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  • Jewish/Christian Time Management”(Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Ephesians 5:15-20)

    Back in 1996 the musical “Rent” opened on Broadway. It turned out to be a monster hit that stayed on Broadway for 12 years. It opens with what became the biggest hit song to come out of that musical called “Seasons of Love”, where the composer of that song finds out how many minutes there are in a year and incorporates that into the song, and then asks the question “How do you measure a year?”, which translates into my mind as “How do you know when you have lived those minutes well?” The song proposes various ideas and then the playwright and composer, Jonathan Larson, who grew up in a Jewish home, lands on the very Jewish idea that the best use of those minutes is to love. As you know, it’s also a very Christian idea. I bet you know the song. It starts like this: Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear. five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, Measure a year? The great tragedy of the musical “Rent” was that Jonathan Larson died before he could see his own play open on Broadway. He saw the dress rehearsal the night before and then died shortly thereafter of a ruptured aorta. His premature death illustrates the point he was making in the song, which is that we have limited time on earth and that we would do well to spend that time in love before its too late and we don’t have another chance. I remember hearing the song sung for the first time, and what struck me was that there, in the public square, at the heart of Broadway, the center of the American art world, they were dealing publicly with what I regard as a deeply religious issue and a deeply human issue: the stewardship of time, how best to manage the limited time we have been given. Psalm 90 teaches us to count our days, while Jonathan Larson helps us count the minutes Today we look at God’s gift of time: the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years we receive from God. The amount of time we receive varies greatly between us. God never says how much time each of us will receive, and the challenge for us as Christian stewards of our time is to be the best stewards of our time, not knowing exactly how much time we have. There are two scriptures that give us major guidance about the stewardship of time. The most important one is from the Hebrew law, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy” and one from the apostle Paul, where he says in Ephesians “make the most of the time.” First, the Sabbath. Sabbath is the English translation of the Hebrew word “Shabbat”, meaning stop or cease or desist. In my active imagination I like to think of Sabbath as God once a week lowering down from heaven a stop sign in front of each of our faces. The fourth commandment is God saying to the Israelites, and now to us by the Spirit: one day a week stop, stop working, stop what you usually do the other six days a week, and make sure that not just you but your whole family has a Sabbath, and all of your animals, and all your employees, and even the non-Israelites among you, the immigrants and the refugees. Make sure everyone has a Sabbath, not just you. Sabbath is God’s gift for everyone in the world. The reason given for the Sabbath in the first presentation of the ten commandments in Exodus 20 is the Genesis creation story that tells us God created all that there is over six days and rested the seventh day. If God, our creator, takes a Sabbath, so should we, since we are all made in the image of God. In the second presentation of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5, the reason given for the Sabbath was the Exodus story that says the Israelites spent 400 years in Egyptian slavery without a day off, and that was no kind of life. Taking a Sabbath reminds us that we are not slaves to anyone or anything on earth, but people who have been liberated by God for a new kind of life. Devout Jews have been remarkably committed to keeping the Sabbath ever since Moses presented the ten commandments to the Israelites during their interim/transitional time in the Sinai, and right up to the present day. Keeping the sabbath is for a Jew a practical expression of one’s love for God. Sabbath-keeping is an integral part of Jewish identity. When you talk to devout Jewish people or read books or articles on Jewish practice of the Sabbath, you learn that Jewish families often mark the start of Sabbath with a Sabbath prayer and by lighting a candle in their home at sunset on Friday night and keeping it burning until sunset on Saturday, when it is extinguished with a Sabbath-ending prayer. During that 24 hours of Sabbath, devout Jews often attend worship together at the synagogue or temple, invite friends and family over to their homes to enjoy a pre-prepared meal, adults talk, children play games, older people take naps, couples make love, families go out into nature. Their weeks are divided into three parts: three days looking forward to Sabbath, one day keeping the Sabbath and three days reflecting back on how wonderful it was. For Jews who believe in an afterlife, sabbath is a weekly preview of the Paradise to come. Christians over the years have had divided opinions over what to do about Sabbath. Some say we need to take it as seriously as our Jewish neighbors. It is, after all, one of the ten commandments. It is given by the same God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Others see it as an ancient relic of our Jewish heritage that is no longer applicable under the new covenant of Christ, a law usurped by the gospel, except as a day for coming to church and worshiping. And yet we live in a time when so many of us complain about how busy we are, and complain about how little time we have to do the things we think are most important. Could it be that Sabbath in our day is God’s answer to our modern-day complaints about the scarcity of time? Jesus once said to religious leaders of his time who accused him of breaking the Sabbath, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” Which is to say that Sabbath is God’s gift to us, not another institution we serve and become enslaved to. Why would we turn down a divine gift? As Presbyterians, you might be interested to know that the great church reformer, John Calvin, our spiritual forefather as Presbyterians, believed in keeping Sabbath. Once his preaching and pastoring duties had concluded on Sunday, he was known to go out in the streets of Geneva, Switzerland in the afternoon and sit down in the streets with the kids and play a game with them that was called at the time “Skittles.” I must confess that I did not take Sabbath seriously until my last year in seminary. My early religious education didn’t have much to say about it. When I got into seminary, I had so much work to do in seminary that I couldn’t get it done in 7 days, let alone six days. But one day I went to church and heard a really good sermon on keeping the Sabbath, and came home resolved to keep it, whatever the cost. And I found out through practical experience that I could do it. One day of rest and renewal, I found, made me a lot more efficient with my time on the other six days of the week. Sabbath is not primarily about making us more efficient in the world; I am just telling you that it had that practical benefit for me As your interim pastor, I would encourage you to take a weekly Sabbath. One day a week stop doing what you do five or six days a week, and do the things you don’t get to do the other six days. On your Sabbath, do those things that renew your relationship with God and with others, and rest and renew and restore yourself. Consider turning off all your electronics for a day. Sunday is an obvious potential Sabbath for many of us, but it doesn’t have to be—it’s a work day for me. Sabbath, in my view, can be any day, really, and it need not be a continuous 24 hour period, but could be broken up into six or 12-hour segments. The culture in which we live, and the work schedule imposed on some of us, I think, demands a certain flexibility when it comes to keeping Sabbath. And since Jesus reminds us that Sabbath is a gift, not a burdensome and unhappy religious obligation, we are free, as he was free in his time, to determine how best to receive and enjoy that divine gift. Sometimes retired people have asked me how best to keep a sabbath when every day of retirement seems like a Sabbath to them. My advice is figure out what you do six days a week, and one day a week don’t do any of those things. Do something different, something that will renew your relationship with God and with others, and will restore and renew yourself. To you who still have children at home, I will tell you from personal experience that keeping the sabbath will be different for you compared to what it is when you are an empty nester. I remember that when we had children at home, we called our Friday sabbath, “our special day”, and gave our children our full attention for the day, and took them out to do mostly fun free things that would be of interest to them. All grown up and married and living apart from us now, they both still fondly remember those special days. Ultimately, a willingness to keep Sabbath comes from a deep faith in God, a faith that knows that God runs the world, not us, which frees us up to let go one day a week and know beyond doubt that the world will be just fine without us. Now let’s switch over to the apostle Paul, and his guidance about our stewardship of time. Paul writes, “make the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but know what the will of God is. Do not” I take this as guidance from pastor Paul on what to do with your time the other six days a week. The message from Paul is that there is work to do in the world. There is evil to be overcome, and the will of God to carry out. We learn from Jesus Christ that it is the work of love that overcomes evil in the world, and we learn from Christ that the will of God is to love God with all one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. “Making the most of the time” means, then, being busy about the work of love. As I understand the sabbath, one day a week it is perfectly OK with God if we want to waste or squander that day. It’s perfectly OK if we want to day dream all day. It’s perfectly OK to lay in bed all day if you want to. It’s perfectly OK on the sabbath not to be productive, to not accomplish anything. On the Sabbath, you don’t owe anyone anything. Like Jesus, you may choose on the Sabbath to be engaged in the feeding or healing of people, but you’re not obligated to do so. Sabbath is mostly a day for stopping, resting, renewing, refreshing. But the other six days a week is another story. There is the work of love to be carried out in the world, and we are called by God, as Jesus was in his earthly life in the flesh, to pursue that work. Wasting those days is unthinkable for people of faith. Don’t get drunk with wine, Paul says. Drinking to the point of drunkenness, and sitting around all day in a drunken stupor, is unacceptable stewardship of your time in the Lord’s eyes. It is a waste of your God-given time, and it is living in denial of the great amount of human need that the work of evil has left behind. Rather, six days a week, go to work to love God, worshiping God, thanking God, praising God, serving God. Go to work to love and support and provide for your spouse and family and yourself. Go to work to love your church and your church family in the particular ways they need. Go to work to love those in your community, meeting them at their point of need. Go to work to love the poor by making sure they have the essentials of life. Go to work to love your neighbors and friends, putting their needs on par with your own. Go to work to love your enemies like Jesus did and taught, doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, praying for those who abuse you. How can we be good stewards, faithful managers of God’s gift of time? According to the scriptures, take one day a week to stop, rest, renew, restore. On the other six days a week make the most of the time, by going out to do the work of love, which puts us right back at the beginning: Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes How do you measure, measure a year? (and then the song asks) How about love? How about love? How about love? Measure in love. (Share love, give love, spread love) Measure in love, (Measure, measure your life in love)

  • “The Interdependent Church Family” (I Corinthians 12:1-31)

    I once took a church youth group on an activity called a “ropes course.” A ropes course, for those of you who don’t know, is a series of group challenges, usually out in the woods, where individuals in a group have to work together to get the whole group from point A to point B, while overcoming obstacles along the way. It’s a mental and physical challenge for a group that is really about team building. It helps bond the members of a group into a cohesive unit as they think and work together. Ropes course is something of a misnomer, in that not all the challenges involve ropes. The group I was with went through a series of warm-up challenges, none of which lasted more than 15 minutes, and they accomplished each of them without too much trouble. The last challenge was very different. This time they had to get the entire group of 15 to walk the length of a two-inch wide, 50-foot long balance beam. The balance beam began two feet off the ground, angled up and then to the right and then to the right again, plateaued at 4 feet off the ground and then angled back down again toward the ground. The rule was that the whole group had to stay connected the whole time, and the whole group had to walk the entire balance beam without anyone falling off. If someone did fall off, the entire group had to get off the beam, go back to the beginning and start all over again. The guide that day told us chaperones in a nice way to shut up and to stay out of it and not intervene or try to rescue in any way, no matter how frustrated the group might become. The guide assured us that in time they would figure it out without us, and they needed to figure it out apart from us. So I sat and watched the group struggle for an hour to get everyone the length of the balance beam without falling off. So picture, if you will, 15 youth all up on the balance beam, all lined up in a row, all holding hands, all trying to keep their own balance while helping others to keep theirs. I watched them for an hour try and fall off and try again and fall off again and get frustrated and try again and get tired and fall off again and try again. And as I watched I got a vision of what the church was meant to be, with all of its particular people and talents, and the vision was much like Paul’s vision that we read about in I Corinthians 12, where Paul sees the church as a human body, with each member being a unique part of the body, each playing their part, and each contributing to the health of the whole. I noticed immediately that in the youth group, natural leaders rose up. Certain members of the youth group just naturally took the lead, commanded attention, tried particular ideas, organized the group in certain ways. And there were others who were naturally content to be led and be more of a support people for the group. I noticed that some in the youth group were natural encouragers of others. They gave the group new energy and spurred them on. They wouldn’t let the group stop trying, but when the group got discouraged, mad, tired, and wanted to sit down, the encouragers would say, “OK, let’s go guys. Don’t quit. Keep trying. Let’s go back and try it all again.” And I could see the group responds to their encouragement. I noticed that some in the youth group were idea generators. When the group would try a particular strategy and fail, the idea generators were quick to suggest other approaches. They would say, “Let’s try alternating boy/girl/boy/girl.” And when that didn’t work, they’d say, “Let’s try alternating bigger people and smaller people.” And when that didn’t work they’d say, “Let’s alternate people facing one direction and others the opposite direction.” Or “let’s try putting our arms around each other’s waist or shoulders.” Or “let’s try this order of people.” The idea generators were always offering new options and possibilities. Then there were those in the group who were really good at being first in line, or at the end, or in the middle. When the group tried to put them in another place, they fell off. Some just naturally knew where their best place was, while others needed to be told where their place was. There were those youth who were particularly skilled at using their bodies. They were athletic, well balanced, and provided good anchors for the more wobbly. Others were better with their minds, thinking thoroughly through problems and challenges.

  • Giving Ourselves First to the Lord (Malachi 3:6-12; II Corinthians 8:1-15)

    You are about to become the recipient of my 34th annual stewardship of money sermon. I talk forthrightly about money to all the churches I pastor once a year because I believe that what we do or don’t do with our money is such a tell-tale sign of where we are in our relationship with God and with one another. Our money habits tell us if we are living by our faith in God or living out of fear or whether we are somewhere in-between, or whether we are living in a way that acknowledges God’s grace toward us or are oblivious to it, or whether God is our God or money is our god. If you want to know what you really believe in life, look at your checkbook and your daytimer. Those two things tell the story and do not lie to us. What you and I do with our money and our time says more about what we really believe and consider important than anything else. I am glad to have the apostle Paul with us this morning as we talk about money. As a pastor myself, I find it so interesting to see how Pastor Paul talked to the church at Corinth about money, which gives us a framework for talking about it ourselves. As far as we can piece together, Paul was taking up a collection from all of his churches to aid the poor Jewish Christians at the church in Jerusalem, who were going through some kind of crisis, probably one of the periodic famines that would hit the area. The church at Corinth had apparently made a pledge to participate in the collection, but they hadn’t fulfilled their pledge completely. So II Corinthians 8 is Paul trying to give them good reasons to fulfill that pledge. He’s inspiring and motivating them to actually give what they have pledged. Reminds me of the story of the pastor who said one Sunday to his congregation, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that the Lord has come through for this church in a big way and provided everything we need for next year’s budget.” This brought people to their feet clapping and yelling and high-fiving each other and slapping each other on the back. When they all settled down and everything got quiet again, the pastor said, “Now the bad news. All that money the Lord provided for next year’s budget, which was on its way to the church, for some reason or another got stuck in all of your pockets. This morning we’ve got to work together to try to jostle it loose!” Paul is trying to jostle loose the money the Corinthian church had pledged. Paul begins by telling them about the churches to the north of them in Macedonia, which would include the church at Philippi, to whom Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians. Those churches had come through for the collection in a spectacular way, even though they were economically in much worse shape than the Corinthians. The Macedonian Christians, Paul says, in spite of their poverty, had come through with a wealth of generosity, giving according to their means and even beyond their means, even begging Paul for the opportunity to share in the collection. Paul explains that they were able to do this because they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to Paul and his fellow church workers and the collection. It seemed almost like they had something akin to Jesus’ Garden of Gethsemene experience where they submitted themselves and their money and things first to the will of God, even if it conflicted with their own will. Once they gave themselves first to the Lord, they felt like the Lord was directing them to participate generously in Paul’s collection. So how we should we read this? Is this Paul’s idea of peer pressure? Is he using one group of churches to inspire another, or to shame another into action? Paul is no doubt setting up a comparison of some kind. Years ago I was with a group of 600 Presbyterian pastors at a national Presbyterian clergy retreat at the well known Snowbird Ski area and conference center near Salt Lake City Utah, where one of the speakers was Baptist preacher and college professor, Tony Campolo, who is entertaining and funny and serious, and something of a loose cannon. The planners of the retreat had come up with a particular theme for the retreat, but Tony decided we needed to be challenged more in the area of stewardship. He told us he had just received the previous week some statistics that showed that Presbyterians had the highest income per capita of all the Christian denominations in the United States, but they were among the lowest in giving to their churches when you look at giving as a percentage of income. Presbyterians, he reported to us, give to their churches an average of just 2 and ½% of their annual income. That information inspired him, he told us, to take the old time hymn “I Surrender All” and rewrite the lyrics to update it and make it more relevant to modern-day Presbyterians for this retreat. Then he said, “Now I am going to sing for you that rewritten hymn.” So picture if you will this huge auditorium, where 600 Presbyterian pastors are sitting listening to a Baptist preacher sing to them. Here is what I heard Tony sing that day: 2 and ½ percent to Jesus I surrender, 2 and ½ percent I freely give. I surrender 2 and ½ percent. I surrender 2 and ½ percent. 2 and ½ percent to Jesus I surrender. I surrender 2 and ½% Then he said, “Now help me here. Where are you Presbyterians getting this 2 and ½% business? Baptists and Presbyterians disagree on some things, but I think we all still read the same Bible, and the Bible I’ve read says nothing about 2 and ½%. It mentions 10% a number of times. It even talks about people who went above and beyond 10%, giving extravagantly. Zacchaeus gave 50%. Barnabas sold a property and gave 100% of the proceeds to the church. Mary gave up a whole year’s salary to anoint the feet of Jesus. All the disciples gave up 100% to follow Jesus. Tony was so serious and funny at the same time that I wasn’t sure at the time exactly how to take him. He might have been inspiring us and shaming us at the same time. But he did make us think that day about our own giving and whether our level of giving was something consistent with the Lord who is at the center of our faith, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes. He made us wonder whether our level of giving was consistent with the giving of the great cloud of witnesses who have lived the Christian life before us. He made us wonder whether our level of giving was consistent with people who had given themselves first to the Lord, like the churches in Macedonia. He made us wonder if we were being Biblical in our approach to giving, or just sort of making it up as we go. 2 and ½ percent. In those churches where I have had access to the full data, giving has been in that same range. And my observation is that level of giving has become comfortable for Presbyterians around the country. But that level of giving, I’ve also noticed, keeps Presbyterian churches chronically underfunded. I’ve worked with too many Finance Committees over the years who have to figure out what to cut from the church budget each year because their own members' giving leave them so strapped for cash. It gets discouraging and depressing. The churches I am in these days often want to know where they fall in comparison. In case you are wondering, Holy Cow Consulting said last year that the average giving in this church is 1 3/4% of income, which could be skewed by the fact that 300 people on the active church roll have given nothing to this church in at least the last two years. We Presbyterian Christians see our giving as a private decision we make apart from others, but be reminded that your private giving decisions have very public consequences for the church. I’d love to have at least one church sometime where all the programs the church feels called to provide are fully funded. I’d love to have a church that I could take on the road with me and brag about its generosity, just liked the apostle Paul bragged about the churches of Macedonia. The churches of Macedonia, Paul says, gave so generously in spite of their poverty because they gave themselves first to the Lord. Have you ever gone to the Lord in prayer and said, “Lord, my life, my money, my things, my talents, my time—they’re not really mine, all of these you gave to me, they belong to you, and now I give back to you what has been yours from the beginning. Now Lord, I’ve got my own ideas about what I want to do with them, but show me what you want me to do with all of them because I know that those things would be better.” That's what it means to give yourself first to the Lord. Then Paul gives a second reason to give. He writes, “I want you to excel at everything. You already excel at so much. Add generosity to all the things you already excel at.” I feel that way about Central Pres. You do so many things well. But unless all those things are undergirded by a spirit of generosity among all the members, unless everyone is fully invested in this church, including financially, you risk not doing all those other things so well in the years ahead. Churches, in order to thrive, need to be hitting on all cylinders, including generous giving. As Paul says, as you excel at other things, excel also in giving. Paul’s third reason for wanting them to give is that he is testing the genuineness of their love, and Paul wants them to pass the love test. Love was defined by Jesus Christ, Paul reminds us, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich. In other words, love, as defined by Jesus Christ, is about divesting yourself of what you have, giving yourself and your things away for others, sharing your abundance with others. Paul called it Christ’s generous act. In our scripture this morning, the apostle Paul uses the Greek word “Charis” five different times. Charis means grace or the free gift, something we do not work for or earn or compete for. It is just given to us. I love the story of the businessman from New York who drives south on business for the first time. He sees a billboard for a restaurant advertising authentic southern cooking. He wants to immerse himself in the culture so he pulls off and goes in and orders several items off an ala carte menu. When he gets his plate, he identifies everything he's ordered except one thing, and so he asks the waitress, "What's this white grainy gloppy stuff on my plate?" And she says, "That's grits." And he says, "Grits? I didn't order any grits." And she says, "Oh, well, you don't order it, it just comes." Well, there's a great definition for God's grace: you don't order it, it just comes. Paul uses the Greek word Charis to refer both to the grace we have received in Christ, and the grace we give to others as a faithful response to the grace we have received from Christ. The grace, or free gift, that was given to us was Jesus Christ, and when we finally realize how great the grace that was given to us in Christ, we become grace to others, we give ourselves and our things away to others because Christ gave himself away for us. We give generously when we catch the vision of a world imbued with God’s grace in Christ. I have a feeling that the churches of Macedonia were able to give so generously because they had caught the vision of the grace-filled world Christ had introduced and had become in faithful response the embodiment of God’s grace to the church in Jerusalem. So when Paul says that he is testing the genuineness of their faith, he is trying to find out if they have yet learned to love like Christ, which means divesting oneself and one’s things for the benefit of others. The fourth and final reason Paul offers as to why they should give has to do with his understanding of what the new life in Christ teaches us to do whenever we end up with an abundance of money. When we experience abundance Paul understands through Christ that it is meant for sharing. In our American experience whenever we enjoy an abundance of money, we feel a cultural pressure to expand our lifestyle. Paul sees abundance through the lens of Christ as an opportunity to share. With the churches of Macedonia, we ask you to give yourself first to the Lord and then to the church. With Paul we want you to catch the vision of the grace-filled world introduced by Christ. We ask you to excel at generosity as much as you excel at so many things as a church. We ask that you give at a level that expresses the genuineness of your love for Christ and the church. We ask that you give at a level worthy of your high calling in Jesus Christ, who showed us how to live this earthly life when he who was rich became poor so that all of us might be rich. We ask that you share your abundance with your church this year. You have all kinds of causes you can give to and you do. I do, too. At this time in my life, I, too, am accumulating churches and others worthy causes to give to. I ask that you favor Central Pres church in your giving this year, not because other causes are less worthy, but because you as a church will be starting a new chapter together with a new installed senior pastor new church staff. The Lord is doing a new thing among you. Now undergird that newness with a new generosity in your giving. Fully fund the new thing that is happening so that all this newness has a chance to really take root and remake this church according to what the Lord intends for it. I am asking those of you who have gotten in the habit of giving little or nothing to the church to start giving to the church according to your means, as Paul puts it. And I am asking those of you who have been so faithful in your giving all along to consider stepping up your giving this year. If you are invested in the stock market, remember that you are having yet another big banner year. How much should you give to the church this year? The answer will be different for every one of you. But I think the apostle Paul has just the right approach: give yourselves first to the Lord, just like the churches of Macedonia, and then give to Central Pres what you sense the Lord is calling you to give. And as Presbyterian Christians let us remember especially the challenging words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

  • “Welcome to Management!” (Psalm 8; Luke 16:1-9)

