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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Led by the Shepherd (Psalm 23)



The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
3he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me.
You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
    my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love
    will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live in the Lord’s house
    as long as I live.

We’ve had family in visiting over the weekend, and it’s been a bit of a reminder of what a musical family I come from.  Both my mom’s and dad’s side of the family are saturated with musical talent.  Family gatherings often involved everyone gathering around the old piano in the dining room with sheet music or a hymnal and just singing together.  Going to visit family often meant being corralled into doing special music at church, or recruited into the family choir.  Music is woven into what it means to be part of our family.

Music is woven into the fabric of being part of God’s family, too.  It has been written, “The one who sings prays twice.”  Music is central to worship – it has the ability to lead us out and away from the everyday and mundane, into places that transcend ordinary human existence. 

Did you know that he Bible has a songbook in it?  Right smack in the middle of the Bible, you’ll find the Psalms – the songbook for Hebrew worship of God.  The Psalms are a collection of 150 poems.  They can be set to music, and are suitable for private devotion and corporate worship.  They are songs for the full range of human emotions and experiences – whether you feel like you’re on top of the world, or down in the dumps, or anywhere in between – there’s a Psalm for that!

Today’s Scripture reading of Psalm 23 is perhaps so familiar it’s difficult to hear anything new in it, which is why I had Jessica read it from the Common English Bible today.  Reading it in a different translation was perhaps just jarring enough to help you pay attention and listen to the words, and perhaps to even hear it as if for the very first time.  May we pray.

In a time where many people, including those within the church, know very little about the Bible, Psalm 23 is an oasis of familiarity.  Psalm 23 is an occasional text – meaning it usually comes out for certain occasions, namely, funerals.

At times of death, the words of this Psalm provide a certain comfort – though we walk through difficult and troublesome times, God is always there to provide grace and guidance.  Though things are often uncertain for us, we place our trust in the steady faithfulness of God.

However, we do Psalm 23 a disservice if we only pull it out for funerals, because friends, it has something to say to us not only in the dark shadows of death, but in the full sunshine of life on this side of eternity, as well.

The Lord is my shepherd – comforting words, right?   For the Lord to be our shepherd, that must mean we are sheep.  In case you didn’t know, it is no great compliment to be called a sheep.  We’re not talking about cute, white, fluffy newborn lambs.  Sheep are dumb, and dirty, and stubborn, and smelly, and have a one-track mind: eating.  They nibble a little bit over here, and then nibble a little bit over there, and will nibble themselves lost or in some other danger.

We should be insulted by this comparison to sheep, except, that it rings true.  We too can be dumb and stubborn, with appetites and desires that lead us into dark and dangerous places, places we think we can handle, only to find out that we are neither where we want to be, nor unable to get out on our own.

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.  Yet, our consumer culture tells us that we lack everything.  Advertising tells us we lack the right car or the right house or the right clothes or the right electronics or gadget or vacation.  How much money is spent in this country trying to convince us how much we lack, how dissatisfied we should be with what we have because we so desperately want something better?

More stuff, bigger stuff, more expensive stuff does not equal happiness.  How many of us have foolishly nibbled down that path, spending money we really didn’t have to buy things we didn’t really need, only to find our lives unfulfilled, and happiness lacking?

We don’t lack many things; we lack just one thing. God.  We lack intimate relationship with God.  St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  I lack nothing.  God is our satisfaction.  God is enough and then some.  Or, more to the point, God exceeds whatever we think we desire, so much so that our cup overflows with God’s blessing.  It doesn’t overflow with stuff, with things, with wealth and toys and trinkets, not at all.  It does run over with a full measure of God’s presence.

In fact, the promise of “God-with-us” is the central claim of Psalm 23.  Literally, in fact.  It bears repeating that Psalm 23 is a poem, and in Hebrew poetry, the very structure of the poem is part of the message.  James Limburg points out that, in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, "Thou art with me." Just as God’s presence with us is the center of the Psalm, so too do we boldly declare that God is with us at the very center of our lives.

