Les Ferguson, Jr. has been preaching since he was fifteen. He holds a B.A. in Bible from Magnolia Bible College and an M.A. in New Testament Preaching from Johnson University.
His college years were separated by a six-year stint in the U.S. Navy where he worked in electronics and missile fire control systems. A portion of his service time was spent in the Persian Gulf during the US operations known as Desert Shield, the precursor to Desert Storm.
He now preaches for the Oxford Church of Christ in Oxford, MS.
As I write this it is early and quiet. I’m sitting in an empty old farmhouse outside of Vicksburg, MS drinking coffee and tending the fire.
I’ve already brought up two arm loads of firewood from the back woodshed. It’s not that cold outside, but the brick floors and open air build of Becki’s childhood home keeps it cold inside.
It is cloudy with rain on the way, but a little rain won’t stop what’s coming.
It won’t be long until this old house is filled with children, grandchildren, and great children. Today will be the first time we get to meet Graham, Sophia, Lola, and Rosie—the newest additions to the extended family
And we mustn’t forget those of us who are married in to this huge and sprawling ménage. There are quite a few of us too.
Soon this old house will be filled with the sounds and smells of Thanksgiving. There will be turkey, ham, roast beef, and some venison too. If it goes like it always has in the past, there will be more side dishes than I can actually fit on my plate.
Rest assured though, I will get my fair share of dressing/ stuffing. And of course, Becki has made my favorite dessert: Bread Pudding. I will hope with great fervency there is some left over to take home and enjoy later tonight. (After all, the Egg Bowl is played this evening—Hail State—and bread pudding will pair nicely with that.)
If my Ole Miss friends are still reading after the little blurb above, you should know that no game or team trumps family of any kind.
The past two years have been difficult and long. But as I look at this empty house in anticipation of what will take place here today, I know that I am blessed beyond measure.
Yes, there will be empty seats at the table. We cannot escape that fact. Some of us my share a tear or two, certainly a memory or three. But still, to be here (wherever here may be for you), is just one small indication of the blessings we share.
We sing a song at church on occasion that tells us to “count your many blessings.” As I anticipate family today, as I think about those who will read this little note, I know just where to begin counting my blessings…
The following sermon was heavily, heavily influenced by Short Stories by Jesus, a book by Amy-Jill Levine… and there may be some quotes I inadvertently did not expressly acknowledge. If you find something good and worthy of remembering, give her the credit—I was greatly impacted by her work!
As a kid, I used to play the what if game. What if I had superpowers? What if you were the king? What if my dad was smarter than yours?
What if? Let’s play that game with some tougher questions…
What if the pressing question of the day wasn’t when we could meet in our church building again? (I know it’s important and greatly impactful, but bear with me)
What if the most pressing question didn’t begin with my salvation or yours, or even the salvation of those in our community? (I’ll admit that what if seems like a stretch, but bear with me again)
What if the most pressing question wasn’t about career choices, schools to attend, or jobs to pursue?
What if the most pressing questions had nothing to do with the politics of the day?
What if the most pressing questions were the ones Jesus might’ve asked?
And of course, that last what if means wondering what those questions might be—and we’ll consider that in a bit.
But let me warn you: the Jesus in the New Testament is far more radical than the Jesus we’ve talked about, preached about, and worshiped. This Jesus has a little patience for the things of this world, particularly where our priorities get out of whack with a gospel, God centered life and practice.
Yet, I thoroughly understand how important it is to understand scripture/ theology correctly, but, all the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s is of little value if the heart isn’t striving toward God!
I promise you we are going somewhere today, but for the moment, let’s segue to the idea of the Church.
It is important to understand that the church was not ordained to be a repository of opinions or our favorite beloved traditions.
It was not organized to serve as a platform for competing debates and arguments over what I like versus what you like.
On the other hand, the church was intended to be a gathering of saved people—a community of those who believe intent on sharing the gift and message of Jesus to the world!
So maybe we ought to consider exactly what the message might be?
Every flavor of Christianity has its own important doctrines, theological points, and distinctive characteristics—every single group has those teachings that are revered and untouchable.
