Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Welcome Ambivalence

James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
September 2, 2012
© 2012

Currents of Alienation Sandra Harrington 2004

I.                When we took our oldest son, Jon, to Grove City College in Pennsylvania for his freshman year, someone from the administration spoke just to the parents shortly before we were to head home. He said something like this: “You have unloaded a trailer load of stuff into your son’s or daughter’s dorm room. You’ve toured the campus together. You’ve opened an account with the bookstore and the meal service. Right now they are meeting their upperclassmen big sisters and brothers. In less than an hour you will cry and hug each other on the parking lot. Your children will walk back to their dorms for welcome parties. You will drive off and by the time the campus fades in your rearview mirrors, you will have wiped your tears and shouted, ‘Whoopee!’”

A.           I’m sure both you and Les and Joyce Brown had many thankful tears when you bid them farewell. I don’t know if Les shouted “Whoopee!” when he woke up Monday morning and didn’t have to come into the office. But I did have lunch with him on August 22. Yes, he still loves and misses you, but I can tell you he’s enjoying himself and has no regrets. Candy and I are thankful for the way you have welcomed us, but I doubt we have evoked and “whoopees” from you. My job is to get you ready to welcome your new pastor with a genuine “Whoopee!” Right now you’re between “whoopees” in ambivalence.

B.            Both personally and as a congregation, as uncomfortable as it feels, ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’s creative, constructive adventures.

C.            Ambivalence comes when we feel tugged in two seemingly contradictory but equally compelling directions. In September we’re going to put some of the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel up against some of what James wrote in his Epistle. I expect we’ll feel an ambivalent tug between the two. If we listen closely, in this sometimes uncomfortable space, I believe we can hear the voice of God. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 captures the essence of just such a conversation between Jesus and some religious critics. Remember what we just read from James as you listen to Jesus.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

II.            I hope you enjoyed the change of pace with the Call to Worship from the Song of Solomon this morning. Perhaps you’re wondering how that relates to Jesus and James. In that ambivalent space between Jesus and James, I believe I hear the voice of our Divine Beloved calling, “Arise, my Love, my fair one, and come away. The time of singing has come.” You’re not quite ready for that yet, so feel ambivalent.

A.           All of that washing by the Pharisees and Scribes had nothing to do with hygiene. It was not Mom calling, “Supper is ready. Wash your hands, and come to eat. We’ve got your favorite tonight.” Oh no, this was an arduous ritual to be sure that if you had touched a sinner during the day, or a sinner had touched your carrots or your frying pan, you wouldn’t be defiled by taking some speck of a sinner in with your supper. This was not about love but about suspicion and fear.

B.            Like a lot of traditions, this one started with good intent: health and a reminder to live a holy life. But also like a lot of traditions, it deteriorated into lifeless, loveless routine.

C.            This is Labor Day weekend. Labor Day first became a national holiday in 1894 when President Grover Cleveland settled the deadly Pullman Strike. It was a way of recognizing the contributions of labor unions to the working people of the United States. Over a century later we take a day off work and school, but very few are thinking about labor unions or workers.

D.           All nations, communities, families and, yes, churches have rituals to celebrate important people, events and ideas. I expect you started some rituals when the church moved here to Reno and Anderson, and some of them have become well engrained traditions. Nothing wrong with that, but Jesus asks us, “Are these God’s traditions or our traditions? Do they nurture love or conflict?” Ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’s creative, constructive adventures.

III.       Both Jesus and James are concerned about what defiles us. Neither of them would say, “eating with ritually unwashed hands.” James wrote that pure, undefiled religion or worship was to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Jesus said that the evil intentions that come from within the heart defile a person. Though it sounds like James is advocating exterior religion and Jesus interior, I think this ambivalence takes us directly to love that is both heartfelt and expressed in relationships.

A.           For both Jesus and James, religion or worship have nothing to do with the style of our services, the selection of the hymns, the length of the sermon, or whether anybody messed up. Neither of them even mentions the assembly of the congregation for worship. For both of them, pure religion and worship is about how we treat people. For James it is caring for weak, needy, hurting people. For Jesus it is about fidelity, integrity, respect, generosity, humility.

