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, October 25, 2013

Reform and Restore

Joel 2:23-32; Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2013 – Reformation Sunday
© 2013

Once there was a rabbi who was at the point of death, so the Jewish community proclaimed a day of fasting in the town in order to induce the Heavenly Judge to commute the sentence of death. On that very day, when the entire congregation was gathered in the synagogue for penance and prayer, the town drunkard went to the village tavern for some schnapps. When another Jew passed him on the way to synagogue, he rebuked him, saying, “Don't you know this is a fast-day and you're not allowed to drink? Why, everybody's at the synagogue praying for the rabbi!” So the drunkard went to the synagogue and prayed, “Dear God! Please restore our rabbi to good health so that I can have my schnapps!” The rabbi recovered, and it was considered a miracle. The Rabbi said to the: “May God preserve our village drunkard until he is a hundred and twenty years! Know that his prayer was heard by God when yours were not. He put his whole heart and soul into his prayer!” (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Edited by Nathan Ausubel, © 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York page 161)
We laugh at this very human folk story. See if it helps you hear Jesus’ story in Luke 18:9-14 with fresh ears.
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke put this story right after the parable of the widow and the unjust judge Regina preached on last week. Luke wrote that Jesus told that one to teach us to always pray and not lose heart. This one is also about prayer. It is not about our attempts at righteousness or even our self-improvement. Our situation is always hopeless, but God is the master of the impossible. When you pray, do not justify yourself, just ask God for mercy!
The Prophet Joel did not suggest that the people of Judah finally achieved some modicum of righteousness, but that God would pour out the Holy Spirit to empower them for the impossible. Spiritual renewal and restoration would spring from humble dependence on God’s mercy.
I chuckled when I saw that the day we’d be receiving our stewardship pledges for 2014, we’d hear Jesus’ critique of the Pharisee who bragged that he gave a tenth of all his income. Jesus wasn’t criticizing his tithing but his bragging about it and using it to justify himself to God. So if your pledge is based on a tithe, you can’t use this story as an excuse not to give 10%. Tracing to the examples of our parents, Candy and I have tithed for the entirety of our almost 45 year marriage. I’m not bothered if you want to lump us in with the Pharisee because I told you that, but I can say we’ve never regretted it.
Generous giving (without talking about it) reinforces humility and dependence on God’s mercy. When our perspective is that we are giving to God rather than the institution that receives the money, we release our claim to control what happens to that money and our sense of owning it. I’m not suggesting we don’t need to make wise choices or that institutions don’t need to be accountable, but that our humility is spiritually nourished by releasing our gifts. We all know about some philanthropists who seem to be motivated by pride. They make large donations that really purchase getting their names on buildings, not that that is wrong, but it doesn’t have the same spiritual effect on the giver that releasing does.
When we give in a spirit of humility, our gifts become tangible prayers like that of the tax collector. We are in effect telling God we are letting go of our claims to control, ownership, pride and righteousness.
By letting go of whatever we claim as our own: wealth, accomplishment, even righteousness, we are open to receive God’s mercy. Spiritual renewal and restoration spring from humble dependence on God’s mercy.
With this parable, Jesus springs a spiritual trap on us. He knows we’ll switch our identification from the Pharisee – the good church member – to the tax collector – the outcast. We become as proud as the Pharisee that we are tax collectors. We discover that we regard the Pharisee with contempt and belong to those who trust in ourselves that we are righteous.
Since the Greek text doesn’t have modern punctuation, it is not clear whether “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” is Jesus’ conclusion or Luke’s explanation, but it is one of the most pervasive principles of the Bible. It comes between the two banquet parables in Luke 14:11. In Matthew 23:12, it comes in the middle of Jesus’ scathing criticism of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees. It is quoted in James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6 as essential to discipleship and spiritual leadership. I found over a dozen similar sayings throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Humility as the path to exaltation defined the life of Jesus. In the Magnificat (Luke 1:52), Mary sang before Jesus was born that he would bring down the powerful and exalt the lowly. The great hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 celebrates that as Jesus humbled himself as a servant, God highly exalted him with a name above every name.
We experience God’s great reversal when we worship. Aware of our spiritual helplessness, we exalt God who welcomes us with great mercy. As the magnitude of this mercy dawns on us, we experience exuberant, exalted worship. Spiritual renewal and restoration spring from humble dependence on God’s mercy.
Today is Reformation Sunday. We celebrate, not only God’s renewing work in the Church in history almost 500 years ago, but also God’s renewing in our own time. Since the days of the Apostles, the Church has gone through many cycles of decay and renewal. Whether we feel like we are hanging on in a cycle of decay or on the verge of the next restoration, we can pray what has come to be known as “The Jesus Prayer” modeled on the prayer of the tax collector. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. We are sinners.”
The Church should not be surprised at these cycles of decay and renewal. That was the pattern for ancient Israel for a couple of millennia. Joel wrote when people had lost hope in a decay cycle. He not only promised that renewal was coming, but that God would restore all that had been lost. I take this as a word of encouragement for this congregation. God is at work and days of renewal and restoration are ahead, even if we can’t see them clearly.
In keeping with what Jesus tells us about humble dependence on God’s mercy, Joel did not tell Judah that they could create the restoration, but that God would do it by pouring out the Holy Spirit. The future of 1st Christian Church of Odessa does not depend on having the right programs or even on finding the right pastor. We don’t make it happen. We let God do it to, with and within us, which means humbly relinquishing control to God.

As you make your pledges today, I encourage you not to think of your money funding the future of this congregation but to think of it as a humble appeal to God to be merciful to this congregation. Think of it as a tangible prayer relinquishing yourself and the church to the Holy Spirit’s leading and power. I moved the sermon ahead of communion and the offering today so that they could be your response to having heard the call of Jesus.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Other Nine?

