Tag Archives: pastoral leadership

My Dad’s Last Sermon

I was recently gifted with the audio of my father’s last sermon. I got to hear my Dad’s voice for the first time in many years and his words are just as relevant now as they were then. In this sermon he shares the lessons he learned as a white urban minister. My father was a prophet, and his words, Knowing God, Facing Death, Phil Ochs, and a Kitten  shared with the urgency that comes from walking in the valley of the shadow of death, may be hard for us to hear. These are important words and in a very real way are some of the foundations of my upbringing. My father lived these words out and I try in my own way to live in the knowledge of God proclaimed in the person of Jesus.

If there is anyone out there who can help me clean up the hiss from the tape, I would love some help.

 

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The Paradox of Humility

See the notes that inspired this sermon below the You Tube video. This is my final sermon at Clackamas Park Friends Church. See previous post for text of resignation.

Today we look at two difficult concepts that are necessary for holding to the Christian faith: humility, which is difficult because we are trained in pride from the cradle, and paradox which is difficult because it is an expression of an unresolvable tension. One of the great disservices modernity has inflicted on our faith is the pressure to resolve all mysteries or dynamic tensions within our understandings of God. This attempt to define God has led to conflicts and controversies over ultimately non-provable speculations that can lead to false senses of certainty about faith. While we must be leery of the “pat” answers that seek to do away with questioning we must also be equally wary of the fatalism that comes from saying that there are no answers. The 20th century theologian Roger Hazelton defines paradox as “A statement which asserts the truth of two contradictory but necessary propositions having equal rational force.”[i]. Some of the most commonly argued paradoxes in our faith are the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the sovereignty of God and human free-will, and of course the paradox of being saved and yet still a sinner. In order to be faithful, we must allow these paradoxes to stand and live in the tension, knowing that we will not see their resolution this side of heaven. Today’s scripture is filled with paradoxes, and the key ingredient to accepting paradox, humility.

43 After the two days he left for Galilee. 44 (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) 45 When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there. 46 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death. 48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” 49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.” 53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed. 54 This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee. John 4:43-54

  • Paradox 1 – Prophet has no honor among their own. The Galileans welcomed him.
  • They saw the honor given elsewhere then believed. When we are seen outside the familiar context.
  • Background on Capernaum and the change from subsistence fishing to export overfishing.
  • Paradox 2 – The begging official.
  • Paradox 3 – Justice and mercy
  • The power and necessity of dynamic tensions in faith.
  • Paradoxes can only be held in humility. They are an acknowledgement of our finite nature.

Mystery as it relates to the things of God in the Christian realms is our contemplation of the infinite using our finite minds and languages. Mystery can only be expressed in ambiguous terms because of our lack of knowledge about the extent of our lack of knowledge. In an attempt to express these mysteries we turn to the devices of metaphor and paradox so that we can communicate with each other about the God we love.

Paradox then becomes the tool we use to express the mysteries of God as we experience their presence in our lives. As a tool it is important for us not only to see paradox’s usefulness, but also its limitations. Hazelton cautions us that “A paradox is a statement, not a situation. Situations may indeed be paradoxical, but we can know this only when some attempt at considered statement has been made.”[ii] We must be careful then to not confuse our statements about apparent paradoxes in our perception and understanding of God with the reality of God. The gap between the limits of our perception and expression and the reality of God then leads us to attempt to resolve the paradox instead of fully exploring all aspects of the paradox. With humility we must instead admit to the need and place for faith. At some level we have to trust the God we serve or else give up on the religious journey entirely.

Divine mystery is then a tool that God uses to exercise our faith. In Hebrews faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1b NRSV) The exercise of this faith then consists of being certain of our uncertainty. I am not saying that “everything is up for grabs” just that we must be very cautious in our theological expressions to start from a place of understanding our limitations. In Romans, Paul also reminds us of the uncertain character of hope and the need for faith “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25 NRSV) It is along this unseen path then that an orthodox faith lies. Kenneth Arnold explains that “a primary characteristic of orthodoxy is a capacity for paradox. Heresies tend to round off the edges and eliminate what does not fit. Faith that demands certainty is probably no longer faith but some form of science.”[iii] This statement brings us to the core of our discomfort with paradox: we as a race don’t like the loss of control implied by a lack of knowledge.

One of the ways God is growing me is in my ability to accept that I do not have the capacity for full knowledge. When I was younger, I thought I knew a lot more than I did. As I gained experience in the real world I made the common mistakes that lead us to a greater understanding of our limitations. If I am to be honest in my self-examination, my discomfort with paradox stemmed from my fear of not controlling my life. That fear led to a distrust of paradoxical statements because they highlighted how outside of my control God is. My reflections on paradox and the mysteries of God over the years has humbled me and led me to a place in which my faith relies less and less on my understanding of God and more and more on my relationship with God. Every answer that I found about the things of God only served to raise more questions. I have finally come to the place at which I realize that the easy answers that I am looking for don’t exist, and that for me to grow in my faith I don’t need better answers, I need the humility to seek out better questions.

As we enter into Open worship let us take this first five minutes to bask in the presence of the God who is beyond us, allow yourself to experience the reverential awe that comes from being in relationship with the infinite God. After 5 minutes someone will stand with the mike and if your communion with God and the rest of us here demands it, rise and speak and the microphone will be brought to you.

 

[i] Roger Hazelton, :The Nature of Christian Paradox,” Theology Today 6, no. 3 (October 1949): 325.

[ii] Roger Hazelton, “The Nature of Christian Paradox,” Theology Today 6, no. 3 (October 1949): 325.

[iii] Kenneth Arnold, “Living With Paradox,” Cross Currents 50, no. 1-2 (March 2000): 3

First Things First

This sermon was inspired by the following notes.

In our lives, we have many things surrounding us attempting to claim a higher position on our priority list. The hardest decisions in our lives tend to not be between good and evil, but between competing “good” things. Often we make choices and wonder if we chose the right good thing to take precedence. The difficulty for us is compounded by the messages and advertisements around us that each tout themselves as “the best thing”. We have foods that claim to be “superfoods”, insurance companies with “superhero” mascots, politicians claiming to be saviors, and all kinds of products with words designed to make us prioritize that product over everything else. In today’s scripture we see what Jesus’ coming does to our priority structures and what we have to gain from the change.

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?” 39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. 40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). John 1:35-42

  • A relationship with someone who knows.
  • The responsibility to point to Jesus when we see him at work.
  • Jesus is inviting of people right where they are. He had no entrance exam for following. You start where you are.
  • When we welcome people to be in relationship right where they are with no conditions that is incredibly inviting and when that invitation is accepted Jesus begins to teach.
  • Andrew could have gone back to John, back to work, etc, but he found his brother first and told him about the Messiah. When people encounter the God who loves them Just as they are it changes priority structures. Priority one becomes sharing that love, that good news with loved ones.
  • What would have happened if Andrew had gone back to life as usual? No Peter. A different set of disciples. A different story. A story with a huge missing piece.
  • Andrew’s priorities were not to make Peter acceptable than to bring him, but to drag him exactly as he was, with all of the flaws we have come to know and love, the cowardice, the rashness, the temper, the fear, and all that sheer impulsive open mouth insert footedness that made Peter what he was, directly to Jesus to meet the Messiah.
  • Jesus didn’t give Peter the fifth degree over his theology or lifestyle, but gave him a new name and an invitation.
  • The “Bounded Set” mentality vs. the “Centered Set” mentality.

Bounded Set: Do you believe like me? Concerned with enforcing conformity to a norm. What would you say the pros are to this kind of setup? Pros: Easily defined boundary. Easy to determine who “belongs”. How about the Cons? Cons: Who controls the measuring stick? Not welcoming if not ready to 100% conform.

 

Centered Set: Where are you in relation to Jesus? Concerned with relationship building. What would you say the pros are to this kind of setup? Pros: Welcoming to all. Focused on drawing closer to Jesus. How about the Cons? Cons: Can become relativistic rather than relational. Requires more work.

 

 

[The] situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.    Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001), 208-209.

  • Today we bear that same trust, to seek God’s face, live for him and reflect the light of his love around us. When this happens we see people coming to God just as they are, with all their flaws and we get to witness the transforming power of God at work in them over the years.
  • Sometimes we allow things about ourselves or others to get in the way of the light we are called to shine, and that light grows dim, we forget to put first things first because our eyes have strayed from the love of Jesus.
  • I am sure that I am not the only one here that is guilty of allowing myself to turn away from God’s light, and I invite all of you to join me in praying that we could have the obstructions and false priorities cleared that we might reflect the unconditional love of God on each person around us, welcoming them into relationship with the Messiah, Jesus. Let us pray. Our Open worship will end with the Keith Green song Oh Lord You’re Beautiful.
  • Open Worship

Truth in the Wilderness

(Sorry about the lateness, I have spent most of the last 3 weeks with a nasty head cold and chest infection.)

Sermon notes are below the video.

Finding the truth can be a very difficult thing sometimes. Often we are blinded by the images around us, are tainted by the various forms of groupthink that try to set our identity. When we start living out the truth, the guardians of the groupthink will come after us with questions, especially when we step away from the power centers. John the Baptist preached from the outskirts and when the political leaders of his people came to see if he could be used, they found instead the truth.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,[h] nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. John 1:19-28

  • Who are the “Jews” in John?
  • Questioning identity from power. Underlying questions.
  • The kingmakers had come to see if John could be manipulated.
  • I am not the one that can save. Important truth for us to remember. People want someone else to take responsibility.
  • I am not someone from the past. John was fully engaged in the present and wasn’t going to let those in power pigeonhole him into the mold of someone who came before.
  • I am not the prophet. Nuance: “a” vs. “the” Flattery and manipulation are a tool of those in the center of societal power.
  • The voice in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
  • John’s locating himself in the wilderness kept him from the temptation to go along with the status quo.
  • If you don’t have the qualifications that come from our understanding, by what authority do you do x?
  • Truth is found in a humble place, away from the centers of human power and greatness.
  • In the centers of human power and greatness authority, power, truth, etc is used to promote self over others.
  • John points to the one true God and doesn’t exalt himself but shares the truth with humility.
  • We, like John the Baptist, are called to point to Jesus, to clear the path so that others can approach the Lord. As we enter into open worship…

 

Guarding Ourselves From Things that Make “Sense”


Some of you are looking at my sermon title and wondering what I could possibly be talking about. In some ways this is a response to some Christians who have unfortunately been saying that the earthquake in Nepal is God’s judgment. A refrain I hear all too often around times of natural disaster. Why should we guard ourselves against what makes sense? One Sunday I was in a church and heard a sermon based on the following text in the Old Testament.

5 “Surely God is mighty and does not despise any; he is mighty in strength of understanding.6 He does not keep the wicked alive, but gives the afflicted their right.7 He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous, but with kings on the throne he sets them forever, and they are exalted.8 And if they are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of affliction,9 then he declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.10 He opens their ears to instruction, and commands that they return from iniquity.11 If they listen, and serve him, they complete their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasantness.12 But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword, and die without knowledge. Job36:5-12

The preacher went on to say how God is just and that obedience to God will result in prosperity and pleasant days, but wickedness will be repaid with poverty and illness. From the world’s perspective, and even from someone in the Bible, this seems to make a lot of sense. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked right? Isn’t that one of God’s jobs? This kind of reasoning leads to the kind of statements I saw this week. Unfortunately the one who spoke the words in that scripture passage was reproving a man named Job, and God himself rebukes those words. What makes sense and works in the world doesn’t necessarily reflect God’s priorities and desires. Sometimes when we think we know what God’s doing we are looking at the wrong thing, some tangible thing rather than the spiritual truth.

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” 8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? 9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12

1) Loss of focus when neglecting taking care of ourselves.
2) Watch out! Pay attention!
3) When in need we are so focused on need that we interpret everything through the need.
4) Forgetting God’s provision in the past leads to fear now.
5) Jesus was speaking to the teachings of Pharisees and Sadducees.
6) Pharisees: Lots of rules, obedience leads to God’s favor, obedience leads to prosperity, obedience to rules leads to coming of messiah, we can earn God’s love, nationalism is holiness, God is the judge, there will be a reckoning in which God will judge all who break the law as they interpreted it.
7) Sadducees: accommodate the Empire, don’t make waves, give us money/sacrifices and God will bless you, wealth gives greater access to God, obeying rules leads to blessing, no resurrection, no existence of soul after death, described by some scholars as “Pharisees for the rich”
8) With the exception of belief in resurrection, the main disagreements between these groups were over minor issues relating to purity and civil law. From the outside the two groups looked pretty similar in their understanding.
9) The teachings of these groups seem to make sense in an occupied territory, but Jesus rebukes their worldview.
10) Jesus contrasts a God of generosity, creation, grace, and mercy.
11) It may make sense to go with the flow of the nation/culture we are in, but we must examine our assumptions to see if they get in the way of understanding the truth of who Jesus is and what he accomplished.
12) The Pharisees, Sadducees, and disciples all thought they knew what God was up to, but Jesus said “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” in Luke 19:10 in John 12:46-48a says:

46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.
There is a difference Jesus makes between keeping commands and rejecting God, a difference it would serve us well to remember.

