Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
Rev. Will Conner
Last week we began our message series on faith. And in it we explored a definition of faith that combines an inward hope and outward action. This week we are exploring another aspect of faith, and as I tell you about it, I have to let you know that I’ve never been particularly athletic. When I was a kid I guess I tried a few sports, baseball, golf, football, but nothing ever stuck. I was pretty self-conscious about this too. It’s no secret that I’m a big guy, and I’ve always been tall, so people were constantly asking me if I played basketball or football. Aside from the occasional game of horse in the neighborhood, I couldn’t figure out the whole dribbling and running thing.
The one sport I guess you could say I was pretty good at was swimming. For several years I swam competitively year round. I remember long practices. I recall a “race” where I swam a mile. At the time I was probably in the 5th grade, and I guess all I could say is that I finished. By the time I was in the 7th grade I didn’t swim year round, and only was on the swim team in the summer. But I was still one of the fastest guys on the team, and was always competitive at our meets. Of course, this was my one athletic achievement, and let’s just say I didn’t stick with it.
Because of all this, too often sports analogies are kind of lost on me. But sometimes the stars align, the universe is just right, and there is no way to escape a good sports story. This week is one of those weeks. After all, we are in the midst of the quadrennial worldwide ritual of the summer Olympics. When I watch the parade of nations, though, I can’t but recall The Hunger Games and the parade of minors about to compete to the death. I guess that’s not what the Olympians are doing. Not only are we in the midst of the Olympics, our scripture lesson this morning also focuses on athletics. So here we are, the world and the bible teaching about sport, and an incredibly lacking-in-athletic-talent preacher.
So instead of listening to me, let’s see what the Bible has to say about sport.
Hebrews 12:1-2: So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, 2 and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.
I like the way the King James Version of the Bible translates this, it says, “run with patience the race.”
If the race is a metaphor for life and the life of faith, I like this idea of patience. Because I think it really hits on the fact that athletics and life is hard. Things don’t always come easy in sport or in life.
I think about a race like the Tour de France. This race is a 113 years old. It’s a 21 day race that takes cyclists and fans around France on a 2,200 mile journey. There is nothing about this race that is easy. It’s grueling. Hot sun, beating rain, miles and miles of mountain climbs, high speed crashes, muscle pain, not to mention there has to be some boredom during these long days. These cyclists masterfully compete and it’s easy to be amazed by their ability.
And then in the Olympics, I think it is incredibly easy to look at people like Michael Phelps. A man who holds multiple records in swimming. A man who makes swimming look easy and almost effortless. His body glides through the water over and over again to victory.
Of course Phelps isn’t the only athlete to make their sport look effortless. A writer named Angela Duckworth was researching what it takes to be great, and she interviewed Rowdy Gaines, the 1984 gold medalist in the 100 meter freestyle from the US. A year before Michael Phelps was born Gaines was winning medals.
In this interview, Gaines estimated that he swam the equivalent of around the world in the years leading up to his Olympic victories. That’s about 20,000 miles. He was asked, “Do you love practice?” He replied, “are you asking me if I love getting up at 4 in the morning, jumping into a cold pool, and swimming laps looking at a back line on the bottom, at the very edge of my physical ability where my lungs are screaming for oxygen and my arms feel like they’re about to fall off? No, I don’t.”
Sometimes life seems as if it is grueling as 4am practices in a cold pool. You try to get ahead, but you are working at the edge of your physical ability and you are screaming for relief, screaming for a vacation. It’s times like this that it is easy to give up.
Life is the single mom who is struggling to make ends meet. No one knows her story, but when she takes her toddler shopping at Walmart late at night people look at her funny and whisper about how bad a mom she is since her kid isn’t in bed yet.
Life is the man who puts all of his energy into his job. He completes a project of which he is very proud and shows it to his boss who tells him good job. The next week he is called into his boss’s office. Perhaps a bonus? Perhaps a raise? But he leaves with the news that the company is downsizing and he no longer has a job.
I think about my life and I wish that I was more athletic. That I had a story to tell when people asked if I played basketball or football. I wish I could carry on a conversation about stats and semi-intelligently place a sports bet (which, as a UM pastor I would never do).
Sometimes life just doesn’t work out as we want it, and things are just difficult.
When we watch the Olympics we see the athletes that are at the top. Those competing for goal, silver, or bronze. But we don’t see those that worked hard and didn’t make it. We don’t see those that were one second two slow from qualifying. If I had just done that extra workout, they think, perhaps I would have made it.
No matter how good of an athlete you are, you can’t win every time. No matter who you are or what you do, life has its difficult seasons. For some people it seems they never get a second chance or can never get ahead. If you are alone during this difficulty, things seem so much worse. Even when all outward appearances make it seem as if you should look good and be happy, if you are alone or isolated depression or even addiction can still rule the day.
You know, if you look at those Olympic athletes, they are not competing alone. They are competing amongst cheering fans, team mates, and coaches. When we look to Jesus and the our teaching in our scripture passage today, we see that faith and life is also supposed to be a team sport.
I want to read to you a few verses prior to what we read earlier. What we read earlier calls us to run the race of faith and life. What we are about to read shows us that we don’t run this race alone. In fact, what I am about to read is a retelling of everyone who has also run this race and is now cheering us on in the arena of life.
3 By faith we understand that the universe has been created by a word from God so that the visible came into existence from the invisible.
4 By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice …
5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he didn’t see death, …
7 By faith Noah built an ark to deliver his household. …
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a new place …
11 By faith even Sarah received the ability to have a child, …
20 By faith Isaac also blessed Jacob and Esau concerning their future. …
21 By faith Jacob blessed each of Joseph’s sons …
24 By faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter when he was grown up. …
29 By faith the Israelites crossed the Red Sea as if they were on dry land, …
30 By faith Jericho’s walls fell after the people marched around them for seven days. …
31 By faith Rahab the prostitute … welcomed the spies in peace. …
32 What more can I say? I would run out of time if I told you about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.
33 Through faith they conquered kingdoms, brought about justice, realized promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 put out raging fires, escaped from the edge of the sword, found strength in weakness, were mighty in war, and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured and refused to be released so they could gain a better resurrection.
36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
Following this we read what we read earlier: So let’s also run with patience the race.
In a lot of ways this scripture passage is like the Olympics. With each Olympics there is an amazing opening ceremony. I really enjoyed watching Brazil’s opening celebration. You had a very beautiful and expressive show that started with the story of creation until modern Brazil. It told the stories of the multiple groups that have come to call Brazil home. Following this you have the parade of nations. Where each representative county proudly introduces the best athletes. After this wondrous display of storytelling, the games begin.
The preacher in Hebrews is doing something similar. He doesn’t have advanced video projection or choreography. But he does have the ancient stories that go back to creation. As a commentator during the Olympics might talk about the history of a country’s athletes or go on and on about the Tongan flag bearer, the preacher says:
Remember the stories of the faithful people that have come before. Remember people like Abel. Remember Abraham. Remember Noah who saved humanity from the flood. Remember Moses who got run off from Egypt but then stood up to the ruler and told him to set the Israelites free. As they were fleeing they were trapped by the Red Seas, but in a dramatic change of events the crossed it as if it was dry land.
Then there is the story where these people are given the city of Jericho. The walls of the city crumbled without bloodshed. Then there were others, some named and some unnamed. But all these people tell the story of our faith. With the stories we open up the ceremony, we enter the arena, they are our great cloud of witnesses. These are the people that cheer us on, the stories that call us forward.
