Church Goers Desire a Quality Sermon

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I am not sure how much time each week I spend on sermon preparation.  Since moving to the new position at Bethany Congregational Church in Quincy last fall I do not preach every week.  I share the pulpit with the Senior Pastor, so I usually preach one maybe two Sundays a month.  Regardless of how often I preach my sermon preparation is about the same.

I am a Lectionary preacher and use the Revised Common Lectionary.  The Lectionary provides me at least four pericopes to choose from usually on a theme.  Sometimes determining that theme is a challenge but most of the time it is evident.  In my congregation, we use one of those Scriptures and usually read a Psalm responsively.

I begin the week by looking at the Lectionary text and begin to circle in on the one I want.  This process usually happens rather quickly as the Church office needs my sermon title and Scripture passage on Monday to make the newspaper deadline.  So I look at the Scripture passages and then peak at the various commentaries and come up with a working title.  Sometimes the title that is published has nothing to do with the final product a week later.

I am a manuscript preacher, so I make notes, pray, and think about the sermon all during the week.  I might hear something in the news or come across something on a blog that I throw into the sermon.  I rise early on Sunday morning and put the manuscript together; this takes about an hour.  Although I have a manuscript very often, I stray from the written text just a little.

So why am I writing this about sermon preparation?  Recently the Pew Research Forum released the results of a survey, “Choosing a New Church or House of Worship.” The study shows that what most Protestants are looking for when seeking a new church is the quality of the sermon and a warm welcome when they visit.

I used to think because that is what I was led to believe by the “Mega Church” pastors that we needed to have flashy lights and a rock band to bring people in.  I also felt that I needed to throw off the robe and wear jeans a T-shirt to preach.  But apparently, if you cannot preach, none of that matters!

There is no doubt that the sermon is the largest part of the service.  I have not done the math but I would say a third of the service, for the most part, is the sermon.  Our service lasts about an hour, a little longer on a communion Sunday, and of that time I preach twenty to twenty-five minutes.  If there is someone better at math than me, please let me know.  But with that much of the service devoted to preaching it better be good!

The survey also shows that 85% of people decide after their first visit if they are going to return to the Church or not.  It appears that environmental factors such as air conditioning don’t play into the decision rather the warmth of the welcome.  I like to call this the user experience, and it begins before they even come through the door.

59% of seekers under 30, our target audience, use online resources to help them find a church.  What they find online will determine if they walk through your door.  What does your web presence look like?  Is it old and run down?  Are the pictures out of date or are there any pictures?  Is the church address clearly able to be found, you would be surprised how many church websites don’t have the church address listed.  Do you have a “What We Believe” section?  All of these items are important and need to be tended too.  What about social media, do you have a Facebook or Twitter presence?  Again, these are important.

The bottom line for me is we can have the brand new building with state of the art lighting, sound, and music.  We can have the best programming in the world and Sunday School classes for every age, but if they never come through the door, or never return all of that is just a waste.

Off to spend some time in sermon preparation.

Thanks to Professor John Fea for pointing me towards the study.

The Grand Army of the Republic in Massachusetts, Part 1, The First Encampment

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On September 25, 1866, three veterans, representing the Soldiers and Sailors Union of Massachusetts, traveled to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and were inducted into the newly formed Grand Army of the Republic.  General Charles Devens Jr., Major Austin S. Cushman, and Chaplain Alonzo Quint were given the ritual and rules governing the new organization and set off back to Massachusetts to bring together the veterans of the Civil War.

It was agreed upon that General Devens would become the provisional commander until ten posts could be formed.  He would not serve long as it was decided that Major Cushman would take on the responsibility to organize what would become the Department of Massachusetts.

Austin S. Cushman First Grand Commander

Austin S. Cushman
First Grand Commander

Upon their return to Massachusetts, Major Cushman organized Post # 1 in the City of New Bedford with a charter date of October 4, 1866.  The Charter was issued by National Commander in Chief Stephen Augustus Hurlburt of Illinois.  However, a new charter was issued on October 14, 1866, so it could be signed by the new Provisional Department Commander, Austin Cushman.

Over the next several months’ posts were organized all across the Commonwealth and by General Order No. 3 a call went out to hold a Department Encampment on May 7, 1867, at Mechanics Hall on Williams Street in the City of New Bedford.  Mechanics Hall was being used by Post #1 as their meeting place at the time.

When the meeting was gaveled in on May 7th at 7 pm, ten of the eleven posts had sent delegates to the meeting.  Post #2 from Nantucket was the only post not to be in attendance.

As the first order of business the Provisional Commander, Austin Cushman, put for the purposes and objectives of the new order.

