Parable of Rich Fool

I Pity The Fool

A stewardship sermon, based on  Luke 12:13-21 and  Genesis 41 that features the likes of Pharaoh, Joseph, a rich man,and Mr. T.  Yes, Mr. T.  Enjoy!

I’d like to confess something to you. Pastor Frank and I meet each week, for about an hour. These meetings probably aren’t too different from most business meetings; we plan out the coming weeks and months, discuss current priorities, and coordinate resources to get the job done. In this case the job may be a little different that most, planning is for things like preaching, pastoral visits and upcoming baptisms. We also talk theology, on occasion, I suppose that isn’t too surprising either.

About six months ago I added something to our meeting agenda, an opening confession. Each week I’ll confess whatever it is that’s been in my head or on my heart recently, things like jealousy, stubbornness or pride. It’s been healthy for me, I think, and as the say goes confession is good for the soul. I definitely believe that.
The confession I have for you is this: I had no interest in delivering a stewardship sermon during internship. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

When I arrived in August and heard the typical Fall stewardship drive would be postponed until the Spring, to make room for our strategic planning process, I breathed a sigh of relief. And then figured the boss would want to take the lead on the Spring stewardship series anyways. And yet here I am, your intern pastor, standing in front of you today, getting ready to talk about money. Surprise, surprise.

If you’re anything like me, when you run across pledge drives on PBS or NPR, well, you change the channel. And then wait a few days or a week until the pledge drive is over before heading back. If you were here last Sunday, and heard Pastor Frank kick off the Awesome God, Awesome Community campaign, and you came back this week, well you’re already doing better than me. You didn’t change the channel. You may have also gotten a stewardship letter in the mail this week from us. And still, you didn’t change the channel, you’re here. Thank you for staying tuned.

And it was a good sermon, last week, from Pastor Frank, which makes it really hard to follow. I won’t try to top it, can’t, even if I tried. My only hope is to give you another perspective, another way to look at your finances, your Creator, the world around you, and how they all connect. So here we go, my first stewardship message. Hopefully it isn’t too terribly, horribly awful.

Good News
I’ve got good news for you. Really good news. You’re rich. Did you know that? Maybe some of you already knew. You might already agree that you’re rich, right off the bat. You’ve done well, have made some plans, set some financial goals, and met many of them. Life has been good for you. Good job. Well met.

But perhaps you find yourself thinking, WHAT? I’m not rich! You should see my bank account! I’m barely making it. Still, for most of you here, well, like it or not, you’re rich. What, you don’t agree? You look at your neighbors, see all they have, and think, there is no way you could be rich? Well, maybe we need to take a wider view of what we have. Wider than Juno, Jupiter, and the Gardens. Wider than Palm Beach County. Wider than South Florida. Wider than Florida. Wider than the United States. So how do you stack up, when your neighbors include the entire world?

The website, Global Rich List, can tell you just how rich you are when compared to your international neighbors. Just type in your annual income, or enter an estimate of your net worth, and this website will tell you.

• So if you make twenty thousand a year, congratulations, your income puts you in the top 3.65% of wealth globally. To frame that a little differently, making ten dollars an hour, working full time, for forty hours a week will net you twenty thousand dollars a year. Now America has higher costs of living than many places, that’s true, and I recognize that if you’re earning twenty thousand a year making ends meet can be difficult. But, globally speaking, our planet has 7.4 billion people on it. And if you make 20k a year you make more money than 7.2 billion of them. Globally speaking, you’re doing pretty well.
• If you earn a little more, and make the grand sum of twenty-five thousand a year, that puts you in the top 2 percent of earners in the world.
• This may sound crazy, but if you make a little more than that, and make thirty-two thousand four hundred dollars a year, well, you’re in the top 1% of income globally. Remember that Wall Street movement a couple of years ago? The one called We Are The 99%? That was a U.S. phenomenon. But if it were done globally, at that level, with your annual income of thirty-two thousand four hundred dollars a year, well, then those 99% are talking about you. You, are the 1%.
• If you make a bit higher than that, forty-three thousand two hundred, in this area you’re kind of typical. That’s the median annual income for people living in Juno, Jupiter, North Palm Beach, and Lake Park. So for you, earning forty-three thousand two hundred dollars a year you’re kind of average locally. But globally you’re doing really, really well. You’re in the top 0.4% of wage earners globally. You, also, are a 1 percenter.
• And if you make 80 thousand a year you’re in the top 0.1% of wealth globally, even more impressive. In a random sample of 1,000 people, you would be the wealthiest. There are only about six million people in the world that make as much or more than you, at $80,000 a year. Only six million people in the world. Out of 7.4 BILLION. Six million people is about as many people as live in all of South Florida, in three counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. Imagine, all of the people in the world that make $80,000 or more a year could live in South Florida. In just three counties in the US.

So congratulations, maybe not to all of you, but to most of you. In a very real way most of you are rich. Some of you, are extremely, extremely rich. In terms of how long you’ll live, your access to healthcare, and financial stability for you and your family it is really, really good news.

