[Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.]

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – talk about a story that’s right up my alley!  At one time or another I have been both a Pharisee (of sorts) and a tax collector (literally).  And I stand before you today as living proof that God cares for both Pharisees and tax collectors. And if God cares for someone like me, then for certain God cares for you!

So looking at our Gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9-14):  Jesus tells a parable that Luke says is directed at people who trust in their own righteousness and look down on others, and Jesus uses a Pharisee as an example.  So this parable is pointed at Pharisees, but it is not necessarily just about Pharisees.  People without religious training can act like Pharisees too. In fact listening to people who are so sure of their own righteousness, while putting others down, I think is part of what’s made all of us all so sick of the upcoming election.

But getting back to the Pharisees: I have known a few in my day.  I’ve been sorely tempted to become one, (although I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time).  Where it comes to Pharisees this is what I’ve experienced:

  • Pharisees are motivated by fear. (both in Jesus’ day and now.) Pharisees are very keenly aware of sin, and the seriousness of sin, and of God’s judgement on sin; and they are afraid of God’s judgement and so they’re afraid of anything that might cause sin. They’re even afraid of the appearance of sin. And all this fear gets pressed down and shaken together and then sometimes explodes in the form of anger at ‘sinners’ who are seen either as sources of temptation or as the cause of the decline in society’s morals.
  • In their fear, Pharisees turn their focus inward – on the little groups they’re a part of. They lose sight of the needs in the world, and they fail to see the pain that sinners feel at their own sin. They forget (if they ever knew in the first place) (for example) that drug addicts hate the drugs they’re hooked on… that prostitutes hate their customers… that most people who are caught in sin would welcome a way out it if they could find one.  Pharisees don’t see the needs. They lack empathy, and so they judge.
  • Pharisees also, as Jesus points out, love money. Not necessarily because they actually enjoy the things money can buy, but because poverty doesn’t look good.  Plus money makes it possible for them to move in the social circles they want to move in.
  • And the sins Pharisees preach most strongly against are the very sins they’re most likely to fall into. For example, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were all about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. This law had a practical, nationalistic side to it: because the Romans (who occupied Israel) didn’t observe the Sabbath; God’s people did. So Sabbath observance was the mark of a loyal Israelite. Kind of like standing up for the national anthem at a ballgame. It wasn’t so much about the object of worship (God and/or country – which often tend to get conflated in a Pharisee’s mind), as it was about conforming to expected, traditional standards of behavior. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day got on Jesus’ case about healing people on the Sabbath – but they saw nothing wrong when they themselves spent an entire Sabbath afternoon making plans to kill Jesus.  As if that was a permitted use of the Sabbath!  Pharisees are capable of the most amazing feats of hypocrisy… and they rarely if ever see it.

As for modern-day Pharisees, I’m sure we all can think of few.  Personally when I read about Pharisees in the Bible I tend to think of them as the televangelists of the ancient world.  It’s not a perfect parallel but it works on a number of levels.  Like them, the Pharisees were well known, supported by the people, highly regarded by their bands of followers, legalistic, and looked pretty clean on the outside.  For a while.

Back in the early 1980s I did some volunteer work for a ministry headed up by a man who once worked for televangelist Jimmy Bakker. Many of you here will remember the scandal Jimmy and his wife Tammy Faye fell into back then. One day I got up the nerve to ask this friend what happened – what really happened behind the scenes?  (My friend had left the Bakker ministry shortly before everything broke loose.) He said this: “it got to the point where there was only a handful of trusted people around Jimmy and Tammy Faye – only about five or six people. Nobody else could get close to them. Not their congregation, not the public, not me, and – as became obvious – not their accountant. Those of us who could have warned them something was wrong were not allowed into the inner circle.”

The problem with Pharisees – the core problem – is that they rely on human strength and human righteousness instead of on God and on the Holy Spirit.  And what a powerful illustration this is of how that works out!

As a postscript to that story, Jimmy Bakker has since renounced his former teachings. He has admitted, publicly, that the first time he ever read the Bible all the way through was in prison; and that doing so he was confronted with mistakes and false teachings he had fallen into. In the late 1990s he wrote this:

“My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”

That is true repentance.  And praise God, salvation can come to even Pharisees.  Remember that whenever you feel like you’ve made the worst mistake of your life. There’s nothing God can’t forgive, and there is no place so low that God’s mercy can’t reach.

Which brings us to our tax collector.  (I love it when Jesus talks about tax collectors!)  Speaking as a local tax collector, if you want to ‘win friends and influence people,’ becoming a tax collector is not the way to do it!  As a tax collectors I am required to uphold the law, whether I like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, whether I think it’s fair or not. I have seen the struggles of some of our senior citizens trying to keep the taxes paid on their homes.  And there have been days I’ve gone home from the tax office saying “God forgive me.”

But compared to Roman times, tax collecting today is an honorable profession. At least I know the taxes I collect will be spent on the town and in the school where the taxpayers live. In Jesus’ day, taxes were collected by and for the Romans – and there was no guarantee money collected in Galilee (for example) would stay in Galilee.  It was more likely to end up in Rome.

And tax collectors back then were basically traitors to their own people. They were Israelis who were paid by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen.

As Americans we have never known what it is to pay taxes to a foreign government (except for in the 1700s when we had that little tea party in Boston Harbor).  We have never known what it is to be conquered (I pray God we never will).  We have never known what it is to have a neighbor or a friend working for the enemy and extorting money.

These tax collectors in Jesus’ day were basically collaborators. They collected more than the Romans told them to, and got rich on the backs of their families and friends. They sold themselves for money. That’s why the Bible refers to them as “tax collectors and sinners”.  They knew what they were. They knew what they were doing. They were about as low as you can go.

But one day one tax collector decided – for whatever reason – to get right with God. So he went to the temple. He didn’t raise his hands in prayer, he didn’t even look up as he prayed, but ‘beat his breast’ and said “oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to bargain with God. He just appealed to God’s mercy.

Our God has a heart that is quick to answer a prayer like that. God declared this man righteous. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed to be seen with tax collectors like him (even though the Pharisees criticized him for it).  It’s no surprise the tax collectors loved Jesus so much and wanted to around him all the time!.

