Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day Sermon

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

I understand why we read this passage from John’s gospel every Christmas Day, but, I’m not always happy about. To me, it sounds bloodless, the abstract ruminations of a cloistered philosopher who comprehends the mysteries of the divine, but can’t get a date for Friday night. Maybe I’m missing something but John’s message of the Word made Flesh doesn’t quite make it down to earth. His words to describe The Word betray his message.

After all, we’re here this morning not to theologize about the nature of the incarnation or speculate about the inner-relationship of the Trinity.

We’re here to greet a baby. A tiny creature who cries all night and fills his diapers. We sing songs about mangers and barns, shepherds and angels, sheep and donkeys. And last night we heard stories so earthy that they have dirt on them and made our clothes smell. Today’s reading only leaves us lost in our thoughts.

So I worry about John’s Jesus. I worry that he can’t relate to me. Or to us. Or to anyone with a pulse and who bleeds red. I worry that he might come across as human in name only, that he doesn’t understand the limitations of a mortal life. That he’s comfortably abstract, afraid to touch our skin, uninterested in changing our lives or the world. I worry that he...(whole thing here)

Christmas Eve Sermon

For those who say that religion and politics don’t mix aren’t paying attention to tonight’s reading from Luke that we just heard. Maybe this passage has become TOO familiar to those who’ve been coming to Christmas Eve services for so many years or been watching endless loops of Linus’ monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas, that the story has lost its political edge.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their hometowns to be registered.”

I’m no statistician, but why people had to take time off work to head to their hometowns to fill out a government form is a mystery to me. They could just as easily been counted where they lived and the Roman bureaucrats probably would have gotten better information.

But Luke, in his sneaky sort of way, makes a point in telling us that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus in the city of the great King David. And anyone listening who knew their history would have known the Augustus fancied himself as the “King of Peace” who was to bring an end to all wars everywhere.

On top of that, Augustus, in a stunning act of hubris, also referred to himself as “Saviour” and encouraged people to worship him like a god. He was the all-powerful, wise, and virtuous leader who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity, whether you wanted his brand of peace and prosperity or not.

This gives the angels’ announcement to the shepherds more of a political spin: “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

So Luke presents us with...(whole thing here)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sermon: Advent 3A

Leap frog a few generations from last week’s reading and you’ll land in this morning’s passage from Isaiah. The past two weeks we were knee-deep in palace intrigue when King Ahaz of Judah buckled, making common cause with the enemy only to find the holy city in ruins.

A few kings later, and God’s people find themselves conquered and enslaved by the Babylonians. This has been their recurring national nightmare. Those who’ve seen the movie know that God’s people were enslaved in Egypt. Then they wandered lost in the wilderness for 40 years before finding the land that God promised them.

And, like last time, the people called to the prophet Isaiah for a word from the Lord. When will they be rescued from slavery?

This Isaiah, which many scholars call “second Isaiah” doesn’t have any inside information for his people. He doesn’t know the “when” or the “how.” He can’t tell them at what time they’re supposed to pack their bags. He only brings large promises. When first Isaiah brought grand visions for the history of the world, this second Isaiah has a word that is more personal than that of his ancestor in name.

This Isaiah talks about how the land and the people will be transformed. Deserts will have swimming pools. Arthritic hands will be like vice-grips, those with bad knees will throw away their walkers, blind folks will paint murals, and deaf people will update their CD collections.

In other words, the...(whole thing here)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sermon: Advent 2A

Against Isaiah’s counsel, King Ahaz of Judah rejected the calls for an alliance with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Arameans to rebel against the Assyrian empire. And such a decision came with terrible consequences. The northern kingdom was destroyed. And Samaria soon followed. King Ahaz kept his crown, but his reign was effectively over. He lost his peoples’ trust. And so they turned their gaze to young Hezekiah, the heir apparent, who might be the righteous ruler they all longed for.

And this righteous ruler had quite the job description. If Hezekiah was the One, he had huge expectations on his shoulders.

A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse. Jesse, as they would have known, was David’s father. And the news couldn’t have been better. 

But “stump” isn’t quite right. “Base’ is more true to the original. From the base of the tree of Jesse a shoot will come out, and a branch shall grow out of its roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the awe of the Lord...”

This leader will rule not according to his own ambitions, but from God’s Spirit. He shall be wise and humble, righteous and fair, strong and just. He shall be everything God’s people needed in a king. He would lead their people back into their glorious past which would become their future.

God’s people had a long and weighty memory. The stories about King David nestled snuggly in their DNA. Those were Israel’s glory years when the kingdom was united and expanding. Their enemies feared them. Their lives overflowed with abundance. The world was their’s to win. 

And most importantly, they...(whole thing here)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sermon: Advent 1A

Freedom” is a program I recently installed on my computer. It helps me get more work done and to better focus. In fact I used Freedom to get the first draft of this sermon written. 

Freedom has one simple task: to disable my web browser for as long as I want or need it to. In other words, if I set Freedom’s clock for 60 minutes, I can’t access the internet for one whole hour. No email. No Facebook. No Twitter. No message alerts No downloading sermons to listen to. No internet radio. Not even my beloved blog. Just cyber-silence. (do people still use the word ‘cyber’?) If I want to access the internet, I have to go through the hassle of re-booting my computer. So, for that one hour, I have “Freedom.”

It’s beautifully ironic that the program is called “Freedom.” After all, the internet was supposed to free us. Now we have to be freed from it. The internet was supposed to make us more productive, it was supposed to help us better connect with each other, it was supposed re-create our lives, giving everyone access to the world, a platform for even the weirdest and most extreme views to find an audience. The internet was supposed to be democracy in action, where everyone has a voice if they chose to speak. The laissez-faire marketplace of ideas.

And it’s true. The internet is all those things. And more. But like most tech users, I let the medium redefine my life, at least what I call “freedom” The internet re-defined “freedom” on its own terms. And not only “freedom” but also words like “friends” “connections”

We’ve also let it re-define “work” and “time.” I’ll respond to email while waiting in line at the grocery store. I cruise bible commentary sites while watching football (Go Alouettes!). I’ll text in between hospital visits. I’m continuously connected, tethered to technology, always available. 

It’s no wonder that I need “freedom.”

The people of Judah had the same problem. They needed freedom. 

They were in the...(whole thing here)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sermon: Reign of Christ the King

This morning we meet a paradox, or tension, or even a contradiction. On this Reign of Christ the King Sunday we sing the great triumphal hymns proclaiming that “Jesus Shall Reign!” before we “Crown Him With Many Crowns!” Music so strong and confident that we are swept up in the glorious majesty of the divine. 

But then, a few minutes later, we find Jesus dying between two thieves. Naked. Humiliated. Tortured. Terrified.

The sign above his head proclaiming him as king was meant to mock him, but it was really an announcement for those who had eyes to see. If you were looking for a king who would crush his enemies, then you might want to divert your eyes. This king forgives his enemies. And he doesn’t raise a finger to protect himself against those who would kill him.

It looks like we have two kings competing for our attention and adoration. Two contrasting visions of who we say God is. Two wildly divergent understandings of how we believe Jesus brings us salvation. 

We have a king who is high above the heavens ruling over the universe with a strong arm. And we have a king whose throne is a cross, and whose crown was made of thorns.

This contrast is nothing new. This is as old as the gospels themselves. Just listen to the...(whole thing here)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sermon: All Saints

The condo-development where my mom lives backs on to a local cemetery. In fact, this cemetery has the distinction of being one of the only cemeteries in Canada that has a highway running through it. In that small strip of highway the feverish pace of southern Ontario life connects with the stoney stillness of history and death without stopping to reflect. 

A few years ago, while visiting my mom, we were feeling a little cooped up in my her house, so Rebekah and I took the kids for a walk through the cemetery. 

“What are those rocks sticking out of the ground?” Sophie asked. 

“Those are headstones,” I replied, “They tell us who is buried there and when they lived.”

Sophie is still trying to figure out the whole death and dying thing. She knows that my dad is in heaven, as is our dog Zooey. And she can’t figure out how people can be buried, yet still be alive in somewhere else.

But I wonder if any of us have that really figured out.

As we walked through the cemetery, we noticed how some graves were immaculately kept. The grass around the headstone was neatly trimmed, even if weeds on the pathway covered our shoes. 

