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Pretending to Be a Good Person. A sermon, January 29, 2012

4th Sunday of Epiphany (B)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

 This passage of scripture takes place in the synagogue Capernaum. The synagogue is a holy place. Sabbath is a holy day. Those who gather are holy people. But there is one among them who doesn’t belong. A man with unclean spirit.

Unclean. He has a spirit within him that is in opposition to God. It stands in God’s way. It obstructs what God is doing. This man has no business in this place with these people on this day. He’s a pretender. Acting as if he was righteous and worthy. But a spirit possesses him that makes him powerless to be blessed, powerless to be worthy, powerless to be part of God’s holiness in the world.

We know what God’s holiness in the world looks like, right? Forgiveness, mercy and compassion, extravagant generosity, new chances, new lives.

This man in the synagogue is possessed by something that keeps him in opposition to God’s holy activity in the world. Something is keeping him from forgiving, from showing mercy, from giving generously, from something that as a person of God he is called to be.

Does that sound a little familiar? Maybe even uncomfortably familiar? Lack of generosity, of mercy, of forgiveness? Does that maybe sound like us? Because it sounds like me. We are unclean. We sometimes get so possessed by our pain that we’re unable to forgive. We are sometimes so possessed by fear and lack of trust that we keep way too much money for ourselves. We are sometimes so possessed by anger that we say hurtful things we don’t mean. We are unclean. We are possessed by something that is in opposition to what God calls us to be. We call it sin, gospel-writer Mark calls it having an unclean spirit. I think Mark’s way of describing it gets our attention better, but it’s the same thing. That which keeps us from being what God calls us to be. That which keeps us from living as reflections of the holy God in whose image we are created.

But even though he’s got an unclean spirit, even though he can’t forgive, or show mercy, or give away money, or stop hurting people, or whatever it is, he’s there in the synagogue. He knows he doesn’t belong; he’s been pretending to be good and righteous for a long time—hiding his uncleanness. Apparently he’s welcome in the synagogue, which means no one knows. Do you think he feels holier just because he’s in church? Like a better person because he’s trying? I doubt it. He obsessed with his secret, possessed by this spirit of uncleanness. He can’t get rid of it. It possesses him.

But Jesus comes into the synagogue anyway. He’s right there in the same place as this unclean man who is struggling with his money, with mercy, with forgiveness, with anger. Jesus comes and confronts the man who is pretending everything is OK. Jesus is there, and he’s there with authority. Teaching as if the things he is saying are from God himself. It is astounding.

And suddenly the uncleanness in him—that within him that stands fast against living mercifully and generously, preventing forgiveness from flowing out of him—all that he’s been hiding all these years, rises up in protest in the presence of Jesus. Because he knows Jesus threatens all this. Jesus has the authority. The authority of God. And this man’s protests rise up and give voice to his fear. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” This unclean man, this one pretending all is well, is terrified. He is exposed in the presence of Jesus and has no idea what’s going to happen to him.

Jesus has come to where the man is. He has authority over the uncleanness in the man—and in us. He comes into the places in our lives where we have to pretend everything is fine. He comes with the authority of God. Jesus exposes all our pretending. And that can be terrifying.

And Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit. He commands that it be silent, and that it come out of the man. And it does. Not peacefully, not gently, not nicely. It comes out of him with convulsions and screaming. It is ugly.

But Jesus does have authority over the uncleanness. He casts it out. It doesn’t come out easily—we may continue to struggle with forgiving. It doesn’t come out nicely—we might continue to have difficulty being generous. It doesn’t come out peacefully—we may continue to have a hard time showing mercy. It doesn’t come out cleanly—we might continue to have a hard time relinquishing our anger or resentment.

But Jesus comes anyway. And he has authority anyway. And he casts out our uncleanness anyway. He loves us anyway.

The man asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” No, not to destroy, but renew. Not do away with, but make whole.

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Yes, the One who comes among us with the power of God. The One who meets us in those places where we have to pretend. The One who knows the uncleanness that possesses us. And the One who has authority over all of it. He commands even our unclean spirits, and they obey him.

That is amazing.

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The Kingdom of God Breaks Into Our Lives In Ordinary Ways

3rd Sunday of Epiphany (B)

1 Cor 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

 And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . . Follow me.”

It was an ordinary day. I was in my office just finishing up a sermon, Bible study, Confirmation class plan, council report, or maybe something really important. Linda, our office manager, comes back and says someone wants to talk with me. Nothing unusual, this happens every day. So I go out in the hall and meet “Luke,” a man I’ve never met before. He’s African American, wearing clothes indicating he was probably used to working outdoors. I introduce myself, invite him in to the office, and he begins to tell me why he needs money to feed his two children. Again, this isn’t so unusual, it can happen several times a week.

Usually in this situation, I struggle to balance someone needing help vs. me being conned. There are almost always elements of both. As I generally do, I invited “Luke” to share his story. I ask questions in order to figure out what’s really going on and if we really can help. I’m asking questions and Luke is answering them. This goes on for several minutes until he stop me.

“I don’t mean any disrespect, Pastor Moss, but as hard as it is for me to come here and ask for help, it’s even harder for me as a black man to come to a white church, and to put the fate of my family into the hands of a white man.”

This isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve heard all kinds of approaches. I figured I’d push back a little and see where this went. “Luke, I’m wondering if you’re playing the race card on me here. Here’s my concern; if I don’t provide you with the help you want, you’ll chalk it up as one more white racist holding power over black people.”

He was quiet for a few moments, then said, “Well, to be honest pastor, yeah, that’s probably what I’ll think.”

We spent the next 45 minutes sharing our experiences as two human beings who happened to be different colors. We gained deeper understanding of one another. Now, I consider myself relatively aware racially, but I realized during this conversation that in ways I either forgotten or never knew, I am quite content to reap the benefits of being white in a white-power culture. I have continued doing that without questioning it or challenging it; in so doing I have been contributing to a racist society. Now it’s not all my fault, but I haven’t put any effort into reconciliation either. If the Bible is clear about anything, it’s that God is about the business of reconciliation, of peace, or repairing that which is torn.

Luke, sitting there in my office had brought an opportunity for a small piece of reconciliation. Here was an opportunity to take part in what God was doing right in front of me. The kingdom of God broke in without warning, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. I was being offered a chance to repent, to believe in good news of reconciliation. Jesus was here, and was inviting me to join him in this kingdom work.

And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . . Follow me.”

It was an ordinary day for James and John, in their boats on the shore of the Sea of Galilee fixing the tears in their fishing nets. A man walks by and shouts at them. Well, people do that all the time, giving advice on how to fish and where to fish—as if James and John hadn’t been doing this all their lives. Amazing how everyone believes they can do your job better than you.

The shouting man kept coming, and they saw fellow fishermen Simon and Andrew right behind him. The man came right up to them, looked first at James, then at John, and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

They looked at each other, this didn’t really make a lot of sense to them. But they realized, that in ways they weren’t even aware of, that their lives were going to go in a completely different direction. The kingdom of God had broken in without warning, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. They were being offered a chance to change direction, to believe the good news that God was making a difference in the world. Jesus was there, and was inviting them to join him in this kingdom work.

And Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . . Follow me.”

It’s an ordinary day at Lutheran Church of the Master. The kingdom of God breaks in without warning, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day. We are being offered a chance to change direction, to believe the good news that God is making a difference in the world. Jesus is here, and is inviting us to join him in this kingdom work.

And Jesus came to Lakewood, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. . . Follow me.”

Categories: Church in Context, faith practices, hospitality, kingdom of God, racism, Sermon, suburban church | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Adjusting Our Sensibilities to Hope

Message for December 18, 2011: Fourth Sunday of Advent (B)

2 Sam 7:1-11,16; Luke 1:46b-55; Luke 1:26-38

 Regardless of our expectations, participations, anticipations, God is bringing Hope into the world. We can accept what God is doing or we can overlook it.

Regardless of our philosophies, biologies, or theologies, Jesus Christ is the Hope God brings. We can believe God or we can ignore God.

Regardless of our activities, proclivities, or serendipities, Jesus–God’s Hope for the world–comes among us. We can adjust our sensibilites and follow, or we can or we can brush off the invitation.

Mary hears the invitation. She is trusting her life into God’s direction. She is risking everything. This young peasant girl is taking a huge chance, an enormous leap of faith. She is trusting that God is acting and moving in the world—and in her life–in this unusual way. She’s trusting that God really is entering creation to save it, and is doing so through the child she is bearing.

What if it had been different? What if Mary overlooked what God was doing? Ignored God? Brushed off the invitation? What if she had chosen to live as if God would only act in ways she could understand and approve of? What if she had chosen to live within the confines of her sensibilities? The salvation of the whole world is at stake—and Mary risks everything to be part of what God is doing.

But what if she was wrong? What if she risks her whole future—her marriage, her reputation, her family’s reputation, her security, her standing in the church and community, perhaps even her life—and turns out to be wrong? What if this wasn’t an angel from God at all, but merely the result of a little too much garlic on her kosher pizza?

Mary takes the risk and accepts God’s invitation. She’s an Advent prophet, not because she’s so smart or religious, but because she risks everything in speaking and living in the hope that this child will save the world. God called her to participate. She accepts what God is doing. Believes God. Adjusts her sensibilities and follows.

