Archive for September, 2011

Sermon for 09-25-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 2: The Weeds”

September 29, 2011

Our sermon series on Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Matthew continues this week with Part 2, the Parable of the Weeds. Jesus tells us in this parable that the church will face opposition not only in world, but also within its own ranks. This will happen because we have an enemy that is actively opposing every good work that we do for God’s kingdom.

Among other things, I discuss the challenge of church membership—with all of the church’s problems. I sympathize with Groucho Marx, who said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Thank God that the church, however imperfect, is the kind of club that would have us as members!

In spite of these challenges, we are, at our best, able to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ to a world that desperately needs it.

Sermon Text: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Please note: There’s a small hiccup in this week’s video. The batteries in my Flip camcorder ran out (inexplicably, since I had just put in a fresh set), so Lisa, my wife, switched to her iPhone. Pretty good quality overall!

I don’t have a green thumb. I’m not someone who likes to “play in the dirt,” as the old Pike’s Nursery jingle said. For me, the best thing about fall besides college football is the fact that the grass stops growing—or the weeds stop growing, as the case may be.

As you might imagine, I am very sympathetic with the landowner in today’s parable, who decides to ignore the weeds for the time being, not to pull them up right away. I’m all about ignoring weeds. I do not pull up weeds. Look, I figure if the weeds are green, and they sort of match the rest of the lawn, what’s wrong with some weeds? Once you mow the lawn, it all looks the same—sort of—from a distance at least. I realize that not all of you share my enlightened view of weeds.

Similarly, the servants in today’s parable did not share the landowner’s view of weeds. And who can blame them for wanting to pull up these weeds immediately? These weeds were bad news for wheat farmers. Today, these weeds are called bearded darnel, “false wheat,” or tares, as King James Version says. Darnel is poisonous and potentially deadly. And it looks a lot like wheat—at least until it sprouts. When wheat sprouts, the wheat grain causes the stalk to droop, whereas the darnel stalk stands straight up. To make matters worse, the roots of the darnel become entangled with the roots of the wheat. The landowner doesn’t want to pull up the weeds prematurely because doing so would also uproot a portion of young, perfectly good wheat. It’s easier to sort it out at harvest time, when all the good wheat is ready to be harvested anyway. Read the rest of this entry »

More on the devil from last Sunday’s sermon

September 29, 2011

As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon, I thought of this classic song by the late, great Keith Green called “No One Believes in Me Anymore.” You can count me as a former devil skeptic. Even as recently as seminary, I seriously doubted that Satan existed. And I was slightly embarrassed by the quaintness of the many New Testament passages that made reference to him or it.

Once, when I was sitting through a lecture on St. Augustine’s theology, the professor—an Oxford-educated Augustinian scholar named Lewis Ayres—made reference to Satan. I protested: “I don’t understand why we need a devil. I sin just fine on my own, without any outside interference! I’m certainly not going to say, ‘The devil made me do it.'”

Dr. Ayres replied, “Of course. But just because you don’t understand what Satan does or how Satan works in the world doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist.”

And he was exactly right. What impressed me was that someone who knew much, much more about theology than I do was not embarrassed to say that he believed in the reality of the demonic. Of course it didn’t hurt that he said it with a beautiful English accent!

Enjoy the song. You’ll appreciate, I hope, what a great pianist and songwriter Keith Green was. He died in a plane crash in 1982.

What exactly is witnessing?

September 27, 2011

I grew up in a Southern Baptist youth group that stressed the importance of witnessing. In fact, I can easily summarize the main message of every retreat and youth camp we went on as follows: Don’t have sex (or do those things that tend to lead to it). Don’t drink or do drugs. Do witness. I was a goody-goody so the first two weren’t a problem. But the third thing was a big deal. At least a few of my friends and I witnessed. Or wanted to. The problem was that we were young and immature and didn’t know how to do it well.

I know witnessing isn't handing out this.

One of my youth group friends was Mark, who was really into heavy metal of the ’80s hair-metal variety. He had long hair and wore spandex like he was in Mötley Crüe. (As you might imagine—if you’re old enough to remember—he switched allegiances from Satan’s music to Stryper when they came along.)

One time, Heavy Metal Mark and some other youth group friends were going to the mall to witness. “Witnessing” in this context meant handing out gospel tracts to complete strangers. They invited me to go with them, and the idea made me deeply uncomfortable. Nevertheless, owing to some combination of guilt and peer pressure, I was seriously considering it.

