What God Is Not

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:1-8

 Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”

 Today’s Gospel lesson is the parable of the Persistent Widow from Luke 18:1-8.  It begins with a brief introduction by the evangelist who says, “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart,” and sometimes we stop right there.  We may listen to the rest of the passage but we already know what it’s about: it’s about praying always and not losing heart.  So, when we’re praying for someone, and our prayers aren’t being answered, we just pray harder.  But if you look closely you will notice that Jesus doesn’t use the word pray at all.  Instead he uses the word justice, and he uses it four times.

I’m reluctant to bring it up because the word justice has fallen on hard times lately.  Some Christians hear it as “social justice” and confuse it with socialism.  But let me be clear: the word socialism is found nowhere in the Bible.  The word justice, on the other hand, is found 173 times.  I’m not talking about social justice; I’m talking about biblical justice, because the God of the Bible is a God of justice.

Here’s the way I think about it.

I think of injustice in those situations where you look at something and say, “That’s just not right.”  And there are plenty of those, aren’t there?  They may look different to different people but there are some things almost all of us can agree on.  One of the things the Bible agrees on is that when we mistreat widows and orphans we are doing a great injustice.  Widows and orphans are among the most vulnerable people in society, and when we make sure that they have what they need to live that’s justice.  So, Jesus tells a story about a widow who needed some justice.

The word in Greek is ekdikeo.  It has the same root as the word righteousness, but it begins with the prefix ek, which usually means “out of.”  This woman is trying to get some righteousness out of a bad situation.  She comes to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent!”  And the word for “opponent” is interesting, because it has that same root, the one we find in the word righteousness, but here it is preceded by the prefix anti, which you can probably figure out on your own.  This widow’s opponent is “anti-righteousness.”  He’s against it.  He has done something that just isn’t right and now she wants to see if this judge will help her get some “rightness” out of the situation.

What did her opponent do?  We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  But it wouldn’t hurt to imagine something just to make this parable a little more concrete, and to make this widow a little more human.  So, let’s imagine that her husband (when she still had one) worked in a quarry (which would have been a dangerous place to work), but his boss had assured her that if her husband died on the job he would see to it that she was taken care of.  He would give her an accidental death allowance of one denarius a day, which would be enough to live on.  Well then, let’s suppose that something did happen to her husband, that a huge slab of granite fell on him while he was working in the quarry and he died.  And then let’s suppose that the owner of the quarry told the woman that it was her husband’s own fault, that he had been reckless and careless on the job, and that she wouldn’t be getting so much as a widow’s mite from him.  You and I might say:

“That’s just not right!”

And so the next day this woman (now a widow) got up and went to see the judge.  But here’s the problem: apparently there was only one judge in her town.  Everybody knew that he was a scoundrel but nobody could do anything about it.  If you wanted justice, that’s where you had to go: to the unjust judge.  So she went, and she made her case, but this judge didn’t have any regard for God or people—he only cared about himself—and this particular case didn’t interest him.  After the widow had poured out her heart he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.  “Next!” he said.

But she would not be so easily dismissed.  She came back the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.  She just kept coming and pleading for justice until the judge finally said, “Enough already!  Even though I have no regard for God or people I am going to give this widow some justice so that she won’t wear me out with her continual coming!”  And that’s when we usually say, “Yep, that’s how we’ve got to pray.  We’ve got to keep coming to God no matter what.  We’ve got to wear him down until he gives us what we need.”  As if God were an unjust judge!  But Jesus says, “No!  God is the opposite of that.  God is the most just judge there is.  He will quickly grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night, and yet when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”

Luke tells us this is a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart, but it wasn’t until I noticed how many times Jesus mentions the word justice that I wondered what it is we are supposed to pray for.  That question took me back to Luke 11, where one of Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  It might be another way of asking, “Lord, what are we supposed to pray for?” which is an excellent question, especially when you are keeping company with Jesus for whom physical healing—the thing we pray for the most—doesn’t seem to be a problem.  So Jesus said, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is shorter than the one we usually recite from the Gospel of Matthew, but it has a lot of the same features, including the request that God’s kingdom would come.  Suppose the disciples started praying for that, and suppose they did it every day, in the same way this widow appealed to the unjust judge.  “May your kingdom come,” they would say, and the next day they would say it again.  Because when God’s kingdom comes, and when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, then all will be right with the world.  Did you hear that?  All will be right with the world, from the same root as the word righteousness or the word justice.  And can I say this?  I’m praying that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done, because God is the only one I trust with making things right in this world.

I think this is one of the reasons some Christians are so uncomfortable with the idea of social justice; it’s because the people who are talking about it have different ideas of what justice might look like than they do.  For example: I went to a clergy conference on racial reconciliation this weekend where I was shown the huge disparities between white people and black people living in Richmond when it comes to things like jobs, housing, health care, education, and transportation.  I didn’t have to look at those charts and graphs very long before I concluded, “That’s just not right!”  And the other people at my table agreed with me.  They had seen the same information.  But if I stood in the pulpit this morning and said, “We’ve got to do something about the inequity between black people and white people living in the city of Richmond!” you might not agree with me.  Those might not be your issues.  You might not care about affordable housing… until you can’t afford to pay the rent; and you might not care about education… until your son can’t pass his SOL’s; and you might not care about health care… until you can’t pay for your prescription medication.  But when you can’t, and you’ve done everything you know how to do, and nobody seems to want to help, that is, when you have experienced injustice then you might find yourself caring about justice, and you might find yourself praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

You have to remember that Jesus was talking mostly to poor people, living under foreign occupation in a remote corner of the oppressive Roman Empire.  They had experienced injustice first hand, and they had experienced it over and over again.  So, the first thing Jesus taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom would come, because when it did, when God (rather than Caesar) had his way in the world, then every wrong thing would be made right.  “Pray for that,” Jesus said, “and keep on praying even if it seems like it’s a long time coming.  Because if an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow, then surely a good and loving God can grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.  He’s not going to delay!  He’s not going to drag his feet!  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  In other words, will he find anyone who still believes that God’s kingdom is on its way into the world?

I don’t know.

We talk about that here at First Baptist Church.  We talk about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, and sometimes we use the Lord’s Prayer as a guide.  I say, “It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field.  ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’ it says.  ‘Thy kingdom come!  Thy will be done!’ but then (don’t miss this part) ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  Or, as we pray it in staff meeting each week, ‘In Richmond as it is in heaven.’  And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength.  We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down.  We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted.  And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.


Richmond’s First Baptist Church wants to be an answer to the Lord’s Prayer, and there are days when I feel as if we are getting close.  But there are other days when it feels as if God’s kingdom is a million miles away, and on those days I feel like that persistent widow, pleading my case in front of an unjust judge.  That’s when I need Jesus to remind me that God is not an unjust judge; God is the opposite of that.  If an unjust judge can grant justice to a persistent widow then how much more will God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night?  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It’s a good question.

I came to that clergy conference on racial reconciliation Friday night.  It was being held right here in our fellowship hall.  I sat down at the assigned table and got acquainted with the other people who were there, but it wasn’t long before one of them asked, “How much longer are we going to have to do this?  How much longer are we going to have to talk about justice in the city of Richmond before something actually happens?”  She didn’t say it this way but I could tell she was on the verge of losing heart, the very thing Luke warns us about at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson.  She was tired.  She was discouraged.  She almost hadn’t come.

But then we had dinner (which was delicious) and afterward we had conversation around the tables that began to change the mood and maybe even her mind.  Because here we were: white people and black people talking to each other, laughing with each other, understanding each other, relating to each other.  Near the end someone at our table said, “If the whole city of Richmond could have the experience we’ve had around this table tonight things might actually change!”  And then the musicians got up and began to sing.  They sang a song about how hard it is to keep on hoping and praying when nothing ever seems to change, but then they segued into another song, an old, familiar song.  They began to sing “We shall overcome,” and we all got up and started singing along with them.

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome,

We shall overcome someday. 

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

That we shall overcome someday.

And then something happened: as we sang we began to believe what we were singing.  You could feel it.  And one of the musicians got so excited that he began to sing, “We shall overcome today!”  And everybody joined in, and we sang louder and louder until revival practically broke out right there in Flamming Hall.

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?  Will he find anyone still praying that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Well, if he had come to that conference on Friday night, he would have.  And if he comes to First Baptist Church in the next thirty seconds he will, too, because, pray with me:

Our father who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done, on earth,

as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil:

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever, Amen.

Jim Somerville © 2022

One Came Back

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:11-19

 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him…

 On almost every Monday morning—after I’ve gotten up and brewed the coffee, said my prayers and read my Bible, gone for a five-mile run and made the oatmeal—I sit down at the kitchen table and open my laptop and while I’m having breakfast give some thought to the sermon for the following Sunday.  I used to do it on Monday afternoon, but then our worship planning team moved its weekly meeting from Tuesday to Monday and I had to start thinking about the sermon earlier, which is fine; earlier is almost always better.  Last Monday I had the good sense to read the Gospel lesson before I went for my run so I could think about it along the way and by the time I sat down to breakfast I had some thoughts.  This is what I wrote to the worship planning team: “I don’t think this week’s Gospel lesson is mostly about leprosy or Samaritans, even though each of those might find a place in the sermon. I think it is mostly about gratitude and our ability to express it.”

“Gratitude and our ability to express it.”  When I wrote those words I thought about how important thank-you notes were to my grandmother, who was raised in some form of polite society in the early part of the last century and who kept her 1922 First Edition copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette right next to her Bible.  Because thank-you notes were important to her they were important to my mother, who insisted that if we ever received a gift from our grandmother we should sit down and write a thank-you note immediately.  I think she wanted her mother to believe that even though my brothers and I were being raised in near-poverty in rural Appalachia, in a home with no running water and no indoor plumbing, we were still being raised right.  There was a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette in our home, too, where we found examples of thank-you notes like this one for a wedding present:

Dear Mrs. Worldly:

All my life I have wanted a piece of jade, but in my wanting I have never imagined one quite so beautiful as the one you have sent me. It was wonderfully sweet of you and I thank you more than I can tell you for the pleasure you have given me.


Mary Smith.

Or this one written by a man who had been convalescing at a friend’s house:

Dear Martha:

 I certainly hated taking that train this morning and realizing that the end had come to my peaceful days. You and John and the children, and your place, which is the essence of all that a “home” ought to be, have put me on my feet again. I thank you much—much more than I can say for the wonderful goodness of all of you.


But nowhere in that book were there any examples of how to thank the person who has just cured you of your leprosy.  To find that we have to turn to the pages of scripture, and to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke 17:11-19.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, and apparently on the road that followed the course of the Jordan River as it made its way from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea.  He was going through the region “between” Galilee and Samaria, which is a little hard to find on a map, but which may explain why at least one of the ten lepers he encountered was a Samaritan: one of those half-breed descendants of the Eighth-Century Israelites and their Assyrian conquerors.  There he was, standing outside his village along with the other nine (who were presumably Jews), and that’s just where he should have been.  According to Leviticus 13, “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean…his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Lev. 13:45-46).

So, there they were, these ten, obeying the Law of Moses and keeping to themselves in a kind of leper colony outside their village.  They approached Jesus as he entered but were careful to practice social distancing.  And then they covered their upper lips (which may have been an early form of masking) and called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  What does Jesus do?  He says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  Why?  Well, again, because of Leviticus, chapter 13.  That’s where you can find all the rules and regulations about leprosy (if you’re looking for them), and there it clearly states that when people have been cured of leprosy or when it has abated on its own they must show themselves to the priests in order to be pronounced “clean.”  “Go and do that,” Jesus says, as if there might be a good reason.

