For Shame!

Isaiah 53 New International Version (NIV)

I was recently talking with my friend, Ben, whose daughter and son-in-law are working as long-term missionaries in Uganda. His daughter works as a dietician and her job involves educating the indigenous people about proper nutrition and basic healthcare and her husband manages the mission compound. They both lead small groups that focus on holistic ministry, caring for the minds, bodies, and souls of the people in their community. It sounds like a great mission to me.

One thing that Ben told me about this mission is that his daughter and son-in-law have had to rethink how they present the gospel because of their cultural context. This is nothing new, as every missionary needs to adapt how they present the message based on the life, experiences, and needs of the people. One of the challenges that Ben sees in this community in Uganda is that they are a shame-based culture, where we in North America are used to a guilt-based culture. In Uganda, and other shame-based cultures, shame is one of the primary motivators for maintaining ethical behavior. If you mess up, you bring shame on yourself and on your family. There are expectation, including your own self-expectations, in a shame-based culture and when you do not meet those expectations, you experience disgrace, disapproval, and exclusion. When you are shamed, there is a devaluation of your worth and your self-esteem. In a guilt-based community, there are legal and/or codified expectations. There might be laws enacted by the governing authorities, or “laws” put in place by churches or even social expectations. In a guilt-based society, failure to adhere to the laws or expectations result in punishment. And it is the fear of punishment that is used to control behavior.

Think how this affects the presentation of the gospel. In a guilt-based culture, we often present the gospel by saying that there are moral expectations of us, moral laws that God has put in place. When we break these laws, we deserve punishment. Thankfully we have grace through Jesus. So for Ben’s family serving in Uganda, the question was how to present the good news in a world that sees the negative results of moral failures differently than we do.

In this conversation with Ben I had two realizations: 1. I’ve read a really good book that talks about exactly this issue. It’s called Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Joel Green and Mark Baker, and I’ll be drawing from that book quite a bit. The second thing that I realized, and this is just my opinion based on my own observations, I believe that we in North America are becoming more of a shame-based culture. Especially in the last 10 years with the meteoric rise of social media, we seem to be moving more toward shame as a tool to control other people’s behaviors and other people’s feeling of value and worth. Allow me to give an example.

One of the reasons that I was drawn to the subject of shame today comes from recent events in our country. As I’m sure you are aware, the people on the Gulf Coast of Texas have experienced record levels of rainfall over the last week, which has led to flooding and the displacement of many people. Surely you have seen the images of people on the rooves of their houses and the heart-breaking pictures of nursing home residents sitting in wheelchairs, up to their waists in floodwaters within their nursing facilities.

Thankfully, in times like this, people come together and help other people. I’ve seen pictures of men and women in private fishing boats going from house to house, rescuing people and pets. I’ve heard stories of restaurants offering free food to first responders and victims of the hurricane. And time and time again we see large facilities, like convention centers, transformed into temporary shelters. Facilities that aren’t meant to house people are being used to house people.

But one church in the Houston area received a lot of attention because they weren’t opening their doors for their displaced neighbors. This is one of the largest churches in the United States, meeting in an old sporting arena with a capacity of 17,000. I’m not going to name the church or the pastor for reasons that you will soon understand (but I’m sure you can Google it and find out).

The pastor of this church was highly criticized for not providing a temporary shelter. Stories and memes were shared online, questioning his commitment to Christ and his theology. How can you call yourself a Christian and not open your doors to your now-homeless neighbors?

Of course the church responded: their flood gates were about to be breeched. They didn’t have showers or adequate kitchen facilities. There was a larger temporary shelter just down the road. And they hadn’t been asked to house people.

Finally, this church did open their doors on Tuesday and invited workers and victims to come in. And I read online that some were celebrating the fact, and this is a direct quote, that they were able to “shame [the pastor] into helping the homeless.”

I’ll just be honest, this didn’t sit well with me, and I feel a little bit torn over this. On one hand, the church did finally open their doors and invite workers and victims inside where it was safe and dry. On the other hand, is shaming really the best way to do it? Public ridicule led to public outcry. Public outcry led to mass public shaming. And mass public shaming led to a change in behavior.

I can’t 100% endorse this approach, but it was effective and people were cared for.

But I go back to one of the original excuses that the pastor had offered when he first started receiving criticism for not turning his church into temporary housing. He said nobody had asked him to. Perhaps nobody should have to ask him to since, you know, Jesus made it pretty clear that we should be caring for those in need around us. But what if rather than publicly shaming the pastor he had been privately asked? And if he still didn’t respond, maybe two or three witnesses could go to ask him again. And if he still didn’t respond, maybe then the whole church could ask.

I don’t think that shame is a good tool for the church to use to make people do what we want them to do. We all know what it feels like to be shamed, to feel devalued and like less of a person. In fact, I think we are to be in the opposite business. Un-shaming!

You see, there is good news! As Baker and Green note in their book, Jesus takes away our shame. And if we are indeed moving more toward a shame-based society, I think it would be wise to learn how to frame Christianity as a response to shame. Furthermore, as Baker and Green point out, the community we often see depicted in the Bible was shame-based, so to present the message of Christianity as a response to shame might be more biblical and even more accurate. Let’s see why.

Our text for this morning contains one the four passages in the book of Isaiah that we commonly refer to as the Suffering Servant passages. Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and today’s passage—which actually begins in chapter 52—all speak of the servant of the Lord. The servant of the Lord is said to do justice, he is a light to the gentiles, he is physically beaten, and he bears the iniquities of others.

It should not surprise us that Christians have for centuries believed that the Suffering Servant was a prophetic image of the Messiah. Matthew’s Gospel even quotes from the Suffering Servant passages, noting that Jesus fulfills these passages. Furthermore, it should not surprise you that Jewish people do not see this as a reference to Jesus. The traditional interpretation in the Hebrew tradition is that this is a reference to the entire people group known as Israel. Recall that Isaiah was written during and just after the Babylonian Exile. Recall the words made famous by Handel’s Messiah, found in Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

Who is right? If I had the definitive answer to that, I’d be a rich man. But I’m not sure that it can’t be both. Did Israel suffer, were they physically tormented, and in their pain did they not bear one another’s iniquities? Sure they did. And didn’t Jesus do the same thing? Yep.

Regardless, I see this as pointing toward Jesus.

These Servant Songs depict the Servant of the Lord experiencing pain and suffering, and often we are told that it is for other people. And this pain and suffering was too much to bear, as it cost him his life. Look at verse 9, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked… though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.”

To be buried among the wicked would have been an insult. It would have been shameful, especially for someone who had done no violence and did not have any deceit in his mouth. In this scenario, the Suffering Servant can identify with the shame of the people. He gets it, he understands it, he has been there. And look what God does in verse 12, “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

The one who was shamed has been exalted.

Whether this is Jesus or Israel, I can’t say. What I can say is that Jesus does the same thing. Let’s just look at Jesus’s life a bit and see how he was able to identify with the shamed people of his day.

The Suffering Servant was buried among the wrong people, but Jesus lived among the wrong people. He ate with the wrong people, the shamed people. When we think about the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and lepers, we need to remember that these people served as the typical example of the social outcast.

But Jesus goes even further. Not only is he willing to participate in our shame, he helped explain to us that this is the way that God is.

Perhaps no parable has been preached on more than the Prodigal Son. We know the story, so I’ll go through it quickly. A father has two sons, and the younger one demands his share of his inheritance before his father has passed away. That is a shameful thing, as the son is saying that he values money, possessions, and experiences more than he values his own relationship with his father. The younger son squanders this money on ethically questionable things and finds himself feeding pigs, an unclean animal by Jewish standards.

But how does the father respond when he sees his son returning home? He girds his loins, lifting up his robe, running through the hills until he can embrace his son. Mature men don’t run. Grown men don’t take well to being disrespected. But this man took on some of the shame from the younger son. And though the identities of the sons in this parable are sometimes debated, I’ve never heard anyone associate the father with anyone other than, well, the Father!

And we must not forget that at the crucifixion, the son of God, God in the flesh, was beaten publically, stripped naked, and put on display for all to see. The cross is the ultimate form of shame, so much so that it was illegal to crucify the average Roman citizen. This was a form of punishment reserved for foreigners, slaves, and insurrectionists. We often see pictures of Jesus on the cross where he is covered up with a nice diaper-like undergarment. No, this was meant to be a shameful event for all to see. A public display of what happens when you cross Rome.

The shame was so much that most of his followers deserted him. He was even deserted by God.

I believe that Jesus removes our shame through two processes: he forgives our failures and participates in our shame. When Jesus tells us that we are forgiven, we have no reason to feel shame. And when Jesus participates in our shame, as he did when he ate with the shamed people of his time, he lifts us up out of shame.

