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Archive for February, 2013

'2008 Pentecost windows at night' photo (c) 2008, Robin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This is a sermon that I recently preached at a meeting of New Hope Presbytery, our regional body of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations in northeastern North Carolina.  As a Presbytery, we are embarking on a pilgrimage of discernment called “The Pentecost Project.”   We are longing for God’s Spirit to fall afresh on us, and we are prayerfully asking these questions:

  • What is God up to among us?
  • What is God aiming to accomplish through us?
  • What entities and structures will best help us answer God’s call?

Here are some thoughts on getting ready for a new Pentecost.

Join Us in the Upper Room
A Sermon on Acts 1:1-14 and 2:1 and Isaiah 43:15-21
Meeting of New Hope Presbytery
Saturday, February 23, 2013

“You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus said.  That part was clear: Be my witnesses.

What wasn’t clear was how.  God’s new thing was springing forth, but it didn’t spring forth fully formed.  No detailed plans, organizational charts, manuals of operations or guidelines for best practices sprang fully formed from the mind of Jesus.  His followers were at square one.   What should they do first?  Who is going where, and when, and how?  How should the church “do church?”

No wonder Jesus didn’t say, “Now hurry up and get going.”  He said, “Stay put and wait in Jerusalem until you get baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

And so the small church of about 120 souls gathered and waited in the Upper Room somewhere in Jerusalem.  Like all church councils they conferred and took care of business.  They elected Matthias to take Judas’ place as one of the twelve.

But the main thing they did was pray.  And pray.  And pray.  They were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.  Given all the unanswered questions, I imagine their prayers sounded like this: Show us the way, Lord.  Give us the strength.  Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us.

When the Day of Pentecost arrived, there they were.  Together and praying.

Here we are, the Presbyterian Church in Northeast North Carolina: 126 congregations, plus specialized ministries.  But we used to be 136 congregations.  We used to reach out to young people through three camps.  What’s ailing the mainline church and the church in general is ailing us:  shrinking numbers.  Shrinking resources.  Shrinking influence.

It’s tempting to think that if we just did church better somehow, then people would come.  If we could just be more exciting, more “with it,” more attractive, that would fix the problem.

But as writer Reggie McNeal puts it, people are not waking up in the morning thinking, “If only there were a good church around here I’d go.” (See this video on the PCUSA Engage website for the quote.)

Church is not even on many people’s radar screen, and there are many who are so turned off that they don’t want church to come up on their radar screen.

I was watching one of the new PC(USA) Engage videos online this week, and the speaker, David Loleng, compared the church’s situation to a bridge and a river, with the bridge being the church spanning the river of the cultural flow in which we live.  The church is a connector, connecting people to Jesus.

Bridge in HondurasThen he described this picture that you can see on the Engage website of a big, strong, beautiful bridge in Honduras.  But it’s sitting off byitself on dry land!  The river is off to the side.  Why?  In 1998 Hurricane Mitch was so strong that it shifted the course of the river.  Most of the bridges got washed away, but this one was well engineered and it still stands.  But now it’s irrelevant.  It’s a tourist attraction.  People go there to gawk at it.

The cultural river in which the church lives has moved away from the bridge, and we’re not making the connection.  How can we reconnect?

Jesus’ call sounds as clear as ever: Be my witnesses.  The need is as great and as clear as ever: people need a life-giving connection with Jesus Christ.  If doing what we’re used to doing, only better isn’t the answer, what is?  If tweaking our organizational charts and revising our procedures as a presbytery and local faith communities isn’t the answer, what is?  We are right back where the first church in Acts was—if not to square one, then near it.

The first church of Jesus Christ gathered in the Upper Room, constantly devoting themselves to prayer.  And there they were when Pentecost dawned.  Just as Jesus promised, the Spirit of the Living God fell afresh on the church, and they got the direction, they got the power and they got the resources they needed to move out of the Upper Room, and into the community, and to the ends of the earth.

If our call to be witnesses is still there, so is the promise of the Holy Spirit.  So is the promise of Pentecost.  Square one is a very exciting place to be because behold, God is up to something new here and now.  Even now it is springing forth.  Do you not perceive it?

New Hope’s coordinating body perceives it, and they asked a team of seven elders to help us tune in to what God is doing in our midst.  Our team of seven is here today to invite the whole presbytery to gather in the Upper Room.  When you’re at square one in ministry, the Upper Room is the place to be.