Even your intern pastor, making $1,400 a month, or about 17 thousand a year, would be considered by many, at least from a global perspective, to be rich.

Troubling News
But I’ve got some troubling news for you too, fellow rich person, and it comes from our gospel reading today in Luke 12.

Here we see Jesus, teaching in a crowd, a fairly common setting in scripture. Someone says to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my fair share of the family inheritance.” Jesus responds with a question, asking, what makes you think it’s my job to be a judge for you?”

If you were asked to help with a family inheritance squabble, well, you might say something similar. Perhaps also saying, hey, that’s not my job. Or, if you were feeling helpful maybe you’d pull up the contact list on your phone and recommend a good attorney that specializes in that sort of thing.

But Jesus, sensing a teachable moment, returns his attention to the crowd, and offers some wisdom. Protect yourself against greed, he says. Jesus continues, telling those gathered that life is not defined by what you have. Even when you have a lot.

Life is not defined by what you have. Even when you have a lot. That’s great advice, by any standard. But wait, there’s more, to this story. Jesus was not done with this teachable moment.

He then launches into the story of a rich man, a farmer, who found himself with a terrific crop. With such a great crop the man now had a problem. The crop was so big, so grand, that his barn was not big enough for the harvest. “Ah, I’ve got it”, the rich man says. “Here is what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather all my crops in this bigger barn. And then I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made! You can retire! So kick back, take it easy and have the time of your life!”

Now I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like a pretty smart plan. Work hard, do well, increase your holdings, save, and then retire in style. This is the kind of advice you’d expect from a skilled financial advisor like Suzy Orman or Dave Ramsey. It kind of sounds like the American dream.

But then the plot twist. God shows up, in this parable from Jesus, and has something to say to this rich farmer. “Fool! Tonite you die!” Ouch! I can almost picture Mr. T – that’s the popular actor from the 80s tv show The A Team – with his trademark Mohawk, extend his index finger, pointing it this rich farmer and saying his most famous line, “I pity the fool!” Now God doesn’t kill this rich farmer, it was just his time to go. And after all the effort this farmer put into storing those bumper crops, ironically it’s his time to go. And he can’t take it with him. But still, that’s strong language right? Especially when it’s from a parable Jesus tells. And a word that’s spoken by God. God just called this rich man a fool. Wait a second…we’re rich, right? At least many of us. Did God just call us all fools? Hold on to that thought for a little bit.

Pharaoh and Joseph
There’s another story in scripture about storing a bumper crop, you may have heard it, and that’s in Genesis chapter 41. In this story Pharaoh has a dream, is troubled by it, and none of the wise men in his court could interpret it. Getting desperate, Pharaoh calls in a Hebrew slave named Joseph, who had gained a reputation for accurately interpreting dreams. After describing this dream Joseph replies that it is beyond his power to interpret it, but that God can tell Pharaoh the meaning. The dream interpretation turns out to be fairly straight forward, and it’s all about feast and famine. Seven years of bumper crops, Joseph says, followed by seven years of drought. And to get through the drought Joseph recommends collecting a fifth of the crop each year, and then putting that crop in Pharaohs’ massive storehouses. Sensing God was speaking through Joseph, Pharaoh gives Joseph all the resources he needs to put that plan into action.

And for the next fourteen years, the first seven with bumper crops, the next seven with severe drought, that’s exactly what happens. In the bumper crop years, a portion is put away in the storehouses. In the drought years, when the people cry out for food, Joseph opens up those storehouses and distributes grain to anyone in Egypt who asked. In this way this story has a happy ending; God’s people are cared for.

Two Stories
So what do you make of these two stories? Both are about storing bumper crops. And we’ve got some rich people in both stories; scripture tells us that Pharaoh, Joseph, and the rich fool are all very well off. But in one story the bumper crops are a good thing. In the other story, not so much. I noticed a couple of other tidbits in these stories that might impact how we look at them as well.

In the Genesis story it was God’s idea to store the bumper crops, born of a vision from Pharaoh, and interpreted by Joseph. In the Luke parable it was man’s idea.

In the Genesis story the bumper crops served a higher purpose, to feed an entire people throughout the land. In the Luke parable, the crops were for the good of the man, for himself only.

God’s fingerprints are all over the Genesis story, from giving Pharaoh the dream, to providing Joseph the interpretation, to guiding Pharaoh to put God’s plan in motion. God isn’t even part of the Luke parable, at least until the very end. Instead it’s all about the man, his ideas, his work, his patting himself on the back for a job well done. I think God pities, truly pities, that fool.

Mr. T and Coffee
While we’re talking Mr. T, here’s another trait of his you might be familiar with. He’s famous for wearing huge gold chains around his neck. He started doing this when he worked as a bouncer in his 20s, and became known for it, and kept up that look, for decades. Mr. T estimates that the gold he wears daily is worth about three hundred thousand dollars.

But then, when helping cleanup New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in 2005, he gave up virtually all his gold. Mr. T is quoted as saying “as a Christian, when I saw other people lose their lives, and land and property, I felt it would be wrong before God to continue wearing my gold. I felt it would be insensitive to the people who lost everything, so I stopped wearing my gold.”

