Rejoice!? Always!? Seriously!? Sermon Based on Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
          Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!
          That Vacation Bible School song sung as a round came to mind when I read this week’s scripture. Especially when sung the customary four times by four groups you’re surrounded with the demand: rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!
          That first came to mind, but then came, really? Rejoice always? How’s that even possible? Isn’t that more than we can bear? Maybe such sweetness and light’s possible in a make believe place where purple dinosaurs named Barney live singing, If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops? Oh what a rain that would be. Standing outside with my mouth open wide. Ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh.
          But we don’t live there. Telling someone to rejoice always can be cruel. Who’d say rejoice always to families of Las Vegas’ dead and wounded? Or our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico after two hurricanes, or Houston folks destroyed by three 500-year floods in three years?
          I couldn’t say rejoice always several years ago when my to friend’s son committed suicide; I can’t say that you now you after unexpected deaths of two church pillars in a week. Our land’s divided over race or politics in deeply unsettling ways; we seem closer to nuclear war than we’ve been in 55 years. Rejoice always? Seriously? That call seems, well, nuts, and unhinged from reality.
          Except, we’re those people who stand under the cross. There, instead of seeing weakness, failure, foolishness and death there, we experience God’s power, victory, wisdom and life. We’re those odd people who hear an odd scripture word and trust it’s still true for us.
          And today’s word comes oddly from prison, not from some keys to happiness book written in a cozy study with a warm hearth-side fire. Paul’s life hangs in the balance; he expects he’ll be executed and isn’t sure he’ll ever see the light of day again or his friends’ faces. On top of that, some so-called friends and co-workers are making his life as wretched as possible. This Paul says rejoice always; maybe we should pay attention. He knows something good for us.
          When I think about Paul in prison, two other prisons come to mind. One is in 1945 Germany. A young pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. A prison cell’s been his home for three years because of his part in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Soon the Third Reich will collapse in blood and fire. But on this April morning, direct orders have come from Hitler. This 39 year-old pacifist Christian is ordered from his cell one final time; Bonhoeffer’s stripped of his dignity and clothes, and he’s hanged in a prison courtyard. His final words are simple. “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.” And I imagine him going to the gallows singing quietly, Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice!
          The other prison’s closer to home; Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, a medium-security prison that’s home to 3,000 souls. For nearly 15 years I’ve had the honor and privilege occasionally to worship there; each time I’ve been stunned and humbled on a Sunday evening by the sheer joy in the Lord expressed by 150 or so brothers in Christ, especially when a song like this is sung: I’m trading my sorrows; I’m trading my shame; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my pain; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. When they sing in surrender with delight, Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, Amen!; when they bow in prayer or receive the Lord’s Supper; it’s a holy time and place. Those so-called prisoners are more free in Christ than many of us. We’re locked up by custom or tradition or being proper, afraid to let our guard down or let someone see our weakness or wounds, our fears or failures.
          How can they rejoice? How can we? Paul can help. The first thing he says today is, “Therefore.” Our lesson begins as another part of the conversation is ending. A few verses earlier Paul’s written wonderful words of life: our true home is with God; for the baptized our real and full allegiance is not to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the commonwealth of heaven. That’s how young Pastor Bonhoeffer can go to the scaffold rejoicing; he trusts he’s entering in a new way that commonwealth that death cannot defeat. That commonwealth’s governor is not Terry McAullife; the one who presides and rules that realm is not Adolph Hitler or Donald Trump; our Governor and Lord is Jesus; no one else. Our first and final loyalty is to him; our true home isn’t a prison, but in Christ alone. On the way Paul promises that Christ will transform our lives so they look like Christ’s and mirror his ways, and in the end, all will be well; all creation will be healed and made new; and Christ will be all in all.
          We have God’s word on it so now Paul says, “Therefore, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” You know where the world’s going and God’s grand vision for you, so stand firm; build your life on Christ’s life so he is seen in you, in ways both great and small. For example, here Paul urges two women to stop feuding for Christ’s sake; instead of seeking their own way they’re to seek Christ’s way and to make up their minds to be of the same mind in the Lord, to have his attitude and go his way. And all those receiving this letter have a part to play. They’re not to stand idly by or enjoy the fight; they’re to help heal. When we are in Christ, we live in him together; if we live in Christ, we submit to him as head of the household and stay close to one another to stay close to him, even when it’s hard. But with Christ, nothing is impossible.
          That’s how we rejoice: we rejoice in the Lord. We don’t rejoice in all that life brings, but in the Lord’s goodness and mercy and grace and love and kindness and forgiveness and life-giving healing power and a thousand other wonders; we rejoice in God’s nearness and promise never to leave us or forsake us, not even behind prison walls. There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus, nothing. Even when terribly awful things happen, God is still at work for our good. So worry and anxiety don’t have to be the final word for us; they don’t have to rule our lives. We can be gentle and generous toward others because God has given us those same good gifts. We trust this same God loves us so fiercely that we can share anything and everything with God and pray for help and guidance and for others with grateful hearts. That’s how we can rejoice, in the Lord, always, always.
          Then Paul takes it a step further. We’re promised peace that surpasses understanding as we stand firm in the Lord on a foundation that endures. Paul urges us, “Whatever is true or honorable, whatever is just or pure, whatever is pleasing or commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, fill your mind with those things: not with bitterness or fear or always being right or getting into someone’s business; not with what’s hurtful or mean or glittery or passing away. Focus and frame life on what honors God to draw closer to God’s ways in Christ, and the God of peace will be with you. That’s the promise and the good news.
          Bill was so focused; a college student with cancer, he took classes to the end. When he died one of those courses was on Death. He wrote in a textbook, “I don’t know why I’m suffering, or what good can come of my death. But I know God is not my enemy; God loves me and wants only good for me.” And as he died I imagine him singing, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. In our living and dying may we learn to sing that song, too.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
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In All Things, Charity: A Sermon Based on Romans 14:1-12

