Tag Archives: kingdom of god

Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 4: The Zax

Zax_in_prax

The north-going Zax and the south-going Zax cross paths in the prairie of Prax.

The Zax are lesser-known Seuss creations.  Found in one of the smaller stories within the Sneetches book, they are two creatures full of certainty.  Their paths intersect one day in an open field.  One is going north.  The other south.  They run into each other, and refuse to yield.  Each Zax is certain of his path.  He is certain that there is no other way to go.  There is no room for east or west.  Both dig in, ready for a wait, ready to hold fast to their certainty for as long as it takes.  As they stand there at a face off, a funny things happens.  The world around them goes on.   The story ends with the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax standing face to face, with the world all around them changed.  There are buildings and roads, even a bridge that goes over them.  All around them is progress, leaving behind the Zax and their certainty.

zax standoffAssurance is a virtue.  I’m not sure certainty is.  Certainty is built on the promise that I am right.  It inspires us to dig deeper trenches, and defend certainty at all costs.  Certainty regards new facts with suspicion.  It does not adapt well to change.  Assurance is built on the promise that I am loved. It is a source of hope and inspires confidence.  Assurance allows freedom for challenge and growth.  I think the world could use more blessed assurance and less religious certainty.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a warning.  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven,” he says (Matthew 7:21).  Faith is not about checking a box.  Faith is not about making your claim, saying a formulaic prayer, and thinking that your ticket has been punched.  “Only those who do the will of my Father will enter,” he continues.  He closes this long sermon, one in which he told them some pretty radical stuff, with a reminder that nodding their heads in agreement, even shouting a few ‘amens’ wouldn’t be enough.  I can imagine after this sermon, the people filing by Jesus, shaking his hand warmly and saying, “Good sermon, teacher.”  The Kingdom of Heaven is about more than knowing what is right.  It is about living each day as if the things Jesus taught actually matter.

The Christian life is not easily defined, and it is not easily lived.  It starts not with having all the answers, but with having the courage to ask the questions.  Religious certainty is built on having all the answers.  It is about picking the right Bible verses to memorize, and standing firm on the right side.  It is built, above all, on being right.  Yet Jesus himself called out those who wanted to draw such clear lines.  To those who memorized all the right Bible verses, he declared “You have heard it said… But I say to you.”  He threw doubt upon all that their institutions and religious righteousness had been built on.

Instead he called people to struggle with real problems.  He called people to fix upon the spirit of love that transcended the letter of the Law.  Instead of offering certainty, he offered assurance.  Assurance that the entirety of the Bible could be summed up with a commandment to love.  Assurance that the sinner is welcome at the table.  Assurance that treating one another with love was more important than being right.

Blessed assurance gives me the strength to love.  It gives me the confidence to be vulnerable.  It gives me the safety to adventure into uncharted territory.  Assurance inspires me to go to new places, meet new people, and try to find new ways to encounter what transcends all things: God’s love.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a simple metaphor.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who built a house on bedrock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house.  It didn’t fall…  But everybody who hears these words and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew against that house.  It fell and was completely destroyed” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Certainty is built upon the promise that I am right.  It does not respond well to shifting winds or changing times.  Assurance is built upon the promise that I am loved.  With that foundation, I can stand against any storm.

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 3: The Sneetches

sneetchesThe Sneetches are such silly creatures, aren’t they?  Two groups of yellow bird-like creatures lived on a beautiful beach.  Some have little green stars on their bellies.  Some don’t.  That’s when the trouble begins.  The star-bellied Sneetches believe that the star upon their belly makes them “the best Sneetches on the beaches.”  They enjoy much fun and frivolity, but don’t let their plain-bellied-brethren join in their reindeer games.  Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean.  He has just the contraption that will solve all the problems of the plain-bellied Sneetches.  The plain-bellied Sneetches pay just three dollars to enter the machine, and come out the other end with stars upon thars.