    Today marks the beginning of stewardship emphasis month in this church. Stewardship is really the church’s word for the faithful management of all of God’s gifts. During stewardship season in the church we receive an annual reminder that all that we are and have has come to us from God. We didn’t give it to ourselves. We didn’t get it through luck or accident or random events. Though our own talent, skill, cleverness, connections, intellect, personality may have played a role in bringing some of those things to us, it is God who gave us all our talent, our skill, our cleverness, our connections, our intellect, our personality, and so we acknowledge, again, that God is the source of all that we are and have. Moses said as much to the Israelites in his last sermon to them, as they prepared to leave their interim time in the Sinai and go into the Promised Land. He said to them, When you get into the Promised Land “and you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them…and your silver and gold has multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:12-18). Stewardship season is the time every year we stop saying arrogantly, “Look at me! Look at how well I have done for myself! I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps! I’m a self-made man, a self-made woman!”. Instead, during stewardship season we humbly remember God, not ourselves. We remember that we have been God-helped in this life, not self-helped. We remember that we are God-made, not self-made. And we humbly remember all that God has given us. We take a personal inventory and list all the gifts we have been given by God in this life, and then we ask God for divine guidance in how to use the gifts we have received from God. That’s a religious outlook on life, a Jewish one and a Christian one. God’s answer to our prayers for guidance through the scriptures is what we in the church call “stewardship.” A steward is God’s faithful manager. Faithful stewardship is managing all of God’s gifts in a way that glorifies that God who gave them and blesses others, including the church and God’s wider world, but also our families, and even ourselves. We are reminded during stewardship season that nothing we have in this life belongs to us. It all belongs to God, who loans us all that we have for a season, and who calls in the loan on the day we die, and who like a good banker looks for a return on investment. Psalm 8 first acknowledges God, the Lord, as sovereign, the ruler over all, in charge of all there is, owner of all, to whom all belongs. But then the Psalm reminds us of the surprising interest God has taken in human beings, and the surprising honor God has given to them, giving them dominion over all the things God has made. The Hebrew word translated into English as “dominion” has nothing to do with domination, but is in fact connected to the ideas of shepherding and faithful stewardship. In Psalm 8 we are reminded again of our basic call to stewardship, to be faithful managers of the part of God’s creation that God has given to us. Our gospel reading from Luke 16 is a stewardship parable by Jesus. It’s often regarded by Christians as the least favorite of Jesus’ parables, probably because Jesus seems to hold up as a model for us a failed manager, an immoral, unethical person. It’s a story that begins with a rich man, probably a Gentile foreigner, an absentee landlord, who owns a farm in Israel, which according to historians was common in Jesus’ time. He arranges for one of the Jewish locals to be his manager of the farm while he is away. It would not be surprising if the manager was actually the former owner of the farm, who fell into debt and had to sell it. The rich man, the owner, receives disturbing news while he is away that the one he has put in charge of his farm, to manage it responsibly and produce a good return on investment, has not been a good manager, and is in fact squandering his property. Jesus has just told the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, and in Luke 16 we are introduced to the prodigal manager. The rich man then comes back to the farm, shares with his manager the stories of his bad management he has heard, and then fires his manager on the spot. The manager is in a personal crisis. He’s lost his job and is wondering about his future. But what the prodigal son discovered is what the prodigal manager will discover: a personal crisis isn’t all bad. A crisis is not pleasant to go through, certainly, but it can in fact bring a clarity to your life that you didn’t have before. When the prodigal son found himself penniless in the pig sty, he understood that life back home with his father would be far superior than anything he had in the present, and so he went home to his father. In the same way the prodigal manager, when he lost his job, received a clarity about his life. He knew he couldn’t dig for a living or beg, but before anyone found out that he was no longer a manager, he could go around reducing the debts of those who owed the rich man money, and they would be so grateful that he would invite him into their homes, and so he did and they did. It is both the rich man in the story and Jesus himself who affirm the manager in the end for good management. He failed as a manager the first time around, squandering the rich man’s property, but when he had another chance he managed very well, He used the power he was given as a manager to make friends for himself. And that is the test of whether we are managing our God-given gifts faithfully. You know that you are managing God’s gifts to you well when you use them to enter into new relationship with others, or use them to re-enter into old relationships that have become estranged for some reason. The gifts we are given by God are intended by God to put us into relationship with God and with others. And so when we use our God-given gifts in relational ways, we can be sure that we are fulfilling the purpose for which the gifts were given to us. To use our God-given gifts in the relational expression of love for God and others, we participate in the eternal. It’s comforting to me in the story that the man who initially failed his test as a manager is given a second chance, and this time he aces the test. Perhaps we have not done so well so far in our management of God’s gifts, but in God’s world there is always forgiveness and another chance to get it right. Today is a new day, with new possibilities for faithful stewardship. In your Sunday bulletin today is an insert on stewardship that is meant to give you a stewardship overview. I have tried to take an inventory and list some of the basic gifts that God has given to all of us, and then recall some of the Biblical guidance we have been given for the use of each one of those gifts. Sometimes in the church, church members hear that word “stewardship” and think that stewardship is just about money, but I hope you will see from the list that money is just one of many gifts that God gives us, and that God’s dream for us is (what I would call) a total life stewardship, where we are trying to being obedient to God with every single gift that God has given us. On this insert you will find the beginning of scriptural guidance to help you be obedient with each of these particular gifts. Whether you are young or old or middle-aged, whether you are a woman or a man or boy or girl, whether you are new to the church, or a longstanding member with deep family ties to the church, whether you are rich or poor or in-between, we all have this in common this morning: we have all been called to be faithful managers of the particular gifts God has given us. Some of us have more gifts to manage, some less, some in-between, but we can be assured that the particular gifts we have been given now are appropriate for us now. The Lord has determined that those gifts are right for us now and manageable for us now. If you prove faithful in the management of those gifts you have been given now, you may well be given more to manage in the future. In the next three weeks, we will dig deeper into what God’s word has to say to us about the proper, faithful management of three particular gifts God has given. But for now, on this, the first Sunday of stewardship emphasis month, I say to every single one of you: “Welcome to Management!”

  • “The Care and Feeding of Your Church Staff”(Deuteronomy 25:4; I Timothy 5:17-22)

    On my preaching schedule I ended up with an open Sunday today between two sermon series. I just finished the series “Lessons from The Sinai for a Church in Transition” and next week I will start a 4-week stewardship series followed by the beginning of the season of Advent. So today, on this in-between Sunday, I feel called to go ahead and preach to you a stand alone sermon I preach to all the churches in transition I pastor these days. It’s called “The Care and Feeding of Your Church Staff.” The interim time, I have found, is a really opportune time to talk to congregations about their relationship with their own church staff. A church member, after hearing this sermon, said to me at the door after the service, “That was a sermon only an interim pastor could preach!” And I agree. It is. It is my way of advocating for your church staff. Having been on a number of church staffs myself, I know personally that it’s a lot harder, if not impossible, for church staff to advocate for themselves, so I like to do it for them. Let me begin by first naming your current church staff and listing the paid work they do for this church: Noelle Read, Associate Pastor; Mandy Davis, Music Director; Annette Martin, Church Musician; Stephen Price, Youth Director; Jennifer Poag, Children’s Director; Gray Watson, Facilities, Grounds and Recreation Manager; Jackie Lollis, Office Administrator; Sandy Kallin, retiring Office Administrator and now part-time office consultant to Jackie Lollis; Lisa Moorehead and Shirley Stayanoff, Co-directors of this church’s Preschool. Let me say here what a delight it is for me to work with all your church staff, each one so unique and interesting and each one doing such good work on behalf of your church, all of them contributing to the whole. Sometime in the months ahead there will be an important new addition to the church staff, a new installed senior pastor, whom I am calling for now “Not David Bailey.” As you look forward to the coming of your new pastor, this sermon is meant to be a timely and Biblical and practical reminder of what you as a congregation can do to build a good and satisfying long-term mutual relationship with your own church staff. With stewardship season coming up, you might hear this sermon as a call to group stewardship of your church staff. I want to share with you this morning what the apostle Paul, a pastor, had to say to his young pastor protégé, Timothy, about how a congregation ought to treat pastors. As I read what Paul has to say to Timothy through the lens of my many experiences with church staffs, I notice that the passage has application not only for congregations and pastors, but for the congregation’s relationship with the entire church staff as well. Paul first brings up the idea that a congregation needs to give their pastor enough personal freedom to get his or her own needs met, even as she or he meets the spiritual and practical needs of the congregation. I would say the congregation needs to give this freedom to the entire church staff as well. To make this point Paul makes (what seems at first to be) an odd connection. He first brings up the ancient Hebrew law concerning the treatment of beasts of burden, which says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain.” When the Hebrew law tells the people not to muzzle the ox, it is recognizing the ox’s legitimate need to eat while it is working for the human being. The human who owns the ox might be tempted to muzzle the ox to keep the ox focused solely on the work of treading out the grain, and be fast and efficient in the work, but the ox is using up energy while it is working, energy that needs to be replaced when it is working. So God’s law recognizes that if you want to have a satisfying mutual relationship with your beast of burden, you have to keep the beast’s mouth unmuzzled, so it can be free to eat whenever the need arises, and keep up strength while working. Paul, interestingly, uses this ancient law in an unexpected way to talk about the relationship between pastors and congregations. Congregations, he seems to say, need to leave their pastors “unmuzzled”, so to speak, so that as they serve the congregation, they can get the things they need spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually, relationally, vocationally, so that they can continue to offer quality spiritual service to the congregation over a long period of time. Churches need to leave the whole staff unmuzzled as well. The muzzle is a symbol of human control, and Paul acknowledges in our scripture the congregation’s temptation to muzzle or control their pastor. But notice that Paul encourages the congregation to leave their pastors unmuzzled, uncontrolled, and I would say that that encouragement extends to the whole church staff. My own observation, being in and out of a lot of churches, is that the most vital Presbyterian churches I’ve been with give their staffs as much freedom as they can stand, and the staffs return the favor by being happy and very productive in their work for the church. They are examples of churches keeping their staff unmuzzled. When a congregation tries to muzzle or control their church staff it is really an expression of doubt or distrust toward the staff members and their work, a doubt that they will not do their work or do it well on their own without outside control, and that doubt is dispiriting to the staff member and it affects their work in a negative way. Unmuzzling, by contrast, is an act of trust by the congregation toward the church staff members, trust that they will do their work on their own and do it well without anyone needing to control them, and that trust is energizing for the staff. Practically speaking, a congregation, on the one hand, has a right to expect a certain amount of work out of its staff, the work actually described in their up-to-date job description, and needs to hold them accountable to doing the kind of work for which they are getting paid. But at the same time that you are making sure the congregation gets what they need from the staff, make sure as a congregation that your staff gets what they need as well. For starters, make sure each of your staff gets a day off each week, if not two, just like working members of this church. It’s best if it’s the same day or days each week and that the congregation knows which day or days it is, and that the congregation leaves them alone on those days. Make sure that your staff is taking all the vacation that they are given by the church each year. Presbyterian pastors all get four weeks of vacation each year to compensate for a pastor’s often long and odd hours in the work of the church. Insist that your pastor take all four weeks of vacation, and that your staff take all the vacation they are given. Make sure that your pastors are taking two full weeks of continuing education each year, which all Presbyterian pastors receive. All pastors need opportunities every year to get their buckets filled, to get spiritually and intellectually recharged, and keep current with changes in the pastoral profession. Insist that your pastors get away and go to conferences, workshops and classes. Be aware that Presbyterian pastors, sadly, average only 3 days of continuing ed. each year, when they are given two weeks. Make sure that they take the whole two weeks, both for their own sake and for the sake of the congregation. Church staff also need opportunities to fill their professional buckets. Make sure that your staff is getting enough time with a spouse and family. It won’t do the church any good if a staff member is a church workaholic, and letting his or her marriage or family fall apart. That kind of home neglect always comes back to bite the staff member, the staff member’s family and the church. A staff member needs to be encouraged to keep both the church and his or her own home life going at the same time. It’s always both/and, not either/or. The idea being communicated here, with the image of the unmuzzled ox, is to never forget that your church staff are not just church worker bees, but whole people, who need to pay adequate attention to every aspect of their lives in order to go on being a good effective church staff member. You want church staff who go the distance with you, and you’ll get that if you maintain interest in your staff’s whole life, and not just their work life with the church. Paul then talks to Timothy about the need of the congregation to pay their pastors fairly: ”The laborer deserves to be paid,” he quotes, which is right out of the mouth of Jesus. The idea here is that the pastor is rendering a legitimate spiritual service to a congregation, giving up life and time and energy and talent, and deserves to be compensated fairly for that work, just like any other laborer. The pastor doesn’t need to be overpaid or underpaid but just paid fairly and justly, in accordance with the going rate for that kind of work in a particular church in a particular location and the training and experience they bring to the work. It is also in the best interest of the church to pay all church staff fairly and justly. Then Paul tells Timothy that the pastor needs to be protected from members of the congregation from false, unfair accusation, and that is also true of all the church staff. There are always interesting spiritual and psychological things going on between a pastor and a congregation, and not all of them are necessarily good. If the pastor is being a true spiritual leader, and sticking close to Christ and God’s word, the pastor will sooner or later say or do something that will stir up the dark side in a church member, and this may come out in the form of an unjustified accusation against the pastor. And it can happen to other staff members as well. In order to protect the pastors and the staff, the Session and the congregation must never overreact or take too seriously the allegations of a single church member against the pastor. Paul reminds Timothy and us of the ancient Hebrew law that says that no one can be convicted of something on the basis of the testimony of just one person. There has to be two or three witnesses saying the same thing to take a charge seriously. If several people in the congregation accuse the pastor or other church staff of the same thing, that needs to be taken seriously as a potential pattern of unwanted behavior, and investigated. Then Paul reminds Timothy, and us, that even pastors are sinners, and sometimes need to be confronted, maybe even rebuked by church members with their sin. Pastors are sometimes put up on pedestals by their congregation, regarded as the perfect human beings who always do the right thing and never make any mistakes, and then when they do make mistakes, as they inevitably will, it always comes as such a shock to everyone in the church. I stand with the apostle Paul in reminding you that we pastors are sinners. We pastors have an unusual calling in life, and we have to take that calling seriously, but in every other way we are just like everyone one of you. We do a lot of good. But we make mistakes. We fail. We let people down. We say stupid things. We hurt people, sometimes intentionally, often unconsciously. We forget things. We can be insensitive to people’s needs and feelings. Pastors are real people, which means gifted, certainly, but also flawed, imperfect, as in need of Christ’s forgiveness as anyone else, and in need of the congregation’s forgiveness as well. The same can be said of all the church staff. Paul reminds you as a congregation that when you have been hurt by a pastor, or neglected, or offended, or disappointed, or sinned against, you have an obligation to go to the pastor and confront the pastor. Paul says you ought to rebuke your pastor in the presence of the whole congregation, but I think the words of Jesus actually trump Paul’s words in this area. Jesus in Matthew 18 says that if someone in the church sins against you, and this includes the pastor, you first go privately to that person and point out the fault, and hopefully the person will realize what they have done wrong and ask for forgiveness, and you will give it, and that will be the end of it. But Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, try it again with a witness in tow. And if that doesn’t work, rebuke the person in front of the whole congregation. So, ultimately Paul is right, but according to Jesus there are two prior steps you need to go through to get to that point and about 95% of the issues between a church member and a staff member can be resolved in a face-to-face conversation. All of that is also true in your relationships with all the church staff. If you have an issue with a pastor or other church staff member, understand that unless there is a conversation about it between the two of you, there’s probably nothing that can change. It may be very awkward for you, but I would say that you have a spiritual and Biblical obligation to go to the staff member and tell them when something is wrong between the two of you. Resist the impulse to stay silent. Resist the impulse to talk about the staff member to everyone in the church except the staff member. And especially resist the impulse to leave the church just because you don’t want to deal with the staff member about something that has become awkward. And don’t go to your church staff members just when something is wrong. Let them know as well when they are doing something right. If you just go to your staff when something is wrong, you won’t have much of a relationship with them. Your staff needs to hear your affirmations as well as your criticisms. In fact, the old rule of thumb is that it takes “10 atta boys” or 10 “atta girls” to equal one “you jerk!”. In my experience conscientious church staff tend to give far more attention and emotional energy to the criticisms, whether they deserve that much attention and energy or not, and that's why affirmations are so important as a counter-balance. The larger issue to which this points is that there needs to be feedback mechanisms set up for steady, regular communication between the staff and the congregation. The relationship between a church staff and a congregation, if you think about it, is a lot like a marriage, with all of the ups and downs that you have in marriage, and in marriage it is better to have too much communication than not enough. All those affirmations and some of the criticisms between a staff and a congregation need to be spoken and heard and dealt with, just as they do in marriage. To sum up, I think the apostle Paul is teaching Timothy, and us, how a congregation can help maintain the vital energies in its pastors and the church staff that they all need to continue to lead a church on an ongoing basis. It does it by unmuzzling the staff, that is, giving them enough freedom to get all of their needs met. By paying them fairly. By protecting them from false accusations. And by keeping the lines of communication open, so that the staff can be both affirmed often, and, when really needed, have the harder truths spoken in love.

