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, March 27, 2015

When Will We Understand?

Zechariah 9:9-11; John 12:12-16
March 29, 2015 Palm Sunday
© 2015

After World War I and the Great Depression, people world over were looking for leaders who could rescue them from global chaos. Some were evil and others noble: Hitler, Hirohito, Mussolini, Franco, Haile Selassie, Stalin, de Gaulle, Churchill, and in this country Franklin Roosevelt.
Today, the whole world is looking for someone to rescue us from the chaos of Iraq, Iran, Syria, ISIL, et al. You will hear presidential candidates promising solutions, but I am fully certain none of them will be the American messiah.
At the time of Jesus, Rome’s oppression was brutal. Messianic fever was high, hoping for a rescuing hero.
That is essential to John 12:12-16’s Palm Sunday story. Summoned by his friends, Jesus came to Bethany, near Jerusalem, and raised Lazarus from the grave as a sign of resurrection. This threatened Temple leaders who plotted to kill Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus withdrew to the safety of a remote area but returned for a dinner when Mary anointed him, which he said prepared him for his burial.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” 14Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: 15“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!” 16His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
The differences in John’s Palm Sunday from the synoptic Gospels emphasize Jesus’ leadership of humility and peace.
The synoptic Gospels tell of those who came with Jesus, some from Galilee, but John tells it from the perspective of those who were in Jerusalem and went out to meet him.
Only John specified palm branches, symbolizing victorious Hebrew royalty. Two centuries earlier, Simon Maccabeus was welcomed with palms after liberating Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 13:51; 2 Maccabees 10:7).
Hosanna was not an acclamation of praise but an appeal to be rescued by a conquering hero, which came from “save us” in Psalm 118:25 from our call to worship.
John quoted the people as adding “the King of Israel” to “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Sometimes John is accused of anti-Semitism because he used “Jew” in ambiguous ways. “Jew” was actually shortened from Judah and was used in a derogatory way by their oppressors: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. John consistently used “Israel” with positive connotations. By adding “King of Israel” the people were hoping Jesus would be the conquering hero to rescue them from Rome. But by Friday, Jesus was condemned by Pilate as “King of the Jews” not “King of Israel.”
John didn’t tell how Jesus got the donkey’s colt, only that he sat on it, which he interpreted with Zechariah 9:9 as a sign of Jesus’ leadership of humility and peace.
At the same time, Pilate may have ridden into Jerusalem on a war horse with a military entourage. Some wanted Jesus to keep going to run Pilate out of town. By coming on a donkey’s colt, Jesus rejected all such thoughts.
As King of Israel, Jesus cut off the chariot, the war horse and the battle bow to command peace to all the nations.

[Highlands Christian Church is to vote on calling a new pastor before the start of the Palm Sunday service. Though I anticipate enthusiastic affirmation, in an abundance of caution and respecting congregational process, I have redacted the end of this sermon, as though a government report going to the press or a Congressional committee. This is also respecting the career and calling of the candidate.]  

Looking at Jesus’ leadership of humility and peace on the Sunday you voted to call a new pastor begs the question, what kind of leadership will you expect from XXXXXXXXXX?
Your vote today affirms the conviction of your S&C Committee that God has specifically called XXXXXXXXXX and Highlands Christian Church together. I encourage you from day one to treat XXX as God’s gift sent to you.
I believe XXX education in music and business will bring ideas and resources especially valuable to this church at this time. I know XXX will bring changes in worship and changes in administration. XXX experience in ministry with families of children and youth match your aspirations.
Though XXX is much younger with fewer years of church experience than most of you, your vote confirms that God has called XXX to lead you as your pastor. One of your important challenges will be to let XXX lead, believing XXX wants the best for this church and has much to contribute to this church. But XXX won’t always get it right. So you are also going to be teaching XXX a lot as a new senior pastor. You do not want to do this in an adversarial relationship but in a spirit of collaborative partnership.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wrestling in Prayer with Jesus

Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
March 22, 2015
© 2015

Bill is a World War II vet from a church I previously served. He had been severely abused in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and suffered schizophrenia. He came to church wearing mismatched clothes covered by buttons for conflicting causes and distributed hand drawn leaflets that resembled the charts of John Forbes Nash Jr. in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Especially during Lent he would draw magic marker stigmata: wounds of crucifixion – nail prints on his hands and crown of thorns on his forehead. Understandably, people avoided Bill. Once when he was not there I told the congregation they could see him as God’s sign of being called to become so identified with Jesus that people might think we were crazy.
Hebrews 5:7 says that Jesus offered up prayers with loud cries and tears. We naturally connect that with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane which the Gospel of John does not report. It does record Jesus’ lengthy high priestly prayer in chapter 17 just before his arrest. But John 12:20-33 does tell us that the way Jesus prayed as he approached the cross illuminates the counterintuitive path of our redemption and discipleship.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
In Isaiah 42:14 God says, “Now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” Lauren Winner, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, sees this image of God as a mother giving birth to redemption in Jesus’ anguished praying as he approached the cross. His prayers that his Father might save him from this hour are like the mother in labor who protests, “I can’t do this anymore,” but does bring a child into the world. So humanly, Jesus recoiled from what he faced, and yet brought the new life of God’s redemption into the world. Christian Century, March 18, 2015, pp. 32 ff
Paradoxically, by being killed on the cross by the powers of evil, Jesus drove out the ruler of this world. The way Jesus prayed as he approached the cross illuminates the counterintuitive path of our redemption and discipleship.
After repeatedly saying his time had not come, when the Greeks want to see Jesus and the voice comes from heaven, he recognized that the time had come. As dreadful as it was, now he fulfilled the reason he came.
Jesus told the analogy of a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying so it can bear much fruit to illustrate not only his crucifixion and resurrection but the whole counterintuitive way God’s spiritual power works. Just as being born as God incarnate and refusing to use force in the temptations at the start of his ministry, being killed on the cross defeated the evil ruler of this world by reversal.
Being lifted up from the earth on the cross would be the way Jesus would die, but it was also the means by which he would draw all people to himself.
Jesus was clear that this counterintuitive reversal was not only the means of our redemption but the essential to what being his disciple and following him was all about. The language Jesus used was hyperbole – an extreme exaggeration to make a dramatic point. Jesus’ culture used such figures of speech, and ours is more literalistic. Still we should squirm to hear Jesus say that by loving our lives we lose them and by hating our lives in this world we keep them for eternal life.
This was not a one-off in this tense situation. Jesus said almost exactly the same thing in every Gospel, each time in a different situation. Mark 8:35-37 which was in my March 1 sermon, as well as Matthew 10:39 and Luke 14:26. It is an inescapable theme of Jesus entire ministry.
Jesus did not limit it to his redemptive death, but said “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (v. 26) If we follow Jesus, we will give ourselves away trusting God to bring fruit.
The way Jesus prayed as he approached the cross illuminates the counterintuitive path of our redemption and discipleship.
When William Willamon, who now teaches at Duke Divinity School, was a Methodist pastor, he asked a woodcarver in the congregation to carve a processional cross to use for Lent. Instead of something simple, modern and clean, what they got was a dramatic heavy cross with a bleeding Jesus on it. Some loved it because they loved the carver, but most objected that it was gory and depressing and didn’t match the d├ęcor.
Just as Jesus prayed with loud cries and tears as he approached the cross, I believe we can cry out to God from the depths of our anguish for the misery people suffer in our world. Jesus’ prayers were heard, but not for escape but in reverent submission. Thus to pray “Your will be done,” is not a cop out but courageous faith.
Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday. If all you experience is Triumphal Entry and Resurrection, you miss the stark horror of our redemption from which even Jesus recoiled. In God’s economy, triumph is won only through painful, apparent defeat. We have opportunity to embrace the counterintuitive path of our redemption on Maundy Thursday evening, Good Friday afternoon and evening.
Authentic evangelism works the same way. As we give ourselves away in the name of Jesus, he is lifted up and people are drawn to him.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Jesus the Spiritual Magnet

Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
March 15, 2015
© 2015

From shootings by police and of police to fraternity chants, race tensions have been at the center of recent national attention. Because of the places I have lived and served, and because of the people I have known and worked with, these issues have personal impact on me. When an African-American pastor who is a friend of mine was a boy growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1950s, he witnessed his 18 year old uncle being lynched by a mob who didn’t like the way he looked at a white woman. No one was ever arrested, charged, tried, convicted or punished. This is just one among many things that scream, “What is wrong with us?”
In his Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn answered the question, “What is wrong with us?
When I lay there on rotting prison straw, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains, an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
Though humorous, a conversation between Lucy and Charlie Brown in a Peanuts cartoon sheds light on this. (quoted from Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks by Brian Soffregen)
Lucy:          Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown? You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!
Charlie:     Well, what in the world can I do about that?
Lucy:          I don't pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble! You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?
Charlie:     No, and I don't want to know! Leave me alone! (He walks away.)
Ephesians 2:1-3 describes our problem as being spiritually dead. John 3:19 describes our problem as loving darkness rather than light.
Like Ephesians 2, John 3:14-21 tells us that when we are ready to give up on broken humanity, with rich mercy and great love, God lifts up Jesus to draw us out of darkness and death into light and eternal life.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Just in case we didn’t get how much God loves us from John 3:16, verse 17 says that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
After briefly acknowledging that we are spiritually dead, Ephesians 2:4 introduces the Gospel as rooted in the rich mercy and great love at the core of God’s character.
This understanding of God’s character is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 103:2-3,8,10, 12-14 says,
Bless the Lord, O my soul, who forgives all your iniquity. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
And Psalm 130:3-4,7  says,
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.
So that 2 Peter 3:9 can confidently declare,
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
John 3:14 is the first of several times John wrote of Jesus being lifted up. When we are ready to give up on broken humanity, with rich mercy and great love, God lifts up Jesus to draw us out of darkness and death into light and eternal life.
The comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness goes back to Numbers 21:4-9. During the Israelites’ 40 years wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, they grumbled, and God sent poisonous snakes as punishment. When they repented, God told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a high pole so that when people were bitten, they could look at it and live. A snake on a pole has been a symbol of healing medicine from this incident and the Rod of Asclepius from Greek mythology.
The word for “lifted up” can mean either hoisted on a gibbet for execution or exalted for reverent respect, both of which apply to Jesus’ crucifixion. We will see it again next Sunday in John 12:32 where Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
In the 80s and 90s, spiritual writer Suzanne Guthrie worked at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. Above the door of the guest house was inscribed in Latin, “The Cross is the Medicine of the World.”
Some variation of the word “believe” occurs in John’s Gospel 86 times, and is central to 3:14-21. We must ask what it means to believe to be lifted out of darkness and death into the light and eternal life and of God’s rich mercy and great love.
John 3:16 says God gave his only Son. Ephesians 2:8 says that the grace by which we are saved in the gift of God. So believing is not something we do, rather it is something we receive. Like the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness, we don’t affect our spiritual healing, even with correct theology – believing correct things about God, but we simply receive God’s gift.
Ephesians 2:1 says that we were dead. John 3:16 says that without God’s gift we perish. This doesn’t mean we cease to exist but fail to fulfill the purpose of human life. Like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, condemned to live forever rolling a stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down and start over again, endlessly. In his great prayer in John 17:3 Jesus defined eternal life as to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. Eternal life is life in the presence of the Eternal God, and only secondarily about duration.
Thus, eternal life is about our relationship with God through Jesus, and by extension all others who share this eternal life. Traditionally, we think that people come to believe in Jesus first and then become part of the community of faith – the church. Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion), and a number of others, have observed in a society were fewer and fewer people know about Jesus, they may often come into the community of faith first, and that is where they meet Jesus and then come to believe in him. Thus, today, evangelism starts with building relationships with people.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Passion for God’s Wisdom

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
March 8, 2015
© 2015

We don’t use the word “zeal” much these days. We might cheer our favorite team, or fight to protect our pocketbooks or personal freedoms. We can even get enthusiastic about specific products or causes, but tend to be suspicious of people who seem overzealous about something we don’t espouse. Even we who are committed people of faith cringe at excess religious fanaticism. I think we are intended to cringe at Jesus’ zeal in John 2:13-22. He challenges our zeal for the foolish wisdom and power of God through the cross of Jesus.
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Some scholars think John tells of a different event at the beginning of his ministry than the one the synoptic Gospels tell right after Palm Sunday. Others think it is the same event but John mistakenly put it at the beginning instead of the end, or it got moved accidently in scribal copying. I may not be right, but I think it is the same event that John purposely tells at the beginning to connect his whole Gospel with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
John’s account is quite detailed and points to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He made the only reference to the whip (which he only says was used on animals, not people), and to cattle and sheep. Instead of Jesus’ quote from Jeremiah 1:11 about the Temple becoming “a den of robbers,” John used Jesus’ reference to Zechariah 14:21 to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” Only John made reference to Jesus’ resurrection with which he organized the whole Gospel, rather than chronologically.
I think John intended us to cringe at Jesus’ scandalous behavior and words. Jesus didn’t seem, to care if all of the animals and coins got back to their rightful owners. Jesus wasn’t just attacking Temple corruption. If this upsets you, you are ready to hear his claim to the authority to replace the whole Temple system with himself.

All of the Gospels describe Jesus’ miracles, and John calls them signs. Some of the signs are not miracles, but all of the signs say something important about Jesus. Turning water into wine is the first sign in John’s Gospel. It was a private, quiet way to say Jesus is about life and joy. John put driving the merchants out of the Temple next as a public, raucous sign that he was the very presence of God dwelling among people.
The Temple leaders knew Jesus was claiming authority over the Temple, so they asked him for a sign validating this. If they thought he was just a trouble maker, they would have just had him arrested. In 1 Corinthians 1:22, Paul wrote that Jews demand a sign. They thought divine authority could be established by performing a miracle.
Jesus’ answer about destroying this Temple and raising it up in three days seems smart alecky, but it pointed to his crucifixion and resurrection as the sign not only of his authority in the Temple, but that he himself was God there among people with whom God was present.
The sign of Jesus driving the merchants out of the Temple tells us that Jesus made the Temple obsolete. His body is the Temple in which God lives with people. Ephesians 2:21 says that as the body of Christ, the Church (meaning people not buildings) is the Temple in which God dwells.
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection challenges us to be zealous for the foolish wisdom and power of God. The cross of Jesus not only defies all human logic, it is even more scandalous than Jesus driving the merchants out of the Temple.
Paul explored this paradox in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Our world lives by power: the power of money, the power of argument, the power of influence, the power of force. Jesus’ crucifixion flies in the face of our human reliance on all kinds of power. The scandal of the cross is the refusal of Jesus and his followers to use these powers.
Jesus’ resurrection is God’s vindication of this foolish wisdom and power. When Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said about raising up the Temple of his body and they believed with a zeal that propelled them into a dangerous, hostile world with the Gospel of the cross.
As Jesus was driving the merchants out of the Temple, his disciples also remembered Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” While not so frequently connected to Jesus’ crucifixion as Psalm 22, Psalms 31 and 69 are included in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus’ zeal in the Temple rightly translates to passionate enthusiasm for his Church today. Not as a building or an institution. Rather Jesus challenges us to be zealous for the people of the community of faith to experience Christ dwelling among us. In our society belonging to a congregation can be reduced to one among many social groups: professional organizations, community service clubs, neighborhood associations. Nothing wrong with any of them, but zeal for our Father’s house lifts the Church above them into the foolish wisdom and power of God.

If the word “zeal” isn’t uncomfortable enough, what about “consumed?” I don’t think Jesus was in an out of control rage in the Temple. Rather, he was passionately focused on establishing his authority as the living replacement for the Temple. Our zeal for the Gospel of the cross, is not about recklessly bashing people with religion, but about looking at and organizing all of our life around the foolish wisdom and power of God, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.