Join us there.  Join us in listening to scripture afresh.  Join us in sacred conversation and listening to one another.  Literally this morning we invite you to join us around the table to talk.  Join us in prayer: Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on New Hope Presbytery, on all our local churches, on all our ministries.  Melt us, mold us, fill us, heal us, use us.  Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us, so we can help people connect with Jesus.

Remember who our faithful God is—the one who makes roads through the wilderness and rivers in the desert; the one who makes a way where there isn’t any way.  The one who always keeps promises.   This God is going to make us into a way, a bridge for people to connect with Jesus.

This promise is sure: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says our Lord Jesus Christ.  “And you will be my witnesses…

You are going to be my witnesses
•    In the Triangle and all the surrounding counties.
•    In Angier, Willow Springs, Oxford, Henderson, Louisburg and Roanoke Rapids and Littleton, Selma and Smithfield, Goldsboro, Newton Grove, Mt. Olive and in all the surrounding counties.
•    In Rocky Mount, Tarboro and Wilson and in all the surrounding counties.
•    In Greenville and Farmville, Swan Quarter, Williamston, Ahoskie and Scotland Neck, Snow Hill and Kinston, Edenton, and New Bern,  Manteo and Kill Devil Hills and in all the surrounding counties.

New Hope Presbytery, you will be my witnesses in all of northeastern North Carolina, and to the ends of the earth, says the Lord Jesus.

And you are going to get baptized with the power to do it.

Friends, join us in the Upper Room.

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'the temptation' photo (c) 2008, Harold Heindell Tejada - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/Here is a sermon from my archives for the first Sunday in Lent, Year C:

An Opportune Time
A Sermon on Genesis 3 and Luke 4:1-13

I used to think that my struggles would be over once I grew up.  Or at least things would be easier.  I thought grownups had all the answers, or at least knew where to find the answers. They knew where they were going. They knew what to do.  They could proceed into the future with confidence.

Well, I grew up, and I found out that grownups don’t have it so simple, and very few answers do come easily.  Grownups often have to struggle to find the way.  Sometimes they stumble towards the future.  It is tempting to seek out somebody who does seem to have their act together and then try to do what they do.

If that’s the way it is for human beings, why are we so surprised to see Jesus searching for the way?  If Jesus came to be one of us, if he truly was human, then how could he be exempt from the human struggle?  Yes, Jesus had known from childhood that he was put here to be about God’s business.  That’s what he told Mary and Joseph when he was twelve years old, when he stayed behind in the Temple in Jerusalem, discussing the scriptures with the elders.  Remember?  He knew it, yet he still struggled.

In our lesson today, Jesus was now around thirty, well into middle age measured by the average lifespan of that day.  He was middle-aged and he still hadn’t launched his public ministry.  What was going on?  Why all this waiting?  After Jesus was baptized, instead of handing Jesus a detailed agenda and itinerary and sending him off to work, God sent him off by himself.  The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for a marathon of fasting and prayer.   He was still facing the questions of when, where and who and how.  Jesus knew what God was aiming at: salvation for all humanity.  Healing.  Release.  New life.  But how?  How to go about it?

The devil saw a golden opportunity.  This was an opportune time if there ever was one.  Why?  Jesus was needy.  Jesus was hungry, and tired, and asking hard questions.  Jesus was also eager to accomplish something good.  Open to suggestion?  Quite possibly.

Three times the devil’s voice broke in on Jesus.  First it said, “Since you are the Son of God, use your power and turn this stone into a loaf of bread.  Eat.”  Notice how sensible, how practical the devil’s suggestion was.  He’s not telling Jesus to go do something immoral.  Jesus needed to eat.  There were rocks all around, lots of them.  He had the power.  Here was a simple way to solve this problem.  And think of all the other hungry people he could feed!  The supply of rocks was unlimited!

Then the devil said, “Look at all the kingdoms of the earth.  Here, look!  I can give them to you.  I know how they work.  I control them.  Make a deal with me, worship me, and they’re yours.”  Again, practical.  Power gets things done in this world.  Money talks.  This is the tried and true.  Think of all you can accomplish with these resources at your command.  You can make things happen, Jesus!  The good end justifies the means.

