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.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Saint’s Ecstasy

Philippians 3:7-14; Matthew 17:1-9
Transfiguration Sunday
March 2, 2014
© 2014

For years I have defined the center of my life from Philippians 3:10-11. I want to know Christ. I love the image of 1 John 3:2: “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We tend to think of eternal life in terms of unlimited time, but in John 17:3 Jesus said, “This is eternal life, [to] know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
In 1856, the great British Baptist Preacher C. H. Spurgeon preached, “I believe, all of us who love his name, [have] a most insatiable wish to behold his person. The thing for which I would pray above all others, would be forever to behold his face. … One short glimpse, one transitory vision of his glory, one brief glance at his … now exalted and beaming countenance, would repay … a world of trouble.” (January 20, 1856, at New Park Street Chapel, Southwark)
In the sixth Beatitude of Matthew 5:8 at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Søren Kierkegaard built his book Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing around the thesis that if your only desire – pure in your heart – is to see God, you will see God.
I hope contemplating the vision of Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration will spark a contagious passion among us to know Jesus and become like him.
Transfiguration Sunday is a bridge between the Epiphany season of revealing Jesus and the journey to the cross in Lent. In Matthew 17:1-9, the glory of Jesus is revealed to three disciples, after he told them he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (16:16, 21)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 
4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 
6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Centuries earlier, Exodus 34:29-35 reported that Moses’s face glowed when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tables of the Law, which was renewed when he went into the Tent of Meeting to talk with God. In Exodus 40:35, God’s glow in the Tabernacle was so intense Moses couldn’t go in, which 1 Timothy 6:16 expresses as a precursor of Christ who dwells in unapproachable light.
About halfway between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus, in 1 Kings 19:11-18 God met Elijah on Mt. Horeb, which Deuteronomy indicates is also Mt. Sinai. Elijah didn’t glow afterward, but in 2 Kings 2:11-12 God sent a chariot and horses of fire to escort him as a whirlwind took him to heaven.
Preachers are fond of critiquing Peter for putting his foot in his mouth on the Mount of Transfiguration. I think neither he nor James and John were prepared for the vision they witnessed. Jesus’ glory was radiating directly from him, not reflected as Moses or accompanying as Elijah. Such a vision of Christ’s glory is bound to be disorienting, even as it is irresistibly magnetic.
Even a contagious passion to know Jesus and become like him, does not insure a vision of his glory. Such a vision is not achieved, it is God’s seemingly whimsical gift. Our pursuit of an intimate relationship with Jesus awakens the spiritual sensitivity by which we may be able to recognize and savor a flash of glory, as the great Christian mystics have.
We recognize the Apostle Paul as the Church’s pioneer theologian, which he certainly was. But his letters give hints of a deep contemplative life and profound mystical experience. He used third-person to describe it in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4.
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
David Ewart, a United Church of Canada pastor in Vancouver, BC wrote in his blog Holy Textures, “When reading the Bible do not get distracted by the special effects. Do not try to explain them - or explain them away. Do not diminish the reality of what happened [or of] what the disciples experienced by saying, ‘Oh well, that was then, and now we have modern science and don't believe in such things.’” I apply that caution to reading the 4th Century Desert Fathers. I love this conversation between young Abba Lot and mature Abba Joseph.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward SLG, Cistercian Publications, 1975, p. 103)
Teresa of Avila was a 16th Century Spanish Carmelite nun and collaborator with St. John of the Cross. She described her mystical experience that inspired Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s (1647–1652) sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
I saw in [an angel’s] hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying. (Autobiography of Teresa of Avila The Life of Teresa of Jesus)
I have preached this unusual sermon as a way for us to contemplate together the vision of Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, hoping to spark a contagious passion among us to know Jesus and become like him.
Know for certain the spiritual journey does not come in one size fits all and is not a competition sport. With infinite variety we are created in the image of God. Similarly, each of our spiritual journeys is distinctly individual and personal. Richard Foster of the Renovaré movement has identified six different spiritual paths – Contemplative: The Prayer-Filled Life; Holiness: The Virtuous Life; Charismatic: the Spirit-Empowered Life; Social Justice: The Compassionate Life; Evangelical: The Word-Centered Life; Incarnational: The Sacramental Life. The bulletin insert might help you find where you fit and can be found at the end of this post.
Regardless of your personal flavor of spiritual journey, scripture and prayer are essential ingredients. We live in an instant gratification society. Spiritual formation of all kinds is about slowing down enough to listen for God’s voice. When I was with Henri Nouwen at Daybreak 21 years ago, he said it was like a cow chewing its cud, extracting maximum nutrition and absorbing it into every body cell. What we’re after is absorbing spiritual nutrition into every corner of our hearts and lives.
At Daybreak, the L’Arche community for mentally handicapped core members, we learned to watch for the presence of Christ in the suffering of the core members. I worked in the Woodery with Dave. His particular handicap left him with what can only be described as intense self-loathing. But when he put on the alb to assist with communion, Dave transformed into a different person. He was acutely aware he was handling the holy. Standing at the Lord’s Table and serving bread, his face came alive and glowed. The first time I saw this, I said to Candy, “That must be something of what Moses looked like after he had been with God.”

Renovaré Disciplines



In utter dependence upon Jesus Christ as my everliving Savior, Teacher, Lord and Friend, I will seek continual renewal through:
·         Spiritual exercises
·         Spiritual gifts and
·         Acts of service.

Common Disciplines

Contemplative: The Prayer-Filled Life

By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading and will seek to practice the presence of God.

Holiness: The Virtuous Life

By God’s grace, I will strive mightily against sin and will do deeds of love and mercy.

Charismatic: the Spirit-Empowered Life

By God’s grace, I will welcome the Holy Spirit, exercising the gifts and nurturing the fruit while living in the joy and power of the Spirit.

Social Justice: The Compassionate Life

By God’s grace, I will endeavor to serve others everywhere I can and will work for justice in all human relationships and social structures.

Evangelical: The Word-Centered Life

By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and will study the Scriptures regularly.

Incarnational: The Sacramental Life

By God’s grace, I will joyfully seek to show forth the presence of God in all that I say, in all that I do, in all that I am.

Questions of Examen

Contemplative: The Prayer-Filled Life

In what ways has God made his presence know to you since our last meeting? What experiences of prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading has God given you? What difficulties or frustrations have you encountered? What joys and delights?

Holiness: The Virtuous Life

What temptations have you faced since our last meeting? How did you respond? Which spiritual disciplines has God used to lead you further into holiness of heart and life?

Charismatic: the Spirit-Empowered Life

Have you sensed any influence or work of the Holy Spirit since our last meeting? What spiritual gifts has the Spirit enabled you to exercise? What was the outcome? What fruit of the Spirit would you like to see increase in your life? What disciplines might be useful in this effort?

Social Justice: The Compassionate Life

What opportunities has God given you to serve others since our last meeting? How did you respond? Have you encountered any injustice to or oppression of others? Have you been able to work for justice and shalom?

Evangelical: The Word-Centered Life

Has God provided an opportunity for you to share your faith with someone since our last meeting? How did you respond? In what ways have you encountered Christ in your reading of the Scripture? How has the Bible shaped the way you think and live?

Incarnational: The Sacramental Life

In what ways have you been able to manifest the presence of God through your daily work since our last meeting. How has God fed and strengthened you through the ministry of Christ’s ordinances? How have you been aware of the presence of God in the pain or suffering of another person?*
*This last question is mine and not from Richard Foster

Thursday, February 20, 2014

But I’m Not Perfect!

1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
February 23, 2014
© 2014

In one of the seven congregations I have served in five states, (I will not identify further for reasons that will soon be obvious.) some of the lay people took turns with the children’s sermon. One Sunday a grandmother with two grandchildren in the group was telling them that God wanted us to love everyone and hate no one. One of her grandchildren spoke up, “But you said you hate the governor.” To which the grandmother answered, “Oh no, I wouldn’t say that.” The child said, “Yes you did. You’re a liar!” The grandmother quickly said, “I think that’s the end of the children’s sermon,” as the congregation suppressed their laughter.
David Lose who teaches preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN says “some texts seem too difficult to preach. Not difficult for us as interpreters, but rather too difficult for people to hear and to bear. [Where Jesus tells us to love our enemies in Matthew 5:38-48] is definitely one of those texts.” Centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven in our relationships with those close to us, as we saw last week, is already a huge stretch, but to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors is impossibly unrealistic. We are good at rationalizations to let ourselves off the hook. If this passage disturbs you, ask whether you are upset with me or with Jesus.
The first reaction for most of us is probably, “I don’t have any enemies. I get along with everyone.” But this passage challenged my attitude toward the perpetrators of last week’s break-in at our Dallas house. I expect we all seethe below the surface when we think of certain folk.
In Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus described the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. As children of our perfect heavenly Father we love our enemies.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 
9But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 
42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 
44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 
46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 
48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Using the same formula as we looked at last week, Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (v. 38) And he goes on with four different responses of “But I say to you.” The first three of these seem specifically addressed to the most powerless people in that society, who had no recourse when abused.
For a right handed person to strike someone’s right cheek, is to use the back of the hand as an insult, more than a physical attack. To turn the other cheek is to invite a second insulting slap. To identify with Jesus in the mockery he endured in his trials before his crucifixion.
The cloak was a heavy garment poor people wore to ward off the cold while sleeping as well as protection from foul weather in the daytime. According to Hebrew Law, if a poor person gave their cloak as collateral for a loan, the one who made the loan was supposed to return it at night. (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:13) Jesus was saying that if a poor person falls behind repaying the loan, they should let the lender keep the cloak. An honorable reputation is worth more than keeping warm at night.
Going the second mile refers specifically to the much hated Roman occupying soldiers. As is universal even today, when one nation’s military occupies another country, they conscript the local population for menial tasks. Usually the upper class people and those who collaborate with the occupiers are exempted from such conscription. Roman law allowed a soldier to force someone to carry their equipment one mile. Jesus says to voluntarily go the second mile, which was a way of expressing respect for their common humanity and equality between the powerful soldier and the poor Jew.
When Jesus says to give to those who beg and loan to those who ask, he seems to be addressing those who have some economic resources. Consistent with how wealth is treated throughout Scripture, Jesus affirmed that we are stewards of what God has entrusted to us and not ultimate owners. If we have the means, we are to use them to dignify the lives of those who do not.
If we aren’t already uncomfortable enough, Jesus stepped up the intensity. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” The Hebrew scriptures do not say “hate your enemy,” but as a downtrodden, occupied people, they justified hating their Roman occupiers and the pagan Gentiles and the impure Samaritans. Poor folk also hated upper class Jews who looked down on them, and powerful Jews despised their poor neighbors, believing their poverty was a sign of God’s judgment.
And Jesus said, “But I say to you love your enemies.” Jesus was not talking about sentimental emotions. He was talking about concrete action. Put yourself and your priorities after seeing to it that you are doing whatever you can for the wellbeing of your antagonists, regardless of how they respond.
Jesus stepped it up again when he said to pray for those who persecute you. I don’t think Jesus had in mind an imprecatory prayer like Psalm 109, calling down curses on the persecutors, or even asking for their conversion. Rather, I think Jesus was suggesting prayers relinquishing persecutors to God so they can be blessed by God.
Jesus described the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. As children of our perfect heavenly Father we love our enemies. We may protest that we are not perfect, not even close, and we certainly don’t measure up to the perfection of our heavenly Father.
Jesus went on to define the perfection of our heavenly Father. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Theologians call this common grace. In love, God shines the sun and sends the rain and the blessings of life on everyone, regardless of faith, regardless of behavior. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is to recognize the shared humanity of all who are made in God’s image, and to do everything in our power to express the love of God to them. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is also to appreciate that each one, no matter how hostile they are to us or to God, is of sufficient worth that Jesus died for them.
While such love liberates us from the bondage of unforgiving hostility, Jesus makes the point that loving our enemies is the evangelistic light in the dark. Loving each other is a “ho-hum.” Everybody loves their family and friends, but loving our enemies makes people sit up and notice the perfect love of our heavenly Father.
In his book  Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancy  describes how in a South African Truth and Reconciliation hearing, a policeman by the name of Van de Broek  recounted for the commission how he, together with other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, and then burned the body to destroy the evidence. The policeman went on to describe, how eight years later, he returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as he bound her husband, poured petrol over him and set him on fire.

Yancy tells us that as Van de Broek spoke the room grew quieter and quieter. And when the story was finished, the judge turned to the woman and asked: ’what do you want from Mr. van de Broek?’ She replied, ‘I want him to go to the place my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.’ Van de Broek, head down, nodded in assent. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.” sacredise.com/ John van de Laar

