Worship Message Texts

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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Squeeze Until Love Oozes Out

Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
August 31, 2014
© 2014

I have used the selected scripture readings from the Common Lectionary for my personal meditation for over 30 years but only began using them for preaching when I started doing interim ministry. I exercise some freedom with this, but I don’t want you to think I picked out certain passages to send you pointed messages. Instead, I want to lead you in listening for the voice of God to speak from scripture into our circumstances as individuals and as a congregation. Typically, we will read the Epistle or sometimes the Hebrew Scripture passage before the sermon, and I will tell the Gospel as part of my message. As I have soaked in these passages for today, I have been aware that I’m preaching before I’ve begun to get to know you. As you listen for God today, see if you hear what I think I have been hearing. When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
Everything we read that follows “Let love be genuine.” is a montage portrait of genuine love. It is not a check list of moralisms like Ben Franklin tried unsuccessfully to use for personal character development. Genuine love is not individual qualities but operates in relationships. Mary Hinkle Shore, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brevard, North Carolina said about this passage, “Don’t try this alone.” Because they happen in relationships, genuine love and life are messy. We are to give the same quality of love to those who are our enemies as to our dearest friends.
Jesus was never interested in exterior conformity to arbitrary rules but knew that interaction with people reveals our interior character. Twice he said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." In Matthew 12:34 it was addressed negatively to his critics and in Luke 6:45 as positive encouragement to his disciples.
When Paul wrote that responding to enemies with love would “heap burning coals on their heads,” he was alluding to Deuteronomy 32:35 and quoting Proverbs 25:22. This is not ultimate revenge but about wooing hostile folk to the love of Jesus.
Jesus is neither the teacher nor example of genuine love, but its ultimate expression, embodiment and empowerment, which is apparent in Matthew 16:21-28. When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that 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.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Jesus’ redemptive mission was accomplished by totally giving himself away in genuine love for all of us who were in rebellion against God, which is celebrated by the hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.
Following Peter’s great confession (Matthew 16:15), Jesus began preparing the disciples for his suffering, death and resurrection. He repeated this until entering Jerusalem for the last time. Though they didn’t understand until afterward, his genuine love wanted them to be ready.
Peter’s reaction indicated that they were expecting a triumphant messiah, not a suffering servant.
We can all relate to Peter’s reaction. We naturally recoil from death, our own or that of anyone we love. We want to believe that choosing right actions produces positive results. We have a hard time accepting that redemption comes by suffering. When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
As the Reformation unfolded in the 1500’s, violence was common between various Protestant and Roman Catholic princes and groups. Dirk Willems was arrested for belonging to a group that practiced believer’s baptism. He escaped prison in winter. Having lost a lot of weight on prison rations, he ran across a frozen lake to escape the soldier that was chasing him. When he heavier soldier fell through the ice and screamed for help, Dirk Willems went back to rescue him. Once pulled to safety, the soldier captured Dirk Willems and returned him to prison where he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1569.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest in Nazi occupied Poland. In his friary he hid refugees from the Nazis, including over 2,000 Jews. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz. In 1941 three prisoners disappeared, and the guards took ten men to be starved to death in a totally dark bunker to deter escapes. When one of them cried out, "My wife! My children!" Father Kolbe volunteered to take his place. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards gave him a lethal injection.
In one church I served, a man who had struggled with life for a long time, hit and killed a jogger with his car and fled the scene. In his despair he committed suicide. With their permission, the family of the jogger visited this man’s family to express their forgiveness and pray for them, saying, “We have both lost a son. May Christ comfort both of our families.”
Jesus told his disciples any who want to become his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. To deny one’s self cuts across the grain of everything in our self-fulfillment society. What could Jesus possibly have meant? When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
Some have objected that the image of the cross would have been unintelligible to the disciples before Jesus’ crucifixion, but crucifixion was used by the Romans in Judea, so they understood not only it’s horror but also Jesus’ teaching of voluntarily surrendering your own life as an expression of love for unlovable people.
The Apostle Paul picked up on the profound, fundamental significance of such self-sacrificing love in Philippians 3:10-11. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
When I was explaining interim ministry to my mother, I told her I was not trying to make a church into a congregation I’d want to serve long term but to help them discover what kind of church God is calling them to be and helping them find the pastor God is calling to lead them to become the church for the mission to which God is calling them. Similarly, during your interim journey, the question is not about making your church suit your personal preferences but about letting go of what you’d like in a church to become a church that squeezes the love of Jesus all over people who need to know him.

