Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Short Sermon for St. Thomas

Today's gospel lectionary text for the 2nd week of Easter comes from John 20:19-31:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

Thomas has a reputation. He is known as doubting Thomas. He is ridiculed because he needed proof that it was Jesus who was resurrected. He had to see the marks on Jesus's body for himself.

I propose that we are much more like Thomas than we think.

Credit: Pat Byrnes
How curious that yesterday, on Earth Day, there was a March for Science that was held in cities and towns around the world. As with other recent marches, it is entertaining to read the signs and enlightening to hear the stories about how science saves lives. Modern science is a marvel, and we owe a lot to the Enlightenment thinkers that were curious enough to discover how the world works.

But those same early thinkers were up against a religious culture that demanded you accept things on faith alone. Often imprisoned, sometimes tortured, the early astronomers were forced to recant their findings. Great plagues were not seen as a problem with rats and the fleas they carried, but a sign that God was punishing for sin. The Church of the day didn't necessarily want people to think about things for themselves--it is much easier for religion--and government--to keep people living solely in faith and not in the enlightened ways that were coming from science, philosophy, and sometimes showing up on the doors of churches.

Today we live in a time that has for the most part accepted the findings of science. Of course some things exist in theory, but those theories are good ones and some will be proven some day. Some Christians do refute things like evolution, global warming, a round earth(!)--but like the religious leaders of old, they are living against what is known--a last vestige of a population living on faith only. The rest of us live as people who have seen things proven. And we are more like Thomas than we know.

Living on faith alone is fine unless it harms others. Bringing live, venomous snakes into worship can be about faith, but those snakes bite and kill. Saying that the rapture is imminent so we really don't need to take care of the environment creates a harmful attitude for our children who will have to live with our dumping of toxic sludge and polluted waterways.

As a Christian, I'd rather be like Thomas. Give me a bit of proof of some things. Let me hear the stories and decide for myself. Let me look at the archaeological findings and see what I can learn about the life and times of the biblical characters. Let me actually see you live your faith, and I'll know if it is truly a good thing or not.

Legend has it that Thomas went all the way to India after Jesus's ascension--the very fact that he needed proof did not hold back his witness. Whether you live closer to faith or science, there is a place for your story as well. Yes, Thomas will always be known as the doubting disciple, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrected Church Attendance

After a month of not attending church services, my Sunday guilt rose to a new high on this High Holy Day of Easter. I looked for a church to attend; and in the process, found a new paradigm for the next year: it's time I took my boys on a "road-trip" of congregations to let them experience what is the same and what is different about worship. My oldest son is all for this. My youngest is missing our old congregation a lot. Middle son is indifferent. But we went for it anyway.

Today we attended a UCC church in Cary. I had been drawn to go there due to the rainbow comma that they had placed at the street sign. I pass by there every week, and I had heard the pastor speak last October at a preaching conference I attended.

Things to remember for next time: get there at least 10-15 minutes early so that you can be greeted, sign the visitors' book, and peruse the worship folder to see if there is anything you need to help your children with--like how the prayers of the people would be done and how communion is handled. As it was, we got there right on time. Luckily, we were greeted, given a first-time visitor's bag, and the greeter helped us find seats in the seasonally packed sanctuary.

The best thing about today is that the sermon spoke to my heart letting me hear exactly what I needed. I have been missing this from Sunday morning worship for many months. My heart has been resurrected through the act of corporate worship as well. At least for this week, I will not feel as though something is missing.

My oldest was surprised by how short the sermon was. This led to a great theological discussion on how denominations emphasize different aspects of worship. Baptists have always held the sermon as the most important part--a reason why baptist churches put the pulpit front and center. After the sermon today, there was still offering and communion.

As we were walking in, my youngest wanted to know if they would get a paper to draw on. I didn't know, but to my surprise, they had a familiar sheet from Illustrated Children's Ministry (the same one that I had purchased for my recent church experience). And there was a sharpened pencil in the welcome bag--my youngest 2 shared it as they worked on the activities.

