Category: service

Podcast: The Resurrection Changes Everything

“Icon courtesy of used with permission”

Easter Sunday 2017 was a glorious day at Chatham Baptist Church. We enjoyed wonderful music, great attendance with many friends and family present, and the celebration of communion together. Here’s the sermon I preached from John 20:1-18, titled, “The Resurrection Changes Everything:”

Outreach in the Crises of Life

Today at NOC2010, I’m leading the workshop titled, Outreach in the Crises of Life.  We’ll be exploring the variety of ways that churches can reach out to individuals and families during life’s most challenging times.  Life crises cluster into what I call the “6 Big D’s” — death, divorce, disease (illness), distress, dysfunction, and disaster.  Here’s the presentation I’m using and you can see other powerpoints related to small church issues an ministry at my page.

Sermon: A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience

Jesus’ story of the mustard seed and faith might mean something different than we’ve often thought.  I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17:5-10.

A Little Faith and A Lot of Obedience

Luke 17:5-10

5The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

7“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ”  -Luke 17:5-10 NIV

Two Warnings And a Plea for More Faith

As we gather at the Lord’s Table today, we encounter this passage from the Gospel of Luke.  It’s a familiar story, but usually we read the story from Matthew’s Gospel because Matthew has Jesus saying that if you have faith even as small as a mustard seed, you can command a mountain to be thrown into the sea.

Here in Luke’s Gospel, however, Jesus uses a slightly different image.  He has just given the disciples two warnings about the life of faith.  In the first warning Jesus says, “Sin comes into people’s lives, but don’t be the person who causes others to sin, especially children.”

Then, Jesus spins his teaching in the opposite direction by saying, “And if someone sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him.”  Now that sounds logical enough, but then Jesus adds, “And if he sins against you seven times in one day, and repents, then you are to forgive him all seven times.”

In other words, don’t cause people to sin, especially children.  And, don’t prevent others from turning from sin by refusing to forgive them.  Even if they sin against you seven times in one day, you’re to forgive them all seven times!

At those words, the disciples seem to throw up their hands in resignation, because Jesus has just laid out two scenarios that outline our responsibility for the spiritual and ethical lives of others.  We are  not to lead them into sin, especially those who are the least mature and most vulnerable.  And, we are to forgive those immediately and repeatedly who struggle to break free from the grip of sin.  That’s a lot of responsibility, and it ran counter to the idea that righteous people have no responsibility for others.

Remember the story Jesus tells about the righteous man and the publican.  The righteous man lifts up his eyes to heaven and tells God, “I’m glad you didn’t make me like him!”  Obviously, he felt no responsibility for the humble publican beside him who lowered his eyes and prayed, “God have mercy on me a sinner.”

But back to our disciples.  They seem both desperate and exasperated, and they respond to Jesus’ teaching by saying, “Okay, Lord, if that’s what you want us to do, increase our faith!”  Literally, they were saying, “Add to our faith.”  In other words, “We need some help here!”

Jesus’ Impossible Reply To The Disciples

Now we get to the part we think we know very well.  Jesus replies by saying,

“If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.”

Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus’ reply in a similar fashion, but instead of uprooting a tree, Matthew records Jesus saying you can move mountains!

It was believed that prophets would “uproot mountains” which is exactly the image Jesus uses in Matthew’s account.  But the idea of uprooting is also present in Luke’s account.  But a little faith uproots a mulberry tree instead of a mountain.  Both, however, get cast into the sea.  This is not a small feat by any means, and a little faith is the key to it.

It appears that Jesus is setting up an impossible goal for the disciples.  None of them have even “mustard seed” faith apparently because there is no record of trees, much less mountains, being flung into the sea by the disciples, or anyone else for that matter.

Here’s the way we usually handle this passage.  We act like Jesus is saying something that is achievable, but of course, he doesn’t mean it literally, we say.  Rather, Jesus means that even a little faith can move mountains — obstacles that might be in our way.  “Mountain-moving faith” we call it, or “mustard seed” faith.  Remember when you could buy necklaces and bracelets that had a single mustard seed incased in a ball of plastic that magnified its size?  A little faith accomplishes big things!

But suppose that’s not what Jesus means here. Because it never happens.  The disciples never exhibit that kind of faith, as though faith were a superpower like super heroes possess.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t telling them they needed more faith, maybe he was telling them they already had enough to do what they needed to do.

