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Archive for February, 2011

People birdwatching on the Barrier Island area...

Image via Wikipedia

The heavens declare the glory of God, but so do the birds and the lilies.  Jesus urges us to look closely. They also declare the care and compassion of God.

Bird Watching
A Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Matthew 6:25-34

There’s a difference between a healthy concern and a worry that eats at you.  Healthy concern leads to intelligent, prudent action, like retirement planning.  It is both wise and loving to plan ahead for retirement.  It’s also good stewardship of the resources that God has entrusted to us.   Healthy concern prompts us to use our heads.  Healthy concern prompts us to look into things and to check on people to see if we can help.  Healthy concern helps us put head and heart together as we love God and love each other.

But unhealthy worry looks like this: dithering and hand-wringing. Sweating small stuff such as whether or not the spice bottles in the kitchen are in alphabetical order, and fear that somebody might notice.  In severe form, unhealthy worry grabs hold of our minds, and strangles our thinking.  We can’t think straight.   This kind of worry will make a talented student believe that a B is the equivalent of an F.  It makes small mistakes seem like huge catastrophes.  It makes us say things we regret.  This kind of worry makes it hard to see anything positive in a situation.   You’re stuck wearing a pair of dark glass you can’t take off.  Worry makes people feel guilty about things they are in no ways responsible for.  Worry stresses people out and wears them out, with the end result being that they believe “I can’t cope now,” or “I won’t be able to cope in the future.”  Unhealthy worry is itself a source of great suffering.

When worry incapacitates people, the problem is obvious.  But in less severe forms worry doesn’t incapacitate.  It just has a hindering effect.  It holds people back.  What about good people who decide that they can’t afford to be generous until they save up just a little more for themselves, just to be a little more secure.  What about churchgoing people who profess to trust God, but in their heart of hearts what they really believe and what they act on is the belief that the only person I can really depend on is me, myself and I.  Security is what I put away for myself.

Big or small, when worry has the upper hand, a person’s eyes are focused mainly inward, on him-or-herself, and it’s hard to think of anything else.  Sometimes we get desperate to protect ourselves.  The heart of the worry is often something like this: I’m going to lose out.  I’m going to get hurt.  I’m going to be exposed.  I’m going to be criticized.  I’m going to look bad in somebody’s eyes.  And I can’t handle that.

When we get in that state, “His Eye is On the Sparrow” is just a pretty song.  (more…)

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LUKE 23:34

Image by April J. Gazmen via Flickr

The Sermon on the Mount challenges us with the kind of “unnatural” behavior God expects from citizens of the Kingdom. Here is a sermon that I wrote in March, 2002 about the challenge of turning the other cheek and loving the enemy.  2002, of course, followed 2001

Regarding the Enemy
A Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48
(With allusions to Ephesians 4:22-5:2 and Romans 12:9-21)

In those days, the name Jesus was a common name.  In fact, there is another Jesus in the gospels.  He appears during the trial of our Savior in Matthew 27, and his name is Jesus Barabbas.  Jesus Barabbas was a violent revolutionary, one of many who were bent on using any means necessary to force the Roman boot off the necks of the people of Palestine.

Under Roman occupation, Judeans, Galileans and all the rest of the people of Palestine bore a more painful tax burden than we Americans have ever experienced.  Roman soldiers were all about.  At any time they could force civilians to do some job for them, and there was no right to say no.  The Romans came down hard on any act of resistance.  Right around the time of our Savior Jesus’ birth, for example, a rebel broke into the Roman arsenal in Sepphoris, just a few miles from Jesus’ home town, Nazareth, and looted it to arm a band of revolutionaries.  The Romans destroyed the town and crucified two thousand Jews who had participated in the uprising (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 60).

This didn’t deter the resistance movement one bit.  People hated the Romans, and many gave revolutionaries and even terrorists like Jesus Barabbas a sympathetic ear.  At the time of the arrest of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Barabbas was in prison for murder.

With that kind of history, with brutality so near, and with people’s hearts filled with pain and anger, how can Jesus of Nazareth even dare to suggest offering the other cheek, and going the second mile for the oppressor, and letting somebody have the shirt off your back as well as your coat, and loving and praying for the enemy?  Jesus, don’t you know that’s the way to get run over?  Are you telling us to cave in to evil?  Let the enemy get away with this? (more…)

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Born of Water, Born of Spirit:
Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations
By Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett
The Alban Institute, 2010. Pb., 193 pp., $18.00. 

Picture this: a small Episcopal congregation of seven members goes to visit its bishop to request closure, and the bishop replies, “No!  You still have a mission in your community!”  Fourteen years later, the worshiping community has more than quadrupled, includes people of all ages, sees itself as a ministering community, and serves the area around it via a soup kitchen, an afterschool program, and a community action organization.  Can you imagine that happening in your judicatory?