Now for the Awesome God, Awesome Community campaign no one is going to ask you to sell all your gold. And honestly, if you have three hundred thousand dollars of gold chains like Mr. T had, wear it some Sunday. I’d like to take a selfie with you. That’d be kind of fun.

But, this campaign, for you, might require some sacrifice. If you’re a fan of Starbucks, what if you gave up one coffee, at 4 bucks a pop, each week, and reinvested that right here, at Holy Spirit Lutheran? That would come out to $208 for the year, or $312 over the 18 months of this campaign. If one person from each of the 500 families in this church did that it would come out to $156,000 dollars. That’s almost half of the $330,000 we’re looking to raise. And it’s only drinking one less coffee, per household, per week.

Tho if you’re more of a Dunkin Donuts person like I am, with their two dollar coffee you’d have to give up two cups of it per week for the same impact. Which honestly just makes Dunkin Donuts customers smarter than Starbucks customers, it tastes better anyways…a sermon for some other time.

So be rich, there’s no shame in that. But be a certain kind of rich.

Be like Pharaoh. Dream big dreams. Keep God in the middle of those dreams.
Be like Joseph. Work to make God’s dreams a reality. God used him mightily.
And when the time comes, open the silos of your bumper crop. Or wear a little less gold. Or drink a little less coffee, and give, joyfully, for the betterment of those around you.

For when you do, for our awesome God, and for this awesome community, you, my friend, will be blessed. Amen.

Parable of Rich Fool


Show Me The Way

Today’s message centers on the story of Saul on the road to Damascus as found in Acts 9:1-20, with a spattering of Fleetwood Mac, the movie Sliding Doors, and Peter Frampton thrown in for good measure.  Enjoy!


You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way

If you don’t recognize those words spoken, you may recognize them sung, it’s a very catchy tune.

The song Go Your Own Way is one of several hit singles by Fleetwood Mac on their 1977 album, Rumours.  Rumours was critically acclaimed and popular: it won the Grammy for album of the year, and went on to sell over 40 million copies. That puts it in the top ten of album sales of all time, right up there with the likes of Michael Jackson, the Eagles and Pink Floyd.

Rumours was also featured on an episode of the TV series Glee a few years ago. I remember watching that episode with my wife, falling in love with the songs all over again, and seeing the lead character, Will Schuster, pull the album from his personal record collection, and play it for his students, in hopes of encouraging them to sing some of the songs. Within minutes of watching that episode I hopped over to my laptop and purchased a used copy of the album, on vinyl, a record. Suddenly I just had to have that album in my collection too.

And yes, my wife and I still have, and use, our record player on occasion. There is just something special to me, about listening to music on an old-school record player. Perhaps, at least in that regard, we go our own way as well.

The reading from Acts today tells the story of someone definitely going their own way, Saul, of Tarsus. Before the events we heard about in Acts 9, Saul has a pretty bad reputation. Saul’s one burning desire as a young man was to find and jail, and sometimes kill, early converts to Christianity. In Acts 7 we hear the story of Stephen, the first martyr in Luke’s depiction of the early church in Jerusalem, who was stoned to death by an angry mob. Some of the people who watched the stoning put their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. It was a sign of respect, of importance. This Saul was a pretty central character in the effort to squash out the spread of the Jesus movement in those early years.

In modern terms, at best, you might label Saul a religious zealot. At worst, considering the nature of what he was up to, perhaps a terrorist. Labels or no labels, based on his actions, Saul was no role model any of us would aspire to be like.

Today we find Saul on a mission to see the high priest. Saul is hoping to convince local synagogues, to allow him to arrest these early Christ-followers, and take them back to Damascus, in chains. At the time the term Christianity wasn’t used. The label Christian was not common. Instead, the term followers of the Way was used to describe people drawn to this early Jesus movement. Not followers of “A” Way. Followers of THE Way.  And Saul was hoping to collect this next batch of followers of the Way and haul them off in chains.

But then, on the road to Damascus, something happened. As Saul approached the city, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. Likely in shock, he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?” Looking to understand what was going on, Saul then asks “Who are you, lord?”

The voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up, go to the city, and await instructions.” Saul then gets up off the ground, realizes he is blind, and asks his companions to take him to Damascus. And there he waits, blind, fasting for three days. Not eating or drinking, just praying, awaiting what was to come.

There is another main character in our text today, Ananias. He is described as a believer; he too had a vision where the Lord spoke to him, calling him by name, “Ananias!” In this vision Ananias is given some marching orders of his own: go to this street, to that house, ask for a man named Saul. “I have shown Saul a vision of his own,” the Lord says. “And told him you were coming, to lay hands on him, to give him sight.”

When Ananias heard this, well, he wasn’t exactly thrilled. “But Lord,” Ananias retorts, “this Saul has done terrible things to believers! And he can arrest those who call on your name!” I can’t say I blame Ananias for this response, this mission sounds like a dangerous one.

The Lord would have none of that. “Go!”, the Lord says. “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to kings, to Israel, to Greeks, to the world.” Perhaps not wanting to argue more, Ananias chooses to listen to the Lord, gets up, and finds Saul. He then lays his hands on Saul, saying “regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Saul, now healed, gets up, and is baptized.

Sliding Doors
Thinking about this story of Saul and Ananias I can’t help but be reminded of a movie from the 1990s, Sliding Doors. In it, the main character, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, either catches a train, or doesn’t. It’s those sliding doors of the train that either let her in the train, or keep her out, stuck at the station. The film alternates between these two parallel universes, outlining how important this one moment in time, of train catching, is for her. As the movie unfolds you see how whether she catches the train impacts what she does for her next job and who she falls in love with. Eventually it becomes a matter of life or death for her. It’s fascinating to see how these two parallel universes play out next to each other, scene by scene.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we don’t have parallel universes like that playing out in our reading today. It’s just one narrative, some action, some drama, a conclusion. But what we do have is a train catching moment. Actually two of them. One for Saul; one for Ananias.

After hearing the voice of the risen Christ, after finding himself now blind, Saul had a decision to make. Would he listen to this voice, the voice of Jesus, who asked him to travel to Damascus and wait for the Lord? Or would he pull a Jonah, turn around, and go in the exact opposite direction? Said differently, would he catch that train, to Damascus? Or, in Fleetwood Mac style, would Saul continue to go his own way?

Ananias has a similar moment, a similar choice. He too, heard the voice of the risen Christ, and it asked him to do something. Go see a man with a reputation for violence against your kind. Lay hands on this man, heal him. Would Ananias heed this voice, to go, to heal? To gift Saul the Holy Spirit, to baptize him? To help launch Saul’s evangelistic world tour? Or, would Ananias go his own way, leaving Saul blind, and waiting for a train that would never arrive? These two men had some important decisions to make. Decisions that have shaped how we view faith for almost two millennia.

We know the end to this story. Both Saul and Ananias chose not to go their own way, but instead followed THE Way. But I think it’s worth talking about what was at stake here.

After Acts 9 Saul is often referred to in scripture as Paul. This experience, on the road, changed him, so much so that the author of Acts uses a new name for him. His choice to follow THE Way netted him a new identity.

There was also something rather novel about Paul, he was both a Jew and a Roman citizen. He used this dual identity to minister to both Jewish and Roman audiences. His choice to follow the THE WAY allowed him to spread the Good News in ways and places that others simply couldn’t. He was the right man for the job.

Paul is credited with writing up to fourteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. That’s a big chunk! In his book called Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, best-selling author A.N. Wilson concludes that, “Christianity, without Paul, is literally nothing.” Let me repeat that: “Christianity, without Paul, is literally nothing.” That’s a powerful and provocative statement about the importance of this one person on the birth and expansion of Christianity in our world. Had Paul and Ananias not caught that train, had they gone their own way, we likely wouldn’t be sitting in a worship service here today. Human history, and our understanding of the divine, would not be the same.

Show Me The Way
So what happened to Saul and Ananias? Here’s one way to look at it. Initially they were singing some Fleetwood Mac, some ancient form of you can go your own way was bouncing around their subconscious. Then they had a change of heart, and a change of tune. Instead of Fleetwood Mac their tune now sounded a little more like Peter Frampton. More like his song Show me the way. Oh, won’t you show me the way, everyday.

Going our own way is a natural, very human thing to do. We want what’s best for ourselves and our families, or at least what we think is best. We can go our own way, we really can. That option is always out there. And it has been, ever since the very beginning. Adam and Eve had that option, to eat, or not eat the fruit.

But what do we miss out on when we do go our own way? There are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world, or roughly a third of the world’s population. Imagine what would be possible if we changed our tune too, from going our own way to asking to be shown the way. Jesus fed 5,000, miraculous. How many can we feed, in the name of Christ? When you go not on your own way, but follow the way, just about anything is possible. In the name of Christ we can give sight to the blind, heal the sick, feed the hungry, love our neighbors, both here and abroad, as ourselves. When we follow the way we do no less than change the world, living into the promises of our salvation.

You can go your own way. You really can. But once you’ve walked with the risen Christ, and experienced what that’s like, why would you want to? Lord, I’m tired of going my own way. Lord, won’t you show me, show us, THE Way, everyday. Amen.


Dear Thomas

This message centers on the apostle Thomas, and reflects on John 20:19-31.  There are a couple of funky things about this one.  It was given at Bar Church on the stage of The Kelsey Theater, a truly unique setting and way of doing church I’ll blog on shortly.  Second, a funky setting screams for a funky message format.  In this case the message is a series of letters, or perhaps emails, written to Thomas.  He never wrote back.

Bar Church featured a ton of pop-culture songs, including U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.  In a few spots the message reflects back on lyrics from this song.

The idea for this email format came from a seminary bud who took a similar approach with a most excellent message she did recently, Dear Woman, that one is highly recommended as well.  Either listen or read, Dear Thomas below, whichever option suits you.  Enjoy!

