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, January 28, 2016

The Most Excellent Way

1 Corinthians 12:31b-14:1a; Luke 4:21-30
January 31, 2016
© 2016

Today we pick up where we left Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue. Luke 4:21-30 is a flashing series of snapshots of the people reacting to Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61:1-2. As was the custom, he was seated for teaching.
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Verse 22 is difficult to translate. Jesus read in Hebrew and he and the people in the synagogue were speaking Aramaic, which Luke translated into Greek. The typical English rendition seems to suggest the first response to Jesus was positive. That is a possible translation but probably not the best sense of the event.
“All spoke well of him” could be rendered “all bore him witness” that they realized he had stopped reading before the line “the day of vengeance of our God.” They took offense at that because they expected Messiah to vent retribution on Gentiles.
“Gracious words” could better be translated “words about grace.” The people figured out Jesus was extending God’s grace to Gentiles, and they were perplexed and offended that someone who grew up in their town would break from common opinion.
Jesus was anything but a politician. As the hostility of the people’s reaction increased, Jesus did not reassure them or soften their take on him. He purposely went on to give examples of Gentile enemies who received God’s grace. The widow of Zarephath through Elijah and Naaman the Syrian through Elisha. Not only that, but Jesus used examples from Elijah and Elisha in the collapsed Northern Kingdom that gave rise to the despised Samaritans. Jesus gave this hostile audience the same message Paul gave in 1 Corinthians 13. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.
From 1 Corinthians 12:31b to 13:3, Paul asserted the superiority of love over piety. He was not denigrating the gifts of the Spirit, but he was clear that love is superior.
His dissertation on spiritual gifts ends with “I will show you a still more excellent way.” Many translations use the comparative “more.” Some use the superlative “most.” Exclamative: “Most Excellent!” Living love is great!
This paragraph suggests that great communication, great understanding, great action and even great self-sacrifice can all be done without love. We may think we’re working by the power of the Holy Spirit, but if it doesn’t grow out of and extend love, it’s useless.
Paul did not stop writing about the Holy Spirit between chapters 12 and 14. They are connected with the “Most Excellent Way!” Love is the culmination of the work of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can radiate God’s love to the people around us. Our human love is inadequate. Some people are just too difficult to love on our own. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.
Couples who are about to get married often describe why they love each other like this: “She makes me feel secure.” “He makes me laugh.” “She brings out the best in me.” “He helps me grow.” Romantic love is measured by what the lovers get from each other. You may know that the New Testament uses the Greek word agape for God’s love. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 describes love that gives without needing to receive.
These verses sound ideal when read at a wedding. They also need to be heard in the hospital and the courtroom, in the unemployment line and in the in-laws’ house. This paragraph says that love is specifically for when hard times come: when someone is injured or in trouble, when someone is discouraged, when someone has hurt you.
God’s love is always about the one being loved. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” That is the model for the love the Holy Spirit generates and radiates from within us. That is the love of Mother Teresa cradling the dying in the gutters of Calcutta with no expectation of even a thank you.
In the concluding paragraph of his lyrical treatise on love, 1 Corinthians 13:8-14:1a, Paul explains that love is the more excellent way than all the spiritual gifts because the time will come when the gifts will cease because they will no longer be necessary, but love endures eternally. Because God is love!
We all know that this interim time between pastors is temporary. You expect to have a new “permanent” pastor sometime soon. However, even if your next pastor stays with you for 25 years, that is not forever. Other pastors will come further into the future. But we do have a longing for permanence. That why most of us resist change. I believe that is a yearning for God’s eternal Kingdom, but to try to hang onto something that is not God’s eternal Kingdom heads us toward idolatry. That’s why Paul wrote that even the gifts the Holy Spirit gives the church are temporary. They help us on our journey to the eternal. Thus the godly love that we just barely sample now draws us deeper into God’s eternal love.
With the artificial chapter breaks in the Bible we can miss some important connections. So we started with 12:31b “I will show you a still more excellent way.” We also have to include 14:1a to get the full impact of 1 Corinthians 13. “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Pursue love!” The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put these three in the context of our transitory lives.
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

“Pursue love!” Paul concludes. Love is the path through the temporary to the eternal, to know God as fully as God knows us. On that journey, conveying God’s love to others takes priority over our spiritual accomplishments. On that journey, by God’s love we have the Holy Spirit’s strength to absorb abuse and disappointment from those we love. On that journey, passing God’s love to others guides us unerringly toward face to face intimacy with God. The most excellent way of the Holy Spirit is to empower us to love those who are hardest to love.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Full of Power

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Luke 4:14-21
January 24, 2016
© 2016