Then, as if an announcer saying, “Let the games begin,” he says, “run the race that is laid out in front of us.” He says you have such a great crowd of witnesses cheering you on, throw off any extra baggage, any sin that throws you back and run the race. And by the way, you aren’t alone. Jesus is the one setting the pace, he’s running out ahead, leading path. So look to Jesus and run the race.
Just as Olympians have fans, and team mates, and coaches, so do we. All those that have gone before us. Those names lifted up by the writer of Hebrews. Perhaps there some more names in your list—I think about my 5th grade Sunday School teacher Lettie Willingham (she is in my list). I think about my pastor growing up, Dennis; he had his own struggles, but now he is part of my great cloud of witnesses cheering me on.
Who can you name from your life? Your grandmother? A school teacher? A friend? These are the people who cheer, and say you can do it.
Then we have our team mates. Friends we are on the same team. We rely on one another. We do this faith thing together. Often we think that faith is just a personal thing; you know something that is between me and Jesus. It’s a very American thing to imagine faith to just be a personal thing. But you see, just as team USA marched into the area carrying the flag together—Each day, we carry one another in prayer, in encouragement, and in actions.
And where would an athlete be without her coach. Jesus is our coach. But he is not just a coach. He has gone before us and run the race, and is helping us forward in our lives. Jesus is the one who makes it possible for us to even do this. Without Jesus we could couldn’t walk, much less run, much less live out the hope that we have in faith.
There is no race that is not difficult. This is no season in life without it trials, but we do not do life alone; we do not do faith alone. We do life together; we do faith together. We do life with Jesus; we do faith with Jesus.
So with Jesus we can preserve when things get though. With Jesus we can keep going while life tries to stop us. So friends, Look around you, remember those who are cheering, listen to and look to Jesus, your coach, and together “Run with patience the race.”
Rev. Will Conner
This past week early on Tuesday morning Jaxon woke up with an ear ache. It was the most pitiful cry. But here’s the thing, I know about ear aches. When I was a kid I was on swim team, I loved the pool, and consequently summers came with a lot of ear aches.
In my adult life, I had pretty much forgotten about this until earlier this year. We went to visit Hope’s family in Louisville, KY and we stayed at the Embassy Suites. When we travel with the kids and we are going to be somewhere for a few days, it always helps out to have hotel rooms with extra space, and hopefully an extra room. So we were at Embassy Suites and they had an indoor pool. This was great, the kids loved it; their cousins came over to swim. Really, it was a lot of fun.
On the drive home, though, my ear started to hurt. This pain it just wouldn’t go away, so I thought that I would sleep on it and it would better in the morning. Well, it wasn’t better. In fact, by the morning it hurting worse, and I assumed that I had swimmers ear. I went to the doctor, I got drops for my ear, and in few days things were better.
So when Jaxon woke up with ear ache, I knew I better just take him to the doctor. So I called, made the appointment, and then took him in. It’s a good thing we did because he had an ear infection and swimmers ear— a double wammy. After going to the doctor on our way home we stopped at a taco restaurant near our home. It’s a new place, and I think they probably have the best tacos I’ve ever had. My favorite is tongue tacos. When I say this, most people react funny—but tongue is great. It doesn’t taste strong, it’s super tender, and this place cooks it amazingly well.
I eat my tacos, Jaxon eats his cheese dip, then it is time for us to leave. I’ve got get back to the house to get to work, because Tuesdays is also one of my sermon prep days. I get up to pay, reach into my pocket – and my pocket is empty. The color drains out of my face, where is my wallet? Is it at the doctor’s office, did fall out in the parking lot, is it in truck. I tell the server I can’t find my wallet and I’ve got to go look in my truck. So Jaxon and I walk out to the truck, I throw things around looking for this dang thing. NO wallet. What am I going to do? I can’t pay these people; they don’t really know me; when I tell them I don’t have any money they are going to think that I’m trying to get out of paying for our lunch.
I promised them that I would run to the bank down the street to get money and return to pay. My server told me not to worry that I could return tomorrow with my wallet to pay. I couldn’t believe that. In the midst of this crazy world this server had enough faith in me or in humanity to allow a stranger to return the next day to pay for his meal.
This thing—faith—it is something that Christians talk about all time. When we talk about religious people, we often speak of people of faith. When we are talking about world religions, we can say people of different faiths. There was a girl I went to school with named Faith. We talk about lacking faith in our political system. Often we hear that science is based on proof and then there is faith which is believe in the unprovable. I think that faith is roughly assumed to be the same as belief. Do you have faith? One might answer— Yes, I believe.
If you watch some TV preachers, though, often times you will get the message that if you have enough faith good things will happen to you. It’s the idea that only your lack of faith is keeping you from possessing health or wealth or prosperity. That if you had enough faith you could possess what whatever you want. That God wants you to rich. If you had enough faith, that medical test wouldn’t come out positive. This is the idea that it’s only because of your lack of faith that you aren’t yet healthy or wealthy.
Really there are so many messages about faith that are circulating, so over the next few weeks we are going to explore faith. As we explore faith, I want to caution you with something. Faith is like a multifaceted gem. There are so many sides and to faith and so many different variables and various ways that the Bible and the church talk about faith. There is no way that over the next few weeks that we could explore all there is about faith. So instead of trying to give some generic watery definition of faith, we going to explore a few sides to faith. And hopefully we will all have a better understanding of what faith is and how it can enrich our lives.
So today we are going to turn to Hebrews. We don’t really know who wrote Hebrews, but it’s kind of a sermon, so the writer is often called “the preacher.” In Hebrews ch11:1-3 we read:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith[a] our ancestors received approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
I mentioned how faith is a multifaceted gem. I think from this passage we see two really important aspects of faith that get to the heart of what it means to live as a person of faith.
When we read that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for” we see that through faith we are able to have in the present God’s promised future. Wait, wait, wait, wait – I realize that this sounds like theological mumbo jumbo. I realize that this sounds very theoretical. This idea that we can live now what God has promised in the future sounds like a great idea but it doesn’t really live up to our experience.
After all, what does God promise for the future. Later in the Bible in Revelation we read a vision of what God’s promised future looks like. This vision that is recorded in Revelation and gives us an idea of what God has planned for the future. And in Revelation 21:3-4 we read:
“Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
No mourning, no crying, no pain; that’s God’s plan for the future. But this confuses things even further. Look around, there is plenty of mourning, plenty of crying, plenty of pain. Preacher, what do you mean that faith allows us to have in the present God’s future?
One of my mentors in preaching, Tom Long, would say that this concept of faith has an “inward reality” and an “outward force.”
Inwardly, even though it may seem as if our lives are falling apart that the world is in chaos, faith gives us the ability to trust that God will make all things right. This inward dimension of faith says that it appears that all is going to hell and that I can’t do anything to stop it, but I trust that God will keep God’s promise. I trust that God is trustworthy; I trust that that there is hope, because God says that there is hope.
If that’s all there is, though, it seems that faith might just be a way to escape the realities of the world. It might just seem that faith is a way to deny that your spouse is abusive or that your child has a drug problem. Because if God will make it ok in the end, I guess I can just pretend that it’s ok right now. As appealing as this idea might be about faith—That I can believe that my spouse will stop abusing me. If I believe strongly enough, the disease will stop progressing. If I just think about God’s future and how much God loves me, the mountain of debt that is knocking on my door will disappear. But these promises are weak. They might keep you sane for a time, they might keep you hopeful for a time, but eventually with time they will fail. And if all your faith is bound up in good thinking, you will be lost without a drop of faith without a drop of hope to sustain you.
