“Let Christ’s Passion Wash Over You” a Palm/Passion Sunday sermon on Mark 11:1-10 and 15:33-40

palm.passion.2015.23/29/2015
Palm/Passion Sunday
Mark 11:1-10
Mark 15:33-40
“Let Christ’s Passion Wash Over You”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

Posted in Lent/Easter, Lent/Easter Sermons, on Gospel of Mark, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Mouth House” Reflections from a Weary Preacher (or “Ode to Qoheleth,* My Old Friend”)

It is one of those rare Monday afternoons where there is nothing going on at church and the preacher sits – alone. The morning had its normal busyness of list making, phone calls and other contacts, but now – all is still. There is both a feeling of serenity and loneliness about it.  The “mouth house” Luther described** – the church proclaiming the gospel in word and action has done its job. Sunday was full of activity. Now it is quiet. The people have left to “go in peace and serve the Lord” in the countless ways they always do so with humility; from helping a neighbor, or getting kids get to school, adding to their community life with neighbors or simply putting food on the table. All of those things, whatever they may be perceived to be, are the free gift of God’s love and grace implemented in the real world. God is good. Even in Lent beholding the cross leads to the truth that Christ is risen. The people rejoiced with acclamation. They welcomed one another and sent one another with genuine care and love. They left to meet Jesus on the road of their everyday lives. The preacher marvels at how extraordinary that is, thinking most of the people must think it mundane.

lentThere is a bit of the “empty tomb” feel about the place on a Monday. The preacher sits in the sanctuary contemplating it, as a form of prayer he supposes. He reflects on what God might be up to in this community, and with himself. He wonders if he is getting through, or if it is all “hebel” – a wispy meaningless smoke, Qoheleth, the Preacher, the One we call Ecclesiastes, spoke of years ago, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity [Hebel hebel, all is hebel] (Ecclesiastes 1:1). The preacher sits in the quiet “mouth house.” He looks up at beams of light shining down from the windows and feels no longer alone.

A day ago the church was busy with people. They put on their best faces as they got ready for church, but he knows (as God knows) none of us are as put together as we appear. They came to worship beleaguered by a world that seems constantly stacked against them. The harder the rat race needs to be run the smaller the returns feel. It costs them: time with family; skipped rest time or saved for “later” whenever that might come; countless nights with restless sleep. For some the strain at home to keep everything going or put on pause to care for aging loved ones is slowly crushing them. Some worry about their children and if they know how much they are loved; by them; by God; by this “mouth house” gathered together each week, wondering where they are. Some just hope to get those kids through school. Some wonder when or if a new family life can begin. Some carry pain hidden to everybody else, but those open wounds run deep. Some wonder whom they are and who they are supposed to be. Some worry if they can get a job, or keep the one they have. Some worry if they can retire. Some worry about what retirement now means. Some are just trying to keep things together for everybody else. They entered God’s “mouth house” to be reassured; to be forgiven; to find some nourishment; in the songs, in the sacraments and God willing, in the sermon too.  The preacher hopefully has shown them Jesus. He longs for them to know the weight of the world is not on their shoulders; that Jesus promises to make burdens light, but he doubts. “Hebel” he thinks to himself. He hopes this group can truly claim their identity in the body of Christ, to be his hands and feet to the people around them; putting to good use the freedom that is now theirs to not only tend to their responsibilities joyfully but also meet the growing needs around them generously.

The preacher gazes at the font, the altar and pulpit. That huge pulpit too intimidating for a relaxed sanctuary like this one. But he knows the stakes, and the evil one won’t rest, and prays for strength. He shouldn’t be resting either.

now.whatOne of the beloved of this church gave that pulpit as a gift. Her funeral will be later this week. He considers her witness not only through the gift of a long life she lived faithfully, but what the gift of a pulpit of all things signifies. He asks the age-old Lutheran question (both of God and himself), “What does this mean?” Certainly not “hebel.” She hoped that proclamation would continue, long after she was gone. That the preaching matters. That this “mouth house” better have something to say. That the world needs to hear it. He hopes he can find the words for her.

