(warning rough draft ahead)
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
I think it is every pastor’s dream to be a part of a massive church growth. To come into a church and see it explodes under their appointment. I know this is the case because of so many books on the subject. There are over 6,000 books on Amazon.com on Church Growth. In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading down to Dallas, TX to attend the School of Congregation Development which is a churchy way of saying, conference on church growth. There is a huge market for this kind of stuff because deep down in every pastor’s heart we want to find the right equation, right sermon series, right dress code or music that can take a congregation into the stratosphere.
Adam Hamilton had a meeting with his District Superintendent constantly while as an associate pastor. He bugged him to let him go and start a new congregation. Finally the DS and Bishop agreed and in 1990 he was appointed to start a new congregation in Leewood, KS. The Bishop hoped that in 10 years the congregation would have 500 worshipers on Sunday. Hamilton found a location to start to hold services. It was in a local funeral homes’ chapel. There the Church of the Resurrection was started. By offering traditional worship and thought provoking sermons the Church of the Resurrection grew and is now the largest United Methodist Congregation in the US. They have 17,000 members and 6 services during the weekend, 8 if you count the two that are online.
Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio took was appointed to the church in 1979. It had an average worship of 90 when he started there as the pastor. As he tells the story, he preached the congregation down to 5 people and then it started to grow. They were revolutionary in their small group ministries and internet based ministries. The congregation is active in missions and now over 4,500 people attend worship services during the week there.
Each of the United Methodist pastors has books out describing their journey. They talk about knowing the community and defining what the community needs. They describe promoting a vision or mission statement and how that can drive the congregation into its purpose. Their example has been emulated, attempted and copied all over this denomination. I confess that this is one of my dreams as a preacher. I wish I could be a part of something growing out of nothing or starting from something small and growing into something HUGE. I think pastors today have that ingrained in their system. We look up to our colleagues who have done this in our conference or our denomination and we hold them up as the standard to which we aspire too.
Joe Evans is a pastor in the Presbyterian USA denomination and wrote a wonderful sermon on Day1’s website. When he was growing up his church grew dramatically. Later on the senior pastor that led this congregation through this growth asked him to lunch. During their time together he finally asked him “’As far as having a successful ministry goes, your time at First Presbyterian can’t really be beaten. What’s your secret?’ He said, as he looked me dead in the eye with a gaze I had to look away from, ‘Joe, you have to know what is in your control and what isn’t, and when it comes to being a minister, there isn’t really that much that is in your control.’”
Since I am making confessions today I will confess that I love control. I love to look at what is head of me and guide it as best as I can. I have been doing some woodworking and building some Adirondack chairs. This was a great project because I got to use almost every power-tool I own. I used my router, table saw, jig saw, drills, sander and miter saw. This has been my largest project to date and I learned a lot as I did it. As I created the main leg brace I used a jig saw to carve out the pattern. There are parts that are strait and other parts that needed to be curved. As I used my jig saw there were times I pushed it and pulled it to stay on the line. Then after cutting I noticed the cut was slanted. I had pushed and pulled too much. When I did that the blade started to slant and instead of having a nice flat cut for the seat planks to sit on, I had a slanted cut to mess with. I have to learn to let the saw do the work. I can turn the saw on and off, guide it to make turns, and pull it back to start over when needed but beyond that I have to let the tool do what it is created to do. When I do that, my cuts are straighter and smoother and look a whole lot better.
We all have issues of control because we are in a society that thinks about the bottom line. How can we maximize our profits? How can we get the most out of what we have? Can we make budget this year? We hear about this when it comes to the environment and our waste. We need to make sure we don’t throw away things unnecessarily. We have to ask ourselves if we can recycle the materials we use and if we can reuse them in any way. This is even the case when it comes to the church. We ask our committees to be good stewards of what they have been given. We don’t want them to go over our budget and to keep within the framework of power we give them. We don’t want rogue committees out there abusing the resources of the church.