But this faith that we read about in Hebrews is not just a passive trust. This faith that we read about in Hebrews is not a Pollyannaish way of looking at life and the world. You see this faith, not only is it an inward reality, it’s also an “outward force.” You see as a person of faith you can’t just believe something there is action that comes with that belief.
Following this short passage in Hebrews that gives a partial definition of faith the writer tells the stories of many people of faith who are examples of what it means to live the life of faith. He tells stories of people like Abel, and Noah, and Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and on and on and on. He tells stories of these ancient women and men that possessed that faith we’ve been talking about. They possessed it, not just because they believed or had hope that God was trustworthy and was going to eventually make things right. They are examples of faith because they also acted on that faith.
Not only are we supposed to believe inwardly, but we are supposed to act on that belief. Faith as an inward reality trusts that God will bring peace. At the same time faith as an outward reality works for peace by getting to know people who are different, by speaking against the divisive nature of our presidential politics. Faith as an inward reality trusts that God is good, then acts on that trust by teaching children in Sunday School and volunteering at school to make difference in the lives of young people.
Recall my recent lunch trip to the Mexican restaurant—you know I left my wallet at home. The employees of the restaurant could have made a big deal about my mistake. After all, it quite possible that I wouldn’t return to pay the $15 for our lunch. They had every right to make a big deal and to embarrass me. Most of what we see on the news is people trying to convince you how right they are, but that’s not what happened here. Now, I have no idea about the religious convictions of the employees of the taco place, but to me they acted as people of faith. They acted as people of peace, they shared goodness with me, that serves as an example to me of this outward action of faith.
This outward faith is about working to bring God’s future into reality. This outward faith is about praying for those who are hurting. This outward faith doesn’t sit idly by as someone is mistreated at school or at your place of business. Outward faith takes inward faith and makes it a reality. It’s the kind of thing that changes the world and keeps hope alive.
If our inward faith is not matched with this outward reality, the difficulties of our lives will eventually destroy our faith or make our faith irrelevant. There was another writer in the bible named James who knew this very well. And in a letter he wrote, he said, “faith without works is dead” (2:26). Perhaps this is what he meant. Because if faith isn’t matched with actions, it really does die; it really does prove itself to be irrelevant.
If you just go to church and believe in God to make yourself feel better you are building a faith that is based only on this inward reality. Maybe it does make you feel good, but it won’t last. Because faith, without the outward reality, without the outward action, just can’t last.
So let us live the life of faith. Let us have the inward hope of faith and the outward action of faith.
Luke 12:13-21 (CEB) | Rev. Will Conner
13 Someone from the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus said to him, “Man, who appointed me as judge or referee between you and your brother?”
15 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17 He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18 Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19 I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”
When we read stories from the life of Jesus, I think we often get the impression, or at least I get the impression that he is usually talking to a small group of people. I have this image that he is talking with a small group of people, perhaps the size of Sunday School class. In this group you have different kinds of people—you have people that are really interested in what Jesus has to say, then you have the people that are trying to trip Jesus up and get him to say something out of context or something that will be taken the wrong way. Something that will appear as a headline on Fox News or MSNBC. Then, to the side, you have his disciples, his closest followers, and they are waiting for the appropriate time to save Jesus from this group and to get him to move on.
When I read these stories of Jesus that we have been looking at over the past few weeks, this is the image I always seem to have stuck in my mind. Perhaps this image comes from my childhood and just what I have assumed things would look like.
In our story today, though, the crowd is much larger than any Sunday School class. At the beginning of chapter 12, just before the story we read a few moments ago, we read that the crowd gathered by the thousands. Not hundreds, not a thousand, but by the thousands. So much so that people trampled on one another. This is quite a crowd gathered around Jesus. In the crowd you have people that are excited about what Jesus has to say; you have people who are unsure about what Jesus is teaching; you have Jesus’ closest friends there; and you also have those that are trying to stir up trouble and get Jesus discredited.
In the midst of this crowd, you can imagine the volume level. People are jostling around talking, trying to figure out what’s going on, and in the midst of this someone calls out: “Teacher! Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”
This is not a bashful petition. This man clearly thinks that he is been wronged by his brother over a family inheritance. This man clearly thinks that his brother is greedy. He clearly wants to pull Jesus into satisfying his own greed or his own sense of injustice at his economic situation in his family.
Here you have, Jesus, a person that is teaching a new way of life that is healing people of diseases that entrap them. And this man calls out to Jesus to help him make a deal. Jesus a man with no home; Jesus a man with no real family; Jesus a man who lives the life of the homeless—is asked to participate in the greed of family. The easy thing would have been for Jesus just to ignore him, or quickly say divide the inheritance, after all the crowd is massive and there are many vying for Jesus’ attention. But he doesn’t do this.
In a characteristically Jesus fashion, he doesn’t even answer the man’s plea. Instead he calls the man out and says to the whole crowd – “guard yourself again all kinds of greed.” Jesus calls it like it is, and identifies the man’s greed. Then he tells a story about the greed of a rich man. A rich man who hoarded all of his possession. Who build bigger storage units to hold all his goods. A man who didn’t share a penny with anyone else. A man who was only concerned with himself. The thought of what he might be able to do for those in need never crossed his mind. All he was consumed with was me, me, me.
In the midst of this, he too forgets about God. He has everything he needs. What need does he have of God? So instead of praising God for this bountiful blessing, so instead of asking God how he can be faithful with his wealth, this man talks to himself. This rich man addresses his own soul, and says soul—we’ve got some good and comfortable days ahead. Let’s just enjoy our wealth.
And because of the man’s greed, he died alone—he died isolated from family, from potential friends, from people who could share good things about him at his funeral, he died isolated from God. In his death he has no more control over wealth. In his death his wealth is meaningless, except as testimony of how selfish and greedy and alone he was.
We know good and well that greed was not just a problem in first century Palestine. Greed was not just a problem when Jesus walked the earth. Greed is alive and well today.
Surely Bernie Madoff began his career as an investor excited about the prospect of making money, and excited about the prospect of helping his clients make money. Madoff began investing at fairly small level, perhaps legal, at least fairly legal. It didn’t take long, though for greed to take over. For the promise of more and more and more to cloud ethics. We know now that the greed of Madoff led to the financial ruin of many people.
In the 1987 movie “Wall Street” the main character Gordon Gekko gives a rousing speech where he claims that “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” At the end of the movie, we learn that if greed is good, greed still leads to isolation; greed still leads to loneliness.
The pop culture images of greed, and the greed we read of in the news is always big and extravagant. But greed doesn’t have to be so big, so epic. Most of us can’t comprehend the impacts of greed when it comes to the likes of Bernie Madoff or characters in movies like Gordon Gekko. I don’t know what 100s of millions of dollars is like. I don’t know what it feels like to own homes around the world and to fly in private jets. So that world of extravagance, seems so foreign. But greed doesn’t really have to be so big.
In reality, Greed lies waiting in every paycheck. Greed lies waiting in every encounter with another human being. Greed lies waiting, ready to attack and devour the soul. Greed is not sharing. Greed is thinking that everything you have is yours and solely yours.
Greed is looking at what your neighbor has and wanting if for yourself. Greed is keeping everything you have and not sharing with your neighbor.
Really me talking about greed kind of puts me in an awkward position. I’ve been your pastor for one month. I am barely beginning know you; to know who you are; to know what you think; to know what you value. So, it’s kind of awkward to be talking about greed and money at this point in our relationship. It’s kind of like talking about how many kids you want on first date. It’s kind of like coming on too strong when your friend sets you up on a blind date. If I do too much – it might sound like I’m preaching instead just telling you about Jesus’ message. If I go further than that, it might go beyond preaching and getting into meddling. –nobody likes that.