Sometimes those sacred beliefs are based on scripture;
Sometimes they come from traditions transcending the biblical text.
Either way, they form a part of the identity of that particular group.
And because those particular sets of teaching are so entrenched with our identity, we get caught up in the resulting debates, competing ideology, and proving the other wrong.
Unfortunately, a debate that can be won or lost based on style points and how well the other is demolished usually means the Kingdom message hasn’t been advanced at all.
But I do get it. I have spent years discussing, arguing, and otherwise trying to prove my point. Sometimes I was more open to understanding what differences I had with others; most of the time not.
And again, I get it. I get that some of our differences are extreme and undercut the gospel.
But what if the questions the church was supposed to ask were entirely different than the finer nuances of a developed theological position?
What if we really should be more concerned about the questions that pertain to helping bring heaven down to earth?
Yes, the Church is a part of the kingdom. And yes, it is a hospital for sinners, a place for the broken to connect.
But it is also the vehicle by which we join together to share Jesus.
Not the Jesus of popular culture or theology.
But the radical, intense Jesus of scripture who was focused on justice and mercy for all.
In today’s parable that’s exactly what we see.
I invite you to read with me from Matthew 20:1-16…
Your Bible most likely calls this the Parable of the Vineyard Workers.
That’s a bit unfortunate–by calling it that, we have made the focus of the parable about the workers first, and about the location, second.
And that has led to any number of allegories where:
The landowner (and we will talk more about that in a minute) is God.
The grumbling workers are Pharisees.
And those hired latter are the tax collectors, sinners, gentiles, or anybody else that is socially or culturally unacceptable.
And since God is the landowner, this parable is about simultaneously smacking down the Pharisees while lifting up the downtrodden.
I greatly appreciate how this interpretation is comfortable–everyone likes the underdog—and we certainly have seemed to favor smacking down the Pharisees, whether ancient or modern.
Even so, I like it when we can make things neat, tidy, and easy to understand, but is there an overarching message that we might be missing?
Is there a practical message we need to consider?
Is there a question Jesus is inspiring us to ask?
If you are like me at all, inquiring minds want to know…
So, let’s go back to the text—particularly verse 1…
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
That’s how the Christian Standard Bible says it. Plenty of other translations use the same term. However, some use names like:
Master of the house.
Basically, they all mean about the same thing, but the best way to see this term might just be householder.
Think about it like this—the parable is about a guy who owns a home and has a vineyard he needs help with.
So, he hires a set of helpers—you see that in the text–It’s right there.
Later he finds more people needing work and he sends them to his vineyard with the promise to give them “whatever is right.” Again, it’s right there in the text.
That phrase, “I’ll give you whatever is right” is incredibly interesting and impactful (and again, I am so indebted to Amy-Jill Levine for helping me see this).
Better yet, it gives us just what we need to live out this parable and quite possibly change the trajectory of our church family.
I’ll do what is right is a phrase that means justice, fairness, righteousness with a heap of charity thrown in.
Think about it… This homeowner hires people who work different amounts of time and he wants to give all a full day’s wage.
In the economy of this world, that just seems strange, but God’s reality, the Kingdom Economy is built on justice, fairness, righteousness, and charity!
It’s all about recognizing our neighbor and doing the right thing!
And that sounds suspiciously like something Jesus once said in answer to the question of what the greatest command was.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37–40 CSB17)
Let me suggest as strongly as I know how that the message of this parable—the message of the gospel—and the message of the church is love! (old devo song sung in the round—love, love, love love…)
How we love others has an enormous impact on reaching them for Jesus!
Listen carefully. I know we have our doctrines and dogmas that are identifying to us. I get that we have core beliefs and traditions that speak important things.
But maybe before we talk about those things…
Maybe before we ever ask someone if they are saved or not…
Maybe we ought to ask them if their children are getting enough to eat—or if they have water and power right now—or if they are working a job that is secure—or if they have real needs to be met…
Maybe before we can ever help with spiritual needs, we need to love with fairness, justice, righteousness and a good bit of charity!
And whether you are aware or want to be aware, there is a whole lot of injustice taking place in country right now!
So, what if? What if Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor in the here and now—would we pass that test? Would we be a people blind to differences but with wide-open eyes where love and compassion are concerned?
The world of economics is fascinating if not daunting at times, but we live with a Kingdom Economy of justice, fairness, righteousness, and charity.
And we remember what Jesus told the Pharisees, Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13 CSB17)
April 7, 2018 (from two to four PM) is the date and time of my first ever book signing. The location is Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS. If you are in the area, I hope you can join me. I am looking forward to meeting lots of folks for the very first time.
I am incredibly excited about the release of “Still Wrestling! It has been an unbelievable journey and a labor of love. The official release date is still April 10–although books may ship a few days before that.
I am thoroughly grateful to those who have read this blog from the very beginning. I still plan to write here at what used to be called Desperately Wanting to Believe Again, at Wineskins, and the Clarion Ledger.
Not the least, I am working on a second book effort of my own. If anything, I am almost more excited about this one than anything I have done. But, it is a work in progress and who knows where it will end up.
In the meantime, newspapers are increasingly looking for a greater online presence–this link is to my latest offering at the Clarion-Ledger. I hope you will check it out, show some love and maybe even share it. The more clicks, the better!
So, I had this car accident. It was quite traumatic. There was no blood or broken bones, but still, it was a bit frightening. But thankfully, I am ok. At least where that wreck was concerned. I was sixteen at the time, so it has been a few years ago since all that happened.
But if you want to talk about an ongoing wreck, I have that covered too. Over the last couple of months, I’ve struggled with stress and anxiety. Some of it has been self-inflicted; some of it just comes with the territory of being a husband, father, and preacher. In full vulnerability mode, I sort of feel like a ping-pong ball in a speed match between Olympic caliber players. How’s that for turning a phrase?
But it’s true. I am not even close to being a professional counselor, but I would be quick to tell you that feelings are subjective. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t feel them anyway. It doesn’t mean our feelings are somehow without power. Not in the least.
In my ping-pong ball persona, I often feel ineffective and powerless to change things. Consequently, there are times I allow circumstances, situations, and even people tosteal my joy and zest for living. But all that is another story we will get to in a moment.
In the meantime, I had a wreck. It wasn’t my first nor would it be my last. Full disclosure would tell you I had my first accident while Dad was teaching me to drive (you can laugh if you want to, but that mailbox was alive–I know it jumped in front of me). But the accident I am referring to was a two-vehicle sideswipe in a curve on a narrow gravel road. The other guy was in my lane, and while I had nowhere to go, he was able to maneuver a bit and ended up in the trees on the other side of the road. Now if I had the freedom to embellish the story, I’d tell you there was loud sounds of rendering metal—shrieks even born of torn steel. I’d tell you about the clouds of billowing smoke and the sounds of destroyed engines still ticking from the heat of their combustion. Fortunately, while I had a wreck, there is no need for any Hollywood special effects. The real fireworks happened in the aftermath.
Like I said, I was sixteen. Dad had been down this road (literally and figuratively) with me before. Accidents were not uncharted territory. But the other guy, a grown man, got a bit ugly and demeaning with unnecessary and untrue recriminations. He tried very hard to pass the whole thing off as my fault alone. He played to my dad’s experience as another older guy. He played to the fact that I was only sixteen and quite possible an idiot who had no idea what I was talking about. Hey. I was sixteen. Idiot was my first and middle name. But that’s beside the point. All these years later, I have no reason to lie, no new confession to make. I have nothing to, as my Dad would say, ‘fess up” about. This one time I was truly innocent and I think my Dad recognized it.
In the verbal confrontation that followed, I’ll never forget the moment Dad had had enough. With blazing eyes and steel in his voice, my father stood and said, “that’s it, we are done.” The other guy was rendered speechless by the way Dad ended it. So was I, and as we left, I was completely bumfuzzled (yes, that is a word. I ought to know, because I made it up). In what had to be a minor miracle, Dad grew at least two foot taller in an instant!
Although it was a long, long time ago, I’ll never forget the way Dad stood up for me that day. I wasn’t quite yet the prodigal son I would one day become, but Dad’s strength would serve me well more than once in my life.
