2017-08-06 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 3/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 3/7
Rev. Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, August 6th, 2017

Luke 10:25-37

A couple of you have asked me: hey we moved the furniture around here, what’s going on? What I really want to say is you are lucky we haven’t flipped it around so we face that way, and this is the balcony. I want you to come to church every week expecting something different happens here. Oops. Well, I just spilled that’s different.

There was a workshop I went to fairly recently. There were about 30 of us and we were asked to name one thing we do fairly well or do really well and I had to say: I’m a pretty good thinker. If you give me a few minutes and you are patient with me, I can understand just about anything. I get my brain around a lot of things. Two things can’t seem to understand is the stock market and the attraction of reality TV. Those elude me. Figuring things out gives me the same kind of thrill that I imagine my fly-fishing grandfather got when he was able to pull a big rainbow trout out of a stream in Colorado. Some of you have that same relationship with math. Some of you get really excited when you talk about math and it’s almost like you don’t understand the rest of us are hearing: tooooooooo. That is how it is for me and figuring things out. I’ll run, my mind will try follow, and my mind will try to keep up and I know people toooooooo. That’s how we are. Some of us are that way about science. Some of us are that way about figuring out children and how to best teach children. Some of us are that way about organizing and administrating so that things happen.

I remember in seminary, I spent a lot of afternoons in my study carrel and on into the evening; I would miss dinner. In my library study carrel reading and trying to understand and comprehend and get my brain around really hard theologians like Karl Barth’s work on the dual nature of Christ. I remember that night because I was in my study carrel till about 11 o’clock. I kept reading what Karl Barth was saying and not comprehending it; not getting it. Then about the ninth time through something clicked and I finally got it. And I mean I really got it. I had to go outside and dance. Now I’m a good thinker. I am not good at dancing so we won’t go there.

I feel that same excitement about the art of preaching. To look deep into a biblical text and wake up a tired language and set trapped images free; so that it positively gleams with the meaning that was originally intended. I’m ready to dance. The most perfect sermon is still just an exercise in talking and hearing. Apparently the world could not care less about what you say — really — until you translate what you say and what you think into action. That seems to be something that is understood by the Good Samaritan in our story today. He is the heretic outcast who actually is a better religious person than the religious people. I’ll be frank with you: the task of helping strangers, given the number of people who need help, the overwhelming impossibility of solving everyone’s problems; I really don’t understand the Good Samaritan.

The one in the story that I really understand is the lawyer who asks the question and brings Jesus to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. This lawyer is above all a smart person, a thinker, a well-trained mind. He’s logical but he’s also imaginative, creative, he can make sound connections between seemingly unrelated details and he can root out inconsistencies and impracticalities. He’s a thinker and I understand his thinking. I understand this guy. He’s concerned with the law, if not justice necessarily. He is concerned with drawing a line between right and wrong and good and bad. And because he is following Jesus around the lawyer in the story is also a person who is hungry for God. He has come to wonder if he’s missing something. It might be why he became a teacher of the law, a lawyer, searching to know the law. How do I organize my life so that it is worth living? The question he brings to Jesus is just that: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

He is not the first person to ask that question. Who does not want that? Who does not want to live a life with meaning that you really don’t want to end? We come to think that eternal life means heaven, somewhere in the sweet by and by, the jackpot at the end of the rainbow/ But not if you listen to Jesus; if you listen to Jesus; the jackpot is now. Eternal life means enjoying the life and the breadth and the depth and the sweetness of life that comes when we live an eternal life; now, right this minute! The kingdom of God is at hand. But how do we get that? What must we do to experience that kind of life teacher. He said what must I do to inherit eternal life? The lawyer wants someone to hand him the key. He wants the answer to come from outside of him. But Jesus wants this lawyer to discover it for himself and so in good rabbinic form Jesus answers the question with a question of his own. What is written in the law? Jesus asked this man; what do you read their? This educated, intelligent, intellectual lawyer answers beautifully. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and with all your mind and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.

It’s one of those answers that makes the hair on your arm stand up and makes your skin get that prickly feeling. It is so beautiful and right and profound. Jesus tells him: you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live. Or did it sound more like this you’ve given the right answer. Do this and you will live CLUNK! You know what to do now; go do it. CLUNK! Why CLUNK? Because the lawyer is thinking about all of the people he passes every day as he goes about his business: people sitting on steps and stoops and sleeping on sidewalks and drinking in doorways. He thinks about the morning headlines in the paper that morning about injured and ill people. He thinks about all the people on his books that cannot pay him. He thinks about the daily mail that brings pleas for conscience: send money for abuse children, send money for injured veterans, and send money for this organization or that organization — the victims of a dozen deadly diseases. He thinks about all the people who can’t pay for the advice they’ve received. He thinks about all the people who need a little bit of free advice.

Do this and you will live — yeah right. Do this and I’ll die of exhaustion. Most of us are pretty hard on the lawyer because we are moving past him. Most of us are the lawyer. We look at him as if he doesn’t get it and we are passing judgment on ourselves because we don’t get it. He is us. If we listen to the lawyer, we will find ourselves. We will probably say what the lawyer says. Desiring to justify himself he asked Jesus to define his terms: and who is my neighbor, he asks, hoping for a little bit to help, a little bit of wiggle room, hoping Jesus might limit his liability so that he might have a prayer of meeting this responsibility. Who is my neighbor he asked. But what he’s really asking is, who is not my neighbor? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart mind soul and strength and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. Who is my neighbor – actually — who’s not my neighbor? Who can I set outside my area of concern and still feel good. He wants to discuss this issue; explore it with Jesus; expose the problems inherent until it all become so complicated that he can do nothing. We do the same thing. Watch this lawyer; he’s us. We stall, doing anything simple by complicating the matter so that we can finally just throw up our hands and say well it’s so poorly defined; it’s so impractical; how can we even hope to do this?

I have friends with whom I do this from time to time, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed. We go to lunch together. We stack up all the evidence we can find that homelessness is really an insoluble problem and having as much to do with addiction and poor choices and mental health and illiteracy and the government programs trying to solve it as it does with anything else that we might do. How can we hope to even get a handle on this? So we just talk ourselves out of doing anything. We compare our experience and we say things like, well, if we are honest, there’s as many no account poor people as there are no account rich people and if there’s no real connection between goodness and money then why not have money? Poor people with money lose it very quickly we say. Giving it away might make you feel better, but the chances that it really changes someone’s life that is slim. Again, the real problems are outside of our purview to affect and so why do anything. We talk ourselves out of it again. If you’re having a hard time following these arguments — please understand — that’s the point. These arguments are designed not to make things clearer or to resolve an issue, but to convolute the issue and to muddle things so completely that it becomes impossible to do anything.

These arguments are designed to make you feel as if you really are insightful about the issue and that, well, your heart is in the right place and I can prove by talking about it quite intelligently that I know a lot. The thinking and understanding is really the issue. That’s one way this practice of using complexity of a viewpoint as a way of keeping “doing” at arm’s length. There is another way that we use just as readily. We talk ourselves into doing nothing. It is a little more insidious. It happens when we lose ourselves into ourselves and the complexity of our busy lives and the time demands that pull on us and we are subject to this and that and we all know we have to run just to keep up and we don’t keep up and we feel like we are falling further behind and we really don’t even have time for everything that we have to do to stay afloat and families and children and responsibilities and bills to pay and jobs to perform and everywhere we have to be to get our kids raise properly and let alone thinking about people who well, God love him, probably make poor decisions and that’s what put them in that place in the first place. I’m sorry you just can’t be responsible for all of them. I just can’t do it all. I’m busy. There I said it; are you happy now?

Jesus just doesn’t cooperate with that conversation. We, the lawyer, wants to talk about love and how complicated it is to be open to everyone all the time. Really, can’t Jesus make his instructions a little bit easier to follow? Give me something I can manage like defining who my neighbor is exactly? Jesus knows he is a thinking man and so he tells him the story you’ve heard many times about how it does not matter what we think, what we believe, what we understand, what we know, what we feel and what we say about love. The only thing that matters is what we do about love and how that doing brings life. After Jesus tells the story he lets the lawyer answer his own question: which of these three says Jesus, the two religious types who crossed the road to avoid getting involved or the heretic outsider who took care of the beaten man. Which of these three is the neighbor? The lawyer is a smart cookie and he is very clear that he saw himself in the story Jesus told as one of the two religious types who was too busy moving down the road. We might consider that they didn’t stop for reasons of morality but I don’t read it that way. I read they were too busy being busy. It doesn’t matter why because they passed by and did nothing.

Which of these three do you think proved to be the neighbor to the man who had taken the beating? It’s a set up. Of course there’s only one simple answer to that question, the one the lawyer again gives with great eloquence: the one who showed mercy; the one who did something. Jesus says go and do likewise and you will have a life worth living. You may notice that’s not really an answer to the question the lawyer asked. The question the lawyer asked was who is my neighbor? But the question Jesus answers is: whose neighbor are you? The answer is: anyone’s, everyone’s. Jesus declines to limit the commandment to love and lets the lawyer decide how he will act. One thing is for sure in this text. What Jesus is calling him/us to do is not a leap in our thinking, not a great realization, not a new understanding or knowledge or an emotion or a clear idea. It simply doing; showing mercy; being a neighbor; doing love. This is a sermon about not confusing knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking and saying with actually loving, doing.

The story that follows this one, however, is a little confusing. It’s Mary and Martha there in the home. Martha sits at the feet of Jesus. Mary is trying to get the kitchen and everything cleaned up and she’s doing all the work. Martha is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening. Mary is doing everything out of love and Jesus praises Martha who is sitting at his feet listening. How do we sort that meaning out? Well the point of both of these stories is putting God first in our lives, putting God in front of our busy-ness, in front of our schedule; God first, sometimes to help, sometimes to sit. It’s fine to work. It’s fine to be busy at times but when that is all you are, how can God get a word in edge wise? It’s fine to think and to talk and to be frustrated and feel overwhelmed. But when talk is all we do, how can God fit a word in edge wise? Then we, together with the lawyer to whom Jesus is talking, we see ourselves as so busy, so involved, so overcommitted that it freezes us and we cannot even think about doing one more thing. And so we scurry down the road not even noticing the guys on the sidewalk, not even noticing the women on the corner. We are neighbor to no one.

It seems to me that the first task of loving is to simplify our existence so that we can simply notice an opportunity when it’s in front of us. What if the daily bread that we’ve been given — on a day like today — is enough for two? We might be a little hungry but one other person got fed. What if being a good neighbor is what leads to the fullness of life that you never want to end? What if living that kind of a life where you’ve always got a minute to help, always got a minute to hand a dollar to, always got a minute to… It fills you with joy like catching fish in a stream. To do love in this story and in our lives is to find our way out of thoughts that we have put in place that defeats our desired to do something.