But greed is a disease. And greed is not just about money. As one scholar said, “Greed is a problem because its focus on the self keeps people from being ‘rich toward God’ and rich toward others.” And this focus solely on one’s self is dangerous.
Greed really keeps us from following Jesus with our whole lives. If you want to learn how to not be a follower of Jesus, do what this man in the story does. Collect as much as you can. Keep it all for yourself. You will likely gain a lot of stuff. But the sickness of greed will take over your soul, and you will fade and your worry will grow. Your worry will grow because you will now try to protect what is yours and keep what is yours. So you will close yourself off from others that you think want something from you. You will be eaten up with worry. And one day you will die alone with no one to share life with and with no hope.
Our story doesn’t have to end here, though. Jesus gives us the warning of this greedy man and says that for those “who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God” will have the same fate. Then Jesus shares the good news--No one is predestined to greed. Society tries to teach us that Greed is good and greed is right, but no one’s path is predestined down that lonely road.
We know this because just after this story, Jesus shares something that changes the game when it comes to greed. If greed leads us to worry and anxiety, Jesus changes the game completely in what he says next, because he says it doesn’t have to be.
In Luke 12:22-23 Jesus says: “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing.”
But the problem is, you can’t not worry if you are consumed with greed. You can’t not worry if you are consumed the rat race of life today. So then Jesus gives us the key, he says in verse 31, that instead of greed and of hyper planning and worrying about ourselves, “desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”
Jesus presents a different understanding of life than that of the greedy man. Jesus presents an understanding of life that is not valued on one possessions or wealth. The truth is, if we look for fulfillment or purpose in work or money or other things, we are always going to be left empty.
But this way of life that Jesus offers gives us a way to be full. This way of life that Jesus offers gives us a way out of worry, gives us a way to live a full life. By living this alternate way, we can be free from the worry of daily living, because with Jesus, “there is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing.”
Instead of worry, instead of greed, Jesus says, “desire God’s kingdom.” What does this mean to desire God’s kingdom? If that is the key to contentment, if that is the key to escaping greed, if that is the key less worry, how do we do it? Quite simply, I think it is reverse of what the greedy man does in the story that Jesus tells.
In the story that Jesus tells, we have a man who gets quite rich very quickly. And he realizes that he doesn’t have enough assets to hold all of his wealth. He doesn’t have enough barns to hold his abundant harvest. Faced with this problem he acquires more assets to hold his increasing wealth. He needs to hide it from prying eyes others. And he laughs to himself and realizes that he doesn’t have to work another day in his life. Now he can have a relaxing and a good life—but the irony is, he suddenly dies lonely and his wealth did no good.
In this story the man had two loves—the love of money and the love of himself.
The reverse of this story, the way that Jesus tells us to live also has two loves, but these two loves are love of God and the of others. Desiring God’s kingdom means living as one who loves God and loves others. This story might have looked a little different if it was marked by loving God and loving others.
We might hear of a man who suddenly got rich, and the first thing he did was thank God. And then he began manage his money in a way that allowed him bless those who worked for him and to bless that did not originally share in this great influx of wealth. Maybe he still dies prematurely, but this is a man who won’t die alone – because, by desiring God’s kingdom he shares this blessing with God and with other people.
Please know that this teaching doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to save for the future. It’s important to save for the future, to plan for retirement, to plan for a rainy day. It is important for us to properly manage the resources that we have been given, but planning for the future must always be balanced with the love of God and love of others. It is always important for us to take care of our neighbors.
The greedy man lived for himself, but it is important for us to live beyond ourselves. To live for others. And right now, we have many great opportunities to do this. There are kids that are doing to need school supplies, perhaps you could buy an extra set and take it to the school. Give a kid a chance is August 6th and this is an opportunity for our us to bless the people of our community that need help. I know that the United Methodists have been historically the ones changing oil while kids get their school supplies. I hope to see you at 7:30 on August 6th at the Fair Grounds to do this again, as we live beyond ourselves, as we love God and love others.
I think that when we do this, when we live beyond ourselves, we begin to see what Jesus meant when he told us not to worry. When love replaces greed, there is no room for worry. So love, and give that love to others.
Luke 11:1-10 | Rev. Will Conner
11 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father,[a] hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.[b]
3 Give us each day our daily bread.[c]
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”[d]
Perseverance in Prayer5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Do you know the story of Dick Proenneke? The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor Proenneke enlisted in the Navy and served as a carpenter. When he retired in 1968 he moved to the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and built a cabin. You might have seen the video series about him, “Alone in the Wilderness.” You see, Dick went by himself to Alaska, built a cabin by himself, and lived alone in that cabin for 30 years until his health required that he moved to live with family.
All along the way he kept a detailed journal about his life and what he experienced and he also carried film and made a video record of his solitary time. He worked long, hard days alone to make sure that he stayed on top of his chores that were needed to survive in the wilderness alone.
I remember thinking when I was younger about how wonderful it would be to do something like that. To blow off the cares of this life and to live the solitary life. The life of simple things, relying only on myself and my ingenuity. Maybe I didn’t have the skills to be able to live out of the Alaskan frontier making my own hand tools, but perhaps I could live in some remote region out of car. Depending on myself, solely on myself.
This idea of self-reliance is a very American idea. I believe that Herbert Hoover called it, “rugged individualism.” Hoover was talking about economics, but he said it was rugged individualism that makes America unique in the nations of the world.
Even today, people talk about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” It’s this idea that an individual has all the power to make her life better or to control her own destiny. It’s this idea that people have complete independence in life.
Individualism has many positive traits: it highlights the notion that all life has intrinsic value; that all life is of sacred worth; that all people should be treated fairly. Too often, though, it seems that individualism can be taken too far. When individualism is taken too far we look at life and realize that we don’t need anyone else and that everyone needs to be completely responsible for him or herself. Too often this individualism leads to people not knowing their neighbors, not feeling as if they should or even could reach out for help, to a deep sense of isolation, where each person is only looking after him or herself.
But today we are supposed to be talking about prayer. After all, our scripture lesson this morning was about prayer. So what does prayer have to do with rugged individualism.
In reading our scripture lesson, we have Jesus’ followers asking Jesus how to pray. Then Jesus gives them a way for them to pray. Then Jesus gives them two examples about prayer. In our culture that is so deeply immersed in individualism, I have a really difficult time relating to what Jesus says.
He tells this story of a friend who arrives at his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night and asking for three loaves of bread. In the first century in Galilee the homes were very simple structures, perhaps two rooms. And if someone comes to your door in the middle of the night, it’s going to be a loud affair. The entire house is going to wake up. But Jesus says that its unthinkable that the neighbor would not provide this bread in the middle of the night. And if a human being will do this, think about how much more God will do.
If someone’s coming to knock on my door in the middle of the night, I’m going to be mad. I’m going to think something is wrong. Perhaps I will grab my cell phone, ready to call 911. Quietly, I might turn on the porch light to check who is at the door. But my instinct is that no one in their right mind would show up unannounced at my door in the middle of the night. People need to mind their own business and just leave me alone.
In a world of rugged individualism; In a world where everyone takes care of him or herself; In world a where technology keeps us safe—we have little use for Jesus’ teachings on prayer. In a world where we can rely on our own abilities we don’t need God; we don’t need help from God; we don’t need prayer.
If we already have a pantry and refrigerator full food, the prayer “give us each day our daily bread” is meaningless. If we have food, we don’t really need extra daily bread. If I can run down the street to the Mexican restaurant I don’t really need God or anyone else to provide me with daily bread.