I wonder how often God invites us to participate with God in the world. I wonder how often we listen to the messenger of God. And even if we hear, I wonder how often we would speak it to the world (Magnificat), much less trust our lives to it. God’s invitation can seem impossible, beyond reason, is outside our sensibilities. And so, even if we hear it, how much are we willing to risk for it? We receive God’s invitation to be part of something big, something real, something that brings hope and comfort to people. We are invited by God to into that which seems impossible, non-sensical, something that would be so much easier to ignore. And often we do. We choose to live in comfort, we choose to live in our own security, we choose to live avoiding risks or looking stupid, we choose to live a life clinging to our possessions and sensibilities. We choose to live as if God weren’t really doing much of anything that makes a difference in the world.

We who live on this side of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection already know the commitment of God. We know the direction of God. We know that God works in unlikely ways. We know that God is moving to calm our deepest fears, to cast aside our anxieties, to heal our wounded hearts, to alleviate our loneliness. God is directing reconciliation and forgiveness among us and among communities—even nations. God is acting to overcome addictions, establishing justice in the world, bringing peace on a global scale, creating an end to poverty and hunger.

Seem too far-fetched that God would invite you and me to participate in these plans? Seem too big for little ol’ us to be involved? If you knew that God was inviting you to change lives, to bring the hope that is Christ to a community, to proclaim this life-saving gospel to those who need to hear it, would you?

The easy answer is yes, but Mary’s prophetic voice and life tell us it is risky; it will cost; that it will make us uncomfortable—or even look silly.

And yet, God’s messenger is sharing with us even now God’s invitation—an opportunity for us to be a voice, a congregation that reveals the power of Jesus Christ in the world. Dare we take the risk of accepting that invitation? Dare we live as if we really believed that forgiveness, mercy, and generosity were the most important things?

Confessing to be Christians means we are willing to risk our comfort, our our sensibilities, our current lives for the sake of putting flesh on the gospel. Would you be willing to let your life be changed? Would you be willing understand forgiveness so deeply that you were compelled to forgive the same way? Would you be willing to have your finances adjusted to put the proclamation of the gospel at the center? We hear and we watch Mary, who when she heard God’s outrageous plan, moved her entire life to participate. That’s what happens when hope is real, when God invites, when Christ comes among us.

Regardless of our expectations, participations, anticipations, God is bringing Hope into the world. We can accept what God is doing or we can overlook it.

Regardless of our philosophies, biologies, or theologies, Jesus Christ is the Hope God brings. We can believe God or we can ignore God.

Regardless of our activities, proclivities, or serendipities, Jesus–God’s Hope for the world–comes among us. We can adjust our sensibilites and follow, or we can or we can brush off the invitation.

The point is, with us or without us, God is about the business of bringing hope to the world—and Jesus is the way God is doing it. Hope has come! We’re invited to be part of it.

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Are There Too Many Christian Congregations?

The sad truth about congregations doing the will of God in our neighborhoods is that we really don’t want to do it. For most of us, congregational life is more a way to justify ourselves and less about participating in the reign of God. Sound cynical? Maybe, but more importantly, it’s reality. Let me explain.

First, are we serious about what God is doing in our neighborhoods? For an easy example, one biblical theme on which the church as a whole agrees is that poverty and hunger are contrary to the will of God. And yet how many congregations actually know the poor, the homeless, the marginalized in our neighborhoods? Relationships with those we are joining God in serving seem obvious, but can prove difficult to actually accomplish for a variety of reasons; not the least of which is that we really don’t want to.

Permanent and real partnerships with agencies seeking to lift our neighbors out of poverty and feed the hungry also need to be central in our congregational life. Many of us collect food items to give away or write checks–which is great–but these efforts are often aimed at easing consciences rather than actually solving the problems within our communities. Congregations seeking to participate in God’s will are those leading their neighborhoods in efforts to actually change the “contrary to the will of God” demographics of their neighborhoods. Too often we simply tag along behind the “real” agencies committed to dealing with these issues.

Second, how do congregations measure their success? Is it butts in the seats on a Sunday morning or is it members involved in neighborhood policy-making? Is it an increased budget or a decreased homeless population? Is it the percentage of kids in our youth programs or the percentage of neighborhood kids learning to read? In too many cases, we as congregations measure our success based on the benefit to ourselves rather than the benefit to the neighborhood.

Third, where is the primary energy expended? For instance, at congregational meetings the topic most hotly debated is likely the budget. That is important, to be sure, as we are called to be responsible with the financial resources entrusted to us. Yet the budget debates are not usually about the will of God, but more often about particular line items in which someone has a deep vested interest. Which comes first, our boiler fund or the local homeless shelter? Rarely does a voting member stand up and defend a line item based on a biblical affirmation of God’s will for the church. Generally it’s an appeal to the congregation’s survival, programming, and self-benefit. And if the budget needs cutting, benevolent giving from the church to the denomination or other agencies is often the first line item on the chopping block. The budget often reveals the areas of greatest energy and focus.

