Archive for January, 2012

John Bridges: Christ Healing the Mother of Sim...

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Here is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B.  It was written a few months after Hurricane Floyd devastated our area.  Our community needed Jesus to take us by the hand and lift us up.  About two-thirds into the sermon there’s a marvelous true story about the healing of a congregation.

He Will Lift You Up

A Sermon on Isaiah 40:27-31; 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10; Mark 1:29-39

There she lay burning up with fever.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was too sick to go to Sabbath services at the synagogue, too sick to help with Sabbath dinner, too sick to come to the table.  The flu, or whatever the illness was, had knocked her flat and drained her strength away.  There was no aspirin or Tylenol, no antibiotics or antiviral agents, and no intravenous fluid replacement.  Bathing her with cool water was only available method for fighting the fever.  Her caring family did the best they could.

The illness was a strain on the whole household.  Several generations lived there together, and everyone’s hands were needed to keep everything going.  The mother-in-law’s hands were needed, but even more her presence was needed.  Her place was empty.  And if Peter’s mother-in-law was anything like some of the people I know, she lay there worrying about being a burden on everybody.

Her worried family brought Jesus home straightaway from the synagogue, and before he could sit down, they told him about her.  They had just witnessed the authority with which Jesus had cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue.  Surely Jesus could help their sick loved one combat this fever.

In our household of faith, we have so many people to tell Jesus about.  Look at the number of people on our prayer list, and there are many more named in our hearts!  Some are literally down in the bed.  Some are growing weaker and weaker.  Many struggle with chronic illnesses or chronic pain.  Many are so tired they can hardly go.

Just as many sick people and their loved ones gathered around Peter’s house that evening, many are gathered around and inside our household of faith.  Some have been knocked flat emotionally.  They have fallen into a pit of depression that seems to have no bottom.  Down, down, down.  Some suffer from mental and spiritual anemia.  Their strength is spent.

Exhaustion and depression can strike groups of people. That was the case for Israel in exile.  As a nation they were powerless.  Babylonian soldiers had rolled through Jerusalem, destroyed their homes and their spiritual home, the temple.  Then the Babylonians marched them hundreds of miles to Babylon.  Deportation.  Captivity.  And Israel couldn’t do one thing to stop it.  The Babylonians flattened the people’s souls as well as their homes.  Overcome with despair, they found themselves wondering whether there even was a God.  And if there was a God, where was his power?  Where was his love?  Had God forgotten them?

Our region is dotted with abandoned houses and businesses where floodwaters rolled through.  The Harbour West apartment complex still looks like a war zone.  Hurricane Floyd knocked people off their feet economically, emotionally and spiritually.  Those who are working to help them back up can witness to the toll Floyd has taken, how the trauma has provoked a variety of emotional and physical illnesses.  It is heartbreaking to see.  And that takes a toll on the recovery workers.  They are tired and sad. (more…)


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English: A collection of pictograms. Three of ...

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There is no question.  As 1 Corinthians 12 puts it, all the members of the body of Christ are necessary for its healthy functioning, and that includes people who have disabilities.  We’re not talking about ministry TO but ministry WITH people with disabilities as disciples of Jesus together.  Here is an article excerpted from a new book entitled Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion by Mark Pinsky, published by the Alban Institute.  I’ve already read one story from the book in Alban’s journal and look forward to reading the whole book.

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Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcisin...

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What exactly is an unclean spirit?  And how does Jesus exercise his authority over unclean spirits?  Notice in the painting at the right that the uncleanness comes out of the man’s mouth.  Here is a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B:

What Is an Unclean Spirit?

A Sermon on Mark 1:21-28 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, all of a sudden, a man started shouting, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus, Nazarene?  I know what you’re up to.  You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”  Can you imagine the sensation?

Some time ago our friends at First Presbyterian Church uptown in Rocky Mount and at Lakeside Baptist Church had just this sort of thing happen in their churches.  One Wednesday night when a group of First Presbyterian folks gathered for a meal and Bible study, a man they didn’t know wandered in. Their Director of Christian Education was leading the study, and she graciously invited him to have a meal and join their study.  He was quiet at first, but as the study went on, he began to grow agitated and then launched off on a tirade about why the Bible does not permit women to preach, or to teach in any setting that includes men.  The DCE managed to keep her cool, and dismiss the group with prayer despite the man’s ranting and raving.  The men in the group escorted him out, and they alerted the police.