And so they do what he says (these ten are nothing if not obedient).  But along the way something happens.  Along the way they are made clean.  And that’s when one of them stops doing what he’s told.  If you pay attention to what he does you can tell that he has never read Emily Post’s Etiquette because he does not sit down to write a thank-you note, instead:

  1.  He saw that he was healed.  In a sermon on this same passage Barbara Brown Taylor says: “As these lepers went to do as they were told they were cleansed—the scabs disappeared, the color returned, the feeling came back into limbs that had been numb for years.”[ii]  I’m sure all ten of them noticed the difference, but one of them did something about it.  When he saw that he had been healed he,
  2.  Turned back.  Which is not what he had been ordered to do.  Jesus had told them to go and show themselves to the priests.  I’m assuming the other nine did exactly that.  But not this one.  This one’s sense of gratitude was overwhelming.  It turned him around and sent him back to Jesus.  And as he went he,
  3.  Praised God with a loud voice.  Can you picture him?  Marveling at his newly restored skin, saying, “Thank you, Lord!  Thank you!”  I don’t know what gratitude looks like to you but to me it looks like this—like this former leper praising God at the top of his lungs as he makes his way back to the place where it happened and to the person who healed him.  When he got there he
  4.  Prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet.  The Greek text says that he “fell on his face,” but you get the picture.  He didn’t saunter back, stick out his hand, and say, “Hey, thanks a million.”  He turned back, fell at Jesus’ feet, and lying there with his face in the dirt, he
  5.  Thanked him.  In Greek this is a present active participle.  It describes something that happens during the action of the main verb.  Which means that while the man lay prostrate at Jesus’ feet he was thanking him.  And you can almost see him, can’t you?  Sobbing and saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

And that’s when Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan, which may not be the most important detail in the story, but it is nonetheless remarkable enough to elicit a response from Jesus.  He says, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

It’s a haunting question, isn’t it?  It makes me wonder if I am one of the nine, going my own way and minding my own business rather than returning and giving praise to God.  In a book called Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer writes about a condition that is far too common among Christians.  He calls it “functional atheism,” and explains: “This is the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.  This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”[iii]  He goes on to say that it is a debilitating condition, one that can lead to burnout, depression, and despair.  But along with believing that it’s all up to us functional atheism can manifest itself in the belief that everything we have we got for ourselves.

Do you remember the story about Abraham going up on the mountain to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice?  It’s in Genesis 22, one of the darkest chapters in the Bible.  God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a sacrifice on one of the mountains I will show you.”  And Abraham doesn’t say a mumbling word.  He takes Isaac and goes to the mountain, a three-day journey away.  Together the two of them climb to the top and there Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac, heaves him up onto it, and then lifts his knife to slay his son.  Only then does the Angel of the Lord say, “Stop!  Don’t do it!”  And when Abraham lifts his eyes he sees a ram caught by its horns in a thicket.  He offers the ram as a sacrifice instead of his son and on the way down the mountain he calls the name of that place Jehovah Jireh, meaning, “the Lord provides.”

I’ve often tried to make sense of that story, and one way I do it is by imagining that Abraham had fallen into a kind of functional atheism, that when he sat at the door of his tent and looked around at all that he had acquired in the land of Canaan he began to congratulate himself, thinking, “My flocks, my herds, my servants, my son…” so that God had to remind him who had given him that son.  Only as Abraham comes down from the mountain, only as he remembers that Isaac was then and always had been a gift from God, does Abraham think to call the name of that place, “The Lord provides.”

I think that’s what happened for the Samaritan leper.  On his way to see the priest he was healed, and as soon as he saw it he knew he hadn’t done it for himself.  He may have been a functional atheist up until that moment but in that moment he knew that it wasn’t all up to him and that he hadn’t gotten everything for himself.  This was a miracle!  This was the power of God working through the person of Jesus.  And so he stopped, turned around, and made his way back to where it had all begun, praising God with a loud voice.  He fell at Jesus’ feet with his face in the dust and if you had asked him he might have said that for him the name of that place would be from now on Jehovah Jireh: “The Lord provides.”  Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “[Nine of those lepers did exactly what they were told].  They behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”[iv]

And maybe that’s why Jesus says to him at the end of this passage, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.”  In a previous sermon I pointed out that the word Jesus uses here is the Greek word sozo, which can mean “your faith has cleansed you, healed you, made you well, made you whole” but which can also mean (and literally does mean), “your faith has saved you.”  And I think that’s how this former leper might have described it.  He wasn’t only healed of his disease.  By returning to Jesus, by falling at his feet and praising God, by acting like a fool in love he was healed of his functional atheism.  He realized he couldn’t save himself.  He realized that only God could save him and miraculously God had.  “Get up and go your way,” Jesus said.  “Your faith has made you well.”

Before I close, can I tell you how hard it’s been to keep this sermon from turning into a lesson on tithing?  Because it would be so easy.  Ten lepers were healed; one came back to thank Jesus.  It could almost be a children’s sermon about the ten little dollars that went out into the world and the one that came back to church.  But a sermon like that would not do justice to a story like this, which is not about feeling a sense of obligation, but about being overwhelmed by gratitude.  It’s not about counting out your dollars at the kitchen table and putting one out of ten in an offering envelope; it’s about acting like a fool in love; it’s about praising God with a loud voice, and running back to Jesus, and falling at his feet.  This is not a story about tithing, but the next time you make out a check to the church you could think of it as a thank-you note, and you could write:

Dear God:

 For too long now I have behaved like a functional atheist, saying I believed in you but acting as if it were all up to me. It’s exhausting.  I’m ready to stop.  And even though I have thanked you for what I have I still probably believe that I wouldn’t have most of it without my own hard work.  I’m ready to give that up, too.  You are the one who provides.  You are the one who helps, and heals, and saves.  So, I’m writing this check like a thank-you note, and I’m thanking you for what you have done for me.  Ten percent wouldn’t begin to cover my gratitude.  If I could give you everything I’ve got I would.  But I’m giving what I can and I hope you will receive it in the spirit with which it is given: a spirit of overwhelming gratitude.

 Yours, now and forever,


 You won’t find that letter anywhere in Emily Post’s Etiquette.  My prayer for you is that you will find it in your heart.


—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From the First Edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, published in 1922 and available online in PDF format at Project Gutenberg (

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 109.

[iii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 88.

[iv] Taylor, Preaching Life, pp. 109 and 110.

Increase Our Faith!

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17:5-10

 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

 “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed!”

How many times have we heard those words, and how many times have we wished for mustard-seed faith so we could, you know, uproot mulberry trees and plant them in the sea?

I used to have a mulberry tree in my back yard when I lived in Washington, DC.  It was fine most of the time, but when the mulberries got ripe they would fall from the tree and leave big, purple blotches on our sidewalk.  And when they got too ripe they would ferment, and the squirrels who ate them would get drunk, and then they would fall from the tree.  I can’t tell you how many times Christy said to me, “If only you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could tell this mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the Potomac River, and it would obey you!”  It was embarrassing on so many levels: the purple stains, the drunken squirrels, my apparent lack of faith.  I don’t think I preached on this passage the entire time I was in Washington.  But now I’m here, and I don’t have a mulberry tree in my back yard.  I don’t even have a back yard.  All I have is a tiny little back deck, hardly big enough to plant a mustard seed.  Problem solved!  But it’s not, is it?  I still wonder what Jesus meant when he said these words, and I wonder why I can’t seem to conjure up enough faith to move mountains or mulberry trees or much of anything else for that matter.  Is it me?  Or have I misunderstood Jesus’ meaning?

I’m indebted to a scholar named Chelsey Harmon for reminding me that one of the ways to translate this verse is to say “faith as, or like, a mustard seed,” rather than “faith the size of a mustard seed.”  In fact, the little Greek word that stands between faith and mustard seed in this verse is usually translated, “as,” or “like,” and almost never translated, “the size of.”  So it makes me wonder: if Jesus actually said, “faith like a mustard seed,” what kind of faith does a mustard seed have?  Chelsey Harmon writes, “A grain of mustard seed knows its end and purpose,” that is, a mustard seed knows what it is and what it’s there for.  You plant it in the ground and it is going to become a mustard plant.  It’s in its DNA.  So, what’s in the DNA of a disciple?  What is Jesus looking for when he puts us under the microscope?  Well, one thing certainly is forgiveness.

In the verses just before today’s passage Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.”  And then he says, “If he sins against you seven times in a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  And this is the point at which the disciples say to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  It’s the way some people say, “Lord, give me strength!” when they are faced with a difficult challenge.  The disciples could have said, “Lord, give us strength, because that’s what it’s going to take to forgive our fellow disciples seven times in a single day!”  But instead they say, “Increase our faith!”  Maybe they thought it sounded more religious.  Maybe they thought Jesus would appreciate that.

But he doesn’t.  To him it sounds like the most preposterous thing in the world, which may be why he answers in such a preposterous way.  “Increase your faith?” he says.  “Why, if you had faith like a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.”  And the disciples must have looked at the mulberry tree, and then looked at the sea, and then wondered why they would ever say such a thing.  It’s preposterous!  But so is asking for more faith when Jesus is simply telling you to do something that is in the DNA of discipleship.  Forgiveness is not an option for us; it’s essential.

Some of you know that my brothers and I have picked up this tradition of asking each other at the end of a visit, “Do I owe you any money or any apologies?”  It’s a good tradition, and as I’ve mentioned it through the years other people have adopted it.  My friends Chuck and Joe—my regular backpacking partners—have adopted it.  At the end of every annual trip Chuck will say: “Do I owe you guys any money or any apologies?”  And Joe, who is our backpacking bookkeeper, will usually say, “Yes, Chuck, you owe Jim $37 for gas and you owe me $21 for groceries.”  But after we get that sorted we turn to apologies, and usually there aren’t any to be offered.

But this year was different.  This year I was haunted by the memory of something that happened back in the late eighties.  Joe and I were in seminary together.  I was serving as the pastor of a little church out in the country and he was the part-time youth minister.  One night he and his wife Sylvia drove out to the church parsonage, had supper with Christy and me, and then stayed overnight in our guest room so we could all get up and go to church the next morning.  But I was up earlier than anybody else and needed to get to church sooner.  So, I went out through the back door to the garage, raised the garage door, got in my car, and backed it out into the driveway.  But in my haste I forgot that there was already a car in the driveway, Joe’s car, and I backed right into the driver’s side door.

I got out and looked at the damage.  It wasn’t bad, but there was a noticeable dent.  I came back in and made my miserable apology to Joe and Sylvia, who were just sitting down to breakfast.  Joe came out and had a look and he was gracious about it, as always.  It was an old car.  They were planning to trade it anyway.  What’s a little dent between friends?  And we never mentioned it again.  But in the last few months I remembered that moment and began to wonder: did Joe have to do something about that dent, take it to the body shop and get it fixed?  Or did he leave it as it was, and get a little less for the car when he traded it in?  What I’m saying is, I began to wonder if I owed Joe some money.  And that made me nervous.  Because if it cost $500 to fix that dent back then, and if I adjusted for inflation, I would owe Joe about $1,300 dollars.  But if I didn’t bring it up we could leave things just as they were and I wouldn’t owe him anything.  And that’s the option that began to haunt me.

From the time I picked him up at the airport I felt like there was this unspoken “thing” between us.  He wasn’t aware of it.  He was as friendly as ever.  But for me that thing just kept getting bigger and bigger, and so, the next day, when we had stopped for a rest break during our hike, I said, “Joe, I think I may owe you some money.”  And then I reminded him of that dent in his car, and how all I had offered at the time was an apology.  Well, Joe could hardly remember the car, much less the dent.  He laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it!  That was a long time ago.”  And I breathed a sigh of relief and we went on our way.

It didn’t occur to me until after I got home that he had never actually said, “I forgive you.”  And it didn’t occur to me until last week that I actually needed to hear him say it.  So, I called him, and left a long voicemail message, and he called me back, and we talked for a half hour or more, but when it sounded like he was bringing the call to a close I said, “Did you get my voicemail?”  He said, “No, I just saw that you had called so I called you back.”  So, I brought up the whole painful subject again and told him what I needed to hear, and even before I finished he laughed and said, “The fact that I didn’t even remember that incident is a pretty good clue that I wasn’t carrying a grudge, but if you need to hear me say it then here it is: I forgive you!”  And apparently I did need it, because as soon as he said it I felt a load slide off my shoulders.

This should be in our DNA as disciples, this ability to forgive each other.  And it might not hurt us to realize that sometimes our brothers and sisters need to hear us say it.  But Jesus thinks that something else ought to be in our DNA as well, and that something is obedience.

