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, October 31, 2014

Paradoxical Path

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12
November 2, 2014 - All Saints Sunday
© 2014

I want you to think of the most spiritually mature person you have known personally, not one of the great saints from history but a saint God has used to shape you as a disciple of Jesus. Do you have just one person in mind? Good.
What about this person prompted you to identify them as a model of Christian spirituality? What personal qualities did they have? What did they do and say?
Now imagine how they got that way? What happened to them? What did they do to nourish their spirituality?
Before I was born, Nils Friberg was pastor of the church I grew up in. He spoke with a heavy Swedish accent. As more English speakers joined the church, the leaders got him to move on. Despite that hurt, he came back when he retired. He occasionally offered the pastoral prayer, which I loved as a child. He raised his arms and looked straight up, I thought into heaven, and spoke his booming Swedish accent with such authority I was sure God had to pay attention. Years later, into my own pastoral ministry, I realized my aspiration to be a pastor like Nils Friberg who grew past injury and prayed with power.
Last week we heard how Jesus’ responses to the Sadducees and Pharisees shut down all further questioning. In Matthew 23:1-12, he taught that the path up to exalted spiritual leadership necessarily leads down through humility.
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
All of these confrontations between Jesus and the Temple leaders ultimately were about who Jesus was. In verses 8-10 Jesus cautioned his followers not to usurp the roles that are rightfully his: teacher (rabbi), Father and Messiah. Some Protestants are fond of picking out Jesus’ words about calling someone “Father” as a criticism of Roman Catholics and other “high church” traditions. I’m inclined to think Jesus’ caution applies to all honorific titles when they are used to manipulate, oppress or flatter.
Jesus criticism of the scribes and Pharisees was not the content of their teaching, but that they did not practice it but turned it into heavy burdens laid on those who could not bear them. Similarly, Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church, that he wanted to be sure that his ministry was not a burden to them (v. 9) but that like a gentle father, he encouraged them (v. 11). The teaching of the Gospel out to relieve people’s burdens and uplift their spirits.
The “life worthy of God” (v. 12) that Paul nourished in the Thessalonians was a joyful righteousness of following Jesus by loving God and loving neighbors. Jesus contrasted it with the judgmental piety of the scribes and Pharisees, just as he said in the Sermon on the Mount, to enter the Kingdom of God our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. (Matthew 5:20) That doesn’t come by coercion but overflowing love and joy.
Jesus concluded that the path up to exalted spiritual leadership necessarily leads down through humility (vv. 11-12).
Jesus didn’t invent this principle. He combined and paraphrased Proverbs 3:34; 15:33. It is a life axiom that shows up in many other religions as well as throughout Scripture. James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5-6 quote it. In all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus held up a child as the example of humility as greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:4; Mark 9:35; Luke 9:48).
Jesus extended it to make service the hallmark of humility in his personal mission statement in Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Here in Matthew 23:11, being the servant of your fellow disciples is Jesus’ path to greatness and spiritual leadership.
Humility is tricky. Just when you think you’ve got it, you know you don’t. Some of us have been known to protest that we don’t have humility as a way of prompting others to tell us that we do. Some of us have even figured out how to act humble with such apparently real humility that others will affirm us.

At the risk of falling into this trap, today’s Scriptures do prompt me to acknowledge how I feel about “sitting on Moses’ seat” as one who is called to preach and teach. I love and thoroughly enjoy both preaching and teaching. I am enriched by the study of preparation in which I learn far more than I can teach. I enjoy the lively give and take of teaching, in which I see lights go on in people and gain new insights myself. I find preaching exhilarating as a vigorous element in the high drama of worship. With music, reading, prayer, sacrament and preaching, we act out our redemption week after week for the greatest of all audiences: God! Having said that, I find teaching and especially preaching terrifying. What if something I say, or worse something someone sees me do, points a vulnerable person in the wrong direction to their spiritual detriment? I know I would not want the responsibility of making decisions that affect the whole world the way the US President or other world leaders do, but I am acutely aware that I have some responsibility for, dare I say, the eternal destiny and spiritual well-being of the people God puts in my care and in range of my influence. I know God has called me to teach and preach, and given me experiences, gifts, education, and opportunities to do so. To teach and preach is a great privilege, but how dare I presume to stand in front of God’s people and speak on God’s behalf every week if I have not spent quality time with God during the week.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Greatest Job

