It’s A Miracle! Sermon Series – #1: A Fish Story

SCRIPTURE – Luke 5:1-11 – Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

It’s A Miracle!
#1 – A Fish Story
Luke 5:1-11
Oct. 19, 2014

We begin our sermon series today on the miracles of Jesus. Through the course of the next several weeks we’ll be looking at a number of Jesus’ miracles as recorded in the gospels. Our goal is to try to make sense of them, which I can tell you right now is impossible. The dictionary defines a miracle as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” If we could make sense of them, they wouldn’t be miracles. But, because you’re curious and I’m stubborn, that won’t stop us from trying, so I pray that along the way God will grant us new insight and understanding to these supernatural stories and what they have to say to us.

One biblical scholar said that without the miracles the New Testament would be a lot easier to believe, and that’s exactly right. The things in scripture that most challenge our reasoned intellect, that most bewilder our rational minds, are the irrational acts. I believe the miracles are one of reasons some people reject Christianity. How do you explain them? Five loaves of bread and two fish turned into a feast for 5,000. A raging storm calmed by a few words. Scores of sick and lame people healed at the touch of a hand. A man hung on a cross to die lives again in three days. These things just don’t happen in our everyday life.

So the New Testament would be easier to believe without the miracles. And yet, if the New Testament didn’t have the miracles, it wouldn’t be worth believing. Without the miracles, all we have is the account of a righteous prophet who was put to death for his teachings. Without the miracles, we have a wise dead man; with them, we have a Savior.

So if the miracles have the potential of driving people away from faith, why are they in there? What is the purpose of miracles in the gospel stories? I don’t believe Jesus was trying to show off or entertain the crowds. I don’t even think the ultimate purpose was to heal or to feed or to make life better for someone, although that was a beneficial outcome. I believe the true purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom. For just a moment, Jesus says, take a look. See what is coming. There will be no illness. There will be no pain. There will be enough food for everyone. Miracles were windows into God’s future plans. Through them, Jesus was reminding his followers that God’s kingdom was present among them.

If that’s the purpose, then you have look at each miracle through that lens. Jesus not only performed the miracles to prove this point, but to encourage people to join in the miracle and work to make that kingdom real on earth. In a sense, the miracles were a means to an end, the end being the call to faith and action, and the people who experienced the miracle were not just observers but participants. That’s evident in the first miracle we’re witnessing.

Jesus was in the midst of his teaching ministry, and he was gaining some popularity. On this particular occasion, so many people came to hear him that there wasn’t enough room on the shore for all of them. Luke says: “The crowd was pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God.” I love that image. When we hear the word of God, are we reclining back, or are we pushing in to hear it?

To get some personal space, Jesus asks to use Simon the fisherman’s boat. Jesus had probably observed Simon earlier on the shore, who was cleaning up after a long night of fruitless fishing. After Jesus finishes speaking, he says to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Now, if I’m Peter, I’m looking at this stranger, this carpenter from Nazareth, and I’m telling him exactly where he can put his nets. “Look, Jesus, you stick to building cabinets and leave the fishing to the experts.”

After some mild balking, Peter obeys Jesus and heads out to the deep water. Now we need to pause here to recognize the significance of Jesus’ command. Back in those days, people didn’t know what was under the water. They didn’t have sonar and submarines and snorkels. In fact, they believed that water was the residence of evil. The monster Leviathan, mentioned several times in the Bible, lived under the water. In the beginning, God’s spirit hovers over the chaotic waters and brings order. In the book of Revelation, the evil beast rises from the deep. Fishermen tended to hug the shoreline because it was safer. If a storm came, you didn’t want to be caught out in the deep water. It wasn’t safe. It was evil.

How would you respond to Jesus’ command to go deeper, to leave the safety of the sand and head out into the deep water? For me, I really, really like staying close to the shore. I prefer not to get over my head. It’s tempting, isn’t, to stay in the shallow waters? Shallow water is pleasant. It tickles our ankles when we walk in it. The minnows and the little fishies gather there. In the shallow water, you can see the bottom. You know where you’re stepping. The shallow water is safe.

But, as Jesus shows Peter, the shoreline is not where you’re going to catch the big fish. When I was little, my PawPaw used to take me fishing at a local pay lake He’d get my pole all ready, bait my hook with a worm, and then show me how to cast out into the middle of the lake. But every time, I would only cast the line about 10 feet in front of me so I could watch the bobber. He’d say, “You’re not going to catch any fish there.” Well, one day, that bobber dove under water and I pulled in a nice sized bluegill. “See?” I told him, as if to say, “Leave the fishing to the experts.” About a half hour later, as we were getting ready to go home, he reeled in his line from the middle of the lake and hauled in a catfish about twice as big as me. The deep water is where you catch the big fish.

If the story ended with the miraculous catch of fish, what we’d have would be an amazing tale of Jesus making life better for someone. But remember, the purpose of the miracles wasn’t simply to make life better for people, it was to give people a glimpse of God’s kingdom, so we know there must be more going on here. Jesus has just dumped this miracle flipping and flopping at Simon’s feet, enough fish to provide for his family for months. Then Jesus says, “You think that’s something? Come with me and I’ll teach you catch more than fish.” And Simon leaves behind the biggest haul of fish he’d ever seen and becomes a disciple.

My question to you is this: what is the greater miracle in this story? The catch of fish, or Simon’s decision to leave it lying on the shore? In both cases, the miracle is predicated on Simon’s participation, his willingness to let go of what is safe and comfortable. First he lets go of the shoreline, then he lets go of the catch of fish. In both cases, his trust in Jesus trumps his fear and his sense of security.

For me, the real miracle in this story is the power of faith to see beyond what appears to be. Look at our world. Look at the needs on our prayer list. Look at what’s happening to our baby Milly. Look at all the violence and hatred and negativity on TV, and that’s just the political ads.  Is there anything there that justifies faith in God?  We may feel like we’ve fished all day and our nets are empty. Tired. Frustrated. At a dead end. Is there anything there that tells you God is at work in this world?

Yes, there is. There is the faith those who pray, who cry, who send cards and care packages, who work for fairness and justice. Every believer is a participant in God’s miracle, because it is through us, the hands and feet of Christ, that God’s kingdom is made known on this earth. That doesn’t mean if we have enough faith everything will work out the way we think it should, but it does mean that our faith will help us see God at work in the midst of the challenges in our lives. And it means we can be participants in helping others glimpse the kingdom of God, as well.

Here’s what this story tells me: If we want to participate in a miracle, if we want to help show this world what God’s kingdom looks like, we can’t do it by hugging the shoreline. We are called into the deep water, the place beyond safety and control, the place where we turn our boat over to Jesus and let him guide us. We each have a next step to take in order to grow in our faith, and I’m pretty sure that step is not back toward shore. You don’t get many glimpses of God’s kingdom while standing on the dock. So what is the deep water for you? What is the miracle in which God is inviting you to participate? Is it reminding a shut-in they are not alone? Is it a step up in your giving to make more ministries possible? Is it lending your voice to the church leadership or the choir or a Sunday School class? Where is God calling you into the deep water? And what is keeping you from going there?

Patrick Henry once wrote, “I’ve never been party to a clear-cut miracle, but I do know the precondition for recognizing one if it happens is the openness to surprise.” If we stay where it’s safe, we only see and experience what is safe. But if we put out into the deep water, if we dare to go where God calls us, we open ourselves up to the surprising presence of Christ, who fills our souls to overflowing and then calls us to follow him.