One of my colleagues in campus ministry knows his faith is weak.  He’s not ashamed to confess that he doesn’t watch R-rated movies without checking with some of his soul friends or accountability partners.  Watching some such movies takes him to a place that’s not good for him as a disciple, and so he counts on friends giving him good advice.  They don’t judge him; they don’t think they’re better Christians than he because they don’t have such problems.  Every Christian needs to have such folks in our lives, who we can trust to watch over us in love and not judge or mock the ways we believe are best and faithful for us and to keep us company on Christ’s Way.

Paul knew about Christians with weak faith as well as strong, and he writes about them in today’s reading from his letter to the Christians in Rome. The weak eat only vegetables while the strong are meat and potatoes kind of folk; the weak put a priority on one day of the week as more sacred while the strong treat every day the same.  It might not sound like a big deal to us, but my friend who wonders about R-rated movies gets it.  What may not be a big deal for one can challenge another.

Being true to Christ in 1st century Rome’s more complicated than you think.  You don’t get your meat at the local grocer but from the local pagan temple, where it’s been sacrificed to a pagan god or to honor the emperor who’s honored like a god.  So the weak in faith don’t eat meat to show their utter loyalty to Christ; the strong eat whatever’s put in front of them because they know the gods aren’t real and Caesar only thinks he’s in charge.  In the same way the weak especially setting aside one day for God are perhaps honoring the Sabbath; or they know that pagans pay special attention to the moon’s cycle and particular days as having magical power or mystical importance. Again, they want to show their complete loyalty to Christ. And those with strong faith don’t fret it; they know all power comes from God, not the moon or the stars.

We don’t fuss and fume over those things, but we have real conflicts in the church over what does matter to us: drop down screens; contemporary vs. traditional worship; baptism by sprinkling, pouring or immersion; monthly or weekly Communion; meeting local needs or over there; how we interpret scripture; how we think and act on social issues as disciples; whether the flag should be allowed in an embassy of heaven and a sanctuary devoted to the Lord of all nations.

So how do we live together when faith leads us different ways?  Paul gives some very helpful advice.  First, don’t judge each other.  It’s not our place, or our job.  As Pope Francis responded when asked about homosexuality, “Who am I to judge another?” Paul reminds us that God has already accepted the person with whom we differ; they’re part of God’s posse, so who are we to question God’s commitment to them?  If you live your faith and life in Christ differently from me, what’s that to me?  You’re not my slave, but Christ’s.  I’m not your master; Christ is.  Whatever happens with your faith and life is Christ’s business, not mine, and Christ has the power to raise both of us to life.

