Archive for February, 2012

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Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” Mark 8:35.  This is part of the gospel text for the second Sunday in Lent, Year B.  Often we read Jesus’ call to take up the cross and die as the call of the individual Christian.  Certainly it is the call of every disciple.  But it is also the call of every group of disciples: every congregation, every judicatory, every denomination.  If our worship and program schedules look successful–and no doubt some good is coming about–if things look okay, we presume they are okay, and thus we don’t have to worry about dying.  Christ bids the church to come and die.  If we want to put people in touch with the living Christ, then we must be willing to die to self as a church. 

In the sermon that follows I put it about as starkly as I ever have with my flock.  I had been at Morton Church for nineteen years when I preached this sermon.

Those who die with Christ will rise with Christ.  Lord, what in me needs to die?

Dying Into Life

A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 and Philippians 2:1-13

Jesus delivered one shock after the other that day.  Peter and the other disciples could not believe what they were hearing!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “suffering” go together.  Everybody thought that the Messiah was going to inflict suffering on the oppressors, not experience it himself.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “death” go together.  The Messiah couldn’t die!  The Messiah was going to kill all his—and our—enemies.

Peter and all the rest had really gotten their hopes up that, after so many would-be Messiahs had come and gone through the years—and yes, there were many—in Jesus, here he was at long last.  In Jesus they saw the power they thought it would take.  They had seen Jesus heal people, and subdue demons, and feed thousands on just a little food.  Jesus had to be the Messiah, and no, the words “Messiah” and “death” do not go together!

Nobody wants to hear the words “church” and “death” talked about in the same sentence, either.  But sometimes we can’t avoid it.  Recently we received the painful news that yet another small church nearby is closing.  We know what this means!  It means that children have left, many people have died, and that hopes and dreams have died.  Our friends in that congregation are living through hurt and loss.  And we can imagine them also experiencing a sense of failure, perhaps, maybe even shame because they can’t keep going.

How can God allow this to happen to good people?  How can God allow a church to die?  We sure don’t want that to happen to us! (more…)


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Here is artist Si Smith’s cartoon meditation on what Jesus thought about and experienced during his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness.  I was imagining, for example, that the wild beasts there were threatening, but Smith pictures other wildlife there.  When you view this, don’t miss the views of Jesus interacting with the animals and observing everything around him.  Blessings to you this Lent!

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Temptation of Jesus in desert. HOLE, WILLIAM: ...

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Matthew and Luke let us in on the conversation between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness, but Mark simply shows us a picture:  Jesus is in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and being waited on by the angels.  Here is a sermon on the gospel text for the first Sunday in Lent, Year B:

Wild Beasts and Angels

A Sermon on Mark 1:12-15 with allusions to 1 Kings 19:1-9 and 1 Peter 4:12-19

Some would have us believe that once you are in relationship with Jesus, life is inevitably going to be easier.  It’s true that it will be better, because Jesus Christ gives us meaning for our lives.  But it’s hardly ever true that life will be easier.

Life certainly got harder for Jesus after he accepted his mission.  Mark says that after he was baptized, after he received wonderful words of assurance, the Holy Spirit himself drove—not nudged, not urged—DROVE Jesus out into the wilderness to face the enemy, Satan, who embodies everything evil.

It was a trial by fire, something like boot camp, where new military recruits are driven and tested to the limit because they may have to face what is even worse later: the horrors of war.  The testing time strengthens them for hard work ahead.

Matthew and Luke tell us about the conversations Jesus had with the enemy, and the logic Satan tried to use on him in the wilderness to turn him away from God’s plans.  But Mark simply gives us a vivid snapshot of the scene: wild beasts threatened Jesus, but angels ministered to him.

Many of Jesus’ early followers knew what it was like to be menaced by wild beasts, destructive forces beyond their control.  For almost the first four hundred years of our history, it was not easy or safe to be a Christian.  Soon after Jesus ascended into heaven, his followers fell victim to torture, imprisonment, and execution for bearing his name.

In Rome, wild, vicious rumors circulated about Christians, that they were cannibals, that they drank babies’ blood during communion.  Neighbors accused them of being antisocial because they couldn’t participate in many of the popular—and immoral—amusements of the day.  Those Christians were odd, second class.  When Christian families moved into a Roman community, residents complained, “There goes this neighborhood!”

Misfortunes of all kinds were blamed on Christ’s people because they refused to worship the Roman deities.  The Roman deities had to be placated, lest they send some horrible disaster.  Some thirty-odd years after Jesus died and rose, the Emperor Nero even blamed the church for a fire that destroyed much of the city of Rome.  Historians suspect that Nero set the fire himself.

Christians certainly made convenient scapegoats.  The early Christian writer Tertullian commented, “If the Tiber (the river in Rome) floods the city, or the Nile refuses to rise, or the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, famine, or pestilence, at once the cry is raised: Christians to the lions!”  (E.T. Thompson, Through the Ages, p. 23).

Christians to the lions.  Christians suffered greatly because of Satan and his evil cohorts prowling around them like lions.  And yes, some of our mothers and fathers in faith were literally thrown to the wild beasts.

Sometimes the whole world looks like a wilderness full of dreadful beasts, big and small.  Oppressive rulers living high on the hog while their people starve.  Big-time business executives bankrupting their companies, raking in millions for themselves while their employees’ retirement funds evaporate.  All kinds of beastly behavior leaving people afraid and unable to trust.

What is all the violence, hatred, and selfishness of the world if it’s not a pack of wild beasts preying on God’s children, ripping the human family apart?  (more…)

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Flagon, ruby glass, silver-gilt mounts, stones...

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In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Father Christmas gives Lucy a small bottle containing a healing cordial.    A few drops of this medicine can cure almost anything, and even bring people back from the brink of death.

Near the end of the book, after the battle against the White Witch, Lucy’s brother, Edmond lies near death.  The Great Lion Aslan, who is the Christ-figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, urges Lucy to act quickly with her cordial:

“Her hands trembled so much that she could hardly undo the stopper, but she managed it in the end and poured a few drops into her brother’s mouth.”

Notice what happens next:

“‘There are other people wounded,” said Aslan while she was still looking eagerly into Edmund’s pale face and wondering if the cordial would have any result.

“‘Yes, I know,’ said Lucy crossly.  ‘Wait a minute.’

“‘Daughter of Eve,’ said Aslan in a graver voice, ‘others also are at the point of death.'”

Lucy gets up and goes with Aslan to tend to other wounded folk.  When she is able to return to Edmund, she finds him “standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds by looking better than she had seen him look–oh, for ages…”

I thought about this scene recently when I was reflecting on Mark 1:38.  Jesus has been caring for many people at Peter’s home in Capernaum.  There is still much more work to be done there, but after a time of prayer,  Jesus insists on moving on to other villages: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

Jesus and the disciples move out in mission, traveling throughout Galilee.  Yet in Mark 2 and again still later in Mark, they return to Capernaum and resume work there.  Matthew 4 puts it this way:  Jesus made his home in Capernaum. Jesus goes out to reach people, but he also comes back home to those who already love him, and who still need him.  Jesus does both.  Jesus’ mission is a dual mission.

This gives me food for thought as we face a dual calling: caring for our dear  “home folks” who have long been in our congregations while simultaneously reaching out to others.  Yes, we are called to go into all the world.  But caring for people already in the church is also a holy calling.  Chaplaincy and evangelism are both holy callings.  The resources of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit are crucial as we seek to be faithful in both directions.

The grace and strength of the Lord Jesus Christ are sufficient for us all.  There is enough of the healing blood in his cup for us all.  Let’s practice our ministry as if we really believe that!

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Young Adult writing contest

Young Adult writing contest (Photo credit: Newton Free Library)

I just came across some good thoughts from a campus minister by way of one of my Episcopal colleagues (Thanks, Stephanie!).  The post is called Church for Young Adults.  The author’s main point is that if congregations want to reach and welcome and incorporate young adults, we need to talk to young adults and get to know them.  Here’s the link: http://goodnewsoncampus.blogspot.com/2012/02/church-for-young-adults.html

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'Hole in roof_0733' photo (c) 2007, James Emery - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In Mark 2 we read about a small congregation of friends who were eager to bring someone into the house where Jesus was.   Getting through the barriers required an act of demolition:digging a person-sized hole through the roof. 

Something like that happened at Morton Church in 2005.  Assisted by a few professionals, the church members completely gutted the two-story wing of the building, totally reconfigured it, and added an addition with a new kitchen and wheelchair accessible restrooms.  The whole facility is now on one level.  It was a major step towards accessibility, and we are still amazed and grateful.

Here is the sermon I preached in November 2005 when we dedicated the newly-renovated facility.  An accessible building is only half the story.  We must also let God remodel us as a people.

