Sunday, August 5, 2012

What are your gifts?

Today was suppose to be our outdoor worship service.  Well despite the heat and high humidity we were set up for outside when at 9:30 a downpour came through causing us to move inside - granted it ended up being nice and not raining throughout the worship service - but better on the safe side.  

Well despite being inside we still had many "outdoor" attributes to our worship service - a participatory Thanksgiving for baptism, communal communion and some interaction during the sermon.  So enjoy these written portion as we explored what are spiritual gifts are together, based on the 2nd lesson for today, Ephesians 4:1-16.


What are your gifts?  Occasionally I hear from people that they feel like they have no gifts, sometimes I feel that way myself. We see Olympic athletes with so much talent, or people who are so passionate about whether to eat at or boycott a fast food chain that doesn’t even exist in Connecticut, that we feel inadequate as a result – that we are not athletic enough to make it to the Olympics or we are not passionate enough about a certain political topic that we are willing to quit our jobs to spend all our time on social media to organize protest or rallies. 

But we still do have gifts.  So what are your gifts?  What makes you stand out from others?  What is a talent that you have?  You may not be the best in the world at it, but you enjoy doing it.  What is a passion that you have?  What is something that you can do or talk about for hours?  Take a moment and write some of those gifts or talents down on the notecard in your bulletin.  Maybe it is a personal quality that you have – people always say that you are funny or smart or caring or always make them feel welcome and at home.  Those qualities are gifts as well, because not everyone has those same personality qualities.

Now here is the hard part – how can you use those gifts to do God’s will in the world?  Let’s brainstorm a little together.

Time of sharing our gifts – thoughts on how to use those to care for God’s world. Have people write down a way to use that to do ministry.

We each have been given different gifts by God because we are each called to do different jobs in Christ.  Some of us are called to be apostles – someone who is sent out to do God’s will in this world.  Some are prophets – people who speak the word of God to others, even when it is hard to hear or hard to say.  Some of us are called to be evangelist – people who share the good news of Jesus with the world.  Others are pastors – literally a feeder of others, someone who feeds others both physically and spiritually.  And yet others of us are called to be teachers – those who instruct others about God. And that is just the short list from our reading from Ephesians today.  There are still disciples – follower of Jesus, deacons who are servants of Christ, visionary who see where Christ is leading us and can help point the way, administrators who help us implement tasks effectively.  And the list goes on. 

And we are given gifts by God with different callings because we are not all meant to be the same – we are not all meant to agree all the time or to all like the same style of worship or to like the same color of carpet in the sanctuary or all the other minor disagreements that many congregations fight over.  But we are all called for the same purpose:  “To use our gifts to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (NRSV) 

We do this for the greater good and for our own personal good because as we equip other saints, other believers, in doing God’s ministry, we are also deepening our own faith.  We are called to continue our work until: “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.” (NLT)

So what are your gifts?  And how can you use those gifts to equip the saints, yourself included, for God’s work?  Keep that notecard with you – put it on your fridge or the bathroom mirror or your computer or phone, in your purse or car – somewhere that you will see frequently so that you can be reminded that you have been given gifts by God and that you are called to use them in God’s world.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Named with Love

I decided to forgo the gospel reading this week in favor of the second lesson, Ephesians 3:14-20.  There is just something so basic about the letter to the Ephesians - talking about the basics of faith - and especially in this passage - how great God's love is for us.  So maybe I'll stick with Ephesians for a bit this summer and preach on some of the basics of faith. It also means that I get to avoid 5 weeks of bread.


Are any of you named after someone?  Bob is named after his grandpa, my dad’s great aunt Suzie believed I was named after her because we shared the ever so common middle name of Elizabeth.  There is a lot in a name, and a whole new dynamic is added when you are named after someone.  If you are named after someone it is often a parent or a grandparent – possibly one of your parent’s favorite aunts or one of their siblings who died young.  You could be named after someone famous or a teacher who made a difference your parent’s life.   Sometimes being named after someone means you are named after a book or movie character.  Or possibly a biblical character – even if you spell your name differently. 

And as much as we are named by our parents we are also named by God.  During baptism we are claimed as daughters and sons of God.  We are baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit and we are named with Christ or as today’s reading from Ephesians says – it is from the Father that every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  We are named after God and we are named by God. 

But what does that mean?  Well if we continue reading in Ephesians it says that Christ dwells in our hearts, as we are rooted and grounded in love.   Christ dwells in our hearts – Christ lives in us!  Christ is part of us!  And through Christ, we are rooted and grounded in love.  To me at least to be rooted and grounded in love means that no matter what we do, no matter where we stray, no matter how far from God we seem to get, we are still at our very core loved!  We are still love by God throughout our whole lives. We are loved by God regardless of what we do because God is love.

These words can be very comforting but they can also be overwhelming.  Paul goes on to write in Ephesians – I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

I’m overwhelmed just reading that.  Just that description of God’s love having breadth and length and height and depth makes it seem HUGE!!!

It is something that we can probably never understand, never comprehend, not matter how hard Paul prayed for us, no matter how much we pray that for ourselves.  Because really God’s love for us is beyond understanding. 

It is a love much like when our parents named us with love – carefully they picked out a name that was meaningful to them, often after someone else they loved.  It was not a name based on who you were already, some quality that you already had, but something or more likely someone they hoped you would be.  And it is with that same type of love that God has for us, one that gives us a name before we are even born.  But it is a love that is even greater – one that is not restricted by human understanding, one that has breadth and length and height and depth.  A love that was given to us before we were born, a love that loves us even when we screw up, regardless of how much we screw up, a love so great it is beyond measure. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Events Changes Preaching

Below is the sermon that I wrote on Thursday - it is not the sermon I preached yesterday.  I didn't preach it because I woke up on Friday and heard the news about Aurora, Colorado.  This shooting has struck closer to home for me that pretty much any mass shooting since Columbine, primarily because I would have been at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises if I hadn't promised Bob I would see it with him next week when he returns to the States.  

So instead of this sermon, based on the gospel - Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, well specifically verse 31 when Jesus says: "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." - I spoke from the heart - that on Friday, just like on Good Friday, it was hard to see God but I know that Jesus was there. But on Good Friday we know that Sunday is coming, that God will reign gloriously, and even on some days it is much harder to see God but we know Sunday is on coming and God will reign gloriously.  

Enjoy my original sermon.

We live in a busy society.  We are constantly on the go.  It is almost a badge of honor to be so busy that you have to schedule time with family and friends 2 to 3 weeks outs.  It is completely normal today that families eat in shifts, that couples can go days without seeing each other more than a few minutes before they fall asleep at night. And when we do have time to rest, to relax, we spend that time in front of a television or a computer, not wanting to think for ourselves, and we still check our email and facebook accounts a few times to make sure we aren’t missing anything too important.  We are constantly on the go.  We are working hard in order to achieve the American dream, but unfortunately we often work so hard to achieve the dream, that we aren’t able to actually spend much time enjoying it. 

I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.  I’m constantly on facebook, I check my email multiple times a day, including on my days off and would not consider getting a phone that does not have the ability to check both those plus text messaging capabilities.
But overall this is a hard way to live.  We as a society are burned out and we need to here Jesus’ words from today’s gospel: Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile. 