Paul’s not saying anything goes.  How we live and trust in Christ matters.  My friend with weak faith clearly knows that. But we’re to think deeply and carefully and prayerfully about it means to be true to God’s will and purpose, and to act on our own convictions, in line with what we discern to be Christ’s Way.  I’m not at the center of your life; I’m not even at the center of my own life, to decide on my own all by myself how to live for Christ.  We both live to the Lord, for the Lord; we both belong to the Lord; our actions and attitudes are to please and honor Christ alone, not ourselves nor anyone else.  How I experience God’s work and will in my life may not be yours; my life doesn’t have to be the mirror image of yours.  But both our lives are to reflect the love and mercy and grace and healing power and light of Christ.  We’re not to judge one another but to love and honor each other in Christ.  In one translation of these verses, Paul seems to call out folks individually: “You then, why do you pass judgment on your fellow-Christian?  And you, why do you look down on your fellow-Christian?  We shall all stand before God’s tribunal; each of us will be answerable to God.”

I have enough trouble living faithfully myself without judging your discipleship.  Later in this chapter Paul advises, “Let’s make up our minds never to put a stumbling block or obstacle in a fellow-Christian’s way.  All I know is that the Lord Jesus convinces me that nothing is impure in itself.  The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit.  All who show themselves servants of Christ in this way are acceptable to God and receive human approval.”

Why does this matter?  We’re the only Bible some people will read; we’re the face of Christ some will most remember.  We convince the world the gospel’s true, or they decide it’s a lie, based on the evidence seen in our us. At the funeral of a dead relative, one of my cousins said, “She was the meanest Christian woman I know.”  Sadly there was some truth there.  Our relative was quite ready to be judge and jury to let you know where you’d gone wrong.  But that wasn’t her job, and her scowl was the face of Jesus some turned from.  Truth is, many folks won’t go near a church because we’re so judgmental. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Why does this matter?  When we judge others and build barriers there’s little room for love.  John Wesley knew that Christians sometimes were unable or unwilling to live in communion with one another and he said, “The pretenses and excuses for separation may be innumerable, but the lack of love is always the real cause.”

Why does this matter? When we lose our focus and misplace our priorities as disciples in Christ’s community, we fall into following the world’s familiar ways.  Can’t get along? Move to another neighborhood, go your separate ways, unfriend her, stop talking to him, get a divorce; demonize your opponent to win at all costs.  But that’s not Christ’s Way: he welcomed all, made room for a tax collector and a terrorist among his disciples, he was the friend of sinners, which includes me, and you.  Christian community reflects the life of the Triune God who is one in three and three in one, united but not identical. Such life together is an act of subversive resistance to the world and to those who conquer us by dividing us into parties and factions.  Wouldn’t it be great if our words of welcome in worship were to saints and sinners, regular pew sitters, those here for the first time or after a long time; married, single, divorced, young, old, straight, gay, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Green Tea Party – more mellow, less irked: all welcomed by the Christ who died and rose for all; all welcomed because above all else we honor and serve the Christ who holds us together and meets us at his Table.  That’s Gospel truth, for sure.

Why does this matter?  Today we United Methodists are more at risk of giving up on each other than at any time since the Civil War when we could not find a way forward over slavery.  Those were not our best or more faithful days, but eventually the Spirit in love made us one once more.  Today we risk doing something similar with regard to sexuality.  In my entire ministry life, matters related to homosexuality have been debated, even fought over. Last year, our General Conference stepped back from the edge of division to establish the Commission on the Way Forward to discern if and how we might live together in mission and ministry, even in our differences.  The truth is, good and faithful friends of Jesus can deeply disagree and be deeply convicted that their understanding of faith and life is still valid.  Can we live together in Christ in that tension and diversity?  Can we trust and respect each other’s deepest convictions and commitments in Christ, even if yours is different from mine?  Can I admit I might be wrong or honor the truth you profess; can I see that there’s more to God than I know; that God’s ways are beyond my small ways; and we’re both accepted by God and Christ can make us both stand?

My friend Kara is a University Chaplain in the British Methodist Church.  This summer she visited an artist’s glassworks studio in a small English town and struck up a conversation with the owner, Jill.  Jill asked Kara what she does for a living.  Preachers can often be pegged, so Kara chose to say she works at a university in student welfare.  Jill asked about issues students face, and Kara said that in addition to typical ones like homesickness or relationships, students wrestle with some very complex issues around sexuality and gender identity.  That’s when Kara remembered she wasn’t in a particularly progressive part of England; Jill’s body language seemed to shift to a more aggressive position as she asked “And what do you think about that?”  Kara took a deep breath, looked at Jill and said, “Shakespeare said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ So I think that just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real and true and painful for someone else.”  Jill stared at Kara for a very long time and then her demeanor softened as she said, ‘You must be very good at your job.’”  There was open grace and truth there, and humility and love, too.

