Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Hands of God

November 22, 2020

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

Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew25:31-46[1]

Many years ago, I led a work trip with the youth group of the First Congregational Church of Western Springs. This trip took us to Atlanta, Georgia. We did a lot of things in Atlanta. We served food in a soup kitchen and sorted food at the food bank. We re-surfaced trails in a forest preserve and worked in a community garden. We even spent a morning at a residence for senior citizens.

The reason we went was to make a difference. How much difference can a bunch of high school kids make in a big city? More than you might think. More, even, that the agencies we worked with expected, since they ran out of work for us to do! We went for other reasons of course. We went to build fellowship in our own group. We went because it’s fun. And we went because we were called by God.

Now, God doesn’t speak to us in thunder from the clouds and say, “Go to Atlanta with some teenagers and help out at the food bank.” Being called by God is never that straightforward. Discerning what God wants from us, what God wants us to do and be in the world, is the work of a lifetime. It may come in a flash of insight. It may come when you’re pondering what to do with a bunch of kids with too much energy and not enough to do. Often, it comes through listening to the needs of the world, knowing that God loves the world, and saying, “I’ll go. Send me.”

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus gives us some specific things we can do to meet the needs of the world. You, yes you, give food to the hungry, bring healing to the sick, give drink to the thirsty. The least of my people need your help. By helping them, you help me. And there’s more.

Jesus suggests that those who do all these things will be blessed, but as the list of tasks is recited there is something left out. A mission leader in the Reformed Church of America named Noel Becchetti wrote about what is missing from this passage:

Do you notice what he leaves out in his charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the sick? He says nothing about what results are supposed to be achieved through these actions. There's no talk about ending hunger, defeating poverty, or seeing the prisoner go straight. He says simply to Do It, because when we do, we're somehow ministering directly to Our Lord.[2]

He goes on to say:

Jesus gives us the freedom to go into our mission and service trips with the goal of just plain ministering. We don't have to achieve certain "results" to justify our investment. Frankly, we might not recognize some of God's divine results when we see them! But as we can remove our cultural blinders, discard the limitations we place on God's definition of ministry, and "leave the driving" to Him, we can begin to understand what it means to be Jesus' hands and feet to a hurting world.

When we work in the service of others, we know that the work we will be doing is not likely to bring an end to poverty. The youth group from Western Springs didn’t end hunger and homelessness in Atlanta. Even with all of the energy, commitment, and love we shared, there are still hungry people.

Susan and I helped give out boxes of food to hungry families on Wednesday over at the Lutheran church. But those families will probably go hungry again in the future. We did our best, but we didn’t fix their problems.

But that is not really the point of us doing the work. For us, the point of going out to a work project is that we get to touch people’s lives. We get to serve, to minister to and with people who are similar to - or very different from - us. We get to touch with the hands of God. We get to be touched by the hands of God. We get to see how God is working in the world, everywhere we go, and we get to leave behind a little bit of God’s love when we return.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta once talked about our role, our task in the world, as if we were electronic instruments. There are all these parts inside: wires, plastic, resistors, transistors, diodes. But they don’t do anything until the current is connected. She said:

Each one of us is merely a small instrument… Until the current passes through them there will be no light. That wire is you and me. The current is God. We have the power to let the current pass through us, use us, produce the light of the world. Or we can refuse to be used and allow darkness to spread.[3]

There is a part of the scripture passage that I don’t like. The part about the ones who have not done anything for the least of these bothers me. I don’t think threats of punishment are the best way to motivate people. When I do a good deed, it’s because I genuinely care, not because I’m afraid that if I don’t God will be angry with me. As a leader, I want to inspire your empathy, not your desire to look good in front of others. Also, I don’t believe in eternal punishment, at least not as it is described here. The God of love, forgiveness, and grace just doesn’t mesh with the God of eternal fire.