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
October 26, 2014
© 2014

Candy’s Grandma Ronngren died penniless. A note was found when cleaning out her room that specified amounts of money to go to various family members, some as much as $1,000. The note expressed an amazing legacy of prayer and love.
Even before I had proposed to Candy, Grandma Ronngren welcomed me to the family with a Christmas gift of sardines having heard that I liked them.
You may not think dill pickles and cinnamon bread have much in common but Grandma Ronngren’s dill pickles and cinnamon bread shared the ingredient of love.
I would not suggest that Grandma Ronngren’s family was immune to heartbreak, tragedy and tears. Nor would I suggest that ministry careers are a higher calling that any other vocation in which God is honored, but I do think the legacy Grandma Ronngren’s love left to the Church is represented by 2 sons-in-law who were pastors, 1 grandson who has been a pastor, 1 granddaughter who was a missionary in Niger, now married to a pastor, 1 grandson whose career has been devoted to global disaster relief in the name of Christ, 1 granddaughter-in-law who is a pastor, and a second grandson-in-law pastor – me.
As we have walked through the Holy Week confrontations between Jesus and the Temple leaders, different groups seem to be tag-teams attacking him. The Sadducees thought they had him trapped by questioning resurrection, but he turned the words of Moses back on them. Matthew 22:34-46 says:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Jesus quoted, apparently in Hebrew, Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God, which faithful Jews recited in Hebrew every morning. And Leviticus 19:18 either in Greek or Aramaic translated from Greek, bringing the most lofty relationship with God down to earth in ordinary, daily relationships with people. To grow as a Christian, keep stretching your love for God and your love for your neighbors.
The two tablets of the Ten Commandments are the essential core of the Law: the first about relationship with God and the second about relationships with neighbors.
In reverse order, Micah 6:8 summarizes well the message of all the Hebrew prophets. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Mark 12:32-34 fills in a little more of the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer, which suggests Jesus may have recognized he was more sympathetic and spiritually sensitive than his fellow Pharisees. When the lawyer commended Jesus for his answer, Jesus replied, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”
Jesus did not pull these two verses out of thin air. Luke 10:27 records how when Jesus and 70 of his disciples were in high gear ministry, before he came to Jerusalem, an expert in the Law asked how to inherit eternal life, and Jesus asked what he read in the Law. He answered to love God and love your neighbor, the same way Jesus answered the Pharisees, and then he asked, “Who is my neighbor.” In response Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, which sets a very high and broad standard for both whom we love and how we love.
With gratitude we received the news that Nina Pham has been declared Ebola free. She became a celebrity hero in Vietnamese communities not only in the US but around the world, and especially in Viet Nam (born in Ft. Worth). She has identified herself as a devout Catholic and said that when her mother discouraged her from accepting the request to care for Mr. Duncan in isolation, she said that since Jesus gave himself in love for us, as his follower and a nurse, she would care for him in the name of Jesus.
Now that Mr. Duncan’s family has left their quarantine and lost everything that was in their apartment, they are having a hard time finding anyone who will rent to them. As discouraging as that is, I have been heartened to see news reports of Wilshire Baptist Church supporting and advocating for them all along. So from another quarter, love has been expressed in the name of Jesus.
That Jesus turned the confrontation with the Pharisees about the greatest commandment back on them with a question about Messiah seems disconnected, but it is what stopped them from asking more attack questions. The question boils down to Christology – who is Jesus?
Part of the wonder of Jesus’ incarnation as God in a human person is that he receives our all-out love for God, and it is his love that we spread when we love our neighbors. So Jesus enables us to stretch our love for God and our love for our neighbors, and thus to grow as his disciples.
Through the centuries, the Church has vacillated between lifeless rigidity and spiritual apathy. Just when it seems hopeless, God raises up people who fall passionately in love with God and love their neighbors in Jesus’ name. More than theology, love is what drove the Reformation almost 500 years ago that we are celebrating today.
We are coming to the conclusion of our annual stewardship emphasis. Next Sunday we will receive our pledges toward the 2015 ministry budget. We can look at that as an unpleasant necessity for paying the bills. We can look at it as an accounting process to manage our resources responsibly. We can look at it as an act of faith to follow what we believe God is calling us to in the year ahead. But what if we looked at our pledges as a way of loving God with all we’ve got and loving our neighbors?
As I have studied the 1 Thessalonians passages we are reading in worship these weeks, I have thought about the interim journey between pastors we are making together. Look at how Paul described his relationship with the church. Those are the qualities you want in a new pastor, someone who will not only share the Gospel with you but share themselves with you, someone for whom you will become very dear. One of the challenges of interim ministry is that we come in for a brief time, get to love you dearly, and then move on. Candy and I have only been with you two months, but you have become very dear to us. Candy has commented several times her appreciation of your spiritual depth. I trust that in the time we are together we will grow as Christians by stretching our love for God and our love for our neighbors.