And then the devil quoted scripture, saying, “Put Psalm 91 into action, where it says that the angels will catch you, so you won’t even stub your toe.  Jump off the Temple and prove it.”  True, it is in the scripture.  “Here is a way to force the people to admit that you really are who you say you are, Jesus.  They’ll have to listen to you.  You’ll have the Temple authorities right where you want them.”

The devil gave Jesus a whole list of ways to take the bull by the horns and seize success.  Jesus, this works!  Take my advice and great things will happen!

But if Jesus says “yes” here’s what else will happen:  (more…)

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'the Light' photo (c) 2012, Rachel Titiriga - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Here’s a sermon about the Transfiguration:

Shining Faces
A Sermon on Exodus 34:27-35 and Luke 9:28-36

In the Gospel of Luke, things happen when people pray.  Remember Zechariah?  The news he got while he was praying in the Temple took his voice away: he and his wife Elizabeth, childless into old age were at last going to have a son, John, the forerunner of the Christ.

And in Luke, Jesus regularly takes time to pray. Often the place where he prays is a mountain.  That’s what he did when he was getting ready to appoint twelve apostles from among all his disciples.  He went to the mountain to pray.  The mountain is the place of prayer.

In our gospel lesson today, Luke shows us what happens when Jesus prays.  This time, Jesus took the inner circle of apostles, Peter, John and James with him, and they climbed the mountain together for prayer.  While Jesus was praying, his appearance began to change, and he shone.  Moses and Elijah came to speak with him about the mission Jesus would accomplish on another mountain, Calvary.  They talked together in a circle of light: Moses, who symbolized God’s law and Elijah, the greatest of God’s prophets, and Jesus God’s son who fulfills both the law and the prophets.  Heaven and earth touched on the mountaintop.  Heaven and earth touched during prayer.

We don’t know for certain which mountain Jesus chose for this time of prayer, but one tradition says that it was Mt. Tabor.  Mt. Tabor is a very high and steep mountain.  At its peak, you can watch the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee in the East in the morning, and in the evening you can watch the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea in the West.  (Basil Pennington, “Tabor: Icon of Contemplation” in Weavings (vol. XVI, no. 4, July/August 2001), p. 32.) All the world seems to lie at your feet.

It takes a great deal of effort to get to the top of Mt. Tabor.  Maybe that’s why Peter, John and James were so sleepy.  Tired from the climb, at first they didn’t notice the meeting of heaven and earth that was occurring as Jesus prayed.  They dozed while he prayed.  The disciples have a problem staying awake when Jesus asks them to watch and pray with him.  Later, on the night of his betrayal, they will fall asleep on him again.

Prayer certainly can be a steep climb for Jesus’ disciples now, and it doesn’t often seem like a meeting of heaven and earth.  There are a lot of reasons for that.  One that strikes me is that it’s easy for prayer to turn into a wish list like a letter to Santa Claus.  There’s not a whole lot of listening, watching, waiting, meditating.  Of course we need to make our wants and wishes known to God.  But God’s looking for more than that from prayer.  God wants it to be a two-way conversation.  No wonder a conversation is what happens when Jesus is praying in our lesson.

Then there are doubts about whether prayer is even worth it, and the difficulty of finding time to pray because it doesn’t seem to accomplish things the way “actually literally doing something” does.  Glenn Hinson writes about why it is so hard to be still and know that God is God.  He says it’s because most of us have a “captivity to activity” and a “bondage to busyness.”  (Glenn Hinson, “The Quantity Quotient Behind Busyness,” in Weavings (Vol. XXII, No. 1, January/February 2007).  What’s behind that, he suggests, is that so many people tie their worth to how much they can do and accomplish.  Prayer seems like wasted time.  These same people are devastated when they can’t physically or emotionally do what they once did.

In his commentary on this text, William Barclay says that Peter, John and James’ minds were asleep.  What puts minds to sleep?  (more…)

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Farm--zoom 1

Lakeside Dairy Farm, Mineral, Virginia

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl last night.  I enjoy reviewing the commercials on the day after the Super Bowl.  One of the things I did last night instead was talk with my brother who runs our family’s dairy farm in Virginia.  He talked about how more and more family dairy farmers are giving it up, and how it’s looking more and more likely that he will, too.  Maybe even this year.