No, we cannot solve homelessness. No, you alone are not going to save every child that has leukemia. No, you cannot send enough money to solve every problem you get in the mail. No, you cannot volunteer enough time to solve everyone’s problem. No, you cannot mentor every kid in the neighborhood. What if you just took care of the problem that was right in front of you? What if the Good Samaritan is good because on that particular day he engaged creatively the one problem that was right in front of him? What if we did that and all he did was a little more than the minimum. The minimum would’ve been stop, care for the man, bless him, tend his wounds and leaving him by the side of the road. That’s the minimum that is required in Jewish law. He took him to an inn, he enrolled him in the end, and he paid for care; a little more than is expected.

Most days nothing happens but some days; what if we spent ten minutes talking with that lonely neighbor whose wife died last month? What if we make it our opportunity to take a meal to a young Mom down the street who just had surgery? What if we see it as an opportunity that when in our work group the conversation turns into Islam-a-phobia we intervene and say: guys knock it off, that’s nonsense? What if we look as an opportunity to buy a sandwich for the man we see every day on the corner looking for something? What we see is an opportunity when we come out of the grocery store to get out our jumper cables and help someone get there car start? How do we love when the opportunity presents itself each day? You know what it means to do love because you have been the recipient of someone’s love. But remember, knowing the right answer does not change a thing. Whose neighbor are you? Go and do love.

2017-07-30 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 2/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 2/7

Rev.   Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 30th, 2017

Mark 10:17-31

We are looking at texts that we know, we have heard, they are familiar to us.  We are looking at them again to see what we have not seen in them; what do they tell us about ourselves.  Most of us know the story of the rich young ruler probably because we don’t like it.  Although we may not know, Mark is the only one who suggests that he is rich.  Matthew is the only one who says he is a young and Luke is the only one who called him a ruler.  But the fact that this young rich ruler shows up in all three of the Synoptic Gospels is a pretty good indication that his story is true; although we do wish that he had never shown up at all.  Because in him we have one of the hardest sayings in the Bible: go sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.  Mark does not say right off that the man is rich but you could tell, not because he has good manners and falls on his knees in front of Jesus but because he addresses Jesus so grandly and uses the right words for upper social tiers.  Good teacher.  You can tell he’s rich because of the question he asks: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

This is an individual who is not burdened with questions of survival like: where can I find a job and how do I feed my family.  This man does not have to spend his time trying to make ends meet.  He is able to pursue the good life to come, secure in his existence.  Because that’s one of the things that will foment in his day not as if it was gotten unfairly if if you acquired money in that day through cheating or through lying or being mean, it was no better than poison for those who had it.  But if you acquired a bit more than your neighbor honest means like inheritance then it was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and you were one of God’s chosen.  Bestowing wealth on people was understood as the way God set you free from the daily grind.  Your responsibility then was to serve the Lord.  That was the understanding of the society of the day.  So this man approaches Jesus, he’s got money in his pocket, he has no shame about his great possessions and if anything in his mind, the number of digits to the left of the decimal point where his credentials, the very thing that gave him the right to approach Jesus and asked the question.

Jesus is not impressed.  He looks down at the man kneeling before him and he sees someone who is clearly above average and wants to stay that way; someone who wants to achieve as much in heaven as he is achieved on earth; someone who is willing to do whatever is required of him to add eternal life to the possessions he carries.  Maybe the man hopes that Jesus will say to him: buy a pair of shoes for everyone: man, woman and child in all of Judea and the man will say well that’s costly but I’ll do it.  Better yet, throw all of your dust covers on your furniture and put stuff in storage, lock up the house, leave it all behind and come follow me, accompany me on my travels.  He maybe hoping Jesus will say that.  He is an extraordinary man, and he wants an extraordinary assignment.  Unfortunately Jesus does not cooperate.  Jesus says: you know the commandments and Jesus reels off about half of them.  Do this.  Do not do that.  Do this.  Do not do this.  Honor your father and mother.  Any first grader could list that list; it is one of the most important things of childhood if you’re a young Jewish male or woman is knowing the Ten Commandments and keeping them.  This man wants to do something to earn his way in.  So Jesus has just told him you earn your way in by doing the same thing as everyone else.  That man did not want to hear that.  He doesn’t see himself like everyone else.

Teacher I’ve kept all of these things since my youth.  In that moment Jesus loves him.  We can’t hear the tone but there’s something in this text that tells us that he did not say those words pompously or impatiently.  He must’ve said those words like a confession.  I’ve kept the law all my life which is how I know it is not enough.  I have amassed great wealth which is how I know it’s not enough.  He is saying I am a rich man.  I am rich in things and rich in respectability and I’m rich in obedience to the law which is how I know none of those things is enough to give me the life that I want.  What must I do to inherit eternal life, the kind of life worth living forever?  The text tells us, Jesus loves him.  This man is ripe, he’s ready for God and he has come to the end of what he can do for himself.  He’s come to the end of what society can do for him.  Jesus looks at him; Jesus loves him; Jesus recognizes him as a seeker; someone who is kept God’s word; someone who is kept his own word; someone who has translated his beliefs into a genuine obedience of the heart of God; someone who knows there is more and who knows to go looking for it.

But Jesus does more than look at the man.  He also looks into him.  Jesus is a physician making a diagnosis.  He looks inside of him to see what is the matter?  What is the right medicine that will heal you?  Jesus looks at him with as much compassion as he looked at anyone who was blind or deaf or paralyzed.  Jesus was aching to make him whole.  And then of course Jesus chose his words carefully, said to the man: you lack one thing.  I’m sure the man’s heart begins to spin in joy of finally hearing what it is I got to do to inherit eternal life.  Whatever it is I will do it.  Whatever it costs I will pay it.  Whatever it requires of this young man he will do it.  He will anything for this extra prize of eternal life in his pocket.  Only the words of Jesus turn out to not be a matter of addition but of subtraction: go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor you will have treasure in heaven, and then come, follow me.  It is a rich prescription for a rich man; designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, a hulk that keeps banging into the doorframe of the doorway into the presence of God.  Jesus offers him an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven, so that is treasure will be drawing interest inside of that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it.

It is a dare.  Jesus didn’t say I dare you but it was a dare to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all of those words that have described him up until now: wealthy and committed and gritty and cultured and responsible and educated and powerful and obedient and good — to trade them all in on one radically different word, free.

It seems to me that we Christians mangle this story in two different ways.  First, when we act like it’s not about money.  It is!  And second by acting as if it were only about money.  It is about money and as far as Jesus is concerned money is a lot like nuclear power, it is able to do a lot of good in the world but only within strongly built and carefully regulated corridors.  Most of us don’t do well handling money.  We get contaminated by its power and we contaminate others as we wield it carelessly.  We want it too desperately and we use it too manipulatively.  We believe in money too fiercely and we defend it too cruelly.  Every now and then someone manages to use money well.  But Jesus tells us the odds of that are about as good as they are of pressing a camel through a microchip.  The story of the rich young ruler is a story about money.  It’s not only about money.  If it were that might be good news for us because then we could put together build up our treasury and buy our way into heaven.  You know the deal: cash in our chips and we buy our tickets, we put them in our pocket.  But you know that’s not the deal.  None of us earns eternal life no matter what we do.  We can keep the Commandments until we are blue in the face.  We can sign our paycheck over to our favorite charity.  We can rattle our tin cups on the street for supper money without earning a place of God’s banquet table because the kingdom of God is not for sale.

The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their wealth.  The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift given to whomever God pleases for whatever reasons please God.  The catch is you have to be free to receive the gift.  You cannot be otherwise engaged.  You can’t be tied up right now.  You can’t be too tied down.  You can’t be too occupied.  You can’t accept God’s gift if you have no spare hands to take it because they are clutching your possessions.  You can’t make or it is all of your rooms are already full.  And you can’t follow if you are not free to go.  That’s why the rich young ruler went away so sorrowful because all at once he understood that he was not free.  His wealth was supposed to make him free, but kneeling in front of Jesus he understood all at once that that is not so.  Jesus is painfully clear give up what defines you, what defines your life and follow me.  Put God first and follow me.  The rich guy can’t do that.

He is the only person in the whole Gospel of Mark who walks away from an invitation to follow Jesus.  He is the only wounded individual who declines healing.  Not being rich and important and powerful scared him more than the bondage of his wealth.  He could not believe that the opposite of rich might not be poor.  The opposite of rich is free.  Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and he said how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.  They were amazed at his words — absolutely astonished by them —  Mark tells us.  Jesus was challenging the social order of the day turning it upside down, taking their understanding of where God was in their midst and turning it upside down.  Jesus stated clearly that wealth is not God’s gift.  Those who rode through the gates of Jerusalem on golden litters would find their handlebars stuck on the gates of God’s kingdom.  So will all of us who cannot leave things behind.  The thing I can’t figure out about this text is why the disciples were so amazed.  Two of them had left their fishing business behind.  Two more of them had left their fishing boat and the father behind.  Another one of them had left behind an incredibly lucrative career collecting taxes to follow Jesus.  All of them had walked away from something not because it was a prerequisite for becoming a disciple; it was more like a consequence, really.  He called; they followed; stuff got left behind.  Not because stuff was bad but because it was heavy and in the way.  Not because they had to but because they wanted to.  He called and nothing else in the entire world seemed all that important anymore.

Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives and so it was no big heroic thing to follow him.  He set them free.  That’s all!  It was not their achievements, it was his gift.  So who can be saved?  Well, who is brave enough to be free?  This is actually my favorite part of the text because everything up until now tells me that I’ve missed out because I’m pretty good at making excuses and talking myself out of this text and I’m too hardheaded and too grippy to let go.  I am the rich man in the story and there’s no way that I can save myself.  Fortunately, we have the big mouth of the group, Peter, and I guess if you say enough words you can eventually say the right ones.  I think these are the right ones.  I don’t think these are Peter’s words; I think it is a gift from the spirit.  Peter poses the question, the right question, then who of us can be saved?  And the right question hasn’t changed in all of these years, and neither has the answer,

Jesus said for us it is impossible, but not God.  For God all things are possible.  We follow a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point do we have enough and at what point have we crossed over into selfishness.  We have a Jesus who asks us to wonder at what point our acquisition of wealth and material goods and collecting stuff became a hindrance to our discipleship.  All things are possible through God, through our relationship with God, including the answers to those questions.  The apostle Paul picked up on this and he summarized it this way, you are saved by God’s grace.  This salvation is God’s gift to you; it is not something you possessed; it is not something you have done of which you can be proud.  Instead, you are God’s accomplishment.  You are created in Christ Jesus to do good things.  Your life in God, doing God’s good thing is the way of God’s kingdom.  Peace and blessings to you.  No not peace and blessings.  The struggles of life to you as you practice God’s way.


2017-07-23 Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 1/7

Seeing Old Stories with New Eyes 1/7

Rev.  Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 23, 2017

John 4:5-42

You are — I’m sure — acquainted with the notion of echo.  If you ever been in a place and you notice that there is an echo and you slow your voice and you wait for it to come back.  You shout ECHO and see if it comes back to you.  Yeah, shout it child!  A wave goes out and if you are lucky a wave will come back again and again.  There’s a hearing and a re-hearing.

