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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