Thursday, January 30, 2014

Preaching on the Edge

This week I heard Homiletics Professor Dr. Jana Childers point out that when one person is listening to another person she receives over 50% of the message through the speaker’s body language and only 7% through words; the rest comes through tone of voice. For those of us who experience hard labor in giving birth to our words and who thus love them like only the mother who brought them into this world can love them, that’s a humbling statistic.

Still, it got me to thinking about what my body language says about my message.

Dr. Childers said that when the preacher is speaking about something that calls for concentrated thought on the part of the congregation, it is good for the preacher to stay behind the lectern. Frankly, I have always preferred to stay behind the furniture. I used to think that was because I liked to have some protection between the congregation and me. Now I know that it’s because I want my listeners to give serious thought to that to which I’ve been giving serious thought. And I really do.

Dr. Childers also pointed out that when the preacher does move around, it is important not just to walk back and forth; that, she said, is “the physical equivalent of a monotone” and it is for the preacher’s benefit. She said that if the preacher is going to move, it should be in a triangular movement; that is, he wants to move toward the congregation and then back. It is about eye contact and personal connection.

Such triangular movement is difficult in our church’s pulpit, which is not very deep (please avoid cheap shots about any obvious parallels with the preacher’s sermons) and which is crowded with pulpit furniture, speakers, and musician’s stands (all good things, mind you). If I want to approach the congregation, I have to walk down several steps because, like many Baptist churches, we don’t really have an altar; we have steps. (Oh, remind me to tell you about the sermon during which I walked around among the worshipers threatening to slap one of them. I had a point. Really.) Ordinarily, though, I don’t walk toward the congregation.

Not long ago, some of my parishioners said that I scared them when I preached. This surprised me, given that my hard-earned reputation is one of mellow, reasoned graciousness. As it turns out, they were not talking about my words or about my delivery; they were talking about a habit I have of sometimes perching on the edge of the platform, the front half of my feet jutting out over the edge, while I am preaching. I wasn’t even aware that I did it (which is not a good thing, since Dr. Childers says that our movement should be purposeful). “I’m afraid you’re going to fall off the platform,” these caring ladies—they were all ladies, no doubt because the men either (a) hadn’t noticed my predicament or (b) didn’t really care if I fell—said to me.

To which I replied, “Well, if I do fall, at least y’all will remember me.” Or something like that.

I was telling Dr. Childers (who has lived and taught in San Francisco for three decades but had no trouble dealing with my accent) about my perching (perching preaching?) habit. I told her that when I started paying attention to it I realized that I do it when I am at what I regard as the dangerous or challenging or critical point in the sermon; it happens at the moment at which I know that I am in danger of going over a cliff over which I truly believe I must go if I am to be a follower of Jesus and over which people must go with me if they are going to be followers of Jesus.

It is usually, frankly, a cliff over which I am afraid I will go alone.

“It would be helpful to reflect on what that says about a preacher’s vulnerability,” Dr. Childers said.

“Indeed it would,” I replied …

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Does Your Light Shine?

(A sermon based on Matthew 4:12-23 for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany)

Did you hear about Rosetta waking up last Monday (January 20, 2014) after being asleep for two and a half years? Well, it happened. Rosetta is a space probe that was launched by the European Space Agency in 2004. Its primary task is to study asteroids. Soon it will enter into orbit around an asteroid and train its instruments on the body in order to study it. Most interestingly, it will this fall attempt to land a probe on the surface of the asteroid that will be equipped to take and analyze samples from down to eight inches below the surface.

Last Monday at 5:00 a.m. EST a wake-up call was sent to Rosetta which was then about 418 million miles from the sun. It took a while for the sleeping spacecraft to turn on its heaters and warm up enough to become operational but finally, at 1:18 p.m. a signal was received from the ship. Rosetta was awake and ready to get back to work.

But why was Rosetta put to sleep in the first place? It was because it got to a place where it was so far from the sun—out around where Jupiter orbits the sun— that its solar panels could not sufficiently power the craft.

When you’re powered by light you need to stay close enough to the source of the light to keep your batteries charged or else you might have to shut down.

Jesus, the Gospel of John comes right out and says, is the Light of the world. The Gospel of Matthew says the same thing in a not-so-direct way. Matthew tells us that, following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus moved into the land that had once belonged to the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun. At least two things were significant about that territory. First, the prophet Isaiah had spoken a word of hope to that land some eight hundred years before after it had been invaded and decimated by the armies of Assyria, a word that had to do with God’s light shining into their darkness in the person of a great king (Isaiah 9:1-7); Matthew presents Jesus’ entry into that territory as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Second, that area was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” or “Galilee of the nations” because so many international people lived there. Matthew, then, is telling us that Jesus’ ministry was a fulfillment of God’s purposes and that those purposes included the sharing of his ministry and message with all people.

