Archive for March, 2017

Sermon 03-26-17: “Jesus Loves First Responders”

March 30, 2017

Last Sunday, our church celebrated first responders in our community with a free breakfast. For my sermon, I preached on the most famous “first responder” in scripture: the Good Samaritan. What’s the “moral” of this parable? To do what the Good Samaritan does? To love our enemies as much as we love our friends? As I explain in this sermon, I hope not! The parable isn’t mostly about doing something; it’s about being something—which can only happen once we’ve been rescued by our real-life Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ.

Sermon Text: Luke 10:25-37

What is your policy on giving money to panhandlers? Do you give money to them and under what circumstances?

Earlier this month, in an interview with an Italian magazine, Pope Francis gave some advice to his flock about how to deal with panhandlers. It’s very simple: When a panhandler approaches you and asks for a handout, he said, “Give them the money, and don’t worry about it.”

If you’re like me, you probably hear these words and want to say, “Yes, but…” You can think of perfectly good reasons for not giving money to just any panhandler that approaches you. “What if this person plans on taking the money and buying drugs or booze?” The pope says, Just give and don’t worry about it. “What if they’re lying about being homeless or in need?” The pope says, Just give the money and don’t worry about it. “What if they’re running a scam, and they’re making more money panhandling than an average person makes by earning an honest wage?” The pope says, Just give the money and don’t worry about it.

Whether we agree with the pope’s words or not, let’s give him credit: his policy on giving to panhandlers is likely more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ words in today’s scripture than our policy of not giving. Why? Because his policy says, “I will give you this gift, whether you deserve it or not.” Our policy says, “I will give you this gift, but only if I think you deserve it; only if I think you’re worthy of it.”

If the Good Samaritan had a policy like ours, he never would have stopped to help this injured victim on the side of the road. Keep in mind: People in the first century were not individualistic like we are today. People thought in terms of groups. They stereotyped people based on the tribe, or the family, or the nation they belonged to. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on this parable, you’ve probably heard it said that, from an ancient Jewish perspective, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. To refer to someone as a good Samaritan was an oxymoron—like saying “jumbo shrimp,” “open secret,” or “deafening silence.” Ancient Jews and Samaritans were hated enemies. They caused a lot of harm to one another. No ancient Jew would have said, “In general, Samaritans are horrible people, but this one individual Samaritan is all right.” Or vice versa. They didn’t make exceptions for individuals. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 03-19-17: “Dealing with Doubt”

March 30, 2017

Do you ever have doubts about your faith in Jesus Christ? In today’s scripture, John the Baptist, surely one of the most headstrong of Bible heroes, expresses doubt in Jesus. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One”—meaning “Are you the Messiah”—”or should we expect someone else?” How could John, of all people, ask this, unless doubt is a normal experience for Christians? Nevertheless, God doesn’t want us to remain in a state of doubt. This sermon explores reasons we often doubt and potential traps we may fall into while we’re doubting. If you’re in a season of doubt, I pray that this message encourages you.

Sermon Text: Matthew 11:1-15

My boys and I have been bachelors this weekend, since Lisa and Elisa are out of town, which means we’ve had the TV all to ourselves. On Friday, we watched that recent Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips. It’s based on a true story about a cargo ship that got taken over by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. It was good—suspenseful—and Tom Hanks, as usual, was outstanding.

Last April, Hanks gave an interview to Terry Gross on the NPR interview show Fresh Air. He said something that may surprise you. He admitted that he was plagued by self-doubt. He said,

No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’…

There are days when I know that 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods, and if I can’t do it, that means I’m going to have to fake it. If I fake it, that means they might catch me at faking it, and if they catch me at faking it, well, then it’s just doomsday.[1]

I guess I’m naive. I thought that acting was supposed to be about faking it, but what do I know?

Tom Hanks is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed actors in the history of Hollywood. He’s starred in some of the most beloved movies of the past 30 years, which have earned $8.5 billion worldwide. He’s won two Oscars and two Golden Globes—and he’s been nominated for a ton more. Literally a ton, if you could add up the weight of all those trophies. In 2014, President Obama awarded him a Kennedy Center Honors medallion.