B.            Widows and orphans were about the most disadvantaged people of that time. “Widows and orphans” became a kind of shorthand for all of the disenfranchised and outcast, including foreigners, the disabled and publicly scorned sinners. Without a doubt plenty of people in Midwest City and Choctaw qualify. I know that this congregation cooperates with other congregations in the area to offer some help in the name of Jesus.

C.            I am also confident that for many more people in Midwest City and Choctaw personal, emotional, relational and spiritual pain is all too real even when economic poverty is not a significant issue. For many of them “religion” offers little if any hope, so they don’t naturally look to the church. These are your neighbors, your coworkers, your classmates, maybe even your relatives. The kind of religion and worship Jesus and James propose makes each one of you a bridge for someone to the love of God.

D.           Jesus and James would agree that pure religion and worship is not about institutional maintenance or even growth for the church but about the mission of Christ’s love for hurting people. When that happens, the Church grows. Growing is a byproduct not the goal. Investing in the church is not so the organization will survive, but so that it can be about its mission. Ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’ creative, constructive adventures.

IV.      To move a congregation from maintenance to mission will necessarily tamper with its traditions and invite ambivalence. When a church seriously explores its mission, differing and even conflicting opinions are not only inevitable, they are desirable! Ever practical, James recommends “listen more, speak less.” When someone suggests what seems just plain wrong to you, “be slow to anger.” Who knows? As questionable ideas bump up against each other, the Holy Spirit can use the energy to spawn something better. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It is no harder for God to use our mistakes than our triumphs.” As you look at the virtues that counter the defilements Jesus named, we see the humility and selflessness that can welcome ideas from any source.

A.           Part of the property of Central Christian Church in Dallas had been a children’s playground but the equipment was gone, and it was unused. Except that some neighbors let their dogs run there. A couple of members complained about the trespassers, until they saw a couple from their Sunday school class who had a dog sitting business using it. The very ones who had objected, now suggested fixing it up to be a real dog park, and it became one of their most effective outreaches to their neighbors.

B.            I have heard some conversation about dreaming that this this campus could become a community center for your neighbors. Some things are already happening in the JCAC. What activities can you imagine attracting people? You might think of these as sorts of “fishing ponds” for bringing people to Jesus. Not everyone, of course, but you who participate in those activities can think of yourselves as “anglers” who are alert to build relationships with people who are hungry for Jesus, even if they don’t know it. The sky’s the limit!

C.            As your interim pastor, my job is a lot more than keeping things going until you get a new pastor. I intend to be leading you through some steps that can be done much more effectively in the time between pastors.

1.              Recognizing how your history brought to this point.

2.              Sharpening the vision for future mission.

3.              Developing and focusing the congregation's leadership, both staff and lay, for the mission ahead.

4.              Renewing connections with the larger Church.

5.              Preparing to welcome a new pastor with “Whoopee!”

D.           Ambivalence welcomes you to Christ’s creative, constructive adventures. I am already excited about what I believe God wants to do with 1st Christian Church of Midwest City in the decade ahead. One very helpful way of thinking about the future for this congregation is to ask yourselves, “What can this church be and do, so my grandchildren and their friends will want to participate and have their spiritual needs met here?” Some of you have grandchildren who are involved here now. Some of your grandchildren are in other churches or maybe no church. Some of you have children and are not thinking about grandchildren yet, but use your imagination to see what God might have in store. I know not all of you do or will have children, but I think projecting a generation ahead can still be helpful for forming a future vision

When I think of our grandchildren, I realize that no one model answers this question.

Hannah,14, and Isaac, 12, in Pennsylvania go to a large big-box, high energy, very produced “ultra-contemporary” congregation of young families. Hannah went with her Dad on a mission trip to Guatemala, and Isaac went on a middle school mission trip to Washington, D.C. Their Mom spearheads a ministry to mothers of preschoolers.

Sam, 10, and Elizabeth, 5, in Wisconsin go to a small Mennonite church that meets on Sunday afternoons in a Lutheran Church’s building. Their worship is traditional but informal and includes a whole range of ages. They have no pastor and their Dad shares in the preaching rotation and their Mom leads worship. Several times a year they do a whole church weekend retreat at the farm of one of their members.

