Month: March 2008

Sermon: “The Palm Sunday Syndrome”

Here’s a link to the sermon I preached last year titled, “The Palm Sunday Syndrome” from Luke 19:28-40.   I don’t have the manuscript for this one, but you can watch the video here.  The audio is here.  This is last year’s lectionary from Year C.  I’ll post the manuscript of my sermon for Palm Sunday 2008, tomorrow.

Old traditions of a living faith

Typical dress among Old German Baptist Brethren I stepped back in time 200-years today. No, I did not go to a museum. I went to a funeral. A friend’s father died after an extended illness, and Debbie and I attended the funeral today. Our friend’s father was of the Old German Baptist Brethren, and the funeral moved me profoundly.

We got lost on our hour-and-a-half drive to find the Old German Baptist meetinghouse, and pulled into the churchyard just as the funeral was beginning. As we walked up to the church door, I heard the sounds of singing. In unison and without accompaniment, as one great strong voice, the congregation was singing as we entered the meetinghouse. A bearded minister stood at the front of the large meeting room, “lining” the hymn — he spoke the verse, which the congregation then sang. The sound reminded me of vespers at a monastery retreat I took several years ago. Almost a chant, the melody soared and fell in a slow, deliberate cadence that was solemn, but not sad.

Debbie and I sat down, only to realize upon looking around that we were seated on the left section filled with men only. The center section contained families — husbands, wives, children — and the right section of pews seated only women. All the pews faced the front of the room, which could probably seat about 400. One group of pews on the left faced toward the ministers. Deacons occupied those pews, I was later told.

The meetinghouse was well-constructed, but plain — a wood floor, newly polished; white unadorned walls; flat ceiling about 14-feet high; and plain pews with no hymn racks. The rectangular room was lined with pews in three sections, all facing the wall opposite the door. The two entrance doors were on the south wall, the pews faced the north wall, both were the longest walls, so that the congregation was broader than it was deep.

As I looked at the front of the room, there was no platform and no pulpit. The ministers, who are elected by the congregation and are unpaid, sat on two rows of pews facing the congregation. In front of those pews, between the ministers and congregation, was a long wooden table. I had read that the earliest Baptist meetinghouses had a central table around which the congregation was seated. I was witness to that 300-year old arrangement at the Old German Baptist Brethren church today.

After the hymn singing ended — each person carried their own small hymnal with words but no music — a minister stood to speak. Although he used no microphone, his words resounded off the floor and walls with crisp clarity. “This is what a service must have been like 200-years’ ago,” I thought to myself, although the room did have plain electric lights hanging from the ceiling.

The men wore beards, but no moustaches. Their suits were dark without collars, jackets buttoned at the top button only. Plain white shirts without ties worn under a dark vest completed their attire. Women wore dark dresses, with a cape-like design that covered their upper torsos. Dark bonnets nestled in their husband’s black hats, either hung on hooks or suspended in an ingenuous wire hat rack that ran overhead from the front of the room to the back.

The service included two speakers, two or three hymns, two prayers during which the entire congregation — men, women, and children —  knelt on the hard wooden floor, and the Lord’s Prayer followed each prayer. From 10 AM to 12 noon we sang, prayed, knelt, and listened as this funeral “meeting” offered words of comfort, and a community of support.

After the funeral, we drove the short distance to the church-owned cemetery. As we stood by the graveside, brief words were spoken. Then cemetery workmen lowered the casket into the vault, secured the top of the vault, and lowered both into the grave. As they did so, two of the Brethren came alongside with long tamping poles. As the vault was lowered, they inserted the poles down each side, guiding the vault away from the sides of the grave into the center. What followed was remarkable.

The gathered congregation began to sing. As they sang, bearded men in black suits picked up shovels and began to shovel dirt into the grave. These hands were not strangers to work, and as they shoveled, other men holding the tamping rods tamped the dirt vigorously as the grave filled. One song gave way to another as one by one, bearded men and family members shoveled dirt into the grave, and tamped it lovingly into place. Some tears were shed, but most wore pleasant expressions of seeing an old friend off on a long journey. As the grave filled, other men brought rolls of sod, covering the smoothed dirt with green grass.