This is only a momentary victory, as natural-starred-Sneetches maintain that they are still the better Sneetches.  Sylvester comes in again and offers some help.  For only ten dollars per Sneetch, they can enter the machine and have that pesky star removed.  Chaos ensues.  The Sneetches get so caught up in adding or removing their stars to keep up with the trends that eventually even they cannot keep up.  Eventually, Sylvester leaves, his pockets properly lined.  In the end, “all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”

It would be easier to dismiss the Sneetches as silly, superficial creatures if we didn’t see ourselves so clearly in them.  Once again, Dr. Seuss presents us with a fun-house mirror.  Bent to stretch out the image to absurd proportions, but mirror-enough to recognize ourselves.  The Sneetches remind us of the absurdity of our divisions.  They remind us of the stars for which we long.  They remind us of the anxieties with which we wake every day.  The anxieties that sit in the pit of our stomachs.  The anxieties that keep us awake, that diminish our appetites, that affect our relationships, and cripple us with fear for of what we don’t have.

The Sneetches worried about whether or not they had stars upon thars.  And we can look out those silly Sneetches and laugh, until we start noticing the stars upon others that we wish we had.  I see the Corvette parked in our neighbor’s garage.  I see the parents whose children are always so well-behaved.  I see the blogger who is selling advertising and the podcasts in the top 100.  I see the churches with the talented praise bands and the powerful music, and the preachers biggering their churches.  I look down at my own belly, and there is no star.  And to boot, it’s a little too big.  Look at those guys at the gym who have six-packs, not stars, upon thars.

And then I hear Jesus.

“Therefore I say to you, don’t worry about your life,” and the needle on the record player amplifying my anxieties gets lifted off with a terrible screech.

Before he can finish the sentence, I want to scream.  Don’t worry about your life? What is that supposed to mean?  My worries are valid.  My worries are righteous.  Shouldn’t I be in better shape?  Shouldn’t I want a bigger church?  Shouldn’t I want more readers, more listeners?  Don’t I deserve to do some biggering of my own?  And then I hear myself.  And I pause long enough to let Jesus finish.

“Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.  Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” (Isn’t there more to you than the whether or not you have a star upon yars?)  “Look at the birds in the sky.  They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns.  Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Aren’t you worth much more than they are?” (Matthew 6:25-27)

“I guess”, I think.  But still, that seems absurd.  God is the one who gave us the ability to think about the future.  And with the ability to think about the future comes the ability to worry about it.  So am I supposed to stop saving money?  Should I spend my pension?  Should I get rid of my refrigerator?  How far am I supposed to take this?

“Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:28) Maybe there is a difference between preparing for the future and worrying about the future.  Being a good steward of what has been entrusted to me is different than wrangling out every last penny so as to hoard my blessings.  It seems possible to have a pension without being a slave to it.  There is still room for generosity, kindness, and contentment even in the midst of preparing for a rainy day.  If I can let Jesus’ words seep into my crippling anxiety, I can realize that biggering is not what life is all about.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ long explanation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This Kingdom that Jesus describes defies simple explanation.  Yet at the same time it seems to come back to one thing: love.  “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one have have contempt for the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)  What do you love?  Do you love God, and seek first God’s kingdom?  Or do you love status, or money, or power?  When we operate out of anxiety, we let our fears rule, so we serve whatever quick fix might offer us an illusion of security.  But when we operate out of love, and truly let Jesus be our Lord, we learn that security lies not in the fragile, decaying, dying things of this world.  When we operate out of love, we can stop worrying about the stars we don’t have.  Perhaps more importantly, we can stop guarding the places where we have stars. We can loosen our grip on the stars upon ours.  When security rests only in the eternal, life-giving, resurrected Christ, generosity, justice, and peace start to seep in.

The Sneetches were convinced that having a star upon thars was all that mattered.  They knew that if they could only have what the others didn’t then they’d be okay.  So they gave everything they had to the one who offered them security.  He offered them a quick fix, a walk through a machine, and a star upon thars.  Eventually though, they learned.  They learned that the security they sought in the mark on their belly was empty.

The question remains, will we?  Can we learn to stop searching for easy answers?  Can we learn to let go of our anxiety over what is or isn’t on our bellies, in our garages, in our pews, or in our bank accounts?  Can we learn to stop putting our trust in a false sense of security?

Can I?

Can I learn to love God first, and let all else come later?  Can I learn to seek first the Kingdom of God, and then my pension?  Can I learn to let go, loosen my grip, and let God’s grace fill in the gaps?

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2: The Lorax

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.

truffula treesThe Lorax is a cautionary tale.  It opens in a land that is gray and foresaken.  There are stumps littering the countryside and smog fills the sky.  There is a city off in the distance, but the only remnant of life in the desolate land is a tower.  A boy ventures out into this wilderness in hopes of hearing the story of how it all came to be.  Once he gets to the tower, a man named Once-ler tells the story.