Friday, February 14, 2014

Internal Moral Compass

1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2014
© 2014

Peter Woods is a pastoral therapist who wrote, “If I had a dollar every time someone asked me as their minister, ‘Is it right to … ?’ ‘Is it wrong to … ?’ I would not have to burden my congregation with my stipend assessment! There is something about human nature that wants to be told. ‘Do this.’ ‘Don’t do that.’ It is the path of lazy and infantilized religion. I never grow up if I never have to figure out the rules, for my own context, for myself.” (http://thelisteninghermit.com/)
My experience with the lightning rod issues of our time is pastoral, and not about politics or public policy, or even about church doctrine. When people ask me as their pastor about a tragic pregnancy, adultery, divorce, sexuality, business ethics, responding to being abused or cheated, they are always in pain and internal conflict. On the one hand, to say to them, “It’s your choice,” is a cop-out, an evasion of pastoral responsibility. On the other hand to cite a rigid rule inflicts further injury.
Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees they would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This week we will listen to him describe that righteousness for relationships with people who are close to us – next week, for those who might be our antagonists.
In Matthew 5:21-37 Jesus explains how we can exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven, not by tiptoeing around the boundaries, hoping we won’t fall out.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
This week, and again next week, we hear Jesus describe what he means by fulfilling and not abolishing the Law with the formula, “You have heard that it was said” and “But I say to you.” When he finished the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (7:28-29)
The religious teachers of Jesus’ time never asserted their own interpretation of a passage of Scripture but always quoted an earlier scholar, who had also quoted someone earlier yet. For all of their fussing over details of the Law, they came off as if they had no real convictions.
The standard formula when a Hebrew prophet declared an oracle was “Thus says the Lord.” In contrast, Jesus said, “But I say to you,” which no Hebrew prophet would have dared to utter. Jesus was speaking as the one who had given the Law in the first place and had the rightful authority to articulate its fulfilled meaning.
With this authority Jesus defined righteousness in terms of internal character that bears fruit in relationships. He removed it from the realm of external conformity to behavioral rules and invalidated every human propensity for moralism, as though we could do enough good.
We read from 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 of Paul’s concern for the spiritual immaturity of the people of the Corinthian church. They were infants quarreling over whose teaching to follow. Bringing this up against what Jesus said about righteousness, reminded me of the research on moral development done by social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. He identified three levels of moral development. Infants and young children regard as good avoiding punishment and getting their own benefit. Adolescents adopt social norms and eventually legal definitions as good, not only for them but for others as well. Interestingly, Kohlberg’s research indicated only a relatively small proportion of adults actually get to the third level of internalizing universal ethical principles. While Kohlberg did not relate his research to the teaching of Jesus, it seems to me that it validates Jesus’ call for a righteousness of internal character that bears fruit in relationships. Jesus identified three critical arenas to illustrate how to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven, not by tiptoeing around the boundaries, hoping we won’t fall out.
Jesus first identified anger as the root of violence (vv. 21-26). The debate in our society about guns is a symptom of our anxiety about violence. I believe Jesus would say that violence can’t be reduced by either restricting access to guns or by promoting guns for self-defense. I think Jesus would say that as his disciples we must get to the source of anger within ourselves, regardless of how the society responds. Psychologists teach that anger is a secondary emotion. It is triggered by another emotion, usually about some way we feel our interests are threatened. James 4:1‑2 expresses this way. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”
If we take Jesus’ words about adultery, lust and divorce as stipulating what specific conditions make specific behavior permissible or not, we are tiptoeing around the boundaries and not centering ourselves on the center of the Kingdom of Heaven. Marriage and our human sexuality are not contractual or consensual arrangements regulated by law, but intrinsic to the structure of creation itself, the good gift of God to humanity; therefore, not at our personal disposal. (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary, 2009, Westminster John Knox Press, p. 32)
Much like today, in Jesus’ time, people didn’t feel obligated to be completely honest if it did not serve their personal interests. They developed an informal hierarchy of oaths to convince others to accept what they said even if manipulated to their advantage. Complex contractual language and notarization, swearing into public office or in court are symptoms of a similar distrust of people’s honesty in our time. I understand why some Christians refuse these based on Jesus’ words, but I think that misses Jesus’ point. He is calling us to be people of such integrity that we are believed for whatever we may say. Letting our light shine before others requires such integrity.
When we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by centering our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than tiptoeing around the boundaries, hoping we won’t fall out, we will inevitably be out of step with the expectations of the people in the society in which we live.
I felt ambivalent when I recently watched the Public TV feature about the Amish. On one hand I identified with and was challenged by the depth of their discipleship. But on the other hand, I felt some of their lifestyle choices were like hiding their light under the bushel basket. Through the centuries monastic movements that have sought intentional discipleship have also been susceptible to similar isolation that truncated their witness.
My friend Rick Morse works with hundreds of Disciples of Christ congregations as Vice President of the Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation. I excerpted an article he wrote in our newsletter a couple of weeks ago. I cringed a bit when I read his question, “If your church was to close tomorrow, what would the community miss the most?” I translated it to be personal for me. Have any of my neighbors in Dallas missed anything of the presence of Christ in the year and a half we are serving churches in Midwest City, OK and here in Odessa? I’m afraid I’m more at risk of blending in than being isolated.
So what does it look like to center our lives at the center of the Kingdom of Heaven? One thing for sure, there will not be a single pattern for everyone, but a rich variety will grow out of the uniqueness of our individual relationships with Jesus. When we explain our decisions to ourselves or others, do we make a direct connection to wanting to follow Jesus? Or do we use a rule or law to justify a decision? Or do we say it’s our individual choice? Is our talk about Jesus or about ourselves? Eugene Peterson, best known for his Bible paraphrase The Message, gets at it in how he listens to sermons.
The thing I listen for in a sermon is a proclamation that God is doing something that’s never been done before for me. If the pastor is mostly talking about what I’m supposed to be doing, I quit listening. I want to enter the world of Jesus. I want to hear what’s going on, not just to hear a verbatim description of what went on, but what still goes on. What God is doing, not what I can’t do, or shouldn’t do, or should do. I’m listening for the proclamation of God’s Gospel. WorkingPreacher.org
God is at the center, not me.