Why do I say that?  Well, suppose Jesus is saying, “You want faith.  Let me tell you how powerful faith is.  Just a mustard seed amount of faith can uproot trees (or mountains).”

But Jesus hasn’t asked them to uproot trees or mountains, or even to accomplish the impossible.  He’s just told them not to cause other people to sin, and when others do sin, to forgive them.  That is not mountain-moving by any means, or even tree-uprooting for that matter.

We Have Enough Faith To Be Faithful

I really think that what Jesus is telling the disciples is this — “You have enough faith to be faithful.” In other words, he is saying, “You don’t even need a mustard seed size faith.  The little bit of faith you have is enough for you to do what I’ve called you to do.”

Why do I think that?  Because of what Jesus says after the mustard seed story.  He gives an example of a servant, a story that seems to have nothing to do with faith, or with the question the disciples just asked.

Jesus says, “Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’

So, Jesus turns from an example of faith to an example of faithfulness to illustrate his point.  Probably Jesus and the disciples are outdoors, walking along.  Jesus has already pointed to a mustard plant, and a mulberry tree.  Now he points to a servant plowing a field, and another looking after sheep.  Both were very common practices in that day, and visual examples were easy to spot.

Then Jesus weaves a little story around the servants.  “Suppose your servant comes in from the field.  You as the master don’t say to him, ‘You look really tired.  Come, sit down and eat, and take it easy!’

“No, the logical thing is that when the servant comes in, before he can eat, he has to prepare the meal for his master.  Only after he finishes all his chores, can he then eat.  And, at the end of the day, he doesn’t get special praise because he’s just doing what a servant does.”

Then Jesus brings the point home —

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ “

We’ve just done our duty, we haven’t done anything extra.  We’re God’s servants.  God has given us all the faith we need to serve him, to live our lives as we should.  And that’s all we have to do — do our duty.  Be faithful, live like we’re supposed to.  And none of that takes a supernatural amount of faith, only a little faithfulness.

I read somewhere that when men help around the house, they expect some kind of recognition.  So, when we’re finished vacuuming, or folding the clothes, or with some other chore, we men want our wives to see what we’ve done and give us some reward.

“Honey, did you see how great the carpet looks after I vacuumed it?”  Or, “Just look at those windows, I did a great job cleaning them, don’t you think?”

Women, I am told, just go about their business doing stuff for which they do not expect, or receive, recognition.  That’s what Jesus is saying here.  Even if you’ve done a great job of serving God, of not leading others to sin, of forgiving others when they do, you’ve only done what you were supposed to.

The Good News About Faith

So, the good news about faith is, we’ve already got enough.  We have enough faith to be faithful.  And so as we gather at this table today, we gather encouraged that we don’t have to demonstrate mountain-moving faith, or even tree-throwing faith!  We don’t have to be a spiritual superhero to serve God.  We have all the faith we need to be faithful.

It is interesting that at this table, Jesus has done it all.  In the account we will read in a few moments, Jesus has all the action verbs.

Jesus takes the bread.  Jesus blesses it.  Jesus breaks it.  Jesus gives it to us.  And with the cup it’s the same.  Jesus does it all.  He gives us his broken body, his shed blood.  He does what we could not do for ourselves.  He both becomes and offers the sacrifice we need.

He gives us all we need, including faith, to be faithful to him.  As we come to this table today, let’s examine our own hearts, because even if we have done everything we were supposed to do, we are still just doing what servants do.

Small Detroit Church Overcomes Big Obstacles

The graffiti message scrawled on the building next door to the church screamed, Satan Is Alive! But that did not deter Randy Brown from becoming the pastor of Military Avenue Evangelical Presbyterian Church in 1989.

Located in inner city Detroit, Military Ave. EPC had enjoyed a distinguished history for a small congregation.  Records show the church in its heyday, gave almost 50% of its income to missions.  The congregation was so well-respected that the renowned Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse spoke there once.

But by 1989, a declining Detroit had swallowed up the former proud working-class neighborhood.  Instead of houses filled with working families, the community around the church teemed with the homeless, drug addicts, and prostitutes.  Military Avenue EPC was destined to disappear unless something drastic happened.

