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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Longing for More

Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
December 1, 2013
© 2013

For the four Sundays of Advent, Rev. Regina Erwin, Associate Pastor of First Christian Church, Odessa, Texas, where I am currently Interim Pastor, and I will be dialog preaching. The scripts take on a different form and are a little less detailed as a result. We have outlined the basic flow, but you'll need to be there or use your imagination, as they will be more free-form  than usual. My thanks to Regina for her courageous imagination to try this and to the congregation for engaging with the conversation. Norm

Through Advent we read from the Hebrew Prophets, as we did from Isaiah 2 this morning, about God’s promise of a new day of peace. Viewed through a New Testament lens, we see them as pointing to Jesus and celebrate them with his birth. Now 2000 years since Jesus’ birth and perhaps 2700 years since Isaiah’s prophecy, we are still waiting for peace.
How are we supposed to be in constant wait for 2700 years? I can’t barely wait for my wedding in just a few short months.
There are so many conflicts and struggles all around the world: Syria, Pakistan, Egypt. For the children of the next generation after mine, they do not know a time where we have not been involved in a war. 
Did you realize that on the Homeland Security System that there is not a place for no risk of terrorist attacks just low.
Yet we can’t help but yearn for Isaiah’s vision in our lives and those of others. The words of verse four are on a wall near the United Nations Headquarters. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Micah 4:1-3 is almost identical to Isaiah 2:1-5. They were contemporaries. Did one borrow from the other or did they both quote the same poem of hope? Joel 3:10 repeats the line about swords and plowshares, but we don’t know when he wrote.
Is it better to treat the promise of a coming peace as a feel-good message that we can all rally around, endorse, mention in a prayer and raise a glass to, or to proclaim along with our hope the reality of its long-standing absence?
In Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus said even he didn’t know when God’s hope for the future would come, but it would be a surprise.

 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 
37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 
40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 

42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 
44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

This text may seem uncomfortable for some of us. It asks us to live in readiness yet with the knowledge that the coming of Jesus will be at an unexpected time.
Jesus’ reference to the days of Noah does not mention the evil that brought God’s judgment on them but that people were engaged in ordinary daily life and were surprised by the flood.
Jesus spoke to our fear of being abandoned, We don't want to be abandoned. We want to make the cut, get the invitation, receive an acceptance letter, make the team, and be part of a family. We don't want to be abandoned.
Alyce McKenzie who teaches at Perkins School of theology at SMU tells of a grown woman who still tears up at the memory of being 7 years old on a family trip and being accidentally left behind at a gas station as the family station wagon drove off. She remembers the feeling of the concrete under her thin-soled sneakers, the smell of gasoline, the family car growing smaller and smaller in the distance, the sound of someone crying that turned out to be her. They came back as soon as they noticed she was missing, but the memory of those minutes remains. 
We have a hard time living with joyful expectancy when what we hope for seems so distant and unattainable.
We live with this constant promise. Sometimes we doubt it and other times, we know it to be the precious truth. We have the opportunity to live as Christ taught us, live as an example. We can teach those around us how to wait for that beloved promise. Church as a waiting community teaching example for culture
Jesus repeatedly urged being awake, alert, watching in readiness. How do we prepare for a promise? Promises always come as a surprise.
The surprise may be that Christ is already active among us. Part of watching is looking for the hidden signs of Christ’s present hope.
God reveals enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live and walk by faith day after day.
Our society just can’t wait but starts to inundate us with holiday frenzy disguised as Christmas earlier and earlier. Advent is a counter-cultural call for waiting and anticipation. Advent is rehearsal of waiting for God’s hope.
9 year old “good fellows” Christmas
One of my favorite theologians, Walter Bruggemann summed up the season of Advent this way, “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh  in light of new gifts that God is about to give.”
Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent and we feel like the student who joked on the second day of class “I’m already 2 weeks behind.”
6th grade Christmas with Mom home from hospital.

Don’t knock yourself out trying to create the “perfect Christmas” (and be so frazzled you can’t enjoy it), but wait for God to surprise you.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Kind of King is This?

Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2013
© 2013

Mark Galli the Editor of Christianity Today, writes in the November issue (p. 47) of looking across Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point (7,200 ft. elevation, 3,200 above valley floor) at Half Dome (8,800 ft. elevation, 1,600 ft. higher yet), experiencing and observing two reactions: fear and awe. People hold onto each other as they walk tentatively toward the edge. They dread falling over but want to get as close to the edge as possible.
I have been there, and even looking at a picture gives me a weak wobble in my knees. I have had a similar approach avoidance experience at Niagara Falls, especially in the tunnels behind the Canadian Falls, drawn to the power of the rushing water and feeling it pulling me in and over.
This was a profound worship experience for me. I wanted to lie face down in the tunnel and weep. Mark Galli compares this fear and fascination to being encountered by Almighty God: “We find ourselves attracted to the very thing that makes us afraid, and rather than running from it, we want to get closer.” (p. 49)
The call of Isaiah (6:1-8) expresses well this experience common in the Hebrew Scripture, which is reflected in many Psalms. But this is not limited to the Old Testament. As Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”
In the account of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke 23:33-43, people responded with similar contradictory reactions. At this moment of Jesus’ apparent defeat, Luke presents him as King.
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43He replied, “Truly I tell you[,] today[,] you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you remember, Luke uses “people” for those who followed Jesus positively while not yet his disciples. He wrote that “the people stood by, watching,” (v. 35) in distinct contrast to the leaders who scoffed, probably directing their ridicule at the people as much as at Jesus.
Luke gave special attention to the centrality of forgiveness in Jesus’ ministry, and his is the only Gospel that records Jesus’ prayer asking forgiveness for those who crucified him and his welcoming to Paradise one of the criminals who was crucified with him.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we pay specific attention to how Luke identified Jesus as King in his crucifixion account. The leaders and the unrepentant criminal scoffed at Jesus as Messiah. But the soldiers mocked him as King of the Jews. Pilate’s inscription “This is the King of the Jews” expressed his contempt for all the Jews, not just the charge against Jesus. “What kind of king do you have, anyway?” But the criminal asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Had he seen or heard Jesus before? Or did he recognize in Jesus’ response that Pilate’s inscription and the soldiers’ mocking were true. Jesus was King, even if they couldn’t see it?
Luke forces us to ask: What kind of King is Jesus? By holding Colossians 1:11-20 up against the way Luke presents Jesus as King at his crucifixion, we get a paradoxical picture of Jesus, to whom we respond with approach and avoidance.
Pagans often considered their kings to be gods. Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Emperors expected to be revered as divine. But Israel never assigned divinity to her kings. Even the greatest were flawed humans. Colossians pointedly emphasizes that the fullness of God dwells in this King who is the image of the invisible God.
Colossians defines the mission of this God-King in terms of redemption and forgiveness of sins, making peace through the blood of his cross. That takes us directly to Luke’s presentation of Jesus as King at his crucifixion. What kind of King is Jesus? He is a Redeemer-King who gave himself to welcome us into his Kingdom.
Jesus welcoming the criminal Paradise is a puzzle. We may not solve the puzzle, but pondering it sheds light on Jesus as Redeemer-King. Where was Jesus, what was he doing between his death on the cross and his resurrection? Some have suggested he was in Paradise, since he told the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke did not use punctuation, so the comma in our English translations could go after “today,” as I told the passage. The Apostle’s Creed says “He descended into hell.” More recent translations say “hades” or “the dead.” Though falling out of favor in our time, one theory is that Jesus actually went to hell to take our eternal punishment in that compressed time. As our Disciples forbearers recognized The Apostle’s Creed is not Scripture but a human document. Nevertheless, twice 1 Peter says that Jesus proclaimed the Gospel to the dead in prison (3:19; 4:6) which seems to have been during the time his body was in the tomb. The Eastern Church calls this “The Harrowing of Hell” and shows it in icons as Jesus breaking down the gates of hell to liberate those held prisoner there. The details are fascinating but too complex to fit in this sermon. When Peter made his confession in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said that the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church. In Jesus’ time a city’s gates were to keep invaders out, and not for pursuing enemies.
Since Jesus broke down its gates and invaded hell, we do not need to be afraid of the gates of hell. Hell needs to be afraid of us. As Redeemer-King, Jesus sends us as his agents on his mission to liberate hell’s prisoners.
On the same day John Kennedy was shot, November 22 fifty years ago, C. S. Lewis died. Michael Ward, Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, wrote a commemorative article in this month’s Christianity Today. He wrote that C. S. Lewis is in many ways closer to our postmodern contemporaries than he was to his own. “Our challenge in this post-Christian world is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning.” (p. 41)
A little later in the 60s, Karl Barth wrote in “The Rationality of Discipleship” that Christians don’t need to argue better than atheists, they need to live better.