The hymns ended. A minister spoke of the journey of their brother, a journey that had taken him safely home. A prayer was offered and then another minister thanked everyone for their loving kindness to the family.

As Debbie and I stood among these gentle people dressed in clothes belonging to another place and time, I marveled at how they had gathered to take care of their brother even to the duty of laying his body in the ground. This was a community of faith. A community carrying out centuries-old traditions, but not without meaning. This community gathered from all over the country, as automobile tags carried the designations of many states. They gathered, greeting each other with hugs and holy kisses, to do what communities do — to cry, to pray, to help, to support, to do the work that one friend does for another.

Most of those Old German Baptists were old. Gray beards and gray-bonneted hair were in the majority. I felt we were witnessing the passing of an era. An era when people believed together, worshipped together, mourned together, and rejoiced together. An era when life was simple, families were close, and faith was real.

The “No Adjective” Church

the dictionary  ad·jec·tive [aj-ik-tiv]  1. Any member of a class of words…functioning as modifiers of nouns, as good, wise, perfect.

Have you noticed we are now in the age of the “adjective” church?  Modifiers like missional or purpose-driven or seeker-sensitive or externally-focused or a dozen others precede the word “church” to define a particular church’s philosophy.  I guess this isn’t anything new because the old modifiers were denominational names like Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and so on.  But, now we have both, and it’s getting to be a bit cluttered.

What happened to the word “church” along the way?  How did “church” lose its meaning as a place where the least, the last, and the lost could find hope, healing, and hospitality?  Why do we need modifiers to distinguish one church from another.  Are “purpose-driven” churches distinguished from those that have no purpose?  Are “seeker-sensitive” churches  truer churches than those that don’t use that modifier?

“Church” has become so meaningless a term now, that we expect the adjectives that precede it to define what a particular church does.  But, in the Book of Acts, they didn’t need adjectives.  Church was a community, a refuge, a place of healing, a gathering of God’s people, open to others, driven by fellowship and mission, obedient to God, gathered for worship, inclusive of slave and free, innovative, sharing, caring, loving, powerful, prayerful, worshiping, gifted — an expression of the kingdom coming in the world now.

Wouldn’t it be great if the word “church” again meant all those things?  Without the adjectives.  Church.  Why doesn’t that say it all?

In the church as abbey: Why rituals are important

celtic-crosses.jpg In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.

Learning How to Be A Christian

These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.

When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.

Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.

Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church

Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.

Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.

The Importance of Ritual

Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.

Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.

I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.  

Church wants to be free

free1.jpg An interesting article by Kevin Kelly got me thinking about church. Church, I believe, wants to be free. Not free, like “Free Willy.” I’m not talking about an imprisoned behemoth that wants to leap the channel net into freedom, although that might be another post in the future. I’m talking about free as in “no cost” free. Economically free. Free as in “no charge.”

A good example of the new free is music. The internet has completely revolutionized how we (“we”= kids) gain access to music. Mostly for free. Radiohead made news by giving away their latest album for free when it was first released. We are getting used to free, and we like it. Church related items aren’t exempt from this move to free. Several years ago I subscribed to an online sermon illustration service and a sermon preparation magazine. Two years ago I cancelled both subscriptions. Why? Because now comparable material is available for free on the internet.

With the move to free, here’s what I would like to see in the church world:

  • More peer-to-peer sharing. Kids revolutionized music distribution through file-sharing and downloads. Okay, much of it was illegal, but now that’s been cleaned up and artists are actually joining the free music revolution. Some musicians give away their music via downloads. Pastors and church leaders ought to create networks for sharing information, sermons, programs, music, art, ideas, and concepts. Why do we wait for denominations or mega-churches to sponsor seminars? Why don’t we get together as church leaders and craft our own seminars, where we are the content creators?
  • Less consumer-culture. The church world is just as captive as the rest of society to the consumer culture. We have come to believe that the best ideas are the ones we buy. That is simply not true. The best ideas are the ones that fit our context and can be done for little or no money. The iMonk has a great post on the religious- industrial complex.
  • More done for love, and not for money. Kevin Kelly also contends that the internet runs on love — millions of people work for free to put up good material on the internet just because they love creating and contributing. How have we let popular culture steal the principle by which the kingdom of God should operate? If someone has a better outreach program, shouldn’t they give it away? If someone knows a better way to present the gospel to others, shouldn’t they make that available for free? If we really believe what we say about the Christian life, shouldn’t all of us who call ourselves Christian work passionately to make sure that all the best ideas, programs, concepts, and methodologies are free?
  • Less slick and more real. We don’t need the Madison Avenue look — slick and expensive — to communicate in today’s world. We need authenticity. We need real. Plus, we’re amateurs when it comes to slick advertising anyway. What do we have that’s real? Community, love, help, care, relationships, people, and God. Beats Madison Avenue every time.
  • Smaller budgets and more creativity. We have bought the myth that small churches have small budgets and, therefore, can’t do much. But, creativity and collaboration rise to the top when funds are limited.
  • Smaller churches. Small churches have an economy of scale that large churches do not. And, that’s why small churches outnumber big ones, and survive longer than large churches.

So, that’s my riff on free church. That’s also why I blog, to create a forum where we can help each other for free. What do you think? How can we start the free church revolution? Or am I the only person who believes church wants to be free? I’d like your thoughts. — Chuck

Sermon for Sunday, Mar 9, 2008: Can These Bones Live?

Can These Bones Live?
Ezekiel 37:1-141 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ “

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “

Back From The Grave

In 1974, peasants digging a well near the city of Xian, China, broke through the dirt into a pit where the scene before them was amazing. Scores of clay soldiers, the size of full-grown men, filled the dirt before them. Little did they know that they had uncovered the burial ground of the first emperor of China and his army of 7,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. The now-famous Xian Terracotta Warriors are from the Qin dynasty, and accompanied the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi to his burial. Shi Huangdi was a powerful ruler who united the warlords in China, unified the Chinese language, and connected ancient fortifications into what is now called the Great Wall of China.

The terracotta army now boasts more members, as archaeologists have opened other excavations which have unearthed more soldiers, bronze chariots, horses, weaponry, and other artifacts. The excavation site is so extensive that the Xian Terracotta Soldiers are called by many the eighth wonder of the world.

Like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Qin Shi Huangdi aspired to immortality. And, to insure that his next-world success was equal to his achievement in this world, he commissioned artisans to sculpt this vast army of soldiers to march with him from this life into the next. The detailing is so fine that the treads on the bottom of their footwear are still visible, and every face in this vast army is unique and wears a different expression.

Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones

But, about 350 years before the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the prophet Ezekiel sees his own vast army spread out before him. Only in Ezekiel’s vision, the army is in disarray. Individual warriors are dismembered, the flesh has disappeared from their bones, and this disjointed valley of dry bones is all that is left of the once mighty army. Quite a contrast to the emperor’s fully-armed terracotta brigades.

The setting is the Babylonian captivity of Israel. In 597 BC, Ezekiel was taken from his homeland and exiled to Babylon under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. In 593 BC, God called Ezekiel to prophesy to his fellow exiles that things would get worse before they got better. God’s call to Ezekiel was this –

1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” 2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

9 Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, 10 which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. Ezekiel 2:1-10 NIV

Ezekiel’s message was not “the prosperity gospel” or “I’m OK, you’re OK!” Ezekiel preached that if the people thought things were bad now, just wait, they will get worse. He prophesied that Jerusalem, the home of the magnificent Temple of God, built by Solomon, would be destroyed. Ezekiel even acted out this judgment with a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem. The people were outraged until Ezekiel’s words came true in 586 and 587 BC, when Jerusalem was totally destroyed. In Ezekiel chapter 10, Ezekiel recounts his vision of the departure of the glory of the Lord from the Temple itself.

But with chapter 37, Ezekiel begins to prophesy of the restoration of the nation, and that’s what we have in this vision of the valley of dry bones — a vision of restoration, life from death, a revivification of God’s people.

Can These Bones Live?

