Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Working the Fields

Working the Fields
Matthew 9:35-10:7[1]
I’ve never worked in a field of corn or beans. I grew up in sorghum  and cotton country. So I don’t know what it’s like to work at de-tasseling a corn field or weeding a bean field. I have, however, had my share of manual labor. I spent many a day with my Order of the Arrow chapter cutting weeds at the Scout camp with a swing blade. And I had the blisters on my hands to show for it. I worked at a variety of Summer jobs during my education—including moving potted plants at a wholesale plant nursery, pulling parts at an auto salvage yard, and building and installing wooden playground equipment. I think what they all had in common with working the fields was that it was hard, hot, dusty work.
I don’t know if Jesus’ disciples had experience with working in fields. We know that some of them made their living by fishing with nets. They apparently worked at night, and I would think that hauling their nets could be back-breaking work. But I doubt that all of them had that kind of background. Nevertheless, I’m not sure they saw following Jesus as a path that would lead them to hard work. If they saw him as the Messiah, they may have thought that by joining with him they would have the privilege of ruling with him when he revealed himself. That’s a very different prospect from working the fields.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus clearly calls his disciples to work that he compares to that of a harvest. If you think de-tasseling is work, imagine what it would be like to spend the day cutting wheat and bundling it for gathering. The kind of harvest that took place in Jesus’ day was hard, hot, dusty work. You spent the day swinging a scythe, covered chaff from the wheat mixed with sweat. And you would work from sunup to sundown that way. There was nothing glamorous about that kind of work.
And yet, it’s clear that the work Jesus called his disciples to carry out was urgent. One reason is because the “harvest” they were to work had to do with people. And the people of Jesus’ day were, as Matthew’s gospel says, “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The disciples’ calling to work the fields was urgent because the people needed someone to point the way for them. They needed someone to help them trust that God was there for them to comfort and deliver them. They needed someone to give them hope that they wouldn’t always be suffering under the oppression of the powerful. And so Jesus sent his disciples to work the fields.
Another reason why it was urgent for them to work the harvest was because no one else was doing the job. Jesus says it this way, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matt. 9:37). That might seem perfectly natural to our ears, but in Jesus’ day, it would have sounded strange. Jerusalem was a hive of religious activity with the priests and Levites who attended the worship at the temple. One estimate suggests there were as many as 18,000 priests in that day.[2] There may have been as many as another 30,000 Levites. Then there were the scribes and the Pharisees, who taught primarily in the synagogues scattered throughout Judea. It doesn’t sound much like “the laborers” were “few.”
But part of what was going on here was that Jesus was criticizing the religious professionals of his day. Remember that Matthew says that to Jesus the people were like “sheep without a shepherd.” This was very likely a not-so-veiled rebuke of the priests and Levites, as well as the scribes and the Pharisees. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus outlines the many ways in which the religious leaders of his day were leading the people astray, or were simply oppressing them. But Jesus wasn’t the first to make the observation that those who were supposed to be caring for the needs of the Jewish people had failed to do so. Prophets like Ezekiel had announced their failure centuries before. Despite the fact that there were many people working in the religious centers of Jesus’ day, he could still say that “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
The solution to this problem was to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). While that might seem a rather safe thing to pray, I think Jesus must have known better. It may be easy to assume that we can pray this prayer without having it really affect us. But the truth of the matter is that if you pray this prayer from the heart, it’s not a “safe” prayer at all. It’s very likely that this prayer is one that will lead you to feel compelled to say, “Send me!” That’s exactly what happened with the disciples. In the very next verses Jesus sends them out to do the work of the Kingdom he had been doing.
We may be tempted to think, as Jesus’ disciples may have been, that the “harvest is small and the laborers are many.” After all, there are churches in just about every town and scattered throughout our cities. This part of the country seems to have more churches per capita than anywhere else. Just about everyone you run into around here seems to already have some affiliation with a church. And yet, just as Jesus intended for his disciples to be moved to work the fields by praying for the Lord to send laborers to the harvest, so we too are called to engage in the work of the Kingdom. We might wonder how we’re supposed to do that. The answer is in the Gospels—Jesus sets the example; he shows his own disciples how do work the field by giving them a role model to follow. And his example still stands as the best approach to serving and working for the Kingdom in our day. As we follow his example, we can join all the many laborers throughout the ages who have answered Jesus’ call to work the fields.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/18/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus.