Our text today is an ancient story.  It is not original to this passage.  It’s an echo of the ancestors, our ancients.  It is also biblical comedy; it’s also irony; it’s also a love story; but mostly it’s a very old story.  A stranger comes to Jacob’s well at high noon.  The part we left out is Jesus did not have to go that way.  He took the long way to go through the land of Samaria.  That’s not the shortest route.  It’s not as-the-crow-flies from where he was to where he was going.  At this well he meets a woman who has come to draw water.  He is thirsty, she is thirsty and there is a forbidden interaction between them.  It’s not the way things were done.

The original hearers of this recanting, this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman must have wondered to themselves: am I standing on familiar ground?  This story sounds familiar.  And as I told you in the past, there is nothing new in the New Testament.  This scene and the characters in it would have awakened resonance of another story that happened beside a well, a romance lodged deep in the memory of the community.  Genesis 29 tells us the story of Jacob, the sojourner, the lonely boy coming to the well at high noon and he beholds his kinswoman Rachel.  Genesis adds dryly to the story: and her father sheep.  Just as aside, if we want to talk about problems in our biblical text, this is one of them that you would mention a woman and sheep in the same sentence.  But back to our story in the story of Jacob and Rachel, boy meets girl, boy kisses girl.  What happens is he waters her father’s sheep and then kisses Rachel and he weeps aloud.  It tells us how lonely he was and she kisses him back and there is a little bit a romance there, a little bit of chase and with a huge assist from Leah, they create a family of tribes, children of Israel, they save the nation from destruction.  That’s the way a love story is supposed to go.  Somebody saves somebody but we are not exactly sure who saved who.  Did Jacob save Rachel or did Rachel save Jacob? Or did the sheep save them all?  We are not really sure because it’s all there in the story.  That’s the way a love story is supposed to go.

In John’s version of the story — of course — it takes a little bit of a different turn.  There is no sheep really — not the shearing kind – there are Samaritans and they need to be watered too.  But in this conversation at the well it takes a while to get to the sheep, the Samaritans.  There are some sharply spoken words at the side of the well and the conversation assumes the character of a confrontation, a fight that is charged with significance much greater than romance or making babies.  He is a teacher from above brimming with heavenly insight.  She is a woman of the world and she has now become hardened to the jokes that are told about her in the village.  Like Jesus, she is thirsty but she thirsts for something she cannot name.  What could these two at the well have in common to talk about?  Yet they are talking.  Isn’t it ironic — don’t you think — two levels of understanding thirst here as well as a gulf between them?  The poor woman, just from the community she grew up in; just from the images she has, she has no idea how she thirsts.  And there’s a certain comic hopelessness to her attempt to comprehend and argue with what this man is saying to her.

In the midst of the story there are those of us too, who are invited to hear this, who struggle with our own blindness and try to sort out what this text is saying.  We are genuinely seeking from our darkness some sense of light.  We are thirsty but can’t quite say for what.  It is the sort of irony that causes us false starts in life.  We chase after anybody with a good word because surely they know what they’re talking about and it takes us a long time to find out they may not.  We chase after anybody with a crowd around them because obviously you’re saying something good and we find out that nine out of ten people is not a good predictor that they have something we need.  We chase after something that tastes good and then we find out later on that it has other effects on us that we don’t really want.  We thirst, we hunger but eventually a path to understanding opens and we have to talk our way through it like this woman at the well had to talk her way through her argument with Jesus.

But when he offers her living water she begins to get an inkling that something is happening here, but she scoffs at him and says: you don’t even have a bucket.  That’s biblical comedy right there.  But when she hears of water welling up to eternal life, suddenly the comedy is no longer important.  The arguments are no longer in her and she says: sir, give me this water.  Then the comic relief comes to an abrupt end with a slap on your face statement of: go, call your husband.  What do you say to Jesus when this isn’t even your fifth husband and you’re not even married to the man you are living.

Without the awkward details of this woman’s sexual history, all we have is a menial dialogue about truth and enlightenment.  It’s just a nice head conversation.  We could pass it by be none the worse.  But with these details of this woman’s sexual history, we have a reality check that grabs us all and saves our lives.  Let us be very clear about the tone of the text; Jesus is not judging her; Jesus is not slut-shaming her.  That is the read of our cultural religion and its stunning obsession with controlling female genitalia.  Let’s get even clearer here.  Female genitalia do not become looser from intercourse.  No more than male genitalia become smaller from intercourse.  This is just silly.  But again, it is our cultural religion and their obsession with the physical body.  It is silly and Jesus is not silly.

The tension of the text remains.  What’s happening here is Jesus is offering up comment on the culture, out of which this woman came.  It’s not all that different from the culture in which he came in the first century Palestine.  A woman had no rights, no voice.  So out of necessity this particular woman had attached herself to men.  She may have loved them but it was an issue of necessity, either you have a man or you have nothing and you had nowhere.  You tried to find somebody to take you in and a whole lot of women couldn’t and ended up prostitutes just trying to survive.

The story of Jesus and this woman of Samaria turns out to be a love story after all.  For only someone who knows you for who you really are — in your situation as it is — and loves you as you really are and not as you pretend to be.  This is the beauty of this text.  This woman is fully known and she is fully loved as she is; where she is.  If Jesus was slut-shaming her, he would’ve given her instructions: you go home and dump that guy and get out.  He said none of that.  He was simply observing her life.  Only one who loves you can look at your past without blinking.  And when something we regard as shameful, when something we regard as regrettable, when something that has a hold on us gets brushed by the love of God, about all we can say is thank you.  And we are set free.  The water in our dry and barren souls, the water begins to come.  We Christians know a lot about love, not make-believe nonsense love, real love.  I look at you and see you for exactly who you are love.  Because of this text, because he told me everything I ever did; all of it!

Like our Samaritans sister, we tried to believe, we struggle with what to believe.  We were looking for a list on how to believe.  Nine things, I believe all of them!  Because we turned belief into a twenty-first century word having to do with intellectual awareness and that we ascribe to anything you say about Jesus.  That is not what belief meant in the first century.  Belief in the first century — that beautiful Greek word pisto — simply meant what is important to you becomes important to me.  If I believe in you, what is important to you becomes important to me.  So to believe in Jesus means what is important to Jesus becomes important to me.  But we don’t really hear that because our cultural religion doesn’t tell us that; our culture religion is all in the head.  And so we get comfortable with words that sound religious, but we don’t connect them to a relationship with Jesus.  We talk about salvation as a nation, but mostly that means buckets of money we can take to the bank.  We have elevated listening to ourselves into an art form but we don’t bother listening to the one who can tell us everything we’ve done.  We’ve elevated television watching to a binge form but we don’t watch the one who shows us the way to God’s kingdom.  We make family a substitute for salvation as if the church had never heard of God’s family.  And most of all, we love ourselves so much that we invest in technology that we are sure is going to make our life fulfilling because we are connected to one another.  But we overlook our connection or lack of connection to the one who finds his way to us in the heat of the day.

We are surely comical people.  We might expect that the conclusion of this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman to be that Jesus accompanies her into the village: to advocate for her, to validate her, to speak on her behalf.  But that’s not what happens.  He tells her: you go, you go, you tell, you use your voice.  What better gift is there to someone who has no voice: go; tell; use your voice.  We attach ourselves to God and our voice finds resonance.  That’s the way to know if the water welling up in us is living water because our voice will find resonance and were no longer content to be dry in a barren land.  We must speak up and change our world, our village.  This is a commentary on what it means to be loved too.  Do our relationships increase our voice, our resonance?  Are we heard for what we are saying?  Do they deepen the timber of our voice or do they undercut us.  Do they talk over us?  Do they ignore us and walk away?

This is where it gets a little bit weird in the text.  We might expect that the giver of voice and water, our hero in the story, to ride off on a white horse, in view of the few baffled Samaritans like a prophet or like a Greek hero; victorious in life, only to later be taken into heaven.  But instead, this one from above chooses to submit to the foolishness of the cross.  He moves out of this story and down the road and he becomes silent as the suffering servant.  He gives voice to you, but he becomes silent, a failure in the eyes of the world.  With unbearable irony, this keeper of living water will say to Roman and Jewish spectators: I thirst.  Chew on that for an afternoon.  Jesus says: I thirst.  And once he is dead, he is poked in the side and outflows blood and water.

I think that’s the best evidence that this is a love story.  We are not quite sure where it begins and we are not sure where it ends and there are too many levels happening in this passage and connections to make and meanings to comprehend and double entendres and ironic twists; to many of them for me — or I think anyone else — to offer a final word about its meaning.  But we must latch on and we must start talking about this passage in our lives because that’s the ending of all three of these stories — you do know that — the story from Genesis 29 Jacob and Rachel.  Tell your children and grandchildren and all the nations of the world what God has done through you.  To the woman at the well, go and tell!  He told me everything I had ever done.  To disciples trying to figure out what to do next after Jesus’ body has disappeared and then reappeared to them, go and tell, make disciples.  In all honesty I think maybe the best way for me to end today is to just stop talking and to let you pick up the conversation inside of you and let you pick up the conversation with one another and talk about living water welling up in you.


2017-07-16 Billy Joel’s Bad Song 2/2

Billy Joel’s Bad Song 2/2

Jonathan Massey, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 16th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8

We all grow up with a set of expectations and rules.

Sometimes they are just presented as family rules. You know, Go to bed on time, read one chapter from your book, and then turn out the light; Eat your vegetables; Do your homework before you turn on the TV or play videogames; Be back in the house by 11:00.

Sometimes, they are presented as societal rules: Don’t smoke (at least within a public building, within 25 feet of a restaurant, or whatever); Don’t drink alcohol before you’re 21, always hang onto your drink at parties, and don’t drink and drive; Always recycle; Obey the speed limit; Use a condom; Pay your bills on time; Don’t rip the tag off of a mattress; Don’t eat GMO food; Don’t vote for Republicans; Don’t vote for Democrats.

Sometimes, they’re presented as school rules: Don’t sag your pants; Don’t wear low-cut spaghetti-strap tops; Don’t play with your cell phone in class; Study for your tests; Do your homework on time; Don’t smoke weed in the bathroom. (If I could be allowed an aside here, let me just say, as a high school teacher, that these are all perfectly reasonable, AWESOME rules, and they should be chiseled in stone for all time!)

Sometimes, they are presented as the rules of God: Don’t murder; Don’t steal; Don’t commit adultery or be promiscuous with sex; Read your Bible; Go to church; Pay your tithe.

Often, for children, “the rules” of family, society, school, and God become conflated, because, for a kid, they all seem to come from ULTIMATE AUTHORITY. Complying with the rules and meeting the expectations demonstrates honor and respect, and brings rewards; disobeying the rules brings punishment.

In the past, at least some parents, including my own, got a little bit carried away with this. My paternal family line had been Methodist about as long as there was such a thing in the United States, but when my dad married my mom, he got sucked into her small denomination, which was an offshoot of the Methodism—part of what was called the Holiness Movement. Both of my parents were already wounded from their families-of-origin, and this religious affiliation exacerbated their worst tendencies. Although this sounds strange to most people now, I was raised in an environment where the worst sins were smoking, drinking, dancing, playing cards, and going to movies—things which aren’t even listed as sins in the Bible, but which had become mortal sins in this church, due to the cultural environment in which it had developed. I was taught that God was kind of like Santa Claus—always watching to see if I was naughty or nice, and always prepared to “strike you down” (a phrase actually used by my dad)and send you to Hell, where you would burn in a literal lake of fire forever. I grew up terrified of God—always trying to please him, but never sure I’d done enough; never sure if I’d met the requirements to go to Heaven. Finally, when I was just 13 years old, I found a good reason to chuck Christianity and God in order to escape from this terror. Six years before Billy Joel’s song became a hit, I declared to my parents:

            I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright

I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home

I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life

Go ahead with your own life leave me alone.

Now, I don’t believe that rules and expectations are a bad thing. Time may prove that some are ridiculous, but I think time also proves that some just make sense. Families, society, schools, and—of course!—God provide many rules and expectations that, if followed, will tend to provide us with longer, more prosperous, happier lives.

I don’t think I need to dwell on prohibitions against murdering, stealing, and raping. While ISIS might embrace these activities, I don’t think any of us are going to insist on our right to do such.

Let me instead mention a couple things which, in my experience as a high school teacher over the past 13 years in our cultural context, just make sense. First, an expectation that is not biblical and is decidedly not a LAW OF GOD: Don’t play with your cell phone in class. Although texting was a bit of a problem in the early 2000s, the advent of smartphones has turned a bit of a nuisance into an epidemic of screen addiction which inhibits learning in school and contributes to leading many students straight to failure. Second, an expectation and a general rule of thumb which involves a bit of the Law of God, used to involve societal expectations (but not so much anymore), and involves the expectation of many families (but, is tragically not taught by many families). It’s what’s called “The Success Sequence.” Here it is: (1) Graduate from high school; (2) Get a job; (3) Get married; (4) Have children. Some people insert “Graduate from college or trade school” right after the first step, but it’s still the same basic sequence. If you omit any of these steps (like graduating from school), or do them in a different order (such as having children before you get married or get a job), your chances of ending up in poverty skyrocket. And that problem tends to repeat itself generationally.

This is one area where Billy Joel’s song becomes very bad. I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright. No, you’re not! I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home. I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life/ Go ahead with your own life leave me alone. Okay, this is your life, but is it not okay for your parents, or your teachers, or your country, or GOD to care about you? Do you honestly believe that life doesn’t bring its rewards and punishments? When you have wrecked your life, will you be happy that everyone just let you go your own way with no instruction, no rules, no consequences—before you repeated the mistakes that people have been making FOREVER.

Okay, enough of dealing with people in general. Let’s move to Christian people specifically (and, to some degree, I guess, to Jewish people, because our reading today is from Micah, which is part of the Jewish Scriptures).

First, I think it’s wise for parents to distinguish between the Law of God and family rules. Of course, family rules should include the Law of God, but a lot of them just have to do with our current cultural context, which includes neighborhood, preferences, etc. Make sure kids know the difference. Don’t confuse practical things with ultimate things, and don’t turn God into Santa or an overzealous cop.

Second, be careful about confusing church rules with the Law of God. Church rules vary from culture to culture, and we shouldn’t try to turn time bound rules into eternal rules. Most people have no idea that John Wesley’s General Rules are still—technically, crazily—obligatory for Methodists, but almost no church member has even heard of them. Some, such as attending upon . . . The public worship of God still make sense, and most people come to church. Others, such as avoiding evil of every kind . . . such as . . . buying or selling slaves don’t have too much to do with American Methodists today (though breaking that rule led Methodists to disaster in the 1840s and helped lead the entire country to catastrophe in the 1860s—and it might actually be a helpful rule in some places in the world today). Another, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men seems, at least to me, like something which we should still be doing every day.

Third, I think we should be very careful about “biblical rules,” or declaring that “THE BIBLE SAYS!” without considering where the rule is located in the Bible. The early church had a humongous controversy over whether non-Jewish people (you know, people like Greeks and Romans in that time, and most of us now) should be required to observe ALL of the laws listed in the Old Testament; laws which had been expanded even farther by the rabbis, much as case law grew out of The Constitution in the United States. Some church leaders thought that they should have to. Others, such as the Apostle Paul, seemed to think that they expressed God’s will for the Jewish people (and he himself was observant), but that they should not be incumbent on gentile Christians. Eventually, at the Jerusalem Conference, which you can read about in Acts 15, church leaders sided with Paul. In Acts 15:19-21, James says, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” And, that was that. Now, that decision itself is 2,000 years old, and I can tell by the look on some of your faces that it could use a little bit of explanation, but that’s beyond our scope this morning. The bottom line is this: Not every rule or law in the Bible applies to Christians today.

So, where does that leave us?

It doesn’t leave us in a lawless situation; it doesn’t leave us without expectations from God. What we DO in our lives matters! According to Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” And, in 2 Corinthians 5:10, the Apostle Paul says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” Belief is not the only thing which matters. At the end of the day, what we have actually DONE is what matters. You may have heard that actions speak louder than words. Jesus and Paul understood that principle. And, at the end of the day, I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life/ Go ahead with your own live and leave me alone is a hell of a way to lead your life, and any church which allows its members to boldly walk down that path isn’t doing its job.

I’ve always liked what Lieutenant Dan said to Forrest Gump and Bubba when they were choppered in to his base camp: Look, it’s pretty basic here. You stick with me, you learn from the guys who’ve been in country awhile, you’ll be right. There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks, cushion, sole, O.D. green. Try and keep your feet dry when we’re out humpin’. I want you boys to remember to change your socks wherever we stop.”

It seems to me that Micah 6:8 gives us a good basic rule of life—a rule which can make the difference between a live Christian and a dead Christian—which lots of other things flow out of, depending on the times, our cultural situation, and the rest of the stuff I’ve been talking about this morning. I’m going to quote it from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation:

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,

what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,

be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—

            take God seriously.

2017-07-09 1 of 2 on Billy Joel’s Bad Song


1 of 2 on Billy Joel’s Bad Song

Pastor  Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church. July 9th, 2017

Romans 11:1-2a; 29-32

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, Sunday in the middle of July.  Humidity has come and is seeping into our being and it will bring rain.  Today is a humidity of a sermon.  I want this to be a sermon that doesn’t shock you.  We had a few of those.  It is not really a difficult text to understand.  These is a sermon that I wanted you to hear and take home and ponder and let it seep down in between the cracks and the crevices of your thought system because we are going to talk about anti-Semitism today.  That is what this text is about; we need to talk about our anti-Semitism; we have to talk as Christians,

I’m not going to be talking about much Jewish history, although that’s an interesting subject in and of itself.  We can talk about the settlement of the Gaza Strip and the mistreatment of Palestinians by the Jewish community.  I’m not going to be talking about modern day Jewish Arab Christian relations.  That’s a conversation in and of itself.  It has ties to the Seven Day War which was fought in response to the Holocaust; which has ties to the Lutheran anti-Semitism of the late 1800s; which has ties to Catholic anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages which includes the Inquisition and witch trials in which Jews were pretty much wiped out in Europe; which has ties to the Crusades where the Pope sanctioned killings and attempts to recapture the Holy Land from the Arab occupants and took it in battles starting in the 600s.  In the eyes of Christians and Arabs the Jews were free game for killing.  We cannot sort this out.  From the beginning the Jews and the Christians have a hard time

You look at the Middle East and you start studying the history and you find – I don’t even know how to get a handle on this.  What is interesting for me though is if I listen to someone who’s informed on it who happens to be Jewish, they talk from the perspective: they did this to us, they did this to us, they did this to us, so therefore we are justified in doing what we are doing back to them.  Then you listen to someone from the Palestinian conversation and their conversations: they did this to us, they did this to us, and their grandfather did this to my grandfather, and so we are justified.  I’m not sure how to sort that out and I’m not sure Christians should.  That’s not really what I want to talk about today.  Christians and Arabs and Jews have had a hard time and the difficulty seems to be around land except when it’s not around land it’s around power and who has it and our desire to demonize our enemy.  They are wrong in their interpretation of Scripture and we are right and we are absolututely right.  It gets deep and it goes long back.  And when it not land its power, when its not power its superiority, …

In many cultures, many different times, many different places have had a hard time with Judaism.  The question at the core of that is: how is it that these simple people prosper almost any place almost any time?  Within the Torah their community takes care of one another.  They have rather strict laws of how they act toward and with one another; rather high expectations of behavior; rather unique ways of raising children as a community; rather unique devotion to their deity as opposed to the many cultures who are committed to freedom and liberty and money or royalty as the backbone of their existence.  Judaism seems to hold onto their relationship with God as their defining factor; unlike a lot of Christians in our cultural religion who makes really good Americans with a little bit of Christianity sprinkled on top.  A lot of cultures have asked: why do these Jews prosper and our people — whoever our people are — do not?  Therefore the Jews must be liars and cheats and unpatriotic.  There is actual scriptural foundation for this misunderstanding and every year around Easter we engage in it.  We don’t even know we are engaging in it but if somebody calls it out we might see it.  This is how we are complicit in a long terrible history of persecuting Jews.  Even now to many pastors, to many church leaders without hesitation and without much thought pronounce that Jews are hell bound.  A lot more who may not say that Jews are hell bound but they still when asked about the Jews hesitate and hem and haw or are silent.

Every holy week we read scriptures that say the Jews did this the Jews did that to Jesus.  We might quench our faith and hate the Jews; when really we might want to let a chill run down our spine because we are a lot like them in ways that we don’t even understand.  When the Holocaust came this was the number one by far argument the Germans used for the destruction of the Jews: they killed Jesus.  That is a Jewish problem, let’s just kill them.  Despite the fact that Jesus and all his followers and apostles that came later; every one of them was Jewish.  Holy week has become an occasion for the persecution of Jews.  The question of our relationship to Judaism is really not all that difficult unless you have an agenda: like land or theology of politics or money.  These things tend to confuse the issue; these things tend to toss things up in the air.  Having an agenda makes you ask questions that are irrelevant; which you have an agenda is what you want.

In today’s Scripture lesson Paul expresses great sorrow and grief and despair at the growing separation between his people, the Jews, and the developing congregations of the church: Jews and Gentiles.  Evidently someone in the church at Rome with an agenda asked the question: who is right?  Has God rejected his people?  As God now in Jesus rejected the Jews?  And Paul says, by no means; we are all Jewish.  Paul says when God makes a promise God keeps that promise: to Abraham and Moses and all of the prophets of the Old Testament, God promised again and again to preserve the Jews; to preserve Israel as a light to nations, as a sign of the faithfulness of God.  If God does not keep God’s promises to the Jews then God’s promises to us, the Gentiles, would be nullified.