Someone else enters the sanctuary. In a few minutes of chatting, of being “mouth house” together, of sharing some mutual consolation, they part ways, ready to face what comes next. On a quiet and lonely day, it was exactly the interruption needed. Even though he is sitting in the sanctuary, the preacher remembers that the “mouth house” takes place at any time and in any place, and while he does a lot of the preaching in this room, the majority of preaching – that is, sharing good news – takes place in all kinds of places, and all of God’s people participate, wherever they are.***

The noise of the outside traffic seems louder. Either there are more cars now on their commute back home, or the stillness of these minutes has brought new awareness. The church is a “mouth house” and we have an important message to share, but it is to our neighbors out there that we are sent to speak it.  Do we see Jesus already in action among them? Jesus was constantly on the move. He still is. In the bright light of that first Easter morning the messenger said, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of your to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).

Going ahead of you.” Maybe we don’t have to feel so far behind, so burdened, or so beleaguered. It doesn’t have to be the world against us or us against the world. It’s the world Jesus came to save, not just the church. It was Jesus who came to save the world, not you or me. It’s Jesus who does it; who does it all. The preacher whispers to himself (or is it a confession made audible to God?), “…which means it doesn’t depend on me.”  Then the preacher knows his role. He remembers:  “But how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:10) Someone must witness. All of us can be that witness. What is good news if it is not shared? What good news can one ever keep to themselves? There is no ‘hebel’ here, but the life of Christ offered for the world; offered to you and me.  The weight is lifted. The preacher feels free. He gets up, ready to go home to the people waiting for him to share their family meal. He leaves the church building with some hope to draw on, having heard the sermon he needed to hear.

PGS

________________

*Qohelth means preacher or teacher.  See Ecclesiastes.

** Luther on “mouth-house” –

“Thus the Gospel is brought into this world by the apostles shortly before the last day, when Christ will enter with his flock into the eternal Jerusalem. This agrees with the word “Bethphage,” which means, as some say, mouth-house, for St. Paul says in Romans 1:2, that the Gospel was promised afore in the Holy Scriptures, but it was not preached orally and publicly until Christ came and sent out his apostles. Therefore the church is a mouth-house, not a pen-house, for since Christ’s advent that Gospel is preached orally which before was hidden in written books. It is the way of the Gospel and of the New Testament that it is to be preached and discussed orally with a living voice. Christ himself wrote nothing, nor did he give command to write, but to preach orally. Thus the apostles were not sent out until Christ came to his mouth-house, that is, until the time had come to preach orally and to bring the Gospel from dead writing and pen-work to the living voice and mouth. From this time the church is rightly called Bethphage, since she has and hears the living voice of the Gospel.”  (Martin Luther, “Sermon on the Frist Sunday of Advent, 1522,” Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol 1. Sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphnay. ed. John Nicholas Lenker. [Online available: http://www.martinluthersermons.com/Luther_Lenker_Vol_1.pdf], Paragraph, 64-65, p. 46.)

*** Luther reflected that the gospel (or good news) comes in a variety of forms. My “go to” source for this is the Smalcald Articles:

“We now want to return to the gospel, which gives guidance and help against sin in more than one way, because God is extravagantly rich in his grace: first, through the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel); second, through baptism; third, through the Holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth through the power of the keys (that is, confession and forgiveness), and also through the mutual consolation of brothers and sisters. Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered…”   (Martin Luther, “The Smalcald Articles, 1530,” Book of Concord. Ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], Section III, Part 4, p. 319.)

Posted in Church & Mission, Discovery, Faith Everyday, Martin Luther & those strange Lutherans, Praying, Thoughts on Prayer | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Especially When You Don’t Get It” a Sermon on Mark 15:1-32

justice3/22/2015
Lent 5
Passion of Mark, Part 5
“Especially When You Don’t Get It”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

Posted in Lent/Easter, Lent/Easter Sermons, on Gospel of Mark, Sermons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rediscovering Sabbath During a Busy Time

A recent blog articulated that the commandment we tend to ignore is Sabbath keeping (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/most-ignored-commandment). Clergy can be some of the worst offenders. When the law does what it is supposed to do, here I stand, guilty as charged. I’m often burning the candle at both ends and tell myself the lie that if I just keep running that fire can’t catch me. God intends for us not to just set aside a day to get our errands done, cart the kids to sports and other activities, and finally tend to that pile of laundry. God intends for us to rest. We are called to rest deeply into the life of God. Scripture and prayer center us there. As does taking a day once a week, to recharge and renew in God’s relationship with us and we with each other.

3rd.commandmentMartin Luther reflected that the purpose of the Sabbath is to, “Keep God’s word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” (Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008], 5.) But life is busy. There are a million distractions. The little devices in our pockets and in our hands are constantly calling for our allegiance. It is difficult to unplug for a few minutes, let alone a whole day. A day of rest, for reflection, prayer and engagement with scripture just sounds far-fetched.

I decided I could use a little self-care. When our synod offered a twenty-four prayer retreat on a Monday-Tuesday near the end of Lent I figured it would be good for me to participate. I didn’t think I really had the time to give with Holy Week rapidly approaching, but with the encouragement of a couple of friends I came to the conclusion I needed it more than I probably realized I did. I’m still at the retreat as I compose this reflection, using some of our “quiet time on your own” to reconsider the Sabbath in writing. (Don’t worry, I’m using a yellow pad and pen to do the job, I can type this up on one of my electronic devices later.)

Yesterday afternoon I did the unthinkable. I left my phone in my room while sitting with the group during the retreat, went for a walk with a friend, ate dinner and participated in worship.  With my emails, social media connections, texts, and phone messages set aside for several hours I discovered something. I’m a real human being that doesn’t have to keep running. I stopped. I disengaged. I rested. I sat in the quiet and listened without filling the space (or myself) with noise. By myself I did some reading and I am doing some writing now.  I feel open and connected. I didn’t look for that little device that tends to possess me. Instead I focused on the words I read and am writing. I took notice of the clouds and melting snow as I walked outside. I listened to my colleagues more intently.

This morning I woke up and found the books I was still reading when I fell asleep next to me on the mattress. It was a bit of a restless sleep last night, but maybe I needed to wrestle some of the distractions out of me as I dreamt. I got ready and was out of my room early. The coffee I made in our meeting room tasted especially good. I ate a quick breakfast and left the retreat center for a time. (I had scheduled a meeting with an old friend who happens to be our accountant to talk about our family taxes.) As I entered the real world again I took notice of the noise. I turned on the radio in my car. The wipers on a rainy morning squeaked across my windshield. The bustle of the coffee shop was full of conversations and connections. When our time together was over and I went back to my car, I sat for a few minutes before starting the engine, checking my email, reading a few texts, listening to my phone messages and scrolling down my Facebook feed. I tossed my phone on the adjacent seat, started the engine and said aloud (could it have been a prayer?), “Well, that didn’t take long.”

On the ride home from the retreat I started mentally thinking through my checklist of what I needed to do: call one of my messages back and stop at the hospital on the way back to Old Saybrook; put together dinner church for Wednesday night; finish this reflection and type it up, edit and post; think about the sermon for Sunday; follow-up on a few other conversations, and see what else needs attention between now and then. On a twenty-four hour retreat, my Sabbath lasted only about half the time until I was drawn back into real life. I wondered if I could arrive home in time to give Tammie the car so she could take our daughter to a doctor’s appointment. I’d have to get going immediately after lunch to leave time to stop at the hospital.

Sabbath is a hard thing to keep. We’re busy people with many commitments. I think of the families I know just struggling to make it through the week. Sabbath seems impossible. I wonder if anyone can truly keep Sabbath in the 21st century world.

After my retreat I was reminded of the benefits of keeping Sabbath: A time to clear your head is good for the body and soul. Disconnection to the world for a time helps connect with God and deepen important relationships. Both your responsibilities and distractions will be waiting when you’re done, and can wait.  In the few hours I was able to keep Sabbath I started to feel the weight I carry on my shoulders lighten. I’m not sure if I’m burning the candle on one end now or both, but it feels more manageable. When the intrusions began as I left that retreat I didn’t mind them. I was more centered; focused; present; alive.

I learned (and re-learned) a few things about Sabbath too. Embracing solitude is not something to feel guilty about, but something to cultivate. Prayer and study won’t happen unless we make time for it, no matter how busy we are. Leaders need to model healthy habits for others. Sabbath is not a burden, it is often a gift left unopened and unacknowledged. Maybe God knows what we need after all. Maybe we can rely on one another more. Maybe I should stop writing, so I can enjoy these last fifteen minutes of silence before our closing worship at this retreat!

What to do next:

This week: Find fifteen minutes of your own for some quiet time to clear your head.

Next week: Expand that fifteen minutes, but don’t fill it with noise. Think. Pray. Read. Reflect.

By next month: Find someone to encourage you and keep you accountable, and do the same for them.

PGS

___

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

P.S. Thanks to Pastor Anne Deneen and Pastor Jon Niketh for their leadership at the retreat, for the others who planned it too, and to all my colleagues who also participated or wish they had, peace be with you.

 

Posted in Faith Everyday, Praying, Thoughts on Prayer, What We Seek | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“There is Healing Beyond Denial” sermon on Mark 14:53-72

nile3/15/2015
Healing Service
Lent 4
Sermon on Mark 14:53-72
“There is Healing Beyond Denial”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

Posted in Lent/Easter, Lent/Easter Sermons, on Gospel of Mark, Sermons | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

7 Reasons for Church Decline and How to Address Them

I sat across from someone I didn’t know at a recent church luncheon that was open to the community. We introduced ourselves. She soon found out I was the pastor. After some conversation she said,

The churches aren’t as full as they once were, back when I was a kid.           Why do you think that is?

This is what I think:

  • Unsustainable Demographics: Most churches are designed (whether they are aware of it or not) assuming they will self-perpetuate indefinately: the children of the congregation will grow up to be young adults in the congregation who will eventually take over the leadership, and raise their children in the congregation and continue the cycle. This is not a world we live in anymore. Young adults often go off to school or start their working lives elsewhere. They often do not return or if they do they are in transition. People have fewer children than previous generations did. Families are mobile; moving across the country for jobs away from their home of origin and either don’t stay connected or have a hard time connecting in a new place without the support of parents, grandparents and extended families. Children of divorced parents split their time between parents over weekends in different locations making a 50% potential attendance rate 100% from their perspective.
  • Availability: Many congregations are designed assuming that people are both eager and available to give time and effort. The rise of many denominational churches came in the 1950s and 60s when many families had one parent at home with the children looking for ways to connect and contribute. In many families today single parents are carrying the load for their family or both parents are working. The desire to be involved and participate may be there, but long-term commitments are hard to make and maintain for many.
  • Pace: People are busier than ever. The church once filled a social need that was absent of other activities and organizations years ago. Now that so many opportunities abound; participating in church becomes one more choice among many. The belief that sports and other activities will help with college admissions drives the schedule of many families. In contrast, there does not seem to be many families pushing their children to apply to college based on Sunday School attendance.
  • Eroding Generational Connections: People that were marginal in previous generations have children that are even more marginal, and by the third generation have little or no connection to church at all. For a growing number of people in society, church is a foreign place, and a community outside of their everyday experience.
  • Mistrust: People today mistrust institutions, especially the church. There have been so many scandals that people are looking elsewhere for answers, meaning, purpose and community. “Hypocrisy” is given as a reason many stay away or leave churches every year. People of faith that make headlines in the media seem either bigoted, backward or both, and as people look for something positive to connect with – religion can have a bad name.
  • Consumer Driven: Many congregations are closed systems that exist for the sake of their membership, and meeting their needs and expectations; rather than connecting with the outside community and putting faith into action. The church becomes a club that has little impact on how people live their lives or care for the world around them. Questions like: “Who would miss us if we were gone?” Or: “Why bother?” Are left unanswered.
  • Imploding Systems to Save the Church: All or some of the above challenges have brought many congregations to the breaking point, where the dynamics of survival overtake the dynamics of sharing life together. Many congregations have and will self-destruct trying to save themselves, rather than teaching how to give yourself away.
Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England. The new church was built beside the ruins of the old church bombed out in World War II. The ruins are preserved as a memorial to peace. Wikipedia: "Coventry spires-2Aug2005-2rc" by derivative work: Snowmanradio (talk)Coventry_spires.jpg: G-Man - A modified version of Coventry_spires.jpg originally uploaded by the author G-Man to commons with PD license.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England.  The new church was built beside the ruins of the old church  that suffered bomb damage in World War II. The ruins are preserved as a memorial to peace.
Wikipedia: “Coventry spires-2Aug2005-2rc” by derivative work: Snowmanradio (talk)Coventry_spires.jpg: G-Man – A modified version of Coventry_spires.jpg originally uploaded by the author G-Man to commons with PD license.. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I believe all these challenges press upon every community in 21st century America (whatever their relationships to communities of faith might be), and we must come to terms with these realities before we start talking about the quality of our churches and how well we might (or might not) be connecting with our people and the neighbors outside our doors. The economy of our community life has changed. As the church we need to adjust what we are doing and how we are doing it in order to stay connected.

My conversation with my new acquaintance drifted to other topics, so I didn’t tell her what I thought the church could provide as an alternative to the ongoing decline we continue to observe and experience.  But here are a few thoughts I share with you now:

  • Sense of Urgency: What would we change in our approach if we assumed WE WERE IT. If we were the only Christians on earth, gathered in the only community called “church” that existed, how might we plan, lead, talk about, train, and serve others because the amazing message of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and acceptance we have in Jesus would not be known in the world if we didn’t? What might we learn to coordinate differently, when we realize with that same sense of urgency, that there are others, just like us?
  • Specificity: What if we stopped running programs and filling empty slots to perpetuate the system, and instead helped each other use and share our specific giftedness as our holy calling? What if we stopped trying to do all things and only be able to do them part way, and instead focused our energies toward a few things we could deliver well? What if we got to know what our people are struggling with, what are neighbors are struggling with, what we as leaders are struggling with, and started the conversation there?
  • Re-Pacing: People are busier than ever – and need an oasis. The church needs to be a safe place to “be” as much as a place to “be involved.” We have forgotten Sabbath; how to rest, how to pray, and be a voice for renewal the rest of the week. Gathering for worship invites us first to put the world on hold before we can venture out serve in it. What if we thought about Sunday mornings (and any time we gather corporately) not as the time to cram all of our activities into, but we treated our time together as sanctuary, refreshment and reconnection, so we can be sent back into the world as God’s agents of restoration?
  • Make Generational Connections: Studies indicate that parents are the number one factor in the faith lives of their children. the church also occupies one of the few remaining structures in society that feature multiple generations. What if the church nurtured and equipped parents at home, reinforced and supported faith through mentoring across generations, and gave each generation, purpose, focus, and a voice to learn and inspire one another? What if we saw each person as called to ministry (regardless of age) and helped develop opportunities to serve in ministry? What if faith development was not just seen as a class, or a program, or something a few people invested time and energy in but was the center of congregational life and its activities?
  • Deliver and Gain Trust: People today mistrust institutions, especially the church. We need to build relationships with others so they can see us as dependable. We cannot do everything. We might not always get things right. What if we took small steps to gain trust and exhibited grace in our dealings with one another, so that people could see what we believe in practice?
  • Network Driven: We live in multiple locations, with multiple networks of relationships inside and outside our congregational life. What if we thought in terms of those multiple orbits of relationships, rather than just our church rolls when organizing projects, seeking out partnerships, and reaching out to others in our neighborhoods? What if those energies were placed on mobilizing ministry anchored in the community around us, so that whether the people around us were part of the congregation or not, we were seen as a valued part of our communities with specific assets we shared?
  • Renew/Rebuild Systems Towards Hospitality and Mission: Part of our self-destruction is doing the same things over and expecting different results. What if we rebuilt our organizations from the bottom up to accomplish the tasks we hope to achieve in service to others?  What if we thought of our systems as open, adaptive and fluid? (Think centered-sets; not bounded sets.) What if we considered the stranger, the outsider, the newcomer the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious'”as our allies in helping us discover who we are and who God calls us to be?

I’m under no illusions that implementing how we might answer these questions would be able to recapture the glory days of the church when (at least as we remember it) the pews were full and the days were bright. I do however, believe that spending some time rethinking what we are doing and why we are doing it with intentionality and a heart for others  that opens every conversation we have for transformation.

PGS

Posted in Church & Mission, Church by Perception, Thinking About Church Differently | Tagged , | 8 Comments

“When you don’t make it to Amen” a sermon on Mark 14:32-52

Conversion of St. Paul Window - St. Paul Lutheran Church, Old Saybrook, CT

Conversion of St. Paul Window – St. Paul Lutheran Church, Old Saybrook, CT

3/08/2015
Lent 3
Sermon on Mark 14:32-52
“When you don’t make it to Amen”

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Old Saybrook, CT

Posted in Lent/Easter, Lent/Easter Sermons, on Gospel of Mark, Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment