Tag: Worship

Sermon: Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

Tomorrow, Sunday, June 2, 2013, our church will dedicate a new handicapped lift that we recently installed. The lift eliminates the need to climb 7 steps to get into our sanctuary from the educational building. Although we have a wheelchair ramp at the front doors of the church, those 7 stairs were the last barrier to making our church completely handicapped accessible. It’s interesting to me that the lectionary reading for today involves Solomon’s prayer that when “foreigners” come to the Temple, Solomon prays that God will hear them. Israel’s mission and ours is to make the presence of God accessible to everyone. I hope your Sunday is a wonderful! 

Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 NIV

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:

“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— 42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Solomon’s Prayer For The Temple

To say that this was a special day would have been a huge understatement. Solomon, king of Israel, stood in the most unique and exquisite building in his kingdom. It was a project that his father David had wanted to undertake. But despite the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart, God reserved the building of the Temple for David’s son, Solomon.

After years of planning and gathering materials — cedar from Lebanon, cypress, stone quarried and cut off site so the sound of iron tools would not be heard in the Temple area — and after seven years’ of actual construction, Solomon now stood before the house of God and before God’s people, Israel.

Facing the massive outdoor altar on which Solomon will later sacrifice 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen, Solomon offers a prayer for this building that he has built as God’s dwelling place on earth.

Acknowledging that no earthly building can contain all of God’s presence, Solomon nevertheless connects the earthly Temple to the heavenly throne of God. Solomon asks that when Israelites gather to pray there, that God will hear from his throne in heaven.

But then Solomon asks God for something unusual. After asking for God to hear the Israelites whenever they call on him in the Temple, Solomon then asks the same privilege for non-Israelites — for foreigners.

Solomon says that foreigners will hear of God’s great name — and they will he states — then Solomon asks God to hear the prayers of foreigners, too, and to whatever the foreigner asks so that all people will know that God is the one true God, and that they will also know that this Temple contains the very presence of that God.

In other words, this magnificent temple made of the best materials by the best artisans available, this temple that is overlaid with gold throughout, that gleams in the sunshine, that gives glory to the God of Israel — this temple is to be accessible to everyone, even foreigners.

Solomon’s prayer is a radical departure for his day and for national places of worship. Of course, it wasn’t unusual for nations to have their own gods, and most had several. What was unique about Israel though was that Israel only had one god. Usually nations were very protective of their gods. As nations went to battle, the nation who prevailed in battle was believed to have the stronger, more effective god. We see some of this reflected even in the Old Testament, where victories in battle are attributed to God, and defeats in battle are seen to be God’s punishment for an unfaithful people.

What we might expect Solomon to say is something like this — “Lord, you are our god. We serve you and we built this house for you. Now pay special attention to us, your special people. Favor us over everyone else. And, don’t pay any attention to the prayers of other people who aren’t like us.”

Instead, Solomon says just the opposite. Oh, of course, he does invoke God’s presence, blessing, and favor on Israel. But then he adds, “Lord, others will hear about you, and they’ll come to this place. When they do, and they pray to you, hear them, too.”

This is what made Israel different from all the nations around them. Not only did Israel have a god, but from the beginning when God called Abraham and promised to make him the father of a great nation, part of the promise was that Israel was going to be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations.

Unfortunately, by the first century when Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God, Israel has forgotten that their temple is to be open to all people. Of course, the Court of the Gentiles was still in the Temple, but this is where the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice had set up shop. By taking up so much space for their commercial enterprise, the Gentiles were being excluded from their space in the presence of God.

That’s why when Jesus drives the money changers and merchants from the temple, he quotes the Old Testament by saying that his Father’s house was to be called a house of prayer for all nations, but they had made it a den of thieves. Not only were the merchants stealing from their own people, they were denying access to the presence of God to all the foreigners, all the other nations.

Another House of Worship, But The Same Prayer

Nineteen hundred years after Jesus, on April 8, 1906, the Los Angeles Times, then called the Los Angeles Daily Times, carried an article describing a new church in an industrial section of Los Angeles. But this wasn’t the standard Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian church.