So to sum up the parable:  The prayer of the Pharisee is full of pride, self-dependence, and self-righteousness, lacking in charity and compassion. Theologian Charles Simeon writes, “The Pharisees… were extremely diligent in the observance of outward duties: but, while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were as far from the kingdom of God as if they had been openly profane.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, humbly stands at a distance, admits his faults, and trusts in God alone.  And the result was: the tax collector goes home justified by God; and the Pharisee does not.

There’s one more thing that we haven’t looked at yet in this story: context.  The context of this story – the big picture – is the kingdom of God.

In the passage from Luke we read today, in the chapter immediately before it, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God is coming. And this parable is, in part, an answer to that question – as well as a warning about something that may prevent people entering into the Kingdom of God.

Our Old Testament reading from Joel also speaks of the Kingdom, and Joel gives us the big picture back-drop against which this parable plays itself out.

The passage from Joel begins by saying to God’s people ‘be glad and rejoice in God, because the day of the Lord is finally coming’.  God says, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten… you shall eat and be satisfied… your God has dealt wondrously with you.” The prophecy continues, “my people shall never again be put to shame.”  Twice God says that: ‘you shall never again be put to shame’.

And then Joel’s prophecy turns very dark. It talks about how terrible and frightening the day of the Lord will be.  The Kingdom will come, he says, in darkness and in blood; and ‘those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ and ‘among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’. (Notice there’s a mutual calling here: God’s people call out to Him, and God calls to His people; calling in both directions, the calls meeting each other.)

When we read Joel’s description of the coming Kingdom, and then look at the Pharisee and the tax collector, their story takes on real clarity.

First, the parable is full of shame.  The Pharisee shames the tax collector. The tax collector shames himself. To be alive in this world is to know shame.  But the prophet Joel says the day is coming when God’s people will never again be put to shame.

Second, held up against the backdrop of the darkness and destruction at the end of this world, the Pharisee’s words sound a bit ridiculous. He says: “God I thank you I’m not like other men. I fast twice a week, I gave away a tenth of all my income…”  How on earth is that going to benefit anybody when the world is ending?

But listen to the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Isn’t that what any sane person would say when they’re witnessing the end of the world?

Third, Joel gives us the same good news Jesus preached – and it is this: “I will restore the years the locust has eaten.”  Some translations say “I will repay…” but the actual verb here is shalom… ‘I will bring peace, I will bring wholeness’. In those very places where we have been injured… in those places where the world has ridiculed us for our faith in God… in those places where we could find no answers to the question “why?” – God will restore, and will give us shalom, and will take away our shame.  Jesus himself, who was shamed with the words “The King of the Jews” nailed above his head – will at last claim his kingdom.

Phariseeism is, at its roots, a lack of courage of convictions and a lack of real faith in God.  A Pharisee fails to trust God’s heart or to grasp God’s truth. The tax collector on the other hand appeals to God’s heart, to God’s loving-kindness (his hesed). He knows that salvation, forgiveness, and mercy belong to God alone.

So our take-aways for today:

  1. For those of us who are called to minister or to leadership in God’s church – and for all people – pray that we escape the temptations of Phariseeism. Pray that God will save us from that question which has no good answer: “am I being humble yet?” Pray we stay focused on Jesus.
  2. Pray we don’t waste time comparing ourselves with others, that instead we are honest with God and trust in God’s mercy.
  3. Pray we keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to be with Jesus in the coming kingdom of our God. The coming of this kingdom is the Good News we share. And this goal infuses everything we say and everything we do in life with meaning and purpose.
  4. Praise Jesus for His boundless love and mercy, and thank God for God’s promise that one day we will never again be put to shame.


Joel 2:23-32  23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.  24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.  25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.  28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) – Pittsburgh, 10/23/16



“Oh How I Love Your Law!”

Psalm 119:97-104

“Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word.
I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”


In our Psalm for today, King David says to God, “oh how I love your law!”

Does that strike you as unusual? It does me! How often do we think in terms of loving the law?  We respect it.  We try to obey it.  Sometimes we get a chuckle out of it.  Not long ago I was driving to Philly and saw signs on the turnpike that say “Speed limit enforced by aircraft.”  I always expect to see some big claw coming down out of the sky…

But love the law?  Can you imagine walking into the local police station and proclaiming “oh how I love the law!”? They’d probably take you in for questioning!

God’s law must be a different kind of law, then. God’s law is not a book of regulations a mile thick like our federal government has.  God’s law is found in a book, but that’s where the similarity ends.

So what is David talking about when he says he loves God’s law?  Four things I’d like to look at:

  1. What exactly is God’s law? How can we define or describe it?
  2. How can human beings, mere mortals, comprehend God’s law? God is so much greater than we are – how can we grasp it?
  3. What is the purpose of God’s law? What’s it for?
  4. What’s up with loving the law? Can we come to a point of agreeing with David on loving the law?

David wrote all of Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it – as a poem praising God’s law. That’s longer than a lot of entire books in the Bible. Where does he get his enthusiasm?

What exactly is God’s law? 

For us as Christians in the 21st century, when we think of God’s law we usually think either of the Ten Commandments or the whole Old Testament. And we would not be wrong about that.

For David, though – who was writing in approximately 1000BC – God’s law was a bit different.  It included the Ten Commandments, but it was more. There was a covenant – promises made by God to the people, and by the people to God.

The Law, especially as found in the book of Leviticus, was written in the form of a treaty. We don’t see it that way today, but in ancient times someone reading the book of Leviticus would have instantly recognized it as a treaty: the kind of treaty a conquering king would make with a nation he had just conquered.

For example, let’s say the king of Moab went out and conquered the Philistines. In order for peace to be restored between the two nations, the King of Moab would give terms in the form of a treaty. (Nations do that even today.) The treaty would start out by talking about how very great the King of Moab was, and how amazingly glorious his armies were, and how the people of the Philistines should count themselves fortunate indeed at having the opportunity to live under Moab’s national laws.  And in exchange for protection and peace, Moab would claim tribute from the Philistines:  it might be half the crops the Philistines grew, or maybe $20,000 in gold bars every year, whatever the King of Moab thought was reasonable.

This kind of treaty was called a suzerain-vassal treaty, which means basically conqueror and conquer-ee… ruler and servant.

What’s unique about Leviticus is that God – who speaks in the voice of the conquering King – did not conquer Israel; God saved Israel.  God bases the treaty with Israel on the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And in return, the Israelites will now live under God’s protection and God’s system of laws.  Israel’s ‘tribute’ was to worship God – and God alone – and to obey the laws of the covenant: not because Israel was conquered but because Israel was redeemed: redeemed to be a witness to the nations around them of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.

If this begins to sound familiar, it should – because it’s the same covenant God has with all God’s people throughout history. In our day, we have been rescued from slavery – slavery to sin – by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and in return we are called to worship God alone and to obey God’s word as a witness to the people around us of the greatness and the mercy and the wisdom of God.

Going back to ancient Israel, the covenant that David read and fell in love with included things like: instructions for daily living; or how a ruler can deal with law-breakers like murderers, adulterers, and thieves; or things to do (or not do) in order to live a long and happy life. The covenant included detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle: for the use of fine fabrics and gold furnishings and incense and oils. Worship in ancient Israel involved all the senses – it overwhelmed the worshipper with beauty, through their whole being.

So the Law as David knew it was a covenant between God and God’s people. It spoke of God’s grace and Israel’s responsibilities, which included obeying God’s commands as a living witness to the nations around them of God’s greatness.

Second – How can we understand God’s law, now in our own time?

Understanding God’s law is not easy, either then or now.  Nowadays some people say the Old Testament is “outdated” and therefore irrelevant. To me that’s like saying the movie Casablanca is ‘irrelevant’ just because it was filmed in black and white. Nonsense!

Yes, there are challenges for us, reading the ancient laws across a distance of thousands of years. We’re not Middle Eastern, we’re not Jewish, there are major cultural differences, and there are translation issues.  But in spite of all these, we have some basic tools for understanding God’s law that we can use.

The first and most important tool when reading God’s covenant is to remember we are meant to apply God’s words to ourselves, each of us individually. We are to use it for self-examination.  When we read God’s covenant, it’s like looking in a mirror, spiritually speaking. We can see our strengths, our faults, places where we can improve. And we bring all these things to God in prayer. God’s law is not meant for us to measure others by. It’s between each of us and God.

Second, we need to keep in mind that ‘the Word of God’ is Jesus. We worship Jesus, not the Bible. We worship God, not a book.  Steven Tuell, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, recently wrote in his blog:  “[C.S. Lewis wrote:] ‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God.’ [Therefore] if the Bible is a means rather than an end, we cannot read it as a list of rules for life. We must rather listen carefully for the voice of the Living Word of God speaking through the words of Scripture.  We must be attentive to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit. As the author of Hebrews declares,

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates […]It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).”

The 18th century British theologian Charles Simeon said something similar: (paraphrasing from his old English) “Many people today (that is, back in the 1700s) deny the necessity of knowing God’s teaching in order to know God’s truth; [while] others ridicule those who expect to be guided by the Holy Spirit as they read.” [Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!]  [Simeon continues:] “But [in the words of Paul] “it is by the Spirit of God alone that we can know the things which are freely given to us by God.” (I Cor 2:12)

So for those of us reading the Old Testament today, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us.

And we have one other advantage, living in the 21st century: we have the New Testament. We can see in the life of Jesus a perfect illustration of perfect obedience to the law – someone we can pattern our lives on.  Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”  And he did.  When we look at Jesus, we love him – and we love how he brings God’s law to life! When we compare the religion of the Pharisees to the faith of Jesus, we can see the difference between mere rule-keeping and truly living the spirit of God’s law.

One side note: one of the theologians I read said, “spiritual discernment is not the same thing as intellectual ability.” I think that’s an important point. He said, “A person may have vast knowledge… and yet still be under the influence of their own desires.”  I quote this because it is all too easy to read God’s law just as a historical document. Without the Holy Spirit’s insight, the true meaning will be missed.

So in terms of understanding the law, Jesus said the summary of the law is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said.  I find in everyday life this is a very practical summary for daily living.

Third – What is the purpose of God’s law? Why do we study it?

One theologian said: “True religion is a practical thing.”  It’s not just talk. It’s where the rubber meets the road.

  1. God’s law gives us guidance. In verse 105 of Psalm 119, David says: “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.” God’s law gives us direction.  Who would get on board a ship where the captain refuses to look at navigation charts? God’s law gives us navigation for life.
  1. God’s law increases in us God’s likeness. Paul says, ‘when we see him face to face we will be like him’.  As we read God’s law, the words open us to God and God to us. The ‘active’ aspect of God’s word works in us to make us more like God.
  1. God’s law teaches us to hope in God. In both the Old Testament and the New, God’s people find we are not able to please God without God’s help. So we learn to rely on God – for this life and for the next. And God’s law teaches us what God’s kindgom will be like. It gives us hope for the future.
  1. God’s law teaches us what is important to God and therefore what’s worthy of our time and attention. Let’s face it: life is short. There is never enough time to do all the things we want to do. So we’re forced to prioritize, to choose some things and leave others behind.  God’s law teaches us how to put spiritual things first.  God’s law sets priorities for doing the ‘soul work’ of our inner selves, as well as our ministries and our outreach.

Fourth – Can we love God’s law?

If someone were to walk up to me and ask, “do you love God’s law?” I’d probably hesitate to answer, because in my mind I don’t typically think of God’s covenant as being law.  But of course it is law, in the sense that it is ultimate truth.  Just like darkness can’t exist where light is, sin can’t exist where God is.  We need to know what’s possible and what’s not, what lasts and what doesn’t.

But if you put it another way and asked me, “do you love the Scriptures?” Now that’s different! I’ve spent ten years studying the scriptures, and they’ve been the happiest ten years of my life (in spite of many personal sadnesses along the way).

There is a depth and a beauty in God’s words that can’t be matched anywhere else. Nothing else is so satisfying – and I think that’s because it’s a taste of who God is – who it is we’ll be spending eternity with. It’s a taste of heaven.

Here’s what David says about God’s law:

  • How sweet your words are! Sweeter than honey!
  • It makes me smarter than my enemies.
  • It makes me wiser than my teachers.
  • [Speaking to God] You yourself have taught me.
  • I am protected from evil and falsehood

And ultimately, God’s law leads us to Jesus

  • Because Jesus fulfilled the law
  • Because Jesus died for us who are not able to keep the law. Jesus did for us what we can’t do for ourselves.

So what does all this mean for us today?  Three things.

First, don’t be shy about reading these ancient books of the Old Testament.  As you read them, even though the cultural context is different, the wisdom is still very much there.

Second, as we read, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to teach, and correct, to improve us. Let the text hold a mirror up to us so we can learn and grow in God’s likeness.