Friday, August 8, 2014

My next sermon will be for August 31

The script below is for my last sermon as Interim Pastor of First Christian Church, Odessa, TX. I will be taking a two Sunday break from preaching. August 31 I will begin as Interim Pastor for Highlands, Christian Church, Dallas, TX. I expect to resume posting sermon scripts then.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Dreamers Beware!

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
August 10, 2014
© 2014

During our time together, I have witnessed God awakening First Christian Church from discouraged doldrums to a dream of boldly bringing Jesus’ radical hospitality to the people of Odessa. As I soaked in today’s story of Joseph’s brothers selling him as a slave, I was drawn into the driving force of Joseph’s dreams, though they were omitted from the reading. For summer Sunday school the church I served in Illinois used intergenerational family clusters. Each week a small group of singles, couples and families with children planned and led a learning experience for everyone. One summer when the theme was Old Testament characters, a family with five children was in the cluster assigned this story of Joseph. Those children immediately identified Joseph, not as a hero, but as a snotty, little brother tattletale. We still must ask, “How are we supposed to understand Joseph’s dreams?”
The text never identifies Joseph’s dreams as oracles from God, yet they foreshadow the events by which God would rescue them and the people of Egypt from severe famine. Given the sibling rivalry and parental favoritism Jacob brought into his family from his relationship with Esau, Joseph would have been wise to have kept his dreams to himself. But at least ten years later, when his brothers unknowingly came to him in Egypt for famine relief, he remembered his dreams, which seemed to prod him to “teach them a lesson.” (Genesis 42:9) Though Joseph had no further dreams, interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker and of Pharaoh himself put Joseph in the position of famine relief czar.
Joseph’s brothers’ reactions to his dreams are regrettably understandable. Beyond sibling resentment, they were the archetypical pooh-poohers of dreams. Without imagination they couldn’t see beyond their work.
I can’t say for sure whether God gave Joseph his dreams as prophecy, yet, God clearly was engaged with both Joseph’s annoying arrogance and his brothers’ distain.
I am convinced that God is the source of the dream of boldly bringing Jesus’ radical hospitality to the people of Odessa that can define this church’s future, much as other dreams of our time have defined our culture.
On September 12, 1962  at Rice University, President John Kennedy spoke of the dream of going to the moon.
Why, some say, [go to] the moon? Why choose this as our goal? … We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.
On August 28, 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and before the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
On October 11, 1971, John Lennon’s Imagine was released. Though it names religion, nationalism and wealth as what prevents the world from becoming one, it became the anthem for a generation. I believe the appeal of this dream calls for a more compelling dream from all of us who trust and follow Jesus.
You may say I'm a dreamer,
But I'm not the only one.
I hope someday you will join us,
And the world will be as one.
As we witness God awakening First Christian Church to a dream of boldly bringing Jesus’ radical hospitality to the people of Odessa, we ask, “Who are the dreamers of First Christian Church?” I would suggest that the Search and Call Committee dared to dream boldly about the future of this church as they interviewed candidates. As spiritual leaders, the Elders have prayed to have a dream from God for this church. The Merger Committee that became the Mission Task Force has brainstormed myriad ways to live into the dream of God’s exciting future mission. The Board has acted with faith to proceed with bold steps into God’s future for this church.
For what are these dreamers dreaming? You know they are not dreaming of going back to the 50’s and 60’s. Nor are they dreaming of copying the mega-churches. Rather, this church’s dreamers are dreaming of becoming a unique community of faith extending Jesus’ hospitality to the people of Odessa. They are dreaming of God making a connection between specific people and resources of this congregation with specific people and opportunities in the community. They are dreaming of more than a collection of programs that help people but of a complete identity and mentality of becoming the means of Jesus’ hospitality transforming the fabric of Odessa.
