Greetings in the name of Jesus! This is a continuing effort on my part to make available to family, friends, and any other poor unfortunate souls that run across this, some of the thoughts that run through my mind regarding sermon preparation, newsletter articles, random thoughts (of which there are many), and generally how God is working in my life. I hope to post at least once a week but I'm not promising that.

So welcome to it.

Post Script:
A couple of people have asked me about the address. When I was putting this together I was preparing for sermons from the 6th chapter of John where Jesus refers to himself as "The Bread of Life" and these are passages that I strongly identify with. So artos is bread and zoe is life (roughly) and to quote Forrest, "That's all I have to say about that."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

10/04/2009 Initial Sermon Notes

Receiving the Kingdom

Mark 10:2-16 World Communion Sunday

Jesus teaches on divorce

Last week spoke about the seriousness of our faith… quality of life being based upon our relationship with Jesus not about how we feel about things… its about what pleases God not us…

It seems to me that this passage that talks about the marriage covenant is a continuation of that same theme… the seriousness of our covenant relationship…

So while this is about marriage it can also be applied to our life of discipleship of which marriage is one relational expression…

If we take our relationship with God seriously we need to take our other relationships seriously… Marriage, parental, friendship, work…

Receiving the Kingdom… the kingdom of God is not based upon rules or laws; it is based upon relationships that bring about or live out God’s creative purpose (first and foremost our relationship with God, then with each other and then with those not part of the community of faith)… the rules or laws come about to help us… to guide us in how we are to best live out those relationships. So the question that we need to ask ourselves is: which is more important; the rules or laws that help us live out the relationships OR the relationships themselves? It seems to me that that is what Jesus is trying to get folks to understand… not only here but in other places in the gospel especially around Sabbath laws. It’s not that the rules or laws are unimportant—just the opposite; they form the boundaries in which we are to live out our relationships; but they should never take precedent over the relationship… The goal is to maintain the relationship if at all possible… to be reconciled to one another in our relationships.

In the case of divorce, that is not always possible or even healthy or safe—especially if the relationship is an abusive one (not only physically abusive… emotional or psychological abuse should be included here too). But even if we acknowledge the need to break the marriage covenant for reasons of personal safety, we also have to acknowledge that God takes all of our covenant relationships seriously and that the need to break the relationship is based in our human sinfulness… so divorce even for reasons of abuse should not considered lightly and any breaking of a covenant relationship displeases God and goes against God’s will and creative purpose… in other words divorce for any reason is a sin (hence Jesus’ words in our passage this morning from Mark). With that in mind we also need to remember that when we acknowledge our sinfulness and turn to God for healing and forgiveness, God is faithful and God forgives.

So when I read this passage that deals with divorce, I don’t read it in terms of talking about the legal laws and scriptural laws regarding divorce but the seriousness with which God takes honoring our covenant relationships… and marriage is the most intimate of our covenant relationships. So much so that the Bible repeatedly describes our relationship (as people of faith) with God in the terms of marriage (both in the Old and New Testament). And ultimately, in all of those instances we (as the community and as individual people of faith) are unfaithful (what I call spiritual infidelity or adultery). We are the ones that have not honored the marriage covenant in our relationship with God (Let’s call it what it is… sin). So God would be justified in forgetting us or divorcing us from himself. (Justice being; getting what we deserve). But God chooses not to do that. God values the relationship more than laws or rules governing the relationship and so chooses to be reconciled with us… that is the seriousness with which God takes our covenant relationship…

There are certainly consequences to our actions when we fail to honor our covenant relationship with God (and each other for that matter)… there is spiritual and relational fallout and there can be physical, financial, and emotional fallout that we have to deal with as well.

But the good news is that God chooses to forgive and be reconciled with us through his relationship with us through Jesus Christ who reconciles us to God and God to us.

God places more value and importance on the relationship than the rules governing the relationship. But we should not try to evaluate this in terms of our modern western culture and society that consistently devalues and undermines the seriousness of the marriage covenant. In God’s kingdom there is no such thing as a no-fault divorce. The consequences are serious and the price to be paid is far greater than we have the ability to cover. So God in His mercy (not getting what we deserve) and grace (getting what we don’t deserve) covers it for us. God paid the bill, so to speak, on the cross with Jesus’ death.