The following Sunday, the same man went to worship at Lakeside Baptist Church, which had recently called a woman as an associate pastor.  Again he was quiet at first, but then he disrupted the worship service just as he had the Bible study.  The deacons tried to escort him out, but he resisted.  Eventually the police were called to resolve the situation.  Turns out this man has done this in other places, too.  He crusades against women in the ministry.  Needless to say, his behavior shocked and upset people.  He may or may not be mentally ill, but I think most of us would agree that he is spiritually disturbed.  There is something unclean, unholy in his behavior, an unclean spirit lurking about him, negative, disruptive, generating turmoil.

In Jesus’ day people thought unclean spirits were behind illnesses and other phenomena that they couldn’t explain.  The word “unclean” didn’t necessarily mean literally dirty, although it could mean that. The word “unclean” basically meant disordered, mixed up, out of place in some way.  A man with deformities, for example, would have been considered unclean and therefore unfit to approach God to perform priestly duties in the Temple.

This week as I studied, I tried to put my finger on just what an unclean spirit is, and here’s the summary I came up with: An unclean spirit is a disruptive spirit, a negative force or power that resists the will and way of God and oppresses people.  Unclean spirits hold people captive, hold them down, preventing them from being healthy and whole as God intends.

In Jesus’ day, unclean spirits were thought to be behind what we now call epilepsy, an electrical problem in the brain, and behind mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia that we now treat medically.  People with these illnesses seemed to be possessed by forces from beyond themselves.

We no longer attribute those illnesses to unclean spirits because we have an understanding of what’s wrong and we have means to treat it.  And yet, there are so many other disorders and troubled situations where negative forces really do seem to be in the driver’s seat, oppressing people and causing untold pain to them and to those around them.  (more…)

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I love looking at the seed catalogs that fill my mailbox this time of year.  I especially enjoy the ones that offer unusual plants and varieties suited to particular conditions and locales, and heirloom seeds.   Heirloom varieties of vegetables are often the tastiest and most beautiful and interesting to look at.  They are a delight for small home gardeners and lovers of fresh produce.

Take tomatoes, for example.   Large-scale growers must depend on only a few varieties that have been hybridized to be able to withstand rough handling, long storage and long journeys across country.  Texture, and especially taste, are secondary.

Monoculture is the practice of growing huge quantities of a single crop or single species.  While this allows standardization and may lead to larger crops with minimal labor, it also causes problems.  If a disease strikes to which that species has no resistance, the entire crop can be lost.  Monoculture can also negatively impact the environment.  Polyculture is the alternative.  It involves techniques such as companion planting and–get this–the use of beneficial weeds.  Thank goodness there are people who are committed to preserving the genetic diversity of plants and animals, too.

heirlooms from baker creek

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When it comes to planting and cultivating communities of faith, we can take some lessons from farmers and gardeners.

  • Test the soil.  Take local conditions into account and plan accordingly.  Develop a particular garden plan (new church model) for particular people in a particular context.  Consider the heirloom varieties, such as house churches and monastic communities.
  • Denominations should not rely on monoculture.  There are many possible models for communities of faith.  While it may appear that reproducing a particular model will lead to success, in the long run we may be able to produce a bigger, healthier, livelier crop (i.e. draw more people towards Jesus) if we practice polyculture.
  • Remember that there are lots of different methods for feeding and watering the plants.  Water cannons aren’t the only form of irrigation.  In some situations the most efficient and effective method is to bury a drip hose near the roots and administer a slow, steady drip.

And don’t forget what the Lord of the Harvest said:  Some seeds won’t produce, but others will–thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

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The Revised Common Lectionary for January 22, 2012 pairs a selection from Jonah 3 with the call of the first four disciples in Mark 1.  Both texts certainly involve making a change in direction.  Here is a sermon that looks at the story of Jonah as a whole and focuses on what it took to get Jonah turned around.

Holy Timeout

A Sermon on Jonah 1:1-2:1a and Acts 9:1-9

Imagine what it would be like to move forward, full speed ahead, with total confidence.  Imagine what it would be like not to have to struggle with doubt or indecision or anxiety.  Feeling certain certainly does feel good.  Complete certainty—what an appealing possibility!  Or is it?

For the two men in our scripture lessons today it was full speed ahead.  Paul was on his way to Damascus to conduct a holy roundup.  Filled with conviction, he climbed up on his horse and headed out.  This was holy war!  Paul knew in his heart that these people following the Jesus Way were wrong, dead wrong.  These people of the Way were dishonoring God and disrespecting God’s good law.  They were condoning sin and leading others to do the same.  For the sake of the true faith and true belief, they had to be stopped.  Whatever it took: inquisitions, beatings, prison, even death, just stop them!  Full speed ahead in the name of the true religion.  Full speed ahead in the name of God!