There is no such thing these days as a territory that is not in darkness and that thus needs the light of God to shine in it. And you would be hard-pressed to find a place that is not populated by many different races, religions, nationalities, and ethnicities. God sent Jesus to bring the light not only to Galilee and to the people that lived there but to bring that light to all places and to all people. How does God do that?

He does it through you and me; he does it through those who follow Jesus.

Jesus never planned to do it alone; one of the first things that Jesus did when he undertook his ministry was to call people to follow him. So in our text, we see Jesus move to Galilee, begin preaching the coming of the kingdom, and summon Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him. He called them to join with him in his mission of sharing God’s love and grace. He calls us to join with him in that same mission. And what Jesus calls us to do he empowers and equips us by God’s Spirit to do.

Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says that those who follow him are the light of the world (5:14); to us he says, “You are the light of the world.” We are to Jesus like the moon and planets are to our sun; like the light the moon and planets give is reflected from the sun, so is the light we give reflected from Jesus. The closer we stay to him, the more of his light we will reflect; the farther away from him we get, the less of his light we will reflect.

Yet I need to qualify that last statement. The time would come when Peter, Andrew, James, and John would have to go places that Jesus did not go; the most vital part of their ministry would come after Jesus had ascended back to his Father in heaven. Jesus also sends us to places that stretch and challenge us; he sends us into situations and to people that are far removed from and far different than the situations and people with which he dealt and that can be far removed from and far different than the situations and people with which and whom we are comfortable dealing.

Still, we need to find ways to stay close to him wherever we go. And the best ways remain such practices as prayer, Bible study, worship, and service. We may have wandered far away from the Light but we can always come back into range.

Like Rosetta, if we get too far away from the source of our power we might find ourselves being shut down or at least becoming less effective. But also like Rosetta, when our journey takes us back close enough to Jesus he will power us back up so that we can continue—and eventually complete—our mission.

Please note that Jesus did not call just one follower; he called four on the way to calling many. Jesus never intended to carry out his mission by himself and he never intended for any one of us to carry out our mission by ourselves. Our personal commitment can and should be “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” but think how much more effective our many little lights can be together.

Do you remember the story of Gideon? What if Gideon had tried to surround the enemy camp by himself? What if he alone had broken his jar containing his torch? No discernible effect would have been realized. But three hundred men broke their three hundred jars and their three hundred torches blazed forth which sent the enemy into a panic.

Just think of what God can do through us as we all stay close to Jesus so that we can reflect his light. Just think of how much darkness Jesus could dispel through us as we shine together …

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Abide with Him

(A sermon based on John 1:29-42 for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany)

My good wife and I met in college and it was on and around the campus that we did our initial dating. After a while, she invited me to go home with her for a weekend. So we drove from Macon through Cordele and on through Albany until we arrived at her hometown of Leary out of which we drove three more miles until we arrived at her parents’ house. We drove up in the front yard and she said, “Well, that’s where I live.” And then we turned around and went back to Macon.

That is not, of course, what really happened. We got out of the car and went inside the house where she hugged her mother and father and introduced me to them—and then we spent the entire weekend there. We stayed there. And because we stayed there, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and I got to know each other better. But we did not get to know each other as well as we would have had I moved in with them and lived with them—then I would have, to use a good biblical word, abided with them.

As it turns out, I think that the only person in the world that I have really gotten to know and that has really gotten to know me is my wife. That’s because we have lived with each other—we have abided with each other—for three and a half decades now. That’s how you get to know someone—you spend time—lots of time, abundant time, constant time—with them.

And you spend it directly with them, not through an intermediary. I could have gotten to know Anna or Cheryl or Pam or another of Debra’s friends and they could have told me a lot about her, but eventually, when they figured out that Debra was who I needed, they would have said to me, “Behold! There is the one you need! Go to her!” That would have been—that was—better than hanging out with her friends talking about her.

John the Baptist had been preaching that people should prepare for the coming of the Lord. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” John proclaimed, and he baptized people as they repented of their sins. One day Jesus came to John to be baptized and John saw the Spirit of God come down like a dove on Jesus. When John next saw Jesus (on the day after he baptized him?) he said, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (v. 29). The following day, John was standing with two of his disciples when Jesus came walking by and John said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (v. 36). And John’s disciples left John and followed Jesus.

John was great but they didn’t need to stay with John; they needed to go to Jesus.

When Jesus asked them what they were looking for, they replied by asking him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said, “Come and see.” And they went and saw. But they did more than see---they stayed; they abided. To find out who Jesus was, what Jesus was about, and how Jesus would have them be and what he would have them do, they had to stay. They had to abide.

And so do we. It’s good that we go to see where he lives; it is good that we go to our Bibles and to our church and to our prayers, for Jesus is surely there. But we cannot really know him and we cannot really know what he has to say to us if we just stand in his front yard and look at his house or if we just glance in passing at his Book or if we just pray afterthought prayers. We have to settle in and live with him; we have to abide with him.

So when we come to our Bible, let’s abide with him. Let’s spend real and quiet time prayerfully contemplating how the Lord comes to us in Scripture. I would suggest taking a small passage—a parable, a psalm, a paragraph—and reading it slowly and prayerfully several times a day for several days.

When we come to our times of prayer and contemplation, let’s abide with him. Let’s find time when we can be alone with Jesus and really talk with and listen to him.

When we come to worship, let’s abide with him. Let’s come with no other agendas but to praise God and to listen to Jesus. Let’s come focused and ready and eager to be with Jesus.

And here’s something that we might not think about: when we come to other people—because he is present in them—let’s abide with them. Let’s abide with our brothers and sisters in Christ in whom Christ dwells and let’s abide with people out there in whom we can see glimpses of Christ.

Let’s not settle for intermediaries. After all, it is the resurrected Lord with whom we, through the Holy Spirit, have a real and ongoing relationship. The Bible is good because it points us to God in Jesus Christ; the Church is good because it points us to God in Jesus Christ; prayer is good because it points us to God in Jesus Christ; other people are good because they point us to God in Jesus Christ. Abiding in them provides a means for us to grow in abiding in him.

How important is such abiding? It is all-important. Listen to what Jesus said to his disciples on the night before he was crucified:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete
(John 15:4-11).

It is the branch that stays attached to the plant that lives and flourishes. There is a difference between us and a branch, though: a branch has no choice in the matter …

Sunday, January 12, 2014

After Baptism

(A sermon based on Matthew 3:13-17 & Acts 10:34-48 for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

God came from outside space and time to enter this world of space and time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth--born of a woman, laid in a manger, announced by angels, worshiped by shepherds, honored by Wise Men, and, when he grew up, baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptizer. In undergoing baptism, Jesus did at least two things. First, he identified with sinful humanity. Second, he showed himself to be God’s humble King.

After his baptism and his subsequent test in the wilderness (be aware that baptism leads us into testing and into dangerous territory), Jesus came to Galilee and then to the rest of Israel, to bring in his person, his words, and his actions the good news of that peace—that wholeness, soundness, and integrity—was available through him. Jesus came to people and helped them find that peace by helping them to overcome what afflicted and hurt them.

Then, because Jesus was obedient to his Father and because he was faithful to his calling to humble himself and to display God’s way in the world, he came to Calvary where they crucified him. After three days he came back into the world as the resurrected Lord and came to his followers who were privileged to be witnesses of his resurrection—he even ate and drank with them! When he came to them he commanded them to continue his ministry by preaching the good news to people.

So goes my summary (with a little interpretation) of the sermon that Simon Peter preached at Cornelius’s house. Make no mistake about it: Peter came to Cornelius’s house only because of the events that he recounted in his sermon. Not only did Peter come to be where he was that day but Peter also came to be who he was on that day because of what Jesus had done in his life.

What was the big deal about Cornelius and about Peter being at his house? Well, Cornelius was a Gentile who was also an important Roman military official; he was also a “God-fearer,” which meant that while he had not converted to Judaism, he “was a devout man who feared God with all his household” and who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2). One day while praying, Cornelius had a vision; in that vision an angel came to him and told him to send for Peter, which Cornelius did.

The next day, when the men that Cornelius had sent to summon Peter were close to arriving at their destination, Peter had a vision, too. In his, something resembling a sheet came down from heaven full of all kinds of animals and birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter replied, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In case Peter hadn’t gotten it, the same thing happened two more times (Acts 10:13-16). Peter, not surprisingly, didn’t get it. But he did wonder about it.

Just then the messengers of Cornelius arrived; meanwhile, the Spirit of God had been whispering to Peter than when some men came for him, he was to go with them because they had been sent by God. So the next day he went with them to Caesarea where Cornelius lived.

When Peter came to Cornelius’s house, Peter told him, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection” (Acts 10:28-29). Cornelius then recounted his vision, ending by saying, “So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say” (Acts 10:33).

And that’s when it came to Peter; that’s when the meaning of the vision of the animals on the sheet became clear to him. It didn’t mean that he was supposed to eat some animals he didn’t think he should eat; it didn’t even mean just that he shouldn’t consider anybody unclean, which he had already figured out. No, it meant much more than that. It meant that God was pulling the big surprise; it meant that the bigness of God had swallowed up the smallness of people; it meant that amazing grace was truly amazing—it meant, as Peter said, that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-35). It meant that Jesus “is Lord of all” (v. 36); the Son of God who sits beside his Father ruling the universe does not limit his lordship to just a few people. It meant that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v. 43).

Then, while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on everybody who was listening to him and they spoke in tongues and praised God. Since God had come to them in that way, Peter very reasonably asked, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So they were all baptized in the name of Jesus; after they were baptized, the asked Peter to stay with them for a few days; salvation, baptism, and the Spirit create fellowship among us.

After his baptism, Jesus came to people to share God’s love and grace with them.

After our baptism, we come to people to share God’s love and grace with them. Like Peter, we have to grow into it, but with God’s help, we can and we will …

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mystery Date

(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday 2014)

January 6 is the Christian “mystery date”; it is the date that we celebrate the uncovering of the great mystery to which Paul refers in our text: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). The great mystery that had been hidden away in God’s heart and that was revealed only in the coming of Christ Jesus was that Jews—who had been regarded as God’s chosen people—and Gentiles—who had not been so regarded—were in fact all God’s people through the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

The mystery that was revealed was that Jesus came to draw both Jews and Gentiles into God’s family. And, since in the first century way of looking at things there were only two kinds of people, namely, Jews and Gentiles, the mystery that was revealed was that Jesus came to make a way for all people to be in God’s family.

So what do the Wise Men have to do with the revelation of the mystery? Well, the Wise Men were Gentiles; they were learned astrologers who most likely came from Persia. Even though they were “outsiders”—that is, supposedly outside the promises of God—God revealed to them through the star where the Christ child had been born and by the light of that same star led them to him. The Wise Men recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah but it was God who drew them—who called them—to the Christ Child.

The fact that Gentiles are part of the family of God is old news to us; we are all Gentiles and we are the heirs of a 2000-year-old tradition of Gentile Christianity. Back in Paul’s day, though, the inclusion of Gentiles was still a new development and it was for many people a troubling one. This whole “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9) business was still radical.

Who are we kidding? It is still radical. We still tend to think that to be one of God’s people—to be part of our family—you need to look certain ways and to be certain ways. We still—some of us despite our best efforts to change and others of us because we make little effort to change—remain very narrow and limited in the ways we view the identities of our sisters and brothers in Christ or of our potential sisters and brothers in Christ.

But let’s not kid ourselves over the possibility that we can change, either. Think of the Apostle Paul. He started out as a man so committed to protecting the religion in which he had grown up and in which he had been trained that he was willing and even eager to participate in the arrest and execution of the members—Jewish members, mind you—of the new Christian sect that had arisen since the resurrection of Jesus. Following the vision of the resurrected Christ that he experienced as he traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians, though, his heart was changed in regard to the people who made up the Church and when his heart was changed his mind followed. As he progressed in his understanding, he came to the realization that salvation in Christ was for everybody; he was not only tolerant of the inclusion of Gentiles but rather became an enthusiastic advocate for their inclusion. He did not cross his arms and say, “Well, if we must take them, we must take them”; instead, he threw his arms wide open and said, “Come in, my friends.” And to those in the church who did not want them, he advocated for God’s way over their way.

A young man named William Wilberforce was elected to the British Parliament in 1780. After a few years of being interested in nothing but self-promotion and a period of reflection on his life, Wilberforce experienced a spiritual rebirth. Soon, he became committed to ending the slave trade in the British Empire. He and his allies introduced bills to ban the slave trade in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805, all of which were defeated. After much sacrifice and after enduring many personal attacks, Wilberforce finally saw his bill passed in 1807. His Christian faith changed the way that he viewed people who were different than he was and it caused him to do whatever he could to end oppression against them. The grace of God changed his heart, his mind, and his actions (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/activists/wilberforce.html?start=1).

Wilberforce had a great gift to offer and he offered it. We have a great gift to offer, too: full inclusion in the family of God with no respect of persons. God will change our hearts so that we will offer it gladly.

On Thanksgiving morning as we were driving to Yatesville to be with the Ruffin clan we pulled off at a truck stop to get gas. While I was pumping the fuel, Debra headed into the store to get us something to drink. A man guided a golf cart up to her and a little blond-haired four or five-year-old girl hopped out and said to Debra, “You’re invited to join us at the Trucker’s Chapel for a delicious home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner!” Then she threw her arms wide open and exclaimed, “And it’s free for everybody!” We had a great dinner waiting for us but her enthusiasm made us want to stay.

How are our hearts? How are our minds? What do our actions say?

What if we lived lives that said, “You’re invited to join us in the family of God. And it’s free for everybody!”?