So, this is the nation of Israel, depicted as dry bones scattered throughout the floor of a valley. God leads Ezekiel back-and-forth among the bones. Ezekiel records “I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” In the midst of that scene of death and hopelessness, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely replies, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel is right, only God knows if life is possible again. Up to this point, Ezekiel’s messages have been those of doom and gloom. Sermons explaining why God is judging Israel, sermons predicting that Jerusalem will be destroyed. Sermons that also speak judgment against the very nations that God is using to chasten Israel. No one escapes Ezekiel’s vision of God’s work.

Then God says to Ezekiel –

“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” Ezekiel 37:4-6

Remember creation? What happens there? God’s words speak creation into being. The writer of Genesis writes, “And God said…” and the earth is formed, the sun and moon hung in place, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and animals appear on land, and man takes his place in God’s good world. All because God’s word spoke it into being. And, at the end of every creative day, God looks at his work and pronounces it good.

John begins his gospel in similar fashion, as he tells the story of Jesus in a unique manner:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

So, Jesus becomes the living word, the logos of God, the word of God to the world he has created. The word of life, and the word of hope, and the word of love.

This valley of dry bones that Ezekiel sees is dead. There is no life in it. No possibility of self-healing, or spontaneous organization, or of natural restoration. But, God says, “Hear the word of the Lord!” These bones that cannot hear, can now hear God. These bones that do not form a living organic system, of which ears are an organ, can now hear God. These bones that cannot gather themselves together in a coherent, functioning body, can now hear this creative word of the Lord. For they know this voice. It is part of their DNA. It is in the cells of their being. It is that voice which gave them life in the beginning. It is the only voice they can hear. It is the only voice they can obey.

And what does God say? What is the word of the Lord to these dry bones?

“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”

Just as God breathed into Adam the breath of life, so He breathes into these dry bones that creative breath that gives life. This is creation all over again. This is God’s recreative act for the nation of Israel. Old bones, new life. The word of the Lord, the people of God, the life-giving breath, all together again.

But, God goes on:

I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ “

Not only is God reviving them, he is making them new. Recreating them as they were intended to be. Not dry bones that can hear. Not dry bones that can move around, but bones that now have muscle and tendon and flesh attached to them. Bones that are covered with skin. Bones that become the building blocks for God’s people, again.

So, Ezekiel preaches that message. And guess what happens? Ezekiel says, “there was as noise, a rattling sound” and the bones come together. Now this is where the song, Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones, takes its lyrics.

The toe bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connnected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
Now hear the word of the Lord.

And hear they do, until all the bones have come together, until muscle and tendon and flesh cover them, until breath enters these recreated bodies, and they stand, in Ezekiel’s words, as a vast army. And then God explains to Ezekiel, what must be all too obvious now.

These bones are the house of Israel — without hope, without life, cut off from God, defeated, and dead. But, God says, “I’m going to open their graves. I’m going to bring them up from the pit. I’m going to bring them back to the land of Israel.” God goes on, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it!”

And sure enough, about 70-years after they are taken captive, the nation returns to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to repair the Temple, and to occupy its land again — the land that God gave them, and brought them back to.

A Lesson for Lent

Now what does all that have to do with Lent? you might ask. Well, let me tell you a story:

In Japan, there is a Shinto temple, called a shrine, that is about 2000-years old. The shrine is located in the city of Ise, and is often called the most sacred shrine in all of Japan. Several years ago, the Japanese government submitted the shrine to UNESCO, the United Nations agency that catalogs ancient historic sites around the world. The Japanese were proud of the shrine, believing it to be the oldest continually existing religious shrine in the world.

But, here’s the amazing part. UNESCO didn’t believe their claims because the shrine is built of wood. They said, “this can’t be the same building that was originally constructed. It would have deteriorated by now.” So, the Japanese had to explain about the buildings.

It seems that every 20-years, the entire shrine is torn down and rebuilt. This process has been going on since 690 AD, when the first rebuilding took place. The entire wooden shrine is taken down, and wood is cut from the same forest that furnished wood for the original shrine building, hundreds of years ago. The last time the shrine was rebuilt was 1993, and it is slated for rebuilding in 2013, again.