One day long ago, Once-ler happened upon a beautiful land full of trees, animals, birds, and fish.  The trees, he finds, can be harvested to produce something he calls a “thneed,” and a “thneed is a something that everyone needs.”  Immediately upon chopping down one of the truffula trees, a little orange mustachioed creature appears, “I am the Lorax,” he declares. “I speak for the trees.”  The tale that is spun is a familiar one.  While the Once-ler “biggers and biggers” his operations, and “biggers and biggers” his profits, there are unintended side effects.  The animals have no place to play.  The fish have no place to swim, and the birds have no place to fly as the waste from the Thneed factory lays waste to the land.  Despite the Lorax’s loud protestations, the Onceler keeps going, with employees to feed, he needs to make thneeds, and cares for little else.  Finally, the last truffula tree is chopped down.  The Lorax lifts himself out of the place, and the Once-ler’s tale seems to come to an end.

UnlessBack at the “present day,” the business-tycoon-turned-hermit puzzles over the little monument that the Lorax left behind.  It is a small pile of rocks with one word, “Unless.”  Finally, Once-ler seems to understand the Lorax’s cryptic message.  “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better.  It’s not,” the Once-ler tells the boy.  With that, he throws down to the boy a seed.  The very last truffula seed.

Dr. Suess is famous for open-endings.  So often he allows the reader to finish the story.  Here, the reader is thrust into the role of the boy hearing from the Once-ler.  After finishing the book, I feel like if I shake loose the pages a seed might fall out.  Surrounded by desolation and despair, a small monument stands as a shrine to hope.  This book is a clear warning about economic growth at the expense of ecologic disaster.  Whole sermons can be preached on the stewardship of the earth, and the importance of protecting the brown barbaloots and the humming fish.  Instead, I focus the two worlds that Seuss once again presents.

Last time we looked at Yertle the Turtle, and were reminded that in the Kindgom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle name Mack matters.  Seuss showed clearly two ways of understanding the world.  One was to climb to the top by any means necessary.  The other was to care about those on the bottom of the pile.

In The Lorax, Seuss presents us with two ways of understanding the world.  There is the way of the Once-ler, whose primary goal is to bigger his profits.  He cares nothing about the future implications of his actions.  Even his name reveals what he values – using something once.  In the end, he winds up separated from the community, with nothing but disaster surrounding him.  Then there is the way of the Lorax.  The Lorax understands community.  He values the interconnection of all things, and speaks up for those who have no voice.  Once there is no community, the Lorax can no longer exist in that place.  Two value systems.  You might say, two kingdoms.  One where once rules.  Another  where community matters.

When Jesus came to preach about the Sermon on the Mount, he did so in community.  He gathered with the crowds, and told them something they may not have been expecting.  Surrounded by crowds who were desperate for healing, he spoke these words, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13-16).

The Kingdom of God is one where the community matters.  It is where the voiceless are given a say.  It is where the sick are healed, the blind are made to see, and the lame are made to walk.  It is where those at dis-ease are made whole again.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you are light of the world.”  Those that were gathered were not valued because of what they could perform, or what they could provide.  They had no standing or status.  They were not a part of the Roman system of tribute, hierarchy, and patronage. They were valued for more than what they could make once.

Jesus came to teach us and show us what the Kindgom of God was all about.  So he gathered with the crowds and told them that it was up them.  “Let your light shine before the people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heave,” Jesus declared.  He reminded the people that the Kingdom of God is at hand because of their very presence, not in spite of it.  “Unless,” he might as well have said, “Unless people like you, you who are the salt and light of the world, care a whole awful lot…”

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Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1: Yertle the Turtle

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.  

yertleYertle the Turtle was a king.  He was the king over all he saw, but he was dissatisfied.  He wanted a bigger kingdom, so he decided he needed a higher throne.  From the higher throne, he would be able to see farther, and rule over more territory.  To satisfy his need for a higher throne, he order a few turtles to be stacked upon each other.  From atop this throne of turtles, he could expand his kingdom.  Over the course of increasing his reign an insignificant turtle on the bottom of the throne named Mack asked for some relief.  He was granted none.  Higher and higher the turtles were stacked, and yet Yertle was never satisfied.  Eyeing his vast empire, he noted he wasn’t the highest creature in the sky.  Perturbed by the presence of the moon, her ordered a thousand more turtles for his thone.  All the while poor Mack on the bottom of the stack was aching with a sore back.  Finally, Mack cracked.  Actually, he burped.  And the tower of turtles came toppling down.  Yertle fell into a puddle of mud, where he reigned all that he could see, which wasn’t very far.

