“Mama’n’em” – a Mother’s Day sermon

Y’all understand the title, right? If you live in the South, you should. Everybody’s got a “Mama’n’em.” Allow me to translate. “Mama’n’em:” a Southern derivative of the phrase, “your Mother and them.” In this case, it can be used like this:

Who took care of you when you were young?

My Mama’n’em.

Most of us had (or still have) a whole host of women who watched over us as children – our “Mama’n’em.” My list includes:

  • A biological mother – the unknown woman who gave me birth. 
  • a “real mother” – Sarah Roe Freeman 
  • A Step-mother – Mary Bone Freeman 
  • Extended mothers – mothers of friends who treated me like their own child – Cookie Cole, Jane Newman, Lou Croley, Peggy Butler, among others 
  • Grandmothers, real and “step-“, and a great aunt Polly who acted like a grandmother. 
  • School mothers – teachers with an extra dash of care – Billie Clokey and Jeanette Miller 
  • Church mothers – Sarah Johnson, Jill Hurst (who alternated between mother and big sister) 

Since today is Mother’s Day, we should acknowledge the many different manifestations of “mother,” and honor all women for their strength. I have had many different “Mothers” in my life: In my life there are mothers – many mothers – who never “birthed” me as a son. A few (Aunt Polly, Sarah Johnson, and Cookie Cole) never birthed a child at all. Even my own “real mother” never birthed a child.  

All too often, we have restricted the “Mother’s Day” honor to our biological mothers, or at least the mothers who raised us. That’s too narrow for me, and I think for most of y’all, too.

The Church is guilty of holding up an unrealistic stereotype; Christian women are supposed to be meek and mild and submissive. Some think that’s from the Bible. Read closer! Scriptures are full of examples of strong and determined women. Some were mothers in the traditional sense, some were not.  The Bible was “inspired by God” but recorded and compiled in a time and culture ruled by men. Women were of little value, even considered property. At best they were secondary actors in the drama of life and are rarely mentioned and even rarely named in Scripture.

Our Church was founded by a man with a very strong mother. The relationship between John Wesley and his mother, Susannah, is well-known. She taught his everything he needed to know about growing in the faith, and being strong.

A story: 

Samuel Wesley was a Priest in the Church of England. His parish was in Epworth. The Annual meeting of all priests was held in London on December 7, 1711 – 140 miles away. Since traveling was difficult, he would be gone until March. Communication was limited to letters. He assigned the Associate Pastor, Godfrey Inman, to take over. During Samuel’s absence, many felt that Inman’s leadership and preaching was inadequate.    

Susannah was already conducting devotions for her household every Sunday afternoon; she had 10 children. John was 8 and Charles 4. Servants were also invited. One servant told his parents, and they began coming. Soon, there were 50 people in the parsonage. Susannah would preach and lead singing. Then they prayed together (an obvious forerunner of John’s Class Meetings).  

This upset Rev. Inman and, rather than talking directly to Susannah, he enlisted several others to help him shut her down.  He wrote to Samuel in London to get him to tell his wife to stop. 

On February 6, 1712, Susannah writes Samuel to answer his questions and address his doubts about the gathering. She reports that attendance had grown to somewhere between 200-300. Her letter ends: 

“When you have considered all things let me have your positive determination . . . in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting the opportunity for doing good when you and appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.”   

In other words: If you’re going to tell me to stop, you better make it good because one day you’re going to have to convince Jesus! 

In our 21st Century culture, on our best days, we have grown to learn that all humans, men and women, are afforded an equal place in God’s family. That was not so in Biblical times, sad to say. Though, when you look behind the story on the page, you find that women have always been strong, more powerful than the men in their lives were willing to acknowledge.  

Our world has many different forms of “Mother” and so does the Bible. There are women in Scripture who birthed children. There are some who did not. The cultural bias of the time gives primary place to those who bore children, but all through the Scripture, we see women worthy of emulation.  

The scripture I have chosen for today may seem like an odd one for Mother’s Day. It isn’t odd, though to help us talk about strong women. First, some background. This passage comes at the beginning of the book of Exodus. A new Pharaoh has taken the throne who does not remember the favor that Joseph gained for the Israelites. They have gone from being welcome neighbors to a nuisance and now, they are slaves.  

The only problem is, there are too many of them. Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, fears an uprising.  

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” 

Exodus 1:15-22 

Shiphrah and Puah – two women without whom the story of Salvation would have ground to a halt. I’m sure that God would have found a way, but not through Moses. If it hadn’t been for these two brave women, using what little power they had against the most powerful man in the world, Moses might never have survived.  

They did what they did because of their faith; the scripture says, “But the midwives feared God.” Our ears might hear that saying “the midwives were afraid that God would punish them.” In the Old Testament the phrase “fear of God” meant “belief,” “awe,” or “respect” of God. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That means that no one is truly wise until they learn their proper place before God – a place of respect and awe and belief.  