  • “The View From Mt. Nebo” (Exodus 3:7-8; Deuteronomy 34:1-4)

    Today I finish up my sermon series called “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” In this series I’ve been taking us back to the time Israel was in the Sinai, a transitional place and time between their old life in Egypt and their new life in the Promised Land. Today I will talk about the interim time as a time for this church to envision its own Promised Land. Let me begin today with a story. 50 years ago one of our great preachers was preaching his last sermon. He’d be dead the next day. He didn’t know with certainty that it was his last sermon, but the words he spoke that night made some wonder if he might have had a premonition of his death. Here’s a part of what he said in that sermon: “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” The preacher was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Biblical image he was using was the one from Deuteronomy 34: Moses on Mt. Nebo looking down at the Promised Land just before his death. And the current event to which Dr. King was applying that Biblical image was the Civil Rights movement in America in 1968. Dr. King in that moment saw himself as a kind of modern-day Moses helping all of America see God’s Promised Land of transformed relationships between the races, marked by peace and justice and reconciliation, an end to poverty and an end to war. Dr. King reminds us that the Biblical notion of the Promised Land is still a potent symbol for God’s people, but whose meaning changes over time, depending on the human circumstances and needs we face in the present. The way Dr. King says in his sermon, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you,” makes me think of my role as an interim pastor. My role these days is to help churches see their Promised Land, that is, the future God has in mind for them as a unique church. Then I work to ensure a process by which a church will get the kind of pastor who will help the church get to their Promised Land. And then I leave the church in that pastor’s hands. Just like Moses, and just like Martin Luther King, I get to see the Promised Land but I don’t get to go there. Such is the calling of the interim pastor. And as the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11 reminds us, such is the calling of all who live by faith. We work for a future we will never experience. We see it from a distance and greet it from afar. We know it will come to pass without us, and we’re OK with that because we trust God and trust what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others. During 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, God sustained the Israelites along the way with a vision of the future he was giving to them: the Promised Land, otherwise known as “the land of milk and honey.” When God took Moses before his death up Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land, he was reassuring Moses that his 40 years of leadership would not be in vain. God’s vision was real and it had all been worth it. God was reassuring Moses on Mt. Nebo that he was about to give the Israelites the land he had been promising for years, even though Moses himself would not be going with them. Every church has been given by God a sustaining vision of its future, and my work as an interim is to help a church see that vision and that future. And here I would say that Interim ministry is different from what happened to Moses and Israel. Whereas God took Moses alone up to Mt. Nebo to let him see the Promised Land, as an interim pastor I am always trying to get the whole church up Mt. Nebo to look down together at the Promised Land God has in mind for them. The church needs to see their Promised Land all together before they start moving toward it. Perhaps you have seen programs on people climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. If you have, you may have noticed that every climbing party is assisted by Himalayan natives living on the border of Tibet called Sherpas. The Sherpas help carry the loads and set the ropes and ladders in a variety of ways prepare the way for the climbers to make it to the top of Everest. As an interim pastor I play the role of Sherpa, helping a whole church to get to the top of Mt. Nebo, so the whole church can see the church’s Promised Land. You didn’t need a Sherpa. You got to the top of Mt. Nebo without me and were already seeing your Promised Land before I got here. I joined you on Mt. Nebo when I came and read your Mission Study, which you put together with help from Holy Cow Consulting. Every church is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God, and so is Central Presbyterian Church. A mission study is an effort to say what exactly is unique about the church’s identity and mission. A mission study says, “Here’s who we are as a church. Here’s what is important to us. Here is what we feel called by God to be and do in this place and time. Here is what we anticipate our future will look like. Here is the kind of pastoral leader we need to get us to our Promised Land.” A mission study is an effort to speak the truth about a church in this time and place. What I have learned over the years as an interim pastor is that a church’s vision of its Promised Land doesn’t just fall like a rock out of heaven and land in a church’s lap. It is a divine/human partnership. And it takes work and time and patience. A vision of the Promised Land comes out of a variety of sources that are all become part of a larger conversation. And all the sources are essential—Christ, the scriptures, worship, prayer, church history, conversation between members currently part of the church. I realize that this might be new for some of you. The old way of doing church together was that when a church lost a pastor for any reason, the church would go out immediately and find a pastor with a vision for the church and have that pastor implement his or her own vision for the church, but today, and really since the early 90s, everything is flipped in the Presbyterian Church. Today your church, every Presbyterian church in transition, is being asked to first develop its own vision of its own Promised Land, and then bring in a pastor who can help the church realize its own vision for its own church and lead it to its own Promised Land. To me, that makes much more sense. I would say that the congregation knows itself and its needs better than any incoming pastor could. My role here with you at Central is to remind you how you see this church’s Promised Land and to keep that vision in front of you. That vision comes from your mission study, which was 226 of you, a meaningful statistical sample of your congregation speaking for the whole, standing together on your Mt. Nebo and looking at your Promised Land and describing it. How will you know when you are on the way to your Promised Land? First, You want to reach new people in your community, have them join you for worship and other church activities and then incorporate them into the life of this church. As an outsider to this church, I hear in you a longing to enter into relationship with new people. I would call this the work of evangelism and assimilation. I think of the first chapter of the gospel of John, which tells us that Andrew met Jesus and brought his brother, Simon to meet Jesus, and then Philip met Jesus and brought his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, and all four became committed members part of the Jesus’ followers community, which became the church. You need a pastor who will help you develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to do this kind oof work. When new people are again being drawn into this faith community and want to stick around and support it, you will be on your way to your Promised Land. Second, you want Central to be a healing community for people who have been broken in various ways by life circumstances. As an outsider to this church, I hear in you a longing for this faith community to have an authentic healing ministry here at the church. This is very Christ-like longing, for healing was a significant part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. I hear you say that you want to identify the ways in which people inside and outside the church are broken and provide healing through the church in ways that are not already being offered in Anderson. You need a pastor who can help you develop these healing ministries. When you see the church involved in the real healing of persons, you will be on your way to your Promised Land. Third, you want Central to create more opportunities to form meaningful relationships between members. As an outsider, I hear you say that you want to develop deeper, more significant relationships with one another. You want to know others better and be known by others. You want to love and be loved. You want to create more opportunities at the church for people to form those kinds of relationships. You want to create a deeper Christian community, just as Christ with his company of 12 disciples. You need a pastor who will help you create those opportunities. When you see more members forming more meaningful relationship with one another, you will be on your way to your Promised Land. Fourth and finally, you want to strengthen the process by which church members are called and equipped for ministry and leadership. As an outsider, I hear in you a longing for all the people in your church to feel called and equipped for service to others. Jesus himself said, I came among you not as one to be served but to serve. It sure sounds to me like the “priesthood of all believers”, which I spoke to a few weeks ago, which is so Christ-like and so true to the early experience of the church. You want this church to be the place where all members feel called and equipped to serve those outside and inside the church. You need a pastor who will help you strengthen the process by which members are called and equipped to ministry and leadership. When you see church members being called and equipped for ministry and service, you will be on your way to your Promised Land. You will know that you are on your way to your Promised Land when you have called a new installed senior pastor with interest and abilities to help you as a church in these particular areas. Overall, I hear through your own mission study a longing for relationship, a call into relationship, into relationships with new people, into healing relationships, into more meaningful relationships, into relationships of mutual service. Your Promised Land, which you see from the Mt. Nebo of your own mission study, is a future of new and transformed and transforming relationships, which by the way is all very Christ-like and very Biblical. As your temporary, interim, transitional pastor, I affirm your own vision of your own future as authentic and true, and I affirm your Pastor Nominating Committee’s efforts to find a relational pastor who will help get you to a relational future. My challenge to you as an interim pastor is this: what might we do altogether now during this interim time to get us moving in the direction of the relational future you are envisioning for Central church?

  • October 10, 2021 Romanticizing the Past, Complaining About The Present(Numbers 11:1-6; Exod. 16:1-3)

    I continue today my sermon series “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” Today’s lesson for a church in transition is this: don’t be like Israel in the Sinai when they were romanticizing their past and complaining about the present. The story reminds us that such behavior is not only dispiriting to your human leaders but a personal affront to God, who understands it as doubt about his goodness and faithfulness in the present. Let me begin with a story right out of our shared American history. I was born in 1957. The decade of the1950s is sometimes perceived as a kind of golden age in America. World War II was over, the soldiers were back home, and Americans, having defeated the enemy abroad, were now turning their attention and energy back home to building up America. The economy was going full tilt. There were lots of jobs available for people of all different levels of education and skill. It was a time of rising incomes and wealth. My father told me several times that anyone who was invested in the stock market in the 1950s was making money. Lots of people were getting married and starting families. There was increasing home and car ownership. Church buildings were going up at a rate not seen before and they were full as soon as they opened. We had a smiling, confident President in Dwight David Eisenhower, a former 5-star general who helped us to win World War II both in Europe and in the Pacific. Having him as President made everyone feel like a winner. There were lots of seemingly well-adjusted smiling families on 1950s television shows like the “Donna Reed Show”, “Father Knows Best”, and “Leave It To Beaver.” All that smiling gave the appearance that all was well in the 50s, and made everyone feel like all was well. But in spite of appearances not everything was well in the 1950s. There was a lot of fear in the land. The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War, building up against each other huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and there was constant worry in the 50s that the world would wink out in a sudden nuclear holocaust. Having ended a war in the 1940s, we were, in spite of all of our best intentions, back at war again in the 1950s, this time in Korea. Women in the 1950s, having had a taste of another kind of life in the 1940s, were beginning to chafe at the limited roles assigned to them, and were beginning to question the limited roles they had accepted for themselves, and a Women’s movement began to stir. Black people weren’t smiling in the 1950s. Life in America wasn’t happy for them, and the Civil Rights era was born. Several years ago a slew of personal memoirs came out, all of them written by white people who had all grown up in the American suburbs in the 1950s. All of them noted in their books how wonderful life in the 1950s seemed on television, how perfect the suburban households appeared, and then each of them told a horrifying tale of what had happened to them in the 1950s in their own homes, with their own families, behind closed doors, dark things that you never would have expected in those times. Those books blew the lid off the 50s and disabused us of any notion that the 1950s was a golden age. The 1950s turned out to be as mixed as any other age. But romanticizing the past is what human beings have a tendency to do, especially in challenging times. When we go through hard times, we want to believe that there was once a golden age, an age much better than the age we are in now, and we want to believe that if we can just get back to that golden age, if we can just reproduce everything that was once in that golden age, if we can just get back to the good ol’ days, then all will be well again. In the church I think we can celebrate and thank God for the good things God has done in the past, we can learn from them, but romanticizing the past never works. There are no good ol’ days, there is no golden age, and there is no going back. And if we become too fixated on the past, we are going to make ourselves continually unhappy in the present, complaining bitterly and repeatedly about what we don’t have right now, and we are going to completely miss what God is doing among us in the present, which may be different from what God has done in the past. King Solomon, noted for his practical human wisdom, confronts us bluntly in the book of Ecclesiastes whenever we try to romanticize the past. He says in chapter 7, verse 10, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Jesus would come along later and say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” That’s what happened to the Israelites during their interim or transitional time in the Sinai desert. They went through a period of romanticizing the past. And if it had been left unchecked, they might have gone back to slavery in Egypt and given up on the Promised Land that God so much wanted to give them. The problem was that they were focused for a time on what they didn’t have during the interim time, which was a wide variety of foods to eat, so they began to romanticize the past when they did, which happened to be in Egypt. During the interim time they had manna and quail to eat and water to drink. In Egypt they remember eating meats of all kinds, fish, melons, cucumbers, onion, garlic. So suddenly they are thinking that their time in Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. After all, they had a lot of things to eat, and now they didn’t. Romanticizing the past led in turn to complaints about the present, about what they didn’t have, and complaints about their human leader Moses, who they became convinced without any evidence at all had brought them out into the desert to die. Moses was a remarkably constrained leader. I am afraid that if I were their leader, and heard them romanticizing their past in Egypt, I might have said, “Are you people nuts? You are remembering fondly all the foods you ate back in Egypt, but while you do that you are conveniently forgetting one teeny tiny little detail of your life in Egypt: YOU WERE SLAVES! AND NOW YOU’RE NOT! FOR 400 YEARS YOU AND YOUR ANCESTORS WERE SWEATING IN THE BRICKYARD, MEETING YOUR QUOTA OF BRICKS EVERY DAY FROM SUN UP TO SUN DOWN, NEVER HAVING A DAY OFF. AND NOW YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO YOUR LIFE IN EGYPT JUST SO YOU CAN GET THE TASTE OF CANTALOPE IN YOUR MOUTH AGAIN? ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MINDS? (You can understand why I was not chosen to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.) But this is what human beings do. Wherever we are in life, we zero in on what we don’t have in the moment, and then romanticize the time when we did, conveniently blinding ourselves to some of the not so attractive things that were going on at the time. Romanticizing the past has been a temptation in every church I’ve pastored, and it could be a temptation for Central during this interim time. You might be tempted to go back to the time when David Bailey was here, or the time there were 900 members here, which was the numerical high point of the church. The challenge for Central is to live now, in the present, to figure out together what’s possible now, to figure out what God is doing among you now and figure out what God is calling Central to be and do in this time and place, to try to understand what people living now in this community are wanting and needing in a church and how to provide that while staying true to your own history and traditions. I remember hearing a church leader speak a few years back who was not trying to romanticize the past, nor complain about the present, but was trying to get us as a church to deal forthrightly with the present that is given to us. He told us that when people show up our churches these days, they are looking for one or more of the following three things: they are looking for God, they are looking for friends, they are looking for purpose. And we as a church would do well to try to provide those three things. He said people are still looking for God in their lives because every one of us is born with a God-sized hole that only God can fill. They are showing up at church hoping to find people who know God and can help them know God. And you would be surprised, he said, how often they show up at our churches and can’t find God. Let your church be the place that people find God. Then he said people these days are looking for friends because they are so lonely. With all of our modern-day technology, we are as connected as ever with other people, but even with all that, we are as lonely as ever, and people don’t want to talk openly about loneliness because it is just way too personal and intimate and painful. When you see people show up at church, don’t underestimate how lonely they might be and how in need of friends they might be. Be a friend to them. Finally, he said people today are looking for a purpose, a mission beyond themselves, something that involves them seriously in the lives of other people with needs they can fill, something that involves them in the Great Divine Work of healing that is going on in the universe. People today want their lives to count for something, to be meaningful, and they are assuming that the church can get them connected up with meaningful work. Make sure always that your church has meaningful work that people can be plugged into. As a church, let us not romanticize the past. Let us remember the past, celebrate it, and give thanks to God for all of it, let us learn the necessary lessons from the past. But as a church let us not romanticize the past, but rather live in God’s present and live into God’s future. The church today is different than the church in the past, the people in the church are different than they were in the past, and the people we want to be in church with us are different than they were in the past. If we are romanticizing the past, we are going to miss the new thing God brings us in the present and the future, which requires something new of us. Instead of romanticizing the past and complaining about the present, let us rather be led by the word of God through the prophet Isaiah, who said, and keeps saying by the Spirit: “I am about to do a new thing, says the Lord. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

  • October 3, 2021 -“Provision in the Wilderness” (Psalm 105:37-45; Deuteronomy 2:7 )

    I continue today with my sermon series “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” Today’s lesson is a reassurance of the Lord’s provision during the wilderness time. Just as the Lord provided everything the Israelites needed during their time in the Sinai, the Lord will provide everything you need as a church during this interim time for you. Let me begin with a story. One summer, long before marriage and children, I decided to go with a friend to visit Glacier National Park in Montana. We drove east from Seattle, where we were both living at the time. We stopped for lunch on the way and got out our map and noticed for the first time that there was a shortcut to Glacier through the Flathead Indian Reservation, so, wanting to save miles, time and gas, we took it. We were both talking to one another intently about something and not paying attention to much of anything else. When we got somewhere around the geographical center of the reservation, all of a sudden the engine in the back of my Volkswagen beetle went silent, and we coasted for a little while and then pulled over by the side of the road and parked it. As I prepared to go through my mechanic’s checklist of possible causes of engine failure, the first thing I looked at was the gas gauge, and sure enough the needle was on empty. I completely lost track of our gas situation and ran out. My first thought was, “Lord, why did you let this happen?” And I imagined the Lord saying back to me, “Don’t look at me. You did this to yourself.” We sat there and debated what to do, but there really weren't many options. It was the time before cell phones and GPS, so it was not as if we could call anyone for help or know exactly where we were. We were miles and miles from anything, so it was pointless to start walking. Neither of us could remember how far back the last gas station was. The only thing we knew to do was to pray to God for rescue and wait by the side of the road, holding up a white sheet of paper that said, "Out of gas." The problem was that there was no one around, no one coming by, no traffic through the Indian reservation. Not one other person that day, apparently, had gotten the bright idea of taking the shortcut through the reservation. I had such a terrible feeling of powerlessness. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't help myself. I was totally dependent on God and on the kindness of a stranger who might stop by. A whole hour went by without us seeing even one car or one person. I remember during that hour of silent waiting conjuring up a rescue fantasy involving a Presbyterian truck driver coming through the Indian reservation in a big rig, a long gleaming silver gasoline tanker truck with a handy little nozzle in the back to fill me up, but no big rig came. What came instead was a faded red, beat-up old pick-up. A lone Flathead Indian man got out and sized us up warily from a distance. Since he wasn’t coming over to us, I went to him and tried to chat him up a bit, but he wasn't very chatty. I did manage to tell him that we had run out of gas and needed help. After a long uncomfortable silence, he told us that the only thing he had in the back of his truck was a gallon gas can full of chainsaw gas, a mixture of gas and oil, but, if we were willing to give it a try, he would sell us a cup of it for a dollar. I didn’t jump at it. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Inside I was saying, “Lord, a cup of chain saw gas for a dollar? Is this really the best you can do?” Then I was suddenly alarmed at what a mixture of gas and oil in my gas tank might do to my engine. Never tried that before. I thought the oil might foul my spark plugs and then I’d have a second problem on my hands. But then I had one of those moments when I realized God's salvation sometimes appears in unusual forms, and that day God's salvation may well have come in the form of a Flathead Indian man offering to sell me a cup of chainsaw gas, and that maybe no other help was coming that day. So, after taking one last look in vain down the road to see if that gasoline tanker truck was coming, I coughed up the dollar. The man then reached down into the bed of his truck and produced a green plastic measuring cup and measured out exactly 8 ounces of chainsaw gas, which I very carefully took from him and poured into my gas tank, preserving every drop. Then, I got into the car, pumped the accelerator a few times and cranked the engine, and the engine roared back to life, with the chainsaw gas causing a cloud of blue smoke to pour out of the back of the car, and we were once again on our way. I learned again just how far you can go in a VW beetle on a little bit of gas! We went for several miles until the engine went silent again. But luckily the man in the truck had followed us and offered to sell us a second cup of chainsaw gas, and I handed over a second dollar and we were on our way again. This time we made it off the reservation and ended up coasting into a gas station, where we could fill up completely. When I think back to our rescue that day, I am sure that the Lord was there helping, but not in ways that I had expected. The rescue wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was what we needed. It got us to where we were going that day. The Israelites’ time in the Sinai, which was their interim or transition time in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, was like that. God rescued them in so many different ways. But it wasn’t always what they wanted, and they complained bitterly and repeatedly about that, but it was what they needed, and by the end Moses reminded them that in their entire 40 years in the wilderness God made sure that they had lacked nothing of what they needed. As I read through the story of the Sinai experience, I am reminded that the interim time, then and now, though a challenging time for the people of God, is a time for receiving God’s grace. God does so many things for us during the interim time that we cannot do for ourselves. It’s pure grace and gift on God’s part. The best thing we can do during the interim is to be alert for God’s grace, actively looking for all the ways God is meeting us at our point of need, and to witness to it when it comes. The challenge for us during the interim time is that God’s grace often comes in forms different than the ones we want or expect, and, if we are not careful, we can miss God’s grace when it comes, or we can assume that God is not active at all in our lives, not even present. What we want and what we need in this life are often two different things, and God knows us and is far more interested in what we really need rather than in what we want, and is actively giving the things we really need. God, I perceive, is not in the business of fulfilling our fantasies but in meeting us at the point of our real need. The source of much human unhappiness in life is focusing on what we don’t have instead of on those things we have already been given. Our trouble begins when we focus on fantasies not fulfilled instead of on needs consistently met. In the Sinai story, God was working astounding daily miracles in the life of the Israelites during their interim time, in the midst of a seemingly lifeless, godforsaken desert, rescuing them from 400 years of slavery, protecting them from harm when Pharaoh had second thoughts and sent his army to kill them, guiding them through Moses and a moving cloud by day, and at night by a pillar of fire, keeping 600,000 of them alive every day in the desert with carbohydrates in the form of manna, hydration in the form of fresh water, and protein in the form of the bird known as quail, giving them clothes that never wore out, providing for them spiritually and practically with worship, a tabernacle, and the ten commandments and the rest of the law, so that they would never have to live again by the whim of a Pharaoh and live instead by an established law that everyone knew and could apply. Over 40 years in the Sinai, Moses, said, God made sure that the Israelites had lacked for nothing. Jesus in his own earthly ministry revealed this same God at work through him, the God who is able to care for us and provide for us no matter what we are going through. Jesus, just like God in the Sinai, responded to human need in an astonishing variety of ways. Jesus fed the 5,000 and the 4,000, healed the sick, forgave sinners, preached good news, taught about the Kingdom of God, ate with outcasts, sought out the lost. As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, we recall how Jesus presided as host at the table on the night before he died, caring for the 12 disciples at the table both physically and spiritually in the ways they needed. Jesus is the good shepherd of Psalm 23, providing the sheep, that is the people, with everything they need, just like God did for Israel during 40 years in the Sinai wilderness. I am here as an interim pastor to reassure you that God is just as active with you now in your wilderness time between installed senior pastors. Just as God cared for the Israelites in the Sinai in the ways they needed, so God will care for you in the ways that you need during this interim time. God is shepherding you through this time in ways you may not even by aware. Churches have varying degrees of anxiety during the interim time. One of the main fears of churches is that the time without an installed senior pastor in the church will necessarily be a time of declining attendance, membership and giving, and that the longer a church goes without an installed senior pastor, the more decline there will be in members and funding. My actual experience with churches in transition suggests otherwise. In the many churches in transition I have pastored, there has not been decline at all. There is not typically much growth in a church during the interim time, either, since people new to the church are reluctant to join the church until they have met the new installed senior pastor and are reassured that they can enter into a relationship with that new pastor. In my experience during the interim time churches typically do not realize their greatest fears nor achieve their greatest hopes. Rather, churches mostly maintain their position numerically throughout the interim. What is harder to calculate, but just as real, is how God strengthens a congregation and bonds it together during these interim times. Spiritually speaking, the interim time ends up being unexpectedly one of the best things that can happen to a congregation. When the new pastor finally comes, it’s a big sign of the Lord’s ongoing faithfulness to a congregation. During the interim time the congregation often learns a lot about itself and its community. There is some good listening and communicating going on. The church sometimes ventures out in new directions, or deals with old issues that are overdue in being addressed. There is a new voice coming from the pulpit that the congregation is able to hear in a new way. Churches at the end of my time with them will often say to me, “Well, that wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it was actually a pretty good time that I think we’ll all look back on with fondness.” One person said to me, “You kept calling the interim time our time in the wilderness, but in truth it felt more like being in an oasis in the wilderness.” Congregation, believe with all of your heart what the Sinai story says and what my own past experience confirms: the Lord is here at Central even during this interim time and providing what you need right now. You may not get everything you want during this time, and you may not enjoy everything you had with David Bailey here, but it will be everything the Lord thinks you need right now. I am confident that you, too, will look back at this interim time and come to the same good news conclusion as Moses did after the Sinai time and say together: we lacked for nothing.

