Southminster Presbyterian Church

We are a community of people encouraging each other, seeking to be like Jesus; serving God by loving generously, proclaiming boldly, and giving with grace and humility.

Please join us for Sunday Worship Service at 10:00 am every week and the fourth Sunday at 6:00pm for an intergenerational & contemporary Agape Worship Service.

Lasting Love

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 13; Psalm 136:1-3, 23-26

            Every time I read I Corinthians 13 I feel guilty.  It says, “Love is patient.”  I hear that, and I think about the time a couple weeks ago I was in the grocery store check-out line, and the person in front of me wanted to buy a bottle of gin.  So the checker had to go find someone with the key to open the liquor cabinet and get the bottle of gin, which took forever, and when she came back the customer said, “No, that’s not the right bottle.”  So she again had to find a manager with a key, and after several minutes brought back a different bottle of gin.  But when the customer tried to pay for it his card was rejected.  So he fumbles in his wallet looking for another card and finally says he’ll have to go home and come back.  And this was in the express line.  Love is patient, but sometimes I am not.

            Then it says, “Love is not envious.”  I have a confession.  I am not envious of many people, but I would give anything to have a voice like Tom Hutyler, the stadium announcer for the Mariners.  Have you listened to that voice?  A voice like that could bring an entire community to Jesus.  If I had a voice like that … well….  Love is not envious, but me—that’s another story.

            Even worse is verse 5: “Love is not resentful,” or as the Good News Bible translates it: “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.”  I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to forgive a wrong than to forget it.  It is just too handy to keep it around, and use it as a weapon if the other person ever starts to complain about something I do.  Love does not keep a record of wrongs, but me—that’s another story.

            If it is any comfort, the Corinthians had the same problems.  This week while studying this passage, I discovered that almost every characteristic of love mentioned in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.  For example, Paul says that love is not envious or jealous.  Earlier in I Corinthians chapter 3 Paul says to the Corinthians, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not … behaving according to human inclinations?”  The Corinthians had a problem with jealousy.

            Paul also says, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”  In I Corinthians 5 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Your boasting is not a good thing,” and in I Corinthians 4 Paul says, “But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant.”  Some of the Corinthians see themselves as superior to others in the church.  They see themselves as being more knowledgeable or spiritual.  So Paul says to them, “Love is not boastful or arrogant.”

            One more example.  In I Corinthians 13 Paul says, “Love does not insist on its own way.”  Earlier in I Corinthians 10 Paul says to the Corinthians, “Do not seek your own advantage.”  In Greek it says literally, “Do not insist on your own way.”  Almost every aspect of love described in this chapter was violated by the Corinthians.

            Which brings me to a point I made in the church eNews this week.  You often hear I Corinthians 13 read at a wedding.  I myself have read this scripture at probably a hundred weddings in the last 35 years.  But I Corinthians 13 was not originally written for weddings.  It was not originally written for couples or families.  It was written for people needing to get along with each other in a church.  All the things said in this chapter are describing ways we need to treat each other in the church: with patience, kindness, and even politeness, putting up with one another, believing in how God can work in us, and hoping for what God can yet do through us if we give God the chance.  I Corinthians 13 is not only a manual for family relations; it is a manual for church relations.

            And here is why love is so important in a church: because all the other things we might do in this church are only temporary.  Paul says, “As for prophecies, they will come to an end.”  For the word “prophecies” the Good News Bible uses the expression “inspired messages.”  In verse 2 it says, “I may have the gift of inspired preaching, but if I have no love I am nothing.”  I hate it when the Bible gets personal.  But it is true.  Preaching is not the most important thing that happens in a church.  One day there will not be no more preaching.  In the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more sermons.  We will not need any preachers telling us about God; we will see God face to face.  But by the time we get to heaven we better have learned how to love, because if we haven’t, heaven will not be heaven.

            This point is so important, Paul uses several examples to make it.  He says, “If I have knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing.”  It does not matter how smart you are or how many degrees you have behind your name or how many Bible studies you have been to; if you haven’t learned how to love people you have nothing.

            Or he says, “If I give away all my possessions but have no love, I am nothing.”  It does not matter how much you give to the church or to COTN; it does not matter how much volunteer work you do at Kent Hope or the Des Moines foodbank or anywhere else; if you have not learned how to love people, you have nothing.  Because all those things will be gone in the Kingdom of God.  There won’t be any churches or foodbanks or homeless shelters in heaven.  What there will be are people, and if you haven’t learned how to love people, what are you going to do?

            Do you see what is at stake here?  Love is the only thing that will still be relevant when everything else is gone.  So if we don’t start practicing love here and now, practicing love in our families, in our church, in our community, even in our country and world, we won’t be ready for heaven even if by God’s grace we get there.

            But here is the good news.  God’s love is not like ours.  God is patient and kind, even when we are not.  God does not keep a record of wrongs, even when we do.  God’s love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

            And that’s why for Paul the most important characteristic of love is its endurance.  After all the other characteristics of love are mentioned, Paul summarizes with these words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Then he says, “Love never ends.”

            Garrison Keillor once said that there are no perfect marriages, only marriages that give up and marriages that keep trying (Wobegon Boy, p. 142).  That is true of all forms of love.  None of us are always patient.  All of us are sometimes envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude.  We all keep a secret record of wrongs.  The only chance we have to succeed at love is to hang in there with each other—to keep trying.  That is the key to marriage and also the key to being a church: to keep trying, to keep showing up, to keep working at it.  For Paul the most important characteristic of love is endurance, and the most important way we show love and grow in love is by continuing to try.

            This does not mean we never confront other people about their actions.  If you noticed, Paul said, “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.”  In other words love does not overlook wrongdoing that hurts other people or puts them down.  Love is not silent when people are unjustly treated or ignored.  Love does not stand aside while people destroy themselves or others with drug abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, or deceit.  Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.   Yet even with that, love continues to seek the best possible good for the other person as well as for ourselves.  It’s faith, hope, and persistence never fails, just like God’s faith, hope, and persistence in us.

            In a book called The Road Less Traveled psychiatrist Scott Peck notes that when couples fall in love all things seem possible to them. He writes, “United with our beloved we feel we can conquer all obstacles.  …  All problems will be overcome.”  But then he says, “Sooner or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself.  He wants to have sex; she doesn’t.  She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t.  He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher.  She wants to talk about her job; he wants to talk about his.  She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers.  … One by one, gradually the ego boundaries snap back into place. … Once again they are two separate individuals.  At this point they either begin to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving” (pp. 87-88).

            The same thing applies to being a church.  It is one thing to commit your life to Jesus in a powerful moment of faith.  But when you join a church—that’s when you begin the real work of learning how to love.

Single, Married, Divorced, and Christian

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 7:8-16, 17-24

            I Corinthians 7 is not a scripture one would normally pick for a wedding.  In verses 8-9 Paul says,

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

Now there is a ringing endorsement for matrimony.

But this scripture does not only addresses marriage; it also has implications for civil rights.  Listen again to verse 21: “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”  A verse like that, wrongly interpreted, could set back the civil rights movement 200 years. 

            This chapter can be easily misunderstood, so this morning I am going to talk about it more like a Bible study than a sermon, because if we don’t understand this scripture in the right way, we will get the wrong message.

            I need to begin, however, with a quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates.  This is one of Socrates’ teachings recorded by his disciple Plato: [Slides 1]

For the body is a source of endless trouble: … it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery ….  Whence comes wars and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  … It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves. [Slide 2] … And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth (Classics of Western Thought: The Ancient World: 102-103).

Socrates believed that to understand goodness and truth you must transcend human bodily life; you must get as far from bodily life as possible.

            Socrates lived around 400 years before Jesus, so when Jesus showed up, the Greeks in Corinth tended to see Jesus in light of Socrates.  Paul quotes their point of view in the first verse of chapter 7: [Slide 3]

            Now concerning what you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”

Note that the words in quotation marks are not Paul’s point of view.  They are the words that the Corinthians wrote to Paul.  The Corinthians, at least some of them, think that sexuality and marriage are bad and that Christians are better off remaining celebate.

            Paul certainly admits that bodily life contains hazards for our spiritual lives, but he does not want spiritual life to be divorced from our bodily life.  He wants our bodily lives to be the arena in which our spiritual lives are lived out.

            So in verse 8 Paul says, [Slide 4] “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”  In other words, it is okay to be single.  You don’t have to have a husband or wife to be a complete person.  Jews were taught that to fulfill your personhood you needed to get married and have children.  But Paul says no, you can serve God just the way you are as single person or a widow.  In fact later in the chapter he mentions some advantages of being single.  Without the responsibilities of a family, a single person can devote more time and energy to helping people in need and showing Christ’s love to the lonely and forgotten.  For Paul being single is not a liability but an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to serve God in ways you could not do if you were married and had a family.

            On the other hand, Paul says, you can also serve God when you are married.  Verses 10-11: [Slide 5]

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

            Remember, Socrates taught that bodily life was a source of trouble.  The Greek Christians in Corinth took this to mean that the best thing was for a man not touch a woman. In other words, they thought that Christians should avoid marriage, and if married, that they should separate from their spouses and become like monks or nuns.

            But Paul says no.  Don’t separate, because you think marriage is harming your spirituality.  Rather think of marriage as a place for living out your spirituality.  Verses 12-14: [Slide 6]

To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.

            Paul does not mean that marriage will automatically make your spouse into a believer.  Marrying someone because you think you can change them, or fix their problems, or make their issues go away—marrying someone for such a reason is almost always a mistake.  However, if you are married and you are a follower of Jesus, or if you become a follower of Jesus after you are married, then you don’t need to leave your marriage to go live in a monastery or convent.  Your marriage can now be part of your mission field. [Slide 7: Blank]

            Paul is not dealing here with situations like domestic violence, adultery, criminal behavior, destructive addictions, or severe mental and emotional dysfunction.  We cannot apply this scripture blindly to these situations because Paul is not addressing these situations in this scripture.  He is addressing people who have been told that bodily life is bad and that sexual relations will corrupt you, especially when a believer is married to an unbeliever.  Remember, these are people who say to Paul, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman, isn’t it?”  To them Paul says, “No, bodily life is good.  Jesus came to redeem our bodily lives.”  You need not be afraid of being tainted by an unbelieving spouse.  You can be the one doing the “tainting.”  As a husband or wife you can be the one infecting the people around you with faith.

           Of course sometimes that doesn’t work.  In verses 15-16 Paul talks about a situation where the spouse does not want to stay in the marriage.  In that situation, Paul says, you cannot control what your spouse does.  If your spouse is determined to leave, or to wreck the marriage by persistent destructive actions, then you can’t save it by yourself.  As Paul says in verse 15, God has called you to a life of peace.  The point is to continue serving God whatever your situation, whether you are single, married, divorced, or widowed.

           By the way, that is also the key to understanding Paul’s words about slavery in verse 21: [Slide 8] “Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.” Paul is not endorsing slavery.  Paul is the one who said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Paul does not endorse slavery, nor is he against slaves gaining their freedom.  Paul is the one who set free a slave girl in Philippi and later a slave named Onesimus.  When Paul says, [Slide 9] “However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you,” he does not mean you should never change your circumstances.  He means that you should live into your calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ no matter what your circumstances.  If you are a slave, you don’t have to wait until you are free to serve Jesus; you can do it now.  If you are single, you need not wait until you get married to serve Jesus; you can do it now.  If you are married, you need not wait until you get rid of your husband or wife before you can serve Jesus; you can do it now.  Because if you learn to serve Jesus now, in your present circumstances, you will still know how to do it when your circumstances change, as inevitably they will. [Slide 10 Blank]

           There is a wonderful picture of this in C. S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.  As I have mentioned before, The Screwtape Letters is a series of imaginary letters from Screwtape, one of the devil’s chief tempters, giving advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt people.  At one point Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for letting his subject get into a relationship with a devout Christian girl.  Here is Screwtape’s description of the situation.  Remember, this is written from the devil’s point of view.  When Screwtape talks about the “Enemy,” he means God.  Screwtape says,

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find.  Not only a Christian but such a Christian…. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny!  Filthy, insipid little prude—and yet ready to fall into this booby’s arms like any other breeding animal.  Why doesn’t the Enemy blast her for it, if He’s so moonstruck by virginity—instead of looking on there, grinning?

Then, of course, he gets to know this woman’s family and whole circle.  Could you not see that the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered?  The whole place reeks of that deadly odor.  The very gardener, though he has been there only five years, is beginning to acquire it.  Even guests, after a weekend visit, carry some of the smell away with them.  The dog and the cat are tainted with it. … The whole house and garden are one vast obscenity.  It bears a sickening resemblance to the description one human writer made of Heaven (pp. 101-102).

            God does not despise human bodily life, whether single or married, divorced or widowed, working, unemployed or retired.  God does not despise your life as it is; rather God sees your life right now—single or married, working or retired—God sees your life right now as an opportunity to share God’s love in a way that other people will be tainted by it.

Freedom, Rights, and Service

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 9:19-23; Galatians 5:13-15

            On June 12 thousands of people in over 80 cities across Russia marched in protest of corruption by Russian officials, specifically the way certain Russian officials were getting rich by controlling government contracts and doling them out to a favored few in exchange for lucrative bribes.  It is important to note that they were not calling for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin or the Russian government; they were only protesting the practice of corruption and favoritism by some officials.  But immediately riot police went out and started beating up the protestors, arresting more than 1000 of them just in the city of Moscow.

            When I read about this, I thought about the last time we had marchers in Seattle.  I don’t remember what the issue was, but whether I agreed with it or not, and even if I was irritated because a street I wanted to use was closed off for a time, I give thanks that we have the freedom in this country to march—to engage in peaceful, non-destructive demonstrations to express a political opinion, because many people in the world do not have that right.  Freedom of speech is not something to be taken for granted.