  1. The preservation of those kind and fraternal feelings which have long bound together the soldiers and sailors who have stood together in many battles, sieges, engagements, and marches.
  2. To demonstrate the strength of these ties by works of kindness and material aid to those who need assistance.
  3. To provide as far as it may be possible for the support, care and education of the orphans of soldiers or sailors, and for the maintenance of the widows of soldiers and sailors.
  4. To render protection and assistance to disabled soldiers or sailors, whether disabled by wounds, disease, old age or misfortune.
  5. To establish and defend the rights of the soldiers and sailors lately in the service of the United States, with a view to secure a proper appreciation and recognition of their services and the acknowledgment of their just claims upon the community.
  6. To maintain unswerving allegiance to the United States of America, based upon a paramount respect for and fidelity to the National Constitution and laws, and manifesting itself by discountenancing whatever may tend to weaken loyalty, incite to insurrection, treason or rebellion, or in any manner impair the efficiency and permanency of our free institutions; also to serve as the defenders of universal liberty, equal rights and justice to all men.

After Commander Cushman’s presentation, he called upon Chaplain Alonzo Quit to deliver an address to those assembled.  At the close of the

Rev. Dr. Alonzo Quint

Rev. Dr. Alonzo Quint

Chaplain’s speech, Commander Cushman dismissed the assembled guests so the business of the day could be accomplished.

A nominating committee was formed, and the following candidates were put forward:

Grand Commander ~ Austin S. Cushman, Post #1 New Bedford

Sr. Vice Grand Commander ~ A. A. Goodell, Post #10 Worcester

Jr. Vice Grand Commander ~ B.A. Bridges, Post #6 Holliston

Assistant Adjutant-General ~ J.T. Lurvey, Post #4 Melrose

Assistant Quartermaster-General ~ Henry A. Hallgreen, Post #7 Boston

Council of Administration:

Alonzo H. Quint, Post #1 New Bedford

S.F. Keyes, Post #7 Boston

Robert Crossman, 2nd, Post #3 Taunton

J.G.B. Adams, Post #5 Lynn

G.H. Long, Post #11 Charlestown

According to the “Early History of the Grand Army of the Republic in Massachusetts,” Commander Cushman “announced that he accepted the office of Grand Commander, to which he had been elected, and thanked the delegates for the trust and confidence thus reposed in him. He pledged himself to do all in his power to promote the growth of the Order, promote harmony and extend the usefulness of the organization.”

After extracts from the rules and regulations prescribing the duties of the several officers of the Department, it was resolved that the headquarters of the department should be in Boston.

With no further business to come before the Department the encampment was closed with the singing of Auld Lang Syne.

The Registration of Churches in Massachusetts

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The church that I am presently serving, Bethany Congregational Church, is opening a preschool this year, and part of the licensing process with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is assembling a variety of documents to include the incorporation of the church.  In Massachusetts, churches are considered corporations and therefore must register with the Secretary of the Commonwealth Corporations Division.

The church was established in 1639 as a branch of the Puritan church in Boston.  The church existed as such until 1750 when a split became evident, and what is now the First Parish Church, Unitarian was formed.  It was not until 1832 when the Evangelical Society of Quincy was formed which would eventually become the current Bethany Congregational Church.

We searched the current records as well as the archives of the church, and the only document we could find was the original covenant that was signed by the founding members in 1832.  There was no corporate paperwork anywhere that we could find.  A quick search of the corporation’s database at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s website turned up a reference to the church being organized and pointed to the Acts and Resolves passed by the General Court of Massachusetts of 1887.

During the precolonial and colonial period in Massachusetts, churches were charted by royal decree and then by an act of the Royal Governor.  The Charter issued in 1639 passed to the Unitarians with the vote to change their theology.  When the new church was organized in 1832, there was no mechanism for a charter from the state, so there was no corporation.  The Acts and Resolves of 1887 changed all of that.

Chapter 404 Section 1: Any church now existing or that may be hereafter organized in this Commonwealth, may be incorporated according to the provisions of this act.

Chapter 404 Section 5 stated that all churches shall be incorporated in like manner to other corporations in the Commonwealth and have the same rights and responsibilities.

The result was that we had no articles of incorporation other than the original covenant of 1832 and the bylaws of the Church.

Thankfully we were able to obtain a statement from the Secretary of the Commonwealth stating that we were, in fact, a corporation and thus able to file the appropriate paperwork with the Department of Education.

I find it interesting that before 1887 the General Court of Massachusetts granted permission to organize churches in the Commonwealth.  Apparently, from what I learned from the Secretary of State’s Office, there were so many churches being organized and it was taking up valuable legislative time, so it was decided by the Acts and Resolves of 1887, to transfer that responsibility to the Secretary of State.

Healing Hands

A Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

that all may be one

I would like to start with a little story this morning.  As many of you know, I am involved in disaster relief work.  In the past, the Church has deployed me to various locations after some disaster has struck.  I have been to Newtown, Connecticut, and Blacksburg, Virginia after the tragic school shootings ripped through both communities.  But the most impactful deployment I have been on was to New Orleans. Actually, we were deployed to Baton Rouge after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

First, let me clear something up, I do not believe, nor does Scripture hold, that God sends storms to wipe people off the face of the earth.  God made a covenant with Noah and a covenant with all of the humanity when he sent his Son Jesus Christ for us.  God is the God of love and compassion, and no God I worship does this.