UNESCO was not impressed. They said the building was what they were interested in, not the on-going religious life of the community, and so they denied the government’s request to list the shrine in their records.

UNESCO’s viewpoint is very much like Israel’s and our own today. Israel’s confidence was in the place — the land, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple of God. They believed that as long as they had the Temple, they had God on their side regardless of their political alliances, idolatry, or other breaches of their covenant relationship with God. God showed them otherwise.

We find it very easy to criticize the Jews — “Of course, the Temple and God aren’t the same” we are quick to point out. But, then we become attached to buildings, traditions, history, and practice, as though those things were more important than our relationship with God.

Periodically, God takes apart the church and remakes it, just to remind us that our relationship is with Him, and it is the Word of the Lord that gives life, not our plans, and pride, and priorities. It is God’s Spirit that moves where it wills, breathing life into dead bodies, and revitalizing the people of God.

The history of the Christian church contains many examples of God’s tearing down and rebuilding his people. A few of the high points in that process include:

  • The Desert Fathers and Mothers who fled the institutional church of North Africa and Egypt, left the cities, and found refuge in the desert. There they recovered a spirituality based, not on politics, but on prayer.
  • The Celtic Christian church from about 500-1,000 AD, flourished as first Patrick and then others preached the good news of God to receptive Irishmen, who were already worshipping the creation, and who then embraced the Creator.
  • The Friends of God emerged in the 13th century to reclaim a spirituality that was both mystical and devoted to God, in the midst of the political intrigue of the organized Church.
  • The Reformation in 1517, when scripture was given a place of primacy over tradition, and faith was emphasized over works as the path to salvation.
  • The Great Awakenings of both England and the United States in the early colonial period roused working people to become followers of Christ, and created movements like the Methodists and Baptists with their revivalistic approaches.

Today, God is still in the business of taking apart and remaking his church — of gathering the dry bones and putting flesh on them, and breathing life into them, again. And, that is what Lent is about. This time of reflection and confession and repentance. It is about getting ready for God’s creative breath to blow over us, again. To raise us from our own graves, to fill us with his spirit, to revive us again. Not to be the same people, but to be new people, recreated, remade, redeemed, and revived.

But, unlike our Japanese friends who take down and rebuild their own temple every 20-years, God is both the demolition and construction crew on his on-going project called the Church. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, this is his work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

A Personal Story

Let me tell you a more personal story. Several months ago, when things weren’t going too well, I wondered if I was the pastor you needed. In my attempts to lead the church in a new direction, I realized that I had pushed too fast and too hard, and had changed too much. In addition, people had left the church, and few new members had joined. This was of great concern to me, because I do love this church, I love this town, and I know that God brought us here. Debbie and I prayed many days together about what we should do. Now, don’t worry, we’re still here and have no plans to go anywhere else. But, let me continue.

Now this is where the story gets weird. I want you to know that I think this part is weird, so you will realize that this doesn’t happen to me all the time. In our praying about what we should do, Debbie kept telling me to be patient that the “sheep were coming.” It didn’t look like the sheep were coming to me, but she assured me they were.

One night, I had a dream. I saw the letters S-A-U-B-R-I-G in big block letters, like they had been printed on a large sheet of paper. That was it — “saubrig.” When I woke up, I wrote the letters down, because I felt there was some significance to them. But what?

So, I did what anybody does now — I turned on my computer and googled, S-A-U-B-R-I-G. What I got back were a bunch of references in some foreign language that I did not recognize. But, one entry was in English. It was an article about ancient Yorkshire surnames and place names. Not exciting reading, but as I scrolled down through the article, there it was, the word saubrig. Only it was two words — sau brig. Let me read you the article at this point –

Sau (pronounced sow) in Scandinavian is sheep. Brig is a dock, or trading post area. Perhaps it [sau brig] was an old way of describing a ‘sheeptown’s dock’ or, gathering point – the Saubrig…

Isn’t that amazing? And that settled it for me. I knew that in spite of my mistakes that God was still at work. And, that this is the sheeptown’s dock, the gathering point. I believe the sheep are coming. I believe they are coming here to this place, to this town, to this church, to our community, to this congregation.

