Christmas in the Weeds

nativity

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 NRSV  A sermon delivered to Broadmoor Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, July 13, 2008

Have you ever noticed that whenever we romanticize, glamorize, sentimentalize life, even faith itself, whenever our expectations are too great, we are usually greatly disappointed?

Our family vacation was coming to an end.  It was our last day at the beach.  I had looked forward to spending the entire day on the beach, swimming in the crystal, Caribbean-blue water with my children.  In my mind, it was going to be the perfect day.

But on our last day, the Caribbean-blue water was not so Caribbean-blue.  It was seaweed green.  Sometime during the night, the weediest seaweed you’d ever seen had drifted into the waters in front of our condo.  The water was green, the beach was green, and if you swam in it, you’d be green too.  I had never seen so many weeds.

So, I spent the rest of that day that came with such expectation working on this sermon—which ironically happens to be about Jesus’ parable of the weeds.   No matter what kind of expectations we may have for our garden, weeds are always bound to appear.  Allow me to give you another example.

The previous day, I was reading a book on the beach when my eye caught notice of a young family playing in the surf.  A father was helping his eight-year old boy ride a wave on his boogie board.  A mother was holding the hands of her six-year old daughter who was standing in front of her, lifting her up to hop over the incoming waves.  In spite of a little envy and jealousy, I managed to smile as I watched them, for it was a beautiful picture of a perfect family vacation.

But as they came out of the water to take their seats next to me, something happened—you might say that these weeds began to appear.

“Daddy, a jelly fish stung me,” whined the little boy.  “Mommy, I’m hungry,” moaned the daughter.    “Son, stop shaking that towel, you’re getting sand all over everybody!” griped the father.  Exasperated, the mother yelled:  “Why can’t we just have one day on our vacation without all this fussin’?”

And as I watched them, I smiled once more, but this time, even bigger than before, because this time, this Norman Rockwelian family looked more real, like, say the Banks’ family on vacation—because regardless of my high expectations for a perfect vacation, somehow, someway these weeds would always appear.

It’s not so different from the expectations I had before moving to Baton Rouge.  Whatever I had envisioned about my transition—answering the call of God, following my savior on a wondrous adventure into the deep, antebellum South, embarking on a brand new journey with the Lord—No, whatever my expectations were, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with what actually transpired.  Lori becoming ill.  Our health insurance denied.  My car vandalized in the night.  Throwing out my back while moving a garden hose.  A constant battle with seasonal allergies.  No, no matter what my great expectations may have been, weeds were bound to appear.

And the weeds on my beach, in my garden, have been and are a lot more manageable than some of your weeds.  Thus far, my weeds have been merely a nuisance.  Other weeds have been bent on entangling and even strangling all that is good.

An unforeseen accident tragically claims the life of the innocent.  Someone falls and fatally breaks a hip.  The doctor says the tumor is malignant.  A mother dies very unexpectedly.  One faces two surgeries in a month; both are unsuccessful.   Chemotherapy treatments make some deathly sick.  And that’s just scratching the surface here in our family of faith.  Elsewhere, a  U. S. consulate is attacked by terrorists.   Tornados ravage entire communities.  Wildfires continue to destroy homes.   And the Mississippi River continues to rise; levees continue to break.

No, as much as we try to romanticize, glamorize or sentimentalize our vacations, our families, our lives, despite all of our high expectations for the perfect day on the beach, the perfect family, the perfect vocation, the perfect life—the weediest weeds always appear.

So the slaves complain to the householder:  “Where did all of these weeds come from?”  This is not what we were expecting. “What are we to do with them?  Do you want us to pull them up, try our best to get rid of them ourselves?”

“No, says the Master.  But have hope.   In the meantime, we have to live  alongside the weeds, but the time is coming, at the end of the age, when the weeds will be collected and destroyed forever.  And there will be no more mourning.  No more crying and pain.  Death will be no more.”

This is, of course, the hope all of us have in what we call the second coming of Christ.  It is the hope we have that Christ will somehow, someway, someday come again and defeat evil and destroy the weeds that entangle us, that have sought and that may even prevail to strangle the very life out of us on this earth. It is the hope that one day we will reside in the Kingdom of Heaven where weeds simply do not exist.

But wait a minute.  Notice that this parable begins with the customary parabolic prefix, “’The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…’  Someone who sowed good seed; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is not only that eternal weed-free place that is part of our future.  The Kingdom of Heaven is something we can also experience in the present, among the weeds.  It is not something  that we only  look forward to after the second coming of Christ, it is something we can somewhat experience today as a result of the first coming of Christ.

