don’t come here again without him.”

The brothers begin to talk among themselves, remembering what they did to Joseph. They speak in Hebrew, not knowing Joseph can understand them – and Joseph turns away so they don’t see him weeping. As the brothers turn to leave Joseph gives orders to his servant that their money be put back in their sacks.

Back in Canaan, Jacob hears their story and is inconsolable. As he sees it, he has now lost a second son, Simeon, who is in prison, and they can get no more food without putting a third son at risk. When the food runs out and the brothers talk about returning to Egypt he says to his sons, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left.” How those words must have stung! Jacob has so many children – but he sees only one.

When he no longer has a choice, Jacob finally agrees to let Benjamin go, and Judah guarantees his safety. Joseph welcomes his brothers and invites all of them to a banquet. Joseph now makes up one more test for his brothers: when the chips are down will they turn on Benjamin? As they leave with food for their families Joseph commands his silver cup be placed in Benjamin’s sack. As they’re on their way back to Canaan, Joseph sends his servant after them to find out who took the cup. The brothers swear innocence and say whoever has it – if it can be found – will become Joseph’s slave. And of course the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack. The brothers now have an opportunity to get rid of the last child of Rachel. What will they do? Will they treat him the way they treated Joseph?

No; after all these years of living with their father’s grief over the loss of Joseph, they don’t want to cause him any more pain. Judah makes a passionate appeal for Benjamin’s life and offers to stay as a slave in his place.

Which brings us to the beginning of our reading for today.

Seeing his brothers have had a change of heart and that the door to reconciliation is open, Joseph is no longer able to hold back his tears. He orders the Egyptian servants out of the room and makes himself known to his brothers. It’s an emotional reunion, especially for Joseph and Benjamin.

But the brothers are afraid. Can Joseph really forgive what they’ve done? And now that he’s the ruler of Egypt he has the power of life and death over them. But Joseph has had lots of time to think and pray. And he says to them, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good – to preserve life…,” to prepare a place for them and their families.

Two things I’d like to point out from this passage. The first is: God works through dysfunctional families. It’s a good thing, because there’s so many of us. And no, I’m not going to give examples! But when I feel discouraged I can look at these twelve sons of Jacob and say “God built a nation out of these boys.” If He can use them, He can use us too.

The second thing I want to point out is Joseph’s character, particularly how much like Jesus he is. Our reading for today tells us Joseph is:

  • Wise – he tests his brothers to see what kind of people they have become
  • Forgiving
  • Passionate – he weeps so loudly the Egyptians hear him throughout the palace. Jesus also was passionate, when he drove the money-changers out of the temple. He was passionate about God’s reputation.
  • Joseph makes himself known – reveals himself – to his brothers
  • He invites his brothers to “come closer”
  • He comforts and encourages them
  • He has been sent by God to preserve life and to save lives
  • He is on God’s mission
  • God has made him the ruler of the nation
  • Joseph tells his brothers to go and share the good news with their families
    • Send them the message “come to me with all that you have” and “you shall be near me”
  • He tells them “I will provide a place for you”
  • He welcomes each brother with embraces and tears

Doesn’t this sound like Jesus?

Joseph is like an archetype, a forerunner, of the Messiah. Like Joseph, Jesus is wise and forgiving and passionate. He makes himself known to us. Jesus invites us to come closer. He comforts and encourages us. Jesus is on God’s mission and God has make him king of kings and lord of lords. Jesus commands us to go and share the good news, and then come to him with all we have. And when the time comes, he will welcome each brother and sister home with tears of joy to be with him forever.

Both Joseph and Jesus have been sold for silver; both have been betrayed by those closest to them. Joseph is sold into slavery; Jesus is sold into death on the cross. But ultimately both are sent by God for the sake of others – to save lives, and to prepare a place for God’s people. Actions and events that were meant for evil, God meant for good.

We human beings are like Jacob’s sons in a lot of ways. Quarrelsome, envious, hot-headed… and underneath it all, more unsure of ourselves than we care to admit. Like them we’ve been knocked around by circumstances beyond our control. Thank God he has given us a Joseph… He has given us Jesus… to forgive us and to go ahead of us and to prepare a place for us where we can be with him forever. Receive His forgiveness, and live in His love. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, Sunday August 17, 2014

 Genesis 45:1-15 NRS
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.