Just after he talks about mulberry trees obeying the command to plant themselves in the sea he asks, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Luke 17:7-10).

Maybe Jesus is still thinking about forgiveness.  Maybe he’s wondering, “What is it with these disciples?  I tell them to forgive one another but they won’t do it.  They call me ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ but they don’t seem able to obey a direct order.  They say, ‘I can forgive, but I can’t forget,’ which may be only another way of saying, ‘I can’t forgive.’”  Maybe the problem is not with forgiveness but with obedience.  Maybe we are simply refusing to do what Jesus has so plainly told us to do.

I went to sailing school in Deltaville last week, and even before I got there I knew there might come a time when I had to obey my instructor no matter what.  His name was Clay.  He was in his early thirties with a beard and long, brown hair pulled up into a topknot.  Come to think of it, he kind of looked like Jesus.  I was on his boat with two other students and Clay was trying to teach us what to do when someone falls overboard.  Now, when someone falls overboard it’s an emergency situation, especially if the weather is rough or the water is cold.  You’ve got to get that person back on board as quickly as possible.  I knew that, but when it was my turn at the helm and Clay threw a boat cushion over the stern and yelled, “Man overboard!” I didn’t know what to do.

I know what I wanted to do: I wanted to put on the brakes, stop the boat, and then back up and get him.  But you can’t do that in a sailboat.  You have to work with the wind.  And the wind was being difficult that day.  I made one failed attempt to rescue the boat cushion.  And then I made a second failed attempt.  On my third try Clay told me what to do: “Bear away,” he said, which means to turn the boat away from the wind.  I did it.  I didn’t even think about whether it was right or felt right I just did it.  I trusted Clay to know what he was talking about.  “Now get on a beam reach,” he said, which is sailing with your boat broadside to the wind.  I did that, too.  After what seemed like forever he said, “Now tack to a broad reach,” which is like taking the exit ramp off the interstate and clover-leafing around until you’re sailing almost downwind.  I did it.  And after a minute or so he said, “Now head up to a close reach,” which means turning back into the wind.  I did, and as we approached the boat cushion on the leeward side he said, “Now ease the sheets,” which means letting your sails flap, and when I did we slowed to a stop beside the boat cushion, and the wind began to push us toward it, and one of the other students was able to reach out and grab it with a boat hook.  The whole thing worked like a charm, and after a little more practice I was able to do it myself.

Do you see what happened when I stopped trying to figure it out and just did what Clay told me?  Can you imagine what would happen if we stopped trying to justify our reasons for not forgiving and just forgave?  When you plant a mustard seed in the ground it doesn’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out what it is or what it’s supposed to do: it simply does what’s in its DNA.  I think Jesus wants that for us.  I think he wants us to have faith like a mustard seed.  Not faith the size of a mustard seed, faith like a mustard seed.  I think he wants us to trust him enough to assume that he knows what he’s doing, and I think he wants us to obey him so unflinchingly that if he tells us to forgive our fellow disciples seven times in a single day then that’s what we do: Forgive them.  Seven times.  In a single day.

Jesus says, “When slaves have done everything they were supposed to do they don’t expect to be thanked.  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”  But he also suggests that when the work is finished those slaves, too, will be invited to the table.  And so, on this Worldwide Communion Sunday, he invites us to gather as one family seated around one table, and receive from his own hands the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

Are You Listening?

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16:19-31

 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus…

 In the fifteenth chapter of Luke there are three parables: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and one about a lost son, but in the sixteenth chapter there are only two parables, and each one begins with the announcement that, “There was a rich man.”

The first rich man serves as a kind of bridge between these two chapters, because even though the father in chapter 15 has lost something—a son—he is also, obviously, a rich man.  He can afford to give the younger son his share of the inheritance, and, even after he squanders it all, his happy father can welcome him home and throw him a lavish party.

My friend Michael Renninger has pointed out that that parable and the one that follows it (the one about the Dishonest Steward; the one that our guest preacher decided not to preach last week because in that story a manager cheats his master out of a lot of money and his master commends him for his shrewdness; after which Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes!” [Luke 16:9].  That parable [which may be the hardest one of all, and which I don’t blame our guest preacher for not preaching] and the one that precedes it) have a lot in common.[i]  In each there is a master of the household who is wealthy, a member of the household who squanders the master’s wealth, and a response from the master that is surprising: in the first he welcomes the Prodigal home, in the second he commends his manager’s shrewdness.  But notice that these parables are not about the Prodigal Son or the Dishonest Steward: they are about the master of the household.  Michael Renninger says, “Parables are always about God and God’s Kingdom.”[ii]  And in both of these parables, Jesus focuses on God’s surprising (yes, even amazing) grace.

But if grace is the link between chapters 15 and 16, then perhaps wealth is the link between the two parables that follow, because in them there was a rich man who showed surprising mercy, and there was a rich man who did not.  Today our focus is on that second rich man, and the fact that the first one showed mercy teaches us that wealth is not the problem.  Remember, it’s not money that is “the root of all evil”; it is the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).  In his comments on the parable of the Dishonest Steward Jesus says, “No man can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Money” (Luke 16:13).  In the very next verse Luke tells us that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him” (Luke 16:14).  So, Jesus tells this parable for them.  And, just as a reminder, it’s always important to identify the audience of these parables.  In the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus was talking to the scribes and Pharisees who were complaining because he welcomed sinners.  In this parable he’s talking to the Pharisees, who loved money more than they loved people.

What does he say?

“There was a Rich Man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the Rich Man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”  Did you hear that?  In roughly two sentences Jesus has perfectly illustrated the gap between the rich and the poor, what some people these days refer to as “wealth inequality.”[iii]  The Rich Man dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, Jesus says.  It’s as if you can see through the windows of his house, see him in there rubbing his hands together as he chooses what to wear each morning, and watch him smacking his lips in the evening as he slurps fine wine and gorges himself with food.  But you can also see Lazarus, lying at the Rich Man’s gate, slowly starving to death as the dogs come and lick his sores, showing him more pity than the Rich Man ever has.

There is a huge gap between these two, but at this point in the story it not uncrossable.  The Rich Man could do something for Lazarus.  He could have him taken to a hospital or a nursing home.  But he doesn’t.  He ignores Lazarus.  It’s not that he doesn’t see him (I mean, seriously, Lazarus is lying right there at his gate!); it’s that he takes great pains not to see him, just as we do when someone is holding a cardboard sign at an intersection.  He doesn’t stop to ask himself, “What if that were me?”  No, he turns his head, he looks away, perhaps even thanking God that he is not in that place.

But then, suddenly, he is.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The Rich Man also died and was buried.”  Do you notice the difference in those two descriptions, the directional difference?  The poor man was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  He went up!  But the Rich Man (who also died, as we all will) was buried.  He went down.  And in Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  Only in Greek Lazarus is not at Abraham’s “side” (his lapara, from which we get laparoscopic surgery), he is in Abraham’s “bosom,” his kolpos, from which we get no words in English but a very precise meaning in Greek.

To be in someone’s “bosom,” at a formal dinner party, was to be in the place of honor.  For example, listen to the way Fred Craddock explains the seating arrangements at the Last Supper in John 13.  He writes: “Jesus and his disciples are pictured as reclining, Roman style, around the central table like the spokes of a wheel.  Diners reclined on the left hand and used the right hand for eating, so the Beloved Disciple was on Jesus’ right, the place of honor.  The phrase ‘in his bosom’ reflects the closest communion; the same Greek word is used in John 1:18 to describe Christ’s relationship to God as the one who remains “in the bosom of the Father.”[iv]  So, what does it mean to say that Lazarus was in Abraham’s “bosom”?  It means that he was the guest of honor at the heavenly banquet, enjoying the closest possible communion with Father Abraham, the Patriarch of Israel!  The Rich Man, on the other hand, is in torment.

When he looks up who does he see but Lazarus, and the fact that he recognizes him is all the proof I need that he has seen him before, maybe even asked his name, but has chosen not to do anything for him.  But God has.  God has bestowed his highest honor on the lowliest of human beings.  He has put Lazarus next to Father Abraham, in his very bosom.[v]  Does this remind you at all of Jesus’ advice in chapter 14 about taking one’s place at a banquet, where he says, “Take the lowest place so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher!’ and then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you” (Luke 14:10)?  Whether or not Lazarus took it, he was in the lowest place on earth, and in heaven God said, “Friend, come up higher!”

The Rich Man, meanwhile, has ended up in a place below the earth: he’s in the depths of Hades, the pits of Hell.  And in those wretched circumstances he calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.”  Do you see how, now that he needs him, he sees Lazarus?  How, now that he needs him, he remembers his name?  How often have we done the same thing: completely ignored the person serving our meal at a restaurant until we needed a refill on our iced tea?  We don’t often see these people.  The Rich Man didn’t see Lazarus until he needed him, and then it was, “Oh, Father Abraham!  Please ask my good friend Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in some cool water and come and touch my tongue!  I’m in agony in these flames!”  But what does Abraham say?

Nothing doing.

He says, “You’ve had your party.  You used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast sumptuously every day while poor Lazarus lay at your gate in misery.  But now the tables have been turned, the last have become first.  Here he is feasting at the heavenly banquet and there you are roasting in the flames of hell!”  From Abraham’s Old Testament perspective it makes perfect sense.  It’s justice!  It’s as reasonable as asking children to take turns when they want to play with the same toy.  “Besides,” Abraham says, “Lazarus couldn’t do it if he wanted to.  There’s this huge, uncrossable chasm between us so that he can’t go there and you can’t come here.”  And that’s an important point.  What Jesus seems to be saying is that the gap between the rich and the poor is not uncrossable now (you hear about it sometimes, about poor people climbing up out of poverty, or rich people stooping down to help, or government leaders working to make things more equitable) but there will come a time when it is: when the opportunities we have in this life are no longer available to us.  And then what?

You’re stuck where you are.

So the Rich Man, realizing he’s stuck, makes one last plea: “If Lazarus can’t come to me,” he says, “then send him to my father’s house.”  Because he has five brothers (just like me), but apparently his brothers are just like him, indifferent to the suffering of others.  “Send Lazarus to warn them,” he begs, “so they won’t end up where I did.”  But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (and of course he’s talking about the Bible; Moses and the prophets were all the Scripture they had in those days).  “They should read the Bible,” Abraham says, essentially.  But the Rich Man replies, “No, Father Abraham; they won’t do that.  But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  And Abraham says, “No they won’t.  If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t listen even if someone came back from the dead.”

And there’s Jesus looking the Pharisees in the eye and telling them that if they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn’t listen even if someone should rise from the dead.  He’s talking about himself, isn’t he?  That’s bold!  But what did Moses and the prophets say?  What did Jesus want these “lovers of money” to hear?  That there is something more important than money, and how I wish we could learn that lesson!

Do you know how much time we spend thinking about money, talking about money, worrying about money, trying to make money, trying to make more money, spending the money we have, wanting the money we don’t have, wondering what we would do with money if we had it, wondering what we would do if we didn’t have money?  If I could put a pie chart on the wall that showed the percentage of time we spend obsessing over money I think we would all be shocked.

I think Jesus was shocked.

He could see what kind of hold it had on the people of his day, and not only the Pharisees.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that this parable comes after all those parables about lostness; maybe Jesus knew that this is one of the ways we get lost—by loving money more than we love God or neighbor.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Jesus talked about money more than almost anything else except the Kingdom.  In many cases it is our love for money that keeps us from entering the Kingdom.  We’re like those monkeys who get their hands stuck in a jar because they won’t let go of the piece of fruit that’s at the bottom.  There we are, trapped, holding on to our love of money so tightly we can’t get free, or at least not free enough to enter the Kingdom.  What’s the answer?  “Listen to Moses and the prophets.”  What do they say?  That the most important thing in the world is not money—it’s love:

If my friend Michael Renninger is right, and parables are always about God and God’s kingdom, then this parable may be telling us that you can’t buy your way into the Kingdom; you can only love your way into it.  If the Rich Man had done that; if he had gone out there and bandaged Lazarus’s wounds, having poured oil and wine on them; if he had carried him into his own house and put him into his own bed; if he had fed him and cared for him until he was healthy and whole again; he would not have ended up in hell.  How do I know?  Because of a parable Jesus tells in Luke, chapter 10: the one where a certain lawyer asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus says, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And Jesus says, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).

