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The Power of Christ and Christians is in vulnerable love

Some extended history of mild abusiveness have been surfacing in the congregation I am serving. And there are hints now and then of deeper abuses. As a result council asked that I begin to address abuse in some sermons.

The first of these sermons was introduced with our denominations’ historic and ground-breaking survey in the 1990s that, much to our surprise, revealed abuse within the denominational membership was reported at the same or higher levels as in general society. We began to address this as a denomination as soon as the shock wore off.

The first sermon I preached was rooted in Philippians 2:7,8 and Galatians 5:16 with Matthew 4:1-11 and 27: 39-41 in supporting roles. I also borrowed some things I learned through Tony Campolo, who apparently learned them from Willard Wallard, namely the concept that “for love to increase power must decrease”

The main drive of the sermon (in my mind anyway) is that there are two main power dynamics in this world and one of them was never strongly used by Jesus:

Power One is what we might call survival of the fittest, the way of the flesh, the ways of nature – of this world, or the ways of the Kingdoms of this world. It is a form of power that is primarily dominating, coercive and thus abusive and violent. It is the one we know naturally and instinctively, even as humans. It has us wanting to take that power to ourselves. Vulnerability has no place in this system, except to be taken advantage of to advance oneself.

The other is the power of the Kingdom of God, the way of Jesus and the way of the Spirit. It is in direct counter-emphasis to the original one. Jesus repeatedly was given opportunity to use or obtain the powers of the Kingdoms of this World, for instance in the wilderness with Satan, and for another instance on the cross, when people are saying they would believe in him if he healed himself. So why is it that he did what we most likely would not have done if we had access to ‘super’ power? — i.e. let himself be vulnerable to that power? To increase and show love is why.To build relationship is why.

Jesus knows that for love to be shown, Power One must decrease. Think of human relationships like marriage. If strained, the person who really loves and cares has much less power than the one who says and believes “I don’t care.” If that relationship is to balance, the one with the power must become vulnerable and reduce the power they have in the situation. God understands that. We don’t. Not easily.

So, that sermon said Jesus became vulnerable to show God’s love and in dying in that vulnerability revealed the power of God, the power of Love, Grace, Forgiveness, Mercy etc.

When we pull power to ourselves, we will abuse.

For the next Sunday morning I was led to preach on Ezekiel 34, focusing on verse 21. In the chapter I saw that there was a reprimand for Shepherd-Kings, but then also one for the dynamics within the flock. The “Survival of the fittest” Power One dynamics. The same dynamic Paul addresses regarding the Agape Feast in 1 Corinthians 11. And God, through the prophet, says he will intervene himself and level things, not so much the playing field, as much as the power field.

Well, those who enjoy using Power One in the church do not like that message. At all. OK, I’m not comfortable with it myself. It’s scary to recognize the call to the sheep in that chapter. Support the vulnerable, do not butt and boss the weak, etc. The rules of Power One are much easier to figure out, and if you work well under those rules, why change? Well, because the Word says that to live by the flesh is to be displacing the Spirit, that is why.

So, I’m working on it.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Sermon application jiujitsu

I have to, as briefly as I can, set a context. Can I do it without missing things? I will only know if you ‘get it’ by the end.

In the morning I’ve been preaching a series on Worship and so far for 4 or 5 Sunday mornings I’ve been preaching from Psalm 95
The first sermon pointed out the movement or sequence of:
“Come from a distance” v 1
“Come before or closer” v 2
“Come into the very presence of God” v 6
With the main point being that worship about entering the presence of God and God making himself present.

The next one highlighted the movement or sequence of:
Rejoice v 1 & 2
Revere v 3-7
Respond v 7-11
or using words I prefer (since Revere is a word that people trip over)
Cheer
Cherish
Change

The fact that the whole body was involved was looked at (not just the brain)
The communal, encouraging and anticipatory movement of it was highlighted “Come, Let Us…” as if we are all waking together gathering people up on the way…

Today I dealt with the last 4 verses as the second of a different two-part movement in the Psalm, the movement from Words about God to Words from God.
I stressed that v 7 shows that if God becomes present in our worship, if God is unveiled, this indicates we are very likelly to ‘hear’ God, to encounter God in some way in our worship. But that is scarry, because encounters with God often change us… so we keep worship safe…
I explained how the language carries the idea of meeting with a King and Judge in bible times. Similar to Esther’s risk.
I compared it to events where Royalty is present in the balcony, and when the event is done everyone checks to see if the Royals were pleased by what was presented.
I then told of a wake-up moment I had in a courtroom where I saw too many similarities to the church of my youth, and suddenly realized how in that church-of-yore the pastor represented a Judge, and how all I learned was that we didn’t want to be sentenced for life. I don’t remember recognizing that the Judge and King’s representative actually says, ‘Believe, you are forgiven, and free to go!’
So I talked briefly about how shaping the church like a courtroom has consequences, but that the King/Judge Idea is in this Psalm. Except for one big difference. People are now, more than ever, going to meet their Liberator (the Rock of our Salvation v1), not their Judge… but we forget, like Israel did when liberated from Egypt.
At this point — and preachers who have this will know what I’m saying — I got the feeling I was on a wild horse, and I left my notes even more, and romped around a bit, all the while inside myself praying “This better be the Holy Spirit’s leading or I’m in trouble” and I soon reigned the wild horse in and returned to my notes.
I included some thinking about how shaping church like theaters affects our attitude to church to be similar to the one for going to theaters, namely, we believe we are the audience, and it is up to the people on the stage and backstage to ‘please’ us. (I have this idea from Darrell Johnson at Regent) I admitted that I myself get mixed up by that, and sometimes believe it’s all about my performance, and because I like entertaining and performing I move to that instead of being a stagehand facilitating a congregation of performers having an encounter with God.
But the Psalm clearly shows us that the theater approach is wrong. In fact, in Christian worship the “King of all gods” (v 3) is the audience, and our concern and question at the end should be “Was the Royal Audience Pleased?” Did God show himself and reveal himself and honor us with his presence?
I then made some practical comments about what this means. It means: it’s not about us. It’s not about you. It means, if you encounter someone after church who says they were not pleased by something, if you can remain calm and loving, you can put your hand on their shoulder and say “Isn’t it wonderful that worship is not about you being pleased?
That’s as short as I can make the summary.
We had many visitors at church, because we had a young couple doing Profession of their Faith and then having their baby baptized (3 out of the last 4 Sundays we’ve had some combination like that — clearing a backlog…)
Here’s a genealogical side note. The girl/wife’s parents both had the same last name before they married. (but they are not rednecks). The husband/father’s mom’s maiden name was the same as the last name of the girls parents. Understand? Three of the four grandparents to their child have the same last name! So, anyway, we had a lot of visitors and the vast majority of them all had the same last name…
So after church I went and hung out in the smoking circle for a bit. It’s right beside where the Harleys get parked. As I got there there was some banter about how few actual smokers there were there, and about people coming just to get free second hand smoke.
I then said: Well, I like to think I was “smokin'” about half an hour ago.” They laughed.
Then a visitor stepped forward, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, looking caringly into my eyes:
“It’s not about you”

I’m still laughing. It was priceless.
True sermon application jiujitsu.

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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It is good to hear a terrible (to you) sermon now and then

One Sunday recently when I was in Central America I attended an English (Gringo) service hosted by the Spanish (Tico) congregation my brother and his wife and other gringo missionaries in the area are part of.

These Gringos (mainly my brother’s family and another family) are involved with setting up a Christian Private school, and have roles in running an addiction treatment ministry, and helping out in a ministry that takes young girls out of the sex trade and teaches them English so they can get jobs in the regular tourist trade and support their families that way instead. It is all great ministry and all three are growing. The lady who was in charge of the Addiction treatment facility has been there 10 years, and clearly has deep connections, relationship and respect from the Ticos. She showed me the Saturday market, and it took us quite some time to walk from one end to the other with all the hello’s and greetings and meetings we had on the way. That respect seems to be the fruit of a combination of her personality and a factor of having put in a long time in the community. All three missions, and even the Gringo congregation, had stories about the difficulty of getting government permits in writing. The more I heard and saw, the more I think it has to do with an innocent, well-meaning arrogance Gringos bring with them, that the Ticos see and smell but that is inodible (I made that word up spellchecker) to the carriers of it. I have developed this radar that is always asking “What am I communicating that I am blind to” and that radar leads me to that awareness.