I mention the contrast in the churches our grandchildren love to remind us not to think of narrow or stereotypic models but of a wide range of adventures.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Confronted by Holiness

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
August 26, 2012
© 2012

I.                I think most of you know that Candy and I are staying in Geraldine Morgan’s house during our interim with you. Her son John has been too gracious to really be called a landlord. Many of you have generously provided just about everything we need to equip the house. Thank you! All of you! This week we have gotten pretty well organized and are feeling comfortable and at home. We returned from running some errands and Candy commented how quiet it was without our son’s dogs to greet us when we came in. Yes, they can be messy when they track in mud. They can be annoying when they insist on getting attention when we’re focusing on a task. We’ve been known to complain mildly when most of the work of their care falls on us. But now that we’re here and they are in Dallas, we miss them.

A.           I don’t know that we can offer ourselves as experienced experts for empty nest parents. With only sporadic breaks the last several years, we’ve had children in the house for over 40 years. Though Erik is increasingly independent, by still living in the house, we’re very aware not only of his dogs but also his hours, his mail, his laundry, and perhaps most of all his seemingly ubiquitous stuff. Having said that, we do enjoy being just ourselves evenings and weekends when Erik is working or with his friends. From washing dishes to folding laundry, chores done together seem like fun again reminding me of our newlywed days before children. But I also know that the different rhythms we have developed over the years don’t always mesh. I tend to be up with the dawn, and Candy is more of a night owl, and we do sometimes irritate each other. Empty nest can be the opportunity for a second honeymoon or an invitation to the boxing ring.

B.            Pastoral transitions can also lead in two directions. Familiar routines are broken, and future direction is uncertain. Sometimes disrupting familiar patterns and traditions brings anxiety. Sometimes the discarding of worn-out routines is welcomed. One person’s discard may be another person’s cherished treasure. These anxieties can be particularly acute after a long tenure by a well-loved pastor. An important part of an interim pastor’s role is to help a congregation travel harmoniously to a new adventure and avoid heading to a battlefield.

C.            In our personal lives, in our marriages and families, and in the church, when transitions blow away our comfortable shelters, we can either run away to avoid what God is sending, or we can approach God’s new adventure with joyful anticipation.

II.            Jesus’ discourse on the bread of life in John 6 is a theological tornado blowing away deeply engrained understandings of Israel’s history and religion. As this wraps up in verses 56-69, many of Jesus’ “disciples” avoid the profound encounter Jesus offers. But for those who embrace the encounter, they are drawn into a deeper if wilder adventure with him.

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

A.           Jesus’ disciples who said this teaching was difficult did not mean difficult to understand but difficult to accept. The image of abiding in Jesus by eating him as the way to live forever blew away the highly external, ritualized way they had been approaching God. It was not just the shocking imagery, but it meant that everything in life would change for someone who was abiding in Jesus. That was just too threatening.

B.            Exactly because they understood how totally Jesus would remake them, they avoided the offered adventure. When Jesus’ teaching went way beyond religious inspiration, they turned back. They ran for shelter.

C.             But Simon Peter spoke for the twelve and others in the core of Jesus’ disciples. Having tasted eternal life, they had nowhere else to go. Only Jesus had the words of eternal life. Only Jesus was the Holy One of God. Only Jesus could evoke the intensity of worship Solomon brought to his prayer at the dedication of the Temple.

D.           When transitions blow away our comfortable shelters, we can either run away to avoid what God is sending, or we can approach God’s adventure with joyful anticipation.

III.       From the time King David proposed building a Temple for God in 2 Samuel 7, Solomon’s rise has been pointing to the completion and dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8. Though without today’s TV and technology, the extravagant pageantry would have rivaled Olympic opening ceremonies. Israel and Solomon were at their pinnacle, taking their places as the leading nation and ruler of that time. They were celebrating what they expected to be the beginning of Israel’s golden age. But 1 Kings 8:10-12 and 2 Chronicles 5:13-14 report that God showed up and dwarfed the planned show. The Temple filled with the smoke of God’s presence so that the priests could not perform as planned.

A.           While Solomon’s prayer may have been too eloquent to have been spontaneous, after the smoke cleared it took on new meaning. The God who could not be contained by the Temple or even the heavens showed up and took over. I have a bit of an exercise for your conversations the rest of today. Throughout Scripture fire and smoke are frequent signs of God’s personal presence. See how many you can think of and ways the Church uses flame in worship. How does this shape your response to God?

1.              Standing with hands uplifted was the typical posture for prayer in ancient Israel and in the early church, especially when leading public prayer. According to 1 Kings 8:54 and 2 Chronicles 6:13, Solomon was kneeling with hands uplifted by the end of his prayer.

2.              Because of what Solomon said about not even the heavens containing God, we know that by lifting his hands Solomon was not indicating where God was spatially but was expressing his own worship.

3.              I’ll take just a moment to mention my own worship practices. I hope I don’t freak any of you out with my physical gestures in worship. I’m not suggesting what anyone else should do. You need to express your worship to God in your own way. Just as our physical eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper expresses a spiritual reality, physical gestures can express spiritual worship. I do hope my gestures fulfill a liturgical function of drawing our attention to God, and certainly not to me.

B.            Smoke and fire describe the glory of God’s presence that is beyond human perception and yet real. Scripture also uses the image of light to express how God’s glory prompts either an avoidance or approach response from people. Psalm 36:9 says that in God’s light we see light. 1 Timothy 6:16 says that God dwells in unapproachable light. You might add “light” to your brainstorming.

C.            You may remember from Isaiah 6 how the prophet Isaiah responded to his vision of God in the Temple a couple of centuries later. “Woe is me! I am undone!” Involuntary avoidance. Of course, God invites Isaiah to approach which is what Solomon did.

1.              Solomon appealed to God the hear those who pray toward the Temple. Clearly Solomon did not believe the Temple itself had any magical or spiritual powers. But it was a physical expression of the name of God, so to face toward the Temple, was to call on God. When exiled in Babylon, Daniel prayed toward Jerusalem, and in Daniel 6:10 when prayer is forbidden he makes a point of praying toward the Temple in Jerusalem.

2.              Like Isaiah, Solomon appealed to God for forgiveness. He did not presume anyone deserved to have their prayers heard. The appeal is based on God’s grace.

3.              For Solomon, the building of the Temple was a missionary endeavor. He hoped foreigners would hear about it, want to see it and most of all be prompted to pray to God in whose name the Temple was built. This Temple and the God it honored were not intended to be exclusively for Israelites. This was to be a proclamation of God’s invitation to all people.

D.           When transitions blow away our comfortable shelters, we can either run away to avoid what God is sending, or we can approach God’s adventure with joyful anticipation.

IV.      Ephesians has puzzled scholars from the earliest centuries of the Church. It presents as being written by Paul from prison, which may explain why it is so different than his other letters. It almost certainly was not written specifically to the church in Ephesus where Paul served quite a long while and knew many people. But the letter is general and makes no personal references. It quite likely was circulated among a number of churches in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) at a time of great turmoil and threat. Perhaps the people in Ephesus who knew Paul so well preserved and duplicated their copy so it could come to us. I’m not intending to unravel these scholarly puzzles, but I do think what we read today about the armor of God clearly indicates they felt they were under spiritual attack.

A.           The future was uncertain, and the conclusion in verses 18-20 match Solomon’s prayer exactly.

1.              Pray in the Spirit. Get past routine, ritualized prayers and embrace God’s encounter.

2.              Pray for those who are facing the greatest distress. Call on the name and power of God in Jesus Christ for strength and direction in the present distress.

3.              Pray for Paul to boldly proclaim the Gospel. He was continuing the mission to the “foreigners” for whom Solomon prayed a millennium earlier.

B.            When transitions blow away our comfortable shelters, we can either run away to avoid what God is sending, or we can approach God’s adventure with joyful anticipation.

C.            On Thursday, I read The First Fifty Years, the history written by Bill Tharp for the church’s Fiftieth Anniversary in 1993. Some themes run through these years. One is that this congregation has been through many times of transition. While these pages give some hint of the anxieties that came with these transitions, they also spoke of embracing God’s new adventures.

1.              You’ve had quite a variety of pastors. Some long-term and some with brief tenures. Each seemed to make an important contribution at the time.

2.              From the founding of the church and additions to the original building right up to moving out here, there has been a sense of mission, not stagnation. I’d like to read the options considered in 1959 and suggest that while the specifics will be different the prayerful deliberation in 2012 will be much the same.