If someone like Tom Hanks can doubt something—in spite of all this evidence to the contrary—is it any wonder that we Christians will sometimes also have doubts—about God, about Jesus? Read the rest of this entry »

Being grateful that our lives don’t go according to plan

March 29, 2017

I shared a version of the following in a recent sermon, which I’ll post later today.

It’s become a cliché these days to talk about “narratives”—a pretentious word for stories. If you’ve studied liberal arts in college, you’ve learned a lot about narratives. In theology school, homiletics professors speak of “narrative preaching.” Even on political news shows and in White House press conferences, we often hear about narratives—for example, someone is always trying to “change the narrative.” In a recent episode of Mockingbird Ministries’ podcast, The Mockingcast, co-host Scott Jones interviews a positive psychologist named Emily Esfani Smith, who also had something to say about narratives.

Smith has written a book about what it takes to live a meaningful life. She said that one thing we need to do is to see the way in which all the events in our lives weave together to tell a story: which means, “Taking your experiences,” she said, “and knitting them together into a narrative that explains who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going.” She said,

Storytelling is particularly powerful when it comes to dealing with a low point or an adversity that you’ve experienced because these are kind of blips in our narrative—these are places where the story that we’re living was not the story we expected to live. And so we have to integrate those experiences into our story and kind of understand how they shaped us.

She said that this involves what academics call “counterfactual thinking”:

Thinking about some pivotal event in your life and imagining that it hadn’t happened and asking yourself how your life would have been different if that hadn’t have happened. So if you went to X college, what if you had gone to Y college? You moved to X city. What if you had stayed home or moved to Y city?

Researchers find that this is a powerful builder of meaning because it helps you realize the benefits of taking the path you did end up taking.

In other words, people who are happiest and most fulfilled in life are those who have learned to be grateful that their lives don’t go according to their own plans. The low points, the adversity, the setbacks, the failures, the disappointments—all of these things, which we might have dreaded at the time, are good and necessary for us because they help to shape us into the people that we are.

I completely agree—even though she’s speaking from a purely secular perspective.

From a Christian perspective, however, this seems even more true. Why? Because we understand that our heavenly Father is constantly working through adversity, setbacks, failures, and disappointments. He’s constantly redeeming these events—making them work out for our good, for the world’s good, and for his glory.

Sure, things may not be going according to our plans—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going according to his!

Like Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and faced one adversity after another, we can say of any evil or harmful thing that the devil sends our way: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.” We can say with Jesus, “In this world we will have tribulation. But take heart: Christ has overcome the world.” We can say with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We can say, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

As I’ve said many times on this blog, nothing has helped me more during these past five years than learning to appreciate that God is in charge, and I can trust that he knows what’s best for me. Yet, for reasons that have nothing to do with Mr. Wesley—who spoke of God’s sovereignty often—we Methodists tend to be allergic to the idea.

Not me! I’m gratified to know that Dr. Smith’s research hints at the Story, even if she doesn’t name the Storyteller.

John Piper: How to handle guilt over sexual sin

March 28, 2017

What follows is the most helpful sermon on sexual sin and guilt I’ve ever heard (or read, in this case). It’s by John Piper. He delivered it years ago at the Passion Conference for Christian college students, held in Atlanta—at which time, being the smug, liberal seminarian that I was, I would have rolled my eyes and thought, “John Piper!” (Yes, I know… I need to work on forgiving myself for those years.) Regardless, I read the sermon now, and his words are the balm of Gilead.

If you have tried to live a Christian life, you know firsthand the power of guilt. I think Piper is right, however, to say that guilt over sexual sin in particular is an especially powerful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. Left untreated (or unhealed), this guilt will prevent us from becoming not only what God wants us to become, but what we—at our idealistic, passionate, Spirit-filled best—dream of becoming. As Piper puts it,

The great tragedy is not mainly masturbation or fornication or acting like a peeping Tom (or curious Cathy) on the internet. The tragedy is that Satan uses the guilt of these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had, or might have, and in its place give you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures until you die in your lakeside rocking chair, wrinkled and useless, leaving a big fat inheritance to your middle-aged children to confirm them in their worldliness. That’s the main tragedy.

