Some may be more lost than others

The Parable of the Good Shepherd Separating the Sheep from the GoatsThe bible often uses imagery of a Shepherd and flocks of sheep or goats to illustrate the relationship between God and humanity and among humankind. One particular passage suggests at least three things under this paradigm:

  1. That God will seek after God’s lost sheep;
  2. That at least some of God’s flock are responsible for fouling the nourishment of others; and finally
  3. That God will judge in favor of those who are disadvantaged at the hands of others.

I wonder how this might apply to today’s local, national and geopolitical and religious conversations?

Originally this seemed to refer exclusively to the people of Israel. In Matthew’s gospel (MT 25:31-46) we hear Jesus reinterpret the story. Now it seems to apply not only to Israel but to all of humanity – “All the nations will be gathered before Him” (v25:32). Thus, as with much of scripture, we have multiple layers or lanes of interpretation which are simultaneously offering us truths.

One of the obvious questions to be asked is this: who is whom? Good sheep? Bad sheep? Goats? Lost sheep? Where do we locate ourselves and our group?

The tendency I often hear is to think that “our group” are the good sheep or lost sheep for whom Jesus searches. By implication, the folks who disagree with us on one or another matter of interpretation are thus the bad sheep. This is a very dangerous path to take.

At the very least, let us ask ourselves:

  • Who around us is lost and in need of rescue?
  • Where around us is the nourishment (water and pasture) for others being fouled by our actions?

Some time ago I proposed that we are all goats, at least according to the definition of Matthew 25:42-43. If ever you or I have seen someone in need and withheld aid, then we are goats. End of story. Unless…. God’s grace intervenes because we are at the same time lost sheep. Then, perhaps we have some hope.

The folks who are worst off are those who think they are safe, who think they are the privileged sheep when in fact they are responsible for the suffering of others. They may be more lost than others. (cf EZ 34:1-10 & MT 23)

What do you think?

Here’s the text:
Ezekiel 34: 11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out….. 17 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
(Click here for the full text)

Seeds on the Wind – Mark 4

NOTE: This is the final sermon I am to preach after more than ten years at Forest Grove Christian Church

Summary of Mark 4 –

Mark presents us with three seed parables about God’s reign, and then abruptly shifts to a story of a physically and emotionally exhausted Jesus falling asleep on the boat and not being roused by the terrible storm that erupted.

1-20 Seed/Word scattered without judging the soil in advance

21-23 Let your light shine

24-25 The measure you give is the measure you will get back

26-29 Partners with God: We have work to do, and God gives the growth

30-34 The tiny mustard seed produces a tree of safety for the vulnerable

35-41 Jesus stills the storm

I would like to explore for a few moments how these three seed parables work together, supported then by the two intervening proverbs, and finally encapsulated by a challenge.

The sower went out to sow seeds. The seed is the Word of God, the message of the Kingdom now and coming, the Good News, the Gospel of God’s all-encompassing redeeming love. The sower does not judge in advance whether the seed will likely be received, or how well it might grow. No. The seed is broadcast liberally, extravagantly, even wastefully – if we measure as a farmer would. After all, no good farmer would knowingly cast seeds on a pathway, or among the brambles, or in rocky soil. The farmer goes to great lengths to prepare the soil conditions BEFORE casting the seed, and then only in the places that are most likely to produce.

Not so with the Messiah. The messiah offers the gospel to everyone around him – the Priests and Scribes, the Sadducees and Pharisees, tax collectors, drunkards, sinners and the unclean, and even to the common folks in the middle. Everyone has equal access, ready or not, to experience the word of love offered.

There are at least two ways to interpret this parable. The first Jesus gives to the disciples – that the different kinds of soil represent people at different stages of readiness. So when the Messiah travels along the seashore teaching, in his audience are people who fit each of the four descriptions – some completely unreceptive, some quickly enthusiastic but easily burned out, some have too many other commitments that choke out the growth, and finally others are receptive and have good conditions for the seeds to take root, sprout and grow healthy and strong until they bear fruit of their own. Jesus does not generally take aside this last group and only teach and preach to them, only offer them healing and restoration and reconciliation with God, self and neighbor. The seed of God’s good news is offered freely to all, even though only a portion are able to receive it to full benefit.

A second meaning springs from this first. Just as at any one time a crowd will have people who represent each of the four types of seed, similarly each of us is at different times like the four kinds of soil. Yesterday you may have been so distracted by the cares of the world that you were unable to receive the good news that was offered. Today you may receive it eagerly, but in the heat and winds of life your enthusiasm may dry up. Perhaps tomorrow will you be like the rocky path, where the scavengers come along and steal away the good news? And finally, hopefully, at some point each of us will be like good soil that is ready to receive the Gospel and have it bear fruit in our lives. That is the goal, the dream.

Now, of course, we are all familiar with people who have been that good soil, but life just got too much for them. Too many rain storms washed away all the good topsoil. Too much inattention to spiritual things left their lives cluttered with brambles, or filled with people who would come in and steal their joy and peace. Perhaps each of us can relate to that experience at some point in our lives. This is not a parable about judgment from God on those unready to receive. It is simply a reality check, a true image of life as we know it. Some days we are more ready than others to follow Jesus and share God’s love and bear the fruit of the kingdom. Some days we have more energy and enthusiasm than others. Some days we are just so exhausted we could sleep through a storm.

The second parable picks up where this one leaves off. Paul reminds the church: 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1) So Jesus points out that though the soil is good, and the farmer does everything necessary, the means of growth is still a mystery. God makes things grow. We have a responsibility, certainly, whether for our individual lives, our family, our church, community or world. There are things we can and must do as caretakers of creation (GEN2:15), colaborers with God (1COR3:9). Even so, we do not get credit for the growth that results, or blame for its lack. God sends rain on the just and the unjust (MT5:45). Let us do what is ours to do, encourage one another, and then give God the glory for all good things (1CHRON16:34).

This Gospel word of Good News that is in us must shine forth from us into the world. Our lives hold the potential to bless others with light and warmth, and we must find ways to let that light shine. The amount of light and love we share with others determines the amount we will be able to receive back from God. The more stingy and guarded we are in loving our neighbors, the less grace we will experience from God. This is not because God will withhold grace or mercy or love, but because we will be unable to receive it because our hands and hearts will be filled with fear and focus on self.

When the seeds of the Good News of God’s Kingdom of redeeming mercy and love are planted in good soil, they become like a tree which gives shelter under its canopy. Jesus compares this to the mustard seed, one of the smallest seeds known in his day. Even so small an amount of faith, so small an expression of love, can take root and grow in the right soil so that in days to come the vulnerable may find shelter and sustenance. The birds of the air make their nests and raise their young. What a beautiful image of the relationship between our faith and God’s work to bless the world in and through the church. Does the church provide shelter for the vulnerable, the fragile, the wounded? Is the church a place of refuge from the storms of life, so that when they rage against us, we can be secure in the knowledge that the one who stills the storms watches over us?

These storms of life do come. How wonderful a gift to see our Lord so worn out that he sleeps right through. You’ve felt that way, haven’t you? Much remains to be done, but you can’t stay awake another moment. You are physically and emotionally and spiritually drained, exhausted. You must rest, and rejuvenate, be renewed by God. We can see ourselves in this and take comfort when we feel the same.

We also know how the disciples feel. We cry out with them and the psalmist 23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! 24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? 25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. 26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (PS44:23) At one point the psalmist is so frustrated as to compare God to a soldier waking from a drunken stupor (Psalm 78:65). We know this feeling, don’t we, of wondering where God is, whether God cares about how hard things are for us? “Lord, do you not care that we are drowning?” (MK4:38)

In response to our cry, the Lord first offers peace and calm to us in the midst of the raging storm. Then he turns to us and asks, in love, “Where is your faith? Why are you so afraid? Am I not with you, and am I not trustworthy? I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

There is one final thing here, the unspoken punch line of the whole chapter. The wind of the storm actually scatters the seeds of faith. Remember how in Acts 7 we read of the stoning of Stephen and the flight of the other disciples? And then in the very next breath Luke tells us: 4 Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word (Acts 8). The scattering of the faithful actually leads to the growth of the kingdom. God uses the storms of life to scatter seeds of faith, some of which will find good soil in us and our community, and grow and bear fruit for generations to come. Some we may never know. Others we may only learn about decades later.

I have just this week been reconnected with my best friend from high school. Jon was in a horrible car accident in the fall of our junior year, at the age of 16. He sustained a closed head injury which left him comatose for months, followed by years of rehabilitation therapy, and permanent damage to his memory and cognitive skills. Because of these deficits, his doctors believed he was better off not having any contact with him, so his family asked us to walk away forever. This was incredibly painful. It is one thing to lose a friend to death. It is something very different and strange to have him still alive, but cut off by injury. He will never live alone without supportive care. He is a 16 year old boy trapped in a 43 year old man’s body. And I’m his best friend – have been all this time even though we haven’t spoken since 1986. My care for him during our high school years has helped to sustain him through the unimaginable storms raging within and around him. I could not have imagined what it feels like to know that. He sent me two letters this week that looked just like the kinds of notes high school kids used to write to each other – back before texting and Instagram, of course. I had no idea, all these years, that those seeds of love and friendship were bearing fruit in his heart and mind, sustaining and encouraging him. We really never know how the light we shine, and the love we share, will be used by God to bless others, and eventually, perhaps, come back to bless us. We really never know.

Listen to a brief litany of the seeds scattered by this congregation over the last ten years:

  • Leader Development
    • Ministry Internship has trained three people for ministry
    • Six adults have participated in the Lay Ministry Training Program
    • We have provided scholarship money for people training for ministry
  • Community Service
    • We helped launch and have been an anchor church for Family Promise
    • We have raised money for local charities, including ACO, Food Pantries, Samaritan Inn, Children’s Advocacy Center, Hope’s Door
    • We have rehabbed housing in Trinity Park
    • We have participated in Habitat for Humanity
    • We have taken two mission trips
    • We have given over $10,000 to local families during times of need
  • Men’s and Women’s work
    • Ongoing participation in retreats
    • Regular meetings of fellowship and study
  • Senior Adult Ministry
    • Worship services led at Juliet Fowler Homes
    • Fellowship, communion, prayer and song led at Loving Care Homes
  • Children and youth
    • Over thirty children and youth sent to camps and retreats
    • Over 100 children involved in VBS here on our campus
    • Countless children blessed through the Boyd Park outreach which we helped start and keep going for the first several years.
  • Worship
    • We have offered multiple worship styles and done a lot with a few resources
    • We have given everyone an opportunity to grow in the use of their gifts
    • We have held over 1000 worship services together
  • Evangelism
    • We have given away almost ten thousand donuts as a simple expression of Christ’s love and our concern for those who work on Christmas Eve.
    • We have hosted concerts, Festivals, Carnivals, Car Shows, BBQs, Dances and VBS as ways to build connections with our community.
    • We won an award for Excellence in Evangelism for 2010 for welcoming 16 adults into the church.

Call to Worship Psalm 85

Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger. Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

Psalm 85, NRSV

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Sermon Notes for 03182012 – Matthew 11 vs15-24

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

Why does Jesus speak this way? How can it be that Jesus’ audience would come under greater judgment than Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah? We’re not as familiar with Tyre and Sidon, so how about a little background information. In Ezekiel 26-28 and Isaiah 23 we read prophecies against Tyre and Sidon. These cities gentile nations had given support to Israel, including providing materials and resources for building the palaces and the temple. Yet they were to come under judgment because they became arrogant and oppressed their neighbors and the poor among them. So they also were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.

And what about Sodom and Gomorrah? Their story is a proverb and a byword, it stands for all sin and the judgment that comes upon it. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we hear Sodom used as a comparison, a benchmark for the worst sin and greatest judgment imaginable. Listen to what is written in Ezekiel 16:46-63

So, now we may have a little more appreciation for what Jesus’ own audience might have heard when he referenced Sodom, Tyre and Sidon. And it even sounds as though he is in large part paraphrasing and quoting this text from Ezekiel 16. But that still doesn’t really tell us what is going on. What is he saying theologically? How are we to understand this word?

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

What’s going on here?

Let’s ask a preceding question – are all sins equal? Popular Christian theology tells us that yes, all sins are equal. That God does not judge us differently. We say this, I think, as a way to extend grace to those who have sinned greatly, and as a way to warn those who think they are ok because their sins do not seem as grave.

In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mt 23) Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Mt 7)

Those two passages sound to me like Jesus is saying that all sins are not the same, that some are worse than others. I think the Levitical code supports this idea, since more severe punishments are assigned to some violations of the covenant.

1 John 5 says this: 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.

It certainly sounds as though our theology should be that all sins are not the same, that some sins are in fact worse than others. We’ll need to find a different way to extend mercy and grace on those with more guilt while not absolving those with less.

So is that what’s going on? Is it that the sins of believers are worse than those of unbelievers? Did the Jews of Jesus’ day sin more gravely than the residents of Sodom? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.

Hear two more passages from the New Testament.

Luke 12:
47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Clearly there is much more to say on this topic. We could explore the teachings of Jesus and Paul regarding how our words and actions might cause others to stumble. We could discuss ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ as the one unforgivable sin. We could wonder about how Noah, Abraham, David and Job were considered righteous even though they were not without sin. We could study Jonah’s visit to Nineveh and think about calling unbelievers to repentance without conversion.

For now, let us remember:

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world? – not necessarily.

But yes, some sins are worse than others,

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers? – apparently yes.

The greater judgment comes because we have greater knowledge. Those who know and do not are more guilty than those who do not know what to do.

So, what does this say then about our understanding of being saved by grace through faith, if in fact our faith and belief put us in a position of being under stricter judgment from God?

