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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

For Crying Out Loud: Crying Out for God’s Mercy

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
November 30, 2014 – First Sunday of Advent
© 2014

This painting is by Lynn Hansen
Lynn is a good friend who is a visual artist and Baptist pastor. We were college housemates.
He shared this painting in a Facebook dialog this week about how Isaiah 64:1-2 speaks to the tragic events in Ferguson, MO. Several folk participated in that conversation, which I think helped at least Lynn and me prepare our sermons for this Sunday.
I post it here with Lynn's permission.
Understanding that the visual arts are visual, and my response may not be at all what Lynn had in mind, nor match the responses of other viewers, I observed that  the contrast of the smooth swirls and the bumpy verticals that give me something of the clashing feelings of the Advent scriptures in the Lectionary and the sentimentality that seems to be more and more manipulated for marketing in the ramp up to Christmas. Perhaps something like Simon and Garfunckel's 1966 "Silent Night /Seven O'Clock News".
You may remember when I started preaching with you I said I wanted to help us listen for the voice of God in the Scriptures from the lectionary. I cannot avoid how pointedly Isaiah 64:1-9 speaks to this week’s events that spread from Ferguson, MO across the whole country. When brought up alongside Mark 13:24-37, I believe I am hearing that when we are threatened by our fears and cry out for God to intervene, we must listen for God to call us as partners in the unexpected.
Ferguson, MO is neither isolated nor remote. Whether you are angry about violence against young Black men or  rioters in the streets, we ought to be crying out to God to tear open the heavens and come down and fix our mess, realizing that God’s fire burns our brushwood and boils our water, not just that of those with whom we are angry.
Verses 5-7 acknowledge what we want to avoid facing, that we are angry that God has not taken up our cause. This complaint blames God for hiding from us and delivering us into the hand of our own iniquity.
Verse 9 ends this passage with a cry for God to be merciful, for we are all God’s people. In light of racial tensions and other polarizing forces, the cry for God’s mercy is also a plea for reconciliation and unity, for we are all God’s people by creation even if not by faith.
I suspect we don’t cry out to God for mercy because we don’t know what we’ll get. As verse 3 says, God’s awesome deeds were not what was expected. In Mark 13, Jesus was preparing for the unexpected, which he concludes in verses 24-37.
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Isaiah wrote of trembling nations and quaking mountains. Jesus spoke of suffering and shaking of the powers in the heavens. People in Ferguson, MO felt like that Monday night, and Christians in Iraq and Syria know it all too well.
Jesus told us to keep awake for we do not know when he will come, apparently he didn’t either (v.32). Don’t calculate his calendar for appearing with catastrophes.
To be alert and awake when we are threatened by our fears and cry out for God to intervene, we must listen for God to call us as partners in the unexpected.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow Norm! This is awfully heavy duty for the First Sunday of Advent when we’re just starting to get in the Christmas spirit.” Perhaps, but Advent is not Christmas, regardless of what the advertisers try to tell us.
As both our hymns and Scriptures for today make clear, Advent is a season for acknowledging how much we need a redeemer, how much we need God to tear open the heavens and come down with fire to shake us up. Whether the violence of Ferguson, MO or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the drug cartels in Latin America, we know how desperately we need the Prince of Peace!
The theme of the First Sunday of Advent is hope. We begin our Advent journey reminded that all is not lost. We are waiting for Jesus to appear in great power and glory, just as God’s people waited for centuries for the Messiah. So Advent is about hopeful waiting, not for the end of exhausting festivities so we can get “back to normal after Christmas.” Rather Advent is anticipating celebrating that God joined us in human flesh when Jesus was born, sharpening our awareness of wonder and hope through Christmas and his revelation to the world at Epiphany.
Advent is countercultural. Instead of instant gratification, Advent prompts us to savor waiting and watching for a deeper satisfaction. Advent takes us beyond the futile efforts to define the “true meaning of the season” without Jesus, to join God’s people through the ages who have cried out to God to tear open the heavens and come down.
Advent insists that when you are threatened by your fears and cry out for God to intervene, you must listen for God to call you as a partner in the unexpected. To what unexpected is God calling you this Advent?
This week we can’t avoid God’s call to be Christ’s agents of justice and compassion. Even with all the food, holiday gathering conversation this year will get around to Ferguson. Ask God how you can speak an unexpected, reconciling word rather than adding to polarization. I suggest this very challenging thought: Real dialog can begin when we can understand why something that seems reprehensible to us seems reasonable to someone else.
As incongruous as it may seem, I believe this approach to Advent speaks powerfully to your interim journey between pastors. O Little Town of Bethlehem says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Advent invites you to articulate where your hopes and fears for the future of Highlands Christian Church meet. Then, cry out to God to tear open heaven and come down with fire to make you a partner in God’s unexpected.