The words, “your kingdom come,” make little sense too, because we are busy building our own lives and our own kingdoms. We pledge our allegiance to so many things before God—to money, to property, to smartphones, to education, to hard work, to self-reliance, and when we do this we don’t have any need for God’s kingdom. And if we pretend that we do, then we imagine that God’s kingdom looks exactly like what we want it to.
These days when hear about prayer, often times prayer seems more like a child’s Christmas wish list. Oh, God make me feel better about myself. Oh, God help me win the lottery. Oh, God I believe that you want me to have a new car, please guide me to right car: is it a BMW? Is it a Toyota? Is it a Dodge Truck? (trust me—it’s a Dodge Truck). Lord, I just want to do your will lead me to the right vehicle and give me good financing.
I’m reminded of the prayer of Dewey Crowe in the wonderful TV series Justified about a US Marshal from Harlan County, KY. Dewey Crowe is an outlaw and he is trying to kill man named Wade, but the tables turn and it doesn’t look like Dewey is going to make it out of this situation alive. At this point, he prays the prayer of desperate man: “God, I ain’t prayed in a while, I ain’t fixin to die out here in the woods like some animal, you hear me? … Jesus, if you help me find him, once I kill him, I swear, I’ll straighten up, I’ll go to church, Sunday school, whatever you want, but … I gotta get this thing done, you understand.” Dewey’s actual prayer had a bit more colorful language, but you get gist.
It’s a prayer that says like the Christmas wish list, “God, let my kingdom come, my will be done, on earth, as it is in my desire. Give me this day all I want, and make me feel good about myself so that I can be happy, independent, and enjoy myself.”
In our scripture lesson, Jesus is telling his followers that God answers prayers. But I think that too often we live so comfortably that we don’t need prayer. And when we do pray we think that prayer is, as a biblical scholar wrote, more like “a blank check on which we can write anything our hearts’ desire.”
But the thing is, as long as we demand our rugged individualism. As long as we demand that we take care of ourselves. We have no real need for real prayer. As I was preparing for this message, I was really influenced by this one writer who makes it very clear that real prayer “is uttered out of a condition of real necessity” There is no more pretense, no more faking—in fact, “real prayer cannot be faked.” What real prayer requires is a recognition of the depths of our need and the humility to ask for help.
This isn’t the prayer that reveals that magical front row parking space when you travel to Chattanooga to go shopping. This isn’t the prayer that helps you pick out your next car.
Real prayer happens when one looks inside and sees real need.
Real prayer is what happens when the doctor utters that dreaded word, “cancer.” All pretense, all faking stops. At this point you know your need. At this point, you cry our “Father … get me through this day.”
This real prayer is the basis of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over our addiction or compulsion and that our lives had become unmanageable. – the need is deep, I don’t know what else to do. I can’t control my life anyone, or at least, I can’t pretend to control my life anyone.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
And Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the will of God. This is the prayer that Jesus gave us: God, your kingdom come … thy will be done. No longer is it about me, I know I need God.
Our need of God and our dependence on God is very apparent when facing a difficult diagnosis or when faced with the reality of an addiction or compulsion. But prayer is not only for when things in life go bad or when life gets difficult. If we look at Jesus’ own life, we see that he was one who was constantly in prayer. We read time and again through the stories of Jesus’ life of how he gets away to pray. In good times and bad, Jesus is one who realized that he was in constant need of God.
I began this morning by telling you about Dick Proenneke, you know the man that lived for 30 years in the Alaskan wilderness by himself. You might think that this self-reliance is an extreme example of relying only on yourself and not needing God or anyone else. You know, I don’t know what Proenneke’s religious beliefs were; I don’t know what his prayer life was like. But I do believe that he is one that would have said how much he relied on other people.
He took care of his basic needs, but he depended on mother nature to provide berries and fish. He relied on a friend to fly his mail in for him from town. He developed deep friendships with the people that he had to rely on. Yes, he was independent in a very real way, but he was also deeply dependent on a daily basis for his daily needs to be met.
I want to suggest for us to be close to God, we have to cultivate an awareness of how dependent we are on God. For us to be close to God, we have to shed these false ideas that we can make it on our own, that our individualism is the supreme goal. For us to be close to God we have to daily see how we need God.
I think this prayer that Jesus gives us is a good example that can help us do that. This prayer that is often called the Lord’s prayer can serve as a daily reminder of our need of God. Here we pray, Father, holy is your name. This petition names the fact that God is something that we are not. That God is holy that God is God. And when we claim that God is God, we are also making ourselves aware that we are not. That we are not in control. When we pray, Father, you are holy, you are God—we are also praying, God, I know I am not you.
Then Jesus says, pray, “your kingdom come.” This is prayer that recognizes that our attempts to build our own kingdoms and our own power and our own comfort are not good enough. It asks for God to bring God’s kingdom and God’s rule into our world.
Then we pray and ask for God to meet our needs. In this day and age, our needs of daily bread are most often taken care of. But there are some in the world who do not know where their next meal will come from. There are some here who aren’t sure how you will get through the next day—so we pray, God grant me the strength for today.
And because we have tried to be God ourselves, by being self-reliant pledging our allegiance to things other than God, we ask, “forgive us our sins” and promise to forgive those that have wronged us.
Then we ask God to continue to care for us.
This prayer that Jesus gives us is not a very fancy prayer. In many ways, it is the prayer of a beggar. It is a prayer that says I’ve tried everything else, but now I know I need you, God. It’s a prayer that says, Lord, I’m completely dependent on you—lead me.
You see, this prayer is so different from praying about which coffee to buy or which vehicle to purchase. But if you pray this prayer daily, you constantly will be reminded of how you desperately need God. And when we realize that we need God, we can be assured that God is already there to fill that need.
So I want to invite you to confAess your need for God. I want to invite you to spend a few moments in silent prayer contemplate on your dependence on God or to ask God to help you to be more dependent on God. Then we will say the Lord’s prayer together.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive whose who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.
Luke 10:38-42 | Rev. Will Conner
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In just a few short weeks our kids and teachers are going to be going back to school. You see it at Walmart with the school supplies already in the front of the store. We have students about to pack up for college. We have kids entering the 9th grade who will be going to the high school for the first time.
It’s been several years since I’ve had to worry about back to school season. But this year, it enters my house. This year my son starts Kindergarten. We, along with countless other parents, are about to start the ritual of back to school shopping, meeting teachers, establishing a school routine, arranging for child care after school, and on and on and on.
The emotions that surround the back to school season are full and complex. You have new teachers who are excited to get into the classroom for the first time. You have veteran teachers who are eager to meet their kids, but are tired from the constant testing and bureaucracy that seems to be in education these days. Many parents are eager for school to start, but some of them begin to worry about the stress that school often puts on their children. Many kids are excited about the start of school, but I also know that many children really experience a lot of stress and anxiety when it comes to school. Anxiety about grades, about their clothes, about if they are going to be accepted by their peers.
These fears and anxieties are amplified even further if a child is going to a new school. You have new teachers, a new floorplan of the school, where will I sit at lunch? Will anyone want to sit with me?
As adults, I think that it is often difficult to appreciate the depths of stress and anxiety that many of our children face. It’s easy for adults to dismiss the feelings of children. If you are an adult, you know that the things you stress about have much larger consequences, usually. You know that if you don’t perform at your job, you won’t be able to take care of your family. If you don’t save enough for retirement, you won’t be able to make it when you are older. But the truth is, all of this stress and anxiety is relative—and kids are just as stressed and anxious as you can be.
