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, June 19, 2014

Laughing with God

Genesis 21:1-7
June 22, 2014
© 2014

I’m sure many of you saw the 1998 movie starring Robin Williams as Patch Adams. It was inspired by the real Dr. Patch Adams and his Gesundheit Institute. Besides being a medical doctor, Patch Adams is a clown and performer. He believes true health care must incorporate laughter, joy and creativity as an integral part of the healing process. Churches are also at their best when their mission erupts from an explosion of joy.
Norman Cousins was Editor-in-Chief for the Saturday Review from 1942-1972. He is perhaps best known for his 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness in which he tells the story of his painful illness from which he was told he had little chance of surviving. He responded with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope and laughter induced by watching Marx Brothers films. He reported, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter has an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep.” When he died in 1990, he had outlived his doctors’ predictions by 36 years. He was Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities at UCLA.
Psalm 126:2 tells how when the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon they sang, “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
In 1977-78, in my early 30s, I went through a Dark Night of the Soul. Just when I thought I should be hitting my stride, I was deeply questioning my calling. Candy and I were in a small group Bible study, and one evening we discussed Proverbs 17:22. “A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” At that point I felt my bones were about as dried up as possible, but somehow that verse opened an escape for me. It took two more years for me to confirm my calling and find God’s place for me to serve, but I have never again gone through that darkness. Even in difficult times, I have been able to claim a cheerful heart as God’s gift.
Laughter has both positive and negative functions. It can be ridicule, disbelief, or humor, surprise, joy or gratitude. The whole range of the functions of laughter tie together the stories of the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham in Genesis.
Isaac’s name means “he laughs.” Every time his parents called Isaac’s name, they were reminded of all the ways they laughed before and when he was born.
In Genesis 18, The Lord came to Abraham in the form of three men, which some see as two accompanying angels and others as the Trinity, as shown in Andrei Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon from a little after 1400. With typical Middle Eastern hospitality, Abraham hurriedly instructs Sarah to prepare a meal for their guests. As they ate and talked, Sarah was listening from the door of the tent. When she heard that she was to bear a son by Abraham, she laughed to herself and said, “After I have grown old and my husband is old, shall I have this pleasure?” (18:12) Her first reaction seemed to be to laugh for the prospect of marital joy. However, with a moment of reflection on the impossibility of conceiving a child, her laughter turned to doubt, and she denied laughing. (18:15) After Isaac was born, Sarah laughed again. (21:6) This time seems to be laughter at the maternal joy of having a child and the status it gave her in among the women who were laughing with her in communal affirmation.
The Lord had previously appeared to Abram in Genesis 17 to change his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, which means “Father of a Multitude.” Long before Fathers’ Day got on the greeting card and goofy gift calendar, Abraham became the quintessential father. His name change was a confirmation that a son would be born to Sari who would fulfill God’s covenant promise. God also changed Sari’s name to Sarah. Both mean “princess,” but Sarah connoted becoming the mother of nations, kings and many peoples. At this, Abraham laughed first, before Sarah. (17:17) With incredulity he questioned how God could accomplish this, but apparently didn’t doubt that God would accomplish it. Abraham was laughing again when Isaac was born, and named him “he laughs.” (21:3) This laughter was exuberant wonder at what God had done.
