Category Archives: Worship & Preaching

The spirit of Easter: A sermon for Easter 2


Easter 2 – Freedom Day

SCRIPTURE:    Acts 2:14a, 22–32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3–9; John 20:19–31

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed.

Today is the second Sunday of Easter; the day Jesus appeared again to his disciples in the upper room, and in particular, to Thomas.

Today is, of course, also Freedom Day (South Africa’s 20th ‘birthday’). I think that South Africans in 1994 had a lot in common with those who were around Jesus.

Change
The difficulty that the Jews had with Jesus – whether they were part of the establishment, or Zealots working against the status quo or the disciples themselves – the problem they had didn’t lie with Jesus, but with what they expected from their Messiah: what he should look like, how they expected him act, what he would teach.

That the Messiah would change the status quo was pretty much a given, whatever party you belonged to. But to what extent, and how ruthlessly was up for grabs. Much the same as South Africa in the early 90s. Apartheid had to go. That was a given for everyone, except for a few diehard denialists. But how it was to go and what would take its place was very much under discussion (to put it politely). Continue reading

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Salt and light: what makes worship taste good?


A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 9 February 2014
Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12; 1 Corinthians 2:1–12; Matthew 5:13–20

Salt and light
Jesus said ‘You are like salt for the whole human race…. You are like light for the whole world.’

Light!
I like the idea of being a light; you get put in some important place like a hilltop or on a lamp stand, and your light shines for all the world to see (or at least the neighbourhood or the family). You play a useful role; everyone looks up to you; they need you; they respect you. They might be looking at the path, but the light shines the way. Light is important. Light is noticed.

Salt?
But salt? I’m not so sure. You see, light remains aloof, it retains its identity, but salt gets more intimately involved with people; it loses itself for the people it serves; salt is consumed. Light gets put on a pedestal, but salt, used properly, isn’t even noticed. It’s brings out the flavour of everything else, and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a great piece of beef,’ or, ‘That’s a fantastic soup.’ And the salt goes, ‘Hey! It’s me! You should try this stuff without me.’ But no one hears, and no one notices, and down it goes.

Salt and light
I’d rather be light than salt. But Jesus says we are both. We aren’t given a choice. There will be times when we will be called on to be a light and at other times, salt. Some of us will be more salt than light or more light than salt. We are not called to choose or to debate, but to be faithful; to be reliable; to be available for whatever role we are given.

Covenant Prayer
Remember the words of the Covenant prayer we prayed last week:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you….

Jesus said salt that has lost its flavour is of no use at all. He also said, in effect, ‘A light that’s in the wrong place is equally useless.’

I’m sure you know the story of the man searching in the street for a gold coin he had lost.
A stranger comes up and asks, ‘Where did you lose it? Were you here?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘I was down there, around the corner.’
‘Well, why are you looking here?’
‘Cos this is where the light is. It was pitch black down there — couldn’t see a thing.’

We expect to be noticed
Isaiah writes to a people who seem to have made up their own minds about service and who decided they wanted to be light not salt:

‘We’ll do it this way, thank you. We’ll fast and pray, we’ll even use sackcloth and ashes; we’ll compete with each other in bowing down low — but we do expect to be noticed. I mean, why should we fast if the Lord never notices us…if he doesn’t pay attention?’ (Isaiah 58:5 & 3)

Had Jesus been speaking to this group about salt and light, they would have said, ‘Yes, Lord, of course we’ll be a light for you. Bring the pedestal. We’re ready to be noticed!’

But what if God says, ‘I don’t need light; it’s daytime. I need salt.’

When our worship loses its flavour
Roland McGregor, an American United Methodist Minister, comments on this Isaiah passage and the ‘salt and light’ reading in Matthew: ‘Isaiah shares a message about God’s taste buds: when our worship loses its flavor and what restores its taste’ (See McGregorPage for Epiphany 5.)

What makes worship taste good? God told the people of Israel through Isaiah:

‘The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.’

Micah
Today’s reading is, of course, Isaiah’s version of the Micah 6 passage:

And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8

For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters.

I don’t want salt with my apple. And keep your salt well away from my chocolate. But give me a bowl of oats without salt in it? No! And biltong without salt will make you very sick.

We don’t need a light in the middle of the day. But in the dark? When we are lost? When we need it to find a lost coin, or a lost child? Where is the light then?

It’s in the church
‘Oh, no! It’s locked up in the church. That’s where we use it. It’s very beautiful there. We can’t bring it out here and run the risk of it breaking. No; please come on Sunday, 9 a.m., and you can enjoy it as much as we do.’

‘And you want our salt? For soup? For the soup kitchen? No, sorry. You don’t understand. Our salt is very special. It has a unique saltiness to it and a mix of minerals and herbs. It’s far too special to put on food (and certainly not soup for the soup kitchen). We keep it in a special saltcellar, and we bring it out on Sundays and put it on display during our worship.

‘It’s very important, you see. Jesus told us to be salt and light, so we have this beautiful lamp and this wonderful salt as part of our worship.’

Passing the peace out there
For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters. For example, we pass the peace among ourselves, and there are many times we need to be reminded of that peace. But there is a world of turmoil out there and people who have never known peace. Dare we take the peace we have received and share it out there?

To be salt and light means going to the dark and unsavoury places where people live and work and struggle and weep.

Put an end to oppression
After telling the Israelites to ‘remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice,’ Isaiah said,

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.  (Isaiah 58:9-10)

Your worship will bring flavour and light to the world if you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.

‘Biting barbed words’
Do we oppress people? Well probably not in chains in our garden sheds. And probably not on the scale that was experienced under apartheid. But a friend of mine published a poem the other day. It ponders on a lifetime of pain and anguish — a soul’s agony. Reflecting on the source of the pain, she wrote:

Maybe, it’s secrets
Done to her—or kept from her.
Maybe the silence,
Or yelling—biting barbed words
That shred a small child’s insides.
(Mirada Mudo, ‘Caught in the Un-Wished Well)

‘… biting barbed words that shred a small child’s insides.’
‘… put an end to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.’

Sarcasm and criticism
How often do we default to sarcasm? How often do we become overly critical of our children or our spouse? Have you listened to yourself recently? I know how easy it is to default to sarcasm and criticism. On a bad day I’ll get into critical mode, and everything my wife does needs to be criticised. The only way to break the habit is to declare a no-criticism day. I know there is grave danger that the sky might fall in if you don’t criticise and correct — especially the important stuff, like how to squeeze the toothpaste tube and hang up the washing — but it’s worth the risk. If you can just hold off until tomorrow you’ll find, as I do, that the mood has changed, the need has gone, and peace has a chance.

I wonder, also, how our Christian way of speaking might oppress people around us, especially fellow Christians. For example, I passed a motivational message board the other day. The message read:

‘Worry ends where faith begins’

Now if you are not a chronic worrier, you will drive past that sign and say to yourself, ‘Amen to that!’ And you won’t understand what I am about to say.

But if you are a chronic worrier, that sort of sign just adds to your worries. You say to yourself, ‘But I do have faith; I just can’t stop worrying. So, obviously, my faith isn’t any good. I must be a lousy Christian … or perhaps not a Christian at all.’

All you need is faith
And much of what we say in church, or at least much of what people hear us say, confirms that understanding. We say:

‘All you need is faith.’
‘Just pray your worries away.’
‘If you just have faith God will heal you.’
‘If you just have faith God will protect you.’
‘If you just have faith God will change everything.’

Of course, all of that’s true. But the way we say it, or the way it is heard, people are left thinking that if my healing, protection, transformation doesn’t happen the same way as yours, or quickly enough, it must mean my faith is less than yours, my faith is not good enough.

We are not all the same
But God’s healing, protection, transformation touches different people in different ways and at different times. We have to understand that; we have to remember that when we share our faith and our good news. We are not all the same, and God doesn’t treat us all the same.

The beginning of faith is only the beginning
The sign we spoke about, ‘Worry ends where faith begins’, is a lie. The beginning of faith is not the end of worry. It might be the beginning of the end of worry; it might be the beginning of learning to live with worry and of learning to deal with worry. But the beginning of faith is not the end of worry.

I may as well say, ‘the beginning of faith is the end of alcoholism.’
Most alcoholics would know I’m talking nonsense; they know that the beginning of faith is just the beginning of a journey towards managing their alcoholism.

The beginning of faith is only the beginning of a journey where faith will grow and affect different parts of our lives at different speeds. It’s the beginning of a journey that will be different for each of us, but a journey towards joy and love and delight, of salty flavour and light in dark places.

Faith is a relationship
Faith is a relationship with God. And like any relationship it is something we grow into. We get to know, we learn to trust. We struggle a bit and the relationship suffers; we discover a bit more about the other and we grow closer.

Being salt and light, putting an end to oppression, means we allow others the same space we need. So the challenge for us this week is to find ways that we can give people around us the gift of light and salt that is making a difference in our lives; look for ways that we can share the grace that God gives us in abundance.

‘… put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word…, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon…. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.’

What do you think make worship taste good? Add your comments below.
And be sure to come back tomorrow for the prayer that followed the sermon.

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Worship: A Life’s Work


In our Church family we recently completed seven weeks working through John van de Laar’s book, The Hour That Changes Everything.  In it he calls us to understand and enjoy worship as the heart and centre of our lives.  It is profound, yet it is simply written, and easy to read.  He centres on William Temple’s definition of worship:

“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”

The main part of the book comprises seven chapters, five of which expound on the quote: “Becoming Holy”, “Becoming True”, “Becoming Beautiful”, “Becoming Loving” and “Becoming Purposeful”.  There are three appendices.  The first contains fifty daily readings for personal use during the seven weeks (yes, for the mathematicians among you, the last week has eight readings).  The second contains notes for small groups on each of the seven chapters, and the third section contains readings and guidelines for Sunday worship.

Van de Laar continually reminds us that worship is not something we do for an hour on Sunday, but it is the whole of our lives.  The hour we spend together with the rest of God’s family, focussing our minds and sharpening the sword, is indeed the hour that changes everything, or it is nothing at all.

I received the following in an email this week, and it profoundly makes the same point.  It was written by David Barnett, who I am told is a missionary in Cambodia.  The interview he refers to is also the focus of a 2007 Christianity Today article.

Barnett heard about an interview between broadcaster Roy Firestone (ESPN’s Close-Up) and Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, a seven-foot-tall, 255-pound specimen of pure muscle and athleticism.  He was one of the best big men in the history of the National Basketball Association, who led his team to back-to-back championships and was named an All-Star 10 times. 

He was also known as the hardest working big man in the NBA. Roy Firestone asked him, “Why do you work so hard? Your teammates tell me that every time you step onto the hard wood, you give it 110 percent. They tell me you practice spin moves and fade-away jump shots by the hour. They tell me you run wind sprints until you can’t anymore, relentlessly pushing yourself. They tell me that even in a scrimmage, you go for every rebound and every loose ball like you are in the finals of the NBA.  Why? You don’t have anything to prove. You have made it to the top. Why not just take it easy?”

Hakeem said, “Roy, I do not count what I do on the basketball court as work. Every time I step onto that court, I am not playing for me, but for Him. You see, the reason I work so hard is because basketball is not work…it is worship. It is my way of thanking God for His goodness to me.”

Hakeem Olajuwon is a Muslim, not a Christian. Yet God has given him an insight into life-as-worship that challenges us all.

When David Barnett heard about Hakeem’s response, he thought:

“What if I treated my job, not as work, but as worship?  What could I accomplish?
What if I treated my marriage, not as an obligation, but as worship?
What if I treated my parenthood, not as an activity, but as worship?
What if I treated my friendships, not merely as relationships, but as worship?
What if I treated my hobbies, not only as fun things to do, but as worship?
What if I treated community service, not just as a good thing to do to help others, but as worship?
What if I even drove my car, not merely as a way to get from here to there, but as worship?
What if I treated everything I do, everyone I meet, everything I say, as though it is an act of worship?

“How would that transform my life? What could I accomplish in my life? Who would I be able to touch and reach and attract to Christ?”

What about you and me?  What difference would it make if, with David Barnett, we decided to approach the whole of our lives as worship, as a means of giving God thanks and praise?  Even driving my car? 

Have you any experiences of life-as-worship to share with us?

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Tribute to Ross Olivier by his son, Jon-Mark


Jenny Hillebrand over at Carpenter’s Shoes has included a video link to the tribute Jon-Mark paid to his father, Ross Olivier, at Ross’s memorial service on Friday.  It’s a most beautiful tribute: warm, encouraging and challenging; a call to live intentionally every day in the light and love of Christ, reaching out to people around us. I recommend you sit still for 20 minutes, and let it warm your heart and bring peace to your soul.  If you were also blessed to have known Ross, it will have extra meaning for you.

What stood out for me was: “Ross took his own life; not last Wednesday morning, but every day when he made a choice to give all he had and all he was to Jesus and the Church.”

And the challenge: “Every day to see the potential in the world around you, to see the good, and let your light shine…to make the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”

As Ross would say, Grace.

(To follow the link, click here)

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Preaching and Storytelling


I have often tried to put my passion for preaching into words without much success.  I want to say something about preaching Gospel in contrast to preaching Law—something I feel very strongly about.  I want to say something about the work of the Preacher being different from the work of the Teacher—something else I feel very strongly about.  Richard Jensen (American Lutheran theologian, teacher, preacher) has put the missing something into words and I recommend his book, Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-literate Age (1995)

Two things were significant for me in this book.  The first was his understanding of preaching; there is a chapter on the theology of preaching which helped clarify my own thinking on the subject.  The second was his call for us to rediscover the art of storytelling—to fill the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

Theology of Preaching

I am wary of preaching law.  Most people (those who are listening to our preaching at least) know they have failed.  They just don’t know what to do about it or where to turn.  Law preaching tends to be either another round of condemnation leaving the listeners without hope, or some sort of motivational talk: Seven Steps to Spiritual Perfection.

Jensen says, “The law always kills.”  But most of our preaching on law “doesn’t kill; it just wounds people.” “Cheap law” he calls it; the counterpart of what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”.  And if we are only wounded, all we need is little of that cheap grace.  With just a little bit of help from God, in other words, I will be able to improve my life and all will be well.

“Costly law, in contrast, really kills.  It leaves me without hope in the world.  I respond to cheap law with the vow that I will be a better person.  I respond to costly law with a deep cry for help.”  Sinners slain by the law long for “a word that sets them free; that forgives their sins; that gives them resurrection life.  That’s what good preaching does!  It gives people life.  It announces, proclaims, life.”

Preaching is a saving event.  What we have to say—our ideas—are not nearly as important as what God wants to say and do.  The goal is not to transfer my words and ideas into the listener’s mind but to allow the Spirit of God to act in the life of the preacher and the hearer during the preaching event.

A Post-Literate World

Jensen’s main focus is on thinking and preaching in story.  He writes about the earlier shift from oral communication to the written word, and the shift today from print to electronic communication.

In an oral culture the communication is with the ear.  In a written culture the eye is used for reading; sounds are not important.  The transition from oral to written culture affected our preaching.  The words on a page can all be seen at once and can be revisited, dissected, and rearranged.  We can organise the words into a hierarchical structure of ideas.  So we turn the ideas into three points and try to help our congregation understand what we have so carefully formulated.

Jesus communicated the reality of the Kingdom of God in the form of stories:

  • The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a farmer scattering seed on the ground.
  • The Kingdom of God is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field.

But, in the world of print, we tend to organise Jesus’ comments about the Kingdom of God into a series of ideas: “The Kingdom of God has six characteristics.”

Thinking in Story

In today’s electronic world it is not the ear or the eye alone but a variety of senses that are massaged simultaneously, along with our emotions.

Educationalists and psychologists today would agree with Jensen when he urges preachers to engage more of the senses.  They would also agree that storytelling is more effective than the sharing of ideas neatly packaged.

It’s a bit scary, I must admit.  When I preach ideas, I’m trying to change your mind; I’m trying to get you to understand our relationship with God the way I have come to understand it.  And ideally, at the end of my sermon, you will say: “I understand what you are saying; I understand something new about God and what he wants to do in my life and in the world.”  It’s all very measurable.  But when we hear a story we may end up interpreting it very differently from each other; as we are drawn in, God’s Spirit begins his transforming work and the storyteller has little or no control.