And then, we have the indescribable opportunity of becoming the miracle. Every believer is God’s miracle. Every person who steps out on faith and gives Jesus command of their boat becomes a living testimony to the power of faith in Jesus Christ. And then, maybe when we least expect it, while we’re out there serving, suddenly our boats are overflowing with fish, a child’s eyes are opened to a Bible story, a new relationship is made, a person grows in their knowledge and love of Christ because of your relationship with them. When we open ourselves to God’s capacity to surprise, miracles happen. The shallow water is safe. But the deep water is where miracles happen.

I’ll close with this poem credited to Sir Francis Drake: “Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little. When we arrived safely because we sailed too close to shore.”

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Mission Possible sermon series – #6: Serving God through Serving Others

This is the final sermon in my sermon series on Crestwood’s new vision and mission statements.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 10:41-45 – 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mission Possible Sermon Series
#6 – Serves God Through Serving Others
Oct. 12, 2014

We finish our sermon series today on our new vision and mission statements, found on the front of your bulletin. During these last five weeks, we’ve been taking a closer look at these statements, figuring out how we can turn them from words on a page into real-life actions that help us grow in our faithfulness to God and live out our call to by the body of Jesus Christ. Along the way, I hope you’ve been encouraged and challenged by these statements, and I hope at least once you’ve said, “There’s no way we can do that!” That’s how you know it’s from God and not something of our own creation.

I mentioned last week how there is a natural progression to the points of the mission statement. We bring people in by welcoming and accepting them; we grow them up by inviting their questions and encouraging them; we care for them through that process; and then we send them out to put into action what they have seen and learned here. Sending them out is the focus of our sermon today as we talk about the last part of the mission statement, that we connect people to God and each other by serving God through serving others.

There were several different theologians I considered referencing for this sermon to help undergird the main points. I considered Paul Tillich, since I studied him in seminary, but then I realized I didn’t remember anything I studied about him. I considered Freidrich Schleiermacher, but I think it’s wise to never quote someone whose name you can’t spell. So instead, I settled on one of my old reliables, that famous theologian Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

Surely you’ve read some of his work, haven’t you? McBean is the main character in the Dr. Seuss Book The Sneetches. McBean shows up with his Star-On Machine, which will turn plain-bellied Sneetches into star-bellied Sneetches, thus upping their status in the Sneetch community. The way it worked was you walked in to the machine, got your star, and then walked out a new Sneetch – all for a price, of course. That, in the theological world, is what’s known as the McBean Cycle of Transformation.

That’s what the church is called to do. We bring them in, we help them transform, we send them out. When the Sneetches left the Star-On Machine, they did so with stars on their bellies and noses in the air. But we are called to leave this church very differently, with our eyes open and our hands ready to work. In other words, we are called to go from this place different than when we came it, to go out with a purpose, to take what we’ve learned and experienced and share it. This is not a side-effect of being in church; it is the primary purpose for it. As Jesus says, we are called not to be served, but to serve, to give our lives for others.

This last part of our mission statement is incredibly important to our future as a church, because it is the one that calls us beyond ourselves out into the world. We can do the other four things and never leave this building. But the church doesn’t exist for the church’s sake. It exists for the sake of the world and is called to take what we learn and experience here out into the schools, shops, and neighborhoods around us. Every gift we’re given – including the gift of our money – is not meant for us to hold onto but for us to share for the greater good of God’s kingdom. If we keep our gifts to ourselves, hiding them away so that no one else will get them, hoarding them to make sure we have enough, we’re perverting the reason we were given the gifts in the first place.

Our service is one of the ways we use our gifts, and it’s one thing Crestwood does incredibly well. If there were any part of the mission statement we could go ahead and check off our list, it would be this one. “Serves God through serving others.” Let’s see: Serving the homeless? Check. Community garden that supplies fresh produce to shelters? Check. Partnership with the local elementary school? Check. Thousands of dollars given away each month, both locally and globally? Check. Building Habitat Houses, going on Mission Trips, opening our building free-of-charge to non-profit groups? Check, check, and check!

But hold on a second. Let’s not break our arms patting ourselves on the back. It might help us to go deeper by asking the question “Why do we serve?” It’s easy for churches to get caught up serving others for reasons other than serving God. For example, have you ever heard the term “altruistic egoism?” Altruistic egoism is the belief that by helping others, we can make ourselves feel better. And there is an element of truth to that. I do feel better about myself when I help someone else. But if that’s my main motivation, I’m engaging in self-service. If I’m serving someone else in order to check something off my mental feel-good list or to pad my spiritual resume or to wedge my foot in the front door of Heaven, I’m actually doing a disservice.

Let me explain that with an analogy. While we lived in Chicago, I came to have a deep, soul-level hatred of traffic. And I had plenty of opportunities to cultivate that hatred. That’s why I loved the concept of open-road toll plazas. When you came to a toll booth, if you had a nifty little device attached to your windshield, you could zoom right on through without stopping to pay the toll, allowing the government to take your money without you even realizing it. But if for some reason you didn’t have that nifty little device, when you came to a toll plaza you had to take this little exit and sit in the line waiting to go through the toll booth, while all the people with the nifty little devices were zooming by and pointing their fingers at you and laughing.

I wonder if sometimes we don’t look at serving others as detours in our lives. We’d much rather keep zooming ahead on our own path, but because we know it’s the “Christian” thing to do, we take that little exit from our full-speed schedules and help someone else out, all the while thinking consciously or subconsciously, “I can’t wait until I can get back to doing what I want to do.” When we do that, the person we are serving is no longer a person in our eyes; they are simply a means to an end, a by-product in our desire to “do the right thing.” Altruistic egoism.

So maybe we serve others because of altruistic egoism, because it makes us feel better. Or maybe we serve because it reflects well on us to do so. That doesn’t mean we serve to get fame or publicity but it is human nature to want to be appreciated for our efforts. After all, how can our lives make a difference if no one sees us making a difference? Jesus warned about people who use faith to make a spectacle of themselves. There are so many things God calls us to do of which we will never see the benefits, things that feel so small or insignificant. That meal at the soup kitchen may not change a person’s life; that dollar in the beggar’s cup isn’t going to rescue her from poverty. Why make the effort if we’re not going to see a return on our investment? Let’s face it: serving others has very little upside for us.

So if we don’t get results and we don’t get recognition and we don’t get to pad our spiritual resume, why should we serve? What does our mission statement say? “Serve God through serving others.” We serve others, our mission statement says, as a way to be obedient to the call to serve God. Through Jesus Christ, God poured out love on us in the most extravagant, lavish way. It’s like trying to pour the ocean into a coffee mug. When you have that much love given to you, you can’t help but let it overflow in your life, and one of the ways we do that is to turn that love into action through our service to others.

What’s important to note is the relationship in this statement between God and other people. We are called to serve each other, not out of pity, but out of compassion. The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with.” To have pity on someone is to look down on them from a position of power. To have compassion for someone is to look at them as equals, from a position of solidarity and kindness. We all are made in the image of God, and therefore when we serve someone else, no matter how destitute or unclean or different they are, we are serving God.

Thankfully, we’re not called to do it perfectly. At a Habitat workdays a few years ago, I was put in charge of placing stakes in the ground so we could rope off some newly cemented driveways. Rather than asking me to paint or measure and cut wood, those in charge were able to pick up on my incredible stake-placing gifts. So I set about my task with much diligence, placing the stakes at just the right depth and distance from each other. I mean, it was a work of art! Of course, what didn’t realize was that the crew had already poured the concrete for the driveway next door, so as I was placing stakes for one driveway, I was leaving foot prints in the wet cement of the neighboring one. I was not invited back to place more stakes the next year.