Have you ever gone to the zoo, and while looking at some of the strange animals said to yourself, “God must have quite a sense of humor.” I frequently comment on God’s sense of humor when I see the bewildering twists and turns of life fit together in unexpected purpose. The New Testament never describes Jesus as laughing, though in recent years a number of artists have portrayed him that way. Perhaps Luke 10:21 comes closest to Jesus laughing when he rejoiced, thanking the Father that the mysteries of redemption had been hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants such as his disciples and us. Certainly, some of the images in Jesus’ parables were humorous and got a laugh such as a camel going through the eye of a needle. Sometimes Jesus’ humor had a bite such as calling Herod a fox.
In Luke’s account of the Beatitudes, Jesus did say that those who weep now will laugh, and those who are laughing now will someday weep. (6:21,25) This kind of laughter comes from God reversing our human expectations and lifting up those who are beaten down.
Jesus echoed Ecclesiastes 3:1,4. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to weep, and a time to laugh.” He was encouraging hope for those who are weeping, that their time to laugh will come. And he warned those who are laughing in smugness or derision that their time to weep and mourn is coming. Though he didn’t use the word laugh when answering those who criticized his disciples for not fasting as the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist did, in all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus defended his disciples for rejoicing while he, as the bridegroom, was with them. (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:35)
While the three lost and found parables of Luke 15 use rejoice rather than laugh, I must imagine the shepherd laughing when he recovered his lost sheep and the woman laughing when she found her lost coin, and how could the party thrown by the father to welcome the Prodigal Son home not have included laughter?
Churches are at their best when their mission erupts from an explosion of joy.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned some of the unusual “exercises” at the 1801 Cane Ridge Revival that helped spawn the Disciples of Christ. Uncontrollable laughter was one of them, which has shown up in other times of revival. You may remember the news splash made by the “Toronto Blessing” of “holy laughter” that started in 1994. I don’t know how to evaluate all of these, but the kind of laughter tracing to the birth of Isaac is a joyous response of awe and wonder that God is active among us.
Sometimes we can get so intensely serious about our church work, thinking we have to make it succeed by our sheer exertion, that we smother the joy of watching God’s power among us. In her June 11 blog (About.com Christianity), Mary Fairchild wrote, “I grew up in a large Italian family that loves to laugh – out loud. I have one uncle who laughs so loud that it used to scare my childhood friends. This uncle was born with a serious disability, but he has lived more than 40 years beyond his doctors’ expectations. My favorite teachers were the ones who made me laugh. I am always eager to learn from my pastor who laces his messages with humor, because the laughter opens my mind and my heart to receive.” Like Mary Fairchild, I’m not a particularly good joke-teller, but I do hope you feel free to laugh when something in one of my sermons seems humorous.
Krish Kandiah is Executive Director for Churches in Mission in the United Kingdom. He wrote about what it means to be an apostolic church in the June 2014 Christianity Today (pp. 47-49) Though his quote of British missiologist Lesslie Newbigin doesn’t use the word laugh, I think it speaks powerfully to the importance of laughing with God as this congregation moves into a new era of mission with a new pastor.
"There has been a long tradition which sees the mission of the church primarily as obedience to a command. … It tends to make mission a burden rather than a joy, to make it part of the law rather than part of the gospel. If one looks at the New Testament evidence, one gets another impression. Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tents and Altars

Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6
June 15, 2014
© 2014

Perhaps you saw in the news about 12 year old Athena Orchard of Leicester, England who recently died of cancer. After her death her parents found a collection of sayings she had handwritten on the back of a mirror during her illness.
Here are a few of them.
  • Happiness is a direction, not a destination.
  • Love is rare, life is strange, nothing lasts and people change.
  • Life is only bad if you make it bad.
  • Happiness depends upon ourselves.
  • Maybe it’s not about the happy ending, maybe it’s about the story.
Whether she wrote or collected these sayings, they reflect a keen insight Athena’s short life had given her into life as a journey and not a destination.
As I was reading the lectionary Scriptures for this summer, I was aware that I am likely to wrap up my time with you during these sermons, and a new pastor will take over before I get through them all. I was drawn into the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures about the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Pilgrimage with the Patriarchs seemed appropriate for concluding your interim journey between pastors and preparing to welcome a new pastor. I know “patriarchs” sounds a little sexist in our day, but that is how we identify these characters and it alliterates with “pilgrimage,” so I’m going with it and hope it won’t sidetrack any of you.
Hebrews 11:9-10 is a New Testament lens for understanding Abraham as well as Isaac and Jacob who follow the pattern set by Abraham. “By faith [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” As Abraham’s descendants by faith, we are God’s friends on an adventurous pilgrimage to the City of God.
Three times the New Testament quotes Genesis 15:6 as the core principle of faith that unites all Scripture and drives the Gospel. Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3; Galatians  3:6; James 2:23) Romans and Galatians are built around grace and faith and are sometimes played against James with its emphasis on showing faith by works. This is not contradictory but confirms the continuity of faith. Abraham trusted God enough to leave home when God called him, and he trusted God enough to conceive a child by Sarah when they were both aged. Such faith is about a relationship that defines one’s life.
Because he trusted God, Abraham could live in the Promised Land as a foreigner, a sojourner. He did not try to claim any territory from the local inhabitants, confident in having the last laugh, as he knew God would give it to his descendants. God’s promise did not make Abraham possessive, insisting it belonged to him because God gave it to him, but it enabled him to be generous.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in temporary, portable tents. Where they pitched their tents, the also build altars of earth or uncut stone to symbolize that the God whom they served at the center of their lives was also portable, not limited to a specific territory as were the local pagan gods. (Genesis 12:7-8; 13:3-4, 18; 26:25; 35:7, 21)
Hebrews 11:10 said Abraham looked “forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Seen through this New Testament lens, God’s promise to Abraham was dramatically larger than even Abraham could have imagined. While on an earthly pilgrimage, the journey may be more important than the destination, it is the City with Foundations whose architect and builder is God that gives meaning and value to our pilgrimage.
Jehoshaphat, a reforming king of Judah, gave a speech calling them to seek the Lord and in which he was the first to call Abraham the friend of God in 2 Chronicles 20:7. In an oracle of encouragement to Judah, Isaiah 41:8, God addressed them as “descendants of Abraham my friend.” When the Apostle James (2:23) wrote that God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness, he called Abraham the friend of God. As Abraham’s descendants by faith, we are also God’s friends on an adventurous pilgrimage to the City of God.
Foreshadowing the global mission of the Church, when God called Abraham, God promised that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. In Galatians 3:8-9, the Apostle Paul wrote that “those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” Abraham would have had no way to imagine that 4,000 years after God’s promise, he would be a blessing to us in West Texas. Yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Abraham’s heir, is exactly how not only we but all of the world’s people have been blessed through Abraham.
Romans 9-11 wrestles with God’s relationship with the Jewish descendants of Abraham. Attempts at a single, simple solution are difficult. However, Galatians 3:7-8, 29 is crystal clear that those who believe are descendants of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.
A huge part of sharing in the blessing of Abraham is that we, too, are friends of God. A number of years ago Roberta Bondi wrote a series in the Christian Century on intercessory prayer. She is retired Professor Emeritus of Church History of Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Her premise was that friends tell friends what their concerns are without telling their friends what to do about them. As friends of God, we can tell God whatever concerns us and trust God to act appropriately, which might mean teaching us new ways to respond to our concerns. This seems to be exactly what is going on between Abraham and God in Genesis 15. God reaffirmed the promise of descendants to Abraham, and Abraham is concerned that those heirs might have to come through Eliezer of Damascus. God responded with a vision of the stars to indicate the magnitude of Abraham’s descendants and relationship with God. Our translation obscures the power of verse 1 by suggesting that God will give Abraham a great reward. A better rendition is that God is Abraham’s reward. “I am your great reward.”
Several years before becoming a pastor, living in tents from Hebrews 11:9-10 became the defining metaphor for my journey. I could not have foreseen God’s adventures that were coming, including the adventures becoming an interim pastor at this stage of my life would bring. I hope I have imparted some lessons for the journey so you can welcome your next adventures with a new pastor and new avenues of mission.
Believe God. As God called Abraham from his home to go to a place he couldn’t see yet, your next adventure in ministry is not about philosophy and techniques as much as responding to God’s call as Abraham did.
You are on a Pilgrimage with the Patriarchs and not settled residents protecting your territory. As your new mission emerges, you will want to keep it as simple, flexible, nimble, portable, and generous as possible.
As your Pilgrimage with the Patriarchs takes you through ever-shifting terrain and unexpected twists and turns in the path, keep looking forward to the City with Foundations whose architect and builder is God. As God’s friends, we have the privilege of a non-stop, running conversation with God about where we are going and the way to get there. Our security and stability lie in that friendship, not in the transitory distractions that would lure us away from the journey.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