And, what God is doing, is taking down the old, and rebuilding the new. What God is doing is breathing new life into our tired dry bones. That which looks like death and disorganization to us, looks like hope, and joy, and love to God. The Spirit of God is breathing into this church the breath of life. God is putting muscle and tendon on bones and covering them with flesh.

One day we will rise from the valley of our uncertainty, and from the grave of our discouragement. One day we will stand like a mighty army, not made from clay, but made from the hand of God. That day is not long from us, for God is at work now.

Can these bones live? O Sovereign Lord, you know!

Some thoughts to tide you over

The community center is coming along nicely, and we are about 75-days away from getting the keys.  Which means a lot of work ordering furnishings, contacting utility companies, planning the opening, and so on.  All seems to be piling in at once, plus the continuing change-orders, additions, and problem-solving that go with building a 16,000-square foot building.  But, it’s going well, just fast and furious.  Which explains my lack of posts this week.  So, until I get my sermon for Sunday up, here’s some good stuff I’ve been reading:

More later.

The church as abbey

Iona_abbey Last year, several of us in the Fuller DMin Missional Leadership program had dinner with Alan Roxburgh one evening.  Alan is one of the DMin adjunct professors, and author of The Sky Is Falling, co-author of The Missional Leader, and contributor to Missional Church, edited by Darrell Guder, the book that started this whole missional conversation.Since reading about the early Celtic Christians, I have had the idea that a local church could function like the old Celtic abbey.  So, I asked Alan about this concept of church as abbey at dinner.

Alan mentions in his book, The Missional Leader, that we need a new concept of church leadership in a reimagining of the eccleisal role of abbott or abbess.  My thinking fits Alan’s at this point — to have an abbott or abbess, you must also have an abbey which would be the local church.  Alan has visited the Northumbria Community, an early Celtic Christian region, now home to a modern-day neomonastic movement.Roots In Celtic Christian Communities

In Celtic Christian life, the monastic group established their community near a town or well-traveled crossroads.  Unlike later monastic communities, the Celtic Christian communities were not cloistered — they were open to passers-by, neighbors, and townspeople.  When disputes arose, the village knew that refuge and peace could be found inside the walls of the Celtic Christian compound.  As these communities of Christ grew, they became the centers of the community.

The abbeys were resources for worship, commerce, craft and trade, advice, hospitality, evangelism, catechesis, healing, care, and a host of other needs and ministries.  The surrounding pagan community learned that the abbey was a place where they could go for help, food, shelter, and guidance.  The concept, according to George Hunter’s Celtic Way of Evangelism, was that “belonging comes before believing.”  The monks were quick to welcome the stranger, inquirer, refugee, and others into their midst.

The Church-As-Abbey Reimagined For Today

The modern day church-as-abbey would function much the same way.  Worship, prayers, instruction, meals, and hospitality would be practiced there.  But also the church would be the “hub” in the “wheel of ministry.”  Spokes in the wheel could be house churches, small groups, ministry and social action groups, alternative worship experiences, off-campus locations, and off-site ministries.  All of these would relate to the church-as-abbey as the central resource for coordination, planning, prayer, and support.

Small groups would be connected to the abbey through the use of in-house instructional materials available by video and podcast.  Small group leaders would be facilitators using the resources from the abbey thereby preserving the clarity and consistency in teaching.

Small groups of all functions would worship at the church-as-abbey at least monthly, reporting to the abbey on a regular basis.  Small group leaders would be held accountable for ministry design, content, and outcomes.

Small churches could act as abbeys, too, without buying additional land, building additional buildings, or hiring additional staff.  The key would be creating groups external to the abbey, but related to the abbey to maintain the practice of the community.

The abbey would adopt a “rule of life” — a set of practices which its members followed, thus identifying them with the abbey’s particular philosophy and calling.  This rule, patterned after the Rule of St. Benedict, would at a minimum include regular prayer, Bible reading, worship, and service to others.  Specifics would be developed by each abbey in conversation with leaders and members of the community.