So, I choose to focus on the blessing, the gift that we have been given to be the hands of God, the chance to go out there and make a difference because we really care. As Mother Teresa said: “May we never forget that in the service to the poor we are offered a magnificent opportunity to do something beautiful for God. In fact, when we give ourselves with all our hearts to the poor, it is Christ whom we are serving in their disfigured faces. For He Himself said, ‘You did it for me.’”[4]

We can make a difference. All of us can. You don’t have to be in a youth group, or go to Atlanta. The youngest of us and the oldest of us can make a difference, right here and wherever we go.

Finally, I turn once more to the words of Mother Teresa: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”[5]  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] Noel Becchetti, Former President, Center for Student Missions, article online: retrieved 11/18/2020.

[3] Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, Becky Benenate and Joseph Durepos editors (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1997), 67-68.

[4] Teresa, 73.

[5] Saint Therese of Lisieux, in Teresa, 75.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Good and Trustworthy

November 15, 2020

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

Matthew 25:14-30[1]

Are you good? Are you trustworthy? You have been entrusted according to your ability. What will you do with what you have? The meaning of the world “talents” in this parable is not the same as we would use it today, but let’s go with that for a moment.

What are the talents you have been given? What have you done with your talents? For some of us, you can see what we’ve done. Tetyana, a talented musician, has preformed in operas, leads music at this small church every week, and teaches others how to express their musical talent. T.C., likewise, shares his talented voice by singing for us each week, and he has also performed in musical theater. I sing and play guitar on occasion, and I have been quite fortunate to have an outlet for my musical gifts.

You may also have gifts and talents that you have invested in the world. If we think of the “talents” in this parable as particular skill or ability, then we have probably managed to increase what we have been given. I, at least, have also hidden away some talents. I am pretty good at math and science, and I love Astronomy, but I never committed to the astronaut path in my life. There are times when I gnash my teeth about it, but I don’t think I’ve been thrown into the outer darkness.

A more accurate way of understanding the parable comes from understanding that the Greek word, talanta, actually refers to an amount of money equal to the wages of a worker for a year. The man entrusting property is giving a significant amount of money to stewards who are expected to put that money to work. And two of them do just that, they take a risk by investing or trading to generate earnings on top of their capital. But is the story really about them?

The third slave, the one entrusted with one talent, plays it safe. Putting money in the ground is a normal way of protecting it in a time without banks. We learn why this one is so careful at the end of the parable. The servant explains his actions: the boss is a harsh master, unscrupulous. If the money is lost, he expects a harsh punishment. Better to return it all to the master than risk losing it. This is the prudent one, the cautious investor. Rather than taking chances, taking a risk that the money will be lost, he protects it. And when the master returns, it is all there.

Most of us are like that. I’m not a venture capitalist, and I don’t think any of you are either. We don’t throw money at the newest tech company or the public offering of a social media phenomenon. We might wish we did, in hindsight, but we have responsibilities and debts to pay, so we don’t risk it.

Yet the other slaves take the risky approach. In dealing with a ruthless, greedy master, they invest and produce a return on the investment. They are praised and rewarded. And in that interaction, we catch a glimpse of a different side of the master. Is he really so terrible and cruel? The master generously rewards the ones who traded with more responsibility. They are celebrated.

In these parables, the master is often understood as a stand-in for God. So, is the boss in this parable a metaphor for God? Is God ruthless, greedy, and unscrupulous? That’s not the God I know. God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”[2] God loves us, and forgives us. God does not reap without sowing or gather without planting seed.

One commentator suggests that we need to flip the script, to step outside of the parable. David Buttrick writes, “If we reverse the boss’s moral status, then we end up out of the parable, trying to figure out how to conduct our lives in response to a free-grace God. We don’t play it safe, because God is patient and ever merciful.”[3] If we think outside the box, so to speak, and not limit our thinking to one of two paths, the path of risk or the path of safety, we get closer to the way things really work.

In the old westerns, the good guys wore the white hats, the bad guys wore the black hats. You knew who the heroes and the villains were. Most of the shows and movies we watch keep this structure. The good guys are always good and morally right. The bad guys are always bad and morally corrupt. But we know that life is not like that.

Life tells more complicated stories. There are stories where no one wears a hat. The good guy has a gambling problem, or an affair. The bad guy uses drug money to pay for medicine for his grandmother. Real people are complicated, a mix of good and bad impulses, and have a history of heroism and cowardice. Real people take risks and lose it all, or play it safe and slowly build up enough to retire on. Real people have unexpected losses and unexpected windfalls. Sometimes the right choice is to take a risk; sometimes it is to play it safe. And none of us can see the future to tell which choice is which.

Is this a story about risk? The parable comes in chapter 25 of Matthew. Matthew only has 28 chapters. We can’t know for sure when in his life Jesus may have told this parable. We can only know where Matthew placed it in his Gospel. So, in this context, as Jesus is nearing the end, has already entered Jerusalem, and cleansed the temple, what time is it? Is it time to play it safe, or is it time to take a risk?

What if the first two slaves had risked the money and lost it? How might the master have reacted? It’s possible that they would not have been punished, but praised for making the effort. Rather than the story being only about winning, about success, maybe it’s about taking the risk. Maybe it’s about growing rather than shrinking, living boldly rather than holding back. After all, the larger story being told is about Jesus, what he has done, and what is going to happen to him. The story is about what it means to follow Jesus, and how to be faithful in living the lives given to us.

This parable, then, may be trying to tell us that playing it safe is not the way to be disciples. If nothing is at risk, then what is the value of living? If we don’t care deeply enough about anyone or anything to risk losing our comforts, if we don’t give our hearts away to something or someone, we risk not living. This parable may be a warning that to play it safe, to not care or love passionately, to not give our time and energy to something worthwhile, is like being banished to the outer darkness.

You may have heard the saying, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship was built for.” There are times in life when you need to stay in the harbor, to heal from a sickness or a broken heart, or to protect your community from a global pandemic. But there is a time when you need to set sail, to seek a distant shore, to discover a larger world. There is a time to take a risk on giving your heart, soul, and mind to help others to heal and to set sail.

When Jesus knew they were coming for him, he didn’t stop teaching the disciples. He didn’t send them back to Galilee, to play it safe and hide from the Romans. He invited them to follow him, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus invites you to take the risk of loving yourself, your neighbor, and all the world. In doing so, you enter into the joy of the master, thou good and trustworthy servant.  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] Exodus 34:6.

[3] David Buttrick, Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 173.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Get Ready

November 8, 2020

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

Matthew 25:1-13[1]

People get ready, there’s a train comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.[2]

We are all waiting for something. We all seek to know the purpose for our lives.  So, we go about our days trying to find that purpose, that something that will give our lives meaning.  We try to gather those things about us that we think we need to have in order to be ready for life. We are often so preoccupied in making sure that we have the right stuff – the right clothes, the newest phone, oil for our lamps – that we miss the call when it comes.

The bridesmaids were waiting for the bridegroom to meet them.  The wedding banquet was going to be soon, and they would need their lamps to light the way there.  They all took their lamps, but some did not take flasks of oil with them.  The bridegroom was delayed, and they became drowsy and slept.  Then the call came: The bridegroom is here!

My best friend came to me and told me that his dad was dying.  Jeff had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, and was fading fast.  As the tears came down his face, my friend said that he was going to need me, and asked me to perform the funeral service.  I said I would do everything that I could, and so I waited for the call.  I gathered some material for the service, prayers and scripture, and I felt prepared.  I never packed a bag, however.  The next few weeks were busy. Then the call came: Jeff's heart stopped.  He's in the hospital.

When the call comes, will you be ready?  When someone needs you to show love, compassion, kindness, will you be ready to give it?  Will you respond, or do you need to make sure that you have everything together?  Some of the bridesmaids were foolish and brought no oil for their lamps.  When the call came, they went off to buy more oil, to get themselves ready.  When my friend called me at work, I went home to pack a bag of clothes, to get ready.