The situation in Iraq with IS (formerly ISIS) persecution of Christians and other religious minorities continues to worsen.  Eyewitnesses living in Iraq report mass deportations and executions, including children, as well as executions of entire families in their homes if they refuse to convert to Islam.

For first-hand updates this blog tells what is happening and how we can help.

Thank you for your prayers as I have been recovering from my latest mishap. The foot is doing well, improving a little bit every day… I’m still not able to drive yet but hopefully soon.

One of the things I’ve noticed about myself when I’m stuck at home recovering is, I end up watching LOTS reruns of Law & Order. Sometimes three or four episodes a day. I’m not usually a big TV watcher, but I think the appeal of the show has something to do with bringing hope into dark situations. When I see the characters working with victims of violence and oppression to bring criminals to justice, something about their struggle makes me feel stronger, makes me feel like fighting my way back to health.

I think that’s part of what attracts me to Psalm 17. Psalm 17 is a prayer written by David when he felt powerless and surrounded. He turns to God, and his faith finds renewed power, not in himself, but in God.

We don’t know for certain the context in which this prayer was written. Most likely it was when David was being pursued by King Saul. But the psalm is appropriate in many different situations. For example I can imagine Jesus praying this psalm when he learned about the plots against his life.

And it’s a prayer we can pray on behalf of others. Over the past few weeks many of us have been reflecting on, and praying over, events in the news. I don’t know about you but I find sometimes I run out of words to pray. When we look at the children at our border, or the Christians now homeless in Iraq, or the refugees in Gambella – what can we say to God about these things? We ask God for peace, for protection, for justice… and then what?

This psalm gives us a model of how we might pray.

We might pray for example for the people fleeing Mosul: Hear [their] just cause, O LORD; attend to [their cries]; give ear to [their] prayers…” (17:1)

Or for the children at our border (no matter where we stand politically) we might pray: “show [them] your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge” (17:7).

Or for our brothers and sisters in South Sudan we might pray: “hide [them] in the shadow of your wings, from the… enemies who surround them.” (17:8)

This psalm is also a prayer we can pray for ourselves when we find ourselves in trouble. If we should find ourselves bullied or lied about or falsely accused we can make David’s words our own. So there are lots of possible applications.

This morning though, under the influence of many episodes of Law & Order, I’d like to focus on four things in David’s prayer:

  • The victim
  • The judge
  • The perpetrators
  • The plea /argument

…because David’s language, the way he turns his phrases, is highly suggestive of a courtroom drama. David has been found guilty by his enemies, who are attempting to carry out a sentence they have pronounced. And David is appealing to a higher court: God’s court.

So our victim is the one who is praying. He says he has been judged unfairly, he is being oppressed, and his life is in danger. David cries out to God, “my cause is just; my lips are free of deceit. (17:1)” David is not saying that he is sinless. He’s not saying he has never told a lie. What he is saying is he’s innocent of whatever it is his enemies are accusing him of. David says he has done nothing to deserve their anger.

In fact, going beyond that, he says to God, “By the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent,” (17:4). David says he has been following the court’s instructions. His innocence is rooted in God’s word and God’s righteousness.

And going even further, in verse five David describes an intimate relationship with God. He says, “My steps have held fast to your paths…”(17:5) The picture that comes to mind is one of watching a parent teaching a child how to cross a stream without getting their feet wet… stepping from rock to rock as the water rushes by. The parent says to the child: “watch where I put my feet, and when I move a foot, put your foot where mine was.” And the child follows the parent across the stream. David is saying, in essence, “I have put my feet in your footprints, and my footsteps are firm.”

David’s comment about footsteps makes me stop for a moment and ask myself: are there people I can pray for whose footsteps are shaky, who need to find God’s footprints for themselves? Are there areas of my life where I can ask this for myself? Who can I pray for along these lines?