Friday, February 7, 2014

You’re Being Watched

1 Corinthians 2:1-11; Matthew 5:13-20
February 9, 2014
© 2014

Both of my grandfathers were born in Sweden and were named Gustav Ragnar, and both left home at age 16 never to return. Gustav Ragnar Stolpe was born at the north end of Sweden inside the Arctic Circle. He came to the United States through Ellis Island to his sister Anna in Connecticut and settled in Detroit Michigan. Gustav Ragnar Erikson was born at the south end of Sweden on the small fortress island of Marstrand, a fishing village in those days, a resort today. He hired onto a sailing ship and sailed all over the world, including around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to Asia at least once. Once, when his ship was docked in San Francisco Bay, he decided he liked the city of Oakland and never went back to the ship. Yes, an illegal alien in his time.
I understand he fit the image of the hard living, hard fighting, hard drinking young sailor. He and some friends went to a Salvation Army tent meeting to heckle but were too drunk to do much damage. After that meeting some of the Salvation Army folk took care of him and eventually led his to faith in Jesus. He married one of the young women from the Salvation Army, and they had a son. Both wife and son died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Some other time I may tell you how he and my grandmother got together, but he always thought of himself as a sea farer who had been saved from wrecking on the shoals of life by the light of the Salvation Army. Let the Lower Lights Be Burning was his favorite hymn, and I’ve asked Michelle to sing the first verse to introduce what Jesus said about light in the Sermon on the Mount.
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy, From his lighthouse ever more,
But to us he gives the keeping Of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning! Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor struggling, fainting seaman You may rescue, you may save.
Listen to how Jesus used light in Matthew 5:13-20.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 
14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 
19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are his lights guiding floundering people safely into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus used the images of salt and light to convey the impact being his disciples has on the people around us.
Several of the commentators I read spent so many words trying to explain how salt could lose its taste that they almost lost sight of Jesus’ point that if our discipleship doesn’t affect the people around us it is worthless.
Our faith in Jesus is personal but it is not private. Jesus expects us to shine his light on people around us, not so they’ll notice us but to give glory to our Heavenly Father.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are his lights guiding floundering people safely into the Kingdom of Heaven.
As one whose calling includes teaching the Word of God, I take Jesus’ warning about being called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven very seriously. I know God has called me to preach as a pastor of the Church. I love preaching: the prayer and study that go into preparation and presentation. But it terrifies me. How dare I stand before God’s people every Sunday and presume to speak to you on God’s behalf! I better have been listening for God’s voice all week.
To break and teach the breaking the least of the commandments makes us least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we’re still included. But righteousness that does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees excludes us. The scribes and Pharisees were the pinnacle of external piety and righteousness. Thus, self-righteousness is what keeps us out of the Kingdom of Heaven.
When speaking of the commandments, Jesus linked doing and teaching, indicating that practicing our discipleship and passing it to others are intrinsically linked.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are his lights guiding floundering people safely into the Kingdom of Heaven.
In the 60s Joe Bayly edited InterVarsity’s magazine for college students called His. In the 70s he became a mentor to a number of young writers in the Chicago area, which included me. He had published two books of modern parables out of his years of college campus ministry. My favorite is the title story of I Saw Gooley Fly. (1968 Fleming H Revell Company) This is a parable intended to get you thinking, not as an illustration to explain the point of a sermon. So as you hear it, be thinking.
[Herb Gooley’s] roommate (Jerry Watson, it was) told us about it the next day. Seems Gooley had been studying late, and finally he turns the book over, switches off his desk light and says, "Think I'll go down to Pete's for a malted."