Paul was sure he understood what God wanted.  But Jonah indeed did know what God wanted.  God was calling him to go to Nineveh and preach the good news of repentance.  That was clear.  But Jonah didn’t want those no-good Ninevites to be saved, so it was full speed ahead for him in the opposite direction.  God would just have to find somebody else.  Being God, God certainly could find somebody else if God wants to.

“I’m outta here,” Jonah declared.  He went down to the seaside, and bought a ticket on a boat bound for Tarshish.  Then he went down into the bottom-most part of the boat.  Then he went down into the oblivion of sleep.  He wanted to get as far away from Nineveh as possible.  He didn’t even want to think about those people!

No uncertainties nipped at Jonah’s heels or Paul’s heels.  It was full speed ahead!—but in both cases in the wrong direction.  They were both certain they knew better—better than those Ninevites!  Better than those people who belonged to the Way!  By implication, even better than God!  We can take it from here, God!

Thinking they know better has gotten the people of God into trouble time and time again.  Assuming they know the way has gotten them into trouble time and time again.  Where has arrogant certainty led the church through the ages?  Into crusades, so called “holy” wars. Into violence against one another, Protestant versus Catholic, Anglican versus Presbyterian.  History is full of Christian fights.  (more…)

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Bethlehem Gate

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In earlier posts I’ve shared ideas for doing Vacation Bible School creatively and inexpensively.  Click here for a review of a curriculum that focuses on clean water and living water.  Click here for a post about ways our church has done VBS on a shoestring and a list of some more resources.

Here’s an idea for using summer VBS to look more deeply at the Christmas stories.  This past Advent, one of our adult Sunday School classes enjoyed Adam Hamilton’s book and five-session dvd study entitled The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem.  In the dvd Hamilton takes viewers to see Nazareth and Bethlehem and the likely route Mary and Joseph took on their journey.  A youth edition and a children’s edition of the study are also available.  You can see them all on the Cokesbury website.

While I haven’t reviewed the youth edition, I do have a copy of the children’s edition, written by Daphna Flegal, and it is full of great ideas and reproducible materials, readily adaptable to just about any situation.  Here are its contents:

  • Art Show (invitation)
  • Suggestions for an All-Church Event
  • Lesson 1: Mary
  • Lesson 2: Joseph
  • Lesson 3: Elizabeth
  • Lesson 4: The Journey to Bethlehem
  • Lesson 5: The Shepherds

With all these materials you could plan a VBS for ages four through adult.

Image: Bethlehem Gate

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Painting of Samuel learning from Eli

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Here is a sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B:

A Call in the Night

A Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 with allusions to John 1:43-51

The problem wasn’t so much that the word of God was rare.  The problem was that listeners were rare.  Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, are a case in point.  Along with Eli, they were supposed to be serving as priests at Shiloh.  But instead of serving and leading the people of God, Hophni and Phineas exploited them to serve their own appetites.

These were dark times in Israel.  But the ark of the covenant containing God’s written word was still there, and the lamp on the lamp stand in the sanctuary still burned.  That was where Eli’s helper, Samuel, slept every night.

It was night in Israel in more ways than one.  Those who were supposed to be listening to God weren’t.  And God was getting ready to speak and to act, to do something about it.  In this sleeping youngster, God saw someone who would truly listen to him.   “Samuel, Samuel!” God called.

At the sound of his name, Samuel was awake.  It must be Eli.  Eli was elderly.  His eyesight had grown dim.  He often needed Samuel’s help.  Samuel hurried to his side.  “Here I am,” he said.  “You called me.”

Eli was surprised.  “No, I didn’t, son.  Go on back to bed.”  Twice more this happened.  Now even though Eli’s eyesight was dim, his insight wasn’t all gone.  He discerned that the voice calling Samuel by name was God’s voice.  “Samuel, it is the Lord calling you.  Go back to bed.  If the voice calls again, answer, and say, “Speak, Lord.  I’m your servant, and I’m listening.”  So Samuel went back to bed, and waited.

In many ways it is night now.  Every day the numbers of the dead in the violence in Iraq grow, now to over 2,100 Americans and by an estimate President Bush cited on December 12, 30,000 Iraqis.  (Note: this was preached in January 2006.) We are bound to remember them as well, for Christ calls us to love and pray for our enemies.  Most of the Iraqi people are just trying to survive.  The costs of war are always a nightmare.  How can we describe this as anything other than night?