One and Wildly Varied

Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
June 8, 2014 – Pentecost Sunday
© 2014
Pentecost, 1997
Sawai Chinnawong
We live in a time that yearns to celebrate diversity at the same time it promotes polarization. World attention is currently focused on ethnic, religious and political forces driving violent conflict in South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine. In our own society, the storm around Donald Sterling and the L. A. Clippers and the volatile muddle arising from how to address another mass shooting and gun rights, confront us with the inescapability of diversity and polarization.
The “table of nations” from the first Pentecost we just read in Acts 2:9-11 has baffled scholars for generations. Pieces of it match other ways of envisioning all humanity in the first century, but each scheme has a seemingly fatal flaw. Perhaps Luke did that intentionally to emphasize the diversity of the people who were there that day. The most recent, careful linguistic scholarship suggests that most were not visitors in Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, but resident of Jerusalem who had gathered from the diaspora and brought foreign language and culture with them. This is by contrast with the “visitors from Rome” in verse 10. Luke wanted to pre-figure the climax of Acts as the Gospel made it to Rome, the center of the Empire. Luke specified Jews and proselytes to indicate the scope of God’s faithful had already been expanding. That he added “Cretans and Arabs” to the end of this list in verse 11 was as telling then as it is today, as they were the most despised groups.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has envisioned itself as “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” Without arguing strategy or effectiveness, this is in touch with the challenge of our time. It also echoes Barton Stone’s, “Let Christian unity be our Polar Star.”
The Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
Mainline Christians are especially prone to promote and celebrate diversity as an end in itself. However, in the Pentecost account, diversity was the means to the end of the proclamation of God’s deeds of power, specifically raising Jesus from the dead. As we well know, just speaking the same language does not mean we understand each other or are unified. The unity of Pentecost was that from the diversity of languages and cultures they understood the same message.
Throughout the book of Acts, the proclamation of the Gospel was not instruction in ethics, piety, justice or even what we would think of as theology or doctrine. While the Epistles did teach the churches about these things, the proclamation of the Gospel in the public arena was that with the death and resurrection of Jesus, God had acted powerfully, and everything was different. God was inviting everyone to call on the name of the Lord and be saved: to be free of death and to access eternal life.
The proclamation of God’s deeds of power in raising Jesus from the dead overcame all of the human divisions represented in the table of nations in verses 9-11. By quoting from the Prophet Joel, Peter’s sermon went even further to eliminate the barriers between generations, genders and even socio-economic status. Slaves were equal to and united with the free class who claimed to own them. Though Pentecost was clearly a Jewish event, naming Arabs and Cretans pointed ahead to the inclusion of all Gentiles in an equal unity with the risen Jesus.
The diverse language of the visual arts also affirms the unity of the proclamation of God’s deeds of power. It enriches our appreciation of how God has called people of every tribe and tongue and nation into oneness in Jesus. The painting on the cover of your bulletin is by Sawai Chinnawong. He was born in Burma in a Buddhist home and came to Thailand after losing his parents. Studying art, he became curious about a nearby Christian community. At age 23 he was baptized as a Christian and has devoted over two decades to painting biblical images. He says, “I have chosen to celebrate [Christ’s] presence in our lives through Thai traditional cultural forms.” Christian Century, May 28, 2014, pp. 30ff In an email correspondence I had with Allan Eubank last week, I learned that Sawai is a neighbor of the Eubanks, who have been Disciples of Christ missionaries in Thailand for many years. They are officially retired but still serve. The visual representations of Pentecost affirm how the Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
By identifying the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the last days, Peter interpreted “last days,” not as meaning the end of the world, but as the culmination of God’s redemptive plan for all humanity. In these “last days,” the Holy Spirit is not limited to a handful of people for brief moments or even to Israel. God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, all humanity.
Peter intended his Pentecost audience to understand what they had witnessed and heard – rushing wind, tongues of fire, hearing about God’s deeds of power in their own languages as the fulfillment of Joel’s prediction of prophecy, visions and dreams. What we read from 1 Corinthians 12 about spiritual gifts illustrates just how diverse these working of the Spirit would be. And that one Spirit would bring all of these together in one body.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) traces its history to the Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 that was hosted by Barton Stone. It was a wild outpouring of the Holy Spirit with manifestations we would associate with some of the most expressive Pentecostalism today. We’d probably find ourselves uncomfortable if we could be transported back there. Whether in that style or not, we are cautious about losing control to the Holy Spirit. Danielle Shroyer, Pastor of Journey Church in Dallas, encourages us to trust the Holy Spirit to take us in new directions. The Hardest Question http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/new-testament/pentecostcnt/
The Spirit of God has been released into the world. Not contained but set free. Not limited but expanding. What else would we expect, if this Spirit of Life is the One through whom God raised Jesus? We are equipped to be who God wants us to be in this new world when the Spirit comes whooshing through the room. Pentecost is the day that makes the future of the church possible. Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story. We don’t have any idea what the Spirit will do next, so let’s not pretend that we do, or try to limit our assumptions about what the Spirit might do. The one thing we know for sure is that the Spirit is bringing us toward new creation, so whatever it is, it’s going to be good.
Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.
We sometimes speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Commentators are divided on whether that is a legitimate understanding. However, Bradley Schmelling, from the pastoral staff of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota tells of a children’s sermon build on that idea. The pastor asked the children how many candles would need to be on the Church’s birthday cake. When the pastor affirmed one of the children guess close to 2,000, another child piped up, “You can’t blow out that many candles.” Pentecost reminds us that God has promised again and again to set us on fire that cannot be extinguished. Christian Century, May 28, 2014, p. 21
Confident that the Holy Spirit will continue to empower the Church to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved, we can face the future with hope and courage. Our seemingly small place in the immediate future is an essential component in God’s big picture for the ultimate future. The forces that would try to defeat the Church are doomed to frustration like someone playing the silly game of “Whack a Mole.” Just as the Church seems to take a hit one place, it pops up in another place with new life.
I love how Annie Dillard described the wildness of the Holy Spirit in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Holy Spirit empowers wildly diverse people to proclaim God’s deeds of power so everyone can call on the name of the Lord and be saved.