Yertle understood the power of a kingdom.  He understood only one thing that matters: more.  More turtles, more land, more power.  He didn’t care how he achieved more, and he paid no heed to some poor turtle named Mack.

Jesus lived in a time when the power of kingship was clear.  The stack of turtles under the King was high indeed.  So high that the King named Caesar called himself the son of God.  All the people that gathered on that mountain understood that kind of kingdom.  They understood what it felt like to be on the bottom of the stack.  It was a crowd of Macks that gathered that day.

Then Jesus stood in front of the crowd and told them about another sort of Kingdom.  He told them about who was blessed and who wasn’t, and it was different from anything they had known.  In the Kingdom they were used to, it was easy to tell who was blessed and who wasn’t.  Yertle was blesssed.  Mack wasn’t.  Then Jesus stood up and said “You who are poor…  You who mourn… You who hunger and thirst… are blessed.”

“You, Mack.  You are blessed.  You who have been piled on.  You with sore backs.  You who are neglected, mistreated, and set aside.  You are blessed.  You who see that the world is broken and want to speak up.  You who are left heartbroken by the pain of others.  You who long to be in community.  You who want to know the heart of God, and strive for something greater than the letter of the law.  You are blessed.”

Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and in the Kingdom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle on the bottom of the pile matters.

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The 10 Commandments of Jesus

This is not comprehensive.  What are some commandments that you would add?

This is not comprehensive. What are some commandments that you would add?

There are a lot of people that clamor to put the Ten Commandments in public places.  I believe too firmly in the separation of Church and State to want to see that happen.  Yet sometimes I wonder why no one seems to want to put the sermon on the mount in the courthouse lobby?  Jesus said, “When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.”  How would that go over?  After we put the sermon on the mount at the courthouse, could we put Luke’s sermon on the plain on Wall Street?  How would that fit?  He said to “lend expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35 in the sermon on the plain).  What would that do to our economic system?  

Really, I can’t help but wonder if there is any way to reconcile a realistic society with Jesus’ teaching.  Does our justice system of punishment and retribution have anything to do with the grace and peace that Jesus taught?  Could our society function on the premise of turning the other cheek?  Could our economic structures survive Jesus’ teaching about money?  Jesus places some pretty big demands on his followers.  It is hard to imagine how it would even work.

But then, do the systems we have in place now work? I’m not sure a society can function under the rules Jesus laid out, but I’m also pretty sure no society has really tried.

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton

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The strangest of them all

ImagePhyllis Tickle calls it “The most difficult parable of them all.” David Lose calls it “The most confusing parable.”  The New International Version labels it “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager.”  The New Revised Standard uses the word “Dishonest” instead of shrewd.  The Common English Bible goes it different direction with the subheading “Faithfulness with Money.”

All parables have an element of strangeness.  That is sort of the point of them.  Jesus uses parables to teach about the Kingdom of God, which is a strange concept.  Forgiveness, compassion, self-sacrifice, these are counter-cultural concepts that take strange stories to understand. Some parables are strange because we don’t understand the cultural weight of words like Levite or Samaritan.  Some parables are strange because of the actions people take (who would plant a weed – one that gets really big – in a garden?) Yet despite the general strangeness of Jesus’ parables, the one found in Luke 16:1-13 seems to be the three-dollar bill.

It is a story of an owner and a manager.  The owner discovers that his manager has been dishonest, fearing that he is going to be fired, the manager decides to do some dealing.  Facing impending unemployment, he decides to make some quick deals so that “people will welcome me in their houses.”  He goes to a few of the owner’s clients and settles their debt at much lower rates.  Collecting about half as much as they owe, the manager figures that the clients will be grateful to him, and treat him well in the future.  The owner finds out about the tactics, and this is where it gets strange.

The owner commends the man for acting “shrewdly” in the NIV and NRSV, “cleverly” in the CEB.  What?  The manager, who was already identified as dishonest, goes about being more dishonest, and the owner praises him?  This one is a tough one to figure out.  Why would the owner praise him?  In most parables, the owner or master is supposed to be God.  Here we seem to have God praising a man that screwed him.  There is only small consolation in remembering that the disciples rarely understood Jesus’ strange stories either.

