Watch the sermon that arose from the below notes here:
When we first moved to the West Coast we were participating in the life of the L’Arche community in Tacoma, and I got to learn a lot more about the everyday rejection and fear that people with developmental disabilities and mental illness face. There was an opening in my heart as I got to know some of these people, and I learned about the ways I had mistakenly judged others’ value. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on ability and is very quick to push people who it thinks can’t, or won’t, contribute away from others. This rejection leads to all kinds of things, but God has a message for us to hear.
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’[h]?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
The builder and owner of the vineyard
Renting the land has conditions
The fruit: “22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Galatians 5:22-23
The servants = the prophets who were killed when they convicted God’s people
The tenants were self-centered and focusing on what benefitted them. This is of course completely unfamiliar to American culture right?
The kingdom of God is for those who produce its fruit. Not the fruit of temporal wealth, position, privilege, or power, but the fruit of the Spirit which turns us to the benefit of others.
The rejects of a society, the incarcerated, the mocked, the weak, the ill, the poor, the sinner, those unable to produce are the very people God has called to the center of his kingdom.
Jesus was rejected and killed because of his understanding that God’s law existed to generate love of God and neighbor, the joy that comes from loving God and seeing his image in every face we encounter, the peace of right relationships that are based on love and not what is in it for us, the patience to seek out that image no matter what, the kindness to cultivate that image and forgive the inevitable mistakes when we don’t live into the image we bear, the generosity to share what we have so that others can have the resources they need to produce spiritual fruit, the faithfulness to keep pressing on to know the Lord and seek his face, the gentleness with ourselves and others that builds us up carefully, and the self-control to place the good of others above our own desires.
God is looking for us to produce fruit for him. The cornerstone of self-sacrifice has been laid down and we are built upon it. All our desires and hopes have fallen to pieces and now we live in the glory of a life that is God-centered.
As we enter into open worship let us ask God for the strength and grace to live into his values. Let us ask him to prune us so that the fruit we bear can be bountiful and that his glory will be revealed through our love for the bearers of God’s image who surround us. Let us fall on the cornerstone together that all within us will be broken apart that it can be rebuilt to the glory of God.
On my mother-in-law’s bathroom mirror is a sticky note that says “We want God to work in a microwaveable moment. God uses a crock pot.” When I pray to God, I have to admit that I am looking for an answer now. But God speaks in his time, at his pace, and in his way. God’s word can sometimes come to us rarely. We pray and read scripture, but get “nothing” We sit waiting and it feels like everyone else has the connection we long for. It was at such a time in the history of Israel that a boy named Samuel was born.
The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.
2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see,was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.4 Then the Lord called Samuel.
Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.
6 Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”
7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.
8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”1 Samuel 3:1-10
Rareness, expectation and the ways God speaks.
Confusing the voices of authority with the voice of God.
Revelation leads to relationship “knowing God”
Expectant listening leads to changes.
So what is this “voice”? We talk about God’s word, but sometimes the bible doesn’t help, it gives us the words of the good shepherd, but sometimes that voice seems muffled to us no matter where we turn. Jesus opens up to us in John 10 who and what we are listening for.
1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
The gate. The way in is through faith in the shepherd.
Calls by name and goes ahead of us.
Theft and destruction are signs that the robber has come.
Lays down life.
Other sheep not of this pen.
Jesus has gone ahead and is calling us out to sheep not in this pen can we answer as Samuel did?
On Thursday we celebrated the coming of Jesus into our world, and today as we face into a new year, I would like to encourage us to prepare our hearts for God’s work. God’s intervention has begun, and we can see its effects as we look back over human history and our own lives. One part of preparation is clearing out the stuff in our way and walking a path that is straight.
This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King, the Son of God.
2 Isaiah the prophet told us what would happen before He came: Watch, I will send My messenger in front of You to prepare Your way and make it clear and straight.
3 You’ll hear him, a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Eternal One, a straight way in the wandering desert, a highway for our God.”
4 That messenger was John the Baptist, who appeared in the desert near the Jordan River preaching that people should be ritually cleansed through baptism with water as a sign of both their changed hearts and God’s forgiveness of their sins. 5 People from across the countryside of Judea and from the city of Jerusalem came to him and confessed that they were deeply flawed and needed help, so he cleansed them with the waters of the Jordan. 6 John dressed as some of the Hebrew prophets had, in clothes made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He made his meals in the desert from locusts and wild honey. 7 He preached a message in the wilderness.
