Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Sermon Illustration from my Life

I remember once going to visit my uncle in the hospital in Sioux Falls, after he had heart bypass surgery.  It was early in January, and since I was a pastor in a small town in northeastern South Dakota, and since it was in that little lull you get right after Christmas and New Years, I decided go go and keep watch with other members of the family.

My uncle had never married.  But my aunt Margret came, and I think my mother's other brother as well.  They lived nearby, so they came and waited as well.

I knew that my aunt and uncle were proud of my vocation.  They had come and visited me one summer, and stayed in the parsonage.  They came to Sunday worship too.  I still remember that my sermon was on the text from 2nd Samuel about David and Bathsheba and the death of their son, and my uncle was impressed that (whatever I said) I did not sneak around the text.

So I was sitting with my aunt, and I was telling her about how Christmas services had gone.  I told my aunt about my Christmas Day sermon, that I had told a story about going to the farm one Christmas when I was a very little girl.  It was the farm where my aunt and my mom and her sisters grew up.  My mom was the middle one.  Margret was her older sister.  Her younger sister was still living on the farm when I was small.  So I told my aunt about the time when when visited the farm and I was afraid that Santa Claus would not find us.  My mom's younger sister slept in the bed with me, and she reassured me that everything would be all right, that Santa would find me.

It was a sermon illustration from my life.

My aunt thought it was a good story.

Then she asked me a question.  "Have you ever told a story about me in one of your sermons?"

I thought about it.  I thought that I should.  But I couldn't think of anything.

My aunt has always been such a faithful presence in my life.  I remember her colorful china dishes, which she used every day.  She wasn't a gourmet cook, but she was a good no-nonsense cook.  She used to work for General Mills, so she knew her way around the Betty Crocker cookbook.

She always wanted to be a teacher.  She was good at talking to children.  When I was in high school, she took me to the University of Minnesota with her one day, just to walk around the campus and sit in on the classes with her.  

I remember she got involved in visiting shut-ins at her church.  It made her feel good to talk to people who were hurting or lonely, and to befriend them.  She had a pastor's heart.

But when she asked me if I had ever used a story about her as a sermon illustration, I couldn't think of anything.  She was just there, always, a constant presence.  I couldn't think of a single particular thing.  Just that she was always there.

I didn't answer her question then, and I don't think I ever did.

But actually she did become a sermon illustration once.

When I was in college, I got involved in a pretty intense religious group.  They were the kind of people that thought they were right, and that everyone else was wrong.  I was "on fire for the Lord," and sadly, that meant that I was pretty judgmental for awhile.  I questioned everyone else's faith, including my Aunt's.  In fact, I even wrote my aunt and uncle a letter, and although I don't remember exactly what I wrote, I think I wrote some pretty terrible things.

My aunt wrote me back.  And this I remember:

She forgave me.

She loved me anyway.

That was a sermon illustration.

And Aunt Margret, I want you to know this -- your whole life was a sermon illustration for me.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


I just recently started reading a new book.

I know this isn't big news.  I have a lot of books, and I even read some of them.  This particular book is called "8 Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches."

Now, this is not a title to which I would ordinarily gravitate.  Not because I don't want to grow rapidly but because I am suspicious of "prescriptions" for growing.  But I ordered this title after recognizing the name of one of the authors (he also wrote a book praising small churches), and because I was curious about the first virtue:  "Rapidly Growing Churches Believe in Miracles and Act Accordingly."

I was both attracted and sort of frustrated by this virtue.  First of all, a miracle is not a prescription.  You can't make a miracle happen.  There aren't 7 steps about miracles.  A miracle is a mystery.  That intrigued me.

The authors almost didn't include this first virtue -- how can you replicate the miraculous?  But it was a part of the story of every pastor and every congregation they interviewed.  Early in the church's history, there were miracles -- the right staff person at just the right time, the gift of land, a lay leader who emerged to lead a ministry.  One pastor told the story of a young man in the congregation who was ill.  The congregation prayed for this young man, and, though it was not instantaneous, this young man experienced healing.  This healing had a profound effect on that congregation.  They began to expect God to show up in new ways in their worship and in their lives.

All of the rapidly growing churches tell similar stories of miracles in their midst.  And because of these miracles, the churches began to pray in a different way.  They began to sense the Spirit among them in a different way.  And they began to see in a different way as well.  They began to look for the Spirit, working in the midst of their congregation.  And finally, they began to act in a different way -- to make bold changes based on where they saw the Spirit at work.

This chapter about miracles -- also talked about failure.  the churches that experienced miracles, also experienced failure.  I'm pretty sure that if this chapter had not mentioned failure, I would not have liked it as much.  The churches dreamed big and made mistakes.  Sometimes big mistakes.  Sometimes painful and discouraging mistakes.  Worship services where no one showed up.

But they learned from those mistakes.  Those mistakes did not discourage them from continuing to look for miracles, continuing to ask where the Spirit was moving in their congregation and in the community they served.

Because of that first chapter, I have been thinking about miracles and failures.  I believe that I have seen miracles here, even though I haven't necessarily been bold to name them.  To be truthful, most of the miracles have been people:  new people who have walked in the door, people who have stepped up just at the right time.

I remember when I first came to this congregation, there were not very many children.  And I remember thinking that I had no idea what to do.  There wasn't a Sunday School, because there were not enough children to have one.  So, I had no idea what to do, and then a family came.  and then another family came.  And then another family came.  And I was still pretty sure that it wasn't because of a strategy of mine, because I had no strategy, except praying fervently, and loving everyone.

It was a miracle.

There have been other miracles, too, small but important.  For some reason, they are all people.  People who stayed.  People who returned.  People who showed up.

I have seen some failures too.  We have tried some experiments that have not gone as expected.  But the idea is to learn from them, and continue to believe that the Spirit is moving among us.  The idea is to keep asking the question, "Where is God leading us?  Where does God want us to go?"

The trick is to not let the failures keep us from seeing the miracles.  The trick is to keep stepping out, sure that God will act among us.

The authors tell a story, a midrash from the Jewish tradition, as part of this chapter.  When the people of Israel were escaping from Egypt, and stuck at the Red Sea, God promised that he would part the sea if the people would cross.  But someone had to step out in faith before God would part the sea.  Someone had to put their feet in the water and take the risk.  There was one man (the story says) he waded into the water.  He waded up to his ankles, and nothing happened.  He waded up to his knees, and still nothing happened.  He waded up to his waist and still nothing happened.  And when he was up to his neck, then God parted the waters and the people of Israel walked across.

That's it, isn't it?  Believing in miracles sounds good -- but it also means that we have to wade out into the deep water sometimes, and that's hard.

Maybe that's why I sometimes keep the miracles I see to myself.  When the Spirit is working among us, it's exciting and wonderful -- and scary.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sermon: "Hard Grace"

“Hard Grace”
1stCorinthians 13
Luke 4:21-30

            When I meet with couples planning their wedding (preparing for marriage), I like to use an inventory called “Prepare.”  
            I always make sure they know it’s not a ‘test”, and it won’t predict whether their marriage will succeed or fail.  
            But it gives a snapshot of their relationship at a moment in time, and measures what they call “Relationship Strengths,” and what we called “Growth Areas” (because it sounds so much nicer than “Weaknesses.”)  
            And some of the possible strengths are things like Communication, Conflict Management, Financial Management, Relationship Roles,  Family and Friends, Spiritual Beliefs, Children and Parenting, etc, and also something called “Marriage expectations.”  
            And I have met couples who have strengths in almost every area, and I commend them when we meet and have conversations together.             But I have to say that I can’t think of even one couple who has had a strength in one particular area:  “Marriage Expectations.”  

            Yep.  You heard it right.  EVERYONE, it seems, has unrealistic expectations when they are preparing to get married.  
            At least according to this inventory.  
            Everyone thinks (for example) that they could never doubt their partner’s love, that they will always feel the same way they do now, that the romance will never fade.

            Why am I thinking about this?  
            It’s because of the reading from 1stCorinthians, one of the most well-known passages of the Bible.  
            Because I hear it, and read it, so often at weddings.  “Love is patient.  Love is Kind. Love does not insist on its own way. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”  

            These are beautiful words.  These are true words.  And – these are hard words. 
             Because love is beautiful, and love is heady, and love is wonderful and sometimes – love is hard.  
            And what I mean by that is – sometimes love requires us to do hard things.  Doesn’t it?  
            Maybe they don’t seem hard, when we are first in love.  
            But Love requires us to clean up messes, stick around during hard times,  go places you may not want to go.
            Love requires us to hold someone’s hand when they are dying. 

            Love is hard.  Not always, of course.  
            And it’s true that sometimes, when you love someone, hard things don’t seem so hard.  But not always.   But that’s not our expectation when we get married.  

            That’s the tricky thing about expectations.  
            And I think that’s also what is  going on in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, when he goes there to preach.  
            Because it’s hard to understand how everyone goes so quickly from praising Jesus’ gracious words to wanting to throw him off a cliff.        It’s too bad, really, that we heard part of this story last week – and part this week.  
            Because if we hear the whole thing at once, it sounds so strange.  How in the space of a few minutes – the people in that synagogue go from love – to anger.  
            From praising Jesus’ gracious words to trying to kill him.  And I think – at the heart – it’s about expectations.   
            The people in that synagogue love Jesus – and they have expectations.  Because 1) he’s from Nazareth, and they know him (they think) and  because 2) they have heard about all of the wonderful  things that he has been doing.  
            Healing people. Giving the blind sight.  Making the lame leap for joy.  