  • September 19, 2021 -“The God-centered Community (Exodus 7:14-16)

    I continue this morning my sermon series called “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in transition.” I am taking us back to the time that the Israelites were in the Sinai wilderness in-between their old slave life in Egypt and their new abundant life in the Promised Land, and I am very intentionally taking us back to that time to help you as a church successfully navigate this in-between time between the formal end of David Bailey’s ministry and the coming of your future pastor. Today’s lesson from the Sinai for you as a church in transition comes from the words God directed Moses to say to Pharaoh before Pharaoh gave the Israelites their freedom: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” This became a kind of mantra for Moses, which he began repeating every time he went in to address Pharaoh God makes clear through Moses that whatever else the Sinai time was for the Israelites, and it would be about a lot of things, it was to be primarily about recentering the community of former Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire as the center to God as the center through the worship of God. In the same way, the time between installed senior pastors for a church like yours, that is the interim or transition time, is about a number of things, but primarily it is about recentering this church in God mainly through the worship of God. During the time I am with you worship will be for me the most important, most central, most vital activity that we do together, and I hope it will be for you, as well. If you schedule is so limited that you don’t have time to do much of anything, I hope you will make time at least for worship. The interim time is meant to be a time for spiritual renewal in the church through worship, and one of my many roles as an interim pastor is to be a renewal preacher for you. So what is worship? What is worship meant to be and do? Let me tell you a story. In 1473 a baby boy was born in Poland who would grow up and forever change the way we think about our world. His name was Nicolaus Copernicus. He was an astronomer and a mathematician. He was privileged to make one of those rare discoveries that ended up being a game-changer ever after for the whole human race. His discovery produced what a modern-day philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, would come to call a “paradigm shift.” A paradigm is a model or construct we carry around in our heads that helps us understand the world and our lives, help us interpret all of that. A paradigm shift is when something happens that completely changes that model or construct and leads us to a fundamental rethinking of everything in life. For thousands of years before Copernicus, human beings thought the earth was the center of the universe and that all the heavenly bodies in the universe revolved around the earth, and by implication human beings thought of themselves as the center of the universe as a result of living on the earth they thought of as the center of the cosmos. This idea of an earth-centered universe was just accepted without thinking from generation to generation as conventional wisdom. Copernicus read the notes of others who had previously looked at and thought about the cosmos, looked through his telescope, developed his own mathematical proofs of what he was seeing, and concluded in time that the earth was not the center of the universe at all; rather, the sun was the center of a solar system, and the earth was just one of several heavenly bodies that revolved around the sun. Copernicus taught us the shocking truth that we are not the center of life in the universe after all, but like so many other things in the universe: just one of many along for the ride. It was such a huge change in the way human beings thought about the world and themselves that it took the human race a good 100 years or more for Copernicus’ idea to really sink in and be widely accepted, but, once it was, it became known as the “The Copernican Revolution.” So what is worship? Worship, like the Copernican Revolution, is for us a paradigm shift that leads to a reconsideration of where the center of life is. Worship shifts our attention away from the people and things and ideas of this world that we thought were the center, to God, who actually is the center of it all, and that shift in attention is intended to cause a revolution in the way we think, speak and live in this world. 2500 years before Copernicus another paradigm shift happened, a revolution even more important than the Copernican one. A spiritual and religious revolution was underway in the Egyptian empire led by a Hebrew man named Moses, who by an odd set of circumstances had grown up in the Egyptian royal palace. In his idealistic youth Moses murdered a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand. When the crime was discovered, Moses fled as a fugitive into the Sinai and herded sheep there for 40 years. At the end of that time he had had a special spiritual experience in the desert at the burning bush, encountering the God identified as “Yahweh”, a loving power in the world that Moses would learn was greater than Pharaoh and the whole Egyptian empire. By the end of that holy encounter Moses felt compelled to return to Egypt, and he did, and the next he knew he was standing in front of Pharaoh saying, ”Hear the word of the Lord: let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness,” So what is worship? It’s a paradigm shift. It is a regular reminder that God is the center of this universe, and in charge of it. Pharaoh, for all of his power in the world, was not the center, nor was the Egyptian Empire he led, nor was any other human leader or empire that would follow. In worship I am reminded that I am not the center, and you are remined that you are not the center. In worship we are reminded our spouse is not the center, nor our children, nor our parents, nor our teacher, nor our boss or workplace, nor even our church. In worship we are reminded that our money is not the center, or our lifestyle, our fears or greed or lust, or our dreams or ambitions. In worship we are reminded that our particular brand of politics or our nation is not the center, our particular social and economic theories are not the center. In worship we rediscover each week that God is the center, our creator, Savior and Sustainer, the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ as described for us in the four gospels, In worship we rediscover that when we put this God at the center of our lives everyone in our lives, and everything in our lives, is put in its proper place. Worship is the reorientation of one’s life that comes from regularly acknowledging God as the center. In worship there is a dethroning of all the people and things and ideas we thought were the center, and a new acknowledgement of God who sits on the throne of our lives and puts all of our people and things in their proper place. A friend I had long ago, and now long since dead, once came to me with this happy pronouncement, “I have found the secret to life”, he said. “From now on I am going to make my wife the center of my life.” I knew the man in the years leading up to that as a small business owner who had been a chronic workaholic, and whose wife contemplated divorce for the previous six years because the man was always at his business and never home. She kept telling him, “I didn’t marry so I could spend my life alone. I married you because I wanted to be with you.” I told the man that knowing his history he had taken an important first step, but I encouraged him to take it a step further and make God the center of his life. I told him if he put God at the center of his life, he would find that his marriage and business and everything else would all fall into their proper place. My wife, Molly, as you may or may not know, is a hospital chaplain, and she has that special something that makes people talk to her out of some of the deepest parts of their lives. She once attended a musical recital which took place in a Presbyterian church, and after the recital she found herself unexpectedly in conversation with a stranger, a woman, the mother of a teenage musical prodigy who had just performed. This mother told Molly that she had made her son the center of her life, gave him everything, provided him with every opportunity, poured herself into him, and now, after all that, she confessed that she did not like the way he had turned out or even how she had turned out. He was an unhappy kid, dangerously imbalanced, with an unhealthy obsession with his musical instrument that had pushed other good things out of his life. This mother was full of regret and in despair that she had given her son everything in life except God and the church and faith, and being back in the church building that day for the first time in years was surfacing in her all that regret and despair. She said they just never seemed to have had time for God or for the church or for faith. It was a cautionary tale, I thought, about the damage we can do to one another when we try to make each other the center of our lives instead of God. You will notice in our gospel story this morning that Jesus himself was in the habit or custom of going weekly to worship at the Synagogue. Weekly worship was a spiritual discipline for him. On his trip back home to Nazareth, he went to the synagogue for Sabbath worship, and Luke lets us know that going to worship weekly was his custom, his habit, his ddiscipline. As Presbyterians we pride ourselves on living by the grace of God and in the freedom we have in Christ. The emphasis in our Presbyterian faith is on what God has done for us, not on what we do for God. The popular Christian writer Phillip Yancey, though not Presbyterian, speaks for us as Presbyterians when he writes, “Grace means there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.” We believe that, too. It’s all about God’s grace. God has done everything that needed to be done through Christ, and we embrace God in Christ. But what has troubled me as a Presbyterian pastor over the years is that we Presbyterians increasingly use the grace of God and our freedom in Christ to neglect the very spiritual discipline that Jesus himself exercised during his earthly life, that is, the custom or habit of showing up for worship weekly in the synagogue every Sabbath. In Presbyterian churches I pastor these days, only 1/3 to ½ of the membership show up for worship each week, even before COVID, including the online segment. And over the years regularly attendance at worship no longer means weekly, but every other week, or once a month, or once a quarter. The trend is that Presbyterian Christians worship altogether less and less as time goes by. I don’t think it bodes well for the future of the church. My primary concern as a pastor is that when we neglect weekly worship and the weekly recentering in God it brings, we open our lives to another kind of center, which will be so much less than the God we know in Jesus Christ. We all have a center around which our lives revolve, and that center is either going to be God or something much less than God. Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. Weekly worship keeps God at the center of our lives, which in turn puts everything else in our life in its proper place. I notice that one of your recent mottos or slogans for this church was “God At The Center.” Our scriptures today remind us that what keeps God at the center in a church is regular worship together. I invite you as a whole church to join me in regular worship during this interim/transitional/wilderness/Sinai time to make sure that “God at the Center” is a living reality for us all, made possible by regular worship together. My hope as an interim pastor is to present you to your next installed senior pastor as a whole congregation committed to regular worship together. Hear again the word of God through Moses: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” And hear again Luke’s description of the spiritual practice of your Lord Jesus Christ, who you place your trust in and follow. Luke’s gospel says “He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”

  • September 12, 2021-“The Roundabout Way” (Exodus 13:17-18a)