And third and above all, love what God has given us in this covenant: God has given us (from the very beginning) ‘salvation by grace alone through faith alone’, wisdom to live in this world, and a road sign that points us to Jesus, and to His eternal Kingdom.  And that is sweet. Amen.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/16/16.


“The Root of All Evil”

(Scripture passages of the day – I Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31 – can be found at the end of this article.)


Last week’s gospel lesson was the parable of the dishonest manager.  In case you weren’t here last week, at the end of last week’s gospel Jesus calls money “dishonest wealth”, and tells the disciples money is something that’s offensive to God. And he criticizes the Pharisees for loving money more than they love either people or God.

That’s what I preached on last week when I was at Fairhaven and Spencer.  After the sermon last Sunday, one of the members of Spencer sent me a story on Facebook. It was a story about a rich man who was dying and wanted to be buried with all his money. He wanted to take it all with him. He told his wife this was his final wish.  She tried to talk him out of it of course, but he insisted.  “All my money, in the casket with me” he said.  And he pestered her and pestered her until she finally agreed.  On the day of his funeral she slipped an envelope into the casket.

Now a mutual friend who knew what he had asked her to do, saw this and said, “you’re really going through with this?” And she said, “Yup.” And the two of them went together to the graveside service. The envelope was still in the casket when they closed the lid, lowered it into the ground, and shoveled the dirt on top.  The friend said to her, “You really did it! You put all his money in the casket with him.” “Every penny,” she said. “Just like I promised. I wrote him a check this morning and stuck it in the envelope.”

Scripture has a lot to say about money, in both the Old and New Testaments.  In today’s readings both Jesus and Paul give us warnings about money, and a lot of the warnings have to do with getting attached to money. The funny thing is, God actually does give us a way to take it with us. I’ll come back to that at the end, but let’s start at the beginning…

It’s interesting the Bible doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with being rich.  A lot of people who have money are afraid it does, and end up feeling guilty about what they have.  But some of the greatest people in the Bible were wealthy: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph was rich and famous. King David was rich. And his son Solomon was so rich people still talk about his wealth 3000 years later. Joseph of Arimathea, who gave the disciples a place to bury Jesus, was rich. Nowhere in scripture does God criticize any of these people for having money.

So it’s not having money that’s the problem. It’s not even earning money or inheriting money that’s the problem.  The problem is people’s attitude towards money.

Paul says in our New Testament reading for today “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  It’s not being rich that’s a sin, it’s wanting to be rich. It’s not in the having, it’s in the desire.

The parable Jesus tells in our gospel reading for today speaks to this.  (Just as an aside, today’s gospel lesson is not primarily about money – it’s about faith or a lack of faith.  But Jesus says some important things about money on the way to making his point.)

So in Jesus’ story there is a rich man – whose name we don’t know – dressed in purple, which tells us he was very rich. Purple dye back in those days was very expensive. It was mostly kings who wore purple. So this man was basically living like a king… while the poor man, Lazarus, sat outside his gate, wishing he could eat what fell from the rich man’s table.

As we read the story, it makes us wonder: can’t the rich man see this poor man suffering in front of his gate? Doesn’t he care? Jesus says even the dogs had compassion on Lazarus. The rich man didn’t even show the kindness of a dog.

God sees these things. And when Lazarus dies, he is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. And then the rich man dies and finds himself in Hades. And the rest of the story doesn’t deal with money. For us, the point is it’s not money that decides where the two men go… it’s how they lived. It’s the attitude of the heart.

One of the greatest spiritual dangers of wealth is becoming blind and deaf to those in need, which is what happened to the rich man.  “There is no part of the soul which money will not corrupt.  It perverts judgement, it blinds the conscience, it hardens the heart. And in the world, money inspires injustice, oppression, fraud, theft, and murder.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines, modern paraphrase mine)

Even rich people who claim to stand with the poor in public often have no contact with the poor in their private lives. It’s as true in our day as it was in Jesus’ day.  When Jesus was speaking these words, he was speaking to (and about) the Pharisees, who were listening in while Jesus was teaching.  The Pharisees were famous for being lovers of money. And “it gives the faith a bad name when people who claim to be believers, especially clergy, are more interested in gain for themselves than they are in advancing the cause of Christ.” (Simeon, ibid., paraphrased)

Which leads us to Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Timothy, as you remember, was a young church leader being trained up by Paul.  And Paul advises Timothy that people like the Pharisees who claim to be believers but who are more interested in personal gain… Paul says “withdraw from them.” They are a disgrace to the name of Christ.

And who would know better than Paul, who used to be Pharisee?  Paul then adds, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”


Think for a minute about the Ten Commandments.  How often are the commandments broken for the sake of money?  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  If we stopped people on the street and asked them, “What’s more important to you, God or money?” – how many people would say “God” and how many would say “money”?

How about the commandment “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy?”  In our time the Sabbath day has all but disappeared because people are so anxious to make money 24/7.  How about “You shall not kill”? How many people die every day for the sake of money – in human trafficking? in the drug trade?  Or how about “You shall not steal”?  Or “You shall not bear false witness”? How many times do people lie – in or out of court – in order to get money or to keep money?

Or how about “You shall not covet”?  Paul says where people are going to spend eternity hangs in the balance on this commandment. He says in Colossians 3:5, “covetousness is idolatry”.  And idolatry is worshipping something that is not God.

Paul says to Timothy, “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (I Timothy 6:7-9)

Paul’s concern – and God’s concern – is with people, not things.  People are what matters. The human heart, the human will, human life.  God created people to be in relationship with God, and we are incomplete until we find that relationship.  Paul’s advice to Timothy – and to us – is this: “[people] of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life…” (I Timothy 6:11-12)

“Godliness” as Paul describes it includes:

  1. Trust in God and in Jesus – knowing that we are sinners saved through the blood of Christ.
  2. Being devoted to God – seeing God’s kingdom as our goal, and ourselves as subjects of the King
  3. Being thankful to God for God’s mercy and goodness
  4. Having a desire to become more like Jesus in the power of the Spirit

So in other words, we need to chase after righteousness, and faith, and love, and eternal life, with the same intensity and passion that other people invest in chasing after money. We need to make it our aim to be rich in the things of God and the things of God’s kingdom, rather than rich in the things of this world which is passing away.

Living as we do in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, giving up chasing after money is easier said than done. It is completely and totally counter-cultural. And if we try to live this way, we will stick out. We will be different.  And that’s a good thing… I’ll come back to that in a moment.

When we follow Paul’s advice, money becomes a tool to achieve God’s ends, rather than an end in itself. Money becomes our servant and stops being our master.

Paul wraps up his words to Timothy about money with instructions that are as good today as they were 2000 years ago. He says: “As for those who in the present age are rich” – and that’s all of us, no matter how much we make – “command them not to be haughty [that is, proud] or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches…”

Paul’s words remind us of Jesus’ parable about the rich man who says to himself, “self, you have enough stored up for many years… eat, drink and be merry.”  God says to him, “this very night your soul is required of you, and then who will get all your wealth?”

So it’s not having money that’s wrong. It’s not wrong to save for retirement. But as one wise man once put it, “The happiest person is not the one who owns the most, but the one who has the least number of worries.” (Simeon, ibid, paraphrase)

Paul goes on to tell Timothy to set his hopes “on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”  Our God is not stingy.  In fact one of the characteristics of our God is extravagance.  Just look at nature: the variety of flowers, the variety of animals, the variety of people. The amazing food we have to eat. God provides for us so richly, so far beyond anything we can imagine.

Money comes and goes, but God is always there. Money doesn’t last forever, but God does. So Paul says set our hopes on God rather than on money, and God will provide richly.

The other thing Paul tells Timothy is that rich people should “do good, be rich in good works, generous… ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”  (I Timothy 6:18-19)

In other words, there is something about how we handle money in this life that prepares us for the world to come. This is not the only place in Scripture that says so. Jesus said the same thing in last week’s gospel, in Luke 16, when he said, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

How we use our money effects our future in the Kingdom.  And when we use our money to invest in other people’s lives, we are investing our money in the kingdom. We are ‘taking it with us’ in the only way it is truly possible to do that.

In this life, money is deceptive and temporary. But how we handle it prepares us for a future in God’s kingdom when we will have true wealth. And that’s what we’re aiming for.

You want to be rich? Go for the wealth that never passes away. Go for the currency of God’s kingdom.  Go for faith, hope, and love – expressed in compassion for others. That’s what builds up wealth in God’s kingdom. That’s how we can “take it with us” – by giving it away!  Isn’t that just what Jesus told us – that those who try to hang onto life will lose it, but those who give up our lives for God and for the sake of the Gospel will find it?

A moment ago I mentioned something about being counter-cultural in our approach to money and how it attracts people’s attention.  At Carnegie UMC, we’re working our way through a book called Walking with Nehemiah. The book and the class that goes with it have to do with re-birthing or re-growing a church. But when you dig into the text, what the book is really talking about is engaging the community around us. It involves following the leading of the Holy Spirit, as God speaks to our hearts and touches us with the needs around us. This doesn’t just have to do with money. It has to do with our time, and abilities, and relationships, and all kinds of things we can share with the community.

But I guarantee you if we chase after righteousness and faith and love the way most people chase after money, we will get people’s attention.

What Israel learned from Nehemiah in the book we’re reading, is the same lesson the disciples learned from Jesus, and the same lesson Timothy learned from Paul.  We all need to be rich in doing good works, giving generously to anyone in need. We need to be ready to share from the abundance God has given us. Because that is what builds up the Kingdom of God – in this world and the next. AMEN.



Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/25/16

1 Timothy 6:6-19  Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;  7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;  8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.  9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.  13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you  14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ,  15 which he will bring about at the right time– he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,  19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31   “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,  21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.  23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’  27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–  28 for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’  29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’  30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

(scripture passages quoted from the NRSV)


….a friend shared this article on Facebook: “The Five Things I Need from White People Right Now“.

In no way does this seem like enough, or even doing anything at all. But the author asks us to share, and it’s the least I can do.

In grief and near-disbelief that a brother in Christ, musician, and father of four can be shot dead just because his car broke down.  When will it end?

The Dishonest Manager

Scripture Lesson: Luke 16:1-15 – The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (full text at the of the post)

The parable of the “dishonest steward” or the “dishonest manager” (depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading) from the Gospel of Luke is a difficult passage. It’s open to a number of interpretations, and it leaves us with a lot of questions – questions like: what did the manager do to get himself fired? Or, why does Jesus praise the dishonest manager’s actions – which were clearly immoral if not illegal?

Let’s back up for a minute and take in the larger story here in Luke.  This parable comes immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son, which comes immediately after the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (which were the scripture lessons for last week).  Last week Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and answering their question as to how a man of God like himself could eat with “tax collectors and sinners”. Jesus answered them by saying God seeks the lost, and heaven rejoices when someone repents, and the people of God also rejoice when the lost are found.

Then verse 1 of Luke 16 begins, “then Jesus said to his disciples…”  So in today’s story, Jesus has turned away from the Pharisees and is talking to the disciples. However he still has the Pharisees in mind, and the Pharisees are still listening in. So the parable of the dishonest manager is Pharisee-related. We’ll keep this in mind as we look at the parable.



First, what does the dishonest manager do for a living? In the Greek he is called an oikonomon – a word we get the English word economy from (oikos + nomos = ‘house’ + ‘law’). It literally means ‘the law of the house’ or ‘the rule of the house’.  So he’s in charge of managing the rich man’s household, the rich man’s assets. It’s his job is to preserve his master’s money, and increase it.  This could have meant doing anything from taking crops to market, to investing excess cash with bankers… there’s any number of things the manager might have done to increase his master’s net worth.

However this particular manager failed at his job.  Jesus doesn’t say exactly what he did or didn’t do. He might have stolen, he may have failed to invest, he may have been lazy and missed opportunities. Scripture doesn’t say. What is clear though, is that the manager is guilty – because he himself does not deny the charges. In some way or another he has taken advantage of his position to line his own pockets rather than increasing his master’s wealth.

So the master says to the dishonest manager, “show me your books”. And the manager says to himself, “I’m in trouble! What am I going to do? I’m not strong enough to dig, I’m too proud to beg, and I’m going to be starving in a minute if I don’t think of something quick. I know!  I’ll change the accounts, so after I’m fired the master’s debtors will owe me!”

So he calls in his master’s debtors. And he asks one, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he says, ‘A hundred jugs of oil.’  The dishonest manager says, ‘make it fifty.’  And he asks another one, ‘how much do you owe?’ And he says, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ And the manager says ‘make it eighty.’


What he’s doing is buying favors.  He’s adding one more crime on top of the other crimes he’s committed… only this time he’s conspiring with his master’s debtors, making them partners in his crime, putting them in his debt. So when he loses his job he will have friends – or at the very least co-conspirators – who will help him out.

And at the end of the story the master praises this dishonest manager for acting shrewdly… and in an unexpected twist, Jesus agrees! He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.”

But wait a minute now.  Is Jesus praising theft and deception? Is he saying there are times when a person needs to ignore the law that says, “thou shalt not steal?” Is he approving of situational ethics?

This story has been interpreted that way from time to time but it’s an incorrect interpretation.  So what is Jesus getting at?

Let me offer one interpretation of this parable. It’s not the only possible interpretation, but it’s one that seems to me to be relevant to us today.

In the parable, the rich man represents God. He is the landowner, the one who owns everything, and has a right to everything, because it is his and he made it.  The rich man has a manager, whose job it is to take whatever belongs to God and increase it.  This brings to mind another parable, the parable of the talents, where one servant is given 10 talents and goes out and makes 10 more, and another servant has 5 talents goes out and makes 5 more. This servant is expected to go and take what God has given him and make more.

Instead the manager has been squandering God’s property. He has not invested his talents, and he’s been getting in the way of other servants who have been trying to invest their talents. He may even stealing some of their talents. At the very least he’s been using his position to benefit himself and not the master.

What better way to describe the Pharisees? They were, in Jesus’ day, God’s managers. They were put in charge of God’s household: the temple, the synagogues, the worship, the leadership of God’s people. And they use their position not to increase God’s kingdom but to increase their own wealth.

All the offerings that were brought to the Temple, all the skills and spiritual gifts of the people, were hijacked by these dishonest managers. And the worship of the people sometimes is redirected from God to the Pharisees in the form of hero-worship. Scripture says the Pharisees were very popular – they got the best seats in the house, everybody spoke well of them, they looked good on the outside. (Jesus had other things to say about their insides!)

The Pharisees kind of remind me of certain well-known preachers in our own time, who are always in the news, well known, traveling in the circles of power, proclaiming the word of God but somehow missing the point in their own lifestyles. They get rich preaching the gospel and they tell us that we as Jesus’ followers should also be aiming for our ‘best life now’ in this life.

The Pharisees know what they’re doing, at least on some level. They know Jesus is the Messiah, because only the Messiah could do the miracles Jesus does.  But they refuse to admit Jesus is the Messiah. They’ve already cut a deal with God’s debtors, just like the dishonest steward.

They have lowered the price of salvation.

Anyone who reads Scripture knows that we owe God our lives, all that we are, all that we have.

The Pharisees say to the people, “naaah, you don’t have to give up your life. Just live up to this rule and this rule and this rule and you’ll be fine. Oh, and be sure you tithe… 10% of everything, all the way down to your spices.”  (Or if you lived 1000 years ago it would have been “here, buy some indulgences…”)

The Pharisees don’t make it easy to be considered righteous, but they do seem to make it possible.  The Pharisees conspire with people who want to look religious. The Pharisees says to God’s debtors “what do you owe God?” and they make what we owe God somehow less than everything.

The thing is, it’s all a lie.  The Pharisees are going down, like that dishonest manager is going down, and we don’t want to go down with them.

So why does Jesus say, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of the light”?

Jesus is not commending the dishonest manager. He’s saying where it comes to setting goals and accomplishing them, or just to sheer tenacity and daring, the dishonest steward puts God’s people to shame.

If only we could be as creative about advancing God’s kingdom! If we would look after God’s interests as intensely as this steward looks after his own interests. That’s what Jesus is getting at.

The passage ends with Jesus commenting on the use of money. This parable is not all about money, but it’s where the story ends. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Jesus is saying, just like the crooked manager made friends for himself using money, we can do the same for God. We can give of our money in ways that benefit God’s kingdom, in ways that will help bring more people to faith.


Money is dirty stuff, Jesus says.  None of it is clean. And if we think about it we can see that’s true.  We have no idea where the dollar bills in our wallets have come from, what’s been done with them before we had them.  Money, in some way or another, involves oppression, hardship, or people putting themselves in danger (or putting others in danger).  Look at the risks people take who work in gold and silver mines.  Look at the economic policies made by nations that impoverish the people of other nations. Look at tax money, which is essentially legalized theft.  Money is dirty, and the way people get it is dirty.

In verse 15, a few verses after our passage ends, Jesus calls money an “abomination in the sight of God”.  And the Bible dictionary amplifies this to say “extremely hated, detestable, connected with idolatry, connected with the worship of the Antichrist”.)

So we want to keep from getting attached to the stuff!  We want to be careful to keep money in its place. Money is a tool, not a master, and we need to use it, Jesus says, to buy for ourselves friends who will welcome us into the kingdom when we get there.

What an interesting thing to say! And what a thought that is! The “great cloud of witnesses” who watch us as we run our race on this earth can be increased by means of how we spend our money. What a thought! “When it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says.

And he adds, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches?” What we do in this life with our money is not just practice. It’s a building of spiritual skills and spiritual abilities that will benefit us in the Kingdom.

Jesus goes on, “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” He speaks of our inheritance in the Kingdom – which will be truly ours, never to be lost or taken away.

And then Jesus says, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.” Why? Because God and money are competing powers. God is of the eternal kingdom; money is of this world only. And we either worship God or we worship the idols of this world.

Now the Pharisees have been listening in on all this, even though Jesus is no longer speaking directly to them. And when Jesus says it’s impossible to serve both God and wealth… they laughed at him.

The Pharisees poked fun at the Son of God, knowing full well that he was the Messiah. Which gives us an idea of just how much they loved their money.

And you know – modern-day Pharisees do the same thing.  It’s one of the ways you can tell who God’s servants are and who the fakers are.  If you tell a Pharisee it’s impossible to serve both God and money they will either laugh at you or start making excuses.  Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, Jesus often warned his disciples. And he says one last thing to the Pharisees: “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

So does this mean as Christians we’re supposed to give all our money to the church? No! It means that all we have belongs to God because God created it. And we are called to be wise and honest managers of what God has given us.