It’s right there in the Bible.  It’s been there all along.  The only question is this:

Are you listening?

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Michael Renninger, A Sermon for Every Sunday, September 18, 2022 (

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See a humorous, helpful illustration of wealth inequality in the US by clicking HERE.

[iv] Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), p. 334.

[v] In my notes on this passage I wrote, “This may be a clue that Jesus is having some fun with this story, rather than offering us a literal description of either heaven or hell.”

Christ Will Let You Love Him

Let me say what a joy it is for Deb and I to be back at Richmond’s First Baptist Church to join you in worship to see so many long, long time friends and just have some good laughs this morning already as we shared some good memories to sharing worship with an incredible staff that you have.  I hope you know and appreciate the staff you have.  They are awesome.  And to be here and worship with you and join them is a special gift.  I would also like to take just a moment to say thank you on behalf of the Baptist General Association of Virginia for your faithfulness to our state organization as well as your generosity.  It is not taken for granted and is deeply appreciated, so thank you for not only the way you support it financially but the leadership you give on such a regular basis in BGAV life, so thank you for every bit of that.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.  That whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.  He did not come to this world to condemn this world.  He came to save it.  Here’s a story of love.  This is a story that a good friend of mine, Grady Nutt, many of you know Grady, and Grady shared this story on numerous occasions.  I heard it many times, loved it every time I heard it, and he shared it on the day of my ordination when he gave the ordination message.  Here’s the story of love.

It was a family.  It was a special Sunday at the church.  It was the ministers family.  I guess preacher was coming and it was going to be a big day, and mom wanted to have a great dinner after the service for the guest preacher.  She worked hard.  She poured her whole heart into that dinner.  There it was, steaming vegetables, casserole’s, homemade bread, getting hungry?  Delicious desserts, it was a knock-out dinner she was preparing.  Not only that, she had gotten out her finest china, finest crystal, the silver was on the table all polished and shiny.  She had even gotten her favorite white linen tablecloth.  It was quite a set for a meal.  She couldn’t wait.  They had four children.  Two teenaged boys, one eight year old girl, and a four year old boy.  Now days like this are particularly hard for children.  And this is the kind of day when you gotta wear your Sunday best, at least when this happened.  This happened a good while ago.  Everyone had to come in their Sunday best.  Everyone had to have their best manners on, and it was a guest preacher so you had to sit and listen to all this boring conversation that the adults were having.  It was a difficult time for children to have to just sit there and mind their manners.  But finally, dinner was ready.  Everybody went and sat at the table, the guest minister was asked if he would do the blessing, which just gave him opportunity to preach a second sermon it seemed.  It just took forever to get that blessing done.  Finally the blessing was over, and the eight year old girl named Joanne was ready to eat, and she reached across her plate to get the glass of tea, to take a sip, when she miscalculated where that glass was, and knocked over her tea.  I mean that tea went gushing out of that glass, onto that white tablecloth towards her four year old brother who had nothing more in his mind to do but to dodge that rushing tea towards him, he jerked back and overwent his tea, and now you have all this brown oozing tea all over the white tablecloth.  Five seconds after the closing of the blessing.  All those hours of hard work, and preparation for that meal, all now destroyed, and everyone looked to mom to see the reaction.  Shock was on her face.  Then a little bit of rage started appearing on the face, and she was about ready to say something that probably she would regret saying.  And she looked at her husband, who just smiled at her, reached over and knocked his tea over.  She couldn’t believe it.  Well, the two teenaged boys were sitting there, and they’ve never seen an adult knock over their tea on purpose, particularly their dad, and they’re not missing out on that fun, so they reached over, and they knocked their tea over.  So now you have five glasses of tea, 27 ice cubes floating on that beautiful white, linen tablecloth, and mom is absolutely destroyed.  She looks at the guest preacher and he just smiles at her and knocks his tea over, he never has any fun anyways, it was the most fun he’s had in a long time.  And she’s really befuddled by all that, looks at her husband, and he just winks at her, and she says, Oh why not?  And she knocks hers over.  And everybody died laughing and they almost fell out of their chairs, they were laughing so hard, until one by one they noticed little eight year old Joanne sitting there, tears in her eyes, and one by one they all stopped laughing.  Those weren’t tears of embarrassment, those were tears of love and adoration.  She knew what her dad had done for her.  He had knocked that tea over for her.  He was saying to her, as special as this occasion is, as hard as we all worked, particularly your mom in getting this meal ready, as special as it is to have this guest with us, you matter more to us than all of that.  Jesus was at a white linen tablecloth affair too.  He was at Mary and Martha’s, and Lazarus’ home.  It was a special occasion because Lazarus was just raised from the dead.  I don’t know about you, but that fits for a special occasion. Martha was doing what Martha tends to do in all these stories, she’s in the kitchen preparing for the meal for this special occasion, and there sits Mary doing what she always does, sitting at the feet of Jesus.  She’s been listening.  She knows what he is about to do.  She gets him, and he’s about ready to be spilt.  And he’s going to be spilt for her.  And it’s going to be, she knows those disciples, it’s going to be an oozing embarrassment to those disciples.  In a week, they are going to deny him.  Even one at the table who criticizes her will betray him.  She knows those disciples, and knows what an oozing embarrassment all this is going to be for them, but she is so filled with the love and adoration because of what he’s going to do for her, for them, for you, for me, for this whole world, and all she knows to do is to bring a gift.  Now I have to say, that I think one of the most awkward moments that ever occurs in human relationship is that moment when one person give a gift to another person.  It’s one of the most vulnerable moments that we have, and there’s a long list of reasons why it’s a vulnerable moment to give a gift.  It takes a long time to pick one out, It takes an eternity to hand it to someone, place it in their hands, and they open it, and they look at it, and they give you a response, and if the response isn’t very exciting, it hurts.  But if they’re excited about it, why you’re more delighted than they are, and it’s their gift.  Lot’s of reasons for that vulnerability, the list is long.  But I think it all boils down to this.  Giving a gift to someone is like taking a risk, because every gift we give is the symbol of our love and it’s a symbol of us.  It can be pretty simple things, I mean I can go to the store, see some peach rings hanging there.  I know Deborah likes those peach rings, I take them home and if they’re old and hard, and she bites into it, and she says oh these aren’t very good, that’s very disappointing.  I really wanted to do something.  But if she bites into it, and says oh yeah, this is really good.  I want you know, the boy is good.  He really did well.  Over something as simple and silly as peach rings.  A gift is a symbol of ourselves and the other persons hands.  Not only do we have the need to be cared for and loved, we have a tremendous need to be able to pour out our care, and pour out our love onto others.  That’s why we have pets.  I mean, pets really can’t give a whole lot of love back, but boy do they let us pour out our love on them.  It’s why we give little children teddy bears.  Teddy bears are totally receptive to any love that a child would give it.  It’s a good thing for them to practice loving and caring for something.  That’s why we give them teddy bears, and a teddy bear doesn’t mind if you poke out its eyes and pull out its stuffings, and leave it out in the rain.  It doesn’t mind.  Love has its risks. When we let someone love us.  Now here’s the saddest thing I know.  There are so many of us who have so much we want to give, pour out, and others won’t let us.  How often do I hear this from sons and daughters?  I wanted so badly to get through to my father.  He wouldn’t let me in.  A wife pleads with her husband to look at her.  To accept her as a full partner in the marriage, but he keeps her at an arms distance.  Parents ache for children and reach out to them only to have their children not reach out back to them.  You extend a friendship to someone only to have that friendship declined.  And it doesn’t always have to be outright rejection, sometimes we want to love and give our love or care to someone, but we’re told in return sure, I will take it but not the way you want to give it, I’ll take it only if you give it to me this way.  There are many, many ways for love to be disregarded.  And I’ve got to say this, it’s okay by the way.  It’s okay for people to reject our care, and our love.  We can’t force that.  It wouldn’t be love if we’re forcing it.  And that’s true with God too, you know.  But it doesn’t change the fact that every one of us needs to pour ourselves out just as it is.  Now that brings me back to Mary.  Mary has a gift, and she’s bringing it to Jesus.  It’s a strange gift, not one I would give, not one you would give.  It’s a bottle of perfume, and not only does she give a bottle of perfume, it’s the way she expresses that gift that’s equally as strange.  It was not only strange to you and me, it was strange to the disciples.  They saw it, they smelled it, they didn’t get it.  Not useful, not practical, what in the world is she doing?  I wouldn’t give it, you wouldn’t give it, but Mary would, and Mary did. And what did Jesus do? Look at his feet?  They aren’t moving?  I mean, she’s pouring an entire bottle of perfume on his feet.  You know those bottles with the itty bitty little hole at the top?  It takes a long time to pour a bottle of perfume out, and not only that this is a huge bottle of perfume, and she pours out onto his feet, every single drop, and Jesus doesn’t move his feet.  What would you do?  Know what I would do?  You start pouring perfume on my feet, my feet would move so fast, you’d say wow, quick feet man.  And not only did Jesus keep his feet still for the perfume, he kept his feet still when she lifted those feet, and dried those feet with her hair.  Now some in the room particularly one who was about ready to betray him, criticized the gift, and he just said, leave her alone.  And he just receives it.  Why is this story important to us?  I think some of us need to hear this.  We have so much still inside of us, we want to give in this life.  You and I have so much, regardless of our age that we still want to pour out, we just aren’t sure it’s going to be received.  We just aren’t sure yet that it’s going to be acceptable.  Hear this.  No matter who you are.  No matter where you’ve been.  No matter what you’ve done.  No matter what your limits.  There is someone that will receive what you bring and find it perfectly acceptable as you bring it to him in love.  I think I finally understand Mary.  She she’s what’s about ready to happen with Jesus.  And at that cross, she’s going to look up at those extended arms, and she’s going to be able to look through the pain, and look through the agony, and see in those open, extended arms, an invitation.  An invitation to bring her failures.  An invitation to bring bitter disappointments.  An invitation to bring our sins, and all those sicknesses unto death that we have in this life, and they will be received, and they will be forgiven, and they will be absorbed into the very heart of God, and here’s the good news.  They will be transformed into love and life.  Boy, I saw this when we were in Taiwan as missionaries.  We were on the east coast, in a little village called Taitung, and our two sons have befriended a little fellow named William, this little guy, the mother was quite concerned because we were one, Americans and he was Chinese, number two we were missionaries and Chritians and they were Buddhists, and they’d been Buddhists for 48 generations.  She could name all the generations, and she was uncomfortable with her son spending so much time in our home, so she came to our home, and she said I want to learn more about you before I let my son come over here, and I want to know more about this Christian thing that you probably will be talking about, and I need to know more about that, and so I sat there and just told her the basics, and she said well I want to read on this, so I said let me give you the Gospel of John.  Oh no, no, no, no.  You give me that big book you’ve been looking at.  You’re going to read this whole thing?  Yes, I am.  Well, here.  I’m going to go back home to the US and tell people you did this.  It wasn’t but a couple days later she was knocking at the door, and I let her in, and she said you lied to me.  Now in Chinese, piàn rén is pretty strong language to lie to someone.  You ultimately lied to me.  I read that book.  I didn’t get to the new part, but I read that old part.  I said, you read the whole Old Testament?  Holy cow.  She said, yes I did, and I read that story about this guy named Abraham, and his son Isaac, and you said God was a loving, kind God, he asked him to put his son on an alter to be sacrificed.  I only have one son, you telling me that God can ask me to put my son on some alter to be sacrificed?.  I don’t see that as a loving story at all.  I said, well I got to be honest with you.  That’s the most loving story I actually know.  That story hits me every single time.  Well, how is that?  Because God knows you’re going to put your son on some alter.  You’re going to sacrifice him to something, and your son goes to school every day, and goes to pram school every night, seven days a week.  You put him on the altar of education.  I don’t see him being very happy.  I know a lot of people who put their children on the altars of success, popularity, things.  You’re going to put your child on some altar.  What God is saying to you is putting it mild.  Because on my altar he’ll be saved, he’ll be free because in the bush there will be a ram, and that ram will be my son.  I’ll make the sacrifice for you.  She actually started coming to worship, and this is the gift she gave us.   As we would stand to sing one Sunday, she stood up and said, stop.  I didn’t know where she was going.  Stop right now.  I just read these words, and this hymn.  They’re the most beautiful I have ever read in my life.  Can we before we sing, read the words before we sing them?  Wow.  Phil, what a beautiful language we have in the handbook.  I had the privilege of baptizing her.  Now Jesus knows the risk of our love.  He’s seen what we do to teddy bears.  But he also knows we give the only love we have, and that’s a flawed love.  He’ll take it.  He’ll delight in it.  And what God is saying to you and me right now is that your love has a place in this world.  Your life has a place in this world, let it loose.  Pour it out.  Offer it as Mary did, unhindered.  Your way.  Your gift. Offered every single drop.  Give it to Christ.  Give it to the body of Christ. Pour it out on the body of Christ, offer your heart to the stranger, offer your heart to the children, to the elderly, to the lonely, to the lost.  Offer your heart to everyone who Christ will put on your path.  This is our response to the life that was poured out for us.  Amen.  Let’s pray.