The first thing I would tell you as your pastor; we need the Jews because the promises of God to the Jews are the basis upon which we base our trust in the promises of Jesus.  We are related to Judaism in a way that differs from our relationship to any other faith.  The Old Testament is not a meaningless collection of irrelevant ancient writings.  There is no way to understand Jesus without contemplating the Old Testament.  I’ll tell you, there’s nothing new in the New Testament, there is nothing new in the New Testament.  If you find a story in the New Testament and it enthralls you and engages you, just go look in the Old Testament and I’ll bet you will find it told before.  The story of the father and the two sons, the younger son says to Dad: give me the money, I’m going to the far country.  The older son is not happy.  There is a question of reconciliation.  Dad I’m coming home now; Dad runs to meet the boy; Dad says kill the fatted calf put a ring on his finger, put shoes on his feet, put a robe on him and let’s have a party.  The older son says: all you’ve ever given me and my friends is goat meat.  Now where in the Old Testament is there a story about a gracious father trying to be reconciliatory with his two sons?  It involves rings and shoes and robes and goat meat.  Anybody?  It is the story of Jacob and Esau.  It’s the story of Jacob and Esau retold in the New Testament.  There is nothing new in the New Testament,

There is no way to understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament.  Our New Testament is so firmly grounded in the Old Testament; we cannot even interpret or understand what the New Testament is saying without referencing the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is also our good news, the good news fulfilled in Jesus is the good news we hear preached in the New Testament.  Every year the choir sings about the messages of the Old Testament coming to bear on us in the New Testament in the presence of Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany and he was arrested and he was imprisoned.  In 1943 he wrote these words: “my thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like the Hebrew Scriptures and no wonder.  I have been reading it much more than the New Testament for these last few months.  It is only now that I know how far beyond description is the name of God that I can utter the name of Jesus Christ.  It is only when one loves life and earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world.  It is only when we submit to the law that we can speak of God’s grace.  I don’t believe it is Christian to want to get into the New Testament to soon and to directly.”

It may be true that we need the Jews.  But it’s also true that the Jews may not want us.  It is painful to realize how many Jews view the Christian church with great pain, a lot of bitterness and very little trust.  Our cross has become to them a symbol of horribly twisted and transformed sin of anti-Semitism.  It is a sign of torture against God’s very own people.  When Jews look at the cross some of them look at us with a great deal of bitterness.  Their bitterness is a testimony — if we will listen — to the tragic infidelity of our Christian church.  Specifically, a twisting of Scripture that separates, that disengages Christianity from its Jewish history.  It writes Judaism out of the equation.  Rabbi — I got to pronounce this right — Eliezer Berkovitz a few years ago was asked what Jews would like from Christians.  His response was: keep your hands off of us and our children; that’s all.  These are painful words to hear but they are words that we must hear for our own good.

The Jews remind us of a sad terrible history of wrongs against Jews and we don’t really like to be reminded of our sins.  It is painful to be reminded that some of the same hateful feelings from the actions that led the Gentile Romans to crucify Jesus have led fellow Christians to persecute Jews.  I think that rather than deny that history, we have to ponder our thoughts and our interpretations of Scripture, we have to repent.  Repent here is that humble listening and putting out of our mind the idea that we are right to the exclusion of everyone else.  This is where the church has an opportunity to soar; when the church is not all the same kind of people and there are many languages, there are many colors, when there are many different ways of seeing things.  I told you before, that’s one of my points of pride about this church — pride is dangerous — but I love the fact that we have people of all different stripes here.  We have people of all different colors; we have people of all different languages.  We talk; we are the church; we are the church at its best.

We also have to go — and perhaps this is the reason I’m preaching this sermon — we have to regard as suspect those voices that would divide us from one another.  That would say to us: well, you are real Christians and they are Jews.  That proclaims the Jews as deserving of persecution and suffering, that identified them as enemies of God.  We have to hold those voices suspect.  My personal position is: stop listening to them.  That is dangerous conversation that divides, separates; it removes what is not ours to remove.  I think we have to admit, if we are to be Christians following Christ, that we have tragically by our sin against Judaism forfeited our responsibility, our right to convert the Jews.  Christ did call us to go into the world and make disciples, absolutely.  But if Jews are going to come to the understanding that Jesus is their Redeemer, then it will have to be from people other than us because our traditions have so betrayed our Redeemer for just over 2000 years; the persecution, the in-difference and the complicity and violence against Jews.  If we want to do anything for our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Jews, then we might urge them to be faithful to the religion of their tradition.  We might urge them by respecting them.  We might let them get to know us; that our Christianity rests firmly on their traditions of Judaism.

We might open doors and invite to Easter celebrations and be very intentional about words we choose.  We might be open to Seder invitations from our Jewish friends and go into their homes with open hearts, ready to listen and to learn what they might teach us about our God.  The image that I have in my mind of our problem with Judaism is of the swimming pool in Lime Springs Iowa where I learned to swim.  On this end of the swimming pool, it starts here and you can wade in, you just walking in the water and it’s around your ankles.  And then on that end it gets down all the way to 15 feet deep.  That’s where the diving tank is.  About 3 feet deep there is a rope and you can’t go past that rope unless you passed the intermediate swimming class.  And then at seven foot deep, you can’t get past that rope unless you passed the next swimming class.  I remember being in the shallow end of the pool, so wanting to go there.  We are Christians and we pretend that this is the pool and we pretend that we can swim; when we get where it is deep; we are going down.  The depth of Judaism enriches and enlivens our relationship to Judaism and to God.

That is the great miracle that’s so astounded Paul.  It is best I think to think of ourselves as honorary Jews.  We have been adopted into a family that we didn’t know was ours.  That’s the miracle that astounded Paul when it came time for bringing Gentiles into the church.  That God’s grace and salvation have been extended to the Gentiles too.  We are the Gentiles.  I know, that is something we need to think about because Jesus saw himself as coming for the Jews.  We have to celebrate our adoption.  And as we celebrate our adoption into the family of Christ, our attempt to respond faithfully to the salvation that is come to us in Jesus, we need to be careful that we don’t act in any way that denigrates God’s people, the Jews.  The good news is that despite our sin God has not rejected us.  Despite centuries of horrible unparalleled injustice toward Jews, they continue.  The good news of that is that the promises of God continue; the promises of God are trustworthy; and there’s nothing better that we can say in the church than thanks be to God.  Amen.


2017-07-02 Absolutes and Absolute Value

Absolutes and Absolute Value

Robert McCartney, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 2nd, 2017

Joshua 24:1-15 John 14:15-21

I was a young boy growing up I would constantly find myself in the midst of adults they were carrying on conversations.  Because I was just a young boy I was not required to join in with them.  I remember when I was seven years old that I was in one of those situations.  I was with my father; he was talking with two other men.  I don’t know what prompted this or anything but all of a sudden one man said, well, there are only two absolutes in life.  The absolutes in life are that if you live in this country you’re going to pay taxes and that eventually you will die.  Now imagine some of you have already heard that.  But being a impressionable young man — you know — it seemed really logical to me that that made sense and so I decided that I would adopt those two absolutes to my repertoire as I went through my life.  And for the next few years I did that.  Whenever there was an opportunity for frivolous conversation or dialogue I would bring up that there were only two absolutes in life that is: you’re going to pay taxes and you are going to die.

I went on that way for quite a while until I reached the age of thirty and when I reached the age of thirty I added a third absolute to my absolutes: you will pay taxes if you live in this country, that eventually you will die, and the third absolute that I added was that every spring Bill Whiskers Jacobson would pitch for St.  Joe’s One.  But now you might ask why did I add that one?  When I was thirty I belong to a church and we going to United Methodist Church for about four years and in that area there was a fast pitch churches soft ball league.  And we had participated in that league prior but since I joined the church they had not been actively participating in that but they had made the decision that they were going to rejoin the league.  And some men of the church — even though they knew nothing about my athletic ability — decided that they would invite me to join the team and play with them.  And since I played organized baseball since I was eight years old I jumped at the opportunity to do that; I accepted their invitation.

Now I have to tell you something.  What I want to tell you is: I am not boasting, I’m a very humble individual, but I do need to tell you one thing or else the story will not mean nearly as much.  And what I want to tell you is: I was a very good hitter.  So I joined the team and after they got to know my abilities, I found myself batting third or fourth.  That is usually where the best hitters on the team bat.  I was off to a really good start.  My first year in the league, the fifth game of the year, we are going to play a team by the name of team St.  Joe’s One.  St. Joe’s is an extremely large Catholic Church in the area.  They were so large in fact that they did not only have one team, they had two teams in the league.  We were set to play them.

And as were getting ready to play them, I’m watching to see who the pitcher for them is going to be and in the first inning I see this man walking out toward the mound and he was very small in stature about five foot six, 140 pounds and he walked with a slight limp.  And he had this grizzled look like he hadn’t shaved for three or four days and he looked like he was about sixty years old.  He stepped onto the mound and I realize that he is their pitcher and I am thinking I’m going to get to bat today four times; I’m going to have four hits, a really good game and our team is going to win.  I had already decided that just based upon his appearance.  So the first two batters stepped up but I forget what they did.  I stepped up, it was my turn and I looked out there and I’m saying: I am going to hit the ball so hard that the covers are going to fly off the ball.

And then Whiskers – that’s his nickname — delivers the first pitch and it’s a fast ball straight down the middle of the plate and I watch it and I hear the umpire say strike one.  That’s not real unusual; I usually don’t swing at the first pitch a lot because I didn’t care if I had one or two strikes on me, it helps me get my timing down.  He throws the second pitch and it’s a fastball and its outside and the umpire says ball.  And then it happened; something that would drastically alter the rest of my ball playing career.  The third pitch comes in and I see that the pitch is spinning.  So I know that the ball is going to change directions.  And the ball is coming towards me, which means its inside, so I stepped out of the batter’s box at the last second; I see the pitch come in and it breaks away from me across the plate and the umpire yelled strike two.  Now I have to tell you something – I don’t want to be real technical – but I bat left-handed, Whiskers threw right-handed so when a right-handed pitcher throws a baseball that is going to change directions to a left-handed batter that means the pitch should break towards me.  This one did not; it broke away from me.  Of all the thousands of pitchers that I’d seen in my lifetime, at that point, there had never been a right-handed pitcher that threw a pitch that broke away from me.

I was shocked and amazed and I was out of the batter’s box and I’m thinking: what in the world is he going to throw me next?  I’m trying to collect myself but it didn’t work because I stepped back into the batter’s box and Whiskers throws the next pitch.  It is a fastball right down the middle of the plate; I should have crushed it but all I could do was put a weak swing on it and I hit a lazy pop up to the second baseman and he caught it and I was out.  I batted three more times that game and at the end of that game I had zero hits.  I was oh for four and it was on.  I said: well maybe that was just a fluke; I have a bad game.  We played Whiskers two more times that year.  I batted eight more times against him, and at the end of the year I had zero hits against him.

So preparing for my second season, I said: well Whiskers had me last year but he’s not going to get me this year and with eight teams in the league we played the other seven teams three times.  So I faced him three more games the following year.  And I batted against him thirteen times and at the end of that season I had zero hits.

The third season rolls around and to make matters worse, we decided they no longer wanted to participate in the league but I had made some friends in the league and they invited me to play on their team and the name of the team that I want to play for was St. Joe’s Two, the other team from the St. Joe’s church, a team that even though they belong to the same church; there was a really intense rivalry and they always wanted to beat St. Joe’s One.

The third season we got to play against St. Joe’s One and Whiskers four times because we were in the playoffs.  I batted against Whiskers fifteen times and I had zero hits.  The fourth season rolls along, we play them three more times, Whiskers pitched all three games.  At the end of those three games against Whiskers Jacobson I had zero hits.  Did I tell you that I was a really good hitter?  The fifth season rolls around and it’s the night before we play St. Joe’s One and I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning – okay — I am drenched in sweat and I realized that I had been dreaming about having to face Bill Whiskers Jacobson the next night.  I am really messed up!  The sixth season rolls along and I decide that I’ve had about enough of this.  And so the day we played St. Joe’s One I go to my manager and tell him: drop me down in the lineup, I’m hurting the team.  He looks at me and he says: I’m not going to drop you down the lineup; just get a hit.  In that year we played St. Joe’s One three more times and at the end of the season I had zero hits against Whiskers Jacobson,

The seventh season rolls around and things are so bad now that on the day of the game against St. Joe’s One I go to the manager and I say: take me out of the lineup, I’m not hitting  Whiskers and he starts laughing his head off.  It was kind of stupid; I had to tell him I wasn’t hitting Whiskers?  He knew I wasn’t hitting Whiskers.  Everybody on my team knew I wasn’t hitting Whiskers.  Whiskers knew I wasn’t hitting Whiskers.  His team knew I wasn’t hitting him.  In fact, I think that probably the entire English-speaking world knew that I could not get a hit against Bill Whiskers Jacobson.  And that year we played St. Joe’s two more times after that, 15 more at-bats, zero hits.  I have now faced with Bill Whiskers Jacobson eighty times and had never been successful; had never gotten a hit off of him.  That number was too much for me to handle.  I could not handle over eighty so whatever the conversation came up — and it came up a lot — I would just tell people that against Whiskers, I was oh for seven years.

During that winter I was watching a baseball movie.  The name of the movie was called Bull Durham; many of you probably seen it; it was a pretty popular movie.  In the movie Kevin Costner plays this character named “Crash” Davis who had been in the minor leagues forever and he hit a lot of home runs, a really good hitter and he had made it to the major leagues.  It was the best twenty-one days of his life.  He had trouble hitting breaking balls and because of that he was sent back down the minors and never got a chance to go back up to the major leagues again.  There is a sequence of the movie where he is going to face a pitcher that throws a lot of breaking balls and curveballs and he is there talking to himself and he says: throw me that garbage; you are not going to get anything past me.  I said: you know something I’m going to try that against Whiskers next year.  I had to clean it up a lot because Kevin Costner uses a lot more colorful metaphors than I’m willing to – okay —  so I had to change the words a little bit.  So the eighth season rolls around and we are set played St. Joe’s One.  Of course, Whiskers Jacobson is pitching and it is my turn to bat and I am standing there telling myself: throw me whatever you got; I am going to hit you.  I had already decided that I was not going to take a pitch.  If this pitch was anywhere near the plate — his first pitch was anywhere near the plate — I was going to jump on it.

So I stand in the batter’s box and I looked and there is this little gleam in Whiskers’ face.  He knows he owns me so why wouldn’t he have a gleam on his face.  He gets ready and he delivers the first pitch and I see that the ball is rotating and spinning, it is coming inside, and I know it is the screwball.  It is going to break away from me and I wait and I wait I wait for the break and I keep my hip down and I swing as hard as I can and the ball rockets off the bat straight back toward the mound about six feet off the ground and Whiskers has to fall to the ground in the clump of dust and dirt to keep from getting his head knocked off.  As I run down to first base I see the ball landing in centerfield.   I round first base, the center fielder picks it up and throws it back into the infield and I retreat to first base.

My teammates on the sidelines are going crazy just like we had won the World Series.  I am exploding on the inside.  And if I jumped I knew I could go ten feet high in the air, but it decided that I probably needed to act professionally so I just calmly stood on base.  I couldn’t help but take a look over to Whiskers.  As he was dusting himself off our eyes locked and a smile came across his face and he tipped his cap to me and I nodded my acceptance.  The curse of Whiskers was over.  Now the fairy-book ending would be is that the rest of my career I hit Whiskers really hard and that would be true.  I hit Whiskers just as hard as I hit everybody else in the league.  The nice thing about it was it only took me seven years to do it.

I learned a valuable lesson that day and the lesson that I learned from that experience was this: that sometimes we go through life and we have these very small issues or problems in our life that for some reason or other we make in the gigantic problems.  And that the only way that we can overcome them is that we sometimes have to do something ourselves and the good news is that sometimes help comes from an unexpected source when you least expect it.  I endured those seven years and the problem was not that I couldn’t hit; the problem was: why did I let Whiskers get into my head?  So it made me think that when it comes to learning or education, we are a product of a system that might be slightly flawed.

The reason I say that is this: the process for formal education goes something like this.  For the first five or six years of our life that responsibility mainly falls on our parents.  They are responsible for the care and nurturing and educational development of us.  When we are five or six the decision is made that they might need some help.  And so what we do we ship children in an awful place called school and we banish them there for the next twelve years so that they can get a formal education and everything that they need.  Now there is a lot that happens to students during the course of those twelve years but there is one overriding element that happens during that educational process.  Our children, our students, are presented material or data.  They are expected to gain an understanding of it.  And in order to see if they understand or comprehend it they are given an evaluation.  Most of you know that as a test.  Materials are presented; they are to look at it; they are supposed to comprehend it and we check and see if they comprehended it by giving them a test.  Evaluation of the test is usually always the same.  The students are given questions or prompts and the students are supposed to do is provide answers to those questions or prompts and the expectation is that there is always a correct answer.

Now I was a high school teacher for ten years and I’m not saying that that is wrong and I’m also definitely saying that it is not right.  Why would I say that?  The reason I would say that is that for thirty-six years I have also had the privilege of being able to teach Sunday school classes.  For the first nineteen years I taught senior high student classes for the last seventeen years I’ve been asked to lead adult classes.  I am slightly puzzled why so many adults displayed little interest about learning more and becoming more educated about their faith and their religion.  For Christians, the major text or the source of our beliefs comes from this, the Holy Bible.   For many people the Holy Bible is something that they want to avoid.  I’ve heard many reasons why people don’t study the Bible and here are some of them:

  • There is so much violence in the Bible; I just can’t handle that.
  • The Bible contradicts itself in so many places: it says one thing here and another thing someplace else.
  • The Bible is not historically accurate. Now I don’t know why they would say that because it is.  There is just a couple places where there might have a question.
  • The fourth reason I hear is: the Bible was written two thousand years ago; it’s not applicable today; the circumstances are much different.
  • And then I hear this one and this is my absolute favorite. The preacher knows it.  It is his job to tell us; it is what he is paid to do.  That’s why some people don’t look at the Bible.
  • But the number one reason, the one that I hear more often – it is a legitimate reason — I don’t read or study the Bible because when I read it I don’t understand it.  Or I cannot find the answer.

It could possibly be that the real issue is: understanding the Bible might not be consistent with a formal education process, a process where someone provides a question and we are to provide the answer.  It doesn’t always work that way.  There is a TV game show named Jeopardy and Jeopardy has lasted for over fifty years.  When I was young in college we used to blow off classes to play Jeopardy; so Jeopardy has been around a long time.  One of the reasons I believe it is lasted so long is because the contestants are given the answer; ll they have to do is come up with the question.  So I believe that that could be really helpful to people trying to understand the Bible is that if they would focus on the question and not finding the answers.   Focus on the question instead of solely focusing on the answer.

Let’s take a look at the Scriptures and see how that might work.  Joshua is a fascinating character in the Old Testament.  But what we read today is at the end of Joshua and has little or no value if we don’t know what happened prior to that.  Prior to that, there’s a man named.  God chose Moses to go down into Egypt and lead the Hebrew people — that were in captivity and slaves down there — out of Egypt and into the land that he called the Promise Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.  That’s what Moses was asked to do.  Moses leads the people out of Egypt and something happens along the way and Moses is not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land.  And it’s not really important for today’s lesson what that was.  If Moses was not to lead the people to the Promise Land, a successor had to be chosen.  Hosea was chosen to do this.  Hosea was chosen to lead the people in to the Promised Land.  If that sounds unfamiliar to you, it is because God changed his name to Joshua.  He was born Hosea, God changed his name to Joshua which is the Hebrew equivalent of a word that is translated into Jesus.  That’s another sermon someday.

Joshua was chosen by God to succeed Moses.  Now that’s the answer; Joshua was chosen to lead the people to the Promised Land.  But the real importance is: why was Joshua chosen?  To find that out, we need to go back to Numbers, the book of Numbers chapters 13 and 14 where we are given a hint.  Moses was still in charge and he was thinking about the Promised Land, the land that God had said that this is where the Hebrew people will live.  Moses decides he will sent out spies to check out this land; they’re going to go in and see what it’s all about and the people and take a look at that.  Twelve men are selected to be spies, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel and they go out and spy out the land for forty days.  They come back and they give a report to Moses.  Ten of them report like this: we spied out the land, it is in fact filled with milk and honey and fruit.  The people that live there are very strong; their cities are really well fortified and large.  We are not able to go up against these people, for they are stronger than us and they look like Giants and we seem to be grasshoppers in their eyes.

The other two, Joshua and Caleb report this way: let us go up at once and occupy it, for we will be able to overcome them if God is pleased with us.  He will give it to us, do not fear the people of this land, they are no more than bread to us.  Two very different reports, two different points of view, why?  That’s because the question for the ten was much different than the question for the two.  The question for the ten was: what did I see?  The question for Joshua and Caleb was: what does God want me to see?  After the death of Moses, Joshua becomes a leader; he is the one that is chosen to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land.  The book of Joshua records the details of the events that transpired to bring that about successfully.  Near the end after they are in the Promised Land and everybody is been defeated, Joshua calls for an assembly of the people.

He reminds them — from our reading today — of everything that God is done for them and wants them to answer one question before disbursing all the people out to the lands that they have been given.  The question is: what God are you going to serve?  He does not tell them the answer.  He does not tell them to serve God.  He wants them to choose.  And verse 15 is the response of that.  Now if you are willing to serve the Lord, choose this day who you will serve, whether: the gods of your ancestors that they served in that region beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

The question is: why did Joshua say this?  Because Joshua — he probably had numerous absolutes in his life — but the number one absolute was clear; that Joshua was always going to serve the God whom he loved.  If we go to the New Testament reading, we have to think about what transpired before the 14th chapter of John.  Before this Jesus had informed his disciples that he would be betrayed and arrested and even informed them that Peter would deny him three times.  Jesus was going away; he would no longer be with the disciples.  But then Jesus says: I promise you this; I promise you that I will send you the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This Holy Spirit thing, it causes a ton of issues and debates for Christians.  All they want to do is talk about this Holy Spirit.  Is it inside of us; is it outside of us; is it like an angel; does it speak to us; is it our conscience; does it protect us; does it guide us; does it speak to us?  And we get caught up in trying to find out the answers — all the answers and all the details — and we miss the real importance.