So for the take-away for today I have five things:

  1. Pray for your pastors and your spiritual leaders, that we don’t fall into Phariseeism. It is always a temptation. Pray that God keeps us honest, and that our love for God and for God’s people keeps on growing.
  2. We need to live our lives in such a way that we are faithful to our Master in using what he gives us. Honor God in the way we use our money. Honor God in the way we develop our talents and employ our skills. Remember that we are only stewards in this life. We need to work as if we were going to have to give an accounting someday.Having said that, there are two dangers I would warn about. The first is looking around at our fellow church members and thinking “I don’t have much to give. All these people are more gifted than I am. They have more than I have, and they can do more than I can do.” Don’t believe that for a minute. No matter who we are, and no matter what our abilities, God has given each one of us gifts to share in God’s name with people who need them.  That includes everybody.

    The second danger is the tendency of some of us to run ourselves ragged for God.  This is not a wise use of God’s gifts.  Keeping the Sabbath – a day of rest once a week – is important. And choosing prayerfully where to invest our time in God’s kingdom, and letting other things go, is important.

  3. The parable of the dishonest steward talks about being shrewd in our choices, being wise. Think about what God is calling us to do. How can we use the gifts we have most efficiently, for the best impact? Sometimes we don’t know, but God knows.  And so we pray, and talk about it with trusted friends.
  4. Where it comes to money, we need to invest wisely. Have you ever noticed, the longer we’re church members, the more mailing lists we get on for donations? And it’s too easy just to give $5.00 to everybody just to make ourselves feel better. A wise steward thinks about how and where an investment will grow, and takes into consideration what the Master has asked us to do.  It takes time and thought and prayer to decide where and how to give our money.
  5. And finally we need to support and encourage each other in our faithfulness to God. Ask each other: “what is God leading you to do?” And keep asking that question, and keep on helping each other to be good stewards of what God has given.

So Jesus says when we are faithful with the little wealth we have in this life, we will be rewarded with far greater wealth, which will be truly ours, in God’s kingdom. That’s our goal. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Pittsburgh) on 9/18/16


Luke 16: 1-15.  Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’  Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’  Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’  And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

[Postscript: 14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  15 So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”]


Lost & Found

[The apostle Paul writes:] “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” – I Timothy 1:12-17

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” – Luke 15:1-10


Before we look at the scriptures for today I wanted to say a word about today being the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  For those of us who remember that day, it’s hard to believe 15 years has passed.  Fifteen years is an entire generation… the kids who are in school today learn about it in the history books.

The other day on the Internet I tripped over a lesson plan for teaching school children about 9/11.  The quiz at the end asked questions like: what were the flight numbers of the airplanes? What time did they crash, and in what order?

I’ll grant these are important things to know, but what struck me was: this isn’t what 9/11 was really about.  When we remember the day we remember the people. People who died in ways to horrible to imagine. People who lost loved ones. The people of New York and Washington DC and Shanksville.  People who were heroes – who risked their lives and in some cases gave their lives in order to save others.

History is never about facts and figures. It’s always about people. Those of us who remember 9/11 need to pass this on to the younger generation. They need to know there was once a time when people were not afraid. When airplanes were never flown into skyscrapers. When people weren’t scared about when the next bomb would go off or when the next shooting was going to happen. They need to know that 9/11 is about the people in the World Trade Center, and in the Pentagon, on those airplanes – and the people had names.

In Israel there is a Holocaust memorial museum called Yad Va’Shem, which translated means “a place and a name”.  They named the museum that because many who died in the Holocaust – like those who died on 9/11 – were never properly buried.  So the Israelis gave them “a place and a name”.  We need to teach the generations who come after us to give the people who died on 9/11 a place and a name.


When we as Christians remember 9/11 we are also reminded that there is still great evil in this world. Even though God’s kingdom has begun to break through – even though God has given an answer to the evil in the world in the form of the cross of Jesus Christ – all the evil is not gone yet.

Evil – and how God deals with it – is what our scripture readings for today are about.  So let’s turn to them now.  The Psalm we read earlier says “all have gone astray… there is none who does good, not one.” Nonetheless God is with His people, and as David says, “the Lord is their refuge.”

The apostle Paul in our reading from I Timothy builds on those thoughts.  Speaking from his own personal experience, Paul remembers how he once persecuted the church and took believers prisoner and dragged them off to be killed. He says, “I was… a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  He calls himself the “foremost of sinners.”

But, he says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (I Tim 1:14-15)

Paul says if God can forgive the worst of sinners (himself), then we can look at Paul as an example and as an encouragement – that God can forgive anyone who believes in Jesus.

It’s interesting to note that Paul was from Tarsus, which today is in modern-day Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. In Paul’s day these were troubled areas… and they still are today. It’s good to remember the Christian faith has its roots in that part of the world – and that God’s forgiveness is still available in that part of the world. In fact there are reports coming in from the refugee camps in Europe and in the Middle East that refugees are coming to faith in Christ by the thousands.  Is that good news or what?

This message of God’s forgiveness and mercy to sinners has not always been a popular one.  In our reading from Luke for today, we see the Pharisees and the scribes being very unhappy with Jesus, because Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  (Speaking as a tax collector and a sinner, I like our Lord’s choice of company!)

Actually, Luke says the tax collectors and sinners sought Jesus out: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”  They came to Jesus. Jesus did not turn them away – and this ticked off the scribes and Pharisees.

So Jesus told them a couple of parables, both with the same meaning – which is an ancient way of emphasizing a point, saying the same thing twice.  Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who loses one sheep out of a flock of 100.  The shepherd leaves the 99 on the hillside and goes and searches for the one sheep. And when he finds it, he carries it home rejoicing and calls all his neighbors to rejoice with him: “my lost sheep is found!”

Jesus’ second story is similar to the first: a woman has 10 silver coins and she loses one. She turns on the light and grabs a broom and starts sweeping until she finds it. And when she does there is great joy which she shares with all her neighbors: “what I lost has been found!”

How much more does heaven celebrate when one lost person is found?  Jesus says there is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

But wait a minute.  If scripture says “none is righteous, no not one” – then what does Jesus mean when he talks about ‘righteous persons’? Does he mean there are people who only think they’re righteous?  Jesus does suggest that in other passages, and he may be suggesting it where the Pharisees are concerned. But in general the ‘righteous’ here would be people who have already repented. The 99 sheep are not rejoiced over because they were not lost – they were where they were supposed to be. Same with the other nine coins – they were never lost.