Following the shepherd is a matter of getting our will in line with God’s will.  We’ve already said that sheep will nibble off in their own direction – sometimes out of stubbornness, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of blindly following the crowd. 

Have you ever thought much about the shepherd’s staff?  “Your rod and your staff, they protect me.”  The shepherd’s staff typically had a crook on one end, and a blunt knob on the other.  The crook could be used to rescue a sheep that had gotten away.  That blunt end was pretty useful, too!  It could be used to fight off predators who wanted to do harm to the sheep, but it could also provide guidance to a sheep that didn’t want to follow.  The blunt end of the staff gives wayward sheep a little nudge in the rear to get them moving in the right direction.  Not a hit, not a whack, just a little nudge.

Other translations say, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  There are times when God has to comfort us right in the backside to get us moving in the right direction – sometimes because of our own stubbornness, sometimes because of our blind following of the crowd, sometimes because we just don't know any better.

 In my home church, there was a lady who brought her 10 grandchildren to worship every Sunday.  She was a bigger lady, had some difficulty getting around, and walked with a hickory cane.  Some of her grandchildren could be a bit, energetic, so how did she possibly keep them all in line?

When she came into worship, she would sit at the end of one pew, and place five of the grandchildren down the row next to her.  The other five would sit in the pew immediately in front of her, and if one of them started to act up, you’d see her cane come up, and she’d gently tap – not hit – the child on the shoulder.  One tap was a warning.  Two taps meant you’d be sitting directly next to Grandma the next week.

Over time, the children learned what was expected of them from Grandma.  That’s sort of how it is with us and God, too.  On our own, we don’t know what God wants!  We don’t have the instincts to know what God wants or to do what God wants us to do.  Despite our best efforts and intentions, we still go nibbling off into danger, or into places where the grass looks good today but will run out tomorrow, but the staff of our shepherd comforts us and protects us, nudging us and guiding us toward the places where our lives will flourish.

In every flock, there are a small handful who do seem to follow the shepherd closely without a whole lot of nudging.  They didn’t start out that way!  They were just as stubborn and wayward and headstrong and ignorant as the rest of the sheep at first!  But, over time, they have spent so much time with the shepherd, grown accustomed to his voice, have grown to love the shepherd and trust the shepherd, that they willingly follow.  That maturity only comes from spending time with the shepherd.  You spend enough time with the shepherd, and you’ll recognize his voice, you’ll trust him, you’ll know that the shepherd loves you and wants what is best for you, and you’ll willingly follow.

In the church, these are the people we look to as leaders.  As those who are trying to follow our Good Shepherd, we follow the teaching and example of those who are walking closest to him.  We have the example of the disciples and the apostles, the early church, the saints through history – all people who have walked close to God, each in their own way, but providing a pattern and example for the rest of us.  We should be looking to people whose lives evidence a close walk with God, not those who are nibbling off in their own direction.

The promise of the Psalm is simple: God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called "Emmanuel," which means "God with us." John Wesley's dying words were, "The best of all, God is with us." God doesn't shelter us from trouble. God doesn't magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious reality that God is with us is unchangeable.

When we trust and follow our Good Shepherd, we find that we are able to face the challenges of life simply because we are walking in the way of the shepherd.  Verse 4 – “I fear no danger because you are with me.”

It doesn’t say that a relationship with God insulates us from hardship or danger or evil.  We are not promised an easy journey through life just because we have faith in God.  God’s promise to people of faith is NOT that we will have a problem-free life, that’s not it at all.  No, the promise is that we won’t face life’s problems alone!  Evil is real, and it is scary, but we won’t fear it, because God’s love is constant, and it is stronger than evil.

God isn’t a magician who makes our problems disappear with a wave of his wand.  No, God’s promise is to be there with us, to not leave us alone, especially when life is at its hardest.

So perhaps,

“I’m uncertain about what is going on in my life, but the Lord is my shepherd.”

Or,

“I may be struggling to make ends meet, but I will not lack because I have God.”

“I might have trouble sleeping because of everything going on, but God causes me to lay down in good pastures.”

“The storms of life are raging, but God will lead me to still waters.”

