Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 23, 2014
Genesis 50:15-26, Ephesians 1:15-23
When I was in sixth grade my family moved me to a new neighborhood. I managed to make two new friends and we would regularly hang out at each other’s houses. One day when I went to visit Keith he was building model cars…funny cars I think. He asked me if I wanted to help. Sure I said, having no idea what I was doing. So he gave me all of the parts for the engine; the block, the headers, the manifold covers…all of the usual. To be honest I had never seen an engine before; even so I decided I could figure it out. But when I put the headers (the exhaust manifolds) on top of the block like a roosters crown, Keith knew that I was in trouble; that I had no idea how all of this went together. I have to say I still feel that way when I watch those of you in the auto industry actually manage to create cars that work and work well. With dozens of suppliers spread out across multiple continents trying to build exact parts designed by someone someplace else, not to mention research, marketing and finance, I am overwhelmed by how complicated this process is. Yet even with its complexity, it pales in comparison to the task that is set before the children of God.
And what is this task that is set before us? It is to help make earth more like heaven. This is part of the Lord’s Prayer which we offer up every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to be those who make this world one in which every human being is treated as if they are a beloved child of God. We are to be those who make sure that everyone has enough; enough food to eat, enough education, enough love. We are to be those who make sure that everyone has adequate housing. We are to be those who make sure that people have clothes on their backs...both winter and summer. We are to be sure that there is justice in which all persons are treated equally before the law regardless of race, creed, status or sexual orientation. We are supposed to be God’s coworkers in this kingdom-building endeavor. But if we are honest with ourselves, it appears to be an overwhelming task. In the face of generational poverty, recession, layoffs, a struggle for medical care, disease and terrorism, we find it easier to simply enjoy what we have, which is a good thing, and ignore the problems that are not ours, a not so good thing.
As those called to be God’s co-workers, helpers if you will, we need encouragement to continue our task. And in these opening words of Ephesians we find that encouragement. We find words to the church to keep us going. First we are told that we are to be a people of hope. Paul prays that the church might know what is the “hope to which we have been called.” You and I live in what is becoming more and more a “chicken little” world. What I mean by this is that every time something goes wrong, we are supposed to be afraid and run around in a panic saying, “All is lost!” It doesn’t matter whether it is Ebola or the fact that there is no real five second rule for food that has fallen to the floor and we could die if we ate it…which is actually one of my favorites because I am here to attest that I have lived through it…we are to give up all hope. Yet Paul tells us that we need to become people of hope. We are to be people of hope not simply because the world needs it, but because we believe that the ultimate fate of creation is in God’s hands and not ours or someone else’s. And because of this we can look at the messiest future with hope and we can share that hope with others.
Secondly Paul prays that we are to learn about the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints. Note, Paul is not talking about our inheritance, but God’s. This may seem a strange thing for Paul to say until we realize that in scripture, children are the inheritance of their parents. This was made clear when I was home one Christmas and went out for an early morning walk with my father and one of my brothers. We met a Jewish friend of my fathers who commented on what a great inheritance my father had with four sons. It is a great inheritance because of how we could care for our father. The riches then that children bring are what they can do for their parents. So what Paul is saying here is that we need to learn of the riches we can bring to God because we are God’s children; because we are God’s inheritance. We are to learn what we can bring to God as part of God’s world changing program.
Finally we are to learn that we do not do this on our own but that we do this with the power of God. Paul writes that we are to learn “what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for those of us who believe, according to the work of God’s great power.” What this means is that ultimately it is the power of God working through us that changes the world. There is an assumption out there that the world will slowly on its own become a more caring and enlightened place; that people will naturally evolve into the kind of people that make the world better. I would argue that this is not so. All we have to do is look to ISIS and the world’s continuing love affair with violence and hatred to see that this natural evolution is not so natural. The gift of God though is that God’s power is available to us, that it might be used to make the world the better place God desires it to be.
I want to ask a question as we close. How many of you have looked out at the world and felt discouraged? I thought so…most of you. And it is that discouragement that makes us wonder if what we do in the world makes any difference. The answer is that what we do makes a difference. When a child at this church leans that they are loved by God, the world becomes a bit more like heaven. When a youth comes to this church and discovers a place of safety in which they can truly be themselves, the world becomes a little more like heaven. When we come to worship and learn more fully how to live the Christ-like life, the world becomes a bit more like heaven. When we help to teach a child at Alcott how to read, the world becomes more like heaven. When we help foster children and families know that they are not alone, the world becomes more like heaven. When we fill up bags with food for Shop and Drop, or at Thanksgiving for hungry families, the world becomes more like heaven.
You and I are called to the task of making earth a bit more like heaven. None of us, individually or collectively, even with God’s help will be able to do this in our lifetimes. This realization, however does not give us the right to ignore our task. Instead we are called to do what we can, when we can to transform the world around us. My challenge then to all of you for this week is this, to ask, “How am I making earth a little bit more like heaven every day?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 16, 2014
Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
He had fallen asleep in church – again. And my mother knew that Dad had fallen asleep because his snoring had drawn her attention away from the sermon.
God bless him, my dad tried to stay awake. He knew it upset and embarrassed my mom when she caught him snoozing through service. He has always been a faithful, churchgoing man. But for the last couple of years, he had struggled week after week to maintain consciousness through the hour of worship.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t getting enough sleep. In fact, he had recently retired and was sleeping quite well. It wasn’t any kind of narcolepsy unless there is a particular strain of that disease which only manifests itself in the church pew. He couldn’t really blame the worship service. He’d been worshipping in Presbyterian churches for decades and had managed to at least keep his eyes open, even when he wasn’t fully engaged. He honestly didn’t know what the problem was. And so, after one too many elbows in the ribs and exasperated looks from my mother, my dad simply stopped going to church.
Now, this was no easy decision for my dad. As I said, he is a faithful and devoted Christian. But more than that, he is extremely susceptible to guilt. And for my dad, not going to church meant you were brazenly not following the will of God, and the guilt of that disobedience weighed heavily on him.
So, for the first time in his life, in his mid-fifties, my dad went church shopping on his own. He got permission from my mother first, of course.
Mom had no intention of leaving her Presbyterian church. She served as an elder in regular rotation, ran committees, went to bible studies, cooked community dinners, and generally helped out anywhere and everywhere. I honestly wonder if the walls of that church would continue to stand were my mother to step away from it for too long. My mother never fell asleep in church.
In my memories of my dad at church, he is always playing the guitar and singing. In the church I grew up in, Dad and I led the music for the Easter sunrise service every year. Sometimes we’d sing special music for Christmas Eve. Dad even wrote a few songs just for worship. His passion is music, and when he was called upon to share his passion with the church, he came fully alive.
Through a number of leadership changes in my parents’ church, dad’s gift for music had gotten lost. There’d been a few creative clashes and some hurtful words exchanged. Dad felt underappreciated or overlooked entirely. So he had stopped offering to play and people had stopped asking.
And not too long after that, Dad started falling asleep.
As dad church shopped, he found a new non-denominational church that worshipped in the local high school auditorium. After attending worship a handful of times, he’d been invited to join the church’s worship band. And that was it. Dad was hooked.
He never fell asleep in worship because he was usually on stage. And his faith grew and deepened because he actually heard the whole sermon. He built friendships with the other musicians and worship leaders that sustained him in his faith.
The next time I came out to visit my parents, I had to choose between going to mom’s church, where she was helping to serve Communion and was even leading part of the liturgy from the table, and going to my dad’s church to see him play in the worship band. It was a tough call. But my dad was so excited about his new church that I couldn’t say no to him.
The band wasn’t that good, but my dad was great. He was fully alive and engaged. He wanted to talk about the pastor’s message after church and tell me about how the band rehearsed and chose the music. He got involved in several other areas of the church’s ministry, helping to build new facilities and get the word out in the community about the church.
My dad’s experience reminded me of what Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The church in Thessalonica was a lively one. Paul writes to them with great joy, remembering their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul celebrates that the message of the gospel came to this church “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
Thessalonica in the first century was a bustling metropolis, the Roman capital of the region of Macedonia. It was a diverse and industrious city, but because of its diversity, religious fervor was kept to a minimum and devotion to the Roman imperial religion was strongly encouraged.
Thessalonica was Paul’s first stop on his missionary foray into modern-day Greece, and the response he found to the message of Jesus Christ was nothing short of miraculous. Some Jews and a large number of Gentiles believed in the gospel message, and they formed a community of faith, gathering in homes, eating and worshipping together, and encouraging one another through the many adversities they faced because of their beliefs.
Oddly, I think adversity may have been the key to success for the Thessalonian church. Believers were persecuted and even killed, but this kept them on their toes. They had to “encourage and build up each other,” as Paul commends them for doing, because practicing the Christian faith in that time and place was difficult and dangerous. The fledgling church needed everything anyone had to offer – a safe place to gather and seek sanctuary, teachers and students, healers and prophets, people who could think and plan, and people who could contemplate and listen. Everyone was essential to the project, and, according to Paul, everyone had been giving it their all.
Paul writes to assure the believers in Thessalonica that they are on the right path. They are children of the light and children of the day. Now, this language about day and night has at least three dimensions to it.
First, Paul is talking about what is often referred to as the “Day of the Lord,” the day when Jesus will return to complete God’s redemptive work on earth. The Thessalonians are awaiting this day with great expectation and are, perhaps, a bit disappointed that it has not yet arrived.
But Paul assures them that no matter when that day comes, their identity as children of the light and children of the day equips them for this eventuality. Now this identity is the second dimension of this day and light imagery. Paul wants them to identify themselves over and against this comfortable, secular society, as children of the day, meaning they belong to Christ, who is himself the light of the world.
Finally, Paul uses this day and light imagery to encourage the Thessalonians not to fall asleep, and to get suited up, putting on the defensive armor of faith and love and hope. They are not preparing to fight a battle, but they are getting ready to survive the night watch. The walk of faith is not an easy one. There are obstacles and challenges, and Paul know the Thessalonians need to be awake and on guard, ready to defend themselves and one another.
The Thessalonian church is lively indeed, and we can see why. Imagine excitedly awaiting the day when Jesus will return, when there will be no more death or pain or weeping, when all things will be made new and re-created in the goodness God desires. Anticipating that kind of event, preparing yourself for it and viewing the world through that lens, would certainly make you feel “fully alive.” If any day God’s final redemption could come like a thief in the night; if any day all of our petty complaints and superficial concerns could be overwhelmed by a new and wonderful reality; if any day we might see God face to face, encounter the risen Christ, live in the realm of the Holy Spirit – now that would make you feel “fully alive.”
Imagine if also, like the Thessalonian church, you knew exactly who you were and to whom you belonged. We live in a world of such fractured, or maybe composite identities. Families often live far apart, friendships are often built on personal capital rather than genuine affection. Some people can identify with a home town, and others find an identity in college or professional sports teams. We identify with our jobs, with our schools, with our achievements. We even quite often identify with name brand products. Apple…or Windows. Coke or Pepsi.
And while there are certainly many positive aspects to having these identities pieced together from different parts of our lives, what it can’t do is give us a real center that brings us fully alive. We might feel lively while we’re cheering for our favorite football team, but that doesn’t help us when we walk into work on Monday morning. We might feel fully alive in our studies or at work, but that doesn’t help us when we come home at night or on the weekends. We might feel fully alive when we get the latest and greatest piece of tech, but Siri isn’t going to be able to answer all of our questions about what our life is going to add up to.
That central, grounding identity as a follower of Jesus Christ, however, is an identity that will help us in any and every one of our other multiple identities. If you are a Christ-follower first and foremost, everything else can make sense in relationship to that. I can’t think of another single identity with that kind of power.
Finally, imagine how lively your faith would have to be to survive in a hostile environment such as first-century Thessalonica. If you were in actual, physical danger because of your Christian faith, you would have to be nothing less than a fully-devoted follower to even bother with it. And you would need other fully devoted, fully alive followers to support and encourage you. This is not the kind of faith you take on alone.
This is the kind of faith that needs people who have come alive.
My dad thought his faith, his God, his church, needed him to sit in the pew every Sunday. Or at least most Sundays. And for a season anyway, that led him to think there was “peace and security,” as Paul says. He asked what the church needed, and he heard, “we need people to serve on committees” and “we need people to teach Sunday school and lead youth group and serve community meals.” All good and necessary activities of the church. And some of these things are the things that make my mom come alive. But my dad, well, he fell asleep. These were not the things that make him come alive. And what he discovered in his search is that the church, like the world, needs people who have come alive, people who are fully awake, people who are children of the day and children of the light.
And so my invitation to you today is this: What makes you come alive? What keeps you awake in church? I invite you to stop asking what the church needs and to start asking what makes you come alive. Because what the church needs are people who have come alive.
I want to close with a word of reassurance. Staying awake can be exhausting. We need our rest. We need to sleep. We need to regenerate. We have seasons of excitement and whole-hearted devotion, and we have season where we fall asleep, even in church.
But the segment of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians concludes with the assurance that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
Lest we think that our salvation rests upon our own ability to stay awake – waiting for the Day of the Lord, living into our Christ-following identity, bringing our whole selves to our faith walk – let us remember that it is by the grace of God, and only by that grace, that we experience the kingdom of God now and life eternal with God in the future.
As the Psalm we heard this morning depicts a dependence on God that reflects our need for mercy. We cannot stay awake all the time, and God knows that. That is why God didn’t leave our salvation up to us. God knows that we are in constant need of re-awakening. That is why the Holy Spirit continues to work among us.
Hopefully none of you out there are asleep yet. Hopefully you’ve managed to stay awake through my sermon. But if you are asleep, know that God loves you and has sent Christ into the world to save you all the same. And if you are asleep, or falling asleep, or peaceful and secure in your faith life, I encourage you to ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it. Because what the church needs are people who have come alive.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 9, 2014
I Timothy 6:17-19
She was at the top of her game. She was the actress that people loved to watch. Her comedic skills and timing were uncanny. She was married to one of Hollywood’s sexiest men. In other words she had it all. Then on January 16, 1942 the plane in which she was riding slammed into a mountain side killing her, Carol Lombard, and everyone else on board. She had been promoting war bonds when she died, leaving behind a grieving husband, Clark Gable, and a grieving public. Yet there was another group of people that mourned her as much or more than anyone else. These were the ordinary people who worked on her movies. The best boys, the grips, the makeup artists…everyone who ever worked with her mourned her because she was their friend. Lombard had no private dressing room. She had no personal assistant to keep people away. She hung out with the cast and crew, treating them like family. She was one of them. Even in a world in which Hollywood starlets were royalty, she was just Carol. She had balance in her life and knew what mattered. The question for us becomes then how do we do the same? How do we maintain our balance life?
The obvious answer to that question is that we don’t become movie stars, or star athletes or people who appear on magazine covers. Granted that makes it easier, but only by a little. I say that because we human beings have an amazing way of turning a little success into very large egos. It doesn’t matter if we are simply big-man or big-woman on campus, part of a winning team, running a successful company, accumulating a Bill Gates-like fortune or we are simply a better employee than those around us, we still find it difficult to maintain our balance. In fact how many of you have ever known someone who thinks far more of themselves than they ought to; far more of themselves than any of their achievements warrant? The temptation to lose our balance becomes even more pronounced when we are given accolades, promotions or atta-boys. It becomes easy for our pride to take over and cause us to become different, to begin to think that we are somehow better than those people around us. We lose our balance.
I believe that this is why the scriptures have a love-hate relationship with success and wealth. On the one hand success is lifted up and seen as a blessing from God. Abraham is one of the scriptural examples. He starts out a fairly well off man, meaning he has slaves and animals, but then ends up being a very wealthy man with considerable power. There is no hint in scripture that his kind of success is not something we might want to achieve. Hard work, prudence and a little Godly intervention are given the Biblical stamp of approval. On the other hand though we have Jesus reminding his hearers that it will be harder for a wealthy man to get into heaven than it will be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. He tells his followers that they are not to lord it over one another and are to continually exhibit humility, be last and not first and be willing to sacrifice everything for God. So the question again for us is, how do we find the balance? How do we find the balance between these two Biblical positions? The answer is by exercising three spiritual practices, each found in our morning’s lessons.
The first spiritual practice is gratitude. Gratitude is found at the heart of both of our lessons. The people of God were to never forget that they were the beneficiaries of God’s amazing acts. It was God who saved them. It was God who fed them. The people were to be obedient to God, and follow God’s ways not out of fear, but out of gratitude. And what gratitude does for us is that it reminds us that we are not lone wolves making our way by ourselves in the world. Instead we are reminded that our success is shared success. It is shared by those who reared us, taught us, encouraged us, prayed for us and prepared the world around us in such a way that we can be successful. This takes nothing away from our own hard work and dedication to our lives, it simply puts our success in perspective…it helps us to maintain our balance.
The second spiritual practice is enjoyment. I realize that this one may come as a surprise. As the inheritors of the great Puritan tradition many of you may have been expecting me to say just the opposite. However again, at the heart of these texts is enjoyment. In Deuteronomy the people are told that they are to celebrate with all the bounty that God has given them. Paul tells us that God provides everything we have for our enjoyment. This is actually one of the great themes in scripture. In Ecclesiastes we read that there is nothing better than that people eat, drink and enjoy the fruits of their toil. Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding. What his spiritual practice does is remind us that the end goal of success is not success; it is the enjoyment of God’s creation. It is the enjoyment of our families, of our friends, of God’s creation and of God’s love for us. Enjoyment helps us find balance by remembering why we strive to be successful in the first place.
The third spiritual practice is generosity. Again, generosity is woven into the fabric of these stories. In the Old Testament text we find it in the fact that everyone participates in the great celebration. “Then you together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you shall celebrate…” In other words no one is left out. Those who have will share with those who do not have. This example ties in with our texts from last week which also incorporated those in the margins such as widows and orphans. In Paul we read that the rich are to be “rich in good works, generous and ready to share.” Generosity reminds us that what we have been given is not ours to keep but a trust to be shared. This theme also runs deep in the scriptures. In fact it is at the heart of God’s restorative work in the world that Abraham was not only to be blessed, but to be a blessing to the world. You and I, as Abraham’s spiritual offspring, are to see generosity as one of those ways in which we too bless the world. Generosity helps us to maintain our balance by reminding us that our success is to be shared.
The challenge before us is to practice these spiritual disciplines. It is to be intentional about putting them before us every day. For I believe that when we do, we will find the spiritual and life balance for which I believe we all long. And so this morning when those of you who are making a financial commitment to the life of the church bring forward your pledge cards, I encourage you to see this act as a spiritual one; as an act of gratitude for what God has done for you; as an act of enjoyment because you find joy in being in the midst of this community; and as an act of generosity in that you are willingly sharing a portion of what you have been given. And in so doing, find spiritual balance for your life. And then for all of us my challenge is that you will engage in gratitude, enjoyment and generosity such that you can find a spiritual and life balance which will bring deeper meaning to all areas of your lives.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 2, 2014
You could hear the growing desperation in each of the letters. The year was 1904 and E.J. and Bessie were watching their father lose the family fortune. Their Grandfather Joseph Phelon had been one of the great early entrepreneurs of rural New York in the early 19th century. He had first made money selling clothing to the Army during the War of 1812. He then joined a partnership to bring the first throstle, or automated, multi spindle, wool and cotton spinning machine, to that part of the United States. From there he went on to breed cattle and delved into improved agricultural methods. He amassed a fortune. Unfortunately, as our family history puts it, his son Edward was not of the same mind. Instead of seeing all that his father had bequeathed him as a legacy, he saw it as his own private fortune to be spent anyway he wanted; race horses, playing the stock market and the like. It was not long before the only thing that remained of the legacy he had been given was the house, Willow Hill, and a couple of hundred acres; which only remained because his daughter Bessie was as industrious as her grandfather. For better or for worse, this is often the way of the world. Studies have shown that of family fortunes, 70% are gone after the first generation and 90% after the second. A legacy then is only a legacy when future generations work to maintain it.
This was in a sense the heart of both of our lessons this morning. In Deuteronomy, which is considered Moses’ last sermon to the people of Israel before they moved from the wilderness to the land of promise, he reminds them of the legacy they had been given. The legacy they had been given was multifaceted. God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt where they had been for four-hundred years. God had led them through the “great and terrible wilderness,” an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. God fed them with manna, provided water to drink and quail to feast upon. God is also telling them that when they get to the land of promise things will go well. Their received legacy will also include fine houses, flocks and herds galore and financial success. When this happens God says, they are not to say to themselves, as did Edward Phelon, “the power and might of my own hand has gotten me this wealth” and forget that it is God who has given you this, because then, comes the implication, you will lose it. The legacy was theirs to keep or lose.