Next in David’s prayer we meet the judge. David says he is glad to be pleading his case before this judge because he knows he will get a fair hearing. “Your eyes see the right,” he says (17:2). “Your words have kept me from the ways of the violent” (17:4); “Your paths are firm,” (17:5) “I know you will answer me,” (17:6) “You are the savior of those who seek refuge.”(17:7) David is confident in the fairness of this judge, both because the judge is fair and because the judge is knowledgable. David’s words remind me of Paul’s comments in his defense before King Agrippa in the book of Acts, where he says to the king, “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you I am to make my defense today… because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews.” Agrippa was intimately familiar with the issues; and so is David’s judge.

And when we pray, we can share David’s confidence, remembering God’s faithfulness and goodness. We are glad to make our case before a judge who understands.

David then turns his attention to the perpetrators. He describes them as ‘violent,’(17:4) ‘wicked,’ (17:9) ‘deadly enemies.’ (17:9) Twice he says he is surrounded. His enemies seek his life. Even though David does not come straight out and say ‘they’re trying to kill me,’ he says in verse eleven, “they set their eyes to cast me to the ground” – which could also be translated ‘they seek to make me horizontal in the dirt.’ In other words they want to bury him.

In verse ten David says of his enemies, “they close their hearts to pity.” This phrase at first makes the enemies sound cold-hearted and unfeeling, but that’s not exactly the meaning. His enemies do have feelings – just not for David. The literal translation of the Hebrew expression can be found in the King James version: “they are enclosed in their own fat”. They are passionate about themselves; they aggrandize themselves; and as David says, their mouths speak arrogantly.

Having said all this David then makes his plea to the righteous judge. He pleads “not guilty” because he is the victim. He says: Hear me. Vindicate me. Show me your steadfast love. Guard me. Hide me in the shadow of your wings.

It’s interesting that David does not ask God to kill his enemies. In verse 13 the ‘sword’ of God might be interpreted as God’s word – an interpretation we find in the book of Revelation as well. David asks instead that God confront his enemies and bring them down. The Hebrew here might be translated, ‘bring them to their knees’ – or to put it another way, ‘teach the arrogant to kneel before you’.

A few days ago during Ramadan a prayer request went around Facebook asking people to pray that members of ISIS and other radical groups would, in their holiday prayers, truly encounter the living God. That’s the sense I get from David’s plea – asking God to make Himself known to his accusers and so put an end to their violence.

When David is finished he makes one more request: “deliver me from mortals whose only portion in life is this world”. (17:14) David knows what God has stored up for them. He knows, as we know, that death will come someday and after that the judgement, and he prays that he will not share their fate. Instead, David prays in confidence: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.” (17:15)

The apostle John echoes David’s words 1000 years later in his first letter when he says, : “we are God’s children; […] [and] when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) and Paul also in I Cor 13:12 “then we will see him face to face.

Even though David’s prayer is not answered right away, from the distance of history we know his words were heard and the righteous judge ruled in his favor. In the same way even though we may not see immediate answers to our prayers, we can have confidence that the same righteous judge hears our case; and as we follow in his footsteps, he will rule in our favor. AMEN.

Incarnation Church, Pittsburgh, Sunday August 3 2014

Psalm 17
A Prayer of David

Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
2 From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
3 If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
4 As for what others do,
by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent.
5 My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
6 I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
7 Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.
8 Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They track me down;
now they surround me;
they set their eyes to cast me to the ground.
12 They are like a lion eager to tear,
like a young lion lurking in ambush.
13 Rise up, O LORD,
confront them, overthrow them!
By your sword deliver my life from the wicked,
14 from mortals—
by your hand, O LORD—
from mortals whose portion in life is in this world.
May their bellies be filled with what you have stored up for them;
may their children have more than enough;
may they leave something over to their little ones.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.


“He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
“He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘royalty’? Or how about the word ‘king’? Do these words conjure up childhood stories that end ‘…and they lived happily ever after’?

Or maybe we remember waking up at five in the morning to watch a royal wedding on TV? If you’re my age it would be Charles and Diana’s wedding, if you’re a bit younger, William and Kate’s wedding. We remember the horses and carriages and handsome young men in uniform and beautiful women in long dresses and hats (love the hats!)

