Category Archives: Sermons

Bold Faith – Jeremiah putting his money where his heart is

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15


Jeremiah by Rembrandt

He had been known for prophecies of gloom and doom for many, many years, and he had been given to extravagant outbursts lots of times before.  He had visions, heard voices, broke pottery, wore yokes, and he became known as “The Weeping Prophet.”  As we have seen the last few weeks, the word of the Lord that came through Jeremiah was often a difficult word that sounded harsh as it stung it hearers’ ears.  Perhaps you’ve known people like this.  The uncle at family reunions who always seems to have bad news to share, or the co-worker you never ask “How are you doing” because you know the answer will include long lists of difficulties.

Had there been parties at this time, Jeremiah would not have been on the guest list.  People knew his song, and they were getting tired of One-Note Jerry.  But this was no time for parties.  Things were grim, and the situation was dire.  Indeed, this was as bad as these people had lived through, and things were getting even worse.

As Jeremiah chapter 32 begins, the southern kingdom of Judah was breathing its last, and Jerusalem was under siege.   King Zedekiah of Judah had rebelled against Babylon, and the Babylonians were punishing the king and his people.  The Temple would be destroyed, the capital, Jerusalem, would be laid waste, and the entire nation would be annihilated.  Times were desperate.

And, what had Jeremiah done?  Jeremiah had told the king that his kingdom would be toppled, that he would be punished so much that he would be taken into captivity into Babylon.  And what had King Zedekiah done?  He had thrown Jeremiah into prison.  What king, after all, needed a loud-mouth prophet spreading words about his pending demise, especially when the enemy army was advancing?  So, even if there had been a party, which there surely would not have been, and even if Jeremiah had been invited, which he surely would not have been, the prophet could not have attended, at that time, because he was in jail.

So, do you get the scene?  A nation in tatters, a king about to be toppled, land that is being overtaken by the enemy, people about to be hauled off into exile, and God’s prophet in jail.  It is gloom and doom, indeed!  If ever Jeremiah could have said “I told you so,” this is the time.  But, notice what he did.  He bought land.  The Weeping Prophet became the Cash Buyer.  Jeremiah gathered money and spent it all on a real-estate deal with his cousin.  What could he have been thinking?

Here’s the scene:  Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, came to him and asked the prophet to purchase the family’s land in Anathoth, which was a few miles outside Jerusalem and already overtaken by the enemy army.  Surely, this would have been another great object lesson for the prophet to show the people how they missed the mark.  He could have said, “God’s wrath is coming on this people, and you ask me to purchase land?  Put your faith in God, not in land, and pray to God to sustain you even as the land is laid waste, and you are taken away.”  This would have been right in line with Jeremiah’s prophetic work.  But, he does nothing of that sort.

He bought the field, a field that was virtually worthless, and he conducted his business publicly in full view of many Judeans.  He counted out the money, transferred the deed of purchase, and had his associate Baruch put the documents in earthenware jars, the safety deposit boxes of the day, for safekeeping “for a long time.”  Remember this was the gloom-and-doom prophet, the fellow who had been warning these people for years.  And, just as the people were about to lose it all – literally – he purchased land and demonstrated hope in the future:  a future that was unseen, unknown, and beyond anything that Jeremiah could imagine or hope to live into.  What an act of bold faith!

Remember, land was very important to Jeremiah and his contemporaries.  Jeremiah was among people whose ancestors had known slavery in Egypt and landlessness in the Exodus.  They received land as evidence of God’s grace and God’s provision for them.  Land was so important to them that it could not be bought and sold simply and easily as a means of profit.  Instead, land was cherished and prized.  There were no flippers who bought low and sold high for a quick profit.

We do not know why Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, wanted to sell the land, but there was a good chance that, living outside the capital city of Jerusalem, he had seen the enemy come through the countryside on the way to the capital, and he had witnessed the destruction and coming defeat.  Perhaps he wanted to get any money he could to help him flee and relocate, and maybe he thought cousin Jerry might just be wild enough to go for it.  So, he came to his cousin with the offer to sell.  And, Jeremiah said, “Yes!”  Jeremiah – the old man, the tired prophet in jail, the aged one who believed his people would be taken into captivity and who was aware of reality enough to know that he, Jeremiah, would not likely live to enjoy the land – agreed to purchase it.  He took his own money, and he invested it in the future, God’s future, that he believed would come to pass someday, somehow.