God does not call us to serve perfectly; God only calls us to serve. If God only used perfect people, nothing would ever get done at this church. We’re all imperfect. But guess what? God still loves us and still wants to use us. A Bengali poet once wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” When we give, when we care, when we serve, we do so with the joy of knowing God loves us and God is using us – us! – to make a difference for someone.

For me, the ultimate reason we are called to serve is that we live in a world that needs serving, a world that needs to see tangible reminders that God hasn’t given up on us yet. The need around us is so overwhelming that it can paralyze us from doing anything. But every small act of service we do makes a difference far beyond our effort. We may not see the difference, but we trust God is working through us. During our Stewardship Campaign, as we consider what monetary gift to give to God’s work through Crestwood, it’s important we remember that our gifts will have a positive impact far beyond our imagining. The church needs you to be a part of fulfilling our vision and mission. More importantly, the world needs you.

Our General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, was a World Council of Churches convention in Brazil. She was talking with Pastor Clement Mputu, Vice President of the Disciples of Christ in the Congo. She said he looked straight into her eyes and told her about the six million people who have died in the Congo war. Six million. “Doesn’t anybody even care?” And then he stopped and waited for an answer.

There is a world out there that needs to know God is real. There are people out there who have given up hope that God cares about them. As Gandhi said, there are people who are so poor they only see God in a piece of bread. Do we have any bread to give? Do we have any hope to give? Our mission statement says we serve God through serving others. The world is waiting to see if those are just words on a page or if we really mean it. They are waiting for answer.

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Mission Possible sermon series – #5 Caring for Each Other and the Stranger

We continue our sermon series looking at Crestwood’s new Vision and Mission Statements. Here they are:

Our Vision

Connecting People to God And Each Other

Our Mission

Crestwood Christian Church connects people to God and each other by being a community that welcomes and accepts all people; invites questions about how faith and life intersect; encourages people to take the next step in their spiritual journey; cares for each other and the stranger; and serves God through serving others.

SCRIPTURE – I John 4:7-21 – Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Mission Possible sermon series
#5 – Cares for Each Other and the Stranger
Oct. 5, 2014

We continue our sermon series today looking at our new vision and mission statements, found on the front of your bulletin. Our vision is “Connecting People to God and Each Other.” The mission statement spells out how we will do that by giving us five statements for applying our faith to real life. So far we’ve talked about the importance of welcoming and accepting all people, inviting questions about where faith and life intersect, and encouraging people to take the next step in their faith journey. Along the way, we need to make sure we are caring for each other and the stranger. Interestingly, this was to be our sermon topic long before all that happened this week. I love the way God works.

Paul writes in Galatians about the importance of caring for each other when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” We are not supposed to focus solely on our needs and challenges, as tempting as that can be. Living this life is about more than ourselves, so we are supposed to be mindful of those around us and stay open to the ways we can extend God’s care and comfort to them. Sometimes life gives us more than we can handle, and our burdens are too heavy for one person to carry.

I love my dad. I need to say that up front, because after I tell this story you may think otherwise. I really do love my dad. But there was one year when I almost gave him up for adoption. It was the year I helped him move three times. I didn’t mind helping him the first time. Or the second time. But I knew I was in trouble the third time when didn’t start the conversation with his usual, “Hey boy! What’s up?”, but with, “Greetings, my beloved offspring….”

This third move was to a second floor apartment that required negotiating a narrow, twisting set of steps. That would be OK if Dad didn’t have a treadmill, a waterbed, and one of those old console TVs, the kind that came in the heavy wooden cabinet. We managed to get everything up there, but along the way I had an insightful revelation. I used to think I got my bad back from my dad, but now I realize it wasn’t inherited, he voluntarily gave it to me. A body is not meant to carry that kind of load alone.

The burdens we carry can have the same kinds of debilitating effects on us. We try to shoulder the weight, thinking that it’s up to us to carry around this troublesome diagnosis or this dark depression or this work-related stress. And it’s usually only after we’ve passed the breaking point that we finally reach out for help. That’s one of difficult realities of being human: we can only be cared for if we allow others to care for us.

That’s where the church comes in. A church community is meant to be a place where people can come and unload their burdens without fear of judgment or criticism. No matter what our baggage looks like, no matter the size or shape of the skeletons in our closet, the church should be a sanctuary, a safe place to receive welcome, acceptance, and care, the same things God has graciously given to us in abundance.

That’s what John talks about in our reading for today. He’s telling his congregation that no matter how different people are, no matter whether their colors are red or blue (for their politics or their sports affiliation), no matter how much the other person acts like a self-righteous jerk, the foundation of their relationship with each other should be love, the love that comes from God. He says if you claim to have love but you don’t care for each other, then you’re just fooling yourself, because God is love.

The Greek word for love here is agape. The Greeks actually had several words they used to describe love, which makes sense when you think of all the different kinds of love that exists. There was eros, which was the romantic, sensual kind of love, best demonstrated by Joey from the show “Friends,” when he would greet an attractive female with the words, “How you doing?” There was philia, a love between friends, from which we get the name for the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. There was storge, a kind of family love, like the love siblings would have for each other.

But none of those describe the kind of love John is talking about here. He is talking about agape, a selfless, other-focused love that knows no boundaries. Agape is a deep soul love, a love that is not dampened by what a person does because it is focused on who a person is. Agape love is the kind of love God has for us and the kind of love we are called to show as we care for one another.

This understanding of God’s agape love brings with it some major implications for how we offer care. It means that, if we’re loving with God’s love, there’s no criteria someone has to meet in order to receive it. We don’t care for them because we like them; we care for them because they need caring. That’s a big relief to me, because I have to admit I’ve said and thought and done some things in my life that at times make me pretty unloveable. My guess is you have, as well. If we were to share these things in a room full of people and asked everyone who thought less of us to leave, when we finished only our mothers would still be there.

Caring for others with agape love also means we are willing to enter into their situation, to help bear the pain and sadness and anxiety they are carrying while helping them stay grounded in Jesus’ love for them. We have to be careful, because we can err too far one way or the other. We can stand too far back, observing a person’s pain from afar but not walking alongside them. Or we can get so enmeshed in their situation that we end up needing more care than they do. The balance is best illustrated in a drawing from Stephen Minister training. It shows a person down in a pit, the one who is in need of care. Then it shows a person with one foot in the pit and one foot on solid ground, holding onto a tree limb as they help pull the other person up. The tree is Jesus Christ, who provides strength and grounding and safety as we care for one another. We care for others by putting one foot in the pit with them and keeping one foot grounded in reality, all the while connecting them to God’s healing power and love.

Ultimately, the best way to care for someone is not to do for them what we think they need; it’s to do for them what they need done. I may think someone needs a meal when what they really need is a listening ear or a hug. I may think, “If I were them, I would really like someone with me” when what they really want is a quick phone and then to be left alone.

In my previous church, we used to put together Thanksgiving boxes that went to a local Hispanic ministry. We filled the boxes with all the goodies we enjoy on that holiday: mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and a big juicy turkey waiting to be cooked. But we found out in most cases, the turkey stayed raw and the pumpkin pie went uneaten because that’s not what Hispanic families traditionally eat at Thanksgiving. Instead of asking them what they wanted, we assumed they wanted to be cared for the same way we would. Agape love is other-focused; it asks the other what they most need.