“I might be beaten down and hurt and broken right now, but God restores my very being.”

God gets the last word.  The problems of life are inevitable, but they will eventually go.  The steadfast love and presence of God, however, will always be with us.

All we, like sheep, have gone astray, and we need help: the help of a shepherd.  The Lord is our shepherd, providing us with all the help and comfort and guidance we need and cannot provide for ourselves.  In a world where we are told to be self-sufficient, Psalm 23 offers the refreshing reality that a life of reliance solely on ourselves is unwise if not impossible, because we can never be good enough, smart enough, wise enough, holy enough to get by on our own.  We need the grace-filled loving guidance of our shepherd.  Self-guidance is no guidance at all, other than the slow nibbling into oblivion, further and further away from the flock.

There is no need to go at it alone, especially when our shepherd lovingly provides us with everything we need: rest, safety, security, food, and life-giving, cool water.  Indeed, when we walk in the paths of righteousness behind our Good Shepherd, we find our lives full, complete, and lacking nothing.

The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.  I lack nothing.  God is our satisfaction.  God is enough and then some.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Blinded by Our Own Grumbling (Exodus 17:1-7)


View video of this sermon

The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

One of the paradoxes of living on this planet is that water is both abundant in supply and a precious, limited resource.  Our planet’s surface is 80% water, yet 97% of that is found in the oceans.  Only 3% of the world’s water supply is suitable for drinking and irrigating the crops that serve as the foundation of our food supply.

Water tells us where to live.  In the last century, we figured out ways to get water to remote places, creating gleaming mega-cities like Las Vegas in the middle of the desert!  Lest we congratulate ourselves too quickly, however, we’ve realized that we’ve overtapped the water supply in many of those places, and no amount of engineering can replenish the sources that are drying up.  We built cities in the desert because we could; we’ll spend the next century wondering if we should have.

The reality is that the desert is inhospitable to human civilization, including parts of the Sinai peninsula, the setting for today’s Scripture from Exodus 17.  Though the text gives us some place names, we don’t have a clue where exactly the story takes place.  It is “the middle of nowhere.”

Maybe you’ve been there!  Maybe you still are.  Maybe you find yourself in that no-man’s land, an emotional or spiritual wilderness between “where you’ve been,” and “where you’re going.”  May we pray.

I think we’re lost
One of the formative, cultural experiences of my childhood was the semi-annual viewing of the film classic, National Lampoon’s Family Vacation.  The family, except for Clark Griswold, the father, have some initial reservation about making the cross-country trip, they slowly warm up to the idea, but then quickly turn on Clark as one thing after another goes wrong on their journey.

Perhaps you remember the scene in which Clark and his wife Ellen are arguing in the car, messing with the map, and Clark misses a detour sign in the middle of the desert, and drives off the end of the road, launching the family station wagon 50 feet through the air in the middle of nowhere.

That happens sometimes on our spiritual journey, as well.  In fact, keep the Griswold family’s frustration in mind for today’s Scripture reading; you can substitute “Moses” for “Clark,” and “The Hebrew people” for “The Griswold family,” and you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the Exodus story.

The book of Exodus, the Bible’s second book, shapes Israel’s identity as a people, recounting the holy history of God’s dramatic act of delivering them from slavery in Egypt.  At the end of the Bible’s first book, Genesis, the people had migrated to Egypt where they had been saved from famine through Joseph. But as time passed their circumstances changed and, as foreigners in Egypt, they fell into a position of providing slave labor for the building projects of the Egyptian kings.

Through divine intervention and the leadership of Moses, the people are eventually freed from slavery, and begin their journey toward the promised land.  This journey of a few hundred miles will end up taking 40 years to complete – 40 years of meandering and wandering in the wilderness, a time of testing and drawing close as a community of faith.

Grateful? Try Grumbling
One would think that the people would be grateful – centuries of slavery turned into freedom – but it isn’t long before their gratitude gives way to grumbling.  More than once, they accuse Moses of bringing them out into the desert to die.

Fuzzy slipper alert - I may end up rolling on some toes here, so if you're worried about that go ahead and put on your fuzzy slippers now.