The church-as-abbey solves many of the problems of engaging the area surrounding a church.  Most ministry happens outside the church, with the church as resource.  Individuals are not first invited to “church,” but are invited, for example, to join a social action group that feeds the homeless each Tuesday night.  Churches need to get past the idea that only our church members can be involved in ministry projects.  Participants relate to the church as abbey — as resource — to their ministry long before they feel any need to join the abbey.

Only as the church moves out into the world to do the work of Christ in the way of Jesus, will we again find the vitality which the Christian community has lost to institutionalism.  The church as abbey has great potential for each church, regardless of size, to engage and befriend its ministry area — its geographical “parish.”  More work needs to be done on this concept, but I am convinced it holds great promise for the future of the church

Sermon for Sunday, Mar 2: One Thing I Know

One Thing I Know

John 9:1-41 NIV

1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

6Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7“Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

8His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

10“How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.

11He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.

17Finally they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

18The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19“Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

20“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. 23That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

26Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”

28Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

30The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

34To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

35Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

39Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

40Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

41Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

A Different Perspective
The New York Times printed a story yesterday of a local Southern Baptist pastor who had run afoul of local zoning ordinances. It seems that the Rev. Jim Nimmons climbed up on the roof of the First Southern Baptist Church of Catherdral City, and painted the word ETERNITY in giant red block letters right there on the shingles. The town of Cathedral City, which does not actually have a cathedral in it, frowns on rooftop signs, so the pastor has been cited for an illegal sign. Pastor Nimmons has retained legal counsel, and the town of Cathedral City is set for a showdown over the ETERNITY sign. Their complaint is that the city does not allow commercial signs on rooftops. Pastor Nimmons counters that he isn’t selling anything, just trying to get folks to think about eternity and where they might spend it. And, the pastor went so far as to say that, while he didn’t have money to pay the fine, he wouldn’t mind going to jail over the issue. Or, even die for it.

Pastor Nimmons and the town of Cathedral City are looking at the same thing through completely different eyes. And that brings us to our scripture reading today, from John’s gospel the 9th chapter. Now, it’s a long reading, so I’m going to tell you the story and then we’ll read what I believe is the best line in the whole forty-one verses.

Jesus Heals A Man Born Blind
Jesus and his disciples are walking along one day and pass a blind man begging by the side of the road. This man has been blind since birth, and maybe they can tell that by the way his eyes are formed, or by the white opaque orbs where his pupils should be. We don’t know, but it’s obvious to the entire group that this man has been blind from birth, unlike blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus heals, and who tells Jesus that he wants to see, again.

This blindness isn’t due to sickness, or injury. This blindness is genetic, uncorrectable and irreversible by any logical evaluation. So, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” Well, right there the disciples tell a lot about their theology, don’t they? Here’s what they are assuming:

  1. Birth defects are a sign of God’s punishment.
  2. God might punish an unborn child for the sins of his parents.
  3. God might punish an unborn child for his own future sin (how could he have sinned before birth?)
  4. The disciples see only two options — God is punishing either his sin or his parents.

Jesus corrects their wrong assumptions by giving them a third option:

This has happened so that the work of God could be exhibited in this man’s life.

Then, Jesus adds that he must work while it is day, for the night is coming when no one can work. And, he adds, as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world. And, that light is about to shine in the darkness of a blind man’s life.

Without asking him if he wants to see, Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud, and daubs it on the blind man’s eyes. Which I am sure was a surprise to the blind man. Do you think Jesus said, “Sit still, I’m going to put something on your eyes.” We don’t know, but I’m sure Jesus gave him some warning. After the mud, Jesus tells him to go to the pool of Siloam and wash. How’s he going to get there? Does he know where the Pool of Siloam is? Does he have a friend lead him there? We don’t know, but somehow he finds his way to the pool and washes.

Can you imagine the scene as the blind man kneels by the side of the pool of Siloam? He gropes into the air in front of him, feeling for the surface of the water, hearing the splash it makes as others are gathered there. His hand finds the water and he lifts a palmful to his face. Splashing it on his mud-caked eyes, the blind man wipes his hand across his face, only to have the strange sensation that something is different. An experience he has never had, a brightness he has never seen spreads across his face.