Here lately I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting heartburn very frequently. This is not a pleasant thing. I’m trying to adjust my diet and exercise in hopes that losing weight will help. But I also can pinpoint the beginning of this heartburn when I began preparing for my transition here. The stress, the anxiety of the unknown. As things are settling in, I’m beginning to feel at home, and as I am getting to know many of you, my hope is also that my stress level will go down along with this heartburn.
It does seem that worry and anxiety are just a standard of life.
What would you do if I said, without any prior notice, “I’m looking forward to coming to your house after church today for lunch.” Did someone’s heart skip a beat? Did you start to get a little anxious? Oh, no, the preacher’s coming over, our house is a wreck, did I pick up the dirty clothes off the bathroom floor? What do the kid’s rooms look like? What is he going to think about me now? And lunch? What are we doing to have for lunch? I was just planning on eating peanut butter—I haven’t been to the grocery in week. – Are you anxious yet?
Just last week. I was in midst of moving into my office, Hope was working a lot—the house was a mess. We had to go to an attorney’s office. I went to Costco and the grocery store, and decided to call my grandmother. Let me remind you, our house was a wreck. In a lapse of judgement, I invited her over for dinner. She lives alone, we hadn’t seen her is several weeks, I was making a simple shrimp pasta, I had just bought some wine—easy, easy.
So then I text my wife who is out with the kids to let her know that my grandmother is coming over for dinner. She texts back two words, “the house.”
I have to imagine those are same words that Martha said when Jesus told her that he was coming over for dinner. In thinking about our scripture lesson, I am sure that there is excitement around Jesus coming over – but then the anxiety sits in – “the house.” Dirty dishes in the sink, the floors haven’t been vacuumed, there are no groceries, is our house even nice enough for Jesus? on and on and on. Worry and anxiety.
When we read our scripture lesson this morning, we read from the perspective of Jesus as the main character. We read, “Now as they (that is Jesus and his close followers) went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.”
But I like imagine what this story might have looked like from Martha’s point of view. Martha lived with her sister Mary, and perhaps some other folks. Martha knew who Jesus was and loved him dearly, after all Martha is the only one in the story that call’s Jesus, Lord. And she hears that Jesus is coming for dinner.
This type of last minute guest doesn’t happen all that often these days. When we want to do something with a friend we both check our calendars and ensure that we have ample time to prepare. But not 2000 years ago. Martha got little notice that Jesus was coming. And when she realized that her friend and Lord was coming to her home, she wanted to be a great host. She wanted to practice hospitality to the one she loved so dearly. So she got to work.
She began sweeping the floors, polishing the silver, perhaps she was in the middle of laundry, and she had clothes strung through the house trying get stuff put away. And then with Jesus coming over, she worried if the bread she baked two days ago was still going to be fresh. Could she get figs? Were there olives in the pantry? She didn’t have any meat to feed her Lord. If she could get any food together it would only be very meager. Oh, she worried, what will he think of me; he won’t even enjoy himself. Worry, anxiety, worry, anxiety.
Perhaps, she thinks, Mary could run to market and see if there is anything left so they could prepare to show their friend a good welcome. She is about to ask Mary to go run this errand, then there is knock at the door. It’s Jesus. So instead of asking Mary right away, she makes a plan to invite Jesus in, get him something drink, then ask Mary to run out for bit. Surely Jesus won’t mind, because if Mary does this one little thing, the three friends will be able to relax shortly and enjoy their reunion. That’s a good plan, Martha realizes and goes to the door to invite Jesus in. She helps Jesus through the door, offers him water and a towel to clean up after journeying through the dusty streets.
Meanwhile Mary starts a conversation with Jesus. Martha then goes to the kitchen to prepare a small plate of food and a drink for Jesus. She knows that Mary will follow her into the kitchen, and then Martha can ask her to run out for a moment. But Mary never comes to the kitchen.
Serving plate and drink in hand, Martha walks back into the gathering room to give Jesus his refreshments. By this time Jesus is already sitting down. He is relaxing, resting his feet from long day of walking. But Mary is sitting too. As Martha brings Jesus his refreshments, Mary isn’t even courteous enough to realize that her sister needs help. Martha is fuming; she’s been working all day, there is still work to do and Mary is just sitting. Perhaps she takes the refreshments to Jesus, when she says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
You can hear the desperation in Martha’s voice. She just wants a little help. She just needs a little help, and then everyone can enjoy the evening. But Mary is making it impossible to Martha to relax. Worry, anxiety.
Then Jesus speaks, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
I can almost hear it… “Yea, Jesus, but …”
You see some have taken this passage to rebuke those who do things for the church. Some have taken this passage to criticize those who take great care at planning church events such as potlucks, Vacation Bible School, or the doing construction work for the church. Then some would say that the better life is to live the life of contemplation and prayer. Perhaps we should stop having potlucks and begin having more Bible study. Let’s not worry about cleaning the church, let’s just focus on Jesus.
When we look closely at what Jesus teaches, and when we look at our own lives—this type of interpretation doesn’t hold. It’s important to study the bible; it’s important to pray; but it’s also important to prepare for church get-togethers, and VBS; and it’s important to clean the church and prepare the church for worship on Sunday.
Martha’s problem in this scripture passage is not what she was doing, after all she was hosting Jesus in her home. Martha’s problem is that she is worried and anxious and troubled and distracted. When the host is anxious and distracted, she loses her focus. When you host someone the goal, the focus of the hosting is not the particulars of your home (are the clothes clean, are all the floors swept, are all the legos put away). The focus of hosting is your guest. You see, what Mary got and Martha missed was that Mary’s focus was on Jesus, and Martha focused on her worry.
Mary neglected to help her sister clean up the house, but she realized that the most important thing about this visit was not the house but it was their guest. And by being close to Jesus, she was able to experience the peace that Jesus offered. And Jesus wants Martha to enjoy this peace too. Jesus is not concerned that house is perfect.
What this story tells us is that the love of God is the most important thing. And when we love God, when we attend to Jesus we can be free from the worries and anxieties of life.
I used to be hesitant to invite people over for dinner. I built a beautiful patio behind our house, and I like to cook, and I like to cook for people. But I have always had a hard time inviting people over because of all the work it takes to prepare our house for guests. But in the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that it is much more important to enjoy friends than it is to have the “prefect” house and “perfect” dinner party. Because the point of having people over is not to show how good we keep house, but is to enjoy the company of people we hold dear. And that’s a beautiful and peaceful thing.
When we focus on the love of others, when focus on Jesus we are able to put our stress and anxiety in perspective. Jesus told Martha to not worry or be anxious so much. Jesus wanted Martha to enjoy him. You see, peace is a gift of following Jesus. Jesus wants to give this peace to Martha, and Jesus wants to give this peace to you. Will you sit? Will you listen? Will you take the gift of peace Jesus offers?
Luke 10:25-37 (CEB) | Rev. Will Conner
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
“I hate him.” “I hate you.” These are the words that every young child has uttered at some point. Perhaps it’s the school yard bully, perhaps to his mom after she said that her son couldn’t have another piece of candy. I know that as a child I must have said this on occasion, because I remember what my mom’s response was. “You don’t hate anybody. Jesus says that you have to love everyone, but you don’t have to like them.” Who here has heard this before? Better yet, who here has used this line before?
I’m not sure about biblical accuracy of my mom telling me that I don’t have to like everyone. After all, how are you supposed to love someone if you really don’t like them?
As humans we like to define who we have to love; who we have to include. Look at any playground across Tennessee. You will see those kids that get picked first, and you will see the kids that are always on the sideline – rejected again. Not picked for kickball, left out of four square, eventually they figure it out, “I’m no good—I’m worthless.”