Before I even had a chance to review the commercials this morning, one of my colleagues, Andrew Taylor-Troutman, alerted me to the Dodge Ram Truck Super Bowl commercial in which Paul Harvey delivers a heartfelt tribute to farmers.  He speaks of how God needed people to get up before dawn and milk the cows…so God made a farmer.  I watched it and thought about how my father and brother could have been in that commercial.  When I was growing up Daddy knew every single cow by her name.  Then, when they started using numbers, he knew every single one by number.  “Has 196 calved yet?”  Daddy saw his work as a service to humanity and a call from the Lord.

My father is gone now.  Perhaps if they steward cattle in heaven, he is one of the chief stewards.  My brother carries on the stewarding here, and it’s hard.  Very hard.  Very difficult even to break even.  I would gladly buy local milk if I could, and I would gladly pay more for milk,  if I knew the money would eventually get to the farmers that need it.  The way the “system” is stacked against small farmers baffles me.

It also baffles me how food is cheap and abundant in our country, and yet people still go hungry.  Lord, help us.

The Harrises have been in the dairy business for over seventy years, and they have tended the land for over a century.  My heart is heavy as I think about the changes that lie ahead.

All of this calls for prayer.  And action.  Please join me in prayer for farmers, and find ways to support the farmers near you.  Show your support with your pocketbook and buy local whenever you can.  And support the rural congregations, most of which are small, that sustain our farm families.

Yes, God certainly did make farmers.  He called my father.  He called my brother.  And even now, God has a plan for this family and for this land.

You can read Andrew Taylor-Troutman’s post God, The Farmer, and You here. (Thank you, Andrew!)

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'Holkham Hall - Coach House / Stable Block - Yellow warning sign - Danger of Death' photo (c) 2011, Elliott Brown - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here is a sermon from my 2001 archives that explores why people get angry at the ways of God.

What Happened in Nazareth?
A Sermon on Luke 4:14-30

What happened in Nazareth?  Why did the faithful worshipers of Nazareth turn on one of their own children and attempt to throw him down from a hill to smash him on the rocks?  Everything had started out so positively.  With careful attention they listened as Jesus read the words from Isaiah promising good news for the poor and the downtrodden, freedom from oppression, liberation from illness, the fulfillment of God’s promise to set things right.  Every eye in the synagogue was on Jesus, and every heart waited expectantly as he began to speak.

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  The congregation was amazed and puzzled.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they said, wonderingly.  They were enthralled.  “He’s one of ours!  He’s one of us!  This is our boy!”  With gracious speech like that, Jesus would put Nazareth on the map, in the same way that we all know about Hope, Arkansas because of Bill Clinton, its most famous son.  Jesus would draw favorable attention to this town, hemmed in on all sides with non-believers: Phoenicians and Greeks, and Romans, of course.

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  Does Jesus mean this is it?  This is the year we’re finally going to get rid of the Romans?  This is the year we’re finally going to get rid of all these people who are causing so much pain and trouble?  The thought was electrifying!  The congregation murmured with approval.

What preacher wouldn’t be delighted with a response like that?  Preachers enjoy murmurs of approval.  We’re human.  But Jesus wasn’t at all pleased.  His response sounds like sass, like he’s deliberately picking a fight with the congregation.  He took three sharp jabs. The first was this: “No doubt, he said, you’re going to quote to me the proverb ‘Physician, heal yourself.’”  This was a proverb much like the thief’s jeering shout to Jesus on the cross, “Save yourself and us while you’re at it.”

“And,” Jesus went on, no doubt you’re going to say, “Do the great things here in your hometown that we heard you did in Capernaum.”  Note this: Capernaum was not a well-thought-of town.  It was crawling with non-Israelites.  Outsiders.  Jesus did great things there.  Surely they would expect him to do much greater things here in Nazareth among his own people!

And then Jesus added, “I’m telling you the truth: no prophet is acceptable to his own people.”  None.  That’s how it is for prophets.  It’s their job to tell people the truths they don’t want to hear.  Prophets got death threats, like Elijah.  They got thrown down wells, like Jeremiah.  They got thrown to the lions, like Daniel.

Why couldn’t Jesus just accept the accolades and go on?  Maybe this was part of it: the people enjoyed the message, but they didn’t take it seriously enough.  They didn’t see what serious implications and challenges it held for them.  It didn’t occur to them that good news to the poor is perceived as bad news for the rich.  The well-to-do will have to change their ways!

Indeed, that is the way of the word of God: it calls all hearers to change.  It is sharper than any two-edged sword; it cuts to the marrow.  If we haven’t heard its demands on us, then we haven’t heard it. (more…)

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