Sometimes offering this kind of care means putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations for the sake of caring for another. When I was in seminary the pastor of the church where I was working asked me to visit one of the shut-ins. He said Florence could be a bit cantankerous at times, but that she would probably welcome a visit. “It will be good experience for you,” he said. When I got to her house, I noticed the lights were off and the blinds drawn. I peered in through the door and saw Florence sitting in her darkened living room. I knocked on the door. “Who is it?” she shouted. I hollered through the door who I was, but she said, “Don’t bother yelling, I can’t hear!” So I held up the Bible in my hand to show her I was from her church. She shouted, “Oh my God! You’re one of those! Don’t come in!” Finally, I nudged open the door and said, “I’m from St. Peter’s United Church of Christ.” “Oh, well in that case, come on in!” I spend a lovely hour with Florence, learning about her life and the sadness in which she lived after her husband died. It was time well spent.

The care we’re called to offer is about writing cards and making casseroles, but it’s about more than that. It’s about phone calls in which we listen to the other person. It’s about not only delivering the casserole, but staying a few minutes to ask the other person how they’re doing. Caring for someone can be time-consuming, it can be messy, it can really throw off our schedules. And yet, I believe caring for each other is the primary reason God calls us into relationships. No one can carry their burdens alone.

Caring is something we do well here at Crestwood. Several of our ministries are designed to extend Christ’s compassion to our fellow church members. Our Stephen Ministry program, our Heart-to-Heart shut-in ministry, and our Caregivers Ministry Team all live out this statement. Certainly Robyn and Jordan and their family have been the recipients of the kind of genuine care we are able to offer. I believe we are committed to taking care of our own..

The challenge our mission statement gives us to is to care for those unlike us with the same agape love as those who are like us. There will be people passing through the doors of this church that we don’t know, that we don’t care about, that we may not even like. As our congregation continues to grow, you will begin to see names on the prayer list and in the Crest that you aren’t familiar with, and you may be hesitant to help care for them, to provide meals for them, to reach out to them. And yet, God calls us to care for them as a brother or sister in Christ. Our care for them is not dependent upon our approval; it’s driven solely by the fact that the other person bears the image of God in them.

In Hebrews, the writer urges his readers to provide hospitality to those who pass through, because by doing so, they may be entertaining angels without even knowing it. We have angels among us, even now, and a kind word, a smile, or a handshake of welcome may be the offering of care that person needs. If we only care for ourselves, we’re not being ambassadors of Christ; we’re a country club, attending to the comfort of its members. And I for one believe we are called to so much more than that.

The wonderful thing about this part of our mission statement is that we don’t have to do anything special to fulfill it. We simply have to take the agape love that has been poured out on us and share from our abundance with others, both those we know and like and those we don’t know and don’t like. We are the body of Christ, and each of us needs each other to live out our faith in this world. May the care we extend to each other and the stranger reflect the care we’ve been given by our Creator God.

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Regional Assembly Sermon – Surprise!

I was honored to preach at my denomination’s Kentucky Regional Assembly this past weekend. Here’s the sermon text.

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for theLord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Gen. 18:1-15
Sept. 26, 2014 – KY Regional Assembly

It’s truly an honor for me to be standing in front of you today at the culmination of my time as your moderator. I want to thank Rev. Nathan Brown and Rev. Jackie Twedell for opening up their pulpit and to all the great folks of First Christian Church in Hopkinsville for their amazing hospitality. I sure feel sorry for whatever church has to follow this act in two years!

I want to thank the Regional staff for their leadership and their support, as well as the entire Regional Board, including my teammates Darrell Hayden and Shelia DeMoss, for their hard work these past two years. And I would like to thank you, the people that make up the Kentucky region, for your continued faithfulness and commitment to living out your faith in Jesus Christ in tangible, transformative ways. I have been blessed to serve you.

But I didn’t want to. At least not at first. When Greg called me and asked me to consider serving in this role, my initial reaction was surprise. I responded the same way as the girl who was caught off-guard when her teachers asked her to name two pronouns, and she said, “Who? Me?” How often do we respond that way when we’re asked to do something we don’t feel capable or worthy of doing? God gives us a call that God knows we’re capable of doing, and yet our first response is surprise. Who? Me?

Do you like surprises? I remember growing up I spent the night at a friend’s house. We liked to play practical jokes on each other, so that evening while he was brushing his teeth, I snuck up to the bathroom door and jumped out to scare him. Only it wasn’t my friend who was brushing his teeth. It was his dad…in his boxer shorts. Awwwwkward. We just stood there looking at each other, and then with the brush hanging out of his mouth and toothpaste foam on his lips, he said, “I don’t like surprises.”

But some surprises are good, right? A few weeks back I was able to attend a surprise birthday party for my friend Cheryl, who swore that her husband Darren would never, ever throw her a surprise party because she hated them. When Cheryl pulled into the driveway, Darren hid behind the guests, afraid of Cheryl’s reaction. After hugs and smiles and happy tears were shared, Cheryl was asked if she was mad at the surprise. She said, “If I’d have known how special this would be, I would have asked for it a long time ago!”

Some surprises are good, some are not so good. So how do we classify the surprise that Abraham and Sarah get when they are visited by the three guests? It had been 24 years since God had first come to Abraham and said, “Go” and Abraham had said “Who? Me?” and God had said, “Yes, you.” So Abraham and Sarah went, trusting in the promises of God, promises of land and offspring that were taking a L-O-N-G time to be fulfilled. In fact, too long for Sarah. She got fed up with waiting and instructed Abraham to have a child with her handmaiden Hagar. If God wasn’t going to act, Sarah was going to take matters into her own hands. She was, in polite terms, a control connoisseur.

So imagine her surprise when she overhears these divine visitors tell Abraham that Sarah was going to have a son. Who? Me? I know it’s fashionable to wait a little later in life to have children, but don’t you think 90 is a bit past the expiration date for this kind of thing? I love the way professor Gerry Janzen translates Sarah’s response: “After I have become word out with use and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Hers is a worn-out body, and yet she’s just heard the absurd promise that new life will come from it. So she laughs.

I think Sarah’s laugh is one of disbelief. That’s different than unbelief. Disbelief still contains the element of belief, but it is belief with limits. “I believe that God can do some things, probably most things, but not even God can do THAT thing!” God comes to Moses and says, “You’re going to Egypt to free my people.” Who?  Me? You’ve got the wrong number. I can’t do that. Disbelief. For people like Moses and Sarah, the real issue is the character and the capacities of God. For them, Yahweh is measured by and confined within what they know of themselves and of the world. For them, God can’t operate outside those limits, the limit of a stuttering fugitive shepherd or a 90-year-old worn-out matriarch. That’s why Moses protests. That’s why Sarah laughs. The God they know has limits. The God they know isn’t capable of surprises.

But they eventually learn what we already know: God is not confined by our limits, but calls us beyond them. And, if we are willing to go there, that is where we find the divine surprise. I wish the gospel writers had been a little more adventurous in their writing style. The Bible needs more exclamation points. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Surprise! Hey, Jesus, don’t touch that leper. Surprise! Geez, we’re out of the good wine already? Surprise! Sorry, this banquet is for the elite only. Surprise! Lazarus? You mean the dead guy? Surprise! Uh, folks, the body isn’t in the tomb. Say what? Surprise! Time and time again God shows us that God’s capacity to surprise us greatly exceeds our expectation of being surprised.

But the limits we place on God’s capacity to surprise are justified, aren’t they? You heard Diana Butler Bass, right? You saw her colorful line graphs that basically said mainline Protestantism as we’ve known it is becoming extinct. But we don’t need her to tell us that, because many of us live it every Sunday. A graying congregation. Declining attendance. Dwindling giving. Is it too harsh to say. Kentucky disciples, that ours is a worn-out body? We’ve seen the trends, we’ve read the articles, we’ve watched as our pews get a little emptier every year. And we wonder…is God done with us?

Ha! Laugh with me…Ha! Is God any more done with us than God was with Sarah? With Moses? With Nicodemus? With Saul of Tarsus? The God who came to Moses and the God who came to Sarah is the same God who comes to the region of Kentucky and says, “Surprise!” And I’ve got news for you. God isn’t going to clear it with Greg Alexander before coming to your church. “Um, Greg, God here. Yes, again. Listen, I was thinking about going out to Salvisa and Madisonville and Murray and doing a new thing. Would that be OK with you?” That’s not going to happen! God doesn’t live at Regional Office at Red Mile Road. God lives in Dry Ridge and Flemingsburg and Hopkinsville and anywhere God’s people are willing to open their tents, welcome a stranger, and extend hospitality. And yet, we are hesitant to do that, because inviting them might mean opening ourselves up to the surprising ways God works, and sometimes it’s safer to stay put. Does our God have boundaries? Are we responsible for putting limits on what we think God can do?

I wonder what would happen if our response to God’s surprise wasn’t a laugh like Sarah’s, but a confession like Mary’s. When God comes to her and tells this single teenage female that, like Sarah, she’s going to have a baby, her response isn’t laughter. She doesn’t say, “Who? Me?” She doesn’t say, “I can’t do that.” What does she say? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Wow! Did you hear that? Wow!

“According to your word.” What word is that to which she is referring? Maybe it’s Isaiah 43: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Maybe the word is 2 Corinthians 5: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! Or how about Matthew 9: New wine isn’t put into old wineskins, but into fresh ones. Maybe it’s Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and put in me a new and right spirit. Is it safe to say that when God’s word comes to us, we’re not being encouraged us to maintain the status quo? “Hey Kentucky? God here. Just checking in. No news for you, just keep doing what you’re doing.” I can’t find that in the Bible anywhere. All I see is that when God shows up…surprise!

During my two years as moderator, I’ve been able to witness how God’s capacity to surprise is already happening around the region. Our Lexington area youth led a powerful worship service remembering Dr. Martin Luther King. Really? Can anything good come from teenagers today? Surprise! I read about mission trips where youth from Mt. Sterling and Jeffersontown and Hurstbourne changed lives and made a difference while learning that faith isn’t just about head and heart, but also hands and feet. I’ve seen the congregation of First Christian Church in Owensboro rise from the ashes of their burned-down church to continue on their vital and vibrant ministry.

Did you hear the one about the church that turned a divisive conflict into a new church start? That’s Chalice Christian Church in London. Surprise! Did you hear the one about the church that raised $10,000 for a local food pantry. Good job, First Christian Church in Mayfield. Surprise! Did you hear the one about the church that thought it was dying, and then God showed up? Surprise! The God who brought new life from the worn-out body of Sarah is the same God who comes to us right here in Kentucky.

The message God is bringing is one of hope, but like for Abraham and Sarah, it’s a call to move. Author Anne Lamott says, “If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we’ll die there. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. When nothing new can get in, that’s death. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing and confusing – we had this all figured out, and now we don’t. New is life.”

I believe God is coming to us with an offer of new life. God’s not coming to Greg or Linda or the regional staff. They are not the region. You are the region. We are the region. And God is coming to us in ways that will take our breath away, which creates space within us for new breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, which will call us out into this scary new future. It may mean for us that we can no longer sit in our buildings and wait for people to come to us. It may mean we have to meet them where they are, listening to their stories and their pain and their longing, introducing them to a God who is not bound by doctrine or dogma or liturgy, but who is working in and around them in surprising ways. It may mean having conversations with people who don’t look or think or act like us, not for the purpose of converting them to our way of thinking, but to build a connection that reflects the mutuality of our relationship with God. It may even mean passing the communion tray on Sunday morning to someone you think doesn’t belongs at the table. This new thing God is doing with us? It can be scary. Very scary. But new is life.

Kentucky Disciples, our story is still unwritten. God is still moving in and among us, working in all things to bring about good. But there’s something troubling me that I have observed about our region. It has nothing to do with attendance or giving or camps. What is troubling to me is our reluctance to be co-authors with God of our own story. In preparation for this message, I read through three years’ worth of our regional newsletter, the Kentucky Christian, looking for inspiring stories where God had shown up and something amazing had happened. Do you know how many I found? Not enough. Not nearly enough. So one of three things must be true: (1) God is not at work in the region, so nothing amazing is happening; (2) the regional office ran out of paper; or (3) we aren’t sharing our stories.

Maybe we think our story isn’t good enough. Maybe we don’t think what’s happening in our congregation is amazing enough. Maybe we think we can’t hold a candle to that big church down the road and the story they have to tell. Has God moved on, passed by our tent? Or do we have a story to tell, Kentucky? Of course we do!

We need to hear those stories for several reasons. First, there’s a different story being told about Christians out in the world, and it’s a bad story. If I learned everything about Christians from the stories I hear in the news, I’d probably be spiritual but not religious, too. But that’s not the only story, is it? We have a different story to tell, not of hatred but of love, not of exclusion but of embrace, not of judgment but of grace. The world needs to hear our stories.

When we tell our story, we tell God’s story. We need to be reminded that God is still here, God is still with us, and God is not done with this worn-out body just yet. Your story has the power to change this region, to infuse it with new life, to serve as a lighthouse to those who need guidance or a gentle nudge or a swift kick in the pants to remind them they are God’s people, called to do God’s work.

But your story, when you tell it, won’t only change the region. It will change you. Naming the ways God is at work in your congregation is like holding up a mirror to yourself and seeing Jesus in the reflection. We will discover things about ourselves as we tell our stories. It may be something new, or it may simply be something we had forgotten about ourselves. As was quoted at the beginning of our assembly, “God will not save us without us.” We have stories to write. We are God’s co-authors. What surprises await us when we pick up the pen, when we boldly proclaim that God is not done with us yet, when we open our imaginations to the surprising God in our midst? Yes, our story is still unwritten. So who are we waiting on to write it? Greg? Linda? It’s not their story, folks. It’s your story. It’s God’s story. Let’s stop worrying about if we have anything to say and if the ink’s going to run dry, and let’s get to writing.

After Sarah laughs at the visitors’ birth announcement, they ask Abraham why she did this. Then they ask the question, “Is anything impossible for God?” And then they leave, the question left hanging in the air, unanswered. “Is anything impossible for God?”

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Mission Possible sermon series – #4 Encouraging People to Take the Next Step in Their Faith Journey

This is the fourth sermon in the series on our church’s new Vision and Mission Statements. You can read the statements here.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 10:17-22 – As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

#4 – Encourages People to Take the Next Step in Their Faith Journey
Sept. 28, 2014

We continue our sermon series this morning on our new Vision and Mission statements, which can be found on the front of your bulletin. You may have noticed that there’s a natural progression to the Mission Statement. We start by welcoming and accepting people into the church. We follow that by inviting people’s questions, as they try and figure out how their faith impacts their life and vice versa. Then, we encourage them to take the next step in their spiritual journey, whatever that may be. That’s what we’ll be talking about today.