I bring up the deployment to Louisiana as it is green in our minds with the recent devastation that has befallen that state.  I arrived in Baton Rouge shortly after the winds stopped blowing.  When I left, I had no idea where I was staying when I got there.  All I knew was I had a rental car, so if needed I could sleep in that I guess.

We are usually deployed in teams of three or four people with various skills and we coordinate our activities with and through the local church.  On this particular deployment, we worked very closely with Catholic Charities.  Another thing you quickly learn after something like a hurricane happens is that all of this nonsense about who is and who is not a Christian simply fall away in the trash heap they belong in.  All of the stupidity that divides denominations does not seem to matter when you are all pulling people out of the water and plucking them off rooftops.

So we set out on our work making sure supplies arrived at where they needed to get to aid the people they intended to aid.  This was not an easy task, as you can imagine, truckloads of supplies and people were arriving in record numbers, and it all needed to go somewhere.  The group I worked with was tasked with putting all of the pieces together.

Shortly after our work began, a man came into the area we were working out of and asked if there was any way we could help support the shelter that had been established at a local church right around the corner from where we were.  We quickly drove over there to find the church filled to overflowing capacity with people who had walked from New Orleans and were now living in the shelter.  They had no food and water was quickly running out.  We did what we could for them on the spot and arranged for others to take over.  While there we heard about another group of people that was hold up at the airport.

So we worked out the network of people and ended up at the state command center to gather info about whom and how many where there and what we could do to bring them, aide.  We were told no one was there, that everyone had been evacuated from the airport.  We were told this by local, state, and federal officials that were, in fact, true.  But the people we had spoken with had just been there and saw all of the people.

A decision was made to attempt to get to the airport and see for ourselves.  We made arrangements with the folks running the shelter at Louisiana State University for buses and security.  Keep in mind the military had taken over control of the streets in New Orleans, and it was not a safe place to be.  We needed a permit to enter the city from State, and Federal health officials and since they denied anyone was there, they were not going to give us the necessary permit.

We thought all hope was lost, and our mission was going to be a failure.  We thought if we just went they would let us in.  Then I saw, sitting on a desk nearby, a permit.  Doing what needed to be done I “borrowed” the permit and we quickly exited the building.  That night we set off on our journey.

If you have ever been to New Orleans or any large city for that matter, you will understand when I saw how creepy it is to have no one on the roads leading into our out of the city, but that is what it was like.  Various checkpoints were set up along the path.  We stopped at each one secure in the knowledge that the “borrowed” permit had been reported, and we were all going to get locked up.

We came to the final checkpoint, this one was military, and they were not at all impressed either with my collar or the permit from the Louisiana Health Office.  The soldier, just doing his job, was told no one could get into the city no matter who they were or what permit they had with them.  We had come this far we were not going to let this get in the way.

As I mentioned, we had security from LSU with us.  These were not the mall cop types there were fully armed and kitted out in riot gear police and the one guy, assigned to protect me, not sure why I needed individual protection but I was glad he was there on several occasions, went toe to toe with the military and I thought for sure we were going to jail.  After a few tense moments of “negotiation,” we were allowed to pass.

The next part of this story needs to come with one of those TV disclaimers about what you are about to see, but I need you to understand, as best as I can tell it, what we experienced so the story will make sense.

We arrived at the airport and were directed around to the back of the terminal building; this is where the luggage comes in off of the planes that have arrived.  We were escorted into, what we had been told was an empty building, to find it filled, and then some, with people.  The first thing we saw was a pile of bodies stacked like cord wood, right inside the door.  We next encountered a doctor who ran up to me, I was wearing the clerical collar, so I was easy to identify as clergy, and he grabbed me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes and was shouting “tell me I did the right thing.”

It seems this doctor was the one who had to decide who got to live and who had to die.  They were running out of supplies, and with the denial of the government, they were not getting more.  I will never forget the look in this poor soul’s eyes, I cannot remember what I said to him, but after a few moments he calmed down and was able to take us around.

All services had broken down, and basic human functions were just that, basic.  The rest of the team set off on a needs assessment; this is basically what we do when we first arrive to determine what needs to be done and make a priority list and start to move services into the area.  I was taken, with the doctor, and my ever-watchful security detail, to another part of the airport.  I was taken into what is called the black ward.  This is the place where people are taken who are not expected to survive, the place they go to die and where they are made as comfortable as possible.

I talked with the staff and thanked them for everything they had done, and we prayed together.  They asked me to pray for each person; there were sixty-five men and women in cots around the room.  I knelt beside each person, prayed with them, and anointed them.  Just as an aside I was harshly criticized for doing this as the prayer I read was technically the “last rights” and those prayers are only for people of the church I used to belong too.  Anyway, went to the room and prayer with each one.  I can still see those faces in my mind’s eye as clear as if it were yesterday.