Come and rest!  This is what Jesus wanted for his disciples and this is what Jesus wants for us.  Rest is a wonderful thing – it allows us to be rejuvenated, it allows us to fill our cups, our soul, so that we can then go and serve and give freely to others.  And there are many ways we can find rest – we can unplug, we can disconnect, we can go run into the woods for a day or a week, we can go on vacation. 

And just coming back from a two week vacation, I have many stories to tell you about the places Bob and I went, the wonderful food that we ate, and the people we encountered, but above all that, I cannot thank you, the people of Bethlehem enough for gifting me the ability to get away for two weeks during which time I checked my email only 3 times – basically to clean out junk mail – because I read only 2 emails and wrote only 1.  And I’m excited to be back.  I’m excited to start really planning for the fall, I’m excited to spend more time with you all as we continue to grow in our faith and figure out what God’s purpose is for this congregation. 

But you don’t need to go on a 2 week vacation in order to get rest.  You just need to take a Sabbath. The 3rd commandment is: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, but that does not mean go to worship – it means take time to rest, take time for yourself and to spend that time listening to God.  It is so hard for us to unplug for a full day – but hopefully we can help one another rest for an hour or so each Sunday because that is what we are able to do when we come to worship.  During worship we have an hour to silence our cell phones, to avoid emails, to listen to God and give up to God our daily cares and concerns.  During worship we have an hour to sit with our families, to sing with them and pray with them and for them.  During worship we have an hour to rest. 

But we need more than an hour a week or every other week to rest.  So let’s spend some time brainstorming together.  What is one thing you can give up to help you rest? – one thing you can do less often, one thing you can do away with this week in order to have time to rest. 

And what is one thing you can do in order to rest?  One way you can spend time by yourself, or with family or friends  in order to realized that you are blessed by God in so many ways and you can go to bed at night content and grateful. 

And one more question, what is one thing you can do to help someone else rest – that single mom that you know who is constantly running around being superwoman, your co-worker who is always there before you, leave after you and never eats lunch, the older woman that you know that is a fulltime caretaker of her ailing husband – what can you do to help them rest, to help them take a Sabbath, even if only for an hour.
See Jesus did not just say – hey I need to get away for awhile, but he invited others into that rest.  So yes take a Sabbath, enjoy some time to just be, either by yourself or with those whom you love most, but also invite others to take rest too.  

Monday, July 2, 2012

I said Vagina in Church

Yep I did, multiple times too.  Along with the words penis, testicles, uterus and sex.  

This was in response to the gospel Mark 5:21-43.


There is so much in today’s gospel.  There are crowds, religious leaders, statements about faith, people mourning a death with weeping and wailing.  And two women are healed – one who has been bleeding for 12 years as she touched Jesus’ robes and the other a dead 12 year old girl who was healed when Jesus touched her.  And I think in this entire story it boils down to two things – touch and sex.  Maybe not sex but sexuality and the taboos that goes along with it. 

There are two main points of touch in today’s gospel.  First an unwanted touch when the woman touched Jesus.  She would have been an outcast, unclean, and therefore anything and anyone she touched would also be made unclean.  The second point of touch was when Jesus took the hand of the dead girl and told her to get up.  This touch would again make Jesus unclean, ritually and socially impure.  And yet there is so much in a touch.  A touch can convey love, joy, fear, comfort, gratitude, anger, sympathy.  A touch can be welcomed, whether a formal handshake or a pat on the back from a colleague.  A touch can be awkward – most of us have probably experienced that touch of the arm that just lasted too long or the hug from some well-meaning person that you did not feel comfortable enough hugging.  And a touch can be dangerous.  It doesn’t take long to find examples of touch gone horribly bad in the news today.  Jerry Sandusky was just sentenced on 45 counts related to sexual abuse of boys. 

Most of the time when touch crosses that line from awkward to wrong, bad or dangerous is because of power.  The person offering the touch wants to be in power and control of the other.  And in many ways is a form of abuse.

Which leads me to the second thing that today’s gospel is about at the core – sex and the taboos related to sex and sexuality.  Yep I just said sex in church and guess what I’m going to say it again a few times.  There were a lot of taboos about sex in Jesus’ time, including that menstruating women were not supposed to be in public as they were considered unclean.  And so here is this woman who has been hemorrhaging from her, let’s face it, vagina for 12 years.  She had been menstruating for 12 years.  She would not just have been considered unclean but an outcast, people probably thought she was possessed or evil or even a witch.  But you probably stopped listening a few minutes ago because I just said vagina in church. 

See we have many taboos around sexuality today, including the use of the medically acceptable terms for our anatomy when it comes to our sexual organs.  It is okay to say heart, arm, lungs, even gall bladder, but words like vagina, penis, testicles and uterus are no-nos.  Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was just barred from speaking in on state house floor because she said vagina in a debate about abortion. 

However when these taboos exist we are allowing those who want to use touch, especially bad touch, to have power and control over another to have that power because we take away the voice of the other.  When it is consider a taboo to use words like vagina, penis, testicles or uterus, those who have been sexually abused are at lost for words to report it because instead of having the clear words to describe what happen they have to rely on phrases like “she touched my hoo-hoo” .  When we do not talk about sex in ways that allow people to know what is generally socially acceptable in a relationship, women, who have been raped, especially by a spouse, boyfriend or acquaintance, feel powerless to report it, maybe it was something that she did, or it is just something in their own psyche that made them feel violated.  When we have taboos about sex and sexuality, people experiment thinking they are doing something that is rebellious.  I personally believe this is a big reason for such a high percentage of sexually active teenagers and why the Fifty Shades of Grey book series is so popular.  When we are afraid to say words like vagina, penis, testicles, uterus people who have diseases that affect those organs, whether uterine or testicular cancer, endometriosis or erectile dysfunction are not able to talk about what their disease.  I’m not saying that we need to go back to the hippie era of free love, but that we should have freedom of speech in order to bring about equality and care for others.  And we do that by breaking down those taboos.

Because  Jesus broke the taboos of his day.  He allowed an unclean woman to touch him, and then he went and touched a dead girl.  He was not going to allow the taboos of the day to keep him from doing ministry, from loving those in need, from caring for the sick. And he did this ministry through touch. 