Let’s be honest.  There really was nothing in this deal for Jeremiah.  He was purchasing a parcel of land that was nearly worthless and was losing value with each advance of the enemy army.  And, even if the miraculous happened, and the people were returned to their land someday, somehow, Jeremiah would not benefit.  He would not walk around the land and enjoy its vistas.  He would not farm the land and sell its produce.  He was purchasing land for an unseen future, staking his claim in a God whose faithfulness would transcend the destruction all around him in the present.  What a bold faith!

And, as was his pattern, Jeremiah recognized that there was a lesson to be taught here.  So, he completed the deal in public – in full view of everyone who would watch – so they would see that the gloom-and-doom prophet was staking his belief in the future when land would be valuable again, when someone would enjoy the vistas, when others would farm the land and enjoy its produce.  Jeremiah was putting his money where his heart was, believing that God’s grace and provision would accompany the people in defeat, to exile, through exile, and all the way back home again.  And, Jeremiah offered this purchase as a means of encouragement to his fellows.  This one-note Jerry began singing a different tune with a hopeful chorus of a future, yet unseen, when God’s care and provision would bring the people back home.  That is bold faith, putting his money where his heart was!

In Jeremiah’s actions, we see a linking of faith in God with the everyday realities of life.  Jeremiah’s prophecy of hope was not uttered in words alone, even beautiful, poetic, or inspiring words.  Rather, Jeremiah the prophet took money, real money that had to be earned and saved, to buy land, real land that was under attack, real attack by a strong enemy.  We see, again and again, that God uses the everyday realities and necessities of lives to show God’s care and to lead God’s people.  And, I believe that God calls us to use the everyday realities of life to show our commitment to follow in God’s way and to care for others.  Biblical faith does not separate everyday realities from faithful living.

So often, we discount everyday things – money, investments, houses, cars, toys – as carnal and material, things somehow less than other spiritual things.  We tend to separate the material from the spiritual, claiming to value the spiritual more highly as of ultimate importance.  Yet, in a fascinating twist, despite our convictions to the contrary, we keep our attention on material things, and the pursuit of acquiring and securing them can become our focus.  We may look to the future as Jeremiah did, but we tend to see 401(k)s and investments that we build to provide for our own security and our own benefit.  Even as we believe God looks on the heart and cares about our loving motives and eternal commitments, we spend our time and attention on money, investments, houses, cars, and toys.

Jeremiah’s object lesson in spending real money reminds us that God calls us to use real money in support of good causes and worthy endeavors in ways that seek to unite the spiritual and material in faithful living.  Do you remember reading the teachings and parables of Jesus?  Notice how many times Jesus talks about money and the ways in which its use demonstrates people’s ultimate commitments.  When Jesus talks about money, it is real money not bunches of Monopoly money that is fake and unlimited.  It is money that you and I have worked for and earned.  And, what we do with it – as individuals, as families, and as a church – demonstrates to a large measure how we follow the God in Jesus Christ.

When Jeremiah spends his real money to purchase the field in Anathoth, we see another important lesson.  Faithful living calls us to link future hope and present action.  What we believe to be ultimately true in the future should guide how we live today.  Jeremiah’s hope was a future hope, far beyond his day, to a time when God’s provision would bring the people back from exile.  Despite its distance into the future, Jeremiah’s hope caused him to spend his real money in the present and to entrust his money to a God who would use it in ways that would be good and right – beyond anything he could hope to see or enjoy.  That is bold faith, putting your money where your heart is!

There are examples in our day.  I was pleased to know one such person.  Al Wilson spent his working years as a successful businessperson.  He worked hard, and his businesses prospered.  He believed that God called him to share with others, and Al and his family spent time and money in support of their local church and its broader ministries.  He came to believe that forming effective ministers was a worthy endeavor, and he supported a theological school by giving substantial sums of money, serving on its board, and asking other people to give their money and time as well.  When Al and his wife, Carol, no longer needed their large home, he decided to downsize and give the proceeds of the sale to the theological school so that it could be used to form effective ministers for the future – a future that he would not experience himself, but a future that God would bring about for others who followed him in Christian faith.  That is future hope that brought forth bold action in the present.

In 2004, before Hurricane Katrina came ashore, Christian women and men in New Orleans became concerned about providing adequate housing for others in the city’s Ninth Ward.  First Baptist Church of New Orleans partnered with Habitat for Humanity to create the Baptist Crossroads Project, agreeing to build forty homes – with real money and real labor – for other people.  They invested in a future they could not see, and they committed themselves to provide hope for others.  They would not live in the houses they would provide, but thanks to their faithfulness, others’ futures would be improved.  And, following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005, the Baptist Crossroads Project expanded its vision ten-fold, striving to build 400 houses in flood-ravaged New Orleans.  That is future hope calling forth bold and faithful action in the present.  Like Jeremiah, these faithful followers of Jesus put their real money where their hearts are, and their bold faith is making a brighter future possible for others.

