Sunday, August 28, 2011

Planting for a Harvest

The Parable of the Sower
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

I’m not much into gardening, but whenever I am working in the garden, especially pulling weeds, I always hear God’s voice. No, not an audible voice, but God speaks to me when I’m in the garden. For example, there’s this one vine that grows all over the place, in our garden, in the flower beds outside the church. It starts small, but before you know it, it’s everywhere, sending out little vines that wrap around everything. When I see it, it reminds me of sin, which starts small and, if unchecked, will wind its way through every aspect of your life.

Can anyone relate?

It’s no wonder that when Jesus began telling stories about the Kingdom of God that He used everyday situations to convey his message. When I was little, we learned that a parable was an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. But in seminary, my professors told us that parables were earthly stories with earthly meanings. A parable is a story that carries a lesson. Speaking to a largely agrarian society, Jesus often spoke about farming.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.  Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.  Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Many of us have heard the parable of the sower many times, and I purposely picked a familiar one to go with the unfamiliar. The reason is two-fold; first of all, it’s probably familiar for a reason, and secondly, it’s a good preaching exercise to plan to preach a familiar text. Try immersing yourself in a biblical text you know well; you’ll find that it is much more nuanced than you ever thought. A good example was when I undertook an exercise to daily meditate on the Lord’s Prayer one word a day.

One thing you’ll find when you study through Jesus’ parables is that many of them have some hard-to-explain parts. Sometimes something happens that just doesn’t happen. There are times when that is cultural and other times when Jesus is making a point. So when Jesus talks about a farmer sowing seeds, we have to figure out if the farmer is just dumb or if there is a reason he is throwing his seeds every which way.

We saw that his seeds ended up everywhere: along the path where the birds could eat it; in the rocky soil; among the thorns, and in the fertile soil. The obvious question is why a farmer would waste his seeds in all these places. One possible explanation is that ancient farming practices were a little different than ours – sometimes they didn’t have much fertile land and they would simply sow as much as they could, just hoping that they’d grow something somewhere. One commentary suggested that sometimes they sowed, then plowed the seeds under.

But another explanation is that a farmer wouldn’t just randomly sow seed. Just because they lived a long time ago doesn’t mean that they were dumb. Even if a farmer is sowing then planting, there’s no reason for him to sow seeds on the path. So if that’s the case, we are left to figure out why Jesus would have his farmer scatter seeds everywhere.

The simple explanation is that Jesus is, in this very speech, doing what he has the farmer do in his parable. Jesus is speaking to a crowd so large that he has to go out on the water in a boat to speak to all of them. Certainly when someone is speaking to such a large crowd, there are going to be mixed reactions. I can relate to that: last week there were some who thought the sermon was really great and others of you maybe needed a Mountain Dew.

But Jesus continues to “sow seeds” to everyone there. There is a reason he finishes up the parable by saying, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” God sends out His Word, but He gives us the opportunity to listen… or not.

As Jesus explained, the parable of the farmer starts with the message of the Kingdom being proclaimed.

Romans 10:11 tells us that Anyone who trusts in Him will never be put to shame. No matter who you are, whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, whether you have been in church all your life or if it’s your first time, no matter your socio-economic background or family name, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Romans 10:13) This is the inclusive message Jesus spreads. This is the good news of the Kingdom, the seed spread by the farmer.

The issue, as Paul addresses, is How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14-15a)

I have seen in American Christians a surprising unwillingness to preach the good news these days. Nobody wants to seem “close-minded” or “intolerant” and we have taken the old quote attributed to St. Francis: “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words” to mean “live a Christian life, but don’t ever tell anyone what you believe.” The parable of the sower requires there to first be someone “sowing” the word. Without someone telling the Good News, the rest doesn’t matter, because we don’t give anyone anything to respond to!

Now when you consider that the farmer sows the seeds rather indiscriminately, it suddenly makes sense. Who are we to pre-determine who gets to hear the message? My senior year of college, I started a Bible study in my fraternity. I had three guys lined up to be part of it, and I put up a sign and invited anyone to come. It started out being just the four of us in my room, but every once in a while, someone would wander in, usually with a beer in hand. Did we say, “You’re going to have to get yourself together before you can hear this Bible passage”? Nope. We invited them in. I loved it when the Bible study eventually got too big for my room and ended up being held in the fraternity living room. Someone would come back from class or wherever they’d been and one of the guys would call them over to ask them the ice-breaker question. We had some guys join who I never would have expected to want to study the Bible, and they wouldn’t have showed up had we discriminated as to whom was allowed to attend and hear.

Consequently faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. If the message, the Word of Christ, isn’t being proclaimed, then we can’t expect any harvest whatsoever. A few weeks ago at a meeting, Chad was telling about the youth ministry looking to do something new: street evangelism. I am excited about that – they will undoubtedly grow in their relationship with Jesus as they proclaim his name, and they will be sowing seeds, like the farmer in Jesus’ parable. The funny thing is that this is a new technique. Because it’s not really new at all; when John Wesley said, “The world is my parish” he meant that he would go to where people were and preach to them there. He didn’t wait until people made it to a church building; he went to where they were. Sadly, we now expect people to come to us. We’ve become stingy with the seeds.

When the seeds are actually sown, Jesus mentions four responses. First: when anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, and the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. (Mt. 13:19) We have all kinds of barriers to understanding the Word. Some are cultural – our culture has preached that all religions are equal when they clearly are not. One religion claims there is no deity, and another claims that not only is there a deity, but one who can be known personally. One religion claims that the deity is an impersonal force that pervades everything; another one claims that the deity is a Personal Being. One religion says there are many gods, another says there is one God, and still another says there is One God in Three Persons. They can’t all be right.

Our culture says, “on a mountain, all paths lead to the top” – obviously the ones saying this haven’t climbed a mountain. But the truth is, even if all paths lead to the top of the mountain, only Jesus Christ is the path to heaven. All other paths remain on earth.

It can be difficult to understand the Gospel when looking through the lens of our culture. It can also be hard to understand it when we have never experienced Christians behaving like Christians. When our experience tells us that to be a Christian is to dress up nicely on Sunday for church and stiff our waiter at the restaurant after church – who would want to be a part of that? In his book An Unstoppable Force, Erwin McManus says, “It is rare to find someone who is a passionate enemy of the church who has never had contact with her.” So someone hears the word, but Satan snatches away what was sown before it can take root.

What can we do about that? Know that there are things that are hard to understand, and study them so we can Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15) When my friend Tony first came to church, he had several friends stick around with him after service to explain to him everything that had happened that morning so hopefully he would understand it and the seed would not be stolen. We as Christians have a responsibility to share Jesus with the world, and part of that is the gentleness and respect with which we deal with others. Our culture is littered with former Christians who were hurt by the church. We could eliminate much of that if we were gentle and respectful when we deal with each other. In other words, behave like Christians!

Jesus goes on to the second scenario: Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. (Matthew 13:5-6) I call this the church camp soil. There are times in our lives when we are ready and eager to receive the Word; for me it was at church camp. Every year I heard convicting messages and worshiped God passionately with a hundred other teenagers. By the end of camp, every year I came forward to rededicate my life to Christ. This was going to be the year that I lived a Christlike life. This was going to be the year that I impacted my school for Jesus. Unfortunately, only a few weeks later, my newfound commitment had already faded. I was rooted to my church camp experience, not to Jesus Christ, the Rock.

I don’t say this to disparage church camp or retreats or conferences. They are good things. I do say it to remind us that our root must be in Jesus, not in the camp. Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t say “if trouble or persecution come” – but “when” it comes… Trouble will come, and if your root is not deep in Jesus Christ, you will fall away. So if you’ve made a commitment at camp or at a retreat, have you set up some means by which you can grow your root deep? Have you shared your commitment with anyone? Do you have anyone to help keep you accountable, to ask you how things are going and to really want an answer? Remember that the altar is the first step on your journey; do you have people praying for you and walking with you on your journey?

One thing I have often seen is someone coming to church for the first time, getting excited about the ministry and what’s going on, making a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ… and then disappearing. Often the issue is one of not getting plugged in. Just showing up on a Sunday morning is not enough; we need to have meaningful interactions with other Christians and we need to be serving Christ in ministry together. So one way to apply this is to specifically take the time to join with other Christians to study the Bible together and to pray for one another. It is also time to join with other Christians in serving… but to also invite others to join you. Don’t get tunnel vision or cliquish. Try inviting someone new to share with you. Especially if you are serving in some area, and you’re probably short on people to serve – invite someone to serve with you!

In the third scenario, the seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. (Matthew 13:7). Jesus explains that this means someone hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Matt 13:22) I grew up hearing the plan of salvation, which led from confession of sin, repentance of sin, being baptized, and livethechristianlife. There was little provision as to how to live that life, and I assumed that Christian adults didn’t struggle with sins the way I did. After all, living the Christian life happened naturally once you were baptized, didn’t it? I wasn’t hearing the words “persecution” and “suffering.” There are many times when the worries of this life simply choke out the Word of God. There is so much to do; I just don’t have time to stop and listen for a still, small voice. I don’t have time to sit and read scripture or pray.

But time isn’t really the problem; I’ve found that when I’m least busy is often when I have the most trouble finding time for God. Everything else manages to just take up more time. And then there’s Sunday worship: how many people miss one Sunday worship service and then another and then another and soon they’ve gotten totally out of the habit of worshiping with other Christians and it’s not long until their lives aren’t any different from the nonbelieving world.