Here’s why I ask. In today’s scripture reading, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven. And it occurs to me that we, living as we do in 21st century America where democracy has been the law of the land for over 200 years, we really don’t have much experience with kings or kingdoms. We have a president, and a president has power, but not absolute power. We can vote for a new president every four years if we want to. But you don’t get to vote for a king.

A friend and I were talking about this the other day, and we were asking each other “if Jesus was alive today, would he still be preaching the ‘kingdom of God’ or would he use a different word?” Would Jesus use some other word to describe God’s leadership and power?

For now, ‘kingdom’ is the word we have, so I’m going to go with it.

Is the word important? Yes I believe it is, and here’s why. I ran a word search the other day on some of the words Jesus used when he preached. In the four gospels Jesus mentions the word “peace” 21 times; he mentions the word “mercy” 21 times; he mentions the word “love” 51 times; and he mentions the word “kingdom” 114 times!

The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, is one of the major themes of Jesus’ teaching, if not THE major theme. When Jesus begins his public ministry, in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the very first thing he preaches is kingdom of heaven. In Mark 1:15 he preaches: “The time has come! The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (‘Repent’ being an old-fashioned word meaning to ‘change course’ or ‘to come to a new mind’.)

The kingdom of heaven is also one of the main themes of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) And again, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10)

The kingdom of heaven is the first request we ask of God in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God’s kingdom is the core of Jesus’ message. Having said that, let’s take a look at today’s scripture reading, where he talks about the kingdom. Three things I’d like to point out from today’s reading: (1) God’s kingdom comes in unexpected ways; (2) The kingdom of heaven is valuable and costly; and (3) God’s kingdom is good news.

In the first parable, Jesus says that God’s kingdom comes in unexpected ways. “Like a mustard seed” he says: small, humble, and hidden. A mustard seed is a little smaller than those black poppy-seeds you get on bagels sometimes. It’s tiny. And this tiny seed is taken and hidden in the ground. But when it grows up it becomes a huge plant – big enough for birds to nest in.

The kingdom of heaven is like that. It starts small. It breaks into our world quietly. When Jesus was born, his birth was announced to shepherds and foreigners, not to kings in palaces. The kingdom of heaven enters our world so quietly you might miss it if you weren’t looking. But when all is said and done it will be large enough for all of God’s family to find a home. As Jesus said, “in my father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2)

Contrast this with the kingdoms of earth. Human kingdoms want to be big. Always growing, always expanding. Small is of no use to them. Governments, CEOs, sports teams, celebrities, are all about BIG. Even clergy sometimes fall into the trap of measuring a church’s success by its size. But that’s not how God sees things. In God’s kingdom small is beautiful. Small is blessed. Small grows into the biggest of all… big enough to become a forever-home for all of God’s people. And that’s good news.

In the second parable Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast” being worked into dough. Yeast is like the mustard seed in that it is hidden and unseen, but it has one other quality: it is active. Yeast is alive. Yeast changes whatever it is put in. The kingdom of heaven is like that – in people and in society. In a person, the kingdom effects inner changes… in a society, the kingdom spreads quietly… from person to person… over backyard fences, in text messages, in tweets.

Have you ever wondered how the Christian faith stays alive in the countries we hear about in the news, where people are trying to put an end to Christianity? Because the kingdom of heaven, like yeast, spreads quietly, hidden, active. That’s how Jesus came into the world in the first place. As it says in the old Christmas carol: “how silently, how silently the wonderous gift is given / Yet God imparts to humans hearts the blessings of his heaven.”

The world – when it notices God’s kingdom at all – tends to mistake its smallness and humility for weakness. But God’s ways are not humanity’s ways, and the values of the kingdom turn earth’s values upside down. And this is good news.

In the third parable Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field.” Now the focus shifts and Jesus talks about how good and desirable the kingdom of heaven is. Just in case we had any doubts – we who may have been burned by earthly kings or kingdoms in the past. We may need reassuring that God’s kingdom is good.

