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.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces Between … Ambition and Vulnerability

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
February 28, 2016
© 2016

As a young adult Candy’s Mother wandered from the faith and church of her parents. She described those years as wild and wayward. The she contracted tuberculosis and had a long recovery in a sanitarium. She credited her bout with tuberculosis with bringing her back to a close relationship with God. Now, I don’t think God specifically steered some TB bacteria her way. Her less wayward sisters also contracted tuberculosis. Rather, I would suggest that God had been graciously calling to her all along, and during her recovery in the sanitarium she was ready and quiet enough to listen.
Whether you are grimacing or smiling, you have certainly had occasion to ask why something particularly bad has happened to you or to someone you know. We’ve all said, “They didn’t deserve that,” or asked, “What did I do to deserve that?” When my friend Wes Kennedy was going through all the procedures following a cancer diagnosis, intending sympathy, his doctor asked, “Do you ever wonder, why me?” To which Wes responded, “Why not me? I don’t expect to be exempt from the realities of life.”
In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.
As I’ve already said, during Lent we are journeying with Jesus to the cross. In Luke 11-12, Jesus’ teaching to the people on his path had become increasingly confrontational. In Luke 13:1-9 he was not yet in Jerusalem, but it was on his mind as he headed there and was brought gossip from Jerusalem.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
The first thing to notice is that Jesus asserted that the tragedies were not punishment or even natural consequences for the behavior of their victims. We can’t be sure of the specific events Jesus was speaking about, but some things did happen that could have connected.
Galileans were not too welcome in Jerusalem. Many rebel movements started in Galilee, so the Romans were suspicious that Galileans in Jerusalem were fomenting insurrection. Their fellow Jews considered them to be uncouth and impious, not really worthy of bringing a pure sacrifice to the Temple. On more than one occasion Pilate was known to send soldiers into the Temple to assassinate any he thought might be using piety as a cover for conspiracy. The Jerusalem Jews might suggest that because the Galileans were ritually impure, God allowed the Romans to kill them before they got to the altar. Maybe these deserved it.
Pilate wanted to build a Roman style water works in Jerusalem, and he confiscated some of the Temple offerings to pay for it. The Jews he hired to build it were considered wicked traitors. We don’t know if the tower that fell was part of that project or if those killed were working on it, but the Pool of Siloam was a water source for Pilate’s project. Gossip may have been that God purposely pushed the tower on them.
While Jesus specified that neither Pilate’s human cruelty nor the accidental collapse of the tower were God’s punishment, he said in them God’s urgent invitation to repent could be heard. Recognize that life is uncertain, and God is calling. Don’t miss your opportunity to reply.
That is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Like the gardener, God is giving you an opportunity to be fruitful, but it is limited. The time will come for the ax and saw, and the opportunity may be missed. I doubt Jesus had this in mind, but the gardener’s cultivating and spreading of manure can also be a parable for us about life’s difficult times. These spaces stir up our lives and dump stink on us, but those may be the triggers for our spiritual vigor.
Scholars debate exactly how, who and when the book of Isaiah came to be what we know. Exploring that could be a fun Bible study, but they all agree that Isaiah 55 comes from the section written for Judah when they were in Exile in Babylon. It is God’s word of hope in the darkest space of their history.
In vv. 2-3, God calls, “Listen to me, and I will lead you to joyful, vivacious bounty. The dark space is temporary.”
In vv. 6-7, God calls, “This is the time of opportunity. I am near right now. Turn to me and receive my mercy.”
In vv. 1-2, 4-5, God calls, “I want you to flourish, to be so conspicuously inviting that you attract all people to me.”
The ancient examples of Israel’s history match Jesus’ commentary on tragedies of his time. Tragic events in our time teach us to listen for God’s voice, turn to God, be nourished by God. In the spaces that bad things open up in our lives, we may be ready to listen attentively for God’s call to renewal.
I hope you do not think of my time with you as your interim pastor as God’s punishment. I know that the interim between pastors is a time of uncertainty. It is often a time of anxiety in which seeing God’s bounty can be difficult. As an act of faith, I encourage you to pray and step up your giving and involvement, building hope and expectation for the ministry bounty God has waiting. Holding back with a “wait and see” attitude, is to spend for that which does not satisfy. Instead, use God’s resources to buy into God’s bounty.
Lent reminds us that our journey with Jesus is not always a level, smooth path. Ignatius of Loyola imagined it as a rhythm of consolations and desolations. (Spiritual Exercises, 313-327) Of the 150 Psalms, ⅔ are laments or complaints. Passing through the dark spaces does not mean we have lost our way. When we know we are vulnerable, we are more inclined to listen for the voice of God and depend on the mercy of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether the challenge is health, career, family, financial or relational, listen for the voice of God.

The recent political posturing of the presidential campaign reminds us that many things over which we have no personal control can plunge us into uncertain spaces. Though not nearly as extreme as Judah’s Exile in Babylon, the prescription is the same. Informed by Scripture and attuned to the Holy Spirit, listen for the voice of God – not about how to vote but about how to respond to God’s invitation to spiritual renewal for you and your church. How to become a flourishing community of hope so attractive, people trapped in their dark spaces with flock to Jesus because you embody God’s bounty.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

God Meets Us in the Spaces between … Purpose and Proof

Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016
© 2016

Lent is a 40 day space between recognizing Jesus as God among us after Epiphany and rejoicing in his resurrection on Easter. We seek spiritual renewal and listen for God with greater attentiveness. What is God saying in the spaces?
Personally we are always living in the spaces between stages of family life (marriage, birth of children, school age, adolescence, adulthood, empty nest, children-in-law, grandchildren). Stages of career and job. Stages preparing for the prime of life and declining from our prime. The spaces of interruptions longer than times of stability.
In this interim time, this congregation is in the space between pastors, the familiar and the unknown. The space between ministry as we’ve done it and as we will do it. This is not like hiring a CEO or manager. It is a process of patient spiritual discernment.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.
Luke 4:1-13 tells how Jesus was tested by the devil in the space between his baptism and starting his ministry. The Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism so he could begin.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,2where for forty days he was tested by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The 40 days of Lent are modeled after Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Sundays are not counted, and call us back to resurrection joy. The 40 days of Lent also remind us that Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days receiving the Law, and the Israelites were 40 years in the wilderness.
You may have noticed I said Jesus was “tested” not “tempted.” The word can mean “tempt” but much more often means “test.” The devil was not trying to trick Jesus into a sin but testing to expose him as disqualified for his redemptive ministry. I also said “since you are the Son of God” not “if you are.” The devil was not trying to get Jesus to prove he was the Son of God. He knew that. He was testing for what he would do as the Son of God. Luke used the Greek word diabolos from which we get devil. Job uses the Hebrew word hasatan from which we get Satan. The idea was a prosecuting attorney bringing accusations. That is what the devil was doing here. Testing to get Jesus to take a shortcut on his mission.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.
Neither Matthew nor Luke report what happened during Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, but they do describe these 3 tests that kept coming, which prepares us for the tests we expect.
To turn a stone to bread was not just about satisfying Jesus’ immediate hunger but an attempt to get Jesus to use his power as a magic shortcut to his ministry of meeting human needs, such as hunger. All of the Gospels show that Jesus typically hid his miracles and met a need rather than proved a point. Instead of a magic shortcut to address the needs of people today, Jesus calls us to lifelong justice and compassionate generosity as his disciples.
Though Jesus knew that God is sovereign over the universe, he did not dispute the devil’s claim to the glory and authority of the kingdoms of the world. He refused the shortcut offered by the devil. To worship was not just to kneel and say some worship words, it would have been to adopt the devil’s means of maintaining worldly glory and authority: the force and violence of political and military power. As we read in Romans 10, renouncing worldly power may feel weak, but God assures us that “no one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
Central to Jesus’ mission was forming a band of disciples through whom the Holy Spirit would build the Church. The devil suggests the shortcut of a spectacular leap from the Temple pinnacle that would surely attract a crowd. Jesus knew the difference between testing God and trusting God. He refused the shortcut of instant results and stayed with the long term plan of making disciples. While they may be legitimate tools, multi-media worship with contemporary music, wiz bang advertising and electrifying preaching are not shortcuts to evangelism and church growth that build disciples. As we read in Romans 10, God’s long-range plan is for us to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Word of mouth may seem slower than mass media, but it is God’s solid way.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.
If we are listening for the voice of God in the space of Jesus’ test between his baptism and ministry, what can we hear that will help us avoid shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples?
Jesus’ answer to each test was a word from Scripture – all three of them from Deuteronomy 6, 8. Maybe you feel you don’t know enough Scripture. Count on God to give you what you need to recognize a shortcut and choose the path of discipleship. But don’t be complacent. Commit to a lifetime of continuous learning the Bible, not just the information but get so saturated with it that it changes you and becomes you. I love Abba Poeman’s image. A stone is hard and water is soft, but a stone can be shaped by repeatedly dripping water on it. Our hearts are hard and scripture is soft but by repeatedly exposing our hearts to God’s Word, they are shaped to match the heart of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism. He was full of the Holy Spirit when he went to the wilderness to be tested. After the testing, he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit when he returned to Galilee to start his ministry. Sensitivity to the nudges of the Holy Spirit will steer us away from shortcuts. Openness to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit will give us the ability and fortitude for the journey of discipleship.
When we refuse the devil’s shortcuts, we are committing to the path of patience. Instant maturity is an oxymoron, but just getting older doesn’t necessarily produce maturity. That requires awareness and discipline. Lent is an opportunity to awaken our awareness of God and renew our spiritual discipline: Bible, prayer and worship with God’s people. Whatever you have chosen for a Lenten discipline, the persistence it requires is certainly less than Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Like training camp for athletes, those 40 days were preparation for Jesus’ ministry. Our Lenten disciplines are not an end or goal in themselves but are preparation for ministry of meeting human need, building an outpost of the reign of God as a congregation, inviting people to become Jesus’ disciples by word of mouth.
Jesus’ testing warns us not to take shortcuts on our journeys as his disciples.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Prayer Unveils God’s Glory

2 Corinthians 3:12-18; Luke 9:28-36
February 7, 2016
© 2016

Twenty some years ago Candy and I lived in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario for four months. I worked in the Woodery where I got to know Dave. Though he could not read, he was able to operate a couple of the power tools. He was constantly frustrated by his life struggles. Shortly after coming we attended community worship in which Dave helped Father Henri Nouwen celebrate communion. When Dave put on the alb, his face lit up. He treated the bread and wine with reverent care. He knew he was handling the holy. He was beaming as he served us. After worship I said to Candy, “That must have been something of what Moses looked like after he had been with God.”
At first Moses was unaware of the supernatural glow on his face. Paul wrote of Moses’ glow in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that as we see the reflected glory of God, we are being transformed from one degree of glory to another. When we have been close to God, we can expect God’s glory to radiate from us, just as it did from Dave.
Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ praying is the context for the Transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36. But it started in verse 18, when Jesus was praying and asked his disciples about who he was. When Peter answered that he was “The Messiah of God,” Jesus told them he would suffer and die and rise again. Then he said that anyone who wanted to be his disciple would have to take up a cross and follow him, and that some of them would not die before seeing the Kingdom of God.
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said.34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
The Transfiguration was a crucial turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From here forward everything took him to the cross. Just as at his baptism when he started his ministry, now as he headed to the cross, the voice of the Father affirms him as the Son with the Father’s blessing.
Luke told the Transfiguration with words and images that recall Israel’s Exodus from Egypt under Moses.
Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. Elijah met God on Mount Horeb. Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives, and was Transfigured on “The Mountain.”
The cloud of God’s glory covered Mt. Sinai. Jesus will return in the clouds, and a cloud overshadowed the Mount of Transfiguration.
For 40 years in the wilderness the Israelites lived in shelters as Peter proposed for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
The Exodus was the great redemptive event of Israel’s history, and the word for “departure” that Moses and Elijah spoke about to Jesus is “exodus.” The “exodus” Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem was the great redemptive event for all humanity: his death and resurrection.
Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Jesus’ prayers mark the beginning of two parallel sections meant to be seen together. In verses 18-27 the order is: he was identified as Messiah, he foretold his suffering and ended with coming back in glory. The order reversed in verses 28-36 for the Transfiguration. His glory was revealed while he was praying, he spoke with Moses and Elijah of his departure, and the voice of the Father identified him as the Chosen Son.
Luke wanted us to be sure we knew Jesus was praying at this momentous turning point in his ministry. Since our prayers tend to be asking God to do something for us, we may assume Jesus was asking the Father for something: revelation of his glory, confirmation of his identity and mission, strength for the ordeal ahead, maybe even a precursor to his prayer in the Garden to let this cup pass from him. While these things might have been included, I think Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah about “his departure that he was about to accomplish” points in a different direction. I think Jesus was having a conversation with the Father about the significance of his death and resurrection and what it would bring to people, which continued with Moses and Elijah who had anticipated that redemption in their times and could now see it far more clearly and full of glory.
God does not need our prayers to be informed and instructed about what to do. That is not to say we shouldn’t ask God to act, but if that is most or all of our prayer life, we will miss out on God’s glory. But if our prayers are a conversation with God in which we do most of the listening, glory will shine through on us and we will glow. The seventeenth century Russian mystic Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) defined prayer in a way I think gives us insight into Jesus’ praying at his Transfiguration. “To pray means to stand before God with the mind, mentally to gaze unswervingly at [God], and to converse with [God] in reverent fear and hope.” (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1936 Russian, 1966 English; p. 50)
Prayer lifts the veil on God’s glory, so we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another.
Even if only for the moment, Dave was transformed from his frustrating disability to a degree of glory when he distributed the communion bread and wine. We may not glow like Moses, but as our praying brings us into God’s presence, we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another. Like Moses, we may not notice it ourselves, but others will know when we have been with God.
The departures of Moses and Elijah from this life were singularly attended by God. God buried Moses outside Canaan. God took Elijah by a whirlwind. Death is under God’s sovereign control and points to Jesus’ resurrection.
Though I thought of Moses when I saw the radiance on Dave’s face at communion, I can’t say I’ve seen the supernatural glow of Moses. However, I have been with many people as they are dying and believe some of them have seen the glory of God absorbing them. The account of the 4th century Desert Father, Abba Sisoes rings true.
When Abba Sisoes was at the point of death, while the [Brothers] were sitting beside him, his face shone like the sun. He said to them, “Look, Abba Anthony is coming.” A little later he said, “Look, the choir of prophets is coming.” Again his countenance shown with brightness and he said, “Look the choir of apostles is coming.” His countenance increased in brightness and lo, he spoke with someone. Then the old men asked him, “With whom are you speaking, [Abba]?” He said, Look, the angels are coming to fetch me. … Once more his countenance suddenly became like the sun and they were all filled with fear. He said to them, “Look, the Lord is coming and he’s saying, ‘Bring me the vessel from the desert.’” Then there was a flash of lightning and all the house was filled with a sweet [fragrance]. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG; Cistertian Publications,1975; p. 215)