The good news for us is that the God of Jeremiah is our God, too.  And the faith that propelled Jeremiah to take the extravagant step of plunking down his own money for a future that others would enjoy can be our faith as well.  May we be open to the opportunities before us this day to be so bold and so faithful.  Amen.

Hannah the Innkeeper

Hannah, The Innkeeper
Dramatic Sermon
Christmas Day 2011

Introduction: Have you ever wondered how Luke gathered material for his gospel? What if Luke did research to prepare his story of the birth of Jesus? Do you think Luke interviewed people with first-hand experience? Perhaps, Luke conducted an interview with the innkeeper who took in Mary and Joseph so many years before.

Luke: I am thinking of gathering as many stories as possible about Jesus and writing them down. I have been fortunate to talk with Jesus’ mother, Mary, and she suggested that I talk with you to learn about Jesus’ birth. Can you tell me about yourself?

Hannah: I have a small house in Bethlehem. There is a stable at back. My husband and I ran the Inn until his death.

Luke: I understand that Jesus was born following the decree from Caesar Augustus that everyone should be registered. So, Joseph went back to his ancestral hometown, Bethlehem. What do you remember about those days?

Hannah: It was a very busy time with lots of people coming and going. Many people needed a place to stay. I was swamped, and what I thought would be a fun adventure became a lot of work.

Luke: What do you remember about Mary and Joseph? What did you think about them?

Hannah: I saw Mary and Joseph, and I was sorry to tell them that I had no room. They had travelled eighty miles, which is a long way. I felt great sympathy for them, but I had no room. I knew they really needed a place to be.

Luke: What did you do? Ask other people to leave?

Hannah: I thought of the stable as the only place I had. I knew this wasn’t ideal, but it was the best I could offer. They agreed. Joseph helped Mary get to the cave. They thanked me, though I was embarrassed to receive thanks for what I offered. Because I was so busy, I left them for the afternoon. I had guests to attend to and food to prepare. When I returned to bring them some food, the baby had been born. They put him in the manger. I thought, “How clever!”

Luke: As I was talking with Mary for information on the story I am gathering, she said, “Be sure to ask Hannah about the shepherds.” Will you tell me about shepherds?

Hannah: I heard a commotion from the stable, and I saw shepherds. They started telling me a story that was hard to believe. And, to be honest, I was very skeptical.

Luke: I know that shepherds have a rough reputation. What did they tell you?

Hannah: The talked about angels visiting them, announcing that the Messiah had been born, singing to them, and offering great praise.

Luke: Did you believe the shepherds?

Hannah: As I said, it was hard to believe. But after the shepherds told me about their visit from the angels, Mary and Joseph told me about their own experience with angels. So, the stories were confirmed. I believed that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. And, I still believe that.

Luke: Thank you for these wonderful details. I do think I will write them down.

Hannah: “Yes, you have to write this story. So the whole world will know!”

The Joy of Do-Overs

Matthew 25:14-30

Tandem Sermon preached with Rev. Dr. Lisa Wimberly Allen

 Preacher One:  Do you remember playing games as a child? 

Preacher Two:  Yes, I loved playing games with friends.

One:  Do you remember playing games with do-overs?

Two:  Sure, do-overs are second chances.  When you mess up, or things don’t work out as you had hoped, you can call “Do-over” and have another try.

One:  Did you ever play a game when do-overs were not allowed?

Two:  I think so.

One:  I remember one day when I was the newest child in the neighborhood, and I was about to play my first ball game there.  I was the first person to take a turn that day, and just before I began, other children yelled, “No do-overs!”  I still remember the chill down my spine, the lump in my throat, and the pit in my stomach.  “What if I mess up?,” I thought.  “What if I fail?”  I was almost frozen in fear.

Two:  Imagine, instead, if the other children had yelled, “Try hard, and if you need one, you can have a do-over!”

One:  That would have been great.

Two:  Do-overs have an amazing ability to free us from fear, to help us overcome a sometimes paralyzing dread of failure, and to lead us to action. 

One:  Do-overs are like the net under a trapeze that encourages the trapeze artist to try something new, to venture beyond what she is comfortable with, to attempt an extra flip or special task.  Even if she fails in her initial attempts, the trapeze artist knows the net is below, and it will catch her.  And, she can try again.

Two:  When there are no do-overs, however, fear of failure can lead to inaction and can cause people to stay with what they know, to remain with the comfortable, to refrain from venturing into new tasks or possibilities.