One of my life axioms is that when we respond out of fear we almost always make the wrong choice. This Advent, speak your personal, most threatening fears and listen for God to call you to partnership in the unexpected. Keep awake and watch for God to surprise you as this season moves you toward Christmas.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Staring God in the Face

Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
November 23, 2014
Christ the King – Thanksgiving
© 2014
Christ The Redeemer

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” A number of hymns delight in the Christian’s anticipation of seeing God face to face. Yet we also talk about the terror of unrepentant sinners coming to the end of life not ready to “meet their Maker” face to face.
The Apostle John wrote that no one has seen God but God the Son, Jesus Christ, has made Him known. (John 1:18; 1 John 4:12)
Martin of Tours (316-397) was a Christian conscripted into the Roman army in the 4th century, before the Emperor Constantine made his distorted version of Christianity the official religion of the Empire. One cold winter day a shivering beggar asked Martin for alms. Having no money, Martin cut his soldier’s coat in half to share with the beggar. That night he had a dream of angels asking Jesus why he was wearing half a soldier’s coat. Jesus answered, “My servant, Martin gave it to me.” Not long after that, Martin’s unit was sent to battle with the Gauls. Martin said, “I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.” Not a coward, he volunteered to go unarmed in front of the troops. Before the battle, the Gauls sued for peace, and Martin was released from the army.
Our image of Kings and Queens comes from European feudalism that emerged out of the collapse of the Roman Empire, which is dramatically different than the Hebrew ideal of a shepherd king who cares for the weakest of the people in the kingdom (Psalm 72). We need to think of King David at his shepherd best when we listen to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We end the Church Year facing Jesus, the King coming in glory. Next Sunday we start a new Church Year with Advent, facing Jesus the King who came in humility.
In this story Jesus gave us a multifaceted gem, giving us four interchangeable ways to look at him: the Son of Man, Shepherd, King and Son of the Heavenly Father.
I frequently notice that when I am preaching on a challenging passage, I am tested and have to examine myself. This week a woman with some serious mental health needs walked in to “talk to the pastor.” I had a hard time tracking with her and thought, “How can I get her out of here as soon as possible?” But with this passage in my mind all week, I was reminded that she was “one of the least of these” and I needed to give her the respect and attention I’d give to Jesus. I did give her as much time as she wanted and a mental health referral. But whatever her situation, I was called back to Jesus’ story.
The sheep were surprised that the King accepted the little things they had done for little people, as service for him. They had the holy ignorance of not keeping score to rack up points to win eternal life. They just lived compassion.
There are several versions of the story of a monastic movement that was in decline and almost extinguished. By the 19th century it was down to one monastery with five monks, all over 70. They heard rumors of a holy hermit who lived in the same forest. The abbot searched, found him and asked how to save their order. When the Abbot returned, the other monks asked what the hermit had said. The abbot replied, “He didn’t have any advice, but commiserated. We read Scripture and prayed together. As I left he told me one of us is the Messiah.” They all pondered who it might be and began treating each other as if all might be the Messiah. When visitors came through the forest, they noticed the love between these five old monks. Young people came to listen to the monks, and some joined the monastery, and it began to grow again.
Ephesians 1:18 asks that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened. Based the prayer we read from Ephesians 1today, I’m going to lead us in a shared contemplative prayer.
With Thanksgiving this week, thank God for the people through whom Christ has revealed himself to you. I invite you to speak their names aloud so we may pray together.
Ask God to show you what it would mean to you, to people you know, to Highlands Christian Church for the Father of glory, to give a spirit of wisdom and revelation so you come to know him, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, to know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Dare to ask for this!

With the eyes of your hearts enlightened by God whose power raised Jesus from the dead, and with holy imagination, stare into the face of Jesus the King, sitting at the right hand of the Father in heavenly places far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, who is head over all things for the Church.

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Carpe Diem”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
November 16, 2014
© 2014

Look at the picture above. When you first looked at it, how many of you saw the saxophone player? How many saw the woman’s face first? Can you switch back and forth and see both? How many see only one? or none?
Jesus’ parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a lot like this picture. It can seem to mean two almost opposite things depending on your perspective. Parables are not intended to be “systematic theology” but to prod us to think in new ways, which can be challenging with something so familiar. When Jesus started by saying, “It is as if,” the “it” refers to the delay in his appearance as in his previous teaching. A talent was not a skill or ability but a large form of money used only by government and few highly prosperous business people to move wealth around the empire when they had nothing like electronic fund transfer. Talents were not for grocery shopping. If the box shown below was solid gold, it would be about 1½ talents and weigh about 120 pounds. It would take an average person about 20 years to make one talent, which they would have used to live on. The ordinary person would need a century to make as much as the 5 talent slave was given. The people Jesus spoke to could never imagine working for someone with so much money much less having it.
If this really was a talent and a half of gold, I wouldn't be holding it up with one hand.

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Jesus used questionable characters to represent something about God before, and we typically think of this business man that way. The slaves who received the 5 and 2 talents saw him as trusting them and rewarding them with generosity when they received his “well done, good and trustworthy slave.” This way of looking at the parable encourages us not to hide our opportunities but deploy them to the fullest. To seize the day – carpe diem as the Roman poet Horace wrote in his lyric poem in 23 BCE. (not Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society)
Many who heard Jesus’ story would have thought of a man with so much wealth as a Bernie Madoff like crook who ripped off poor people and friends and expected his slaves to do the same. If the one talent slave wouldn’t do that, he expected him to loan the money with bankers and charge interest, which was explicitly forbidden in the Law. (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36-37; Deuteronomy 23:19-20) From this perspective the one talent slave is the hero who lived by righteous principles at the cost of his position, and the master is the villain who really was a “harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter.”
I am not suggesting this second perspective is right and should replace the first, but that as opposite as they seem, both are in the story, just as the saxophonist and woman are in the picture.
When we are aware of God’s generous trust in us, we are motivated to maximize our gifts for effective ministry.
When we are aware that being disciples of Jesus puts us out of step with our society, we are encouraged with the strength to stick by our convictions.
Both views of Jesus’ parable encourage us to be faithful in whatever circumstances we finds ourselves, to seize the day for him whether times are favorable or unfavorable.
Similarly, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 encourages us to live as the children of the day, which we are, even when night seems to be closing in during the delay before Jesus’ appearing.
The image of the thief in the night is a warning for children of the night who don’t expect Jesus to appear. The image of the onset of labor for a pregnant woman is for we who are children of the day. We know Jesus will appear, we just don’t know when, so we get ready.
Being ready is not about predicting when Jesus will appear, but about being awake and sober, seizing each day God gives us.
Staying awake is not neglecting rest but living with Jesus whether we are awake or asleep as verse 10 says.
In verse 11, Paul commended the Thessalonian Christians for encouraging each other to live as children of the day and to keep encouraging each other.
As children of the day, we seize each day God gives us, not looking back with nostalgia to a past time we imagine was ideal in history, for the church, or for ourselves.
To encourage each other, we need to tune into where each other is at the moment. Is someone struggling? Give them support. Is someone prospering? Celebrate with them. As Paul wrote in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Paul did not scold the Thessalonian Christians. He knew they were already encouraging and building each other up. In my almost 3 months with you, I have seen a lot of upbuilding encouragement among you. Keep it up!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Seeing Past “The End”

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
November 9, 2014
© 2014

Grieving people often find 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 helpful. It gives permission to grieve while assuring them of God’s hope, even when the timing seems all wrong. They had expected Jesus to be back momentarily, and they were afraid people they loved who were dying would miss out. Paul assured them those who had died would be the first to rise and meet Jesus.
As I read the news about Brittany Maynard ending her life rather than wait for brain cancer to take her, I thought about what I might say to her if I was her pastor. I know nothing about her faith, which was not mentioned in the news. As a pastor who has walked with many people on this sort of excruciating journey, I am content to let God handle any judging. However, to help someone sort out their decisions, I would ask questions such as: which is the path of patience or impulsiveness, of courage or cowardice, of love or selfishness, of faith or fear?
A genre of consolation literature developed around the Civil War. Books like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ The Gates Ajar and Beyond the Gates assured that beloved sons and husbands who died in battle were enjoying themselves in a Victorian America, only better. DaVinci gave art lessons and Beethoven composed oratorios.
In contrast, today’s Scriptures teach that as we pass through life’s often uncertain events, we wait with hopeful readiness for Jesus to appear.
I can understand how as those early Christians remembered Jesus’ words, they might think he’d be back in just a few days, but they seemed not to remember how many times he told them to expect him to delay. That certainly is the thrust of Matthew 25:1-13. The surprise in this story is not that the bridegroom appeared suddenly but that he was delayed.
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
In our impatient society, we don’t like to wait. Our computers go faster and faster. We like self-check-out at some stores so we don’t have to wait in line for a cashier. We pay a premium for next day delivery of what we purchase on line at any hour of day or night. Since Jesus has delayed his appearing 2,000 years we either write it off as unreal or scour the news to find clues that match biblical hints that it could be threatening soon.
The Left Behind movies and books seem to be trying to increase spiritual readiness by convincing us that we are living on the verge of apocalyptic crisis.
However, the focus of today’s Scriptures is not on intense events but on our relationship with Jesus. The wise bridesmaids go with the bridegroom into the wedding banquet. 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does not focus on explaining a sequence of events but on being with the Lord forever.
We are always in transition. We are always waiting for what God has next. Yet, we are never standing still but are always moving. We wait with hopeful readiness for Jesus to appear.
We easily grow impatient waiting for healing or problem solving for ourselves or a loved one, or longing for spiritual awakening in someone dear to us.
I’m feeling some impatience waiting for the repairs from the water damage in our children’s wing. I suspect some of you are growing impatient waiting for a new pastor.
The worship ministry team is planning for Advent, and I worked on Advent sermons this week. Advent is all about waiting, waiting for Christmas. Our commercial society is already trying to sell us Christmas junk. For the Church to wait for Christmas with Advent anticipation is a counter-cultural discipline that sharpens our spiritual readiness.
Whether it is not rushing through Advent to get to Christmas or grieving with hope at the death of a loved one, seeing past “The End” empowers us to wait with hopeful readiness.
Wanting to know what happens to us and our loved ones when we die is only natural. The New Testament gives only a few tantalizing and puzzling hints, and the Hebrew Scriptures are even more cryptic. As in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the focus of the New Testament is on the hope of resurrection to eternal life at Jesus’ appearing. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul goes into great and exquisite detail. In many creative ways, such as we heard today from his story in Matthew 25, Jesus affirmed that his delay will end, and he will appear, and we will be with him forever.
We keep ourselves ready for Jesus to appear in all the glory of his Kingdom, by living as people of Jesus’ kingdom now. Whether you are pleased, disappointed or confused by last week’s election, Jesus reminds us that is temporary and calls us to look past “The End” to practice and advocate the righteousness and mercy, justice and peace of the Kingdom of God with patient confidence that Jesus ultimately brings after the delay and he appears.

Since we are waiting for our relationship with Jesus, we cultivate our hopeful readiness by nourishing our life with Jesus now. Several years ago I heard Father Thomas Hopko, then dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York, explain it well. He said when growing up his mother told him that to grow as a Christian he should read his Bible, say his prayers and go to church. Now that he was training people for ministry, he told them that for them and their congregations the key to spiritual growth was to read their Bibles, pray and go to church.