We should not allow the taboos of our day to keep us from doing God’s ministry.  We should not allow the taboos about sexuality and sex in our society keep us from doing ministry in this world.  God’s ministry for us in this world includes educating ourselves and our children about the great gift from God we have been given in the form of our bodies including our sexual organs even if it is uncomfortable to talk about at times.  God’s ministry for us in this world includes standing up and saying that abuse is wrong in all its forms including child abuse, sexual abuse and rape.  God’s ministry for us in this world includes saying that sex is a wonderful thing but it should never make you feel violated and if you feel violate as a result of sex it is not your fault.  God’s ministry for us in this world includes saying that touch is a wonderful thing but it should never make you feel violated and if you feel violate as a result of someone’s touch it is not your fault.  Because we too are called to break down those taboos in our society, to talk openly and honestly about sexuality, our bodies and general touch so that we can love those in need, care for those who are sick, especially those who have been abused, and hopefully through being open to talking about sexuality, our bodies and touch it will prevent that abuse from happening.  So that we can give power to others, maybe not through touch, but through our words. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Praying for Miracles

This sermon is based on yesterday's gospel, Mark 4:35-41

This was the gospel text 3 years ago on my first official Sunday as the pastor here at Bethlehem.  So I ask you “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 

But that is putting a lot of trust in me.  In fact it is putting more trust in me that I’m comfortable with because I’m not Jesus, in fact I’m a lot like those disciples.  See this is the point when after hearing this gospel lesson that you will get the “Jesus is with you during the storms of your life” sermon. But I’m not going to give you one of those sermons today.  I mean they are well meaning, but we have heard it all before and quite honestly when you are going through the storms of your life, that isn’t really what you want to hear – that Jesus is with you, -  what you really want to hear is Jesus yelling at the storm “Peace! Be Still!”

But maybe that is the problem, we spend too much time focusing on the fact that Jesus is with us during the storms of our lives, that we don’t give Jesus enough credit to actually silence those storms. 

Think about this – why did the disciples wake Jesus up?  A great windstorm arose, the waves were beating into the boat, the boat was being swamped and the disciples woke Jesus up.  I’m not saying that was the wrong thing to do, if I was in the middle of a storm on a smaller boat and it was being swamped, you know I would being making sure every person on board was awake to help out.  So what did the disciples expect Jesus to do when they woke him up? 

They weren’t expecting him to calm the storm that is for sure – since afterwards they were filled with a great awe and said to one another “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So if you woke someone up in the middle of a storm on a smaller boat that was being swamped, what would you expect of that person?  You would hand them a bucket and tell them to start bailing. 

I’m pretty sure that is what the disciples were expecting of Jesus – don’t you care that we are all perishing – help keep us all alive here and pitch in a little.  So the disciples were not expecting a miracle; they were expecting a hand. 

And I believe we do the exact same thing today.  We don’t expect miracles from God, we just expect a hand.  Think about it, when was the last time you truly prayed for a miracle?  We don’t at least, not that often, especially in the main line church, the one big exception being in sports.  We don’t pray for someone to be miraculously healed, instead we ask that their pain be managed, that those who are caring for them to be skilled.  We don’t pray for the dead to be raised; we pray for comfort to come to those who mourn.  Granted when you pray for miracles, you will often be disappointed – the sick won’t be instantly healed, the dead won’t be raised, the unbelievers won’t instantly believe, you won’t win the lottery every week. But it could happen.

Maybe we need to stop handing Jesus the bucket and instead ask him for a miracle.  We need to shoot for the stars, and you know if land short and end up at the moon, well God still took us that far.  It is not selfish to have a tiered prayer – Lord heal our loved one from cancer, make them cancer free, let them run like a child, and if that is not your wish, please make their pain bearable and their last days on this earth filled with love.  Lord bring peace throughout the earth, that no one shall die by the hands of another ever again, turn our weapons into tools of peace, turn our armies into armies of workers in your kingdom, but at the very least let peace begin with me so that I may not harm another by the actions that I take.  God feed your people, let the ground of these earth swell with plants to eat and water that is pure to drink, and teach me Lord to not waste so that others may be fed.

So what are the miracles that we should ask for?  What are the storms going on in our lives that we need to ask Jesus to yell “Peace! Be still!” instead of handing him a bucket?  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Scattering Seeds of Faith

Yesterday's Gospel was Mark 4:26-34 which includes two parables - the parable of growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed.  The mustard seed often gets more attention but I was really drawn to the parable of growing seed and how this guy does not know how the seed he scatters grows.  Right now as a congregation, Bethlehem is scattering a lot of seeds - trying to get the word out into the community that we are in the midst of doing God's work in this world and we want others to join us in that mission.  And at the same time we are ready for the harvest - wanting the results of all that seed scattering to be instantaneous.  

So here is my sermon from Sunday - or at least the one I wrote - I didn't actually refer to it much when I was preaching.


We do not know how seeds grow.  Even with all the science that has happened in the last 2 thousand years, our understanding of just way a seed grows when it does has not changed much since when Jesus uttered those words from today’s gospel “someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”  Yes we know that seeds need water and sunlight and the temperature to be within a certain range and certain seeds should be planted at certain times of year, but again we do not know why a seed decides to grow when it does. 

Almost 2 months ago I planted 9 tiger lily bulbs in my garden – thus far only 7 have sprouted – and there was about 3 weeks between the first sprouts appearing and the latest.  What about the other 2 blubs?  Why did it take so much less time for some than for others to sprout?  Some seeds can lay dormant for years before they sprout, others like the jack pine need fire in order to start the growth process.  Some seeds grow instantaneously, some seeds take years to produces more seeds. But what any farmer or gardener can tell you, is you sow way more seeds than you grow. 

And the same is true for the seeds of faith that we sow.  We do not know which seeds will take and which ones will sprout instantly and which ones will take years to develop. Right now as a church we are spreading seeds of faith.  Through things like the block party we are getting the word out there that we as a congregation are here doing God’s work in this world and we would love it for others to join us on this mission.  And yet we are ready for the harvest – we are ready to open wide the doors and take people in one after another.  But the harvest is not yet, but trust me it is coming.

We still need to nurture those seeds of faith and even plant some more.  The average person needs to be personally invited to worship 7 times before they actually come.  7 times!  Can you imagine turning a friend down for a dinner invitation 7 times?  But yet it takes that long because worship is more than dinner. 

Worship gets down to our core – worship is a place where we admit that we are not as great as we might like to be.  Worship is a time when we admit that we are vulnerable.  Worship is a time when we come together as a community.  Worship is a time when we give up of ourselves and instead focus on God.  Therefore it takes more than just saying you are willing to go to dinner with someone. 

But trust me, I see you spreading the seeds of faith.  I see you inviting people to worship.  I hear you talking about how you see and experience God in your daily life.  I’ve discuss with you people that you care for that do not worship on a regular basis that you really want to see having a stronger relationship with God.  But you need to keep inviting, keep talking about your experiences of God, keep discussing how your relationship with God has helped you in life and why you want others to experience that. 

The seeds are there, they are being sown, and they will sprout and grow, we just do not know how.  And the absolutely great thing about these seeds of faith, is just like a mustard bush, which is actually a weed and will quickly spread and take over where it is not wanted, the seeds of faith, the seeds of God’s love will quickly spread and take over where it is not wanted.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Baptism and Understanding the Trinity

Yesterday was a great day for me personally at Bethlehem - I got to baptize my goddaughter Lily!  

Lily is Kylie's, a good friend, daughter.  Kylie and I meet when we both moved to New Haven around the same time and got involved in a bible study lead by another friend who also moved to New Haven in August of 2008.  Lily is my third official godchild (I claim a few others) and the 2nd that I have had the pleasure to baptize.  And this was the first time that I also preached when I baptized a godchild.  

And what a wonderful, yet challenging text to preach on, as it was Trinity Sunday and the gospel was John 3:1-17

So enjoy the sermon.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day each year that Christians celebrate a doctrine, a belief, instead of an event.   But this leads to a lot of confusion because how exactly does one describe the Trinity?  Are we worshiping one God or three?  Is it one God with three personalities or three Gods with one personality.  Really the Trinity is hard to explain.  And therefore I really enjoy Martin Luther’s quote “To try to deny the Trinity, endangers your salvation.  To try to comprehend the Trinity, endangers your sanity.”  Therefore there is a lot of mystery to the Trinity.

And there is a lot of mystery to our scripture text as well.  Our gospel reading from John 3, which is so well known to many is about at the core the love of God.  But great debates and schisms and church conflicts has been fought trying to understand what Jesus meant.  Even poor Nicodemus was confused asking twice “how can these things be?”

It is hard to comprehend just how glorious God is.  It is hard to understand just how mighty God is and why we should worship this God and why we need to worship this God.  It is hard to understand just how we are also heirs with Christ in God’s kingdom and in Christ’s suffering as our second lesson tries to explain today.  It is hard to understand just how much God loves us.  Even those well-known verses don’t truly express how much God loves us. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” We are loved beyond measure.  We are loved more than a parent loves a child. We are loved beyond understanding.

And that love for us is beyond our understanding because it is hard to understand God.  In fact I would go so far to say that we can’t understand God.  And it is alright to say that.

Many people stop worshipping because they don’t understand God, and they feel like they are the only one in the church, it must just be them, and so they stop going.  But really none of understand God.  Lily, little 9 ½ month old Lily, on her baptismal day, understand God right now as much as any of us truly understands God.  In fact she probably understands God better than many of the adults in this room, there is no questioning, there is no doubt, because at her tender age, Lily understands what love is.  And God is ultimately love.  And today, her parents Kylie and Chris and myself as her baptismal sponsor and you as the congregation will promise to help raise Lily in a life of faith, to pray for her, teach her and support her, and there are a lot of promises to fulfill.  And even if we, each of us in this room, make Lily our own pet project to support and teach and pray for in her life of faith, she will still not understand God any more as an adult than she does right now.  And that is because we can’t understand God, we don’t understand God. 

Instead we experience God.  And as Lily grows she will see and experience God in different ways. As we attest to each week at the beginning of worship, we see and experience God in many different ways.  Through prayer and scripture, through deeds from friends and strangers, through the ways you mention each week when I ask you "where have you seen God this week?".  We may not be able to truly understand God, we may not be able to accurately explain the Trinity and how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relate to one another, but we can know that God is ultimately about love and experience that love through the waters of baptism, through our family and friends, through prayer and scripture.  And while striving to understand God might endanger our sanity, striving to experience God’s love, is just a matter of opening our minds to all the places God is already at work in our world. If you open you eyes and see, you will see that the kingdom of God is at hand, here with us. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

You are going to pray? For me?

I was really excited for yesterday's sermon, which is probably not a typical comment for a sermon preached on John 17 (verses 6-19 to be exact), as it is a twisting, turning, repeating, circular prayer from Jesus.  And while our first reading, Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, while an important part to the narrative of Acts, doesn't give the preacher much meat.  But then in a text study conversation we were talking about prayer and stopping to pray for one another and I thought "what if we took the time to pray specifically for one another during worship? What would that be like?"  And a sermon was born.

Enjoy! And pray for someone else.

Have you ever had someone pray for you?  What was it like to have someone be in the same room with you and pray for you – out loud.  To hear someone talking to God in your name.  Whether they are giving thanks for you or asking for God to heal you or bless you or be with you? How about when you name is said during the prayers here as it is your birthday or anniversary week? 

For me at least, there is something so wonderful about having someone else pray for you.  And while it is great when someone says “I’ll be praying for you,” it almost brings tears to my eyes as that person prays with me there in front of them. It is humbling.  And yet it is honoring.  It is makes me feel like I cannot solve any problems on my own or fully celebrate any joys without others partaking. And I go through a series of emotions, almost like a rollercoaster that you have been on many times before, you know what is coming, the ups and the downs and yet you have to go through each before arriving at the next emotion.

My first thought is to shy away, to be embarrassed that someone else is praying for me. I then relax and realized that the words the other is speaking, even if they may not be grammatically correct or pass any public speaking course with all the umms and ahhs, they are the perfect words for that situation. And then I feel privilege to be in the presence of these words.  They are not spoken to me, but to God and I’m just the lucky one to get to overhear an intimate conversation between a believer and their God. And finally, when the prayer ends, there is almost a sadness that the prayer is over, as I long to continue to hear those words. It is not a longing in a prideful way, that the praise for me is over, but a longing that that moment, when all I hear are these words to God that are so powerful I can almost see them, touch them, is over. And often the prayer ends with silence and then a sigh, a sigh that is filled with both appreciation for the words that were offered and hope that I will be able to experience such a moment again. 

And I get the feeling this emotional rollercoaster, but a good roller coaster, is not just my own.  Twice in today’s reading people are being prayed for who get to overhear the prayer.  In our first reading from Acts a decision needed to be made of who would take Judas’ place as an apostle.  The vote came down between Joseph Barsabbas and Matthais. But before a single ballot was cast, the apostles and the 120 people gathered prayed. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” I doubt that was the whole prayer, probably just the Reader’s Digest version.  But I wonder if during the prayer Joseph Barsabbas realized that this was not his calling. Or if Matthais felt the Holy Spirit wrapped around him.  And those who voted, did some of them changed their minds as they prayed? 

Then in our gospel today Jesus is praying for his disciples while they are with him.  Our reading is just part of this prayer which makes up the entire 17th chapter of John.  It is the night before Jesus died and he is not praying to make his death not happen or at least less painful.  He is not praying even for his own well-being, that his life wasn’t lived in vain.  Instead he is praying for his disciples, that they may be God’s, that they may have his joy, that they may be protected from the devil and not too condemned by the world, that they may know the truth in God.  And I wonder if it wasn’t until this prayer that some of the disciples fully realized that Jesus was going to die, and he was going to die really soon. I wonder if it was during this prayer that some of the anxieties they felt were relieved. I wonder if it was during this prayer that some of the disciple found peace and strength to continue Jesus’ ministry after his death, and the same words just spoken to them, instead of God, could not have brought such comfort. 
I wonder that because prayer is a powerful thing.  And when you know someone else is praying for you, especially when you hear them praying for you, you feel power and peace that you might not otherwise feel.

So we are going to do something a little different in our prayers today, and I know it will bring a few of you out of your comfort zones and you will feel awkward about this, but hopefully the power in prayer will overcome that awkwardness.  Earlier I asked you to write your name on a note card and any prayer request you may have.  If you haven’t done that yet, please do it now.  I’m then going to collect them and redistribute them so each person gets someone else’s card.  Then during our prayers today, we are going to pray for each other.  I’ll start a petition and then invite you to pray out loud for the person whose name is on the card you receive.  You can say a long dissertation of a prayer, or you can just say the person’s name.  But if they also wrote a prayer request, please include that in your prayer. You may not know this person, or they may be your best friend. I then want you to continue to pray for that person throughout the week.  Again, it can just be the person’s name, or it can be a longer prayer.  And hopefully in a week when we gather again, we will be able to share stories about how both being prayed for and praying for others is opening our minds to how God is working in this world and through us. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Motherly Advice

Yesterday was Mother's Day, which many pastors will tell you is a hard day to preach on because it is the 3rd most sacred day in the church (just barely behind Christmas Eve and Easter).  Our gospel was also from the farewell discourse of John (John 15:9-17 to be exact) which is also not an easy text to preach on because there are a lot of repeated phrases and confusing sentence structures.  But some how for me these two came together.  


Happy Mother’s Day!  Now I am not a mother, nor do I pretend to be a mother – I will stick with the titles “aunt” and “godmother” and be just fine.  Jesus was not a mother either.  But I think he could relate to most mothers during our gospel passage today which is part of the farewell discourse in John chapters 13-17. Jesus had been with these disciples for a few years, in many ways he had raised them, and now it was time for them to go out in the world on their own – without him. So before they leave, well actually, before Jesus dies, he wants to give the disciples as much information as possible – like all those little nuggets of information our mothers have given us. Jesus saying “love one another as I have loved you” is kind of like our moms saying “Always wear clean underwear.” Actually it is a little more like “stop fighting with your brother”

Therefore this section of John can be pictured as a mom talking to her child as the son is headed off to college or daughter is prepared to go off to basic training.  The kids are about to experience life out on their own.  Mom will no longer be around to make them dinner, clean up after them, drag them out of bed in the morning or one of the other few hundred things that mothers do for their children each and every day.  And so we can picture this scene of Jesus giving these words of wisdom to his disciples before they head off into new uncharted territories.

But what does that mean for us?

Jesus spent a few years with these disciples and now here we are almost 2000 years later still trying to understand the same advice that Jesus gave to those disciples. Only unlike when we moved out of the house, and were still able to call up mom or dad and ask them for their advice, or for a little bit of cash to help us out till the end of the week, we can’t just call up Jesus and get more information.  We can’t call up Jesus and ask him to clarify who exactly he meant when he love one another, or what he means by laying down our lives.

Jesus is not going to have us over to make his world famous chocolate cake, give us more wisdom and advice and help us solve our problems.  Or maybe he will.

For some of us, our mothers are no longer with us, having died, but that doesn’t mean our mothers are no longer with us.  When you hear your mother’s favorite song, smell her favorite flower, bake a recipe that she passed down to you, see her traits in your own, whether physical or personality, your mother is still with you. And even though she is not able to answer you, you may still ask her for advice “mom what would you do in this situation?”

And we can do the same with Jesus, we can turn to Jesus in prayer for understanding.  We can turn to him to understand what it means to lay down our lives or who we are called to love. And just like one mother can raise multiple kids and tell them each the same advice but they all understand it differently, so it is true with Jesus.  For some of us, laying down our lives means giving up everything to be missionaries, for others that means giving generously of what possessions we have, and yet for others we might ignore the advice entirely and want to do our own thing.

We can still turn to Jesus for advice, but unlike many of our mothers, we have to ask for that advice to be given. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Preaching Challenge

In my clergy text study group, occasionally preaching challenges are made. Most of them are made as jokes when irreverent comments are made during our bible study of the upcoming Sunday's passages; therefore no one expects anyone to actually take up the challenge to mention such a thing in their sermon.  But sometimes I enjoy a good challenge.  

This pass Tuesday during our text study as we were discussing the gospel John 15:1-8, I said that as someone who has spent little time on vineyards, the vines I think of are poison ivy that strangle the plants.  And a challenge was made that I should mention that in my sermon.  

Later when discussing the 1st reading, Acts 8:26-40, I brought up Deuteronomy 23:1, which shocked a few colleagues when I had them read it.  Hmmm well how can I not mention that if I'm going to preach on the Ethiopian eunuch?  

So enjoy my sermon of preaching challenges.  (Oh and btw I did read Deuteronomy 23:1, but the Message translation "No eunuch is to enter the congregation of God.")

I am the vine, you are the branches….being from not wine country, in fact spending very little time at any vineyard, other than in a tasting room, I get confused by this metaphor.  To me, who knows about poison ivy and kudzu, a vine is a parasite attached to the branch and if given long enough, the branch will eventually die as a result of the vine.  So before we go any further – quick biology lesson about grape vines.

The vine is the solid mass that is rooted to the ground.  And from the vine comes many branches that can then be trellised in order to spread out and grow and produce fruit.  Now the cool thing about grapes is that even though branches can be pruned in order to bear more fruit, branches can also be grafted to the vine. 

Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.   We are anchored, attached, grafted to Jesus so that we can produce fruit for him in the world.  But we need to be connected to Jesus in order to bear fruit.  And part of bearing fruit is connecting other people to Jesus and to the church.

One of the biggest reasons people stop showing up to worship is because they never felt connected to that community.  Therefore church workers spend a lot of effort trying to connect new members to others within the community in order to attach people both to Jesus and to the church.  In order to make each person who officially becomes a member of the congregation to also feel like a member of the community.
So let me ask you, how do help connect people into this community?  What are your ideas to get people to not just come and worship with us, but to actually be part of this community?

These are wonderful ideas and I want to honor them and respect them, but I also want to challenge them a bit. Most often when we try to connect with people we try to find things in common with them – there is nothing wrong with that, it is human nature.  However a natural extension of that is for us to want the people who are new to change, to conform to be like us, without us, those who have already belonged, to not have to change at all. 

You can see an example of this in our first lesson today from Acts.  This story is most often referred to as the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.  And in the little introduction in the Celebrate makes it seem as though it was only the Ethiopian who was changed by this encounter and not Philip.  “Led by the Spirit, Philip encounters an Ethiopian official who is returning to his African home after having been to Jerusalem to worship. Philip uses their encounter to proclaim the gospel to him. Upon coming to faith in Jesus, the Ethiopian is baptized by Philip.”  We assume that it is the Ethiopian solely who was changed by this encounter, that he has been converted to following Jesus and Philip, who was already part of the “in-crowd”, a follower of Jesus, left unchanged. 

But what if this is really the conversion of Philip and not the conversion of an unnamed Ethiopian Eunuch.  Here is this guy who would not have looked like one of the people whom Philip normally hung out with. He is a foreigner, and not just any foreigner but a distant foreigner, a different race entirely.  Plus he was a eunuch, someone who was mutilated at a young age in order to set him apart for service to the queen. As a result he would have been considered not a full man, and therefore unfit, unworthy, to worship in the temple.  DEUTERONOMY 23:1

And yet the man keeps trying!  He went to Jerusalem to worship, even when he wasn’t able to enter the temple.  He read from Isaiah and asked Philip what it meant.  He sought God even when the world was telling him that God didn’t care for him. 
So what if it wasn’t the Ethiopian eunuch who was converted that day by the side of the road and was baptized, but Philip?  What if it was Philip who changed the most from this encounter?  That because of this encounter, Philip realized that you didn’t have to look like everyone else in order to be a follower of Jesus.  That you didn’t have to be from the right part of town, or even the right country, to be baptized.  That the old temple rules didn’t matter in following Jesus. That the Spirit can use everyone, even the ones who don’t look like us. Especially the ones who don’t look like us.

We judge people right away – their accents, their clothes, their hairstyle, their family, their jobs.  And we start to make connections, trying to see how they are like us or who we know already who are like them.  But maybe it is when we are with people who are not like us, in fact people who pull us the most outside of our comfort zones, whether they be of a different gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, sexuality and sexual identity than us that we most experience God.  So yes it is wonderful to make these connections, to help people not just to become a member of this church but to this community.  Though we should also realize that we shouldn’t do this in order to conform the one individual to us, but so that we can all be changed by God’s presence in the new relationship.   

Monday, April 30, 2012

How Would You Respond?

Yesterday I preached on the second lesson 1 John 3:16-24, kinda avoiding "Good Shepherd Sunday" as the 4th Sunday of Easter is often called, but I think this was the more needed sermon for Bethlehem.


I want us to rewind a little and look back on our second lesson from First John.  John 3:16-17 gets so much attention about being the gospel in a nutshell, but in a lot of ways 1 John 3:16-17 is an equally important verse, maybe the commission in a nutshell:  We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? 

It is a beautiful verse but can become a little overwhelming.  In fact this passage is not good news.  Because no matter who we are and how much or how little we have there are still times when we have refused to help someone in need.  No matter who we are and how willing or unwilling we are, it is hard for us to want to lay down our lives for one another.  And so this passage, this commissioning to us to go out and be like Jesus, becomes an impossible standard. 

And when people hear an impossible standard they often react in one of three ways.  The first is to not even try.  Why should I help, or love anyone when there will always be more people to help and love than I can possibly help or love.  The other option is to be overwhelmed. To try and help and love each and every person but then start worrying about those who one cannot help or love, which then causes us to not help and love ourselves, which makes us more worried about helping and loving others so that soon you are out of control in this downward spiral unable to actually help anyone.

The first two options – doing nothing or being overwhelmed – means that you look focus on the numbers and the quantity.  Let’s try a specific example – church growth.  In either mindset, church growth is just a numbers game.  Either you think there will never be enough church members or active congregation participants to fund the budget or do the ministry that you are call to do, so why even bother fighting this losing battle.  Or you see church growth as something that can never stop until you have reached each and every person and until you have reached each and every person you have not yet done true ministry and Jesus true flock is not yet formed and so you have to keep striving and going and well, eventually you just burn out, because there will always be more people you need to reach out to. 

The third option is – to do what you can and be content that you are doing what you can and loving and helping those who God has called you to love and help.  But it takes a different mindset to be content doing what you can. 

When you can be content doing what you know you are called to do, doing what you are doing, you can know that it matters to God.  In that case church growth is not about numbers, quantity, but about quality.  Have you made a difference?  Has one person learned about God, or was helped, or felt loved or served because of the efforts that you did?  If you can answer yes to that, even If that one person was you, then you can be content knowing that God’s will has been served and you can continue to do what you are doing, knowing God’s love is being shared.

The author of First John asks us to lay down our lives for one another just as Christ did.  And that is a scary thought for us.  We see Jesus has laid down his life and died for us so we assume that laying down one’s life must mean that we too must die.  But that is not what laying down one’s life means.  Jesus does not want us to be martyrs, Jesus wants us to live for Christ.  Laying down something means giving it up, so that another might use it.  We are asked to lay down our lives, get out of the way, so that our lives, ourselves may be used by another.

Now going back to our three options of how to respond when one is faced with this impossible task love and help all.  We can do nothing, which is not giving up our lives.  We can strive to do everything, which may seem like we are allowing ourselves to be used by others but instead we are allowing ourselves to be USED UP by others.  Or we can do what we are called to do, make a difference in this world, even if it is just one person’s life and it is then that we are laying down our lives, getting out of the way, so that God may use our lives to help, serve and love another. 

So how will you respond when you are faced with the impossible standard of First John: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dangerous Jesus

I decided to focus a little more on the first reading from Sunday, Acts 3:12-19, though all the readings on Sunday had a theme of witness.  

Enjoy.  --oh and fair warning, I'm a little snarky in how I try to ignite the congregation to witness to Jesus in their lives. 

In our first reading from Acts, Peter derides the people gathered about how they killed Jesus and meanwhile let a murder go free.  And we think back to Palm Sunday, and Good Friday as we hear the cries of the crowd asking for Barabbas and the echoes of “Crucify him, crucify him” coming from those gathered at Jesus’ trial.  Now this has often made no sense to many Christians.  Why would the crowds want a murder to be set free and meanwhile ask, demand, yell, shout, that Jesus, the messiah, whom we worship, the Lord and Savior who healed the sick and cared for the poor to be sentenced to capital punishment on the cross?

But Jesus can be dangerous!  For a murder you know what he did, and we don’t know the circumstances of Barabbas, did he kill a Roman guard who first attacked him in self-defense?  Did he kill someone there was a long standing feud with but most of the time he is a nice guy?  I doubt that Barabbas was a psychopathic serial killer.  And so the crowds probably did not think that their lives were in any danger by letting him, a convicted murder, go free.  But Jesus could endanger their lives.

If Jesus was set free, what would happen?  They, the followers of Jesus, could be tried and killed for going against the government.  They could be moved to give away their goods to those more in need.  They could be compelled to leave their families, their community, and their livelihood and follow this itinerant preacher.  They could be persuaded to understand that faith is more that about individual salvation and personal good deeds. They could be convinced that this world, this life that they are leading, is not good enough and God has a better plan, but it requires them doing something about it.  And that is why Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus is dangerous.  Jesus is dangerous because he calls us out of our comfort zones.  Jesus is dangerous because he calls us to think about the greater good, to think about the care of people who are not us.  Jesus is dangerous because he calls to not just acknowledge the poor, the widow, the sick, the orphan, the disenfranchised, the outcast but to care for them.  Jesus is dangerous. 

And so we keep him locked up.  We keep Jesus in this sanctuary, we keep it so that only the pastor is supposed to talk about him.  We, as this congregation, and as the greater church, make it the pastor’s responsibility to evangelize, to witness to others, to invite others to worship, to grow the congregation.  Well guess what?  That is not my job! 

We are all called to be witnesses to Jesus.  We are all called to tell others about his life, his death, his resurrection and how he lives in our lives today.  You are called to be a witness to others.  You are called to let this dangerous Jesus out.  To let him live in your life even if it gets you in trouble.  You are called to let this dangerous Jesus out of this sanctuary, out of this building and into your daily life. Witnessing to Jesus in our lives and telling others about his word is a job greater than any one person can do alone, which is why that is not my job alone. 

It is not my job alone to be the one who grows this congregation, to spread Jesus’ message to others in Redding, Wilton, Weston, Ridgefield and beyond.  That is your job. My job is just to support you, to care for you, to nurture you, to pray for your efforts.  My job is to ignite you to go out and be a witness, to hear Jesus’s words from today’s gospel “you are witnesses of these things” Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and current place in our lives today.  And it your job to let this dangerous Jesus out, into your home, into your work place, into your community, into your whole life. Yes Jesus is dangerous but he can also be life transforming. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Keeping your Doubts with you!