One:  With that view, most people refuse to take risks, preferring a safe route that holds onto security and safety. 

Two:  Jesus offers a fascinating parable about taking risks in service to God’s reign.  In the parable of the talents, a master entrusts vast sums of money with his servants.  We often hear the word “talent” and think of our abilities, but a talent was money – and lots of it.  A talent was worth about 6,000 denarii, a day’s wage for an ordinary person, and it equaled about twenty years worth of wages.  With the first servant, the master entrusts five talents or 100 years of wages.  With the second servant, forty years of wages.  And, with the third servant, twenty years of wages. 

One:  When Jesus taught with parables, he often used hyperbole to emphasize a point.  In this case, there seems to be an exaggerated amount of money left with servants.  What point could Jesus be making?

Two:  Jesus’ audience was composed largely of rural peasants, and they knew how challenging life could be.  It took hard work, day in and day out, to make ends meet.  The thought that they might be handed twenty years worth of wages was unheard of.  It was extravagant.  The listeners would have stopped to think, “What!  How can this be?”

One:  So, Jesus surprised his listeners with a story of a master giving enormous sums of money to his servants.  Is there anything else surprising in this parable?

Two:  Yes, the hearers would have been surprised by the third servant’s fear-filled response to his master.  “I knew you were harsh, and I was afraid.”  How could someone think a master harsh when that master just entrusted such a huge sum of money with him? 

One:  Also, it seems the hearers would have been surprised that the third servant did not try to do something with the money.  After all, it was twenty years of wages.  If someone is down to a few pennies, she might not be willing to take risks, but if that person has $1 million, surely there is room for some risk-taking.

Two:  Exactly!

One:  I have heard this parable used in churches for the annual stewardship campaign.  Is it teaching Jesus’ followers to give their money for God’s work?

Two:  No, money is used to illustrate a larger point.  The meaning is much deeper than money.  Jesus is not simply teaching us to use our money to make more money, and he is not telling us to give our money to God for God’s work.  Rather, Jesus is teaching his disciples – then and now – to use the resources we have been given, to take risks with what we have and help it become more, to see possessions not as treasures to be hoarded but as opportunities to be invested into something much greater.

One:  What is the message for the church?

Two:  So often, churches miss opportunities to engage in mission where they are located because their attention is focused on their balance sheet, income statement, or membership numbers.  Churches list their assets and liabilities, and they seek to ensure that their assets, such as building and vehicle values, remain stable.  This means that you cannot take risks with ministry opportunities that might damage what you have.  Buildings can be viewed more like shrines to be protected than places into which all people are to be invited.  Money must go to maintenance of what you have – membership, heating and air conditioning, tried and true programs and established patterns – rather than being risked for ministry within or beyond the walls of your buildings.

One:  It seems that many churches live in fear, like the third servant.  Perhaps they are afraid to risk using what they have because they do not think there will be enough to go around.  If they try a new venture in ministry, and it does not pan out, they think there are no do-overs.  Too often they live in fear, just as I did so long ago as the new child in the neighborhood.  They cannot risk losing – money, members, status in the eyes of our church-going neighbors – especially when times are tough, budgets are tight, and members are hard to come by.

Two:  And, they have come to measure success by achieving tangible things they can see, touch, and measure – members, numbers of worship services, budget totals.  This leads them to hunker down and try to hold on to what they have just as the third servant buried the talent he was given.

One:  This story seems to have a harsh ending:  the third servant is stripped of his talent and banished.  Are we missing something?

Two:  Yes!  Did you see the master’s response to the first two servants?  The master invited them to “share in the joy of your master” after seeing the results of their risk taking.  Joy!  This is a parable about joy that comes from taking risks for the sake of the gospel and its ministry.

One:  And, it is a parable about abundance.  One hundred years, forty years, or twenty years worth of wages provide enough money to allow for do-overs!  The master has resources in abundance.

Two:  What would you invite the church to hear in this story?

One:  Rather than holding tightly to what we have – out of fear that we do not have enough money, people, time, or abilities – look to God, who gives to us in abundance and whose resources are without end.  Recognize what God has given you, and then look to the world right at your door and see its needs.  In what places do people need to know of God’s love, in what tangible ways do people need to experience the life-changing power of God’s Spirit?  Open your eyes, and open your hearts.  Then, risk using your resources – spend your money, use your building, leave your pews and venture into the world – to risk engaging in vital ministry.  And, if it does not work out exactly as you had envisioned or hoped, use a do-over!  Try again, again, and again!