He sees the water in front of him, rippling from where his hand has just disturbed it. He sees the shadow outline of something there in the water. It’s him. It’s his own reflection, his features now become clear, distinct, he sees himself for the first time ever.

Thinking this must surely be a dream or a spell or something, he raises his head and looks around. The sounds from others gathered at the pool come to him, but this time the sounds are matched by lips that are moving, feet shuffling down the dusty street, water splashing from overfull water jars carried by young women. And, then it dawns on him. He can see. He takes in the scene of those going about their business nonchalantly, like nothing has changed. But, for him, everything has changed. He can see. He can see people, water jars, clothing, palm trees, dusty streets, stone buildings, little children, vegetables being carried by a woman wearing a very colorful — what color is that? — cloak, followed by two small children with dark, curly hair. He can see sunshine and shadow, dark and light, colors, shades, things moving, things standing still. He can see.

With great restraint, John says, “So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.” Came home seeing. Amazing. A miracle. And, how did he come home? Seeing, plus also shouting is my guess. “I can see. I can see you, are you Moishe?” he must have asked his friend. I’m sure when he came home seeing, he also came home shouting.

But, few believed him.

  • “Is this the blind man?” they asked.
  • “No, just looks like him,” others replied.
  • “It’s me, it is me,” he tried to convince them.

Now, people are starting to get scared. “f this is the blind man, then something miraculous has occurred. We can’t explain it. Let’ get him to the Pharisees, they’ll tell us what to make of this,” they must have said to one another. So, they bundle the formerly blind man off to the Pharisees who start asking questions:

  • “What happened to you?”
  • I can see.
  • “Who did this to you?”
  • This man called Jesus.
  • “When did he do this?”
  • Last night.
  • “That was the Sabbath. This Jesus is a sinner because he violated the Sabbath.”
  • “Yes, but how can a sinner open a blind man’s eyes.”
  • “I’m not sure he was blind, let’s find his parents.”

So, the parents are brought to the Pharisees, and the whole game of twenty questions starts all over. His parents have heard that anyone who follows Jesus gets thrown out of the synagogue, so they don’t want much to do with this whole conversation. You would think they would be thrilled that their son who was born blind can see. But, maybe they’ve been shunned their whole lives, at least since the birth of their son, because they have a blind child. A punishment from God for some unknown sin. They aren’t risking it, so they say, “Our son is old enough, he can speak for himself.” Thanks, mom and dad!

So, back to the blind man the Pharisees go. Now this is the part I want us to read.

24A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

26Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”

28Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

30The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

34To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Can you imagine that? The Pharisees have it all figured out. Sinners can’t do miracles. Jesus is a sinner because he broke the Sabbath. End of discussion. Get out! Oh, you’re a sinner, too. Get out!

Which leaves the testimony of the formerly blind man hanging heavy in the air — One thing I know. I was blind, but now I see! And that is more important than knowing theology. That’s more important than knowing the law. That’s more important than knowing even Scripture. Knowing what God has done for you.

That is the point of this story. You may think that your knowledge or your expertise or your own piety is all there is to know about God. But the only knowledge of God that really matters is what God has done in your life.

Jesus said, “…this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” This man’s blindness becomes the backdrop so that the work of God could be displayed in his life.

After they kick him out, Jesus goes to look for the formerly blind man himself. And, when he finds him, he reveals himself to the man who was born physically blind, but he remains hidden from those who are spiritually blind.

How Are Our Eyes?
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

If all we see today as we sit in this room is correct doctrine, then we are blind, too. If all we see today as we sit in this sanctuary, is a God who always does only what we expect, then we are blind, too. If all we see today is a God so small that we know his every move, then we are as blind as the Pharisees. If all we see today is a God who is distant from us, then we have not seen God.

Our testimony must be a personal testimony. Our transformation must be complete and total. Our vision must be new and fresh. Our God must be bigger than our own imagination, or we too are blind. With the blind man, we must say, One thing I know. I was blind, but now I see!