We’re Able, but Are We Willing?

bridges not wallsLuke 16:19-31 NRSV

This morning, Jesus is telling another story to teach us something about the nature of God—who God is, how God acts, and what God desires. And as I said last week, we usually find that something in that part of the story that takes us by surprise, shocks us.

It is not difficult to find that moment in this morning’s lesson. But to fully grasp it we need to know a little background about original audience.[i] The Pharisees were notorious for believing and teaching some very bad theology. It is what we call “TV evangelist theology,” “the prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.”  It means that we can find favor with God, and if we do, whether it is by living a pure and holy life or by giving generously to God “through a seed offering to the name and address displayed on your television,” then God will bless you with health and wealth. In fact, if you give regularly to their ministry, not only can you expect to receive an autographed copy of their new book, but you can expect to get unexpected checks in the mail! You will not only feel good that you are supporting a great ministry, but you may also be healed your disease or disability.

So here’s the thinking:

Have a lot of money, a great stock-portfolio, growing investments? Blessed. Living from one social security check to the next? Not blessed.

Have plenty of food, nice clothes and a nice car? Blessed. On food stamps, wear worn, old-fashioned clothes, drive a broken down heap? Not so much.

Have great healthcare, low co-pay and deductible? Access to great doctors? Blessed. No insurance, can’t remember your last check-up? Not so blessed.

Nice home? Blessed. Live in the projects? Not blessed.

Healthy and fit, training to run a 5k? Blessed. Sick, in a wheel-chair, homebound? Unblessed.

The sick and the poor, well, they’re just not living right. They make poor decisions in life. I hate to say it, but a lot of them deserve their plight.

The healthy and wealthy, well, evidently they have been living right. They make good and wise decisions, and because of that, they have caught the eye of God and found some divine favor. The poor? The sick? Well, they’ve caught the eye of God too!

And because of that belief, the Pharisees kept the poor and sick at a distance, outside of their circle of friends. They did everything they could do to keep a large gap between them. They were never invited into their homes and they cringed each time one would stumble into the synagogue.

So Jesus tells a story. There was a rich man from a big family who was well-dressed, well-fed and well-off, and of course lived in an exclusive gated community. And right outside of that gate, was this poor, hungry and sick man named Lazarus.

Lazarus would look through the gate and dream of being able to eat just the left-over scraps from the rich man. The only attention and care he received were from the neighborhood dogs that came and licked his wounds. How unblessed is that?

Well, one day, both men died. After all that’s what all men do, don’t they?  All of the money, good fortune in the world can not prevent it. So, no surprise there.

But hold on, because here it comes. The poor man, the man who was seemingly blessed not so much in life, is carried away by the angels to be with Father Abraham.

And, by this time, you know it is really coming. You can almost feel it! If the church pews had seatbelts, I’d be hearing a lot of clicks about now.

The rich man who had a stellar reputation in the community, the one who was seemingly very blessed in life, the one who always bragged to his friends down at the synagogue how good God had been to him, found himself being tormented in Hades.

C’mon Jesus, really?!? Really?

Really! He looks up and sees Abraham with Lazarus at his side and cries out, “Father Abraham, it’s hot as Hades down here! Please send Lazarus to visit me with just a drop of water!”

Abraham responds, “It’s too late. You are no longer able to be comforted. Besides, there is now this chasm, this gate, this wall separating you from us and us from you. And it has been fixed.

Now, isn’t that ironic? In life, the rich man who separated himself, who kept his distance, segregated and protected himself from the likes of people like Lazarus, is now eternally separated from him. And he is unable to do anything about it.

“Ok,” he says, “If I am unable, my five brothers who are still living are very able! Please send Lazarus to warn them so that they will not join me in this God forsaken place!”

Abraham responds: “They’ve already been warned in the scriptures.”

“But, Abraham, look, uh, I know my brothers, and I am afraid that they are not really into Bible Study, but if someone rises from the grave, then they might listen.”

“No,” says Abraham, “If they are not willing to listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced, even if someone rises from the dead.”

Oh – my – word! Jesus is not just speaking to the Pharisees here, is he? Jesus is speaking to crowds of people gathered almost two-thousand years later on Sunday mornings at 11am who proclaim to know someone who has indeed rose from the dead.