Two:  And, then may you experience the “joy of your master!”  Amen!

Everyday Missionaries

Philemon 6

 How can you be a missionary?  As a child, I remember hearing pastors encourage our church members to consider becoming missionaries.  The call seemed to be about the needs of people out there or over there, far away from our small town and distant from our lives.  Those people needed to hear the gospel message, and we had an obligation to tell them.  The way we could do that was by committing ourselves to become missionaries, living in distant lands, or giving our money to fund their endeavors. 

Being this kind of missionary involved travel and dislocation from the life we knew.  While this possibility had a certain allure, especially to adventurous types, it presented only part of the picture because it removed possibilities for mission to distant places separated from our lives.

Instead of this faraway conception of missions, I suggest that we can have “Everyday Missionaries.”  Women and men, boys and girls, who are willing to offer themselves in relationship with others out of love, are everyday missionaries.  As they live their lives, they share love – in ways large and small – and they can be missionaries every day.  The key is love.

Background to Philemon

In the tiny book of Philemon, we have an example of ministry and missions at its best in the midst of a testy situation.  Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, leader of a church in his house, following Philemon’s estrangement from Onesimus.  And throughout the letter, Paul appeals to love.

When Paul writes to Philemon, Onesimus has fled from his master, and if he is deemed a fugitive he is subject to harsh punishment, even death. While away from Philemon, Onesimus encounters Paul and is converted to Christianity. Paul states that Onesimus, which means “useful” in Greek, has indeed become useful to him during his imprisonment. Perhaps Onesimus now feels that he should return to Philemon asking forgiveness for running away. Knowing the harsh punishment that could await Onesimus, Paul decides to intervene.

At this point, Paul faces a dilemma. What should he do? Should he harbor Onesimus in an effort to help him avoid the possibility of punishment? Should he encourage Onesimus to continue running away from his master in an effort to elude possible capture and return? Should Paul instruct Onesimus to return to his master alone and seek forgiveness, willingly accepting whatever punishment and consequences await him at Philemon’s household? Should Paul tell Philemon what he should do, that is, should Paul tell Philemon to accept the runaway slave, forgive him completely, and invite him into full relationship?
            Paul chooses none of those options. Instead of remaining aloof or becoming involved to the point of dictating what should happen, Paul appeals to the Christian love and new familial bonds shared by Christians. He drafts a letter to Philemon, encouraging him to welcome Onesimus back as a member of the family of faith, that group of siblings whose bonds of relationship are formed by the love of Jesus. Note Paul’s words: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”

            Rather than commanding or ordering Philemon to act in a certain way, Paul appeals to love as the proper motivation for his action. Philemon has experienced the love of God through Jesus, and Paul testifies that Philemon himself has shown love for “all the saints” in the church in his house (verse 5). The love of God through Jesus has redefined the relationships between people gathered in faith. 

            The Sharing of Your Faith

            Building on love, Paul suggests the motivation for ministry that forms the focal verse for our Missions Emphasis, which we find in verse 6:  “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”

            The Greek word translated “sharing” in the New Revised Standard Version is koinonia, which is usually translated community with an emphasis on the equality of community members.  In Philemon 6, “the sharing” of your faith is the koinonia of your faith, which suggests that a community results from the “sharing of your faith.”  When people share their faith, a new community can be formed in which all people are invited to participate as equals.  People living this call in their lives can make great changes to their communities, their schools, their workplaces, their families, their churches, and in the lives of people with whom they share.

            Everyday Missionaries

How can you be a missionary?  You can be a missionary when you experience the love of God in Jesus Christ and when you share that love in community.

Paul appeals to this love. The love that can make sisters and brothers of former enemies. The love that can make sisters and brothers of former slaves and slave owners. The love that welcomes everyone into the family and holds them there despite differences, disappointments, and disagreements. The love that transcends social convention, prejudicial attitudes, and hostility. The love of Jesus is the love that invites everyone to the table, turns no one away, and provides plenty so that all can be satisfied. This is the good news: the love of Jesus can transform a fugitive slave and a fuming slave owner into siblings in the faith.

And because this is good news, Paul appeals to love. Rather than commanding Philemon to receive Onesimus without punishment, Paul invites Philemon to reflect on the good news of Jesus’ love and to respond gratefully, voluntarily, and without being forced. Because the appeal is based on love, Paul does not have to resort to threats, yells, or charges.  While this letter is addressed to Philemon, it is designed to be read before the gathered church in his house.  Thus, it serves a call to all faithful people in the church to be everyday missionaries by sharing love with other people in community.