Some graves looked abandoned. Or forgotten. Someone whose memory has been left to whither.

Others were decorated with mementoes. Objects that meant something to the deceased. Or told a story about what that person loved to do: A nine iron. A construction helmet. And in one sad instance, a Teddy Bear. Relics of a life lived well or not so well lived; or maybe just simply lived. 

I’ve been told that it’s morbid to walk through cemeteries. That it’s better to live life than to brood about death.

So maybe I’ve got a bigger...(whole thing here)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Church Unplugged

Sometimes I think that, if I were to start a church from scratch, I’d go unplugged. Not the mid-90’s fad where every girl with a guitar went acoustic. I mean that, in worship, I’d leave out the PowerPoint, the high tech sound system, the band, and maybe even the organ. Worship would be bare bones. Perhaps sing a cappella. Liturgical al fresco.
And while I couldn’t TOTALLY unplug, I’d do the best I could get away with.
Here’s why: sometimes I worry that churches are too worried about “relevance.” We have to prove that we have something to say because we use tools that the culture would recognize.
Becoming a disciples of Jesus is like learning a new language, and through that language, seeing the world completely differently from how you saw it before. Being a Christian is about being enveloped in a story that is not your own making, but you have a part in it nonetheless. Following Jesus means living according to a different set of values than that which the world gives us.
I’d throw out the tech stuff the best I could because iPads, PowerPoints, theatre seating, etc scream “POWER!” In other words, in trying to speak the culture’s language, we tacitly admit that they have true power to which the gospel message genuflects. We say, “Look, we’re using the latest gadgets to prove we’re relevant. We’re cutting edge. We’re cool. You won’t be threatened because you use these same toys!”
When people come to church they should feel it in their skin that they’re entering a different world. Church should be alien territory to those outside the faith. 
But wait, you say, what about hospitality? What about welcoming the stranger as we welcome Christ? 
Good questions. 
In response I’d ask: what are we welcoming people into? Are we welcoming people into a place of comfort or a place of challenge? Are we welcoming people into a place that looks like their living room, but with a cross on the wall? Or are we welcoming people into a space where God’s people are gathered to be changed by God’s grace?
Yes, we are called to be welcoming. But being welcoming means being gracious, inviting people into a different world, and guiding them along the way. Church should be uncomfortable for those non-believers. We bring people to hear the Word proclaimed, and Luther said that scripture is like a surgeon’s scalpel. That doesn’t sound very comfortable to me.
The same kind of discomfort you feel when visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language. Mexico wasn’t being unwelcoming to me by speaking spanish when I visited there. They were being who they are and invited me to participate in their world. And I began to see the world differently because of my discomfort. 
I don’t know what all this looks like. I can’t paint a concrete picture. I simply sense that we’re so far steeped in the traditions and expectations of the culture that our proclamation is being diminished. And I wonder if we need to go in the other direction, to stand in contrast to the secular world to make our unique message heard and received, to more effectively bear witness to a different reality running loose in the world.
(NB: Yes I get the irony of posting this on the internet)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day Sermon

If someone asked you what a Lutheran was, how would you respond? I posed that question to the confirmation class a few weeks ago and they looked as blankly then as you do this morning.

For most of us, that’s a tough question to answer. Lutheranism has such a rich and diverse tradition. But it’s also very specific. How do you sum up a whole faith history in a few words?

Those of us initiated in the deeper workings of the Lutheran theological tradition would throw around weighty words such as “justification” and “sanctification” before lapsing into latin spewing phrases such “sola fide” “sola gracia” “sola scriptura;” high sounding words to explain what is a really tremendously personal faith. “Why,” ask Lutherans, “would you use a 50 cent word when a $100 word will do just as well?

Others, more narratively minded, will tell the story of Martin Luther, from whom we derive our name “Lutheran.” 

You’d mention his...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 22C

I think I can sum up today’s gospel reading in one short sentence: Jesus says not to be a smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk. So, there it is. Now I can go sit down and enjoy the rest of the service having preached the shortest sermon of my life.