3.              I chuckled a bit at Pastor Arthur Detamore’s observation that many new members came to the church from friendships in a square dance club. I believe strongly that this congregation has a great opportunity to grow in the decade ahead. It may not be by square dancing, but it will come through friendships with people beyond the church and inviting them to join the adventure.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

If You Were Given Three Wishes

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
August 19, 2012
© 2012

I.                On July 8 Candy and I worshipped with you somewhat incognito. Only a handful of people knew I was going to be your interim pastor. Lyle and Lillian Fry greeted us warmly when we arrived for the early service. We chuckled to ourselves at our evasive answers, feeling we shouldn’t be making the announcement ourselves. “Do you live in the area or are you visiting?” “Oh, visiting from Dallas.” “Do you have family in the area?” “No.” “When did you get into town?” “Last evening.” “When will you be going back to Dallas?” “This afternoon.” “How did you hear about our church?” “Someone told us about you.” “I hope you’ll come back.” “I think we will.” We were properly introduced and are delighted to begin our journey with you as you seek a new pastor.

A.           Many thanks to Jason and Shauna for all the practical help with getting moved here. Also thanks to Julia and Andy with getting oriented to worship for this morning and a start on the daily workings of the church. We feel welcome and well supported.

B.            Just a bit of a personal introduction. Candy and I have been married 43 years. We have three sons. Jon and his wife Leanne live in Schwenksville, PA with their children Hannah, 14 and Isaac, 12. David and his wife Rachel live in Milwaukee, WI with their children Sam, 10 and Elizabeth 5. Erik is single and is living in our Dallas home, hoping to get out on his own by 2013. In the months ahead we can fill in any details you wish.

C.            Preaching in the transition time between pastors calls for some sensitivity. I don’t want you think I’m picking Scripture passages to send you some kind of jab. I start with the passages suggested by the Lectionary, the three year cycle of selections from the Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament Epistles and the Gospels used by churches of many traditions. My goal is to prayerfully discern how my sermons can help you listen for the voice of God from these Scriptures on your present journey.

II.            This morning we read the conversation between God and Solomon in 1 Kings 2 and 3. As I have been reflecting on this the past couple of weeks, I wondered what I would say if God woke me up some night and said, “Ask for whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you.” I got to thinking about the many fables of people being granted three wishes. As a child I remember my friends talking about always asking for three more wishes for the last wish. Someone would always say with the voice of authority, that’s not how three wishes works! The genie in Aladdin’s lamp may be the best known of these stories, but they come from almost every culture. Often they show that we humans are not too wise in what we wish for. One family of three wish stories is about a woodcutter who is granted three wishes for not chopping down a fairy’s tree. He went home that evening and told his wife while complaining about the dinner she had prepared, and he says, “I wish I had a nice fat sausage.” It suddenly appears on his plate. Then his wife complains that he had wasted one of his wishes and says, “I wish that sausage was stuck on your nose.” Of course, it sticks and he can’t pull it off, so they use their last wish to get the sausage back on the dinner plate.

A.           In contrast to the three wish fables that expose human foolishness, Solomon responds to God’s offer by asking for wisdom. God’s offer to Solomon is not a reward for heroic righteousness, though Solomon did love the Lord. Rather, it is God’s gracious faithfulness to the covenant with David. The narrator is clear that Solomon should not have been sacrificing at Gibeon, but God said nothing about it. God did not say to Solomon, “When you get everything right, I’ll help you be a good king.” No, God was meeting Solomon at the point where love and weakness converged and offering to participate.

B.            Solomon’s request springs from realistic humility. First, he does not ask even for wisdom that would build his reputation. He asks for the wisdom to lead God’s people. He puts the covenant community ahead of himself. Second, he recognizes that he is inadequate. He needs God’s wisdom to do the job.

C.            I easily identify with Solomon’s sense of inadequacy. I know God has called me to be a pastor. I love preaching and teaching. But preaching and teaching terrifies me. How dare I presume to stand in front of God’s people Sunday after Sunday and speak on God’s behalf? What if I say something that someone takes seriously and it heads them in the wrong direction? In your transition between pastors, you will make some decisions that will set the direction of this congregation for many years. I want to be sure I am pointing you in God’s direction. Already in my conversations with your congregational leaders, I can tell they are feeling the need for God’s wisdom too.