Some Thoughts on Repentance

Last Sunday I shared some very personal reflections on my own practice of repentance. (see: http://kengcrawford.com/2012/03/05/no-one-is-beyond-hope/ ) Repentance is not just about guilt over big sins. It is also our daily humility to realize that we are not all we are created and called to be, and to confess that to ourselves, God, and one another. We admit that we fell short (a literal definition of ‘sin’ is ‘to fall short’ or ‘to miss the mark’). We ask forgiveness and make amends where to do so would not cause greater harm. This is difficult. We feel stupid and embarrassed or worse when we have to admit that we aren’t perfect. I think one of the absolute best things I do to strengthen my marriage is return to Laura if I have been short tempered and say, “I’m sorry. That’s not who I want to be or how I want to treat you. What I meant to say was…” It’s not easy to do, but it gets easier each time. Like many things, repentance gets easier with practice. We’ll always need to do it, so we might as well get on with it.

You may have also heard me say, “I’m not mean or vindictive or hateful. I can be short sighted, distracted, or stupid. But if I do or say something that you experience as hurtful, it’s not motivated by a desire to hurt, but by one of those other things. That may not ease the sting, but hopefully it eases the reconciliation. And hopefully you’ll be willing to say, “I felt hurt/angered/etc. by what you said/did/failed-to-do.” I may not like to hear that at first, but I certainly do want to hear it.

The fact that others have seemingly chosen to ‘forgive and forget’ does not absolve us of the responsibility of confession, repentance and restoration. The fact is that God chooses to not hold our sins against us – “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We are not thereby freed from the need to confess and repent before God. Our sin, and our guilt and brokenness over it, is a barrier between ourselves and God. Remember how you felt when as a child you did something wrong but were afraid to come clean. The kinder and more loving others were, the more you hurt. The barrier was on your side, not theirs, and you were the one who had to act, had to apologize, in order to be freed to receive the love that they had for you. The same is true of our relationships with God and one another, and even with ourselves.

People often ask what is different about followers of Jesus. Part of what should be different is that we understand and practice grace and mercy in a particular way. Paul tells us, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love for us,” (Romans 5:8) and “Having been reconciled to God through Christ, we have also been given the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). What God has given us – grace, mercy, forgiveness – we also are to give one another and the world. I am to love you while you are yet sinners. We are to love the world while they are yet sinners. We are to practice reconciliation, which starts with the offended, not with the offender. We don’t wait for others to apologize before we forgive, because God did not wait for us to repent before we were redeemed and forgiven (restored into relationship). This is not easy – perhaps not possible without God’s help through the Holy Spirit. It is not what our flesh wants to do, but it is what the Spirit asks of us.

Does this mean we put ourselves in situations knowing others will hurt us? Not necessarily. We are not called to remain victims in abusive or dangerous situations. We are called to seek reconciliation before writing others off and washing our hands of them. Staying in an abusive situation enables the sin of the abuser and is not an act of love, forgiveness, mercy or grace. Moreover, when we separate ourselves from that unhealthy situation we are better able to practice these virtues. The space gives us the freedom to love, and gives the other person freedom to move toward healing.

One reason we need Christian community is because this work is so difficult – we need to be reminded, encouraged, challenged, and helped to forgive and to repent. We proclaim a God who loves us enough to experience the incarnation and crucifixion. Do we practice that faith? What does our treatment of others say about what we really believe? That we are worthy of God’s forgiveness, but no one is worthy of ours? We pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Luke 11:4); we are asking God to make the forgiveness we receive conditional on and proportional to the forgiveness we give. How frightening is that for you?

We need to practice both forgiveness and repentance – they are two sides of the same coin. If we practice one without the other, we are really just trying to manipulate God and others. We are not acting honestly and we are not acting in love. If I consistently forgive others but never repent, then I am presuming an arrogant superiority – they need to be forgiven, but I don’t. If I am repentant but never forgiving, then again I am being arrogant – “I deserve to be forgiven, but no one else does”. Humility is needed for both repentance and forgiveness, which is perhaps why humility is so often called for. It may also be why repentance and forgiveness are so difficult for us. Again, Paul points us toward Jesus who leads the way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (2 Philippians 2:5-8) Notice here that humility is not a mask for self-loathing or self-negation. To “empty oneself” is to release self-importance, to literally “not be full of oneself.” Humility must not be mistaken for self-abnegation – it is rather the fullest affirmation of our true identity as God’s beloved children.

Micah 6:8 tells us that what God desires of us is that we do justice [together with God], embrace mercy [together with God], and walk humbly [together] with God. Justice and Mercy are the two hands of humility with which we practice God’s love in the world. Any notion of Justice that lacks Mercy is false, just as is any notion of Mercy that lacks some expression of Justice. Forgiveness is not contrary to God’s justice – it is the very nature of God’s justice.

We cannot experience the fullness of God’s love without passing through our own valley of repentance – which feels for many like a shadow of death. God’s whole creation calls out to us proclaiming God’s glory and our beauty, begging for us to let ourselves be loved, and to love all around us. Repentance is a vital step in that process. Without it we can’t be ready for the things to come – cannot be ready for the blessings that God has for us or the ways that God desires to work in and through us. God has dreams for us, but until we repent, we won’t be able to dream them, much less live them.