Perhaps you know that the arguments of the new atheists do not revolve around rational or empirical proofs but around the violence and damage perpetrated in the name of religions through the centuries. In such an environment, evangelism must radiate meaning and living, not philosophy. Shallow appeals to let Jesus solve your problems don’t cut it either. In our time, the essential ingredient of evangelism is the approach avoidance reality of our own relationships with God through Jesus in the challenges of life – individually and together. Mark Galli defined it this way. “Perhaps evangelism is not so much one hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread, as one terrified person telling others where they can go to experience this beautiful fear.” (p. 48)

To learn more about "The Harrowing of Hell" go to

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Best is Yet to Be

Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Luke 20:27-38
November 10, 2013
© 2013

Robert Browning began his 1864 poem Rabbi Ben Ezra with these memorable lines.
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith "A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''
The poem was inspired by the life of twelfth century Rabbi Ben Ezra but is not his biography. Underneath the words are the love of Robert Browning and his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning who had died in 1861. Theirs was one of the great love stories and marriages of literature. They did not get to grow old together as he was 49 when she died at 55. Yet his words brim with hope not grief. Candy and I are coming up on 45 years of marriage, three times as much as the Brownings enjoyed, and we can also affirm love’s improvement with age as I know many of you can as well.
Our daughter-in-law Leanne turns 40 this month. Maybe she’d rather I didn’t broadcast that. I commented to Candy that when I turned 40 I felt I had finally become a real adult, and she quipped about putting “welcome to adulthood” on Leanne’s card. Of course, we didn’t. Now that we are closer to 70 than 60, I’m feeling a certain calm and confidence of soul I had neither known nor expected.
Browning suggested “trust God,” “see all” and “be not afraid.” We are invited to grow old on our journeys accompanied by the eternal God. Aging isn’t easy, but concluding a full life is satisfying. At his 80th birthday, my Dad told his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren that he had accomplished all he had hoped in his life and had no unresolved relationships. Our son David still refers to this as “Grandpa’s nunc dimitus” from Simeon’s song in Luke 2:25-35. “Now let your servant depart in peace.” We can live each day in hope that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind.
The prophecy of Haggai we read this morning comes when the people of Judah had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and were rebuilding the Temple. After about 70 years, some of them remembered seeing Solomon’s Temple when they were children. Not only was that much more glorious than the one being built by Zerubbabel, but I’m sure that in their childhood memories Solomon’s Temple was gigantic and spectacular. What they saw now was as nothing in their sight. (Haggai 2:3)
But Haggai delivers an amazing word of encouragement from the Lord of Hosts, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former.” (Haggai 2:9) This suggests physical splendor, but the New Testament recasts the Temple in terms of the coming messiah and God dwelling among the community of faith. Haggai 2:6‑7 hints that the later splendor of the Temple will be unexpected, even cosmic, and come as God shakes heaven and earth, sea and land, and every nation.