Friday, October 17, 2014

First Giving

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
October 19, 2014
© 2014

We all want our taxes to be as low as possible, for everyone to pay their fair share, and to get the best value in services. We are in the midst of a significant debate on what fair share means, what taxes should pay for, and how to control waste.
Tax debates and revolts are hardly new. The 1773 Boston Tea Party was a commodity tax revolt that moved toward the American Revolution. The 1791 Whiskey Rebellion during George Washington’s Presidency was a revolt against a commodity tax levied to pay the debt incurred in the American Revolution. In our time we’ve had revolts against taxes that pay for war, welfare and abortion.
3,000 years ago, the Prophet Samuel warned Israel that having a king would bring taxes (1 Samuel 8:14-17).
In Matthew 22:15-22, the Pharisees rope the Herodians into using their dispute over paying taxes to Rome to discredit Jesus. This was one of several taxes, one denarius per person each year as tribute recognizing the sovereignty of the Emperor, which funded the occupation of conquered lands, so was especially despised. It was equal to one day’s wage for a manual laborer. Jesus had insulted the Temple leaders with the parable of the wedding banquet about riffraff from the streets displacing invited guests.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay [tribute] to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the [tribute].” And they brought him a denarius.20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Jesus did not just escape the trap set for him, he roundly embarrassed both the Pharisees and Herodians with his deceptively simple answer. The word for “amazed” is very strong. Both Pharisees and Herodians were shocked and stunned. They wanted to get away as fast as they could.
The denarius had a picture of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription “Son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” In compliance with the Ten Commandments’ prohibition of graven images, Jewish coins never had a picture of a person or even an animal, but flowers, trees and lamps. The Jews would not have put God’s name on their coins lest it be profaned by being used for evil. They regarded the claim that the Emperor was a son of a god and high priest as idolatrous and sacrilegious. Paying the tribute with that coin was a tacit acceptance of those claims and thus resented by faithful Jews. When Jesus had them show him the coin, he exposed that they had defiled the Temple by bringing in this blasphemous object in there.
Some of our politicians say that lower taxes let us keep more of our own money. But the Roman Emperors believed that the money all belonged to them because they had ordered its minting and were graciously allowing people to use it for commerce. Jesus’ words “the things that belong to the Emperor” have an ironic twist. While seeming to permit paying taxes, Jesus was clear that the title “Son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest” did not legitimately belong to the Emperor. In a subtle way, he was claiming to be Son of God and High Priest himself.
In contrast with the Emperors’ claims to own all money because they ordered it to be made, when Jesus spoke of the “things that are God’s” he was saying as creator, God was the rightful owner of everything we are and have and enjoy. Stewardship is not about giving God some portion that belongs to God but about giving something to God as a tangible acknowledgement that everything is God’s.
We get a perspective on this in 1 Thessalonians 1:3. We know the triad “faith, hope, love” from 1 Corinthians 13, but it infuses the whole New Testament, and here Paul presented it as active. We can see that giving our money to God is a tangible sign that we are giving our work of faith, our labor of love, and our steadfastness of hope.
Work of faith is not working up faith or working to get faith. Work of faith is living daily by faith, especially pursuing the ministries to which God calls us by trusting God rather than our own ideas and efforts.
Labor of love is expressing the love of Christ for others with practical compassion. It is reaching out to hurting people in the name of Jesus.
Steadfastness of hope is an endurance that does not give up when the way is hard or slow, but keeps focused on God’s sovereign faithfulness for a glorious future.
We are at the convergence of three significant currents in the life of Highlands Christian Church: the interim journey between pastors, the annual stewardship emphasis, and the unexpected need for major repairs to our facilities. All of these call on the best of our stewardship. More than ever, giving our money to God is a tangible sign that we are giving our work of faith, our labor of love, and our steadfastness of hope.
As you pray about your pledge for Highlands Christian Church’s 2015 budget, keep in mind that a healthy church’s budget is not so much about how to stretch out the money to pay the bills in the upcoming year as it is an expression of faith in how much you believe God wants to do with and through you in the coming year. So filling in a number on your pledge card and working out a balanced budget for the church use financial tool as a work of faith.
I want to affirm and encourage you to expand the ways you use your facilities to serve people in the community, some but not all in overtly Christian ways. Having an attractive, comfortable facility, as you do, is not really about what you enjoy but about extending the love of Jesus to as many people beyond the church as possible. A pastor who preaches inspiring sermons is not just about building you up on your journey with Jesus, but about proclaiming the Gospel for those who need to know Jesus.
Steadfastness of hope is deeper than patience. Patience will carry us through the weeks until the building is repaired and fully usable again. Patience will carry us through the months until your new pastor is with you to lead you on your next ministry adventure. Steadfastness of hope is confidence that God is leading through all the circuitous crossroads of your journey with Jesus and sustaining you to endure seemingly innumerable, insurmountable obstacles to glorious fruitfulness. Steadfastness of hope keeps you from giving up when there is no end in sight. Eugene Peterson, who did The Message paraphrase of the Bible, has spoken and written about “a long obedience in the same direction.” That is the stewardship of steadfast hope.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Off the Guest List

Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014
© 2014

Preachers are encouraged to start sermons by telling a good story to engage the congregation. Much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching was nothing but telling stories, which we preachers feel obligated to explain even though Jesus seldom did. What better way to start today’s sermon than one of Jesus’ stories! To better appreciate how Jesus made his points with surprising twists and turns, as you listen to Matthew 22:1-14, keep in mind that for Jesus’ Jewish listeners, a “king” was despised and feared, either a Gentile oppressor or a puppet who betrayed their people to appease Rome.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’
10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 
14For many are called, but few are chosen.”
I’m going to try not to explain Jesus’ story too much but prod you into thinking about it, at least for the rest of today. Jesus’ listeners might have thought of Herod as the king in the story and said, “I wouldn’t go to his wedding banquet if you paid me. More power to those who were brave enough to torture and kill his slaves!” They would have expected such a king to kill someone who insulted him. For Jesus to use a king like that as a picture of God would have astounded and jolted their thinking. They would also have known that the story doesn’t hang together as a realistic, chronological narrative. That wasn’t the point. The Temple leaders quickly figured out that Jesus was critiquing their stewardship of Israel’s spiritual legacy and wanted to arrest him. (21:45-46; 22:15) This was just one of several stories Jesus told to say that God welcomes spiritually needy, broken, disreputable people instead of pious and self-righteous people, which the Temple leaders found to be insulting.
Jesus clearly aimed this story, and its companions, at the Temple leaders but with awareness that many other people who were listening who felt excluded by the Temple leaders. They knew they were both good and bad.
The man who got into the wedding banquet without a wedding robe adds another twist to the story. His speechlessness seems to suggest that he hadn’t realized the grace of being invited but knew he was out of place.
I want to be cautious about using images from other parts of Scripture to over-allegorize this story. But we are hearing it as those who have found ourselves unexpectedly at God’s wedding banquet, whom Jesus assumed were listening but did not address. I suggest that Philippians 4:1-9 is a good guide for how we who were not on the original guest list can be good guests at God’s wedding banquet.
Verses 2-3 tell us that guests at God’s wedding banquet, get along with the other guests. Notice that Paul didn’t tell Euodia or Synthyche that one was right and the other wrong. He didn’t say they had to agree about everything but to be of one mind in the Lord. He also told his “loyal companion” to help them. We all need help sometimes.
Verses 4-7 tell us that guests at God’s wedding banquet, do not need to worry about anything. We can ask for what we need with joy and gratitude, confident God provides.
Verses 8-9 tell us that guests at God’s wedding banquet, learn to think the way God thinks. I remember my first encounters with computer technology when I worked as a magazine editor forty some years ago. We kept subscriber information on a huge computer that seemed to always have some glitch. I learned the expression GIGO: garbage in - garbage out. Paul is telling us how to feed our minds so godliness comes out when we are under stress.
Highlands Christian Church is one of many gatherings of guests for God’s wedding banquet. We’re starting our 2014 stewardship emphasis this week when we are in the middle of transitions that could distract us from the unity, from joy and gratitude, and from learning to think like God. Stewardship is not so much about money as about being God’s good guests.
Obviously, we are in the midst of the interim journey between pastors, with all the attendant feelings of insecurity. I know your Search and Call Committee has been praying to be of one mind, as a congregation and as a committee, about the one whom God has called to be your next pastor. This is a time to step up stewardship so the S&C Committee can offer that candidate a package that says “we want you,” not just “we hope we can afford you.” Also stepped up stewardship on the interim journey provides the resources to jump start new ministries.
The storm damage that put us in the middle of a disruptive and expensive renovation could spark grumbling and disagreements. If we remember we are God’s guests, we are invited to let go of worry and make our requests to God with joy and thanksgiving. Yes, even as you make your pledges for 2015, ask God if you should include something extra to help with those expenses.
As guests at God’s wedding banquet who were not on the original guest list, we learn to think like God, welcoming the good and the bad to share the banquet with us. Our stewardship is not about making ourselves comfortable but hospitably including all whom God calls.
Vachel Lindsay’s 1913 poem, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven, tells Jesus’ story from the perspective of someone who devoted his life and legacy to inviting as many of the good and bad as possible to God’s wedding banquet. William Booth founded the Salvation Army in that is still inviting as many good and bad as possible to God’s banquet.
[To be sung to the tune of The Blood of the Lamb with indicated instrument]
Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—   
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”   
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,   
Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,   
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—   
Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—   
Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,   
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—   
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)   
Every slum had sent its half-a-score   
The round world over. (Booth had groaned for more.) 
And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer   
He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.   
Christ came gently with a robe and crown   
For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.   
He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,   
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.   
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?