          Nor is freedom of the press.  According to Article 53 of the North Korean Constitution, citizens of North Korea have freedom of speech, press, association, and demonstration.  But not really.  The only demonstrations allowed are the ones actually organized by the government.  Internet access is tightly controlled and most radios and televisions in North Korean homes are engineered only to receive government approved stations.  In addition all journalists must be approved by the government and be members of the ruling party.   So even if sometimes I shake my head at the rantings on cable news channels, I am grateful they exist.  Because in some other countries they are not allowed.

            And then there is religion.  In North Korea, as in several other countries, Christian are allowed to worship in a limited number of preapproved churches, but they are strictly forbidden to invite non-Christians to come to their services.  There are very few countries that forbid the existence of Christian churches, not even North Korea.  But there are a numerous countries, including North Korea, with strict laws against proselytizing people, which means telling people about your faith and inviting them to come and experience it.  So I am grateful for the freedom we have in this country, not just the freedom to worship but the freedom to invite our neighbors to come and worship. That is a simple freedom not to be taken for granted.

            But nothing will endanger our freedom like its misuse as a vehicle for self-indulgence and greed.  In our first scripture reading from Galatians 5, the apostle Paul says,

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. … If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

          He goes on in Galatians to describe the fruits of self-indulgence, what he calls the works of the flesh, verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

            I did not really appreciate this list until I read Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of it in his massive paraphrase of the Bible called The Message.  Listen to his paraphrase of Galatians 5:19-21:

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

            That’s what we get when our freedom is separated from our purpose.  Our purpose is to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and if our freedom is not used for that purpose, it will eventually destroy us.

            And that’s where we come to Paul’s discussion of his own freedom in I Corinthians, chapter 9.  In verse 19 he says, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”  By the word “win” he means help people believe in and experience God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.  If our freedom is not used for that purpose, Paul says, then it is wasted.

            He goes on to give examples.  As a Christian he is free from the Jewish laws of the Old Testament, but he is bound by a greater law—the law of love.  And so when relating to Jewish people, he respects and observes their laws so that when he shares the gospel with them, he will have credibility.  Likewise with those outside the law—meaning Gentiles—he shows respect for them and their traditions so that when he shares the gospel with them, there will be no unnecessary barriers to hearing it.  When he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” he does not mean sacrificing his own beliefs and values.  He means respecting and loving people on their own terms, in order that they might hear and believe the good news of God’s transforming love.

            This is part of a long discussion in I Corinthians 9 about the rights of an apostle.  I was thinking about reading the whole chapter, because the first 14 verses are about clergy compensation, the right of an apostle to be paid.  I thought that was something we should all read.  Only if you read it you will discover that after spending 14 verses arguing that apostles have a right to be paid, Paul says he gladly gives up this right in order to help spread the gospel.  So you have to be careful.  The Bible does not always say what we want it to say.  But the point Paul makes over and over in this chapter is that his rights as an apostle don’t mean anything unless he is using them to share with others the love of God shown to us in Jesus Christ.  That’s the point of being an apostle.

            That is also the point of having freedom.  If we have freedom of speech, it is not so we can put each other down but so we can build each other up in the life God wants us to have in Jesus Christ.  That certainly includes standing up for people whose rights have been trampled, but the point of standing up for human rights is not so that people can do whatever they want; it is so that people everywhere can become the beacons of light and hope that God meant them to be all along.

            The only way we will preserve freedom of speech in this country is if we use it to build people up rather than to tear them down.  The only way we will preserve freedom of the press in this country is if we use it to speak the truth in love.  The only way we will preserve freedom of assembly in this country is if we use it to build bridges of community.  And the only way we will preserve freedom of worship in this country is if we use it to worship Someone greater than ourselves.

Unexpected Candidates for Sainthood

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: I Corinthians 1:1-9; I Peter 2:9-10

Recently I read a book by David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity.  It was based on a national survey of young adults who don’t go to any church and don’t really want to.  They are what the book calls “young outsiders.”  In the survey the authors asked these young adults what it was about the church that turned them off.  Here is part of their list.  Churches, they said, are judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, and boring (p. 72).

Ouch!  In her book Take this Bread Sara Miles describes her journey from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian, a move that her atheist friends could not understand.  She writes,

"I knew what they thought: Christians were corny, sentimental, vulgar, embarrassing, intolerant, superstitious, dogmatic, self-righteous, do-goody, obtuse, smug, unsophisticated, and dumb.  They thought I wasn’t like that, so I couldn’t be a “real” Christian" (p. 262).

Wow!  Somewhere along the line we Christians have developed an awful reputation, especially among the young and sophisticated.

So it is striking to me how the apostle Paul addresses the Christians in Corinth.  He writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”

I need to warn you that Paul wrote this letter to a fairly messed up church.  We will see this as we work our way through the book over the summer.  Later in chapter 1 Paul describes divisions in the church—factions that are threatening to split it apart.  Chapter 5 reports a case of incest in the church.  Chapter 8 suggests that some of the members are worshiping idols.  Chapter 11 accuses them of gluttony, drunkenness, and total disregard of the poor.  This is one dysfunctional church, but Paul calls them saints.

Then in the verses that follow Paul gives thanks for the very qualities of the Corinthians that are causing many of their problems.  In verse 5 Paul gives thanks “that in every way you have been enriched by [Jesus], in speech and knowledge of every kind.”  Some of the divisions I the church were caused by their speech, specifically those who were speaking in tongues.  But Paul gives thanks for their speech.  Others in the church considered themselves more knowledgeable, more sophisticated than others.  Later in the letter Paul chastises them for this attitude, but here in chapter 1 Paul gives thanks for their knowledge.  Then in verse 7 he says, “So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Later we will discover that spiritual gifts were a problem among the Christians in Corinth, because some thought their spiritual gifts were better than the gifts of others.  Yet Paul gives thanks for their spiritual gifts.  What is he thinking?

He is thinking that God is at work in this congregation.  That is the key.  They are sanctified—made holy—in Christ Jesus.  They are saints because God is at work among them. So whatever problems they may have—even if they are intolerant, self-righteous, hypocritical, smug, unsophisticated, and dumb—it doesn’t matter.  They are saints!

By the way, Paul never uses the word “saint” to refer to an exceptional individual Christian.  He never refers to “Saint So and So.”  When talking about Christians, he always uses the word for the collective body of the people in the church.

For Paul there are three key factors that make ordinary, imperfect, sometimes judgmental and hypocritical churchgoers into saints, and that will be the outline for the rest of this sermon.  The rest of this sermon will be an old-fashioned three point sermon, something that might actually allow you to take notes.  So here we go.  How can Paul call this divisive, dysfunctional, hypocritical church “the saints of God in Corinth”?

Number 1: [Slide 1, click 1] Because Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.  Notice again what Paul says in verse 2, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus.”  To be sanctified means to be made holy.  They are holy not because they have proven themselves holy but because Jesus has declared them holy.  Peter makes the same point in our first scripture lesson.  He says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  You did not earn your status as saints.  God chose you for sainthood by calling you into the family of God we call the church.

William Sloane Coffin, the former pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City, once said, “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value” (Credo, p. 6).  God’s love does not look for saints, it manufactures them.  Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.

Number 2: Paul calls the Corinthians saints, [click 2] because Sainthood is a mission, not a status.  Our English word saint is a translation for a Greek word that means “set apart for a sacred purpose.”  This building becomes a sanctuary—a holy place—when it is set apart for a sacred use.  The bread and grape juice on the communion table on communion Sundays become Holy Communion when they are set apart for a sacred use.  There is nothing sacred about the bread or grape juice on the communion table.  I think it’s the cheapest stuff Georgia can find.  But it becomes holy when it is set part for a special use.

The same is true for us.  There is nothing holy about the people in this church.  Sometimes I think we’re the cheapest stuff God could find.  But we are saints, we are holy, because God has set us apart for a special purpose: to be witnesses to God’s coming kingdom, to be living testimonies of what God can do with cheap materials to build an everlasting temple for the Holy Spirit.  You are holy because God has set you apart for a special purpose.

Peter makes this same point in our first scripture reading: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [here is the purpose] you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are saints on a mission to tell the world about God’s transforming love, even if you can’t yet see it in our own lives.

Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.  It is a mission, not a status.  And Number 3: [Click 3]  Sainthood is a hope, not an accomplishment.

Recall what Paul says in I Corinthians 1:8: “He [God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Notice, we are not blameless now.  Right now we are sinners.  Right now we are probably all the things that the young outsiders accuse us of being.  Hypocrites—guilty!  Insensitive to others—guilty!  Smug—probably too often.  Unwise in some of our attitudes and decisions—you bet!  At best you might call us “saints in training”—interns in sainthood just barely beginning to learn the robes.

But the good news is that God is not finished with us yet.  We are a project in holiness that God is one day determined to complete.

C. S. Lewis was once asked, “If Christianity is true, why are not all Christians obviously nicer than non-Christians?”  That is the objection of those young outsiders in the survey and the atheist friends of Sara Miles.  If Christians are supposed to be saints, why aren’t they better than other people?  Here is part of C. S. Lewis’ response, from his book Mere Christianity:

"Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin.  That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works.  The question is what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one.  Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so" (p. 178).

Sainthood is not an accomplishment, it’s a project, and worship is where we invite God to come and keep chiseling away.

The Power of Praise

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: II Chronicles 20:13-23; Revelation 7:9-12

Several years ago I heard author Anne Lamott speak at Whitworth University.  She has an amazing life story.  At one time she was alcoholic, bulimic, addicted to crack, and having simultaneous affairs with two married men.  Her life was a mess.  But she says in her book Traveling Mercies that on Sundays she would walk around a flea market in her town of Marin City, CA, and hear gospel music coming from a church across the street.  She writes,

It was called St. Andrew Presbyterian, and it looked homely and impoverished, a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a small parcel of land with a few skinny pine trees.  But the music wafting out was so pretty that I would stop and listen.  I knew a lot of the hymns from the times I’d gone to church with my grandparents and from the albums we’d had of spirituals.  Finally, I began stopping in at St. Andrew from time to time, standing in the doorway to listen to the songs.  I couldn’t believe how run-down it was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and overshined, and plastic stained-glass windows.  But it had a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth. …  I went back to St. Andrew about once a month.  No one tried to con me into sitting down or staying.  I always left before the sermon.  I loved singing, even about Jesus, but I just didn’t want to be preached at about him. …

Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself.  Then the singing enveloped me.  It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart.  There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.  Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender.  Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated.  Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life (pp. 46-48).

I have never doubted the power of music to shape someone’s heart, but I have to say that our scripture for today from II Chronicles 20 takes this to a whole new level.  The nation Judah—from which we get the word Jews—was under attack from a large coalition of armies to the east.  Out of fear the people of Judah from across the land gathered in Jerusalem for a day of prayer.  Verse 13 says, “Meanwhile all Judah stood before the Lord with their little ones, their wives, and their children.”  The mention of little ones and children emphasizes their vulnerability.  Verse 14 says, “Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, son of Benaiah, son of Jeiel, son of Mattaniah, a Levite of the sons of Asaph.”

This little genealogy, this short list of ancestors, is given for a purpose.  It connects Jahaziel to his ancestor Asaph.  Why is that important?  Because Asaph was the original choir director for the people of Israel.  Asaph was one of the musicians appointed by King David to lead music in the Jerusalem sanctuary.  In fact there are twelve psalms in the book of Psalms written not by David but by Asaph.  He was like Edie’s brother—the Duane Funderburk of ancient Jerusalem.  And the fact that he was Jahaziel’s ancestor means that Jahaziel was the heir to that same role.  The choir director position was hereditary.  Jahaziel was the music director of ancient Jerusalem.

At this critical moment with Jerusalem under attack from a large coalition of armies, it is not the king who delivers a message to the people of Judah, nor some prophet or preacher; it’s the choir director.  Verse 15:

He [Jahaziel] said, “Listen, all Judah and Jerusalem, and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you: Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.

With that they prepare for battle.  But notice how they prepare.  They did not collect their weapons.  They did not put on their armor.  They did not train like Navy Seals for urban fighting and hand to hand combat.  They held a worship service.  Verses 18-19:

Then Jehoshaphat bowed down with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the Lord, worshiping the Lord.  And the Levites, of the Kohathites and the Korahites stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.

The next morning they went out to face the enemy, and verse 21 says,

When he [King Jehoshaphat] had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the Lord and praise him in holy splendor, as they went before the army, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

When they go out to battle, King Jehoshaphat puts the choir out front, and they sing, not some new song written especially for the occasion but an old familiar worship chorus, a refrain found in numerous psalms: Give thanks to the Lord, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Then comes the biggest surprise of all—verse 23: “For the Ammonites and Moab attacked Mount Seir, destroying them utterly; and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped destroy each other.”  The enemies of Judah were consumed by their own animosities and defeated by a choir singing praise to God.

This story may seem to you like a fairy tale, but I think it is profoundly true.  Evil feeds off of fear.  Terrorism lives off of terror.  Oppression and injustice always try to justify themselves with worries about will happen if certain people are not destroyed or at least kept in their place.  Every evil in the history of the world has lived and breathed off of fear.

But what better remedy for fear than singing praise to God?  The very act of praising God neutralizes the power of fear.  The very act of standing in this church singing “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” is a defiant statement to the world that no power on this earth, personal or political, can thwart God’s destiny for us.  Our destiny is not in the hands of any politician or military leader or terrorist or missile defense system.  It is in the hands of the God who created the universe, whose steadfast love endures forever.

So here is the message in this scripture passage: Don’t mess with the choir.  Don’t mess with the worship band.  ISIS militants and Russian hackers and North Korean missiles are no match for the people of God singing God’s praise, because when people are singing God’s praise, no malevolent power on earth can make us afraid.

That’s what Anne Lamott experienced in that small Presbyterian Church in Marin City.  The singing of God’s praise worked a remarkable change in her life and in the lives of others she met at that church.  Here is one more story from her book:

One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our eyes. … Shortly [before], his partner died of the disease.  A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since.  Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. … He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.

There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken.  She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all. …  I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease.  But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone over.  He finally missed a couple of Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke.  Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days.

So on this particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes, “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up.  But he sang away sitting down with the hymnal in his lap.  And when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”  The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged?  Why do the shadows fall?”  And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent to lift him up—lifted this white rag doll, this scarecrow.  She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang.  And it pierced me.  I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought about this alchemy (pp. 63-65).

Don’t mess with the choir, because when people sing praise to God, the walls come tumbling down.

Full of Hot Air

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Acts 2:1-13; Luke 4:16-21; Joel 2:27-29

Something in Middle Eastern geography

Produces visions;

Judaism, Christianity, Islam,

Three world-encompassing religions.


Maybe it’s the wind parched land,

Or heat radiating off the sand

That produces mirage-like sensations,

What some people call revelations.


Revelation or mirage,

Prophet or pretender,

Which was Jesus,

Heretic or God’s righteous defender?


Even in his own home town

People were divided,

Some followed, some rejected,

And some were simply undecided.


In the synagogue Jesus read

Isaiah’s glorious vision

Of a Spirit anointed prophet

Proclaiming God’s provision

For the poor, the blind,

Those at the end of their rope,

Who had nothing else to grasp

But the good news of God’s hope.


Jesus read Isaiah’s words,

Then closed the book;

He said, “Today, it’s fulfilled,

You have only to look.”


Some nodded with hope,

Some thought him on dope;

Some appreciated his care,

Others said, “He’s full of hot air.”

And they were right!


Holy Spirit, hot air, wind and fire;

Igniting our hearts with God’s desire

For a world of righteousness, peace, and love

That can only come from the Lord above.


That’s what happened at Pentecost:

The blowing of a heaven-sent breeze

Ignited by God’s fire,

Bringing disciples to their knees.


They were all together in that upper room.

When the Spirit went Ka-boom

And rained on them a fiery shower

Filling them with heavenly power.


But it wasn’t just the twelve

Who received the Spirit that day;

Luke says the believers numbered over one hundred,

And many were gathered in that room to pray,

Including women who had followed Jesus

And supported the work of his mission.

They too spoke in tongues that day

And received the Spirit’s commission.

How striking that they were together

When the Spirit came.

Many feel closest to God alone,

A big crowd just isn’t the same.


They would prefer meeting God on a lake

Or praying quietly alone;

Other people are such a distraction,

With their attitudes, quirks, and ringing cell phones.


Great revelations are for the solitary,

Jesus in the desert, Buddha under a tree,

Moses on Mt. Sinai;

Surely the Spirit is not a democracy.


Yet they were together that day

When the Spirit came to reside

On men and women, young and old,

Just as Joel had prophesied.


It came with tongues of fire.

Now there is a picture absurd!

Such an image is not meant to be seen,

It’s really meant to be heard.


For the Spirit is, above all, a sound,

The voice of people speaking,

Inviting us to know the God

We’ve all along been seeking.


And the message got through that day

Thanks to the Spirit,

For the disciples delivered it

In a way so people could hear it.

Most would have probably understood

If the message had been given in Greek,

But in using each one’s language of birth,

The Spirit chose a more personal way to speak.


At the Tower of Babel

Language divided.

In the upper room at Pentecost

Language united.


Still not everyone believed.

The message they had received.

The apostles were debunked

With claims they were drunk.

Even though it was only nine in the morning;

The lines in the bar weren’t even forming.


There is always a way to reject God’s call

To build back up the Christ-shattered wall,

Denying the hope Jesus called us to preach

To a hungering world he wants us to reach.


But the Spirit is not so easily thwarted,

Nor its message so easily distorted.


Though some mocked the Spirit that day

The flame still had its way

Burning into many a heart

Inviting others to take their part

Sharing God’s yearning for reconciliation

With the people of every race and nation.


Holy Spirit, wind and flame;

The disciples were indeed full of hot air,

The kind of hot air that lifts people up

From their solitary despair.


The kind of hot air expanding the boundaries

Of our shrunken worldview

Opening doors of new mission

For all to pursue.


The kind of hot air

Wafted abroad,

Inviting unexpected people

To a relationship with God.


Holy Spirit, hot air,

Don’t be afraid to breathe it in.

For the breath of life that created the world,

Can help life begin again.


The Once and Future King

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 17:20-33; Luke 4:16-21

This week in our church eNews I told about a conversation I had with a Jewish Boy Scout whom I met at a Boy Scout camp in North Idaho.  The boy had many questions about what Christians believe and why there are so many different churches.  But near the end of the conversation he asked me this question.  He said, “How can you Christians believe that the Messiah has come when there is still so much suffering in the world?”

Good question.  In our first scripture Jesus reads this passage from the prophet Isaiah: [Slide 1]

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus reads this text then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Really?  This scripture is about the coming of God’s kingdom.  It’s about end of violence and oppression, the end of poverty and hunger, the end of disease and disability.  In what sense has Jesus fulfilled this scripture?

In our second scripture the Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come.  Essentially they are asking the same question as the Jewish Boy Scout: “If you are the Messiah, if you are God’s promised king, then where is the kingdom?”

Jesus replies, [Slide 2] “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” or some translations say, “the kingdom of God is within you.”

Some people take this to mean the kingdom of God is not something out there; it is something in here—in our hearts.  It is a spiritual kingdom.  Which is partly true.  Jesus came to transform our hearts.  But he also came to transform our world.  That’s what Isaiah was talking about and what Jesus affirms when he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  When Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” he means that that kingdom of God has arrived in him, but at present it is a hidden kingdom, not something readily observable.

Elsewhere Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. [Slide 3: Mustard seed] If a mustard seed were dropped on some dirt you wouldn’t even see it.  You would not even know it is there.  But it is, and over time it sends down shoots and pushes up little spouts, and a bud begins to grow and leaves appear, and it grows and grows until eventually [Slide 4: Mustard plant] it becomes like a tree big enough for the birds to build a nest.  [Slide 5: Blank] Or Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like yeast in bread dough.  Looking at the lump of dough you would not know the yeast is there.  But it is, and over time it begins to ferment and bubble and expand and push out the sides of the dough until the whole lump is transformed.  The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says.  It has arrived in him, but it is not yet fully visible.

Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”  The term “Son of Man” comes from Daniel, chapter 7: [Slide 6]

I saw one like [the Son of Man] coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

When Jesus uses the term Son of Man, he is referring to God’s future king who will reign over all peoples, nations, and languages, bringing God’s righteousness and peace to the whole world.

So who is this Son of Man?  Jesus tells us in verse 25: [Slide 7] “But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation.”  The promised Son of Man is none other than Jesus, who as he speaks these words is on his way toward crucifixion in Jerusalem.

And that’s why Jesus says to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.”  Jesus is about to be taken away from them.  For a time it will appear as if evil and suffering have triumphed.  But the suffering of Jesus will be the key to God’s victory.

In seminary one of my teachers compared it to D-day in World War II. [Slide 8: D-day landing]  On D-day, June 6, 1944, about 2500 American soldiers were killed attacking the beaches of Normandy.  In the next three months, between June 7 and August 30, an estimated 20,000 more Americans were killed securing the region of Normandy as a base for the assault on Hitler’s Germany.  It is sobering, especially on Memorial Day, to remember how many Americans gave their lives in just one battle to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century.

But that battle was a turning point in World War II.  In a very real sense the power of Nazi Germany was broken on D-day.  Once the allies had a base in Normandy [Slide 9: Normandy troop build up] they began pouring troops and tanks and supplies and equipment across the channel into France.  There were still many battles to be fought as the allies struggled across Europe toward Germany.  There was still much suffering and many more lives to be lost.  But in a sense, strategically, the war was won on D-day.  It was just a matter of time. [Slide 10: Blank]

That is the sense in which the kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus.  The coming of Jesus is like the allied troops landing in Normandy.  When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, the power of evil in this world was broken.  Admittedly the battle is not over.  There is still evil and suffering in this world.  But a decisive turning point has been reached.  A beachhead for the kingdom of God has been established in this world, and one day it will permeate the whole creation, like lightning flashing across the sky from one end to the other.

The question is whether we perceive the true situation.

This week I read about the diary of a teenager girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. [Slide 11: Brigitte] Her name was Brigitte Eicke, seen her in front of a row boat.  Brigitte began writing in her diary in December of 1942, and she wrote in it almost every day.  Her entries from 1944 to 1945 show a teenager aware of but untroubled by the chaos around her.  For example on February 1, 1944, she writes in her diary: “The school had been bombed when we arrived this morning.  Waltraud, Melitta, and I went back to Gisela’s and danced to grammaphone records.” [Slide 12: Brigitte and friends] This is in Berlin early 1944.  In November of that year, as allied troops were advancing across Europe nearing Germany, Brigitte complained in her diary about a disastrous perm she got and worried about how she would look the next day when she went to work.  On March 2, 1945, just two months before the Nazi surrender, Brigitte wrote in her diary, “Margot and I went to the Admiralspalast cinema….  It was such a lovely film, but there was a power cut in the middle of it.  How annoying!” (quoted by Jane Paulick in “The Carefree Life of a Teen in Wartime Berlin,” Spiegel Online International).

Brigitte’s diary helps me understand Jesus’ words in verses 26-27: [Slide 13]

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark.

In other words, like Brigitte, they were unaware that there world was about to change, that in fact it had already changed and they just didn’t know it. [Slide 14: Blank]

That’s what Jesus is saying here in these scriptures.  Evil, hate, violence, injustice, oppression, poverty, addiction, disease, dysfunction, alienation, pollution—all these things have been defeated, and one day the victory will be complete, and the creation will be transformed into the place it was meant to be all along.

The key is to see where things are going and not give up.  The key is to see that the battle turned.  Hate, injustice, suffering, alienation—these things will not go on forever.  In Jesus the allies have landed, and you can ignore that fact or join those who are living into the new reality.

Dinner Invitations

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 14:15-24; 14:12-14

A parable takes on different meanings depending on where you put yourself in the story.  We saw that two months ago when we read the parable of the Good Samaritan.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, if you see yourself as one of the people passing by the injured traveler, it becomes a parable about helping your neighbor.  Either you are like the priest or Levite, too busy to help, or you are like the Good Samaritan, who stops to help.  That’s one way to read the parable of the Good Samaritan: as a story about helping your neighbor.

But another way to read that parable is to see yourself as the injured traveler.  If you are the helpless, injured traveler on the road, then the story takes on a different significance.  It becomes a parable about salvation.  We are not saved by how religious we are—that would be the priest; nor by how many good works we do—that would be the Levite.  Instead we are saved by the one despised and rejected by others—that would be the Samaritan—the one who at great personal sacrifice paid the price for our healing.  Looked at one way, the parable of the Good Samaritan is an illustration of how to be a good neighbor.  But looked at another way, it is an illustration of salvation by grace through Jesus.

The same is true with this parable we just heard called the Parable of the Great Banquet.  This parable has two different meanings, depending on where you see yourself in the story.  So this morning I am going to preach two sermons.  Don’t worry, they will be short.  But I want to preach two sermons instead of one to highlight the two sides of the story.

Sermon #1

In the first sermon I invite you to see yourself as one of the people invited to the banquet.

Jesus is at a dinner party when one of the guests says to him, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”  In response Jesus tells a parable about a host who invites people to a dinner party.  Verses 16-17:

Then Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.  At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’”

You see the connection.  This parable is a response to the person who said, “Blessed is the one who eats bread in the kingdom of God.  The parable is about being invited to God’s banquet.

Notice that the invitation is free.  To get into this banquet you don’t need a credit card or even a pledge card.  You don’t have to show your voting record or your community service record or even your record of church attendance.  According to Jesus, God is standing at the gate of heaven with open arms, ready to welcome you like the father who welcomed home the prodigal son.  All you have to do is come.

But then comes the surprise.  Verses 18-20:

But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’

Each of them had something in their lives that was keeping them from the party.

None of these things are bad in themselves.  It is not wrong to own property.  It is not wrong to have livestock or tools with which you earn a living.  It is not wrong to get married and care about your spouse and family.  These things are not bad.  They only become bad if they keep us away from the relationship to God for which we were created.

I made this point last week, but let me make it again.  Anything good in our lives can become bad if it becomes our god.  Food is a good thing, but it becomes destructive if it becomes our god; if we become obsessed with it.  Money and possessions can be a blessing, but if they become our god, if we become obsessed with them and constantly worried about them, if they begin to take all our attention, undermining our relationships to everyone else including God, they will destroy us.

Likewise family.  Even something as good as marriage and family can become destructive if it becomes your god.  Because if family relationships become your god you will not be able to give them the space they need to grow. You will become anxious and controlling of them and devastated if a family member should reject you or even not respond to you in the way you had hoped.  As I said last week, the only way to really love our family is to love God first.  And that’s why Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness—first accept the invitation to the banquet—then everything else in your life will find its proper place.

That is sermon #1.  If you are one of the invited guests, don’t allow lesser things in your life to keep you from the party.  Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and everything else in your life will find its proper place.

Sermon #2

Now Sermon #2.  This time imagine yourself not as one of the invited guests but as the servant of the host.  You probably didn’t even notice the servant or slave, but he or she is an important character.  The master addresses the servant or slave three times:

-          V. 17: “He sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’”

-          Then in v. 21, when the first group declined the invitation, the master said to the servant, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”

-          Finally in v. 23 the master says again to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”

This parable takes on a new meaning if you see yourself not as the invited guest but as the servant sent out with invitations.  It means there is more work to do.  There are more people to invite because God’s house is still not full.

Which is exactly what we are trying to do here at Southminster.  We at Southminster are trying to see ourselves as the servant in this parable.  We are trying to create occasions when we can invite friends and neighbors to come to the banquet.  Sometimes these are actual meals: like SPC Together, Agape, the men’s barbecue, breakfast at the Cove or breakfast on Mother’s Day.  Other times we invite people to metaphorical banquets like worship, communion, Bible studies, and prayer gatherings.

We have several special opportunities to do this coming up:

-          You could use the insert in the bulletin this morning to invite a neighbor or friend to the Festival of Music next week.  This could be a non-threatening way for someone with no church connection to experience a little bit of what church is like, meeting some of our folks and hearing about our faith as expressed in music.

-          We also have an opportunity in the evening on June 2 to get to know some of our neighbors at the North Hill Elementary School.  They have told us they would welcome our help running some of the games or concessions for their school carnival.  This could be a great, non-threating way to meet some parents who are standing around while their children are playing a game.  We don’t have to be aggressive; just get to know them.  Sometimes people are touched just by knowing that folks across the street are interested in them.

These are just some of the opportunities we have to invite friends and neighbors to come to the party, to experience with us the joy and gratitude of being part of God’s family.

But Jesus does not stop there.  Next the master tells the slave to go out into the streets and invite the poor, blind, lame, or crippled.  So we try to do that as well.  Here are some examples:

-          The protein packs that we made at SPC Together.  Many of you have taken one or more of these packs and given them to people you see on the street holding a sign asking for help.  The pack includes the name of our church and a prayer for God’s blessing.  We have a few more in the blue box in the coffee room.

-          Others in our church have been involved with Praisealujah, a local shelter and Christian recovery program.  Besides financial support for Praisealujah we have shared meals with them, worshiped with them, and done Bible study with them.

-          We are just beginning a new relationship with City of Glory, a new Christian community of immigrants predominantly from East Africa.  We hope that some of them will share appetizers with us tonight at 5:30 as well as joining us for worship at Agape.

There are many other ways we go out to invite others--people outside our usual circle of contacts: distributing food at the food bank, serving meals at Hospitality House, providing services at Kent Hope, books at the SCORE jail, and on and on.  We are not just the people invited to the banquet in God’s kingdom, we are the messengers sent out with the invitation.

One of my favorite stories from my days as a pastor in Potlatch, Idaho, is the story of an elder in the church who invited her neighbor to come to our worship service one Sunday.  The neighbor said, “I don’t want to go to that church; it’s full of hypocrites.”  The elder replied, “That’s okay, there is always room for one more.”

That is the two sides of this parable.  You are the undeserving guest invited to the greatest dinner party of all time: the banquet in God’s kingdom.  But you are also the servant sent out to invite others.


Jesus on Motherhood

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 8:19-21, 12:49-53, 14:25-26

It seemed like such a good idea.  All winter and spring we have been studying the Gospel of Luke in our church services, so on Mother’s Day I thought why not look through the Gospel of Luke for places where Jesus talks about mothers.  So I did.  And here is what I found.

First is the scripture passage Rob just read from Luke 8.  Jesus’ mother and brothers can’t reach him because of the crowd, so they send a message asking to see him.  Does Jesus say, “By all means, bring them in”? Or better yet does he go out to them?  No.  Instead he says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Wow.  That’s not what you would expect on a Mother’s Day card.

But it only gets worse.  Now let me read the next two places where Jesus talks about mothers, as well as fathers.

[Read Luke 12:49-53 and 14:25-26]

I’m curious.  Have many of you ever heard these scripture passages preached on Mother’s Day?  I thought not.  What are we to do with this?  Is Jesus launching a war against family values?  Or is he after something else?

Let’s go back and start with the first scripture passage: Luke 8:21.  [Slide 1: Luke 8:21]  Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”  If you read this statement carefully, Jesus does not exclude his mother and brothers from his family, from those who hear the word of God and do it.  In fact we know from the book of Acts, which was also written by Luke, that Jesus’ mother and brothers were among Jesus’ followers.  After the resurrection Acts 1:14 says, [Slide 2: Acts 1:14] “All these [meaning all the disciples] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.”  So we know that Jesus’ mother and brothers were not excluded from his family.

So what is Jesus’ point?  In this statement, [Slide 3: Luke 8:21] “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,” Jesus is not excluding his own family; he is broadening the definition of family to include us.  We too get to be part of Jesus’ family.  In Jesus our heredity does not determine our destiny.  Our family of origin does not determine our membership in the family of God.

Some of you, I know, had a rough upbringing.  You have shared with me about having parents who struggled with alcoholism or abuse.  Your experience growing up was not the stuff of a Hallmark card.  To you Jesus offers good news.  Your heredity does not determine your destiny.  Your family of origin does not determine your relationship to God.

But there is also a warning in these words.  Your family of origin does not determine your membership in the family of God.  In other words, you cannot skate into the kingdom on your parent’s faith.  You have to make that decision and commitment for yourself.

I remember talking to one of our church members who grew up in a Christian family, but when he went to college he suddenly realized that he was free.  He did not have to do what his parents did or believe what his parents believed.  There were alternatives.  College is full of alternative beliefs, many of which allow for sleeping in on Sunday morning.  So this young man had to decide if he wanted to continue in the faith of his parents.  I asked him how he made up his mind.  He said, “I looked at my friends who decided to live without faith, who decided to live only for themselves, and I did not want to be like them.  So I went back to church.”

There you have it.  No matter what faith you inherit from your parents, you must make your own personal commitment to discover your place in the family of God.

And that’s where following Jesus can sometimes create tension in families.  In Luke 12 Jesus says something startling.  He says, [Slide 4: Luke 12:51] “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

At one level Jesus is talking about how his followers will be persecuted after he is gone.  Later in Luke 21 Jesus tells his disciples, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.”  Some of Jesus’ first followers were rejected by their own families.

In Spokane I visited a member of the church who had quit coming.  She had quit long before I came, so I knew it wasn’t me, but I was curious why she quit.  So I went to see her.  I wondered if there had been some conflict or incident that drove her away, but her answer surprised me.  She did not talk about a conflict or incident with another church member; instead she had a falling out with her son.  I thought maybe her son had gotten into drugs or crime, and the mother blamed God or the church for not protecting him.  So I asked, “What happened with your son?”  She said with disgust, “He’s a missionary.”  I said, “Pardon me.”  She went on, “Patrick was such a gifted boy.  He could have really made something of himself.  But he threw it all away to become a Presbyterian missionary living with poor people in Africa.”

I was speechless.  Finally I said, “Well, you must at least be proud that he is helping people,” but she just shook her head as if he were a drug addict.

That’s when, for the first time, I began understood these words of Jesus: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”  Sometimes following Jesus may put us at odds with our own family.

But there is another danger that concerns Jesus, which he addresses in Luke 14:26 [Slide 5: Luke 14:26] “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Jesus does not mean that we should literally hate our families, any more than he means we should literally hate ourselves.  Jesus is using classic Middle Eastern exaggeration, as when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, or if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”  If Jesus meant that literally we would all be blind and limbless.  Jesus does not mean that we should hate our families.  But he does mean that we must love him first, because if we do not love him first we will not be able to properly love our families. [Slide 6: Blank]

Think about this a moment.  How can we give our children the freedom they need to grow if we don’t trust God to be there with them?  If we don’t trust God, we will end up obsessive and controlling over our children.  And how can we forgive our children or anyone else if we don’t first believe in God’s grace toward us?  We have to love Jesus first before we can properly love our families.

I shared this story a couple years ago, but it is so fitting for today’s scripture readings I have to share it again.  It’s from C. S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, where a bus load of tourists from hell are allowed to visit heaven.  One of the ghosts on the bus is a woman who takes the trip to heaven because she wants to find her son Michael who died previously.  When she arrives, she says to the tour guide, “When am I going to be allowed to see my son?”  The tour guide says, “There’s no question of being allowed.  As soon as it’s possible for him to see you, of course he will.  You need to be thickened up a bit.”

“How?” says the [mother].

“I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,” [says the tour guide].  “You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want someone else besides Michael.  I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning.  That will come later.  It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.”

“Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing?” [says the mother]. “Well, never mind.  I’ll do whatever’s necessary.  What do you want me to do?  Come on.  The sooner I begin it, the sooner they’ll let me see my boy.  I’m quite ready.”

[The tour guide says,] “But don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind?  You’re treating God only as a means to Michael.  But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.”

“This is all nonsense,” [says the mother], “cruel and wicked nonsense.  What right have you to say things like that about Mother-love?  It is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature.”

[The tour guide says,] “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves.  They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein.  They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”

“My love for Michael would never have gone bad.  Not if we’d lived together for millions of years.”

“You are mistaken,” [says the tour guide].  “Haven’t you met—down there—mothers who have their sons with them in Hell?  Does their love make them happy?”

“Give me my boy,” [screams the mother].  “I don’t care about all your rules and regulations.  I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart.  I believe in a God of Love.  No one has a right to come between me and my son.  Not even God.  Tell him that to His face.  I want my boy, and I mean to have him.  He is mine, do you understand?  Mine, mine, mine” (pp. 91-95).

You get the feeling she would gladly take her son with her back to hell.  Even something as good and holy as family can become toxic if it becomes more important than God.  The only way to really love our families is to love God first, for only then we will our other relationships find their proper bearing.

The Four Sides of the Cross

Ken Onstot

“Paying for the Damage”

Scripture: Romans 3:21-26

If I drive into the church parking lot

And run into your car,

Forgiveness will not come cheap.

You may say, “Forget about it.”

But the insurance company won’t,

Unless someone else pays for the damage.


When hurt is inflicted,

Someone bears the pain;

When wrong is done,

Someone suffers for it.

When damage occurs,

Someone pays the price.

Forgiveness is nice to talk about,

But someone bears the cost.


Families in a South Carolina church

Forgive the murderer who bereaved them.

But what if he had been forgiven

By the judge?

The judge has no right to do that,

Since the judge did not suffer the wrong.


God, Paul says, is both righteous and forgiving,

Both just and justifying,

Bringing the wronged and the wrongdoer

Back into right relationship.


But how?

Jesus can forgive his crucifiers.

But how can he forgive the wife,

Who cheated on her husband, the father

Who abused his child, the company

That defaulted on its pension, the driver

Who killed a pedestrian?

How can he forgive you and me

For the mean, dishonest, uncaring things

We did to someone else?


The Bible says Jesus redeemed us,

Like making payment to a pawnshop

To get back a treasure.


God put him forward, Paul says,

Like a sacrifice of atonement,

Like the ransom for a hostage,

Like a benefactor paying off our debt,

Like a substitute taking our place at the gallows.


All these have one thing in common:

Whatever damage I did to your car,

Or to you,

Whatever damage you did to others,

Or to yourself,

Jesus accepts the blame,

Jesus suffers the consequences,

Jesus takes on the hurt,

Jesus pays for the damage.


And that’s why Jesus can forgive.



“Correcting the Cause”

Scripture: I John 1:5-10

So I drive into the parking lot,

And hit your car.

And you say, “I forgive you,”

After paying yourself to have it fixed.


But there is still a problem:

Why did I hit your car in the first place?

And what will keep me from doing it again?

Does my eyesight need correction?

My reflexes evaluation?

My drinking rehabilitation?

Do I need to quit texting?


It is one thing to forgive a sin.

It is another to attack the cause.


But the causes of sin are complex,

And deeper than poor driving.

Self-centeredness cannot be corrected

With glasses;

Idols are not as easily put away

As cell phones;

And alcoholism has a higher cure rate

Than bitterness.


Sin is a problem that must be attacked

From the inside.


The Bible calls this cleansing.

“If we confess our sins,

God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins

And cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

It is not just the car that needs to be fixed;

It’s the driver.


This, too, is a reason for the cross.

“The blood of Jesus

Cleanses us from all sin”--

Not only our violence, but our anger;

Not only our stealing but our greed;

Not only our lust but our ingratitude.


Cleansing is a lifelong process.

You don’t look at the cross

And suddenly feel kind

Toward your enemies.

You don’t look at the cross

And suddenly feel gratitude

For the disappointments in your life.

You don’t look at the cross

And suddenly feel moved

By generosity or humility.


But maybe when you look at the cross

Your own struggles don’t seem so daunting

Since the one who died on a cross

Will help carry yours.


You can look at the cross

As another miscarriage of justice,

Fueling your disillusionment.

Or you can look at the cross

As the triumph of love,

And glean courage from it

To try loving again.


“Intervening with the Court”

Scripture: Romans 8:31-34

So I drive into the parking lot

And smash into your car.

And you say, “You’re forgiven.”

And I get help

For my self-preoccupation.


But there is yet another problem.

The state requires an accident report.

A ticket has been written

With a summons to appear in court,

And the judge is not inclined

To be lenient.


It is not enough to pay for the damage.

It is not enough to reform your driving.

There is a judge to be faced,

An accounting to be given,

For which it may help

To have a good lawyer.


“Who is in a position to condemn?

It is Christ Jesus, who died,

Yes, who was raised,

Who is at the right hand of God,

Who indeed intercedes for us.”


When you’re in court,

You need a good lawyer.

How much better a lawyer

Who is related to the Judge.



The good news of the gospel

Is not only that Jesus died,

But that he lives,

That he ascended into heaven,

That sits at the right hand of his Father

To plead our case.


The cross is not just a sacrifice

That pays for our sins,

Though it is that.

It is not just an example of love,

Inspiring us to love others,

Though it is that.

The cross is the bar exam

Admitting Jesus to the heavenly court,

Qualifying him to plead our case,

Before a Holy Judge

Whom we on our own

Have no right to approach.


Do not treat too casually

The God of all creation;

Nor think you can cozy up

To the Judge of all the earth.


You are in serious trouble,

And the only thing that will save you,

Is a friend in high places.


“Reconciling with the Owner”

Scriptures: Romans 5:6-11

So I drive into the parking lot

And smash into your car.

And you pay for the damage;

And I get help for my driving,

And the court finds me “Not Guilty,”

Thanks to a good lawyer, who happens to be

The Judge’s Son.


There is still one more problem:

My relationship to the car owner.


If you smash your best friend’s car,

Are you worried only about getting a ticket?

Are you concerned only about your insurance rates?

Is there not a friendship that’s been damaged,

A trust that’s been violated,

A relationship broken that means more

Than an insurance claim?


Is it enough to escape God’s punishment,

If you no longer have God’s companionship?

Is it enough to avoid hell,

If you no longer have a friend in heaven?


How tragic to walk away from the cross

Forgiven, but alone;

Delivered from punishment,

But still alienated

From the best friend you could ever have.


“If while we were enemies,

We were reconciled to God

Through the death of his Son,

Much more surely, having been reconciled,

Will we be saved by his life.”


The cross is a mystery with four sides.

Jesus paid for our sins,

So we could be forgiven;

Jesus moved our hearts,

So we could learn to love;

Jesus passed the bar,

So he could plead our case;

Jesus broke down the barriers,

So we and God could be friends again.


How do you receive such a gift?

By believing it,

By giving thanks for it,

By living as if it is true:

As if you are forgiven

And need no longer nurse your grudges,

As if you are transformed

And need no longer repeat your mistakes,

As if you are exonerated,

And need no longer condemn one another,

As if you are reconciled to God,

And no longer have to hide.


There are four sides to the cross,

All of which are needed

To repair a broken car,

And to heal a broken life.


Easter Dinner

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 24:36-49; Isaiah 25:6-9

            A while back there was a documentary on television claiming to have found the bones of Jesus.  In a cave near Jerusalem archeologists discovered a series of burial boxes called ossuaries, one of which was labeled Yeshua bar Yosef, which would be translated Jesus son of Joseph.  The filmmakers speculated that this box might contain the very bones of Jesus.  Of course, there is no proof for this.  The names Jesus and Joseph were quite common in ancient Israel.  This week, out of curiosity, I Googled grave markers for anyone named Kenneth, son of Clyde.  I discovered I was buried in Michigan.

            But what struck me about this documentary was not the claim to have found Jesus’ bones.  What struck me was the number of people interviewed who said it did not matter.  They said that finding the bones of Jesus would not at all change their understanding of Easter.  They said that Jesus still lives in our hearts, even if his body rotted in a tomb.

            Interestingly that was the opinion of one of our recent American presidents.  In a book called In the Arena written shortly before his death, former president Richard Nixon says,

Orthodox teachers have always insisted that the physical resurrection of Jesus is the most important cornerstone in the Christian religion.  I believe that the modern world will find a real resurrection in the life and teaching of Jesus.

He continues,

The resurrection symbolically teaches the great lesson that men who achieve the highest values in their lives may gain immortality (p. 89).

In Richard Nixon’s view Jesus’ resurrection meant that he lived on in the memory of his followers, even after his career ended on a cross.

But that is not the story of Easter told by those who first experienced it.  I must confess that I have a problem with historians who try to reconstruct the story of Jesus while ignoring the testimony of the people who knew him, or who at least knew people who knew him.

Let me say word here about the gospels.  I know there is disagreement among scholars about whether the gospels were written by people who knew Jesus.  Was John’s gospel written by John the disciples or a later John?  We don’t know for sure.  Same with Matthew.  And Mark and Luke don’t even claim to be apostles.   What we have in the gospels may or may not have been written by people who knew Jesus.  But they were almost certainly written by people who knew people who knew Jesus.  Even the most critical scholars agree that the gospels were written only 40 to 60 years after Jesus walked the earth.  And all four gospels, while not agreeing in every detail, are united in saying that Jesus’ tomb was empty.

According to the Bible, Easter is not the story of Jesus living on in our hearts.  It is not the story of people remembering Jesus’ teaching after he was gone.  It is the story of Jesus transforming physical earthly life.  It is the story of Jesus defeating injustice, conquering death, and launching a new creation.

            Luke’s gospel stresses this.  On Easter evening Jesus appears to his disciples and says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.  Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.”  Notice the reference to his bones, which are not in an ossuary but raised from the dead.  Then, as if to emphasize the point, he asks for a piece of fish and eats it.

            That would have been too much for President Nixon.  An ongoing spiritual influence does not eat fish.  But the gospel writers tell us that Jesus rose from the dead physically, and not just spiritually.

Now here is the question: why does that matter?  Why was it so important to the gospel writers that Jesus was alive physically and not just as a memory in our hearts?

Because the resurrection demonstrates how much God cares about human bodily life.   A religion which emphasizes our souls over our bodies tends to play down bodily life.  If human bodily life is ultimately destined for decay, then why worry about it?  We should be out saving souls, not fussing about disease, hunger, homelessness, discrimination, or climate change.

But what if God's ultimate goal for us is not to get rid of our bodies but to transform them?  What if God's ultimate goal for the world is not to leave the physical world behind but to make it part of a new creation?

That's what Jesus' resurrection demonstrates.  God's goal for us is not to make us disembodied spirits who never have to eat.  God's goal is to make us part of a new creation where everyone has enough to eat.  Do you see the difference?  That's why it was so significant for Jesus, after his resurrection, to eat with his disciples.

We see the same idea in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah 25 says,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines; of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all the people, the sheet that is spread over all the nations; he will swallow up death forever.

            The kingdom of God is not a place where people leave their bodies behind; it is a place where their bodies are finally made whole, and so is the world.

            At first glance the ending of Luke’s gospel seems to contradict this.  At the very end of Luke’s gospel Jesus is carried up into heaven, which sounds like he leaves the world behind?

            But Luke also insists that Jesus will return to complete what he has begun.  Remember what we pray every week in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  According to Jesus heaven is the place where God’s will is already done in anticipation of when it will be done on earth.  And when the Bible says that Jesus ascended to heaven, it means that Jesus reigns in heaven in anticipation of the time when he will reign on earth.  That’s why the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, talks about the creation of a new heaven and earth.  God does not want only to take us to heaven; God wants to create a new heaven and earth and use us as witnesses of how it will look. 

Which means that every time we hand out food at the foodbank, every time we do the Crop Walk or give to the Presbyterian Hunger Program so that people can become food self-sufficient, we bear witness to the resurrection.  We anticipate the day when God’s kingdom will come, and everyone will have enough to eat.

Likewise, every time we care for human bodies including our own; every time we care for our planet and try to be good stewards of its resources; every time we help provide jobs for the jobless and homes for the homeless and friendship for the friendless; every time we stand up for someone being bullied or abused or treated unjustly; every time we are faithful in our relationships and compassionate toward those who share our all-too-human weaknesses—every time we do these things we bear witness to the resurrection.  We demonstrate that the story of Easter is not over, and it won’t be until God removes the shroud of death hanging over the world and welcomes us to the worldwide Easter dinner hosted by his Son.

Why Prayer Requires Persistence

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 18:1-8, Luke 11:5-13


            I got my first and only community theater experience in Potlatch, Idaho.  In Spokane they had plenty of better actors to choose from, but in Potlatch they were glad to have me.  One year we put on a Neil Simon comedy called The Good Doctor, and in one of the scenes I played a banker talking to a woman who came into to complain that her husband’s employer had wrongfully deducted money from his paycheck.  In the scene I listen to the woman’s concern and nod sympathetically, then I say to her, “Madame, I don’t wish to be unkind, but I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place.  Your petition, no matter how justified, has nothing to do with us.  You’ll have to go to the agency where your husband was employed.”

            “What do you mean?” she shrieks.  “I’ve been to five agencies already and none of them will even listen to my petition.  I’m about to lose my mind.  The hair is coming out of my head,” and she pulls a fist full of hair off of her head and plops it on my desk.

            “Please, Madame,” I say, “keep your hair in its proper place.  Now listen carefully to me.  This is a bank.  A bank!  We are in the banking business.  We bank money.  Funds that are brought here are banked by us.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

            “What are you saying?” she asks.

            “I’m saying I can’t help you.”

            She scowls and says, “Are you saying you can’t help me?”

            “I’m trying, but I’m not making much headway.”

            Then she gets really upset.  As the scene unfolds she waves a doctor’s certificate in my face, faints on the floor, and finally climbs up on my desk and puts a curse on the entire bank.  Finally I say, “Stop!  I beg of you.”  Then turning to an assistant I say, “Give her the money.  Give her what she wants.  Give her anything, only get her out of here.”

            And that, Jesus says, is how we should pray to God.  An interesting comparison, don’t you think?

            Last week Jesus compared being a disciple to being a dishonest manager.  This week he compares God to a corrupt judge.  But the point is not that God is a corrupt judge.  It is a “how much more” parable.  If even a corrupt judge will listen to the persistent pleas for help by a poor widow, how much more will God.  We simply need to keep praying.

            But why?  According to Jesus, God knows what we need before we ask.  So why do we need to ask?  And why must we keep asking?

            In a book called Holy the Firm Annie Dillard tells about living on Lummi Island on Puget Sound.  She writes,

There is one church here, so I go to it. … On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty….  The minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt.  The man knows God.  Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world—for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all—in the middle of this he stopped and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.”  After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer.  Because of this, I like him very much (quoted in Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God, 183-184).

            Why must we pray the same things every week?  Why must we confess our sins over and over again?  Why must we pray over and over for peace in our world and healing of our loved ones?  Why must we repeat every week these same words: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Didn’t God hear us the first time?

            Beaver made this point last Sunday night at SPC Together, but let me repeat it.  Prayer is not just about getting what we want or even what we need.  Prayer is about building a relationship.

            Notice what Jesus says in our first scripture reading.  Verse 9: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  Sometimes people take this to mean that if we ask for something we will get it, if we have enough faith.  But that is not what Jesus says.  In verse 13 he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  The promise is not that God will give us whatever we ask, but that when we pray God will give us the Holy Spirit, which means that God will give us God!  That God will give us not what we ask for but the most important thing we could have: a relationship to the God who created us.

            Jesus makes the same point in our second scripture reading, but in a different way.  He says that God will grant justice to those who cry out to God day and night.  God will not delay in helping those who cry out to God for help.  “And yet,” Jesus concludes, “when the Son of Man comes [meaning when Jesus himself comes], will he find faith on earth?”

            The question is not whether God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  That is not in doubt.  The question is whether we will have a relationship to the One who brings these things.  And that relationship is built day by day, prayer by prayer, knocking again and again at God’s door, not so that you can get to God but so that God can get to you.

            Let me close by reading a portion of a book by Frederick Buechner.  Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister from Vermont and has written a book about key aspects of faith called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.  This is what he says about prayer.

*          *          *

            According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about prayer is to keep at it.  The images he uses to explain this are all rather comic, as though he thought it comic to have to explain it at all.  He says God is like a friend you go to borrow bread from at midnight.  The friend tells you in effect to drop dead, but you go on knocking anyway until he finally gives you what you want so he can go back to bed again.  Or God is like a crooked judge who refuses to hear the case of a certain poor widow, presumably because he knows there is nothing in it for him.  But she keeps hounding him until he hears her case just to keep her out of his hair. …

            Be importunate, Jesus says—not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there is no way of getting to your door. …

            (And) when the prayer goes unanswered?  Who knows?  Just keep praying, Jesus says.  Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. … Keep beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring the answer you want, he will bring himself.  And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.

*          *          *

            That is why prayer requires persistence.


The Wise Embezzler

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 16:1-9; Luke 12:32-34

This may be one of the most confusing parables in the New Testament.  The story is not confusing.  A manager has been squandering his master’s money.  At this point he has not been stealing the money, he has been wasting it.  It's the same word used of the prodigal son in last week’s parable.  The prodigal son did not steal his inheritance, he squandered.  The manager has been squandering the master’s money, so the master fires him.  Worried about how he will survive once he's out of a job, the manager goes to his master's debtors and helps them falsify their accounts so they will owe less money.  Note that the manager isn’t stealing the master’s money for himself.  He is giving away the master’s money to win friends, hoping they will take him in and give him a job once he is out of work.

The surprise comes in verse 8: "And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly."  The master praises him for his actions.  Then, to make matters worse, Jesus says we should imitate him.  Verse 9: "I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."  What kind of moral lesson is that?

This is a difficult parable to understand, but let me try this comparison.  If you have seen the movie Schindler’s List—which is a very difficult grim, movie to watch, I admit—but if you have seen the movie Schindler's List, it makes an interesting comparison to this parable.  For if ever there was an unlikely hero it was Oskar Schindler.  During World War II he was a member of the Nazi party, a German businessman devoted to wine, women, and making money.  He figures during the war to make a fortune manufacturing supplies for the German army.  So he converts an old factory for making pots and pans into a factory supplying canteens, mess kits, and other military supplies.  Then, to get contracts he assembles baskets of wine, cognac, fresh fruit, chocolates, and Cuban cigars (all of which he obtains on the black market) to give as bribes to German officials, who sign contracts with his factory.

What kind of hero is this?  We are still wondering that when Oskar Schindler gets involved with the Jewish community in Krakow, Poland.  He does this for two reasons: 1) he wants their financing for his factory, and 2) he wants their people as a source of cheap labor.  This is a hero?

Gradually, however, Schindler builds relationships with the Jewish people he hires.  At one point the German government orders the closing of the labor camp where his Jewish workers are kept.  Orders are given for all of them to be sent to Auschwitz.  Schindler then offers to pay the labor camp officers as well as other German officials to have them shipped to his hometown in Czechoslovakia where he plans to open a new factory.  This is Schindler's famous list.  One by one he adds names to the list of those he wants transferred to his factory.  For each person he pays a large sum of money in bribes and fees, but he keeps adding more and more names to the list, over a thousand Jewish men, women, and children.  He spends all the money he has to get them out of Poland.  Even then, a trainload of Jewish women who were supposed to be sent to his factory was diverted to Auschwitz.  Schindler rescues them by giving diamonds to the officer in charge to put them back on a train headed for Czechoslovakia.  When an officer threatens to report him, Schindler says, "I am protected by powerful friends"--by which he means the German commanders he has been bribing all along.

At the end of the movie, however, Schindler's protection takes a different turn.  On the night before his factory is captured by allied troops, Schindler tells his workers, "I am a member of the Nazi party, a munitions manufacturer, a profiteer from slave labor.  When the war ends, you will be free, but I will be hunted like a criminal."  At midnight, as Schindler is leaving the camp to flee from the allied troops, the Jewish workers present him with a letter signed by every one of them, explaining what he has done to save them and why he should be pardoned for any crimes associated with the Nazi party.  It is a moment of supreme irony.  All through the movie Schindler has been protected by the bribes he gives to German officials, but at the end of the movie, when the final judgment comes, he is protected by the money he has spent on saving his Jewish workers.

Now let's go back to our scripture reading.  Like Oskar Schindler, the manager in Jesus' parable is headed for judgment.  How does he respond?  He responds the way Oskar Schindler would have responded: by using money to win friends.

And the master praises the manager.  Why?  Because this time, at least, the manager is not wasting the money.  He is not spending it on frivolous, meaningless stuff.  He is using it to build relationships with people who will welcome him into their homes when he loses the home he’s been living in.

This parable is what I call a "how much more" parable.  There are several parables like this in Luke’s gospel.  Next week we will read a parable about a man who goes to his neighbor at midnight asking to borrow some bread.  The neighbor tells him to go away, but the man keeps on knocking until the neighbor gets up to give him what he needs.  At the end of the parable Jesus says, "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"  This is a "how much more" parable.  The point is not that God is like an obstinate neighbor.  The point is that if even an obstinate neighbor will respond to persistent pleas for help, how much more will God.

The same idea applies to this parable of the dishonest manager.  The dishonest manager is not a model of upright living.  Neither was Oskar Schindler.  But if even a dishonest manager, if even a manipulative womanizer character like Oskar Schindler, knows that to survive in a crisis you need to give away your money to help people--if even a jerk knows that, how much more should the followers of Christ.

Near the end of Schindler’s List as Oskar Schindler is leaving his factory at the end of the war, he thinks about how he has used his money in the past.  He says, "I could have done more.  I should have done more.  That car--why did I keep that car?  I could have paid for 10 more people, saved 10 more lives.  This pin"--he takes off a solid gold pin from his lapel--"this pin could have been traded for another person, two people, human lives that would not have died."

It is a poignant moment in the movie.  But here is the point: if even a dissolute character like Oskar Schindler realizes that the money he spent on fluff--the money he poured into expensive clothes, expensive cars, and expensive wine could have been used to save people--if even Oskar Schindler realized that, how much more should the followers of Jesus.

Of course, unlike Schindler, the manager was not giving away his own money; he was giving away the master’s money.  Guess what?  So are we.  Jesus makes that very point at the end of the parable in verse 9: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  His reference to dishonest wealth means wealth that we did not earn.  It is God’s money given to us to use.  And by referring to being welcomed into the eternal homes, Jesus raises this story to a new level, helping us see that what we give away can bless us not only in this life but in the life to come.  As Jesus puts it in our first scripture reading: “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”

Jesus wants us to see the lasting importance of what we give away to help others.  If even a Nazi business man recognizes that.  If even a conniving embezzler recognizes that, how much more should we.

The Successful Prodigal

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 15:11-32

As you may have discovered, I like to take familiar scripture passages, like the parables, and look them from a new angle.  I want to do that this morning with the parable of the Prodigal Son.  What if the prodigal son had left home, gone into the far country, and had become a success instead of a failure?  How would the story have ended?

This is not an idle question.  I don't see many people in this church whom I would call abject failures.  We have responsible jobs, or we have retired from responsible jobs.  We have comfortable homes, with clothes to wear and plenty of food to eat.  We are more like the older son in the parable than the prodigal son.  Or if we are prodigals, then at least we are successful prodigals.  Do we, too, need to be reconciled with the Father and the Father’s family?

That is the question in this short story I have written called "The Successful Prodigal."

                                                           The Successful Prodigal

Daylight was fading as the son walked into the living room and turned on the light.  His father was asleep in an easy chair, the evening paper folded on his lap.  The son noticed that the room had changed little since his mother died five years earlier.  The television was in the same spot opposite the easy chair.  A small book case stood next to it along the wall.  A pole lamp with one light burned out stretched from floor to ceiling by the chair, and on the other side was an end table strewn with old issues of Reader's Digest.

The son cleared his throat and said, "Pop, I need to talk to you."

"Huh?  Oh, sure, son," said the father sitting up.  "I was just reading the paper.  It looks like interest rates are going back up.  It will be tough to borrow money for next year's crop."

"That's what I want to talk about, Pop.  I don't want to put in a crop next year.  I want to get out of farming.  It's not going anywhere.  Most of the time the prices we get won't cover the cost of growing the stuff."

"We've had some good years," the father replied.

"Yeah, but what has it gotten us.  We're still struggling, barely making it from year to year, just like your grandparents did.  I don't even have money to buy a car."

"My grandparents got by, and so will we," said the father.

The son threw up his hands.  "But I don't want to just get by.  I want to be somebody.  I'm 22 years old and I've never been east of Montana.  I want to go places and see things.  I want to make something of myself.  I want people to pay me interest!”

"You’re free to go," said the father.

"I know," said the son, looking down at his feet, "but I don't have any money to get started.”  He paused.  “I'd like to ask for my share of the inheritance now."

His father leaned back in his chair.  "Well, that's fine, son, but as you see I'm not dead yet."

"Do I have to wait that long?" the son asked.  "Why can't I have my share of the land right now?  It is supposed to be mine, isn't it?  It will give me a little capital to get started."

His father stood up and went over to the window.  "Is that all this family means to you,” he said, “a little capital?"  He pointed out the window.  "This land has been in our family for three generations.  You're the fourth.  You took your first steps on that porch.  You rode your first tricycle in that driveway.  You hit your first baseball in that yard.  You broke the window doing it, but I was so proud of you I didn't care.  We've been on this land over a hundred years.  That's 18 presidents, two world wars, five major droughts, three floods, and all the changes in technology from a horse drawn plow to a self-leveling combine.  We didn't always have a lot, but we made it because we stuck together."

"I know, Pop," the son said, "but I don't want to stick around anymore," and he turned and left the room.

Next morning when the son woke up, he found an envelope on his dresser.  It contained the deed to 400 acres of land.  Attached was a note which said, "This land has always been for you.  You can do with it what you want."

It was easier to sell the land than the boy thought it would be.  He found a buyer willing to pay his asking price in cash.  He didn’t ask what the buyer planned to do with the land.  He just took the money to the bank.

After depositing the check, his first instinct was to go out and buy a Ferrari.  Instead he settled for a used Mazda pickup and invested the rest of the money in mutual funds.  He then enrolled in a course on restaurant management at the community college.

After finishing the course work, he moved as far away as he could, finally stopping in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he got a job as a cook at a Howard Johnson’s.  Eventually he became the manager and did training for other managers in the area.

All this time his mutual fund kept growing.  Using his stocks as equity, the son obtained a loan from a New York bank to buy a small Chinese restaurant in Connecticut.  They had a thriving take-out business, but he added home deliveries, making it a sort of oriental style Pizza Hut.  The business was so successful, he opened several more in various suburbs around New York and eventually franchised his operation along the whole east coast.

During this time he had very little contact with his family.  His father called a few times and left messages with his secretary.  But the son was always too busy to call back.  Then the father started writing letters every few months.  If they had been e-mail messages, the son might have clicked "reply" and sent back a quick message.  But the father didn't have e-mail, and the son could not be bothered with stationery or stamps.  The letters were always about the farm, the crops, the weather, and how his grandchildren, the older boy's sons, were doing in sports.  But he never mentioned anything about the land which had been sold or the empty chair at the table.  He signed his letters, "Your father, always."

By now the son had a home in the suburbs.  It was a beautiful five bedroom colonial style house overlooking Long Island Sound.  He used one bedroom for himself and turned one into an office, but the rest sat empty.  With restaurant franchises in twenty states, the son did not have time for many friends.  He went out on a few dates, but his dates quickly learned that he was uninterested in long-term relationships.  So most of his time was spent in offices and airports, and when he went home, he went home alone.

About this time his older brother came to see him.  They hadn't gotten along that well growing up.  Pop always seemed to like him best.  The older brother did everything he was supposed to do, while the younger was always getting in trouble.  But that was many years ago.  Now the younger was looking forward to his older brother's visit.  He planned to show him all the sights: the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center, Yankee Stadium, and if there was time they might even fly down in his corporate jet to Washington, D. C.

His brother was thoroughly impressed.  "You've really made it big, little brother," he said.  "Look at me.  I'm still driving the same old tractors over the same old dirt.  The only excitement in my life are the high school basketball games."

"Yeah," said his brother, "but at least you have someone to go with you and someone you care about watching."

The brothers were silent for a moment, then the younger said, "How's Pop?"

He's doing all right," the older brother said.  "He's slowed up a bit.  Still drives grain truck during harvest, but that's about it.  I told him he ought to convert the spare bedroom into an office--give himself a place to work on the books without spreading them on the kitchen table.  But he didn't want to.  He said that someday you might need a place to stay."

The younger brother laughed.  "If I needed a place to stay I could buy the local motel."

His brother answered, "I don't think that's what he meant."

After this visit each of the sons went back to their respective lives: the younger to his meetings with brokers, attorneys, and advertising executives; the older to his family, his farm, and the high school basketball games.  Each wondered who had the better life.

The next fall, during a business trip out west, the younger son suddenly decided to visit the old family farm.  He wasn't sure what made him go.  As a child he only talked to his father when he needed something.  He certainly did not need anything now.  Or did he?  There seemed to be an emptiness in his life that success and prosperity had never filled.

He flew to the closest airport, rented a car, and drove 60 miles on back roads to the little town where he had been raised.  It all looked strangely familiar.  There was a new post office and a new bank.  The dry cleaners had been replaced by an antique shop, and there was a new picnic shelter in the city park.  Other than that the place looked much the same.  There was a sale on cantaloupe at the Red Barn grocery and a banner at the high school announced the Homecoming game.

Leaves scuttled across the driveway as he drove up to the farmhouse.  No one was out front, but he could hear the sound of his nephews shooting baskets in the backyard.  The front door was unlocked, so he went in.  His father was in the living room asleep in the same easy chair, the evening paper folded across his lap, the television tuned to the evening news.  The son felt tears in his eyes, an emotion he had not felt for years.  When he turned off the television, his father woke up.  "Pop," he said, "I'm home."

It took a moment for the fog to clear from his father's eyes.  Then he pushed his glasses back up on his nose, reached for his cane, and stood up.  They looked at each other for a moment, neither knowing what to say.   Then his father said, "Welcome home, son," and they fell into each other’s arms, tears running down their cheeks, ten years of unexpressed longing poured into one long embrace.

                                                                 *          *          *

That’s the story.  Do even successful prodigals need to come back to their heavenly Father?  Do you?

Estate Planning

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 12:13-21, 22-34

When Marcellus and Geraldine Dodge were married in 1907, [Slide 1] they were reported to be the richest newlyweds in America.  Marcellus Dodge was the heir to the Remington Arms fortune.  Geraldine was a Rockefeller, daughter William Avery Rockefeller, the co-founder of Standard Oil.  They lived on a beautiful 250 acre estate in Northern New Jersey, [Slide 2] complete with forests, lakes, lush green lawns, gardens, a guest house, a stable, and a 35 room mansion.  There were also rows and rows of dog kennels.  Geraldine was big into dogs.  This is a picture of one of the dog shows she hosted on the grounds of her estate. [Slide 3]

I knew about the Dodge estate because in 1977 I was part of the grounds crew.  They hired seminary students to help mow, trim, and rake during the summer, and that was my summer job after my first year of seminary. [Slide 4]  I mowed around the base of the trees where the large tractor mowers could not reach.

The irony is that when I worked on the estate in the summer of 1977, it was deserted.  Geraldine Dodge died in 1973, ten years after her husband, leaving no children or anyone else to take over the estate.  So the property was managed by a trust company who hired the seminary students to help take care of it.  All summer we mowed lawns that no one ever saw except a few deer.  We swept out stables and kennels that had been empty for years.  Sometimes I stopped to look in the windows of the old mansion, and I could see the grand ballroom. [Slide 5].  But it was completely empty, stripped of all furniture, tapestries, light fixtures, art work, drapes, and everything else except a few tattered pieces of wallpaper sloughing off the walls.

And now, even that is gone.  The year after I worked there the estate was sold, the buildings were torn down, and the land developed into a corporate office complex. [Slide 6: Blank]

It reminds me of the parable Jesus told in our first scripture reading.  Jesus tells a story about a farmer who is incredibly prosperous.  His barns are filled, and he has another bumper crop on the way.  So he thinks to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”  Then he says to himself, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.”

There is an obvious detail in this story that I had not noticed until it was pointed out to me in a commentary.  It is humbling to me how many times I can read a familiar Bible story and fail to notice an obvious detail until someone points it out.  The rich man in the parable has no one to talk to but himself.  Did you notice that?  Anyone as successful as this guy should be throwing a party.  In Luke 15 Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who finds a lost sheep, and Jesus says, “When he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”  In the same chapter Jesus tells about a woman who finds a lost coin.  Jesus says, “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”  One lost sheep or one lost coin, and it’s like Mardi Gras right there in the neighborhood.  But this farmer has year after year of bumper crops, and no one with whom to celebrate.

This is highlighted by the question God asks him at the end of the parable.  In verse 20 God says to him, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  I have always understood this question as a way of God emphasizing that you can’t take it with you.  When you die, you leave all your possessions and bank accounts behind.  That is true, of course, but I now I realize that the question goes even deeper.  When God says to the man, “Whose will they be?” God is pointing out to the man that he has no one to inherit his estate.  He has no relationships in his life, no people with whom he can share the joy of what he has been given.

That, to me, was the saddest thing about the Dodge estate.  They were the richest couple in America, and when they were gone there was no one to inherit their estate.

So back to the parable.  Someone comes up to Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  In response Jesus tells a story about a man who dies with no one to share his estate.  Do you see the irony?  In essence Jesus is saying to the man, “Don’t you see?  Your relationship to your brother is more important than the money.  Quit worrying about how much of the estate you get, and think about what a gift it is to have people in your life that you can care about.”

As I said, our second scripture reading today is like a commentary on the first.  Notice the connections: [Slide 7]

-          In the parable the man says, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods” (v. 18). [Click 1]

-          In the commentary Jesus says, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them” (v. 24). [Click 2]

One is concerned about building bigger barns, and the other does not need them.

Now Jesus is not saying that we don’t need to do any work.  Even the ravens have to go out gathering the food.  But Jesus is saying, “Don’t be compulsively fearful.  Don’t be obsessed with the size of your 401-K.  God knows what you need.”

Here are more similarities. [Slide 8]

-          In the parable the man says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19). [Click 1]

-          In the commentary Jesus says, “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. … Your Father knows that you need these things” (vs. 29-30).  [Click 2]

Again Jesus is not discouraging us from meaningful productive work.  He is discouraging us from trying to find security in accumulated assets.  When St. Augustine preached a sermon on this text, he said about the man with the barns, “He did not realize that the bellies of the poor are much safer storehouses than his barns” (Augustine, Sermon 36:7).  Our security does not lie in our possessions but in our relationships—first our relationship to God and then our relationships to others, including those in need.

 On more example: [Slide 9]

-          In the parable God says to the man, “You fool!  This night your life is being demanded of you.” [Click 1]

-          In the commentary Jesus says, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your lifespan?” [Click 2]

Life is a gift we did not earn and cannot control.  All we can do is to use the days God has given us to be a blessing to others and to God. [Slide 10: Blank]

I once heard a psychologist tell about playing a game of Monopoly with his family.  His daughter found the game in the back of the closet and had never played it before, so she brought it out and said to her parents, “Let’s play this game.”  So the family sat down to play.

The psychologist, of course, had played the game numerous times as a youth, and immediately he began using all his old strategies for winning.  He bought Boardwalk and Park Place, three out of four railroad, and began acquiring other property as fast as he could, especially all the properties of the same color that would give him a monopoly.  The daughter did not realize that was important.  Soon the rent money started coming in, and the father used the rent money to buy houses to put on his property.  That got him more money, so he could buy hotels, and soon he was piling up huge amounts of money on his side of the board.  The game went on like this for a while, when suddenly his wife, daughter, and son all hit a string of his most expensive properties, and in three moves they were wiped out.  Just like that, the game was over.

Because he had been a fairly obnoxious player, the family left him to put the game away by himself.  So there he was.  One by one he took off all his houses and hotels, and put them back in the box.  Then he collected all the deeds of his property, stacked them together, put a rubber band around them, and put them back in the box.  Then he collected his money: the $500 bills he had stuffed halfway under the board, and the 100s and 50s and 20s, and he put them all back in the box.  And suddenly, he told us, he experienced a strange empty feeling inside.  For here were all his possessions, everything he had worked for, everything he had saved for, everything he had invested in, and it was all going back in the box—everything except the relationships he had so cavalierly disregarded.

Our security does not lie in our possessions but in our relationships, starting with our relationship to God.

The One Needing Help

Scriptures: Luke 10:25-37; Luke 18:18-27

Ken Onstot

 Who is my neighbor?  When the Bible says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” whom does that include?

The rabbis in Jesus’ time had some interesting answers to that question.  In a commentary on the Old Testament book of Ruth, one rabbi wrote, “The gentiles, amongst whom and us there is no war, and so those that are keepers of sheep amongst the Israelites, and the like, we are not to contrive their death; but if they be in danger of death, we are not bound to deliver them; e. g., if any of them fall into the sea you shall not need to take them out: for it is said, ‘Thou shalt not rise up against the blood of thy neighbor,’ but such a one is not thy neighbor” (quoted by Ken Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, p. 40).  That is part of the argument the rabbis had over who qualifies as a neighbor.  Who belongs to the category of people we should love like we love ourselves?

In answer Jesus tells a story about a mugging.  Did you notice the details in this story?  It is surprisingly graphic: “They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away leaving him half dead.”  These details because they are crucial to the story.  In the ancient Middle East, and even today, the way you tell a person’s nationality or ethnicity is 1) by how they speak and 2) by how they dress.  But this person is 1) naked, and 2) unconscious, which means there is no way to tell his nationality or ethnicity or even his religion.  For all we know he could be a priest, or a tax collector, or Roman citizen, or drug dealer.  We don’t know.  We know absolutely nothing about the man, except he needs help.  And for Jesus that qualifies him as a neighbor.

While we know nothing about the ethnicity of the injured man, Jesus is quite clear about the ethnicity of the one who helped him.  He’s a Samaritan, which meant he belonged to an ethnic group despised by the Jews.  For Jesus to tell this story about an injured traveler saved by a Samaritan would be like me telling a story about an injured driver passed up by a pastor and a social worker, and saved by an illegal Mexican immigrant.  For Jesus’ listeners the Samaritan is an uncomfortable hero.  He is an unwelcome foreigner whom Jesus uses to show what it means to be a neighbor.

Who is our neighbor?  Let me speak here from my heart.  It is I know this is a difficult question for our country right now.  And I get why it is difficult.  I think any of us would be willing to help an immigrant or refugee from another country.  The problem is when there are millions of them.  According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees over 4 million people have fled Syria during that country’s civil war.  How do we manage that many people needing help?  And when we are talking about that many people, how do we screen them?  I understand the problem.  Caring for the needs of people from other countries seems overwhelming.

But you can’t read the Bible and conclude that God is concerned only about Americans.  Our government may be concerned primarily about Americans, but as Christians we don’t have that luxury.  When Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations, he did meant all nations.  When the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, it means the world.  You can’t read the Bible and conclude that God is concerned only about Americans.  So if we are going to restrict the number of refugees coming to our country, then we need to double or even triple the amount we are giving this year to the One Great Hour of Sharing—the special Presbyterian offering we receive each year during Lent for refugees and victims of disaster and famine in other countries as well as our own.  According to Jesus these are our neighbors.  Our neighbor is the one who needs help.

But wow—that’s overwhelming.  Isn’t it?  If that is what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, how will any of us ever measure up?

That’s what lawyer is asking.  The lawyer starts out asking Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He wants to know the entrance requirements for heaven.  Jesus says, “You know the requirements: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.  Do that, and you will live.”

But the lawyer wants to justify himself, meaning he wants to establish the limits of how much he has to do.  He wants to narrow the range of people considered neighbors, so it isn’t so overwhelming.

Can you blame him?  If we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the neighbor includes anyone from anywhere that needs help—wow—how can we fulfill a command like that?  How can any of us ever earn eternal life?

Did you notice how similar how second scripture reading was to our first scripture reading?  In both readings Jesus is asked the same identical question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In both cases Jesus answers by quoting the commandments from the Bible, and in both cases the questioners try to “justify” themselves, meaning they try to defend their righteousness.  The ruler in our first scripture reading says to Jesus, “I have kept all these since my youth.”  But Jesus says, “That is not enough.  Go, sell all you possessions, and distribute the money to the poor.”  In the second scripture the lawyer tries to defend himself by limiting the number of people he has to treat like a neighbor.

But in both cases Jesus shows them the neighbor they have not yet loved, the one in need whom they have not yet helped.  Despite their best efforts neither of them have earned eternal life.

Which brings me to a new way of looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Normally, when people read this parable, I think they identify themselves with one of the three people going by.  Either they see themselves as the priest or the Levite, in which case they feel guilty?  Or they see themselves as the Good Samaritan, in which case they feel proud?

But there is another way to look at this parable.  What if you are not the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, but the injured traveler?  What if you are the one needing help?

In that light, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a whole new meaning. You are not saved by how religious you are—that would be the priest.  You are not saved by how many offerings you bring—that would be the Levite.  You are not saved by how many commandments you obey or good works you do—that would be the lawyer or the rich young ruler.  You are saved by the Samaritan.  You are saved by the outsider who comes to your rescue, someone who at great personal cost has come to you, and put you on his back, and paid the price for your healing.  And that someone is Jesus.

Who is your neighbor?  The one who needs help.  And who are you?  The one who needs help.  Remember that, and it might be easier to help others.

Knowing the Ending

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 9:28-36

I don’t normally watch movies a second time, but lately I have been watching reruns of Harry Potter.  When you watch the Harry Potter movies a second time, you realize how many things you did not understand the first time.  For example, why is the evil Lord Voldemort so resilient?  He keeps getting killed and keeps coming back.  We don’t really understand this until the fifth movie.  Or why does Professor Dumbledore seem so protective of Snape?  Snape is in league with Voldemort, isn’t he? Doesn’t Dumbledore realize that?  You don’t really understand the relationship between Snape and Dumbledore until the end of the last movie.

When I watched Harry Potter a second time, I noticed all kinds of things I missed the first time.  The first time I watched the movie it was obvious that Snape despised Harry Potter.  But only when I watched the movies a second time, after knowing the ending, did I noticed that at crucial points Snape is the one protecting Harry.  I also began to see that nothing in the movie happened by chance.  Things that seemed coincidental: Harry finding an old diary or happening to pick up an old potions book marked up by the Half Blood Prince—these things did not just happen by chance.  They are part of larger forces at work, and they have ramifications, both for good and for bad, that we don’t realize at first.  The same is true for people.  Who knew in the early movies that fumbling, bumbling Neville Longbottom would turn out to be one of the most important heroes in the story?  In fact after all the epic battles between Harry and Voldemort, at the end it is Neville Longbottom that finally destroys Voldemort by killing the snake which accompanies him.  And if you remember the symbolism of the serpent in the Bible, this is loaded with theological significance.  You don’t really understand what is going on in Harry Potter until you know the ending.

That is the key to our scripture reading for today.  Jesus goes up on a mountain with three of his disciples to pray.  While on the mountain the disciples experience a vision.  Jesus’ appearance is changed.  His clothes become dazzling white, and there appears to him two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament: Moses and Elijah.

This vision is a sneak preview of the end of the story.  The next time we hear of the disciples falling asleep it’s with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane right before his arrest.  The next time we see anyone in dazzling clothes, it’s the angels announcing Jesus’ resurrection.  And the reference to seeing Moses and Elijah can only mean one thing: that the kingdom of God has come.  Here in the middle of Luke’s gospel, just as Jesus sets off on his foreboding trip to Jerusalem, we get a sneak preview of how it’s all going to end.

When I was in college two friends and I went backpacking in the Olympic Mountains.  Our goal was a peak on the southeast side of the Olympics called Mt. Lincoln.  As anyone knows who has gone hiking in the Olympic Mountains, you always start out in a dense forest.  For a long time we followed a trail upstream along a creek until we came to some switchbacks that took us up the side of a hill.  Because of the trees we could not see very far ahead, so we had no way of knowing if we were still headed toward the mountain or how close we were.  All we could do is follow the trail and keep going.  Finally, however, we broke out on top of a ridge and there right in front of us was Mt. Lincoln, so close and majestic in the clear mountain air it seemed like we could touch it.  For the first time we could see our destination.  But then I looked and saw there was still a lot of forest between us and the mountain and a lot of hills still to climb.  At that moment standing on that ridge I experienced two things: a vision of glory and a preview of suffering.  My friends and I stayed for quite a while on that ridge looking at the mountain, because we knew that once we started down into the forest we would probably not see the mountain again until we got there.  The memory of it would have to keep us going while we trudged through the woods.

That, I think, is what the disciples experienced on the mountain with Jesus.  They experienced a taste of glory and a preview of suffering.  They saw Jesus shining with glory, just as he is pictured in the book of Revelation.  The saw Moses and Elijah, whose appearance signaled the kingdom’s arrival.  But what were Moses and Elijah talking about with Jesus?  Verse 31: "They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem."  In other words, they were talking about his coming death.

And then the vision disappeared and they had to go back down into the valley.  The valley is a tough place.  When Jesus came down from the mountain, he discovered that the disciples whom he had left in the valley were arguing among themselves over who was the greatest, which is ironic since none of them were all that great.

If you remember, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God up on a mountain—Mt. Sinai.  But when he came down from the mountain, he discovered that the people of Israel had already broken them.  The valley is a tough place.  Elijah won a great contest against the prophets of Baal up on Mt. Carmel.  But when he came down from the mountain, he discovered that the queen was out to kill him.  The valley is a tough place.

That’s why Peter preferred to stay on the mountain.  In verse 33 Peter says to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."  It is not clear what Peter has in mind here, but I think he wanted to set up three dwelling places so they could all stay right where they were on the mountain.  Peter wanted to skip the valley.  It would be like me saying to my friends, "Let's camp right here on the ridge and forget about Mt. Lincoln."  Peter wants to stay where they are and avoid all the struggles and problems awaiting them in Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.  For Jesus and for us the way to the kingdom leads to Jerusalem, the way to glory leads to a cross.

Still, knowing the ending makes all the difference.  That’s what I discovered watching reruns of Harry Potter.  Knowing the ending changes the way you look at people.  It gave me a new respect for Neville Longbottom, even while people were making fun of him.  I wanted to say to them, “Don’t make fun of Neville; he’s going to save your neck.”  It even caused me to see Snape in a different way.  I began to see him not as an evil person but a conflicted person, a person struggling with disappointment and demons of his own.  Knowing the ending changed the way I looked at people along the way.

So it is with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.  In this story you are given a preview of the end so that you will better understand people and situations along the way.  This story tells us to expect suffering.  Don’t be shocked by it; don’t be unnerved.  Jesus clearly knew that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die, and he told the disciples to expect the same thing.  So don’t be surprised when there is pain in your life, or sorrow, or when you feel misunderstood and rejected?  This is the inevitable price of living in a fallen world and still loving people.

If you love people in this world, you are going to get hurt.  But you are also going to be saved.  That is promise given to Jesus in this story, and to us.  The suffering of the cross will not be the last word.  The rejection experienced by Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was not the final chapter in their story, and it won’t be the final chapter in yours either.

Knowing the ending changes the way we look at things along the way.  It is possible to keep going through the forest if you remember that the mountain is still there, and it is possible to keep following Jesus, if you remember how it’s all going to end.


Love and Grace

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 7:36-50; Luke 5:27-32

             This story appeared in the Spokane newspaper about ten years ago.  It tells about an incident that happened in Washington, D. C.

A grand feast of marinated steaks and jumbo shrimp was winding down, and a group of friends was sitting on the back patio of a Capital Hill home, sipping red wine.  Suddenly, a hooded man slid in through an open gate and put the barrel of a handgun to the head of a 14 year-old guest.  “Give me your money, or I’ll start shooting,” he demanded….

The other five guests, including the girl’s parents, froze—and then one spoke.  “We were just finishing dinner,” Christina “Cha Cha” Rowan, 43, blurted out.  “Why don’t you have a glass of wine with us?”  The intruder took a sip of their Chateau Malescot St-Exupery and said, “That’s good wine.”

The girl’s father, Michael Rabdau, … told the intruder to take the whole bottle.  The would-be robber, his hood now down, took another sip and had a bite of Camembert cheese that was on the table.  Then he tucked the gun into the pocket of his nylon sweatpants.  “I think I may have come to the wrong house,” he said, looking around the patio.  “I’m sorry,” he told the group.  “Can I get a hug?”

Rowan … stood up and wrapped her arms around him.  Then it was Rabdau’s turn.  Then his wife’s.  The other two guests complied.  “That’s really good wine,” the man said, taking another sip.  He had a final request: “Can we have a group hug?”  The five adults surrounded him arms out.  With that the man walked out with a crystal wine glass in hand, filled with Chateau Malescot.  No one was hurt, and nothing was stolen (The Spokesman-Review, July 13, 2007).

In our second scripture reading Jesus is sitting at a dinner party with a Pharisee when an intruder comes in.  I will talk about the intruder in a moment.  But the first interesting thing to notice is that Jesus is having dinner with a Pharisee, a prominent religious leader.  We often talk about Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners and other marginalized people.  But here he is having dinner with a religious leader named Simon.  Apparently Jesus will go to dinner with anybody: Pharisees or tax collectors, Republicans or Democrats, Trump supporters or Trump protestors.  It does not matter.  Jesus will hang out with any of them.

Why?  In our first scripture reading, when Jesus is criticized for eating with Levi and his tax collector friends, he says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus accepts Levi’s invitation to dinner, because he knows that Levi is a sinner in need of forgiveness.

So what does that suggest about why Jesus went to dinner with a Pharisee?  It means the Pharisee also needed Jesus’ forgiveness and grace, only the Pharisee did not realize it.

Then, like in the newspaper story, an intruder comes in, a woman known in the city as a sinner.  In other words, a woman of ill-repute.  For Simon this is proof that Jesus is not a prophet.  He says to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’”

The irony is that Jesus not only knows about the woman, he knows about Simon.  When Simon says, “If this man were a prophet he would know what kind of woman this is,” he is not talking to Jesus, he is talking to himself.  He is thinking these thoughts.  But Jesus knows what he was thinking.  Jesus knows all about Simon just like he knows all about the woman.

So he responds to Simon’s thoughts with a parable.  Two people owed money to a lender.  One owed 500 denarii, about a year and a half worth of salary, while the other owed 50 denarii, about a month and a half of salary.  The lender forgave both debts, just wrote them off the books.  Then Jesus asks Simon, “Which of them will feel more love and gratitude to the lender?”  Simon answers, “I suppose the one with the greater debt,” and Jesus says, “Right!”

Jesus’ point is that love is proportional to grace.  The more grace you experience, the more you will be able to love.

It’s like the robber in the newspaper story: the experience of being offered some really good wine and cheese changes his feelings about the people at the party.  Unexpected grace produces unexpected love.

Jesus then applies this parable to the woman and Simon.  The woman, Jesus notes, shows extravagant love: wetting his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and anointing them with expensive ointment.  Meanwhile Simon does not even offer Jesus a basin of water to wash his feet.  Simon omits most of the usual courtesies a host was expected to offer to an important guest, like a basin of water to wash his feet or an embrace and kiss of greeting at the door.

Jesus points out the contrast between how he is treated by Simon and how he is treated by the woman.  Then he says, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  Notice Jesus does not say that the woman’s action procured her forgiveness.  She shows great love not to earn forgiveness but out of gratitude for receiving it.  It is just like in the parable: the person forgiven the greatest debt will feel the most love.

But then Jesus says to Simon, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”  Does this mean that Simon, the Pharisee, has little debt—that he has little need for forgiveness?  No.  Both Simon and the woman are sinners in need of forgiveness, but Simon does not realize it.  Simon thinks he is doing Jesus a favor by inviting him to his house.  That’s why Simon omits the other trappings of hospitality.  He thinks he is doing Jesus a favor just by inviting him to dinner.  It never occurs to him that Jesus is the one doing Simon a favor.

When you come to church, do you think you are doing God a favor, or that God is doing you a favor?  I’ll just let you think about that.

Simon thinks he is doing Jesus a favor.  It never occurs to him that he might need a favor from Jesus, that he might need Jesus’ forgiveness and grace just as much as the woman kissing Jesus’ feet.  And that’s why he has such a hard time loving people, not only the woman but even Jesus.

If we have trouble loving people and forgiving people, perhaps it is because we have forgotten how much love and forgiveness we have been given.  If we have trouble showing compassion and grace to people, maybe it’s because we have forgotten how much compassion and grace God has shown to us.

I mentioned once before a book by Sara Miles called Take this Bread.  Sara grew up with parents who were militant atheists, avoiding religion like the plague.  Sara herself was skeptical of religion just like her parents.   But one day during a walk on Sunday morning, she decided on impulse to go into a church near her home—St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church.  She got there just as the service was starting, and to her surprise she was hooked.  Sitting in that church service taking communion, she found something she did not even know she was missing: a sense of being claimed and loved by Someone greater than herself and participating in a mission—a purpose in life—that was bigger than her own self-fulfillment.

She kept going back to the church week after week.  But over time she discovered that she had issues dealing with some of the other people in the church.  She writes,

Probably because I felt so defensive about my lack of formal education, money, and official Christian formation, I tended to get irritated with the members of St. Gregory’s community. I thought they were clubby and precious; I sneered at their early music concerts.  As I ducked out the door at coffee hour, fleeing from one more generous attempt at conversation, I would feel by turns superior, condescending, horribly inadequate.

Yet my own snobbery couldn’t protect me from being drawn, more deeply, into the place.  I had to admit that these people, all their specific flaws intact, had opened the door to grace—not because they had good taste, not because they were rich, not because they were exceptionally intelligent or even likeable, …[but] because they—no matter how imperfectly—were committed to letting in clueless and unprepared strangers like me: because they believed in the absolute value of welcoming people who didn’t belong (p. 81).

            When we experience grace, when we recognize that we too are sinners need of Jesus’ forgiveness, it makes it easier to show grace toward others.  And when we show grace toward others, it become easier to experience it for ourselves.

Status Upside Down

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 6:20-26; Psalm 1:1-6

            This story was passed on to me through the internet, which means its accuracy is highly suspect.  However it is still a great story.  One weekend in Atlantic City a woman won a pile of quarters from a slot machine.  This is back when slot machines still paid out in quarters.  She was taking the quarters in a bucket back up to her room when she found herself alone on the elevator with two young African American males, one of whom seemed very tall and both of whom made her feel intimidated.  She told herself not to be prejudiced.  The two men seemed perfectly nice.  But she still clutched the bucket of quarters tightly to her chest, her heart pounding.  The elevator doors closed, but the elevator did not move.  She began shaking.  Then one of the men behind her said, “Hit the floor.”  Screaming the woman dropped her bucket of quarters and collapsed onto the floor.  One of the men bent over and said, “Ma’am, I didn’t mean you.  I meant that my friend here should hit the elevator button for our floor.”  They helped her up and helped her collect her quarters.  When she got to her floor, they helped her out and wished her a good evening.  The next day flowers were delivered to her room—a dozen red roses.  Attached was a note that said, “Hope you are okay.”  It was signed: Eddie Murphy and Michael Jordan.

            Actually, I looked this story up on Snopes, a fact-checking site, and Eddie Murphy denies that it ever happened.  So there you are.  But still it is a great story, kind of like a parable.  Beause Luke 6 reminds us that appearances aren’t always what they seem.  Jesus’s coming has turned status upside down.  Those who might seem poor are actually rich, and those who might seem dangerous or threatening to us can actually be a blessing.

            All through the gospel of Luke there is a pattern of reversal.  It begins before Jesus is born with Mary’s song of praise:

God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Already you can hear in those words echoes of Jesus’ beatitudes:

            Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

            Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

            Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.


In Jesus status is turned upside down.  The poor are rich, the hungry are filled, and the lowly are lifted up.


The tendency is to think that this reversal happens in heaven after we die.  Jesus implies this in the third beatitude when he says, “Blessed are you when you people hate you, exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”


Later in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells a parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus.  Lazarus would have been glad to fill his stomach with what fell from the rich man’s table, but he did not even get that.  Eventually both died, and the rich man found himself tormented.  We don’t know exactly what that means, but he was tormented.  Meanwhile Lazarus was comforted the arms of father Abraham.  A reversal had taken place.  The poor person experienced blessing and the rich person experienced woe.


            In this case the reversal takes place in heaven, but that is not the whole story in Luke’s gospel.  For in a surprising way, Jesus says, this reversal has already begun.


            Back in Luke chapter 4 Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth.  He reads these words from the prophet Isaiah:


The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


Jesus reads these words and then says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Notice, he does not say this scripture will be fulfilled in heaven.  He does not say that this scripture will be fulfilled when I come again and raise people from the dead.  He says it is happening today.


To be a follower of Jesus means to be part of something new here and now.  In this new reality you can be blessed even if you are poor because yours is the kingdom of God—present tense.  Today, even now, you are part of God’ new kingdom breaking into the world.  In this new reality you can be blessed even though you are hungry, because you will be filled in ways you never dreamed.  You can laugh even in the middle of your tears, because you will comforted in ways you never imagined.


            How does this really work? William Willimon, a Methodist minister, tells of a man in his church who served in the army during World War II.  This man participated in the D-day invasion of Normandy and the subsequent battles to retake Europe from Nazi Germany.  One day he was talking to his pastor about the sufferings, deprivation, and horrors of that experience, but when he finished he said, “Still, I look back on those four years as the very best years of my life.  For once in my life I had the feeling I was part of something, part of something bigger than myself. … We had a mission.”

            I can’t imagine anyone feeling more poor, hungry, grief stricken, or threatened than a soldier slogging through enemy territory on D-day.  And yet this soldier felt blessed.  Why?  He was on a mission.  He was part of something bigger than himself, something that would shape the course of history.


            That, friends, is what Jesus is offering us.  To be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that can change lives and shape the course of history.  And that’s why we are blessed.


In his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey writes,

My career as a journalist has afforded me opportunities to interview "stars," including NFL football greats, movie actors, music personalities, best-selling authors, politicians, and TV personalities.  These are the people who dominate the media.  We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of the lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.  Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, ... our "idols" are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met.  Most have troubled or broken marriages.  Nearly all are incurably dependent on psychotherapy.  In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by self-doubt.

I wonder if this is at least part of what Jesus meant in that parable of the rich man and Lazarus when he said that the rich man was tormented.  The rich man looked back on his life and saw that it was wasted.  It had no meaning.  It was not a blessing to anyone, certainly not to the poor guy sitting right outside his gate.

“Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says, “for you have received your consolation.”  It does not matter how much you have if you discover that your life has not been a blessing to anyone.

Philip Yancey goes on,

I have also spent time with people I call "servants."  Doctors and nurses who work among the ultimate outcasts, leprosy patients in rural India.  A Princeton graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago.  Health workers who have left high-paying jobs to serve in a backwater town of Mississippi. ... Yet as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones. ...  They possess qualities of depth and richness and even joy that I have not found elsewhere.  Servants work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated.  Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them (pp. 117-8).

            That’s a blessing that need not wait until you die.


"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7