Just as Joseph’s brothers ridiculed and discounted his dreams, attitudes are the greatest obstacles to realizing these dreams for First Christian Church. Some of the most disabling attitudes are those that discount the church’s capacity to realize the dreams: “We’re too few.” “We’re too old.” “We don’t know how.” “We’re not strong enough.” Some of the most debilitating attitudes turn the focus inward. “We have all we can do to take care of ourselves.” Anxiety about how new people will change the church can also interfere with reaching out into our very diverse society. “Those people are not like us.”
Whether Joseph’s dreams were prophecy or not, they clearly came from God, and God saw to it that they were realized. I believe these dreams for First Christian Church also come from God, and God is the driving power for their realization. Attitudes of faith, daring, courage, risk-taking all open the way for actions that bring the dreams into reality. Like all of us, Joseph went through many hardships and difficulties on the way to the realization of his dreams. Nevertheless, passionate devotion to a dream that comes from God is unstoppable.
During our time together, I have witnessed God awakening First Christian Church from discouraged doldrums to a dream of boldly bringing Jesus’ radical hospitality to the people of Odessa. My last pastoral word to you is, “Dream on! And follow your dreams!” You are well on your way to answering, “How do we discern God’s dream for First Christian Church?” Your Search and Call Committee, Elders, Board and Mission Task Force have an abundance of raw materials from which God is building your unique dream.
Some of you may know that a little over a year ago I had received simultaneous offers from this church and another to serve as interim pastor. Perhaps the most significant reason we decided to come here was the confidence and hope the Search and Call Committee conveyed that they believed this church could have a future they had barely begun to dream about. While I know my work is done here, I am anticipating with excitement to see how your dreams come true. I’m dreaming of spiritually hungry people getting to know Jesus because of you. I’m dreaming of all of Odessa knowing you as those who practice Jesus’ radical hospitality. I’m dreaming of a multitude of interlinked community service missions that make a difference in people’s lives. I’m dreaming of people engaged in vigorous Bible investigation and energetic worship. I’m dreaming of people of all ages, all socio-economic levels and all ethnic backgrounds gathered in the name of Jesus by this congregation.
A few weeks ago, the slip of a couple of small details cued me that Joe and Dawn Weaks were the Search and Call Committee’s pastoral candidate finalists. Since I know them, it took some discipline to say nothing and avoid influencing the process. Now that you as a congregation have made that decision, I enthusiastically affirm your choice! I have had some interaction with them and know that the dreams for what this church can become were central and to their enthusiastic willingness to accept the call to come as your pastors. I know none of us are infallible, but I encourage you to follow their lead as you pursue God’s dreams for this church.
I know that some people are leaders and some are followers. I know that some are dreamers and some are doers. Finding the place that fits you in making dreams come true is one of life’s most exhilarating and satisfying experiences. I also know that some people are like Joseph, annoying people by blabbing their dreams. And some people are like Joseph’s brothers, squelching dreams at every turn. If you are feel inclined to be either a Joseph or one of his brothers as the new era of mission for First Christian Church gets underway this fall, I encourage you to make a personal appointment with Dawn or Joe to listen to each other and pray together. I will no longer be your pastor, but if you welcome them as you welcomed Candy and me, they will be wonderful pastors for you.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Wild, Wonderful Wrestling