I'm excited to see where this church adventure takes us. As a parent, I am responsible for my children's spiritual development. One of the things that I loved as a teen was the times I got to experience worship a little differently. I hope that I can expose my boys to new ideas and that we can have more theological discussions. It might even be interesting to write a book on what we/I learn in this time of wandering.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In Church Limbo

People come into a church. People leave the church. But do churches know the reason why?

It is easier to find out what attracts a person to start coming to a church with some regularity. It is easier to ask them outright. Most people are eager to help the church leaders know.

But it is more difficult to find out why a person leaves a church. This is mainly because church attendance is sporadic for most attendees. It used to be that regular church goers attended every week; but these days, attendance once or twice a month is the definition of a regular church attendee.

For some small churches, no one is keeping track of why parishioners leave. They miss one, two, three Sundays; and no one ever follows up. Whose job is it supposed to be anyway? So people, families drift away. There has to be a way of following up and keeping people connected. But I think many churches fail at this.

As for me, I've missed the last two Sundays at my church. I'll miss again on this coming Sunday because it is one of the rare Sundays where I have to work. No one has reached out to me to find out the reason. I guess everyone assumes I've left. Maybe they think I've moved--that was a rumor for a while. So many have left our church in the past year. Yet I too have been guilty of not following up and finding out why.

Sickness has kept me away from church for the past two weeks. After a month of no church attendance, if I go back, would I still be welcome? Has the congregation already written me off? Is there anything left for me?

Monday, March 06, 2017

Teaching Youth Sunday School

Since September, I have taught in Sunday School for the handful of youth at our church. It was a natural continuation of teaching 5th graders last year, and it has been a surprisingly wonderful experience for me. This stands juxtaposed with a youth Sunday School class I taught almost a decade ago--a class in which I spectacularly failed. So with time comes wisdom; and here are the things I've learned this time around.

1. Connect the stories. The best way to remember is to see the connection between things in the bible. When we talk about Jesus sharing the Passover meal, we review what Passover is and why Jesus would be celebrating it. We use the things that is covered in World Civilization class at school to talk about where the story of Jesus fits into history and why Jesus came at a time when more people were receptive. There is value in story because it allows youth to see that maybe they fit into the story of Jesus as well.

2. Don't go into class with all the answers. One thing I love is to discuss those gray areas where the bible contradicts itself. Bumping Ezra and Nehemiah against Ruth when talking about the way the foreigner is treated. Using Jesus' teachings to talk about what we see in the present day--these are ways to get youth thinking. They don't need answers in Sunday School--they need to think...which leads to....

3. Remember that youth are brand new abstract thinkers. It's a big difference from teaching preschoolers. Youth want to ask the "what if" questions and think through scenarios. Sunday School can be a safe environment for that discussion.

4. Sunday School is different from a youth group gathering. In our church, Sunday School is learning about the bible stories--it is bible study. That keeps us on task. There needs to be a separate time for each in your church, but not so strict--there can be a blurring of the lines if a youth wants to discuss a particular problem.

5. Most important of all: food. I have fed the youth every week except the week that the Boy Scouts had a pancake breakfast one Sunday morning. These teenagers need a second breakfast. Having it consistently lets them know that they can have time to get their thoughts together while putting jelly on their biscuit. And if they come late, they may not get the doughnut that was there at the start of class. With a handful of teenagers, this was quite doable for me. It might take a parent rotation if a group is larger. But food is a good way to start. Fellowship is important.

It has been fun to teach youth Sunday School this year--and I never thought I'd be doing it. But in teaching the youth, I have learned that with a bit of food and respect and kindness, it has been a great class to teach. 

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Giving Units

A few years ago, I was in a budget meeting for my church where I first heard the term "Giving Unit" to describe the people in the congregation who regularly gave to the church. At first it seemed kind of funny to me. But later I reflected that it wasn't all that funny. I have come to despise the term in the last few years.

The problem with being a "Giving Unit" is that it only takes into account the financial gifts that a person contributes. I had a conversation with fellow church member a while back who was sorry that her family could not contribute more. Yet this woman had been active in many areas of ministry--giving her time and talents. I truly believe that time and talents are worth more to a church that money in many ways.