With this framework of thinking in the forefront of our minds the sower in this parable doesn’t seem to fit. Jesus offers up this picture of a farmer who is out there simply slinging seed. He doesn’t care where it goes he is just taking handfuls of valuable seeds and casting it out there to fall where it may. This is not he precision farming of today where plows and tractors make use of every inch of a field and rid it of anything that would get in the way of the seeds growing. I know there are backyard farmers out there too who have terrific gardens who know that this is not how you would plant a garden. You wouldn’t mix up your cucumber and tomato seeds in your hand and simply cast them out into your garden. Cucumbers need to be on a mound and tomato plants need supports around them. But for Jesus the sower is happy by just casting seeds out in every direction possible.
I wonder what the crowd thinks when they hear this parable. Jesus has a problem every preacher dreams of. He has a crowd there that is too big and he has to get in a boat to talk to them. Can you imagine if we had a crowd so big here that in order for me to lead the worship service I had to preach from the choir loft? How awesome would that be! The people that come and hear Jesus are agriculturalists. They know how to plant because if they didn’t know they would starve. If they planted their seeds like the sower they would starve, but Jesus isn’t giving them a parable to teach them about planting is he?
Only later on does Jesus explain what he means by this parable. We don’t get a lot of these explanations from Jesus about his parables. Most of the time Jesus simply lays the parable out and walks away. But here later on the disciples ask him what he meant and he actually tells them. The seed that is to be sown is the message of the kingdom. The seed is the Word of God. The seed is what we tell people about God, about God’s love, and about what God has done for you.
I wanted to take this time now to share with you some vacation. [slides]
The thing is we usually don’t have any probably talking about our kids or grandkids. I knew a lady who’s purse was an homage to her grandkids. You couldn’t get twenty feet near her without her roping you into a story about them or showing you the newest picture. We have pride and immense joy when it comes to the children in our lives.
If it is so easy to talk about kids why is it so hard to talk about what God has done in our lives? Why is it that we are not apt to say anything about the work God is doing in us or that God loves the person you are talking to? Why is it so hard to share? Why is it so easy to talk about kids but not the Savior you follow? Is it because people don’t want to hear about Jesus? Maybe but let’s face it, who really wants to know about your grandchildren or see the newest Sears Portrait shot? Yet that doesn’t stop us does it.
The truth is when we sow the seeds of God’s word; when we share with others what God is doing and has done, we have to relinquish control. I know I am guilty of making sure I am reaching as many people as possible when I preach. I try to hit on topics I know will connect with what people are dealing with. But it can run the gambit every week. Someone comes in on Sunday morning celebrating a birth while another one is mourning a loss. A person maybe distracted because they are going to the beach right after the service while others are distracted because their marriage is falling apart. As I prepared this sermon I realized I needed to let go more. I cannot control who will be here on Sunday and who won’t. I cannot control how the message I preach will be received.
When we tell people about the God we love we cannot control how it will be processed and digested. It may turn people off because they are in a rocky place in their lives. It may go in one ear and out the other because there is no dirt for it to grow. It may affect a person for a little while but then fad away. We do not have any control over it because it really isn’t our job. That isn’t our work. That is what God does.
God knows what is on the heart of the people we sow seeds around. God knows what their hearts needs and how it will be handled. We are not asked to do that. In the parable Jesus doesn’t say only to sow seed among the good seed. No, instead he says the sower threw it everywhere and some came back hundred fold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. We may never know how the words we say, the actions we live out, and the way we live out our faith can transform people. but our job is not to water or harvest. Our job, according to this parable, is to sow the seed.
Those ministers who were there for massive growth in their congregation know that it was God’s work, they simply sowed the seed. There truly is only so much we can do but we are asked to do something. So may you have the strength to speak up and tell people about the God you love and the God that loves you. May you realize the seed you sow may fall on all types of paths and soils. But what happens after the seed is scattered is not our job and it is not in our control. It is God’s work. All God asks us to do is to be sowers.
And all God’s Sowers said…Amen.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
During my first couple of months I decided that I would preach a sermon that would get people’s attention. This was not the first time I preached it and it won’t be the last. For those of you who missed it, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. It was a first person narrative story. I told the story from the perspective of the main character. Although some might disagree, I started off by saying, “I am going to tell you a story” and then I went into it. I told them that I demanded my father treat me like an adult and to do so he gave me a credit card with $20,000 on it. I used it to go to Vegas where I made a ton of money playing cards. I spent all the money on fast living and faster women. I eventually went to LA to look for work but lived on the street after a while. I hitched hiked my way back to my parents house in Charlotte where I was welcomed in by my dad.