Sometime else I didn’t realize was that wealth would be such a barrier to many people, that money would compete with God in the hearts of many. I was shocked when I mentioned tithing in a leadership meeting – I said that I expected our church leaders to be tithing or working toward a tithe and that if we’re not willing to do so, then we probably shouldn’t lead in the church, and by some of the reactions I got, you’d have thought I suggested human sacrifice. The deceitfulness of wealth chokes the Word, making it unfruitful.

That was all the bad news. But the good news is that there is also good soil, where we hear the word and understand it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”(Matt 13:23) I love seeing someone really catch fire for the Lord. The question is: what can we do to prepare the soil for a good harvest? Remember that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring forth the harvest. But we need to fill ourselves with Him for Him to work through us. We have a duty to share the Word; it is our responsibility to be Jesus’ hands and feet, spreading His Word everywhere we go.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tell Me a Story: Time To Eat

Luke 14:7-24

Our country is full of people who claim not to like the church but to be fans of Jesus. I see Jesus all over in pop culture: everything from “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts to Jesus bobbleheads. It seems like everyone except violent atheists like Jesus. That’s all well and good, but some people at some point in history didn’t like him; they didn’t like him enough that they crucified him.

What is it about Jesus that makes him such a polarizing person? How could he attract large crowds who would follow him everywhere and at the same time have a group of influential people willing to stop at nothing to kill him?

It could have something to do with the things he taught. But the only way to find out what he taught is to listen to what he said. In this sermon series, I’m going to invite you to listen to the stories Jesus told. There are some that are familiar enough that their phrases have come into normal cultural use, like “Good Samaritan.” Others are a little more obscure.

One thing that Jesus loved was taking everyday objects and experiences and using them to explain aspects of the Kingdom of God. Today’s stories revolve around eating.

If there is one thing that can be said of United Methodists across the country it is that we know how to eat. Last week we had our church picnic and it was too cold for anyone but the bravest souls to swim, but the food was fantastic. Nobody went away hungry. In fact, when I had eaten my fill, out come the root beer floats!

Eating has always had a central place in culture including the culture Jesus lived in. The scene we read about today from Luke 14 took place at a meal hosted by a prominent Pharisee. As we look at this meal, know that a meal was never just a meal. It was part of a huge reciprocal system based on honor and shame.

A reciprocal system simply means that if I do something for you, you’re obligated to reciprocate, to do something for me. If I invite you over for dinner, you’d better start planning for when you’re going to invite me. Hospitality was a vitally important concept in the Ancient Near East, but it the practice was laden with implications from the reciprocal system. If you showed hospitality to me, I would need to reciprocate by showing hospitality to you.

To make matters more complicated and difficult, the Ancient Near East had a deep-rooted system of honor and shame in place as well. They would have needed no explanation of several aspects of the story I read from Jesus. They would have understood that no wealthy homeowner would have thought of inviting the poor to his banquet, not only because it would have reflected poorly on him, but because the poor could never have reciprocated with an invitation and so the very invitation would have shamed them and they would have had to decline. For that reason, the only reason he would have invited them in the first place was to shame them.

A prominent Pharisee invites Jesus to eat, and Jesus watches the way people picked the places of honor at the table. Can you picture Jesus, standing over to the side, just watching as people rush to get the places of honor at the meal? Have you ever been to a general admission event with polite people? Everyone is there early, and when the doors open, everyone speedwalks to get the best place? But there was an art to seating at such a banquet; even as people rushed to sit in the places of most honor, there was a problem.

Here’s how I can kind-of understand this problem. I’ve gone to numerous sporting events; it seems like pretty much half of the time, when I get to my seat, someone is in it. I’m try to be polite when I say, “Excuse me, I believe this is my seat.” They’ve usually just made a simple mistake and they’re sitting in section 122 instead of 123, but sometimes their tickets are for a completely different section (with a much worse view). It’s embarrassing to have an usher send you back up to the nosebleed seats.

What made it worse in Jesus’ time was that to be “sent down” is to be publically shamed, to be told “you are less than this other person.” So Jesus tells the people at the banquet: instead of picking the best seat and risking shame, pick the lowest place. Then the host will honor you by telling you to move up to a better place.

Did Jesus really care about where people sat at a banquet? I don’t think so. What he did care about comes with his next words. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:11)

Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines humility as “a freedom from arrogance that grows from the recognition that all we have and are comes from God.” There are times when it can be easy to lose perspective and to get arrogant and prideful, especially when you’re always hearing or experiencing how good you are; when I played high school soccer, I was regularly the fastest person on the field; I could usually outrun just about anyone. I thought I was a pretty special soccer player. In college, however, I found out that everyone playing club ball had been the fastest guy on the high school field. And many of them were stronger than I was, so not only could they keep up with me, but they could also push me off the ball. Any arrogance I had about my playing ability went out the door.