Jesus’ story is focused in the same direction. As he tells it, a man went on a journey and, in preparation, entrusted his fortune to his slaves. Each was given a different amount of money. In a sense they were each given part of the legacy of the owner; with no instructions as to what to do with the funds they had been given. The first two appear to understand that what they had received was not theirs to merely watch over, but was a legacy they were to invest and grow. This they did. Each worked hard and made a 100% return on the legacy they had been given (don’t we wish). For this they were celebrated by their master who gave them greater responsibility as part of their reward. The third however made an assumption about his master, that it would be a safer bet to simply maintain the principle he had been given, than to risk it in chancy endeavors. Needless to say the master was not pleased. He was not pleased because in the end it was not the amount of the return that mattered, but the fact that the legacy he had given them was to be risked for a greater reward.
What do these stories have to do with us? What they have to do with us is that they remind us that we are inheritors of a great legacy. Our legacy stretches back more than three-thousand years to the giving of God’s Law and the Prophets who upheld it. Our legacy stretches back more than two-thousand years to the beginning of the Church and to all of those saints, martyrs, theologians and early Christians who kept it alive. Our legacy stretches back five-hundred years to the Reformation when men and women risked their lives to form a new kind of church. Our legacy stretches back one-hundred-eighty years in this church when people living on the frontier decided that Birmingham needed a Presbyterian presence. Over all of those years, ordinary men and women, understood what they had been given was a legacy; that it was not theirs to use as they pleased but as God called them to so do. Thus they worshipped, taught, served and sacrificed so that generations to come would hear the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, and that lives would be changed for the better through what they had done.
Now, it is up to us. We have been given this great legacy and the question is what will we do with it? My hope and prayer is that we will not simply maintain it, but that we will build upon it; that we will join with that great cloud of witnesses whose names you heard read in the necrology (the reading of the names of church members who had died in the past year) this morning and work to make Everybody’s Church a place where all people can come, be engulfed in God’s love and grace and have their lives changed for the better. I encourage you then to prayerfully consider what you would give to the life and work of this church next week when together we dedicate our pledges for 2015. For this is our opportunity to take what God has given us and continue to make it live for generations to come.
My challenge then to you is to ask, “What will I give to grow the legacy of First Presbyterian Church that not only I, but generations unborn might be changed by what goes on in this place?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 26, 2014
Deuteronomy 14:22-29, Matthew 14:13-21
Your boss has wowed the crowd. She has been presenting down at COBO hall to a packed crowd of about twenty-thousand people. They have given her standing ovation after standing ovation. Nonetheless you look at your watch and it is getting late. Your boss had gone well beyond her allotted time and it is Sunday night, and all of the restaurants are closed so there is no place for these people to go and eat…and since they are from out of town without hotel reservations they will have a long drive home. You and your cohorts pull your boss aside and whisper in her ear that you are concerned for the attendees that they are hungry and have a long way to go before reaching home. Perhaps she should just wrap it up and send the people on their way. Without giving it a thought she turns to you and says, “Why don’t you feed them?” Thinking that it is a great joke you and your friends offer a smile and a laugh. “No,” she responds, “I mean it. You give them something to eat.” Stammering you reply that all that is left from the luncheon are two Jimmy John’s freaky fast sandwiches and a bag of chips. “No problem,” she says, “Bring them to me.” She says a prayer, breaks the sandwiches and says, “You can do it. Go feed them” She has just asked you to do the impossible.
If you can put yourself in that position, then you have an idea of what the disciples were thinking when Jesus told them to go feed the more than 20,000 people who were spread out across the mountain side. Jesus was asking them to do the impossible. Now, you may be thinking to yourselves, well of course they can do it. They are with Jesus. Jesus can do anything. And in some ways that is correct, yet they do not have the advantage of our two-thousand years of hindsight. Sure, Jesus had cured some people who were ill, driven out some demons and stilled a storm. But feeding twenty thousand people…that was probably even above Jesus’ pay grade. After all, Moses, the greatest prophet there ever was didn’t feed the people…that was a God thing. Moses prayed and God caused the food to appear. Moses didn’t take a little bit of manna, give it to his friends and say, “You feed them.” Since the disciples were neither Jesus nor Moses, they knew that this was not going to turn out well. Jesus had just asked them to do the impossible. Even so, the disciples were about to learn a lesson about what happens when the people of God bring their best to God; that sometimes the impossible can become possible.
This lesson is at the heart of both of our morning’s stories. Our Old Testament tale is actually two commands from the Torah, or the Law of God. The first commands that people are to take a tithe of what they produced and bring it to the place where God is worshipped. And if they live too far away to bring animals or produce they are to bring the monetary equivalent. There they are to eat it. On the surface this may sound like the first church picnic on the grounds, but it is more than that. It is in fact a moment when the impossible becomes possible. What I mean by that is that when the Torah says, “they are to eat it” the “they” means the entire community. In other words, everyone share their tithe with everyone else so that everyone has enough. This insures the impossible that all people have enough to eat, regardless of what they were able to produce. The second story expands this sharing to include widows, orphans and others who lived on the margins of society, often unable to provide for themselves. This is again making the impossible possible, because everyone in society gets enough. This is a lesson God had tried to teach God’s people and a lesson that Jesus was trying to teach the disciples.
What we find in this story is a teachable moment; a moment in which Jesus saw an opportunity to continue his training of the disciples. One of the things that we need to remember about Jesus was that he was continually training his followers to take over when he was gone. All of the healings and teachings that Jesus did were not only signs of the in-breaking Kingdom of God, but they were on-the-job training for his disciples. In a sense it was similar to the training that physicians go through. This past week when I was in the hospital, I was asked to be the object of a grand rounds discussion. The head of the Internal Medicine Department arrived with a medical student and three residents. He had them repeat the history they had taken of me then showed them various techniques they should use when doing a complete work-up of a patient. He did so in order that those physicians and future physicians could then do the same thing once they were on their own. This is, I believe, what Jesus was doing with the disciples; he had taught and was now sending them out to try their hand at serving God’s people. So, Jesus asked the disciples to bring all they had to him so that he could bless it, then he expected them to trust enough to make the impossible possible, to feed the people. Even though we often see this feeding as one more of Jesus’ miracles, I would ask you to see it as the first of the disciples’ miracles because they were the ones who time after time, dipped into the little bread and fish and courageously pulled out piece after piece. They were learning that when God’s people brought their best to God, impossible things become possible.