I left there, and we had determined to take as many with us as the busses would hold.  We worked with the medical personnel to decide who needed to go. First, we loaded the buses, and we left.  We brought them back to the shelter at LSU, and they were treated and found a place to sleep that night.  The next day we had the task of trying to convince the government that there were, in fact, people there.  We knew they knew this because the medical folks at the airport were all military.

Why do I tell you this story?  Because it fits in with the scripture passage, we heard this morning.

A woman who had been crippled for eighteen years approached Jesus and asked him to heal her.  He did just that, and he was criticized by the authorities for doing so.  You see he healed this poor woman on the Sabbath, and you know rules are rules.  This is not, nor will it be the last time, that Jesus was criticized for healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus answered them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

I did what I had to do, the security guy did what he had to do, the doctor did what he had to do, and Jesus did what he had to do, take care of the people right in front of him regardless of the law, the consequences, or the worthiness of the person.

You see our job is to help people no matter what.  Our job is not to judge if they are worthy or if they deserve our help.  Our job is not to call them sinners and scream at them, our job to bring them healing of whatever it is that ails them and in the end, our job is to simply love them.

Did the people lying on the floor that I prayed with an anointed know I was there?  I do not know most of them were not even conscious.  Did it help the medical staff, knowing I had prayed with them, I believe it did and it made their job a little easier.  I mentioned I was criticized for doing what I did and I would do it again.

What Jesus is saying to us this morning is that we have to do what we have to do regardless of the consequences when it comes to helping people.  This is what loving your neighbor means.

Faith: Against the Odds

A Sermon on Hebrews 11:29-12:2

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On the 8th of July 1741, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards stepped into the pulpit of a church in Enfield Connecticut and delivered his most famous sermons, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  I say famous because this sermon, of all of his countless others, has been studied and dissected, and misunderstood since the first day it had been preached.

Edwards, who happens to be my 6th cousin, was one of the great preachers from a time in our American history known as the Great Awakening, or perhaps I should say the 1st Great Awakening.  It is always difficult to pinpoint the exact start of movements such as this but historians usually use the period of the 1730’s, and 40’s so before the American Revolution.  In fact, many historians credit the Awakening for the Revolution.

The awakening began in the south and moved up the coast by various preachers and came to New England with the preaching of Rev. Edwards in his church in Northampton.  Edwards preached this sermon there first and then was asked by the pastor of the Church in Enfield to come and preach to his congregation.  It seems they had been unmoved by the awakening thus far, and the pastor was determined that his flock would be changed.

If you have never read the sermon I would suggest that you do, however, it is filled with imagery that may sound foreign to us, but the result is the same.  The entire idea behind the awakening, as any revival, is to call people back to piety and a sense of who they are as Christians.  Edwards used the image of Hell and the final judgment of individuals as a way to bring them back.  It has been reported that people shouted “how can I be saved” during the sermon.  So moved were they that a monument has been erected in Enfield on the site of the sermon.

Historians of American religious history disagree on how man awakenings have taken place in America since that time some say three some say four, but they usually follow some period of upheavals in America like a war or some such.  From these times people do become more religious if you will, but they tend not to last long as we go back, slowly but surely, to the way we were.  But we keep going on, and we keep trying.

The great religious writer Phyllis Tickle writes about, what she calls, the 500-year rummage sale of the church.  Like the awakenings, these are historical periods of time, difficult to pinpoint, when the church takes a long hard look at itself and a sense of revision or dare I say reformation, comes to the church.  We are approaching the 500th anniversary of the last one, the Great Reformation of Martin Luther, so the feeling is we are in another period of rummaging around.

These are times of change in the Church and can be refreshing.  Just a Luther brought a much-needed reform the church cannot stay the same, just as we cannot remain the same, as things change around us.  And for many this will be a test of our faith.

In the Scripture lesson today, we hear of a time when other people’s faith was tested and a reminded that we are to hold fast to that faith, and we were told of what faith can and will do.  Faith is what gave the Israelites the strength and will to cross the Red Sea when it seemed that all hope was lost, and it was a lack of faith that made it impossible for the Egyptians to follow them.  It was faith that brought down the walls of Jericho after they had been circled seven times.

In 1992 I made my fist, of what would be many trips, to Romania.  I went there as part of a group of missionaries who had been asked by the Evangelical Church in Romania to come and help them establish seminaries and training facilities for social workers and others who would help to rebuild their country.  Romania is an amazing place and a place that I call my spiritual home for many reasons.

I had the opportunity to meet with many faithful Christians in Romania and saw the devastation that occurred when the Church got too close to the government.  Each person I encountered I asked them the same question, how did you do it?  How did you survive, not only as a Christian but as human beings in what has been described as one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has even seen?

Their answer was always the same, whether they were Evangelical or Orthodox, Christian or Jew the answer was their faith is what saw them through.  Even though the institutional church had sold its soul to the government, faith is what brought them through.  Faith is what brought them through the persecution that we do not even understand in this country.  Oh sure we claim we are persecuted as Christians in this country, but we simply have no idea what that even means.

In preparing this sermon today, I looked up the word faith in the dictionary.  There are two definitions; one is that faith is complete trust or confidence in someone or something. For a Christian, that means we have full faith and confidence in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. The other definition is a belief in something unseen or something that we cannot prove.  I believe that these go together.

As Christians, we are to have this complete faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  Not in me, not in Rev. Bill, not in the Church and certainly not in the government.  We have our faith in Jesus Christ.  We cannot prove anything about it, but we believe it, that’s faith.  We have talked, in previous sermons, about how God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness with manna, and he continues to give us His manna through his word.  Can I prove any of it?  I studied it, and continue to study as has Rev. Bill, and I cannot point to anything and say there it is, that’s faith.  But I can point to what faith is.

Faith requires some things from us besides this complete trust and confidence.  Faith compels us to love, to serve, to forgive, to care, to welcome, to feed, to clothe, to a house, to visit and all of other things that Jesus left us as an enduring example.  You have heard me say this before it is not enough to profess with our lips that we are followers of Jesus we have to confess it with our actions!  What we do is far more important than what we say, as individuals, as a Church community, and as a nation.  I want you to notice one thing about all of those things that we are commanded to do, they are all verbs, action words.

Our Christian faith requires each of us to look at each other and see nothing more than a child of God created in his image and likeness.  We can no longer look at others as their color or their religion or the supposed sin for as Paul says in his Letter to the Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Our faith should be conservative because we conserve a faith that for 2,000 plus years has stood for equality, justice and mercy.  But our faith should also be liberal because for 2,000 plus years our faith has stood to liberate spiritual captives from their blindness and lead them to a liberating Christ that will free them from their sins.  A Christ that welcomes all with open arms and desires that we all come to love him and one another.  This is what faith is, and this is what faith does.

In 1741 Jonathan Edwards pointed out to those listening to him that hell was just around the corner.  Now we can debate what that means and trust me when I say theologians of all stripes continue this discussion, but what he is saying is the time is at hand.  We are no longer on the verge of an awakening we are in one, and I see the Church coming alive again and finding her voice and shouting at the top of her lungs for those who have no voice.  I see the Church marching together for those who cannot march.  And I see the Church, at long last advocating for those things that Jesus has commanded us to advocate for, love, mercy, justice, equality, and all the rest.

Dear ones, the time, is now and we, all of us here, are the chosen ones.  We have been called by God and given a mission.  We can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch it is time to get in the game!  This is what faith means and this is what faith requires.  Action!

Seek First the Kingdom of God

A Sermon on Luke 12:13-34

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In the book “The Pine Tree” by Rose Dobbs, there is a story about a pine tree that is lonely and sad because it is the only tree around with long needles instead of green leaves. It wishes to be important and noticed among the other trees in the forest. Thinking it costs nothing to wish, the pine tree wishes for gold leaves. And lo, the next morning his branches are full of shining gold leaves. However, they do not last long. A poor peddler comes along and thinking he has been blessed with the discovery of a treasure; he picks every single one of the leaves. The pine tree is devastated wishing that he had beautiful but less valuable leaves he envisions himself with glittering glass leaves. Which is what he has when he wakes in the morning. And do they shine in the sun! But near evening a storm comes up. The wind blows, and soon the pretty glass leaves are broken on the ground. Shivering in the cold wind the pine tree wishes for plentiful, lush green leaves like his neighbor trees. And in the morning he is full of such leaves….until a goat comes along and eats them all. “Oh, my!” exclaims the tree. “I wish I just had my plain old needles back. I should never have wished to be more important than the other trees in the forest! ” And by next morning his needles have returned. The birds are asking to build nests in his branches because they can be hidden by his needles. And the little pine tree welcomes them vowing to be happy and useful with all that he is. And we could add, all that God created him to be!

“Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Luke 12:15

According to the dictionary, Covetousness means: feeling or showing a very strong desire for something that you do not have and especially for something that belongs to someone else.  It has the additional meaning of being marked by inordinate desire for wealth or possessions or for another’s possessions as well as having a craving for possessions.  The man in the story was suffering for covetousness for sure but what about us?  Have we ever been guilty of this?

It was common for the people of the time of Jesus to bring their disputes to trusted rabbis for a decision.  As we see in this story today, Jesus refused to get involved in people’s disputes about money, but he uses the opportunity to enlighten his Apostles on what their attitude towards material possessions should be.  He has something to say to not only those who have an abundance of possessions but also to those who have few.

To those who were listening that had an abundance of possessions he told them the parable of the rich fool.  We just heard this story.  In the story, the man has been blessed with more crops than he can possibly store in the barns and other builds that he has.  His solution is to pull down those barns and build bigger ones.  He builds the bigger barns and stores all he has and feels pretty good about what he was able to accomplish.  Then an angel comes and tells him that this night he is going to die.  All that work was for nothing.

