The Heart of Religion

The great physicist Richard Feynman once described what he and other scientists were doing this way: “[The Universe] is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules.” I think he was right, but his analogy scares me a bit. People who attempt to learn something, like chess or swimming or religion, often get fascinated with irrelevant customs and nonessentials. A child may think that it is impossible to learn to swim without a blue bathing suit or that chess (or science) is only played by boys.

Pentecost 17
Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dusting the Altar Rail

Do this: while you’re reading Solomon’s dedication prayer for the temple, take a can of Pledge and dust the altar rail. If your church doesn’t have one, take a few moments to complain about that fact (the architect must have been a pagan). Solomon admits that God doesn’t need an altar rail to be worshiped — in fact his great temple didn’t have one. Actually, his whole temple was an altar rail and the courts around it equivalent to the kneeling pads we place before our rail. In church language, people come to the altar during prayer time, even if they don’t leave their pew.

Pentecost 16
Sunday, August 23, 2015

Specializing in Wisdom

Today if you want to know something, you Google-it. Works for discovering the lyrics to the song in your head, knowing how to tell if your pomegranate is ripe, and for looking up the population of Canton, Ohio. Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia dispense a lot of useful knowledge — people even buy smart-phones so as to never have this wealth out of reach — but, where is wisdom? What is Wisdom? People should hear about wisdom in church often, because it is our business. Internet-based information sites out perform bricks and mortar religious institutions when it comes to answering peoples’ questions.

Pentecost 15
Sunday, August 16, 2015

Joe:  OK, so it is Monday after “one of those weeks.”  During the past seven days you have (1) conducted two funerals, (2) been informed by the chair of your Trustees that the church’s air-conditioning system is dying and the Fellowship Hall’s roof still leaks, (3) are facing the need to exit a long-time staff member because of ongoing performance issues, and (4) have verified that the church’s worship attendance was lower this quarter than any time during the past three years.

Is this attitude permanent?

Loving Jesus in a Gluten-Free World

In John 6, Jesus causes a scandal by claiming to be the bread of life. The word bread itself is problematic today; many people are on gluten-free or low carb diets. This leads to three sticking points around Jesus and bread.

Pentecost 14
Sunday, August 9, 2015

Poignantly Paul

From the prison cell, where he is cut off from the lifeblood of Christian fellowship, Paul speaks with clarity about how church is meant to be. Ephesians 4:1-16 should be read by those nominated to church office, should be responsively chanted at church council meetings, and should be prayerfully kept in mind as we enter our fall reorganizational and vision casting gatherings.

 

Pentecost 13
Sunday, August 2, 2015

First let me say that this cartoon gets it wrong. True: bagpipes are hideous when badly played and serve such a narrow range of music that they are the butt of many jokes. Yet when I try to imagine the music that will be played in hell, my closest reference point is to ask, what kind of music was played by the Nazi party during their conquest of the German people? It is unlikely that Satan has the same musical tastes as Hitler, but I think their utilization of music will be similar.

 

What music is being played in Hell?

PG Rated Bathsheba Story

I once preached about David and Bathsheba on a dare. It was during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. The dare was that I had to preach about the President’s problem at the 11 o’clock worship service where there would be families with young children. The parishioner that challenged me knew that I was the lone democrat in a congregation of republican wolves. I chose the Bathsheba story then, and I think it is worth considering again.

 

Pentecost 12
Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What Changes and What does Not

One way to say something different about the familiar Psalm 23, is to list the things that are constant about our relationship with God and give personal examples for each. Then point out that the psalm deals with the scary changeableness of life and its great transitions. This contrast, lulling people into a security with the familiar aspects of their favorite psalm, then hitting them with the harsh realities that demand faith, can be effective, if you don’t show your hand ahead of the big reveal.

Pentecost 11
Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mistaken for a Dead Man

Guilt is a funny thing. Like humor, it depends upon ambiguity. Everyday we do things that are wrong, but we tend to only feel guilty about the ones that have some confusion to them. Remember the story that Jesus tells about the rich man and Lazarus; the dude with a Rolex on his wrist and a Porsche in the drive, walks by the beggar at his door, never feels guilty, and doesn’t realize that he has contributed to Lazarus’ early death by his neglect. The rich man lives, we assume, a very purpose-driven life, with clear goals and no time for soft-headed things like charity.