Shiphrah and Puah were members of God’s Kingdom before they were members of Pharaoh’s kingdom. They allowed their faith – and probably a little anger at the injustice – to give them courage. They refused to perpetrate the crime that their earthly King had ordered.  

The first two chapters of Exodus are filled with examples of such subversive courage and power. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she hid him in the reeds beside the river and dispatched his older sister, Miriam, to see what happened.  

Miriam watched Pharaoh’s own daughter open that basket and acknowledge that this baby might be a Hebrew baby. She knew, at the very first moment, that she was going to disobey her father’s orders! Even among those closest to the unjust and cruel,  God can work! 

The subversion of evil continues as Miriam volunteers to go and find a nursemaid for the baby. The sister of the illegal baby brings back the mother of the illegal baby to nurse the child under the very nose of the King who commanded the baby’s death.  

The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom, but it seems that the fear of the Lord might also be the beginning of civil disobedience. It might also be the beginning of protest, or refusing to obey unjust laws. Long before Jesus said “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” God was acting on behalf of the oppressed.  

On this Mother’s Day, a question for all the men – if we truly have been ruling the world all this time, what kind of world have we ruled in which women must still use protest, subversion, civil disobedience to exert their power? Have we not learned anything from the centuries of human history? 

There is an entire sub-culture (thankfully, I feel proper in using the “sub-“ prefix) of men in this world who laugh behind the backs of powerful, outspoken women; who caricature intelligent and creative women into monsters; who pretend to listen to female co-workers or peers, then call them “honey” and go on about their business. I know because I live with a woman like that! I have seen all those things happen to my wife as she attempts to live out her call to ministry; all because she “dares” to answer God’s call in a male-dominated profession. We ought to be ashamed!  

Just this week – on large, multi-national ways and small, personal ways – I have been reminded that or world has a long way to go. The United Methodist Council of Bishops announced the results of votes we took last summer on amendments presented to all the Annual Conferences. The UMC works much like the USA in that amendments to its Book of Discipline must be “ratified” by all the “states” (Annual Conferences).  

Last summer we voted on five. Three were ratified. The two that failed had to do with wording that would afford women and girls status. They failed by very slim margins, but failed nonetheless. I’m proud to say that most Annual Conferences in the United States (including North Alabama) passed these two amendments overwhelmingly; but, we aren’t a United States Church, we are an international Church. We still have a ways to go! 

On a smaller scale: one of my daughter’s friends (in her early twenties) recently got a job at a local Marion County factory. Within the first weeks of her employment, she was receiving suggestive texts from a co-worker.

Some men just won’t learn!  

If we learn anything from Scripture, we ought to know that since the days of Shiphrah and Puah, of Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s own daughter, God works on behalf of the powerless. God has always used strong, courageous women to subvert unjust power when needed.  

On this Mother’s Day, remember your “Mama’n’em,” remember their strength, remember their compassion and love. Remember that God has never intended any of his children to live under the yoke of injustice. Say a prayer of thanks for the strong, powerful, subversive, disobedient “Shiphrahs and Puahs” in your life.

A Disciple Grows

Remember, our purpose as a church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” However, to make disciples, we must first be disciples; and, to be a disciple, we have to know what a disciple is. 
Remember Wesley’s definition?

“A disciple is a witness to Jesus Christ in the world who follows His teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”

Notice the qualifier, “In the world” – the disciple does their work OUT THERE, in the world. Far too often, we restrict our faithful actions to IN HERE, in the church building. Wesley speaks of certain “Acts of:”

  • Acts of Compassion – acting like Jesus acted 
  • Acts of Justice – standing up for the oppressed 
  • Acts of Worship – Praise, prayer, confession of sins 
  • Acts of Devotion – individual and corporate acts that increase our closeness with God 

We do it all under the “guidance of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is a companion, an advocate always with us. We never do ANY of this alone.
But, like I said in my last post, Wesley’s definition is a little long and hard to remember. So, I boiled it down to: 

A Disciple knows, grows, serves, and shares.

We’ll be looking at the life of Peter to show us how to be a disciple. His life, as presented in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, displays all these qualities.

Previously, we talked about “knowing.” 

Knowing involves following and confessing, but not necessarily in that order.

Following means “learning by doing,” copying what Jesus does – much different than learning by study. Peter (known as Simon at this point – Mark 1) and his brother, Andrew, follow when Jesus calls. There are lots of different reasons and motivations for following; it’s probably good that Scripture never specifies the reasons for following, allowing us to fill in our own reasons.

Confessing means “admitting” what you believe. Much like a witness in a courtroom “confesses” to what they know or have done, Peter at Caesarea Philippi admits that he believes Jesus is the Son of God. We do this kind of confession every Sunday in the Apostle’s Creed.

Now, we talk a bit about how we grow as disciples.

We could amass a very long list of the number of times that Peter fails. Last time, we read one, ironically on the heels of his confession. Success didn’t last long! As soon as Jesus started talking about suffering, Peter disagreed and Jesus scolded him.

Another of the most famous comes in Matthew 14. The disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a storm rises. Jesus walks on the water to the boat and scares them all to death. Once they realize it is Jesus, Peter says, “Lord, if it’s you, I want to walk on water!”

“Come on,” Jesus replies. Peter takes one step, sees the waves, is reminded of the storm and begins to sink. “Lord, save me!” At least he knows where to get help!

Lets read the #1 most famous failure story in all of scripture. Luke 22:54-62
:

Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.

Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 

The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Jesus knew that Peter would fail. Luke says that Peter “remembered the Lord’s words . . .” Just a little while earlier, at the Last Supper, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him. Yet, in Matthew’s version of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus tells Peter, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.”

Originally named Simon, Jesus called him “Peter” which means “rock.” Jesus chooses to build his church on a man he knows will fail. Why?

Failure is a necessary part of growth! I might even say that no growth is possible without some failure. Think about it – if we ever want to improve at anything, it takes a lot of work. Mostly work that fails to accomplish the goal.

The greatest hitter in all of baseball – Ted Williams – finished his career with a batting average of .408. That means that he failed 6 out 10 times he got up to bat. That’s not counting the millions of times he swung a bat in practice!

Richard Rohr is a Catholic priest and one of the greatest writers about Christian spirituality we have today. He says that it is not a matter that failure might happen, or only happen if you are bad, or only happen to the unfortunate people, or only happen as a result of bad choices, or that you can somehow avoid it by being clever and/or righteous. Failure will happen and it will happen to us all.

“Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences – all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey,” Rohr says.

Perhaps the reason that Jesus chose the failing Peter as “the rock,” is that he knew, like Rohr says, “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” It takes a great deal of “Foundational trust” to fall and not fall apart. The failure or falling that produces growth is a falling “into something” much more beyond us, much bigger, much deeper than any of us.

If we start as disciples, knowing Christ (through following and confessing faith), then it is faith that holds us when we fall. “What a clever place to hide holiness,” Rohr says, in failure or falling, “so that only the humble and earnest will find it.”

Of course, Peter is a great example of this. He holds on to his faith even after he fails. He sticks with his faith family. The gospel of John relates a story that shows us how he held on. John 21:1-8
:

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

I don’t know what it is about Peter and water! His failure and his transformation both involve jumping in a lake! One time he sinks, next time he swims to Jesus. He didn’t let his failure cause him to give up.

Think about our own lives: How many times have we failed – at business, at relationships, in school. How did you respond?

I’m not perfect, but let me give you an example:

I left First UMC Huntsville, in 1996, because I was certain that God wanted me to get a Ph.D. in Pastoral Counseling and make my ministry full-time Pastoral Counseling. The best place to get that degree was Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA – Just outside LA. I tried. Belinda, one-and-half-year-old Frannie, and I moved all the way to Rancho Cucamonga, rented a house “sight unseen.”

I failed. Holding a job, being a husband and father (Alex came along the next year), taking classes, was just too much. After doing all I needed to do on campus, we moved to NC in 2000 so Belinda could serve in her home conference. I worked with Methodist Counseling in Charlotte. I kept trying.

We moved to Reform, AL in 2002 where I was appointed the Pastor at First UMC. After several attempts at a dissertation proposal, I quit.

I knew that God had called me to ministry – that was clear – I never stopped serving. I think I heard God wrong. There’s more to the story, but for 6 years, I met failure after failure.

I continue to try to follow God, sometimes “up”, sometimes “down.” I know first-hand what Richard Rohr means – “We grow much more spiritually by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

Know. Grow. Serve. Share.

If anybody asks you about your church, what do you say?

We have a worship service at 11:00. We have Sunday school for all ages. We have a Women’s group, Men’s group, Youth, etc. . . . 

Would anyone answer with “We make disciples of Jesus Christ?” That is our stated purpose! Para. 120 of the 2016 United Methodist Discipline: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

A church that doesn’t make disciples is like a football team that doesn’t win games. Compare Alabama (13-1) and Auburn (11-3) to the Cleveland Browns of the NFL (0-16). Who do you think is doing what a football team should do? Fulfilling their purpose? The “healthiest” organization?

To paraphrase Floyd Lawson, Mayberry barber, “Everybody talks about disciples, but nobody wants to do anything about ’em.” That makes Church life a whole lot easier. We can just talk about “church members” and “inviting folks to church” without ever thinking about how to change lives!

I recently realized something. When we talk about “inviting someone to church,” it implies that we are on a mission to find people and have something to bring them to. That’s the whole of church life in a nutshell! Finding the non-disciple and offering them something that will change their life is what its all about!

But, in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to be disciples of Jesus Christ. To be a disciple, we have to know what disciples are. 

What distinguishes a disciple of Christ from a non-disciple? We can all look at a friend or a neighbor and say, “Oh, they go to _____ church.” But that does not necessarily mean they are a disciple. They could just be a “church member.” Big difference.

Most of us want to make more “church members,” or “members of our club.” Making a disciple is different. We need to change our thinking. Reggie McNeel (in The Present Future) calls this a shift from “Churchianity” to “Christianity;” from maintaining the institution to following Christ.

There are significant differences between the two:

  • Membership’s primary goal is “join the church.”
  • Discipleship’s goal is to create disciples who are increasing in their love of God and neighbor.
  • Membership keeps the members happy and satisfied.
  • Discipleship provides opportunities for relationships and growth (and sometimes growth comes from challenge).
  • Membership involves people in church activities.
  • Discipleship involves disciples in service to others.
  • In Membership, the church takes the primary role in motivating people to grow spiritually.
  • In Discipleship, each disciple assumes primary responsibility for growth and the church provides opportunities and encouragement.

Let’s start with what a disciple is. So we can know if we are one. That’s vital information if we are going to fulfill our purpose.

Here’s Wesley’s definition: 

“A Disciple is a witness to Jesus Christ in the world who follows his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” 

Disciples do their work “In the world, ” out there, where people don’t yet know Jesus. Disciples wouldn’t be content just sitting around here! Right away, we see a fundamental change in the direction of our attention. Gone are the days when people are going to come and find us. Jesus never acted that way, so why should we? He went out and found them!

All too often, we limit our disciple-making to something like this: “Hey! We’ve got this really cool club. We meet on Sunday Morning. Do you want to come?” In the “olden days,” that might have been enough, as nearly everybody knew what our club was about, or had been a member of a similar club in another town (or even in our town).

For a long time the Church has successfully existed in the realm of Consumerism, when we could say with Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Then we fell for the myth, “If you build it, they will come” (“Field of Dreams” 1989).

That’s not what Jesus said. He said “Therefore go and make disciples . . .” It’s not “sit and wait” but “go and make.” To make disciples, you must be a disciple; to be a disciple, you must follow Jesus. To be a mature follower of Christ, “you must love and give in light of how deeply we’ve been loved and how much we’ve been given.” (Carey Nieuwhof)

Wesley’s definition is a little long (at least my explanation of it is!)  – let’s “boil it down.”

Rev. Junius Dotson, the General Secretary of our United Methodist Board of Discipleship, in his publication, “See All The People,” discusses disciple-making, and how to establish a “discipleship pathway” in the church. He took Wesley’s phrase and boiled it down, emphasizing “knowing,” “growing,” “serving,” and “sharing.”

 “A disciple is one who knows Christ, is growing in Christ, serving Christ, and sharing Christ.” 

I boiled it down even more:

“A disciple knows, grows, serves, and shares.” 

Disciples know Jesus, grow in our love of Jesus through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, serve others like Jesus served, and share our faith stories. Know. Grow. Serve. Share. The life of Peter, as presented in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, can teach us about Discipleship.

Today, we look at “Knowing.”

“A Disciple knows Jesus, and that knowing involves following and confessing (not necessarily in that order.” 

Some people start with “following” and it leads to “confessing.” They come to church, read the Bible, then they fully understand and confess their belief. There may be some of us in this room who perform the actions of following without yet fully understanding why they follow or who they follow.  Some people confess, then follow.  Some people reach an intellectual and spiritual threshold, confess a belief in Christ, then they start acting on it. The order doesn’t matter. Just do both.

Anytime you talk about “following,” you have to start at the beginning – Mark 1:16-20:

As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.  

We don’t know why they followed. People have always said (I’m one of them), “One day, I’m going to ask Peter, Andrew, James and John, ‘What did Jesus say to get you to follow?’!” We don’t know. Mark doesn’t say. Neither do Matthew or Luke. Maybe they don’t say because specifics don’t matter. Everybody has their own reason for following.

My motivation for following was “love and grace.” Once I finally, assuredly knew God loved me, I have never wavered in my commitment to Christ. Other people have different reasons for following – miraculous change in their lives? The persistent witness of a spouse? The rescue from addiction?

If the Gospel writers had specified why each disciple followed, we might think our following is limited to those specific reasons.  We might think we are “second class disciples” because we weren’t motivated in the same way Peter (Simon in the text) was motivated.

When we are considering what a disciple is, we must start with this: A disciple knows Jesus. And that knowing involves following Jesus.

Knowing by following is totally different than knowing by learning. One involves your head.  The other involves every ounce of your life. My head is full of useless information that makes no difference in how I live my life. Where I know many facts – about life and about the Bible – the real difference has come when I have acted like Jesus, followed his example.

Whether is comes before or after confession, a disciple knows Jesus by following Jesus. We do what Jesus did, act like he acted, and love how (and who) he loved. Jesus taught his original disciples by first making them followers; “Come with me. Watch me. Do like I do.”

We might notice that Peter followed without a lot of preparation or learning. His confession came much later.

Mark 8:27-33  

 Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

28 They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”

29 He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” 30 Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One[a] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

This is a turning point in Mark’s gospel. Up to this point, the twelve disciples have stumbled and bumbled their way through following Jesus. We don’t have to be perfect followers, either. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter becomes the first disciple to admit that he “gets it.” He confesses his belief – Jesus is the Messiah.

Different than “confessing his sins,” this is confessing in the sense of admitting something.  Our discipleship contains this same element: knowing Jesus comes from following Jesus, but at some point we all must confess our belief.

I’ve heard it said that confession means being who you really are in front of Jesus. This kind of confession is sincere, genuine – even if it is not fully formed. We notice that Peter isn’t perfect. He later gets it way wrong (we’ll talk about that later).

Every Sunday we make a confession: I believe in God, the Father Almighty . . .” The Apostle’s Creed. Some of us are just “saying it.” For others, it is deeply true. We have experienced God’s “almighty” nature, experienced that Christ “rose from the dead,” and know the “forgiveness of sins.”

It is so hard to make discipleship into an organized list of steps, because it happens simultaneously. The following and confessing happen together – in a different order for us all (maybe) – but they must both happen. “Knowing involves following and confessing (not necessarily in that order)”

 

How Will I Know? Luke 1:5-20

This series of sermons is based on a book called Five Questions of Christmas, by Rob Burkhart. Check it out on Cokesbury.

To get to the manger, you have to go through John the Baptist. 

That’s kind of a “science-fiction-time-bending” statement. At the manger, John would have been an infant, scarcely able to preach repentance and baptize believers! Yet, during this Advent season, if we are to seek the manger, the birth of Christ; and, if we are to use that story to symbolize the birth of Christ into our own lives, then, we must first understand the message of John the Baptist – “Repent!” 

To get to the manger, we have to go through John the Baptist. 

Today’s scripture deals with John’s birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth. It was, like many other biblical births, a surprise! Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before him, Zechariah doubted the promise of a coming child. Zechariah didn’t trust that what the angels predicted would actually happen. The question we examine this morning comes from his own lips – “How will I know that this is so?” 

Luke 1:5-20 (CEB) 

During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old. One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty.Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. 10 All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering. 11 An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. 

13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God.17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers[a] back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 

18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.” 

19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.” 

Zechariah’s question echoes through my mind today, as I look at our world.  “How can I be sure of this?” Or “How will I know?” Zechariah is promised an extraordinary blessing, and responds with doubt. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he asks a question we’ve all been asking lately – “Lord, how do we know your promises are true?” 

Preachers and Christians the world over “talk a good game,” shower us with blessings and good words; but, when it comes right down to it, how do we know it is true?  

Especially, how do we know God’s love and care is real in the face of loss? In a world torn apart by conflict? We might ask – “If all you say, Lord, is true, why is this world so violent, so cruel and cold?” 

How can we proclaim anything vaguely resembling “Christmas Joy” this Christmas season?  

Good news and bad news: 

  • Bad news: I have no definitive answer 
  • Good news: I know from life experience that – for those who love Christ and are surrounded by others who love Christ – the pain doesn’t last forever. 

All I can do right now is point to poetic words that comfort me, and hope they comfort you. I come back, time and again, to the first verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” 

O little town of Bethlehem 
How still we see thee lie 
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
The silent stars go by 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
The everlasting Light 
The hopes and fears of all the years 
Are met in thee tonight 

Life is a curious mixture of hope and fear. Always has been! It certainly was for Joseph and Mary, as they pondered what it meant to birth the Son of God in a dirty stable. Maybe that mixture lay at the root of Zechariah’s question? He and Elizabeth were old, had been hoping for a child but feared their hopes were futile. Gabriel’s words were too good to be true.  

For us, life is still a mixture of hope and fear. We hope for a long and happy life, but fear we won’t make it. Some days hope wins and we forget all about fear. Somedays, fear has had the upper hand.  

If life were not such an odd mixture of hope and fear, faith would not be possible. If each day was more happy and hopeful than the day before, pretty soon we’d forget about our troubles and forget God. I’m not saying that God makes life hard so we will turn to him; life is already hard, has been since the beginning, and God is there to comfort us.  

Gabriel’s words are so unbelievable that Zechariah is speechless – and remains so until the naming of John. In our world, we are definitely not speechless! We argue, fuss, criticize, judge, berate, fight, condemn, post, block, tweet and retweet, unfriend, and unfollow. More often than not, all our voices only make it worse. Maybe we should be struck speechless, too!  

As “hopes and fears of all the years” meet in Alabama this December, I know the final victor will be hope. Fear may win tomorrow, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” All along that arc, hope and fear are battling it out!  

When we wonder how we can know that God’s promises are true, when we ask for certainty, look around. Hope is there. Like a little baby in an out-of-the-way manger, hope is there and growing. Until hope wins it all, we have to nurture it. It’s hard, but hope will grow. And, one day, we will know.  

Money, money, money! – Matthew 6:19-24

1973 – The O’Jays. “Money. Money. Money. Money – money!” You know the song? Maybe you remember that bass line that sticks in your head. Maybe you remember the back-up singers’ refrain. The words, though. I think the O’Jay’s have read the bible! 

 Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it
For the love of money
People will steal from their mother . . .
People will rob their own brother . . . 

People can’t even walk the street . . .
Because they never know who in the world they’re gonna beat
For that lean, mean, mean green
Almighty dollar, money. 

For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat . . .
For a small piece of paper it carries a lot of weight
Call it lean, mean, mean green 

Almighty dollar!

Money can change people sometimes 

Don’t let, don’t let, don’t let money fool you
Money can fool people sometimes
People! Don’t let money, don’t let money change you,
It will keep on changing, changing up your mind. 

The O’Jays, just like Jesus, know that money has power. Money can change you! Where your treasure is, there is your heart. You cannot serve two masters or worship God and money – though Lord knows we try! 

Here’s a thought: the O’Jays are more biblically accurate than the Osteens.

The ideas they sing about are closer to scripture than the ideas that preachers like Joel Osteen preach about. Some call their ideas “The Prosperity Gospel.”  

Kate Bowler, professor of American Christianity at Duke Divinity School, and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, in a New York Times article, defines Prosperity Gospel as, “the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.”  

 “The Prosperity Gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering,” she says.  

 “It popularized a Christian explanation for why some make it and others do not. They revolutionized prayer as a way of getting God to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.” 

“Sometimes it works,” she says. But sometimes, it doesn’t. She has learned, through her struggle with cancer, to face life and realize that, “at some point, I am going to need to let it go.”  

At its worst, “Prosperity Gospel” makes God a “Sugar Daddy,” who lavishes favor on a special, fortunate few who know how to make him happy. The idea that God wants the best for us is not bad, but there is more to it than that!  

Cathleen Falsani, in a Washington Post article called, “Worst Ideas of the Decade” says this:  

 “Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of orthodox Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich. 

 Jesus was born poor, and he died poor. During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.” 

That “cautionary tale” most often reminds us that the love of money, the worship of money, can warp us and lead us to selfish, mean, and angry lives – far from the lives Christ teaches about.  

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the gospel of Matthew lately. So, I chose today passage from Matthew. I think it is significant that in his first, big, sermon, his first public teaching, his “debut,” if you will, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this:   

Matthew 6:19-24 (CEB) 

19 “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. 20 Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. 21 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be! 24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 

Money can become our master, our “Lord.” Money pervades every aspect of our lives. Herb Miller, author of many books on church finance and stewardship says, money has four basic influences on our lives: 

  • It influences the way we live 
  • The way we relate to others 
  • our life goals  
  • the way we are described by others.  

Miller says, “the way money exerts these enormous influences in our lives is determined less by how much of it we have than the philosophy we have adopted regarding it.” It doesn’t matter what you have, but it matters what you think about what you have.  

We cannot serve two masters, according to Jesus. We’ll love one and hate the other. Some of us try to balance two “gods.” We divide life into two realms – a spiritual realm and a material realm. We say that money is accepted and even vital in the material realm, but it doesn’t belong in the spiritual realm. One realm is for praying and getting in touch with God; the other is for making, spending and amassing wealth. 

Jesus taught that the two realms should come together. Money is important – in all of life, material realm and spiritual realm. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The way we look at money has a physical and spiritual impact. “The eye is the lamp of the body,” Jesus says. If we have a healthy outlook (on anything, not just money), then our lives will be “full of light.” If our outlook is distorted, unbalanced, unhealthy, then our lives will be “full of darkness.” 

Our attitude toward money pervades our entire personality. It can be a dangerous or enriching way to express that personality. It can get us into trouble, or strengthen our relationship with God. It can fill our lives with the darkness of greed. It can fill our lives with the light of generosity and joy.    

We mistakenly think that controlling and amassing a fortune is the key to happiness – but it isn’t. If we truly seek contentment and happiness, Jesus has an answer for that, too: 

Matthew 6:33-34 (CEB) 

33 Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. 

We know that verse as “seek ye first the Kingdom of God . . .” We often sing it, and finish with “and all these things shall be added unto you. Allelu, alleluia.” When we “seek first,” the “added unto you” doesn’t come as Prosperity Gospel claims – like a “vending machine.” “All these things” come in the form of new priorities. Things that were important when money was our god, are not important when God is God! Worries we had when our “eye was full of darkness” are not our worries anymore.   

“Don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” 

The bottom line is this: Jesus doesn’t care how much money we have. He cares about what we do with it. 

Do we worship money? 

Does our use of money betray the darkness that is inside us? 

Or . . . Do we worship God? 

Does our use of money show that worship? Does it show people where our priorities are? Does our use of money allow God’s light to shine forth from our lives? 

 

“Money. Money. Money. Money!”   

Matthew 5:1-12 – “How to be a Saint”

Today is the day we remember those church members who have passed away, “gone on to be with Jesus.” Traditionally, November 1 is “All Saint’s Day” – a day of remembering and honoring those who have “gone marchin’ in” with all the other saints.  

 It may sound odd to call them “saints,” because we knew them in life. They definitely weren’t perfect! “I didn’t know Methodists had saints,” you might say. We don’t. Not like our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, anyway.  

 The Apostle Paul uses the term often (so does Wesley) to refer to believers. In this sense, “saints” are those who can be counted among those who follow Christ, no miracles, no divinity required. So, today, we remember those who have died in the faith; these people who, by their life among us in this fellowship of believers, evidenced a life in the faith. 

 The scripture for the morning reminds us of what that life in the faith looks like: 

Matthew 5:1-12 (CEB) 

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:  

 “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. 

 “Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.  

 “Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.  

 “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.  

 “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.  

 “Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.  

 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  

 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.”. 

Thanks to Robert Schuller’s book, The Be-Happy Attitudes, many of us might think we know what this sermon will be about. We might expect a preacher to say something like, “The path to happiness goes through theses states – hopelessness, grief, humility, etc. This is the way to what you’ve always been looking for.” 

If you’ve been listening to me preach for the last 3 ½ years, it might be a good bet that is not what I am going to say. I think the Beatitudes are more than that. They aren’t commandments (“Go be hopeless, poor in spirit. Go show mercy and make peace.”) that teach us how to “be happy.” Happiness is “elusive and ill-defined,” something different for everyone. (James Howell, Ministrymatters.com)

Jesus was more concerned about other “nesses” – righteousness, forgiveness. Happiness (as we think of it today) might never have entered his mind. After all, look at what he didn’t say: “Happy are the successful, the wealthy, the good-looking people.” None of these scriptural blessings sound much like “Norman-Rockwell-American-Happiness” to me.   

 Jesus stood on the mountain and spoke. Matthew purposely uses this setting (Luke has Jesus say the same words on a “plain,” not a mountain) to remind his readers of another teacher and another mountain – Moses at Mt. Sinai.  

 With that level of authority, the same amount of power as Moses himself, Jesus speaks. He looks out on a bunch of put-down, stepped-on, powerless nobodies, and – with a Messianic authority – says, “You are blessed.” Not the rich. Not the powerful. Not any of them. You are blessed.”  

 In their world (and ours) blessings meant comfort and success. In Jesus’ world, the “last were first and the first last.” Blessings were for everyone!  

 Rather than taking the Beatitudes as a list of distinct steps to happiness, let’s look at them as a picture. Jesus was “painting a picture” (Howell on Ministrymatters.com) of the life of God’s children. Earthly “happiness” might elude them, but they were still God’s children. 

I prefer Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message. It captures this notion of God being with us when life seems awful: 

 Matthew 5:3-11  

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.  

 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.  

 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.  

 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.  

 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.  

 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.  

 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.  

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.  

 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. 

Can’t you just hear Jesus talking like that to a bunch of down-trodden “losers” that the powerful people had “thrown away”? 

 James Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC and author of a book called The Beatitudes for Today, says the Beatitudes “can be read as autobiographical.” Who do the words most accurately describe? Jesus. In Jesus’ life, he created a space where the poor in spirit felt blessed. He welcomed and loved the people that the world threw away. When everything seemed lost, he was with them! 

So, if today, were are remembering the saints, considering how to be saints ourselves, ask these questions: 

Do these words describe us? 

Are we living a life in which the “poor in spirit,” the meek, the grieving feel blessed? Or do they just feel worse in our presence?  

When we meet someone who feels lost and afraid, are we with them? 

Want to be “a saint”? Then, be able to say yes to those questions. Live a life like Jesus lived.  

The Beatitudes challenge us to be church, to make Jesus present and visible in this difficult world.  

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King issued a similar challenge:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…”

Want to be a saint? Want to make a difference? Then be a church where the poor in spirit, the meek, the humble are welcome and where they feel blessed.   

Matthew 22:34-40 – The Hardest Commandment

Previously, in Matthew . . .

Jesus has been facing challenge after challenge

  • He has “cleansed the temple” (21:1-17)
  • Three times faced challenges to his authority to do such a thing (21:23-22:14)
  • Resulting in three parables – 2 sons, wicked tenants, and a wedding banquet
  • The Pharisees directly challenge him on the matter of taxes (22:15)
  • The Sadducees challenge him on the resurrection – and they don’t even believe in resurrection! (22:23)
  • Today, the Pharisees come back at him with another challenge

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,[a] and with all your mind. 38  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39  And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.[b40  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

We hear Jesus talk about love and we picture the smiling, gentle man, with children on his lap. Realize this: Jesus speaks his most famous words on love in the middle of a fight for his life – seriously!

Sometimes, it is possible to be “both formidable and loving in the cause of righteousness.” You can love someone and still contend with them. Jesus is passionate about his cause while loving his enemies. Right in the middle of a verbal fight for his life, Jesus says, “The most important thing is love God with your whole self.” They knew that! They’d been reciting that verse their whole life.

He is showing that kind of total commitment by taking the fight right to them; he’s not backing down! In this battle all three sides – Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees – have the same amount of passion for the same God! They all believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have all staked their lives on that belief. We give the Pharisees and Sadducees a hard time, but, in this debate, all three sides are on the same team!

Sound familiar? Has our passion put us at odds with brothers and sisters of the faith? Every day? Every election cycle, at least!

Here’s how it happens in my life, occasionally:

I make a comment on a Facebook post. That leads to one of those virtual, semi-anonymous, from-a-safe-distance arguments. I try to stop before it gets to far gone, but sometimes I don’t. I “leave” the argument feeling animosity for the person – until I see them in person. When we see one another, we remember our friendship, our common faith, and the bond that brought us together.

When we love something – or someone – so strongly, our passions can divide us. But, our presence with one another unites us. It doesn’t erase the differences, but presence can drown out the shouting of division. When the tide of these divisive times leads us to arguments with friends, and we are tempted to break that bond, remember:

In the same situation, Jesus was still able to challenge his opponent to love.

Instead of cursing the Pharisee, who dogged his every step with challenge and argument (and, make no mistake, Jesus knew what their plan was!), Jesus never let his passion override his compassion.

What can we learn?

We learn that love means passion and commitment. We overuse and misuse the word, “love”. Love is as much “tiger” as “teddy bear.” When Jesus speaks of love, he speaks of commitment. When he shows love, it is often strong and fierce like a tiger. Rarely, if ever, does the Bible describe love as a kind of “teddy bear” affection. Even the love of a shepherd for his vulnerable sheep is a love of fierce protection and commitment.

The first half of Jesus’ response is a challenge to give total commitment to God. The Pharisees knew it as the “Shema,” which meant “Hear.” It was the centerpiece of their prayer life. Deuteronomy 6:4-5:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.[a] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This verse was the “John 3:16” of their day. By quoting it, Jesus reminds them that they are all called to the same total commitment of faith. Heart, soul, and might! They have known that all along.

Loving God with total commitment sometimes takes us to fierce places. We defend those places like a tiger!

Jesus’ second statement reminds us to take that ferocity and use it – not against others, but for others. Being called to “love your neighbor as yourself” means we take our neighbor’s needs seriously. It means we fight for them, not against them! No matter the position, no matter the difference, love calls us to defend and protect rather than demean and reject.

If we are totally committed to God – with heart, soul, and mind – we are totally committed to one another – with heart, soul, and mind.

Marcus Borg, in a sermon on this passage, puts it this way: being Christian is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves.

We are not immediately such a person, we become that person. Change happens, even for those who already believe. This kind of transformation occurs in the book, The Same Kind of Different as Me,  by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (now turned into a movie).

Ron is a wealthy art dealer, and a believer in Christ. While he travels with work, his wife, Deborah, volunteers at a local homeless shelter. Ron occasionally drops by and volunteers a little. At the shelter, Deborah meets Denver, an older black man. Denver grew up in a Louisiana share-cropper’s family. After leaving home, he drifts from place to place, ending up in Deborah’s homeless shelter in Texas.

By the time he and Deborah meet, Denver is a bitter man; the Christian faith of his childhood has not weathered well. He later confesses she is the first white woman he has ever held a meaningful conversation with. Their friendship strengthens, and Denver’s faith is awakened. When Deborah receives a cancer diagnosis, Denver prays for her.

When Ron first met Denver, he was wary. He judged the homeless man as dangerous and stayed away. Denver viewed Ron as just another rich, white guy volunteering out of pity. As Ron watched the friendship between his wife and Denver, he learned that Denver often had more depth and wisdom than he did. As both men watch Deborah suffer and eventually die, a deep and supportive friendship forms.

Two men transformed. They were already the kind of person who could love God. They became the kind of person who could love what God loves.

It didn’t happen all at once. It didn’t happen without total commitment.

When Jesus says it, it sounds so simple – Love God. Love neighbor. And, really, when you think about it, it is simple. Love God? Check! Love neighbor? Of course!

But, when the “rubber hits the road,” if our total commitments lead us into conflict (which they seem bent on doing!), it’s the hardest commandment of all. That’s why it takes a heart, soul, and mind commitment to God, for whom all things are possible.