D.           When the way forward is unclear, ask God for wisdom and abide in Jesus.

III.       Today we are listening in on Solomon’s intimate conversation with God, identifying with his need for wisdom at the start of his reign. Next week we’ll hear Solomon’s great prayer for the dedication of the Temple at the peak of his reign. Knowing how Solomon later declined, we recognize that asking for God’s wisdom does not exempt us from our own foolishness. Understandably we ask, “How do we access God’s wisdom?” And “How do we discern which of the ideas that compete for action are from God and which are our own folly?”

A.           Every once in a while I hear something so compelling I want to hang onto it and repeat it. So you may hear me talking about Fr. Thomas Hopko more than once while I am with you. He’s retired now, but when I heard him he was dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York. He told us that when he was a boy, his mother would say to him, “If you want to grow as a Christian, read your Bible, say your prayers, and go to church.” Then he said to us, “Now I am the dean of a seminary training people for a lifetime of ministry, and I tell them that if they want to grow as Christians and want their congregations to grow they should read their Bibles, say their prayers and go to church.” The sheer simplicity of this is powerful. Christian spirituality is not complicated, only difficult. Bible, prayer and church are the essential ingredients in discerning God’s wisdom.

B.            If we ask God for wisdom, faith implies acting as though we believe God is leading us, not confusing us. James 1:5-6a says it eloquently. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting.” I believe the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton articulated this faith in one of his prayers.

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Thoughts in Solitude © Abbey of Gethsemani, 1958, p. 83

C.            Ephesians 5:15-20 that we read responsively this morning emphasizes the importance to tuning into the nudges of the Holy Spirit with joyful thanksgiving.

IV.      God is nurturing Christ in us, which comes out more in how we make decisions than what we decide. When the way forward is unclear, ask God for wisdom and abide in Jesus.

A.           When we think of abiding in Jesus we typically think of John 15 where Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Abide in me and bear much fruit.” Jesus also spoke of abiding him in in John 6:51-58 with a very different image.

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

B.            This image of abiding in Jesus by eating his flesh and drinking his blood is graphic, shocking, and certainly offensive to his Jewish audience. We access God’s wisdom by absorbing Jesus so he permeates every aspect of our being. Jesus lives his life through us. We become so saturated with God’s wisdom that it oozes out of us without having to consciously ask what Jesus would do.

C.            Feeding on Jesus is much more than accumulating information about him and agreeing to obey him. We read the Bible, especially the Gospels, expecting to be encountered by Jesus, and that he will leave something of himself behind in us. We pray, not to tell God what to do about what matters to us but to engage in conversation in which we increasingly see from God’s perspective. Life with the church goes beyond religious, educational, social and service activities so that by the Holy Spirit we recognize the presence of Christ in each other and touch each other on Christ’s behalf.

D.           When the way ahead is unclear, ask God for wisdom and abide in Jesus.

In the late 1970s I went through a crisis I still think of as my “dark night of the soul.” Just at the point that I was falling in love with my pastoral calling, it was seriously challenged. I couldn’t see the way forward to anything else, but pastoral ministry was blocked for over 3 years. As awkward as I felt, I stayed engaged with the church and a small group that had studied and prayed together for a long time. I kept up my daily Bible reading routine, though I can’t say I got anything out of it. The words went by like withered leaves in the wind.

What I did find meaningful and helpful was praying though the Psalms once a month. Five Psalms a day. I started doing that in 1970 and am still doing it today, but then I was only a few years into it. In that dark night I discovered that fully 100 of the 150 Psalms are laments and complaints. Two-thirds of them! I latched onto the laments and complaints. If Scripture included these Psalms, then surely God was giving me permission to be honest about the darkness of my own journey. I used the very words of the Psalmists to cry out to God, “Why can’t I hear from you now when I can’t find the path?”

I have since learned that God was guiding my path all along. The words of Scripture were soaking in. My lamenting prayers kept my communication connection with God. The church, especially that small group, was the source of encouragement and affirmation.

That’s where the window first opened to let the light in. In one of our small group discussions we encountered Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries us the bones.” I didn’t hear this as scolding me for my “dark night” but as the opening of the latch on the window that let in the light.

