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, September 28, 2012

Welcome Prayer Power

James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-41
September 30, 2012
© 2012


I.                William Barclay tells an ancient oriental fable about a ring set with a wonderful opal. It gave whoever wore it a noble and compassionate character. This charmed ring was passed from father to son for many generations. The ring came to a man who had three sons, all of whom he loved dearly. When he knew the end of his life was coming, he had two copies of the ring made. They were such perfect copies that not even he could tell which the original was. From his deathbed he called for each of his sons privately. He blessed each one, expressed his love and gave each of them one of the rings, cautioning them to say nothing to the brothers until he had been buried. Of course, after the funeral the brothers discovered they each had a ring, and they could not discern any differences between them. They took their rings to a wise judge who told them, “I cannot tell which is the original, charmed ring, but you yourselves can prove it.” “We?” the brothers responded in astonished unison. “Yes,” said the judge, “since the true ring gives noble and compassionate character, everyone in the community will know which of you has the true ring by the quality of his life. So go your ways; be kind and truthful, brave and just. The one who does this is the owner of the true ring.” Never before or since had the community known three such honorable brothers. (Daily Bible Study Series, Commentary on Mark; p. 227) Similarly, prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.

A.           I deeply appreciate the seriousness with which the Elders pray at the Lord’s Table and the attention Julia and Andy put into their pastoral prayers. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:7) when Jesus cautions against praying with vain repetitions, I don’t think he meant either written or memorized prayers. His concern was going through an empty, powerless routine. When someone shares a personal need and we say, “I’ll pray for you,” I am sometimes concerned that this is a polite way to say “I care,” but misses invoking the power of God.

B.            Though the passage we read from James may seem to head in several directions, powerful and effective prayer is at its core. Prayer is the power for every season of life: suffering, cheer, sickness and wandering.

1.              The word for suffering is the word for the anguish of the prophets over wayward Israel. While it includes personal pain and struggle, this prayer points us to pray for our own and the Church’s spiritual strength.

2.              People who are cheerful should sing praises. Praise is prayer directing honoring to God. When life is going well, we easily lose our focus on God. Praise not only credits God with good, but encourages us and others.

3.              The most detailed instructions are that those who are sick should call the Elders to pray and anoint them with oil. That anointing is a tangible prayer calling on God’s power by following God’s instructions. The Elders pray on behalf of the whole Church. Sometimes we may be so sick we can’t even pray for ourselves, but the Elders pray for us.

4.              The confession of sin and restoration of those who have wandered is also prayer in action. Our prayers make us agents of God’s grace.

C.            Powerful, effective prayer is a deep mystery. Surely God does not need us to explain what needs to be done or how to do it. Yet, God has chosen the prayers of the people of faith to be the means of releasing divine power. Prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.

II.            James wrote that God’s power is released by the prayer of faith (v. 15) and the prayers of righteous people (v. 16). I don’t know about you, but in the face of what needs God’s power, my faith is puny. I wouldn’t dare call out God’s power by appealing to my righteousness. Neither would James!

A.           Elijah is the example of the righteous person by whose faith God deployed great power in Israel. James wrote that Elijah was an ordinary person just like us. Don’t turn him into a superhero! James was saying, “If Elijah could pray with power, you can pray with power.” Elijah wavered with fear, but he knew that Deuteronomy 28:23-24 warned that if Israel turned to idols, “The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. The Lord will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed.” As Elijah prayed from this warning, God let him know that when Ahab and Jezebel were leading Israel to worship Baal, the time for the drought had come. Scripture informed Elijah’s prayers.

B.            Since none of us qualify to pray for God’s power as righteous people, James emphasized confessing our sins to one another. By confession, we appropriate the righteousness of Christ as Paul wrote in Romans and Galatians. So our prayers do not release the power of God because we are righteous but because Jesus is righteous. You may be uncomfortable with confessing your sins to one another. We ask, “Isn’t it enough to confess to God?” When we struggle with a persistent sin, speaking it aloud to a trusted, mature fellow Christian helps us to get some objective distance and let go of our rationalizing. Perhaps most powerful of all is hearing, “Know that in Christ you are forgiven and be at peace!”

