“Grace Isn’t Fair – And That’s Good” September 20, 2020

Posted by on Sep 24, 2020 in Sermon Archives

“Grace Isn’t Fair – And That’s Good” A sermon based on Matthew 20:1-16 A few years ago, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal, two zoologists at Emory University, decided to study the evolution of fairness.  They wanted to explore where our distaste for unfairness comes from.  Is it a cultural add-on – something we learn – or is it hardwired? To study this question, Brosnan and de Waal designed an experiment using capuchin monkeys.  Pairs of monkeys were placed in cages side by side where they could see each other, and trained to take turns giving small granite rocks to their human handler.  Each time a monkey handed over a rock, she would receive a piece of cucumber as a reward. Capuchins love cucumbers, so both monkeys found this arrangement satisfactory, and handed over their rocks with enthusiasm.  But then, the handler changed things up.  After a few fair and even exchanges, the handler rewarded the first monkey with a chunk of cucumber as usual, but gave the second monkey a grape — the equivalent of fine wine or caviar in the monkey world. Seeing that the game had changed for the better, the first monkey perked up, and couldn’t wait to hand over another rock, expecting, of course, to receive a grape, too.  But no — the handler gave her another piece of cucumber.  To make things worse, the handler then gave the second monkey another grape for free! The results — which you can look up on YouTube — were striking.  The first monkey just about lost her mind.  Not only did she refuse to eat the cucumber; she hurled it at the handler’s face.  She then proceeded to bang against the bars of the cage, throw her remaining rocks in every direction, and make furious gestures at her grape-eating companion. The experiment has since been repeated using other primates, and the results have been astonishingly similar.  Scientists have also studied the development of fairness in human babies, and found that infants as young as nine months old will react quite strongly and in a negative way if they perceive they are being treated unfairly.  Clearly, as Brosnan and De Waal concluded after their experiment, fairness is a concept that is deeply rooted in the human psyche. We can’t help ourselves – fairness is part of who we are. (Debie Thomas 2020) Now, I’m sharing this little science moment with you to establish that, yes, fairness is important to us. When we say the words, “With liberty and justice for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance, we are voicing that basic belief; a belief in equality, in fairness, and in the understanding that “all men (and women) are created equal,” to borrow from our constitution. And so, when Jesus throws this bombshell of a parable at us, it can be a problem. There’s no need going through it line by line...

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“How About Once?” September 13, 2020

Posted by on Sep 24, 2020 in Sermon Archives

“How About Once?” A sermon based upon – Matthew 18:21-35 Genesis 50:15-21 The Coach of the Detroit Lions had put together the perfect football team. But then his quarterback got blindsided and was out for the season with a knee injury. Then his backup went down with a concussion. He tried the trading route, free agents, but nobody any good was available. One evening while watching the news from Iraq, he saw a young Iraqi soldier with an amazing arm. The soldier rifled a grenade on a perfect arc into a 4th story window from 100 yards, bam! He tossed another directly into a tight group of 12 enemy fighters 80 yards away, ka-bam! Then a Humvee passed, going 40 mph, boom! Another perfect shot! Coach said to himself, “I got to have this guy. He’s got the best arm I’ve ever seen!” He tracks him down and convinces him to come to Detroit. The kid takes to coaching perfectly, makes all the plays, and long story short, the Lions win the Super Bowl. The Iraqi is now the Conquering Hero in pro football, and a huge story. But when the broadcast team tries to interview him, all he wants is to phone his mom. “Mother,” he yells over the phone, “We just won the Super Bowl!” “Don’t talk to me,” the woman says. “You abandoned us. You can’t be my son.” The young Iraqi begs, “Mom, you don’t understand! Our team won the biggest game here in the U.S. Thousands of fans are screaming for me. The American President is going to call me!” “I don’t care,” his mother snaps. “Right now I can hear gunshots everywhere. Our block is like a ruin. Your brothers were beaten half to death last night, and your sister was nearly raped.” Then she says, “I can never forgive you for making us move to Detroit.” Ah, forgiveness. That illusive thing that everyone seems to want but few are able to give. You know, I have never liked this passage from Matthew’s gospel. It starts out as a brag and ends up ridiculous. It begins with Peter asking, Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister that hurts me? Seven?  Now, I need to interrupt here to say that according to the law of the Jewish people, you were required to forgive 3 times. If you asked a Rabbi Peter’s question, that’s what they would tell you. So Peter doubled that number and added one to make the biblical number of 7. If you’re going to take a guess, this is as good as any. Jesus answers him almost comically saying, “No, not seven, but 77. (or 70 times seven, depending on the translation.)” Now as we read this, there is going to be a brief moment of panic. “That’s a lot of math: 3 +3 makes 6 plus...

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“What a Shame to Run Out of Stories” September 6, 2020

Posted by on Sep 24, 2020 in Sermon Archives

“What a Shame to Run Out of Stories” Romans 13:8-14 Matthew 18:15-20 We have some friends in Portland who have attended First United Methodist there for a number of years, and naturally I had a few questions to ask. He described their music program, bragged about their choir, and told me of all the great programs that this church offered to the community. When I asked about the pastor he confirmed that Donna Pritchard was awesome. At the time, Rev. Pritchard was being considered for the Bishop’s position, and he let me know that he secretly hoped that didn’t happen. Now, because I’m still the new guy in this conference, I had to ask about the previous pastor at First Church Portland just to get my history straight. He told me his name and said that they liked him a lot, but then he said – and I distinctly remember this – he said, “Yea, he had to move on. It was a conference decision, I guess. It was just as well, though; we had heard all his stories anyhow.” Like I said, this stuck with me. “What a shame,” I thought to myself, “what a shame to run out of stories.” Our reading today from the 18th chapter of Matthew is kind of a story within a story, you might say. It’s only a small part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven; and it all started when the disciples approached Jesus to ask a question. Now the way I interpret this is that the disciples have been talking on their own. For months, Jesus had been telling them about the Kingdom – the kingdom of God is like this, the kingdom is like that – but they were having trouble. On this particular day, they had been talking amongst themselves about this Kingdom thing. I suspect there was even a bit of an argument going on. And so it was that they decided to ask the master. (Matt. 18:1) At that time, the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” “Who is the greatest – who is going to be ranked up at the top in this kingdom that you are telling us about?” I have to say, at first glance, this question seems absurd. Of all the things to be arguing about, this is what they came up with? Who is the greatest? But let’s let that stand because the real beauty of this dialog is that Jesus picks up the question and runs with it. (vs. 2)  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in...

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“You’re Making a Big Mistake” August 30, 2020

Posted by on Sep 24, 2020 in Sermon Archives

“You’re Making a Big Mistake” Exodus 3:1-15 Matthew 16:21-28 When I am asked why I ever entertained the notion of filling the pulpit, as they say – when I’m asked why I became a preacher, I usually answer that it wasn’t my idea. Truth is, there was a handful of people who dragged me kicking and screaming into this thing called ministry in the United Methodist Church. I resisted at first. To my way of thinking, I was totally unqualified: I didn’t have the education, I didn’t have the background, and I didn’t have the experience. But they persisted. I would have been content to address a congregation 3 or 4 times a year. That way I could pick and choose. I could stick to scripture that I like – scripture that everyone likes. That way, no one gets hurt. But…it was not to be. I have to say, though, that I’m glad they persisted. The plotting behind my back, the money that mysteriously appeared when I needed to go to licensing school, the words of encouragement – I can’t begin to thank these people enough. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that left to my own devices, I will fail every time. I’ve learned to lean of God’s grace, because when God works through us and when God works in us, there’s no telling what can happen. And I’ve learned that when God calls us, we best be listening. Two of our Scripture readings today tell us of folks who were called by God. Now let’s be clear: I am in no way putting myself in the same category as Moses and the Apostle Peter, but I can relate. I can relate to both of them. Now Moses had led a gifted life while in Egypt. But even though he was raised in Pharaoh’s house, he never turned his back on his people. His future looked bright, but then he made a big mistake. Upon spotting an Egyptian whipping an Israelite slave, Moses lost his cool and ended up killing the Egyptian. Moses was now a wanted man, which drove him to the land of Midian to live out the next 40 years of his life as a dirt farmer and keeper of sheep – a far cry from life in Pharaoh’s palace. But he was content, I suspect. He had a family, he had livestock; life was good. When God appeared to him in the form of a bush that was on fire, however, all that was about to change. Now, we’ve all heard the story but there is one piece that bears repeating. (vs 9)  “The Israelite cry for help has come to me, and I’ve seen for myself how cruelly they’re being treated by the Egyptians. It’s time for you to go back: I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my...

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“Where’s My Jesus, And What Have You Done With Him?” August 23, 2020

Posted by on Aug 25, 2020 in Sermon Archives

“Where’s My Jesus, and What Have You Done With Him?” Matthew 16:13-20 I’ll never forget my first job. I had somehow managed to get my Junior Lifesaving certificate from the YMCA and so, at the age of 14, I figured I was more than qualified to be a first class, bona fide life guard. As luck would have it, we lived close to an old run down dance hall and resort called Greter’s Lake. Now, this place had seen better days, but folks still came out in the summer and paid their money to bask on the beach while their kids splashed and played in the not-so-pristine waters of this 5 acre reservoir. I never questioned why they would hire a 14 year old kid to be responsible for the lives of their customers, but hey – at 50 cents an hour, I was willing to give it my best shot. I figured if I could last the season, I’d be rolling in dough. Now my boss was a guy named Ray, and Ray fashioned himself to be somewhat of a ladies man. He wore his hair all poofed up like a Southern Baptist preacher and by the smell of it must have went through a bottle of cologne every week. One day, he came by to chat with me looking especially dapper: white polyester shirt on black polyester trousers and the shiniest  shoes I’d seen in a long time. “So tell me,” he said, “ain’t your boss about the best looking guy that ever walked the planet?” I was speechless at first, but I recovered and told him that, yea, he looked pretty doggone sharp, which was not quite the truth. Truth is, I thought he looked kind of ridiculous. Anyhow, we chatted for a while longer then he had to take off for some important something or other. And he had a big smile on his face. I always felt bad that maybe I had sent him off feeling like a million bucks when all I saw were cheap pants and a bad hairdo. Now, if you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, our theme for this day is “identity.” We’ve all got them. We all have some kind of identity that we identify with; some sort of self-awareness of who we are and what makes us tick. And by the same token, we’re bound to judge those around us – how they dress, who they hang out with, how they talk. We look to understand how they identify themselves. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it’s just what we do. So when Matthew tells us about Jesus casually asking his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” we’re right there. We can relate; we can identify. If you’ve ever been involved with sales, you know the value of a well-placed...

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“It’s a Big Table” August 16, 2020

Posted by on Aug 25, 2020 in Sermon Archives

“It’s a Big Table” Matthew 15: 21-28   It’s a known fact that there will be things in our lives that are guaranteed to trigger certain memories. It happens every time. These memories might fade with time, but they will always be there. Every time that I smell Ivory soap, for example, my mind immediately goes to the big old cast iron bath tub at Grandpa John’s house with the crusty old fixtures and a worn out stopper on a rusty old chain. Every time. Our gospel message today has one of those trigger mechanisms that, for as long as I live, I swear I’ll never be able to shake. As best I can figure, it was probably 6 years ago about this time of year when I was trying my best to make sense out of why Jesus treated this woman they way that he did. Now, if you’re trying to work something out – if you’re wanting to find some kind of discernment- in a particularly tough scripture, it’s usually not a good idea to do that in the middle of a sermon. But that’s what happened to me and I swear that every time I even think about the Canaanite  woman, this memorable Sunday morning in the sanctuary of Sheridan Methodist comes to mind. But before we get into that, let’s revisit this rather weird story. I want to paint as accurate a picture as I can so that you won’t walk away this day believing that I was a total jerk. For the last few weeks, we have followed Jesus on some pretty wild adventures. Upon the news of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples (Matt 14:13) withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. “a deserted place by himself…” It was time for a break, it was time to get some rest; for Jesus, the son of God and son of man, it was time to come before the Father in prayer. But the crowds figured it out and hiked around the lake to meet him – thousands of them – and Matthew tells us, (vs. 14) he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. If you recall, he ended feeding the whole bunch as well. Next, Jesus sent the disciples ahead in a boat while he stayed behind to spend time in prayer. That almost ended in disaster as the waves kicked up and the boat just about went under. Once again, Jesus had to walk out to and fix that near disaster. In chapter 15, the Pharisees and big shots come all the way from Jerusalem to check out this Jesus of Nazarene, only to throw a hissy fit that the disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating according to the law of Moses. Jesus gets a little short with them here, reminding...

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