Then at the end of the story I reveal that this is not a story about my life, it is a story modern retelling of the prodigal son parable. At my last appointment one of my youth came up to me afterward and said, “Jim, you were really cool for about 15 minutes.” I told my parents and my in-laws I was doing this sermon again and they came up that Sunday just to hear it first hand. They think it is hilarious. I do this early on in my appointment because it doesn’t take long for people to figure out that this isn’t me. I am not a younger son type of person. I am not going to run off and live a life of debauchery and sin. My childhood and early adulthood is pretty strait laced and sanitary.
If I waited to preach that sermon then you all would see through it really quickly and it would lose its dramatic effect. You all would say, “Wait, he doesn’t have an older brother, he IS the older brother.” It’s true. I am the older or the elder brother in my family. I have three younger sisters. In fact I am the oldest of my generation. I am the first born. How many of you are the first born or the oldest in your family? With being the first born come all the stereotypes of the first born. They say that the first born children are smarter, at least 3 points higher than the younger siblings, I would agree with that. Us, oldest children, are also better educated, and we earn more money. That is one not necessarily true. Studies have shown firstborns identify with their parents and conform to parental standards. I find this is because we have no other option and our parents get warn out on us so the younger ones get away with murder. Studies have also shown that because firstborn children are older, wiser, and more powerful, those born later become have broader interests and they become more open to experience.
Jesus knows that the elder son would not go off and waste the father’s inheritance. That is more of a younger son move. So the vast majority of the parable is focused on the younger son. Most sermons focus on the younger son. That is where all the action is. That is where we see a great transformation. That is where preachers bear down on the idea that God, the Father, will welcome back any person no matter what they have done. This is the “come to the altar” side of the story that simply preaches itself. But how does Jesus start this parable? “There was a man who had two sons.” This is not a parable about the Prodigal Son, it should be labeled, the Prodigal Sons.
If I would relate to anyone in this story, I would relate to the elder son. He is the one who stayed back and helped his father with his father’s work. He didn’t stray off and waste his father’s inheritance. No, he helped build the company up and helped build the profit margins. He is the one who does everything the father tells him to do. He is the perfect son. Like I said, as the perfect son, I can relate to this story.
When we look at most established congregations they are usually filled with older sons and daughters and only have a sprinkle of younger sons and daughters. Remember I said established congregations. There are some newer congregations out there that are full of younger sons and daughters but I can say with most certainty that in any congregation older than 50 years old, you will only find a handful, if you are lucky, of younger child stories. The vast majority will be older child stories.
Let’s face it, especially those of us who are the oldest, we feel bad for the elder son because we can relate. There he was doing what he was supposed to do and he has all the right to be angry at the father’s reaction. He was out working in the field and he comes back home to a party and finds out it is being thrown for the youngest son, the one who went off and wasted his inheritance. He went off and disgraced the family name. He went off and lived a life unworthy of God and now the father is welcoming him back with open arms? He is killing the fattened calf, the most honored animal, for him? The anger built up so quickly and so fierce inside the oldest son that he couldn’t stay at the party.
The father runs after him but the oldest son turns around and yells at him, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.” We feel the pain in this sentence. We understand the sorrow and struggle. We recognize and identify with the older son because if it were us in this story that is who we would be. And we are mad too when a person who has thrown their life away on self-indulgent things comes back and once again gets what he wants. They are welcomed back by the father and there seems to be no repercussions for their actions. Once again the youngest get away with everything!
In Solomon’s Porch Sunday School Class we went through a study called the Modern Parables. They take Jesus’ parable and in a modern twist create a video story retelling them. I found their modern retelling of this parable remarkable. Because it brought to light the role of the other son in this story. The one we tend to forget yet we identify with most often, the older son. What this video showed was that the older son though was not innocent in this story and actually in the end, has a worse relationship with the Father than the younger.