It is too late for the rich man. He is no longer able to change—change his theology, change his heart, change his view of his neighbors living on the other side of the tracks. He is no longer able to tear down the wall and begin building bridges. And although his five brothers are able to change, we learn the sad and the scary truth that they are simply not willing to change.

And here we are, as able as those brothers. The truth is, we are more than able. For not only do we have Moses and the Prophets, we also have Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul and the risen Christ himself. So, the scary question is: are we willing? Are we willing to change our theology, our hearts and our actions? Are we willing to tear down the walls and build some bridges?

Yes, we hear bad theology all of the time from the TV preachers, but we also hear it right here in the local church. And sometimes it comes out of our very own mouths.

When someone compliments us by telling us what a nice home we live in, or what a nice car we drive, or what a beautiful family we have, or how good we look for our age, we respond how we think all good Christians who go to church every Sunday should respond, “Well, the Lord has really been good to me.” “The Lord has really blessed me.”  And we even believe responding in such a manner might coax God into blessing us some more!

Through the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus says that our wealth and our health and our nice teeth are not signs that we are God’s favorites. In fact, those things may be some of the bricks in the wall that separates us from those who are poor, sick and have never seen a dentist. And according to Jesus, if we do not do something about it, that wall, that chasm, will eternally separate us from God.

When someone who is doing the best they can to make ends meet, who is struggling to put food on the table and keep the lights on, hears someone who has it all proclaim, “Yes, the Lord sure has been good to me! The Lord has really blessed me!” what are they to think?  What else can they think except: “Obviously, for some reason or another, I am not one of God’s favorites.”

So, should those of us with good jobs, nice homes and a clean bill of health thank God for what we have? Absolutely! But should we interpret our nice things as a sign that God has looked down on us favorably, given us a nod and a wink—a pat on the back? Jesus says, absolutely not!

One week before Hurricane Katrina paralyzed the Gulf Coast, a young mother went into labor about 10 days before her due date. Although she needed a C-section, she delivered a healthy boy in a New Orleans hospital. She later interpreted having the baby 10 days early as a sign of God’s divine favor. She said, “God knew that if the baby was born on the due date, we would not be able to get to a hospital. So, God made the baby come early.”

There’s no doubt she should thank God the baby came early; however, Jesus says she needs to be very careful how she interprets and shares her story because, without knowing it, she may be building a wall or a chasm between her and someone else. For example, what is the New Orleans father to think whose baby did not come early, whose wife was unable to go to the hospital because of the flood, and because of that, lost not only his baby, but his wife too?  Did God favor one family over the other?

Jesus said, absolutely not! And if you think that because of your good fortune in life you are blessed, one day you might find yourself asking someone who was less fortunate than you in life for a sip of water!

Jesus also put it this way: the sun shines on the good and the evil and the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).

One day Luke says that Jesus cried out, “How often have I desired to gather everyone together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).

The question for us this morning is this, “Are we willing to be gathered under the wings of grace[ii] and see all people, rich and poor as our brothers and our sisters. Are we willing to start building bridges or keep putting more bricks in the wall?”

The good news for us is, unlike the rich man in our story, it’s not too late. We are able, more than able. The question is, “Are we willing?”

[i]Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)

Craddock, Fred B., Luke, Interpretation. (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1990)

Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge:  Trinity Press, 1994)

Culpepper, R. Alan, Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX.  (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1995)

Another Brick in the Wall

The-parable-of-LazarusFrom We’re Able, but Are We Willing? 

Luke 16:19-31

Through the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus says that our wealth and our health and our nice teeth are not signs that we are God’s favorites. In fact, those things may be some of the bricks in the wall that separates us from those who are poor, sick and have never seen a dentist. And according to Jesus, if we don’t do something about it, that wall will eternally separate us from God.

Being the Embodiment of Christ – “Forgiveness”

I want to begin a several-part series entitled: “Being the Embodiment of Christ.” I want to explore ways that our church can overcome past mistakes, the mistakes of our church as well as the mistakes of the Church (and that is Church with a big “C”). There is no doubt that many of these mistakes have not only wounded the church’s witness, but they have actually wounded the faith of many. I believe we simply must accept responsibility for some of the reasons that people are all but giving up on organized religion these days.