I believe one of the reasons we often miss this truth is because of our aforementioned propensity to romanticize, glamorize and sentimentalize life.  And I’m afraid we have a tendency to do this even with the incarnation, the first coming of Christ.

Angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus.  A brilliant star rising in the East.  A baby worshipped by Shepherds and Kings and even animals.  A glorious baptismal scene with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.   Jesus calling faithful disciples who drop everything to follow.  Even the cross has become sentimental—a perfect, pretty piece of jewelry to adorn the neck.  In our minds, the whole story is a beautiful, perfect garden completely devoid of weeds.

But the truth is and the good news is that it was not that beautiful.  It was not that perfect.  It is the story of God being born into the weedy existence of humankind.

We forget “Like, a root out of dry ground,” says the prophet Isaiah” he was born among weeds in a stable and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.  We forget that John Baptist argued with Jesus trying to prevent his baptism.  We forget he was tempted by Satan not only in the desert for forty days but his entire life by disciples who never seemed to understand him.   He made just a few precious friends, but a mob of enemies.  And in the end, those enemies got him.  His best friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him.   And in the most god-forsaken of ways, God, the creator of all that is, was tortured to death.[1]

There is nothing glamorous, sentimental, or romantic about it.  God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and died a very real death.   And the irony is: we call this story good news.

Dr. Ernie White was one of my professors who was stricken with cancer while I was a student at Southern Seminary.  I’ll never forget something he shared with us in class one day.  He said, “Although I can not explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become, because in the moments of my most immense suffering, God has been and is the most real to me.”

I believe that is because through the first coming of God through Christ into a very real and broken world, God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery.  God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments in life when the weeds are the thickest.

The good news is somehow, someway, someday, Christ will return and defeat evil and destroy the weeds of this world forever.  However, the really good news is that we do not have to wait.  We can experience a taste of the kingdom of heaven even among the weeds, maybe especially among the weeds of this world today.

This is how, although I know things are not going to be perfect, although I realize that my family, my vocation, and my life, my path ahead of me, will be strewn with weeds, this is how I still manage to have some great expectations.  And I know I will never be disappointed.  Let us pray together.

O God, thank you for the hope that we have that one day there will be an eternal life in a garden completely devoid of weeds.  However, until that day comes, thank you for the hope we have that today we can experience life abundant even among the weed, maybe especially among the weeds, because we know you are with us in the most real and intimate of ways.


[1]Inspired from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Two Stories,” from Secrets in the Dark  (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 86-87.

We Cannot Imagine

HeavenLuke 20:27-38 NRSV

One day in the sweet by and by, when we all get to heaven, in the resurrection of the dead, Jesus says we will “neither marry nor be given in marriage.” And today, some of us on this earth who are married, or have been married, sing or shout with a loud voice: “What a day of rejoicing that will be!”

Yes, for some of us with bad marriages, or have Exes that we don’t even want to talk about, this is some very good news! However, for those of us who love our spouses, and cannot imagine life without them, this news is rather disconcerting.

I am thinking specifically about those couples where you never see one without the other. I am thinking about those who have lived together so long that they not only begin to act alike and talk alike, but they actually begin to look alike. Couples who have been married 50, 60 or even 70 years. And when one passes away, the other usually follows very soon after—sometimes just months later; sometimes just days. And none of us are surprised! Not only could they not imagine life without one another, neither could we.

But there lies our real problem! We simply cannot imagine any life beyond this life. A few years ago, the group called Mercy Me, sang a very popular song about heaven entitled I Can Only Imagine. However, the truth is, that when it comes to the resurrection, when it comes to eternity, there is no way we can imagine. Even that popular song that says that we can has more questions in it than answers.

One of the reasons that we cannot imagine it is that eternal life is not something that happens because there is something intrinsic in our nature that makes it happen. It happens only because there something intrinsic in God’s nature that makes it happen. We cannot imagine it, because it is not of us. It is of God.

Some of the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, but many in the religious community did believe in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. There was widespread belief that there is something within every human being that is eternal. When we die, our soul simply leaves our body and continues living in another realm. Heaven then is understood as a continuance of our present existence. So if we marry in this life, and our first spouse dies and we remarry, it makes sense to question who our spouse will be when we get to heaven. And if we remarry and our second spouse dies, and we remarry again, and that spouse also dies, and then we marry again, well, we’re going to have a real problem in the hereafter! You think you have problems now?

