I recently gave my first sermon in the United Methodist Church. This is the full text of my message.
It was about ten minutes to midnight, and I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. Oh, to be sure, I was surrounded by people — hundreds of people, in fact. But I was utterly alone, and so scared I was crying like a child.
You see, I was lost. More lost than I’d ever thought possible. I was lost and I had no idea how to change my situation. I was standing in the middle of Milan station, in the heart of downtown Milan, Italy. And I’d missed the last train home.
So there I stood, completely powerless, a stranger in a strange land. My Italian was marginal at best; I’d only been in the country for a few weeks. I had no guide, no direction, no understanding and no way home.
I was lost. And all I wanted was to know how to get home. Have you ever felt so far from home it seemed like you’d never get back? I sure did. And so did the folks we meet in today’s first reading.
In the Old Testament reading this morning, we encounter the Israelites — a lost people looking for a home.
Forty years is a long time to spend in the wilderness. But, as a consequence of sin, this chosen people had done just that. In the same way Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden and barred from ever entering that abundant garden, a generation of the Hebrew people were never to lay eyes on the promised land.
But everything is about to change.
The Lord is about to reveal his promise to his chosen people. As part of that promise, he lays out a guide for his people. A spiritual roadmap, you might say, for finding the promised land.
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today … the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
“But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”
God promises a life of abundance to the Israelites — if they keep God’s commandments.
This isn’t bribery, or a “carrot on a stick” for the covenant people. It acknowledges the reality that God blesses those who put him first.
Trust, obedience and surrender to the will of God is what God requires of us.
When we truly trust God to provide for us, he always gives us more than we’d bargain for on our own. Because God knows what’s best for us, he provides more than we even know how to ask for. Virtue may be its own reward, but righteousness is the key to the promised land.
When it gets right down to it, the promised land isn’t only a place. It’s a way of life. The blessings of abundance and riches and peace are only of God. And they’re really only secondary to the blessing of being in communion with God through the Holy Spirit, who draws us ever closer to the heart of the Lord.
In the Psalm appointed for the day we read: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!”
Those who delight in the law of the Lord are firmly planted in the truth that God has revealed, first through the law of Moses and then through the person of Jesus Christ, the word of God made flesh.
The righteous bear this promise: “everything they do shall prosper.”
But “it is not so with the wicked.” They blow away like dust in the wind; the wicked are like useless chaff, they possess no weight and are less than nothing before the judgement seat of the Holy One.
They are less than nothing.
No matter the weight of their wealth, or the reach of their power, the wicked cannot stand in the council of the righteous. The greatest king, the richest banker and the mightiest conqueror of the nations of the earth find that wealth and power are less than nothing, and blow away like dust in the face of this truth: There is no God but the Lord.
And the Lord God sets before us the path of life and prosperity and the path of death and adversity. The road we take is ours to choose.
Each and every one of us has sat in the seat of the scornful. At some point in every life we linger in the way of sinners. We’ve trusted our own strength and ignored the good and gracious way the Lord prepares for us.
And I know, from my own experience, that the way of the Lord is the perfect way; no matter how good a map I think I’ve prepared, my own way leads time and time again to anger, dissatisfaction, turmoil and shame.
How desperate it feels to be less than nothing. Chaff that skips and floats through the breeze, that is never welcome, no matter where it settles. Dust in the wind, scattered and worthless.
Paul knew what it was to be chaff. And any observer would say, as he wrote the words we read today in Philemon, he was no better than dust. A prisoner, old, facing certain death at the hands of the Roman Empire, Paul could have been a mascot for anyone proclaiming that the way of the righteous is far more trouble than it’s worth.
Onesimus, the slave, also faced severe punishment, even death, as a runaway. He had, in effect stolen his life from his master. It was Philemon’s right to claim that debt, if he saw fit. And Paul was absolutely overstepping his earthly bounds to interfere in any way.
But Paul, an old man, a prisoner — mere chaff in the eyes of the world — dares to proclaim “I am bold enough in Christ to command you …”
In the strength of Christ, Paul is strong enough to command, but in the love of Christ, Paul is wise enough to love. For he knows he in himself is nothing, but he lays claim to the richness of his inheritance in Jesus and shares even his own portion with his brothers Philemon and Onesimus.
“Welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul exhorts Philemon. “Let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.”
Paul is exhorting Philemon, and us today, not to trust in the earthly riches of our getting, or to be slavishly subordinated to the laws of the world, which enslave us to the cult of the upper hand — the tyranny of the biggest portion.
Onesimus is no longer a slave, he is a beloved brother in the Lord, says Paul to Philemon. You see, letting go of the idols of wealth and position frees our arms to embrace each other.
It’s a hard saying when Jesus tells the crowds “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
I can only imagine the reaction that must have stirred. The crowd was almost certain to be made up entirely of Jews. An oppressed race of people that was mostly very poor. These people didn’t need to hear about giving up what little they had just to live the way a kooky prophet from Nazareth said they should.
And I can assure you those in the crowd that did have wealth weren’t interested in giving it up.
It’s a recurring theme in Jesus’ ministry. You want to follow me? Give everything to the poor. You want to be my disciple? Fine. Go sell everything. Leave your family; abandon your work; be prepared to die for the kingdom. Then you can be my disciple.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Jesus demands that his followers count the cost before they put a single step on the road of discipleship.
No one launches into a big project, say, building a skyscraper, without figuring out exactly what it’s going to take to finish the job. Jesus says, how much more important is it to know what life in Christ requires of you. Jesus echoes the words of the Old Testament reading, in effect saying, “I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
The Pharisees — religious elite of Jesus’ day — were very good at keeping the commandments of the Lord. They knew when to wash, when to fast, when to sacrifice and when to walk through the street rending garments. What they weren’t so good at was really changing the way they treated themselves and those around them. The form of religious life, they got. The power of God’s changing grace was lost on them.
Jesus’ ministry was, in many ways, a rallying cry against this spiritual status quo.
The Pharisees were too interested in their wealth and position to be much use to the Gospel. And their love of earthly things directly affected they way they viewed their relationship with God. To the Pharisees, God’s favor was just another possession, a status symbol to be paraded around on special occasions.
Jesus’ words turn that idea on its head. The Gospel is not overly reassuring if you’re interested in parading your salvation like a newly won trophy.
Let me paraphrase the message Jesus gives us in today’s Gospel reading.
If you don’t hate the status quo, you can’t be my disciple. If you love yourself more than you love me, you can’t be my disciple. If you’re not willing to put everything on the line to live the Gospel life, you can’t be my disciple. If you’re not empty, I can’t fill you. If you’re arms aren’t open, you can’t lift others up. If you don’t love me first, you’re sitting in the seat of the scornful. If you don’t love your neighbor as yourself, you’re walking in the counsel of the wicked.
In short: If you won’t give me everything, I can’t give you anything.
Jesus wants everything from us. And, to be perfectly honest, our material possessions are the least of God’s concern.
Yes, we give out of our abundance to advance the Kingdom and to lift up those who can’t lift themselves. Yes we commit acts of charity, of self-denial and of love.
But God desires obedience more than sacrifice.
Jesus calls to us in the Gospel reading today: Give up everything; count the cost — empty yourself of everything so I can fill you up.
To truly serve God, to live the Gospel life, to be a disciple of Jesus means to be empty. We are but earthen vessels chosen by God to be filled with the Spirit. And, as called and Spirit-filled vessels we are to proclaim this good news: Christ died for us while we were still sinners.
So what does it mean to be empty? It’s way harder than just giving stuff away.
We have to give up everything that separates us. Everything that stands between us and total surrender to the love of God. This means our attitudes, our opinions, our emotions and our fear.
Everything about me has to decrease so that Christ can increase. I can’t be full of fear and full of faith. Fear has to decrease so that faith can increase. I can’t be full of opinions and full of the Gospel. My opinions have to decrease so that the Gospel can increase.
I can’t be full of myself and full of the Spirit.
I’m not my own person anymore. Everything I am is subject to the law of Christ. What I think, what I think I know and what I believe are no longer my choices to make.