    Beginning today and for a month of Sundays I will preach a series of sermons which I am calling “Lessons from the Sinai for a Church in Transition.” You as a church are in transition between installed pastors. David Bailey, your pastor of twenty-three years has retired, and it is not yet clear who your next pastor will be. For lack of any name at all, let’s just call that future pastor “Not David Bailey.” There is only one David Bailey in the world, and so I am confident in saying that whoever your Pastor Nominating Committee calls is going to be someone other than David Bailey. Sometimes a search committee will ask me to explain what an interim pastor does, and I often explain one aspect of being an interim pastor by using the analogy of a winetasting. When you go to a winetasting, you sample a number of wines from different bottle lined up on the bar, and the winery gives you something to eat in between each wine, bread, cheese or a cracker. The idea is that you need to cleanse the palette from the last wine in order to properly appreciate the next wine, which is very different from the one you just had. In David Bailey you enjoyed a fine wine of a pastor. My sense is that your next pastor is going to be another fine wine, but a very different sort of fine wine from David. Some of my work among you as an interim pastor is not to erase your pleasant memories of David, which I hope will stay with you to the end of your life, but to work on your tastebuds, cleansing your palette, and get your tastebuds ready to receive and taste that new pastor, who will be a new but very different fine wine from David Bailey. As an interim pastor I find that churches in transition are reassured to find out that they are by no means alone in going through transition. Every church goes through transition sooner or later. The exciting thing to me is that when you read the Bible you find all kinds of individuals and groups who have gone through transitions ahead of us and they have left behind Bible stories about their transitions that help us navigate our own. My favorite transition stories are from the nation of Israel when they went through their own transition in the Sinai wilderness. Their time in the Sinai was really their in-between time between their old slave life in Egypt, which they had left behind, and their future life of abundance in the Promised Land, which had not quite come into view. You find in these stories a rich treasure trove of wisdom for the transition time, both for individuals in transition and churches in transition, and I want to share with you what I regard as some of the more important ones. Today’s lesson from the Sinai for a church in transition has to do with the unexpected way that God led the Israelites during their transition. Bible scholars tell us that it would have been possible for Moses to lead 600,000 Israelites from Egypt into the Promised Land in two weeks flat. Our story this morning tells us that God chose instead to take the people to the Promised Land in the longest way possible. When they leave Egypt and cross the Red Sea and go into the Sinai Peninsula instead of going East straight into the Promised Land, they take a hard right south toward Mt. Sinai in the southern peninsula and eventually go northeast from there to the Jordan River, the door into the Promised Land. Shockingly, it is a route that will take them two years to get to the Promised Land instead of two weeks. It’s a route the story describes as “the roundabout way.” In our own time a roundabout is one of those things we encounter when we are driving. Virginians call it a “roondaboot.” (Those Virginians! They’re such a hoot!) Some call a roundabout “a traffic circle.” City and county planners call it a “traffic calming device.” Two truths about a roundabout: when you enter one, you can’t go fast, you have to slow down, and you can’t go straight, you have to keep turning. We live in a world where everything has become so fast and efficient. A world of instant gratification. You order something on Amazon Prime these days and its on your porch before you know it. So living as we do in that world that puts such a premium on speed and efficiency, the question we might bring to our story this morning is “Why in the world would God choose to lead the Israelites during their transition time in the roundabout way, instead of in the fastest, most efficient way?” The story does provide one answer. God knows that if they try to go too quickly into the Promised Land, they will get into a premature war they are not prepared to fight, and when they are pushed back, they may in fear try to hightail it back to slavery in Egypt and forget all about the Promised Land. So you could say that the short answer for the roundabout way is that they are not yet ready to go into the Promised Land. God knows them so well and knows that they will need extra time and preparation. As their journey through the Sinai goes on, other good reasons for the roundabout way will come into play. The interim or transition time in a Presbyterian Church, that is, the time between installed pastors, is a lot like the roundabout way. It takes awhile. As an interim pastor I am averaging 18 months with a church a transition. In my experience the average time it takes a church to produce a good mission study is 6 months, and the Pastor Nominating Committee from its inception to calling a new pastor takes an average of 12 months, though in particular churches either one could be shorter or longer. This time in transition will be OK for some of you, but not for others. Some of you may grow impatient and frustrated. Some of you may feel that the church has already been too long in the wilderness and on the roundabout way, and news that it may be longer may not be welcome news. In my previous work with churches in transition some church members have been fond of pointing out that when the Methodists lose their pastor, a new one is in the pulpit the very next week. Same in the Catholic church. When a Fortune 500 company loses their CEO, a new one is found within a month. So what is it with Presbyterians? they ask. Why do we take so long to get a new pastor? I would say, first, that when you talk to members of Methodist and Catholic churches, they will tell you that their own system of replacing pastors has produced mixed results, some good pastors, some bad, some in-between. They rely on a District Superintendents or Bishops to decide which pastors or priests go to which churches, and the higher ups don’t always know their congregations as well as they might and they don’t always get the right match, the right pastor or priest for the right church. So I would not say that the Methodist or Catholic system is superior because it’s faster. Nor would I say that the Presbyterian system is better or worse than others, just different. Next I would say we Presbyterians work out of our own unique history with our own churches, and what we have decided for ourselves, based on our experience, that what is best for our churches is that churches need some space, some distance between their pastors. In some cases, like yours, they need time to grieve the loss of a beloved former pastor, what we interims call the “BFP”, or in other cases churches need time to work through their anger over a pastor they feel betrayed them. No matter who the last pastor was, we Presbyterians believe the church needs time and space and some distance to come to terms with their feelings toward the last pastor, whatever those feelings happen to be. This is especially true for churches, like yours, who have recently had long-term pastors. You have 23 years of history and thoughts and feelings to process. In our experience as Presbyterians it doesn’t usually work well for a church to try to rush to get another pastor in quickly, just as it doesn’t usually work for us as individuals to get out of one relationship for any reason and jump right into another one quickly, what we often call a rebound relationship, and we all know that rebound relationships don’t usually work out that well. We really need time first to process the old relationship so we can fully embrace, that is, give ourselves completely to, the new relationship. And that, of course, takes time. Another thing that takes time between installed pastors is helping a church figure out together who they are uniquely as a church apart from the last pastor. A pastor comes and is influential in the life of a congregation, though the reality is that some new things a pastor brings stick in a congregation, and some things don’t. So at the end of a pastorate, a congregation has to ask: what stuck from that pastor and what didn’t? Who are we now? And who are we going forward without our last pastor? It’s been our experience as Presbyterians that the better a church in transition knows itself, the more likely it will be to call the pastor who will be best for them in that time and place. Let me tell you a story. Years ago I was home one night watching TV but really not paying much attention, and a new TV commercial suddenly came on that did get my full attention. It was a commercial for a new internet dating/matchmaking site called What really got my attention was not the Eharmony service—not interested, I am very happily married, thank you very much, not wanting to date someone other than Molly—no, what got my attention was the Eharmony spokesman. He was a kindly looking older white-haired man named Dr. Neil Clark Warren. His name and face seemed so familiar, and then I suddenly realized he was one of my former seminary professors at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California. Unknown to all of us seminary students, Dr Warren, who had advanced degrees in both theology and psychology and was a practicing marriage and family therapist, had been working on this business possibility on the side while he was teaching us at seminary. I was in mild shock seeing all this. Anyway, because of my seminary connection to Dr. Warren, I went to his website just to find out what he had come up with while he was teaching us. And I learned that if you wanted this matching service and were willing to pay for it, you had to first answer 500 questions about yourself—500!-- and your 500 answers became the basis for matching you up with others who had also answered the 500 questions. My first reaction was, “Boy, Dr. Warren, aren’t you nosy!” But eventually it dawned on me what Dr. Warren’s premise was for his matchmaking business. He believed that the person most likely to find the right life-partner for themselves was the person who knew himself or herself best. The more you know about yourself, the more likely you will be to get into relationship with the appropriate person for you. Years later, when I took interim pastor training, I suddenly realized that what was true for people who were being matched up with others by was true for churches as well. The churches who know themselves best are the churches who consistently end up with the appropriate pastor for them in that time and place. And so as an interim pastor I am all about taking time during the transition period to help a church really know itself, to say clearly who it is and, in some cases, who it isn’t. You have done that through your mission study, and I am supplementing that study with interviews of elders, deacons, staff and members of the congregation. Ultimately a church’s self-knowledge enables a Pastor Nominating Committee to confidently say to a pastoral candidate, “Look, here is who we are as a church. This is what we feel called by God to do in this time and place. Here is where we’re going. If you can help us as a pastor to be who we are and help us do what we feel called to do, and if you can help take us to where we’re going, we are very interested in you becoming our next pastor. If not, maybe another church would be more suitable for you.” I remember reading Greek history both in college and seminary, and two of the great Greek maxims that came out of the high point of Greek civilization were these: “Everything in moderation” and “Know thyself.” John Calvin, the great church reformer, and our spiritual forefather as Presbyterians, would not disagree with the advice to know thyself. He began his master work “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” by writing “Nearly all the wisdom we possess consists in two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves”, and he went on to say that each informs the other. Coming to know God and yourself. You see, that’s the part that takes time and cannot usually be rushed. An interim pastor colleague once sent me a greeting card in the mail that I have since framed. It pretty much sums up the message that all of us interim pastors are trying to convey to our churches in transition. The card offers six short imperatives: “Slow down. Calm down. Don’t worry. Don’t hurry. Trust God. Trust the process.” In our speeded-up world, you as a church in transition may wonder if there isn’t a shorter, more efficient, better way of replacing your pastor. Then you enter the strange world of the Bible. We meet there a sometimes strange God, our creator, savior and sustainer, who says in Isaiah 55 “My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We meet in the Sinai the God who does not share our enthusiasm for speed, who does not always share our other modern values, and challenges us to exchange our values for his, values that include a preference for the long, slow way of transforming us and our churches into who we were meant to be. Today in our scripture we meet the God who invites us on an epic journey: “Come with me. Let me lead you in the way I once led the Israelites through the Sinai--in the roundabout way.”

  • September 5, 2021 -“Spirit” (Isaiah 43:18-25; Mark 1:9-13)

    Our gospel story this morning is the story of Jesus’ transition from private life to public ministry. The story is a reminder to us that all of our human transitions take us through a wilderness in one form or another. The best metaphor I’ve found for a church like yours, in transition between installed senior pastors, and for all of you going through your own individual, is being in the wilderness, and so it is my practice to begin every interim pastorate with a series of sermons based on Bible stories set in the wilderness. Today I will preach on Jesus’ time in the wilderness, as well as my own. I will point to Jesus as the model for us to follow when we are in the wilderness, and I will tell my own story both as an example what not to do in the wilderness and as a reassurance to you that God is with you in the wilderness and caring for you even when you are not handling the wilderness very well, and will guide you safely through the wilderness. Let me begin. I find our story today from Mark jarring. It’s jarring to me that Jesus goes so quickly from the light of being declared “beloved” by the voice from heaven at his baptism by John in the Jordan to being driven immediately by God’s Spirit into a darker wilderness experience, being tested for 40 days by Satan, being threatened and scared by the wild beasts, while simultaneously being waited upon by God’s ministering angels. Jesus has no time at all to bask in his own divine belovedness, but is immediately driven into the wilderness for testing. And Jesus clearly does not volunteer for the testing. It is God who, as part of his love for Jesus, sees Jesus’ need for testing before Jesus starts his public ministry, and it is God, through the Spirit, who “drives” him into the wilderness, much as a cowboy drives a steer before him. Well, I am not Jesus, and never will be, but it was just as jarring to me when something like it happened to me. Back in 2008, at the low point of the Great Recession, I said goodbye to the church family in Tennessee I had pastored for 20 years so we could follow Molly’s call to be a hospital chaplain in Tampa. The church and I had had the usual ups and downs together, good times and hard ones, but, all in all, it was a good pastorate, a good church, and our ending together was full of mutual warmth, affection and affirmation, and we were able, each in our own ways, to pronounce one another Beloved. Almost immediately my own time in the wilderness began. Molly had already moved to Tampa to begin her work. My two sons were off to begin their first year of college and high school, respectively, and it was left to me alone to close out our life in Knoxville and get our stuff moved to Tampa. I still do not entirely understand what happened, but as I got closer and closer to moving, I began 30 days of fear like I have never known. It never happened before and it hasn’t happened since, but for a month I was scared to death. The move to Florida turned out to be my wilderness; a voice was trying to get me to settle for something less than my new calling; my worries and fears were my wild beasts within; a hitchhiker was my angel; and when it was all over I was turned down for a position I thought I wanted and had, and began my new journey as an interim pastor. Being a human being is both a blessed and vexed thing. Both. We’re all such a mixed bag of stuff: light and dark, rational and irrational, faith and fear, faith and doubt, strength and weakness, virtue and sin. If you live long enough you will discover parts of yourself that will surprise you, things that don’t fit in with your own image of yourself or the image that others have of you, things that you never knew were there and never expected to be there. My fear did not just play out in my head. It had real and severe physical consequences for me. My pulse and blood pressure skyrocketed and would not come down. I went to my doctor twice during this time, and he first doubled and then quadrupled my blood pressure medication. It was like my adrenal gland was stuck in the wide-open position. I wasn't sleeping at night. At night I had weird prickly sensations running up and down my arms and legs that made me wonder if I was getting ready to have a heart attack. I wasn't eating. I dropped 20 pounds in a month without even trying, getting down below my weight in high school. I remember having trouble thinking and speaking during this time. My brain seemed like it was in slow-setting concrete. The words just weren’t coming to me like they used to. I thought I might have had a stroke. I remember talking to Molly in Florida several times during this period, but I couldn’t seem to talk about my distress, couldn’t put my any of it into words. Physically and emotionally I was a wreck. Spiritually I just felt empty. I remembered during that time being worried about everything all the time-- money and work and health and parents and children and housing. My mind would attach to a worry and hold onto that worry like a bulldog, passing entire nights not sleeping but imagining the worst in that area. I was in such bad shape that, unknown to Molly, I was just on the verge of calling the movers and telling them to forget the whole thing. In the end I didn’t do that, thank God, and the movers came and got our stuff. Then it was time for me to drive our remaining car to Tampa. I had to get the car to Tampa and then catch a plane out of Tampa to Seattle to care for my mother during her knee surgery and then help her with her recovery over the next two weeks. I remember feeling so anxious and tired as I began my 700 mile trip, and really in no shape to be driving. But, as you know, certain things have to be done at certain times of life, and sometimes whether you want to do something or not, whether you feel like it or not, you just put your head down and will your way through it. So I started driving south, down I-75. After only an hour on the road I was still feeling bad, so I pulled off at an exit and went into a McDonald's and asked for the biggest Coke they had and walked out with one of those 44oz. monsters and started guzzling it, thinking that a good jolt of caffeine and sugar would do the trick for me. It didn’t. As I got on the freeway on-ramp, I passed a young man, a hitchhiker with a duffle bag at his feet, sticking out his thumb, wanting a ride, and suddenly for the first time in 20 years I found myself braking, opening my door to a complete stranger on the highway, waving him in, and giving him a lift. I’d like to say I was doing it for him, but I was doing it for me. I was in such bad shape that I thought he could grab the wheel if I blacked out, or maybe even take over the driving for me for awhile, or, with any luck, maybe even drive me all the way to Tampa. If nothing else, I thought he could at least talk to me and keep me distracted from how bad I was feeling. It turned out to be the latter. He put his duffle bag between us, got in next to me, and immediately started spilling out his story. He was 24 years old and had been hitchhiking for the last 8 years, on the road since the age of 16. He claimed to have been in all 50 states. He told me that in eight years he had never had a home, a job, or any real possessions to speak of. He said the only money he had ever had in his pocket was money given to him in passing by kind strangers. He told me that he had never been to church, and wasn’t religious except in a very vague and general way, but did believe in God, and told me that for the last eight years he had begun each morning praying to God and asking that his needs for that day would be met. He told me that for eight straight years he had trusted God to provide for all his needs, whatever they happened to be on that day, and the Lord had come through for him in a wide variety of ways every day of those eight years, which he listed for me. Then he told me that a big reason for his hitchhiking all the time was that he was a follower of a band called the Grateful Dead, and followed them on their concert tours. He considered their music deeply spiritual and full of the love he needed. He told me he was part of a community of Grateful Dead followers which called themselves “Deadheads”, which served as a kind of church for him. He said that at one point the Deadhead community actually held a name-changing ceremony for him, and re-named him "Spirit", and he liked the name so much that he had abandoned his birth name and accepted the name Spirit as his new name and new identity and introduced himself to everyone from then on as “Spirit.” Spirit stayed with me in the car just long enough to get his story out, about an hour, and then he said he wanted out at the next exit. He said he was going in another direction, so I got off the freeway and dropped him at a convenience store. And that was the last I ever saw of Spirit. Never heard from him again But I could not stop thinking about him the rest of the way to Tampa, or in the years since. I had that funny feeling that I had just been visited by one of God’s odd angels. In the Bible there are a number of stories where people open their door to a stranger and it turns out to be God or the resurrected Jesus or the Holy Spirit or an angel, giving them at that moment just what they needed. That’s one of the reasons the Bible writers encourage us to practice hospitality to strangers, because strangers can be angels, bearing gifts we need at the moment. During one of the hardest transitions in my life, I felt like God met me on a freeway onramp in the middle of nowhere. In a vulnerable time of my life I opened my door to a stranger and in breezes Spirit. What are the odds? If that wasn’t a set-up job by the Holy Spirit, I don’t know what is. As I look back I can laugh now. It was such an odd and humbling scene. There I was a 50 year old seasoned Presbyterian minister who had preached and taught many times on the need to let go of fear and trust God wherever God happened to lead you, and yet there I was unexpectedly in the iron grip of fear and resisting all the way. And into my life comes a young man, half my age, not a preacher, not a church goer, not even a Christian, a Deadhead, teaching me how to live again, how to live in trust instead of anxiety. It was as if the Lord had said to me, “Look at this guy. If I can take care of him every day on the road for eight years, working only through strangers, surely I can take care of you, you of little faith. Stop worrying and relax.” Well, it didn’t happen right away. I kept worrying for another two weeks, but Spirit kept speaking to me in my heart and then the voice of fear within gradually gave way again to the voice of faith. And now I stand before you not only with the authority given to me by our denomination at my ordination, but now also with the authority given to me by my own hard-won life experience. And with that double authority, I bear witness to the truth of the gospel story before us. I hear the story say: Don’t be surprised if, as followers of Jesus Christ, something of Jesus’ story ends up in your own, not exact but close enough. Don’t be surprised if at some point in your life you are driven into a wilderness of some kind. Wilderness comes in many different forms, but they all have this common: they are all wild places in life that you do not control, God does. Don’t be surprised if during your wilderness time you go through some sort of testing. If it happened to Jesus, it may well happen to us who are followers of Jesus. And if it happens, remember that testing is not God setting us up for failure, but God in his love strengthening us to fulfill our calling, just as testing strengthened Jesus for his calling. Don’t be surprised if during your wilderness period you hear a voice other than God’s trying to get you to settle for something less than your calling. We know from the gospels of Matthew and Luke that the voice of Satan in the wilderness tried to get Jesus in three different occasions to settle for second best. Like Jesus, you may have to learn again during your wilderness time how to say No to that voice so that you can again say Yes to God. Don’t be surprised if during your wilderness time you encounter a few wild beasts along the way, either inside of you or outside of you, beasts that threaten you and scare you and maybe even overwhelm you. Don’t be surprised if during your wilderness time you meet some of God’s angels along the way, God’s messengers, who speak to you and help you to navigate the wilderness, with its different voices and wild beasts, to get you to your true calling. It’s the presence of angels who let you know in the wilderness that even when you don’t know how to handle your own life, there is a God who knows how to handle you, and will. From my own experience of being in the wilderness, I would say to you in your transition: Having fears is part of the human experience. Most of us will never know fearlessness. The most frequent commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear” and why do suppose that is repeated so much in the Bible? Because God knows that we are all fearful human beings who need lots of divine reassurance. In spite of your fears, trust God, trust the process. Don’t allow your fears to paralyze you or keep you from going into the new thing that God has prepared for you. As individuals and as a whole church, choose to live in the house of faith rather than in the house of fear. Here is wisdom from our faith confirmed in my own actual lived experience: living in faith leads to life; living in fear leads to death. Look for those openings of the Spirit in this transition time that just don’t happen at other times, and be willing in spite of your fears to go through them. Things open up during a transition that are not open the rest of the time. Congregation, you are in the wilderness right now, in that transition time between installed senior pastors. And in this transition, whether you realize it or not, you picked up a hitchhiker of your own. I am going to be with you in your car while you drive through your wilderness. Oddly, I who once resisted my own transition, have now been called to be with you in yours, perhaps doing for you what a young man named Spirit once did for me.