Generally, whatever you’re great at, there’s going to be someone in the world who is better. We’re all better off knowing that at the outset so we don’t get too upset when we discover it. But that’s not all there is to humility. Humility isn’t beating yourself up or selling yourself short. It is a recognition that everything you have, including skills and gifts, it all comes from God. So don’t get all puffed up over your gifts; give glory and honor to the God who gave them.

When you do so, God will exalt you.  One of my seminary professors, Dr. Joel Green, put it this way: It is “Better to have honor bestowed on you than to make a bid for honor that may not be granted” (Joel Green NICNT)

So Jesus tells the host to turn social norms on their head. Instead of inviting people who can reciprocate, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Why would it be a blessing to invite those who can’t reciprocate? Because it’s just like what Jesus. As Christians, our goal is Christlikeness – quite a lofty goal. After all, Jesus lived a perfect life and died on the cross to save humanity – while we were his enemies, and there is nothing we can do to somehow repay him for what he did. While we’ve already blown our chance at living a perfect life, Jesus perfects us. And while we’re not going to die on the cross for anyone’s sin, we have the opportunity to give without expecting reciprocation. This is one reason that our food pantry ministry is so important. Yes, we are giving food to hungry people. This is extremely important. Yes, we are praying with our clients. This is possibly even more important. Jesus said when we feed the hungry, then we’re feeding him. This is important as well. But it’s also important that we give without expecting anything in return. In doing so, we are not only obeying Jesus, but also imitating him.

Hospitality is not for a self-serving agenda. If our reason for hospitality is to get something in return, then it’s not hospitality at all. I’ve heard this discussion around youth ministry, where someone is looking to cut funding and of course, the youth ministry is one of the first on the chopping block (because there is rarely a youth voice on the church finance board and it’s always easier to cut someone else’s funding). Someone inevitably comments that the youth aren’t ‘pulling their own weight’ as far as funding goes. So for many youth ministries, ours included, the youth themselves do fundraising to support the ministry aimed for them. Mike Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties, often asked what would happen if the rest of us had to fundraise to do all of our activities. If we have kingdom priorities, things will look different.

Take, for example, those who Jesus advocates inviting. The poor. The crippled. The lame. The blind. These were all people who were considered to be excluded from God’s elect. So it would be natural to not invite them to your banquet. But this is exactly who Jesus says we should invite. The ones who most need inviting.

When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the table in the kingdom of God.”

I’ll bet the one who said this was hoping Jesus would single him out with praise. “Well said, smart one, now come sit in the seat of honor!” Instead, Jesus tells another story, one of a wealthy man preparing a banquet. He sent out invitations and got back the RSVPs from his guests, but when it came time for the banquet, nobody came. All of the wealthy guests had excuses, lame ones at that. There is only one reason they would skip a banquet they’d already RSVPed to and give the excuses they gave: to shame the person who invited them.

In our study of Titus, we spent a lot of time talking about Paul’s call to Titus to teach Christians on Crete to step out of the cultural worldview they lived in and to live a Christlike life in direct contrast to the culture they lived in. The reason Paul could command something like that is that it’s straight in line with Jesus. Jesus is utterly rejecting the system of reciprocity, saying that the things that are important in this world, like status, popularity, being upwardly mobile, all of these are of no use. The hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” says it wonderfully: Turn your eyes upon Jesus/look full in His wonderful face/and the things of earth will grow strangely dim/in the light of His goodness and grace.

Take time to think about what is important to you and evaluate it. If it gets in the way of your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then it is an idol.

Now, many scholars have taken Jesus’ banquet scene to represent God and the heavenly banquet. In this interpretation, God has invited his elect, the Jews, to his banquet, but since the Jews reject him, he has to “settle” for us Gentiles. After all, he has to have “some” people, so if he can’t have the ones he wants, he might as well take the ones nobody else wanted.

There is one little problem with reading: it isn’t biblical. It simply ignores all of the covenant language God uses with Abram. God’s plan for Abram was never to make one elect people to the exclusion of everyone else, but instead to bless Abram to be a blessing. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:2-3

So if God isn’t the homeowner who is throwing the banquet, who is Jesus talking about? Jesus is actually inviting those who hear him to identify with the man who gave the banquet. They are the ones who are called to step out of the cultural norm to embrace kingdom living. You see, social status is a terrible master; it can be wrenched away as fast as it can be awarded. So Jesus says, “Step off the treadmill.” Don’t waste your time with the social system of reciprocity or status preservation. Jesus turns the entire system upside down, saying: Don’t chase after all of that; it’s not worth it. It’s all hollow.

“Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22-26)

If you are living your life for the approval of others, if you are living your life for personal comfort, if you are living your life for popularity, you’re in a world of hurt.