Back to the worship service. When you are not at home you expect to experience something different. I did. I was not prepared to be so disturbed by a sermon though.

The ‘pattern’ of worship there is to start with a set of worship songs that move from enthusiastic, to pensive, to a ‘pentecostal’ mood and then finishing with a rousing chorus repeated multiple times. After that came announcements, offering, and then the message to close the service.

It began with the obvious challenge of musicians leading us in worship using their second language. I was deeply appreciative of the musicians (the great drummer was only 12 and had been drumming since he was 4) being willing to risk this as hosts. When you are worshiping in a second language, and you get to the part of worship where you usually lose yourself in adoration and pentecostal praise, reverting to your mother tongue is understandable. Meaning it’s ok with me as a Gringo, even if I can’t understand. And yes, the irony of reverting to one’s first language in a “Pentecost” moment is rich and wonderful for a Reformed guy to observe.
The musicians finished and left.
At that point the congregated are all older but-able-to-travel-and-be-active Americans, and my brother’s young family, and the lady from the addiction treatment center and her young son and teen daughter.
Then some announcements.
Then the pastor asks someone to come forward to tell of some mission work they do. It’s a near 60 yr old builder guy from Tennessee or some place like that, who tells of his conversion 6 years before, and how he a year later felt God telling him to go to poor countries and build houses to North American specs (double pane windows) and ready for plumbing and electric if the people want to put them in later (but no one does) to give them away. He tells of how it has grown, and how they’ve done 12 houses now, and if you want support or be part of a team etc etc etc. And I was wondering how helpful that kind of thing really is, but when he asked for questions I stayed quiet. I’m a guest. I don’t want to make trouble for my brother and his wife’s reputation. I had already asked some pointed questions at the open house for the new home some of the same people had built that was to be a group home for the girls who had been rescued from their pimps. Questions like “What do you do to be careful to respect their cultural patterns, like their more lax approach to time, (which I admire and envy) and not turn them into little American Northern Europeans? And in fact could that be one of the resistance factors in getting government permits?” Like that. It’s what I do. But I began to realize these people were not used to thinking that way, and didn’t really understand what was behind the question… they are convinced they are doing a good thing (and they are) and don’t understand why not everyone rushes in to support it.
So I stayed still in church.
Then the scripture was read.
Hebrews 11:6, which we were told was a context where the writer was talking about faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The word “earnestly” or “diligently” became the focal point of a sermon that substantially was a contrasting of lazy and diligent, with a long string of “definition of lazy” jokes being the counterpoint to the diligence. “When the remote is 10 feet away and you decide you like the rerun after all… that’s laziness and not diligence” that kind of thing.
The theme statement or big idea seemed to be “Work hard, don’t be lazy, and you will please God enough that things will work out for you” with the caveat that a prosperity gospel was not what was being preached. There was no caveat about works righteousness.
Very soon I began realizing that my experience of the faith journey, and my understanding of the passage, was completely different than his. My experience was that a certain kind of ‘trying hard’ that he was describing, for me almost always led to problems, and that a recognition that my effort was not the key but my relaxing into God’s will for the moment led to all kinds of great results my efforts had little to do with. I saw and heard the passage saying “Faith in God leads to God being pleased, coming to God in belief leads to pleasing God, earnestly seeking relationship with God leads to rewards that are freaky and wonderful and amazing and unimaginable beforehand.
So there I was, believing the complete opposite of what he was preaching. And I was seeing how a message like this was perpetuating the inodible problems and barriers. And I was frustrated.
Now, that all would have been workable, if this was not a “call for response” insecure preacher. But, alas, he kept asking “are you with me? Let me hear an Amen!” and at my toughest point he directly asked “Do you agree with me? I need to hear if you agree with me!” and I made myself look over at my brother’s family and think about what damage I might do to their work there if I told out loud what I was thinking and feeling, and I kept quiet.
Later, when I had time at the poolside to reflect, I came to realize how important it is to hear a bad sermon now and then, how it can sharpen your awareness of God’s ways.

 

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The Dirty Cup lesson

Here’s a message I’ve been tinkering on for a month. It’s about a connection between one of my favourite sermons out of my repertoire and how a connection was made between it and my new job in the middle of preaching it.

Dirty Cups, my job and a call to the church today

 

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