My sister Susan was mortified. She said, “If I saw someone like Mark approaching me in the shopping mall in order to talk to me about Jesus, I would run in the opposite direction!” I don’t know if it was my sister’s words, but I begged off. I don’t believe handing out tracts to complete strangers in a shopping mall really counts as witnessing, and it may actually cause harm. It feels pushy, impersonal, and condescending: “You, Mr. Unsuspecting Passerby, are obviously a sinner in need of God’s saving grace. Since I, unlike you, have all the answers, let me give them to you in the form of this boilerplate tract.”

As Stephy Drury has frequently pointed out over on her funny, insightful, and more than slightly depressing blog “Stuff Christian Culture Likes,” evangelical Christians can know they’re doing evangelism wrong if their efforts actually avoid fostering genuine relationships with people. This rules out, for instance, sloganeering on billboards, bumper stickers, and T-shirts.

To this day, I’m deeply afraid of doing it wrong. I’m afraid of turning someone off to Christianity. I’m afraid of being one of those people.

You know… those people. Like Heavy Metal Mark. Or, worse, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come around knocking on your door at the least convenient time. Or Mormons. I was running on the greenway just last week when a couple of white-short-sleeved-shirt-and-tie Mormon missionaries passed me on bicycles. I can’t help but admire their commitment—even if it is to a deeply distorted, heterodox version of the gospel. In fact, a large part of me hates that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are out there, potentially leading people away from the orthodox Christian faith.

But who am I kidding? Another part of me hates that they’re out there—trying so hard in their own way to witness—because it reminds me that most of the time, I am not! Or can I safely say that we are not—”we” meaning United Methodists (but I’m sure this applies to plenty of other Christians). Most of time, we don’t even think about it! Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to their credit, think about it. A lot. Witnessing is a part of their DNA in a way that it ought to be a part of ours but isn’t.

Let’s face facts: we United Methodists are lousy at witnessing!

We are at least talking about it more. We changed our Book of Discipline 15 years ago to say that the church’s mission is to make disciples. We changed our membership vows a few years ago to emphasize witnessing: we pledge to serve Jesus and support the church through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and—you guessed it—witness.

But how do we do it? What does witnessing look like today?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Because when I ask many of my clergy peers, they’re more apt to tell me what it isn’t—for example, it’s not handing out tracts to strangers at malls. Or they describe something that sounds exactly like marketing. Or they make witnessing seem very passive. As if it weren’t something we had to do at all, just something we had to be.

I’m not buying it. What is it really?

Yesterday’s Pine Street service project

September 25, 2011

We showed this video about yesterday’s Pine Street service project in Vinebranch this morning. It was especially fitting today, as our Missions Emphasis month at AFUMC drew to a close. Toward the end of our service, we invited people to turn in their service and missions pledge cards. These cards indicate how and where they might be willing to serve the church in the year ahead.


Prayer for breast cancer research and funding

September 23, 2011

I offered the following prayer today at North Fulton Hospital’s “Power of Pink” fundraiser luncheon for breast cancer research.

Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being, we give you our thanks and praise for your beautiful gift of life and the means by which to enjoy it. Life is a precious gift, and, as we know all too painfully well, it is also fragile. May we never take it for granted. Our hearts are heavy when we think of friends and loved ones who struggle daily for good health, including those who battle breast cancer. We hold in our hearts loved ones who have lost this battle, at least for now—although they rest safely in your care. Give strength and comfort to others who continue to fight for this gift of life.

May their courage inspire us as we work to beat this terrible disease. Enable us to bring our best resources to bear on the problem. Continue to inspire, motivate, and guide talented doctors, scientists, nurses, and other medical care professionals to use the gifts you’ve given them to work for more effective treatments and, we hope, for a cure. Inspire those of us who, although we have different vocations, are being called right now to give our financial gifts. Make us faithful stewards of all the gifts you’ve given us.

We pray your blessings on the money that we raise through these and other efforts. May this money be used to save the lives of your children who are in need. Amen.

News, weather, traffic? Who cares?

September 23, 2011

I said in my previous post that I’m turning off the news again. I’m completely serious. I haven’t followed it closely in several years—except for sports news. (College football is a passion of mine.) I scan the headlines, of course, but that’s mostly for sermon research purposes.

The 21- and 31-year-old version of me would be shocked at this development. For 14 years I subscribed to an actual paper paper (the New York Times), and I was even an editor for my college newspaper. It used to be incredibly important to keep up with current events both near and far.

Years ago, Richard Foster, in one of his books on spiritual formation, described an acquaintance who was a complete news junkie. He felt compelled to read multiple papers every day (this was before the explosion of the internet). He realized that it was an addiction—a kind of idolatry. Needless to say, he didn’t wake up in the morning with that same desire to pray, for instance. So he quit. Cold turkey. Stopped reading the paper entirely.

