Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bring Your Best to God

My previous post went up today, but now I am going to expand on it a bit more. This is due to the fact that I am a bit angry at the sub-par sermon experience I had this morning. In a way that is deeply personal to me, let me tell you why it matters for preachers to preach good sermons.

In my experience as an evangelical, Protestant Christian, I have seen churches readily affirm young men in their congregation who announce they feel called to ministry. They say, "Sure. Come on. We will let you preach next Sunday. Maybe we will ordain you next month." It does not matter that the young man hasn't even been to bible school at all. Instead they enter a role like pastor with ease.

Consider those of us with two X chromosomes. The scenario above never happens. If a young woman from the same congregation announced a call, she may be ignored, rebuked, reprimanded--certainly not encouraged--by her evangelical, Protestant church. She will have passages from 1 Timothy chapter 2 thrown at her. Who gives her the authority to speak? Why would God call a woman? We don't do it the way those liberal churches do it--because it's sin.

So, the young woman has to attend divinity school or seminary to get her master's degree. She may send out 100 resumes looking to obey God's call to preach. But all she gets is silence. Maybe she could work with the children instead? Her own church ignores her request to be ordained--and that church is supposed to be a bit more progressive and affirming of women's roles in ministry. Maybe her denomination won't ordain without a call. Maybe she can't be called by a church until she is ordained--"ordination required for this position"she reads in the job posting. Maybe she wants to preach in her own church and has to have another man twist the arm of the pastor to let her do so. Yet this woman knows how to craft a sermon and deliver it. It is something she keeps studying and working on as she smashes her fists against the stained glass ceiling. The fact that she is a woman holds her in an unordained status--frustrated yet still eager to follow God's call.

The man who is called doesn't even have to try that hard. Which makes him think that sub-par is enough. But like Cain bringing his sacrifice to God, you've got to bring your best or the offering is rejected.

My brothers in Christ who happen to also be preachers: you've got to bring your best. The women who are called, who could easily step into your place if you were out sick one Sunday, are prepared. Bring your A game. One day, this post will be obsolete--women will have their calls affirmed as quickly and easily as men's. But for now, you better be ready. You better work on your sermon and know your stuff. You need to read and study and pray and be ready to speak Truth.

Sermons are Important

A few weeks ago, a Gallup poll found that sermon content was what most appeals to churchgoers. It certainly does to me--especially since I am the occasion writer of sermons. I want background into what was happening in a Scriptural passage--both for when it occurred and when it was written (two different things). I want to know how the original hearer of Scripture heard it--what was their background and how did he/she apply it. I want to know how a passage has been interpreted by tradition. ALL of that is just a small part of what I want to hear in a sermon. Of course, I also want to know what was put into the heart of the preacher by the Holy Spirit as well. I want sermons that touch everyone in a congregation, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, the business owner, the single parent, etc.

It isn't often that I hear exceptional sermons. Divinity school taught me to offer critique, and I've never gotten past that. I can overlook some things. But I know the difference between good and bad sermons.


Today I took the boys to a non-denominational church that I will not name. We were there on time. At least two people suggested that the boys go to the children's Sunday School instead of worshiping with me--but I declined that because I believe in worship as a family activity. I feel that maybe we all could have gotten more out of Sunday School in the end. There were three praise songs, and I didn't know any of them. I can get over that. However, the sermon was not good. It had passages out of context. Called part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus's first sermon--and it wasn't. And it didn't really explain how we got from the Scripture passage to the conclusion in a coherent way. I couldn't figure out the message or how to apply it to my life.

So today we attempted worship, but I'm not so sure I found it--even though we were in a church building for an hour.

My message to the sermon crafter: learn everything you can about the holy task of sermon preparation. Read! Find books that give background and history--and write well and speak well. This is something you work at--even take some voice lessons. And if it is what people are coming to church for, then you better make sure it is well prepared.

Honestly, I wanted to ask the pastor if he had ever been to seminary. But I kept my mouth shut.

If you are a pastor and want some books to study to hone your writing, send me a message. I can help you with some resources.

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.