Our heavenly father, when we come to you we need to feel vulnerable.  There’s so much in us yet to give.  We just don’t know if it’ll be received or even if it’s acceptable.  Give us the courage to pour it out.  We’re living in a world right now that’s so hurt, and so angry, and so divided, let us be the presence of your love in this world, because you first loved us now we are able to open up and love.  Set us free Lord.  Turn us loose.  I pray this in Christ’s name.  Amen.

Lost and Found

ONE Sunday

Luke 15:1-10

 Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

 It was Lynn Turner’s idea.

I know I’ve told you that before, but I’m telling you again, not because I’m trying to blame Lynn but because I want her to get the credit.  I think ONE Sunday is a wonderful idea, even on a rainy day.  Lynn had that idea years ago just after our church made a difficult decision that left us uncomfortably divided.  Two thirds of the congregation had voted one way and one third had voted another and we needed something to bring us back together again.  So, Lynn started thinking.

Some of you may not even know this, but in addition to her role as Senior Associate Pastor I have asked Lynn to serve as our Minister of Christian Community, which I once described to her like this: “I just want you to keep the big, happy family of First Baptist Church big, and happy.”  Well, they were not happy in those days, some of them, and it was threatening our unity.  Lynn thought it might be helpful, after everybody had gotten back from vacation and school had started up again, to come together for one, wonderful Sunday in September.  We would start with Sunday school, follow that with a combined worship service, and then follow that with dinner on the grounds.  We tried it, and even though it didn’t solve all our problems it seemed to help.  We did it again the next year and the year after that, and if I’m counting correctly this is the twelfth year we have celebrated ONE Sunday.

I’m glad you’re here.

Because this is one of those times when we need to come together.  Along with the rest of the world our church is recovering from a global pandemic that has been a huge disruption to life as we knew it.  I remember walking into this sanctuary at 11:30 on a Sunday morning back in 2020 and finding it dark, and quiet, and empty.  I wondered then, “How many times has this happened in this church’s 240 year history?  How many times has the sanctuary been empty at 11:30 on a Sunday morning?”  Well, it’s not empty this morning, and I, for one, am thrilled.  It may not be as full as it is at 5:00 on Christmas Eve or 11:00 on Easter Sunday, but it is so much fuller than it has been on most Sundays since March 11, 2020, the day this global pandemic was declared, exactly two-and-a-half years ago today.

So, thanks to every one of you who got up this morning, got dressed, and came to church.  And thanks to every one of you joining us from home.  Even though you are not in the room we can feel your support: your virtual presence is real.  And thanks to every one of you who invited someone else to come with you today, and especially those of you who invited someone who used to come, someone you haven’t seen in a long time.

That’s what I spent a good part of my day doing on Monday.  I sent a text message to someone I hadn’t seen in a while saying, “Hey, I hope you will join us for ONE Sunday.”  And that was so easy I texted someone else, and then someone else.  Eventually I pulled an old pictorial directory off the shelf and started turning the pages, and I have to tell you—that was painful.  It was painful because so many of those people have died since that directory was published, but it was even more painful because some of them have gotten lost.  I’m not talking about those people who have gone to another church.  I always say, “When you move from one church to another the Kingdom of God doesn’t lose a single member.”  No, I’m talking about those people I haven’t seen in a long, long time and haven’t heard anything about.  I’m talking about people who may have gotten lost from God.

Those are the kind of people Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from Luke 15.  This is the chapter that includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, which may be everybody’s favorite, but it begins with the notice that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to hear Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”  You can tell right away that they have put themselves in a different category: scribes and Pharisees over here; sinners and tax collectors over there.  And you can tell that in their thinking it isn’t right to welcome sinners or to eat with them.  It would be like condoning their sin, which is not what Jesus is trying to do.  “And so,” Luke says, “he told them this parable.”  He said:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

I’ve read that parable a hundred times, and preached on it more than once, but what I noticed this time that I had never noticed before is the word having, right there in verse four.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  I’ve titled this sermon “Lost and Found,” but it occurs to me you can’t lose something unless you have it.  So it’s not just losing and finding that Jesus is talking about: it’s having and losing and finding.  It’s the plot of every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girls back again.  When he does there is great rejoicing, and maybe even a wedding.

So before we even begin to think about this shepherd seeking and finding his lost sheep, we need to think about him having it.  I can almost picture it, can’t you?  A young man, determined to build up for himself someday a flock of a hundred sheep, working at it for years until he gets to that place where his goal has been achieved.  Imagine his satisfaction when he brings them in from the pasture at the end of the day and counts them as they go under his stick and into the sheepfold: “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED!”  And then he closes the gate with a smile on his face knowing that they are all there, all safe, all sound.  Imagine that he does that for years, until he knows the names and the habits of every sheep in his flock.  And then imagine that one day while he’s out there in the pasture one of them goes missing.

He doesn’t even have to count.  He knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  He knows exactly which one has wandered away, as she always does.  He also knows she likes to explore the deepest canyons and the darkest crevices.  He looks around at the rest of the sheep, tells them to “stay,” and then he runs to find Maggie, the wandering sheep.  He goes back to that place where they stopped for water, finds her footprints in the mud, hikes up the ravine a hundred yards and there she is, stuck in a thicket, bawling like a lamb.  “Oh, Maggie!” he sighs.  “How do you get yourself into these messes?”  And then he pulls her out of the thicket, puts her on his shoulders, and heads back toward the flock hoping that nothing has happened in his absence.

When he finds that they are all still there, waiting for him and wondering what’s going on, he rejoices.  He keeps a close eye on Maggie for the rest of the day but that night when he counts his sheep there is an extra measure of satisfaction as he says, “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED!”  He closes the gate and walks down to the local pub where he opens the door and says: “Boys, I thought I had lost Old Maggie forever, but by the grace of God I found her.  The next round’s on me.”  “I tell you,” says Jesus, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”

Because just as that shepherd had that flock of sheep, God has us—has all of us!  It’s not that some are righteous and some are sinners; it’s that all of us are human and sometimes we wander away.  Today’s lectionary readings make that point:

  • Psalm 14 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.  They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
  • In Jeremiah 4 God says, “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
  • In Exodus 32 the people turn against the God who brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, and instead bow down before a golden calf they have fashioned with their own hands.
  • In Psalm 51 King David confesses to the Lord, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
  • And in 1 Timothy 1 Paul admits that he was formerly “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  But thanks be to God, he says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

If Saint Paul thinks of himself as the biggest sinner who ever lived, and if David—the “man after God’s own heart”—can see that his own heart is full of wickedness, then what chance do we have?  What chance did the scribes and Pharisees have?  As Paul says in Romans 3, “There is none righteous; no not one.”  It’s not that we set out to sin (usually), but we do.  And when we do, in our shame, we often turn away from God.  We go our own way.  We get lost.  And that’s when Jesus comes looking for us.

I love this story he tells about the woman with ten coins because I can almost see her lying in her bed at night, blowing out the oil lamp on the bedside table, and then reaching under the mattress to pull out that little pouch of coins.  She undoes the drawstring in the dark, pours them into one palm, and then begins to drop them into the other palm one at a time as she counts.  There is a satisfying “plop” as the first one drops, and then a satisfying “clink” with each succeeding coin.  “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN!” she counts, every night, until the night she only counts nine.

And then she flies into a panic.  She throws back the covers, leaps out of bed, lights the oil lamp, gets down on her hands and knees, looks under the bed, and when she doesn’t find it there she lights every lamp in the house, moves the furniture, sweeps out every dark corner, until at last she finds it wedged in a crack between the floorboards.  “How on earth did you get here?” she asks.  But she falls asleep with a smile on her face and the next morning goes down to the bakery, buys an iced lemon pound cake, and invites all her friends and neighbors to join her for afternoon tea.  “Rejoice with me,” she says, “for I have found the coin that I lost.”  “I tell you,” says Jesus, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

But have you noticed?  Everything Jesus is talking about is seen from God’s perspective.  God “has” all of us.  Jesus was sent to seek and save the lost.  The angels rejoice when a single sinner repents.  But what about us?  What does all this look like from our perspective?

Let me tell you a story:[i]

When I was in seminary I used to sit on the front pew during our weekly worship services so I could hear every word of the sermon, so I could get the “good stuff” as it came down from the pulpit.  And once I heard a preacher named Fred Craddock talk about his sister.  “We used to play hide-and-seek in the summertime,” he said.  “Just about dusk, when the shadows were getting long.  One time she was ‘it,’ and I hid under the back steps of our house.  Because I was small I could scrunch all the way up under there where my sister couldn’t see me.  But I could see her.  I peeked out through a crack and watched her walking around, looking for me.

“She walked all around the house, looked behind the bushes.  I saw her walk down the path to the barn, look inside the barn, walk around behind it, and as she came back up the path I thought to myself, ‘She’ll never find me.  She’ll never find me!’  And then, all at once, I thought, ‘She’ll never find me!’  So I stuck my toe out just enough for her to see, and when she got to the top of the path I wiggled it.

“She said, ‘One-two-three on Freddy!’ and I came out from under the steps pretending to be chagrined.  ‘Aw, shucks,’ I said.  ‘You found me.’”

And then Fred Craddock looked out at all of us who were sitting there in that chapel and said, “But what did I want?  What did I really want?”  And I knew the answer.  Sitting there on the front pew it was all I could do to keep from blurting it out.  “To be found!” I thought.  “You wanted to be found!”  And then it seemed he looked right at me, pointed his finger and said, “The same thing you want!”

And I almost burst into tears.

Either Fred Craddock knew me better than I knew myself or there is something in every one of us that is more lost than we know.

And more ready to be found.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

Demanding Discipleship

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It is an incredible gift to be here and worship with you.  Not only because it gives me a chance to be in worship again with a friend I met in the last century.  But also because it gives me a chance to be in worship in a congregation that has made a tremendous impact of faithfulness not only in the city of Richmond, across the United States, but literally all over the world.  I would be remiss if I did not thank you for your partnership in the Gospel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, from our very beginning until now.  It is an honor to be one of your mission partners.  I would be personally remiss as alumnus of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, if I did not thank this congregation for the tremendous investment you made in the life of that school throughout its history, and if I did not assure you that its impact and its ministry and its legacy continues to the present day even though the last classes have been taught.  And I would be remiss if I do not thank you for the ways you are opening the imaginations of new generations of women and men called to the ministry through the Baptist House of Studies at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and through your witness it is truly possible even in these confusing times for a local congregation committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ to be used to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond,  VA.

