Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

Text:  Mark 6:53-56
People immediately recognized Jesus and ran around that whole region bringing sick people on their mats to wherever they heard he was.

So far, Jesus had performed exorcisms, healed many sick people, fed 5,000+ people, calmed two storms over the Sea of Galilee, ate with tax collectors and “sinners,” and baffled people with parables.  Along the way he had preached the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.  He had become famous in Galilee and crowds flocked to see him, but they did not come to Jesus to hear him preach or learn the finer points of their religion.  They came bringing their sick hoping for healing.

Today’s reading is grounding.  It reminds me that as fascinated as I am by Christian theology, Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology, that fascination is rarely shared by the people I serve as pastor.  Rather, their interests are more down to earth and practical.  They want to know how to live as people of good character who do good in the world, find strength and guidance for the day, and healing in times of suffering.

I have sometimes groused that it seems that too many people come to Christianity and church for free therapy.  They want to an uplifting experience that makes them feel better.  But the stress and anxiety brought on by national and world events over the last year or two have made me more aware that life can be difficult and our need for healing frequent.

Jesus never groused about people coming to him for healing.  He responded to them, not with theologically-centered sermons but with compassion by healing them.  He met needs no one else could meet.  We who serve as pastors would do well to get our heads out of our “-ologies”, offer Jesus’ healing to individuals, and lead our congregations to do works of compassion that bring healing to our world.

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Text:  Mark 1.29-45

Part 1

It’s hard to miss the irony when reading today’s text.  I now live in a nation in which conservative Christian Evangelicals were a large part of the voting block that brought us a single-party Republican government that viewed the Affordable Care Act as anathema, despises Medicaid, and will probably need to scale back Medicare to pay for its recently enacted, top-weighted tax cuts.  Yet the first thing Jesus does as he begins his ministry is to heal people.  I realize that there is a lot to debate and carefully consider about having government involved in health care and I don’t know what is best to do vis-à-vis policy and legislation.  But I do see how health care in this country has become class-bound such that the higher one’s economic class, the better their access to good health care, which the “least of these” are most likely bereft.

Damn the politics and party ideology!  If people need healing and the technical/medical means are available to do so, then they should be healed. . . and without putting them into a lifetime of debt!

Part 2

It’s easy to see Jesus as a healer and miss the larger thing that he was doing.  “Let’s head . . . to the nearby villages so that I can preach there too.” (v.28) — As wonderful as his healing ministry was, Jesus’ larger task was proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God.  It is the first thing he did following the arrest of John the Baptist.

But, how can preaching be more important than healing?
A better question to ask is, does Jesus’ preaching mean anything without his healing work?

Jesus preaches/proclaims the coming Kingdom of God, and then by healing “many who were sick with all kinds of diseases” and exorcising “many demons,” he demonstrated what that Kingdom will, in part, look like.  In other words, Jesus preached the Kingdom, then brought the Kingdom.  These were not isolated actions.

This is chastening to me as a preacher because now I have to ask, as I preach the coming Kingdom, what am I doing to lead the Body of Christ in my community to bringing it about?

Text:  Romans 10:11-18

This one hits like a brick . . . As followers of Christ, one of our tasks–maybe the most important one–is to tell others about him and the love of God people can experience through him.  Very often people tell me (in so many words) that they feel awkward sharing their faith or that they don’t know what to say (which is usually a rationale that provides cover for feeling awkward).  So they keep their witness and testimony to themselves.  Until reading today’s text we might write this off saying, “it’s okay; faith sharing is not for everyone.”

And then Paul throws this fastball:

“All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.  So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in?  And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of?  And how can they hear without a preacher?”  (vv. 13-14)

In other words, unless one is told through witness, testimony, proclamation, or interpretation of Scripture, one will not learn about God’s mighty works in Jesus Christ to redeem us all and they will most likely not develop a saving relationship with God.  Every time we have the opportunity to offer Christ (or clear up misunderstandings about him) and decline to do so, we bereft someone of the opportunity to either begin, grow, or restore relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Yeah, this is heavy stuff and a big responsibility . . . No one said the abundant gift of God in our lives didn’t come with the imperative to share.

One may try to cleverly object to this, saying that Paul talks about the message being conveyed by a preacher (v. 14), therefore only those with “preacher” in their job description have a faith-sharing responsibility.  Balderdash!  Everyone whose life has been touched and transformed by Jesus can tell others about the Christ they know.  Everyone can share a word about Christ, and if excessive eloquence doesn’t get in the way, all the better!

Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  (mission statement of The United Methodist Church)

It’s that last bit—“for the transformation of the world”—that has driven my ministry since I retired from software engineering a baker’s-dozen years ago to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And it’s that last bit that obliges United Methodist preachers to bring the affairs of the outside world into the church, a place where a good many would prefer to be a sanctuary away from the conflicts and anxieties of the world.  If we are to be a Christ-following people of world transformation, we must engage the world and do so within the context of Christian community (i.e. the church).  Bit, never have I known this imperative to be so difficult as it is today.

In this winter of our divisive discontent, having just elected a president unlike any other, and whose leadership is decisive, unconventional, and results-oriented (bypassing the red-tape to fulfill campaign promises), yet sometimes dysfunctional and too-often immoral (lying and promulgation of prejudice against Mexicans and Muslims), a Christ-centered perspective on current events is necessary.  We need to sort out and clarify who we are and what we believe as Christians (individually and as a church), and then interact with our world from that identity.

My first impulse, not unlike that of the bazillions of commentators and trolls on social media, is to speak and preach directly to our current situation.  But to do so would allow me to drift too far into preaching political and social opinion rather than interpretation of the Bible.

My solution to this problem, and I hope it works, will be to focus first on the Bible and its theology.  Our turbulent world will always be in the background, but with the Bible and Jesus Christ in the foreground, those to whom I preach and teach will receive from me tools for making their own decisions about the world around us.  In other words, I want to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  They will, in turn, go forth and impact the world around them in their own unique ways.

Part of me feels like this is a bit of a cop-out that allows me to avoid conflict, and it may be, but I do not see how we get to “the transformation of the world” without first “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  And it will be those disciples who, out of their own deep faith and Spirit-stoked inspiration, will do whatever they do best to make a difference in the world.  I intend not to get in the way of that by alienating the very people whom I am trying to help become more devoted disciples of Christ.

As voices within The United Methodist Church (UMC) continue to argue human sexuality, vis-a-vis, homosexuality, they continue to do so while ignoring the proverbial 800 pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room.  A good example of how some of our more thoughtful UMs miss the most crucial point is exposed a quote from Rev. Jeff Greenway, who led Asbury Theological Seminary while I was matriculating there.  In a piece he wrote explaining  the purpose of the newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative forum for UMs, and offering thoughts on the Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, which will try to sort out our issues of human sexuality, Rev. Greenway said (emphasis mine),

“Let me be clear—human sexuality is not the cause of our differences—it is the presenting symptom. The real causes of our division are related to the nature, role and authority of Scripture—the nature of salvation—and the work of sanctification in the life and conduct of a follower of Jesus. We are miles apart in these basic beliefs and it makes our covenantal relationship untenable. We use the same language, sometimes quote the same scriptures or Wesley sermons, but we are speaking about entirely different expressions of faith”

Rev. Greenway almost sees the 800 lb. gorilla. He is spot on that the arguments we have over homosexuality are proxies, carrying the water for deeper issues that a few, like Greenway, are either insightful or bold enough to raise to the surface. As Greenway, and a good many others who claim the “conservative” label see it, the real issue is a difference of opinion about the authority of the Bible. Alas, this is where we get stuck again because we haven’t yet dug deep enough to unearth the core issue.  Moreover, when conservatives claim that they support the authority of Scripture, then they are also claiming that the same authority is being ignored by progressives (those who support the full inclusion of homosexuals into membership and ordained ministry, and who advocate defying The Disciple in those places where it lists proscriptions against homosexuality).  This is not a debate but an indictment that gives progressives no way to respond.

The very debate that we are neglecting–the 800 pound gorilla–is not human sexuality, or even the authority of Scripture (which faithful people on both sides will say is all important and inviolable), but how we interpret the Bible.

Competent, critical interpretation of the Bible is a basic required skill of all UM clergy.  The preaching, teaching, and spiritual guidance that is our business are dependent on our ability to do more than skim a page of the Bible and then simply parrot back what it says (although some scripture allows for this, e.g. “Jesus wept”). However , we can interpret the Bible using various rubrics. One common rubric is a literalist rubric that assumes what was written a long time ago in a land far away is absolutely universal in meaning. This contrasts with the kind of interpretation many of us are trained to do by using the tools of literary criticism, historical criticism, social/psychological criticism, coupled with the commentaries of the church throughout its history. Nor surprisingly, these varying interpretive rubrics can render differing interpretations of a text.

Until we begin sideline accusations about who does and does not recognize the true meaning and authority of Scripture so we can discus how we interpret Scripture, we will progress no further, and, worse, our differing positions will entrench.

Let’s stop ignoring the 800 lb gorilla—It’s not invisible.