Dear Thomas,
Where were you?
Ten disciples saw Jesus that day,
Not Judas, he betrayed Jesus,
So I didn’t expect him to show up.
But you, you were still one of the crew.

On the day He rose from the tomb,
You missed out. You missed Him,
Walking, talking, among them,
They saw Him in the flesh.
Saw where nails pierced His hands,
Where a spear pierced His side.
He gave them the Holy Spirit that day.
But you? You missed out.
You missed the very first Easter.

Dear Thomas,
Yeah, I’m talking to you.
When the other disciples told you,
That they had seen the risen Christ,
Why didn’t you believe them?
These are your people!
You spent three years with this group,
Your closest friends,
Living, learning, dining, mourning,
Watching miracles performed,
Right before your very eyes.
Didn’t you trust them?

But instead of belief,
Instead of trust,
You asked for proof.
To see the marks of nails,
Through torn flesh.

And not just to see,
You wanted more.
You wanted to put your finger,
In the mark of the nails.
To put your hand,
Where a spear pierced His side.
Unless that happens, you said,
You will not believe.

Wouldn’t it have been better,
In that moment, if you had believed?
A better reflection, on you?
A better example, for us?

Dear Thomas,
Many of us have a nickname for you,
Did you know that?
You’re not just Thomas, the apostle
You are doubting Thomas,
The one who struggled with belief,
Just a little more than the others.

How do you feel about this nickname?
Is it fair? Is it your reality?
Are you still looking for proof?
I wonder about that, Thomas.

Dear Thomas,
It was a week after,
After you chose, not to trust,
Your brother disciples.
To not believe what they had seen.
It was a week after,
When Jesus then appeared,
To you, as well.

He showed you those marks,
In his hands, in his side.
You then recognized your friend,
The Christ,
And proclaimed,
“My Lord, my God!”

Jesus then asked you a question,
“Have you believed, Thomas,
Because you have seen?”
“Blessed are those, who have not seen,
And yet come, to believe.”
Do you feel like you missed out?
Missed out on that blessing?
I wonder about that, Thomas.

Dear Thomas,
I didn’t have that chance,
To meet the risen Christ,
At least not in person.
Not like you.
You’re pretty lucky.

I hope we can meet,
You and I, one day,
Maybe have a coffee, and talk,
Talk about what it was like,
To realize, suddenly,
That someone you loved,
So dearly, was more than a man,
More than a teacher,
More than a religious figure.

What was it like, to know,
With all certainty, that the One,
Who stood before you,
Was the Son of God.
I’d like to know more, Thomas.

Dear Thomas,
A confession, at times,
I too, have doubts,
Sometimes belief, in the unseen,
Is hard, right?
You must understand.

When you put your finger,
In the mark of the nails.
When you put your hand,
Where spear pierced His side.
In that moment, Thomas,
Had you found what you were looking for?

Dear Thomas,
Please accept my apology,
I’ve been too hard on you.
You lost a lot, that day Christ died.
How terrified you must have been,
Losing your teacher, your second father,
Scared for your very life.
No wonder you were running.

But me? Life’s been ok so far,
I don’t have too much to complain about,
Lost a couple jobs, lost a couple dogs,
Been hurt by love, a time or two.

Tho none of that compares,
To what you thought you’d lost that day.
I’m sorry, for not trying,
To understand your pain.
Forgive me, Thomas.

Dear Thomas,
I wish you could have seen,
This bible, that we have,
Tho I don’t think you had the chance.

In it, you’d notice,
That right after your story,
Of doubt, of disbelief,
The author of John tells us,
The purpose, of this book.

Do you know, why this book was written?
It was written, so people, like me,
Could come to believe, that Jesus is,
The Messiah,
The Son of God.
And that – through believing,
We may have Life.

You know what?
Your doubt, your disbelief,
Has led to my belief,
My life, in Christ.
And that, I think, was the plan.
You played a pretty important role, you know.
Thank you for that, Thomas.

Dear Thomas,
You know, at some point,
I discovered something.
It took a while,
It took a leap, of faith,
But I got there.

I found that, Thomas, I too,
Believe, in the Kingdom come,
When all the colors,
Will bleed into one,
Bleed into one,
But like you, dear Thomas,
Sometimes, I’m still running.

But then, dear Thomas,
Those times, of running,
Those are the best times,
For us, both of us, to look to the heavens,
And proclaim,
To the risen Christ – that :

You broke the bonds and you
You loosed the chains
You carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it.

You believe that, Dear Thomas.
And, truth be told, I do too.

Kelsey Theater pic

Shock and Awe

A Maundy Thursday message.

Recently authors Steven Skiena and Charles Ward devised a way to calculate the 100 most significant figures in history, using a rather modern approach: the internet.  To rank historical characters objectively they created a computer algorithm that scoured websites, counting mentions of people across all forms of media, including books, newspaper articles, even Wikipedia.

The authors then took into account how long ago the person lived, and adjusted the ranking based on that, so the list wouldn’t be dominated by today’s pop culture stars.  So if Kim Kardashian had the same amount of presence on the internet as, say,  Aristotle, who lived 2,400 years ago, then Aristotle would have a much higher rank as a significant figure in history.  Good idea, this adjustment, I think; the thought of Kim Kardashian being a significant historical figure, well, you can draw your own conclusions on that.

The Great Ones

And what did this ranking find?  Of the top 10 significant people in history six of them led major countries, either as kings, emperors or presidents.  And most of them were also considered military leaders too.  Some are remembered fondly, the top 10 includes US presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  Napoleon also makes this list, loved by some, loathed by others.  And then there’s Hitler, coming in at #7.  It’s a reminder that, to be significant in this world means you have left a mark on it, but not always in a good way.

Thinking about all these significant military leaders in history I’m reminded of a recent military strategy, you may have heard of it: shock and awe.  The term was first used earlier this century during the Iraq War.  Shock and awe is a doctrine based on using overwhelming power, and spectacular force, to destroy people’s will to fight. The idea is that people are in such a state of shock, in awe of what is happening, that they simply give up.  Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hitler, all on this top ten list, arguably used some version of shock and awe to claim their victories.

The Great ONE

Two thousand years ago many expected a Jewish messiah to be an earthly king, to unify the land of Israel once again.  Many expected this messiah to also be a military ruler, to conquer with miracles on the battlefield, to shock and awe the world with brute force.  It’s what people expected from a great leader at the time.  Perhaps it’s what we continue to expect from the great leaders of our day too.

But Jesus did none of that.  He never led an armed revolt.  Scripture has no record of him lifting a weapon.  And when his disciple cuts off the ear of someone in the Garden of Gethsemane? Well, Jesus chastises the disciple.  And then heals the ear.

Instead, in Jesus’ final days, after three years of earthly ministry, he chose to impart some final wisdom to his disciples and followers, and influence a movement that spread the world round, in some entirely unexpected ways.


The text from 1st Corinthians chapter 11 we heard earlier likely sounds familiar; those are the words of institution spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper.  The words are repeated before we break the bread, and drink from the cup each time communion is celebrated.  Hearing these words is so common among practicing Christians perhaps we gloss over how unsettling these words really are.  Jesus, sharing a meal with the apostles just days before being crucified, is teaching them, and us, to commemorate his upcoming death, to celebrate it.

And not just to commemorate it, we’re asked to take part in it.  Take, eat, this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.  Take, drink of it, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me.  In no small way Jesus is preparing the disciples for a time when he will no longer be with them on earth, but doing it in a way no one could have seen coming.  Asking your followers not just to look forward to your death, but to take part in it, to make your death the same place where they find life, where they find salvation, is rather shocking.  I will be with you forever, Christ says.  Remember me.

Foot Washing

Our text today from John chapter 13 finds Jesus at a dinner party before Passover.  We listen as he gets up from the table, wraps a towel around his waist and begins to pour water in a basin.  And then he starts to wash his disciple’s feet.  What?  Why would a king do that?  That just isn’t something kings normally do, especially if you’re the King of Kings.  If you’re a king you get served all the time.  Here we see Jesus doing the opposite, instead serving the disciples with a footbath.

Peter, possibly in shock, and always one to argue, sees this and exclaims, “you will never wash my feet!” But Jesus insists, saying, “unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.”  Hearing this, Peter changes his mind, real quick, exclaiming, “then wash my hands and head as well!“

Jesus, always the Teacher, then explains his actions to the disciples.  “Since I have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.  Slaves are not greater than their master.  Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message.  That’s not how the script goes for most earthly leaders.  That’s not the brand of shock and awe we’re used to.  To be truly great serve your fellow man, Christ says.  Serve your fellow woman.  To serve me, serve each other, he continues, and God will bless you.

Love Each Other

Later in John chapter 13 we see Jesus teaching some more.  “I will only be with you a little longer,” he says.  “So I give you a new commandment: Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”  Love as a command.  Not a suggestion.  Or a path to a better life.  A command.  And not just any command, this one is also a gift, from the Father, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.  A thought: the next time you watch a presidential debate, count how many times the word love is used when talking about how we should treat each other.  It just isn’t part of the typical language used by leaders in our country, or leaders in our world.  Yet, shockingly, Jesus commands us to love one another, all the same.


So what about that list of the most influential people in history we talked about earlier?  Who do you think showed up #1?  I think you know; He’s the reason we’re all here.

What got Him on this historical who’s who list didn’t have anything to do with military might: there are no terrorist bombings in this story, no drone attacks, no beheadings.  Because when you’re the Son of God, come to save the world, you do things a little differently.

In the final days of Jesus’ life we see a model of much that has become central to the Christian faith, with today’s scripture imparting wisdom that continues to influence us today.  Remember me, Christ says, in the bread and the wine, for when you do I am with you always.  Serve each other, as I have served you, Christ implores. For when you do, you will be blessed.  Love each other, Christ commands, just as I have loved you.  This love will show that you are mine.

Remember, serve, love.  So simple, so surprising.  Remember, serve, love.  Those three words represent a bold and beautiful way to live as a people of faith.  And those three words, my friends, are a supremely divine way to experience the shock and the awe, of Christ.  Amen.



Under Pressure

Today’s message features Coca-Cola, Jesus, a tempter and some personal narrative, all seen through the lens of the classic Queen and David Bowie song Under Pressure.  If you’re listening to the message just pause at the 9:11 mark, scroll down to the video below, and then fire up the audio file to hear the rest.  For those that prefer to read it’s all laid out in order.  Enjoy!

Pressure, Pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under Pressure

Those lyrics are the first three lines of the classic song Under Pressure, a 1981 collaboration between the supergroup Queen and David Bowie.  If you don’t recognize the lyrics you may recall the infamous baseline that’s repeated over and over throughout the song, ding-ding-ding-diddle-ing-ding.  Sound familiar?  You may also recall that David Bowie died earlier this year at the age of 69, what a poetic muse he was.  RIP David, you are missed.

Soooo, pressure.  Have you ever felt under pressure?  What a silly thing to ask, of course you have.  We all have, it happens all the time.  There are deadlines at work, calories to count, kids to raise, taxes to pay.  Those taxes are coming up soon.  Being under pressure is a staple of our culture, an unfortunate side effect of our fast-paced lives.

Personal Pressure

I’ve felt under pressure of late too.  My grandmother died last week, she was one special, amazing lady; someone that’s meant a ton to me for several decades.  I was asked to write and deliver the homily for her memorial service, to capture the essence of a woman loved by so many.  And then to share that essence in front of sixty people, friends and family, all saddened by her loss.  No pressure?  No, pressure.

I just got back from her memorial service and funeral in Baltimore, two days ago.  And started writing this sermon yesterday morning, sitting at a local Panera for inspiration.  Funerals don’t tend to come at opportune times.  Under pressure?  Yeah, a bit.

And then after the sermon this morning is done its back to writing a twenty-five page seminary paper.  This particular paper is a requirement for all seminarians, and is submitted to both seminary faculty and synod committees.  The paper is read by a dozen people, and used to determine if you’re fit to earn a Master’s in Divinity degree.  And fit to be ordained clergy.  So when was this twenty-five page paper due?  Six days ago! Uh oh.  Thank goodness the professors that this paper goes to offered an extension, showing some good old fashioned Lutheran grace.  If they hadn’t, well, I’d be in a tough spot.

Pressure, Pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under Pressure

 I can hear that baseline, that ding-ding-ding-diddle-ing-ding, bouncing around in my cranium.  It’s been stuck there for a couple days now.  It might not go away until that seminary paper gets written.

Jesus Pressure

Jesus, too, knew of pressure.  His pressure was on a somewhat grander scale.  For Jesus much more was at stake than the work deadlines we face.  And definitely much more was at stake than my need to polish off a seminary paper.  The gospel reading today finds Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.  Tempted by the great tempter.

But before these temptations began Jesus fasted for forty days.  Imagine how hungry he must have been.  And then, while still fasting, the tempter came, saying “If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread.”  Fill your stomach.  Let’s see some power.  Jesus defers, taking a question about food and answering it with something so much more.  “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God,” Jesus replies.  Jesus is looking at the big picture, thinking with more than his stomach.   Jesus faithfully remembers that he is totally dependent on God.  Current score: Jesus 1, tempter zero.

Next the tempter tries another approach.  “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter says, “throw yourself from the top of the temple.” Surely God will protect you, the tempter suggests.  Jesus refuses to jump, but not because of a lack of faith in God.  Jesus quotes scripture, saying, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Put another way, what kind of faith insists God must do one miracle after another?  Not the faith of Jesus.  Updated score: Jesus 2, tempter zero.

The tempter tries one last time, taking Jesus to a mountain, showing him the world, offering it to him.  “All of this I will give to you, if you just fall down, worship me,” the tempter says.  It’s an all-out bribe: give your allegiance away, and all this shall be yours.  Jesus responds, with verve, saying, “Away tempter!  For it is written: worship only the Lord your God.”  Final Score: Jesus 3, tempter zero.

The devil, it seems, has been shut out. And then the tempter left.  Suddenly angels appeared in their place.  The tides had turned.

Blessing, Pressure, Ministry

I always found where the story of Jesus being tempted is located in scripture kind of curious, and perhaps a bit telling.  Right before today’s gospel reading, in Matthew chapter three, we have the story of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist.  Once baptized, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus, like a dove.  Then a voice came from the heavens saying, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Here we have a direct word from God the Father, approving of his Son, sending the Spirit to descend on Jesus.  That sounds kind of epic.  It sounds like something big is about to happen.

Directly after Jesus is tempted in chapter four we see his ministry begin.  At that point, he calls the first batch of disciples, asking them to leave their boats, leave their nets, and follow him.  Follow me, Jesus says, and I will make you fishers of people.  And then Jesus gets busy healing the sick, drawing huge crowds.  He then launches into the Sermon on the Mount, teaching the multitudes the blessings of the Beatitudes.  Teaching them the Lord’s Prayer.  That too, sounds kind of epic.  Like something big is happening.