Now if I had good sense, I would stop with the anthem, and the words of gratitude and invite my friend of decades to invite you to the Lord’s table.  But I come here today not just to offer a denominational announcement, I’ve come to ask you if you heard those words of Jesus for which you just a few moments ago you said, “Thanks be to God.”  To remind you that those words came from you in this room.  Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself cannot be my disciple.  When I was studying preaching in Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Chuck Bugg would not have advised me to use this text for my first opportunity to preach to a congregation.  It’s strong language.  And if we’re going to receive a word from our Lord Jesus today, we need to ask ourselves are we hearing this text clearly.  And we ask ourselves why in the world is he speaking with such strength and intensity and vision to those crowds who were traveling with him.  Is Jesus really saying to us that in order to be his disciple we have to be willing to be in a place of animosity toward our immediate family.  Is Jesus really saying in order to follow him we have to be willing to literally hate our mothers and our fathers and our children, our kin, our very life itself.  In preparing to preach this morning I consulted a wide range of commentaries hoping I could find a lifeline to this spot that Jim had backed me in.  And I found out that while in the Jewish tradition that formed Jesus, it is sometimes possible to hear this word hate used to speak of an actual animosity, but there are also many times in the Hebrew scriptures where words like love and hate are used as aphorisms.  That is to say, where words like love and hate are used with an exaggeration to make a point.  That is to say, we’ll sometimes hear the psalmist pray that the righteous love justice.  The righteous love mercy.  The righteous hate wickedness.  The righteous hate immorality.  But in those cases, the psalmist is not trying to sow animosity deep within our bones, no the psalmist is trying to drive us to a place of clear prioritization.  That our life does not consist in kind of a wishy washy moderate, anything goes kind of identity but rather as people who are faithful, we are clear about what priorities guide our lives.  So heard that way, these words from Jesus have to be recognized as a challenge.  To make sure that he and he alone is the guiding priority of our lives, that no other relationship, that no other commitment, that no other love, that no other loyalty interferes with the loyalty that is supposed to be the highest loyalty in our lives.  Remember what you and I said, those of us who grew up Baptist?  We walked an aisle and gave our lives to Jesus?  I think we said, “Jesus is Lord.”  If you grew up in a church where you had a chance to do that on a Sunday night, there’s probably a good chance that when you walked the aisle, and you make that profession of faith, the congregation was singing something like that old hymn from the South,  All to Jesus I Surrender All to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust him in his presence daily live, I surrender all.  I give up everything to follow him.  Jesus says you cannot be my disciple if you’re not willing to sing I Surrender All and mean it.  You cannot be my disciple if you’re not willing to love me more than anyone and anything else.  And the language he uses to drive home that point is incredibly strong.  Why do you think he speaks with such intensity? That’s the question I’ve been pondering.  It’s not been that hard to wrap my mind the meaning of what he’s saying.  Usually with the scriptures what gives us the most trouble is not what we can’t understand, but what we can understand.  And what we can understand is spoken here with such an urgency and intensity I wonder why he is speaking in that way.  So then I noticed something in the text I have never noticed before.  I paid attention to the way Luke describes those to whom Jesus makes this statement.  But before I was so worried and preoccupied by the strength of the language, I didn’t pay any attention to the congregation for the sermon.  And it turns out the congregation for a sermon actually matters.  The congregation for this particular sermon recorded in Luke 14 is described as crowds who are travelling with Jesus.  Jesus does not call people to travel with him.  Jesus does not call people to be his companions on the journey.  These people to whom Jesus speaks are trying to do just that.  They are trying to be his travelling companions.  His buddies along the road.  He’s travelling to Jerusalem, and more and more people want to travel with him.  They want to be around him.  They want to hear what he says.  They want to admire his miracles.  They want to ponder his teachings.  They want to watch as he gets into the scrapes with the religious leaders as they get closer to Jerusalem.  They want to see all that and be spectators of it, and consumers of it, and weigh it in their world views and see what happens.  The problem is that Jesus does not call people to walk alongside him.  From the very beginning of the Gospels, the first words he spoke to those fishermen by the sea were not, “Come hang out with me.”  They were “follow me.”  And when Jesus sees people who are not in the right position related to him, he speaks with intensity.  If you don’t believe it, I want you to ask Peter.  Because in another moment along the journey of the Gospel narrators describe where Peter dares to walk alongside Jesus and give Jesus some advice that Jesus doesn’t seek.  You know why it is.  Jesus just said, hey, “Hey, we’re going to Jerusalem, it’s going to be ugly.  Terrible things are going to happen. I’m going to suffer.  I’m going to be killed.”  And Peter who is walking beside Jesus, who is a travelling companion to Jesus, who stands next to Jesus, comes next to Jesus and says, “Jesus I’m sorry, you’ve got your theology wrong.  What??  No, no Jesus it can’t be that way, didn’t you go to Sunday School, Jesus?  Jesus?  That can never happen to you, because see the scriptures say no.”  And do you know what Jesus says to Peter next according to another text around which sometimes you say thanks be to God?  He says, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Sometimes Jesus speaks really strong language to try to invite people to be in the right place, in the right posture when it comes to living in relationship with him.  I point this out this morning because the way I’m coming to see this text, it’s this text that brings us to a place of really important reflection.  It gives me at least a question, and I share it with you as a challenging gift.  Am I seeking to be a companion of Jesus, or am I thinking to really follow Jesus.  Am I seeking to live my life as one who walks alongside Jesus, or am I seeking to live my life as someone who gets behind Jesus and follows him wherever he goes?  If I live my life as a companion of Jesus, if I see myself that way, then it’s easy for me to progress in my thinking to the point where I say, well I’ve got a little room in my heart for Jesus.  I can fit Jesus into my busy schedule.  I’m willing to include Jesus among the number of authorities I consult when I’m trying to make a difficult decision.  It’s very easy for me to think about Jesus kind of on a level playing field with whatever I heard on a podcast.  Whatever some politician said.  Whatever some other book contains.  I’m willing to include Jesus among the authorities that I give consideration to when I face a real important decision.  But when Jesus and I are just travelling companions of one another, then guess who’s still in charge?  I am.  If I’m deciding whether I’m going to keep on walking with Jesus or not.  I’m deciding whether I’m going to pay attention to him, and when I’m not.  I’m lucky to be like Peter, and ask Jesus to play by my rules and serve my own agenda, or get caught and serve some other power’s agenda.  If that keeps on progressing to the point where Jesus is one many allegiances, like that’s deadly.  We saw evidence of the deadliness of it in Rwanda late in the last century.  You may remember that in Rwanda which by the way was the most evangelized nation on the continent of Africa.  More people in Rwanda had said they were going to follow Jesus than in any other nation in Africa.  More western missionaries have been in Rwanda preaching the gospel, planning churches, doing all that, and in those churches in Rwanda one year on Easter Sunday, Christians from different ethnic tribes worshipped together, they sang their hymns, they heard the sermon, they took communion, they went on their way, and then later that same week when the civil war erupted in Rwanda those Christians from different tribes took up machetes against each other and killed each other.  In his penetrating, paralyzing book “Mirror to the Church, Lessons for the American Church and the Rwanda Genocide,” African theologian Emanual Katongole says what was the problem in Rwanda is simply this, the blood of tribalism was allowed to run deeper than the waters of baptism.  In other words there were other commitments that were allowed to live alongside of faith in Jesus Christ.  There were other allegiances that were allowed to be rivals to the allegiance to Jesus, and that literally tore the church and the country and the world apart.  If you really, really loved people, and you saw them on a path that would lead to death and destruction and division would you let them just keep on walking on that path?  Or if you were the son of God who loved the world so much that you came all the way to the point of death even death on a cross?  If you loved the world that much that you gave your body and your blood for the salvation of people, and you saw them running off in so many directions, torn apart by so many allegiances, trying to travel with Jesus and everyone else at the same time and you knew where it could head, wouldn’t you turn aside to them and say, look unless you love me more than all of that, you cannot be my disciple.  There are still large crowds that want to watch Jesus.  There are still a lot of voices out there that want to be considered at least as much as Jesus.  But the question for us to come to the Lord’s table is, do we love him more than those?  Are we his companions or are we his disciples?  If we want to be a community to whom Jesus heals this world, there’s only one answer.  Amen.

© 2022 Paul Baxley

Taking Our Places

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost 

Luke 14:1, 7-14 

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely… 

I can’t remember why I was in her office, but there I was, talking to a young woman named Julie who had recently graduated from the university in the town where I was a pastor, and now here she was working for that same university.  She had been one of the students who regularly came to my church, and I don’t think I ever saw her when she wasn’t smiling.  So I noticed she wasn’t smiling that day and at some point I asked her about it.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, sighing.  “I guess I’m just having a bad hair day.”  I looked at her hair (which was perfect) and then I said, “You know, Julie, self-esteem is the way we esteem ourselves.”  But that seemed a little too obvious,  so I said, “The only person who can tell you how to feel about yourself is you.”  And she sighed again and said, “Yeah, I know.”   

But she didn’t seem convinced.  

We all know that feeling, don’t we?  When I was in first grade my mother once asked me to go with her to take something to one of our neighbors before school.  I hadn’t even gotten dressed yet.  I was sitting there at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating a bowl of oatmeal.  But she seemed to be in a hurry so I pulled on a pair of my brother’s pants that were in the laundry pile and out the door we went.  I didn’t even have shoes on.  We were supposed to be back in five minutes but Mom and the neighbor got to talking and it got later and later and as we were hurrying home the school bus came to a stop right beside us and the driver opened the door.  My mom looked me up and down quickly and then said, “I guess you could go like you are.”  “No!” I thought.  “I couldn’t!”  But she nudged me up the steps of the bus and I spent that whole day trying to pretend that it was perfectly normal to come to school in a pajama top with no shoes on and your pants falling down.   

And then there was the time when my dad was cutting my hair when I was in ninth grade and had bangs that came straight down to my eyebrows.  When it came time to even them up Dad took the plastic guard off the electric clippers, asked me to sit perfectly still, and then lined himself up for the approach.  He was doing a pretty good job until one of my brothers slammed the back door and my dad jumped and then said, “Oh, no!  I’ve gapped you!”  And there’s just no way to fix that, not without shaving your head.  I went to school the next day with a big gap in my bangs and everybody in home room felt the need to tell me: “You got gapped!”  Like my friend Julie I was having a bad hair day, and it’s hard to feel good about yourself on a day like that.   

I’m sure something like that has happened to you, and even as I’m telling my stories you may be remembering a bad haircut or an unfortunate wardrobe choice or any one of a hundred other things that made you feel embarrassed or self-conscious.  If you are, then you also remember the difference between those moments and the moments when you felt really confident, like when you went to school wearing a pair of brand new white tennis shoes right out of the box (pause to appreciate).  There are those moments when you feel really good about yourself, and there are those moments when you don’t, and you have probably had enough of each to know the difference.  But I want you to think about how much everyone else’s opinion made that difference.   

If I had been barefoot on a deserted island, with my pants falling down, there wouldn’t have been a problem; I could have let them fall.  If I had a gap in my bangs there I could have lived with it; I could have lived with pigtails and a hair bow.  But I was at school!  Everybody was looking at me, everybody was laughing at me, and it affected my self-esteem.  Growing up was hard in those days, but these days it may be even harder.   

Not long ago I saw a middle school girl taking a selfie.  I can’t remember where I was, but I saw her standing to one side of the crowd looking up into her phone.  She was smiling and trying to look adorable (which she did), but I had this feeling that when she was finished filtering and Facetuning® that photo she was going to post it on Instagram and then wait for the world to tell her what they thought.  And that’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it?  That’s letting the world decide whether or not you’re cute.  If they do, if you get a million “likes” on that picture you might feel pretty good about yourself, but if you only get six, and those six are your parents and grandparents, you might not.   

This is why I work out at the Jewish Community Center.  I was taking a tour when I first moved to Richmond, and I saw an old guy in the fitness center pulling down on an overhead bar, raising about twenty pounds with a cable and a pulley.  I watched for a while and he said, “How old do you think I am?”  I guessed low.  I said, “Seventy?”  He said, “I’m 92!”  He was proud of himself.  I was proud, too.  That guy was my new hero, but I also decided in that moment to join the JCC because when you’re competing against 92-year-olds it makes you feel young and strong.   It’s the same reason I tell teenagers they should be on Facebook instead of Instagram, because the average age on Facebook is like, what, 72?  When they post their selfies there they will look young and beautiful.  The point I’m trying to make is the same: that when we start comparing ourselves to others it’s no longer self-esteem, it’s other esteem.  We are letting others determine how we should feel about ourselves.   

And that can be dangerous.   

In an article published earlier this year journalist Derek Thompson reported that the United States is experiencing “an extreme teenage mental health crisis.i  From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel ‘persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness’ rose from 26 percent to 44 percent.  This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.”  One reason for that sadness is social media, but Thompson is quick to point out that “social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.”  He writes: 

“In 2020 the internal research division of Instagram found that while most users had a positive relationship with the app, one-third of teen girls said Instagram made them feel worse.  And if you don’t believe a company owned by Facebook, a big new study from Cambridge University in which researchers looked at 84,000 people of all ages found that social media was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13.”ii  Why am I telling you all this?  Mostly because I’m your pastor, and I don’t want anyone walking around sad if they don’t have to, especially not middle school girls who didn’t get as many likes as they hoped for on Instagram.  But also because one of the things that struck me right away about today’s Gospel lesson is that the people Jesus is talking to seem to be overly concerned with what others think about them.   

At the beginning of chapter 14 Luke tells us that Jesus was at some fancy dinner party in the home of a leader of the Pharisees, and in verse 7, “he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.”  Close your eyes and you can almost see them, jockeying for positions at the head table, pushing and shoving to get the seat closest to the host.  They care what other people think about them, in fact, they care too much.  First-century Israel was a culture in which the categories of honor and shame meant everything.  The worst thing that could happen to you was to be shamed, publicly.  The best thing that could happen to you was to be honored, publicly.  Get yourself into the right seat at a fancy dinner party and you would be the talk of the town, so that’s what everybody was trying to do.  But Jesus told them a parable to let them know how everything could go horribly wrong. 

“Let’s say you get yourself into a seat right next to the host,” he said, “and everything’s going fine, everyone’s looking at you and wondering who you are when the mayor walks in, late as usual, and the host turns to you and says, ‘Listen, whoever-you-are, I hate to ask, but would you please give up your seat for the mayor?’  And then there you are, standing up, brushing the crumbs off your lap, and looking around for the only place left which happens to be at the very foot of the table.  Imagine the shame!  But there’s another way to do this,” Jesus say, “a better way.  When you get invited to a fancy dinner party take one of the empty seats at the foot of the table, and then when the host shows up he will see you sitting down there and say, ‘Friend!  What are you doing down there?  Move up to a better seat!’  And then you will be honored in front of everyone.”  The moral of the story is in verse 11: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”   

But this isn’t really a plea for humility, is it?  It’s more like a strategy for exaltation.  Jesus isn’t asking his hearers to become humble; he is only asking them to act humble, to take the lowest seat at the banquet so that the host will invite them to come up higher, and then everyone will think they are important.  It would probably work, but it doesn’t sound like Jesus.  I can’t imagine him giving people advice on how to appear important unless he’s being ironic.  Maybe the next thing he will say is, “And if that doesn’t work you can always wear a sash across your chest that says, ‘I’m kind of a big deal!’  That will get you a seat at the head table.”  But maybe it’s just that Jesus doesn’t know anything about acting important because he’s never had to act.  From the very beginning he simply was.   

An angel told his mother that he “would be great, and would be called the Son of the Most High, and that the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David; that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and that of his kingdom there would be no end.”iii  Do you think Mary was able to keep all that to herself?  Don’t you think that she looked on his face when he was a baby and marveled at all that he would become?  Can’t you imagine that as he was growing up she might have occasionally let it slip that he was the Son of God?  So, maybe he wasn’t all that surprised at his baptism, when the sky opened up and a dove fluttered down and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased!”iv 

I think this is what made Jesus so selfless: he didn’t have to think about himself; he didn’t have to worry about what other people thought.  He knew who he was, and who he was was the beloved child of God.  But so are you.  The very first book in the Bible tells us that human beings were made in God’s image.  I believe we still are: that while we are being formed in our mothers’ wombs God presses his seal into the soft wax of our souls so that when he looks at us that’s all he sees.  He doesn’t see gender or color, age or ethnicity—he sees us!  And he sees us as beloved.  He doesn’t care how smart we are, or how much money we make, or how many followers we have on Twitter.  He cares about us, and because he does we can breathe a sigh of relief, because really, does it matter what anyone else thinks of you when you are God’s beloved?  This sounds better to me than self-esteem, which is what you think of yourself, or other-esteem, which is what others think of you.  This sounds like God-esteem: when you derive your sense of self-worth from what God thinks about you, and when you do you become a different person altogether.   

Just ask Jesus. 

I sometimes imagine that everyone in the world is holding a cup, you know, like a coffee cup with a handle on it.  Most people act as if their cup is empty.  They are always asking others to put something into it—money, or love, or a million “likes” on Instagram.  But you and I have a cup that is already full.  We’ve been holding it under the waterfall of God’s goodness and grace so that now we have more than enough, we have plenty to give away.  We can host a banquet as Jesus suggests and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, the people who would really appreciate it rather than the ones who can return the favor.  We don’t have to care anymore what others think about us—God loves us!  We don’t have to worry anymore about not having enough—God loves us!  We don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else, anymore—God loves us!  Maybe, like Jesus, we can become the most selfless people in the world, giving ourselves away for the sake of others because we don’t have to worry about that anymore; we know who we are; and who we are is God’s beloved children.  So, friend, come up higher.  Take your seat at the Lord’s Table.   

There is no better place. 

—Jim Somerville © 2022 

Free from Bondage

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 13:10-17

 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

I was talking to a pastor last week who had been doing some counseling for a couple that wanted to get married in his church.  Actually, they didn’t want to, but the bride’s grandmother was a member and she wanted them to and so they were trying to make her happy.  But they weren’t particularly religious and when this pastor asked them about their most deeply held convictions they didn’t have an answer.  “Then let me put it another way,” he said: “Why do you think you were born?  What is your purpose in life?”  But again, they didn’t have an answer.  Because you know how it is: when you’re born you don’t have to think at all, and then, when you get a little older, your parents make you go to school, and when you graduate they might want you to go to college, and when you’re done with that you’ll probably try to get a job, and then, if you find the right person, you might want to get married, and if you do you might decide to have kids, and if you have kids that will take up the next twenty years of your life, and one day—in your mid-forties—you will wake up and wonder why you were born.  We call that a mid-life crisis.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can think about those critical questions much earlier than that and church is the perfect place to do it.  In a recent letter to my brother I wrote, “One of the best things we do in church is to help people find meaning and purpose.”

And then I tried to explain.

I said: “I believe we find meaning by following Jesus Christ, and that the gospel provides us with a metanarrative: ‘a story big enough to live by.’  In Mark 8 Jesus goes so far as to suggest that his way is not only something to live for, but also something to die for. ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ he says, which may be only another way of saying, ‘Volunteer to die.’  And that is part of his genius,” I wrote.  “When we volunteer to die the fear of death loses its power over us.  We no longer need to stockpile weapons and hole up in caves. We no longer need to post hateful messages on social media ridiculing the ideology of our enemies. We can love fearlessly and die selflessly just like Jesus.  That’s what I’m aiming for.  That’s what gives my life meaning.  How about you?”

It was a real question.  My brother and I had been arguing back and forth for several days over various political issues.  I wanted to know what was at the bedrock of his life: what he was living for and what was worth dying for.  And then I answered my own question.  I wrote, “If I could do anything that would keep people from shooting each other, hating each other, hurting each other; if I could do anything that would help to heal the deep divisions in our land; if I could do anything that would help us welcome the stranger, and love God’s creation, and care for the vulnerable, then I would want to do that.  I think the pulpit is a pretty good place to lift up those dreams week after week, and I pray that I will have the courage to do that, even if it costs me my job, even if it costs me my life. I don’t know that anyone will listen, I don’t know that anyone will act, but I wouldn’t mind if my tombstone read:

“Here lie the mortal remains of

James Green Somerville

He died trying”

Now, that’s a long introduction to this morning’s sermon, and I realize it is the third or fourth time I have shared a draft of my epitaph.  I’m still working on it.  But thinking about what you want to have chiseled on your tombstone is a good exercise.  It helps you focus on what really matters.  And it might help you understand why we spend an hour on Sunday morning singing songs about Jesus and telling stories about him.  It’s because we are trying to follow him; it’s because we believe that his way gives our lives meaning and purpose; it’s because we have found in him something worth living for and someone worth dying for.  And so when we have an opportunity like this one to reflect on a passage of scripture together—to look at what Jesus actually did and listen to what he actually said—we want to take advantage of it, because we are all trying to follow his lead, and we can learn not only from him, but also from each other, as we go.  So, here we are, in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, looking at a story about a bent-over woman who was miraculously healed.

Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  Some of you have been to the Holy Land.  You’ve seen the ruins of first-century synagogues.  You know that the place where Jesus was teaching would have been about the size of our chapel here at First Baptist Church.  And you may also know that when someone taught in the synagogue they would sit down to teach.  We stand, at the pulpit, but they would sit in what was called “Moses’ seat”—the seat of the teacher—and expound on whatever scripture passage had been read earlier.  Apparently that’s where Jesus was sitting and that’s what he was doing when this woman shuffled in.

Luke uses the Greek word idou, which means something like, “Behold!”  Jesus was teaching and, behold!  This woman appeared.  Luke says she had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”  She slipped into the synagogue as discreetly as she could, in fact she may have come in after the service started so she wouldn’t have to say hello to the people around her.  But Jesus noticed her, he saw her, and that may be the first miracle in this story.  It is so easy not to see people in need, or not to let them see us.  I saw a man holding a cardboard sign at an intersection recently and found a way to get over into the other lane and hide behind another car so he wouldn’t see me, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to do anything for him.  I’m not proud of it, but it’s what I did.  Jesus, on the other hand, sees this woman come into the synagogue and right there in the middle of his sermon stops everything and calls her over.

She must have been mortified to be singled out like that, but what could she do?  Jesus was calling; she had to come.  And so she made her way through the crowd to where he was and he said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  And then he laid his hands on her.  Pause for just a moment and imagine those hands on your own back.  Imagine what kinds of unclean spirits would be cast out, imagine what kind of healing might occur.  This woman felt Jesus’ divine power flowing through her body and when she did, for the first time in eighteen years, she stood up straight.

I’ve been trying to picture that moment, and what I keep picturing is someone tying a rope to the top of a young sapling and bending it down until the top is almost touching the ground and then staking it down and leaving it alone and letting it grow that way for eighteen years, and then coming back with a knife and slicing through that rope so that the sapling—which is now a young tree—suddenly snaps upright and raises its branches to the sky.  That’s what this woman did.  Immediately she stood up straight. And then she did just what you should at a time like that: she began praising God.

If that were the end of the story this would be the end of the sermon.  You would look at your watch and say, “Preacher let us out early!”  And I could, except for one little word in the text.  It’s the word but and it’s right there at the beginning of verse 14.  Luke tells us that this wonderful miracle occurred, the woman who had been healed was praising God, but…“the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath day, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’”

Why did he have to do that?  Why did he have to ruin that wonderful moment?  I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I’ve been thinking that in the same way this woman was afflicted by a spirit of infirmity that kept her bent over and unable to stand up straight, this man—this leader of the synagogue—was afflicted by some kind of spirit that kept him from rejoicing when a miraculous healing took place.  What was it?  Was it a spirit of jealousy?  Did he not like it that Jesus was getting all the attention instead of him?  Or was it a need to control things, to make sure that everything in the synagogue was done “decently and in order,” as Paul says.[i]   Or did he just love the rules more than he loved people?  Is that why he started saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done.  Come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.”  Because on the Sabbath day no work ought to be done, and curing people, well, that was work, wasn’t it?  Ask any doctor in the room.

I’ve been trying to understand this man’s response.  I’ve been trying to feel some sympathy for him.  I was thinking of how I would feel if Justin Pierson, our pastoral resident, our speaker at next week’s healing service, actually started healing people: if they were getting up out of their wheelchairs, and throwing their canes away, and praising God in a loud voice.  “Wait!” I would shout, trying to make myself heard above the hubbub.  “Justin was only supposed to speak, not heal!”  But later I might ask myself, “Why could I not simply rejoice when people were being healed, no matter who did the healing, no matter who got the credit?  What is the spirit in me that needs to control everything, that needs to remind people of the rules?  Was I simply jealous of all the attention Justin was getting?  Was I simply wishing that people were singing my praises, instead of his?”

Whatever it was, the response of the leader of the synagogue was not the response Jesus might have hoped for.  Turning to him and all those others who were shaking their heads and wagging their fingers Jesus says, “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”  I talked about that sapling earlier, that young tree that someone might have tied down for eighteen years, but if you were out walking in the woods and found an ox or a donkey that had been tied up for eighteen days, even eighteen hours, you would set it free immediately, wouldn’t you?  You would cut through that rope without a second thought, and you certainly wouldn’t worry about whether or not it was the Sabbath.  You would see it as an emergency, and you would do it as an act of compassion, and if someone tried to stop you, you might threaten them with that knife.  The fact that this leader of the synagogue didn’t see it as an emergency, and couldn’t understand Jesus’ healing as an act of compassion, says a lot about what kind of spirit afflicted him, and makes me think about what kind of spirits afflict us.

I have to admit: I like it when things are done decently and in order.  Maybe it’s because I grew up Presbyterian, where that’s their motto, but maybe it’s because I sit down with the other members of the worship planning team every week to put together a service of worship that we hope will usher you into the very presence of God.  We’re thoughtful about it, intentional about it.  And when Robert Thompson welcomes you to worship by saying, “something might happen today that’s not even in the bulletin,” I know what he means.  He wants you to come to worship with a spirit of expectancy, even excitement.  But there is some spirit in me that doesn’t want that to happen.  I want everything to go exactly as planned.

But what if God has other plans?

I wasn’t here on that day, but I heard about a Sunday morning several years ago when one of our homeless neighbors who appeared to have been drinking came down the aisle.  He was making demands, and making them loudly.  Every deacon in the room was on full alert.  Security was called in.  He said, “Let’s sing Amazing Grace!”  But it wasn’t in the bulletin.  Someone tried to usher him out, gently, but he insisted, “No!  I want to sing Amazing Grace!”  And then someone stepped in who was a little more forceful and he was removed from the sanctuary, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  As I said, I wasn’t here and I don’t know what I would have done.  I probably would have been right there with everyone else trying to hush him up and get him out.  But what if someone had said, “Hey, this guy wants to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’  We know how to do that.  Let’s do it!”  And suppose we did, and that’s how the service ended that day: with that troubled soul standing there at the front of the church, singing Amazing Grace, with tears streaming down his cheeks?

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson, and only because Jesus had his way, Luke tells us that “his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”  May we, too, learn to rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing,

Even if they’re not in the bulletin.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] 1 Cor. 14:40.

Ultimate Concerns

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 12:49-56

 I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Not all of you know that my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house when I was a boy.  There is a thirty-minute version of that story I have told a hundred times, but let me see if I can sum it up in three minutes:

We were trying to build a volcano in the back yard.  We piled up a big mound of dirt, dug a deep hole in the center of it, and then poured every flammable liquid we could find into the hole—gasoline, turpentine, nail polish remover.  We wanted the volcano to erupt, and it did, spectacularly.  My brother Ed nearly lost his eyebrows but other than that it was very satisfying.  We had some lunch and then went to my bedroom in the back of the house to relax.  I was reading a Superman comic book, Ed was reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Scott was reading Volume IV of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when we heard my mother scream, “The house is on fire!”

We sprang into action and ran to the kitchen where we had heard our mother’s voice.  We didn’t see her, but when we opened the door to the back stairwell we saw that the whole upstairs was on fire.  We threw a few buckets of water up the steps, but when we saw that it wasn’t doing any good we grabbed whatever we could carry and got out of the house as quickly as we could.  The fire department got there soon after and those brave firefighters did their best, but the wood in that house was as dry as a matchstick, and the whole thing burned to the ground.  Nobody was hurt, but our home—that big, beautiful, ramshackle place we had been renting for twenty five dollars a month—was a total loss.

There: I think I did that in less than three minutes.  The thirty-minute version is a lot funnier and if you’d like to hear it sometime I’d be happy to tell it—again!  But I want to go back to that moment when my mother screamed, “The house is on fire!”  That was the moment my brothers and I sprang into action, because that’s what you do when the house is on fire.  You don’t turn the page in your comic book and say, “Did you hear that boys?  Mom said the house is on fire?”  No, that moment is a moment of crisis: it calls for action.

Which may be why Jesus seems so frustrated in today’s Gospel lesson.  Remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die.  He knows it, and has already told his disciples—twice!—that it’s going to happen.  This is the “baptism” with which he must be baptized, the one that has him under so much stress.  He knows that every step he takes brings him closer to his own execution, and yet his disciples don’t seem to get it, no matter how plainly he puts it.  In Luke 9:22 he tells them, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes and be killed….”  Later in that same chapter he says, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands” (Luke 9:44).  But Luke tells us “they did not understand this saying; its meaning remained concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it.  And they were afraid to ask him about it” (Luke 9:45).

So now, three chapters later, they’ve moved on.  They’re looking ahead, and beginning to get excited about the Festival of the Passover.  I can picture one of them walking alongside Jesus and saying, “Teacher, won’t it be wonderful when we get to Jerusalem and they crown you king?  When you run the Romans out of Israel, and sit on the throne of your ancestor David?  When you usher in a whole new era of peace and prosperity?”  And I can just imagine Jesus turning to that disciple and saying, “You really don’t get it, do you?”  But as long as we are being honest let’s admit that we don’t get it either.

It might help to review what’s been happening here in Luke, chapter 12, because it’s a long chapter and there’s a lot going on.  Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the Rich Fool, and Jesus warned his hearers to be on their guard against any kind of greed, because life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.  And then he told them that they didn’t have to worry about those things anyway, what they would eat or what they would wear, because it was their Father’s good pleasure to give them the Kingdom.  But then he reminded them that the Kingdom could come soon, it could come at any time, and their job was to be ready.  This was not the time to be lying around reading comic books; this was the time to be wide awake, loins girded, ready for action.  “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus says.  “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

In her comments on this passage Debie Thomas writes: “Jesus’ words compel us to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship.  Descriptive rather than prescriptive, they declare in honest, unflinching terms what will happen if we dare to take our faith seriously.  What will happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the ‘fire’ of God’s word to burn through us.  Bottom line?  If ‘[gentle] Jesus, meek and mild’ is what we prefer, then this week’s Gospel lesson is not for us.  If feel-good religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we’re missing out, because the peace of God is about so much more than good feelings.  Or to put it differently, if neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.[i]

I remember getting a call one Monday afternoon from a church member who was still upset about the sermon I had preached the day before.  He had found it a little too challenging.  He said, “That’s not what I want when I come to church!  I want a sermon that makes me feel better, not worse.  I want to go home feeling good!”  I can’t remember what I said in reply, but Jesus might have said, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  In other words, I haven’t come to make you feel good, I have come to create a crisis!

I can still remember learning that word in Greek class.  It comes from the verb krinō, which means “to judge,” or “decide.”  But a crisis is when you have to judge or decide something right then, right there.  In a previous sermon I said, “It reminds me of an old Russian novel, where a young woman is standing on the station platform with her mother and father, her sisters and brothers, when the man she loves gets on the train and then, suddenly, turns around and holds out his hand to her.  ‘Come with me!’ he says, and she has to decide: do I jump on the train with the man I love, or do I stay here on the platform with my loving family?  It’s a crisis, because the train is picking up speed.  She can’t put off the decision forever.  She has to make it in the next few seconds, and she feels herself torn between what matters and what matters most.  She may not even know which it is: the man on the train, or the family on the platform.  But there he is, holding out his hand, and she has to choose.

“The moment is as sharp as a sword.”[ii]

In today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah God says, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29).  In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice?” (The Message, Luke 12:51).  No!  Jesus’ words in this passage are like fire, like a hammer, like a sharp sword that would divide us from anything that might keep us from following him.  “From now on five in one household will be divided,” he says, “three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:52-53).

And we know what he’s talking about.

In these politically divided times members of the same family have been unable to sit down together for Thanksgiving dinner, because two of them voted one way and three of them voted another and somehow their attachment to political figures, or parties, or platforms have become more important to them than their own families, so that they can’t even sit down and enjoy a meal in peace.  But then, Jesus didn’t come to bring peace.  He came to ask: “Is there anything in your life that is more important than following me? (And yes, that would include our political affiliations).  Anything more important than God’s kingdom and his righteousness?  If there is, let the sword of my words sever those attachments.  Let me divide you from anything that threatens to take my place.”  And let’s pause to consider what some of those things might be:

  1. Earlier in chapter 12 Jesus warns his disciples that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, but sometimes we forget that. It’s possible that the things that threaten to take Jesus’ place in our life are actually things.  We might become so set on having bigger, better, and nicer things that we begin to strive for them (like people who aren’t even Christian), rather than striving for God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  I asked a young woman recently, “If your house were on fire, what would you rush back in to save?” and she said, “My phone.”  She probably wouldn’t say that she loves her phone more than Jesus, but today’s Gospel lesson raises that kind of question:  “What is your most valuable possession?  And is there anything—any thing—that you love more than him?”
  2. But maybe it’s not a thing at all; maybe it’s a person. I remember saying years ago, before my children were born, that it was harder for me to love God than it was to love Christy, my wife.  Because I could see Christy, I could talk to her, I could hold her in my arms.  God is so immortal, so invisible, that I don’t always feel very close to him.  That’s why he came close to us in Jesus.  That’s why they called him Emmanuel: “God with us.”  But there are days when even Jesus doesn’t feel very close, when it is far easier for me to pour out my love on my wife, or my children, or now my adorable grandchildren.  “Even so,” Jesus might say, “I need to be first in your life.  I need you to ask yourself if there is anyone more important than me.”
  3. And then (not finally but additionally), our not-so-humble opinions. Are they more important to us than Jesus?  I’m surprised sometimes by how hard I can dig in my heels when someone suggests that my way is not the right way.  I’m surprised by the way my face flushes and my heart begins to beat faster when someone challenges my convictions.  And sometimes the one who is doing the challenging is Jesus.  He reminds me that I’m not in charge.  He tells me to seek God’s kingdom rather than my own.  He tells me to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.  That’s not the way I would choose to do it but if I’m really going to follow him I need to be willing to give up my way in favor of his.

My friend Don Flowers once spent two months filling the pulpit of a Baptist church in Bali (I don’t even know how you get a job like that).  But he told me about meeting a woman there who had grown up Hindu, one who had, at some point, decided to follow Jesus.  Her family told her quite frankly: “If you become a Christian you will no longer be part of our family.”  She struggled with that for a long time, as anyone would, but eventually she made a choice between what matters and what matters most.  It’s as if she were standing there on the station platform with her family, and the train began to pull away, and Jesus held out his hand and said, “Come with me!”  He created a crisis; he forced a decision; the moment was as sharp as a sword.  But in that moment she decided to follow him, even if it meant leaving her family behind forever.

That’s all Jesus is really asking for in this passage—everything.  He’s asking us to follow him even if we have to leave our friends and family behind.  He’s asking us to open our hands and give up the money or things we are clutching too tightly.  He’s asking us to seek God’s kingdom before any other political entity or figure.  He’s asking us to walk with him on the road to Jerusalem, even if it leads to death.  That’s all.  And as he says at the end of this passage, if you can read the signs of the times you can see that this is the time to decide.  This is the moment of crisis.  Your house is on fire.  You need to decide now what matters most to you, and then spend the rest of your days living as if it does.  Are you ready for that?  Am I ready for that?  God, help us!

And let us pray…

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Debie Thomas, “Disturbing the Peace,” Journey with Jesus, August 11, 2019 (

[ii] Jim Somerville, “Not Peace But a Sword,” a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on August 18, 2013.