C.            The great power and effectiveness of praying is not what we get God to do for us but what God does within us when we pray. As we pray, the Holy Spirit helps us connect Scripture with our own situations, with the needs of people we care about, with the mission of the community of faith, with the dilemmas of the people of the world. With our prayers, God focuses power on people.  Prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.

III.       Some of you may remember J. B. Phillips’ 1961 book Your God Is Too Small. James and Jesus both tell us that our prayers are too small. In Mark 9:38-41, Jesus is still in the house in Capernaum. He has just wrapped up his lesson on Great Humility that we talked about last Sunday.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.40Whoever is not against us is for us.41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

A.           Maybe you’re thinking John’s challenge to the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name isn’t about prayer, but in Mark 9:29, after the Transfiguration, when Jesus heals the boy with seizures, he says, “This kind can only come out by prayer,” which is echoed in what we have read in James. Jesus is tearing down the boundaries that limit our prayers. The name of Jesus is not magic mumbo jumbo – if you say the spell right you get results. No! The name of Jesus released the power of Jesus. So even if this man wasn’t traveling with Jesus and the Twelve, it was Jesus who was driving out those demons when the man spoke.

B.            Several commentators, including some I usually respect and trust, wrote that this man was unauthorized and out of line, but Jesus didn’t want to get in a distracting dispute on his way to the cross. I don’t buy it! Jesus was teaching the disciples to be expansive and recognize God’s power comes from unexpected places. This man is essentially affirming Jesus, and Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He includes the disciples in his generosity. In Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23 when Jesus is being attacked, he turns it around and says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” He refers specifically to himself and not the disciples in this more restrictive use. The Apostle Paul takes Jesus’ expansive attitude to the rivalries that can spring up in Christian ministry when he wrote in Philippians 1:15-18, “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.”

C.            Both James and Jesus relentlessly push us out of our comfort zones. Confessing our sins to each other. Praying with effective power. Anointing the sick with oil. Pursuing the wanderers. Accepting those who do prayer, faith and church differently than we do. Prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.

IV.      Dr. Christina Puchalski, M.D. teaches at George Washington University School of Medicine and is a member of the lay Carmelites. I have heard her speak several times about spirituality and prayer, healing and medicine. She has conducted and collected empirical studies that explore the effect of spirituality and prayer on medical outcomes. I remember her talking about one study that was trying to distinguish the psychological and spiritual. An interfaith prayer group was given the randomly selected names of half of the patients in a hospital for a week and asked to pray for them but not contact them or anyone who knew them. While statistically significant improvements were observed, the uncontrollable variables made the results inconclusive. Yet, she has made prayer and spirituality an integral part of her medical practice.

A.           In our empirical, results driven culture, we easily miss how and why prayer is powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering. What happens to the patient in the hospital is a tangential byproduct of what happens to the ones who are praying. Tim Stafford wrote in this month’s (September 2012) Christianity Today that the New Testament doesn’t speak of miracles but of signs. When something we have prayed for comes about, that does not say how wonderful our prayers were. Rather, it is a sign to pay attention to God and recognize that God’s Reign is breaking in on us. (p. 50)

B.            Powerful, effective prayer is not about giving God a laundry list of everything we’d like fixed and every person we’d like to be healed. The focus of powerful, effective prayer shifts from all these things that swirl around and within us to a steady, stable focus on God. Seventeenth century Russian mystic Dimitri of Rostov said it this way: “Prayer is turning the mind and thoughts towards God. To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at [God], and to converse with [God] in reverent fear and hope.” (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1936 Russian, 1966 English; p. 50)

C.            We pray together in worship and to open and close meetings, but our highly individualistic culture pushes us to think of prayer as an individual activity. Certainly personal prayer is important, but James wrote to congregations about how to pray in community. James envisioned churches that pray, that sing, that heal and that restore. That is how prayer becomes powerful and effective to transform those who are suffering or cheerful, sick or wandering.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Welcome Humility

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2012
© 2012


I.                Before getting into full-time pastoral ministry I did educational research and editorial development for Family Concern. We shared office space with Youth for Christ in Wheaton, IL and my cubical was directly across from Vic Glavich’s. Before coming to Youth for Christ, Vic had been a legislative aid to Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield. Vic told me how one evening the senator had arrived at a hotel where he was to speak, the room was not set up and the events staff had gone home. The senator’s team was vigorously complaining to the night manager and madly scrambling to locate someone with the authority and will to call in an overtime crew. When the senator’s staff returned to tell him they were having trouble getting anyone to come in to set up, they found the senator with his coat and tie off setting up the last row of chairs. He had just enough time to freshen up in the men’s room before his audience arrived. I tell you this, not to comment of Mark Hatfield’s politics, but knowing that he openly identified himself as a disciple of Jesus, this incident illustrates that if you get close enough to God, you will welcome great humility.