So what are we left with?  What is the good news?  I think it comes down to the same place that most of Jesus’ strange stories come to: relationships.  At the beginning of the story, we have many strained relationships.  There is a strained employer-employee relationship.  There are debts and debtors.  What are we left with at the end of the story?  Reconciled relationship and cancelled debt.  It makes no sense for the owner to praise someone for cancelling the debts people owed him.  He did not get what was coming to him, and yet he celebrated.

Perhaps a quick scan around the rest of the Gospel of Luke will help lift the fog from this confusing story.  Remember when Jesus taught the disciples to pray? Back in chapter 11, he tells them “Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  What if Jesus actually meant that?  “But wait!” you might be saying, “He wasn’t talking about money.  He was talking about sin, and you know, trespasses (whatever that is supposed to mean).”  All I have to say is, really?  You don’t think Jesus was talking about money?  This is the Gospel of Luke we’re talking about, the one that says “Blessed you that are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now…” not “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” like the Gospel of Matthew.   It is in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Later he tells a man to “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me;” (Luke 18:22).  Then he says “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God'” (Luke 18:24).

And don’t give me the line about the gate in Jerusalem that was called the “Needle’s Eye” or some such nonsense.  There is no archaeological evidence of this mythical gate.  There are, however, many non-canonical uses of a similar phrase to explain something that is really, really hard.

On Episode 29 of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Eric and I discuss this difficult parable, and the lament found in Jeremiah 8:18-19:1

On Episode 29 of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Eric and I discuss this difficult parable, and the lament found in Jeremiah 8:18-19:1

All of this is to say, maybe Jesus is trying to teach us something about the nature of relationships and money, and our relationships with money.  Perhaps the manager was praised because he put relationships ahead of money.  You could argue that his motivation was less than pure, but in the end, he valued his ability to “be invited into people’s homes” over his ability to please his boss.  And maybe the owner cared more about his manager’s heart than he did about his bottom line.  The Pharisees didn’t get it.  They valued money, and understood that having money was the same as having God’s favor.  Jesus is reminding them that there are things in this world more important than wealth.  Perhaps the level of confusion that this parable stirs is evidence of how remarkably important it really is.  This one blows our mind, because it seems to go against all of our common understanding of fairness.

And that’s just it.  The Kingdom of God has little to do with fairness.  It has little to do with keeping proper ledgers and making sure that everyone gets what is their due.  The Kingdom of God is about relationships.  It is about reconciliation.  It is about forgiving our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  It is not an easy story to hear.  It is sometimes an even harder story to live.  It doesn’t make good economic sense.  Jesus had a funny way of not making  sense.

It doesn’t make sense to plant a weed in a garden.  It doesn’t make sense to ruin a whole vat of flour with some leaven.  It doesn’t make sense to turn your other cheek, throw a party for people that can’t invite you to theirs, leave behind a flock because one sheep strayed, or throw a party for your good-for-nothing son who finally came back home with his tail between his legs.

It doesn’t make sense that God would come to earth and take on flesh.  It doesn’t make sense that God would claim me as his own, or invite me to the Table of Grace.  It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would do all he could for a people that responded by nailing him to a cross.  It doesn’t make sense that tomb was empty, or that disciples have been able to experience Christ in the breaking of bread for centuries since he was said to be dead.

This strange parable is a doozie.  It is a challenge.  It is a challenge to look at what cancelling debt really looks like.  It is a challenge to take a close look at how I serve wealth over God.  It is a challenge to look at how I spend money, how I save money, and how I treat others.  It is a strange one, all right.  Maybe that’s how God intended it.

Listen to the Pulpit Fiction Podcast about this parable

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A beautiful story in a three minute commercial

I’m not sure what product this commercial is selling. I don’t think I’m one of their intended customers.  It, however, tells a beautiful story.  A story that is ancient and timeless.  It is a story of giving.  What does it mean to give and expect nothing in return?  This seems to be the heart of generosity, and the heart of the Gospel.

Jesus told stories like this.  He told a story of a father that gave a huge party when his wasteful son returned home.  He told a story of workers that were paid the same even though they did not seem to earn it.  He told a story of a wedding feast where all the invited guests didn’t come, so he brought in the people off the streets.

And he told a story about a man, beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  The man was passed by time and again until finally a foreigner found him.  This man took the beaten man, gave him medicine, brought him to an inn, and gave him a chance to live.  It’s funny, Jesus’ story that we know as The Good Samaritan didn’t have a neat little happy ending like the video above.  I’m not sure Jesus would have made a great marketing director.

Instead, Jesus gave us the greatest ending of all.

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So, Is Jesus King?

Follow this link to hear a sermon called “So, Is Jesus King?”

“Sometimes this world doesn’t look like Jesus is king.  We look around and see other rulers.  We see the rulers of war and hunger and poverty, and it is easy to miss the true king.  But I’m here to tell you, that Christ is King.  I am a witness to what its like when Jesus rules.  I’ve seen it.  Have you?

Have you seen someone stretch themselves out farther than they thought they could.  Have you seen someone answer the call of God – that still small voice in the night that tells them to do something that doesn’t make any sense.  Have you seen someone, for whom cure is impossible, find healing anyway?  I’ve seen it. I know what it looks like when Jesus Christ is King.  And I think a lot of us caught a glimpse of it on Thursday (at our Community Thanksgiving Dinner)”

The song in the clip is “Live Like That,” by Sidewalk Prophets.  This version was performed in worship by the Riverside Church youth praise team, OMG (Our Mighty God).

Follow this link to read the blog version called Jesus Didn’t Look Like a King.

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Why Church?

An Illinois country road. Photo by DeWayne Neeley. Click on the picture to go to his Flickr site.

A long time ago I wrote a sermon about a bike ride through the cornfields of central Illinois.  It was one of my favorite things to do when I lived in Chenoa.  I would turn left out of our driveway and just keep going.  It wouldn’t take long before I was on a road that looked a lot like the one pictured. 

When the corn was high, riding a bike down a narrow road like this was a slighltly harrowing experience because I couldn’t really see where I was.  When you’re in the middle of one of these corn canyons, you can see where the road leads – at least until the next hill – and that’s about it.  When the corn is high, you can’t really see anything but corn and sky.

That is partly why I loved those bike rides so much.  It was so peaceful and so calm.  I spent a lot of time in prayer on those country roads.  The reason I said it was harrowing, however, is because I could be riding along with cornfields on boths sides for quite some time.  And while country roads were usually straight, they were not always a dependable grid.  Some were deadends.  Some veered in directions I didn’t really mean to go.  Some took me to the highway (and if you ever want a lesson in white-knuckled prayer, ride your bike on a busy country highway – with semi trucks passing you at 60 miles and hour).

It could be really easy to get turned around amidst all the fields and right angles.  Yet no matter where I rode, I always knew that I could see the water tower.  As long as I could see the water tower, I knew I could get back home.  The water tower is the tallest thing poking out of the grove of trees that is Chenoa.  Whenever I rode – I knew I could make it home if I could see the water tower.  That is why those moments in the corn canyons were a little unsettling.

In life, we can go down a lot of roads.  Sometimes were are heading away from home.  Sometimes we are meandering around aimlessly.  Sometimes we hit dead ends, or go on courses we didn’t intend.  Sometimes we get turned around.  Sometimes we hold on white-knuckled just praying that things will be okay.  That is why it is so important to have that water tower – raising over it all, showing us the way home.

To me, that is church.  It is the place to which I can always turn.  It is not perfect.  The church has made mistakes – some historic, some personal.  The church has hurt people, hurt families, hurt nations.  Yet as far as I’m concerned, it is our best hope.  It is the best hope we have of finding our way.  It is the beacon that calls us home. 

At its best the church is a place of love.  If the church is being what Christ intended it to be, the church is a place of forgiveness, grace, invitation and mission.  It is a place to be fed, empowered and sent out.  It is the oasis of the Kingdom of God.  When I think of the churches I have been a part of, I don’t think of buildings or decor. I don’ t think of great sermons or well-organized Bible study.  I don’t think of perfect liturgy or music.  I think of love.

I think of people that cared for me as a child.  I think of people that loved me as an adult.  I think of people that helped guide me into ministry, that picked me up when I failed and allowed me to grow.  I think of people that loved me like parents and were grandparents to my daughters.  When I think of when the church has hurt me I do not think of wrong theology, or boring sermons, or bad music.  When the church has hurt me it has been when people failed to live up to the commandment Christ has given us – love one another as Christ has loved us.  Yet before I let the anger, resentment and hurt feelings get the better of me, I remember that I have failed to love as well.  I am in need of forgiveness for my carelessness, my thoughtlessness and my selfishness.