I have not come to Atlanta to waste your time or mine. I have come with a passion that you not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. O, God, let it happen! But mainly I want to take out of the devil’s hand the weapon that exploits the sin of your life to destroy your valiant dreams, and make your whole life a wasted worldly success.

Whatever you think you know about Piper, I suspect you’ll be surprised by the pastoral tone throughout this sermon. First, he’s no culture warrior railing against the handful of sins that culture warriors usually rail against. In fact, given his words above—and elsewhere in the sermon—about American middle-class prosperity, he isn’t holding out hope for our culture—or any culture—with or without its sexual proclivities. No culture on this side of eternity will ever be the kingdom of God.

Second, he’s speaking to a Christian audience who mostly already agree that sexual sin is truly sinful. That’s not the issue: the issue is, many of them don’t know how to handle the potentially self-destructive guilt that comes when they fall victim to it. Read the rest of this entry »

Roger Olson: “We all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us”

March 28, 2017

Roger Olson has a thought-provoking recent post on the state of hymn-singing in contemporary evangelical churches. He says that a predominant theme of hymns that he sang growing up—and which he often heard on Christian radio stations—is “friendship with Jesus.”

When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity (and here I definitely mean “evangelical” in the spiritual-theological sense, not the contemporary media-driven political sense!) these songs and this “language of Zion” (as one of my seminary professors called it) was extremely common and deeply impacted and shaped my Christian spirituality and even my theology. I still tend to identify “evangelical spirituality” with that theme, motif, language. But it’s now extremely difficult to find in contemporary evangelicalism and Baptist life.

I admit it; I struggle with the seeming loss of this theme, motif, and the “language of Zion” associated with it. This is not directly a doctrinal issue; it is an issue—for me—of evangelical spirituality. I happen to think (much to some others’ chagrin, I’m sure) that that language and theme and motif—that was so great a part of evangelical piety and worship—is part of modern evangelical Christianity’s essence. Yes, to be sure, it can be expressed in new and different ways, but to drop it away entirely seems to me to change evangelical Christianity itself with great loss.

So, for those of you who didn’t grow up with it (what I’m talking about here) let me be descriptive. In my home in the 1950s and 1960s “Christian radio” was almost always “on” except at night when we slept. It was our “background noise.” And in our church (and other evangelical churches we visited) the same “language of Zion” and theme/motif was central to everything. The theme/motif could be expressed something like this: “If you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior you can enjoy a personal relationship with him that will enrich your life abundantly.” In my home and in most that I knew of (as “us”) Jesus was a real presence there. He was the unseen but truly experienced presence among us and with us.

While I didn’t grow up in a home like that, I experienced this theme/motif firsthand on church retreats and camps when I was in youth group. I probably feel as much nostalgia for first-generation “Christian rock,” which I still listen to, as he does for the Christian music of his youth. Nostalgia or not, however, I don’t think he’s wrong: I believe this theme/motif is actively discouraged in worship today.

For example, one of my seminary professors told a classroom full of pastors-in-training that we shouldn’t sing hymns that used first-person singular pronouns: our singing should always be “we,” “our,” and “us.” He made reference to the Lord’s Prayer, which is, technically, a corporate prayer. In the same way, all aspects of worship should be corporate.

Even then, when I was hardly reading the Bible—I was hardly a Christian—I wanted to say, “Yes, but what about the Psalms? That’s the church’s original hymnbook, and it’s filled with first-person singular pronouns!”

As I’ve said before, if I had to do seminary over again, I would have asked many more questions!

In the comments section of Olson’s post, a reader said that he missed singing the hymn “In the Garden”—a popular example of this “friendship with Jesus” theme. (We sang it two days ago at Hampton United Methodist Church!) In response, Olson wrote the following (emphasis mine):

I have heard evangelical and Baptist worship leaders bash it [“In the Garden”] as “too individualistic.” Well, you know (I want to say to them), we all die our own deaths; nobody dies for us. Death is very individual—even if there are friends and loved ones around us. I want Jesus there with me—but not only then. Then might be too late.


A recent example of effective witnessing

March 23, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I preached about witnessing. I shared some advice on the topic from a recent article in Christianity Today. The author, Jerry Root, a long-time associate of Billy Graham, said that when we witness, it’s not a matter of “taking Jesus to someone”; Jesus is already there. We follow Christ’s lead. But doing so still requires preparation. It’s a deliberate action.

For example, when we meet someone, he suggests asking them what he calls “public” questions—non-threatening questions like, “What’s your name?” “Are you from here?” Then we “listen to the answers and find in them the permission to go deeper. Eventually, we connect the gospel at the very point of deep felt need.”

Easy, right?

Well… I suspect for many of us this still seems intimidating—in part because we’ve seen so few examples of people who are doing it, or doing it well.

Last Friday, however, I encountered a living, breathing example of someone doing it well. I had business in Atlanta. While I was there, I went to a favorite coffee shop near Emory to work on my sermon. A couple of tables away from me, two young women were talking. I promise I wasn’t eavesdropping, but one woman’s voice carried across the room.

I overheard her telling the other woman about her experience raising an autistic child. I gathered that she was counseling this young woman, a new mother whose own child had recently been diagnosed with autism.

My ears perked up at one point when she told the young mother that she was a Christian. She volunteered this in relation to some educational choices that she and her husband had made. A few minutes later, she said the following: “I believe that God has made your child perfect, just the way she’s meant to be. And the Lord is going to take care of her—and you—and give you all the love and support and strength you need to be a great mother to her.”

I wanted to jump out of my seat and shout, “Amen!”

Nothing about this conversation felt forced. First, the woman volunteered that she was a Christian. Then, as Dr. Root described in the article I cited above, she waited for “permission to go deeper.” Having found that permission, she spoke from her heart about Jesus and connected the gospel to the young mother’s deeply felt need.

What convicts me about this conversation is how easily this Christian could have remained quiet about her faith. Doesn’t it often seem easier not bring it up?

What would happen if we prayed regularly—daily—for opportunities to bring it up? Who knows what the Holy Spirit might do? Is it possible that this young woman was so accustomed to sharing her faith that it would be harder for her not to bring it up?

Sermon 03-12-17: “Calling All Tax Collectors and Sinners”

March 21, 2017

If you’re a Christian, witnessing should be one of your top priorities in life. If you’re like most Christians, however, it isn’t. As much as I want to say, “Try harder,” that message won’t work. As I say in this sermon, what we need to become more deliberate, more effective witnesses is to fall in love with Jesus—again or for the first time.

Sermon Text: Matthew 9:9-17

Do any of you have an ichthus or fish decal on or near the bumper of your car? I have often said that I wouldn’t have one of those because I’m not a considerate enough driver—or a careful enough driver—to have a symbol of my loyalty to Jesus on the back of my car: I don’t want to cut someone off in traffic and thereby give Jesus a bad name! I don’t want to be a bad witness.

A satirical article in the Babylon Bee purports to have just the answer for Christian drivers like me: a “retractable fish decal.” The article describes a modification kit for your car that allows you, with the press of a button, to hide the fish symbol when you do something wrong while driving. In the article, a spokesperson from LifeWay Christian Resources puts it like this:

“Want to cut someone off, but worried you’ll be a bad witness? Now you can slap the red button on your dashboard and a small panel will rotate on your bumper, hiding the fish from view… Flip people off on the freeway, [drive] down the shoulder [of the interstate] during a traffic jam, all without worrying about marring the good name of Christ.”

The article continues:

The kit ships with several options, such as the ability to instantly replace the Christian fish decal with an atheist “flying spaghetti monster” silhouette or a Coexist sticker, or else the bumper sticker from a competing church in your town or city.

[The spokesperson added:] “Not only will your terrible, aggressive driving not be a bad witness for Christ, but you can also make atheists or any other church or religion you want look bad instead!”

If only that were real! Read the rest of this entry »

Pastoral words from Jesus about doubt

March 17, 2017

This Sunday I’m preaching on Matthew 11:1-15, which includes Jesus’ short “sermon” to a John the Baptist who now doubts that he is the Messiah. Jesus’ concludes his sermon with this beatitude: “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I like this eloquence from Bruner:

Now for the end of his sermon to John, Jesus saves these words, tailor-made for John (and for all of us who are tempted to wonder if Jesus really is It): “And—blessings on the person who is not offended by me!” These are kind words. Jesus does not shame John by saying something like, “And blessed is the person who never doubts if I am the Messiah”—words like that would have hurt John because doubt was exactly John’s experience. Nor does Jesus here bless those who in discouraging situations glow with vital faith. All such triumphal words would have been the worst possible pastoral counsel for John in this state. Instead Jesus pitches his tune low, puts the cookies on a shelf John can reach, and promises, in so many words, “And God bless you, John, if you do not throw the whole thing over because I am a different kind of Messiah than you were expecting.”[†]

Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 509.

Church Council Homily 03-16-17: “And Then They Will Fast”

March 16, 2017

I preached the following homily this evening at Church Council. 

Homily Text: Matthew 9:15

My sermon last Sunday, if you recall, was about witnessing. I made the case, based on Jesus’ call of Matthew in Matthew 9, for the importance and priority of witnessing. I also discussed how, in spite of this, we so often fail to do it. I said: “I’m tempted to say, ‘We need to try harder. We need to work harder. We need to follow this plan, apply these principles, use these techniques to become better witnesses.’”

The problem with saying that is that it won’t work. We don’t need to witness more; we need to fall in love with Jesus more. If only we could, I said, witnessing would take care of itself.

As my family was only too happy to remind me, my sermon was already 32 minutes long. So I didn’t have time to talk about how to fall in love with Jesus. We already know many of the ways: prayer, Bible study, worship, the Lord’s Supper, Christian service—these are what we Methodists call the “means of grace.”

But alongside these is the most neglected means of grace by far.

I’m talking about fasting. I preached on fasting a couple of months ago when I preached on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. But in last Sunday’s scripture it came up again: the disciples of John the Baptist asked why Jesus and his disciples—unlike themselves and the Pharisees—weren’t doing it. And Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”  Read the rest of this entry »

“The only thing you can do anything about is your past”

March 13, 2017

I just started reading Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. The following excerpt may help explain why, in my own teaching and preaching ministry over the past few years, I’ve emphasized themes of sin, Law, judgment, repentance, the Cross, and substitutionary atonement more than sanctification—or the strategies for self-improvement that disguise themselves as such.

In my own life, I need healing for my ever-present past more than help for my future (which is mostly out of my hands). Don’t you? Fortunately, more than anything else, that’s what Christ came to heal. “The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.”

In light of the law, all that men and women can do, declares Christ, is to repent (Matthew 3:2, concerning John the Baptist; Mark 1:15; Luke 13:3). Repentance is not the same thing as restitution or a changed hart. Repentance is felt sorrow, sorrow in your very marrow, for what you have been and done. Repentance not only covers shame at what you have done but also includes shame at who you are, as in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). Repentance is not a disposition in relation to the future. It is disposition in relation to your personal past.

Not long ago I read a newspaper article about an executive at Boeing. The reporter asked him to name the secret of his success, and he said, “There is nothing you can do about the past. The only thing you can do anything about is the future.” Christ saw life differently. For Christ, the only thing you can do anything about is your past. God alone can deal with your future. If you have repented of your past, if you have taken an inventory of the full extent of hurt, victimhood, malice, and self-service that describe your achieved life, if you have said the one single needful word, “sorry,” then that is all. There is nothing more. The future, which Paul would later call the “fruit of the Spirit,” flows totally from the “sorry.” The past resolved gives the present its only chance. The future is the Spirit’s job.[†]

Paul F.M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 11.