13) A lot of what Jesus commands doesn’t make sense or seem to work in the world. Love your enemies, take up your cross, those who try to save their lives will lose them, the kingdom of heaven is better than all earthly things, don’t store up or seek out the fallible treasures of this world, blessed are the meek, those who mourn and those who are hungry, the greatest leader must be the greatest servant.
14) These things fly in the face of the priorities of just about every culture to ever have existed on the face of the planet, but we know that obedience to the foolishness of God is a wiser course than any human’s most powerful wisdom.
15) That is all great in theory, but as I was riding my bike and praying yesterday God brought me to the word “deserve.” The world wants us to think in terms of getting what we deserve and other people getting what they deserve, or at least what we think they deserve. Our faith is based on us not getting what we or others think we deserve. Larger conversations about who deserve what need to be submitted to the facts of Jesus’ sacrifice.
16) As we enter into our time of open worship, let us pray that the Holy Spirit continues to turn our hearts ever closer towards the sacrificial love Jesus has given us.

A Life Built Wisely

Click here to download or listen to the sermon based on these notes.

Today we reach the grand finale of the Sermon on the Mount, so a bit of a recap is in order. With the beatitudes Jesus challenged the value measurement system of health, wealth, happiness, and prosperity by saying God blesses the humble, meek, hungry, mourning and persecuted. He then tells his disciples that living according to God’s values will light up the darkness and prevent the decay of relationships. Jesus then teaches his disciples how to live faith filled lives that point to God rather than our flawed understanding of personal holiness. Jesus continued by teaching that God’s kingdom and his way of being and doing what is right is our top priority, even eclipsing the basic needs that everyone is trying to meet. We have enough right now to live out God’s calling. Jesus teaches how to recognize those whose priorities are self-aggrandizing and that even though they sound like they are right, the way they interact brings harm rather than restoration. Jesus then concludes his sermon with a warning and parable.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

  • In the name of God.
  • Says vs. does, “sound theology” The pretext of the text is a context of obedience.
  • Saying the right words and doing big things does not equal faithfulness.
  • Windstorm Inspections and the importance of knowing the foundation is firm.
  • The test of faithfulness is obedience to the teaching of Christ both past and present. Friends of Jesus. Vine and Branches “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:12-15
  • When our teaching and actions point to deeper, more loving, relationships with God and others we speak and act with the authority that comes from following God’s, and not our own, priorities.

Don’t Worry? Really?

(I am changing the way I preach, so for the full text you will need to listen to the audio file. Below are the notes I made to preach from.)

Click here to listen.

Today, I am preaching a sermon on not worrying while I am worrying about my daughter. It is one thing to trust Jesus for my future and rely on God to provide for me, but there is something about looking at that little face and hearing her cries of fear and distress, that challenges my ability to trust God to provide for her. Intellectually I understand that God’s love for her is deeper than mine ever could be, but when those we love are in danger our intellect usually gets pushed out of the driver’s seat. Here is the strange piece though: as much as I am afraid and worried there is still a comfort that comes from knowing that others are praying and from having my feet planted on the firm foundation before the current storm of life rose up. That is what Jesus is doing here in the Sermon on the Mount, he is laying a foundation for His disciples to stand on when the storms come. He said to his disciples:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 5:25-34

Let’s do a quick recap of the Sermon on the Mount to put what we just read in context. Jesus had just called the disciples and saw the large crowds already beginning to form. He pulled the disciples aside and began to teach them by turning the expectations on good attitudes upside down. Jesus base level foundation was that God especially blessed the people who were going through tough times, didn’t have it all together, and knew they needed outside help to make it. He then told them that they were blessed to be persecuted for living by different priorities. Jesus then confronted the disciples with the need to practice our piety in ways that glorify God, not in ways that glorify self. Then in teaching them to pray gives them a simple prayer designed to align themselves with God’s agenda rather than get more stuff out of God. He then taught the disciples that putting God’s priorities first means that their loyalties cannot be divided between God and anything else. Only God is worthy of our loyalty and praise. Anything else, no matter how seemingly helpful is a distraction. Two weeks ago we looked at the distraction of material wealth and the ways that can divide our loyalty from God. That is the extent of what I have scripted for this week as the aforementioned distraction kicked in for another hospital run. I still felt led to speak on this scripture this week that God would give me the right words when I came to speak.

  • Don’t worry vs. don’t worry about.
    1. Mental illness – beyond control
    2. Specifics not generalities
  • Food worry
  • Clothes worry
  • Kingdom priority
  • Worry about the future

None of these teachings of Jesus is something we can do on our own, they require two things: the Holy Spirit to transform us and other followers of Jesus to carry us when we can’t take another step.