Making A Way
A Sermon on Mark 2:1-12
Dedication of a Building and of a People

The friends in our gospel lesson today were filled with caring, and filled with hope.  Oh, if only their friend with paralysis could see Jesus’ kind eyes, and hear his gracious, forgiving voice and receive the touch of Jesus’ healing hands!  Somehow, they were going to get him to Jesus!

The man’s needs were many, spiritual as well as physical.  He knew that, at best, most people around him pitied him.  In that day almost everybody believed that disability had to be the result of somebody’s sin, whether it was the man’s own sin, or that of his family.  It is not fun to be pitied.  It is not fun to have to let people help you.  But if the man wanted to go anywhere, that’s what he had to do.  He was fortunate to have friends of faith.  He must have had faith and hope, too, at least enough to put himself into his friends’ hands, and let them give it a try and carry him to Jesus.

“Uh oh,” the friends said as they drew near the house where Jesus was speaking.  The place was packed, wall-to-wall people.  “Excuse us.  This friend of ours really needs to see Jesus.  He really needs access.  Could you all please make a way for us to get through?”

You’d think the crowd would make a way for someone in obvious need, but they didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Maybe they just didn’t think it was important. Maybe they just didn’t want to go to the trouble of rearranging themselves.   The man could wait until Jesus had finished speaking.  He could see Jesus later.  The man and his friends consulted with one another.  What should they do?  Wait?  Come back another day?

I’ll always remember our first visit to Morton in 1990, our first interview.  John and I came in the side door of the church building, and I remember thinking, “oh, how lovely this is!”  And then we went up to the fellowship hall.  It was beautiful.  I loved it!  I had never seen a knotty pine paneled fellowship hall before.  But it was upstairs.  I wondered, “What about those stairs?  How do you help people up the stairs?”


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Working together

Image by rockinpaddy via Flickr

Recently a small church pastor wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper calling on larger congregations to help smaller congregations with leadership, and especially with leading worship and music.  He issued a “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” kind of call.  You can read his letter here.

I wrote a response, which you can read here.  The editor chose this heading for my letter: “Outside Resources Help Small Churches Stay Afloat.”   When I saw the heading, I thought, “Outside resources can help, but the most important resources for ministry are already there, INSIDE the congregation.”  That is the point I tried to make before I outlined a few practical ideas.  Without the prayerful, seeking faith of the people inside the congregation, the outside resources won’t make that much difference.  But here is the most important resource of all: the living Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The living God is in our midst, and this God is up to something.  What could be more interesting than discovering what that is and letting God show us our place in it?

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Medieval leper bell at the museum Ribes Viking...

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What a poignant question that is.  The reality is that sometimes we don’t receive the relief and the cures that we long for and pray for.  Here is a sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, Year B, that speaks to that question and to that reality.

The Answer Is Yes!

A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:18-22 and Mark 1:40-45

It is no wonder the sick man thought that Jesus’ answer might be “no.”  No was the answer he got all the time.  Leprosy, even in its mildest forms, what today we would call psoriasis, was one of those conditions that meant you were unclean: impure, unholy, unacceptable to God.  Could you live in town like normal people?  No!  Could you come into the precincts of God’s house? No!  Could you come into the fellowship of God’s people?  No!

People with leprosy had to live alone outside the town walls, wear disheveled clothes, cover their mouths and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever any normal person was near.  Work was out of the question. To survive they depended on pennies tossed at them by softhearted people.  The givers were careful not to get too close, though.  Any contact with an unclean person would render them temporarily unclean and banned from the community and the house of worship themselves.

If Jesus said “No!” to the man’s request, that would be no surprise. Jesus might be just as disgusted by the man’s condition and as wary of contamination as everyone else.  God frowned on those who were unclean—that was common knowledge.  Jesus’ answer could very well be “no!”

There are times when it’s tempting to conclude that Jesus’ answer to suffering people now is “no.”   How many times have we prayed and prayed and prayed for sick or troubled people, but we see little or no positive result?  How our hearts long for a complete cure!  How our souls beg God for help!  Yet no cure is forthcoming.  The sickness progresses, and they die.  Jesus’ answer then seems to be “No, I don’t want to heal you.  It’s not my will.”

When people develop modern equivalents of leprosy, such as HIV infection, “no” is what they often hear from the community, and even from the church.  “No, God doesn’t want to heal you,” some are quick to answer.  “Your sickness is a punishment from God.  You deserve to be sick and more.”