Nineteen years later, Military Avenue EPC is alive and doing good in its community.  In the past ten years the congregation has built two new buildings including a full-size basketball gym.  Drug addicts have found Christ and become active church members, neighborhood kids swarm into the church for one-on-one tutoring, and struggling families find support each week.  This small church ministers to the urban poor each week by:

  • Meeting real needs.  Each week dozens of families line up at the church to receive a bag of groceries after attending a brief worship service.  Randy said, “Our goal is to show compassion, but we also want to share the gospel, the real bread of life.”  With hard economic times, the food program has grown from 20 families to over 150 each week.
  • Connecting with kids. Each evening dozens of school children come to the church’s gym for tutoring.  Church and community volunteers sit with each child, helping them grasp math and science, but also teaching them valuable life lessons. Several students in the program have become the first in their families to go on to college.
  • Welcoming volunteers. The church welcomes over 300 volunteers a year to  help with its ministry to Detroit’s poor.  Staffed by volunteers, Vacation Bible School reaches dozens of kids each summer.  Volunteer groups have come from all over the country to Detroit’s inner city to work.
  • Seeking broad support. Military Avenue EPC functions like a mission, according to Dr. Brown.  Church members alone could not bear the financial cost of building a gym, or maintaining the church’s food and tutoring programs.  Their presbytery provides some financial support, and interested individuals have given generously for building programs.
  • Focusing on their community. “Our target group is the urban poor,” Brown commented.  The church is committed to staying and serving in its community for as long as it can.  “This is a small church with a big ministry,” he added.

About 100 gather for Sunday worship, but the church touches over 1,000 different people each year.  About 300 kids participate in their after-school programs, including a basketball program that reaches out to street-wise young men in the inner city.  The Satan Is Alive graffiti is gone, too.  A couple of years ago the church bought that building, and turned it into The Solid Rock Cafe for teens.  “In the inner city,” Randy noted, “success means we’re still here.  Ask people to pray for us.  We’re in a battle.”

*This article appeared first in Outreach magazine’s Nov/Dec 2008 issue in my column, ‘Small Church, Big Idea’,  under the title, ‘Making Some Moves in Motown.’

Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?

Churches are an important resource in caring for America’s poor, but the job is too big for churches alone. With all the talk about healthcare and the nation’s deficit, I’ve seen more  than one blog suggest that churches take over the responsibility for caring for the nation’s poor.  While that is a noble goal, moving all government “safety net” programs to churches is a numerical impossibility. Let’s just take one example — the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  The Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, puts the food stamp program budget at about $75-billion dollars.  But, let’s use a more conservative estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  They estimate that 36-million Americans (1-in-8) receive what most of us call food stamps, or nutrition assistance.  On average, each participant receives $133 per month, or about $1,596 per year. Okay, let’s do the math on those numbers: $1,596 x 36,000,000 = $57,426,000,000 or about $57.5 billion per year.  That’s less than Cato estimates, but will serve our purposes just fine. The total number of congregations in America is generally estimated between 350,00 to 400,000.  Let’s use  the higher guesstimate of 400,000 churches of all denominations in the United States.  The median size of these congregations is 90 in attendance each Sunday. Here’s where the numbers tell the story:  For churches to take over the feeding of America’s poor, each church in America would have to feed 90 people each.  That means that the average church would take on as many poor people as it currently has in attendance! But, even more difficult is the financial picture.  If each church allocated $133 per month to feed each of the 90 people, the total yearly cost would be $143,640 per church per year.  Most churches with 90 in attendance don’t have a total budget of $150K per year, much less a benevolence budget of that amount. Of course, this is only one program.  The SNAP program is run through the US Department of Agriculture, but other programs Continue reading “Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?”

Study Links Luxury Goods and Selfishness

A new study reveals a specific link between luxury goods and selfishness. Two experiments showed that “exposure to luxury led people to think more about themselves than others,” according to a Harvard Business School paper.

Professor Roy Y. J. Chua and Xi Zou conducted two experiments in which one group of participants was exposed to pictures of luxury goods such as watches and shoes, and the other group was shown pictures of watches and shoes that were not luxury brands. After participants identified characteristics of the goods, they were then asked to take an unrelated survey about decision-making. Those exposed to luxury goods were significantly more likely to act in their own self-interest, even at the expense or harm of others.

In a second experiment, those exposed to luxury goods were less able to identify words that expressed positive social actions, than those who were only exposed to non-luxury goods. In other words, the cognition, or thought process, of those exposed to luxury goods tended to be self-centered, and self-interested with less regard for others.