Surrounded by Love

Surrounded by Love
Psalm 8; Matthew 28:20[1]
One of the blessings of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. We can learn about what is going on in around the country and even around the world almost as soon as it happens.  That can be a very good thing. It means that we get to see up close and personal how much of a resemblance we bear to our sisters and brothers in the human family.  One of the curses of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place.  That means that we also get to see—up close and personal—all the cruelty and violence and hatred and injustice afflicting the human family.  In the face of overwhelming cruelty and violence and injustice, it can seem incredibly naïve to believe that God surrounds us continually with love!
On the surface of things, it would seem that the reality of our world contradicts the message of our Scripture lessons for today. In our reading from the Psalms, we find ourselves confronted with the majesty of the God who created all the heavens and the earth. And the more we understand about just how vast this cosmos really is, the more God’s majesty and power in creation is magnified. Even in the Psalmist’s day, a simple glance at the night sky led him to wonder, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4). And yet, despite the fact that the Psalmist frames his faith in the form of a question, we shouldn’t overlook the affirmation that lies behind it: God is mindful of us all; God does care for us, both deeply and continually.
The Psalmist had good reason to believe this. It was the heart of the essential affirmation of the Hebrew Bible: “I am the Lord God. I am merciful and very patient with my people. I show great love, and I can be trusted” (Exodus 34:6, CEV). It is the revelation God gave to Moses when he asked to see God’s glory. And it echoes like a refrain throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, because it is the truth that serves as the foundation for the faith that God loves us with a love that will never let us go. It may be difficult for us to grasp, but the truth of our Scripture lesson is that we are constantly surrounded by the love of the God who created all things.
In our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, we see this truth reflected in a little different light. The risen Christ is giving his final instructions to his disciples.  And in the midst of it all, he gives them the promise “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20, Today’s NIV). Jesus promised his disciples that he would always be with them, no matter what. If you look at what happens to them in the course of their lives of service to Christ and his kingdom, we might wonder about that: imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, and even martyrdom. But Jesus didn’t promise them that his presence would spare them from opposition in this world. He promised them that he would always be with them.
I guess I would have to say that I would expect the world to look a lot different if we’re to believe that we are always surrounded by God’s love, and that Jesus is always with us. We might think that a world in which we are all constantly and continually surrounded by God’s loving presence should bear a whole lot more evidence of peace and compassion and love!  This question has vexed the minds and hearts of believers throughout the centuries.  If God is so good and loving, why is there so much evil in the world?  And some of the best minds through the ages have diligently sought answers.  
But I’m not so sure that the answer is all that complicated. It seems to me that God’s presence in this world is no more complicated than giving and receiving compassion.  I would think it stands to reason that the way we experience God’s loving presence is in the small acts by which we share kindness and love with our fellow human beings. And I would say that when we open ourselves to our sisters and brothers all around us, we find that there is actually a great deal of love in the world—even in the midst of suffering and injustice.  Precisely in the midst of suffering and injustice.
I heard an interview several years ago with Sarah Shourd, one of a group of American hikers who were arrested and imprisoned in Iran, accused of spying for the U. S.[2] At first, she was alone, and she didn’t have any contact with anyone outside her cell.  During that time she said that all she did was cry and beat at the walls. What sustained her through her ordeal was the compassion of Iranian women who were her fellow prisoners.  When they heard Sarah crying, they would sing songs to her in English to comfort her. In the depths of Sarah’s despair, they would cry out to her in English, “We love you Sarah!”  There she was, surrounded by some of the worst human injustice and cruelty, and in the midst of all that suffering, the voice of compassion came to her, “we love you Sarah!”
