[Preached at New Song Community Church 1-16-22. You can watch the video here. Sermon begins at 18:17. The manuscript contains much substance that the spoken sermon does not. This time, I prefer the manuscript. I need a “director’s cut!”]
I’m beginning with three Scriptures. Grab your Bible or find them on your phone.
Luke 4: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 14: One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ 23 Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
And Luke 2: 2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn
Everything I say about the Kingdom of God today must be heard within the context of weeks 1 and 2 of this series. Everything Jesus did and said was within the context of proclaiming and living the Kingdom of God. Living the Redemptive Life. “Good news to the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free,” and Jesus says “Today, with me here, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus says, “I”m doing this now.”
Jesus tells a parable of someone giving a banquet. He invites people, but what do they do? They make excuses. Yeah, I can’t make it. So whom does he invite to fill his banquet hall? “Bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” and look at this–his servant says, “Sir, what you ordered has been done.” Did the servants know the character of the man so well that they immediately knew, “Okay, this is who we need to bring in”? It’s not full yet? Go out into the roads and lanes. Tell people they are welcome, they are wanted, they are valued and loved and invited to this banquet. In that culture, you had a banquet so that important people could see how rich you were and those you invited would owe you and repay you by inviting you to their banquets. How many of these new guests will be able to pay back the man in kind? None? Remember, it’s a parable. This is the Kingdom of God. People are welcome, and all they have to do is say “yes.” Like when Jesus went to the land of the Gerasenes and healed the man possessed by demons, right? Who is willing? I don’t care how broken or screwed up you are, don’t come at me with your “I’m not qualified, I’m too messed up!” Will you come to my banquet? Will you receive this grace? Faithfulness is simply, “Will you try?”
That brings us to our third Scripture. Jesus, himself, in utero, still in Mary’s womb, is the poor, is the outcast. There was no place for them in the inn; I don’t mean the rooms were full, I mean they weren’t welcome. These aren’t nice stories to make us feel cozy, these are descriptions of God’s Kingdom turning the upside down cultures and values of our world rightside up.
Jesus’ Kingdom is for the screwed up among us, those who struggle, literally or figuratively, to get out of bed in the morning, in whatever form that takes for you. I assume that all of us are screwed up in some way or we wouldn’t be here. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, I’m not really screwed up,” I think that means–how do I say this nicely–you haven’t figured it out yet. When I read the Gospels, the only thing that I can see that might disqualify anyone from joining in the Kingdom of God, or entering the Redemptive Life, is believing you’re righteous on your own and have no need for God or redemption or grace. That’s self-selecting, not Jesus telling anyone they’re unwelcome. They all alike made excuses. “Yeah, I’m good. I don’t need that banquet.” The Redemptive Life makes no sense for someone who believes they have no need to be redeemed, who has never had any trouble getting out of bed and is already self-righteous, which means that evil in everyone else’s heart–remember, we said “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”–that doesn’t really apply to me.
At this point in the series, I call your attention to the title. I want you to read that title aloud. Literally. Please.
I did not name this sermon series “How to Change the World.” I titled it “Trying to change the world.” This has been a description of an effort to change the world from someone who deals with issues like depression, severe punctuality deficiency, and a massive imbalance between what I’d like to be able to do and what I’m competent to do.
In other words, God could have done better. But that’s always true of the Kingdom of God. Jesus has this odd preference for partnering with the weak, the lame, the poor, the screwed up, the struggling. Except it’s not that weird because it turns out that’s all of us. It’s all of us, and some of us just haven’t figured out it’s us yet.
Jesus and I have wrestled, around and around, about why give someone like me such a burning, inextinguishable desire to make the world a better place. Wouldn’t that, you know, be more productive in someone who can, you know…do stuff?
Jesus said, “Nope, it’s yours. Do what you can with it.”
So here I am.
And here we are.
LIfe has been strange for me lately. My blog is called “Grace Is Greater: Reflections on a Ridiculous Life.” So life for me is never what anyone should properly term “normal.” But things have gotten a little…surrealer? recently.
I’ve been going through some pretty major…unlearning and relearning in my faith. Good stuff, but weird, like “Whoa! Did not see that coming!” It’s really fortunate Jesus has given me such a strong belief in grace, because I’ve thought, numerous times, “Oh, dang, I used to believe and teach that. Yow.” I’m not going to make a list, but to give you an idea, recently I told God,while on a hike up Two Bears, “If I’m done preaching now, that would be fine. I get it.” I meant it.