Therefore, I would like to begin this series with a confession and with an appeal for forgiveness. As part of the Body of Christ, we confess that we have not always modeled the life and teachings of Jesus. We have been selfish, self-righteous and judgmental. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we have often been purveyors of bad theology. We have neglected the poor “at our gate” (Luke 16:20). When God has called us to speak out for justice in our world, we have been silent. When God has called us to stand for peace, we have taken a stance for war. Although we say we believe we will go to heaven to one day to worship with every race and tribe (Revelation 7:9), we prefer a worship that is segregated.

This is by no means a complete list of our sins. However, we believe it is a good start. And we choose to start this process of reconciliation within community. Instead of giving up on the church, we commit ourselves more fully to the church. As Rev. Lillian Daniel has said, “Community is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask the hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach” (Going Solo). As we ask to be forgiven for our many trespasses, we recommit ourselves to being a community of grace and forgiveness forgiving the trespasses of each other.

One of my favorite preachers and authors, Frederick Buechner, has written some of the best words on the subject of forgiveness that I know:

forgivenessTo forgive somebody is to say one way or another, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.”

To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.

This seems to explain what Jesus means when he says to God, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. In the first place, forgiveness that’s conditional isn’t really forgiveness at all, just fair warning; and in the second place, our unforgiveness is among those things about us that we need to have God forgive us most. What Jesus apparently is saying is that the pride that keeps us from forgiving is the same pride that keeps us from accepting forgiveness, and will God please help us do something about it.

When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.

When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.

For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence. ~originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

Being a community of grace and forgiveness–I believe it is a great start to begin overcoming the mistakes of our church and of the Church. The truth is, we have to start being such a community if we ever want to welcome back those who have left the church or welcome for the first time those who have never considered being a part of the church. And we absolutely have to be such a community if we want to ever come close to becoming the church that God is calling us to be.

C’mon Jesus, Really!?!

really2Luke 16:1-9 NRSV

It is chapter 16 in Luke’s gospel, and Jesus is fired up! He has been telling parable after parable after parable. And we have to go back an entire chapter to remind ourselves what got Jesus worked up into this parabolic frenzy. That’s right, it was that familiar grumbling:  “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Evidently, if you want to get Jesus started, if you really want to get him riled up, if you want to push his buttons, all you have to do is start grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners to his table. All you have to do is question the height, depth, and breadth of God’s grace. All you have to do is suggest that someone—somewhere, somehow, someway—can be separated from the love God.

Jesus responds by telling four parables: one about a sheep that strayed, one about coin that was lost, one about a son who misused his inheritance, and one about a manager who misused his boss’ money.

Jesus used parables throughout his ministry to reveal a little something about the nature God. And in all parables, there is usually some action that takes us by surprise, and sometimes even confuses us. It makes us say something like: “Really?!?” “Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain?” “C’mon Jesus, Really?!?” Really?”

And it is usually in that moment where we find that little something Jesus wants us to learn about the nature of God.

To go after and find that one lost sheep that did not have the good sense to stay with the flock, the shepherd is really going to risk the ninety-nine sheep that are faithful? He’s really going to leave them wilderness for who knows how many days and nights? Really?!? Alone in the wilderness? Really?!? The entire flock? C’mon, Jesus, Really?!?

To find one lost coin, a woman is going to sweep the entire house, search day and night, and when she finds it, she’s really going to invite all of her friends, the entire neighborhood to rejoice with her? Really?!? The entire neighborhood? For one coin? Really?!? Jesus, c’mon?!

After a son has the audacity to ask his perfectly healthy and fit father for his inheritance; after he spends all of it on who knows what, and having no other place to go, returns home; the father has even greater audacity to welcome him back home with open arms. “Really?!? C’mon Jesus, Really?!? And not only does he welcome him home, but does so with one, big, extravagant party. Really?!? With a robe? A kiss? And a ring? And a fatted calf? Really?!? C’mon Jesus, Really?!?” “Jesus?”

But Jesus does not answer. After all, his button has been pushed and he’s on a roll! He has one more story to tell and this one, well this one is a doozy!

A certain rich man gets word that the manager of his properties has been cheating him out of some money. So he calls him into his office, asks for the books, and tells him that he has to let him go.