But between these two epic positives, of God sending his Spirit to dwell with his Son, and the ministry of Jesus beginning and quickly hitting full stride, we have wilderness, we have temptation.  We have Jesus, under pressure.  You could sum up Matthew chapters three, four and five with three words:  Blessing, Pressure, Ministry.  We’re all blessed, of course, but maybe effective ministry requires some time in the wilderness.  Maybe it comes with some temptation to stray from God’s call on our lives.  Maybe our faith is best formed when we’ve spent some time, for lack of better words, under pressure.

David Lose, president of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, sums up the meaning of these temptations nicely, saying:

Faith doesn’t do away with the hardships of this life, but rather gives us the courage to stand amid them.  Not simply surviving, but actually flourishing in, and through Jesus, the one who was tempted as we are and knows our struggles first hand.”

Perhaps it is the temptations, the challenges, the times under pressure, that define us, that stretch us, that grow us, that give us experiences that mold us as the people of faith we are to become.

The Value of Pressure

This song, Queen’s Under Pressure, was recently used in a Coca-Cola commercial to show the various pressures teenagers face these days.  I’d like to show you this commercial, not to help sell soda – Coca-Cola does that themselves just fine – but to illustrate what can come when we find ourselves under pressure.

Isn’t that a great commercial?  It makes me smile from the inside out.  In the video clip we’re shown many stories, I’ll highlight just a few.

We watch as a young man puts on some aftershave and looks into the mirror.  He appears nervous.  What is he preparing for?

We see a soccer match, and a teen getting dragged to the ground by his shirt.  The whistle blows, a red card is given for the flagrant foul that took him down.  Has he been injured?  Can he recover from being wronged?

We watch another young man, practicing a high-dive, stretch, then lose his balance, limbs flailing as he inelegantly hits the water.  He clenches his fist, furious with himself.  Will he ever master this dive?

We then see a mother and daughter fighting in the car, their voices raised.  The daughter angrily opens the car door and walks away.  Will the two reconcile?  At the time we don’t know.

As you consider some of these challenges do you see yourself in some of them?  Do these challenges remind you of your own?

About half-way through the video clip our questions are answered.

That nervous boy? Well, he was preparing to ask a girl out on a date.  He does, she says yes, the two walk on the beach, together, smiling, hand in hand.

How about that soccer match?  The boy we saw dragged to the ground recovers.  We watch as he shoots and scores the game winning goal.  His teammates rush to embrace him.

And that boy who screwed up on the high-dive?  He must have kept practicing, because the next thing we see he nails that dive, in perfect form, entering the water with nary a splash.

How about the mother and daughter fighting in the car?  We see them run toward each other, and embrace in a hug.  Their disagreement is now in the past. Reconciliation has begun.

The takeaway from all these mini-stories is that being under pressure, and how we respond to it, is part of how we learn, how we grow, and can become a central part of our story.  Maybe you see yourself in some of this side of the story too, coming through a time of being under pressure, becoming stronger for it.


As we move through Lent we are asked to reflect on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, and in a way to make his journey into our own.  We know the basic story of the Lenten journey: of ashes, of wilderness, of crowds and Palm Sunday, of death, of mourning, of resurrection.

But what we may not always get is the value of wilderness, of being tempted to take another path, of being under pressure, and what we do with all that.  The ministry of Jesus, after all, only began after a time of temptation.  Just as resurrection follows death, ministry without moments of temptation, moments in the wilderness, moments spent under pressure, ministry without these things would be incomplete.  Our walk as a people of faith, too, would be incomplete.

As I reflect back on this past week spent preparing a gut-wrenching funeral homily, crafting a sermon with the clock ticking, and then trying to finish up an important seminary essay, a few times I’ve thought to myself, well, screw it.  It’s too much, it’d be so much easier to throw in the towel; there must be some easier, better paying gig out there.  And there are, believe me.  🙂

But then I remember the value of this wilderness, that it happens for all of us at times, and that, no matter where we are in it, understanding, embracing and growing from our own wilderness is all part of God’s plan.  That’s what the Wednesday Lenten series Pastor Steve and I lead is all about, talking about how God can use worry warts, wanderers and weepers just like us.  And yes, that’s a soft plug for the series, come on out, we’d love to see you there.

As you depart from this place consider where you’re at on this Lenten journey.  Are you struggling with temptation? Wandering in the wilderness?  Feeling under pressure?  God can use this.  Or are you riding high, your sense of call strong, your sense of purpose great?  God also can use this.  And no matter where you find yourselves, please know, with all certainty:  God can use you.

Our tale today ends as it began, with lyrics from the song Under Pressure.  Now this is a secular song, so I ask you to listen to it a little differently than you maybe have before.  Lately when I hear the last few lines of Under Pressure I find myself reflecting on Christ’s love, our journey though the wilderness, our promise of a brighter future, our purpose as a people of faith.   And when you hear the word love, replace that with the word Christ, see where that leads you.  Listen for these things, see if you hear them too.

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care, for

The people on the edge of the night

And love dares you to change our way, of

Caring about ourselves

This is our last dance

This is ourselves

Under pressure