The sin that envelops the older son is the sin of self-righteousness. This is a hard sin to come to grips with and can infect a person’s whole worldview. So much so that in the end they get so mad at God that they tend to fall away from their relationship with God. Self-righteousness is the act of being confident in one’s own righteousness. People smugly think that their morals above all others and their way of life and opinions are the way everyone should live and think and breathe. They tend to be extremely intolerant of other’s opinions and behaviors.
Ministers are the worst when it comes to this and that is why this parable hurts so much. I was sitting in Annual Conference one year listening to a minster preach. The preacher used the first person so much it was distracting. The person next to me started to keep count and at the end of the sermon she leaned over to me and said 47. The preacher had used “I, me or my” 47 times within the sermon. If a person uses this man first person singular pronouns within a sermon, guess what the focus on the sermon is suppose to be?
This is also true with the “Back Egypt Committees” that exist within congregations. As the Israelites were traveling in the wilderness some of them wanted to go back to Egypt. In the first four verses of the 14th chapter of Numbers it says; “That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Things were getting tough and some people thought it would be better to go back and be slaves than to be free and under God’s care. They had come through the Red Sea and been lead by a pillar of smoke and fire, fed with manna, and taken care of for years but when things got rough and things weren’t going their way, they wanted to go back to the suppressive, abusive, and horrible conditions of being slaves in Egypt.
There is usually a Back to Egypt bunch in every church as well, filled with Older Sons. These are the members who have been at this church forever. They have helped the church through the toughest times and have seen ministers come and go. They remember the rough years and how things worked back in the day. They are the faithful people who have served on every committee the United Methodist church can come up with. They are the ministers who stand in the pulpits and the people who seat in the pews. They are the ones who would rather see things as they were instead of being opened up the possibility of seeing things as God wants them to be. Decisions about the future of “My Church” or “My Congregation” are made with the self-righteous thought of “what do I get out of it,” or “does this fit into my idea of what the church should be doing?” They are in every church in every denomination in every part of the world. They are hard to identify because they are you and they are me.
The father in this parable goes out to meet both sons. The younger one, he meets while he is coming home. The older one he goes after when he leaves the party. We don’t know how either of them reacts to the father’s attempt to reach them in love. All we know is that the love and grace is offered to both. The Father tells the older son to “rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Yet, was his self-righteous heart willing to admit the greatness of the Father’s grace? Did he leave that conversation understanding the Father and recognizing that he loves him as much as his younger brother? Or did he leave still thinking that he knew better and that his Father was insane?
Ginghamsburg UMC was created in 1863 in Tipp City, Ohio. When Mike Slaughter arrived in 1979 it was a typical established United Methodist Congregation. Slaughter said that he had to preach the congregation down from 118 to 5 in order to get the right mindset for the congregation. He had to get rid of a lot of self-righteous, back to Egypt, older sons and daughters before Ginghamsburg UMC could turn into one of the largest United Methodist congregations in the nation. Now they have over 4500 people a Sunday and through their local missions they help more than 40,000. What changed was the older sons and daughters either left or finally realized they were attempting to tell God what to do.
There are many times I wonder if I stand in the way of God. I’m learning that God’s grace covers the younger sons in our world; those who I don’t understand because they indulge themselves and then come crying back to the Father. I’m also learning that God comes out to meet people like me, people like us, the elders, the firstborns, the dedicated church goers, and the life time members. Those who think they are doing everything right and doing what God has always asked them to do, but who continually reject God’s grace by stepping in front of it because it doesn’t look like what we think it should.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
This has always seemed like an odd parable to me. A fig tree not bearing fruit. After three years, it seems that the owner had it right when he said to cut down the tree and make room for one who is making fruit. Yet the farmer knew he could had some things he could do and see if that would help. As I read this again I realized that I didn’t have a clue what Jesus was getting at and what type of message this held for my congregation on Sunday.
The more I read it though the more I realized that it was about grace, costly grace. Not the cheap kind you can buy at Walmart or in bulk at Costco. My mind went to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship where he explains these two concepts.
Cheap Grace = “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.” (pp. 43-44)
Costly Grace = “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it call us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son; “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
YEAH, THAT’LL PREACH!!