Now some might get the wrong idea about how we should respond to this great gift of grace that God gives us… They may want to treat it like an open bar at a wedding reception… going back again and again never thinking of the consequence and not really caring because hey! I’m not the one who picks up the tab! That kind of attitude does not honor the relationship and the magnitude of the gift or the giver. In fact it lessens it. It is exactly the opposite of the nature of the gift and giver which is self-less and self-giving.

[The Apostle Paul makes a similar (if not the same) argument in his letter to the church in Rome, Romans 6:15; Paul states that because of God’s gift of grace in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, sin no longer has power over us and in his rhetorical argument he continues, “What then? Should we continue to sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By No Means!”]

God is serious about His relationship with us, our relationship with him, and our relationship with each other.

So what do we do about it?

Well, any successful marriage requires commitment… commitment to the covenant—to the promise we make to each other that no matter what… we’ll work it out. To me that’s what defines true love. It also requires that we look to meet the needs of the other in the relationship… if I’m doing my best to serve Connie and her needs and she’s doing her best to serve me and my needs… each of us striving to give of ourselves in that way then there’s going to be a lot fewer bumps in the road. We also need to make sure we talk to one another so that we’re on the same page and so that we can help each other to do what we need to do—let’s call that one accountability. And last but certainly not least we need to live out our marriage relationship as part of our relationship with God—not individually but together.

It’s no different in our lives as members of the body of Christ or should I say as the bride of Christ (Revelation).

For our relationship with God to be strong and vibrant we need to honor the seriousness of the commitment we make… that no matter what it takes we’ll work it out… that we will receive the kingdom of God as a little child… what that means is that we will put our utmost trust in God. And why not? God has put his trust in us… for us to respond to his love with our own. And How do we do that? We look to serve God’s wishes or will by serving each others needs and the needs of the community around us so that too can know God and God’s desire to know and love them.

We also need to communicate with God. Not only as individuals but even more importantly as his people… We need to listen to God by coming together to help each other hear and speak God’s Word to us… to help each other live faithfully in our daily relationship with God, each other, our families, our friends, our co-workers… we need to help each other be accountable to our covenant relationship with God and each other.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Example of Being the Church vs. Going to Church

Follow the link to an article from the Daily Iowan (University of Iowa paper) that a member of one of the churches sent me following a message given this past Sunday (9/20/09) that in part focused on finding and meeting the needs of the community around us ahead of our own perceived needs as the church. Thanks Fred!


2009 Stewardship Series

What is stewardship? Why is it important? Are my ideas of stewardship the same as God’s? Isn’t all about money?

Good questions. We will be exploring answers to those and many more you may have during our up coming series that will start Sunday October 11th. Looking at Genesis, the Psalms, Jesus’ parables and our church’s core purposes, we will discover some new perspectives on what stewardship is and its role in nurturing our faith.

Week One: Christian Stewardship Defined

Week Two: Understanding Stewardship as Discipleship

Week Three: Understanding Stewardship as Evangelism

Week Four: Understanding Stewardship as Membership

Week Five: Understanding Stewardship as Mission

Week Six: Understanding Stewardship as Worship

September 27, 2009 Sermon


I was watching a snippet of a television show where a nurse was talking to a patient that was terminally ill, struggling with the idea of having surgery to prolong her life… but the surgery was not without significant risks… she could die on the operating table… suffer and die in recovery… very risky surgery… the nurse questioned what she wanted the patients quality of life to be like… the question really became not about the amount of time she might live; but about how she would live with the amount of time she had remaining… in other words loving and nurturing and being nurtured and loved by the people in her life… what was that worth?

“Isn’t it better to enter life maimed than to have two feet and thrown into hell?”

I want us to consider that Jesus is asking us to consider the quality of our life

And here’s how he’s doing it:

9:42 Jesus sets up the argument by saying (in essence) that anyone (not a believer) who willfully causes a Christian (little ones who believe in Jesus) to sin (to turn away from their faith, to act in opposition to God’s will) will suffer a fate worse than painful death. The question is, “what is a fate worse than death?” For many the idea of any physical torture or agony comes to mind. But the idea of hell where one is eternally separated from God’s presence is more accurate. Jesus often talks about a person being thrown out into the outer darkness where there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many interpret that as the agony of being eternally separated from God—a fate worse than a painful death because the painful death (read millstone around neck thrown into sea) has a beginning and an end. Eternal separation from God does not.

So now a starting point for comparison is established (which is emphasized in v.48) for the believer who is subject to this temptation to turn from God either through threat and coercion or by appealing to our human weaknesses (food, sex, etc.) that play upon real or perceived hurts or wants. To do this Jesus uses what appears to us to be an extreme and painful (and negative) example:

43If your hand (foot, eye) causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed (lame, one eye) than to have two hands (feet, eyes) and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

Jesus does not literally mean that if we engage in a sinful activity that involves our hands, feet or eyes that we should lop them off our bodies. He himself says that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles or causes to sin. In other words it is our attitudes toward ourselves, others and especially God that lead us to sin, OR not to sin.

What he is doing though, is exemplifying the seriousness of our faith and the consequences of our choices regarding our faith. What we are shown are the negative consequences so we have a tendency to focus on the negative. There is however another perspective to this that focuses on the positive consequences of the abiding presence of God even if it doesn’t sound like it:

it is better for you to enter life maimed

The key words here for me are… “better for you to enter life.” What does it mean to enter life? For me as a disciple of Jesus; Jesus is life. He is who defines who I am (or who I try to be), what I do (and what I try to do), and how I relate to my family, friends and the world around me (again how I try to do that). So life (or the quality of life) is determined and measured not by what I have or don’t have, how I feel at any one particular moment, what my circumstances are (financially, relationally, etc.) but how closely I maintain my relationship with Jesus.

Quality of life defined by our relationship with Jesus… the quality of our discipleship. It should not be based upon our idea of quality… the question here isn’t if we are happy. The question should be… is God happy… are we pleasing God… are we making Him smile?

Life lived in a relationship with God through faith in Jesus is what is able to sustain us, give us purpose and worth regardless what it is we may lose… (Jesus’ example of hand, foot, eye). It is a parallel verse to, “what does it profit a person to gain the whole world but to lose their soul. Those who would hold unto their life will lose it and those who give up their life for me and for the gospel will keep it.”

That is what I strive to be the pivot point of every decision I make. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I fail miserably. But even when I fail I pray that I realize why I failed and resolve to do better the next time I face the same or similar situation.

John Wesley had belief that we as Christians could achieve what he called Christian perfection… and at the heart of it, it didn’t mean that we wouldn’t sin but that as we sinned, we became more and more aware of our sin, felt grief over it (convicted of it), and then more and more turned away from it and toward God. In other words we grow more and more into the character and nature of Jesus… our relationship with him grows closer… the quality of our life grows better from God’s point of view. We also call this the process of sanctification.

The key to this is how we maintain or nurture this relationship with Jesus so that we can continue to grow in our discipleship (having the character and nature of Jesus formed in us) to maintain or increase the quality of it.

I’m not aware of any one who was a person of faith that woke up one day and out of the blue said, “you know what, enough of being a Christian, I don’t believe this anymore. I don’t want this relationship with Jesus or my so called Christian friends… or it’s that we say we’re going to go drinking, lying, cheating, sleeping around, etc.” But it just doesn’t happen that way. What happens is that we find ourselves or put ourselves into situations that begin to lead us away from Jesus and from his body, the church. What they call in politics “incrementalism.” Slow changes in the way something is done; choice by choice by choice. The same way we nurture our life of faith… choice by choice by choice.

One way we can understand these experiences or situations that we find ourselves in is as tests to either strengthen or weaken our faith—what Jesus called being salted by fire. If we have established healthy spiritual disciplines then not only will we survive the situation but we will come out with a stronger faith and witness to God’s faithfulness. The allusion here is that of forging metal. The forging process eliminates impurities that weaken the metal and also allows the metal to be shaped into a form that is useful. If we don’t have the spiritual disciplines to either endure the situation or to hear God speaking to us in it and/or refuse to respond to God’s leading, then our faith and witness will be weakened or possibly lost.

And it is not possible for us to restore our own faith, our own witness (how can saltiness be restored) for with man it is impossible. However it can be through the difficult times in our lives that God is able to speak to us and perhaps we can begin to listen and turn back to God when before we were either unable or unwilling (but with God all things are possible). The choice then is ours in how we respond.

The reality is that none of us really knows how we are going to respond in a circumstance before it happens. However that does not mean that we should not prepare ourselves spiritually in a regular or disciplined way in anticipation of the situations that we know will come.

So the question before us is how do we do that? Well in response to the warning not to lose our saltiness… our witness to our faith or relationship with Jesus… our life of discipleship… Jesus says (in essence)… “have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” Here’s one way of understanding this:

Each of us has our own gifts, strengths or ways we can express or live out our faith… we have salt in ourselves. Peace can mean a lack of hostility and wholeness or completeness; which go hand in hand… so in light of what’s come before I’m understanding this to say that each of us, using the gifts of faith we’ve received, are to help each other live out our lives of faith… to nurture our faith… our relationship with Jesus… so that the quality of our lives as individual people of faith and as the church is nurtured and strengthened.

James gives us some insight into how we can work toward that:

13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Pray for each other with the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil; confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another so that our sins will be forgiven but also so that we know we have someone to help us keep from sinning again… accountability… because the prayer of the righteous is powerful. (Life Transformation Groups)

And what’s the result of this? What’s the payoff? , if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death

We will have helped a brother or sister improve the quality of their life… we will have helped them grow closer to Jesus… to know Jesus like we know Jesus.

That is quality of life.

And quality is Job 1.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

September 20, Initial Sermon Notes

Putting It In Reverse

Mark 9:30-37

30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus instructed the disciples privately regarding the coming passion (2nd time which underlines it’s importance to Jesus’ ministry/identity as Messiah) But they didn’t understand and were afraid to ask what this meant… why it was important.

~ their first response was to confront Jesus because it went against their understanding of what Messiah was; in response Jesus rebuked them. So this time, I believe, they didn’t ask because they didn’t want to be embarrassed for not understanding.

Apparently as they continued traveling after Jesus’ teaching they began to argue about who was in a higher position of influence with Jesus or was going to have the most authority and power in the new kingdom: further evidence that they really didn’t understand who Jesus was and how he was to inaugurate the coming Kingdom of God.

Jesus calls them on it (what were you arguing about) and they don’t think that he knows what the subject was, OR they hope he doesn’t and so like little children they don’t say a thing hoping against hope that the issue goes away. It didn’t go away and he in fact did know but they did not get a reprimand.

Jesus sat down (a position of authority when teaching so the disciples knew what was coming was very important) and said, “whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.”

To drive the point home Jesus gives a visual example or exclamation point. He takes a child and bringing it within their group he takes it in his arms and holds it and says something very shocking to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

What is shocking about this is that the child instead of symbolizing innocence in reality symbolizes powerlessness. Unlike today, children living in that time had virtually no rights (see Galatians 4:1-2). It was not that they were not loved and seen as a blessing to their parents (especially in Judaism), but their were no laws or even social conventions to protect children who were, at times, indentured to others to help support their families (less of a financial burden to care for).

So in essence what Jesus was saying is that in God’s Kingdom (not the world’s) self-denial through serving the needs of those (that the world counts as nothing) is pleasing to God; both in this life and in the life to come.

In doing reading for this I came across a commentary written by an atheist which said:

“The child here is used not so much as a symbol of innocence (which many believe) as he is a symbol of powerlessness. Jesus is telling his disciples to “receive” powerlessness — be receptive to being in a state without power over others in order to be worthy of also receiving the salvation Jesus offers. Receiving the child is also meant literally, of course: in order to be a good follower of Jesus, one must take in the powerless and vulnerable to help them. How many Christians have you met who actually and sincerely believe in the need to receive the Christian message as a powerless individual? This raises an interesting question: if you do become a “servant of all” and thus “last of all” because you know that this is the path to become “first” in God’s kingdom, doesn’t that still make you power-hungry? Can a person who connives to get into power through a back door really be said to deserve the position of “first”?”

Austin Cline @ http://atheism.about.com

Two comments:

  1. This is not a passage that mandates that we continually live in a state of powerlessness to assure us of our salvation. It speaks directly to our growing in our life of discipleship, our growing into the character and nature of Jesus who is “first” in the Kingdom of God. Our salvation is based however on us recognizing our own powerlessness over the reality of sin and acknowledging and accepting God’s gift of faith.
  1. Becoming “first” is not a self-centered goal if we understand it as becoming more like the ideal of embodying the true nature of God which is self-giving love. As I said before becoming “first” is having the Person of Jesus Christ formed more and more in us. As Jesus becomes more real in us (and as such his character and nature) the desire to live as the world lives (to connive to get “power” through the back door) becomes less so that we do get closer and closer to being “first” as God understands it. In reality we become more like God originally created and intended us to be. That’s Good News.

