Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seek Ye First

September 27, 2020 – Confirmation Sunday

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 7:7-11[1]

Seek ye first the kingdom of the Lord
and God’s righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you.
Allelu, alleluia.

Ask and it shall be given unto you.
Seek and ye shall find.
Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.
Allelu, alleluia.[2]

This is a message about prayer, not a plan for begging door-to-door. Be careful of whom you ask. Ask God for what you need, and it will be given to you. Ask people, and it may be taken from you.

You will find what you seek. If you seek entertainment, you will find it, at least for a while. If you seek boredom, you will find it. If you seek money, power, or success, you will find it. You will find anything, if you search hard enough. You may lose other things, however, along the way. You may find in your search that what you lose is not worth what you gain. So, I suggest you seek first the kingdom of the Lord.

In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson wrote these words:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.[3]

Don’t be afraid of the amazing, beautiful, powerful people that you are becoming. Don’t be afraid to do something bold to make a difference in the world. Pray with confidence; pray deeply and honestly. Pray for the deep and powerful needs of others to be met. Pray for your own deepest needs. Then get out there in that big, bad world and shine some light, bring some hope, show some love, take some risks for what is right.

Things won’t always work out. You will embarrass yourself. You will mess up, and make mistakes. You will get hurt. You will lose friends. And you will find yourself all alone sometimes. But when you know what you are doing is the right thing, is part of God’s kingdom, is what Jesus would do, then you are not really alone.


Every step that you take
could be your biggest mistake.
It could bend or it could break
But that’s the risk that you take.

Let’s take a breath, jump over the side.
How can you know it when you don’t even try?[4]

Lyle Lovett:

I understand too little too late
I realize there are things you say and do
You can never take back
But what would you be if you didn't even try
You have to try
So after a lot of thought
I'd like to reconsider
If it's not too late
Make it a cheeseburger[5]

You are consumers. But you are not consumers of the gospel. You are participants in the gospel. You are enactors of the gospel. You are the living example of the gospel to the world. So, I ask you, if the world watches you, will they see the gospel being lived out?

What is the gospel? It is the good news of God’s love shown to us in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is compassion and forgiveness. It is caring for the poor, healing the sick, freeing the captives, giving food to the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty.

It is love that doesn’t count the cost,
love that never gives anyone up for lost,
and love that goes all the way to the cross.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”[6] The gospel has been planted in you. I pray for a rich harvest.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Karen Lafferty, “Seek Ye First,” (Marantha! Music, 1972).

[3] Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3 (Pg. 190-191).

[4] Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion and Chris Martin, “What If?,” X&Y, Coldplay (Parlophone, 2005).

[5] Lyle Lovett, “Here I Am,” Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, (Curb Records, 1989).

[6] Mark 4:26-29.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Envy and Generosity

September 20, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 20:1-16[1]

God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is generous in showing love and mercy. There is no end to the generosity of God. People, on the other hand…

Now, I know that everyone here is generous. We give to the church each week what we can. Despite everything, the offerings we have given this year are higher than last year. We are kind and welcoming to visitors and new people. We share our vegetables and love a good pot-luck. We are generous folk. We genuinely want to help our neighbors and make positive changes in our community.

There are limits, though, right? When I think about other organizations to which I might give money, I tend to think about which is more deserving. How is the money going to be used? How much goes to the mission and how much to overhead, administration, and expenses? When I give to a person on the street, I hope they will use it for food and not alcohol. In fact, I would rather buy food for that person than just give them the cash. They might waste it.

I want some control over what happens with my donation. I want to put some restrictions on how it gets used. If I give a large gift, I want something for it, I want to put my name on it. There isn’t a hospital wing in America without a donor name attached to it. Recognition is the price of my generosity. But if so, isn’t it more of a transaction than a gift? Will I give the big bucks if I don’t get something out of it for myself?