A story I won’t share in my sermon but I will be hinting at is a situation I am ministering to at the moment. Without getting too detailed, a person’s daughter is going through a hard time in her marriage. She has been abused and was at the brink of divorce the husband convinced her he could change. He cut her off for 2 1/2 months from her family and now is seeking forgiveness via email of his mother-in-law. There is no repentance in the email, only seeking forgiveness. To offer it at this moment in time is cheap grace.
A husband who abuses his wife has many things to deal with. There are acts of anger, jealousy, control, and trust that have to be delved into. I have had a run in with this husband and in my opinion he has a lot of work to do. To go from striking your wife and threatening her life with their children watching to marital bliss in 3 months stinks of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I hope there has been recovery but my advice to the mother-in-law is to tread lightly.
The gardener promises the owner that he will dig up the soil and put manure on it. Manure if stacked high only stinks. But if spread out will make things flourish. Cheap grace piles it on and hopes for the best. Costly grace digs up the soil and spreads the poop around until the tree and flourish and grow once more.
Costly grace is sought after by the sinner and given freely by our God. It cost God everything, and it costs us everything as well. If we are not willing to do the work, then off to shop at Walmart we go.
It is time for the parable of the talents again in the lectionary cycle. I have had the pleasure of preaching this a couple of times already and I am looking for a new take. Jason Byasee in Pulpit Resource has provided me with a new take and it is interesting. In Jason’s article he quotes Michael Budde, a political scientist and Roman Catholic at DePaul University in Chicago. Budde flips this well known parable on its head and suggests a different look.
Budde says what if we look at the parable as the master is Satan and Jesus is the third servant. Then we get a truly deep suffering servant and the parable looks quiet different. Instead of a 21st century look at how we are to use what we are given, we see Christ standing up to harsh economic practices. Economically it is very hard to do what the master demands, 100% return on his investments. Plus we are talking huge amounts of money, which is what a talent is, said to equal one year’s income.
What we have is a master given his servants billions or trillions of dollars and asking them to double it. For what purpose? To give it back to the master of course. The first two get 100% in their return but the third servant stands in great contrast. Budde states that the first two probably went out and took out high interest loans in order to get what the master requires. (Hummm…could this have any present day correlation?)This servant goes out and buries the money and returns to the master what he originally gave. Is this Jesus telling us once again that you cannot serve two masters?
If I walked up to the 17 year old that bags the groceries at my local grocery and handed him 10 billion dollars would he know what to do with it? Could he parlay that into another 10 billion in my time frame? We live in a time when massive amounts of money are tossed around in conversations all the time, from the 700 billion bailout plan, to the over 10 trillion dollars in debt, to the 10 million a day spent in Iraq. These are absurd amounts of money to talk about and I know my eyes glaze over because I cannot wrap my head around that type of cash.
Maybe the truth in this parable is once again reminding us who we work for, God not Satan or wealth or capitalism. When Christ sticks the insane amount of money in the ground he is saying he cannot be bought and neither should we. Once again he is fighting off the temptation of Satan. This also fits in a little better with the bookends of the 25th chapter of Matthew, the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids and the Judgement of the Nations. This second coming texts really don’t help make sense when we look at the Parable of the Talents from a modern perspective of wealth and prosperity. Yet with an end of times twist this different view does make sense.
Once again Jesus is going against the stream and being radical. “[This parable] has deeper roots in the Hebrew Scriptures with its assumption that wealth usually represent the sustenance of the poor unjustly taken by the rich. We also get a Jesus who refuses to heap further misery on the poor by participating in such an unjust system.” (Byassee) There are not many servants who would stand up to their master like that, because the results are scary. Yet our suffering servant, our savior, understands the consequences and places himself in a position to stand up for those who cannot stand up. He is sent out into the place where their is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the poor usually are. The master thinks he can prevail but he thank God he doesn’t.
This is what I am working through but there are questions that come up and maybe Budde does address them but not in the article I read. If we take Christ as the third servant and the master as Satan, why would Christ be afraid? “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow…so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” Looking at it this way doesn’t seem to translate well. I guess you can call it a sticking point.