What you may ask, does this have to do with us? The answer is that we too are to learn the lesson that when God’s people bring their best, their tithe to God, the impossible becomes possible. And what is the impossible we are supposed to be doing? It is in fact what we are already doing. We are making First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham into a mainline church that is not declining, not simply surviving, but is thriving in such a way as to be God’s agent of making lives better not only within this church, but in this area and around the world. We are learning that by our bringing your gifts to this community we are insuring that all persons regardless of race, status, sexual orientation or abilities have a place in which they can worship, grow and learn about the love God has for them. We do this through providing for and assisting with worship, Sunday school, youth group, our All Abilities Inclusion Ministry and all the rest of the ministries that God uses to change lives. We do this by bringing our gifts to insure that students at Alcott Elementary receive a better education and the personal attention that they need to succeed as well as to have food on the weekends. By bringing our gifts we make it possible for foster children and families to feel supported and loved. By bringing our gifts we make sure that less fortunate families have an amazing Thanksgiving and a merry Christmas. In other words, when we at Everybody’s Church bring our best gifts, God uses them to make the impossible, possible, changing lives for the better.
All of us who are here this morning stand in the great tradition of God’s people who are called to bring our best gifts to God in order that the impossible becomes possible. So my challenge to you is to ask yourselves this questions, “What best gifts ought I to be bringing to God in order that God use them to change lives for the better here and around the world?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 12, 2014
Genesis 28:10-22, Matthew 22:1-14
It was the only doctor’s visit I hated as a child…and no, it was not going to the pediatrician to get shots. It was going to the Ophthalmologist. I was one of those kids that got glasses very, very early in life. And once a year we went to get me new glasses. I am not sure why my parents chose the Ophthalmologist they chose, but I hated, because we always had to wait…and wait…and wait. If our appointment was at 2pm, we would not be seen until 4pm and we would not leave until 5pm. And even though my mother knew this, we would always be on time, so we could wait. The only salvation I found was a children’s magazine called Highlights. It had all sorts of games and puzzles that kept me busy until my eyes were dilated. One of my favorite games was, “What is Wrong with this Picture?” It was loaded with all sorts of funny things that ought not to have been there; chickens flying helicopters, giant vegetables and dogs walking people. The reason I offer this story is because as soon as I read our morning’s Jesus’ story…all I could think of was what’s wrong with this picture.
So let’s take a moment and go through Jesus’ parable this morning and look at the things that just seem to be wrong. First there are people who, when invited to a great wedding banquet for the prince of the land, refuse to come. This is not a smart move. It is not good to bite the hands that feed you. Next, those same people who refused to come to the banquet decide that not only will they refuse to go, but they will seize the king’s slaves and abuse them. This is even a worse idea. The King, being a bit ticked off, sends out his army to destroy the people and burn their city…all the while the food for the wedding banquet is on the table. I can just see him telling the queen, “But Dear, the Army will be right back and then we can eat.” Next the King decides to invite everyone else to the party, good or bad, it does not matter. This is not something that kings generally do. Finally, there is some poor fellow who after being invited to the party, forgets to wear the right clothes and is tied up and thrown out in the darkness. There would seem to be a lot wrong with this story.
However, before we chuck this story, perhaps we need to take a moment and ask ourselves what it right with it, for remember, Jesus is telling this strange story to make a couple of points, two of which we will lift up. First, Jesus wants the people to know that God invites everyone to the party. In the beginning of Jesus’ ministry the only people he invited to the party were God’s chosen people, the children of Israel. In fact probably ninety-five percent of his ministry was focused on them; thus the reference to those who had been invited. After many of them refused to come, Jesus invited everyone else, all of us, to the party. And it did not matter to whom we were related, whether we were good or bad, or anything else. Jesus sent his disciples all across the world inviting people to the party. And in so doing the message was, come as you are, because Jesus welcomes you just as you are, no questions asked. This is an amazing act of love.
Second, however, Jesus does not want us to stay as we are. Let me repeat that even though Jesus welcomes us as we are, he does not want us to stay as we are. This is the point Jesus is making with that last strange part of the story about the man without the wedding garment being tied up and tossed out. While this may seem a bit unfair, it was a warning to those people who followed Jesus that what was expected of them was change. I say this because the wedding garment represented the very act of putting on Christ. In the early church when someone was baptized, they literally took off their old clothes and put on a new white robe. When they did so, they committed themselves to becoming new people whose lives were to more and more resemble that of Jesus. In other words, they took personal responsibility to intentionally seek to follow Christ in all aspects of their lives. I realize that we Presbyterians baptize children…who obviously cannot make that personal choice. But we do so first believing that we are claiming our children on God’s behalf. Second, we do so because we make the parents take the personal responsibility for helping to shape their children’s Christ-like character.
Now, before I close I want to make it clear what I am not saying, because sometimes it is as important to know what I am not saying as it is to know what I am saying. First, what I am not saying is that there is some perfection-bar above which we must rise in our lives in order to stay at the party. In other words it was like when I was in the Peace Corps and I decided to take the Foreign Service Exam. I went to the United States Embassy and waited with all the other test takers. As we waited I could overhear the conversations about how most of these people were temporary Department of State employees and unless they passed the exam they would lose their jobs. This is not what Jesus is saying. What matters is the effort. What matters is that we take a sense of personal responsibility for our lives in Jesus Christ. What matters is that we consciously put on the wedding garment and do our best to live as one who follows Jesus. Second, what I am not saying is that we do this alone. Not only do we strive to follow Christ in the midst of a church family, but we do so with God’s assistance. Just as God came to Jacob and reaffirmed the covenant promises to him, God is present at the party as we strive to live into our faith.
With all of that in mind, I want to ask you all to do something this morning. I would like to ask you to once again intentionally put on the garment…and this is how we are going to do this. I am going to ask you the questions I asked Toby and Savannah, in order that you renew your own baptismal vows, which are by the way, the questions we ask of all new members. Here they are:
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 5 2014
Genesis 28:10-22, Matthew 21:33-46
I had invited the children down front for the children’s sermon. As was usual they came walking, running or skipping to the front. A new little girl who was visiting for the first time was the first one up to the front and she took a seat on my knee. I wrapped an arm around her and welcomed her. By focusing on her I failed to notice the look on my daughter’s face. She was about four or so and my knee was her place. Suddenly I heard this voice that could have been used on the Exorcist, “My daddy!” Then my daughter grabbed the little girl by the arm and was going to yank her off of my knee. I quietly scooped up my daughter with both arms and placed her on my other knee. But if looks could kill, that little girl would not have made it out of the sanctuary alive.
Mine, it is one of the first words we learn. And as soon as we do we begin to mark out what is ours. My daddy. My mommy. My toys. My room. My side of the car seat. We might think that as we get older we let go of the mine syndrome. But we don’t. We simply use the words with things that are more expensive. My car. My spouse. My children. My house. My job. And this is not new and in fact forms the basis for our morning’s story within a Jesus’ story.
Our story finds Jesus still holding forth with the religious and Temple leaders in Jerusalem. Last week we looked at how he won round one, and today we find him going for round two. He does so by telling a story to which almost all of his listeners could relate. There was a landowner who did everything necessary for a successful wine business. He then leased his vineyard to some people who were going to run it for him. When the time was right he sent his servants to collect his lease payment. The people at the vineyard had however decided that the vineyard was theirs. They not only beat the servants but killed them and the son of the owner. Jesus then asks the assembled crowd what ought to happen. To a person they answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and leave the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Had this been school they would have received an “A” and a gold star, for that was the right answer.