When your church is at the brink of collapse due to a decrease in members and contributions, it is easy to push the focus to acquiring more "Giving Units;" but in doing so, the real work of the gospel is lost. The Gospel is not so much worried about keeping doors open and pastors paid. The Gospel is what is required in our actions: giving oneself to the ministry to which God has called each of us. For a church not to recognize that time and talents are just as important as money, makes that church lack effectiveness and take members for granted. Let us remember that giving is not always about money.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Release the Women

For the past ten years, Baptist Women in Ministry has promoted a yearly event called the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching. During the month of February, Baptist congregations are encouraged to have a woman preach for one of the Sundays--a minister at the church, a divinity school student, a layperson from the congregation, etc. It is always such fun to see the pictures go up on their Facebook page. It has been better to be asked to preach, at least for me.

When the event started a decade ago, our church was very good at promoting it. And for our congregation to be one of the few baptist congregations in Wake Forest, this was very good for our community as well. But somewhere along the line, the emphasis disappeared. Our pastor would turn in the name of a woman who had preached in January or February so it would appear on the list, but there was not a mention of the reason for the Martha Stearns Marshall event.

For the past few years, nothing has been said. To say how disappointing this is does not go far enough. Where is the emphasis on our women preachers? Our daughters and sons need to see their example. We need to emphasize the equal calling of both men and women as our preachers. After all, our shared values for our church say that God gifts men and women equally.

Today I was reading Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, and she mentioned a Korean megachurch pastor Dr. David Yong-gi Cho who told other Korean pastors that their churches would grow if only they released the women to allow them to do what God calls them to do. As I pondered this account--and as I think about our own small church's decline--I cannot help but see the correlation in our lack of emphasis on women preaching. Sure women do continue to preach from time to time, but the full and equal gifts that God gives have not been emphasized.

In no way do I say it is a causation. I just find it interesting in the correlation it presents.

What would happen if all churches fully released their women to find their passion for ministry? For too long churches have relegated women to the nursery, the fellowship team, etc. Our own church has a vital ministry called Sew Buddies that came about because a woman was released to follow her passion. I think that there are others in our congregation that could be released. But if there is no support, no encouragement from the leaders, then it is not going to happen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Success is Not a Christian Goal

George Barna loves to come out with a lot of statistics about Christian churches, specifically evangelical churches. For many years I have heard of his reports that indicate that churches are in decline, that people do not put as much importance on church-going as in years past, and that the way we worship needs to change in order to reach young people.

I have also heard in the past year sermons that seem to indicate that if our faith was great enough then the churches would be more successful and growing. My pastor preached a sermon titled "The Fear of Success" last year, and yesterday's lectionary text from 1 Corinthians 3 became a sermon on how we need to be mature Christians in order to grow our congregation.

But I have a big problem with this idea of success because of one fundamental question...

Where in the bible does it say that the goal of a Christian is to be successful? 

Our full-time pastors are pushed into growing congregations because their very livelihood depends on the offerings that are collected. It's either grow numbers or have people give more. As society shifts their church attendance to other things for any of a variety of reasons, we are left with churches that are struggling financially. It is no wonder I hear this topic of success come up these days.

The so-called prosperity preachers from television also preach a version of success. Most people can see through them--see through to the fact that while the preacher takes your hard-earned dollar, that same preacher is living in a mansion and owns multiple cars and/or a jet. Yet how is this different from the sermons I have heard about being a successful Christian?

If we look to the bible to see stories of successful Christians, we fall short. How many of the early Christians lost their lives--a sure indication that they were not successful. Even Jesus was killed. By the world's standards, he was not successful.

Let's stop fooling ourselves by saying a greater faith will lead to success.

The goal of a Christian is to be a devoted follower of Christ. It may mean a degree of personal sacrifice, ridicule, a path less taken. But the goal is not success. Faith is lived day-by-day; and many days we will fail. Our faith gives us courage to try again...and again...and again.

In the future, our churches will have to change. They will need pastors not reliant on a full-time salary. They will need Christians that pursue faith when the world is going to call them foolish. Our Christian worldview needs to shift from the pursuit of success to the holy and narrow path of faith. In that place, there is no fear.