Archive for May, 2012

'' photo (c) 2010, Jair Alcon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here is a sermon from the archives on Acts 2, and it alludes to the falling walls of Jericho.  It speaks of the Holy Spirit blowing the walls of the church down, blowing the church open.

Falling Walls

A Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 with allusions to Joshua 6:1-5

On Pentecost morning the congregation of Jesus was gathered together in a house.  They had moved beyond the fear of the earliest days after the crucifixion, those days when they locked the doors, they were so afraid.  They had moved into the wonder of the resurrection.  But they still hadn’t moved out into mission.  They hadn’t taken their story public yet.  The early church worked on internal matters, like choosing someone to replace Judas Iscariot in the central group of twelve.  It wasn’t that they didn’t have anything to say; they did.  What they needed was an opening, some way to start.  And they needed the power to do it.

On Easter evening, Jesus had breathed his Spirit onto and into his church in a most gentle way.  Perhaps it was because his objective then was to begin to heal their wounds and fill them with peace.  The Spirit came as gentle breath.

But not on the day of Pentecost.  That day the Spirit came as a great, noisy blast, a gale force wind.  His presence rested on each and every one like a tongue of fire.  And that set their tongues on fire.  They couldn’t keep their mouths shut.  They were so full of Spirit that the good news of Jesus spilled out.  And it spilled out in all the languages of the known world: Parthian, Median, Egyptian and more.

Suddenly the church was talking with people from all around the known world.  The noise had drawn a crowd.  Somehow the church wasn’t inside any more.  It was outside.

Most pictures of Pentecost that I’ve seen picture the disciples still inside, a tongue of fire resting on each one, and they’re talking to each other.  But wouldn’t it be better to picture the disciples outside, talking with folks from all over the world?  The action is outside!

An artist named Leonard Freeman created a painting that he titled “Lord, Build This House.”  Freeman intended to show the pieces of the church coming down from heaven and being put together by God.  That’s not what I thought of when I first saw this painting, though.  I think it looks more like the church is being blown open, and there are the people with their arms outstretched to the whole world.  At the blast of the Holy Spirit, the walls fall.  (See the cover of The Practicing Congregation by Diana Butler Bass, Alban, 2004.  The print is also available online from many outlets.  You can view it here.)

Luke doesn’t tell us just when or how the disciples got outside.  If the walls of the house didn’t fall away literally, they certainly fell away figuratively.  Walls became irrelevant.  The barriers between those inside and those outside had fallen away.  Most obviously that particular day,  language barriers had fallen away.  Notice: the Spirit didn’t make the outsiders able to speak and understand the language of the church, and then bring them to the church.  The Spirit empowered the insiders to speak the native languages of the outsiders, and took the church out to them.

Jesus’ disciples were out of the box.  They went public.  Their presence—and that of God’s Spirit—was heard and seen.  It was unmistakable.  Their presence, and God’s presence in them, couldn’t be ignored.

Sometimes I wonder how well the presence of this congregation of Jesus’ disciples can be seen and heard.  I wonder.  (more…)


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'Open Ye Heavens' photo (c) 2011, Brendan Riley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here is a sermon from the archives about Jesus’ ascension:

Out of the Picture?

A Sermon on Acts 1:1-11

In the Presbyterian Church, before you can be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, you have to pass written examinations and an oral examination given by a committee of the Presbytery. In my case it was the examinations committee of New Hope Presbytery, and they met in Rocky Mount. In the weeks leading up to that exam, I just knew the committee was going to ask me something obscure, like, “What does the statement ‘he ascended into heaven’ mean?” I couldn’t recall talking about the ascension in any of my classes, and I couldn’t remember any sermons I had heard on it. About all I could say about it was that it was a way to tie up the loose ends of the story of Jesus’ life on earth.

Now I knew that answer wouldn’t cut it with the committee, so I had to study up on it. As it turned out, the committee didn’t ask that question, and I was off the hook.