John the Baptist: Someone is coming who is a lot more powerful than I am—One whose sandals I’m not worthy to bend down and untie. 8 I’ve washed you here through baptism with water; but when He gets here, He will wash you in the Spirit of God. Mark 1:1-8
The Good news has begun!
The messenger has come to prepare the way.
Change of heart and forgiveness are what clears the path to God.
Keep your eyes on the goal. What we focus on is where we are going.
Confession is crucial. We have to acknowledge that there is debris in our lives in order for it to be cleared.
Outward signs were important and can still be, but they cannot induce or confer the inward reality. Only Jesus can do that.
The Friends talk about the power and peace that comes when we operate out of a “quiet center.” This concept is a bit involved, but an oversimplified summary is that we can operate in a much healthier manner if we cultivate an attitude of quiet listening for the voice of the Spirit/Light Within/Jesus and carve out time to quiet our minds. This gets important when anxious times arise.
My two year old has been stable on her heart medicine for two months now and as that has quieted we are dealing with walking our six year old through navigating bullying. On top of that I am getting surgery dome on my hands for carpal tunnel a week from this coming Friday. All of these things are sources of struggle and anxiety that threaten my ability to operate from a quiet center. I would love to say that I have maintained a quiet center throughout these times, but that statement would cause every farm in the area to be overwhelmed with fertilizer. What I am finding is that as I am more intentional about cultivating listening space in my life, the anxieties are less overwhelming, the struggles feel more manageable. I become less harsh and more kind, and my ability to deal with adverse circumstances is enhanced.
I am deeply nervous about having both hands operated on, and I really am not excited to have a month of not lifting more than 5 pounds, but as I step back and sit in the presence of Jesus, I can breathe again and take the next step. I can pick my daughter up and explain how what she is doing is a bad idea rather than yelling. I can live as a better human being because I am operating from the same Spirit and power that Jesus operated from. When we close our mouths, set our agendas to the side, and wait…our strength is renewed and the anxious edge is blunted.
My postings will be a bit erratic for the rest of the year, so as we enter a holiday season that for many of us is a source of anxiety or pain let’s take the time to turn off the anxiety inducing messages and wait expectantly for the still, small voice.
As you who follow my blog know, the past few months have been pretty challenging on many levels, and now that things are starting to smooth out I am playing a bit of catch-up. This, of course means that I am late in posting, and this will probably continue for the next few months.
This week someone from my meeting came to me with a desire to talk and ask questions about faith. I came into this meeting with a little bit of leftover trepidation since the last few months have been a series of what felt like blows to the gut. I have been winded and now that I was breathing again I had this internal flinch ready for another blow. What happened instead was someone sharing their deep desire to connect with God and to grow deeper in their faith.
The palpable sense of relief that I felt reminded me that there are times when crisis ends. In that moment God reminded me that there are still people who listen, and that others really did see the Holy Spirit working through me. Often when I’m going through crisis I lose my ability to recognize God at work in me. By coming to me and asking for instruction this Friend was actually opening themselves up to God and ministering to me.
The takeaway here is that when we ask someone else to minister to us we are recognizing and encouraging the use of their gifting. Sometimes after a long period of needing to receive we desperately need the reminder that we have gifts of ministry to share with others as well. For someone like me, who derives great joy from discussing and studying matters of faith with others, requests like the one I received two days ago are sources of life.
This past weekend I was tested in my ability to live from the quiet center. The quiet center for me as a Christ centered Friend is living out the peace that flows from living in the presence of the Prince of Peace. On Friday my daughter went into the ER with a high fever, and when we got there her pulse was over 250. That is two hundred and fifty plus beats per minute that the triage nurse said was too fast for them to count on their stethoscope. Welcome to parental crisis. I immediately sent a note out on facebook asking for prayer and focused my whole self on being present to my daughter. The doctors kept praising me on how calm I was.
For the record, while I was outwardly calm I was in no way calm in my mind. It was all I could do to hold my stuff together so my daughter wouldn’t have the additionally frightening thing of having her daddy freaking out. I began closing myself off to everything but the moment and went to the center, handed Jesus everything and said I need you to hold this for me while I deal with all this. At that point I felt something holding me in the center. That something was not of me, since I was melting down inside. The external was focused on my daughter and being a comfort to her and in a real way I deferred everything until the crisis was weathered, locking the emotional storm away until later. No, I have to say that at that point I felt what it is like to be held in the light by others.