I’m not sure why, but in every religious community, there seem to be at least a small handful of people with the spiritual gift of complaining.  It is their self-appointed mission in life, not God-appointed, mind you, to find fault with every decision made by every person who is not them.  It is as if the only way they know how to participate in the life of the community is by complaining. Moses had his – “Have you brought us out in the desert to die?  We should have stayed in Egypt.”

Part of the problem for the ancient Hebrew people in this text is that they suffered from acute spiritual amnesia.  Part of the reason they were so fearful about the future is because they had forgotten what God had done in their past.  Just a chapter earlier, they are complaining about their hunger, and God provides bread in the form of manna on the ground – daily bread, enough for today, and requiring that they trust God again tomorrow to provide.

God has demonstrated God’s faithfulness already, yet when a new challenge arose, how quickly the people forget.  By forgetting God’s faithfulness in the past, they are unable to trust God now and into the future.  They whine, and they complain, and all of their self-centered and petty grumbling blinds them to moving forward into God’s preferred future.

We call this group the “Back to Egypt” committee, and every religious community has one of these, too!  “We don’t want to try something new, certainly not something that would require us to stretch or grow or change or be challenged, certainly nothing so big as to require us to have more faith in God than we do in ourselves – why would we do that?”

Incidentally, my observation of most churches is that the “Back to Egypt” committee has more influence than we’d like to think.  The reality is that churches are dreaming, planning, and setting goals that are just too small.  Their goals are things they can actually accomplish on their own, without requiring much help, if any, from God.  Friends, if our plans are reasonable and manageable enough that we can accomplish them without having to place significant faith and trust in God, then we’re not dreaming big enough!  We worship a big God, and when we make big, God-sized goals and then lean fully on God, God accomplishes far more than we could ever dream or imagine.

That requires faith.  Trust.  Discomfort, sometimes.  Stretching.  Growing.  Ambiguity.  Moses knows that both he and the people need to grow more fully into total reliance on God, but it turns out not everyone desires what is best for them!  If you are a parent and have ever tried to get your child to eat their vegetables, you know this feeling.  Moses knew it, too.  At every turn, the very community he is trying to help snarls and grumbles and complains against him.

It’s like the church in financial trouble whose members resent being asked to tithe; the church who is concerned with their dwindling congregation, but grumbles about making any hospitable overtures to guests; the church who says they want to grow but complains about every little change.  We don’t want to move forward, we’d rather go back to Egypt!

Remember the good old days, back in Egypt?  Back in Egypt, we had water, Moses, but out here, we are so thirsty!  Back in Egypt, we had food, Moses, but out here, we are so hungry!  Nevermind that back in Egypt we were slaves, and out here we are free, that’s beside the point!

Forward or backward?
Part of being in the wilderness was the recognition that they were no longer where they had been, yet not quite where they were going.  In that place, they asked whether God was even with them out there or not.  If we’re honest with ourselves, that questioning and sometimes honest doubt is part of the journey of faith.  We all have highs and lows, places we feel that God is as close as our next breath, and places where we feel distant from God.  There are places in our journey where we, too, ask, “Is God among us or not?”

The questioning and honest wrestling is nothing to feel guilty about.  I believe that those places deepen our faith.  But how we respond is critical.  Faith grows when we trust, when we lean forward, when we take the next step.  Faith shrivels up and dies when we grumble, complain, and find fault.  One response takes us one step closer to the promised land; the other takes us back to Egypt.

You see, when you’re in the wilderness, you have one of two choices – you can turn around and go back to what you know, or you can press ahead toward what is unknown.  For some, the relative predictability of a step backward, of knowing what’s there even if it isn’t all that pleasant, is preferable to a step forward into unknown territory.  Some would simply rather go back to Egypt, because though it is less than what God desires, it is familiar.

Grumbling and complaining are a deadly cocktail for any community of faith, because they shrink faith rather than growing it.  Stepping out into the unknown, even with the promise of something better on the other side, requires faith and trust in God.  And so, as we step out in faith, not knowing exactly where our steps will take us, but trusting God to guide our steps.  We may not know what the future holds, but we know that God holds the future.