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19
October 13, 2013
© 2013

Like most churches started more than 40 or 50 years ago, 1st Christian Church, Odessa can identify with the exiles who received Jeremiah’s letter. They had been taken from the comfortable security of Judah to unfamiliar, unsettling Babylon. They wished they could go back to a world they understood as quickly as possible. Older congregations in decline are both jealous and critical of mega-churches and baffled by the increasingly secular society in which church, religion and God are pushed to the margins if not rejected.
Judah’s Babylonian captors treated them as a zoo exhibit. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” They responded, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) Their discouragement was aggravated by unrealized, unrealistic expectations. Similarly today, talking about how churches used to prosper when the world was different only contributes to discouragement.
Instead of pandering to a false hope of a quick return to the familiarity of Judah, Jeremiah instructed them to settle down for the long haul in foreign territory. Seek the welfare of the city where you are, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For today’s congregations, I think that means letting go of the booming church years of the 50s and 60s and settling into the 21st century as foreign as it feels. Our welfare is tied to the time and place where God has put us now, not where God put our parents then.
Jeremiah offered the exiles in Babylon a practical plan: build, plant, grow and pray. Houses and gardens set down roots that nourish. Don’t wait for a better time; have children now. And above all, pray! Not just for yourselves but for the very people who carried you into exile. I think Jeremiah would tell us not just to pray for 1st Christian Church, Odessa. He’d say to pray that the other churches in town will prosper too. There are plenty of people who don’t know Jesus to go around. Evangelism is not about competition between churches. Instead, pray for the people of Odessa who are not connected to Christ.
Congregations who struggle to keep up when they no longer feel comfortable in their world are tempted to view stewardship in terms of survival. How can we raise the money to pay the bills? This can lead to a discouraging downward spiral. Conversely, congregations who catch the vision of the spiritual welfare of the unchurched people around them find that stewardship is about mission. How can we develop the resources to introduce spiritually hungry people to Jesus? A focus on outward mission motivates compelling passion.
We are talking about a vision for mission in the Leadership Conversations, Prayer Triads, Merger Committee, Stewardship Committee, the Elders and the Board. As your interim pastor my job is to help you discern the mission to which God is calling you, not to define your mission for you. But my prayer is that this congregation will become a hospitable community who welcomes its neighbors into faith relationships with Jesus.
When stewardship is integral to a congregation’s vision for mission, it ceases to be a necessary function for responsible planning and budgeting and becomes an act of faith in God’s long-range purpose for the church. Making a pledge for the coming year is a commitment to what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” It expresses confidence in God’s purpose regardless of short-term results. It is what Jim Collins in his book Good to Great imagines as turning a flywheel, not stopping too soon but building long-term momentum.
Like every stewardship campaign, you are being asked to prayerfully consider what God wants you to pledge for the mission of 1st Christian Church, Odessa in 2014. I suggest you ask God what size of pledge would stretch your faith. Also ask God how your giving for the rest of 2013 could stretch your faith?
Many pastors are understandably reticent to say too much about money for fear of sounding like they want a bigger pay check. As an interim pastor I can be forthright about the importance of stewardship on the interim journey between pastors because my pay is already settled.
First, building stewardship momentum during the interim journey is important to maintain and build ministry momentum. We are not marking time and waiting. We are accelerating into God’s future for this church. Many churches slump on the interim journey by adopting a “wait and see what the new pastor is like” attitude. Don’t!
Second, the interim journey is the time to amass a generous start-up reserve so that when the new pastor comes with proposals for new ministries, you can get started right away and not lose time as you seek the resources to start new ministries. Instead you can capitalize on the enthusiasm of having a new pastor.
Third, good stewardship is essential for attracting top pastoral candidates. When they look at your congregational profile, they want to see that you are in good financial shape in the present and are financially prepared for the future. Solid stewardship in 2013 and 2014 will give your Search and Call Committee the confidence to offer a package to a top candidate that says, “We want you!” and not “We hope we can afford you.”
Stewardship expresses and nourishes our personal spiritual well-being. Last week we listened to Jesus say that faith as small as a mustard seed accomplishes great things. When our giving stretches our faith, we also trust God to set our priorities on the rest of our resources. When our giving stretches our faith, we get to trust God to meet our needs with what’s left. Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19 is a window into the practical spirituality of stewardship.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
Gratitude is the highest spiritual motivation. When we appreciate all God has done for us in Christ, we switch from asking “How much should I give?” to “How can I find a way to give more to express my thanks?”
A healthy sense of responsibility is also a spiritual motivation if it doesn’t get distorted into guilt. All ten lepers were healed, and nothing suggests that Jesus took back that healing when they didn’t express gratitude.
That one out of ten expressed gratitude, echoes the truism that 10% of the people do 90% of the church’s work. I’ve heard it compared to a football game: 22 people desperately in need of rest and 50,000 people desperately in need of exercise.
You may know that in a Jewish synagogue certain prayers cannot be said without a minion of 10 heads of households (men in conservative and orthodox synagogues). This reflects a practical application of tithing and full community participation. If a small Jewish community in the diaspora wanted to start a synagogue and hire a rabbi, they needed ten heads of households who would commit to tithing. That way the rabbi could be paid what was average for them and the rabbi’s tithe paid synagogue expenses.
Personal involvement in mission is also spiritually motivating. Jesus was motivated to heal the lepers who were outcasts and very needy. The one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan, making him a double outcast. When Jesus told him his faith had made him well, he went beyond physical healing to spiritual wholeness. One of life’s greatest satisfactions is participating when Christ transforms people. That requires having personal relationships with the lepers and Samaritans around us. Mission driven stewardship provides the resources for such opportunities.