Genesis 32:22-31
August 3, 2014
© 2014

I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. Wrestling with God is often, wrongly assumed to be a sign of faltering, feeble faith.
After at least 14, but probably 20 or even more years, of growing under painful tutelage as the nephew/son-in-law of Laban in Haran, Jacob was about to begin his life destiny as the leader of God’s covenant community in Canaan. Wrestling with God was the boundary, turning point, hinge between these two legs of his journey. His wrestling with God was deeply spiritual and mystical, but it was not a dream or a vision; it had a bodily reality. His hip as well as his heart carried the scar of that night for the rest of his life.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned Lucy and Aslan the Lion from C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. When Lucy was first introduced to Aslan she asked, “Then he isn’t safe?” To which Mr. Beaver answered, “Of course, he isn’t safe. But he is good.” Wrestling with God cannot be safe, but it is good. God has welcomed wrestlers since the days of Job who compared his wrestling with God to a conversation with a whirlwind (38:4; 40:6). After Job had rejected the safe, pious talk of his friends and insisted on his challenge to God, God spoke to Job’s friends and said, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” (42:8)
I am convinced that many people outside of the church avoid church because they imagine us as piously superficial and out of touch with the inscrutable, tragic realities of our world. I am also convinced that many of them will come running to a community of faith that honestly wrestles with God and welcomes them to join in.
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. When you wrestle with God, don’t give up too easily but persist until God blesses you.
Like Jacob we are increasingly aware that he was not wrestling with another man or even an ordinary angel (if there is such a thing) but with “The Angel of the Lord,” that is with God. As is clear from Jacob’s dislocated hip, God could have easily escaped Jacob’s grip, but didn’t, so Jacob could tenaciously hang on until he extracted a blessing from God.
Like our instant gratification society, many churches try one program after another to kick start growth, and when they don’t get immediate results conclude, “That didn’t work,” and discontinue before something new would have a chance to take effect. J. Allan Petersen, whom I worked with in marriage and family ministry 35+ years ago, used to tell frustrated parents of teens and young adults, “Don’t count the score at halftime.” That applies to church ministry as much as parenting.
We find it admirably quaint that some past spiritual giants wore holes in their knees and in the floor where they knelt to pray. While we can pray without kneeling, I fear we have made prayer so casual, we are in no danger of wrestling with God when we pray. Fully 100 of the 150 Psalms are complaints and laments – giants of faith wrestling with God. The fourth century Desert Father Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is warfare to the last breath.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Tr. Benedicta Ward, 1975, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI, p. 22)
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. A blessing that has been wrestled from God will inevitably give you a bold new mission identity.
The blessing God gave Jacob was a new name to go with his destiny as the leader of God’s covenant community. No longer Jacob, the sneak and cheat, but Israel, the one who wrestled with God and prevailed. He is still called Jacob 65 more times in Genesis and Israel only 23 times. Yet, Israel is the name by which his descendants were known, through whom the covenant with Abraham was fulfilled. British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, “Faith is wrestling with God as Jacob once did.” Israel still identifies with the God Wrestler today.
Our society does not attach that kind of meaning and significance to names as was common throughout Old and New Testament times, and even in some other cultures today. Nevertheless, we know people acquire reputations by which they are known, and sometimes get a fitting nickname. We all had teachers we knew believed in their students. We all have neighbors who are known to be friendly and welcoming. We all know people in this church whose faith we admire. Churches, too, acquire reputations by which they are known in their community.
Even before we came to Odessa, in phone conversations about possible housing, we learned that First Christian Church was known as the downtown church with bells. As I talked to community people who came to Spaghetti Day, I learned that many people identified that event and the causes it supported over the years with this church. News coverage of the $5,000 check that went to Hope House this year communicated that this is a church committed to changing the Odessa community for the good. I know your new pastors are coming because they want to see that mission identity grow.
I urge you to wrestle with God until this church is blessed with a bold new mission identity that discloses the face of God. Through your face to face encounter with God, you will invariably disclose the face of God to others.
When Jacob realized he had been wrestling with God, he was awestruck if not terrified. He said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He went from invoking “your God” when he spoke to his father Isaac, to bargaining that if God would take care of him, Jacob would claim Him as his God. Now, as he was about to assume the role for which God intended him before he was born, leader of God’s covenant community, he had been face to face with God. From now on God’s intimacy and immediacy would be readily apparent to him and all who came close to him.
God comes face to face with us in many different ways that are as individually distinct as our personalities are unique. At exactly the right moment, when we are sensitive and open, often when we are vulnerable, God converges all of our experience with the Bible, prayer and church through people who make the face of God unmistakably real. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Mother Teresa frequently spoke about seeing the face of Christ as she looked into the faces of those who were dying in the streets of Calcutta. I’ve mentioned before how when we were living in the Daybreak community with mentally handicapped folk, we learned to discern the presence of Christ in the pain of the core members. One young woman named Heather could not speak but she could sing. She sang along with the group as we sang in worship. When the group stopped singing, Heather often kept singing, as a kind of musical accompaniment to whatever was happening in worship until we got to the next song. In the house where Heather lived, she often sat for hours in a rocking chair singing, “Jesus loves Heather, yes he does, yes he does,” over and over again.
Our daredevil son David, who lives in Milwaukee, has adopted the opening lines of Poi Dog Pondering’s 1995 song Al Le Luia as a kind of personal anthem, “You should wear with pride the scars on your skin. They're a map of the adventures and the places you've been.” He had his face stitched five times before he started kindergarten. Axe in the leg, surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder, abraded face and shoulder when his bike handle bar broke in a 24 hour bike race (he rode in it again this weekend). Jacob, too, was scarred by wrestling with God. Yes, he got the blessing and the new identity for continuing the Abrahamic covenant, but his hip was dislocated, and he limped for the rest of his life. A face to face encounter with God will always leave a mark, a scar that points away from us to God. I am excited for what lies ahead for this church and the impact God will make on the people of Odessa through you. But you will receive wounds. Along the way you will feel tension in some relationships. You will have to let go of comfortable things you cherish. You will have to embrace new things that leave you uncertain and uneasy. Nevertheless, as you wrestle with God, you will be blessed with a bold mission identity by which the people of Odessa will see the face of God through you!