We can trust God into an unknown future because of the ways God demonstrated faithfulness in the past.  In “Amazing Grace” we sing, “’Twas grace hath brought me safe thus far / and grace will lead me home.”  We are able to lean into the God’s preferred future precisely because we remember our past.  God hasn’t left us yet, and God isn’t about to leave us now.

Further, think about how grumbling, complaining, and nay-saying affects both you and your brothers and sisters in the community.  Tell me, please, how finding fault with others is an effective way of building each other up, or of getting us closer to who God desires for us to be?  James Howell says, Faultfinding is no big achievement. I know people who seem quite proud of their ability to detect flaws in the other person – although it occurs to me, as I say this, that I'm one who finds fault with . . . faultfinders.”

I find myself with James on this one, because I’ve seen how destructive chronic negativity is to the faith community.  I’ll be the first one to say, “Would you like some cheese to go with that whine?” as I play my little violin of mock pity.  I know that sounds a bit insensitive, but negativity and pettiness are corrosive toxins that eat away at the bonds that draw us close to each other and close to God.  They place “me” ahead of “us,” – in particular, what God desires to do in and through us.  When we fixate on every potential problem we see around us, we never see the promise and possibility of what God has for us on the other side of this particular challenge.

In the life of faith, it is often a matter of perspective, and so what are you looking at?  The problems?  Or the possibilities?  One leads back to Egypt.  The other leads to the promised land.

Get rid of it
Just as there are certain things you have to get rid of before you get on a flight, negativity is something to get rid of in the journey of faith.  As long as you’re carrying around all that negativity, your life can never be transformed into the fullness God desires for you, and you can never be the blessing to others that God desires you to be.  Friends, if you’ve been carrying around negativity, it’s time to throw that away.  If pettiness or pessimism are living in your head rent-free, it’s time to evict them.  If grumbling and words of complaint are the only ones you know, it’s time to learn a new vocabulary. 

All the complaining, the grumbling, the fault-finding – blinds us to the remarkable work of God’s grace springing up all around us and even within us. 

And yet, even though the people complained, even though they quarreled, even though they grumbled and whined, even though they had short memories and lacked faith and were fixated on problems rather than possibilities, God still provided for their needs, as water gushed from a rock to satisfy their thirst.  That’s who God is!  That’s the remarkable thing about this story to me – that God’s care continued even while the people were grumbling against God.

Just as Clark Griswold was determined that his family would reach their destination, so, too, is God determined that we will reach ours.  Our heavenly father wants us to have every good gift, and lavishes grace upon us even when we are ungrateful.

The spigot of God’s grace is open wide – we, too, are invited to the life-giving, life-changing stream of God’s grace.

We all need God’s grace, and we all receive God’s grace.  The question is what we’re going to do with it.  Are we going to allow that grace to change our perspective, to help us look at life’s possibilities rather than its problems, to transform our grumbling into gratitude, and our complaints into cooperation?  That will be the test of our faith.

This year, my friend, Sherry, gave up worrying for Lent.  She said, “I was not prepared for the blessings this choice would bring to me. I did not realize how many times a day I was saying, "I am worried about..." I read somewhere that when we worry, we aren't accessing our faith. Every time I catch myself using that worry phrase or feeling worried, I am reminded of my choice. I remind myself that God is in control, I am in the palm of his hand and I need not worry.  This does not mean I am not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention.  But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don’t have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude.  I do believe this will be a life-changing Easter for me.  How cool is that?  Thanks for having my back, God.”

Friends, there’s no need to fixate on problems.  Which was are you looking – back toward Egypt, or forward toward the promised land?  Let’s remember how far God has already brought us.  Let’s trust God as we step into what’s next. orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God. orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God. orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God.orry. This does not mean I an not concerned about things or do not pay attention to things that require my attention. But I have been able to do those things with a new sense of calm, I go to sleep much quicker and sleep better, I don't have those panicky, quickened heartbeat feelings and my days are filled with so many moments of conscious gratitude. I do believe this will be a life changing Easter for me. How cool is that? Thanks for having my back God.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Valuing the assocate pastor: finding a young pastor with decades of experience

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent.  For Christians, Lent is a holy season of fasting, penitence, and preparation for the coming joy and hope of resurrection on Easter.