What is that next step? That’s a question the Vision Team was asked in one of their feedback sessions with the Elders. How do we encourage them to take the next step if we don’t know what that next step is? The answer to that question is a part of the discovery process, as we listen to each other’s stories, as we hear how our faith has been strengthened or challenged, and as we pay attention to the longing we hear for a closer connection with God and each other. As we listen to each other, we’ll hear the next step emerge in the conversation. And no matter who we are or what we’ve done, there’s always a next step to take in our faith.

The rich young man in our story today is a good example. It’s obvious he has already taken a number of steps on his spiritual journey. He’s studied the material, he’s followed the rules, and now he’s ready for the final exam: ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus looks at him and loves him, because he knows this man has another step to take on his journey, a step that proves too difficult for him.

Not everyone is at far along on their spiritual pathway as this man. Some of us are life-long believers and church-goers; others may be coming back to church after a time away; and still others might not even be sure what they believe, if anything. Paul was aware of this when he wrote to the Corinthians. He knew they were fledglings in their faith, so he treated them as such, helping them discern the next step that was right for them. He wrote, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.”

So where are you? Still nursing on spiritual milk? Ready to try the strained peas of the Spirit? Or are you far enough along for the BBQ Ribs of faith, the meaty stuff that helps us go deeper in our beliefs? Wherever you are, our mission statement calls us to provide an avenue for you to take that next step. As we consider how we do this, we need to keep in mind what I said last week about the changing nature of faith. Our faith used to be defined by what we believed. We assented to a certain set of spiritual principles and that defined what kind of Christian we were. Didn’t really matter if we actually lived those out or not. Faith started with belief. You affirmed a certain set of beliefs and you were then a member of the church.

But how many other groups can you think of that require assent to beliefs before joining? Maybe a political party, but that’s all I can think of. Nowadays, people don’t join a group by passing a test about what they believe. “So, you want to join our poker group. Do you believe it’s better to hold ‘em or to fold ‘em?” Belief is not a criteria for joining a group. People join a group by doing what group members do. For example, you don’t join a quilting club by promising to use an agreed-upon pattern or signing a contract that says you will only use certain kinds of stitches. You join a quilting club by quilting! You spend time with the group learning the craft, building relationships, completing projects, and before you know it, you’re a quilter.

That’s how I became a runner. I didn’t run the first time thinking I was a runner. I ran the first time because the quicker I reach my distance goal, the quicker I could celebrate with a milkshake. The next time I ran, I ran a little farther – and had a bigger milkshake. I kept running, a little at a time. I started talking to other people who ran to learn tips and techniques. Then one day, I looked back at how far I’d come and how many milkshakes I’d drank and I thought, “Wadda ya know? I’m a runner!”

The point of these two examples is this: We no longer become Christians through an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. We become Christians and grow as Christians by surrounding ourselves with other Christians and behaving like Christians. Actions shape our faith. We are what we do. Jesus’ followers didn’t listen to lectures. They listened to stories that taught them how to act toward others and what to do in the world. They didn’t have to sign a covenant to be a part of Jesus’ followers. They simply had to follow.

Diana Butler Bass calls this the Great Reversal. In times past, people were taught that belief came first, behavior came next, and finally belonging resulted, depending on how you answered the first two questions. Do you believe this about Jesus and the Bible? Do you act like you believe this? Good, then you can belong to our church. But now, says Butler Bass, the script has been flipped. Now, it starts with belonging – sure, come join our group. It doesn’t matter if you have all the answers; just bring your questions. Then, behavior – you start acting like a follower of Jesus, serving the homeless or helping at VBS or caring for another person. And before you know it, you’ll find that behavior has resulted in belief about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. From believing-behaving-belonging to belonging-behaving-believing.

This shift is reflected in how we welcome people into membership here at Crestwood. Traditionally, to join our church, you only have to answer one question: Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and do you accept him as your Lord and Savior? If you believe this, then you belong. But how many of us know what that truly means? I don’t. So now, I ask this: Do you trust that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, do you accept him as your Savior, and do you promise to spend the rest of your life figuring out what that means? You belong, then you seek to understand what you believe.

If this shift to belonging first is true, then that changes how we as a church help people to move forward in faith. We not only need to provide the intellectual learning, we also need to provide the opportunity to practice what they learn. In other words, we need to balance learning about God with connecting with God through spiritual disciplines and hands-on service inside and outside the church. If we want people to become quilters, we need to show them how to quilt. If we want them to become followers of Christ, we need to show them how to follow.

That’s an important point and one that I believe we often miss. Many people come back to church after time away because they want their children to have the same spiritual grounding and faith formation they had as children. That’s why our Children’s Wing is bursting at the seams and we have more and more kids up here on the steps with us during Children’s Time. But our kids are not the only ones who need spiritual nourishment. If we adults are also not striving to grow in our faith, then we are missing out on a huge part of our calling to be followers of Christ. You hear that word “followers,” right? We’re not called the loiters of Christ. We are not the statues of Christ. We are followers of Christ, and following implies movement. Christ was always on the go in scripture, doing God’s work and showing people the grace and love of God’s kingdom. As followers, we are supposed to be doing the same, learning and loving and leading and serving, just like our savior.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes that next step – or first step – forward is the hardest. Just ask the young man in our story. That’s why our Mission Statement says we “encourage” people to take the next step in their spiritual journey. That word literally means to give courage to someone, because sometimes taking a step in faith is really, really scary. It’s not easy to walk into the sanctuary or a Sunday School class for the first time. It’s intimidating to stand in front of a group of children or sing in the choir if you’ve not done it before. Whatever your next step is, you have a whole congregation here ready to encourage you. If you’re not even sure what your next step should be, talk to Robyn – for a limited time only! – or me or an Elder. We’ll figure it out together.

Christianity didn’t start with a confession. It started with a rag-tag group of blue collar workers who were invited to belong to a community where they acted out what they saw and learned from the leader, Jesus of Nazareth. Only after belonging and behaving where they able to say, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” I guarantee you that there is someone in this sanctuary today that doesn’t know if that’s true. And on any given day, that could be every one of us. Our goal is not to make people believe this, but to help them experience it in life-changing ways by connecting them to God and to each other. It is through those connections that we learn what we believe is true.

Butler Bass says, “The disciples didn’t hope the world would change. They changed it. And in doing so, the changed themselves.” May we have that same courage, the courage to take the next step in our spiritual journey toward become the person and the people God has called us to be. Actions shape faith. We are what we do. So what is your next step?

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Mission Possible sermon series – #3 Invites Questions about How Faith and Life Intersect

We continue our sermon series looking at our Vision and Mission Statements. You can find the earlier sermons in audio and text form at

SCRIPTURE – Luke 10:25-37 – Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Mission Possible sermon series
#3 – Invites Questions about How Faith and Life Intersect
Sept. 21, 2014

When I was a seminary student serving as an intern at a church, I had a member of the congregation ask me to lunch. Darrell, who was usually friendly and talkative, said very little until after the food was brought. And then, with a shameful look, he said to me, “I have some concerns.” Realize that’s not a minister’s favorite thing to hear. It ranks right up there with, “We need to talk” and “Who picks these hymns, anyway?” I told the man I was all ears and over breadsticks and pizza he said in a hushed voice, “I have some questions about the Bible. I don’t know if I believe all of it.” I assured him that he was not alone and I encouraged him to talk the senior minister, who was much better trained to handle these things. He said, “Oh, no, I can’t tell this to a real minister! That’s why I wanted to talk to you.” I asked him why he wouldn’t go to the senior minister and he said something that has always stuck with me: “I can’t let anyone know I have questions.”

We continue our sermon series on our Vision and Mission statements to better understand what they mean and how we are called to live them out here at Crestwood. Today we look at the line that says we connect people to God and each other by “inviting questions about how faith and life intersect.” Is it OK to ask questions, to express doubts, to challenge the words we read in the Bible and the practices of the church? A lot of us grew up in churches and households where the answer was an emphatic “No.” God was to be worshipped and obeyed, but never questioned.

But that’s not the example the Bible has set for us. If you have questions, you stand in a long line of famous people who didn’t quite understand this whole faith thing. Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Job, all of the prophets – every one of them had serious questions they weren’t afraid to ask directly to God. Hear these words from the prophet Habakkuk: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” Or how about these lines from the psalmist, who asks, “Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”

In the New Testament, Jesus is peppered with questions as he goes about his ministry. Today’s scripture is a great example, when a lawyer tests Jesus by asking him, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with a story about a foreign Samaritan man who demonstrates compassion and care. Other questions asked to Jesus carry the same kind of urgency: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is the greatest commandment?”  “Are you the one who is to come?” The Bible is full of rich examples of people questioning Jesus to get a greater understanding of who he is.

But somewhere along the way, questions went from being a necessary step of faith to a spiritual no-no. I think this had a lot less to do with God welcoming our questions and a whole lot more to do with the church not knowing how to answer them. When the Protestant Reformation put the Bible in the hands of the people, an amazing thing happened: they read it. And when they read it, they found that the God the church had been selling them was different than the God they read about in scripture. So they started asking questions. Many of the most prominent question-askers were rewarded with excommunication or a backyard barbecue with them tied to the stake. The message? Don’t ask questions.

The questions didn’t stop with the Reformation. Ever since, we’ve been reading the Bible, listening to sermons, going to Sunday School, and watching what’s happening around us in the world, and responding with “Huh?” How do we reconcile what we know about God and what we see in the world? How do we make sense of starving children, genocide, holy wars, and broken families in light of God’s promise of goodness and protection? In other words, how can we claim to have faith and NOT have questions?

Sometimes these questions are about God. Sometimes they are about the church and how it does or doesn’t reflect the love and grace of God. And sometimes those questions are much more personal. I asked people on Facebook this week to name some of the questions they have when they come to church on Sunday. Listen to the genuine searching here, some of it from life-long church members: Am I loved? Do people care? How can I really experience God’s love in my life? Are these people going to judge me? Can I fit in? What’s the difference between free will and God’s will? Can I make change out of the offering plate? Never let ministers respond to your Facebook questions. Do you hear the deep, soul-level longing in those questions? Whether people have questions about God or questions about themselves, people come here each Sunday with questions.

And still, churches have told their congregations that God is not to be questioned. “God’s ways are not our ways,” they say. So the church has developed a reputation as a place where assent to belief is expected and where questions represent weakness and aren’t welcomed. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the Bible says a lot of stuff I struggle with, or that doesn’t mesh with what I experience in my day-to-day life. Are we supposed to just blindly accept that this is the way it is, or is there space for questions, for conversations, for wrestling with God to find a blessing?

Not only do I think questions should be welcomed, I believe they are essential for a growing faith. Diana Butler Bass says these questions have less to do with doctrine – “What should I believe?” – and more to do with the experience of faith and life – “How am I to live?” For example, she writes that “Do you trust in the resurrection?” is a much harder question to answer than “Do you believe that Jesus was historically and scientifically raised from the dead?” People are wrestling with the hard questions, and for the church to tell them that they can’t ask those questions is a sure sign that we are out of touch with people’s lives and hearts. We as a church need to create space for them to be asked.

I believe the questions people are asking are indicative of a larger change going on in our culture, one that will determine the future of the church. People are hearing one thing from the church but are experiencing something quite different in real life. What should they believe? If the church has been telling people that God is all-powerful, and yet we see planes flying into buildings and children dying of hunger, we start to wonder: Is God all-powerful? And if so, why isn’t God doing something about this? These are the kinds of questions people are asking, and if the church doesn’t allow them to be asked, the church’s authority erodes and those folks will go somewhere else. And in our world of overwhelming choice, one of the options is to go nowhere with those questions.

I believe Crestwood’s future depends on how open we are to these questions. The definition of belief is changing, moving from an intellectual assent to a set of principles to an experiential encounter with God and other people, and we need to let people know that not only is it OK to ask questions and have doubts, but the relevancy of their faith depends on it. And they need to know they are not alone in asking their questions, that they don’t have to whisper when they ask them, that they are free to express all their fears and frustration and doubts within the walls of a welcoming church.

I’ve seen this in action here at Crestwood, and it’s amazing to watch. I’ve sat in Sunday School classes as people have expressed doubts and in Crash Course gatherings were guests have asked about why we don’t do infant baptisms or why we have women ministers and Elders. I’ve had email and text exchanges with people wanting to know where God is in the midst of their mess. And behind all of that is the fundamental question: Is it OK for me to ask questions? Are we at Crestwood open to people asking us their deepest questions about how faith and life intersect?

This may sound daunting to us, as if people are going to start quizzing us on our theology or our understanding of God’s authority. But here’s the great thing about all of this: you don’t have to have the answers! And no, that doesn’t mean you can just say, “Go ask Kory.” Because, honestly, can any of us answer why bad things happen to good people or who really is our neighbor or what it truly means to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength? I know I can’t. But I believe we are not called to provide pat answers; instead, we’re called to give people the space and the community in which to ask the questions. Because I believe people will find that their questions and our questions are the same questions! We are wrestling with the same kind of knotty stuff they are, and they are not alone in wondering how what we hear on Sunday intersects with what we experience Monday through Saturday.

Ultimately, I believe Jesus is the answer to their questions, so it’s our job to connect them with Jesus. Am I loved? Do people care? Will I be judged? I believe Jesus is the definitive answer to these questions, and those answers are embodied in how we welcome people into this space, as they place their spiritual baggage alongside ours and say, “I have questions.” As we sit next to them in the pews, as we pass them the communion trays, as we invite them to Sunday School or a fellowship dinner, we are saying, “Yes. You are loved. You are welcome. You matter.”

When we answer those basic questions, we create room for the deeper ones, questions about God’s power and the existence of evil and why churches love committees. I don’t know that we’ll ever have answers to those on this side of Heaven. But I believe transformation is found, not in finding the answers, but in asking the questions. As Rainier Rilke says, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

From biblical times until the present time, we have questions. How can we not? I believe our questions are answered for us each Sunday when we come into God’s presence, when we are reminded of God’s goodness, when we are welcomed into a community. Sometimes, during the course of the week, we forget those answers. And so we are welcomed back, welcomed again to the table, welcomed to ask what’s on our minds and hearts. We are invited to ask, and then to experience the presence of Christ among us and within us, who walks with us as we live into the answer.

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Mission Possible sermon series – #2 Welcomes and Accepts All People

SCRIPTURE – Gen. 18:1-8 –  The Lord appeared to Abraham[a] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures[c] of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it.Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Mission Possible sermon series
#2 – Welcome and Accepts All People
Sept. 14, 2014

We’re off and rolling on our sermon series taking a closer look at our new Vision and Mission statements. Last week, we spend time with our Vision Statement, which is “connecting people with God and each other.” We concluded that what people are most looking for is themselves, and that by connecting them with God and each other, the church can help them find what they are looking for. At our core, we are children of God, made in God’s image, called to love one another with Godly love.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But how do we do that? How do we connect people to God and each other? That’s what our Mission Statement is all about. It spells out five different ways that we are called to achieve our Vision. These next five weeks I’ll be preaching on each of them, hopefully giving us some clarity on what it means to strive for each of these five goals. Then, our General Board will start the important work of putting concrete action steps to each of the five points of the Mission Statement, and then…we pray! We pray that God’s Spirit leads us into the future God has ordained for us.