Back to "normal" - whatever that means.  Here is today's sermon based on John 20:19-31

I love this text. I love hearing the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples while they are in the locked room. I love imagining their reaction.  Were they scared, shocked. How many of them grabbed Jesus' hands, touched him to make sure he wasn't a ghost.  I love this story. It is probably one of my favorites to preach on, because I think everyone can see themselves in Thomas and the rest of the disciples. 

Unfortunately Thomas gets a bum wrap.  He is the one called Doubting, but yet each of the disciples doubted.  Even with all the times Jesus warns that he will return from the dead, no one expected to see Jesus alive again after he died.  That is why they proclaimed to Thomas "we have seen the Lord."

And we are right there with Thomas and the other disciples, not truly believing what Jesus has told us, not completely sure how this resurrection took place or what it means for our lives.  We are just like the disciples, wanting to believe with all of our heart soul and mind and yet still worried about our future.  Still worried to completely trust in God for the future of this congregation.  Not able to let go of all of our fears about personal finances or measuring up to coworkers or strangers, we are not able to let go of our doubts when it comes to our relationships both with God and others.  We are like Thomas and the disciples, we have doubts.
But it is okay to have doubts.  It is okay to question, to wonder, to worry about ourselves. Our family, our future, our faith.  It is okay to have doubts because we are not God. We do not know everything. 

So I want you to think for a moment (silently) and reflect on your doubts.  What are the concerns that keep you up at night?  What questions would you ask God if you were able to? What worries you about the future? What doubts do you have? 

Now take a moment and write them down.  And put them in the egg I'm giving you.  Because we will always have doubt with us.  I want to keep this egg with you, keep it in your purse or your car.  Maybe keep it in your work bag or a bedside table.  Or maybe just take the slip of paper and keep it in your wallet.

We need not hide from our doubts or banish them.  I cringe when I hear people say that we need to not be like Thomas.  Instead embrace your inner Thomas, verbalizing your doubts.  And hopefully in a week or two or a month or a year, these doubts will be answered.  Now some of our doubts will never be answered, and if these doubts are answered others will take their place. 

So why an Easter Egg – well they are a sign of the resurrection, a sign of the empty tomb.  And so hopefully for some of you, some day you will come across this egg and open it and realize that there is nothing really there.  Yes this slip of paper with your writing will be on it, but this doubt that right now is weighing so heavily on you is actually no longer a doubt, it is no longer a concern – that really it is nothing.  Your egg will be empty. 

Because remember doubts are part of faith, and we are blessed by Jesus when we believe, whether we have doubts or not.  And our doubts do change overtime, so let’s be like Thomas and embrace them. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hiding from Death

Recently I was on a Ravelry chat board that was talking not about over-protective parents, but over-protective schools that want to take words such disease, divorce and birthday banned from standardized test because the words might offend or bring up painful memories.  This lead to various people discussing how either disease and death has been hidden from children by parents and the various repercussions.

And it is easy to knock parents who want to hid death from their kids - the ones who tell them that their dog ran away or that grandpa has gone away for awhile. But really these parents hid death out of love.  They fear that their children won't completely understand or that they will ask questions that they are not able to answer.  And because they love their children, they don't want them to hurt, and so they tell lies and half-truths.

But we can't knock these parents and not see it also in ourselves. This is Holy Week, the week when we walk with Jesus towards the cross.  Yesterday in worship we heard not just of the day when Jesus was celebrated as he came into Jerusalem but also we heard the entire passion narrative as Jesus was anointed before his death, had his last meal with his friends, was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, denied, sentenced to death, died and was buried.  We read the entire passion because many people do not come to the other worship services this week and therefore go straight from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection and they miss hearing about his death, which is where the gospel really lies.

I love Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship services.  I have often thought that you really can't celebrate Easter unless you have first shared in Jesus' last meal and witness his death.  Yes they are full of sorrow, yes sometimes there are tears.  These are emotions that we may not want to bear witness to, but they are part of the human story, they are part of the emotion spectrum that we as human have been given. And yet I don't know of a single congregation that has double, triple or quadruple the attendance on Palm Sunday or Easter than they will have on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday combined.  Because we want to hid from death, just like those parents who do not tell their children about death.

We can't live Sunday to Sunday - the parade to the empty tomb.  We would be missing an important part to the story.

The story is not that Jesus was loved by the people of Jerusalem and a week later something miraculous happen as a tomb was empty.

The story is that Jesus was loved by the people of Jerusalem, who quickly changed their ways as even one of Jesus' closest friends betrayed him and handed him over to authorities.  Once arrested Jesus was put on trial and the crowds who just a few days before hailed him as king were now shouting for his death.  Jesus then was put to death on a cross and his body was buried as those friends and family were left to celebrate one of the holiest days of the year without the one they loved.

But that is not were the story ends.  Jesus overcame death. Jesus rose from the death.  His body was not there where they had laid him.  He was alive again.

We try to hid death, but we can't.  Eventually children will learn the truth about their dog or grandpa and they might feel betrayed.  Or ideas of zombies or the un-dead develop, but we know those are just stories.  We can however celebrate death, and more importantly celebrate that death has no power over Jesus.  We can realize that death does happen, that regardless of who we are, someday we will die, along with our loved ones and our pets.  Even Jesus died!

But that is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Preaching Changes

You may have noticed that my blog has been quiet of late.  For some reason (don't know why) I just have not posted the Monday Morning Church emails.  And Sermons have been absent.  Well I can explain the sermons more - I haven't been writing anything for them.

Of late I have been not using manuscripts at all for my preaching.  This has lead to a more natural conversation in our sermons that Bethlehem creates together as we reflect on the readings.  Therefore I don't quite feel right taking not just my thoughts but the congregations and posting their reflections on my blog on Sunday afternoon or Monday.

I did want to tell you about this past Sunday.  To me worship felt joyless - I just wasn't feeling it and I know I was grumbling throughout the later half of worship.  The sermon was on John 3:14-21 and I asked "Are you saved?" and "What does it mean to be saved?" And while the sermon overall went okay, I thought I wasn't truly able to express what I wanted to express (maybe if I had written a manuscript that could have been done better).  And for some reason I left worship in a bad mood.

But after worship one teenager posted John 3:16 (the full verse not just the "address") on his facebook wall.  And then on Sunday one member emailed me with some further thoughts and questions about the sermon including wondering if baptism, an act of salvation, therefore counts as salvation through works since it is a work that we do in order to receive salvation.  Then I emailed another member to answer a question he asked towards the end of the sermon that I did not have time to answer adequately so I left it hanging: "Do you have to believe in order to go to heaven?"  That lead to a great email exchange as well.

So here I was Sunday afternoon feeling horrible about how worship and my sermon went and by Monday afternoon I had done a 180 on that experience after having some follow through conversations.

I know conversational sermons are not for everyone.  Some people have expressed to me that they want to hear from me and not have a discussion.  And I'm trying to find that balance of allowing people to express their thoughts and opinions on the texts and topic without the conversation veering way off or my voice, as someone who has spent part of the week reading about and reflecting on these texts, getting lost.  However I do strongly believe that when given the chance to participate, people are more likely to internalize the sermon and related it to their everyday life so I want to honor that people have the need and longing to participate in their faith.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Searching For Feedback

For me the biggest downside of being primarily solo staff (for the most part I only see our music director on Sundays), is that I really enjoy and appreciate brainstorming and feedback and I feel like I don't get them as much as I should or I'm used to.  