There is a selfishness in that way of looking at generosity, a need to look out for my own self-interest first. There is a sense of scarcity too, the idea that I have to look out for myself first before I can help another. If I give away what I have, I won’t have what I need for myself. It is good to be responsible, to make sure that I don’t throw good money after bad, but if there is never enough for me, there will never be enough for anyone else.

That sense of scarcity is what comes out in the parable of the envious laborers and the generous landowner. This story is not about equal pay for equal work. It’s not about fairness as we usually understand it. In fact, our first response is probably to agree with the first laborers, hired early in the morning. We’ve worked hard all day, we have “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”[2] Don’t we deserve more than those who were hired last?

Putting ourselves in the place of the first laborers, we too are envious of the ones hired last. They didn’t have to work all day. They probably just sat around all day, those lazy, good-for-nothings. I worked hard for what I have, not like them. And in thinking that way, we easily focus our disappointment, our frustration, and our resentment on our fellow laborers. How easily we turn on each other.

If the parable was about deservedness, then yes. The laborers hired first deserve more pay. But that is not what the story is about. The story is about the kingdom of heaven. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”[3] The kingdom of heaven is not about who deserves what. The kingdom of heaven is about God and the generosity and love of God.

So, let’s start over, and look at this a different way. The landowner gives everyone in the story work to do, and promises to pay them. Who are the laborers? It appears they are unemployed until they are offered work. Today, we might call them day-laborers. If no one hires them, they’ll go without work and without pay for the day. They all begin in the same circumstances, but by the end of the day, each has been given work to do and is being paid for that work. No one goes home empty handed today.

If we put ourselves in the place of those hired last, we get a different understanding. Having been idle all day, hoping someone would hire us, we were about to give up and go home to a hungry household with nothing to offer. At the last minute, the landowner offers us work. At the end of the day, we’re handed a full day’s wage. How generous, how amazing, how much more than we could have ever hoped for!

If we’re stuck thinking we’re the ones hired first, the story is about envy. We worry about the unfair distribution of wages; we envy those who worked less than us. We compete for the most, and struggle to accept when others receive undeserved generosity. We want to be first, and we resent when the last become first.

When we are stuck in that resentment, we fail to see that we have received what we need. We can’t recognize that we didn’t lose anything, nothing was unjustly taken from us. Those others didn’t walk away with more, they walked away with the same. We think that somehow we earned more of something, and we fail to understand that we earned it simply by needing it.

Jesus asks us to set aside our desire for equal treatment and celebrate a more generous understanding of fairness. A day’s wage will put food on the table. Each of the laborers has received according to their need, for each of them needs to feed their family. Are we unable to appreciate the good fortune of others because we have not appreciated our own good fortune? Are we not grateful that we have all that we need for today? Do we feel like we need more?

Depending on where you see yourself in the story, this parable changes from a tale of envy into one about the generosity of God. God’s generosity is more than we can imagine. God’s love and grace are not limited, God’s care and concern are not scarce, and the bounteous table of blessing has no lack of seats. The table of the kingdom is set for a feast, and every cup overflows. We are invited to share in the abounding and steadfast love of God, all of us, the first and the last, and the last no less than the first.

Let us be a generous people, giving freely of grace, kindness, and love to any who have need. God has generously blessed us and there is an endless store of blessings yet to be given away. May we learn to love with the heart of God, to let go of envy and celebrate God’s astounding generosity.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 20:12.

[3] Matthew 20:1.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Forgiveness and Mercy

September 13, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Romans 14:1, 5-12; Matthew18:21-35, CEB[1]

Forgiveness is one of those defining traits of being a Christian. Like loving your neighbor, forgiveness is part of who we are. Our forgiveness is our response to God’s forgiveness of us, as we pray each week, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”[2] What happens then, when we don’t forgive our debtors? As Peter seems to ask, what happens when we run out of forgiveness?

Here we have a person who has been generous. A fellow servant needed some cash, so our servant loaned out one hundred coins. Now the borrower is asked to pay up, and can’t. So, our servant has him jailed for defaulting on the debt.