So that’s the message of the parable of the treasure. When a man finds this treasure in a field, his heart leaps with joy and he hides it and goes and sells everything he has and buys the field so the treasure will be his.

I used to think, when I read this parable, that the man was being kind of selfish hiding the treasure and keeping it all to himself. But then I realized he couldn’t share what doesn’t belong to him. He doesn’t want to risk losing it, but once it’s his, he can share it with anyone. The kingdom of heaven is like that too. It’s a treasure we don’t want to miss out on, but once it’s ours we can share it with anyone.

Jesus continues along the same lines saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who finds one of great value…”. In this parable, unlike the man with the field, the merchant is actively searching for what he wants. The man with the field just kind of stumbles over his treasure. But the man with the pearls is a collector, and he desires the very best.

This parable reminds me of something I saw on TV recently. It was a show for people who love cars, and somebody had found THE car that once belonged to the son of Henry Ford, custom-made to his specifications. It was perfectly restored, and there was no other car like it in the whole world. If I were a car collector, this would be the holy grail of cars. And the owner of the car was putting it up for auction.

The car sold for $900,000. Somebody spent more than most of us will ever earn in a lifetime – for something that will someday be a pile of rust. How much more will we give for the kingdom of heaven and a joy that will last forever? That’s the question our merchant of pearls puts to us. When you find the one, will you go for it? No questions asked, no holds barred, with your whole heart, with everything you’ve got?

These two stories tell us that the kingdom of heaven will cost all we have to enter. But it also cost Jesus all he had to open the doors of the kingdom so we could go in. He gave up heaven to become human, and live and die like one of us. When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we are – in a very real way – making Jesus our king, and he gets to command us from now on.

That can be a scary thought. We’re not used to rulers who put our best interests above their own. But in God’s kingdom the values of this world are turned upside down. Valleys are exalted, mountains are made low, and the greatest in the kingdom are the servants of all. And this is good news.

The final parable in our reading comes with a warning. It leads off with good news: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, catching fish of every kind…” The good news is that God’s kingdom includes all kinds of fish. God does not discriminate the way people do on the basis of nationality, race, gender, whatever… his net catches every kind.

The warning is not all fish are good. Once the net is in, we see the angels sitting on the beach sorting the fish into piles, good and bad. Some fish got caught up in the kingdom net because that’s where they want to be. They want to belong to God. They want to live in God’s kingdom. Those are the good fish. But other fish got caught up in the kingdom net for less honorable reasons. They think they can use God’s kingdom for their own purposes – wealth… power… prestige. They don’t really believe Jesus’ words, and they don’t really care about his kingdom. They’re rotten fish ( ‘rotten’ is the correct translation from the Greek). Jesus says in the last days the angels will separate the good fish from the bad, throwing away the bad and keeping the good.

Which, in my mind, begs the question: why do the angels wait till the end times to do the sorting? I mean, if they did it now, got rid of all the bad fish now, what a wonderful world this would be! Which takes us back to last week’s scripture reading about the weeds and the wheat. The weeds and wheat grow up together until the harvest, because if the angels pulled up the weeds now, some of the wheat would get pulled up with it. And God is not willing to risk one single good grain, not one. God in his mercy says, ‘wait until the harvest’.

There will come a time when justice wins and the people of God will be free from the evils of this world. There will come a time when God’s righteousness will be the order of the day, when captives will be set free and those who oppress and bring evil into the world will be no more. There will come a time when in the words of the prophet Amos, ‘”justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24). For good fish this is good news.

Jesus ends his teaching by saying that any disciple who understands these things is wealthy in the kingdom – able to pull treasures old and new out of the storehouse. He is speaking here of God’s word – in Scripture and in the Spirit. This is a kingdom wealth passed down through history, from generation to generation – from century to century – and yet at the same time is ‘new every morning’. We are children of the king, and already God’s treasures are becoming available to us as his heirs.

The kingdom of heaven is like nothing this world has to offer. Starting small, humble, hidden… but in time filling the whole earth with God’s glory. Be encouraged, brothers and sisters, children of the king. Jesus says: the kingdom of God is at hand. Believe the good news. AMEN.

Preached Sunday July 27 2014 at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church.


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