The thing with people though – for all of us, there was a time when we were lost. There was a time when heaven rejoiced at our being found.  We may not remember it that way – because the moment of conversion is not always pleasant.  In fact it can be a bit scary.  To borrow a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, conversion brings a person to the point where we have to admit we are powerless to save ourselves, and our lives have become unmanageable without God. This is not a pleasant place to be.  But there is rejoicing in heaven every time a person gets to that place.

So the righteous people in this parable are the ones who are already saved – members of the household of God.  But Jesus is also talking about – and to – the scribes and the Pharisees. We tend to think of the Pharisees as the ‘bad guys’ – like we should ‘boo’ every time they’re mentioned in scripture.  The truth is the Pharisees and the scribes were the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were actually the closest to the true Jewish faith. The Sadducees were the ones who had practically deserted the faith and compromised with the culture. They were more Greek than Jewish, and Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say to them. But Jesus picked on the Pharisees all the time – not because they were so wrong but because they were often right in theory but they didn’t practice what they preached. They had serious issues where it came to how they lived the faith. They were legalistic, they were full of spiritual pride, and the combination of these sins got in the way of people who were trying to find God.

And so these parables are perfect examples of how they were.  When the lost sheep is found, the neighbors rejoice… but the Pharisees didn’t.  They never even cracked a smile. It’s as if the Pharisees are saying to the lost sheep, “you shouldn’t have wandered off in the first place. It’s your own fault you got lost! The shepherd was worried sick about you and had to go out looking for you at all hours of the night! You’ve caused all kinds of trouble. You’re a bad sheep and you don’t deserve to be celebrated.”

Well, maybe it was the sheep’s fault it got lost. The thing is, that’s not what’s important. It’s the nature of sheep to wander off – that’s why we need shepherds. If the lost sheep hadn’t been found it would have died out there in the wilderness by itself.  When the sheep was found, it wasn’t just the return of a commodity, it was a life that was saved! And that is cause for rejoicing.

We see this lesson even more clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which Jesus tells immediately following these two parables.  Jesus makes his point a third time, giving it the utmost importance, and this time drawing an even clearer picture.  In the story of the Prodigal Son, it is the son’s fault for demanding his inheritance and then squandering it.  But, scripture says, when he finds himself broke and feeding pigs and wishing he could eat what the pigs are eating, he comes to his senses and he says to himself “even my father’s servants are treated better than this. I will go to him and say “I’m not worthy to be your son, make me one of your servants.””

And the father says “this my son who was dead is now alive!” and he calls all his friends and relatives to come and celebrate because his son is alive. Jesus clearly puts the Pharisees in the role of the older brother who refuses to celebrate the return of a juvenile delinquent.

The younger son had had a true change of heart. He’s not just playing his dad.  He hit bottom, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel, and he came back to his father begging for mercy and asking to be made the very least in the household.  What the father gives him is not cheap grace. So the older brother’s objection is not out of concern for his father; he is simply jealous. “You never gave me a party!” he says. And the father says “everything I have has always been yours. But your brother was dead and is alive again!”

What’s really difficult for those of us who have been in the family of God for a while, is when we come across a Prodigal Son who is truly prodigal… who has done great evil, and then repents.  To give a modern-day example… I am reminded of classmate from Sudan.  Many of you will have heard the name of Darfur.  Darfur is in southwest Sudan and it’s the place where hundreds of thousands of people have been massacred over the past few decades. What is not as commonly known is thousands more have died in South Sudan. My classmate grew up in South Sudan and he witnessed his entire village being burned to the ground and its people killed. The only reason he survived is because he was tending the cattle and was away from the house when the village was attacked. He became one of the “Lost Boys” you may have heard of. He walked to safety in Ethiopia, and from there found a way to the United States.

One day an African bishop came to our school, and we ate lunch together and he went around the table asking each of us what kind of ministry we planned to enter after graduation.  My friend from Sudan said, “Bishop, my parents and all my family were killed in South Sudan. My plan is to go back and witness to the people who killed my family and tell them about Jesus.”

That’s a man who understands what the Prodigal Son is about.  (He was true to his word by the way – he is now ministering in South Sudan.)

For those of us who find ourselves in the category of the righteous – the ones who are already saved – we need to be aware of this pitfall and fight against the urge to resent it when people who have done evil come to Christ.  As our church grows – and we do want it to grow – new people will come bringing new challenges… new needs… new questions… new problems, possibly even new evils. They will not be convenient, and they will not be easy.  And it might seem sometimes like they get the lion’s share of God’s attention.  But we need to rejoice that they are alive in Christ! That the lost have been found! And remember that we have always had access to God as our Father.

So what’s our takeaway from all this today?  I think first, the need to remember – to remember our sorrows and our joys, to pass on what we know to the next generation.  Second, to remember there is evil in the world, there are evil people. There are people who refuse to acknowledge God… and worse still, there are people who think God is just like them and God hates the people they hate.

As human beings, we can’t put a stop to evil.  It’s not in our power to do that.  But Jesus can.  Our God is a God who seeks and saves the lost, who brings life to the dying. We need to keep on getting that message out there: Jesus is Lord, and the kingdom of God is near, and all people everywhere are called to change direction and follow Jesus. And when sinners do turn to God, we can rejoice with God and with all of heaven, because our brother or our sister who was dead is alive; the one who was lost is found.

This is the heart of God. Let’s share in it with all that we have.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/11/16


When I started this blog nearly a decade ago my purpose was to share my thoughts and experiences as I explored seminary and a future full of question marks… to toss ideas out there and to get insights from others. I’m thankful for the many folks who have encouraged and challenged me with your comments, both here or in person.

The Sea of Galilee

I’m now an ordained Deacon in the Anglican Church (ACNA) and am a regular preacher in local Methodist and Anglican churches, and Lord willing will be ordained Priest sometime within the next year or so.

By request of a number of friends, family, and parishioners, this blog has become a place to put sermons I’ve preached — but I’m hoping it won’t be limited to just that in the future. So hang in there, subscribers, there’s more to come!

In the meantime I’d like to invite everyone to check out a new blog some friends and I have put together. It’s called GoodNewsForAChange.  So many people I talk to these days feel dragged down by the constant bombardment of bad news in the media and in the world around us; and yet so many of my colleagues in ministry (professional or lay) see so much good news happening on a day-to-day basis, we decided we wanted to share it.

So if you’re hungry for a bit of good news come visit us at GoodNewsForAChange and say “hi”!