A TL, DR Sermon: “YOU Give Them Something

(I’m at new appointment – more on that another time – and we have not been meeting in-person for nearly a month due to COVID-19. For people in my midst who don’t have reliable internet access and are unable to watch our worship service recordings, I’ve been including condensed versions of my sermons for the worship bulletin. Here is this week’s. I will be sure to include them here starting now. I hope you find a blessing from my ponderings. – Jonathan)

Text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NLT)

One of the most common questions for pastors right now is, “How should Christians respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? What should our witness be?” I believe this is an excellent question, because what we see playout on social media and elsewhere by people who state that they are followers of The Son seem to be anything but a positive response. I believe Jesus calls us to exhibit sacrificial compassion in the face of a crisis like COVID-19.

I believe this is just one of the lessons we learn from what we call the Feeding of the 5,000. First of all, we need to know that the number was actually much higher because only the men were counted (the women and children present were not counted at gathers back then). Jesus likely fed closer to 10,000 – or more – people with five loaves of bread and two fish! People tend to get lost in the “how” of this miracle but I believe the more important question is, “Why?”

The writer of Matthew tells us why in verse 14: “He had compassion on them.” We have to remember that this is just after Jesus found out that John the Baptist had been executed so He was in the midst of grieving the loss of his cousin and friend. This grief may not be unlike the collective grief we’re experiencing now.

I believe there are several reasons why Jesus responded in the way that He did and I’m sure I could preach several sermons on this passage. The lesson we most need now is His example of sacrificial compassion. When Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something,” He wasn’t trying to pass the buck because He didn’t feel like performing a miracle, rather He wanted them to know that sending people away in their time of need is not how a disciple ought to respond to a need.

How do we respond in the midst of crisis, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or something else? We show compassion, even to the point of personal sacrifice. That’s why we do things to protect our neighbors: It’s not out of a desire to make a political statement but out of a desire to make a moral statement, to give a strong witness for the love of Christ. We are called to be imitators of Jesus and showing compassion is one of the ways which we do this.

Remember: Even Judas ate, had his feet washed, and sat at the right hand of Jesus – the place of honor – at the Last Supper. If Jesus can show the one who would betray Him this much compassion and mercy, what could we do?

Let’s go and do likewise.

Sermon: The Apostle’s Tale – Groaning

Note: This is, more or less, my sermon from this morning’s worship service at Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Last week I began a series called The Apostle’s Tale which mostly is based on readings from Romans 8. This series was designed to go along with readings from the Revised Common Lectionary from a few weeks ago but I was doing another series and began this one late. It worked out perfectly, as this sermon dealt with our responsibility as disciples in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Perfect timing. I hope you receive encouragement and food for thought.


Romans 8:12-25 (NIV)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[c] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

Last week, we began this series with a backdrop of dystopia using examples from The Hunger Games and the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. We also touched on the dystopia all around us, a world where there is much fear and violence, always an “us” versus “them” mentality. We talked about people being oppressed and some people having while others go without simply because of issues such as social class, race, and any number of factors. At least to some extent, dystopia is all around us and, unfortunately, is not just the stuff of books and movies.

We have been seeing some of this play out over the last few days. The North Korean government has made threats of a nuclear strike against Guam and on the mainland of the United States.Kim Jong Un claims that his government is working on specific plans and once it’s completed he will sign off on it and that will be all that’s needed to launch a strike. Allegedly a nuclear warhead can be rocketed toward Guam and be there in 14 minutes. Because of these threats, there has been much anxiety and fear in Guam and elsewhere, mainly at not knowing whether North Korea is truly capable of launching such an attack or if they would actually have the moxy to make such attempt. And, “What if they do and they do it?” Fear. Dystopia.

Yesterday we saw a little piece of dystopia play out with the racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in what I feel is a true expression of evil. Violence irrupted and a few people have even lost their lives, ultimately because of racism. Neo-nazis gathered to protest the removal of Civil War monuments and also rallied against the acceptance of other races other than white. Let me very clear: Racism is evil. Violence with racism as the root cause is evil. Racism is incompatible with Christian teaching and should not be tolerated within the church. And yet, so many of these groups claim to be Christians, they claim that they are doing work for God, and they claim that the Bible endorses the enslavement of blacks and calls them evil. Their views are contrary to scripture – scripture does not say any of that. Their actions and words, while they may have the right to hold their opinions, are evil. It’s dystopia playing out on the news.