However, Jesus never talked about the immortality of the soul. Jesus talked about mortality and death and about the resurrection of the dead. As I said last week, when we face our deaths, because it is not God’s will for anyone to perish, it is in the very nature of God to resurrect and transform our deaths into a brand new life. It is just what God does.  It is who God is.

Therefore, in Revelation 21 we these hopeful words:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

And with our finite, mortal minds, we cannot imagine it.

The biblical revelation is clear:  Newness, a brand new beginning, a fresh start, a new life can come, but it comes only as a gift from the God of life, the God of the living, the creator of all that is. It cannot and does not come from those who cannot even begin to imagine it.

A very literal translation of the first line of Genesis is “In the beginning God began creating…”  William Willimon puts it this way: “Creation is not something that God did once and for all, but rather something that God continues to do in this world. God keeps making all things new. Day in and day out, God is actively involved with creation, intervening, interfering, renewing and doing battle the primordial chaos that threatens to undo creation. Creation continues as God keeps making something out of nothing.”[i]  This is just who our God is.

The key for us as people of faith in this ever-creating God is to come to understand that much of the pain and brokenness that we experience in this life is not the end, but only the beginning—the beginning of something wonderful that we cannot even imagine it.

We say we cannot imagine spending eternity without our spouses, without our children, without our friends. No we can’t. No more than a small child can imagine some of the pleasures of adulthood.[ii]

Try to explain to a child the immense joy that you receive sitting in front of your fireplace on cold mornings sipping a hot cup of coffee, listening only to sounds of sound of a soft blaze.  Try to explain to a youngster that has boundless energy the sheer gratification you experience rocking in a chair on your front porch at dusk, watching fireflies dance in your backyard.

“But mama, but grandma, but Nana, let’s go out there and try to catch some of them, put them in a jar.”

Think about the look you receive when you say, “No, honey, let’s just sit right here on this porch and quietly rock, breathe in the fresh air and just watch.”

No, just as a child cannot imagine what is pure heaven for adults, neither can we imagine the heaven God has prepared for us. The Apostle Paul put it this way,

But when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13).

But right now, we cannot imagine.  We can only trust that the God whose nature is to create and recreate and restore and resurrect will be faithful to God’s very nature.

And although I do not believe there is any way that we can fully imagine eternity, I do believe that we are privy here in our finiteness to glimpses of it. And I am not just talking about fireflies, coffee and fireplaces.

As a pastor, I have seen these glimpses, and though those glimpses might be like looking through a mirror, dimly, I have seen these glimpses often.  Someone loses a job.  They are overcome by depression and despair.  They think their world is coming to an end. They believe that life for them is over.  And I, as a pastor, try to minister to them the best way that I can.  I tell them that God will help them make something out of this mess.  God will make something good come from it.  They will be able to move on.  Things will get better.  And they, of course, cannot even imagine.

Then I check back with them in a few months, after they have landed a new job. And I hear them say things like: “Getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me. I absolutely love my new job, and I have never been more happy!”

Someone else comes to me saying that their marriage was suddenly ending. They are completely devastated. They tell me that they feel like their life is over. Their marriage was the most important thing in the world to them, and now it was ending. They have no more reason to get up in the morning, no more reason to try to do a decent day’s work. They’re in utter despair.  Again, I try to reassure them. God will somehow, someway, work it out, help you get through this difficult time. God will work and wring whatever good can be wrung out of this horrible situation!”

“Preacher,” they say, “I cannot imagine.”

And then, a couple of years later, they fall in love again and remarry.  And I hear them say something like, “What I thought was the end of my life was only the beginning. And though I may never be able to go back to the good old days, I realize now that I have plenty of good new days ahead!”

Another comes to me and shares their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They use words like “terminal,” “inoperable,” and “untreatable.”  They say that life is over. Death is the only thing in their future. However, a short time later, as I visit them in the Hospice House, they let me know in a miraculous way that being fully alive and fully whole have absolutely nothing to do with physical well-being.

Who would have imagined?

A child dies. Then God steps in and miraculously begins working and creating and recreating and resurrecting. And untold dollars are raised in that child’s memory to fight a dreadful disease. And countless other children are saved.

Who could have imagined?

And the good news is that one day, when we face our final hours, with faith in the God of the living, the God of resurrection and restoration, that there is nothing final at all about them!


[i] Willimon, William. A quote found in some of my old sermon notes. Source uncertain.

[ii] Culpepper, Alan. Luke. The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 390.