But if I do that I will have fallen into the trap that Jesus set for us. We think we know whose side we’re on in Jesus’ little morality tale. Especially in the way Jesus tells it. And that is dangerous territory. We better watch were we step.

In Jesus’ story we have two people praying. We have the smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk of a religious leader who thanks God that he’s not like the dirty, disgusting sinners and moral midgets that he has to deal with all day. He thanks God that he’s better than them. 

And in contrast, we have a hated tax collector, who grew rich off of collaborating with the enemy, collecting taxes for the Roman empire, taking more than he needed to, and pocketing the difference. He was a thief and a collaborator. He helped God’s people under the Roman boot. He was NOT welcome at worship. And now he has the audacity to ask God for mercy.

The story says that the Pharisee held the tax collector with contempt. And I’m sure the feeling was mutual. There are no innocent parties here.

The thing is, the Pharisee isn’t...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 21C

On Friday a group of us from Good Shepherd went to the Good Samaritan Society’s Spirituality and Wholeness workshop, and the presenter had us do an interesting exercise. 

He first asked us to assume the posture of someone who is happy. So, we all sat up straight in our seats, shoulders back, chin square, and lips smiling. 

Then he asked us to assume the posture of someone who is depressed. So we hunched over, slouched our shoulders, put our heads down, fixed our eyes at the floor, or in some cases, closed them.

Then we went back to our natural posture.

Then, he said, “Let us pray...” and we assumed a prayer posture, which soon became obvious to many people in the room that our prayer postures looked a whole lot like the posture of a depressed person.

Interesting, isn’t it? We say that prayer connects us to God, but does our body language say something about that connection?

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard some criticize the way we morph our bodies when we pray. Some say that when we pray we try to make ourselves smaller in a false humility. And prayer is supposed to enlarge us, deepen our relationship with God, and broaden our vision of how God works in our lives and in the world. We don’t have to make ourselves smaller for God to be larger. God already is.

Others say that closing our eyes while praying pulls us inward rather than pushing us outward, creating a mass of self-centred Christians whose eyes are shut to the suffering of others. Closed-eyed prayer becomes all about ME and MY needs rather than about US. Open-eyed prayer helps us see the world that needs more of God.

I don’t know if any of that is true. But I do find it...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thanksgiving Sermon

(NB: These are heads made from bread. Didn't mean to creep anyone out)

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but work for the food that endures for eternal life...”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It sounds like something we’d expect Jesus to say. Work for the food that endures for eternal has the aroma of holiness, sacred words we come to church to hear because we don’t find them anywhere else.

We know these words are true. They even sound correct. Like something to which we SHOULD aspire. Eternal food verses perishable food. Light verses dark. Sacred verse secular. 

But one thing that makes me crazy about John’s Jesus is that he...(whole thing here)

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 19C

“Lord, increase our faith!” the apostles plead. 

A reasonable request. Especially when they saw Jesus work many signs and wonders and heard him preach endlessly about the kingdom of God. If they wanted more of God in their lives, and if faith was the entry point in connecting with God, it makes sense that they’d ask for more faith.

And who could blame them? As people of faith, isn’t that what we all want? A larger faith to make us more than we already are? Better at being Christian? Greater confidence about what we believe? A stronger witness to what we see God doing?

My guess is that the apostles’ prayer is your prayer today. That’s why you’re here this morning. “Increase our faith!” we ask, or even demand of Jesus, because we feel that...(whole thing here)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Here's Why Christians Flunked the Test

I took the quiz that’s been circulating around the internet. You probably heard of it. It’s the one provided be the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which asks basic religious questions. I scored 14-15 correctly (I missed a question on religion in American classrooms).
The news is not good. Apparently, according to the final report, most protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the father of the Reformation. And many Catholics didn’t know that their church believes that the communion wafer has been changed to the true body of Christ. They believe communion is merely a memorial meal. Zwingli would raise his fist in triumph.
Atheists and Agnostics, as well as Jews and Mormons scored the best. Which doesn’t surprise me. Atheists tend to be better educated than average church folks. And makes me wonder if the Christians who answered correctly got their religious knowledge from school or church.

