Archive for October, 2009

All Saints Day and stewardship emphasis this Sunday…

October 29, 2009

vinebranchlogoWe will celebrate All Saints Day in Vinebranch this Sunday with a special candle-lighting service in honor of the saints who have gone before us and helped to make us who we are today. The candle-lighting will follow Holy Communion. Our scripture this week is Revelation 21:1-6a. We will also begin talking about stewardship, our emphasis for three Sundays, concluding on November 15. My text for November 8 will be the challenging Parable of the Rich Fool, Luke 12:13-21.

See you there! As always, if you have questions about the scripture, feel free to text them to me in church.

“Deep ruts that become the equivalent of instinct”

October 29, 2009

I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I won’t try. The following is an excerpt from an excellent book on spiritual formation by David deSilva. If you’ve taken the short-term New Testament Disciple class, deSilva is one of the hosts of and contributors to the video series (soft-spoken guy with glasses).

We focus so easily on the needs of the moment that press on us from outside ourselves—the business of our jobs, housework, getting ready for school, preparing some meal, meeting this or that deadline… Under the weight of such demands, we grasp for the refreshments and painkillers that are also available in the moment, wearing for ourselves deep ruts that become the equivalent of instinct. Days, weeks, months, years easily pass without our truly attending to those things that shall endure. So many regrets uttered beside—or from—a deathbed are born of “not having had enough time,” often a euphemism for having spent so much time so poorly.[1]

As you may know, our church’s stewardship emphasis begins this week and continues through November 15. Think about deSilva’s words in relation to stewardship: Every moment of our lives is a precious gift from God. Every good thing that we possess and enjoy comes from God, including the resources of money, time, talent, and intellect. How might we better spend these resources “on those things that shall endure”?

[1] David A. deSilva, Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), 119.


Centering ourselves

October 28, 2009

A characteristic of the gospel of Mark is the way the author sandwiches a story within a story. Mark begins telling one story, which gets interrupted by another, before returning to the first. A classic example is Mark 5:21-42: While on his way to heal Jairus’s daughter, Jesus confronts the hemorrhaging woman who touches his cloak. This delay adds suspense to the narrative: will Jairus’s daughter die before Jesus makes it to his house? It also forces us to ask what the two stories have in common.

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Tough Texts Part 6: The Unpardonable Sin

October 27, 2009

Sermon Text: Mark 3:19b-30

Every once in a while on the TV show “The Office,” an I.T. guy from corporate visits the Scranton branch. If you’ll recall, this young man is of the Sikh religion, and he wears a turban on his head. In one episode, Michael calls one of his many time-wasting meetings in the conference room. The I.T. guy is there. The subject of religion comes up. Michael asks everyone to say what their religion is. He turns to the I.T. guy: “What are you?” The I.T. guy says, “Well, if you’re going to reduce my identity to my religion, then I’m Sikh. But I also like hip-hop and NPR. And I’m restoring 1967 Corvette in my spare time.” Michael says, “O.K. One Sikh, and…”

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This Sunday in Vinebranch: “Tough Texts Part 6: The Unpardonable Sin”

October 21, 2009

vinebranchlogoOur “Tough Texts” series continues this Sunday, October 25, with our exploration of Mark 3:19b-30, which includes these difficult words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” What on earth is Jesus saying here? What sin is unforgivable? How do I know I haven’t committed it?

Do you see challenge of this scripture? Bring your questions on Sunday or feel free to comment below.

More thoughts on Genesis and Creation

October 21, 2009

I had much more I wanted to say in my “Tough Texts Part 5” sermon than time allowed. If you read Genesis chapters 1 and 2 together, you’ll notice that there is not one but two Creation stories, each communicating a different aspect of God’s creation and its relationship to the Creator. The Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2:5 and following was likely composed before the more cosmic and poetic Creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4. In fact, according to Walter Brueggeman at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Genesis 1:1-2:4 was likely written down during the time of the Exile, when many Israelites of the Southern Kingdom were forcibly relocated to Babylon—far from home, from the Promised Land, from God’s Temple (which had been destroyed). What does it mean to be God’s people now, when so much of one’s faith was tied to land and Temple, which were now taken away. Did Israel’s God, Yahweh, still love them? Had Yahweh abandoned them? Had the gods of Babylon proven more powerful than Yahweh?

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Tough Texts Part 5: Genesis 1 and Science

October 21, 2009

Sermon Text: Genesis 1:1-2:3

Lisa and I went to Paris in the late-’90s. We toured the Louvre, of course, and saw the Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. We also went to its sister museum, the d’Orsay, which features Impressionist paintings by artists like Monet, Manet, and Degas. This is a painting by Monet that we saw. monet-irises-monets-gardenI really like Impressionism, but if I were going to be a total hick from the sticks I might be tempted to wonder why there would be this nice museum devoted to artists who painted blurry pictures. Consider this post-Impressionist piece: Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” starry_nightThis doesn’t look much like any night sky I’ve ever seen. The sky doesn’t swirl around like that! And look at that crazy moon! This does not reflect reality at all! Wouldn’t it be better to look at a photograph?