John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand;” he also gave us this wisdom for life together in Christ’s church, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.  Paul could live with that.  May we do the same, thanks be to God.

  • David M, Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

A Sermon for Stephen Ministries Sunday, Based on Philippians 4:4-14 & Mark 10:46-52

          In my time at the Wesley Foundation, one of the yearly low-lights of orientation for new students was icebreakers: the important but endless activities helping students get to know each other and feel more at home on campus. By the end of orientation, students were too through.
          But one such icebreaker activity still stands out for me. It was done several times on a Sunday afternoon so every new student participated, but in smaller groups of 300 or so. It began with all the students on one side of the room; then the leader would call out a description and if it fit you, you moved to the other side of the room. It started out fairly tame: if you have blue eyes, move to the other side; if you’re from Virginia; if you’re Baptist; if you have siblings. Gradually the exercise dug deeper: if your parents are divorced; you’ve experienced the death of a peer; you know someone with cancer; someone mentally ill; someone with an addiction; is in an abusive relationship; who’s thought about suicide. Students became quieter, more pensive; they looked around to see who also moved with them, and saw they weren’t alone. Somebody knew the troubles they’d seen; there were tears, the occasional embrace or a knowing look; strangers saw they had more in common than they thought. True community began to form through the bonds of shared struggle. For me it was a moment of holiness born of vulnerability.
          It’d be interesting to get up right now and move into the Fellowship Hall to do a similar exercise, perhaps with other descriptions: if you’ve ever been bullied; concerned about health; dealing with dementia; in conflict with children or parents, or both. But we’ll have none of that; we prefer safe and predictable worship; we might go over an hour; oddly enough we fear the church is the last place to show our wounds, even as we claim to be disciples of the Christ whose wounds are still visible. But if we did such a thing and moved into that space, we probably would be stunned to see the wounds we bear. Some are still fresh; perhaps recently opened, or a scab’s broken-again. Even if our wounds are now scars, we know they’re there and some areas are still sensitive; all of us came limping here one way or another. And at least for some, there’s a lingering, longing wish that we were a community where wounds could be more easily shared.
          We live in a culture that tells us to be quiet, don’t make a mess, keep your troubles to yourself; we’re entered into an endless competition always to be the best, the brightest, the happiest, the most successful, the most beautiful and fit. That competition produces one of the most depressing parts of December: the Christmas letter from folks touting their great successes and accomplishments. Did you ever notice that when tough times came to folks’ lives, the letters stopped coming, too?
          For a younger generation the phenomenon of social comparison is linked to depression, low self-esteem, and jealousy. It’s the funk felt on Facebook or other social media when our humdrum lives bump up against our friends’ highlight reels of fun, parties with friends, and awesome vacations. Ugh.
          Thank God for another, more real and true story found in scripture. What a blessed relief to see that wounds are real; terrible things happen; life can be a mess; and that that isn’t the end of the story. As many a preacher has said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. We know Good Friday’s darkness, but Easter dawns. The Crucified Jesus is also the Risen Lord. An imprisoned Paul on his way to Rome and possible execution writes to Christians in the town of Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus;” then he is bold to say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We followers of Christ can sing this truth, “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack, in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)
          Sisters and bothers, it’s OK, even a blessing, to own our brokenness and our need, and to cry out for help, even when good people around us tell us that’s in poor taste, or to shush up. It’s a blessing, because that’s how healing and transformation happen.
          Imagine how unsettled the crowd is around Bartimaeus when he begins to howl for help, “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!” A bunch of folks tell him to put a sock in it, but desperately hopeful people do desperately hopeful things so he just cranks it up a notch, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And then Jesus says, “Call him here.” Did you notice that? Jesus’ call doesn’t come directly from him but through the crowd. It’s the crowd that says, ”Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Healing comes from Jesus, but through the caring help of those around Bartimaeus.
          Think of what would’ve been missed if Bartimaus had just shut up and stayed in his proper place. The crowd would’ve stayed distant and removed; they would’ve missed the opportunity to help healing happen. They would’ve missed seeing God’s amazing power transform a life. Bartimaeus would’ve stayed blind, he would’ve stayed put, begging on the sidelines, and he would’ve missed seeing the face of Jesus and the adventure of getting up to follow on the Way.
          For this gospel, following on the Way is not just walking a road; it’s following Jesus, being a disciple.  In Mark’s Gospel, Bartimaeus sees what the disciples hadn’t: following Jesus is about serving, not being served, finding life by giving it away, becoming great through suffering love. Bartimaeus was never the same.
          And I suspect that following Jesus led him to see that becoming like Jesus meant helping others also to experience healing and hope and new life. And I suspect the crowd was never the same, either. Because of what they saw and said that day, they knew they’d had a part in God’s work of healing a life.
          That’s our calling and promise, too. What happened with that crowd and Bartimaeus can still happen here in this place, where Jesus also stands. Indeed, it happens, every week.
          When I left the Wesley Foundation to become the pastor of the United Methodist Church at Randolph-Macon College, I was thankful that dedicated Stephen Ministers were there; we became a ministry team as I offered first response to need, and they followed with long term care as I went to the next crisis. We knew that together we were the care-givers, but God was the Curer. Here too, each week, Stephen Ministry care-givers serve their care-receivers.
          But it isn’t one-way. Blessing comes to all. Any Stephen Minister will tell you they get as much or more out of the humble gift of being allowed into the most fragile parts of a person’s life. They know God guides and helps them; the ministry is simply beyond their ability. They’ll tell you it’s a holy thing to be Christ’s instrument of transformation in a life, and to sense Christ at work through their flesh and blood. Wouldn’t you want to experience Christ alive in such a way?
          And any Stephen Minister will tell you God works in their life through the care-receiver they serve. Every gift of the Spirit has grown in them, especially peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This ministry’s changed them; they’re more open to others and willing to share their deepest selves, more ready to be still, to wait, to listen. One Stephen Minister confessed, “Christ has developed parts of me I didn’t know I had.” Watch out: put yourself at God’s disposal and you don’t know what’ll happen. But trust me, it’ll all be good, for others, and you. Perhaps God is working on someone right here and now with a challenge and call to let God do such things again. Maybe that call is to you.
          A Stephen Minister here told me she’d once been a care-receiver and it was such a gift in her need that she felt called to share that gift with someone else. Mutual blessing happens when we become wounded healers together in Christ. From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians, “It was kind of you to share my distress.” Paul had birthed that church and helped them come to Christ. Now in his need they were the ones to offer help as mutual care and ministry were given.
          Some years ago I was one of the pallbearers for a friend and mentor who’d died. We were seated in the church together and during the singing of the opening hymn, at one time or another each of us broke down in grief. But the song kept on; others sang for us until we could again join in singing when sadness silenced other voices. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ: sometimes we serve, sometimes we’re served; in all times and places we all join love’s sweet harmony; we hold the Christ light for each other until we can see clearly the Christ who helps us all follow the Way that leads to life, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Sermon Based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

     I love Jesus’ disciples; they’re so full of bluster and bombast, but generally are clueless boneheads. Today and the two previous Sundays, our gospel lessons have come from Matthew 13, in which Teacher Jesus tells parables about the Kingdom of heaven, what it’s like to live when God truly is in charge of our lives and creation. At the end, he asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they nod their heads, “Yes!” I imagine them saying, “Sure, Jesus, got it! Of course we understand; totally, no problem!” And then, as they move out toward toward the next town, I see them in clusters of two or three whispering, “Do you really understand?” and one or another confesses, “Not a clue; I have no idea.  Maybe, but I’m not sure.”
     If they understand, I’m envious.  I’m not sure I always do. Even if they do have a clue, there’s always more to understand, another thing to see; which is like going deeper into Christ. I was in a discipleship accountability group in which we agreed to particular practices, one of which was to be kind and considerate to everyone we met. That was easy, except when driving my car. Then I saw there was more to learn and new challenges to face in that arena.  Jesus says to love your neighbor; I’m good with that but then there’s my rude neighbor, my neighbor of color, my gay neighbor, that immigrant, those Muslims, that nutcase who doesn’t share my politics, my enemy. That’s when discipleship is more than we first thought, right?
     Jesus’ parables are like that; they open up new worlds, offer new insights and always challenge what we think we understand. In Emily Dickinson’s words, parables “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” They’re like a diamond that reflects light differently from different angles; no one by itself is enough, but each one points to a different aspect of what it means to live in God; each is a creative sketch of life that really is life.
So Jesus tells us that God’s Realm is a treasure that is both found unexpectedly, and a pearl to be sought after fiercely. It’s an unexpected and surprising gift, stumbled upon: the light comes on and we realize, oh, this is what it looks like.
     At a downtown church, both homeless folks and church members with suburban homes gather at a wintry midweek evening worship service when a guy comes in off the street without shoes. Nice folks scurry around the building looking for, but not finding any shoes for the poor guy, until another homeless guy comes in, sees the situation, gives away his shoes, and simply says, “I’ve got another pair at the shelter.” All those folks with so many shoes in their walk-in closets; and suddenly the blind see.
     And it’s something to seek fiercely. If I want to run a 10K, I can’t just think about it; if I want to lose weight, I have to change my eating habits. Both quests are good; a greater one is to find life in Christ, and that also takes more than wishful thinking:  constant and regular disciplines of prayer, silence, worship, serving the poor, feasting on God’s Word regularly and faithfully, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit: these are markers on the Way to where the priceless treasure of Christ can be found. Life in God: surprising gift?  wholehearted quest? Yes.
     Truth be told, I’d like my faith more cut and dry, simple and undemanding with less mystery, offered by a laid back Jesus who doesn’t ask much or cause any trouble or indigestion. But Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he was nice, but because he was a threat and a challenge. If we listen to his parables and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” we probably don’t understand them. In reality they’re subversive, scandalous, outrageous, and call into question things we take for granted and cherish a lot, because that’s how we survive in the world. So we think.
     So with the parables we hear today. We tame the mustard seed parable with pithy phrases, “From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow;” “Good things come in small packages.” That’s true, for sure. But what if Jesus said God’s Realm is like Kudzu? Kudzu: that awful weed we thought would help us control erosion, but took on a life of its own and is beyond our control; a pain, not a blessing. That was mustard in Jesus’ world; a tiny seed growing to take over a field.
     But here’s a mystery: we think Kudzu’s terrible, but the Chinese treasure it as an essential herb good for food and for healing. And that’s God’s Realm: beyond our control. No matter how hard we try it won’t go away; at times it’s unsettling but also the essential source of healing we need and crave. Jesus says that Realm runs wild with mercy and love, forgiveness and compassion, justice or peace, and he promises it will overrun the landscape of all creation for good: even us.
     Now here’s the odd thing in Jesus’ parable: mustard doesn’t grow into something all that great. Birds do nest in it; it grows to six or eight feet, but that’s no tree; it’s a bush. Elsewhere in the Bible cedar trees symbolize mighty and powerful empires where birds come to make nests. Compared to a cedar, a mustard bush is a joke.
     But maybe it’s God’s last laugh about what we think matters. Maybe God’s Kingdom is marked by great humility and service; the truly powerful and mighty kneel down to wash feet and forgive, or show mercy and offer compassion. What an odd Realm Jesus invites us to inhabit as our true home, now and always.
     Then there’s that baker woman.  She seems safe, friendly, homey. But think again: bread rises and is transformed into something marvelous by being pummeled and kneaded. My life isn’t easy when God’s strong hands lay hold; new life arises as I surrender, am worked on and pounded, humbled and formed and shaped crosswise into the image and likeness of Christ. But it’s a joyful thing to be touched by God’s hands to rise anew full of life, delightful to behold. And the result is nothing short of spectacular.
     Three measures of leaven would produce an enormous amount of bread, enough to feed 100 or more people. It’s beyond expectations, extravagant, more than enough; apparently God is an open-handed, generous host, holding nothing back and ready to provide for all who are hungry for something real and eternal. God’s banquet serves up heaping helpings of that bread of life that changes everything: mercy and kindness and grace and acceptance and forgiveness.  God welcomes us to sit and be at home there even here, even now. People hunger for such things.
     William and Mary students are very competitive, the brightest and best; and that can be a heavy burden if you think you’re loved for your achievements and not yourself. I often shared with them words from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who left a teaching position at Harvard to live as a companion for a special needs adult in the L’Arche community. He’d written, “There is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests'” (Life of the Beloved). Nouwen had heard that voice, rising up against the many voices that tell us otherwise; it transformed him as he went a new Way with Christ. William and Mary students who heard those words also heard that voice with wonder and joy on their faces as they realized God offered them such a gift, too.
     I’m comforted by Jesus’ word that that life-bringing leaven is often hidden, doing its work unnoticed, mysteriously, quietly and not in plain view. But I saw it here a few weeks when a solitary woman at this church noticed I was a stranger in the crowd, sought me out spoke and acted with true hospitality that is not seen nearly enough in congregations; and I was grateful.
     Could such Kingdom-leaven hospitality work a different miracle? Next month in Charlottesville, white surpremacists will again gather. My bishop has asked United Methodist clergy to join in non-violent protest, and I think a colleague has a crazy wise way to go one more step. She suggests that Kingdom-bold clergy offer free food and drink to the Unite the Right group, to engage in conversation with them, to listen deeply, to humbly challenge in love when possible, and offer to pray with and for them. In that heated place of controversy and conflict, who knows what might arise from such leaven hidden among Christ’s followers that day; and wouldn’t it be worth everything to glimpse God’s Kingdom there?
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

