Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Whole New Way

Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
April 28, 2013
© 2013

Tenya Lake

Tuolumne Meadows

Big Oak Flat Road leaves the Merced River just before the entrance into Yosemite Valley and heads up to Tenya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass. Coming past Carlon Meadow the road goes through a dense conifer forest with deep gray granite boulders covered with dark lichens. Up ahead, sunlight illuminates a turn in the road. Rounding that turn opens a whole new world above timberline. Sunlight flashing off of brilliant white granite peaks above vivid green meadows laced with silver streams and jeweled with crystal lakes bounded by sturdy hemlocks.

Last Sunday you started to round a turn that will take you into a whole new world. Mike Snell will be your first new pastor in 25 years. You cannot see the full panorama yet, but you can see the road turning into a new landscape.

For three Sundays since Easter I have not preached for you: vacation in Wisconsin, youth Sunday and the choir cantata. The road for us is also turning around an unseen bend. Counting today I have five sermons in which to get you ready to welcome Mike Snell as your pastor. I feel the centrifugal forces as we speed down diverging roads.

In John 13:31-35 Jesus began his farewell to his disciples as his road turned toward the cross. At the Passover Feast that we know as the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and warned them that one of them would betray him. With a code that only Jesus and Judas seemed to understand at the time, Jesus dipped bread in the bitter herbs and gave it to Judas who went out into the night.

When [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.32[Since] God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This new commandment defines the entire discourse that follows in chapters 13-16. The word for “new” does not mean something different than what he has been teaching all along, nor different from the Hebrew Scriptures from Moses through the Prophets. Rather, this commandment is “fresh” with new vitality that they will need and that we still need in all its freshness. To love one another. Utterly simple.

The disciples were going to need to love each other through the grief of Holy Saturday and the confusion between Easter and Pentecost, and for the challenges of bringing the Gospel to a world they barely knew. In fact, Jesus made that love the driving engine of their mission. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

People in today’s fragmented world are also drawn to Jesus by the love between those of us who are his disciples. This word from Jesus is the seed of the vision of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.


Jesus’ new commandment was put to the test immediately with Cornelius. When word of Peter’s mission to Cornelius got back to Jerusalem, he was not congratulated for spreading the Gospel, he was criticized for eating with a Gentile.

This may be the most important single story in the book of Acts after Pentecost. Luke told the whole story twice: once as an objective historian and a second time in Peter’s own words. It is the turn in the road that took the Gospel out of the Church’s comfortable Jewish context into a whole new worldwide mission for all peoples.

With great patience Peter explained step by step how all this took place: the coordinated prayers and visions of Peter and Cornelius, the confirming testimony of the six who accompanied him on this mission, corroborating witness of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius’ household.

Though Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles, for Peter to open the door was strategically important. In rather dramatic fashion God moved Peter into a new venue for ministry, just as God is moving Mike Snell to minister here with you. Though I don’t see it yet, God is also moving Candy and me to a new arena of ministry.

Luke gave Cornelius all this attention to set a new paradigm for the Church. From then up to now, the mission of the church outside is our natural circles of social contacts. God has sent and continues to send us to unlikely outsiders.

Acts 10:2 describes Cornelius as a devout man who feared God, gave generously to the poor and prayed constantly. The angel who appeared to him said his prayers had been answered and his generosity to the poor had ascended as a memorial to God. God had answered his prayers and accepted his offerings before he even heard Peter’s sermon about Jesus. I don’t want to push too hard on this except to say we can trust God to handle our ambiguities better than we can. I suppose that if someone had murdered Cornelius before Peter got there, he would still have inherited the resurrection to eternal life.

After Peter told Cornelius’ story step by step, his critics were silenced and perhaps with some reluctance praised God that even Gentiles had been given the repentance that leads to life. Gentiles were acceptable as long as there were only a few of them, but when Gentiles became the majority, the leaders in Jerusalem took Paul to task. Acts 15 recounts the struggle to recognize not only that the Church would be diverse, but God intended the Church to be diverse. Luke told this story to confront our reticence to welcome outsiders. In Acts 10 the story starts with Cornelius, not Peter. The star is the outsider, not the longtime leader.

