Archive for December, 2011

57//365I love the fact that Jesus arrived in such a gentle way, and in the midst of such painful circumstances.  Many of our folks are in painful circumstances and need him to come to them gently this Christmas to soothe and to heal.  All we need is “a little Christmas.”

A Mustard Seed Christmas

A Sermon on Luke 13:18-19, Psalm 137:1-4 and Luke 2:1-7

(Inspired by a meditation by Charlene Fairchild titled “A Mustard Seed Christmas,” gleaned from the Kir-Shalom website.  Unfortunately the link, found on one of the Holy Christmas pages, is currently broken.)

There are times when it’s hard to sing.  There are times when an ache in the body or soul becomes an ache in the throat when you try to sing.  That was what God’s people experienced when they lost their home, Jerusalem, and were carried into exile in Babylon.  “Let’s hear one of your hymns of Zion,” the Babylonians teased the homesick people.  “How can we sing God’s song here?” they cried.  They couldn’t!  They put away their musical instruments.

It was the same years later when they finally were allowed to go home.  They wanted to be able to sing songs of rejoicing when they reached Jerusalem, but they just couldn’t.  They stared at the ruins of what had been their houses and God’s house, the temple, and tears flowed all over again.

They were home, but found that they were still in the shadowlands of grief. It is the same now when our lives are disrupted.   How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  Israel mourns in exile!

Indeed, the land of grief is a strange land.  How can we sing “Joy to the World,”—I mean really sing it from the heart—without our life’s partner at our side, without those irreplaceable people we have lost?  How can we sing when our hearts are heavy with concern and worry?  Everyone else seems to be busy and happy, but the thought of pasting on a smile and pretending to be joyful is distinctly unappetizing.

Just when Mary needed to be at home in familiar surroundings with caring people as her due date drew near, the powers that be mandated a journey.   Joseph and Mary became temporary exiles.  It was not a jolly journey to Bethlehem.  It is hard to imagine a more uncomfortable ride: to be nine months pregnant, bumping along on the back of a donkey.  And then to go into labor in a strange place with nowhere to go.

The birth of Jesus went largely unnoticed in all the hubbub of the tax registration.  The revelation of his birth was given only to a few shepherds—nobodies, inconsequential people.  It was a small, fragile beginning for God’s act of salvation.  Jesus truly was vulnerable.  King Herod came close to succeeding in eliminating him.  If Joseph hadn’t been listening for a word from God…Thank goodness he listened!

God’s way is often small and quiet.  God often works in a mustard seed sort of way.  The very kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone planted, a grown-up Jesus declared later.  From the tiniest of all seeds, a great, hospitable tree grows!  God grows his kingdom from tiny, humble beginnings.   God planted a tiny, vulnerable mustard seed in Bethlehem.  Yet the Virgin’s tiny boy is the Lord of the universe!

Maybe what we need when we cannot rejoice in a big way at Christmas is a mustard seed Christmas.  (more…)


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Candlemas (russian icon)

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Simeon and Anna didn’t see the newborn Jesus right after his birth, but they saw him a few weeks later.  And they recognized the wonderful promise wrapped up in this one tiny life.

A Christmas Garland

A Sermon on : Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 2:21-38; and Luke 4:16-21

When Jesus was about six weeks old, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, according to the law of Moses.  Two of Jerusalem’s oldest citizens were there that day, Simeon and Anna.  These two prayerful souls were longing for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem.  For that day and time they were quite old, and that means they had survived much.  Luke tells us that Anna was well acquainted with the ashes of grief.  She had been widowed at a very young age and had lived into her eighties without her husband at her side.  And this was at a time when widows almost always had to struggle with poverty.

The pain of the community was on their minds as well as on everyone else’s.  The tax decree from Caesar Augustus that had forced Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem when she was in the last stages of pregnancy was only the latest episode in a long history of oppression.  For six centuries one empire after the other had dominated all the peoples of Palestine, to the ends of the known world.  The Romans were the current oppressors, and they had followed the Greeks, who had followed the Persians, who had followed the Babylonians, who had followed the Assyrians.  In every generation one empire or another was extracting money and resources from the peoples they had conquered, including the people of Galilee, Samaria and Judea.

Simeon and Anna had heard the promise of Isaiah 61 many times.  They knew by heart the story of how the Babylonians had reduced Jerusalem to ashes and marched their ancestors off into captivity in Babylon.  They also remembered how many years later God had brought a remnant of the people home and enabled them to rebuild Jerusalem and rebuild their lives.  God kept the promise of Isaiah 61 then.  God’s people needed God to keep that promise now. (more…)

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English: Icon of the Resurrection

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Mary and Joseph both laid down their old lives in order to embrace new life in Jesus.  The themes of Christmas and Easter hold together.  Here is a review I wrote of a book entitled In Dying We Are Born, which calls the church to lay down its life in order to receive the gift of the resurrection.  Yes, all Christians and all churches are called to die, and then we will be born anew by the power of God.

In Dying We Are Born The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations By Peter Bush The Alban Institute, 2008.  Pb. 138 pp.  $17.00.

“No, Lord!  This shall never happen to you!” Peter cried when Jesus declared that the way to life led through death.  Not said aloud but surely echoing in every disciple’s heart was this: “And it had better not happen to us, either!”  Congregations and denominations in North America certainly don’t want it to happen to us.  As we struggle with decline we want someone to tell us what to do so that we won’t die.

