Tag Archives: preaching

Witnesses to Easter

Biblical Text: Acts 5:28-42
Full Sermon Draft

This is typically the Thomas Sunday, but the first lesson from Acts just struck my imagination too well this year. Gamaliel’s tolerance and wisdom typically gets pride of place, but I think that discounts Saul in the background. The sermon attempts to tell both the foreground story of Peter preaching repentance to the High Priests who a month ago crucified Jesus and the background story of Saul (soon to be Paul) who wouldn’t listen to his teacher’s advice. The point of preaching, of Peter’s and of ours, is repentance and salvation. It is not justice or balancing the scales. It is not getting back at anyone. It is simply repent and believe. That repentance is a gift. It is part of faith. Caiaphas or Annas, the High Priest, heard the preaching and knew what was going on, but they did not repent. Saul, did not repent, yet. The call of those who have repented is to be witnesses to Easter. Pray for the repentance of the unbeliever while bearing the cross for those who won’t, yet. In this we witness to Easter and the Great Easter to come in the resurrection of all flesh.

Watching & Being Upset

“The first woman (let’s call her Sally) told me she was having trouble finding an Episcopal Church that she liked. I suggested she try St. Such and Such, ‘Oh no,’ she exclaimed. “I could never go there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. To my amazement she said, ‘I would have to look at that big cross they have behind the altar with that figure of Christ hanging on it. It would upset me terribly.'” – Fleming Rutledge

Fleming Rutledge is a great preacher. I say that with a bit of envy at her skill, but also with the recognition that her style is just not something I could pull off. That quote is just the shortest from an even better string of stories making her point. (It is in the book Bread and Wine, a great little Lenten reader.) I could never pull her style off because of two reasons: a) something guilty about using specific people at their worst and b) I always think these are “preacher stories” which are just a little too good to be true. But she makes it work, and stick, and if she used me I’d thank her for putting me on the narrow path instead of being mad (that is her greatness by the way). And her point here is simply that we are told to watch, and that biblical injunction is really to watch ourselves. Because when we do, we don’t like what we see. It is much easier to look away. To look at our neighbor. And to draw that line of grace for thee, but I don’t need it. Staring at a crucifix is recognizing that I put Jesus there. And there is only one way out. His grace, alone.

That is why I came…

020815wordle

Texts: Mark 1:29-39, 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Isaiah 40:21-31
Full Sermon Draft

The collection of texts assigned for today stuck me this week as wanting to talk about preaching. Jesus confronts himself with a question, what is the chief purpose of his ministry? And his answer set the paradigm of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not one that is advanced as the kingdoms of this world. Instead it is preached; it is proclaimed.

So, this sermon is a basic statement of the power and purpose of preaching. And the source of all preaching which is never the preacher, but the one who commands the message.

What Does a Funeral in The Church Say?

There is a cliche phrase among preachers – the church comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. When you flip the verbs you get a club and not the church – the club comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted. To get that phrase what you need to understand is that comfortable and afflicted is said in relation to the individual conscience and sin. If the person is comfortable in sin, you preach the law and afflict them. If the person is afflicted with doubt and guilt, you preach the gospel of grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. (There is a big strike against this in practice as it requires a church and a ministry willing to draw conclusions – i.e. go read 1 Corinthians 5 which would go over like a lead balloon in most congregations.)

The reason I’m poking around here is a relevant pop-culture item, the death and funeral of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here are four links: WJS, ABC, RNS, and Roman Deacon Greg Kandra.

Mr. Hoffman was baptized Roman Catholic, but was not evidently practicing at the time of death. His death was the result of heroin overdose. He was also reportedly estranged form the mother of his three children to whom he was never married. There was a funeral mass today at St. Ignatius church in NYC. The priest-presider had this to say.

“Phil Hoffman was not only a baptized Catholic but also a person with a lovely soul, and so deserves a Catholic funeral,” Martin told Deacon Greg Kandra in a column for CNN. “And Pope Francis reminds that the sacraments aren’t for perfect people; they are for the rest of us.”

Deacon Kandra’s post, feeling the need to explain something, does a great job of trying to explain and filling in the relevant sections of Roman Catholic Canon Law. One particular passage he quotes is this:

A funeral Mass can be celebrated for most Catholics, but there are some specific cases in which canon law requires the denial of a funeral Mass. Canons 1184-1185 say:

“Canon 1184 §1. Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:
1/ notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
2/ those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith;
3/ other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.

Turning on evil Parson Brown (i.e. you won’t probably like the following guy). A pointed question might be how does this not give scandal to the faithful? How did Mr. Hoffman, a public figure, not ring canon 1184. We are not talking about some anonymous person here whose funeral entourage would be 15-20 people, but someone who has received coverage from national networks. Evil Parson looks at this and say the only message getting out is that you can do whatever you want, live however you want, and the church will still say “yes, yes, he’s in a better place.” Take special note of the Priest’s comment that the deceased was “a lovely soul who deserved a Catholic funeral”. And then the nice segue into questioning anyone who might be so nasty as to question – “sacraments aren’t for perfect people, but the rest of us”. Isn’t there quite a bit of difference between the Christmas & Easter Christian who didn’t worry much about these things but who never-the-less was a present father, who actually married the mother of his kids, who works a job every day to pay taxes and keep clothes on everyone and an actor who shot heroin leaving his children fatherless and never married the mother of his kids? Since when is the deceased “the rest of us”? And that doesn’t get to evil Parson’s problem with “deserving a Catholic funeral” because he was a “lovely soul”? Can Catholic Priests now see the soul, or read the hearts? The advice we get from Jesus on such things is that “you will know them by their fruits” not by reading lovely souls. And for that matter, none of us deserve the sacraments. We are granted them by grace. They are received by faith. They do no good absent faith, even if you have a lovely soul, which can’t really be lovely without the indwelling of the Spirit. Turning off evil Parson; He’s getting a little grumpy.

What does a funeral in the church say? Is it possible to hold a funeral for someone who the best thing you can say is “he was baptized”, and for any message other than “yeah, what we teach is a bunch of bunk that we don’t really believe” be the one received? The current conventional wisdom, to not be evil Parson, is that you do the funeral for the living and use it as a chance to “preach the gospel”. My question is: can anyone hear that gospel today over the yell that is simply doing a funeral such as the above, or is all anyone hears “the church doesn’t even believe what it preaches” simply because of the act. What does a funeral in the church say? That is a serious question which we should answer.

Daily Lectionary Podcast – Ezekiel 36:33-37:14 and Romans 5:1-21

Ezekiel 36:33-37:14
Romans 5:1-21
Faith and Truth and Life Bestowing (584), God’s Word as the Basis of Life, Sources of the Word

A Little Web Project – Pastrix

I put up a couple of posts ago an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber and mentioned that she gets it in a deep way. Somewhere around the 40th minute of that NPR/On Being interview is really what I was talking about. This is a link to another interview where she says something similar. Just in case you didn’t watch that hour before.

Is there a chance of being too vulnerable, though?

I only preach from my scars, not my wounds. I don’t mind putting my stuff out there. It doesn’t bother me, but if I do that with a wound and my parishioners respond by wanting to bring me bandages, so to speak, I have failed. Then it is about me.

A lot of preachers from previous generations were taught not to talk about themselves in sermons because “it’s not about you.” Well, nobody wants to hear about your addiction to internet pornography from the pulpit because that makes them uncomfortable in a way that’s not going to illuminate the gospel, it’s only going to point to you. I’m very careful about that.

If I’m going to reveal something about myself in a sermon—which I almost always do—the purpose has to be to show the people how much in need of God’s grace we are. If you aren’t convicted by something how are you ever driven to the foot of the cross? If nothing can convict me, if I’m great and I have all of my shit together then we just leave Jesus idling in his van on the corner.

Beyond her understanding of the gospel, the reason I said I’d trust mom & dad with her is that. She has an understanding of the office and preaching. If you are telling a story about yourself, it is probably going to make you look bad. The preacher points to Christ. Preaching is not therapy, something she says in that interview, what she means by scars and not wounds, because therapy is about making you feel better about yourself. Preaching is about making you feel like crap about yourself, but over-joyed at what Christ is doing with you anyway. This clip is a perfect example of the conflict of therapy and preaching. Jesse needed a preacher and a call to repentance. Something that within that show he never really got. He had chances, but not blunt chances.

Anyway, the web project is reading Bolz-Weber’s book and reacting to it. Right now I’m about three chapters in, so I figure I’ll start next week.