I think for most of us, the reality of our world makes us tend to isolate ourselves from those around us.  We stay safely detached from everything and everyone in our world, walking around with earbuds, comfortable in our cars, withdrawing to our homes to engage with virtual reality over one kind of screen or another.  And it’s no wonder we look at our world and wonder, “Where is God?” On the other hand, when we open ourselves to those who are around us and allow ourselves to experience their suffering and share compassion and kindness with them, then we experience God’s loving presence in our own lives.  That’s when we discover the truth of the promise that, no matter what may come, we are always surrounded by God’s love.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/11/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Sarah Montague,  Interview with Sarah Shourd, “Hardtalk,” June 10, 2011; accessed at

One and the Same Spirit

One and the Same Spirit
1 Corinthians 12:3-13[1]
When you take a good look at the many different ways in which Christians practice their faith, you may wonder what all of them have in common. There are so many different approaches to living out the Christian faith. You don’t have to go any farther than Lincoln to see that. Some are traditional, some are definitely not. Some are conservative, some are middle of the road, and some are very liberal. Some don’t even have the word “church” on their sign! And many have removed any identification with a denomination like “Presbyterian” or “Methodist” or “Baptist” altogether from their name.
When you go beyond the confines of our culture, it can be even more challenging. As we look at the diversity in the Body of Christ around the world, it can leave us wondering whether there is anything that unites them in any meaningful way. Of course, some churches don’t want to be united with those who do things differently. They think “difference” means “heresy.” However, I would say that while the way believers worship and their understanding of the faith differs from one culture to another, there is a common thread of faith in all of them. I’ve worshipped with churches in Germany, Romania, Switzerland, Nicaragua, The Philippines, and Cameroon. Wherever people are able to comprehend a larger body of Christ, I have felt right at home.
I think one of the most important reasons why this has been true is because the Spirit of God is working in their midst. That’s part of what St. Paul has to say in our New Testament lesson for today. He says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). I think Paul makes it clear that different approaches to the faith are to be expected. These are the “varieties” he speaks of. Not everyone in every church everywhere is going to do everything exactly the same way. That’s not a problem, it’s a sign of health and vitality in the church!
Throughout his letters, the Apostle attributes all life in the church to the Spirit of God. When the church thrives, it is because the Spirit of God is working among us. When the church comes together in a way that unites believers from across cultural, political, national, and ethnic boundary lines, it is the work of the Spirit of God. When the members of a congregation like this one share in the serving one another and the world around us, it is because the Spirit of God has enabled us to do so. For St. Paul, every aspect of the church’s life and ministry comes from the Spirit of God.
The surprising element in all of this is the fact that God has chosen to accomplish this work through people like you and me. And to do this, he gives us the “gifts of the Spirit,” which St. Paul says are given to each person “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). In other words, every single person has some “gift” from the Spirit that is to be used for the benefit of the whole church. What that means is that for the church to thrive all the members of the body have to share the gifts they have been given. We may have a variety of gifts, but all of them come from the same Spirit and are meant to build up the body of Christ.
I think one major mistake people make when they look at the “gifts of the Spirit” is that they try to see where they fit into the lists of gifts mentioned in the Bible. But I don’t believe St. Paul ever intended for the lists of gifts he mentioned to be taken as the only possibilities. They are examples of the ways that the Spirit of God was working through people in the churches of his day. To be sure, some of those gifts are timeless. There will always be a need for teaching. There will always be room for generosity. There will always be a place for leadership. But I would say that your “spiritual gift” may not even be in any of the biblical lists. That may make it a little harder to discern how you fit into the body of Christ, but it also gives you the freedom to be the person God made you to be.
When I look at the way we approach our life together, I’m afraid many may consider this “spiritual” model for the success of the enterprise we call “Church” too ambiguous.  We’re much more comfortable with clearly laid out plans, exhaustive manuals of operations, and sound policies and procedures. As valuable as policies and procedures can be, they are not what gives life to the church of Jesus Christ! What gives life to the church is when we all put our “gifts of the Spirit” to work for “the common good” and “with the strength that God supplies” (1 Pet 4:11).
I think this is one of the lessons that the church has had to learn and re-learn over and over throughout the ages.  We can accomplish nothing of lasting value if we try to do it in our own strength, by our own talent, through our own wisdom. It is only as we carry out our service through the empowering presence of the Spirit that we can hope to truly build up the body of Christ and offer our service to the world around us.  I think if every individual in every church across this county took seriously the call to serve the body of Christ in this way, we would be astonished at the transformation that would result. To be sure, I believe it would look very different from anything we might imagine. And I’m also quite sure there would be far more diversity that we might like. But as we recognize the work of the Spirit in people putting their gifts into practice for the benefit of the church in wondrously varied ways, we will see that it is all the work of one and the same Spirit.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/4/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Telling Our Story

Telling our Story
Acts 1:6-14[1]
At Easter time, it’s common to see the phrase “It’s not about the Bunny.” As it turns out, that might not be entirely true. The image of a rabbit or a hare is an ancient one, and its original meaning is difficult to discern. But there is abundant evidence that the image of “three hares” was given Christian meaning as early as the 13th Century.[2] It was associated with the Trinity in many contexts. But the “Easter Bunny” originated in the German Lutheran churches as a counterpart to Nikolaus, who comes to bring gifts to children who have been good and lumps of coal to those who have not. The first reference to an Easter Bunny playing a similar role is found in the 17th century.
While the tradition of gift-giving at Easter as well as Christmas may have originated in the church, I think I would have to say that Easter is the celebration of our faith that death could not hold Jesus in the grave. Rather, God raised him up to new life as a demonstration that God is in the process of granting new life to us all. That is the true gift of Easter. And yet, as foundational as that is to our faith, I would have to say that the point of Easter is not just about the gift. It’s also about the astounding task that Jesus gave to all of those who follow him: to bear witness to the new life we have through his death and resurrection to the whole world.
The story that the book of Acts tells about the early church is a story of witness—the witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that comes out of it. As soon as the church receives the power of the Spirit, they begin to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, from then on, they rarely mention the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection without adding, “We are witnesses of these things.” One of the amazing features of this story is that, despite all obstacles, against all odds, the early church’s witness to Jesus’ resurrection is a great success. It is natural to wonder what made the witness of the early church so successful. I think it was the fact that their message was demonstrated by their life.
The message of the early church was that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God, who vindicated Jesus’ claim to be our Savior.   They proclaimed to all who would listen that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a sign pointing us to God’s new creation that is already working to transform us all. They proclaimed that the resurrection validated Jesus’ claim to be the bearer of the kingdom of God, the realm of compassionate justice and joyful new life.  And they proclaimed the hope that, just as God has restored Jesus to life, so also God will restore all creation to life.  
But perhaps just as important a factor in the early church’s witness was that their message was backed up by their life.[3] They lived out the good news by their mutual acceptance of one another and by extending God’s gracious welcome to all. They sought God’s guidance in prayerful discernment by asking questions together and listening together for the answers. They lived out the joy of the resurrection in worship that opened their hearts and minds to a genuine experience of God. They shared their faith and their experience of God’s love with one another by sharing their testimony. They integrated the good news into every aspect of their lives through open and humble study. And they went out from their prayer and worship and study seeking to put into practice the compassion of God’s kingdom in every facet of life.
Some who study these matters would say that it was these practices that made the early church’s witness so powerful.  I think I might put it a little differently—what made them so successful was that their witness came out of the experience of being radically transformed in their own hearts and minds and lives.  They were bearing witness to that which they had experienced first hand!  One of the early Christian leaders put it this way: what they spoke about was “something which … we ourselves actually saw and heard: something which we had an opportunity to observe closely and even to hold in our hands” (1 John 1:1, Phillips).
This new way of living is the true gift of Easter. And it is a gift that is for everyone, everywhere. I’ve used the analogy of an immunization before to illustrate the power of this gift. Like a vaccination spreads protection against disease throughout the body, so Jesus’ death and resurrection spreads new life throughout the whole creation. Where the analogy breaks down is that a shot usually takes effect fairly quickly to protect us from illness. On the other hand, the new life Jesus “injected” into this world through his death and resurrection has been working to transform all things and all people for over 2000 years.
In part, that transformation is something only God can accomplish. And yet, one of the means God has chosen to carry out this work is through people like you and me. As we live out the faith, hope, love, and joy of the new life in our lives, we contribute to the spread of this healing power in our world. But at the end of the day, we also have to speak. We cannot carry out the task of bearing witnesses to the new life of Easter silently. We are called and commissioned and empowered by the Spirit to share the message of Easter with those we encounter. If the new life is truly a reality that makes a difference for us, we are charged with the task of telling our story to others. It can be that simple: as we tell our story, we too are witnesses to the new life that Easter brings to us all.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/28/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[3] Cf. William H. Willimon, Acts, 52; cf. also Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to Be Church: The
Book of Acts for a New Day.