But it’s a question that demands attention. Every year, forty days after Easter, Ascension Day appears on the Christian calendar. But even more than that, for over a thousand years, the church has stood every Sunday, and repeated these words: “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” What does that mean? If it’s in the creed, it’s important. But why?

In a book called The Creed in Christian Teaching, James Smart says that Sunday Schools have been known to use a series of slides to picture the ascension. The first slide shows Jesus hovering in the air just above his disciples’ heads. He looks big. Then each slide shows him higher up and getting smaller and smaller, until Jesus is out of the picture altogether. (In Winn, A Christian Primer, p. 140.)

Now I know that the story can lead people to picture the ascension that way, as if Jesus takes off from the earth like a rocket and disappears above the clouds. But there’s a problem with that picture. The main point of the story is not to move Jesus out of the picture. The point isn’t that Jesus got smaller and smaller until he disappeared. Isn’t the point really that Jesus got bigger and bigger? The point of the story is to help Jesus’ disciples to see with the eyes of faith a much greater, grander picture of the way things are, a great vision of where Jesus is and what Jesus is doing.

Sometimes it certainly feels as though Jesus is out of the picture. Where can Jesus be when every day there are new reports of atrocities? Where can Jesus be when so few people consult him in decision making, whether it’s on a small scale or a large scale? Where can he be when everybody seems to be going their own way, people, families, nations going their own way, and so much of what is happening is not God’s will or way? Where can Jesus be when there’s all this hurt? He seems out of the picture, and even worse, there are those who want him out of the picture. (more…)

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'I choose you' photo (c) 2009, Quan Ha - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

To be chosen and called a friend by Jesus is a wondrous thing.  Here is a sermon on John 15:9-17 that I wrote in the spring of 2009:

I Choose You!

A Sermon on John 15:9-17

Sixth Sunday of Easter

I wonder what is going to happen to Susan Boyle.  I wonder who will turn out to be her true friends.  About a month ago, Susan auditioned for the British reality TV series called “Britain’s Got Talent,” and within hours her appearance and her performance were being talked about all over the world.  She was an instant celebrity.

This happened because when Susan walked out onto the stage, the judges and the audience were obviously already judging her and rejecting her because of her appearance and her manner.  She is a middle-aged woman with a thick waist.  Her hair was a mess, and she wore a beige lace dress that resembled what a mother-of-the bride might have worn in the 1960s.  Her manner was, well, awkward—it provoked laughter and pity in the audience.  Susan has never been married, and she even said that she had never been kissed, which may or may not be true.  They also laughed when Susan said she wanted to be a professional singer.  Did any of you all see this on TV or online?  The judges and the audience had made up their minds: this one was a reject.

But then Susan opened her mouth, and out came a soaring, powerful voice.  She poured her heart into a song called “I Dreamed A Dream,” a song filled with disappointed longing for a better life.  It blew the judges and the audience away.  They didn’t expect someone who looked like Susan to have a talent like that.  Instantly, people went crazy about her, wanting to talk to her.  Even Oprah.  But I wonder. Will any true friends come to Susan out of this, people who will truly care for her as a friend, not just use her?  Time will tell who the real friends are.

Jesus’ disciples would soon find out who their real friends were.  Some would be put out of their synagogue congregations because they clung to Jesus.  Some would even be put out of their families.  Imagine it:  “If you don’t stop this Jesus foolishness, then you are no longer a member of this family!”  Rejection awaited many of Jesus’ disciples out in the larger world.  Romans, for example, wondered what was wrong with those Christians.  Why couldn’t they at least pretend to go along with giving homage to Caesar?  “Christians make bad citizens, that’s what,” they declared.

Knowing what his disciples were going to face in the days, months and years ahead, Jesus said many things to them to prepare them.  On the night before he was betrayed, he went over many important promises, like this one from John 14: I’m not going to leave you orphaned.  I’m coming to you.

In today’s lesson, Jesus made some things abundantly clear to them: You are not slaves.  You are not hired people.  You don’t just work for me and try to please me and do what I want.  I don’t want you for what I can get out of you.  I don’t call you servants any longer.  Servants aren’t in on what the master is doing.  I call you friends.  I have told you, let you in on everything my Father has told me.  You are my friends.  And the Greek word Jesus uses there means “loved ones.”  You are my loved ones.  I chose you.  Friends prove themselves by laying their lives down for each other.  I lay my life down for you.  You are chosen and cherished. (more…)

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Tape Measure

Tape Measure (Photo credit: jeff_golden)

Jan Edmiston, a Presbyterian minister serving on Presbytery (regional) staff in the Chicago area, recently published a post entitled Measuring a Year in the Life of a Church.  She’s got some good thoughts about possible questions to ask when considering whether a church is thriving or merely surviving.  Here are a few samples:

  • Can you identify an occasion in the last year when the congregation chose faith over fear? 
  • Is the church living off an endowment or do the tithes and offerings of the congregation cover all expenses?
  • Can you name things your congregation tried that failed in the past year?  (Note:  if you didn’t fail at anything, you probably didn’t try anything new.)
  • Can you name ten people who were spiritually transformed in your congregation in the past year?  What did that look like?
  • Can you identify one person who was identified as a new leader in the past year, and then share how she/he is being equipped for ministry?  (Note:  this is a person who has never been a leader before in the life of your church.)

What do you think?  What questions would you ask?

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'geranium 1' photo (c) 2010, waferboard - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here is a sermon on John 15:1-8 for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B.  It’s really too long, but I’ve decided not to shorten it because there may be some stories in here that you can use.

Stay Rooted!

A Sermon on John 15:1-8

Peter was right to be concerned.  He and his companions didn’t want to be separated from Jesus.  “You cannot follow me now where I am going,” said Jesus on the night before he was betrayed, “but later you will follow me.”

“Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” cried Peter.  “I’m ready to die for you!”  Jesus looked at Peter and all the rest with compassion.  He knew what lay ahead.  After his arrest they would run away from him.  His death on the cross would sever Jesus from them traumatically.  But even after Easter brought a reunion and healing, other dangers would threaten the disciples’ connection with Jesus.  An enormous task lay ahead of them: bringing forth the fruits of God’s love in all the world.  It would be their mission to love as Christ loves and to be as he is in the world.  Jesus was well aware that it was too much for human strength alone.  Unless his disciples relied on his strength, burnout was certain.

The world itself would threaten their relationship with Christ.  In bad times, the world’s hostility would tempt the disciples to abandon him.  In good times, the world’s values of selfishness, power, materialism would tempt them to ignore him.  Peter was right to be concerned about being separated from Christ, but he didn’t know how right he was.

“This is how it is,” declared Jesus.  “This is how it is, and this is how it is going to be: I am the vine, and you are the branches.  Those who stay rooted in me and I in them will bear much fruit; for apart from me, you can do nothing.  Apart from me, nothing.  Whoever does not remain rooted in me is thrown out like a branch and dries up.  With me, you can bear much fruit.  Without me, you can do nothing.”  Peter was right!  Disconnection from Jesus is definitely something to be concerned about.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  It was easy to grasp what Jesus meant.  Think about cut flowers. In a vase of water, the stalks continue to live for a while.  They drink water for a few days.  New buds continue to swell and open for a while.  But then it’s all over.  Cut off from the plant, the branches are doomed.  They are now useless.  They’re on their way to the compost pile.

Some years I hang baskets of ivy-leaf geraniums across our front porch.  From ivy geraniums I have learned that it is possible for branches to live in an in-between state: not totally cut off, but not fully attached either.  Ivy geraniums are in vine form.  The branches break off very easily.  If you move or transplant the vine, many times branches will break loose, so they’re holding on to the vine by a mere thread of tissue.  Somehow they limp along on this feeble connection and still manage to bloom.  But they’re frail.  They can’t bloom like they should because their connection is so poor.  I’ve learned to cut them off to encourage the plant to develop new, strong, firmly attached branches. (more…)

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