The report in the paper that day said “a new sect of fanatics was breaking loose.” This bizarre new religious sect had started with people “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” Furthermore, “Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.”

“If that didn’t grab the reader’s attention, the article continued by saying that, ‘Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.’ To top it all off, they claimed to have received the “gift of tongues,” and what’s more, “comprehend the babel.”’ (Courtesy: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/199904/026_azusa.cfm)

For three years the Asuza Street congregation held on as a mixed congregation of blacks and whites, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. But the persistent negative press, and the suspicions and prejudice of the citizens of Los Angeles eventually drove them to disband. Laws were enacted to prohibit mixed race worship, and blacks were excluded from white services not only in California but elsewhere as Jim Crow laws governed social interactions.

What Keeps People from the Presence of God?

Now over 3,000 years since Solomon prayed his prayer, we have to ask ourselves “Are we as committed to opening our houses of worship to the “foreigners” in our society? And who are the foreigners, anyway?

Of course, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Protestants were grappling with the issue of sending missionaries to take the Gospel to foreigners. William Carey, the shoe cobbler-turned-preacher became the father of the modern missions movement as Carey argued passionately that the Gospel should be taken to those in foreign lands.

Our own Southern Baptist Convention split over the oddly-paired issues of slavery and missions. And, when the SBC was formed, one of the first acts of business was to establish the Foreign Mission Board for the sending of missionaries to India, China, Africa, and other foreign lands.

But if we look at the story of Solomon and the Temple again, Solomon is praying that when foreigners hear about God, and when they come to the Temple itself, he prays that God would hear them, just as God does Israel.

In other words, Solomon’s prayer isn’t a prayer about sending missionaries, it’s a prayer about opening the presence of God to everyone. But, unfortunately, as we said earlier, Israel forgets this prayer.

But God doesn’t. And so when the birth of the Messiah is announced, it isn’t announced by angels to the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or even the chief priest. The religious leaders who guard access to the Temple and whose actions and public displays discourage others from the presence of God are not the ones to hear the announcement of the Messiah’s birth. Instead, angels appear to shepherds who are living in the fields with their flocks. Shepherds are not permitted into the Temple because they are ceremonially unclean. So, God shows up where they are.

When John the Baptist preaches and baptizes for repentance, John doesn’t preach in the court of the Temple, nor baptize in the numerous baptismal pools adjacent to it. No, John withdraws to the desert, to the Jordan River, which is rich in symbolism of the Exodus crossing into the land of promise under the leadership of Joshua, or Yeshua, which is what the new Messiah’s name is, too.

In the history of God’s people, when access to the presence of God has been denied to any and to all, then God moves out of the structures of religious buildings and ceremony, and meets people where they are with good news.

Breaking Down Barriers to the Presence of God

But what about us today? There is no more Temple. It was destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman army intent on stopping the persistent efforts of the Jews to break free from Rome. All that remains is the foundation, the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple. But did you see the other day that numbers of Orthodox Jewish men turned out to protest the presence of women in an area of the Wailing Wall that previously had been reserved for men? Even today, there are those who will intentionally keep others — because of their gender, their race, their belief, their dress, their nationality, and so on — from the presence of God.

Now we know that sounds terrible. We cannot justify those who prevent others from coming into the presence of God for whatever reason.

But we have to ask ourselves “Who are the foreigners in our midst, and what can we do to open our church and faith community to them?”

Recently an editor from a well-know Christian publication asked me to write a short article about how small churches can attract and minister to single adults. But here’s the thing: most people think of single adults as young, twenty-somethings who are trendy and cool. And every church wants to attract that group.

But single adults are also those who are older. Some are 70-somethings who are single because their mate of 40 or 50 years has died. Other single adults are intellectually or physically disabled, and need facilities that accommodate their disabilities. Some single adults are single parents, raising one or more children on their own, and they need a church that can provide nurture for their children.

That’s what I’m going to say in my article. Single adults come in more life situations than just young, 20-something, and trendy. If we open our eyes to the reasons people are single, and begin to make church a welcoming place for even one of those previously-excluded groups, then we are praying the prayer Solomon prayed at the Temple.

Our History of Breaking Down Barriers

In writing my dissertation, I discovered some interesting things about our church. We’ve been breaking down barriers to the presence of God here for a long time. Not that we’ve always gotten it completely right, or done everything we could, but we have done some things. Like Israel, we have a history, a heritage of breaking down barriers to the presence of God.

That history includes being instrumental in founding Hargrave Military Academy at a time in the life of this county and commonwealth when rural education was not readily available, and Christian education was even less so.

Our history includes starting Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church. While it’s only two miles or so from our church, apparently in the 1950s those two miles might as well have been 200. To plant a church in a community that for whatever reasons was not going to come to Chatham Baptist Church was a part of our making the presence of God accessible to all.

When we started the bus ministry, our church reached out to our entire community, to include members of other churches, and perhaps no church, in our fellowship circle.

When we built the new fellowship hall over 15 years ago, you decided to open its use to the community, to welcome others into this building and to open our doors to civic clubs, and other worthwhile organizations who shared our values, and contributed to the well-being of this community.

When we opened our doors to the Boys and Girls Club, and to the Chatham Arts Community Music School, we were inviting others into our space, and by extension into the presence of God.

When we built the playground, we were inviting families with children to come and join with us. We were sending the message that here your children are loved, valued, and protected. Here is a safe place for them to play and learn about God’s presence in their lives.

And, when we installed the lift several months ago, we were inviting all of those who had mobility issues, who could not readily climb stairs, to join us in this sanctuary for worship. Of course, most of us thought that we would have to get older before we needed it, but I was one of the first who got to use the lift when I came to church on that Easter Sunday after my hospital stay.

Our Challenge for the Future

But as much as we have done, we must continue to pray the prayer of Solomon for this place. We have to think about who else we might need to reach out to, and what other groups might feel that they do not have access to the presence of God here.

Over fifty-three years ago, the Cradock Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, founded what they call the Robin Class “as a special ministry to serve mentally-challenged young people and adults.  The Robins have their own Sunday School and church program on Sundays from 10 a.m. until Noon.  Their dedicated teachers provide an environment where the Robins can experience spiritual growth and Christian fellowship.  Transportation is provided for the class by a van purchased by donations from members and friends.  The Robins attend a special session of camp at Eagle Eyrie each fall.” (http://www.cradockbaptist.org/about-us/)

Other churches have done and are doing similar things. Opening the presence of God to others who may seem like “foreigners” to us is not easy. That’s why Israel so quickly and often forgot that was their mission. But it is also our mission. And with each step we take, with each door we open, with each barrier we break down, we come a little closer to making God’s presence accessible to all. That was Solomon’s prayer, and it should be ours as well.

Sermon: When God Does The Unexpected, How Do We Respond?

Shane Windmeyer and Dan Cathey at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.
Shane Windmeyer and Dan Cathy at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 3, 2013. If you don’t read the whole sermon, skip to the end for a great story of Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, and of how he responded to the unexpected that God was doing. I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow.

When God Does the Unexpected, How Do We Respond?

Luke 4:21-30 NIV

21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Jesus Reads From the Prophet Isaiah

The problem with the lectionary reading is that sometimes it starts in the middle of the situation, which is exactly what has happened in the text we just read. To get the full impact, you have to go back and read the preceding verses:

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

   because he has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

   and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. –Luke 4:14-20 NIV

According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had just returned from 40-days in the wilderness, following his baptism by John the Baptist. Generally, Bible scholars regard the wilderness experience as Jesus’ preparation for his ministry.

Luke says that “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside.”

We do not know how many days or weeks elapse between Jesus returning to Galilee and his trip to his hometown in Nazareth, but enough time passes so that Jesus has ample opportunity to establish his own reputation as a healer and miracle worker. Luke tells us that “news about him spread through the whole countryside” which can only mean that he immediately begins to announce the Kingdom of God and demonstrate its presence by healing the sick, casting out demons, and generally “putting to rights” (as N. T. Wright is fond of saying) each situation he finds.

Of course, this garners him an extraordinary reputation, and everyone is talking about Jesus. So, when Jesus shows up in his hometown of Nazareth, initially everything goes okay. Jesus comes to the synagogue there, which probably is a modest building since Nazareth is no metropolis itself, and someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah to read.

Apparently Jesus selects the text, which is  Isaiah 61:1-2 in our Bibles. If you turn to Isaiah 61:1-2, you will notice that it reads somewhat differently than the words Luke records Jesus as reading.  Don’t be alarmed at that because Luke quotes Jesus reading from the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture. But, the slight difference in wording is not our concern today.

The Idea of the Messiah

The point Jesus makes is this — He is the Messiah! That’s what the phrase “He has anointed me..” means. The Hebrew word which we pronounce messiah meant “anointed.” There were only two offices for which as person was anointed in the Old Testament — the office of priest and the office of king.

But the idea of an “anointed one” who would restore the fortunes of Israel also is referred to by the prophets, and Isaiah especially. The Anointed One — the Messiah or in Greek, the Christ — would be God’s deliverer, just like the Judges of the Old Testament were raised up to deliver Israel. But the Messiah would not be just any deliverer to put Israel back on track temporarily. No, the Messiah would come once and for all to make all things right and restore the fortunes of Israel and her standing in the world. In other words, God would send the Messiah to vindicate Israel and to save her from her enemies, and put all other nations under her ruling power.

If you go ahead and read the rest of Isaiah 61, that’s the picture you get. Listen to these next verses in context with Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

   because the Lord has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

   to proclaim freedom for the captives

   and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Jesus stops here)

   and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

3     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

   instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

   instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

   instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,

   a planting of the Lord

   for the display of his splendor.

4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins

   and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

   that have been devastated for generations.

5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks;

   foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.

6 And you will be called priests of the Lord,

   you will be named ministers of our God.

You will feed on the wealth of nations,

   and in their riches you will boast.

7 Instead of your shame

   you will receive a double portion,

and instead of disgrace

   you will rejoice in your inheritance.

And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,

   and everlasting joy will be yours.

8 “For I, the Lord, love justice;

   I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

In my faithfulness I will reward my people

   and make an everlasting covenant with them.

9 Their descendants will be known among the nations

   and their offspring among the peoples.

All who see them will acknowledge

   that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”


Do you begin to see what Isaiah 61 is about? Not only is God going to raise up someone and anoint him to “preach good news to the poor,” but God is going to raise up this Messiah who will 1) comfort the nation of Israel, 2) restore her fortunes, and 3) judge other nations and give Israel their riches, lands, and make Israel their master.

That was how many first century Jews interpreted Isaiah 61. Whoever read Isaiah 61 would immediately know that God was coming to rescue Israel by sending the Anointed One, and that in that rescue all the other nations of the world would be subjected to her.

Now, let me point out that that interpretation was in error, but that did not stop an occupied Jewish people facing the hardships of over 60 years of Roman occupation from understanding Isaiah in that way.

Okay, so far so good. Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah, reads one of the favorite passages of the Jewish people, and then proclaims, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wow. Of course, we know who Jesus is now, but they did not. So, his hometown audience undoubtedly heard Jesus say something like this: “I’m going to do my best to free us all from the oppression of the Roman Empire.”

Which explains their reaction. They are elated. The men in the synagogue turn to one another with knowing smiles and say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? We all knew he’d turn out alright. What a fine young man and with such noble ideas.”

That’s my interpretation of Luke’s saying, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son? they asked.”

Jesus Does The Unexpected

At this point, Jesus has them eating out of the palm of his hand. And, if he had quit at this point and sat down, all the men of Nazareth would have crowded around him, slapped him on the back, and told him how proud they were of him.