He does raise a good point however:

To grow as disciples of Jesus we must begin to embrace the principle of powerlessness in our own lives. We must strive to see things from God’s perspective and begin to live trusting him to provide our needs both for today and for the future. That will free us to welcome and serve the powerless or the least of these (see Matthew 25). One of the best recent examples: Mother Theresa.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Facing Up to People

The title is more dramatic than the post. I just wanted to let everyone know that I can also be found on Facebook now (electronically of course not literally... ). If you care about such things.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 6 Sermon Notes

I’ve Got A Secret (Mark 7:24-37)

7:24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." 28 But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." 29 Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter." 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

7:31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

Between the two readings from Mark I hear God saying this:

~ Whenever and wherever Jesus is truly present people who are in need are drawn to him

This account reminds us that often those who are drawn to him are those that are generally not accepted or welcomed (barriers between Jews and Gentiles)… those that are looked down upon for one reason or another—social, economic, behavioral, racial, cultural.

[Mark 7:24-30 Jesus attempts to go unnoticed but cannot… even in an area that is non-Jewish or Gentile (region of Tyre)]

~ Whenever and wherever Jesus is truly present in their lives persons are compelled to share their experience of Jesus with others.

[Mark 7:31-36 “Then Jesus ordered them not to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.”]

What happens when we put these two truths together? Transformation. Change. Growth. Growth of the individual as they find hope from and in the Body of Christ—the Church—and growth in the church as the Holy Spirit both draws persons to Christ in the life of the church and through the Spirit filled witness of the church. Growth as we as the church practice the radical hospitality that God has extended to us… Once we were no people, now we are God’s people.

We need to take an honest look at our life of faith (as individuals and as the church we are a part of) and ask ourselves the question: “Do I have a secret?” That secret being Jesus.

Last week I raised the issue of our religious traditions (Mark 7:1-23) asking the questions: Why do we do them? What do they mean? What is their purpose? Do they draw us closer to God and to each other and if so how? Another way to look at that issue is by asking the questions: Is Jesus present in them? Are they our witness to his power and presence in our lives of faith? Here the old saying “the proof is in the pudding” comes to mind. If we as the church are intentional about nurturing our life of faith in Christ—if we are in Christ and Christ is in us—then we, as the Apostle Paul assures us, will show forth the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). In other words the Person of Christ will be evident in our lives—people will be drawn to the person of Christ in and through us; that’s Good News! But the Good News gets even better because we will not want to wait for people to come to us—we’ll want to go to them and share our experience of Jesus with them. We have a secret; but it is one that God wants us to share openly and with all.

Hey Mr. Kotter... Welcome Back

It's good to be back from vacation. It may sound weird but I really missed the discipline (regardless of the fact that it may appear to be undisciplined) and routine of normal everyday life. I had a good time getting to know my wife's family in NY better (I've only been out there about 5 times in our 28 years of marriage). Weddings (and yes, even funerals... but isn't it really the receptions that follow both) provide us with the opportunities to share our lives. And at their best, allow us to set aside the things that seem to separate us regardless of whether it's mileage, politics, faith or whether or not you should be out conditioning and bailing hay a little quicker (that one was for my father-in-law).

I guess I'm reflecting on this because of the lectionary text from Mark for this coming Sunday (Mark 7:24-30) where Jesus is trying to get away from the crowds by going into the non-Jewish area of Tyre (for a little vacation maybe?); but even there people recognize him and a woman whose daughter is possessed comes to him beg him for his help to which Jesus replied, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Then she answered him in this way, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Then Jesus healed her daughter. One of the lessons of this account is about overcoming barriers or differences that separate people--but specifically how we are able to accomplish it through our faith in Jesus. Jesus becomes the common ground that we share as we come to know him and share in his life. It's true for our individual lives and our life as the church.

Anyway, it's good to be back... and just think, I didn't even need a note from Epstein's mother. (for those of you who don't understand any of those references go ask somebody who watched TV in the 1970's... I know, I'm old)