Recall that shame is meant to devalue your worth and your self-esteem. It is a social punishment for your shortcomings. But the life and death of Jesus reveal to us that God’s love is for the disgraced and shamed as well.

I believe that we need to continue to dig into what it means to say that Jesus took our shame because I see more and more people being shamed these days. Open your social media account and you will find people being shamed in many different ways. People are being body shamed, publically ridiculed because they don’t physically look like someone says they should. They could be “too skinny;” they could be “too fat.” I remember the pictures from a few years ago of a person who became known as “dancing man.” He was dancing at a concert, and someone snapped a picture and put it on Instagram with the caption, “Spotted this specimen trying to dance the other week. He stopped when he saw us laughing.”

Do you remember the response from the community? A bunch of models threw him a dance party. How’s that affect someone’s self-esteem and sense of worth!?

I especially like Hebrews 12:2, “[We fix] our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Jesus scorned the shame of the cross. But I don’t know what that means. Other versions say that he despised the shame of the cross. The Greek work that the author of Hebrews uses here is kataphroneo. Kataphroneo is a compound word: kata meaning down, phroneo meaning to think. Jesus thought down the shame of the cross, or we might say that he looked down the shame of the cross. He stared it down and said, “No more.”

Jesus devalued devaluing others. And we are called to do likewise.

 

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First Be Reconciled

2 Corinthians 5:11-21New International Version (NIV)

11 Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. 12 We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. 13 If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We talk about the Gospel a lot in our church. We know that the Gospel is the Good News! But go deeper, what does that mean? Usually, someone will mention grace. Someone will mention peace with God, gettin’ right with the Lord. Someone will describe breaking the chains of addiction or overcoming suffering. Someone will mention spending eternity with God in heaven.

So who is right? I think that all of those are good answers. If I opened it up to the group you would probably say some things that I hadn’t thought of. Some answers will be better than others, and some might be downright wrong. But in general, I like to think that the Gospel is bigger than we often make it out to be.

So when I define the Gospel, I like to use big, inclusive words. My response to the question, What is the Gospel? is “Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we can be reconciled to God and humanity.”

To reconcile simply means to make things right between two parties. Now this suggests that there was something wrong between two parties. How many here have ever done something that might cause a separation between you and God? I would expect that everyone here has because we are all sinners in need of grace. Now how many of you have ever done something that might cause a separation between you and another person? If you aren’t raising your hand, you must be living in some secluded tent out in the middle of nowhere all by yourself. We need to have grace for one another as well.

When I say that we can be reconciled to God and humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, what I mean is that, as we know, the death and resurrection of Jesus can bring us back into a right relationship with God. But a lot of what Jesus says during his life has to do with how we can live together and be reconciled to one another. Remember that we call the entirety of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the Gospels. Not just the last few chapters of these books that deal with the resurrection. There is good news throughout, and that’s the Gospel Truth!

Let’s go way back to the book of Genesis, where we are told that God created the heavens and the earth and it was good. God created human beings and it was, not just good, but very good. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden and had a relationship with God where they seemed to just talk to God like I’m talking to you right now. However, they chose to listen to the serpent and not to God, and in that moment they disturbed the relationship between them and God. Now they felt things like shame. They hid from God. They had broken the trust between them and God.

We jump ahead to 2 Corinthians 5, and we find this in verses 17-19: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Let’s break that down. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.” That’s how the NIV translates that phrase. The NRSV says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The NLT says, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person.” The KJV is my least favorite here, where Paul’s words are translated, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”

What Paul literally writes is “If anyone is in Christ, new creation.” You can see why there are so many different translations of this phrase: the literal translation is wooden and makes no sense. But notice that the emphasis on is new creation. Then he goes on to say “The old has gone, the new is here!” The word Paul uses that we translate as old doesn’t mean the previous model or outdate version. Uh, I have the old iPhone. It’s from 2016! The word carries the connotation of existing from the beginning. It is the original.

The phrases “new creation” and “the old/originial has passed away” should draw us back to Genesis where God created and said “it is good, very good.” Through Christ, God has reconciled us to himself and it is good again. It is therefore our job to make sure people know that it is good again. We are given us the ministry of reconciliation, the ministry of making things right again, the ministry of letting people know that it is very good.

We broke the relationship between us and God, and the Good News is that God has restored it. That is what we sometimes call the vertical dimension of reconciliation, which can be represented by a vertical line pointing up and down.

But we as Mennonites have historically understood that our role as ambassadors or messengers of reconciliation is more than just about our relationship with God. Yes it is that, but it is more.

Matthew 5:23-24 says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Wow, those word are powerful and they are written in red in my Bible. This reconciliation between members of the church is vital for our understanding of Christianity! Mennonites have taken this commandment so seriously that it has often been a part of our time of self-examination before taking communion. Historically, the Bishop would ask you, “Are you at peace with God and your fellow man?” If not, you need to go make things right!

One thing I want to warn us all about here is not to misinterpret what Jesus is saying as if he was saying that making thing right between two people is more important than making things right between God and us. When Jesus talks about offering our gift on the altar, in the Jewish Temple System, this would not have been an offering for atonement. The atonement offering was made once each year by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The High Priest made that offering. What Jesus was saying referring to here was an offering of praise, incense, herbs, or the like. This was a sacrifice that a Jew would make to praise God.

So when Jesus says to leave you offering on the altar and make things right with your brother or sister, he isn’t saying that God wants us to give priority to making things right between us and others over making things right between us and God. But Jesus is saying that we are to make things right between us and others before we offer our praise to God. First go and be reconciled, then come make your offering of praise.

Hold that in the back of your mind a second and we will come right back to it. This reminds me of when Jesus is being tested by the Sadducees and Pharisees in Matthew 22, asking him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replies in verses 37-40, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

They didn’t ask Jesus for two great commandments, they only asked for one. But Jesus simply could not separate the two. Love God, love your neighbor. Likewise, we can’t separate being reconciled from God with being reconciled to one another. This is the horizontal aspect of reconciliation. And when you combine the vertical and horizontal aspects of reconciliation, it forms a familiar shape: a cross.

We simply cannot separate love for God and love for neighbor. 1 John 4:19-21 is just another reminder of that:

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

 

I think that it is important at this stage to differentiate between forgiveness and reconciliation. To be reconciled means to make things right, and it requires that both parties admit their part in the breaking of the relationship. But sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible for various reasons. For instance, there are times when people refuse to admit that they did anything wrong or they can’t ask for forgiveness.

This week we got a box of vegetables from our friend Susan as a part of their CSA. One evening I was cutting up a pepper for a salad and I decided to take a bite out of that pepper. It was one of the hottest peppers I had ever tasted!

I’ve since forgiven SusanJ. But have we been reconciled? If I never say anything to her, she might not know of my “pain” (keeping it light here for a reason, my friends). We are reconciled in that situation. Or maybe I do say something, and she laughs rather than apologizing. She doesn’t think she did anything wrong, why should she apologize? I should learn my pepper! In such a situation, I can forgive, even if she does not admit her wrongdoing. But that’s not reconciliation. Or, as is most likely the case, when I tell her about the experience I had she might start rubbing her hands together manically, laughing like a villain in a comic book because her plan had come together perfectly. I can still forgive, but that’s not reconciliation.

In reality, I did tell Susan about the pepper, and she did apologize. I think we are cool now.

Reconciliation is always the goal. But even when reconciliation isn’t possible, we still must forgive. Don’t forget Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

With all of this talk about forgiveness and reconciliation, it is almost inevitable that someone will ask a very important and very serious question: What about justice? We are repeatedly told that God is a God of justice. Isaiah 61:8 begins, “For I, the Lord, love justice.” And every progressive church in the world is quick to quote Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Well what is justice? Some say it is fairness, equality, or something along those lines. Plato, in his book The Republic, says that justice is giving to each what is owed. If you mowed my yard, I owe you adequate compensation. If I stole from you, I owe a debt to you and to society.

As we consider justice, the first thing that I would like to say is that even when we have been reconciled with someone or have forgiven someone, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other consequences for our action. I think that one of the most dangerous places the teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation has been used is in cases of domestic violence and abuse. We’ve heard the story too many times, a husband hits his wife and children in a fit of drunken rage, but then apologizes in the morning. The wife forgives him, and all is good until the next time. Forgiveness is an important part of healing, but to forgive someone doesn’t mean that you don’t take steps to keep it from happening again.

Likewise, we can forgive someone when they have hurt us or stolen from us, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a debt to society. In such a situation the court system makes the decision on what is “just.”

Before moving to Virginia, Sonya’s parents were members of a Voluntary Service (VS) Unit in Alamosa, Colorado. They weren’t your typical VS members, with grown kids and they themselves in their late 50’s while most other volunteers were in their early 20’s. One of those volunteers, Chloe, was full of life, love, and energy.

One day while out riding bicycles with another VS member, Chloe was struck by a pickup truck. The driver did not stop, but fled the scene, only to be identified later. Chloe died at the scene, just 20-years old. Her killer was 16.

If you have been around the Mennonite world for any length of time, you can probably guess how the Weaver family reacted to this event. They mourned the loss of their daughter, but they forgave the young man who had hit her and drove off. Herm Weaver, Chloe’s father, told the boy who killed his daughter at his trial, “She would wish for you a full life. She has no desire to end two lives.”

The Weavers asked the District Attorney to forgo the usual punishment as jail would not grow him as a person. Rather, Herm said to the young man, “I want you to carry on, in some small way, the work Chloe came…to do, to make it a better world.”

Ultimately, the young man was sentenced in a traditional fashion as the judge said that an example needed to be set because the young man, the boy, was involved in a hit-and-run accident that cost another person her life. We can forgive, and indeed we must, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for our mistakes. And I would say that in this situation, there can be no justice. You can’t make that right. There was no justice, just punishment.

But Chloe’s legacy didn’t end there, in large part because the decisions of her family to forgive also had consequences. A reporter covering the trial for a local paper would write that the Weaver family showed “unusual commodities [of] love, compassion, forgiveness and hope… Their religion is not just a Sunday habit. It is as much a part of their daily lives as breathing.”

You see, we in the church don’t always measure justice the same way the world around us does in large part because justice is a rather subjective thing. Who decides the appropriate punishment for a 16-year-old found guilty of unintentional vehicular manslaughter? Who decides what is due to one who has been hurt by something I’ve said or something I’ve forgotten to do?

In the Old Testament, we have the Lex Talionis, the law of equal retribution. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But aren’t we glad that even though God is just and God loves justice that he does not demand eye for eye and tooth for tooth? When people ask about justice, we need to ask “Whose justice? Who gets to define what is just?”

In the New Testament, justice is not defined by getting what is owed. Instead, through the cross of Jesus, we see that Jesus absorbs what is owed to us. To make things right, God comes into this world and takes what is owed to us, our punishment, our pain. And though there are often still consequences to our actions, we have been forgiven. Even more so, we have been reconciled to God.

As ministers of reconciliation, we are called to share that in Christ there is a new creation; the old has passed away. We can be made right we God, and we must seek to be reconciled with others. We simply cannot separate the two, and that is the Gospel!

It is my prayer that, like the family of Chloe Weaver, forgiveness and reconciliation becomes a part of the air we breathe.

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Stronger Together

Hebrews 10:19-25

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

There is no shortage of short, pithy statements concerning community. Some are biblical, others just make sense. Ecclesiastes 4:12 reminds us that “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” There is an old saying that “a joy shared is doubled…a sorrow shared is cut in half.” “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” And Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

We know these phrases by heart, and I know them to be true. We are stronger together. Yet our society seems to be moving more and more toward individualism. We are just as familiar with phrases like, “I am a self-made man.” “Nobody helped me get where I am but me.” And “I don’t need anyone else. Dependency shows weakness.”

Those of us who live in the United States know that our society values the individual, sometimes at the expense of the community. This is one of the many areas that I think we can learn from our brothers and sisters living in other parts of the world, as well as from our brothers and sisters who have come before us.

Imagine you are a Christian living in the early years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. You are a minority and at times you are greatly persecuted for your faith, especially if you lived between 64 and 313 AD when there was official government persecution of Christians. You hear stories of other Christians being fed to the lions in the gladiator areas as a public spectacle. You know, because that’s entertaining. You hear stories of how Emperor Nero had Christians like you covered in tar, impaled on a long pole, and then used them as human torches to light up his gardens as he and guests enjoyed their social gatherings. Or maybe you are an Anabaptist living in the 16th century, and your fellow Anabaptists are being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. There are two natural responses: you recant your faith, claiming to no longer adhere to the set of beliefs that might lead you toward that kind of persecution, or you huddle together with other people who share your faith and convictions, knowing that you are stronger together than you could be on your own.

When we consider the level of persecution faced by the early church and the early Anabaptists, it is not hard to imagine why community was so important to these groups. And today, in our privatized and individualistic western world where Christianity seems to be declining in both number and power, many people are turning toward these expressions of Christianity to ask what we may be missing out on. It is my assertion that one of the most life-giving and counter-cultural things that we can do today is to live in community.

I really like the way the author of Hebrews speaks about community in chapter 10, verses 23-25a: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”

We hold on to the hope that we profess in Jesus for he is faithful. And it isn’t always easy to hold on to hope. So we spur one another on, like a cowboy spurs a horse. Spurring one another toward love and good deeds. The King James translates this as provoking one another. The literal Greeks says to irritate one another to love and do good. And we do this by meeting together. We get together and irritate one another! Are you loving people? Huh, are you? Are you loving people? Are you? Are you?

Last week I was in Jamaica where I spent two days with the pastors and leaders of the Jamaica Mennonite Conference in an Anabaptist Leadership Retreat. That’s right, I can officially add “International Lecturer” to my résumé. It was a great experience learning together with about 30 other people what it means to be a Mennonite church in the Caribbean. I went along with two others from Virginia, and we each presented on various topics as well as hearing from a Jamaican pastor who chairs their missions program. We also spent time traveling across the island, visiting three of the thirteen Mennonite Churches of Jamaica and the Maranatha School for the Deaf, which is a ministry of Jamaica Mennonite Conference and receives a significant amount of support from Virginia Mennonite Missions.

I felt a spirit of community among the people of the Jamaican Mennonite Church. The conference leaders stayed up late into the night playing dominos, talking about track and field as the World Championships were taking place in London while I was in Jamaica. And the whole island grieved together when Usain Bolt crashed to the ground from cramps during what he said would be his final professional race.

Last Sunday I worshiped at Good Tidings Mennonite Church in Kingston and the Jamaican church operates differently than what we might be used to. They start…when they feel like most people are there. It might be the pastor who comes in late, and that’s okay. I was invited to come up to the podium and bring greetings to the congregation, which I learned I would be doing when I heard my name over the loudspeakers. It was a different experience in a different culture, and I am better for it.

Most places we went, the only other white people that I saw were the gentlemen that came with me from Virginia. Nowhere was this more apparent than church on Sunday, as each of us went to different churches to represent Virginia Mennonite Conference. I was the only white person in the building. Black people make up 92% of the population in Jamaica and 100% of that church. And of course they had a name for me in that church, a name for the only white person in attendance that day. Do you know what they called me?

They called me brother.

Community is a beautiful thing. It is inviting, it is supportive, it spurs each other along, irritating us to do right and practice love.

Now I’m not naïve; I know that there would be places on the island where I would not be welcome and people who would look down on me because of the color of my skin. I also know that my role as a pastor granted me a special status among the church people. But for that hour of worship—or to be more accurate, one hour and forty-five minutes—I was Brother Kevin. And I was Brother Kevin during our conference. And I was Brother Kevin when Dougie dropped me off at the airport at 5:30 in the morning and I was invited to come back again next year.

Then I get back into the US, and there is one thing dominating every news outlet: radio, television, newspaper, and internet. That topic is Charlottesville.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened in Charlottesville. White Supremacists organized a protest and others organized a counter protest. Things got out of hand, though after seeing pictures of armed citizens exercising their right to carry firearms, I’m thankful things didn’t get further out of hand. Pushing, shoving, yelling, name calling. And one car driven by a white supremacist intentionally directed into a group of counter protesters, injuring 19, killing one.

Let me just go on record now and say this in case you have ever wondered: I denounce white supremacy. I denounce any supremacy. I denounce any thought or ideology that claims one person or race is better than another.

I’m reminded of what Paul writes to the church in Galatia. In a church made up of ethnic Jews who could trace their lineage back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there were also new believers who could only trace their religious heritage back to a few weeks ago. And Paul writes to this group in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” They were all one. One body, one church, one Lord over all.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cultural preferences among the people. They surely had different tastes in food and clothing, music and entertainment. Some of the things that the Gentiles liked might be seen as weird to the Jews, and vice versa. They weren’t told that they had to like all the same things or to be exactly alike in every way. No, our differences are a part of what makes humanity beautiful. But they were told that they were all equal. And that message is just as true today.

We could have discussions about Confederate flags and statues commemorating Civil War leaders, and there is a place for that. But those topics are so politically loaded right now that I wouldn’t want to talk about them here and now. But please hear me when I say that there are people who hold onto these images that are not racists, they do see them as heritage and not hate. Yet those gathered in Charlottesville last weekend are of a different variety. This was hate.

But since I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t proud of some of the counter protests that I saw either. Some, and I emphasize some, of the counter protesters simply returned hate for hate, scream for scream…eye for eye, tooth for tooth. No, there were no deaths among the white supremacists, but there were injuries. I’ve heard reports of sticks and stones thrown both ways, pushes, punches, pepper spray and smoke bombs.

No, racism is not the way of Christ. But neither is hatred. If Christ died for all, he died for the racists and he died for the counter protesters. And when Jesus said to love our enemies, surely this applies to neo-Nazis and the alt right as well. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:17-18; 21, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Here’s the challenge, I don’t know what that looks like when the alt right is holding a rally. I also don’t think that we should do nothing. I can be a bit critical of how some counter protesters handled themselves in Charlottesville, but there were some that I think provided a Christian witness in the midst of the ugliness. Unfortunately, these folks don’t often get the same media coverage as the violent and hate-filled protestors.

Did you know that Friday evening before the protests that around 1,000 Christians filled St. Paul’s Memorial Church just off the UVa campus, gathering together for prayer and singing? As the doors opened to welcome people from all denominations and backgrounds, songs of praise, love, grace, and mercy spilled out of the church.

The next day, clergy members walked through the city, arm in arm, wearing their stoles and robes and clerical collars, praying for the people in Charlottesville. At one time, members of the neo-Nazis with their shields, helmets, and rifles broke through the linked arms of the clergy members, knocking them to the ground, pushing them to the side.

Like Jesus encouraging his followers to turn the other cheek, clergy members being pushed around by armed militia exposes the evil in that moment. Again, I don’t know if that was the best thing to do, but it was better than returning hate for hate, and it was better than doing nothing.

But that’s on the other side of the mountain, and as many have pointed out, the white supremacists and a lot of the counter protesters came in from outside of the area. What about our community? On Wednesday I spent some time talking to the mother of one of Paxton’s friends. As these things often go, we soon started talking about world events, we soon started talking about Charlottesville. She wanted to make sure that I knew that the problem wasn’t just in Charlottesville, but also right here as well. Just a few days earlier, she had been with her children at the local Lowes purchasing some household items. She has dark eyes and hair and is from Boone, NC. Her husband is from Hawaii, so he has a darker complexion than those of us of European descent. As you can imagine, their children’s skin is light brown in color with big brown eyes.

This friend said that as she was in the parking lot, a man approached her and said, “Go home.” She thought, “I live in Staunton. Does he mean North Carolina?” No, she said, evidently they looked Mexican to this man. It didn’t matter to this man that she was from North Carolina or that her husband was from Hawaii, which last time I checked was still in the United States. It didn’t matter that her husband had served in the US Army and currently serves as the Supply Sergeant for the local armory. What mattered to him was the color of their skin.

When my friend realized what the man intended with his remark in the parking lot, she dropped her head. It was then that she noticed that on rear bumper of the man’s car’s there was a Jesus fish.

Our district minister dropped some wisdom on us the other day. He said that all of this hatred and racism is symptom of something else. He said the real issue here is fear. I think he is right.

One of the slogans chanted by the white supremacists last weekend was, “You will not replace us.” In interviews I hear white supremacists speaking of being dispossessed of their land and their status. There is a fear among some white people of becoming a minority in this country. Because we know how minorities are treated.

My friends, I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that we were not given a spirit of timidity. As John’s first epistle tells us, there is no fear in love because perfect love casts out all fear. And to my fellow white Americans who are afraid of becoming a minority, let me quote Jesus one more time: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Treat a minority the way you would want to be treated if the tables were turned. And if you won’t do it because Jesus said so, do it because some day you may find yourself in the position of the minority.

It is my prayer that like Joseph being sold into slavery by his own brothers that God will take this thing that was meant for evil and do something good with it. May we continue to have the difficult discussions, spurring one another, irritating one another toward love and good works for that is what community is supposed to do.

We are stronger together. We need one another. We are the church.

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Come and Follow Me

Matthew 16:21-28 New International Version (NIV)

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

I was in high school when I noticed a lot of young men and women wearing a particular piece of jewelry. I’ve never been one to wear any kind of jewelry, I don’t wear a watch and often don’t even wear my wedding ring. But I thought that this piece of jewelry was kind of interesting: it was a bracelet with the letters “WWJD” printed in bold letters. WWJD of course stands for “What Would Jesus Do?”

The idea is simple and yet brilliant at the same time. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, perhaps an ethical dilemma, you look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” If you’re taking your math exam and you don’t know the answer and you are tempted to look at your neighbor’s paper. What would Jesus do? If you are in a convenience store and see some Twinkies, and you love Twinkies, but don’t have any money, look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”

In a number of ways, that little bracelet is a lot like that wedding ring that I rarely wear. It serves two practical purposes: It reminds me of the commitment that I have made to my wife, and it tells others that I am dedicated to loving, honoring, and serving someone.

Of course the challenge is that we can’t always agree on what Jesus would do, and often what we decide Jesus would do surprisingly looks a lot like what we really wanted to do all along. At least it did in High School, I’ll let you decide if that’s the case today or not. Or even worse, when a young man found himself in a position where he knew right and wrong, but the wrong choice was a lot easier, he answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” by saying, “Jesus would forgive me, that’s what Jesus would do.” And he went ahead and did it anyway.

We may not always know what Jesus might do in any given situation that we find ourselves in, but we can ask a few more questions that can help. When confronted with the question, “What would Jesus do?” we must ask three questions: What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? And What was Jesus like? (Murray, 61).

The desire to follow Jesus is something that we often call discipleship. As you know, Jesus had 12 disciples who followed him from town to town, ate with him, and lived under the same roof as him. The Greek word we translate as disciple is “mathetes.” Mathetes literally means a learner or a student. When Jesus calls his first disciples, notice what he says. He says, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The goal of Christian discipleship isn’t just to learn for the sake of learning. The goal is to learn how to be like Jesus. The goal is to know Jesus so well that when the question “What would Jesus do?” comes up, you know.

And guess what. You never stop learning.

Jesus’s last words to his disciples is recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The task given to this group of learners who are seeking to become more and more like Jesus is to make more learners. When asked about the mission of the church today, I like to say that we are disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. Our job is to make more people who look like Jesus.

That’s exactly what the early church did. Just a quick read through Acts reveals that the church grew by leaps and bounds. I would attribute this growth to two things: One is the gifting of the Holy Spirit, which is best seen on the day of Pentecost. The second is that Jesus’s disciples did what he taught them to do. They went out and made more disciples, who made more disciples, who made more disciples. And these disciples put the teachings of Jesus into action. The fed the poor, healed the sick, they shared meals, they shared their homes. And we find these encouraging snippets, like Acts 4:34, “there was no need among them,” and Acts 2:47b, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

So here are these disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, following Jesus every day and in every way that they could. And we know that it isn’t easy to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy to love your enemy, forgive people who have hurt you, to wash the feet of someone you know is going to betray you. We know it isn’t easy, and Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

He just compared being his follower with one of the most gruesome and painful methods of public execution known to humanity. But with the power of the Holy Spirit, and the support of community of believers, it can be done. Sure, we will fail, and praise God for grace in those moments. But Jesus didn’t give these difficult teachings knowing that they are impossible to achieve. No, he really wants us to try. We are called to look like Jesus in the way we live, breathe, and have our being.

Discipleship was a central part of Christianity for the first three hundred years of the existence of the church. But then something happened that forever changed the church and how we see Jesus. In the year 312, Constantine, Emperor of Rome, claimed to see a vision during a battle. Some claim that the vision was of a cross, others the Greek letters XP, the first two letters of the word Christ. Constantine then claims to have received a message: “In this sign, conquer.” The Romans painted the symbol on their shields and armor and defeated their enemy. Constantine made Christianity one of the recognized religions of the Roman Empire, and paved the way for Christianity to become the official religion of Rome.

Was this process, which we often call “The Constantinian Shift” a good thing or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of both. But think about what was lost. Before Constantine, only those who were dedicated to following Jesus, even if it cost them their lives, were Christians. After Constantine, everyone within the world’s largest empire was a Christian. We went from a voluntary group to required membership. This would be like going out and just declaring everyone in your city a Christian. Many people didn’t change anything about their lives.

This is about the time when groups like the monks started popping up. There became a second class of people who were dedicated to following Jesus and being his disciples because you can’t expect everyone to actually follow Jesus, even if everyone is considered a Christian.

Over the years Jesus went from being God with us, Emmanuel, who lived among us, taught us how to live, died and rose again, to some distant deity to whom we can pray. This distant deity even offers grace and forgiveness to those who believe in him. But that deity requires very little from his subjects.

We come to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. There is this group of believers in Switzerland that believes that leaders like Zwingli and Luther have started a good thing, but not gone far enough. This group didn’t see anything in the Bible that spoke of automatic church membership for someone just because of where they were born or the family they were born into. No, the New Testament Church was filled with people who had chosen to follow Jesus, at times at great cost. Some left behind family and friends, jobs and homes. Why should things change?

So this group decided that they were going to start a movement that got back to the root of the church. They began what is sometimes called the “Radical Reformation,” radical meaning the root of something. Voluntary church membership was central, as was its accompanying public gesture, which we know to be baptism. And since an infant couldn’t choose to be a member of a church, baptism became an act reserved for those who were old enough to choose to be baptized. And along with the symbol of adult baptism, these leaders, later known as the Anabaptists, focused on following Jesus. As HS Bender would write, “The Reformation emphasis on faith was good but inadequate, for without newness of life, they held, faith is hypocritical” (16).

Or as Hans Denck, an early Anabaptist, once said, “No one truly knows Christ unless they follow Him daily in life.” That’s on our church’s website!

Obviously, this can begin to look like legalism or works righteousness. I would argue that it isn’t works righteousness, it is works faithfulness. Or even more precisely, that’s what it means to be a good disciple of Jesus.

I think Palmer Becker says it best when he proclaims, “Jesus is the center of our faith.” Everything revolves around Jesus, what he said, what he did, and what he commanded. Becker, in his book Anabaptist Essentials, talks about different expressions of the Christian faith that he sees in the United States today. He asks the question, “Is Christianity a set of beliefs?” In a number of what we call “liturgical churches” we can find an emphasis on right belief or Orthodoxy. The worship services in these churches often include the recitation of creeds, or other documents of shared belief. “I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven, maker of earth. And Jesus Christ, his only begotten…”

But Christianity is more than just having right beliefs. This isn’t about just having the right theology and reciting the right words. Don’t get me wrong, orthodoxy is important, but we can’t stop there. So yes, Christianity is a set of beliefs, but it is more.

Becker then asks the question, “Is Christianity a spiritual experience?” I spoke about the gifts of the Spirit in our last session, and emphasized that the Spirit does more than we often give him credit for. But there are traditions that emphasize supernatural experiences like healing, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues to the point that it would seem that this is the essence of Christianity. The working of the Spirit is important, but there is more.

“Is Christianity an experience of forgiveness?” There are traditions where everything seems to be geared toward getting people to pray the sinner’s prayer. You’ve got to seal the deal! I remember hearing a pastor talking about attending a church where forgiveness and grace was all that they talked about in their church services. So they would sing, “Just as I am,” and then they would leave just as they were.

Without a doubt, repentance and forgiveness are essential to the Christian faith. And I would say that is the minimum requirement for someone to get into heaven. But since when are we about getting by with the bare minimum?

Becker then ends this section with what he has been building toward: Is Christianity discipleship? He writes, “Anabaptist Christians affirm that Christianity includes beliefs, spiritual experience, and forgiveness. But particular emphasis is placed on following Jesus in daily life” (33).

Becker also acknowledges that we Anabaptist/Mennonites are in danger of overemphasizing right practices in the same way other traditions can fall into similar traps. As I mentioned earlier, Mennonites can fall into legalism and works righteousness way too easily. No, we need a balance of right beliefs, spiritual encounters, forgiveness, and following the teachings of Jesus.

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The Spirit of the Church

Romans 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Mark 16:17-18

17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

When I think of denominations that emphasize the Holy Spirit, I usually think of…well, just about every denomination other than the Mennonite Church. I’ve even gone so far as to say that we Mennonites are bi-nitarians, as opposed to Trinitarians. We focus a lot on Jesus Christ, and rightly so. He is our Lord and Savior and our entire religion is named after Jesus; we are Christians! I make no apology whatsoever for talking about Jesus and talking about Jesus a lot. We also talk a lot about God, sometimes to the point where it is hard to tell where Jesus stops and God begins. I also think that is a good thing. If I speak in such a way that I blur the lines between God and Jesus, I think that I have done that part of my job well. We cannot separate the two. Jesus said, If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.

But the Holy Spirit? Ah, we maybe talk about the Spirit once a year or so on Pentecost Sunday. There are usually a few references to the Spirit throughout the year, but the Spirit is rarely the focus of our time together.

No, if you want to hear about the Holy Spirit, you need to go to a Pentecostal Church. If you want to experience the Holy Spirit, you go to a Charismatic Church. If you want to see the Spirit at work, you go to a Holiness Church. I’ve never seen anyone speak in tongues in a Mennonite Church. I’ve never seen anyone handle snakes in any church. And we sure don’t roll around on the floor in the Mennonite Church! I will occasionally see someone raise a hand in worship and I feel that it is necessary to look at them suspiciously. No, we praise God by singing, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come.”

It would seem that there is a huge Holy-Spirit-sized hole in the Mennonite Church. But then I go and read something that shakes up my understanding of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Historian Peter Klassen writes that within the early Anabaptist movement “there was a profound conviction that the Holy Spirit was at the center of Christian experience. The work of the Holy Spirit enabled the followers of Christ to rise above legalism to the transforming life of joyful obedience.”

Palmer Becker paraphrases Klassen, writing, “The Anabaptist movement can rightfully be called the charismatic or Holy Spirit movement of the sixteenth century” (Anabaptist Essentials, 160).

What happened? Have we as 21st-century, North American Mennonites lost something that our spiritual ancestors found so central to their faith? I think that is part of it, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I think what we have seen more than anything else is that our concept of the Holy Spirit has been dominated by just a few expressions of the Spirit to the point that we only see a very narrow slice of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are a lot of references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, and praise God, most of them do not involve handling poisonous snakes. (Can I get an amen? Or is that too Pentecostal?)

So today we are going to look at two additional roles of the Holy Spirit that often are neglected. We will look at the role of the Spirit in equipping and transforming.

The first thing that I want to look at is how the Holy Spirit equips the Church. When I think of equipping, I think of gifts. Each of us has some gift that will help the ministry of the church and if you don’t know what your gift is, I suggest asking someone from the church whom you trust. We need to be affirming the gifts in one another, especially as many of us have been told that humility is a virtue and to boast about a gift would be a sign of pride.

The Apostle Paul gives us several lists of Spiritual Gifts in places like Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4, and what is probably the best-known list in 1 Corinthians 12. 1 Corinthians 12:1 says, “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” I don’t want you to be uninformed, either. So let’s see what is going on here.

One of the words that Paul uses that we translate as “gift” is the word charisma. As you may have guessed, that is where we get the English word charisma from. When you hear a dynamic speaker who is engaging, entertaining, and a delight to listen to, you might say that they are charismatic. That simply means that they have a gift for speaking.

Charisma can be further broken down to find its root, which is the word charis. Charis is the word that we translate as “grace.” We have friends who named their first-born Grace, their second born Charis, and their third Anya, which is the Russian word for grace. With all respect to Meghan Trainor, you might say that they are all about that grace, bout that grace.

Grace, charis, is a gift from God; something that you cannot and have not earned. Likewise, charisma and the charismata (plural form) are gifts from God. And Paul calls each one of these gifts a manifestation of the Spirit. Here is just a short list of what Paul names in these passages: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Encouraging, Courage, Leadership, Mercy, Words of Wisdom, Words of Knowledge, Faith, Healing, Powers, Discerning Spirit, Speaking in Tongues, Interpreting Tongues.

Please notice, snake handling is not on the list.

I’d also ask you to notice that this is not an exhaustive list. I think of some of the skilled positions in our church, like our webmaster or our sound technician. I usually send our webmaster the bulletin Friday afternoon and he often has it up on the website before I get home, complete with hyperlinks to the written text. Our sound guy edits the audio each Sunday and transfers it to an MP3 file and sends it to the web guy, who has it posted early each week.

These are gifts that are being used in the church to reach people outside of the church. I don’t have any problem with calling these spiritual gifts, even though they don’t make any of Paul’s lists.

And think about Jesus’ first recorded sermon, which we find in Luke 4:18-19. Jesus is fresh off his time of temptation in the wilderness, he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, and speaks in the local synagogue. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Spirit of the Lord has anointed Jesus to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoner, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and what many scholars believe the year of Jubilee.

The marks of a Spirit-filled church aren’t exclusively speaking in tongues or ecstatic worship experiences, though it can indeed include those things and I think that we can learn something from our more charismatic brothers or sisters. But I want to ask of your church: Is there sound teaching? That’s a Spirit-filled church. Is there prophesy or wisdom? That’s a Spirit-filled church. Is good news proclaimed to the poor, the oppressed, and the prisoner? If so, that’s a Spirit-filled church. The Mennonite Church may not be what you commonly think of when you think of a Spirit-filled church, but maybe we need to rethink what it means to be a Spirit-filled church. God equips us to do the work and ministry of the Church, and he does so through the Spirit.

How about one more “charisma,” one more gift of the Spirit that is often overlooked? The end of 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

That doesn’t really seem like that great of a gift to me. We are looking at three little words, two words in Greek. What kind of gift is that and what does Paul mean when he says that you cannot say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit? I’m glad you asked, because that leads us to our second area, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It isn’t that it is all that difficult to say the words “Jesus is Lord,” it is difficult to live out that conviction. Because to say “Jesus is Lord” is to give your highest allegiance and ultimate authority to Jesus.

In the 1st century, it was common for members of the Roman Empire to greet one another by saying “Caesar is lord.” It was a way of identifying friend from foe. Recall that the word “lord” does not necessarily mean that someone was divine, such as in the British House of Lords or the series “Lord of the Rings.” Nobody has ever accused Bilbo Baggins of being divine.

Throughout Paul’s writings we find him encouraging followers of Jesus to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. At one point he writes, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That verse is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Romans 10:9.

To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus receives your highest allegiance and is your ultimate authority. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. This does mean that you go around defying the government and its leaders just to be defiant. But for the 1st-century church, they understood the phrase “Jesus is Lord” to mean that when Jesus says one thing, and the government says something else, you follow Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples to make disciples throughout the nations. The governing authorities told the disciples not to teach about Jesus and arrested them when they kept doing what they were told not to do. What was Peter’s response? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29b).

So the authorities, the Sanhedrin in this case, had the disciples beaten and told them again to stop teaching. We find the disciples’ response in verses 41-42, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

Tradition tells us that eleven of the original twelve disciples, plus Paul, were killed, martyred for their faith. Were they just slow learners? Were they that dense? They were told that they would be punished if they kept proclaiming that Jesus was Lord, but they continued anyway. No, they kept proclaiming that Jesus was Lord because they believed that Jesus was Lord and therefore had ultimate authority in their life.

And ultimate authority in their death.

So when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 that nobody can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, he doesn’t mean just muttering the words. Paul is saying that if you state that Jesus is Lord and really believe it, you will have struggles. He said this and he knew it personally! How many times was that man thrown in jail? Paul also knew that the strength to proclaim Jesus as Lord did not come from himself. That was only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s double back to that Klassen quote from earlier: “The Anabaptist movement can rightfully be called the charismatic or Holy Spirit movement of the sixteenth century.”

Let us not forget that in the 16th century many Anabaptists were martyred for their faith. Some estimate that around 2,500 Anabaptists were killed for their faith, other estimates double that number. Our history includes stories of Anabaptists singing hymns as they were burned at the stake, men and women using their last words to offer forgiveness to their executioners, and what may be the best-known story, that of Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning in an icy river, only to be recaptured and executed.

What gave these men and women the strength and courage to stay faithful in the midst of persecution? It was the same power that allowed the disciples to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and it is the same power that is available to us today. It was the Holy Spirit.

But we can’t limit this transforming power of the Holy Spirit to allowing people to withstand persecution. This isn’t just about toughening us up! It is about forming us into the kind of people that God has called us to be. In his book The Anabaptist Vision Harold Bender talks about the role of the Spirit in what he called “the regeneration of every Christian.” This is a renewed sense of zeal, a renewed desire to serve and follow Jesus. Not because our salvation is dependent upon our works, but because Jesus is Lord.

Bender offers a number of stories and quotations from opponents of the Anabaptist movement where these opponents had really nice things to say about the people they were persecuting. Ulrich Zwingli once wrote about his Anabaptist foes, “If you investigate their life and conduct, it seems at first contact irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive, yea, above this world. Even those who are inclined to be critical will say that their lives are excellent” (as quoted by Bender, 22).

Bender will go on to say that some non-Anabaptist Christians were accused of being Anabaptists during the persecution period, not because anyone had heard that they had been re-baptized, but because of the Christ-like life they were living (25). You’re giving money to the poor? You must be an Anabaptist!

            I’ll be the first to admit that Bender may be a little biased in his assessment of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement. But my point today is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is more than just speaking in tongues or handling snakes. Indeed, it may include those things, but it can be much more. Godly teaching, feeding the poor, preaching, enduring persecution, web development, and declaring Jesus as Lord can all be signs that a person is filled with the Spirit.

The early Anabaptist movement was indeed a Spirit-filled movement. And maybe many people wouldn’t look at how we worship today and called us a Spirit-filled denomination. But like Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:1, I do not what you to be uninformed. You are a Spirit-filled people, and you continue to bear the fruit of the spirit.

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Weeding the Garden

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Last week Sonya and I marked our ninth year in our current house, which is easily the longest we have lived in one location in our adult lives. Nine years is enough time to make a house a home. We have, both figuratively and metaphorically, put down some roots. Eight summers ago we brought in some topsoil and built a raised-bed garden (two more would later follow). We have worked and amended the soil every spring, planted our seeds in straight rows, watered the garden, and watched it grow. And then every year, by the 4th of July, we start to neglect our garden and it becomes overgrown with weeds.

The thing is that I enjoy working the soil and planting the garden. I do not, however, enjoy weeding it. Maybe it is because I don’t like to pay that much attention to what I am doing and inevitably pull up a cucumber plant or two along the way. Maybe it is just the hot weather that comes in the middle of the summer. Either way, I’m glad to say that I have made the decision to follow the teachings of Jesus, which is to say that I will never pull another weed again!

Who doesn’t love a good agricultural parable? If you don’t, I’d suggest staying away from Matthew 13, because there are a few of them sprinkled throughout this chapter. In Matthew 13 we find the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the sower, and of course today’s lesson, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Or if you know your King James, you probably have heard this one called the parable of the wheat and the tares.

If you have ever grown anything, you know that this parable is really bad advice. If you do not weed your garden or cultivate your field, you will not get much of a harvest. The weeds and the good seed will compete for nutrients, water, space, and sunlight. If Jesus’s intention was to tell people that they should never pull up weeds, then I would expect that someone with some agricultural or horticultural experience would have called him out on it. Someone would have said, “That will never work!” So what is going on here? (Sorry kids, we still need to weed the garden.)

The point of this passage seems to come right down to the long-standing Christian teaching that we are not to judge one another. We can speak about actions that think are right or wrong, but we are in no position to say if someone is “good” or “bad,” and surely it is not up to us to decide on someone’s eternal destination.

In this parable, Jesus says that a man sowed good seed in his field, with the goal of having a wheat harvest in a few months. But a few weeks go by and the workers notice that there is more than just wheat growing in the field. There is a weed, which is sometimes called a “tare” or “darnel.”

The darnel plant looks a lot like wheat, so much so that I’m a little surprised that the workers were able to discern between the two. Darnel puts forth a shoot like wheat, it develops a head like wheat. Most people, myself included, can only really tell the difference when it comes time to harvest the seed.

So the workers come to the owner and ask him, Hey, what’s up with this? Didn’t you sow good seed? The owner says, Of course I sowed good seed! My enemy has come in and sowed weeds in my wheat field!

I wonder about the feud that these two must have had to make him sow weeds in his neighbor’s field, but that really doesn’t seem to be the point here.

The workers offer to go and pull up the darnel, to remove the weeds from the field. But the response from the owner comes as a surprise: he says no. No, we will wait until the harvest and sort out the good wheat from the bad tares. Because in pulling the tares, we may accidentally uproot the wheat as well.

It isn’t exactly clear why they might uproot the wrong plant. It might be because they look so much alike that a worker could grab the wrong one in a hurry and pull it out of the ground by accident. It might be because their roots are intertwined. Regardless of the reason, the point is to wait. Wait, and at the harvest, someone else will sort between the two.

It is not surprising that Jesus’s disciples don’t quite understand what to do with this parable. So like the previous one, they take him aside and ask him to explain.

This is where it starts to get interesting. In verse 37 Jesus says, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.” Jesus often called himself the Son of Man, which was a messianic title that we find in places like Daniel’s apocalyptic vision from chapter 7. We read in verse 13, “In my (that is, Daniel’s) vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Jesus saw himself as that person, the one who would come on the clouds of heaven! And Daniel is such an interesting book, filled with stories of idolatry and the worship of nations and human leaders. It is also the place where we find the story of three men who would not bow down and worship a golden idol. These men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were condemned to die. And how were they to die? They were thrown into not just any furnace. The NIV says, “a blazing furnace.” And if you know the story, you know that God kept them safe. Daniel 3:27b says, “They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.”

I love that last part. They didn’t even smell like smoke.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the good seed is the members of the kingdom of God. The weeds are the people of the evil one. And where do the weeds end up? Not just a furnace. The NIV says, “a blazing furnace.”

Where in the book of Daniel, it is the good seed–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego–that is thrown into the furnace by an evil king, Jesus flips the story around and it is the weeds—the idolatrous ones–who are punished.

My friends, I think that there are weeds out there, and I do believe that they will be punished. I don’t know what that will look like, but that’s not the point that Jesus is trying to make. The point of the parable is that we aren’t supposed to try to uproot and weed out the bad seed. We are in no position to judge.

Let’s look at a couple of reasons why this could be a problem, and I will base these reasons on what I said earlier. 1. The plants might look similar, making it more difficult to discern between the wheat and the weeds. 2. The roots of the good might be so intertwined with the bad that you end up pulling them both out.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine good and bad. Maybe it is at times easy to point out good actions or bad actions, but we really aren’t in a position to determine good and bad people. There may be people who do bad things, but are they completely evil? Do they deserve uprooting?

So often we just don’t know the entire story. Especially in this day and age, where the phrase “Fake News” seems to be entering our daily vocabulary at an alarming rate. Now keep in mind that there is satire and there is fake news. You may have heard this week that OJ Simpson was granted parole and will be released from prison in the coming months. OJ was a pretty good running back in his day, a Heisman Trophy winner, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You may also know that my favorite pro football team, the Cleveland Browns, have been historically terrible.

After the news of Simpson’s parole was published, one of my friends from Ohio posted an article on Facebook stating that the Browns had signed OJ Simpson to a contract and that he would be playing running back for the good guys from Cleveland.

FYI, OJ will be 70 next year.

That’s satire. That’s taking a real-life story or situation and running with it in an obviously silly way for comical purposes. You can find satire websites online like the Onion, the Babylon Bee is a Christian satire website, and there is even a Mennonite satire site called the Daily Bonnet, whose tagline is, “The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite’s most trusted source for untrustworthy news.” One of my favorite articles from the Daily Bonnet has the title, “Lancaster Hospital Opens New Wing to Deal with Dutch Blitz Injuries.”

But then there is fake news. This term became popular last election cycle and is still thrown around quite often even today, eight months later. I should note that most fake news is found online. Unfortunately, many people get the majority of their news online, where anyone can publish anything that they want. And if you have the skills to do so, you can make a fake news website look real. During the elections, it was not uncommon to find stories with just enough truth in them to make them seem real, but they would also introduce information that isn’t exactly accurate. Numbers can be inflated or shrunk. Quotes can be taken out of context. And the public doesn’t always know that what they are reading isn’t an exact replication of what took place.

Unfortunately, we in the church participate in this act of writing and sharing fake news. Maybe we don’t do it intentionally, but we do. I’ve seen various stories posted online that seem to present half-truths about people I care about, leaders in the church. And these half-truths are shared by people across the theological spectrum, progressive and conservative. I then hear people wanting to weed the garden of the church, pluck out these bad seeds, based on half-truths and incomplete stories.

One of the reasons that Jesus says that his followers should let the wheat and the weeds grow together, side-by-side, is because we don’t have the entire story and often we have half-truths. It isn’t easy, or sometimes even possible, to tell if someone is wheat or a weed. That’s one reason why it isn’t our job to judge!

How about my other concern? What happens when you try to pull out a plant whose roots are intertwined with another plant? You get a two-for-one deal!

Wheat is an interesting plant. When you plant wheat, it grows and looks like most other plants. The first thing that you see above ground is a single shoot, a single blade of wheat, coming out of the soil. That blade will grow into a fully mature wheat plant with a head that produces seed, if the right conditions are met. But wheat can also produce multiple “tillers,” which are additional stems that grow from the same root system. What appears to be a totally different wheat plant growing a few inches away from the first stem is actually a part of the same living, growing organism.

Do you know other plant grows a tiller? The darnel plant, the tare, the weed that Jesus was describing. So as the wheat and darnel grow and develop root systems, they are growing not only vertically, but also horizontally. Each is putting up its own tillers, and they become more and more intertwined.

In the church and in the world, it is nearly impossible to know who is the good wheat and who is the weeds. Everyone seems to have a little of both. Add to that the fact that we are so intertwined that if you try to pull up what you believe to be a bad one, you’ll likely pull up a good one as well.

It isn’t our job to weed the garden. God will sort it all out in the end.

You might be asking what to do with Matthew 18:15;17? In this passage, Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you…If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

I skipped a step there for brevity, but notice that there isn’t the violent language of uprooting. There is nothing about a blazing furnace here! Jesus call us to treat sinners in the church as tax collectors and pagans, which isn’t to say that we cast them into the furnace. Remember how Jesus treated the pagans and tax collectors. He ate with them. He stayed in their homes. He loved them. You might even say that Jesus became intertwined with them. They may not have had it all together and been a full part of the church, but Jesus also never advocated for an all-out purge of sinners either.

Really, the only violent images that I could find coming from the lips of Jesus for our responsibility when dealing with sin is when we are dealing with sin in our own lives. Jesus says that if our hand causes us to sin, we are to cut it off. If our eye causes us to sin, pluck it out. But we are never called to cut off, pluck out, or uproot others from this world. That is not our job; God has promised to sort it all out in the end.

I want to end with a few quick questions to ask yourself when you consider uprooting another plant. 1. Will the one taint the other? Sometimes we are so concerned with other people having a bad influence on us that we forget that influences can go both ways. Just as someone can be a bad influence on us, so too can we be a good influence on others. 2. Can we have civilized conversations despite our differences? I know that it matters what the issue is. If someone comes up to you and says that strawberry ice cream is the best and you already know that chocolate is the best, you should be unyielding! No, you can probably still have a civilized and loving conversation. But we should also be able to have a civilized and loving conversation about things like politics and religion. And finally, 3. Ask yourself if we are not better off for our diversity. There are times when what we perceive to be a weed, might actually be just a wheat plant of a different variety. When someone demands a certain style of worship, whether that be music genres, robes, bells, candles, or smells, remember that just because someone has a different preference doesn’t make them a bad person.

I think that I have grown more over the last few years by being with and talking with people of different denominations. There was a time when pretty much every other denomination condemned Anabaptists as heretics, but today some of my best friendships and most meaningful conversations are with Methodists and Presbyterians. I might think that they are wrong on some things, and they surely think that I am wrong as well. But I hope that neither of us would consider each other a weed. Our diversity, though sometimes a challenge, can actually be a strength.

Like it or not, our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. And the deeper your roots run, the more intertwined they are going to be.

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Sowing Kingdom Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

The parable of the sower has always been one of my favorites. Maybe it is my agricultural background, maybe it is my love for biology and nature. Or maybe it is just because it is so relatable. I know what it is like to try to sow a few metaphorical seeds, and I know what it is like to be unreceptive to the seeds that other people have tried to sow in my life.

I want to start today by looking at the soil and then end by looking at the sower. Because we are called to be both. We receive the message of the kingdom and we spread it. We are going to jump around this passage a bit, much like our passage itself jumps around a bit. Notice that in verse one Jesus is addressing a large crowd. This is one instance where he is speaking to so many people that he has to get into a boat and push out into the lake a bit so that everyone can hear him, forming a bit of a natural amphitheater. After he tells this parable, his disciples take Jesus aside and ask him why he talks in parables, and our text jumps over Jesus’s reasoning for teaching in parables and goes straight to the explanation of the parable of the sower.

Let’s look at the beginning over verse 19, where Jesus begins his explanation of this parable: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom…” The word that is translated as “message” in the NIV is the Greek word “logos,” which simply means “word.” So in the parable of the sower, the seed is simply word of the kingdom. Don’t limit the seed to the story of salvation, and don’t limit the seed to ethics or theology. It is all of the above. Any word of the kingdom falls into this category of seed. So no matter if you are not a Christian, or if you have been following Jesus for 60 years, you need to be receiving seed. That is how we grow.

As we consider the types of soil and how they may reflect our receptivity to the words of the kingdom, let us not think this is just about some other person. Jesus is talking about people at all stages of their faith walks. So we should be asking, “How’s my soil? Am I receptive to words of the kingdom?” While Jesus describes a number of inhospitable soils, like the rocky or thorny soil, I don’t think that this list was meant to be exhaustive. There are many things that can keep us from producing a healthy harvest.

I’ll admit that I am not always receptive to teaching. There are some teachers that I appreciate, some authors that I frequently read, and some preachers that I listen to on a weekly basis. I’m receptive to these teachers! My soil is good, worked up, and fertilized. These are the teachers that I often quote in my sermons, the NT Wrights, the Greg Boyds, and other Neo-Anabaptist folks. But if someone doesn’t quite fit my mold of Christianity, I become skeptical.

Part of it is the way I read or the way I listen to words of the kingdom. I listen with a critical ear or read with critical eye most of the time, but this critical aspect is heightened when the words of the kingdom are coming from people from certain traditions. I’m looking, listening, for things that I disagree with. I want to catch that person saying something that I believe is wrong or something that I believe is simply too naïve or uneducated. Ohh! Joe Shmoe just admitted to believing in a Trinitarian heresy!

Don’t hear me wrong, critical thinking is a good skill to have, and we can’t just assume that everything someone tells us is correct. But when I listen to a sermon or read an article looking for things that I disagree with, my soil is unsuitable for kingdom seeds.

Last weekend we traveled to my childhood home in Ohio to spend some time with my family. Since we were going to be there on Sunday, we made the decision to attend worship at the church where I was baptized, which was also the church were Sonya’s father served in his first pastorate. I’ve not been to this church for several years, and I would say that in many ways I am at a different place theologically than many people in that church, and I’m in a different place than I was when I was an active member of that church. This is exactly the kind of scenario that lends itself to me being very critical of what is said from the pulpit.

This is the kind of thing that makes it really difficult for me to enter into a real time of worship. If I’m always looking for something to disagree with, I can’t be moved by the spirit, and I can’t be moved by the words of the preacher. I know that this is a problem for me, and I also knew what my scripture for this Sunday was going to be. So before we went to church, I made the conscious decision to listen to the sermon and find kingdom seeds that could be planted in my life and grow to produce a crop.

Again, this isn’t about agreeing with everything that I hear or read. I’m surely not asking you to agree with everything that I say! But what I’m suggesting is that we enter into conversations, into study, and into worship with an attitude of receptivity. I’m suggesting that we check our soil and ask if we are prepared to receive kingdom seeds or if we are just looking for something to disagree with. Not just in worship, but in our conversations with people who don’t think just like us and in our reading, our studies, and our daily activities, we need to be open to hearing words of the kingdom from people outside our circle. If you enter into worship or dialogue trying to find something to disagree with, you will find it. But if you enter worship or dialogue trying to find kingdom seeds, you will find that, too. We are responsible for preparing our own soil to receive words of the kingdom. We are responsible for receiving kingdom seeds.

As I spent time on my family’s farm this past week, I was reminded of all that goes into preparing the soil to receive the seed. The plowing, tilling, and fertilizing all takes place before the seed is ever introduced to the soil. Afterwards, efforts are made to keep the weeds down. Some cultivate, others spray, and some do a combination of the two. If my family is willing to put forth that kind of effort to prepare the soil for the seed and care for it once the two come together, then surely I can do a bit more to prepare my soil for words of the kingdom.

What about the sower? As I noted three years ago when I last preached on this passage, the soil isn’t the only interesting thing about this parable. In fact, look at what Jesus says in verse 18, “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means.” Jesus doesn’t call this the parable of the soil, he calls it the parable of the sower. As much as we can get from Jesus’s description of the soil, we must not miss that Jesus calls this the parable of the sower. So what can we learn from the sower?

The first thing that I notice is that this sower is really wasteful. There are four different kinds of soil named in this parable: the compacted path, the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the good soil. The sower comes along and throws seed on all four of those soil types. If we assume that he sows an equal amount on each soil, he wasted 75% of his seed.

For most of us city folks today, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. You can go to any hardware or home improvement store and buy a small envelope of seed for less than $2.00. If you lose a bit here and there, no biggie.

I was talking to my little brother this week about their spring planting, and he was lamenting how wet their spring had been. All of the rain made everything really green and beautiful, but it also kept them out of their fields. You really shouldn’t drive a big tractor through the mud when you are planting, because you will rut the field up. So my family got their corn planted pretty late this year.

However, there were some who were able to get their corn in early before all of the rain hit. The problem is that when you get too much rain, the seed sits there and rots in the ground. My brother told me that the local farmers who got their corn in early found out that they had to replant their fields, which meant additional time and additional cost. One bag of seed corn runs about $250 and is enough to plant 2.5-3 acres. If my calculations are correct, planting 100 acres of corn is going to set someone back $10,000. To replant it would also cost you $10,000! But really, what farmer doesn’t have an extra $10,000 lying around? (PTL for crop insurance!)

My point is that sowing, planting, harvesting on a large scale can be very costly. But when you think about it from a 1st-century perspective, you realize it might be even more costly. Consider Psalm 126:5-6, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”

Why did the sower in Psalm 126 sow in tears? Because what we call seed could also be food. The seed you plant this year was a part of last year’s harvest. A kernel of wheat or corn can be planted with the hope that it will grow and produce a great harvest of 100, sixty, or thirty times what is sowed. But you can’t guarantee that it will.

You may get too much rain, and the seed will die in the soil. You could end up casting it on the path, among the rocks, among the thorns, and what could have been food has now been wasted.

So yes, when a modern farmer plants $10,000 worth of seed, they are risk. But when a sower in Jesus’s day spread her seed, she was taking an even greater risk, a potentially costly risk.

If I were to tell the parable of the sower, it might go something like this: “There once was a farmer who went out to sow his field, and he got about 25% of it where it should go, and the rest was completely wasted because the birds ate it, it burned up from the sun, or it got choked out by the thorns. Don’t be like that farmer.”

But notice that Jesus never condemns the farmer for sowing without restraint. He doesn’t reprimand the farmer for his poor stewardship and never says that now his family might starve. Jesus just names it as a fact: some soil is going to be better than others. We hope for the good soil, but sometimes we hit thorns and rocks along the way. Praise God for the good soil, but sow wherever you go.

Remember that sowing seeds is a reference to words of the kingdom. This may include things like evangelization, but it can also include words of forgiveness and love. A kingdom word can be about ethics, it can be about theology. Anything that points to the kingdom can be a word of the kingdom. I don’t even think that words of the kingdom need to be words! Sometimes it is just a good deed or an act of kindness. The point that Jesus is making is that we are to sow these kingdom seeds broadly, indiscriminately, and without holding back! We are not responsible for the soil condition in other people’s hearts. We are responsible for two things: casting the seed, and our own soil’s condition.

Casting kingdom seeds is not meant to be an act of determining someone’s worthiness or even the likelihood that they will receive the seed well. I think of some of the ministries that we are involved with here at Staunton Mennonite. We recently purchased and installed carpet for the after school tutoring program at the Valley Mission. Every so often we gather other goods for the Mission as well. We have collected food for Thanksgiving boxes for the needy. We have had toilet paper drives, and served meals. We have supported the work of the Mission financially. We do this because these are little seeds of the kingdom. We are called to care for the poor, the needy, and the homeless.

Do you know how many people have come out of poverty because of the efforts of Staunton Mennonite or how many have seen our dedication to service and decided to follow Christ? No, you don’t know, I don’t know, and we may never know. That’s not our job. Our job is to sow the seed.

Last week Marvin delivered a message about the work of the Gideons, distributing New Testaments around the world and in our own neighborhood. Our church sent a check to the Gideons for $427 this week, which will buy almost three and 1/3 cases of New Testaments. These Testaments will be handed out across college campuses, in parks, and in nations I’ve never heard of.

I remember when I was in college and the Gideons were on campus handing out New Testaments. You can imagine that this wasn’t always met with appreciation on a secular college campus. I saw a lot of New Testaments dropped in the next trash can. I even remember seeing one in a drinking fountain, “baptized” by an unappreciative student. Do we know how many Testaments will end up on the trash and how many will actually be read? Nope. And that’s not our job. Our job is to sow the seed.

Every Sunday during the school year we have Sunday School, and all year long we gather our little children at the front of the church for Children’s Time. I don’t teach Sunday School very often, but I know that the kids aren’t retaining everything I say during our Children’s Time. Hit your thumb with a hammer and say a bad word, and your kid will remember it forever. Sit them down and teach them about Jesus, and it can go either way! If I can get them to sit still for just a few minutes, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I can’t say for sure what is soaking in and what will be forgotten before the get back to their seats. But that’s not my job. My job is to sow the seed. The Sunday School teacher’s job is to sow the seed.

We can’t work up someone else’s soil, and often, we can’t tell whose soil is prepared. Because unlike the compacted, thorny, and rocky soils of this parable, we aren’t in any position to know whether or not someone is receptive to kingdom seeds. You can’t determine soil condition with your eyes! But that’s not our job. Our job is two-fold: we are to prepare our soil to receive words of the kingdom, and we are to sow kingdom seeds without reservation.

God has poured out love and grace upon us, even though we are not worthy. Likewise, we sow kingdom seeds regardless of how prepared we believe someone else’s soil to be. Someone ones sowed seeds in our lives, and we are called to pass on the favor.

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