At my internship and the year following when I worked as a youth minister, the music director and the Children's Ed director and I worked together really well and were able to come up with some wonderful ministry ideas through brainstorming and give each other honest feedback that was both critical and helpful.  And I really miss having a built in network for brainstorming ministry and receiving feedback.

I have found some ways to brainstorm in my current call: I have a few people in the congregation I can get together with for a cup of coffee on occasion and think out loud on different ideas; I often come to the worship committee with ideas and from there we are able to expand upon those ideas; in person and through Facebook and the internet I have connected to other clergy to learn and share ideas with (which the good ideas I promptly steal and adapt for Bethlehem). 

However I'm still missing good feedback.  

Now I often received feedback, but it is not good feedback and by that I don't mean that I don't like what the person has to say.  Instead the feedback is vague, and non-specific: "That was such a lovely worship service." - well that is great, but what can I do to make you experience this feeling again?  "Loved the sermon." - did you like the topic, the delivery or were you just listening more today than most days.  (To be fair, I do love those comments and they do make my heart sing, but they are not helpful a few days later when I preparing for the next week's worship or sermon.)  To me good feedback is prompt, critical and detailed. 

Prompt does not mean immediate.  I don't need to know the person's thoughts or opinions on a worship service, sermon or event before they leave the building - in fact in many ways, waiting a few days is better because it allows you to formulate your thoughts and reflect on things better.  But waiting a few weeks to bring up something that I said doing worship is not helpful because well often by then I have forgotten what I have said or done (not that I remember every word I've said during worship by the time worship is over).  

It is also critical.  I really want to hear "I didn't like it when..." because if I only hear positive thought it makes me keep doing what I'm doing.  That doesn't mean tear my heart out by telling me that I can't do anything right, but be honest about what you don't like.  2 Christmases ago when we ordered white poinsettias to go with all the white Christmas decorations we (the worship committee) heard for multiple people that while they liked the white decorations more, they prefer the red poinsettias, we got red ones this past Christmas. Had we just heard about how much people loved the white decorations, we would have ordered white poinsettias again. People can be critical but nice about and I promise I will try to respond to those criticisms nicely as well - often for the betterment of everyone.

Thirdly feedback is also detailed.  As I stated earlier, while the comment "it was a wonderful worship service" is great to hear as you people are leaving worship, it is not helpful when it comes to planning the next worship service.  Saying things like "I really enjoyed how we did the prayers today." or "I'm not sure how I feel about moving the sharing of the peace." are specific that I know which elements to keep, change, switch back to the way they were, or at least what others are struggling with so I can be sensitive to those changes in the future.  

So why am I writing all this?  Well there have been a lot of changes are Bethlehem lately and I often feel like I don't get feedback even when I specifically ask for it.  

For the past few months we have been having more conversational sermons and for the most part I love them and the feedback I have received has been positive.  But it has also been vague and has mainly come from the more extroverted (and therefore  more likely to talk during the sermons) parishioners.  Then there are sermon conversations like this pass week where I felt like I was pulling teeth and I when I asked in my Monday Morning Church email what would make this better, I have received no response - so now I'm fearful that this week we will have yet another pulling teeth sermon conversation but I will not be able to tell you what I did differently to make this happen. 

We have also changed the prayers.  A few weeks ago the sermon was about prayer and I asked people to write their prayers on note cards that were in the bulletins and those were our prayers that day.  It went wonderfully and I heard great feedback about that.  Well now we have adapted our prayers so we still ask for those prayer cards and have the written petitions, but I have not gotten any response if people like that or now.  So I'm just continuing doing what we are are doing, unaware if people love it, hate it, or are indifferent. 

And more changes are coming.  In the fall we will be moving to the Narrative Lectionary.  This means there will only be one slightly longer reading each week, instead of 4.  We will also no longer have the scripture readings printed in a bulletin insert each week but encourage people to bring their bibles with them. I know there are some concerns and worries about this transition but for the most part those concerns are not coming to me so I really don't know if it is about having 1 reading instead of 4, of not having things easily printed in front of them, or are there deeper concerns about looking like a fool because the person doesn't know how to look things up in the bible. 

So I'm searching for feedback, I'm longing for feedback.  What are your thoughts? What are your concerns?  What do you like? What do you dislike? What made your heart sing? What fills you with dread? If you were in charge what would you change? 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Radio can be a Tempting Thing

I pretty much took Saturday off.  I ended up working on both Thursday and Friday, my normal days off and by Saturday I was just exhausted, so other than a few minor things that I had to get done I spent Saturday doing much of nothing.  

Normally on Saturdays I listen to WNPR one of Connecticut's public radio stations.  I particularly love Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me.  But if you know me, it is amazing how often I say the phrase "I was listening to NPR the other day and...." Well after Wait, Wait, there is the Faith Middleton Show's Food Schmooze. No normally I don't listen to the Food Schmooze as at least 90% of the time they interview a cookbook author and talk about various foods that are not vegetarian friendly.  But on Saturday I was doing something else and didn't turn the radio off so I continued to listen as Faith interviewed a cake cookbook author.  And as they described various cakes I realized that I wanted cake!  

So to my cookbooks I went.

But here is the problem - most cakes make.... well a cake.  Much more than the typical person living alone needs or wants to eat.  So I decided to make a cake for coffee hour the next day.  Unfortunately that meant my cake craving had to wait, it also ruled out chocolate as it is Lent and I'm sure even in my congregation were very few people give up things for Lent, someone had probably given up chocolate and I didn't want to tempt them.  (Sorry if they gave up sweets entirely, but I wanted cake).

I ended up making a variation of a chiffon cake that I'm calling a Lemon Poppy Seed Muffin Cake.  It is a muffin cake because the texture is more like a muffin than a cake - slightly dry and airy but not as airy as a typical chiffon cake. Also it is only slightly sweet, like a muffin - though the frosting makes a nice sweet finish that compliments the cake nicely.

For cake:
7 egg whites brought to room temperature
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 cup poppy seeds
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar.
For Frosting: 
6 tablespoons butter soften
4 cups powder sugar
3-5 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon extract.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking power and salt.  In a separate bowl, mix together egg yolks, water, oil, and extract.  Mix egg yolk mixture into the flour.  Add poppy seeds.  Beat until well blended.  In another clean bowl beat egg whites and cream of tarter together until stiff peaks form.  Fold into egg mixture.  Spoon into a 10inch un-greased tube pan (angel food pan).  

Bake on lowest rake for 60 minutes or until top springs back, if it still look a little wet near center tube, bake an additional 5 minutes.  Remove from oven, invent to cool (I use a bottle wrapped in aluminum foil to help hold the pan up).  Cool completely and use a knife to separate the cake from the pan. 

For the icing, beat butter and powder sugar in a mixing bowl.  Add 3 tablespoons of milk, lemon juice & extract.  Add more milk for a thinner consistency and beat till smooth.  Frost cake by spreading over top, allowing icing to run down sides and center of cake.