How can we describe it as anything other than night when there’s deep economic distress: layoffs abound along with the fear of layoffs, while top executives pull in hundreds of times more income than their employees.  In some cases their lowest ranking employees have to depend on Medicaid.  The state of our economy means suffering for many and hard, hard work for our friends on the front lines, at social services, trying to help.  And they’re trying to help with fewer and fewer resources.  You may disagree, but it seems to me that something’s out of whack when our representatives are cutting taxes on the wealthy who can afford to pay more, while cutting care for the elderly, poor and disabled, and meanwhile there’s an expensive war to pay for.

How can we describe it as anything other than night when self-centeredness seems to be the rule everywhere?  Shadows of all kinds fall.  Sorrow strikes everywhere.  And need of all sorts is everywhere. (more…)

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In an earlier post entitled Vacation Bible School in a Can….Not! I began looking at alternatives to expensive, pre-packaged Vacation Bible School Materials.  It lists some possibilities for curriculum.  Here is another that I have discovered:

Clean Water for All God’s Children, a VBS curriculum developed by the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  It connects biblical stories about water and the concept of living water with the wonderful gift of pure water that is critical for life for every living being.  Everything you need to plan your VBS is in one manual that costs $47.00.  Included are craft patterns, music with a CD, and publicity materials along with the Bible stories and activity ideas.  Everything is reproducible.  You can view the entire manual online here.

The Bible stories are:

  • The Creation
  • Crossing the Red Sea
  • The Healing of Naaman
  • The Baptism of Jesus
  • The Woman at the Well

Central is a clean water mission project.  The Synod of Living Waters sponsors an ongoing mission project called Living Waters for the World, and its aims are to provide clean water systems and training in their use.

Clean Water for All God’s Children is flexible and adaptable to churches of all sizes and circumstances.  You can order the manual online from the Living Waters for the World site, and many other resources are available there, too.

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magnifying glass showing aberration

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What we want to see and expect to see when we go into a new situation shapes what we do see.  And it can hinder us from seeing what’s actually there.  Small church pastor Kyle Childress reflects on that in a Christian Century article entitled “Oversized Expectations: A Small Congregation Gets Megachurched.” (July 27, 2010 issue.)

It’s painful when visitors seem not to want to give a small congregation a chance.  He describes the kinds of criticism he and his flock hear from visitors.  Here’s a sample: “The big criticism, the one that sticks the knife in and twists it, is: ‘You don’t have a youth (or children’s) program?!  Well, what do you do with your young people?’ The fact that a teenage girl just led the liturgy seems to have been missed.”  Visitors can see that this is a small church when they drive up, and yet they often still bring large church expectations with them.

Here is another scenario many of us have experienced: “I remember a young family that visited one Sunday morning. Several people in our church knew them and had invited them. I was excited. They were new to town, looking for a church, had two small children, and both adults were active with environmental issues, something our congregation is heavily involved in. But when I went to see them in a follow-up visit, they said, “You have a good church, but a person has to work too hard to be a member of your church. We don’t have time to work that hard.” They ended up joining a large church.”

Yes, it’s true.  Life in a small congregation does require a lot from us, but it also offers extraordinary blessings.  To illustrate, Childress describes the ordination service for one of the church’s daughters who had just graduated from seminary.  In her testimony, she described how every time she sings the hymn “How Firm A Foundation,” she thinks of this congregation.  Then, as Baptists practice this rite, the entire congregation laid hands on her, “including her Sunday school teachers, the adults who had gone to youth camps with her when she was the only youth going to camp from our church, and my daughters, whom she had babysat. Many of those present had heard her preach her first sermon when she was 11 years old. Everyone quietly walked by, putting their hands on her head and ordaining her.”

Childress concludes, “It is true that she could have learned “How Firm a Foundation” from a video screen [megachurch style] just as easily as from a hymnal. But my instincts tell me that in that case she would be different. Maybe I’m wrong. All I know is that it took about 20 years for a whole community of people in various ways to nurture and raise her so she might know that hymn in this particular small-church way and become this particular kind of young minister.”  Hear, hear!

What we expect to see and want to see certainly does shape what we do see.  When small church folk visit large congregations, we need to go with the same open mind and heart we want them to bring when they visit us.  Wherever we go, if we’re looking for God, there is a pretty good chance we will see God somewhere.

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James Taylor’s song “Home By Another Way” is an interesting meditation for Epiphany.  Enjoy!

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