Archive for October, 2010

So many people have spoken to me about prayer as if prayer is something you have to get right: right words, right subjects, right structure, right timing, right frequency.  Recently when I was describing to a colleague the struggle to speak French, and the grace with which my efforts were received in France, she noted that God receives our attempts to pray in the same generous, loving way. 

I remember my daughter’s early efforts at talking and the joy they brought us.  She was so obviously trying to imitate us.  Once, when she was about a year old, my mother brought Laura downstairs after having given her a bath.  I said, “Hi, clean girl!”  Laura said it right back to me, minus the consonants but with the same intonation and enthusiasm.  Talking was not something she had to “get right” or else we would frown on her.

How much more does God welcome God’s children when our hearts reach back to him, sometimes with words, sometimes without!  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words”  (Romans 8:26).


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A section of DNA; the sequence of the plate-li...

Image via Wikipedia

Where in the world is God taking us as a church?   How in the world are we going to introduce people to Jesus who aren’t primed and ready in any way?  One thing’s for certain.  Simply inviting people to church activities is not going to cut it any more.  God is going to have to show us how to be apostolic–sent out–again.

On his blog Steve’s Stuff, Columbia Theological Seminary President Steve Hayner posts videos and articles that address these questions and more.  He passes them on as he comes across them.  I recommend subscribing to his blog feed.

Steve’s most recent post is a 7-minute video in which Alan Hirsch discusses why the church in its present forms, even in its seemingly most popular forms, cannot reach 60% of the population out there.   Find out more about Alan Hirsch here.

Hirsch reflects on how church must become a gospel movement rather than a static institution.  He describes what the DNA of the gospel is.  The master gene of the DNA is this: “Jesus is Lord.”   Here’s the video:

Alan Hirsch: Overview of the DNA of Movements [VERGE video] on Vimeo on Vimeo

Hirsch says that this DNA is in every believer.  Every believer is a church planter, which means every believer is a seed, a DNA carrier, which tells me that every believer is a mustard seed.

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Niels Larsen Stevns: Zakæ

Painting: Zakae by Niels Larsen Stevns. Image via Wikipedia

My congregation and I will be visiting with Zacchaeus this week.  I’m not sure yet what’s going to surface.  At the moment I’m pondering all the “stunners” in the text, including Jesus’ stunning act of grace and Zacchaeus’ stunning response: big-time repentance and big-time generosity.  It makes the grace I try to offer seem pale and lukewarm, and the same thing when it comes to my own repentance.  Here is a sermon I preached on this text in 2001.  Perhaps it will contribute to the conversation as you and your congregation visit with Zacchaeus this year.

“I Must Stay at Your House Today”
A Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

It is hard to imagine any Jew choosing to work as a tax collector for the Roman government.  But that is just what Zacchaeus, Matthew and many others did.  Roman authorities decreed how much money was due.  Then the collectors charged that to the people, plus extra to pay themselves—sometimes a LOT extra.  That was how they made their living.  The system was corrupt, and it bred resentment among the citizens.  No group of people was hated more than tax collectors.  It was bad enough to participate in the system.  It was even worse to betray your own people for the oppressor.

It is hard to imagine Zacchaeus choosing to be a tax collector, but perhaps he didn’t have many options.  The text makes a big deal of how small Zacchaeus was, how unusually small.  It makes me wonder whether he had an illness, or injury, or genetic condition that prevented him from reaching a normal height.  If so, and if people then were like they are now, he probably got worried over: “Oh, he’ll shoot up one of these days,” his concerned mother would say.  Or worse, Zacchaeus got teased: “Hey, shorty!”

Perhaps Zacchaeus had physical limitations, or perhaps he was one of many sons in his family, and there wasn’t enough of the family business to go around.  Maybe there wasn’t any place for him.  All this is to say I wonder whether Zacchaeus had much choice in the matter.  Maybe it was either tax collecting or begging.  Take your pick.

Zacchaeus had done well at it, made it big in that way at least.  The result was that his physical needs were more than met, and his family’s needs, if he had one.  But the result was also isolation.  Zacchaeus was of little account in the neighbors’ eyes.  They had no use for him.  If they saw him coming down the street, they crossed over to the other side.  Zacchaeus had certainly made a living, but he hadn’t made a life.  There’s a difference. (more…)

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Faith & Leadership | Where Christian Leaders reflect, connect and learn

You can count on Duke Divinity School’s online journal Faith & Leadership for plenty of food for thought on a variety of subjects.  Sign up for the email newsletter, and you will receive regular alerts to updates on the site.  For example, the October 26 newsletter includes links to an interview with N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and to an essay on the movie The Social Network.

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My daughter Laura and I were blessed to spend four weeks in France this past summer. As we made new friends and worked on improving our French, we experienced an outpouring of God’s grace, and it came in many forms.  This is what it is like to speak and function in another language: it is a struggle.  You have to plow on ahead, knowing that you are going to make mistake after mistake after mistake.  It just can’t be helped, and discouragement and fatigue are inevitable.

I experience times when I can “flow” in French, and then–crash!  All of a sudden everything comes to a screeching halt!  I can’t find a word or a phrase I need, or I’ve talked myself into a corner that I can’t get out of.  Thanks be to God for our new friends who were ready and willing to help without embarrassing us.  They listened carefully, and with good humor they guided us back onto the path.

I saw God’s grace in theirs.  Here we are, making mistake after mistake after mistake, doing what we ought not to do and leaving undone what we ought to do, veering off the path and getting into corners we can’t get out of.  But God leans in and speaks a word to help us, without any interest in shaming us.

Grace is an amazing gift.  And it’s a gift to offer to the many in this country whose maternal language is not English, who struggle to understand and to be understood.

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parableof pharisee and tax collector

Image by jimmiehomeschoolmom via Flickr

I am tired of the incivility and contempt that permeate public discourse.  I was also pretty tired of it during the 2004 election season.  Looking back at that year’s sermon on Luke 18:9-14, the gospel lesson for October 24, I see that the ugly political climate was much on my mind.  I found a key to preaching the text in the pericope that follows.  Here’s the sermon in case it might help you get ready to preach about the pharisee and the tax collector this lectionary go-round.

Two Children

Luke 18:9-17

I’m ready for this election to be over.  Maybe the candidates always treat one another with contempt, but it seems to me that this year they have been especially scornful of one another: lobbing contemptuous barbs at each other, flashing scornful looks, smearing each other’s character.  And I’m not just talking about the presidential campaign.  The campaigns in our state have sounded pretty ugly.  I heard pieces of some of the gubernatorial debates, but there was little real constructive debate.  It was mostly finding every way possible to slam the other candidate.  David Crabtree of WRAL was moderating one of those events, and he asked the candidates to name three positive points about the other candidate.  And they couldn’t do it.

The tension is showing up in the electorate, and some religious leaders are feeding it.  They’re coming right out and saying so-and-so is THE Christian candidate, and if you’re a real Christian, that’s who you’ll vote for.  People for one candidate are saying, “Our candidate’s got the right position on moral issues like abortion.”  People for another candidate are saying, “Wait a minute!  That’s not the only moral issue.  War is a moral issue, too.  Our candidate’s got the right position there.”  On and on it goes.  And good Christian people are calling each other’s faith into question.  “Thank goodness we’re not like those other people!” they say to those who agree with them.  “Our side is the one that’s really serving God’s purposes.” 

I think Abraham Lincoln was right as he reflected on the war between the Union and the Confederacy in his second inaugural address.  Each side prayed to the same God.  People on each side believed that God was on their side.  Lincoln said, “The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes.”

We’re seeing extreme contempt in the political campaigns.  But contempt also comes in everyday forms.  Maybe it’s because it just feels good, temporarily at least, to feel that we are better than somebody else.

To people who had a habit of regarding others with contempt, Jesus told a parable.  (more…)

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Painting by James Tissot

In God’s eyes there is no “just a” as in “we’re just a small church.”  When I hear people in small congregations use those two words “just a,” I suspect that a spirit of weakness has hold of them.  Like the bent over woman in the synagogue in Luke 13, small churches often have a hard time looking the world in the face.  Christ the healer is at work doing something about that.  Here’s a sermon I preached on Luke 13:10-21 some years ago.  Notice that the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast immediately follow the healing story. 

“Stand Up Straight!”

This story of Jesus is one of my all time favorites.  And now it is especially poignant because my father is in the same fix as the woman in the story.  He is bent over, and he feels too weak to stand up straight.

The Greek text says that a spirit of weakness had crippled this woman.  For eighteen years it had held her down, so that she couldn’t stand up straight.  Nowadays she would probably receive a diagnosis of scoliosis or osteoporosis. Think of what that means.  Pain.  Spontaneous fractures in her vertebrae.  Think of what being bent all the time did to this woman’s lungs and her other internal organs.  Think of what this woman had to do to her neck to be able to see.  She would have to bend it backwards, like this, or else turn sideways and look at the world from the side.  It took so much effort to look up and see that she spent most of the time looking at the ground.

Even worse, perhaps, than the physical suffering was the emotional suffering.  In Jesus’ day people believed that disability was caused by a demon, and that it was a punishment from God.  Just as they do now, people stared.  They avoided her.  They wondered what in the world this woman had done to deserve such an affliction.  It was a source of shame. (more…)

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Yellow mustard seeds

Image via Wikipedia

The conventional wisdom of the mustard seed says that great things grow from small beginnings.  As for the leaven, the wisdom is that a little something yeasty can go a long way and have a big impact.   While that’s certainly true, I have discovered that there is deeper wisdom still in the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast.  A sermon about them is an appropriate place to begin a blog entitled The Mustard Seed Journal:

“It’s Unstoppable!”

A Sermon on Matthew 13:31-32, with Allusions to Isaiah 55

The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven seem so tame, on first reading at any rate.  Who has not observed the marvelous growth that comes from a tiny seed?  What’s more, many of us can recall the delicious yeasty aroma of rising and baking bread.  Jesus’ point seems clear: great things grow from small beginnings, and so it is with God’s kingdom.

But as I studied these parables, I discovered that when Jesus first told them, in the listener’s ears they had bite.  They were tangy, even a bit offensive.  The people of Jesus’ day were surprised, even shocked to hear him speaking of God’s kingdom that way.

That was especially true with the leaven.  Every other reference to leaven in scripture is negative.  Why?  Because leaven to Bible folk was not the clean, sanitary packaged yeast that our mamas used to make bread.  The way they made leaven was to take a lump of dough or a piece of bread, keep it in a dark, damp place until mold grew on it.  Then they used this moldy lump as the starter for the next batch of bread.

Picturing that, I can see why Bible people thought that leaven was unclean.  And as such, it was a fitting symbol for sin, corruption, creeping rot.  Like leaven, sin creeps through and corrupts everything.  No wonder Paul wrote to the Galatians, who were upset by a certain man’s teaching: “How can you let this troublesome teacher lead you astray?  Deal with him!  Don’t you know that a little leaven permeates the whole lump of dough?”  (Galatians 5:9).

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