While accompanying the seminary choir on bass (guitar) during worship one Wednesday, things were going well for the first two and a half measures.  The choir sounded musical, passionate without melodrama, and articulate, and I was playing with smoothness and subtlety so that the bass became another voice in the choir.  And then I hit a B. The Asbury Seminary chapel range like a large bell. It sounded like I had replaced my modest combo bass amp with a big Ampeg stack and turned it up to 11.  It was ridiculously loud . . . but only when I played B.  I made it through the choir anthem by consciously playing that note very lightly.  As I explained to the choir director (who already knew what the problem was), the brash and bold B was at the resonant frequency of the chapel’s interior, its only architectural design flaw. My bass guitar’s B was at just the right wavelength to bounce around the room in a way that made it sound a lot louder than any other note.

I had a psychological experience of such resonance while at the School for Pastoral Ministry this over the last few days.  Listening to one of the two excellent keynote speakers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, talk about her calling in ministry, something she said—probably several things—rang like that bass B through the cognitive and emotional mess that is my consciousness. The resonance was with my own calling into ministry—my religious raison d’etre, the “why I got into this ministry mess in the first place”.

I have been struggling for a while with a sense of direction in my ministry, which has led to a bit of paralysis and a lot of frustration as I feel pushed to get the church I serve to grow in numbers and figure out something a somewhat elderly church can do to fulfill the United Methodist Church’s slogan (part 2): “transformation of the world.”  I’ve tried blending contemporary music into worship and preaching about social justice and changing the world. The problem is that I am just not called to, or capable enough at, either engineering church growth or prophetic preaching.  Some pastors, such as Adam Hamilton, are greatly adept at providing a worship and discipleship environment that attracts a lot of people of all ages.  Others do a lot of social justice work, preaching about the issues of society and leading mission work. These are all great things and important, but they are not why I entered ministry.

My calling to preach the Gospel (Good News of Jesus Christ), offer the sacraments, and help sinners realize God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness. It’s these things that I am here to do and mean to return to doing with focused intent.  I don’t need to engineer church growth or figure out how to transform the world.  If I help people deepen find their home in the house of God’s grace, embrace God’s forgiveness, and discover for themselves what Christ crucified means for them, then the other stuff will just happen.  Forgiven and grace-filled people who “get it” about what God was doing suffering on the cross and dying for us will go out and transform their world as well as bring others in to experience that God can do for them as well. I need to simply do what matters most and get out of God’s way.

What will this mean for my work as a pastor?  Past changing the direction of my preaching and how I approach the sacraments, I haven’t a clue. But I’m sure God knows. . .

I preached a sermon, a few weeks ago, entitled “EVILution or CRETINism” about the relationship of religion (Christianity, in particular) and science. Not only am I proud of my cleverness with the title (in much the same way I was when, as a 12 year old, a buddy and I discovered the fun of tying firecrackers to eggs, throwing them up over a street and watching scrambled eggs rain down on the passing cars), the title exposes my feelings about the two polar positions in the debate. I’ll touch on this below.

I intended on a follow-up piece to “EVILution or CRETINism” that address some big questions raised by the sermon. Because I took the positions that the Creationist young-earth, catastrophism, dinosaurs & humans together, notions fail to pass rational and experiential muster, that the Bible does a great job of telling us why something happened (its meaning) but a lousy job of how it happened, and that science is a great tool for learning how things work in the real world, I unintentionally raised the question of the Bible’s reliability (even though I said it is true and authoritative). So, my purpose here was to deal with this question.

I found a blog entry (posted on MinistryMatters.com but linked directly below) that does all I was going to do and better. Check it out if you are wondering if your Bible still gets things right (don’t worry, it does) —

If Genesis Isn’t Literal, Is the Bible Reliable?

Okay, back to “EVILution” and “CRETINism”.

About “EVILution” — Because I accept that scientific inquiry yields facts and plausible theories about the way the world works, I have no problem with the theory of evolution, just as I accept the fact that the earth is a 4.5 billion years old sphere orbiting the sun. But science has the impassible limit that it cannot speak to what it cannot see, either empirically or theoretically, thus it is quick to claim as fiction things that go beyond its vision, for example, God. I believe there is room for openness about what we do not or can not know through science. To insist that “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI ?) is narrow minded.

About “CRETINism” — Creationism would be amusing if it weren’t so broadly accepted by so many people. If science is narrow minded about what it cannot see, then Creationism is blind, deaf, and dumb to the world right in its midst. I’ll not say more here, the piece linked piece above does a thorough job.

I gave the bottom line about the Bible in my sermon, which I’ll repeat here: For me, the Bible is entirely true and authoritative.
. . . And I don’t need to try to discredit science.