How to Get Something Out of Worship

worshipExcerpt from Why Worship Seems Like a Waste of Time

There is simply something inalienable about our God that loves to forgive sinners. Our God always surprises us by embracing those, who, because of their sin, seem to be outside the boundaries of God’s love. Our God always surprises us by accepting and loving those people that the world, especially the religious people in the world, despises.

Do you want to get something out of worship?  Then we must understand that every aspect of what we do in the service on Sunday morning is an acknowledgement that we are all, every one of us, fallen, broken, sinful human beings in desperate need of God’s grace. Not one of us is any better than any other.

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.

Do You Really Know What You Are Getting Yourselves Into?

forest-gump1

From A Bunch of Losers

Luke 14:25-33 NRSV

One day, noticing the growing number of people following behind him, like a scene in Forrest Gump, Jesus suddenly stops, turns to the masses and says something like: “Do you people really know what this is all about? Do you really know what you are getting yourselves into here? Because I am not so sure the crowd would be this large if you really knew! Do you really understand what you are signing up for here? Do you really get this journey called, ‘discipleship’? Because, I have a sinking suspicion that most you do not have a clue.”

The truth is, this road we call discipleship is a difficult and sometimes painful road. There’s even a cross involved. And we are going to have to carry it.

Free to Be Free

4th of July

(Sermon delivered to First Christian Church, Farmville, NC, on June 30, 2013)

Galatians 5:1, 12-25  and Luke 9:51-62 NRSV

For freedom Christ has set us free—and all God’s people here in America on this Sunday before the July 4th proudly and fervently say: “Amen!”

But what exactly does that mean?

I know the type of freedom that most Americans cherish, as I am one of them. We call it the freedom of opportunity.  Which is usually translated in our consumerist society:  the freedom to attain, to acquire, to amass and to accumulate as much as we possibly can.

We are free to go after the American dream. Buy a big house in the suburbs or in a small town, purchase two cars and a dog and raise our children by providing them with the latest smart phones and the trendiest clothes.

And we are free to pursue happiness. To be the people we want to be and to go to the places we want to go. We are free to fulfill our every desire and to meet our every need. We are free to get as much as we can out of this life and this world.

And we American Christians love to evoke Jesus to help us. We look to Jesus as our ticket to attaining the American dream.

In other words, Jesus, for many Americans, becomes just another commodity that we can get, so we can get some more.

I have seen Christian billboards, bumper stickers and t-shirts take the once popular slogan of the American Dairy Association “Got Milk?” and change it to “Got Jesus?”

Do you seek happiness? Want to fulfill your desires, meet your needs? Need help paying the mortgage? Need to build a stronger family? Then, just get you some Jesus!

Yes, God bless America that we are free to worship and get Jesus so Jesus can help us get some more!

The Samaritans had received word from the disciples that Jesus was on the way to visit their village. Can you imagine hearing such an announcement? Jesus is coming to town! Jesus is coming to Farmville! Jesus is coming to help us achieve the American dream, help us with the mortgage, help us strengthen our families, help us go to the places that we want to go and to be the people that we want to be!  Can you imagine the grand reception, the huge welcome that would await Jesus?  No doubt there would be parades, cook-outs and a lot of fireworks to celebrate his arrival.

Let’s read how they celebrated such a grand event early in the first century. In verse 53 we read, “but they did not receive him”…what? Why on earth not?  Because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

His face was set toward Jerusalem. Toward the cross. Toward sacrifice. Toward self-denial. Toward self-giving. Toward pain and toward suffering.  And the Samaritans, of course, were not interested.

So, Jesus goes into another village. Surprisingly someone cries out, “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go!”

Jesus, assuming the zealot really did not know what he was saying, asks, “Are you sure you really want to do that? Do your really mean that? Do you really want to go with me? Don’t you understand that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the son of man has no where to lay his head.”

So much for Jesus helping us with the American dream of that big home in the suburbs!

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Let me first bury and mourn my father.” Jesus respond, “Let the dead bury the dead, as for you go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

So much for Jesus helping us to meet our needs.

Another said, “I will follow you, but let me first go back and tell my family good-bye.” To which Jesus responds: “Those who look back are not fit for the Kingdom of God.”

So much for Jesus coming to help us build a stronger family!

In other words, Jesus says:

If you want to follow me as my disciples in this world, then you must let go of the things to which the world assigns so much value. You must abandon those things with which the world seduces you into believing they can be the fulfillment of your most profound desires.

Jesus also puts it this way… to truly live, we must first die to self.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp for helping Jews escape to Switzerland insightfully wrote, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

And the Samaritans wanted none of that. No wonder that night in their village there were no fireworks.