Very soon after that, a friend who was a professor at Wheaton College asked me to lead a breakout group at a retreat for engaged and seriously dating college students. The morning session seemed to go smoothly and the couples responded positively. At the afternoon session, my group about tripled in size. As the session wrapped up, I asked where the extra people had come from. They said that at lunch when they were talking with their friends, they expressed disappointment with their breakout groups. Those in my group invited them to come since they were finding it so valuable. I had not experienced such joy or exhilaration in years! That was the turn in the road that took me back to pastoral ministry which has continued to today.

I do not tell you this today because I think I was then or am now such a wonderful pastor. Rather, I tell it as my own experience of praying for God’s wisdom and abiding in Jesus when the path ahead of me was not only unclear but dark. As we begin this journey in the transition to your next pastor, there will be days of disappointment and confusion. Part of my responsibility as your interim pastor is to facilitate keeping up with Bible and prayer and church. To encourage you not to fear, for God is ever with you and will never leave you to face your perils alone.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Already Living Forever

Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
August 12, 2012
© 2012

I.                On July 8, when you were meeting Pastor David, Sheila and Chris, Candy and I were in Midwest City, OK meeting the people of 1st Christian Church. When we walked into worship, no one had any idea who we were. We were greeted by a pleasant couple who engaged us in conversation. “Welcome. Good to see you today. Do you live in the area or are you visiting? How long will you be here? How did you find our church? Hope you will come back.” We giggled inside at our evasive answers, knowing we shouldn’t be making the announcement that the Search Committee had called me as interim pastor. As people from the Search Committee arrived for Sunday school, they greeted us and introduced us appropriately. Being an incognito guest in worship is an instructive experience.

A.           Have you ever visited a church where you knew no one? We received a friendly welcome in Midwest City. A few times Candy and I have visited some well-known, larger churches on vacation. I would characterize our welcomes as cordial, institutional and informative. If you have been an unaccompanied worship guest, what did you look for? What did you notice? What did you expect? What did you experience? What did you feel? How did all of this match or not? Did you feel that you’d like to return? Why?

B.            I know that Pastor David asked leaders to visit worship with other churches. If you haven’t done it yet, I suggest you pick a close by church with a service at the time you don’t worship here. Please don’t skip out on Emily or Glenn in the next couple of weeks. I don’t know everything Pastor David had in mind, but I doubt he wanted to spy on the competition. I expect wanted you to experience walking into unfamiliar territory so you could see through the eyes of worship guests. We know our way around; we know each other; we know what to expect. Appreciating someone else’s perspective is not easy. Yet, it is essential for growth.

II.            What do you think someone notices the first time they come to worship with 1st Christian Church, Duncanville? I know people ask themselves, where do we go in and where is the best place to park? If they come in by the office, they notice a change in smell as they pass through the education wing hallway. They may feel they came into the sanctuary from the wrong end, especially if the service has already started. Despite our best efforts at welcoming people to the Lord’s Table, most people are not from Disciples of Christ background and may feel uncertain about participating.

A.           This week a pastor friend circulated on the internet a list of nine questions church visitors are not asking. They probably make us both chuckle and squirm. I ask you to suppress your inclination to be defensive and just try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has not been to church in a long time if ever but has decided to try it out. http://www.mattrosine.com/2012/08/nine-questions-church-visitors-arent.html?m=1

1.              So how soon can I get involved with your committees?

2.              Can I get a longer bulletin – maybe something with more detail?

3.              Will you please single me out in front of all the people during worship this morning?

4.              Will you please send some "callers" by my house later and interrupt me while I fix dinner?

5.              Can you please seat us in those uncomfortable pews with our fidgety kids and aging parents?

6.              How quickly can I fill out a pledge card?

7.              Does this church have weekly meetings, rehearsals and other activities that will consume most of our family's free time?

8.              I need more paperwork! Can you give me a folder filled with glossy pamphlets, old newsletters and denominational statements of belief?

9.              During the worship service, can someone with a monotone voice speak (at length) about all the insider church happenings and people's private health matters?

B.            Perhaps some church veterans just moving into the community are looking for some of this, but people who are checking out church to see if it is for them are looking for something totally different.

1.              Sometimes they are looking for help with a practical or personal problem. They want to get married. They just had a baby. They recently divorced. They just lost their job. They are facing a significant health challenge. A loved one just died. Something happened on their life journey by which the Holy Spirit is tugging them toward Jesus and the Church.