And then there’s the mechanical model of healing: God will say “no” to your request for healing unless you satisfy the faith requirement.  “Let’s measure your faith,” God says in this model.  “No, your faith is not quite strong enough.  The answer to your prayer is no.”

But what about people with permanent disabilities?  Is “no” the answer Jesus gives them?  It certainly is the answer humanity often gives them.  Education is just one arena where this happens.  Parents of children with severe disabilities go to the officials and plead, “Could you please provide an assistant so my child can go to school?  Could we please work out an Individualized Education Plan that will help my child learn?”

Learning is a crucial form of healing for these children and for everyone.  But consider this comment by someone in the U.S. Department of Education some years ago.  The official said that people with disabilities are inevitably morally responsible in some way for their condition.  In other words, they deserve their misfortune, and therefore it’s okay to make only a small effort to provide them an education.  That official’s comments sum up a common attitude. Some school officials and some other parents seem to wish special needs children would simply go away.  They want to say “no,” and they will say “no” if you don’t hang in there and advocate for your child.  Is God’s answer “no” too? (more…)

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Planting new churches has been an important outreach strategy in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in many others.  Who doesn’t rejoice at the birth of a new church?  But the way we have typically practiced church planting, at least in my neck of the woods, has long left me with a troubled sense of concern.

Typically a judicatory calls a pastor to plant a church, and the aim is to grow a congregation in numbers and resources as quickly as practicable.  The new church has succeeded when it is able to build a building and be a programmatic church that can support multiple staff.

I’ve always wondered: But what about poor people in poor and/or sparsely populated areas?  What about people who do not have the physical and financial resources to “do church” this way?  They need the gospel as much as anyone else, but it will be unlikely that they can “do church” they way affluent suburban churches do it.

Here is a bracing post entitled 9 Reasons NOT to Plant a Church in 2012 from a blogger named Andrew Jones.  I found this through Rachel Held Evans, who has one of the most helpful and enjoyable blogs that I read–highly recommended.

Jones outlines a number of important critiques of the way church planting is typically done, such as:

  • Focusing on numbers and momentum is too narrow and shallow a way to judge how a new church plant is doing.  It ignores signs of the Kingdom of God, such as transformation in people’s lives and in all the spheres of society.
  • The people who are most likely to join a new church plant already have some background with church.  What about people who are total outsiders?
  • Focus on people predisposed to favor church culture puts churches in competition with one another over potential members, and this can lead to “sheep stealing” and failure to reach people who have never been reached.
  • The typical model asks people to commit to church meetings and activities instead of making a commitment to the Kingdom of God.  It focuses on making church members instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  It encourages a consumer mindset.
  • And there’s this–echoing the concern I’ve long held: “Church planting normally thrives in wealthier areas or suburban areas but ignores the urban poor. Stuart Murray Williams addresses this weakness here. It also focuses on the functional people rather than the high-need people and so we end up with church that prioritizes the rich, something we are warned about in the Scriptures (see James).”

I would add that the poor aren’t only in urban areas.  Poverty is everywhere, and  sometimes it’s hidden amidst the beauty of our rural areas.  Poverty can also take many forms.

If the goal is to share the gospel and make disciples of Jesus Christ, there are many possible models for forming congregations and “doing church” just as there are many ways to farm and to garden.  (See my earlier post on Seed Catalogs and Church Planting.)  That also means that there can be lots of different ways of being faithful small congregations.  Amend that: there are lots of ways to be faithful congregations, period.

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The talking drum is an instrument unique to th...

A West African Talking Drum. Image via Wikipedia

Isaiah 40:31 says that those who wait for the Lord shall mount up with wings like eagles.  There are many versions of a folktale about enslaved people rising up and flying to freedom.  The story probably originated in West Africa and has been passed down through the years in the African-American community.

The Rev. Otis Moss tells one version of this story in which a young woman with a small child collapses from the heat and labor of picking cotton.  The child tries to rouse her with no success.  An elderly man known as the Preacher and Prophet comes over and whispers into her ear, “Coolebah!” a West African word for God.  She stands up, takes her child’s hand, rises into the air, and flies away.  The Preacher speaks the word to many others, and they rise up and fly.  Moss concludes, “When we get the word of God in us, we fly.”  You can read this version of the story in its entirety here.

Children’s author Virginia Hamilton tells another version of the story called The People Could Fly.   You can find this story on its own in picture book format, and also in Hamilton’s anthology entitled The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales.  Both formats are beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Otis Moss asks a question that we church folk need to ponder: “Are we a part of a church, are we part of a ministry that causes people to fly?”

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