That person is not Peter Bush.  He calls the church to stop focusing on explanations, stop looking for people to blame, stop putting our faith in technical solutions, and above all, stop trying to save the church from dying.

Instead, we need to start depending on the God of the resurrection to raise the church to new life in God’s own way and in God’s own time.  The future of the church lies in dying and rising with Christ.  Every church is called to die.  There are no exceptions.  Death means dying to self, taking up the cross, and following Jesus.  We must be ready to lay everything down, even models of church and ways of doing ministry that we have cherished.  For example, Bush believes that the assumption that there always should be paid full-time clergy in every local church is one that must die.

Bush presents a succinct review of various models for congregational renewal.  Generally they take one of two approaches: build on what you’ve got (e.g. Kennon Callahan and Christian Schwarz), or tear down and start again (e.g. Alice Mann and Easum & Bandy).  Bush finds much that is helpful in these models, particularly where they recognize that God is the one who transforms lives and renews the church.  He critiques them where they focus too much on human effort and human planning processes.

Drawing on the whole range of scripture, Bush reintroduces us to the God of the resurrection, who alone breathes life into the church.  He points to this God in action in the Book of Judges, as well as in Ezekiel 37 and in the Easter texts we expect to wrestle with in any discussion of resurrection.  Bush also shows this God in action in stories of contemporary congregations that have been raised to new life.  He offers much inspiring material for preaching and teaching.

Leaders journeying with the church through death to resurrection must ourselves be willing to die and rise with Christ.  We must die to our own plans and to our desire to be right.  With a prayerful, humble spirit, we are called to refocus the church on God’s story, help the church to grieve what is lost, articulate the promise of the resurrection, and invite the church to trust God.  Leaders guide the church to put God’s will for the church first, trust God’s ways, and stand in awe of the One who brings life out of death.

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This means that every disciple, every congregation, every judicatory, every affinity group and every denomination must die.  And then God will raise us to new life.

(This review is published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The Presbyterian OutlookYou can view an article adapted from this book at the Alban Institute’s website, and read the book’s prologue there as well.)

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Blueprints (01)

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Here is an article from Presbyterian pastor Carol Howard Merritt called Ten Church Models for a New Generation.  She describes creative models for being a vibrant congregation that don’t depend on affluence, big numbers and big buildings to be able to serve God in vital ministries.  She includes links to examples of these kinds kinds of communities so that you can explore further.

Among the models are neomonastic communities, non-profit/church hybrids, congregations that support themselves through a business as some monastic communities do, pastors that support themselves through a business, and congregations that connect with their communities via various kinds of food ministries.

I found some of these models appealing, especially those that view the congregation as a type of monastic community.  What do you think?

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John the Baptist (detail) , by Matthias Grunewald

The gospel lesson for Advent 3B from John 1 shows us another side of John the Baptist.   Here, John is a witness who points to Jesus the Light.  The church is called to point people to Jesus.  But do we have to “wow” them in order to do that?  And if we think we have to “wow” the people we’re trying to reach, to whom are we really pointing?

John the Witness

A Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-34, 3:22-30, with Allusions to Isaiah 40:1-11

John the Baptist attracted attention.  Matthew, Mark and Luke describe John’s distinctive appearance, unusual diet, and fiery preaching style, and no doubt that was part of what drew attention.  People came from miles around and lined up to see him and be baptized.  But John also had a following and disciples of his own.  He didn’t just have spectators.  If John were in ministry today, he could have a successful organization all his own.  It might even have an interesting name, such as Wild Honey Ministries.  People might line up to buy John’s books and DVDs as well as to be baptized by him.  He would get lots of hits on his website.  John the Baptist attracted attention.

The Gospel of John reports that the religious authorities took note of this and sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to investigate.  They wanted to know more.  Who was John?  What was this all about?

John was quick to say in a number of ways, “This is not about me!”  He immediately and decisively pointed the questioners’ attention elsewhere—namely, to Jesus.  “It’s all about him,” John declared.


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Diagram of decreasing aperture sizes (increasi...

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Here is a bracing article by Tim Suttle entitled “How to Shrink Your Church.”    This is how it begins:

“Pastors and churches spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year attending conferences, buying books, hiring consultants, advertisers and marketers, all to try and accomplish one thing: to increase attendance — to be a bigger church.

I’m absolutely convinced this is the wrong tack.”

Suttle then delivers a critique of churches that pursue success defined as “getting bigger,” instead of faithfulness to the Lord who calls us to take up the cross.    Instead of heeding the call to die and rise with Christ, instead of laying down the church’s life for the sake of a lost and hurting world, churchgoers focus on having a great church experience while their leaders pursue what “works” in pursuit of the goal of getting bigger.

When Suttle’s own numerically successful congregation began focusing on taking up the cross, it got smaller.  He writes, “Convincing the church she does not exist for the benefit of her members, but for the life of the world is a bad church growth strategy. It’s also exactly what the church must do. It’s a tough sell because crucifixion seems like a losing strategy unless you believe in the resurrection.”

What a challenge!  Sounds a bit like Gideon’s shrinking army–see Judges 6-8.

My take on this?  Well, while we might not necessarily be called to get literally smaller, we must decrease so that Christ might increase, to use the words of John the Baptist.

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