I want to be careful not to allegorize Haggai or inappropriately apply his prophecy to 1st Christian Church of Odessa, but I think we can relate to the message. Remembering past decades can leave us feeling about the present, that is seems as nothing in our sight. I suggest we can claim God’s word through Haggai, “Take courage, the later splendor shall be greater than the former.” But just as then, it will come with God’s great shaking, and what emerges will be different than what we remember.
Todd is a friend of our son David and around 40. This week he posted on Face Book, “OK I know I'm old but the world was a better place without bitstrips and hashtags.” Nostalgia easily distorts our perspective on the present. We long for what was familiar and are bewildered by changes coming faster than we can assimilate them. Even when conditions deteriorate, we can trust God that we are headed toward a latter splendor that shall be greater than the former. We can live each day in hope that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind.
In Luke 20:27-40, Jesus anchors this hopeful perspective on the future in our relationship with God.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] 28and asked him a question,
‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 
29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.32Finally the woman also died. 
33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 
36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 
39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
As children of the God of the living, we belong to the resurrection, which means however good or bad things may seem at the moment, the best is yet to be. Though we are still living in this age, we belong to the age of the resurrection. That does not mean ignoring the present age but bringing resurrection hope to bear on daily realities.
We see our human relationship through resurrection eyes. Almost all of the young people on one high school mission trip to Syracuse, NY had a sibling in the group. Our Bible studies were about how to get along as sisters and brothers in the family and in the church. At the end of the week, my oldest son Jon, wrote a “nurture note” to me that he signed, “Jon, your son and future brother.”
As children of the resurrection, we are living into God’s future today, confident that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind. In a world of pessimism, our mission is to welcome discouraged folk into a relationship with the God of the living.
Jesus’ conversation with the Sadducees suggests both continuity and discontinuity between this age and the resurrection. I have found Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 15:38, 42-44 helps me grasp this.
As for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.
So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
If you look at a seed of any kind: a grain of wheat as Paul suggested or an acorn, you would not guess from the seed what the mature plant looks like. Yet, the DNA in every cell of the seed not only includes all the instructions for the mature plant, it is present in every cell of the mature plant. Of course, Paul did not know about DNA, but he knew wheat seeds only produced wheat, not oak trees or squash vines. God gives our mortal bodies resurrection life, which will be as much more glorious as an oak tree is more glorious than an acorn. Yet, they are intrinsically connected. So as a child of the resurrection, I am not waiting in the dark for something better but am germinating now so we can live each day in hope that what lies ahead outshines what is left behind.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Unlikely Heir

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10
November 3, 2013
© 2013

On All Saints Sunday I appreciate the opportunity to remember with thanks those from our midst who have gone ahead of us. Following the New Testament, we consider all who have trusted Jesus to be saints, not just an elevated elite.
Nevertheless, we all know certain folk whose faith stands out and inspires. Think of someone you know personally whom you consider a most exemplary, spiritual Christian. This needs to be someone you know, not a public celebrity, not an historical or biblical character. I’d even exclude pastors as our public personas can be misleading. Do you have one person in mind? What qualities made you select them? How do you think they got that way? I suggest your answers as stimulating Twitter material.
Next a harder question. Can you think of someone whose spiritual credibility you initially dismissed, only to later discover significant depth of faith? Some of you may remember on September 1 I told about Bill Goodhart, the homeless man who engaged me in conversation about his contemplative life and the writing of Thomas Merton.
 Today we encounter the very familiar story of Zacchaeus. When we think we know the story, gaining fresh insights can be difficult. Today bullying is getting a lot of attention, and not just for children. Adults give and receive bullying too. Ask yourself if Zacchaeus might have been a victim of bullying?
To help us hear Luke 19:1-10 fresh, I’m going to tell it from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase The Message. You may wish to follow along in the pew Bible on page 100 for comparison.
1-4 Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.
5-7 When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”
Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
9-10 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
A number of commentaries from a variety of backgrounds point out that neither Jesus nor Luke said anything about Zacchaeus repenting or quitting tax collecting. They also observed that the verbs in Zacchaeus’ response are present tense, though most English translations make them future tense. Also you may remember that Luke often used the word “crowd” when a group around Jesus was out of sync with him, which Luke does in v. 3. I am not suggesting that the conclusions drawn from these observations are necessarily correct, but I offer them to enrich and stimulate your thinking about Zacchaeus.
All through Luke we have been seeing how Jesus welcomed the poor who were outcasts. Now we see Jesus welcome a wealthy outcast and scapegoat.
With the verbs in present tense, Zacchaeus may have been saying that all along he was giving away half of his income to the poor. And not that he was purposely cheating, but when he miscalculated someone’s taxes, he paid them four times the error.
Jesus introduced Zacchaeus to the crowd saying, “He too is a son of Abraham.” He belongs to the same community you claim to. He’s one of you, even though you treat him as a scapegoat for your being under Roman occupation.
Like Abraham, whom God blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3), Zacchaeus gave away his wealth to bless poor folk, and he corrected abuses of the tax system at his own expense. By calling Zacchaeus a son of Abraham, Jesus wasn’t just saying he’s gotten on the right track now, he was telling the crowd that Zacchaeus was living by his faith as Abraham did. (Genesis 15:6)
Habakkuk 2:4 says that the righteous (or just) live by their faith (maybe better, faithfulness).
In the context of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaint, this line can fly by almost unnoticed, but it shows up three times in the New Testament at the core of the Gospel: Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38.
Whether Zacchaeus had already been living by his faith or began to live by his faith when Jesus encountered him, Jesus declared him a son of Abraham, who is the model of biblical faith. As is clear from Habakkuk and from Zacchaeus, faith is a lot more than agreeing to some correct information about God and ourselves. Faith is the totality of our lives. But it is not a works-righteousness by which we appease God. Rather is a whole way of life integrated around trusting God through Jesus.
So, whether or not Zacchaeus changed at this point, by calling him a son of Abraham, Jesus called the community to live by their faith and receive Zacchaeus as one of their own. Salvation for the community of faith comes when we recognize righteous scapegoats and receive them as one of our own.
Our question may not be, “How are we like Zacchaeus? How can we become heirs of Abraham?” but “How are we like the crowd? Who are our Zacchaeuses whose righteousness and faith we can recognize and receive them as one of us?”
Recognizing and receiving our Zacchaeuses as one of us starts with recognizing ourselves as scapegoats who live by our faith. The testimonies we heard this summer were wonderful witness to how God, sometimes through this congregation, transformed scapegoats into heirs of Abraham. I’d like to keep having a testimony about once a month in worship. If you’re ready see Regina or me.
Habakkuk opened his complaint to God by asking, “How long?” On this interim journey, with the possibility of more cooperation if not merger with Bethany Christian Church, many fresh ideas for reaching out to the people of Odessa are bubbling up. As we go from week to week, we can be impatient for faster progress, maybe even get discouraged. We need to hear God’s answer to Habakkuk in 2:3, “There is still a vision for the appointed time. Wait for it; it will surely come!”
One of the perennial issues of church growth is how to engage in authentic evangelism and not just shuffle Christians from one congregation to another. Dynamic preaching and razzle-dazzle music may entice some church members to switch congregations, but the unchurched and de-churched people around us don’t notice. Spiritually hungry people respond to authentic relationships and fearless engagement with their struggles. Our Disciples of Christ movement arose in the revivalist environment of the Second Great Awakening that emphasized a moment of conversion. Today, people with little if any church experience respond to relationships in a community that welcomes they with love. As they experience the reality of Christ’s presence and are exposed to the Gospel lived in relationships, they discover that they have decided to trust Jesus and become his disciples. That kind of evangelism happens with hospitality that intentionally invites and includes those may not seem like they are one of us into the middle of our shared life in Jesus. Salvation for the community of faith comes when we recognize righteous scapegoats and receive them as one of our own.