A.           This is a difficult lesson to learn. In Mark 9:30-37 Jesus was teaching it to his disciples, who just didn’t seem to get it. From the Mount of Transfiguration …

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

1.              This is the second time in Mark that Jesus told his disciples about his impending death and resurrection. Rather than ask him about what they didn’t understand, they argued with each other about who was the greatest. I don’t think they were suggesting Abraham, Moses, David or Elijah as candidates.

2.              Once they were in the house in Capernaum and away from distractions and public scrutiny, Jesus overtly told his disciples that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

3.              Then to illustrate, he took a little child from the host family in his arms and said that receiving one child was equivalent to receiving him, to receiving the one who sent him. In the first century, children were not thought of as cute or innocent. They had no social or legal status; they were vulnerable and insignificant.

B.            Candy and I got to know David and Karen Eubank when we were at Central Christian Church in Dallas. The Eubanks live in Thailand and are deeply involved with the people of Burma. They have met Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democracy movement there. So I follow the developments in Burma with personal interest. Though Aung San Suu Kyi is Buddhist, not Christian, I think her advocacy of the relaxing of sanctions against the regime in Burma now that she is free from house arrest and elected to parliament, also illustrates great humility.

C.            In James 3:13 the word translated “gentleness” is the same word that is translated “humility” elsewhere. Verse 17 is a magnificent definition of great humility. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

II.            Great humility may seem incompatible with great visions, but both Jesus and James are clear that great humility is essential for accomplishing great visions. For Senator Hatfield, setting up chairs was as much a part of sharing his vision for the country as speaking to his audience. For Aung San Suu Kyi, making life better for all the people of Burma is more important than her personal political ambitions. Jesus was prepared to be humiliated, betrayed and killed to accomplish the redemption of broken humanity.

A.           1st Christian Church, Midwest City has a great vision to serve your neighbors in the name of Jesus. A decade ago you took the bold step of moving to Anderson and Reno into a new facility. About a year ago you took on a massive capital campaign and construction project to build the JCAC as a venue for serving your neighbors.

B.            I appreciate Susan Updegraff’s encouraging and challenging update on the capital campaign. You have made a great start, but in the interim between pastors with lots of other things calling for attention, you will need to be intentionally determined to keep and accelerate the momentum on your capital campaign. This is a lot bigger than having funds come in at a pace to keep ahead of the mortgage payments. It is a lot bigger than the satisfaction of completing a successful campaign in three years. This is about actualizing your great vision of bringing the love of Jesus to your neighbors.

C.            Because of that, your capital campaign is a spiritual issue. I know a lot of prayer went into moving into this building, constructing the JCAC, and into launching the capital campaign. James 4:1-3 is a stark reminder that just praying about something doesn’t necessarily obligate God to provide what is requested. God cuts through our pious language and knows whether we are asking for our ambitions or for the glory of God. How we ask is as important as what we ask.

III.       How can you tell if you are asking for your ambition cloaked in noble pious words or are genuinely asking for God’s glory? Get close enough to God and you will welcome great humility. Humility so great you release your ambitions to welcome God’s vision.

A.           The disciples argued about which of them was the greatest. James 3:14 names envy, selfish ambition and boasting as signs we are not on God’s wavelength. The 4th century Desert Father, Abba Matoes said, “Whenever you hear [people] praising [their] neighbor more than [themselves] it is because [they] have reached a great stature: for this is perfection to praise one’s neighbor more than oneself.” (p. 144)

B.            In the next few weeks you will all have opportunity to contribute your ideas for the congregation’s vision for the future. You can expect people to have different ideas and even to disagree. The spiritual test will be whether you have great enough humility not to sink to conflicts and disputes, but to listen for the voice of God in what each one contributes.

C.            Humility is elusive. Just when you think you might have achieved a little humility, it slips away. Yet, great humility does not denigrate or discount the Holy Spirit moving in you and enduing you with gifts. Just as the Apostle Paul encouraged people to use their spiritual gifts, in Romans 12:3 he wrote, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

IV.      So how do you get close enough to God to welcome great humility? James 4:8 says, “Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”

A.           Great humility reminds me that I need God most for what I think I can handle on my own, not just when I know I’m overwhelmed. The hackles of our egos bristle when we feel we are being unfairly criticized. Defensiveness crowds out humility. The 19th century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse wrote this antidote: “When you find that you are being maligned, accept it: it is a kind of healing mud-bath. You do well not to lose the feeling of brotherly friendliness toward those who apply this medicine to you.” (p. 242)

B.            Jesus’ profound teaching about greatness and humility came as almost a sidebar to his teaching his disciples that he was to be betrayed, killed and rise again. Yes, the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask, but their argument about greatness was not just random. For Jesus the cross and the resurrection were the essence of great humility. Jesus says to us as he tried to say to his disciples, “Start seeing the cross! Start seeing the resurrection! The cross and the resurrection are not just what I am all about, the cross and the resurrection are what I am calling you to be all about.”

C.            I have quoted from the 4th century Desert Fathers and from Theophan the Recluse today. All of the Christian spiritual classics, all of the Christian spiritual giants through the centuries agree. Get close enough to God and you will welcome great humility.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Welcome the Greater Good

James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-33
September 16, 2012
© 2012

 I.                From Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie, the fascination of mystery stories is solving a puzzle that depends on picking up on obscure details to identify the unexpected culprit. In the Bible, mysteries are profound truths about God that are hidden in the ordinary events of life and revealed by God to those who are able to accept them. The Epistle of James presents a different kind of mystery. Who wrote it? When? To whom? I rather enjoy this sort of puzzle. Just about when I think I’ve got it solved, I discover one detail that makes that answer unlikely if not impossible. Several people named James were followers of Jesus. Was one of them the James that wrote this letter? It seems to expand on several themes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with a very Jewish perspective on God’s righteousness. Yet, it also draws on some language from some Greek philosophers. It makes no reference to other parts of the New Testament and may have been written earlier. But James is not a hodge-podge of Jewish, Christian and Greek ideas. Far better scholars than I have wrestled with it without solving the mystery.

A.           If I can tolerate a little ambiguity, I think I can make sense out of this mystery, even if I can’t solve it. James was written in a time of transition when most Christians were Jewish and the Gospel was just starting to spread into Greek culture. They were trying to figure out how these influences fit together and where they were incompatible. The stories and teachings of Jesus were being passed around by word of mouth, but little if anything had been written yet. So it makes sense to me that James was concerned that people not only hear what they were told but lived by it. Since most of this was verbal and not written, James was concerned with what is spoken, thus the emphasis on the tongue.

B.            James begins this section with a warning to those who thought they could be teachers. With little if any written material, what teachers said had a lot of power for good or ill. James was obviously concerned about the negative influences and goes beyond the lessons of the teachers to include everything we say to and about each other. What James wrote about the impossibility of both fresh and salt water coming from the same spring or different fruits from a tree or grapevine reminds me of what Jesus said in Luke 6:45. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

C.            When our son Erik was 7 and we were living in the Daybreak community in Ontario, I was talking with Father Henri Nouwen about being frustrated with losing patience with Erik. Talking about that verse, Henri said, “If you want to know what is happening in your heart, listen to what you say when you speak before you think. You can never guard your mouth 100% of the time. What you have to do is change what you put into your heart.”

D.           Life’s transitions can put a lot of stress on the path from heart to mouth. When the future seems uncertain, we crave security. The anxieties in our hearts easily overflow into critical, even angry words that may not be limited to those who seem threatening. Our words can even sting those we are clinging to. As you explore your vision for the future of 1st Christian Church, Midwest City, you can expect some tensions along the way. James wrote that not many should become teachers. But especially in times of transition, reliable spiritual leaders, teachers if you will, are essential, and what they say is formative.