Through it all, I have found love in the church.  My heart breaks for those that have been wronged by the church.  My heart yearns for those that seek and do not find.  I don’t know where you are on your journey.  I don’t presume to know the path you need to take.  All I know is what I have found.  I have found a place to hold onto.  I have found a water tower in the bike ride of my life – showing me the way to get back home.  I pray you find your way home too.

 

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Come to the Feast

“The Five Thousand” by Eularia Clark, 1962. Click on the image to be taken to the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art.

As an athlete, one of my favorite times was the few moments before a game.  I loved the anticipation of getting ready – putting on the uniform just right, lacing up the shoes, sharing eye contact with a teammate communicating a sense of common purpose in nothing more than a nod.  I loved getting ready with music playing.  It was like I was in my own movie, and the song I chose was my soundtrack.

Come to the Feast, by Christopher Grundy

Today I go through a similar ritual before worship.  I get myself ready.  I breathe a little deeper.  My adrenaline starts to flow.  I sit in my office for a few moments, and sometimes I crank up the music.  Often it is the same song: Come to the Feast, by Christopher Grundy (Grundy is professor at Eden Theological Seminary and a great musician. You should go to the link and listen to and buy his music).

“Come to the Feast” speaks to the heart of the gospel.  “Come to the feast.  There’s always room for one more and there’s all you can eat.  Come and take some to go. Gather all you can hold and then go.  Go spread the feast.”  We are a people of the feast.  We are a people of the Table.

At the heart of everything we do as Christians is the table of Jesus Christ.  How we think about the table informs how we think about everything else.  Where does the pastor stand?  Behind the table in a gesture of welcome and inclusion, not with her back to the congregation.

What do we serve?  Bread and grape juice as a sign of hospitality to those that cannot have alcohol.

Who is invited?  Everyone.  Children?  Yes.  They may not understand what is going, but then again, are we kidding ourselves if we think we do understand?

Unbaptized?  Yes.  The moment of communion is so powerful that it can be a moment of conversion and transformation.

Democrats and Republicans? Yes. We don’t bar you for voting a certain way.

Rich and Poor? Yes – and they each get the same amount.

Black and White?  Yes, although we repent for times when this wasn’t true.

Gay and Straight? Yes, for God created all and said it is “good.”

The Lord’s Table is a table for all.  On it holds the feast which has transformed lives.  On it rests the bread that has been broken for us all.  Jesus broke the bread and told us to “do this in remembrance of me.”  It was not simply to remember that Jesus’ body was broken.  It was remember that his body held life.  When we break the bread we are to remember that Jesus was more than a sacrificial lamb led to the slaugher.

When we hear “Do this in remembrance of me,” we should hear Jesus saying: “When we got together in the home of tax collectors and sinners – Remember that.  When the women came to me and broke free from their man-made roles of servitude – Remember that.  When you guys tried to keep the children from getting to me, and I said ‘let them come’ – Remember that.  When we sat in the crowd of 5,000 people and all we had were five loaves and two fish and you all thought there was no way that we would have enough, and then everyone ate – Remember that.”

“Remember when the Pharisees tried to use the Law to put up barriers between who is in and who is out – Remember that I broke those barriers as easily as I break this bread.  When they used the Law to condemn and tried to trap me in legal issues –   Remember when they asked me what was the greatest commandment, hoping that I would trip on my words – Remember what I told them?”

“And things aren’t looking good right now.  The Romans and the leaders are coming.  They are going to beat me and crucify me.  After that happens I want you to remember me at this table saying to you, my body is broken for you.  And when I come back, maybe then you will get it.  Maybe then you will finally see.  Maybe then you understand all the things I did and said and showed you.  I break the bread so that you may have life.”

When we come to the Table of Christ we are invited to a feast.  We are invited to a table of plenty.  We are invited without merit.  We are invited without deed.  We are simply invited to come and be loved.

But when we are invited to come to the feast, it is imperative to remember that we are also sent.  We are not invited to get full and go home fat and satisfied.  We are invited to be fed so that we may feed. We are invited to forgiveness so that we may forgive. We are invited to be empowered so that we may go out and empower.  So, as the words of the song so elegantly say, “Come and then go. Go spread the feast.”

“Come to the Feast” is (c) by Hand and Soil Music.  Visit www.christophergrundy.com to listen to more music.

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