That was not the message they wanted to hear. If Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, then Jesus better get himself to Jerusalem, and we will stay right here.

I attended a church growth conference a few years ago where the speaker talked about the importance of making sure that church members “feel satisfied.”  In other words, if you want the church to grow, the job of your pastor is to make certain that you are happy.

You know, the speaker is absolutely right. Just ask the Samaritans. If Jesus came to the Samaritans with his face set toward the pursuit of happiness, I am sure the pews would have been packed. The problem is that this is not the purpose of the church.

Jesus does not call us to go to church to get happy. Jesus calls to be the church, to be the body of Christ in a broken and fragmented world, with its face set towards Jerusalem.

And Jesus is not just some commodity that we can get so we can get some more…more happiness, more contentment, more fulfillment.  Jesus does not want us to get him, Jesus wants to get us. As William Willimon puts it, Jesus does not want us to get him to meet our needs. Jesus wants to get us and rearrange our needs. He does not want us to get him to fulfill our every desire. He wants to get us and transform our every desire.

Jesus is not interested in helping us to be the people we want to be and to go to the places we want to go. Jesus wants us to be His people and go to the places that he wants to go. And his face is set toward Jerusalem.

As one of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen has said, sometimes Jesus calls us to places we would rather not go.  Sometimes Christ calls us into “unknown, undesirable and painful places.”

The truth is, that when we come here on Sunday morning, instead of finding ourselves surrounded by a bunch of happy people satisfied and content, we probably should find ourselves in the midst of a people who are more than a little anxious, apprehensive, and nervous for we never know where this Christ is going to lead us next.

This weekend as we Americans celebrate our nation’s birthday, may each of us thank God for our country and the freedom our country affords us.  However, as a church that is not seeking to get Jesus, but continually be in the process of allowing Jesus to get us, to rearrange our needs, transform our desires, lead us toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, toward suffering, self-denial, self-giving, may we be mindful that with our freedom comes a radical call to truly free ourselves of some things that many Americans hold very dear.  May we mindful that we are free to be truly free.

While it is true that we are free acquire and accumulate, to accrue and to amass, to meet our every need and to fulfill our every desire, it is also true that we are free, to abandon and relinquish, to let go and to leave behind.  We are free to be free from all of the material trappings and selfish desires that prevent us from following Christ wherever he leads.  We are free, not to get Jesus to meet our needs and fulfill our desires, but we are free to allow Christ to get us to rearrange our needs and transform our desires.  We are free to not only get to give.

Bonhoeffer did not have to help Jews escape Nazi Germany and flee to Switzerland.  After all he was safe and sound in New York in the early 1940’s. He was free to stay in America and preach the gospel from the safety of a free church pulpit or to teach New Testament in the peace and freedom of a university.  Bonhoeffer could have lived the American dream. But the gospel he preached and the freedom that he was granted compelled Bonhoeffer to return to Germany and stand against Nazi aggression.

Before he was executed by the Germans, he wrote the following words.  They are words that the American Church needs to hear again and hear loudly… “Cheap grace is the preaching of….forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.

“Costly grace is…the gospel which must be sought again and again. The gift which must be asked for, the door at which one must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs us our lives. It is grace because it gives us the only true life.”

For freedom Christ has set us free—and all God’s people here in America on this Sunday before the July 4th proudly and fervently say: “Amen!”

Let us pray.

O God as we recommit ourselves this day to follow the Christ, give us your grace to let go, give up, and relinquish every desire, trait, and tendency that weighs us down or hinders our faithful work for you in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Commissioning and Benediction

We came here this morning to get a little bit of Jesus. To get him to help us meet our needs and fulfill our desires. Instead, Jesus came here and got us. Through Jesus, God the creator of all that is has spoken, saying, “I have some very important work to do in this world, and I am here to get you to help me.

Go now and do the work in this world to which you have been called.  You may have to leave friends and family behind.  You may have to give up some things that you hold very dear.  Even life itself.  But in so doing, you will gain the only true life. And may the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.

Changing the Invitation to Church

Be the church

From The Least of These or the Exalted of Us

These days, people just don’t seem to want to go to church anymore. But maybe that is a good thing. Because maybe church is not some place to go. Maybe church is something we are supposed to be. So instead of inviting others to go to church for us, perhaps we should be inviting them to come and be the church for others. The invitation should be: “Join us to be the embodiment of Jesus Christ in this fragmented world with a burning passion for the poor and the outcast. Come and join us to be the Body of Christ as we humbly and selflessly seek to care more about ‘the least of these,’ and less about ‘the exalted of us’.”