Two things stand out in this story.  He never saw beyond himself.  This parable, unlike the others that Jesus uses, is full of the words, I, me, my and mine.  These are called aggressive pronouns.  The rich fool in the story was aggressively self-centered.  When this man had an excess of goods, the one thing that never entered his mind was to share them with others.  His whole attitude was the reverse of Christianity.  Rather than denying himself he aggressively affirmed himself; rather than finding his happiness in giving he tried to conserve it by keeping.

John Wesley’s rule of life was to save all he could and give all he could.  When he was at Oxford University, he had an income of thirty pounds a year.  He lived on twenty-eight, and he gave away two.  When his income increased over the years to sixty, then ninety and then finally to one hundred and twenty, he still lived on twenty-eight, and he gave away the rest. The Romans had a saying that money was like sea-water; the more a man drank, the thirstier he became.  As long as our desire is that of the rich fool, our desire will always be to get more – and that is the reverse of Christianity.

The second point is that he never saw beyond this present world. All his plans were based on his life here in this world.  The one who never remembers that there is another world is destined some day for the grimmest of grim shocks.  We spend far too much time storing up things in our existing barns and not worrying at all about what comes next.

But Jesus also has something to say to those who have few possessions.  The one thought that Jesus forbids in this passage is an anxious thought or worry.  Jesus does not want us to live a shiftless, wild life.  There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in our life.  What Jesus said was do your best and leave the rest to God.  This takes great faith.  Just like the prayer discussion we had last week, not worrying about the future takes enormous faith.

Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God.” We pray in the Lord’s prayer that God’s kingdom was a place on earth where his will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven.  So what Jesus is saying here is that our lives need to bend, not to our will, but to obeying God’s will and that we need to rest easy and be content with that will for our lives.

So many people work for things and heap up things that by their very nature will not last.  Rust and mold will get to them, and they spoil.  Just like last time when we spoke about the manna that God provided to those in the wilderness.  They were only to gather what they needed if the gathered more it spoiled.

Work for things that will last forever, things that you will not leave behind when you leave this earth, but the things that you can take with you.

If we clothe our souls in the garments of honor and purity and goodness, nothing on earth can take that away from us.  If we seek the treasures of heaven, our hearts will be fixed in heaven; but if we seek the treasures of earth, our hearts will be tied to this earth – and one day we will have to say goodbye to them for as the Spanish proverb says: there are no pockets in a shroud.”

 

Separation of Church and Politics

In the final season of the NBC drama West Wing, it is the time for a presidential election.  Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda is running for the Republican nomination.  His faith becomes an issue in the campaign, and he makes an innocent statement about church that lands him in some hot water.  After a meeting in the Oval Office with President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, the two men are sitting in the White House kitchen eating ice cream out of rather large containers.  They are discussing faith and Vinick asks whatever happened to the separation of church and state.  Bartlet replies that it is just fine but the separation of church and politics, well that is a different issue all together.

Much has been made about the faith of the candidates running for President of the United States.  Much has also been made of the faith of the present occupant of the Oval Office, but I shall leave that for the moment.  Faith is a very private thing, but when it becomes an issue in a campaign, I guess the people have a right to know.  My faith teaches me that it is our actions and not our words that determine our faith.  In other words, how do we act and are we acting in a manner that brings shame and disgrace to our faith or are we acting in a way that brings glory to God?

The United States of America is a complicated place; it always has and it always will.  Sure we were a nation founded on the Judeo-Christian principles, but we were not founded as a Christian, or any other religion, nation.  One of the freedoms we hold dear is the right to free exercise of our religion and that the government will not interfere with that.  With that said, I am not sure how anyone could aspire to the high office of president and not be a person of faith, no matter what that faith is.  I also feel it is important to know what influences our leaders.

Kristin Du Mez, of the Religion and Politics Blog, has written a piece about the faith of Hilary Clinton.  She makes the case that Secretary Clinton has held her faith in private and did not wear it on her sleeve.  As a common rule Democrats do not court the Evangelical vote, so the need always to talk about one’s religion does not usually come into play.

Here are few words from that piece:

Although Clinton has confessed a certain reticence when it comes to “advertising” her faith, and a preference for “walking the walk” rather than risk trivializing “what has been an extraordinary sense of support and possibility” throughout her life, she has consistently testified to her Methodist faith over the course of her long career in politics.

Skeptics may be surprised to learn that Clinton taught Sunday school and delivered guest sermons on Methodism as first lady of Arkansas, and that she devoted an entire chapter of her first book, It Takes a Village, to the importance of faith. They may not know that in her memoir Hard Choices, she credits the Wesleyan mantra, “Do all the good you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” with prompting her to enter electoral politics, and later to leave the Senate and accept President-Elect Obama’s invitation to become secretary of state. In short, Clinton depicts her entire career in public service as a means of putting her faith into action.

Read the rest here

Living your faith in public is fine, but it better sync up with what it means to be the faith you profess.

Teach us to Pray

A Sermon on Luke 11:1-13


What we have just heard from the Scriptures is a very early version of what we no call the Lord’s prayer. When I call us to pray this prayer here at the Church, I usually say; “let us pray in the words our Savior taught us.” or words similar to those. Although the prayer has changed, and other Gospel record this event just a bit different, the meaning behind those words has not changed. This is in some ways the perfect prayer and the only prayer we need.

I have spent a significant portion of my ministry involved in teaching people about prayer. Notice I did not say teaching people to pray that is something you have to do all on your own. But there is a certain way that we should pray, and that is what Jesus is teaching his apostles in this Scripture today.

The prayer starts out with an address; Jesus address this prayer to God the Father. This is a classic Christian start to any prayer, just like a letter you might be writing it is important that the prayer is addressed to the right person. But I want to point out that we are addressing not some tyrannical being on some distant shore or sitting on a cloud, but we use the intimate term of father because God is a parent who delights to supply his children with what they need, not what they want, but what they need.

I always remind people that it is okay to pray for people, we do it here in church during the pastoral prayer, and I hope we do it daily in our prayers. But we pray that God’s will be done in each and every situation and in each and every life that we encounter. God knows what we need before we do and so our prayer should be for us to walk in the will of God and that God’s will, and not ours, be done. We do say, “your will be done.”

But I want to point out another thing here, the prayer beings by addressing God because before we ask for anything we have to give God the glory that God so deserves. Only when we give God the glory and put God in his rightful place in our lives will all the other things in our lives start to come together.

I like to think that I am a person of prayer. Sure I run hot and cold like most people and some days I spend time in prayer and other days it’s nothing more that “O God it’s morning again.” But I can tell when I have spent time with God and when I have not spent time with God. Maybe I am short with other people, perhaps I am aggravated all day, it could be anything. But on the days I take the time to spend with God things seems to be just a little bit better. It puts my mind and my thoughts in the right place and sets my feet on the right path.

Our prayer should cover all of life but should also focus on the present reality and our current needs. We pray “give us this day our daily bread.” This harkens back to the time in the wilderness as recorded in Exodus 16:11-21. God had led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt, and they spent time wandering in the desert. They asked God to supply their needs, and God sent them manna. Manna was a sort of dough like substance that they would make all kinds of things out of. God warned them to take only what they needed for that day as the rest would spoil. Each morning new manna would appear, and they would gather. This required trust, faith in God that God would supply what they needed. Those who did not trust found out that what was left rotted overnight.

We pray in the present moment for current needs. Only the needs of the day should be gathered in prayer, we are not to worry about the uncertain future, but we are to live in the moment one day at a time. We trust that God will help us each day to live that day the way God wants us to live. When we do not trust God, we are saying that we know better than God, and we can do it ourselves. We pray that “Thy will be done.” And we trust in God and leave it to God.

Prayer covers past sins, and we ask for forgiveness, and we also seek the grace to forgive others and ourselves. You have heard me mention this before, and I am sure you will hear me say this again, but forgiveness is essential to the Christian life. “forgive us our debts, trespasses, sins, as we forgive those who are in debited to us, who sin against us, or who trespass against us.” We forgive because we have been forgiven!

Forgiveness is a struggle but our entire life as Christians is a struggle. Jesus never once said, and I think we tend to forget this, that if we follow the way our life will be easy. It will not be easy nor was it meant to be easy. Following the way of Christ is challenging and forgiveness is part of that journey. Forgiveness is not about the other person, and it does not matter if they accept forgiveness or not or if they apologize to you or not. Forgiveness is about you. The withholding of forgiveness darkens the soul.

Remember years ago there was a TV commercial about lungs and smoking? There would be this beautiful pink lung and then a nasty black one. Our soul can get like that when we withhold forgiveness; it darkens it just a little, and it makes the rest of our life just that much harder to deal with. When we withhold forgiveness, we give power over us to the other person or persons involved.

Shortly after the shooting incident at Virginia Tech, I was asked to travel to the campus to be part of a team of clergy that would be available to students that had been involved that day. We came from all parts of the country to be available on the quad outside of the main administration building and also to hold group sessions in the evening. On the quad was an impromptu memorial to those who had been slain that day. As I walked around the circle, I was struck by the fact that the shooter was also included, and the saying on campus was “32 are gone because one was lost.” They were not letting him off the hook, they did not forget what happened, they were saying that they were not going to allow hate to rule their lives. Holding back forgiveness leads to hate and hate leads to destruction.