Pentecost 10
Sunday, July 12, 2015

As we enter into patriotic reflections this weekend, it is good to remember that there are three things that we cannot change; the past, the truth, and other people. The church and her people need to be involved with social change. This involves honoring the past, speaking truth, allowing change to begin within our own walls, and then reaching out to be change agents. The AME Zion church has walked this path. President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, one of the Charleston martyrs, contains some lines that are helpful and inspiring:

Clem led both in the church and in the political process

Dependence not Codependence

Long ago I read a sci-fi story about a world where appreciation was the currency, not money. Gold was plentiful, so people tried hard to be liked. I can’t remember much more about the story except that it ended badly. It’s not healthy for us to devote too much of our  lives to the pursuit of popularity. At the time, I thought the sci-fi story was far fetched. How could you monetize appreciation? Guess what? I’m on Facebook and I need to be Liked, I have a blog and I track how my hits, and when I preach, I listen hoping to hear people say, “Good sermon, Bill.”

Pentecost 9
Sunday, July 5, 2015

Some churches have confederate flags in disguise. U-umc had a memorial chime set in its belfry that played four times a day at two notches above what the neighbors could tolerate. Trustees explained this inconsiderate behavior by saying, “But it’s our tradition. We have members in the nursing home two miles away who helped pay for those chimes.” Sacrifice by past generations doesn’t give you a right to be insensitive.

 

"It's my tradition," the trustee chair says.

Holy Interruptions

Prayer should interrupt our lives. This is something you learn when you travel in other lands. In the middle-east, the call to prayer wails from a minaret and suddenly people stop what they are doing and pray. In Asia, the crowds part and you see orange robbed young men with their begging bowls. Life can be interrupted by the search for enlightenment.  These men have taken a hiatus from their career path to pray. There is something universal about Psalm 130’s, “Out of the depths I cry to You… be attentive to my supplications.” Unfortunately, we have segregated our prayer to an hour on Sunday and a building.

Pentecost 8
Sunday, June 28, 2015

This isn't Me

Little David goes up to the front line, lunch pail in hand. Everyone around him is dressed like a soldier. They have khaki pants with big pockets to put their grenades and candy bars in. They have helmets with Go-pro cameras and night vision goggles. They have riffles that shoot around corners. And when David volunteers to face Goliath, the soldiers offer to trade clothes and let him wear their cool stuff.

 

Pentecost 7
Sunday, June 21, 2015

One of my favorite books tells the story of Grover, the blue Sesame Street character. He’s on a farm and doesn’t know what his role should be. Should he cluck and peck the ground like the chickens? Should he roll in the mud like the pigs? Each animal tells him that they have their role in the joint covered. On the final page of this plot boiler, Grover discovers that he is supposed to be a farmer. 

 

What should he do?

The Holy Process

Jesus talks farming in Mark chapter 4. This gives rural people and gardeners an advantage, but means that you’ll have to till the ground a bit more carefully to explain it to people who aren’t normally aware of organic processes. Jesus says that the growth of holiness in our lives and in the world is an organic process, like the gradual transition of seed to plant to fruit to the easing of hunger. One could also speak of the process of acorn to oak to wood to house to home.

 

Pentecost 6
Sunday, June 14, 2015

In light of the troubles at FIFA, and at the Red Cross, and knowing that I will be attending a meeting of the grand poo-paws of the United Methodist Church next week, I present a remembrance of Richard Feynman. He was a clown, prophet, atheist, and one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. Famous for picking the locks and leaving ‘got-cha’ notes in top secret file cabinets at Los Alamos, where he worked as a theoretical physicist on the Manhattan project, Feynman was asked to serve on the commission investigating the Challenger explosion.

First, you must not fool yourself & you are the easiest person to fool

Political Problems

It is hard to bite the hand that feeds you. It requires courage and a whole hearted dependency upon God to do it more than once. Thing is, people who keep people, like pets, and feed them everyday in paternalistic ways, are many. Most of us belong to something or someone who is happy to feed us. Three notable exceptions are Groucho Marx, Jesus of Nazareth, and the prophet Samuel.

 

Pentecost 5
Sunday, June 7, 2015

Back in the 1970s, Loren Mead identified “Five Developmental Tasks” for transitional leaders. In the next few weeks, some of you will be moving to a new church and/or your church may be recieving new leadership. These five tasks provide a check list for healthy transition:

 

1) Help the congregation come to terms with its History.

Things get crazy when we move

Speaking of Addiction

Here is a challenge: use these words, “for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (Romans 8:13) to speak about addiction. I say this cautiously: first, because the passage speaks in a very elegant way about the Holy Spirit and most congregations need to hear that message. Second, because none of us want to repeat the judgmental, temperance, language of our grandparent’s church. Third, because only a few in the church will be ready to hear the message and act upon it.

Pentecost 2
Sunday, May 31, 2015

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