A quick disclaimer that I probably should have offered last week. These are not going to be the kinds of sermons I normally preach. I really enjoy diving into a scripture passage and sharing the context and history and interpretation with you, then figuring out how to apply it to our lives. I promise we’ll get back to those, but this series is more of a view from the balcony, a big-picture look at our future together. So I ask that you listen with your ears and with your imagination as we figure out together who God is calling us to be.

Today, we look at the part of the Mission Statement that says we connect people to God and each other by welcoming and accepting all people. Now, I’m not naïve. I recognize very clearly the potential minefield into which we’re about to step. That’s why I want to make a couple of things clear right up front. First of all, I’m not going to draw any conclusions for you today. You have a brain, you don’t need me to think for you. We each have our limits to who we are willing to welcome and accept, so you’re not going to leave here with a checklist of who’s in and who’s out of God’s kingdom. Frankly, there’s a good chance that each one of us would be on someone else’s “you’re out!” list, anyway.

Secondly, I’m not expecting everyone to be in agreement about what this statement means. That’s the challenge of a good, God-given Mission Statement. It calls a congregation out of their comfort zone into the wilderness places where their assumptions will be tested, their understanding of God expanded, and their faith deepened. Sure, we could take the easy way out and not wrestle with these kinds of issues. That would be safer. But I don’t believe God is calling us to be safe, God is calling us to be faithful. This sermon, and all the ones in this series, are not meant to be definitive explanations but conversation starters.

OK, have I sufficiently insulated myself from any hecklers or flying tomatoes? “Welcomes and accepts all people.” In our town hall meeting where we discussed this statement, one congregation member said, “This is hard. We don’t do this.” Do we? I think that’s an interesting place to start the conversation. Many of the visitors to Crestwood say that they experience this to be a very warm and welcoming congregation. I believe one of the reasons we have so many new families in our church is because they felt genuinely welcomed here. Like Abraham in our scripture, we go out of our way to extend hospitality to those in our midst.

But before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, let’s remember that our Mission Statement is not meant to name who we are, but who God is calling us to be. That means that, while we do each of these things well, there is room for challenge and growth. For example, the Mission Statement says we welcome and accept all people, but I believe that each and every one of us has a limit to “all.” I know I do. I would struggle to welcome someone who had been convicted of a violent crime. I would have a hard time welcoming someone who had wronged me or my family. Who would you have trouble welcoming? Each one of us has a limit to “all.”

Here’s something a tad shocking: there’s actually biblical precedent for not welcoming all people into your midst. In the Hebrew scriptures, as the Israelites are settling into their new home in the Promised Land, God is very explicit about instructing them not to intermingle with the pagan tribes that surrounded them. God didn’t want the Israelite’s purity diluted by the introduction of foreign gods or foreign wives, so through the law God told them to keep to themselves and exclude those not like them.

Thankfully, Jesus came along, who told us that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Rather than trying to keep his followers separate from those around him, Jesus repeatedly crossed boundaries and upset the exclusivist tendencies of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, had conversations with women and lepers, and often made the hated Samaritan foreigners the heroes of his parables. Jesus radically redefined what it meant to connect with God and each other, especially those not like us.

So if Jesus left us with an example of welcoming all to the table, where did we go wrong? Unfortunately, the church in America today has a reputation for being mean-spirited, exclusivist, and extremely prejudiced – all in the name of Jesus. I believe that started way back at the Reformation, when Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church and began interpreting the Bible for themselves. They quickly learned that where two or three are gathered, there will be four opinions, and none of them will agree. So the Protestant church started splitting over issues of doctrine and biblical interpretation.

That’s the issue about trying to interpret and apply what we think the Bible says. Every single person who does this believes in their heart that they have it right. And not everyone has the humility to keep that opinion to themselves, so out of their passion and conviction, Christians began trying to encourage people who disagreed with them to see how wrong they were. And if someone didn’t come around to the correct way of seeing things, then those folks weren’t welcomed in the church or at the communion table. That’s why today we have thousands of different denominations, many of which are downright hostile to those who think or act differently than them.

I’m relieved to say that I don’t believe Crestwood or the Disciples of Christ denomination is one of them. We have a generous spirit when it comes to welcoming people different than us, and I believe our church is especially good at creating space for people who hold differing views. But I’d like to suggest there is a difference between welcoming someone and accepting them. It’s one thing to have them worship with us for a week or two. But what if that person we don’t want here joins the church? Or serves on our ministry team? What if they sit next to us in worship?

The root question here is, “What is required for a person to be accepted at Crestwood?” As you know, there are no entrance exams or litmus tests people must pass in order to place their membership here. We don’t check references or quiz you on your Bible knowledge. But just because someone is a member here doesn’t mean you have to accept them. I believe the challenge the Mission Statement gives us is to move from occupying the same space as others to accepting them as part of our church family. And that’s not always easy to do.

Making that move to acceptance goes back to the promise we’re given in scripture that each and every one of us is made in the image of God. Each and every one of us. The abused and the abuser. The victim and the convicted. The persecuted and the persecutor. The homeowner and the homeless. Every one of us. There are some folks that I would personally struggle with welcoming to the table each Sunday. But those personal biases are balanced by this quote from Rev. Sara Miles: “The surest sign of Jesus’ real presence in communion is when there’s someone completely inappropriate at the table.” From week to week, that inappropriate person could be a visitor, the person sitting next to you, or, depending on what you did the past week, it could be you. And yet, we are welcomed and accepted by Christ.

In her new book, our denomination’s general minister and president, Sharon Watkins, relates a wonderful story about an experience with a family living in Appalachia. The family’s dinner table was set in their large kitchen. At that table they gathered for meals and sharing the news of the day. It was a rough-hewn table that was handmade. Each time a new child was born into the family, he went out and cut another board for that table. They always made room for one more in their expanding family.

Our table should constantly be expanding. Each week, we have people visiting with us, looking for a warm welcome, looking for a genuine experience of God, looking for their true selves. Is there room for them here? All of them? Paul says in Galatians that, because of Christ’s ushering in of God’s kingdom here on earth, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are made one in Christ Jesus.” What categories would Paul add today to his list? There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer gay or straight, there is no longer black or white, there is no longer Cardinal fan and Wildcat fan…All means all. All are welcome and accepted.

I want to close by making this point: acceptance doesn’t mean agreement. We don’t have to believe the same way as another person to accept them. To accept them is to listen to them, to get to know them, to hear their story. That way, if you still disagree, it is grounded in your relationship with them, not uninformed judgments or prejudices. Is there space here at Crestwood for those conversations? Do we feel safe sharing with others our fears, our doubts, those things that others might deem unacceptable? We are called to be witnesses to God’s love, the life-changing love we have received through Jesus Christ. We’re not only called to love those we want to love; that would be too easy, and faith isn’t meant to be easy. We’re called to love all of God’s people, especially those we judge to be unloveable. In doing so, we make God’s kingdom real here on earth. Our Mission Statement calls us to welcome and accept all people. May the welcome and acceptance we extend to others reflect the welcome and acceptance we have received from our generous, gracious God.

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