We can imagine that the Temple leaders were feeling pretty good because they had gotten the correct answer…that is until they realized that they were the murderous tenants in the story. And they realized it when Jesus made mention of the stone which the builders rejected. This is a direct reference to the Book of Daniel in which there is a new kingdom represented by a stone which destroys all of the kingdoms that have come before it, and this stone kingdom is the final one which will be established by God. In other words Jesus tells the religious leaders that they along with all of their predecessors have not given God, God’s due which was to create the kind of Kingdom community that God desired; a kingdom in which the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger are treated with respect. Instead they killed God’s servants, the prophets, in order that the religious leaders could create a kingdom in their own image; one in which power and privilege were worshipped. And now Jesus, the son, has come to initiate the one final stone kingdom; a kingdom which will be based on the love and grace of God through which all of the families of the earth will be blessed. In other words, unless the leaders change and give God God’s due by following Jesus and welcoming his new Kingdom, their kingdom will fall.
This concept, that we are to give God God’s due by helping to create a new kingdom community which blesses not only ourselves, but all the families of the earth, is not new to us. We have looked at it in various sermons and articles, but what may be a bit disconcerting is the image Jesus used to describe how we are to be a part of that kingdom creating process; being lessees rather than owners. I say this may be a bit disconcerting because we are used to using the words my, mine and ours. This is my life. This is our home. This money is mine and no one else’s. This is my time. And my guess is that sometimes we feel like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah when he offers this prayer. “Lord we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it and harvested it, we cooked the harvest and it wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for ever crumb and morsel. We thank you just the same anyway Lord for this food we are about to eat. Amen” Yet in the end what we and his character forget is that we did not create the land, bring the rain, or create the seed. We forget that it is God who breathes life into us, claims us, forgives us and empowers us through the Spirit. It is God who has given us everything including the Son. And with all of that given to us, all that God asks is that we offer God back a willingness to work for a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
My challenge to you this week is to ask yourselves this question, “How does seeing myself as a lessee rather than an owner of my life change how I work to create God’s kingdom here on earth?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 28, 2014
Genesis 27:41-28:5, Matthew 21:23-32
The little girl is standing in a field of daisies. Slowly she begins plucking off the petals of a picked flower one by one as she counts them. She does really well until she gets to six, which she misses and then goes back and picks it up. Finally when she reaches one, suddenly a voice begins a countdown and the little girl looks up as if to find the voice. The camera moves in toward one of her eyes. As soon as all that you can see on the screen is the black of her eye, and the countdown reaches zero a nuclear explosion erupts and fills the screen. The voice that then comes is that of President Johnson who says, “These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the darkness. We must either love each other or we must die.” It was only shown one time…that’s right, a single time…yet it is credited with turning the 1964 race for president from a close contest into a runaway for Johnson. It proved again that attack ads work and work well. Little wonder then that that’s all we see on our television screens during this season when politicians go out to do battle.
Lest you think that this is something new, don’t. I say that not only because they have been part of presidential politics from George Washington on, but because it is the tactic employed by those who opposed Jesus. His opponents tried debating him and they lost. They tried to discredit his theology and he prevailed. So they turned to negative ads. They called him a drunkard. They said that he was filled with demons. And here in our morning’s story they challenge his authority. Within Judaism those who were teachers were highly trained. They could list the rabbis under whom they had studied. Or those in the Temple could speak of their authority coming from the high priest or other Temple officials. The chief priests and elders then decided that they best way to deal with Jesus was to question his authority and thus cause his followers to abandon him.
Jesus, however, was ready as always. Rather than attack back he plays “Let’s Make a Deal” and then tells a story with a pop quiz at the end. The Let’s Make a Deal portion of his response was to tell the religious leaders that if they could answer his question he would answer theirs. Fair enough, they must have thought for they agreed. Jesus however poses a question about who authorized John the Baptist to baptize, God or man. They are unwilling to answer because either answer will get them in trouble. The story Jesus offers again points to John, even if indirectly. The story is about two sons who are supposed to do a task. One agrees and doesn’t do it. The other refuses at first but then changes their mind and completes the task. When asked which does the will of the father, the leaders choose the latter, as they should have. This then opens the door for Jesus to unleash his own attack on the leaders…but there is a difference between the leaders’ attack on him and his on them. Jesus does so not to destroy them but to save them. He does so not to gain political advantage but to unleash the blessing of God upon them.
Over the past month or so we have been reading the story of Jacob and Esau. At the heart of that story is the idea that there is something called the blessing; the blessing which God had given to Abraham, which he gave to Isaac and then Isaac was to give to his eldest son Esau. For those of you who have not seen all of the episodes of this story, you missed the younger son Jacob conspiring with his mother to steal the blessing, Esau selling his birthright and thus his blessing to Jacob for some food and Jacob lying to his father and receiving the blessing. Our morning’s story is about the outcome of these actions…Jacob’s life in danger. But this raises the question of why the blessing matters so much. It matters because the blessing is no more and no less than the fullness of life which only God can give. It is a life enhancing and life transforming gift. It offers the possibility of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. It means security, being cared for and watched over by God. It means that one’s life was not lived at the hands of fate, or lesser gods, but in the hands of the God of creation. Little wonder why both brothers wanted it so desperately.
All of that brings us back to John the Baptist. What John believed and what he proclaimed was that God was sending into the world a messiah who would unleash this blessing on all of the people of God. But in order to receive this blessing one had to repent, meaning turn away from a belief that the blessing was a possession which one gained at birth. One had to admit that the blessing was a gift of God that one had to continually embrace. For many people this was what they had been waiting for. Those who lived on the margins of society; tax collectors and prostitutes among them, who had been told that the blessing could never be theirs, flocked to John. They opened their lives to the possibility that this messiah could bless them and change their lives. For others however this was a difficult thing to hear. The religious leaders with whom Jesus is engaged in debate refused to go. They did not need a messiah to unleash the blessing of God. They controlled it. They were the ones who could give it away or keep it to themselves. They were the blessing gatekeepers. So when John asked them to repent and be open to this new thing that God was doing, they refused. Jesus wanted them to reconsider their choice.
My guess is that for some of us we might have a difficult time with going out to John as well. I say this not intending to be critical, but because we are part of a culture which believes that in some ways we already possess the blessing. After all we are Christians. We have been baptized. We have been confirmed. We have made a profession of faith. We are here in church. We know, at least to some degree the doctrines and beliefs of the church. And to use an oft used term…we are saved. All of this is wonderful, but the blessing, the full life which God wants to give us is not something that we can ever hang on to. It is like an embrace. The gift of an embrace, a hug, is that it changes us. In the moment in which we are taken up in the arms of another, whether it is the hug of a child, a friend or the one we love, we know that we are loved. We know that another cares about us and believes that we are worthy of this attention. We know that we are not alone in the world. It changes us. It adds to our humanity. But, it cannot be stored away for later use. It cannot be saved. It is something that must be repeated over and over again as it alters our perspective on who we are and how the world looks.
