Show and Tell

“Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”
John 12:9


Dr. Fred Craddock, a renowned homiletics professor in seminary used to tell his students, “Preach Christ! Use words if you have to.” Dr. Craddock’s point, of course, was that people are much more impacted by what they see than by what they hear. Sermons in the flesh are more powerful and more enduring than moral proclamations and divine meditations alone.

At a certain point in his life, the only thing that rivaled the popularity of Jesus and his message in the Jerusalem vicinity was a living manifestation of Jesus’ power and a living illustration of Jesus’ message. According to John’s gospel, the power and the proclamation of Jesus were manifested and illustrated in the resurrection of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus.

When the crowds that gravitated toward Jesus got word that Jesus was dining at the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead, they came to that house to investigate for themselves. They came to see Jesus, certainly, but they also came to see what Jesus had done in the resurrected life of Lazarus.

Every person who has experienced the life-giving power of Jesus is up for inspection. People still want to know, is it really possible to hear the voice of Christ and defy the conscriptions of imminent death? People still want to know, does the eternal life promised to us by Christ make any real difference in this life? People still want to know, does Christ really have the power to give you life in the face of those who are invested in your death? People still want to know, is there any hope beyond the grave?

People still come because they want to experience our worship, enjoy our music and listen to our great sermons and testimonies about the life-giving, death-defying, body-healing, soul-saving resurrecting power of God in Christ Jesus. But they also want to see the evidence of our wondrous proclamations manifested in our everyday lives. They really want to see living illustrations of those who were once dead but who now celebrate life and life more abundantly.

What will they see?  What can they touch?  What will we show them?

Loving Savior, you have made us to be living illustrations of your power over death. Now touch our lives so that we may show forth your greatness and your goodness with gratitude and grace, in and through Jesus.  Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

A Pile of Rocks

Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, so that all may know the power of the Lord.”
Joshua 4:20-24a


Have you ever just sat and looked at stones? Some of my favorite are the stones in Jonathan’s Creek in Maggie Valley – near Lake Junaluska. I think Ray Stevens would call them “flat, smooth, river rocks, fit for skipping.” They just seem like special rocks.

Go visit Stonehenge in the English county of Wiltshire and ask some of my kin folk, as people have for centuries, “What do these stones mean?” The only honest answer is “We don’t know” or “Go ask an archeologist.”  If there ever was a plan to pass on the meaning from generation to generation, it didn’t stick.

Go visit the Holy Land and you’ll find rocks everywhere. Big ones, little ones and stacks of them, just like the pile described in Joshua 4 near the Jordan River. As soon as the Israelites stepped in the river, the waters parted, Red/Reed Sea-style, and the whole nation crossed over. It was a moment to remember.

But Joshua was smart enough to know that even mighty miracles are easily forgotten unless we do something to remember them. The twelve stone pillar was meant to arouse the curiosity of younger generations who would see it and naturally ask, “What’s that all about?” We are instructed to answer: “It’s there to remind us God is real and powerful and faithful.”

A common fear for parents of confirmation students is that their child will ask a question for which they have no answer. What’s baptism all about?  What’s communion all about?  And what about miracles, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection?

The honest answer might be “I don’t really know” or “Go ask the pastor.” But if all we offered was the Joshua answer: “Those things remind us God is real and powerful and faithful,” it would be enough.

Today we don’t have a pile of twelve stones. We have a pile of stories, poems and letters known as the Bible to arouse our curiosity and help us remember God’s presence and faithfulness. It’s really the only thing worth remembering. I hope you don’t skip them.

Dear God, help us to remember that you never forget us. You never abandon us. Help us to pile up the stones, the altars along the way to remind us that you are always with us, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Pick Your Battles

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
Luke 22:24


Most of the time most pastors get along well. Even if they come from different denominations, they still extend to each other a modicum of professional respect.

That was not the case about five years ago when pride came between two preachers. These pastors, whose congregations thought they were in competition, met on the street. One of them coldly said, “I heard you speak the other night and recognized that sermon. You preached it about 14 years ago.”

Somewhat put out by such a direct attack, the other shot back, “Thank you very much. I heard you speak just three weeks ago, and I can’t remember a single word you said!”

The conversation probably wasn’t much different as the disciples disputed about which of them was the greatest.

We expect little children to argue and brag. Children take great stock in telling why they’re the smartest, cutest, fastest and bestest. But Jesus’ disciples should have matured beyond such silliness.

How it must have hurt Jesus to hear them squabble.

His heartache stemmed from the fact that not only were His disciples fighting, but these were the men with whom He had worked the hardest. These were His trusted friends whom He had kept closest to Him, who had seen His miracles, and listened to His sermons on love. These were the ones who would be entrusted with the sharing of the Gospel.

Similarly, Jesus must be appalled by His present-day disciples who squander the church’s volunteers and resources on insignificant and inconsequential internal disputes. How sad our Redeemer must be when normally sensible and almost always rock-solid Christians jockey for recognition and demand acceptance of their own points of view.

Jesus knew back then, and He wishes His people to know now that the church and its leaders have bigger enemies to fight than each other.

Jesus died and rose so his people could witness to others on his behalf. Jesus died and rose so his people would come to him humbly and acknowledge, “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me.”

Dear Lord, forgive me when my pride gets in the way of doing all I can for you and your work. Remind me that I have nothing to brag about. Who and what I am is because of your grace, mercy and compassion. Thank you for loving me enough to restore me to your family, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

We Need the Eggs

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?'”
John 5:6


Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the man whose brother-in-law believed himself to be a chicken. The man finally got fed up with his brother-in-law’s scratching, clucking, and pecking – not to mention the nest-building in every corner of the house.

The man went to see a psychiatrist to explain the problem. The doctor said, “Sounds like a simple neurosis. Bring him in, I’m sure we can cure him.”

“Oh no, Doc,” said the man, “we can’t do that. We need the eggs.”

When Jesus came upon a man who had been sitting beside a healing pool for thirty-eight years without ever getting in the water, he asked, “Do you want to be healed?”

The truth is that in churches (but not only there) we sometimes get a lot of eggs from people who are suffering in basic ways, i.e. deep down they don’t experience themselves as worthy of God’s love and grace. Often those who suffer such wounds deal with their pain by over-functioning – constantly doing for others, taking on every job, or taking responsibility for other people who aren’t being responsible for themselves. We in the church may even encourage this. We’ve gotten used to the eggs.

But here’s the really shocking thing in this story: Jesus asked if the man who had sat there for so long wanted to be healed, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He just ordered the man to get up and walk. Jesus took away the eggs.

So, watch out, because so far as I can tell Jesus is very likely to bust in on our little arrangements and take away the eggs. Jesus is intent on taking from us all the ways we’ve learned to keep true life and real healing at bay.

Come Holy Spirit, break us open and make us new, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Pushing the YES Buttton

For Jesus Christ was not “yes” and “no” but in him it has always been “yes”!
2 Corinthians 1:19


Sitting on the old man pews at Wally World the other day I had this weird thought: after all my groceries and other stuff had paraded down the conveyor belt, I swiped my credit card on the payment box and received that familiar but curious question:  “Your total is $96.23, is that OK?”  Answer options include:  “Yes” and “No.” 

Just as I was about to mechanically enter “Yes,” I thought, “Why am I being such an unthinking conformist?  Suppose I disagree with this total?  Suppose I break away from the pack, take the road less traveled, challenge the system, make a statement of protest and push the “No” button?!!!”

So I asked the check-out person, “Just out of curiosity, what happens if I push the “No” button? Emphatically, she said “If you do, I will have to ring up your order all over again while you and the five people behind you wait!”

I pushed the “Yes” button.

Isn’t that the way it is in church sometimes?  Isn’t it easier to swallow your misgivings about Christianity rather than clog the system with uncomfortable questions? Fortunately you have landed in the United Methodist Church, where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, we welcome you …and your questions.

Does that make us the “Uncertain Methodist Church?” I’m uncertain about that, but certainty is certainly not what it’s all about.  Instead, it’s all about finding and giving a full, resounding “yes” to the One who has already said “yes” to you and me.

Patient God, may your “yes” to us override our doubts about you and overwhelm us with gratitude and joy, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

 

Love One Another

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
John 13:35


One day, a man was walking across a bridge and saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump off. He immediately ran to him and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!” “Well, why shouldn’t I?” he replied. The other said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” “Like what”? “Well … are you religious or atheist?” “Religious.” “Me too! And are you Christian or Jewish?” “Christian.” “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” “Protestant.” “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?” “Baptist.” “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?” “Baptist Church of God.” “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God.” “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?” “Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!” To which he said, “Die, you heretic!” and pushed him off the bridge.

When we get together with our family on Sundays, we often find ourselves discussing and even arguing our views on various topics, political, spiritual, etc. One man said of his family: “You’ve heard the phrase two Jews, five opinions? That’s our family. At the end, we all laugh about who argued best and try to learn from one another.”

The body of the Lord is one big family. Yes, we differ in opinion on some issues. But we are going to be together for eternity and we must learn to live in peace with one another! In order for us to make a real difference in the world, the world needs to see us loving each other.

Let’s not be like the man who pushed the other off the bridge. Let’s laugh about it and try to learn from one another.

Dear Lord, make my circle of love, understanding and acceptance bigger and bigger each day until it includes ALL your people. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

 

Voicemail in Heaven

“I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live”
(Psalm 116:1–2 NIV).


What if God ran heaven like a business and installed voicemail? It might sound something like this:

Thank you for calling heaven. Please select one of the following options:

  • Press 1 for thanksgiving.
  • Press 2 for complaints.
  • Press 3 for requests.
  • Press 4 for all other inquiries.
  • [Press any number]

I’m sorry; all of our angels are busy helping other saints right now. However, your prayer is important to us, and we will answer it in the order in which it was received. Please hold for the next available angel.