And he didn’t die.

At the time, as a budding news junkie myself, I’ll admit that this rejection of news seemed shockingly unnecessary. I now see the wisdom in it.

Let’s say I wanted to read the hometown paper (besides the sports section). Here’s an actual snapshot of the headlines:

Any news is bad news.

I had to look up a couple of items—a defunct NASA satellite may or may not hit the U.S., but it will land somewhere and maybe kill some people. It’s bad news. The Georgia country club being sold is slightly negative. It’s being sold on the cheap because of our terrible economy, you see. The physics article is surprising, but neutral in tone.

My point is that this is overwhelmingly bad news. I don’t think today is an unusual news day, either.

How is reading this news or watching TV news—with its “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality—good for us? How does it not foster an unhealthy and un-Christian kind of pessimism? How much of this news will matter next week, not to mention next year?

We know that good news is out there. We know that God is at work in this world, in spite of the evil all around. We know that God’s kingdom is growing in ways we can’t even see or imagine. (Read my sermon last week!)

I know what my critics might say: we watch and read the news in order to be better informed. Given the way the news distorts reality, how are we not being misinformed?

Troy Davis and cost-free compassion

September 22, 2011

The state of Georgia became the object of scorn this week by executing Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a cop in Savannah in 1989. Evidence since his conviction casts some doubt on whether Davis did it—how much doubt I have no idea. I have no reason to imagine that Georgia’s pardons and parole board was acting in anything other than good faith. Regardless, Davis insisted that he was innocent up to his death. Many public figures—from Jimmy Carter (predictably) to politicians with solidly conservative bona fides like former U.S. Representative Bob Barr—opposed the execution, as did a former FBI Director, William Sessions.

It was funny the way many news reports also included Pope Benedict XVI in this list of opponents. They might have explained that since the Roman Catholic Church opposes capital punishment in general, the pontiff’s stance would only be newsworthy if he did support the death penalty for Davis!

I hope that my heart hasn’t become numb to these types of stories. Unlike many of my colleagues in ministry, and other Facebook friends, I didn’t feel any deep emotional investment in the outcome of Davis’s last-minute appeals. After all, I’ve lived in a death-penalty state all my life (except for that brief period in the ’70s when the U.S. Supreme Court banned it because of its unfair application). It’s not like I needed the Davis case to wake me up to the sobering reality of it—or to the likelihood that innocent people have been and will continue to be executed, whether Davis, in this case, “did it” or not.

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted, indignantly, that she can’t believe that people are getting more worked up about yesterday’s changes to the Facebook newsfeed than they are to the fact that the state is going to execute someone. I wasn’t sure what to do with that. As long as Georgia has the death penalty, they (or should I say we?) will continue to kill people with it. If not Davis, then somebody else really soon. If not in Georgia, then in some other state in our union.

If we had to wait for tragedies to cease before we could resume our normal life, who could get on with living? We all have 24/7 access to every kind of tragedy, evil, and injustice if we choose to avail ourselves of it.

The whole spectacle of the Troy Davis story reminds me of a 1975 Bob Dylan song called “Black Diamond Bay,” which describes the last fateful moments in the lives of several people living on a tiny resort island that literally explodes from a volcanic eruption. The last verse shifts abruptly to the perspective of someone (presumably Dylan himself) learning about the disaster on TV:

I was sitting home alone one night in LA
Watching old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news
It seems there was an earthquake that
Left nothing but a Panama hat
And a pair of old Greek shoes
Didn’t seem like much was happening
So I turned it off and went to grab another beer
Seems like every time you turn around
There’s another hard-luck story that you’re gonna hear
And there’s really nothing anyone can say
And I never did plan to go anyway
To Black Diamond Bay.

For me, TV (and the internet) flattened the whole tragic story of the murdered police officer, Mark MacPhail, and his family—not to mention Troy Davis and his family—to just “another hard-luck story” that I’m going to hear when I turn on the news.

The media make events like this one seem unreal to me—too abstract, too distant. I don’t know the facts of the events in question. I don’t know these people on my screen. I don’t know the truth. I could muster some compassion for them, but how do I know my compassion is real, and not simply manufactured by media producers who are trying to tell me a good story—which means better ratings and more ad revenue?

How do I know that my “compassion” isn’t instead a voyeuristic kind of entertainment?

I am, along with the United Methodist Church (see ¶ 164.f of the Book of Discipline), opposed to the death penalty in all cases. As long as we safely imprison murderers so that they are no longer a danger to others, we can afford to wait on God’s justice to be done. Besides, God implements his own death penalty at the end of our natural lives. No one escapes it. And no one escapes justice in the long run. God sees to it.

So here I am, opposing the death penalty. Big deal. Unless or until I can do something about it in a meaningful way, what am I supposed to do about Troy Davis? I trust that God placed compassionate people in his life to help him, and that compassionate people are helping his family now. I trust that God has placed compassionate people in the lives of Officer MacPhail’s family. I’m obviously not one of those people.

Posting angry words about it on Facebook or even on a blog(!) hardly counts as meaningful action. It’s cost-free compassion. I need costly compassion. And that starts with people I know and people who are within my sphere of influence—people I feel called to care for.

In the meantime, I’m turning off the news again.

God is good but not nice

September 21, 2011

The Angry Christ by Pontebon

“God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.” This has become a cliché in church. Pastors and worship leaders often say it in contemporary worship, for example, as a call to worship or a call and response. In Vinebranch, there’s a great song that we sing that includes these words.

And you know what? I totally believe it. God is good all the time, and all the time God is good.

I totally believe it… I just don’t say it very often. In part I don’t say it because, as I’ve indicated, it’s a cliché. Clichés aren’t, by definition, untrue. In this instance, I believe this cliché is certainly true. But as with any cliché, it’s so shopworn it no longer communicates its truth effectively. So I try to find other words to communicate the same thing.

But there’s another reason I don’t say it: because the truth expressed in these words must be qualified for most audiences. To say that “God is good all the time” is not to say that God is nice all the time. And I don’t think most of us know the difference most of the time.

Nice is no virtue.  I don’t want God to be nice, I want God to be good—even if and when God’s goodness hurts me. If God’s goodness hurts me, this doesn’t imply that the feeling of pain is necessarily good—although it may be if, for example, it motivates me to repent. But it does imply that God isn’t going to let my pain stand in the way of God’s goodness. If God were merely nice, that wouldn’t be the case.

I thought of this as I’ve been reading and studying Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 for our new Vinebranch sermon series. Where is this nice Jesus we hear so much about in pop culture? The Jesus I find here—take the Parable of the Weeds, for instance—talks a great deal about wrath, judgment, and punishment. If I feel resistance to these harsh words about “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” is it because I really want God to be nice?

Too bad. We have a good God instead.

How to read the Bible

September 20, 2011

Enjoy this video in which N.T. Wright explains that we must always read one part of scripture in light of the whole.

In my recent Romans sermon series, I leaned heavily on Wright’s New Interpreter’s commentary. In it—as if to practice what he preaches above—he constantly directed the reader’s attention from one passage to the sweep of Paul’s argument in Romans as a whole. That argument only makes sense, he argues, within the sweep of the Old Testament, whose primary purpose is to point to the way in which God’s covenant with Israel—and through Israel to the world—is fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.

Having (finally) studied Romans carefully in this way, you can’t convince me that there’s any other way to read it.

Sermon for 09-18-11: “Do You Want to Know a Secret? Part 1: The Farmer”

September 20, 2011

Today we begin our new 10-part sermon series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew, “Do You Want To Know a Secret?” In Matthew 13:10-12, Jesus says that the parables reveal the secrets of God’s kingdom. Will we have “ears to hear” them?

This first parable, the Parable of the Farmer in Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23, comforts and encourages us to be faithful in using our gifts for ministry. Among other things, the parable teaches us that we should expect failure from time to time if we’re faithfully answering Jesus’ call. 

Also, since being a Christian isn’t a one-time decision but rather a decision we make every day, the parable challenges us to consider the kind of “soil” that we are. Are we receptive to the seed of God’s word and love that Jesus is sowing in our hearts right now? What kind of soil will we be? The answer is up to us.

Sermon Text: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The following is my original manuscript.

I took Latin in high school, but I was a terrible student. In fact, the only Latin I remember to this day is the sentence “Britannia est parva insula.” Britain is a small island. I never even understood that sentence, because clearly—as far as islands go—Britain is a rather large island, right? But my seventh grade English teacher convinced me that knowing Latin would help me with my English vocabulary, which would help me on the SAT, which would help me get into a good college, which would help me get into law school, where I could know the meaning of things like habeas corpus and nolo contendere. Or I could get into medical school—where knowing Latin would apparently help me figure out names of human anatomy. So I could say things like, “This is a pain in my gluteus maximus.” That’s what she told us! As it is, all it’s helped me to know is that Britain is a small island—and even that isn’t true! Read the rest of this entry »