All of this might explain why people like Tiger Woods make such absurdly self-centered choices. Tiger owns both a luxury yacht and private jet, not to mention the Cadillac Escalade he just wrecked, or the mansions he owns, and so on.   This might also explain why the head of Goldman Sachs described banks, including his, as “doing God’s work.” Luxury tends to blind us to the needs of others, and bias us toward our own self-interest.

The Harvard Business article is playfully titled, “The Devil Wears Prada?” — an apparent play on the book and movie by the same name, only without the question mark.

So, when Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” he was telling us how to order our lives so that we have the basic necessities of life, but also are concerned that others have them too. It also puts the “prosperity gospel” (I hate to write those words together) in a new light. Preachers who drive around in luxury cars, fly in private jets, and tell their flocks how they can get ahead, may be creating the next generation of self-centered church members. Not that we haven’t seen that before, but this time we have proof that the more you have, the less concern you have for others. Something to think about during the Christmas season.

Paying Attention to the Outrageous

Hitler_w_youngmenSomebody did it again.  They compared one of our political leaders to Hitler.  It really doesn’t matter who did it because this is becoming a regular tactic for the extremists.  The frustrating thing is they get what they want — publicity.

The media pounce on their pronouncements as though the words they uttered were the first like them.  Bloggers and political sites pick up the refrain — “How dare they invoke the name of Hitler!” The outrage is palpable, and then the next day it starts all over again.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of pop media personalities cheapening the tragedy of the Holocaust with their self-serving tirades.  If this is what passes for discourse and dialogue in America, we are at a new low.

But I also tell myself we must be on the cusp of change because so many are so afraid right now.  In times of turbulent change, the dividers voices are often the loudest.  It was that way during the Civil Rights struggle, it was that way during the Viet Nam war protests, and it’s that way again.

But I also know that the nascent signs of change in churches are encouraging.   Multi-ethnic congregations are blossoming, and new expressions of church are springing up in unlikely places.  Multi-culturalism is becoming almost as popular a topic among church conference planners as multi-site strategies.  More and more congregations are moving out into their communities, connecting with new groups of people who are helped, and who in turn change the helpers. Just as some courageous churches led the way in seeking justice for African-Americans, and later in seeking peace, these churches are the bellwether for change in our society.

That’s what we should be paying attention to — this new consciousness that I have not seen before in so many churches.  A consciousness of need, but of more than need.  An awareness of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to make a difference in the lives of people around us.  Next week I’m speaking to Duke Divinity School students about rural church ministry.  I’m going to talk about this new thing I see happening because it is unprecedented.

Examples emerge in unlikely places.  A church heals its community by planting a community garden in the wake of a local murder.  Another church reaches out to bikers and blue collar workers, not just for worship, but to help create jobs for them.  Churches feed people now in towns where before that need went unmet.  Kids are given school supplies, and encouraged to come after school for tutoring to an urban church that provides a safe haven until their working-class parents get home.

Change must be on the way because the voices of fear are growing louder and more shrill each day.  That’s the reason I pay attention to the outrageous statements of those publicity seekers.  I pay attention because I believe their outrageous statements carry with them a harbinger of hope, an indicator of impending change.   Let’s hope so, and let’s find a place to bring about that change.

Where do you serve?

I had the privilege of speaking at the Convocation on the Rural Church, sponsored by Duke Divinity School this month.  The conference setting was the beautiful Kingston Plantation Resort at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the weather was great for a few days at the beach.

The group attending the Convocation on the Rural Church were United Methodist pastors because much of the funding came from the Duke endowment.  We had a wonderful 3-days with the group of about 100 pastors and spouses.

The first night of the conference we all gathered for a kick-off banquet.  Debbie and I found our seats at a table with 6 other men and women.  As we got to know each other, we noticed that the question of location came up several times.

But instead of asking, “Where is your church located?”  or “What church do you pastor?”  The question was almost always asked this way —

Where do you serve?

Debbie noticed it first, and then I started to pay attention to how these rural United Methodist pastors identified themselves.  The idea of service, not status, prevailed throughout the conference.  Of course, maybe I’m making a mountain out of the proverbial mole hill.  But I was touched, if I may get a little maudlin here, by the phrase used throughout the event, as one pastor identified him or herself to another.

“Where do you serve?” seems a much more genteel and appropriate question than “What church do you pastor?” The emphasis is on ministry as service, not status, and I liked that.  I’m going to try to remember to ask that question the next time I meet a pastor and need to know where he or she ministers.  “Where do you serve?” is a great way to identify what we do as pastors and leaders.