2.              They are looking for authentic community – friendship and love they can trust. Sometimes they are reaching out of lonely isolation. Sometimes they are craving stable relationships in a hubbub of activity and superficial acquaintances.

3.              They are looking to connect with God. They might not be able to describe it, but they are hungry for something a lot bigger than their current experience. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:25, they come to church looking for some sign that God is really among us.

C.            In order to introduce people to Jesus, we need to get in touch with what they are looking for, which might be different than our expectations. If a congregation thinks of themselves as “customers” expecting to be served by the staff, stagnation is certain. Growing congregations, on the other hand, see the people around them as “customers” and the people of the congregation as the “service staff.” Pastors and leaders train, organize and deploy the congregation to serve the “customers.”

III.       The image of Jesus as the Bread of Life in John 6:35, suggests he gave himself away to be consumed and devoured. What may seem a comfortable, homey image to us evoked a strong reaction from some of Jesus’ audience in verses 41-51. His response to their offense startles with the drastic depth of his sacrificial service.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.48I am the bread of life.49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

A.           Those who come to Jesus, the Bread of Life, are fully satisfied. They neither hunger nor thirst. Jesus as the Bread of Life is not literal physical food, but it is more than a metaphor. Jesus touches the deepest longings of all humans, and those who are vulnerable enough to bring their hunger and thirst to him are satisfied.

B.            As we saw last week, feeding on Jesus is much more that becoming knowledgeable about him and believing facts about him. Feeding on Jesus is absorbing him. He nourishes the eternal life that he has already given to all who feed on him.

C.            Jesus intended to shock his audience when he said that the bread that he would give for the life of the world was his flesh. He went even farther in the next paragraph and said that those who ate his flesh and drank his blood had eternal life. For Jews this went way beyond the “ick factor” offending every sensibility of diet purity. For Jesus, eternal life is about giving himself away totally for our benefit.

IV.      Ephesians 4:25-5:2 is a detailed description of what it means to start eternal life now. It is to live for others with Jesus. This passage is not a list of noble ways to live an admirable life. It is not rules to follow or virtues to cultivate. It illuminates the eternal life of living for others with Jesus.

A.           In Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, James and John had asked Jesus for the top spots in his kingdom, and the other disciples are offended. Jesus warns all the disciples not to be like the world’s leaders who like to elevate themselves. Instead whoever want to be great must serve. Then Jesus describes his own mission: to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

B.            Philippians 2:4 captures not only what Jesus was getting at but expresses it as the core of the present reality of eternal life. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” The great theologian of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drew of this verse when he called Jesus “the man for others” in his Letter and Papers from Prison.

C.            Open a Bible and take a look at Ephesians 4:25-5:2. Living for others is the theme that ties the whole passage together.

1.              We are to speak the truth to our neighbors because we are members of one another. (v. 25)

2.              The word for the devil (v. 27) is the accuser, recalling hasatan in Job 1-2 who attacks Job’s integrity. In Revelation 12:10 it is the “accuser of our comrades.” The work of the devil is to divide Christians and pit them against each other with slander.

3.              Thieves are to work with their hands, not to support themselves, but to have something to give to the needy. (v. 28) The orientation is not to self but to others.

4.              Our speech builds up others and gives grace to those who hear. (v. 29)

5.              Our kindness to others extends to them the same forgiveness we have received from Christ. (v. 32) No room is left for grudges. To imitate God (5:1) is to forgive!

6.              All of this rests on rests on Jesus who gave himself up for us. (5:2)

D.           Maybe you’re thinking I wandered far away from trying to see the church from the perspective of worship guests. Theology is not only eminently practical, theology and practice are inseparably intertwined. You will experience that this fall as you begin to work and plan with Pastor David on how to introduce people to Jesus and welcome them into the life of the congregation. Instead of asking how you would like your building and campus to look, you’ll start asking, how can we make our facilities as inviting and guest friendly as possible? Instead of asking what programs would I like our church to offer, you’ll start asking, what can our church offer to address the needs and interest of the people outside of the church? Instead of asking what would I enjoy in worship, you’ll start asking, how can our worship be a sign to outsiders that God is really among us?