Of course, I’m being ridiculous. The intention of artists like Van Gogh and Monet is to communicate something far more than just, “Here’s what a starry night looks like… Here’s what a garden looks like.” If that’s what we want these artists to communicate to us, we will be sorely disappointed. By not giving us a straightforward depiction of reality, however, they end up communicating far more truth about the world than they otherwise would.

And so it is with the artist or artists who, under the inspiration of the Spirit, crafted today’s scripture. It is literally a poem. In the same way that we don’t look to Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” to give us the literal history of a particular world leader who was assassinated in 44 B.C., we ought not to look to this poem in Genesis chapter 1 to gain any kind of scientific or historical understanding of Creation. Unfortunately, for the past few hundred years, in response to the challenge of modern science and the Enlightenment, well-intentioned Christians have often tried to understand or defend it as literal truth. This way of reading this text is not only unnecessary, it misses the point entirely. We’ll get to the point a little later, but in order to get to the point, we’ll first have to clear a path of a few hundred years’ worth of overgrown weeds.

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Tough Texts Part 4: Unanswered Prayer

October 15, 2009

Sermon Text: Matthew 7:7-11

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of the show House. Gregory House is a brilliant doctor but a hardcore atheist. The show is hardly Touched by an Angel, but it does a nice job occasionally of tweaking House’s certainty that there is no God. Sometimes, the moment House tries to thumb his nose at a believer’s faith, something improbable, surprising, and good will happen for which House has no explanations. The believer will credit God’s providence: “See, that’s God.” And that frustrates House. But just as often, House gets to say something smug like, “Your ‘imaginary friend’ didn’t answer your prayers. See, there is no God!”

That’s Hollywood, of course. Not reality. But let’s acknowledge the very real challenge often posed by unanswered prayer. Most of us know the pain of unanswered prayer, don’t we? And sometimes we the Church provide very unhelpful responses to people who are struggling with unanswered prayer. Take, for example, this piece of so-called wisdom, which many of you have heard before: “God always answers prayer. Sometimes God says, ‘yes.’ Sometimes God says, ‘no.’ Sometimes God says—and this is my favorite—‘wait.’” Have you heard this before? It might surprise many of us who grew up hearing this often said that this is, in fact, not found in the Bible. (It’s like Ben Franklin’s proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” Not in the Bible.)

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Tough Texts Part 5: Genesis 1 and Science

October 14, 2009

vinebranchlogoJoin us this Sunday, October 18, as we continue our “Tough Texts” sermon series with Genesis 1:1-2:3. How do we reconcile this biblical account of Creation with a scientific or evolutionary account? What about Intelligent Design or other ideas that involve a Creator? Are we Christians naive or irrational to still believe that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”?

What questions do you have? Let me know by commenting below.

14,479 Answered Prayers

October 10, 2009

In tomorrow’s sermon, I’m going to preach on Jesus’ seemingly difficult words in Matthew 7:7-11, in which Jesus speaks confidently about the efficacy of prayer. We’re going to explore the tension that exists between Jesus’ words and our own experience of prayer. But here’s an additional thought on the subject of prayer, specifically intercessory prayer, which I won’t be covering tomorrow.

In my line of work, I am inundated with prayer lists. Do you know what I’m talking about? Every staff meeting, every district clergy meeting, and every meeting with my fellow “provisional elders” begins with a time of sharing prayer requests. Moreover, I get a half-dozen emails every week from the North Georgia Conference asking me to pray for people, most of whom I do not know, who are sick or dying or whose loved ones are sick or dying. I’m often not sure what to do with these prayer lists. Of course intercessory prayer—literally interceding with God on someone else’s behalf—is good, important, and biblical. I do believe that God can love and bless others through our prayers. And yet

The way we often do intercessory prayer in church raises questions in my mind: Is God more likely to  intervene if more people are praying for that person? If God won’t intervene when only five people are praying, will God intervene when 50 or 500 people are praying? Is there any accountability here? Who’s keeping track of whether or not the people for whom we pray are getting the help we’re praying for? Are we afraid to keep track because—deep down—we don’t think this prayer makes much difference?

As you can tell, I struggle with this issue. And most of us have struggled with the challenge of unanswered prayer at some time in our lives. But consider this: for every unanswered prayer, there are thousands of prayers that God answers—or at least God would, if we bothered to pray them at all. In the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that Jesus gave us as a model to follow, there is this petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” I am 39 years old. In the 14,479 days I have lived, I have never failed to receive my daily bread. I mostly don’t even think about where my bread will come from. Yet Jesus tells us that this bread, as humble and modest a gift as it may be, is a gift from a faithful and loving Father. This challenges me to consider all the other good gifts that God gives me every day, every hour, and every moment, which I also take for granted.

We may question why God doesn’t intervene for us in a particular case (the Psalms are filled with faithful people who question God in this way). As we do, however, let’s also appreciate that God is constantly intervening to meet our deepest needs at every moment.