Archive for the ‘sermon’ Category

Ordination Sermon

I preached the following sermon for the ordination and installation of a dear friend.  (Installation means the official beginning of one’s ministry at a church.)

Texts:  1 Samuel 3:1-20
Ephesians 4:1-6
Long ago, in a land far far away, it was a gloomy and lonely time.
“The word of the Lord was rare in those times,” we read in 1 Samuel.
As the story of Samuel begins, it stands in the shadow of the ending of the previous book, the book of Judges.  “In those days,” we read in Judges, “there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
To the Biblical writers, the position of having each person decide what is right for himself or herself is not a good place to be.
Leadership is rare in this disorganized time about which we read, this time of “no king in Israel.” The word of the Lord is rare. Every person does what is right in his or her own eyes. Those who have the strength and capability for leadership use their position for their own gain.
There is much evil in this situation — read a bit earlier in 1 Samuel about the priests in their prime, scamming the people and filling their own bellies.  It is like the “wild west,” or like a post-apocalyptic movie such as Mad Max or Waterworld.
In this difficult situation, who is going to hear the Word of the Lord?
— the average man?  probably not.  he’s too busy figuring out his own life from day to day, as it says in Judges
— the average woman?  it doesn’t look that way.  She’s like the average man, just trying to keep it together.
— the priest?  no, too busy filling his own dish with choice leg of lamb.
In such an environment how is the word going to break through?  This is a time when the word is needed but everyone is disconnected, and disaffected.  The word of the Lord would be a shot in the dark in this situation.
We meet a few people in this dire situation. First, an old priest, Eli.  Helping Eli and serving in God’s house is a youngster, Samuel.
The elderly Eli knew his sons were in trouble.  His sons were the priests filling their own bellies at the people’s expense.  God had already spoken to Eli about that.
Eli’s darkness is growing … his eyes don’t work anymore, so his world is dark.  He endures a long night of the soul, knowing his sons were doing evil and knowing God was displeased.
The Word of the Lord would be a shot in the dark in this situation.  So God waits until dark …. until one dark night.
The boy Samuel needs some help figuring out what is happening.  He knows about God, but he does not know God in a personal way.  He’s still a youngster, a doorkeeper and a helper.
It takes a while for him to understand.  God helps him out … speaking to the boy and also showing the divine presence to him.
 Samuel’s job was to open the door of the tabernacle.  His job after that fateful night is to open the door and deliver the word of the Lord to his teacher.
Here’s something the boy did not know…. The elderly leader whose eyesight was failing saw, or perceived that God was up to something.   Eli was waiting for it.  He knew Samuel would have a special role, when Samuel was just a teardrop falling from his mother’s eye.  You see, Eli had encountered Samuel’s mother Hannah back when she was a lonely and sad woman, ashamed because she did not have a child in a world that devalued women without children.  Eli wasn’t sure about Hannah at first, but then he was able to see that her prayers and her tears were connected to God’s plan.
As I mentioned a few moments ago, Eli also knew his sons were in deep trouble.
So God knows God’s plan, and waits.  Eli knows God is up to something, and waits.
The Word is not necessarily comforting to old Eli.  Samuel hates to have to bring it to him.
Yet …  everything is laid out for Samuel to go and do as he is called… doors have already been opened for the young doorkeeper.
I wonder if the whole business of getting up and going to Eli three times in the middle of the night was part of God’s plan.  If somehow it was part of God opening the door for young Samuel.  Samuel, as young as he was, could perhaps dismiss an odd feeling that comes and goes in the middle of the night.  By speaking three times, God shows Samuel that this is important.
I wonder if there’s some closure and maybe even hope for old Eli.  He knows he cannot change the past.  Yet he also now knows …. God has a vision for the future.  God has provided Israel with hope.  As the text says, during this night of revelation, the lamp had not yet gone out.  There is still hope.
So who perceives the word of the Lord in the first few chapters of Samuel?  A sad woman … a boy …an old man who is blind and disappointed.  Unlikely people.  Yet they receive new hope.
In our New Testament reading, Ephesians 4:1-6, we read about hope.
Where is the hope today?  Where is the Word of the Lord?
Who today does not know God?  I’m not necessarily talking about people with no faith whatsoever,  maybe more like people who know God is out there somewhere but haven’t had any reason to put their own faith in this seemingly distant God.
Where is the Word of the Lord today?
— People distrust institutions, corporations, evening news … things we trusted 50 years ago. The Word may not be showing up in the places where we are looking.
— Jobs are gone, and the types of work available now have changed.
— Yet people still want to hear something good… hunger to hear good news.
The Word does show up… in unlikely places… amongst people barely even ready to hear it.
Your new pastor is someone who can help you hear God’s word.
(Here I told a story about the new pastor, who had helped a grief-stricken woman name her frustration and her pain.  After acknowledging these powerful emotions, others who had found the woman to be “difficult” were able to understand her a little better … or at least were able to anticipate how she would act.  So, a door was opened in a situation where people had been closed off from one another.)
What you have here is a person who can open the door for you.  Did you hear in the passage from 1 Samuel how little Samuel opened the door of the temple in the morning?  That was his job, to open the door to God’s house.  Your new pastor will help you open the door.  She will not sugarcoat the word of the Lord for you.  She will help you to hear it.  She will help you to act on it.
She will help you to find hope … hope that begins in unlikely places … like the hope that began with a young man and an elderly man who had lost his sight … like the hope that began in the tabernacle that people didn’t trust anymore …
It’s ok if it takes you a while to hear or understand.  Your pastor said it took her a while to hear the call in her own life.
She will help you live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
Doors have been opened already.  Young Samuel may have thought he was receiving a vision of something completely new … yet God had already shown Eli some vision for the future.
God has already been in front you of laying a foundation of hope….opening doors that you didn’t even realize you needed to go through.  Crossing through some of those door ways can be frightening.
Today, allow God to be at work, opening the door of hope for you.
Lead a life worthy of your calling … you are one body, and there is one Spirit … you have the one hope of your calling.
Thanks be to God for opening the door that leads to hope.

Sermon thoughts: season of Epiphany

Looking over the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the season of Epiphany (time till Lent), I see several accounts of someone feeling called.  We have the call of little Samuel, the call of Jesus’ first disciples, the call of Elisha.

I see a few themes emerging as well:

— Some of these folks seem already primed to hear the call.

Hannah, the mother of Samuel, laid out his career before he could make that decision for himself.  She promised to dedicate him to God… so when he was still a small child, she apprenticed him to the priest Eli.  By the time Samuel hears God calling to him in the night, he has already left the home of his parents, and has made his home in the temple.  So in a way he is primed to hear the call.

What about the call of the first disciples, guys who were fishing for a living and working for their dad?  Family meant so much in ancient cultures – it still means a lot in some cultures today.  However, there’s one thing that primes these fishermen for a call to leave:  they are already landless.

In the foundational thoughts of the Hebrew Scriptures, so much is about land, and keeping land in the family, knowing which land belonged to your tribe, and so on.  But when we meet Mary and Joseph, they are already living in Nazareth, a different place than the “family land” of Bethlehem.  The fishermen who become disciples, presumably, do not have a family farm.  All the land is occupied by Rome and Roman puppet kings.

How we have already been primed to receive a call, to take the next step?  Infant baptism is a sign and seal of making us ready, like the mother Hannah dedicating her baby to God.  Our spiritual formation in worship, Christian education, and private devotion helps us live in God’s reality, while at the same time living in the reality of “powers” that control our land, our income, and so on.

— Sometimes the call meets with resistance.  

Elisha is upset that his master Elijah is going to leave.  He tries to stall the inevitable, accompanying Elijah on his last journey.  He asks (desperately?) for a double share of Elijah’s spirit.  Jonah resists his call to preach to Nineveh.  Nathaniel seems skeptical about the call at first:  “what good can come out of Nazareth?”

— How do we know a call is legitimate?  

Samuel’s teacher Eli realizes the boy is receiving  a call from God, after a voice has awoken the boy several times during the night.  Jesus demonstrates his call by teaching, healing, and freeing people from demonic forces.  (Of course Jesus’ demonstration of power leads to theme #2, resistance to his call.)  Jonah’s preaching is successful, but he doubts the efficacy of it, or still resents God calling him in the first place.

So a call from God may not appear to us to be rock solid or crystal clear.  Even if we clearly know the call is legitimate, we still have to implement it, in a world of ever-changing circumstances.

not in vain

Tomorrow I’m preaching before our presbytery, which is more than a little intimidating.  But I’m encouraged, knowing a former presbytery colleague who has moved will be preaching before his presbytery on the same day!

Here are some sketches from my sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.  Even after the sermon is over, I believe I will still be thinking about these issues.

Mostly, I’m thinking about the mainline church.  I have the privilege of working with people (i.e., young adults) that are much coveted by mainline congregations, who have seen their numbers declining over the past few decades.  Many folks in the mainline church just come across as  sad … but it doesn’t have to be that way.

a child in Guatemala checking out our 2008 college group

Some key words from Paul really strike me as I get ready to deliver this sermon.  Here, Paul is writing about the basic Christian message, which is something that gives him great joy.  But, if you read carefully, a lot of pain seeps through the page.  He keeps emphasizing how he was “the least of the apostles,” and he uses the phrase “in vain” twice.  Somehow that strikes an off note here.  Why write about all the great things God has done and then muse about God’s work being in vain?

I wonder if Paul was at the edge of what he could take from various people:  people who insisted on everything looking good, people who said that anyone who was less than perfect was not of God.

I wonder if that’s why we mainline American Christians are in so much of a mental and spiritual tangle:  for a long time, we looked darn good, and it got the best of us.

As a campus minister, I go on a fair amount of mission trips, and every time the participants get upset at how things look wherever we go.  Why aren’t there more social services in Country X, so that the streets wouldn’t be full of beggars?  Why aren’t the buildings better constructed?  Why is there a dirt floor here–there are babies crawling on it!  No one actually says it, but the truth is, we have a lot of trouble seeing the work of God unless everything is new and shiny.

Thankfully, by the end of the mission trips, most people learn to see things differently.  They learn to see that God’s grace is not in vain.  They learn to see the hard work God does in the most strenuous of circumstances.  (Sort of like the hard work Jesus had to do with Paul!)

Anywhere we might go, whether far away or next door, someone is yearning for a word from the Lord.  Someone is feeling like (to borrow from Paul and Matthew) “the least of these,” “untimely born”, or that everything has been in vain.

Can we still be used for God’s purposes?  Isn’t there still work for us to do?  Can we, the people who used to look great, allow grace to shine through our tarnished shell?

what to do on Sunday

This past Sunday I preached at First Greenville, but the good old CD recorder wouldn’t work … so here are the notes from my sermon, for those who wanted a recording.  (For those of you who don’t attend First Greenville, just know that I use few notes or none at all, so this is pretty rough…)


Matthew 12:1-8, 7/24/11

We were made to worship and serve God.

  1. Famous question from the Westminster Catechism — what is the chief end of man?  To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
  2. You can see bits of this purpose of glorifying & enjoying God peeking through when:
  • you’re on a mountaintop or see a beautiful sunrise,
  • or there is a crisis and you drop everything to serve those in need

Often we don’t worship and serve as we should.  Sin gets in the way and distorts the connection God wants to have with us.

  1. God created commandments to help heal the rift, give us a bridge to reconnect, remind us of our true purpose
  2. Many of the commandments are about how you live your everyday life:  keep the Sabbath holy, don’t covet or lie or steal, honor your father and mother
  3. In your experience, you may have seen how not following the commandments can lead to difficulty:
  • If you get off-track with your spiritual life you feel distant from God.
  • If your relationship with your loved ones turns sour, it impacts your whole life.
  • If you run with a crowd that cheats and steals and lies, chances are you’ll do those things too.

So the commandments are a help, to turn and re-turn to the right direction.

There’s a funny thing about commandments, though.  Some people wind up worshiping them instead of the God who created them.  This is the problem Jesus experienced.   Other rabbis were asking similar questions about the purpose of the Law (you may have heard the argument about whether to leave an ox that has fallen into a ditch on the Sabbath.  What if your livelihood depends on that animal?)

Jesus leads us to some tough questions:

  • Do we serve the Law or serve the God who gave the Law?
  •  And does the Law serve God and God’s creation, or does it serve itself?

Jesus engaged his opponents with a theological and Scriptural debate, drawing from the sacred texts of the Law, the history of the Kings of Israel and Judah, and the prophets.

I wonder if people worship commandments, and end up mis-using them, because they are angry.  They believe in a mean, vengeful, and vindictive concept of God, and in their anger they will use anything to bolster their belief.  The Laws of the Hebrew Bible, when twisted into the service of angry people, can become weapons.

The facts emerging about this shooter in Norway indicate that he believed in a twisted type of God — a God who wants everyone to look the same, believe the same, and act the same, and issues severe dictates to keep everyone in line.  I don’t believe this type of being is God — it’s something other, something evil, an idol.

The problem with this idol is that it promises security and freedom from people who bother us.  It promises us life at the expense of other people’s lives.  But the world can’t be forever twisted to meet our demands.  If we allow this vindictive idol to have space in our hearts, then we cannot handle the world around us.  Changes in society, political discourse, and personal freedom do not fit in the worldview of a hateful person who believes in a spiteful God.

Jesus of Nazareth came into a world that was changing rapidly — urbanization, spread of Greek and Roman culture, political changes — and many people felt threatened.  But he taught a way to live that witnessed to the Kingdom of Heaven, a way that was faithful, although maybe a little different from the way people lived when Moses stepped off the mountain with those 10 commandments.

I believe in a God who helps us adapt.  Our God gives us some foundational concepts that help us in any situation, and our God gives us a Savior who shepherds us through any circumstance.  Our God helps us figure out what to do when we’re hungry on the Sabbath.  Our God gives us guidance when we are in a hospital room with a dying loved one, trying to figure out the best course of action.  And our God gives us a spirit of understanding so that we can make it in a constantly changing world.  God can do these things because the world, its people, its laws, and its history all belong to God.

So what can we do with the Sabbath?  I hope that each of us will find a way to allow Christ to be Lord of our lives.  That’s what the Sabbath is about, allowing God to take over for a day.  Each of us can find some action, or a discipline, or a habit that reminds us who is Sovereign.  I’m grateful for the Sundays of my childhood, which were filled up with church activities — those Sundays taught me to rest in the presence of God.

Thanks be to God, who holds this earth, with all its sin and suffering, all its potential and promise, in the palm of his hand.  Amen.