So we come full circle, back to Jesus’ assertion that everyone will know we are his disciples if we have love for one another.

I call this the love magnet. People in today’s fragmented world are drawn to Jesus by the love between those of us who are his disciples. As a congregation you are an expression of the vision of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

We may nostalgically grieve the loss of the 1950s. That was when the United States put “In God We Trust” on the dollar bill and “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. That was when nuclear families living in suburbia became the standard. That was when churches grew at an unprecedented rate. Those days are not going to return.

Just as Cornelius called the early Church out of its comfortable enclave, his story calls us to an exciting mission in the fragmented society of the 21st century. Those who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing demographic in the United States. Churches who grow will be those who welcome these outsiders who have no church experience or expectations.

The fragmentation of society is leading to polarization and tribalization of uncompromising hostility between groups. Rodney King’s words during the 1992 Los Angeles riots continue to echo, “Can we all get along?” Subsequent events shout, “No way!” Yet people are desperate for an alternative. This is Jesus’ mandate to us as his disciples in the 21st century. “Everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” In Matthew 5:46 and Luke 6:32 Jesus asked, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” People who are outsiders to the church will not only notice us but be attracted to Jesus when we love each other while we disagree about theology, ethics, worship styles, politics and economics, while we have different personal styles and personalities. They will be drawn to Jesus when we lovingly welcome outsiders who are different than we are educationally, socially, ethnically, culturally. It is up to the Church to be a living alternative to polarized hostility.

I know this congregation is poised to grow and wants to grow. I know Mike Snell wants to lead you to grow. That will inevitably mean growing pains, just as the Jerusalem church had with Cornelius. You will feel uncomfortable with some new things you’ll be doing. You’ll be uncomfortable with different opinions about Pastor Snell. You’ll be uncomfortable with some of the “outsiders” who become part of the congregation. When you feel those discomforts, listen carefully for the Holy Spirit to whisper the words of Jesus, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”


Friday, April 5, 2013

Missing Out

John 20:19-25; 26-31
April 7, 2013
Preached at Milwaukee Mennonite Church
© 2013


In 2008 when I was the pastor of Central Christian Church in Dallas, TX, Merrill and Janna joined the church after he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer as the climax of a reluctant journey to faith after Merrill had retired as a successful investment broker. God, church and religion seemed unnecessary until confronted with premature mortality. Merrill was particularly reticent about claiming faith in Jesus in a time of crisis after a life of ignoring God. It seemed Jesus claimed Merrill and Janna more than that they claimed faith. I was privileged to accompany them.

That summer we had been planning our vacation that would take us to Candy’s Dad in Minnesota. A day or two before we were to leave, Janna called to ask me to come to the hospital since the doctors didn’t think Merrill would last the day. As I sat with the gathered family, Merrill seemed to rally, and the family went to lunch. Janna told me to go home, and she would call if anything changed. I had barely eaten lunch when Janna called to say Merrill had died while we were all away. Of course, I went back to the hospital immediately to be with Janna and the family. After a little while, they left the hospital feeling rather useless. Janna asked if I would stay with Merrill until they took him to the hospital morgue. The hospital chaplain and I spent most of the afternoon in silence and quiet conversation alongside Merrill’s bed.

Janna insisted that we not change our vacation plans. She would be happy to have the Associate Pastor, Todd Boddy, conduct the service for Merrill. Thanks to modern technology, I was able to give my own brief remembrance at Merrill’s service with my cell phone from Candy’s Dad’s living room in Minneapolis. Several times Janna told me how important my presence was at both hospital and funeral, even though I felt I had been absent.

Thomas missed out on being with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them Easter evening. Here we are a week after Easter, in the evening. Will Jesus to show up? I suggest that Jesus extends grace for shaky faith through those who think they have missed out spiritually.

I’ve heard plenty of preachers criticize Thomas for not being with the disciples Easter evening. However, none of that is even hinted at in the Gospel. John 20:26-31 simply says…

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Thomas missed out before. When Jesus told the disciples Lazarus had died, in John 11:16 Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” At the Last Supper when Jesus said he was going to prepare a place for the disciples, in John 14:5 Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus obviously knew about Thomas’ doubt, but he did not scold. Instead, he invited Thomas to touch his wounds and see that it was him. We all know that when young children say, “Can I see that?” they mean, “I want to touch it.” With eloquent storytelling, the Gospel does not say whether Thomas touched Jesus. Some commentators make a huge point that Thomas didn’t touch, but I’m not so sure. I suspect the ambiguity is intentional.

When John’s Gospel reports Jesus’ healings and works of power, it does not call them miracles but signs. They are not offering proofs to support our faith. Rather they point to who Jesus is. Similarly, I don’t think Jesus was proving something to Thomas but offered a sign that he could be trusted for eternal life. Thomas, with all his doubt, still is a sign to those who believe without seeing. By missing out, not only on being with the others on Easter evening, but also missing out on immediate faith, Thomas still invites us to trust Jesus.

In college I read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. 45 years later my recollection of the story is vague. Its main character is the unnamed “Whisky Priest” who has many personal moral and spiritual failings but persists in trying to serve the spiritual needs of poor folk in Tabasco, Mexico despite the violent opposition of the Mexican revolutionary junta in the 1930s. The “Whisky Priest” is something like Thomas. He would disqualify himself as a Christian and priest, yet he brings grace to many others who missed out.

The Christian Century recently published an interview with author Pico Iyer whose recent book The Man Within My Head reflects on Graham Greene. Iyer said that Greene called himself a “Catholic agnostic” who had faith (emotional connection with God) but not belief (rational convictions about God). Iyer calls him “the poet laureate of the half-believer, or the person who longs for belief.” (March 20, 2013, pp. 10-11)

Greene had gone to Tabasco, Mexico in the time of the revolutionary junta. He wrote about that in Lawless Roads out of which The Power and the Glory came. He said he first started to become a Christian because the faith of the peasants assumed such proportions that he couldn’t help being profoundly moved.

A man whose wife is a church elder once came to see me. He told me he would really like to have faith but just can’t seem to get there. Could I recommend something for him to read? He quickly amended his question. I don’t need arguments for God, Jesus or the Bible. I’m convinced about all of that already. What I need is to know how to release and trust. Whether they say it or not, I believe a lot of people are like that, and Thomas is their apostle.

Jesus told Thomas that we who would believe without seeing would be even more blessed than he was. I suspect most of us would like to have been present to see the risen Jesus. How are we more blessed? We are those who have missed out spiritually through whom Jesus extends grace for our shaky faith.

While I was in the middle of preparing this sermon, a friend sent me a link to a 2009 Esquire article by Shane Claibourne addressed to his “non-believing, sort-of-believing and used-to-be-believing friends.” He wrote of walking with some out of town friends in downtown Philadelphia. They encountered a street preacher standing on a box, shouting through a bull-horn alongside a coffin with a fake dead body in it. The preacher was saying that everyone was going to die and if you didn’t believe in Jesus you’d go to hell. Some people snickered. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the fake body. Claibourne said he wanted to jump up on the box with the preacher and shout, “God is not a monster!” He wrote that he has become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination.

We all encounter Thomases every day: people who are hungry for faith but just can’t seem to get there. They don’t need to be convinced; they need to be surprised by Jesus as Thomas was. In reality, we are a lot of Thomases sitting here as well. We’re sure we missed out spiritually. Jesus isn’t scolding you. Jesus is waiting for the right time to surprise you.