Even now, my father is still here. Both of them. Yes, I claim two Father’s. Earthly dad; Heavenly Father. They are both such strong towers. Proverbs 18:10, The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are protected. I may never know this side of eternity how many times my heavenly Father looked the enemy in the eye and said, “that’s it, you are done.” How about that for a beautiful and compelling picture?
Yes, I am thankful for my father (and mom) who raised me and pointed me to God.
Unfortunately, life has seen fit to send some pretty bitter circumstances my way. I didn’t handle them all with the faith and assurance I should have. Chaos has in fact overwhelmed my life at several different key points. But the reality is, I have far more blessings than I deserve.
And then there is my wife, Becki, one of the greatest blessings I’ll ever know. In fact, following her constant advice to slow down and count my blessings tends to provide a bit of needed equilibrium.
So here I am, still standing. Sometimes battered and bruised, sometimes weaving on my feet. But, I am not alone in the chaos of life. I am not the first nor will I be the last to experience the ping pong ball effect of circumstances and situations outside my control.
If you find yourself there too, count your blessings and remember, God is a strong tower!
I ask that question quite frequently. If not that exact question, then one of a similar nature.
Where’s my Hex wrenches?
Where’s my new scraper?
Who used my drill last and where did you leave it?
Would somebody please tell me where they left or hid the TV remote?
Last night (as I write this on Wednesday morning), it was my favorite blue-handled framing hammer missing from action. Eventually, after looking for something else, I found it in the bottom of a basket full of electric tools (said tools which haven’t been used by me in months). It was like somebody took everything out and laid it in the very bottom before piling it all back in.
Have you ever heard of the mischievous sock elves (the ones responsible for the one missing sock of a pair in the basket of freshly laundered clothes)? At my house, we also have the if-it-belongs-to-the-Dad-let’s-use-his-stuff-and-leave-it-in-obscure-places elves.
Whether your experiences are like mine or not (please don’t further depress me by telling me I am alone on this), we all value our stuff. Sometimes it’s because we paid good money for the things we own and the value derives from that. Sometimes the value is found in what the stuff is used for. And sometimes, the value of our stuff is based on sentimental worth. In my closet (which is often not safe from the I-need-a-pair-of-dress-socks-or-a-plain-white-T-shirt elves), there are two footlockers full of my Cole’s treasures. Inside are toy cars, ball caps, stuffed animals, assorted balls, and other things of little monetary worth. But because they were his, they are my treasures now. Others might see junk, but those things are of immeasurable worth to me.
In the great scheme of life, nothing we own of a physical nature has any lasting or eternal value. On the other hand, how we view our stuff does. In the guise of keeping it real, stinginess comes easy for me. But since stingy is never pretty, I must work hard at not holding on so tightly to my stuff. What helps me is seeing my stuff as tools. I can use my tools to serve myself, or I can use my tools to serve God and others. Serving God and others helps me recognize the true source of my stuff.
How about you? Got stuff? Where is your treasure?
Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19–21 CSB17)
Writing, writing, writing… I am writing left and right it seems these days. And I love it! I am amazed to see myself where I am… Thank you for reading and sharing and encouraging! I am blessed and thankful!
The following is the second in a series of old bulletin articles…
I must be a horrible father because I cannot remember which boy. One of them, either Conner or Casey, was good at making faces on demand. They were quite funny. The happy face was sweet. But the grumpy and mad faces were hysterical because they served as miniature caricatures of how many adults look and act.
Honestly, I don’t know many people—adults especially—who haven’t perfected wearing the grumpy woe-is-me-the-world-is-ending kind of face.
Likewise, I have seen enough mad faces to know it doesn’t take any special skill to scare the socks off folks with a practiced, well-aimed glare.
And if I can be a bit meddlesome, some of us deserve an Academy Award except for one thing; we aren’t acting!
I teased Mickey in my article last week. I am not going to tease him this time. I have never seen his grumpy or mad face. I suspect he has one of each, but if you want to know more, you’ll have to check with Kay.