If you would like to speak to the Father, press 1. For the Son, press 2. For the Spirit, press 3. If you would like to hear a Psalm while you are holding, press 4. To find a loved one residing in heaven, press 5, then enter his or her Social Security number followed by the pound sign. If you get a negative response, please hang up and try area code 666.

To make a reservation for heaven, please enter J-O-H-N-3-1-6. For answers to nagging questions about dinosaurs, the age of the earth, life on other planets, and where Noah’s Ark is, please wait until you arrive.

If you are unable to reach one of our angels, please hang up and try again tomorrow.

This office will be closed for the weekend to observe the Sabbath. Please pray again on Monday after 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time. If you need emergency assistance, please contact your local pastor.

Can you imagine this? No one would pray. Thank God—yes, I mean thank Him—that He gives us direct access. All the time. Remember that God hears genuine prayer, even when He’s quiet.

Father, thank You, thank You, that I have direct access to You. I’ve so often taken it for granted, but it is a supreme privilege to connect with You directly when I pray.

 Grace and Peace

Steve

 

Eleven Special Words

“The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other.”
Excerpt from 2 Corinthians 5:16-20 (The Message)


A few years ago at a couple of church gatherings the week before Thanksgiving, I asked this question:  “Who will be around your table at Thanksgiving and does that represent any challenges?”  The responses were quite remarkable:

“Well, it all depends if my aunt shows up.”

“This year Thanksgiving is with my wife’s family, so we’ll be fine.  But next year we’ll be with my family, and that’s a whole other story.”

“My brother hasn’t been with us for Thanksgiving for a long time, so we’ll have to see how that goes.”

We watched an old “Raymond” show during the holidays which had some of this same theme. Everyone was trying to get along with Robert’s wife’s family. When it didn’t work and people starting arguing Raymond says: “Now it feels like a holiday!”

Can you picture that famous Norman Rockwell painting that depicts a large family gathered at a dining table for a Thanksgiving meal?  The father is at the head of the table, hands folded.  All heads are bowed.  I always assumed they were all offering prayers of thanksgiving for their manifold blessings.  But now I wonder if the prayers were more like these:

“Dear God, help me to hold my tongue.”
“God, everyone is doing real well so far.  Don’t desert us now.”
“Please help us steer clear of political arguments.”

When I imagine prayers like that, the depiction of the Norman Rockwell family goes from merely sentimental to something very real and very poignant.

Ira Byock, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School, writes from his experience with dying patients and grieving families about the eleven words that people need to hear in such moments. Then he rightly observes that these eleven words are important to say – and powerful – not just at such critical moments, but at other times and in other circumstances.

Those eleven words are:

Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
Thank you.”

So in the wake of Thanksgiving, let me ask:  Does anyone need to hear these words from you today? It just may change the whole picture.

Dear Lord, bring a spirit of reconciliation to my heart, to my words, and to my actions.  May I live out these eleven words to all around me, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve


Walking Before the Lord

“If only your children will take heed to walk
before me as you have walked before me.”
Excerpt from l Kings 8:22-30


In preparing for worship and sermons I like to read what other ministers are doing. Sometimes I will listen to Podcasts of sermons or lectionary discussions among a group of seminary students, like Concordia Seminary. It always seems to give a fresh insight into the text of the week. Recently I ran across an interesting story by a clergywoman, Talitha Arnold, who served in the UCC church.

She told that whenever new members joined the Connecticut church she served in the 1980’s (First United Church of Christ in Middletown, CT), they used the congregation’s original covenant. Written in 1658, the statement began, “We doe in ye presence of God, the Holy Angells and this Assembly take, acknowledge, and Avouch the one and onely true God.” Reciting it, she said she always felt like we’d stepped back into a Shakespearean play. It must have been quite a rite of passage for new members to stumble through the archaic language.

I thought about the language as it recalled to mind the 23rd Psalm that was read by Dr. Rick Pierce at my dad’s funeral. He read it from the Scottish version with a heavy Scottish accent. It was very beautiful language but hard to understand. You really had to listen. The core of the UCC covenant rang true, even 300-plus years later, and so did the 23rd Psalm thousands of years later. “Ingaging that we will walk with this God,” we promised, “and one with another according to the rules of ye Gospell.”

The commitment to “walk with God and one another” wasn’t original. Variations of the promise are found throughout the covenants of those early churches, beginning with the Church Covenants of the earliest of years.

Today’s scripture text reminds us that the promise is also deeply rooted in our biblical faith. As he dedicates the Temple, King Solomon tells the people to “take heed to walk before God” as their ancestors did. The king knew it was the only way to life. 

Whether from 3,000 years ago or a mere 300, the covenant to walk with God and one another affirms that faith is a journey, best taken with others. As we gather on Thursday to give thanks, may that journey be at the top of our list of blessings. 

Dear Lord, thank you for walking with us every step of the way. Continue to guide our feet in your paths of peace and hope, as we journey with one another in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

 

Thanksgiving Proclamation

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

%d bloggers like this: