March 19, 2017*
Judy was only half-listening as the reader continued on and on. She knew that the letter they were hearing was important, and that she should be paying better attention, but her mind was elsewhere.
Judy and her good friend Cynthia had been through a lot together. They had been among the first women to join Lydia’s house church when it had formed only a few years before, and Paul himself had trained them for ministry (Acts 16). As the church grew and the good news spread, Judy and Cynthia had made a great team, teaching together and encouraging new believers in their faith.
Maybe it was natural for the two women to grow in different directions as their faith increased. Maybe one woman was maturing faster than the other. Perhaps they should have anticipated that, at some point, through their discussions of scripture and discipleship, they would reach conflicting conclusions.
Judy could live with that. What bothered her, though, and kept her from listening to Paul’s letter with her whole heart, was the nagging suspicion that she had caused a division in the church by arguing with Cynthia in front of the others.
Judy felt like she’d lost her best friend. She wished they could go back to the way things used to be, before the church had grown so large. She longed for the old days, when the few close friends who had begun the church could gather around a simple meal and share the joy of serving Christ Jesus as they served one another. Continue reading
March 12, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.
If you’re a guest today, you have come into a church that is on an exciting adventure with God! We’re spending the 6 weeks of Lent together inviting God to change us in any way that God wants to. The Spirit of God is moving in our church. Some of you have told me stories of the Spirit working as you talk about what’s happening with your small groups, your prayer exercises, and reading the book Unbinding Your Heart.
Would you like to join us? There’s still time to join a small group this week. In fact, one group meets right after coffee time in the pastor’s study today. There’s one early on Tuesday morning, and a couple of groups meet on Wednesday night as part of Family Night. Thursday options include an afternoon study and an evening group. Whichever group you join, we’ll bring you up to speed!
Here’s what we know so far: mainline Christian churches are rapidly declining in membership and influence in our country. We’ve grown reluctant to bring new people into Christian faith, and that reluctance prevents us from sharing our faith with others.
Last week, we explored why it makes a difference in our lives that we are Christians. We considered what our motivations might be for sharing the Christian faith with people who don’t have a faith. We considered that some of us don’t have a dramatic faith story to share, like Paul on the road to Damascus. Some of us are more like Ananias. Our personal stories might not be very dramatic, but God can use us as the domino that tips someone else into following Jesus.
In fact, there’s someone here today who has had just that kind of experience. I’d like to invite her to come share her story with you. Kris?
March 5, 2017 (Lent 1A)
Watch a video of this sermon here. *
Have you ever been jealous of people who can tell a dramatic conversion story? Some people have a clear “before and after” testimony of how Jesus Christ has made a difference in their lives. Many of us, though, especially if we grew up in the church, might think our stories of coming to faith aren’t very exciting.
If you like satire, there’s a website called the Babylon Bee that posts fake news stories every day. Each story is a piece of Christian satire, an intended joke, with headlines like “Congregation Sings 10,000 Reasons for the 10,000th Time” or “Church introduces New Maximum Security Nursery.” The Babylon Bee operates from the premise that Christians shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Recently, they published an “article” about ways to spice up your testimony. It starts like this… Continue reading
March 13, 2016
Note: The congregation of First United Methodist Church received a report from its Healthy Church Initiative consulting team earlier in the service. That report identified five strengths and five concerns for this congregation’s future growth. Five recommendations were also part of this report, but these recommendations were shared at a potluck dinner following worship. You can learn more about the report and the process at the church’s website.
You’ve just heard the first two thirds of our Healthy Church Initiative Report. Reports like this always try to give you the good news first. I think that’s so you’ll be nice and comfortable, feeling good about yourself and relaxed before they sucker punch you with the bad news. But did any of these concerns sound insurmountable to you? Did any of them knock the wind out of you?
In our reading today from Isaiah, the prophet tells us that God is about to do a new thing. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” says the Lord. God is about to do a new thing for his people, the ones he claims as his own. God says these are “the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” That’s our purpose in life: to declare God’s praise.
We do that through our strengths of hospitality, commitment to love and serve, spiritual leadership, things like Wednesday Night and NUMAS Haus that demonstrate our capacity to expand ministry, and even through this well-placed and well-maintained building.