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of this prayer comes with the words, “lead us not into temptation.” Perhaps a better word here would be “trail” rather than “temptation.” Again, we have not been promised that life will be easy. We face trials each and every day and what we are asking here in this prayer is that we will not go through it alone, in fact, we never do. I want to make this point clear; God will never abandon us, EVER! God loves you; God cares for you, and God made a promise that he will never abandon us. Sure we might leave God, but God is always there, standing right beside us all along the journey. Friends will come and go in our lives, but God is the one constant, God is always there, there is nothing we can do to make him leave us or abandon us. EVER!

There is an old saying, “God answers every prayer, sometimes the answer is no.” Prayer is a conversation, a conversation between God and us and yes we have to listen God speaks to us, but we have to hear the voice.

There is a story of man who hears that the flood waters are coming. The TV news tells him to evacuate, but he says that God will protect him. As the flood waters are rising, his neighbor comes and offers to take him to a shelter. He tells the neighbor no, God will protect him. The flood waters continue to rise, and a man in a boat comes and offers to take him to safety, the man replies that he trusts in God, and God will take care of him. He ends up on the roof, and a helicopter comes, and the pilot says he will drop a rope and pull him to safety. The man says no thanks; God will protect me. Well, the man dies and standing at the pearly gates he is mad at God. He yells at God he thought God would protect him. God responds I sent you a TV newsman, a neighbor, a boat, and a helicopter what more do you want?

God speaks to us in all sorts of ways we just need to be listening for his voice. To listen to God is to listen deep within ourselves, to hear to God is to listen with our very souls. Prayer needs to be more than a laundry list of what we want or what we need; prayer is conversation. Take time to have the conversation; it will change your life.

Ted Cruz and the Non-endorsement

 

Cruz-RNC-Cleveland-No-Endorsement-998x665

It is no secret that I do not like much of anything that Ted Cruz stands for.  I think he is a dangerous theocrat that needs to be stopped.  However, I have to applaud his decision not to endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention this past week.

It took great courage to walk out on that stage and do what he did, I believe he ended his political career with the Republican Party, but he showed, maybe for his reasons, that we should put the country before party and not vote for someone just because they are a Republican or a Democrat.

I have always been uneasy with a politician who seamlessly switch from trashing them as opponents to loving them as their party’s nominee.  In my opinion, they sell out their integrity when they do this, and I have to give Ted Cruz credit for not doing that.  After his speech the other night he gave his reasons for not endorsing Mr. Trump; “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father.”

I will admit I did not watch one minute of the convention, and I will not watch one minute of the Democrats this coming week either, but as reported, at the end of Cruz’s speech he told America that they should not stay home on Election Day that they need to vote: “Don’t stay home in November. Stand and speak and vote your conscience.”

I think the party of Lincoln has lost its way; I do not believe they are evil just misguide.  I also do not believe that Ted Cruz is the one to bring it back, but he is right, we all need to vote on Election Day.  Many thousands of people have died to give us this right, and it will disrespect their memory if we simply stay home.

So thank you, Ted Cruz, for being one of the lone voices of sense in an otherwise crazy convention.

God Will Never Leave Us, EVER!

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

One of the biggest lies circulating the political spectrum these days is that God will abandon the United States and us if we vote for Hillary Clinton.  This is a lie because simply put; God will never leave us, and he makes that promise to us in the Book of Deuteronomy:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

On Tuesday night, Dr. Ben Carson took the stage at the Republican National Convention and brought his version of theology into the mix.  He had this to say about the future of America:

“If we continue to allow them to take God out of our lives, God will remove himself from us, we will not be blessed, and our nation will go down the tubes.”

I believe Dr. Caron to be a brilliant surgeon but as a theologian he is horrible.  As the quote from Deuteronomy says, “he will never leave you or forsake you.”  God loves us unconditionally that means God loves us, and will continue to love us, no matter who we vote for!

There seems to be this version of America that we are the new Israel and that we are God’s chosen people.  This is what is known in theological circles as Dominion Theology. Simply put Dominion theology states that Christians need to win back the sinful secular society and replace it with a theocratic version of America that they believe once existed.

George Grant, wrote in his 1987 book The Changing of the Guard: Biblical Principles for Political Action wrote:

“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ — to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness…..But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice…. Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ.”

I am a theologian and not a historian, but America was not founded as a Christian nation, and my theology teaches me that what is being put forward here is heresy of the first degree as well as very dangerous.

All of humanity has been created in the image and likeness of a God who loves us no matter what.  After the flood came God made this covenant with Noah and through him to all of us: “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” Genesis 9:11. In other words, God will NEVER leave us no matter what.

Telling people that God will leave them or that God does not love them is antithetical to the message of the Gospel.  God so loved the world that he sent his son… (John 3:16) this is the basis of Christianity.  God is an all loving God that embraces each of us no matter what color skin we have or where we come from.  God sent Jesus to show us the way and the way that Jesus taught us was to love God and love our neighbor as well as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.

If we buy into the notion that God cares who we vote for then, we buy into the idea that God has given the United States of America a superior place among the other nations of the world and simply is not true and wrong theology.