The blessing can only be embraced. And we embrace it when we move toward God in Jesus Christ. For you see, the love of Christ, the blessing of God is always moving toward us. Through our faith we move toward God. In worship we move toward God. In prayer we move toward God. In meditation and in service and perhaps even in viewing the beauty of nature we move toward God. We move toward embracing the blessing and being embraced by it. This is why exercising all of the spiritual disciplines matter because they are where the Spirit meets us with the fullness of the blessing that Jesus Christ unleashed in the world.
You and I live in a world that tries to convince us that the fullness of life can only be reached if we buy their product, reach a certain level of success or attend the right college…you choose which one. But the reality of the blessing of God is that only there is full life found…a life which will see us through the hard times and enrich the good times, assuring us that we are indeed the unique and beloved children of God.
My challenge to you this week then is to ask yourselves, “How am I embracing the blessing that God has given to me?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 21, 2014
Genesis 27:30-40, Matthew 20:1-16
The kingdom of heaven is like this:
Jane is starting up a new tech company. Totally out of her garage, Steve Jobs-style. But she wants a team to work with. She’s not really the go-it-alone type, and a startup needs a variety of variety of talents to make it work. So she recruits some smart and energetic recent college grads. They all agree on a compensation package, nothing extravagant, but certainly enough to get by on. Their agreement also includes a guarantee that when the company goes public in three years each of them will be granted a $100,000 bonus. These promising young people are ready to start their careers, to work their way up in the world. The idea for the company seems promising, and the compensation is comparable to what their peers are finding elsewhere, so they sign on and get to work.
A year later, there have been some bumps in the road, and the work is getting hard. Jane has gotten a good deal on some office space in a hip but seedy part of Detroit, and there is more work to do than they can possibly keep up with, especially if they want to go public in two years. But the workers Jane hired stick with it, so Jane decides to add a few people to the team to share the load. She explains to the new team members that they will be paid enough to live on. She also tells them that they are hoping to go public in two years, and if they do, she’ll give them a fair bonus for their contribution.
Another year in, the company has had its ups and downs, now has three floors of office space in Troy, and development is really going places. Everyone is working crazy long hours, and it feels like they may be close to breaking out. In this hopeful spirit, Jane once again brings more people on board. The new hires understand that if the company goes public, they’ll be compensated fairly, but again, no specifics are discussed. Things go so well that this hiring scenario is repeated a couple of months later.
But by the end of the year, things are looking much less optimistic. They really haven’t found the right market for their product, their expenses have ballooned, and their investors are running for the door. They’ve got just a little capital left for one last push to try to make a go of it before the sun sets on this whole enterprise. Jane goes out once more to try to bring a few more people on board.
It’s slim pickings in the employee market these days, and it’s hard to find people interested in coming to work on a sinking ship. One of the company’s first employees, however, connects Jane with a few friends he went to school with who have been looking for work since graduation. He assures Jane that they were all just as smart and energetic and motivated, but the job market has just been really lousy for the last few years, especially for people with no experience. Their resumes are great, they interview well, and they’re skilled and well-educated and ready to work. But they just haven’t gotten picked up yet. They might just be desperate enough to help Jane with the 11th hour push to make this thing work. She makes them no promises, but tells them there is work if they want to do it. Going off of the logic that it’s easier to look for a job when you have a job, the last group of employees dive in and give it their all for the last month of the year.
By some miracle of market forces, something clicks at the last minute, and the company goes crazy, practically overnight. Within weeks, there are multiple buy-out offers, the company goes public, and Jane’s company is instantly worth billions.
She calls her staff together to share the good news. Addressing the employees who have only been there a month, she thanks them for joining in the last-ditch effort, and she gives each of them a $100, 000 bonus. They are thrilled and grateful. And everyone else starts to get excited. If Jane is so lavishly generous with the last group to be hired, clearly the bonuses will only get bigger for those with a greater investment of time and loyalty and hard work.
When Jane addresses those employees hired on in the last couple of years, she thanks them for their service and dedication through good times and bad, and she gives each of them a $100,000 bonus. While those who have been in the company less than a year are happy to get such a grand bonus, there is grumbling from those who have been in the company longer. Didn’t Mike deserve more for his innovation? Didn’t Andrea deserve more for all the extra-long hours she worked? Didn’t Carrie deserve more for the brilliant ideas she had that saved the company more than once?
Jane ignores their chatter and addresses the first employees of her company. Everyone is waiting with baited breath now. These are the people who first took a chance on Jane and her dream. These are the people with the most time and energy and talent invested in the company. They are waiting to see what lavish rewards Jane has in store for them and plotting their first expenditures. Maybe the trip to Italy they’ve always dreamed of and never had time or money for. Maybe a home in the fashionable part of Birmingham. Maybe just blow it on something fun, like that hot new Corvette. Or maybe they’ll end up with enough money to start up a company of their own.
Jane thanks these first employees for their loyalty and hard work, and she gives each of them a $100,000 bonus.
The room erupts in protest.
Didn’t they deserve more for taking risks, for working hard, for sticking with the company even when it looked like it was failing? How could they possibly get the same meager bonus as those slackers who’d only been working a month? Those people couldn’t get their act together to find a job for almost three years after graduation, and they get the same reward as those of us who got ourselves a job right out of school? This is crazy! Outrageous! Unfair!
Jane waits for them to quiet down and asks them, “Isn’t this what you agreed to work for? Isn’t this the deal we made? What is so unfair about paying you what was promised?”
Adam, one of the senior employees, speaks up. “You are giving them,” he says, pointing angrily at the last group to be hired, “the same thing you are giving us. That is not right, it’s not fair. They haven’t been here as long. They haven’t worked as hard. They haven’t earned it.”
“Yeah,” pipes up another of the long-timers, “we deserve more. We made this company what it is. We jumped at this opportunity even though it was risky. We took this company from nothing and made it a success. We are…we are…”
“We’re better than them!” interrupts another senior employee. “There, I said it, and you know you all think it’s true. We got jobs right out of school instead of bumming around unemployed and living in our parents’ basements for years. We worked long, hard hours when this company had no money, no office even, and these late-comers walked into this cushy office space with a fully-staffed operation and acted like they owned the place. And now you want to make us all equals? Well, we’re not. We’re not equal.”
The room grows quiet, and no one is quite sure what to say. Even through the last difficult month, the employees had worked as a team, doing whatever needed to be done, helping each other out. They had genuinely enjoyed working with each other, and they were all proud of their work.
Now, the senior employees felt exposed. Did they all secretly harbor feelings of superiority?
The newer employees felt ashamed. Had they really earned their bonuses in just a month?
Jane took a deep breath. “First, I’d like you all to remember that all of this is my money. It is my company. I started it. I invested in it. I kept it going. I hired all of you. And I made a lot of money in the end. I can do whatever I want with what is mine.”
“The only thing I am required to do in order to be fair, in order to be just, is to pay you what we agreed on. And I’ve done that, haven’t I?” she said, looking at the senior employees. Begrudgingly, they nodded.
“So then, it’s up to me if I want to be generous to others. None of you received bonuses because of your hard work, loyalty, accomplishments, or seniority. None of you earned them. The first employees got a bonus because I chose to give you one, and you thought that was a fair deal when you were hired. The rest of you got a bonus because I choose to give it to you now. It’s my call. Are those of you who have been here longer really going to be jealous because of my generosity?”
The senior employees looked around. The bonus was radically unfair and perfectly just, all at the same time. It was unmerited and wildly generous. It didn’t fit into any reasonable economic model. No capitalist reward for the quantity or quality of their work. No socialist taking from the rich to give to the poor. Maybe it was communist? They weren’t sure.
No one had gotten less than they’d bargained for. They all had plenty. Not enough for fashionable neighborhoods, high-risk investments, or sports cars maybe. But they all had at least what they were planning on, and some had more than they ever could have hoped for. They all had enough.
It wasn’t about merit. It wasn’t even about equality. It just didn’t make sense.
Finally, someone spoke up. “Why did you do it?”
“Because it’s who I am,” Jane replied.
“I am just, and I am gracious. These two parts of my character live in irreconcilable tension. My corporate economics demand an equality so radical it isn’t fair, a generosity so expansive it isn’t equal. It leaves no space for division and competition, winning and losing, superiority and shame.
To work with me is to live in that tension, too. It is a tension that requires us to see the world through the lens of gratitude and sufficiency. Where we look for equity, we find generosity. Where we seek justice, we find grace.”
“But that’s not how the world works!” piped up one employee.
“No,” replied Jane. “You’re right. It’s not.”
The kingdom of heaven is like this.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 14, 2014
Genesis 27:18-29, Romans 14:1-12
“You’re not folding the towels right.” This was one of the first revelations of our marriage after Cindy and I had walked down the aisle, gone on the honeymoon and driven to seminary. “What do you mean I am not folding the towels correctly? They are folded and hung up.” As far as I was concerned the towels were hung exactly as they should have been. You take one edge fold it over and then hang it up. This is the way I had always hung my towels. It was the way we hung our towels at the house where I grew up. “I know they are hung up,” Cindy said, “But they are not hung up correctly.” At this point I was getting a bit miffed. “So what is the correct way?” “Like this,” she said, as she neatly folded one side of the towel in and then the other side in for a neat, clean look. “There is no right way to fold a towel,” I said. Yes there is, she replied. This morning then, I want to take a poll. How many of you fold your towels in half and hang them? OK, how many of you fold each side in and hang them? (the congregation was split)
Now you understand where Paul found himself in the church at Rome; in the middle of a towel fight. The church had divided itself into camps over two issues. Each side of each issue believed that they were right and the other side was wrong. The first issue was whether or not to eat meat. This had nothing to do with health and everything to do with the fact that all meat in Rome had been sacrificed to idols at temples. One side said that to eat meat was worshipping idols. The other side said that since idols are not real it didn’t matter. The second disagreement was over holy days; namely on which days people ought to worship. Should they follow a Jewish calendar or simply worship on Sunday, the day Jesus was resurrected? Though Jesus did not speak to either of these issues, the people involved knew that they were right and their opponents were wrong. These disagreements were dividing the church.
It would be nice to believe that these were the last disagreements in the church and that everyone lived happily ever after. However we all know, or soon will know, that this is not true. In fact this kind of “I am right and you are wrong…be gone with you” would become a fact of life in the church. About 300 years after this debate the church divided over the divinity of Christ. One side said he was divine, the other said he was not. The church divided. Around the year 1000 one side of the church said all authority belonged to the Pope. The other said all authority belonged to councils of bishops. The church divided east and west. Five hundred years later one group said that salvation is by the sheer grace of God. The other side said no it was by merit. The church divided between Catholic and Protestant. Over the next five hundred years the church divided again and again over issues such as baptism, adult or child; speaking in tongues, yes or no; ordination, men and women, or only men, or persons regardless of their sexual orientation; as well as a host of other matters. And each time both sides claimed to be correct and were more than happy to either leave or cast out those who believed differently. Each side had to be correct.
What fascinates me about all of this is that it is as if no one actually took the time to read what Paul had to say to the church at Rome about their issues. I say this because to sum up Paul first, he says that it is OK to disagree, to hold different viewpoints on the same issue and stay together. Second, he says that it is not OK to judge others and declare that you are right and they are wrong. And in so doing he offers three reasons that this is so.
First, he says that we have no right to judge those whom God has welcomed into God’s party. “Who are you,” Paul writes, “to pass judgment on servants of another?” In essence he says that if we judge others and declare that they are wrong, it would be like you or I being invited to a party, seeing some other guests that we didn’t like and asking them to leave because it is not proper that they should be there. Paul remarks that this action would make us very rude guests. Paul knows the Christians in Rome. He knows that they have all been called and chosen by God. He knows that they all believe in Jesus Christ and that the Spirit is in them. To judge another, he writes, is to judge someone whom God has invited to the table.
Second, he says that they believe what they believe because they believe that it honors God. “Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” Paul is making it clear here that there are beliefs and practices that differ, but what matters is the intent behind the belief and practice. If some Christians believe that speaking in tongues honors God, fabulous. If some Christians believe not speaking in tongues honors God, fabulous! He continues by reminding us that we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves, but to the Lord…meaning we are not the last word on what is right or what is wrong.
Third, Paul tells us that we are not the judge or the jury. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.” God is the judge, we are not. I’m not sure if there is a more overlooked and forgotten passage of scripture than this one. As Christians we have spent two thousand years pretending that we get to judge and God merely signs off on our judgments, because after all we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong. Paul wants us to remember that ultimately we will all stand before God and have to account for our judgments and our choices.
What is so interesting about us as Presbyterians is that we have split about as many times as any denomination can split, even though we supposedly agree with Paul. How so? It is so because within our tradition we acknowledge that we will never have perfect beliefs or perfect practices. We acknowledge that every confession and every council will make mistakes. All we can do is try to be the best we can as imperfect children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. Let me be clear that this does not mean that we do not set out what we believe, for we do. We have a great history of striving to understand the will of God as best we can, so we can be the best Christ followers that we can be. At the same time though, we know these beliefs and practices are proximate and not perfect. For many of us in an anxiety ridden world, in which there is an ever increasing desire for absolute truth and absolute certainty, it can be a difficult to believe that we do not know exactly what is the truth about every doctrine and practice. Yet Paul reminds us that this is OK. It is OK to hold two very different sets of beliefs over issues even though some consider one or the other to be essential. But he does so because he believes that the church is better together rather than split apart. For if Christ is one, why ought we to be more than one? The challenge then for us is to be open to hearing what those on the other side of issues have to say. The challenge is to be open to the possibility that each side may be right and be open to the possibility that God may be opening our eyes to new possibilities of being the church. My challenge for you this week then is to ask, “How am I being open to the new things that God might be doing in the world, in the church and in my life?”