So Jesus makes a point that those who would follow him must examine our culture and throw off every aspect that would hinder us and others in our journey toward Christlikeness. What might that look like for us? It means breaking out of a country club mentality of doing church, where we do everything to serve us and neglect others. It means reaching out beyond your chosen peer group. It means finding ways to serve people who can’t give back to you.

I am excited about what the future holds for Millersport UMC. I am excited about ministering to children with our updated Faith Weavers Friends night. I am excited about serving Jesus in the Millersport Community Food Pantry. I am excited about preparing for a mission trip. I am excited about seeing you inviting people who haven’t yet been included in the ministry of the church. I am excited to see how you will respond and serve Jesus.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Clean it Up!

Titus 3:5-15

As we continue in Paul’s letter to Titus, I want to pause a moment to acknowledge something. On one hand, it’s been pretty easy to translate the situation on Crete to the current situation in our country; both have prevailing cultures of indulgence and deceit. At the same time, it’s been hard preparing these messages, because the scripture continues to unearth difficult areas in my life where I need Jesus more.

Last week I realized that one reality that is difficult to navigate is how far we have to subject ourselves to rulers and authorities when they are obviously corrupt.

It was obvious as I preached that section of scripture that many of us have some pretty strong feelings about authority, especially when it comes to personal liberties and use of money. Many of us feel like we’re being stretched, poked, and prodded needlessly by the government and we’d really like the government to just get out of our business, especially out of our wallets.

I recognized that tension as I was writing the message, but it was even more evident as I was preaching it. As I was reflecting on it, it was startling just how much we are products of our culture. I wonder how someone in Indonesia or North Korea or Somalia or Saudia Arabia would respond to our complaints about our government. I don’t say this to say that our government is always right, but we are fortunate to live here, and we have a duty, as Christians, to live obediently, to always be ready to do whatever is good, especially when it comes to people who are not good to us. At the same time, I encourage Christians to work against oppression in whatever form it takes; our focus can never simply be on ourselves. On Facebook this week I posted a quote from Pastor Perry Noble where he said, “‎I am more convinced than ever before that when someone walks away from church it is impossible for them to maintain an intimate walk with Jesus!”

If we’re not intimately and authentically involved with one another, we are not obeying Jesus, so how can we say we’re walking intimately with Him?

I say all of this to say that living the Christian life is not easy. It’s not about doing whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. It’s about a complete reprioritizing of our lives and everything we value.

I’m pretty well convinced that this doesn’t just happen. It certainly doesn’t happen on its own. Paul was convinced of the same thing, so he wrote to Titus, telling him how to lead the church leaders. In Titus 3, last week we looked at Paul’s reminders of how to live life, always being ready to do what is good. He admitted that he had lived a foolish life, a life apart from God, a deceived life enslaved by his passions and pleasures. That’s our context for verses 4 and following.

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,  he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,  so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Into a world of deception and gluttony steps God, a God of kindness and love. He didn’t send his Son into the world to save us because we were somehow good enough – he had to do it because we couldn’t save ourselves. And contrary to what you might have thought, God didn’t save us for our sake. God saved us because it’s his character to do so. It is because of who He is! We don’t deserve it for a minute. This is what God says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. (Ezekiel 36:22)  

God isn’t doing this because we’re somehow better than other people. He is doing it for the sake of his own name. One reason people often give for leaving the church or for hating the church is that Christians are hypocrites. We say one thing and do another. Another is self-righteousness. We act like we think we’re better than other people. We’re no better than anyone else – we all need God’s mercy, and until we humble ourselves and realize that we’re not good enough on our own, that we need him desperately, until then, we’re in major danger.

In Romans 3, Paul reminds us that “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless. There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12) What might we look like if we were constantly cognizant of how far we’ve fallen short… and, at the same time, how much God loves us and how much he has forgiven us of?

As we recognize that it’s God and God only who saves us, not Jesus+, as I have said before, our love, thanksgiving, and gratitude to God call us to live out our salvation.  The Bible tells us how to do that. Remember that we don’t live these things out to somehow earn our salvation; we do them because we love God and we don’t want anything to get in the way of our relationship with him.

And as we obey him – there’s that word “obedience” again – we grow closer to him and we find ourselves listening better to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who guides us to obedience, who draws us ever closer to God. And in his letter to Titus, Paul interprets salvation in terms of the Holy Spirit.

When Paul wrote, he wrote in Greek, and in the sentence that we read: He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5b), Paul holds the main verb (he saved) until after he states the conditions. To translate it stiffly: “Through the washing that causes rebirth and renewal, which washing is done by the Holy Spirit.”

God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, washes us. When Paul gives instructions to husbands in Ephesus, he tells them to love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27). This spiritual cleansing, symbolized beautifully in our baptism, is a work of God. We can’t clean ourselves, but the Holy Spirit does. The hymn “Jesus Paid it All” puts it beautifully: sin had left a crimson stain; he washed it white as snow.