This is something that we Friends need to remember in our individualized faith culture: Sometimes we cannot live from the center and need others to carry us there. We need other Friends to carry us into the center because we are an emotional puddle on the floor in a dark corner. This truth is why we need to come together in our meetings for worship, to remind us that we are not on this journey alone, that we are not meant to “make it on our own”. We are absolutely unable to maintain the center without the prayers of others, without the support of others, and without a recognition of our need for others to journey with us. Because of others prayers and love I was able to be present in a calm non-anxious way, and the doctors told me how much of a difference that made for my daughter, and I had to say that as a Friends pastor it was only because others were holding me in the light.
I end this with two queries that I think it is vitally important for each of us to answer:
Who do I ask to hold me in the quiet center when I can’t find it for myself?
Who can I hold in the quiet center now that may not be able to find it by themselves?
Today we look at what I consider to be extremely high difficulty level Christianity. In our pursuit of perfection the hardest part of ourselves to overcome is that piece within that desires to lash out when we are hurt. I think every one of us in this room can tell stories of the times in which we lashed out, and the long term negative consequences that had, but today I want us to think about what happens when we keep our eye on the end game and don’t get distracted by the pains of the moment. Jesus does something amazing in this passage and defines Godly perfection in a way that went completely beyond the Jewish understanding of perfection to God’s heart for all of humanity.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:38-48
All of our common sense and societal training screams at us that this can’t possibly work. Let’s be honest here, every criminal justice system in human history is based on retributive justice, the idea that the punishment must fit the crime and that justice is fully served when offenders are punished. Punishment is the focus in that sphere of life and those ideas seep their way into our understanding of what God’s justice is all about. However, Jesus is sharing that the purpose of God’s justice is not punishment but restoration and redemption. Retributive justice leads to full prisons and the continuation of suffering, while redemptive justice leads to restoration of the person and a society that better reflects God’s heart. This is one of the reasons that I so deeply appreciate the ministry that Chuck Colson founded and its work in bringing victims and offenders together which has an amazing record in terms of preventing repeat offenses. I highly recommend checking out their site at https://www.prisonfellowship.org/ and their Restorative Justice project at http://restorativejustice.org.
Each of Jesus’ examples in today’s text has at its core a concern for the ways we look at ourselves and other people, for the ways we judge those with more or less power than we ourselves have. Jesus is saying here that the categories we make to define people, and which we use to justify our passing of judgment on the motives of others, are unjust. We must make our starting point for determining the value of any human being, including that jerk in the mirror, the image of God that each person is stamped with. Do we through our actions and attitudes distract ourselves and others from that image we bear? Of course, but nothing we can do will ever take that image away. Jesus’ teaching in the first part of our text is an important reminder that we have a responsibility to not only affirm the dignity of others, but also to behave in ways that affirm our own dignity and value.
When Jesus told his disciples to turn the other cheek, he wasn’t telling them to passively take abuse. It was a mark of contempt to backhand someone on the right cheek, by turning the other cheek you were forcing the person striking you to do so as an equal. By turning the left cheek towards them you prevented them from backhanding you again and instead of rising to the provocation of the violent you take the moral high ground and force your assailant to acknowledge your humanity. In this situation Jesus takes the idea of lashing out in response to hurt and instead confronts an aggressor with the humanity of the person being attacked. We are being called not to take revenge or retribution, but instead are being called to extend the truth that every person has value in God’s sight and must be seen as our equal, and that we will not accept anything less than an affirmation of the dignity and value of every human being. When we are focusing on God, it becomes much easier to see the value of the image of God stamped on every person. Turning the other cheek then is an affirmation of human dignity and a challenge to attitudes that treat others as “less than.”