The real question was: why does Jesus promise the Holy Spirit?  That’s the really important thing: why does Jesus promise to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit?  Jesus had lived on this earth for 30 plus years fully as a human being experiencing everything that you and I and every human being experiences.  Jesus knew that he was leaving and he would not be here with these people much longer or the people in the future.  He asked himself this question: what can I do to help God’s children after I’m gone?  The answer to that question was: the Holy Spirit.  It’s important.  It’s important to not knowing all the answers or all the details; just that Jesus wanted to help us in our daily walk and provide us with the counselor and we should just accept it with all of its benefits.

Just one more thing; I want to do one thing real quickly for you because there’s something else that happens.  Sometimes in our formal education we need to un-learning things before we can learn things in our faith.  Here we go; I am a number line.  I taught high school math, mostly algebra and geometry and there is a concept of a thing called absolute value which is the easiest thing in the world to understand until mathematicians do things that they should never do with it and make it really complicated for students.  Here is absolute value; I am a number line, I am right in the middle of the number line; I am zero; I’m the origin.  This is for your benefit; it would be backwards for me but is it right for you.  If I go this way: 1 2 3, positive 1, positive 2, positive 3, that is where I end up.  If I go back to the origin and if I go this way, this is -1 -2 -3, so that is all a number line is; over in this direction it’s positive members; over in this other direction it’s negative numbers.   Right in the middle is the origin where things begin.  Absolute value is this: if I move 1 2 3 4 5, I am at positive five.  All absolute value is the distance I am from the origin.  So I’m five units from the origin so my absolute value is five.

Back at the origin, if I move this way, -1 -2 -3 -4 -5, I’m at -5.  I am five units from the origin; my absolute value is also five.  So it makes no difference whether it’s positive or negative; all absolute value is distance from the origin; -5 is the same absolute value as +5.  Absolute value says that you have a greater absolute value the further away you are from the origin.  So if I’m at 2, my absolute value is 2.  If I am at 14; my absolute value was 14.  14 is greater than 2 so you have a greater absolute value.  It’s just the opposite in our faith.

We do not have greater absolute value the further away we get away from our origin or our beginning.  Our greatest absolute value is when we are extremely close to the origin or our beginning; that’s when we have the greatest absolute value.  This is totally opposite from our formal education.  I still have three absolutes in my life.  One is not paying taxes.  I choose to earn wages; I choose to buy things; and I choose to own things.  If I chose not to do that I would not have to pay taxes.  One of my absolute is not dying because I know that I will live forever.  I’m just not sure what form I’m going to be in, where it is going to be, or any of the details surrounding it.  And one of them is not Whiskers pitching.  He might be physically dead.  He’s probably in his 80s by now and I’m sure he is not still playing softball.

My first absolute is this: there is a being so powerful and complex I can’t comprehend what he is like but I know he wants to be in relationship with me.  My second absolute is: there is a human named Jesus who is fully in tuned to my God and he provides a perfect example of how I am supposed to live.  And my third absolute is that I have a helper sent from God, at the request of Jesus, that we call the Holy Spirit to help make things easier for me in my daily walk in service to my God.  I am not sure how many absolutes that each of you has.  But I hope they are good ones and they are not paying taxes and dying.  All of you are important and have value in God’s eyes.  My wish is that each of you has the greatest absolute value possible.  That you are so close to your God that you feel the warmth of his arms as he embraces you or that you are so close that you are sitting in his lap and you are feeling the warmth of his breath.  And that’s comforting to you; may it be so.

2017-06-25 So You Want to Follow Jesus? Really?

So You Want to Follow Jesus? Really?

Rev.  Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, June 25th, 2017

John 21:1-9

To want to tell you that the air conditioner is working in every other room except this one.  And I will also tell you if this is your first time at Chandler you’re getting a good view of who we are.  If you’re looking for an uptight church you are in the wrong place.  We are who we are and we gently carefully help one another along.  That is to say that if you have children sitting next to you that feel especially wiggly, the chair next to you is a good place to be wiggly.  And the aisle is a good place to run up and down in celebration of God’s presence.  If you cannot have fun with God, I don’t know what to do.  Let me also say this: if you are uncomfortable right now, the hallway is cooler.  You can step into the hallway.  It’s actually cooler in the front than it is in the back.  So those of you who sit in the back are finally getting what you deserve. [laughter]  I was teasing.

This passage actually happens to be one of my favorites in all of Scripture for two reasons.  The first is because it spells out for us exactly what happens when we are unsure about a relationship.  Peter is the one who talked big about what he was going to do and be for Jesus.  Peter approached every problem with an open mouth.  He said: I’m there for you, Lord; I will not let you down Lord.  I’ll follow you, Lord; I’ve got your back.  And then when Jesus needed him he looked to the left and he looked to his right and Peter was neither. Peter’s feet had gotten the better of his mouth and he went off to hide.  Isn’t that how it is in a lot of relationships when people want something from us they talk big.  Maybe we do that with others but let’s talk about other people who are not here.  That’s not us; right?  We never let anybody down.  We always follow through on what we say we will do, right?

So Peter has abandoned Jesus.  Peter is in the boat with the other disciples after Jesus has disappeared, raised from the dead.  It is the women who came to say that the tomb is empty and the angels had said he was raised from the dead.  And you know in the 1st century, women – well —  you don’t believe them; we don’t treat women like that anymore.  So Peter didn’t know what to think and he said to the other disciples: I’m going fishing: who’s coming with me?  It’s nice to be with Jesus, right?  It’s really exciting to be — it’s fun to be with Jesus when he is right there; you know what’s going on.  It’s good to be with Jesus.  But then when you’re not sure what you should do with yourself you just go back to old habits, right?  You know what to do, you fish.

Well it’s hot and they are fishing and Peter has taken off all of his clothes; many of the disciples may have taken off all their clothes.  We only know about Peter; he’s fishing naked.  That’s fine; it is a fairly common practice in the Mediterranean.  He sees Jesus on the beach; they all do but they don’t recognize him.  He gives them some instruction: tells them cast your nets over here you will catch more fish — they do — and then Peter recognizes Jesus.  I like that because it has something to say about what we look for in others; tells us how we recognize them.  Are we able to see them for who they really are?  I don’t know about you but in my relationships I fall into habits there too.  I expect people to be the same always.  And by my expectation I cull creativity; I compress; I drive out creativity because that would mean they would be something I’m not accustomed to.  I know we say we want our kids to be creative but we expect them to be what we want them to be right now what they were when we thought they were good.

Well Peter and the other disciples cast the net where Jesus tells them.  They haul a whole load of fish.  The net doesn’t tear maybe that’s the miracle.  They recognize Jesus for who he is and this is my favorite part.  Peter who has been naked — he’s fishing — he puts on his clothes and jumps into the sea.  I suppose when you are unsure about the relationship it’s easy to lose clarity about whether your clothes should be on or off.  And that opens up a whole room of places for us to go thinking this afternoon about times we felt pressured in our clothes or out of our clothes and the insecurity of the relationship that that reveals.

The other reason that I really like this passage is it gives us a front row view of what belief and faith and righteousness mean.  Let me tell you what I mean.  Our cultural church, our cultural religion, dating all the way back to about 1865 has defined those words in very specific ways; righteousness for our cultural religion means being good enough for God.  And we get into this whole thing about my sins will be wiped away, we’ll all be white as snow, and therefore worthy to be present before the Lord; but I got to try too.  The message about cultural religion is: be good enough to earn your way into God’s presence, righteousness.  Belief has come to mean: what you have in your head about the crazy stuff about Jesus.  Do I intellectually ascend that Jesus actually walked on the water, belief.  That’s what belief has come to mean.  It’s what I have in my head about the person of Jesus.  Do you believe Jesus healed, do you believe that Jesus ascended, do you have right belief?  It’s about what’s in your head.  Faith has come in our cultural religion to mean very similar to how we define belief, it is what we hold on to and what we have and it’s have more faith and it’s a possession we accumulate.  We are putting beliefs in our little bag that we hold onto it and we carried it and we say it makes us good and it is part of righteousness.  All three of those kind of go together in our cultural religion.

The problem is that this is not what they mean in First Century Greek.  Righteousness is actually the Hebrew word that has been passed over.  The word is tsadik, it is a word of the Royal Court; it has to do with access to the king and who gets in to presence of the king.  The king was very protected; you don’t see the king; you don’t approach the king; you don’t ask the king; you do not request the king, nothing.  You are invited into the presence of the king.  It is by invitation only, and it is a gift.   Tsadik, it is what righteousness means; it is a gift from God to you.  You have access to the king, you are given access to the king.  In the Old Testament and in the Hebrew and in the first century Greek, the caution is always the same.  Never, ever, ever presume that you have earned access to the king.  It is always a gift.  If you strut around and you proclaimed that you earned access to the king, you will lose your head.  It’s a gift; it is not an accomplishment.  Tuck that away as you think about righteousness, access to the king, it’s been given to you.

Belief is another word that we’ve redefined in twenty-one centuries.  In the First Century Greek belief is the word pisti and it simply means that what is important to you — if I’m going to believe in you — what is important to you becomes important in me.  And so when Jesus says believe in me, he’s not saying intellectually accend to all the weird stuff that people say about me.  He saying: make what is important to me important to you.  In our text today we get the final words that he has to say to his disciples: feed my lambs, feed my lambs, feed my lambs.  That is something to chew on this afternoon, if you believe.   If you wanting to make what is important to Jesus important to you: feed my lambs.  What does that mean?  What does that mean for you today?  Chew on that.

Faith is actually the bigger part of pisti, which is belief; pistis, that is faith.  Faith is actually a question.  Faith is: will you act on what you believe?  If what is important to Jesus is important to you, will you act on it?  Well if you’re tucking it up into your head as intellectual assent and knowledge that you carry around that.  I know lots of things about Jesus.  You are not going to do anything.  Knowledge does not make us do anything.  Knowledge is stuff we carry around; it is not faith.  Will you act on what you believe?  That’s the question of faith.  You are granted presence of the king.  Today in our text, Peter and the disciples have blown it.  They know they have blown it; they are terribly guilty.  Peter is confused; Jesus comes to them.  The question is, will you continue to make what is important to me important to you.  Jesus asks this three times: do you love me Peter?  Make what is important to me important to you.  Do you love me Peter?  This is what love looks like: what is important to me becomes important to you.  That’s great for your relationships.  If you’re struggling with your primary relationships with what love means; write that one down.  What is important to you becomes important to me.  It’s a both way thing and will you act on what you believe?  It is three little words and I think they make all the difference.