For United Methodists, it is also "appointment season," in which bishops and district superintendents are prayerfully considering the appointment of pastors to communities in which there happen to be United Methodist churches.  Talk about a season of preparation!

My wife and I are both United Methodist clergy, and this time last year, we were anticipating a change in appointments.  We had both "put in" for a move, which is sometimes a bit of a roll of the dice!  Sure, the cabinet has to appoint us somewhere, but they can appoint us to any church (or group of churches) anywhere within the bounds of the annual conference.

Last year at this time, we were hearing rumors and speculation about where people thought we might be going.  "I heard such-and-such a church was told they'll be getting a young clergy couple; I think that might be you two!"  "This church needs a pastor who can lead them in this way, and we think that's right up your alley."  For about a three-month period, as our travels took us around various parts of the conference, every United Methodist church we drove past, whether we previously knew anything about it or not, we'd say aloud, "I wonder if we're going there?"

None of those rumors were true, as it turned out, and we went, separately, to two churches we had previously known nothing about that have turned out to be wonderful.  The cabinet did right by us!

When a pastor is moving, we fill out a profile that describes an ideal ministry setting.  Most pastors, whether they admit it or not, have one that often looks like, "A growing church, one that's open to change and new ideas, with strong lay leadership, one that pays its apportionments and is debt-free, where everyone gets along, that has a great children's ministry and talented musicians, and one that will give me an X% raise over my current salary."

Churches, likewise, have a similar expectation in their profile: "A young pastor who can accept a low salary yet who has 30 years of experience, with small children who are photogenic, well-behaved, and won't require too much of her time; one with energy and new ideas and can lead us in bold, new directions while respecting our traditions and the way we do ministry here; one who preaches like Billy Graham, has administrative gifts, provides excellent pastoral care, can raise money, whose spouse plays the piano/organ/guitar/ harpsichord/banjo, and who enjoy working, together, with the youth."

If you serve on your church's SPRC, that profile may look eerily familiar!

Yet, there is one seeming contradiction in that profile that is somewhat possible.  The young pastor with decades of experience.

How so?  Think of the associate pastor appointments.  If you are a senior pastor, a DS making appointments, or a member of your congregation's SPRC, pay attention to this!

I was fortunate to receive my first appointment as an associate in a congregation who understood their role in mentoring a fresh-out-of-seminary associate pastor, who not only put me to work but also coached and mentored me along the way, who gave me responsibilities and opportunities to try new ministries, and the also the time and space to reflect on the mistakes and successes I made along the way.  I thank that church for accepting my gifts, overlooking my weaknesses, and giving me an opportunity grow.

I worked under two senior pastors in that setting - both of whom took responsibility to mentor and invest in me.  I made plenty of mistakes, had sharp disagreements with both, and learned different things from both.  But because of their investment in me and a relationship that was mentoring as much as ministry, even as a young pastor, I benefitted from the collective decades of their experience.

Young pastor, with decades of experience.  Not my own experience, but somebody else who passed their experience to me.

Now, in my current appointment, I have other pastoral staff working with me.  With the demands of schedule and a wonderful growing ministry, it would be easy to say, "Go, do your job, and report back to me only if there's a problem."  But I'm finding that some time together to pray, plan, reflect, discern, and play is good and necessary.  I find I am learning as much from them as I hope I am passing along to them.

In this season of appointment-making, pay attention to the potential value of the associate pastor appointments.  I know many churches are tempted to slash associate positions as a budget-saving measure.  You may save a few bucks, but there are long-term costs both to your congregation and the wider church that far exceed the dollar savings you'll realize in the short term.