Fourth, on what basis are leaders selected? In many congregations, leaders are put into place based on things like their ability to run a meeting, their success in their work life, or sometimes (God forbid) even on a desire by some to get them more involved in the church! Some of these factors need to be considered as we entrust the direction of our congregations to these people, but what about their prayer life? Or their understanding of the neighborhood demographics? Or an ability to make decisions based on God’s call to the congregation (or a desire to discover God’s call to the congregation)? Leaders should be primarily concerned with the congregation’s participation in God’s mission–above the benefit of the congregation in dollars or members.

So, how can we change our approach to congregational life? How do we move away from self serving and toward participating in the reign of God in our local neighborhoods? In a word, leadership.

First of all, it takes well-informed leadership. Congregational leaders, starting with the pastor, need to make a commitment to studying, praying, discussing, and risking for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Leader retreats where a large block of time is dedicated to the discovery of God’s activity in the neighborhood are a great way to introduce leaders to their role in the congregation. Bible study specifically around God’s mission centering in the cross and resurrection of Jesus can become standard. Holding each other accountable to the discerned congregational purpose and values can become the norm in any decision-making. Constant updating on neighborhood demographics should be a regular part of  leadership meetings. A special team can be commissioned to seek out that information and keep it current. An awareness of congregational members’ spiritual gifts and passions is extremely useful in planning ways for the congregation to become more deeply involved in neighborhood relationships.

Next, it takes courageous leaders. When the will of God is sought and a commitment is made to follow the Holy Spirit in that direction, it can be unnerving. The status quo which has kept the peace for years is suddenly turned upside down. Individual and personal agendas become exposed and chaos can become the rule of the day. Courageous leaders hold steady in the midst of the storm that will arise. The fact is, when competing agendas that have been camouflaged within the standard workings of the congregation are brought into the light, the individuals holding to those agendas become upset. They may fight back. They may feel attacked, may claim the congregation is in terrible shape, or may attempt to create alliances to keep their agendas on track. Courageous leaders listen, assure, communicate, but most of all, remain faithful to God’s mission rather than to power agendas from within the church. Membership may decrease as those whose personal agendas aren’t being met decide to leave. Courageous leaders stay the course when they are criticized for letting the church deteriorate from the fondly-remembered glory days of decades ago. Courageous leaders understand that, like in John 15, the body of Christ sometimes needs to be pruned in order to bear more fruit. Other, competing agendas must be cut away before the church can increase its ability to bear the fruit of the kingdom.

Truth be told, some congregations may not be able to survive this kind of pruning. As hard as it is to say, much less experience, the mission of God comes before a particular congregation’s survival. As Jesus came among us and humbled himself to the point of death–even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8), so a congregation, as part of the body of Christ, may be called to do the same.

Congregations seeking to be part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods would benefit from mutual support and encouragement. Doing this alone–either as a leader or as a congregation–is unwise. The journey is difficult, and the vision can be clouded. Sharing the journey together makes it possible, and much more pleasant. Find out which congregations in your neighborhood are committed (or are seeking to become committed) to relationships within the neighborhood. Get your leaders together with theirs over a big meal. Discuss ways you can support each other without competing or duplicating specific strategies. Most of all, pray together and watch for the reign of God in Christ revealed in your neighborhood together.

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What Makes for Successful Church Community Life?

It happens in every family, within every household. A relationship ends, an accident takes a life, an addiction is discovered, a job is lost, a medical expense overwhelms, a home goes into foreclosure, a son or daughter makes a bad choice. As much as we try to avoid them, these and similar devastating experiences strike all of us at one time or another. Yet we find ourselves woefully unprepared to deal with them.

To make matters worse, we are often embarrassed by these situations. Somehow, in the midst of adversity or failure, there is a culturally ingrained impulse to withdraw, to isolate, to deny that anything is wrong. We feel the necessity to handle the consequences of difficulties “in house.” Often unaware of how to navigate these troubled waters in our lives, we bravely struggle on, emotionally drained, spiritually exhausted, and sometimes even physically depleted. “We’ve got to be strong,” is usually how we approach these situations. “We’ve got to hang on until the storm passes.” The burden can be, quite frankly, too much to bear alone.

Nor should we have to. Humans are by nature communal beings. Created in the image of a triune God, we are relational at our very core. We understand God as “three-in-one,” Father, Son, Spirit all interacting, relating, serving, loving, and existing as the one God. Each person of the Holy Trinity finds their identity in the relationship with the other two. God is relationship—self-giving in nature and uniquely communal. God could not be God alone; and this is the image in which we are created.

When seen in this light, creation makes all kinds of sense. God, relational in nature, creates people with whom God can be in relationship—and who can be in relationship with God. God created us to share in the communal joy that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience since before time began. God the Son, born as Jesus, entered the world to face the powers that separate us from God and from one another. Jesus faced down these principalities, clashed with them, was killed by them, and won victory over them. All out of a need for relationship.

As the church, we are called and equipped to reveal and to proclaim the nature of God to the world. The existence of the church denotes relationship—with God, with a congregational community, and with the rest of the world. The strength of the church is relationship; it reveals the essence of who God is most completely. This is why individual spirituality is contrary to Christianity. One cannot be a Christian alone. We are gathered into congregational communities so that relationships centered in a triune God can be experienced. The character of God; the character of the church.

Which is why I become so frustrated when a household within a congregation pulls away when they are experiencing hard times. It happens all the time. Just when the church can actually act as church for one another, that opportunity is lost (or at least made difficult) because those experiencing tragedy feel they must do so alone. “I don’t want to be a burden,” we say. “Others need help more than me.” “I can handle this; I’m fine. Really.” Not only are we less likely to deal with our hardships in a life-giving way by ourselves, but we are robbing the church of a key aspect of its purpose—living as a holy community revealing the relational (and unconditional) nature of God to one another.

What’s worse, congregational members often separate themselves from their church community for far less tragic reasons. Hurt feelings, disagreements, unintended (or intended) insults, or my favorite, consumer desires not satisfactorily met (often articulated as “I’m not being fed,” or “Such-and-such church has a such exciting programs”) are all stated reasons as to why church members separate from a congregation.

I’m concerned that we are taking holy relationship so lightly. Embarrassment and individualism are taking precedence over the nature of God. Personal desires are taking priority over communal existence. A projection of strength is outranking our authentic vulnerability. All of which are contrary to the nature of the triune God, and therefore to us as human beings—particularly as the body of Christ.

In a previous posting on this blog I wrote, “The Church’s Future and God’s Pruning” (based on John 15:1-5). And I’m wondering if, in order to reveal and participate in the communal nature of God, those whose attachment is shallower are being “pruned” from the church. Now hear me, I’m not saying we should cold-heartedly abandon those whose commitment level isn’t up to snuff! To the contrary, the church is to reveal unconditional love and support to such as these. But I am curious as to whether we should be feeling such a sense of failure when those who insist on being alone actually do so. One of the greatest gifts a congregation can offer its neighborhood residents is authentic, perichoretic community modeled on and created by the God of Three-in-One. Some people are simply not at a point where they can handle that or feel a pressing need for that. On the other hand, some desperately need that kind of support and are willing to offer it as well.

Perhaps our congregational energy would be better spent living as authentic community in the midst of our neighborhoods rather than becoming larger, impersonal gathering places for individuals. Which one reveals the nature of God to the world most realistically?

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Context, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Church’s Future and God’s Pruning

It may be presumptuous to say that for over 1700 years the church has needed to change its understanding of its purpose. Be that as it may, I’m saying it. Without a doubt, there are things the church has done well over the centuries in accordance with the reign of God: developing education, advancing health care, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, enhancing disaster relief, and serving the poor are chief among these. Sometimes we’ve proclaimed the gospel with clarity and love. And sometimes God’s mercy and compassion are made real in the lives of many all over this planet because of the work of Christ’s church.

And yet with a history all of this for 20 centuries, the Christian church in America in recent decades continues to decline. What are we doing wrong? Where do we need to work harder? What do we need to improve? How can we do better?

The decline in numbers of American Christianity has nothing to do with inefficiency or laziness. Churches and church leaders are working harder and longer than ever before—to the point of rostered leaders burning out at an alarming rate (but that’s another book). Our numerical decline has little to do with our faith or faith practices. And it’s not because we aren’t teaching our children well enough, aren’t relevant enough, don’t have updated projection or sound systems in our worship areas, or don’t have enough programs for young adults. No, it’s much simpler and yet much deeper than all that. Simply put, we are being pruned. Jesus is speaking about us and to us when he said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . 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.” (John 15:1-2, 5). The church in the United States is being pruned in order to bear more fruit.

As I’m sure you know (but just to be official), pruning is a horticultural practice where parts of a plant are removed to help improve or maintain health, reduce risk from falling branches, and to increase the yield or quality of flowers and fruits.[1] Jesus says the branches that bear no fruit at all are removed, but those that bear fruit will be pruned in order to bear more. We can take some comfort in the fact that we are being pruned. That means that we, the church, the body of Christ continue to bear fruit, but God is preparing us to bear more.

Which begs the question, “Exactly what fruit is Jesus talking about?” That’s where we get into trouble. I think we’ve confused branches and fruit over the course of the last seventeen centuries or so. Branches are a permanent part of the plant. They grow from the vine and always stay in the vine. That’s the church, the people, the disciples. The fruit can be picked, eaten, used for sustenance, and it is where the seeds are. Those seeds are meant to be cast, planted, tossed into the world.

Our mistake is that we’ve come to believe that our purpose as the church is to get as many branches as possible—sometimes at the expense of the fruit. We’ve been so deliberate about gaining members in the church that we’ve put the main purpose of the vine—the fruit—on hold. We’ve become more concerned about our membership numbers than about revealing God’s mercy, compassion, love, forgiveness, and grace in the world. Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit to the Galatian churches, “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”(Galatians 5:22-23). This is the purpose of the church: to bear the fruit of the Spirit.

A vine that has too many branches isn’t healthy. It cannot effectively do what it was planted to do: bear fruit. In order to help the vine as a whole plant bear the fruit it is intended to bear, it must be pruned. As the vinegrower, God is pruning the church to restore our health and to allow us to be about God purpose in planting the vine in the first place. It’s much more about the fruit and a lot less about the branches. We’ve forgotten our purpose. We need the vinegrower to step in and restore us. We need pruning. And God is accomplishing it.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pruning. Accessed September 8, 2011.

Categories: american christianity, church growth, Church in Transition, medium church, small church, suburban church, true vine | Leave a comment

Hospitality as a Beginning, but at the Heart of Worship

I went to the Service of Holy Communion at St. Andrew and St. George Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, just off St. Andrew Square. It is a beautiful and historic building. Though small by Scotland standards, the building is significantly larger than most U.S. church buildings. As I walked in, I saw there were about a dozen chairs gathered in a circle around the altar in the chancel, half of them occupied. It looked like they were having a meeting, so I hung back in the tiny foyer area, waiting for the meeting to break up so people could gather for worship. I soon realized no one was talking up there–apparently there was no meeting; this was worship. So I went up and prepared to sit down. Though not in obvious prayer, no one looked up or said a word. It was rather uncomfortable, even for this church geek.

I noticed that they all had bulletins, so I asked someone–startling him, apparently, by speaking to him. He mumbled something, and pointed back out in the little foyer. I went back and found a small stack of bulletins, fairly well hidden on a table with several other flyers of sorts.

Returning to the circle of silence, I took an empty chair on the opposite side (the first 6 people had taken the closest 6 chairs, causing me to have to walk around behind them). From this vantage point I could see a few other people coming into the foyer area (unseen by the “members,” who, in taking the premium seats, had their backs to the door). These visitors saw our “meeting,” apparently assuming the same thing I did when I entered, so they turned around and left. I was actually embarrassed.

As I was trying to figure out what to do, recognizing I was a guest in their house, I saw a couple come into the foyer, look quizzically up front, and begin talking together–pointing toward us. I caught the woman’s eye, and waved them in. They smiled, and came up front–without bulletins. Now knowing where they were, I left my chair and went out into the foyer to get them some.

As I passed them in the aisle, they thanked me for welcoming them into my church. I just smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” I think my accent threw them off a bit, but they at least were inside. While I was back there, someone else came in, so I handed her a bulletin. Apparently, I’m now the host.

I returned to my seat, noticing that there were now only two chairs left. And sure enough, three people came in the door. What’s the practice in this place when there are more people than chairs? Do they move out into the regular worship area? Do they bring chairs up and start a second row? I waited to see what the members would do–though not really expecting anything. And I wasn’t disappointed. Finally, in frustration, I got up and grabbed a chair from the nave, bringing it up into the chancel area around the altar. The others scooted chairs around until there was room in the holy circle. Some of the other visitors (the ones who thanked me for welcoming them into my church), did the same when others came in. This process was repeated until there was a full complement of 20 people. Still, the members, though watching all this, hadn’t moved or spoken. The visitors were acting as hosts for one another.

The pastor came in through a back door and looked surprised at the “crowd.” Come to find out, he was a guest preacher, as the regular pastor was on vacation. He was welcoming, gracious, informal (“call me Tom”), and made sure we all knew that the communion table was open to everyone.

The service was wonderful, though only about twenty minutes total (no singing). The sermon alone was worth coming for. And communion was, in fact, for everyone who had gathered. Once the service was underway, I, with bulletin in hand, was fully able to participate. The only thing that seemed unusual to me during worship was that eye contact during the sharing of the peace is apparently prohibited. Either that, or everyone was noticing some unusual pattern in the carpet they hadn’t paid attention to before. Or perhaps that is simply Scottish cultural procedure. I’m open.

Afterward, I spoke with a couple of people who were slow to leave (most members bolted for the door as if the building were on fire–or maybe it was just their waiting breakfast that was burning). These dawdlers were somewhat interested in where I was from and why I was there. The pastor, who had gone to the back to try and greet the hasty retreaters, then joined us and continued to be gracious and hospitable. We spoke for a few minutes, until he had to get ready for the next service (someone had since quietly arranged chairs in a small circle down in the front of the nave).

Authentic worship is just that. It is open, it is inclusive, it is unifying when done with an awareness of its inclusive nature. It is, after all, reflective of the God we worship. But the very nature of its inclusivity cannot happen apart from those who gather for it. Corporate worship is public, therefore those on the “inside” of a particular congregation are obligated to be hospitable. It isn’t extra, it isn’t for the ushers and greeters, nor is it reserved for those with special gifts. It is mandated by the nature of this inclusive God. In the words of the hymn, “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.” It is up to us, as the insiders of a local congregation, to make sure everyone who comes in the door knows this, and experiences this.

I wonder how many people have to come to this or other churches this Sunday needing the community of believers gathered in Word and sacrament, and were turned away by the “members'” unawareness of their role as acting hosts? Hospitality isn’t added on or plugged in, nor is it everything God calls God’s church to be. But it is at the heart of worship.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, hospitality, medium church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Breaking a 1700 Year Paradigm

2nd Pentecost (A)

Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42

 I’m starting my sabbatical in five days. I’ll be resting, writing, and researching during the next twelve weeks. Most of that time will be spent in Scotland and Ireland. I’ll be a guest in a foreign country for eight weeks. I’m mindful that everything I do and say represents not only the U.S., but Christianity, Lutheranism, and this congregation. These communities are all parts of my identity, and I want to reflect well on them. That makes me think that I’ll be pretty careful about what I say, what I do, how I treat people.

I will be a guest. That means I need to obey their laws and follow their customs. I will be somewhat vulnerable, because I’m a guest there. If I miss something, say something wrong, or do something that by their customs is really stupid, I risk reflecting badly on all of you. I will be careful, but if you hear anything untoward, try to remember to listen to my side before you rush to judgment.

My anticipation of being a guest in foreign countries makes me somewhat sensitive to the situation of the disciples in Matthew here. Jesus is sending them to other towns and villages on their own. They are being sent and will therefore be guests. They will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. They will be somewhat vulnerable, because they will be guests. If they do or say something stupid they risk  reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.

Never in the last 1600-1700 years has this text been a more appropriate description of the church today. We’re no longer the hosts in our neighborhood, we are guests. We don’t dictate laws or customs, our culture does. We’ve got to accept the reality that we, as church, are guests in our own culture. We are being sent into this culture and are therefore guests. We will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. We will be somewhat vulnerable, because we are guests. If we do or say something stupid we risk reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.

For the early church, that was understood. The concept of the disciples of Jesus being guests in the surrounding culture was normal. And however the culture treats us is, well, how they’re going to treat us. Whoever goes out representing God gets whatever the host culture gives them. Prophets speak for God, and sometimes their “reward” wasn’t too terrific. Righteous people act for God, and sometimes their “reward” was better. But however the surrounding culture responds to us is how they’re going to respond—both good and not so good. Getting them to respond one way or another isn’t the point. The point is that we are sent.

That’s what Jesus is making clear to his early disciples; and making clear to us. We are sent to be guests in a different culture—revealing the forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love of the kingdom of God. Sometimes the response will be great; other times not so much. Regardless, go. Rather than putting so much effort into controlling the response (conversion, joining the church), we in today’s church might want to try putting effort into revealing Christ to our host culture regardless of the response.

I wonder what would happen if we really took that to heart. What would be different if we quit emphasizing people coming here to us, and instead emphasized our being sent to them. Instead of them joining us, it should be us joining them. The ultimate goal is not membership here, but forgiveness there. We are given the name of Jesus and sent to bear his presence to every person we meet out there. Not in order to convert them. Not in order to get them to come to church. But to make sure they meet Jesus who has made us his own in baptism; who has filled us with the Holy Spirit so that we can reveal him in the world.

This doesn’t make us better than our hosts, any more than I will be better than the Scots and the Irish I’ll be meeting. We are called by God, given the name of Jesus Christ, and equipped by the Holy Spirit to expose Jesus present in the world. We are sent into what amounts to a foreign land to bear the reality of Jesus. That may be accepted, or it may be rejected. The response is not so much our concern.

Think about it this way. There’s a huge difference between approaching a friend with, “If you were to die tonight, do you know what would happen to your eternal soul?” and, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” Which reveals Jesus?

There’s a huge difference between spending time passing out Gideon Bibles in hotels and spending time volunteering at the Jeffco Action Center, a hospital, or Habitat for Humanity. Which reveals Jesus?

There’s a huge difference between feeding a poker table in Blackhawk and feeding a homeless child recovering from the tornado in Joplin, MO. Both will cost you $100: which reveals Jesus?

There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’ll get you for that,” and “I forgive you for that.” Which reveals Jesus?

The Holy Spirit gives us the name of Jesus, gives us a new identity in him, gives us a new-and-forgiven life in order be sent. And we are sent in order to reveal the nature of Christ. Accepted or rejected. Believed or not believed. Welcomed or turned away. We are made new, equipped, and sent to reveal the nature, the reality, the person of Jesus to those we meet in the world this week.

I will be very mindful of that in Scotland and Ireland as I’m a guest in those countries.

This text is reminding you to be mindful of the same thing right here. We bear the name of Christ. We are sent. As guests in the world, we cannot control the response we get. But whoever welcomes us welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent Christ. Truly, none of these will lose their reward. Amen.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, Sermon, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Church: A Hidden Agenda

Sometimes it takes a while, but a deep agenda of many congregations ultimately emerges with a lot of decisions they make. Sometimes it rises up during the initial discussion; sometimes it’s later, during the “how do we implement?” phase. But no matter how good any given idea is, no matter how Spirit led, no matter how selfless and compassionate a decision or direction may be, a hidden agenda will most generally show itself.
Walk with me, here. You discover a need in the community—let’s say local middle school kids are running around unsupervised during the afternoon between the time school ends and their parents get home from work. You see this as a recipe where trouble is likely to brew, so your congregation decides to begin an after-school sports program for middle school children. Wonderful! Doesn’t this sound like something the church ought to be doing? Altruistic, selfless, serving, benefiting the neighborhood. All-in-all a very Christ-like thing to do.
But sooner or later, someone says it. They’ll sneak it in at some point in the deliberation or planning. More often than not, no one notices—because everyone else at some level is thinking the same thing. “This will be great for the kids,” they say. Wait for it . . .
“This will make a real difference in our neighborhood.”  Wait for it . . .
“We’ve got the resources to make this happen.” Wait for it . . .
And then . . . here it comes, “And some of these kids’ families may end up joining the church.” Bam! We just twisted this benevolent idea into a self-serving project.
You might think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing tragic about people joining the church. Far from it. That’s part of the Holy Spirit’s work too. But when it enters into the decision equation as motivation, I believe we’ve lost something important. Or maybe it’s more that we’ve added something. We’ve spoiled the mix. We’ve contaminated the way in which we approach the relationship of the church in the neighborhood. It’s a very short and very slippery slope from “wouldn’t it be nice if some people joined our church” to “how many new members can we get out of this?” Once we start thinking in terms of the church’s benefit, that notion has a dastardly way of easing into virtually every decision for ministry.
Be honest, how long are most congregations willing to spend large amounts of time, energy, and finances in programs or ministries that don’t bring in any new members? How long would your congregation exert the kind of resources necessary to run an after school sports program if, year after year, there were no people checking out the church? Be honest, now. There are some congregations, yes, but we aren’t very thick with them.
OK, church growth people. This is where you can chime in about how if we do the sports thing right, there will be new members whether we’re focused on it or not. If no one is interested year after year, maybe we aren’t inviting, maybe we aren’t including, maybe we aren’t welcoming, or some other maybe. You are likely correct in these and many more maybes. But that’s not the point.
And I hear you theologian-types, too. Right now you’re saying something about original sin or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” or “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” or whatever your denomination or affiliation generally says about our sinful nature. And you’re right. We cannot escape it. We cannot do anything apart from our sinfulness. We have to trust that somehow God will redeem our efforts and use them for “reign of God” purposes. I absolutely agree.
So, then, what’s the big deal with getting a few new church members out of an after-school program? On one level, nothing, really. Because, of course, God can transform our meager and (deep down) selfish motives into something that reveals the presence of the kingdom. God does it all the time. Good heavens, I hope so! But once we start down the road of church-as-beneficiary of ministry efforts, we’re closing doors on other opportunities. That’s where we goof it up. Read on.
It’s extremely difficult to keep this hidden agenda at bay. It infiltrates everything and can sully even the best intended ministry effort. With “what’s in it for the church?” thoughts lurking in the back corners of our minds, ministry opportunities that don’t have an obvious or immediate benefit to the church stand a greater chance of getting overlooked. Regardless of what God may or may not be inviting us into.
That’s the significant issue, really. Rather than gaining clarity on God’s movement, God’s action, and God’s direction, we become clouded with our own survival, numerical growth, and congregational advantage. As baptized people of God, we are called and sent in the name of Christ to proclaim and participate in the reign of God. Regardless of anything else. Including what we as church are or are not getting in return.
To be in Christ is to be called to give up one’s own (or one’s congregation’s own) life. To die to self, in other words. Are there many congregations willing to risk that? Jesus sums this up pretty well, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If the cross that marked us in baptism is any indicator of our call to participate in God’s mission (and, duh, it is), our agenda is to reveal God’s grace, mercy, love, and redemption—even if it gains us no new members. Even if it costs us members. That takes courage. That takes faith.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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