Remember that our salvation is all about an action God already took. The price was already set and paid in full! It is a past action with present and future (and eternal!) implications.

An effect of the Holy Spirit washing us is rebirth. Most of us in our culture have heard the phrase “born again” enough that we ignore it. It doesn’t have the shock value as when Jesus told Nicodemus “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3). The imagery of rebirth is powerful, especially when considering who does the action. A baby doesn’t birth itself – a mother gives birth. It is never about the baby doing enough to get born.

This week in community group, we looked at 1 Peter 1:23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. Our first birth was perishable. In other words, it was finite. It was mortal, and this life will end in death. But our second birth is imperishable, meaning it will not end in death. It culminates in glorification.

Rebirth goes hand in hand with renewal. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) The old “you” – the one full of sin, the one destined to destruction… that self is gone. Dead. Remember, again, that the Holy Spirit not only sets us apart as a new creation, but he enables and empowers us to live it out in our daily lives.

This is what the prophets looked forward to. In Ezekiel 36, God speaks through the prophet: I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people and I will be your God. I will save you from your uncleanness. (Ezekiel 36:27-29a)

The problem Ezekiel was facing was similar to the one Titus was, and it’s similar to our own problem; God’s very people were giving God a bad name. I already talked about this, about hypocrisy being one of our primary problems. People often can’t tell the difference between a someone who calls himself Christian and his non-Christian neighbor. There is often little to no difference in our behavior. But into this reality, God says, “I am putting My Spirit into My People to move you to follow me and obey me.”

 He is sending his Holy Spirit, who will change us from the inside out. The Holy Spirit makes us new people, and the new person has different values than the old person. The new person behaves differently than the old person. That’s why I say it’s not about trying harder to behave. It’s about being a different person altogether!

God pours out his Spirit on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:6), as he said he would. The Day of Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel 2:28, when God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” This outpouring of God’s Spirit is a brilliant reversal of God pouring out his wrath on those who worked against him, as in Ezekiel 36:18. God brings his people from wrath to blessing, from immorality to holiness.

He justifies us, making us “just as if I’d never sinned” and gives us new birth with a new identity in a new family –we are God’s children, full of God’s Spirit, God’s heirs, those who will inherit eternal life. Again, the language is carefully chosen; we do not somehow earn an inheritance; it comes by birth. 

I love how Paul drives his point home, telling Titus “This is a trustworthy saying” As opposed to everything that culture is telling them, the people of Crete can trust what Paul told them. This is why he wants Titus to stress these things: so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Again, he reminds Christians that we are to devote ourselves to doing what is good. This doesn’t save us; it is our response to our salvation. And living out our salvation, living the new life given us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, this is excellent and profitable for everyone.

In contrast to what is excellent and profitable for everyone, Paul tells Titus to avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.(Titus 3:9) In this series we’ve already talked about the power of words; sometimes words are used carelessly or thrown around foolishly. There are people who try to make controversy where there really is none. There are people who use their family tree to puff themselves up. There is nothing wrong in and of itself with knowing your ancestry, but if your purpose is to tell people how great you are because of who your ancestors were, that’s simply foolish. It’s foolish because our new birth makes us children and heirs of God! If your glory is in your family name, that won’t get you anything on Judgment Day.

Arguments and quarrels about the law, likewise, are short-sighted. Most of them are designed either to justify your own sinful actions, to condemn someone else, or legalistically claim that you’ve arrived. Self-righteousness has no place in Christian life. Instead of wasting our time in unprofitable bickering, we have a chance to live our lives for something meaningful.

Paul tells Titus to Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)

Church discipline gets a bad rap in our “why can’t we all just get along” culture. There are divisive people; we even have divisive people in our church and some who have left. People have all kinds of reasons for leaving a particular church, but Paul is saying, “Don’t go chasing after divisive people, bending over backwards to keep them happy. That’s not helping God’s cause. That doesn’t bring God glory.” I’m not going to chase down divisive people and beg them to come back to this church. That’s an unproductive waste of time and energy; Paul was clear that devoting ourselves to doing good, on the other hand, is excellent and profitable for everyone.

Paul concludes his letter to Titus with some final personal remarks. (As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, because I have decided to winter there)He is sending Artemas or Tychicus to him and he wants Titus to come meet him at Nicopolis, where he’s going to spend the winter. I actually thought that the phenomenon of “snow birds,” people who go south for the winter, was new, but the climate of Western Greece is extremely mild in the winter. 50* isn’t bad. That’s where Paul was going to be, and he’s inviting Titus to come hang out. Of course, Crete’s weather isn’t bad…

Titus is also tasked (Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.) with caring for some other Christians who are traveling through the area, a reminder of all of our duty to care for those who God has called into ministry, especially those who have to rely on the generosity of other Christians for their livelihood. Then Paul reminds Titus again that Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives.