If you are a senior pastor with one or more associates, please make an investment in them.  You are providing them with tools and resources that will serve the church and world for years to come.  If you serve on your congregation's SPRC, have some conversation with your pastoral staff about how they are spending time together and having mentoring conversations.  You, too, are making a gift to the church, not only your church, that will reap dividends for decades.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Character of Christ: People over Policies (Luke 6:1-11)


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One Sabbath, as Jesus was going through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”
Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? 4He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason to bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there. Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and his hand was made healthy. 11 They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.

Today we are concluding our “Character of Christ” message series.  We have spent the last several weeks looking at various aspects of the character of Jesus, recognizing that each one is like a puzzle piece that, when put together, offer us a comprehensive picture of Jesus.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this series.  I hope you’ve discovered things about Jesus you might not have known before, or seen him in a new way, and been inspired to live your life differently as a result.

Today’s character trait is that Jesus placed people over policies.  Policies are not a bad thing.  We have a number of folks in the congregation who do or have worked in law enforcement, and they’ll be the first to tell you that many rules and regulations – policies – are there to promote order and protect people.  If I’m driving down the road and I come to an intersection with a traffic light, and the light is red, what do I do?  Hopefully, I stop!  Why?  Because the law says so, and that’s there for my own protection and the protection of everyone else on the road.

In Jesus’ day, laws had a similar purpose.  God’s law, in particular, was there to facilitate a relationship between God and the people.  The Old Testament law was given as part of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people, when God said he would bless them so that though them, all peoples would be blessed.  There were aspects of that law to help the people stay focused on God, to promote order, but also to protect the weakest and most vulnerable people in their society.

Policies aren’t a bad thing, especially when they are in place to protect people, but when the policies begin to take priority over the people, then we have a problem.  That’s the problem in the ongoing conflict throughout the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees.   The law had started as good, God gave it, after all, but through the centuries, layers of man-made rules and regulations were added, 613 of them, to be exact.  The Pharisees developed as a religious group who saw the path to  God as a matter of following all 613 of those rules to the exact letter of each law.

Law, as you know is a matter of interpretation.  It’s not always clear cut, that’s why we have lawyers and judges.  In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees represented one school of interpretation about God’s law that centered on adherence to every detail.  Jesus, however, offered a different interpretation.

They say it’s good to have a lawyer who knows the law; it’s even better to have one who knows the judge.

Because he was God, Jesus knew God’s law better than even the Pharisees.  God’s law is a matter of the heart, and Jesus summed it up simply as “Love God, love neighbor.”  Simple to remember, but as we start to practice it, we realize it covers just about everything.  Rather than delineating a long list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” so long as what you’re doing demonstrates love toward God and neighbor, then go ahead and do it.

You can see how this would have been unsettling to the Pharisees.  If you enjoy considerable privilege by your expertise in dissecting 613 laws into the smallest little pieces, you would be threatened, too, by anyone who comes along with a different, yet compelling, interpretation.

We find Jesus and the Pharisees locked into it again today.  And the issue that precipitates the conflict in our text has to do with policies about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath.

God gave the Sabbath as a gift – a day each week to give thanks and worship, to refrain from working, to rest, and to be renewed.  God said to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, or “set apart.”

As such, policies were put into place to help protect the Sabbath, including prohibitions against doing any sort of work, and here’s where the Pharisees are ready to nail Jesus against the wall.  Because if he’s so holy and godly as he claims, why are Jesus and his disciples boldly violating the Sabbath laws by doing work – picking grain – on the Sabbath?

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that they aren’t “working,” per se, as in, they aren’t harvesting the wheat.  They are plucking individual grains, simply satisfying their hunger as they walked along.

This particular text then picks up on another Sabbath day, where Jesus heals a man with a painfully disfigured hand in the synagogue – right there in front of God and everybody.  He knows the Pharisees will be furious at this because “healing” is obviously a form of “work,” which again, goes against the rules.  Jesus does it anyway.  Why?  Because people are more precious to God than policies.  Policies are man-made.  People are God-made.  We often make policies in our image.  People are made in God’s image.

All of that comes together for Jesus.  The law is about love of God and neighbor.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Really, which is more important – your precious policies, or God’s precious people?”  In their attempt to trap Jesus, they have set the trap for themselves, and in their zealous attempt to enforce God’s law, have shown how little of God they actually know.