            And why wouldn’t they have expectations?  They love Jesus.  
            Jesus loves them. And they need healing just like everyone else.  
            If you are tempted to judge, think about it.  Don’t you need healing?  Don’t you need a miracle – at least sometimes?  
            I know I do – actually – all the time – and I tell you – week after week – that the body of Christ is not just given – but that he’s given for YOU.  
            That’s a miracle. And you need it.  I need it.  We all need it.  Every single one of us.  No exceptions.  

            So they love Jesus. And Jesus loves them.  That’s the truth.
            But he doesn’t do what they expect him to do that day.  
            Which is hard.
            And he doesn’t tell them the things they want to hear that day.
            Which is also hard.
            Instead of telling them that they are special and beloved, he tells them about other people who God loves – he reminds them that there are others that God loves – and that God has healed – who are not of their tribe.
            The widow of Zarephath, whose son Elijah raised from the dead.
            The Syrian general Naaman.  Healed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha.
             This was not the message that they were expecting.  And they tried to throw Jesus over a cliff because of it.

            I saw a t-shirt a few years ago.  I still remember it because it made me laugh, and then it made me think.  The front of the t-shirt said, “Jesus loves you”, and the back said, “but I’m his favorite.”

            Right?   It’s funny – and sometimes – it’s true.  All the jokes about heaven – and how one Christian group or another think they are the only ones up there.  
            And Jesus loved them, but not just them.
            And Jesus loved them, but he had a mission even more expansive than they were able to imagine.
            Offered to more people than they could imagine.
            And a healing deeper than they could imagine.
            Not just making the lame walk, making the blind see, cleansing lepers.
            Not just feeding people for a day.
            But life that never ends.
            Love that never ends.
             Love is hard.   Because sometimes you have to do a hard thing, for someone you love. 
            You have to clean up messes.  You have to stick around when you want to leave.  You have to go places you don’t want to go.  You have to hold someone’s hand when they are dying.
            Sometimes, you have to die, for someone you love.

            Love is patient and kind. Love does not insist on its own way. Love does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

            Love never ends. Even though you try to throw him off a cliff, even though you turn your back, even though you shout “Crucify him!”, love never ends.  This love never ends.

            And this is grace. 
            Hard Grace.
            Grace for you.  
            This is the place where I want you to know that – there’s grace for you.  Every single one of you.  No exceptions.  
            There’s healing for you. There’s life for you.  
            But not just you. For people who are not here yet.  
            For people we don’t know – and people we might not even like.  
            For rich and poor. For friend and stranger.  For liberal and conservative.   For babies and 100 year olds.  
            Whoever you are -- There’s grace for YOU.  



Friday, February 1, 2019

Humble Churches

This fall, we had a sermon series on the letter of James.  Ever since, I keep coming back to the notion of humility.

It comes up in scripture every so often, this virtue of humility.  How it is good to be humble.  It comes up often enough that I even know the pitfalls of humility:  that some people's idea of humility is really self-abasement.  That low self-esteem is not the same as humility.  I say that "humble" comes from the word "human" and that "human" and "hummus" go together, and that to be humble is just to be human, to be mortal, of the earth -- and know it.

That's what I say.

During my studies this fall, I even came across a quote by C.S. Lewis.  The gist of it was that humility is not so much thinking less of yourself as it is thinking of yourself -- less.

It made me think about the Japanese woman who once asked me quite earnestly about prayer, "when you pray, do you think of yourself as an unworthy sinner, or do you think of yourself as a beloved child of God?"  I had no idea how to answer that question, until I thought that maybe the idea of prayer is not to think of yourself so much at all.

Be that as it may, I still find myself caught in the grip of that mistaken form of humility, low self-esteem.  I pick apart my flaws mercilessly, compare myself with any other pastor I can find.  I can count the things I have not accomplished, the gifts I do not have.  I am very good at this.  I am not sure why.  I did not have an especially traumatic childhood.

It occurs to me that churches can have low self-esteem too, for one reason or another.  Sometimes just being small, in an era of super-market sized churches, is enough to affect churchly self-esteem.  Churches are routinely faced with scarcity.  And churches decline.  Or have church fights (Christians should not fight, we are told).  And then feel shame about our size, or our lack of resources, or our bad behavior.

It's not bad to hold up a mirror to ourselves and see our deficiencies.  It would not be honest to deny our imperfections.  But I am beginning to think that poor self-esteem, for me, and for churches, is sometimes an excuse.  It's a way of wiggling out of our responsibility to fulfill the call that God has imprinted on our lives.  God can't possibly expect anything of me.  I mean, look at me!

God can't possibly expect anything of us.  We are small, too small.  We are flawed people in a declining church, after all.  Something is Wrong with Us.

Even so, the world needs us, and we have gifts to offer.  God says so.   To believe otherwise is not humble.  It's a special kind of pride.

Maybe that's the definition of a humble church:  one that knows that the world needs them, and that they have gifts to offer.  Because God says so.