But Jesus doesn’t sit down. And Jesus doesn’t stop talking. And in the next words he says, he shatters generations of hope in the coming of the Messiah. Here’s what Jesus says:

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” — Luke 4:23-27 NIV

Okay, what did Jesus just say? First, he tells them he knows what they are thinking. They’re waiting for Jesus to do his next trick. “Physician, heal yourself” isn’t referring to literal illness and healing. What Jesus means is, “I know you want me to show you what I can do, just like a sick doctor who cures himself and thereby proves that he knows what he’s doing.”

But Jesus is having none of that. He is not here to prove himself, but to tell them that what they expected God to do isn’t going to happen. Jesus is there to tell them that what they have talked about for generations, the way they have interpreted Scripture, the expectation that God will deliver Israel first and make her the ruler of all other nations is all wrong.

And, to prove his point, Jesus uses two stories from Elijah and Elisha — two prophets who stand in high esteem. The return of Elijah is thought by first century Jews to precede the coming of the Messiah, and so they set a place at the Passover Table for Elijah each year. John the Baptist is thought by some to be the second-coming of Elijah. And, as we will see next week, Elijah does come and appears with Moses and Jesus at the Transfiguration. Elisha is Elijah’s protege, and Elisha receives a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when Elijah is taken into heaven in a chariot of fire. So, Jesus uses these stories because they have weight and importance.

The first story is the story of a widow who Elijah befriends. When Elijah finds out that this poor widow is going to use the last of the flour and oil she has to make some bread so that she and her son may eat it and then prepare to die, Elijah promises her that the oil will not run out, and the flour will not be depleted as along as she is helping him. Great story, and it was one of my favorites as a young Junior boy.

But then Jesus says, “25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.”

In other words, Elijah helped a widow and her son who were not even Jews. And this during a famine in which many Jews suffered and died. Sidon is a region to the far northwest of Israel, and Zarephath was probably a Canaanite or Phoenician village. In other words, during the worst drought Israel had ever seen, God’s man Elijah helped a poor Sidonian widow, despite the fact that there were thousands of Israelite widows suffering, too.

But, Jesus doesn’t leave the story there. He uses another story, this time from Elisha’s prophetic ministry. The story of Namaan is another great story that I loved as a boy. Namaan is the general of the Syrian army. In his conquest, he captured an Israelite girl who is now a servant in his household. Namaan contracts some kind of skin disease which the Bible calls leprosy, although we know now that the term was used for a wide variety of skin afflictions. Nevertheless, whatever Namaan had was serious, was not getting better, and Namaan was desperate for a cure.

The servant girl implores him to seek out Elisha because she knows Elisha has the power to heal him. So, after contacting the king of Israel who thinks this is all a trick, Elisha hears and invites Namaan to come to his house.

Namaan appears with with horses and chariots at Elisha’s house and Elisha doesn’t even come out. Instead, he sends word for Namaan to go and dip himself 7 times — a very biblical numer — in the Jordan River. Namaan is furious and goes off in a huff. His servants remind him that if Elisha had asked him to do something difficult, he would have done it. So why not do something as easy as dipping yourself in the Jordan River?

Of course, Namaan does, he’s healed, and he worships God as the one true God.

But Jesus point in the story of the widow of Sidon and the story of Namaan the enemy general is that God passed over a lot of Israelites who were in just as bad, if not worse, condition. Only God provided oil and flour for the widow, and healed the leprous Namaan. Both were strangers, both were not Israelites, but both were saved by God.

Jesus told those stories as a very pointed way of saying to the men in the synagogue in Nazareth that day, “You think God is sending his Messiah just for you. You’re wrong, God is sending his Messiah to preach good news to all the poor, to free all the captive, to release all the prisoners regardless of whether they are Jews or not.”

And so, Luke says the men were furious, tried to grab Jesus and throw him over a cliff, but somehow he eluded them and escaped.

The Point of Jesus’ Stories

The point that Jesus was trying to make was this: “God isn’t up to what you expect. God is doing the unexpected. Get on board or get left behind.”

So, when a young cobbler says that God wants the Gospel preached to foreigners in India, William Carey is ridiculed by his fellow preachers because they’re sure “that God doesn’t need” Carey’s help.

And when a young Hudson Taylor believed that God wants the Gospel preached to those in China, others ridicule him, too. Of course, we now know that millions of people in countries other than England have come to Christ from the modern missions movement that Carey and Judson and others like them started. God was indeed doing the unexpected.

But, there’s a more current story, a story that speaks to God doing the unexpected today. Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, the fastfood restaurant chain, made headlines last year when he affirmed his company’s support for the traditional family. Dan is a Southern Baptist and identifies himself as a  “follower of Christ.”

The ensuing controversy, which appears to have taken Mr. Cathy’s words out of context, made national headlines. Mike Huckabee, Fox News commentator and former Baptist pastor and governor of Arkansas, declared August 1 of last year, “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day.” News media reported that business was brisk that day at Chick-Fil-As all over the country.

But Dan Cathy wasn’t pleased with the tone the unwanted controversy had generated. One of Chick-Fil-A’s corporate values is “respect” for all persons, including those who are gay. Dan got the cell phone number of a gay activist, Shane Windmeyer, director of Campus Pride, and called Shane to open a dialogue. After several phone calls and face-to-face meetings, Campus Pride called off its boycott of Chick-Fil-A citing the conversations with Dan Cathy and other Chick-Fil-A executives as the reason.

But Dan Cathy didn’t stop there. He invited Shane Windmeyer to join him and his family on the field for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Shane Windmeyer said Dan Cathy spent the entire evening at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl with him, there on the sidelines.

In an article on Huffington Post, Shane Windmeyer reflected on the experience of getting to know Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A.

“Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being “a follower of Christ” more than a “Christian.” Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-a — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.”

That is a great example of how to respond when God is doing the unexpected. When God is inviting people we may have thought excluded from the Kingdom of God into it, do we react the way the men at the synagogue in Nazareth reacted — with anger that our cherished beliefs that God will choose us first are being challenged? Or do we respond the way Dan Cathy did — with love toward those we do not know, but wish to understand better.

Today we gather around the Table of Christ, and we must know that this is not our table. While we laid the bread and cup here today, we did not suffer and die to give these elements meaning. As we gather here this morning, we remember the words of Jesus — “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The only question is, how do we respond when God does the unexpected?

Podcast: Living in the Power of Pentecost

Pentecost Sunday is the last big Sunday in the liturgical year, but often churches that celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter fail to give equal emphasis to Pentecost. Pentecost is the culmination of the Christian Calendar, and has been called the “birthday of the church.” Without Pentecost, the Christian Year is incomplete because it is at Pentecost that Jesus fulfills his promise to send the Holy Spirit to empower, equip, enthuse, and embolden the apostles. It is also on Pentecost that the church launches it mission of taking the Gospel to the whole world.

Pentecost carries great significance for those early followers of Christ, and for us today. Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, titled Living in the Power of Pentecost.

Podcast: Worshipping and Doubting

In Matthew 28:16-20, we usually miss verse 17: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” What did the 11 disciples doubt during this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? Did they doubt that he had been resurrected? Or that he was the Messiah, the Son of God? Or did they doubt themselves and their ability to carry on after Jesus left them? The interesting point in this is that some of the same disciples who worshipped him, also doubted. What can we learn from the disciples’ struggle in the aftermath of the resurrection? Here’s the link — http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/02_Worshipping_and_Doubting.mp3

Sustainability: A Small Church Concern

Small churches are concerned about a lot of things including growth, finances, and ministry programs.  But one issue seems to cut across all of these small church concerns — sustainability. Small churches often do not ask the question, “How are we going to sustain this?” before launching a new program or ministry.

A quick glance at the typical small church’s schedule illustrates the importance of sustainability.  Most small churches have at least two weekly programs — worship and Sunday School.  Think about what it takes to sustain these efforts each week.

First, Sunday School.  If yours is like ours, we have classes for adults, teens, elementary children, and preschoolers.  Each of these classes needs a meeting space, some type of literature, supplies, and leaders.  Our church also maintains attendance records for Sunday School, so there are administrative functions that have to be attended to each week as well.

Our Sunday School spends about $4,000 a year on literature and supplies; has designated rooms for each group to meet in (which involves utility costs and furnishings); and, utilizes somewhere between 12 and 18 leaders each Sunday.  We have all of that infrastructure for an average Sunday School attendance of about 50 each week.

Then there’s worship.  Worship at our church involves the following:

  • a preacher (usually me);
  • a part-time accompanist;
  • a part-time choir director;
  • a choir of between 8 and 15 each week; and supplies like choir robes, hymnals, choir anthems and other special music;
  • meeting space (our sanctuary);
  • part-time custodial services to clean and prepare the space each week;
  • audio-visual equipment and volunteer operators;
  • ushers;
  • a group to prepare for communion and baptism each month;
  • administrative support for bulletins, envelopes, and other printed material;
  • worship participants who pray and read Scripture; and,
  • a flower committee for altar flowers and sanctuary decoration at special seasons of the year.

Each week we involve between 20 and 40 people just to provide worship for 80 to 100 people.

Given the above examples, what guidelines can you use to determine whether or not a ministry is sustainable?  A rule of thumb might be that a church needs 1 leader for every 3-5 participants.  This 20-33% ratio seems to hold true for other programs that we have, including our Wednesday night fellowship meal and the age-group programs that follow it. But remember: the younger the group, the more leaders per participants are needed.

What’s the point here?  Very simply, determine how many leaders and what resources your church needs to mount and sustain a new program.  Of course, specific programs will require different mixes of space, financial resources, supplies, and personnel.  But whatever programs your church is considering, these programs will need some combination of those elements.

As a pastor, don’t do what I have done too many times in the past — start a program by yourself, or one that is inadequately staffed or funded, hoping that others will help.  That approach seldom works.  Believe me, I know.

In my opinion, small churches function best when they realize that they cannot sustain more than a few weekly or monthly programs.  But small churches can supplement their weekly programs with one-time efforts such as special programs at Christmas and Easter; a once-a-year push to feed the hungry, or collect relief supplies; or, special outreach opportunities.  Small churches can rally higher percentages of their congregations for one-time events than for on-going weekly or monthly events.

In planning your church calendar for 2012, consider which programs you can sustain, and what other one-time events your church can orchestrate.  Sustainability is important for small churches.  When adequate consideration is given to what your programs will require to sustain them, your small church can avoid the disappointment of overloaded leaders and failed programs.

New Sermon Series, “The Wisdom of ….”

I’m starting a new sermon series this Sunday using texts taken from the Revised Common Lectionary readings for July and August.  As I read through each of these scripture selections, I picked up a theme of “wise living” from them.  Each text seemed to me to be pointing out the wisdom of one or more virtues or practices of God’s people.  Here are the titles I’ve given each week’s sermon:

  • July 4 – The Wisdom of Humility, 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • July 11 – The Wisdom of Obedience, Deut 30:9-14
  • July 18 – The Wisdom of Compassion, Amos 8:1-12
  • July 25 – The Wisdom of Justice, Genesis 18:20-32
  • Aug 1 – The Wisdom of Mercy, Hosea 11:1-11
  • Aug 8 – The Wisdom of Repentance, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
  • Aug 15 – The Wisdom of Faith, Hebrews 11:29-12:2
  • Aug 22 – The Wisdom of Reverence, Hebrews 12:18-29

I may be on vacation on August 1, but I included the August 1 title and text to complete the series.  Are any of you doing a summer series, and if so, what are you preaching on?

Favorite hymns and lemonade


This was the scene at our church for Favorite Hymn Sunday. We’re meeting in our fellowship hall because there is some sort of electrical problem in our sanctuary. But, we served lemonade and cookies between Sunday School and worship, so everybody was happy. Or maybe they were happy because I didn’t preach this morning. Who knows, but take a look at our small church in action on this hot Sunday morning.