This is a summary of what he has been saying all along; be counter-cultural. Live lives that actually look like Jesus. Devote yourself to doing good because of the good that God has done for you. Don’t lie and cheat and steal; instead, provide for the needs of others. Live productive lives. Many of us have possessions that were meant for one purpose and are used for another; for example, Pastor Clarence left his old cell phone in the church office. I was able to use it to drive in a nail, and now I use it as a paperweight. It holds down something equally useless: fax coversheets. Live a productive life; live for what you were made for: to enjoy God’s grace and extend his glory.

Paul closes his letter with greetings. Everyone with me sends you greetings. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.

May you as well enjoy God’s grace and extend his glory. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Titus: Doing What is Good

Titus 3:1-5

Paul continues in his letter to Titus, a letter full of instructions on how to live a Christian life in a decidedly non-Christian environment. It’s kind of ironic that while I’m in the midst of a series on a book of the Bible I’d never really even studied before, the theme of our Bible Studies at Camp Sychar was Holy Living in an Unholy World. Sounds pretty much like Paul’s theme to Titus.

Titus chapter 3 starts with a reminder: Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good… This is hard in a culture of “I have the final authority in my life,” which is exactly what Titus was dealing with on Crete and pretty similar to the conditions we face here. Remember that there is a higher authority than you. Ultimately we all follow God, but God has placed each of us under authority.

For a moment, let’s consider the situation to which Paul is writing. Crete long held out independence against neighboring invaders, including the Greeks. It took Rome three years to “colonize” Crete, even with a pro-Roman leader in place. Crete was a fiercely independent nation. It’s no wonder that they had authority issues. The Christians in Crete were not only under Roman rule, but they also had to deal with the culture of Crete, a dishonest, indulgent culture. Paul is telling them that they have a duty as Christians to be subject to rulers and authorities, including Roman rule. Why would the Bible tell someone to be subject to pagan rule and authority? It’s the same reason that Paul told slaves to be subject to their masters, to work hard for them and try to please them. It’s not that Paul is somehow “for” Rome. It’s a lot bigger than that. I have a lot of issues with the idea of being subject to evil regimes. I look at the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler: should Bonhoeffer just have been an obedient Nazi? After the war, most Nazis parroted the same “just following orders” line. How far do we take this?

Unfortunately, this is a smokescreen. The problem in Crete was not a “how far do we go along with an evil regime?” problem. It’s much more like the problem we have. I understand that our country seems to be heading in an increasingly secular direction, and I encourage Christians to be involved in the political process to do everything possible to protect our civil rights, but the real problem is often that we simply want to do whatever we want to do. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do. Obedience does not come naturally. There is a reason we have terms like “Terrible Twos” – toddlers begin a life of asserting their independence, independence that usually comes at the expense of obedience.

When I came into the United Methodist Church, I was already ordained by another denomination, but I was told that I would have to participate in the “supervised years” program that our conference has for incoming pastors. I’ll let you in on a little secret: it was the last thing I wanted to be a part of. But two good things came from that process: first of all, I met Pastor Rob Turner, who is now one of my closest friends. But the biggest thing that came from the supervised years process was that I learned obedience. I do not simply answer to myself. I answer to a district superintendent and to a bishop. In the process I came to better understand God’s call to obedience.

We say to God, “I will go where you want me to go,” but the reality is, most of us will go where we want to go, and we will stay where it’s comfortable to stay. We do what we want to do. Think about it. My main objection to raising taxes is that I don’t trust the government to use my money better than I would use it myself, and I don’t want them telling me what to do with the money I’ve earned. I see the same thing when it comes to tithing. Tithing doesn’t just mean giving some money. It means giving 10% to God. There is a reason we talk about tithes and offerings – because the tithe is what God requires, and anything above and beyond a tithe is a way to express your love to God. A good way to check your obedience level is to look at your checkbook. How do you spend your money? Or, better yet, how do you spend God’s money? It’s really all his. We are just stewards of it; God lets us use it. If you’re not willing to give God the portion that he asks for, then you are not obedient to God. Jesus was clear when he addressed the subject: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) If you haven’t learned obedience, you can start with being obedient to God with your money.

Not only are we to be subject to rulers and authorities and obedient, but we’re to be ready to do whatever is good. Sometimes you’re ready, but sometimes you’re ready. I’ve coached various soccer teams, and you never know when you’re going to need a substitute. Once when I was coaching Andrew’s U4 soccer team, it was time for a substitute (I pretty much switched players every 2½ minutes). I looked around for the little guy who was off the field and called over to his parents, and there he was… he had crawled into his baby brother’s stroller and was sucking on a pacifier. He was anything but ready to get on the field.

One of the problems with modern American Christians is that instead of being ready to do whatever is good, we are in the baby stroller with the pacifier. I hear people complain that “I’m not getting fed.” Well, take out the pacifier and feed yourself! You’re never going to be ready to do whatever is good if you’re constantly requiring people to do everything for you.