As Christians, we often feel that we should somehow be exempt from having to experience the evils of the world. Evil is really hard to avoid but we try anyway. We hide ourselves with whatever we think will shield us and we try to pretend that it isn’t there. This really is the complete opposite of what we should do. We can lament and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me because I have Jesus and therefore I don’t have to endure it.” But we see that Paul tells is that part of being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ means that we don’t look away from the suffering going on in the world. We simply can’t. We must acknowledge it and call it what it is. We must confront the sufferings head on.

So how do we do this? How do we keep our eyes on Christ and yet make sure that we see the evils which are happening in the world for what they truly are, something that simply should not being ignored? We do this by joining in God’s sorrow over the state of this world. We join in and take our place in the chorus of all of God’s creation as it groans. The groans are caused by the long pains of labor as God’s promised kingdom is birthed.

I remember a particular call when I ran when I was an EMT. I was working in Mississippi and had not yet enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, I had not been an EMT for very long at all. When the dispatcher called us she was obviously very upset when normally she was calm and professional. I won’t go into the details of the call for a lot of reasons but I will say that it was… gruesome. The patient was in terrible shape and severely disfigured. It was difficult to look at him but I had to force myself to. I had to care for him. I had to look at him and his injuries. Thankfully this was toward the end of my shift but the rest of it was spent in a daze. The sight that I had to force myself to observe was completely overwhelming. When I got home, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I simply had nothing left to give and I ended up sleeping most of the day… Well, when I couldn’t see his face in a dream. That was the price I had to pay but I had no choice. I had to force myself to take it all in and provide the best care I could for him.

Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes the reality that we simply must force ourselves to take it and to not ignore is so overwhelming that it takes all of our energy and we simply have nothing left to give.

Those of us who claim Jesus as Lord must pay attention to the goings-on in the world but we also need to make sure that we acknowledge the suffering and evil as well. We may want to ignore it and try to shield ourselves from it but we shouldn’t and, let’s be honest, we can’t. We can’t turn out backs on the suffering of our neighbors. We can’t turn our backs on heroin and opiate addicts. We can’t turn our backs on the homeless. We can’t turn our backs on the poor. We can’t turn our backs on racists and other bigots. We can’t turn away from threats from North Korea and other entities who seek to do our country harm. And we can’t turn our backs on people within our own borders who wish to do harm to our country. We must acknowledge. We must look. And we must act, even if that action is simply praying for God’s guidance and wisdom.

Paul tells us this – he tells us that we must look upon and acknowledge those places where the most pain and the most groaning by all of creation is happening. But here’s the tricky part, the part that we don’t tend to like: We must join in the suffering. We have to take the pain of others on ourselves and bear it. And even when we don’t see hope, we must never, never, never give up. When the enemy tries to drag us away and distract us from the suffering of the world, we have to dig our heels in deeper and stand our ground. We must be patient, we must remember that God is good and God is working to bring about his kingdom and that day will be here sooner than we think!

It’s natural to wonder where all of this evil and suffering comes from. A common question is “where did all of this come from? How did it start?” It seems to be counterintuitive to God’s intention for the world. And, really, that’s because it is counterintuitive to God’s original plan.

John Wesley talked about this in one of his sermons. He wrestles with the question of how it can be that God provides for all of creation and yet there is suffering.

Ultimately, he chalks it up to original sin. He begins by noting that God created human beings in God’s own image of perfect righteousness and love and gave humans dominion over all of creation, especially those lesser animals, or “brutes” as Wesley names the non-human animal kingdom. The difference between humans and brutes, for Wesley, is that humans alone were endowed with the capacity to obey their creator. Thus endowed, God’s original intent was that humans would ensure that no beasts under their care suffered: “All the blessings of God in paradise flowed through man to the inferior creatures, as man was the great channel of communication between the Creator and the whole brute creation,’ Wesley writes.

Unfortunately, as we all know, human beings messed up the transmission of those blessings in an irreversible way. This has affected not only all humans, but all the creatures under humanity’s care. Wesley laments that there is no way to know what suffering creation has endured because of original sin. All we know is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; not only creation but we ourselves”

This is why we have evil. The downside of free will is that one is free to commit evil acts if we so choose – that is, if the enemy can fool us into thinking that we should do these things. This is why the neo-nazis and the dictators of the world are allowed to make their threats, shout their vulgar racial slurs, and to drive their cars into groups of innocent people.