Every part of me has to be Jesus.
I started with a little story about being lost. It’s a true story, but it’s not the whole truth.
Yes, I was lost in Milan. I was stranded in a train station with no way home. I was tired, broke, terrified and probably in somewhat significant physical danger. But those weren’t my real problems.
My real problem was my unwavering determination to be in control of my own existence. I had resolutely raised my fist to heaven and shouted a resounding “NO” in God’s face. I had made a choice to live life by my own rules and I was going to be happy even if it made me miserable.
You see, I knew that I knew best what was best for me.
My sin was the sin of pride. The sin of Lucifer. Better to reign in hell, I said, than serve in heaven. Better to take the throne of the scornful than to delight in the Law of the Lord.
But Jesus was there, that night in the train station. He was there countless nights after that, repeating his invitation. “I have set before you two paths,” he said. “Empty yourself, and I’ll fill you until you’re running over,” he said.
He said: “Give me your life.”
And I finally said: “Yes.”
I shared with someone once that I finally gave in to God’s call to me because “I figured, things couldn’t get any worse.”
It was a flippant remark, but that doesn’t make it less true.
In our human understanding, we think we’ve planned out everything: What we’re going to be when we grow up; where our kids will go to school; how our career will go and exactly how much we’ll have when we finally retire.
We have a plan. Then life happens and our plans are often as windblown and worthless as the chaff our lives seem to become. Our hopes and aspirations are ultimately the means of our disappointment and chagrin. But absolute surrender to the will of God is the source of our greatest contentment.
That’s the call of Christ in today’s Gospel reading. When he says hate father and mother, sister and brother. When he says give up all you have to follow him, he means it. But not necessarily in the way we comprehend in our natural understanding.
It’s a hard saying of Christ when we listen through the filter of our daily life. But if we tune in with the spiritual understanding God grants us through the Holy Spirit, we hear what God is saying, even today in the words of Jesus.
We are to trust completely, love inordinately, believe foolishly and give every last molecule of ourselves to Jesus.
When we echo Mary and say, “let it be unto me according to your word,” then we’re ready to receive Jesus. And he will fill us with a truly abundant life.
We’re going to celebrate Holy Communion in just a few moments. This liturgical action is a physical reminder that we need to be filled with Jesus. This sacrament, this means of grace, is a sharing in the real presence of Jesus here and now in this act of worship.
John Wesley believed that Holy Communion was “the mercy of God to man.” Wesley also held that, at the Lord’s Table, we find forgiveness for our past sins and refreshment for our souls.
Wesley understood the command of Jesus to be empty of everything and to rely on Christ for his strength.
About a year ago I went on a “Walk To Emmaus.” Emmaus is a spiritual retreat that facilitates a deepening relationship with Jesus through prayer, devotion, communion and reflection. At the end of the retreat, we repeated a pledge of sorts. The leader said to us “Christ is counting on you.” We responded “And I’m counting on Christ.”
That simple phrase says all we need to know about what it means to be a Christian: We are called to be the hands and feet and mouth of Jesus in a world that desperately needs the works and words of Christ. But we can’t be strong in the Lord by relying on our own strength.
Jesus calls to us today, in the words of the ancient book, to turn our back on everything that separates us from God and to rely totally on him.
In a mini-parable in today’s reading, Jesus puts it another way:
“What king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able to oppose the one who comes against him? If he can’t, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”
Surrender is an ugly word. No one wants to admit they’re not strong enough, fast enough, smart enough to win. There’s a humility in surrender, an admission that something is lacking.
Surrender means I’m no longer in control.
For nearly ten years, I trusted in my own strength and ignored that gnawing feeling in my heart that I hadn’t quite got it right.
I didn’t know a night of peace.
The truth of the matter is I wanted to stand on my own righteousness. I didn’t want to give up control; and I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t really controlling anything. I trusted in my own strength.
No one can stand before God trusting in their own strength. When we count the cost, it becomes clear that we can’t prevail over our own sin. But the terms of peace have already been negotiated at a place called The Skull.
The only thing left is to surrender, and accept.