    I Timothy 4:11 - 16 & II Timothy 4:1 - 5 On July 4, 1982 I preached my first sermon as the pastor of the West Avenue Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, N.C., entitled “New Beginnings.” Today, 39 years’ worth of Sundays later, I’m preaching my last sermon as the pastor of this congregation. I certainly don’t anticipate this being my last sermon, just the last sermon as the installed pastor of a church. We have some wonderful friends with us today who were with us from the very beginning in Gastonia. Mike and Judy Daniels were already there before us, along with their twin sons Ben and Jay. Jim and Linda Ratchford joined the church the same day Claire did and their girls, Katie and Hanna, were baptized at near intervals with Erin and Allison. Other wonderful friends from Dunn, NC had planned to come today but learned that a family wedding was scheduled for today rather than yesterday. And I am surrounded by wonderful friends from here at Central Presbyterian Church. It is hard for me to feel anything today but an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I’m thankful to God for having given me good health with which to serve. I’m thankful to God for giving me gifts of perseverance and courage to step into the pulpit even on Sundays when I didn’t really want to go there because I didn’t feel worthy or didn’t feel I had prepared well or I knew some of the congregation was not going to like what I had to say. I am thankful to God for placing me in congregations with lots of people with open minds, good senses of humor, and forgiving hearts. Otherwise, I might have become just one more in the multitude of ministers who have left pastoral ministry. Preaching is not the only task of ministry, though it is certainly the most visible. There are plenty of jokes about preachers only working one hour a week, and Linda’s mom famously asked her years ago what my real job was. The right to be heard on Sunday mornings rests on two foundations which must be tirelessly built. One is relationships of trust with people built by being a faithful pastor and friend; and the other is time spent wrestling with Scripture and prayerfully seeking to discern God’s message for us today. Though it is not the only task of ministry, I’d like to talk primarily about preaching this morning in the hope that it will reinforce for you the value of it. When megachurches emerged with big screens and rock bands and theater seating, I confessed to you that I am a dinosaur and not made for that. I hoped that there would continue to be people for whom a more traditional style of worship would be appealing, and I have been rewarded more than amply with that, with people from all generations. The craft used in writing and preaching a sermon is seldom used any more, sadly even by preachers. Listen to the way Barbara Brown Taylor described it in the pre-megachurch era. She writes, “No other modern public speaker does what the preacher tries to do. The trial attorney has glossy photographs and bagged evidence to hand around; the teacher has blackboards and overhead projectors; the politician has brass bands and media consultants. All the preacher has is words. Climbing into the pulpit without props or sound effects, the preacher speaks – for ten or twenty or thirty minutes – to people who are used to being communicated with in very different ways. Most of the messages in our culture are sent and received in thirty seconds or less and no image on a television screen lasts more than twenty, yet a sermon requires sustained and focused attention. If the topic is not appealing, there are no other channels to be tried. If a phrase is missed, there is no replay button to be pressed. The sermon counts on listeners who will stay tuned to a message that takes time to introduce, develop, and bring to a conclusion. Listeners, for their part, count on a sermon that will not waste the time they give to it. The sermon, then, proves to be a communal act, not the creation of one person but the creation of a body of people for whom and to whom one of them speaks. A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it.” (The Preaching Life, pp. 76-77) If that sounds a bit mystical, that’s the way it should sound. If the Holy Spirit is not at work during sermon time, we will be wasting our time. Sometimes I’ll get to the end of the sermon and have this bad feeling that I completely failed to get across the important things. It’s hard to go to the door after those sermons and make you file politely past me trying to find encouraging things to say. But invariably on those Sundays somebody will come through the line just beaming and will mention something that I said and tell me it made a big difference to them. On the other end of the spectrum, there have been days when I felt really good about the sermon only to have someone come out and say, “Are you okay today? You don’t seem too with it.” And so it goes. For an introvert like myself, preaching is a weekly gut-wrenching exercise in revealing some aspect of who I am. I hate trying to tell someone beforehand what the sermon is going to be about, and I really didn’t like preaching them twice when we were having two services. For me, the task of preaching absolutely demands honesty from me, which leads to the weird situation of me frequently telling 300 people plus whoever watches online things that I would have a hard time telling one person in a conversation. If you had told me when I was a teenager that I would stand in a pulpit and do this a couple of thousand times, I think I would have asked you to just go ahead and shoot me. The biggest single surprise for me in the ministry has been to come into the sanctuary week after week after week at West Avenue, at First Presbyterian, Dunn, and here at Central, and find people here. Occasionally someone will remark that the crowd was a little low at church this week, but I can never view things that way since I am amazed that anyone comes! There are lots of other things to do, churches to go to, preachers to listen to. Don’t hear me wrong. I know that the majority of good reasons to come to church on Sunday morning have absolutely nothing to do with me, and that is as it should be. But I hope you will allow me on this one occasion to say that your presence here – and there – is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God calls us into partnership to be a community of faith together. Thank you for that. A number of years ago Jack McIntosh gave me a wonderful book entitled Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. It is about a third generation minister who, at 77, thinks he will die soon and is writing a journal for his young son. His old sermons are packed away in boxes in the attic and they dominate his thinking quite often. He counts up all the sermons he has preached and the number of pages in each one and realizes he has written as much as John Calvin and St. Augustine. He writes in his diary, “It would be worth my life to get those big boxes down. It’s humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then have to find a way to dispose of it. There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn’t mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through 50 years of my innermost life. If I don’t burn them someone else will sometime, and that’s another humiliation. “I suppose it’s natural to think about those old boxes of sermons upstairs. They are a record of my life, after all, a sort of foretaste of the Last Judgment, really, so how can I not be curious? Here I was a pastor of souls, hundreds and hundreds of them over all those years, and I hope I was speaking to them, not only to myself. So often I have known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.” (Gilead, pp. 18-19, 40-41, 69) Those words describe poignantly for me the relationship between a preacher and his or her sermons. They are extensions of ourselves, almost like children. And as such the sermons are as deeply flawed as we are, and we know that. We realize, when we are honest, that they should be burned when it’s all said and done, yet the producing of them is surrounded with an air of mystery and grace and even sacred space, not to mention figurative blood, sweat and tears. It is an amazing privilege in one’s job to study and pray over God’s Word at length and attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage in that enterprise with you. My hope and prayer is that in the long run the sermons have brought hope and joy and good news to people, as well as a challenge to live the way God calls us to live through Jesus Christ. When I entered Columbia Seminary in 1978 I had a pretty basic understanding of writing sermons being like teaching a class or writing a lecture or book report every week. But there was a brand new preaching professor named Tom Long who had just arrived from Erskine Seminary, and he was not going to let us go out into churches with that mindset. The first thing he did was have his preaching classes read a book by Frederick Buechner entitled Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. It approaches preaching as a creative, imaginative type of truth telling which is willing to live with ambiguity and unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers. It acknowledges that there are times for grieving and times for uproarious laughter. This book, and Tom’s modeling of preaching, has greatly influenced my approach towards preaching, though I seldom if ever approach its vision. I want to close with a passage from the book which gives a powerful picture of what is going on when we gather here on Sunday mornings. “The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them? Let him tell them the truth… Let him use words, but in addition to using them to explain, expound, exhort, let him use them to evoke, to set us dreaming as well as thinking, to use words as at their most prophetic and truthful, the prophets used them to stir in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve. Let him use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have words for asking and to hear the silence that those questions rise out of and the silence that is the answer to those questions. Drawing on nothing fancier than the poetry of his own life, let the preacher use words and images that help make the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them, which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the Gospel of our meeting.” (Telling the Truth, pp. 23-24) And so I am thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. I pray that God who began a good work within you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your ears and hearts to those who will stand here in the future attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. David J. Bailey June 27, 2021 Central Presbyterian Church Anderson, SC

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