"Too late," Jerry says. "It's three minutes to twelve and he closes at midnight."
"I'll fly down." Gooley says it matter-of-factly, just like he's saying he'll run or something.
So over to the window he goes (Jerry all the while thinking Gooley is suddenly developing a sense of humor), lifts it up, and steps off the ledge.
Their room is on the third floor.
Jerry waits a second for the thud, then dashes into the hall and down the stairs yelling, "Gooley fell out the window! Somebody call a doctor!"
No Gooley on the ground, or anywhere around. So they think Jerry's pulling their leg.
"Honest, fellows, Gooley stepped out of our window. Said he'd fly down to Pete's. Honest, he did."
So they wait around for Gooley to come back, and when he does, they start firing questions.
"Sure I can fly. Jerry was telling you the straight stuff. Here, I'll show you." And with that he takes off into the wild blue yonder.
None of us believed the story when we heard it. Would you? In the first place, people can ride bicycles, people can row boats, people can fly planes even, but nobody can fly. 
In the second place, if anybody could fly, Herb Gooley wasn't the man. That guy couldn't even walk.
It began to snow about suppertime the next day, and it snowed all through the night. Next morning the ground is covered, but some of the walks are shoveled off. I'm walking down the cleared path at the quad when I notice something. Fresh footprints go out on the snow a few yards, then there's nothing. Nothing. No trampled snow, no feet turning around. Just footprints going out and stopping.
Within a few days nobody needs any more circumstantial evidence. We've all seen it—Gooley flying.
He'd be walking along with you, and suddenly he's airborne. Nothing spectacular. I mean it was all very quiet. His rise was almost vertical, and he flew along at about fifteen or twenty miles per hour. Just above the treetops. He'd sort of bank to turn.
That winter and spring you should have seen Gooley come into class on the third or fourth floor of Old Main. Brother, that was a sight to behold. It got to be a regular custom to open the window just before the bell. I'll never forget the day we had a visiting lecturer. Nobody had told him.
Let me tell you, there was a run on the library for books on aerodynamics, aircraft design, and any other subject that even faintly bears on flying. Guys were spending all their free time soaking up all they could learn. So were most of the girls.
I don't want you to get the idea that we talked about it. Nobody would admit that he wanted to fly, but most everybody did. Nothing in the world I wanted more. (Seems sort of funny now.)
The college flying course tripled in size. (Flying planes, that is—but it was as close as we could come to personal flight.) In bull sessions we talked into the small hours about how Gooley probably did it.
You see, Gooley wasn't saying.
Of course, later there was some reaction—a lot of people began to call Gooley a freak. It sort of made us laugh, though, when one of the most outspoken anti-Gooleyites was found with a brain concussion at the foot of the Old Zach monument. (He got over it all right.)
I think the college administration was sort of ashamed to have Gooley as a student. So they bring in this guy Sevorsky for a special lecture series called "Flight Emphasis Week." Brother, were those lectures packed out. Standing room only.
Halfway through the week we realize that Sevorsky can't fly. We're standing outside Old Main, waiting for him to leave the president's office, which is on the second floor. So how does he come down? Why, he walks down the stairs and out the front door. This guy can design airplanes, we say; he has the latest scoop on jets and helicopters; but he can't fly.
About a dozen students show up for his final lecture.
Most of us had heard a myth about some ancient Greek who could fly until he got too near the sun. So we think maybe there's a clue. Interest switches to books on ancient Greek mythology, and the library puts them on the reserve shelf.
You know, I've always been surprised that Gooley didn't tell us how to do it, or at least how he did it. He couldn't help knowing how interested we all were. But he kept his mouth shut. So none of us learned to fly.
It's a funny thing, but I still have a sense of loss of not learning Gooley's secret. And the other grads have confessed the same thing to me.
What happened to Gooley? I've often wondered about that. He transferred that fall to another college where, they say, all the students know how to fly.
Have you seen anyone fly?
Has anyone seen you fly?

As Jesus’ disciples, we are his lights guiding floundering people safely into the Kingdom of Heaven.