II.            James wrote that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect.” (v. 2) In this political season we see how quickly opposite sides are to jump on the slighted slip of the tongue and try to make an issue of the gaff. I know my verbal regrets would fill many volumes. Sometimes the blunder comes right on the heels of what at least I thought was a brilliant insight. That certainly happened to Peter in Mark 8:27-33. To get the full impact of this incident, you need to know that the “you” in Jesus’ conversations with Peter are plural. All of the disciples are included, not just Peter. He spoke as the leader, reflecting all of James’ concerns for teachers and their words.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

A.           Both here and where this is reported in Matthew 16, Peter seems to have gone from speaking his great confession identifying Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, almost immediately to his foot-in-mouth gaff for which Jesus rebuked him as Satan’s mouthpiece.

B.            Peter intended to rebuke to Jesus privately, but he was speaking on behalf of all of the disciples. Yes, Jesus addressed Peter as Satan, and included all the disciples by implication of the plural pronoun for “you” when he turned to look directly at them. But Jesus did not contrast divine things with demonic things. Rather he characterized Peter’s words as setting their mind on human things. James 3:14-15 is parallel, asserting that selfish ambition is earthly and devilish. The temptation is not to something ghastly but to something that seems normal, even healthy. I suspect that most of our temptations are not to heinous crimes but to subtle words protecting and promoting our self-interest.

C.            I think we can all understand how strongly we respond with self-preservation and self-protection. I think we can all understand how Jesus’ disciples might regard him as perhaps even suicidal and want to rescue him. They were totally unprepared to consider that the long awaited Messiah would suffer, be rejected and killed.

III.       Yet this is exactly how Jesus defined his messianic mission. The divine things on which Jesus had set his mind are to suffer, be rejected, be killed and after three days to rise again. I suspect Peter and the other disciples neither heard nor comprehended what Jesus said about rising again after three days. That was just too far out of their reality, yet it was the key to understand not only what Jesus had said about suffering, rejection and being killed, but rising from the dead was the climax of his messianic mission. Suffering, rejection, being killed and rising again were the path to the redemption of broken humanity. On the way to Jesus’ messianic mission, self-interest and personal preference give way to God’s redemptive greater good.

A.           Up until now Jesus’ messianic mission has been a mystery hidden in his teaching and his compassion and even his miracles. Now, when Jesus was on his way to the cross, he began to reveal this mystery to his disciples. Mark records that Jesus adds details to this teaching two more times (9:31; 10:32-34). The mystery is that Jesus produces redemption by giving up his own interests, his own life for the good of others. Philippians 2:4 makes adopting this mind of Christ the prescription for Jesus’ disciples. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.”

B.            This incident is the turning point in Mark’s Gospel. From here forward, Jesus is on his way to the cross. On his way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks his disciples about his identity. Caesarea Philippi was established to celebrate the Roman Emperor’s claim to be divine. The place was chosen because in Greek legend a cave there was the birthplace of the god Pan. In the days of the Northern Kingdom it had been a center for Baal worship. So Jesus choose it as the place to reveal the mystery that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The rest of Mark’s Gospel happens “on the way,” and ever since following Jesus has been about being “on the way,” not about arriving. Jesus’ disciples are always in transition.

IV.      The transition time between pastors reminds us that we are always on a journey; we are always in transition. Much of the time we go from day to day almost unaware of the movement. Milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries; births and graduations; new jobs, new homes, new cars all remind us we are “on the way,” not at our final destination.

A.           In the coming weeks and months you will do a lot of thinking and talking about the vision for the future of 1st Christian Church, Midwest City. That is likely to mingle hope and fear. From your hearts, you mouths will speak. You will see things differently from each other. You will have contrasting ideas and worries. What you say to each other will be important. Maybe more important will be how you say it. James 3:9 reminds us that the people who disagree with us and the people who irritate us are made in the likeness of God. The way we speak to them reveals what is hidden in our hearts in relationship to God.

B.            In a variety of ways you will be asking yourselves and each other what you want 1st Christian Church, Midwest City to look like in ten years. The temptation is to think in terms of our own interests and our personal preferences. “I hope we have lots of people who are generous givers and will love the same hymns I love and not want anything that makes me uncomfortable. And I hope I don’t have to work too hard to accomplish this.”