2017-06-18 Compassion…Mercy…Grace


Mr.  Steve Gregory, Chandler United Methodist Church, June 18th, 2017

Luke 15:1-2:11-32

Let us pray.  Dear God may the words I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you Lord our rock and Redeemer Amen.

As we gather here this morning on Father’s Day, God is placing on my heart to bring a message about our heavenly Father’s mercy, compassion and grace.  Mercy is always surrounded by compassion and grace; they go together in a beautiful way.  The message today comes from the parable of the lost son or the prodigal son.  We often struggle with this parable because we see it as unfair; but mercy is not fair.  We also struggle because sometimes we are the older son and sometimes we are the younger son in this parable.

Before we look at the parable, let’s take a look at what parables are and what mercy is.  Parables are simple stories that Jesus used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.  Parables use everyday situations to help the hearer better understand.  Jesus used parables to teach his followers who God is; what God is like; and what God’s will is for us.  These simple stories with everyday elements help the followers of Jesus understand his message.  What is mercy?  The online definition says: mercy is compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish.  Mercy is compassion shown toward somebody that you could punish.  Basically, mercy is: you don’t get what you do deserve and you get what you don’t deserve.

I like to share a story about mercy I received back in Junior High School.  I lived in Three Points which is about 30 miles west of Tucson.  It was summer break just like it is today.  One of my Junior High friends and I had a really good idea.  Or what seemed like a good idea at the time; but you know how those good ideas go with Junior High boys.  That summer we had a lot of bees; there were bees everywhere.  Sometimes those bees would move into our barn or other structures on the ten acres that my family owned.  The week before we had the beekeeper out to remove the hive from the side of the house.  Well, we discovered a new hive of bees under the camper.  So what do Junior High boys do in this situation when their Dad is at work in their Mom is sleeping from working the overnight shift at the hospital?  That’s right, we smoked out the bees.  We smoked out the bees.  That was our plan and with all bad plans it went from bad to worse in a hurry.

It went bad when I dropped that match into the four-inch tall dead grass on the property.  The more we stomped on the flames the more it spread.  My friend ran and grabbed the hose but the hose would not reach to where the fire was at.  So we ran and we got shovels and we tried to stop the fire with shovels.  The wind helped fuel the fire and it spread quickly throughout that four-inch grass on the property.  Within minutes we had about two acres on fire.  The fire was moving away from our house and our barns but it was headed right towards the neighbor’s house.  My friend ran into my house as I continued that losing battle with my shovel.  You see the problem is the nearest fire department was thirty miles away, so we were in trouble.  My mother woke up to these words of my friend on the phone.  My friend said: Dad come quick, the Gregory place is on fire.  Not a good way to wake up your Mom who has just worked the overnight shift.  To make a long bad story short, we burnt about ten acres of land that day before the neighbors were able to stop it at the roads.  My neighbor’s five acres was completely blackened except for a ten-foot circle around their house.  My neighbors were not home that day; they came home late that night.  They said they could smell the smoke but they could not tell that their property was completely blackened.  Not until the next morning when the neighbor was standing out on his front porch looking at his property, wondering what had happened.  That’s when my dad sent me over there — alone — to explain to him what I had done.

It was a long walk of shame as I looked forward.  I could see the neighbor watching me from his perch.  I would look back and see my Dad watching me walk over there.  The neighbor soon realized who was responsible for blackening his property.  As I took that walk of shame to his front porch I was expecting the worse; I really was.  He offered me mercy.  I had burned down all of his property and he offered me mercy.  He said accident happened and it will grow back.  Now I was his favorite helper for about three years on his property as I helped him. [laughter] He was never mad at me.  It was mercy from the start.  I also expected my parents to come down hard on me but they didn’t. It was mercy from them too.  It was a lesson on mercy that I will never forget and it has always stayed with me.  Mercy, we don’t get what we do deserve.  That day I didn’t get what I deserved.

Now let us take a look at the Parable of the Lost Son and see what it teaches us about mercy.  First, who is Jesus telling the parable?  Verse one and two says that the tax collectors and sinners were gathered around to hear Jesus, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered: this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Jesus is there teaching to the group.  He tells the parable to two groups; he tells it to the tax collectors and sinners.   He tells it to the Pharisees out on the edge of the group watching, one parable with a message for both groups.  The first part of the parable is for the tax collectors and sinners, the bottom people at the time, the lowest of the low.  And the second part was for the Pharisees, the teachers of the law.  How did the Pharisees operate?  The Pharisees wanted to separate themselves from sinners.  Their plan was to shame the sinners into correcting their ways and maybe maybe they would welcome them.  But they had to clean up their act first and then they had to prove that they had cleaned up their act.  Jesus, he didn’t separate himself from sinners, Jesus connected with them.

Jesus does not require us to clean up our act first.  He welcomes us where we are at.  He welcomes us to come to him and then the transformation begins.  What is a better way to draw people to God?  Is it to shame them or to welcome them where they are at?  Jesus chooses to meet people where they’re at; connect with them; then he is able to teach and transform their lives.  Let’s look at the first part of the parable, the message for the sinners and the tax collectors.  In the parable the younger son asks for his inheritance.  He says in verse 12: Father gave me my share of the inheritance.  The father gave it to him.  This was a very disrespectful thing to do at the time it was unheard-of.  Just think, if your youngest son came to you and said Father, Mother give me my inheritance now; pull out my part of your 401(K), pull out my part of your retirement accounts, pull out half of the value of the house.  I need my inheritance right now.

The Father in the parable gave his son his inheritance and then the youngest son set off to a foreign country – a distant country — where he wasted the money.  He wasted the money on wild living.  The youngest son lost it all.  He wasted all that the father had earned and saved for his son’s future; it was just wasted and now he was in need.  The youngest son was then forced to work at the lowest of jobs; he had to feed the pigs.  Not only feed the pigs, verse 16 says he longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating but no one gave him anything.  He had hit rock bottom.  Then he decided to try to go back to his father.  Maybe he could be one of his father’s servants, not a son, but a servant.  He thought he could never be a son again.  But maybe, just maybe, he could be a servant.  So he got up and he headed home to see if his father would take him back as a servant.  The youngest son had hit rock bottom before returning.  May we all turn back before hitting that low point in our lives.

The Bible says: while he was still a long ways off, the father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.  He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  The Father had been watching and hoping someday his son would return.  How many times did the father, look out on the horizon to see if his son was returning?  How many times had he hoped that his son would return?  The Bible tells us that he was filled with compassion, filled with compassion.  The Father teaches us that God never turns his back on us; he never turned his back on you or me.  God is always watching for us to return; patiently waiting for us to return home; waiting for us to return to his open arms.  Notice the father didn’t go looking for the son; he didn’t go to that faraway land to get him.  He didn’t go after him, but he waited for him to come back.  He waited for him with open arms, open compassionate arms.  God does the same for us.  He waits for us to return and he welcomes us and rejoices just like the Father did.

God is the God of second chances.  For many of us, God is the God of third, fourth and fifth chances; God welcomes you back.  Will you accept his mercy, his compassion and his grace?  We have all been the younger son; we have.  Different situations, different stories, but we have all been in need of God’s mercy and compassion.  We have all been lost but God has been and will always be there, ready to welcome us home.  And we have also been the older son; we have.  In the parable the older son returns from the fields.  He sees a celebration going on and he’s mad.  He is mad, this is unfair.  He doesn’t think the younger brother should be welcomed back like that.  The older brother has been doing his part.  He’s been honoring his father with his faithfulness, with his hard work.  The situation is unfair in the brothers eyes.  The Bible says that the father pleaded with the older son and tried to explain but the older son sees it as unfair.  Remember, mercy is not fair.

The parable ends with these words, my son — the father said — you are always with me; everything I have is yours.  We had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.  He was lost and is found.  Can you think of a time when you were the older son?  I can.  Do you ever judge others?  Do you look down on other people or groups of people?  I can say, I sometimes do.  Do we ever question if people really repent and deserve forgiveness?   In Matthew chapter 7 verses three through five, it says why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?  How can you say to your brother: take that speck out of your eye — when all the time — there is a plank in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  Are there times when we need to remove the plank or the log from our own eye before we take the speck out of somebody else’s?  Do we judge people at a higher standard than we judge ourselves?  I can say I am guilty of that.

I think God wants every person that calls himself a Christian, every person that calls himself a follower of Jesus, to carefully consider these words from Matthew seven: when we take a long deep hard look at ourselves instead of looking at other’s first.  I know and I hear many Christians that use words of hate towards other people.  Many times those people are the most vocal and the loudest.  The problem is the world is listening; the world is listening.  Followers of God should be known for: loving, welcoming, accepting, forgiving, being compassionate and being merciful.  Do those words describe every Christian you know?  My answer is: sadly not always.  Sometimes it’s me falling short of being a good follower of God.  Those words describe Jesus and those words should describe his followers: loving, welcoming, accepting, forgiving, compassionate and merciful. I can see times when I was the older son in the parable and I can also remember times when I’ve been the younger son in the parable.  May we all spent time this week rereading this parable of the lost son.  May we allow God’s words to transform us.  May we extend mercy like God extends mercy; may we extend compassion like God does; may we extend grace like God does.

Now I’d like to close with the story of something that happened at the church this week.  As you know for two years Chandler United Methodist Church has been partnering with IHELP, that’s the Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program.  We open the doors of our church to help people in our community break the cycle of homelessness.  On Monday the IHOPE Director sent me an email; see one of the women in the program was moving into an apartment.  She had no household items.  She didn’t have any: sheets, towels, plates, cups, silverware; she did not have anything.  So yeah, maybe some of the people from the partner churches could maybe donate some items.  I sent that email to Penny and Lisa on the Mission Team here at the church.  This is what happened next.

Penny then sent that request out to our regular IHOPE volunteers.  Within 24 hours (was really probably less than 24 hours) people signed up for everything that she needed.  Every item on the list was signed up for by someone here at the church.  You see on SignUpGenius when people sign up for donations it sends me an email.  Throughout the day, I kept getting these emails all day Monday: another person signed up, another person signed up.  At the end of the day it was almost full.  When I checked it the next morning everything was signed up.  It was truly amazing.  It was truly a blessing on how the people of this church responded.

I’d like to add that no one ever asked who it was for; no one asked what the story was; or how this person became homeless.  It was compassion, it was love, it was mercy.  It was the followers of Christ in action.  It was the church in action.  It was the people of this church sharing God’s mercy and compassion for the person in need right here in our community.  Well done church, well done.

So on this Father’s Day and on every day, remember God is waiting for you and for me.  His arms are wide open.  My we accept his mercy and compassion, may we accept his grace and love.  And may we extend that same mercy and compassion to the people around us.  Sometimes we need to extend that mercy and compassion to ourselves.  Our heavenly Father is welcoming you home with open arms.  Go to him and let the celebration begin. Amen.