If you look at our national history, we do this same thing. We like to talk about being a nation of immigrants, but then in the founding of our nation, we define citizenship by the color of one’s skin. We defined voting rights by a person’s gender. We removed Native Americans from their homes to make more room for white settlers. In a different time, we created separate places for white children and black children to go to school. During WWII we were so scared of a certain type of American that we created concentration camps to keep Americans of Japanese descent out of communities. We’ve always been wrestling as a nation and as people with the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Then if you fast forward to today, the American political debates seem to center heavily on, “Who is my neighbor?” We have people campaigning and advocating to include more people as Americans, recognizing recent undocumented immigrants as our neighbors. We have others, who reject the idea of expanding the definition of neighbor in the American political context. Instead of recognizing people as neighbors, the rhetoric focuses on creating additional barriers between us and them.
Thinking about this week with the shootings of two black men that reached national attention and the slaughter of 5 police officers in Dallas. I don’t know what it is like to put my life on the line for the safety others, and as I white man, I also don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. This week we have seen that I can say black lives matter and also deeply believe that police lives matter. But we continue to ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?”; “Whose lives matter?”
This question that young kids ask, “Who do I have to like?” This question that our nation is asking, “Who do we have to include?” This is the same question that a lawyer asked Jesus in our scripture reading just a few moments ago; he asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
To this question, what does Jesus say? Does he say, those that live next door? Does he say, those that look like you? Does he say, “You must love everyone but you don’t have to like them.”
No. Jesus says, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” Wait, wait, wait—Jesus is asked a direct question, surely that demands a direct response. Nope; Jesus says, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is a dangerous road. In your bulletin is a picture of this road that I took when I was traveling in Palestine in 2012. It was 17 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho on a road that descended 3300. Jerusalem sits in a hilly region, then Jericho is down near the dead sea. Jericho is 846 ft below sea level.
As you can kind of see in the picture, the terrain causes the road to run through narrow passes that provide easy places for bandits to hide. Those that heard this story from Jesus would not be surprised to hear about a man being mugged walking this route. Everyone knew that if you walked this road, you risked being assaulted by those that terrorized the narrow passes.
So this man is left for dead in a ditch. Jesus tells of two religious leaders that walked by this man on the other side of the road. We aren’t told why, but they want nothing to do with him. Perhaps they are late for an appointment, perhaps they don’t want to get their hands dirty, perhaps they were tired. Whatever the case, they walked to the complete other side of the road not to have any contact with the hurting and dying man.
Then a Samaritan was walking on the road, approached the man, embraced the man, cared for him, and made sure he received proper medical attention.
If you’ve grown up in church, you have head this story time and time again. The story of the Good Samaritan. But this story was a shocking story. Jesus was talking with a Jewish audience and the Jews hated the Samaritans and the Samaritans hated the Jews.
To really appreciate how deep the divide was between the Jews and Samaritans, I want to tell you about a lady named Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is a biblical scholar and she is Jewish. Shortly after the attacks on American on September 11, 2001 she was teaching this parable to a group that experienced the horrors of that day firsthand. Instead of saying that the neighbor was the Samaritan, she suggested that the one who was the neighbor was a member of Al-Qaeda. Wow – talk about startling. Talk about making your point. But that really hints at how deep the divide was between these two people groups, the Jews and Samaritans. Suggesting that a member of Al-Qaeda or a member of Daesh or ISIS is actually the neighbor—gives us a hint about how hard and dramatic this story of Jesus actually is.
When the lawyer asked “who is my neighbor;” when we ask “who is included.” We are asking questions about boundaries and people groups. By telling this story, Jesus is telling the lawyer and us that we are asking the wrong question. As a pastor friend of mine in Virginia, named Tim, says “We ask: ‘Who is my neighbor?’ Jesus asks, ‘Whose neighbor are YOU.’”
We think about a neighbor as an identity, but Jesus says, neighbor is a verb. Neighbor is not a passive thing, instead neighbor is about love in action. Neighbor is about living out love in our lives. We ask, “Who is my neighbor?” but Jesus says, go and neighbor.
When I think about this command of Jesus that neighbor is a verb, I think about my dad. You see we have a family retreat up in the mountains between Tellico Plains and Murphy, NC. If you are familiar with the area, it’s up about 8 miles past Green Cove. My whole life I have grown up going there, and now I get to share this little piece of heaven with my own kids.
This mountain house is in a community with several other houses. There are a couple of people that live their full time, but most folks are there on the weekends or holidays. When we are up there playing in the creek, building fires, having fun, my dad will make a statement that he’s going neighboring. Neighboring means that he pours himself a drink gets on his Polaris Ranger and drives around the neighborhood to talk with whoever is out. Someone will ask where he is, and we reply, Dad’s gone neighboring. For my dad, this idea of neighbor as verb is very natural.
The thing about neighboring or seeing neighbor as a verb, means that you don’t get to pick who your neighbor is. When we or the lawyer ask Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” We are wanting to figure out which people to be kind to, which people to include in society, which people to loan our yard equipment to, and which people we can avoid. But Jesus’ response to us means that we don’t get to define who is our neighbor, we just have to love people.
Seeing neighbor as a verb means loving people. Seeing neighbor as a verb means caring for people whether we know them or not. Seeing neighbor as a verb means taking care of a stranger and an enemy who was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.
The words of one biblical scholar about this really hit home for me. He wrote, “authentic love does not discriminate; it creates neighborly relationships, because [love] by its nature meets the needs of others.” (Matthew Skinner, Feasting on the Word, C.3.prop10, p243)
Love, neighboring meets the needs and cares for others.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a pastor in North Carolina and is a little bit of a radical guy. But he tells a story that—well, instead of explaining it, let me just read you his words. He was in Iraq at the start of the most recent war with Iraq. As the United States launched “Shock and Awe,” his group was forced to move out of the country. About this time he tells this story:
We were in Iraq at the beginning of the war, and when we were driving out of the country we had a car accident where the car landed in a side ditch. Three of our friends stumbled out on the side road. Their heads were bleeding, wondering what was going to happen next. They were picked up by a car of Iraqis and taken into a town called Rutba. In Rutba a doctor said, three days ago your country bombed our hospital, but we will take care of you. And he saved their lives. – In People who were supposed to be our enemies we see what God’s love looks like in the 21st century. (Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, www.theworkofthepeople.com/strangers-at-my-door)
The supposed enemy; a Muslim, an Iraqi, a victim of bombing by the US, gave no regard to boundaries or definitions or race or religion or visa status or political party or wealth or ability to pay. They offered care; they were neighboring; they lived the love that Jesus spoke about.
Just last week I experienced some of this love. Just last week I experienced what it means to be see neighbor as a verb.
St. Mary’s mobile health clinic was here. People from Decatur and other area churches were here to serve those who are in need of medical care and don’t have health insurance. Each month the clinic is here, and each month people with limited access to health care receive the care that they so desperately need.
All are treated with dignity. All are treated with love. All are treated as neighbors.
Especially this week, in the midst of horrific shootings and unrest, it seems that all around us, kindness and love are absent. But kindness and love is what we see in the stories of Jesus and in the stories we have shared this morning. It’s about neighboring. It’s about loving and acting on that love toward others.
So this morning let us end with the words of Jesus: “Go and do likewise.”