I mean, if you can’t pay back what you owe, maybe you shouldn’t borrow money in the first place. My parents were born during the Great Depression. They didn’t borrow money. No car loans; they always saved up and paid cash. No credit cards. My dad was a minister, so they lived in the parsonage – no mortgage. Debt was to be avoided. Debt collectors aren’t known for being overly merciful, after all. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a collection agency phone call? Collecting on debts is just good business, anyway. Economies collapse when loans get defaulted.

So, what’s the problem? Why is Jesus getting involved? The servant, the central figure of this parable, starts out as the manager of a tremendous responsibility. How much is ten thousand bags of gold? Other translations read ten-thousand talents. It is meant to be understood as an unreasonably large amount, the kind of debt a nation-state owes. This servant can’t possibly come up with such a sum. Even though the servant promises to pay it back, with a little more time, that doesn’t seem realistic.

The master, in response to the pleadings of the servant, unexpectedly forgives it all. No extension of the loan, no refinancing or renegotiation. The loan is just cancelled. Poof. Gone. This is where Jesus gets involved. If the king, the master is meant to represent God, the debt that is forgiven, as colossal as it seems, is too small. God, creator of the universe, giver of life, and love, the earth and all it contains, has given everything to wayward sinners, irresponsible stewards, human beings with all our failures and faults. What we owe to God is beyond calculation. And yet, we are forgiven. Our sin, our failures, all of our unmet promises, washed away in a breath of mercy.

Our servant, having just been forgiven an enormous debt, can’t summon the grace to forgive even a small debt owed by a fellow servant. I’m offended. His fellow servants were offended. You were just forgiven so much, and over so little you send a fellow servant to jail? Are you for real? I’m more than offended now; I’m angry. The master is going to hear about this!

The master hears our story, and calls the servant to account. “You wicked servant!”[3] Ooh, this is going to be good, we’re thinking. Revenge is sweet! “Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?”[4] Oh, yeah, that’s right. Throw him in jail, master! Give him what he deserves!

Wait a minute. What just happened? Did we just become the unmerciful servant ourselves? We stop and stare into our memories, all the times we failed to forgive. How many times have I failed to forgive my family for not being who I want them to be? How many times have I failed to forgive a friend for failing me? How often have I relished revenge rather than mercy? And as the servant is handed over to punishment, have I done it again? God, have mercy.

Forgiveness is hard. Revenge feels good. When someone who has hurt us gets hurt in return, we secretly (and sometimes openly) like it. We want payback, we don’t want to forgive without getting something in return, some payment or effort to make up for the wrong. What we forget is that sometimes what is owed is beyond what can be paid back. And what we owe, and have been forgiven, is beyond any payment we could make. What God has forgiven in us is beyond measure, and we are asked to be that merciful in return.

Forgiveness is not simply wishing away the loss, the harm, or the pain. It isn’t forgetting what has been done. Forgiveness takes hard work, acknowledging and understanding the negative impact of another person’s actions and attitude on our lives. We can’t forgive by denying we have been hurt, or minimizing how we have been affected. And we must not forget or dismiss the harm done by the abuse or betrayal of another.

To forgive is to choose to let go, to release the other from whatever punishment we think they deserve, however justified. Forgiveness is choosing to leave behind our desire for retribution, to release our resentment. Forgiveness is choosing to set ourselves free from the hold that the other has on our minds and on our hearts. It is denying the other person the power to live in our heads and keep us angry, bitter, and resentful. It is refusing to allow what has happened to keep us prisoner.

God forgives us. As we live each day in the grace of God’s mercy, we are called to show that same measure of forgiveness toward one another. As often as we forgive, we are always forgiven. As we forgive our debtors, the ones who owe us, who have sinned against us, who have trespassed on our hearts and minds, we are forgiven all that we owe to God, and blessed by God’s grace. “We all will stand in front of the judgment seat of God.”[5] It is there we shall be judged on the mercy we have shown by the God who showed us mercy.  Amen.

[1] Scripture quotations noted CEB are taken from the Common English Bible, copyright 2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Matthew 6:12.

[3] Matthew 18:32.

[4] Matthew 18:33.

[5] Romans 14:10.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

One in a Hundred

September 6, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Psalm 28:6-9; Matthew 18:12-14[1]

This parable from Matthew is one of several lost-and-found stories. We can easily identify with searching for something that is lost – our keys, our phone, our mask, our kids. In this parable, and others about searching for what is lost, we are meant to be the lost ones, the ones who are the object of another’s search. We are lost, not necessarily in the sense of not knowing where we are, but in the sense of being searched for, lost to someone else. We are the ones for whom someone is searching.

When we are lost, like a child in the store, we can sometimes forget that someone is looking for us. We start frantically looking everywhere, and usually getting further and further away from where we started. If you’re lost in the wilderness, we’re taught that the first thing you should do is stop, calm down, and make a plan. If you know someone will be looking for you, you’ll be better able to hear them calling if you remain calm and still.

When we are lost in more metaphorical ways, it can be harder to remember that we are being looked for, that someone wants to bring us back into the fold. Like the lost sheep, the one in a hundred who has gone astray, we are searched for, and when we are found, rejoiced over. We are found, not because we go seeking, but because we are sought. The good news is that we are sought for by Christ, and we have always already been found.

Now, our role is not to actively go astray, playing hide-and-seek with God, saying “catch me if you can!” Nor is our role to be passive, waiting and waiting to be found, doing nothing to improve our situation. Our role is to be attentive, recognize that we are lost, and be open to being found. It is listening for the voice of the one calling out to us and turning toward the one who seeks us.

As the lost, the ones who have gone astray, we are the sinners, the ones in need of being found, of being saved. We aren’t the ones doing the saving; but, in order to be saved, we must listen for the voice that is calling and turn toward the finder. We must repent, recognizing that we are lost and need finding, we are sinners in need of saving. In this way, the work of salvation involves recognizing our sin, and having the willingness to be saved from it.

We sometimes find ourselves seeking for what we have lost. Perhaps it is a sense of purpose, belonging, or our faith that there really is a shepherd seeking us out. It takes a lot more energy to search than it does to get lost, doesn’t it? At least in searching we feel like we are in control of things, we’re looking for what we’ve lost, we’re trying to DO something. Maybe if I just go to church more, or pray more, or listen to the Christian music station I’ll restore my faith, find my purpose, or feel like I belong again.

In that kind of search, looking for our lost faith or to fill the emptiness that we feel, we can spend a lot of time and energy on temporary fill-ups and grabbing hold of anything we find. They fade, because they were not what we were looking for, and we continue searching. Perhaps what we need is to allow ourselves to stop searching, to quiet our troubled minds, and allow ourselves to be found. The Lord has heard the sound of our pleadings. The shepherd seeks us out. Will we accept that we are lost and allow ourselves to be found?

Most of the time, we are the ninety-nine sheep, never going astray. We may feel like the shepherd has abandoned us to go looking for the one who deserved to get lost, always wandering off like that. We might resent the attention that the shepherd gives to the lost sheep, even though we are safe with the herd, surrounded by green pastures and still waters. This is when it helps to recognize that we have always been found, and to know that if we were to get lost, the shepherd would look for us too. Then our role becomes the celebrators of the one who is found.

The parables of the lost and found end with the coming together of friends and neighbors to celebrate, to rejoice that the one who went astray has been found. Rejoicing is the goal, the happy moment of finding and being found. Salvation is more than just being rescued, restored to community, being reunited with the shepherd and the flock. Salvation is the celebration, the rejoicing over the return of the lost ones. It is also rejoicing with the shepherd who is our strength and shield, the one our hearts trust; who makes our hearts exult, and with our songs we will give thanks to the Lord.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.