Now, most employees who are caught in some sort of embezzling or swindling scam would be grateful that a pink slip was all they got; and thus, go home with a little bit of gratitude, but not this employee. This one is clever, crafty and conniving. After all, he did not get the job as manager by being a hard worker or by being handy with a shovel. This one has a plan. And it is a sneaky plan. It is a selfish plan. It’s fraudulent, even criminal. And it is more than a little risky. If his previous behavior did not land him in prison, this certainly should.

He goes out and one by one meets with his boss’s customers. “How much do you owe the boss man?”

“A hundred jugs of olive oil.”

“Here’s your bill. Take it and make it fifty. And do it before we change our minds!”

“And you sir, what do you owe the boss?”

“A hundred containers of wheat.”

“Here, take your bill and make it eighty.”

And this went on and on until he reduced the debts of all of the boss’s customers.

And when the boss man discovered what his dishonest manager had done, cheating him out of even more money, the boss man commends and applauds the little weasel for being so weasel-y. And all God’s children said, “REALLY?!?” Commends the dishonest manager? For being dishonest? C’mon Jesus, really?!? He does not take the weasel by the throat and strangle him to death? Or even call the law? He praises him? Really?!? I mean, c’mon now, really!?!

And it is here, in this action, that we find that little something that Jesus wants us to learn about the nature of God. And in this case, it happens to be a very big something.

When the height, depth and breadth of God’s grace is questioned, “This fellow eats and drinks with sinners,” Jesus responds:

Yes, I do. And for just one sinner who has lost her way, I am willing to risk ninety-nine religious people who think they have life all figured out. And I will not stop seeking and reaching out my hands for that one until she is found. I will sweep every room, move every piece of furniture, rip up the carpet and tear a house a part if I have to.

And I don’t care who that sinner is or what that sinner has done, there is absolutely nothing that they can do to be separated from my love and grace. He can squander my property, spend it all on who knows what, then come crawling back to me, only because he has no other place to go, only for reasons that are purely selfish, and I will not only welcome him back with open arms, I will throw one big, extravagant party!

So, yes, I really do eat and I drink with sinners because God’s grace is really, really, really bigger than you think. It is more extravagant and more generous than you know.

And if you still do not believe it? If you still question the heights and depths and lengths I would go through to accept, love and forgive the sinner, let me tell you yet another story. And this one is one, well this one is a real doozy!

A rich man had a manager who was quite the scoundrel. When the master learns that he was cooking the books, although he could have had him thrown in prison or even crucified, the master very graciously lets him go.

It is then the manager makes what seems to be an extraordinary gamble. He meets with the boss man’s customers and says, “Christmas has come early!” And one by one he reduces their debts and puts the master in some kind of pickle!

What on earth is the boss man going to do now? Is he going to round up all of his happy customers and tell them that it was a one big mistake? Not only would they think that his manager pulled one over on him, but he would look like a miserly scrooge.

Or will he let the little swindle slide and receive praise for being a very generous boss man?  What does the boss man love more:  his money or his new reputation for having a gracious and generous nature? The manager was betting on the latter and the gamble pays off. He commends the manager for being a shrewd businessman. [i]

And we are shocked, asking, “really Jesus?!” “Really?!?”

But after hearing the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the gracious father who welcomes back his prodigal son, should we be surprised?

The shepherd searches until he finds the lost sheep not because of who the sheep is, but because of who the shepherd is. The woman searches until she finds the coin because of who she is. It is her nature to keep searching. The prodigal son is welcomed graciously back by the father, not because of anything that the son did, after all he only came crawling back because he had nowhere else to go. He is welcomed graciously back because that is the nature of his father.

And now, here is an unfaithful manager whose actions can only be described as selfish and self-serving. And the master, seeing all of this, is still generous because it is in the very nature of the master to be generous. The dishonest manager knew this, bet on this and won.

Therefore Jesus says, “If the children of God, who question whether I should be eating and drinking with sinners, would only believe in God’s grace the way the dishonest believe in grace, and try to exploit it, then the children of God would never question that there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can ever separate them from the love of God.”

However, Jesus knew that it would take more than parables to convince us. There would need to be one more action, at a place called The Skull.

Luke writes: “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right side and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do know what they are doing.’”

C’mon, Jesus, Really?!?

The good news is: really!

Now listen to one more parable. There was this certain pastor who had served churches his entire adult life. He was far from perfect, but worked hard to love people and to serve the community.

One day, for many reasons, he just threw up his hands and walked away from the church. The fire that he once had for ministry was all but gone. He was even tempted at times to give up on organized religion all together. For three years he worked outside of the church and lived mostly for himself and his immediate family. He was no longer involved in his community. And he hardly ever even visited with his neighbors.

But then there was this church—this church that knew him when his hair was much darker, knew a lot of his faults, but recognized his gifts for ministry and believed that he still had much to give to the Lord and to their community—and this church welcomed this pastor and his family with open arms. They offered him grace and encouragement and rekindled that fire inside of him, which, at least today, burns brighter than ever!  And although he still has a lot of faults and flaws, they call him, “pastor.”

Really!?! C’mon First Christian Church, Really?!?  Really?


O God, forgive us for doubting, for questioning the stories of your amazing grace. Thank you for loving us freely and unconditionally. And give us the courage and the vision to share this good news in this community and throughout the world. Amen.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2008) 520-524.

Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster Press, 1990) 192.

R. Alan Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995) 306-311.

Why Me, Lord?

HospicePlace_lgEarly one summer morning, a very sick mother was on the patio enjoying the outdoors with her daughter at a hospice house for the terminally ill. Morphine has a way of erasing the memory, so the daughter was helping her mother recall some of the names of the friends and family members who had been so faithful coming to visit her.

Then they sat quietly on the patio listening to and watching nature wake up all around them: the birds singing, butterflies dancing and flowers bursting with color. After a few moments the daughter looked at her mother. Her heart broke. This one who had always been so strong, so vibrant and so active was quickly slipping away. Her body had never been more weak or more frail.

The mother looked at her daughter with eyes that began to fill with tears. And as tears began to stream down her cheeks, the dying mother asked a familiar question. It is a question that every human being living in this broken world asks at some time or another. Sometimes we ask it about others and sometimes we ask it about ourselves.  When life is difficult, when life is unfair we ask it. Sometimes silently, sometimes shouting, we ask it: “Why me?” “Lord, Why me? Why!”

After her mother asked the familiar question, the daughter, in her thoughts that were shaded with grief, understandably joined her mother.

“Yes, mother, why!  Why you!  Why do you have to have this stupid disease? Why do you have to leave all of your wonderful friends and family? And why do you have to leave us when you are still so young?  It just does not make any sense. You are such a good mother, such a sweet person. Why? Why do bad things happen to good people?”

She was a very good person. She was a compassionate mother, a very involved grandmother, a faithful sister and a devoted friend. She was the selfless type who lived to help others. Even after her terminal diagnosis she continued to put the needs and interests of others before her own.

In recent weeks, she made it a priority to spend time with her grandchildren. She told them not to worry because she knew Heaven was real. She said, “One day, you might feel a faint nudge on your shoulder. It will be me.” She told them if they found a penny, then they should always pick it up, because it was from her.

She possessed a special gift to love all people unconditionally regardless of what they looked like or where they were from. She could always see the good in others as she could in all circumstances. And as generous as she was with her love, she was also generous with grace and forgiveness.

This generosity spilled over everywhere she went. It is hard to count how many regarded her as a second mom. Even during these last difficult months, her generous spirit established instant relationships with all sorts of people. She made friends with her doctors, her nurses, with every caregiver, and even with those working in housekeeping at the hospital or hospice house.

It was said that the mother lived her life the way she cooked her meals. Her daughter would often tease her about her cooking. She would taste her food and say, “Mama, I think I know what your secret ingredient is! It’s sugar! Mama, you add sugar to everything, don’t you?!”

That is just what she did. It is who she was. Wherever she was and whomever she was with, she added a little bit of sweetness to everything she touched.

So, O Lord, why? Why do some of the sweetest, most pleasant, most loving and forgiving people we know suffer and die at an early age? Why her? Why my mother? Why, Lord, why?

As they sat outside on that patio, the daughter understood her mother’s question, “Why me?” It is just so unfair! It is so unjust and so unbelievable!  The wave of enormous grief was overwhelming. It hit her all at once: pain and sadness and anger and despair. “Yes,” the daughter thought, “Why you, Mama!  Why you!  Why!”