Christians are not people of isolation. We simply can not and should not hide ourselves from the suffering of the world and simply remain in our bubbles. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, about the boy who was so sick that he could have absolutely no contact with the outside world? He literally had to live in the bubble. I feel that we Christians often hide ourselves in our bubbles to try and ignore the evil of the world but Paul tells us that we simply can’t do that. Christians are not bubble people! We can’t ignore evil and hope that it will go away because, at least until Christ returns, evil isn’t going anywhere. We must acknowledge it. We must name it. We must feel pain with each other and with our neighbors. We must join in the collective groaning of the world rather than ignoring it.

I want to remind us about the words that we heard last week after we confessed our sins just before having Holy Communion last week: “Hear the Good News! Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. This proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” And we celebrate that because of Christ, we have been set free from the law of sin and death.

This IS the good news of Jesus Christ! As the women would say in The Handmaid’s Tale, “Praise Be!”

But being saved from eternal suffering does not give us a pass to avoid the suffering of God’s creation. Rather, we are called to join with Christ in his suffering, just as we will also join in Christ’s glory.

I want to read the baptismal vows one more time. I want you to ponder them one more time. Are you all in and do you truly affirm these vows or are they just words?

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to all ages, nations, and races?

If you do, say “amen.”

Sermon: Half Truths – “Everything Happens for a Reason”

mainslide-half-truthsI have been intending to post this sermon for most of the week but life kept getting in the way. This is the first in a five week series of sermons inspired by Half Truths by Rev. Adam Hamilton. During this series at Shiloh, we are taking a look at a “Christian cliche” which sounds biblical but really is not. That is not to say that some of these don’t have at least some element of truth but sometimes these sayings are (1) not biblical and (2) can cause great harm. This one in particular hits home for me so I was glad to do it first. This coming Sunday we are looking at “God Helps Those who Help Themselves.” I will try to post it sooner! I hope you receive a blessing from this sermon. Please feel free to leave any feedback you would like to – Jonathan

Half Truths: Everything Happens for a Reason
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 14, 2016

GENESIS 50:20 (NLT) – You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.

ROMANS 8:28 (NLT) – And we know that God causes everything to work together[m] for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Most of you know about my daughter’s death soon after she was born. Among the many things I remember about that day was the outpouring of love and the many text messages and phone calls I got. Most I honestly don’t remember much about but I do remember a couple that stood out because of what they said. The gist of what these messages said was “so sorry to hear of what happened. It must have been God’s will. There must have been some reason why she died. It’s all part of God’s plan.

Let me stop right here for a moment and ask you to do me a favor: Please, never say anything like those statements to anyone who is in the midst of tragedy. Often these words are meant well and the person saying them is simply trying to provide some kind of reminder of God being present. But to me, these words provide no comfort and can do great harm to one’s soul. And not to mention, do we really want to paint God as a celestial bully who would willfully take someone’s child from them or give someone cancer? If we understand that God’s very nature and ways are only of love then we simply can not think that these things are true. Here’s the spoiler for today’s message: God is not in the business of willfully causing pain in order to prove a point or to make some kind of chain of events occur. Simply, bad things just happen. But this is not to say that God can’t or doesn’t redeem that bad thing for a good purpose.

When we use the logic that everything that happens is because God orchestrated it or that he has some purpose, we can then make an argument that everything is God’s will. If a marriage ends in divorce because one of the spouses committed adultery, did that happen because God intended for the marriage to end before it even began? When someone makes the decision to shoot elementary school students, does this mean those kids had to die by the actions of the shooter as part of a grant celestial plan that God came up with? We can even go down the line and say that God willed it for Mississippi State to lose to Ole Miss in football yet again and for UK to not make the Final Four last year.

When we say that everything happens for a reason or we make claims that something happening was simply God’s will, we are essentially passing the buck on any sort of personal responsibility that we have for our actions. Take the above events: If we simply chalk them up to just being God’s will or he having a divine purpose for making these things happen, that means we have no responsibility. That means that the spouse who cheated didn’t actually do anything wrong because they were just acting according to God’s will. This means that the shooter was merely an instrument of God used to continue his plan. This means that Mississippi State and UK have no responsibility for their not playing well enough to win the games I mentioned because God simply did not intend for them to win.