Scandalized by the Word hidden in our Midst

Biblical Text: Mark 6:1-13
Full Draft

It is a truth of this world that the really important things are usually hidden right in our midst. Think “rosebud” from Citizen Kane. All the great stories are about going out and returning home. When we leave, we don’t know what we are leaving. Think the prodigal. And when we stay, we don’t recognize the good. Think the older son. The good stuff is hidden in our midst. And it takes a revelation for us to see it. [By the way, this is the story of the Odyssey. In The Aeneid, Aeneas stops in the underworld to talk to the mighty hero Achilles and asks him if he would rather have the glory of renown promised, or the years at home. Achilles the shade answers he’d rather have had the stuff he turned down to get on the ship.] And in our moderns world – it is usually the things that shout the loudest that get our attention. The 6-year old sees a commercial and asks for whatever piece of junk it is pushing. He mocks me now he’s heard it enough, but I usually answer him “if it has to be advertised it’s a piece of junk”.

This is true for congregational life is spades. All the really important things God has hidden in our midst: The sacraments, the Word proclaimed, the communion of saints. None of them call out. All of them tend to be neglected. We don’t always recognize them for what they are. Yet these are the real, the important things. Yet we so often react or treat them as the residents of that town of Nazareth. We are scandalized that they are not bigger, or grander, or that they claim too much. This is how God acts? Water, Bread, wine and some fool flapping his mouth? The Word Hidden in our Midst.

Two Congregations

While watching my Penguins blow a 3 goal lead (argh!?!), I was reflecting on the congregation at Easter service, the congregation on a “normal” Sunday, and the differences in preaching.

I’m going to use statistics just from Jan 1 through April 1 and then look at Easter. I could expand that basis, but that gives me 14 Sundays for a population baseline which does not include any major holiday. Also I am looking primarily at people on the “membership” list. There are visitors, but they get a special category.

So, the first thing I did was take a look for each member how often they attend. Simply # of Sundays attended divided by 14. If you understand baseball think of that as the batting average, or better yet the on base percentage. There is variance; a young player gets better and the older player gets worse. But, a player’s batting average during the heart of his career could probably be taken as a set number. There are .300 hitters, .250 hitters and hitters who struggle to stay above the Mendoza line.

Using those individual batting averages and assuming that they don’t change much, I looked at each Sunday and calculated the “average batting average”. If you were present your batting average became part of the formula. Simple example, 3 members, all attend one Sunday: 1 – 25% of Sundays, 2 – 50%, 3 – 75%. The average attendance average would be 50%. For St.Mark, when I look at each Sunday for that congregational average, it is amazingly consistent. For the first 14 Sundays of the year the the highest average was 82% and the lowest 71%. Interpreting that, the average person in the congregation for those first 14 Sundays attends service 3 out of 4 Sundays. In fact that is what I did next. I calculated the “average batting average” for all of those first 14 Sundays – 77.2%. The standard deviation of that was 23%. So, looking at the typical Sunday service I could expect that the typical person has attended 3 out of 4 Sundays. I can expect that 95% of the congregation has attended 2 out of 3 Sundays. So, what all those numbers mean is that preaching to the typical Sunday crowd means you have the opportunity to teach and build on a base. If I’m thinking of Heb 5:12-14, that should be a congregation that gets meat or weighty words about the Christian life.

Now what about the Easter congregation? The average of its attendance averages was 56% with a standard deviation of 36%. That is a different congregation. The typical person attended 1 less Sunday and the variance is much greater. A substantial portion of that congregation is attending less that once a month. If you experience something once a month or less, how much does it sink in? That is probably a group that you are retelling the basics of the faith and challenging them to commit to living it. Not that you don’t do that the other weeks, but that Easter congregation is going to hear the list in Heb 6:1-2. Since it is Easter focusing on what the resurrection of the dead means. Deny the resurrection and you are still a slave to death. Believe and you are a slave to Christ.

So, paradoxically attending on the High Holy Days of the Christian faith mean you will probably hear “that old, old story” told very simply with what might sound very close to an altar call for a Lutheran. If you are to be challenged in your faith the best Sunday to attend is probably, oh lets say, the 3rd or 4th Sunday of Easter which looks to be the post holiday low spot. That is probably the day to ponder say the doctrine of election or a teaching of the church that is being broken by everyone.

Breadth and Depth…Creating a People that Love the Word

Here is Ben Myers, Aussie Prof and preacher, on a problem with one of my favorite things, the lectionary.

First, he has a great hold on the difference between preaching and teaching. Preaching is about proclaiming. Teaching is about exploring. You can teach from the pulpit, but it better be a secondary feature. Second, he is absolutely correct that the lectionary presupposes a certain familiarity with the church year and its rhythms as well as the broad sweep of biblical history. Often times you are presented with the question do I spend 3 of my 12 minutes explaining (i.e. teaching) this church year, or would that be better used proclaiming the text? Third, he strikes too close when he mentions that preachers often pick themes based on connections that truthfully only highly trained people see. For me the connection between texts has to be hit over the head blatant to use more than one of the readings for sermon basis. The connections are the stuff for bible study with two-way communication.

Here are the “buts”. A minor first – in the reformed tradition the canon of the bible is set and as Prof. Myers says, “confessed to be divinely given”. As a Lutheran, our confessions never set the canon. We accept as inspired the books the church always has, but the order isn’t set in stone. That is why Luther could grouse about James and others about Revelation. The second but would be bigger. I don’t see it as part of my calling to teach a people so that the lectionary is profitable. Man wasn’t created for the lectionary, but the lectionary for man. If you are catechizing (fancy would for teaching) a people with little baseline knowledge, one of the first questions is where do you start? Do you need to know the OT to be a Christian? I think that is analogous to: do you need to be a Jew before you are a Christian? Acts 15 answered that with a no. A rough confirmation class taught me a few things there too. For me, the proclamation story is the story of Jesus found in the gospels. The goal isn’t to make the lectionary profitable although that might be a secondary outcome. The goal is to form a people who love the Word.

Last thought, to me with the Revised Common Lectionary (which we use a form with minor alterations just because we are who we are) you have the ability to do much of what Prof. Myers wants without leaving the cycle. You just do it from the Epistle lessons. For example during this past year we read continuously through 1 Peter and Romans. I preached on 1 Peter for 5 weeks and Romans for two groups of 4. Both of those works rest heavily on the OT as well. As Christians, we read the OT through the NT. We recognize and make use of the OT to support the gospel, but many of the things in the OT are signs and symbols that the fulfillment of has come. We proclaim the fulfillment. We can teach the larger story in less precious places than the Sunday pulpit. But that requires a people who love the Word.

The law in my members…

Full Text

I’ve done two things in this sermon that I don’t usually like doing. I’m not sure either of them really worked, but I had reasons for them. Also, the Thursday Bible study got a preview of this sermon subject. I’m pretty sure it played better there. I’m also pretty sure the reason is just time.

First the time issue. Most of my sermons are 10 – 12 minutes or roughly 1400 words. This one was a little longer at almost 1700 words. It is really hard to talk about the theology of the cross and the reality of the law in the Christian’s life in 12 minutes. On Thursday, we explored it for about 90 minutes in two way communication with a 1200 word itself supporting story we read. We really only stopped because we were just exhausted, or at least I was exhausted and they were exhausted of hearing my voice. It it that kind off topic. Another reason why every christian should be engaged in some regular group study. This could be a really bad analogy, but worship is the cardio workout. It is the base of any healthy regimen. Those group studies are the weights. That is where growth in spiritual muscle happens.

The two different things.

1) While I do use political examples from time to time, I try to be balanced. Those examples today were not. I think this goes to a fundamental and dangerous direction in our American political body. A small c conservative – of which there are very few in politics at any level – understands Romans 7. The human creature is fundamentally flawed. In Paul’s words, in my flesh I serve the law of sin. And, that sin in my own members is very strong and devious. The older American political order understood this and was reticent to pass any sweeping law or sweep away traditional ways of doing things. Laws, because of the human creature, invite corruption. Sweeping laws invite sweeping corruption. We are that corrupt and we are not that smart to see it all beforehand. When the law is kept small and local, the stakes are not as big. But that is the not the society that we have structured today where everything is big. And where the law gets big, corruption proliferates. According to Paul that is the very function of the law – to show how sinful we are.

2) The second thing was that I ended the sermon on what was probably a cliffhanger. Romans 7 naturally leads to Romans 8. Romans 7 is a true description of the role of the law, but it is not the complete picture. There is something else that supplies power and fights the law of sin in my members. And it doesn’t come from me. In myself, I can’t win. But I am not alone. That is the Romans 8 story continuation. I chose to stay textual and have a two part sermon. Those who were present on July 3rd probably will be present the next week. Preaching through Romans is more like watching Lost or any story drama. Missing an episode might leave you scratching your head. The gospels seem to be more episodic, or more like Law & Order. I think that is because Romans is essentially a long argument and not a collection of stories telling one larger happening.