In Born of Water, Born of Spirit authors Sheryl Kujawa- Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett tell this (p. 80) and many other stories of small congregations reclaiming the power of the Holy Spirit, exercising the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, and saying “Yes!” to a new call from God.  They write out of their experience as Episcopal priests, seminary professors and directors of the Lilly-endowed Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Program at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  What these congregations all have in common is that someone has encouraged and coached them to live fully into the meaning of their baptism, individually and as a congregation.

The models profiled share some form of the following assumptions and framework:
•The baptized are summoned to a lifelong relationship with God and gifted for a lifetime of discipleship and mission.
•The Holy Spirit is active in every Christian community regardless of size or wealth, and all the gifts that the congregation needs for ministry are already present in the congregation.
•Each local congregation learns to discern its particular call from God in its particular context.
•The people of God share the responsibilities of congregational life, preaching and worship included.
•Instead of issuing blanket invitations to members to come from congregations to training events, ministry developers go to congregations to identify, train, coach and encourage indigenous leaders.  Like Acts-era missionary teams, ministry developers spend an extended time in particular congregations, and then move on to help others.
•In the Episcopal tradition, besides receiving training in areas of leadership such as spiritual formation and pastoral care, some church members are locally ordained as priests for their own congregations. 

This is not the easiest book to read.  I sometimes got bogged down in the details of different ways to implement this approach.  However, the authors provide many useful sidebars, including a chart comparing “The Church Viewed only as Institution” with “The Church Viewed Primarily as People of God” (p. 140).  There is also an extensive annotated list of print, web-based, and DVD resources.

Born of Water, Born of Spirit is certainly an essential reference for all who envision a fruitful future for small congregations. Yet it also offers a challenge to every judicatory and every congregation, even those who can still afford to structure their life around the work of ordained professionals.  We all need to be asking: Do we truly believe in the power of the Holy Spirit? Do we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers?  Do we truly want to equip all our saints for ministry?

If the answer is “Yes!” then we might start hearing more and more stories of amazing renewal in congregations of all sizes.

You can read an excerpt from this book here.

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Islamic Jesus (Isa) miniature of Sermon on the...

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What is Jesus really asking of us in the Sermon on the Mount?  Here is a sermon for Epiphany 6A that wrestles with the question.

A Deeper Righteousness
A Sermon on Matthew 5:17-37 (With allusions to Exodus 20:1-17)

Jesus was a lawbreaker.  That truly is how some people saw him.  In the eyes of the experts on God’s law, namely the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus played fast and loose with the rules.  Didn’t he know that the way you please God, the way you love God is to obey God’s law?  But here Jesus was, flaunting the holiness codes, touching the unclean, not keeping himself separate from the impure, not keeping separate from women, even talking with them in public, in broad daylight.  Worst of all, Jesus broke the Sabbath law and allowed his disciples to do likewise.  The law says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  On that day you shall do no work.  Period.”  Keeping the Sabbath law in particular was the litmus test of faithfulness.  Yet Jesus repeatedly healed people on the Sabbath, and that was clearly work.  As far as the legal experts were concerned, Jesus was disrespecting the law, disrespecting them, and disrespecting God.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples debated the role of the law.  What was binding on Christians, and what wasn’t?  Some maintained that all the law should be kept, a few even maintaining that Gentile Christians must follow all the Jewish laws. Others insisted that the era of the law was over; Christ did away with the law.  “We’re not saved by keeping the law,” they declared.  “We’re saved by the body and blood of the Lord.  Therefore,” they reasoned, “the law is obsolete.”  Some even counseled not worrying about law at all.  After all, forgiveness and salvation are free.

Who was right about the law?  According to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, none of the above.  “Do not think that I’ve come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets,” he declared.  “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.  For truly, I tell you, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter of the law will be done away with until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

What is Jesus saying here?  Is he telling us we’ve got to out-Pharisee the Pharisees? (more…)

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FolkPsalm at Cedar Grove UMC

If you love the Psalms and you love bluegrass/folk/new acoustic music, you should check out Charles Pettee and his colleagues of FolkPsalm.  You can listen and learn more at their website.  Based in Chapel Hill, NC, Charles also writes for and performs with The Shady Grove Band and a couple of other groups.  His settings of the psalms are earthy, like many of the psalms themselves.  He talks about his spiritual journey and working with scripture at “Sing Praises to God” on Duke Divinity School’s Faith and Leadership web site.  Sing a new-old song to the Lord!

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Cover of "Groundhog Day (15th Anniversary...

Cover via Amazon

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays an arrogant, self-centered weatherman named Phil Connors who finds himself condemned to live the same day–February 2, 1992–over and over and over again.  Nothing provides an escape from the loop, not even suicide.  Phil finally decides to learn from the situation and begins making changes in his behavior.  Check out the movie to see where a little change can lead.

Doing the same things in the same ways over and over and over again can turn into a spiritual groundhog day for the church.  We persist in thinking that we can continue in the same patterns year-in and year-out and wake up one day to a different and desired result, such as deeper commitment on the part of our members.  Why not heed the wake up call and see where just a little change can lead?

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