But fulfilling our purpose to declare God’s praise takes more than identifying our strengths. In fact, relying on our own strength alone won’t get us where we need to be at all. The Apostle Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Philippians when he writes that he has more reason than anyone to be confident in the flesh, that is, confident in his own strength. Continue reading
March 6, 2016
Welcome to the New Testament! We managed to condense those four hundred years of prophetic silence between the last writings of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ into a single week! And since we heard the story of Jesus’ birth back in December, we’re skipping ahead about thirty years to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. This week, our story takes us to the day after Jesus is baptized. The hope that was kindling at the end of the last chapter in God’s story has caught flame in this new chapter. The kingdom of God is breaking into our world.
Here’s the scene: John the Baptist notices Jesus walking down the street, and points out the Lamb of God to a handful of his own disciples. John tells them about his own experiences of baptizing Jesus the day before, and his disciples take off after Jesus.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). – John 1:29-42
This story gives us three simple actions that point people to Jesus. Continue reading
February 28, 2016
How is your Lenten journey going? Or, as Wesley would put it, “How is it with your soul?” However you ask it, the question holds us each accountable for the hard work of being a disciple.
Following Jesus isn’t always easy, but these days in the middle of Lent always seem to require more of me. The novelty of my commitment at the beginning of Lent has worn off, and the anticipation of Resurrection glory is still too far in the future. Here in the middle, I need someone walking the journey with me, to ask after my soul and keep me walking the discipline I promised to follow at the beginning of Lent. That’s why I hold myself accountable to you!
You might remember that Bruce inspired me to give up sugar this year. So far, I’ve managed to stay away from sweets and desserts, but Bruce even gave up peanut butter, because he noticed that sugar is the second ingredient listed on the label.
I decided not to be that picky, and there was about enough peanut butter left in the jar for one sandwich, so I had a peanut butter sandwich for lunch on Friday. No jelly, just peanut butter. And I was surprised to realize I could taste the sugar. Commercial peanut butter is really sweet. Peanut butter is part of my standard diet. I love peanut butter. But I didn’t notice the sugar in it until I’d gone without sugar for three weeks.
Remembering just how much hidden sugar there is in processed food also reminds me of just how much hidden sin there is in my life. Isn’t it just like the devil to make us think we aren’t sinning when we really are? We get accustomed to our patterns of sin, and soon they don’t seem quite so sinful. We don’t recognize the sugar in our peanut butter. We get used to it.
That’s what had happened to the Jews who returned from exile. They had lived away from God’s law for so long, they’d gotten used to it. They had forgotten what it meant to be faithful to God, to worship God in the temple, and submit themselves to God. Continue reading
February 21, 2016 (Lent 2C)
The story reads like a melodrama. For hundreds of years, there was lots of argument about this story. Did it belong in the Bible or not? Some Jewish scholars loved it, but Martin Luther hated it and wished it didn’t exist. The story has some unique literary and theological features that suggest Luther might have had a point:
- The details of the plot seem exaggerated and the main characters aren’t developed very well, from a literary standpoint.
- Historical accuracy is questionable, at best.
- There’s enough sex and violence to make the story into a movie, but we tend to fast forward through those parts when we are in church.
- The actions of the characters do not reflect their faith so much as struggles about their ethnic identity.
- Most problematic of all, the story never mentions God by name.
- Neither is prayer or worship mentioned, though we can make some assumptions that prayer, at least, plays an important part in the climax of the story.
With all this going against it, we have to wonder how the story of Esther made it into the Bible at all. Yet, there it is. Accepted as the Word of the Lord, even though the Lord is never mentioned.
Some scholars insist that the story of Esther was made up to justify celebrating the Feast of Purim – or the feast of dice. It’s a major Jewish celebration, but it is not one of the feasts named in the Law of Moses. During Purim, people dress up in costumes, put on silly plays, and enjoy lots of food.
There is even a tradition that encourages drinking wine in excess, just as King Xerxes and his guests did at their feasts. But the humor and silliness of the celebration highlight an underlying seriousness. The story is about escaping death, after all.
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker writes, “Indeed, the joke goes that Jewish holidays can be summed up in this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”
So what does the story of Esther tell us about God and God’s plan to win his people back? The answer is found right in the middle of the story, in chapter four. Continue reading