And the door was shut.  The opportunity was missed.  Have you ever missed an opportunity?  Have you ever had the chance to be kind to someone, to show someone that you love them, to be there when a friend needed you, but missed that chance because you didn't feel ready?  Opportunities pass us by, the door is shut, and we feel like we missed something big.  The bridesmaids who went to buy oil were left behind, and the door was shut.  I went home to pack my bag, and by the time I got to my friend, Jeff had died.  An opportunity was missed.

The kingdom of heaven is like this?  The door gets shut and we can't get in?  That's not fair!  I wasn't ready to go!  I didn't have the right clothes!  I didn't have enough oil!  I wasn't ready!

But wait a minute!  To what are we being called?  My friend needed me to be with him when his father died.  He didn't care what clothes I was wearing.  The bridegroom needed the bridesmaids to come to the banquet.  He didn't care if their lamps went out.  We are being called to the kingdom of heaven.  It doesn't matter if we have the right things.  We aren't going to be judged on whether we have oil for our lamps, whether we have on the right clothes.  That is not the point!  The kingdom of heaven is not about punishment and reward.  That is not the point.  The point is that we have been invited to share in the kingdom of heaven, and all we need to do is say yes.

I was being invited to share in a special moment with my friend and his family, to be with them when they needed a friend to share in their pain.  The bridesmaids were being invited to a wedding banquet, to a feast, to share in a celebration!  We are invited to the kingdom of heaven, to celebrate God's love for us and share a sacred feast with one another.

Will you answer the call?  Are you ready to receive the invitation?  Are you ready to leave behind the things that don't matter and choose the way of love, compassion, kindness, and justice?  To follow Christ means to live in readiness.  When someone comes to us in need, when we are invited to share in someone's joy, or someone's pain, are we ready?

It is not always easy to answer the call.  It comes at midnight.  It comes when we are tired.  It comes when we are in the middle of something important.  It may be a long road.  We may lose things on the way.  Our lamps may go out.  It is Jesus we are following, after all.  We might lose our lives!  But the kingdom of heaven is where we are going.

And the good news is that we already have what we need.  Those who were ready were the ones who went with the bridegroom to the banquet.  And when they got there, they didn't need their lamps anymore.  All they needed was to be present at the banquet with the bridegroom, and to share in the celebration.  My friends knew how far away I was, and I went there ready to stand by their side.  And when I got there, I didn't need anything except my love for my friends, to listen, and share in their pain.  When someone comes to you – who needs love, compassion, and kindness – you already have everything you need within you.  When you respond to the invitation, when you answer the call and join with another sharing in their joy, sharing in their pain, you enter the kingdom of heaven.

There's a train a-comin'.  It's the train to Jordan, the train that will bring us to the kingdom of heaven.  And we don't need no baggage, we just get on board.  Faith is the only key we need.  Faith – that Christ is leading us to the kingdom.  Faith – that, when we stand at the door of death, there will be a resurrection.  So, get ready!  Your faith is the lamp that will light the way.  Keep your lamp trimmed and burning; and when it comes, answer the call.  Are you ready?

[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] Curtis Mayfield, 1965, recorded by The Impressions © 1964 Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (Renewed).

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Discipleship: The Path of Service and Self-Sacrifice

November 1, 2020

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

Matthew 23:1-12[1]

How would you define discipleship? One way is to think of it as apprenticeship, learning from someone who is a master at a trade or who has special skills and knowledge. That is how the ancient Greeks understood discipleship. A person would work closely with a master in order to acquire practical and theoretical knowledge. Some disciples were even expected to pay the master in order for the privilege of learning the trade.

Around the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, a Jewish student of religion was expected to learn not only the Hebrew Bible Scriptures, but also the oral traditions, the traditions of the fathers. A man, and yes, back then they were all men, would attach himself to a Rabbi, who would serve as a guide for the student as they studied the Scriptures. “One dared not to interpret the Scriptures independently, and could only speak with authority after years of study under a master. Since there were several masters, there sprang up several schools of rabbinical thought, each in competition with the others.”[2]

This is part of what is going on with the scribes and the Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees. These groups were teachers of the Law of Moses, but they had some different interpretations of those laws and exactly how they should be followed. And each group had their disciples. For them, the disciple was expected to submit to one of the authorities who served as teacher, guide, and leader. The leaders jealously guarded their position of authority. This is what their conflict with Jesus was all about.

The authority of the scribes and the Pharisees gave them power over their disciples, and of the Jewish people in general. They had carefully studied the Torah and created a legal code of 365 prohibitions and 250 commandments.[3] This is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”[4] If you take the time to read through all of the Laws of Moses, and try to abide by them all, you’ll find, as some people recently have, that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. The invitation from Jesus at the end of chapter 11 would have sounded like good news indeed:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.[5]

The scribes and the Pharisees enjoyed having disciples because they loved the admiration, the respect, and the reverence of others. In the Monty Python comedy film History of the World, Part I, Mel Brooks has a great line: “It’s good to be the king.”[6] Well, it’s good to be a Pharisee. “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”[7] Fame just isn’t fame without the fans, or the paparazzi.

Jesus, however, has a different definition of disciple. In Caesarea Philippi he asked, “‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’”[8] But just when they’re thrilled that they have figured out who he is, that they have found the Messiah, Jesus warns them that he has not come to lead a revolt. He has not come to make them into wise leaders with lots of loyal fans. He must undergo suffering, be killed, and on the third day rise. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[9]

OK, whoa! Back it up. You want us to what?! We thought we were going to be important people. We thought we were doing great things, and that we would get to have the best seats, and respect, and all that. And instead of all that good stuff, we have to deny ourselves? And what was that about the cross?

This was a new definition of discipleship, and it turned their expectations upside down. For starters, the students are supposed to choose the master. But Jesus chose them. He called out to the fishermen “Follow me.”[10] And he even told some who wanted to follow him that they couldn’t, like the scribe whom he told, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[11]

The disciples expected that they would one day be great leaders. But Jesus told them that the way they must walk was the path of service and self-sacrifice. “You are not to be called rabbi”[12] or instructor, or teacher. There is only one whom you may call Teacher. This is not about titles and power. You will be important; you will be great; you may even be called a saint. But your greatness will not be measured by the number of disciples you have; it will be measured by how many people you serve. “The greatest among you will be your servant.”[13]

It doesn’t sound easy, and it’s not. It is hard work being a disciple of Jesus. But it is good work. It is the kind of work that will lift your spirits. By serving others, by helping them to bear their burdens, we find our own burdens much easier to bear. By listening to another, we might hear what God is doing in the world outside of our own heads. When we take the time to help another, when we allow our plans and routines to be interrupted by the needs of another, we just might be able to release our own anxieties and make room for God to refocus our attention on what is really important.

To take up our cross and follow Christ means that we will sometimes have to bear the burdens of others. We will have to suffer and endure one another, and not so we can fix or control the other, but so that we can allow them to be free. It is a burden, it is difficult, to allow someone else to be who they are, to not judge them, to not expect them to conform, to allow them to be strange, peculiar, broken and scarred, imperfect. When we allow the needs of another to supersede our own, we just might find our burdens easing. Who knows, we may find that the other we are serving is the one who knows us best.

In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tried to give a practical explanation of what discipleship is all about.

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.[14]

What does discipleship mean? It means that you must humble yourself. It means to serve the world, in the name and in the manner of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah, our Teacher, the one who has called out “Follow me.”  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] Robert L. Deffinbaugh, Th.M., Community Bible Chapel, Richardson, Texas. “Discipleship: Its Definitions and Dangers (Matthew 23:1-12)” from the Series: Highlights in the Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ © 1998 Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. and the authors. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from
Source URL:

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew 23:4.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I, © 1981, 20th Century Fox.

[7] Matthew 23:6-7.

[8] Matthew 16:15-16.

[9] Matthew 16:24.

[10] Cf. Matthew 4:19, 21.

[11] Matthew 8:20.

[12] Matthew 23:8.

[13] Matthew 23:11.

[14] Matthew 25:35-36, 40.