In that moment, the daughter wanted to say something to comfort her mother; however, before she could say anything, her mother had a big surprise for her.

Her mother simply finished her question.

As tears rolled down her face, the mother began to smile and continued to ask: “Why me? Why am I so lucky? Why have I been so blessed? Why me? Why do I have so many friends? What have I done to deserve such a wonderful family?” Sitting outside enjoying God’s beautiful creation, she was asking the creator of all that is: “Why have I been blessed with such a wonderful life?”

She understood the sheer grace that is in all of it, in all of this miraculous mystery we call “life.” And she was grateful for it.

And thinking about how grateful her mother had always been, the way she lived her life, the daughter smiled, for she knew that she should not have been surprised when her mother completed her question.

The daughter knew that there are basically two kinds of people in the world. There are people, like her mother, who are sweet and kind, generous with love and forgiveness. And then there are others are bitter and mean, stingy and selfish.

She now understood why, as she thought: “Mama was sweet because of gratitude. And folks who are bitter are usually ungrateful. They think that others and the world owe them something. Sweet people like mama have an understanding that all of life is but a gift.”

She was the mother, the sister, the grandmother and the friend she was because she understood all of life is but a free gift of God’s amazing grace. So, on that patio, when she asked: “Why me? Why am I so lucky?” none of us should have been surprised.

But that is what God’s grace does. It surprises us.

A few days later, the mother, who was at perfect peace, died.

Time passed, but the grief the daughter experienced did not. The immense grief that came in waves and overwhelmed her came less frequently. However, every time it came, if she was paying attention, she could feel a faint nudge on her shoulder, or she might look down and find a penny, and be reminded to pause and give thanks.

Instead of being bitter over the years the disease took from her mother, she became grateful for the sacred years she had with her. Thus, in what seemed very strange at first, each time the waves of grief would come, the daughter would stop and thank God for her grief. For grieving only meant that she lost someone wonderful–someone she did not deserve to have.

And although thanking God for grief seemed strange, instead of being surprised and shocked that she was being grateful to God for the pain, she would ask God, sometimes in silence and sometimes in a shout, but always with a smile:

“Why me, Lord? Why me! What did I do to deserve to be loved by and to love someone as special as my mother, a true gift of God’s amazing grace!”

And like her mother, the daughter discovered a perfect peace.

A re-telling of Ashley and Mandy’s  remembrances of their mother,

Nadine Petroff Martin, July 5, 1949 – September 17, 2013


reallyFrom C’mon Jesus, Really?!?

Luke 16:1-13 NRSV

. . .he reduced the debts of all of the boss’s customers without the boss’s knowledge. And when the boss man found out what his former manager had done, the boss man commends and applauds the little weasel for being so weasel-y!

And all God’s children said: “REALLY!?! Commends the dishonest manager? For being dishonest? C’mon Jesus, really?! He does not take the weasel by the throat and strangle him to death? He doesn’t even call the law? He praises him? Really!?! I mean, c’mon now, really?” “Really!?!”

And it is here, in this action, where we learn something about the nature of God.

People Grumble but Angels Sing!


Luke 15:1-10 NRSV

It is Consecration Sunday. To consecrate: it means to “set apart,” “devote,” “dedicate,” “commit.” Today, with our presence, prayers, and pledges, we consecrate First Christian Church to the selfless, self-denying, sacrificial service of God in this community and in our world. We set-apart, devote, dedicate and commit ourselves to the difficult journey we call discipleship, a journey that calls us to lose ourselves, empty ourselves, and pour ourselves out for others; a journey that calls us to lose our pride, our possessions, even our lives.

And as painful, as difficult, as taxing, and as costly as this journey is, Consecration Sunday is the day we claim it, and commit ourselves to it, believing it is the only journey that leads to true life, abundant and eternal.

And after being around you folks now for a couple of weeks, I believe with all my heart that the First Christian Church of Farmville is more than ready for this day of Consecration. And believe it or not, I can just look at you this morning and tell that you are ready.

I believe you are ready simply because you are here. Like all churches on the discipleship road, this church has experienced a few bumps, several pot holes, a little bit of mud, some rocky terrain, a couple detours, and although you have even gotten close to going over the cliff, you have somehow managed to stay on road. And in many ways because of that, you are more committed and more devoted than ever to seeing this journey through. I know you are ready to commit to this journey because you are here.

And let’s face it, you could have made the choice with the majority of Americans to stay home today and experience God on your back porch or patio with a cup of coffee or during a morning run or walk in the park. But you made the difficult decision to get up, get dressed and drive to this place this morning. Some of you came here to sit beside of people with whom you could not disagree more, with people who have at times made you angry or even made your cry, but you still came because you are committed to something that is much bigger than your feelings, your emotions, even your life.

Rev. Lillian Daniel, pastor of First Congregational Church from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has said: “Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party, but has a baby who is crying while you are trying to listen to the sermon. “Community,” she says, “is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask the hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.”

She continues: “I think a lot of those who can’t tolerate organized religion are really just frustrated by other people. They think, ‘If they could just kick all of the flawed human beings out of the church, we could really do this Jesus thing. Better do my spiritual life solo, where I don’t have to be disturbed by the amateurs.”[1]

I have a confession to make. During my break from pastoral ministry, I often felt the temptation to go solo with my faith. I would go for a Sunday morning run along the Tar River in Greenville. There, I would pray and enjoy being alive in God’s creation, and think to myself, “this is the way to do church! There is no one to disagree with me. There is no one sharing their problems with me, making me uncomfortable, and taking up my time. And I must confess, it was rather nice!

However, I must confess it was also very selfish. It was arrogant, and it was self-righteous. The truth is: it was the very antithesis of who Jesus calls us to be as his disciples.

One day, perhaps one Sunday at 11 am, Jesus decides to have some church. He gets the word out that he would be leading worship, preaching a sermon, and then afterwards having a covered dish or a nice catered lunch. And people from all over town came to the service. Of course, other religious leaders and people of faith came carrying their Bibles: Pharisees and scribes, deacons and elders, Sunday School teachers, and other respectable, well-dressed and well-groomed church people, even some from other congregations in town.

But then through the front door entered the other people. You know who I am talking about: the others—those who tempt us to find Jesus alone with a cup of coffee and a sunrise—those others, who are just so, well, “other.”

It was then that it came. It came in whispers and it came in murmurs and it even came in a few gasps the sound of grumbling. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The truth is that being the church that God calls us to be in this world is in itself a selfless, sacrificial, self-denying journey because it calls us not only to welcome, accept and love others; Jesus suggests that “others” is who the church is actually for.

Jesus asks, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it?”

Well, Jesus, do you really want us to answer that question? Do you really want to know if we are willing to risk 99, forget about their wants and needs, just so we can go after one that has lost his way? And just how did he get lost in the first place? I hate to say it, but he probably deserved it. It makes more sense to make sure the more deserving sheep that have not strayed stay safe and comfortable. Do you really want us to risk losing the entire flock for one lost soul?

Then Jesus says, not only do I want you to risk the entire flock, put their needs and their wants last, but when you find the lost, I want you to put him up on your shoulders and throw one big party! Because, when one lost soul is found, that is exactly what the Father and the Holy Spirit and the Angels are doing in heaven!

Then Jesus asks, “which one of you women, having 10 coins, and loses just one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house and search until she finds it?”

Well, Jesus, it all depends. I might look in a few places, but I am not willing to move any furniture or tear the house apart. And I might look for an hour or so, but I am not going to waste an entire day. I think I’m better off to use my time and efforts to hold on good and tight to the on other nine. Make sure they stay safe and protected. Doesn’t that make more sense?

Jesus says, “It may make sense to you, but not to my Father and the heavenly host. I tell you again, when you exist and act on the behalf of the lost, on the behalf of the other, although it might cause some in the church to grumble, the angels are singing!

And if we are all honest this morning, we would admit that we understand the grumbling. There is something within all of us that would prefer to be a country club for the ninety nine. Deep down, we prefer to hold on to each other, comfort each other. After all, membership should have some benefits for its members. It is not easy consecrating the First Christian Church not for us here on the inside, but for all those others who are on the outside.

It is not easy consecrating ourselves to leave our areas of comfort and safety and venture forth into the world share the good news that Jesus came and died for all people. However, although we may want to grumble, there is absolutely nothing than can stop us from this consecration. We have been through too much, the road has been too long, too bumpy and too muddy, too rough, and we’ve been too close to edge of the cliff to turn back now!

I once belonged to a church that had beautiful stained glass windows that told the gospel story. The first window portrayed Jesus’ baptism; the second, the call of the disciples; the third, the feeding of the five thousand; and so on. And then they portrayed Jesus’ crucifixion the resurrection and the ascension. Each window was imprinted with an appropriate scripture verse for each scene.

We had a guest preacher one day who pointed out how the stained glass windows should be taken out, flipped around, and put back in so that the gospel story could be seen, the scripture verses read by the people outside of the church, instead of to the people who were already on the inside.

It was a great sermon illustration. For it not only illustrates why we need to fix our own windows here where they can be seen by those outside our church, and we need to do it sooner than later, it illustrates that Jesus wants the church to always, selflessly and sacrificially, exist for the other, the outsider, even if it causes some to grumble.

Fred Craddock, one of my all-time favorite preachers, who I have quoted for 25 years, who by the way just happens to be ordained as a Disciple of Christ, tells the story of a local church that had a lot of grumblers. Although their sign out front read, “A church that serves all people,” when all people would show up to be served, the grumbling became so intense that it continually drove the newcomers away.

“Would you look at how long his hair is? Do you see all of those piercings! Oh my word, how those children are dressed! He sure is odd. She’s certainly strange. Don’t tell me we are now going to be a church for those people?

About ten years went by. When, one day, Craddock was driving down the road where that church was located when he saw that the building that once housed that church had been converted into a restaurant. Curious, he stopped and went inside. In the place where they used to be pews, there were now tables and chairs. The choir loft and baptistery was now the kitchen. And the chancel area which once contained the pulpit and communion table now had an all-you-can-eat salad bar. And the restaurant was full of patrons—every age, color and creed.

Upon seeing the sad, but very intriguing transformation, Craddock thought to himself, “At last, God finally got that church to serve all people.”

It is Consecration Sunday and we have come too far to turn back now. So, today we set aside, devote, dedicate and commit our presence, our prayers, our pledges, our budget, our building our windows and our very selves to the service of God in this community and in our world NOT for the benefit of the 99, but for others.

The road has been long and the going has been rough, but because of that we are stronger and more committed than ever to see this journey through. Although this way is narrow and at times uncomfortable, we are still here. And while some may grumble, we have decided this day to exist for others and sing aloud with the Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Heavenly Host. Then, at the altar we are going to lay our pledges to continue this journey as we make our way to the fellowship hall sit down together at the table and enjoy one big party!

Going Solo

run in the park

From People Grumble but Angels Sing!

This Sunday, we have a choice to make. We could make the choice with the majority of Americans to stay home and experience God on our back porches or patios with a cup of coffee or during a morning run or during walk in the park.  Or we could make the difficult decision to get up, get dressed and drive to a place of worship.  And there, we may sit beside people with whom we could not disagree more. We may sit beside folks who press our buttons, even drive us crazy.

In a recent interview, Rev. Lillian Daniel, pastor of First Congregational Church from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has said: “Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party, but has a baby who is crying while you are trying to listen to the sermon. “Community,” she says, “is where the religious rubber meets the road. People challenge us, ask the hard questions, disagree, need things from us, require our forgiveness. It’s where we get to practice all the things we preach.”

She continues: “I think a lot of those who can’t tolerate organized religion are really just frustrated by other people. They think, ‘If they could just kick all of the flawed human beings out of the church, we could really do this Jesus thing. Better do my spiritual life solo, where I don’t have to be disturbed by the amateurs.”

I have a confession to make. During my break from pastoral ministry, I often felt the temptation to go solo with my faith. I would go for a Sunday morning run along the Tar River in Greenville. There, I would pray and enjoy being alive in God’s creation, and think to myself, “This is the way to do church! There is no one to disagree with me. There is no one sharing their problems with me, making me uncomfortable, and taking up my time. And I must confess, it was rather nice!

However, I must also confess it was very selfish. It was arrogant, and it was self-righteous. The truth is: it was the very antithesis of who Jesus calls us to be as his disciples.