C.            On the way to Jesus messianic mission, self-interest and personal preference give way to God’s redemptive greater good. As your interim pastor, I am not the one to shape your vision. That is for you as a congregation before God. But I can tell you that my dream and prayer for you is that you will be a community in which many, many people are transformed in the name of Jesus. Sure some of them will make you uncomfortable. Some will frustrate you. Some will bring unanticipated changes. But as the power of Jesus flows among you, God will send you plenty of people, made in the likeness of God, who will be redeemed as you are on your way following Jesus’ messianic mission.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Welcome Challenging People

James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-30
September 9, 2012
© 2012


I.                Art Howe was a homeless man in his 80s who usually slept in the shed behind the hardware store. He worshipped irregularly with the church I served in NJ. His one earthly treasure was a trombone he played with the pick-up orchestra we had for Advent and Palm Sunday each year. Somewhat incontinent, he didn’t change clothes or wash up often or well enough. You only needed your nose to know if Art was in worship, and people gave him a wide berth. He was the personification of the poor person in shabby, filthy clothes of James 2:2.

A.           The rich and poor people of James 2 were guests in worship. The criticized favoritism was the way those early Christians extended hospitality to the rich in hopes they would become part of the church. The insult to the poor signaled them they need not return.

B.            James’ Epistle elaborated on the Sermon on the Mount. Here he picked up on “blessed are the poor” as recorded in Luke 6:20. His warning was very strong. Verse 1 could be translated, “By showing partiality you do not really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do you?”

C.            Just as in the earliest days of the Church, a congregation who invites their neighbors to the love of Jesus can expect to welcome some challenging people. God does not always send the people we would choose.

II.            Matthew’s report of the Beatitudes starts with “blessed are the poor in spirit.” (5:3) Not all of the challenging people who check out a church’s worship are shabby and filthy. Some may be affluent and educated but poor in spirit: hungry, hurting, hunting. As a boy, Steve Jobs – the recently deceased founder of Apple – attended a Lutheran church with his parents. At age 13 he asked the pastor, “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.” Steve then showed the pastor a picture of starving children in Biafra and asked, “Does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” The pastor answered, “I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” Steve said he didn’t want to worship such a God, walked out of the church and never came back. (Kara Powell, Fuller Youth Institute, Hermanutics, Christianity Today, September 4, 2012)

A.           Especially among those in their 40s and younger, the percentage who dropped out of church as children or have never participated in church at all is growing. They bring hard questions that leave us uncomfortable. When we ignore the questions or are too quick to hand out settled answers, we easily send the message, “We don’t ask those sorts of questions about God here,” and send the seekers elsewhere. Much more effective is to welcome the questions and explore their implications together.

B.            Whether or not they ask theological and ethical questions, when secular folk check out a church, they often bring wounds – wounds that may have been inflicted by life or even by a church or Christians. Broken relationships, betrayals, addictions, disappointments and destructive decisions are not easily or quickly repaired. Material assistance and counseling may help but do not bring instant results. Prayer, confession of faith and baptism may be important steps on the journey but are not the destination. Transformation comes gradually in a trustworthy community patiently living Christ’s love.

C.            A congregation will experience frustration whether people come with profound doubt or pain. We’ll get a chance to examine both in October when we’ll look at the book of Job from the Hebrew Scripture. I’ll share with you its pivotal place in my faith journey. By inviting their neighbors to the love of Jesus, a congregation can expect to welcome challenging people.

III.       In Mark 6 Jesus is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. He sends the Twelve on their first mission trip. When he is listening to their reports, a crowd gathers. He tries to get away for some rest with his disciples, but the crowd follows and grows to over 5,000. He feed them, sends the disciples away in a boat while he goes up a mountain to pray alone. A storm threatens the disciples’ boat, so he walks on the water to calm them and the sea. Another crowd gathers, many wanting to be healed. In chapter 7, Jesus has a prolonged confrontation with the Pharisees and scribes about ritual purity. Mark 7:24-30 tells what happened when he tried again to get away for some R&R, thinking that in Gentile territory he might get a break.

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”28But she answered him, “[Yes! Lord!] Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

A.           I think this Syrophoenician woman was quite likely a very young single mother. She was a challenging person for Jesus. She interrupted his retreat for rest and private teaching with his disciples. She was annoyingly persistent, even though the account in Matthew 15 suggests Jesus tried to ignore her. She was desperate for her daughter with no apparent support system. In that society her husband, father or brother would have been expected to help, but she was alone. And, of course, she was a Gentile. She probably did not speak Jesus’ native Aramaic. Did he try to talk with her in Greek, which he would rarely if ever have used? Her presence challenged what Jesus had just been teaching about ritual purity.

