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Posts Tagged ‘sermon on church renewal’

The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

God is beginning to bring children to Morton Church again, and recently a 3 1/2 year old noticed the lit candles on the communion table and asked, “Why is there fire up there?”  His question inspired this sermon for our Homecoming Service.

Why There’s Fire in the Church
A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-10 and Acts 2:1-21
Homecoming Sunday 2013

During worship two Sundays ago, the burning candles on our communion table caught a child’s eye. He asked, “Why is there fire up there?” What caught Moses’ eye was a burning bush. And whenever you see fire in the Bible, it means that God is around somewhere, and it means that God is up to something. Sometimes, like the church gathered in the upper room, Bible people are expectantly waiting for the fire. For others, like Moses, the fire comes to them as a complete surprise.

The day Moses first saw the fire started out just like any other work day. Moses was out in the fields of Midian, doing what he did every day: keeping track of a flock of sheep. Suddenly, there on the horizon that he had scanned countless times before, he noticed something different. “That’s odd,” Moses said to himself. “That bush is on fire, but it’s not getting burned up. Wow! I’ve got to go take a closer look!”

There! God had Moses’ attention, and the next thing you know, God was relighting an old passion in Moses. “Don’t come any closer,” God said when God had Moses’ attention. “Take off your shoes. You’re on holy ground here!”

God then proceeded to pour out what was in God’s heart. “I’ve seen the terrible suffering of my people in slavery in Egypt,” God said. “I’ve heard every one of their cries. I know how miserable they are.”
Moses knew it, too. He had seen it and heard it, too. Years ago Moses had killed an Egyptian that he saw beating an Israelite, and that’s what led him to run away from Egypt and immigrate to Midian. Doggone right Moses knew what God was talking about!

“I’m going to get them out of there and lead them to a new homeland,” God continued. “And so, I am sending YOU as my agent. You’re going down to Egypt, you’re going to tell Pharaoh to let my people go, and you’re going to get them out of there.”

Shocked, Moses proceeded to argue with God about why he was a poor choice for this job, and why God really ought to send somebody else. Eventually, though, Moses quit objecting and headed for Egypt. Despite himself, Moses found his heart on fire again, and soon he found himself face to face with the king of Egypt, right in the heart of the oppression and pain of the Hebrew people, calling for justice in the name of God.

The group gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem was a small church with a big task ahead of it. “You’re going to be my witnesses,” Jesus had told them, “starting here at home in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you are going to get the power to do it.” The fire was on the way.

As the church talked and prayed and waited, a fly on the wall might have heard something like this: “How are we going to manage this? I mean, look at us! Where do we start? What do we say? What about the people who don’t speak our language? And we know this is going to get us in trouble just like it got Jesus in trouble. What will we do then?” You can bet there was some big time praying going on in the upper room, along with Bible study and telling and retelling the stories of Jesus.

The Day of Pentecost found Jesus’ followers together. This time, God didn’t come quietly. God didn’t slip in on the horizon and wait for them to notice. This time the Spirit of God swooped in like a fierce wind, and fire appeared among them and rested on them. In pictures of this event, Jesus’ followers often look like human candles with flames above their heads. And no, they didn’t get burned, either!

Next thing you know, they’re outside of the upper room telling everybody about Jesus, telling everybody about the wonderful things God does. It happened to be homecoming time in Jerusalem then, too. Lots of people from all around the known world were there. They were amazed when they heard the members of the church telling God’s story in their native languages. The Spirit had given the church the ability to speak the languages of the people on the outside who didn’t know Jesus yet.

The whole city knew something was going on. (more…)

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'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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