And it makes sense for Jew and Mormons to do well in this test. Minority religions are often more intentional about teaching the faith to their children. Those of us from historic, usually European State Church traditions have been resting on our collective laurels, leaving the knowledge of the faith to the pros - people like me. Those with collars around their necks and “Rev” in front of their names.
When churches become established in the form of state churches, faith loses it’s edge, it’s fire and passion. Jesus becomes a house pet, a religious functionary who blesses all our ambitions. And the church serves as a religious affirmation of the culture’s enterprises. Be they noble or self-serving.
Church history and religious belief then play second trombone to the culture’s aspirations. The church then makes good citizens rather than disciples of Jesus who ask difficult questions. We teach basic rudiments of faith which then morph into easy religious cliches. The fire of faith is snuffed in favour of a cozy relationship with established power. 
But as churches decline and lose cultural power, our influence as a prophetic minority will emerge. Fewer people will participate in churches, but those who do participate will be more committed to the counter-cultural message of the gospel. Churches will be smaller but stronger, and have more impact and influence as we live our faith more passionately, bearing witness to God’s Kingdom rather than the culture’s.
So, show us the test again in 20 years and see how we answer. (Click here to take the test)
This is a test. A simple test. Nothing to see here. As you were.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Funeral Sermon

(NB: I was getting numerous requests for this sermon, so with the family's permission, I"m posting it here)
When I heard that Agnes had passed away and I began to reflect on her life, I turned to Seneca, the early church’s favourite Roman philosopher, whose little treatise called “On the Shortness of Life” had as deep an impact on me as it did on the first Christians in Rome. 
You might think that reaching for a book called “On the Shortness of Life” may seem a little strange when considering Agnes’ longevity. After all, 96 is a long time in human years. Few people make it that far. 
But as we now know, even 96 years is too short when you love someone as much as Agnes was loved. Any span of time would seem too limited for someone as dear to us Agnes.
But Seneca’s main idea wasn’t that mere fact life is short, but what do we do with the time we’ve been given? How do we use the moments that add up to a life? Is time our friend or our enemy?
The preacher of Ecclesiastes as we heard this afternoon, also spoke of the flowing seasons of time where everything has a place. He asks us to remember that one season begins just as another ends. He asks us to remember that any span of time is limited.
But unlike Seneca, the preacher in Ecclesiastes sees the limitations of time as reason to weep and wail over our mortality, and what he sees as the meaningless of life. He begins his sermon with these words:
Vanity of vanities, cries the preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
4A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
It’s easy to be dragged down with the preacher of Ecclesiastes into the despairing notion that life is meaningless; that all that we have and all that we do will end up disappearing, swept into the sandstorm of eternity, vanished in the unending ocean. That the meager time we’ve been given will be forgotten. Lost. That our brief appearance on this planet will have no more significance than the ant under our shoe.
For everything, yes, there is a season. A time to be born and a time to die. This is true. 
Then again, Seneca didn’t see time the same way that the preacher of Ecclesiastes did. Yes there are seasons that come and go. There is a beginning. And there is an end. For everyone and everything.
But where the preacher saw meaninglessness in the limitations of those seasons, Seneca saw opportunity. And so he would probably ask the preacher: simply because there is a definite beginning and end to our earthly lives, does that necessarily mean that “all is vanity”? 
And again Seneca would remind the preacher that it’s not the length of time that’s important, but what you DO with the time you’ve been given is. He would ask, What are YOU doing with the moments provided for you? How are you filling your seconds, hours, days, and years?
I think I know how Agnes would answer Seneca. She’d answer him the same way the apostle Paul would in the reading from 1 Corinthians that we heard today.
And the answer she would offer him is “Love.” Love is the only lasting thing anyone can give. Love is the only way we can reach into eternity. Love is the legacy left by people who know how to truly live. The only meaningful life is a life of love. As Paul says, “Love never dies.”
 Agnes knew that life is a moment-by-moment event, crafted through the love she had for Tony, for her children and their children, for her church family, and for her community. For Agnes, life was love. And love was commitment.
Agnes slipped away peacefully. In fact, she said the word “peace” over and over again as she felt her life drawing to a close. After I prayed with her, she looked me in the eye and said “Peace be with you.” To which I responded “And also with you.”
I began to wonder what peace meant for her. How she could fall into death with the word “peace” on her lips. Not everyone could do that. Most people fight against the on-coming train that will take them away. 
Agnes knew peace because she knew her saviour, and she trusted him with her life and her death. She trusted the promises of a new and everlasting life because she knew Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, who died on the cross and rose again for her. She knew that Jesus had claimed her as his own with a grip that would never be let loose. She knew that her name was written in the Book of Life with permanent ink. She knew that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus her Lord.
But also, she could say “peace...peace” while life drained from her body because she could see the fruit of a life well lived. That fruit gathered around her bed, and surrounded her with prayer. She could see the good she was leaving behind. She knew her legacy of love will be honoured and lived by all who’d been touched by her kindness. She could say “peace...peace” because she lived the most meaningful of lives: a life of love. That is the gift she’s left behind for us. That is our inheritance as those who have received her love.
So, the question her life asks you, what are YOU doing with the time you’ve been given? What will YOU leave behind? How are YOU filling your seconds, hours, days, and years?
Agnes left behind a legacy of love given and love received. The love of her family and the love of her church. And the love of her saviour Jesus in whom she now rests, taking her place among the company of all the saints in light.
May her legacy be our legacy as well. Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 17C

Text here:

This is one of my favorite gospel readings. It’s wonderfully, ethically ambiguous. It comes put of nowhere and leaves the listener with an itchy scalp.

To me, it gives permission to color outside the lines and to push the edges of acceptable behaviour, Jesus demolishes any sense of ideological purity.

What we have is a guy who really likes his job and wants to keep it. Or at least to clear a smooth exit for himself. So he goes to each of his clients and takes an axe to their invoices. It looks like he’s more interested in keeping these folks as customers then in keeping his boss happy. Maybe he wants to strike out on his own since he knows that a pink slip is waiting in his mailbox when he gets back to the office.

But when his boss finds out what the manager has done, the pink slip becomes a promotion. Apparently, the boss liked the way his manager played the game. Dishonest initiative is rewarded. A weird reaction, isn’t it? Or as one bible commentator put it, “ethically reprehensible.”

The punch line to this story makes even less sense, Especially after the story he just told, “You can’t serve God and money.”

So, which is it Jesus....(Whole thing here)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How to Stop Church Decline

A few weeks ago the United Methodist Church in the U.S. published the results of a survey intended to solicit ideas for how to stop the decline in Methodist churches. The “actionable” results were:
  • Small groups and programs, such as Bible study and activities geared toward youth.
  • An active lay leadership.
  • Inspirational pastors who have served lengthy tenures at churches.
  • A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services. 

Hmmmm. Small groups? Active lay leadership? Inspirational pastors? Mix of traditional and contemporary? This is new and cutting edge? Did we just take a time machine back to 1979?
And what I found most interesting about this survey is that it's chief aim seems to be protecting the viability of the institution. It sounds like they’re trying to stop their decline rather than build disciples of Jesus; recouping their losses rather than being good news people. It’s all very churchy rather than Jesusy (with apologies to Anne Lamott).
It’s not my intention to pick on the UMC. Most mainline churches (and a growing number of evangelicals) are in the same boat. We’re trying to survive as an institution and so we’re searching for a magic formula that will stop or even reverse the hemorrhaging and move us into a sustainable future.
However, I’m not convinced there is ONE formula, a magic pill that will make us thrive again. Each congregation is different. Small group ministry works well in one church, but can’t get off the ground in another. Some pastors with long stays in a congregation build strong legacies to be passed to the next generation, where other long-tenured pastors rest on their laurels and snooze their way to retirement. 
But then again, maybe we’re all asking the wrong question: “how do we grow?” Maybe God doesn’t want us to grow. At least not yet. Perhaps God wants us overfed, culturally coddled, western Christians to sit on the sidelines for a while to remember what it feels like to be a minority. 
It could be that God wants us to finish the transition from Christendom to Post-Christendom, and change us from the inside out, before adding crowds of people to our numbers. 
I think God might be worried that we haven’t yet learned the lessons of history, and with revived numbers, we might be tempted to re-visit the sins of cultural captivity, where we prostituted ourselves in exchange for political power, and lost our distinctive, prophetic, voice. 
But in the meantime, I think our job as Christians is to make disciples of Jesus, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. And we’ll see where the road takes us.
(h/t to Greg for the heads up on the Methodist survey)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Outlive Your Life