In the meantime, the Latin phrase Imago Dei means the image of God. When those words are used, it is meant to convey the same thing you read about last week.
Genesis 1: 26a, Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness….
We bear the image of God.
Now some question what that means. There are those who think its about knowledge and wisdom from God. Others see this as something we lost with the Fall of Man. Still more understand we were each created with a bit of the divine and therefore have inherent value, worth, and identity.
Imago Dei. Image bearer. It’s that last concept that really rings true for me. I have value. You have worth. A part of God is in each of us. We were made in His image. That ought to give rise to a happy face.
It ought to also make us pause when we treat badly someone whom God has made and infused with the precious gift of life.
What did Jesus say?
You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire. (Matthew 5:21–22 CSB17)
Whose image does your face, words, and action resemble?
It’s worth considering again what it means to bear the image of God!
PS. Try to make a happy face right now. Try to keep it all day long. I triple dog dare you…
I had a funny (as in Ha-Ha) conversation with my editor at Leafwood Publishers today that went like this: “Any news on a title? That would help me a lot—it gives me something to tell people. It is too weird telling folks ‘I have a book coming out next spring. No, I don’t know the name of it yet.’”
In perfect timing, she emailed me back with an answer this afternoon. Pardon the pun, but while we are still wrestling with the subtitle, I am fairly confident that the main title will be:“Still Wrestling!”
As far as I know, everything is percolating right along for a late spring/ early summer 2018 release.
I can hardly wait! This is worse than waiting for Christmas morning! Meanwhile, I continue to write for The Clarion-Ledger on a monthly basis. I am also at work on a second full book of my own. If I had to guess, I’d say it will serve quite well as a sequel to my first.
What follows is the modified first of a four-part series of bulletin articles I wrote earlier this year. I hope each will be of benefit…
You have four choices to choose from in answering this question:
Where was I?
A Star Wars/ Star Trek/ Battle Star Galactica Convention
An intergalactic Zoo
The Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
A point in time where transhumanism was in full evidence.
In the vein of a popular syndicated morning radio show, take C.
I had never in my life seen anything like it.
Anybody with eyes in their heads could have seen this country bumpkin come to town. What a rube I was! Did I mention I had never in my life seen anything like it? In every direction I turned, I saw a new sight stranger than the one before. I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to ask a lot of questions.
Or not. I was genuinely afraid of the answers.
So there I was, with my mouth, wide open and my faced scrunched up in a semi-permanent, “Wow, are these people real?”
Why yes, yes, they were.
Jim Morrison didn’t know the half of it. People are strange. Apparently, the Los Angeles airport is where strange comes to town.
Or a magnet. That’s a distinct possibility. I did see lots of metal stuck in the weirdest places.
Netflix’s production company missed out on a money saving/ money making opportunity. Instead of all the effort involved in the filming and special effects in Stranger Things, they could have set up a camera in the Los Angeles airport.
People are strange. There is no doubt about it.
Take my friend Mickey for instance. On second thought, my contract only allows me to tease Mickey while I’m preaching.
Take me for example. Or you, if you’re feeling a little bit charitable.
I love ketchup on my eggs and grits.
I have a child who eats ranch dressing on everything.
Those aren’t half the examples of strange things in my family. Need some more?
I have a brother who likes the University of Alabama. I don’t know how much weirder that can get.
And my own wife, yes even her, likes to work around the house on Saturdays. Work? Yes, work. She grew up in a strange family apparently.
But then there is you. Can you spell weird? The music you listen to, the shows you like, the things you expect–and from your preacher too.
Weird, strange, and sometimes hysterical. Yes, we are.
Because of our idiosyncrasies, most of us are in a constant need of mercy and grace. Unfortunately, instead of being deep reservoirs from which we share the same, we tend to be fixers. We try to fix everybody in every way that doesn’t line up with our own likes, understandings, and beliefs. And maybe some fixing is needed.
But whether it is mercy, grace or fixing you offer, it ought to all stem from one specific understanding.
Genesis 1: 26-27, Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.
Image-bearer! Every human being bears the image of God. Even those of us who are strange.
Think about that the next time you want to be critical, overbearing, mean or ugly.