In our scriptures for today we have one from the old testament and one from the new testament which might seem like a night and day difference. These scriptures are sometimes used by people who defend that God has everything planned in advance and that we are all just players in his great drama. The reading out of Genesis 50 of toward the end of the story of Joseph. Perhaps you know the story. Joseph was beloved by his father. His brothers were jealous so they sold him into slavery to the Egyptians In spite of his being a slave he became a trusted advisor of the pharaoh and helped the Egyptians avoid the consequences of a famine which was revealed to Joseph in a dream. Joseph eventually ends up helping his brothers who sold him into slavery and they were reconciled. Hearing all of this, I can see where it would be easy to conclude that Joseph was trapped in a hole in the ground and sold to the Egyptians in order to prevent them and their neighbors from going hungry. There is a strong case to be made for this innocent man being sold into slavery being part of God’s plan. Which brings us to the new testament reading.

Paul wrote Romans when he was on his way to being put on trial in from of the emperor. Paul was no stranger to conflict, in fact his ministry is marked with it time and time again. So Paul is in the midst of one of these conflicts and pens this letter in which he states that God works all things out for the good of Himself and his people. This is another scripture in which people sometimes try to defend the notion that God has somehow planned everything. But note what Paul did not say: He did say that God has arranged everything according to his will. He did not say that God has caused him to be taken into chains and put on trial to face death. He did not say that God made him go to prison. Paul, instead, says that God works it all out in the end. This is an important difference to take note of because Paul is not placing the blame on God for his being under arrest, rather he is acknowledging that God will use it. To say it another way, God doesn’t cause innocent people to go to jail, he doesn’t cause people to die of cancer, and he does not cause people to be killed in senseless tragedies. But when these things do happen, he make the evil thing bring about good for the Kingdom of God.

Part of the reason so many of us have this notion of God is because of a theologian named John Calvin. Calvin was very much against the theology of the Catholic church and the argument could be made that almost everything they were for, he was against. His understanding of protestant theology was outlined in what is considered to be one of the classics of Christians theology called The Institutes of Christian Religion. Calvin was a proponent of a outlook called theological determinism. In a nutshell, Calvin believed that God is sovereign and has dominion over everything in the world, including everything that happens right down to the cells in our body replicating. Calvin’s argument was that if something occurred that was not God’s will then God could not be sovereign and have dominion. Calvin also believed in a principle called predestination, which meant that not only did God know everything that would happen in history but that he actually planned everything. Further, Calvin stated that this included God not knowing but actually choosing who would and would not be saved in in his presence forever. In other words, Calvin felt that God planned every single thing that would ever happen, including the fact that you’re here today at Shiloh and that God has even chosen who will and will not be forgiven of their sins. Calvin’s view is that God has picked and chosen who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had similar beliefs to Calvin in several areas. He even made a statement which said, in essence that Methodism was within a breath of Calvinism. However, Wesley disagreed with Calvin in one major area: Predestination. Wesley believed that from the very beginning humankind was given free will, or the ability to make our own choices. Wesley believed that God knows how we will decide but that he does not actually cause us to make certain decisions. While Calvin believed that a person could not choose to trust God – rather that God would in a sense force them to believe through what he called irresistible grace – Methodist belief is that we decide for ourselves to trust Christ. Instead of irresistible grace, Wesley believed that God gives us prevenient grace, or grace which comes before which God uses to reach out to us humans and enable us to say yes to his justifying and sanctifying grace. Wesley believed that we have free will instead of having our will dictated to us.

The Bible lends support to this notion from the very beginning. In Genesis we read that God made the universe, the world, and everything in it and when he had placed Adam and Eve in the garden he gave them dominion over it. This does not sound like a micromanaging, puppet string pulling God to me. Instead it sounds like that God’s intention was to be present but not to interfere in the day to day stuff. God certainly did not intend for Adam and Eve to disobey him. Why would God compel people to disobey him? The logic simply does not stand up to the test. Simply put, God is not in the business of micromanagement and he certainly is not a puppet master. God also does not cause bad things to happen.

We want to believe that everything happens for a reason, that especially when bad things happen it’s all for a greater purpose. This simply just is not true. Bad things happen for a variety of reasons but sometimes they just happen. But they do not happen because God willed it or because he wanted to prove a point. God does not give people cancer. God does not cause children to die. God does not cause any sort of tragedy. But when tragedy does strike, let us remember that God is in the midst of it and he is ready to take that evil, ugly thing and make something beautiful come out of it. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirt – amen.