Within a few days, Pastor Tim texted me and asked me if I could preach the first three Sundays of January. Right after that, Pastor Don, who retired from being associate pastor at New Song but now serves as interim pastor at another church in town, called to ask me if I could preach the fourth Sunday in January.
How many do we have? Five, right? I’m still not sure where I’m preaching on the 30th.
Have you ever had God do that? Like you kind of make up your mind/slash let God know, “Okay, I think we’re about done with this,” and God just starts laughing and then pours “this” out of the sky?
So, I stand corrected, yet again. I am not done preaching, apparently, and I will continue until God directs otherwise.
And here’s my point: a good friend, Adam Cole, shared this quote with me:
From the Pirkei Avot a section of the Mishnah, one of the Sacred Jewish Texts (and by the way, we’re fond of Sacred Jewish Texts): “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”
Remember again, we said in Part 1, what is faithfulnessI? Faithfulness is just showing up. Seriously. Show up and try.
The world sucks, in so, so many ways, and we are not obligated to fix it all, but neither are we free to turn a blind eye or decide “It’s unfixable.” I have many…shall we say challenging idiosyncrasies, but I truly want everyone to be like me in this (but more competent): To follow Jesus is to desire the Kingdom of God; to desire the Kingdom of God is to want to change the world. That’s why we’re talking about changing the world. The Kingdom of God always changes the world.
“Wow,” some of you say, “Did Mike just tell us in his sermon to be more like him?”
He did. I mean, I did. But let’s be very clear: I want you to desire to be part of the Kingdom of God, to help the world change, to be a part of this crazy, wondrous Redemptive LIfe, except not like me because you have all these skills and abilities and competencies and gifts that I don’t have. Which is awesome! I’m over being jealous that other people can do stuff I can’t–except the occasional great writer, and that’s just more of a professional courtesy to envy them–and I’m trying to be done arguing that Jesus should send people who are better at stuff. I want you to be done with that argument, too.
As I’ve been pondering this whole question of changing the world, I thought of Pastor Tim, our very own pastor, Tim Wilbur.
How many churches have been planted through New Song Community church in East Wenatchee? At last count, it’s over one thousand. One thousand churches.
If that many churches had been planted in the United States, Pastor Tim would be under endless demand to be on the conference speaker circuit. We’d be lucky to see him twice a year. (And you might be stuck with me preaching more.) It’s hard even to wrap my head around how much impact 1000 churches have on the world. The ripple effect is exponential. People who are being changed by Jesus, learning to love their neighbors as themselves, learning to love their enemies, are going out and offering that love to more people who will in turn be changed through this Redemptive Life and then change others… If you could track all this, it would make your jaw drop to the floor. God’s Spirit, moving among us.
I have two things to say about this: first, Tim is one of my best friends in the world, but he isn’t someone you’d emulate everything about his life. I mean, first and foremost, he has terrible taste in sports teams. Ghastly. But joking aside, Tim would actually be the first to say, “Yeah, don’t do everything the way I do it.”
Second, you aren’t expected to figure out how to plant 1000+ churches in India. And some in Pakistan. And orphanages and schools. But you are expected to change the world. Anytime we follow Jesus and partner in the Kingdom of God, we become change agents, people who turn the upside order right-side up.
My point in bringing up this example is simply to remind us that God does work through us and often does more than we would ever imagine possible. Willingness. Say “yes” when God nudges us. Jesus will do crazy things.
Then there’s me.
I’ve never been to India. But I did live in Nicaragua for seven years, and while there, you know how many churches I planted?
None. Zero is the correct answer.
But the other day, my friend Veronica posted this in a Facebook group.
“Tonight I [Veronica] was telling Kelsey Bonilla how Mike Rumley-Wells helped scrape my heart off the floor after my church essentially dumped me. Kelsey told me of other times Mike did that during his time in Nicaragua, in particular for high school students struggling with identity issues and isolation. Mike, you model the parable of the Good Samaritan with your very life. You are appreciated and beloved!!”
I want you to get why I share this: I’m not called to plant churches in India and God is not bummed with my failure to do so. But I am part of that, because I’m Tim’s friend and go to his house sometimes and eat his food and drink his beverages. So you can see, I’m a vital part of his support team. All seriousness aside, I am part of New Song and part of Tim’s community and I do help make it possible for Tim to do what he does. No, seriously, ask him. Sometimes I even preach at his church. Even after I tell God maybe I’m all done preaching, I preach at his church three times in a row.
This is how it works. God gives each of us gifts and abilities and talents and competencies and we get to decide how we will invest these. We decide to say “yes” or “no.” We make big decisions, like “Can I get out of bed today.” Though it sounds like I’m being flippant, I’m not. I promise. We look at the world and say, “Okay, what’s my part, Jesus? What can I handle? Whom are you sending me to love today?”
This is my faith: loving a few people, really listening to them and walking with them through challenging times in their lives, has been one of my main ways to try to change the world. There are 7.9 billion people in the world. I’m not getting the whole job done. I am not obligated to complete the work, but neither am I free to desist from it.
I learned this trick from Jesus, who hung out with twelve people over a course of about three years and got to know them and shared his life with them. Can we all agree that Jesus changed the world?
How did Jesus change the world?
Well, for one thing, he hung out with people. He affirmed them. He encouraged them. He ate and drank with them, listened to them, asked them questions, and challenged them to think about their answers.
He also healed people, raised people from the dead, cast out demons, calmed storms, and read their thoughts. I’m not so good at any of that stuff. That’s fine. We use what God’s given. But the hanging out? Yeah, I excel. Helping people know that they are loved and valued? Showing them that with my time? Check.
All of my children will tell you stories about times they have had to wait (and wait and wait) while a stranger tells me personal things, sometimes their life story, sometimes a struggle they’re having right now. Things you wouldn’t expect to hear from a stranger. But it happens to me all the time. I mean, it happened to me at the bank on Friday. All the time.
I figure if someone needs so badly to be listened to that at the first hint of receiving that, they open up like this, that’s God’s way of telling me, “Here! Love this person with your attention. Now.” And I hope my kids have at least started to forgive me. But they know darned well that I love them and they are loved.
We change the world when we change other people’s lives, and Jesus taught us that the Redemptive Life is to go around loving people, whether or not they deserve it or merit it. Sometimes we love them by providing them with things they need. Dear friends of mine, and I won’t mention Joe and Kindall’s names, stock our church’s food pantry and pay for the feminine hygiene products themselves. That’s a really small, very big deal. The people receiving this love likely don’t even know Joe and Kindall’s names. But we are changed as we are loved, and therefore love changes the world. That’s how God’s Kingdom works: we love people in simple, practical ways, and through this love, we change the world. Cups of cold water when people are thirsty. Like that.
Someone might say, “Oh, come on, Mike, you gave us this big build up for earthshaking, change-the-world stuff and now you’re talking about buying pads and tampons? Listening to high schoolers or strangers talk about broken relationships with their kids?” Yes, I am. And also planting churches in India. All these things. Because in this Redemptive Life, this Kingdom work of turning rightside up what is upside down, the scale of “big” and “small” aren’t up to us. God sees stuff we can’t see. God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts. Cups of water given to children. How is that significant? You have no idea. Jesus also says that children are a really big deal in the Kingdom of God and if we can’t enter the Kingdom as they do, we can’t enter at all. So maybe my wife Kim’s exhausting job of trying to teach lower-income fifth graders isn’t so insignificant, after all? Maybe that’s the world being changed, one math lesson at a time?
These are examples of the Redemptive Life, using what we have to love others.
Acknowledging that though we struggle to get out of bed, each in our own way, we’re not disqualified from changing the world. When we seek to love others, we’re going to see the evil in our hearts. We’re going to come face to face with the ways we don’t want to love others, our selfishness and manipulativeness and fear, our trauma and shame. I’m firmly convinced that if we just mind our own business and live basically selfish, self-centered, comfortable lives, we can hide most of our evil from ourselves as well as others and really appear fairly nice and polite. Jesus really messes with that, doesn’t he?
So by this time, nearing the end of our series, I’m sure you see there is good news and…challenging news.
From a Kingdom perspective, it’s quite likely you are changing the world already. That’s the good news.
Here’s the challenging news, in four parts.
First, we change the world in community.
Looking at how Jesus did it, and reading what the Bible teaches us, we need to be part of community. Please note that this does not mean if you are in a dysfunctional, abusive church, God expects you to stay and just “make the best of it.” We are part of the body of Christ, and we live the Redemptive life with others.
“The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.
Many of us are pretty good at convincing ourselves how good we are when we’re just imagining loving other people. But real people are a lot more difficult than imaginary people. For example, when I argue with people in my head, they almost always acknowledge my rightness. And sometimes they grovel. But real life people behave differently when I argue with them. Sometimes they even show me the evil in my heart. I mean, teaming up with the Holy Spirit they do that for me.
But even more importantly, we need other people living the Redemptive Life to encourage and reinforce this crazy mode of life for us. We need our sisters and brothers to remind us to love our enemies and not just hate or disdain them. We need folks who will speak truth and love to us when we feel hatred and disdain for ourselves. And as members of community, we look for opportunities to speak this life to one another. Especially if, let’s say theoretically, there was a group of people who have been told that God doesn’t love them. We would speak up really loudly and say, “No, wrong, Jesus loves you like crazy! Don’t listen to those lying liar pants!”
Jesus never intended us to go it alone. We need others who will believe the same crazy stuff we believe and complement our gifts and abilities with theirs. We need people to remind us about hope when we grow hopeless, and to say, “For the actual love of God and yourself, take a break!” On the flip side, we need people to tell us, “As a fellow follower of Jesus, get your butt off the couch and do what God’s given you to do.” That’s community.
Second, We change the world by standing with the people Jesus stood with.
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. Bonhoeffer
When you read the Gospels, you see that the Kingdom of God directly confronts the hierarchies of important people and unimportant people, valuable and worthless, lovable and unlovable. We all know the parable of the Prodigal Son, but sometimes we forget that this parable came in direct response to the Religious Leaders. Luke 15 1 and two: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Can you imagine? I hope you can. That’s how we change the world. We welcome sinners and eat with them. Remember I told you that Pastor Tim feeds me? See, he’s doing it! Welcoming sinners and eating with them!
But seriously, read Luke 15. Look how hard Jesus goes after “No, you’ve got it wrong about God. God doesn’t hold these people out of the Kingdom, God pursues the heck out of these people” Then, when we really dig in, we realize that “these people” are all of us. Oops. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Remember? Jesus isn’t just rejecting the Religious Leaders’ error, he’s breaking down this mistaken division.
This is when the whole “mind my own business, look the other way, look like a nice person” really falls short of living the Redemptive Life, jumping in with God’s Kingdom.
Third, We change the world by opposing injustice and seeking shalom, loving those society values least
“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”Naomi Shulman
Some people are doing horrible evil. Some systems support and continue (word? propagate?) evil.
We know that the line of good and evil runs through all hearts. But we’re not pretending that all evil is the same. The Bible never says all sin is equal; it says all people are sinners. Not the same thing. God isn’t keeping score, but some sins have more devastating consequences; it would be silly, even infantile to pretend otherwise.
Our redemptive life keeps speaking up, standing up, acting against these evils, whether within our systems or acted out by people.
Jesus followers don’t excuse or rationalize evil by saying “We’re all sinners.” Of course we are. We’re getting the log out of our own eye. First. Then we’re speaking up against those harming others. Jesus didn’t decide that because the Religious Leaders were in power, their harmful behaviors and attitudes should be swept under the rug because, after all, we’re all sinners.
We love those valued least in our society by sharing what we have. We love those valued least in our society by opposing unjust laws, by calling out prejudice and hate. We can’t be content to give charitably but ignore the causes of poverty.
Sometimes opposing injustice will make us unpopular. Standing with those persecuted may draw persecution on us.
“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Bonhoeffer
“The followers of Christ have been called to peace. . . . And they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult. In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods . . . . His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others. They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they overcome evil with good, and establish the peace of God in the midst of a world of war and hate.” Bonhoeffer
Finally, We change the world by laughing together, celebrating together, sharing joy.
We are people of celebration. God’s love for everyone is good news. Grace is the best news. God loves laughter. God has a great sense of humor. We heal ourselves and reflect the image of God in the world when we laugh together. We call it “celebrating communion” for a good reason.
We share our joy because joy is contagious, like holiness.
God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. Bonhoeffer