This next example involves another act of protest which is designed to graphically remind someone taking advantage of the legal system of Jesus’ day that the person they are taking advantage of is a human being. It was a common practice to sue people for their clothing to cover minor debts that were outstanding, and the moneylenders in Jesus’ day who were using Jewish law to collect were also violating Jewish law through the rates of interest that they charged. This put the people who borrowed from them in a situation that ultimately led to losing everything so that the moneylender would profit. Jesus again is reminding those around him that they could get creative in their reminders to others of their humanity. When people begin to take advantage of others, and treat them as means to ends, for the sake of their own souls they need to be confronted with the humanity of those they are taking advantage of. It is the same with the carrying of burdens. The Roman legions would force people to carry their packs and were legally limited to one mile. The Romans used people as beasts of burden, and by carrying that pack beyond the mile you lovingly forced that soldier to confront the fact that you were a person with dignity. Even in oppressive circumstances there are ways we can remind each other of the value and inherent dignity of every human life. The first step towards perfection is recognizing God’s love for every created person.
That first step is the easier one, and now Jesus raises the bar to the highest possible mark. Godliness. Perfection. God’s love is not exclusive. He loves every human being exactly as they are, right now. There is nothing required of us to be loved by God, every human being is loved. This gets tricky, because we don’t necessarily see ourselves or each other as loveable and there are plenty of messages out there which point out our flaws. There are plenty of statements that say you can be loved if you just change this one thing and we will provide it for the low, low price of $49.95. There are messages that tell us that because we do this one thing it makes us unlovable, and not worth anybody’s time or effort. Jesus tells us that the mark of God’s perfection is the love that he extends not just to those who deserve it, but to those who have chosen to be his enemies. Perfection is a tough mark to aim for, and keeping our eyes on God and allowing him to set our course means that we are going to have to love people who are not our friends. It means that we are going to have to love incredibly broken people.
God’s love doesn’t require anything of us, but somehow when we receive it we can’t remain the same. It is being loved by God that gives us the power to step away from the ways we miss the mark, and Jesus is teaching his disciples that being Godly means loving those you completely, utterly and totally see as your or God’s enemy. God welcomes us as we are and pours his love into lives as we are and we must do the same for others. Now we could come up with a whole list of others, but the reality is that Jesus is confronting the Jews with a major failure on their part to live up to the mission God gave them. The purpose of Israel and the reason they were chosen was not so that they could sit back and say “We are chosen so that makes us better than you.” No God called Israel for the purpose of leading the world into the paths of righteousness. God called Israel to be the means through which the world could be reconciled to God. All Jesus could see around him was a people that instead separated themselves from the world as a way to keep themselves pure and unstained. They had lost sight of their purpose.
Jesus completely redefines for the Jews and us what it means to be pure and holy. This more than anything else puts him at odds with the systems of this world, that the mark of purity is not conformity, but is instead hospitality. God extends his love to every human being regardless of whether they are trying to live up to God’s love or not. God loves us so much that he even gives us the power to accept or reject the relationship that comes from accepting God’s love. When Jesus calls us to perfection after the manner of God we have some soul searching to do, because I know for sure that when I read this and I prayed over this I was squirming in my seat a bit. I had to ask myself if I was setting conditions on people being welcomed into the kingdom, if I was placing conformity to my ideals or my community’s ideals ahead of God’s love. This teaching of Jesus is not an easy one and challenges us to love people who not only don’t look like us, but also people who don’t think like us. In Jesus’ disciples we see a slice of Jewish societal conflicts and how God’s love can bring people with completely opposite agendas and philosophies of life together to follow him. Jesus could bring Matthew the tax collector profiting from the oppression of his people and Simon the violent revolutionary anti-Roman Zealot under the same banner of God’s love. God keeps challenging me and his church to consider who I might be neglecting or cutting myself off from because I see them as my or God’s enemies.
We are facing into some difficult questions as a society and we Christians are being called to perfection in the ways we address those questions, and it is so easy to miss that mark. The perfection of God’s love for humanity embodied in the cross and resurrection is the mark we aim at and it will require us to seek out those stray arrows that we might pick them up, aim and try again to match God’s love. Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, and laid down his life in demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us. The mark we aim at is not an easy one to face into. Quite often we take our eyes off that mark and I know that I have some repenting to do on this one and some growing, so as we enter into our time of open worship, let us all seek the throne of grace together. Let us all turn our eyes upon Jesus so that we might better love those who bear his image. After five minutes of silence someone will stand with the microphone. If you are led to speak in the silence I ask that you stand and wait for the microphone to be brought to you. We will try to give some space to others’ words, so the microphone may not come right away.