This shouldn’t be new; even the Cretans knew this already, as Paul was telling Titus to remind them of it.  He also was to remind them to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to be gentle toward everyone. (Titus 3:2)

This is not an exhaustive list of how to live life, but these are powerful commands. Don’t slander anyone. I’ll summarize that one in one phrase: don’t talk bad about anyone. Words have power. Finish this saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but…” Whoever came up with that saying is full of it. Words have power to create or to destroy. Unfortunately people in this church continue to use their words to hurt others. If you don’t know the story first-hand, or if you don’t have permission to share it, don’t pass it on. But worse than this is that some of you intentionally spread lies. There are people in this community who want so desperately to be in the “in crowd” or to be liked, or for whatever reason, you’ll hear something and pass it on. Don’t. And when you hear something, consider the source. Was it first-hand? In other words, did you hear it from the person involved? If not, don’t pass it on. Do you have the whole story? If not, don’t pass it on. Do you have permission to share? If not, don’t pass it on.

Be peaceable and considerate. Be gentle toward everyone.I know people who seem to live to stir up dissent. This is not the life of a Christian. Consider others before you speak and before you act. The key here is to live out what we call the Great Commandment: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39).

Jesus goes another step – identifying the neighbor as the hated enemy. There are people who have intentionally gone out of their way to hurt me. I am praying for you. I don’t always want to, but God is giving me His heart for the people whom He loves. I know some of you have been hurt by church people, and that’s the worst kind of hurt, but your response, if you are a Christian, is love. Treat others with compassion and consideration. Be gentle. Not a bully. Not itching for vengeance.

Paul recognizes that this is a hard command, but he acknowledges that he and Titus have “been there, done that.” At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. (Titus 3:3)

“Foolish” here doesn’t mean “goofy.” It means living a life that does not acknowledge or follow God. Psalm 14:1(and 53:1) tell us: The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good. If “vile ways” or “corrupt” describes you, you are a fool. Paul knew that this described his early life. We’ve already talked about obedience; our nature is disobedience to God. Paul then describes his early life as deceived. One of the biggest lies of our culture is that as long as you are sincere, then you are OK. You can be sincere and be sincerely wrong. When I was little, I really thought “they” was spelled T-H-A-Y. It sounds like it should end in “a-y” instead of “e-y.” It rhymes with “play.” It should be spelled like I thought it was spelled. But it isn’t. No matter how sincere I was, I was wrong.

And Satan, also known as the Prince of this World, is the Father of Lies, and his whole purpose is deception. He’s going to Hell and he wants to take you with him. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, and his usual method is deception. He has deceived our culture to the point where we don’t know we’re deceived. We think everything is OK. One of his main techniques is to take something good and make us think it’s the best, thus distracting us from what God really has for us.

We have a really good church. We have a pretty nice church building. We have nice worship services. And Satan loves that because, while many things are good, we are not the best we can be. Satan loves it when we settle for “good” instead of “the best.” Satan deceives us with phrases like “good enough.”

Satan deceives us by telling us lies like “You already served admirably. Now it’s your time to retire from Christian service.” Check your pulse. If you are dead, then this doesn’t apply to you, but if you are alive, you can serve Jesus. Satan deceives us by saying, “I heard this information and I really care, so I need to pass it on.” Satan deceives us by saying, “You work hard for your money, so you’d better guard it with your life.” The truth is that it’s all God’s, and, as Job recognized, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21) Satan deceives us by saying, “You’re not qualified. You’re not equipped for this.” The truth is that God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called. I could go on and on about the deception that hangs over us like a cloud, but I don’t have the time to hit everything. The only way to counter deception is to know the full counsel of God’s Word. Not just little snippets here and there.

And when Satan has us deceived, he enslaves us. He’s got us where he wants us, slaves to sin. We were not created to be slaves; God created us for freedom. And we are only set free by accepting the gift that Jesus Christ gave us on the cross. Galatians 5:1 tells us It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Until we accepted Jesus, we were all slaves to sin. We didn’t have any choice but to sin. But now that we have been set free, we no longer have to sin. This is why it’s not just a matter of trying really hard. We don’t need to try harder: we need Jesus. Jesus is our only ticket to freedom. Not Jesus plus. Not Jesus and anything else. Only Jesus.

We weren’t meant for a life of slavery to our passions and pleasures. God didn’t create us to live in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. (Titus 3:3) We were created by God for God.

This is why it’s vitally important to get to verse 4. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. (Titus 3:4-5a)

God did not save us because of the righteous things we did. It’s never about us being somehow good enough. It’s all about God’s mercy. Again, salvation is never Jesus Plus. It’s all God’s doing. As we continue into Communion, let’s reflect on God’s mercy.