B.            In his comments on this week’s lectionary readings in the Christian Century (September 5, 2006), Steven Fowl writes that someone had a wicked sense of humor putting these two passages on the same Sunday. “Jesus seems to engage in just the sort of activity that James warns against, refusing to heal a very sick child because she and her mother are not Jewish.” Suddenly Jesus is the uncomfortable guest in our worship from whom we distance ourselves. Some commentators go through all kinds of exegetical contortions to soften Jesus. Other caution against trying to wiggle out of our embarrassment.

C.            If you can live without trying to explain away how rude and insulting Jesus seemed to be, I think we can hear God’s voice in this awkward space between James and Jesus. Right after his devastating dismissal of ritual purity in favor of purity of heart, Jesus intentionally went to Gentile territory where he was certain to meet Gentiles who would want his help. His disciples were not offended by his rudeness. In fact, Matthew 15 says they asked him to send the woman away. Jesus’ response to her was typical of Jews at that time.

D.           But the tables turn in the exchange Jesus and the woman had about dogs, which could be especially interesting if they were speaking Greek. For Jews all dogs were unclean and were never house pets, but Jesus used the word for small family dogs that Gentiles did keep as pets. It would still be insulting for him to compare her to a dog, but she picked up on it and responded that these small family dogs did clean up the crumbs that dropped from the children’s table. Her desperate love for her daughter prompted her to accept this insult and turn it to her advantage. We miss some of the impact in the NRSV that uses “Sir.” She emphatically responded to Jesus, “Yes! Lord!” Matthew 15:28 reports Jesus commended her for her “great faith.”

E.            When a church welcomes challenging people who bring their puzzles and their pain, it is not just to meet their needs. God uses these people and their challenges to stretch those of us who consider ourselves to be Jesus’ serious disciples. By inviting your neighbors to the love of Jesus, this congregation can expect to welcome some challenging people who will surprise with what they contribute to the church.

IV.      Do you remember Midori Ito, the figure skater from the 80s and 90s? Because of the multi-cultural implication and the sound of her name, I suggest we might think of some of these challenging people as Midwest City Midori. Of course, plenty of long-term Oklahomans are your neighbors too. I thought I might call them Choctaw Chuck. As your church invites your neighbors to the love of Jesus, you will be challenged by many Midwest City Midoris and Choctaw Chucks. By 2022 they could outnumber you who have been part of this congregation for years. Some of them will be like Art Howe, Steve Jobs and the Syrophoenician woman.

A.           Most churches think they are friendly and welcoming. Effectively including challenging people calls for an intentional and intense ministry of hospitality. You will need to learn how to protect people who are already feeling that they don’t quite fit from embarrassment that will drive them away. More important than getting them into programs is helping them make new friends. People usually need at least five friends to stay in a church for more than a couple of months. You will have to teach people the basics about Jesus and faith and church without making them feel ignorant. You will need to be patient as they take years to work through their puzzles and pains.

B.            Twenty years ago Candy and I lived in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario. We had a 4 month sabbatical in this Roman Catholic community of about 50 mentally handicapped adults called core members and about 100 assistant members. God used some very challenging people to help us grow. They have a prayer that captures this experience well. It is in the insert in your bulletin, and I’d like us to pray it together.

O Father, we ask You to bless us, and keep us in Your love.

May [ours] be a true home, where the poor in Spirit may find life;

A place where those who are suffering, may find comfort and peace.

Lord, give us hearts that are open, hearts that are humble and gentle,

so that we may welcome those You send, with tenderness and compassion.

Give us hearts full of mercy, that we may love and serve;

And where discord is found, may we be able to heal and bring peace;

And see in the one who is suffering, the living presence of Your Son.

Lord, through the hands of Your little ones, we ask You to bless us.

Through the eyes of those who are rejected, we ask You to smile on us.

Lord, grant freedom and fellowship, and unity to all the world;

And on the day of Your coming, welcome all people into Your Kingdom.