Genesis 12:1-4 | Rev. Will Conner
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
When I was growing up as a child I remember a taking trips to visit my great grandparents. As an adult, I realize how fortunate I am to have known my great grandparents and to actually remember spending time with them. I remember my great grandmother, whom we called Granny. She was the one who taught me to eat mustard on a sausage biscuit – this was wise advice. I also remember a story she told from her childhood. She told of how one day her family made opossum for supper – probably it was opossum stew, but I don’t recall.
She said it was the most awful thing she ever had—greasy and nasty. It made her sick, and eating it once was enough—she knew she would never eat it again. Of course, as a young boy I thought that this was quite funny, and couldn’t ever imagine eating something as ugly as an opossum.
What I remember most about visiting my great grandparents, though, is where they sat. I knew them in their old age, and I remember visiting their home to see them sitting in their front room. Granddaddy and Granny had chairs that faced each other in front of a picture window. As a kid I never knew anyone that sat as much as these two; and as a kid I thought that this was the most boring place to be. When we would visit we would sit in their living room and they would sit. Why would anyone want to sit in a chair all day and watch traffic drive by? As an adult I realize that my childhood impressions likely over exaggerated this sitting, and I think that it would kind of nice to sit back and watch traffic go by. – Maybe I can do this in my office; sit back and watch traffic pass on highway 30.
The reality is that many people sit most of the day. Most people wake up in the morning, sit on the couch to drink their coffee and watch the morning news—or their morning cartoons if you have a 5 year old and 3 year old as I do. Then you shower, get ready for the day, and sit in your car on your drive to work. I’m beginning to really appreciate this drive time—I’ve got about an hour drive from my house to the church—lots of time to sit. Then you get to work (or perhaps school), fill up your coffee cup and sit at your desk until lunch when you eat lunch at your desk and wait until it’s time to sit in your car to drive home and sit in front of the TV again
It’s true that there are plenty of people who don’t spend most of the day sitting down. My wife, Hope, is a great example. She is a hair stylist and salon owner in Chattanooga. She might sit down for 5 or 10 minutes during her work day. Always she is standing on her feet as she colors, cuts, and styles her clients’ hair. If you work in a factory or in construction, you too are going to be standing much of the day.
But for the rest of us, we do a lot of sitting. And it seems that we are constantly being warned that sitting is the new smoking. I recently ran across an article that lists the ways sitting is shortening our lives: it increases the risk of developing cancer, increases the risk of heart disease, increases the risk of obesity, it increases the risk developing depression, and a host of other health issues. But who doesn’t like to sit? What’s better than relaxing in front of the TV with a cold beverage watching a football game or catching up on bachelorette on DVR? It’s an American pastime.
But it’s not just sitting. As humans, we like things to be stable; we don’t like change; most of us enjoy predictability and routine. Yes, we like to have fun, but only if that fun comes in predictable patterns.
If you need proof of this just look to a little over a week ago when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Nobody believed it would actually happen. In the aftermath of this, so called Brexit, (by the way, I won’t be surprised if Brexit is the word of the year for 2016) the British pound lost tremendous value, our retirement accounts took a hit, and according to CNN Money -- $3 trillion was wiped out of global markets. Investors, businesses, and people in general are skittish and scared about the uncertainty that is a result from this recent vote in the UK.
It seems as if nearly every week we hear about a new terrorist attack – be it an attack in Brussels, Paris, Baghdad, Chattanooga, Orlando, or most recently in a busy airport in Istanbul. This uncertainty hard, and challenges our very core of stability.
Today is my first Sunday as your pastor, but six weeks ago I drove up to Athens and had a meeting with some folks from Knoxville on the front porch of the Cracker Barrel. We were talking about plans for Recovery ministry. In my last church, Ooltewah United Methodist, I very involved with the planning and launch of a new recovery worship service—that’s designed to offer hope and healing for people and families. I was satisfied; for the first time in several years I felt stable and was thankful for this. And here we were planning next steps in this recovery ministry at Ooltewah. I went home excited about the future, and shared with my wife about how I knew God was going to use this recovery ministry to give people new life.
The next day I went to the office to continue working on this, then my phone. It was our district superintendent. Now, United Methodist pastors get nervous when the DS calls, especially in the months of March, April, and May. And with only five words, “Will, we need to talk,” my sense of stability shattered and my comfort was gone.
This idea of comfort and stability is central to what we read in our scripture reading earlier. When we look at our scripture lesson this morning we encounter a man named Abram. Perhaps you know him better as Abraham. When the story opens, Abraham is living in a place called Haran. This is a place that his father settled; this is home.
In Haran Abraham build a home, he built a business. He sold goods in the market place, he took care of his wife. They made friends, celebrated birthdays, entertained their life’s dreams. When Abraham’s father got sick, this is the place where he cared for him. This is the place where Abraham buried his father. Abraham was settled; Abraham was at home; Abraham was comfortable.
Then the phone rang; it was his district superintendent, and he said, “Abraham, we need to talk.” Ok, it wasn’t his DS, but in this, God told him to go. God told Abraham to leave his home, and friends, and dreams in Haran move to a new place. And God promised to Abraham, that if he was willing to take this journey Abraham would be blessed and Abraham would bless others—in fact, Abraham would have an impact on the entire world.
Can you imagine? His sense of stability was shattered and his comfort was gone. Abraham set out on journey because God told him to go. On this journey things wouldn’t be all that comfortable and things wouldn’t be all that stable, but Abraham journeyed with God. Because Abraham was willing to take this journey great things happened. The whole world was introduced to the grace and love God. Because Abraham was willing to take this journey new communities were blessed and many people experienced the newness and new life that God has to offer. Through a lack of comfort and stability, God had something new in store for Abraham.
I am sure that when you learned of Hugh’s retirement your sense of comfort and stability was challenged. I am sure that you worried about the future of your church, the future of your ministries. As time ticked away, I know that your leadership, at least, was worried whether or not you would even have a pastor after Hugh.
Then a few days after I got my phone call that messed up my comfort and stability, your leadership got a phone call that informed them I was going to be your next pastor. In sense, I’m sure, that it was a relief knowing that you were going to get another pastor, but no one had met me. You knew I wasn’t going to be living in the parsonage. You had never met me before. The lack of comfort and lack of stability continued.
Reflecting on this lack of comfort, I began to realize that comfort is overrated. Perhaps comfort, like sitting is the new smoking. You see, when we get too comfortable we tend to get lazy. We tend to think that we have things figured out. We tend to believe that we don’t need to try new things. We tend to believe that our likes and our beliefs are the most important things. And when we have things figured out, we forget about God. We forget to listen to God and we forget what God wants us to do.
So since we have all been uncomfortable; so since we have all lacked a sense of stability; I believe that God is calling us as God called Abraham. God is calling us to go from home, to go from our sense of comfort and stability—to go on a shared journey where we will bless our community. Where the people of Meigs county will meet Jesus in a new way because God is calling you and God is calling me.
If you are thinking that this journey isn’t for you. If you are thinking that God is only calling me as your pastor, let me draw your attention back to our scripture lesson. You see Abraham was not a young man when God called him on this new, uncomfortable journey. Abraham was 75 years old when God said, I want you to journey with me and do a new thing. So friends, this journey is for all of us.
I don’t yet know the destination. I don’t yet know what the outcome will be. But I know that God is with us. I know that God is calling us to journey together. I know that God is calling us to a new place, a new era, a chapter in ministry together. That goes for me and for you. This new journey will have its difficulties, it will likely be uncomfortable at times, and lack stability at times. But sitting is the new smoking. Being comfortable too long leads to sitting, and sitting leads death.
Our shared journey, our journey together leads to life. Our journey together leads to new life in God. Our journey together leads to this community being blessed because God has called you, because God has called us.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.
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