Scary or not, it can have exciting consequences.  Jensen tells of having preached a story-sermon at a seminary.  It was just the story and when the story ended he said, “Amen” and sat down.

“Two days later a very bright student came to my office to tell me that this form of preaching didn’t work.  He and another student had discussed the text for two hours the day before and could not agree on what my open-ended story meant.

“‘Let me get this straight,’ I said.  ‘I preach a sermon on this text which led you and your friend to have a two-hour discussion of the text, and you reckon it doesn’t work?’”

If you are struggling with the organising of ideas into “three points and a poem” then this book is well worth reading.  I particularly like the idea of filling the minds of our listeners with people rather than with ideas.

What about you?  Have you had any experience of storytelling from the pulpit?

See also:

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The Scandal of God’s Love: Is Our God Too Soft?


James Tissot's John and the Pharisees

Perhaps we have; the question is often asked, “How could a God of love allow…?”  But I think it’s more likely that the scientific world view makes the idea of an afterlife comprising the extremes of a restful heaven and a fiery hell less certain and less obvious to the modern mind.

I’m also not sure that fear of hell was indeed what drove people to John the Baptist.  In any case  we need to remember two things.  First, not everyone felt driven; not everyone flocked to John or to Jesus.  The majority (probably) continued on their merry way, convinced that their future was secured through their own religious observances–much as people who are on the fringes of our churches today probably believe.

We must also remember that not everyone, even within the Jewish faith, believed in an afterlife.  The Sadducees comprised a significant body in Jesus’ day which did not believe in a resurrection whether to heaven or to hell (forgive me for this: that’s why, some have suggested, that they were sad you see).

We should also acknowledge that fear of God’s wrath was not the primary focus of Jesus.  He emphasised it to the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day precisely because of the fear and legal prescriptions with which they oppressed ordinary people.  The image Jesus used more often (both in his teaching and his actions) was of a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd for a lost sheep, and, most memorable of all, a father for his lost son.  Matthew and Luke associate Jesus with Isaiah 61:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”

(see Luke 4:18-19; 7:22; and Matthew 11:4-5)

The message of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4) also focused on the coming Kingdom, as did that of Jesus (Mark 1:14-15).  The message about escaping “the wrath of God that is to come” was addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7).  John’s was a ministry of preparation, a call to get ready, to prepare the way. And if one goes back to Isaiah 61, it is a message rooted not in fear but in joy and delight.  It was a welcoming of the king who would take them from the hell of exile into a rebuilt Jerusalem.

I often suspect that our problem with the Gospel, and its portrayal of a loving God, is that the idea of God’s love really appalls us.  Surely God doesn’t love that much: so extravagantly, with so much abandon? Phillip Yancey suggests as much in his book, What’s so amazing about Grace?.

The parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful story. We especially love to tell it to those who are ready to repent and to turn back to the Father, but who are afraid of his wrath.  But the scandal of the story is that the father ran to his son and threw his arms around him in welcome and love before he heard (and brushed aside) the son’s confession. The scandal of the cross is that God loves sinners; not just sinners who are about to repent, but sinners.  And Jesus died in the hope that the worst of us might be brought to the Father.  The horror (for me) of his death was that it happened in the midst of a scornful, doubting world and a group of fearful followers who still didn’t understand.  What if they missed it? What if they failed to be ignited?

The scandal goes right back to Abraham when God chose to work in and through frail humans to achieve his purposes for the world.  We still struggle with that scandal.  God cannot possibly have left himself so vulnerable.  Yet that vulnerability is at the heart of the Christmas story.  The Omnipotent Father has become the intimate Immanuel, and the Spirit of God chooses to work in and through us, in whom his power is made perfect in weakness.

I would suggest that the woman in Simon the Pharisee’s house who wept at Jesus feet was overwhelmed not by fear of hell and the wrath of God, but by the love of God she saw in Jesus.  That seems to be how Jesus saw it.

What about you?  How do you see it?

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