A side note here, if the bulk of your religious activity is trying to catch other people breaking the rules or doing something wrong or something you disapprove of – God isn’t in that.  That’s just hollow posturing in the name of pious religiosity, and God has nothing to do with that.  Instead of worrying about all the wrong that other people are doing, just practice loving God and your neighbor, which is, after all, the summary of the Law according to Jesus himself.  I don’t know about you, the best thing for my spiritual well-being is to deal with my stuff and the condition of my heart rather than fixate on what I perceive to be the shortcomings of others.

I’d like to say that the Pharisees died out shortly after Jesus, but the truth is they are still alive and well.  There are still plenty of folks who love their own policies more than God’s people.  My work takes me into many church buildings, I notice things about church buildings as I drive by, and I see the signs that, in many places, policies are still taking priority over people.

What do those signs look like?  They look like chains across a parking lot during the week so people don’t turn around in the lot or simply take 20 minutes to rest or pray or eat their lunch.
They look like beautiful new basketball courts and playgrounds, and then churches go the extra mile to surround them with a chain-link fence that is always locked.  What sort of message does that send to the kids in those neighborhoods?

I know of one church that actually consistently said no to new ministries, particularly those that would engage their surrounding community, because, they were worried, and I kid you not, “that they might mess up the building.”  You know what else? – their building wasn’t even that nice! – and maybe that was all an intentional part of their plan to keep newcomers away.

Not surprisingly, that church is dying, dwindling more each year, struggling more and more just to survive, and its members are scratching their heads saying, “Why won’t our church grow?

I can tell you why – because they love their building more than they love the people around their building.  Everywhere inside and around their building were subtle and not-so-subtle signs that said, “Keep Out.”  “Stay Away.”  “Members only.”  They don’t have a church; they have a clubhouse!

They have put more of their effort into writing policies that protect and preserve that place, than into ministering to the people right around them.  You tell me why they’re not growing!  No, the Pharisees are still alive and well.  There are still those who love status-quo protecting policies more than they love the people around them.

A building is a tool for ministry to happen.  Ministry involves people.  And when people use the space, something might get damaged or broken or dirty.  A wall might get scuffed up, a floor might get scratched from moving furniture, a window broken, a carpet might get stained, a table might get glitter or marker on it.  Something might not get thrown out, or put away, or turned off, - and you know what?  That’s the cost of being in the people business.  So be it.  This is not a museum.  This is not a clubhouse.  This is the church of Jesus.

Christ Church in Hickory has grown a lot in the last few decades, which means they are always building something new to accommodate their growing family.  In the grand opening of one brand-new building, first service in the brand new place, Charles Kyker, the pastor, began the service by walking out to the middle of the room with a cup of coffee in his hand, and dumping it into the brand new carpet in their brand new building with the brand new mortgage.  Charles said, “No one needs to worry about making the first mark on this new building, because I just did.  We’re not going to worry about stains in the carpet around here.  We’re gonna focus on people, instead.”

Say what you want about Charles, his leadership style, or the congregation he leads.  What you can’t argue with is that thousands of people’s lives have been changed, people who might not have otherwise darkened the door of a church, because there is at least one church that care more about the people who make stains in the carpet, than the stains in the carpet themselves.  People’s lives are changed when we care more about them than we do about our own policies.

We don’t want to abuse the building, certainly, let’s definitely take care of it as best we can, but if an accident happens, well, that’s an accident.  I would rather have to repaint a room every few years because it’s being used by people, people who have a place to come and learn about how much God loves them and how they can live as Christ’s disciples in the world, than to have it remain pristine and unused.  The building is a tool, a tool to be used by people, people who are more precious than policies.

I’m not down on rules.  I’m not advocating complete recklessness.  Let’s just be careful that our policies are consistent with the overall character of Christ – policies that care for people as Christ would have.  Policies that look out for the least, last, and lost, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the outcast and outsider – those are policies worth pursuing.

The church, after all, belongs to Jesus.  He has every right to ask us, “Which you do love more – your policies, or my people?”