One thing for sure, Max Lucado can turn a phrase. He’s my confere. In. The sentence. Fragment. Which makes his upcoming book Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference such a fun and quick read. And in typical Lucodian fashion, he illuminates the bible text by pulling it forward into our time. In his hands the bible speaks to us today.
Outlive Your Life is about making a difference in the world with the time we have. Lucado interweaves bible stories and other contemporary stories of people making a difference in their own communities and in the world.
Personally, despite his creative literary choreography, I found his re-telling of the bible stories the weakest part of the book. Yes, his writing was fun to read, and he drew some interesting details by how he re-constructed the narrative. But dare I say there was too much bible. Yes, it’s important to interpret our lives and our world through the lens of scripture. But since most of the book a re-fashioning of the bible stories, the contemporary connection wasn’t as strong as it could have been.
And the stories were strong. Like the man in Sarajevo who weeped over a child’s death. Micro-lending in Rio De Janeiro. The football game in Gainesville between the high school and the reform school. Stories of people making a difference.
It’s these stories that make the book so-readable and adds power to Lucado’s mandate to move people to action (there’s a study and action guide in the back). People hear so much about what God has done in bible times, but we need to hear more stories about what God is doing TODAY. Those are the kinds of stories that give people hope that God is still doing something in the world. And when they see that God is active and alive, people feel more compelled to contribute to the on-going blossoming of the new creation, leaving behind a legacy of compassion and grace.

NB: Book has been provided courtesy of Thomas Nelson and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available this Fall at your favourite bookseller.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon: Pentecost 15C

“You cannot be my disciple if you own any possessions.”

This passage from Luke’s gospel is one that no one takes literally. Even the most ardent, fundamentalist who insists on the literal, word-for-word Truth (capital “T”) of the bible finds a way to weasel out of this passage. 

I’ve heard some folks say that this passage only applies to those who let their money and their possessions get in the way of their relationship with God; those whose wealth is hurting them spiritually.

This is often followed by a declaration that this doesn’t apply THEM, because their money is not an idol. They could EASILY give it up if their wealth was hurting their relationship with God. And, of course, in this area, they were without sin.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about the cost of following him. He’s warning those who might be his followers of what might happen them if they walk away from their old lives and jump feet first into their new lives. It was as if he was pushing them away, turning on the crowd of would-be disciples, pleading with them not to enter into a contract for which there is no escape clause. He’s asking if they REALLY know what they’d be getting themselves into if they dropped everything and followed him.

It’s said that the crowds were much...(whole thing here)

Saturday, September 04, 2010

What's Right With the Church.

After a post about the problems in the church, I had written a post about what’s good with the church. But I deleted it. The writing didn’t feel right. Although all of it was true, it felt like I was borrowing someone else’s words. The writing seemed plastic. An artificial defense of a very real group of people. 
The post included such things as our rich theological history, the faithfulness of the members, our message of grace, our acts of justice, etc. And while I can affirm each one of these, it didn’t get to the heart of what I love about the church.
What I love about the church is its messiness. Its chaos (and I’m not talking about my office). The more we try to regiment our life together the more turmoil we get. But God has a way working through the muddle, giving life, creating a family, building a people.
The regular morning phone call to the blind shut-in to read to her the daily devotional. The neighbourhood children who sneak in the front door and do crafts in the basement. The genuine word of concern for the man who lost his wife. The generosity toward the homeless guy knocking on our door after worship looking for food. The warm welcome of member who’d fallen away after a tragedy, received once again into the fellowship of the broken and hurting.
It’s in the sudden, spontaneous, human moments that the church is at its best. These are moments we can’t control or plan, moments that happen despite ourselves. The best planning and management cannot create these moments. They just happen because because the Spirit of God still hovers over the chaos, bringing fulness of life, gathering us together in a unity that is not our own making. 
What I love about the church is what God can do with us messy, chaotic, hopelessly human, and gloriously sanctified people of God. It’s how I know that Jesus is alive and living within all of us together. It’s what’s right with the church.