You have already been on the interim journey between pastors for a while. Today I join you on this journey, which I believe can be an adventure with Jesus for all of us. As your interim pastor my role is to coach us in listening for and recognizing the voice of Jesus with us on the journey. To help us with that, I will preach from the Bible passages suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary with the goal of tuning into what God is saying to us. Though I will be somewhat flexible with this, I will not pick passages to play “gotcha” with a hidden agenda. As we listen for the voice of God together, I hope to encourage and guide you in conversations about the congregation’s heritage, mission, leadership, connections and future. 
Two weeks ago we looked at how the Holy Spirit dramatically came on Jesus at his baptism. Today in Luke 4:14-21, we see how Jesus began his public ministry after forty days in the wilderness of testing in which he overmastered the devil.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The scheduled reading from the Prophets on the Sabbath when Jesus went to the Nazareth synagogue must have been from Isaiah, since that scroll was handed to him. But he unrolled the scroll to purposely skip the assigned reading to find the passage about the Spirit’s anointing to the ministry of justice. That passage from Isaiah 61 is also quoted in Psalm 146:7-8, which is call a “Hallel” Psalm that the Israelites sang in procession to the Jerusalem Temple on holy days. No wonder the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. He changed the order of worship! What was he going to say about this passage?
Jesus began to speak to them. As we shall see next week, what he said was so shocking that they interrupt him. By saying this scripture was fulfilled, he did not imply that justice had been permanently established. Rather, he claimed that the Spirit had authorized and empowered him for the ministry on which he was embarking.
We are so used to having books in print, radio, television and now electronic media that we may miss the power of hearing Scripture read aloud as Jesus did in the synagogue. As we read from Nehemiah, this same power is clear when Ezra read what quite possibly was part or maybe all of Deuteronomy. Significantly, the people are gathered as a single body to hear from God. Men, women and even children who were old enough to understand. They responded as one body, much as today a congregation’s unity as the Body of Christ is a living expression of God’s justice and compassion, joy and strength.
This was not a dull experience of sitting still in silence while Ezra read. The people were actively engaged and responded with voice and body. When Ezra unrolled the scroll to read, in unison the people stood in respect, much as liturgical churches today stand for the reading of the Gospel. The people lifted their hands and answered, “Amen! Amen!” much as we might see in a Pentecostal church today. At the pauses in the reading, they bowed their faces to the ground to worship, perhaps somewhat like we might see in a mosque today. In these pauses, the reading was translated for those who could not speak Hebrew and then interpreted or explained so they could understand and have their questions answered.
The people responded emotionally to hearing Scripture read. They wept! They wept for joy to hear God’s Word after generations of exile in Babylon. And they wept in repentance, knowing that had not been living by Scripture. But Ezra thought the weeping defiled the Scripture, so sent them out for a festival that included the wine of joy.
The people responded to hearing Scripture read with a celebration of sending festive food to those who couldn’t afford their own parties. Rich and poor alike were one single community of God’s people. Justice and compassion demanded that everyone share the joy.
Jesus read from Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth some four centuries after Ezra read from Deuteronomy at the Jerusalem Water Gate. In both cases the reading of Scripture aloud made a powerful impact on those who heard it. In both cases the theme was justice and freedom for people who were brittle, broken and bound.  As we have heard these two stories today, are you hearing the voice of God for you and First Christian Church of Albany, TX? I am just starting to get to know you and the people of Albany, but I am certain there are people in this congregation and in this community who are poor, captive, blind, oppressed, who have no celebration prepared.
On your interim journey with Jesus, I believe he will let you know who they are so you can be Jesus to them. I am not necessarily suggesting programs but personal relationships with people, paying enough attention with spiritual sensitivity for the Spirit to prompt you.
Twenty some years ago Candy and I took a four month sabbatical, living in the L’Arche Daybreak community for mentally disabled adults in Richmond Hill, Ontario. We were coached to be alert for the presence of Christ in the pain of the disabled core members. It was one of the most transformative experiences of my adult life. I continue today with a spiritual discipline at the end of each day of identifying a wounded person I contacted that day and asking how I saw Christ in them. This has been my spiritual reward while driving funeral cars for 7 months.
As I have walked this journey with Jesus, I have learned to recognize his voice when I face my own wounds.
Jesus came to Galilee filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.  Nehemiah and Ezra turned the mourning and weeping of the people into joy and strength by sending them to share the celebration of God’s Word with those who had nothing prepared. As we listen for the voice of Jesus on this interim journey, I believe we too will receive God’s joy and strength.
Let us soak in Scripture until we are so saturated with the voice of God that the Spirit can echo when we speak.
Let us pray for God to fill us with power and joy that draws us into intimate relationship with Jesus on this interim journey.
Let us find and celebrate the joy of Christ’s presence by including the wounded people God sends us in our individual circles of relationships and into the embrace of this congregation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Dare to Pray

Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-18, 21-22
January 10, 2016
© 2016

In 313CE the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed to have converted from paganism to Christianity, and in 346 CE he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However sincere he may or may not have been, he saw Christianity through the lens of empire building. He had his soldiers “baptized” by marching his army along a river as priests used tree branches to fling water over them, so they were now officially Christians. In that atmosphere, the spiritual fervor and strength of the Church declined precipitously. In response, a revival movement began, but they had no illusions that the Empire could ever nurture authentic spiritual vitality. Many people with spiritual passion withdrew to desert communities where they not only pursued their own spiritual lives, but also instructed and encouraged spiritually alert pilgrims who came seeking advice. We know them today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas). They left us both their own writings as well as legends, some of which seem rather fantastic but often point to an important spiritual truth. Abbas Lot and Joseph is one of my favorites.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I  fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 103)
Whatever Abba Lot saw when Abba Joseph lifted his flaming hands, it was a sign that God was present with him in a remarkably immediate way. Throughout the Bible fire is a sign of God’s presence, from Moses’ burning bush to the tongues of fire at Pentecost. This week you might want to think about how often the image of fire in the Bible connects prayer and the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 1:14 says that the Holy Spirit is God’s pledge of our inheritance of redemption. The idea is repeated in Ephesians 4:30 and 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5. Having the Holy Spirit living in us now is God’s pledge we’ll be in God’s direct presence in the resurrection to eternal life.
Like Abba Lot and Abba Joseph, I aspire to become spiritually all flame. For me, I understand that as a prayer life of total intimacy with Jesus. I encourage you to think about your spiritual dreams and aspirations during these days of seeking a new pastor for your future.
Luke gives more emphasis to the Holy Spirit and prayer in Jesus life than the other Gospels. The account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:15-18, 21-22 introduces Jesus ministry with high priority on the Holy Spirit and prayer.
As you listen, remember that Luke is not presenting systematic, abstract theology but is describing the free work of a divine person. In both Hebrew and Greek the same word can mean breath, wind and spirit, which the New Testament writers often use in plays on words that we miss in English. John 3:8 gives us a feel for this when Jesus said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
John the Baptist’s preaching attracted a large following.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
During this time when you are seeking a new pastor, noticing Jesus praying at his baptism can shape your praying to ask for the Holy Spirit with confidence that you are loved by God and give pleasure to God.
So Luke makes a very specific point that Jesus was praying when he had been baptized and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. George Hendry taught theology at Princeton Seminary for 24 years. “To take the measure of other theologians, he would read what they had to say about prayer. If a theologian took prayer seriously, Hendry took that theologian seriously. ‘Prayer is the life line of theology,’ Hendry said.” (Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 8)
Luke 11:13 concludes Jesus’ teaching on prayer that is close to what Matthew included in the Sermon on the Mount, with a very Lucian emphasis on the Holy Spirit. “If you … know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more with the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Would you like the Holy Spirit to be more active in you? Jesus says, “Go ahead and ask! The Father will joyfully give you the Spirit.”
Acts 8 says that Peter and John prayed that the new Samaritan disciples would receive the Holy Spirit. We need to understand that the Church was still very young, and things are just starting to unfold and not make sweeping principles out of their experiences. I am sure we can recognize in those new Samaritan disciples our own experience of not being aware of the Holy Spirit. I would also conclude that praying for the Holy Spirit to be present and active is not just acceptable but good.
During this time when you are seeking a new pastor, noticing Jesus praying at his baptism can shape your praying to ask for the Holy Spirit with confidence that you are loved by God and give pleasure to God.
When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Our prayers may be inadequate but Romans 8:23 assures us that “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” So the Holy Spirit recasts our prayers to be in congruent harmony with the will of the Father.
A central significance of baptism is the cleansing of water that assures us that Jesus has washed our sin away. Fire also purifies. Chaff burning fire may not sound like “good news,” but deep inside we all long to be rid of spiritual contaminants. Getting pure may not be fun, but being pure is wonderful! So pray that the Spirit will purify you.
 When Jesus was baptized, he identified himself with us – broken, sinful humans. When we are baptized, we identify with Jesus, the beloved Son well pleasing to the Father. As we pray, the Holy Spirit sharpens our awareness of the presence of God in the ordinariness of our lives.
Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus, not as a super hero with super powers, but as a human totally empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ insights into people were from sensitivity to the Spirit. Jesus got his direction from the promptings of the Spirit. Jesus did his miracles by the release of the Spirit. When you pray expect to be nudged, sometimes without being fully aware at the time, toward people and situations in which you can represent the grace of Christ. During this time when you are seeking a new pastor, noticing Jesus praying at his baptism can shape your praying to ask for the Holy Spirit with confidence that you are loved by God and give pleasure to God.