Sow Crazy: Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Note: Whatever flaws are contained in this sermon, they are mine. Some of the thought was informed by Brian Stoffregen’s Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, and Elisabeth Johnson’s commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 found at WorkingPreacher.org.
     Today’s scripture’s a hard sell. We’ve heard it so much we don’t hear. “A sower went out to sow…” Boring. It won’t be easy to sow the seed of God’s Word to bring unexpected blessing before you stop listening and start thinking about lunch or the coming week?
     Remember first that Jesus’ stories are trickier than you think. Jesus says he tells parables to confound people to make them think more about things they think they already understand. He says, “This is why I tell parables: ‘seeing, folks don’t see, and hearing they don’t get it.’ The prophet Isaiah got it right: ‘The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; they shut their eyes so they won’t have to look so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face so I can heal them.’”* If we think we’ve figured out a Jesus story think again: maybe not.
     And remember that Jesus’ stories caused trouble. If we listen to a Jesus story and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” then we probably don’t really get it. His stories always have an edge; they take an unexpected turn to challenge our everyday day world and what we think. Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he nice, but because he and his stories threatened people.
     Matthew arranges his story of Jesus to show him as a new Moses, a new lawgiver and teacher of God’s way. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches with authority like Moses on Mt. Sinai; five blocks of teaching crafted by Matthew remind us of the Law in the first five books of the Old Testament. Today’s scripture is one of five parables Jesus tells in the third block of teaching, but they’re wedged between conflicts Jesus has with faith leaders, hometown neighbors, and his own family. Jesus’ stories go together with misunderstanding, challenge, threat. Today’s story is also full of puzzle and promise, if we have ears to hear.
     It answers a crucial question: if Jesus is so wonderful and truly God’s chosen, why don’t more people believe? Shouldn’t more people believe, and trust him, and live like him? The story’s told so we won’t fret overmuch that most folks simply won’t.
     Some hearts are just hard and unreceptive. For whatever reason some think faith is foolishness for losers and this Jesus stuff is just wishful thinking.
     Others start out well, but their roots in Christ aren’t deep so when trouble comes faith withers. Disappointment happens and they turn from God because they think God didn’t come through, so what’s the point?
     And some folks have the seed of Christ planted in them, but other things become more important. and discipleship dies. I knew someone on fire for God and the radically different life she believed Christ was calling her to live. But then she met and married a man with a very lucrative career and this world’s cares and wealth choked her life of faith.
     But there’s that fourth blessed group: the seed of God’s Word and life takes root to bear a rich harvest. But it’s only one out of four; an F- in school. A 25% success rate’s not that great; shouldn’t God do better?
     Maybe failure and lack of success are just part of the deal. Maybe God delights in throwing seed everywhere to see what happens and delights whenever and however new life comes. Fruitfulness matters; but so does faithfully doing God’s work, trusting that growth will happen, sometimes in surprising places. Maybe faithful failure and fruitfulness are both OK.
     We’re tempted to think we’re the good seed, the good soil, the ¼ bearing fruit. In God’s multiple choice test, we’re #4, the good soil, right? But maybe the more honest answer is #5, all the above. Our hearts can be hard and dismiss parts of the gospel as absurd: love our enemies? forgive those who harm us? trust God completely instead of military strength or retirement savings, or youth or beauty? There’ve been times when doubt got the best of me; I felt betrayed by God or God’s silence terrified me. We know what it’s like to be distracted by wealth or money worries or family demands. Maybe we should thank God that God’s seed somehow survived and we produced any fruit. Maybe it’s a miracle that God didn’t give up on us, but kept planting year after year. Even when met by failure and disappointment God kept hoping for something good, even in us.
     As a teenager I spent hours talking after school with Ben Nelson, my home church’s associate pastor. We talked about everything: relationships, issues of the day like race and war, faith. At times he could’ve thought I was a waste of time; I was such a blockhead, sticking my fingers in my ears not wanting to hear what Christ might expect of me, shutting my eyes to what following Jesus required of me if I took him seriously. But he didn’t give up, and I tell you that whatever fruit came out of my ministry came because God kept planting seeds through him week after week, month after month, year after year. Before giving up on others, thank God that God doesn’t give up on us. It’s a miracle of God’s amazing grace.
     Maybe this story is about a God willing to take risks even when results aren’t guaranteed. Maybe it’s about a reckless and extravagant God who sows seed without fretting over efficiency or effectiveness, but simply throws out seeds of life and blessing to see what happens. We disciples are to be like God, doing God’s work today. What if we become God’s faithful reckless risk takers who don’t fret over efficiency or effectiveness or what kind of return we get on our efforts? God seems to be OK with being faithful failures and things not always working out; Jesus’ God Jesus is extravagantly and wastefully generous, tossing the seed of life and rejoicing with what happens. Could we?
     Maybe God’s seeding and harvest of life through us is marked both by grand failures and successes; what’s surprising is where fruit is produced. In Jesus’ life it was the odd balls and misfits and rejects who got it, not the religious or proper folk – often their hearts were hard or faith was shallow. In his story maybe Jesus is challenging us to take risks that may fail, to try things that might not work, to see what God might do anyway. Do something for Christ’s sake even if it goes badly.
     Here’s some advice from successful business folks: be sure to create a sufficient number of excellent mistakes. If you want to succeed, double your failure rate; if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything worthwhile. Indeed, some things are so important they’re worth doing badly.
     In Jesus’ story, if the sower didn’t throw the seed and fail alot, there would be no fruit. Making mistakes, wasting time and energy are part of the creative process. Google headquarters has nap rooms and game areas and outdoor spaces for walking for a reason. Sometimes what looks like doing nothing is tilling the ground for unexpected breakthroughs to new life. Jesus advises us, “You received without payment; give without payment; you received as a gift, give as a gift.”
     What if this church decided to be God’s reckless risk-takers and committed 10% of the budget to sow God’s seed in wild and crazy ways, to experiment with reaching out and planting seeds of faith and living the gospel where you’re planted? What if you didn’t fret about being effective or efficient, but prayed fiercely simply to be faithful see what God might do?
     When a Chicago church received an unexpected $1.6 million windfall last year, most of the money went to ordinary things, like meeting a budget shortfall or needed building upkeep. But they also did something reckless and risky: one Sunday each of 300+ worshipers got a $500 check to do whatever they thought God wanted them to do with it. $160,000 to sow crazy for Christ. Some miracles happened, but certainly not always. But without sowing crazy, no fruit.
     In campus ministry I often saw the fruit of risky, reckless faith. Students tossed out ideas and tried crazy things, trusting all to God. Spectacular failures happened along with wonderful experiences of unexpected fruitful blessings. In late night movie discussions students suddenly got it and faith was born in new ways. Seemingly endless encounters eventually led to students becoming a pastor, a nurse, a special ed. teacher. Paying students to take Religious Studies classes led to deeper faith, not less. A casual walk across campus with a teacher from Russia led to years of connection and mission between students here and there.
     In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells of some young adults setting up a confessional booth at a mall. They invite passersby to enter the booth where they unexpectedly hear a Christian ask their forgiveness for the church’s sins: racism, homophobia, judgmental intolerance, love of power, focus on buildings instead of building relationships. Sow crazy! Sometimes nothing happened, but some gave grace and forgiveness to the broken Body of Christ and room was opened for new faith.
     Others sow crazy: a college town church hosts therapy dogs and food for 300 students during exams; a downtown church’s Bible School draws hundreds of children, most not from that congregation; another offers Sunday School for special needs friends and midweek worship for folks who work on Sundays; a church gives yearly blessings to new drivers, teachers, first responders, health care workers; another hosts a free community-wide block party with food, games and music; a congregation invests thousands of dollars helping working poor neighbors develop a two year plan to escape poverty; some Christians goes to Denny’s at 4 a.m. to share breakfast and blessing with Muslims from a local mosque as they prepare for their daily Ramadan fast. Sow crazy; you never know what fruit might be produced.
     Jesus says, “You will know my disciples by their fruits.” Seeing becomes believing as our good soil fruits help others “put together” faith, words and actions. A young woman went to church but finally became a Christian as she saw an older woman showing that following Jesus was fruitful, if not easy. The woman had a rough relationship with another in the church; as she worked to love and forgive frequently, she saw her nemesis as a fruitful gift and blessing as she confessed, “That woman will make me a Christian yet.” God’s seed in our lives might be the only Bible someone will ever read. Sow crazy, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.
  • This is my wording, based on a loose rendition of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Matthew 13:10-17